Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Kinda True

A small donation to the Friends-of-the-Library renovation fund prompted their request for a commemorative inscription. With a 60-character limit, including spaces, it would have to be the picture of pithiness.

Two hours of Googling yielded hundreds of quotations about reading, knowledge, books, and libraries from the famous and not-so-famous. Since none inspired, I composed my own. 

Not finding happiness, I sought knowledge. Now I have both. 

Go ahead and mock, but it's kinda true (for me).         

Friday, December 25, 2009

Songs of the Season - Part 1

[Note: this post has been bumped to the top so video clips appear in order.]

In the 1990’s my employer had enough of a talent pool to put together a decent holiday choir. From ten years ago…

Songs of the Season - Part 2

An old chestnut, plus Santa cracks up under the pressure.

Songs of the Season - Part 3

An unserious musical history of the Twelve Days of Christmas. I like the Hawaiian lyrics myself ("a mynah bird in one papaya tree").

Songs of the Season - Part 4

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now.

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow...

But the fates do not allow. Our time together is too fleeting, gone in the wink of an eye. Like the ghostly watchers in Grover's Corners, we have an eternity to mull the regrets of moments unappreciated until too late.

On this Christmas and in the New Year, resolve not to let that happen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mellow Not Gone

I didn't go to the beach once. I never ventured outside the narrow corridor between central Honolulu and the airport. Yet it was a great trip. We visited family. We shopped. We ate all the ethnic cuisines. We wore T-shirts and perspired.

Now we're back in Northern California, where the temperatures are 30 degrees lower overnight. Lots of year-end busy-ness (reports, financial and tax planning, Christmas cards and gifts, etc.) to harsh my mellow, but the mellow isn't totally gone. I really must get back there more often---that's one New Year's resolution that it will be a pleasure to strive for.

The volcano beef at the Mini Garden on Beretania.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Price of Paradise

After doing battle with roaches, ants, and African snails—the downside of staying at a relative’s house—I came across a 2004 blog post that could have been written yesterday:
When people ask (in a nice way) why I don't move back to Hawaii, I cite familiar reasons: Honolulu's traffic, the sometimes oppressive humidity, and the lack of job opportunities. But that's the left brain talking. What I don't miss at all are the things that go squish.

As a child I was very careful to watch where I was stepping, especially at night. African snails made a distinctive wet crunch, and their dark slime was hard to clean from the ridges of one's slippers.
Hawaii’s humidity, warmth, and 2,000-mile distance from the nearest continent made it conducive to rapid evolution. Here there are hundreds of unique species, many of them endangered. Fecundity begat diversity, which is the benefit of living in a tropical environment where squishy things crawl underfoot.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Not So Sacred, Though It Came From the Sky

"I think the matter isn't ‘procedure, procedure, procedure.’... You can't just put forth some text from the sky," the representative said.
With the recent stories on getting to 60 [votes in the Senate], Medicare expansion, the public option, and 2,000-page bills that no one has read, one might think that the above quote came from an opponent of health care legislation.  But one would be wrong.

These words were spoken by a Chinese delegate to the climate conference in Copenhagen.

It's now impossible to hide the decline.   

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I had been daydreaming through the service, when I heard the preacher quote John the Baptist: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the Wrath of Khan!” My estimation of John the Baptist rose immediately. Sure, he was a prophet with anger issues, but if he could foretell Kirk and Spock, not to mention the Eugenics Wars of the late 20th century, we should cut him some slack (more generous than Herod, who cut off his head). The Star Trek universe is fiction, but just you try distinguishing factual and fictional temporal vibrations from two thousand years in the future. Heck, PhDs in climatology can’t even tell fact from fiction from 40 years in the past; maybe working with mercury thermometers damaged their brains.

Just to verify what I had heard, I turned to the third chapter of Luke. John warned about the “wrath to come”, not the depredations of a genetically engineered superman named Khan Noonien Singh, who by the way aged into a graceful host on an island where dreams came true. (Ricardo Montalban died earlier this year and I like to imagine is looking down on us from his comfortable perch made of Corinthian leather.) The secret prophecies of John the Baptist would’ve been a great premise for Dan Brown’s next novel.

The preacher gave an old-fashioned stemwinder [19th century term derived from the superiority of the stem-wound over the key-wound watch, “battery powered quartz-er” doesn’t have the same ring] about how the masks we wear conceal our true selves. An old theme, no worse for the retelling in the 99-year-old church where we were wed over 30 years ago. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Our Own Private Marathon

The flight from San Francisco to Honolulu went smoothly. United's triple-7 was quiet and comfortable in "economy plus" ($57 per seat more expensive but worth it if you, um, need more room), and the 5½ hours passed quickly. We had our bags by six, just in time for dinner. We ticked off a few dining possibilities and then did the palm across the forehead.

Of course. Big City Diner, the original funky outlet in Kaimuki (that's on Waialae Avenue in Honolulu, malihinis).

One of us went for the kimchi fried rice (top), and another for the loco moco(bottom), a triglyceride-laden concoction beloved by Island natives. Showing restraint, we passed up dessert.

Thousands of runners, more than half from Japan, are here this weekend for the Honolulu Marathon. On Thursday we started our own marathon / moveable feast at Big City. Looks like we're going to need "economy plus" on the return trip, too.

My Only Comment on the Travails of Tiger Woods

I've always admired Tiger for the smoothness of his stroke and his controlled fade. But he seems to have lost the ability to get out of trouble or up and down.

His golf is pretty good, too.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Delusion of Progress

The good news: leaving the freezing cold, I'm off to Hawaii again this year to visit the extended family. The bad: a host of business and personal projects are in various stages of incompletion ("disarray" is a harsh term but may be more descriptive).    

I did bring the work to the land I first called home, but whom am I kidding? Nearly 40 years ago I hauled a suitcase full of textbooks from Connecticut to Hawaii and back. Over Christmas the only items cracked open were seeds, but somehow I managed to get through freshman finals.

Today, though, with smartphones, laptop computers, and the Internet, the physical burden of self-delusion is much lighter. Progress of a sort.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Unsettled Science

Waking to a cold house, I suffered a brief pang of guilt before I turned on the furnace. Burning natural gas to stop my shivering seemed so self-indulgent, but then I thought of the 1,200 limos ordered for the Copenhagen climate summit and decided that if our leaders can spew tons of CO2 going to a meeting, surely the atmosphere can tolerate a few more pounds from me.

Temperatures are near-freezing outside, and snow is dusting the hilltops. Yahoo's Weather Watches and Warnings breathlessly advises:
The National Weather Service San Francisco Bay Area has issued a frost advisory…which is in effect from midnight tonight to 9 a.m. PST Tuesday for coastal sections of the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas.
More often than not, the Bay Area doesn't see any frost or snow throughout the year. But the frost is not a terrible inconvenience. We don't have to shovel snow as do poor souls in other parts of the country.

Speaking of shoveling, the Environmental Protection Agency is readying a raft of new regulations because carbon dioxide has been declared a dangerous pollutant. Such a conclusion to these concededly inexpert eyes is a gross and premature overreach. Much of the "science" has been discredited in recent weeks by the discovery that data had been massaged, destroyed, and cherry-picked. Computer models were coded to force certain results. Channeling Donald Rumsfeld, the rot is so widespread that we don't even know what we know and don't know.

So disgraceful has been the behavior of some global warming advocates that one is tempted to swing to the opposite extreme and claim that anthropogenic global warming doesn't exist or, at least, is unimportant. But everyone should resist seizing conclusions based upon an emotional response.

There are still credible arguments in favor of AGW, just as there are criticisms that have not been convincingly refuted. Today's WSJ has an excellent summary.

What is clear is that we shouldn't be passing laws when our knowledge is in such a state of flux. Great harm can come to our economy from some of the government actions being proposed. And no credible case has been made that inaction puts us in immediate danger, not with frost covering our lawn this morning in balmy California. © 2009 Stephen Yuen
CBS5 video: "We're in for a hard freeze tonight."

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Barack on the Brink (as a Comic Target)

In July I noted how comedians, like the mainstream media, continued to beat the dead Republican horse while ignoring the live braying donkey in front of them.
The leading comedians are overwhelmingly liberal. David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart still choose to joke about Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney's miscues but largely ignore the rich lode of material produced daily by this Administration. It will be interesting to see whether the comics and their writers can continue to hold their fire for four years and stifle themselves, to use Archie Bunker's phrase.
We just may be reaching the comedy tipping point. From last night’s Jay Leno monologue:
The Washington Post suggested today that this party-crashing couple may have had a long history of deceiving people. Well, no wonder they fit in at the White House!
The dam is about to break. Once the respect is lost, you never get it back.

Gas Rising

The Climategate scandal has surely halted, if not reversed, the movement toward reducing carbon emissions. One beneficiary of the change in the political climate may be natural gas producers, who have been beset by recently falling demand.
Natural gas stockpile levels rose again to a new record high last week, the government said Thursday.

The Energy Department's Energy Information Administration said in its weekly report that natural gas inventories held in underground storage in the lower 48 states grew by 2 billion cubic feet to about 3.84 trillion cubic feet for the week ended Nov. 27.
If human-caused ("anthropogenic") global warming turns out to be unimportant or a mistake or a hoax, the wind will be taken out of alternative-energy and nuclear-energy development. And of the two leading methods of generating electricity in the United States, natural gas produces far less pollution than coal:
The average emissions rates in the United States from natural gas-fired generation are: 1135 lbs/MWh of carbon dioxide, 0.1 lbs/MWh of sulfur dioxide, and 1.7 lbs/MWh of nitrogen oxides. Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.
Recent estimates put U.S. reserves of natural gas at 2,000 trillion (!) cubic feet, roughly a 90-year supply at the current rate of U.S. consumption. Coal is the source for nearly twice as much power generation as second-place natural gas. Look for gas to rise in the coming years.

Chart from Department of Energy

[Disclosure: 1-2% of my portfolio is invested in natural-gas companies and ETFs.]

[Update - 12/4/09: today's Washington Post has an article on U.S. natural gas reserves and technological advances in the extraction thereof. It appears that the "90-year supply" above was a bit understated: "The United States is sitting on over 100 years of gas supply at the current rates of consumption" said British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward.]

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

SOS for the Hungry

Four times a year our church serves a hot lunch to whomever shows up at the Redwood City community center. (Past posts are here, here, and here.)

The program, informally known as Sandwiches on Sunday ("SOS"), has been run by St. Pius Catholic Church for the past decade. Each week St. Pius parishioners faithfully make brown-bag lunches for the guests to take home. A number of Peninsula congregations, including ours, alternate responsibility for preparing the meal.

We normally prepare enough dishes to feed 40 to 60 people. Since the end of last year the numbers have risen starkly. Over 100 showed up last Sunday. Sensing that such might occur, our volunteers made extra, and we had enough to serve seconds.

Charities, like state and local government, have been squeezed by the double whammy of declining receipts and increased demand for services. Governments in extremis can compel receipts in the form of taxes; charities cannot.

December is the month when we make about 30-50% of our annual donations. Despite shrinking income, we are striving to maintain our level of giving. Maintaining donations in absolute dollar terms will be tough; we'll easily beat last year on a percentage-of-income basis.

One guiding principle this year is to direct contributions toward social services and away from educational institutions. University endowments have taken huge hits, but they have billions left. Helping people in dire straits is more important than capital projects and keeping tuition down for youngsters who have a bright future. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 30, 2009

Comfort Food

Only five people attended our Thanksgiving dinner, but that didn’t dissuade me from roasting a 21-pound tom. We didn’t finish even half the bird, but the food didn’t go to waste (I will spare you a feeble clichéd pun--I’m too tired to come up with something witty). We had plenty of leftover turkey, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, and pie to comfort us through the cold weekend.

A good roast turkey is dependent on preparation. I cleaned a new plastic $3 bucket from Home Depot and mixed two gallons of brine on Tuesday. Some brining formulas can be complicated, but mine was simple: boil one gallon of water containing carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and whatever spices I had in the cabinet (e.g., tarragon, thyme, oregano, bay leaf, pepper) for several hours, then let cool and discard the vegetables. I did the same with a second gallon of water that contained one cup of sugar and one cup of table salt. The combined solution was cooled overnight, and the volume was just enough to immerse the turkey for 24 hours beginning Wednesday morning.

A good roast turkey is dependent on knowing your equipment. The recipe books recommended heating the oven to 325 degrees F. But at that temperature the skin started browning after just 40 minutes, so I dialed the convection oven down to 250 degrees. Tenting it with foil (during the Eighties I used wet paper bags) would keep the bird moist but ran the risk of steaming the brine-soaked meat, so I roasted the turkey old school, i.e., uncovered.

A good roast turkey is dependent on paying attention. I checked on it every hour, basting the bird with pan juices. After four hours the turkey was pulled from the oven, its skin a golden brown. The meat was slightly moist, not too dry and not too wet.

The proof was in the eating. The critics whom I live with willingly dined on leftovers throughout the weekend. May your Thanksgiving, dear reader, have been as comforting and filling.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Irish Eyes

Irish journalist and film-maker Phelim McAleer on the Dennis Miller show:
I came to America looking for right-wingers obsessed with bedrooms and sex. Then I discovered all these left-wingers and liberals obsessed with every other room in the house.

They want to know what's in your fridge, is it bottled water, how much electricity your fridge uses, what's in your thermostat? How [do] you insulate your attic? What's in your garage? What's your car? They even want to know what's in your lightbulb, what's in your lamp?
In the tradition of de Tocqueville, some of the keenest observations about America are made by outsiders.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Value Purchase

The Wall Street Journal Holiday Gift Guide suggests this business classic as a stocking stuffer. The book's predictions were a bit off, but the convergence of the rapid ascent of commodity prices and the book's descent in value [$1.99(!)] may make it worth the paper it's printed on. And you can't say that about the currency used to buy it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pottery Barn Redux

Now that health care legislation is moving forward in the Senate, it’s time to revisit an expensive lesson learned by the previous Administration. [In keeping with journalistic standards the following quotations have been obtained from reputable climate scientists.]

The Pottery Barn rule on the invasion of Iraq: “if you break it, you own it.”

GWB: “it’s not going to be that bad. Let’s get that ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign ready.”

The Pottery Barn rule on the impact of the public option on the health care system: “if you break it, you own it.”

BHO: “Precisely. What’s the problem?”

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cardinal Star Rising

The Stanford football bandwagon is picking up speed. After notching two consecutive wins over top-ten opponents Oregon and USC, Stanford is a two-touchdown favorite in tomorrow’s Big Game. Its leading rusher, Toby Gerhart, is on the short list of Heisman contenders. Cardinal freshman quarterback, Andrew Luck, is being compared to Peyton Manning and John Elway. And coach Jim Harbaugh has been the subject of flattering coverage by the national media.

When he took over the reins in 2007, expectations were low. But in his first year Jim Harbaugh’s team pulled off what is perhaps the most colossal upset in college football history, Stanford’s victory, 24-23, over then-number-one ranked USC on USC’s home turf. USC had been favored by 40 points against a Cardinal team that had been blown out by average squads, and that loss ruined USC’s hopes for a national championship.

Last Saturday Stanford visited the LA Coliseum as a slight underdog and scored the most points ever recorded against the Trojans. This year’s win wasn’t as improbable as the 2007 upset, but the one-sidedness of the score, 55-21, over perennial preseason national-champion pick USC was almost as surprising. Fans on the Farm are now aspiring to the Rose Bowl, as well as future years of contention for the Pac-10 title.

But we have seen this act before. In 1998 Stanford’s men’s basketball team played above their heads and made it to the Final Four. Despite excellent recruiting classes and holding the number-one ranking during ensuing regular seasons, the Stanford basketball team never made it back to the show. The current football squad displays similar promise, but Stanford major sports teams often disappoint in the favorite’s role.

It is premature to count on the Axe being returned. Anything can happen, as it did 27 years ago. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

[Update - 11/23: It was an exciting but not surprising contest, as Cal "upset" Stanford, 34-28, on Saturday. Coach Jim Harbaugh's star dimmed a little, and his mettle will be tested next year when Stanford won't catch anyone by surprise.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Too Much TV

Last summer the price of high-definition plasma and liquid crystal displays fell to the point where I could no longer put off getting a high-definition TV. This recalcitrance had been puzzling to the spouse of the guy who sprung for a Sony Profeel component video system (with a 25-inch monitor!) in 1981, back when $2,000 was real money.

For about the same price as that old Profeel, which, by the way, gave us 20 years of excellent service, we bought a Sony 46-inch Bravia LCD set, the XBR9. Best Buy allowed us to spread the payments over three years with no interest. Besides, it's our patriotic duty to stimulate a moribund economy.

Another major innovation that we had adopted years ago is the digital video recorder. It’s difficult to explain the advantages of the DVR to those who are comfortable recording shows on VHS tape or DVDs, but the ability of DVR machines to record favorite broadcasts without having to look up the times, fast-forward much more speedily than one can through a tape, and check the inventory of the titles stored on the hard drive has transformed the video experience.

Three months after the purchase I have regrets, not because of any problems with the equipment, but because TV has become irresistible. The high-definition picture and the size of the screen, combined with a growing inventory of programs on the DVR, compel me to watch. Like a hungry diner at an all-you-can-buffet, I have piled too much TV on the DVR platter. At least 20 hours of shows are automatically recorded each week, and that total doesn’t even include news and sports.

I am now handling video much as I manage magazine and newspaper articles. I read a couple of paragraphs or watch the first few minutes of a show; if they’re marginal, I move on and push “delete” without guilt. It’s rare that a limp beginning straightens itself out.

Even the shows that I do choose to stay with are rarely viewed in their entirety. I fast forward through the commercials and sequences of lab work in crime procedurals. I’ll skip past gunfights and car chases; what matters to the story is who dies, who gets caught, and what is revealed.

It’s possible that HD widescreen, digital videorecording, and a menu of five hundred channels will push me over the edge into television addiction. Now that I recognize the problem, I can take steps to avoid it. Well, that discussion’s over, let's move on. The Dolphins are at Carolina tonight, and I’ve gotta order the pizza and beer. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

On an HD screen you can see the slope of the green.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another Reason to Turn Off the TV

Halfway through Levitt & Dubner’s Super Freakonomics, the bestselling sequel to Freakonomics, the authors search for an explanation for the explosive growth in crime during the 1960’s.
By 1960, the crime rate was 50 percent higher than it had been in 1950; by 1970, the rate had quadrupled. Why? [snip]

One major factor was the criminal-justice system itself. The ratio of arrests per crime fell dramatically during the 1960s, for both property and violent crime. But not only were the police catching a smaller share of the criminals; the courts were less likely to lock up those who were caught. In 1970, a criminal could expect to spend an astonishing 60 percent less time behind bars than he would have for the same crime committed a decade earlier. Overall, the decrease in punishment during the 1970s seems to be responsible for roughly 30 percent of the rise in crime.

The postwar baby boom was another factor. Between 1960 and 1980, the fraction of the U.S. population between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four rose by nearly 40 percent, an unprecedented surge in the age group most at risk for criminal involvement. But even such a radical demographic shift can only account for about 10 percent of the increase in crime.

So together, the baby boom and the declining rate of imprisonment explain less than half the crime spike. [snip] Decades later, most criminologists remain perplexed.
Levitt & Dubner say the culprit was…television! They compared cities that began receiving TV signals at different times---the national roll-out during the 40s and 50s was far from uniform—and measured crime rates. They even looked at kids of different ages in the same cities to see if the older ones who didn’t have television throughout their lives had different outcomes from those who did.

For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property-crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent-crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.
The relationship between TV watching and crime is so strong that one is tempted to disbelieve the study. Not helping their cause, the researchers at this point can only speculate about the reasons. And, really, how exactly did Lucy, Ozzie, Gilligan, and Jed inspire violence? Turning the dial to Lawrence Welk and Perry Como could drive kids crazy, but in my case I simply retreated to my room with a good book.

Whatever the explanations turn out to be, parents would do well to turn off the tube power down the plasma. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Green Shoots

Two contrasting stories from above the fold. First the bad news on the local employment front:

Santa Clara-based Applied [Materials], the world's largest maker of semiconductor production equipment, said it will cut 1,300 to 1,500 jobs, or 10 percent to 12 percent of its global work force. The news followed layoffs announced Tuesday by software maker Adobe Systems and Monday by video-gaming company Electronic Arts.
[Note: if you read all the way to the bottom of the Mercury News article, you'll see Adobe's term for cheap-labor countries, "lower-cost geographies." Creative, but I don't think it'll catch on.]

Now some good news for Bay Area techworkers:
There is a hint of that old boomtown feeling again in the Bay Area [emphasis added]-- this time in living rooms and garages and cubicles where a cottage industry is unfolding around the iPhone app.

Despite the recession, hundreds of start-ups have sprung up in the area since Apple Inc. launched the iPhone two years ago and opened up the device so third-party developers could create games and other software applications for it.
This creative energy, talent, and money devoted to furthering the iPod and iPhone can only help the fortunes of Apple, a Bay Area employer. And many of these companies must be working to port their applications to other platforms, such as the Android developed by Mountain View-based Google. It's way early to mark the start of another boom in Bay Area employment and real estate, but the seeds have been planted. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

One Week Later

Malik Nadal Hasan - there's a rhythmic staccato to the three names of the man who perpetrated the horror at Fort Hood one week ago. Two syllables and five letters each, consonants and vowels alternating. Even the sound of his military title, "Major,” gloves in.

The mind wandered after the initial shock. The mind searched for relationships. Muslim, Jordanian, that fits a profile, but psychiatrist? An Army major? And Virginia Tech where he took ROTC? a flukish connection to another massacre of innocents.

Faith in our institutions has become increasing shaky. Big banks and insurance companies teeter on the edge of insolvency, churches are rife with scandal, and hospitals incubate killer infections. And the safest place in the country – the center of a large military base—proved to be no haven. Malik Nadal Hasan, another villain in a decade full of villains, committed an atrocity. But perhaps his most damaging blow was to discomfit those of us who sit safely thousands of miles away. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

The picture that seems to be crystallizing is that last Thursday’s massacre at Fort Hood is another example of Islamic terrorism. It’s another reminder that, however much we may wish that it weren’t true, war and killing have ever been part of the human condition.

Today we honor those who took up arms to protect us. In this month of Thanksgiving we especially give thanks to our Veterans. Our debt to you can never be repaid.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Temptress

The FTSE 100, Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 are up 50-70% since early March.

Stock market indices continued their extraordinary eight-month rally today:
The Dow Jones Industrial Average leapt to a new 13-month high Monday as investors grew more optimistic about the continued flow of easy money to support economic recovery.

The Dow climbed for a fourth straight day, up 203.52 points, or 2%, to end at 10226.94, its highest finish since Oct. 3, 2008 and the second 200-point gain in three trading days. The blue-chip measure has risen 4.7% over the four-day winning streak that began with the Federal Reserve's policy statement last Wednesday, which quelled fears that the central bank might raise rates soon.
For what it’s worth I had been taking some money off the table in recent weeks. I had feared that stocks were overvalued compared to a mediocre-at-best near-term economic outlook and that this bull cycle / bear market rally had about run its course. But the bull appears to have a second wind.

We can already hear political spinmeisters explain the reasons for the market’s cheer: Obama supporters will say that this is a sign that the Administration’s economic policies are working, assisted by the House passage of a healthcare bill last weekend. Opponents will say that the Republican comeback in the November 3rd elections promises that no radical healthcare, carbon-emissions, or tax-increase legislation will be enacted this year and ruin the recovery.

Either way, it seems that we should be buyers. Thus the cruel temptress lures us to our doom. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Buyers have driven stocks higher every day since the election.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A New Yankee Century?

The New York Yankees are World Champions, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 2.

Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Microsoft or Exxon. The Yankees are the biggest and richest sports organization and don’t bother with growing the best talent because they can buy it. Nevertheless, as the previous eight years have shown, having the most dough doesn’t guarantee championships.

Whether due to being repotted to a new stadium or their desire to win one for ailing owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees finally broke through to win their 27th World Series championship. Over 80 years ago, after two years of being stymied by the then-New York Giants, the Yankees moved to Yankee Stadium in 1923 and finally beat the Giants to win their first title.

The new ballpark likewise has been christened with a championship. Are we at the dawn of a new Yankee century? Dunno about that, but their dominance is comforting in an age of uncertainty. Oldsters had the Babe, Gehrig, and Joltin’ Joe, boomers knew the Mick, Maris, and Yogi, X’ers grew up on Reggie and Thurman. The Yankees aren't loved; in fact, all's right in a world where everyone loves to beat them because it's so hard to do (who cares about beating the Cubs?).

A-Rod, C.C., and Jeter are the current residents of the pinstripe penthouse. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be moving out anytime soon. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

One-Bowl Meal: Chinese-Style Fried Rice

Rather than let rice and assorted meats and vegetables spoil in the refrigerator, one tasty solution is to make a panful of fried rice. I need to allot about 40 minutes for the preparation, which is why in our household it’s a dish mainly served on weekends.

You’ll need at least three cups of leftover rice, so if you don’t have enough, start making up a new batch now. Use the “quick cook” setting; don’t worry if it comes out a little chewy because the rice will cook further later in the pan. After slicing the meats and the vegetables—for food safety use a separate cutting board and knife for uncooked meat—scramble 3 to 5 eggs in a wok or large frying pan, remove, dice, and set aside.

Thoroughly cook the raw chicken, beef, pork, and/or sausage (if you don’t use raw meat you can shorten the prep time by 10 minutes), remove and set aside with the eggs. You can use one big bowl to store all the cooked ingredients.

Sautee the onions and other vegetables until nearly soft, then throw in cooked sausage, spam, and other cooked meats for a couple of minutes until heated. Empty the pan into the big bowl.

Coat the wok with a little oil or Pam so that the rice doesn’t stick. Heat the pan to medium high and stir-fry the rice. I like to make the rice a little crispy but it needs to be turned about once a minute to prevent blackening. For white fried rice just heat the rice enough to make it hot.

Mix in soy sauce, oyster sauce, and/or ham ha (preserved shrimp sauce) to enhance the taste, but if you’re concerned about sodium, go light on these ingredients or skip this step altogether. Empty the bowl of meats and vegetables into the pan, and you’re done. Serves 4-6, and the leftovers can easily be reheated in the microwave for a quick one-bowl meal. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Governor Gavin, Gone

There’s less urgency to leave California. Gavin Newsom dropped out of the Governor’s race. None of the remaining candidates of either party bothered me as much as Newsom.

In 2004 he instructed San Francisco officials to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Gay marriage doesn’t concern me—if it’s enacted through the normal legislative channels I’d endorse the result. However, as I wrote then,
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom showed that he is unfit for higher office by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in direct contravention of state law. The executive has a special responsibility to uphold the law, even those he disagrees with. Given the strong arguments on either side of issues such as abortion, capital punishment, recreational drug use, and immigration, to name but a few in addition to gay marriage, it is not only possible but likely that the chief executive of a city, state, or even the nation would not agree with some of the laws it is his duty to uphold. If he didn’t think that he could enforce these laws, then he shouldn’t have taken the oath of office.
Fatherhood and a few political setbacks could make Gavin Newsom a more mature human being and formidable politician in future campaigns, just not next year.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


The Bay Bridge closure enters its second day. Obviously, the main disruption occurred in the Oakland-San Francisco artery, but traffic throughout the Bay Area was affected. Many drivers chose the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge as their Bay crossing alternative, perhaps 40 miles and two hours out of their way with the heavier traffic. That meant extraordinary delays going north into San Francisco from the mid-Peninsula where I live.

I cancelled a couple of meetings in the City and promised to reschedule them until after the bridge re-opens. It helps that my work can be done on the computer and telephone and doesn’t often require my physical presence. I suspect that’s true for many jobs: workers can connect with computers, smartphones, and broadband connections from home. That’s not as true with the health profession and retailers; not surprisingly those industries are plagued with high fixed costs not easily reducible by technology. Meanwhile, the adaptation continues:
A trend apparent during the first day of the shutdown Wednesday - commuters leaving early to beat the rush - seemed to be taking hold today, said Officer John Short of the California Highway Patrol, who was monitoring traffic conditions from Caltrans' Traffic Management Center in Oakland.

Compared to Wednesday, "I would say it's probably a little light, less incidents - and that's a good thing," Short said. "I'm looking at (Highway) 92 and (Interstate) 880, and there's a lot of cars out there, but traffic is down, and also incidents are down."
Oh, well, that’s enough rumination, as I reach for another lemonade on the sunshiny patio of a lively Italian restaurant on the Peninsula. That’s how you deal with life’s lemons. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Deep Meaning

The governor’s veto letter to a Democratic assemblyman contains a hidden message. One doesn’t have to be a professor of symbology to untangle its meaning.

Scanned letter (without rectangle) from the Chronicle.

Politics in our formerly Golden State makes me laugh and cry.

Top Five Reasons BHO Avoids Women

The President is taking some grief from feminist supporters because he surrounds himself with men both in and out of the White House. To these eyes it’s perfectly understandable.

The top five reasons Barack Obama doesn’t like to associate with women:

5. Grilled by Michelle every time he works late with a Rhonda or a Tina. If it’s Rahm or Timmy—no problem.

4. Have to waste more time dressing up--guys don’t care if you wear the same tie.

3. Do you know what it’s like to live in a household full of women? Work is a sanctuary, and golf/basketball is “me time.”

2. When he plays basketball, they always look at his legs.
And the number one reason that Barack Obama doesn't like to associate with women:

1. Michelle's suspicions are right--they're always hitting on him.

Monday, October 26, 2009

No Joke

Ann Althouse, on the conservative resurgence in the polls now that liberals are in charge:
I guess the way to get people to become more conservative is to give power to liberals. Bring the conservatives back and not only will they start appalling us again, but we'll soon be dreaming dreamy dreams of liberal saviors.
Forget about this year's tea-party phenomenon. A paradox: what political movement commands the allegiance of the vast majority of Americans but will never achieve power? The GAG (grass-always-greener) party!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

'Annual Filing Division' Scam

More people are starting their own companies because of economic dislocation, and the number of potential fraud victims is rising accordingly. Limited Liability Companies that are operated by harried small-business folk provide especially fertile ground for the scam artists.

California LLC’s are required to file a number of documents regularly, and the scammers send official-looking notices that threaten severe penalties if “fees” are not remitted immediately.

We first wrote about the Annual Minutes Disclosure scam. It morphed into the Annual Review Board con. The last iteration was the Business Filing Division fraud that was covered in the local news media.

Yesterday I received an invoice from the Annual Filing Division. These schemes mutate faster than the flu virus.

No, I’m not going to shred the mailer, I’m going to send it to the State office responsible for shutting these guys down:

California Attorney General's Office
Attn: Public Inquiry Unit
P.O. Box 944255
Sacramento, CA 94244-2550

© 2009 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Loma Prieta Plus 20

Women's Marathon tents cover Union Square 20 years after the quake.

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake. To those who were killed and injured it was a tragedy, but the total loss could have been a lot worse. 63 people died, and more calamitous natural- and man-made disasters since that fateful day have put Loma Prieta in perspective. There were pockets of heavy damage, but most of the Bay Area quickly recovered. The quake of '89 was a valuable wake-up call; it motivated residents to make preparations for the big quake that scientists say is inevitable.

As one Chronicle writer opined:
Loma Prieta was one of those watershed events; in some ways, the disaster was a blessing in disguise. Out of it came a brand new San Francisco waterfront, the revival of a rundown neighborhood in Hayes Valley, major upgrades of classic buildings in downtown Oakland, and new laws on unreinforced old buildings. One of these years, a new eastern half of the Bay Bridge will open.
Herewith my personal recollection of that day:

It was an early evening in October, and our department was assembling next year’s business plan. Most employees had left the office to watch the third game of the World Series. The building jolted, but nothing fell over, and the rumbling ceased after a few seconds.

I asked the staff to keep working. We had loaded half the data onto the HP minicomputer and didn’t want to stop until a first draft was run. The new analyst from Southern California stared at me with wide eyes. You should call home, she said. On speaker phone my wife's voice was frantic—pictures had fallen, broken china littered the kitchen, and she was leaving the house. Then the main power went out and the line went dead. I guess we should go home, I said.

A dozen of us gathered in the lobby. We were 20 floors up, the elevators were deactivated, and building security announced over the PA system that we should not exit until they checked the stairs. We didn’t have cell-phones, laptop computers, the Internet, or disaster training. Nobody knew what to do or how to communicate.

I grabbed the portable TV that I had brought to watch the Series. The Sony Watchman, about twice as thick as an iPhone, ran on 4 AA batteries. The concrete-and-glass walls in the highrise degraded the signal; the black-and-white picture was grainy, but the audio was decent. The reporters read the news in unemotional tones; journalists felt no need to hype developments with breathless excitement and excessive adjectives. This was one evening when no descriptors were needed. The Marina was burning, freeways had collapsed, the Bay Bridge was closed, and BART was shut down. The power was off throughout the City as darkness descended.

We got the all-clear and walked down the central metal staircase. Bay Bridge commuters couldn’t use any of the bridges to return home; getting to the East Bay via San Jose over uncertain roads portended a long night. Marin County drivers had no option but the Golden Gate Bridge. They were lucky; San Francisco’s landmark had held. We hugged before we parted.

Pedestrians and cars milled about the City streets. Buses crept at walking speed, letting passengers on and off at each corner. That night public transit was free. The street lights were off, not even blinking. Despite the paralyzed traffic no one honked his horn. The quiet was punctuated by the sound of the occasional siren. In the fading light we could see smoke to the east and the north.

The sun had set when I arrived at 4th & Townsend. There had been no need to rush to the Caltrain station. All trains had halted at 5:04. They wouldn't leave until engineers had inspected every mile of track and tunnels.

Caltrain turned on the running lights in the idle cars, as passengers played cards, listened to the radio, and engaged in conversation. Periodically they would try to reach their loved ones with only spotty success using the bank of Pacific Bell pay phones. It was pitch dark. One passenger shone his flashlight on the phones until the batteries ran out. Others used matches and cigarette lighters to see the numbers.

A little after 10 p.m. the trains began running at half speed. Spaced five minutes apart, they stopped at every station on the line. [From my holiday letter of 1989]:
We, as did most of our acquaintances, made it through the October 17th earthquake largely unscathed. Broken crockery and a few cracks in the plaster comprised the extent of the damage to our house. But I'll never forget the hours of anxious separation as we struggled to make it home across a darkened Bay Area, unable to call our loved ones. When I walked through the front door at 11:30, over six hours after the quake, my beloved poured out her frustrations and fears. But I was only listening with half an ear, so wonderful was the feeling of relief that everyone and everything were going to be all right.
© 2009 Stephen Yuen

Friday, October 16, 2009

Maybe Not Phenomenal, But At Least It's Pretty Good

Silicon Valley’s unemployment rate is still double digits, but at least one company is coming out of the recession in stellar fashion. Google’s revenue and net income for the last quarter were $6 billion and $1.6 billion, respectively, both all-time highs for the Mountain View company.
Google is gearing up for even better days, a shift that will involve hiring a couple thousand new employees after paring its payroll in each of the past two quarters. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company also intends to increase spending on computers and acquisitions of mostly small technology startups. Money won't be a problem, given that Google ended September with $22 billion in cash.
"There is a real wind of optimism and a real wind of confidence around here right now," Patrick Pichette, Google's chief financial officer, said in a Thursday interview.
I was one of the many skeptics who had no clue as to what Google was up to. I never click on pop-up ads and had no appreciation of the value of Internet search.

I also thought that its leadership position in Internet search was a one-trick pony that couldn't be leveraged into other areas. Google's forays into video, operating systems, browsers, and cell-phones have met with favorable critical reception. Even now it's difficult to discern the path to riches in these areas, but the Google guys, like Steve Jobs, seem to see trends and connections that no one else does. Although future profitability in non-search businesses isn't assured, I wouldn't bet against them.
[Disclosure: I bought Google over a year ago in the high-$400's, rode the stock down below $300, and am now enjoying a modest profit. I'm content to hold, but I'm not buying more.]

Community Center 2.0

Photo from the SJ Mercury News.

To these eyes the more interesting story in this morning's Merc was right below the banner head re Google's earnings. In August the Hacker Dojo was created in an old building formerly tenanted by a glass company.  The gathering place is
a "community center" for code monkeys, startup dreamers and anybody else with an unquenchable thirst to take technology in new directions.

A typical evening at the Dojo in Mountain View sometimes looks like chaos — two friends cobbling together a robot out of chips, circuit boards and servo motors; a clump of technical writers packed like sweaty sardines into a meeting; people squinting silently into their laptops, oblivious to the coming night.
With our virtual networks growing exponentially faster than the real, a place where we can make a physical connection becomes paradoxically more important. Online dating only takes us so far. We need to meet, work with, and/or make love to the live person to seal the deal. 

The founders and sponsors of the Hacker Dojo are showing that the spirit of the Valley is stronger than ever. They subscribe to the the belief that if you build it people will come....and create. 

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Joe Says No

President Obama gave the impression during the campaign that he was a more attractive, charismatic version of Joe Lieberman, that is, a liberal in domestic policy but someone who would be aggressive in advocating America’s interests abroad. The President’s recent waffling on his campaign pledge to pursue the “necessary” war in Afghanistan seems to confirm moderate and conservative suspicions that the Obama foreign-affairs toughness was just a campaign mask to be thrown under the bus on Inauguration Day.

And now Joe Lieberman doesn’t like what he sees in the Baucus health care bill:
Mr. Lieberman criticizes the bill's overall size and scope, saying Democrats are trying to do "too much" in a recession. He also complains that it would "raise the price of insurance for most of the people in the country."
Under President Obama the government is taking on vastly more domestic obligations and is retreating from its foreign commitments. Yes, he is certainly no Joe Lieberman. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Another Man's Clutter

An impulse purchase from Costco, the unassembled kitchen cart had been gathering dust in the garage. If I were to make any progress toward my resolution to clear the clutter, I would have to unpack the box.

Soon more than a hundred parts were strewn across the garage floor. Bye, bye Saturday.

Years of struggling with Ikea furniture have taught that it does pay to scan the entire instruction booklet before starting. Getting a feel for the proper sequence saves time in the long run. First attach A to B, else C will not fit into D. Observe carefully which way the arrows point and which side the holes are on.

(If you’ve never put something together backwards during a project, dear reader, you’re a better person than I.) A power screwdriver prevented the sore wrist that the inexperienced me used to get, and this time I spent only 20 minutes reversing a couple of mistakes.

Half a day later, which is the normal completion time for do-it-yourself furniture, the cart was done. At 47” wide x 24” deep x 39”high it’s somewhat large for the kitchen, but I’m not going to give it away after so much effort. I’m sure it will be put to good use. One man's cart is another man's clutter. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Friday, October 09, 2009

Just Not Yet

OK, my immediate reaction was rather snarky. His critics ought to congratulate him, or at least be silent. It’s not as if President Obama sent in an application for the Nobel Peace Prize. His statement this morning struck the right note:
I am both surprised and deeply humbled by the decision of the Nobel Committee. Let me be clear: I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations.

To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many of the transformative figures who've been honored by this prize -- men and women who've inspired me and inspired the entire world through their courageous pursuit of peace.
The Nobel Committee was quite candid that this year’s prize was awarded to influence President Obama’s future actions and not to acknowledge his past achievements, which even his supporters admit are minimal.
The award is also an example of what Nobel scholars call the growing aspirational trend of Nobel committees over the past three decades, by which awards are given not for what has been achieved but in support of the cause being fought for.

Thorbjørn Jagland, the committee chairman, made clear that this year’s prize fell in that category. “If you look at the history of the Peace Prize, we have on many occasions given it to try to enhance what many personalities were trying to do,” he said. “It could be too late to respond three years from now.”
In my humble opinion President Obama should turn down the Peace Prize, not because he may or may not be deserving, but out of respect for the both the Prize and the office he currently holds. As Commander in Chief of the armed forces of the United States, he may be called upon to make decisions that will result in the death of many people. Such decisions will not be made lightly, of course, but he may judge them to be necessary for the greater good (for example, defending the existence of an ally such as Taiwan or Israel).

It is possible that circumstance will cause history to view Mr. Obama as anything but a peacemaker, as events have done to his predecessor, and tarnish the moral stature of the Peace Prize. As he said in his speech:
I am the Commander-in-Chief of a country that's responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly threatens the American people and our allies.
President Obama may well be deemed to be a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize after he leaves office. Just not yet. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Obama Wins Nobel Peace Prize

The question about whether we've got a Clinton or a Carter has been definitively answered.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

College Board Question of the Day

My inbox has the College Board’s SAT question of the day. It’s a good way to calibrate whether, at least along this dimension, I’m as smart as I was when I was a teen. I’m not.

From last week: I knew the answer to the following question but got it wrong (the answer and a short rumination is contained in the post right below this one). Pick A, B, C, D, or E.
The following sentence contains either a single error or no error at all. If the sentence contains an error, select the one underlined part that must be changed to make the sentence correct. If the sentence contains no error, select choice E.

Salt is valued (A) not only because of its properties as a condiment (B) and preservative, but (C) it is essential to (D) the health of humans and animals.

No error (E)

And the Answer Is......

My answer to the College Board’s question (see above post) was (E) – no error. However,
Correct Answer: C

Here's Why:

The error in this sentence occurs at (C), where there is an improper idiom. In order to complete the “not only...but also” construction so that what follows “not only” is grammatically parallel to what follows “but also,” the word “but” should be changed to “but also because.”
I got it wrong because I had absorbed from the zeitgeist that insistence on strict constructions like “not only…but also” is passé. These days the ear controls: if it sounds right, then it is right.

It seems so Fifties to abide by language rules: now it’s okay to split infinitives, to have pronouns disagree with their antecedent nouns (use “they”, “he or she”, “she”, “s/he”, but not “he”), throw out parallel construction, use contractions and sentence fragments. What about conventions like writing out an acronym [e.g., Scholastic Aptitude Test (“SAT”)] when they’re introduced in a piece? Ha! LOL. And don’t get me started on what txtg has done to splg.

If the Educational Testing Service wants to enforce the old dicta, great, I can understand that moral universe. But, if language rules are enforced selectively according to principles that aren’t written down anywhere, the validity of the verbal, writing and English achievement tests will be called into further question.

Various elites in America used to set the rules in international finance and the Internet but have lost, or are about to lose, control. Next no one will be the final authority over the English language. Then (E)—no error will be the correct answer. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Blessing the Beasts, 2009

Today, October 4th, churches throughout the world celebrated the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment. As in years past, it was the day to spread the Blessing of the Animals to other members of the community.

Temperatures were mild, and the sun shone brightly on the small group of priests and laity who headed over to the Foster City Dog Park. Passersby, both two- and four-legged, stopped to chat, bark, meow, or squeal and have a prayer bestowed on their household.

The lady from the Homeless Cat Network again joined us. She said that the population of stray cats in the mid-Peninsula wetlands had been reduced to below one hundred. Feral felines are a menace to birds and other wildlife, and cat- and bird-lovers are united in the desire to reduce the number of strays. An aggressive program of spaying and neutering, monitoring through microchip implantation, and establishing cat feeding stations away from where the birds like to congregate has been successful. Fowl fanciers have grudgingly conceded that more drastic measures to control the cat population are unnecessary.

I lamented to a companion how few kids we saw in the park. With their over-scheduled and over-electronicized lives, children don’t experience the pleasure of languishing on a Sunday afternoon amidst the grass and trees.

We can’t tear them away from their cellphones and computers, I opined, as I clicked my iPhone camera and emailed a commemorative photo to a happy dog-owner. Two other ladies said that they showed up because of our posting on Craigslist. OK, so, we can’t turn back the clock (digital clocks only move forward anyway).

Just remember that we get our allotment of Vitamin D from real sunlight, not the glow from a computer screen. Going for a walk is beneficial to both dogs and their owners. Saint Francis, I suspect, would applaud. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, October 03, 2009

No Impediment

Republicans have taken umbrage at this statement by Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson(note: boldface added):
"If you get sick in America, this is what the Republicans want you to do: If you get sick America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly," he said. "That's right, the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick."
Republicans are right to be outraged, because the statement is so obviously false--being dead is no impediment to receiving health care benefits!
An audit of the government program in five large states found about 65,000 instances of beneficiaries improperly obtaining potentially addictive drugs at a cost of about $65 million during 2006 and 2007 — including thousands of prescriptions written for dead patients or by people posing as doctors.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Safire

William Safire, who died yesterday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79, was one of the reasons that I used to read the New York Times. As his Times obituary graciously concedes, he was “a forceful conservative voice in the liberal chorus”, but that wasn’t the only reason that I turned to his column first.

He had a light touch, a refreshing contrast to the Olympian and often ponderous perspective of James Reston and Tom Wicker. His stint in the Nixon White House, a career-ender if not indictable offense for most, was not a blot but a badge of honor that he wore with good humor. How else could one deal with such an item on one’s resume but to laugh, then move on?

Mr. Safire’s “On Language” column on the oddities of the English language was an especially enjoyable—and popular—diversion from politics. He would state a language principle that he purportedly took seriously, then poke fun at it. Again from the Times:
And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
At the beginning of each year he fearlessly made predictions in the form of a quiz, then graded himself a year later. An example from last December’s column:

3. Toughest foreign affairs challenge will come if:
(a) Afghanistan becomes “Obama’s War” or “Obama’s Retreat”
(b) Iraq backslides into chaos after too-early U.S. withdrawal
(c) Depressed Russia moves on Ukraine
(d) India-Pakistan fighting breaks out

Mr. Safire picked “A”. He won’t be here to do his self-assessment, but that’s the grade I would give him. R.I.P.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Empty Imperative

Earlier today U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown expressed their displeasure at Iran for building a secret nuclear facility. In their speeches they specified all the actions Iran “must” take. This imperative verb is used nine times:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Those nations with nuclear weapons must move towards disarmament; those nations without nuclear weapons must forsake them.

Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow — endangering the global non-proliferation regime, denying its own people access to the opportunity they deserve, and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world.

Through this dialogue, we are committed to demonstrating that international law is not an empty promise; that obligations must be kept; and that treaties will be enforced.

Iran must be prepared to cooperate fully and comprehensively with the IAEA to take concrete steps to create confidence and transparency in its nuclear program and to demonstrate that it is committed to establishing its peaceful intentions through meaningful dialogue and concrete actions.

To put it simply: Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and make clear it is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the community of nations.

But the Iranian government must now demonstrate through deeds its peaceful intentions or be held accountable to international standards and international law.

PRESIDENT SARKOZY: Everything — everything must be put on the table now.

PRIME MINISTER BROWN: On October the 1st, Iran must now engage with the international community and join the international community as a partner.
When I tell my kids that they “must” clean up their room, or my doctor tells me that I “must” lose weight there is an “or else” implicitly or explicitly stated. The problem with this President and the other Western leaders is that other countries aren’t afraid of our or-else’s. That's what happens when others don't fear, or even respect us. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bucket List: A Hoary Story

Catching up on the movies we’d missed, we rented 2007’s hit, the Bucket List. My expectations were low. The tweet of the plot: two elderly guys with terminal cancer try to complete the list of things they’ve always wanted to do before they “kick the bucket”. The trailer assured us that there would be comic moments, as old men screamed with fright and exultation while they skydived or raced cars around the track.

With Oscar winners Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as the leads and Rob Reiner directing, the movie was assured to be more than a series of farcical moments. The first third of the film mostly takes place in the hospital room where the two men meet and establish their characters. The roles are cast as one might expect: Nicholson plays the ruthless, outspoken, anti-social, very successful businessman who’s a failure at personal relationships, while Freeman is the wise, loving, quiet, and religious man who is Nicholson’s polar opposite. After a few oil-and-water perfunctory conflicts, they are drawn together by their shared predicament and embark on their adventures.

The Bucket List isn’t all sweetness and light. Some harrowing scenes of the side-effects of chemotherapy clue us in that a pain-filled ending may be in store for our characters. And there is a lot of discussion on the meaning of life, death, family, religion, and all the other big topics. Rendered by these two experienced actors, the dialogue never gets too heavy and frequently engrosses.

The script contains some of the oldest themes in fiction: the odyssey in which the hero discovers that what he is looking for was at home all along and that knowledge is revealed from looking in more than from looking out. Familiarity yields dismissal, if not contempt, from young eyes; to those a bit older familiarity brings comfort. The movie wouldn’t have meant much to me 30 years ago, but now that I have a few years under my belt the characters’ experiences and especially their regrets strike a responsive chord. (Similarly, the language and ideas contained in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town are understood intellectually by schoolkids, but few of them identify emotionally with that play’s final act when the characters reflect upon their lives.)

The DVD contains interviews between Reiner and his two stars. The old pros talking about the fine points of movie-making are themselves worth the price of the rental.

The Bucket List is too sentimental for critics to call it a great movie, but I liked it. Indulge us, please: if women can have their chick flicks, we geezers can have our “hoary stories.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I'd Rather Go to the Dentist

One movie that I shan’t be seeing, no matter how pretty the picture, is Bright Star. WSJ critic Joe Morgenstern composed a glowing review sprinkled with phrases such as “luminous”, “lyric poem”, and “delicacy that conceals a soaring spirit”.
In "Bright Star," a dramatization of the intense though unconsummated love affair between the young Romantic poet John Keats and his younger neighbor, Fanny Brawne, the filmmaker Jane Campion has performed her own feat of romantic imagination. The production is modest in physical scale, mostly reserved in tone and touchingly simple in design (apart from Fanny's dazzling wardrobe, which is justified by her gifts as a seamstress). Yet the effect is exhilarating, and deeply pleasurable. It's like the dive into a lake that Keats evokes to explain the experience of poetry. The point, he explains to Fanny, is not to get to the other side, but to luxuriate in the lake.
The film screams “chick flick”, and men who still have a trace of testosterone would do well to stay away. A visit to their dentist would be more pleasurable. The one bright spot—but far from enough to make me see the picture--seems to be a character named Charles Brown, “an enormously entertaining boor.” As another fictional Charles Brown uttered, “Aauuuggh!”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cost of Convenience

Those of us who remember only being able to get cash from our bank between the hours of 9 and 3 on weekdays (6 p.m. on Fridays), having to mail a check a week before a payment was due, or being forced to deal with a stockbroker despite already knowing the stock we wanted to buy appreciate greatly the convenience of modern personal finance.

The downside is that it's also easier for thieves to ruin our lives. They don't need a gun or a knife, just access to some personal information. One elderly lady whom we know has had a number of purchases made in her name and her checking accounts emptied. Armed with just her name, address, social security number, and birth date, crooks were able to make off with thousands of dollars. Not every bank will restore her money, she's worried about more break-ins of the non-physical kind, and her health suffers.

My personal to-do list now includes periodic online viewing of our financial accounts. There are services that will monitor activity for a fee, but I don't wholly trust them. Besides, personal responsibility dictates that I need to be up to speed on my own financial status, distressing though these details may sometimes be.

I do subscribe to a barebones credit reporting service that e-mails notices of new accounts being opened in my name. It also notes if anyone has inquired about my credit. (I'll safeguard my assets myself, but these agencies are needed to make sure my liabilities are not increasing without my knowledge.)

When we agreed to a 36-month no-interest payment plan on our new flatscreen TV, the credit reporting service worked as advertised. The only flagged activity last month was our new account at Best Buy. We'll see if we've bought enough protection.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Great Reward

The family drove to Malibu over the Labor Day weekend to attend a friend’s wedding. Staying behind, I completed more tasks in two days than I normally do in a week, but the sense of accomplishment dissipated quickly. The quiet house imparted a surprising sensation not felt when I’m away on business; I was lonely. Am I going soft in my old age?

Early Sunday I flew to Orange County to join them for the ride back. The last-minute booking cost only $119.60 on United/Skywest. The practical penny-pincher said that that was an unnecessary expenditure since I would see them later that night; the sentimentalist said it was a bargain—an extra day with the family was priceless.

We headed north on Hwy 101. Though it would take two hours longer than Hwy 5, 101 is more scenic, has more interesting towns to visit, and was far removed from the fires in the Angeles forest.

I liked the taste of Andersen's Pea Soup more than I did 40 years ago.

We exited in Buellton and spent a couple of hours at the Chumash Casino outside nearby Solvang. One of the members of our group was initially enthusiastic because the Chumash’s gaming age minimum was 18, not the 21 required in Nevada and most of California.. He dropped $40 quickly, and his enthusiasm faded. Stopping at Chumash was an educational experience that was well worth its cost.

Tiramisu at the Chumash's high-end dining room, the Willows.

The rest of the drive back went smoothly. We talked about the wedding. The young couple will be living with her parents because they’re having a hard time finding jobs. In fact he’ll probably go back to school for his master’s in engineering in the hope that the market will be better in a couple of years. We talked about our plans for college and dreams of retirement. We wondered about members of our extended family and voiced concern about their health. We speculated about the Giants’ prospects in the race for a wild card and were inspired to take in a game when we got back [which they lost, 4-3, to the Padres on Tuesday night].

We pulled into the driveway at 10:30. It had been a long day of zero accomplishment and great reward. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Friday, September 11, 2009

It's Not Over

We’ve learned how to manage the inconvenience. First, have the driver’s license and boarding pass at your fingertips to pass quickly through the first airport security checkpoint. Second, wear slip-on shoes (with clean non-holey socks) and a pair of pants with large belt loops; it takes only a few seconds to toss the shoes, belt, wallet, keys, and cell-phone into the first plastic bin and the laptop computer into the second. Don’t wear a nice watch, rings, or other metal; they will just slow you down. Showing off your bling isn’t worth the hassle.

The paralyzing fear is gone. It’s been a long time since the color of the Homeland Security alert was flashed on the six o’clock news. And yet…I still notice and wonder about unattended packages in public spaces. I give young men with a Middle Eastern appearance a second glance and quickly avert my eyes when they look back.

For me trust has vanished—no, I don’t have an overwhelmingly negative, everyone-is-evil outlook—it’s more along the lines of always locking my car door or regularly running a PC virus checker. We may never again sleep the sleep of the blessedly secure. The bad people who want to kill us are still out there, and the war isn’t over. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Roger Simon thinks that President Obama's legion of czar appointees may be grounds for impeachment. That's extreme--IMHO we're not even in the same solar system as an impeachable offense because the President should have broad latitude to organize the Executive branch however he wants--but I do think that the President's management style betrays his inexperience about how organizations and people work. Yes, Barack Obama won, but his victory is no proof of managerial perspicacity: getting elected is as different from governing as does being hired for a job means that one will do well at it.

It takes time for organizations to develop processes that accomplish their mission. Over 200 years in development, the United States government has enough processes to satisfy the most ardent of bureaucrats (whether the processes are followed is, of course, a different matter.)

The red tape is frustrating to everybody, but most rules were put in place to make sure some long-forgotten error or ethical outrage doesn't happen again. And so we have multiple bids required on every contract in order that the taxpayer won't get overcharged, diversity measures to address past discrimination, and environmental impact statements to make sure we don't inadvertently cause the extinction of a species. Government checklists are many pages long. The whole system moves slow as molasses in a light-speed age.

Adding czars who have unclear authority (does a "green" czar, for example, override existing EPA and Transportation regulations, or is his simply another line appended to the signature page?) piles on the confusion, delay, and cost. There's a good reason why management consultants advise struggling corporate behemoths to eliminate layers and strengthen lines of authority and responsibility. Adding more bosses to an already-confused system is a mistake, whether the Administration is Republican or Democratic. Too bad we'll all have to pay for Barack Obama's management education. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

The Genuine Article

Yesterday Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI) turned 85. Congratulations to the Medal-of-Honor recipient, the second-most-senior member of the Senate, and a loyal but not hyper-partisan Democrat.

As the Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he is not afraid to disagree with another Hawaiian-born politician who is trying to cut the F-22 and other defense programs. Senator Dan is a veteran of the Watergate and Iran-Contra political battles and a soldier who charged German machine-gun nests by himself and had his arm blown off by shrapnel. These latest kerfuffles are not even beanbag.

Per his website, “I am running for re-election to a ninth term in 2010”. If that’s truly what he wants, I hope he gets it. In a day when the word “hero” is overused, Senator Dan is the genuine article.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Lassitude Rewarded

My VW bug started, but the engine would die after a few seconds despite continued pumping of the accelerator. After five attempts I stopped in order to save the battery. Something was amiss in the fuel system, and I hoped it wasn’t the fuel pump or carburetor (remember those?). Finding parts for my 40-year-old clunker classic was difficult enough; installing and adjusting them properly was above my pay grade. If I was lucky, though, the problem would just be a clogged fuel line or fuel filter.

Fortunately, I had not made much progress on this year’s resolution to clear the clutter. Under a pile of wiper blades, bulbs, and hoses lay a fuel filter that had been purchased 15 or 20 years ago from the now-defunct parts dealer in Belmont. The plastic filter bent but did not break as it was twisted in the fuel line. I started the car and voila! it continued running.

There are fewer pleasures greater than fixing a problem oneself and finding a good use for something that would have been thrown out. Maybe I do need that length of copper tubing and that half-used bag of concrete mix after all.... © 2009 Stephen Yuen