Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year

In honor of New Year's, here's a seldom seen view of the Times Square Waterford Crystal Ball.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's Football Bowl Season

College bowl season is here and purists who would rather see a playoff system decry the ever increasing number of "meaningless" bowl games. But does anybody stop and ask why we have 34 bowl games now, with two more being added next year? Perusing the bowl schedule we see that of all the pre-January 1 bowl games, only two are not televised by ESPN or ESPN2, and indeed only one game is slated for ESPN 2. What that means is that almost all of the early bowl games have an exclusive time slot on ESPN. Obviously this means that the ratings for each game will be maximized. Indeed, ESPN has become the gorilla in the room when it comes to the bowl system. While a lot of college football fans make fun of all of the minor bowl games, the fact is that these bowl games have ratings that far exceed any comparable programming that ESPN could put up in the time slot. The New Mexico Bowl, as minor as the bowls get, draws something like 3 million viewers. That's almost double the highest rating one can expect for a showcase regular season basketball game.

The power of ESPN can be demonstrated by UCLA's appearance in the Eagle Bank Bowl in Washington DC. Traditionally PAC 10 teams do not play in bowl games east of the Mississippi River, except for BCS appearance, because none of the PAC 10 teams travel well enough to warrant an invitation. Even relatively high profile non-BCS bowls such as the Gator Bowl or the former Peach Bowl (whatever it's called now) would never consider inviting a west coast team.

Everything else being equal, one would expect UCLA to be playing in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise against Idaho. So how did UCLA end up in a regional east coast bowl game instead? Two reasons, both ESPN related. First of all putting UCLA in the Eagle Bank Bowl would give the game TV ratings far higher than any other opponent, as it would capture the lucrative Los Angeles TV market. Secondly, if UCLA played in the Humanitarian Bowl, it would mean that one of ESPN's other bowls would be stuck with two also ran teams out of the mid-American conference. While it is true that most any game with a bowl label will draw a significant TV audience, that is because people like watching bowl games to see matchups that they otherwise wouldn't see during the regular season. A game between two second tier teams from the same mid-major conference probably wouldn't draw a viewership beyond the players' families.

Note that this "made for TV" bowl schedule now extends to college basketball, with all of these preseason tournaments with top teams from all over the country that are played in empty arenas. These tournaments are supported entirely by TV dollars, with live gate not even being necessary.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tiger Woods Deserves His Privacy -- Not!

Putting the aside of what size club Mrs. Woods used to pummel the Tiger or how many more girlfriends he has to pay off to keep quiet, another major issue relates to Tiger Woods' request for privacy and whether he's entitled to it. Some people think his private life is his private life and he should be left alone. However, the fact is that Woods owes his fame and fortune to being in the public limelite, and to then ask for privacy is an unreasonable request. A person who is a celebrity, and who has gotten rich off that celebrity cannot have it both ways. Indeed this is seen in the legal system where the standards for proving libel or slander are considerably more difficult when the claimant is a public figure. On top of everything, given Woods' notorious reputation for controlling his public image, his plea for privacy just doesn't fly.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Downloading You Tube Videos

I had always been a casual collector of music videos, particularly from the pre-MTV era. However the onset of You Tube rapidly accelerated my interest, as clips from Bandstand, Ed Sullivan, Shindig, Hullabaloo, Shivaree and other shows were posted. In the early days of You Tube this was a true bonanza as collectors posted thousands of these clips. But if you look at You Tube today you find very few of these any more because of copyright infringement claims. One poster complained that Dick Clark Productions made him take down a clip (The Skyliners' "Since I Don't Have You") even though the alleged copyright holder apparently didn't even have a copy of its own. Fortunately, I learned very early that You Tube videos are not merely streamed, but are actually downloaded onto your computer. So if you can access your browser's cache, you can save a copy of the video for yourself. It's easy in Internet Explorer--just go to tools, Internet Options, settings and view files, then copy and paste. The earlier versions of Firefox had readily identifiable cache folders, but I haven't been able to find them in the recent versions. Fortunately there's a Firefox plug in called Cache Viewer which does a decent, though not complete, job of capturing files in the cache.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

All We Want Is A Fair and Simple Income Tax Law

You hear it all the time. Politicians talking about the goal of having a tax law that is fair and simple. Well, excuse me, but the concept of a tax law being simple and being fair are entirely contradictory. A simple tax law is not fair, and a fair tax law is not simple. Simple means one size fits all, and one size fits all is not fair.

One of the most naive and theoretical income tax proposals I ever heard of was made by a government economist, who proposed that federal income tax rates be indexed for regional differences in the cost of living. Actually, this is a eminently fair proposal. Why should somebody who earns $70,000 and lives in Manhattan and barely scrapes by due to the high cost of living be taxed the same as somebody making the same income, who lives like a king in some rural enclave in the South? But can you imagine how terribly complicated such a system would be? Obviously, the person who made the suggestion didn't.

Or how about the section of the tax law which taxes amounts received as punitive damages, but excludes punitive damages awarded in Alabama for wrongful death? Why do we need to clutter up a simple rule concerning the taxation of punitive damages and create a loophole for those silly Alabamans? Because only in Alabama are wrongful death damages categorized as punitive damages whereas such damages are not punitive damages in any of the other 50 states. The simple rule would be a blanket rule taxing punitive damages, but the fair rule is to exempt Alabama punitive damages that are not punitive damages in any other state in the USA.

So why do politicans keep holding out this goal for tax laws that are conjunctively simple and fair. Clearly that's what their constituents want to hear, with the contradiction between the two attributes not readily apparent to the general public. That raises the question of whether the politicians themselves are aware of the conflict, or are they as clueless as the general public. I can't imagine any politicians with any expertise in the tax law not recognizing the conflict, but for the run-of-the-mill non-tax specialist politician, I suspect they too may be clueless.

Of course the opposite corollary is not necessarily true--tax laws might be both unfair and not that simple. And indeed this can occur in the search for fairness. One of the current health care proposals is an excise tax on employer paid health insurance plans that exceed a certain value. The bill recognizes that a $8,000 plan in New York city is not the equivalent of a $8,000 plan in some low cost part of the country, so it provides for an adjustment of the threshold dollar amount for 17 high cost cities. Well that gums things up from a simplicity point of view. But is it fair? How about the people who live in the 18th most expensive city? How about the person who lives a mile outside the city boundary. And what exactly is the boundary? (SMSA defined, I presume.)

So despite what the politicans promise, you can have a tax system that is fair, you can have a system that is simple, but you just cannot have both.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Football Predictions--Saturday, Nov. 7, 2009

Here are some of my football predictions for the week:

UCLA by 1 over Washington
USC by 5 over Arizona State
Stanford over Oregon
Northwestern over Iowa

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fujianese American Food Diaspora

All my life I've heard the comment that "all Chinese look alike." Indeed, there is some truth in this statement in the same way that all Caucasians look alike if you don't know any of them personally. A lesser known corollary of the original statement is that historically Americans have been unaware of the regional origins of Chinese in America. Their assumption has been that the Chinese in America migrated from all parts of China. But in fact, until the post-World War II era, over 90 percent of Chinese migrants to the United States came from a small number of rural districts outside of Canton known as Toishan. It was as if all the Americans living in some foreign country had originated, say, in Pasadena, Texas (a suburb of Houston). So while the anti-Chinese political movement that swept across 19th America railed against the massive hordes of Chinese who could potentially immigrate to America, in fact they seriously overestimated the potential degree of migration. Indeed, many Toishanese villages ended up sending most of their adult males to America as it was, pretty much exhausting the supply of potential immigrants.

Of course after World War II things changed, particularly after the revision of immigration laws in the mid-1960s, such that Chinese from a wider range of geographical locations are found throughout the United States. But amidst this background, we once again see a stealth migration of a localized Chinese group, which has interesting consequences to food lovers. This is the immigration from Fujian to New York City, and the attendant food diaspora throughout the East Coast, South and Midwest. Essentially, as described by Jennifer 8 Lee in a number of New York Times articles, there is an underground railroad of illegal immigration from Fujian Province to New York City, and then to and from New York City. Arriving in Manhattan Chinatown the immigrant will seek his fortune in the Chinese food industry, somewhere east of the Mississippi River, and quite often outside of New York City. The Fujianese section of Manhattan Chinatown (that part east of Bowery) is home to dozens of employment agencies and bus lines, whose purpose is to serve Fujianese operated Chinese restaurants throughout the eastern United States. The worker will check out job opportunities, listed by area code, pay a small fee for a placement, then hop one of many buses bound for destinations all over the eastern half of the country. Tired of working in Charleston, SC? Take the bus to Manhattan Chinatown, get a new job in Akron, Ohio, and arrive there scarcely 24 hours after you left South Carolina. Stroll through Little Fuzhou any evening and you will see these workers in transit walking the streets, pulling their luggage behind them. An interesting sidelight is that these workers will often to return to Manhattan on their days off. This explains how the Fujianese part of Chinatown can support such a vast network of bus lines to all over the Eastern U.S., as it's not just people changing jobs that are looking for their ride. And not surprisingly these itinerant Fujianese also return to Manhattan for their wedding, with a portfolio of bridal pictures shot in Central Park de rigeur to show the folks back home what it's like in the USA.

The original network of Chinese restaurants in towns throughout America was set up by the Cantonese. However in most cases the second generation of Cantonese had no interest in maintaining the family business, and indeed quite often had no desire to stay where their parents had settled. Consequently, the Fujianese have provided the new blood for operating Chinese restaurants in locales without a significant Chinese population. And with the dream of every Fujianese restaurant worker being to eventually own his or her own restaurant, there is no shortage of Fujianese willing to set up shop in Bowling Green, KY, Bessemer, AL, Davenport, IA, or wherever.

Note that the Fujianese have been very adaptable in setting up their operations. Most Fujianese operated restaurants serve Americanized Chinese food in cities that have little if any Chinese local Chinese residents. On the other hand, they also open up dim sum and Hong Kong style seafood restaurants in locales that have non-Cantonese Chinese communities. Chinese from all regions like Cantonese style food, so in places like Atlanta and St. Louis, which number few Cantonese in the local Chinese community, the biggest and best authentic Chinese restaurants serve Cantonese food.

Interestingly while Fujianese dominate the Chinese restaurant business in the eastern half of the U.S., and Manhattan Chinatown is full of Fujianese restaurants, Fujianese are nearly non-existent in the western part of the U.S. The reason is simple--a high percentage of Fujianese are undocumented, so their main mode of transit is by bus in and out of Manhattan Chinatown, since they don't have the required ID to fly. And there are no buses from Manhattan Chinatown to California.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Nothing Perplexing About San Francisco Real Estate Prices

A recent article on the rise in house prices in San Francisco in the San Francisco Chronicle elicited this closing comment. "Perplexing. What makes this city so impervious to the ecomonic meltdown of California in general?"

Well, as Homer Simpson would say, "d'oh." San Francisco may be the prime example of geographic areas in which there are "high barriers to entry" for real estate development, i. e., for various reasons increasing the housing stock by any meaningful amount is close to impossible. It may be environmentalists, it may be NIMBYs, it may be opponents of traffic congestion, it may be preservationists, or it may be building requirements that add tens of thousands of dollars to the basic cost of building a new home. But the effect of these forces is to make the cost of residential housing much higher than it is in an area not burdened by such influences, e.g., Texas. It should be noted that even during the dot com bust, Bay Area housing prices did not decline. so the effect of these artificial restrictions on housing supply is strong. It was only with the catastrophic economic downturn that we've seen housing prices in San Francisco and Los Angeles finally buckle. It would also seem that as the economy recovers, housing prices in high barrier to entry locales such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County should have a disproportionate price recovery. Certainly it'll be a long time before Adelanto, Palmdale and Murietta recover, but for the coastal areas of California, the recovery may be more vigorous than may be commonly expected.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Medicare As An Example For Public Option

Amazingly, some supporters of the public health insurance option are pointing to Medicare as support to back up their position. While there might be some arguments for a public option, the use of Medicare as an example makes as much sense as using Octomom or the Gosselins as examples of good parenting. It's bad enough that Medicare is on track to go bankrupt due to its unfunded obligations. However tonight's 60 Minutes show contained an horrifying segment on Medicare fraud that even shocked me. I know how doctors game Medicare to supplement their reimbursements, and I've heard about clinics "hiring" homeless people for the purpose of performing unnecessary medical procedures and getting fat Medicare reimbursements. What I was unaware of is how Medicare pays scam artists billions of dollars for phony claims for medical products. These payments are made to "providers" of medical equipment and prescription drugs, who often set up shop it what turns out to be empty storefronts. All they need is the name, address, birth date and social security number of a patient (available for purchase for $10 per name), and they are free to submit claims for the cost of wheelchairs, artificial limbs, prescription drugs, etc., with reimbursement guaranteed within 15 to 30 days. Yes, there are after the fact audits, but by that time the scam artist has folded up his tent and opened a new one. One such scam artist interviewed said he had received $20 million in reimbursements from Medicare. A pharmacy was routinely reimbursed for an amount of prescription claims equal to six times the volume of the largest Walgreen's in Florida. Patients who receive these "benefits" do see them show up on their Social Security statements. Some even report these items to Medicare, but these receive little if any follow up. This is such easy money that street criminals have migrated to Medicare fraud. Sadly, this is just another example of government inefficiency. Politicians are always talking about weeding out government waste and inefficiency, about cutting the fat and preserving the meat. The trouble is that by its nature, government is incapable of operating efficiently. Government has no shareholders to watch the bottom line. If they're lucky, there may be watchdogs to reduce some of the waste. But that's the best one can hope for.

Friday, October 23, 2009

MTA Gold Line--Everything That's Wrong With Government

The Gold Line is an expensive train line that currently runs from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. Nobody uses it. The trains only go 20 to 25 miles per hour due to local noise and safety requirements, so it's not especially convenient. Indeed, the SCRTD didn't want it in the first place, knowing full well that it was not a key element of the Los Angeles master transportation plan. However, that did not stop San Gabriel Valley politicians from forcing a San Gabriel Valley leg onto the rapid transit map by mandate from the California Legislature. And why did the San Gabriel Valley politicians push so hard for a rail line? Not because anybody would ride it, but because they felt that their region deserved their fair share of the transit pie.

So the Gold Line was built and not surprisingly usage is well below projections. However, this has not stopped San Gabriel Valley politicians from demanding more. They have plotted the extension of the Gold Line to Azusa and then Claremont. And frighteningly they have just convinced the MTA to commit to the extension of the Gold Line and to seek federal funding. As far as I can tell, the Gold Line extension is just another version of the infamous "Bridge To Nowhere". Except that in the case of the bridge, "nowhere" was an uninhabited island in Alaska, while "nowhere" here is in sunny Southern California.

Of course, building useless transit systems is nothing new in Los Angeles. The Green Line stops a mile from LAX, and empty buses drive up and down the dedicated upper level Harbor Freeway roadway Private industry has equity owners who keep an eye on the bottom line. But nobody watches the bottom line when government spends on ill advised projects.

Friday, October 9, 2009

President Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

When I heard that President Obama won this year's Nobel Peace Prize I immediately thought of an item that ran in Mad Magazine about 1960. It was a fake news story announcing a forthcoming movie about the life of Paul Anka, who had scored his first hit record in 1957, and followed it up with several other hits in 1958, 1959 and 1960. The punch line was that the running time for "The Paul Anka Story" movie would be three minutes. Quite similarly, in the same way that 1960 was too early for a biopic on Paul Anka, 2009 is too early to award President Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize. Not to diminish Obama's accomplishments to date (whatever they might be), but this is as premature as deciding how to spend your lottery winnings before you buy a lottery ticket. What this year's Nobel prize does show to me is that the European view of the United States has changed overnight, doing a 180 turn from being looked at with suspicion, if not disdain, to one of admiration, which certainly is not bad. And somewhere in there I think there's a message to George W. Bush. Perhaps he deserves a separate honor as Nobel Enabler.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Walking Tour Of Nashville

The original plan was to drive the two miles from the Holiday Inn at Vanderbilt into downtown Nashville. But the clouds provided protection from the sun, plus I noticed that Music Row was halfway between Vanderbilt and downtown, so I decided to walk instead. I was looking forward to seeing Music Row, since it is the heart of the country music industry where hundreds of record companies and country music related endeavors were located. I was imagining it was in downtown with shops, nightclubs, museums and buzz of activity, like Tin Pan Alley in Manhattan. Was I ever mistaken. Music Row is two parallel tree lined streets, four blocks long, and the functional equivalent of a business park with low and mid rise office buildings. No retail space, no foot traffic at all.

Trudging downtown I headed east on Broadway, past the historic Union Station coverted to a Wyndham Hotel, then by the Sommet Center area (Kiss is coming to town on a Predator's off night.) Then turned north and passed by the original Grand Old Opry venue, Ryman Auditorium. Then walked up to the State Capitol and related state government buildings, mostly Greek style architecture. From there I decided to head towards the Cumberland River, as I noticed several bridges on the map that spanned the river. On my way there I ran into a good part of what I was looking for in Music Row. Along Second Street and the eastern part of Broadway there were the country music nightclubs, guitar shops and museums that I had visualized, just without the music industry venues.

Going a block east of Second St. I came to the Cumberland River, and on the other side I see this large stadium. Then it dawned on me. The Tennessee Titans, who started out as the Tennessee Oilers temporarily located in Memphis, were based in Nashville. Looking a little bit south, I saw a bridge that was carrying only pedestrian traffic. This had to be the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge I noted on the map. I looked for the entrance, not finding it until 3rd or 4th street. My first thought was that a pedestrian bridge was an extravegance. But then I concluded this was probably an old bridge that used to carry vehicle traffic, but which was later replaced by a parallel larger bridge a couple of blocks away. However, then I saw the plaque saying that the bridge was dedicated in 2003, so that blew up my theory. As I headed on the bridge, looking ahead and becoming visible once again was LP Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans. Of course! They built the bridge so people could walk to the games from downtown Nashville.

Walking back to Vanderbilt, it started to rain lightly. I did stop by the downtown Holiday Inn to rest, and to check out the facility since I had almost booked that hotel instead of the Vanderbilt location. I made the trek back and arrived at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt four hours after I had left. That's my exercise for this trip.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What's Wrong With USC?

Well they're still ranked #10 and certainly could easily win the Pac 10 again, as prior year stumbles have not detracted from USC ending up each season as one of the best teams in the country. But this year something might be different. The offense is having trouble putting up points and against Washington, USC did not make the game winning plays that we're used to seeing.

Before the start of the season, the outlook was for USC to have a terrific offensive team with the entire OL returning, perhaps the best in the country, plus an incredible stable of running backs. On the other hand, losing almost all of their defensive starters, the USC defense was a question mark. So the USC inability to score, barely 30 points in two games against apparently less than stellar defenses, has been highly puzzling. After deep reflection, it seems to me that the answer may be at QB, or the lack of a QB. In looking at USC's amazing run the previous seven seasons, they have been blessed with talented and experienced quarterbacks. Even when breaking in a new starting quarterback, it's been a John David Booty or Mark Sanchez who served a three year apprenticeship before becoming a starter, coming in to take over the reins. This year didn't look to be any different, with third year sophomore Aaron Corp seemingly ready to take over. But perhaps like his equally highly regarded high school contemporary, Chris Forcier, now second string quarterback at Furman, perhaps Corp isn't the answer, and that's why maybe Pete Carroll took the shocking step of pegging true freshman Matt Barkley as #1 QB. With teams daring SC to throw the ball with 8 man fronts, even talented USC OLs and RBs haven't been able to consistently run the ball, griding out gobs of rushing yards on some plays, and next to nothing on others.

Of course, the game winning sequence for Washington was the last second drive for the go ahead field goal. In this context, it was on the USC defense to stop Washington. USC's defense has been surprisingly good, with new defensive linemen and linebackers stepping in to field a solid defense. But when it came to crunch time, this defense may have been better then expected, but at this point it is not nearly as good as the previous defenses, as hinted by its inability so far to create turnovers. It couldn't stop Locker on 3rd and 15, and it couldn't stop Locker from moving deep into field goal territory. It was good enough to stop Washington from scoring a game winning touchdown at the end of the game, with Luthur Brown's crushing hit on the Washington tailback causing Luthur to celebrate like it was 1999. But I guess he didn't realize that a game winning chip shot field goal coming up on the next play would have the same effect. So to that extent, the SC defense just did not do its job.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Effect Of Recession on New Chinese Restaurants

Remarkably, the recession has not seemed to have affected the number of Chinese restaurants operating in the San Gabriel Valley. Yes, restaurants have ceased operation, but in almost every case a new Chinese restaurant shows up to take the place of the one that closed down. This is evidenced by the relatively small number of vacant restaurant locations in the SGV.

However, there is now one sign that the recession might be taking its toll. We're now seeing planned new branches of existing successful Chinese restaurants scrapped or on extended delay. The sign indicating a branch of Hunan Seafood at the old Red Ant Cafe location on Valley Bl. in San Gabriel is no longer in the window. The return of Lu Din Gee to San Gabriel at the vacated Newport Seafood location is taking forever, with the construction site in disarray. And there is no longer any indication of Jazz Cat Cafe opening a branch in Fortune Plaza on Valley Bl. in San Gabriel across from Hawaii Market.

Indeed, the newly opened Fortune Plaza is an especially sad looking place. Most of the space is empty. There is a Yogurtland at the back of the Plaza, but I might have been their only customer today (the trash bins were empty), as it is inconspicuously located and hard to find. Given how crowded every other Yogurtland is this is quite unusual. Of course, as somebody pointed out, how many malls are anchored by a Yogurtland?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Kevin Prince Out With Broken Jaw

There isn't the level of hand-wringing I expected with the news that UCLA QB Kevin Prince broke his jaw in the Tennessee game and will be out to 3-4 weeks. Perhaps this is the result of the fact that there might only be one worrisome game--at Stanford on October 3--in his absence. Or perhaps it reflects the fact that Prince has merely been efficient some of the time, as opposed to having amassed world class stats in his two starts. Then again, maybe with the improvement in the OL over last year, perhaps even Kevin Craft wouldn't be able to repeat his 2008 performances. One thing, though, is that the oddsmakers have clearly taken the QB situation into account, with UCLA being only a 10 point home favorite over a Kansas State team that barely beat Massachusetts at home and then lost at Louisiana Lafayette. Well, it's Richard Brehaut's team now, at least for the next two games.