Monday, January 31, 2011

Me, Myself, and I

Peggy Noonan reviews the State of the Union speech:
[President Obama] too often in making a case puts the focus on himself. George H.W. Bush, always afraid of sounding egotistical, took the I's out of his speeches. We called his edits "I-ectomies." Mr. Obama always seems to put the I in. He does "I implants."
That's a funny observation, but the President is a smart guy who wouldn't continue to put the focus on himself if it wasn't working. The majority of the public may not like his policies, but they like him personally. (Heck, count me in the majority.)

Can he be beaten in 2012? Depends on how bad things get, foreign events being the wild card, and who the Republican nominee is. That sounds obvious, I know, but my sense is that Sarah Palin is damaged goods and Mitt Romney is vulnerable because of health care.

Today I'd vote for Governor Christie or General Petraeus over President Obama, but both say they're not running. As everyone is saying about the events in Egypt, the situation is very fluid. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Charity to a Stranger

On the way home Monday we lost an iPhone. We called its number, and a young man answered. He had found the iPhone at the Mountain View Caltrain station.

Colin couldn't wait the 30 minutes for us to return to Mountain View. He said that he would leave the phone at the snack bar. We asked Colin for his contact information. He said he didn't believe in accepting rewards.

We picked up the phone from the man at the snack bar, who wouldn't take a reward either. The man said that he thought Colin was a student at Saint Francis High School.

In recent years I've spent time volunteering to help others but haven't had much experience being the recipient of a good deed. I was surprised, touched, and somewhat at a loss.

Thank you, sir, and thank you, Colin of Saint Francis, for your act of charity to a stranger.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Odd Sublime

For 92 years the Elements of Style has championed clarity and concision in writing. Strunk & White’s little style book is needed more than ever--witness the geyser of gobbledygook emanating from government, academia, and the legal profession, not to mention humble blogs like this one.

But unadorned sentences have a cost. We lose richness because of our preoccupation with paucity, say some writers.

In his review of Stanley Fish’s new book, “How To Write a Sentence and How To Read One,” Adam Haslett joins Stanley Fish in questioning Strunk & White’s foundational premise. The “bias for plain statement” has had a lamentable effect on literary prose.
The form and rhythm of sentences communicate as much meaning as their factual content, whether we're conscious of it or not. In 1863, when Gen. Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Miss., the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: "The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea." It's a poem of a sentence, "The father of waters" and "unvexed to the sea" perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of "again goes" rather than "goes again," and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either. If cadence had no content, "Union supply lines are now clear" would have the same power.
In his short sentence Lincoln communicated several layers of meaning. It’s unlikely that any politician would speak such words today. "Unvexed to the sea" would be met with blank stares, and "father of waters" would be condemned for its sexism. In the 19th century poetic metaphors could be used unapologetically because they were understood by audiences.

But that was a more literate and courageous time. We may lose the odd sublime, but after wasting many hours puzzling over dense, convoluted memoranda and journal articles, give me Strunk & White any old time.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Ridiculous

Humor is a personal matter. In my youth I laughed uproariously (and still do in more subdued fashion) at the Three Stooges, Abbott & Costello, and Jerry Lewis. The more ridiculous and childish that it was, the more I liked it.

During an interview Liza Minelli said emphatically "Balls to you!." The first time I saw it, that somewhat mysterious utterance was more startling than funny. Those two seconds have gone viral, the snippet has been remixed and repeated, and "balls to you" is one of those jokes that gets funnier in the re-telling. Like I said, humor is a personal matter.

"The men do a very good job. But the women are better. They have the magic hands."

The ear-gasm. But you have to go to Vietnam to get it.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pride Goeth

Reason #6: At $50 a tank, may as well share in the profits.
In early October I bought some Chevron at $82.10 per share. The thinking, such as it was, went like this:
1) The world economy appears finally to be recovering.
2) Dollar prices of commodities and raw materials are likely to rise faster than during previous recoveries because of U.S. government policies, i.e., record deficit spending coupled with loose money, which are the classic ingredients for inflation.
3) Oil companies that control reserves should do well. Profits will go up because of (1) and may be turbo-charged because of (2).
4) If the recovery falters, a stock with a reliable dividend should limit the downside. [Chevron's dividends are currently $2.88 per year, which is a 3.5% yield on an $82.10 investment. If a double-dip recession causes interest rates to stay low, 3.5% would be an attractive rate. I didn't see the price falling by as much as $10 to $72, which would make the dividend 4%.]
5) Chevron is one of the few non-tech large companies that has stayed in California. Support your local employer!

By mid-January CVX has risen to $93 and has outperformed the market as well as AAPL and GOOG, both of which I also own. I'm content to hold, but it's no longer a screaming buy.

Lately I've been able to spend a little more time managing my modest stock portfolio. Although its performance has gotten better, I have to guard against thinking that the improvement is due to skill and not dumb luck.
When people ask me what stocks to put their money in, I shake my head and keep silent, my own investing mistakes fresh in memory. (I have enough problems with my own portfolio, don’t make me feel responsible for yours.)
When I turn 65 near the end of this decade, if I'm still working because I have to, then we'll know it wasn't skill. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Shoulders of One Man

Apple CEO Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence, nearly two years after he embarked on his first medical leave. After his liver transplant in 2009 he returned in apparent good health, and Apple stock continued its relentless march upward.

AAPL's performance vs. market indices and rival Google over the past two years.
U.S. markets are closed today, but in Europe Apple shares are trading lower by 6.2%. It would be very surprising if Apple shares aren't hammered on Tuesday.

Undoubtedly there will be complaints about Apple's secretiveness and many questions about Steve Jobs' health. Investor "watchdogs" may even threaten investigations and lawsuits. IMHO, anyone with half a brain realistically had to recognize this risk in holding Apple stock. (As an Apple shareholder, I am proud to announce that I do have half a brain.)

For a few moments, however, let's reflect on Steve Jobs, be grateful for his legacy, and pray for his recovery. As we wrote two years ago,
Steve Jobs transformed a left-behind tech company to one that is the leader of the pack. He redesigned Macintosh computers with color and rounded shapes, upended the digital music industry with iTunes and the iPod, opened Apple stores when the bricks-and-mortar model was supposedly passé, and became the cellphone leader with the iPhone in 2007. Meanwhile Apple continued to pour resources into the Mac, the OSX operating system, and its user-friendly software, and the Mac’s market share grew in a PC-centric world.

As longtime buyers of Apple products and often forlorn investors in its stock, we are astounded by the company's decade-long reversal and ascent in fortune. Great-men-of-history skeptics say that we give too much credit to individuals (e.g., they might say that the Allies would have been victorious without Churchill and Roosevelt), but it’s clear to this observer that Steve Jobs changed the history of technology.

For self-interested reasons we hope that Steve Jobs returns to Apple, but whether he does or not, we wish him recovery and happiness. Thank you, Steve.
© 2011 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Someone I Won't Be Civil To

In our daily lives most of us buy from, work for, or otherwise encounter products of excellent companies, while our interactions with government (the DMV, toll takers, the Post Office--which by the way seems to be improving) are marred by inefficiency and frustration. In the criticism of government, however, let's not forget its essential role in regulating the free market's excesses.

One particularly abusive backwater of capitalism is debt collection. Collections agents call us several times a day. We know it's them because of caller ID, and to the best of our knowledge we have no outstanding loans other than our mortgage, on which we are current, and we pay off our credit card balances every month.

We never pick up the phone, because engaging collections agents will only cause us to get sucked into extended conversations about debts that we don't owe. On the off-chance that I have overlooked a payable, I am willing to talk to them if they gave me a brief description of the subject matter. But they do not have the courtesy to leave an explanatory voicemail message--or better yet, send a letter with some documentation--that describes why they are calling.

Yesterday one of them finally left a recorded message:
This is the [collection agency] calling on an important matter. We require a return call to 1-800-XXX-XXXX. Our office hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, Monday to Friday. Or you can respond to our website, that's Again, this is the [collection agency] calling from 1-800-XXX-XXXX and we require a response from you immediately.
Doesn't the warmth of this request make you want to talk to them?

I always used to respond within 24 hours to inquiries, but with the prevalence of telemarketing, blast e-mails, and collection calls I've had to break that rule and not respond at all. The dark side of capitalism is uncivil, and it's making me less civil, too.

Friday, January 14, 2011

More Education Needed

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach [marvelous name!] says that Sarah Palin's use of the term "blood libel" is justified. 
Despite the strong association of the term with collective Jewish guilt and concomitant slaughter, Sarah Palin has every right to use it. The expression may be used whenever an amorphous mass is collectively accused of being murderers or accessories to murder.

The abominable element of the blood libel is not that it was used to accuse Jews, but that it was used to accuse innocent Jews—their innocence, rather than their Jewishness, being the operative point. Had the Jews been guilty of any of these heinous acts [murdering children] the charge would not have been a libel.
In recent years we have seen words like "genocide" and "holocaust" applied to acts, which, while horrible, are on a much smaller scale or less redolent of evil than the original events that gave rise to these terms' widespread use. Hyperbole goes uncontested, while an appropriate use of an historical term is criticized. Perhaps Governor Palin is not as ignorant nor her critics as educated as we have been led to believe. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Better Living Through Chemistry

On January 1st I planned to hit the ground running. Instead I took it lying down.

Three days before Christmas I came down with what I thought was a cold. The worst symptoms lessened during the following week, but despite regular ministrations of vitamin C and herbal tea I could never get rid of the chest congestion, sore throat, and nightly cough. 20 days was long enough to fend off accusations of hypochondria, and I went to the doctor.

She prescribed various decongestants and bronchodilators to assist breathing, along with the antibiotic azithromycin to combat infection. After three days of treatment I'm feeling much better, thank you, and will continue the doctor's regimen through next week.

Natural cures and holistic health are all the rage, but why fight big pharma? The drug companies got big for the reason that their stuff generally works. Better Living Through Chemistry may no longer be a popular saying, but it's truer than it ever was.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Aspiration Aplenty

When I stopped at the local fast food place I used the facilities, if you know what I mean and I think you do (IYKWIMAITYD).

Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

I thought it was going to be quick because I wouldn't have to sit down (IYKWIMAITYD).

[Digression: I'll always be grateful that I was born with the Y chromosome. While women outlive men by an average of five years, the scales are balanced by the five additional years women probably spend tending to their plumbing. It all works out in the end, in a manner of speaking.]

When I pulled the lever, I watched in horror as the water rose steadily. It stopped just short of the toilet's rim, then receded, to your humble servant's relief. I readied my exit from the room, then thought about the next unfortunate customer and the even less fortunate worker who might have to clean up what could be a most unpleasant mess.

I found a blue plunger in the corner of the bathroom, enveloped the hole at the toilet's bottom, and thrust firmly until the water evacuated. I sopped up the errant splashes on the floor with paper towels.

The kids all say that they want to make the world better. Oldsters know that stopping it from becoming worse is an aspiration aplenty.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Tone It Down

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and 18 other people earlier today was an act of evil. As of this writing Congresswoman Giffords has survived, but six people, including Federal Judge John Roll and a nine-year-old girl, have died. The suspect, Jared Loughner, had shown signs of aberrant behavior:
Lynda Sorenson said she took a math class with Loughner last summer at Pima Community College's Northwest campus and told the Arizona Daily Star he was "obviously very disturbed." "He disrupted class frequently with nonsensical outbursts," she said.
Although little is known so far, commentators are already attempting to link Mr. Loughner with their political opponents. Here is liberal NYT columnist Paul Krugman attributing the incident to the GOP “climate of hate”:
You know that Republicans will yell about the evils of partisanship whenever anyone tries to make a connection between the rhetoric of Beck, Limbaugh, etc. and the violence I fear we’re going to see in the months and years ahead. But violent acts are what happen when you create a climate of hate. And it’s long past time for the GOP’s leaders to take a stand against the hate-mongers.
Conservative blogs like Gateway Pundit are also weighing in:
[Loughner] was reportedly left-wing, quite liberal. His favorite books: Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf.
The evil act has rightly been condemned by everyone. But also deserving of condemnation is our rush to impugn entire groups of people because of the actions of a few. We don’t profile all Muslims at airports although some are terrorists, nor should we condemn the entire Tea Party if some of its supporters turn to violence (it’s far from clear whether Jared Loughner is a Tea-Party supporter).

Let’s tone it down, people. When you say that this or that politician is ruining the world, our lives, and our future, it shouldn't be surprising how some disturbed people react. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Short Leash

Americans are pragmatic. They are willing to try solutions that run counter to popular ideologies, especially if the problems (e.g., war, depression) are bad enough. But experimenters are put on a short leash. If the problems not only linger but appear to be getting worse, then the voters effect a reversal of direction as they did last November.

As leaders prove themselves in one area, followers will allow them more rope. Conversely, failure on one project dissipates confidence in other endeavors. The Obama Administration’s forecasts about the economy have proved to be as wrong as its predictions of a warming planet. Now that there are early indicators that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”, will accomplish the opposite of what was intended, the support for repeal could become surprisingly strong despite Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

The basic objectives of Obamacare were to increase the availability of health care as well as lower its cost. Because millions of previously uninsured patients will be entering the system, the number of doctors, hospitals, medications, laboratories, etc. must increase dramatically to accommodate the demand. A market-based system would allow prices for services to rise; attracted by the prospect of making more money, investors would invest in facilities and more students would enter medical and nursing schools. As production of health care goods and services increases, prices will stabilize and could eventually fall.

However, Obamacare has restrictions on rate increases and insurance reimbursements. The evidence is so far anecdotal, but we are not seeing the supply pipeline filling to meet the demand. In fact supply may be decreasing: construction on some new hospitals has been halted, and doctors are retiring without any one to replace them.

Because of the Administration’s failures in other areas, the American people aren’t likely to wait until its full implementation in 2014 to see whether Obamacare is working. For the President's sake we'd better see some results soon. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Monday, January 03, 2011

Righting the Ship

As the old year recedes, I hope that the politics of envy goes with it. Most Americans agree, according to Michael Barone:
Consider one conundrum in American politics. Income inequality has been increasing, according to standard statistics. Yet most Americans do not seem very perturbed by it [snip]

It's a widespread assumption in some affluent circles that ordinary Americans are seething with envy because they can't afford to shop regularly at Neiman Marcus or Saks Fifth Avenue. My sense is that most Americans just don't care. They're reasonably happy with what they've got, and would like a little more.
Several thoughts:

1) The rich people—doctors, real estate investors, lawyers, CEO’s—whom we know by and large continue to work very hard even after they have purportedly “made it.” We’ve come across a few goof-offs, but even in those cases they earned their life of leisure by building successful businesses and selling them.

2) Rich people have sorrows, too. Money can alleviate but not eliminate cancer, family strife, and substance abuse.

3) The unemployment rate of about 10% means that 90% of the people who desire work are employed. And most of the working aspire to be rich, too. They want to amass wealth and preserve a system that will secure, not redistribute it.

4) Leftists call receipts from capital “exploitation,” or at best “unearned.” This view is the opposite of the experience of most Americans, who accumulate property and capital through savings; deferred gratification is not vice, but virtue, as are the fruits of capital in the form of dividends and interest.

5) Americans do resent payments for “services” when there’s non-performance. Real estate appraisers who don’t appraise, sanitation workers who won’t clear the roads, or tenured professors who don’t teach are now the subject of opprobrium.

It may well be that in 2010 we saw not only the balancing of the political scales, but the righting of cultural norms as well. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Glad to See Them

The college kids returned home for winter break, and some of them came to church today. The sight of them was heartwarming, because the 18-30 cohort is one that has nearly vanished from the pews. Why young adults are absent from church is understandable: they're busy with activities they consider more important and the worship service doesn't seem to have much relevance to their lives.

Here's where the value of Sunday School manifests itself. There's some absorption of Christian theology---and where else can one learn that these days---but by far the strongest ties that bind are the friendships that are formed with this circle of kids outside of school. After graduation they stay in touch via Facebook, but sometimes they just have to get together and pass the Peace.

Many of them will resume regular church-going when they have kids of their own. That day, we hope, is (many) years away. Meanwhile, we're glad to see them.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

One More Time

Another revolution around old Sol.

We made it, and that’s no small feat, even if you're just wearing size 6’s.

We have another chance to improve our health and our relationships. We have another chance to learn, to grow, and to right some wrongs.  But don’t put it off too long.
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