Tuesday, April 26, 2005

International Relations

Photo: Yahoo News

Holding hands at midnight
’neath a starry sky
Nice work if you can get it
And you can get it if you try
- Gershwin

Maturity or ...?

Last week the bank sent overdraft notices on two different accounts. In one case a family member confused the debit card with the credit card, which look nearly identical. With the credit card, there would have been no problem making a $65 expenditure because the unused capacity was very high. However, the checking account was another story: the balance is kept lean for reasons familiar to anyone who has a dependent.

In the other case there was a lack of communication between two signatories on the account, who were both writing checks at the same time. The bank honored all the checks, but I’m grumpy about paying $32 in overdraft charges on negative balances totaling only $70.

Yes, offenders deserve the blame, but it seems to this humble observer that banks, airlines, and governments impose unduly harsh financial penalties for minor slip-ups. Once upon a time I mailed a $200 license fee on December 30th, when the amount was due at the government office on that date. The late charge was $100. Someone scraped off the renewal tabs on my license plate; an alert parking control officer gave me a $30 ticket, and I had to pay $10 for replacement tabs.

Incidents like these have always bothered me, but I’ve learned to look at the cost of continuing the battle, whether I bear any responsibility for what happened, and usually conclude that it’s not worth fighting City Hall. Call it maturity, or wimpiness, but there’s less stress in my life.

Thursday, April 21, 2005


A friend is quitting his high-paying job to teach, a not uncommon decision for baby boomers who sense that time is running out on opportunities to give their lives meaning. He is willing to pay the economic penalty because my friend and his wife, who has worked for over 25 years in a well-known Bay Area company, have amassed a comfortable nest egg, along with a spacious home in a tony community.

(Pause button: after looking again at the previous sentence, I incorrectly used the term “economic penalty”. My friend is maximizing his personal utility by teaching, just as many of us trade money for leisure by, say, not working overtime. Shouldn’t confuse money with happiness!)

What takes me aback is that he wants to start a business after he teaches for a few years. At his stage in life that seems to be a curious choice: he will not be embarking on his entrepreneurial journey out of necessity. He will voluntarily be submitting to the stress of a startup, where there are no guarantees of success, and—here I speak from experience--most of the tasks are repetitive and mundane. His goal can’t simply be to make more money, when he has enough to live comfortably for the rest of his life.

No, he says he wants to start a business so that he can hold his head high in the company of his friends and relatives, many of whom are business-owners. After decades of absorption of the Sixties’ march-to-your-own-beat values, it sounds jarring that a mature individual would be so influenced by what other people think.

I would be more critical except that a moment’s reflection brought forth numerous instances where my own behavior is influenced by what other people think of me. Last weekend I spent hours working on the front yard. Do I want a green lawn to please myself or my neighbors? Do I push my children for their sake or that I may bask in their reflected glory? Do I exercise for my health or to look good [okay, less decrepit, let’s not get too carried away!]?

Despite our efforts to ignore superficialities, sometimes it is so difficult to make headway that we are forced to let it be known how we in our individual callings are validated by society. (Pickup line: excuse me, I dropped my Olympic medal/Academy Award/Silver Star under your chair.)

A woman in grungy sweats walked into the stockbroker’s office to straighten out a problem with a retirement account, which contained a few thousand dollars. The broker’s young assistant punched up the account in such a lackadaisical, uninterested manner that the woman quietly asked to check the balance in her other accounts. When the assistant viewed the size of those accounts, she immediately changed her attitude and service improved.

A parent is trying to make an appointment with an admissions officer, who never returns his calls. Not one to name-drop but at the limits of his patience, he finally mentions that he is a close acquaintance of two members of the board of trustees; the appointment is scheduled shortly thereafter.

The problem of earning society’s respect so that it will leave us free to do what we want is as old as the hills. One of the first Greek philosophers, Thales, who famously said that everything is derived from water, was apocryphally chastised for not having useful skills, so he put his deep-thinking on hold to show that he could be successful in commerce, thereby silencing his critics:
Thales concluded that there would be a bumper crop of olives. He raised the money to put a deposit on the olive presses of Miletus and Chios, so that when the harvest was ready, he was able to let them out at a rate which brought him considerable profit. In this way, Thales answered those who reproached him for his poverty

Nearly 3,000 years after Thales, we continue to reproach others---not all the time, but often enough---for their poverty. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Quick Trip

Over Oakland.

On Monday I parked the car at Oakland Airport and boarded the Southwest 737. The flight east was uneventful, although there were banks of storm clouds that presaged the thunderstorms that will hit Chicago later this week.

After arrival, I scrutinized the mass transit maps. If I’m traveling light, I like to take the train into the city because, compared to a taxicab, it: 1) is faster, especially during rush hour; 2) is cheaper; 3) pollutes much less; 4) offers better scenery; 5) gives one a better sense of the rhythms of the city.

I worked up a sweat hoofing my bags to the Orange line in the humid, 80-degree breezeless evening and paid $1.75 for the fare to the Chicago & State Street station, one block from the company apartment. (The cab fare was $26 on today’s return to the airport; the spirit of adventure takes a back seat when one is trying to make a flight home.) More hoofing as I transferred to the Red line at Roosevelt Station and reached my destination about 90 minutes after I had landed (someone who knew what he was doing could cut that time in half.)

Tunnel connecting the Orange and Red lines.

Although the trains were clean and fast, there were moments when I regretted my transportation decision, because there were unsavory characters who seemed to be eyeing me and my parcels, and the hour was getting late.

The business meetings went well, and I drank too much and ate too much red meat, as often happens when I travel to the Midwest. But when in Rome....

Chicago's skies were clear on Tuesday

But turned foggy on Wednesday

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Business Travel

Working for a large company has its benefits. No, I’m not referring to retirement, health, or expense-account packages--which often are more generous-- I’m referring to the apartments that are owned in heavily-trafficked cities. You have to make a reservation early, and most of the time I get bumped to a regular hotel, but yesterday I lucked out.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Cash of Civilization

I got the tax return done on time again but had to take a vacation day to do it. Yes, yes, if I were more motivated and organized, I could have completed it without last minute heroics, but as I’ve written before, it’s like pulling teeth. Come to think of it, I would rather go to the dentist.

The alumni association sent its annual ballot to elect an alumni “fellow”. Colleges and universities have been lambasted (in my view, justifiably) for their ideological uniformity, political correctness, and antipathy toward the society that gives them succor. But occasionally one sees a reminder that the ivy was planted long before today’s fads arose and will still be around long after they’re gone. That’s because the faddists haven’t seized permanent control of the language.

Balloting was open to “graduates of the first degree” or higher, a quaint description for alumni who hold at minimum a bachelor’s degree. I glanced at my dust-covered diploma, which is written in Latin on a plain parchment. “Praeses et socii” (President and Fellows) of the university, it begins, and the Latin seemed to give all that cramming, footnoting, regurgitating, and bloviating a little patina of dignity.

Mao’s revolution damaged but didn’t erase Chinese cultural history. The beauty of literary Chinese still resonates with millions and bespeaks the persistence of culture. (For an interesting, not-too-technical article that compares ancient Latin and Chinese, please see the following.) When the postmodern left begins to offer meaningful rituals (and I don’t mean Kwanzaa), or even hummable tunes for the hoi polloi, that will be time to worry about the demise of western civilization.

Today is Tax Freedom Day 2005, the day in the year when we are done paying for that civilization and go to work for ourselves. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Small Talk

One Market, the old Union Pacific building, when the sun came out last week.

The weather has been choppily inconsistent, with March’s warmth followed by April’s storms. The cold dampens spirits, but it also lowers the pollen counts and keeps the mosquitoes at bay, a fair exchange in my book. The spring heat made me guilty of premature extrapolation; I had turned off the furnace but had to re-light the pilot over the weekend when the temperature dipped into the forties.

When the Internet bubble burst, I stopped opening my brokerage and 401(k) statements, because ignorance, while not blissful, was not depressing. After four years my portfolio has recovered much of its losses, and I’ve started to check my share prices every day, a sure sign of a market top.

The stocks that I seem to have done the best with are the companies which call me a customer. This is a variation on the strategy touted by former Fidelity guru Peter Lynch:
amateur investors can continue to reap exceptional rewards from mundane, easy-to-understand companies they encounter in their daily lives.
I’ve held Apple Computer (AAPL) and Pacific Gas and Electric (PCG) for many years and recently bought SBC Communications (SBC). Their prices always fell after I bought them, so Warren Buffett I’m not, but at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m getting back a little of the profits they’re making off me.

I’ve never joined a gym in my life---which is obvious by a glance at my physique---but the promotion was too good to pass up. The local fitness club did a database search of all residents who, to the best of its knowledge, had never been a member of any gym in the area, and offered a two-year membership for $200. (They’ve been around for over ten years, and I just have to use the facilities for three months in order to extract fair value: yes, I did consider the risk of business failure.) Sloth sometimes does pay.

While democracy has gotten all the ink, we are reminded this week that there are ancient institutions that employ, successfully, other methods of naming their leaders. The College of Cardinals will soon select the next Pope, the direct spiritual successor of Saint Peter, and it will be hard to argue they did a poor job the last time. And the death of Monaco’s Prince Rainier, who was a beloved and successful monarch, bequeathed the kingdom’s keys to his son, Prince Albert. Sad to say, there is no foolproof method of identifying the philosopher-king, the chimerical individual who is wise, virtuous, and a seeker of truth and who has risen to prominence without succumbing to human appetites and failings. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, April 07, 2005


"Float" by Mark Lere in the lobby of the Landmark Building, One Market.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Rueful Observation

Despite my most earnest efforts, the iPod resisted all attempts at resuscitation. It would emit whirring and clicking sounds until the battery was depleted. The pesky folder-with-exclamation-point icon wouldn’t go away, and although various websites said it was a software problem, it sure sounded like something was wrong with the disk drive. The person who is never wrong asked me how long I had spent diddling (technical term which means spending hours working on a problem that a trained professional could fix in 10 minutes) with the iPod. I shaved my estimate: “About eight hours.” I flashed back to my auditing days when I wouldn’t charge my clients for all the time I spent diddl--- uh, performing research. “Why don’t you get a new one? You can afford it.” Note the subtle appeal to the male ego: scrapping a $400 piece of equipment is nothing to a distinguished gentleman of means. But that would also mean kissing off the $30 I spent on the battery, not to mention the time spent pursing my lips and sighing. She just doesn’t understand. I took it to the Apple Store. The bearded wizard at the Genius Bar (Apple’s designation for the technical help desk…cool, huh) shook the iPod, turned it on, and raised it to his ear. “It’s the disk drive,” declared the genius. He input the serial number into the terminal and gave me the bad news. The warranty expired last year, and the fix would cost $250. Apple wouldn’t even bother repairing it, he explained, they would just give me a new unit, albeit last year’s model. My crestfallen expression stimulated his pity, and he jotted down the name of a company who would do repairs. For $29 iPodResQ sent me a box with prepaid overnight round-trip shipping to its Kansas office; diagnosis of the problem was included in the price. I wrapped the iPod in the foam packing material and deposited it in the DHL dropbox. iPodResQ confirmed that the 30-gigabyte drive was fried (another technical term) and offered to install a new one for $190. My self-help urges had long since abated, so I agreed to their terms--actually spending a few more dollars for a drive with larger capacity. The iPod has been functioning smoothly during the past week, and normalcy has returned to our household. No moral, dear reader, just the rueful observation that I still make mistakes deciding when to trade off money for time. © 2005 Stephen Yuen