Monday, December 29, 2003

The Bright Side

Another storm passes through the Bay Area. Despite the inconvenience to commuters and the disruption to travelers’ plans, I think back to the drought years during the late 1980’s when we put bricks in toilet bowls (the bricks would crumble, causing all sorts of plumbing problems) and don’t mind so much. Let it rain, more precisely, let the snowpack build.

Going into the office during the week between Christmas and New Years Day is like going in on a weekend. If you’re able to take your mind off of all the fun that others are having this week, the atmosphere is very quiet and it’s a great time to clean up your workspace and organize files and calendars.

I’m sorry that one mad cow has snuffed billions of dollars of beef exports, but at least we’ll get some relief from the steep increase in beef prices. I used to get boneless rib-eye for $5 a pound but refuse to pay the $8 - $9 recently posted at Albertson’s, Safeway, and Costco. Time to clean out the freezer, as I anticipate some dramatic price reductions soon.

The dollar has weakened dramatically, damaging U.S. prestige and vacationers’ plans. But business has picked up a lot for my company because its fortunes are tied to export activity, which is beginning to boom because U.S. goods and services are more competitive. Just as they taught us in Macroeconomics 101.

© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Toward the Light

Midnight will not be clear this Christmas Eve. The cold and blustery weather has subdued the spirits of the holiday crowds, which, despite the early reports from retailers, do not seem to be as sizeable as in years past. We are reminded that shifting tectonics, as well as terrorism, can upend our lives suddenly, and worries over the flu and mad-cow disease add to the anxiety.

Nevertheless, we can see light at the end of a distant tunnel. There are many international troublespots, but the capture of Saddam and the concessions by the Libyan dictator are signs that we may be headed in the right direction. The economy and stock market are going up, and some of my friends have landed jobs. But even these worldly concerns, important as they are, pale beside the message of the season, that 2000 years ago the Light came into the world and overcame the shadow of Death. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]

From Chinatown, halfway up Nob Hill,

it's a short walk through the Stockton Street tunnel to the light

of Union Square.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Sam Wo, 813 Washington, San Francisco

The inauspicious entrance

Customers pass by the kitchen on their way to the dining room upstairs

A dumbwaiter from the kitchen to the 2nd floor

I don’t see how this restaurant has survived. There’s nothing unique about the inexpensive Cantonese menu of noodles, soup, and assorted rice plates. Maybe it is true that all you have to do is live long enough, and people will think you're special.

The cramped 2nd floor dining room

Sam Wo reputedly pre-dates the 1906 earthquake. It became a regular hangout for GI’s after the war. Before the Golden Dragon massacre (the Golden Dragon restaurant is directly across the street) of 1977, Chinatown stores and restaurants, not to mention purveyors of various forms of illicit activities, opened well past midnight. At Sam Wo you could get a good, cheap bowl of jook (rice porridge) at 2 a.m. The sights, sounds, smells, and sins of San Francisco gave the young small-town inductees an “eyeful tour” [it’s my blog, okay?]

My first and only visit (before yesterday) to Sam Wo was during the 1970’s with a relative from the World War II generation. Our disappointment at his inability to recapture the excitement of his youth was somewhat ameliorated by the delight of being served by the “world's rudest waiter”, one Edsel Ford Fong. Edsel performed his usual act of loudly criticizing our menu choices, slamming, not placing, the dishes, and sneering at our 15% tip. Although he has since gone on to the great scrap heap in the sky, Edsel Ford Fong was immortalized by the late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, and a restaurant at Candlestick Park bears his name.

I ordered the special won ton soup. For $4.75 I counted a half-dozen won ton, a couple of shrimp and pieces of pork, and some bok choy and water chestnuts. The liquid volume exceeded that of the solids, not a good sign of value. The food’s mediocre, the so-bad-it’s-good ambience has been replaced by no ambience. If Sam Wo is here 20 years from now, I'll be very surprised. [Free advice to the owners: capitalize on 100 years of franchise value. Start selling keychains and T-shirts with Edsel Ford Fong's visage. Appeal to the now-affluent boomers who are nostalgic for the Summer of Love.]
© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 22, 2003

San Francisco Centre

I know the economy is supposed to be picking up, but last Friday noon, when I went to the San Francisco Centre , it didn't seem too busy.

The View from Nordstrom's

Empty Victory

Like myself, people who don't follow college football are mystified by the Bowl Championship Series, if, indeed, we care at all about the subject. Football is the only college sport that doesn't determine its national champion on the field. Instead, through a complex set of algorithms, computers determine the leading teams and attempt to match the top two in one of the major bowl games held over the holiday season. The winner of the game is the national champion.

This year the computers blew a gasket. The University of Oklahoma, which was undefeated and which everyone thought was head-and-shoulders above any other team in the country, got blown out by Kansas State, 35-7, two weeks ago. (Kansas State University has three losses and cannot be a contender for the national championship.) The University of Southern California suffered an early loss to the California Bears (Bay Area connection!) but rolled through the rest of the season and is at the top of the polls. However, the BCS computers say that Oklahoma and Louisiana State University should play off for the championship in the Sugar Bowl. USC will play the University of Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and, if USC wins convincingly, the Oklahoma-LSU victor will wear a hollow crown.

A similarly empty victory awaits George W. Bush in next year's election. Senator Hillary Clinton is by far the strongest candidate that the Democrats can run in the Presidential race. She has name recognition, passionate supporters, unmatched fund-raising ability, and is credibly strong on defense. The latter trait is particularly important because, unlike Howard Dean, she will be palatable to the majority of Americans who support a strong military, and she will capture the vote of anti-war Bush haters in any event.

Why is it important for Republicans, as well as Democrats, to want President Bush to face Senator Clinton in 2004?
  • For the good of our country we should always wish to have the strongest candidates run for the top office, even if that increases the chances that “our” candidate may lose.
  • If President Bush does indeed run against and defeat Senator Clinton, he will have a greater claim to a mandate for his agenda (stomping all over a loose cannon like Howard Dean will not necessarily mean that the Democratic Party’s views have been repudiated).
  • A Dean nomination and loss will cause the Democratic Party to adopt a “wait for ‘08” attitude when the Party may really need a top-to-bottom overhaul of its ideas and methods. If Hillary runs and loses, especially if she loses badly, the Democratic leadership will be out of excuses. For the sake of a strong two-party system we should want the Democratic Party to embark on its transformation sooner rather than later.

There are recent examples of admired politicians (Mario Cuomo, Colin Powell) whose political capital evaporated when they did not use it. Hillary Clinton’s stock has never been higher, and as another Washingtonian was fond of saying a generation ago, the future is now.

[Update (12/31/03): Like many others, Dick Morris foresees defeat for the Democrats if Dean is nominated:
Usually it takes two or three defeats before the party regains its senses and realizes that catering to its extremist elements only courts disaster. After a Barry Goldwater, it embraces a Richard Nixon. Recovering from the disaster of George McGovern, it nominates Jimmy Carter. But sometimes it takes repeated defeats - as with Mondale and Dukakis in the '80s - before a party recovers its senses and nominates a Clinton. It will be interesting to see how soon the Democrats wake up and realize that they can't let their party be hijacked by the left without writing off the general election. But the wake-up call is unlikely to come until after Bush is safely re-elected.]

© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Castles in the Air

On the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, some point to space travel or 400-passenger 747’s as examples of how far aviation has come. Another viewpoint: below are pictures of a new Airbus A380 which has been outfitted for owners who live (where else?) in the Middle East.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Topics of Conversation

When I had lunch with my buddies at work, the discussion turned predictably to sports, wireless networks, and MP3 players. A previous lunch with a different group of guys sounded pretty much the same, although due to the advancing age of the participants we touched briefly upon the merits of low-protein versus low-fat diets.

Ina and Dianne, now a minister in Boston. Teenaged boys pay more attention to sermons these days.

I like to go to Pam’s dinners because of the women. The few men present—all husbands—listen bemusedly as the conversation swoops and swerves from the love lives of our mutual friends, to brushes with the rich and famous, to the unusual behavior of our children and parents, to recipes and retirement dreams. Periodically, remembering her manners, one of the women would ask what I thought about some topic. I would bat her question with a nondescript mutter, and the ball would carom off the bumpers for another hour.

Many of us were classmates in high school. I thought I knew what was going on, but it’s clear now that I was oblivious to what was really happening between students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers. My dinner companions pat me on the head and give me the red pill.

L to R: Dianne, Reiko, Bob, Pam, Mike, Ina
© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Coal Car

We're remodeling the floors in our San Francisco highrise, so for six months this relic from our company's origins--a coal car--will be parked outside my office. It will undoubtedly outlast my expensive laptop computer, monitor, laser printer,

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Hyatt Regency

The main entrance to the Hyatt Regency leads inauspiciously to two flights of escalators. During the slow ride to the top the spacious atreum lobby greets the visitor, who always looks up, first to the sculpture and reflecting pool, then to the sun streaming through the roof, finally on the right to the lit jelly-bean elevators. When I first visited the Hyatt, I was a sheltered college student and unprepared for the magnificence of the great room.

Uncle Jack, who spent his sabbatical that year working at an engineering firm in San Francisco, gave me walking tours of the City. When he introduced me to the unique, unified architecture of the Hyatt and the four towers of Embarcadero Center, I might have had a presentiment that I would live in or near San Francisco. Here I am 30 years later and counting.....

San Francisco as "the most beautiful place on earth"? Some agree.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

A Good Day to Stay In

The morning fog will chill the air....

Another gray day in the City, and going for my usual stroll held little appeal. I got a lot done today. What do I do? [Thanks for asking.] Lately I've been working quite a bit with Microsoft Excel, which has become powerful enough to handle most financial applications. Most users, including myself, tap only a fraction of its capability. Once in a while I come across an undocumented feature, such as the one pictured below. Simply enter "A1-1", "A2-2", etc. into cells and mysterious characters (Arabic?) appear. If you bring this up with Microsoft, they'll undoubtedly respond as did the waiter re the fly in his patron's soup, "No extra charge."

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

In Chinatown one doesn't identify destinations by their names. Usually it's "the Chinese sausage factory on Grant" or "the dim sum place on Stockton between Clay and Sacramento". Besides, the Chinese names don't roll trippingly off the tongue. The ones that Westerners can comfortably pronounce don't make sense. I've been strolling by the incongruously named "Apple Land" for years. The store has no iPods but crates of dried squid, smelt, and scallops.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Gray, Rainy Day

Union Square is empty--even the pigeons are scarce. Advent approaches, but there's no feeling of anticipation, just trepidation. The economy is perking along in the rest of the country, but many of my friends are still looking for work. The bloom has left our new Governor's cheeks (I'm not talking about those so cheekily displayed in his Terminator movies), as he faces his own long, hard slog through the labyrinths of Sacramento. Just tell me where to send the check, guv'nor, but please wait a few days before cashing it. Locally, the two candidates for mayor are uninspiring; Willie Brown, love him or hate him, had presence.

I strolled over to the Transamerica Pyramid and rested by its miniature Redwood Park, also bereft of people and pigeons, but there the emptiness was welcome.

Sunday, November 30, 2003

Thanksgiving That It's Over

I've always felt the word "surfeit" to be descriptive of many Thanksgivings, this one being no exception. Continuous eating and drinking, interrupted only by trips to the mall to buy stuff I don't need. There's no more room in the stomach or the house: the groaning board meets the groaning garage.
surfeit: 1) an overabundant supply; EXCESS. 2) an intemperate or immoderate indulgence in something (as food or drink). 3) disgust caused by excess: SATIETY. --Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary

Looking at all the meanings--overabundance, indulgence, disgust--it's amazing how a simple word captures the essence of the Thanksgiving experience. Bonus wordplay: the second syllable "-feit" sounds very close to "fat" (my old English teacher told me that was an example of "assonance" --similarity in sounds--which itself is a delicious-sounding word).

As partial penance I got up at 4 a.m. this morning to roast a 20-pound turkey as part of a Thanksgiving lunch for disadvantaged families on the Peninsula. After carving the bird, making the gravy, and topping off the basket with three pies, we dropped off same at the local Episcopal church. Then off to San Jose International Airport to deposit a visiting San Diegan.

I can't wait to get back to work tomorrow.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

I Did My Part stimulate the economy. After a cholesterol-, triglyceride-, and carbohydrate-filled Thanksgiving, I got up early on Friday (but not early enough) to head down to Fry's Electronics in Palo Alto. Fry's, to the uninitiated, is geek heaven. It has all the latest electronic gizmos, plus most of the parts that a do-it-yourselfer might need; certainly he would stand a better chance of finding components at Fry's than at Best Buy, Circuit City, or Good Guys.

Fry's is also notorious for bait-and-switch advertising. These items on my shopping list were gone by 8 a.m.:

  • Gameboy Advance bundle - $80
  • 64MB Keychain USB drive - $8
  • Emprex 4x DVD/R/RW drive - $80

So I turned to my "don't really need it or want it" list and bought a 160GB Western Digital hard drive for $60 and a new Nintendo game for $35. That's why I hate those sales tactics---they prey upon my human weakness and I respond, just as they knew I would!

You couldn't find parking by 9 a.m.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

November 22, 1963

Mrs. Matthews calmly told us the news, but her normally severe demeanor seemed strained. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. The class grew quiet. In the face of tragedy we tried to act like adults, who we thought would not cry or shout or otherwise carry on.

After an interminable wait, school finally let out, and kids got into their buses or waiting cars. My ride wouldn’t come for another hour so I wandered around the empty halls. I thought about going to the main office to call Mom, but the phone was only to be used in the direst emergency, like the time I got sick in Mrs. Millar’s fourth grade class and my father had to take off work to pick me up. I borrowed a book from the library and went across the street to wait for my uncle. I opened the book but didn’t see the pages.

These days we say we are “shocked” or “stunned” by an occurrence, when, in truth, our imagination, combined with knowledge of actual horrors experienced over the past 40 years, has inoculated us against surprise. But those reactions are appropriate to this seminal event, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that signaled the end of our childhood.

The entire week was quiet. No one felt like playing football, so games were cancelled. The churches were filled, just as they were a year earlier when we prayed that God would spare the world. It was a week of blackness--black suits, dresses, and veils filling our black-and-white TV sets and newspapers.

In 1960 my parents supported Richard Nixon, and, being an imitative child, so did I. But once JFK was elected, he became the President and had our unswerving allegiance. The world was extremely dangerous. As we learned in geography, Russia had the most land, China had the most people, and these colossi were united against us. And more and more were joining their fold: people in Africa, in South America, even in neighboring Mexico, were burning the flag (I remember when some burned the old flag with 48 stars: didn’t they know that Hawaii and Alaska had become States?). The map of the world that hung on the bedroom wall was bathed in red, the color of communism, while the blue part--the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan—seemed puny in comparison.

At school we would practice ducking under our desks in case the bombs started falling. People say now that these instructions were a big joke, but I didn’t know anyone who laughed. Life and Look magazines ran page after page on the devastation wrought by atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I studied the huge mushroom cloud produced by the thousand-times more powerful hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll. Today children have nightmares about the Twin Towers falling; we worried about towers vaporizing…..everywhere.

President Kennedy also contended with many problems on the Mainland, as we called the contiguous 48 states. (I don’t want to give the impression that in my tender years I was a news junkie: it was primarily to advance my vocabulary that I read the grown-ups’ newspapers, the morning Advertiser and evening Star-Bulletin.) Good news was rare. Powerful labor unions, such as the Teamsters and steelworkers, went on strike and shut down much of the country. Troops had to be sent to Alabama because Governor Wallace wouldn’t let black kids go to school. The powerful Mafia was a big problem on the East Coast, and Robert Kennedy, the callow Attorney General, seemed inadequate to the task. As the Untouchables TV series vividly showed, you needed men with machine guns to take them on, and the President’s younger brother did not have the authoritative air of Elliott Ness.

The troubles came to a head in October, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. The fear in adults was palpable, and I became convinced, after a few days of excruciating tension, that the world was going to be destroyed. Every night I concentrated with special fervor on the final line of the children’s prayer, “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. When the Russian ships turned around, and Mr. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, I felt the exultation of the patient who is given a second chance, and President Kennedy was my doctor.

He is remembered for his grace, his wit, and his handsome family. But I remember most of all the contrast between the joyful heights of Thanksgiving, 1962 and the somber depths of Thanksgiving, 1963. He saved us all, and then he was gone.
© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 24, 2003

SPAM: A Small Response

It continues to bother me that a spammer took over my AOL account to send out thousands of messages (see below). I belatedly realized that I could go into my e-mail "Sent" folder and try to "Unsend" the messages. Eureka! I was able to eliminate about half of them---if one of the unfortunate recipients had already opened the spam, it could not be Unsent, but I took comfort in that the damage was reduced.

Next, I examined the product that was being touted; a link to a mortgage application was thoughtfully provided in the message. Equally thoughtfully, I've been filling out dozens of mortgage applications from fictitious names and addresses and hoping that will reduce the likelihood that mortgage companies will use this spammer's services. Infantile? Yes. A waste of time? Probably. But one has to do something.

Saturday, November 22, 2003


Below is a letter to the editor in today's Chronicle that forces me to take a look at an old (and I do mean OLD) object with fresh eyes.

Editor -- We, the Fruitcake Lovers of Northern California, wish to formally protest the sad mistreatment of fruitcake in the media. Fruitcake is repeatedly insulted -- even to its face (don't those raisins look like eyes?). Malicious lies are spread about how there is only one fruitcake in the world, which is passed from one unlucky dupe to another. We have formed our alliance to speak for the fruitcake.

Not all fruitcakes are created equal. There are, I am sad to say, mass food conglomerates (dare we name Safeway as the greatest villain in the history of fruitcake? We dare!) selling gross misinterpretations of this great holiday treat. Did the ancient Phoenicians eat bright green cubes of mysterious citrus? Or pieces of petrified maraschino cherries that taste like earwax? No! They ate figs and apricots and raisins.

My friends: Do not fear the raisin!

We call upon you, oh master of the media -- join us! Let the people know: It's time to give fruitcake another chance. Remember, Europeans love fruitcake, even though they are from the old country. Even the folks from that other strange country, the East Coast, have more love and respect for holiday fruitcake than we, the supposedly smarter and better looking, residents of California.

Remember, fruitcake is our friend.

----JUSTIN McCARTER, President, Fruitcake Lovers of Northern California

I'm puzzling over the repeated reference to raisins (Jungian archetype? crypto-Fascist construct?)---if I were better educated I might get it.

Below is the fruitcake that has been sitting in our refrigerator purchased in 1998. The fruitcake obviously pre-dates the appliance, but its origins are lost in the mysts of time.

Unintentional Harm

I hate spam. Because it takes but a second to group the easily identifiable bulk e-mails and hit the "delete" key, I recognize that this emotion is an over-reaction to a minor nuisance: maybe it has to do with a sense of violation of personal space, or maybe it's the "last straw" culmination of junk snail mail, telemarketing phone calls, and cacophonous advertising on TV and radio.....or maybe it was because my toilet-training didn't go well. (I miss my ducky seat!)

The alarm bells should have gone off when several "failure to deliver" notices appeared in my AOL in-box two days ago. As the notices accumulated, I finally examined my "Sent Mail" folder and realized that a @#$%# spammer had been sending out thousands of messages under my AOL account. (The delivery-failure notices, were, of course, due to spam-blocking routines set up by some of the recipients.) I immediately changed my password, hopeful that will put a stop to his use of my account. Oh, well, I'm mildly grateful that the messages pertained to nothing more objectionable than mortgage refinancings.

I want to indulge my emotions a little more. Remember that word game where you change one letter at a time?

SPAM ----> SCAM -------> SCUM

There, I feel better.

Friday, November 21, 2003


The Millbrae BART/Caltrain connection is a maze of concrete, escalators, ducts, stairs, turnstiles, and ticket machines. The designers did their best with the translucent roofing, but there are too many dark, cold areas. Yes, the station is functional, but the parking lots are mostly empty and traffic is far below expectations. The best transit stations convert commuters into shoppers and diners, but retailers and restaurants are not coming here en masse.

On paper at least, there's a lot of potential. San Francisco Airport is nearby, and Millbrae is an affluent community. Peninsula Hospital and Mills High School are within walking distance. But the signs aren't good, and there have been too many examples of commercial projects, such as Fashion Island shopping center and downtown San Jose, that have failed.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

A Fog-ey Day

When they take the ferry for the first time, the Marin commuters drink in the view. But it doesn't take them long to assume the distant gaze of those who are living in, worried about, and can't wait for the future. Some of the best moments of their lives, but to most of them only in retrospect. Well, the ferries dispense booze so at least they can......drink.

The tallest building in the picture, to the right of the Ferry Building, is Four Embarcadero Center, where I work. Further right, with the Transamerica pyramid peeking over its left shoulder, is the Alcoa Building, where I got my first real job working for an accounting firm more than 20 years ago. In between, I've worked down the Peninsula and over in the East Bay, but this has become the best place. The blossoming of the waterfront after the 1989 quake, not having to wear a tie every day, Pac Bell Park, the return of the trolleys, the rebuilding of Union Square, the list goes on and on.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Converted Post Office

About once a week I go to the Rincon Annex, the old San Francisco Post Office, for lunch. The interior has been lined with tile, and multi-ethnic restaurants abound. At the center is an atreum where water drops from the ceiling into a circular receptacle (I'm reminded of those Chinese restaurants where the waiter likes to show off by pouring tea from shoulder height into the cups on the table.) Taking a leaf from Nordstrom's, there's a tuxedo- or gown-clad musician on a grand piano; the acoustics aren't the best, given the multiplicity of hard surfaces, the falling water, and the buzz of conversation. But let's put this in perspective--it's certainly better than the Post Office, which, by the way, has moved next door and has a stultifying gray interior.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Arnold: the Triumph of Hope Over Experience?

The old saw about second marriages being the triumph of hope over experience applies to the electorate and its leaders. Many of us invest the newly elected with our hopes, which are dashed when leaders begin to make decisions and negotiate their inevitable compromises. The more experienced (jaded?)--myself included--have been burned often enough that we keep our expectations very low. So, paradoxically in a way and by merely avoiding calamity, our new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a chance to pleasantly surprise the cynics. Versus our diminished expectations, the odds of him being judged a "success" are good, and the proof will be his re-election in 2006.

Solely by goring a few oxes Arnold will give the impression that he will have accomplished much. Trial lawyers, energy companies, public employees' unions, and Indian casinos are ripe targets because these groups all have given the impression that they have reaped windfall profits by currying favors from politicians. (The public does tolerate those who "earn" their fortunes without gaming the system. Examples are high-tech entrepreneurs, movie stars, and professional athletes.)

The question on people's minds in the next couple of years is not Ronald Reagan's famous "are you better off than you were four years ago"--the answer is obviously no, even if one's net worth has improved, because of the war against terrorism--but "who will keep me safe?" But this is a question to be addressed by the Federal government and is more relevant to determining the outcome of the 2004 Presidential election.

At the State and local level the question for our leaders is "while the country is fighting the war on terrorism, who will make sure that we're all in this together, that no groups are profiting unjustly while other groups [e.g., National guard reserves] are sacrificing enormously?" (Okay, so maybe that's more like two questions.)

Fairness in sharing the burden--just by taking office our new governor is a shining example because he is giving up $10-$20 million per year in motion picture earnings (and it's not likely he'll be able to pick up where he left off because he's already long in the tooth for an action hero). That is why he has a chance, and yes, I'll be rooting for him to succeed.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Kristi Yamaguchi Ice Rink

The official name is a mouthful: Kristi Yamaguchi Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center

When I first saw her she was a pre-teen skating at the old Fashion Island rink in San Mateo. We all wondered who she was as she glided, spun, and jumped much better than anyone else on the ice. The rest, as they say, is history.

But time has passed Kristi by, as the kids who win all the medals these days whirl like dervishes, non-stop. [Uh-oh, just realized that "whirling dervishes" may now be a politically incorrect colloquialism. I'll look at this later.] To me it's analogous to saying that the best violin player is the one who can play "Flight of the Bumblebee" the fastest, so I guess time has passed me by, too.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Heavy Metal

We regularly see cruise ships, commuter ferries, and cargo ships traverse the Bay, but not too often a Navy vessel of this size. Whether or not I agree with our government's foreign policy, I sure am glad this ship is on my side and not on anyone else's. And there's something to be said for seeing something tangible in exchange for my tax dollars. Bread, circuses, and heavy metal--count me among the great unwashed.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

I'm Not the Elongated Man

On the way back from Sacramento (see post below) we stopped at Mimi's Cafe for lunch. The blue crab burger was a wonderful combination of taste and texture, but how does one get one's mouth around the subject? I had to eat it with a knife and fork.

Early Thanksgiving

We went to Sacramento yesterday, Veteran’s Day, for the annual visit to our son’s neurosurgeon. We’ve got it down to a routine:

1) bring the film from last year’s CAT (computer-aided tomography: spelling it out adds little to my understanding) scan;
2) go to radiology for a new scan;
3) develop the prints and carry them to the neurosurgeon’s office.

Our doctor, Sam, and his colleague, Michael, are two of the most skilled pediatric neurosurgeons in Northern California. They have been treating our son’s case since he was born twelve years ago with an aneurysm, a distended blood vessel, in his brain. The aneurysm bled and caused a build-up of cerebrospinal fluid in his brain---the life-threatening condition known as hydrocephalus [from the Greek words for “water” and “head”].

After a series of operations and twists and turns in diagnoses and treatment options which I won’t detail here given that the average attention span of the Internet reader is less than two minutes, suffice it to say that our son is alive (miracle 1) and is not severely handicapped (miracle 2). When I observe first-hand our advances in medicine, when I consider how much better off we are at the beginning of the 21st century than was the richest man in the world at the beginning of the 20th, every day feels like Thanksgiving

Below: pictures of some of Sam and Mike's grateful patients.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Sunday, November 09, 2003

San Francisco

.....shimmers in the distance as I bike along the path leading to Coyote Point. Yesterday, my grandmother, gone these 16 years, would have turned 99. I miss her.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Don't Recall the Recall

(New to blogging, I've taken another look at my first post made about a month ago, shuddered and deleted the original, and have updated it below. I hope it reads better.)

I’m an idealist about elections. I like to imagine that each political party clearly states its positions, then selects the candidate that is best able to present its case. The voters listen, reflect, and decide. The newly elected execute the policies that voters presumably agreed with. Because it is often true that the wisdom of some actions can only be ascertained with the passage of time, officials need to be given time for their policies to bear fruit. The recall of Governor Gray Davis on October 7th, less than a year after he was re-elected, is seemingly inconsistent with this vision of democratic elections and democratic governance.

Reality always falls short of the ideal, so electoral imperfections, however defined, by themselves do not justify a recall. But, last November, was Governor Davis’ election so at variance from the ideal that the system produced a “wrong” result? In this context agreement with Governor Davis’ policies--or his opponents-- is not the determinant of “right” or “wrong”, it is whether each political interest had adequate opportunity to make its case to the voters, who after reflection, were able to cast their ballot and have it recorded accurately.

An Example of Another Corrective Mechanism
In the same year—1776--that the American democracy was born Adam Smith authored his Wealth of Nations, which laid out the philosophical underpinnings of free-market capitalism. Today we still believe that an “invisible hand” guides an economy to produce goods and services that maximize society’s wealth, but over the two centuries since Adam Smith wrote his book we have come to recognize instances where the free market can fail [monopolies], or have its operations impeded [burdensome regulations and taxes], or generate harmful externalities [pollution].

One of the functions of government is to promulgate laws that cure defects in the market system, and there are regulatory actions and other legal procedures that have been devised to remedy situations where the market fails. Adam Smith’s basic machinery survives, but there is no question that it has had to be adjusted to accommodate defects that surfaced as the model was put into practice.

Give Sweet Reason A Chance
Behind the theory of “classical” economics is the conception of man as a rational creature who acts in his own self-interest. This ideal of rational man—and it is of course only an ideal because individuals do not always behave rationally--underlies not only market capitalism but also our democratic institutions.

Our judicial system, through its elaborate rules of evidence and argument, has been constructed with a view toward maximizing the opportunities for sweet reason to prevail, for our system assumes that through reason the best decisions will be made. What conditions foster rational decision-making? They include full disclosure of pertinent facts to all parties, presentation of opposing arguments within carefully prescribed boundaries, and adequate time for judge or jury to reach their conclusions.

Over the years election procedures that society has developed parallel those employed in the courtroom. When elections are working well,

1) a nominating process allows each interest to select the best advocate to argue its positions;
2) comprehensive information about the candidates and their policies are disseminated and discussed;
3) candidates fully debate the merits of their positions.

There are obvious distinctions between elections and judicial decision-making:

1) Elections have no official gatekeeper, such as a judge, who screens information for its relevance.

2) Judicial examination and cross-examination to test the veracity of information have poor substitutes in campaign ads and media reports to which application of journalistic standards are inconsistently applied.

3) When new information is introduced, the judge may postpone the decision to allow both sides to address it in their arguments and the jury to incorporate it in its deliberations; the immutability of election dates makes the process vulnerable to late-breaking information and misinformation.

4) Debates occur less frequently because the candidate who is leading in the polls does not want to afford his opponents an opportunity to present their arguments. In the previous gubernatorial election there was only one debate—on October 7, 2002—between pre-election favorite Governor Davis and Republican challenger William Simon. Mr. Schwarzenegger, the eventual Governor-elect, was the wire-to-wire front-runner to replace Governor Davis; he agreed to only one debate with the other candidates and declined an invitation to debate with Governor Davis.

5) The information and arguments presented are unbalanced because one side often has significantly greater financial resources and can present its case far more often and through many avenues. The rise of “new media” (talk radio, the Internet) can partially offset an overwhelming financial advantage, but these audiences currently are dwarfed by those who receive information by traditional means.

With the relevance and accuracy of “facts” uncertain, and the chances for reasoned, balanced discourse minimized, what remains is the hope that the nominating process has produced the best candidate to represent each political viewpoint. However, even this last building-block of the election system was undermined by Governor Davis’ ad campaign against former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan during the Republican primary. Mr. Riordan, a social moderate, had been widely believed to be the Republican Party’s best hope to unseat Governor Davis in the 2002 general election. Governor Davis spent, by some reports, up to $10 million on ads that stressed to Republican voters how Mr. Riordan was not to be trusted and helped tilt the nomination to Mr. Simon, an inexperienced politician. Mr. Simon might have won anyway, but, given the ultimate result, Governor Davis’ move was a brilliant tactic.

Fixing the Failure of 2002
At every turn in the California governor’s race of 2002, the factors that encourage an optimal result were stymied. If similar interference had occurred in a commercial transaction, civil or criminal penalties would have been imposed, or some other form of recompense would have been granted. In our political system we currently have only a few tools to address the political counterpart of “market failure”: the blunt instruments of impeachment and recall, and court challenges, which must be acted upon within a limited time after an election.

Opponents of the recall provision have pointed to the language of impeachment, “high crimes and misdemeanors”, as the only justification for removing an individual from office. But it is not hard to imagine scenarios where the results of an election are generally acknowledged to be invalid because of information that belatedly comes to light, yet no criminal action is attributed to the office-holder:

1) Charges of illegal or immoral actions committed by the eventual loser, charges that are later shown to be false or wildly exaggerated;

2) The converse of the above, i.e., grossly immoral behavior that the winning candidate has kept hidden from view (presumably, the impeachment provision would cover illegal acts).

3) Widespread fraud, which is now a distinct possibility because of the introduction of electronic voting systems that do not leave a paper audit trail, or because the system cannot prevent non-citizens from voting.

Rather than eliminate the recall, perhaps our system needs to devise more remedies, not fewer, to correct the variety of flaws to which our election process is subject, but that is a discussion for another day. In the meantime let us reflect on the fact that Governor-elect Schwarzenegger is the candidate whose policy positions are closest to those of the Republican candidate, Richard Riordan, whom Governor Davis feared most. On October 7, 2003, the California gubernatorial election of 2002 was finally concluded.
© 2003 by Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 03, 2003

Happy Birthday to Me

On Monday, my birthday, I took a break from the work that's piling up and walked to Portsmouth Square, which straddles Chinatown and the Financial District. The weather's been gloomy and cold, but the sun shone brightly over the Transamerica building around noon.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Just Wait Five Minutes

When I was in college, the natives told me, "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait five minutes." The weather change in Northern California has been nearly that dramatic, the temperature falling from 90 degrees one week ago to nearly freezing overnight. Below: the geese start arriving in Foster City (about 20 miles south of San Francisco) during October.

Friday, October 31, 2003

In Praise of "Cold Case"

I’ve become a regular viewer of CBS’ new crime drama, Cold Case [Sunday night, 8 p.m.]. Like many of the new shows, it combines the elements of forensic science that we see in CSI and CSI:Miami and an attractive protagonist, but its real hook is philosophical, even spiritual. By the conclusion of each episode there is ultimate justice, and something more.

The presentation is the same each week. The opening scene shows the circumstances of a decades-old murder or missing-persons case. We know we are watching the past because the scene is shot in monochrome. We know the approximate period because of the background music and the characters’ garb and manner of speech. The mystery is unsolved, or, in some variations, “solved” incorrectly.

In 2003 new evidence comes to light. Frequently it’s in the form of a witness, who, wracked by guilt, finally comes forward. Last Sunday it was a tape recording of the fatal gunshots; the tape was dropped on the detective’s desk by someone who turned out to be present at the crime scene.

The problem is turned over to the new kid on the block, Detective Lilly Rush, played by Kathryn Morris, because none of the grizzled veterans wants to get his hands dirty or waste his time on these stale cases. [Side remark re the audience’s willingness to suspend belief: if any detective made a regular habit of solving twenty-year-old murders, he or she would be hugely famous, but Detective Rush is still the junior person on the totem pole, much as Columbo never made it past Lieutenant despite nailing a celebrity week after week in very high-profile murders.]

Modern criminal science, e.g., DNA analysis, fingerprint matching, and digital enhancement of video or audiotape, is applied to the new and old evidence from the case files, and …….the case is re-opened! So far we are only ten minutes into the drama, and now the fun begins.

The police track down witnesses, suspects, and victims (even the dead have more tales to tell because of modern forensics). We see what became of people many years later and how they were affected by the original crime. Special effects and make-up are light-years ahead of TV shows that were made in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, and an actor can believably play the same character separated in time by thirty years.

Kathryn Morris is Meg Ryan without the perkiness [side remark #2: a Google search of “Meg Ryan” and “perky” results in over 4,000 hits, although Ms. Ryan is the opposite of perky in her new movie ]. Her winsome appearance belies her intense pursuit of the truth. During the interviews Detective Rush intrudes on witnesses’ personal space and lobs insinuating remarks indiscriminately, striking guilty and innocent alike. Presumably it’s too early in the life of the series both to play driven avenger and have a romantic backstory, so empathy with the protagonist will have to wait. The story cycles between witness interviews and the crime lab, and voila, the case is solved.

The presentation of the last scene, like the first, has become a series convention. As the perpetrator is led off to jail, time slows, and all who were affected by the crime re-appear. The past and present selves of the guilty, the innocent, and the bereaved are simultaneously present, looking on. And, finally, we see the long-dead victim nod in acknowledgment to Detective Rush, who gazes intently back.

The surrealistic coda is not absolutely essential to the story, but it distinguishes Cold Case from other series in the crime genre and lends it its spiritual dimension. On one level, perhaps the simplest, it seems to say that justice cannot be denied because actions have eternal consequences. On another level, by juxtaposing old and young versions of the characters, it communicates the idea that there is an essence (dare I say soul? but this is not an overtly “religious” show) in each person, not affected by the passage of time. Although I have come to expect it, the closing minutes cause me to look at everything that came before in a different light, just as did the final communion in the 1984 movie "Places in the Heart".

The conventions in this unique show I currently find appealing. When the newness wears off they may well become repetitive and boring, but until then I’ll be watching.
copyright by Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Ferry Building

While Southern California burns, we guiltily experienced a warm clear day in San Francisco. Our worries, thoughts, and prayers are with our friends and family members in Los Angeles and San Diego.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

The Weather is not the "Answer"

Sometimes a public event's low turnout is blamed on bad weather. Early reports over the radio indicate that demonstrators against our Iraq policy number a "couple thousand", much less than sponsors had anticipated. Well it can't be the weather.

This morning I went for a walk along the levee, about a mile from my home. In the background is the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge, which spans the bay about 20 miles south of San Francisco.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Yamaha DGX-500 Keyboard

The Yamaha DGX-500 electronic keyboard is an amazing bargain at $600. It contains the full set of 88 piano keys and can replicate over 100 instruments. It has a built-in metronome, a small LCD screen, impressive volume, and features which I am only beginning to discover. When I sit on the bench--included, needs assembly--and plunk out a tune, the keys have the width and responsiveness of the upright pianos that I knew in my youth. (Confession: I am NOT a pianist but did study the violin for eight years so I can at least read the treble clef.)

Prompting the purchase was the commencement of piano lessons by my son. I had been mulling over the prospect of spending $1,500 to $2,000 for a good upright; I hated to spend the money if he wasn't going to stay with the lessons, and even a small piano can be awkward to move in and out of the house. So the Yamaha was the perfect solution: cheap, high-quality, and lightweight. I bought it, but not without a pang of regret for the makers of traditional pianos and the craftsmen whose hard-won skills are no longer in great demand. There but for the grace of God go I.

Yesterday and today the fog rolled in, enveloping Alcatraz before marching east.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Bioethics: The Real Story of Our Age

I am reading an extraordinary document, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, issued by the President’s Council on Bioethics, and commend it to everyone. The writing is colloquial, yet literate, technical but not condescending. Its authors display a breadth far beyond mere science.

We have reached a point where medical issues confront us every day, insistently. Biotechnological developments and our efforts to formulate a corresponding ethos might be the real story of our age, despite the current concerns about Iraq, the economy and the stock market. Witness the stories that have bobbed to the surface in the past few days: family members disagree over whether to continue feeding a Florida woman who may never recover from her vegetative state; a risky, very expensive operation has separated conjoined twins; genes from another species may have been implanted in a human embryo; use of the “abortion pill” (RU-486) may have caused a teenaged girl’s death; a popular radio show host has been using painkilling drugs that may have contributed to his on-air performance.

Earlier I have noted the sports/designer steroid scandal in my posts below. Why are we so disquieted? A flavor of Beyond Therapy’s approach is shown below:

The central question becomes: which biomedical interventions for the sake of superior performance are consistent with (even favorable to) our full flourishing as human beings, including our flourishing as active, self-aware, self-directed agents? And, conversely, when is the alienation of biological process from active experience dehumanizing, compromising the lived humanity of our efforts and thus making our superior performance in some way false—not simply our own, not fully human?

Better nutrition seems an obvious good, a way of improving our bodily functioning that serves human flourishing without compromising the “personal” nature or individual agency of what we do with our healthy, well-nourished bodies. But moving outward from there, the puzzle gets more complicated. Where in the progression of possible biological interventions do we lose in our humanity or identity more than we gain in our “performance”? Is there a way to distinguish coffee and caffeine pills to keep us awake from Modafinil to enable us to avoid sleep entirely for several days, from amphetamines to keep us more alert and focused, from human growth hormone, steroids, and EPO to improve strength and endurance, from genetic modifications that make such biological interventions more direct and more lasting? All of them alter our bodily workings; all of them to varying degrees separate self-directed experience from underlying biology.

Beyond Therapy is divided into subtopics of Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, Better Children, Superior Performance, and Ageless Bodies. Each section discusses the current and possible future state of the applicable technology, but most of the report is spent on the philosophical implications of the technology. The 300+ pages seem daunting but are very readable. If you have time, read the whole thing.

Saturday, October 18, 2003

Baseball Dodged A Bullet

It pains me to say this, but it's a good thing that the Giants failed to make the World Series this year. Sure, Barry Bonds in Yankee Stadium and the spectacular venues of Pacific Bell, now SBC, Park, would have been ratings grabbers, but the Series would have been dogged by the steroid scandal, which is only in its early stages. Barry's travails would have given Kobe Bryant an inkling of what Kobe will be facing if he plays this year.

Still, it doesn't hurt to daydream.......

Sunday, October 12, 2003

A Glorious Day in San Francisco

The Blue Angels pirouetting over Alcatraz, then skipping over the Bay waters to the Golden Gate. The white speedboats and sailboats trailing exuberantly below. I raise my eyes from the papers on my desk and look out the window. Thank you, Lord, for allowing me to live in this time and this place.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Nicene Creed

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.