Friday, January 29, 2010

What Happened Afterward

He graduated from Hawaii’s private Punahou School and went to college on the East Coast. After completing his education in Massachusetts he took his first job in the Midwest, where his efforts met with only modest success. Then, almost by magic, his career took off. Barely learning the rudiments at each stage, he was promoted rapidly from position to position. His last leg to the top of the ladder coincided with a once-in-a-generation, massive wave of enthusiasm that infected the general population. The wave swept away his opponents and left him the uncontested master of all he surveyed.

But the enthusiasm receded, and problems--knotty, complicated problems--began to appear. The people realized that he had neither the experience nor the wisdom to lead them. Disenchantment grew, while their misery continued unabated. Eventually he departed, his personal fortune assured, but the entire enterprise took years to recover. Ironically, the base that gave him his start has been discredited during this whole sorry episode, and its continued existence is in doubt because of its association with him.

And that, children, is how Steve Case took over the largest media company in the world, and what happened afterward.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Engadget liveblogs the unveiling of the iPad--yes, that's the name of Apple's long-awaited tablet. The features and navigation are similar to the iPhone.

The iPad's 9.7" high-resolution screen makes photos, videos, and web pages look gorgeous. To boomers with failing eyesight and phalangeal dexterity the iPad is a huge improvement over the iPhone and iPod. The virtual QWERTY keyboard lets touch typists input much faster than the two-finger method used on cellphones. The 10-hour battery life is adequate for the vast majority of plane flights. The new e-reader and iBooks store threatens not only traditional dead-tree publishing but also Amazon's Kindle and its competitors. No word on cost yet.

[Update on cost: the price ranges between $499 and $829, depending on memory and whether the pad is equipped to accommodate a data plan. The 3G connection offered by AT&T is $14.99 - $29.99.]

Photos from Engadget.

To generations reared on visions of techno-utopias, no real-world product could possibly have lived up to the tablet hype. So I'd expect the detractors to come out of the woodwork in the next few days.

However, the iPad's got enough cool unique stuff that I might pick one up this summer. Of course, by then my iPhone 3G contract will have expired and I hear that the iPhone 4G might be available.....

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Inefficiency Has Its Benefits

Years ago we replaced incandescent lights throughout the house with compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs. Since the packrat in me can never bear to discard perfectly working equipment, I saved a half dozen 60- and 75-watters. Good thing, too, because they were needed on Friday.

After last week’s rains a wet spot had appeared on the ceiling [investigated later—see post below], and the plaster needed to dry out before the next storm rolled through. The cool-burning CFLs had no effect, but the old incandescent lights did the trick, warming but not over-heating the plaster.

Sometimes (energy) inefficiency has its benefits.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Web Crawling, My Way

The wet spot on the ceiling of the upstairs bedroom was fainter on Sunday---thank goodness the rain had abated over the weekend---but I still had to check it out. Storms are coming.

I did the easy check first by going up on the roof. No shingles were missing. No obvious holes or missing caulk.

Now the hard part. Into the attic crawl space, aptly named, where I had to make my way through a 30-year accumulation of dust and cobwebs. I stepped, then crawled onto narrow beams spaced two feet apart, moving slowly lest I put my foot through the plaster ceiling, which I did the last time I was up here ten years ago.

The fierce winds last week had blown through the vent and displaced a rectangular block of insulation. Rain or condensation had accumulated on the plaster, visible to the room below. I pointed the flashlight beam up but didn’t see evidence of a roof leak.

Hoping that it would fix the moisture problem at least temporarily, I replaced the insulation. I looked around. Our utility bills are running close to $300 per month this winter, and it would be nice to upgrade our insulation. We could also build out the attic a bit to create storage space. Another project to add to the overflowing job jar.

End note: forget alternative energy. In 2010 the push will be toward energy efficiency. (Of course, the government promoting efficiency is like Tiger Woods promoting marital fidelity, but the message shouldn’t be tainted by the messenger.) Insulation, caulking, and efficient furnaces aren’t sexy, but they’re far more cost effective than windmills and wave machines.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Sounds Almost Like Oww-ee

Apple and Google, two tech stocks that I hold, each dropped about 5% today. As we used to say in Hawaii (and as a fellow Hawaiian who lives in D.C. might be saying after the week he had), Auwe!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American original whose stature has only grown since his assassination in 1968. His I Have a Dream speech and Letter from Birmingham Jail are masterpieces of the rhetorical art, replete with religious themes, historical references, and poetic flourishes. Dr. King pushed, pulled, and forced a preoccupied postwar superpower to confront the difference between its glossy self-image and ugly racist reality.

He did this by conveying a vision of an America that was full of hope and was consistent with its founding ideals. He delivered that vision in soaring preacherly cadences that called, if not compelled, his audiences to act. On the holiday of his remembrance Dr. King's wisdom has not dulled with time's passage:

On non-violence:
In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.
On the difference between just and unjust laws:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
On civil disobedience:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
How to effect peaceful change:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
Dr. King asked his followers to “purify” themselves, that is, lead blameless lives in accordance with the very principles that they would demand others follow. Walking the talk remains as difficult as it is noble, and it is as relevant to leadership today as it was 47--and 2,000--years ago. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Late-Night LOL

It’s hard to imagine how NBC could have bungled its late-night lineup any worse.

The network painted itself into a corner when it swapped out Jay Leno for Conan O’Brien as The Tonight Show host last year.

Now, the peacocks have come home to roost at NBC following Leno’s disastrous 10 p.m. show. The network plans to put Leno back in his old 11:35 p.m. slot, shift O’Brien back to 12:05 a.m. and, well, few folks are paying attention to how it all affects Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, apparently.
Actually, for this erstwhile (I regularly watched Johnny Carson) viewer, it’s been comedy gold. Jay Leno and Conan O’ Brien have never been funnier this week, lamenting their uncertain futures and mocking the suits at NBC.

While Conan takes a few shots at Jay in each show, those have been mild compared to David Letterman’s nightly pox-on-all-their-houses monologue on CBS' The Late Show. Letterman plays off his resentment at Leno’s inheritance of Carson’s mantle, but that occurred in 1992, and no human being could have stayed mad for 18 years and been successful, much less remained upright.

It’s all material to these professionals, and they’re mining it for all it’s worth. Here are Conan’s list of changes that NBC executives are making to improve the Winter Olympics (in a bow to Letterman’s Top-Ten routine, except the items aren’t numbered).
Move the Winter Olympics to summer, but still call them The Winter Olympics.

Replace the Olympic theme with Subway’s “5 Dollar Footlong” song.

Have all event judging done by Paul Abdul, David Hasselhoff and for some reason, Flavor Flav.

Attempt to boost ratings with new event featuring obese people on sleds called “The Biggest Luger.”

Replace the flags on the giant slalom course with breached NBC contracts.

Reserve the right to cancel ski jumps mid-jump.

Move the Bronze up to Gold’s place, Silver stays where it is, and add a new medal for fourth place called the “NBC.”
I've set the DVR to record these shows for viewing at a more civilized hour. The comedic kerfuffle will only last a few weeks, and, as one of them said, these shows might be collector's items.

Haitian Earthquake

David Letterman took a break from his monologue last night to urge viewers to make a donation to Haiti. More power to him.

The scale of the catastrophe following Tuesday’s 7.0 earthquake is barely comprehensible. Estimated deaths currently number 50,000, but greater precision is impossible given the widespread destruction. With 9 million people occupying an area the size of Maryland, Haiti already was in dire straits with an average annual GDP of U.S. $1,300 per person.

The humanitarian impulse to rush supplies to Haiti is commendable, but the pressing problem appears to be logistics. The single-runway airport cannot accept any more planes and has run out of jet fuel. However, the airport is in better shape than the seaport.
Making matters worse is the that supplies cannot come in by sea. Haiti's main seaport has "collapsed and is not operational," says Maersk Line's Mary Ann Kotlarich. The main dock is partially submerged. Cranes that moved containers on and off ships at the port are now partially under water and listing badly. Ships carrying supplies have nowhere to dock.
In addition to prayer there’s little that the average citizen can do but to donate to charities that will show good judgment in dispensing funds to where they can do the most good. One organization that we’ve helped over the years is Episcopal Relief and Development, where about 92% of every donor dollar goes directly to programs. Other lists are found here and here.

Give early, give often, but above all give wisely.

The Technician Will See You Now

Jay Leno may have put his finger on how the government plans to reduce health care costs.
The government issued a statement this week saying that most people aren’t complaining about the full body scans. The government always says that. Every time there’s another intrusion into our privacy, they always say “Most people aren’t complaining.” Of course most people aren’t complaining. Do you know what happens when you complain to airport security? You get a colonoscopy and wind up on the terrorist watch list!
Free colonoscopies (prostate exams in the Senate version) and full-body scans whenever we fly. That's how we bend the cost curves down.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Simple Things Right

I’m as prone to misspellings and grammatical mistakes as everyone else, but when you’re in big media and live by the word, you need to get the spelling right, especially for the leads (or “ledes,” a different word meaning nearly the same thing, and here I go getting distracted again) on the home page.

In another arena I remember when a column of numbers didn’t add up on a set of published financial statements. A partner from a Big-Four CPA firm sure was embarrassed when that was pointed out to him by a shareholder. Every mind in that room had a thought that began, if they can’t get that simple thing right….

Dear Chronicle: spell-check didn't know you meant "fiancé".

Huffpo - showing "hypocrisy" by accusing GWB of being an English dunce?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Out On The Limb

AAPL and GOOG appreciated over 100% last year.

Apple and Google are two stocks that I’ve held for a while and are two reasons that my retirement goals may yet be achieved. They substantially outperformed the U.S. equity markets, which themselves were up 20%-40% depending on the index one prefers. But as the British people said to Churchill when they threw him out in 1945, thanks, but what are you going to do for me next?

Each company now has a market capitalization close to $200 billion, and--let me go out on the limb here--it’s impossible that either will see another doubling of value in the next twelve months. Apple and Google have high expectations baked into their prices, and even a slight hiccup could cause their lofty values to tumble.

Moreover, they’re now encroaching on each other’s turf: Google released its Nexus One smartphone yesterday to battle the iPhone, and Apple’s new tablet will tempt eyeballs that are fixated on Google’s Chrome/YouTube/Docs offerings to glance away.

So, which stock is the better investment?
John Snyder, manager of the John Hancock Sovereign Investors fund, said he'd be buying Google over Apple.

Mind you, his fund holds both stocks and he said he's in no hurry to sell his Apple position anytime soon. But he noted that Google is a better value right now -- its stock trades at about 23 times 2010 earnings estimates compared to a P/E of 27 times fiscal 2010 earnings estimates for Apple
I agree with Mr. Snyder that Google has more potential but like him will keep both holdings for now. Time to reduce the downside risk, however, by selling covered calls.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

It Doesn't Just Happen

A Taiwan-California venture is making a product at a small fraction of the cost of several years ago, and it’s not a product that needs electricity.
[Orchids] are now found in Costco, Wal-Mart and Trader Joe's for as little as $15 or less, a bargain for a plant that takes up to two years to grow and whose blooms can last as long as a month or two. [snip] A couple of decades ago….an orchid plant could cost as much as $2,000 in the United States.
Why is California part of the story?
Taiwan's hot and humid climate is perfect for early-stage orchid growth. But the "spiking" process — the budding and blooming of orchids — needs cooler temperatures, a costly requirement for steamy Taiwan. So the young plants are shipped to California, where the cool coastal climate is well-suited for the blooming.
If I may mount the soapbox for a second, this is an excellent example why free-market capitalism with all its flaws is far superior to a command-and-control planned economy. The cost of orchids is unimportant to the great issues of the day: health care, climate change, terrorism, unemployment, etc. etc. No bureaucrat would devote an iota of resources to the “orchid problem” because he would not see a problem.

Profit-seeking capitalists saw an opportunity and risked capital and time. False starts and blind alleys later, the result is $15 orchids that add to the beauty around us. Everyone is richer, and some people think it just happens.

Climate change? Our azaleas are blooming on New Year's Day.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Just Spare Me

Hawaiians have a great deal of affection for local boys and girls who make good on larger stages. Bette Midler, Steve Case, Shane Victorino, and, of course, Barack Obama are welcomed back as hometown heroes. But it doesn’t hurt for one’s politics to be left-of-center.

Substitute “the Bushes” for “the Obamas” in the following sentences from the WSJ, and the media and popular reaction would be quite different.
The city shut down a public beach so the Obamas and their guests could swim on Sunday. On Tuesday, they picnicked alone on Hanauma Bay.

On New Year's Eve, the Obamas watched "Avatar" in a shopping-mall theater cleared of people.
It's a refreshing sign of the new tolerance that shutting down public access to popular beaches, malls, and other gathering places [the meaning of O’ahu, BTW] does not show elitism, special privilege, and arrogance. Also, I do not begrudge the President his Hawaiian vacation.

Just spare me the outrage when a Republican President (and, yes, we’ll probably have another one in our lifetimes) does the same.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Happy New Year

Our health won’t win any fitness awards. On the other hand we don’t have debilitating illnesses that afflict some of our acquaintances and loved ones.

Our business and employment situations are dicey (whose aren’t?). On the other hand our balance sheet is much healthier than a year ago due to a rebounding stock market.

Various parts of our house are in need of repair. On the other hand we aren’t worried about making next month’s house payment. We have a roof that doesn’t leak, food aplenty, warm clothes, old but reliable cars, and, best of all, a medical plan.

Professional and personal goals are unmet. On the other hand we made progress in building a safety net for someone who needs one.

One year hence, if we’re looking back at 2010 with the same equanimity as we regard 2009, it will have been a good year.