Friday, May 28, 2004

Market Street Gamble

There are signs that business is improving: co-workers are changing jobs, and each open position no longer attracts a raft of overqualified candidates. At industry gatherings competitors, customers, and colleagues are no longer worried about layoffs (unless their companies are being taken over, in which case all bets are off). The commuter train is crowded despite a near doubling of the fares over the past five years. We’re beginning to wait for tables again at our favorite restaurants. Despite the war, despite the noise of national politics, and despite the spike in the price of gas, the economy is enjoying a late spring. In San Francisco, construction proceeds apace, and brokers and landlords are hopeful that the boom in residential real estate has finally spilled into the commercial sector. And yet, and yet…..our economy appears to be undergoing some structural changes. While nationally we fear that oil prices have permanently risen, locally it may be that the need for commercial space has been permanently reduced. The signs abound. In my department of 16 people at least three (not the same individuals each day) work from home. At the base of our office tower it is rare to see a non-food-and-beverage retail outlet stay open longer than a year. A small business can sublet prime San Francisco office space for under $30 per foot per year, less than half the cost during the pre-2001 Internet boom. People will turn out for unique experiences, as the Giants’ downtown stadium demonstrates. But Union Square toy vendor FAO Schwarz, despite its distinctive atmosphere, declared bankruptcy, the Sony Metreon is barely hanging on (even Microsoft closed its store), and the jury is out on the Ferry Building’s renovation. In light of the history of failed or struggling projects, the $410 million risk that developers Forest City Enterprises and Westfield America are taking to raze the historic Emporium, preserve the 100-year old dome, and construct a massive shopping center on the site, is breathtaking. © 2004 Stephen Yuen I'll visit it when it's done, but I'll keep my wallet in my pocket.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Dial-up Dinosaur

Our home Internet access is still via AOL dial-up. I've been resisting signing up for cable or DSL for admittedly flimsy reasons:
  • Each member of the household already has broadband at work or school.
  • DSL and Cable have the annoying habit of going down at critical moments. The POTS (plain old telephone service) lines never go down.
  • People leave their broadband-connected computers on all the time and consequently have to worry about hackers, maintaining firewalls, etc. That’s one of the reasons I run our personal finances off a 7-year-old Macintosh (system 9.1). It’s not connected to the Internet and has never been hit by a virus (because no one bothers to write one that will affect it.) I painstakingly load the data manually into Quicken but am comforted by a feeling of security and control.
  • It will tempt me to spend even more time on the Internet. I already waste too much of my life staring at glowing boxes.

  • As a dry-run for the inevitable day when we upgrade to broadband, I worked on my sister-in-law’s system when we visited her in Salt Lake City two weeks ago. Comcast had recently installed a cable modem, but something wasn’t quite right, so she couldn’t access the Internet. After fiddling with the modem, I connected a Linksys wireless router to her HP desktop PC and popped a card into the E-machines laptop. Voila! Two machines with broadband access. A visitor turned on his Powerbook G4 with its built-in Airport card, and now we had three machines on-line.

    First application? Warcraft III, which the under-25’s played to the wee hours. Rueful observation: games and porn were two principal drivers of technology in the 1970’s and 1980’s (VCRs, cable TV, videogames), and they’re in no danger of being dislodged from that position. [Update - 5/28/04: wargames still have quite a way to go before they simulate reality.]

    Warcraft III collaborative battle. I don't think this is what Mrs. Clinton meant by "taking a village".

    Friday, May 21, 2004

    Out in Right Field

    One of the great things about living in the United States is that we can disagree without killing each other. We can have widely divergent beliefs, yet still be friends. On the political spectrum, broadly speaking, I suppose I would be a moderate conservative, placing me square in the center of the nation as a whole but way out in right field here in San Francisco.

    One of my friends comments regularly on economic, and occasionally political matters. His views are typical of the people I encounter every day. His latest e-mail is reproduced below:
    As you no doubt know from some comments I have made over time, I dislike President Bush intensely.  I view him as not only ignorant, but also devoid of morals.  Like his father he is willing to sink to any level of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations to achieve his ends.  I never believed the stories of weapons of mass destruction and links of Saddam Hussein to Al Queda [sic] as justifications for invading Iraq.  I always felt Iraq would turn into the quagmire and disaster it has.  The idea he stated that God had chosen him to do what he did in the Middle East was preposterous.  Why would God chose [sic] him?  His great intellect?  His honesty?  His integrity?
    The Medicare bill was just another fiasco this incompetent, unethical President put us through.  He lied about the cost to get it through Congress.  The purpose of the bill was to protect the profits of drug makers, not to help seniors.  The drug makers were concerned about the growing threat of cheaper imported drugs.  Indeed, what logic is there in having the bill prohibit the government from negotiating prices with drug makers?  In addition, the way this bill was structured is the first step in applying means testing to Medicare.  Before things are done the Republicans will have cheated most Americans out of the retirement benefits they were promised and taxed for all their lives.
    I have nothing but contempt for Bush and the Republicans.  The deficits being run up right now will haunt us in the future.  The propaganda they put out discussed below is just an attempt to whitewash a bad deal for Americans.  Bush's commercials attacking Kerry follow the pattern of lies, distortions, and misrepresentations he has consistently been guilty of.
    As I say when people refer to Bush as "my," "your," or "our" President, he is not "my" President.  I didn't vote for him, nor do I support him or his policies.  He is "the" President, legally appointed in a decision that was a travesty by five Republican appointed Supreme Court justices.
    I've watched my friend(and others) seethe with anger over the past three years. After the 2002 elections, when the Democrats lost control of all three branches of government for the first time since the 1950's, apoplexy would be a mild description of his condition. If President Bush is re-elected, how would he deal with that?

    Both for reasons of self-knowledge--Plato said that was one of the goals of life--and anger management, the following article by Keith Burgess-Jackson, a philosophy professor and a Nader voter, may be helpful. According to Prof. Burgess-Jackson,
    There are four signs of hatred:
  • Obsession. The hater returns again and again to the hated. Nothing looms larger in the hater's mind. The hated becomes a brooding omnipresence, a focus of suspicion, fear, and loathing.
  • Inability to see--much less to acknowledge‑-good in the hated. The hated becomes the very personification of evil, incapable of being, intending, or doing good. Nobody is perfectly bad, of course, but this is how the hated appears.
  • Cynicism. Nothing the hated says is taken at face value, however plausible it may be on its face and however sincerely it is expressed. Indeed, the hated's claim of good motivation is often taken as further evidence of his or her viciousness, duplicity, or perversity.
  • Malevolence. The hater is not merely indifferent to the welfare of the hated, as might be the case with a stranger, but wishes things to go poorly for him or her. The hater delights in the hated's misery or misfortune. The Germans have a special word for this: "schadenfreude."
  • After reading the article, I applied the test to myself vis-a-vis President Clinton, whom I did not support. An honest appraisal showed, I think, that I did not have the characteristics that Prof. Burgess-Jackson describes. For example, I thought President Clinton did well in his management of the economy, and he displayed political courage when he signed the NAFTA and welfare-reform bills. My friend, and many others, see absolutely no good in anything President Bush says or does. President Bush is both incredibly stupid, but somehow he's brilliant in his Machiavellianly evil plots. (Perhaps it's Karl Rove who is the Rasputin behind the throne?)

    The difference between my friend and me is that I believe the Republic will muddle through and possibly do better than expected from the vantage point of these gloomy times, regardless who wins in November. If President Bush is re-elected, I fear for my friend's health. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, May 18, 2004

    Mending Fences

    A couple of months ago the police smashed through our fence in hot pursuit of a burglary suspect. They told us that the Parks and Recreation Department would repair the damage.

    After two weeks of silence, I wrote a polite letter to the Chief of Police. (I wasn't angry, or even irritated, because my expectations are always low when dealing with any government agency--saves me a lot of needless anguish.) A lieutenant called the next day and asked me to fill out a claim form. Done. Claim form mailed.

    Next, the City risk manager called to say that the City would not perform the repair after all but would reimburse me for the expense. Of course, said expense had to be "reasonable", which meant that I had to get two pre-approved estimates from reputable contractors. Call to All-Fence, who had rebuilt our fence after the gale winds of 1994 blew it down, appointment scheduled, estimate delivered for $350. Fax to City risk manager, with accompanying phone call pleading that she waive requirement for a second estimate because of small size of claim. Request granted. Now we're getting somewhere, albeit 45 days after the incident.

    Call received from the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG)in Oakland. Gentleman says ABAG processes claims for all Bay Area governments. Could I please send him materials on the claim? Done. Can I tell All-Fence to begin work? Only if I sign a release form with a witness's signature. Done. Release form mailed. I send a $35 (10%) deposit to All-Fence, along with a note to make an appointment for the repair.

    Now for the unexpected good news. When we returned from our long weekend in Salt Lake City the fence was fixed! Our contractor had been in the neighborhood and had taken it upon himself to do the task without making an appointment or otherwise asking permission.

    Everyone we dealt with was perfectly nice--we just got our $350 check from ABAG--but the difference between public and private efficiency could not be more plain. Individuals aren't inherently better because they work in the private sector. It's the system, as we used to say in the sixties. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, May 16, 2004

    Challengers Baseball - Part II

    While the San Francisco Giants were losing, 8-1, to the Pittsburgh Pirates at SBC Park today, just across McCovey cove,in Barry Bonds' Junior Giants Park, another Giants squad was engaged in a spirited contest with the Foster City Mariners. In this game of Challengers baseball (see my post last month), everyone hits, everyone crosses the plate, and everyone cheers for the opposing team.

    Several parents were late because it was difficult to find the path to the little ballpark amidst the sea of parked cars and coned-off streets. When they arrived, I helped them take the wheelchairs out of their vans--although they are so practiced that they didn't really need my help--and the kids were there in plenty of time to take their turn at bat in the top of the second.

    It may have been the wind, or the ambience from the nearby Major League game, but the balls were flying off the bats today. Some made it to the outfield grass, and a few even cleared the fence. One ball was hit to the leftfielder, but his back was turned because he was more interested in the sounds emanating from SBC Park. When I shouted, he chased the ball down. "Always face the batter"--don't remember seeing that advice in a baseball book.

    The runners sometimes bunch up, but no one's in a big hurry.

    After the game, the teams cheer each other and shake hands. The players eagerly devour their snack and drink and already are looking forward to next week's game. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, May 14, 2004

    Presidential Lies

    I've been re-reading the lies, in his own words, that the President of the United States used to justify military action against Iraq. Below are excerpts:
    Earlier today, I ordered America's armed forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq. They are joined by British forces. Their mission is to attack Iraq's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and its military capacity to threaten its neighbors.

    Their purpose is to protect the national interest of the United States, and indeed the interests of people throughout the Middle East and around the world.

    Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons.

    Other countries possess weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. With Saddam, there is one big difference: He has used them. Not once, but repeatedly. Unleashing chemical weapons against Iranian troops during a decade-long war. Not only against soldiers, but against civilians, firing Scud missiles at the citizens of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran. And not only against a foreign enemy, but even against his own people, gassing Kurdish civilians in Northern Iraq.

    The international community had little doubt then, and I have no doubt today, that left unchecked, Saddam Hussein will use these terrible weapons again.

    This situation presents a clear and present danger to the stability of the Persian Gulf and the safety of people everywhere. The international community gave Saddam one last chance to resume cooperation with the weapons inspectors. Saddam has failed to seize the chance.

    And so we had to act and act now.

    The hard fact is that so long as Saddam remains in power, he threatens the well-being of his people, the peace of his region, the security of the world. The best way to end that threat once and for all is with a new Iraqi government -- a government ready to live in peace with its neighbors, a government that respects the rights of its people.

    Heavy as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors. He will make war on his own people.

    And mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.

    Because we're acting today, it is less likely that we will face these dangers in the future.
    From a speech by President Bill Clinton to the American people in 1998

    Thursday, May 13, 2004

    Puddle Jumpers

    The bronze in the park next to the Pyramid often brings a smile to picnickers.

    The Best Hope

    There’s a scene in the movie Crocodile Dundee in which a New York City mugger pulls a knife on the Australian outback character played by Paul Hogan. Crocodile Dundee produces a much larger weapon and says, “That’s a knife? THIS is a knife.” The mugger gapes, then flees, and the audience always laughs.

    The brutal beheading of an American civilian by Islamic terrorists is no laughing matter, but the principle is relevant. The U.S. military has weapons vastly more powerful than knives, and one wonders if the terrorists have as much sense as the mugger in the movie.

    President Bush’s strategy to create a democracy in Iraq, for all its missteps and misjudgments, represents one of the world’s last chances to avoid a catastrophe. The majority of Moslems may well be peaceful, but if just 1% of Islam’s 1 billion adherents are as fanatical as those who gladly kill themselves in order to kill us, no amount of talking, self-humiliation, or material concessions will satisfy them. Even killing us is not sufficient for some whose hatred leads them, contrary to the dictates of their religion, to burn and rend the bodies of our dead. The knife that killed Nick Berg was up close and personal.

    With thousands, if not millions, besotted by white-hot fury and many more being created each day by the poisonous teachings promulgated in the madrassas, we are in a desperate race to show that there is another way. A peaceful and prosperous society in the heart of Islam’s territory, a society respectful of the rights of women and non-believers, may be the catalyst that transforms the region. Observation and first-hand experience of the new Iraq will contradict extreme religious teachings, resulting, it is hoped, in their widespread questioning and rejection (cognitive dissonance). We won’t know for a generation whether the strategy was successful, but at least it’s a plan that has a possibility of working.

    (One theory that has worked so far is the “flypaper” strategy. U.S. forces in Iraq are such an affront to radical Islam that jihadists will focus their efforts on driving them out. Tactically, it may be easier to strike in other locales, including the American homeland, but the bull, enraged, can only see the red cape. Awful though the attrition be, it is better that the battles are fought over there than over here.)

    Others have written persuasively that moderate Moslems should see that it is in their own best interest to leash their radical brethren. The rage that Americans felt after 9/11, when so many innocents were murdered, has been echoed in recent days when everyman Nick Berg was slaughtered. That 9/11 anger will be multiplied a thousand-fold if a weapon of mass destruction is detonated in an American city. No American President, whose sworn duty is to preserve, protect, and defend, will be able to withstand the pressure to go nuclear. Failure in Iraq is not an option.

    Cure for Depression

    One way to stop thinking about the all the people who want to see us dead is to attend a college graduation. Last Friday I watched over 3,000 students receive their diplomas (actually, pieces of paper that promised that diplomas will be mailed to them over the summer) at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

    One girl had “No War” in bold letters on her cap—bravo. Navy cadets, resplendent in their whites, ushered us to our seats—bravo to them, too.

    Thousands of students, energized and eager, na├»ve and knowledgeable, hopeful and hesitant, streamed out to the sunlight. The world is their oyster. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, May 10, 2004

    Random Thoughts on Iraq

    Prisoner Abuse
    Abu Ghraib prison abuses-->hazing
    Fallujah murders, burning, dismemberment-->lynching
    Both are bad, which is worse? Which pictures do we see every night?

    Leadership of Large Organizations
    Large organizations always have bad apples. When are leaders excused (but not totally) from the actions of subordinates?
  • When the actions are contrary to clearly communicated principles, policies, and procedures;
  • When violations, once known, are immediately investigated and corrective action, ranging from reprimand and demotion to firing and criminal prosecution, is taken; and
  • When the leader and/or organization makes restitution.

  • Service, not Selfishness
    Many people who serve as senior officials in American government have had successful careers in the private sector. Whether Democrat or Republican, their primary motivation is service borne out of gratitude. Power can be intoxicating, but the slow-as-molasses bureaucracies quickly dissipate the euphoria.

    Let the People Decide
    Because they’re not doing it for money or glory (as was Pat Tillman), every member of the Bush Administration, including the President himself, would willingly sacrifice his or her position in the pursuit of victory in the war on terror. On the other hand, they will not resign if it would jeopardize the ultimate objective.

    If President Bush thought that it was essential that Donald Rumsfeld continue as Secretary of Defense, and if Karl Rove told the President that he would lose the election if Mr. Rumsfeld stays, I believe President Bush would say, “That’s what elections are for. Let the people decide.”

    If Bush is Trailing Badly in October
    His opponents, both foreign and domestic, should hope that the President is not trailing badly in the polls in October. Thinking that John Kerry will not take the steps necessary to protect the U.S homeland and the fragile Iraq democratic experiment, President Bush may well initiate aggressive military actions against Syria and Iran, as well as insurgents within Iraq. The U.S. military will follow his orders gladly, because they overwhelmingly want to win. Cynics will view such actions as “wagging the dog”, but in truth, the dog has long since been hurtled over the fence. It may be more accurate to say “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

    If Mr. Kerry does go on to win after Mr. Bush ploughs the field, the prospects for international cooperation improve. Neither our friends or enemies will want the bad Republican cops to come back into the room. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, May 06, 2004

    Only in Utah

    Shopping for Mother’s Day cards in Salt Lake City, I came across this display in Wal-Mart:

    My sister-in-law and her husband fled the Bay Area in 1995. We're here to attend the college graduation of their older son--my nephew. They sold their 3-bedroom, 1-bath house in Burlingame and bought a 5-bedroom, 3-bath home in Salt Lake City for much less than the price of their Burlingame house. Below is a view of the Wasatch mountains from their neighborhood.

    Tuesday, May 04, 2004

    Best Buy: A Good Outcome

    Twice I’ve had a problem at Best Buy, and twice I’ve been pleased with the outcome.

    The first occurred when I switched from cable (Comcast) to satellite (DirecTV), including TiVo, and purchased the requisite equipment. A couple of days before the installer was due to arrive, I opened the (re-sealed) boxes and noted that there were some cables and manuals missing. I went back to the store, and customer service immediately took back all the boxes and substituted new, and, in some cases, upgraded equipment at no extra charge. DirecTV and TiVo, by the way, have turned out better than I had expected.

    Next came the application for the $100 rebate on the satellite equipment. I painstakingly filled out the (original! no copies accepted!) rebate form, photocopied the receipts, cut out the proofs of purchase, and mailed the kit and caboodle to the Best Buy rebate center. The package was rejected and returned with the notation “multiple receipts”. Helpfully, I had enclosed the receipts for the exchange and upgrade, but too much information probably confused them. So my second problem was, how much letter-writing, form-filling, photocopying, and package mailing was I willing to endure to collect $100?

    I went back to the store, and laid the whole mess in front of Nicolette and her manager. The manager said, “What if we take the path of least resistance and give you a $100 credit on your charge card?” It took me two seconds to register that I was getting what I wanted with a minimum hassle, and point one second to utter, “Sure.”

    After receiving the credit, I thanked them in what I hope was not an overly fawning manner—I do have my pride—and out of gratitude bought some DVDs, software, and accessories that I don’t need.

    Being able to walk into a store, speak to a live person, and (sometimes) resolve problems satisfactorily keeps me from buying most of my stuff over the Internet. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, May 03, 2004

    Giant Hesitation

    A statue of Willie Mays greets the fans at the entrance to SBC Park.

    The local preacher likes to organize outings to Giants baseball games, and so it was that I found myself in the left-field bleachers of SBC (formerly Pac Bell) park last Friday night. Despite the poor vantage from the cheap seats ($21), we did get a good look at Barry Bonds, who is by consensus one of the three or four greatest players who ever lived. Although number 25 didn’t do anything notable that night, at least someday I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren and the other guys at the rest home that I saw him play.

    Number 25 did not get a hit today, though the Giants scored 12 runs.

    The Giants were hosting the World Champion Florida Marlins and started the game in a fashion that reminded me of the Giants in the 70’s and early 80’s. The Marlins had the bases loaded with two out in the top of the first inning. A high fly ball was launched to right-center field, but the outfielders miscommunicated, and the ball was dropped. Because everyone was running on two outs, three runs scored easily. Somehow the scorer perceived a windblown double while everyone else in the Park saw an error, but in any case the damage was done. Hope flickered as the Giants rallied in the bottom of the first and trailed only 4 – 2.

    The youngster and I got up to buy hot dogs. As we stood in line, we watched on the monitors as the Marlins used the Giants pitchers for batting practice. It was 9 – 2 as we returned to our seats $28 poorer (two hot dogs, sodas, and fried calamari for a certain high-maintenance individual seated next to me and the kid), but who’s counting when we’re having so much fun. Incredibly, the Giants rallied to tie the score 9 – 9 at the bottom of the second, the big blow was a grand slam home run by Brian Dallimore, the rookie third baseman. The grandslam was Dallimore’s first major league hit, a feat matched by only four other players, including Barry Bonds’ father, the late Bobby Bonds.

    The score is 9 - 9 at the bottom of the 2nd inning.

    The game settled down, and the Giants came away with a 12 – 9 victory. During the course of the evening, and despite the game’s excitement, I soured on the SBC experience: 1) the wind blew right through my light jacket, and the sub-50 temperatures seemed to double the pressure on my bladder—memories of frigid Candlestick Park arose involuntarily; 2) the lines to the men’s restroom were at least 30-deep before one even got to the entrance (I can’t imagine how women endure their circumstances); 3) the price of food and drink is beyond outrageous.

    The preacher is talking about seeing a couple of more games this year. The youngster’s pleading eyes light up. I’ll get back to them when it’s warmer. © 2004 Stephen Yuen