Monday, December 29, 2003

The Bright Side

Another storm passes through the Bay Area. Despite the inconvenience to commuters and the disruption to travelers’ plans, I think back to the drought years during the late 1980’s when we put bricks in toilet bowls (the bricks would crumble, causing all sorts of plumbing problems) and don’t mind so much. Let it rain, more precisely, let the snowpack build.

Going into the office during the week between Christmas and New Years Day is like going in on a weekend. If you’re able to take your mind off of all the fun that others are having this week, the atmosphere is very quiet and it’s a great time to clean up your workspace and organize files and calendars.

I’m sorry that one mad cow has snuffed billions of dollars of beef exports, but at least we’ll get some relief from the steep increase in beef prices. I used to get boneless rib-eye for $5 a pound but refuse to pay the $8 - $9 recently posted at Albertson’s, Safeway, and Costco. Time to clean out the freezer, as I anticipate some dramatic price reductions soon.

The dollar has weakened dramatically, damaging U.S. prestige and vacationers’ plans. But business has picked up a lot for my company because its fortunes are tied to export activity, which is beginning to boom because U.S. goods and services are more competitive. Just as they taught us in Macroeconomics 101.

© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Toward the Light

Midnight will not be clear this Christmas Eve. The cold and blustery weather has subdued the spirits of the holiday crowds, which, despite the early reports from retailers, do not seem to be as sizeable as in years past. We are reminded that shifting tectonics, as well as terrorism, can upend our lives suddenly, and worries over the flu and mad-cow disease add to the anxiety.

Nevertheless, we can see light at the end of a distant tunnel. There are many international troublespots, but the capture of Saddam and the concessions by the Libyan dictator are signs that we may be headed in the right direction. The economy and stock market are going up, and some of my friends have landed jobs. But even these worldly concerns, important as they are, pale beside the message of the season, that 2000 years ago the Light came into the world and overcame the shadow of Death. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:5]

From Chinatown, halfway up Nob Hill,

it's a short walk through the Stockton Street tunnel to the light

of Union Square.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Sam Wo, 813 Washington, San Francisco

The inauspicious entrance

Customers pass by the kitchen on their way to the dining room upstairs

A dumbwaiter from the kitchen to the 2nd floor

I don’t see how this restaurant has survived. There’s nothing unique about the inexpensive Cantonese menu of noodles, soup, and assorted rice plates. Maybe it is true that all you have to do is live long enough, and people will think you're special.

The cramped 2nd floor dining room

Sam Wo reputedly pre-dates the 1906 earthquake. It became a regular hangout for GI’s after the war. Before the Golden Dragon massacre (the Golden Dragon restaurant is directly across the street) of 1977, Chinatown stores and restaurants, not to mention purveyors of various forms of illicit activities, opened well past midnight. At Sam Wo you could get a good, cheap bowl of jook (rice porridge) at 2 a.m. The sights, sounds, smells, and sins of San Francisco gave the young small-town inductees an “eyeful tour” [it’s my blog, okay?]

My first and only visit (before yesterday) to Sam Wo was during the 1970’s with a relative from the World War II generation. Our disappointment at his inability to recapture the excitement of his youth was somewhat ameliorated by the delight of being served by the “world's rudest waiter”, one Edsel Ford Fong. Edsel performed his usual act of loudly criticizing our menu choices, slamming, not placing, the dishes, and sneering at our 15% tip. Although he has since gone on to the great scrap heap in the sky, Edsel Ford Fong was immortalized by the late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, and a restaurant at Candlestick Park bears his name.

I ordered the special won ton soup. For $4.75 I counted a half-dozen won ton, a couple of shrimp and pieces of pork, and some bok choy and water chestnuts. The liquid volume exceeded that of the solids, not a good sign of value. The food’s mediocre, the so-bad-it’s-good ambience has been replaced by no ambience. If Sam Wo is here 20 years from now, I'll be very surprised. [Free advice to the owners: capitalize on 100 years of franchise value. Start selling keychains and T-shirts with Edsel Ford Fong's visage. Appeal to the now-affluent boomers who are nostalgic for the Summer of Love.]
© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 22, 2003

San Francisco Centre

I know the economy is supposed to be picking up, but last Friday noon, when I went to the San Francisco Centre , it didn't seem too busy.

The View from Nordstrom's

Empty Victory

Like myself, people who don't follow college football are mystified by the Bowl Championship Series, if, indeed, we care at all about the subject. Football is the only college sport that doesn't determine its national champion on the field. Instead, through a complex set of algorithms, computers determine the leading teams and attempt to match the top two in one of the major bowl games held over the holiday season. The winner of the game is the national champion.

This year the computers blew a gasket. The University of Oklahoma, which was undefeated and which everyone thought was head-and-shoulders above any other team in the country, got blown out by Kansas State, 35-7, two weeks ago. (Kansas State University has three losses and cannot be a contender for the national championship.) The University of Southern California suffered an early loss to the California Bears (Bay Area connection!) but rolled through the rest of the season and is at the top of the polls. However, the BCS computers say that Oklahoma and Louisiana State University should play off for the championship in the Sugar Bowl. USC will play the University of Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and, if USC wins convincingly, the Oklahoma-LSU victor will wear a hollow crown.

A similarly empty victory awaits George W. Bush in next year's election. Senator Hillary Clinton is by far the strongest candidate that the Democrats can run in the Presidential race. She has name recognition, passionate supporters, unmatched fund-raising ability, and is credibly strong on defense. The latter trait is particularly important because, unlike Howard Dean, she will be palatable to the majority of Americans who support a strong military, and she will capture the vote of anti-war Bush haters in any event.

Why is it important for Republicans, as well as Democrats, to want President Bush to face Senator Clinton in 2004?
  • For the good of our country we should always wish to have the strongest candidates run for the top office, even if that increases the chances that “our” candidate may lose.
  • If President Bush does indeed run against and defeat Senator Clinton, he will have a greater claim to a mandate for his agenda (stomping all over a loose cannon like Howard Dean will not necessarily mean that the Democratic Party’s views have been repudiated).
  • A Dean nomination and loss will cause the Democratic Party to adopt a “wait for ‘08” attitude when the Party may really need a top-to-bottom overhaul of its ideas and methods. If Hillary runs and loses, especially if she loses badly, the Democratic leadership will be out of excuses. For the sake of a strong two-party system we should want the Democratic Party to embark on its transformation sooner rather than later.

There are recent examples of admired politicians (Mario Cuomo, Colin Powell) whose political capital evaporated when they did not use it. Hillary Clinton’s stock has never been higher, and as another Washingtonian was fond of saying a generation ago, the future is now.

[Update (12/31/03): Like many others, Dick Morris foresees defeat for the Democrats if Dean is nominated:
Usually it takes two or three defeats before the party regains its senses and realizes that catering to its extremist elements only courts disaster. After a Barry Goldwater, it embraces a Richard Nixon. Recovering from the disaster of George McGovern, it nominates Jimmy Carter. But sometimes it takes repeated defeats - as with Mondale and Dukakis in the '80s - before a party recovers its senses and nominates a Clinton. It will be interesting to see how soon the Democrats wake up and realize that they can't let their party be hijacked by the left without writing off the general election. But the wake-up call is unlikely to come until after Bush is safely re-elected.]

© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Castles in the Air

On the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, some point to space travel or 400-passenger 747’s as examples of how far aviation has come. Another viewpoint: below are pictures of a new Airbus A380 which has been outfitted for owners who live (where else?) in the Middle East.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Topics of Conversation

When I had lunch with my buddies at work, the discussion turned predictably to sports, wireless networks, and MP3 players. A previous lunch with a different group of guys sounded pretty much the same, although due to the advancing age of the participants we touched briefly upon the merits of low-protein versus low-fat diets.

Ina and Dianne, now a minister in Boston. Teenaged boys pay more attention to sermons these days.

I like to go to Pam’s dinners because of the women. The few men present—all husbands—listen bemusedly as the conversation swoops and swerves from the love lives of our mutual friends, to brushes with the rich and famous, to the unusual behavior of our children and parents, to recipes and retirement dreams. Periodically, remembering her manners, one of the women would ask what I thought about some topic. I would bat her question with a nondescript mutter, and the ball would carom off the bumpers for another hour.

Many of us were classmates in high school. I thought I knew what was going on, but it’s clear now that I was oblivious to what was really happening between students, students and teachers, and teachers and teachers. My dinner companions pat me on the head and give me the red pill.

L to R: Dianne, Reiko, Bob, Pam, Mike, Ina
© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Coal Car

We're remodeling the floors in our San Francisco highrise, so for six months this relic from our company's origins--a coal car--will be parked outside my office. It will undoubtedly outlast my expensive laptop computer, monitor, laser printer,

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Hyatt Regency

The main entrance to the Hyatt Regency leads inauspiciously to two flights of escalators. During the slow ride to the top the spacious atreum lobby greets the visitor, who always looks up, first to the sculpture and reflecting pool, then to the sun streaming through the roof, finally on the right to the lit jelly-bean elevators. When I first visited the Hyatt, I was a sheltered college student and unprepared for the magnificence of the great room.

Uncle Jack, who spent his sabbatical that year working at an engineering firm in San Francisco, gave me walking tours of the City. When he introduced me to the unique, unified architecture of the Hyatt and the four towers of Embarcadero Center, I might have had a presentiment that I would live in or near San Francisco. Here I am 30 years later and counting.....

San Francisco as "the most beautiful place on earth"? Some agree.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

A Good Day to Stay In

The morning fog will chill the air....

Another gray day in the City, and going for my usual stroll held little appeal. I got a lot done today. What do I do? [Thanks for asking.] Lately I've been working quite a bit with Microsoft Excel, which has become powerful enough to handle most financial applications. Most users, including myself, tap only a fraction of its capability. Once in a while I come across an undocumented feature, such as the one pictured below. Simply enter "A1-1", "A2-2", etc. into cells and mysterious characters (Arabic?) appear. If you bring this up with Microsoft, they'll undoubtedly respond as did the waiter re the fly in his patron's soup, "No extra charge."

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

In Chinatown one doesn't identify destinations by their names. Usually it's "the Chinese sausage factory on Grant" or "the dim sum place on Stockton between Clay and Sacramento". Besides, the Chinese names don't roll trippingly off the tongue. The ones that Westerners can comfortably pronounce don't make sense. I've been strolling by the incongruously named "Apple Land" for years. The store has no iPods but crates of dried squid, smelt, and scallops.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Gray, Rainy Day

Union Square is empty--even the pigeons are scarce. Advent approaches, but there's no feeling of anticipation, just trepidation. The economy is perking along in the rest of the country, but many of my friends are still looking for work. The bloom has left our new Governor's cheeks (I'm not talking about those so cheekily displayed in his Terminator movies), as he faces his own long, hard slog through the labyrinths of Sacramento. Just tell me where to send the check, guv'nor, but please wait a few days before cashing it. Locally, the two candidates for mayor are uninspiring; Willie Brown, love him or hate him, had presence.

I strolled over to the Transamerica Pyramid and rested by its miniature Redwood Park, also bereft of people and pigeons, but there the emptiness was welcome.