Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Central Park Wedding Photos -- The Show Must Go On

As mentioned here a few times in the past, Chinese immigrants from Fujian have developed a very interesting subculture in New York. New York is the center of the Fujian-American universe, as New York is the primary, if not sole entry point for this mostly undocumented group. Even if an immigrant finds a Chinese restaurant job somewhere else in the Midwest, East or South, they'll still return to Manhattan Chinatown, whether to look for a different job opportunity in another city, or just to hang out on their days off. A vast networks of buses transport Fujianese in the eastern half of the United States to and from New York without any need for identification.

Another reason why Fujianese immigrants travel to New York for is weddings. On Monday evenings, and to a lesser extent Tuesday nights, large Manhattan Chinatown restaurants, particularly in the Little Fuzhou area east of the Bowery, are packed with wedding banquets. Why Monday or Tuesday? Because this is the only day that most Fujianese restaurant workers get the day off. Early in the day, the bridal party travels to Central Park to take a gallery of elegant wedding photos to send to the relatives back home. Fujianese couples, usually not residents of New York, can be seen dressed up in their wedding finest, so common that this phenomenon has been well documented in the American press.

So what happens if the big day you planned happens to coincide with this weekend's blizzard, which as one wag stated, will result in no New Yorker ever dreaming of a White Christmas again? Well, you go ahead just as planned.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Future Is Now

The 1982 film Blade Runner depicts Los Angeles in the year 2019, a city where it continually rains and all signage is in Japanese. Well, that day has sort of arrived. It has rained 6 consecutive days in Los Angeles, and I don't mean six consecutive days where it rained, but rather six days of continuous rain. Maybe we're spoiled in Los Angeles, but I don't remember a period like that since around 1963 when I was at Dorsey High School. As far as the Japanese signage part, that's not happening. But have you ever driven the seven mile stretch of Valley Blvd. in the San Gabriel Valley? It's pretty much like that in Chinese.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fake Purses, Part 2 -- Overstating The Economic Effect

I'm probably as pro-business as anybody, but I become a little annoyed when you hear about a raid in which 10,000 fake purses were seized, costing the real manufacturer $5 million in sales, based on a value of $500 per purse. The fallacy in this analysis is that it presumes everybody who bought one of these fake purses would have paid $500 for a real one if the fake one wasn't on the market. A recent article about the low cost, $2.50 bus line between Manhattan Chinatown and Flushing Chinatown included a side comment that virtually every female passenger on this working class bus sported a fake Louis Vuitton handbag. Are you telling me that if they couldn't have bought one of these fake Louies on Canal Street for $35 that they'd spring the $500 for the real one?

One legitimate gripe the manufacturers could have would be the potential dilution of their product. If every middle aged woman in impoverished Manhattan Chinatown sports an LV lookalike bag, the cachet of the original has been dimmed to some extent. But based on the prices that real LV or Coach or Chanel or other designer bags bring, this dilution doesn't appear to be significant.

An iffier proposition is the effect of piracy on media items such as DVD movies. The lack of substitutability of originals and fakes doesn't hold nearly as true, as these days the copies are nearly the equivalent to the original. Yes, there are people like me who would never pay the retail price of a DVD, so if I on occasion buy a $3 DVD movie copy, this is not a sale that would have otherwise would have been made for full retail. But between the quality of the copies and the smaller price gap, this kind of piracy has a more tangible effect on the original product.

I must say that fake DVD marketing has its own fascinating elements. In New York Chinatown, like purveyors of fake purses, sellers of pirated DVDs may walk by you whispering "DVD DVD." They are very portable, able to bag their wares and disappear quickly if necessary. Strangely on a visit to the Chinese suburbs of Toronto just three years ago, high quality duplicate DVDs were being openly sold in the Chinese malls at multiple locations. However, in a return visit to the same stores a couple of months ago, while $3 to $5 DVDs were still being peddled, they were all Chinese language titles. Nevertheless, the surreptitious trade does manage to live on. While strolling in downtown Toronto's Chinatown, I saw a Chinese guy standing in front of a door holding a placard that said "DVDs-3 for $10", though he had no merchandise with him. So I asked the guy (in broken Chinese) whether he had any English language DVDs and he immediately opened the door and led me inside, and down a hallway which led to a small multi-tenant retail area, and ushered me into a video store. Like the stores in the mall, all the display items were Chinese. But I asked about English DVDs, and the gal said yes, and gave me a notebook with photocopied DVD jackets of American movies. I was struck by how this is just like the way they sell purses on Canal Street these days.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Fake Purses

One thing I would have never dreamed that I would develop an interest in is fake (or for that matter, real) women's purses. Yet, I notice every Louis Vuitton purse that passes by, and I wonder if it's real or a replica. This interest goes back around seven years ago when we were first introduced to the replica merchandise trade in New York Chinatown. Having heard about this interesting sounding phenomenon on Canal Street, we found ourselves on the northeast corner of Canal and Broadway. A large, old building contained numerous small narrow storefronts on both Broadway and Canal, plus an indoor swap meet behind the storefronts. It is there we met Monique from Malaysia, who has been our "dealer" ever since. Back then Monique operated from in front of another merchant's counter inside the swap meet. But her stash, counterfeit Louis Vuitton purses was kept on a set of shelves. Now if that seemed brazen, it was and it wasn't. Because when a lookout gave the word that police were in the area, a metal rolldown door would quickly be pulled down to cover the merchandise. And it wasn't just Monique hiding her stuff. You could hear the metal doors coming down on the exterior shops on the street, all in unison creating a concert of sorts.

A few months after we returned to Los Angeles I happened to read an article about the crackdown on Canal St. counterfeit purses. Purses were no longer being sold out of the stores, but rather by women carrying black plastic bags full of purses, on Canal St. between Broadway and Lafayette. When the police was spotted they would run off and hide on the side streets. A couple of months later we travelled to Canal St. in search of these ladies, but alas none were to be found on Canal or any of the side streets, nor were any replica purses apparently being sold in the stores that had them the year before. But it wasn't that the merchandise wasn't there. Rather an entire new distribution system had popped up. Initial contact would be made by a runner standing on the street whispering words like "Louie" or "LV", or perhaps a discreet inquiry to a shop owner. Soon you would be following a runner a block or two away from Canal St., on your way to what would turn out to be a secret showroom on the second floor of a restaurant. Or the showroom might be on Canal St. or Broadway, but way in the back of the shop behind a door not visible from the street, or up a flight of rickety steps in the storage area of the building. One secret showroom was accessed through a false panel in the swap meet which revealed a ladder to a second floor showroom.

This turned out to be the halcyon days for the merchandising of fake purses. Louis Vuitton sued the landlord that owned the building at Canal and Broadway containing the fake purse shops. That strategy was so successful that the building is now a Bank of America branch. Most of the secret showrooms closed down. But you can still buy fake purses in Chinatown. Chinese men and women loiter, mostly on the corners of Canal and Lafayette, with catalog pictures of different styles of Louis Vuitton purses folded up in their pockets. For a while, Monique staked out a space a half block up on Lafayette, but now she operates out of another storefront in another building on Canal St. She keeps her merchandise offsite a couple blocks away. You pick your bag from a picture in the catalog, then she runs off and brings it back in a black plastic bag. We had one incident with Monique where she sold us a defective purse, then when she said to meet us to make an exchange she never showed up. Mary believed she had been stiffed, but on my next trip to New York by myself I ran into Monique, who explained she had been arrested by the police right before she was going to meet us. She said it was her seventh arrest.

Friday, November 26, 2010

So If I Published An Article in Taiwan 20 Years Ago Why Didn't Anybody Tell Me?

In my younger days when I had much more free time, I had a strong interest in the history of Chinese-Americans. Not to say that I have lost interest in the subject, but I just haven't had time for much outside reading, and certainly no time for any research or deep study for many years. I was fortunate that I was in college when the very first Asian American studies courses were just being offered back in the late 1960s. What made it so fortunate was that there was no developed body of works on the topic, which enabled the most inexperienced amateur scholars, e.g., college undergraduates, to pioneer the study of their topic of interest. In my case, it was two topics--the history of Los Angeles Chinatown, and the Chinese exclusion laws passed by the U.S. government starting in the 1880s that particularly attracted my interest. So even though I was an economics, business and law student, I was able to publish a number of articles in ethnic publications having a miniscule circulation, and even appeared on radio, television, and at conferences and other events as an "expert" on the subject. The most laughable instance was a presentation before a program sponsored by the Los Angeles School District on the USC Campus on Asian American studies. Representing the Japanese-American viewpoint, was Dr. Harry Kitano, Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA, author of hundreds of books and articles. Representing the Chinese-Americans was myself, senior tax accountant at Kenneth Leventhal & Company.

On a couple of occasions since then I had actually run into current scholarly works on Chinese American studies that mentioned one of my prior articles in the text and footnotes. However, it wasn't until today that I decided to try to see if there were any other references to items I had authored. With a name as common as mine (there are hundreds of people with my name on Facebook), I had never bothered Googling myself. However, it occurred to me that I could do a focused Google search with my name and part of the title of some of my written works. Imagine my surprise when I did one of the searches and it pulled out an article about Los Angeles Chinatown I had written in the 1980s for the Chinese-American historical society--but described as appearing in "Sino-American Relations (Hwa Kang, Taiwan) 16, no.4 (Win 1990 54-66)". Did somebody in Taiwan appropriate that article without telling me? Is the Internet reference in error? Was it translated to Chinese? I guess I'll never know for sure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Financial Meltdown Should Be Blamed On Bill Clinton

As we slowly dig out from under the subprime crisis and the ensuing financial meltdown I thought it would be interesting to take a look back and point out someone not often connected with these events. For over 20 years I had the privilege of working for two of the greatest minds in real estate finance, Kenneth Leventhal and Stan Ross. Even today, more than a decade after their official retirements, they are revered as pioneers who helped lead the residential construction industry from post-World War II mom and pop builders starting the construction boom for returning veterans into players on Wall Street, and who advised all segments of the real estate industry through decades of development and evolution.

About 20 years ago Messrs. Leventhal and Ross invented something called the multi-builder mortgage backed bond. This enabled small residential builders, who had been required to tie up valuable capital in seller financing for their homebuyers, to access the public capital markets. Publicly issued debt would be secured by these seller financed mortgages of multiple homebuilders, permitting these builders to cash out and move on to their next project. Of course, if you're really smart, you'll realize this was the start of the securitization of real estate debt, so in a way Leventhal and Ross could be considered to be the Godfathers of the financial meltdown. But really, making Wall Street financing available available to small builders was unquestionably a good thing for these builders, and the subsequent subprime crisis merely shows that even the best ideas may be abused and turned into implements of evil.

With this in mind, I asked Kenneth Leventhal where he thought things went wrong. Interestingly, he pointed the finger at President Clinton. He traces the whole subprime disaster to the Clinton administration's push to make home ownership available to low income taxpayers requiring minimal down payments. In hindsight, this indeed appears to be the start of it all, and I don't know why this hasn't been more widely acknowledged that it has been. Historically, to buy a home, a prospective homebuyer needed to make a 20 percent down payment. I put down almost 30 percent when I bought my first home. Yes, there were FHA/VA low down programs in the past, but actively targeting a group of homebuyers who were likely to default probably was not a good thing, despite the noble goal of home ownership for all. Of course, President Clinton was gone for quite a while before things blew up, so that's probably why he didn't get the blame. In a climate where home prices were escalating rapidly, after just one or two years of home ownership, the no down/low down homebuyer had his 20 percent equity and everything was hunky dory. Personally I became at least a little worried when I discovered that there were virtually no residential properties in the city of Los Angeles, not even in the worst neighborhoods of South L.A. or East L.A., that were selling for less than $400,000. Or when I read the quote in the newspaper of a Los Angeles homeowner who said he had no need to save any money because he was "sleeping in his piggybank." Or when houses in places like Adelanto and Murietta were rising to the same price level as properties in Los Angeles.

The most striking thing about the subprime meltdown and financial crisis was that it played out over such a long time. It was clear there was a big problem with subprime mortgages over three years ago. Yet amid Citbank's announcement of loan loss reserves for subprime loans back in 2007, the Dow Jones Industrials marched past the 14,000 mark. The subprime problem, everybody said, was just a temporary problem. Boy, were they wrong.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tuesday's Election Predictions

There's no way from watching the news how one can get a sense of how an upcoming election will turn out. Candidates and political parties do not provide legitimate assessments of their chances, but rather engage in posturing. News organizations don't want to influence elections by saying there is a particular inevitable outcome. Polls are caveated with a margin of error and distorted because of significant early absentee voting. All we can glean is that the Republicans have a good chance to gain at least 39 House seats and a remote chance of getting 51 in the Senate. Interestingly today's news is full of increased public optimism from the Democrats that they'll hold both chambers and caution by the Republicans in assessing what will happen on Tuesday. Indeed, RNC Chairman Steele said that even if the Republicans came close to taking the House, it would be a significant accomplishment. So is the tide really turning? Certainly the news and public statements say "Yes."

But as I mentioned before, there is a neat resource called Intrade, where futures contracts are traded on all sorts of political and other events of public interest. And today, the futures for Republican control of the House are still over 90, and the overs/unders for Republican House gains is right about 60. So it seems in reality that nothing has changed. One interesting event is a surge today in the futures on Republicans taking at least 50 Senate seats (and particularly the Senate being split 50-50), a one day increase from 21 to 32. Still long odds, but something significant must have happened today to trigger such a jump.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Toronto Dim Sum Crawl--Six Restaurants In Six Hours

In hindsight it was probably a crazy thing, and it wasn't planned in advance. However this past Sunday I ended up going to six different Toronto area dim sum restaurants between 9 am and 3 pm. Originally I was just going to hit two or three places with the intent of judging the quality of Toronto area dim sum as well as to look for innovative items, but it ended up being more like a marathon.

My morning started out at Dragon Dynasty on Brimley Road in Scarborough. Arriving a little after 9 am I ran into the Sunday dim sum dilemma. The good thing about early dim sum is you avoid the crowds. The bad thing though is not all the dim sum is out. I was very surprised to find that Dragon Dynasty was largely cart service, with a few off the menu items. It turned out to be the only cart style of the day. And did the carts come slowly. After a considerable while I had taken only one item, a scallop shrimp dumpling, and ordered another from the menu, the rice noodle roll with scallop and snow pea leaves, which interestingly used the large pea leaves. Both items were fantastic, particularly the wrappers and fun. It was at this point, with the prospect of a long wait for who knows what that I began to launch my dim sum hopping plan.

Next stop was Regal 16 Seafood in Richmond Hill, which was probably a 25 minute surface street drive from Dragon Dynasty. I hadn't realized until then that Toronto's equivalent of the San Gabriel Valley, covering Scarborough, Richmond Hill, Markham and parts of other communities like North York, was similar in size to the SGV, though obviously not as densely Chinese. At 10:30 am, Regal 16 still had plenty of room. I had the beef dumplings with wolfberries, the vegetarian chicken bun with ginger sauce and the garlic chicken pastry rolls, with the latter being the only loser. It was here I decided to only eat some of each order and save the rest in lieu of going out to dinner.

I then drove over to Highway 7 in Richmond Hill to O Mei, another highly rated Chowhound favorite. But something was wrong. While Regal 16 was full when I left, O Mei, which wasn't that big to begin with, was half empty. Furthermore, the dim sum menu was very ordinary. I ended up ordering just the rice noodle rolls with beef and the diced lotus root meat patties. Not to say that these weren't good, but hardly Toronto's finest.

Moving a couple of blocks west on Highway 7, I landed at Rich Land Chinese cuisine. The restaurant was bustling and packed. I ordered one XL item, the garoupa with fruit, as well as the chicken avocado rolls. Actually the garoupa with fruit wasn't as exciting as it sounded--battered garoupa slices with four red grapes on the side. The chicken avocado roll was essentially an egg roll with a chicken and avocado filling, and was very good.

At this point I was starting to get full so I thought I'd drive back to Scarborough and scout around. What I hadn't discovered until the last day of my previous Toronto visit was that a lot of Chinese shopping centers are barely visible from the street, if at all. This trip I discovered a whole bunch of them. Driving down Warden Ave. I spotted another large Chinese shopping center which was actually highly visible, and moreover the signage "Sam Woo." I knew from prior trips to Toronto that L.A.'s Sam Woo chain had set up shop in Toronto, and I had often wondered whether they were able to keep up with the high Chinese food standards in Toronto. So in I went. I wasn't surprised that the choices here were more mundane. The snow pea leaf dumpling once again used the large leaf variety, and the shrimp and avocado roll was pretty good. The real surprise was that Sam Woo's dim sum was the most expensive I had all day.

At this point in time I needed a respite so I drove to another hidden Chinese megamall in Markham and walked around for a while. At about 2:15 I figured it was time for one last selection of dim sum. I chose Casa Victoria in Markham, having previously been to their sister Casa Imperial for dinner, which had been the highlight meal of my previous trip to Toronto. The last dim sum of the day was clearly the best, with a selection of interesting and tasty items--lamb roll with cucumber and avocado in teriyaki sauce; duck with chive dumplings; chicken with black fungus dumplings; and crispy fried mashed potato cake with shrimp.

This trip reinforced my previous conclusion as to Toronto's place in the Chinese food pecking order, which is below Vancouver and above Los Angeles. The difference is that in Vancouver everything is clearly better than the food in Los Angeles. You can walk into any Chinese restaurant in Richmond, B.C. , even in a food court, and get a superior meal. In Toronto you will find food that is just as good as Vancouver, but you will also find food that is comparable to what we have here in Los Angeles. Last time I came back from Vancouver, I had no interest in eating L.A. Chinese food for over a month. Back in L.A. from Toronto last night, I'm going out for Chinese food today.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Does California Have An Anti-Business Climate?

This fall's Proposition 24 once again raises the issue of whether state government policies are so anti-business that they drive businesses out of the state. Proponents of the viewpoint say that between layers of regulation not present in other states, as well as tax policy, California is tangibly business unfriendly. The other camp says that California is such a population and economic center that businesses would be irrational to leave the state.

In reality both sides are correct to some extent and one might argue that there is really no way to determine who is right. However, I think there is in fact very strong evidence of which argument is correct, based on an examination of economic activity on both sides of the Colorado River dividing California and Arizona.

I remember crossing the Colorado River nearly 45 years ago on a family vacation where we drove from Los Angeles to Texas. I did not return to that area until just a short while ago. Stopping recently in the towns of Blythe and Needles, I was amazed how so little had changed in 45 years. No offense to the good citizens of these towns, but the California side of the Colorado River was depressing. The streets of these towns were not very busy and there had been very little in the way of new construction since the mid 60s. Small local retail businesses far outnumbered any chain stores. The California side of the river was lined with cheap motels and the entire path along the river was either undeveloped or in disrepair.

On the other hand, the Arizona side of the river was amazing. Fancy river side resorts. Tons of new construction. Nice shopping areas with major stores. Gasoline prices almost $1 a gallon cheaper than the California side. The differences between the California and Arizona sides of the river are what I imagine the contrast was when a visitor crossed from communist era East Germany over to West Germany. The California/Arizona border is the one area where businesses have a choice of whether to operate in California or outside of California, and it is clear that anybody who really has a choice will not operate in California.

So while it's obvious that major retailers won't abandon Los Angeles and San Francisco due to the sheer number of customers, there's no doubt that if given a viable alternative, a business will choose to operate somewhere other than California.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chilean Miner Rescue

The rescue of the trapped Chilean miners is one of the great stories of our time. As the time for beginning the rescue approached I was hearing about the thought going into the order that the miners would be removed, the fact that they would be coming out one at a time, and that each miner would have to ride the rescue capsule for perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. I was struck by a random thought that waiting for all this to start was like waiting for the start of the NFL draft. Well apparently, I wasn't the only one to see the broad analogy. For once the rescue started, the CNN home page had a display showing numerically which miner was being rescued, and how long it had been since the current miner rescue started, e.g., miner #7 is 8 minutes and 24 seconds into his ascent. Did they include biographical info too? Just like the NFL draft countdown clock!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Me And New York

For somebody who set out a goal some 35 years ago of seeing the United States first and visiting every state, it took me a long time to get to New York. It wasn't until 1985 when I had probably visited 30 other states that I made my way there to teach a class. There are a couple of reasons why I actually avoided New York. Manhattan sounded like a dangerous place to visit--people were in fact being mugged in the subways and attacked in Central Park. Indeed, when relatives moved to Philadelphia in the 1970s and offered to take me there on a day trip while visiting them, I declined. Furthermore, having done the bulk of my traveling on fly and drive trips, the thought of driving in New York City was frightening. Indeed all my trepidations were proven true on my first trip to Manhattan, as the taxi taking us from JFK airport crossed over into the Manhattan side. Right after crossing the East River, the cabbie got into a dispute with a truck driver, a dispute so nasty that the cabbie stopped his vehicle, and got out of the car to jaw with the truck driver. Welcome to New York!

Five years later in 1990 I actually got up the nerve to drive into New York City, at the tail end of our two week fly and drive Canadian/East Coast trip. I made sure we arrived on Saturday, when traffic was lighter. It was a fun trip with our little kids in the back. Crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into Manhattan, I pointed out Grant's Tomb on the bluff overlooking the Hudson River. "Are we going to visit there?" asked Christina. "No, we're not" I responded. "That part of town is too dangerous." To which Eric thoughtfully inquired, "Oh. Is that how Grant died?" Yes, and they buried him on the spot.

As it turns out Manhattan wasn't that difficult of a place to drive if you followed certain rules. First of all, don't drive through Times Square, but rather go a few blocks out of your way to streets like West Highway. More importantly was don't drive like a polite Californian. Rather drive like the locals do, particularly the cabbies. Force your way into lane changes and through intersections. Indeed, I became fairly good at driving through Manhattan using these principles. When a colleague attending a training session with me on Long Island disclosed over dinner in Queens that he had never been to Manhattan, I immediately drove him over to Manhattan and gave him a tour of all the major sights. He was so impressed that when we got back he told everybody about the tour of Manhattan that I had given him.

However, it wasn't until 15 years after my first trip there that I discovered that it really didn't make any sense to drive in Manhattan. First of all the cost of overnight parking was ridiculous, and on top of that, it took forever for the parking attendant to get your car off of the storage ramp and out to you. Secondly, we discovered the New York subways. Now even in 2000 I was still greatly influenced by tales of crime in the subways, and since it made no sense to drive short distances in Manhattan, we opted to rely on taxi rides for those short trips. However, one evening after taking the cab to Manhattan Chinatown, we were going to return to Midtown when Mrs. Chandavkl pointed at the stairway going down to the subway station. Mrs. Chandavkl, who is many times more paranoid about crime and doom in general than I could ever be, said "Look at all those Chinese people going into the subway! It must be safe." This time I was the skeptical one, reluctantly following her down the tunnel. We got on the subway and the ride back to Midtown was wonderful--much faster and cheaper than a cab, and not a suspicious looking soul anywhere on the train. We turned in our rental car the next morning and it's been nothing but the subway ever since.

With numerous business trips to the east coast in the last few years, I've explored transportation alternatives I never would have dreamed of. Take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan from the outskirts? Sounds interesting, but I had never taken a domestic train ride anywhere in the US. But it wasn't much harder than catching the subway from Flushing to Manhattan. There's an Amtrak commuter train between Washington DC and Penn Station in New York? Again, sounds interesting, but how do you buy your ticket, how do you find your track, where are you supposed to sit? Well, two years ago I finally booked the train. Amazingly, arriving at the ticket counter just 10 minutes before an earlier train was about to leave, I was able to switch to the earlier ride in time. Arriving at Penn Station, fortuituosly my randomly booked hotel was just a couple of blocks away. The next time I rode the Amtrak from DC to NY I got more adventurous, booking a hotel in Chinatown, requiring a subway ride not originating from Penn Station. While I had actually taken the subway from Manhattan to JFK airport once before, it was with a lesser amount of luggage, but somehow I managed my way on the stairs through the turnstiles into and out of the subway station.

Which leads me to my next potential adventure in traversing New York City. When travelling back from Washington DC to New York, I need to make a choice of whether to stop overnight in Manhattan or in Flushing. Both are very interesting places, but staying in Manhattan entails taking the Amtrak train and its three hour ride, while Flushing is a short plane ride from Reagan Airport to LaGuardia. Now you can do both Flushing and Manhattan at the same time since there is the 7 subway train, but that can take 45 minutes to more than an hour each way. Also while I did ride the Long Island Railroad from Flushing to Manhattan once, that service is not as frequent as the subway and it only gets you to Penn Station. But I recently found that hitting both Manhattan and Flushing on the way back is a possibility due to the Chinese bus service between Manhattan Chinatown and Flushing Chinatown. While I have heard about the legendary Chinese buses for many years, I've never ridden one since there are several issues. For one thing, there is no "Chinatown Bus Station" at either end. The buses pick up and drop off their passengers on the street, from buses marked only in Chinese. Also, there is no set schedule. A bus won't leave until it's full. Supposedly the buses fill up quickly, so the wait shouldn't be that long. Indeed, I suspect the buses run a circuit like the Disneyland parking lot tram rides. But the attraction is that for the $2.50 bus fare, you can travel between Flushing and Manhattan Chinatown in roughly 20 minutes. Will I be able to find the Chinatown bus? We'll have to wait until next year to see.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Value of Senior Leadership

One of the truisms of college sports is that senior leadership can be a decisive factor in the success of a team. This topic in turns raises the oft debated issue as to the relative importance of raw talent and experience, where a choice must be made between the two. We're on the brink of getting an interesting answer to the debate as UCLA's football season is about to begin.

Two years ago, UCLA had one of the most ineffective offensive lines in the school's history, and once of the worst in Division I football that year. It was so bad that not only did one of the starters not have much talent (a lightly recruited two star player out of high school), but he played most of the season with a separated shoulder. Last year's offensive line, while still below average, was a great improvement over 2008, and the prospects for 2010 looked even better. However, due to a series of unfortunate events, UCLA faces the prospect of a starting offensive line consisting of players who cumulatively started fewer than 10 games in 2009. Oh, and all five of these starters are seniors.

So what we have is a starting lineup of inexperienced seniors. How will this play out? Will their senior leadership raise the group's performance to unexpected heights, or does the lack of prior starting experience mean this is an untalented group that will have little success?

Looking at the cogs of the wheel, perhaps the key player is Micah Kia. Highly recruited out of Hawaii, Kia played extensively as a true freshman in 2006, but seemed to underachieve in his next two years as a part time starter. An injury kept him out for all of 2009, and if anybody could have a breakout year, it would be Kia. Fellow starter on the 2008 line Darius Savage was tabbed by Coach Neuheisel as having pro potential, but by 2009 had dropped to third string without showing a hint of his promise. Out of the same recruiting class is another four star prospect, Sean Sheller who had been projected as a starter in 2008 but had his season wiped out by a preseason ATV accident, and is only now getting back into shape as a fifth year senior with almost no playing experience. Eddie Williams, a JC transfer, started six games in 2009 before breaking his leg. And Ryan Taylor, another JC transfer (who had originally signed with Texas A&M-Kingsville--not the real Texas A & M) who replaced Williams after he went down, rounds out the starting five.

Daily News writer Jon Gold has been slightly encouraging regarding this group, reporting that they seem to be doing surprisingly well. They work well as a unit, which would be attributable to their years of experience. We'll see very soon how effective they will be.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Your Government Inaction, Parts XXXV and XXXVI

I can't say that anything about inefficiency in government surprises me any more, but I've heard about a couple of more blood boiling episodes. First of all, the Iowa egg salmonella outbreak demonstrates once again that too many cooks spoil the broth. What is the government agency that oversees the processing and sale of eggs? The answer is, it depends based on whether the egg has been processed or not. If the eggs are not yet processed they're under the purview of the Agriculture department. After processing, it's the Food and Drug Administration in charge. As you know, the USDA focuses on things like grading agricultural products, so with eggs they're only concerned with the physical attributes of the egg and it's not their job to determine if the product is safe. That part falls on the FDA. Did anybody consider the fact that it might make sense for one agency to be in charge of eggs from the moment they're laid? Apparently not.

The next example involves the retail space near the southwest corner of Sunset and Western in Los Angeles. This was formerly home to Farm Fresh, a gem of a supermarket specializing in produce. They lost their lease and word was that a new Target store would be built there, not a bad exchange since that would be very convenient for us. Except that it's been a couple of years and nothing has been done with that space. Now word has leaked out as to what the hold up is. It seems like this retail site is in some kind of special district where the city of Los Angeles has mandated that any large operator has to provide free delivery service for their customers, something which Target is unwilling to do. Why, pray tell, is such a requirement imposed? Well, to permit people who ride bicycles or take public transit to the store to be able to purchase large items! Now nobody walks in L.A., and they don't bike or take public transit either. It is commendable to try to encourage people to do so, but to stop Target from opening up because you would like to encourage alternative means of getting to the retail site is lunacy. Indeed, this ranks right up there with Los Angeles city planners who deliberately did not provide parking space along Metrorail subway stops, because they wanted people to take connecting public transit to the subway instead of driving there. Naturally, as a result people have chosen not to take connecting public transit and not use the subway. Doesn't government ever learn? (Obviously not.)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Paparazzi At Work

Though a native Angeleno, I had never encountered the paparazzi in their true element. I did see a bunch once while I was waiting for Mrs. Chandavkl to come out after a Leonardo DiCaprio movie premiere (the studios need volunteers to fill up the theater during the premiere showing), but the photogs were cordoned off across the street and had to use their telephoto lenses from across the street.

However, on numerous occasions while driving home, we have seen the paps camped out in front of Katsuya restaurant on Hollywood and Vine. While I'm not particularly into celebrity culture, Katsuya is just down the hill from where we live, and my son indicated that the food there is actually pretty good. So when the kids asked me where they could take me for my birthday dinner, I chose Katsuya. We arrived for dinner at 7:30, well before celebrity hour, and while the diners were trendier looking that what I'm used to, I don't know if there was anybody recognizable inside patronizing the restaurant (though even if there were I probably wouldn't recognize them anyway).

By the time we had finished dinner around 9:15 pm, things had changed outside. Eight to ten paparazzi were gathered outside the entrance to the restaurant. While we were waiting for the valet to retrieve our car we asked one of the photographers whether they were waiting for anyone in particular. He indicated that Kim Kardashian had come and gone, but that otherwise they were waiting for whatever worthwhile celebrity might show up. After our car hadn't arrived after 15 minutes we began to get really impatient. But then there was a flurry of activity. The photographers scurried to the curb, and out comes Lamar Odom of the Lakers, and his wife Khloe Kardashian. Flashbulbs pop. Paps jockey for position. Photographers and diners alike fire away. I look at Odom and he has this resigned look on his face and I first think it's terrible to live a life where there's always a camera in your face and camera flashes going off. But then I think, nah, they put themselves in the limelight and actually eat it up. A big limo then pulls up, and then our car arrives. As we drive off we see the photogs scramble to the limo and the flashes explode again. Who's in that car, we wondered.

Watching the celebrity culture at work was an interesting end to an enjoyable birthday. But in a way, the post script was just as illuminating. After viewing the episode we were wondering what the economics were that would lead one to loll outside a restaurant with a camera in hopes that some random celebrity would show up. Is there that much of a market for those kinds of pictures? So the next morning I checked the Internet to see if there was any evidence of the previous night's activities online. It turns out that Lamar and Khloe's dinner at Katsuya was all over the Internet. There were three or four separate original reports, plus dozens of others that quoted the first reports. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but still it's a little mind-boggling that the short sequence we saw was so newsworthy. Oh, and the limo we saw as we drove off was carrying Kim Kardashian. I figured that out from a video clip on You Tube showing the limo's license plate.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

National Harbor, MD--A Visit To The Twilight Zone

A recent trend in shopping center development is the outdoor "mall" where the center is laid out in street grid form, kind of like the old downtown Main Street shopping areas. A good example of this is the Americana in Glendale, a highly successful shopping (actually mixed use) area built on faux streets which do not appear in the Thomas guide.

Such a center exists along the Potomac River in Maryland, no more than 10 miles south of downtown Washington D.C. National Harbor is the Americana and more, the more being a number of convention sized hotels, full to the brim with people like myself attending business meetings. So why, then, are the streets of National Harbor deserted and its trendy stores and restaurants virtually devoid of patrons?

At first I thought that National Harbor had just opened up. However it's already been open for over 2 years, so that's not the explanation. As I walked the deserted streets, I also noticed that while there were plenty of higher end stores and restaurants such as Fossil, Godiva Chocolates, Dolce Restaurants, Rosa Mexicano, there wasn't anything in the way of ordinary retail--no chain drug stores (though one is under construction), no place to buy groceries (though a gourmet store is promised), no familiar casual or fast food dining options. Maybe I had fallen into an episode of the Twilight Zone that I hadn't remembered.

Part of the explanation is the weather. Crowds of people do come to the hotels of National Harbor for business meetings, but when it's 95 degrees and humid, none of them have any desire to step outside to explore the neighborhood, even if it is immediately adjacent. But the main problem seems to be the demographics. The closest housing to National Harbor (aside from the high end condos currently being peddled there) is apparently of the Section 8 ilk. The closest part of Washington D.C., is the Southeast quadrant, clearly the sketchiest part of the city. While crossing the border into Maryland does present a visually more suburban environment, the demographics are still working class. A more likely customer base lies on the other side of the Potomac in Arlington, VA, but there's no bridge over the river and you have to take a water taxi between the two.

Maybe there's more activity in National Harbor on weekends. Maybe there's more activity when it isn't so hot and humid. Maybe there will be more activity when the Cirque de Soleil theater opens up in a few weeks. Or maybe National Harbor was a bad idea built at a bad time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Governmental Poison Pills - Not A Good Idea

In the corporate world there's a debate whether poison pill provisions, which trigger unpalatable consequences if outside interests acquire too much of the corporation's stock, is a good thing or a bad. One viewpoint is that they stop greedy corporate raiders from pillaging helpless enterprises, while the opposite view is that they protect entrenched management which may be operating inefficiently.

One clear thing, however, is that poison pills in the government context are absolutely ludicrous. But that's what we have here in the city of Los Angeles, which last year agreed with city unions that if the city laid off city workers, the remaining workers would automatically be entitled to a pay increase. This is the height of idiocy, particularly since this is a new provision that was actually crafted in a time of budget distress. Where labor costs both in the aggregate and per unit needed to be reduced, the city agrees to increase its cost of labor. All this proves is the oft made contention that the city of Los Angeles is controlled by the public employee unions. Incredibly, despite this poison pill provision, the city wants to lay off city employees, triggering this automatic pay increase for the survivors. This could make sense if you laid off enough employees to offset the cost of the pay increase, but that's not what they're doing.

However, this episode demonstrates a much wider shortcoming in the way government is operated. Politicians are always talking about cutting the fat and inefficiencies from government. Indeed, this is the rallying cry for anti-tax activists who resist increasing government revenues at all costs because there are so many inefficiencies in spending that can be attacked. But this is government we're talking about, Alice In Wonderland in its most extreme incarnation. The sad fact is that it is impossible to cut most of the fat out of government spending. Cutting the fat implies the existence of a surgical knife that can disintiguish between fat, muscle and bone. Such an instrument does not exist. It appears the only government tool available is a hacksaw which cuts equal portions of fat, musicle and bone. I have personally heard of two situations in different departments of city government where individuals are paid highly for doing nothing, but in this era of tight budgets, have absolutely no fear of losing their cushy jobs. My sources do not know why these people are protected, but this just adds to the tons of evidence that government is dysfunctional and is incapable of efficient financial operation. Sad but true.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Amazing Stockton Street

On both an economic and cultural level, Stockton Street in San Francisco Chinatown, particularly between Jackson St. and Broadway is absolutely incredible. Due to the plethora of grocery stores here, if you lived anywhere in the vicinity you would have no need for a refrigerator, except perhaps to store leftovers. A dozen or more of these storefronts line both the east and west side of the street. Dry packaged goods take up a relatively small portion of the floor space of these stores, which allocate the lion's share of their premises to fresh produce, meat, and seafood. The volume of fresh food handled by these stores is mind-boggling. In each store you're likely to see probably six to ten butchers busily serving their customers. Meanwhile, a like number of produce ladies are continually taking fruits and vegetables out of their boxes and putting them on display. Think about it--each one of these tiny stores probably has a crew of produce, meat and seafood workers well in excess of what you see at your local Ralphs or Albertsons. These stores are packed with shoppers, all day long, from 7 am to 6 pm, and there's always a line to pay at the cashiers, who are stationed side by side against the wall.  And when fresh cartons are poured into the bins, stay out of the way, particularly from the little old Chinese ladies, who have no qualms about pushing or shoving their way to get the best new merchandise, or to get into line to pay.  (For proof, check out this television story about a fight over eggs on Stockton Street.)

And not only are Chinatown shoppers blessed with the convenience of fresh food, the prices at these stores are incredibly low. Why pay $4 a pound for cherries at Whole Foods when they're 69 cents a pound on Stockton Street. Yes, the Whole Foods cherries might be a little bit bigger, and you won't find any with double pits. But hey, for an 80 percent price discount, who cares? That's why every time we visit San Francisco, we come back with every day produce items purchased at the lowest price imaginable.

So how are the prices on Stockton Street so low?  Well with regards to the produce, it appears the trick is eliminating the middlemen.  San Francisco Chinatown is close enough to the agricultural fields of the San Joaquin Valley that many growers pack their trucks early in the morning and head straight to the grocery stores on Stockton Street in time for the 7am to 8am opening of those stores, bypassing the wholesale produce markets.  In addition there is very little spoilage because many of the Stockton Street stores discount that day's unsold produce at the end of the day, and if there's anything left, discount them more the next morning.   Plus with the volume and turnover, Stockton Street grocers can operate on a very thin margin and still do well.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Laura Ling Names Baby After Bill Clinton

I read today where journalist Laura Ling named her new baby after Bill Clinton. This is certainly understandable and a fine gesture given Clinton's role in getting the journalists released from North Korea. The problem is that the baby is a girl. How do you name a baby girl after Bill Clinton? Well, the baby's middle name is Jefferson. I hate to say it, but Jefferson is not an appropriate middle name for a girl. There's nothing wrong with using a surname as a middle name, but since Jefferson is both a surname and a boy's first name, that just doesn't sound right. It probably would have been more meaningful to use Clinton as the middle name.

I often wonder what Ling and Euna Lee thought when they were led out of their North Korean jail cells only to see Bill Clinton there in person. If it was me, I would have thought "Oh no! Now they've captured Bill Clinton."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Impeach Bud Selig! This Neanderthal Must Go

Baseball is the only popular 19th century sport still being played in the United States. Yes, football and basketball are 19th century creations, but they've changed with the times. Baseball, on the other hand, is still mired in a previous century, perhaps the early 20th century if not the 19th century. Only baseball has ridiculous rules preventing a player from re-entering a game, mandating an equal number of at-bats for all players, in the National league requiring pitchers to bat, silly rain-out rules that truncate, negate or result in no contest games, and others I can't think of immediately. And of course, almost no use of instant replay. It is fitting that such a backwards game is led by such a Neanderthal as Bud Selig. With Armando Galarraga being jobbed out a perfect game by an admittedly erroneous umpiring call, Selig could easily have reversed the decision, particularly since the mis-call came on an otherwise game ending play. But slug that he is, Selig declares it's back to the future and refuses to do the right thing. I'm surprised people still go to baseball games given the state of the sport.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Window To The Future

A good thing about trading markets is that it gives (usually) an objective view of current thinking about the subject matter being traded. Indeed, sports odds are in concept another form of trading market to give an unbiased view as to how a sporting event is likely to play out, and as such is very useful to sport fans as to creating expectations. An interesting website is that established by Intrade, which creates markets for specific future events, including but not limited to political and financial events. More than just being fun, Intrade can give you an insight into current events when an unfiltered reading of the news media is inconclusive. Case in point was the last few days before passage of the health care reform bill. Democratic leaders expressed confidence that the bill would pass, but other news stories hinted that they were a handful of votes short, or that a hitch developed because no single representative wanted to be the person to cast the decisive vote. However, turning to Intrade saw passage futures trading at 80 percent, so I knew that it was a done deal. One interesting current contract is that Arlen Specter's prospects of winning his primary race have dropped from 80 to 20 in just a couple of weeks. Also the chances of the Republicans winning the House this fall are currently pegged at 44, though they hit slightly over 50 a few days ago.

Of course this is not meant to say that the predictions are highly accurate in the long run. If these futures contracts were that predictive, we'd be in the second term of the Kerry administration, as his futures soared on election night as results of the subsequently discredited exit polls portended a big Kerry victory. But these futures seem to be as predictive as sports odds, and that's a pretty good record.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Chandavkl Inept Organization Award--LAUSD

While there are many incompetent organizations running around, the one that takes the cake is the Los Angeles Unified School District. I was initially alerted to the dysfunctional nature of LAUSD when I once shared a table at a seminar with a senior executive of a major Los Angeles based corporation. In an unsolicited comment, he indicated to me that along with a number of other local business leaders, he had worked with LAUSD to try to improve the organization's structure and performance. However, he sadly concluded that LAUSD was totally beyond repair.

Over the years we have had many glimpses of this organizational train wreck, charitably described by the Los Angeles Times as a civic disgrace. We all know about the payroll system boondoggle that cost the district tens of millions of dollars. Now outdated and inefficient government computer systems is nothing new. But the specifics of the problems with the LAUSD payroll system were truly alarming. So many arcane job and payroll categories that it is no wonder why sophisticated computer consultants could not put together a working system. (An amazing 1,100 pay categories for fewer than 100,000 employees.) No single person at LAUSD in charge of the payroll project. Using an inappropriate software package. And poorly trained clerks trying to crank out the monthly payroll.

Time after time the same message reverberates. Nobody in charge and overlapping responsibilities. Separate departments for elementary school bilingual education and high school bilingual education--and no communication or co-ordination at all between the two groups. Is this any way to run an organization?

Which leads me to the incident that triggered this essay. LAUSD is not only incompetent at the big things, it's also inept when it comes to the little things, too. Mrs. Chandavkl is an employee of LAUSD and as such is entitled to an LAUSD email account. She really doesn't use it, but I do monitor it for her from time to time. Well, visiting the LAUSD email account this weekend, I see a notice that her 80 mb mailbox was at capacity and could not receive any more communications. Well first of all, these days what emailbox is limited to a rinky dink capacity of 80 mb? Even then, remember that Mrs. Chandavkl doesn't use this account. So how did it fill to capacity? Well, it's chock full of communications from Superintendent Cortines and other LAUSD mucky mucks. Well, that's fine, certainly a proper use of the LAUSD email system. But how does it fill up 80 mb? After all, 80 mb is sufficient to support 8,000 messages of 10,000 bytes each. The answer is that LAUSD doesn't send messages to employees in text form. Rather, it sends them as attachments, quite often Acrobat files of 500 kb. (And don't get me started on the fact that these documents cannot be opened out of the email view--they have to be saved to disk, unless you use your browser's "Open new view" option.) Why do they do it this way? From what I can tell, it enables them to message employees on letterhead bearing the colorful LAUSD logo on it. And of course, these messages are important, aren't they? Certainly yes, like the 1 mb color poster informing employees that they need to move their clocks forward for daylight savings time.

The shortcomings of the LAUSD email system may not be significant in and of itself (certainly LAUSD demonstrates higher levels of incompetency on a daily basis), but it demonstrates further that they are incapable of doing anything correctly.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dream or Reality?

I had a slightly frightening dream last night (well actually about 4am). I dreamed that I was driving on a multilane hillside highway with a slight curve, and that I drove over ivy vines that had grown onto the road. The combination of the ivy and the curve caused my car to spin out and I ended up passing through the other direction of traffic and off the road, doing a 180 and stopping just before going over the edge of a hill. I remember then thinking maybe I was asleep and this was just a dream. Then I remember thinking, no, I'm awake. Then I woke up.

No wonder why as I get older sometimes I have trouble ascertaining whether certain events in my life actually happened, or whether I just dreamed it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


So Eyjafjallajökull blew its stack after almost 200 years of sitting there just looking like a volcanic glacier. British airports were first closed for a few hours, now it looks like a minimum of 18 hours. Airports are also closing in Scandinavia and France, with effects being felt around the world and here at LAX. Travelers are already assured of a two day delay in their travel plans, and we'll just have to wait and see if that stretches out longer.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Butler Didn't Do It

There are a number of ways to analyze last night's NCAA basketball title game in which Duke nipped Butler 62-60 in one of the best championship games ever. You could say it was a classic game in which one team randomly had to prevail. You could say that Duke was clearly better in light of the huge partisan crowd rooting for Butler that it had to contend with, or the fact that actually Duke was in control because it led the game most of the way. You could also say that Duke's rebounding and defense was more impressive.

However, I'd like to take a different approach. I think that Duke won because the pressure of a long winning streak took its toll on Butler. While winning 25 games in a row may seemingly give you momentum going into a title game, history has shown that winning streaks exert a strong negative influence on a team's performance. Some of the most surprising upsets in sports history were inflicted on apparently dominant teams on a long winning streak, e.g. New England Patriots. Perhaps the best known proponent of this thought is John Wooden, who once shockingly stated that a loss can be good for a team, particularly when it's on a long winning streak, because the stress of maintaining that streak, whether or not consciously, will at some point overshadow the quality of a team's play. However, according to Coach Wooden, once the pressure of the streak is broken, the team can be itself again. Clearly, Butler's play suffered in its two final four contests, particularly in the second half of each game where its offense at times became non-existent. It's a credit to them that they held on against Michigan State and came thisclose to winning it all against Duke. But I have a feeling that if they had lost a game somewhere in the middle of their winning streak, we'd be now celebrating the improbable run of the NCAA champions from Butler.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Will Las Vegas Real Estate Ever Recover?

This is my third visit to Las Vegas since the housing meltdown begin. Our first trip was a little less than two years ago, as we were attracted by falling home prices and the possibility of eventually setting up retirement residence in Las Vegas. A local real estate broker graciously spent over four hours chauffeuring us around various neighborhoods west of the strip to show off bank owned properties. Prices were tantalizingly low, predominantly $120 to $150 a square foot, including brand new construction. At that time I was advised by a local resident to hold off because prices would eventually fall to $100 a square foot. The main impression made on this trip was how much new and recent residential construction there had been in Las Vegas since 2000.

Six months later we came back, this time riding the foreclosure bus tour over an even wider geographic area. If the first trip were an eye opener, this trip was a shock. The magnitude of residential construction was incredible--the number of newly built neighborhoods was beyond imagination, stretching perhaps 20 miles north of town. Certainly nobody who worked on the Strip would contemplate living this far away. Prices out here approached $80 a square foot, while closer in properties fetched $100 a square foot, amazing considering current construction costs of $90 to $100 per square foot.

In the year since the foreclosure bus tour I've seen that prices have dropped further, though they're starting to stabilize. Unfortunately for many property owners, the stabilization point appears to be as low as $60 per square foot in the most extreme cases. And my revelation as to how much inventory had been built continued. Driving around the M Resort Casino, way to the south of the strip, an entire sea of recent construction, this time predominantly condominiums, appeared before us. The quantity of recently built housing we've seen in the past couple of years is overwhelming--and we haven't even set foot in Henderson. I've heard people say that it will take Las Vegas 10 or more years to absorb all of this construction. I believe it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Your State Government In Action, Part Umpteen

One of the most annoying things about any government, but for some reason more so at the state and local level, is the inability of various agencies to work together. A prime example of this has just arisen with regard to California rental property owned by out of state holders. A newly enforced rule of the California Franchise Tax Board mandates that parties managing properties for these out of staters must withhold 7 percent of the income relating to the property. This is not an unreasonable rule, since these non-California taxpayers might otherwise avoid pay the income taxes rightly owed to California. But gumming things up is a requirement of the California Department of Real Estate, which prohibits payment of the 7 percent withholding amount over to the FTB if the property owner does not consent. So if Paul in Paducah owns rental property in Petaluma which is managed by Perry, a California real estate licensee, and does not consent to the 7% withholding, what are Perry's options? Option 1 is to withhold the tax anyway and pay it to the FTB, in which case the California Department of Real Estate will suspend Perry's real estate license. Option 2 is to not pay the tax, in which case the California FTB will hold Perry personally liable for the tax that he should have withheld. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

So what do the different California agencies say about this? Basically, it's "we don't care about any other agency, we just want our rules enforced." However, one spokesman did have a bit of practical advice. He told real estate managers not to manage any properties for which owner withholding consents are not received.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Google Is Good

As a search engine, Google is fantastic. I was a very early convert, well before it became the leading search engine, while everyone else was still using Webcrawler, Alta Vista, Lycos and Yahoo. But I didn't realize how good Google was until I found my previous post--just five minutes after I had published it. It probably helps that Blogspot is a Google product, but that's still impressive.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Law Of Unintended Consequences

What both legislators and the public overlook with alarming frequency is that when a law is enacted, there may be consequences that the supporters of the law never dreamed of. Sometimes, this consequence diverges 180 degrees from the original intent of the supporters of the law. Such is the case with the generous tax credit for mixing alternative fuels with fossil fuels. The object here was to increase the usage of ethanol and gasoline blends, which reduces the amount of gasoline consumed while not coincidentally providing a boon for corn growers. But in one case the enactment of the tax credit has caused the opposite effect in the paper industry. Part of the paper production process is the creation of a waste product called black liquor. For 80 years the paper industry has used black liquor as a fuel source to run their mills. Black liquor is as much of an alternative fuel as ethanol. So by ADDING fossil fuel to black liquor, rather than using pure black liquor, paper mills are entitled to this tax credit to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, while increasing the consumption of fossil fuels at the same time.

Clearly, when the tax credit was enacted, the intent was for alternative fuels to be added to fossil fuels to garner the credit. It wasn't meant to provide a reward for fossil fuels to be added to existing alternative fuels. But that's exactly what happened. Now there's no doubt that the black liquor tax credit will eventually be repealed. Because of the snail's pace at which Congress enacts tax (or for that matter, any) legislation, this credit is still available even though this unintended consequence has been well known for quite a while.

Unintended consequences also occur when supporters of a proposal fail to take into account potential behavioral responses to the new law. For example, the Obama administration proposed last year that US corporations with foreign income earned abroad that is not immediately subject to US tax should not be able to deduct the associated expenses relating to that income, until the income is recognized in the United States. On the surface that sounds like both a fair proposal and a revenue generator in these times of scarce government revenue--a real win-win situation for the government. Except that US multinationals pointed out that in such a situation, the rational thing for them to do would be to move those expenses offshore, since there would be no current tax benefit in any country for such expenditures under the proposal. And given that the expenses in question would in many cases be comprised of services performed by employees, the result of the proposal would be to incentivize U.S. multinationals to move American jobs overseas. Fortunately the Obama proposal never got very far in the legislative process, and recognizing this original unintended consequence, the Obama administration has now dropped that proposal

The lesson here is that before strongly advocating the passage of any new law, supporters need to look carefully and understand what all the consequences are, not just the ones you want to occur.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Hello Dalai--It's So Nice To Have You Back In Town

I heard on the news that the Dalai Lama is in Washington DC for an unofficial visit with President Obama. This reminded me of the Dalai Lama's previous visit to our nation's capital. Listening to the news on KFWB at that time I heard the announcer proclaim that the Dalai Lama was in Washington D.C. to "receive the Congressional Medal of Honor." What? Perhaps the leading symbol for peace and nonviolence in this world being honored for wartime battlefield heroics? Immediately I was overcome with images of the Dalai Lama, hand grenades strapped to his waist, battling with the invaders from the Han nation. Then the announcer clarified that it was the Congressional Gold Medal, not the Congressional Medal of Honor that was being awarded. Oh well. Somehow the Congressional Medal of Honor sounds better.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Little Fuzhou--How Did They Know?

Whenever I go into a Chinese restaurant or business establishment in the Chinese community, they start talking to me in Chinese, not knowing that I don't know the lingo. Consequently, when I went into a couple of places in the Little Fuzhou section of Manhattan Chinatown and I was greeted in English, I was shocked. How did they know? Did I look Japanese or Korean? After thinking about this for quite a while (off and on for four weeks), I finally figured it out.

The answer requires a couple of digressions. The entirety of Manhattan Chinatown east of Bowery has been referred at times as "Little Fuzhou." This is to distinguish it from the original Chinatown core from Bowery and west which is Cantonese/Toishanese in origin going back to the 19th century. As Manhattan Chinatown has expanded past its original core into formerly non-Chinese areas of the Lower East Side, this expansion has been fueled by immigrants from Fuzhou as opposed to the historic immigration from the area formerly known as Canton. Keep in mind that this Fujianese immigration largely represents lower end working class migrants, who by the way are mostly not of legal status. Indeed, many of them are merely passing through New York on their way to new jobs at Chinese businesses all over the east, midwest and south, wherever there's a bus connection from under the Manhattan Bridge. When you are in this part of Manhattan Chinatown, non-Chinese faces are almost non-existent and English is seldom heard. Tourists--or even other New Yorkers seldom find their way here. There is at least one banquet size Chinese restaurant that doesn't have an English menu. This makes the greetings I heard in English all the more surprising.

The second digression is that until 2003 I had not experienced the cold winter weather the people who live east of California are used to. Since 2003, making annual winter visits to Manhattan has taught me things about cold weather, like the fact that men actually wear gloves and scarves, and that sweater hats are a daily necessity. Over these past seven years I have built up a cold weather wardrobe of purchases made in New York. One favorite purchase was made the year that winter never showed up in New York, and Macy's was stuck with a large inventory of unsold wool overcoats which they began liquidating halfway through winter. I was able to score one of those $300 items for less than half price, and I wear it religiously on each winter trip to the East Coast.

So what does any of this have to do with my initial puzzlement? Well, I figure it's that black wool overcoat that gave me away. Fujianese restaurant workers don't walk around Manhattan Chinatown wearing long wool overcoats. North Face is more the style there. Nobody walks around Little Fuzhou in a long wool overcoat except for this silly interloper.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Most Stunning Ironic Political Development In My Lifetime

Scott Brown's election has to be the most stunning and ironic political development that I've ever seen. Jesse Ventura becoming governor of Minnesota was stunning. Sonny Bono becoming a serious politician was stunning. Sarah Palin for VP was stunning. But none carry the irony of this election. Congress is consumed in passing a health care bill, the dream of the late senator Ted Kennedy. All the talk since passage of the Senate bill on Christmas Eve was whether the Democratic controlled Congress could reach an agreement (somehow it probably would because failure was not an option given the Obama administration's prioritization). Nowhere on the radar was the possibility that the Senate Democrats might lose their fillbuster proof 60 member majority. Ten days ago I never heard of Scott Brown. Now he has taken the former Ted Kennedy Massachusetts seat in the U.S. Senate. This leaves three alternatives for health care reform. The House can approve the Senate bill intact (with its Cadillac health care excise tax intended to hit at wealthy individuals but which more greatly affects union members) exactly as is, avoiding further Senate votes. They can try to pass a new bill in two weeks or less before Brown is certified. Or they can start all over again. The first two alternatives sound too much like dirty pool and I'd be surprised if they went down that road. So is that the end of health care reform for now?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Manhattan Chinese Food

Since I'm spending most of the week in New York City I thought I'd write on the state of Chinese food in Manhattan and how it compares to the stuff back home in L. A. I've eaten at over 200 restaurants in New York Chinatown (which I estimate covers perhaps two-thirds of all the restaurants there), choosing the best ones first. I've also eaten at all the Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles Chinatown and 95 percent of the Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.

I can categorically say that by comparison, New York Chinese food is grossly inferior to that of Los Angeles, or for that matter, San Francisco. I don't make this statement as a matter of regional pride, but rather because it is the logical conclusion based on demographics. Historically NYC Chinatown had been Cantonese in origin, but the last two decades have seen a wave of immigration from Fujian province. These recent immigrants are the poorest of the poor. NYC Chinatown serves the Fujian community, the historic Cantonese community, and the tourist community. As such the Chinese food there is mired in the 20th Century, certainly not being bad, but not reflecting the latest evolutions in Chinese in cuisine, both as to other regional cuisines as well as improvements in Cantonese/Hong Kong style cuisine, and not particularly geared towards an affluent customer base. Indeed, the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan is Chinatown Brasserie, which is not even in Chinatown, and most of whose clientele is not Chinese (because it is so ridiculously expensive).

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has likewise seen an influx of immigration from Asia, much more broadly based than that seen in New York, both in terms of geographic origins as well as socioeconomic background. Nobody loves their food more than the Chinese, and well heeled immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China expect the most appetizing food that money can buy. As a result, the Los Angeles area is a gold mine for lovers of Chinese food, with more diverse (in terms of regional cuisines and breadth of selection) better (and, interestingly, cheaper) Chinese food than anywhere else in the United States, though the Bay Area is a close runner up. It is particularly the much smaller community of Hong Kong Chinese in New York that probably explains the lack of evolution of Chinese food in Manhattan compared to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto.

There is California quality Chinese food in Flushing, and indeed there are regional varieties in Flushing, such as Xian, Wenzhou, Henan and Guizhou that you won't find in California. However, Flushing does not measure up to the San Gabriel Valley.