Thursday, December 30, 2004

Quiet at This End

Except for the youngster who’s been getting up early to play computer games, the family was asleep when I left the house.

San Mateo station was deserted this week.

Hardly anyone was at the station this morning. The trains were on their regular schedules, but in my car only 10% of the seats were filled. The Financial District is always quiet during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so the commute into the City is a snap, whether one drives, takes the bus, or rides the train.

Adding to the feeling of lassitude were the overcast skies and steady rain. At the office the energy level was noticeably lower. There were only a couple of tasks that had to be done this week, as opposed to the usual dozen, and it required extra concentration not to linger over the Wall Street Journal, the Times, and favorite Web sites. The rows of darkened offices didn’t brighten the mood; they reminded me that many colleagues had people to see and places to go. Thankfully, none of them had gone to South Asia.

As the events on the other side of the globe remind us, there are worse things, much worse, than having to go into the office during Christmas week. The devastation over such a large area and the number of lives lost in such a short span of time have not been seen since World War II. In the wink of an eye a wall of water appears and obliterates a village or submerges whole islands.

Not the Internet, not biotechnology, not the exploration of space,the elections or the Olympics, the big story of 2004 may just be the oldest story in the world.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

And the Word Became Flesh

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth [John 1:14]”

Some believe this with their whole heart, others dismiss it as superstition; still others oscillate between faith and doubt. And it is not hard to doubt: How can we explain the death of a child? Why do sincere Christians perform despicable acts? Why are there so many successful, happy, bad people? What is the purpose, if any, behind cruel afflictions such as cancer and AIDS? Sorry to let you down, you won’t find answers here.

The one thing about life that you can count on, as my late preacher friend used to say, is that no one gets out alive. But he who came into the world 2,000 years ago overcame death and said that we can, too….no, not that we wouldn’t die, but that dying was not THE END and that the credits would roll on indefinitely (okay, He didn’t use those words exactly).

While his birth is important, it was his death and resurrection two days after he was laid to rest that is all-important, which is why Easter, not Christmas, is the most important date on the Christian calendar. If it weren’t for the resurrection he would just be another prophet who said some profound things---enough to put together a $4.99 compendium of sayings at Barnes & Noble, but not much more.

So, did the thing with the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb actually happen long ago in a land far away? Well, something transformed those poor, illiterate fishermen into articulate, confident philosophers and leaders. (Nowadays, of course, it wouldn’t seem that big a deal because we have Tony Robbins tapes to listen to while we’re sleeping.) Something happened to Saul, the vengeful persecutor of early Christians, on the road to Damascus so that he became Saint Paul, founder of Christian theology.

There are alternative explanations for all of these occurrences, including improbable events and weird coincidences, or maybe some of them just didn’t happen. But there is another explanation: Something that is separate from Nature as we know it--the Supernatural, as C.S. Lewis called it—may be at work. Based on what we’ve seen of how people behave and how the world works, we each must judge whether the Supernatural explains those long-ago events. And once you decide that, everything falls into place and your path becomes clear, little grasshopper.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Christmas Party

Last Thursday I went to my 30th holiday (formerly known as Christmas) party-- not all with the same company, of course. Some were elaborate affairs at fancy hotels, others were little more than fruit punch and cookies set out on a picnic table, but they have all been occasions to visit with co-workers whom one doesn’t see too often.

Our long and liquid lunch was held at One Market, a nearby upscale restaurant. The men donned coats and ties, and the women wore evening dresses. Our employer, like others in the Financial District, has had a “business casual” dress code since the late Nineties. The holiday party has evolved into an occasion where employees voluntarily take their suits out of mothballs and dress up as a sign of respect for the season, for each other, and for the way we once were.

A couple of executives usually start the proceedings. If business has prospered, the mood is cheerful, and the jokes are lighthearted. If the company has had a “difficult” year---and who, if they’ve had a few seasons under their belt, hasn’t---the speakers thank the gathering for all their efforts, ladle out the sympathy, and encourage one and all to take a break from the grind and enjoy each other’s society.

My company invites retirees to the celebration. At my first party there was only one retired person; then, the median age of the attendees was 35, and collecting a pension was far from everyone’s mind. At the 2004 luncheon there were a dozen retirees present, and I knew them all. I hadn’t seen most since last year, so I spent more time talking to them than I did with my co-workers.

In truth I identify more with the codgers than the callow. I listened attentively to one fellow’s description of his knee operation but only gave half an ear to a thirty-something’s enthusiastic recounting of her Kenya safari. Sans children and a significant other, and with plenty of disposable income, the world is her oyster.

By five o’clock I had had enough dessert, wine, and conversation and went back to the office for my briefcase. The energetic continued to bar-hop until the wee hours. For the young the night was still young, but I’m not and it wasn’t, so I went home.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Carpe Danish

Yesterday was my turn to buy the pastries. Most departments employ the same system: on a designated weekday --ours is Tuesday--one member of the breakfast club brings in the food.

About a decade ago, when the nutrition police were ascendant, the choices were uniformly bland and gastronomically correct: low fat, high fiber bagels were the most frequent offering. When asked, people said that this fare is what they preferred, and the listening purveyors complied. But there were always leftovers at the end of the day.

It sounds paradoxical, but it seems that during the roaring Nineties we were very strict about our food choices, but at decade’s end everyone became more relaxed. For the past several years I’ve been going to Copenhagen Bakery in Burlingame. Their hot, buttered, flaky croissants and Danish are not overly large---they’re slightly larger than a CD—so people don’t feel guilty about taking one. The disciplined grab a knife and only take half a piece, but most come back for the other half within ten minutes. I bought two dozen for 16 people, and everything was gone by 11 o’clock.

If you want healthier fare, mounds of fresh vegetables are available in Chinatown shops, much cheaper than the Farmer's Market outside the Ferry Building.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Fog Clears

The fog rolled through the Golden Gate yesterday afternoon and covered Alcatraz.

The Zamboni machine prepares the rink this morning. Don't think we'll see many skaters today.

Update: obviously I'm not a meteorologist. By noon the fog had burnt off, and the rink was busy.

Later that day, the tree at Union Square.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Right Down the Hall

Every political season, in keeping with the postmodern insistence on developing a narrative to explain what just happened, political observers identify a voter group whose actions capture the essence of the election. “Reagan Democrats” were the key to Ronald Reagan’s victory, while Bill Clinton struck a chord with “soccer moms." Soccer moms transmogrified into the “security moms” who enabled the Republicans to increase their majorities in the off-year election of 2002. In 2004 the “values voters” are ascendant. The VVs are creatures who cluster in the mysterious Red States rarely visited by sensible, educated human beings.

Question: which state cast the most votes for President Bush? Answer: California, whose 5,500,000 votes for the President greatly outnumbered the 4,500,000 he received in his overwhelming victory in Texas, which is the second most populous state in the Union. San Francisco Chronicle reporters, you don’t have to travel to Wyoming or Nebraska to interview Republicans, they’re right down the hall.

Question for Karl Rove: the 527 groups whom you never talk to (because it’s illegal) spent hundreds of millions of dollars straining for an edge in the so-called “swing states”. It might be cheaper to try to move 700,000 California Democratic votes to the Republican column, thereby overcoming Kerry’s 1.24 million-vote margin. “A free-range chicken in every pot and a Prius in every garage”—we have our price!

Every Bush voter I know has been keeping quiet about his allegiances; we all want to decompress, carry on with the business of life, and avoid arguments with P.O.’ed Democrats. But the POD-people won’t stop: my political preference is known to a few in my office, and they insist on coming by every day to regale me with the latest example of the evil and stupid---but cunning--actions of the Administration.

I smile wanly and nod when in the rat-tat-tat of rants and accusations they come to a position, such as energy independence, that I can agree with. But when we get into specifics of how we solve this problem, whether it be coal (bad for the air), windmills (bad for the birds), or nuclear (bad in so many ways), the common ground shifts, and the chasm again opens wide. I refrain from questioning my visitor’s recent purchase of an SUV; the conversation is civil, and I have to work with the guy.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Home Repairs and Blog Entries

The forced-air furnace was installed when the house was built 25 years ago and its design probably wouldn’t pass contemporary safety standards. The flames sometimes lick the electrical wires that control the fan and gas intensity. Ten years ago I had to replace a couple of connectors after the wires melted.

On Thursday night the furnace stopped working. One wire had burnt through, and there were three more that had degraded substantially. I’ve had expensive, unsatisfactory experiences with furnace repairmen over the years, so as soon as I got home from work on Friday I headed over to Orchard Supply and picked up some 16-gauge wire, electric tape, and connectors for $10. I’m a rank amateur with regard to home repairs, but since we’re going to have to replace the unit soon---friends tell me it will cost $2,000—I didn’t feel like paying for a repair.

Well, it took me four hours on Friday night and two hours on Saturday morning (to undo the errors I made on Friday night), but the furnace is working again. I don’t know why I get satisfaction from completing tasks for which I have had no training or have displayed no aptitude. Kinda like writing this blog.....

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Walking, Not Running

The overnight temperatures have fallen below freezing, providing an excuse for me not to go out for the morning jog. At my age, cold in the extremities (probably) can cause all kinds of problems, ranging from cardiovascular shock to facial dryness, so I’d better not risk it. This generation is too young to remember Jim Fixx, who wrote the Complete Book of Running and kicked off the jogging boom during the seventies. Jim Fixx didn’t want to suffer the fate of his relatives, who succumbed to heart disease at an early age, and he became an apostle for aerobic exercise. He ran marathons and was seemingly in excellent shape; Jim Fixx collapsed while running and died at the tender age of 52.

When I have a lot of work to do, I easily lose track of time and grind away through lunch. In high school I picked up the bad habit of working through the night cramming for exams and typing term papers. For the most part I got good grades, so this unhealthy behavior was not penalized; in fact, the adrenaline rush from the self-induced stress was probably addictive. But lately it’s been clear that the quality of my work suffers unless I take breaks. I make it a point to go for a walk every day around lunchtime. Whether it’s due to the fresh air, the mild exercise, or the sunlight, not only am I making fewer mistakes but the creative juices seem to be flowing better.

The ice rink is up again this winter. It costs $7 for adults, higher on weekends.

Yesterday the band from A.P. Giannini Middle School (named after the founder of the Bank of America) played at Embarcadero Center. Their holiday selections were advanced for middle school, and their intonation was surprisingly good.

Monday, November 29, 2004

More Pennies and Pounds

It was a successful weekend; I only put on three pounds after consuming gut-busting dinners four nights in a row.

Thursday: turkey with all the fixings.
Friday: prime rib, plus five vegetable and potato dishes and four different desserts.
Saturday: five courses at a Chinese restaurant.
Sunday: shrimp salad at Macaroni Grill, but I ate a lot of Italian bread.

I completed the loan restructuring project that was the only unfinished business from last week, and we took in the Incredibles on Saturday night.

It was tightly written, funny, and exciting. Continuing the trend begun by Disney’s Aladdin in 1992, animated films geared toward children have also included sophisticated repartee that parents identify with, and the Incredibles is no exception. The adult characters wear on their sleeves the regrets of the middle-aged and can’t always suppress the biting remarks to which long-married couples are prone. (Of course, I don’t have any first-hand experience in these matters, but I have observed these traits in other people.)

This morning I’ll take the sophomore to the airport and wish him luck on his finals. We’ll see him in less than two weeks, when I’ll pay the bill for the winter quarter’s tuition. A three-week hiatus, no financial worries for three months, and a fresh start—oh to be 20 again!

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Plenty Left Over

After a busy three days I drove to the airport last night and picked up the returning student. The traffic halted at the lane to baggage claim, so I asked him to go upstairs to the departure terminal, which only had a few cars. Cell phones – a great time-saver and another innovation to be thankful for.

The past few days were as busy as I had foreseen. A couple of urgent requests from Chicago.were added to the pile. Time-honored work habits, such as decorating memos and tables with eye-catching fonts and graphs, and proofreading my work several times, were discarded—“good enough” became the operative standard. At least we didn’t have to plan Thanksgiving dinner since we’ll be going to someone’s house…or so I thought.

As the person who is never wrong corrected me, we’ve been invited to dinner on Friday, not Thursday. On to Albertson’s to buy a fresh turkey---no time to thaw a frozen one---and ingredients for the brine. Around Tuesday midnight we placed the turkey in a plastic bag and covered it with a brine solution of cold water, kosher salt, and spices.

Having wrapped up a half a dozen open items, I managed to leave the office by five o’clock; almost everyone else had left at three. A persistent colleague made me promise to send her an e-mail by Friday on a restructured loan, so I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow morning. Oh well, there are plenty of leftovers to keep up my flagging energy.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Temptation Removed

This morning it hit the forties, so I re-lit the pilot light and turned on the furnace. The whole family has allergies, either hay fever or asthma, and everyone tries to leave the house when I first turn on the blower in the fall. Expensive filters can’t keep the dust and stale air from collecting in the vents during the eight months since I switched off the pilot, but the annual inconvenience is the price you pay for heating the house. The smell does go away after 30 minutes and doesn’t recur because air circulates through the vents every day.

After making breakfast for the youngster, I left the house at 7:30 but missed the 7:44 train in San Mateo. (San Mateo is not where I usually board, but I have a doctor’s appointment tonight.) Since the next train wouldn’t come for 20 minutes, I walked over to the corner coffee shop, which is owned by a Vietnamese family. They have a large selection of pastries that are baked every morning, and the coffee is freshly brewed. Being cheaper than the large coffee franchises also helps, and the store is popular with the blue collar, predominantly Hispanic crowd.

Since the end of summer I’ve been making a special effort to reduce my intake of sugar, fat, and caffeine--three of the basic food groups—to prepare myself for the two-month eating season that began with Halloween. But this morning, with a chill in the air and time on my hands, I succumbed to the lure of hot coffee and doughnuts. So I strolled out of the shop with my guilty pleasure (only $2.40---cheap!) and saw a homeless man looking forlornly through a storefront window, his bedroll and worldly possessions at his feet. I approached him.

Hey, buddy!

He turned warily.

How about some doughnuts and coffee?

He had Asian or Hispanic features. His hair was grey and unkempt. At least he had a thick jacket. Just how did he get those prescription eyeglasses?

He paused; his hand, covered with grime, reached for the cup and paper bag. Handing them over, I turned and walked away, neither of us saying a word. I did him a favor, but he did me one, too.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Train Appreciation

The "baby bullet", which has only three stops between San Jose and San Francisco, has helped boost Cal Train's ridership by nearly 20%. The bullet runs once an hour and makes better time than single-passenger cars during the prime commute. Due to the improving economy, the higher cost of gas, the faster transit, or all of the above, it's now hard to find a seat when I get on at Hillsdale Station.

Riders who wear jeans often sit on the floor if the bike racks are empty.

Ladies who stand are rarely offered seats these days. (For the record,
I'm standing, too.)

Standing isn't so bad when it's only 22 minutes to San Francisco. And the cost, which is $140 for a monthly pass for the train, bus to the office, and parking at the station, works out to less than $7 per working day. And because 70% of the cost is paid with pre-tax dollars through our commute plan, it's a real bargain. Cal Train: another thing to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Nice to See

The three people whom I work with are all out Thanksgiving week. One’s on maternity leave, another’s on vacation in Las Vegas, and the third is going to the Bahamas. While they’re enjoying themselves (okay, probably not so true of the new mother), I have to cover for them.

My own plate is full because deal-making activity has picked up. Corporations with capital spending plans are trying to get them completed by the end of the year because of the expiration of “bonus depreciation”, which enable companies to deduct 50% of the asset’s cost on this year’s tax return. Some of the transactions are fairly complex, and it is easy to overlook important details in putting them together.

I had to leave the office late on Friday night because one of my fellow workers—the one who will depart for Las Vegas--was trying to explain the intricacies of four Canadian leases, just when my circadian rhythms were slowing. He was telling me how he handled capital, provincial, and withholding taxes and how he hedged the Canadian dollar, and it was a lot to absorb. I looked out the window and saw the festive crowds gathering as the Christmas lights were turned on below. “Get a life,” a little voice whispered.

Nevertheless, it had been a satisfying day. Two employees agreed to serve on our contributions committee, which organizes our company’s efforts to support charitable organizations in the Bay Area. We review about a hundred grant requests each year, and no one needs any more projects, especially those for which one doesn’t get any career credits. But it’s nice to see that there are at least a few people who are willing to volunteer their time to help others.

I walked out into the night, past the parents with their strollers, past the ballerinas dancing to the Nutcracker in the plaza, past the skaters on the ice rink, and descended the stairs to the subway.

Another cargo ship enters the Bay on Friday morning.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

War is Hell

A U.S. Marine is being investigated for shooting a wounded terrorist in Fallujah. One World War II veteran confronted a similar situation:
Coming forward, we found two Germans dead, torn to shapeless hulks by the bazooka. A third, an ammo bearer, had been thrown across the room and lay sprawled against a wall, one leg shredded and twisted around. "Chambered," he whispered. "Chambered."

He reached into his tunic, and I thought he was going for a gun. It was war; you had only one chance to make the right decision. I pumped the last three shots in my rifle clip into his chest. As he toppled over, his hand sprang spasmodically from the tunic, and he held up a snapshot, clutching it in death. It was a picture of a pretty woman and two little children, and there was a handwritten inscription: "seine Dichliebende Frau, Hedi." So I had made a widow and two orphans.
Dan Inouye lost his right arm during the war, was awarded the Medal of Honor, and has been Hawaii's Senator for over 40 years.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Saturday, When the Parking is Easy

Yesterday we headed to Irving Street to run some errands. The sunshine was welcome after the week’s earlier rain, and it was warm enough that I had to run the air conditioner on the way up to the City. It’s always difficult to find street parking on the weekends in San Francisco’s satellite Chinatowns, but a parking space opened on 24th and Irving, a good omen.

The youngster has been getting his hair cut at Maggie’s for the past ten years. Maggie took extra care with him when he was a toddler recovering from surgery, and he is comfortable with no one else. The hairdressers know us well and freely offer advice, solicited and otherwise, on a host of subjects. One of them recommended a herbal doctor for a nagging malady, so, after we finished shopping and dining, we drove cross-town halfway up Nob Hill, between Grant and Stockton. Despite the heavy traffic, we again found a space a few feet from our destination, making it the best parking experience I’ve had in years (it doesn’t take much to make me happy).

The seafood is very fresh at this supermarket.

There was one lady ahead of us when we walked into the facility, which resembled a store more than a clinic. Her husband said that Western doctors weren’t able to help her, but that, after several years of treatment by the herbalist, she was finally able to leave her bed and return to work. I listened politely, my skepticism unvoiced, but hey, as long as it doesn’t cost too much, what harm could it do?

We left a half an hour later with two bags of ingredients whose names I can’t pronounce or even spell, which is ok because the cost is not reimbursable by my health plan anyway.

This is not your father's Earl Grey. Yes, those are dried snakeskins and beetles.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Veterans Day, 2004

Sausalito, California - In large ways and small Americans honor the members of the Armed Forces.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Taking Sides

For a little over a month the locked-out hotel workers have been picketing at the Hyatt Regency next door to my office. They are marching when I arrive in the morning and when I leave at night. They bang on noisemakers and chant loudly to hotel guests and passers-by: “Don’t check in…Check out!”

It’s easy to sympathize with the workers’ desire to keep a lid on their health insurance premiums, but the costs of running a San Francisco hotel are escalating and occupancy rates are down. At room rates exceeding $200 per night, the hotels are still hemorrhaging money. Mayor Gavin Newsome tried to impose a 90-day cooling-off period but, when his efforts failed, he joined the picket line.

The Mayor has not impressed this humble observer. Tall, handsome, rich, with an impressive San Francisco pedigree and accomplished attractive wife, higher office seems foreordained. But, earlier this year, he could not resist grabbing the headlines by throwing open the doors of City Hall to same-sex marriages. Outspoken advocacy and lobbying is one thing, it’s another to flout the law knowingly while bearing the responsibility for its enforcement.

Besides the obvious detriment caused by the reduction in well-heeled visitors, the strike/lockout also hurts the City by communicating that it’s poorly run. Surely a Gavin with gravitas could have sat the parties down and brokered a compromise without trashing either side in public, as one learns in Negotiations 101. But grandstanding is soo gratifying. Meanwhile, it's Day 42 and counting...

It's puzzling why signs on this street have been marked up. Why cause trouble here? Don't you know that we're with you, bro?

Monday, November 08, 2004


Now that I am older than she was when I was born, I've been thinking more about my grandmother, who died 17 years ago. As a toddler I used to sit cross-legged at the foot of the upright piano while her hands glided over the keyboard, the balls of her feet pressing the pedals at just the right moment. We sang folk songs and nursery rhymes, show tunes and hymns. She showed me how the fifth note of a major chord leads to the next chord and then the next, until the sharps transformed themselves into flats, “b’s” buzzing around the treble clef.

We relaxed by playing Chinese checkers, a game that requires one to move marbles across the board to the other player’s triangular base. In my concentration, my lips would part, and the drool would run down my chin. “Close your mouth!” she would scold, as I carefully picked up a little ball of colored glass, trying not to disturb the others. In triumph I jumped over her marbles and outmaneuvered her. We would play cards, too, a simple game she called “donkey”, which introduced me to the basics of “trumps”, the Hawaiian version of whist.

Sarah’s white hair framed her delicate smile. A lifetime in the Islands had burnished her face, and her color did not fade even during the later years when she rarely ventured outside. She would sit on the couch, hands folded in her lap, gazing serenely at the bustle of activity in the living room. My most vivid memories of her involve food. The dishes reflected the potpourri of cultures in post-war Hawaii—American, Hawaiian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Long before “fusion” became a term associated with food, our Thanksgiving meal included roast turkey with cranberry sauce, gravy on rice, kim chee (Korean spiced cabbage), lau-lau (roast pork wrapped in ti leaves) and fried noodles topped with soy sauce and vinegar.

Pictures of her as a young woman revealed that she had always been stout, yet she gave birth to two beautiful daughters. She passed on to them a love of music that lives on in my generation and the next. In our family the Yiddish proverb, “when you teach your son, you teach your son’s son”, is, if anything, an understatement.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of her birth. Happy birthday, grandmother! © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Suppressing the Gloat

I live and work in one of the central nodes of the great blue State of California, so I was careful to be non-committal about the election results this morning. The Financial District is populated with a certain type---forty-ish knowledge workers, bright and articulate, many of whom have postgraduate degrees and who obsess about maintaining their physical appearance. These estimable individuals lose all sense of decorum when someone makes mention of George W. Bush.

The gloom was palpable in the elevator. One lawyer heard that John Kerry was preparing to concede: “Did you hear Kerry was going to call Bush?” I said, “Call him what?” He laughed ruefully and by his “Right on!” I knew that he thought that I shared his sympathies. I felt guilty for not correcting this misconception, but it helps me get along with people in the office by keeping my political views in the closet.

The funereal mood poured out of the elevator into the hallways. I greeted the long faces with a somber “Good morning”, excising the chirp from my voice. (If I were roundly thrashed by an idiot who tells transparent lies, I would be despondent, too.) I didn’t talk about the election until late afternoon, when the one LDSer on my floor stopped by.
There was no triumphalism; a brief contemplation of the widely acknowledged flaws (even by his supporters) of the winner quickly instills a sober attitude.

If the results were reversed, I wonder, would the other side have suppressed its desire to gloat?

I got some good stuff tonight, but I already received my birthday present when I woke up this morning.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Two days before the spooks and goblins made the rounds of the neighborhood, we received a videotaped reminder of someone who really makes us scared. Osama Bin Laden won’t be placated by a Tootsie Roll and a pat on the head. Suddenly, the fact that I won’t be getting my flu shot or that I need four sawbucks to fill my tank instead of two doesn’t seem as all-important as one week ago. Yet I am hopeful.

Despite criticisms of the Presidential candidates’ military service records and policy positions, the majority of the American people hold favorable impressions of both of them, according to the latest polls. Count me in the majority: although I favor one candidate, I don’t think a victory for the other fellow will lead to disaster.

The opponents of Presidents Reagan, Bush (senior), and Clinton said that their respective elections would result in catastrophe, yet somehow America today is cleaner, wealthier, and healthier than ever before. We live under the threat of terrorism, but our civilization, much less the world, is not threatened by total annihilation. The Middle East is a mess, but it’s been that way for centuries. The conduct of recent wars is rife with mistakes and misjudgments, but our actions have given hope that in a matter of “mere” decades the flower of reason will sprout in those unfriendly sands.

So if my guy wins, I’ll be happy, of course. But if the other guy wins, I’ll still be happy. It's a beautiful day and a beautiful life ahead.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Channeling Ronald Reagan

When I heard President Reagan speak, I would mentally cross my fingers. Would he stumble, looking for the right words? Would the baying media hounds finally overwhelm the aging lion? Television loves officials who are quick on their feet. They can speak, impromptu, in perfect declarative sentences, each thought building upon its predecessor. Mr. Reagan, for all his vaunted experience before the camera, seemed a half-beat slower than others who often appeared on television. Perhaps it was the natural easing due to age, or perhaps it was the hidden precursors of his Alzheimer’s disease, or maybe it was just due to the slower cadences of an older America that was more rural than urban.

Most of his enemies are gracious today, but I remember their viciousness well. He was too old, tottering and doddering, a warmonger, a simplistic cowboy who would be lost without his 3x5 cards. I ended up voting for him twice but, two years into his first term, wondered if I had made the right decision.

Mr. Reagan didn’t trim taxes, he took an axe to them. Marginal rates were halved and deductions and credits dramatically expanded. If companies couldn’t use the credits because they had no income to be taxed, they could sell them to other companies who could use them. The deficit mushroomed.

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker tightened the money supply to wring inflation out of the system. The rate on the 30-year Treasury bond climbed past an unprecedented 14%. “Crowding out” entered the popular lexicon. (The U.S. Government, which is the risk-free borrower, i.e., the only borrower which is 100% certain to pay its debts, the only condition being the continued existence of the United States of America, can set its borrowing rate as high as it needs in order to attract funds. It is the 800-pound gorilla in the credit markets and crowds out other borrowers, regardless of their creditworthiness.) Mortgage rates soared; the housing and automobile markets collapsed, dampening the rest of the economy.

Mr. Reagan removed the last controls over the price of oil. The price of gasoline fell, and I had to write off the investment in an energy partnership, which represented a sizeable portion of my net worth at the time. Consumers benefited while energy investors lost.

Mr. Reagan believed that deregulation and lower taxes would free the animal spirits of the American people and that the economy would surge. He did it boldly, amidst much hand-wringing by detractors and some supporters. His belief that these policies would work was based more on his understanding of human nature than macroeconomic evidence, which had been heretofore limited.

President Reagan not only spoke against totalitarianism—all Presidents do--but, over vociferous objections both here and abroad, he introduced weapons systems into Europe that first halted the expansion of the Soviet Empire, then contributed to its dissolution.

George W. Bush has been compared to Ronald Reagan, usually for the purpose of drawing an unflattering contrast with the former, but for those of us with clear memories, the comparison is apt. The criticisms are exactly the same as we heard 20 years ago:
  • The President’s mental faculties are suspect (almost by definition, conservative principles are held by those with substandard intelligence, but he’s even dumber than the average conservative).
  • He draws his main support from right-wing religious extremists, most of whom also have IQ’s under a 100.
  • He wraps himself up in the flag as if it were a security blanket.
  • He vacations too much at his ranch [think how much damage he could have caused if he didn’t take so much time off!]
  • He cut taxes and caused the deficit to balloon, putting Social Security, Medicare, and the welfare of future generations at risk.
  • Academics, mass media, and the European intelligentsia are overwhelmingly united in their opposition; many don’t even try to hide their scorn for the simpleton in the White House.
  • The President is way too quick to pull the trigger and scares friend and foe alike, except for the British Prime Minister, who inexplicably is a person of rare intelligence who not only gets along with but admires the President.

  • Unlike Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush will not win 49 states in his campaign for re-election; it is very possible that he will lose. Yet I do believe in one final similarity: posterity will be kind to Mr. Bush, because the big decisions he made will have resulted in a better life for many millions of people. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, October 24, 2004

    Focus Group

    For years I had aspired to join the board of directors of a public company. All I would have to do was attend an all-expenses-paid quarterly meeting at a nice location, enjoy a sumptuous lunch, rubber-stamp a few management proposals, and collect a handsome director’s fee. Not a bad way to spend a day.

    Now that post-Enron regulations require board members to take seriously their fiduciary responsibilities, directors must spend a significant amount of time preparing for meetings, which are also occurring more frequently because more decisions are being kicked upstairs, and companies can’t wait three months for approval.

    A board member’s potential liability, if he doesn’t perform his duties with care, greatly exceeds his director’s fee. Even if the directors and officers insurance policy covers the damages, a shareholders suit or SEC enforcement action generates a lot of grief, such as giving depositions or producing documents for a discovery proceeding, that a busy (c’est moi), important (n’est moi) person doesn’t need to deal with.

    A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon a great way to make some money, without being responsible for anything I said or did. A marketing research company had extracted my name from a financial managers’ mailing list and asked for a couple of hours one evening. And so it was that I participated in my first focus group.

    After snacking on some sandwiches, soft drinks and cookies, a dozen of us were ushered into a conference room with mirrored walls. Although we represented a cross-section of occupations and institutions (business, government, and education), I noticed that we had a few things in common: we had financial backgrounds, we worked with financial software, and we used Microsoft Excel for much, most, or all of our modeling work.

    The moderator gave a brief introduction and asked us our opinion about Excel. Although we all launched into gripes, in truth I find Excel to be an excellent, flexible tool, much more powerful than the original, pathbreaking Visicalc, Lotus 1-2-3 or the Excel of 10 years ago. However, I’ve had to review (or worse, take responsibility for) other people’s work, and frequently I’ve found errors, some minor, and a few major, that could have resulted in financial calamity for the project in question.

    Because spreadsheets have become so complicated, and many people plunge right into projects without a plan (like writing a book without sketching an outline), following the logic and checking the output can be quite difficult. For my own work I always prepare a summary sheet with control totals, but that takes time which is often in short supply.

    Specialized financial modeling programs, like accounting software, have built-in controls so their output is more trustworthy, but a) they require many hours to learn and b) they’re not as flexible as spreadsheets (if you have a project which has a few unusual features, it can be hard to adapt the program to represent those wrinkles accurately).

    After listening attentively to our criticisms, the moderator introduced us to a software product that will soon be marketed by a company that is well known in deal-making circles. Deal volume is down, so this company, which has spent millions in development of its in-house software, is spending millions more trying to license it to banks, insurance companies and any organization that makes investments which have a complex financial structure.

    A senior programmer, in his early to mid-30’s, entered the room and ran a demonstration. From his comments he had clearly been observing us from behind the mirrors. Also, unlike other programmers I’ve met, he had been practicing his people skills.

    I didn’t say anything right away. There were benefits and drawbacks to the software, and I like to take my time before venturing an opinion. What was astonishing to me was the reaction of the other participants. They immediately chimed in with banal observations: “I like the fonts you use”; “I like the easy way you can draw lines”; “You can fill in the rows without moving the mouse too much”. Then the lightbulb went off. They wanted my opinion, so I should say something, anything, no matter how ridiculous-sounding, because I would suffer no consequences.

    The bloviating continued for another 40 minutes, and I felt guilty that the sponsor was paying gold for such dross. After it was over, the moderator thanked us and said that they had gotten a lot of useful information, despite my misgivings. The two hundred bucks in the envelope assuaged my guilt, and I put my name in for the next focus group. I won’t get rich, but this is one job that I won’t take home with me. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, October 20, 2004

    Unmotivated and Easily Distracted

    On a clear day you can see the Golden Gate Bridge from our floor.

    Writing this journal should be purely for pleasure, but I'm beginning to feel dissonant emotions, like guilt, because my entries have been infrequent. Yes, I've had a lot of work recently, but that's a pretty lame excuse. After a long day I like to go into my man cave and zone out in front of the boob tube. the remote control in my left hand and the snack bowl in my right. The laptop beckons, but a) it's hard to type with one hand, and b) peanuts and chips make the keyboard greasy.

    I'd spend more time on this subject, but one of my pet peeves is writers who write about the act of writing. How self-indulgent! Just like making a movie about film-making. So I'll stop now, with the hope (not the promise) that I'll make an entry tomorrow. After I go running. Which I haven't done for a week. Because I've had a lot of work recently.....

    It doesn't look that appetizing, but this lunch at a small eatery on Stockton Street costs only $2.50. You get chicken, rice, vegetables, and soup.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2004

    10 Reasons Why Republicans Should Vote for John Kerry

    10. Democrat friends may burst a blood vessel if they are shut out from the halls of power (both houses of Congress, the Executive, and Supreme Court) for another two years. You want them to live, don’t you? Don’t you?

    9. Gridlock is good. Government causes less mischief when fewer laws are passed.

    8. Pleasure: Republicans historically have never been happier than when they battled the perfidy and harebrained plans of a Democratic President.

    7. The billionaire First Lady will put her wealth in a blind trust and won’t be as free to fund radical left-wing causes.

    6. If Kerry uses international alliances to try to clean up the mess in Iraq—and fails, the American public may finally give the boot to the United Nations, and a Republican will be the odds-on favorite to win the Presidency in 2008.

    5. If Kerry does succeed in Iraq, Western values will have gained a significant beachhead in the Middle East. The national interest will have been served, and all good Republicans will be happy to place the country’s welfare before that of the party (right?).

    4. No more movies where a drug-crazed Vietnam vet shoots up the post office.

    3. More pictures of the Kerry daughters.

    2. Knowing that everyone’s scrutinizing their tax returns, President and Mrs. Kerry will have to a) declare more income and b) claim fewer deductions, thereby making a huge dent in the national debt.

    1. President Hillary Clinton – not going to happen! © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, October 11, 2004

    French Fashion Leads the World

    The top five good things about this latest example ofhaute couture:

    5. French fashion statement of solidarity with Islamic sisters whose headscarfs are banned.

    4. Provides precious additional seconds of air during terrorist gas attack.

    3. Polarization keeps nasty UV rays out….cheaper than botox treatments!

    2. Opaque version doubles as elegant evening wear for bank robbers.

    1. Essential accessory for Red Sox fans after this year’s inevitable playoff disappointment.

    Poor Choice of Words

    I've found military historian Victor Davis Hanson's writings to be highly insightful, but in view of what's been happening to hostages almost daily, isn't there a better choice of words than "things are coming to a head in the Middle East"?

    Saturday, October 09, 2004

    P.O. on Friday

    After a long liquid evening Thursday, an informal cocktail party with people whom I didn't have to be on my best behavior, I showed up at the office a little late. It was quiet, with only four others on my side of the building, so I was able to knock off a couple of projects by 1 o'clock, after which I strolled to the post office at One Embarcadero Center to mail an overnight package to a friend.

    There were over a dozen people in front of me and only two windows open, and the customers through their questions ("Is that the only box you have?" "Why can't you deliver it on Columbus Day?") seemed oblivious to the communal desire to keep the line moving.

    Recognizing in myself the growing indicators of irritation--the more rapid breathing, the throbbing in my temples--I walked away from the stress to the Federal Express outlet three blocks away and willingly paid double the Post Office tariff. There was no waiting: the rush at FedEx doesn't normally start until after 4:30 p.m. And I could rest easy on Friday night, because I knew the package would get there on Saturday.

    A quiet lunch, then back to the office to watch the Snowbirds and pack up for the weekend.

    The Snowbirds, (above Coit Tower in the photo)Canada's elite flying squad, are here for Fleet Week.

    Thursday, October 07, 2004

    Afternoon with J

    I’ve known J since fourth grade but hadn’t seen him since our class reunion in 2000. He was on the final leg of a business trip and wore a suit to my office; I should have told him that we had gone casual six years ago. His thinning, gray-flecked hair accented the gravitas that had begun to blossom during his student council presidency decades ago. His suit gave him a distinguished appearance, but I could tell that he, like many people with Island roots, was not quite at home in a coat and tie.

    J was used to public speaking in front of large groups, so I was surprised that initially his body language was defensive. (It’s just me, a guy that played tetherball with you at recess.) So I started talking about myself, something I don’t normally like to do, but if I take the first step other people usually begin to open up.

    I told him about my undergraduate years in New England and subsequent life in the Bay Area. His college life, by contrast, was spent here, and he earned his graduate degrees back East. We talked about life’s unpredictable turns, our successes and failures, our children and parents, and the dreams we still hold. We discussed mutual acquaintances and larger purposes, and where we thought we would end up (me over there and him over here).

    J and I aren’t really close, but I was pleased that he stopped by to see me today. I promised to see him at the reunion next June.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2004

    Angel Island

    The fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge on the way to Angel Island

    Having friends who were athletes in high school has its disadvantages: you are at constant risk of filling your weekends with physical activities that displace important priorities such as taking a nap or watching televised sports. The risk increases if such activity is proposed in the presence of one’s adolescent child, because guilt enters into the calculus. If the parent were to decline the invitation, there is guilt over passing up an opportunity to bond with the child and guilt over setting a poor example of physical (un)fitness. And so it was that I assented to the Angel Island bike trip last Saturday morning.

    Four adults and four teenagers assembled in a Foster City parking lot at 8 o’clock. After loading up a truck and a van with bicycles and backpacks, we drove north to San Francisco’s Pier 41, where we boarded the ferry to Angel Island.

    The ferry landing at Ayala Cove

    Angel Island, like its Bay companions Alcatraz and Treasure Island, used to thrum with military, immigration, prisons, and other state-sponsored activity, but is now a park frequented by picnickers and bicyclists. Angel Island is accessible only by ferry (adult roundtrip-$13; under 13-$7.50), which in civilized fashion serves hot food and age-appropriate beverages. After we ventured topside to take in the view, blasts of cold air drove us below to warm ourselves with coffee, hot chocolate, and pretzels.

    At the landing we trudged uphill with our bikes to the paved road that circles the island. We stopped at several of the State Park’s noteworthy historical attractions: Fort McDowell, through which thousands of draftees passed during World War II, and the immigration station, which became the point of enforcement for the Exclusion Acts that limited Chinese immigration. Newcomers from Asia may feel unwelcome in certain circles today, but their trials are nothing compared to the opprobrium visited over a century ago upon the Chinese laborers, many of whom died digging the railroad tunnels and inland California waterways. Reviewing their history in the Visitor’s Center, I felt gratitude both to them and to the GI’s who were shipped out to the killing fields of Bastogne and Gaudalcanal.

    There wasn't much privacy in my father's Army.

    The monument by the immigration station

    Despite the steep hills, my poor stamina, and worn brakes that slipped on the gravel, we completed the trip without incident and boarded the return ferry just before 1 o'clock.

    The ferry stopped at Alcatraz on the way back to San Francisco.

    We were greeted by clear skies when we walked off the ferry; the wharf was teeming with tourists and the Giants were challenging the hated Dodgers in a late-season pennant race at nearby SBC Park. There were a couple of anxious moments when the truck wouldn’t start (loose battery cable) and a car door slammed the former high-school athlete’s finger (ice stabilized the swelling), and we wended our way through the traffic and arrived in Foster City by 4 p.m., all present and accounted for.

    Last week I received a brochure from a real estate developer who is selling new condominiums by SBC Park. The price for a 1,200-1,400 square-foot condo, depending on the view of the Bay, costs between $1.1 million and $2.1 million. But his views aren’t as good as they are from Angel Island and are a trifle more expensive than the $13 ferry ticket, so I won’t be taking him up on his offer, even if it does include a parking space. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Priceless view

    Thursday, September 23, 2004

    Pedagogical Peregrination

    On Sunday we packed the van with his clothes, computer, and other Very Important Stuff and headed south. Destination: the campus apartments at UC-San Diego, where our sophomore will rest his weary head between the classes which he will attend, study hard for, and pass with flying colors.

    Parenting, like second marriages, is the triumph of hope over experience. Disappointment is our constant companion, and we become more practiced than political spinmeisters in the weaving of fanciful tales to explain our offspring’s behaviors. When something good does happen, for example when they win a scholastic award or get accepted to a decent college, we thank our lucky stars and cross our fingers that the run will continue. For those who lament that their child isn’t old Ivy material, we know parents who would trade places in a heartbeat. These folks are watching carefully for the first signs of substance abuse, not the fat acceptance envelopes.

    We averaged 75 mph on Interstate 5 and arrived in San Diego 7 ½ hours after we left, a record time. It was still daylight after we deposited our bags at the hotel, so we had time to survey his future digs. They were spacious: four sophomores share a furnished two-bedroom one-bath apartment, complete with living room, dining nook, and kitchen. At an average cost of under $900 per student per month, including the meal plan, the UCSD room-and-board is a good value.

    The refrigerator, although filled, is bereft of nutritional substances.

    After only a day the bedroom already has that lived-in
    look. Note the study aid propped up on the left.

    Although I saw opulence, the sophomore’s mother saw only hardship. The next day we stopped at Trader Joe’s, Sav-on Drugs, Linen n’Things, and Costco to load the larder for the annis arduous ahead. Our van groaned under its burden, foreshadowing the sounds we would emit as we sherpa’ed the provisions upstairs. Together we broke bread---more precisely, a pizza---for the last time, hugged, and bade him goodbye.

    Our reluctance to leave delayed our departure to 4:30 p.m., which meant that we had to fight the traffic into and out of LA during the ironically named "rush hour". On the previous return trip to the Bay Area I hadn’t had much luck on Interstate 5, which cuts through the heart of Orange County, so I tried the western route, the 405, which goes past the airport and rejoins Highway 5 north of LA. We were able to use the carpool lane, which improved our time only slightly because it was filled with cheaters undeterred by the $271 fine.As we sat in the traffic I thought about how a lot of wrong choices in my life were more than compensated by the one big correct decision to point my old VW north after I was done with school nearly 30 years ago.

    We ate dinner at this In-n-out Burger off Highway 5
    around 9 p.m. The parking lot had only two cars--
    the emptiest In-n-out I had ever seen.

    We pulled into our driveway at 1 a.m. Summer was over. © 2004 Stephen Yuen
    Time, like an ever rolling stream,
    Bears all its sons away;
    They fly, forgotten, as a dream
    Dies at the opening day.
    --Isaac Watts

    Wednesday, September 22, 2004

    Get Back, Honky Cat

    Morning has broken, like the first morning
    Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
    Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
    Praise for the springing fresh from the word

    Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from heaven
    Like the first dewfall, on the first grass
    Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
    Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

    Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
    Born of the one light, Eden saw play
    Praise with elation, praise every morning
    God's recreation of the new day

    Above are the lyrics to one of the most well-known and beloved Christian songs written in the second half of the 20th century. I have a difficult time comprehending that its composer is an Islamic terrorist sympathizer.

    Cat Stevens wrote “Morning has Broken” before he became Yusuf Islam, supporter of Hamas and Khomeini’s death sentence against Salman Rushdie. The hymn isn’t the treacly pap found in much of today’s “spiritually uplifting” music, nor does it browbeat the listener with theology. In very few words it communicates the joy felt by the disciples on Easter morn and the promise of mankind's return to the garden. Allusions to Christ (“where his feet pass”, “fresh from the word”), the rebirth of spring, and, above all, praise to God, one of the most admirable and least controversial acts of worship, bespeak a gentle Christian sensibility that is not often present in the novitiate.

    Yusuf Islam was sent back to the UK today after he boarded a flight to the United States. I hope that Cat Stevens can find his way home.

    The Bay at mid-morning.

    Saturday, September 18, 2004

    The 700 Club

    After a busy week in the office I headed to SBC Park last night to watch the Giants beat the Padres. But the big event was Barry Bonds' 700th career home run. This one, unlike one of his typical blasts to right field into the water, narrowly cleared the fence in left field. The crowd hesitated briefly, then rose to its feet as realization of his deed crystallized. We applauded as the fireworks exploded.

    I was there when it happened---another story with which to bore the boys at the nursing home a few years from now.

    Wednesday, September 15, 2004

    Thoughts on the Campaign

    Why do military personnel overwhelmingly support Republicans? If the Democratic Party is less likely to involve the armed forces in actions that could get someone killed or injured, why don’t more servicemen and their families vote for Democrats? Another occasion to think about what “self-interest” means and whether it’s as important as economists say in determining people’s actions.

    Some people say that the floundering Kerry campaign has been too nice, and that the “gloves are coming off” in September and October. (Calling President Bush a Nazi/Hitler/baby-killer/moron/coward is nice?) I don’t think being too nice has been Kerry’s problem, but if the fault lies with the candidate or his positions that would be too painful for some to contemplate.

    If it looks like Bush is heading for a significant win, look out for:

    Accommodating allies: other countries may step up their cooperation in the war on terror (more troops and aid to Afghanistan and Iraq) and initiate friendlier economic policies (lower oil prices, support for the dollar) to curry favor with a President who will be around for four more years.

    A less trashy campaign: the adults who run the Democratic Party will put a lid on the most extreme elements of the anti-Bush crowd. CBS’ attempt to raise questions about Bush’s service in the National Guard and Kitty Kelley’s claim that Bush used cocaine late in life have backfired against Kerry. There’s a negative halo effect as more and more people are tuning out all criticism of Bush by the mainstream media (MSM). If Bush’s coattails and overreaching by the opposition pull in the 60 Senators necessary to override filibusters on Bush’s judicial nominees, that outcome will be worse for liberal causes than losing the Presidency. My bet is that wiser heads will cool it, choosing to fight another day in 2006 and 2008.

    How could Senator Kerry have better connected with people?

    1) When you come from a privileged background, make fun of yourself. Self-deprecating humor creates empathy with the audience; it worked for the original JFK four decades ago and even smoothed the edges of Vice President [Darth] Cheney at the Republican convention.

    2) If you want to communicate effectively with conservative Christians, you don’t necessarily have to preach chapter and verse. (Anyway, if it's done too blatantly that would rightly be viewed as pandering.) In order to show you are familiar with and respect the culture, you can sprinkle your speech with Biblical references, as in this old refrain that Senator Kerry may have sung in college and may be singing again on November 3rd:
    We're poor little lambs who have lost our way
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
    We're little black sheep who have gone astray
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
    © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, September 08, 2004

    My Bowl Overfloweth

    The cell phone rang as I was driving home last night.

    “Dad, where’s the plunger for the toilet?” That’s a question I didn’t need to hear.

    Just hang on. I’ll be home in five minutes.

    I’m greeted in the driveway by the two boys, large wet spots on their clothing. “Dad, it’s worse than you think.” More words that I didn’t need to hear. I can think—and imagine—a lot.

    Which toilet is it? “Upstairs”.

    I grab the plumber’s helper from the garage and walk into the family room. Water is dripping through the ceiling fixture to a large circle on the carpet, where one of them had the presence of mind to place a garbage can. I hurry upstairs to the bathroom, where the water is an inch deep.

    I’ll spare the gentle sensibilities of readers by refraining from a detailed description of what happened next. Suffice it to say that over the next two hours I wielded a mop, bucket, plumber’s helper, plumber’s snake, ladder, bathroom cleaner, sponges, and paper towels. Nevertheless, I was grateful for two things:

    1) The spouse and mother had chosen last night to attend a play in San Francisco. Spouse and mother does not take kindly to dirt on the carpet, and this event was the equivalent of a mudslide. Fixing the immediate problem would have been exponentially more difficult if there were the usual “high-intensity interpersonal communications” occurring in the background.
    2) The summer heat wave that had produced uncomfortable sleepless nights now was an ally. The water evaporated quickly on the bathroom linoleum, but the carpet was still moist this morning.

    I could tell from the changed placement of the Clorox and other cleansers that additional work was performed after I went to bed at midnight (if you ask by whom, you don’t have teenaged boys). Everyone was sleeping peaceably when I left for work this morning, so all’s well.

    Tonight’s lesson: the location and operation of water shut-off valves. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    P.S. to Mom and Dad: Happy Anniversary!

    Thursday, September 02, 2004

    Memories of Hanauma Bay

    After Rachel Carson awoke us to the wonders of the oceans and before Boeing passenger jets transformed the face of Hawaii, my grandfather would pack his fishing gear and my bamboo pole in the trunk of his black Plymouth and trundle off to Hanauma (ha-NOW-ma) Bay in southeastern Oahu.

    Many thousands of years ago the sea broke through the walls of the extinct crater. The first to arrive were fish; later came the iridescent coral and tidewater denizens, the sea urchins, sea stars, and sea cucumbers; finally came man, who dredged the black volcanic rock and added sand. The bay became the favored vacation spot of kings and queens.

    My grandfather parked in the dirt clearing at the top of the crater, and, laden with buckets and bait, we began the descent down the steep path to the white crescent below. Tourists were not plentiful then; the central Honolulu beaches, Waikiki and Ala Moana, wider and friendlier, were more convenient to the hotels. When we reached the bottom, I switched to my black-and-white Keds and gingerly walked along the slippery ledges to our favorite spot left of Hanauma’s mouth.

    Grandfather helped me affix a piece of shrimp or cuttlefish to the hook. I always felt great anticipation when the baited hook first plunged into the cold, clear water; the previous outing’s disappointments were shunted aside in memory, and maybe today would bring success. It was rare that I caught anything, but hope springs eternal in the young angler’s breast.

    Grandfather cast his line far into the ocean, reeling it in slowly. The shifting currents would push our lines under the rocks. The moment’s exhilaration when I felt the tug quickly turned to disappointment. I tried to work the hook free and often failed. The line would finally break, and I would thread the line through another hook, painstakingly tying a knot and pulling it tight with my teeth.

    When we caught fish we would store them, still living, in a bucket of ocean water. After hours of baiting, casting, and losing hooks, I would put the pole down and watch the trapped creatures, which were much larger and more vigorous than my pet guppies. When we exhausted our bait, grandfather emptied the bucket on a large flat rock. If I was lucky enough to have caught a fish, we usually returned it to the ocean because it was too small to eat. After the larger fish gasped their last, grandfather gutted, cleaned, and scaled them, wrapping the remains in newspaper. We trudged back to the beach over the wet rocks; my weariness increased the odds of slipping. After a long day the climb with our gear to the car was the hardest part, and I would doze off during the ride home.

    Since 1967 Hanauma Bay has been closed to fishing, and visitors are prohibited from walking onto the rocks where grandfather and I used to fish. Today it is a major tourist attraction, complete with paved parking, a five-dollar admission fee, and a visitor’s center.

    Although my grandfather has been gone over 30 years, I could see him in my mind’s eye when I swam at Hanauma Bay two weeks ago. He grinned through his yellowing teeth, his panama hat jauntily askew, proudly holding the big gray fish that grandmother would steam that night. I miss him and the little boy who accompanied him, their images fading in the spray of the breaking waves. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    We used to fish where the waves break near the top of the photo.

    Saturday, August 28, 2004

    To Sea Life Park

    Turtle exhibit at Sea Life Park

    About every four or five years I head Diamond Head (east) along the H-1 freeway to Sea Life Park, Hawaii’s small-scale version of Sea World. I first visited Sea Life Park on a school field trip back in the sixties. The cost then, if memory serves, was $2. Now the price of entry is $26 for adults, $13 for kids under 13 and adult “kamaaina’s” (residents of Hawaii). For those who compulsively perform financial calculations, that’s a 5% compound annual growth rate in the child ticket price over a 40-year period.

    Unlike California aquatic parks such as Sea World, Marine World, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, it is easy to take in all of Sea Life Park in an afternoon. When we went last week, I carefully clipped a 25%-off coupon from the back of a relative’s Hawaiian Telephone directory, thereby saving $22.75 on four tickets. At the net admissions cost of $68.25, Sea Life Park was a fair value.

    Note to myself: I really must get a State ID card to capture the often-huge discounts available to Hawaii residents at hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. On my last trip three years ago I took the first step by waiting patiently for three hours to get a certified copy of my birth certificate, whose “Territory of Hawaii” designation betrayed me as a geezer, but I forgot to bring my original social security card from California.

    Applicants are also required to supply “supplementary documents” such as marriage licenses, but I don’t see how the authorities can enforce this rule. How would they know that the documents exist? Many women do not change their surname when they are married; neither do they use the “Mrs.” prefix, preferring “Ms.” (or these days even “Dr.” and “Rev.”).

    We turned on the air-conditioning to its maximum setting as we approached Hawaii Kai in our rented Pontiac. Hawaii Kai is now a prosperous community of million-dollar homes, but I remember when it was a dry, hot expanse of dirt roads, bushes, and tangled foliage, home to pigs and chickens.

    The “pig man” would come to our home in central Honolulu and pick up a week’s supply of our table scraps, which had been ripening in a three-foot steel can, and take it to his hogs. He would show his gratitude by inviting us to an annual luau at his farm. The food was plentiful and tasty, but the powerful stench emanating from the pens and the large horseflies buzzing about the dishes weren’t esthetically pleasing. Then again an eight-year-old didn’t know what "esthetics" meant or that they were supposed to matter.

    For hours I would watch the hogs, who rolled around in a nameless mixture of mud, slop, and waste material. The new residents of Hawaii Kai roll around in BMW and Lexus SUVs and would be horrified to have the pig man as their neighbor. I hope he sold his land at a good price to Henry J. Kaiser, the visionary industrialist who developed the area.

    Past Hawaii Kai the highway narrows to a single lane in each direction. We poked along at 35-40 mph behind sightseeing tourists, past rocky cliffs and golf courses, and entered the parking lot twenty minutes later.

    The shows and exhibits may be more lavish on the Mainland, but the setting at Sea Life Park, with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, is unmatched.

    The Park is nestled against the cliffs of Makapuu.

    After each show we headed back to the store as respite from the heat. The sweat on the back of my hand erased my re-entry stamp twice during the afternoon, but my pallor and flat, accentless English, not to mention the befuddled expression that I have learned to evince without much effort, proclaimed that I was another confused tourist. My son bought a towel to take back to college in San Diego, and we headed back to town for dinner with my cousin. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Rabbit Island is the backdrop for the dolphin show.

    Friday, August 27, 2004

    Unintentionally Revealing

    The KRON (Channel 4) news this evening had a short piece on corporate psychopaths [Update-9/8/04: the original link went down, so a link to another news organization was substituted.]
    A key characteristic of the psychopath is having no conscience, like Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal. And it’s similar in the office—a worker without conscience and with obsessive focus is quite likely to succeed in the short term and possibly land in a management role. Workers who show these psychopathic traits often thrive at the expense of others with a tendency to bully.

    Experts say you’re more likely to find these social predators where there is power, prestige, or money, professions such as politics, law and the media [emphasis added]
    The piece could have named farming, accountancy, pharmaceuticals, energy, banking, or any of a hundred other industries. Funny that psychopaths are particularly concentrated in professions from which the Democratic Party draws its strongest supporters. (I'm willing to lay odds that academia and entertainment would have ranked fourth and fifth.)

    Monday, August 23, 2004


    When you ask my fashionable Mainland friends about their favorite Hawaiian island, many will champion Maui, others will name Kauai or Hawaii, and a few, seeking to impress with their eclecticism, will favor Molokai. They always seem a little disappointed when I tell them that my favorite island is crowded Oahu, where over three-fourths of Hawaii’s people live. I suppose that my opinion is colored by the fact that I spent the first seventeen years of my life as a resident of Honolulu and that many of my friends and most of my relatives live there. But distance, both temporal and physical, can confer a degree of objectivity.

    Hawaii's most famous landmark is on Oahu.

    On the plus side of the ledger Oahu has:
  • the most white-sand beaches, which is important unless you don't mind being dashed against the rocks. Every couple of miles on the drive around the island there’s a decent, occasionally outstanding beach with public restrooms and/or showers.
  • the best drinking water. Rainwater filters through the volcanic rock, where it is trapped below sea level under tremendous pressure. No other island produces sweet Artesian wellwater so abundantly.
  • the most varied restaurants, shopping, and nightlife, befitting the State’s capital city and most populous island.

    The traffic, congestion, and pollution can be horrible. Twice in the past week I’ve had the misfortune of trying to make an appointment during the evening rush hour. On both occasions, once in Waikiki and the other near Honolulu International Airport, it took half an hour to travel less than a mile. If one can avoid the morning or evening commute, getting around is easy.

    While the beautiful people go to Lahaina, this beach, in the heart of Honolulu, has sparse attendance on a weekday.

    On this trip I’ve renewed acquaintance with two vigorous individuals who are in their nineties and many others who are over 80. The experiences of these friends and relatives bode well for a retirement life on Oahu, because longevity is one of my post-retirement goals (it’s better than the alternative). Arizona is attractive, Tahoe is tempting, but Oahu is probably where I’ll end up. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    [Update - 9/8/04: this perspective on Oahu is worth checking out.]
  • Sunday, August 15, 2004


    The apartments next door to my parents’ house were built before the War. The two-story buildings experienced the fate that befalls all wooden structures in Hawaii and became a breeding ground for termites. The termites would swarm around the streetlights during warm, breezeless evenings, and a few would wriggle through the screens into our house. When I was a child I would stand on a three-legged stool and hold a bowl of water up to the light, where the termites would fall, flailing futilely in the liquid.

    The warm Hawaiian humidity provides an especially fecund environment for things that go squish. The owner of the apartments planted low-growing palms next to our fence. The thick foliage housed nests of cockroaches, which plagued the neighborhood for decades.

    Some of the tenants weren’t conscientious about wrapping their garbage, which attracted rats. Dad complained, the tenants said they would be more careful, and the rats became less noticeable but never completely disappeared

    This week, when I visited my parents, I was taken aback to see an empty space where the apartments had been. The buildings were bulldozed to rubble, and the entire lot had been cleared. None of the neighbors is sure what will rise in their place, but all are confident that it will be better than what had been there before. Dad said that he and the other adjacent property owners have been invaded with cockroaches and vermin, now that their nests have been destroyed. As long as we’re diligent about sanitation and prevent the pests from breeding elsewhere, these problems will not be long-lasting, and the neighborhood will end up much improved.

    I thought of parallels with recent international affairs and realized that I think too much. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, August 12, 2004

    Going Home

    The airlines, especially charter carriers who book extra flights during tourist season, love the 757-200. Airbus still doesn’t have a direct competitor to Boeing’s 21-year-old product, which seats 228 passengers and traverses 3,900 nautical miles. Other aircraft, such as the 777 and A340, can exceed the 757’s range, but they also have much larger seating capacity and are much more expensive. For missions that are “long and narrow”, such as hauling 200 price-conscious tourists from London to Orlando, the 757 is ideal.

    Because of the cattle-car feeling, the carriers’ affection is not shared by passengers. The typical seating configuration is 38 rows with three on each side. Other single-aisle planes, such as the 737, used by Southwest, or the A320, flown by Jet Blue, have 150-170 seats. The 757’s lengthier routes and longer unloading time make for a less pleasant flying experience.

    Last night our flight to Hawaii did not begin promisingly. The 757 departed a half an hour late on its originating flight from Indianapolis and was correspondingly late on arrival in San Francisco. We waited another half an hour to take on passengers from a tardy flight from Chicago. It’s hard to blame the airline’s penny-pinching orientation; they had the only sub-$400 round-trip fare to the Islands in August, while many competitors were charging over $600.

    Nevertheless, there were pleasant aspects to the flight. There was plenty of legroom (“pitch”—the distance between rows of seats), the movie, Shrek 2,was enjoyable (headphones were included), and there was no surcharge for the hot meal. And the three of us could sit together on the fully loaded flight because we had selected our seats online one month earlier.

    After an uneventful landing and wait at the baggage carousel, we proceeded to the car-rental agency. All of us were dragging as we hauled the suitcases up the stairs of our relative’s house after 11 p.m. (2 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time). I felt a twinge of exhilaration about coming home after three years and fell asleep as soon as my head touched down. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    The view that greeted me this morning: the Waikiki skyline and Diamond Head on the left.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2004


    I’ve hit one of those patches where things aren’t going as planned—nothing severe, mind, I can distinguish the trivial from the important—it’s just that I’m stymied wherever I turn.

    I want to replace the carpet, but before I schedule an installation date, the walls and ceiling must be painted (I can do the walls myself, but the ceiling requires special equipment). I’ve called painters, who promise an estimate by a certain date but won’t put forward even that modest effort, even after several reminder calls. Of course I won’t make the mistake of engaging these people, but there’s no satisfaction as the ratty carpet continues to mock me.

    I’ve called a gardener, whom two of my neighbors rave about, to estimate the cost of a small clean-up project. He seems like a nice, energetic fellow, but he’s broken a weekend appointment and ignored two of my follow-up phone calls. I intended to use him, but now...

    The exterior of our house needs to be cleaned and sealed, and we’ve reached agreement with a reputable contractor to perform this job, but first we must repair a crack in our chimney. On the advice of a neighbor we’ve been trying to contact a man who would probably do good work but we’ve been unable to communicate with him (he did leave a message once, so we know he’s still in business.)

    A generation ago the epitome of futility (has a certain ring to it, nicht wahr?) was the maiden who sat by her silent phone on Saturday night. Today it’s the frustrated suburbanite who waits...and waits...for his contractor to call, fax, or e-mail. An in-person visit would trigger the vapors.

    At work there are several tasks that are on hold because of crucial information that other people have to prepare and send. Because these people are colleagues and customers, I can’t be too obnoxious and so am limited to offering gentle reminders through the usual channels.

    My Hawaiian vacation starts tomorrow and no progress will be made on any of the above for two weeks. Feeling beset and bewildered, and occasionally angry, by the (in)action of others, I bestirred myself from my usual torpor in the pew on Sunday to listen to the words of a long-ago Sermon:
    Every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire. [Matt 5: 22]

    Message noted. Let it go. Let it all go. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Palm trees thrive in Hawaii. In cool San Francisco these palms along the Embarcadero were imported and have to be carefully nurtured. But they don't have coconuts that can hit you on the head.

    Wednesday, August 04, 2004

    Miscellaneous Musings

    Vietnam Vets Can Celebrate
    Side benefit of John Kerry’s nomination: at least until the election Hollywood won’t green-light more movies where the villain is a crazed, drug-addled Vietnam veteran. If John Kerry wins, these scripts will be deep-sixed for at least four years.

    Celebrity Politics
    One of the cable news channels ran a viewer survey that asked whether the political views of celebrities influence the vote of the general public. Well, duh. Not true of everyone, of course, but some people will be swayed. Celebrities sell drinks, cars, diet plans, cell phones, cosmetics, clothes, and everything under the sun because advertisers believe there are enough of us who believe that we will be like our heroes if we buy the product they are touting. Celebrities ask for our help in fighting a disease, and many of us respond with cold cash. It asks little of an admirer to pull the voting lever that Sam Superstar recommends.

    Remain True to Your Principles Without Making Your Friends Angry
    I’ve been reading how some wealthy individuals feel that they should be taxed more because they feel a mixture of guilt and gratitude to the society in which they have achieved their success. Someone should tell them that, instead of supporting laws that will increase taxes on themselves and others—many of whom will disagree with that point of view, they can achieve their personal objective simply by writing a check to the government for the additional amount they think they ought to be paying. Such donations are deductible contributions under Section 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code:
    For purposes of this section, the term ''charitable contribution'' means a contribution or gift to or for the use of (1) A State, a possession of the United States, or any political subdivision of any of the foregoing, or the United States or the District of Columbia, but only if the contribution or gift is made for exclusively public purposes.
    Any individual who makes a donation to the government deserves to be doubly admired because 1) he is making a gift for “public purposes”, and 2) he is not attempting through tax legislation to force others to emulate his otherwise noble act. The journey to enlightenment should be taken alone. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Barry Bonds Home Run #685
    Last Friday I saw Barry Bonds hit home run number 685 at SBC Park. I finally have seen something that will impress the grandchildren (when they come along).

    Barry Bonds rounds second base after hitting the ball into the Bay.