Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Pressure's On

Yesterday we finally had time to test the new pressure cooker that we had ordered a couple of weeks ago. We’re a sucker for gadgets that are shown on the shopping channels; we can't resist TV infomercials, even though their fast-talking salesmen sometimes can make your skin crawl. The pressure cooker looked simple to operate with its push-button electronics, and cleaning seemed easy due to the ceramic Teflon pot. Sturdiness was also a requirement---wouldn’t want it blowing up in the kitchen.

Oxtail stew takes hours of simmering in order to soften the toughness of this specialty cut. And it tastes better on the second day because the spices and vegetables need to infuse the meat with their flavor. Because of all the time involved, we rarely prepare it. Oxtail stew would be a good test for the cooker (cooking time is reduced up to 70%, say the instructions).

I bought most of the ingredients at Costco and spent 45 minutes slicing, dicing, and browning. Yes, we do have a food processor, but it's not worth using unless the quantities are larger. Not only do we have to use a footstool to take it down from the cabinet, but cleaning the blades, containers, and lids can be quite time-consuming. The food processor, the juicer, the deep fryer, the fondue pot...all stored and nearly forgotten. Once the bloom is off, will this be the fate of the pressure cooker? The recipe called for a cup of liquid, so I poured a half-empty bottle of pomegranate juice into the pot and added a couple of teaspoons of salt.

I set the pressure switch to "high" and the timer to 60 minutes. I pulled the lid off a couple of hours later and assessed the result. The vegetables, as expected, had lost their texture, but the liquid was rich and tasty. The oxtails were overdone--the meat slid off the bone too easily for my liking. All in all, though, not bad, and there's enough in the pot for 3 or 4 dinners.

I wonder what I can make next week; that tabletop rotisserie looks interesting.....
© 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Idle Chatter

Take a Breath, Not Umbrage
NBC closed the Book of Daniel a lot more quickly than I had anticipated. The show's creator posted the announcement, and the NBC message boards were quick to pin the blame. Excerpts from the first three messages:
One thing I've learned from the interaction here at this forum is that activism against the religious right is mandatory...

Because of you, I have realized how dangerous these right-wing groups are, and as a result, I am going to join in the fight to tell them to shut the hell up.

….before the other side fills this thread with the many "I told you so" and "Thanks be to G-d and Jesus" comments….
Please, people, cancellation was the result of the lack of eyeballs, not enraged Episcopalians. People do have anger issues, and it ain't the religious right. Take a breath and ask yourself: WWJD?

As in "Down the..."
One of our customers filed bankruptcy. The case was heard by Judge Drain. Not surprisingly, we lost.

New Year's Resolution: Eat Less Fish
Yesterday's news item:
More than half of one species of catfish sampled in the South River had skin tumors, matching the highest rate in the nation, wildlife officials said.

"The fish are clearly exposed to cancer-causing agents, and at this point, we really don't know what chemicals are responsible," Fred Pinkney, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who conducted the study, told The Washington Post. "We suspect it's from (polluted) runoff."
But the government is on top of this one:
"This has been a known problem for quite some time," [spokesman] McIntire said. "If you catch any fish that looks strange," he added, "throw it back."

I Smell a Business Opportunity Since He's Got Extra

Item #1:
A middle-aged Tokyo man found to be living with 10 younger women said he attracted them by reciting an incantation that came to him in a dream.

A rapid series of weddings and divorces left the man with a large group of ex-wives, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who shared his surname and continued to live with him.
Item #2:
A rural province in South Korea plans to give financial aid to help lonely male farmers pay for mail-order brides from overseas.

South Kyongsang province plans to start a trial program in which it will give 6 million won ($6,113) to male farmers who marry foreign women, an official said Tuesday.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Strangely Liberating

Whats on Second, is a sports memorabilia store on 2nd St in San Mateo. It's cutely named after a line in Abbott & Costello's famous comedy routine "Who's on First?"

It was the first weekend this year that I didn’t have to work, and I spent a leisurely Saturday without compulsively checking my messages or to-do list. I offered to take the youngster and his buddy to the movies. They had already seen Kong and Narnia, so they settled on the Queen Latifah comedy (woman learns she’s dying and changes her life) playing in San Mateo.

The City of San Mateo is reviving its downtown area, and the new theaters, stores and restaurants are attracting foot traffic. We lunched at Joy Sushi, a new restaurant that is becoming known for its large selection of specialty sushi rolls. It also has good value--ideal for teenaged boys who prefer copious quantities to exotic presentation.

We were joined by Brandon’s dad, who is always on the prowl for good sushi. He’s younger than I but has been retired since a well-known Silicon Valley company spun off his subsidiary. (His wife is a senior manager at a local biotech company, so family finances are not a concern.) He’s trying his hand at angel investing and raved about one of his investments, a database company that is owned and run by a workaholic CPA / MBA whose fiancĂ© is becoming upset that she has no time for him. (IMHO, that guy ought to shut up and go along for the ride. Plenty of guys--not me of course--would love to be in his shoes.) We split the bill and went our separate ways.

The organizer in our family accompanied the boys to the movie. Meanwhile my assignment was to stroll several blocks to a men’s clothier, where she had ordered some jackets and trousers that needed to be altered to accommodate certain physical features that have expanded over the years, gym membership notwithstanding. Although I have an ample supply of clothes, the majority are in a state of disrepair. The organizer is embarrassed by my frayed sleeves and collars, worn linings, and missing buttons. She knows that people blame her, and not her husband, for his slovenliness. So unfair.

Peets Coffee in San Mateo

I walked over to Peets and sipped black coffee and waited for the film to finish. It’s been months since I took 90 minutes to read the paper and strangely liberating to be “trapped” in a state of enforced idleness.

The movie-goers exited onto the sidewalk, and we headed over to Jeffrey’s Hamburgers for onion rings and milkshakes.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

No Satisfaction

My company is discontinuing its employee stock purchase plan, so we all have to tell the bank what to do with our shares by the end of February. I have two choices: the bank can sell the shares and send me the cash, or I can get a stock certificate. I chose to keep the stock, partly because it’s too easy for me to blow any extra cash sent my way, partly because I like the certificate’s design, and partly because I like seeing my name on the shareholders’ register—all reasons not normally found in the finance textbooks.

The customer service representative stopped in the middle of my instructions and said, “Sir, I see that you’re an officer [due to the way the company is organized, it has as many officers as banks have vice presidents] and can’t trade the stock until January 27th [after earnings are announced].”

But I only have several hundred shares in the plan, and besides, I’m not selling or buying, I just want the certificate.

“Sir, we’re talking about the fractional share. You have xxx and ½ shares. We can give you a certificate for the xxx, but we have to sell the one-half. Since you can’t trade it, you’ll have to call us back.”

We’re not talking about Berkshire Hathaway or even Google here. One-half share is only about eighteen bucks, so even if I did have insiders’ information, and knew how the market would react to it, I would be enriched by at most a double-latte. I made a note in my calendar. Darned if I was going to let the bank have the satisfaction of keeping my 18 bucks.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In America

At Logitech arena, San Jose, last Saturday.

On that winter day when my nephew was born, his mother called to say that she was going to the hospital and asked if I could pick up his older brother from pre-school. Of course, I said. The older brother was a well-behaved, quiet boy, and it would be a pleasure to look after him.

But as for her second child, the mother knew that he would be her last and spoiled him. When he played with our children, they would constantly get into fights, as boys are wont to do. She would always take his side, whatever the facts and arguments were. He would cling to her skirts and milk her sympathy, while my boys gave him dirty looks.

A few years later they moved to Salt Lake City, a town not physically so much as culturally distant from the Bay Area. But we needn’t have worried about how our nephew would fare.

We began to receive thoughtful notes of appreciation for the gifts we sent to him. Changes were definitely afoot when, as we gathered during the holidays, he would greet us with politeness that was neither forced nor feigned. One summer in Hawaii, he asked us to be his godparents in a ceremony at St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

But the most surprising transformation occurred when he was introduced to ice hockey as a young teen. He learned to skate backwards at high speed and became a star defenseman on his high school team. An Asian kid whose parents and grandparents were born in Hawaii goes away to college and makes the hockey team. Only in America.

No 50 played a good game but his team lost. SJSU 2, Utah State 1.

The hockey player's father could be mistaken for the man who once was the most famous judge in America (Hint: it's not "Al-ito")

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Lunch at Piperade

Chris ("You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can never tell him much") reads some prepared remarks at a farewell lunch for a colleague.

Piperade has become a favorite with the Metrosexual crowd. (A Metrosexual is: "An urban male with a strong aesthetic sense who spends a great deal of time and money on his appearance and lifestyle.") With its artsy decor, elegantly prepared dishes (small portions on large white plates), expensive entrees and wine list, and fancy desserts, it's not a place that I hang out regularly. But the people in my office, for the most part upscale boomers who go to a place like this once a week, are fond of it.

I said goodbye to a lady whom I worked with for 17 years. She likes opera and the New York Times, so Piperade is her kind of place. But I like her anyway. She will travel to Europe, then go off to the greener pastures of consulting. We wished her well, and one of us, the retired CEO, ex-Marine pilot, and Ivy League graduate, gave her a piece of advice: "Don't give it away free; put a contract in front of them." Now he tells us.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Amateur Status

An editor from a trade magazine e-mailed me last week. She wanted to use a snapshot that I had posted last year. I thanked her for the courtesy of asking, because, if the publication just copied (stole) the photo, it was unlikely that I would have found out about it. I sent the editor a couple of higher-res files, in return for a photographer’s credit and a hard copy of the magazine when it comes out. The person who keeps the books in our family says I should have held out for big money (what are we talking about here….$25?).

Once you turn pro, all the fun goes out of it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Real World

The college student proudly flourished, then inspected his paycheck. What’s “Federal W/H” and why did they take it out of my paycheck, he asked rather loudly.

Son, that stands for Federal withholding taxes. You are now paying for civilization. (Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said: “Taxation is the price we pay for civilization.”)

The modern withholding tax system started in World War II. Why? There are three principal reasons: 1) not everyone has the discipline to set the dough aside to pay the entire balance on April 15th, so you pay as you go. 2) the Treasury gets the money sooner, so it saves interest, more accurately, it doesn’t pay you interest. 3) from a psychological standpoint withholding doesn’t have the same sting as writing a check, so the cost of government seems less. The last isn’t just my opinion, it's the U.S. Treasury's:
Another important feature of the income tax that changed was the return to income tax withholding [in 1943] as had been done during the Civil War. This greatly eased the collection of the tax for both the taxpayer and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. However, it also greatly reduced the taxpayer's awareness of the amount of tax being collected, i.e. it reduced the transparency of the tax, which made it easier to raise taxes in the future.
Welcome to the real world.

Another Thing to be Afraid Of

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (link requires registration) ran an article on the potential danger of hearing loss from prolonged use of iPods and other portable music players. When imprudent young people crank up the volume, the hair cells in the inner ear could be damaged (no, pops, the hair growing out of your ears is not what we’re talking about here).
There are two ways that noise exposure leads to hearing damage. Brief exposures to extremely loud sounds, like gunfire, can cause permanent damage. But consistent exposure to even moderate-level loud sounds wears out the hair cells in the inner ear, which are responsible for acute hearing abilities. When these cells are damaged by noise exposure -- like a loud concert -- they typically recover after two days of rest. With repeated exposure to loud sounds, however, the hair cells' ability to recover weakens. Eventually the hair cells die, leading to permanent hearing loss.

The researchers determined that the exposure limit for safe headphone listening is one hour a day with the volume no higher than 60%. If you listen for more than an hour, you should turn the volume below 60%. Another informal rule of thumb: If you have to remove the headphones to hear people talking to you, it is too loud.

Chart courtesy of Wall Street Journal.

Soon to come as night follows day: warning labels on earbuds and iPods.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Book of Daniel: Laughing Out Loud

NBC’s new primetime show, the Book of Daniel, stirred up some minor controversy because the protagonist, an Episcopal minister who bears the same name as his famous ancestor, Daniel Webster, has an ongoing conversation with a character who represents Jesus. Some Christian groups said that the depiction of Jesus (played by Garret Dillahunt) was disrespectful.

I tuned in out of curiosity and started laughing five minutes into the two-hour pilot.

The Reverend Daniel Webster, by all appearances a good man, is constantly tempted by and finally succumbs to the lure of Vicodin (Rush Limbaugh’s painkiller of choice). His wife Judith is an alcoholic…but let Aidan Quinn, who plays Daniel, explain:
Well, I'm an Episcopalian priest who struggles with a little self-medication problem, and I have a 23-year-old son who's gay, and a 16-year-old daughter who's caught dealing pot, and another son who's jumping on every high school girl he sees, and a wife who's very loving but also likes her martinis.

"I can't tell you how many people have said to me, `Hey, that sounds like my family.”
But does your family also have:

1) an Episcopal bishop for a grandfather a) who doesn’t know that his grandson is gay and is always trying to set him up with a girl, and b) who is having a difficult time caring for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife and is having an affair with Daniel Webster’s boss, the lady bishop, who herself is popping pills and enjoys a drink before noon?

2) a brother-in-law who absconded with $3 million in church building funds and whose naked body is found in a motel with no trace of the money?

3) a brother-in-law’s jilted wife who initiates a love affair with her late husband’s mistress?

All this in addition to a child who died of leukemia, the racist wife of the senior warden who refuses to let her daughter continue to “date” Daniel’s son (did I mention that he was adopted and of Japanese ancestry?), the Catholic priest who can use his mob connections to help Daniel find the stolen money, and the housekeeper who raids the daughter’s marijuana stash.

As its elderly parishioners die off and few young families replace them, membership in the U.S. Episcopal Church has been declining for decades and now rests at 2.3 million. It’s a sign of how desperate we are for members that one person I spoke to hoped that the soap-opera-ish Book of Daniel will induce the curious to walk through our doors. Well, I suppose as a denomination we’re on the B-list (the burgeoning A-listers are the Mormons and Baptists), so any publicity is good publicity. (I remain hopeful that the Church can get back on its feet without parlor tricks, but that’s for another time and place.) At least I’ll get a good laugh every Friday until the show’s cancelled.

Hero Remembered

The most publicized atrocity in the Vietnam War was the slaughter of civilians in My Lai village in 1968. The Army has taken decades to recover its reputation, and even today the protest signs that blare “baby killer” and “war criminal” trace their provenance to the My Lai massacre. Nevertheless, there were a few American heroes from that incident. One of them, Hugh Thompson, died last week. NPR describes the noble actions of his helicopter crew:
Early in the morning of March 16, 1968, Thompson, door-gunner Lawrence Colburn and crew chief Glenn Andreotta came upon U.S. ground troops killing Vietnamese civilians in and around the village of My Lai.

They landed the helicopter in the line of fire between American troops and fleeing Vietnamese civilians and pointed their own guns at the U.S. soldiers to prevent more killings.

Colburn and Andreotta had provided cover for Thompson as he went forward to confront the leader of the U.S. forces. Thompson later coaxed civilians out of a bunker so they could be evacuated, and then landed his helicopter again to pick up a wounded child they transported to a hospital. Their efforts led to the cease-fire order at My Lai.
37 years after My Lai, court-martialed Lt. William Calley is still the face that people remember. But it is Hugh Thompson who is honored by the military today. Thompson, Colburn, and Andreotta received the Soldier’s Medal, which is the nation’s award for “heroism not involving actual conflict with an enemy”.

Godspeed, Mr. Thompson, and thank you.

[Update: the CBS Sunday Morning show replayed a 1998 60 Minutes interview with Hugh Thompson.]

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

It'll Get Done

I’d forgotten how intense it can be closing the books at year-end. Most of the other departments were off during the holidays, but the accounting staff worked through both the Christmas and New Years weekends. There were partnerships and big-ticket assets to value, and lesser tasks such as the usual year-end accruals and clean-up of unreconciled differences.

More than in previous years, we have to provide extensive documentation for all the adjustments we’re making. One reason is that the Sarbanes-Oxley rules require an enormous quantity of paper to support actions that affect the financial statements. The second is that this year’s adjustments are very large--“material” in accounting parlance. Management had already announced the rough impact of these adjustments in a press release. But estimates, rounded to millions of dollars, are easy to do. In the accounting world, we have hundreds of companies that each must balance to the penny.

But ‘nuff said about this. The books will get closed on time, and the auditors will sign off, and I’ll move on to my next assignment, after serving as interim controller for eight months.

The rains finally stopped, so I took the 1-California, which goes up Sacramento to Nob Hill. After browsing in the stores and munching on a pork bun, I walked back to the office.

StocktonStore with more businesses than a conglomerate. Toys and real estate: watch out, Amazon!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Safire's Resolutions

William Safire's New Year's resolutions on Meet the Press:
I resolve never to retire, because your brain vegetates if you do. And, two, to remain an optimist. And it kind of embarrasses some people, and cynicism is a wonderful big wave now, but I think we're coming into a good year, and I'm optimistic about it.