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 clich├ęs 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

Be-Czar

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

Making Sure It's Dead

Under the CARS program just ended the clunker is disabled by pouring sodium silicate into the engine, freezing it permanently. However, clever handymen can surely salvage engines from auto wrecks and bring some cars back from the dead. Also, many destroyed clunkers will produce useable parts that will extend the life of the environmentally unfriendly fleet still on the road.

No, the following solution, that I first came across in 2007, ensures that four-wheeled zombies will never roll again. But if you love Bugs as I do, this video is not for the faint of heart.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Improving Picture

After we had our flatscreen TV delivered, DirecTV came the next day to upgrade the old satellite dish and digital video recorder to high-definition. It took the installer a couple of hours to mount the new dish in a different location (it was heavier and needed more support) and only another hour to hook up the DVR and TV.

The installer noted the household demographic and asked a couple of times if we wanted to add Mandarin channels. [NFL and MLB (baseball) are more in my sweet spot, but if I bought more channels I’d feel obligated to spend even more time in front of the can’t-call-it-tube-anymore.] No thanks.

Chafing under the cable monopoly, we switched to satellite when it became available five years ago and have been happy with the decision. The signal comes through clearly, and service interruptions are extremely rare. Also, unlike Comcast, DirecTV’s price hikes have been modest. HD service is a few dollars more, but when I called them today with a question, they knocked off $5 per month for six months. A small amount, a lagniappe, that sweetened the phone call.

Perhaps DirecTV wouldn’t have been as attentive without competition; AT&T, Comcast, and Dish are all vying for our eyeballs. And perhaps that’s a lesson we can apply to other industries.