Saturday, February 28, 2004

Cheaper and Better

A little over two weeks ago I wrote how I was doing a slow burn over Comcast's frequent, exorbitant price hikes. The last straw was Comcast's $54 billion bid to acquire Disney. My hard-earned shekels will not be going toward service improvement but toward the acquisition and dismemberment of a unique company that has given pleasure to generations of Americans. Comcast has the right to do what it's doing, and I have the right to not purchase their product.

I went to the local Best Buy and ordered DirecTV. My first year's cost will be:
    Non-premium channels (over 150) $40 x 12 months = $480
    HBO - 7 channels, 3 months free, $12 x 9 months = $108
    TiVo and 2nd receiver service, $10 x 12 months = $120
    TiVo eqpt + 1 receiver + 1 satellite dish, less rebate = $100

    SUBTOTAL $808

Installation is free, and taxes will raise the total to at most $900.

Comcast is billing us $94 ($1,128 over 12 months), so we will save over $200 in the first year. It is not an apples-to-apples comparison because we will not be subscribing to as many premium channels; on the other hand, we have TiVo.

Today we had our dish installed. The signal is clearer to both our sets and we are beginning to appreciate the hard-to-explain technological breakthrough that is TiVo (digital videorecording). I derived immense satisfaction from terminating our Comcast account and explaining to the harried customer service representative that we were switching because of price (and a large dollop of corporate arrogance, which I refrained from mentioning because it wasn't the poor guy's fault). He offered to reduce his price to match the competition, but for us it was too little, too late. As for you, gentle Comcast subscriber, it surely doesn't hurt to pick up the phone and ominously hint at your displeasure.

It was indeed a lovely day. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

Garden Court

The Garden Court at the Sheraton Palace Hotel is one of my favorite places to have a business lunch. The hotel guests used to park their horse-drawn carriages in this room.

Friday, February 27, 2004

Gay Rites

When you come to live in San Francisco, leave your judgments at the door. Acceptance and tolerance are the watchwords of Bay Area society. In fact, I belong to the only group--straight male Republicans--upon whom it is still acceptable to heap scorn and derision. I’m not doctrinaire about my stances: I do pull the other lever once in a while.

And in politics I occasionally vote for the Democratic candidate. (Chastened by the difficulty of composing a joke, I head back to the dugout, bat drooping, grateful that I don’t write for a living.)

Having lived in the Bay Area for several decades, I have long been comfortable with the gay lifestyle. No more perceptive words were spoken than by Mrs. Campbell: "so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses." They are applicable to any behavior that doesn't harm anybody.

Where I stand on the issue of gay marriage:
  • If a referendum were held on this matter, I would probably vote for the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples (depending on how it was worded).
  • I hold to my religion’s teaching that homosexual acts are sinful, but most sins are not illegal in our society, else all of us would be in jail.
  • Because people have deeply-held beliefs, pro and con (maybe even within the same person!), and people on one side or the other tend to cluster by geography, gay marriage should be left to the states to decide. We should try to prevent repeating the never-ending battle over abortion that resulted when the Supreme Court imposed a uniform standard across the country.
  • I don’t like touching the Constitution, which should only be amended when there are strong majorities in favor of a measure, but someone please tell me how one prevents an activist judge from forcing, say, Alabama, to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in California if the people of Alabama do not want to do so.

    Even Andrew Sullivan, long an advocate for gay marriage, recognizes that a constitutional amendment, albeit not the one currently before Congress, may be needed to avoid a court-imposed resolution to this issue. I remain hopeful that our political leaders can overcome the demagogues and craft a solution that will not further polarize our nation. © 2004 Stephen Yuen
  • Thursday, February 26, 2004

    Kinda Fun

    Kinda fun, isn’t it? Reminds me of my college days when we sat cross-legged in a circle, passing round a little weed, dreaming about pulling up this oppressively racist, patriarchal, militaristic society by its roots and sprinkling a little love fertilizer on it.

    What right does society have to tell anyone who should get married? All you need are two (or more) people who have the urge to merge. A few good words about polygamy: there’s no proof that anyone’s being harmed; the family unit is more stable—economies of scale, sharing the burden, and all that. And finding a baby-sitter is never a problem. Remind me, Virginia, to tell you about the good old days of our commune in Humboldt County….

    How about incest? Living together before marriage is not only acceptable but preferred (for compatibility), so let’s live together our whole lives before we get married. Incest is also a good estate planning tool. A man’s estate passes tax-free to his wife, but her estate gets nailed when it passes to the next generation. But what if she marries her son (or daughter); he or she can inherit without a visit from the taxman.

    The State has no right to set restrictions on marriage. Thank you, Gavin Newsom, for setting the record, uh, straight. Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice, and I are off to see the friendly mayor of a small town in Utah. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, February 23, 2004

    Cupid's Span

    In February we ponder the mysteries of love. We send candy, flowers, and cards to those whom we treasure, or merely appreciate. A few blocks from Market Street the City dispenses licenses to pairs of individuals who are finally permitted to come together as one. And later this week Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion" will depict the steadfast love--and suffering--of one who laid down His life for others.

    But love is playful, too.....

    Cupid's Span by Oldenburg, a gift from the Fishers (GAP founders)

    Sunday, February 22, 2004

    Just A Sculpture

    I walk by this sculpture every day on the way to work. Its deep multi-layered symbolism admixes Platonic form with Cartesian Weltanschauung ..........NOT! What seemed to be such an obvious phallic symbol is especially appropriate during these tumescent times (see my February 20 post below on my visit to City Hall). I was chagrined to discover how off base my interpretation was: according to Embarcadero Center, Mistral is "a cast bronze sculpture by Elbert Weinberg that represents the warm winds that originate in Africa and sweep upwards to southern Europe." Knock me over with a feather: sometimes a sculpture is just a sculpture.

    During the winter, Mistral is gaily festooned with Christmas flora. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Say It Ain't So, Martin

    When I visited the Sam Wo Restaurant a couple of months ago I said it was over-rated. Today, on Channel 4's popular "Bay Area Backroads" series, celebrity chef Martin Yan selected it as a Chinatown destination. Martin Yan, who's been to the finest restaurants in Hong Kong, New York, and San Francisco. Even the greats can make a mistake.

    Saturday, February 21, 2004

    Sanguine Attitude

    When I was in college I donated blood for the first time. It didn't hurt much, but my right arm had a large black-and-blue bruise for over a week. I made excuses not to go again. Apart from donating my "safe" O-positive blood to support surgery on my children, I didn't roll up my sleeve for over 20 years. When the war in Iraq began almost one year ago, I was shamed by the knowledge of others' enormous sacrifice to resume making this very small contribution to the community.

    The need is great: last month there was less than a one-day supply in the Bay Area, and many non-critical medical procedures were put on hold. Only 4 percent of the local population donates blood, while 60 percent are eligible to give.

    Today I went to the blood center in Burlingame. Although some find the questions to be intrusive, on this occasion I feel a small sense of satisfaction that my life has been remarkably unremarkable [no intravenous drug use, no promiscuous sex, no travel to Asia (SARS), Africa (AIDS), or the U.K. (mad cow)]. And the technicians seem to know what they're doing because I don't bruise anymore. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Myrna closes up the facility at 3 o'clock on Saturdays. About 50 donors showed up today.

    Friday, February 20, 2004

    Scenes from Marriages

    Like the darling child who is not used to being ignored, the Bay Area stamps its foot, and the nation reluctantly shifts its gaze to the west.

    The Scott Peterson trial has moved to Redwood City, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. The national media have misleadingly called it a “bedroom community”: Redwood City is home to Oracle Systems and Electronic Arts, who are leaders in their respective markets of business software and videogames. My son, now a freshman in college, was born in Redwood City’s Kaiser Hospital, a first-rate medical facility. I’ve been taking the 1967 VW Bug, my old college car, to Fred’s Garage off Industrial Boulevard for the past 20 years. The German mechanics at Fred’s take pity on my car: last month a tune-up, oil and lube, and routine maintenance cost me only $177, a fraction of what they charge their BMW, Mercedes, and Audi customers.

    In sports the top-ranked college basketball team in the country—at least this week—plays its home games in Palo Alto. The Stanford Cardinal are likely to be the top seed in the West when the brackets are announced for the NCAA tournament in March. We’ll see if they finally live up to expectations after being upset by underdogs five years running.

    The good news about Stanford has been overshadowed by the burgeoning controversy over steroid drugs administered to professional athletes. Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) in Burlingame is expert in designing and producing drugs that current tests do not detect. There is at least one very famous sports star whose personal trainer has intimate ties to BALCO. This issue had been simmering since last summer but boiled over when it was mentioned in the President’s State-of-the-Union address.

    But the number one story for the past week, of course, has been the issuing of marriage licenses to gay couples by the City of San Francisco. For the record, these are the requirements for a marriage license, as listed on the City’s web-site:

    General information about marriage in the State of California
  • You do not need to be a California resident to marry in California. The same requirements apply whether you are a U.S. Citizen or a Tourist.
  • Only an unmarried male and an unmarried female may marry in California. [Update: the following sentence was not here one week ago] However, in the City and County of San Francisco two unmarried individuals may marry.
  • Marriage by proxy is not allowed in California.

    Requirements for a Public Marriage License
  • Age Requirement Minimum age 18. Person under 18 with written consent of at least one parent (or legal guardian) and permission from a Juvenile Court Judge may marry.
  • Blood Test: Not required
  • Attendance: Both partners must be present when filing application and issuing license.
  • Legal Photo I.D. A legal picture I.D. card is required from each partner. (Examples: passport, driver's license, naturalization form, resident alien cards, military I.D. which must contain full legal name. If the legal picture I.D. card does not contain your full legal name you must also present a certified copy of birth certificate or a social security card, showing your full legal name.
  • Previously Married? If you have been previously married, you will need to know the exact date of when your marriage was finalized. If your marriage was finalized within 90 days, verification of papers (certified copy of divorce, annulment, or death record) is required. Note: A “Filed” or “Endorsed” copy (usually issued by your attorney) will not be acceptable. [Blogger’s comment: I re-read this several times and have no idea what it means. Also the word “finalized” causes me to shudder when it's used in a formal legal setting.]
  • Validity License is valid for 90 days from date of issuance and is valid anywhere in the State of California. A marriage license is only a permit to get married and you are not married until a ceremony is performed.
  • License Fee $82.00 Cash, local pre-printed check or money order only (price subject to change).

  • Today I strolled down to City Hall to see what the fuss was all about:

    The ubiquitous TV trucks

    My concerns about the institution of marriage and the crumbling of society as we know it melted in the face of the palpable joy demonstrated by nearly everyone there. As the founding document states:
    ...we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
    There was a lot of happiness in the room. I would not want to be the one who takes that happiness away.

    The line starts at the snack bar

    Snakes its way past the gift store

    Into the hallway

    Clerk's office in the distance

    After getting their license, many get married right away in this magnificent setting

    But I am just a humble citizen with an opinion. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom showed that he is unfit for higher office by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in direct contravention of state law. The executive has a special responsibility to uphold the law, even those he disagrees with. Given the strong arguments on either side of issues such as abortion, capital punishment, recreational drug use, and immigration, to name but a few in addition to gay marriage, it is not only possible but likely that the chief executive of a city, state, or even the nation would not agree with some of the laws it is his duty to uphold. If he didn’t think that he could enforce these laws, then he shouldn’t have taken the oath of office. © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, February 15, 2004

    Fallout from the Fallout

    I feel torn making remarks about the Super Bowl halftime show because any additional commentary only gives Janet Jackson what she wanted, which is more publicity. Personally, I do not find baring a breast on national TV for a couple of seconds to be disgusting, stimulating, entertaining, or even mildly interesting. The emotion I feel is sadness--that a performer had to resort to a stunt like this to call attention to herself. I would have ignored the whole thing, which is the proper response to the publicity hound, were it not for the reaction to the reaction.

    The initial protests came from religious groups, conservative organizations, and members of Congress. We had to suffer through the predictable declarations of outrage, then the insincere apologies and other acts of contrition from CBS executives, partner-in-crime Justin Timberlake, and Ms. Jackson herself. But I was most offended by the mocking tone directed by some commentators toward the people who were offended: Such prudes to be offended by a woman’s breast! Worried about your kids watching? Turn off the TV!

    Plausible responses could be: I couldn’t get to the remote control in time; I was at a friend’s house and he would look like a fool turning off the TV with ten adults and only four kids present; when would I know when the shenanigans stopped and it was safe to switch on the TV for the second half? By the way, is it okay for my son to emulate Justin Timberlake by ripping off part of your daughter’s blouse?

    The TV audience wasn’t warned, and some people were forced to view something that they would not have chosen for themselves or their children to look at. If Janet Jackson’s actions are not wrong, then there is no justification for prosecuting the sick flasher who hangs around the schoolyard. You heard it here first: for indecent exposure cases look for the "Janet Jackson defense." © 2004 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, February 12, 2004

    Fed Up with Comcast

    I'm a believer in free-market capitalism, but let's harbor no illusions: businessmen invariably act in their own self-interest. For the most part it is competition that limits market abuses, but where there is no competition, as in the case of public utilities, it is left to government to restrain behavior. The Cable TV business is one of the worst for consumers because it is largely an unregulated monopoly. Outmanned city councils grant exclusive licenses to the cable companies, who raise fees with impunity. (Making matters worse, my pretentious mid-Peninsula city has always banned rooftop antennas, forcing everyone to subscribe to cable in order to receive passable reception.)

    Two years ago the cost of four premium services plus basic digital cable was $66 per month. One year ago the price was $72. When Comcast acquired our cable provider, the cost escalated to the current $94 for the same service, nearly a 50% increase over two years. The company claimed that the price increase was necessary to "upgrade the infrastructure" to the tune of $6 billion. Let's just say that I haven't noticed: the static on channel 5 is still pronounced.

    Yesterday Comcast made a bid to buy Disney for $54 billion and is clearly prepared to pay more if other bidders enter the fray. When it needed $6 billion Comcast raised my bill by $22. Now that it needs NINE times as much the mind boggles at how high it can go.

    Satellite service is now permitted in my city because the smaller dishes are sufficiently unobstrusive. This weekend I'm switching.

    Wednesday, February 11, 2004

    Sunday, February 08, 2004

    False Positives and False Negatives

    No medical test is infallible. Sometimes a test indicates that a disease is present when it is not--a “false positive”--and sometimes the condition is missed –a “false negative”. I suspect that most people, as do I, want medical tests to err in the direction of the false positive, so that at least everyone who has the disease is identified and treated. Accepting more false positives means that there will be more patients who will be needlessly alarmed and for whom additional tests will be needlessly performed.

    After September 11, 2001, the United States realized that it had grossly underestimated the threat of terrorism. 3,000 dead, thousands more injured, and hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect damage to the American economy were the penalties for missing the danger signs. Our intelligence apparatus produced a false negative: before September 11th, terrorism was not believed to be a disease serious enough to merit strong action. With the benefit of hindsight it is now said that warning signs from terrorists were plain for all to see, and that if a similar situation again arose, the United States would initiate events and not be their victim.

    Over the past twelve years Saddam Hussein had emitted strong signals that he posed a danger to Iraq’s neighbors, the West, and the United States. He invaded Kuwait in 1991. He used poison gas and chemical weapons on civilians to suppress rebellion. He reneged on agreements he made after the Gulf War, his actions culminating in the expulsion of United Nations weapons inspectors from Iraq in 1998. The combination of Saddam’s past behavior, stated intentions, and capability caused the Clinton Administration to declare regime change to be the explicit policy of the United States toward Iraq.

    It has become a cliché to say that September 11th changed everything. Not only did it galvanize us to action, it also changed our attitudes. We are more inclined to cut short endless analyses—because we will never have perfect information—and act. The consequences of a false negative (not detecting and preventing an attack) are greater than a false positive (believing we will be attacked when such is not the case). I agree with the Bush Administration’s decision to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime by force. If a second attack on U.S. soil resulted from terrorists using Iraqi-supplied weapons, and if the Bush Administration failed to prevent it because it did not take earlier action, President Bush would not only not be re-elected, he would deserve to be impeached for not performing the President’s primary duty as Commander-in-Chief

    Believing there to be stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq--and then not finding them--is the second major intelligence failure of the past three years, the first, of course, being the failure to detect and prevent the attacks on September 11th. Because it happened on his watch, President Bush should rightly be criticized for the poor performance of the intelligence agencies. It is possible that he knew how inconclusive and incomplete the information was, and, weighing the consequences of war versus inspections, false positives versus false negatives, decided to go to war.

    September 11th caused many of us to revisit first principles. I suspect that President Bush, who is a simple man (not simple-minded--there is a difference), returned to the oath of office (Article II, Section 1, clause 8 of the Constitution) to guide him in what he should do:
    I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
    "Preserve, protect, and defend".....whatever you may think of President Bush, he takes his promises very seriously.
    &copy 2004 Stephen Yuen

    From the San Mateo side of the Hayward-San Mateo Bridge on a cold, clear day

    Wednesday, February 04, 2004

    The Importance of Punctuation

    The morning paper’s summary of what's on 60 Minutes II tonight:

    "Home movies reveal the brutality of Saddam Hussein’s sons; talk show host Larry King."

    If a comma were used instead of a semi-colon, the meaning would change slightly. Good punctuation is so important.

    Sunday, February 01, 2004

    Super Bowl Square

    Blogging has been light this week--all right, non-existent--because of family health issues, spouse's departure for Hawaii, and the burglary of an absent relative's home nearby, not to mention some interesting but time-consuming projects at work. Have you ever noticed that stuff happens in waves? This is a corollary of the old "death happens in threes" rule, which I'm sure can be explained by the mathematics of randomness. Periods of quiet are followed by periods of frenetic activity brought on by unplanned events, and we think there's a pattern or explanation, but there's really not.

    The "random walk" theory posits that changes in stock prices are random, and therefore unpredictable. Chartists, often called technical analysts, divine historical patterns, but, more importantly, future trends in stock prices from looking at their charts. These schools of thought have been warring for forty years, and both have evidence to support their theories. My mind supports the random walkers, but my heart belongs to the chartists because I'd like to believe there's an explanation for historical occurrences. Maybe that's why I'm not an atheist. Whew! this is getting heavy, especially on a Super Bowl Sunday.

    My office has a Super Bowl pool in which I am a regular participant. There is absolutely no skill involved. Each player buys at least one $10 square in a 10 x 10 matrix. Numbers from 0 to 9 are chosen randomly for each column and row, and if the units digit in the score matches the intersecting square at the end of a quarter, the player wins. My square this year has dismal prospects, a Patriots 4 and Panthers 4. For me to win a payout (1st, 2nd, and 3rd quarters - $200; final score - $400), the score would have to be 14-14, 24-14, etc. but how likely is that with these two low-scoring teams?

    [The score at the end of the first quarter is 0-0, as many had foreseen. The lady who had the zero-zero square seems to always win....wait, maybe I'm falling into the trap of discerning a pattern where none exists. On the other hand, maybe the fix could be in, just as it was with the stock market....hmm, who set these supposedly "random" numbers anyway?]

    In 1989 I came closest to winning a Super Bowl square. The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Cincinnati Bengals, and the 49ers had just kicked a field goal with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. The 6-6 score now matched my square, and I was relishing the thought of having an extra $200. After all, what were the chances someone would score in the next 50 seconds? On the ensuing kickoff the Bengals returner, Stanford Jennings, ran all the way back for a touchdown. Stanford Jennings, destroyer of dreams. I later found some consolation when my rooting interest, the 49ers, mounted a game-winning touchdown drive in the last two minutes.

    I learned the valuable lesson that a capricious universe could upend our best-laid plans. Of course, later that year, we had an earthquake, but that's a story for another time. © 2004 Stephen Yuen