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.