Wednesday, June 27, 2007


Every item of furniture was bought at Ikea.

Our college student made his fourth move in four years (for his privileged elders the move was from one dorm room to another, but it’s a little more cumbersome when one has to make an unplanned move from a house to an off-campus apartment), and we’ve been in San Diego helping him get settled. The first couple of days were spent shopping, lining shelves, and assembling furniture.
We finished our tasks and looked around. La Jolla sparkled. The highs were only in the 70’s (if this is how global warming affects summers in the southernmost tip of California, bring it on), and some mornings I even wore a sweater. I told the office I’d be a little late getting back. Some of the best vacations are unplanned.

The La Jolla recycling center is classier than San Mateo's.

© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Old Material

On Thursday mornings cars prowl our neighborhood. Sleazy (or enterprising, depending on your point of view) individuals hope to harvest cans and bottles from the curbside boxes before the recycling truck arrives. I have no particular love for the garbage company, but scavengers’ actions seem wrong. We don’t sort our plastic, glass, and cans for the benefit of these strangers.

My moral reasoning is: if Allied Waste hauls away our paper and yard waste, it should receive the benefit of our other recyclables that have monetary value. And if Allied Waste gets more incremental revenue, our future garbage rates will be lower (okay, I’m not that naïve).

It does seem silly to stand guard over trash for the benefit of a multi-billion-dollar waste-handling company, but a teaching moment could arise from a dilemma that I recognize is self-inflicted. The youngster has become keenly interested in opportunities to earn extra spending money. For the past three months we have stored aluminum cans and plastic bottles in the garage. Last Saturday was the big day; he would share in half the proceeds from our trip to the buyback center.

We loaded the van with three boxes of recyclables and drove to the Rite-Aid parking lot in nearby San Mateo. Pick-up trucks, each laden with many more times our quantities, were at the front of the line. We transferred our stash to shopping carts, then to plastic barrels for weighing.

Our collection.

Another family's efforts.

The clerk refrained from laughing as we rolled the barrels onto the scales, the needle barely budging. He handed me $6.46, the fruits of three months of collecting and two hours this Saturday morning. I concealed my disappointment and handed the entire boodle to the youngster. He’s still learning the meaning of labor, and I can’t let him think that his time (or mine) is too valuable for certain kinds of work. That "wisdom" will come all too soon. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Rules of Golf (San Francisco version)

In 2005 the beautiful City outlawed smoking in public places but exempted golf courses.

Later that year the beautiful City concluded that the golf exception favored the “elites” who play the game and rescinded the exemption.

The beautiful City renovated the Harding Park Municipal Course and hopes to attract PGA tour events, like the American Express tournament that Harding Park hosted in 2005.

The chain-smoking, out-of-shape Argentine Angel Cabrera out-dueled the sculpted Tiger Woods to win the U.S. Open last Sunday.
Cabrera might have appeared nervous throughout his round -- he frequently puffed on a cigarette between shots, the way Arnold Palmer did in old film clips
Question: will the beautiful City fine or jail or ban PGA-tour golfers like Angel Cabrera and John Daly if they puff before they putt?

[Related Item: the city of Belmont does its best to mimic the nanny-statism of its beautiful big brother by the Bay.] © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Thanks, Dad

My father has had his jade ring for over fifty years. (This snapshot was taken on his 80th birthday.) He gave it to me a couple of months ago, and I've worn it ever since.

Happy Fathers Day!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Too Easy

On Wednesday we closed the office at noon. Garbed in caps and T-shirts and slathered with lotion, we ambled to AT&T Park to watch the Giants take on the Toronto Blue Jays.

Office workers heaped plates with hotdogs and salad, and, in the spirit of the old ballgame, peanuts and cracker jacks. One of my lunch companions, a Vice President of Marketing, handed me her crackerjack prize, a colorful sticker: “Here, something to put on your pencil.” She was trying to goad me into saying something untoward, and in my less disciplined youth I might have responded. But I had to maintain my dignity in the presence of younger ears, so I just smiled blankly.

The temperature had climbed to 90 degrees when Giants rookie Tim Lincecum threw the first pitch. We vacated our seats and moved to the top rows where the awnings furnished cover. Beers and bottled water cooled us temporarily, but misery reasserted itself when Lincecum was bombed for seven runs and didn’t make it past the fifth inning. Most of my co-workers gave up and left early, chased away by the heat and the Giants’ desultory performance. Only six stalwarts (out of over 100) remained to witness the last out.

I stuck it out to the end because a) I hadn’t talked to the other five much this year and enjoyed the opportunity to chat; b) I always feel guilty when leaving early from "work"; c) the game is not over till the last out, and one never knows (the Giants scratched their way back to respectability and finally fell 7-4); and d) I had no plans to see any more games this year and decided to enjoy the ballpark’s ambience.

No joy: mighty Barry strikes out to end the game.

It was another day in the beautiful city and too easy to take for granted:
Because we don't know when we will die,
we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.
Yet everything happens only
a certain number of times,
and a very small number really.
How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood,
some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive
of your life without it.
Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that.
How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?
Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
--Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Lolling by the Lagoon

On a sunny Saturday afternoon the kids took the canoes and paddleboat out to the park. The lagoon is sheltered from the Bay, but a stiff wind delayed their return by an hour. No worries--the older ones had gone out many times before and everyone had life jackets. Meanwhile, we parents enjoyed a quiet afternoon on Marilyn's patio.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Not Going Anywhere

View from the stands at 7 o'clock.

After a full day at the office I hoofed over to AT&T Park to watch the Oakland A’s take on the Giants. With their cross-Bay rivals boosting the attendance, the game was sold out. There was almost as much green and gold as there was orange and black.

A group from the church had bought a block of seats in the upper deck behind home plate (the minister is an avid fan). After a visit to the ATM--a hot dog and soda combo is $12 and my family would be having dinner at the game—I settled into my seat. The wind wasn’t blowing on Friday night, and the game turned out to be a pleasant experience--more so for the Oakland fans. The home team mounted a late-inning comeback to tie the game and even had a great chance to win---tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, one out, and a 3-0 count to Ray Durham—but couldn’t pull it off.

The tenth inning became a “tragicomedy” when the Giants ran out of catchers because of injury. Third baseman Pedro Feliz put on the pads and made his major league debut behind the plate. Oakland baserunners took full advantage and scored a couple of runs. The Giants meekly surrendered, 5-3. Despite a promising start to the season, San Francisco looked old and listless (a judgment confirmed by Oakland's consecutive shutout victories this Saturday and Sunday). It doesn't look like the Giants are going anywhere this year.

Friday night's game took nearly four hours,and we were home by midnight. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Barry Bonds singles in the tying run in the bottom of the 7th. He also stole a base (!) in a critical situation, but his teammate couldn't drive him home.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Bucking the Trend

Three consecutive days of sell-offs, triggered by interest-rate and inflation fears, have degraded most equity portfolios but two stocks that I follow, Apple (which I own) and Google (which I do not), have bucked the trend. Unlike other tech one-trick ponies, AAPL and GOOG churn out transformational products on a regular basis. Creative organizations are rare, and those that can generate profitable products quickly while maintaining creativity over an extended period are the rarest of them all.

A few characteristics that Apple and Google share:

  • They pay lip service to the transparency of the Internet while zealously guarding the secrets of their proprietary technology.

  • The obfuscate their strategies. Mission slogans such as “think different” and “organizing the world’s information” are too broad to enable outsiders to decipher the companies’ next moves.

  • Many of their products are cheap, or even free.

  • Products are easy to use; the iPod startup menu and the Google home page have a simple, clean appearance.

  • Quality is sufficiently high—although far from perfect—so as not to dissipate each company’s coolness quotient.

  • They introduce so many products (Google Earth, Google Street View, AppleTV, iPhone) over a short period of time that the competition doesn’t have time to adapt.

  • History teaches that Google and Apple can’t keep up the pace. Talent moves on, competition catches up, and governments interfere. Witness how last decade’s tech darlings (Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Cisco--hat tip: Jim Cramer), while still leaders in their respective markets, now appear a step slow. Meanwhile, speaking as a user, fan, and investor, it’s fun to be along for the ride. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

    Stock prices for passé-tech are off from their pre-2001 highs.

    Tuesday, June 05, 2007

    Foster City Arts and Wine Festival

    Shell Boulevard was closed to traffic all weekend. It was the 36th Annual Foster City Arts and Wine Festival.

    The sunny skies, free admission and parking, not to mention the county-fair ambience, attracted thousands from around the Bay Area. The FCAWF harks back to a simpler day of ring-toss games, barbecue, merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and booths offering doodads and delicacies that you won’t find at Target or Wal-Mart.

    We manned the church’s ice cream booth on Saturday afternoon (all profits go to Heifer International, which distributes domestic animals to third-world villages). Traffic picked up after lunch as temperatures rose and parents sought to placate bored toddlers with dessert.

    I was momentarily at a loss for words when one passerby inquired about the church (Episcopalians aren’t used to evangelizing). I gave him a brochure and glanced at his stroller. We have an excellent Sunday School program for kids of all ages. Our minister will be coming by in an hour and would love to talk to you. [That’s my favorite move…punt to the authority figure.] The young father said he would give us a call and departed. I’ll bet the Baptists or Mormons wouldn’t have let him get away.

    The cash box had $250 more when we ended our three-hour shift. The profits would be enough to buy a llama or alpaca for a family in Peru. I picked up some chicken and a heaping plate of garlic noodles at the barbecue stand. All food eaten at the Festival doesn’t count. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

    Foster City's finest sample the Fire Dept.'s chili.

    Saturday, June 02, 2007

    No Angel

    I arrived 15 minutes before the next train and decided to get some work done. I grabbed an empty bench. Folders and laptop computer carefully balanced on my lap, I forgot about the baby bullet express. It blew by at 70 mph, and papers went flying over the iron fence to the roadway below. There were no nearby stairs, gates, or openings, so I dithered between climbing and dropping in my leather soles, walking 200 yards around, or just letting the papers go.

    While leaning over the fence, my sunglasses fell out of my shirt pocket and landed on the papers. Perfect. The aviator-style wraps were two years old and a little worse for wear; still, they did cost $60.

    The railing is on the left. (2004 photo of San Mateo Caltrain station.)

    A teen zipped up to me on a skateboard. “Are you going to get them [the glasses]?” he asked. It’s a little far for me to jump, and I could use some help. “I don’t know,” he said doubtfully, peering at them. “It’s kind of far.”

    My train pulled up, and I wasn’t going to wait half an hour for the next one, so I boarded. When the doors closed, the little truant hopped the fence, donned “my” glasses, and crowed gleefully to two other companions who skated up to him.

    Despite its insignificance, this incident has stayed with me for the past 48 hours (when my portfolio appreciated enough for me to buy a replacement pair many times over). What bothers me is not only the little rapscallion’s refusal to help, but also his active connivance to take advantage of my misfortune. I actually felt sorry for the kid when I thought of the path he was on but then realized he was heading for a successful career in buying foreclosed properties and liquidating companies.

    The person who is never wrong says that I should have offered the scamp $5 to fetch my glasses and papers. She always carries a few extra bills for occasions like these, and 9 times out of 10, her offer of “quid” pro quo has been accepted. Another lesson ruefully learned. © 2007 Stephen Yuen