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.