Monday, March 30, 2009

Impassioned Plea

Yesterday I heard a guest preacher give an impassioned plea for us to change our ways. If we didn’t, doom was just around the corner. And we had to do more than repent and change our own individual behavior, we had to persuade non-believers to do the same. She railed against “doubting Thomases” who refuse to accept and join the movement.

Of course, the topic was global warming, aka climate change. This brief post is not to debate the many aspects of the climate change issue, but to observe that in my five decades of worship at various Episcopal churches I have never heard a priest talk as passionately about the fundamentals of the Christian faith--quaint notions about man’s sinful nature, salvation through Christ alone, repentance and rebirth by accepting the Holy Spirit, etc.

Perhaps it’s because many of the church leaders don’t believe that ancient stuff any more. From their words and deeds it’s clear what they really believe. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Happy Evening

Its six levels, large central atrium, and limited exits make the San Francisco Gift Center an excellent secure site for a teen party. San Mateo High School held its junior / senior prom last night, and the participants seemed to enjoy themselves more than I remember my classmates doing in 197X.

Most attendees arrived in pairs, but even the singles appeared to have a good time. Hundreds of kids crowded the floor, hopping, gyrating, screaming--the distinction between a dance and a concert seems to have blurred over the years. Yes, there were wallflowers who watched from the sidelines, and most were males.

Since maybe WWII it’s been true that more women then men want to dance, and one generational difference is that these high school girls don’t wait to be asked and don’t bother to look for a partner either. They just leap out onto the floor solo or with a girlfriend.

The crowd loosened up as the night wore on, and the fun was of the good, clean variety. Another difference between proms then and now: this one had over 20 adult chaperones, a breathalyzer test at the entrance, and both uniformed and plainclothes security. Regrettable but necessary precautions that made for a happy evening.

Top: Even the chaperones look real young to me.
Bottom: Halfway through the night.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Restoring the Mind

Exercising one's noggin at "brain gyms" sounds suspiciously like other health fads that have parted gullible consumers from their money. (I've tried brain-exercise games on the Wii and have shown no evidence of mental improvement, but you already know that if you read these posts).

Improvements in scanning technology may have reached the point, however, where it's finally possible to associate specific parts of the brain in a detailed way with specific skills such as memory, speech, and math. For people who have experienced loss of function through injury or stroke, the brain exercise regimen at Vibrant Brains of San Francisco and Foster City seems to help recovery. Whether exercises can make a great mind out of a merely good one remains to be seen. At least it looks like fun.

Here is the WSJ article that features Vibrant Brains.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ben Was a No-Show

Poor Treasury Auction Rattles Stock Investors - The indirect bid -- demand from domestic and foreign institutions, including foreign central banks -- for the $34 billion five-year Treasury note auction was 30%, compared to 48.9% from the previous auction in February and an average of 30.1% for the last 10 auctions.
Due to low demand for government paper, Treasury rates rose and the stock market fell. Last week
the Fed said that over the next six months, it would buy as much as $300 billion of Treasurys in maturities from two to 10 years, starting as early as next week.
Many went to the party because Ben Bernanke said he would be there. When he didn't show, people started leaving. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

[Update: the brief post above mainly concerned the debt, not the stock, market. As for the stock market, it was up sharply in the morning, down later in the day after the Treasury auction news, then up by about 1% at the close. If you're coming here for investment advice, you're in the wrong place.]

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Risks Were Poorly Understood

From a February, 2008 blogpost:
A person with less than ten years of experience would never become the CEO of a major public company. There are too many things that will be new to him, and way too much learning that will have to occur on the job [snip] If your life is at a point where you’re willing to give up what you have because the unknown has to be better, then fine, vote for change. Just understand that people who promise to change our lives, especially if they lack experience, can make them worse.
We are re-learning the sad lessons that eloquent speech is not the same as substance, that a man who has the look of a leader doesn’t mean he is one, and that improvisation is a talent but not a strategy. One cause of the economic crisis is that financial institutions bought products whose risks were poorly understood. Last November the American people did the same. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Betty Wright Swim Center

The pool at the Betty Wright Swim Center is warm and comforting. If you are one of those kids whom people laugh at (even the President made a feeble joke about you on the Tonight Show), if you are trying to regain movement after a stroke, or if you are looking for a peaceful place to wear your swimsuit and where no one judges you by your flab, wrinkles, and scars, you are especially welcome.

Some of their pupils will never learn to read. Some will never be able to live on their own. But the very patient instructors are undaunted. Enough of their students do learn to swim. When a beginning swimmer makes it from one end of the pool to the other, unaided, the emotion evoked in the observer is hard to describe. The observer thinks, if our special person can do this, maybe he or she can learn to do other things that normal people take for granted.

The Betty Wright Swim Center is a place of hope and quiet joy. We never miss an appointment. (The photos below were taken one year ago.)

© 2009 Stephen Yuen

A Dummy, Wasting His Time

I own several for Dummies guidebooks, finding them to be well-written introductions to topics that I know little about. I have also leafed through volumes pertaining to areas in which I do have some knowledge (examples: Excel, leasing), and the later chapters for the most part do cover the subject matter accurately for the "serious student."

I was amused by the double meaning when I saw the pictured title at Barnes & Noble last night--the dummy is a major element of contract bridge. I looked around for but couldn't find Ventriloquism for Dummies.

BTW, too many of the photos taken with my iPhone have a finger blocking part of the shot. Perhaps I need this book.

[Sodden aftertought inspired by the current political climate: the time seems ripe for Government Oversight for Dummies (GOD)]

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Higher Math

I don’t understand public policy math. Outraged by the AIG bonuses of $165 million, lawmakers are proposing to make major changes to contract law and tax law in order to recover about 0.1% of the $173 billion that the government has authorized to support AIG. It would appear that 0.1% of a big number is, as the accountants say, material to public policy discussions.

Last year, when energy prices were front page news, there was a resurgence of interest in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. Estimates of ANWR’s oil production capacity range from 510,000 barrels per day to 1.45 million barrels per day. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say that ANWR will produce 1 million bpd.

The Energy Department forecasts U.S. oil consumption to be 19 million barrels per day through 2010. Let’s say that, if and when ANWR comes online, U.S. consumption will grow to 20 million bpd because of the success of alternative energy and conservation programs. To these eyes ANWR’s one million barrels per day, or 5% of our annual petroleum consumption, are certainly worth pursuing.

Some politicians dismiss drilling in the Arctic because its current reserve estimates of 3.2 billion barrels are “just a six-month supply” of U.S. annual consumption. Yet we will agonize for days over AIG bonuses that are 0.005% of the President’s proposed 2010 $3.55 trillion budget.
Like the umpire who decides if it’s a strike or a ball,
Only the politician knows if it's too big or too small.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hoping for Clinton, Getting a Carter

The Fed announced that it will flood the economy with over $1 trillion of money by buying up Treasury debt. First came the spending earthquake, next the aftershock of debt monetization. The inflation tsunami should hit by 2011. Time to look at buying real estate, commodities, gold, and companies that own hard assets.
The Fed said [that it] will buy up to $300 billion in long-term Treasurys over [the] next six months. The purchases of mortgage-backed securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will push the maximum to as $1.25 trillion, up from the previous $750 billion. The Fed also said it would increase the size of its potential purchases of the mortgage giants' debt to $200 billion from $100 billion.
I had middling expectations for this President. If he comes out of these four years roughly matching the economic success of the Clinton Administration, that would be a good result. Instead, the coming inflation threatens to make the next four years Carter II. Let’s hope and pray that there are no international challenges (and failures) to round out the recollection.

[Note: this economist thinks we won't see near-term inflation due to slack in the economy.
If there’s one aspect of the current environment that still amazes, it’s the fact that nothing amazes anymore. Even today’s announcement that the Federal Reserve plans on purchasing everything in America that isn’t nailed down raised relatively few eyebrows on our end… Effectively, the Fed is monetizing the Treasury’s debt, a strategy that appears in the encyclopedia under the heading “how to trigger inflation.” In any other environment, this monetization would be deeply troubling, but given the lack of end user demand, the prospects for a near term pop in prices is rather remote. The aggressiveness also suggests that the Federal Reserve remains highly concerned about deflation.
–Guy LeBas, Janney Montgomery Scott]

Monday, March 16, 2009

AIG: O, the Irony

When a Republican administration started shoveling buckets of money into the financial system last year, it was a self-inflicted wound by the party. It’s difficult to criticize Democrats for borrow-and-spend-then-tax-and-spend when Democrats are doing what the Republicans did, albeit on a much vaster scale.

Now that Democrats are in charge, it’s their turn to build the petard on which someday they may be hoisted. In his latest example of ad hoc governing, the President wants to rescind $165 million in bonus payouts to AIG executives, many of whom are responsible for AIG's (and the country’s) financial debacle. If the Administration does find a legal way to cancel contractual salary obligations (I hold no brief for AIG, having never done business with it or been a shareholder), I can foresee a day when a Republican President, citing President Obama’s precedent, overrides the labor contracts of auto companies that receive bailout money.

If it were my choice, I’d gripe about the bonuses a lot, then pay them. The ship is going down, and a bad guy has seized one of the lifeboats. There are bigger things to worry about, so just let it go.

Ready to Roll

Not the most nutritionally correct breakfast, a buttery bagel with diced spam and eggs steels the traveler for the commute ahead. This breakfast sandwich is a favorite of the youngster and yours truly, especially on a cold winter morning. Pop the bagel in the toaster, mix the ingredients in the frying pan, and it's done in four minutes. Add a hot cuppa joe, the morning newspaper, and I’m ready to roll.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Empty Square

San Francisco Ferry Building

Pedestrian traffic is sparse this Friday morning. Liz Claiborne vacated its retail space, the bookstore is gone, and several food kiosks have closed up shop. The constant drumbeat of macroeconomic misery sensitizes us to the woes of local businesses, much as global warming makes us notice hot summer days. The tourists will return in April during spring break, and our spirits will brighten with the rising temperatures. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The New Big Thing

Twitter is the hot Internet fad of the moment. As if we need more things to divert our attention, Twitter members are constantly commenting what they’re thinking or doing in short bursts of 140-character messages, about two lines of text on a normal-sized page. Unless they’re doing haiku, most messages (“tweets”) evidence little thought. We can receive the tweets of as many members as we care to follow, and we can spend every waking moment staring at the ever-scrolling screen on our smartphone or computer.

Sheep that I am, I had to join. Big-name movie stars, politicians, and athletes are flocking to Twitter, along with the generations that still have a full head of hair. The fear of being left behind overwhelms any guilt from spending time unproductively. Besides, it’s likely only a short term commitment; the wave of this fad will crest and break, then we’re off to the next big thing.

(This Wall Street Journal article provides, in my humble opinion, a balanced perspective, as the reporter describes the ups and downs of her experiences with the system.)

Once Was Lost Then Now Is Found

I had often misplaced my first wedding ring (your opinions are not welcome, Dr. Freud). I finally lost it for good when it slipped off my finger swimming at Ala Moana. We searched for hours to no avail. I bought a replacement later that summer.

The second gold band lasted for 14 years until it too was lost, along with a jade ring that my grandmother gave me. The last time I saw either was when we remodeled the kitchen. I was 99% positive that the rings were somewhere in the house. The 1% uncertainty consisted of a nagging suspicion that one of our contractors had helped himself when I wasn't looking. Try as I might, I could never banish that poisonous thought completely.

I was surprised and delighted when we replaced two heavy bedroom dressers this month. Beneath the years of accumulated dust and debris lay two shiny objects. I was grateful that I had found the rings, but more importantly that my suspicions about a fellow human being were completely unfounded. Another sign that this year may turn out to be better than expected.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Start Spreading the News

The San Francisco Chronicle is advertising home subscriptions at $7.75 per week for eight weeks, sweetened by a $25 gift card from Macy’s or Safeway. At that rate, the annual cost of a home subscription is an astronomic $403.

The Chronicle is barely hanging on. In my humble opinion its best hope is to embrace the digital format as quickly as possible, and the means is finally at hand. According to one reviewer, Amazon’s improved ebook reader, the Kindle 2, heralds
the moment when the direction of our momentum changed. After years of steadily moving away from physical print, it feels as though we’ve only just now crossed that purely mathematical and symbolic waypoint and have begun moving towards a destination where we purchase all of our books and publications in the form of ebooks.
Amazon sells the Kindle for $359. Surely the business mavens at the Chronicle can work out a deal with Amazon to bundle a Kindle and a one-year subscription for, say, $399. Buyers would own hardware that would allow them to purchase over 240,000 titles, as well as the Chronicle. At that price I’d be a subscriber again. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Monday, March 09, 2009

Laugh It Up, Fuzzballs

My first profession, accounting, is universally mocked. (I wouldn’t mind being lumped in with bankers, the current butt of jokes, if I could get their pay.) Below is the start of the conversation between Simon Constable of Dow Jones and David Gaffen of the Wall Street Journal.

SC: We’re talking accounting, but don’t fall asleep just yet because this time it’s really critical. It’s the week ahead. I’m Simon Constable joined as ever by David Gaffen. David, something big in accounting happening this week.

DG: Yes it is, if you can believe it. On Thursday the House Financial Services Committee is holding a hearing on mark-to-market accounting.

SC: Whoo-oo!

DG: Yeah, I know. Before you all fall asleep, this is that rule etc.
(Here's the video if you want to watch the whole thing.)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Not Your Grandpa's Great Depression

We had to wait for a table at the Foster City IHOP this morning. An IHOP breakfast costs more than a Mickey D's McMuffin or a Starbucks croissant, but the booth was comfortable, coffee was served in a mug, and I could browse through the Sunday paper. Our waiter cleared the plates and presented the bill promptly, the first time in memory that I felt rushed.

It's good to see local businesses doing well, and I support them as much as I can. I could have had some oatmeal at home, but it's my patriotic duty to go out and spend(shades of 9/11). Can't stuff the money in my mattress.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

BSG: Nice If It Ends That Way

Suspense is building toward Battlestar Galactica’s series finale. In the spirit of "all this has happened before and will happen again," I’m hoping that this line will be spoken in the final scene.
Honey, you won’t believe the dream I just had.
Somehow I doubt that will happen.

Love That Bob

Bob Newhart is one of my favorite comedians. Last Tuesday he busted some myths on the Tonight Show:
There’s a saying in show business, as you know, “Be nice to people on the way up because you’re going to run into the same people on the way down.” They did a survey at the motion picture home, and they asked a thousand former stars, and they said you run into entirely different people on the way down than you do on the way up. So there’s little point in being nice to anyone on the way up.

Everyone knows the saying, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink”. We found out, you can make him drink, but you should have a bat. Then they’ll do it.
All this was said in the inimitable Newhart style, with frequent Jack Benny-like pauses, the audience howling because they could see the punch line coming.

I’ve long admired Bob Newhart. He was an accountant who managed to escape the world of cubicles and ten-keys. He made it, he got out of the [green eyeshaded] ‘hood. There’s hope for me yet.

Capitalism and Freedom

(This is just a short personal note, unrelated to Milton Friedman's landmark essay.)

I once had a conversation with a finance colleague who asked what "being rich" meant to me. After the usual prefatory disclaimers about wealth and money not meaning the same thing and how money doesn't necessarily lead to happiness--look at all the miserable rich people--I proffered my view that being wealthy meant having enough to meet all present (e.g., pay off my mortgage) and future obligations (e.g., children's education, future medical bills, future living expenses). Then I would be free to work, travel, volunteer, go on cruises, read, write, play golf, go back to school....or not. Being rich, above all, meant freedom.

Since November 4, 2008 I have lost a lot of freedom. And I don't hold much hope of regaining it soon. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Stock index declines since Inauguration.
Double the losses if you're going back to Election Day.

Friday, March 06, 2009

O Lucky Man

Despite the ethical failings of his appointees, despite an economic war plan that resembles firing bullets in all directions, despite the evaporation of trillions of dollars in private wealth, the President---our President---is a lucky man.

Think how much worse we'd feel about him if (a) the mainstream media were as critical about his 45-day performance as they would have been about a President McCain, and (b) there were a hot war (India-Pakistan, Russia-Georgia, China-Taiwan, Israel-Syria/Iran/Palestine) for him to contend with. Thanks should go to his predecessor for stanching the Iraq bleeding before turning over the keys. Otherwise our lucky President would be in over his head. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Hoping for a Wet March

Rain is over 80% of normal at the stations closest to the Bay Area.

A wet February has lessened worries of water rationing this summer, although we’re still hoping for a wet March.
The water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack - the backbone of the state's water supply - is about 80 percent of normal for this time of year, according to measurements of water content at several backcountry spots. That's a turnaround from a month ago, when the water content measured just 61 percent of normal after the eighth-driest January on record had the state teetering on a the edge of its worst-ever water crisis.
A 10 x 40 foot area of the back yard needs to be re-done. If dry winters persist (I’m a global warming agnostic, not an atheist), then prudence dictates we put in a deck, patio, artificial grass, or water-parsimonious shrubs. I’m crossing my fingers for a March deluge so I’ll have more landscaping options, but that’s about as likely as the Dow getting back to 14,000 in 2009. Over the next four years we’ll just have to work harder and get by with less [unless you live in the boomtown that is our nation’s capital, but that's another story].

Spring is Coming

Our town is friendly to families of all shapes and sizes. After returning to Foster City in February, ducks like to walk around our neighborhood and check out the changes.

They sit contentedly on our lawn and express their annoyance by loudly quacking as I approach with a camera. A self-preservation gene prevails, and they waddle off when I get too close. When the weather gets hotter, they'll stay in the water. Meanwhile, it's nice to see them again. Spring is coming.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Car Crashes Into A House (Reprise)

At 10 p.m. last night we heard the wailing of sirens, then saw a helicopter descend amidst the houses several blocks away. About half an hour later the helicopter rose and headed south.

Today’s news explained the unusual activity in our sleepy suburb. A young woman had sped along Edgewater Blvd. and crashed her Thunderbird into a house. Firefighters used the jaws of life to extricate her from the pancaked car, and a helicopter transported her to Stanford Hospital. Her condition has improved to serious from critical.

Fortunately, no one else was hurt. However, a support post was sufficiently damaged to cause the building to be declared uninhabitable, and the elderly resident will have to move out.

Five years ago we had seen a similar accident a block up the street. No one was home in that one, and the young man driving the car walked away. The homeowners have since built a brick-and-iron fence around their property.

Edgewater Blvd. seems safe enough to me at the speed limit of 40 mph (25 while school is in session), but parents whose kids attend the two nearby schools may beg to differ. The City will probably increase police patrols and install four-way stop signs or speed bumps to slow drivers down. Traffic restrictions, like artery plaque, build up and are rarely reversed.

The accident in 2004.