Sunday, July 31, 2005

Not There Yet

I was able to leave early last Wednesday and took the 6:37 p.m. train.

Every time I get into a discussion with non-financial and non-IS (information system) folks about why work keeps me busy, they ask why we can’t just “push a button” and get the computer to do it all.

I think about the simple act of billing: how the issuance of a single customer invoice triggers entries to six different accounts and how the payment of that bill—if everything is perfectly normal---results in entries to another half-dozen. When things are out of the ordinary---say if a customer short-pays his bill---we need someone who knows what she’s doing to step in and not only communicate with the customer but figure out how to get the system to reflect what just happened.

I think about whether today’s market value of the interest-rate swap we issued four years ago is still above zero; it’s been amortizing according to the notional amount of the loan and I haven’t been monitoring it lately. I think about the inside tax basis and the outside tax basis of the European company we invested in and about how the European controller, a nice guy, doesn’t understand U.S. GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles); I wish he’d prepare financial statements on a monthly basis instead of quarterly and, when he does do them, get them in on time.

Then my thoughts move to the three sets of numbers, only three if we’re lucky, that we have to compare---the plan, the actual, and the forecast---and how only the plan and actual are in the mainframe computer. The forecast changes all the time, is on a spreadsheet, and is not in the same form as our chart of accounts, so we’ve got to shoehorn everything into the same format. Management wants all sort of comparisons and variance analysis, but these are not the same as the SEC’s.

I ruminate on the SEC’s MD&A (management discussion and analysis) requirements for faster and better (we know it when we see it) analyses, how we have to compare this year’s quarter to last year’s quarter and the year-to-date numbers with the comparable period from last year. We have to explain the differences intelligently, back up everything we say, do it quickly, and not make any mistakes.

Section 404 / Sarbanes-Oxley / post-Enron rules mandate that, because we say that we review all this stuff, we have to prove it by initialing and saving drafts in addition to the final version of most of our work. In theory I can go to jail if my binders are messy and papers fall out. Fine, as Rick said in Casablanca, pull the trigger, you’ll be doing me a favor.

No, we can’t push a button just yet. You know, these computers……

On Friday we left the house at 5 a.m. and headed to San Diego to help a family member move. By 11 we were in L.A., where the traffic halted. It took three more hours to get to San Diego, and the locals tell us that we made pretty good time.
For those in a hurry, the Starbucks on Highway 5, about 100 miles north of L.A., has a drive-through.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Beating the Heat

Today the mercury hit 100. By the way, that’s another phrase, like “dialing a telephone” that won’t make sense to future generations because mercury thermometers, like rotary dial phones, are no longer being sold. So we cooled off in the air-conditioned car and drove up to the City to run some errands near Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco was a good 20 degrees milder than the Peninsula, so we found excuses to dally at the stores and food shops. After lingering over lunch, we stopped at the Krispy Kreme outlet before heading home. The warm glazed doughnuts melted in our mouths, speeding the transfer of the molten sugar from the lips to the hips. I resolved to go to the gym…….tomorrow.

The youngster bought Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, book six in the series, with his own money. He’s read a few chapters, and I’m in no hurry to grab it from him. In fact, the last Harry Potter book I read was book four, the Goblet of Fire, in 2001. I didn’t do it justice by racing through to the end, so I’m re-reading it slowly, with the idea of tackling book five, the Order of the Phoenix, in August and book six in September. He should be done by then.

J.K. Rowling deserves all the encomiums thrown her way. In my pre-teen years (warning - geezer flashback!) I devoured series by English writers. Lofting's Doolittle, Conan Doyle's Holmes, and Christie's Poirot (I couldn't appreciate Miss Marple until later) were my favorites. While young readers were absorbed into the plot, they couldn't help but be exposed to the cadences and rich vocabulary of the Queen's English, as well as the culture from which the language springs. This generation can be led to Dickens, but they'd rather drink in Rowling.

How can you tell that "Dumbledore" and "Harry Potter" are the names of good guys while "Draco" and "Snape" are questionable characters? Well, if you've been sensitized to the language--even through children's books, you just know. With J.K. Rowling, little touches like character names show that we're in good hands. Time to turn off the tube, open the book, and turn on the fan.

Waikiki on a Sunday in June: the heat is tolerable when one must have a tan

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Less is More

The low-rise building on Drumm and Sacramento, across the street from our office, is surrounded by office towers. It’s a small mystery that the old run-down building has avoided the wrecking ball, but I’m grateful. It houses a bakery, Mexican restaurant, Subway, Mediterranean sandwich shop, Walgreens, and Starbucks. The lunch prices are about a buck less than the takeout places on the ground floor of the office tower, so the stores are crowded at noon.

The Chinese restaurant on the second floor re-opened under new management. Scuttlebutt was that the old one closed due to health code violations, but this blog doesn’t traffic in canards and calumnies. Today I had a hankering for Chinese food, so I threw caution to the winds. Impressed by the fresh paint and open atmosphere (they took down a wall), I gladly paid the 70-cent price increase on the rice noodles, especially because it meant that I had a reduced probability of incurring stomach cramps. Portions were a little smaller, but that’s not a problem, says my doctor. Less is more.

Welcome Reminder

During the past week three individuals showed that they are performing at the top of their game. Tiger Woods won his second British Open and tenth major professional golf tournament. J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, has sold over six million copies in one day (a blockbuster title in the book business is one that sells a mere 500,000 copies over its life). Lance Armstrong is well on his way to winning an unprecedented seventh consecutive victory in the Tour de France. All three have risen to greater heights of achievement years after they had amassed enough wealth to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

Clearly, these extraordinary individuals have not been motivated by money, else they would have retired long ago to enjoy the fruits of their accomplishments. We can be armchair psychologists and speculate on what drives these stellar performers. Perhaps it’s a desire to fulfill their parents' dreams, or to attain a kind of earthly immortality by setting records that will never be broken. Whatever their reasons, it’s a welcome reminder that human beings, who all too often inflict harm and even destruction, are also capable of great accomplishment and creativity.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Think Global, Act Loco

Shopping is a pastime that I thought that I would never enjoy. You have to have two X chromosomes to spend the entire day rummaging through clothes racks in search of the shirt with the right fit, material, color, style, texture, and, most importantly, price. Some years ago I reached a modus vivendi with the shopper in our family; she would leave me to graze at the electronic and book stores while she took off in search of that elusive, chimerical garment.

I’ve added the modern supermarket to the list of refuges where I can hang out without being bored. The supermarket stimulates the senses of recall and wonder. Take the bread shelf, which has been expanded to an aisle. It wasn’t too long ago when our choice of bread was limited to white or brown (wheat). Now, in addition, there are loaves of multi-grain, oat, raisin, pumpernickel, low-carb, honey wheatberry, cheese, sweet, barley, and at least a dozen other permutations and variations that are limited only by the baker’s imagination. And we haven’t even mentioned the shapes and sizes that are available.

So I amble the aisles and marvel at the variety of products. When the supermarket first appeared after World War II, it provided support for the esthetic arguments against capitalism. Mass production and mass marketing threatened to eliminate regional distinctiveness. As American-style capitalism swept the world, Wal-Marts arise in verdant pastures (so the myth goes---often they replace run-down buildings in blighted neighborhoods) and flatten small communities.

But the dreaded sameness that the esthetes feared has been replaced by choices, in some case too many choices. One can’t order a simple cup of coffee without running a linear programming algorithm: How strong do I want the brew? Where do the beans come from? Should they be medium or dark roast? Caffeinated or not? How much fat do I want in my milk? Sugar or artificial sweetener or chocolate? What size cup? How much do I want to spend? Just a cuppa joe, please, black.

In their incessant drive to grow, merchants have found that increasing the number of products is not enough. Different products are introduced for each region to attract local customers. Think globally, act locally, the latest flex of the invisible hand. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

The Hawaiian dish, laulau, may be found in Honolulu's Sam Club, which is owned by Wal-Mart.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Toxic Waste

Demonstrators at the G-8 conference protest global warming and toxic waste, but the true toxic waste, as we have seen from yesterday’s terrorist explosions in London, spews from the mouths of those who drumbeat their hatred in schools, newspapers, mosques, and television programs throughout the Middle East. In London or New York the teacher who takes the bus to work, the grocery clerk using the subway—none are judged blameless by the terrorists’ bloodthirsty deity

We combat their poison with a confusing mix of actions and words. We have overwhelming power but only dispense a fraction of it. If we cared simply to protect ourselves, to stop the killing of us and our friends, our fleet of B52 bombers would ensure that that part of the world never troubles us again. But mass killing is not part of our moral universe (yet), and there is no comfort in knowing that we are better than they, that if they had our power they would have no qualms against its use. They crave opportunities to slaughter millions, as did Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and, yes, the former tyrant of Iraq who cowers in his cell.

We choose the narrow, difficult road. We force the tyrant from his den without laying waste to his land. In doing so some innocent people die, we apologize to their families and make reparation. Build your country, live in peace with your neighbor, we say over and over, we want to go home.

No one gives credit to the giant for staying his hand. Certainly not those who sit in their upper East Side lofts or ivied parapets and weep for the discomfort of 600 captured killers who receive better medical treatment than our homeless on Market Street. Blind to the evil that will be the death of them and their children, the pampered and the privileged save their worst epithets for the man who leads us. He lacks the glibness of his predecessor and is too loyal to those who have failed, but his flaws are unimportant because his vision is clear and he will not be dissuaded.

The terrorists have a clear vision too. In their world the lands of southern Europe will be returned to their rule. In their world men who beat, but not kill, their women are merciful. In their world the Jews will not only be driven from Palestine but exterminated. Where is the Ataturk or Sadat who will say that this path is madness?

They think that we will grow weary of the battle. Yes, we are weary, but there is more than one way to end a battle. Many who counsel appeasement 1) are fiercely protective of their personal well-being, and 2) know how to hate. When they witness exploding buses and feel personally threatened, they will re-direct their hatred upon the terrorists and their sympathizers and question why our leaders have shown such restraint.

The terrorists do not understand that the murder of civilians in our homeland will not lead to triumph but their utter destruction. If we become genuinely frightened, we will reach for ever more powerful weapons in our vast armory until we feel safe. May God, theirs and ours, have mercy on their souls. © 2005 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

More Time Needed

I knew our vacation was a good one because I was reluctant to get on the plane. The two weeks that had appeared so plentiful at the start seemed inadequate at the end (a metaphor for life!) We accomplished a lot but did not complete the to-do list. I guess we’ll be coming back next year to check off a few more items.