Saturday, December 30, 2006

There's A Pony in Here

The children had not rehearsed for the Christmas pageant at Grace Cathedral, but the relatives of the participants didn’t notice or care. The cherubic choir hit the high notes without straining, and the headdresses and sashes of the shepherds and wise men glittered under the lights.

The newly elected bishop of California greeted the assembly. He seemed in good spirits despite, or because of, his recent arrest for blocking the Federal building in protest against the Iraq war. Untypical behavior for an Alabaman, perhaps, but new Bay Area arrivals often feel compelled to remove the bushels from their lamps and let their lights shine, whatever the consequences. Marc Andrus has a long way to go before he shocks this flock. Northern California Bishop James Pike set the standard over 40 years ago:
[Pike's] episcopate was marked by both professional and personal controversy. He was involved with introducing the ordained ministry of women into the Episcopal Church, a living wage for workers in San Francisco, the acceptance of LBGT [Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay, Transgendered] people in the church, and civil rights. Among his notable accomplishments, Pike marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Selma, Alabama. His theology was profoundly challenging to the Church, as Pike wrote condemning a number of widely regarded theological stances, including the virginity of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the doctrine of the Trinity. He was censured by his brother bishops in 1966 for this and resigned his position shortly thereafter.
It’s a sign of how much the Church has changed that many of Bishop Pike’s views are considered mainstream by the American Episcopal Church . But enough of bishops and their obsessions.

Joseph, Mary, and the pony marched down the aisle to take their place at the altar. Cameras snapped, rolled, and flashed. I sang the familiar carols, only stumbling over the grating insertion of PC-pronouns into centuries-old lyrics (Hark the Herald: "born that we [men] no more may die"; Joy to the World: "let us our [men their] songs employ"). Yuck, the goddess of inclusion has a tin ear. But enough about me and my obsessions.

In the feast of the Nativity Christians put aside their divisions over human sexuality, the use and misuse of language, the role of women, the role of the Church, and the triune nature of God. We gather to celebrate the day without which none of these arguments would matter, the day when the Word became flesh and everything changed. In this Christmas season, may you experience love, joy, and peace with your families and friends. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Giving and Receiving

Children whose families struggle to obtain the basic necessities garner everyone’s sympathy over the holidays. But we often don’t think about our senior citizens, some of whom no longer have family or friends to talk to or be with. Last week a small group from the local Episcopal church paid a visit to one of Foster City’s retirement homes.

Our elder hosts were inquisitive and lively, except for the 99-year-old (!) lady who appeared a bit bored. It’s hard to blame her, though; with 99 years of history it’s doubtful our visit would be mentioned in her memoirs. Our three teenaged “volunteers” had to be cajoled into joining our group, but after the ice was broken they easily warmed to the conversation. Our planned hour turned into two, and we gave our new friends small packages of personal items.

A cliché, to be sure, but the well-intentioned bearers of gifts came away with more than we brought. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

Grant Avenue, SF Chinatown

“A traditional Jewish activity on Christmas is Chinese food and a movie.”

Not a bad idea if you're not Jewish, either.

Hollywood has timed the release of the Nativity Story to capture the spirit of the season. The film is family-friendly, with sex and violence alluded to or occuring offscreen. (Parents of young children may have some explaining to do.)

Even for infrequent worshippers or non-Christians, the narrative should be sufficiently compelling to capture one's attention. And there are plenty of historical and musical references to hold the interest of those for whom the story is very familiar. Recommended. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, December 23, 2006

December Lament

A graduate from a Hawaiian high school returns to the Islands to make an important decision. A senior going to that school has made hers.

Given her talent, intelligence, grace, and beauty (not to be discounted in a visual, celebrity-obsessed age) Michelle Wie could have gone to college anywhere. Stanford is on many top-five lists of major American universities, so it's a wise choice. However, if one of the factors in her decision is our warm weather--to quote Rick in Casablanca--she's been misinformed.

For the past several weeks the morning temperature's hovered around freezing. Frost is on the lawn, and the flowers that have survived previous winters are long dead. I run the furnace sparingly, but it will be difficult to keep the gas bill under $200 this month.

O globe, where is thy warming? © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Ice rink at Embarcadero Center

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Watch Me

Time’s Person of the Year is You. You post on YouTube, MySpace, and Friendster (mere blogging is nearly passé) to add to the world’s pool of knowledge, to socialize, and yes, to get noticed.

But there are other, older, ways to satisfy one’s ego.

Few power trips can compare with standing at the conductor’s podium. All eyes wait for your signal. The gallery is silent, as if you were putting for the Masters. You raise your wand, and nearly a hundred musicians raise their instruments. A flourish, a downbeat, and the melody starts. A wave toward the oboes, and they join in. With a downward sweep of your left hand, you silence the trombones. You point to yourself---watch me! you mouth sotto voce—and everyone does. You turn, bow, and bask in the applause. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

A P Giannini Middle School Band at Embarcadero Center

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Sorry It's So, Joe

Joseph Rago of the Wall Street Journal doesn’t like blogs.

Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling….Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope--though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog's being is: Here's my opinion, right now.

We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought--instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. The participatory Internet, in combination with the hyperlink, which allows sites to interrelate, appears to encourage mobs and mob behavior.

Ouch. Hey, Joe, if you don’t like what you’re reading, close the lid on your laptop and go watch some TV.

© 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 18, 2006

Plus ça change

I used to have to hang on the line to find out whether a flight was arriving on time. Now I can get a graphical representation of the location of the airplane overlaid on a satellite map. I can chat with my passenger if I am willing to pay today's exorbitant cost. Now if they can only figure out how to find my luggage......

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Christmas Party, 2006

Janet and Hugh

The office Christmas party at the Sir Francis Drake was a long and liquid affair, made bittersweet by the sale of a major division. This occasion was the last time that all 150 of us would be together. For next year’s gathering we’ll be lucky to attract half that number.

Cocktails started promptly at noon. As I do at every holiday party, I chatted with the retirees. Most looked better than ever; the worry lines are gone, they eat less, exercise more, and have lost weight. (Retirement is an option that will soon be available to me, so I’m watching and wondering.) One gentleman was walking with a cane. We spoke for half an hour about hip and knee replacements, medical plans, and pre-existing conditions. 10 years ago we might have talked about travel plans; now an incident-free stroll to the grocery store is a satisfying sojourn.

IT Department

A photographer was there to commemorate the occasion. I posed for three different group pictures, reflecting a year of multi-tasking. Revelry was still going strong when I left at 5:30, centerpiece in hand. What a swell party it was. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

The flowers still look good after three days.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Whichever Way We Can

As families shrink and disperse, too many of our elderly neighbors are forgotten during the holidays, and even small remembrances can brighten their spirits. Last week the Thunderbird club (the car, not the wine) of Santa Clara and members of the local Episcopal church wrapped gift bags for senior shut-ins.

“Senior Stocking Stuffers” has been an annual labor of love for a lady whose garage each fall becomes the repository for hundreds of toiletries and personal items. Her husband and son tolerate and assist her volunteerism (not that she allows them to have any choice in the matter).

When I arrived the ladies were putting the finishing touches on the gifts, the cars were loaded, and the drivers had received their instructions. I offered to help, but the hostess gave me the slightly pained look that professionals evince when dealing with the untrained public, “How about taking some pictures?” Okay, we help whichever way we can. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Good Time

The skies cleared on Sunday afternoon, so attending my first professional football game at Monster Park wasn’t a totally miserable experience. Although both the 49ers and Packers were struggling this year---both were well under .500—the game had two things going for it: an opportunity to see Packers quarterback Bret Favre in his likely last San Francisco appearance and the chance to witness a victory by the Niners, who were favored by 4 points.

The last time I had attended a 49ers game the stadium was named Candlestick, Joe Montana was the quarterback and there was a baseball diamond at one end of the field. Everything’s changed, including the quality of the play. The Niners made critical turnovers and spotted the Pack a 17-3 lead. Hopes rose when the home team closed the margin to 17-13, but mistakes sealed the loss, and the final score of 30-19 was a fair representation of each team’s play.

Bret Favre's (#4's) TD pass attempt was batted down.

Bret Favre missed a few open receivers but flashed the skills that will land him in the Hall of Fame. His arm still rocketed the ball, and on other occasions he delicately dropped a soft pitch over the defenders into his receivers’ waiting hands. We were sitting in the upper deck surrounded by Green Bay fans wearing their yellow-wedged headgear, and this afternoon the Cheeseheads had a lot to cheer about. That’s San Francisco---always showing the visitors a good time. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

If you were a cheese, you didn't have to stand alone.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Not Hungry

Who am I to disparage oxidized metal (Tuesday's post below) when I can’t / won’t / shan’t part with my rust-pocked wheels from my college days?

I took my (t)rusty Beetle to Fred’s in Redwood City. Fred, who spoke mit ein tick Churmon accent, was everyone’s image of a Teutonic mechanic—white uniform, tallow hair, all business with no time for pleasantries. His son, John, inherited the auto-repair shop and continues to specialize in German cars.

I asked John how much it would cost to restore the Beetle’s faded blue beauty. The neighbors have been dropping gentle hints. How presumptuous. The Beetle has been part of the neighborhood before any of them were. John glanced at the car. “A 1967”, he said, “it would cost $3,000 to $5,000, depending on how much work you want done.” I was ready to move. As the diamond ads say, you can’t put a price on love.

John looked up at the overcast sky. “You probably want to wait until April. We’ll have to take the glass off and the inside will be exposed.” That’s another reason I like going to Fred’s---they’re not hungry to make a sale. April will come soon enough. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


At first glance the human figures appear to spring from woody vines. As one moves nearer, one notices the dirty pipes and corroded metal parts, their rough rusty texture clashing against the clean white walkways of the Embarcadero. One could be forgiven for thinking that Passage is another uninspired, discordant work of “art” funded by a patron with too much money and time on his hands.

The massive work towers over the observer, who steps back to view its entirety. The sculpture’s graceful form takes shape against the blue of the Bay. He catches a glimmer of the artists’ vision. The overarching design is best appreciated from a distance; up close it appears to be a mess. The observer thinks of himself, a miasma of undistinguished dust particles and chemicals temporarily organized into a state that some may call beautiful. After the Passage of time, he will revert to dust and be forgotten. He looks again at the sculpture: the ingredients are ordinary; their container is anything but. The sacred and the profane. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

[For more on Embarcadero art, see Cupid's Span, Arneson's Eggheads, and Vaillancourt Fountain.]

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One of the Boys

I’ve never been so inebriated that I’ve passed out, but on Thursday night I came close. After having imbibed two glasses of champagne and a glass of wine, I finished my third bottle of beer. The occasion was the sale of a major division and saying goodbye to people whom I worked with for fifteen years. The festivities started at 3:30 and were still going strong at 7:00 when I left the office. Some of the executives continued the celebration over dinner, but I don’t have their stamina.

Once in a while you have to cut loose in order to show that you’re one of the boys. I know some skilled individuals whose upward mobility was capped because they were LDS (Mormons aren’t supposed to drink). On the other hand, you can’t enjoy yourself so much that you say or do something stupid. And in the age of ubiquitous camera phones, your self-inflicted embarrassments are preserved for posterity.

On Friday, having had only five hours of restless sleep, I awoke with a splitting headache, popped some aspirin and went to the office. Of course, it was one of those days with a lot of interruptions and unscheduled meetings. I stumbled through the day and resolved to lay off the booze….well, at least until the office Christmas party. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Golden Gate Boys Choir and Bellringers

The Christmas Train brightened up the Friday commute.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Near to the Madding Crowd

We joined the madding crowd at the Fashion Valley mall on “Black” Friday, so designated because it’s the day after Thanksgiving when merchants’ profit-and-loss statements, it is hoped, flip from red to black. Fashion Valley is one of San Diego’s ritzier shopping centers (Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth, Nordstrom’s, Tiffany, Armani--all places where I become aware of my credit card limits).

The parking lots were filled; it took twenty minutes to find a space. The walkways were likewise jammed. Most in the crowd were under 30, chatting on their cell phones and enjoying the sun. Doesn’t anyone work? (I’m an old guy who’s accumulated nearly seven weeks of vacation, so I’m allowed to ask without a whiff of hypocrisy.)

The youngster and I hung out at Border’s bookstore. Although I was tempted by a number of titles, I refuse to buy any more books until I work through the unread and half-read stack on my nightstand.

Meanwhile, the college student and his mother shopped for shoes and returned a defective air filter to the Sharper Image. The Sharper Image is pricey, but we’ve never had trouble returning or replacing merchandise so we continue to patronize them. This year we’re giving out a lot of gift cards, many of them from the Sharper Image. Not only do we avoid the hassle of wrapping and mailing, but the recipients can buy what they really want and can purchase the items at a lower price after Christmas than we could before.

I hadn’t had a deep-dish pizza for over a year, so we lunched at Uno’s and ordered a large. All calorie-counting is suspended during Thanksgiving weekend. In for a penny, in for a pound, or, in my case, five. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

An Inconvenient Cold Snap

The thermometer has dipped below freezing this morning. If the skies weren’t clear, we’d be having snow, just like in Seattle. Further north, Calgary is expected to break a 110-year-old temperature record today (-27C, -17F) Those who believe that excess CO2 emissions cause global warming have a lot more to explain before we beat our cars into windmills. They predicted that 2006 would be one of the worst hurricane seasons ever (not so #1) or that we would have a water shortage crisis in California (not so #2)

In spheres like war and economics, experts (should) have been humbled because their predictions have proven to be wildly off the mark. Scientists supposedly are trained to consider the evidence first, cherished theories second. Maybe the theories are valid, but as we approach Christmas, let us remember the baby in the manger, who taught that a little humility would do us all some good. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving, Part 2

This was the first Thanksgiving in many years that we didn’t have to cook. Not being tied to the kitchen all day for the preparation and cooking—and don’t forget the cleaning up—was a liberating eye-opener. We shouldn’t make a habit out of it though, because no holiday more connotes family, hearth, and home than Thanksgiving. It’s hard to capture the feeling at a hotel and restaurant.

We did spend Thanksgiving productively. The student’s mother cleaned and rearranged his room while I did some maintenance on the car, a classic assignment of gender-based roles. Well, it is a traditional holiday. Also traditional—I napped on the couch while she continued to buzz about the rooms doing the work that is never done.

She asked the student about the last time he cleaned the bathroom. “October,” he said. “Right.” You could cut the sarcasm with a knife. I reminded her that males have a different definition of cleanliness. “He has your genes.” When she says that, it’s not a compliment to him.

We drove down to Harbor Island, near the airport. The San Diego skyline twinkled across the water while we munched on turkey at the Boathouse restaurant. It really is a beautiful city. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving, 2006

143 years ago, “in the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity”, Abraham Lincoln put aside thoughts of anger or despair and proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving. Surely the problems facing our nation today are small beer compared to those that beset Lincoln (adjusting for growth in the American population, the 600,000 soldier deaths during the Civil War are equivalent to 6 million war dead today). Lincoln was able to lift his eyes to the “blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, and so should we.

Yesterday, however, the skies were hazy all the way down to Los Angeles. Highway 5 was crowded with impatient travelers tailgating the trucks and campers who were poking along at 65 mph. 65 looked pretty good when we hit northern L.A. near Magic Mountain, and the traffic ground to a halt. 32 million people were traveling by car yesterday, and a lot of them were on Highway 5. As we crept along for the next three hours, my traveling companion said over and over again, “I couldn’t stand living here”. Well, we don’t, and although millions upon millions of people obviously feel differently, the fact that we don’t live in Southern California is reason to be grateful.

We arrived at La Jolla nine hours after we started. Our student was happy to see us, and we him. We went to dinner at an upscale campus watering hole, the kind that serves designer beers and fusion cuisine. We checked into the hotel, and I was out when my head hit the pillow.

The charges from this long weekend would have caused me to blanch 30 years ago, but now I regard them with equanimity. Another reason to be thankful (no, not for my bank account---just my attitude!) © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Residence Inn, La Jolla, on Thanksgiving morning

Monday, November 20, 2006

All the Rage

So now the solution to Iraq is to enlist the help of the Syrians and Iranians. Brilliant. That’s like asking North Vietnam to help with the problem of the Viet Cong.

Since Vietnam parallels are all the rage, how about following Curtis LeMay’s advice?

Sunday, November 19, 2006


Yes, there’s Ohio State-Michigan, Nebraska-Oklahoma, and USC-UCLA, but only one end-of-year college football contest is deserving of the sobriquet, the Game.

A reminder to these future leaders of America: “Unruly behavior and public urination do not meet our community standards.”

Friday, November 17, 2006


Having skipped breakfast, I had a hankering for a Hawaiian plate lunch--the genuine article---two scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and animal flesh swimming in sodium. I hoofed up to the L&L on Kearny. The décor was red and yellow---the colors of Roosevelt, my high school’s rival.

I ordered the mahimahi special. The free soda sealed the deal.

Three students were sitting on the nearby barstools, their kanaka accent revealing their origin. They were talking about roommate and money problems, the plaint of students everywhere. The skinny one said that he went to McKinley. “My dad went to McKinley before the war,” I said. The kid was kind enough not to ask which war.

They were clearly enjoying themselves. The bright lights of San Francisco are irresistible to wide-eyed kids from the Islands, so irresistible that some of us never leave. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Far from the Farm

Lee blew into town. I hadn’t seen him for years. We met at business school, and he’s always been on the move, from Hawaii to Germany, San Francisco, New York, Dallas, Colorado, Hong Kong and Boston (these are places he’s lived, not just visited).

Lee became a stockbroker for Wall Street firms and achieved success soon after graduation. But he felt drawn to another path and entered seminary in Texas. With three small mouths to feed, that move exhibited a leap of faith, a faith that I have never come close to matching.

Lee’s network of friends and followers has continued to grow, and his energy shows no signs of flagging. His Bay Area visit was only for a couple of days. He invited a couple of wizened fellow alumni, businessmen and students from China to dinner in Foster City, where we reminisced about days long gone. He talked about the foundation he established to minister to the Asian-American community, the struggle of looking after an adult autistic son, and his loyal, brilliant, and remarkably patient wife who has supported him through every move and unconventional idea.

One of the alumni remarked that while half of our classmates are retired we are still searching for what to do with the rest of our lives. Lee found his calling decades ago. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Friday, November 10, 2006

Miscellaneous Thoughts on the Election

I’m glad the Republicans lost, although I generally agree with their policy positions. They grew fat, corrupt, and lazy during their 12 years of holding the Congressional majority. Holding power became the end, not the means to the ends of upholding the rule of law, limiting the domestic role of government, and protecting the nation. Politics is the art of compromise, so politicians always disappoint their followers when they split the policy baby, but that was not the problem that I had with them. It was their failing of character that was more disturbing.

If we believe in competition in the economic sector as a disciplinary tool, why shouldn’t it work in politics? Being out of power should make the Republicans stronger if they hone their message and try to field better candidates. [11/11/06 afterthought: of course, the Republican seats that changed hands were by definition in more competitive districts. It's the safe seats---on both sides---that are more likely to be held by the lazy and corrupt.]

Another economic analogy: the ownership society. It’s been demonstrated empirically that a society that promotes the ownership of property is better at creating and preserving wealth. Now that the Democrats “own” part of the government, one hopes that they’ll be more interested in working toward solutions to the problems in the Middle East, health care, illegal immigration, and fiscal policy. If, instead, they persist in lobbing stink bombs at the Administration in the pursuit of more raw power, they’ll deservedly be relegated back to their minority status in 2008.

My life will be more pleasant during the next two years. The angry ranting, both at work and home, should subside.

Before this week’s election, the media were saturated with reports of the unreliability of electronic voting systems and their susceptibility to fraud and manipulation. Now that the results are in, there has been nary a peep about the subject. Miraculously, the problems that were insoluble for six years have been fixed overnight. [Update 11/11/06: Steven den Beste has related comments.]

Despite the war, I felt that things were actually going pretty well with the strong economy and the absence of terrorism on U.S. soil since 2001. The Republicans’ message of “I’m bad, but the other guy’s worse” didn’t cut it in 2006. But if a cataclysmic event should occur during the next two years, the public, justifiably or not, may conclude that Republican rule wasn’t so bad after all. Appreciation is often granted in retrospect. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Dispositional Dyspeptic

Today is Election Day, and I don’t have the inclination to sort through all the arguments for and against the propositions and measures that fill up the 192-pages-in-small-type California election guide. Fortunately I have a bias that enables me to save time.

I am a conservative--no, not a movement conservative who wants to ban abortions, mandate the teaching of intelligent design, and abolish the estate tax--but a dispositional conservative who requires a (very) strong argument to be persuaded that new laws are necessary. We have way too many confusing and conflicting rules and regulations already.

Our system of checks and balances is slow as molasses, but the stability that it provides is needed more and more in a world of accelerating change. Voter initiatives are valuable to blast through politicians’ fortress walls, but they should be used very sparingly. Initiatives bypass the legislative process and often conflict with other laws. The courts are called in, and we have more frustration, delays, and recriminations.

So I turn a jaundiced eye to these proposals, many of which have fine-sounding names. I will vote “no” on most if not all of them. Besides, do you think there’s not enough change in the world that we have to vote for more? © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Friday, November 03, 2006

Worthy Cause

On lunchtime on Tuesday I organized a poker contest at my company. My motives were entirely benign because this was part of the annual fall fundraiser that benefits local charities. Nevertheless, we encouraged criticism and mockery in order to spark competitiveness, impulsive donations, and side bets. All proceeds will go to La Casa de las Madres, a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

The fact that the contest fell on Halloween was even better. The players got extra chips for coming in costume, while the dealers got into the spirit, too.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Late for the Lasagna

It was again our turn to make Sunday lunch for everyone who showed up at the community center. I pulled the lasagna from the freezer and threw it into the oven. It’s inefficient to make it from scratch when one can buy a ready-to-bake tray for less than $12. The lasagna was done by 9:30, and I turned the dial to warm. The church service went past 11:30; the service always goes long when you have an appointment right after.

I rushed home to pick up the lasagna and headed south with one of the kids. The children were helping out; it’s good to stretch the service muscle at an early age.

We started fifteen minutes late despite having gained an hour when Daylight Savings expired the night before. Apparently the general rule of tardiness* and pew distribution applies outside the church setting as well.

*The majority always arrives after the service is supposed to start—which is why the back pews are crowded with worshippers who are too abashed to march up to the front where there’s plenty of space.

The line of about 80 people waited patiently while we set up. One of the lasagnas didn’t show, and we subdivided the portions so that everyone would get a spoonful. Several of us muttered about loaves and fishes (a reference to Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand----yes, Episcopalians do know something about scripture). Fortunately, a kindly baker donated bread rolls, we had plenty of salad to go round, and everyone was served a full plate.

The kids poured the juice and, when our patrons were leaving, gave each of them a bag meal---more nutritious fare than the sweets that we passed to the ghosts and goblins last night. Our next hosting will be in the midst of the holidays, the last Sunday in December. I'm sure we'll find a way to manage. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 29, 2006


For about seven years I’ve been a regular consumer of pomegranate juice. Medical research has indicated that pomegranate juice confers cardiovascular benefits equal to or greater than red wine, blueberries, cabbage, and other foods high in antioxidants.

I’ve also acquired a taste for the real thing; yesterday Costco was selling a tray of six deep-red pomegranates for about $10. This morning I cut one and added a couple of spoonfuls of seeds to my breakfast. Peeling a pomegranate is messy, time-consuming, and expensive---a lot like other things that we value. This is one gift from the ancient Middle East that everyone can appreciate. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Am I Better Off?

I’m trying to ignore the news from Washington. It’s the silly season---less than two weeks to go before the elections---and we should eye with suspicion any reports, analyses, studies, and surveys produced in this hothouse environment. Mud is being flung in every direction in the hope that not all of it will be washed off by Election Day.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of voters have seen this heavy breathing before, so they won’t care whether a senatorial candidate attended a risqué Super Bowl party, whether an actor exaggerated his disability in a commercial (or a radio talk show host was cruel such to opine), whether a senator had plastic surgery, or whether another senator used a mildly racist remark in an unguarded moment. In the silly season instant messages from a worldly young man to a pathetic middle-aged ex-Congressman have been scrutinized as if they were inscribed on stone tablets, then forgotten as the next scandal floated to the surface.

My gerrymandered-district’s representative to Congress could run against Abraham Lincoln and win without breaking a sweat. He has displayed good sense for a Democrat; I’ve voted for him in the past and am leaning toward voting for him next month. I’ll go to the polls because it’s my civic duty although my vote counts for very very little.

Nevertheless, it’s a good time to take stock. Our family is doing okay—we’re in good health (I don’t credit or blame the politicians for that)---and the country seems to be doing okay as well. The Dow Jones is at an all-time high, and our modest portfolio has recovered to pre-9/11 levels. My employer is going through some changes (whose hasn’t?), but if something happens to my job there seem to be a lot of want-ads for a person with my skills; most of my acquaintances who’ve been looking for work have landed jobs as good or better than the ones they had before.

I was pleasantly surprised at the fuel pump yesterday when I paid $2.39 per gallon; it was over $3 just a month ago. Gasoline has never been a significant part of our monthly budget—it’s about the same as our cellphone plan---so the recent drop in price is rationally insignificant but packs a feel-good wallop out of proportion to its importance.

The real estate market has cooled, so our house is worth less than it was a year ago. We ignored prices in the neighborhood when they were going up, and we’re ignoring the decline of the past year. When and if we move, our home’s value will cease to be academic and then we’ll care.

The most important topic in this year’s election is war and terrorism. We’ve not had another attack on U.S. soil since 2001, and that seems miraculous. But Iraq is a mess, and there seems to be no end to the expenditure of lives and treasure if we want to “win”, however winning is defined. And there are plenty of other trouble spots: Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea are the main ones but if those aren’t enough we need to worry about Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

It’s possible, even likely, that we can’t have the good---no attacks on U.S. soil---without the bad. Iraq is a cause célèbre that attracts jihadists like moths to a flame (or flies to paper). This is a phenomenon that we have seen before: in the 1930’s Western dreamers and romantics took up arms in the Spanish civil war.
'Spain' became the cause célèbre for the left-leaning intelligentsia across the Western world, and many prominent artists and writers entered the Republic's service.
Only now the dreamers are on the other side.

But back to the question in the title, I am better off than I was two, four, and five years ago. And yes, things could be even better, but they also could be a lot, lot worse. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Flashy Intro

Ford Motor Co. is struggling through losses, layoffs and a sharp drop in demand for its gas-guzzling trucks and SUV’s. Ford desperately needs Edge, its new mini-SUV, to have a successful debut next month.

This week Ford rented out Justin Herman plaza to showcase the Edge and fete major customers and dealers. The Edge has an attractive mix of price (under $30K), performance (V6, 265 hp), and fuel economy (18 city / 25 hwy), but the car seems only evolutionary, not revolutionary.

We need to replace our old wagon, and the Edge could be the ticket, but we have a policy, confirmed by sad experience over many years and products, of never buying a product in its year of introduction. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that Ford can restore luster to an iconic American brand and that the Edge is more Taurus or Mustang than Edsel. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

[Update - 10/23: Ford announced a loss of $5.8 billion for the quarter ended September 30. Even when a billion ain't what it used to be, that's still a big number.]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What's Important

Last weekend’s earthquake has made us pause in our plans to retire to Hawaii. Much as we would enjoy living there, we can’t afford to have too much of our net worth tied up in a building that can collapse in a few seconds [Then why do you live on top of the San Andreas fault? That’s not the point; the point is to leave town for some place safe before the Big One hits.]

At first blush Hawaiian residents seem less prepared than Californians to weather a natural disaster. The phone and power lines still hang on poles, making them more vulnerable and dangerous than if they were buried underground. Ramshackle structures that wouldn’t meet building codes on the Mainland can be found on all the islands.

On the other hand, no one died, no one panicked, and no one said they were victimized because government agencies weren’t responsive enough. Living in the middle of the Pacific conveys the sense that you’re on your own and that you have to work together because it will take a while for help to arrive.

It’s been said that trends start in California, and one can point to many examples where California has led the way in such disparate areas as technology, business, entertainment, fashion, and dining. But in a more important respect Hawaii is decades ahead of the rest of the nation. It is a working example of a melting pot, where different racial groups live in harmony.

My own take on why it works there is that everyone is in a minority but shares a common language and common cultural values. Also, each group can point to its own individual success stories, pre-empting the development of a resentful underclass. But enough of committing sociology.

At our family reunion in August we had many more mixed-race than single-race attendees in the generation after mine. That observation didn’t even occur to me until I started writing this post, and I don’t think anyone else noticed. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

My Family: perhaps earthquakes and the preservation of my net worth aren’t the most important considerations in deciding where to live.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sunday Surprise

My parents called to reassure me that they were fine. This morning’s 6.6 quake jolted their Honolulu home and knocked out the power. No TV, no Internet, just a battery-powered radio to convey the news.

Here on the Mainland CNN was running a continuous feed from Honolulu channel KITV. Reports alternated between updates from government agencies and advice to stay off the road and avoid making unnecessary calls (except for this one, of course). I changed the channel when people called in to describe how they were feeling when the earth moved. Later might be the time for personal stories. When the news is breaking, just give it to me straight.

In 1950’s Hawaii we worried about calamities that never came to pass---nuclear war, tidal waves, hurricanes, and earthquakes. In the absence of disaster we quickly become blasé. Even the continuously erupting volcanoes don’t hold our interest for long. We put up guard rails so that tourists don’t get too close to the lava and focus our attention on the next worry du jour.

Early on a clear Sunday morning nearly 65 years ago an unexpected event on the Island of Oahu precipitated a World War. This Sunday we were reminded that life still has the ability to surprise. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, October 12, 2006

His Time is Past

Warren Buffett on how to prevent corporate scandals:
So, at Berkshire, let's start with what is legal, but always go on to what we would feel comfortable about being printed on the front page of our local paper, and never proceed forward simply on the basis of the fact that other people are doing it.
I first read Warren Buffett’s quirky missives during the late1970’s. His life is a good example of the persistence of character. He always charted an independent path and owned up to his mistakes, yet never lost faith in his judgment, which he backed with cold, hard cash. Infusing all his actions is a humility born from his religious beliefs and the chastening lessons of a long life.

Warren Buffett says that the fact that “other people are doing it” doesn’t make it right, echoing the words of millions of parents. But really, how are people these days supposed to chart a moral path? Most of the issues facing us are colored with shades of gray, like whether to answer truthfully to an employee that he might be on a layoff list, or how much financial assistance you should offer your adult child, or whether you should object to an off-color joke told by one of your friends, or whether you should give a dollar to a plainly drug-addicted mendicant.

The best defense against venality is virtue, said the ancients. We know that enforcing good behavior through the passage of laws and hiring of cops is costly. We know that doing the right thing should be voluntary and not prompted by the fear of punishment. Yet, as the authority of religion subsides, our culture acknowledges no higher power than itself. “Other people are doing it” is in fact the truth behind the power. Poor Warren Buffett: his time is past. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Too Much South of the Border

This morning's news:
Five people trying to sneak into the United States from Mexico became trapped in a narrow tunnel and had to be rescued Tuesday after the largest of them, a nearly 200-pound man, got stuck trying to climb out through a storm drain, authorities said. Firefighters used jackhammers at the city's border with Tijuana to widen the opening and free the man, who had become stuck at the hips.

Monday, October 09, 2006


During a weekend filled with headline events---Bluegrass festival, Fleet Week, Raiders at 49ers---I stayed close to home. There was nothing that I absolutely had to do or see. Recalling that old saw about buses, if nothing on the Bay Area calendar is appealing, we just have to wait 15 minutes for the next one.

DirecTV’s digital video recorder (model R10) finally stopped working after months of steadily deteriorating performance. Although I had purchased the extended warranty from Best Buy, I was reluctant to return the now-discontinued recorder for the newer model. Beginning with the R15, DirecTV has been too cheap to pay license fees for TiVo's superior user interface (think Mac OS vs Windows or iPod vs. other MP3 players), so DirecTV devised its own software. But when the machine rebooted every 15 minutes I threw in the towel.

The Best Buy “Geek Squad” (an homage to Apple’s Genius Bar) said the R10 could not be repaired and gave me a new R15. As I suspected, the new DVR hardware works, but the interface is user-hostile. The remote control has too many buttons, and the menus aren’t intuitive. When we become a high definition household, we’ll select a cable or satellite company that offers TiVo, and it won't be our current provider.

I drove the youngster to the City to visit Maggie, who’s cut his hair ever since he was an infant. She took special care with him after his surgery and makes him comfortable. Maggie opened her own shop on Ocean Avenue and appears to be doing well. She’s hired two assistants, and the wait is an hour on weekends. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

In-n-out, Daly City: the best things aren't always expensive.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Buzzing About

Grumpily I stare at the sign. The trains are running 30–60 minutes late. I regretted that I had been in such a hurry to get to Hillsdale station this morning. I could have stopped for a cuppa joe. I look at my watch: Starbucks is just 12 minutes away, but counting the time for a round trip and the wait in line, I forego the temptation. I don’t know when the next train’s coming and I don't want to miss it.

It’s gray, drizzly, and cool, auguring a wet winter and a thick snowpack, just like last year. It’s only the first week in October, and I’m wearing a sweater and a raincoat.

[Good movie, by the way--First Monday in October, starring Jill Clayburgh and Walter Matthau. Witty and funny, Jill Clayburgh is a babe who plays the first female Supreme Court justice. Back in the ‘80’s, when they needed beautiful and smart, they called Jill Clayburgh. However, it was obvious that the scriptwriters had no idea how a conservative jurist really thinks or sounds.

Sodden thought: it would be very easy for a conservative writer like George Will or William Safire or Newt Gingrich to compose a reasoned essay arguing the liberal position, whether the topic was stem-cell research, tax policy, affirmative action, or terrorism. There are not many liberals---and none of them live in Hollywood---who could fake a convincing argument in the other direction, say, in favor of the Iraq war without the argument sounding cartoonish (Weapons of mass destruction! Bring the evildoers to justice!) and forced. They really need to mingle more with the masses.]

Well, I finally made it to the office. It’s Fleet Week, and the Blue Angels are buzzing about the Bay. May as well enjoy the show now. No telling how many more years these excess CO2 emissions will be tolerated. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

By mid-afternoon the skies had cleared.

Peace Bus: land-based vehicles can emit gases too, but when your intentions are pure, it's okay.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Animal Crossing

Our household has been home to many pets---rabbits, fish, hamsters, birds, and the latest guest, a guinea pig named Bubbles. The doctors periodically caution that pet dander exacerbates our allergies, but we ignore the warnings. Our furry friends give us unconditional love, a gift all too rare from our two-legged acquaintances.

Cynics and Skinnerians may scoff that we just imagine that our pets love us. Animals, they say, are just practicing learned behaviors to provoke the desired reaction from their food dispensers. The scoffers may be right, but judge for yourself: when you look into your pet’s eyes, is there an intelligence that is looking back?

Tomorrow is the day that we remember one of Christendom’s greatest saints, Francis of Assisi. Francis was the patron saint of animals and the environment. He founded the order of Friars Minor, from which sprang other orders that are prominent in Catholic and Protestant churches. And, lest we forget, we live near the city that bears his name.

During this week many churches hold a special service to bless pets and their guardians. Last weekend two ministers from our parish set up a table at the local park and said a prayer over every pet that was presented. At least 40 people showed up. It was a rare experience---strangers brought together by a common interest, chatting amicably for an hour, and no one buying, selling, or wanting anything from the other. Eight centuries after his death, the light of Saint Francis shines brighter than ever. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, September 30, 2006

When Two or Three Are Gathered

The weather cooperated at the church dinner last weekend.

In the pre-1970 Episcopal Church it made no difference to the meaning of the church service whether one was alone in the pew or whether there were hundreds of others in attendance. Eyes were glued to the front (when heads were not bowed), noisy children were given dirty looks until they quieted, and when the prayers began worshippers promptly knelt (“hit the deck” as my old priest used to say) and stayed put until they went to the altar for Communion.

The revised Book of Common Prayer seemed revolutionary when it came out in 1976. Not only was the language updated--thee, thou, and thine became "you" and "your"--but the new services demanded that the congregation pay attention to what was going on. The Prayers of the People required regular responses from the flock, and the passing of the peace encouraged people to talk to each other, shake hands, and maybe crack a smile. While the openness and informality initially made many uncomfortable, people not only got used to it, but it’s doubtful many would want to go back.

I am acquainted with believers who will have nothing to do with organized religion. They worship in their own homes, either alone or in small groups. It is of course within their right to do so, and churches can certainly be criticized for being too structured, unspiritual, and focused on money and social-clubbing.

But I like the idea of gathering once a week with people who are from very different backgrounds and don't think like me. From sad experience I know that I've often been mistaken, so I won't learn anything by associating only with the like-minded.

And we shouldn't dismiss the access we have to the knowledge and training of ministers, deacons, and seminarians. Most questions that seem original to the neophyte are actually very old. There is nothing new under the sun, said the prophet, so save the wheel-spinning. It's a lot easier to just ask the guy (or gal) in the frock. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Focus Day

The Garden Court at the Palace.

It was time for a refresher course on Bloomberg. (Last year's visit to the offices may be found here.) In August Bloomberg Financial Services sent me both e-mail and snail-mail about yesterday’s seminar ("Focus Day") at the Palace Hotel. I signed up for foreign exchange, credit derivatives, sector analysis, and application-program interface (how to transfer data to Microsoft Excel).

Although I was tired, the speakers talked about features that I can use, so I didn’t doze off. Also, there’s still enough of the finance geek in me that they held my interest even through discussions of default “swaps” (a misnomer for credit insurance) and foreign exchange forwards, products that I don’t work with frequently.

Fogey soapbox: okay, I admit that I haven’t kept up with what’s going on in high finance---and part of my concern is undoubtedly based on the human tendency to be worried about what one doesn’t understand---but I am worried that trillions of dollars are being wagered each day based on mathematical models whose reliability hasn’t been proved. So the correlation between two securities is .18---would you bet your house on that? Would that relationship hold if the yuan was revalued by 20% or mortgage defaults rose by 10%?

Bloomberg has made a fortune by being an indispensable tool to those folks who make huge financial bets. It’s more than an analytical tool---you can even make trades on the system. That’s why its owner has the luxury of time to dabble in politics---and why they could afford to have sushi chefs making platters of those delectable morsels for their customers at the morning coffee break. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Media Filter

We are inundated by information. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and, of course, the Internet, shovel out so much data that it’s impossible for us to keep up. We rely on news organizations to discern what’s important and summarize information for us. We expect news professionals to serve a higher calling by distilling and disclosing the significant facts related to a subject, though such facts may damage the political causes that reporters may favor.

News has similarities to my profession. Accountants are duty-bound to render services to their clients, but their primary obligation is to the public and to the integrity of the financial statements. And yes, there have been some notable failures in recent years when CPA’s have forgotten or deliberately ignored the values that they profess.

Today the government declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate on “Trends in Global Terrorism”. The San Francisco Chronicle headline was “Intelligence agencies say Iraq conflict encourages the global jihadist movement” The New York Times blared “Waging the War on Terror: Report Belies Optimistic View” and USA Today’s contribution was:

If these headlines indeed captured the essence of the intelligence estimate, then that would seem to be another nail in the coffin of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Not only was the Iraqi democracy project failing, but the United States has been placed in greater danger, not less, because of the Iraq invasion. So I decided to read the report for myself. It begins:
United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement—which includes al-Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells—is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts.
Two rhetorical questions: 1) Does the bleakness of the headlines match the topic sentence of the lead paragraph? 2) Does the lead paragraph tell us anything we didn’t already know?

The report does discuss the growth in the number of jihadists and how the Iraq war has “cultivat[ed] supporters for the global jihadist movement.” However, it also points out ways that terrorism can be defeated, including succeeding in Iraq, instilling greater awareness how the victims of violence are other Muslims, and publicizing the implications of living under shari’a law if the terrorists win.

Two paragraphs in the second half of the report merit further comment. Keep in mind the intelligence estimate is dated April, 2006:
  • The loss of key leaders, particularly Usama Bin Ladin, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and al-Zarqawi, in rapid succession, probably would cause the group to fracture into smaller groups…
  • Should al-Zarqawi continue to evade capture and scale back attacks against Muslims, we assess he could broaden his popular appeal and present a global threat.
  • Now that Zarqawi has been killed, the Intelligence Estimate says that, at least for a time, the threat to US interests should be “less serious”.

    Question for the professional news organizations: why couldn’t the headline have been “Death of Zarqawi Lessens Terrorist Threat”? But if you disbelieve this part of the assessment, why do you assign such credibility to other conclusions, such as “the Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists”?

    I think we know the answer. © 2006 Stephen Yuen