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