Monday, April 30, 2012

The Sandwiches Must Go On

Children's Day booths, Redwood City, 4/29/12
The overflowing parking lot stymied us temporarily until the attendants directed our cars to a side lot reserved for us. We felt like the big shots who use the limo section at AT&T Park, except that our event and location were a bit more modest.

The Children's Day celebration at Fair Oaks Community Center caused only a 15-minute delay in Sandwiches on Sunday, where five churches take turns making a hot meal on Sunday afternoons in Redwood City. (Previous posts are here, here, and here.)

The community center's manager, Teri Chin, apologized for not informing us about the festivities. It's all right, we said to her, you obviously have a lot of other concerns on your mind. Besides, as volunteers we learned long ago that things don't go according to plan.

We served 55 diners, about two thirds of normal.  Some of our regulars were dissuaded by the crowds and lack of parking, and a few were allergic to the presence of uniformed police officers at the Children's Day fair. So there was more food for the guests who did come.

The kids from the Sunday School poured the lemonade and spooned the lasagna and salads onto the plates.  This Sunday we had brought 21 volunteers, ranging in age from 7 to 70.  There wasn't much to clean up, because the guests deposit all the trash into receptacles.  After 90 minutes we headed back home.

(For more information on the Sandwiches on Sunday program, please contact St. Pius Parish of Redwood City. )

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Everything is Proceeding as Asimov Has Foreseen

"Big Data" is the plastics of the early 21st century. It's the next big thing. According to McKinsey [bold added],
"We project a need for 1.5 million additional managers and analysts in the United States who can ask the right questions and consume the results of the analysis of Big Data effectively." What the industry needs is a new type of person: the data scientist. [snip]
Hilary Mason, chief scientist for the URL shortening service, says a data scientist must have three key skills. "They can take a data set and model it mathematically and understand the math required to build those models; they can actually do that, which means they have the engineering skills…and finally they are someone who can find insights and tell stories from their data. That means asking the right questions, and that is usually the hardest piece."
Good at math, engineering, finding insights, and telling stories...if the data scientist is not the √úbermensch, then he or she is at least someone who needs to have high SAT scores all around.

The late Isaac Asimov foresaw this future over a half-century ago.  His science fiction novel Foundation introduced the notion of psychohistory, in which future events could be predicted by applying statistical analysis to societal data on a vast scale. When Asimov wrote his novel in 1951, the computational technology to make psychohistory a reality seemed out of reach. That day is now here.

If the Graduate were re-imagined today:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say two words to you. Just two words.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Big Data.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Game Wasn't the Attraction

The cheap seats have a good view of the Bay.
It was a forgettable game in which the Giants never seriously challenged the lowly 6-15 Padres in a 5-3 loss. The home team did give the crowd a few things to cheer about--home runs by Buster Posey and Angel Pagan and continuation of Pablo Sandoval's hitting streak to 20 games--but eleven (11) hits allowed and two errors caused the groans to prevail.

What we usually do on uninspiring days like these is enjoy the food, the view, and each other's company.  The three hours passed quickly.

Giants baseball is not an inexpensive outing--one can easily drop $20 on a hot dog, soda, and snack, plus at least $30 for the ticket--but last night the pain to the pocketbook was partially alleviated by the orange beanie that the first 20,000 fans received.

The price on eBay is $36 (and climbing!)
We'll add the beanie to our growing collection of Giants junk paraphernalia. (We didn't even unwrap ours, so its value should be enhanced by at least a couple of bucks.)

The most interesting speculation in our group concerned the gathering of seagulls in the 8th inning.  How did the scavengers know that the game was ending soon? Could they tell time? Could they read the scoreboard?

It turns out that someone has already researched this phenomenon:
the conclusion is that the 7th inning stretch is what cues the gulls to prepare for a feast.  The commotion of 40,000 people simultaneously standing and singing is the tip off. Gulls are very good at recognizing predictors for when food is going to become available. They have learned that the 7th inning stretch means that people will soon be clearing out of the stadium, leaving behind a plethora of half eaten, (and luckily in our ballpark) gourmet food.  
We learned something new about our feathered friends and received a valuable piece of headware.  It was a worthwhile evening after all. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

Friday, April 27, 2012

Charity Far From Home

In April two church members visited the school.
A few dollars can go a very long way in certain parts of the world.

Our church and some of its members on an individual basis have been paying the tuition for students at the Cambodian Academy of Mongkol Borei, a 501(c)(3) organization supported by the Rotary Club.

The $250 tuition includes:
- Transportation to and from school;
- Two uniforms, textbooks and supplies;
- Breakfast for more than 50% of [the] students;
- A nutritious lunch consisting of rice, meat, and vegetables;
- Teacher's salaries, classroom use, and payment of utilities.
The Cambodian Academy was founded in 2004 by Foster City resident Hans Eide, who was moved by the plight of families who were too poor to pay the very modest costs (by American standards) of sending their children to Cambodian public schools. The number of students enrolled is 264.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

That's Why He's Warren Buffett

The Wall Street Journal waxes indignant because a private-jet company owned by Warren "Raise-My-Taxes" Buffett was able to get its fees lowered:
NetJets Inc., the private-jet company owned by Mr. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., spent more than $1 million over the past three years to lobby Congress to cut a user fee, benefiting the company's well-heeled customers, who buy or lease shares in planes. The reduced fee, part of the recent Federal Aviation Administration bill that took effect earlier this month, will save customers of NetJets and other similar companies roughly $83 million over about four years, according to congressional estimates.
As customers of commercial airlines you and I pay a 7.5% tax on our tickets. Private planes owned by Mr. Buffett are now classified as "non-commercial" and pay a lower tax based on fuel consumption. Opponents of Mr. Buffett will undoubtedly call this another example of double standards by limousine liberals / private-jet plutocrats.

Me, I'm just filled with admiration. $1 million in lobbying fees produces $83 million of tax savings. That's why he's Warren Buffett and I still clip coupons.

Extend Your Battery Life

When putting a cellphone, remote control, or other device into long-term storage Popular Mechanics advises:
Your best bet for long-term battery storage is to run the charge down to 50 percent, remove the battery from the device, and keep it cool. But even ideal storage conditions can leave you with a dead battery after three or four years. (H/T Glenn Reynolds)
On the other hand, keeping one's stomach half full at all times probably won't extend one's life. (I've tested that approach so that you won't have to.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sam Wo: The Not-so-Final Chapter

The Chronicle reports on yesterday's public hearing. Sam Wo restaurant can re-open if code violations are corrected.
To reopen, the owners need to make certain immediate changes. These include installing a commercial refrigeration unit; separate sinks for hand washing, dishwashing and food preparation; and eliminating rodents with the help of a licensed pest control service. 
Other required repairs include the fire escape and getting rid of the numerous electrical cords that thread through the restaurant. 
"I have to treat it like I would treat any other restaurant," said Nhi Tu, the health department inspector who spoke at length during the hearing about Sam Wo's "long history of repeat health code violations." Tu presented dozens of photographs depicting the restaurant's violations, ranging from rodent feces on shelves to the unsanitary sink.
And I thought that funny feeling was from the MSG.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Two perspectives about "convergence" [bold added], albeit on different subjects:

FASB and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) expect to issue final, joint standards in their major convergence projects by mid-2013, according to a report to the Financial Stability Board (FSB) Plenary on Accounting Convergence posted Monday on the IASB website.....delays are unfortunate but necessary to ensure that the changes bring about improvement to financial reporting.
Convergence is bad 
Analyst: How do you think about the markets for tablets and PCs going forward? Why don't you believe the ultrabook and the tablet market won't converge? Isn't realistic [sic] we'll have a device under two pounds with great battery life that can fold up? 
[Apple CEO Tim] Cook: Anything can be forced to converged, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs. You begin to make tradeoffs that you make at end of the day that don't please anyone. You can converge a refrigerator and a toaster but that probably won't be be [sic] pleasing to the end user.
If you're the best, converging with your competitors helps neither you nor your customers. On the other hand, if you're not the best, then convergence may make you better.

Monday, April 23, 2012

FF&V: No Excuses

Prolific Oven steak salad for $8.95
The benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables have been well-publicized: more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, complemented by less calories, fats, sugar, and processed carbohydrates, will lead to weight loss and greatly reduced risk of heart attack, cancer, and diabetes.

So what's stopping us from embracing FF&V wholeheartedly? In the case of your humble observer the reasons are:

1) Inconvenience. FF&V require more frequent trips to the grocer and more prep time to wash and cut the ingredients. On the other hand popping a frozen meal in the microwave needs little time and effort.

2) Cost.  Filling a supermarket cart with FF&V is expensive, at least in the Bay Area. If one dines out, restaurants charge nearly as much for their dinner salads as they do their regular entrees.  I have a mental block against paying steak, chicken, or shrimp prices for lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

3) Taste.  Learning to appreciate the taste of FF&V isn't difficult, but sometimes, when one is hungry, one just needs to have the salty, creamy, and fatty stuff.

I was pleasantly surprised today when I went to the Fremont branch of the Prolific Oven Bakery and Cafe.   The steak salad cost only $8.95, tasted delicious, and--don't discount this attribute--was attractively presented. If other restaurants offered similar fare at similar prices, I won't have any excuses.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Opening a Vein

Pulitzer-winning columnist and novelist Anna Quindlen is another writer made miserable by her calling:
I hate to write. I have to force myself every day to sit down and begin.
Amateur scribblers can barely imagine the life of a famous writer. Amateurs for the most part enjoy the act of writing and have no audience to please. Amateurs have no deadline pressure, no critics to bemoan the decline from earlier accomplishments, and no contractual obligations that force pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Yes, we amateur writers feel sorry for miserable Anna Quindlen, with only her riches, fame, and Pulitzer Prize to console her.

“There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” - Red Smith

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Going South

The bittersweet local news from earlier this week:

1) the "San Francisco" 49ers will be staying in the Bay Area for the foreseeable future;
2) construction began on the new stadium, set to be completed in the fall of 2014;
3) the stadium is in Santa Clara, not San Francisco.

The Santa Clara stadium vs. Candlestick:

Yes, officials gagged at the price tag for a new stadium.  With the City's annual budget of $6.8 billion, however, it would have seemed that San Francisco has enough resources to finance an asset that would last at least 30 years. Moreover, when the 49ers move away, San Francisco will lose annual net profit of $3.5 million from Candlestick operations and $4.1 million in tax revenues.

With some imagination and courageous leadership, San Francisco may have been able to keep the 49ers. More's the pity, because the City still knows how to do big things.

AT&T Park, the first privately funded ballpark since Dodger Stadium in 1962,  opened to critical acclaim in 2000:
It's hard to say what's best about [AT&T] Park, except that it is San Francisco. The view from the worst seats in the house still gives you a view of the Bay Bridge and the marina.
San Francisco Bay will be home to the 2013 America’s Cup Finals.

When I last was at Candlestick, Bret Favre was the Packers QB.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sam Wo, 1906 (?) - 2012

Frankly, this kitchen doesn't look so bad (Chron photo)
It survived the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. But it couldn't overcome the San Francisco health department. After 106 years, the Sam Wo restaurant is closing.
David Ho has owned Sam Wo for three decades, but following a meeting with the San Francisco public health and fire departments this week, is closing the restaurant.

"Too old. Everything's too old," said Ho, who is 56. "The building is too old. It's very sad."

Indeed, although it has been embraced by patrons, the creaky restaurant proved to be a challenge for the city's inspectors. Diners enter through the street-level kitchen to go up to the tiny dining rooms on the second and third floors; a dumbwaiter hums from floor to floor, delivering food.

Despite the funky layout of the "skinny old eating place" (as [columnist Herb] Caen once called it), Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said there was no record of complaints.

However, that wasn't the case at the health department.

"We had a lot of food safety issues," said Lisa O'Malley, a supervisor at the Department of Public Health. After a routine inspection in March found violations ranging from "rodent activity" to improper food storage to kitchen disrepair, the department decided action was needed.

"It's sort of like going back in time," O'Malley said. "I suspect the kitchen hasn't been remodeled since the '40s. It's not sustaining safe practices."
I have visited Sam Wo on three occasions in the past ten years. It was the subject of one of the first posts on this humble journal. I'm sorry that my 2003 prediction is turning out to be correct. "If Sam Wo is here 20 years from now, I'll be very surprised."

If only San Francisco regulators would follow the SEC approach: disclose all known issues and problems, and let the investors/customers/diners decide whether the benefits of eating there are worth the risks. But such forbearance would be uncharacteristic of bureaucrats, and in the name of public safety another institution passes into history.

Here is the ABC 7 video:

[Update: hold the cards, flowers, and lamentations. The public health hearing on Tuesday offers a glimmer of hope that all is not lost.]

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Intestinal Fortitude

AAPL has traded between $621 and $575 in the past five days.
In recent days investors in Apple have needed a strong stomach. The stock fell $20.90 and closed below $600 today; projections about the company and the stock are all over the map. (Absent intestinal fortitude, I just pop antacids, which are also a good source of calcium.)

We've seen this volatility before. iPhone sales were down for the September quarter because of the late 4S introduction and the unenthusiastic reception accorded to its voice-command software Siri. Coupled with the death of Apple's founder, the share price drifted lower through December. After blowout earnings were reported in January, the stock has rocketed upward until it hit headwinds ten days ago.

While the stock isn't cheap versus where it's been, standard valuation measures are not flashing red. Consensus earnings estimates for the fiscal year ending September, 2012 are $44 per share. (Apple has already earned $13.87 in the December quarter and only needs to earn $10.03 for each of the next three quarters to hit that mark.) At today's close Apple's price-earnings ratio, the so-called forward earnings multiple, is 13.4 ($587.44 / $44), which is about the same PE ratio as the S&P 500.

In addition the recently announced dividend of $10.60 per year lures "value" investors who will find the 1.8% yield ($10.60 / $587.44) appealing.  And we haven't even talked about the wildcard upsides of a new iPhone 5 or the rumored Apple TV.

Anything can happen, but I don't see Apple falling below $550, while $650 to $700 is an entirely reasonable expectation by January, 2013. [Disclosure: I am long Apple.]

Including the recent sell-off, AAPL is up 71% over the past 12 months.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dumbbell Accident

Everyone leaves bullets on the floor, and we've all had this happen.
A California weightlifter says he accidentally shot himself by dropping a dumbbell on a bullet. The man was wounded in the shoulder. He told Modesto police officers he was lifting dumbbells in his home Wednesday night when he dropped one on a .22 caliber bullet. The man's name hasn't been released.
Lucky it missed the grenade.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lines Not Present

The Post Office lines were much diminished from tax-filing-days past. The majority of Americans ("nearly 100 million taxpayers") now file their tax returns electronically and avoid the rush. Among those who do file on paper, the better-organized and many who are due refunds have already mailed theirs in.

I'm old-fashioned: I prefer mailing a paper version of our tax return. There's a solidity to the accomplishment, and its heft conveys a sense of the work involved. (I also confess to a streak of rebelliousness: electronic filing is for the IRS' convenience, not ours, no matter what they say about getting our refund a few days sooner. Why should we make their lives easier when they make ours so difficult? To be clear, I'm not referring to the amount I have to pay but on the labyrinthine complexity of the tax code.)

While we're printing the original return, it's no trouble to print an extra copy to store with the back-up materials. It's much easier to have information about each year in one physical folder, rather than to search for a computer return and a paper file when we're doing next year's return.

The Post Office is under a lot of pressure because of the losses it continues to incur. My small token of support was to mail the extension form on Tuesday. When the return is completed this summer, I'll be back in line.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Antiquer Learning

In the midst of doing tedious work like our personal tax return (tedium is non-existent when doing our clients' returns, of course), I take a break by picking up the iPad and poking at one of the many game apps on that device. One of my recent favorites is the pay version ($9.99) of Scrabble.

I played the Scrabble board game until high school--and I thought I was fairly competent--until I played it on the iPad. Because the game processes quickly---word look-ups and computerized-opponents' moves occur instantaneously---one shortly learns all the permitted two-letter words.

In real life I never encountered a word that crossed two double-word squares (tile multiplier equals four). On the iPad I did even better: a couple of weeks ago I scored a times-nine word that covered two triple-word squares. In addition using all seven tiles in the rack merited the 50-point bonus. The 194-point total (16 x 9 + 50) was the highest I'd ever seen.

Sometimes antiques can learn new tricks.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 15th 17th

On many April 14th's we've burnt the midnight oil preparing our tax returns, and this year is no exception. For the 2011 tax return we're still awaiting a Form K-1 from a pass-through entity and will file Federal Form 4868 that will extend the deadline to October 15th.

Filing an extension postpones the need for doing some of the detailed work, but the lion's share still has to be done to determine whether and how much to pay with extension Form 4868. We also need to take a quick look at 2012 because estimated taxes are due the same day.

Thanks to April 15th falling on a Sunday, and Emancipation Day (April 16th) being a public holiday in the District of Columbia, tax-filers have a couple of days grace to work out the numbers. Too bad for residents of DC, though: now that everyone else in America has discovered that DC's special status allows everyone to file and pay one day later every six years, DC will never be granted Statehood. But don't feel bad for them: booming job and housing markets, as well as very low unemployment, ease the pain.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Thunderous Thursday

The lightning flashes shone through the drapes. The thunder boomed three seconds later. The storm was just above our heads, and our ten-year-old shingled roof didn't feel very solid.

The thunderclaps continued half the night, and we didn't get to sleep till 1 a.m.

Tornados, tsunamis, temblors, and thunderstorms remind us that our controlled, cosseted, civilized existences are an illusion. They can vanish in a flash.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Patent Mess

The iPhone "slide to unlock"
Patent wars in mobile technology are being waged over nearly every feature of mobile phones:
In the past two years, legal disputes have erupted over digital-image storage methods, camera designs, Wi-Fi technologies and well-known software applications like email and calendars, as well as secondary features most consumers barely notice.
Non-insiders will be surprised to learn that major battles are being fought over slide-to-unlock technology. Patent-holder Apple is suing rivals Motorola and Samsung over their "stretch-to-unlock" and drag-outside-the-circle unlocking techniques. Meanwhile, Samsung has unearthed an older patent that has some features similar to Apple's. (Disclosure: I am long Apple.)

The larger issue is the mess that is U.S. patent law. Patents that should never have been approved are stifling innovation while disputes are being contested in overburdened courts. An entire industry of patent trolls has been built around the extraction of royalties from producers who, usually unknowingly, have infringed upon an idea that someone has patented but not exploited with an actual invention. In this litigious environment I am personally acquainted with very small companies who spend precious management and financial resources on obtaining patents for largely defensive reasons.

One of the principal issues in this election year concerns whether and how much taxes, regulation, and other government activities are stalling the American economic engine. Our patent and intellectual property laws--and their administration--clearly contribute to the problem. However, because of the powerful interests on various sides of the question, not to mention its complexity, it is highly unlikely we'll soon see a solution that improves the general welfare.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Roth Confusion

Five days before the deadline I gave the financial institution my Roth contribution for 2011. The lady looked puzzled: "You already gave us a check in December." Apparently, I had made the contribution when I made the Roth conversion.

She asked to see my ID. Yes, I would ask to see it, too, if I were talking to someone who didn't remember making a payment of several thousands of dollars a few months ago. (It turned out that the December payment came from an account that I don't normally use for retirement contributions.)

We decided to reclassify today's contribution to 2012.

I think I will sign up for the durable power of attorney workshop that the church is offering next month.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hotel Psychology

"Hotels are amping up their efforts to make a good first impression."
A guest's first impression is even more critical these days because of social media. In the past, guests usually waited until after they checked out before posting a review on TripAdvisor or Expedia, so hotels would have time to recover from an initial service snafu. Now, with guests tweeting and posting Facebook updates about their vacations almost in real time, a bungled first impression can be immediately broadcast to hundreds—even thousands.
Bagel and lox breakfast ($11.50) - Daily Grill, Burbank
(I rarely post critiques in real time on Twitter, Yelp, or Facebook, partly because of lassitude and partly because first impressions are often incorrect.)

Our top priority is a clean, quiet room, which we obtained, a little to our surprise, on our recent vacation.A quality restaurant with efficient service is a definite plus; it's not expected to be cheap, but the guest shouldn't feel he's being ripped off because of his partially captive status.

I have mixed emotions about the growing use of psychology and personal information. It's creepy when a stranger we're talking to knows not only our address, phone number, and credit card info (not to mention our credit rating) but also our breakfast preferences and medical needs. But I do like how experienced staff put us at ease by referencing previous visits and catering to special requests without our having to mention them.

Of course, a little knowledge can be dangerous:
A personal welcome can sometimes backfire, though, especially when it comes to repeat guests. A prior visit could have been with a previous girlfriend, for example, or a mistress. "You don't always say, 'Welcome back Mr. and Mrs.,' " says Mark Harmon, chief executive of Auberge Resorts, a collection of nine properties. "You have to be careful."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Unplanned Getaway

We had a few days off and drove to Los Angeles for an unplanned getaway. Sometimes the most enjoyable trips are those that aren't scheduled tightly.

The Daily Grill skirt steak
The first pleasant surprise was the Airport Burbank Marriott, not on anyone's list of top vacation hotels. Across the street from the Bob Hope Airport, the room was clean and quiet.

The hotel's restaurant, the Daily Grill, was very good. I had the skirt steak, which at $25 was one of the least expensive beef entrees. The Daily Grill marinates the skirt steak for twelve hours, and it came out tender and tasty. Companions' filets ($32) were perfectly grilled, and the blue-cheese crust had a sharp, rich flavor. Side orders of carrots, asparagus, and mushrooms were generously portioned.

Theater owner Sid Grauman has his own imprint.
The evening was still young. We took the seven-mile drive south for our first visit to Grauman's Chinese Theater. We goggled with the rest of the tourists at the stars on the Walk of Fame and the signature imprints on the forecourt. IMHO, the theater tour (adults $13.50) is a good value. Our knowledgeable guide had an anecdote for every exhibit. The women in our group were especially keen on the evening gown exhibits and artifacts like Elizabeth Taylor's jewels from Cleopatra (observations can be both sexist and true). The guide pointed out easy-to-miss sights such as the original natural-gas lamps behind the exit signs and paintings by bandleader Xavier Cugat and actor Keye Luke.

The "flash flood" has been around since early Westerns.
Universal Studios was next on the list. High-tech attractions have been added over the ten years since we last visited. We were entertained by all of them, but our favorites were the studio-tour tram ride that originated the whole Universal amusement park concept and the decidedly low-tech animal show. Also, a 360-degree 3D King Kong movie was a poor substitute for the destroyed-by-fire roaring ape's head rising from the pit.

It only cost $30 to upgrade our one-day ticket to a 12-month pass. We'll be back soon.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Hybrids: Heart Over the Head

Until we found out that the old minivan had a few miles left in her, we were on the verge of buying a new SUV. It would have been a hybrid.

We knew what we were getting into if we pulled the trigger. Not only was the hybrid's MSRP $8,450 higher than its regular counterpart, the manufacturer and dealer discounts on the regular SUV but not on the hybrid would have raised the hybrid's premium to at least $10,000.

Under the most favorable assumptions regarding gasoline usage and prices the hybrid purchase is a break-even proposition: 1) Assume we would drive either vehicle 100,000 miles (over the next 7-10 years) and that the average price of gasoline during the SUV's lifetime will be $5 per gallon. 2) From the manufacturer's specifications, assume that the mileage for the hybrid is 28 mpg and the non-hybrid is 18 mpg. The cost of gasoline: Hybrid $17,857 (100,000 / 28 x $5) Non-hybrid $27,778 (100,000 / 18 x $5). Of course, we're not considering the time value of money, since the $9,921 in gas savings will be realized over the next 7-10 years.

In the hybrid's favor we need to recognize that it also confers intangible benefits. Driving a hybrid: 1) Helps the environment; 2) Promotes energy independence; 3) Raises our social status, especially in the Bay Area; 4) Makes us feel better about ourselves. And yes, because we have enough saved up to pay the $10,000 difference now instead of over time, we would have bought the fuel-efficient alternative.

However, most Americans appear to have decided that those intangible benefits aren't enough:
Car sales are up again, but despite rising gas prices, few consumers are buying hybrids. Instead, they’re choosing less fuel-efficient – and less costly — subcompacts and mid-size vehicles. [snip]

Despite the large swings in gas prices, hybrid sales have barely budged: they made up just 2.1% of market share last month, almost unchanged from a year ago. Of the 1.4 million cars that sold last month, less than 30,000 of them were hybrids. “Interest in hybrids is not as high as one would think especially in light of high gas prices,” says Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence at

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Top of the Mark

The view makes a $7 beer a bargain.
The amateur San Francisco tour guide begins without taking a step. The guide must discover how much time the visitor has, how familiar he is with the City, and the visitor's preference between depth or breadth of experience. If the visitor is interested in cramming as many sights as possible into a short period, for example, then he might try the one-day quickie tour.

Union Square
On Wednesday the amateur guide appraised his client objectively. Touring by auto would be unsuitable; there must needs be beer, and it would be unsociable for the guide to abstain to keep his blood alcohol level below the driving limit.

On the other hand a lot of walking for one who is not accustomed to the steep hills may make for an unpleasant experience.

The visitor helped make the decision; he expressed a desire to see Grace Cathedral, the Mecca for western Episcopalians. Nob Hill it would be.

We departed the hotel and walked two blocks to Union Square. The visitor had last seen the square in the mid-1990's and was impressed with its 2000 renovation.

We trudged up Powell to the crest of Nob Hill. It was time for our break.

I first visited the Top of the Mark as a 21-year-old graduate student. To a starry eyed kid from the Islands the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels represented the pinnacle of San Francisco sophistication. That one could drink in the view from the top floor of the Mark Hopkins for an unrushed $2 glass of beer was one of the greatest deals he had ever seen.

Over 30 years later the price of a glass of Anchor Steam at the Top of the Mark is $7. It's still a great bargain.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Swan Oyster Depot

After satisfying the visitor's request to tour Grace Cathedral, we strolled west on California to the Swan Oyster Depot, which has a permanent spot on the list of the Chronicle's top-100 Bay Area restaurants. One has to make a determined effort to dine there: seating is limited to an 18-stool counter (and there's always a line), the restaurant closes at 5:30 p.m., payment is cash only, and street parking is scarce. But determined efforts are what we amateur tour guides are known for.

There were five people ahead of us when we arrived at 4 p.m. Wednesday. We were seated in 20 minutes.

There are no menus at SOD. The fairly limited selection and prices are posted behind the counter.

Because of the proximity to fellow diners (and the girth of modern-day Americans, including ourselves), one is nearly forced to make conversation, such as "I think that's my bread" or "these clams are delicious." ("How do you like them oysters?" is neither witty nor original.)

Despite the aforementioned drawbacks the Swan Oyster Depot is definitely worth a visit. The seafood is very fresh, and the prices are reasonable.

The $11 combination cocktail was chock full with crab, shrimp, and clams. The $5 bowl of white clam chowder had a distinctive clam flavor; it was thinner than prepared by most restaurants and didn't have too many chunks of potatoes and clams. When complemented by sourdough and butter, however, the SOD clam chowder is the archetypical San Francisco meal.

Dining at Swan Oyster Depot is one of those experiences where positive memories become stronger as time passes. At some point in the future, when the craving for fresh crab, oysters, and clams becomes overwhelming, I'll be back.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Missed Opportunity

The Chronicle's annual list of the Bay Area's top 100 restaurants has been released, and I was distressed to discover that one that we had enjoyed very much had closed.

Kaygetsu of Menlo Park is where we had been introduced to kaiseki, the Japanese cuisine consisting of a series of small, artistically prepared dishes. (Actually, we had tasted kaiseki in the early 1990's, but our memories of the event are very hazy due to the sake which our Tokyo hosts had liberally plied us with.)

The best dishes possess complementary flavors and contrasting textures, beautifully presented. Kaygetsu did that repeatedly, a dozen times over a leisurely 90 minutes. (Unfortunately, the photos from our cheap point-and-shoot camera don't do justice to the presentation.)

We thought there was plenty of time to return. We didn't, and now it's too late. Carpe diem.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

They're Paying Me for This?

This is not my dream job, but somehow I can't stop thinking about it. Silicon Valley companies are hiring hundreds of shuttle-bus drivers:
As Valley companies build out their private transportation system they're creating relatively cushy jobs for a decidedly low-tech group of employees: the drivers who operate the buses.

At Google's Mountain View headquarters, there is a special facility designed to keep workers happy and relaxed during their downtime, a Google spokesperson said. It's got a kitchen stocked with food, televisions, bunk beds for napping, exercise equipment and showers for washing up afterward. [snip]

Genentech drivers, uniformed in black fleece vests with the transportation program's logo, gRide, embroidered beneath the lapel, earn between $17 and $30 an hour, plus benefits, and quarterly bonuses of $250, [Genentech manager Daniel] McCoy said. In addition, employees often pool their money to provide holiday bonuses, McCoy said.
The downside is the split shift:
One Genentech driver starts her day at 5:30 a.m. By 8:30 a.m., she's dropped off her passengers at the company's headquarters, and waits until 4 p.m. to start shuttling employees home before she clocks out at 7 p.m. Drivers can sometimes pick up extra paid hours by washing or fueling the buses, McCoy said.
To empty-nesters or near empty-nesters, the split shift is a feature, not a bug. Driving a high-tech, air-conditioned shuttle bus in the morning, then having the choice of exercising, napping, or hanging out in the company lounge with free food and wi-fi, then taking the wheel again in the afternoon sounds like a great way to spend the day, even without being paid.

And to get the job we don't have to answer those tough interview questions...

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Circles of Our Discontent

Novelist and writing professor Dean Bakopoulos says that Facebook is a source of contemporary unhappiness [bold added]:
It’s a highly constructed version of our own reality. It follows a narrative of contentment and bliss. People might post something mundane, but it becomes a euphoric moment about cooking a hot dog on their new grill. I just deactivated my personal account two weeks ago. Everyone on Facebook appeared to be doing better than me. I thought, “I don’t need this. I don’t need to see how many pages someone has cracked out in one day or how many awards they won that week.”
Mr. Bakopoulos is speaking of envy, one of the ancient sins to which nearly everyone is susceptible. Envy is one of childhood's most basic emotions: who among us has not envied a playmate's toy or clothes or even her family, finding ours wanting?

Whether or not we are afflicted ourselves, we can lessen the envy---and unhappiness all around---by toning down the bragging (safe harbor should be granted, however, for pictures of babies). Boastful behavior, after all, stems from another of the ancient sins.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Caveat Emptor

After a decade that introduced Sarbanes-Oxley, increased disclosure, and increased regulation "America's pre-eminent forensic accountant" says that public company financial statements can be as misleading as ever.

Howard Schilit doesn't accuse companies of fraud or even technical accounting violations; in fact auditors seem obsessed with compliance with the letter of the law, especially rules about disclosure.
In general, the auditors' focus is on a legalistic interpretation. So, if you tied up your neighbor and robbed his house, but you disclosed it in footnote No. 23, it's okay.
When one reads the entire Barron's article, however, one is left with a reasonably sanguine impression of U.S. financial reporting. (The U.S. examples of questionable accounting relate to reclassification--not adjustment, there's a big difference--of items on the income statement and the treatment of contingent consideration, a liability that in this humble observer's view has offsetting mitigants on the asset side of the balance sheet. I can see your eyes glazing, so I'll stop.)

The examples from the wild, wild East are more troublesome: the tendency to switch accounting methods (e.g., depreciation, percentage-of-completion vs. completed contract) in an obvious attempt to hype earnings and the ability to book gains on asset purchases. To those who are thinking of investing in Asia an ancient phrase is appropriate: caveat emptor.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Palm Sunday, 2012

They'll be coming 'round the parking lot when they come...
(The post from two years ago, updated).

The rain and winds of the last week of March subsided, and April entered like a lamb. On Palm Sunday we began the service outdoors. Clutching our palm crosses, we marched around the block in symbolic emulation of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem two thousand years ago.

New visitors are often in attendance, coincident with spring break. They could be seen glancing at each other in puzzlement: do we do this every week? No, just once a year. This isn't your grandmother's Episcopal Church where you stand, sit, and kneel, eyes fixed front, and don't deviate from the script in the Book of Common Prayer.

During Holy Week Christians remember the fleeting exultation of Palm Sunday, Jesus' betrayal by Judas, His abandonment, rigged execution, and astonishing triumph over death itself. From the highs to the lows to the ultimate high, it's a story that's hard to believe in an age where science rules more strongly than ever.

The fact that scientists have been shown to be fallible as other human beings and have changed their minds--even reversed their positions completely--should give pause to those who place their faith in science's direction. To believe or not is a choice, a gift that is nearly as great as life itself. In a world filled with portent and promise, choose wisely.