Thursday, April 27, 2006

Union Square Dance

Spring finally arrived in San Francisco. I left my jacket in the office, grabbed a lunch, and walked to Union Square. Shoppers and tourists watched the dancers, while others just lay in the sun, talking on their cell phones or listening to their iPods. Ads crawled across the big screen on the Powell Street end, but no one was watching, not with the live distractions of undulating dancers and halter-topped picnickers.

Lunch was consumed and the trash was carefully deposited in a covered bin, as several pigeons gazed hungrily. Not today, boys, our city is named for him but I'm not Saint Francis. I strolled past the vendor stalls in the middle of the square and headed down Stockton. Lured by the signs that promised hundreds of CD's and DVD's on sale for $10, I stopped at Virgin Records. There wasn't anything that had to be added to the collection, so after 15 minutes I exited back to Market, then on to Embarcadero Center. Just another afternoon in the hip city.

Per Jay Nordlinger, columnist for the National Review:
A visit to San Francisco last week confirmed for me that this is, indeed, the most beautiful city in America. (I have not visited them all — Seattle, for example — but most of them, I believe.) Rarely throughout the world is the eye so enchanted.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

You Should Let Your Friends Know

...if you're part of the human trials to test this medical breakthrough.

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Politics

The Republican Congress doesn’t deserve to return to power in November. Speaking as someone who for the most part has voted for Republican candidates since the Reagan era, I am extremely disappointed in what they have not done on illegal immigration and energy independence, and in what they have done---the expansion of government programs that has outstripped the worst excesses of the Great Society. The prospect of seeing a Democratic Congress that might enact any number of environmental, economic, and cultural schemes doesn’t seem so bad.

What does worry me is that the Democrats will be so eager to avenge the real and imagined slights inflicted on them by the Bush Administration that we will see a slew of Congressional investigations, indictments, and even a move to impeach the President. The country only has one Executive, and he’s prosecuting a war against people who would joyfully kill themselves to immolate our cities. No amount of dialogue, bribery, and international cooperation seems to dissuade them. I would happily vote for any Democrat who believes that the enemy is Islamofascism, not George W. Bush.

As Thomas Sowell said on the radio several months ago, “the only reason to vote Republican is the Democrats”.

Watch Out, They're Going to Burst
As the Republican Party sinks lower in the polls, the Democrats taste victory in 2006 and 2008. But imagine if they aren’t successful. If you think the Left is angry now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Bush the Environmentalist
Poor George W. Bush---for years environmentalists have been calling for a gas tax hike of 50 cents or more (when gas was under $2 a gallon) to discourage consumption. Now that market prices have blown through the level that they were talking about, environmentalists should give the President credit for encouraging conservation. (It’s good to end on a note of humor.) © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, April 22, 2006


“Bush, Hu agree to disagree”. “Agree to disagree” – a phrase that for some reason grates on my ears. Others:

Still friends

Just big-boned

Fighting for peace

Spending cuts

Tax simplification

Activist spokesman

Insurgents attacked / killed / blew up ……

Hospitalized for exhaustion

Resting comfortably

Resigned to spend more time with his family

Resigned due to a difference of opinion

Resigned to pursue other interests

I am resigned… the futility of complaining about these word usages. Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Two days after Easter we celebrated another resurrection, the rebirth of the City from the ashes of the great earthquake that destroyed it 100 years ago. The earthquake struck before electronic communication became widespread (California Governor Pardee telegraphed to Mayor Schmitz: “am appalled by the great calamity to San Francisco, only meager details of which have reached me”) and before relief supplies or rescue workers could be imported instantaneously and en masse. The Bay Area was on its own.

Yet, within the span of ten years the people had rebuilt San Francisco to the point where it could host the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. One domed building constructed during that era is testimony to the optimistic spirit of that age and constitutes one of the City’s famous landmarks. In Palo Alto to the south, the first president of a fledgling university surveyed the wreckage and declined a post at the Smithsonian: "I am sure that my place is here”. A young San Mateo banker set up a makeshift office on the wharf and made loans based on a handshake; he later introduced branch banking to California and built one of the largest banks in the world.

When it is our turn, who will answer the call? © 2006 Stephen Yuen

The Market St. parade concluded with ceremonies at Justin Herman Plaza.

Monday, April 17, 2006

C Minus 1 Day

Lotta's Fountain is the oldest surviving monument from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It sits unobtrusively on a traffic island, sandwiched between Market, Kearny, and Geary, dwarfed by the surrounding high rises. Each year on April 18th a dwindling band of earthquake survivors gathers quietly at dawn. This year on the quake's centennial, Market Street will be closed to traffic and little Lotta's Fountain will be at the center of noisy festivities. On this day before, the bright cool weather invited a visit to the landmark, much closer than will be possible tomorrow.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

April 15th Letdown

April 15th fell on a Saturday this year, so tax filers had until Monday to mail in their returns. April 15, 2006 is important for another reason: it was the date that Nintendo was to publish its long-delayed and much-anticipated videogame, Zelda: Twilight Princess. (Some of the most popular videogames over the past two decades have been Zelda adventures.) Now it appears that the game's release date has been pushed back to the fall.

Like procrastinating taxpayers, Nintendo will suffer a penalty for missing another deadline, the loss of its fan base to the Playstation and Xbox. Our Nintendo Gamecube hasn't been turned on once this year, while our Microsoft Xbox is used (ahem) regularly. We don't intend to buy Nintendo's forthcoming console, the inaptly named Revolution. It is reported to be only a slight improvement over the Gamecube.

Will the fading Nintendo be able to rejuvenate its fortunes, a la Apple? I hope it does, but I'm not going to pay to find out.

Friday, April 14, 2006

West End of the Park

And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cache-ing Out

At a charity raffle last year they pulled my ticket: dinner for four at the Cache Creek hotel and casino. The prize would expire on May 3rd, and because the skies cleared over the weekend, the stars were aligned for me to make my first trip to an Indian gaming establishment.

Cache Creek is located in Brooks, about half an hour north of Sacramento. After exiting Highway 505, we wandered along a single-lane road through pastures and small towns. New housing developments signaled that we were approaching our destination. As we rounded the bend, a 200-room hotel and six-level parking garage in the midst of miles of farmland stood as testimony to the transformative economics of gambling.

Front Desk at the Cache Creek Hotel

We entered the hotel lobby and walked along the perimeter of the casino to the restaurants. Indian casinos are much stricter than Nevada establishments about allowing children in the gaming area. The security guard said that Cache Creek did not have activities, such as a bowling alley or videogame arcade, that could occupy the youngster. So much for my plans to spend a few hours at the tables.

The Harvest Buffet was extensive, above average by Vegas standards. The prime rib and sea bass were well prepared, not overdone yet very tender---a difficult accomplishment using heating trays and warming lights. We spent a couple of hours lingering over the food; two plates, plus dessert were my limit. Even if we had to pay the retail price, $67, for the four of us, it would have been worth it.

I was given an hour to try my luck. I stopped at the craps table and placed a bet on the pass line. The shooter rolled a three, “craps”—an immediate loser, but the croupier called out “seven”, a winner. I thought about making an appointment with my optometrist, but after a few more rolls where the dice clearly didn’t match the call, I stopped betting and looked around the table, trying to figure out what game we were playing.

Next to the croupier were two playing cards, placed face down. Each contained pictures of two die and represented a standard roll, for example, a 6-5 denoted an eleven and a 3-1, a four. Before each roll, the two cards were dealt face down from a special deck. The roll of the dice was only relevant insofar as it resulted in a “high” or “low” total, which signified which of the two cards to flip over. The card determined the number, not the die.

I played along for fifteen minutes and won a few dollars, but my suspicions grew. How did I know that the deck was true? Craps is a game of easily calculated probabilities; there are 36 possible combinations and all the payoffs are determined by the frequency of each combination. For example, there are six ways to roll a seven, and five ways to roll an eight. There are certain bets, such as the “odds” bet on the pass line, on which the casino pays true odds, i.e., it doesn’t take a percentage. A $5 odds bet wins $6 if an eight is rolled and loses $5 if a seven comes up, all other numbers in this case being irrelevant.

Although a roll of a seven wins immediately on the initial toss of the dice (a “front-line winner” on the “come-out roll”), craps players generally don’t like to see sevens because it causes them to lose most of their bets after the come-out roll. The purpose here, dear reader, is not to discuss the intricacies of the game but to point out that a deck stocked with sevens favors the house, and there was no way for me to verify that there were only six sevens in that special deck of presumably 36 cards. (Dice can be fixed, but for technical reasons, it’s more difficult and in any case can be prevented by changing the dice frequently.)

Back to the original question: how do we know the game is true? Government regulation wasn't apparent; the thick haze of cigarette smoke indicated that we weren’t protected by the laws of California. Content with a full stomach and slightly fuller wallet, I went home. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 10, 2006

Palm Sunday, 2006

St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Foster City, California.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Playing It Safe

After the dental assistant pointed it out to him last month, Stan examined the scarring on my palate. I said it was caused by gulping too-hot coffee a few days ago and that the pain had been easing. He insisted that I return in fourteen days; it would only take a couple of minutes to check, and there would be no charge. A week later I phoned his office. The area felt fine, I said, so there was no need for me to come in. He insisted.

This morning he explained, “I have patients who’ve told me that they felt nothing was wrong, and they’ve lost their tongues and parts of their mouths.” I obediently sat down. Knowledge usually dispels but can also beget fear. After inspecting my mouth, he gave me a clean bill of health while his assistant chirped, “he’ll live”. I gave her the sullen look that I give all people who are cheery before 8 a.m.

I presented Stan with an article that I had clipped from the morning Chron. Ancient residents of Pakistan had practiced skillful dentistry. Trying to provoke a reaction, I said that not much had changed in 7,500 years. He let the remark slide and grinned when he read the article. He’s been working at the same job for over 25 years and is still genuinely interested in his profession and the welfare of his patients. No, Stan, thank you.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Dark and Stormy Morning

It was a cold rain, a hard rain, the kind of rain that bludgeons umbrellas and chases pedestrians into the warm embrace of public transportation. The water congealed into puddles, the puddles into ponds, the ponds into lakes, and the lakes to?....larger lakes, he mused, without sediment. Then his eyes filled with moisture, a brackish mix of rain and tears, as he thought about people who didn’t have insurance in the flood zone (not to be confused with “flooding the zone”, a tactic used in football to overwhelm zone defenses against the forward pass). But he was comforted by the thought that, if circumstances worsened, if the levees were breached or broken, salt water intrusion into the delta would be forestalled. Salt water intrusion is a bad thing, although he didn’t know why. And, if the situation became desperate, FEMA would come. FEMA would step in and do a heckuva job.

(Inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton)

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Grace Under Pressure

Despite overwhelming international opposition, the American leadership bulls ahead. Entreaties to go slow fall on deaf ears. Novel ideas are adopted as policy, and understandings that have developed over the centuries are cast aside like so much excess baggage. The mechanisms of international communication and cooperative action are in tatters and may never be repaired. We are speaking, of course, of the ordination of declared, non-celibate homosexuals to the rank of Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Nearly three years ago Gene Robinson was elevated to Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire. And now the sexual orientation of three of the seven candidates to replace retiring California Bishop William Swing raises the possibility that a second non-celibate gay bishop will be elected. The worldwide Anglican Communion faces schism.

Grace Cathedral: Gay Fray Mobs Nob Job

Last week the rain abated, so I walked up Nob Hill, past the diocesan offices, to Grace Cathedral. When one enters the sanctuary, one should put aside all thoughts of controversy and conflict.

A man and a woman, not together, were walking the labyrinth. The man was charging along the path as if he wanted to get it over with quickly. He ignored or was not aware of the labyrinth’s purpose: to assist the traveler in his meditations by imparting a sense of the Divine. Perhaps the man was a tourist and was rushing through the path just to say he did it, a microcosm of how most of us appear to be leading our lives. The woman was lost in thought as she traced the carpeted lines with her bare feet. At least she appeared to get the point.

The organist was practicing for next Sunday and had let out the stops. Strains from the pipe organ reverberated through the cavernous room, and sunlight from the stained glass played across the altar. I felt awe and humility, unfamiliar emotions in an intimate age that converses with a personal deity. Beneath the high arches one’s daily preoccupations are revealed for the trivial distractions that they are.

Exiting into the sunshine, my concerns having been put in perspective,I paused at Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise. Grace Cathedral’s replica (left) of the Renaissance masterpiece, another gem in this city of under-appreciated jewels, was in better shape than its Florentine counterpart (right)--replicas themselves, the originals having been moved indoors to a museum. [Note: other pictures from my Florence trip last year may be found here.] © 2006 Stephen Yuen