My 3rd Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Meeting

Since I came to Omaha in 2016, going to the Shareholder Meeting has been an annual activity for me. At first, it was an experience as the meeting is something that if you never saw before, you should whenever you could. Last year and this year’s meetings are more like appreciating the two legendary guys who are still very active despite their old age.

The Berkshire Hathaway weekend includes a lot of activities from Friday to Sunday, but I only go to the Q&A session on Saturday morning. To participate in any activity, it is mandatory to have a pass. If you hold Berkshire shares, you are allowed up to 4 passes. Otherwise, find a person who does and ask for a pass

The Q&A session starts around 8:30 at the Century Link stadium in Omaha, but the gates are open around 7, I believe. There are a lot of people attending, so if you prefer a closer look at the two main speakers and the stage, be early.

Above is the seat I got for arriving at 7:30! So if you want a better view of the stage, you better start very early.

As usual, the meeting starts at 8:30am with the exclusive video that is only displayed at the meeting. No filming, no taking photos, no streaming. The video introduces the companies in Berkshire Hathaway portfolio and some funny segments that feature Warren Buffett and sometimes celebrities who reportedly contribute their time for free. The videos in 2017 and 2018 were much better than the one this year, in my opinion. The segment that stood out in this year’s video for me is the clip about Warren’s mobile application shot at Apple’s headquarter with Tim Cook. Geico is prominently featured as its ads are shown at least 3 times.

The video is about an hour long or so. After that, the Q&A session starts, breaks at 12 for an hour and ends at 3pm. The questions must be related to Berkshire and the companies in its portfolio such as Wells Fargo, BNSF, Oriental Trading, Geico or Apple, just to name a few. Personally, I think if you want to know their opinions on the portfolio companies, attending the meeting once or twice should be enough as the opinions shouldn’t change that much or that quickly. If a major development happens such as the scandal at Wells Fargo or his love for Apple stocks, Warren Buffett does interviews frequently enough that you won’t get new insights from the meeting.

In this Q&A session, Warren does most of the talking and Charlie only speaks once in a while. When he does, it is often very short and, as I find, funny. His famous line is “I have nothing to add”. Otherwise, he is just there on the stage, chilling, eating snacks and drinking coke. What I really appreciate is that the two guys are willing to make jokes, at times on themselves.

Besides the meeting in the stadium, there are exhibitions of the companies in the portfolio throughout the stadium. You can see the products and make purchases on the spot. It’s like a marketing event and from what I have seen, folks do make purchases at these exhibitions.

Berkshire Hathaway Exhibitions
If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it!

Public dog poop bag and our taxes

On my way for a walk around downtown Omaha in a beautiful weather, I saw this dog poop bag dispenser on the pavement. It must have been newly installed either yesterday or today as I didn’t see it two days ago.

Downtown Omaha can be littered with dog poop at times, even in the winter. I accidentally got myself in trouble at least a couple of times for not looking where to put my feet. Hopefully, this new dispenser will alleviate the issue and make it easy for pet owners to keep the streets and their neighbors’ shoes clean.

It brings me to taxes. What is the connection? These things cost. they are expense items on the income statement of the city government (I don’t have evidence, but I believe this kind of things comes out of the city government’s pocket). A government is like a business. You don’t spend what you don’t have or expenses must be covered by revenue. To implement this type of projects, small or large, the city government needs revenue which comes mainly from taxes.

I have a Vietnamese friend who complained about living in Democrats-led states since taxes are higher in those states than in GOP-led ones. A lower tax may look tempting and good on the surface. However, it’s just a part of the big picture.

Without sufficient tax revenue, how could a city government run properly and maintain public infrastructure? Without sufficient tax revenue, what about public school where your kids go to, parks where we all love to visit once in a while, public libraries where we can borrow books for free, city buses that can make transportation less painful or streets that can render commute more enjoyable?

I wrote about my experience with buses from Austin airport to Austin downtown here. The bus runs once every 15 minutes and costs $1.5. Here in Omaha, it runs once every 30 minutes and only for a few hours a day, only on weekdays. A one-way trip from downtown Omaha to the airport, which is not a long ride, costs around $7-10. An airport is a highly popular place at any city, yet getting there isn’t easy for folks in Omaha. In general, public transportation in Omaha needs drastic improvement and I would love to pay more taxes to see that happen.

I wrote also about my love for the local library through which I often borrow books for free. If the library were in financial trouble and needed help, I’d be willing to pay a bit more taxes to keep it.

It can be argued that many are fed up with their city governments’ inability to spend their tax money appropriately. That’s fair, but it’s another matter. It’s about electing the right folks to run the government. What I am trying to say is that lower taxes for individuals and corporations don’t come without consequences. There is a reason why Western European countries with high taxes have quite good social benefits and infrastructure. And to be honest, I prefer that to paying lower taxes and having dated and insufficient infrastructure.

Electricity price hike – Why I prefer not living in Vietnam

Last month, Vietnam Electricity (EVN), the state-owned company that has a monopoly over electricity in Vietnam, announced an 8% price hike, citing an increase in production cost. Obviously, it leads to the hike in everything’s price and living cost overall. But what frustrates me the most is the fact that as a monopoly, the company is terribly run. It invests in other verticals where it doesn’t have the knowledge or capabilities, on top of a terrible management, something that is not uncommon in Vietnam. As a consequence, EVN suffered huge financial losses. According to this article, EVN’s loss amounts to $94 million, despite having the monopoly. The loss includes ridiculous expenses such as building a golf course or luxury villas for the company’s officials. To cover these losses, it routinely jacks up the electricity price. There is almost no oversight.

Even more frustratingly and shamelessly, they hiked the electricity price during the hottest season the country has even encountered. The highest temp recorded is 43.4°C (110.12°F). At 6AM, it’s already at 87.8°F.

This kind of egregious behavior isn’t exclusive to EVN. Gas price in Vietnam frequently increases, thanks to Petrolimex, another monopoly. The problem is that once these crucial commodities become more expensive, everything else will as well. When the price of the commodities is lowered; however, the living cost rarely follows or gets cheaper. Meanwhile, the wage in Vietnam is not even close to keeping up with the rising living cost, rendering whatever income an ordinary folk earns increasingly small.

I love my country. We have great cuisine and sceneries as well as an authentic culture. However, I don’t want to live in a place where I cannot meaningfully save anything simply because living costs increase almost on a monthly/quarterly basis while wage does once a year at most. This and among other reasons I will share in the future whenever it is appropriate

Avengers: End Game and The Acquisition of Marvel

I went to see the Avengers: End Game on Friday with a few friends. The movie is indeed worth the wait and the hype, in my opinion. Rest easy. I won’t give out any spoilers. I was floored by the attention to details and the extraordinary cinematography put in the film. The plot was as good as you could get. Of course, there is no plot that can satisfy all the fans out there, but it would be a tall order to beat what the writers put together. So kudos to them. If you haven’t watched it yet, do it before any spoilers come out. There are moments in the movie that I believe should only be watched in real time. If you can, watch the Marvel movies you haven’t beforehand. There are some details in the End Game that require some context to be understood.

The End Game is a great culmination of a tapestry of 21 or 22 movies in the Marvel Universe. Marvel has left quite a bit of cultural influence in our societies such as Black Panthers or Captain Marvel and become an established household name. It is now a great asset for Disney. This brought me back to the acquisition. The studio was bought by Disney for $4 billion back in 2009. Since then, the studio has churned out one blockbuster after another. Below is what Marvel movies have generated in revenue after 2009

Source: Boxofficemojo

It’s necessary to point out that The End Game has been out for only 5 days and the figure above is not updated yet. In a few months, the chart above will look different and you will likely have to look to the left hand side for The End Game

In terms of financials, the $4 billion outlay back in 2009 looks like a tremendous bargain now. In total, the studio has brought around $19-20 billion in revenue. I imagine it will be more profitable for Disney if it keeps the quality of the movies like it has been for the last 10 years. No one can know for sure, but a good sign is Star Wars and Disney movies which have been still popular even after many years.

Insufficient Wages – Who Should Be Responsible?

A friend of mine sent me this link in which a Congresswoman questioned CEO of JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon on a specific case in which a permanent employee couldn’t make ends meet despite working at one of the biggest and richest companies in the world

While I appreciate the intention, I don’t think it’s practically helpful. The ones that should be questioned are the lawmakers that allow this atrocity to happen in the first place.

Strictly speaking, your behavior is only illegal if it’s outside the boundaries of the laws. If a company isn’t required by the laws to pay employees a minimum wage, how is the company’s failure to pay the minimum wage illegal? The answer is that it’s not illegal. Should JP Morgan have paid employees more? Yes, it should. But put yourself in their shoes. If you could maximize profits and personal wealth while staying in the boundaries of the laws, would you do the same? Personally, I am not so confident that I would have done differently.

The thing that annoys me with all this questioning is that only the lawmakers have the power to change this. If they really care about citizens, pass the regulations requiring a minimum wage. Together, every state raises the minimum wage so that the corporations headquartered here in the US have no choice, but to comply. What would they do? Leave the US? It wouldn’t make much business sense to some companies to leave the country, just to avoid a higher minimum wage.

A higher minimum wage will surely result in social and economic ramifications. But that’s the job of the lawmakers. That’s why they are elected to the office. All their working time is supposed to be devoted to figuring out a way to better our lives. It’s not our job to figure out all the complex policies while having to make ends meet ourselves.

Insufficient wage is a real issue in the US. However, the ones that should answer all the burning questions regarding this should be the lawmakers. Even if corporation executives are questioned like this, without a legal framework, how could they be held accountable?

Good practices in coding

Like many things in our society, there is also recommended etiquette in coding. There are two practices, in particular, that I find important and useful.

First, it’s beneficial to painstakingly document your code. At the beginning of any program, jog down some lines on what the program is about. Then, before any function, write something about it. If you give aliases to variables or tables that have long names, put down some notes as well. If there is any logic behind the code, make it visible to others too. Often times, folks may understand the mechanics of the code, but don’t understand what the code actually does since they don’t understand the logic.

Below is an excerpt from a document in one of my first coding classes. In our assignments, if we forgot to document our code, we would have 5-10% of our grade taken away.

As highlighted in the screenshot, a detailed documentation is very helpful to not only others looking at your code, but also yourself later on. If a program is complex and there is no documentation, you’ll find it more difficult than it should be to refresh your memory on the code. I have been there and I don’t even write complex code!

Above is an example I had from my programming class. In practice, it doesn’t need to be that detailed, but the description section and the date are necessary in my opinion.

The second practice that I think is useful is to format the code. Normally, we tend to get carried away while coding and neglect how the whole program actually looks. Lines are not aligned. Blocks of code are nested and difficult to read. Brackets are all over the place, making it challenging to debug and understand the code. What I usually do is that after I am sure my program works as expected, I search for a website to help with the formatting of code (it’s easy, just google, for instance, HTML formatter) and have the website re-format the code so that it’s easier to digest.

Colleges and Co. ripping off students

Huffington Post ran a very good investigative piece on how colleges and OPMs, the entities that help colleges run their online courses, rip off students. It’s quite long, but I guarantee that if you are interested in education in America, have a read.

Education should be free

It is no surprise at all that Americans are not satisfied with the education system and increasingly prefer acquiring skills in some other ways than going to college. The student debt in America reaches $1.5 trillion, only behind mortgage in America. It’s an insane phenomenon. Why are students saddled with debt by the thing that is supposed to help them get a better life? According to the article, when colleges had a chance to solve the issue by offering online courses and degrees, they chose their pockets over students.

How is it even possible that a university at #8 offers a similar online degree at almost a tenth of what universities at lower ranks offer? If Georgia Tech can break even at $7,000, what could justify the outrageous difference other than too much greed from the universities and OPMs?

I believe wholeheartedly that education, along with healthcare, should be free for citizens. It would lead to a lot of significant ramifications in policies, laws, and the society. Yet, if other developed countries can do so, why can’t America?

Is the reputation of the university worth the debt?

When I was a kid, my dream was to go to Harvard or an Ivy League school. I don’t know if I can, but if admission to a school like that means that I will be drown in debt, given that I know I won’t be good enough for a 100% scholarship, I won’t go there. I believe that education isn’t equal to schooling. If you study when others party, work when others slack off on the weekends, you can still have success and a good life. I am sure anyone of us met a person or have a friend who succeeds with hard work and no Ivy League degree.

We need regulations

Here is what the article mentioned about regulations over online education in the US:

Kaplan Higher Education never really recovered from the combination of business missteps and the intense public scrutiny of the for-profit industry in the late 2000s. In April 2017, Donald Graham announced that Kaplan University was being sold for $1 to Purdue University, Indiana’s public land grant college. It sounded like Purdue had picked up a distressed asset and turned it into a public concern. But that’s not exactly what happened.

What Purdue really did was create a separate organization, eventually named Purdue University Global. It was granted a highly unusual legal status by the Indiana legislature, in which it is simultaneously considered a nonprofit institution immune from Bob Shireman’s for-profit regulations and a private institution immune to public records requests.

It sounds impossibly convoluted, but it’s actually quite simple. Grand Canyon put all of its academic operations into a nonprofit that serves as a conduit for federal financial aid. (Last year, Grand Canyon received over $760 million from federal student loans, the most of any college or university nationwide.) The nonprofit university is also able to avoid local property taxes and for-profit regulations, not to mention the industry’s toxic reputation. But most of the profits eventually end up in the same place—with LOPE, a $5 billion corporation. Grand Canyon University is “not non-profit in any meaningful legal sense,” wrote Brian Galle, a former attorney in the tax enforcement policy section of the Justice Department, in a letter to the Department of Education

The person in charge of higher education at the department is Diane Auer Jones, a onetime official in George W. Bush’s Department of Education who worked for some of the most powerful operators in the previous for-profit scandals. [6] Before entering the administration, Jones operated a company associated with the private student loan industry and the main trade organization of for-profit colleges. Previously, she was the chief external affairs officer for the Career Education Corporation, which dealt with multiple lawsuits and government investigations during her tenure.Soon after starting at the department, Jones promptly threw out all of the regulatory work that her predecessors and career staff had been developing and began rushing through new versions that she wrote all on her own, according to a staffer currently working for Jones. “The political staff are writing the regulations in secret and the policy staff are kept in the dark,” the staffer says. (The Department of Education didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Jones’ proposed rules, released in January, amount to a sweeping deregulation of higher education. They include abolishing a rule that prevents colleges from outsourcing more than half of a program to outside companies—for example, OPMs—and a rule that bans federal aid to programs where students don’t interact with an instructor. “We’re talking about basic questions here, like the amount of student learning we should expect and what the faculty role is,” says James Kvaal, an Obama White House official who is now president of the Institute for College Access and Success. “The prospect of removing any federal guardrails at all is really scary.”

What else can protect citizens from profiteers and crooked organizations besides regulations? Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case here.

No, it’s not capitalism

The article’s title is “the creeping capitalist takeover of higher education”. I have to clarify before ending this post that in my opinion, this is crony capitalism, not pure capitalism. Greed is good, but toxic and excessive greed isn’t. If you participate in a free market, follow the laws and succeed with your talent and effort, there is nothing with that. But if you skirt the laws, bend the rules and make money on others’ backs and lives, it is no longer capitalism.

A podcast on the importance of sleep

I wrote about the book: Why We Sleep before. If you are interested in the subject, yet don’t find the time or the motivation to dive into the pages, you can get the gist of the book at the podcast series here. If you care about your health and brain, I urge you to have a listen.

One of the things I would like to call out here is the unhealthy practice of boasting how little sleep one has in public. Some folks tend to take their deprivation of sleep as a badge of honor. I used to be the same. There was a time before I graduated when I lived on coffee and sweet, to keep myself awake. And I talked about that to my friends with a little bit of pride. However, I learned that it was stupid of me. I was killing my brain and myself. The author is right in calling BS on the “sleep is for the weak. You can have all the sleep after you die” notion.

One of my goals in 2019 is to form the habit of sleeping 7-8 hours a night. Admittedly, I have failed spectacularly so far in the year. There is a lot of work to do…

Don’t judge a person for his/her broken English

I had lunch with a friend whom I met in college today. It has been a while since we met and the meet was pleasant. In addition to catching up with what the other was doing, we touched upon what would seem to be quite a deep topic for lunch, but you could tell that we were close enough to open up on it.

Long story short, I told him the last time we met that I somehow felt looked down up on by Americans because I am Asian, because I don’t look big enough and because I don’t speak English like a native speaker. I have been trying hard since I was 16 and I wish I could, but the fact is that even though I speak the language well enough to get me a job and two Master’s degrees, I don’t talk like a native speaker.

The friend brought it back today. He talked about his encounter with a French engineer who uprooted his life back home to come to America to have a better career and life. The French guy doesn’t speak English well, said my friend, but my friend admired the courage taken to go to a foreign country alone, as he once told me. My friend said that the biggest lesson he had in the last few years was to learn that it wasn’t easy for others to come to the US and that no matter how good or bad someone’s English is, the effort to speak the language is already admirable and it shouldn’t be the basis on which judgement is passed.

As an immigrant, of course, I understand the sentiment, yet it is great to hear it from my friend. But if I have to be honest, I don’t use my inability to speak English natively as an excuse. To me, if I succeed, good. I did put in the work, but I was lucky as well. If I fail, well I was just not good enough. Coming here to study and work is a game. I chose to participate in that game and it just doesn’t make sense to say that my failure is justified because the rules are not in my favor. Nonetheless, I am happy to hear that from my friend and proud to have him as a friend.

For the compassion and humility, I have learned a great deal myself from learning technical topics such as coding and IT. I am always a believer in the notion that we all should try to find answers on our own first before asking questions or for help from others. It matters more to me that a person actually tried on his or her own first than whether he or she succeeded in finding the answer. But admittedly, I easily got irritated. I was arrogant. I got annoyed whenever I thought people asked too easy questions.

Since learning how to code, I have realized that I was…well, an asshole. Code is very binary. It either works or it doesn’t. There is nothing in between. When trying to find answers to my coding problems, I encountered numerous times guys who were better than me, but gave replies that asked more questions than answers. Some guys on StackOverflow or at school answered, but in a way that you couldn’t fathom unless a significant amount of time is spent on that or the person elaborated more.

When I was still an intern at an IT company, all the technical details and jargon floating around the office were initially another language to me. I had to, if I am honest, disturb some engineers in the office to help me understand even the basic concepts in their mind. I told them: “please speak English to me. I am dumb. Dumb it down for me”. I am glad that they did because it helped me tremendously then, now and in the future I believe.

Since then, I have learned the value of humility and compassion more. I have consciously made an effort to be very specific with words and visuals when helping others. I have consciously tried to be patient and understanding that the person processes information differently than I do and that I used to or still am in that position.

Podcast culture in Vietnam soon?

Podcast has been the rage these days in the US in terms of the medium to consume and distribute information. I can imagine why that is the case. There is a lot of navigating through traffic on the streets, doing mindless work at home and at one’s job or working out in a gym. Users need something to help them power through the boredom without using their eyes. On the content creator side, a podcast episode takes less work and time to produce than a video. As long as you have a reliable recorder, a decent Internet connection and more importantly, what to share with the world, that’s enough for a podcast episode.

I have been wondering whether Vietnamese folks at home will like podcasts as much as we do here in America. I quickly polled two friends of mine who are millennials and work professionally in the biggest city in Vietnam. They both told me that they didn’t think podcast would interest Vietnamese people as our folks nowadays tend to consume more tabloid news and instant gratification. There is some truth in that.

There is coverage on Vietnamese people’s losing interest in reading. Reportedly, my countrymen on average read one book a year. If a book is 300 pages long, that’s less than one page a day. I often see on my Newsfeed a lot of junk content shared by my connections. As a huge fan of reading and consuming quality content, that’s a seriously concerning sign. I suspect that there are several reasons for that. Firstly, we were dealt with a bad hand growing up. Reading is not part of our curriculums at school. We don’t get to know the beauty of reading when we are young. I didn’t. I grew up learning only maths. Luckily, I went to a high school where a lot of my peers read and the habit rubbed off on me. Secondly, there is not a whole lot of quality content in Vietnamese. Even though English is popular now among the young, folks still prefer consuming content in our native language. If they felt comfortable with English podcasts, there is no shortage out there. But content in our mother tongue is in short supply (or at least none that I have ever heard of). Sometimes, there are some quality pieces, but there is no consistent source of audio content on the market.

Nonetheless, there are signs that I think are favorable for podcast consumption as a trend. First, terrible traffic in Vietnam. If you ever travel to Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), you’ll experience the terrible traffic there. There is traffic jam at ALL times from 7:30am to around 7pm every week day. My house in Vietnam is 10km away from the city center where I used to work. Every day, it took me at least an hour in total to commute back and forth, let alone time to meet friends. As in the case here in the US, folks can listen to podcast instead of music. Another favorable condition is that mobile Internet in Vietnam is cheap. About 200,000 VND, you can have decent speed and data packages to download podcasts. Plus, young professionals make up a big part of the population in Vietnam. My impression is that a lot of them want to learn and grow. The problem, as mentioned above, is that they don’t seem to find content in Vietnamese that they can consume comfortably. Last but not least, there are many interesting Vietnamese folks out there worth interviewing, from entrepreneurs, designers, chefs, actors, mathematicians or authors.

I hope that in the near future, Vietnamese people will read more and the podcast culture will catch fire for the sake of knowledge consumption and advertising hidden talent and minds.