Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Science is Encouraging

Over the years the needle on my bathroom scale has risen faster than my investment portfolio (not a high standard, to be sure). The nagging from my doctor has also increased--he’s a fit runner, and he’s entitled--so will next year finally be the time that I get serious about shedding the pounds and getting in shape?

I can take comfort in the example set by female acquaintances who, later in life, look better than ever. And research has shown that successful dieting is easier for guys.
In general, men want to keep it simple. They don't want to get tangled in the minutiae. The basic male approach is: just tell me what to eat.

"Women could probably learn some things from them," said [Weight Watchers’ Karen] Miller-Kovach. "Men will just cut something out, like no ice cream, whereas women will go on a low-fat ice cream. Women tend to do a lot of substituting, whereas guys will cut out the beer rather than going to a light beer. The little bit of research that's been done shows the man's approach is better."

Another reason men can be better at dieting is that they are generally larger and require more caloric intake, so reducing calories can have a more significant impact on weight loss. Additionally, it's widely known that men lose weight faster due to their having more lean muscle mass, which burns more calories than fat.
Or, I could join the writers on a picket line, where “Twelve hours of walking in a circle has not produced a new contract, but it has resulted in a new pants size.” © 2007 Stephen Yuen

[Update: below is a poignant entry on this topic in Post Secret.]

Friday, December 28, 2007

Pollyanna-ish About Pakistan

Yesterday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto was an extremely high-value “kill” for Islamic terrorists. Her death not only sets back the democratic movement in Pakistan, but “the world's second-most-populous Muslim nation totters on the brink of becoming a failed state”. Beset by Islamic extremists, lambasted by civil libertarians, and threatened by repeated assassination attempts on his person, Pervez Musharraf’s own tenure may not outlast George Bush’s.

And if Pakistan flies apart into different religions and tribes, what happens to its nuclear weapons? Nuclear-armed Pakistan all along was a much bigger prize for jihadists than Iraq or Afghanistan. America’s foreign policy choice seems to be limited to propping up the dictator Musharraf---much as we did the Shah of Iran decades ago and look how well that turned out---and crossing our fingers that we somehow avoid the abyss.

Iraq has taught us important lessons—instilling democracy takes years if not decades, the rule of law cannot take hold when the bullets are flying, many in the West expect America to wage the “perfect” war with zero U.S. soldiers and innocents killed, and that such a perfect war must be won within a couple of years.

World population rankings from Wikipedia.

Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, and any American-style military expedition into Pakistan beyond the specific objective of securing its nuclear armaments will fail because it's impossible to pacify and democratize 162 million people with the forces we can put on the ground.

Map from Refugees International.

But note the proximity of the world’s two most populous countries. Rising economic powers who are just beginning to reap the benefits of globalization, China and India have much more to lose from Pakistan’s dissolution. They will do the killing that is necessary to defend their people, and the world will look the other way because the U.S. is not involved.

We’ll be the good guys as we deplore the violence that others inflict while we silently cheer them on, and we’ll airlift supplies and help rebuild the region when the shooting stops. So let's root for Musharraf to survive, but the alternative may eventually work out. Otherwise, Benazir Bhutto's assassination may be an Archduke Ferdinand moment. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve at St. James by-the-Sea

For all my objections to its ideologues (and I don’t use the word lightly) in leadership positions, I have never found any Episcopal parish or mission to be less than welcoming. Last night’s Christmas Eve service at St. James By-the-Sea was no exception. Despite the fact that most men were dressed in suits and I wore but a sweater and jeans, everyone seemed happy that we were there.

The church is generations removed from the days when it frowned on one’s physical appearance. One wears a tie because one wants to honor the occasion, not to impress other people (well, not as much). But the lack of a nice suit or dress pales in importance to one’s presence at the altar, where the great and humble are equal in the sight of God. That’s one attitude change that we all can agree is progress.

St. James is a wealthy parish overlooking the ocean in tony La Jolla. The midnight service had four clergy, a 40-member choir, a string quartet, and a harp. The church was packed with over 300 people, most of whom looked like they could trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower.

(It’s easy to digress into an argument about the apparent hypocrisy of lavishing money on chancel and chalices when there’s so much grinding poverty in the world; Christians have always wrestled with this issue. My response: I'm glad they built the cathedrals of Europe. Last night I listened to skilled musicians perform glorious music in praise of their God. As they say in Hollywood, all the money was up there on the screen.)

We returned to our son’s apartment in San Diego, where we had placed gifts around a potted plant. Just as a pumpkin became a coach in the fairy tale, a few modest stems and leaves can become a tree when infused with the Spirit.

Merry Christmas! © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 24, 2007

Financial Versification

"Those of us who grew up wanting to be writers and are now in the financial markets don't get to scratch that itch very often," says Fortis currency trader Cameron Crise. Here is an example of his scratching, a year-end précis of the turmoil in financial markets, conducted to the cadence of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham.
I would not like it here or there
I would not like it anywhere
I do not like your CDO
I do not like it, Broker Joe.
Judging from this writing sample Mr. Crise shouldn’t quit his day job just yet.

But he has my sympathy; I briefly shared Mr. Crise’s youthful enchantment with the writing life. Its manifestations today are in my annual habit of doggerelizing our family’s Christmas letter (late again) and occasional posts to this humble weblog. And no, I shouldn’t quit my day job either.

Fortunately for those who depend on me economically, I realized long ago that no one would pay folding money for my scrivening skills. So I chose professions--corporate finance and accounting—in which there’s a chance for me to retire before senescence overwhelms the ability to compose a sentence. If I can keep my wits and my health, I can later indulge my yen for writing, music, travel, playing games both physical and electronic, reading, and just plain goofing off.

Dreams can be sweet even, and perhaps especially, if we have to wait all our lives to attain them. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Trek the Halls

USA Today says that Christmas caroling is a vanishing tradition. Perhaps so, but the residents of three nursing homes on the Peninsula were pleased to see us last Sunday.

They put down their bingo tokens and turned off their TVs to listen to our mix of religious and secular standards.

Some belted out the carols along with us and clapped.

The enjoyment on their faces was genuine. They had grown up in an era when each household had someone who could play the piano.

Families would gather round to sing instead of dispersing to their separate electronic worlds.

A few of our voices clearly lacked training (ahem), but fortunately there was an upright piano for our church organist to keep us in tune and in time.

What we lacked in skill we made up for in enthusiasm.

We passed out ornaments that the children made and wished them all a Merry Christmas.

Some were sad to see us leave. If and when I am similarly situated, I hope someone sings for me.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday Party, 2007

Eileen, Curt, and Wing:
Curt roasts some retirees.
As predicted, this year’s holiday party shrunk to about 60 revelers. We showed off our renovated office to retirees who arrived early, then walked to the Americano Restaurant a couple of blocks away. The Americano, whose outdoor terrace is across the street from the Bay, is another beneficiary of the 1989 earthquake that demolished the concrete Embarcadero freeway. Dressed in our Christmas finery and sipping champagne, we were able to enjoy the views on the cool, breezeless day.

I sat next to a retired Exec VP who is teaching, volunteering, and traveling. He had resumed violin-playing after a decades-long hiatus and inquired whether I had done the same. No, but maybe that’s something I will do in my second act. (In the ‘90’s I borrowed an instrument to scrape away at a couple of holiday parties.) I was surprised that he remembered those moments. As for my remembrances of working with him, let’s just say that he was certainly a lot nicer now.

Melanie, Kathy, and Bartay
Too bad there was no mistletoe.
In fact everyone was a lot nicer. Those of us who are left enjoy working together, and with the turnover and shedding of businesses over the past decade we all were cognizant that our time together is short.

Another retiree flaunted her three-carat diamond ring and talked about the new German car she just bought. Her sleek black dress showed that the regimen of cruises didn’t hurt her figure, and her face was wrinkle-free. Bring on that second act!

© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not Impartial Enough

Yesterday I came the closest that I've ever been to being selected for a jury. In three previous occasions I'd never made it past the assembly room, in which 50-60 citizens out of one hundred are randomly selected to go up to the courtroom for further winnowing. This jury would be hearing a criminal case involving narcotics, and the judge estimated that the trial could last until Christmas.

The first day (Tuesday) was devoted to listening to my fellow citizens plead "extreme hardship". The excuses that worked were: childcare problems, loss of income if the prospective juror was the sole source in the household, and planned vacations. Marginal cases were let off if the individual's thick accent indicated that he or she would have difficulty following the proceedings.

On the second day the conversations were of a more philosophical bent. Both sets of lawyers inquired about our biases---whether the defendant's proficiency in English would incline us toward a guilty or not-guilty verdict, whether we would give more credence to the testimony of a police officer, whether our personal experience or that of our close friends and relatives with drugs would incline us in either direction. Juror selection seemed to be a combination of an academic discussion and a job interview, so if one had the time I suppose one could be engaged by the process. To those on a schedule it was tedious and too much hair-splitting.

At the end of the day the defense exercised its right of peremptory challenge and excused me. My guess is that it was because I have a close relative in law enforcement. I would not have been impartial enough. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Secretly Pleased

No one in his classroom wanted to participate in San Mateo High School’s annual Food Drive, but the youngster promised one of the student organizers that he would help. And so it was that on the weekend before last the youngster and his mother stood outside the Foster City Lucky’s to hand out flyers and collect canned food and money for the Second Harvest Food Bank and Samaritan House.

About one in five patrons dropped cans in the basket on the way out. A few kindly souls gave him a shopping bag’s worth.

We packed the donations--about 300 pounds of food--into the van and carried them to the school. His classmates were happy to help unload. We hoped that one or two would be inspired by his example, but even if that turned out not to be, we were secretly pleased that he was doing the right thing.

I handed him a check. Dollars to Samaritan House and Second Harvest will go farther than at some other institutions. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Friday, December 07, 2007

"Enchanted" - A Review

The passing years have rubbed away the youthful cynicism, and I fear that my true self, a maudlin sentimentalist, is emerging. How else to explain my enjoyment of Enchanted, the latest piece of holiday fluff from Disney?

A half-century or more after the releases of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Enchanted first celebrates then gently makes fun of the conventions of the genre when the protagonists of a fairy-tale world are thrust into the urban jungle that is contemporary New York.

The movie opens in animated Andalasia. The song of humble Giselle is overheard by the passing Prince Edward, who immediately proposes marriage. His evil (we know this because she’s dressed in black) stepmother Narissa uses magic to cast Giselle out of Andalasia into live-action Manhattan.

When the innocent princess-to-be walks the streets of New York at night, her encounters are unfortunate—but not calamitously so since this is a PG-rated Disney movie. She’s rescued by world-weary divorce lawyer Robert, who gives her a temporary place to sleep. In a non-Disney movie the audience would question Robert’s motives, but that question is immediately put to bed because Robert is a single parent with a six-year-old daughter Morgan, whose presence requires him to be on his best behavior. Morgan also is the only one that sees that Giselle really is a princess and not merely another sad delusional in need of medication.

Meanwhile Prince Edward leaves Andalasia to find Giselle, followed by the stepmother’s henchman Nathaniel, and finally Narissa herself. (For a complete synopsis with spoilers, see Wikipedia’s entry.) While there are several story threads, the main plot line is
obvious: will Giselle choose her fairy-tale Prince Edward or real-world divorce lawyer Robert?

Enchanted can be enjoyed at several levels. It’s a musical with some elaborate song-and-dance numbers, and Amy Adams plays Giselle “big” with extravagant emotions and gestures appropriate for the stage. It’s got special effects, including all too real (and disgusting) depictions of vermin and cockroaches, and a nearly seamless overlay of live action with animation. It’s got humor and a feminist view that’s not hard to spot: Giselle is the strongest character against James Marsden’s buffoonish Edward and Patrick Dempsey’s jaded Robert.

And if you’re looking for deeper themes, they’re present as well. What if we’ve dreamt of being a princess all our lives and suspect at the last minute that the dream is not what’s best for us or what we really want? How easily may we dismiss others’ expectations in the pursuit of our own desires?

But this is still a fairy tale, after all. The plot lines are tied up, and everyone except the evil stepmother lives happily ever after. Just the way I, and millions of others, like it. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, December 06, 2007

More Than A Fender

The quiet in our neighborhood this morning was shattered by a crash and the incessant blaring of a damaged SUV's horn. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mother Knows Best

Divorce creates more households. Because more households generate more greenhouse gases, divorce is bad for the planet. Hey, human existence is bad for the planet. I can get rid of my lawn, which uses water, fertilizer, and pesticides, I can bike to the train station, I can become a vegetarian and reduce the demand for bovine methane factories, but I still have to breathe, don’t I? CO2---the new original sin.

Staying married because you promised God that you would is passé. Do it for Mother Earth.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Fool and His Money

My investment record is littered with emotional decisions and bad choices. But once in a while, just as in golf, I make a good shot and continue to delude myself into thinking that maybe, just maybe, I’ve got some talent and that the future will be better than the past.

One of my successes has been to invest in overseas mutual funds a few years ago. They’ve been generating spectacular returns (over 20% per year). Not only have foreign company stocks been performing well when viewed against their home currencies, the returns have been turbocharged because those currencies have strengthened dramatically against the dollar.

But I sense the dollar has moved too far down, too fast, especially against the euro. So on November 20th, I shaved my foreign holdings in favor of good old American stocks and bonds.

Last February I wrote:
Stock market bottoms are reached when years of decline, interrupted by dead-cat bounces that raise false hopes, cause even the most optimistic bulls finally to throw in the towel. When everyone wants out, that’s the time to get in. If it were a stock, it would be time to buy Iraq.
That call was a little early, but I’m getting the same vibe about the dollar.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Kicking Off the Pacific Century

There's only one major college football team who remains undefeated. They've never been this close to a national championship bid, much less the Top Ten. As this sportswriter asks, "Why Not Hawaii?"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Worth the Effort

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the traffic reports from the East Bay were discouraging. Highways 80, 880, 580, and 680 were rife with accidents and stalls, so the road to San Diego this weekend led south to San Jose.

Unless they’re sightseeing along Hwy 101, most LA-bound travelers from the South Bay cut east on Hwy 152, the Pacheco Pass Road south of Gilroy, to the speedier Hwy 5. On Wednesday the single-lane road was partially under construction and packed with big rigs. The journey to the Hwy 5 on-ramp took us four hours when it normally takes two. Not a promising start to the long weekend.

The rest of our journey passed without incident, and we averaged about 70 mph on the moderately crowded freeway. North of LA the traffic coming toward us was bumper to bumper and noticeably slower. They work and live in Southern California but don’t recreate there.

We unloaded the car at midnight and greeted our student happily. Thanksgiving should be spent with family. It was worth the effort.

Thanksgiving morning, near the UCSD campus.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving

Philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell said that human happiness consisted of four ingredients: health, freedom from material want, warm personal relations, and successful work. On this Thanksgiving Day there is currently no pressing concern in any of these areas, and, in accordance with Lord Russell’s formula, in my daily life I am reasonably happy.

Regarding disappointments, I have only myself to blame. I wish that I exercised more, that I made better investment decisions, that I was a more giving and communicative friend, and that I was better at self-promotion so that my outstanding abilities would be more recognized at work (:>). But there’s still time to correct these mistakes.

On this Thanksgiving Day, I remember those who are gone and am reminded that life itself is the greatest gift. Living near one of the most beautiful cities in the world is just icing on the cake. As you reflect upon your own life, may you be blessed with a similar attitude of gratitude. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 15, 2007

To Honor A Hero

After the game (previous post below) we retired to the San Mateo High quadrangle, where the class of 1957 hosted a barbecue for all comers. But the occasion was much more than a 50th reunion. We were there to witness the presentation of a wrought iron bench to honor '57 graduate Paul Foster.

The high school choir sang an a capella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner as we stood at attention. Poised and harmonious, the choir with their perfect intonation hushed the crowd. As the rains came, speaker after speaker rose to reminisce about Paul Foster. A Marine honor guard stood stoically through the downpour, and none of us dared do less. Paul was a quiet youth who grew up a few miles from San Mateo High. He had a mischievous streak with his friends but was shy around girls. After high school he enlisted in the Marines and went to Vietnam.
[From his citation]
In the early morning hours the 2d Battalion was occupying a defensive position which protected a bridge on the road leading from Con Thien to Cam Lo. Suddenly, the marines' position came under a heavy volume of mortar and artillery fire, followed by an aggressive enemy ground assault. In the ensuing engagement, the hostile force penetrated the perimeter and brought a heavy concentration of small arms, automatic weapons, and rocket fire to bear on the battalion command post. Although his position in the fire support coordination center was dangerously exposed to enemy fire and he was wounded when an enemy hand grenade exploded near his position, Sgt. Foster resolutely continued to direct accurate mortar and artillery fire on the advancing North Vietnamese troops.

As the attack continued, a hand grenade landed in the midst of Sgt. Foster and his 5 companions. Realizing the danger, he shouted a warning, threw his armored vest over the grenade, and unhesitatingly placed his body over the armored vest. When the grenade exploded, Sgt. Foster absorbed the entire blast with his body and was mortally wounded. His heroic actions undoubtedly saved his comrades from further injury or possible death.

Sgt. Foster's courage, extraordinary heroism, and unfaltering devotion to duty reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and upheld the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Paul Foster was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1969.

Ted Seweloh and Principal Yvonne Shiu unveil the 1957 class gift.

Little Big Game, 2007

One drawback of globalization is the paving over of regional distinctions. WalMart demolishes Mom-and-Pop grocery stores, IHOP closes the corner diner, and Borders makes the independent bookseller a fading memory.

A more insidious phenomenon is the derogation of the local hero. In every area of endeavor the best in the world, maybe the best there ever was, is but a mouseclick away. Why should we attend a cello recital when we can tune in to Yo-Yo Ma? Shooting par golf doesn’t mean much when we can watch Tiger regularly belt 300-yard drives.

High school football was “the” weekend event before the NFL blanketed the country with live telecasts. Some high school games in my hometown attracted sellouts of 25,000 at the old stadium. It was also a time when everyone watched only three channels on TV; the old gang has broken up and we’ll never assemble those crowds or that passion again.

At the little big game last Saturday between the Burlingame Panthers and the San Mateo Bearcats a noisy gathering of about 2,000 students, alumni, and parents cheered the combatants. Burlingame High won easily, 42-10, on San Mateo’s home field, but neither team was going to the playoffs and it was difficult for an uninterested parent to be invested in the outcome.

I asked the youngster how he felt about the game, given the Bearcats’ shellacking and jeers from the Panthers’ rooting section. He was hoarse from cheering and smiled. He had enjoyed the camaraderie and knew that a high school football game wasn’t a matter of life and death. Youthful passion can be wonderful, but perspective is better. Maybe he’s grown up a bit since the last time. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Year of the Pig

The lobster tail is featured on weekends.

Buffet restaurants appeal to my worst instincts. When gluttony wars against self-control, self-control is the loser, and I’ve learned not to go near all-you-can-eat joints. But the laws of the universe are suspended on one’s birthday, so after a four-year hiatus I revisited Todai in Daly City. (The clincher to the decision was Todai’s offer of a free meal--photo ID required—on one’s birthday. Gluttony and greed--two deadly sins to which I still easily succumb.)

On the first plate I heaped piles of sushi and sashimi, while on the second I grabbed a generous helping of steak and crab. My digestive system was strained to the breaking point, but the pastry bar sang its siren song. Assorted cakes and chocolates pushed the body mass needle into the red zone. It was only early November, but I was fortified for the winter. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Time to Join the Party

The under-30’s are all logged in to social networking sites, so it was time for me to join the party. It took but a minute to register with Facebook and summarize my life on the equivalent of a 3x5 postcard. Rejecting a more flattering photograph from 20 years ago, I decided to upload a recent snapshot. I’m not looking for a lot of new “friends” or trolling for dates. Yes, Gramps, that’ll keep the kids away.

After setting up the page, I was immediately filled with remorse (not buyer’s remorse because registration is free). I have enough trouble maintaining human contact with the flesh-and-blood friends whom I do have and certainly don’t have time to “poke” new ones (no, I don’t know what that means in Facebook-ese, and it’s another sign of civilization’s decline if teens are using that term indiscriminately.)

So I’ve kept a very low profile and not sent invitations for strangers to be my friend, and so far no one wants to be mine (sniff). But that’s okay, as I tell my kids, it’s their loss.

Here are links to a couple of older generation Facebook newbies who describe their experiences. They actually find Facebook to be useful and like it. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Right Way

Last week started by confronting long-running thorny tasks that resisted completion---crafting a presentation on a structured investment vehicle and evaluating several speculative equipment purchases that will span a number of years. Adding to the obstacles was the fact that we’ve had some turnover in our senior management, and not all the new players are familiar with how we arrived at our current analytical approaches. Many issues raised in recent management meetings had already been deliberated and decided in the past, but there’s a new generation to educate and we’ve had to retrace our steps over old ground.

Sometimes there’s no alternative but to “go into the tank”, as one of my college friends used to say, and power through projects. There were some hiccups mid-week over some esoteric problems that were likely never to surface, and it was enormously tempting to let them slide. But noontime walks in the San Francisco sun stiffened the resolve, so I spent a few more hours finishing the projects the right way.

On Friday the group heaved a collective sigh and celebrated the (successful) completion of a trying week with margaritas at Chevy’s. It was also my birthday, and I was happy to lift a glass to another spin around the sun. The passage of time is no longer a source of dread; I’m another year closer to getting back from Social Security what I’ve been putting in for decades and I’ve earned another year’s credits in my employer’s retirement and benefits plan.

Chevy's pupu plates are $3 each during happy hour.

The evening Cal Train was uncrowded and quiet, ideal for decompressing, and the margaritas provided a pleasing afterglow. I’ve been working all my life toward the golden years, but maybe, just maybe, they’ve already arrived and I just haven’t noticed. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All Too Quickly

Boston and San Francisco have oft-remarked similarities---a rich maritime history, world-class universities, liberal politics, and leading technology companies, not to mention a big city to the south that dominates the region. But in one respect they are today quite different.

Boston is the center of the sports universe; the Red Sox are champions of professional baseball for the second time this decade, and the New England (nee Boston) Patriots have won three professional football titles in the past six years. The Red Sox are young and should be a top team for years to come, while the Patriots appear more dominant than ever. Meanwhile, Bay Area sports teams languish near the bottom of their divisions.

But it wasn’t that long ago that San Francisco and Oakland were at the top of the sports world. In the 1980’s the road to the Super Bowl ran through Candlestick Park, and the Oakland Athletics made three straight appearances in the World Series. Enjoy these days, Boston, they will pass all too quickly.

The Wink of an Eye

Last night we were reminded of another difference between West and East Coast cities. The 5.6 earthquake in the South Bay lasted for what seemed to be an interminable 30 seconds. We’re quite accustomed to one or two quick mild jolts, but this time the rumbling seemed to go on and on. For a moment it seemed to be 1989 all over again, when, to continue the sports theme, the Bay Bridge World Series between the Giants and A’s was interrupted by the 7.0 Loma Prieta quake.

Fortunately, no one was injured and property damage was limited. This month’s southland wildfires and last night’s earthquake were yet another warning that we live in an area that we may have to vacate on a moment’s notice. In the wink of an eye the world changes abruptly and the accumulations of a lifetime can vanish.

Here’s a long and thoughtful essay by Virginia Postrel about the consequences of living on the fault-line’s edge (hat tip: Ed Driscoll).

Monday, October 29, 2007

Toast to the Future

The Bay Area economy continues to roar, and we’ve lost two young staffers to growing companies. Both have been offered management positions at new employers.

One of the ladies is an accountant, and the other is a human resource specialist.

They have knowledge and skills that will be hard to replace, but beyond the rational business-speak, they’ll also be missed for their energy and youth.

It’s ageist to utter, but the vibe in the workplace is ineffably diminished if there are too many graybeards like me.

Experience may be prized, but so are enthusiasm, creativity, and---let’s not discount its value--physical attractiveness.

The office is beginning to resemble the mainstream denomination church I attend on Sundays--inexorably shrinking, an aging population, and uncertain prospects.

We adjourned to a local watering hole to wish them well and toast their future. They've completed their training, and it's time for them to run the show. The world is their oyster.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

East Bay Excursion

The last of the 2006 charity events was completed when we played a round of golf last week. The organizers lived in the East Bay, so they picked Tilden Park as the venue. The Berkeley course was a convenient 10-minute drive for them, over an hour for me.

It was a dark and stormy morning, but the rain subsided by the 10 o’clock tee time. My group sprayed shots all over the course. Fortunately, we were playing Scramble, which meant that everyone played his next ball from the spot where the best of our previous shots had landed. Even so, our threesome did well to average a bogey on each hole. We finished dead last.

The highlight of the round was when slender Wendy won the longest-drive contest. Her tee shot bounded along the cart path and passed the group in front of us as they were marking the spot of their longest drive. They were so astounded that they forgot to admonish us for not yelling “Fore!”

At the clubhouse bar I had one for the road---just one---with my mates, then headed home. Yes, I was getting paid for this day. The things we must do to make a living.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Couscous in Campbell

Campbell, California, is another South Bay suburb whose agricultural origins had long ago been paved over. Campbell’s proximity to Silicon Valley makes it one of California’s tonier towns with an average home value of $788,000, and we had occasion to walk around its downtown one weekend after brunching at Stack’s, an upscale local breakfast chain.

We stopped at the newly opened Olive Bar to sample a variety of oils and stuffed and marinated olives. Owner Chrystie DeSoto spoke knowledgably and passionately about olive oil. Never again will I consider the bulk “light olive oil” the real stuff. As their website says, “Refined olive oil is to virgin olive oil as ‘fruit drink’ is to fruit juice.” However, the strong flavor of natural olive oil does take some getting used to.

Outside the store the author of an olive cookbook had set up an attractive display. After tasting the couscous and listening to her describe how it only took ten minutes to prepare, we bought her book (autographed!) and went back into the store to buy the ingredients. Following the recipe took about half an hour, given all the chopping and slicing, but it did turn out well. Even the youngster, who’s partial to hamburgers and fries, liked it. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Couscous, Garbanzo, and Olive Salad
¼ cup lemon juice
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 ½ cups boiling water
2 cups instant couscous
2 cans (15 ½ oz each) garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
3 tbs. capers, rinsed
1 jar (7 oz) roasted red bell peppers, drained, chopped
1 cup pitted Gaeta olives, plus more for garnish
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup chopped green onions
1/3 cup chopped fresh mint
tomato wedges for garnish
In a small bowl, whisk lemon juice with oil, salt and pepper. In a large bowl, pour water over couscous, cover and let stand for about 10 minutes until water is absorbed; fluff grains with a fork. Fold remaining ingredients, except garnishes, into couscous and add dressing. Mix well and chill. Serve salad garnished with tomatoes and olives. Serves 6-8.

Monday, October 22, 2007

You Are Not Seeing the Conglomerence

"In this cycle, there has been a lot more capital discipline for companies to not overextend themselves. You are not seeing the conglomerence,” said the chief marketing strategist at Bank of America.

In this brief quote the split infinitive is hardly noticed because of the new business buzzword. A Google search of "conglomerence" produces a few musical and scientific references but until today very few related to business. I prefer an already existing word, agglomeration, to reflect the idea that companies accumulate businesses in a jumbled, confused fashion, but coining a new term is one way to appear cutting edge.

By the way, is conglomerence spelled with an “e” or an “a”? © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rain Dancer In Chief

The storm nearly rained out our company barbecue last Friday, and the wet weather continued through Wednesday morning. Rainfall since June is 356% of normal, and for the moment fears of drought and water rationing have subsided. My lawn should stay green next summer. Whom do we have to thank?

Precipitation data from the National Weather Service.

Why, Al Gore, of course. The former Vice President leaves floods and record-setting low temperatures in his wake while he travels far and wide to preach the gospel of impending drought and desertification. Mr. Gore was in San Francisco on Friday when the Nobel committee announced the award of this year’s Peace prize for his work on global warming. In another confirmation of the Gore effect, the pelting rain, which I should have foreseen, penetrated my cloth overcoat and soaked me to the skin.

I like Al Gore (yes, really) and hope he runs for President. Whether or not he enters the race, I hope he stays away from New Orleans until they get the levees fixed.

Outside the Hyatt Regency on Wednesday.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Body Worlds 2

Disease and death have always been mankind’s lot, but in the decades following the war Americans did their best to avoid these aspects of the human condition. We shunted the terminally ill and injured to hospitals where they expired quietly out of view. Cancer was a subject to be discussed in hushed whispers. Mass media and entertainment showed violent death, but with reduced horror and blood.

Today we have the proliferation of uncensored sources of information, the popularity of hospital and forensic-science TV shows where we can watch autopsies in prime time, and attendance at live births in delivery rooms. What was once witnessed by medical professionals, soldiers, and undertakers is now witnessed by all.

Plastination is the process by which flesh is preserved by draining water and fats from the specimen and substituting silicone, plastic polymer, or other permanent material in the cell. We attended Body Worlds, which displayed plastinated body parts and whole bodies, often in “artistic” poses. Once the initial squeamishness passed, I found the exhibit to be unexpectedly fascinating. The captioned signs provided sufficient information in my opinion, but the youngster and a college student both said they found the audio guide to be very helpful.

Although the feeling subsided, I couldn’t shake my disquiet over showing human bodies in this manner. Each donor gave his informed consent, but to display a body peeled like a banana or exploded symmetrically outward seemed disrespectful toward the being who once inhabited his fleshly temple. On the other hand, viewing a “real” spleen, heart, and liver more than made the experience worthwhile.

All in all, I’m glad I spent the $24 entrance fee and 2-3 hours on a Saturday, but I don’t intend to be a repeat visitor. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Rooting for Stanford University’s football team isn’t quite as futile as being a Cubs fan---Stanford does contend for the Pac-10 title about once a decade---but one must suffer through years of haplessness before enjoying that rare competitive season. 2007 appeared to be no different, with the team not only losing, but getting blown out by opponents.

Wishing to avoid the sight of carnage last Saturday, I stayed away from the TV set. Stanford was visiting college football’s no. 1 team (or no. 2, depending on the poll), USC, on its home turf. Most Cardinal fans would have considered it a satisfying outcome if Stanford could keep USC's margin of victory to three touchdowns. As reporters were fond of citing in the lead-up to the game:

-- Stanford was a 41-point underdog.

-- Stanford lost 41-3 at home to Arizona State last Saturday.

-- Stanford lost 42-0 at home to USC last year.

-- Stanford was 1-11 last season.

-- USC was 11-2 last season.

To add to the piling on (an expression that is appropriate, for once), Stanford’s starting quarterback was injured, and his replacement, Tavita Pritchard, was a sophomore who had thrown but three passes in his college career.

It’s unnecessary for me to repeat each play in what is perhaps the most colossal upset in college football history, an upset that has been chronicled elsewhere (see above link to story). The halftime tally was USC 9, Stanford 0, when we entered an East Bay restaurant for dinner. I turned on the car radio as we drove home after, hoping the margin was a respectable three touchdowns or so. It was hard to believe what I was hearing.

USC was still leading by six points at the end, but Stanford had the ball. The Cardinal faced two fourth-and-long-yardage situations in what was clearly the do-or-die final drive. Even the great teams fail in these situations, and we were fully expecting passes to fall harmlessly to earth, Trojan fans to breathe a sigh of relief, and the Cardinal to walk off the field with their heads held high in celebration of a great moral if not actual victory.

But the fairy tale never ended, and Stanford prevailed, 24 – 23.

In 1974 I attended my first and only USC game at the old Stanford Stadium. Both teams were undefeated in the Pac-8, and Palo Altans had deluded themselves into thinking that the home team had a chance to defeat John McKay’s Trojans and even go on to the Rose Bowl. By the end of the first quarter we knew there wouldn’t be a Rose Bowl that year, and by the end of the half the score was something like 30 – 0. Can one game 33 years later dispel that memory? Yes!

By the way, the aforementioned sophomore quarterback, Tavita Pritchard, has an easygoing charisma that leapt off the screen in the post-game interviews. Maybe it’s too early to anoint him as Stanford’s next Brodie, Plunkett, or Elway, but he’s definitely got the right look for Hollywood (Broadway Joe may be a more apt comparison). © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Left: Keanu Reeves as a quarterback in "The Replacements"
Right: Tavita Pritchard (photos from and

Monday, October 08, 2007

A380 Over the Bay

Airbus' new four-engine giant, the A380, spent a day in San Francisco before continuing its American tour. It circled the bay on Friday afternoon, and we took a break from our tasks to look out the window.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Charity is Difficult

Yesterday’s Chron ran a front-page article about how the homeless blight life in the beautiful city:
Just this morning, on my way to work, I had about enough of working in San Francisco. At the corner of New Montgomery and Market a man completely mentally gone, was standing, weaving, holding his pants around his knees. A little further on, a man screaming in his own private language was running at people, trying to scare them, and succeeding. What exactly are you supposed to do when you encounter this stuff?
Many homeless don’t fit the fond stereotype of down-on-their-luck families who just need a helping hand. Some woebegotten souls lack basic life skills of cognition and social behavior, skills any normal ten-year-old has. Personal hygiene is often lacking, and such individuals are not employable. They are schizophrenic, manic-depressive, psychotic, anxiety-ridden and/or addicted to drugs and alcohol. If you see one coming toward you and especially if you have a child with you, cross the street. (Yes, I know the parable of the Good Samaritan and no, I’m not him.)

The people to whom we serve a hot meal at the Redwood City community center are not like the homeless in San Francisco….or so I thought. Last Sunday we had ladled out the last of the lasagna and salad when one lady started screaming at an African-American man. She rained profanities—the F- and N-words—at the top of her lungs. The man became agitated and hurtled apples (from the brown bag lunches that we distribute at the exit) at the screamer. Fortunately, none of them landed.

Her face was red with anger as she turned to me, “Call the police! Lock him up! What kind of Catholics are you?” Assuming that advising her that we were, in fact, Episcopalians, would do little good, I turned my attention to the man and held up my hands. Sir, please stop throwing things.

“She called me a n******. She’s a crazy b****!”

I walked toward him.I know, thank you for letting this go, thank you for not responding. Please, it’s not worth the trouble, I said over and over. She wants me to call the police. I don’t want to do that.

“They’ll never believe me,” he said with some bitterness, “she’s a white woman and I’m a black man.” Yes, thank you for letting this go. He dropped his arms, turned and walked to his dilapidated car.

Pushing her shopping cart, the woman followed us and continued her expletive-laden rant. I planted myself in her path so she couldn’t go any further. Please ma’am, what did he do? I listened to an incoherent diatribe about the man’s parentage. I never did find out what set her off. Responses from me just made her angrier, so I just nodded my head and listened. Her harsh tones gradually diminished until she finally departed, but not without repeating her observations about African Americans and Catholics. Americans reach too readily for the pill bottle, but this was one person who definitely needed prescription medication, and I hope she had some at home.

I apologized to our volunteers, some of whom had brought their children who were serving for the first time. “Is it always like this?” they asked. No, I’ve been doing this for two years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.

As our other guests filed out, they gave us more thank-you’s than usual. Perhaps some were worried that we wouldn’t be coming back. Our next date is in December. We’ll see you next time, I said, and there were relieved smiles. That was our only reward, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

The salad and baked chicken and rice was made for less than $20 in July.

Another snapshot from July.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

What's Your Sleep(well) Number?

The baby boomers have been stereotyped for their want-it-all-now hedonism, but there are many of us who have deferred gratification all our lives and are wondering if it’s time to let loose. I don’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery, and I have my own list of things that I want to do before I die, few of which have been checked off.

However, I don’t want to run out of money either and be a burden to my children or society. How large should my nest egg be so that I can sleep well on the new bed that I just bought?

Let’s say I retire at 60---not that far away---and we both live 40 more years, which is well above our life expectancy. We can live comfortably on $6,000 per month in today’s dollars, about $4,000 after taxes. But the $6,000 has to grow at the rate of inflation (say 3%, that is, the following year we’ll need $6,180 to stay even). Further assume that my investments earn 5%, easily achievable with A-rated corporate bonds. This simple worksheet says that I need $2 million when I retire [click to enlarge]:

We can spend a lot more time fine tuning the calculation to include taxes, Social Security, lumpy expenditures such as medical care, cruises, and cars, and whether the savings are in tax-deferred or taxable accounts, but the extra precision won’t change the final number much. Am I there yet? Let's put it this way, I've got to keep working for a while---there are a few more years of mortgage and college payments--but I'm sleeping well, too. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Friday, September 28, 2007

What Counts

After work I stopped by Costco to pick up ice cream for the kids. Ice cream bars and sandwiches are a treat because their parents rarely buy them, and it’s a quick solution for me because I don’t have time to prepare a dish like the others do. I could give K. the money to buy the dessert, but it’s not the same as my bringing something and sharing a meal with our guests.

The Interfaith Hospitality Network has 18 participating churches in San Mateo County. IHN provides temporary housing and meals for families in difficult circumstances, most often single mothers with young children.

Hope Lutheran Church has bed, bath, and kitchen facilities, which enables it to house people four to five times a year, one week at a time. IHN hosting can put quite a strain on a congregation; volunteers have to be present 24 hours a day while families are living on premises. Our smaller Episcopal parish helps out by preparing dinner on the weeks when Hope helps.

For Tuesday’s meal there were four families, a total of 14 guests, plus six from our church and two from Hope Lutheran. The ladies brought plenty of lasagna, bread, and vegetable and fruit salads. One even baked a chocolate cake with cherries. Because I passed on the ice cream I could justify two helpings of the moist, rich dessert. Besides, it doesn’t count if it’s for charity. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Some of the angels who keep me on the straight and narrow.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Sleep-Well Deal

The week started quietly enough with us splurging on a replacement for our king-sized bed. After twenty years the mattress had developed a noticeable sag on my end , a sag which is absent on her side of the bed. Yes, I carry a few more pounds than I did when we bought the Cal-King, but that shouldn’t have made a difference. Harrumph, American products just don’t last like they used to.

The new bed has controls that allow us to raise and lower the head and foot sections. The mattress has an air pump that adjusts its firmness.

We rationalized the purchase on the basis that we spend one third of our lives in bed. All I need is a microwave, a fridge, and a widescreen TV, and there will be no reason to go downstairs at all. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, September 24, 2007

His Father's Hopes

My dad goes to Las Vegas regularly. On his latest trip he felt faint and checked himself into the hospital. The usual suspects---gambling around the clock, no food and its opposite, too much food and drink—weren’t the cause. After running a battery of tests, the doctors couldn’t pinpoint the reason. He went home yesterday and will be evaluated by his own physician.

Although there’s uncertainty about the diagnosis, now that he’s home the tension is greatly lessened. There’s a lot to be thankful for—from the doctors who ran enough tests to satisfy themselves that he was well enough to travel and to my younger brother, who drove from LA to tend to Mom and Dad and be our eyes and ears on the scene. Hard to believe it’s the same kid who was always cadging a few dollars or borrowing the car overnight. It appears that he’s surpassed his father’s hopes. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Dad with his two college-bound grandsons.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Renewed Appreciation

In a land where obesity is the most pressing of our health problems it is easy to forget that billions of people go to bed hungry. The Heifer Project, whose mission is “to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth” not only supplies valuable animals to impoverished villages but also teaches recipients how to care, feed, and integrate the livestock into a farming economy in which high-tech and chemical methods are not available.

On Friday we paid a visit to the Heifer Project’s Ceres Educational Center near Modesto. Sustainable agriculture techniques were on display; goats, llamas, alpacas, water buffalo, ostriches, chickens, and rabbits generated manure that produced healthy green vegetables. The 7-acre property grew enough grass to keep the animals fed.

We clipped a goat's hooves just before lunch.

The facility is a demonstration farm and is most definitely not a petting zoo. The guides described how large animals are rarely eaten, not only because of the expense but because most of the carcass would go to waste due to the lack of refrigeration. Rabbits, chicken, and even guinea pigs can be consumed at one sitting and are a more ideal source of meat.

The Ceres Center offers overnight educational programs oriented toward high schoolers. Participants sleep in a replica of a “global village” home (but have the use of a modern lavatory and shower) and work on the farm. After a day of physical labor, the famished workers are handed some basic cooking utensils, a book of matches, and a few staples such as rice or corn meal and are on their own.

At noon we got a taste, as well as a sense of the rhythm, of a global village meal. It took us about half an hour to get the fire started. Meanwhile, using a plastic plate as a cutting board and a dull metal knife, I peeled and chopped an onion and a potato. Boiling the rice and frying the vegetables, which were topped off by beans, tomatoes, and eggs laid earlier that day, took another 40 minutes. It seemed like one of the best meals I had had in weeks, but it did last two hours from start to finish.

When Americans travel to distant lands, they return with a renewed appreciation of what they have. On Friday appreciation was just two hours away. © 2007 Stephen Yuen