Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Bleeding Edge

We've been watching, not participating in, one of the technologies that's on the verge of exploding into public consciousness. 3-D printers priced in the range of $2,000-$3,000 have hit the market. These devices enable individuals to create products cheaply and quickly without sending the design to a fabrication facility. One example:
Many custom dental fittings are now 3-D printed—like the series of mouth guards, each slightly different from the last, that are used to change tooth alignment over months. After a dental technician scans the current position of the teeth, all positions intermediate to the desired end point are modeled by software and then printed out in plastic. Also, if you’re lucky enough to have a dentist who can replace a crown in a single sitting, it’s because models are 3-D printed and then the replacement teeth are milled right there in the office.
(SJMN graphic)
Another example, but potentially much more disruptive [bold added]:
Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old University of Texas law student, has made it a personal crusade to use the technology for firearms. He aims to produce and publish online a completely printable plastic gun and then adapt the design for use on printers that are getting smaller and less expensive all the time.
Current gun laws ("the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 says you don't need a license to make a firearm for personal use") are completely inadequate to address a world of downloadable firearms. Imagine also a world of downloadable and customizable food, clothes, and household products, in other words a version-1 Star Trek replicator in every home. The disruption continues. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sorry, Bambi

Rancho San Antonio Park, Los Altos
Our impressions about nature are shaped at an early age. For city dwellers who have no connection or experience with hunting, it's hard to shake the idyllic image of Bambi. Wild animals are friendly, anthropomorphized beings, and the placid creatures that are seen in zoos do nothing to contradict that childhood conception.

We whose daily existence is lived far from the forest, i.e, urbanites and suburbanites, dream of Walden though few would actually live there.

Cougar near San Jose (SJMN photo)
The deer that are encountered in suburban parks know from experience that they have nothing to fear from humans. However, other animals that have begun to appear near human habitation are not so friendly.

The mountain lion (cougar):
Chris Wilmers, a mountain lion expert at UC Santa Cruz, has radio-collared 33 lions since 2008 between Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Mount Madonna County Park near Gilroy. He estimated that 50 to 100 lions live in the Santa Cruz Mountains.....The lion photographed weighs more than 100 pounds. Wilmers said it is a male from 4- to 10-years-old, and it looks healthy.
The feral pig:
Twenty-five years ago, spotty wild pig pockets were found in fewer than 20 different states. Now, they’re in 47 states [including California], with Florida, Texas, and a few others approaching crisis levels.
Wild pigs destroy the landscape and breed incessantly. Most alarmingly, they're very intelligent.
Pigs have been known to scope out traps for days before sending in the group's lowest ranking members to test for danger. And if a trap isn't built just right, the pigs will find a way out, either by climbing over each other or squeezing under the fencing.....feral pigs are quite elusive. Rarely seen during the day, they have learned to avoid being taken down by rifles or suckered into traps. [snip]

pigs have learned to break the floats in stock tanks to keep water flowing for their mud baths.
A single cat can take down a pig, but the latter have the smarts and the numbers. Despite what stock market experts say, the triumph of the pigs looks inevitable. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Finding Their Place

Migrant Mother, Library of Congress Collection
Today's CBS Sunday Morning runs a piece on how the Library of Congress is adapting to the digital age. Among the millions of documents it could have selected, CBS included the 1936 photo Migrant Mother, described by the Library as "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."

42 years later, Florence Thompson was identified as the woman in the photo. Her difficult existence was captured in this Depression-era photo that depicted the face of "a 32-year-old parent who looks 50."

She and her family survived the Depression and the War and eventually settled in the farming community of Modesto. I was happy to hear how her story turned out. The Oklahoma migrants that John Steinbeck wrote about had very bleak prospects at the end of his Pulitzer-prize winning novel, but I like to think that they, too, managed to find their place in the golden land that was 20th-century California.

Florence Thompson (1903-1983) in 1979.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Parabolic Move Upward

Steph Curry meets some fans in Burlingame in 2012
After their All-Star forward David Lee suffered a season-ending injury, the Golden State Warriors' chance of upsetting the Denver Nuggets in the NBA playoffs went from slim to none, said the experts.

No one told Stephen Curry and the other members of the team, which now leads the Nuggets 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. 25-year-old Steph Curry is torching the opposition despite playing on a badly sprained ankle. Some have called him the best shooter in the league, on track to become the best shooter in NBA history (!). Wow, all that praise for a guy who's never been an All-Star or whose team has been out of the playoffs for six years.

Even if the Warriors make it past the Nuggets, it's highly unlikely that they can defeat more experienced and powerful Western Conference teams like the Spurs, Clippers, and Thunder. But it will be fun to watch them try, and for the first time in a long time Warriors fans are already looking forward to a bright future. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, April 26, 2013

Perspectives on Unemployment

The Wall Street Journal:
Just 88,000 jobs were created last month, far below February's 268,000 gain. The unemployment rate, derived from a separate survey, dropped to a four-year low of 7.6%. But the decline was prompted by nearly a half-million workers leaving the job market, not job growth.
The Economist:

UNEMPLOYMENT in the euro area reached a record high in early 2013. According to Eurostat, the European Commission's statistical service, unemployment in the 17 member states stood at 12% in February (and in January after a revision), the highest in the euro area's history.
David Letterman:
Yesterday [was] take-your-son-or-daughter-to-work day. You know, that's how we got Kim Jong-Un!

You know, for a lot of people it's take-your-son-or-daughter-where-you-used-to work.

And in China, kids take their parents to work!
The business pubs make you think, but David Letterman makes me laugh. Right now I'd rather laugh.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Plastic Rapped

At last week's dinner the kitchen volunteer covered the vegetables with plastic wrap before she put it in the microwave oven.

"Are you sure that's okay? I always use waxed paper or parchment," I interrupted helpfully. She pointed to the "microwave safe" label that I hadn't seen on the box. Sheepishly, I nodded assent. Being perceived as a busybody is a necessary price when one is at least partially responsible for the welfare of others.

Which raises the question anyway---just how dangerous is heated plastic when preparing food? (I learned to avoid using plastic wrap and plastic containers before today's young adults were born. Perhaps that rule no longer applies.) Per Tuesday's WSJ:
Plastic is ubiquitous but there are two chemicals in it to watch out for when it comes to what your body ingests.

Phthalates, the chemicals that make a PVC container flexible, .....can leach into food, resulting in hormone imbalances and birth defects—although no one knows at what level those effects are triggered. [snip]

Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a potentially worse offender. Once tested for possible use as an estrogen replacement, BPA was found to be of better use in the mass production of polycarbonate plastic. It's used in everything from the lining of metal soup cans to receipt paper. The FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles in July 2012, because of growing consumer concerns over its link to developmental delays.
One big no-no:
reheating foods heavy in cream and butter in plastic is always a bad idea. "Fatty foods absorb more of these harmful chemicals when heated," [Dr. Rolf Halden of Arizona State University] says.
Despite assurances that plastics are now safe to be used in cooking, we'll be taking a few extra seconds to pour the leftovers into a glass or ceramic bowl and cover the same with parchment paper before reheating. Just because the wisdom is old doesn't mean it's not true. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Corpus from Corpses

I first came across the notion of a tontine (TON-teen) trust in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The structure of a tontine ("an organization of individuals who enter into an agreement to pool sums of money or something of value other than money, permitting the last survivor of the group to take everything") was a magnet for mischief, as members received increasing shares of distributions---and ultimately the corpus itself--as other members died. Tontine arrangements are now outlawed in most jurisdictions.

Professor Moshe Milevsky suggests that it is time to resurrect tontines as a retirement planning device. Not only is it impossible to outlive the funds, a tontine is one of the rare investments whose returns are guaranteed to increase over time. The good professor is not blind to the drawbacks.
the objections include: moral hazard ("Do you want a bunch of old people running around killing each other?") regulatory concerns ("The insurance commissioner will never go for it.") and sale concerns ("People hate giving up principal. It wouldn't be profitable.")
He need not be so pessimistic about tontine's prospects. It's a fair bet that the financial wizards of Wall Street are transforming this 19th-century device to make it palatable to 21st-century suckers investors. After all, Ponzi schemes pop up every 20 years or so under different guises. There's a new generation to educate!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Apple: Dreams Die Hard

Over the past year Apple has fallen 27.51% while market averages have risen 10% or more.
There's no question that the past year has dissipated the aura of coolness that surrounded the ownership of Apple products or Apple stock. Last year's "new" product releases represented incremental improvements--some features were impressive, to be sure---but, alas, the revolutionary, industry-changing devices that were supposedly in the pipeline when Steve Jobs died appear to be a figment of the biographer's imagination.

Your humble observer is a long-time holder of AAPL and, like other investors, has been disturbed by the stock's 28% drop in price over the past year and 42%(!) fall from the $705 all-time high of last September. There are thousands of articles that have been written---and dozens since the 3/31/2013 quarterly earnings were released a few hours ago---about Apple's fall from grace, and I won't waste your time, dear reader, by rehashing points that have been made comprehensively and more eloquently elsewhere.

As for yours truly, it only took a few seconds to decide to hold on to my shares.

1) This quarter's dividend hike to $3.05 means that the stock is yielding 3% ($12.20 per year / $406 price per share), much higher than savings, money-market, or U.S. Treasury rates.

2) Of course the dividend is riskier than the aforementioned debt securities, but with a $145 billion cash balance (true, most of it is offshore, but it's still under Apple's control) the dividend is secure for years.

3) The dividend should appeal to the so-called "value" investors and/or "yield" investors, meaning the stock price has hit a bottom.

4) Underneath this hardened investor's carapace lurks the heart of the fanboy who hopes that there are shards of Steve's vision deep within Apple's labs. Yes, that may make me a bitter clinger, but the dividend makes the cost of holding on to the dream bearable, and dreams die hard. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 22, 2013

On Earth Day

....run your toes through the muck, breathe in the musk of decomposition, wallow in the rich soup of life.

Or perhaps you just want to look at pretty pictures of trees and flowers? To paraphrase noted philosopher C Brown: "I love the earth, it's dirt I can't stand."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bags Be Gone

Tomorrow, Earth Day, is when plastic bags will disappear from checkout stands in Foster City and eleven other San Mateo County cities. Plastic bags, IMHO, are a marvelous invention: cheap, waterproof, lightweight, and strong. However, the argument that bags exact too-high-a-cost from the environment prevailed in council chambers, and beginning tomorrow we'll have to bring our own reusable containers or pay ten cents for each paper bag.

As compliant citizens we are careful to deposit all trash in their proper receptacles, but strict enforcement of litter laws wasn't good enough for antiplastic puritans. We'll now have to live with the higher probability of food-borne diseases from dirty recyclable bags and the inconvenience of spilt groceries, but at least we'll have the psychic benefit of pleasing the great goddess Gaia. SM County resident Rob Chapman complains:
What doesn't make sense is that there numerous eco friendly companies making biodegradable and/or compostable plastic bags that pose no harm to the environment. Yet, San Mateo Country has banned those as well, with no explanation. Furthermore, stores are required to charge 10 cents for bio-degradable recycled paper bags. This fee doesn't go to taxes. It doesn't go to any environmental program. It goes directly to the stores. Furthermore, for those of us that rely on public transit, attempting to carry 4 or 5 paper bags of groceries on a bus and then carry those same bags from the bus stop to our home is a major issue. What if it's raining. Are we supposed to carry a bunch of re-usable bags everywhere we go just in case we decide to go shopping. The above mentioned bio-degradable plastic bags, which as I mention have also been banned without explanation, would eliminate this problem, as they are just as strong and sturdy as the current (now banned) plastic bags. The bag ban is flawed and was approved by those who don't have to deal with its repercussions.
Sorry, Rob, to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs, which in your case will be all over the sidewalk.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


The road curves around the bend, and the destination is unclear. At times we long to go back; we did not appreciate the beauty of the path we had walked or the companions who walked with us.

Ahead lies mystery. Is beauty there as well? Are there obstacles that will prove too daunting? Will we see our companions again? We don't know, of course, but we are hopeful. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, April 19, 2013

Added to the Mix

The Boston Marathon bombings have sucked up the media oxygen this week. The explosions, the victims, the mystery of who was responsible, the citywide lockdown, the release of photos and identification of the perpetrators, the chase, the shootouts, and the final manhunt took turns being the lede over a dramatic five days.

Stories that took a back seat:

1) the West Texas explosion, which had more fatalities (14 so far) than the Marathon bombings; while the cause of that tragedy is officially unknown, the public and media appear to have concluded that it was a horrible accident perhaps exacerbated by inadequate safety protocols.

2) the gun control bill; it had weighty Constitutional matters at stake, but the motivations of the important players and the major talking points have been known for years.

But back to Boston: the Tsarnaev brothers fit no one's standard model of terrorists, whether they be foreign jihadists, native white supremacists, or solo sociopaths.
But should we think of the Tsarnaevs as a threat that was “homegrown”? Or “foreign”? Again, they are both...

Were the Tsarnaevs “suicide bombers”? Yes and no. Getting into shooting matches with police while wearing IEDs would seem to suggest the brothers knew they were dead. But after they murdered a child and two young women and maimed scores more on Monday, the brothers appear to have gone back to business as usual...

Lastly, were the Tsarnaevs ideologues, evil, or “just nuts”? This might be the most complicated question. As with all the others, the best answer again is “all of the above.”
The discomfiture of terrorism experts was matched by the questioning of new-media enthusiasm for crowdsourcing as a great leap forward in information gathering. On Wednesday night this humble, impatient observer turned off the TV and began following Twitter, which not only named the suspects but delved into their background and motivations. The only trouble is, Twitter said one of the bombers was a missing Brown University student and was completely wrong.

While we have a strong appreciation for the scientists, mathematicians, analysts, researchers, and public safety experts who are advancing knowledge in ways that we barely fathom, the Marathon bombings show that we should accept their assurances with skepticism. When it comes to our safety and that of our families, a healthy dose of plain old common sense should be added to the mix. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

[Update: The world is a dynamic place. And reality throws curve balls at us all the time. In the end the world is what it is whatever government and media say.]

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sad, But Inevitable

Lotta's Fountain on the 100th anniversary
of the 1906 earthquake
Although a few remain, no survivors of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 were able to attend the commemoration marking its 107th anniversary [bold added]:
There are at least three known 1906 quake survivors, and one of them, 107-year-old Winnie Hook of San Jose, was scheduled to show up Thursday morning. But at the last minute, it was decided she was too fragile to travel to the city, said event organizer Lee Houskeeper.

Fellow survivor 107-year-old Bill Del Monte of Greenbrae rode in a pre-celebration parade Wednesday, but couldn't muster the energy for Thursday.

The prospect that last year's fete - when Hook was present to call the celebration "awesome" - may have been the final one to host a witness to a defining moment in Bay Area history hung in the air.
Because of a bomb threat, this year's ceremony was moved to Union Square. The ability of a few people to disrupt entire cities is a sad fact of modern life. In the face of adversity we would do well to recall the deeds of our ancestors:
Yet, within the span of ten years the people had rebuilt San Francisco to the point where it could host the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915.
One domed building constructed during that era is testimony to the optimistic spirit of that age and constitutes one of the City’s famous landmarks.
In Palo Alto to the south, the first president of a fledgling university surveyed the wreckage and declined a post at the Smithsonian: "I am sure that my place is here”. [Update: today it just may be the number one university in the United States.]
A young San Mateo banker set up a makeshift office on the wharf and made loans based on a handshake; he later introduced branch banking to California and built one of the largest banks in the world.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Peanuts to China

Georgia peanut farm (WSJ photo)
Our fondness for peanuts ended abruptly when one of us developed a nut allergy. (The problem is severe enough to have required two emergency room visits in the past ten years.) At restaurants we're always inquiring about whether this salad or that dessert includes nuts.

The large chains are very informed about the problem, but we've found that small independent restaurants are sometimes not as careful. We have encountered "nut-free" dishes that were contaminated by utensils used throughout the kitchen. Another common error is overlooking the use of peanut oil in deep-frying, especially in Chinese restaurants. However, it was probably the consumption of roasted peanuts, including peanut butter, that led to the allergy.

Per the National Institutes of Health:
The methods of frying or boiling peanuts, as practiced in China, appear to reduce the allergenicity of peanuts compared with the method of dry roasting practiced widely in the United States. Roasting uses higher temperatures that apparently increase the allergenic property of peanut proteins and may help explain the difference in prevalence of peanut allergy observed in the 2 countries.
A record U.S. peanut crop has resulted in a steep price drop. Buyers from China are flocking to Georgia:
A stream of Chinese nationals began arriving in the peanut-farming region last winter, causing a frenzy in a $4 billion U.S. industry. With six-figure checks in hand, the Chinese are expected to scoop up 300,000 tons of peanuts this year—half of expected U.S. exports.

The influx of Chinese means Georgia's peanut-shelling companies have been on hiring sprees to staff up factories that are running 24 hours a day, some seven days a week, to keep up. There aren't enough trucks to ship all the peanuts to the port in Savannah, where containers sit full waiting for weeks to get onto vessels for Asia. U.S. exports are expected to double over last year.

China's appetite comes from a combination of cheap prices in the U.S. after a record crop last year—up 84% over 2011—and ravenous demand in China for peanut oil.
It's encouraging to read about an American commodity that the Chinese want to buy and all the jobs that are being created in Georgia. We'll visit China again soon to sample its sightseeing and culinary delights. We'll just have to remember to pack our EpiPen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Just Before Dinner

Alma asked if I could accompany her outside to play with soap bubbles. Volunteers at Home and Hope are supposed to serve in other capacities besides providing basic food and lodging, so I gave her a smile (she was too young to notice that it was fake) and said, "Sure!"

Soon she and her baby sister Sheylia had me chasing bubbles all over the parking lot. It was a breezy day, so I didn't get all of them. Both girls laughed at my flailing and cheerfully proclaimed that I had "lost" according to rules that are still mysterious to me.

I evinced a sad expression. It was fake, too. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 15, 2013

Taxes and Terror

The Sub S corporation finally got its act together and sent me the K-1 in March, so for the first time in years we were able to file our 1040 and 540 on April 15th. The joy in the morning, however, quickly vanished when news of the explosions came shortly after noon, Pacific time. Partisan divisions were put aside for a little while. "We are all Americans," said the President.

Many Americans are also angry, but we need to take a deep breath and keep the anger unfocused. It's awfully tempting to fill in the blanks with one's own view of the world and blame one's pet bĂȘte noires, about which there is little consensus. Comity was fleeting.

I take back what I said earlier--be angry at those who are jumping to conclusions, especially those who are trying to inflame the situation. Assigning blame to groups is something that should be avoided anyway but is especially egregious in advance of the important facts being known. Patience is a virtue that is singularly lacking in these folks, and they should know better. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pipe Dream

We've been lamenting the complexity of our tax system for years, knowing well that venting provides only emotional satisfaction. Tax simplification faces enormous obstacles; nearly everyone benefits from some exemptions or deductions, and removing them in a manner that will be perceived to be "fair" appears to be beyond the reach of our current political actors.

President Bush's 2005 reform proposal was dead on arrival, and the solutions that he listed then are pretty much the same that are being touted today. (Einstein's aphorism bears repeating: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.)

Included on the list of special interests who profit from the current system is the tax preparation lobby (CPA firms, law firms, Intuit [Turbotax], H&R Block, etc.) I just wish that these tax experts, many of whom are intelligent and adaptable to other work, would set aside their narrow economic self-interest and put themselves out of a job by helping to simplify the tax system. Everyone else would be much better off.

Confession: every year for the past 30+ years I've had a modest amount of self-employment income derived from tax preparation services, but I would be happy to see it go away if that meant my clients would be able to do their own taxes. Think of all their (and my) hours that would be freed up for more worthwhile pursuits, like planning, innovation, or even leisure. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, April 13, 2013

News from New Haven - 3

Donald Kagan (Yale Daily News photo)
The jet-black hair is now white and thinning, and age has softened his angular features. But Donald Kagan's gaze is as clear and appraising as ever. At 81, he's still at the top of his game.

Professor Kagan, the Sterling Professor of Classics and History, is retiring after 44 years at Yale.
“There’s no potent reason,” he says. “It’s just time. I think I’ve done it about enough, and even I’m tired of hearing myself lecture.”
In addition to being the leading expert on the Peloponnesian War, he was named the Jefferson Lecturer ("the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities") in 2005 and was awarded the National Humanities Medal. He served as the Dean of Yale College and published numerous works on Ancient Greece.

He has been credited with revitalizing Directed Studies, "an interdisciplinary study of Western civilization," which accommodates 10 percent of the freshman class and is oversubscribed. In Directed Studies the curriculum is coordinated so that, for example, Thucydides, Sophocles, and Plato are studied at the same time in History, Literature, and Philosophy, respectively (at least that's how I remember it).

(By the way, STEM and social-science majors would do well to take a year off from their chosen path and immerse themselves in the liberal arts; they probably will never get another opportunity to do so, and they just may find that a lesson in humanities will stick a lot longer than any math proof.)

Donald Kagan refused to bow to "relevance" or any of the fashionable "-isms" that pop up in the Academy from time to time. For your steadfastness and example we thank you, sir. © 2013 Stephen Yuen
[Update, April 27 - The WSJ covers Donald Kagan's farewell address:
In 1990, as dean of Yale College, Mr. Kagan argued for the centrality of the study of Western civilization in an "infamous" (his phrase) address to incoming freshmen. A storm followed. He was called a racist—or as the campus daily more politely editorialized, a peddler of "European cultural arrogance."

Not so now. Mr. Kagan received a long standing ovation from students and alumni in the packed auditorium. Heading into retirement, he has been feted as a beloved and popular teacher and Yale icon.]

Friday, April 12, 2013

News from New Haven - 2

A term that did not exist when I was going to school---SWUG - Senior Washed-up Girl:
SWUGs are women who don’t bother dressing up for class, or even for fancy parties (though they might still attend them), don’t seek out meaningful (or even just sexual) relationships, spend weekends at their shared homes drinking in the company of other self-identified SWUGs, and feel utter apathy about their personal lives — all at the age of 21.
Confused? A Yale senior who "dabble[s] in being categorized as a SWUG" tries to explain:
Facebook bores her. She uses Facebook to find out different football players’ birthdays and plugs them into an astrology website to test their compatibility. She is compatible with no one.

She’s the girl who promised she would never hook up with someone younger than her but now finds herself texting sophomore boys who unavoidably turn her down. She thinks this is funny. She thinks about getting a vibrator; she may already have a vibrator. It may be better than that sophomore boy.

She doesn’t need to walk home late at night and chance getting mugged by a New Haven local because she will just sleep on a couch in one of the frats. The late night crew at G-Heav knows to start making her an egg and cheese when they see her stumble through the door, and sometimes they will allow her to dance behind the counter and crack an egg herself. Again, they don’t do this for the young, hot, freshman girls — only SWUGs.

She’s the girl who tells her friends she is going to have a “friendship night.” When they ask what this means she explains she is going to make a guy want her and then turn him down. She gets drunk and wakes up next to the guy she was going to turn down. She knows this will go nowhere, as she has already plugged his birthday into the compatibility website, and their score was a two. She makes up a short lie about a meeting and asks him to leave her room and then goes back to bed. She doesn’t return his texts. She’s a SWUG.
It's too easy to snark that this wasn't the experience that Yale envisioned for its women when they entered the Old Campus in 1969, but a senior letdown is to be expected. Many SWUGs will go on to great achievements, but they suspect--or fear--these are the best years of their lives. In the words of the poet:
For I have known them all already, known them all;
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
© 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, April 11, 2013

News from New Haven - 1

Appetite suppressants are a popular diet aid, but suppressing hunger could promote autoimmune disease (e.g, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis), say Yale University scientists. The researchers performed tests on mice to analyze the relationship between hunger neurons and T cells, which cause inflammation that can fight infection but can also lead to autoimmune disease.
“We’ve found that if appetite-promoting AgRP neurons are chronically suppressed, leading to decreased appetite and a leaner body weight, T cells are more likely to promote inflammation-like processes enabling autoimmune responses that could lead to diseases like multiple sclerosis,” said lead author Tamas Horvath, the Jean and David W. Wallace Professor of Biomedical Research and chair of comparative medicine at Yale School of Medicine.
The majority of people we know (including us) are trying to lose weight for the familiar reasons. The Yale study suggests that using drugs to relieve hunger pangs may cause more harm than good.

Related note: during Lent, not a coincidence because of our unworldly focus, we read and tried out the FastDiet, during which the dieter "fasts" (daily consumption is capped at 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men) for any two days a week. It's easy to live with because there are no restrictions on the other five days. (Your humble observer stops reading as soon as he sees the phrase "permanent lifestyle change.")

Besides the obvious benefit of dropping 1-2 pounds per week, there does seem to be a bit more mental alertness, though admittedly we're starting from a pretty low base. I'm agnostic about some of the other benefits cited in the book, for example, the body's improved cancer-fighting ability, but there's little downside in trying it. A recommended, quick read. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Del Monte Gold (Costa Rica), Maui Gold (Hawaii),
Dole (Hawaii)
Two stints at the long-defunct Dole Cannery put me off the taste of pineapple. During two Sixties summers I poured 50-lb. bags of sugar and pineapple syrup into vats and diluted the mixture with water until the brix was correct. The juice was pumped into the main building and piped into each can. The sweet acidic odor of the syrup room wasn't unpleasant, but it took years to expunge the memory of the smell.

We're now mixing fresh pineapple into our smoothies and find that we are enjoying the taste. However, the canned stuff is another story.....

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Mice Get Trampled

The imminent closing of the Drakes Bay Oyster farm has attracted more national attention. Influential supporters and opponents are being marshaled on each side of the issue, and now there's an article in the NY Times.
Under the [Republican energy] bill, the Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013, permits for the nearly 2,000-mile Keystone XL pipeline would be expedited, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska would be opened for gas and oil development, more offshore drilling would be allowed – and the oyster farm’s operating permit would be extended for at least 10 years.
Adding the 21-employee oyster farm, with $1.5 million in annual revenue, to the battles over the multi-billion dollar Keystone pipeline and Arctic drilling does the oyster farm no favors.

Pro-environment politicians and activists who were willing to be flexible in the case of Drakes Bay may now be forced to oppose it because of the other, bigger matters at stake. In a battle of the pachyderms the mice get trampled. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 08, 2013

One Great Woman of History

Margaret Thatcher (10/13/1925 - 4/8/2013), the greengrocer's daughter, refused to bow to her betters in the boys' club. When the state ran everything and its problems seemed ever more intractable, her eloquence and energy reversed Great Britain's seemingly irreversible decline.

But it wasn't only her actions that made her memorable. David Brooks:
She championed a certain sort of individual, one who possessed what the writer Shirley Robin Letwin called the Vigorous Virtues: “upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends and robust against foes.”

If her predecessors stood for consensus and the endless negotiation of interests over beer and sandwiches, Thatcher stood for steadfast conviction on behalf of the national good. An admirer of the free market, her companion goal was to restore the authority of the state, and she was willing to centralize power to do it. [snip]

Today, bourgeois virtues like industry, competitiveness, ambition and personal responsibility are once again widely admired, by people of all political stripes. Today, technology is central to our world and tech moguls are celebrated.
The lady gave as good as she got, but, after 11 years of political conflict, as David Brooks wrote, "Thatcher had exhausted the country."

The calming salves of distance and time allow us, two decades later, to appreciate her leadership even more. R.I.P. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Simplicity Isn't Simple

Complexity permeates our lives. This phenomenon has been attributed to a host of factors, including changing technology, lawyers, and conflicting objectives. Some of us may be knowledgeable in specific areas---for example, computers, income taxes, or medicine---but it's impossible for anyone to navigate all important facets of modern life without professional help.

We yearn for the apocryphal simplicity of yester-year.
But there is nothing simple about simplicity, and achieving it requires following three major principles: empathizing (by perceiving others' needs and expectations), distilling (by reducing to its essence the substance of one's offer) and clarifying (by making the offering easier to understand or use).
Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn ("Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity") say that progress toward simplicity may be attained through the application of three principles: empathizing, distilling, and clarifying. Of the three, empathy is the most important.

Rx for simplicity: Target's prescription bottle
An example of empathy in action is Target Pharmacy's prescription bottles, which Deborah Adler redesigned by putting herself in the shoes of her grandparents.
Rearranging the small type on the typical prescription label, Ms. Adler put the information in a logical order, giving prominence to the things that people most need to know at the moment they are reaching for their medicine. She divided the label into two parts, separated by a thick black line, and placed the critical information, such as the name and dosage of the medication, at the top, with everything else relegated to the bottom.

Ms. Adler next considered the shape of the bottles. The wraparound labels on conventional round bottles were difficult to read, so she designed a flat tube-shaped container that stood upright on its cap, with plenty of room for a large, flat label that could be read easily at a glance.
We find that Target's bottles are easier to read, open, and store than the medicines from the two other pharmacies we use. Like Google's home page, Apple's iPhone, and Amazon's one-click shopping, they're islands of simplicity amidst oceans of complexity. Let's hope that these examples will multiply and prevail in a world of confusion. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Out of the Bottle

What is this?

What it's not:

1) Prototype of Darth Vader's helmet;
2) Magnified photo of microscopic organism;
3) Bowl of cottage cheese after a kitchen accident.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Wrong Career Choice

Hope they disinfect stuff that's recovered
(Examiner photo)
It's almost a relief to take a break from all the horrific violence in the news to read about a one-man Bay Area (nonviolent) crime wave [bold added]:
A “smooth-talking” thief has reportedly been posing as a customer at various businesses across the region and distracting employees in order to swipe cellphones and tablets off desks.

The thefts have been going on for weeks, but their extent wasn’t realized until the South San Francisco Police Department reported to the media about five incidents there and three in Burlingame.
We shouldn't make too light of this guy, because stealing a laptop or cellphone with sensitive personal and business information can be very damaging to the victim. And "in Daly City, according to police there, he went so low as to rob an employee of an assisted living facility."

Nevertheless, one can't help but wonder at his choices.
“He goes in, engages in long conversations and tries to gain their trust,” [Det. Mike] Garcia said. “He’s a real smooth talker, and apparently looks very clean cut.”
What's he doing ripping off iPads? He could have been very successful in marketing or politics. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Renaissance in Rail

At the office: a post from 2003
Railroads have been operating in the United States for 200 years, and their demise has been predicted since the advent of the Interstate Highway System. Decaying infrastructure, very unreliable schedules, inflexible union work rules, costly maintenance---the list of problems seemed endless a few decades ago.

Welcome to the revival of the Railroad Age. North America's major freight railroads are in the midst of a building boom unlike anything since the industry's Gilded Age heyday in the 19th century—this year pouring $14 billion into rail yards, refueling stations, additional track. With enhanced speed and efficiency, rail is fast becoming a dominant player in the nation's commercial transport system and a vital cog in its economic recovery.
To industry veterans "speed" and "efficiency" are not adjectives often associated with railroads. But economics (cost versus other modes of transportation) and technological innovation (not only in equipment, but probably more so in communications and information processing and analytics) have led to a renaissance in rail.

It doesn't happen all the time, but second chances do occur in business. The hopeful lesson: if one can manage to just hang on long enough (e.g., Apple, Mattel, Wells Fargo, Ford), it is possible to recapture a place in the sun. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Especially Popular

The Internal Revenue Service now e-mails Tax Tips to anyone who wants to be put on the list. Its latest missive, Get Connected to the IRS With Social Media, looks like it will be especially popular:
  • IRS2Go. IRS's free mobile app gives you your refund status, tax news updates, IRS You Tube videos and also lets you request your tax records. IRS2Go is available for the iPhone, iTouch or Android mobile devices.
  • YouTube. IRS offers video tax tips on a variety of topics in English, Spanish and American Sign Language.
  • Twitter. Tweets from @IRSnews provide tax-related announcements and daily tax tips. Tweets from @IRStaxpros offer news and guidance for tax professionals. Tweets from @IRSenEspanol have news and information in Spanish, and @RecruitmentIRS provides updates for job seekers.
  • Podcasts IRS has short audio recordings that offer one tax-related topic per podcast. They are available on iTunes or through the Multimedia Center. Transcripts of the Podcasts are also available.
  • Tumblr. IRS Tumblr is a microblogging platform where users can access IRS tax tips, videos, and podcasts. The IRS uses Tumblr to share information about important programs. Tumblr can be accessed from your browser, smartphone, tablet or desktop.
  • Who wouldn't want to "friend" the entity that knows everything about them financially and medically (the IRS is gearing up to audit compliance with Obamacare)? If the masses not only accept but embrace the inevitable, they will be much happier.
    O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. -- Orwell, 1984
    © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, April 02, 2013

    Afternoon at Half Moon Bay

    Fish and chips (Flickr, lfstewart)
    We pointed the car west to Half Moon Bay. The first stop was Barbara's Fish Trap, a very popular seafood house in Princeton-by-the-Sea. Barbara's Fish Trap has the no-frills ambience of the fishmonger's restaurant. It doesn't accept credit cards, the fish is very fresh, and there's a wait for a table even at 2 p.m. on a weekday. The fellow in front of us said that he always comes to Barbara's when he visits from Riverside, 434 miles to the south.

    Yes, the price of the saddle is $3,000.
    We ordered the fish- or calamari-and-chips, and the food tasted as good as it looked. The hot, crunchy crust married with a moist, tender interior rivaled the best Japanese tempura. We shared an appetizer of clam chowder in a bread bowl. Dipping chunks of sourdough into a thick mixture of clams, spices, and celery (but no cream, the chowder is ideal for the lactose intolerant) is the quintessential experience on the Northern California coast. Four fish entrees, clam chowder, three soft drinks, tax, and a 16% tip cost an even $100.

    Our next stop was the Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel store on Main Street. Live chickens were on display in coops close to the sign "The Best Place to Pick Up Chicks."

    On the front door was a Romney-Ryan sticker. Inside, scattered among the feed and livestock paraphernalia, were politically incorrect signs and cards. A moosehead was mounted over the front door. The sensibility of the store in these parts is, to say the least, unique.

    Prices, except for a few outliers like a $3,000 "show saddle," compared very favorably to those in the closer-in suburbs. We picked up some supplies for our guinea pigs. A large bag of grass was $5, a fraction of the cost online or at PetSmart. When we complained to the owner that alfalfa was mixed in with the grass (calcium in alfalfa can cause bladder stones in small animals), she promptly instructed the workers to fill a new bag from the pristine bales outside.

    Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel is on historic Main Street.
    Our final stop was the New Leaf Community Market, an organic-food chain that is slowly expanding into the Bay Area, though it's unlikely that we'll have one on the Peninsula any time soon. The prices were equal to or less (in some cases much less) than Whole Foods, so we bought three shopping bags (recyclable, of course) full of groceries.

    I was in Half Moon Bay just over a year ago for a charity function. We won't wait as long for our next visit. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, April 01, 2013

    She'll Never Be the One to Throw You Out

    At each of the five employers I've had during my career there were office moms:
    The office mom is shorthand for a figure in many offices: the colleague who remembers everyone's birthdays and brings in cupcakes. She has Advil and tissues in her desk drawer. She knows your significant other is all wrong for you—and will say so. [snip]

    Apropos of the company business, baby showers, engagement parties and birthday celebrations are officewide parties, replete with champagne, handcrafted decorations, ornately decorated cookies and tiered cakes.
    Observations from my own experience:

    1) The office mom does not arise spontaneously from the organizational ether. Management often wants to evince a caring touch and sets aside some funds for birthdays, employee anniversaries, etc. in the belief that celebrations boost employee morale. Executives ask secretaries, administrators, and/or human resource staff to be the unofficial office moms (often there is more than one). Personally, I've only seen women in that role.

    2) It used to be that younger women could be office moms. Nowadays they view it as a gender stereotype that would derail their careers. Older women seem to be more relaxed about donning the mantle.

    3) The office mom rarely is in a power, i.e., hire-and-fire, position. Like real moms, she'll never be the one to throw you out. © 2013 Stephen Yuen