Friday, March 26, 2004

Bridge Tournament, Continued

Nearly two weeks have elapsed since I partnered with Dan at the San Mateo Sectional Bridge Tournament (see my post on March 17th). Although we got off to a slow start, I tried to minimize mistakes rather than attempt “brilliant” but risky moves and our scores began to improve. There’s a rule-of-thumb that you should bid “down the middle”, i.e., attempt to bid the same contracts that you think the rest of the field is bidding and rely on your superior play (hah!) to achieve an above-average result on each hand. Fortunately for us, my partner held the cards that night so it wasn’t difficult to steer most of the contracts to him.

Below is one hand that I played:

When my partner bid three spades, I knew he had a very good hand but wasn’t sure whether he had four or five spades. Showing a great deal of trust, he left me in three no trump.

Even with a bad spade break I could see nine tricks: three hearts and two in each of the other suits. If the spades broke 3-2, then there would be eleven tricks in no trump and we would outscore the pairs making five spades. I took the diamond lead perforce and lead a low spade to the queen, North dropping the ten without hesitation.

The hand was becoming complicated due to the lack of entries to the West hand. Say I cash the red-suit winners in dummy, then lead to the jack of spades, South ducking again and North showing out. I should probably take the two red kings because I could be in my hand for the last time. That would leave me exposed without a diamond or heart stopper, whereupon it would be too dangerous to continue spades. Nine tricks would be the limit.

Alternatively, I could go to dummy and lead up to the eight of spades, but if it lost to the nine I couldn’t bear the look on partner’s face. Even if the eight won, should I then cash the two red kings? No, I’m not going to finesse the ♠ 8.

Maybe there’s a way to set up the clubs. If so, I have to duck a trick before the heart and diamond stoppers are gone. So at trick three I lead to the queen and ace of hearts, both to clear out the blockage in hearts and to tempt a defensive error. Back to the ♠ J, South ducking his Ace and North, as I feared, pitching a heart. Now a low club to the seven and South’s eight. This is the moment of truth, when South can take his Ace and nine of spades, holding me to ten tricks, but wouldn’t you be tempted to lead a red suit in this position?

South leads the queen of diamonds, and, after the clubs break 3-2, I make 11 tricks in no trump, which was a tie for a top score. South had a difficult decision, because it was hard to tell that the clubs were running. This was the complete hand:

At the end of the evening, I was flabbergasted to discover that we had finished first out of 17 East-West pairs. I thanked Dan, who went to the Nationals in Reno last week with an experienced partner. Meanwhile, I have a book to read. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Comic-book Dreams

When I was four years old, Uncle James took me to Woolworth’s and gave me ten cents to buy my first comic book, Superman. I was hooked, and for the rest of my childhood became a voracious consumer of DC’s entire line-up. My favorites were Green Lantern, Batman, and Superman. Green Lantern’s telekinetic ring was activated by the force of his indomitable will. Batman, who lived by his wits and lifetime of physical training, demonstrated how one could be heroic without possessing superhuman powers. Superman was the mightiest of them all, with super-speed, the power of flight (even to outer space), super-strength, invulnerability, super-cold breath, and heat, telescopic, and x-ray vision. I dreamt of soaring through the sky, catching bank robbers, and rescuing people from danger, all to the cheers of adoring crowds. But even as a small child I knew comic-book heroes were fictional characters and I would never be able to fly through the air like Superman. Eventually I put away (most of) my childish things and managed to carve out my own slice of paradise in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today entire peoples still lead lives of grinding poverty. They cannot overcome their physical wretchedness by cultivating a life of the mind due to straitjackets imposed by their society and religion. But some of them believe there is a way out, a fantastical reversal of fortune in which a miserable existence can be redeemed by a praiseworthy death. The death can be made even more glorious if it causes the death of non-believers, and the more the better. A heaven of eternal sensual pleasure awaits if one straps on a belt or drives a car laden with plastic explosives and endures a split-second of pain.

The fantasy goes further: it envisions a restoration of the caliphate across the Mediterranean, the spread of fundamentalist Islam into the land of Andalusia (Spain) and revenge against the “crusaders”. It is more than a little ironic that the countries of old Europe who committed the original sins—and there were horrible sins committed on all sides from the 11th through 15th centuries--disparage America’s attempts to defend itself. The Islamo-fascist revenge fantasy has its basis in injuries suffered long before the New World was colonized by the Old. One is enormously tempted to abandon the ungrateful descendants of the French and Spanish knights to their fate, but that is a fantasy unworthy of a great people.

[Addendum: being well-educated does not necessarily make one less susceptible to fantasy ideology.] © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Treasure Island

A view of San Francisco from Treasure Island

The U.S. military has bequeathed to us some of the most beautiful settings in contemporary America. Many military bases were established over a century ago to guard the coastlines. The population was sparse, and land was plentiful, so planners had their pick of sites that afforded the best vantage points for defenders to spot potential seaborne invaders. Military strategies have changed somewhat, but the spectacular views remain.

The towns became cities, which produced the familiar phenomena of congestion, pollution, and high-density development. The bases, which were laid out with plenty of open space between their quickly and cheaply constructed buildings, are oases in the midst of the high rises. Developers and local governments are licking their chops over the potential profits, but here’s hoping that elected officials have the wisdom, foresight, and intestinal fortitude to resist the temptation to seize short-term gains.

Some of the bases which I have visited :
  • The Presidio in San Francisco, noted in the previous link, has a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.
  • Fort DeRussy in the heart of Waikiki Beach is surrounded by large hotels and is a reminder of the days before passenger jets brought waves of tourists from the Mainland.
  • Fort Ord, nestled in the sand dunes of Monterey Bay, was the way station for GI’s heading into the Pacific theatre.
Despite living in the Bay Area for over 25 years, I had never visited Treasure Island and was grateful that a Little League baseball game finally gave me an excuse to go there. Treasure Island is a man-made island that bisects the Bay Bridge at the halfway point between San Francisco and Oakland. It was named for the gold-flecked landfill used in its construction during the pre-war can-do decade when San Francisco built the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges. Treasure Island hosted the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition to celebrate the completion of the bridges and to herald San Francisco’s entrance onto the world stage. It became a naval base during the war and was returned to the City in 1997. Not surprisingly, competing visions for a property this central and potentially valuable have caused little to be done, and that may not be a bad result. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Bridge Tournament

About once in a blue moon, when Dan can’t find anyone else, he scrapes the bottom of his Rolodex and invites me to be his partner in a duplicate bridge tournament. The last time I played any form of duplicate bridge was when I partnered with him in a friendly team game three years ago at the Elks club. We lost to some long-in-the-tooth retirees who in all candor weren’t very good (what does that make us?). Although Dan is a perfect gentleman, he is very competitive, and my frequent and egregious mistakes must have bothered him. So I was surprised when he invited me to play in the sectional tournament last weekend. Because I value his friendship and his season tickets to Stanford games, I accepted his offer.

Duplicate bridge is so named because the hands are duplicated, preserved, and played at other tables. In games of chance such as rubber bridge or poker, one can quickly lose interest if the cards are poor. In duplicate bridge other pairs hold the same cards that you do, and you are given points for every pair that you outperform. Each hand, whether a part score (not many points at stake in the bridge scoring system) or a slam (thousands of points), carries the same weight, so one’s concentration cannot flag.

In high school I became bored with chess, and my buddies and I---you know, the ones with the pocket protectors and slide rules—took up contract bridge. I thought I was pretty good because I could solve problems in the daily Goren or Sheinwold columns. But against real people I didn’t fare too well, probably because I had the social intelligence of a doorstop (good SATs, poor table manners). In college I hung out with guys who were regular tournament junkies, and, after two years of weekly play at the local club, accumulated about 20 master points.

The American Contract Bridge League, whose membership I have let lapse, awards master points for winning or placing in tournaments. At the local club one can win a master point for finishing first. But one must go to the regional and national tournaments, where the quantity and quality of competition are much greater, to garner the big awards and be a ranked player. In order to be a “Life Master” one needs 300 master points, and I know individuals who hold thousands of points. Playing bridge with these folks is about as pleasant as shooting a round with a scratch golfer.

Despite the ACBL’s decades-long recruiting effort, the average age of its members has been rising steadily; the ACBL’s roster and that of the AARP are nigh indistinguishable. One technique that tournament sponsors use to make the game less intimidating for new players is stratifying the flights, that is, prohibiting the higher- ranking players from participating in certain games. [Update - March 17th: according to the New York Times (registration required), the ACBL's recent efforts have met with success. Bridge has become trendy.]

In the San Mateo sectional last Saturday I thought I would have a chance to do well if I could get into the under-200 game, but because Dan had too many points, we had to move up to the under-500 game, which meant that we would be facing some Life Masters.

We met forty-five minutes early to go over bidding conventions, and, after painstakingly completing the convention card on which bidding methods are disclosed to the opponents, I realized that bidding had moved far beyond the natural style with which I was familiar. (“Natural” means that there are a lot fewer bidding sequences to memorize, and bidding a suit meant that you had it, that is, a bid of one spade denotes possession of a spade suit.) At that point Dan presented me with the gift of a book that covered the latest bidding conventions. I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, much as I thank my wife when she points me to an article that dispenses advice on how to be a better husband / father / provider.

This was the first hand of the night, and I sat in the West position:

My opening lead was the passive ♥ 9, because I didn’t want to give a trick away. South won with the ♥ 10, then drew another round of trumps with the ace, partner following. A low spade to the king, which I ducked, then a spade back to declarer’s jack, which I took with the ♠ A; partner followed up the line with the six and seven of spades.

I cashed the ace of clubs, and partner signaled with the nine. Some players always signal the count—in such a case the nine would have meant an even number of clubs—but in our brief discussion before the game Dan said that a high card would show encouragement. We were clearly not going to defeat the contract, because declarer needed the ace of diamonds for his opening bid (the ace, king, and queen of hearts, plus the jack of spades, only came to ten high card points and one normally needs 13 to open), so the goal became to minimize his overtricks. With three spade tricks staring at me in the dummy, plus five trumps in the South hand, plus the ace of diamonds, the only hope was to get another club to hold declarer to ten tricks, so I led the queen.

Disaster! Declarer ruffed, and claimed the rest of the tricks. He didn’t have the ace of diamonds. This was the complete hand:

I could have set the contract by two tricks if I had led a diamond. Partner sympathized and said it was a tough decision. It was going to be a long night. be continued.... © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Foster City: For the Birds

A statue of T. Jack Foster,
the city's founder, stands
next to the clocktower.
Early Sunday morning is a good time to take the bike out for a spin. Temperatures are cool and the traffic is light. We passed by the new City Hall building.

Our city is not as cash-strapped as others, because the high prices and high volume of home sales have triggered the mark-to-market mechanism of Proposition 13 and resulted in a property tax windfall.

(Come to think of it, why isn’t this true of other Bay Area cities, all of whom have experienced a similar real estate boom?)

The birds are congregating, an idyllic time for nature-lovers but bothersome for home-owners who have to hose off decks and roofs. Birds are prettier from a distance. During the week, when I see an avaricious pigeon eyeing my hamburger, I glare back, but it is not intimidated. I think of Alfred Hitchcock’s cautionary movie, the Birds, which was filmed a few miles north of San Francisco, and look up warily.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Love that Lumpia

One block away from the tony Bank of America building one can find cheap eats from many cultures. Thai and Middle Eastern cuisine are popular these days, but last week I felt a craving for lumpia. The lady took one look at me, obviously not of Philippine descent, and heaped the plate high. Only $6, less than the cost of one Lipitor tablet.

Thursday, March 11, 2004


When my wife came home yesterday afternoon, the gate to our back yard was punched through. She checked the perimeter of our house, and nothing was amiss. After she called the police, two officers arrived and explained what happened.

Six blocks away two men tried to break into a house. The pattern has been the same for over a dozen burglaries during the past year. The target was a home occupied by Asians, who are notorious for keeping lots of jewelry and cash on hand. The men rang three times, then prised [I’ve always thought the English spelling was cool] the front door with a crowbar. One of the residents was home and had been slow to respond to the initial doorbell. He was not slow to respond to this signal, however and dialed 911. What seemed to be the entire Foster City police force converged on the house, and the men split up and fled on foot.

One of the men hopped the fence to our backyard, and the police, after determining that no one was home, smashed through our locked wooden gate. He jumped back over the fence and plunged into the lagoon. He was not a fast swimmer, and they nabbed him.

The police asked my wife if she would like the City to repair our fence [excuse me ma’am, would you prefer to spend $250 of your own money……or not?] We’ll wait a few days for the man from Parks and Recreation to show up, then we’ll give them a polite reminder. It’s hard to be irritated with the boys in blue when they’re doing their job and doing it well.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Un-original Thoughts

Yesterday a small group of us had an informal lunch with the CEO. It was a fairly open dialogue, as far as these things go, given that CEO’s and CFO’s of publicly held companies these days have to be very guarded about everything they say. If they make a commitment they can’t live up to, they can get sued; if they say what they think might happen, and it doesn’t, they can get sued. Reminder to self: work on how to appear transparent without actually being transparent.

Toward the end of the hour, as we were talking in general terms about the company’s compensation policy, and how the company—and society—determined a person’s value, the CEO referred to “utils”. It went right by everyone; one of my co-workers thought he said “oodles”—our topic was money and she had been preoccupied with getting lots of it. Utils, in economics, is a measurement of utility, which in turn means the power to satisfy wants. Example: my 1967 VW Bug can satisfy my want for transportation; nevertheless, it has fewer (a lot fewer) utils than a new BMW.

The way we speak, including the words we use, betrays our origins. Our CEO used to be a finance professor before he decided to see if classroom concepts would work in rough-and-tumble reality. He sprinkles his conversation with words like “utils”, not to show off, but because he genuinely likes economic theory and is well-acquainted with its jargon. In one of the most popular plays of the last century, Shaw’s Pygmalion and its musical incarnation My Fair Lady, the protagonist, Professor Henry Higgins, can decipher a person’s home district in England after a few seconds of listening to that person’s speech.

I can usually tell if a man (it’s often harder to guess with women) hails from my home state of Hawaii due to his pidgin inflections, which do not necessarily correlate with his range of vocabulary or the ability to speak in grammatically correct sentences. Of course, once he uses a word like “pau” for finished or complete, that’s a dead giveaway. (Parenthetical remark: the wonderful thing about the Internet is that I find out about subjects, like linguistics, that I never learned about in school.)

Will the mass media and the impetus toward language homogeneity eliminate distinctive regionalization of speech patterns? Not one of my A-list concerns, to be sure, but I, for one, will mourn a little if Island English disappears. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Some of my co-workers enjoyed the 80 degree weather along the Embarcadero today.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Mumbo Jumbo

I should get started on my taxes, but it's too much like work so I've been putting it off.

For the past week I've been working on changing the terms ("restructuring", in financial parlance) of a leveraged lease. Leveraged leases---oversimplified, they are long-term leases with secured debt ("nonrecourse"--think of a home mortgage where the owner could walk away from his obligation by turning his house over to the bank)--occupy a special niche in accounting because they are one of the few remaining avenues by which companies can keep debt off the balance sheet. If a car costs $20,000, and the lessor borrows $16,000 from the bank and puts up $4,000 in equity, the lessor does not show a $20,000 asset and a $16,000 liability on his balance sheet, just a $4,000 asset. Qualifying for this accounting treatment has exacting conditions, which I won't detail here.

Most leveraged leases do have "economic substance" because the owner/lessors enjoy real cash flow and pay real taxes over the life of the equipment; however, in the early years, accelerated depreciation and interest expense exceed rental income, so a corporate owner receives tax losses which it can use to offset income from other sources. The accounting is peculiar because leveraged leases require owner-lessors to project all the elements of cash flow, including taxes, over the term of the leveraged lease, and future changes, such as an increase in the corporate tax rate in 2006, will affect the amount of income recorded in 2004. [Don't go away, I'll stop.]

Some of us have volunteered to help seniors at a San Francisco high school apply for college. We have also introduced them to careers in accounting, law, insurance, and related professions by having them sit with us and see what we do all day. It's a wonder that they haven't run kicking and screaming for the exits. I know when I was 18 the previous two paragraphs would have seemed like utter mumbo-jumbo. That's why I make it a point to take a walk every day; I need to keep my perspective. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

From yesterday's bike trip to Redwood Shores; the geese flock near Electronic Arts.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Sunday in Redwood Shores

A warm and sunny day, and I felt the sap rising. We got on the bike and headed down to Redwood Shores along the Bay shoreline bike path. Oracle Systems' cylindrical towers gleamed brightly, and it was difficult to remember, or even believe, that a large animal-themed amusement park once resided here. The lions' nighttime roar and the barks of the seals, like the fruit orchards in Silicon Valley, are but a fading memory.

Oracle HQ at 2 p.m. today; photo taken by my Canon S50.

We continued past the BFI recycling center and stopped for lunch at the San Carlos Burger King, just East off Highway 101. This is my favorite Burger King on the Peninsula. It’s clean, well-lit, and decorated with aviation memorabilia. At the entrance is a helicopter shell, donated by the Hiller Aviation Museum nearby. Traffic to the San Carlos Airport and the museum is light, and this BK is rarely crowded on weekends.

The temperature was approaching 80 degrees, so we stopped at the Hiller Museum and cooled off in the gift shop. We turned around and cycled through the Redwood Shores business parks and shopping centers, making a mental note to visit some non-chain Asian and Mexican restaurants that sprouted to serve the Electronic Arts, Oracle, and law firm employees during the week. An hour later, and we were home.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Isobune Restaurant, Burlingame

Inspired by all the extremely fresh food I saw yesterday (see below), we went to one of our sushi haunts, Isobune Restaurant in Burlingame. Pioneering the concept of placing sushi on wooden "boats" from which patrons can serve themselves, Isobune has dispensed reasonably priced fare since the 1980's. For those with a more selective palate, specialty dishes may be ordered from the chefs in the center of the oval. Our meal for three, which included ten sushi plates, one beer, two desserts, and one teriyaki/tempura lunch, totalled about $50.

It was T-shirt weather, so we strolled two blocks to the Apple Store to check out the new iPods. I am happy with my 15 gigabyte iPod, which my paltry CD library has filled to only one third of its capacity, but the new, thin 4 GB models look elegant. Although a pricey $249, I can see why the public is snapping them up. (Whatever happened to "deferred gratification"? Probably in the same dustbin with the Protestant ethic.) © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Friday, March 05, 2004

Passionate About Food

There is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. --Mark 7:15
Jesus said that the Jewish people of 2,000 years ago were placing too much emphasis on dietary practices, when they should be more concerned about what “come(s) out” of their mouths, i.e. their words and deeds. In Sunday School this is one of the first Biblical quotations taught to children, because the concept is easy to grasp: it’s silly, worrying about keeping the milk and meat separate, when it is more important not to swear or hit or be mean to other people.

If ever there were evidence that the United States is not a Christian nation, it is that we are preoccupied with everything that goes into our mouths. Each day I make sure that I am getting an adequate supply of vitamin E, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, Omega 3, and fiber. I go easy on the fats and carbs and make sure occasionally to partake of the latest health foods such as red wine and chocolate. We believe that eating the right foods will make us younger, smarter, more athletic, better in the sack (awake and asleep), and even happier.

We ridicule the culinary practices of other cultures, such as Asians’ gustatory fondness for canines, without realizing how ridiculous our obsessions must seem to them. Lately, a universal consensus seems to be developing toward freshness. The United States is only beginning to catch up to the Chinese and Japanese, for whom the most desirable food was alive only a few minutes ago. In San Francisco's Chinatown you can buy food that you won’t find in your local Safeway. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

These fish are still gasping

Live turtles and frogs on Stockton Street

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Theodor Geisel, known the world over by his nom de plume, Dr. Seuss. When I was learning to read, I would canvass the school and public libraries for the latest Seuss book, but they were always checked out. Comics and MAD Magazine were frowned upon, but subversive Seuss was somehow acceptable because his works had a hard cover. Dr. Seuss perfectly melded pithy puns, colorful characters, and ridiculous rhymes to entrance readers of all ages. Thank you, Dr. Seuss, for cultivating the joy of reading in one child long ago.

The Geisels donated the funds for the state-of-the-art library at UCSD

From the Geisel Library exhibit: ads from the pre-Seussian period

Apple's Future

Polymath Steven Den Beste writes a long and perceptive post on the future of Apple Computer. Microsoft, the XBox, Motorola, and IBM are all part of the story.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Carpe Diem

When Revelle College invited us to last Sunday’s parents’ brunch at the UC-San Diego Faculty Club, I was not inclined to go. Our freshman had just been home over the winter holiday, and we’ll see him again in March after second quarter finals. But sometimes one has to suppress left-brain cost-benefit analysis (see previous post) and seize the day.

Price Center, University of California - San Diego, February 29, 2004

San Diego sparkled in the sunlight as our packed Southwest 737 touched down. We walked across the skybridge to the shuttle and soon were speeding up Highway 5 in our rented car to Gilman Drive. We parked next to Revelle College (UC-San Diego has a residential college system modeled after some well-known East Coast universities), met our son near his dorm and waved to some familiar faces—parents from Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, and San Mateo—who had also flown south from the Bay Area.

One parent told us that he and his wife had been in San Diego for the past week, tending to their son who had contracted mononucleosis. They had rented a room at the nearby Residence Inn and made sure R. had plenty of rest and quiet, attributes which are scarce in a freshman dorm. R. said he was feeling much better, and I wondered if, in the event I were faced with a similar situation, I would have done as much or as well as his dad.

The "sun god" just outside the faculty club

The brunch was a well-organized affair. The buffet was more than ample, and the crowd of over 100 was entertained by the musicianship, prestidigitation, and terpsichorean talent displayed by the student performers. The vice chancellor, provost, and dean kept their remarks brief, humorous, and interesting, and a pleasant morning was capped when we won a Class of 2003 T-shirt in the raffle.

Students and student-performers from Revelle College, UCSD

In the fashion of doting parents we drove to Ralph’s and loaded up N.’s larder with snacks and drinks. He presented me with the 4-disc edition of the Indiana Jones movies, which I started watching this evening. I had forgotten how much fun those films were; two were made before he was born, and because I still think of them as recently made, I once again felt the passage of years.

When I was in college, Hawaii was a ten-hour flight away, and I could only see my family once, perhaps twice each year. We Islanders sought each other out and clung together in common misery, but most adapted to the forced separation. Being away made at least one local kid grow up, and some of us came to like it so much that we made the Mainland our home.

But now my thoughts turn to Andy, my roommate from Darling, Pennsylvania. He was tall and tough, light-years ahead of me in street-smartness. He haggled for half a day with an upperclassman over a used refrigerator, and got the price to under $100. Andy with the crinkly eyes, destined for big things. A few months into his freshman year, Andy’s father died unexpectedly. Savvy, tough-guy Andy’s eyes were swollen and red for days. He went home for a couple of weeks, and my two roommates wondered if he would come back. When he did return, the atmosphere in our suite was never the same.

When his father drove him to college, Andy didn’t know he would be seeing him for the last time. I’m glad I went to San Diego. © 2004 Stephen Yuen