Monday, December 12, 2011

Fantastic Chinese Food--In Houston, Texas

If the Chandavkl family has an ancestral homeland, it would be Houston, Texas. How the family got to Houston is somewhat of an unusual story. The Chandavkl family settled in San Francisco some 110 years ago, then moved to Los Angeles perhaps 20 years later. The first American born member, Uncle Edward, worked in the Federal court in Los Angeles as an interpreter. With the enactment of federal laws severely restricting immigration from China to the United States, deportation hearings requiring interpreters fluent both in English and Toishanese were not uncommon. At one such trial an event occurred which altered the course of the family's history. The accused defendant was determined to have illegally entered the United States and was ordered deported. The defendant's family and associates blamed Uncle Edward for incorrect translations that led to the deportation order, and put a bounty on Uncle Edward's head. Uncle Edward had to flee for his life, as far from Los Angeles as he could get.

Uncle Edward ended up in New York City, which was almost as far from Los Angeles as one could go. In New York he latched on with the Chinese Consul General and became his right hand man. Then, the Counsel General was transferred to a new consular office in Galveston, Texas, which was subsequently moved to Houston. This was in the middle of the Great Depression, and after having established himself in Houston, the rest of the family joined him there in 1935. During the 1940s and again in the 1960s, some of the family relocated back in Los Angeles.

I had made numerous trips to Houston over the years for various family gatherings, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. While Houston had the largest Chinese population of any of the Texas cities, and hence there was some authentic Chinese food there, it really couldn't compare to what you could get in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Sadly, the old timers died off and it's been almost 20 years since the last major family gathering in Houston. Indeed, since that last gathering I've only been to Houston twice, on side visits to business trips to Dallas (in 2003) and San Antonio, just a few weeks ago.

Consequently, you can imagine my surprise during this trip to Houston to find Chinese food as good as in the San Gabriel Valley. Even in 2003, while the Chinese food in Houston was decently good, there was no hint that it would make any kind of leap forward. Equally surprising was the availability of dishes in Houston (either the Bellaire Blvd. Chinatown or Sugar Land) that have only recently been introduced in the Los Angeles area, or in some cases not available at all here in Los Angeles. Beijing style beef hockey pucks (Niu Rou Xian Bing) which have just recently made an appearance in Los Angeles? Go to Xiong's Cafe on Bellaire Blvd. Great hand pulled noodles? Try Classic Kitchen in the same shopping center. Pan fried beef dumplings with onions? Golden Dumpling House in the same shopping center. Tomato in fish sauce--not sweet and sour? Arco Seafood in the same shopping center. Fantastic beef shiu mai (hardly if ever seen in Los Angeles these days)? At Hong Kong Dim Sum across the street. Taro rolls like you get at 85°C in Irvine? Go to Six Ping on Bellaire. Large scallop fish roe rice noodle rolls and egg tofu rice noodle rolls? You can get them at Jade Garden in Sugar Land, but not in Los Angeles. Supermarket deli selling Taiwanese chicken rolls? Go to Wel Farm market in Sugar Land. Certainly Houston doesn't have the breadth or depth of Chinese food that is available in Los Angeles, but any of these Houston restaurants would survive quite well if operating in the San Gabriel Valley.

The increase in the quality of Chinese food in Houston in the eight years since my previous visit was wholly unexpected. This result was probably magnified by the fact that I only ate at restaurants that had opened up after my 2003 visit to Houston so everything I ate was on the cutting edge. Before this year's visit to Houston I was viewing the trip as one last visit to the ancestral homeland. However it seems to me that I'll continue to go back to check out the food whenever I get the chance.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

American Airlines Files For Bankruptcy--Business As Usual

The economic IQ of many Americans is truly appalling. To many, being a large international corporation is equated to having a license to print money, when in fact corporate profits are a relatively small percentage of gross sales, and payroll payments to employees far outstrip net profits. I highlighted this belief in a previous posting with a quote from a Occupy Wall Street protester who said he was demonstrating because he worked for American Airlines and hadn't had a raise in eight years. Well, d'oh, they couldn't afford to give raises. With its stock selling for a little over $1 a share, American Airlines has been on the bankruptcy watch for quite a while, so the actual filing was not that big of a surprise. This quote was particularly disturbing since you'd think that a longtime employee would be aware of his employer's precarious economic position.

What might be a real surprise to most people is the fact that from the beginning of the airline industry in the early 20th century to date, the cumulative historic profit of the airline industry as a whole stands at somewhere around zero. This point was humorously brought to light recently by Warren Buffett, who stated that had there been potential investors present at Kitty Hawk when the Wright Brothers made their first flight, they would have done a great favor to future investors had they shot the Wright Brothers on the spot. An equally humorous comment was made by Richard Branson, who said that the easiest way to become a millionaire was to be a billionaire, then invest in an airline.

The fact that a major industry like the airlines has never made money is truly astounding and hard to fathom. Why would anybody invest in an industry or enterprise that has never shown the ability to make a profit, particularly with a track record of many decades? Well, there are some answers to that. Airlines have had good years and indeed stretches of profitability. So once it had been shown that airlines could make money it's easy to think that they would continue to make money. Also, somebody may come up with a better idea (e.g., Southwest) and indeed make money doing it. And who could foresee the events of 9/11 which ultimately led to the bankruptcy filing of most of the major US based carriers.

However my uneducated guess is that the main reason for the lack of profits in the airline industry is the subsidization of airlines by foreign governments. Whether it's to give their airlines a "competitive" advantage, national pride over a flagship airline, viewing airline transportation as an extension of public transportation, or what, such subsidies artificially reduce fares charged by both subsidized airlines and their competitors. While US airlines have their own indirect subsidies, such as the restriction on foreign carriers to connect between domestic locations and the flight infrastructure established by major airports and the federal government, these are probably diluted by pressures to serve unprofitable domestic markets and other government restrictions.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Supercommittee Failure Causes Stock Market Plunge--Not!

One of the most irritating myths about the stock market is that daily news items explain most of the movements in the stock market. Every day you hear that the stock market went up or down because of a specific economic or political news event. Today, when the stock market tanked, with an almost immediate 300 point loss, it was blamed on the weekend revelation that the Supercommittee was not going to come up with any solution by its statutory deadline. However, any such connection is totally ludicrous.

As J. P Morgan once so astutely noted, stocks will fluctuate. Stocks will go up or down, even if there is absolutely no news. What controls the stock market and stock prices is the general expectation of the future health of the economy and companies by the world as a whole. This is not to say that news doesn't affect stock prices. But for news to affect stock prices, it must deviate from the current expectation. For example, if everybody expects that Microsoft will buy out Yahoo for $30 a share two months from now, Yahoo certainly will not be trading for $15 today--it'll be trading much closer to $30. Of course, expectations are not black and white, so current prices reflect the probabilities of certain events happening. So if Yahoo stock is worth $15 a share without takeover prospects, but there is a 50 percent chance that some company would buy them out in the near future for $30 a share, its current price would settle somewhere around 22½.

Which brings up to today's market drop being blamed on the Supercommittee's inability to come up with a budget alternative. Well, if the general expectation had been that the Supercommittee was going to be successful, and the failure to come up with an agreement would be catastrophic, then the cause and effect would be reasonable. But in fact the failure of the Supercommittee to find a solution was almost as surprising as the fact that the sun rose today in the eastern sky. Trading futures on Intrade a week ago pegged the chance of a Supercommitee agreement at 20 percent, a percentage which undoubtedly diminished during the week last week. Furthermore the lack of an agreement merely means that the default solution goes into effect, unless otherwise modified by 2013. Consequently, unlike something approaching a Congressional bailout vote with down to the wire uncertainty, this news had little to do with today's stock market action.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

An Afternoon At The Philharmonic

I think I have a relatively high interest in music. I can identify many thousands of songs in just a very few notes and have collected thousands of performance music videos from the 1950s to the present. However, there are a number of categories of music I don't particularly care for, including opera, Chinese opera, jazz, rap and classical music. Consequently when my son couldn't make the L. A. Philharmonic concert at the Disney Concert Hall and I took his tickets, that could have been quite a mismatch, as I was certainly the least sophisticated member of the audience when it came to this kind of music.

In fact I had a wonderful time with Mrs. Chandavkl at the concert. Frankly I didn't like any of the music, but I had a very interesting time observing the orchestra. For example I never realized that a symphonic orchestra was so heavily weighted towards string instruments, with just a small number of winds and percussions backing up the predominantly violin, viola and cello orchestra. The first thing that really caught my attention was the cymbal player in the back row. In the first piece performed which lasted about half an hour, he spent most of the time seated on a chair. Once in a great while he would stand up, grab his cymbals, then a minute later he would crash his cymbals once, twice or maybe even four times. I counted only four or five times when Mr. Cymbal was called on to perform, which means he probably spent 25 minutes of the 30 minutes sitting at his chair, and probably one minute actually performing. Now I know the Philharmonic musicians are world class, with intense competition to work your way into the most prestigious orchestras. But this made me wonder, exactly what made one a world class cymbal player? My guess is that there were two elements--the first being able to distinguish when your time to perform was coming up, and the second being able to operate the cymbals at the proper noise level. I do think I know what makes a world class kettle drum player. The drummer was maneuvering six different sets of drumsticks, each with a different size head, and it certainly took skill to switch from one set to another to another. Even just knowing where the various sets should sit struck me as being daunting.

The next thing I learned was that musicians in the orchestra come and go between pieces. After the first piece, Mr. Cymbal was done for the day, as were most of the other percussionists and some of the wind instrument players. Other musicians, including a new cymbal player who doubled as a bass drummer, showed up. Also, I noticed that not all the musicians turned their music pages at the same time. I guess that means there's different sheet music for different types of instruments. In addition I became cognizant of the complexity of composing and conducting a symphonic piece with all of the different instruments and the assignments. The conductor was indeed like the head coach of a sports team, not just a guy waving his baton to the rhythm.

After the first piece ended and some of the orchestra left, they brought in a piano, which was followed shortly by the entrance of the pianist who received a large ovation. The pianist was a young Asian woman in a relatively short black dress. I wondered to myself whether this might be Yuja Wang, though it wasn't until intermission that I was able to look at the program and indeed confirm that it was her. Now while I know zero about classical music, I do know enough to be aware of Yuja Wang, for the skimpy orange outfit she wore earlier this year at the Hollywood Bowl, which apparently resulted in the first ever convergence of a public performance of symphonic classical music and wolf whistles. Now besides not liking classical music, I probably dislike classical piano the most, so I really didn't appreciate her performance. But man, that lady plays a mean piano.

My last observation is how contrived the ovations for the conductor and featured performers are. After the piece has ended the conductor stands and takes his bows. Then he exits stage left. Then he comes back for another ovation. Then he exits stage left again. Then he comes back for a final ovation. In Yuja Wang's case she must have left and come back four or five times. I also noticed Yuja bows kind of funny--more like a gymnast than a musician. As we left Mrs. Chandavkl wanted to get a closer look at Yuja Wang who was going to sign autographed copies of her CD in the gift shop. However the line to see her was too long.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Greed May Not Be Good--Especially For College Athletic Directors

Not too many sports fans outside of the mid-Atlantic area follow University of Maryland's football program, and I certainly don't. I did notice that the football team finished the 2010 season with an 8-4 record and almost won the ACC title, a tremendous turnaround from their 2009 record of 2-10. Ralph Friedgen, their coach, was rightfully named conference coach of the year. So how did Maryland reward him? Perhaps extending his contract which had only one year left to run? No, they fired him after a successful 10 year run in which he turned around the football program, though the first part of his tenure was admittedly more successful than the back half.

This would leave us to wonder as to the justification for the firing. Did the coach kick kittens, or perhaps mistreat players. No, not at all. Rather, in the thinking of the athletic director, Fridgen had raised Maryland's football program to the good level. However, the AD said good wasn't, well, good enough. Maryland football should be great. So bye bye Friedgen and hello Randy Edsall, hired away from Connecticut. This turned out to be a great hire right off the bat in the Maryland AD's search for greatness. In the first game of the 2011 season, Maryland beat the vaunted Miami Hurricanes on national television. Clearly, Maryland football was on the road to greatness.

Now after the victory over Miami I kind of lost track of Maryland's football fortunes. However, I just noticed this weekend that Maryland was whacked by traditional archrival Virginia by the score of 31-13. Since the Miami victory, this was Maryland's seventh loss in eight games, which included a loss to Boston College, previously thought to be the sorriest team in the ACC. Ralph Friedgen, where are you?

This episode is reminiscent of Nebraska's firing of their head coach a few years ago after Nebraska finished the season with a 10-3 record. The athletic director explained the firing saying that he would not be the one to oversee Nebraska football's descent into mediocrity. He was wrong as Nebraska won only 27 games in the next four years under the AD's hand picked successor, including two losing seasons. I suspect Maryland might not exceed that output.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Something the Wall Street Occupiers May Be Overlooking

While I understand the frustration with the economy that spawned the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy movements around the world, their protests are in large part misplaced. The movement would make much more sense if Wall Street were a monolithic institution or even a giant conspiracy that could be convinced, forced or legislated to change their evil ways. But Wall Street is not a monolith, nor are conspirators acting in conscious concert. Rather what the Occupy protestors are demonstrating against is crowd economic behavior, that is the cumulative effects of independently made individual decisions being made by hundreds of thousands of businesses, and which is virtually impossible to change or control.

The particular crowd economic behavior in question is the unwillingness of business to spend its accumulated cash to hire additional workers, or for that matter, even to pay it out to shareholders as dividends. The reason is that businesses are scared stiff of economic prospects and are unwilling to do anything that commits themselves to future expenditures. This is no conspiracy theory--each individual business has independently made this decision to hunker down and wait out a potential double dip recession. One could just as well put the blame for the current economy on consumers, who themselves are afraid of economic prospects, which itself leads to lack of spending and economic uncertainty. Nobody blames the consumer for being so skittish, and business is merely reacting in the exact same manner.

A good example of the futility in trying to affect crowd economic behavior was demonstrated right after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. World markets were closed immediately after the attacks to prevent panic selling, and remained closed for several days afterwards to let the world settle down. During that period of market closure, investors were urged by politicians not to sell their stocks when the markets reopened, as doing so would be playing into the hands of the terrorists, whose attack goals were at least in part tied to crippling the world economy. So the financial markets finally opened and stocks plunged, staying down for an extended period of time, as millions of investors each made the decision to flee to investments that were safer than stocks.

Indeed it's absolutely laughable when comparing the economic realities to some of the actions of the Occupy protestors. There was a noisy demonstration last week outside my office window with dozens of protestors gathered around the local branch of Bank of America. Bank of America is an especially good target for opponents of evil and greed since they are one of the leading mortgage lenders in California. However, a better term to describe Bank of America instead of evil or greedy is stupid, as they made the deliberate decision to acquire Countrywide Mortgage after the recent economic meltdown had begun. Indeed the real question is will Bank of America survive in the long run. Their stupidity is reflected in its stock price which has plummeted to long term lows, and which led me to post on Facebook in my description of the demonstration that perhaps the demonstrators were not from the Occupy group, but rather were Bank of America shareholders protesting the steep drop in Bank of America's stock price.

Another striking comment was made on the CBS radio network news which interviewed a protestor who explained his presence at an Occupy demonstration by the fact that he worked for American Airlines and "had not received a raise in nine years." Well those who follow the financial news know that the current speculation about American Airlines is whether they might be filing for bankruptcy before the end of the year (not likely, but still significant that the topic is even being broached), not what kind of raises they are going to give their employees.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Another Rudy Story

Although we hear the term "student athletes" used a lot, and the term may be relevant for non-revenue sports, for the major college sports of football and basketball most of the players are at least semi-paid semi-professionals. It is true that some players start out as nonscholarship walk-ons, but even there most of them are recruited walk-ons, given preferred admission to the university if not a scholarship. And once in a while an unrecruited walk on tries out for the team and makes the team, occasionally turning into a star, such as Mike Sherrard at UCLA back in the 1980s.

However, for a player without playing aspirations to join a major university's football team, literally plucked out of the student body, at the end of his college career, is almost unprecedented. But that is the case with UCLA placekicker Tyler Gonzalez, whose only previous brush with college sports was as a student manager of the soccer team. Obviously it takes a perfect storm of circumstances for this kind of event to occur. In this case the circumstances were a combination of injuries and unexpectedly poor performances by the scholarship kicker, Kip Smith and injuries to walk-on backup kicker Joe Roberts. UCLA still had a talented kicker in Jeff Locke, who is also a top notch punter and kickoff specialist. But a new reserve kicker was needed so the call went out to the student body. One of the football managers knew that his roommate had been place kicker in high school four years previously. And Tyler Gonzalez would have loved to play soccer or football at UCLA, but he was not Division 1 caliber in either sport. So Gonzalez, a senior, went to the tryout, and when he made a field goal with the entire team watching, he was awarded a berth on the team

Just making the team was amazing, being written up in all of the local newspapers. But with Jeff Locke doing a credible job of place kicking on top of his other duties, Gonzalez was unlikely to see game time. Still I saw him warming up before the game before the games at the Rose Bowl and when I went up to the Stanford game, so at least he was getting accustomed to the atmosphere of being at the stadium with the team. Then Locke's placekicing sputtered, missing PATs and field goals. The different technique needed for place kicking was affecting him. So the coaches announced last week that Gonzalez, based on his accuracy in practice, would do extra points and short field goals against Washington State.

By game day, the Gonzalez story was big news. On the national network telecast of the game on Fox, the studio pre-game lead-in story was Gonzalez. Host Kevin Frazier invited viewers to tweet their thoughts about the soccer manager-kicker using the tag #CanHeKick. Co-host Marcus Allen literally could not keep a straight face over the thought of someone "washing soccer uniforms the week before" doing the kicking in this game. Meanwhile UCLA fans like myself were anxious. What if the game came down to a PAT or short field goal. The players said they knew Gonzalez would be nervous kicking in actual game conditions and they were trying to keep hin calm.

At first it seemed like it wouldn't matter, as Washington State marched up and down the field against UCLA, holding the ball for over 12 minutes in the first quarter to UCLA's 2 minutes plus in two "three and out" possessions. Miraculously, though, UCLA was only down 6-0 as all two WSU drives inside the UCLA 10 yard line netted the Cougars were two short field goals. Then when Kevin Prince replaced the injured Richard Brehaut in the second quarter, the Bruins scored a TD to tie the game 6-6. Gonzalez comes in to kick the PAT and it's perfect.

Bruin fans were so delirious to take the lead in a game in which they had been seemingly so badly outplayed that they probably didn't notice the activity on the field. Gonzalez' UCLA teammates mobbed him. And a big defensive lineman ran onto the field and carried Gonzalez off the field. Just like Rudy.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Road To Somewhere: Secret Freeway Connector--Why Does The Government Keep It Hidden? (Because It's Governmentally Logical)

We're all familiar with the bridge to nowhere and it's symbolism as to government waste and incompetence. But even when there is a useful road to somewhere, the government is equally capable of showing its ineptitude.

When I started working in downtown Los Angeles, I noticed that while crawling in the evening rush hour traffic home north on the Hollywood Freeway, I would for a short stretch drive parallel to a usually empty connector ramp going in the opposite direction. I often wondered about such a lightly traveled road at rush hour in the midst of the downtown freeway interchange, but didn't bother to pursue it until recently. I ultimately discovered that it was effectively the direct connector road from the southbound Pasadena Freeway to the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway. Now you would figure that this connector road would be packed with traffic as surely a lot of people want to travel from this portion of the southbound 110 freeway to the eastbound 10 freeway. But it isn't, and the reason is that there's nothing at all to indicate that you can get to the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway using that road. The only signage indicates that the connector ramp will take you to the southbound Hollywood Freeway, which ends just a short distance ahead, and the southbound Santa Ana Freeway, which along with the eastbound San Bernardino Freeway, picks up where the Hollywood Freeway leaves off. However, if you're going south on the Pasadena Freeway, there are better ways to get to the Santa Ana Freeway which most drivers know about.

Actually, there is a technical explanation of why this road is not identified as connecting to the San Bernardino Freeway. Interstate 10, as it makes its way from Santa Monica, California to Jacksonville, Florida (I actually once sought out the eastern start to I-10 in Jacksonville), does not run continuously on a straight line through Los Angeles. Rather, it consists of the Santa Monica Freeway, running from Santa Monica to downtown, and the San Bernardino Freeway, which starts east of downtown and goes on to Florida. These two freeways are about a mile apart in latitude, with the freeways connected by a mile long north south portion of the Golden State Freeway east of downtown. Consequently, if you were driving on the Pasadena Freeway the governmentally correct way to connect from the Pasadena Freeway to the eastbound Interstate 10 would be to continue southbound (on the Harbor Freeway, which like the Pasadena Freeway carries the "110" designation) to the eastbound Santa Monica Freeway, up the Golden State Freeway and then to the San Bernardino Freeway. This way you have connected directly onto the 10 Freeway, as opposed to using the Hollywood Freeway as a one mile transition road. Of course, doing this probably entails driving an extra two miles, which doesn't sound like much. But during rush hour this officially mandated detour could well mean an extra 10 or 15 minute drive.

So the answer is that the government won't tell you the most direct way to get to the San Bernardino freeway because it has placed numerical correctness over logic and driver convenience. And isn't this how government usually works?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Chinese Restaurant Mysteries

Well we're not talking mysteries in the sense of those you see in movies or books, or the allegedly haunted restrooms at the old Hing Lung in the Park on 18th Ave. in San Francisco or the former Golden Palace location in Los Angeles Chinatown. Rather these are just head scratchers that I can't figure out.

Most notable and longest running is the case of Kai's Restaurant on San Gabriel Blvd. in San Gabriel. I remember stopping by there maybe 15 years ago, picking up a dim sum menu, with the intent of going back to eat there shortly thereafter. But when I went back, the restaurant was closed. And every time I went back it was always closed. But it's not like they went out of business. Over the years, there was a Los Angeles County Health Department grading placard in the window, and the restaurant's grade was changed from time to time. Once I went by and saw a worker inside. I tapped on the window, but he just shook his head. I thought perhaps they opened only late at night when I was seldom in that part of the world, so on the rare occasion when I was around there at night I would drive by, but it was still closed. I posted on the Chowhound board, but there were no responses. The first and only Yelp review merely asks if the restaurant ever opens. It now looks like it truly closed, so I guess I'll never solve the mystery.

More recently I have encountered a strange situation at George's House, a longstanding restaurant on Century Blvd. in Inglewood, just east of LAX. A few years ago they moved into a new location in front of a motel, just east of the 405 freeway, in a neighborhood I would describe as sketchy. There was nothing particularly unusual about this arrangement, and the motel was not unlike a number of low rise motels serving the LAX area. George's House makes terrific fried chicken dumplings, fried nice and crispy on the bottom, and fried almost in a single clump. There are four Yelp reviews of George's House, each one giving one star, but none commenting on the dumplings. But it's a little out of the way, so I don't go there regularly. However, having a hankering for their dumplings I decided to drop by last week. I didn't bother to check the address, just keeping a lookout for the motel and the sign that said George's House. However, as I approached what I thought might be the location I saw an abandoned boarded up motel, no restaurant signage, though there were hand drawn Chinese characters written on the building. Since I was coming from the other side of the street I turned at the corner so I could come back and drive right by the front. Turning my car around on this side street, I saw the abandoned George's House signage lying on the ground. Driving by the restaurant I also saw that the front entrance was gated off. Goodbye George, I thought.

But as I drove by, I did notice a car parked in the driveway near the entrance to the motel, so I turned into the driveway and the parking lot. There was a hand drawn sign pointing to the "4687 W. Century Blvd. mail room" so there were additional signs of life. Driving to the corner of the parking lot, while every motel room was heavily boarded up, what appeared to be the back door of the restaurant was open. Walking in, the restaurant indeed was open, though there were no customers inside. The man at the counter started speaking to me in Chinese, but I told him I didn't understand. I asked for two orders of fried chicken dumplings, and within a few minutes my food was ready.

My curiosity was really raised. How can this restaurant stay in business being attached to an empty motel (a sign on the motel's night window says "we cannot legally rent rooms"), with no exterior signage, and a blocked off front entrance? And why did the guy start speaking to me in Chinese, since in this part of town any Asian walking off the street (which would seemingly be an infrequent event) could just as well be Japanese or Korean or Vietnamese? Since the proprietor didn't appear to speak much English I really couldn't chat him up. I did notice Chinese writing on the blackboard on the wall, rather odd for a Chinese restaurant not in someplace like Chinatown or the San Gabriel Valley. I did ask him if they were open every day, and he said yes, which only added to the mystery.

Now I do have a plausible explanation of what might be going on. There are Chinese restaurants whose primary source of business is visiting Chinese tour groups. While we've all seen tour groups dining at established Chinese restaurants, I'm talking about Chinese restaurants that have few customers aside from Chinese tourists. We saw this ourselves in the remote town of Golden, British Columbia, which served authentic Chinese food in the middle of nowhere, and which actually closes down once tourist season is over. There was a Chinese restaurant of this ilk near LAX, Capri Garden in what was the Howard Johnson Hotel on Airport Blvd. and Manchester. From what I could tell the Howard Johnson was a full service operation for Taiwanese tourists--most of the hotel guests were Taiwanese tourists and the restaurant served authentic Chinese food. However the hotel was recently sold and remodeled, and no longer has a restaurant. Perhaps George's House has filled this void.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Boron, Edwards and Jetliners in Mothballs

As travellers between the two cities know, there is only one practical driving route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Interstate 15 through the Cajon Pass. Under good conditions, which usually prevail, the ride is a little under four hours. However, at the start and end of holiday weekends like this, it can take twice that amount of time or longer as Angelenos queue to or from Vegas. Indeed last night we heard about somebody who took 11 hours to drive back from Las Vegas last month due to a combination of bad traffic and bad weather. We avoid Las Vegas if it is at all crowded, so when it once took a mere six hours due to highway construction I was rather upset at that extra travel time.

Before we headed back from Vegas to Los Angeles this past Friday afternoon I fortuitously noted a large smoke cloud in the distance to the north of Las Vegas. Grabbing my blackberry and searching "Las Vegas fire" I found out that it was a fire in the remote Sheep Valley, well out of the Las Vegas area. However, Google also picked up another item about a fire in the Cajon Pass that had closed I-15. Now since we were three hours away from the fire we pressed on, hoping that the highway would be open by the time we got there, but thinking about plans if it wasn't. Unfortunately I did not bring a California map with me so I had to visualize possible alternate routes. However, we were able to catch radio reports that described the best alternate routes. The reports also indicated that I-15 southbound would probably be closed overnight because the pavement had burned.

Arriving in Barstow after 5pm I headed straight for the California Welcome Center in the Tanger Outlet Mall. I was hoping they were still open so I could get a look at a highway map and see what our options were. The helpful clerk suggested a long route, Highway 58 to Mojave to Highway 14 through the Antelope Valley, or the shorter route of staying on I-15 and getting off at Pearblossom Highway, just before the closure point. Mrs. Chandavkl seemed dubious about the long way around, thinking that it would take us six hours to get home that way. (She doesn't have a very good sense of geography.) Also, southbound traffic on I-15 had been light through Barstow so while there would be a bottleneck approaching the closure point at I-395 the delay might not be longer than the extra time it took to detour on Highway 58, so I tentatively decided we would stick it out on I-15. However, before we left we stopped at the Van Heusen store. As we were leaving a woman comes in and starts talking to the clerk (who had advised us not to even try driving back to Los Angeles) that it had taken her hours to reach Barstow on northbound I-15, which had not been closed and that the southbound side was backed up for miles from the closure point. That made it easy to decide to take Highway 58. Mrs. Chandavkl freaked out, fretting we wouldn't get home until midnight because this route would also be clogged by drivers avoiding I-15. I assured her we'd get home at 9pm as most drivers wouldn't be aware of any problem until they got to Victorville, at which point Highway 58 would not be an option.

From my point of view, any time lost taking Highway 58 would be worth it as I had never travelled this portion of the highway before. While Highway 58 was generally flat and boring, we did pass Twenty Mule Team Highway, and drove by the town of Boron, where the raw material for Borax and boric acid was mined. We drove along the north edge of Edwards Air Force base, marveling at how many people would drive this far to see Space Shuttle landings in the middle of nowhere. And as we headed down Highway 14 we saw what looked like a large commercial airport, but which was really a parking spot for commercial airliners that have been removed from service.

As we headed through the Antelope Valley, where we hadn't been in probably a dozen years, we turned on the radio to hear that I-15 southbound had just been reopened. "See," Mrs. Chandavkl said. "We should have stayed on I-15." I told her we could have been delayed just as long by being stuck in traffic there, since the I-15 would still have been closed when we arrived there, though I don't think she bought that. The rest of the ride back was also interesting, too. Lancaster and Palmdale were modern communities with all of the amenities of urban living. We could not imagine how our neighbor's daughter would drive daily at 5am from the Antelope Valley to her mom's house to drop off her kids before she went to work in Shadow Hills. We arrived home a little after 8:45 pm, which I figured was an extra 45 mile drive taking an extra 40 minutes over normal traffic conditions. Certainly it paid for itself in an interesting ride and not having the uncertainty of being trapped in traffic.

As a post script I turned on the TV news at 10pm. There, standing on the freeway entrance to the southbound I-15 was a news reporter, showing that while traffic to Las Vegas on the northbound I-15 was flowing smoothly, the southbound I-15 was at a standstill, as the backup from the earlier closure had yet to clear out. I read in the newspaper the next morning about the traffic chaos at the I-15 southbound closure as there were no signs or directions of where to go. One driver said it took 2 hours to travel 20 miles. So if we stayed on I-15, we might not have gotten home until midnight.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Amazon and the Sales Tax--It's The Constitution, Stupid

Most residents of California, as well as selected other states are aware of the struggle involving Amazon.com and other online retailers over the collection of sales tax. This has resulted in a strange set of bedfellows and combatants, as businesses and consumers take different sides of the issue depending on whose ox is being gored. But despite what you might hear from the media and politicians about fairness, tax loopholes and what's right, this is first and foremost a question of constitutional law and federal power over interstate commerce.

To narrow the legal issue, instead of focusing on Amazon.com or Overstock or whomever, just say you're a California resident who likes to keep your closet clean, so you regularly dispose of clothing you no longer wear. Perhaps in the old days you gave them away to Goodwill, but more recently, you've been going on EBay and selling these items to people around the country. So let's look at that pair of shoes you sold to a buyer on Kodiak Island. Do you have to collect Alaskan sales tax on that transaction and remit it to the Alaskan government, or for that matter, pay income tax to Alaska on any profit you made? Of course not. The reason is that you're here in California and Alaska has no jurisdiction over you, and under the U.S. Constitution they cannot make you collect or pay tax. Of course, this transaction is not tax free. Alaska, like any other state, requires the buyer to remit an equivalent "use tax" on the retail purchase of goods where the seller is beyond the state's jurisdiction. But for some reason, people just aren't as diligent in paying their state use tax liability as they are in paying state income taxes. (Fortunately I make few online retail purchases, so I don't need to confront that dilemma.)

So for the same reason you don't pay taxes to Alaska, neither does Amazon.com. Now you might think that Amazon.com is bigger than you are, so they should be required to collect sales or use tax on sales to Alaskan residents where you aren't. But don't forget we are talking Constitutional principles here, and under the Constitution size doesn't matter. Under the most recent constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court, unless a seller is physically present in a state, it is not liable to collect sales and use tax.

Of course the states know this, so how can they try to make Amazon.com collect their taxes? Well, by redefining physical presence in their state. The most common attack is the click-through referral. If a California resident is an Amazon affiliate and has a website that links to Amazon's, and if Amazon pays the Californian a fee for each click through, California says Amazon is present in California in the person of the affiliate. Now this isn't entirely far fetched, as a taxpayer may be present in a state by employing independent contractors, e.g., using a warehouse in the state owned by a third party to deliver local sales. However, using a California affiliate click through does seem to stretch the concept of presence pretty far. (California has set a minimum $500,000 sales threshold so most of you Ebay sellers are safe.) In any event, Amazon merely avoids this potential presence by getting rid of all of its California affiliates, so in the end it may be that these associates suffer the most. California also says that because an Amazon subsidiary is located in California, which is charged with Kindle research, that there is attributional presence in California. This is a more interesting approach that could possibly be upheld by a court, as are other activities which Amazon may engage in under an economic presence concept applied by a target state.

Now there are any number of ways this dilemma will play out. Amazon is trying to have California voters approve a ballot initiative to repeal the new California law. California is proposing a new version of the law that would forbid contrary ballot initiatives. Congress does have the power to pass legislation that would require the Amazons of the world to collect the tax with some minimal level of economic presence. Or the Supreme Court may or may not reinterpret the constitution to align with computer age business practices (certainly Justice Scalia wouldn't go for this) and discard the physical presence test for an economic presence test. Only time will tell who wins this Amazon battle.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Fallacy of Citibank's Reverse Stock Split

Stock splits may be one of the more misunderstood subjects when it comes to the stock market. Announcement of a stock split is usually hailed as good news, supposedly because it lowers the price of the stock, making it more "affordable" to future potential investors. However, most informed observers understand that this is silly, particularly when viewing the ownership of a corporation as a pie, and the shares of stock as slices of the pie. No matter if the pie is divided into ten million pieces, or after a two-for-one split, twenty million pieces, the value of the pie is the same, and the relative value of shares is unaffected by the split (or lack of split). The fact that Berkshire Hathaway doesn't split and trades for $100,000 a share belies the argument that it's bad for a stock's share price to get too high.

There is, however, one situation where a stock split does affect the total valuation of a company, and the surprising thing it's the corporation itself that seems to be oblivious to this fact. This is the case of the reverse split, where multiple shares of stock are surrendered for a single share. In the stock market there is a stigma for companies whose shares are priced too low. As such, there may be a temptation for a company to try to eliminate this stigma via a reverse split. However, in many cases the reverse split is detrimental to the shareholder of the company. The reason is that while the value of a share of stock is generally based on the allocable fractional value of the entire corporation, there is also some residual value to a share of stock as a trading vehicle. This is demonstrated by the shares of ghost companies, companies that have gone through bankruptcy, with liabilities well in excess of assets and shareholder equity clearly being wiped out. Yet shares of these companies can trade at 20, 50, or even 75 cents per share. Obviously, there is no corporate value to these shares, merely the value as a trading vehicle. In most cases this trading value is negligible compared to the corporate value, but in the case of a lower priced share of stock it could have some significance.

It is with this background that I laughed when Citibank announced a 1-for-10 reverse split to enhance its share price. At $4.50 per share, the stock price for this corporate giant was embarrassingly low, and cutting the outstanding shares by 90 percent would price the stock at a more prestigious $45. However, I knew that part of the $4.50 was the trading value, which would be lost after the reverse split. Sure enough, Citibank dropped over $1.50 per share on its first post-reverse split day of trading. And today? Citibank is trading at $30, briefly trading around $28 earlier this week. Obviously the stock would have fallen in any event. But the fact is that Citibank stock has never exceeded its opening post-reverse split price, and while they may now have the prestige of being a $30 stock, they also cost their shareholders quite a bit of money.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Apologies To Los Angeles--Vancouver Chinese Food Is Not So Superior Any More


For many years my dream vacation has been to go to Vancouver (specifically, the suburb of Richmond, B.C.) to partake of the wonderful Chinese food there. From our visits to Vancouver in 1993 and 2004, we learned that Vancouver Chinese food was far superior to that in Los Angeles. The fast food at any random food court stall in Richmond was head and shoulders better than what we were used to here at the best sit-down Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles. After our 2004 trip, my daughter expressed the sentiment that when she got married she wanted it to be in Vancouver, so she could throw her wedding banquet at a Vancouver Chinese restaurant. Consequently I have always been the first to extoll the virtues of Vancouver Chinese food and the comparative weakness of Los Angeles Chinese food.

I really thought I'd would have returned to Vancouver sooner than this year, but things never fell into place. So when this year's visit was finalized I was very happy to return to the land of milk and honey. However, there was one nagging thought in the back of my mind. Chinese food in Los Angeles had clearly improved since our 2004 visit to Vancouver. Was that improvement, obviously gradual over the years, so much that Vancouver wouldn't be the knock your socks off experience that it had been the last time?

In fact there were little clues that perhaps the gap had closed. My daughter visited Vancouver last year and reported that she wasn't blown away like in 2004. However, perhaps that was attributable to the fact that she did not have the guidance from Mrs. Chandavkl's third cousin who had shown us around 2004 and knew all the best dishes at all the best Vancouver Chinese restaurants. Also, one of my foodie friends who used to visit Vancouver frequently for Chinese food (but hadn't been there recently) indicated that there was no longer the influx of Hong Kong Chinese to Vancouver, which was the event that fueled the development of Vancouver's superior Chinese cuisine. In addition in my visit last year to Toronto, which some observers indicate had caught up to Vancouver for quality of Chinese cuisine, I found Chinese food that was better than Los Angeles, but not by a wide margin. And, I had read commentary on a restaurant message board that the Chinese food in San Francisco had almost caught up to Vancouver. Given that Los Angeles Chinese food is clearly better than San Francisco, this was more evidence that the clear dominance of Vancouver was over. On the other hand, my pre-trip survey of what appeared to be the best Chinese restaurants today in Vancouver contained only one repeat from the listing from our last visit, Sun Sui Wah, so perhaps new contenders had raised the Vancouver bar higher.

Once again, Mrs. Chandavkl's third cousin took us to the best of the best and we had many outstanding meals that exceeded what we can get in Los Angeles. Most notable was our meal at Landmark Hot Pot House on Cambie St. in Vancouver, where we had a meal to remember. I always considered shabu shabu/hot pot to be "meh", but this meal was indescribably delicious. The meal started with oil being squirted on a live lobster and live crab each in its own pot, the oil being lit, and then the addition of stock to the pot after an initial cooking period. I don't know what it was--the stock, the dipping sauces, or the fresh ingredients such as fresh fish, marbled beef, thin sliced Japanese pork, bean curd sheets, oysters, clams, fish balls, etc., but it truly was a magnificent meal.

However, my conclusion is that while Vancouver is still better when it comes to Chinese food, and I'm not going to turn down future opportunities to go there and eat, but the difference between there and Los Angeles is only incremental now. Indeed, for "ordinary food," meaning most dishes that are available in both cities, while the Vancouver average is above the Los Angeles average, not every good restaurant in Vancouver is necessarily better than any good Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles.

Now where there is still a big gap is for food items in Vancouver that are not available in Los Angeles. Besides the Vancouver style hot pot we had items such as honeydew tapioca, three mushroom bean curd rolls, fried egg white balls, Cajun beef, fried bread with sweet cream, and other innovative dishes which were heavenly. And the prospect of these kinds of dishes alone continues to make Vancouver enticing. But after our last visit to Vancouver in 2004 I literally did not eat Chinese food in L.A. for a month because it would be such a letdown. However, that's certainly not the case this year.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Los Angteles Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chef Beck Embarrass LAPD

It's easy to blame the LAPD for botching the Dodger beating case and erroneously fingering Giovanni Ramirez as the perpetrator. But really, the only blame belongs with Mayor Villaraigosa and Police Chef Beck for creating the hoopla that identified Ramirez as a suspect the time. Ramirez was never charged with the Dodger beating. Naming a person publicly as a suspect typically does not generate the fanfare of a civic press conference to declare that the case had been solved. However in what can only be described as shameless famewhoring, that's what the mayor and police chief did. If they hadn't stuck their noses in front of the cameras, the arrest of the real perpetrators would not given LAPD the black eye it has received.

In a city which probably has the highest percentage of resident famewhores in the world, Mayor Villaraigosa ranks at the very top. Yet, this isn't the mayor's most extreme case of forcing himself into the spotlight. That occurred when the Lakers won the 2009 NBA championship and during the team parade Villaraigosa sneaked onto the team bus to stand side by side with Kobe Bryant during the procession. Read the disgusting details at http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/sports/Villaraigosa-Tried-To-Steal-Kobes-Spotlight.html

But actually the mayor's penchant for the spotlight is not the most disturbing thing since he is, after all, a politician. What particularly troubles me is that the mayor gives the image of a smart and knowledgeable individual, where within the city government it is known that he in fact is not terribly bright. I do admire Villaraigosa for transforming himself from a high school truant, making it to UCLA and after graduation, law school. But it bothers me that a person who is so articulate, glib, and seemingly well versed on many topics, can fool the public when in fact he is no Bill Clinton or Barack Obama on the intelligence scale.

Of course you could speculate that those who question his intelligence may have their own agenda. But the fact is that he did flunk the California Bar Exam four times. Now the California Bar is not exactly the toughest test in the world. Indeed when I took the bar review course before sitting for the bar, they taught us that the number one objective was to write an exam where the bar examiners did not laugh at you. Now anybody can flunk the bar exam once. Stuff happens. But when somebody goes zero for four on the bar exam, that's pretty much proof to me that the person is not a mental giant.

But really the fact that the mayor can portray the image of being more capable than he is doesn't bother me that much, if it were an isolated instance. However I know of another city politician with a similar profile. This longtime politician was frequently seen in the media, expounding intelligently on a number of different issues. Yet somebody who worked closely with this person described them as being as dense as a rock. So if I, who am generally unconnected to our public officials, know of two not-so-bright politicians who seem to know what they're talking about, how many more of them are there out there? Now that's something to be worried about.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carmageddon--Christmas In July

As I had hoped, the parallel to the Bay Bridge closure a couple of years ago did hold up when the 405 Freeway was closed for bridge removal this past weekend. One of the best descriptions of how Carmageddon really turned out was "Christmas In July." However, I think the best meaning of this description is not necessarily the one intended by the person who coined it. Yes, Carmageddon was Christmas in July as Los Angeles had a weekend full of free flowing traffic. This has led to the next question of why it can't be like this all the time, or at least on an occasional basis. This is where "Christmas in July" hits the nail on the head. Christmas, the wonderful time of year when most everybody is happy and people are nice to each other, can only come once a year, when people are ready to depart from their normal everyday behavior to be happy, jolly and nice. So too, Carmageddon was a radical departure from most people's behavior pattern as people basically stayed home. Freeway traffic throughout the Los Angeles area was down by two thirds. The beaches were empty on a sunny California weekend. Restaurants and stores were empty, to the extent that in Westwood Village businesses closed down on early on Saturday due to a lack of business. Even traffic in Orange County, dozens of miles away from the Sepulveda Pass, was significantly lighter. Most stunningly, the canyon roads between the San Fernando Valley and West L.A., which are typically overflowing even when the 405 freeway is open, were hardly traveled when the 405 was closed. We truly witnessed abnormal behavior which will be difficult to replicate. Indeed, when Carmageddon II occurs in a year for a similar closure of the 405 freeway, will it be like the boy who cried wolf and true chaos next time around? Who knows.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Why Chinese Restaurants Change Their Names

Obviously stability is quite low in the restaurant community in general and Chinese restaurants in general. One tenant space in San Gabriel has had 14 or 15 different Chinese restaurants in a 20 year period, an especially staggering statistic when considering that one of these tenants kept the space for nine years. Chinese restaurants change names for various reasons--the restaurant is sold to a new owner and the name is not part of the transaction, the lease expires and the landlord refuses to renew it and re-leases the space, the restaurant plain goes out of business and a successor is found etc. etc.

One interesting subcategory is where the name of the restaurant changes, but the restaurant's operation appears unchanged, with the same menu, same waiters, and so on. Sometimes the name change is hardly noticeable, such as a slight change in the spelling of one of the words in the restaurant name. A good reason for this type of name change would be a change in the ownership lineup, even a small one, as Chinese restaurants often have multiple owners, and a slight change in name could be notice to creditors that there are new owners, or perhaps even a new legal entity involved.

Then again, there are the more nefarious reasons for these name tweaks. Sometimes the change in name indicates a new ownership entity, as noted above, but brought about by the desire to stiff certain creditors. Now few creditors are dumb enough to continue to do business with a successor entity if the the predecessor entity has skipped out on their obligations. But there is one category of creditor who is dumb enough to not ask any questions--the government. An accountant who handles a number of Chinese restaurant clients told me that it is not uncommon for a Chinese restaurant to fold up its legal entity and reincorporate into a new one for the express purpose of stiffing the government of unpaid sales tax proceeds. You'd think that the government would be smart enough to figure out the connection between old and new restaurants, particularly with similar sounding names, at identical locations. But clearly this is not the case.

A casual conversation with a waiter at another Chinese restaurant suggests another scam. One day, a popular, longstanding restaurant changed its name to something radically different. Being only an occasional visitor to the eatery I couldn't tell if there were any changes besides the new signs and new menu, so I asked the waiter in charge if this was the same place. He said that it was, then rather cryptically said that when you have been in business for a long period of time, sometime the government makes you do these things. My best guess is that he was referring to the unemployment tax rules, where the taxes the employer pays is based on the magnitude of employee claims for unemployment made against the employer. Now, if you're a brand new business you have no past experience of unemployment insurance claims which can be used to set your rate. So brand new employers are assessed at an arbitrary rate, but a rate which may well be less than that paid by existing employers with an experience rating. Consequently, it can pay for a longstanding Chinese restaurant which may have a high experience rating to go out of business, set up a new entity, and start all over again. Of course there are laws against such a change of identity for the purpose of lowering one's unemployment tax rate, but apparently here too, the government is asleep at the wheel.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Carmageddon is Coming!

Here in Los Angeles you can't turn on the radio or television, read the newspaper, or even drive on any freeway in the region (including the San Joaquin Valley!) and not know about the upcoming closure of a 10 mile stretch of the San Diego Freeway for the entire weekend of July 16 (including late Friday night and early Monday morning). And it's not any 10 mile stretch of the I-405--it's the stretch between the Santa Monica Freeway and the Ventura Freeway, which practically speaking is the only route that connects the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles.

Given the car culture of Los Angeles where people will drive two blocks to go to the gym, this portends a traffic jam of massive, if not biblical proportions. I remember maybe 10 years ago when a traffic accident closed the Hollywood Freeway for several hours on the portion that connected Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley. That created the worst single point traffic jam that Los Angeles has ever seen (the overall congestion for the 1992 riots was worse). Since the accident blocked traffic from going from Hollywood to the Valley, when I left my office in West Los Angeles and headed home to the Hollywood Hills, I didn't think I'd be affected since I was going completely in the opposite direction, and nowhere near the San Fernando Valley. Wrong. Cars looking for a way, any way to go west and north into the Valley clogged the streets in my eastbound direction, as they drove round and round in vain for a clear path home.

Now the San Diego Freeway is not literally the only way to get from West Los Angeles to the Valley. There's Sepulveda Blvd., which largely parallels the freeway. But wait, Sepulveda will be restricted, too. Presumably those working on the freeway construction need that street for their own access, as well as local access for neighborhood residents. Also, there are the canyon roads like Beverly Glen, Coldwater Canyon and Laurel Canyon that connect the Valley to the Westside. Plus there are those secret residential shortcuts that can get you from here to there if you know where to make the correct turns. But no way can they handle more than a small portion of the traffic between the Valley and the Westside.

Optimistically our city fathers point to the 1984 Olympics as demonstrating that advance warning as to potential traffic gridlock will lead to smooth flowing traffic as people avoid the trouble spots in droves. Actually, I think a better precedent is in the Bay Area, when the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland was closed for Labor Day a couple of years ago, and traffic turned out to be fine. Theoretically that should have been worse since there are fewer ways to cross San Francisco Bay than to get between West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. Hopefully that will be the best portent of what will actually happen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

E3 Entertainment Expo May Be The Noisiest Place on Earth



If Disneyland is indeed the happiest place on earth, the annual E3 Entertainment Expo held at the Los Angeles Convention Center may well be the noisiest place on earth. With theater sized screens showing highlights of recent and coming video game titles at a high decibel level, it's certainly one of the noisiest places I've ever been.

Of course, while I am an annual visitor to this signature trade event of the video game industry, don't mistake me for a gamer. Indeed, I haven't played a video game since 1989, when I finally defeated the dragon at the end of Super Mario 1, after several months of trying. At that point I decided to retire undefeated from video gamedom, having nothing else to accomplish.

So why do I go to E3 every year, or for that matter, how do I even get into this event which is not open to the public? Well, it goes back over a decade ago when I received an unsolicited free pass to the event (presumably as a finance professional), which had just relocated from Atlanta. It was a Friday afternoon and things were a little slow in the office with the April 15 tax deadline having passed. The name "E3" is short hand for electronic entertainment exposition, and I really thought I was driving downtown to see the latest in home theater equipment and stuff like that. Obviously, I was mistaken.

But that still doesn't answer why I continue to attend the event every year. Well, first is the spectacle of it. Tens of thousands of industry professionals swarming inside the convention center, with hundreds if not thousands of video game consoles for people to play with. Many attendees are armed with video cameras to capture the details of the newest video games--perhaps an unparalleled opportunity to check out the competition, while others settle to capture the event with still cameras. Another interesting element to the crowd is the high proportion of nerdy looking Asian attendees, particularly nerdy looking Asian women, who I take to be game designers and engineers, as they certainly don't look like gamers. Also the appearance of celebrities adds excitement to E3, though all I ever got to see was the top of Paris Hilton's head.

Then there are some of the over-the-top promotions that some of the vendors will engage with, like the video game Homefront, involving an invasion of the United States by the North Korean army. The makers of that game requisitioned the parking lot across the street from the convention center, tied small North Korean flags to all the cars parked there, and hired dozens of actors dressed like North Korean soldiers. And oh, the entrance to the parking lot was rechristened as a military checkpoint.

But perhaps the main thing is the exclusivity of it. E3 garners heavy coverage both in the press and on the TV news, and is always caveated as an industry only event that is not open to the public. Millions of gamers across the United States, and indeed the world, would give their right arm to gain admission to the event. But I can get in and they can't.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Unexpected Reminder of a Past Trip--and Meal

In the fall of 1994 I attended what turned out to be my final training session for Kenneth Leventhal & Company before its merger the next spring with Ernst & Young. The training was held in Glen Cove on Long Island, and because we had been to Manhattan on vacation just a few weeks earlier, I had no intent of visiting Manhattan on this trip. There were just a couple of us from Los Angeles at the training, and the session ended too late to catch a flight back home the same day. At dinner in Flushing, Rick mentioned that he had never been to Manhattan, so I offered to drive him straight to Manhattan after dinner. In probably no more than an hour's time, we drove to Manhattan, saw the sights such as Central Park, Radio City, Times Square, and the World Trade Center, and drove back across the East River. I think Rick was especially impressed by my ability to drive the streets of Manhattan like a cab driver. While normally a laid back and courteous drive, I had learned that my old driving habits would have left me stationery as all of the other cars maneuvered by. My only driving slip up was when we drove into Brooklyn and somehow I got off the freeway into a suspcious looking part of town. Furthermore we had to pull into a gas station because Rick had to use the bathroom. It was much later that I discovered we had been cruising the streets of Bedford Stuyvesant, indeed not a particularly good neighborhood at the time. But Rick was impressed with my abilities as a tour guide and told everybody in the office about our adventure when we got back in L.A.

Having enjoyed my unplanned jaunt into Manhattan and not flying out until afternoon, I decided to drive back into Manhattan early the next morning to explore the expanded part of Chinatown that I had visited a few weeks previously. I can't say I remember much about that journey over 16 years ago, though since I do keep an Excel schedule of Chinese restaurants I have eaten at, I do have the names and addresses of every restaurant on this and other visits. All this leads up to a posting on the Chowhound New York message board where somebody asked for the name of the restaurant that was at 237 Grand St. in Chinatown in the early 1990s, and whether they served Chiu Chow style noodle soup. That location is currently occupied by Quikly Shabu Shabu, and since I make special note of addresses where I have eaten at multiple Chinese restaurants, I knew the restaurant that I had gone to that morning at that address was called Golden Statue. I didn't remember anything about my meal there, but I did find the business card I took from there, which described the restaurant as a bakery and restaurant. That led me to believe that it was one of those dim sum bakeries that are common on Grand St. and throughout New York Chinatown, and therefore had not been a Chiu Chow noodle house. But then, out of curiosity I did a Google search for Golden Statue on Grand, and voila. There was a New York Times article from 1997, 12 pages long, giving a detailed tour of a long stretch of Grand St. And included in the story was a short paragraph describing Golden Statue as a Southeast Asian and Chinese noodle restaurant. All of a sudden it came back. I had ordered the fish ball soup to go from Golden Statue, for something like $2. There were five large fish balls in the soup. I walked over a block and a half to Sara Roosevelt Park, sat at one of the park benches, and consumed my soup. Since then I've used that park many times as a dining area during my food crawls through Manhattan Chinatown, but until just now I had forgotten that fact.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Don't Blame Pat Haden

USC fans are going crazy over the NCAA refusing to reverse its prior decision to impose a two year bowl ban and a loss of 30 football scholarships over three years. However, there seems to be a bit of misdirection in their rage. As much of their ire is directed at Pat Haden, recently appointed Athletic Director, as at the NCAA. Indeed, Haden is being portrayed as a traitor and even a tool of Notre Dame, the school for which he was football telecast color commentator. The thinking is that Haden's strategy of co-operation with the NCAA during the appeal process, as opposed to the arrogant opposition shown by the prior athletic administration was completely inappropriate.

What these fans fail to recognize is that stonewalling the NCAA at the investigation stage is what made the NCAA penalties so severe in the first place. As reformed USC honk Petros Papadakis points out, this is why Ohio State and Auburn have self-reported potentially major violations and is what distinguishes those cases from USC. All Haden was doing was trying to undo the damage done by his predecessor athletic director, Mike Garrett. Garrett was a person so devoid of interpersonal skills that one highly placed USC source once said to me out of the blue, in a conversation that had nothing to do with USC or sports, that USC athletic director was an "a**hole". There is an irony in that USC fans themselves have been highly critical over the years of Mike Garrett's tenure as atheltic director, and now they are suffering from his actions to boot.

It is also ludicrous to think of Haden as a traitor to USC by virtue of his working on telecasts of Notre Dame football. Sports announcing, just like coaching, is just a job, and one where there are a limited number of openings. So if you're a USC diehard, but you get an opportunity to broadcast Notre Dame games, do you turn it down? I doubt it. And how many SC gripers heard Haden's answer to the hypothetical question to what he would do if he received a multi-million dollar windfall? He said he would give a good portion of it to his alma mater.

The other thing is that a large majority of USC fans want to sue the NCAA, perhaps even a class action suit by the fans, since the school has stated it will not sue. But what would be the grounds for a suit? You can't sue a voluntary membership organization like the NCAA merely for not playing fair with you. The NCAA is not a government organization. There is no racial or other impermissible discrimination charged. I would think any cause of action would arise out of contract law, and USC's team of lawyers have undoubtedly checked out every angle.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Supreme Court Holds California Prisons Are Too Overcrowded--Good News For California

The U.S. Supreme Court just upheld lower court rulings that California prisons are impermissibly overcrowded. This leaves California with a difficult choice--spend billions of dollars it doesn't have to expand facilities or release thousands of dangerous criminals onto the streets. So why is this good news for California? Because it may well eliminate billions of dollars in unnecessary government spending and reduce the influence of one of the more nefarious political interest groups in California.

In California, the prison guards' union is one of the formidable and influential players in California politics. California prison guards earn six figure salaries, have fat pensions, and are perhaps the single most powerful special interest group on the political scene. Political candidates backed by the union have an almost 100 percent certainty of being elected, and politicians of all stripes vie for the favor of the prison guards. Now being a prison guard is one of the worst jobs imaginable, and you couldn't pay me enough to take that job for even one day. On the other hand, you don't see prison guards making this kind of money and having this kind of influence in other states.

So how did we get where we are? The answer is that California keeps more people in jail than the other states. The prison population is artificially swelled by a number of factors. The three strikes law, can send a felon to prison for a mandatory 25 year sentence for something like stealing a pizza. California parolees are returned at a rate much higher than other states because very minor violations are cause for being sent back to prison. With this bulging prison population there is a bigger demand for prison guards, which gives them that much more influence.

The wasteful spending caused by this overincarceration is legendary. California prisoners are entitled to medical care, including expensive procedures such as heart transplants, that many of us would be jealous to have, though day to day health care may fall short. A recent Los Angeles Times story details how critically ill prisoners are tended to at off prison sites, under round the clock guard by two or three prison guards, at the cost of $800,000 per prisoner per year. Such critically ill prisoners could easily be released into the civilian health system without danger to society, but since this would result in the elimination of cushy prison guard jobs, it hasn't been done, with the cry of "public safety" being used as a shield to justify this waste.

But wouldn't the wholesale release of thousands of prisoners in fact be a threat to public safety. Of course it will, though it can be mitigated by releasing those who pose a lesser danger. But the fact is that public safety is not something that has to be maximized to the exclusion of everything else. As my criminal law professor said, if you threw everybody in jail the streets would be completely safe. So really, public safety is a balancing factor. And with proportionately more people in California prisons than in other states, is California a noticeably safer place to be? I don't think so.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Interesting and Intriguing Saga of Little Sheep Restaurant

At first glance, the Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot restaurant which opened up a few months ago on Azusa Ave. in Hacienda Heights is just one of a few hundred authentic Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. Yes, Mongolian Hot Pots are not as common as Hong Kong style cafes, but in the past decade there's been a healthy choice of restaurants of this genre that diners could patronize. But few restaurants have the intriguing past, as well the interesting future, associated with Little Sheep.

Little Sheep first came to my attention in 2003, when suddenly Dragon Regency Restaurant, a stalwart of Hong Kong style food for roughly two decades, was replaced by a new restaurant whose interior decor was a gigantic mural of the Chinese countryside with sheep roaming all over the landscape. This brand new Little Sheep restaurant, which introduced the Mongolian style hot pot to Los Angeles, was allegedly a branch of a famous restaurant chain in China. It proved to be a big hit, so much so that additional branches opened up in San Gabriel and on Azusa Ave. in Hacienda Heights.

Moving forward to 2007, a couple of interesting things happened. First, a poster on one of the Chowhound message boards noted that the main Little Sheep website in China did not mention any Los Angeles area branches, even though they did have a listing of their branches in North America. Subsequently, the Little Sheep locations in Monterey Park and San Gabriel both changed their names--the Monterey Park restaurant changed first to Little Fat Sheep and then Hot Pot! Hot Pot!, while San Gabriel became Sheep Young Young. The Hacienda Heights location closed down altogether. As it turns out, we had been punked. These were not really branches of the Chinese chain, but clever imposters.

Now this isn't the only time that locals have purportedly opened branches of famous Chinese restaurant chains. The Hui Lau Shan dessert restaurants in San Gabriel and New York not only stole the menu from the real chain, but they replicated the furniture from the real stores. A fake 85°C Tea House operated in San Gabriel until the real Chinese chain opened up in Irvine, and a fake Din Tai Fung has successfully operated in Toronto for many years. However, Little Sheep was an elaborate deception, which even fooled restaurant critics who routinely described the ersatz restaurants as being part of the Chinese chain.

But all that is in the past and now there is a real Little Sheep in Hacienda Heights, in the same shopping center but not the same exact space as the imposter from several years ago. But in the future, will there now be a Little Sheep on every corner? I just read in the New York Times that Little Sheep is going to be acquired by Yum Brands, parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Now this isn't totally off the wall, as the Little Sheep chain is hundreds strong in China. But as you know, besides independent freestanding locations, Yum Brands also operates mini-food courts having a KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut sharing space with each other. Do you think we'll be seeing Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot operations being added to these courts?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ding Dong The Wicked Witch Is Dead


At times I actually felt sorry for Osama Bin Laden. Poor guy was constantly on the run in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, never staying in the same place two days in a row lest the hounds catch up to him. What a life! However, as things turned out, it was more like the situation jokingly suggested by one wag that maybe Obama had gotten a shave and was living somewhere in the U.S. Finding him in an urban villa is certainly closer to that scenario than life on the run in the wilds. Of course, now the question is what did the Pakistani government know and when did they know it? While there is tremendous suspicion in that regard, I'm guessing they really didn't know either. With the $25 million bounty on UBL's head, if his true whereabouts were known to government officials, I gotta think somebody would have turned him in for the reward.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

There's Nobody Named Ken Hurok?

While it's no secret that there are many people in this country or around the world who share any given name, this fact is magnified by the existence of social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn and search engines like Google. For example there are hundreds of people that share my name on Facebook alone, and a Google search of even the most unusual name typically retrieves numerous hits. Which makes it surprising that in last night's dream about an imaginary baseball player who had been traded to the New York Yankees in a 16 player deal, I came up with an ordinary enough name that registered zero hits on Google. Except, there's this one now.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Spring In Manhattan


After twenty some odd trips to New York City, I finally made it during the spring time. Most of our trips have been in the winter, and it turns out that these visits have given us a skewed view of the city, and I'm not talking about the weather. Rather, seeing the crowds in Manhattan, especially Times Square, I was overwhelmed by the wall to wall people this week that isn't there in the winter. Two things appeared particularly noteworthy about the crowds. First of all there were large numbers of school groups, presumably visiting New York for a spring vacation field trip. Secondly, hordes of European tourists, likely taking advantage of the weak dollar. I'm guessing every other guest in my hotel was from Europe.

Also interesting is the weather. It was in the 50s and cloudy on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and today (Tuesday). It was 80 degrees and sunny yesterday afternoon, though it was still cloudy and cool at 11 am. That would never happen in California. I guess yesterday they had what is referred to as a warm front, a term unheard of back home.

Also got to see the Spiderman musical, now in its fifth month of previews, and ready to officially open in about two months. No cast or crew were injured during my performance of the show.

Finally, made my first official visit to the Bronx. We did get lost in the Bronx late at night 7 years ago after inadvertently exiting from the freeway (can you say Bonfire of the Vanities?) and almost crossing a bridge to who knows where, but this was the first visit, on purpose and on the ground. Yankee Stadium was a tremendous disappointment, as the new stadium is sterile and nothing is visible from the outside. But Fordham Road was tremendous with the wide boulevard, vibrant shops, and Carribean residents.

Highlights From the Practising Law Institute Annual Real Estate Tax Forum In New York

  • Partnership liquidating distributions are almost never made in accordance with capital accounts as directed by the 704(b) safe harbor, except where for fractions rules partnerships. With today's complicated profit and loss allocations, errors are commonly made, and liquidations in accordance with capital would deviate from the economic deal. The fix is made, rather, in future year allocations.
  • Deficit restoration obligations are uncommon, too, due to the potential economic liability
  • The Sec. 1223 rule bifurcating the holding period of a partnership interest for each capital contribution can be remedied to the extent a current year contribution is offset by a current year distribution
  • Direct ownership of a US corporation owning real estate is acceptable with foreign investors whose primary concern is not having to file personally with the IRS. FIRPTA exception for liquidation of USRPHC which has liquidated all its properties avoids the double tax. However, more sophisticated investors will use a tax haven foreign corporation/US subsidiary structure to also avoid the estate tax.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Freedom From The Office Workplace Routine

When my company announced a little over a year ago that they were planning a complete office remodel involving the gutting of the entire space I became rather distressed. After all I remember the horror we went through five years previously when our Century City office where I had been resident for almost 30 years was being closed, and all of us where shipped in little boxes to new quarters in downtown Los Angeles. Furthermore, the company was doing the renovation in stages, so no new temporary space was rented. Rather we would double up in the remaining space as other parts were being renovated, meaning a series of temporary moves before landing in our permanent space.

In my case the beginning of the renovation was particularly bad as I was assigned to what I describe as a broom closet, in the interior of the office such that I could not tell whether it was light or dark outside. Furthermore, even though the magic of scanning had greatly reduced my storage requirements from the move five years previous, there still wasn't enough room in the broom closet for all my materials, let along any room for me. (It's hard to believe that even after the move, these "broom closets" are actually double occupancy offices, apparently on the premise that both occupants would never be there simultaneously.)

In the end, however, as desperate circumstances lead to desperate measures, desperate measures may pave the way to a better world that may not have been imaginable. My response was to minimize the time spent in my new quarters. Working at home on a full time basis was not an option, as in my thinking, a day spent without leaving the house is a wasted day. Working at home an hour here or an hour there is OK, but home is not a place conducive to productive work on a regular basis, and staying home all day drives me crazy.

Fortunately a year before the company had rented hotelling space in the Century City twin towers, in the mistaken belief that the space would be widely utilized. Indeed, while that had not proven to be the case largely due to the cost of parking in the area, I was still expecting a lot of competition for the Century City space during the renovation period. As things turned out, the parking situation ($32 a day to park in the building, $11 in a nearby surface lots) continued to scare away users. But that was no problem for me, since due to a combination of street parking in Beverly Hills, which was closer than everybody imagines, and use of Century City mall parking, I was able to utilize the Century City office for three days a week during the renovation period. It was then that I noticed that nobody cared whether I was working in Century City or Downtown, as for the past several years almost all of my work was arriving by email. Suddenly I discovered that I could take Mrs. Chandavkl to Las Vegas during her spring break while I set up my "office" in the Luxor Hotel. Or take a long weekend to San Francisco or even Toronto, without telling anybody, since I could monitor my work situation from out of town as well as from in town.

Once concerned about getting into the office too late or leaving too early, I now find I can work a little in the morning at home and arrive in the office later, or leave the office early and finish up at home later. I can work in Century City or I can work downtown, depending upon where I want to eat lunch. It's all up to me.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Winning Ugly Is Better Than Not Winning At All


Last night's 78-76 win by UCLA over Michigan State was one of the ugliest wins in UCLA basketball history, and particularly as far as NCAA tournament wins go. Up 23 points with 8 minutes to go, even with my pessimistic penchant I had mentally tallied this one up in the win column. However, over the last 8 minutes, Michigan State whittled down the lead to one point and had an opportunity for a game winning shot. Supposedly after the game the Bruin message boards were reacting as if UCLA had lost the game, and even I had no interest in watching the game over again. Yet, the fact is that an ugly win is infinitely better than any kind of loss (see Rick Pitino and the Cardinal Mascot after Louisville's shocking loss to Morehead State).

In hindsight today's game points out the value of other similar ugly wins by UCLA early this year, where the team built up a large lead and then held on for dear life as an inferior team surged at the end to almost, but not quite catch up to the Bruins. At the time these were viewed as ugly wins, having no redeeming value except for the "W" itself, with the ultimate victory attributable to end of game luck or poor play by the opponent. But seeing how yesterday's game was just one of several similar episodes, those earlier wins were probably valuable in enabling the team to have the fortitude to hang on in the end, rather than collapsing, which was entirely possible. Or looking at it another way, winning ugly could be a positive characteristic showing a team's ability to win, a measurement separate and apart from physical talent.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Red Carpet Shots At A Total Stranger's Wedding



We often go to dinner on Saturday evenings at J.R. Bistro in Chunsan Plaza in Chinatown. But last night something distinctively different was going on. As we drove into the parking lot, there was a huge line of people waiting to get into Ocean Seafood restaurant, the banquet sized restaurant on the second floor. Never had I seen such a long line outside of a banquet hall, as guests arriving at a Chinese wedding banquet typically straggle in over an extended (actually, very extended) period of time. Then, after we parked we saw a large bus roll in and deposit another group of people at the end of the line. That sort of explained things--parking was off site so people were arriving at the restaurant in large groups.

However, it wasn't until after we finished dinner that we realized what really was going on. The people were lining up for red carpet shots in front of a backdrop designed especially for the event. By the time we got out everybody was inside the restaurant, but the screen was still standing outside the restaurant. So we decided to take our own red carpet shots.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Do I Know The Way To San Jose?

For the past 15 or so years, the Taxation Section of the State Bar of California holds an annual educational meeting, either in the Bay Area or San Diego. While the Bay Area venue is typically downtown San Francisco on two of those occasions, the meeting was held in San Jose, once hastily moved without a lot of advance notice. Now if you're going to hold a convention type event in the Bay Area, why would you choose San Jose (no offense intended, but what is there to do in San Jose?) over San Francisco. The choice of San Jose was never explained, but I eventually figured it out. On both occasions there were actual or threatened labor actions against San Francisco hotels by union hotel workers, involving possible boycotts of those hotels. Now between you and me, I doubt if many tax attorneys are passionate in their support of hotel workers against the hotels, or for that matter, if they particularly care about the issues being disputed. So why was the meeting chased off to San Jose? Because the State Bar of California is an appendage of the government of the state of California, and as such cannot afford to make waves with organized labor, which is highly influential in this state.

So I just received my notice of this year's California tax bar meeting, and to my surprise (and chagrin, since whether it's held in San Francisco or San Jose, I stay in San Francisco because Mrs. Chandavkl loves to explore the City when I'm at the meeting), I find this November's meeting is being held in San Jose. Now I didn't know that the San Francisco hotel workers and hotels were fighting again, but I assumed something must be afoot. This was confirmed when I walked by the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco earlier this month and heard a crowd of chanting demonstrators yelling something like "If you go in, you're not our friend." A subsequent Google search confirmed indeed that there is another San Francisco hotel boycott in progress. The hotel workers are angling for a pay increase, somewhat baffling given the state of the economy, particularly in a tourist driven economy like San Francisco's. The rationale of the union's leader is that hotel occupancy is up significantly from the depths of the financial meltdown, so the hotel workers should share in this bonanza. Except that in the same time period, while hotel occupancy in San Francisco is up, room rates have declined so much to more than offset the higher occupancy, meaning that gross hotel revenues are even lower than ever. Indeed, even some members of the labor movement don't understand this one, and the head of the hotel workers union is facing some internal flack over his position.

So do I know the way to San Jose? Yup, 45 miles each way from and to San Francisco, each day of the meeting.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Bureaucratic Idiocy Isn't Limited To The Public Sector

While there is no match for the government when it comes to inefficiency and operational chaos, private industry is not free from this. Once upon a time we had a certificate of deposit at Countrywide Bank. Then Countrywide Bank went down the drain and was acquired by Bank of America. If one drew a bell curve showing the interest rates paid by financial institutions, Bank of America and Countrywide would be at the opposite ends of the spectrum. So naturally, when our former Countrywide, now Bank of America CD matured, we opted to close the account in the seven day grace period. Except that Bank of America told Mrs. Chandavkl they were not authorized to close it. They told her she had to go back to New Hampshire where she opened the account. Of course this didn't make any sense as we had opened the account in Pasadena, not New Hampshire.

So even though I was in San Francisco, it was my turn to get them to pay off. Unlike the purely retail branch Mrs. Chandavkl went to, I went to a banking center on New Montgomery St., where I was directed to the Personal Banking department, with a row of stately desks manned by equally stately personal bankers. I explained the situation to Miss Shi, and she started punching in my information. Nothing came up on her computer. She explained that the Countrywide system would not be integrated with the Bank of America system until 2012, so she had no access to my account and that she couldn't help me. That kind of explained the New Hampshire comment, as the former Countrywide accounts had been relegated somewhere back east for administrative purposes. However, that didn't make me any more understanding. "You mean I can't withdraw my own money from Bank of America? So this is like Hotel California?" "What do you mean?" Miss Shi asked. "Don't you know the song 'Hotel California"? "Yes," she replied. "Well, you can check out any time but you can never leave. So you can deposit money in this bank, but you can't take it out." This embarrased her so she consulted with one of the other personal bankers, who told her to call the customer service center. They directed her how to execute the transaction, but I was probably there nearly an hour before I got everything taken care of.

Of course I'm familiar with issues of post-merger integration and I know that it takes banks a good amount of time to mesh their systems. But it's been three years since Bank of America acquired Countrywide, so they should have integrated by now. Also it's not like an out of state acquistion where you can just walk into your old bank branch that now has a different name. Obviously the sooner we totally disassociate ourselves with Bank of America, the better.

Friday, January 21, 2011

An Uncommon Nightmare

While my dreams are often unusual, defying time, space and logic, I seldom have nightmares. But last night's dream probably falls into the nightmare category, particularly since it was one of the few times where I could not immediately distinguish the dream from reality. Specifically I felt as if I were unable to get up from bed, as if somebody was sitting on me. Managing to get free I then left the bedroom and encountered other family members who told me it was almost 8 o'clock. I took a considerable period of time for me to realize that I was still asleep (if that makes any sense).

The interesting thing about this dream is that my daughter once had a similar experience when she was a teenager. She felt that she was awake, lying in bed, with somebody or something preventing her from leaving the prone position. She mentioned this to my dad, who though very intelligent and logical, also had some interesting beliefs, including things relating to paranormal activity. I think she was looking for a paranormal explanation from my dad, but he told her it was really a dream and she had never actually been immobilized. Apparently he had heard of such dream sequences before.

I do recall one other instance of not distinguishing being awake or asleep. I remember waking up one morning and looking up on the ceiling where the hard wired smoke alarm was usually positioned. But instead there was a large object, kind of light a small satellite or gigantic Christmas ornament with flashing lights hovering over the room. Frankly, I don't remember ever waking up from that dream, and I'm only assuming it was a dream because it couldn't have been real.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Who Moves Slower--The Federal Government or the City of Los Angeles?

I seldom watch much in the way of daytime TV, but when we were in the breakfast room at the Waikiki Hilton Royal Kuhio for five days I got to see some of the early morning news shows that I ordinarily don't view. One feature that made an impression on me was the story of some kind of upgraded military vehicle which was essentially like a new model year edition of an existing automobile, similar enough such that a trained user of the old model would only need a day's worth of training to get up to speed on the revised equipment. So when will the new model be available for use? In 2019, 9 years after the process to update the vehicle began. Why so long? Because of Department of Defense labyrithinal requirements for procuring "new" items of equipment. Can you imagine if it takes 9 years to provide a simple improvement of an existing item used by the government how much money the government is wasting in implementing this process?

Recently I was witness on a much smaller scale as to the snail's pace at which the city of Los Angeles operates. Two and a half years ago we set off our home burglar alarm when our motion detector thought a helium balloon in our den was an intruder. This cost us a $110 fine for generating a false alarm, which we accept as being our fault. However on top of that we were fined another $100 for not having an alarm permit. Well I have been paying the $30 alarm permit fee faithfully every year, so while I paid the $110 false alarm fee, I explained that I had a current permit in force, providing the permit number and a copy of my payment for the year in question. I figured that the $100 portion would be quickly waived, which seemed to be the case as I received no further requests to pay the $100. Until a year and a half later when I get a letter from a collection agency in New York saying that the city's receivable from me had been assigned to them for collection. Very fortunately for me the collection agency informed me how to formally protest the imposition of the $100 assessment for not having an alarm permit, which I quickly filed with the Los Angeles Police Commission. I was hoping that would take care of the matter, but I couldn't be sure because I never heard back from them. Until a year later when I received a notice that some subcommittee of the police commissioner had voted in a hearing on December 21, 2010 to waive the assessment. I'm not sure what part of this tale is the most appalling. The incompetence in mistakenly assessing me for not having a permit; ignoring my documented response which could have been easily verified in five minutes by a chimp. The glacial pace at which these events played out. The fact that it takes a meeting of the police commission to undo the mistake. Or the amount of city money that was obviously wasted by this process. No wonder why Los Angeles may go bankrupt by 2013.