Monday, February 27, 2006

Home and Garden Show

There are too many big-picture worries that I can do nothing about: Iran’s acquisition of nukes, civil war in Iraq and the Philippines, bird flu, an Arab takeover of our ports, global warming, trade and budget deficits (with mankind about to re-enter the Dark Ages, one wonders why the Dow is near its five-year high) that you just have to close the lid on the laptop, turn off the news, and go to the annual home and garden show.

The San Mateo Expo Center, like the Bay Meadows race track next door, has seen better days. With million-dollar condos springing up around them, both facilities are being eyed by developers and may be gone within a decade. The Peninsula Home and Garden Show fits in with the ambience of the Expo Center's mid-20th century architecture: garden gnomes and tree experts mingled with demonstrations of the latest kitchen gizmos that we can’t live without.

The H&GS occupies that niche halfway between the flea markets and the mega-trade shows, e.g., electronics, auto, aircraft, where manufacturers introduce their latest products. (There was nothing cutting-edge here, unless one is referring to ginsu knives.) We listened to lectures on the merits of organic fertilizer, whirlpool baths, solar panels, and artificial grass that looks like the real thing without the muss and fuss. There were no booth babes to distract the audience from the message, not that the graying attendees---and I say this wistfully as one of them—would be much interested in those distractions anyway.

What did interest me were the bath, patio, and window displays. We picked up some brochures and started to sketch out how much all the improvements we desired might cost us. Despite the Dow coming back, retirement will have to wait several more years. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Across the Lagoon

Houses across the lagoon from the Edgewater Place shopping center.

Last weekend it was clear and cool, so it was time to wipe off the dust from the old bike and pump up the tires. We cycled along the slough, past the middle school and the bridge. For the last half mile the asphalt had been scraped off due to a repaving project, but we ignored the caution tape and bumped over the dirt. Thank goodness for wide tires and padded seats. The meteorologists say that a late winter storm will roll in today after two weeks of clear weather, so there won’t be any biking this weekend.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Alien Culture

They provide a product that is fundamental to the economy. They have amassed great wealth that makes them impervious to change. They avail themselves of Western technology while sneering at the culture that produces these benefits. They receive millions of dollars annually from their U.S. supplicants, most of whom would be horrified if they knew what the funds were used for. They silence the voices of moderation, and extremism and anger rule.

I am referring, of course, to America’s elite universities. Poor Larry Summers. Five futile years of trying to implant Western values in an alien culture. Another failed conqueror.

[Addendum: three years and counting to build a constitutional democracy in Iraq...why so impatient? It took this university (with a $16 billion endowment) ten years to put soap in its dorms.]

Monday, February 20, 2006

Noontime Stroll

The weather had cooled noticeably from last week’s record-setting warmth, but the sun was out, and it was time to go for a noontime stroll along the Embarcadero. The tourists had not yet arrived for the long Presidents’ Day weekend, and the hawkers were distributing their flyers in a desultory fashion. Traffic was down at the sidewalk crab kiosks, stalled by the $5.00 per pound cost of Dungeness. A young German tourist waxed enthusiastically about his crab sandwich, but at $7.95 he wouldn't be expected to say anything else.

The seals at Pier 39 barked at the small group of onlookers, while Alcatraz sparkled across the water. I passed racks of T-shirts that were on sale at 3 for $10, but none caught my interest---wearing a garment with the Golden Gate Bridge emblazoned across one's chest is the opposite of coolness in the hip city. It was getting late, so I hopped aboard the trolley to get back to the office, but not before pausing at Vaillancourt Fountain to be soothed by the sound of the water rushing from the pipes.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Right With the World

Planning ahead more than I usually do, I went to the florist Monday night to pick up some flowers for my valentine. I gulped at the prices. A dozen roses in far-from-perfect condition were going for $60, nicer ones were sold ala carte at $8.50.

I picked a tropical arrangement that won’t wilt quickly---more days for the dollar. The cashier smiled. She said I was one of the few customers who hadn’t complained about the price. For my valentine, nothing’s too good (a phrase that could carry a double meaning, but here any cleverness is unintentional).

The vase was left on a table to surprise her when she came down in the morning. I took the call at work, ready to bask in the plaudits.

“Who sent the flowers?”
Me, who else?
“It could have been my sister, mother, or L.”
Well, it was me.
“I didn’t see a card.”

No card, my fault. Once again, despite my good intentions, another situation where I’m on the defensive. The fate of husbands everywhere.

Later that day I called the youngster on his cell phone and offered a bribe.

I’m taking Mom out to dinner, so I’ll bring home whatever you want to eat.
“The two-meat special at Armadillo Willy’s, Texas ribs and baby-back. I want the corn muffin and the jambalaya as side orders.”
Okay. The kid is disorganized, but not when the subject is food.
“Dad, I forgot to buy anything for Mom. Can you get me a rose?”
Okay. The bribee was in the power position and pressed his advantage. You can pay me back when I get home. A feeble attempt to regain self-respect.

I reached Armadillo Willy’s around seven and ordered the two-meat special. $16 for take-out, especially for a kid, is outrageous. But Valentine’s Day is like April 15th---just get through it and pay up. As I put my credit card back, the girl spotted my triple-A membership. “Next time, show us the card and you’ll get 10% off.” Something positive to take away from the day.

I walked over to BJs Restaurant, the new chain that’s hot with the twenty-somethings. Exotic beer and wide screen TVs appeal to the guys, while a varied upscale menu brings in the gals. I put my name on the list and pocketed the beeper. The wait would be an hour. Perfect. Time to buy a rose, pick up my dinner companion, then return at eight to take our seat.

The BJs beeper started beeping every 20 seconds once I drove out of range. Impatient customers clearly had given up and driven away with beepers before, but BJs did not know about my sound-ignoring ability that is intensely irritating to those, such as my Valentine’s Day dinner companion, who try to carry on a conversation with me. I tuned out the sound and drove to the florist to fulfill my errand.

The youngster's eyes lit up when I walked through door with the rose (allow me the illusion that it was not due to the ribs), and so did his mother’s when he presented her with the rose. Love was in the air, and the remainder of the evening went off without a hitch. The beeper quieted when we got back to the restaurant, and we were seated within ten minutes. A beer, a steak, my valentine seated across from me, and all was right with the world. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, February 13, 2006

Warm Feeling

The temperatures have been extraordinarily mild this past week. We’ve switched off the furnace and will collect a rebate from PG&E because we cut our annual consumption of natural gas by more than 20%. The Bay Area has been fortunate: no hurricanes or winter blizzards such as those that hit the Northeast last weekend. No major earthquakes or fires since the 1980’s. A blessed place indeed.

Bay Bridge and Treasure Island: on a T-shirt afternoon in February.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Comedy is Difficult

Humor is all around us. We see and use it every day. Yet humor is resistant to the systematic analysis that we see applied to other fields of human endeavor. There are culinary institutes but none for comedy. There are courses on music composition but none on composing a punchline.

When humor is done well, advertisers, writers, TV producers, and film-makers win awards and rake in millions. When done poorly it can trigger riots and the burning of embassies. No, I don’t think the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed were inspired or funny, but one wonders--if Gary Larson drew the camels, Monte Python did a Life of Bundar, or Letterman did the Top Ten Things Mohammed Did When He was Alone in the Desert--whether the reaction would have been amusement, not anger.

In the Internet era it’s too easy to hit the “send” button, and our ill-considered unfiltered scribblings are sent to the permanent archives in Mountain View, California. When we look back on what we wrote, drew, or recorded, too often we cringe and ask, what was I thinking? Comedy, indeed, is difficult.

“Fight mannequinism” is someone’s idea of a clever slogan to encourage youth to get involved. The message is too abstract even for native English speakers. Look at this billboard in an Asian neighborhood, where the majority speak English as a second language. What were they thinking?

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Foggy Resolution

The fog and rain rolled in and reminded us that we were still in the middle of winter. I headed to the Caltrain station Wednesday morning, momentarily grateful to be a mass transit rider who could look with pity, tinged with schadenfreudal satisfaction, on the poor souls stuck in traffic while we whizzed by.

Five minutes passed, then fifteen, and the waiting commuters grew restless. Track construction sometimes made the trains late, but not for this length of time. I called Caltrain customer service. The lady said that there was a pedestrian fatality in Redwood City, south of my station, and that service had been halted in both directions. It should be another 30 minutes, she predicted. I knew from experience that accidents caused delays of at least an hour (this time it turned out to be an hour and a half), so I headed back to the car. No schadenfreude today. Just self-pity.

I called the office to ask a colleague to move the 9 a.m. meeting back to 9:30. Luckily, he picked up the phone so I knew that he would pass along the message to the others. I don’t like to be kept waiting, and I try not to inflict the same inconsideration on others.

The traffic was stop-and-go on the Bayshore as I made my way to the City. The radio talk shows were critiquing the State of the Union address. A few people applauded, but most were disappointed. Some of the proposals were new, such as funding alternative energy sources and more math and science teachers, but they seemed shopworn. Maybe it’s just us; five years of excitement, tragedy, conflict, and polarization can be wearying, and we want to pull up the sheets. Or it could be that we’ve heard grand talk before, like last year’s plan to reform Social Security. Show us, Mr. President. We’re all Missourians now.

A word about taxes and the deficit, and then a personal resolution. Spending is the problem, not the degree to which we are taxed or not taxed. The government, no matter how worthy its purpose or how Solomonic the agents acting in its name, cannot purchase resources as wisely as millions of individuals who make decisions every day about how to direct society’s wealth. There are a few “public goods”, such as national security, that without government actions are not supplied in adequate quantities, but the scope of government has expanded so far beyond the provision of public goods that it is difficult to see under which principles one can now justify stopping its growth.

If Medicare is a right, why not universal health care? If school, why not pre-school? As government inexorably expands, it becomes the biggest buyer and loudest voice in more and more sectors of the economy. The grit accumulates, and we get bridges to nowhere and space shuttles that have long outlived their usefulness.

The national debt rests at nearly $5 trillion (refer to the bottom left hand corner of the Federal Reserve’s table here), an immense total beyond the comprehension of this humble observer. And it will only increase in the near future because we won’t be raising taxes or making a serious effort to reduce spending. The national debt has often been defined as a tax on future generations because posterity must pay the taxes to retire it. But this is not another polemic against fiscal profligacy

What if the debt never has to be repaid?

(Sorry, no sophisticated economics here: we are not going to wander off into a discussion about how a “permanent” level of outstanding Treasury obligations is actually beneficial to the financial infrastructure.) We have a flawed political system, but to paraphrase Churchill, still the best system in the world. As individuals, we also believe in paying our own way.

So our family will always own, at minimum, our share of the national debt, which presently stands at $17,000 per person ($5 trillion divided by 300 million people). By voluntarily advancing these funds permanently to the government, it’s almost the same as if we remitted this amount in taxes. Treasury bills, bonds, and notes are not very good investments, because there are others that will pay higher returns for nearly equivalent risk. But we often invest for emotional reasons (which explains why our track record has been lousy), so why not this one? Think of this as a “social” investment, the oldest and best, and one that you won’t lose any sleep over. © 2006 Stephen Yuen