Sunday, November 30, 2014

Soggy on Sunday

The long-absent rain was welcome throughout the Bay Area, but it did inconvenience our turn at Sandwiches on Sunday. The picnic area in the back of the Redwood City community center was very wet. We set up tables by the overhang at the entrance to the building (closed Saturdays and Sundays).

We had prepared baked chicken, rice, and salad for 80 people, but the soggy weather had reduced the number of diners to about 50; no worries, they happily took home the leftovers. On this Thanksgiving weekend, everyone should have leftovers.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Charity Begins At Home

As parents approach the winter of their lives, their children have become adults whose trajectories are fairly clear. Of course, extremely positive and negative surprises can still occur, but most parents can tell which of of their children will be financially successful and which will likely have problems throughout their lives.

The question: how do you help the struggling ones now without being "unfair"? [Your humble observer has seen first hand how siblings have been riven by parents trying to help the poorer ones through unequal division of the estate.)

One answer: the long-term promissory note.
One creative solution is for the parents to make a loan that serves as an advance on the child’s inheritance. Even though it’s a loan, the chances are the client is never going to see that money again.

The child signs a promissory note with a low rate of interest*, and the note is due to the parents in 30 years or upon the death of the second parent, when the estate settles. Parents like this arrangement because it’s a way to give one child some money while treating all children equally in the estate. The estate split can still be equal, and the loan for the needy child gets repaid back to the parents’ estate from the child’s inheritance. The children like this approach because the money is a loan, not a handout.
*In order for the loan not to be treated as a gift and triggering a possible gift tax, the IRS publishes minimum interest rates that should be charged on the intra-family loan.

As many of us sort through the pile of pleas from charitable organizations, make sure we give a thought about how to help those closest to home.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday: A Day of Rest

The day after Thanksgiving is popularly known as Black Friday
to mark the kickoff to the Christmas shopping season. “Black” refers to stores moving from the “red” to the “black,” back when accounting records were kept by hand, and red ink indicated a loss, and black a profit.
In our household we resist the temptation to buy stuff that would never have made it to our shopping list were it not for Black Friday's incredible deals. This is not the time to buy our first gun, nor do we need another brokerage account to clutter our finances. Instead, if we're lucky enough to have a day off, Black Friday is a day of rest for our gastrointestinal system and a day of preparation for the frenetic month of December.

[Note to Christians: Advent starts this Sunday, marks the first day of the liturgical calendar, and is the busiest time of the year.]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Turkey Easy Peasy

Over the years we've experimented with various methods of cooking the Thanksgiving turkey: the paper bag, the foil wrap, the low-temperature / high-temperature switch, and stuffing or not stuffing the bird; apprehensive, we have yet to try deep-frying.

Nowadays there are also choices about the primary ingredient: farm-raised vs. wild (chart), fresh vs frozen.

We don't feel adventurous, so we'll stick with the store-bought fresh turkey and rely on brining to add flavor. On Tuesday I boiled the brine spices and vegetables and left the mixture on the stove to cool overnight. This morning the brine was poured over the 23-pound turkey, and the bucket was refrigerated for 24 hours.

Tomorrow the turkey will be rinsed, rubbed with butter, then browned on each side at 400 degrees. The oven will be dialed down to 200 degrees, where it will remain for 7 to 8 hours. Even the breast meat should turn out to be moist and tender. Easy peasy.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Quantum Biology

The 21st century has been christened the century of biology. That's a safe prediction, given the advances in chemistry, engineering, and data processing--not to mention biology--but the solution to the thorniest problems may just lie in quantum physics.

(UC-Berkeley image)
Quantum theory posits the duality of matter in particle and wave forms, describes how seemingly dissociated bodies affect each other (quantum entanglement), and disavows objective truth in favor of probabilities.

Quantum biology purports to explain puzzling phenomena, such as how plants developed high efficiencies of energy transfer in photosynthesis. Some theorists even speculate that it provides a scientific basis for consciousness. Such enthusiasm may seem far-fetched to the vast majority of people--including your humble observer--who are not quantum physicists, but as those physicists are wont to say, all things are possible.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Don't Fight It, Embrace It

If this is global warming climate change, give me more [bold added]:
A combination of cooler seas and a quiet West African monsoon season made for a less active Atlantic hurricane season, giving the South and East Coasts of the United States one of their lengthiest reprieves in history from a major hurricane, forecasters said on Monday.

"This is the longest without a major hurricane hitting the U.S. since the Civil War era," said Jeff Masters, chief meteorologist for Weather Underground.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crimson-Colored Glasses

Harvard professor Greg Mankiw was delighted when he spotted portfolio-theory trash-talking at the Harvard-Yale football game. Sadly, the good professor is guilty of looking through crimson-colored glasses. WSJ:
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, Yale University earned a return of 20.2% on its endowment, easily topping the 15.4% gain reported by Harvard University. Yale’s performance was the best among the eight Ivy League schools, while Harvard’s was the worst.

The rout was the fourth victory in a row over Harvard for David Swensen, who manages Yale’s $23.9 billion endowment, and his eighth in the past decade.
Ultimately, however, size matters: Harvard's endowment ($36.4 billion) is still much bigger than Yale's ($23.9 billion), and the absolute rankings are unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. [Note: if both Yale and Harvard were to duplicate their respective performances in the current year--and without considering contributions, withdrawals, and expenses--Yale and Harvard's portfolio would increase by $4.8 billion and $5.6 billion, respectively. The much larger base that Harvard starts from ensures that the richest stays that way.]

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Paroxysms......of Laughter

An award that no writer wants to win: the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. An example from the 2010 titlist:
"Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."
Or how about last year's winner?
“Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands—only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.”
Literary Review editor Jonathan Beckman has some suggestions, such as "just make sense" and "don’t get carried away by metaphor."

Your humble correspondent has more prosaic advice: if you can't do it well, best not to do it at all, or as my old English teacher used to say about the comma, when in doubt, leave it out.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Entitled to do So

The crowd at the Honolulu airport was very heavy last Tuesday. After checking the luggage, one must enter the TSA line which stretched well out the door.

A Hawaiian Airlines representative saw me leaning on a cane, and escorted me to the front of the line. I appreciated the consideration because the leg was getting sore; nevertheless I did feel a twinge of guilt for not waiting my turn.

Could this trip's accident have foreshadowed a not-so-distant future of infirmity, disability placards, and loss of independence? Being able to cut to the front of the line is a seductive pleasure, and I hope that I never ever feel that I'm entitled to do so.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Leapfrogging the Staircase

The problems of the hard-core homeless are many, inter-related and very expensive to fix. Current solutions experience a high rate of failure [bold added]:
Most of the long-term homeless are mentally ill, alcoholic or drug-addicted, often all three. The standard way to help them has long been the “staircase” approach: requiring them to quit drink and drugs before shepherding them through emergency shelters and temporary lodging until they are deemed ready to be housed. But many refuse to sign up. Those who do often fall off the wagon. Typically, fewer than half make it all the way to a (usually subsidised) permanent home.
A new, controversial solution has shown a much higher success rate:
Pathways to Housing gave rough sleepers furnished flats in poor districts. Medical care, treatment for addiction and help in learning to cook, pay bills and so on were offered, but not required. After five years 88% remained housed.
Leapfrogging "rough sleepers" into permanent housing seems to motivate them to stay off the streets. And it saves the taxpayers money:
Denver, Colorado, reckons each of its 300 “heaviest utilisers” costs taxpayers $37,000 a year and that putting them straight into housing with intensive support from social workers would cost less than half as much. Calgary, the first Canadian city to use a housing-first approach, saw average annual savings of more than $30,000 per person from housing its most acute cases.
Of course, the principal objection is not economic but moral. The homeless whose behavior is the worst get the biggest reward, i.e., free housing with no conditions.

We just have to get past our middle-class morality!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Never Been Stronger

Yana, Terri, and deliveryman
The church had filled eight (8) food boxes each with the requested 15 items, and, with a week to go before Thanksgiving, I returned to the Bay Area in time to deliver them to CALL Primrose.

When I walked through the door at the Burlingame office, I was greeted by a familiar face. Yana A., who had been an IT specialist at our former employer, was now volunteering at the call center. Yana introduced me to new Director Terri Boesch; Mary Watt had retired in May.

CALL Primrose has been providing food, emergency financial assistance and other services to Peninsula families since 1983. Unfortunately, business has never been stronger.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Pilots Who Changed Yamamoto's Mind

Florence and James Ho
With a few hours to kill before our flight we stopped at Hilo Hattie's and encountered local historian James Ho. He was promoting his book-with-the-longish-title Seven Unsung Hero Fighter Pilots Who Saved This Day - December 7th, 1941. We listened politely, not only because we respect our elders but because we wouldn't want any rude behavior reported back to people we know in common.

Everyone who has a basic familiarity with World War II knows how on December 7, 1941 the Japanese destroyed the ships at Pearl Harbor and the combat planes at Hickam and Wheeler Fields in Central Oahu. Less well known are the 12 P-40 fighter planes in North Oahu and the pilots who counter-attacked. From the book by James Ho:
The twelve P-40 fighter planes stationed at Kawailoa Airfield [near Haleiwa on the North Shore] were untouched by the Japanese war planes. Evidently the Japanese espionage agents failed to inform its military about this airfield....[T]his airbase runway was built with the help of my classmates and me, many of whom were Japanese-Americans--whose parents were Japan citizens.

Flying high above the Japanese formation with the sun in back of them, the P-40's dove right through the first squadron of enemy Japanese planes and shot down six planes. As they dived through the Japanese formation and climbed up and under the next Japanese formation with their machine guns blazing, another six enemy Japanese planes were destroyed.
The actions by these pilots averted a second attack that could have crippled America's ability to prosecute the Pacific war [bold added]:
Supreme Commander Yamamoto, upon hearing about the air attack upon his returning aircrafts and the loss of so many [20 in total] planes in such a short time was convinced that the American carriers had returned to Pearl Harbor. Therefore, he gave the command to abort his original orders to rearm and refuel the returning aircrafts and issued a new order to withdraw.
These actions by seven pilots, one of whom lost his life that day, likely changed the course of history.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Next Year We'll Start on the Closet

Destined for strangers who can use them
Continuing the organizing project that had started in September, I helped Mom sort through some of her clothes. (The task would have been better suited to a daughter, but after five tries my parents quit trying to have one.)

Most items were in very good condition, and some still had their tags. We kept everything that Mom thought she had a possibility of wearing, and my sister-in-law took the rest to a homeless shelter where she volunteers. When I come back next year, we'll start on the closet.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

I Found the Room

The building where we were married 39 years ago looks much the same though most of the people are different. The rector has changed at least seven times; most priests come from the Mainland, and it's rare for someone who's not born here--and his or her spouse--to embrace a long-term commitment to the Islands. Restless rectors are not a reflection on this particular church; the phenomenon is common to religious organizations in Hawaii. If they want stability, it's usually best to hire a local boy or girl.

As a reward for chauffeuring her to church, my relative treated me to lunch at Big City Diner, where I scarfed down the kimchi fried rice. I didn't think that I could finish the generous serving, but it had been eight years since my last plate, and somehow I found the room.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Cure for Innumerable Ailments

Herbs for soaking, and a bottle of liquid yuk jiao.
My bum leg (luckily only bruised, not broken) has elicited much sympathy from the older generation, all of whom advised me to rub the affected area with yuk jiao (aka dit da jow). I have been plied with bottles of the ancient Chinese liniment, the cure for innumerable ailments.

One aunt gave me a package of dried herbs that came from her mother's garden (her mother died 40 years ago). The herbs were to be soaked in rubbing alcohol or whiskey. I now understood why another relative sipped the black smelly liquid every day; she lived to the age of 94.

Another lady gave me a bottle of her stash that was mixed by her mother, who died in 1960. Like fine wine, yuk jiao purportedly improves with age.

I honored their gifts by applying the yuk jiao every morning and evening, and, you know what? I do feel better. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hobbling My Way

The doctor had prescribed "occasional movement," so I grabbed a cane (if one has aging parents, there's a large selection at hand) and hobbled my way around the old neighborhood.

The Waiola shaved ice store, favorite of Presidents, was closed until 10:30. The proprietor must be doing OK; a couple of new vans were parked outside.

After 40 minutes the leg was quite sore, and I was done. The fitness app said that the distance traveled was one mile. Getting back to normal will take some time.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kozo Sushi

Having a gimpy leg doesn't deter the seasoned traveler from venturing out in search of Island food. It was my first visit to Kozo Sushi, an Osaka chain that has opened multiple outlets across Oahu. The South King Street store was less than a mile away from my parents.

We ordered take-out servings for three people. The bill was under $20, and the seafood, rice, and vegetables were uniformly fresh. It wasn't gourmet sushi, but the prices were just a notch above American fast food. We'll be limping back before we leave.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Much Needed Wake-up Call

X-rays showed no fracture
Goals for this trip changed when your humble correspondent tripped down stairs last night. The intense pain in the right thigh had subsided only a little by next morning, so it was off to the Straub Clinic emergency room. X-rays showed no fracture or break, and the diagnosis was a hematoma (blood pool) by the thigh muscle.

Even with a regimen of rest plus occasional movement, ibuprofen, and alternating a heating pad with cold compresses, the hematoma would take days to break up and for the pain and swelling to subside.

Comments: 1) the Straub doctor said that the thigh bone was "well-maintained," a compliment that I would be happy to accept if I had known that a fabulous femur was a health objective; 2) Daydreaming when I tripped, I need to be mindful to be mindful. 3) I now have a lot more sympathy and patience with people who have mobility problems.

It was a much needed wake-up call, and I was very lucky the consequences weren't worse. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day 2014

Dad, near Tokyo in 1945
I'm spending this Veterans Day with Dad (89) and Mom (85).

My kid brother headed back to Orange County and left the spare bedroom in tidy shape. It's true what they say: marriage changes a man.

This trip's to-do list had some "important" items, but I can already sense that they won't be accomplished. I'll just have to come back in January and try again. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 10, 2014

Google Barges Grounded, Ground Up

Under construction in 2013 (Examiner photo)
The "secretive" barge project that Google has been working on for at least four years has been put on hold due to fire safety concerns [bold added]:
“These vessels will have over 5,000 gallons of fuel on the main deck and a substantial amount of combustible material on board,” wrote Robert Gauvin, the Coast Guard’s acting chief of commercial vessel compliance.[snip]

Google had previously said the barges, located of the Maine coast and in San Francisco Bay, were to be “an interactive space where people can learn about technology.” The West Coast barge was eventually moved out to storage 80 miles away, while the Maine barge was dismantled and scrapped.
The Coast Guard is doing its job, but the people at Google aren't idiots. They know that Google would be liable for multi-millions, even billions, of dollars in monetary damages were an accident to happen in San Francisco Bay, not to mention the attendant bad publicity. Too bad, because I would have loved to visit a Google barge and would have happily signed a waiver. (BTW, to put the fuel hazard in perspective, over 500 planes with full fuel tanks take off each day from San Francisco Airport; one of the smaller commercial jets, the 737, takes off with at least 5,000 gallons.)

[Update (11/11) - Gotta hand it to them, they never stop trying. Google Leases NASA's Moffett Field, Historic Hangar for $1.2 Billion:
A Google subsidiary will lease a NASA facility in California's Bay Area for $1.16 billion over the next 60 years, agency officials announced Monday.....The company will refurbish all three hangars and use them as research facilities in an attempt to develop new technologies in space exploration, robotics and other high-tech fields, NASA officials said.] © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Limited Metaphor

The crosier (shepherd's staff) signifies
the Bishop's rank and responsibility.

Normally the church parking lot is empty on Saturday night. We stopped to drop off some food boxes. The rector's car was parked and the lights were on inside.

"Why is he here?" asked the youngster.

He's just making sure everything's in order for the bishop's visit.


It's the same as businesspeople who tidy up the office when the big boss comes to town.

When the Bishop arrived on Sunday, he preached, confirmed candidates, and greeted everyone warmly. He acted like a shepherd who has been enjoined to lay down [his] life for the sheep [John 10].

Don't know too many big bosses who would do that. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, November 08, 2014

We Saw What You Did on Saturday

Dad didn't mind that the kids next door liked to hang out by the steps, but when one boy defaced the wall that's where he drew the line.

From the security recording he printed out the incriminating photo and taped it up near the scene of the crime. It was torn down the next day, but he immediately posted another copy. The kids have stopped coming by. Actions have consequences. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Friday, November 07, 2014

At the Recycling Center

When the bins by the fence are filled, I load them into the car and take them to the San Mateo recycling center. It usually takes ten minutes to collect $10-$15, which is the equivalent of earning $15-$25 before tax.

At 1:30 on Friday the prospect of quick lunch money dimmed as the line moved with the speed of molasses. Everyone had a sour expression, except for one lady who rolled out a couple of empty barrels for me to use. 20 minutes later there were still three customers and six full containers in front of mine.

I caught the attention of the helpful lady and pointed to my three barrels of plastics and cans. You can have them. "Really?" Yes. The memory of her surprise and pleasure will stay with me a lot longer than ten bucks ever would have.

[Update - 11/10: economists and psychologists are probing the complex relationship between money and happiness. One of several findings:
The paradox of money is that although earning more of it tends to enhance our well-being, we become happier by giving it away than by spending it on ourselves.]
© 2014 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 06, 2014

To Accountants, A Matter of Earnest Importance

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) headlines why Ebola is so alarming:

Ebola diminishes tax collections in Liberia.

No wonder the disease has everyone in an uproar.

Oscar Wilde's famous description of a cynic may well be applied to accountants:

"A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Tips for Socially Awkward Accountants

Accountants are known to be socially awkward. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) lists some top tips for socializing at work:
Walk and talk: Take a five-minute break from your desk every 90 minutes, and walk around and say hi to a co-worker.
Prep your intro: Practice a short “elevator speech” about who you are, what you stand for and what your interests are when you know you’re going to meet new co-workers.
Be strategic: Introduce yourself to people you don’t know who interest you or have a job you’d like to know more about.
Connect: Notice what’s on someone’s desk and ask about it as an icebreaker.
Expand: Socialize with everyone on your team so there’s no hint of favoritism.
Keep it classy: Drink in moderation and discuss only neutral topics at work functions.
Unplug: Give LinkedIn a rest periodically and telephone your contacts.
Check in: After you meet someone, follow up within 24 hours with a call, email, or text.
No, the AICPA is being serious, and please, dear reader, refrain from laughing when Joe or Sue from accounting stammers a question about your dog; remember who screens your expense reports. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Thank you, Democrats

California is one of the few redoubts to have escaped the Republican wave election. All eight statewide offices were won by Democrats, as were both houses of the State legislature. Democrats were as dominant in the delegation to Washington, winning 38 seats to the Republicans' 15 in the House; both Senators, neither of whom were running this year, are Democrats.

For the foreseeable future California residents will be subject to high tax rates and ever-more intrusive laws enforced by a regulatory state that is not used to opposition. The tech-media-academic-entertainment complexes are producing enormous wealth, enough to forestall the discontent from bubbling over from non-coastal California.

And I'm very grateful. Thanks to Proposition 13, which caps property tax increases if one doesn't move, our taxes are much lower than our neighbors'. Easing into retirement, I don't drive as much as I used to and don't worry about tolls, high parking fees, gas prices, and gas taxes. The enviros have stopped nearly all home building on the Peninsula despite the immense swaths of open space in the foothills; demand and scarce supply have driven average house prices to seven figures in our sleepy suburb. The nest-egg is accreting merely with the passage of time, no work being necessary.

There aren't many undocumented aliens because, frankly, they can't afford to live here. They move to the drought-ridden farms and industry-fleeing towns of the Central Valley whose social safety nets are frayed to the breaking point. They and their problems are out of sight.

Thank you, Democrats, for having my back. And I didn't even have to hire a lobbyist. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 03, 2014

This Time the Science is Settled

I got music: Black eye in a red holiday cup, good reads,
laptop, and cellphone - who could ask for anything more?
Ever since my brother introduced me to the drink I have been averaging two blackeyes (a coffee with two shots of espresso) per week. The caffeine noticeably improves my mental acuity, and I get more work done.

The beginning of November kicks off the season of multitasking and wrapping up projects, and the question must be asked: is caffeine over-consumption dangerous?
It is possible for a person to die from too much caffeine, “but that would mean about 14,000 milligrams, or around 140 8-ounce cups of coffee in one day,” [Johns Hopkins professor Matthew] Johnson says. Consuming that much would be difficult because of coffee’s self-limiting nature. “One cup makes you feel good and alert, but five cups may make you feel like your stomach is cramping,” he says. “You feel wired and you wouldn’t typically be able to go overboard.”
This is very good news. Once science tells you what you want to hear, there's no point in researching it further. © 2014 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

Yesterday churches around the world celebrated All Saints Day, which recognizes not only the saints who have reached heaven but also their ongoing spiritual bond with the living. Today, on All Souls' Day, we remembered the Faithful Departed.

The priest read a hundred names from the list that parishioners had inscribed. I had written just three---Fred, Robert, and Priscilla---though I could have added dozens more like Betty and Melvin who left our extended family this year. In the quiet of church on Sunday morning (cellphones are off or silent) we resurrected happy memories, contemplated our time together, and tried to divine the meaning of brief lives in the context of eternity.

Some day all of our names will be on that list, and eventually they will drop off as fewer and fewer of the living remember us.

So make it count.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.   (Isaac Watts)
© 2014 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Last Stop

Must remember how to put
everything back
The 17-year-old Dodge Grand Caravan started, then stopped. Fulfilling Einstein's definition of insanity ("doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"), I repeated the action three times.

The instrument panel was dark. The good news was that the problem likely was electrical. (I had no intention of incurring another $1,000 engine expense on a car that qualified for cash-for-clunkers five years ago.)

The red connector in the center is the
source of most electrical problems
An hour later dashboard parts were scattered around the garage. I pulled a circuit board from behind the instrument panel. It looked pristine, but somewhere there lurked a break in the circuit. I dabbed at some of the connectors with an old soldering iron. I wasn't going to order a new $800 board---this really was the last stop before the scrap heat.

[Update - 11/2: I put everything back. The engine started, and I drove around the block. The old car must have been reading my mind.] © 2014 Stephen Yuen