Monday, September 30, 2013

Cart Before Horse

From Walt Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs:
“Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it,” he said. This made him charismatic and inspiring, yet also, to use the technical term, an asshole at times.”
Unfortunately, too many would-be tycoons think that being an a**hole is sufficient to be the next Steve Jobs. Sorry guys, smarts, vision, and a willingness to work round the clock are also requirements. And if you happen not to make it and aren't a jerk, at least you'll have some friends when it's over. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lunch Line

The no-strings-attached lunch line snaked past several picnic tables. Trays of lasagna, salad, and bread greeted the diners on the way in, and bags of sandwiches were handed to them on the way out.

The kids said that they look forward to feeding people at the community center. The warm feeling they get is less intense than with other activities, but the memories seem to be longer lasting.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why We Like Home Shows

More items in our old home need repair or replacement, so we've been frequenting home shows to get ideas. Sometimes the technology is so much more advanced--for example, tankless water heaters--over what we have that we place an order on the spot.

We spent the day at the San Mateo Fall Home, Landscape and Solar Show. This time we just did what we usually do--truck home an armload of brochures. Solar panels are hot now---the cost is coming down while the quality and performance are going up---so we'll probably be a buyer in the next 2-3 years. Bathroom remodels and driveway repaving are also on the list.

Obviously, we don't have to go to a home show to do research or to place an order. But they're a good place to dream. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Crisis That Isn't

Sooner or later one of these governance "crises" will have dire consequences, but your humble observer doubts that the impending October 1st shutdown of the Federal government will have different results from the sequester, the 2012 debt limit kerfuffle, or the 2012 U.S. Treasury downgrade. Some people, such as government employees, will be affected, but the rest of the country will probably just shake its collective head and hope that the stalemate does not go on too long.
While there has been no government shutdown since 1996, there were 17 separate events in the previous 20 years so clearly the markets would not be too inconvenienced by a brief hiatus. Analysis by Rabobank found that the previous events had very little impact on bond yields. The famous 1995 shutdown did not make a dent in a roaring equity bull market.
Undoubtedly the House Republicans will take most of the blame for the shutdown, but I can't fault them too much for their desperate and seemingly futile attempt to stem the tide of big government. Increased government control over medical care, education, and banking seems to have made the problems in those areas worse; the proposed solutions always involve more spending, prosecuting the "crimes" of the people working in those sectors, and more regulation and more laws.

Someday lenders will stop lending, taxpayers will stop paying taxes, and government services will be shut down in earnest, but the good news is that it won't be this October 1st. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Larry's World

Oracle Team USA's comeback from an 8-1 deficit to capture the America's Cup was another feather in the cap for Larry Ellison, the richest and oldest member of the Bay Area billionaires' club. Over the past 35 years Oracle Corporation, which Ellison founded, has brushed aside and absorbed former high-fliers like Siebel Systems, PeopleSoft, and Sun Microsystems.

Last year he acquired most of the Island of Lanai and is transforming it into a laboratory for eco-friendly ways to live.

Oracle Team USA's come-from-behind victory was historic not only in the history of yachting but of all sports. For Larry Ellison it's just another chapter in a unique bio that includes both curfew violations for flying his Gulfstream over San Jose residences and a promise to donate most of his estate to charity. At the still-vigorous age of 69, Larry Ellison doesn't appear to be done yet. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Making College Happier

Yale junior Geng Ngarmboonanant argues for lowering the drinking age to 18:
The merits of lowering the drinking age are relatively clear. We know that college students drink. But the current law drives college students “underground” to consume alcohol, like when students take shots in quick succession in dorm rooms. The current drinking age also edges students toward other illegal activities, such as purchasing fake IDs in order to enter bars and clubs. [snip]

In fact, we would be joining a group of 136 colleges, including Dartmouth and Duke, who are signatories of the Amethyst Initiative. Amethyst — which means “not intoxicated” in Greek — is a coalition of college presidents who urge a reconsideration of the national drinking age.
As with other risky human behaviors, 18-to-21 drinking would be made safer if it came out of the shadows.

Personal note: I imbibed at 18 when it was legal to do so, and college was a happy time for me. I just wish I could remember it better.....

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Stanford Apple Store

Four days after the announcement, customers are waiting in line for today's iPhone 5S shipment.
Defying the trend toward a smaller retail footprint, Apple has opened a 12,000 square-foot store at the Stanford Shopping Center. The new store's area represents an eleven-fold increase over its predecessor. Of course, we had to see it for ourselves and were impressed, but not entirely in a good way.

When we wrote about Apple's new "spaceship" headquarters, we could have been talking about its retail edifices.
Concerning Apple's glorious new "spaceship" campus that will be ready in 2016, we are reminded of the words of C. Northcote Parkinson:

"During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters," he wrote. "The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death."
The showroom is capacious. No chairs, though, don't get too comfortable
The room with the Genius Bar and accessories for iPhone, iPad and iMac does have chairs.

Monday, September 23, 2013

We Don't Appreciate Them

Former Secretary of Education and conservative commentator Bill Bennett is the latest to rail against Congress' exempting itself from Obamacare:
Imagine the horror when these elected officials, who make $174,000 a year, realized that not only must they and their staffers be subject to inferior-quality health exchanges like the millions of ordinary Americans, but they might also have to shell out thousands of dollars for increased premiums if they exceed the subsidy income cutoff. [snip]

Heaven forbid Congress suffer the same fate as private companies like UPS, which recently had to cut health-care benefits entirely for employees' spouses; or labor unions, like the 40,000 International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers who recently left the AFL-CIO citing as one factor ObamaCare's tax on their "Cadillac" health-care plans.
It's also a shame that Congress and its staffers must pay income taxes, serve on juries, and abide the traffic laws. Let's hope that they're working on exempting themselves from those, too. The poor dears work so hard for us, and we don't appreciate them enough. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Roughing It

A younger version of your humble observer would have just donned his hiking shoes and started walking. Now he puts on the SPF50 sunscreen and sprays on the mosquito repellent. A GPS-enabled smartphone loaded with podcasts and fitness apps is another essential for the 21st-century incarnation of roughing it.

He threw caution to the winds and left behind his water bottle. John Muir would have been proud. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Still Achievable

Bob Funk, founder of a company that finds jobs for 500,000 people annually, says obtaining employment is still achievable for most people:
"First you need integrity; second, a strong work ethic; and, third, you have to be able to pass a drug test." If an applicant can meet those minimal qualifications, he says, "I guarantee I can find employers tomorrow who will hire you."
However, Bob Funk does not guarantee enjoyment, fulfillment, friendship, or fame. That's why it's called work.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Secret to Happiness

Is it possible to find happiness through buying stuff? We know that true happiness comes from finding meaning in life, personal relationships, and all that furrowed eyebrow yada-yada, but it sure felt good to a family member when he ordered his new iPhone 5S at 12:05 a.m. this morning.

The 5S will be arriving next week. He's getting the Silver version; the Gold is in short supply, oversubscribed because that color is the only way to distinguish an iPhone 5S from a distance. Flaunting a status symbol is a source of happiness for many people, but not for our family member. He'll wear that Cheshire-cat smile when he pockets his new iPhone, and only a few people will know why.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Artistic Fonts and Pretty Colors

Minard's graph: West to East and back again-
Napoleon's Grand Army shrunk to almost nothing
Human beings have great difficulty understanding mass amounts of data:
Humans are fundamentally different from computers—we're wired to comprehend shapes, patterns and colors. So technology companies are using data visualization to help companies turn large sets of data into pictures that lead people intuitively to the information that is most important to them.
A friend of mine teaches a course on Edward Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information. He leads with Charles Minard's brilliant 1869 rendering of Napoleon's disastrous foray into Russia. The classic graph is renowned for its ability to communicate changes in disparate variables (time, population, location, temperature) in a quickly understood visual form.

Contrast Minard's presentation with the product of newbie analysts, who graph every data set without much consideration for the ultimate point that they are trying to get across. Just as typing one's stream-of-consciousness does not a meaningful essay (or blog post!) make, artistic fonts and pretty colors are no substitute for thought. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Somewhere Euclid is Smiling

Image and article from Quanta magazine
"[P]article interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry ....Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression."

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Techies yawned, and AAPL plunged after its Sept 10th iPhone 5S announcement.
Apple's September 10th iPhone announcement was underwhelming to commentators who expected the new iPhones (the 5S and 5C) to come up with revolutionary methods to slice bread or trap mice. The second disappointment was the failure to announce a highly anticipated deal with China Mobile, China's largest cellphone network. But it doesn't appear that there will be a third strike.

Analysts who have had time to test the phones, especially the 5S, are beginning to sing their praise. Walt Mossberg, WSJ:
the new iPhone 5S is a delight. Its hardware and software make it the best smartphone on the market.
Anick Jesdanun, AP Technology Writer:
When I got my hands on Apple's new iPhone 5S, one of the first things I tried was a feature that allows you to bypass the passcode using a fingerprint. I had a lot of fun unlocking the phone over and over again. Who knew biometric authentication could be such a blast?

The fingerprint sensor alone is worth the extra $100 you'll pay for the 5S over an iPhone 5C. Both phones will come out Friday. In the week I've had with both, I've also been impressed with the better camera and slow-motion video in the 5S.
Myriam Joire, Engadget:
Is the 5s the best iPhone ever made? Yes, though that shouldn't come as a surprise. Apple took a good product and made it better through hardware upgrades, new features and a completely revamped software.
In the days ahead we'll see if the stock price reflects this re-assessment. As an Apple investor, I hope that it will.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Just Another Tweet

Twitter tweeted (of course) that it's filed paperwork that will lead to an IPO. Analysts and investment bankers estimate the company could be worth $10 billion, an aggressive valuation since we know that its sales are under $1 billion for the year (no mention has been made about profits):
The firm has taken advantage of a rule that lets companies with less than $1 billion in revenue file for an IPO confidentially (eMarketer, a research firm, reckons Twitter’s sales will be $583m this year).
Because of the SEC's small-filers exemption, we know very little about Twitter's finances. However, the finances of Twitter employees and San Francisco realtors and luxury car dealers are definitely looking up.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

It's Now Respectable

I did a double-take when I passed by Costco's new display of hemp oil.

Hemp, as every child of the Sixties knows, has many uses, some illegal but enjoyable.

Not to worry, parents, hemp oil is a health food and is not the same as hemp juice. As the label says, it's organic, and if it's organic it must be good for you, nicht wahr?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Battle of the Ecosystems

This humble blog has used Blogger, Google's free blogging and hosting service, for the past ten years. We are also regular users of other free Google applications, gmail, Maps, Calendar, and the Chrome browser, to name but a few. However, we're not monogamous: our hardware is mostly Apple, plus a few legacy PC's for business, and we admit that we're dependent on Apple's App store, iOS, iCal, iCloud, iTunes, and other "i"-services to make it through the day.

We haven't been posting to this blog all week because there's been a glitch in Blogger that won't let us log in. Obviously, a workaround surfaced. Other users pointed to the solution: stop using Chrome, the default browser on our Macs and PCs, and switch to Firefox or Apple's Safari.

Becoming too dependent on one company's ecosystem is a recipe for disaster. (Going all-Apple is not the answer either: if you switched from Google to Apple Maps last year, you could have died.)

The ecosystems do talk to one another. For example, entries on the Google Calendar automatically show up on iCal, so all our devices are linked and sync'ed to a certain extent. It's becoming less necessary to choose sides, and for safety's sake we're not going to. In diversity there is strength. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, September 13, 2013

Syria: the Thinnest Reed

I didn't support Mr. Obama (twice), but he is the Commander-in-Chief, and the use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians by Bashar al-Assad was an atrocity, so I'm predisposed to support whatever the President decides to do about Syria, whether it be negotiations, threats of force, or actual use of force. The condition for me and most Americans has to be: whatever the plan, it should be well thought-out, explainable, and have reasonable prospects of success.

For an excellent orator, however, President Obama left many people confused by his speech on Tuesday:
I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use. [Comment: OK, chemical weapons are a big national security problem, a "targeted military strike" apparently is the answer.]

I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo. This would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons, and degrading Assad’s capabilities. [Comment: however, the U.S. military won't go all-in, there won't be boots on the ground or by inference lots of killing and damage.]

The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don't think we should remove another dictator with force -- we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons. [Comment: on the other other hand, the U.S. attack won't be so pinprick-y small that it won't hurt. Certainly we don't want to remove Assad. Mr. Assad, we just want you "to think twice before using chemical weapons" next time.]

I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. [Comment: a Congressional authorization would have strengthened his hand in negotiating a peaceful resolution, and everyone knows that. Even some Republicans were willing to go along because they know how the game is played. Instead, Kerry will go into the negotiations empty-handed.]
As in the case of Benghazi, your humble observer still holds out hope that these terrible events and America's seemingly feeble responses and pronouncements have a sensible explanation because there's a lot more going on than our government can share with us. But that's a thin, thin reed. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, September 12, 2013

At the Top of the Academy

Everyone we know does something for (not to) the environment in varying degrees, but the Living Roof at the California Academy of Sciences does seem a little, er, over the top.

The living roof
keeps the building's interior an average of 10 degrees cooler than a standard roof would.
The plants are drought-resistant and live off trapped rainwater, not the City water supply. Lightweight construction materials kept the weight down to about twice a normal load.

Living roofs may be fine for European cities and San Francisco, but definitely not in our suburban community, which approves colors such as "granite gray" but not "slate" for roof construction. Going green is fine....for grass and trees only. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Rest of Us Don't

(Yale photo)
Billionaire short-seller Jim Chanos (Yale '80) now teaches Financial Fraud through History: A Forensic Approach at his alma mater. Chanos says that financial reform legislation such as Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley has done little to stem the fraud and chicanery in our capital markets [bold added].
Corruption is everywhere in the business world, he warns, citing a survey in which 45 percent of chief financial officers said their CEOs had asked them to falsify financial results.
He lambasts the audit profession:
Chanos constantly nudges his students to challenge established opinion. When one of them remarks that a scandal-ridden firm had a reputable auditor signing off on its reports, he says, “They all have reputable audit firms. That’s one thing I want you to take away from this course: every big fraud had a great audit firm behind it.” He likens auditors and government regulators to archaeologists. “They’ll tell you what happened after the damage has been done.”
I wish that my school counselor had taken me aside before I went into accounting and said, "You won't get rich, you'll be ignored--there's a reason why they call it a back-room job, and you'll be blamed when things fall apart. The only consolation is that you'll be one of the few who know what's going on." Jim Chanos also knows what's going on, and short-sellers like him take some of the blame when businesses fail. The difference is that he's got $ billions to console him, and the rest of us don't. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, September 09, 2013

Happy 62nd, Mom and Dad

My parents celebrated their 62nd anniversary yesterday. (Ahem, yes, your humble observer is not yet 61.)

Sorry, Mom and Dad, that we weren't there with the others, but you're in our thoughts and prayers. Speaking of prayers, our Foster City congregation gave rousing applause to a couple who have been married for 52 years.

What kind of ovation would they have given you?

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Great Moments in Sports Scheduling

On the first Sunday of the NFL season---also the day when baseball teams are making their playoff stretch runs and when Serena Williams notched her fifth U.S. Open title---the NBA scheduled its Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.

Wiser heads might have picked a less crowded date to recount to younger fans the exploits of Gary Payton, Bernard King, Rick Pitino, and Jerry Tarkanian, but, alas, for now their deeds will just have to live on in our geezer memories.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Diagnostic Tests: Disruption's a-Coming

29-year-old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes "could upend the industry of laboratory testing and might change the way we detect and treat disease." Her company, Palo Alto-based Theranos, creates
devices that automate and miniaturize more than 1,000 laboratory tests, from routine blood work to advanced genetic analyses. Theranos's processes are faster, cheaper and more accurate than the conventional methods and require only microscopic blood volumes, not vial after vial of the stuff.
We have commented on the project triangle before. The very rare innovations that are faster, cheaper, and better have been known to trigger disruption across broad swaths of the economy.

By extracting a few drops, not vials, of blood, instantly analyzing them, and charging much less for its service than a standard lab, Ms. Holmes' company threatens a vast industry that performs "6.8 billion lab tests annually in the U.S."

1) It does seem too good to be true.

2) Nevertheless, I wish Theranos were a public company; it would be perfect for the small speculative portion of my investment portfolio.

Friday, September 06, 2013

A Briefcase is Nice But Doesn't Suffice

$1,050 Prada "Saffiano" bag (WSJ photo)
When he wants to make a good first impression, the 21st century American eunuch male needs more than a fancy European suit and a manicure. Fashion leaders now advise that he should tote his tablet, key-fob, moisturizer, and other manly items in a "murse" ("man-purse" unfortunately has a derogatory meaning to the less enlightened).

Designer murses cost in the $1,000 range, but cheaper man-bags are available to those on a budget. Whatever you get, just make sure it matches your shoes.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Not Balanced

Insights about the surveillance society [bold added]:
Princeton computer-science professor Edward Felten explained that this tremendous growth in storage capacity would inevitably spur intelligence agencies to collect all available data—everything—simply because it’s cheaper and easier than trying to figure out what to take and what to ignore. “If storage is free but analysts’ time is costly, then the cost-minimizing strategy is to record everything and sort it out later,” Felten noted. [snip]

The more technology endangers our privacy, the less we seem to prize it. We post family photos on social-media sites and ship our credit-card numbers to total strangers. We ask websites we’ve never visited—designed by people we’ve never met—to give us advice on treating embarrassing maladies and hunting for potential mates. But the government is different, as [National Intelligence general counsel Robert] Litt acknowledged in his recent speech, because “the government has the power to audit our tax returns, to prosecute and imprison us, to grant or deny licenses to do business and many other things. And,” he continued, “there is an entirely understandable concern that the government may abuse this power.”
The writer, David von Drehle, tries to end on a hopeful note:
This, ultimately, may prove to be our strongest protection against the rise of the surveillance state. The same tools that strengthen it strengthen those who protest against it. Privacy is not the only illusion in the new age of data; government secrecy is too. Big Brother might be watching, but he is also being watched.
However, as the article pointed out earlier, police, taxing, regulatory, and/or subpoena power resides with the government and private citizens have very little resources to counterbalance it. Knowledge is powerful, but knowledge needs a lot of help. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Cheap, Good, and it Should Last Days

As our local supermarkets go upscale, the butchers filet, trim, and sometimes season their meat and fish offerings. It's nearly impossible to find any cuts that cost less than $5 per pound.

Today I was surprised to come across a couple of packages of 7-bone roasts at the Safeway meat counter. The price was even more surprising - $2.99 per pound - and I grabbed them with alacrity. (Yes, we used to pay 69 cents, but that was when my full-time job paid $1,250 per month.)

It took an hour to cut up the beef and vegetables for the slow cooker. Add onions, garlic, salt, pepper, and the most important ingredient--time--and one has a rich pot of stewy goodness that should last days.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Still Second Choice

Having lived in the Bay Area for nearly 40 years, I avoid the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge whenever possible. Whether heading east or west, the traffic always seems to stop when going through San Francisco and Berkeley, so I take the longer San Mateo Bridge/580/680 route when traveling north to Sacramento or Reno/Tahoe. Adding to the congestion are the poor esthetics: the lower (eastbound) deck of the Bay Bridge is ugly and poorly lit and has been declared seismically unsafe, to boot.

After eleven years and an expenditure of over $6.5 billion, the first major Bay Bridge reconstruction in nearly 80 years was completed over the Labor Day weekend. Opening to great fanfare, the new Eastern span is definitely prettier and safer, but it remains to be seen whether traffic will run more smoothly. The San Mateo Bridge will still be the first choice on this person's trip planner.

The new eastern span

The Bay Bridge western span hasn't changed...for now

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Long Ways From Consensus

Map of Syria (Washington Post) 
The Washington Post performs a public service by running Syria: the Very, Very Basics. It's helpful to learn a few facts about a country--such as its population is 22.5 million, ten percent of whom are Christians--before the United States starts killing a bunch of its people.

The article doesn't say whether Syria is a threat to the United States, whether the vital interests of the United States are at stake, whether the use of chemical weapons against its own people is sufficient justification for a U.S. military attack, or exactly what's supposed to happen next.

Update: the WaPo lists the five "smartest" arguments, positive and negative, concerning a Syrian intervention.
  • (Against) Intervention could actually help Assad.
  • (For) The norm against chemical weapons is worth preserving.
  • (Against) Strikes would only make things worse.
  • (For) Smart strikes could break the political deadlock.
  • (Against) Strikes would make little difference but to highlight larger U.S. failure.
  • IMHO, before military action is undertaken the arguments in its favor should be overwhelming. Moreover, a clear majority of the American people and their representatives in Congress should be in support. We are a long ways from consensus.

    Sunday, September 01, 2013


    A Sunday parable on how to manage expectations [bold added]:
    When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable:

    “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.

    But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.

    For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 14:7-11]
    Flashback---how someone managed expectations in 2008:
    I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.