Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter at the Senior Center

The egg hunt, the tables full of sweets, and games with Sunday School classmates held little appeal for the three youngsters. They preferred to accompany the adult volunteers to the Redwood City senior center, where lunch is served to whomever shows up.

We pulled into the parking lot at noon, where 80 people were waiting. I unlocked the gate, and our guests helped transport the boxes and trays from the cars to the picnic area. Normally we serve only a handful of children, but today there were 20 kids in line.

Our youngsters eagerly poured the punch, scooped the salad, and ladled the lasagna. Realization was beginning to dawn that children who lived only a few miles away were going to bed hungry.

I complimented the parents, who said that it wasn't their own doing, the kids wanted to come. That's precisely the reason for the compliment.

Happy Easter! © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter Vigil

The Easter Vigil begins in darkness. The priest lights the Paschal Candle, and the new fire enters the world. The fire is passed on through the assembled gathering, which sings and prays by candlelight, just as their predecessors did for nearly 2,000 years.

Tonight a little girl is baptized. The assembly welcomes its newest member, and there is rejoicing on earth and in heaven, the scriptures say.

"Hallelujah." The people say the word that has not been spoken since Lent began. Bells begin ringing on a cold Saturday night, and the darkness is not as foreboding. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, March 29, 2013

Hope in March

Kylie, by your author
Our first Home and Hope session for the year had been scheduled for next month, but two young families needed immediate assistance.

Helena, the coordinator at the Lutheran church, volunteered to be the overnight supervisor for several days straight, sleeping on an air mattress. With other churches stretched thin during Holy Week, her example "guilted" us into volunteering.

Kay and several others made the food, while I again brought ice cream.

Your author, by Kylie
Dinner table conversation is always kept light; we never discuss personal matters---work and family history---unless the guests want to talk about them. Comments about kids and their education are usually welcome, and everyone has an opinion about my home state of Hawaii.

I took some photos for the archives, and 3-year-old Kylie grabbed the camera and started snapping away. When I got up to leave, she insisted that I help decorate some Easter egg shells. It's been half a century since I last did crafts, but when Kylie (and Helena) ask if I could do something, it's hard to say no. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Vegans, Avert Your Eyes

Top to bottom: Broccolini fried in lard, pork chops,
rib-eye steak, lamb chops, goat, tri-tip, Italian sausage
The Belcampo Meat Company is "a farm, a processing plant, a butcher shop, and a restaurant [that manages] the entire production chain to bring you delicious, safe, healthy, organic, and humane meat."

We visited the butcher shop in Larkspur and gawked at the prices--$10 to $20 a pound--of the various meats on display. Raising animals without the use of hormones and enriched feed is apparently a costly undertaking.

After getting over the sticker shock, we sat down to dinner at the adjacent restaurant and ordered the Meat Board for $85. In for a pound (or pounds), as the saying goes.

The chops and roasts were prepared skillfully. The beef centers were medium rare, while the other meats were cooked thoroughly without being dry. None of the cuts had thick marbling, but all were tender. Aging and light seasoning brought out complex flavors; a glass of house pinot complemented the dishes perfectly.

Our party of four had no trouble finishing the entire spread, which included bread and lard(!) in place of butter. When one is on vacation--even a stay-cation--calories and cholesterol don't count. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Visit to Drakes Bay

It was time to pay a visit to the oyster farm.

In December Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar decided not to renew the lease of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company at Point Reyes National Park. Shutting down the century-old operation in March would have cost 30 jobs and reduced California's annual oyster production by about a third. The decision sparked protest even in the environment-friendly Bay Area.

A federal judge granted a reprieve until May 15th for Drakes Bay to make its case. Whether the company will be successful is highly problematic because of its limited ability to wage a protracted legal fight with the Federal Government.

When we arrived in mid-afternoon, the workers were still harvesting oysters and sorting them by hand. We watched the activity, then adjourned to the sales counter where manager and owner Ginny Lunny-Cummings apprised us of the court battle. Legal help is expensive, even with much of the work being done pro bono.

We made a small donation to the cause, then bought a quart of freshly shucked oysters. We slurped the cold, sweet morsels at the picnic tables and brought some home, packed with ice in the cooler. They won't taste as good tomorrow, but we'll still be grateful for them. Soon, if the Administration has its way, there won't be any to taste at all. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Right Under our Noses

Some revolutions occur right under our noses and become obvious only in retrospect. So it is with the vast expansion in America's natural gas production, which is rocking the energy world. As supplies become plentiful and cheap, it's impossible to appreciate how much our lives will change. Here's an example:
When the natural-gas industry grows up, it's going to realize that they don't need the power industry's transmission and distribution system. They have a better distribution system—the gas pipeline into your house. All the natural-gas industry needs is a gizmo in the basement of your house to convert your natural gas into electricity. I have no doubt that within the next 12 to 24 months there's going to be a technological breakthrough. (David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy)
Your humble observer has been following this phenomenon for several years and has dabbled in a few gas-related investments. However, they've performed poorly because the supply of gas has raced ahead of its uses. Gas prices have steadily declined since 2008 (adjust dates on chart below and hit "Refresh").


The businesses whose stocks seem to have performed the best in recent years are those that are involved with the transportation (railroads, pipeline and shipping companies) and consumption (utilities, chemicals) of natural gas, not its production. Perhaps we should abandon our quest to make a few investment bucks off this revolution; the era of bountiful, cleaner energy is at hand, and, since we are all consumers, every one of us will be reaping its benefits anyway. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, March 25, 2013

Take the (Retirement) Money and Run

The following financial news item may seem alarming:
Combined pension deficits among the 100 largest U.S. corporate pension plans soared last year to a record $388.8 billion, according to actuarial and benefits consulting firm Milliman Inc.
In a later paragraph, we discover:
At year end, the 100 largest pensions were 77.2% funded combined, down from 79.2% at the end of 2011, Milliman said.
It's really not that bad. Using simple arithmetic, we can easily calculate that the present value of these pension plan obligations is about $1.7 trillion, while the assets are a little over $1.3 trillion. Because of the size of the assets already in the plan, rising financial markets can reduce the deficit significantly. Also, depending on the age of the workforce, companies have years, perhaps decades to make up the shorfall, if any. Workers who participate in these plans should not lose any sleep over the security of their retirement.

All that said, I jumped at the chance to take my pension in a lump sum when I early-retired several years ago. Very roughly, the lump sum was about the same as ten times the annual pension (for example, receive $100,000 now or $10,000 per year from age 65 until death). My employer was a company with an investment-grade credit rating and can easily manage indefinitely its total required actuarial contribution of a few million dollars per year. Making good on the pension obligations was not a concern. Nevertheless, I elected the lump sum and rolled the distribution into an Individual Retirement Account.

The reasoning was: 1) Take the bird in the hand. If I were hit by the proverbial bus, the funds would be in the estate. If there were an emergency, the funds would be available. 2) If I did live to a ripe old age, I was confident that I could beat the returns that my company would earn on its pension assets. 3) Tax flexibility was also a benefit. During a high-income year, no funds need be withdrawn from the IRA. Distributions would occur in low bracket years. (Note: flexibility is reduced after the age of 70 1/2, when "required minimum distributions" must commence.)

So far, everything is going according to plan. Though there's more work to be done than waiting for and depositing a monthly check, I'm less worried now that I have taken the retirement money and run. Wish I had the same option for my Social Security checks, though....... © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday, 2013

On Palm Sunday the liturgical color is red, which represents the imminent shedding of Christ's blood on Good Friday. Despite the somber symbolism, the red of the vestments and the green of the altar palms were a welcome uplift from Lent's grim purposefulness and purpleness.

Also uplifting was the march around the block in the cool spring air, the congregation clutching its palm crosses and belting out "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."

Historical footnote: the final verse of the traditional hymn has been left out of the standard hymnbook.
Be Thou, O Lord, the Rider,
And we the little ass!
That to God’s holy city
Together we may pass!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Puzzling Headlines

From Unemployment Rates Rise in All Peninsula Cities

From the San Jose Mercury News: Bay Area and California job markets are far stronger than first thought

How do we reconcile the two?

The answer is: the Merc is talking about year-over-year changes in labor statisics. 2012 was bad in an historical sense but is an improvement over 2011 nonetheless.

The Patch article refers to the unemployment rate in the months of December and January. An increase in unemployment is normal when the Holidays are over. A more meaningful comparison would be January 2013 vs. January 2012.

From the California Employment Development Department report for San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City, the unemployment rates at various points in time were:

January 2012       7.3%

December 2012   6.0%

January 2013       6.3%

It is clear that the economy is improving, though not as fast as anyone would like. It is also clear that we must be wary of the information that we're given. Before we can argue intelligently about where we're going, we need to know where we are. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, March 22, 2013

Clean Comedy is Hard

Jerry Seinfeld, on working dirty vs. clean:
"if you have a bit, and it's got swear words in it, and it gets a huge laugh, it may or may not be funny. But if you have a bit that has no swear words, and it gets a huge laugh, it's definitely funny. Maybe it's like a spice that a cook might use in a recipe that has a very strong flavor."
A well-timed four-letter word in a more circumspect age would often garner huge laughs from a surprised audience. Now that formerly taboo subjects are family-hour fodder, the shock is gone. Skilled "dirty" comedians recognize the difference:
Gilbert Gottfried, known for the weapons-grade raunch of his often-hilarious TV-roast monologues, says when he was starting out in comedy, he'd skip vulgarities to see if his lines were fundamentally funny.

"I'd say 'have sex with' rather than the four-letter word. I wanted to see which bits actually worked by themselves," he says.
IMHO, raunchiness obscures humor like pyrotechnics in a concert: put the singer on a stage alone with a guitar or piano or no accompaniment at all, and let's view the talent without all the bells and whistles.

Photo from Jeff's Blog
But back to comedy: in a jaded age comedians like Jim Gaffigan are attracting notice.
Jim Gaffigan works clean. He resists profanity. He doesn't rip celebrities with crude insults. He won't reveal everything you didn't want to know about his sexual urges and private parts. At a time when comedy is as filthy as it's ever been—the industry euphemism is "edgy"—Mr. Gaffigan, working clean, has become one of the hottest comedians in the country.
Like any artist, however, Jim Gaffigan strains against typecasting:
" 'Clean' and 'family-friendly' are supposedly these positive attributes," he says. "But I sometimes feel like it's an asterisk next to my success, or whatever. Maybe I'm being sensitive. I just want to be known as funny. I mean, when you hear about a family-friendly restaurant, you know it's going to be horrible."
Let's not be in such a hurry to evolve, Jim. You're still ahead of your competition. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Not Your Stereotypical Homeless

A retired California couple of moderate means is on a "permanent" trip around the world:
we're senior gypsies. In early 2011 we sold our house in California and moved the few objects we wanted to keep into a 10-by-15-foot storage unit. Since then, we have lived in furnished apartments and houses in Mexico, Argentina, Florida, Turkey, France, Italy and England. In the next couple of months, we will live in Ireland and Morocco before returning briefly to the U.S. for the holidays.
70-year-old writer Lynne Martin and her husband Tim, 66, have figured out how to make the finances work. [bold added]
Serious number-crunching showed that selling our home in California would allow us to live comfortably almost anyplace in the world. Not having property taxes or a roof that needs fixing can pay for a lot of train rides.

A few specifics about money. Our financial adviser sends us about $6,000 a month, generated from investments. We also collect Social Security and a small pension. [snip]

Since we have eliminated homeownership, we have few bills to pay. We use an online bill-paying service, and we buy almost everything by credit card so we can rack up mileage rewards. One of our daughters receives the mail, which has dwindled to almost nothing.

A good Internet connection is essential. Our computers link us with family and friends, help us plan future travels, and are our source of entertainment in places where movies and television in English are elusive. Each of us has a laptop and an iPhone, and our Kindles house our library and travel books.

We have Medicare and supplemental plans, and when we return to the U.S., we see our doctors for annual checkups. We also have international health insurance covering medical emergencies and evacuations. The plan has a big deductible to help reduce our overhead, since our experiences with health-care providers abroad have been very positive.
The Martins' household budget in California was nearly $8,000 per month. They've been able to keep their expenses to less than that, even in the priciest cities.

WSJ graphic


1) The Martins are by no means poor. Working backward from their $6,000 monthly stipend, they would need investment assets of $1.8 million, assuming that they're making withdrawals according to the four-percent rule ($1,800,000 x 4% x 1/12 = $6,000). Selling an average paid-up home in the Bay Area or Orange County would have produced 30-40% of their nest egg.

2) Good health, as well as comprehensive and inexpensive worldwide medical coverage, is key to the peripatetic lifestyle.

3) They are a fortunate couple to have no one dependent on them. The majority of people we know have someone---parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren---who rely on their continued presence and ministrations.

Yes, Lynne and Tim are indeed lucky. Through planning, hard work, and the willingness to take prudent risks they've showed that achieving one's dream is possible even if one begins late in life. Here's hoping that "the wheels [won't] fall off" for many, many years. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

First Day of Spring

Spring is really when the new year seems to start. For farmers [bold added],
"Spring is an exciting time for us, because you're just starting the work, and there's something new as the ground is being turned over," says Jennifer Scheer, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau. "Any losses or frustrations that you had last year are washed away and you're in a new place, starting fresh."
For lovers, science tells us the stirrings are from more than sunshine and extended daylight hours:
A circadian rhythm section of experts has declared spring a peak period for skyrocketing sperm counts in men and ovulation overdrive in women. No wonder spring is the leading season for unplanned pregnancies.
And for this allergy sufferer, a maintenance (an injection once every 28 days) level of immunotherapy has finally been attained. I'm still sniffling and sneezing, but much less than I ever have. Everything's looking brighter today. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

The neighborhood is taking a tern for the better.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Meat on a Hoof

A horse is a horse unless it's a course.
News item from February:
"Czech authorities have discovered horsemeat in Swedish meatballs produced for the furniture giant Ikea and labeled as beef and pork"
The youngster bridled when I suggested chicken. He had a hankerin' for Swedish meatballs, and who was I to tell him neigh? He spurred me to hoof it to the local Ikea, where we lassoed up servin's of salad, mashed potatoes, and gravy. The cafeteria didn't have filly mignon; meatballs were our mane course.

There was a minor hitch when the salad dressing was limited to ranch (not kidding!), but we refused to whinny or stirrup any trouble. It's better to halter conflicts early. Keep it stable, I always say, and be equine to others.

Monday, March 18, 2013

My World in a Car

Longtime readers of this journal know that your humble observer finds it difficult to part with his old cars. Apparently, there are enough of us "jalopy drivers" around to merit a study:
Clinging to a car isn't just about money. Here's what one automotive research firm discovered when it surveyed consumers who held on to their cars for 10-plus years:
  • They like to travel overseas
  • They look for security in their relationships
  • They have a college degree
  • They tend toward libertarian political views
  • They like to garden and do their own home repairs

    Source: Strategic Vision, Inc.
  • The study appears to be about people who can afford a new car ("like to travel overseas" infers that "like" means "being able to") but choose not to buy one. Those who drive beaters because of economic limitations may well have a different profile.

    In my case the Strategic Vision description is about 80% accurate. The overarching characteristic of us jalopy-by-choicers appears to be that we subscribe, consciously or not, to the 1970's small-is-beautiful ethos. We don't throw away stuff if it's working, we ignore markers of social status, we value our independence, and we buy what we need, not what we want. These are all principles that we break from time to time because of ego, social pressure, and convenience, but our lives are better off for having followed them.

    On the other hand, sometimes an old car is just a clunker. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Our van qualified for the 2009 cash-for-clunkers program. We're still driving it.

    Sunday, March 17, 2013

    This Fine Day

    I had never heard the songbook of Finian's Rainbow until our high school performed it. We had wonderful singers and talented comedic actors in the class ahead of us, and playing in the concert orchestra I was lucky to have a front row seat.

    The tunes have stayed with me---much more than other Sixties musicals that garnered more awards---but, now that I am closer in age to the old Irish father than his daughter, the lyrics take on poignancy.
    How are things in Glocca Morra?
    Is that little brook still leaping there?
    Does it still run down to Donny cove
    Through Killybegs, Kilkerry and Kildare?

    How are things in Glocca Morra?
    Is that willow tree still weeping there?
    Does that laddie with the twinkling eye
    Come whistling by? And does he walk away
    Sad and dreamy there, not to see me there?
    Happy Saint Patrick's Day, especially to everyone who is far from home.

    [Note: the 1968 film with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, directed by Francis Ford Coppola(!), is on Amazon Streaming Video and is free to Amazon Prime customers.]

    Saturday, March 16, 2013

    Not an Idiot......Really

    Probably the only Big Gulp she's had in years (WSJ video)
    Politicians, like parents, always seem a lot smarter after they're out of power. No longer must they state their positions in 15-second sound bites or be afraid to acknowledge that some of the opposing arguments are valid.  No longer will they have to defend party members whose personal behavior is indefensible. They can reveal nuance, flexibility, and self-deprecation.

    One politician whose public persona was a media caricature is Sarah Palin. (To be even-handed, another is Joe Biden, the current butt of late night humor.)

    Your humble observer is of the opinion that comedy requires at least some intelligence, which Sarah Palin displayed at the recently concluded Conservative Political Action Conference.
    At one point, Ms. Palin paused in her rabble-rousing speech to take a big sip from a Big Gulp she pulled out from behind the podium. “Bloomberg’s not around, our Big Gulp’s safe,” she said, a dig at the New York mayor’s attempted ban on large soft drinks. [snip]

    She joked that young Republicans ought to be “thinking Sam Adams, not drinking Sam Adams.”

    During her defense of the Second Amendment, she spoke admiringly of the gun rack her husband, Todd, bought her for Christmas and the gun she bought him to stock it. “He’s got the rifle. I got the rack,” she quipped.
    Mrs. Palin won't be on a national ticket again, and it's anyone's guess where she'll settle in. But just as her VP nomination startled in 2008, she'll surprise us before she's done. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, March 15, 2013

    Springing Forward

    Park deer have no fear of humans.
    It was only our second visit this year. Foot traffic at Rancho San Antonio Park seems to be increasing.

    School cross country teams charge up the hills at a pace far exceeding my plodding capability. Pairs of casual walkers converse, sans interruptions, about sundry subjects with nature as the backdrop. The older kids run ahead, and mothers push their strollers toward Deer Hollow Farm.

    A week before spring, the conditions are perfect....almost. One must keep a wary eye on the wasps, bees, and mosquitoes that can pounce suddenly from the trees; last year it took a couple of days for the welts to subside when a large stinging insect took a liking to my hair. Now I pick up the pace when a buzz is heard.

    The parking lot was still filled at 6 p.m., a phenomenon assisted by Daylight Savings Time and the lack of rain. We and many others, it appears, will be returning soon. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, March 14, 2013

    Less Pomp, More Circumspection

    The more I read about Pope Francis the more I like him [bold added]:
    Traveling to his first dinner after his elevation, the new pope eschewed the traditional papal car and rode in a bus with fellow cardinals.....On Wednesday night, he sped up the postelection rituals so the tens of thousands of people waiting in St. Peter's Square for the new Holy Father to emerge onto the balcony didn't have to stand too long in the cold rain. [snip]

    They all had dinner, and, in the prelude of a toast, the new pontiff joked with his brethren, saying: "May God forgive you for what you've done," according [to] the U.S. cardinal.
    When reporters trolled for negatives on Pope Francis, they focused on his "conservative" politics. Although your humble observer disagrees with several of the Catholic Church's doctrines, he respects its principled, reasoned positions.

    (Liberal Catholics, if you find Catholicism's positions unbearable just come on over to the Episcopal Church! Per the NYT's Ross Douthat:
    Today the Episcopal Church looks roughly how Roman Catholicism would look if Pope Benedict XVI suddenly adopted every reform ever urged on the Vatican by liberal pundits and theologians. It still has priests and bishops, altars and stained-glass windows. But it is flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes.)
    The elevation of Pope Francis took commentators by surprise (too old, Latin American, unflashy). I think that the world is more than ready for such a leader who eschews pomp and circumstance.

    By the way, here are things that I doubt we'll ever hear Pope Francis say:

    "We have based forward-looking statements on information currently available and disclaim any intention or obligation to update or revise these statements to reflect subsequent events or circumstances."

    "That was off the record....right?"

    "I wish to thank my wife, my parents, and especially my agent for all their support."

    "Great shot, Tiger!"

    "How will this play in Peoria?" © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, March 13, 2013


    The Headline: Chip Heals Self After Blast From Frickin’ Laser (H/T Glenn Reynolds)

    The Details: Caltech researchers have [bold added]
    built a new kind of "self-healing" processor. Basically, it can reorganize itself when confronted with something like the Apple death grip, or worse.

    To test their chips, the Caltech researchers blasted out components in specially built chips, similar to the kind of power amplifier chips you'd find in your mobile phone. They found that their their chips could fix themselves and keep on working even after being blasted by lasers. When they are first disrupted, the test chips waste a lot of power, but as they heal themselves, they automatically figure out the best state to change into, in order to keep working as efficiently as possible.
    The Question: is this really a good idea?

    Tuesday, March 12, 2013

    Indian Country

    At the India Cash and Carry, Foster City
    During the 20th Century the word "Indian" for most non-Native Americans conjured images that were popularized in movie and television Westerns. Distorted though the images were, there was no ambiguity about whom we were talking. If we were referring to the other India, we clarified what we meant by saying "India, the country" much as we said "Washington, the state."

    For the past twenty years, at least in the Bay Area, the dominant image has flipped completely. In our daily lives we encounter Indian (the country) doctors, engineers, and businesspeople. There are Indian Christians who worship at our church, Indian veterinarians who treat our pets, and Indian bank tellers who greet us at the local branch.

    The indigenous peoples have become the other Indians and are now for the most part referred to as Native Americans. When clarity and political correctness coincide, change is accepted and rapid.

    [Note: the traditional meaning is commonly recognized when "Indian" is paired with "casino," one of California's fastest growing businesses that we do our best to support.] © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, March 11, 2013

    Portion Control

    90 calories, no corn syrup
    We've been drinking soft drinks for most of our lives, but ever-louder warnings from doctors have induced us to cut back consumption. We never warmed to the taste of diet sodas, which have health risks that their sugary brethren do not; substitution is no solution.

    When we absolutely must have some sweet fizziness, we turn to smaller cans of so-called "natural" sodas that purportedly contain fruit juices with no added sugar. They're more expensive than the popular brands, but dealing with diabetes would be much more costly.

    Despite my sympathy with Mayor Bloomberg's goals, I was happy to see that the deliciously named Judge Tingling stayed the implementation of New York City's regulations that would have banned large sugary drinks.

    In addition to the defects in a regulation that had glaring loopholes, the larger issue was whether the state had the power to regulate substances and activities that may cause long-term harm but did not threaten imminent danger to public health. Judge Tingling drew a welcome line in the sand. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, March 10, 2013

    Falling Behind

    The Bay Area is home to one of the planet's greatest concentrations of private wealth, which is expanding as the market races to new highs. Yet there are significant numbers of people who not only have not participated in the boom but are also falling behind.
    The Silicon Valley is adding jobs faster than it has in more than a decade as the tech industry roars back. Stocks are soaring and fortunes are once again on the rise.

    But a bleaker record is also being set this year: Food stamp participation just hit a 10-year high, homelessness rose 20 percent in two years, and the average income for Hispanics, who make up one in four Silicon Valley residents, fell to a new low of about $19,000 a year— capping a steady 14 percent drop over the past five years [snip]

    Simply put, while the ultra-rich are getting even richer, record numbers of Silicon Valley residents are slipping into poverty.
    Other reports echo the bifurcation [bold added]:
    New census data shows that 15.9 percent of Silicon Valley residents rank in the richest 5 percent of the country - bringing home at least $191,469. That makes the region No. 2 nationwide for wealth concentration.

    Median income in Silicon Valley hit an 11-year low during 2011, falling to $84,724, according to a report released last week by local economic think tank Joint Venture Silicon Valley.
    An income of $84,724 may seem like a lot of money to many Americans, but it barely allows a family to purchase a home at the Bay Area's median price of $550,000. Of course, the median measure means that some families receive less--in some cases considerably less--income than the median. With shelter so expensive it's no surprise that homelessness is the most visible manifestation of poverty.

    Your humble observer, for what it's worth, has opinions on why the local wealthy do not donate (no, it's not because they're greedy). Their possible thoughts, based on anecdotal observation:

    The government is handling the problem. Many who are in a position to donate assume, mistakenly, that because their taxes are so high that government is taking care of basic human needs. Because they do not personally deal with government at the social-services ground level, they do not see how inefficient and wasteful government can be. That experience can truly be shocking to those who are used to functioning at Internet speed.

    I want to save the world. Solar energy, Third World communicable disease, climate change, etc. are causes more important than collecting clothes or referring a family of four to a free clinic.

    I can't find a smaller local charity that I trust. Most are too busy for due diligence, e.g., to make sure that dollars aren't being wasted on directors' salaries, marketing, political lobbying, or non-essential activities. It's far safer to write a check to big-name charities with a national or even international mission; the downside is that few of the funds are recycled back to the Bay Area. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Saturday, March 09, 2013

    A Remark About Investment Fads

    From a WSJ article about how investment managers are trying to imitate Yale's alternative-investment strategy, which began in 1990:
    "The first person to the buffet table gets the lobster. The people who come a little later get the hamburger. And the ones who come at the end get whatever happens to be stuck to the tablecloth."
    Related--a quote attributed to Amarillo Slim:
    "Look around the table. If you don't see a sucker, get up, because you're the sucker."

    Friday, March 08, 2013

    McArdle on Drug Addiction, Sequestration, and Unemployment

    A few of the postings by Megan McArdle this week. She always has interesting things to say.

    There's a Reason That Addicts Say Yes to Drugs
    But from talking to friends who developed more-than-recreational habits, and observing the behavior of addicts worldwide, it seems obvious that they do find the drugs even better than jobs, wives, friends, and health. It isn't that they don't want those other things, too, but at the moment of choice, they prefer the drugs. [snip]

    From the point of view of the addict, drugs are great. He doesn't have a drug problem: he has a reality problem.
    Comment: Drug addiction, although much worse, has this in common with over-eating--short-term pleasure too often overwhelms the long-term gain of abstinence.

    The Administration's Thin Complaints About the Sequester
    [re proven-to-be-false claims about teacher layoffs and janitor pay cuts]: these aren't matters of opinion where the administration can simply argue assumptions; these are easily checkable statements with hard numbers attached. From this I infer that the administration is having a hard time finding concrete examples of bad things that the sequester is going to do. Nor is that a huge surprise. Whether you're for or against the sequester, we are talking about relatively small sums, in the scope of the federal deficit. They're simply not going to show up in much measurable way as devastating hardship.
    Comment: we've said as much, along with thousands of commentators and politicians from both sides of the aisle. Why does an Administration with smart people (whether you agree with them or not) make such dumb claims that can quickly be disproved? They're dissipating their capital needlessly.

    The Federal Government Should Hire the Long-Term Unemployed [bold added]
    No, I'm not talking about WPA jobs (though I also think that those sorts of jobs would make a fine alternative to unemployment insurance). [snip]

    But even now, with governments cutting back, there are government vacancies being filled. Why not institute a special preference for people who experienced long-term unemployment between 2009 and 2013? We already have preferences for veterans and the disabled. It would be easy enough to make long-term unemployment a similar "plus factor". Unless you believe that the employer bias against the long-term unemployed is entirely rational--and I am pretty skeptical about this--then this sort of preference should be an all-around win. It wouldn't, by itself, be enough to solve the problem. But even a small start is worthwhile.
    Comment: one may think that there's too much public-sector spending and employment. However, as long as there are government vacancies, why not give a preference to the long-term unemployed? Of course, they still must be qualified to do the job.

    Thursday, March 07, 2013

    The Buggy House

    Business took me to the East Bay, so on the way home I popped in on the Buggy House, one of the last classic VW parts suppliers in the Bay Area.

    Air-cooled VW buses and bugs were once plentiful throughout the area. The shops hung on for years, then disappeared as the founding proprietors were overtaken by age.

    A flattering portrait of the Buggy House made me want to check it out as a place to rebuild the engine after the painting was done. The store was clean, well-appointed, and a promising candidate to do the work.

    VW Fuel Line
    When I showed the clerk a difficult-to-find bumper bolt, he was back in one minute with a set of four new matching nuts and bolts. I also picked up three feet of the old fabric-wrapped VW fuel line that one can no longer find in regular auto stores. The online VW suppliers can be cheaper, but often there's no substitute for visually inspecting the wares and avoiding the hassle of a return.

    The bumpers have been put back on, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel:

    © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, March 06, 2013

    Late to the Gold Rush

    So much big, early money had been made in mobile-device applications that the industry came to resemble a latter-day gold rush. Sure, it's likely there will be more "killer apps" released in the future, but with low barriers to entry the competition has become extremely fierce.

    App development now resembles the entertainment and publishing industries, which have a few enormously wealthy celebrities at the top, a sizable minority in the middle, and the majority at subsistence wages, if that. From a survey of app game developers the NY Times writes:
    the app world is an ecology weighted heavily toward a few winners. A quarter of the respondents said they had made less than $200 in lifetime revenue from Apple. A quarter had made more than $30,000, and 4 percent had made over $1 million.
    My friend has been working on an iPad app as a supplement to his consulting business. The process is fascinating, but we
    lack the technical know-how to build mobile apps on [our] own. The options range from using online app-building tools, to taking crash courses in computer programming and coding languages, hiring a costly professional on contract, or recruiting a full-time developer.
    So we've opted to pay for outside help. In the past year all three staffpersons assigned to our project have left (separately) for greener pastures. Partly out of self-preservation and partly out of curiosity we are slogging through technical manuals and code, even trying our hand at simple app-writing.

    We're a little late to the party, but the lure of app gold in them thar' hills is irresistible. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, March 05, 2013

    Health Breakthrough

    A potential health breakthrough [bold added]:
    UC San Francisco researchers have discovered a new type of cell in women's breast tissue that might one day be used to heal a variety of wounds and damaged organs, without having to destroy embryos to acquire stem cells.

    The newly discovered cells act similarly to embryonic stem cells in that they can be placed in mice or in a Petri dish and "instructed" to produce many different cell types.
    Compared to induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from skin tissue,
    the newly discovered cells are more genetically stable than the iPS cells and are limited in how often they can reproduce, making them less likely to form cancers.
    Women's breasts may soon save lives. I think guys always knew that instinctively, and that's why we worship them.

    Monday, March 04, 2013

    Han Sung BBQ, Santa Clara

    Hot coals are lowered a foot from diners' plates.
    It was our first time at the Han Sung BBQ, and it was a good thing that we brought our appetites. (It was also a good thing that we went on a Sunday, when Lenten strictures against indulgence are suspended.)

    Korean restaurants were serving small plates of kim chi and seasoned vegetables long before "small plates" became fashionable in other cuisines. We sampled everything, including sauces of uncertain provenance. (One is always taking a chance with unfamiliar condiments, which is why one should have lots of beer close by to put out the fire.)

    Speaking of fire, Han Sung BBQ uses coals, not the propane or natural gas found in other grill-it-yourself restaurants. It makes for a more spectacular presentation when the flaming coals are lowered into the well; the heat is less intense than with gas, and we had to wait a bit longer for the meat to cook. The chicken, beef, and pork had a pleasant smokey flavor.

    The total tab, including drinks, tax, and tip, was a reasonable $30 per person. We'll be back. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, March 03, 2013

    Lights, Action, Camera

    Bay Lights test last week (Mercury news photo)
    Artist Leo Villareal will officially fire up his Bay Lights project ("the world's largest light sculpture") on Tuesday night. The privately funded $8 million work of art will likely be added to the list of must-see San Francisco attractions. The still photo above doesn't capture the effect of the moving patterns of light, shown in the following video (in Flash, unfortunately for iPad and iPhone users) recorded last week.

    The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is more important to the region's economy than its much more famous sibling to the West. The Bay Lights project ( will give the Bay Bridge the attention that it deserves. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Saturday, March 02, 2013

    "House of Cards" - Season 1

    When Netflix posted all 13 episodes of the first season on February 1st, I watched House of Cards a couple of hours each week, then binge-viewed the final four episodes today.

    I didn't change my initial impressions about the series and Netflix' all-at-once experiment in distribution:

    1) I liked being able to control when I watched the show and how much of it to consume during a sitting.

    2) The dialog is interesting, occasionally crackling. There are no cardboard characters; even minor ones behave intelligently, although motivations are often unclear.

    3) The main story is about House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, the flawed protagonist who one often finds in recent television fiction (e.g., Dexter, Breaking Bad). Is Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, a good guy with troubling defects or a bad guy with some redeeming features? The answer is fairly clear by the end of episode 13, but it's possible that surprise developments can reverse that opinion.

    4) When Frank Underwood's "Plan A" fails, his disappointment and anger seem genuine. "Plan B," which could not have been attempted without Plan A's failure, at the end is on the verge of succeeding so spectacularly that the viewer wonders whether that was the true plan all along. But then why the earlier disappointment and anger, even when no one is watching?

    5) We think that we understand most of the characters by season's end, but there are enough inconsistencies in their behavior to make us suspect that we don't know what's truly going on.

    6) In theme and tone House of Cards reminded me of Advise and Consent, the 1959 bestselling novel about the nomination of a fictional Secretary of State. Reporter-author Allen Drury's tale of intrigue revealed how the "real" Washington differed from the civics-class version and earned him the Pulitzer Prize. While Season 1 of House of Cards can be enjoyed on a standalone basis, there are enough unresolved plot lines that, as with Advise and Consent (many) years ago, we eagerly await the next installment. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, March 01, 2013

    Sequester, Sequestration: What's the Difference?

    Chart from the Wall Street Journal
    Suffixes do matter. Cas-ter and cas-tration have different meanings, nicht wahr? OK, enough silliness.

    Comments about the latest budget crisis:

    1) The sequester mandates cuts of $85 billion--about 2.4%--from a $3.55 trillion budget. This is equivalent to a middle class family coming up with savings of $120 on an income of $5,000 per month. It might be difficult in some cases, but catastrophic? Please.

    2) Because the sequestration occurs in the middle of the government's fiscal year, much has been made of how "these cuts must be achieved over only seven months instead of 12" (from the first page of the OMB report). This assertion assumes that the sequester took everyone by surprise; managers with any experience in the ways of Washington should have been underspending their first-half budgets to prepare for this eventuality, and it would be very surprising if most of them did not.

    3) Yes, the sequester is dumb because it leaves no room for judgment. Back to the example of the $5,000-per-month family trying to cut $120 from its spending: the family can not cut its mortgage payments, rent, or health insurance premiums by even a dime because of the severe consequences of a default, yet across-the-board sequester-like trimming could well trigger such an outcome. Nevertheless, I have a hard time believing that essential services won't somehow be funded, given potential workarounds afforded by the vast sums flowing through the government.

    4) If a federal buyer went to suppliers and asked if, say, 90-day payment terms could be stretched to 180 days temporarily, most suppliers would assent. It would be nice for them to be owed a favor by a government manager. From the government's point of view, what good is monopsony power unless you're willing to use it?

    5) Personal prediction over when the sequester and the debt ceiling will be resolved: Earliest - April 15 (symbolic); Latest - September 30 (end of the fiscal year). © 2013 Stephen Yuen