Saturday, October 29, 2005

But Not Good Syntax.....

For Your Own Protection, Please Smile at the Cashier

A cashier lists all the ways that customers make her life difficult. I’ll try to remember her suggestions the next time I go shopping. Meanwhile, I hope she gets some help!

Word of Caution

A couple of comments from this non-lawyer on President Bush’s now-withdrawn nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court:

Maybe Harriet Miers isn’t a deep thinker who has lived and breathed constitutional law every waking moment for the past thirty years and maybe she got to where she is because of who she knows, but she deserved a chance to make her case. In America we don’t close the door on you because you didn’t go to an Ivy League school or because people assume that you aren’t smart enough or good enough---indeed, you may not be, but you should get a shot.

For years conservatives have chafed under the condescension of the academ-media. If one is conservative, one cannot be intelligent or well educated. Republican presidents, Eisenhower, Reagan, and the Bushes, weren’t smart; any successes they may have had were due to dumb luck. (The exception was Richard Nixon, but of course he was evil.) These same lack-of-bandwidth arguments were used by conservative intellectuals against poor Harriet Miers. A word of caution, ladies and gentlemen: you’re becoming like your enemies.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

All Nighter

It’s been a long time since I pulled an all-nighter, but a combination of too many tasks, a mental block against starting some of them, constant interruptions at work, and the knowledge that, whatever I came up with would be revised by the higher-ups, caused me to procrastinate on a large project that was due Monday. On Sunday I started at noon and worked furiously on the laptop, pausing only for dinner.

There were eight spreadsheets open, and my cursor glided across them, cutting, pasting, and linking. By midnight the temptation to go to bed was nearly irresistible but I summoned a distant memory of putting the finishing touches on term papers as dawn rose over the Old Campus. Did I still have the stamina of that college freshman of decades past? Were my powers fading, or could I persevere to the end?

I ploughed on and finished at 4:15 a.m. I forced myself to check the numbers for obvious mistakes, and my head hit the pillow for two hours. A pot of coffee, then off to work.

I have to go to Hillsdale Station early to walk around the construction.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Alcatraz Enveloped by Fog

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Good Luck, Boss

We had the retirement luncheon for the chairman today. (I wrote about a meeting with him last year.) He’s had 28 years with the company under his belt. He’s always kept himself in shape---he was even featured as a “running CEO” in a local business magazine---and could pass for a man decades younger.

Fifty people crowded into the restaurant’s private dining room, and the drinks flowed freely. After the dot-com bubble burst, and busy workers began working through or exercising during lunch, the three-martini lunch became extinct. This was my first office boondoggle in years.

I had a couple of glasses of wine---a self-imposed limit because I had to return to the office later---but some of my coworkers had no restraint. (One disrupted the proceedings and had to be ushered quietly from the room.)

Several colleagues got up to roast and toast the chairman; they toned down their comments because his wife was there, but she proved a good sport as the jokes became more off-color and the laughter more raucous. The crowning moment occurred when someone brought up his well-known affection for blondes and everyone on his table--old and not-so-old, male and female--donned a blonde wig.

In the tradition of a roast, he rose to toss back some insults at his good-natured tormentors, but his heart wasn’t in it. He choked up as he tried to sum his experiences and feelings in a few words. He had worked with everyone in the room for at least ten years, and his life wouldn’t be the same after today. He has plenty of money, he owns properties in Marin County, Lake Tahoe, and Chicago and is set for life, yet there’s something about us that he will miss. And most of us will miss him, too.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Congratulations, Mr. Pinter

Yesterday Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature for penning plays such as the Caretaker and the Birthday Party. Harold Pinter is also known for his outspoken anti-Western and anti-American views--his politics are anathema to me--but one’s appreciation of talent can be kept separate from one’s liking for the individual. Harold Pinter is also peripherally involved in a youthful episode from which I derive some childish satisfaction.

By the second half of my high school senior year all the college applications had been submitted. No longer concerned about getting good grades, I could afford to wander from my strength in math and science and take a course in modern literature. I would learn about character, exposition, and dialogue; I would be able to talk intelligently about O’Neill, Faulkner, and Hemingway. If I evidenced any ability, maybe someday I could be a journalist or even author the great American novel.

The course was a huge disappointment. The teacher wouldn’t lecture, he would simply ask the students how they felt about the book that they were reading. In the spirit of the Sixties, everyone knew that one woman’s opinion was just as valid as another’s, and no one should be reluctant to proffer theirs, no matter how inexpert. Perhaps the teacher subscribed to the belief that knowledge already resided in the individual, and all he was trying to do was help unlock it. But for six months I could never find the key.

During class the teacher would praise the whimsical comments of a couple of girls. They would describe in excruciating detail how their personal experiences related to the passage that we had just read. But to be fair to his methods, there were a couple of sessions which weren’t devoted to the mindless blatherings of 17-year olds. He would reach into the bottom desk drawer, pull out a sheaf of typewritten pages, and treat us to a reading of his unpublished novel; when he got to the passage that described horses on a hill, he became quite moved, and his favorite students emoted in sympathy. I minded my manners and did not snicker.

Surprisingly, I didn’t do well in his class. He didn’t respond well to my writing and gave me a B-minus, which was the low point of my high school transcript.

Despite my obvious lack of talent and potential, I decided to sit for the Advanced Placement English exam. If I got 4s or 5s on three AP exams, I could finish college in three years, and English was an extra string to my bow in case I slipped up in Physics, Calculus, or History.

Someone told me that you could get a better grade on essay questions if you picked a lesser-known author or topic. The evaluators’ eyes would glaze if they had to read, again, about the Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Romeo and Juliet. So the night before the test I boned up on Harold Pinter, paying particular attention to his 1957 play, the Dumb Waiter.

My teacher was one of the proctors for the AP English exam. He smiled and lingered over his prize pupils but barely glanced at me when he handed me the booklet. I was lucky: I knew most of the words in the vocabulary section, and there was an essay question that allowed me to expound at some length on the Dumb Waiter. Most kids thought the test was hard, but secretly my hopes were high.

When the envelope came a few weeks later, I had to look at the “5” several times. The teacher didn’t believe it either, especially since few of his favorites, from the expressions on their faces, did well. He did try to make conversation a few times, and I was civil, but the B minus rankled. But the semester would have been a lot worse if it weren’t for the work of a little-known English playwright. Congratulations, Mr.Pinter. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sun-Spangled Sunday

On a sun-spangled Sunday, I went into the office to give my imprimatur to some reports that the staff had drafted. The new internal control procedures (thank you, Enron, and Congress, too, for devising a solution which would make Rube Goldberg proud) require that I sign off not only on the final but the early versions of reports.

Union Pacific stores freight cars at South City station.

I drove up to South San Francisco (South City to the locals) and parked the car. Bay Bridge construction, Fleet Week, the 49ers game at Candlestick/3Com/Monster/Whatever Park, and the golf tournament at San Francisco’s renovated Harding Park, in which every big name on the men’s tour was playing, made it the wrong day to drive. The train runs hourly on Sundays and was standing room only with families heading up to San Francisco for the festivities. We piled off the train and into the San Francisco Municipal railway’s light railcar to Market Street’s Embarcadero Station, one block from the office.

No one else was on my floor, bespeaking well of my colleagues’ intelligence, efficiency, and priorities, so there were no in-office distractions. But today it was especially hard not to look out the window as the crowds gathered for Fleet Week and the Blue Angels buzzed by every 15 minutes.

Blue Angel over Angel Island.

Fireboat joins the party.

Vessels of all shapes and sizes gather near Alcatraz.

Almost New

The cost of repairing household items these days nearly always exceeds the benefits. Parts are hard to find, and the local independent service shop is but a memory, gone with the orchards of Santa Clara valley and 50-cent tolls. That’s why it was a small triumph that I was able to find a replacement cartridge for my 15-year-old range-top when the coils had burnt out. When I popped in the new cartridge ($200—cheap, when compared to the $1,000 cost of a new system), it looked almost new.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stuck Up at UC-San Diego

Yesterday my college student sent an e-mail and followed it up with a phone call. For him this was an unusually high volume of communication, so it got my attention. Despite a full appointment calendar and 12 “must-do” items on my task list, I called him back. The college was threatening to cancel his courses unless we satisfied a remaining balance of about $200 on his account.

Background: every year we are billed $200 per quarter by the Student Health Insurance Plan, and every year we fill out a waiver form that states that he is covered by my employer’s plan, and the health charge is reversed. This year the college asked for more documentation, so in August I printed out a description of our coverage, along with an enlarged photocopy (front and back) of my health card, and faxed the ten pages to their office. I thought the $200 balance that persisted on his statement was merely the billing system’s tardiness in catching up with the paperwork.

When I finally got through yesterday (their phones had been shut down due to an office move), I learned that our mental health coverage of 50% of cost was deemed inadequate. So my student was going to be kicked out of school because my health plan was okay for 99 out of 100 items, and despite having paid (early!) the tuition and fees for the quarter.

I could solve this problem, the lady said, if I could send them a notarized letter stating that I will cover any shortfall in my plan’s mental health coverage. Of course, none of this had been communicated to us earlier. Because we had two days to compose and print a letter, have it notarized, then send it by overnight delivery to the college, we’ll switch to Plan B and pay the $200 per quarter for the school’s health plan (we’re obligated because the waiver is granted annually).

Impressed by the school up to this point, we’ve been donating for several years a multiple of the $600 that we’ll pay for his health insurance, and I’m not even counting the matching contribution my employer makes. Quoth the raven.....Nevermore!