Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Not That Long Ago

Articles published in the Coast Investor & Industrial Review of February, 1929:
Chrysler Tells How He Did It: What He Sees Ahead
Is Stock Market’s Madness Over?
Looking Ahead a Decade or Two
Boulder Dam as a Reality
Life Insurance Trusts
The Bonds and Stocks to Buy
Except for the Boulder Dam story---and would that all the current massive spending results in something as lasting and useful as that public works project---the headlines of 80 years ago with only minor updating don't sound strange to today’s business readership. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Note: the Coast Investor drawing is the work of Peter Alexander Ilyin (1887-1950), Russian-American painter, whose art is on display at the Rincon Annex in San Francisco.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No Thanks

Per the NY Post:
Shirley Jones just turned 75, but she hasn't slowed down since she starred in "Oklahoma!" in 1955. The grandmother of 10 goes topless [oomphasis added] in an upcoming episode of A&E's "The Cleaner." Playing a washed-up, alcoholic chanteuse, Jones, who won a 1960 Oscar playing a prostitute in "Elmer Gantry," opens up her blouse in a climactic scene -- we hope with her back to the camera. Plus, the star of the wholesome "Partridge Family" plans a concert tour with Florence Henderson, the "Brady Bunch" star who went head-to-head with Jones in the Nielsen ratings in 1970. Marty Ingels, who's been married to Jones for 31 years, was asked what he gave her for their anniversary. "Time off for good behavior," he laughed.
For my money Shirley Jones was never more beautiful as an actress or as a singer as she was in Carousel. Please Ms. Jones, leave me with that image. Other mammar memories are best left suppressed.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Primo Beer 2.0

As economic troubles sweep famous brands like Pontiac into the memory holes where sleep Pan Am Airways, Oldsmobile, F.W. Woolworth, and Ipana toothpaste, the revival of a relic from Hawaiian history, Primo Beer, shows that life after death is indeed possible in the consumer world.

Primo, as Jeanne Cooper writes, was cheap and easy to guzzle. To penny-pinching young people--yes, son, it was once legal to drink at 18--who needed to keep ourselves, er, hydrated in the hot Hawaiian sun, drinking Primo was a rite of passage. When I came to the Mainland, I forsook childhood ways for bright lights, big cities, and big-city beers. Many of my status-conscious peers (moi? mais non!) did the same. Its lack of distinctive taste, the high cost of production, and its over-familiarity to its Hawaiian niche led to Primo's demise in 1998.

Pabst Brewing may have sensed a tremor in the zeitgeist, if not the Force, that makes the time ripe for Primo's revival. However, today's more discerning palates will require more than nostalgia and a colorful logo to garner repeat sales.
For [Primo promoter and surfer champ Keoni] Watson, that meant the new version "had to be something that said Hawaii, but was also accessible, meaning you could drink it if you fish all day or surf all day and then want to have some beers. It couldn't be something that knocked you out. We definitely didn't want it to be heavy to keep you from doing your activities all over the next morning. Everyone wants to get out there early to surf or to go fishing the next day."

And more specifically, it had to pair with poke [Blogger's note: pronounced POH-kay], the raw fish, sesame oil, soy sauce and ginger dish: "The beer's got to go well with that or it's not going to be a Hawaiian favorite," Watson said. [Blogger's note: poke ain't cheap, so if he's serious about poke-Primo pairing, Primo is definitely moving upscale.]

The end result uses a "a little touch" of Maui cane sugar, while Kauai's Keoki Brewing Company, known for a variety of specialty beers, was chosen to produce Primo in draft. Bottling, however, is done on the Mainland.
Primo's special ingredient, cane sugar, is now supposed to have a higher nutritional value than corn syrup or even sugar from beets. Scrap sugar cane was plentiful along Island rural roadways and used to be regarded as rubbish, but now it's a delicacy. Sugar cane and Primo Beer---examples of how every dog has its day in the sun if it can wait long enough. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Why Susan Boyle Resonates with One Man

My friend is smart, extremely opinionated and outspoken. He has called George W. Bush the worst President in American history. I give him credit for intellectual honesty in that he has not changed his standards when evaluating the current Administration. My friend has been harshly critical of President Obama's spending and monetary pump-priming, as well as the ethical lapses of his key appointees ("tax cheats").

Lately, however, my friend has suspended his political and economic commentaries in favor of daily encomiums about Susan Boyle, the homely spinster [I'm using un-PC terminology, but try to come up with a more descriptive word-pair in a Twittering world] who became an overnight singing sensation. Yesterday, he elucidated his reasons in a long e-mail, reproduced below:
After some thought, I thought I would share some personal reasons Susan Boyle resonates with me, which go back many years. My elementary school experience, in particular, goes to show you never know what will come of your actions.

When I was growing up, I went through eleven school systems in twelve years, as my father kept moving the family (due to employer mergers, transfers, and changes in job).

This is something I would not wish on anyone. Virtually every year I was faced with having to go into a new environment and try to build new friendships. Just as I succeeded in doing so, my family moved again.

The real nightmare, though, for me was Physical Education class. I discovered that, as the "new kid," I was mercilessly taunted and ridiculed whenever I had a misstep. If I missed hitting a ball when at bat, failed to catch a ball, missed the basket when throwing a basketball, etc., I was mercilessly made fun of and ridiculed. This hurt me very deeply and I came to truly hate Phys. Ed. class. I think my lack of interest in sports today can be traced to this experience. As a result, I feel I know exactly how Susan Boyle felt when she was taunted.

I feel, however, this made me a much better person than I might have been otherwise. Knowing exactly how it felt to be on the receiving end of abuse, I resolved that I would never be guilty of inflicting this type of pain on others.

My chance to escape all of this came when I went to college at The University of Connecticut. Suddenly I was in a situation where everyone was in the same boat. We were all strangers needing to build new friendships. I was on equal footing with everyone else. I finally came into my own, getting elected to many student leadership positions and building many friendships.

I mentioned some cases where I helped others in college. Another occurred to me. There was an unbelievably reclusive person in my dormitory. He avoided contact with people. He would get up at 5:30 A.M. and go to the dining hall for breakfast when it opened at 6:00 A.M. He would get a boxed lunch and then spend the day either in class or the library. Finally, he would show up for dinner just before the dining hall closed at 7:00 P.M. and then go back to the library until it closed at 12:00 Midnight. He would leave for home on Friday afternoon when his classes ended and return on Monday morning. He was known in the dormitory as "The Phantom" because 95+% of people had never even seen him. Some people in the dorm bragged about how, at times, they would get up early or go to dinner late just to torment him. I found this repulsive and decided I would work to change this. Over the course of the year I made an effort to meet and get to know him. I encouraged him to come to get to know some people and got some people I knew to join in in my efforts. We succeeded by the end of the year in at least bringing him into more social interaction and to join some of us for meals in a friendly, supportive environment, even if he was never destined to be a truly social person. He seemed to be happy about this, particularly that there were people who would treat him as one of them and not abuse him. I never did discover what event in his past, as I rightly or wrongly assume, made him so averse to social interaction.

I am sure that today there are many classmates of Susan Boyle who wish they had been her friend, now that she is destined to be a huge success. However, friendships should be genuine, not based on self-interest and greed. But, they might reflect on how, if they had been kinder, gentler people, they might have been her friends today.

In that vein, I want to tell you about what was, for me, a memorable event in sixth grade. I was going to a school in Greenwood, Virginia (my father loved to live in the backwaters of America). Greenwood was a farming community. There was a student in my class that had flunked sixth grade three times (they actually had academic standards when I went through school, unlike today, where everyone passes). He was the son of a sharecropper and I learned from others that his family was extremely poor. He was, as would be expected, the largest student in the class and quite muscular from farming activities (we were around twelve and he must have been fifteen). He was shunned by most of the class. He was viewed as being stupid. However, I was nice to him when I encountered him. As a result, I think he felt able to ask me one day if he could borrow a quarter for lunch (this was back when a U.S. dollar was actually worth something). I knew, from what I had heard, that many days he went without lunch, because his family could not afford it. Therefore, I knew it was extremely unlikely I would get paid back. However, I did not want to see him go hungry, so I willingly "lent" him the quarter, never expecting I would get it back. After that, periodically he would seek to borrow a quarter for lunch again. For the same reason as before, not wanting to see him go hungry, I "lent" him the money. He never threatened or tried to intimidate me into lending him the money, he just asked very politely and I think would have accepted it if I said no or made an excuse of not having any extra money. Indeed, it became sort of a ritual where we both knew the truth, I was really making a "gift" to him of the money, but we pretended it was a loan. Nevertheless, I felt good knowing that I kept him from going hungry at lunch.

I never expected anything in return from him for doing this. I never foresaw any way I could benefit from doing this, other than feeling I was helping make his life better. Yet, I was very wrong (just as many in Susan Boyle's village were wrong and now, and, no doubt, wish they were her friends).

There was a bully in my class, one of the bigger students, who liked to pick on, and beat up, people. One day, after school, he decided I was going to be his victim of the day. As I was leaving school, he came up to me and started pushing me around and wanted to start a fight. I, of course, had no desire to enter into a senseless fight, much less one I knew I was sure to lose. A crowd of students had started to gather to watch me get beaten up. There was little I could do to stop what I viewed as the inevitable course of events. Just at this time the sharecropper's son walked out of the school. He saw what was happening and he pushed his way through the crowd of students and came up to the bully and grabbed the collar of his shirt, pulling him away from me. He said to the bully that, if he wanted a fight, he should fight him. Of course, the bully did not want to fight him. He then told the bully that, if he ever bothered me again, he would come looking for him. And then he let go of his collar and walked away. The bully, of course, then retreated and left me alone after that, even though he picked on other victims.

You should never be nice to other people expecting something in return, but this goes to show: you never know. I will remember that sharecropper's son until the day I die, and the act of kindness he did for me. © 2009 L Haynes

Friday, April 24, 2009

To Boldly Re-go

Remakes, prequels, and sequels have been part of the entertainment industry for decades, but next month’s release of “Star Trek” blurs the distinction between these categories. Telling the story of the young Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock when they meet on the Enterprise for the first time, the new Star Trek takes place in advance of the original television series.

The franchise was badly in need of a fresh start; the classic Star Trek television episodes of the 1960’s and even the Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine series and movies of the 1990’s have a dated look. The transporter, warp-speed, and robotic technologies are still fantastic, if familiar, to sci-fi fans, but already today’s cellphones and flatscreens have surpassed the functionality of the old communicators and video displays on 23rd century starships.

The creators of the new movie have wisely avoided the prequel trap of having to make the story conclude without contradicting how future history must turn out. (IMHO, this was the principal flaw of the cancelled "Enterprise" TV series that took place before Kirk and Spock came on the scene.) If the movie followed the canon faithfully, there would be no suspense because Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise can’t die, or at least won’t for many years.

Per the WSJ:
Through a plot device involving time travel, "Star Trek" wipes clean the history of the franchise to create an alternative universe which re-imagines the early life of Kirk (played by Chris Pine) and his time at Starfleet Academy, where he encounters Spock (Zachary Quinto of TV's "Heroes"), and later sets off on the Enterprise. By going back in time, the film effectively changes the course of "Trek" history, so anything can happen.
Star Trek’s essential appeal has been its optimistic depiction of humanity’s future. If the movie creators can reverse the heretofore immovable arrow of time, we can be more hopeful yet. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Putty in Their Hands

There is an apocryphal tale in which psychologists place a dummy button on a wall, and everyone who passes by feels compelled to push it. The contemporary version—at least for males--is the Internet link with a description such as social networking site for models (hat tip: Dan Schawbel).

I only resisted for a few seconds, then clicked to a story about the site. Because I like to research these matters thoroughly, I went to the actual site itself, Before I knew it, 15 minutes were gone. They sure know how to push my buttons.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Hope and Glory

Our preacher based yesterday's sermon on her, a very jaded anti-everyone professor told me he’s in love with her, her performance has moved millions---young or old, liberal or conservative, secular or religious---to tears. Susan Boyle’s experience has shown that no matter how our life has turned out, the chapters yet to be written can be completely different and better than what has gone before. If you are the one person in the universe who has not seen it and yet reads this blog, here is the link to the video.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Endangered Speciousness

The latest issue of Wired magazine(5/17/09 - not yet posted to the website) analyzes a can of WD-40. Ingredients include chemicals called alkanes, which lower the freezing temperature and repel water, and dimethyl naphthalene, which helps dissolve adhesives and grease. The liquid base is mineral oil and the propellant is carbon dioxide.

On Friday the Environmental Protection Agency declared carbon dioxide to be a greenhouse gas that "contribute[s] to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare".

Engineers, mechanics, gardeners, and metal workers of the world unite! They will pry our WD-40 from our cold, dead hands.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Middling Outcome Would Be A Surprise

After being laid off from her long-time employer, my friend landed a well-paying, responsible position with a European bank over two years ago. The bank announced that it will close its San Francisco office, and she’ll have to look for another job.

We circulated an offering package to a list of financial institutions that purchase transportation assets. One of our regular bidders called to say that his division will be shut down, and his company has called a halt to all investment activity.

Salespeople in our office have been diverted to working on restructuring deals that we thought were safely put to bed. New business will have to wait. In the financial services industry everyone who has not been laid off is worried about losing his job. People are keeping their ears close to the ground. There is worry, if not fear, in the air.

On the other hand, over the past 30 years our most successful deals have been transacted when the economic outlook was poor. Both the oil-patch crash of the early 1980’s and the recession following the first Gulf War enabled us to purchase high quality investments at low prices.

Why didn’t you buy more, the quarterbacks in the corner offices always ask, years later when everyone is ebullient. Well, now’s their chance to make their mark. In this uncertain environment a wise deployment of capital can earn many times your original investment, but you can also lose it all. A middling outcome would be a surprise.

Some people I know, not just the famous in New York and Washington, have prospered as critics and advisers. Now that they control the ball, I am eager to see the plays that they’ll call. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Earnings from old deals enable us to pay the rent.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Harry Kalas, R.I.P.

Another fixture from my childhood is gone. Phillies sportscaster Harry Kalas died yesterday.

Harry Kalas got his start in 1962, broadcasting Triple-A baseball games from the old Honolulu Stadium. His sonorous voice, played over the tinny Sony transistor radio hidden beneath my pillow, would lull me to sleep on the nights when the Hawaii Islanders were losing big. But when sluggers Stan Palys or Carlos Bernier came to the plate in a close game, sleep was futile. There was no greater thrill to these young ears than Harry exclaiming, “There’s a hi-i-igh drive to left field, it’s going…going…gone!” (His trademark “outta here” was coined when he got to Philadelphia.)

When the baseball season was pau, Harry Kalas would do the play-by-play for Honolulu’s most popular sport, high school football. He was at the mike as we excitedly followed the high school career of Punahou’s Charlie Wedemeyer, Hawaii’s greatest football player of the Sixties. Charlie Wedemeyer was a triple-threat quarterback—yes, he could even kick—and despite being under six feet tall could win games single-handed for the Buff and the Blue. (Charlie Wedemeyer was tragically afflicted by Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a TV movie was made about his life.)

Another outstanding athlete from that era was Norm Chow, who became an offensive coordinator for major college football teams as well as the Tennessee Titans. Harry Kalas would broadcast the high school basketball games (“Chow turns and shoots…it’s go-o-o-d!”), painting vivid suspenseful word pictures, but Punahou could never quite overcome the taller Kam Warriors.

During the early Sixties Hawaiian sports fans were fortunate to be able to listen to Harry Kalas year round. Thanks, Harry, for the memories. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 13, 2009

'Annual Review Board' Scam

The aged, infirm, and mentally impaired are vulnerable to fraudsters, but we often don’t think about how experienced businesspeople can be taken in. Entrepreneurs are too busy running their operations to spend time validating invoices for a couple of hundred dollars, so they’ll often pay these bills without question. The amounts are set low enough so it’s not worth a call to their accountant or lawyer, and the threatened penalties for failure to comply, i.e. fines and hassles with government agencies, are painful.

Last year we dealt with the Annual Minutes Disclosure scam. This year the Annual Review Board tried to put its hand in our pocket for $228. On the off-chance that the bill was legitimate, I sent an inquiry to the Attorney General’s office. Below is the reply from Ms. Susie Lorden:
Thank you for writing. Annual Review Board is not a government entity: it is a private company soliciting your business. I am glad you are such an alert business owner. Many companies are sending similar solicitations, so continue to make sure you read the fine print on all mail you receive. Our office has filed suit and obtained injunctions against several of these businesses.

I suggest you file a complaint with both our office and the United States Postal Inspection Service, which is also investigating these solicitations.

To file a complaint with our office, please send the original mailer, including the outer envelope in which it was mailed, to:

California Attorney General's Office
Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550

You will likely receive more solicitations like this in the future. Please continue to send us the ones you receive. It helps us keep track of what is being mailed. Again, thank you for your time and assistance.

Sincerely, Susie Lorden
I’m mailing the documents to the AG's office today. I can’t do anything about the billions lost by hardworking people in the past year, but $228….that I understand. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Beginning to Tune Out

Of what good is owning the world’s most powerful gun if (a) you won’t use it and (b) no one believes that you will? This is a dangerous time for our new Commander in Chief, as he’s being tested not only by major powers like Russia or China, or even minor ones like North Korea and Iran, but by brigands who could be dispatched in less than a minute by one of our smaller Navy vessels.

The time for words has passed. The constitutional lawyer should know that the law is nothing without a long arm.

New display: Barack Obama, the Essential Speeches.
Signs of interest or a bubble ready to burst?

[Update 4:00 PM PDT - The American hostage has been rescued unharmed and three pirates have been killed by snipers. Good for the military, the brave captain, and also our Commander in Chief who drew the line. We can't be happy about actions that lead to death, especially on Easter Sunday, but there is reason to believe that a salutary result will be fewer deaths in the future.]

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Knowing the Difference

After the Maundy Thursday service, the altar was stripped bare.

Self-help gurus say that achieving success involves the cultivation of good habits such as aerobic exercise, daily planning, and eating breakfast. All too easy to overlook is the spiritual side of our natures. Many of the world’s people pray and read sacred text every day. I don’t, which is why I bestir myself to attend church on Sundays. Sitting in the pew with all electronics disabled forces me to contemplate the eternal at least once every seven days.

During Holy Week we are highly encouraged to resume the tradition of daily worship. However, this year Holy Week coincided with spring break, and I opted to plan activities with the youngster. We attended two musicals and traveled to the City on a third excursion. Although teenagers typically want to distance themselves from their parents, ours lately seems to be happier if we spend time together. From experience, these moods are fleeting; also, from experience, opportunities assumed to be common can surprisingly fail to re-appear. So I seized the week; sometimes even good habits need to be broken.

On Palm Sunday the youth read the Passion according to Mark.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Taxing Argument

I got into an argument with a client today. He (or she) was one of those people who wax very indignant when the subject is income taxes. The issue wasn’t even close---the client felt that all his retirement distributions should be excluded from income when the rules clearly stated that only some of them were excludable. (I should add that the argument concerned a non-California state return and did not affect Federal Form 1040. Also, less than $500 of state income taxes was at stake.)

After a frustrating discussion I said that I would recalculate the state tax return according to the client’s wishes, remove my name as preparer, not bill for any of my services, and terminate our professional relationship. There are maddening, even incomprehensible inconsistencies in tax laws, and it’s easy to become incensed by their seeming unfairness, but the law’s the law. The law is also an ass, which description may refer to the governed as well.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I Just Didn't Know It

Arnold Kling, on the difference between donating directly to charity and paying taxes to a government which does charitable deeds:
From a libertarian perspective, your generosity is reflected in what you do with your own money, not in what you do with other people's money. If I give a lot of money to charity, then I am generous. If you give a smaller fraction of your money to charity, then you are less generous. But if you want to tax me in order to give my money to charity, that does not make you generous.
J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, or Bill Gates using their wealth to set up philanthropic foundations is praiseworthy. Warren Buffett calling for higher taxes on other wealthy persons is not. If Mr. Buffett thinks that paying for government services is the highest and best use for his money, then he is free to send a check to the Bureau of Public Debt. Not only would everyone respect his leadership by example, he could even claim a charitable contribution deduction on his tax return (although given Mr. Buffett’s inclination to pay more taxes he may not).

But back to Arnold Kling’s statement, perhaps I’m a libertarian and just didn’t know it. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Words, Just Words

The Congressional Oath of Office:
I, ___, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
The words of someone who is bidding to become a member of Congress:
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting D.C. delegate to the House who aspires to be its voting representative, has made clear that she regards questions of constitutionality as irrelevant and that she thinks members of the House and Senate do, too. "I don't think members are in the least bit affected in their votes on the question of its constitutionality," she said just last week. "People vote their politics in the House and in the Senate."

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Stop to Smell the Ice Plant

A lagoon separates Foster City (left)and San Mateo (right)

The nearly cloudless sky and mid-sixties temperatures fostered pangs of guilt that I had spent most of the day indoors. I bribed the youngster with the promise of a burrito, and he joined me on the two-mile walk to one of our favorite taquerias.

We entered the path fronting the Belmont Slough. The ducks sat quietly in the lagoon, gazing with questioning eyes at my knapsack. No bread today, fellas. Bicyclists pedaled by--we could have ridden ours, but what's the hurry?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Right Attitude: Humility

What should be the attitude of the loyal opposition to the proposed remaking of the American economy by our President?

Dennis Miller in his podcast of 2/26 reflects my sentiment:
If it works I'm willing to concede that I was completely wrong. That would be a small price to pay to turn this country around. I'm more than willing to step up and go, "Boy, when he did this I thought it was crazy. And look at him. He was smarter than me." I don't know a lot of people who would be willing to do that. I think some people would rather be right than flush again. I'd rather the country be flush and I be wrong.

Many of our models and preconceived notions have been shattered by new evidence and events. In this environment only a fool is absolutely certain whether something will or won't work. So let's be both doubtful and hopeful.

At the same time, I wish those who have begun to drastically overhaul our financial, energy, health, and environmental systems would show a little humility themselves. Few had careers where they can point to unqualified success on smaller stages, and on such an important matter as predicting the failure of the Iraq surge they have been greatly mistaken. His predecessor may have possessed hubris and grown government improvidently, but the current President has left him far, far behind. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

It's A Bad April Fool's Joke

Our son’s stint at UC-San Diego was everything that we wished for: challenging academics, a diverse population of talented students, and a beautiful campus in La Jolla. We made every excuse to visit him and undoubtedly enjoyed our trips more than he did. Graduation last year was both a happy and sad occasion---happy because of his accomplishment (but also the cessation of tuition, room, and board expense) and sad because the San Diego chapter of his life had ended.

We can only imagine the disappointment that befell nearly 29,000 students and their families when they received an erroneous acceptance e-mail from UCSD. [Poetic license with post title: the e-mail was sent a couple of days ago.] Thank the stars such a mistake didn’t happen to us, and from a self-interested standpoint let’s hope the story has no legs---wouldn't want to diminish the value of his degree!