Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Smidgeon of Religion

We served 70 people last Sunday.

The new guy was so hungry that his whole body shook. He wolfed down the chicken and rice as I ladled it onto his plate. We had enough for seconds, and I gave him another scoop. So it went on another Sunday in Redwood City.

This is the ninth year of a local ministry to feed everyone who shows up at the Fair Oaks Community Center for lunch. Our church, along with three other Peninsula congregations, rotates responsibility for serving the meals. When it's our turn, we bring six or seven trays of entrees and four or five trays of salad to the center. A middle-aged couple from another church always shows up with a big pink box of doughnuts.

Marge brought peaches for each bag
On the way out each guest receives a bag lunch prepared by the parishioners of the nearby Catholic church. Marge from St. Pius was a little late with the bags. She thought that the sandwiches should be accompanied by fresh fruit, so she stopped by Sigona's Market, which charged her a greatly reduced price on 100 ripe peaches after she explained the need.

We lacked a priest today, so it fell upon me to say the blessing, our only smidgeon of religion. We Episcopalians aren't used to praying in public, but it's easy if you remember that there are basically two things to say in a prayer.

We forgot the large spoons, so we served with doubled-up eating utensils. The crowd, which started at 50 but grew to 70 by the end of the hour, was patient and friendly. That's what happens they see you working hard, stressed yet smiling.

A well-dressed white couple whom I hadn't seen before thanked us for the meal. We thanked them for coming. At these occasions one must maintain iron discipline over one's thoughts, eyes, and words. There, but for the grace of God, go we all. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Monday, August 30, 2010

Addled Incentive

CBS surveyed potential viewers to find out what they wanted from a Hawaii Five-O remake.

‘I want to see the crime-fighting, I want to see Hawaii, and play me the song.’

Marketers over-think and over-complicate. Customers usually want only a few things, as long as they’re done well.

I have to admit, however, that the re-imagining of the Zulu character does give an added incentive to tune in Mondays at 10 p.m.

Kono as Zulu
Grace Park as Zulu

Friday, August 27, 2010

Risky Behavior

The craving became overwhelming after two weeks, and I gave in. I cracked open a couple of eggs and cooked them over medium heat. This morning it would take longer, five minutes on each side, not runny but firm. The flesh is weak, but the mind's not crazy.

(As of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration has traced the salmonella infection of the nation's egg supply to chicken feed used by Iowa egg producers. However, the source, extent, and solution to the problem are still unknown.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Start Spreading the Newspaper

I largely gave up the morning newspaper when we got home wi-fi.

Clicking on the laptop enables me to view up-to-the-minute share prices instead of wondering how much they've moved since yesterday's close. I can read my favorite columnists and the dozens of readers' reactions right below them, instead of trying to remember a week later what article the letter to the editor is referring to. Information is in color, often with video and sound, not on a flat sheet of black and white.

Lately, however, I've rediscovered the pleasure of newsprint. I like spreading the paper over the table. I can surveil the printed page much faster than I can scroll down a screen. The editor's placement of the articles, pictures, headlines, and even ads stimulate contemplative thought in a way that glowing pixels do not.

By the way, I also like that there are no ads on the front page. Newspaper people know that news takes precedence over commerce, a value to which few home page designers seem to subscribe.

There are lots of other reasons to love papers: spilling coffee on them isn't a catastrophe, they're good for lining animal cages and sopping up messes, and a rolled-up paper functions well as an emergency bugswatter.

But most of all, while I can get lost in an article or section of the newspaper for a few minutes, I'm not distracted for hours clicking on endless nested links.

As Peggy Noonan wrote on William Powers and the wisdom of Seneca: "much of life is beginning to resemble a plant that never puts down roots." It's ironic that rootlessness may be remedied at least partially by a conscious effort to consume one's information off of the product of dead trees.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Driving Us Crazy

Cartoon from the Mercury News
Below are the top ten driving pet peeves from Mercury-News readers. Their number one irritant was bad merging:
  • Bad merging -- either too slow or too sudden.

  • Road boulders -- slowpokes in the fast lane.

  • Not using turn signals.

  • Tailgating.

  • Using exit lanes as passing lanes.

  • Texting/cell phone use.

  • Flipping cigarette butts out window.

  • Running red lights.

  • Bypassing cars waiting in exit lane and cutting in front of them.

  • Tie: Carpool cheats and bicyclists who ignore stop signs.
  • I agree that sudden or slow merging onto freeways is hazardous, but the danger can be reduced if everyone else leaves the right lane clear.  Drive defensively, as my drivers' ed teacher would say over and over.

    More offensive to me are texting, non-handsfree calling, solo driving in the carpool lane, and gross speeding (15mph over the limit). Conscious flouting of the rules for personal advantage bothers me more than not knowing how to merge properly, and yes, I know, this says something about me.

    Sunday, August 22, 2010


    If you only have a few minutes and happen to be near Golden Gate Park, stop by the bison enclosure. It’s in the western end of the park, far from the museums. Parking is plentiful even on weekends.

    Yesterday the bison were resting near the fence, gazing impassively at the passers-by. The infrequent Hawaiian visitors were thrilled, snapping away with their cellphone cameras.

    One of them said that she remembered my bringing her here 30 years ago. I was buffaloed; it’s an episode that I still do not remember. One symptom that the long decline has begun is telling old tales to the same audiences, thinking that one is recounting them for the first time.

    By the way, if you only have a few minutes and happen to be near Golden Gate Park, stop by the bison enclosure....

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Going with My Gut

    When making my own personal financial decisions---like the doctor who won’t look after his own health—I find it hard to gain the motivation to apply the same thoroughness that I do on tasks for my clients and employers.
    Lately I’ve been buying extended warranties and service contracts on new appliances. These decisions have been based more on gut feel than disciplined quantitative analysis. The purchases have turned out to be right, despite popular advice that one should avoid these agreements.

    The Best Buy repairman came by earlier today to finish the work on the refrigerator. Last month he fixed our front-loading washer, also under contract. (Regarding the latter, the latch had broken, and the washing machine wouldn’t operate with the door even slightly ajar. However, I installed an elastic strap to over-ride the safety feature until the repairman fixed it on his second visit. Fortunately, the laundry police weren't called.)

    When deciding whether to buy service contracts, doing a decent analysis requires us to ascertain the elements going into the decision, including:
  • length of the standard warranty;
  • probability that the equipment will need repair one or more times after the warranty expires;
  • length of time the equipment will be held;
  • cost of the repair(s);
  • cost and length of the extended service contract;
  • replacement cost of the equipment in the period it is likely to break down (note that the current purchase price is irrelevant, although it may give a clue as to what the future replacement cost may be).

  • We’ve had to perform analyses like this at work. If the project was a big one, we would also need to analyze the cost of other alternatives, such as leasing-in the equipment or using a less-efficient configuration (for example, two smaller machines in place of a large one) in lieu of repair. Then, after gathering the data to fix the range of probabilities and costs for each scenario, we would run multiple iterations, sometimes cranking out hundreds of Monte Carlo simulations. After all the work was done, senior management would often decide on the opposite of the model recommendation (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

    Perhaps I don’t do quantitative analysis more frequently in personal situations because I subconsciously (now consciously) know that all that work does not necessarily improve the result. Especially when considering other uses of my time, I can make a decision in a minute, pop a cold one and watch a ballgame.

    It's possible that I am getting smarter as I get older.

    Saturday, August 14, 2010

    Oh, the Humanity!

    As if unemployment and a double-dip recession weren't enough, we must add the Hindenburg Omen to the list of economic worries:
    The Omen, named after the famous German airship in 1937 that crashed in Lakehurst, N.J., is a technical indicator that foreshadows not just a bear market but a stock-market crash [bold added]. Its creator, a blind mathematician named Jim Miekka, said his indicator is now predicting a market meltdown in September.
    According to the WSJ the Hindenburg Omen criteria are the following:
  • The daily number of new NYSE 52-week highs and the daily number of new 52-week lows must both be greater than 2.5% of the total issues traded that day.

  • The smaller of the 52-week highs and lows must be greater than or equal to 79 (or 2.5% of 3,168 issues).

  • The NYSE's 10-week moving average must be rising.

  • The McClellan Oscillator, a measure of market fluctuations, must be negative.

  • New 52-week highs can't be more than twice the new 52-week lows. (However, it is acceptable for the new 52-week lows to be more than double the 52-week highs.)

  • The Hindenburg Omen formulas seem like a black box, if not black magic, to me. The trouble is, the HO does confirm another stock market warning sign that I like to track.

    The skirts are falling! The skirts are falling!

    Despite the ominous omen, I'm hoping that the August heat wave will trigger a bounce in hemlines and share prices. In other words I'm hoping to see a bottom soon.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Tragedy at the Treetops

    The distance from City Hall (A) to Treetops Restaurant (B)
     is 5 miles, according to Google Earth.
    The lush vegetation is fed by constant rain, and the jungle threatens to encroach. The Manoa valley is only a few miles from the Honolulu highrises, but its proximity to the watershed makes it seem a world away. At the end of Manoa road is the defunct bird-themed sanctuary, Paradise Park, which has been closed for nearly two decades. A park and restaurant are there now, but when asked for directions to the Treetops Restaurant most Honolulans will tell you that it’s at Paradise Park.

    The weekday lunch is an oldtimer’s favorite. Diners get plenty of food at a reasonable cost, and the location is far away from the traffic and noise of downtown. On a quiet afternoon last week, the Treetops parking lot turned into a scene of horror.

    The meeting had broken up, and four friends continued their conversation in the parking lot. They didn’t see the SUV bearing down on them until the last moment. Two were crushed under the wheels and dragged twenty feet; they died at the hospital. Another required surgery and is recovering, while the fourth suffered scrapes that were treated at the scene.

    The driver was a friend to all of them and was trying to do a good deed for the owner of the SUV by moving the vehicle:
    [Dexter] Lum and the other victim, 77-year-old Martin Wong of Kaneohe, were both 33rd Degree Masons in Hawaii. [The driver, Charles] Wegener is the grand master in Hawaii, the top Mason in the state.

    Fellow Masons said Wegener had been moving the white Lexus SUV for a fellow Mason when he hit four men in the parking lot of Treetops Restaurant at Paradise Park. In addition to the deaths of Lum and Wong, an 81-year-old man was taken to the hospital with a broken hip. The fourth man was knocked down but not injured.

    The group of men had been attending a luncheon for Masons.

    Friends said the owner of the SUV had it modified for left-foot driving after he had a stroke, and the unusual arrangement caused Wegener to hit the gas instead of the brake.
    After a tragedy it’s natural to look for explanations. But the driver passed the alcohol and drug tests, and investigation of the SUV modifications showed that they were performed by a licensed facility.

    Sometimes bad things just happen, and no one is to blame. The seniors who died counted on more productive years and time spent with their loved ones---another reminder that those of us who are alive, like my younger brother who was the only one lucky enough to walk away unscathed, have a lot to be thankful for. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Better Than Before

    The bad news: the icemaker on our 7-year-old Samsung RS257 (superseded by the RS267) refrigerator malfunctioned and leaked all over the floor.

    The good news: in 2008 we had renewed the Best Buy extended warranty, which covers parts and labor on the housecall. At $169 for three years it’s turned out to be a bargain.

    Also good news: the Best-Buy repairman asked me to defrost the freezer before he returned for his second visit. I dumped nearly half the contents, most of which were unidentifiable.

    I don’t welcome problems, but sometimes fixing them makes things better than they were before.

    Defrosting one freezer makes the second one look not so hot.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Joining the Don't-Be-Evil Empire

    iPhone 3G (left), Nexus One (right)
    I’m entering the Google ecosystem during the next few weeks.  The catalyst: someone gave me an unencumbered Nexus One, Google’s  Android phone released last January.  Your humble (cheapskate) servant can’t resist the opportunity to use a “free” $529 piece of equipment;  before I follow the herd of Apple customers into the iPhone 4 corral, I’ve moved my AT&T simcard from the two-year-old iPhone 3G to the Nexus.

    To give Google a fair shake I’m using its other offerings such as the calendar and contact list. I’m also trying out other applications, such as Voice and Docs, that can be accessed from non-Android equipment as well as PC’s and Mac’s.  (Blogger, on which this blog is written, is owned by Google.)

    I have the sneaking suspicion that fewer problems will arise on Android phones as the Google products evolve. If consumers find products like Google Maps and Google Earth to be indispensable, and the products work better on Android, it doesn’t bode well for the iPhone, Blackberry, and competing smartphones.  There’s a parallel with Microsoft’s demolition of Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and Netscape by Excel, Word, and Internet Explorer, respectively, but there Microsoft was leveraging its operating system dominance into applications, while Google is trying to do the reverse.  However, Google is operating in a more competitive landscape that the Microsoft of yester-year.

    The bigger worry is that Google will violate customers’ privacy by exploiting its trove of user data for commercial reasons.   As the WSJ wrote about yesterday, the explosive growth of Facebook and social-networking sites, where exhibitionism more than circumspection seems to be the norm (yes, I’m a FB member), will probably make Google step over a line it had hesitated to cross. As Google and certain politicians are finding out, it’s easy to see and condemn “evil” in others, not so easy when you have to make tough decisions about which principles are more important because you can’t abide by all of them.
    © 2010 Stephen Yuen

    I like Google's Chrome Browser

    Sunday, August 08, 2010

    The iBike

    Wired reveals that Apple has filed a patent for a smart-bike:
    [Apple] has imagined a smart bicycle system that would let users communicate electronically with other cyclists, sharing such data as speed, distance, time, altitude, elevation, incline, decline, heart rate, power, derailleur setting, cadence, wind speed, path completed, expected future path, heart rate, power, and pace.
    In a year which has already seen the release of the iPad and iPhone 4 Steve Jobs said that there are amazing new products still to come. As a weekend cyclist and Apple stockholder I'm glad to see they're not resting on their laurels, but I'm not buying the iBike unless the seat's comfortable.

    Thursday, August 05, 2010

    Older is Better

    Table from WSJ (rectangle added)

    Baseball, the sport that has more statistics than you can shake an ash-or-maple stick at, says that managers get better with age.
    These data, which only include managers with at least five years of experience, show their average winning percentage generally increases with age. The 38-to-40 group is the worst at .474, and the 62-64 group is tops at .541. Managers at 57 years old had the best average winning rate, while 35-year-old leaders, including a spry Tony La Russa in 1980 with the Chicago White Sox, were the worst at .445.
    Rigorous statisticians caution that one must be careful about drawing conclusions:
    This idea that managers get better with age, though, might be somewhat self-fulfilling. Managers who perform poorly in their youth aren't able to drag down older managers' average since they probably got canned.
    So what? If a restaurant, a bank, or an auto repair shop has been around for a while, chances are it knows how to take advantage of good times and survive during the bad. That adaptability and experience is what I would need to manage my business....or my team. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, August 04, 2010

    Following OPM

    The New York Times confirms the good news that others have been saying for weeks:
    The government is expected to announce on Wednesday that three-quarters of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon leak has already evaporated, dispersed, been captured or otherwise eliminated — and that much of the rest is so diluted that it does not seem to pose much additional risk of harm.
    And there won't be future oil to worry about because the static kill procedure used to seal the hole seems to be working.

    As is often the case, the people who put real money on the line anticipated these developments a month ago. That's when the stock prices of the three companies that stood to lose the most--BP, Anadarko, and Transocean--stopped their decline.

    Unlike the oil-spill stocks, the S&P 500 has traded in a narrow range this year.

    Using other people's money is one way to get rich. Following OPM is another.

    Sunday, August 01, 2010

    Graciously Conceded

    25 years ago 49ers wide receiver Freddie Solomon graciously conceded his starting position to rookie Jerry Rice. More than that, he trained Jerry Rice on the nuances of being a wide receiver in the NFL.

    Mercury News reporter Mark Purdy, who was there for Jerry Rice’ rookie season, writes:
    These many years later, I still marvel that Solomon was so quietly gracious about ceding his playing time to Rice. In today's cutthroat NFL, it's hard to believe that any starting veteran receiver would do that. Solomon didn't think twice.

    "He was our teammate," Solomon said. "There wasn't a question about playing time. We all knew that Bill was going to play him. So we needed him to get better for us to win — me included. The team was bigger than all of us."
    In 1978, when friends were giving away 49ers tickets during a 2-14 season, I attended my first 49ers game. It was a drizzly day at Candlestick Park, and the stands were nearly empty. My one memory of that pitiful contest was how the speedy wide receiver would get open, but the quarterbacks could never get the ball in his hands. The bad St. Louis Cardinals beat the even worse 49ers.

    Freddie Solomon would eventually get his chance in the limelight, catching passes from Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana, winning two Super Bowls, and helping to train Jerry Rice, whom many hail as the greatest wide receiver of all time.

    Freddie Solomon , unlike his protégé, will not be enshrined in Canton this week. If getting into the Hall of Fame depended on one’s class and character, however, Freddie Solomon would be among the first inductees.