Thursday, January 24, 2013

Apple Reports Greatest Earnings In The History Of The Tech World

Apple released its long anticipated 4th quarter earnings last evening.  In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, "No technology company has ever reported these kinds of results".  Everybody should have followed my blog advice last  fall to buy Apple stock when the iPhone 5 came out, and you'd be rich by now.  No wait, I didn't recommend buying Apple stock at that time.  And if you did buy Apple stock at the time you would have lost your shirt and your pants, too.  You see, Apple stock was $640 a share at the time, and yes it did reach $700 per share for a brief time shortly thereafter.  But since then Apple stock has been falling like a rock, down today another 50 points to its present level of $455. 

As I stated before, you can't buy stock in a company merely because you like the company, they make great products, and you think the company will make a lot of money.  The reason is that a company's stock needs to be evaluated with reference to its current price valuation.  How can you say Apple stock is a good buy today if you don't know if the current price is 200, 700 or 1000?  Yes, Apple appeared to be on top of the world when the iPhone 5 came out and the stock was $700, but that $700 value carried a market expectation of sales volume that turned out to be overblown.  Of course, at the time analysts were confidently predicting a quick rise to $1,000 a share.  I wonder where those analysts are today.

On the flip side, I also mentioned that despite the pounding that Facebook stock had taken down to $20 a share from its high of $40 and its highly tarnished image, that it could possibly be a worthwhile buy at that price.  And while it did fall a couple of dollars lower, it has recovered nicely to $31.  So this proves again that you can't buy stocks in a vacuum.  Of course, maybe now it's time to buy Apple.  But be wary of the old stock market saying "Never try to catch a falling knife."

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Best Chinese Probably Isn't In Chinatown (My Huffington Post Article)

In perusing the various food message boards, a recurring request which makes me a little sad is the one from first time visitors to places like San Francisco, Manhattan or Toronto asking for recommendations for a great Chinese meal in Chinatown. I get sad because in most North American cities having a historic core Chinatown, the best Chinese food tends not to be in Chinatown, but in outlying areas where tourists are unlikely to visit. And indeed, in most of these Chinatowns the Chinese food pales greatly in comparison to the suburban food. As a result, Chinatown is often not the place to find that great meal.

Now one might wonder why, as a rule, Chinatown Chinese food is inferior to suburban food. Initially, we need to categorize Chinatowns into two groups. First are the historic core city Chinatowns, founded in the 19th and early 20th century, located in or near the downtown area of a major city. These would include still existing Chinatowns in places like Manhattan, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Oakland, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Seattle, Portland, and in Canada, Vancouver and Toronto. The term also refers to now extinct Chinatowns like in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, Fresno, Baltimore, St. Louis, San Jose, Detroit, Cleveland and many other smaller cities in the West.

Then there are the more modern, non-tourist "Chinatowns" that developed in the late 20th century, which might not be much more than a commercial area that started out as a Chinese shopping center and surrounding businesses, such as in Richardson (Dallas), Texas, North Miami Beach, Chamblee (Atlanta), Georgia or Las Vegas, or on the other hand, may be a full-fledged Chinese community, such as Flushing, New York.

Having made this distinction, we may now categorically say that if a metropolitan area has a historic core Chinatown, and in addition has a major suburban Chinese community, you're better off not going to Chinatown in search of memorable Chinese cuisine. But why is this the case? In large part it goes back to the fact discussed in my previous Menuism piece on Americanized Chinese food: that the first century of Chinese immigration to America was almost exclusively from the rural Toishan area of China outside of Canton. Consequently, every historic American core city Chinatown was founded by Toishanese migrants and initially featured the Cantonese-style food of this rural immigrant group. As the prior article noted, the food that the Toishanese brought to America was not the best food to begin with. Then, as the 20th century wore on, historic core Chinatowns became tourist attractions, necessitating the alteration of Chinese food served in Chinatown to suit tourist tastes. Indeed, many Chinatown restaurants totally catered to non-Chinese patrons, and such restaurants exist to this day.

Then came the event that changed the face of Chinese food in America: the loosening of immigration laws which now permitted immigration of Chinese into the United States (and Canada) from Asia, after decades of prohibition. The change in immigration laws was especially propitious since the surviving Chinatowns were in serious decline. Indeed, Los Angeles Chinatown of 1965 was exclusively a tourist trap, with only a handful of Chinese residents actually living in the immediate area, as both storekeepers and workers would pack up and leave the neighborhood after business hours.

The new wave of immigration invigorated Chinatown with fresh blood, with the first wave being largely from Hong Kong. For these urban immigrants, the existing Chinatowns were nevertheless a logical initial stopping off point due to sufficient similarities with the existing Toishanese culture. Also racial residential segregation, while in the process of fading away, still affected housing choices for the initial wave of new immigrants to the United States. With Chinatown reshaped by new residents, obviously the food also changed with the introduction of the more modern Hong Kong-style Cantonese cuisine. Chinatown, though, continued to be burdened with its status as a tourist attraction so Americanized tourist food also continued to thrive there.

The Hong Kong immigrants were later followed by Chinese immigrants from other locales, first from Taiwan, then Chinese mainlanders (a term often used to describe non-Cantonese, non-Taiwanese Chinese from China), and ethnic Chinese from other Asian countries. But a funny thing happened when these later immigrants came to the United States. For the most part they bypassed Chinatown, and settled elsewhere, for two main reasons. First, residential segregation subsided and new housing alternatives were available to these newcomers, many of whom were persons of means. Secondly, these later immigrants, even those from Hong Kong, had relatively little in common with the working class Cantonese-influenced Chinatowns. Consequently, to this very day, all of the historic core Chinatowns remain decidedly Cantonese in flavor, with a healthy dose of food dumbed down for tourists.

So if you go to Los Angeles Chinatown today, you will find that of the dozens of Chinese restaurants, there are only a handful that are not Cantonese, none of which would be classified as "authentic." Likewise, in San Francisco Chinatown with well over a hundred Chinese restaurants, a similar survey also yields mostly Cantonese restaurants, though there is one authentic Shanghai-style restaurant and a couple of authentic Sichuan style eateries in that Chinatown. New York's Chinatown is more diverse due to different recent immigration patterns, but the Cantonese influence remains heavy and the general caution about Chinatown dining applies here, too.

Meanwhile, the wealthier and non-Cantonese Chinese immigrants were setting up shop in communities like Monterey Park, California, Flushing, New York, Rockville, Maryland, the Sunset District of San Francisco, Richmond, British Columbia, and Scarborough, Ontario, far away from the core Chinatown. As things have evolved, innovations and new styles of Chinese cuisine are found here, not in Chinatown. So places like these are the real destinations for those in search of a great Chinese meal.

But not every core Chinatown city has an equivalent Chinese community outside the central core. Consequently, in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and to a lesser extent, Boston, Chinatown may still be the place to go for that Chinese meal you have been looking for. And in cities which never had (or lost) an historic core, tourist-attracting Chinatown, such as Las Vegas, Denver, Houston, Austin, Dallas and Miami, the areas which are now sometimes referred to as "Chinatown" would indeed be a good bet. But otherwise, think twice about where you want to go for that great Chinese meal.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Biggest "Loser"--USC Football or Lakers Basketball?

It was just a few months ago when the Los Angeles  Times wrote an article on how this was the golden era for sports in the city of Los Angeles.  And the crowning jewels according to the article were the USC football team and the Los Angeles Lakers, both poised for championship seasons.  And indeed, the assessment seemed perfectly logical.  Yet moving forward just a few months, it is clear that we have two stunning episodes of underachievement, with each being more unbelievable than the other.

Certainly no one could quarrel with the preseason expectations for the USC Trojans.  At the end of the 2011 season, the Trojans were playing as well as anybody in the country, though losses to Arizona State and Stanford eliminated them from national championship contention in 2011.  Initially the prospects for equaling or bettering that record were not bright given that star quarterback Matt Barkley was NFL draft eligible and projected as a top 10 pick.  But USC received an early Christmas present when Barkley stunned the football world by announcing he would return for the 2012 season to complete "unfinished business" which everybody understood to mean a national championship for USC and a Heisman Trophy for Barkley.  With Barkley and 17 other returning starters, and a roster full of four and five star players out of high school, USC rocketed to the top of the 2012 national championship race. 

Winning the Pac 12 south division was a foregone conclusion, USC being made a 1-6 favorite (i.e., the other five Pac 12 south schools were given a combined probability of winning the division of about 15 percent), and 2-5 favorites to win the Pac 12 championship itself.  Armed with a preseason #1 ranking, the season itself seemed like a mere formality.  USC did start of the season with six wins in their first seven games, good enough to still be in the national championship hunt past midseason.  But there were strong hints from the very beginning that something might be amiss.  Yes, they won their first game over Hawaii 49-10, but some observers already started to question if USC was that good given how poor of a team Hawaii was.  A 42-29 win over Syracuse the next week added to the doubts, and the third week's 21-14 loss to a Stanford team which was eventually to have been shown to be playing the wrong quarterback at that time.  But USC finished the season with five losses in its last six games, including an ignominious 21-7 loss to a Georgia Tech team that came into the game with a losing 6-7 record, setting the record for most losses in a season by a preseason #1 ranked squad. 

Likewise, the Los Angeles Lakers were everybody's favorites to win the 2013 NBA championship.  Las Vegas oddsmakers reported that money was being poured in buckets on the Lakers to win it all.  2012's decent Lakers team was fortified by the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, giving the Lakers not just an all star lineup, but a Hall of Fame one.   Yes, the Miami Heat were formidable competition too, but it was going to be a two team race all the way. 

While there were early signs of trouble, they were initially dismissed.  Yes, the Lakers did lose all eight of their preseason games, but as everybody knows, preseason games whether in the NFL, NBA or MLB are fairly meaningless.  Coach Mike Brown said he was playing not to win these exhibition games, but to get the players used to each other, a perfectly reasonable explanation.   It wasn't until the Lakers started the regular season off 1-4 that the alarm bells went off.  Nevertheless it was surprising that the Lakers fired Coach Brown at that time, and equally surprising that they did not hire Phil Jackson, who was ready to come out of retirement.  Rather, they hired Mike D'Antoni instead, and while he has sort of turned the team around, they are still under .500 at this time.   Indeed, things are so bad that the Los Angeles Times just carried an article indicating the unlikelihood of the Lakers even making the playoff this year.

Obviously there has been lots of speculation as to what went wrong for USC and the Lakers.  USC's performance is more headscratching since their team was made up of veteran talent that had proved itself in the past.  Most of the fingerpointing goes to Coach Lane Kiffin, whose hiring was highly criticized by many alumni, who appeared pacified after 2011's closing performance, but may have been right after all.  Still there's no explanation why Matt Barkley seems to have regressed so much from 2011.  The Laker problem seems a little more explainable, a combination of injuries, lack of defense, and poor chemistry, since two new key players have been added to the team.  In any event, the experience of USC and the Lakers merely proves the old saying "That's why they play the games."

And interestingly, despite the tank jobs by USC football and the Lakers, the sports scene in Los Angeles isn't that gloomy.  As thing turn out, the Los Angeles Clippers are playing as well as people had expected the Lakers to play, if not better.  And while USC did not win the Pac 12 south football title, that honor did go to UCLA.