Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Resolution I Forgot To Add

Eating healthily and exercising regularly are resolutions on many a New Year's list. One that I forgot to add is getting at least six hours of sleep. Being serious about this goal means stopping work and/or turning off the tube, computers, and smartphones before midnight.

British scientists have shown that the lack of sleep effects many changes at the cellular level, probably for the worse, although more research is needed.
researchers at the University of Surrey analysed the blood of 26 people after they had had plenty of sleep, up to 10 hours each night for a week, and compared the results with samples after a week of fewer than six hours a night.

More than 700 genes were altered by the shift. Each contains the instructions for building a protein, so those that became more active produced more proteins - changing the chemistry of the body. [snip]

Prof [Colin] Smith added: "Clearly sleep is critical to rebuilding the body and maintaining a functional state, all kinds of damage appear to occur - hinting at what may lead to ill health.

"If we can't actually replenish and replace new cells, then that's going to lead to degenerative diseases."
With all the time-shifting capability of modern technology---devices that record TV shows, websites that store news articles--it's rarely important to stay up late for personal reasons (work and child care are exceptions, just make sure it's really necessary). Two months after the New Year, the sleep resolution starts now. (H/T Glenn Reynolds) © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Apple Shareholders Meeting

We arrived for the 9 AM Apple shareholders' meeting at 8:45, but already we were too late to get into the main auditorium. The young guides with Apple badges herded us over to Building 4, where two large videofeeds had been set up. Before entering, we had to check in all iPhones, iPads, Macs, and any other electronic equipment. (It took 20 minutes to retrieve our items after the meeting, so for future reference it's recommended that attendees leave their gear in the car.)

Now that Steve Jobs is gone, there's little point in attending Apple shareholders' meetings. Today there were no product, dividend, strategy, or personnel announcements. The business session went smoothly--the controversy over Proposal 2, regarding shareholder approval of new preferred stock issues--had dissipated because Apple withdrew the proposal. The rest of the Board's recommendations passed overwhelmingly (for more detail see Barron's live blog). CEO Tim Cook fielded questions for half an hour and several times repeated that Apple wants to make the best products, not necessarily the most or the biggest.

Other comments:

1) the breakfast spread was generous and well laid out; shareholders could bring food and drink into the meeting area, unlike in previous years.

2) at the beginning it was announced that the meeting would be over by 10 AM, so it was obvious that there weren't going to be any big revelations today. At least with Steve Jobs there wasn't the feeling that he couldn't wait for the meeting to end; he would field questions until the audience was reasonably satisfied.

3) Concerning Apple's glorious new "spaceship" campus that will be ready in 2016, we are reminded of the words of C. Northcote Parkinson:
"During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."
© 2013 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A World to Which Few Aspire

Megan McArdle on two categories of people:
Let’s be honest: [parents] are your emergency fund. If you get sick, they’ll take you in and care for you. But Calvin Trillin once noted that by the age of 35, almost everyone falls into one of two categories: people who are still being taken care of by their parents, and people who are in some way starting to care for their parents.
What Calvin Trillin said may be true, but it is a world to which few aspire. No one I know wants to be dependent on others (clarification: being able to pay their own way for needed services is being independent), and few people, deep down, want others to be dependent on them. Dependency constrains both parties.

If most people are not being "taken care of" by other family members, society has a large margin for error. When an emergency does hit, there are more people willing and able to step in and help. How we spread the wealth---and independence for the greatest number of people--is one of the central questions of our time. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, February 25, 2013

Salvaging That Which Was Lost

John Eaton fixes a toaster oven in Palo Alto (SJMN)
The Bay Area, a center of technological innovation, is also one of the leaders in the nonprofit fix-it-don't-trash-it movement:
a cadre of fix-it fanatics, disgusted with planned obsolescence and our throwaway culture, has embraced "creative caring." Valuing function and respecting the age of household objects, they strive to save them from death row.

They're awaiting your stuff at a Repair Cafe in Palo Alto on Sunday, a Fix It Clinic in Albany in March, a Santa Cruz-based gathering in May and across the nation, from Seattle to Brooklyn, N.Y
The economic incentives are overwhelmingly on the side of the throwaway culture.

We had been enduring a partially working $30 toaster oven and finally were compelled to spring for a $50 replacement. Nevertheless, if the personal effort would have been modest, say one or two hours, and the parts cost $25 or less, we would have gone through the trouble of trying to fix it. Not adding a scrapped toaster to the environment's burden is worth something, as is the psychic pleasure of salvaging something that was lost.

Here's hoping that more people at least think about fixing the devices that have served them so well before throwing them away.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Venerable Tradition

February 17, 2013
Infant baptism has been performed for over a thousand years. Not all Christian denominations subscribe to the tradition---there are theological arguments pro and con---but it has been a practice of Anglicanism since the church's founding. Maybe it will wane as the danger of infant mortality recedes. (But the U.S. has a long way to go before that risk is eliminated; we rank 50th in the world, "nine spots below Cuba.")

Whether the newly initiated are children or adults, baptisms are cause to rejoice. Families join together, the baptized are welcomed into the community of believers, and often there is a party afterwards. More importantly--and it does sound quaint to say it out loud in the 21st century--the baptized person has begun the journey to salvation.

[Elsewhere in San Mateo County, someone showed how it's not supposed to be done. Headline: "Man to trial for stabbing at baptism party"] © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Missed Her Calling

Mercury News photo
This story seems ordinary: the mother of a convicted felon lies to the police about a gun in her son's possession....that is, until one realizes that Ann Ayala is none other than the woman who planted a severed finger in a bowl of Wendy's chili in 2006 and heavily damaged the chain's reputation because of her lawsuit and attendant publicity.
Police say her son admitted to accidentally shooting himself in the ankle at their Alviso home, and because a felony burglary conviction barred him from having a firearm, the mother-and-son duo made up a story about him being attacked by two men.
In my humble opinion, what distinguishes this tawdry tale is this (bold added):
police say she gave such compelling detail, this time in describing the alleged shooter, that they identified and interrogated a potential suspect.
Ann Ayala doesn't belong in jail, she should be working in political campaigns spinning compelling stories about how abject failures under one's watch are really the fault of the other guy. She's missed her calling.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Numbers to Avoid

We reflected briefly on Obamacare's costly disincentive for small employers to expand beyond 49 "full-time equivalent" workers. Another threshold is 30, the number of working hours per week that distinguishes the full-time from the part-time worker. These are the numbers to avoid, per the WSJ:
Because other federal employment regulations also kick in when a firm crosses the 50 worker threshold, employers are starting to cap payrolls at 49 full-time workers. These firms have come to be known as "49ers." Businesses that hire young and lower-skilled workers are also starting to put a ceiling on the work week of below 30 hours. These firms are the new "29ers." Part-time workers don't have to be offered insurance under ObamaCare.
The additional cost of that 30th hour or that 50th worker can be several thousands of dollars, a very high incremental payroll cost to an employer at the lower end of the wage spectrum (e.g., restaurants, not law firms). Avoiding crossing these boundaries, legally, will be a principal aim of every CPA for his client. We hope that the dismal unemployment rate falls soon, but the improvement is very unlikely to come from small business. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Albino Alligator

We visit the California Academy of Sciences a couple of times each year and always spend a few minutes watching Claude. The albino alligator can sit motionless for hours. We first thought he was a marble representation of a live animal, as artificial as the examples of the taxidermist's art in the Natural History section. Then he moved, and our interest was piqued.

17-year-old Claude can live till 80. Captivity suits albinos, most of whom don't make it to adulthood in the wild.

Initially, Claude had a green tank mate named Bonnie.
That relationship ended badly on a Saturday night in early 2009 when Bonnie bit Claude on his right front foot.

"Because he is albino, he has reduced vision. Claude would go into the water and bump into things, and Bonnie would snap at him," said his handler [Brian] Freiermuth, standing next to the swamp where Claude was in the 78-degree water with his head against the glass.

The Jan. 3 chomping of Claude's foot was apparently the final straw. On March 24, Bonnie was returned to a farm in Florida.

"Claude has been more active since Bonnie left," Freiermuth said. "He is better by himself, as he was stressed out with her there. He has interactions with his turtles. He is eating well. He knows his name and responds to whistle commands."
Having a tank mate has its benefits, but not if she snaps and bites. There are more unpleasant ways to live than lying on a rock by oneself, eating, and interacting with turtles. Good for Claude, may he live long and prosper. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

And How Do YOU Look 25 Years Later?

1987: Slim and Sleek (Sfgate photos)
2012: the spandex would be even more uncomfortable
Initially hesitant, I became a faithful viewer of Star Trek: the Next Generation through its seven seasons from 1987 to 1994.

To fans of the original "Star Trek Classic", it was disconcerting to encounter a universe where the Klingons were (surly) allies, and phasers were unholstered only as a last resort.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, was an educated Frenchman whose English accent suited Star Fleet's preference for diplomatic solutions. Unlike the previous century's James T. Kirk, Captain Picard largely left the romancing and fighting to an athletic cast of underlings.

25 years later, the actors have aged gracefully for the most part, but noticeably. High-resolution close-ups won't make for a boffo box office, so the Enterprise-D has given way to a re-imagining of the Classic series on film with a young, attractive crew. The Next Generation has become passé and old, the fate of everything that was once bright and shiny.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Results Were Foreseeable

Economists Alex Tabarrok and Eric Helland looked at whether generous liability laws encouraged dangerous behavior by general aviation (small airplane) operators. This classic test of moral hazard examined the effect of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994 which "said that small airplane manufacturers could not be held liable for accidents involving aircraft more than 18 years old." Prior to GARA's enactment, small airplane manufacturers "found that they could be sued for any aircraft that they had ever produced" (production had begun in the 1920's and 1930's) and the spate of lawsuits halted production in the entire industry.

The study's findings:
Our estimates show that the end of manufacturers’ liability for aircraft was associated with a significant (on the order of 13.6 percent) reduction in the probability of an accident....After GARA, for example, aircraft owners and pilots retired older aircraft, took fewer night flights, and invested more in a variety of safety procedures and precautions, such as wearing seat belts and filing flight plans. Minor and major accidents not involving mechanical failure—those more likely to be under the control of the pilot—declined notably.

GARA thus appears to be a win-win because it revitalized the industry and increased safety.
There's a broad societal consensus that manufacturers bear primary responsibility for product safety. However, if that responsibility extends much longer than the original parties had a reasonable right to expect, then the result may be unsafe behavior and even the demise of an industry.

Successful businesses control their costs. When they're prevented from doing so by force of law, the results are predictable. When the laws are relaxed in business' favor, the results, as Tabarrok and Helland showed, are also foreseeable.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Small Price to Pay

The allergies that have afflicted your humble observer all his life may have had a beneficial side effect:
A new study......found that people with asthma, nasal allergies and other common allergic conditions had a significantly reduced risk of developing head and neck cancers. [snip]

Allergies usually result from an overactive immune function that may detect and eradicate malignant cells from the body, researchers said. Allergy proteins known as IgE could also have anti-tumor properties, they said.
Those youthful sneezing jags in retrospect were a small price to pay for reduced cancer risk. The allergy gene, otherwise the source of much physical misery and an apparent detriment to its host, might have been passed on for a good reason.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Reminiscence

After the morning service we were in the office counting the offering when the conversation turned to Andy's nephew. It wasn't that long ago, said Andy, that he was picking up Jameson from day care.

Jameson Lindskog was a quiet child, and his social awkwardness concerned his parents. He was enrolled in a school for children with learning disabilities, and his grades improved markedly. After high school Jameson studied to become a massage therapist, obtained his license, but couldn't find work. He joined the Army and was sent to Afghanistan as a medic. In 2011 Jameson's squad was ambushed. The U.S. Army Medical Department describes what happened next.
Specialist Lindskog at great personal risk to his life showed no hesitation and bounded to the wounded Soldiers through withering enemy fire while brush, trees, and debris were destroyed around him. Once the reinforcements reached the ambushed men, Specialist Lindskog immediately assessed the situation, evaluated casualties, and issued priorities for first aid. The team leader was ambulatory so Specialist Lindskog began treating the squad leader, checking buddy aide that had already been rendered while checking for other injures. Again disregarding his own personal safety, Specialist Lindskog packed the squad leader's wounds with Kerlix and adjusted existing pressure dressings, even as enemy fire impacted all around him. Once the secondary aide on the squad leader had been completed, Specialist Lindskog instructed others on how to care for the wounded squad leader and moved to the wounded ANA Soldier, even after another Soldier was shot twice in the front ESAPI plate just moments before at the same location.

As Specialist Lindskog passed out medical equipment to help treat the wounded and began treatment on a wounded ANA Soldier, he was struck just under the left arm by an enemy round that lodged in his chest. Specialist Lindskog slumped to his side, and even though he was mortally wounded he continued to instruct his fellow Soldiers on how to treat his wounds and give care to other wounded Soldiers. Specialist Lindskog remained lucid for another thirty minutes, continuing to give instructions on how to care for others and himself until he succumbed to his wounds. At no time did Specialist Lindskog hesitate nor ask to be evacuated once severely wounded and in fact asked to stay and assist with the casualties, knowing both the severity of the situation and the wounds he received. He continued to give instructions to others to continue on site care for the wounded until he succumbed to his injuries. Specialist Lindskog's medical care and instructions stabilized one U.S. casualty and one ANA casualty until the MEDEVAC could finally arrive. Specialist Lindskog's valorous actions are in keeping with the finest traditions of military heroism and reflect great credit upon himself, the 2-327th Infantry Regiment (No Slack), the 1st Brigade Combat Team (Bastogne), Combined Joint Task Force 101, and the United States Army.

----------From Jameson Lindskog's Silver Star citation, 2012

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Positively Blissful

In Valentine's Day news you might have missed, "the happier your marriage, the more likely it is that you will gain weight".
[SMU researcher Andrea] Meltzer followed 169 newlywed couples for four years, collecting information on their marital satisfaction and weight. The results showed that marital happiness is positively associated with weight gain. Spouses -- both male and female -- who were more satisfied with their relationships tended to gain more weight, while spouses who were less satisfied tended to weigh less.
Based on readings from our bathroom scale, our marriage is positively blissful.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Universe Reminds Us

Meteor over Chelyabinsk (LA Times photo)
...of our place in it.

A 10-metric-ton (11 U.S. standard tons) meteorite exploded 18-30 miles above Chelyabinsk, Russia, injuring 1,000 people and damaging 3,000 buildings. The meteor fragments struck unpopulated areas and left craters 20 to 30 feet in diameter. The Chelyabinsk rock was smaller than the meteor (the "Tunguska incident") that struck 1,500 miles to the East in 1908 and flattened a 2,000 sq-km forest. The Tunguska meteor in turn was less than 1% the diameter of the Yucatan object that is thought to have ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

WSJ Graphic
Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking
says the colonization of outer space is key to the survival of humankind, predicting it will be difficult for the world's inhabitants "to avoid disaster in the next hundred years."
Professor Hawking, as well as others, think that human extinction will more likely be caused by humanity itself (war, bioengineered viruses, environmental catastrophe) than by an external event like an asteroid strike. Whatever the source of mankind's ultimate calamity, it behooves us all to follow Stephen Hawking's advice and lift our eyes to the skies, which may be both the origin of our doom and hope for our salvation. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hearts a Flutter

Valentine's Day has been co-opted by the female of the species. Candy, flowers, white tablecloth dinners, meaningful conversation---if guys are honest, none of these activities would make the list of top five things to do on a Thursday night.  On Valentine's Day there are duties to be performed and monies to be spent. It's an investment in the future, like the Prisoner's Dilemma with multiple iterations.

On the other hand, what really sets male hearts a flutter is speed, power, and destruction (as long as no one gets hurt--this is a family blog) such as the supersonic ping-pong bazooka put together by the Purdue engineering department. Note the unsurprising absence of gender diversity in the video.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Safe Neighborhood

One of the reasons we've resided in Foster City for half our lives is that it seemed to be very safe (our home was burglarized when we lived in the East Bay). A well-funded police department helps, as well as a frustrating-to-residents traffic layout that makes it difficult for miscreants to leave in a hurry.

Perception is confirmed:
Foster City has been named one of the 100 safest cities in the U.S., according to Location, Inc., a national residential and commercial data tracking company.

The quiet community, known for its annual Art and Wine Festival and blue lagoon, was ranked No. 81 on the list.
Lest residents feel too smug, Foster City's safety rating dropped ten places from last year. Grim observation: Newtown, CT was the fifth safest city in 2012 and has fallen off the list in 2013.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fat Tuesday

Pancakes are traditional, but not the chipotle scramble
Once again we headed over to the local IHOP for evening pancakes. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, during which we are to abstain from the foods that give us pleasure. The pancake supper reminds us of the centuries-old tradition of emptying the larder of perishable items that will spoil during Lent's 40 days.

Lately we've been careful to limit our intake of sugar and processed carbs, but not tonight. I'd forgotten how well pancakes and syrup go with coffee. "Lead us not into temptation..."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Not As Acute As They Were

Rumors that Apple is working on a "watch like device" have not been confirmed by the notoriously close-mouthed company but do appear solid since they've been reported in both the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The first image that came to mind for those of a certain age is that of Dick Tracy's two-way wrist TV. The comic detective's super-watch seemed like science fiction in the early Sixties, when televisions occupied large cabinets in the living room.

Surveys have shown that Apple is losing its shine with the younger crowd, while Apple's acceptance is growing among those over 35. Many boomers, including your humble observer, who once read comics in newspapers imagined Dick Tracy's watch on their own wrist. These customers may not be Apple's dream demographic, but their student loans have long been paid off and they're ready to buy.

Apple just has to make sure the characters are big enough to read, or that Siri speaks loud enough to be heard, by those whose senses are not as acute as they once were. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Happy New Year

BashGaming graphic
The recently completed Year of the Dragon was not an annus horribilis, but it wasn't a great year either, especially given the high expectations of those born during a dragon year like your humble observer.

A number of our personal and business plans didn't bear fruit; others met delays. However, we can try again during the Year of the Snake, and we count ourselves lucky to have the opportunity. (The snake is sometimes known as the little dragon.) Here's hoping that we--and you, dear reader---slither to success.

Incineration Over Incarceration

Quoth the NY Times:
Mr. Obama relies on his predecessor’s aggressive approach in one area to avoid Mr. Bush’s even more aggressive approach in others. By emphasizing drone strikes, Mr. Obama need not bother with the tricky issues of detention and interrogation because terrorists tracked down on his watch are generally incinerated from the sky, not captured and questioned.
To summarize the Times' world view,

Obama ===> drones ===> terrorists "incinerated from the sky" ===> "aggressive approach"

Bush ===> detention and interrogation ===> "more aggressive approach"

The terrorists are surely grateful that President Obama has a softer policy than cowboy George Bush--wouldn't you prefer incineration over incarceration, dear reader?

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Shirtsleeves and Shorts Won't Be Enough

Fan Fest 2013
2013 Fan Fest photo by Generik11
In 2010 the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. On a gorgeous Saturday the following February, AT&T Park was packed with enthusiastic fans while the Northeast was buried in snow.

In 2012 the San Francisco Giants won the World Series. On a gorgeous Saturday the following February, AT&T Park was packed with enthusiastic fans while the Northeast was buried in snow.

In 2013 we're hoping for another baseball title, but not a repeat of the East Coast blizzard. Our worries concern another sport. In February, 2014 the Super Bowl will be held outdoors at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, and we trust that the 49ers will be playing. The team will probably do fine in the cold; the delicate California fans may have a tough time.

It won't be a walk in the park.

Friday, February 08, 2013

Slicing and Dicing the Apple

AAPL rose Thursday when a hedge fund called for cash payouts on new preferred shares.
On Thursday Apple investor David Einhorn filed a lawsuit to defeat Apple's shareholder proposal that would make it more difficult to issue preferred stock. Mr. Einhorn believes that a new issue of preferred will enhance total shareholder returns more than other actions, such as simply raising the common stock dividend.

Sidebar: preferred stock is commonly viewed as a hybrid security having characteristics of both debt and equity. Like debt, it usually carries a fixed coupon and has priority above common stock in cash distributions. Like common stock, there is no "principal" to be repaid by a certain date and no legal obligation to pay dividends, which may be suspended if the board decides (the unpaid dividends accumulate and normally must be brought current before common dividends can resume, however). The income tax treatment of preferred stock dividends is the same as common stock, both for payor and payee.

In Mr. Einhorn's estimation, Apple preferred will be snapped up by fixed-income investors, that is, many of the same people who buy bonds.
Assuming a 5% yield, a preferred security from Apple that paid $2 billion in total annual income would have an implied market value of $40 billion. Thought of another way, it would sport an earnings multiple of 20 times.
This is where we need to get out our sharp pencil. Apple's market capitalization at today's closing price totaled $446 billion ($474.98 x 939 million shares). In theory that amount represents the market's calculation of the present value of all cash flows that common shareholders will receive in the future, discounted at a rate appropriate to Apple's risk. Mr. Einhorn thinks that that discount rate is too high and penalizes Apple's valuation.

If we follow the example in the WSJ article, preferred shares with an annual payout of $2 billion will be worth $40 billion. The $40 billion isn't coming out of the air: there will be $2 billion per year that will no longer be available to the common shareholders at some point in the future (the current dividend of $10.60 per year won't be reduced and is very safe). In theory the value of the common shares will go down because the new preferred skims off the least risky equity cash flows, but the drop should be much less than the $40 billion added by the preferred.

[Update - 2/9 from Barron's: "We think for every $50 billion of preferred that Apple issues, it would unlock about $32 a share in Apple," Einhorn told CNBC. He seems to be saying investors would get $50 of preferred and see the common fall about $18 a share.]

We have seen this act before. In the heyday of securitization sharp financiers sliced and diced the cash flows. They issued a multitude of debt securities that were assigned low discount rates (and high prices) by a marketplace that misapprehended risks and relied on fallible rating agencies to evaluate them properly. Through financial legerdemain the sum of the new securitized parts was worth more than the original whole, even after generous fees were paid to Wall Street. After the financial collapse, many of the securities, even some with an AAA rating, became worthless.

True, it's unlikely that there will be negative consequences if Apple does go ahead with a preferred stock issue, but why take that risk and complicate matters? If bulls are correct, eventually the market will come to its senses and assign a higher price to Apple common shares, although not as quickly as hedge fund managers like David Einhorn would like.

Speaking as an individual little-guy investor, I say let Apple's finances be clean and simple, just like its products. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Scandinavian Models

An Economist special report lauds the Nordic countries for shrinking their welfare states without triggering economic and political turmoil. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Sweden, the poster child for European social democracy [bold added]:
Sweden has reduced public spending as a proportion of GDP from 67% in 1993 to 49% today. It could soon have a smaller state than Britain. It has also cut the top marginal tax rate by 27 percentage points since 1983, to 57%, and scrapped a mare’s nest of taxes on property, gifts, wealth and inheritance. This year it is cutting the corporate-tax rate from 26.3% to 22%. [snip]

Its public debt fell from 70% of GDP in 1993 to 37% in 2010, and its budget moved from an 11% deficit to a surplus of 0.3% over the same period. This allowed a country with a small, open economy to recover quickly from the financial storm of 2007-08. Sweden has also put its pension system on a sound foundation, replacing a defined-benefit system with a defined-contribution one and making automatic adjustments for longer life expectancy.

Most daringly, it has introduced a universal system of school vouchers and invited private schools to compete with public ones. Private companies also vie with each other to provide state-funded health services and care for the elderly.
The Nordic countries are not dismantling the welfare state but are asking themselves how its benefits can best be provided, then acting on their judgments. For example, if vouchers produce a quality education at lower cost, then the rationale for having government provide, as well as pay for, universal education is shattered. [Closer to home: a Stanford University study concluded that "Detroit school children are learning at a rate of an extra three months in school a year when in charter public schools compared to similar counterparts in conventional Detroit Public Schools."]

The Economist contends that the Nordic countries have succeeded because of transparency, pragmatism, tough-mindedness, and a common set of values:
in Sweden everyone has access to all official records. Politicians are vilified if they get off their bicycles and into official limousines.

The combination of geography and history has provided Nordic governments with two powerful resources: trust in strangers and belief in individual rights.....Economists say that high levels of trust result in lower transaction costs—there is no need to resort to American-style lawsuits or Italian-style quid-pro-quo deals in order to get things done. But its virtues go beyond that. Trust means that high-quality people join the civil service. Citizens pay their taxes and play by the rules. Government decisions are widely accepted.
The combined population of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden is 26 million, less than the total population of California. Whether their example can be applied on a continent-wide basis is problematic, but at least they have shown that it can be done. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Don't Try This At Home

The curved cut does take some skill.
If the toilet won't fit,
One can't comfortably sit.

Hm-m-m, there must be a cleverer rhyme.

The Chronicle shows ten Horrible Home Inspection Photos. Your humble observer got quite a chuckle, not from a sense of superiority but out of self-recognition (there but for the grace of God...).

When one is an amateur do-it-yourselfer, one operates at the edge of disaster, such as the time when a simple faucet replacement nearly disabled a bathroom.
“Don’t be fooled by the array of electrical and plumbing goodies in the hardware shops. You don’t need to be licensed to buy them, but you most certainly need to be licensed to install most of them."

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

At Least It Went Up

A Blackbaud survey of 3,144 non-profits found that charitable giving was up a modest 1.7% in 2012. Overall, the sluggish economy takes the blame; however, subdividing the picture suggests a more complex story:

Faith-based and small charities showed the greatest growth, while international affairs had the greatest decline. One explanation is proximity:
donors increasingly want to give locally—say to a park or an arts council or a hospital. With causes like that, the need for giving and the impact of giving can be more visible than at large, national organizations.
About half of our family's regular annual donations go to the neighborhood church, which in turn participates in several local social-services programs where we can see the results.

International relief organizations have difficulty overcoming the obstacle of distance and the notion that their bureaucracies take too much off the top. Monies spent in the Third World do go a lot further than in the First World if the funds can just get to the right people, but another set of the "right people" have to be running the aid organizations. It is possible to find some worthy candidates, but few of us have the time to do the research.

At least overall giving went up. A negative result would not have been surprising. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, February 04, 2013

Trash to Treasure

Biofuels have become so tarnished in the public eye--they're uneconomical without government subsidies, using food (corn) for fuel defies common sense, biomass burning doesn't reduce CO2 emissions significantly anyway--that we are pleasantly surprised to hear any good news coming from that sector. And there is good news, albeit modest, from Brazil.

Photo from the Economist
In Brazil inedible rice husks, a waste byproduct of milling, are burned to generate electricity. All well and good, but the ash still must be disposed of. Pirelli, the tire maker, discovered that there was treasure in the trash:
Grasses contain tiny pieces of silica, called phytoliths (illustrated above), whose job is to discourage herbivores, both vertebrate and insect. Pirelli’s engineers realised that these defensive weapons are the ideal size to add to tyres in order to control hysteresis loss, and that a ready supply of them is available in the husks left over from the milling of rice.
What is hysteresis loss?
As the tyres bounce they convert kinetic energy into heat, thus wasting it. Hysteresis loss, as this is known, can be reduced by mixing a tyre’s rubber with powdered material that has strong chemical bonds in it.
The upshot is that the phytoliths from the rice ash will make "tyres" and cars more fuel-efficient.

In the opinion of your humble observer, it is just such smaller-scale projects that will lead to the success of the green-energy movement, not the showy failures that are rushed into production before the technology and markets are ready for them. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Ravens 34, 49ers 31

Gut reactions to Super Bowl XLVII:

1) After falling behind 22 points in the 3rd quarter, the 49ers showed character by coming within five yards of taking the lead, with under two minutes to go.

2) However, the Niners once again spotted a powerful opponent (just as they did with Green Bay and Atlanta) a big lead. To win three of those games in the postseason is asking a lot of the football gods.

3) What a contrast with Bill Walsh, who would script his first 20-25 offensive plays and usually seize the advantage at the beginning of the game.

4) Were it not for having the local team in the game, I would have rooted for the Ravens' John Harbaugh, the nicer and classier brother.

5) The young, speedy 49ers look like they'll have more chances at a ring, but one never knows. Just ask Dan Marino, who was the losing quarterback in his second season and never returned to the big game.

6) The power failure delay should make a lot of people forget about the night the lights went out in Candlestick.

7) Near game's end, the Ravens ran off time by running around in the end zone and conceding a safety (two points). The Ravens held the 49ers defenders, a penalty that normally results in a safety, but in this case the penalty was meaningless. Additional seconds were burned off. Perhaps multiple end zone infractions should result in a penalty on the kick-off.

8) The 49ers had better individual players, but the Ravens played better team football. They deserved to win.

At Half Time: Stupefying

At half time the Ravens are playing mistake-free football, and the 49ers have committed two costly turnovers and several penalties at critical moments. The score, Ravens 21, 49ers 6, reflects accurately the play of each team.

San Francisco has shown enough flashes of promise so that its fans haven't given up completely. But they need to get off the blocks quickly.

[Update: Jacoby Jones returns a kickoff 109 yards for a touchdown to all but put the game away, 28-6.]

[Update 2: half the lights are out in the Superdome. Maybe they should just call the game and award the Lombardi to the Ravens.]

Saturday, February 02, 2013

No Shadow, Early Spring

Reuters photo 
Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow, and, according to legend, spring will come early. The Groundhog Day tradition in Pennsylvania is over a century old and was famous enough to merit a mention in high school history books of the 1960's.

However, Groundhog Day's popularity really took off in 1993, when what was received originally as a lighthearted movie of the same name became regarded as "one of the best films of the past 40 years." (For the record, your humble observer led some discussion groups during the 1990's on the philosophical issues raised by Groundhog Day.)

Roger Ebert:
"Groundhog Day" is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Netflix' "House of Cards"

I've begun watching Netflix' (or is it Netflix's? what are the style rules in the age of the Twitter?) original production of House of Cards. Netflix has posted all thirteen (13) episodes of the political mini-series yesterday in an experimental distribution scheme, and it comports with my preferred method of watching serialized tales.

Most TV dramas nowadays have season-long or even series-long arcs that induce viewers to tune in for the next episode. I used to watch faithfully until the DVD boxed set and DVR made it unnecessary to reserve specific nights on one's schedule. It's now become obvious that the writers often were adjusting the stories to boost ratings through the cliffhanger. Take back control of your calendar, don't give in to their cheap dramatic tricks!

But enough of the form, what of the substance? House of Cards concerns politics at the highest level, and it's got Kevin Spacey, so one can be sure that there will be loads of cynicism and sardonic humor. Kevin Spacey again plays the smartest guy in the room. He periodically speaks to the audience through the fourth wall, making observations about other characters and speeding up the exposition. Will the protagonist-narrator be a good guy or bad guy? Probably both.

Kevin Spacey is multi-talented: he acts, directs movies, sang the vocals on the 2004 Bobby Darin biopic Under the Sea and is touring as the lead in Shakespeare's Richard III. On tonight's Letterman he described how he stopped an audience member from phone-recording the play: