Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lent Begins, and None Too Soon

The economic news has been uniformly gloomy. The stock market and my retirement fund are continuing their seemingly inexorable decline. The State’s unemployment rate exceeded 10% for the first time in 26 years. The Governor declared a drought emergency, presaging a summer of water rationing. Leaving California looks more compelling, as neither our Washington nor Sacramento leaders inspire confidence by hesitating, acting, reversing course, and generally flailing about.

Yet, somehow, I don't feel enervated but energized. Lent began on Wednesday, and none too soon. Lent is a time of searching for answers, not from without but within. It’s a time of cleansing, quietude, and focus. It’s a time for dampening our appetites and getting ready for re-birth.

California is the land of second chances, of a better life over the next hill. I still believe that. Let’s take it 40 days at a time. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Pancake Tuesday

The Lenten eve is most popularly known by its French appellation, Mardi Gras. It’s also called by its English equivalent Fat Tuesday, or the less convivial Shrove Tuesday.

Eating pancakes on the day before Lent is a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages.
During Lent there are many foods that some Christians - historically and today - would not eat: foods such as meat and fish, fats, eggs, and milky foods.

So that no food was wasted, families would have a feast on the shriving Tuesday, and eat up all the foods that wouldn't last the forty days of Lent without going off.

The need to eat up the fats gave rise to the French name Mardi Gras ('fat Tuesday'). Pancakes became associated with Shrove Tuesday as they were a dish that could use up all the eggs, fats and milk in the house with just the addition of flour.
Flapjacks are no longer the rich comestible of yester-millennium. In the age of the low-carb diet this now-inexpensive dish is pancake non grata.

However, our tastes are more plebeian than haute, so we stopped at IHOP to take advantage of their offer of free pancakes last Tuesday. From the standpoint of profitability, IHOP's promotion was a loser. The dining room was packed, and we noted more than a few tables ordering nothing more than pancakes and water.

We ordered a few items from the menu--plus pancakes, of course--and overstuffed ourselves. Gotta pay our respects to tradition. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Sad Chronicle

Over the years I’ve posted comments about the San Francisco Chronicle’s deteriorating business fortunes and bemoaned its rampant editorializing throughout all sections of the paper. Nevertheless, I’ll be sad when it shuts down. One reason is nostalgia:
The paper that I loved to read is no more. The great stable of columnists--Delaplane, Hoppe, McCabe, and the greatest of them all, Herb Caen--is long gone, and the current crop, much like today's football 49ers, has only the uniform in common with the giants who have gone before.
The Chron is a shadow of its former self, but its staff of experienced reporters and columnists is still tops in the Bay Area. When one political party dominates all branches of government, the existence of a city newspaper, even one that has shilled shamelessly for that party, provides a channel where alternative views are possible. Keeping such channels alive is vital during a period of unprecedented government spending encumbered by only minimal oversight, despite eloquent speeches to the contrary. If the Chron starts printing news instead of opinion, I’ll become a reader again.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another Lamentation about our Educational System

On Saturday morning I was only half-listening to NPR on the car radio. My ears perked up as the announcer stumbled repeatedly over the pronunciation of the word “apostolic” in an item about the Catholic church. The word “apostle” is, of course, familiar to everyone, and has its accent on the second syllable; “apostolic” has accents on the first and third, and the announcer kept trying to utter a-POS-to-lic but sensed that was not correct.

“Apostolic” is a familiar word to even occasional Christians because of the Nicene creed, which lists the tenets of the faith and which is regularly recited at the services for every denomination. (“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” is said every Sunday at my Episcopal parish.)

I’m all for learning about other cultures and other religions, but not if it means that supposedly educated people do not know the first thing about their own. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, February 22, 2009

This Could Be The Catalyst

Amidst the gloomy and doomy economic news of the past week comes this shot-in-the-arm for the American auto industry.
USA Today writes: "OK, let's just get it out there: The 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid is the best gasoline-electric hybrid yet. What makes it best is a top-drawer blend of an already very good midsize sedan with the industry's smoothest, best-integrated gas-electric power system. It's so well-done that you have to look to the $107,000 Lexus LS 600h hybrid to come close."
I’m in the market for a car and have been seriously looking at the Prius because of its fuel economy and greeniness. However, I’d like to “buy American” given half the chance. I might even overlook the rule—sadly confirmed by many a bad experience---against buying a product in its first year of production. The extended warranty may be the answer, as long as the warrantor will be around to service it. These decisions are so complicated.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tofu King: A Good Value

On a cold day there are few pleasures better and cheaper ($5-$6) than a steaming bowl of phở, Vietnamese rice noodles in a broth that takes hours of preparation and simmering. Unfortunately for us, the phở place was closed for renovation. The landlord is gradually upgrading his long-in-the-tooth shopping center at the corner of Hillsdale & Norfolk, led by anchor tenants Marina Market and Blockbuster Video.

We walked past the oddly named--was it marketing to vegetarians?--Tofu King restaurant. (Another oddity: the website is named Tofu Cabin.) The dining room was peopled with local Asian customers, so we walked in. A glance at the menu--kim chi being the giveaway--made it obvious that this was a Korean restaurant.

The cheapest dish was $8.99, about 50% higher than other lunch joints in the area. That was more than we were planning to spend, but, as I said to the youngster (who is more set in his ways than I am), we were here, we may like the food, and if we don't like it, we never have to come back.

The little dishes of pickled peppery vegetables were crisp and tasty. The youngster enjoyed the sweet, sesame-flavored seaweed. He consumed the entire plate after I recounted how a childhood photo of a goiter has stayed with me to this day.

An irritating consequence of aging is an inability to tolerate the hot foods that I once loved. I dialed the meter down to "mild" for the seafood tofu stew. The red mixture of rice, seafood, and vegetables was soupy and steeped in spices. Good thing that my lunch companion didn't care about the effect on my breath.

Trying but failing to clean our plates, we leaned back in our chairs. We'll be back. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Paradox of Aid

When our kids get in money trouble, they turn to us for help. That’s okay when they’re eight, not so good when they’re eighteen, and alarming when they’re twenty-eight. For them to be full-fledged adults, our kids should understand—strike that, should have it ingrained--that we won’t bail them out. Their first instinct should be to solve problems on their own. If they get used to Dad and Mom coming to the rescue, they’ll never learn to fix things by themselves.

A society built upon the dependency ethic is headed for decline. To use a current example, if debtors facing foreclosure learn that they can cause their legislators to require lenders to halt proceedings, debtors quickly discover that passing a law is easier than taking the painful personal steps to pay the debt. Lenders then garner government aid because they’re in a weakened condition themselves. Future taxes inevitably increase.

The government’s power to tax (the power to tax is the power to destroy) distinguishes the societal from the simplistic familial circumstance. When the kids hit a rough patch, Dad and Mom choose whether to help. There are (usually) feelings of gratitude and goodwill on the part of donee and donor. If, however, Dad and Mom are compelled to turn over their hard-earned dough, resentment is often their natural reaction. Worse, they may just decide to work less; there’s little point in their labor’s fruit going to such ungrateful human beings who show little inclination to stand on their own.

In recent weeks there’s been a repopularization of the Keynesian concept of the paradox of thrift, in which the virtue of savings is counterproductive to a recessionary economy that needs higher consumer demand. As we embark on the largest deficit spending program in world history, let’s not forget the paradox of aid, where large-scale efforts to help the unfortunate lead to stifling the productivity and innovation that make such help possible in the first place. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Undaunted and Un-Retired

The weekend WSJ runs an article about seven formerly retired individuals whose retirement savings melted away and how they had to take jobs that only paid a fraction of their former salaries. After the all too-human responses of shock, sadness, anger, and bitterness (not in all cases), they picked themselves off the floor. I'm not sure I would react as well. A few quotes:

Terry McNally, manufacturers' rep, now Starbucks barista:
"We're paying the bills, and things are going along fine," he says. "Right now, you've got to do what you've got to do. I have many, many friends going through the same thing. You have to get over the 'sulk' and get back onto something. They may not be what we want to do, but there are jobs available."
Jan Cone, big-firm legal secretary, now small-firm legal assistant:
"This gives me a reason to get up every morning," she says. "I'm using my mind."
Ron Giles, director of corporate real estate, now setting up supermarket product displays:
"I probably say hello to 100 people a day, which is very unlike my character for all of my business life. I find it delightful to have time to say, 'Good morning. How are you doing?' "
Gordon Scott, police district commander, now substitute teacher:
"I just retired at the wrong moment," he says. "I thought I had a great plan, and I worked the numbers for so long. But a lot of people have it a lot worse than I do. I don't have a bad life; I just have an altered life."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Valuable Wake-up Call

It was a big problem, and I had no one to blame but myself. I discovered that my wallet was missing.

After searching the house and cars and racking my brains [style tip: “racking” is preferred to “wracking”], I concluded that it had probably fallen from my pocket the night before at the high school play. We went back to the auditorium. Lost-and-found came up empty. They let us search under and around our seats. Nothing. What to do next?

I looked up the phone numbers on my four credit cards and reported them lost. The replacements arrived during the next 3-5 days. But I wasn’t too concerned about the potential charges of $50 per card or the loss of $80 cash in the wallet. More troubling was the loss of my California driver license, which has my photo, date of birth, and full name and address. Not only would the information make it easier for someone to steal my identity, but the license would be a time-consuming hassle to replace in these days of State service cutbacks.

On Monday morning I compiled a list of every item that was missing. My to-do list included trips to the (sigh) DMV and the banks to replace the driver’s license and three ATM cards, respectively. Then I got the call. All the cards had been found by a security guard in the parking lot. The wallet and cash were gone, but I counted myself very lucky.

Below are some tips from those who are in the business of protecting against identity theft.
1. Carry only what you need in your wallet or purse. Store all non-essential information in a safe place.
2. Make a detailed list of the items you do carry with you.
3. Never carry your Social Security number in your wallet or purse.
4. Never carry account numbers or passwords in your purse or wallet.
5. Keep the contact numbers and information for all your financial and personal information in a secure place so they will be available easily if needed
6. Purchase Identity Theft Protection.
I already followed (3) and (4), am now doing (1), (2) and (5). As for Identity Theft insurance, I didn’t sign up not just because I am optimistic that I won’t need the coverage. What will also help is my resolution to do (7), which was not on the list and is applicable to much more than watching my wallet, which is to be alive to my surroundings and more connected to the people around me. The lost weekend was a valuable wake-up call. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Shred of Honor

The Iraq war was the biggest undertaking of the Bush Administration, and the guaranteed consequence of something that huge and messy is that big mistakes happened. Innocents died, some Americans behaved poorly, even criminally, and, when things didn’t go according to plan, the leadership didn’t know how to respond and lost the confidence of the American people.

Part of the reason for the loss of confidence was that the media didn’t do the Bush Administration any favors. Perhaps the media did its job by headlining all the missteps and bad news (Abu Ghraib, WMD, suicide bombing, IEDs, Sunni-Shiite conflict, etc.) as soon as they were discovered. Many in the media refused to accept the Administration’s view of events and often substituted an opposite interpretation. So be it; an unrestricted press is not the price but the glory of a free society.

The stimulus bill that will be signed into law this month is a much costlier and vaster government enterprise than the Iraq war. There is absolutely no doubt that the following will occur: 1) some funds will make their way into the hands of fraudsters and illegal aliens; 2) deserving people that the programs are intended to help won’t receive their benefits; 3) government purchasing procedures will be over-ridden, and some contracts will be fast-tracked to those who contributed to politicians’ victory in November; 4) every day will see violations of the President’s principles of transparency and no-conflict-of-interest by someone in the government; 5) the recovery will be uneven, and some Americans will never get as good a job or house as the one they lost.

Will the media be as diligent in pursuing stimulus stumbles as they did Iraq war failures? If there’s any shred of honor remaining in the profession, they will. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, February 07, 2009

It's a Radio, It's an MP3 Player, But Wait There's More!

Halfway through this 6-minute video (drag the slider forward if you're in a hurry) one Jacky Pang demonstrates a multifunction gadget that's got my Swiss Army knife all beat. If it can be built, it will be built. Hilarious.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Ultimate Laugh

Martin Hutchinson explodes fallacies concerning the stimulus package. First, the fallacies of the political right:
It’s not true that government expenditure is in all cases less productive than private expenditure [emphasis added]. Much private expenditure goes to McMansions and casinos, things society would be better without. [comment from your humble blogger: this is one sentence I disagree with. I’d rather have the people decide what is good for themselves instead of a high-cultured Europhile decreeing that certain products valued by the hoi polloi are (sniff) worthless.]

On the government side, there are a very few functions – defense and the administration of justice – that are more efficiently carried out by government. There are also a few cases of expenditures where a private sector operation does not capture the external benefits of a project. [emphasis added]The Interstate Highway System was one such; its "social rate of return," including all the benefits to society from its construction, was many times its economic rate of return, even had all the highways been toll roads.
The principal fallacy of the left is that the beneficial characteristics of the Interstate Highway System can be readily replicated in other government programs.
The bad news is that such projects are extremely rare. Even viewed in the most favorable light, the House version of the stimulus program doesn’t have many of them, if it has any at all.
The bottom line:
Of the roughly $850 billion in expenditures and tax rebates outlined above, only roughly $81 billion in expenditures and $13 billion in tax reductions would have any economic spin-off effect or supply-side effect respectively. That's 11% of the total, much of it being spent in 2011 or later. All the remainder would have a Keynesian multiplier of 1.0 or less, in other words run the risk of being on a net basis damaging to the economy by sucking resources out of other more productive uses.
We had to expect that a liberal President and overwhelming Democratic Congressional majorities would result in trillion-dollar deficits. Did we expect the money to be spent wisely? In victory why should they act contrary to their nature? The 2008 elections represented the triumph of hope over experience. We forget that experience more often has the ultimate laugh.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

SMHS Production of Peter Pan

The San Mateo High School players put on an excellent production of Peter Pan last weekend. Most high schools have but a few shining stars, but SMHS is blessed with over two dozen kids whose musical and terpsichorean skills belie their tender years. Perhaps it’s the “American Idol” world we live in, or drama director Brad Friedman’s 17-year leadership, or the virtuous feedback loop that makes most of the talented students want to go to his school, but Peter Pan seemed to these eyes and ears to be much superior to the Finian’s Rainbow that I participated in a generation ago, and my high school’s program was considered to be a pretty good one.

Peter Pan had “wow” moments---when Peter and the Darling family flew over the stage at the end of Act I, the marathon dance numbers when the Lost Boys, pirates, and Indians were all on stage—and quiet moments with just a song and a spotlight. Bravo!

Peter Pan has three more showings—Friday, Feb. 6th 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 7th 8 p.m., and Sunday, Feb 9th 2 p.m. Adult tickets are $15, and students or seniors are $10.


Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Memorable Super Bowl

It was a memorable Super Bowl. The Steelers had defense and a history of superiority that had resulted in five previous championships, while the Cardinals had only recently jelled for their playoff run; Arizona also had the better quarterback. Both squads’ offenses had to deliver in do-or-die drives at the end. With two minutes to go, we still didn’t know which side would have the Most Valuable Player, the sure sign of an exciting game. The Steelers won, 27 – 23, on a touchdown scored in the last minute of play.

My only quibble had little to do with the generally high standard of play. There were no shoo-in Hall-of-Famers on the field (although Cardinal QB Kurt Warner may have secured a spot in Canton from his valiant effort)--no Bradys, Mannings, or Favres to add luster to the proceedings and the pinch of gravitas that could have made it a Super Bowl for the ages.

Nevertheless, there were plays that will surely be featured in replay highlights years from now---the 100-yard interception runback that closed the half, the 64-yard catch that gave Arizona its first lead with a little over two minutes to go, and the final winning pitch to the end zone sideline, the receiver barely keeping his toes in bounds while he stretched and controlled the ball for the sufficient split second that won the Super Bowl for the Steelers with 35 seconds left.

There are few if any great teams, but the flip side is that NFL championship games have recently been close. TV ratings have stayed high for the duration of the contest. Connoisseurs, casual fans, advertisers, and NFL executives—all had something to be pleased about. It was a pleasant afternoon interlude for uncertain times. © 2009 Stephen Yuen