Monday, January 31, 2005

Day of Celebration

(Odd Andersen / AFP/ Getty Images)
The unbounded joy on the face of Iraqis as they left the polling places melted the icy cynicism of the watching journalists. "These are a people who voted at higher rates in the face of death than we do in the face of inconvenience (D Brooks, NY Times)." Iraq now has its first taste of that which America has enjoyed for over two centuries.

We, the jaded ones, are steeped in the vocabulary of democracy’s weaknesses--the pork-barrel, the gerrymander, the logroll--but only a cad will describe his marital problems to the young couple on their wedding night. Today is a day of celebration.

The path ahead will be tortuous and filled with setbacks, but it won’t take them as long as it took us. (Yes, Senator, I guarantee our troops will be out in less than 200 years.)

The seat of government in Baghdad (by the Bay).

Thursday, January 27, 2005


I don’t know how single parents do it. The person who is never wrong left town for two weeks, and the youngster has been entrusted to my care. Compounding matters, he’s sick. In the old days parents could take the risk of leaving a middle school child at home by his lonesome, but Child Protection Services now regards that as parental neglect, and they could write me up, fine me, or even take him away (begone, you unbidden thought!). Whereupon, when the person who is never wrong returns, I will be consigned to the darkest dungeon of my castle, and she’ll never leave me in charge again (begone!).

My current condition is an example of moral hazard, in which one has a strong incentive to behave badly. Once upon a time, I had been asked to dust in the family room, and because I had done such a poor job by leaving streaks of polish all over the furniture, that request has not been repeated. That lesson has proved more useful than half the stuff I learned in school (the other half I can’t remember), and I’ve been looking for like opportunities ever since.

When one finds them, it is difficult to capitalize on those opportunities because there are short-term, sometimes severe, negative consequences to lousing up (see aforementioned reference to dungeon). And if one has had the misfortune to have developed a code of ethics that contains such aphorisms as “always do your best” and “a day’s work for a day’s pay”, a guilty conscience will accompany any effort to better one’s circumstances through deliberate failure. The passing years, much as they have done with my other senses, have slowly dulled conscience’s pangs, but because the rate of physical deterioration is outpacing the moral, it doesn’t look like I’ll ever experience the blissful state achieved by soulless criminals or high-ranking politicians.

And so it was that, for the past two mornings, I called the school, gave the youngster his medication, and sent him back to bed. I notified my employer that I was going to WFH (work from home). There are obvious benefits when one chooses to WFH, such as the ability to snack constantly, close one’s eyes and “meditate” on problems, and perform research on Internet sites not blocked by the company filter. But I’ve found myself to be obliged to double, even triple my e-mail and phone communications to colleagues, or more importantly my manager, just so they would know that I was working hard—really, really hard—and being extraordinarily productive, my cotton pajamas notwithstanding.

This morning the youngster is feeling better, and it will be a relief to go back to the office, where I can relax. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Where Did I Put That Turntable?

Eighteen months ago we presented our son with his graduation present, an iPod, when he completed high school. We did not foresee how his iPod would be one of the best investments we had ever made. Organization had not heretofore been one of his strong suits (I’m phrasing this kindly because he might read this). He soon synchronized the device’s calendar, alarm clock, and to-do list functions with his Apple laptop, and the iPod became indispensable to the management of his life, as well as his music.

When he came home last summer the device stopped working. On the display flashed an icon, a file folder with an exclamation point, that wasn’t described in our manual.

We took it to the Apple Store, where the condition was diagnosed as a “corrupt file”. Confirming Graditor’s Law, the one-year limited warranty had just expired, and I was advised that the fix would cost $250. Because that amount is nearly the cost of a new iPod, I gave him mine.

I had bought my own iPod a little over a year ago, when Apple was granting a $100 discount if it were purchased in conjunction with a Macintosh, our freshman’s choice for a college computer. The offer was too good to pass up, so I bought a stripped-down model with only 15 gigabytes (!) of storage. It was more than ample to house my paltry music library, which filled only one-third of the disk. Our collegian is concerned that it’s not big enough to store his music, data files, and professors’ lectures, which he’s now recording with an accessory received last Christmas. (Son, let me tell you how I taped together a cracked protractor so I wouldn’t have to spend 25 cents on a new one.)

And so it was that a non-functional 30-gigabyte iPod languished in my desk drawer for six months. Periodically I would connect it to my Windows PC via a USB cable and try to restore it using programs downloaded from Apple and other sources.

The breakthrough came last month when we finally retired our 1997-vintage Macintosh clone and bought a new iMac G5. I used the Firewire connector and Apple’s disk utility program to erase and reformat the iPod. The next step was to run the iPod-updater program, and load the music using iTunes. Everything worked for a few hours, but the dreaded icon reappeared.

Some websites advised that the problem could be the battery. I ordered a new battery for $31 from Other World Computing (Apple charges $90, which includes installation) and spent the better part of last weekend trying to pry open the case without scratching it. The faithful Swiss Army knife was eventually unleashed on the recalcitrant case, and the scratches aren’t apparent if one doesn’t look too closely.

It was a simple matter to lift the disk drive, unclip the old battery, and replace it with the new. The iPod was restored and recharged, and I listened to its music nearly all day Monday --my employer is very tolerant—to stress-test it, of course.

If this were a Hollywood script, I would end on this triumphant note, but this is life and a journal that speaks only the truth, so I must disclose that the problem recurred the next day. Is it the hard drive, the mysterious corrupt file that resists all attempts at eradication, or something on the circuit board? Stay i-tuned.

Friday, January 14, 2005

One Evening at the Youth Group

Last weekend it was our turn to make dinner for the middle school youth group. We set out a simple spread of turkey sandwiches, macaroni & cheese, chocolate chip cookies, and raw vegetables (just so we wouldn’t be ashamed to look the other parents in the eye, although we knew the vegetables wouldn’t be eaten—and they weren’t).

Parents are normally persona non grata, but because I was laying out the food, my diplomatic status was upgraded, and I was able to eavesdrop on the beginning of the session. The lady minister talked about the tsunami in South Asia and asked the pre-teens what they thought. One lad remarked that it was horrible that so many people perished and wondered whether a disaster could happen here. A young lady commented that many adults could die and leave their children behind.

We live between the San Andreas and Hayward faults, so a reasonable listener might expect the conversation to turn to earthquakes and earthquake-preparedness, or, following another line of thought, perhaps someone will bring up the subject of terrorism. The lady minister tried to tease out more information: what would cause many adults to die suddenly?

The lass continued, “I’m worried they’re all going to die of obesity”. Several other participants agreed, at which point I fled to the car to reflect on the profundity of what I had just heard.

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Lull Continues

The City is still on holiday.

Driving the 20 miles north to Golden Gate Park last Saturday was surprisingly easy, despite the late afternoon’s fierce rainstorm. I had my choice of several metered spaces at the normally crowded intersection of Irving and 23rd. There was no waiting at the stores and hairdressers. Only four of the twenty tables in our favorite restaurant were occupied, so the youngster and I lingered over a newspaper; he grabs the sports and I take the other sections. The youngster has acquired an interest in football and has logged many hours on the Madden videogame.

With both football teams long out of contention for the playoffs, the Bay Area has assumed its normal attitude of indifference to professional sports. The San Jose Sharks last year were a step away from the Stanley Cup, but the hockey season has been cancelled, and the basketball Warriors are going nowhere. There was a brief revival of interest last week when the 49ers fired their coach and general manager, but there is nothing in the owner’s background to indicate that he has the personal character or skills to rejuvenate a football—or any other--organization.

I recounted how the 49ers and Raiders used to be in the playoffs every year. Yes, my child, just a decade ago it was a disappointing season when the 49ers didn’t win the Super Bowl. It was disappointing when the 49ers made it to the Conference championship but lost to Dallas, and fans didn’t accept the excuse that the Cowboys were loaded with future Hall-of-Famers. It was disappointing when the 49ers didn’t score on every drive. Now, few can bear watching them, not only due to the team’s abysmal performance but also from the pain of contrasting the present with the memory of glories past. We didn’t appreciate what we had, we lost it, and we may never get it back.

Speaking of past glories, congratulations to my brother, who turns 50 today. You’ve made your family proud, and, unlike the 49ers, your best years may just be ahead.

The Kristi Yamaguchi Holiday Ice Rink has been carted off. The square is empty, and the fountain is turned off. One hopes that this is just a lull and that the pervasive ennui will be dispelled.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Decline and Fall

I’m grazing through the Chronicle this morning, and the lead article in the Datebook section is about how libraries are closing in Salinas, the home of Pulitzer-prize winning author John Steinbeck and the venue for many of his stories. Library traffic is down: everyone’s doing research on the Internet, and, if they need a place to study, students like to hang out at Barnes & Noble or Borders, which have coffee bars and comfy couches.

Public funding has been cut, reducing the ability to acquire the latest books and maintain the physical plant. And printed materials aren’t the only medium on which information is delivered; our community library has computers, audio- and video-cassettes, CDs, and DVDs. How to store, manage, and retrieve information is a complex undertaking that challenges larger, better-funded enterprises, and it’s no wonder that non-profit libraries, staffed by volunteers, are struggling.

I continue to the middle of the article but stop short when I come across:

For one thing, of course, libraries need more funding. They share this need, at the moment, with schools, health care, job training, foreign aid and just about everything else except the war -- thanks to which, none of these should be expecting much help any time soon

I didn’t know the war was responsible for shuttering libraries and the lack of adequate medical care in our country. A moment’s thought quickly dismisses that premise: let’s say the war costs $200 billion, which is about 10% of the Federal budget. If we pulled all the troops out tomorrow, would Congress, conscious of the $477 billion budget deficit and trillions in unfunded Social Security and Medicare obligations, devote any of the putative peace dividend to the Salinas library fund? (This is an example of a rhetorical question.)

The writer, David Kipen, gets back to his topic in the next sentence and so was just indulging in a gratuitous slam against American foreign policy. This lack of discipline in writing and editing is one reason I terminated our Chronicle subscription after 20 years. I don’t mind reading well-argued opinions contrary to mine, as long as they’re situated in the editorial section or by-lined columns, but snarky off-hand political remarks have been seeping into the news, entertainment, and business sections for some time.

O, for the days of Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, and Charles McCabe. Those guys could write! (Or maybe I’m just a Grumpy Old Guy with a selective memory.)

Declining journalistic standards and circulation are only a few of the problems that newspapers face. Classified ads have ceased to be the most effective way to reach potential customers, as I can personally attest. (Several months ago I ran ads in the Chronicle, Yahoo, and Craigslist; the Chron cost the most and generated the fewest responses.) The costs of daily printing and delivery are mounting, but there’s a ceiling on the amount consumers are willing to pay, given the free media alternatives. The half-life of news has shortened due to 24/7 cable news and the Internet, so the morning paper is already fishwrap by noon, as Herb used to say.

If they’re not careful, newspapers could go the way of libraries.

Monday, January 03, 2005

That's Enough

We had a quiet holiday. The inclement weather inclined us to stay close to home, and the returning collegian preferred to visit his favorite haunts, hang out with friends, and play videogames. I took a couple of days off to get the Christmas cards out; at least they were mailed in 2004, ahead of schedule if we’re using other years as a standard. Also, I had to attend to some year-end financial transactions that will have some effect on our final tax calculations.

We relaxed by watching the extended version of the Return of the King (the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) on DVD. The restored scenes, such as the dialogue and battle with the evil wizard Saruman, completed some story threads which were left hanging in the theatrical version. Those family members who hadn’t seen the movie when it was released to theaters in 2003 derived the greatest pleasure, but we all enjoyed it, even sitting through the director, writers, and cast commentary--all told a nine-hour commitment over three days.

Today is a day off, which means I get to ease into the New Year. No resolutions this time, so there won’t be any disappointment or guilt. These days, that's enough.