Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dash Gastropub

My brother invited us to a pricey pupu bar, Dash Gastropub, near McCully and King. Because it was expensive and because he was paying, how could I say no?

Dash Gastropub is situated in what used to be a bank (neither of the majors, i.e.,  Bank of Hawaii or First Hawaiian). The owners haven't spent much re-doing the interior---the vault is clearly visible from the dining area---but that doesn't dissuade the crowd of mostly twenty-somethings from coming.

The sashimi is very fresh and uniquely presented, and the young and pretty cocktail waitresses made sure our glasses were filled. Dash is a little noisy but not overly so like some other places where one has to shout to make oneself heard. It's about two miles from Waikiki, and the small parking lot requires the use of a valet.

Next time I go to Dash I will walk there from my relatives', who live about a quarter-mile away. That way I don't have to count the beers. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Matson Terminal

As a child of the 1950's I watched Matson's great cruise ships, the Lurline and the Matsonia, disgorge excited California tourists at the Aloha Tower. Matson has long since sold off its passenger cruise and hotel businesses but remains a significant player in Hawaiian freight. The Matson terminal at Sand Island has grown substantially to accommodate the revolution in the bulk transportation of materials (intermodal, roll-on/roll-off, etc.).

Matson Navigation was acquired by one of Hawaii's original "Big Five" companies, Alexander & Baldwin, in 1969. A&B last year spun off Matson as a separate entity. Headquartered on Sand Island, MATX is Hawaii's 14th publicly traded company and has a market capitalization of over $1 billion. Much has changed since Captain William Matson began shipping sugar cane to the Mainland in 1882; what hasn't is the importance to the Islands of the company that bears his name. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, June 28, 2013

Honolulu at Night

The view south from St. Louis Heights 
Honolulu at night is comfortably warm. A T-shirt suffices when going out.  Unlike during the day, though, the lower temperature permits the wearing of a light jacket without overheating.  Wool suits, while elegant, are the mark of the newcomer.

Every year there are more lights from the decades-long building boom. Roofs sport solar panels, which are now making economic sense in the southernmost State.

The roads are jammed to capacity, and most of the residential construction is occurring west and north to where pineapple and sugar cane once grew.  However, Waikiki and downtown should remain the centers of commerce, culture, and government, and Honolulu at night should grow brighter for the foreseeable future.
© 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Shokudo Japanese Restaurant

On our first day in Honolulu we went to Shokudo Japanese Restaurant near the Ala Moana Shopping Center. We have frequently walked past Shokudo without venturing in; the lines out the door should have clued us to try it earlier.

Yelp-ers give Shokudo 3.5 out of 5 stars, dinging it for slow service. Having made reservations ahead of time, we waited only a few minutes.

Agedashi tofu
We ordered the agedashi ("lightly battered and fried") tofu. The soy sauce, calamari, green onion, and turnip garnish provided just the right amount of sweet saltiness to accentuate the custardy squares.

The assorted tempura looked like the familiar dish found in many Japanese restaurants, but the taste of Shokudo's version is something special. Shokudo infuses its tempura batter with ginger, and the texture--crisp and dry on the outside while being moist on the inside--was excellent; IMHO the tempura didn't need to be dipped in the dashi soy sauce bowl to enhance the flavor.

Unagi Bowl before the stirring
We had to order the unagi bowl because all the other tables were ordering it. The bowl is super-heated, the rice and unagi (eel) are laid in it, and the dish is promptly stirred by the waiter at the table. The rice is slightly charred---the way I like it---but will overcook if left in the bowl too long. The dish was well prepared but with one's eyes closed didn't seem much different from a decent piece of unagi sushi. Five stars for an ingenious presentation but only three stars for taste.

We weren't planning to have dessert, but the restaurant brought us two complimentary half(!)-servings of honey toast in honor of the two birthdays we were celebrating that day. The dessert didn't seem elaborate---fresh bread, vanilla ice cream, and honey--but was delicious, and we ate more of it than we thought we could.

On our next trip to the Islands, we'll be back. 4 stars out of 5, but we're conservative graders. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Long and Winding Road

Nine years after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples the U.S. Supreme Court
dramatically advanced gay rights Wednesday in rulings that direct the federal government to provide equal treatment to same-sex spouses and allow the resumption of gay marriages in California.

In a pair of 5-4 rulings on the final day of the court's term, the justices struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to gay couples married under state law, and let stand a ruling that found Proposition 8, a 2008 voter initiative that ended same-sex marriage in California, unconstitutional.
The court tiptoed to the edge of declaring that same-sex marriage was a universal civil right but declined, ruling that each State should decide for itself. However, it would be wise for traditional-marriage defenders to understand that the battle is over.
You don’t have to have been Nostradamus to have known that the fight for same-sex marriage in the USA and in Europe has been over for twenty years or more.
Meanwhile, now that Proposition 8 has been declared unconstitutional, same-sex weddings in California will probably resume within a month:
Backers of the ban known as Proposition 8 have 25 days to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. A midlevel appeals court also must lift a hold it placed on the lower court order before the state can be free to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Still, state officials moved quickly to signal their approval. Gov. Jerry Brown, who refused to defend Proposition 8 as governor and in his previous job as attorney general, said he had directed the California Department of Public Health to start issuing licenses to gay couples as soon as the hold ordered by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is lifted.
Soon we'll again be witnessing scenes from marriages at City Hall. From 2004:

The line starts at the snack bar

Snakes its way past the gift store
Into the hallway
Clerk's office in the distance
After getting their license, many get married
right away in this magnificent setting

[Update - 6/29/13: Well, that was quick. Headline: Same-sex couples flock to SF for weekend weddings. ]

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Education Bubble(heads)

A new app shows how to play and win the college game. It's all about throwing awesome parties and wearing the hottest clothes.

No job prospects and a hundred thousand dollars in debt? Just press "restart" and try again.  Who said the app was real life?


Monday, June 24, 2013

Not Feeling the Aloha

Life transitions, like changing jobs or moving, force us to complete long-neglected tasks. Documenting our work for whomever inherits it, throwing out stuff that might have been useful in a future that never came, and packing our possessions in the right boxes are stressful activities because there is a hard deadline looming.  The afterglow of accomplishment is the reward (but little else because there's scant recognition for doing what we should have been doing all along.)

Extended trips don’t have the same finality as life transitions, but they also to a lesser extent make us clean up our act. For over a week I had been hand-watering a patch of lawn that had been yellowing due to a broken sprinkler head. Yesterday I finally fixed the sprinkler. I prepaid some bills (not all of them can be scheduled online), replaced some worn bathroom fixtures, and closed out volatile securities positions that I did not want to worry about while away.

We were tired when we boarded the plane, but we were pleased with the past few days (see aforementioned afterglow).  The trip has started well.

[Note: a group of high school students entered the plane and blocked the aisles while they tried to jam their duffels into the 777’s overhead compartments. They were well-behaved and probably weren’t familiar with airplane etiquette. When a flight attendant asked one girl to let other groups pass, she complied, but the request did not seem to register with the other teens.

Does social IQ take longer to develop than other forms of intelligence? Your humble observer admits that he was (more) socially oblivious in his youth. Unfortunately, any gains he made in that area are more than offset by the deterioration in his alertness, memory, and speed of mental processing.  If I only knew then what I know now.....]

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Old Fashioned

Yes, it's possible to have fun on a Sunday morning without resorting to hand-held electronics. The week of "vacation Bible school" wrapped up with music, a costumed enactment of Biblical passages, and a picnic in Pescadero. And it's always nice to have made some new friends outside of school.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Car in the House!"

Mercury News photo
Another teenager drives his car into a house.
A quiet South San Jose neighborhood Friday night became the scene of a sudden inferno that consumed two homes when a stolen car slammed into one of the homes, rupturing a gas line. The car, carrying four juveniles, spun out of control just before midnight when the driver tried to evade police.
Luckily, no one was hurt seriously.

In 2004 a teen crashed into a Foster City house a block away.
Perhaps the reckless behavior is the result of watching too many movie car chases, which show people walking away from horrific accidents. Another reason could be the influence of video games, which resurrect the player with a push of the button.

Older drivers, of course, have been known to crash into buildings, but very few of them do so at high speed and with such disregard for the wellbeing of bystanders. The age of the driverless car cannot come soon enough. © 2013 Stephen Yuen
[Update - 6/23/13: the driver was 12 years old.]

Friday, June 21, 2013

The End of Privacy

One of the current national debates is over the tradeoff between security and privacy. In the case of the elderly, however, some loss of privacy seems to be inevitable so that they may live independently as long as possible. Three examples of how technology helps seniors who live alone [bold added]:
Next month, [Iggy] Fanlo and his team will launch Lively, a sensor-based technology that tracks an elderly person's movements at home. Small wireless sensors are placed around the house -- on the bathroom door, refrigerator or pill box -- and count on average how many times the pill box opens or how long the elderly person stays in the bathroom. Lively figures out the person's daily routine, and if something goes awry -- maybe the pill box opens only once, but the medication has three daily doses -- the company will alert family, friends and neighbors with text messages and emails. [snip]

Home repairs can also cause anxiety for older people living alone and their caregivers. ClubLocal, a free Web service and mobile app that launched in parts of the Bay Area this month, does background checks on plumbers, handymen and electricians, and sets the price of each service to prevent dishonest markups, said founder Zorik Gordon. [snip]

Advances in wireless technology are helping seniors get medical care without leaving home. Oakland software company Sovran is working with an Asian health tech company, ConnectedHealth, to provide technology that remotely measures a patient's glucose levels and other vitals, reducing visits to the doctor and hospital stays.
Deeply personal, round-the-clock information will be gathered on senior citizens, who either by themselves or through relatives agreed to submit it voluntarily in order to maintain their health and independence. The information, once collected, cannot be walled off from prying eyes, as recent events have shown.

In the opinion of your humble observer, most people will accede to the loss of privacy in favor of other priorities. The end of privacy---and liberty---will occur with a whimper, not a bang. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Weight of the World

The conversation was very "Syria-s."

It doesn't prevent others from making fun.

David Letterman: "Look at those guys. Like Thanksgiving with your relatives...except for the flags! The problem is that they have nothing to say to one another because they've been bugging each other's phones."

Jay Leno: "[Putin] looks like every divorced guy at the Oakwood Apartments. 'Yeah, yeah, what do you want?'"

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Simply Waiting

A country road. A tree. Evening.

With this simple stage instruction "the most significant English language play of the 20th century" premiered a little over 60 years ago. Waiting for Godot is about two tramps who spend the day waiting for a man named Godot, who--spoiler alert!--never comes. Vladimir and Estragon talk, a few characters enter and leave the scene, they talk some more, they engage in humdrum activities (trying on boots, eating a carrot), and the play ends, the strong implication being that they'll be waiting for Godot tomorrow.

The action and plot development are minimal, and today's ADD audience would be checking their smartphones in a minute. But that's precisely the point: in our effort to avoid the bleakness of existence ("They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more") we create distractions. We may natter on about meaning and purpose, but we all end up in the same place.

Nathan Lane and John Goodman, 2009 Broadway production.
(NY Times)
In English courses of the Sixties and Seventies Waiting for Godot was required reading. Your humble high school student exasperatedly kept looking for a storyline, conflict, and resolution, before realizing that traditional dramatic structures weren't present. The meaning was that there was no meaning. (Wow, that's heavy, man.)

Whether one agrees with the playwright's vision of existence, one can appreciate his yearning for simplicity: one scene on a stage devoid of embellishment, a few characters with no flashy costuming, and a couple of hand-held props. Cleanse your body, mind, and surroundings, say the wise men of religion or psychiatry. Even if Godot doesn't come, at least we'll have cleaned up the clutter. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Getting the Most from Social Security

Boston University professor and Social Security expert Laurence Kotlikoff, after years of studying Social Security's "devilishly complex" provisions, has formulated three general rules for maximizing one's lifetime benefits:
Rule A: Take Social Security's really good deal, namely waiting to collect much higher benefits, over somewhat fewer years.

Rule B: Take spousal, survivor, mother/father, and child benefits, which may be available to you based on your current or former spouse's earnings history.

Rule C: Make sure that following Rule A doesn't undermine following Rule B and vice versa.
Using a hypothetical example, CBS Moneywatch confirms his approach:
A working husband files for his benefits at full retirement age [currently 66 to 67, depending on one's date of birth], and his spouse (with little or no earnings history) files for her spousal benefits.

The husband's request to file also includes an immediate request to suspend his benefits. By doing this, his wife can begin to receive her spousal benefits.

Later, ideally at age 70, the husband can claim his benefits when the monthly amount is larger.
There are many exceptions, of course, to the traditional-American-family-plus-lengthy-golden-years scenario. Both spouses may have long earnings histories, either or both may have divorced and remarried, either or both may have poor health, or the family finances may not be able to afford deferring the benefits. Most individuals will require expert help to run the numbers; failing that, they may decide to make an important and irreversible decision based on "gut feel."

It is a sad fact of modern life that interactions with our government, such as paying taxes, receiving benefits, or applying for permits and licenses, are complex and burdensome, where the penalties for making a mistake can be significant. Thanks go to Prof. Kotlikoff, whose articles on Social Security are a regular feature on, for helping us to navigate these treacherous waters. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, June 17, 2013

Bush League Treatment

The Oakland payroll ranks near the bottom
Major league baseball players are blessed with physical gifts, adulation, and wealth. Just making the team guarantees a minimum salary of $490,000, while superstars like Yankees C. C. Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez make north of $20 million per year.

That said, consider the plight of the Oakland Athletics, one of baseball's best teams. The A's won the American League West division in 2012 and are in the lead again this year with a third of the season completed. Despite their excellence the payroll is one of the lowest in baseball; the top three players on the New York Yankees make more than the A's entire 25-man roster.

The A's also have to endure playing in baseball's worst park. The 46-year-old Oakland Coliseum is the only remaining "dual purpose" stadium that hosts both major league baseball and National Football League games. Its deteriorating infrastructure and high-crime surroundings hold the attendance down (another factor is ownership's regular attempts to move the team out of Oakland). Attendance this year ranks in the bottom third of major league cities; in 2011, before the team became a contender, Oakland was dead last.

Perhaps the, er, low-water mark occurred this Sunday, when a sewage leak forced the A's and visiting Seattle Mariners to abandon the clubhouses and take showers in the Oakland Raiders' locker room upstairs. Snippets from USA Today:
[A's owner Lew Wolff]: "It's all a bunch of crap."

[Lew Wolff] was all set for a nice meal at the Athletics' Westside club on Wednesday night, he divulged, when a raw sewage leak emerged in the kitchen. The restaurant was immediately shut down.

The Los Angeles Angels, who play in Oakland nine times during the year, have filed complaints in the past about the conditions, worried about E. coli in the training room.
It turns out that sewage leaks have been occurring since 1975. No, your humble observer does not feel sorry for A's players, but they do deserve better. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day Tribute

Below is my 2004 Father's Day post, which I've amended over the years:

I remember when Dad

  • Drove me to Little League three times a week and helped me work on my pitching motion every day after school.
  • Worked three jobs, which explained why he was always tired, so that he could buy a house and send all his kids to private school.
  • Installed all the wiring when the church put in its pipe organ.
  • Bought me a violin for $350, which was a lot of money in 1965.
  • Let me visit him in his office, where he was the manager. The atmosphere was hushed, quieter than a classroom (this was a long time ago).
  • Taught me chess, which was not one of his favorite games.
  • Helped get me great summer jobs at Brewer Chemical and Dole Pineapple.
  • Quit smoking, for his sake and ours, when the Surgeon General issued the first warning on cigarettes.
  • Gave me the family car when I learned how to drive.
  • Lectured me on how to treat women----politely, and always with respect.

    Happy Father's Day, Dad, we'll see you soon. © 2013 Stephen Yuen
  • Saturday, June 15, 2013

    Plus C'est la Même Chose

    When one is offered enormous power, what should be the response?

    Gandalf, a fictional wizard:
    With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly....Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great for my strength. I shall have such need of it. Great perils lie before me.
    Jesus (Matthew 4:8):
    the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’
    The good individual's instinct is to fear the corrupting effect of power on themselves. If power is thrust upon them nevertheless, the self-aware wield it with great restraint. Based on the revelations of the past month, there is little self-awareness to be found in Washington. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, June 14, 2013

    Sleepless in San Francisco

    Fitful sleep has been our constant companion for the past 40 years due to the usual culprits: work-related stress, lack of physical activity, and a two-cup-a-day coffee habit. After early retirement and a welcome change in career, I'm making progress on the stress and exercise but have been unwilling to cut the caffeine...until this week when I switched to decaf.

    Quitting cold turkey was tough for a couple of days; the morning headaches made it difficult to concentrate, and by the late afternoon the craving for a nap became nearly overwhelming. However, I'm now sleeping through the night, and problem-solving during the workday seems a little sharper (measured from a low starting point, to be sure).

    According to the American Psychiatric Association,
    To be diagnosed with caffeine withdrawal, a patient must experience at least three of five symptoms within 24 hours of stopping or reducing caffeine intake: headache, fatigue or drowsiness, depressed mood or irritability, difficulty concentrating, and flulike symptoms such as nausea or muscle pain.
    With three withdrawal symptoms checked, your humble observer sure looks like he was/is "addicted" to caffeine, but he's content to leave that final judgment to the professionals.

    Thursday, June 13, 2013

    Afternoon Amble

    Grant Ave. had very light traffic.
    After several meetings in the Financial District, it was a perfect afternoon for a walk up to Chinatown.

    Tourists chattered away in their native tongues; Asians were nattily dressed, while Europeans and Americans tended to be attired more comfortably in shorts and T-shirts.

    Everyone was taking pictures with their phones; they fearlessly snapped away standing in the middle of streets, which, except for Broadway, were largely free of cars.  A word to the wise visitor: tour San Francisco during the weekday.

    (Only have one day? Try this San Francisco Quickie Tour.)

    Wednesday, June 12, 2013

    Sound Reconstruction

    Redacted , 18th-century style (AP photo via SJMN)
    216 years ago critics complained to composer Luigi Cherubini that his opera, Médée, was too long, so he used charcoal to black out its coda. To operators of the Stanford Linear Accelerator, which is used to divine the mysteries of the universe, unmasking Cherubini's secret aria was child's play. The SLAC scientists fired X-rays at the blacked-out pages, causing the metallic ink of the hidden notes to fluoresce.

    Technology was used to reveal information long thought lost. It did not violate anyone's privacy or debunk a story that someone holds dear. Everyone seems to praise the result. That's refreshing. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, June 11, 2013

    I Got It Almost Right

    From November 8th, surveying the "superiority" of the big-data tools that the President used to demolish Governor Romney's campaign:
    Holding the Presidency confers an enormous advantage. The incumbent party--whether Democrat or Republican--will have access to oceans of data not necessarily available to its opponent. It is nigh impossible to enforce privacy rules, especially since enforcement is done largely through self-policing.
    The error was in thinking that the access to and misuse of big data applied to future campaigns.

    Monday, June 10, 2013

    We Don't Need No Stinking Badges

    ....or diplomas. When a product (college) costs more and delivers less value (jobs), young people may well become discouraged about their prospects of achieving the American dream. Fortunately, in the recovering tech economy college is not the only path to a good job. Employers are hiring workers with aptitude in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM). [bold added].
    A new report, "The Hidden STEM Economy," reveals that a university degree is not required for 27.5 percent of all jobs in the San Jose area in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. The number is even higher -- 36 percent -- in San Francisco and the East Bay. [snip]

    Drawing from high schools, vocational schools and community colleges, these jobs pay annual salaries averaging $73,000 [note: the national average is $53,000]-- less than positions requiring a university degree, but $30,000 a year more than those in fields outside science, technology, engineering and math.
    It won't be easy, one may have to defer one's "real" calling, and one may have to swallow some pride initially because of lower pay and status, but after a few months on the job most co-workers won't care about where or even if one went to college. In the pay-for-performance economy it's remarkable how many people succeed once they get in the door.

    Sunday, June 09, 2013

    Sunday Lectionary: A Widow's Lot

    On Sunday mornings the pews near the front are filled with white-haired ladies, all of whom have survived their husbands by years, even decades. Though their lives have difficulties, pity them not; the lot of widows has come a long way since Biblical times.
    Luke 7
    12 As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.” 14 Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
    The focus of the passage has always been about raising the young man from the dead, but it's worth spending a moment to reflect upon how much the miracle meant to his mother. Women did not own property, and up until the 19th century, were even considered by most cultures to be the property of men. Jesus' heart went out to the widow not only for the obvious reason that she had lost her husband and son, but because without a male to provide for her she faced a lifetime of extreme hardship.

    Today, whether the sexes are treated substantially equally and whether the social safety net is adequate are matters open to discussion. What isn't subject to debate is that full-fledged property and other rights for women have led to a more just and good society, one in which the white-haired ladies, without whom the church itself would not long survive, can hold their heads with dignity. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Saturday, June 08, 2013

    The Age of the Philosopher King

    The ship has sailed, the barn door is open, the genie can't be put back in the bottle---use whatever metaphor you like. The government knows more about us than we had imagined, and soon, with ever-faster processors, ever-increasing storage capacity, and ever-more-powerful analytical tools it will know everything. If people didn't see this coming ten years ago, they weren't paying attention. But that's beside the point. They can't stop it.

    When individuals have enormous power at their disposal, we try to make sure they do not misuse it by imposing physical safeguards (e.g., ICBM's) and legal restraints (e.g., a declaration of war is made by Congress, not the Commander-in-Chief). Systems of control, however, are as imperfect as the human beings who designed them. While improper behavior should be detected and corrected, the first line of defense must be to install people who have a strong ethical code, the right set of priorities (e.g., country before party, other people before oneself) and good judgment.

    The American founders did their best to design a political system that did not require its leaders to have a moral character superior to the rest of society. However, when we consider the damage that could arise from the "wrong people" being in charge of, say, nuclear weapons or the Federal Reserve, then the corrective of replacing the government after four years seems woefully inadequate.

    We are left with the solution that Plato proposed thousands of years ago, that of entrusting leadership to the philosopher-king:
    we must make our guardians philosophers. The necessary combination of qualities is extremely rare. Our test must be thorough, for the soul must be trained up by the pursuit of all kinds of knowledge to the capacity for the pursuit of the highest--higher than justice and wisdom--the idea of the good.
    "The idea of the good" is nowhere to be found on the Civil Service application for a job at the NSA. In fact the opposite behavior may well have been evidenced by the IRS. And that is why a lot of people are scared. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, June 07, 2013

    Even As Winter Approaches

    "Father's Day" books at Barnes&Noble
    I used to frequent bookstores often, but now that most of my reading is done electronically I rarely darken their doors. Today I spent a couple of hours at Barnes & Noble and remembered why that used to be one of my favorite pastimes.

    By displaying wares that one can touch and browse, bookstores---and libraries---tempt me to reach for books that would not have popped up in a search request. I toss them into the basket, and so it is that I have many more books than I'll ever be able to read. The half-completed and never-opened volumes on the nightstand may, to some, represent unrealized ambition. As winter approaches, I prefer to think of them as a sign of life's endless possibilities. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, June 06, 2013

    The Fight Was Unfair

    Most Americans believe in a fair fight, especially in politics. Though the United States population has grown by a factor of more than 100 since its founding, Americans hold to the ideal of the town hall: let everyone have their say, give people time to think and talk about the issues, vote (in secret, to avoid retaliation), then move on to the business of living.

    That's one of the reasons that the use of the Internal Revenue Service to suppress conservative speech has resonated across the country. By refusing to grant conservative organizations exempt status before the election and by illegally leaking the names of conservative donors (thereby subjecting them to harassment), opposition voices were stilled. The fight was unfair.

    Peggy Noonan:
    Almost a month after the IRS story broke—a month after the high-profile scandal started to unravel after a botched spin operation that was meant to make the story go away—no one has been able to produce a liberal or progressive group that was targeted and thwarted by the agency's tax-exemption arm in the years leading up to the 2012 election.
    President Obama may well have won re-election anyway. The partisan use of the enormous powers of the IRS guaranteed it.

    Wednesday, June 05, 2013

    "The Worst Tax Season Ever"

    A bounce from the bad feelings: ecstasy when it's over.
    It's been said that CPA's like our complicated tax system just fine because the system allows them to bring in more revenue. Why is it, then, that many have left or are leaving the tax preparation business? A sampling of comments from the "worst tax season" ever:
    easy or quick returns are being done by the taxpayer online.....complicated returns, while expensive to the client, usually work out to a worse hourly rate for the accountant.

    The rules don’t get finalized until late in the year. That causes the information to come out later every year. And the financial institutions are issuing 2 and 3 amended reports after the originals are issued. As recently as 5 years ago, I used to do 2/3 of my returns in February. Now the last 2 years I do 2/3 after March 15.

    New Mexico Taxation and Revenue and the Department of Workforce Solutions decided to mandate all businesses e-file unemployment, state workers comp fee and witholding for the period ending 12/31/12. The kicker was, the system had never been tested and still doesn’t work. I am still struggling with filing P/R tax reports and penalties assessed because New Mexico can’t get a system that works. More returns on extension than ever before and no end in sight!

    Absolutely the worst – a good deal due to Congress late changes and updates requred by IRS and software vendors. But for me mainly due to major software problems with [.....] unrelated to the late updates.
    The regulatory state insists that the governed meet all the deadlines that it imposes though it is late holding up its end of the bargain. It does not allow the governed to deviate from the proliferating rules that it refuses to impose on itself. With experienced tax practitioners departing the business, non-expert taxpayers who need outside help have fewer resources to call on and are more likely to make mistakes or, worse, don't bother to comply at all.

    And so it goes in the 21st-century land of the free. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, June 04, 2013

    Keeping The Feelings Going

    Every week we sort garbage into three carts.
    Duke professor Michael Munger examines the economics and logic of recycling. He concludes that mandatory recycling, which has spread to more and more communities including ours, is not economically justified even if we make allowances for a) the higher "true" cost of landfill sans recycling and b) the under-recognized value of some recyclables (e.g. aluminum cans).

    For many people recycling has become a moral, even religious, imperative immune to analysis. And so it is that we have "a long line of cars, engines idling, waited to pull up to the recycling facility" and some communities encouraging the use of the dishwasher to clean plastics and cans before they are dumped in the blue containers.

    Much of our motivation to recycle stems from a desire to feel good about ourselves, and now it appears that we are willing to pay an ever higher price to keep those feelings going. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, June 03, 2013

    Cheering Him On

    University of Arizona graphic
    When an outsider comes up with a "breakthrough" in a specialized area, the natural reaction of the experts is to pooh-pooh the discovery. Why haven't we heard of this guy, what are his credentials, what did he publish, etc. are all questions commonly leveled at the interloper, usually with good reason; rarely do these so-called breakthroughs pan out.

    Nevertheless, there's great appeal in the someone-who-comes-out-of-nowhere story. It gives hope to all of us that it is possible to master knowledge or skill in a new area (for us), and we enjoy watching the discomfiture of the proud lions in the field. This phenomenon may be happening in the rarefied air of theoretical physics.
    Eric Weinstein gave a lecture at Oxford in which he outlined a theory that he has apparently been working on for a number of years. [It] is an attempt at a Theory of Everything — specifically, a theory that would unify the standard model of particle physics with general relativity, explain dark matter and dark energy, and basically provide a synthesis that would resolve many of the big questions facing physics today.

    This sort of thing is always exciting. But this proposal gained particular attention for the fact that Eric Weinstein is not a Physics professor. Yes, he has a PhD in math from Harvard, but he has been out of academia for twenty years, and his day job is at a hedge fund in New York.
    The greatest minds from Einstein to Hawking have been struggling to construct the Theory of Everything, and it's very unlikely that a non-physicist has come up with major new insights, much less The Answer. Of course, it was more unlikely that, just over a hundred years ago, a Swiss patent-office clerk would revolutionize the way we look at the universe.

    Very few can follow what Eric Weinstein is doing, but many are cheering him on. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, June 02, 2013

    Another Commencement Address

    A good commencement address by Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, filled with wisdom (no, really!). A sampling:
    It is true that as an economist, I know precisely what the future holds. But union rules prevent me from sharing that knowledge with the general public.

    Communities matter. Communities influence your behavior and shape who you will become. So choose your communities wisely. What is the right community for one person is not necessarily the right community for another. Find a place that will support you and push you to be a better person, as this school has. So far in life, your parents have often chosen the communities for you. But going forward, this is going to be more of your responsibility.

    Your niche in life—your comparative advantage [blogger's note: he's an economics professor and can't help himself]—is out there waiting for you. You may not find it immediately. It may present itself to you at an unexpected time and an unexpected place. Be sure to be ready with an open mind.

    Saturday, June 01, 2013

    Jean Stapleton (1923-2013)

    All in the Family was the top-rated series on television from 1971 to 1976 for good reason. The writing was sharp and funny, each episode dealt with contemporary controversial topics, and the principal characters, though they began as stereotypes, became richly fleshed out over the series' run. Above all the actors were outstanding, none more so than Jean Stapleton, who died today at the age of 90.

    Ms. Stapleton played Edith Bunker, the "dingbat" whom Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker verbally abused but deeply loved. Edith was the naive innocent who always assumed that everyone had pure motives. With great discipline the magnificent actress Jean Stapleton never broke character and always delivered her lines with wide-eyed innocence. By never revealing that she was in on the joke, she sometimes got the biggest laughs.

    In honor of current events, below is an excerpt (2:33 on the YouTube clip [update 6/7 oops, removed due to copyright claim]) from Archie's Fraud, when Archie didn't report income on his tax return:
    Archie, reacting to daughter Gloria and son-in-law Michael greeting each other with a deep kiss: "you don't see me coming home and slobbering all over your mother."

    Edith: "that's right, Gloria, your father was never much of a slobberer.....He's more of a pecker!"
    Jean Stapleton in 1972 sounded very much like a college-age feminist in 2013: "What Edith represents is the housewife who is still in bondage to the male figure, very submissive and restricted to the home. She is very naive, and she kind of thinks through a mist, and she lacks the education to expand her world. I would hope that most housewives are not like that." R.I.P.