Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Je Suis Passé

Even if we're not thinking about Apples' remaking of entire industries, the evidence of technological disruption is all around us. Here's an amusing video of French second-graders trying to figure out the uses of ancient artifacts like floppy disks and rotary phones.

Comments: 1) It's been over 20 years since I heard it, but scratching a record with a phonograph needle is still tops when it comes to the most cringe-inducing sounds. 2) Laugh with the youngsters and not at them; how would you fare on a similar test, bucko, with 50-year-old farm tools? 3) Someday I'll bring my Apple III out of storage to astonish the kids with its 256K of RAM.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The King's Speech

Slowly making my way down the Netflix queue, the arrow finally pointed to the 2011 Best Picture, the King's Speech.

Since my tastes run towards car chases and space aliens that look great in spandex, I shoved the DVD into the player with very low expectations. This was going to be another British literary movie (Sense and Sensibility, Remains of the Day) that the cognoscenti said that I should see for my own good when my time would probably be better spent by washing the car or working on next year's taxes.

Surprise! I enjoyed the movie. Best Actor winner Colin Firth gave a convincing, sympathetic performance as the prince who wanted to hide from the world because of his severe stutter but reluctantly ascended to the throne when his older brother put personal desire before responsibility. Geoffrey Rush as failed-actor-cum-speech-therapist Lionel Logue fights not only the king's disability but multiple social barriers. We root for him to succeed where credentialed doctors and teachers failed.

The rest of the ensemble cast is a who's-who of contemporary British film. The only bit of casting that seemed a little jarring: whenever I saw Timothy Spall, who plays Churchill, the great man of the 20th century, I couldn't help but glimpse Wormtail, the rat-like villain of the Harry Potter movies.

The movie immerses us in the constitutional crisis triggered by Edward VIII's affair with American twice-divorcee Wallis Simpson. American eyes may view Edward's abdication as the apotheosis of romance--a man giving up the throne to marry his love--but most Britons saw it as the epitome of selfishness, a man shirking his duty in the face of the gathering storm over Europe. Both Edward and Mrs. Simpson are portrayed as petty, self-absorbed creatures preoccupied with the privileges of royalty but not its responsibilities. It is, after all, a British film.

Final thoughts: 1) "critically acclaimed" movies need not be boring; 2) the film's fastidious attention to period costumes and sets was crucial because today's audiences can readily detect inauthenticity; 3) too bad they couldn't work in a car chase over the London cobblestones--now that would have been something to see.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Those Who Can't, Call A Contractor

Brute force + stuck flange = cracked sink
The ancient bathroom faucet continued to drip, no matter how hard I twisted the knob. I consulted with the person in charge of these things. She picked out a nice-looking replacement at Home Depot for $88. I've replaced faucets before. Allowing for contingencies, I estimated that it would take four hours max. It took me four days to complete the project.

The rusty parts gave way to repeated applications of WD-40 and elbow grease. I eventually unscrewed the old hot and cold controls as well as the spout. However, the sink flange, where the stopper goes in, wouldn't budge. No cheap piece of oxidized metal was going to defeat me. I've got tools, I've been working out, I'm college educated, and handyman websites all said that this would be easy. The >snap< when the bottom of the porcelain basin cracked was one of those "Oh, *&#%!" moments that are made worse with the knowledge that there was no one to blame but me.

Everything came out except the rust stains  (top).
The person in charge of these things surveyed the damage. "You didn't have to replace the stopper. You could have left the old one in," she said helpfully.

The bathroom sink was undermounted, held up by metal clips and sealant. Replacing an undermount is trickier than a drop-in sink whose weight is supported by the countertop. Again, helpfully: "Maybe you should call Roberto." No, that would be a last resort. If I hired a contractor, the cost could easily sail past $500 for what had been a $100 project.

Worse, I would be conceding defeat not only to family but a manly guy like Roberto, who despite his politeness would have a hard time keeping a straight face when he saw what my wrenches wrought.

Over the next three days I: 1) Removed the old basin; 2) Found a 14" x 17" undermount sink at Lowe's that fit the 13" x 16" opening; 3) Clamped the new sink to a 2x4 for 24 hours so that the silicone would set to the marble; 4) Installed the new fixtures; 5) Cut pipe beneath the counter in order to get the P trap to fit (after several tries the leaks have stopped).

The person in charge of these things said that she was pleased with the result. As for me, I was pleased that it was over.

[Economics note: this episode is an example of household production, where people do their own cleaning, gardening, cooking, repairing, etc. instead of paying someone to do those tasks. Do-it-yourself activities don't show up in GDP statistics and the benefits from them aren't taxed, although they augment net worth just the same as some bucks from one's employer.]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More Concerns About "Googarola"

After having lowered Google shares from "strong buy" to "buy" last month, the Standard and Poor's equity analyst has further downgraded GOOG from "buy" to "sell".

The morning Mercury News lists possible negatives about Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility:

1) The deal would take longer than expected to close;
2) Motorola's 17,000 patents won't provide much intellectual-property protection for Google's Android software;
3) "An Internet-era software company [29,000 employees] known for launching products and improving them on the fly" will have trouble absorbing an 83-year-old Midwestern hardware company (19,000 employees);
4) Hardware will be a drag on Google margins;
5) Google will be competing with its own handset customers.

If Google falls below $500 I'll be tempted to nibble at a few shares. At least I'll get a nice meal at the shareholders meeting. They'll still have that next year, won't they?

Note: I have no position in Google and won't be taking a position in the next 30 days.


Google's $12.5 billion bid for Motorola Mobility has the tech world agog with its size and strategic implications. The main attraction appears to be Motorola's portfolio of patents, rather than the mobile handset business.

Not everyone agrees that the acquisition is a wise move. Example:
Look at Google’s financial results. They reported $8.5 billion in net income this year, and $6.5 billion last year. That’s for all of Google. They’re offering $12.5 billion for Motorola. So Google just spent almost two years of its profits to buy a second-rate phone maker that itself is unprofitable, almost went bankrupt, and is arguably only the third-best maker of Android devices, behind HTC and Samsung.
After meandering downward since January, GOOG's shares took off at the end of June with the announcement of Google Plus, Google's answer to Facebook. The Motorola move resurrects the old doubts for conservative investors like your humble servant. I sold my modest stake a couple of months ago, was thinking of getting back in, but now will hold off.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Body and Soul Together

28 people were in line when we opened the gate at noon. Rebecca, our CDSP seminarian, blessed the gathering and the meal. We began scooping the chicken and salad. Volunteers from our Episcopal church had prepared over a dozen trays, and it looked like we had too much food. Not to worry. The line grew to 50 in the next half an hour, and the guests kept coming back until the food was gone.

At Sandwiches on Sunday no one is turned away. Most diners are dressed casually, but a few are nattily appointed; they would fit in nicely at Stanford Shopping Center or the shops at Union Square. Some drive to the community center, but most arrive on foot or ride in on bikes.

We distributed the packages as the diners departed. Every Saturday for the past ten years the parishioners of St. Pius Parish assemble eighty (80) brown-bag lunches and store them overnight in the walk-in refrigerator. Marge packs her Toyota with six large boxes on Sunday morning and meets us at the community center.

One gentleman insisted on giving me two dollars. I turned it over to Marge to help defray some of St. Pius' expenses. To my surprise Marge said that she was not a member of St. Pius; she is a Lutheran who likes feeding the hungry and stuck with the program after she had been introduced to it years ago. A Lutheran helping some Episcopalians in an outreach activity run by a Catholic parish--five centuries after the Reformation and Henry VIII's divorce there's still hope that the Body can come together.

The community garden is flourishing.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Just Sad

Cartoon by Ramirez, 2008

As this humble journal feared, we are in the third year of a four-year train wreck. From February, 2008:
Think the Republicans have made a hash of things? Three words to remind us that those who promise change can make things a lot worse: James Earl Carter.
From July, 2008:
Barack Obama has the thinnest resume of any major candidate for the Presidency during my lifetime. Law professor, community organizer, state senator, and U.S. Senator for less than one term. He's a great speechmaker, but what has he done? To me the bowling episode, minor though it is, exemplifies the risk the country is taking. If I had to choose among Democrats Hillary, Biden, Richardson, Gore, and Obama to be our President, BHO would be dead last.
Nevertheless, it's still a little surprising about how badly it's all turned out. With technology and knowledge advancing at an accelerating pace, advocates of government control over the economy should have done better than the central planners of yester-year.

But it's likely they made things worse. If they had done nothing, the odds are we would be well into a recovery. However, unemployment remains above 9%, housing values continue to fall, and the crashing stock market seems to be foretelling a double-dip recession or at best anemic growth.

The disappointment of the country at large risks being transformed into anger and even contempt. (Witness articles like "Is Obama Smart" in the Wall Street Journal: "I just think the president isn't very bright.")

As for me, I'm just sad.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Somehow Bush is to Blame

According to Standard & Poor's there are 19 sovereign entities with a triple-A credit rating: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Guernsey, Hong Kong, Isle of Man, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The Obama Administration came into office promising to restore the world's respect for the United States. Now we're less respectable than Liechtenstein.

Friday, August 05, 2011


The United States lost its triple-A credit rating today when Standard & Poor's downgraded U.S. Treasury debt to AA+.

As it has for every other misfortune in the past two and a half years, the Obama Administration will blame President Bush and Republican policies for this development. Yes, there will be a kernel of truth in that claim, but that argument conveniently ignores the fact that Democrats had overwhelming and filibuster-proof majorities in the House and Senate for the first two years, as well as an uncritical mainstream media (with the exception of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal) to cheer it on.

President Obama and the Democrats were hired to fix the problems, not lament their difficulty and pin them on others when they got worse. They can always blame the messenger by tarnishing S&P and the other rating agencies for their securities-grading errors during the past decade. Standard & Poor's, Moody's, and Fitch grossly over-rated debt obligations before, and, come to think of it, a Treasury rating of double-A may still be too generous.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Why the Poor Don't Have to Worry About Retirement

According to economic researchers,
some low-wealth households [are] adequately prepared for retirement because of their reduced survival chances.
No release date yet for "why smokers don't have to worry about retirement."

Another Dunkin' Donuts Public Offering

From Rockaway, New Jersey:
Police say 29-year-old Melissa Redmond, of nearby Mine Hill, was arrested for selling sex while working late night shifts at the [Dunkin' Donuts] store after soliciting sex from a undercover officer.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Dose of Humility

Whenever I need a dose of humility and/or amusement, I review old posts from this modest journal. From 2006:
The national debt rests at nearly $5 trillion.... an immense total beyond the comprehension of this humble observer. And it will only increase in the near future because we won’t be raising taxes or making a serious effort to reduce spending.
The national debt was going to go up, but its tripling in five years and the very possible loss of the U.S. Government's AAA rating was beyond the imagination of your humble observer. While I certainly hope the rating downgrade does not occur---from a selfish viewpoint a rise in the Treasury rate will cause prices of all other financial assets (like those in my retirement fund) to decline--at least my modest investment in Treasuries will start looking better. The interest on the $30,000 3-month bill that matures next week won't even pay for a latte at the neighborhood coffee shop.

Maybe next time I'll be able to afford a scone.