Sunday, October 29, 2006


For about seven years I’ve been a regular consumer of pomegranate juice. Medical research has indicated that pomegranate juice confers cardiovascular benefits equal to or greater than red wine, blueberries, cabbage, and other foods high in antioxidants.

I’ve also acquired a taste for the real thing; yesterday Costco was selling a tray of six deep-red pomegranates for about $10. This morning I cut one and added a couple of spoonfuls of seeds to my breakfast. Peeling a pomegranate is messy, time-consuming, and expensive---a lot like other things that we value. This is one gift from the ancient Middle East that everyone can appreciate. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Am I Better Off?

I’m trying to ignore the news from Washington. It’s the silly season---less than two weeks to go before the elections---and we should eye with suspicion any reports, analyses, studies, and surveys produced in this hothouse environment. Mud is being flung in every direction in the hope that not all of it will be washed off by Election Day.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of voters have seen this heavy breathing before, so they won’t care whether a senatorial candidate attended a risqué Super Bowl party, whether an actor exaggerated his disability in a commercial (or a radio talk show host was cruel such to opine), whether a senator had plastic surgery, or whether another senator used a mildly racist remark in an unguarded moment. In the silly season instant messages from a worldly young man to a pathetic middle-aged ex-Congressman have been scrutinized as if they were inscribed on stone tablets, then forgotten as the next scandal floated to the surface.

My gerrymandered-district’s representative to Congress could run against Abraham Lincoln and win without breaking a sweat. He has displayed good sense for a Democrat; I’ve voted for him in the past and am leaning toward voting for him next month. I’ll go to the polls because it’s my civic duty although my vote counts for very very little.

Nevertheless, it’s a good time to take stock. Our family is doing okay—we’re in good health (I don’t credit or blame the politicians for that)---and the country seems to be doing okay as well. The Dow Jones is at an all-time high, and our modest portfolio has recovered to pre-9/11 levels. My employer is going through some changes (whose hasn’t?), but if something happens to my job there seem to be a lot of want-ads for a person with my skills; most of my acquaintances who’ve been looking for work have landed jobs as good or better than the ones they had before.

I was pleasantly surprised at the fuel pump yesterday when I paid $2.39 per gallon; it was over $3 just a month ago. Gasoline has never been a significant part of our monthly budget—it’s about the same as our cellphone plan---so the recent drop in price is rationally insignificant but packs a feel-good wallop out of proportion to its importance.

The real estate market has cooled, so our house is worth less than it was a year ago. We ignored prices in the neighborhood when they were going up, and we’re ignoring the decline of the past year. When and if we move, our home’s value will cease to be academic and then we’ll care.

The most important topic in this year’s election is war and terrorism. We’ve not had another attack on U.S. soil since 2001, and that seems miraculous. But Iraq is a mess, and there seems to be no end to the expenditure of lives and treasure if we want to “win”, however winning is defined. And there are plenty of other trouble spots: Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea are the main ones but if those aren’t enough we need to worry about Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Venezuela.

It’s possible, even likely, that we can’t have the good---no attacks on U.S. soil---without the bad. Iraq is a cause célèbre that attracts jihadists like moths to a flame (or flies to paper). This is a phenomenon that we have seen before: in the 1930’s Western dreamers and romantics took up arms in the Spanish civil war.
'Spain' became the cause célèbre for the left-leaning intelligentsia across the Western world, and many prominent artists and writers entered the Republic's service.
Only now the dreamers are on the other side.

But back to the question in the title, I am better off than I was two, four, and five years ago. And yes, things could be even better, but they also could be a lot, lot worse. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Flashy Intro

Ford Motor Co. is struggling through losses, layoffs and a sharp drop in demand for its gas-guzzling trucks and SUV’s. Ford desperately needs Edge, its new mini-SUV, to have a successful debut next month.

This week Ford rented out Justin Herman plaza to showcase the Edge and fete major customers and dealers. The Edge has an attractive mix of price (under $30K), performance (V6, 265 hp), and fuel economy (18 city / 25 hwy), but the car seems only evolutionary, not revolutionary.

We need to replace our old wagon, and the Edge could be the ticket, but we have a policy, confirmed by sad experience over many years and products, of never buying a product in its year of introduction. Nevertheless, here’s hoping that Ford can restore luster to an iconic American brand and that the Edge is more Taurus or Mustang than Edsel. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

[Update - 10/23: Ford announced a loss of $5.8 billion for the quarter ended September 30. Even when a billion ain't what it used to be, that's still a big number.]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

What's Important

Last weekend’s earthquake has made us pause in our plans to retire to Hawaii. Much as we would enjoy living there, we can’t afford to have too much of our net worth tied up in a building that can collapse in a few seconds [Then why do you live on top of the San Andreas fault? That’s not the point; the point is to leave town for some place safe before the Big One hits.]

At first blush Hawaiian residents seem less prepared than Californians to weather a natural disaster. The phone and power lines still hang on poles, making them more vulnerable and dangerous than if they were buried underground. Ramshackle structures that wouldn’t meet building codes on the Mainland can be found on all the islands.

On the other hand, no one died, no one panicked, and no one said they were victimized because government agencies weren’t responsive enough. Living in the middle of the Pacific conveys the sense that you’re on your own and that you have to work together because it will take a while for help to arrive.

It’s been said that trends start in California, and one can point to many examples where California has led the way in such disparate areas as technology, business, entertainment, fashion, and dining. But in a more important respect Hawaii is decades ahead of the rest of the nation. It is a working example of a melting pot, where different racial groups live in harmony.

My own take on why it works there is that everyone is in a minority but shares a common language and common cultural values. Also, each group can point to its own individual success stories, pre-empting the development of a resentful underclass. But enough of committing sociology.

At our family reunion in August we had many more mixed-race than single-race attendees in the generation after mine. That observation didn’t even occur to me until I started writing this post, and I don’t think anyone else noticed. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

My Family: perhaps earthquakes and the preservation of my net worth aren’t the most important considerations in deciding where to live.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sunday Surprise

My parents called to reassure me that they were fine. This morning’s 6.6 quake jolted their Honolulu home and knocked out the power. No TV, no Internet, just a battery-powered radio to convey the news.

Here on the Mainland CNN was running a continuous feed from Honolulu channel KITV. Reports alternated between updates from government agencies and advice to stay off the road and avoid making unnecessary calls (except for this one, of course). I changed the channel when people called in to describe how they were feeling when the earth moved. Later might be the time for personal stories. When the news is breaking, just give it to me straight.

In 1950’s Hawaii we worried about calamities that never came to pass---nuclear war, tidal waves, hurricanes, and earthquakes. In the absence of disaster we quickly become blasé. Even the continuously erupting volcanoes don’t hold our interest for long. We put up guard rails so that tourists don’t get too close to the lava and focus our attention on the next worry du jour.

Early on a clear Sunday morning nearly 65 years ago an unexpected event on the Island of Oahu precipitated a World War. This Sunday we were reminded that life still has the ability to surprise. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, October 12, 2006

His Time is Past

Warren Buffett on how to prevent corporate scandals:
So, at Berkshire, let's start with what is legal, but always go on to what we would feel comfortable about being printed on the front page of our local paper, and never proceed forward simply on the basis of the fact that other people are doing it.
I first read Warren Buffett’s quirky missives during the late1970’s. His life is a good example of the persistence of character. He always charted an independent path and owned up to his mistakes, yet never lost faith in his judgment, which he backed with cold, hard cash. Infusing all his actions is a humility born from his religious beliefs and the chastening lessons of a long life.

Warren Buffett says that the fact that “other people are doing it” doesn’t make it right, echoing the words of millions of parents. But really, how are people these days supposed to chart a moral path? Most of the issues facing us are colored with shades of gray, like whether to answer truthfully to an employee that he might be on a layoff list, or how much financial assistance you should offer your adult child, or whether you should object to an off-color joke told by one of your friends, or whether you should give a dollar to a plainly drug-addicted mendicant.

The best defense against venality is virtue, said the ancients. We know that enforcing good behavior through the passage of laws and hiring of cops is costly. We know that doing the right thing should be voluntary and not prompted by the fear of punishment. Yet, as the authority of religion subsides, our culture acknowledges no higher power than itself. “Other people are doing it” is in fact the truth behind the power. Poor Warren Buffett: his time is past. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Too Much South of the Border

This morning's news:
Five people trying to sneak into the United States from Mexico became trapped in a narrow tunnel and had to be rescued Tuesday after the largest of them, a nearly 200-pound man, got stuck trying to climb out through a storm drain, authorities said. Firefighters used jackhammers at the city's border with Tijuana to widen the opening and free the man, who had become stuck at the hips.

Monday, October 09, 2006


During a weekend filled with headline events---Bluegrass festival, Fleet Week, Raiders at 49ers---I stayed close to home. There was nothing that I absolutely had to do or see. Recalling that old saw about buses, if nothing on the Bay Area calendar is appealing, we just have to wait 15 minutes for the next one.

DirecTV’s digital video recorder (model R10) finally stopped working after months of steadily deteriorating performance. Although I had purchased the extended warranty from Best Buy, I was reluctant to return the now-discontinued recorder for the newer model. Beginning with the R15, DirecTV has been too cheap to pay license fees for TiVo's superior user interface (think Mac OS vs Windows or iPod vs. other MP3 players), so DirecTV devised its own software. But when the machine rebooted every 15 minutes I threw in the towel.

The Best Buy “Geek Squad” (an homage to Apple’s Genius Bar) said the R10 could not be repaired and gave me a new R15. As I suspected, the new DVR hardware works, but the interface is user-hostile. The remote control has too many buttons, and the menus aren’t intuitive. When we become a high definition household, we’ll select a cable or satellite company that offers TiVo, and it won't be our current provider.

I drove the youngster to the City to visit Maggie, who’s cut his hair ever since he was an infant. She took special care with him after his surgery and makes him comfortable. Maggie opened her own shop on Ocean Avenue and appears to be doing well. She’s hired two assistants, and the wait is an hour on weekends. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

In-n-out, Daly City: the best things aren't always expensive.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Buzzing About

Grumpily I stare at the sign. The trains are running 30–60 minutes late. I regretted that I had been in such a hurry to get to Hillsdale station this morning. I could have stopped for a cuppa joe. I look at my watch: Starbucks is just 12 minutes away, but counting the time for a round trip and the wait in line, I forego the temptation. I don’t know when the next train’s coming and I don't want to miss it.

It’s gray, drizzly, and cool, auguring a wet winter and a thick snowpack, just like last year. It’s only the first week in October, and I’m wearing a sweater and a raincoat.

[Good movie, by the way--First Monday in October, starring Jill Clayburgh and Walter Matthau. Witty and funny, Jill Clayburgh is a babe who plays the first female Supreme Court justice. Back in the ‘80’s, when they needed beautiful and smart, they called Jill Clayburgh. However, it was obvious that the scriptwriters had no idea how a conservative jurist really thinks or sounds.

Sodden thought: it would be very easy for a conservative writer like George Will or William Safire or Newt Gingrich to compose a reasoned essay arguing the liberal position, whether the topic was stem-cell research, tax policy, affirmative action, or terrorism. There are not many liberals---and none of them live in Hollywood---who could fake a convincing argument in the other direction, say, in favor of the Iraq war without the argument sounding cartoonish (Weapons of mass destruction! Bring the evildoers to justice!) and forced. They really need to mingle more with the masses.]

Well, I finally made it to the office. It’s Fleet Week, and the Blue Angels are buzzing about the Bay. May as well enjoy the show now. No telling how many more years these excess CO2 emissions will be tolerated. © 2006 Stephen Yuen

By mid-afternoon the skies had cleared.

Peace Bus: land-based vehicles can emit gases too, but when your intentions are pure, it's okay.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Animal Crossing

Our household has been home to many pets---rabbits, fish, hamsters, birds, and the latest guest, a guinea pig named Bubbles. The doctors periodically caution that pet dander exacerbates our allergies, but we ignore the warnings. Our furry friends give us unconditional love, a gift all too rare from our two-legged acquaintances.

Cynics and Skinnerians may scoff that we just imagine that our pets love us. Animals, they say, are just practicing learned behaviors to provoke the desired reaction from their food dispensers. The scoffers may be right, but judge for yourself: when you look into your pet’s eyes, is there an intelligence that is looking back?

Tomorrow is the day that we remember one of Christendom’s greatest saints, Francis of Assisi. Francis was the patron saint of animals and the environment. He founded the order of Friars Minor, from which sprang other orders that are prominent in Catholic and Protestant churches. And, lest we forget, we live near the city that bears his name.

During this week many churches hold a special service to bless pets and their guardians. Last weekend two ministers from our parish set up a table at the local park and said a prayer over every pet that was presented. At least 40 people showed up. It was a rare experience---strangers brought together by a common interest, chatting amicably for an hour, and no one buying, selling, or wanting anything from the other. Eight centuries after his death, the light of Saint Francis shines brighter than ever. © 2006 Stephen Yuen