Saturday, December 31, 2005

A Year to Be Grateful For

This time of the year is conducive to reflection. The gray skies, the sparsely populated office, and the writing of the holiday letter always cause me to take stock. (Speaking of stock, I wish I bought some Google last year, I thought it was too high at $193, and now it’s at $415. I can’t do anything about the past, but do I buy it now? In the Internet search sector,Yahoo appears to be a better value.)

I started writing this post on the Friday morning train, which came to an emergency stop. Earlier, a motorist smashed through a crossing gate in Burlingame. The gate wasn’t working when another car crossed the tracks in front of our train. Thankfully, the engineer braked, avoided an accident, and called a repair crew. The low and high of humanity in this one episode: the first driver who might have caused a tragic accident and the alert engineer who responded quickly and professionally.

As I was saying, I was going to write about the stormy weather and having to go into the office during this semi-holiday week. Until I realized that I wrote about these subjects last year…….and the year before. I’m repeating myself, a sure sign that the whine has peaked.

Our student came home for the holidays and strolled over to the shopping center to apply for a job. At one retail outlet there were three requirements: 1) Complete a test consisting of questions like “What’s the new price if a $13 item has been marked down by 30%?”; 2) Present a U.S. passport; 3) Fill a bottle at a South City lab and wait for the test results. Our student started work two days later. He’s earning close to the minimum wage, but it’s honest work.

Last night hurricane winds battered the Bay Area, but our house fared much better than it did ten years ago when our fence blew down. Reports of flooding and downed power lines are pouring in from neighboring towns, but Foster City has suffered little damage. We have our home, our health, each other, and hope for the future. That’s a lot to be grateful for.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Nativity of Our Lord

….is the canonical name for the feast day popularly known as Christmas. The title of the feast dates from the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The word “Christmas”, which can be traced back to the twelfth century, is a contraction of “Christ’s mass” and perhaps more appropriately describes the Last Supper than it does Jesus’ birth. As we battle over whether greeters ought to say “merry Christmas” or “happy holidays”, how about “have a neat Nativity”? Not only does it have the advantages of accuracy and alliteration, voicing that greeting is likely to spawn quizzical looks rather than objections.

On Christmas morning the youngster and I served as the one acolyte and usher, respectively, at the local Episcopal church. The Christmas service is lightly attended, because most parishioners turn out for the children’s pageant the previous afternoon or midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Forty souls were in the pews at 10 a.m., lustily belting out O Come, All Ye Faithful and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. The minister kept his sermon short, because he knew everyone had places to go, people to see, and presents to open.

After the service I helped the Treasurer count the offering, including the one from the day before. The sums aren’t terribly large, but the procedures are highly involved. We have to run adding machine tapes of the checks, the list of the donors, the object of their donations (2005 pledge, 2006 pledge, Christmas fund, etc.), and make sure the sums all match. Once, I was off by $10 and spent over an hour trying to find the error (no, opening my wallet and throwing a sawbuck into the pile wouldn’t have solved the problem---believe me, I did think of that). And because there is loose cash involved, two people have to conduct independent counts and initial the total. Yes, we’re godly people, but sinners, too.

Andy, who runs a local accounting practice and who sometimes helps out, said that using a spreadsheet would be a lot easier. Fine, I thought, you design a system that will keep track of a check that is split between the regular pledge, the altar flowers, and the non-deductible ski trip the youth group takes every winter. But I don’t blame him for feeling frustrated; the name of the feast day isn’t the only thing about the church that dates back to the seventeenth century.

We went home and opened some of our presents. We take several days to unwrap them all, so that we can savor the experience and appreciate the donor’s consideration more fully. The kids gave me an iPod connection to the car radio and a soft warm sweater; both gifts were put to immediate use. When you receive a thoughtful gift, not only does it reflect the donor’s expenditure of time and treasure in the shopping process, but it also shows that he has been observing you and thinking of your needs. And when the gift-givers are the once-little people whom you never thought would consider anyone’s needs but their own, well, the feelings are hard to describe. It did turn out to be a neat Nativity, and I hope you had one, too. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 26, 2005

Back in the Rain

S. and I had lunch Thursday. Like most of the young and not-so-young professionals whom I encounter, he becomes animated, even agitated, when the subject turns to politics. S. holds views that are nearly the opposite of mine, but he’s got a good heart, and I always enjoy our discussions. Besides, if I refuse to converse with those who believe that conservatives are driving the country over a cliff, I wouldn’t be able to talk to anybody in my office or most of the people at my church or even in my own household.

We met at the Metropol on Sutter. He ordered the salmon and I the meatloaf. We both have to watch our cholesterol, but I needed the comfort food after a six-block walk in the winter storm. S. was my manager when I worked at the San Francisco office of Touche Ross, one of the national CPA firms. He moved on to banking, served on the staff of the FASB, and is now the finance director at a non-profit foundation. Add to that his MBA from the University of Chicago, and it’s hard to win an economic argument with him.

When we sat down, he got right into it: so, do you like the direction we’re going? Over the next hour and a half our discussion flitted from the national debt to tax policy to government spending, from wiretaps to the futility of maintaining privacy in a wired world, from asymptotic curves to the approaching Singularity, from functionalism to predestination, from the isolation he experienced in Colorado Springs to the fish-out-of-water feeling that I get in San Francisco.

In the spirit of the Season, I will only note some fundamentals on which we did agree: 1) the pace of change is so rapid and our legal system is so far behind technological developments that it didn’t matter very much whether our respective views on domestic policy were enacted into law—we are on a runaway train, just trying to hang on. 2) we are worried for our children, not so much for their survival, but whether they have the judgment, the skills, the grounding to navigate the confusing, cacophonous world that they will inherit. Would we rather be us or them? S. and I both picked us.

On that note, I bade S. a Merry Christmas, promised to do this again, and walked back in the rain. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


His opponents may cringe at the thought, but George W. Bush is the most consequential president since Ronald Reagan. Actions taken by his Administration will reverberate deep into the first half of the 21st century.

Foreign Policy: the Bush Administration overthrew tyrannical regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, irrevocably disrupting the status quo in the Middle East. The forcible implantation of democracy in two countries may finally cause Western values to take root in that troubled region, trigger chaos and civil war, and/or lead to the final resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Appointments that should outlive the Bush Administration by many years: at least two Supreme Court justices, including one Chief Justice, and one Federal Reserve Chairman.

Domestic Policy: 1) reduced the income tax and eliminated the estate tax for the vast majority of Americans; 2) added prescription drugs to Medicare benefit coverage; 3) accelerated the unification of police, military, intelligence, and security operations, thereby raising their effectiveness at the cost of citizens’ privacy rights; 4) failed to reform Social Security, even with one party controlling both the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

Disasters: the most costly natural (Hurricane Katrina) and man-made (9/11 terrorist attacks) disasters in American history occurred under Mr. Bush’s watch.

Decades after they left office, the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt continue to provoke heated arguments. The consequential presidency of George W. Bush promises to do the same.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Blaming the Customer

The San Francisco Chronicle loses columnist Ken Garcia to the free Examiner:
the Chronicle had lost more circulation than any newspaper in the United States in the last year — by a whopping margin. [The] publisher decreed that the steep circulation decline was actually welcome, because they wanted higher quality readers, not those shabby subscribers who were apparently picking it up on the cheap.
The Chron must be pleased, because I'm one of those lower quality readers who stopped his subscription after 20 years. The paper that I loved to read is no more. The great stable of columnists--Delaplane, Hoppe, McCabe, and the greatest of them all, Herb Caen--is long gone, and the current crop, much like today's football 49ers, has only the uniform in common with the giants who have gone before. Yes, the Chron's problem must be the quality of its readership.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A Trend Continues Until It Stops

In 1798 Thomas Malthus issued his famous prediction that accelerating population growth doomed mankind to a fate of misery and poverty.
The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.
Malthus extended the curves on his graphs and agreed with Hobbes’ assessment of mortal existence, that it was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Sodden aside: in the pantheon of dead white males whose ideas form the basis of our society---and its evils---one rarely hears aspersions cast upon Malthus (or Marx or Darwin) outside of conservative circles. I suppose it depends on which white male one agrees with.

Malthus’ ideas were given a modern patina by the Club of Rome, which published The Limits to Growth in 1972:
If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
The Arab Oil embargo of 1973 seemed to confirm the Club of Rome’s thesis. Watergate, the humiliation of Vietnam, and runaway inflation caused 1970’s America to sink into despondency and malaise. Students were instructed to read Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not as history but as harbinger. The Malthusian catastrophe had merely been postponed for a couple of centuries but not avoided.

In the 1980’s the slope of the line changed. Population growth slowed, not because of famine and disease, but due to a rise in living standards. Demographers offered a variety of reasons---large families are an economic burden instead of a blessing, offspring are no longer necessary to provide support for the parents in their old age, children are prohibited from working in factories---but while the reasons remain unclear, the latest trendlines are considerably less dire than Malthus and the Club of Rome had predicted. Perhaps we can permit ourselves to be guardedly optimistic.

Futurist Raymond Kurzweil says that we have been looking at the wrong charts and that our optimism should be unbounded. Accelerating returns in technology point to a mind-blowing (pun intended) future that we can barely grasp. Genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics -- scientific fields that barely existed a century ago—will utterly transform civilization.

Kurzweil's graph illustrates the pace of invention.

The merger of man and machine, the indefinite extension of human life, a virtual reality that will permit us to live as other persons in the fullest sense, these are a few of the developments that we will see by 2050. Eventually, our civilization will leap beyond the bounds of our solar system and transform the universe!

Whew. Kurzweil is a smart man, much smarter than this observer, and his insights are probably on target, but what gives me pause is the fact that persuasive-looking graphs, such as the ones produced by Malthus and the Club of Rome, have been wrong before. (If one extrapolated the prices of the Internet stocks that I bought in the 1990’s, I could have retired long ago. Instead, their capital-loss carryforward provides me with a reliable, if modest, tax deduction for years to come.)

Kurzweil advises baby boomers to take care of themselves. These startling advances will be available in a few decades. If we can hang on long enough, we’ll have the choice of extending our lives indefinitely. Advice that it can't hurt to follow, and all the more reason to go to the gym and pass up that second helping. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Cold Comfort

Last week’s cold snap has dissipated; it’s 51 degrees this morning, and 60 indoors. Due to PG&E’s rate hikes, we’ve resisted relighting the pilot and are bundling up each night with sweaters and space heaters. The kids were unmoved when we told them that we’re saving $200 a month on gas; the amount became meaningful when we said that was equivalent to buying an iPod nano every 30 days. Besides, by not turning on the furnace we’re not adding to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, thereby reducing global warming. With kids I use whatever argument helps me get through the day and hope they don’t make the connection when, say, I want to fire up the barbecue next summer.

Visitors from back East tell us how lucky we are by not having to cope with sub-freezing temperatures. No, I don’t miss snow shovels, salt on the roads, and having to wear hats, gloves, and boots every morning, but snow’s white blanket does confer a calmness that is nearly sacramental, the world’s outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that is all too lacking in the hurly-burly of December.

The skating rink last Friday night.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Memory Evergreen

Last month a couple of guys from the college development office paid a visit. Jim and Pete ticked off all the new and wonderful programs that had been introduced at the old school. You wouldn’t recognize the place, they said. I fleetingly imagined that I was 30 years younger, and that I was a freshman again. The daydream was silly, not only because I couldn’t turn back the clock, but also because I probably wouldn’t meet today’s standards for admission.

The old school’s neighborhood is undergoing a renaissance, said Jim. During the ‘70’s, when the rot of the inner cities seemed irreversible, students didn’t venture out past the rows of shuttered buildings. Tattered posters commemorated the town’s glory days, when the beautiful people would swoop in to watch plays before they debuted on Broadway. The city’s revival is now beginning to make it a destination, rather than a place to crash on the way to Boston or New York.

I hung out at the student cafeteria and mastered a Fireball pinball machine. I learned the special shot that would enable me to play indefinitely on just a quarter, maxing out the credits at 10 games. I also spent many an evening in the dormitory basement, which housed the laundry, card tables, and foosball machines.

The rare books library
My favorite place to read was the library of rare books. Sunlight glowed warmly through the marble walls, and the thick leather couches were comfortable--sometimes too comfortable—for intense studying. Every couple of hours I would get up and gape at the historic works on display.

I now wish that I hadn’t been in such a hurry to graduate. It would have set me back a few thousand dollars—real money in those days—but the experience and memories of another year would have been priceless, which is how I now value the three years that I did spend in college.
When I hear people curse the chance that was wasted I know but too well what they mean. --Cole Porter

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Remaining Useful Lives

My company owns a lot of long-lived assets, such as ships and power plants. The remaining useful life of each piece of equipment affects many of our spending decisions. When an airplane engine needs an overhaul, which can run into many millions of dollars, we will scrap or dump the airplane at a loss if it is long in the tooth, just as you, dear reader, wouldn’t order a $1,000 repair on a jalopy worth $2,000 (unless the old car is a member of the family, in which case rational economic analysis goes out the window).

The remaining useful life represents our best guess about how many more years of service we can get out of the equipment. Despite the higher costs---repair, maintenance, fuel, environmental, labor (e.g., three pilots versus two in planes built after the late 1980’s), most older assets can be kept running long beyond the original design specifications, and their remaining useful lives are constantly being revised upward.

And so it is with human beings. With 70 being the “new 60”, many of us baby boomers will be productive members of society well past the expiration dates of the pre-WWII generation. Our physical stamina and mental acuity may not quite be what it once was, but technology has advanced much faster than our powers have deteriorated. Net-net, as they say, we are better doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and teachers than we were 20 years ago.

Rule of 65
In the financial services industry there’s an old joke about how deals are approved according to the “rule of 65”, that is, whether the deal will reach maturity, or at least not go bad, before the CEO retires at the age of 65. Maybe we’ll have to re-christen it the “rule of 70” or even 75. (At 74, this CEO doesn’t show any signs of stepping down, although it does appear he has enough saved for his retirement.)

Puzzling Behavior
Why is that the younger people drive so fast and risk life and limb to beat the red light? Oldsters are the ones who should be trying to make the most of each moment, while youngsters should act more relaxed with vast expanses of time in front of them. Another sign that our feelings and hormones overwhelm our rationality. Mr. Spock was right.

The vast expanse of Earth at night (hat tip: Jonah Goldberg, NRO)

Thursday, December 01, 2005


I am facing December with a mix of anticipation and anxiety. More business changes are on the way, and managers have to reassure nervous staffs while getting them to shoulder increasing workloads. The best way to do that is to lead by example, which means that I'll be spending more hours at the office.

It’s a good thing that California law requires companies to allow employees to store up to 35 days of vacation; I’ve accumulated 4 weeks in the bank and will be able to snatch at most a couple of days around the holidays. If he drops dead from exhaustion, does accrued vacation become part of the estate, he wondered mordantly.

The holiday cards need to be written and mailed, gifts need to be purchased and wrapped, and checks need to be sent to charities to qualify for the contributions deduction by year-end. Whatever did happen to the New Year’s resolution to be better organized? It’s in the same place as the commitment to exercise every day.

Wait’ll next year. Well, next year did come for the Red Sox and White Sox, so there’s hope.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Transitive Verb

As soon as we are able to speak, we express gratitude. We are instructed to say “thank you” with sincerity---and as we get older and learn to appreciate the donor’s effort, we may even begin to mean it. Throughout our lives we thank those--our parents, spouses and relatives, doctors, teachers, co-workers, friends, and many, many others-- who have given us big things and small.

“Thank” is a transitive verb, which, according to the rules of grammar, must have an object. We say thank you, thank me, and thank the fellow sitting under the tree. But today the National Day of Thanksgiving, created to honor the source of “the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”, has no Object for our transitive verb. Due to the hyper-sensitive excision of God from the public square, our schoolchildren now thank no one in particular. For all they know, the first Thanksgiving arose from the Pilgrims’ desire to have a nice turkey dinner with their friends, the Indians.

Forgotten is the original proclamation by Abraham Lincoln in October, 1863:
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.
But enough of this churlishness. Whether one believes that our abundance has been given us by a higher Power, or is the result of hitting the jackpot in a random and capricious universe, most will agree that we’re lucky to be living in the United States of America at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. --Amiel

I'm also thankful that the turkey turned out well and that there's plenty of leftovers.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Signs of the Season

Mistral, the sculpture that greets me every morning, sprouts its winter adornments. The wooden benches and flowers tempt me to enjoy the first cup in the dawn chill, but there's no time.

E-mail and voice-mail messages await upstairs, along with forms placed on my chair. Yes, I'll be sure to sign them, and I'm too timid to voice my annoyance about finding them on my chair because then I'll look like one of those OCD guys who wants everything in its place and a place for everything. Don't they know they should use my snail-mail inbox because I go through it every day....well, almost every day? When I need some documents tended to, I leave it on top of their keyboards, which seems to be less of an invasion of personal space. I wonder if my irritation stems from some primal Jungian threat to my "seat" of power? (And do you get irritated, dear reader, when someone talks about a subject about which he knows absolutely nothing, for instance a CPA ruminating on archetypes that he read about in Psychology Today?)

We see fewer T-shirts and more jackets as the weather cools.

The morning rush is exacerbated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway, which raises fares and ignores its posted schedules with impunity. Muni services are supposed to be coordinated with CalTrain's arrivals, so that Peninsula commuters can transfer immediately to a waiting bus or light railcar.

On this morning some poor passengers had to wait 30 minutes for the N-Judah railcar that would carry us to Market Street. The CalTrain bullet has improved to the point that it takes only 22 minutes to travel 20 miles from the mid-Peninsula station where I board. Because of Muni, the last two miles to the office are the slowest.

New commuters fume, fret, look at their watches, and call their offices. Veterans accept their circumstances and use the enforced idleness to read a few more pages of a novel or magazine. Lately, I've been listening to podcasts while jotting notes in the day-planner. My quiet time in the midst of city noise.

The skating rink is back.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

It's Too Darn Hot

The weekend Wall Street Journal ran a feature article on "white flight" from public schools. However, unlike the Sixties when middle-class whites fled the inner city to protect their kids from a deteriorating educational system, now they're running away from suburban schools where an influx of Asian immigrants has raised academic competitiveness to the point where the children of long-time residents cannot compete, or at least don't think they can.
Whites aren't quitting the schools because the schools are failing academically. Quite the contrary: Many white parents say they're leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests.

The two schools [Monte Vista and Lynnbrook of Cupertino, California], put another way that parents rarely articulate so bluntly, are too Asian.
The article (link requires registration) is rife with irony. A white kid utters words familiar to generations of striving minorities:
"My parents never let me think that because I'm Caucasian, I'm not going to succeed," says Jessie Hogin, a white Monta Vista graduate.
As with many stereotypes, there's an element of truth to the image of the Asian grind, just as there was with the brilliance of the Jewish students who were at the top of every class when I was going to college. We and our children have to decide whether it's better to be a B student in the toughest school or have a good chance at getting A's in one that's less competitive. In which environment will our student thrive? There's no one right answer.

This video has been making the rounds for weeks: two guys from China are singlehandedly overturning the quiet, studious Asian stereotype.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What Moments Divine, What Rapture Serene

Last week we had a baby shower for one of our brightest accountants. As her manager, I got up to say a few words. We have a lot in common, I said: she’s hard-working, smart, and well-liked by everyone. I got the expected laugh, which got even louder when one heckler shouted, and you’re both pregnant! My side profile invites comments like that. O, how they mock me.

She’s going on maternity leave after Thanksgiving and will be absent from the December 31 close, the audit, and all the 10-K supporting schedules. Guess she is kind of smart, at that. It shows a lot of foresight if she was thinking about this last March. Good tax planning, too, with an extra exemption popping up, or out, as it were, right before the end of the year.

We ordered plenty of food and invited dozens of people, including her husband, some of her relatives and people who used to work here. There’s been a lot of stress on everyone lately with the heavy workload and management changes, and this was an unalloyedly happy occasion. I cheerfully signed the bill for the lunch under the heading of organizational morale booster.

The baby shower is an event that men can witness but never be truly a part of. None of the guys present ooh-ed and aah-ed over the little pajamas, hats and booties as they were held up by the mother-to-be. If you’re single and straight, though, it’s a great place to meet women; females outnumbered the males by 5 to 1.

We finished with a piece of rich chocolate cake from Just Desserts. We have done our share to promote the great season of eating, which runs from Halloween to New Year’s Day.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Little Big Game

It was the annual “little big game” between Burlingame and San Mateo High, and the youngster and his buddy needed a ride. It was the first high school football game that either had attended and my first in over 30 years. I dropped them off at the gate and, after running some errands, parked the car a quarter mile away and joined them on the San Mateo side of the stands.

It was near the end of the first half, and the favored Panthers were thumping our team, 24-0. The two boys’ expressions alternated between puzzlement and disappointment. This wasn’t as much fun as they expected. I thought about the father-son conversations we would have later---it’s only a game, you can’t win ‘em all, there’s always someone better than you---at least we’ll get a teaching moment out of this.

The second half began as a continuation of the first. San Mateo received the kickoff, and a few plays later a huge Burlingame lineman flung our quarterback to the ground like a rag doll, and the ball came loose. I looked at my watch; the boys wouldn’t protest if we left, but what was my hurry, really? Let’s see if our team can score, I said hopefully.

Early in the fourth quarter the Bearcats intercepted a pass. The line began opening holes, and a runner darted into the end zone for our first score with eight minutes left. The two-point conversion failed, and the score was a more dignified 24-6. The stands came to life. A few feet away a large lady of Pacific heritage started banging on a steel trashcan with a metal rod.

On the first play from scrimmage the Panthers fumbled the ball away. The Bearcats were in the end zone a few seconds later, and the score was 24-13. The next sequence was a mirror of the previous one, only this time we did make the two-point conversion and trailed 24-21 with four minutes to go. Everyone was on their feet, yelling. The lady continued to pound tirelessly on the trash can. If I had a hearing aid, I would have turned it off.

The San Mateo defense held, and Burlingame punted. The Bearcats were transformed. Every offensive play clicked, and San Mateo was inside the Burlingame red zone, i.e., the 20-yard line. A pass was thrown to the right corner of the end zone. A Burlingame defender caught the pass out of bounds, so the referee signaled that the pass was incomplete. But to our horror, play was halted, and the crew huddled, then changed the call to an intercepted pass and a touchback. Panthers ball on their 20 with 2 1/2 minutes to go.

Having been silent for most of the quarter, the Burlingame stands erupted. Catcalls and expletives rained down from the San Mateo side. It's just a game, people, set a good example for the kids. The game turned ugly, and a San Mateo player was ejected.

The San Mateo defense pushed Burlingame back near the goal line, and rather than risk a punt on fourth down, their kicker ran around the end zone and deliberately took a safety. I explained to the boys that one doesn't see this too often; the leading team sometimes gives up two points so that they can punt from the 20 instead of their end zone.

With less than 10 seconds left and no time outs, the Bearcats were out of miracles. The score was 24-23, an unexpected and pleasing end to a game that had started so unpromisingly.

There were many more teaching moments that I will review later with the youngster: how the San Mateo quarterback after three quick scores thought he was invincible and threw an unwise pass; how anger, fighting, and contesting the judges were counter-productive; how by waiting till the fourth quarter one could get discounts of more than 50% on hot dogs, drinks, and souvenirs; how one should never sit close to large ladies armed with metal rods. Best five bucks I spent in a long time. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Still Feeling Our Way

The flight was an hour late departing from San Jose, atypical for Southwest. It was also crowded, which is typical. I was in the “A” group, which is first to board, and got a window seat. My bladder isn’t as flexible as it used to be (too much information!) but, despite imbibing a few, I was able to hold it for the duration of the 3 ½-hour flight to Chicago-Midway and didn’t disturb my seatmates.

The taxi to the downtown hotel was $25, cheaper than the ride from O'Hare. It was after eight on a Sunday night, but the bar was crowded. Two colleagues already had started their beers, and we talked about what we were going to say at the meetings the next morning. They ordered pizza, and I ordered fish. One wondered whether I was on Atkins. No, I just happened to want fish tonight, and besides, can’t you tell I’m gaining weight, not losing.

View from my Chicago hotel room.

Inspired by the alcohol, as were many of the other great writers of the 20th century, I put together a seven-page Powerpoint presentation later that night. I accidentally deleted a page but the next morning thought better about adding it back. It was on a topic that was relatively unimportant and complicated, so it’s better not to wander from the main themes. Addition by deletion.

We met at 8 and walked to the office, about a mile away. It was in the 40’s, and I only had a light jacket; here's hoping that they don’t ask me to come back in December or January. The meetings went well, and there were some questions that we couldn’t answer. But that was okay, since we had been in our new jobs for less than a year and were still feeling our way.

That night we had deep-dish pizza (what else?) and more beer. Someone remarked that a slice of Chicago deep-dish contains 2,200 calories. I didn’t believe it at first, but as my UC-Berkeley friends say, if it feels true and it oughtta be true, then it is true. We cabbed back to the hotel, and I headed to the bar to watch the Colts demolish the Patriots, 40-21. It looks like it’s the Colts year.

Today would have been her 101st birthday. Happy birthday, Grandma, with love.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Sour Notes

Business as Usual
The portents were there, but the week ended on a sour note. At work there was some shuffling of senior management, not surprising because the old CEO had retired and the new CEO had given hints that he was unhappy with the way certain things were done. My group was unaffected, but the work will increase because there are new executives to educate and we’ll have to brace for more questions on every proposal.

The auditors met with us this week: 1) we owed them some schedules and confirmation letters for the audit, 2) a few of our systems weren’t working perfectly and will need to be fixed by year-end. I moved the tasks to next Wednesday, when I’ll get back.

Next year’s budget was shipped off to headquarters, but it’s become clear that we’ll need to make changes, if for no other reason than to incorporate the management changes just announced. So I’m heading off to Chicago for a couple of days.

Darkness in the City of Lights
After two weeks the riots in France have finally elicited coverage by the mainstream media (MSM). Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times home pages carried nary a mention, but they can no longer ignore the violence, now that gasoline bombs are being set off in central Paris. The coverage was unceasing when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August, and blame was assigned within hours. The looting in New Orleans was the fault of various U.S. government agencies, if not the racism still endemic in American society. The hurricanes themselves were the result of failure to ratify the Kyoto protocols.

One would hate to think that the MSM had failed to give prominent play to the unfolding tragedy in France because there was no way to pin this one on President Bush. It’s hard to develop a coherent narrative when neither the French government, who are the good guys because they opposed the war in Iraq, nor French Muslim immigrants, whose unemployment, anomie, and solidarity with the Palestinian cause justify the rioting, are at fault. Chickens only roost in the United States of America.

Aloha, Mr. G
We got word that an old family friend had passed away. He collapsed at home, having lived a long, full, and giving life. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 03, 2005

That'll Be The Day

As we age, our senses dull. On the Monday morning train I set my iPod so that it shuffled the tunes randomly and closed my eyes. The woman sitting across from me tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to turn the volume down. She could hear Barry White through my earbuds (although Ella Fitzgerald didn’t seem to bother her---well, listening to Barry is not as peaceful an experience). As I turned the volume down, I wondered if I was losing my hearing like both my grandfathers, whom the kids had to shout at to make themselves heard.

I wondered idly why certain sounds irritate, while others we ignore. The music from my earphones was much fainter than the train whistle and the clacking of the wheels, yet they bothered the woman. Perhaps mine was the only noise that she could control, or perhaps that peculiar combination of sounds grated, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Why are commuters’ conversations with their seatmates perfectly acceptable, but why do conductors ask cellphone users to speak softly?

They say that memory is the second thing to go. [What’s the first? I don’t remember.] I guess when I forget that old joke that’ll be the day to worry.

That'll Be The Day was uttered three times by John Wayne in the 1957 Western, The Searchers. It inspired the hit song of the same name by Buddy Holly.

Dialogue for this screenshot
Martin [Jeffrey Hunter]: I hope you die!
Ethan Edwards [John Wayne]: That’ll be the day!

Saturday, October 29, 2005

But Not Good Syntax.....

For Your Own Protection, Please Smile at the Cashier

A cashier lists all the ways that customers make her life difficult. I’ll try to remember her suggestions the next time I go shopping. Meanwhile, I hope she gets some help!

Word of Caution

A couple of comments from this non-lawyer on President Bush’s now-withdrawn nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court:

Maybe Harriet Miers isn’t a deep thinker who has lived and breathed constitutional law every waking moment for the past thirty years and maybe she got to where she is because of who she knows, but she deserved a chance to make her case. In America we don’t close the door on you because you didn’t go to an Ivy League school or because people assume that you aren’t smart enough or good enough---indeed, you may not be, but you should get a shot.

For years conservatives have chafed under the condescension of the academ-media. If one is conservative, one cannot be intelligent or well educated. Republican presidents, Eisenhower, Reagan, and the Bushes, weren’t smart; any successes they may have had were due to dumb luck. (The exception was Richard Nixon, but of course he was evil.) These same lack-of-bandwidth arguments were used by conservative intellectuals against poor Harriet Miers. A word of caution, ladies and gentlemen: you’re becoming like your enemies.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

All Nighter

It’s been a long time since I pulled an all-nighter, but a combination of too many tasks, a mental block against starting some of them, constant interruptions at work, and the knowledge that, whatever I came up with would be revised by the higher-ups, caused me to procrastinate on a large project that was due Monday. On Sunday I started at noon and worked furiously on the laptop, pausing only for dinner.

There were eight spreadsheets open, and my cursor glided across them, cutting, pasting, and linking. By midnight the temptation to go to bed was nearly irresistible but I summoned a distant memory of putting the finishing touches on term papers as dawn rose over the Old Campus. Did I still have the stamina of that college freshman of decades past? Were my powers fading, or could I persevere to the end?

I ploughed on and finished at 4:15 a.m. I forced myself to check the numbers for obvious mistakes, and my head hit the pillow for two hours. A pot of coffee, then off to work.

I have to go to Hillsdale Station early to walk around the construction.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Alcatraz Enveloped by Fog

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Good Luck, Boss

We had the retirement luncheon for the chairman today. (I wrote about a meeting with him last year.) He’s had 28 years with the company under his belt. He’s always kept himself in shape---he was even featured as a “running CEO” in a local business magazine---and could pass for a man decades younger.

Fifty people crowded into the restaurant’s private dining room, and the drinks flowed freely. After the dot-com bubble burst, and busy workers began working through or exercising during lunch, the three-martini lunch became extinct. This was my first office boondoggle in years.

I had a couple of glasses of wine---a self-imposed limit because I had to return to the office later---but some of my coworkers had no restraint. (One disrupted the proceedings and had to be ushered quietly from the room.)

Several colleagues got up to roast and toast the chairman; they toned down their comments because his wife was there, but she proved a good sport as the jokes became more off-color and the laughter more raucous. The crowning moment occurred when someone brought up his well-known affection for blondes and everyone on his table--old and not-so-old, male and female--donned a blonde wig.

In the tradition of a roast, he rose to toss back some insults at his good-natured tormentors, but his heart wasn’t in it. He choked up as he tried to sum his experiences and feelings in a few words. He had worked with everyone in the room for at least ten years, and his life wouldn’t be the same after today. He has plenty of money, he owns properties in Marin County, Lake Tahoe, and Chicago and is set for life, yet there’s something about us that he will miss. And most of us will miss him, too.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Congratulations, Mr. Pinter

Yesterday Harold Pinter won the Nobel Prize for Literature for penning plays such as the Caretaker and the Birthday Party. Harold Pinter is also known for his outspoken anti-Western and anti-American views--his politics are anathema to me--but one’s appreciation of talent can be kept separate from one’s liking for the individual. Harold Pinter is also peripherally involved in a youthful episode from which I derive some childish satisfaction.

By the second half of my high school senior year all the college applications had been submitted. No longer concerned about getting good grades, I could afford to wander from my strength in math and science and take a course in modern literature. I would learn about character, exposition, and dialogue; I would be able to talk intelligently about O’Neill, Faulkner, and Hemingway. If I evidenced any ability, maybe someday I could be a journalist or even author the great American novel.

The course was a huge disappointment. The teacher wouldn’t lecture, he would simply ask the students how they felt about the book that they were reading. In the spirit of the Sixties, everyone knew that one woman’s opinion was just as valid as another’s, and no one should be reluctant to proffer theirs, no matter how inexpert. Perhaps the teacher subscribed to the belief that knowledge already resided in the individual, and all he was trying to do was help unlock it. But for six months I could never find the key.

During class the teacher would praise the whimsical comments of a couple of girls. They would describe in excruciating detail how their personal experiences related to the passage that we had just read. But to be fair to his methods, there were a couple of sessions which weren’t devoted to the mindless blatherings of 17-year olds. He would reach into the bottom desk drawer, pull out a sheaf of typewritten pages, and treat us to a reading of his unpublished novel; when he got to the passage that described horses on a hill, he became quite moved, and his favorite students emoted in sympathy. I minded my manners and did not snicker.

Surprisingly, I didn’t do well in his class. He didn’t respond well to my writing and gave me a B-minus, which was the low point of my high school transcript.

Despite my obvious lack of talent and potential, I decided to sit for the Advanced Placement English exam. If I got 4s or 5s on three AP exams, I could finish college in three years, and English was an extra string to my bow in case I slipped up in Physics, Calculus, or History.

Someone told me that you could get a better grade on essay questions if you picked a lesser-known author or topic. The evaluators’ eyes would glaze if they had to read, again, about the Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Romeo and Juliet. So the night before the test I boned up on Harold Pinter, paying particular attention to his 1957 play, the Dumb Waiter.

My teacher was one of the proctors for the AP English exam. He smiled and lingered over his prize pupils but barely glanced at me when he handed me the booklet. I was lucky: I knew most of the words in the vocabulary section, and there was an essay question that allowed me to expound at some length on the Dumb Waiter. Most kids thought the test was hard, but secretly my hopes were high.

When the envelope came a few weeks later, I had to look at the “5” several times. The teacher didn’t believe it either, especially since few of his favorites, from the expressions on their faces, did well. He did try to make conversation a few times, and I was civil, but the B minus rankled. But the semester would have been a lot worse if it weren’t for the work of a little-known English playwright. Congratulations, Mr.Pinter. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Sun-Spangled Sunday

On a sun-spangled Sunday, I went into the office to give my imprimatur to some reports that the staff had drafted. The new internal control procedures (thank you, Enron, and Congress, too, for devising a solution which would make Rube Goldberg proud) require that I sign off not only on the final but the early versions of reports.

Union Pacific stores freight cars at South City station.

I drove up to South San Francisco (South City to the locals) and parked the car. Bay Bridge construction, Fleet Week, the 49ers game at Candlestick/3Com/Monster/Whatever Park, and the golf tournament at San Francisco’s renovated Harding Park, in which every big name on the men’s tour was playing, made it the wrong day to drive. The train runs hourly on Sundays and was standing room only with families heading up to San Francisco for the festivities. We piled off the train and into the San Francisco Municipal railway’s light railcar to Market Street’s Embarcadero Station, one block from the office.

No one else was on my floor, bespeaking well of my colleagues’ intelligence, efficiency, and priorities, so there were no in-office distractions. But today it was especially hard not to look out the window as the crowds gathered for Fleet Week and the Blue Angels buzzed by every 15 minutes.

Blue Angel over Angel Island.

Fireboat joins the party.

Vessels of all shapes and sizes gather near Alcatraz.

Almost New

The cost of repairing household items these days nearly always exceeds the benefits. Parts are hard to find, and the local independent service shop is but a memory, gone with the orchards of Santa Clara valley and 50-cent tolls. That’s why it was a small triumph that I was able to find a replacement cartridge for my 15-year-old range-top when the coils had burnt out. When I popped in the new cartridge ($200—cheap, when compared to the $1,000 cost of a new system), it looked almost new.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Stuck Up at UC-San Diego

Yesterday my college student sent an e-mail and followed it up with a phone call. For him this was an unusually high volume of communication, so it got my attention. Despite a full appointment calendar and 12 “must-do” items on my task list, I called him back. The college was threatening to cancel his courses unless we satisfied a remaining balance of about $200 on his account.

Background: every year we are billed $200 per quarter by the Student Health Insurance Plan, and every year we fill out a waiver form that states that he is covered by my employer’s plan, and the health charge is reversed. This year the college asked for more documentation, so in August I printed out a description of our coverage, along with an enlarged photocopy (front and back) of my health card, and faxed the ten pages to their office. I thought the $200 balance that persisted on his statement was merely the billing system’s tardiness in catching up with the paperwork.

When I finally got through yesterday (their phones had been shut down due to an office move), I learned that our mental health coverage of 50% of cost was deemed inadequate. So my student was going to be kicked out of school because my health plan was okay for 99 out of 100 items, and despite having paid (early!) the tuition and fees for the quarter.

I could solve this problem, the lady said, if I could send them a notarized letter stating that I will cover any shortfall in my plan’s mental health coverage. Of course, none of this had been communicated to us earlier. Because we had two days to compose and print a letter, have it notarized, then send it by overnight delivery to the college, we’ll switch to Plan B and pay the $200 per quarter for the school’s health plan (we’re obligated because the waiver is granted annually).

Impressed by the school up to this point, we’ve been donating for several years a multiple of the $600 that we’ll pay for his health insurance, and I’m not even counting the matching contribution my employer makes. Quoth the raven.....Nevermore!

Friday, September 30, 2005

My Toes-es Are Roses

The view is great but I wish I were outside.

I’m so far behind at work that I’ve had to turn down some freebies this week: a company-paid dinner, a company-sponsored baseball game, and technical seminars on subjects in which I’m keenly interested. I didn’t even have time on a perfect Thursday to head over to Fillmore and witness the first of its kind urban ski-jump in Pacific Heights.

Some people can take off with a clear conscience, but I (still) have trouble setting work aside when it’s piling up. A favorable explanation is that I adhere to the professional’s standard of doing what is necessary to get the job done; a less complimentary view is that I’m too steeped in the deferred gratification philosophy of the Protestant ethic to stop and smell the roses.

But rationality (rationalization?) shall overcome: I’ve reached the age where gratification can’t be deferred too much longer. And I’ve got enough saved for a rainy day---probably not enough for the hurricane, tsunami, or earthquake---but Uncle FEMA will undoubtedly cushion severe blows so I’m not preoccupied with natural disasters.

Last week one of my bosses, a hard-charging guy from the Midwest, met with me to talk about a wide range of subjects. Over many hours of conversation he hinted darkly that if certain things weren’t done there would be “financial consequences”. That’s just the way the guy is, so I let it pass, but at that point I did the inner eye-roll. He was talking about the size of my year-end bonus payout, as if I’m putting up with this grief because he’s waving a few more dollar bills at me. I’ve been very easy-going—even placid--so far, but he really wouldn’t want to bargain with me because I know my position and his, and I’d rather be in my shoes, thank you.

Maybe I should smell the roses. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Busy Wasting Time

Our Dell PC has been getting creakier, probably from all the viruses, spyware, cookies, and Trojan horses that it has picked up over its two-year life. The Dell functions adequately for the grown-ups, but the two gamers (Warcraft, Sims 2) in our family have been complaining about slow response time, occasional freezes and even crashes. With a 1.7 Ghz Pentium III, 640MB RAM, a 140 GB hard drive, and a Sony DVD-RW drive that I installed earlier this year, the PC has too much going for it to discard or upgrade to a newer model.

Last weekend I copied all the files, erased the hard disk, and re-installed Windows and all our application programs. It took a good chunk out of Saturday and Sunday. It was the first time I had gone through the clean re-install process for a Windows machine (we have been using Apple products since 1981 and have a couple of Macs running in a different room), and I needn’t bore you with the details.( Later I found instructions on the Internet which would have saved me some steps.)

PCs suck: there’s no other consumer product, even an old car, that demands so much of our time. With the potential damage hackers can cause with identity theft and stealing from our bank accounts, maintaining a PC requires eternal vigilance, like keeping a gun in the house. No, we can’t turn them off because computers confer so many benefits, but the frustration is building below the surface. Once someone proposes a viable alternative, we, and perhaps many others, will exit from the Wintel world. (Precedent: we turned off our cable TV after 20 years and switched to satellite. We’ve been very pleased.) © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Elegant Elegy

A columnist in today's Examiner appears to be channeling the late, great Herb Caen in an elegant elegy to San Francisco past.
As I walked out the door, generations of San Francisco history flooded over me. Across the street the zoo disappeared in a thick finger of fog and was replaced with Fleishacker Pool, with Lincoln High School students racing to their swim meets. I got in my car and took the long way home, driving along the shore where thousands of San Franciscans gathered after Pearl Harbor to gaze across the ocean and wonder what fate had in store for them and their beloved city.

I swung past the Cliff House, just picking out the white shadows of Seal Rocks. To the right sat Sutro Park, where a quick squint of the eye brought Adolph Sutro's magnificent mansion back to life. A sad chapter in our history when his daughter Emma discovered she could no longer keep up the grounds. Government crews arrived and promptly tore the whole thing to pieces, down to the stone parapets that stood over the ocean.

I drove around a corner to be embraced by one of the greatest vistas in the world, our bridge standing there in that iridescent orange fog and light. And then into the Presidio, past batteries that looked out over the sea for invasions that never came. Past the Main Post, where the 5 o'clock cannon used to crack out over the Marina every day and announce cocktail hour on Chestnut Street. And then out the Lombard gates, where the soldiers had marched out in formation to empty the camp for the last time in 1989. I glanced over my shoulder one more time and sadly drove back into the present.
Of course, if anyone can channel Herb, this columnist can.

Views from the Pew

Good Diction In Praise of Penelope Duckworth
Our lady minister has left us to become the rector ("rectress"?) (musings of a wandering mind, are Internet ministers “e-rectors” and “e-rectresses”?) of a parish near Sacramento. Godspeed. She has provided wise counsel to the families in our Peninsula parish and has been a good friend. We will attend her installation in October.

Meanwhile, we have a new lady minister, who celebrated last Sunday’s communion. She has excellent diction, something that you normally don't think about but when you encounter it, seizes your attention. She rolls her “r’s”, and she enunciates clearly and authoritatively. She appears to have had voice training, perhaps some theatre. I’m going to enjoy listening to her---it won’t matter what she’s talking about. The fact that the lady minister has a reputation for producing meaningful content is a bonus.

Old Lesson
The Episcopal Church is renowned for being one of the most liberal denominations in the country. It has ordained women into the priesthood and elevated a non-celibate homosexual priest to the rank of bishop, against the objections of Anglicans in other countries. I’ve listened to overtly political speeches from the pulpit, against the war, against greedy capitalists and racists, against despoilers of the environment and other straw-men caricatures of the Republican Party and its supporters. I suppose that represents some divine balancing of the scales against what reputedly occurs in Baptist and Mormon churches in flyover country.

Nevertheless, I keep returning on Sundays and roll my eyes, along with some of the other middle-aged guys who don’t say much but do a lot – ushering, looking after buildings and grounds, fund-raising, transporting and visiting shut-ins – to keep the place going. The troops in Iraq are included on the prayer list each Sunday, but I must confess that I made certain assumptions about the sincerity of certain individuals whom I know to be vehemently anti-war.

I was surprised when a woman arose to speak about the supply shortages experienced by our troops in Iraq and suggested that our congregation “adopt a platoon”. I was even more surprised when everyone enthusiastically endorsed that sentiment and donated goods, and money for shipping and buying more supplies, over the next several weeks. A list of what our troops need---non-warmaking materiel, of course—may be found here.

With many billions being spent on hurricane relief, it’s easy for us to forget other needs. And I learned a useful, and old lesson, about how easy it is to stereotype and harden our hearts against those who disagree with us. I need those reminders of my own flaws (since everyone I meet during the rest of the week thinks I'm perfect!), which is one of the reasons I keep coming back.

Angry Jonah
This wouldn't be a religious post without a quote from the good book. Here's a selective excerpt from Jonah, who was famous for being fish food:
The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. ...and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die.

But God said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" and he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
© 2005 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Rite of Passage

As a teenager in Hawaii I spent a lot of time behind the wheel, but, of course, never continuously. The entire island of Oahu, about 600 square miles, is only a third larger than the city of Los Angeles. [Imagine being confined to LA until turning 18. Oh, the horror! sniff my East Coast and San Francisco acquaintances.]

From my house the longest drive was the one and a half hours from Honolulu to Mokuleia on the North Shore. One didn’t undertake the trek lightly; a full tank of gas as well as a good night’s sleep were advisable before venturing forth. The road was of spotty quality--bumpy, narrow and windy in spots; completion of the H-1 / H-2 / H-3 “interstate” freeways (so designated because Defense access roads qualify for Federal funding) was still decades away. One also had to fight boredom, because the radio emitted only static once the car went over the mountains. Those were the years before everyone had affordable gadgets, before CD- and cassette-players, before cup-holders and cell-phones.

And so it was that this Island boy turned 20 before he took his first extended road trip. My uncle, the best mechanic I ever knew, bought a used VW Beetle for $500 in Southern California. He gave it a thorough going-over, put on new tires, and pronounced it fit for travel. He showed me how to change the oil and set the timing; I had to turn the engine by hand so that the static timing light just flicked on about 8 degrees before the top dead center mark. When the engine purred, it got nearly 30 miles per gallon, which was important because filling my tank cost almost three dollars in that summer of ’73.

I put the back seat down and loaded my worldly possessions into the Beetle. I headed North on Highway 101, which was slower than Highway 5 but was the simplest way to get to San Francisco. The VW chassis vibrated noticeably at 65 mph, so I drove in the right lane at 60 and eight hours later pulled into the driveway of the Peninsula house where I would rent a room for the next two years.

I was reminded of my rite of passage when I accompanied my son, now 20, on the 8-hour drive south to San Diego on Highway 5. He drove in a car that was heavier and safer than mine had been, at a much faster speed and over a smoother road. We were armed with cell-phones and an emergency road side service membership, yet I was more concerned about his trip than I was about the one I took over 30 years ago. I think being a parent causes permanent changes in the part of the brain that assesses risk.

We arrived at the house without incident. I flew back to San Jose the next morning.

San Diego dining room: the background percussion at mealtime is no extra charge.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Spit and Polish

In a bow to the marketplace, my dentist is accepting appointments at 7 o’clock in the morning. I received two reminder calls yesterday and walked into his office at 6:59. In the waiting room were a couple of other consumer-oriented touches---bottled water, teabags, hot water, and coffee.

[These niceties will all be swept away if President Rodham introduces socialized medicine, which does appear dicier after Katrina---would you want the same guys who were in charge of FEMA to perform your open-heart surgery? We just may have reached the peak of the current government expansion cycle, as the ineffectiveness of public agencies has been laid bare. One wonders whether this is another of Karl Rove’s diabolical moves; the incompetence of the Federal government hurts the Bush Administration’s standing right now, but growing distrust of the public sector furthers the conservative agenda in the long run.]

The dental assistant hustled me to the chair and asked how my electric toothbrush was working. I replied with the expected “pretty good”, although we both knew that my opinion counted for nothing. In a few minutes she would see the truth. It’s futile to lie to medical professionals; I started to think ahead about what I was going to say to my doctor when he asks how my diet was going and I’m seven pounds heavier than last time.

She scraped and polished my teeth, all the while gushing about how my plaque score was much higher. I didn’t know plaque had a score, I didn’t know how the grading system worked, I didn’t know what my score was last time and this time, but nevertheless a small part of me felt pleased, because if the eternal galactic database exists, this will be a favorable addition to my permanent record. So the electric toothbrush was pretty good after all.

My dentist came in to give my teeth the once over. While Stan inspected my fillings, he and the assistant swapped tales of the convention they attended at the San Francisco Moscone Center. A note of excitement crept into their voices as they talked about “advanced periodontological instrumentation” and “soft-tissue laser techniques”. Whatever their specialty, I enjoy listening to professionals talk to each other. I’ve overheard conversations by bridge engineers, neurosurgeons, and java programmers. I usually can follow about 20 percent of the dialogue, and it’s an interesting exercise to fill in the blanks.

Stan voiced his recurring concern about a couple of teeth that may need crowns. I nodded, as I always do. Maybe next year. I made an appointment for March, a vote of confidence in the future.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Thoughts of Home

Screenshots from Men in Black

In the science fiction adventure comedy Men in Black, K, the character played by Tommy Lee Jones, displays a momentary but powerful longing for the life he left behind. He uses a satellite camera to zoom in on a New England hamlet to catch a glimpse of his wife. Such technology seemed fantastic in this 1997 movie, but something close to it is freely available to everyone on the Google website.

I couldn’t resist using Google Earth to check out my old Honolulu neighborhood. The streets are wider, and a few houses have been razed by high-rise developers, but most of the buildings are still there. The house in the corner, where the crazy lady lived, has a different owner. The next door apartments have been recently painted, and the satellite photos confirm that the roofs are in good shape.

Sorry we couldn’t be there for your anniversary, Mom and Dad, but we’re there in spirit!

Monday, September 05, 2005


Palace of Fine Arts built for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, photo by vorlon.

San Francisco's 1906 destruction and rebuilding may provide some markers as to the path New Orleans could take. San Francisco lost much of its population and never re-attained its economic dominance, yet it remains one of the most important and favorite destination cities in the country. Below are excerpts from the Chronicle's history, published before the millenium.

San Francisco was the richest, the most powerful, the most important city on the Pacific…..$104 million a month passed through San Francisco banks, compared with $13 million for Seattle, $12 million for Portland, $11 million for Salt Lake City and $10 million for Los Angeles.

The old San Francisco was an American legend, even then. Born in the 1849 Gold Rush, brought to maturity by more gold, silver and manufacturing enterprises, San Francisco was a seaport, a metropolis, and by far the largest city on the Pacific Coast. And now it appeared to be dead.

``In some ways, the earthquake and fire were good for San Francisco,'' said [environmental historian Gray] Brechin. ``Rebuilding the city set off an economic boom, while the rest of the country was in a depression in 1907.'' The new broom swept out the crooks who had controlled the city.

The [1915 Panama Pacific Exposition] was both a beginning and an end for San Francisco. The new city was nothing like the old, everybody said that. And within five years, the little cow town of Los Angeles had more people than lordly San Francisco.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Time to be Charitable

Embarcadero Center has some new plants.

The death and destruction wreaked by Katrina is almost unimaginable (after last year’s tsunami, we can imagine a lot), but the aftermath seems equally appalling. Starvation, the lack of basic sanitation and shelter, disease, pestilence, and widespread looting and lawlessness prompt the horrified question—how can this be happening in the United States of America?

Americans of every socio-economic, religious, and political persuasion are rushing to aid the survivors. This weekend our minister will make a plea for donations to the relief fund set up by the national church; it’s an established charity that has very little overhead and has been very effective in targeting where scarce dollars can go the farthest. My company announced that it will match all employee contributions to the American Red Cross; that’s where I sent my check because of the multiplier effect. There are lists of hurricane charities; Instapundit and NZ Bear have some of the most comprehensive.

There are massive rescue efforts underway by state(s), local, and federal governments, military and civilian agencies, nonprofit organizations, and individual volunteers. Given the communication and logistical difficulties, it’s not surprising that many mistakes have been committed, but the good-heartedness and generosity of the American people for their fellow citizens are evident to all who will open their eyes.

I’ve been watching CNN every day since Katrina hit, and its criticism of government relief efforts has been non-stop. Everyone has been blamed (justifiably) except for one party: the inhabitants of New Orleans themselves. But consider this: the residents chose to live in a city that has sunk below sea level in a region regularly buffeted by hurricanes.

I myself live in a house that sits a few miles from the San Andreas Fault. When the next 8.0 temblor hits, as it inevitably must, how much responsibility does the government bear to rescue me from my own choices? And when the emergency systems misfire, as they inevitably will, how many of us will complain, whine, and second-guess? Our household keeps a store of food, water, clothing, and other supplies. We can hold out for a few days until help arrives. The Gulf Coast residents were luckier than those of us who live in earthquake zones: they had been given advance warning and had 24 hours or longer to evacuate.

There will be time later for post mortems. The aid workers are struggling and exhausted, with thousands left to treat. Let us remember to be charitable to them, as well as the victims.

Last night we went to parents night at San Mateo High. Our son's teachers work hard, struggle with difficult people, and make mistakes, like everyone else in the human race.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Impending Disaster

About ten years ago a winter storm generated winds of 70 miles per hour. Our house shook throughout the day, and a ten-foot section of the wooden fence blew over. I cannot imagine what 160-mph winds would do to wooden structures; our prayers go out to the people of New Orleans, especially those who are left behind, as Katrina hits landfall tomorrow.

After Y2K and four years of living with a terrorist dog that has barked but not bitten, it is easy to dismiss warnings of another disaster. But this one truly looks dire.

"[Katrina] could turn one of America's most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city's legendary cemeteries."

"New Orleans will be under 30 feet of water."

For those trying to get away, “there are thousands of poisonous snakes that will flee to the same high ground as people”.

Biblical proportions, indeed.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Picnic at Castle Rock

Last Sunday we pointed the car east, then north, and drove nearly an hour to the company picnic. The temperature reached the 80’s, which is moderate for a summer day in Contra Costa County. We exited the freeway to a busy suburban boulevard in Walnut Creek. As we drove inland, the houses got bigger, and the traffic dwindled. The Arabian horse stables on the left were a sign that we were nearing our destination. Nestled in the hills at the end of a winding road, Castle Rock Park is a favorite spot for group outdoor outings.

One nice thing about my company is that it doesn’t stint on the annual picnic. Employees can invite anyone, and some bring friends as well as family members . There’s plenty of food (steak, ribs, chicken, grilled vegetables, salads, desserts), an open bar, and kid-centered activities. Each family gets a bag filled with tschotkes; this year we got colorful headware, and the bag itself was a durable keepsake, suitable for travel.

The picnic is usually skipped by singles and young couples, who have better things to do on the weekend. The senior executives always make an appearance, however, and make it a point to mingle with everyone, not just those whom they meet with every day. For most organizations I’ve found it to be true that the social niceties are observed by the higher-ups. Yes, they make the big bucks, but they (and their spouses) have to be on their best behavior more than you or I. People are watching and judging.

I chatted with my colleagues’ spouses, some of whom I had not seen for years, and passed the afternoon in the shade. The boys played volleyball and tried their hand at some contests---ones where everyone wins a prize. We left at 4:30 for home and light dinner.

Limbo contest at the picnic. It was won by a young person.

We stopped at 99 Ranch on the way home. They have a large selection of mooncake.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Giant Disappointment

On Tuesday night we took in a Giants-Phillies game at SBC Park. The contest was over quickly: the Giants starter was bombed for extra-base hits in the first three innings, and when the score got to 5-1 the crowd started to boo. The home team never mounted a threat, and we decided to beat the traffic after the 8th inning when the scoreboard read 9-2.

Although it was late August, it was the first game that I had attended this year. The energy in the stadium seemed to be a fraction of 2004’s. The Giants are part of what is, by consensus, the worst division in the majors. They’re 16 games under .500, yet are only 8 games behind the 63-63 Padres and still have an outside chance to win the National League West title. Injured Barry Bonds has not suited up this season, and in the back of everyone’s mind is the possibility that he’ll never play again. The Giants have neither a pennant chase nor Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Ruth or Aaron’s home run milestones to draw fans to the stands.

The attendance officially was 38,000, but the rows of empty seats visually seemed much higher than 20%. Next year it will be interesting to see if the Giants continue to maintain their high level of season ticket renewals. If they don’t, I’ll be able to get better seats than I did on Tuesday.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Colorful Diversion

Noontime’s vivid colors were brightened by a youthful dancing troupe from Taipei, one of San Francisco’s sister cities. After each number the onlookers put down their lunches and broke into enthusiastic applause. I had to rush off to an errand but lingered to snap a few shots.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Taking Gas

Now that gas has permanently blown past $2 and is resting at $2.70 per gallon at the neighborhood Arco, I bought a locking gas cap for the car. It cost $13 at Kragen’s, but since I just put $40 in the tank, the cap is a cheap preventive measure. The car is parked outside our house at night and in a lightly patrolled train station during the day.

Siphoning gas from parked cars hasn’t been a problem in our area for 20 years, but it’s likely to recur with prices at their current levels. It did happen to us once before. The tank for our VW Rabbit was drained one night, a very upsetting experience. I’ve had wallets and gifts stolen, and my house has been burglarized. But steal a man’s gas? The end of civilization as we know it.

Marin commuters can have a cold one on the Sausalito Ferry to end the day.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Dreamt a Burrito, Married a Salad

On Monday mornings I have at least one meeting and sometimes as many as three. When the week begins, some managers believe that a kickoff meeting helps the group to hit the ground running (a questionable choice of words if your business is connected with aviation). Monday meetings simply cause me to fall behind from the get-go.

I did manage to put the finishing touches on a report by noon, so I left the office to clear my head. It was a typical San Francisco August day, hazy and cool, though not as cool as last year. The Vaillancourt Fountain was going full blast, but the square was empty. No free concerts today.

The rear side of Vaillancourt Fountain

Groups of joggers ran past me along the Embarcadero. A couple of women, office workers who had changed to their sweats, greeted each other in front of the Ferry Building. They were in their 40’s, trim and attractive, one blonde and one Asian. Pumping their arms and talking animatedly, they speed-walked (or is it sped-walked—should both verbs be in the past tense, he asked idly?) toward SBC park. In five minutes they were 200 feet in front, widening their lead.

Inspired, more precisely, shamed by the example of all that exercising going on around me, I banished the temptation of a pork burrito and made my way to the salad bar. I put lots of color---red, greens, orange, yellow—on my plate to make it more attractive. But I still dreamt about the burrito. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Running Wild

Rhinos are kept at a safer distance from park visitors than the now-defunct Lion Country Safari

One summer, over 30 years ago, my Volkswagen bug had a rendezvous with a rhinoceros. Lion Country Safari, south of Los Angeles, had been advertised as a place where one could get close, very close, to nature. We drove through the gate, which shut behind us, and there was no turning back. The single-lane paved road meandered through rolling grassland, where lions, tigers, and buffalo roamed free. Fences kept the cars separate from the animals and the herbivores from the carnivores.

But the chief attraction of Lion Country Safari was the section where the fences were down. I felt a city-dweller’s thrill knowing that there were no barriers between us and the ostrich, which looked fiercer than the amusing creatures depicted in Disney’s Fantasia. We drove by a herd of rhinoceros, which were walking peaceably on the grass. Suddenly they turned and charged, alarmingly, in our direction. The park ranger pulled up in her jeep and emptied bags of food on the road, a mere 10 feet away. Amidst furious grunts and snorts, the rhinoceros jostled for position. We could feel the vibrations through the Volkswagen walls, which seemed like tissue paper compared to the thick hides of the massive creatures. Our path was blocked in both directions, so I turned off the engine in a vain effort to be inconspicuous.

While the rhinos fed, one would periodically raise its head and look at us. We slid lower in our seat, as if that would make any difference. After an interminable fifteen minutes, the herd, satiated, began to break up. I switched on the engine and crept along in first gear. Picking up speed, we left the rhino enclosure and only glanced at the lions and tigers. I had had enough nature that day.

When Lion Country Safari closed in the 1980’s, the San Diego Zoo took over custody of the animals and created Wild Animal Park, inland and north of San Diego. Two weeks ago, we spent a day at Wild Animal Park, where the animals have the space to run free but have much less contact with humans. At least this time I didn't have to worry about the thickness of the car's walls.
Cape Buffalo
Cape Buffalo have a generous allotment of the Park's 1800 acres.

Friendly Larakeet
Friendly Larakeet searches for nectar.

California Condor
California Condor