Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ducks and Cover, with Flowers

The cable box cover is an ugly lime green. One afternoon it appeared on our lawn, and I became acquainted with the term "easement". (It means that someone can come on your property and you can't stop them.) The cable company's arrogance wasn't the main reason we switched to satellite TV, but it was a factor. When we upgrade to high definition, cable won't be our first choice.

The ducks don't have an easement, but they go wherever they want according to a much older law. Speaking of the law of nature, ducks scatter natural fertilizer around Foster City, beneficial to our lawns and flowers but not so attractive to our cars and decks.

It's been atypically cool this summer, and the plants have used less water. A good thing, because if we have another dry winter water cutbacks, even rationing, could be in store next year. (California is now technically in a drought.) Showering with a friend--an Eighties tradition that's ripe for revival. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Forms in our Future

For the first time in my life I donated to a candidate for political office. No, it wasn’t a large sum. (It was $199---one dollar below the level where I would have to fill out those bothersome disclosure forms.)

I haven’t donated before because of a truce with my partner. Most of the time our votes cancel each other out and there’s no point in my sending a check to Hatfield if she’s going to respond with a donation to McCoy. But this time is different. We’re in rare accord on this particular race. She’ll be contributing her $199 soon, and, if we’re still enthusiastic in the fall, perhaps there will be disclosure forms in our future.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama Humor: It's There if You Look for It

Two months ago I posted without comment this observation by economist Thomas Sowell:
If Barack Obama had given a speech on bowling, it might well have been brilliant and inspiring. But instead he actually tried bowling and threw a gutter ball. The contrast between talking and doing could not have been better illustrated.
This was a bit too much for Joyce, whom I’ve known for over 40 years and who now lives in Chicago:
Steve, that was a rather cheap & mean shot. Ditto for your comments (a subsequent post) on Michelle Obama. I've read quite a few interviews of her (she is, after all, from Chicago) & I was impressed. She comes from a family that was working poor: her father has MS but he had a municipal job & supported his family. Aloha, Joyce
It’s tempting to go down the low road. Every day The Daily Show and Colbert take far cheaper and meaner shots at McCain than Sowell did on Obama. But the outcome of elections is certainly not worth losing friendships over. And I don’t want to chase Joyce away. She’s the only one who regularly reads this blog besides my mother. Anyway, here’s my answer back:
Joyce, IMHO Barack Obama has the thinnest resume of any major candidate for the Presidency during my lifetime. Law professor, community organizer, state senator, and U.S. Senator for less than one term. He's a great speechmaker, but what has he done? To me the bowling episode, minor though it is, exemplifies the risk the country is taking. If I had to choose among Democrats Hillary, Biden, Richardson, Gore, and Obama to be our President, BHO would be dead last.

Concerning Michelle, anyone who's overcome obstacles is worthy of admiration. Perhaps Obama opponents have very selectively culled her speeches for snippets that make her appear angry and ungrateful for the enormous gift of living in this wonderful country. I hope that you're right, for she is likely to be our next First Lady.
Now this pun is cheap and mean. But c’mon, it’s funny.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lunch Break

The tall ships began firing their cannons around noon. The booms reverberated around our floor. Don’t they know some of us are trying to work here?

I went outside to enjoy the sun and mild weather. Picking up a plate of asparagus chicken at the Chinese take-out restaurant, I spotted two former co-workers lunching together.

P. is a retiree who’s saved enough to go on cruises to exotic locales several times a year. She rarely drives her new German car because she’s hardly at home. She looked tanned and trim. I complimented her on her appearance, and she returned the favor. I scanned her face for any hint of insincerity, but she’s not the dissembling sort. She complained about the cost of retiree health insurance. I said that if she’s looking for sympathy she’s come to the wrong place.

L. is a star at a business that we spun off two years ago. She just returned from having her second child and looks as svelte as ever. Her husband works full time, and the kids are watched by grandma. The ladies are a generation apart, but both seemed to be in control of their lives, no mean achievement in a decade of disruptions. After ten minutes of banter, I withdrew. P. didn’t come to the City to see me.

After lunch the cannons continued their booming. I needed to concentrate. It was time for the Serenity Prayer.

The Serenity Prayer

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous, this is perhaps the best-known prayer to have originated in the 20th century. The prayer has often been attributed to philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, who as Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro points out, “made clear that he [Niebuhr] believed he had originated it” sometime during the 1940’s.

In this month’s issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine Mr. Shapiro recounts how he conducted an exhaustive search of newspapers, magazines, religious materials, and other documents to substantiate Niebuhr’s authorship but could not prove or disprove it conclusively. This research is an excellent example of scholarship for its own sake, and the absence of a tidy answer is sadly more rule than exception.

In addition to being a source of strength for millions, the prayer is admirable in its brevity, wisdom, and beauty. If one believes that the grace of God confers serenity, then surely it’s only a small leap to believe that grace also came amazingly to the writer of these words.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Bishop's Ranch

The youngster started church youth camp last weekend. He had friends who were going, and he had been looking forward to the retreat for a month. He gathered all the items on the packing list and filled his suitcase, a first for his personal organization.

Despite our lifelong affiliation with the Episcopal Church, we had never made the two hour drive north to the Bishop’s Ranch. Traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge last Sunday was heavy, belying reports that the price of gas had prompted a drop in discretionary driving. The posted prices, between $4.45 to $4.55 per gallon along Highway 101, matched those on the Peninsula. I was mildly pleased that the privileged denizens of Marin County suffered the same as we did. It wasn’t schadenfreude, more like misery loving company.

The Bishop’s Ranch is about six miles off the freeway, nestled among the vineyards near Healdsburg. Its buildings and landscaping were neat, well-maintained, and welcoming. At 5:15 p.m. he was one of the last to arrive. I counted over 30 kids, about an even split of girls and boys. Thank goodness there was plenty of supervision. We helped him unpack, gave him a hug, and wished him well.

It had only been a few hours, but I felt my nasal passages clearing in the dry air. A mound of work was waiting for me on my desk, but spending an unplanned vacation day in wine country became immensely appealing.

Friends have told me that at my age (ahem) it’s okay to stop working for the future. I left the freeway and pointed the car east. Time for some instant gratification.

The Kenwood Inn

The Kenwood Inn and Spa is just off the Sonoma Highway, and the driveway is easy to miss when one is traveling 50 miles per hour. In Sonoma County signage is discreet, a plus for esthetics but a minus for tourists who want to drive quickly to their destination.

The Kenwood Inn labors valiantly—and largely succeeds—in keeping civilization at bay. The walls and shrubbery shield most of the road noise, and there are no TV’s in the rooms. Guests are forced to converse, go for a stroll, listen to music, sit by the fire, read a book (each room does have a stereo, a fireplace, and a stocked bookshelf), partake of one or more spa treatments, or possibly engage in activities best left undescribed in this family journal. If you’re looking for electronic distractions or loud music and entertainment, this is definitely not the place.

I had stayed there once before at a small gathering of our business customers, where I found the soothing environment to be conducive to conversation and just getting to know other human beings. If the other human being is your partner who’s heard every story you have to tell a dozen times, at least the 13th will be recounted on a couch next to the fire.

The Girl and the Fig

That night we went to Sonoma Plaza and parked near a corner which had five restaurants in sight. My partner had a good feeling about the both the name and posted menu of The Girl and the Fig. Although it was 9 PM on a Sunday night, we had to wait half an hour for a table. We nibbled on three varieties of goat cheese, fruit, and fig (bien sûr!) while seated on a comfortable sectional in the waiting area.

I ordered the prix fixe meal---escargots, grilled fish and shrimp, and a selection of silver-dollar-sized cakes for dessert. She ordered a radish salad. An extra plate allowed us to share everything. The snails were tender but were my only quibble with the entire meal; I prefer my escargots to have a stronger garlic bite. The radish and seafood (on two skewers, perfect for splitting) were crisp and flavorful. The cakes, dark chocolate, coconut peach, and mocha cream, perfectly complemented the strong coffee which ended the meal.

On the drive back to the hotel I missed the left turn off the unlit road. No problem. On this unscheduled vacation day I was off the clock.

In Small Doses

In the morning at the Kenwood Inn one awakens to the sound of water. There is flowing water everywhere, from fountains, water wheels, or an overhead pipe into the pool. We took our time getting ready and ambled along the stone path to the dining room.

There were a couple of businessmen, distinguishable not so much by their ties but the hurried manner in which they downed their coffee and flipped through the Chronicle. But most of the other diners were like us, casually dressed and moving at a relaxed pace. We helped ourselves to croissants, juice, and coffee. A few minutes later the waitress brought us a spinach omelet and fresh fruit.

After an hour we returned to the room to pack. We had the patio all to ourselves, so we lingered till noon sipping coffee. The mound of work back at the office needed to be attended to, so we pulled ourselves away. Instant gratification should be taken in small doses.

The curtained outdoor spa overlooks the pool.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Right Stuff

Sixty years ago the Soviets shut off access to West Berlin. Michael Barone writes:
Secretary of State George Marshall and Joint Chiefs Chairman Omar Bradley, two of America's most respected generals, felt Berlin was indefensible and we should withdraw. One man disagreed. President Harry Truman, in one crucial meeting after another, said, "We're not leaving Berlin."
The Berlin airlift was born. American planes took off and landed every 90 seconds, and the Soviets backed down the following year.
The lessons are clear. Stand fast. Put the right men in charge. And never doubt the capacity of the men and women of the American military, when given the right orders, to perform far better than the experts predict.

Wonderful to Have Options

Unlike most Californians, we who live on the mid-Peninsula have mass-transit options that are cost- and time-effective. For a commute from Foster City to San Francisco we can choose among an express bus (it stops a block from my house and drops me off a block from the office), CalTrain and BART. The door-to-door time during rush hour is roughly the same, about 70 minutes for each system.

The bus is the clear winner from the standpoint of cost:

Despite the expense I prefer to buy the CalTrain monthly pass package, which includes parking at CalTrain stations and unlimited rides on San Francisco’s Municipal Railway---helpful if one wants to make short trips around San Francisco during lunchtime.

CalTrain bypasses the occasional traffic stoppages on Highway 101 and operates until midnight, while the evening bus’ last run is at 6:30. CalTrain is also the only transit alternative that permits eating and drinking (including alcohol which I only imbibe on the way home for medicinal reasons of course).

On Thursday the morning news said that a broken track in San Mateo resulted in a half-hour delay in both directions. So I drove north to Millbrae and snagged the next train to San Francisco (if none arrived I would have switched to BART a few feet away). It’s wonderful to have options. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

He Hit a Slick

John McCain has trouble reading from a teleprompter. In the unveiling of his energy plan a view days ago
he hit a slick.

“I have set before the American people an energy plan, the Lex-eegton Project,” Mr. McCain said, drawing a quick breath and correcting himself. “The Lex-ing-ton Proj-ect,” he said slowly. “The Lexington Project,” he repeated. “Remember that name.”
To the cognoscenti most Republicans are barely literate boobs who, like the current inhabitant of the Oval Office, mangle the English language. However, I don’t think a lack of mental alertness, knowledge, or speaking ability is the explanation for Senator McCain’s verbal slip-ups. I was once a quick reader-out-loud, too, but with time’s passage visual acuity has slowly deteriorated, accompanied by a small but noticeable delay in the mind’s registering of what the eyes are seeing. So when it’s my turn to read the Sunday lesson out loud in church, I slow down not only because listeners can hear better but because I have to in order to keep my place. The trick is to slow down without being "slow".

If eye-mouth or eye-hand coordination was John McCain’s only problem it wouldn’t be a big deal, since he’s not trying to beat Barack Obama in a videogame. But Mr. McCain has got other obstacles to overcome.

Do you think that the difference on TV between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon was wide? Between Barack Obama and John McCain it’s a chasm: youth vs. age, tall vs. short, cool vs. hot, sexy vs. seventy, sonorous vs. snore-mous.

But John McCain has a chance because TV is no longer a new medium. It’s a rare late-night viewer who hasn’t been duped by ads for ginsu knives, miracle weight-loss programs, or courses on how to get rich in real estate (or commodities or options). The smooth-talking con artist is easily familiar, an American archetype dating back to Huckleberry Finn.

If the Republicans can turn Barack Obama into Harold Hill—endearing, funny, eloquent, but in the end all talk, no action and perhaps, even a coward when the chips are down—then John McCain has a puncher’s chance. But is he cruel enough to wage such a campaign? The temptation of the Presidency has overwhelmed other good and decent men. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

No Love in Return

On Monday morning I trashed my treasures. The Macintosh LC with its 40MB hard drive and Motorola 68020 processor (blazing 25 MHz speed!) was the first to go. It had cost over $2,000, which back in 1990 was real money. But after ten years of collecting dust and spider webs in the garage, its day had come. Next to the curb was its successor, the Powertower Pro, a 1996 Macintosh clone also bought for $2,000. Its 604e chip and 96 MB of RAM---later upgraded to 512 MB---lasted for eight years, growing increasingly creaky under the weight of bloated software and graphics-rich web pages. The switch from dial-up to DSL was the tipping point, and in early 2005 the Powertower Pro went dark.

Also tossed on the heap were cellphones, handheld games, a monitor, batteries, cables, scanners, modems, printers, and a 25-year-old TV. The hard disk drives required special handling because they contained some financial and personal information. I removed them from the chassis after much unscrewing, tugging, pulling, and expletiving (I forgot how much trouble it used to be to disassemble computers).

The youngster drilled holes in the drives and bashed them with a hammer for good measure. Usually he’s not too keen to help, but he took to this mission with enthusiasm. It appears that he has some talent in the art of destruction; well, not everyone can be an inventor or creator.

I stapled the filled-out green recycling form to the box. The companions with whom I spent a good part of my life were gone by 9 a.m. But sadness passed quickly. They never showed me any love in return. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, July 05, 2008

No Independence from Party Poopers

KRON 4 environmental reporter Charles Clifford expounds (link to video here) on the damage fireworks cause to the environment. Fireworks emit smoke, particulate matter, and toxic metals.

No human activity is exempt from sin against the new fundamentalism. (The mere act of breathing adds the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.) So rather than let the new religion make you feel guilty about the experiences that give life pleasure---a vacation trip, viewing your flat-screen TV, and watching fireworks---declare your Independence from the environmental god this weekend and grill a good steak. And if you must, buy a few indulgences, I mean carbon credits, to make you feel better.

Below are the final two minutes of Foster City's fireworks celebration, as seen from the Beach Park bridge a half mile away.

© 2008 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Barack's People

Americans tend to dislike Barack Obama’s wife, Michelle, and admire John McCain’s wife, Cindy, according to a new poll that could prove problematic for the Democratic ticket.

“Michelle Obama is twice as disliked as Cindy McCain,” [35 pct vs. 17 pct ] The Associated Press reported after surveying 1,759 adults.
Her comments from earlier this year are still dogging her:
In February, the 44-year-old Obama sparked an uproar by asserting that “for the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” In March, she described America as “just downright mean.”
Job interviewers say that the impression one makes during the first minute is likely to persist throughout the interview. In short-attention-span America the first impression most had of Michelle Obama was as negative as her husband’s was positive. Despite her blessed life Michelle seemed resentful and angry.

This November we’ll be weighing two men’s character, decision-making, and political views. But more so with Barack Obama than any Presidential candidate in memory we’ll be looking at the people who’ve walked with him on life’s journey---his pastor, his business, education, and non-profit associates, and of course his family. Our mothers told us not to hang around with certain people. Barack’s people may yet cause his undoing. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

But their two daughters are a big plus.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Warnings Confirmed

No, the slowdown that I saw in my recent trip to Las Vegas (see post below) wasn't the product of imagination. According to the WSJ:
The industry is facing what insiders and analysts call its biggest challenge in years. Rising gasoline prices, the housing crisis and other economic troubles are prompting consumers not just to gamble less, but to spend less at the luxury boutiques and restaurants where casinos draw most of their profits. Struggling airlines are cutting service to Las Vegas. And pressures are building on casinos that cater to local residents, who have been hard hit by economic troubles.

"This is the toughest environment we've faced," says Gary Loveman, chief executive of global gambling giant Harrah's Entertainment Inc., referring to the economic challenges roiling the entire industry.
And Main Street Station, the casino where we stayed, is owned by one of the companies that undertook an ambitious spending plan just as the market turned south:
Among those hard hit by the local decline is Boyd Gaming, started in 1975 by Sam Boyd and his son, Bill. The publicly traded company is bidding to become a big player on the Strip, via a $5 billion casino development on 87 acres. The project, called Echelon, is slated to include five luxury hotels, a retail promenade and an exposition center.

Boyd is committed to funding $3.3 billion of the project, through a $4 billion credit line and its own cash. Despite the economic pressures and project costs, company officials say, Boyd has solid cash flow and a strong balance sheet. But Boyd has had to rely more on its credit facility as profits wane. Boyd reported a $32 million loss in its latest quarter.
I'm glad I grabbed all the freebie meals that I did. They may not be there the next time.