Sunday, April 29, 2007

East Bay Blues

I’ve never regretted moving from the East Bay to the Peninsula over 20 years ago. Early this morning there was another reason to be grateful.
A tanker carrying unleaded gasoline exploded early this morning, causing 250 yards of roadway to collapse near Emeryville. The driver walked away from the incident and took a taxi to a nearby hospital where he is being treated for second-degree burns, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The accident destroyed a section of freeway near the heart of the Macarthur Maze, where four freeways intersect, about a mile from the Bay Bridge toll entrance. Traffic will have to be diverted for weeks.

The good news is that some routes to the Bay Bridge will be re-opened.

Aloha, V

V and her husband are retiring and moving away after 30 years of working in the City. They have taken the equity from their Bay Area house, paid cash for their new digs, and have enough left over to sleep comfortably during those sultry summer nights in North Carolina. I’ll miss her and her helpfulness, her even-keeled temperament and sunny smile, and the cakes and lumpia that have contributed to my high cholesterol reading.

Best wishes, V, aloha, mahalo, and Godspeed.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thursday Throwaways

Vexing Question
Definition of an MBA: a person who has the answer to all the questions but one, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"

Finally, we have an answer:
Intelligence has nothing to do with wealth, according to a US study published Tuesday which found that people with below average smarts were just as wealthy as those with higher IQ scores
That's a relief. Now I have the answer to all the questions.

You Can Tell A Man's Politics by What He Fears
Former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani said that the country will be more vulnerable to terrorism if a Democrat were elected President in 2008. Barack Obama provided one typical reaction: "Rudy Giuliani today has taken the politics of fear to a new low and I believe Americans are ready to reject those kind of politics."

Based on what they've been talking about recently, Democrats are scared about something else:
Scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict that global temperatures could rise between 2 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the 100 years, resulting [in] a rise of one to three feet in global sea level by 2100.
Terrorist attack in 2008 vs. wearing hip waders in 2100? Call me stupid (see earlier post), but I'm with Giuliani.

Sharks and Warriors in the playoffs, Giants and A's doing well, Dow at 13,000, a tax refund is coming, and there's finally time to test a few videogames that I got for Christmas. I'm going to enjoy today for today.

Heart of Union Square.

Monday, April 23, 2007


On a street that was off the beaten path I walked past an old woman sitting on a bench. Her eyes were closed, and her face was raised to the sun. A shopping cart held her worldly possessions. Unlike her younger, insistent counterparts on Market Street, she didn’t ask for money, nor did she even have a beggar’s bowl.

Thirty paces later, I turned with a sigh, and pulled out a ten spot. Her eyes widened. “God bless you,” she smiled. Yes, He has. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Photo courtesy of PostSecret

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Along the Embarcadero

The seals outnumbered their observers on a cool April afternoon.

Coit Tower: halfway point between Pier 39 and the Ferry Building.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Business of America

The busybody is a staple of TV mockery. We disdain the nosy neighbor who takes an unhealthy interest in our private business. This is especially true in college, where we go to find our true selves away from the watchful eyes of our parents. Leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone, too. Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech mass murderer, kept to himself while his anger boiled.
In the suite in Harper Hall where he lived with five other students, he was known as a loner, almost a stranger, amid a student body of 26,000. He ate his meals alone in a dining hall. Karan Grewal, 21, another student in the suite of rooms where he lived, recalled that when a candidate for student council visited the suite this year to pass out candy and ask for votes, Cho refused even to make eye contact.

Cho submitted two profoundly violent and profane plays. Ian MacFarlane, a classmate who now works for America Online, posted the plays on the company's Web site Tuesday, saying they had horrified the rest of the students.

"When we read Cho's plays, it was like something out of a nightmare," MacFarlane wrote. "The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn't have even thought of."

As a result of them, MacFarlane added, "we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter.”
Cho was clearly troubled and had been referred to counseling. In hindsight, obviously, a much stronger intervention was needed, but how do we distinguish a Cho Seung-Hui from the hundreds of isolated unhappy kids on every campus in the country? Most students have their own problems and don’t have the energy to solve someone else’s. Besides, nearly everyone is lonely and unhappy at some point when one first leaves home.

In 2001 a concerned South Bay citizen, a Longs’ Drugs clerk, alerted police to disturbing photographs she had finished processing:
Local officials are crediting Kelly Bennett with saving the lives of possibly hundreds of students. Less than 10 hours before [Al] DeGuzman was allegedly going to begin laying out explosives, Bennett found herself staring at freshly developed pictures of a young man in black boots, gloves, and pants, posing with what appeared to be pipe bombs and guns. Police have characterized DeGuzman as an angry individual, brimming with hate, and a fascination with the deadly 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Signs of a troubled teenager emerged this week [February 9, 2001], after police arrested DeGuzman for allegedly assembling the guns and weapons and plotting a massacre.
DeGuzman was arrested, convicted in 2002, and hanged himself in 2004. The warning signs given off by Cho eerily mirror those by DeGuzman, but in Virginia there was no “busybody” like Kelley Bennett to sound the alarm. Knowing when to step in, knowing when to back off, and knowing that we can’t dither too long about the decision is one of the urgent problems of the modern age. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tragedy in Blacksburg

As of early this morning, the public doesn’t know the shooter’s motivation, where he got his weapons, or even his name. So many lives, filled with promise, snuffed in an instant. The global village mourns.

The subjects of debate are easily foreseen: more gun control (obvious), campus security (equally obvious), more guns in people’s hands (if everyone were armed, this could have been stopped a lot sooner), immigration policy (the killer may be a student from China), and the wounded male psyche. The presidential candidates no doubt have already staked out their positions.

Once again a topic that was unimportant to most people rises to the top of the national consciousness; think global war on terror, Hurricane Katrina, Terri Schiavo, and climate change. Well, there’s only so much room at the top. Our capacity for worry has long since been overwhelmed.

My church may have its flaws, but it does respond well to tragedies such as these. Episcopal Relief and Development will shortly be aiding the families of victims in the area, and I’ll be sending along a check. I can’t do much, but I can do something. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

[Update from Yahoo news: Police identified the classroom shooter as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a senior from South Korea]

Domo, Dodo

I’ve known Doris for over thirty years. She’s one of the sweetest, nicest people I’ve ever met. She never raises her voice, and, because she’s physically unimposing. strangers are apt to think that she can be pushed around. But they would be wrong. They don’t know how persistent she can be when arguing with a contractor, her boss, or the bank when she believes she’s right.

Doris tried to retire long ago, but her employer repeatedly summoned her back when youngsters a fraction of her age couldn’t measure up. Earlier this year Doris said that she really meant it this time and retired. Many years of well-deserved leisure await.

On Saturday we celebrated her 90th birthday at Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant in San Jose. Family and friends flew in from afar. The band played Porter and Gershwin standards that weren’t oldies when Doris first heard them. After heartfelt tributes from her children, Doris got up to say a few words. She spoke of her parents' move to Palo Alto when its population was 1,000 and University Avenue was two blocks long. She mentioned how a wage of $100 per month meant you were doing well. She spoke of how blessed her life has been. She thanked us for coming. No, Dodo—as she’s called by her nieces and nephews--thank you. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Doris' birthday cake, one of those you hate to cut up.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Here's to the Silver Sea

It’s a sign of how long he’s been at the top that my college roommates--in the ‘70’s!--used to warble “Tiny Bubbles” after they had a few beers. It’s the perfect feel-good drinking song, which anyone can sing with its slow glissando of pitch changes and easy lyrics (no word over two syllables). Another signature hit, “Pearly Shells”, has a similarly restricted vocabulary (in “covering the shore” the rushed cov-ring is really two syllables). Don Ho’s music is easy on the ears and easy on the brain.

Tiny Bubbles is one of those songs that loses an ineffable something when sung by another. With Don Ho’s passing yesterday, it will never sound the same.
So here's to the ginger lei
I give to you today
And here's a kiss
That will not fade away
© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Easter Evensong

The Keiskamma Altarpiece is on display through May.

Easter is one of Christianity’s three great feasts, the other two being Christmas and Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit entered the world and begat the Church). Casting off their Lenten abstemiousness, Christians fill their places of worship with celebration and song. Afterwards there are Easter egg hunts, family gatherings, and a groaning board of comestibles that would do Thanksgiving proud.

This year I have more than the usual preoccupations, and the contemplative mood of Lent has not quite been banished. And so it was that we filed silently into Grace Cathedral last Sunday afternoon. The small gathering included tourists, Christians who missed morning Mass, and still others who needed evening prayer to complete their day.

The choir had gone home to their families, and congregants were invited to sit in the choir stalls surrounding the altar. The dignity of the surroundings enjoined us from slouching. I gazed at the polished wood, the granite carvings, and the stained glass while a young priest repeatedly called for peace and justice during the homily.

Listening in my high-backed chair, I was annoyed because I don’t believe that fighting AIDS in Africa or fixing the environment or even withdrawing from the Middle East, worthy causes though they may be, was the takeaway message from the Resurrection, but then again I wasn’t taught in seminary. If the mission of the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, the Episcopal Church is doing a good job, at least with the latter. That’s one reason why the national membership has been halved to about two million, and that’s why this magnificent cathedral is rarely filled.

After the service we chatted briefly with newly installed Bishop Marc and his wife Sheila, who had quietly attended the service with other worshippers. He doesn’t seem at all impressed with the trappings of his office. There’s hope yet. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Masterly Finish

Like millions of other viewers, I spent the afternoon watching Zach Johnson charge to the title of the Masters Golf Tournament. He seems so young and inexperienced compared to the steely-eyed Tiger Woods, who finished two strokes behind Zach Johnson. Yet Tiger, 31, is only two months older than Zach. More than a decade in the limelight and hundreds of millions of dollars in winnings and endorsements have conferred on Tiger a degree of polish and maturity unusual in one so “young”. (Tiger has a lot in common with his boyhood idol Jack Nicklaus, however; he doesn’t mask disappointment very well.)

On this Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate the gift of life itself, I found Zach Johnson’s emotional outpouring of humility and gratitude refreshing. He’s a worthy and appropriate champion.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Taxing Matters

The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.
---Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)
Our previous year’s Federal return was thick and heavy enough to require a lot of extra postage, and 2006 doesn’t promise to be any improvement. [I’m a wary taxpayer who resists e-filing; the less personal information converted to electronic form the better.] The financial complexity of modern life is harder to stem than CO2 emissions, and the Internal Revenue code is there, watching over our shoulders and promulgating indecipherable rules for every product and activity that ingenious human beings devise.

Whether we’re talking about how we make money---salaries, pensions, interest, dividends, real estate etc. etc.---or how we spend it---medical bills, mortgages, tuition, charities, cars, retirement savings, etc. etc.---there are specific steps that the tax code says we have to follow to account for each transaction properly. And woe betide anyone who slips up; it is a maxim—undoubtedly originated by lawyers and judges—that ignorance of the law is no excuse. That the law isn’t written in comprehensible English is no excuse either.

But it’s futile to get upset at what the government makes us do every April 15th. The nearly-100-year-old income tax is constitutional, says the highest court in the land, and as denizens of the 21st century we have to accept it as we do with airport security, smog checkups, and e-mail spam.

Someday there will be a technological solution to our filing and compiling woes, a Taxtube or implant that will figure out the tax implications of everything we do in real time and have a report ready on January 1st. Until then all we can do is hiss. [Follow-on comment: as usual, the military has a colorful term for describing philosophical acceptance of an inescapable condition.] © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Being Green Justifies the Means

Because the roof has the contour of Darth Vader's helmet, perhaps helicopters can land in the side opening? Hope they're careful backing out. And forget about rooftop rescues.

A critic comments on a new addition to San Francisco's skyline:
A unique combination of crackpot environmentalism and elaborate ugliness, the Federal Building will finally opens its doors (or flaps, or airlocks, or orifices, or something) later this month and it will boast a number of odd design "features." For instance, the Federal Building is an office tower tall enough to disrupt the city's skyline, yet its elevators only stop on every third floor--the better to conserve energy. And after trudging up and down the stairs on a blazing summer afternoon the unfortunate tenants soak in their own sweat because the building has no air conditioning . . . again to save energy.
I wonder how people in wheelchairs could access each floor if the elevators stop at only 33% of them. If the solution was a ramp, then it couldn't be at too steep an angle. Ramps throughout the building would be an enormous waste of usable space, even for the government. Ramps also have the disadvantage of speeding, not retarding, the spread of fire from floor to floor. No, the answer is likely to be that elevators can stop at each level (a feature requested by rational customers), and that the controls can be overriden by the security guard who will quickly become the most popular guy in the building. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 02, 2007


Appetizer charcuterie (clockwise from top left): Duck Rillettes with Baguette Crostinis, Spicy Pepperoni with Fire Roasted Peppers, Smoked Kielbasa with Herbed Mustard, and Chicken Liver Pate with Balsamic Glazed Shallots

Somewhat on impulse, and feeling flush because last month’s credit card charges were low, I made a reservation at one of the Bay Area’s “name” restaurants, Spago of Palo Alto. Wolfgang Puck opened Spago nearly ten years ago, and it was impossible, then, to get a table. By 2001 the dotcom crash had culled the crowds, while newer, hotter restaurants attracted the young hipsters for whom a five-year-old establishment was passé.

265 Lytton is a prime location, one block from University Avenue and a short walk from the train station. Walking through the portal brought back memories of sipping a glass of chardonnay in the spring sun amidst vine-covered stone walls; it was an indulgence that even a budget-conscious student couldn't resist.

The inside dining room was a popular place for prospective employers to conduct job interviews. Business conversations were always a trial because I had to remember my table manners, focus on the discussion topic, and nibble at the food. Chinese cuisine might leave one hungry an hour later, but interview luncheons were worse: I sometimes grabbed a burger right after.

Spago was about half-filled at eight p.m. last Thursday. At a nearby table two women were celebrating their father’s birthday while he made faces at his bored granddaughter in the high chair. The gentleman sat ramrod straight in his brown suit, a military man whose like, sadly, is disappearing from view.

After the appetizer arrived, I began to chat about work---specifically the actions of a large competitor--with my dinner companion, until she signaled that a nearby table of accountants and lawyers had fallen silent. So we started to talk about our children and Roth IRA conversions, and they resumed their conversation.

Duck breast

We had a pleasant, unspectacular meal. The appetizers had cooled to room temperature but were tasty enough. Service was attentive, and throughout the meal small dishes (creamy onion soup, sorbet, chocolates) cleaned our palates. (One of the top-ten phrases in the English language: “compliments of the chef”.)

I paid the bill, about $100, and strolled back to the car in the cool night air. This time I didn’t need to grab a burger. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

The short ribs were fork tender.