Saturday, April 30, 2011

Foster City Earth Day Fair, 2011

We can't bid adieu to April without a few paragraphs about the Foster City Earth Day Fair held two weekends ago.

The "librarian look" hasn't changed much since I was going to school.
Many in the community took to heart the admonition to "reduce, reuse, and recycle" by donating household articles in the "free-cycle" area, which was largely picked clean by day's end. Most items were in good condition, but attendees were on their good behavior and didn't appear to be overly grabby despite everything being free.

Community organizations such as our church were permitted to sell goods for fundraising purposes. (All our proceeds went to hunger and education charities.) Keeping in mind the 3 R's of Earth Day, we applied heavy discounts from the start because we didn't want to have anything left at the close. Children's books at 3 for $1 moved quickly, and everything else was between 50 cents and $2.

The church booth was crowded in the morning.
Foster City is to be commended for providing a facility to dispose of old electronics and expired prescription drugs, which can contaminate landfills.

Prescriptions were recycled and transit alternatives were explained here.
The Earth Day Fair was also an opportunity to strike up conversations with passers-by, most of whom I either knew or with whom I had only two degrees of separation. Heads buried in electronic screens, we don't have enough occasions to chat amiably with others in a non-commercial or hardly-commercial setting.

Intrigued by our sign, a middle-aged engineer from India spent half an hour asking questions about the Episcopal Church, its history and relationship with the Church of England, and the Anglican communion's place within Christendom. I think he appreciated my non-proselytizing explanations; well, it's hard to ride on a high horse when the church was founded by Henry VIII under ignoble circumstances.

By day's end we had collected nearly $400 and disposed of most of our inventory. The remainder was donated to PARCA, which has assisted the developmentally disabled on the Peninsula for over half a century.

Bowditch Middle School students helped take down the tent.
If one divides the dollars received by the total hours volunteered, our earning rate would be well below the minimum wage. Using purely financial measures the endeavor wasn't a success. But here, as with other matters environmental, dollars and cents weren't the main motivation. We took comfort from knowing that we safely disposed of articles we didn't want or placed them in the hands of someone who could use them. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Yes, He Is a Natural-Born Citizen

President Obama today released his "long form" birth certificate, finally pricking, it is to be hoped, the bubble of fevered speculation that he wasn't born on U.S. soil.

Now that everyone has had a chance to inspect it, one wonders why it took him so long to release it. No, his mother didn't name a man other than Barack Hussein Obama, a Kenyan student, to be his father, nor was his father's religion ("Muslim" might have been a political negative) requested on the long form.

Those who adhere to the Machiavellian Obama might believe he kept the issue alive to distract his opponents, but it just may be he was trying to preserve a modicum of privacy by answering but not over-answering the "birther" question with the "short form", lest the personal questions would never stop. Witness Donald Trump, who claims credit for today's disclosure, who is now asking for the release of college transcripts. Mr. Trump looks like an elitist bully--if he thinks Barack Obama is some kind of "affirmative action" President and isn't smart enough to hold the office he ought to just say so. What one did in college has little or no relevance to one's fitness for high office 30 years later. I don't often side with the President, but here I agree---let's move on.

P.S. Speaking of methodologies learned in college, I couldn't resist comparing and contrasting Mr. Obama's birth certificate with my own long form copy. I'm a bit older than he is, so I have "Territory of Hawaii" instead of "State of Hawaii" in the upper left corner. The rest of the boxes are pretty much the same: the substitution of "island" on the state form for "county" on the territorial form is a minor modification. The only curiosity--a small one--on Barack's certificate is the mother's street address [6085 Kalanianaole Highway], which on the current numbering system places the Obama family close to Hawaii Kai, which had just started development. I'm not sure that the old Obama address even exists after 50 years of home- and highway building. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 25, 2011

Switch to Incandescents to Save the Environment (in California)

Stocking up before their removal from the market: Edison would be proud
In honor of Earth Day I replaced six compact fluorescent light bulbs with old-style incandescents. No, I didn't misspeak. What brought me to the edge of this decision was the potential hazard of mercury poisoning from breaking a CFL bulb, but what pushed me over the brink was the report about the release of toxic gases from operating the CFL's. More studies need to be performed, but meanwhile, I'm willing to pay for the slight increase in our electricity bill (upper limit of $10 per year per bulb) from retroconverting the lamps in all the bedrooms in order to reduce the cancer risk to the members of my household.

Let's put aside the question of whether my use of old-style bulbs will cause the polar ice caps to melt. The Department of Energy says that more mercury will be released into the environment from using incandescents because: 1) incandescents use more energy; 2) half the electrical energy in the U.S. comes from coal-fired plants; 3) burning coal produces mercury.

DOE Table

Let's take a closer look at how much mercury is produced from operating an incandescent light bulb in California, where your humble servant resides. According to the 2008 Department of Energy profile of California's energy sources, 1.1% of California's electricity comes from coal.

Now let's redo the Table 1 calculations for California, reducing the mercury penalty to one-fiftieth of the national average:

A CFL in California produces five times as much mercury as an Edison bulb over 8,000 hours of use. My fellow Californians, in belated recognition of Earth Day switch to incandescents to save your family and save the environment. Your children and grandchildren will thank you. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

On Easter Sunday the black drapes of Good Friday have been replaced by white. Alleluias are said, and bells are rung throughout the morning. Death remains an inescapable part of life, but the Easter story says that death is not the end. I've been going to church all my life, and I still am not sure about what comes next. But I'm coming to believe that it's going to be good.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Farewell, Dell, You Served Me Well

My personal predilection--I like to think it's due to frugality and concern for the environment but it's really that I'm just plain cheap--is to hold on to working equipment long after most everyone else would have thrown it out.

I had upgraded the Dell Dimension 3000 desktop to its maximum capacity of 1 GB RAM, but I just couldn't justify keeping the eight-year old computer any longer. I could web-surf with it, but so can twelve (12) other newer devices in our household. Its physical size and weight (over 30 pounds on the bathroom scale) had become space-hogging and burdensome. And we couldn't give it away because it had a busted fan that caused it to shut down at the most inopportune moments.

2003 Dell Dimension (left) and 2007 Dell Vostro (middle) with 4 GB RAM
Prodded by the spirit of Earth Day, I took the PC to the free electronics recycling facility that the City had set up.

It still bothers me that no one had a use for something that still pretty much performed as it was intended. (The source of the bother may be that there's too much self-identification with my stuff.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Value of Land and Life

Economist Tyler Cowen links to this video with the comment that it is about the value of land. True, but it's also about what it's like to live in a place where no one is concerned about your safety except you (and there are probably not many lawyers).

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Apple Just Keeps Rolling Along

Its visionary CEO took an indefinite leave of absence and its key suppliers were crippled by a 9.0 earthquake, tsunami, and radiation catastrophe, yet the Apple express keeps rolling along to another blowout quarter.
Apple, the world's biggest tech company, reported record earnings for its fiscal second quarter Wednesday, posting revenue of $24.67 billion while largely avoiding supply-chain issues caused by the natural disasters in Japan.

The company's profit grew 95 percent to $5.99 billion, amid skyrocketing growth in iPhone sales. Earnings were $6.40 per share. Those numbers compare with revenue of $13.50 billion, profit of $3.07 billion and earnings per share of $3.33 a year ago.

The numbers beat estimates from analysts, who predicted $23.4 billion in revenue and earnings per share of $5.39 on average, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Last July I thought Google was the better investment (I hold both companies in my portfolio), and for a few months that seemed to be true. Now Apple has achieved separation, outstripping not only Google but the Nasdaq index by far.

Since July, AAPL has significantly outperformed GOOG and the Nasdaq.

Many investors are loathe to pay $342.41 (today's close, before the earnings announcement) for a stock that fetched $80 a little over two years ago. Apple stock resembles the big bang: it has exploded from (near) nothingness to become the second-most valuable company in the world, a stone's throw from Exxon-Mobil. There is a natural inclination to be cautious, because we have seen sky-high tech valuations melt away overnight.

Once we break out the calculator, however, it's hard to argue that, as Gertrude Stein said of the City of Oakland, there is no there there. If Apple's earnings suddenly were to stop growing, its current annual net income would be about $25 per share per year. If one applies the long-term S&P 500 multiple of 15x to $25, Apple 's share value would be $375. And if one uses a 20x price-earnings ratio more suited to a growth company, the shares would be valued at $500. In fact, some analysts are predicting just that--here's one.

Earlier this year I sold some shares, fearing the effect of Steve Jobs' departure. What I should have done was to have the courage to follow the analysis. I'm holding on to the rest of them.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Not As Bad As We Think

We can't file our tax return on time this year because one of our investments, a Subchapter S corporation, hasn't issued last year's Form 1120S K-1. No big deal: the S corp. sent us an estimate of its result--a small loss--that will be the result for 2010. But we'll have to go on extension for both Federal (Form 4868) and California (Form 3519) returns.

I found the California form particularly amusing. The space provided for "amount of payment" had nine significant digits, which allows for a payment of up to $999,999,999. Even if we assume that no estimated taxes were paid in 2010 so that robust amount would be the taxpayer's entire balance due, that would mean his taxable income at California's top rate of 9.55% would be about $10.5 billion. That's income, mind, not total wealth, which would be a multiple of the $10.5 billion. If we have residents who need those nine significant digits, then California's financial shape may not be as bad as we think.

BTW, I needed only three significant digits for myself.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Support Your Local Merchant

I've always tended to shop for the cheapest deal, even if that meant buying a larger quantity than needed. (That's why a 10-pound bag of potatoes, mostly untouched, from Costco has been sitting in the refrigerator for about a month.) I used to shop exclusively at the megastores, but in recent years I've been frequenting the locals more and more.

When buying food we now make a conscious effort to purchase smaller quantities. We end up spending more per pound, but we waste less and eat fresher. The smaller stores also seem to care more about the community; they often give teens their first job. Their older employees stick around longer, and we've gotten to know quite a few.

I wouldn't want to see a marketplace consisting exclusively of big-box warehouses and online vendors. Despite their deeper pockets, I've found them to be less responsive to community requests, always routing charity questions to a corporate office thousands of miles away.

This week I'm helping to organize the church's booth at the Earth Day Fair. We'll be selling books, records, CD's and related paraphernalia to support the Heifer Project and other charities. When I explained what we were doing to the manager at Lucky supermarkets he immediately gave me fifty reusable shopping bags to help our effort. Lucky will be seeing more of our business.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Faith in his Own Judgment

Cardinals' 5-man infield (apologies for lame snapshot of screen)
Turning on the tube (flicking on the flat-panel?) at the end of the Giants-Cardinals game on Friday I saw something I had not seen since T-Ball---a five-man infield. Tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 11th, the Giants had a runner on third with nobody out. Desperate to prevent a ball from leaving the infield, Cards manager Tony La Russa moved left fielder Allen Craig to the infield.

The strategy worked. A sharply hit ground ball down the third-base line not only was fielded cleanly by Craig but resulted in the runner being tagged out.

Risky moves often turn out disastrously, and sometimes they make no difference to the outcome. It's rare that they turn out to be exactly what was needed to save the day. Kudos to Tony La Russa for having faith in his own judgment.

(P.S. the Giants won 5-4 in the 12th on a bases-loaded single, which no managerial heroics could have prevented.)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Another Reason to Retire in Hawaii

In addition to its well-known lifestyle attractions Hawaii has a strong tax inducement for moving there during retirement: pension payments are exempt for state income tax purposes.

Settling in Hawaii may not be attractive to the wealthiest Americans (the top bracket of 11% is tied with Oregon for the highest marginal rate), but middle-income retirees with traditional pension plans will hardly be nicked at all. Distributions from employer-funded pension plans are exempt, as well as distributions from IRAs that hold employer-funded lump-sum pension payments. According to the example in p. 13 of the Hawaii instructions, even Roth conversions from such rollover IRAs are exempt.

Payments from deferred compensation plans, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, that have been set up with the taxpayer's own funds are not tax-exempt.

Comments: 1) I've been declaring Roth conversion income on my tax returns during the past couple of years, and a good portion of it would have been exempt under the Hawaii rules. Yes, I should have returned to my home state years ago and left woe-begotten California; 2) Who's got defined benefit pensions any more? Retirees from old-time employers, many of them unionized, and governments. Hawaii has attracted and continues to attract this demographic. Another reason that it will remain a stronghold of the Democratic Party for years to come.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Sad Summation

The longest sentence I read today:
It is always a dangerous thing for a president to start a war without Congress, without a consistent mission, without a coherent methodology, without a plausible end game, and without a clue who our rebel allies are or just how strong their opponent actually might be — contingent on a fickle UN, impotent but oil-enthused allies, and a passive-aggressive Arab world, all to prove a point that we could reinvent our military into a humanitarian rescue force, subordinate to international unelected bodies — and all the more dangerous during the golfing, basketball-playoffs, and resort seasons.
Sadly, it makes a lot of sense.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Green Flim-Flam

I often look askance at green enthusiasts who claim that environmental restrictions help the economy and reduce expenses. I don't mind spending a little more time and money so that we burn less fossil fuels or keep our air, water, and general surroundings clean. But when costs rise by more than 50% and I have to spend three hours a week (from last year's one) recycling the household garbage I have to wonder whether I'm better off than before. And if everyone is burdened similarly, it's very doubtful whether societal welfare is improved. (I'm assuming that the health and safety of the community are not in danger.)

There's evidence that environmental initiatives turn out to cost not just a little but a lot more,than the advocates forecast. Jobs lost in traditional energy sectors far outnumber so-called "green jobs" gained as traditional sectors are taxed and regulated out of existence. This happens so often that I think that the flim-flam artists have found a new home in the green movement. They supposedly have good intentions, so their original snow sales jobs are less scrutinized. They are never responsible for the cost over-runs: why they don't meet the numbers is the fault of consumers who are not sorting rubbish in the right cartons or not turning the furnace down at night or not driving the kids around in underpowered tin cans.

The switch to our new garbage-and-recycling company held a lot of promise. Now that the numbers are in, I'm not so cheerful. Last year Allied Waste billed $19.31 per month. In November Recology gave us a 64-gallon can, which is larger than Allied Waste's 45-gallon container. Recology's January charge was $27.46, a 42% increase, perhaps explainable by the bigger container and weekly (from biweekly) recycling.

Allied Waste invoice

First Recology bill

Recology has just billed us another $8.10 per month, retroactive to February. Our cost has ended up being nearly double that of a few months ago.

Recology back billing

What's more irritating is the time devoted to recycling kitchen scraps, which used to be dumped in the garbage. Now we must put old food, including bones, meat, and food-soiled paper products, with the yard trimmings. But we are forbidden to wrap them in plastic, nor is it acceptable to have them ripening outdoors in the green cart. I initially stored the scraps in paper bags in the refrigerator, but the messiness prompted me to buy moisture-resistant BioBags that are, of course, friendly to Mother Earth but not my pocketbook.

I wonder if there's a "pig man" on the Peninsula?