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

But Dear, It's for the Good of Humanity

Older men who shack up with much younger women keep the grim reaper at bay for the human population and extend our species' lifespan, new research claims.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Thriller-noir author Charlie Huston talks about the conflict between craftsmanship and commerce.
You get to a stage where there isn't a lot of time to reflect on decisions you are making in plot and the prose. You have to forge ahead and keep things moving. That sometimes necessitates some simplicity in the choices you are making. I might want to craft a sentence and ponder over it for a week but that week isn't there. Or I might be at a point where I don't want to go with a genre convention but I have to produce some pages. [snip]

You learn economy. It strips away self-indulgence. Just in the act itself it requires a certain amount of humility. You have to accept the fact that you might feel you can do better but in the moment you have to make a choice. Writing is an art but also a craft, which means it's a job. I don't teach. This is how the groceries get on the table. You sometimes make creative sacrifices to get the job done.
Perfection is a luxury that very few of us can afford. We have to get the work to a minimum acceptable standard---a standard that seems to keep rising in all areas of human endeavor---and then move on to the next project. In organizations it’s unfortunate that the least enjoyable tasks, such as reviewing subordinates’ work, are those that can bite us the hardest if we’re not paying attention. Charlie Huston is lucky; he has only himself to worry about. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, September 13, 2007

No Obvious Bias

The WSJ has been running a poll to ascertain whether readers' purchasing habits would change or have changed in the wake of much higher gas prices. We're a 40-gallon-per-month household, so even if the price were to rise to, say, $10 per gallon we wouldn't cut back on our driving or reduce our spending in other areas. That's only if we view the question narrowly.

At the $10 level the general economy would be affected in numerous ways. More companies would go out of business, more people would be thrown out of work, and the changed environment would cause us to change our behavior. For example, if the local supermarket closed, or the school district suspended its bus system, our daily routine would be disrupted. Another example of how polls can mislead, even if questions do not have an obvious bias. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Poll results as of 5:30 a.m. PDT.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ancient Lesson

After a stressful morning of meetings, calls, and correspondence, it was time to take a breather. I hopped on to the 1 California at the foot of Sacramento and rode it up to Stockton.

At the Bank of America branch the teller—he looked barely out of high school—addressed me in Cantonese but switched immediately to English when I said, Good afternoon, I’d like to pay my mortgage. He looked at the modest balance on the statement. “Would you like a home equity loan?” No, thank you. “But we’re running a promotion. There are no fees or closing costs.” No, thank you. “It won’t cost you anything.” No. But I admired his persistence. He’ll be the manager some day.

The main reason I continue to carry the first is that the rate is a low 5.25%. The return on my investments exceeds the cost of the mortgage--although with the recent market action a lot less comfortably--and it’s nice to have some extra liquidity. Any new home equity line is unlikely to be drawn upon because the rate floats at a wide spread over an index; B of A is currently offering new loans at an expensive 7.49%.

Lost in the fairness furor over bailing out subprime borrowers and lenders is any discussion about the risk-averse saps like me who elected to pay (a lot) more by locking in their costs. My 5.25% fixed rate looks low today, but lenders then were offering under 4%, albeit with refinancing risk. Some of the people who are now feeling pain have been paying many thousands less than I have over the past decade. By bailing them out, we’re going to make sure that those who won when rates went down won’t lose now that they have gone up. If you dwell on the unfairness long enough, it’s easy to give in to your anger, Luke.

Speaking of Luke, one of the earliest lessons they teach us in Sunday school is the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son demands his inheritance, blows it on wine and women, and returns, humbled, starving and pleading for a job, to his father. The father, rather than remonstrating him, is overjoyed and throws a feast. (There’s not a perfect parallel to the present day subprime mess, since as far as this observer can tell, there’s little repentance on the part of those who misbehaved; they’re going to do it again.)

But the parable is also about the elder son, who is angry that he has been obedient his entire life without such recognition.
Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!

And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’
I can identify with all of them--the wastrel son who regrets his spender bender, the father who forgives his children anything, and the older son who resents that his brother was rewarded, not punished. By far the hardest path is trod by the obedient son; when he can truly accept his father's decision without rancor, he will have achieved a state of grace. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

At the Transamerica Redwood Park city dwellers are closer to the Divine.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Let Me Rephrase That

I finally bought one, but…..

Colleague: "What are you doing this weekend?"
Me: "I’m going to play with my Wii."

Although there are thousands of Google hits on that phrase and its variations, don’t expect to see it in Nintendo's next holiday marketing campaign.

Friday, September 07, 2007


"People were dropping change in his [keyboard case] not realizing the guy is worth millions."

Sometimes you think a piece is about one thing, then it turn into something else. Today’s WSJ headline, How Market Turmoil Waylaid the 'Quants', sounds like another in a series of sober financial articles about the ongoing turmoil in the capital markets. To be sure, it touches briefly on some of the mathematical models used by financial whiz-kids, techniques as far removed from buy-and-hold as a rocket from a hang-glider.

But then it turns into a profile of Peter Muller. Grizzled Wall Street veteran at 43, Peter Muller ran Morgan Stanley’s largest internal fund, quit, wrote crossword puzzles for the New York Times, recorded a couple of jazz piano albums, and won nearly $100,000 in a World Poker tournament. But he was too good at making money, and Morgan Stanley lured him back last year. Recent market troubles seem to have energized him.
Mr. Muller has been playing detective to avoid repeating past mistakes, peppering friends with questions about the performance of his peers, asking pointedly which funds got in trouble and which did better…..Mr. Muller has told friends that the August swoon presents opportunities for experienced managers like him.
My high school counselor gave us these words of encouragement: every one of us has something that he can do better than 90% of the population. Peter Muller can do it better than 99.99% in at least four very different fields of human endeavor. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Laboring but not Working

Oracle HQ. (For front view in 2004, see here.)

The needle passed 90 degrees as we biked south to Redwood Shores. Sweat soaked through our shirts as we approached the Burger King. That was far enough for this weekend warrior. Air conditioning, a cold drink, and lunch, just the ticket on a hot day.

We watched a few planes and helicopters take off from the nearby San Carlos airport. Traffic, both auto and air, was light this holiday weekend. On the return I had to stop due to dust particles in my eye. A passing cyclist asked if everything was okay, which it soon was. Nice of him to ask, though.

We arrived home in short order. A shower, a nap and a toast to the American labor movement, without whom this long weekend would not be possible.

The Belmont Slough, with Foster City houses on the left.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Good Headline

The headline for the Chron's article on the Summer of Love's 40th anniversary celebration. How to mock the baby boomers without dissing their values.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Different World

KarmaGirl posts a Bucky Covington song--how things have changed in just a few years:
We were born to mothers who smoked and drank
Our cribs were covered in lead-based paint
No childproof lids
No seatbelts in cars
Rode bikes with no helmets
and still here we are
Still here we are

We got daddy's belt when we misbehaved
Had three TV channels you got up to change
No video games and no satellite
All we had were friends and they were outside
Playing outside

It was a different life
When we were boys and girls
Not just a different time
It was a different world

School always started the same everyday
the pledge of allegiance, then someone would pray
not every kid made the team when they tried
We got disappointed but that was alright
We turned out alright

It was a different life
When we were boys and girls
Not just a different time
It was a different world

No bottled water
We'd drink from a garden hose
And every Sunday,
All the stores were closed.

It was a different life
When we were boys and girls
Not just a different time
It was a different world

It was a different life
When we were boys and girls
Not just a different time
It was a different world

It was a different world

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Johnny Can't Read But He Can Graduate

At the open house the youngster’s teachers were effusive. “It’s a joy to have him in the class.” That’s what they say when a student beats low expectations. Yale and Stanford are not in his future, but we’re pleased because his future is much improved . He’s been in special education all his life, but he was able to pass half of California’s high school exit exam last year without accommodations. He says he wants to go to college, and we’ve started to look into programs designed for students with special needs.

Special education, by the way, is (another) government program that’s filled with perverse incentives. In the most recent article in its series, The Wall Street Journal covers the phenomenon of schools allowing special ed students to graduate without the requisite knowledge or skills. Parents are
disappointed not because their children are failing, but because they're passing without learning. These families complain that schools give their children an easy academic ride through regular-education classes, undermining a new era of higher expectations for the 14% of U.S. students who are in special education.
What’s not stated clearly in the article is that when a special ed student receives a regular diploma he no longer qualifies for government benefits. If our student were to fail the exit exam, he will receive a high school “certificate of attendance”, under which he can still qualify for benefits and go to college. But if he passes, he will be cut off, and we will have to bear the cost of his therapy and accommodations. We’ll support our student to fulfill his dream of graduating with the regular kids, but I can see why other parents would be conflicted with many thousands of dollars at stake.

© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Ms. B taught French to our older son as well.

[See here for a post on an earlier open house.]

Life Expectancy

Northwestern Mutual's questionnaire applet to predict one's life expectancy only takes a couple of minutes to complete. It says that I could expect to live to 85. Losing 20 pounds raises my projected life span to 86. I'm not sure living an extra year is worth the effort of going on a diet-and-exercise program and disciplining myself for the rest of my life to keep it off.

The good news is that I won't be lonely. My spouse should outlive me by a substantial margin--perhaps one of the reasons she's urging me to keep building the nest egg and not retire early.