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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Useful Chinese unpowered "crock pot"

On our last trip to China, we bought what could best be described as an oversized thermos bottle, which is the size and shape of a Crock Pot. But unlike a Crock Pot, it isn't powered.

It has two main parts: the external thermos part, and an inner pot that holds the item you're interested in cooking. The idea is you take the inner pot out, put in the ingredients, heat the whole bunch on the stove, put the inner pot back in the thermos, and let it cook in its own heat. Since it can hold heat for many hours, it probably saves electricity and is more versatile than a crock pot; you can pre-make soup or other slow-cooked recipes to take on picnics or road trips.

I have no clue what this gadget is called in English - the only English on the device itself is "Cook Pot" - but it is highly useful.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Class warfare, Aspirants, and the Democrats

This very important article discusses why a traditional "class warfare" strategy is no longer working for the Democratic Party. The author works for a "progressive" think tank, and is clearly not a Republican wolf in sheep's clothing.

One crucial point the author makes is the idea that many workers are more aspirational nowadays, and less likely to regard themselves as stationed in a particular class, particularly if it is a lower class. So, even if they may be able to get government benefits at the moment, even poor aspirants are likely to oppose tax increases and regulations - particularly on small businesses - which bring about these benefits. This is because they aspire to be business owners or high-income managers and professionals, and see little economic or social upside in being wards of the state.

Another problem for Dems: who are the poor? The article points out that income is quite variable, and that going by yearly income is quite deceptive as you get a lot of what I'd call "elective poor" in yearly income such as students, people starting new businesses, new immigrants, etc. The author determined that the "real poor" as those who had 15 years of family income under $40K, which is less than 25% of the population. This group is more likely to be interested in traditional government benefits than aspirants would be, and less interested in tax cuts.

So, the next question, not covered by the article, is what government policies would impress aspirants? My guesses:

o Real education reform, particularly if school choice is on the table, as aspirants are typically fanatic in wanting good educations for their kids. However, throwing more money at existing educational bureaucracies won't impress aspirants.

o Making it easier to start small businesses and legitimately hire employees.

o More portable health and retirement approaches. Aspirants often don't work for a single employer for very long, and may shift from self-employment to business ownership to salaried employment several times during their working life. Flexible health and retirement strategies would be attractive.

o Policies that shake up big corporations, such as ending "corporate welfare". This may seem counter-intuitive, but most aspirants are fans of small and medium-sized businesses and hard-charging entrepreneurs, not "institutional" corporations who are looking to milk the government cow. Aspirant dreams are to be the family that runs the corner Chinese restaurant or the founders of Google, not the CEO of General Motors.

Things that won't impress aspirants:

o "Soak the rich" income tax increases, especially in the crucial $100K-$200K income range where many small business owners and self-employed aspirants reside. People at this level are not "rich" - especially if they live in expensive areas - but can have a 50% or more marginal tax rate, especially if they live in a high-tax state and pay self-employment tax. Marginal rates are actually lower once you get over $200K and leave the self-employment "tax shadow" behind.

o Government handouts. Aspirants who are working hard to move up in the world, for better or worse, are unimpressed by those who live off of charity.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

My crazy 401K improvement strategy

A confession: I love the idea of 401K plans. But the implementation, for employer 401K's, is typically abominable, particularly for plans available at smaller companies (where I've spent my career). On the other hand, the self employment 401K is wonderful: it's a standard brokerage account that makes available everything supported by a normal brokerage account: stocks, mutual funds, ETFs, even things like CDs and directly purchased T-bills.

My idea for a radical revolution of the 401K is to abolish the employer account strategy, and have a 401K be a special account like an IRA that is managed by the employee. At a high level, the idea is that you open it, at your brokerage, give your employer a direct deposit number, and your 401K gets funded - just like direct deposit to a bank account.

Things like vesting schedules and such for employer match could probably be worked out by some sort of "vesting account" that is parallel to your main account, and which would move funds (or equivalent stocks, etc) to your main account once the funds vest, and that would revert unvested funds back to the employer when you quit. There are lots of issues with the vesting, but they could be worked out.

This would probably be much cheaper than the existing setup, especially for smaller companies that can't afford - or won't pay for - good 401K plans and end up providing employees with the "four expensive, underperforming garbage funds + money market" that I usually end up being stuck with.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

More tales from Biz Broker Wife...

One of my wife's standing peeves is sellers who can't realize that they're selling a business, not hitting up their buyer as an ATM to rebate all the money they spent on the business. A typical would-be seller:

"I paid $70K for this biz a year ago, which made $40K/year at the time. I spent $30K upgrading everything and putting in new floors. Last year, it made $20K as the biz had a falling off of business due to the ownership transition. Now I want to sell for $150K, which includes my $70K original price, my $30K of upgrades, your commission, something extra for my troubles, and a bit of headroom for negotiation."

Biz Broker Wife informs the guy that a buyer is only getting 13% ROI at that price and would probably just keep his money in the bank, and asks him: would he buy the biz at that price? He replies that selling the biz is her job...

My "Hundred" list

Here's my "Hundred Things about Me" list...

0. I'm enough of a geek that lists start at zero, not one
1. I was born in 1964
2. I have gray eyes
3. I am a rare native Californian
4. I live about fifteen miles from where I was born
5. My mom lives about 1 mile from where I was born
6. I pay attention to the Oakland A's
7. But I'm more of a SF Giants fan
8. I was in the left field bleachers at the World Series in the 1989 earthquake
9. I lived in Beijing for eight months
10. I speak "survival-level" Mandarin Chinese
11. My wife is from Anhui, in central China
12. I understand much more Mandarin than I can easily speak
13. I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood
14. Most of my friends from my kid days are Vietnamese
15. I have spent my career in tech startups
16. A couple worked out - the rest didn't
17. I ran a computer store business for a year
18. I'm a C programmer
19. My advice on programming is irrelevant to 99% of programmers
20. ...but the 1% to whom it applies find it very useful
21. My software is in several million small devices, mostly in Asia
22. The fact that millions of people are using my software daily makes me happy
23. I use Windows for web surfing
24. ...but Linux for working and software development
25. I helped to develop a major open-source database engine
26. It is currently in wide use, which I also think is cool
27. I'm an INTJ
28. I'm close to my mom and brother
29. We also go to Shanghai to visit the in-laws fairly frequently
30. I like Shanghai and wouldn't mind living there, except in the summer
31. My wife and I backpack once or twice per year
32. My wife makes wonderful Chinese food
33. I can no longer eat Chinese restaurant food outside of China
34. I'm horribly spoiled foodwise
35. My wife and I take long (5M+) walks together, four or five times a week
36. We also work out on an exercise machine twice or three times a week
37. Despite all this exercise, I still can't lose weight
38. ...but I don't need advice - or lectures - on this point
39. Even though it's expensive, I love the SF Bay Area
40. I sometimes toy with the thought of moving
41. ...except that I'd be Somewhere Else
42. I'm not a big fan of yardwork or housework
43. ...and I don't mind outsourcing it
44. For some reason, I'm not a big music fan
45. Probably because it's usually highly distracting
46. I do like classical music
47. I like opera, and will someday watch the full Ring Cycle
48. I'm a "small ell" libertarian
49. I'm pro-defense, and would rather be a live hypocrite than righteously dead
50. I am not religious, but I'm not anti-religious
51. I can't abide trivial conversation
52. I have a few close friends
53. I like discussing a few topics deeply
54. I have little patience for people who can't say "I don't know"
55. I am painfully blunt, to the point of being impolite
56. I have a dangerously sharp "BS detector"
57. Which occasionally gets me into trouble...
58. I was married on 22 Dec 1999
59. ...which was a week after my wife-to-be arrived in the States
60. I met my wife on the Internet
61. We are very happily married
62. My wife is very kind - and also quite blunt
63. Her family always said she was very American, even when she was a kid
64. This was not a particularly good thing during the Cultural Revolution
64. She speaks perfect English and writes better than I do
65. We are both honest to a fault, which sometimes gets us into trouble
66. My sister-in-law and her husband are both Chinese Communist Party members
67. ...but live like Republicans
68. I get along very well with both
69. I drink tea, diet coke, and water, in that order
70. I am relatively frugal, but not obsessively so
71. I am too lazy to be a good stockmarket investor
72. I invest in things that are a bit odd, but they've done well over the years
73. I avoid technology stocks, because I work in it
74. ...so I missed the Great Boom. Thankfully.
75. I knew several people who had eight-figure paper net worths
76. ...but most of them rode their options all the way down
77. I like giving advice and helping people
78. ...but having been burned, I'm careful to avoid people with "issues"
79. I don't like snobs, poseurs, or painfully "nice" people
80. ...which is a problem here in the uber-nice SF Bay Area
81. I wear shorts to work in the summer
82. ...and know I get away with it because I'm a darn good programmer
83. But I will wear "appropriate attire" (ie, a suit) if need be
84. I had a dog growing up, and hope to have one again
85. ...along with a house with a proper yard
86. I've been using the Internet since 1984 (yes, that's eighty-four)
87. I actually remember when many called it the "ARPAnet".
88. I got obscenely drunk once
89. ...and woke up in a strange apartment. In Beijing.
90. Since then, I've been careful not to drink beer followed by hard liquor
91. My whole family was chased by Chinese troops out of Tiananmen Square
92. ...but the reason for it was quite boring.
93. I like to put kimchee on homemade hamburgers
94. I love hot food, especially Hunan and Sichuan (Sze-chuan) food.
95. I don't particularly like Japanese food, except sushi
96. I can't read most self-improvement books. Too earnest and preachy.
97. I am a big history fan
98. I think too much, and occasionally "go angst"
99. I celebrated my "Life, the Universe, and Everything" birthday recently

(And since the numbering started with zero, that's it...)

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