Bonus: according to the Brookings Institution, nearly 25% of Americans younger than 18 have at least one immigrant parent.
Monday, May 31, 2010
Bonus: according to the Brookings Institution, nearly 25% of Americans younger than 18 have at least one immigrant parent.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Government employees are expensive and difficult to fire. Bloomberg News reported that from the last peak businesses have let go 8.5 million people, or 7.4 percent of the work force, while local governments have cut only 141,000 workers, or less than 1 percent.
Public sector jobs used to offer greater job security but lower pay. Not anymore. In 2008, according to the Cato Institute, the average federal civilian salary with benefits was $119,982, compared with $59,909 for the average private sector worker; the disparity has grown enormously over the last decade.
Modern Keynesianism works great until it doesn’t. No one really knows where the line is.
Friday, May 28, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Fairness is the problem cities and counties face when hiring and promoting government employees, especially public safety officers. If taxpayers demand the best person for the job, what is the most fair way of making such an evaluation? What subjective factors may someone use during the testing process? Courts are ill-equipped to handle these questions, but applicants must continue to rely on allegations of racism or reverse racism to gain access to an impartial judge, and judges continue to rely on disparate impact numbers to overturn or approve testing procedures. Yet, the most important question of all--how do we make the most fair test?--continues to go unanswered, perhaps because the general public and our elected officials don't know enough about particular government jobs to demand that only certain factors be used. That means that government jobs have become the new cultural and racial playground, which is unfortunate for the applicants as well as taxpayers, who deserve better.
One solution is to make the entire promotion and hiring process transparent and public. We demand Supreme Court nominees go through a qualification process in public, but we allow local officials to hire employees behind closed doors. Yet, it is far more likely that a local police officer, firefighter, county counsel, etc. will have more of a direct impact on your life than a Supreme Court justice. The government hiring system currently lacks accountability because most employees are hired without any public scrutiny or public access to data.
On a lark, I once applied for a Social Security contact/service rep position. This job paid about $34,881 a year and required answering phone calls from people with questions about their statements, etc. The federal government told me that I was unqualified for this position--despite the fact that I've graduated law school and run my own law firm for several years, where I handled all phone calls personally. I've applied for other government positions, and sometimes, I will get an email indicating I've made the initial cut. Unfortunately, that's all I usually get. Then, I won't receive anything else, not even a rejection letter or email. In one case, I actually received an interview, which required a written test beforehand. I ended up answering the test in a way that was correct but that exceeded the examiner's expected scope on one question. During the interview, my detailed answer appeared to embarrass the examiner in front of his peers, who realized the examiner had not considered other possibilities. The interviewer decided to use the interview to verbally joust with me. Predictably, I made the initial cut, but did not get the position. In another case, I applied for a job and never received anything indicating they had received my application. By the time I finally received a rejection notice, I learned that the agency had chosen its top candidates months ago.
The public and aspiring government employees deserve better. To make the system more fair, we should demand the government's testing and hiring process be open and exposed to public scrutiny. Otherwise, without some check on its power and discretion, the government will continue to mishandle taxpayer monies and weaken morale in existing and aspiring government employees. Over time, if our current nepotism-based hiring and promotion process continues, the government will lose credibility, and citizens may eventually lose faith in their country's representatives.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Although it is generally acknowledged that education is the foundation of every modern society’s future prosperity, schools unfortunately will have to compete with retirees for scarce dollars. This competition is uneven, because retirees have a legal claim on promised pension benefits that supersedes schools’ budgetary needs.
Basically, the more generous we become with pensions, the fewer benefits we can give current teachers and current students. For example, let's assume a state has 100 dollars in tax revenue. If it has to pay a retired teacher or police officer a pension almost equal to his or her regular salary, that's 90 to 100 dollars that the state can't use on hiring a new teacher or a new police officer. Or, as the report states, "Education finance is a zero-sum game: the more that is spent on closing pension funding gaps, the less there is to spend on reducing class size or improving instruction."
Note: "California, the most populous state, has the largest unfunded teacher pension liability: almost $100 billion." Yes, that's billion with a "b." See here for more.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
"Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pension adviser, David Crane, recently told a state Senate hearing on pension reform, “One cannot both be a progressive and be opposed to pension reform. The math is irrefutable that the losers from excessive and unfunded pensions are precisely the programs progressive Democrats tend to applaud. Those programs are being driven out of existence by rising pension costs.”
2. 9th Circuit decision (Harper v. Poway, 445 F.3d 1166 (2005)) on academic free speech--no longer citable, but the dissent is worth reading:
Judge Kosinski: "Tolerance is a civic virtue, but not one practiced by all members of our society toward all others. This may be unfortunate, but it is a reality we must accept in a pluralistic society."
Judge Kosinski: "We are taught to take pride in who we are; it is, in a sense, the American way. It seems particularly chilling to free expression to restrain speech that expresses pride in one's own religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc."
"[The government] has no such authority to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow Marquis of Queensberry rules." -- See R.A.V. v. City of Saint Paul, 505 U.S. 377, 392 (1992)
Monday, May 24, 2010
I don’t know about you, but I must get two to three solicitations for credit cards a week in the mail--none of which I request. It’s so profitable to push debt on the American people that everybody does it. It is a society out of control. It is a profit bonanza looking for more ways to make money. And the financial sector on Wall Street responded to this situation. It didn’t create it. It got its hands on the money and found new ways to lend new people new loans at high interest rates.
More here. Mr. Wolff seems to blame computers for declining wages, but he fails to mention the new jobs that new technology has created. The real issue isn't computers or technology, but the increasing wage gap between college-educated people and non-college-educated people. As the costs of a college education and graduate school increase, this troubling gap may continue.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
I have to admit I’m not a big fan of the current pc buzzwords, like tolerance, diversity, equality, open-mindedness etc., and I’m fine with those so-called “American qualities” going the way of the Dodo bird.
Okay, I can understand bashing ambiguous words like "diversity" and impossible goals like "equality," but being against tolerance and open-mindedness? Really?
And don't forget this gem, written on his website on May 17, 2010:
Speaking personally, and honestly, I don't trust any Muslim any further than I could throw one, and I certainly don't trust them nearly as far as I would dearly love to throw a good damn many of them.
Oh, the idiocy.
Update: the U.S. has ordered a hit on U.S. citizen and preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki has influenced some of the recent terrorists who have attempted to attack the United States. Al-Awlaki uses anti-Muslim statements to motivate would-be jihadists worldwide:
You will find statements made by religious leaders for example, in the U.S., Franklin Graham who is the son of Billy Graham - one of the most well known evangelists in the US - making statements like ‘Islam is the religion of evil’. You have Pat Robertson saying that the Muslims are Ya’juj and Ma’juj. Statements like this are on the rise; they are not decreasing, they are rising.
Words have power, especially antagonistic words. Think about it: when a coach wants to pump up his team for an important game, one of the best motivational tools is the opposing coach's or team's trash-talk. Like it or not, when Americans publicly make negative statements about Islam and Muslims, those words are used to motivate would-be terrorists.
Friday, May 21, 2010
Z: these contests don't have anything to do with our faith. There's nothing Islamic about what she's representing. I'm just saying, why don't we provide Muslim women professors with an opportunity to be crowned so we avoid the same misrepresentation of Muslim women in the media? Why do men applaud women who reveal their bodies and then pray 5x a day?
M: I don't view Islam as an "either/or" religion when it comes to beauty and educational pedigrees. Also, there is nothing in Islam that forbids the showing of physical beauty. To exhibit physical beauty, one must demonstrate one's physical form. Therefore, demonstrating one's form cannot be unIslamic b/c Islam is not against physical beauty.
You are questioning the degree of the demonstration, which is fine, but you've automatically lost credibility once you make a statement like, "There's nothing Islamic about what she's representing." Is she immodest? Perhaps. But since modesty is an ambiguous term and in the eye of the beholder, we must be more careful before we issue broad statements about what is Islamic or unIslamic. After all, Islam is not like the Catholic Church, where all Muslims must heed a particular interpretation coming from one source (i.e., the Vatican). As such, Muslims ought to recognize that no individual Muslim has authority over what is Islamic or unIslamic, and such debates must be settled by quoting the Koran, which is oftentimes ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Z: if the lines of modesty are ambiguous to you, it speaks volumes about your confusion of Islamic principles. I'm not comparing Islam to other faiths. I'm merely stating that its followers of the faith who are misrepresenting the religion and the media picks up on that. No one said physical beauty is a sin.
M: the Koran asks women to guard their "private parts" and their bosoms and then immediately references husbands and fathers. A hijab covers a woman's private parts and bosom--but so does a one-piece bikini.
The Koran also asks women to act modestly when outside the presence of their husbands or fathers; however, one husband or father may view a bikini as immodest, while another may have no issue with it. Therefore, the Koran seems to be asking women to take actions to minimize jealousy in their husbands and maximize harmony in their families, which requires a case-by-case analysis of the "lines of modesty." I hope this makes sense. Also, note that Muslim-majority countries like Dubai, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia have vastly different rules on modesty, which should tell you right away that there isn't any singular interpretation of the Koran's definition of modesty.
Z: as you know Muslims were known for their good character, honesty, and intellect which magnified the beauty of their physical state. This is not an issue of interpretations, the reason I brought this is up is because we need to be thoughtful in our approach about what we're supporting. I'm sure that there are many women who don't practice their faith but wear the hijab because of the rules of their government/families. In a country such as ours where there are no rules about what's immodest, shouldn't we harness the best of our faith and freedom and question the values set forth?
Ask how many of these pageant winners have stalkers and live in fear of their lives. Ask how many of these pageant participants have eating disorders. Ask how many of these pageant winners spend their wealth and time in combating the problems of the world long before they entered a pageant. I see this as further ridicule...it's definitely not praise. It's saying, "look how we can brainwash your women into thinking we accept them for their religion and beauty" or "this should make up for all the bombs we're dropping on the innocent people (in all the Muslim countries you didn't mention)."
M: Connecting categories like beauty and modesty to stalkers and bombs in one leap indicates a fantastic imagination. I don't know anyone who looks at Ms. Fakih and thinks that her award makes up for the death of innocent civilians, so to suggest such a connection is troubling. It's like referencing 9/11 every time a Muslim is stopped at the airport in 2010--it's a tenuous connection at best and ultimately fails to support a conclusion or argument.
F: your statement "there is nothing in Islam that forbids the physical showing of beauty" is true. A woman may ONLY expose herself to other women or to another maharam. This is in the Qu'ran, and not up for debate. Modesty may be an "ambiguous" term, but strutting around in a two piece in front of eight million people is not ambiguous at all. There really is no gray area here.
Also, for anyone to equate wearing a hijab to wearing a two-piece is absolutely illogical. Are you saying that God is ok with either apparel? Clearly the two are not similar. It is either this or that, but not both, because both are contradictions to one another, and we all know contradictions are illogical. Wearing a bikini and wearing a hijab are not the same, so they will not be looked upon the same in God's eyes.
In the Qu'ran, 24:31 says, "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty..." Come on now, we are being asked to lower our gaze!! This is such a modest and subtle gesture. From this you are concluding that it is ok to wear a two piece bikini? You are unsure whether wearing a bikini contradicts this aforementioned verse? what possible argument can someone have? Surely this is illogical right? Why would God put that in the finite book, and then be ok, with naked women on a stage. I-l-l-o-g-i-c-a-l.
33:59 goes on to say, “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters AND the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them." Yes, draw cloaks around the body, to prevent from giving the woman a discernible shape. You know how girls like to wear things real tight these days?
Whatever Miss Fakih does is between her and her God. It doesn't bother me one bit she calls herself Muslim. It's all good, because the rules, and regulations are all there. We have Taliban and extremist blowing people to bits. A girl strutting her goods on stage is the least of our concerns.
But rules, will be rules. And right will always be different from wrong.
M: First, did you really just admit that "modesty" may be an ambiguous term and then in the next breath allege no "gray area"? (I hope you see the problem there.)
Second, there is no "contradiction" between a bikini and a hijab. Both are articles of clothing, and articles of clothing can't contradict anything. It's like saying that a t-shirt and a sweater contradict each other, which makes no sense.
Also, you use the word, "naked." Ms. Fakih was never naked. She covered her "bosom" and her private parts--the only two areas of the body specifically cited in the verses at issue--so she complies with the Koranic sections that are most specific on modesty.
Since there is no singular authority on Koranic interpretation, all you can say is that your own interpretation of Islam forbids wearing a bikini in public--that's it. You cannot demand only one interpretation for an ambiguous term--this isn't like eating pork or drinking alcohol, which are clearly prohibited in the Koran.
Your other Koranic quotations are also open to interpretation. As I am sure you agree, almost every single Koranic section that discusses modesty and dress does so within the context of family members and husbands, so a reasonable interpretation cannot ignore the variable opinions of a woman's family. Why specifically include husbands and family members in the modesty verses if their opinions--which may vary greatly--are insignificant?
You also take the "cloak" verse out of context. First, a cloak refers to an outer garment that was popular in that time--it doesn't necessarily mean an actual cloak, just an outer garment. Second, take a closer look at the verses. It is discussing a time when women travel abroad or into lands where they will not be recognized as Muslims and may encounter problems with disrespectful men. Within context, the "cloak" verses appear to suggest simple, inexpensive ways for women to feel respected when they travel, i.e., to "be recognized and not harassed" and "not given trouble." There is nothing in the verses that requires women to wear particular outer garments when they travel. The verses merely encourage a woman to identify herself as a Muslim when she travels to foreign lands so she can avoid being bothered by disrespectful men. Such identification may be done in several ways, such as wearing a symbol of Islam (similar to wearing a cross if one is Christian). Of course I do not claim my interpretation is the only interpretation, but I do try to read verses in context.
F: So since there is no singular authority on the interpretation of the Qu'ran, you in your heart believe that it is acceptable from women in Islam to wear bikini's in public? You, with all your given faculty believe, that this is the message that God was striving to send to us? Just because the concept of female clothing is vague and open to a variety of interpretations, does not include the possibility that wearing such a thing in public is correct.
I was not sure what you were trying to say regarding the husband and father. All I was trying to say that a woman's clothing maybe more lax in front of maharam.
As for the cloak/garment verse 33:59, it says that women should cover them selves with this cloak (or garment) to avoid being harassed by men. All other things equal, who do you think has a higher probability of being harassed, a covered woman or one in a bikini? I think the latter. Basically this verse is trying to avoid having the woman attract unnecessary attention. Correct? Women should be clothed in ways that do not attract men's attention. Regardless if they are traveling, not traveling, are in the market, or anywhere in the public.
I'm going to revert back to 24:31. You say that a woman who covers her vitals, as a two piece does, is meeting the minimum requirements. Correct? Then how come this verse talks about a very subtle gesture, that is the lowering of the gaze. Can you compare the lowering of the gaze to wearing a bikini? Are these not on the opposite sides of the spectrum? Are these not contradictory. The Qu'ran advocates the woman should humbly lower her gaze, while you are saying that a woman in a bikini is not trespassing any rule. Can you please reconcile this blatant disparity?
24:31 also has an interesting thing that it mentions. It says for the woman to " not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment." Looks like to me that holy God is talking about another sense in addition to sight.....hearing. This is the extent to which women in Islam are instructed to behave. That they shouldn't even walk with a heavy foot. So again, when the bikini wearing in public is factored, how do you reconcile this disparity?
You know what the sweet thing about Islam is? It cuts the problem off at the root. Drinking causes problems, so guess what, no drinking AT ALL. Drugs causes problems, guess what, no smoking weed AT ALL. Stealing causes problems, guess what, no stealing AT ALL. Even a dollar. If everyone was allowed to drink "a little bit", or smoke weed "once in a while" then the entire system would crumble. There would always be one guy who drank too much and plowed his car into a group of kids, or a guy who fried his brain over drugs.
Islam, quite candidly is a religion of limits.
M: this will be my last response to you, b/c I've already studied this issue in detail and have explained most of my position. As I said before, in my heart, I believe Islam is not rigid--the different Islamic cultures across the world prove it--and we cannot ignore the varied opinions of family members when interpreting the modesty verses. Such verses almost always refer to women's "husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husband's sons, their brothers or their brother's sons, or their sister's sons." These references are consistent and numerous, indicating that the intent of the modesty rules is to promote marital and familial harmony. Each father and husband has different preferences, so a bikini may make one husband jealous while another man may not mind. The only rule we know for sure is that women ought to cover their "bosoms" and "private parts"--anything beyond that is subject to interpretation.
You don't really offer anything new in your latest response. "Lowering the gaze" means women shouldn't look at forbidden things, just like men shouldn't be looking at forbidden things. The "gaze" verse talks about self-restraint, but each individual has unique boundaries. One woman may not be able to handle looking at a man's ankles, while another may be able to look at Fabio and maintain self-restraint. Again, we are back to a case-by-case analysis.
The "stamping feet" verse warns against showing off "ornaments," i.e., expensive jewelry, not body parts. Indeed, near the same place that "ornaments" is used, the Koran specifically cites "bosom" and "private parts," so it appears we are referring to something other than physical areas. In conclusion, if you think Islam has limits, wonderful--you can set up a mosque and preach however you like, but the minute you argue that Islam has only one way or one interpretation, you have crossed into Catholicism or some other religion.
Z: In reference to verse 24:31 about a woman to " not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment." It is not only referring to jewelry worn around ankles that make sounds to attract a man's attention, but as a woman, it's also referring to the movement of the chest as one walks. God created us all in the best of forms and provided us beauty as well as intellect. Our ancestors were known for their character because of how they used their intellect and that in itself magnified their physical attributes.
Clearly Ms. Fakih possess physical beauty, and no one is arguing that...but I just wish to learn more about her intellect. She has great potential to be a positive role model and I pray she gains the strength to overcome the whirlwind of the life she's chosen.
Would you congratulate your sister, mother, aunt, cousin, wife or daughter if any of them were following Ms. Fakih's lead?
M: if a woman in my family decided to participate in a beauty contest, the appropriate discussion would take place privately. I don't see anything in the Koran that requires a non-family member to judge another Muslim's modesty.
Generally speaking, in Islam, both the wife and the husband are tied together--or yoked together--and both must avoid harmful and immodest behavior. The definition of immodest behavior is based on input from both the husband and the wife. The wife can ask her husband to dress conservatively if such dress conforms to her definition of modesty, and vice-versa. This is why it is important to know the expectations of the person you are marrying. The intent of the modesty rules is to avoid jealousy on both sides, which helps promote a peaceful marriage.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
"If people tell you what you really don't want to hear, that's unpleasant--there's an almost automatic reaction of antipathy. You have to train yourself out of it. It isn't foredestined that you have to be this way. But you will tend to be this way if you don't think about it."
"I think the reason we get into such idiocy in investment management is best illustrated by a story that I tell about the guy who sold fishing tackle. I asked him, 'My God, they're purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?' And he said, 'Mister, I don't sell to fish.'"
Also, see here for more "Mungerisms" and my brief meeting with Mr. Munger.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Never mind that in order to pay back the $200,000 it's going to cost you to go to law school, you'll need to land one of those plum legal jobs at Goldman Sachs or AIG or one of those other firms that are no longer hiring because they owe so much to the lawyers they already did hire to defend them from lawsuits brought by the government's lawyers, public prosecutors who only took those jobs because Goldman Sachs and AIG weren't hiring. Good luck getting your parents to pay for that one...
Today, even the idiots have college degrees. And the idiots have seniority.
This is what happens when educational standards decline, and high schools and colleges become diploma mills. Until we add law, symbolic logic, and economics to our required curriculum, starting from elementary school, our current state of affairs will not change. I have met too many adults with degrees and high school diplomas who lack a basic understanding of subjects essential to a functioning democratic republic, such as state vs. federal governments, taxes, supply-and-demand, and the potential dangers of executive power.
Next are two questions that will show most of you that your high school education was inadequate:
1. Which parts of government most impact your life on a daily basis? Federal, state, presidential, judicial, etc.? Obama, Reid, the school board, etc.?
2. What functions do cities provide their residents, and what is usually the most significant expense in a city's budget?
Monday, May 17, 2010
[W]e tested 8-month-olds by first showing them a character who acted as a helper (for instance, helping a puppet trying to open a box) and then presenting a scene in which this helper was the target of a good action by one puppet and a bad action by another puppet. Then we got the babies to choose between these two puppets. That is, they had to choose between a puppet who rewarded a good guy versus a puppet who punished a good guy. Likewise, we showed them a character who acted as a hinderer (for example, keeping a puppet from opening a box) and then had them choose between a puppet who rewarded the bad guy versus one who punished the bad guy.
The results were striking. When the target of the action was itself a good guy, babies preferred the puppet who was nice to it. This alone wasn’t very surprising, given that the other studies found an overall preference among babies for those who act nicely. What was more interesting was what happened when they watched the bad guy being rewarded or punished. Here they chose the punisher. Despite their overall preference for good actors over bad, then, babies are drawn to bad actors when those actors are punishing bad behavior.The babies rewarded the "good" puppet by giving it a treat. This experiment reminded me of C.S. Lewis's book, The Problem of Pain. Lewis, a former atheist turned Christian, argues that pain and guilt must come from God (or some innately programmed code placed by a programmer) because even at an early age, we have feelings that come too early to be explained away by socialization.
Another way to review Lewis's ideas is by examining the problem of a conscience. Most of us, from a very early age, have a conscience that produces guilt and pleasure. Where does a two-year-old child's conscience come from? Lewis contends that the best explanation for a young child having guilt is God, because it is unlikely that biology can produce such feelings in someone so young. Today, we talk about genes for diabetes, cancer, and even homosexuality, but few reputable scientists have tried to argue for a "guilt gene." Of course, there may be genes that make humans more social and more attuned to social networks, but such genes would presumably need more catalysts than a mere two years of experience, much of it spent in a restricted space.
Aquinas, Pascal, and other philosophers have submitted their pro-God arguments, but C.S. Lewis's musings on the problem of guilt/pain don't get enough credit in philosophy classes or general theology discussions. That's a shame, because Lewis has presented an argument that anyone, merely by studying a child, can understand. Reducing theology to child's play might seem overly simplistic, but I see nothing wrong with effective arguments.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
In response, one friend mentioned America's 0% interest rates, which help banks but hurt savers. The best answer, however, came from a former high school classmate:
From the corporate side, it seems fairly plain to me. There's been no financial reform to tighten screws on corporations. The government is still spending a lot of money on wars. The debt, while burdensome, hasn't caused any major calamities (so far). High unemployment means lower payroll costs. Add a very low fed rate on top of this and it looks like a very favorable business climate. Even if revenues are sluggish due to low consumer spending, margins are probably up.
Thanks to Andrew N. for schooling me.
Note: when I posted my comment above on Facebook, the S&P 500 was 1171 and the Dow was 10,896.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
We are not going to vote anyone out of office because he imposes a $3-a-year burden on us.
From Nicole Gelinas, City Journal Spring 2010, on municipal bankruptcies:
State governments can't legally declare bankruptcy to escape debt: the federal bankruptcy code doesn't cover them, and they can't write their own bankruptcy laws because the Constitution reserves that power for the federal government. Cities, towns, and counties, meanwhile, can file for bankruptcy only if their state governments allow it, and more than half of the states don't. Moreover, federal law requires eligible cities and towns to meet a strict standard for insolvency.
From James Madison, on power:
All men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Google typically posts a video of its annual meeting on YouTube as well as a transcript prepared by a certified court reporter, so there's plenty of information about the meeting available to the public. (See here for another review.)
CEO Eric Schmidt briefly mentioned Google's great results, saying "All is well after a year of great turmoil." During the meeting, Mr. Schmidt showed a fun commercial for Chrome called "Chrome Speed Tests," which highlighted the web browser's incredible speed.
I thanked Larry Page for showing up this year and asked him what he thought was the next "big thing." Mr. Page said that Google Translate is going to be a game-changer. The two-thirds of the world's population not yet online will greatly benefit from fluid translation services, which can be used in telephones and other mobile devices.
CEO Schmidt mentioned Google's plan to enable people to text-message in their native language and have it automatically translated into the receiver's native language. Although most of the world's populations do not have ready internet access or computers, many people have mobile phones, even in so-called "Third World" countries, so an effective translation service would connect almost the entire world together. Later, I thought about how an automatic translation service could preserve some little-used languages, which in turn could help preserve a small country's or people's cultural heritage. I also think it would be wonderful if a small business-owner who speaks only English could sell products directly to someone in China or other countries. Down the road, if Google creates a program that translates spoken languages, American business-owners could more easily hire and sell to immigrants who may have difficulty speaking perfect English. In addition, older immigrants--who may have difficulty learning and speaking English--would be able to communicate better with their grandchildren and the general public.
One side note: I thanked Mr. Page for attending this year and said I was feeling sentimental about previous meetings, where the atmosphere was more casual and he and Sergey would be dressed in jeans. Mr. Page immediately gave props to CEO Schmidt, touching him on the arm and reminding me that CEO Schmidt was also present at previous meetings. CEO Schmidt then joked that he also wore jeans at the previous meetings. I thought it was a great moment, because sometimes, founders and successors don't get along (e.g., Accuray, Inc.) and besides, who doesn't love a billionaire bromance?
Google had a product demo section, where I discovered sites.google.com. I coach youth basketball, and I've always wanted to create a website for my teams, but I've never had the time. Well, Google has already done it for me and other coaches. If you go to Google's "sites" page, you will find a template called "Soccer Team" that can be used to post game times, agendas, and pictures. It's a ready-made website that community centers, YMCAs, and private clubs can use to help streamline programs and help their players keep in touch.
There were some embarrassing moments for Google. Google received multiple complaints about the responsiveness of its Investor Relations department. One shareholder complained that Google took three weeks to return her phone call. Another shareholder said she was unaware of the annual meeting because she never received a proxy or an email notification and made it to the meeting only because a friend told her about it.
After the meeting, several shareholders went to the front to speak with CFO Patrick Pichette about their issues receiving proxy materials and notices. Mr. Pichette was very patient and explained that Google may be slower to respond to individual phone calls than other companies because of its engineering mindset. He said that Google was an engineering company, and engineers tend to think that if something is done properly, all the information is available online and there is no need to pick up the phone.
I don't understand why the company's CFO was handling these kinds of complaints. Typically, routine shareholder complaints would be handled by Investor Relations, not the CFO. At the same time, perhaps CEO Schmidt didn't feel comfortable referring shareholders to Investor Relations because shareholders were complaining about that particular department.
I've raised issues with the way Google's Investor Relations Department treats shareholders before. For one thing, Google doesn't permit any questions or comments during the shareholder proposal portion of the meeting. It allows a shareholder to set forth a proposal and then moves directly to a vote. If other shareholders have information or comments about a particular proposal, Google does not allow them to express themselves until after the proposal has been voted on, making comments a moot point. A more reasonable course of action would be to allow comments, but to limit the comments to one minute or less.
After the meeting, I spoke with someone in Google's Investor Relations, and she didn't seem entirely happy to talk to me. Not only that, but she didn't have any business cards on her. Google gets one day a year to interact with individual shareholders, and its Investor Relations employee doesn't have a business card to give shareholders? (At all the other shareholder meetings I've attended, Investor Relations has provided me with a business card if requested and actively encouraged me to follow up on any issues I had.) Outside, I ran into the same Investor Relations representative again, and when I asked her whether she had figured out the source of the problems mentioned by other shareholders, she curtly told me, "There was no problem." So let me get this straight: shareholders don't get notice of the meeting, and Investor Relations doesn't think there is a problem? Really? (By the way, I heard through the grapevine that even some Google employees/shareholders didn't know about the annual meeting until they received an email telling them the cafeteria would be closed due to the meeting.)
In most companies, Investor Relations is an overlooked and underutilized department, and I've never understood why. Investor Relations is the first place shareholders look when they have issues with a company, so if the department is stocked with unprofessional employees, the entire company's reputation suffers.
Some companies have wonderful Investor Relations people. Brocade Communications has a particularly excellent department. Tessera Technologies also has a great department. (Props to Sr. Director of Investor Relations Moriah Shilton, who seems like a consummate professional.)
On the other hand, an inexperienced or unprofessional Investor Relations employee can harm a company's reputation. After all, if a company can't manage to properly execute an annual meeting or treat individual shareholders with respect, you start to wonder what else the company can't handle. For example, at Visa's (V) first annual meeting, an Investor Relations representative demanded my name and personal contact information when I took a picture with the CEO. She then told me I couldn't publish the picture. Well, if a CEO is happy to pose for a picture with a shareholder, why bother the shareholder after the picture is taken? Here I was, at a company's first annual meeting as a publicly traded corporation, and I get accosted SS-style. (So far, no other company's Investor Relations department has demanded my papers.)
One year, at McAfee's (MFE) meeting, which was very short, I picked up some cookies and soda and began eating in the conference room where the annual meeting had been held. The Board of Directors also got some food and sat in the same room and started shooting the breeze. So far, so good, right? Well, McAfee's Investor Relations, apparently concerned about my presence, got up and shooed the entire Board into a different room. God forbid she actually introduce herself or the Board to the one shareholder who decided to show up to the meeting. I briefly attended a British elementary school, and yet, my only experience with a schoolmarm type has been at McAfee. (It's a shame, too, because McAfee's CEO is actually a nice guy.)
It's funny--I've attended McAfee's annual meetings twice, and each time, I think I was the only non-employee there. Yet, each time, the company had large tables of food and drink available. It appears that McAfee's Investor Relations department uses the annual meeting to fatten up the Board and treat non-employee shareholders like lepers. What's even worse is McAfee's competitor, Symantec, runs a great annual meeting and gives shareholders free software or other useful items. If you're a consumer company, why give people an excuse to favor your competition?
Anyway, back to Google. One Google employee seemed to think that shareholders could easily print out proof of ownership of shares and bring that to the meeting for admission. The problem is that you have to own shares as of the "record date" to attend the meeting, and the record date is typically several months prior to the annual meeting. So if shareholders come in with a current printout of their holdings, that wouldn't necessarily entitle them to admission, because they could have bought the shares after the record date. I'm not saying these issues are simple, but why have Investor Relations departments if they can't help ordinary shareholders navigate the increasingly complex world of shareholder proxies and regulations?
Shareholders who have issues with their proxies need to be more pro-active. Many Investor Relations employees don't seem to understand the machinations involved in individual shareholder notices because so much of the work is outsourced. Here's my advice to shareholders who stopped receiving annual meeting notices and proxies in the mail: contact your brokers and tell them you want to elect to receive copies of your proxy materials by mail. You have to actively opt back into the hard copy system if you want paper copies of shareholder materials. After July 1, 2007, companies no longer have to mail you hard copies of proxies and may email you a link to their materials on-line. Unfortunately, with all the online spam, some shareholders may not be getting notices because emails are being diverted into their spam folders.
I will close on a positive note. As most people know, Google offers its employees tons of perks, but I discovered two more of them: on-site washers and dryers and smoothies made-to-order, including a delicious banana/chocolate combination.
It's good to be King, and right now, Google is the King. Long live the King.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
CEO Henry R. Nothhaft handled most of the meeting with Bernard J. Cassidy. Mr. Nothhaft introduced the board members, handled the formal portion of the meeting, and then adjourned. Since there were only two non-employees present, the company chose not to present a video; instead, the CEO agreed to talk with me and the other shareholder and answer our questions.
CEO Nothhaft explained that his company's products go into most consumer electronics products, such as PCs, cell phones, and LCD televisions. Tessera has a semiconductor-related business and an Imaging and Optics business. On the semiconductor side, Tessera's technology connects the IC chip to the motherboard. It sounds simple, but consumer products are getting smaller every year, which means that motherboards and their components also have to become smaller.
Tessera's problem is protecting its IP. As more products are made in Asia, the legal framework and culture isn't necessarily conducive to an American company collecting royalties through patent litigation. CEO Nothhaft talked about Tessera's "carrot licensing program," where the company offers incentives to work with Tessera and to pay royalties. Overall, however, Tessera wants to become part of the supply chain in Asia so it can get paid at the time someone uses or buys its products. CEO Nothhaft described the IP issue "like solving a puzzle." He says he wants Tessera to "compete in the domestic Chinese market" for consumer electronics. To that end, Tessera has hired CTO Robert Yung. It has also signed up three new licensees in the China for its imaging/optics products. China currently represents about 20% of the consumer electronics market, and its share of the market continues to grow.
CEO Nothhaft also said that "incremental innovation occurs in the factory." He didn't expand on this concept, but I think he meant that outsourcing manufacturing and distribution may cut costs, but retaining domestic manufacturing allows a company greater protection over its IP and also allows it to work with employees to improve products.
CEO Nothhaft said that Tessera "firmly believes in the patent system" and called the patent one of the "greatest job creation tools." He said he hopes that other Asian nations will emulate Japan and its gradual respect for IP rights. CEO Nothhaft seemed excited about Tessera's optics/imaging business, saying he foresees "rapid growth" in products that use enhancing images, "smart camera modules," and facial detection. Such features could be used for surveillance, in automobiles, gaming (e.g., gesture control, Wii), and toys (e.g., a toy could detect a smile and respond).
If you read Tessera's s 10K, you will see numerous cases involving patent litigation. It seems as if a large chunk of Tessera's future revenue growth depends on its ability to navigate various Asian legal systems. Tessera's real value is in its 1900+ patents, but without a legal system in place to enforce those patents, one wonders how successful Tessera will be as more and more manufacturing is outsourced.
Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of Tessera (TSRA) shares and do not anticipate buying more shares. I am starting to fully understand why Warren Buffett avoids technology companies. Even if a tech company has great products, there are so many other factors involved in getting that technology to generate a consistent revenue stream.
Note: regarding Tessera's unique name: in 1992, Tessera was renamed from IST Associates--named for founders, Igor Khandros, Scott Ehrenberg and Tom DiStefano--to Tessera, the Latin word for "tile," for the closely stacked packaged chips that resemble a tile mosaic.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Monday, May 10, 2010
Chairman Charles Toeniskoetter handled most of the meeting and congratulated an employee for 20 years of service. The CEO gave a brief presentation and said that the company was doing well but had "some political things to get through." (Last year, the company also complained about the political environment, but it hasn't been very specific about the political issues they are having.)
I skimmed the 10K and noticed that SJW owns a lot of land and real property. I also noticed that SJW has set up a subsidiary, SJW Land Company, "which has a 70% limited partnership interest in 444 West Santa Clara Street, L.P., a real estate limited partnership that owns and operates an office building." (page 15, 10K)
Guess who owns the other 30% of 444 West Santa Clara Street, L.P.? "A real estate development firm, which is partially owned by the Chairman of the Board of SJW Corp." (page 34, 10K) The tenants are "an international real estate firm under a 12-year lease." (Id.)
Visions of Enron-style subsidiaries flashed through my mind, so I had to ask about the limited partnership. I mentioned the Chairman's interest in the subsidiary and questioned why a water company was in the landlord/land business. The Chairman said that SJW Land Company took "land no longer needed for the utility and put it into the Land Company." He said that SJW has been in "the real estate business" for a long time, and it has been successful in that business.
The Chairman never mentioned any potential conflict of interest in owning property with SJW. It would have been nice if the Chairman told shareholders that he recuses himself from decisions involving SJW Land Company, but I didn't want to press the issue. I asked about the pension plan. The CFO said it was "90% funded" per IRS rules. The meeting concluded thereafter.
I hope to see Mr. Mineta at next year's meeting. I wanted to ask him about a story involving a baseball bat signed by Hank Aaron and Sadaharu Oh, the home-run king of Japan. See here ("The Camps at Home," 3/8/1999) for more on this story.
Disclosure: at this time, I own an insignificant number of shares of San Jose Water Company (SJW).
Sunday, May 9, 2010
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Robert Half International (RHI) held its annual meeting in Millbrae, California at the Westin Hotel. Approximately 40 people attended the meeting. Unfortunately, I attended the meeting late and missed the video presentation and most of CEO Harold Messmer's short speech. However, a very perceptive and kind employee saw me come in late and allowed me to watch the video privately. The video, shown to shareholders and employees, discussed Robert Half's various businesses. RHI assists companies by providing flexible staffing. It is increasing its focus on small to mid-size businesses and believes the healthcare industry will represent increased flexible staffing demands. I was surprised by the diversity of RHI's businesses--RHI owns Accountemps, Finance and Accounting, Officeteam, Protiviti, and other staffing segments.
One segment of the video talked about "PEARL" (Pillsbury’s E-Discovery Alliance of Resource Leaders), an e-discovery service. For more information, click here. Law firms may be interested in such a program, assuming it is cheaper than hiring a temp legal agency (a service Robert Half Legal also offers).
The video also mentioned RHI's cash position of $349 million, with very little debt.
Everyone at the meeting was open and friendly. The hotel offered fruits, cereal, different juices, coffee, pastries, yogurt, and even a security guard outside the meeting hall. The CEO agreed to take a picture with me, and he didn't spend any time checking to see if it was a good picture (even after I told him it would be on my blog). Many executives are self-conscious, but CEO Messmer comes across as both suave and down-to-earth.
Now, I have to take time off work and sometimes drive moderate distances to come to annual meetings, so I get disappointed if there is no presentation or if the meeting is poorly run. When a company has a well-run meeting, like RHI, it makes me more confident as a shareholder and more likely to hold my shares.
Also, companies that offer shareholders goodies at the annual meeting get extra points in my book, because they are savvy enough to get free advertising. (It doesn't hurt to butter up shareholders, either.) The first picture above shows you all the different items I picked up at the meeting. RHI offered shareholders golf balls, different mugs, a stress ball, a hat, and a notebook. All of the items were branded, which gave the company a chance to show off its various businesses. Kudos to RHI for running a professional meeting and for treating shareholders to a fun morning.
Disclosure: I own an insignificant number of RHI shares.
Friday, May 7, 2010
Shahzad fits the profile of a terrorist, and it has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or religion. If you haven't read my thesis on how to find the most likely terrorists, you can read it HERE.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
On motions: "Brevity is beautiful."
On ex parte motions: "Your procrastination is not our emergency."
On disputes between lawyers: The basic concept is, "Don't involve the court." [i.e., do your best to work things out]
On how to begin your motion: the first paragraph should tell the court why you are here and what you want the court to do.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
If you haven't seen it, I recommend you watch it. Woody Allen's 2005 film, Match Point, seems to have drawn some inspiration from this Hitchcock film. I usually like Woody Allen, but for some reason, I didn't like Match Point. Most of my friends, however, did, so don't let me stop you from seeing it.
Monday, May 3, 2010
Article: Solitude and Leadership
Author: William Deresiewicz
Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors...
Henry David Thoreau looks alive and well in the body of William Deresiewicz.