Monday, July 30, 2007

Thanks, Coach

Bill Walsh has died. He didn’t fit the traditional stereotype of a cigar-chomping larger-than-life extrovert, perhaps the reason no NFL club would give him a head-coaching job until he was in his late 40’s. When a desperate young owner from Cleveland came calling after a series of disastrous trades and coach-management feuds, the 49er position was perhaps the least desirable job in the National Football League. The rest is history.

Bill Walsh has been a fixture of the Bay Area scene for most of his life, coaching at San Jose State, Washington High in Fremont, Stanford, and, of course, the 49ers. His Stanford record made us mildly hopeful that San Francisco would field a respectable product, and the Niners gradually improved to 6-10 in 1980.

Nothing prepared us for the miraculous 1981 championship season. The emotion felt was one of joy, but above all astonishment that the perennial losers, teasers, and disappointers finally did it. He and his teams have left us with wonderful memories. Thank you, Coach. You were a true genius. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Happy Birthday, Mr. Schwab

The weekend Wall Street Journal interviews (link requires registration) Charles Schwab. We’ve had brokerage accounts at Charles Schwab & Co. since the late 1970’s, and, although my portfolio’s performance has been wanting, I am fully aware where the blame lies. (Question: what is the definition of an MBA? Answer: someone who has the answer to all questions save one---“if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”).

Charles Schwab turns 70 this weekend, and his energy and optimism would appear remarkable for a man half his age. Also remarkable is this passage from the interview:
I went yesterday to Best Buy to get a CD player, I looked at the price, and I looked at this thing, and I said, how could it be any good at 29 bucks? I mean, there must be a catch here. I've got to try this thing. Twenty-nine dollars for this incredible CD [player], with earphones and all the things I love to listen to.
Wish I could have been there: one of the Bay Area’s billionaires, prowling the aisles at Best Buy, fingering a $29 CD player. C’mon, Chuck! It’s your birthday---treat yourself to an iPod! © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Happiness is Warranted

While we’re on the subject of Best Buy (above post), it’s been four and a half years since we bought our refrigerator, washing machine, and dishwasher at the San Carlos outlet. In late spring of 2003 appliances were on sale and one-year financing was interest-free, but we resignedly gave the economic benefit right back by buying a five-year warranty for $300.

I haven’t had a good record with extended warranties---when I’ve purchased them the items either never break or break after the warranty expires anyway. (Of course declining the warranty contract is a nearly infallible predictor of product failure, regardless of the manufacturer’s reputation.)

The broken black mechanism sits on top of the washer.

But every dog has its day. The handle broke on our front-loading washer, a Whirlpool Duet, which has performed excellently otherwise. I was able to locate the Best Buy contract--a victory in itself--and give the number to customer service. The repairman fixed the washer within a week and even tuned the softener dispenser, which had a minor timing problem.

The warm afterglow of making the right decision has lasted several days. It doesn’t take much to make me happy; that’s one of the few attributes I have in common with Charles Schwab. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, July 26, 2007

JB for VP

Let’s say that the Iraq surge continues to show signs of success and that enough of the American public is willing to see the project through without a withdrawal timetable. President Bush’s approval numbers rise from their Trumanesque depths to, say, 40%, and the Bush name isn’t quite the pejorative that it was after the 2007 immigration bill fiasco. (There’s nothing that Americans love more than success, especially if it arises from persistence in the face of a lost cause that didn’t turn out to be quite so lost.)

Given that huge precondition, Jeb Bush would be head and shoulders above all nominees for Vice President: popular ex-governor of Florida (fourth largest state in the Electoral College), experienced, rich, handsome, connected, what’s not to like? Oh yes, his name….surely he’s skilled enough to distance himself from the negatives of his relative’s administration. The likely Democratic Presidential nominee will have a similar problem, but at least in Jeb’s case the relative in question will have the good taste to stay in the background. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, July 23, 2007

Natural Attraction

We had visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium twice last year (see here and here). Left to our own devices we would have waited before going again, but an out-of-town guest, extra vacation time that I had to use or lose, and mild sunny weather combined irresistibly to induce a trip south on Friday.

Good thing, too, because the aquarium was host to a natural attraction that was likely to vanish in about six months. A sea otter had taken residence amidst the cannery pilings. She had given birth ten days ago and captured the attention of hundreds of onlookers, many of whom chose to forego the aquarium’s indoor exhibits to spend a few minutes or even hours to watch her tend to her child.

The pup’s plaintive cries when the mother set it down tugged at the heartstrings. After a short interval in which she preened or foraged, mother otter grabbed the pup and swam gently on her back, licking and holding it to her chest. (This is my first effort at editing and compressing a video, so please be kind.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Mask is Off

Now that the surge is raising the prospect that America’s Iraq project might succeed, the contradictions of the left’s “oppose the war, support the troops” position have become manifest, according to Bill Kristol. No longer can soldiers be pitied as other innocent victims of Bush’s War. They are the means to implement a policy that the left despises.
The left is now turning against the troops they claim still to support. They sense that history is progressing away from them--that these soldiers, fighting courageously in a just cause, could still win the war, that they are proud of their service, and that they will be future leaders of this country. They are not "Shock Troops." They are our best and bravest, fighting for all of us against a brutal enemy in a difficult and frustrating war. They are the 9/11 generation. The left slanders them. We support them. More than that, we admire them.
War is a crucible that separates unstable alloys into more basic elements. We hate our choices, but we must choose. Evil Stalin or greater-evil Hitler? Are you with us or against us? Do you want to win---then support the troops. If you want to lose, then go ahead and vilify them. At least you’re being honest. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

(Still) Waiting for Harry Potter

The youngster rousted me a half hour before midnight. “Do you still want to go?” Of course not. Yes, I mumbled. I grabbed the paper with our reservation number and drove to Barnes & Noble.

The initial signs weren’t encouraging. The parking lot was completely filled, and we had to park across the street next to Macy’s. Entering the store, we couldn’t discern any lines or system, just masses of children and parents milling about. Perhaps at the witching hour of the first day, order will be brought to the chaos.

At midnight a loud cheer erupted from the corner next to the cash register. A line began to coalesce—oh ye of little faith!—and snaked around the book racks to the restrooms in the back. A quick mental computation---three clerks each processing one order per minute---put the book in our hands around 6 a.m. I relayed this opinion to the youngster, who questions everything I say except my math. (I reminded myself to examine other ways in which I can exploit this exception in his mental universe.)

I promised him that we’d come back later on Saturday. A small price to keep him reading through the weekend.

[Update - 7/21/07, 1 p.m.: It was much more civilized twelve hours later. There were stacks of books on the table, and there was no waiting. I was sad; in my lifetime I know that I'll never again see people standing in line at midnight for a book.] © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Special Occasion

Lobster salad is a specialty at the Koi Palace.

We haven’t seen H. since last year, and this week was her birthday, so we threw her a surprise luncheon at the Koi Palace in Daly City. We invited twenty-four friends and family members and twenty accepted--a high hit rate given the haste with which the event was put together. It was one of those parties where it all came together: former strangers find they have a lot in common and every dish turned out well, even the cake which I forgot to order till that morning.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a social event without a couple of gaffes on my part—I messed up the place cards and the appetizer order—but that simply means I will be assigned less responsibility at the next event (the economists call that a perverse incentive).

The food was put away, we sang a robust Happy Birthday, and the guest of honor smiled. The more birthdays you’ve had, the more special the next one seems. I wonder if the economists have a term for that. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

The Birthday girl with her two flower girls, 59 years after the wedding.

Monday, July 16, 2007


The All-Star game went off without a hitch last Tuesday. The American League won for the tenth year in a row, but the Nationals made it exciting by loading the bases in the bottom of the ninth before falling, 5-4. Ichiro hit the first inside-the-park home run in All-Star history and won the MVP.

Security was tight near AT&T Park and traffic was accordingly terrible, but it wasn’t any worse than the monthly Critical Mass clogfest, when temperatures inside and outside motorized vehicles become heated.

Speaking of fests, the youngster and I went to baseball’s FanFest at Moscone Center last weekend. We lingered over relics on loan from Cooperstown: the black-and-white photos of unfamiliar city-name pairings (Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Dodgers), the antique uniforms and diminutive gloves.

Willie Mays' New York Giants uniform.

We watched would-be Nolan Ryans nearly blow out their arms trying to move the speed gun a few extra MPH and aspiring Alex (and Alexandra) Rodriquez’ take their licks in the batting cages.

Baseball is a game that is as much about the past as the future. The youngster asked a collectibles merchant whether he had baseballs signed by former Giants. Who, specifically? the teen was asked. "Bobby Thomson", whose climactic homerun beat the Dodgers and won the pennant for the Giants in 1951. The ball cost $45, so we passed. But I was proud of him; the kid knew his history.

The Hall of the Fame has 280 members, averaging four inductees per year.

© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Black Swan

It's rare for technical finance (distinguished from the popular, i.e., how-to-save-for-retirement or college finance genre) to cross over to the mainstream. However, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, former and future hedge fund manager, pulls it off with his bestseller "The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable".

Black swans are creatures that no one imagined existed until they were discovered in Australia, and financial black swans are events, like 9/11 or Katrina or the iPod, that are both unforeseen and have a huge impact on markets. And we may be entering an era when black swans are multiplying.

Modern finance teaches that the risk and reward of any investment can be decomposed into a combination of simpler financial instruments. For example, owning a stock is equivalent to owning a mix of nearly riskless Treasury bills and highly risky call options. Mr. Taleb suggests that it might be safer to put the bulk of one's funds in Treasuries and invest a small portion of one's portfolio in puts and calls, corresponding to "bad" and "good" black swans that are by definition unforeseen. The options are likely not to pay off and may even be written off completely, but if and when the unforeseen occurs the returns are huge. Meanwhile, most of one's nest egg is safe and is earning a low rate of interest.

I accept what he says intellectually, but I have great difficulty accepting what he says emotionally and organizing my investments this way. Which is why I'm not the author of a best-seller or leading the life of a hedge-fund manager. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, July 09, 2007

All-Star Buildup

The All-Star game is a largely meaningless event—even in the world of baseball--but this year’s confluence of past and future Hall of Famers, Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s lifetime homerun record, and the scenic showcase that is AT&T Park makes San Francisco the center of the sports universe at least for a day. (The insatiable media maw needs something to cover between Wimbledon and the British Open.)

Where there are eyeballs there are corporate sponsors, so one may as well accept the hoopla, walk around, and collect lots of free stuff. Justin Herman Plaza was taken over by AT&T on Friday. Booths advertising wireless broadband were interspersed among batting cages, speed guns, and hot dogs. Strangely, there were no iPhones (have you heard about this new product?). I snagged some free chocolate candy and health drinks. It doesn’t get any better.

No booth babes here, just leotard-clad yoga practitioners.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Stretch Living

The Wall Street Journal writes about the growing phenomenon of “stretch giving”:
Nonprofits say they are receiving an increasing number of "stretch" gifts, donations seemingly out of proportion to the givers' resources. To the shock or chagrin of friends and family, these gifts often require donors to make sacrifices or at least live more modestly than their income would allow.
Three examples: Nabuko Kajitani, the retired art museum worker who donated $1 million to the NYC Asian Cultural Council; Joyce Hergenhan, the retired GE manager who “has made gifts and pledges of $8 million to various charities”; Neurosurgeon James Doty, who will give “99% of his net worth”--$28 million-- to an HIV/AIDS program named for his brother, who died of AIDS.

The article searches for explanations behind these donors’ actions, such as changes in tax laws, a desire to add meaning to their lives, and childhood influences (“Stretch donors often are influenced by the giving and spending patterns they witnessed when younger”).

I prefer not trying to be so rational---that we simply acknowledge the noble, selfless acts of a few human beings who simply behave “better” than the rest of us. Falling far short, I can but aspire to follow their example, as well as that of the unnamed woman who has inspired more acts of charity than all the kings of history:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything - all she had to live on." (Mark 12:41-44)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Not Too Hot

The heat wave scorched the rest of the West, but those who dwelt by the Bay were spared its worst. Inlanders fled to the air-conditioned comfort of shopping malls and movie theaters. Here, the light breezes mitigated the heat and drew people out, cooling T-shirted tourists and suited businessmen alike.

The lines at the cable car station snaked around the Powell & Market turntable, but there were no lines one block away at the Apple Store. I played around with the product that everyone is talking about. First impressions: beautiful screen but aging eyes will have trouble reading the tiny print, very cumbersome to type on, slow Internet (maybe not Apple’s fault), and good sound. Much better than my basic phone that costs 10% as much. The iPhone is really a mini-computer with a mike. Maybe the ultimate game is to have it displace laptops as well as other handsets, but you’ll still need a PC or Mac at home or office to host the data and sync it up. If I were a laptop manufacturer, I’d be worried.

I kept my credit card holstered and will wait for iPhone v 2. Meanwhile, as a holder of Apple stock, I wish them every success.

In mid-afternoon the fog rolled through the Golden Gate, engulfing Alcatraz and lapping the edges of Treasure Island. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day, 2007

View of Foster City's annual fireworks display from the Beach Park bridge.

Balboa Park

Statue of El Cid

San Diego is renowned for outdoor landmarks, like its zoo and Sea World, but it has attractions that will appear to the indoor crowd, too. Balboa Park has been nicknamed Smithsonian west because of the 15 museums that dot its 1,200 acres (“the nation’s largest urban cultural park”) near downtown San Diego.

The museum pass entitles the pass-holder to one visit per museum over a consecutive seven-day period. The price was a bargain $35 (no charge for parking). We spent three leisurely days walking around Balboa Park and its museums. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the temperature never rose above 80 degrees.

Hall of Champions, Balboa Park

Our first visit was to the Hall of Champions, which honors sports figures who have a connection with San Diego.

The youngster was impressed that I knew most of the names on the chart that explained football's West Coast Offense. Like most casual fans, he thought 49er coach Bill Walsh developed the short-passing ball-control offense that achieved spectacular success in the 1980's, but the chart showed that the originators of West-Coast-Offense principles were San Diego Chargers coaches Sid Gillman and Don Coryell.

Tony Gwynn played for the Padres during his entire career, had the highest lifetime batting average (.338) of players beginning their careers after World War II, won the National League batting title eight times, and will be inducted to the Hall of Fame later this month.

Ted Williams, aka the "Splendid Splinter", was the last Major League player to hit over .400 (.406 in 1941) for a season. He was born in San Diego and played for the then-minor-league Padres before beginning his Hall of Fame career with the Red Sox.

There's even a connection with my home state. When Duke Kahanamoku visited Southern California in the early 1900's, San Diego became one of the first cities on the Mainland to embrace surfing. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, July 02, 2007

Global Cooling?

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
--Robert Frost
The theory of stellar evolution predicts that in five billion years the sun will become a red giant.
Earth's biosphere will be destroyed as the Sun gets brighter while its hydrogen supply becomes depleted. The extra solar energy will cause the oceans to evaporate to space, causing Earth's atmosphere to become temporarily similar to that of Venus, before its atmosphere also gets driven off into space.
After it burns off the last of its hydrogen, the sun will implode to the size of a planet but keep most of its mass. The dense white dwarf will flicker for billions of years before it winks out in the blackness of space. The earth, if it has not already been incinerated by the red giant, is destined to be a frozen, atmosphere-less husk accompanying its former sun and sister planets on their final dark journey.

Whether or not mankind is the principal cause of the earth’s recent warming trend is a subject for debate, but surely everyone must agree that the effects of solar changes can and will ultimately dwarf any impact that homo sapiens has on earth’s condition.

Some scientists theorize that variations in the earth’s orbit are the primary cause of earth’s cycles of glacier expansion and contraction. They believe that the imminent danger is that of a new ice age, not rising temperatures.
[G]lobal warming always precedes an ice age. That makes the current period of global warming a mere blip that constitutes additional indication of the ice age to come.

"I feel we're on pretty solid ground in interpreting orbit around the sun as the primary driving force behind ice-age glaciation. The relationship is just too clear and consistent to allow reasonable doubt," Dr. Kukla said. "It's either that, or climate drives orbit, and that just doesn't make sense."
I don’t know what or whom to believe, but while our state of knowledge is in flux it’s grating and presumptuous for one side to declare that its point of view is settled science.

I get my religion straight on Sundays, but at least I know when I'm worshipping. © 2007 Stephen Yuen