Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Science is Encouraging

Over the years the needle on my bathroom scale has risen faster than my investment portfolio (not a high standard, to be sure). The nagging from my doctor has also increased--he’s a fit runner, and he’s entitled--so will next year finally be the time that I get serious about shedding the pounds and getting in shape?

I can take comfort in the example set by female acquaintances who, later in life, look better than ever. And research has shown that successful dieting is easier for guys.
In general, men want to keep it simple. They don't want to get tangled in the minutiae. The basic male approach is: just tell me what to eat.

"Women could probably learn some things from them," said [Weight Watchers’ Karen] Miller-Kovach. "Men will just cut something out, like no ice cream, whereas women will go on a low-fat ice cream. Women tend to do a lot of substituting, whereas guys will cut out the beer rather than going to a light beer. The little bit of research that's been done shows the man's approach is better."

Another reason men can be better at dieting is that they are generally larger and require more caloric intake, so reducing calories can have a more significant impact on weight loss. Additionally, it's widely known that men lose weight faster due to their having more lean muscle mass, which burns more calories than fat.
Or, I could join the writers on a picket line, where “Twelve hours of walking in a circle has not produced a new contract, but it has resulted in a new pants size.” © 2007 Stephen Yuen

[Update: below is a poignant entry on this topic in Post Secret.]

Friday, December 28, 2007

Pollyanna-ish About Pakistan

Yesterday’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto was an extremely high-value “kill” for Islamic terrorists. Her death not only sets back the democratic movement in Pakistan, but “the world's second-most-populous Muslim nation totters on the brink of becoming a failed state”. Beset by Islamic extremists, lambasted by civil libertarians, and threatened by repeated assassination attempts on his person, Pervez Musharraf’s own tenure may not outlast George Bush’s.

And if Pakistan flies apart into different religions and tribes, what happens to its nuclear weapons? Nuclear-armed Pakistan all along was a much bigger prize for jihadists than Iraq or Afghanistan. America’s foreign policy choice seems to be limited to propping up the dictator Musharraf---much as we did the Shah of Iran decades ago and look how well that turned out---and crossing our fingers that we somehow avoid the abyss.

Iraq has taught us important lessons—instilling democracy takes years if not decades, the rule of law cannot take hold when the bullets are flying, many in the West expect America to wage the “perfect” war with zero U.S. soldiers and innocents killed, and that such a perfect war must be won within a couple of years.

World population rankings from Wikipedia.

Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world, and any American-style military expedition into Pakistan beyond the specific objective of securing its nuclear armaments will fail because it's impossible to pacify and democratize 162 million people with the forces we can put on the ground.

Map from Refugees International.

But note the proximity of the world’s two most populous countries. Rising economic powers who are just beginning to reap the benefits of globalization, China and India have much more to lose from Pakistan’s dissolution. They will do the killing that is necessary to defend their people, and the world will look the other way because the U.S. is not involved.

We’ll be the good guys as we deplore the violence that others inflict while we silently cheer them on, and we’ll airlift supplies and help rebuild the region when the shooting stops. So let's root for Musharraf to survive, but the alternative may eventually work out. Otherwise, Benazir Bhutto's assassination may be an Archduke Ferdinand moment. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Eve at St. James by-the-Sea

For all my objections to its ideologues (and I don’t use the word lightly) in leadership positions, I have never found any Episcopal parish or mission to be less than welcoming. Last night’s Christmas Eve service at St. James By-the-Sea was no exception. Despite the fact that most men were dressed in suits and I wore but a sweater and jeans, everyone seemed happy that we were there.

The church is generations removed from the days when it frowned on one’s physical appearance. One wears a tie because one wants to honor the occasion, not to impress other people (well, not as much). But the lack of a nice suit or dress pales in importance to one’s presence at the altar, where the great and humble are equal in the sight of God. That’s one attitude change that we all can agree is progress.

St. James is a wealthy parish overlooking the ocean in tony La Jolla. The midnight service had four clergy, a 40-member choir, a string quartet, and a harp. The church was packed with over 300 people, most of whom looked like they could trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower.

(It’s easy to digress into an argument about the apparent hypocrisy of lavishing money on chancel and chalices when there’s so much grinding poverty in the world; Christians have always wrestled with this issue. My response: I'm glad they built the cathedrals of Europe. Last night I listened to skilled musicians perform glorious music in praise of their God. As they say in Hollywood, all the money was up there on the screen.)

We returned to our son’s apartment in San Diego, where we had placed gifts around a potted plant. Just as a pumpkin became a coach in the fairy tale, a few modest stems and leaves can become a tree when infused with the Spirit.

Merry Christmas! © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 24, 2007

Financial Versification

"Those of us who grew up wanting to be writers and are now in the financial markets don't get to scratch that itch very often," says Fortis currency trader Cameron Crise. Here is an example of his scratching, a year-end précis of the turmoil in financial markets, conducted to the cadence of Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham.
I would not like it here or there
I would not like it anywhere
I do not like your CDO
I do not like it, Broker Joe.
Judging from this writing sample Mr. Crise shouldn’t quit his day job just yet.

But he has my sympathy; I briefly shared Mr. Crise’s youthful enchantment with the writing life. Its manifestations today are in my annual habit of doggerelizing our family’s Christmas letter (late again) and occasional posts to this humble weblog. And no, I shouldn’t quit my day job either.

Fortunately for those who depend on me economically, I realized long ago that no one would pay folding money for my scrivening skills. So I chose professions--corporate finance and accounting—in which there’s a chance for me to retire before senescence overwhelms the ability to compose a sentence. If I can keep my wits and my health, I can later indulge my yen for writing, music, travel, playing games both physical and electronic, reading, and just plain goofing off.

Dreams can be sweet even, and perhaps especially, if we have to wait all our lives to attain them. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Trek the Halls

USA Today says that Christmas caroling is a vanishing tradition. Perhaps so, but the residents of three nursing homes on the Peninsula were pleased to see us last Sunday.

They put down their bingo tokens and turned off their TVs to listen to our mix of religious and secular standards.

Some belted out the carols along with us and clapped.

The enjoyment on their faces was genuine. They had grown up in an era when each household had someone who could play the piano.

Families would gather round to sing instead of dispersing to their separate electronic worlds.

A few of our voices clearly lacked training (ahem), but fortunately there was an upright piano for our church organist to keep us in tune and in time.

What we lacked in skill we made up for in enthusiasm.

We passed out ornaments that the children made and wished them all a Merry Christmas.

Some were sad to see us leave. If and when I am similarly situated, I hope someone sings for me.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Holiday Party, 2007

Eileen, Curt, and Wing:
Curt roasts some retirees.
As predicted, this year’s holiday party shrunk to about 60 revelers. We showed off our renovated office to retirees who arrived early, then walked to the Americano Restaurant a couple of blocks away. The Americano, whose outdoor terrace is across the street from the Bay, is another beneficiary of the 1989 earthquake that demolished the concrete Embarcadero freeway. Dressed in our Christmas finery and sipping champagne, we were able to enjoy the views on the cool, breezeless day.

I sat next to a retired Exec VP who is teaching, volunteering, and traveling. He had resumed violin-playing after a decades-long hiatus and inquired whether I had done the same. No, but maybe that’s something I will do in my second act. (In the ‘90’s I borrowed an instrument to scrape away at a couple of holiday parties.) I was surprised that he remembered those moments. As for my remembrances of working with him, let’s just say that he was certainly a lot nicer now.

Melanie, Kathy, and Bartay
Too bad there was no mistletoe.
In fact everyone was a lot nicer. Those of us who are left enjoy working together, and with the turnover and shedding of businesses over the past decade we all were cognizant that our time together is short.

Another retiree flaunted her three-carat diamond ring and talked about the new German car she just bought. Her sleek black dress showed that the regimen of cruises didn’t hurt her figure, and her face was wrinkle-free. Bring on that second act!

© 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not Impartial Enough

Yesterday I came the closest that I've ever been to being selected for a jury. In three previous occasions I'd never made it past the assembly room, in which 50-60 citizens out of one hundred are randomly selected to go up to the courtroom for further winnowing. This jury would be hearing a criminal case involving narcotics, and the judge estimated that the trial could last until Christmas.

The first day (Tuesday) was devoted to listening to my fellow citizens plead "extreme hardship". The excuses that worked were: childcare problems, loss of income if the prospective juror was the sole source in the household, and planned vacations. Marginal cases were let off if the individual's thick accent indicated that he or she would have difficulty following the proceedings.

On the second day the conversations were of a more philosophical bent. Both sets of lawyers inquired about our biases---whether the defendant's proficiency in English would incline us toward a guilty or not-guilty verdict, whether we would give more credence to the testimony of a police officer, whether our personal experience or that of our close friends and relatives with drugs would incline us in either direction. Juror selection seemed to be a combination of an academic discussion and a job interview, so if one had the time I suppose one could be engaged by the process. To those on a schedule it was tedious and too much hair-splitting.

At the end of the day the defense exercised its right of peremptory challenge and excused me. My guess is that it was because I have a close relative in law enforcement. I would not have been impartial enough. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Secretly Pleased

No one in his classroom wanted to participate in San Mateo High School’s annual Food Drive, but the youngster promised one of the student organizers that he would help. And so it was that on the weekend before last the youngster and his mother stood outside the Foster City Lucky’s to hand out flyers and collect canned food and money for the Second Harvest Food Bank and Samaritan House.

About one in five patrons dropped cans in the basket on the way out. A few kindly souls gave him a shopping bag’s worth.

We packed the donations--about 300 pounds of food--into the van and carried them to the school. His classmates were happy to help unload. We hoped that one or two would be inspired by his example, but even if that turned out not to be, we were secretly pleased that he was doing the right thing.

I handed him a check. Dollars to Samaritan House and Second Harvest will go farther than at some other institutions. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Friday, December 07, 2007

"Enchanted" - A Review

The passing years have rubbed away the youthful cynicism, and I fear that my true self, a maudlin sentimentalist, is emerging. How else to explain my enjoyment of Enchanted, the latest piece of holiday fluff from Disney?

A half-century or more after the releases of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, Enchanted first celebrates then gently makes fun of the conventions of the genre when the protagonists of a fairy-tale world are thrust into the urban jungle that is contemporary New York.

The movie opens in animated Andalasia. The song of humble Giselle is overheard by the passing Prince Edward, who immediately proposes marriage. His evil (we know this because she’s dressed in black) stepmother Narissa uses magic to cast Giselle out of Andalasia into live-action Manhattan.

When the innocent princess-to-be walks the streets of New York at night, her encounters are unfortunate—but not calamitously so since this is a PG-rated Disney movie. She’s rescued by world-weary divorce lawyer Robert, who gives her a temporary place to sleep. In a non-Disney movie the audience would question Robert’s motives, but that question is immediately put to bed because Robert is a single parent with a six-year-old daughter Morgan, whose presence requires him to be on his best behavior. Morgan also is the only one that sees that Giselle really is a princess and not merely another sad delusional in need of medication.

Meanwhile Prince Edward leaves Andalasia to find Giselle, followed by the stepmother’s henchman Nathaniel, and finally Narissa herself. (For a complete synopsis with spoilers, see Wikipedia’s entry.) While there are several story threads, the main plot line is
obvious: will Giselle choose her fairy-tale Prince Edward or real-world divorce lawyer Robert?

Enchanted can be enjoyed at several levels. It’s a musical with some elaborate song-and-dance numbers, and Amy Adams plays Giselle “big” with extravagant emotions and gestures appropriate for the stage. It’s got special effects, including all too real (and disgusting) depictions of vermin and cockroaches, and a nearly seamless overlay of live action with animation. It’s got humor and a feminist view that’s not hard to spot: Giselle is the strongest character against James Marsden’s buffoonish Edward and Patrick Dempsey’s jaded Robert.

And if you’re looking for deeper themes, they’re present as well. What if we’ve dreamt of being a princess all our lives and suspect at the last minute that the dream is not what’s best for us or what we really want? How easily may we dismiss others’ expectations in the pursuit of our own desires?

But this is still a fairy tale, after all. The plot lines are tied up, and everyone except the evil stepmother lives happily ever after. Just the way I, and millions of others, like it. © 2007 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, December 06, 2007

More Than A Fender

The quiet in our neighborhood this morning was shattered by a crash and the incessant blaring of a damaged SUV's horn. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mother Knows Best

Divorce creates more households. Because more households generate more greenhouse gases, divorce is bad for the planet. Hey, human existence is bad for the planet. I can get rid of my lawn, which uses water, fertilizer, and pesticides, I can bike to the train station, I can become a vegetarian and reduce the demand for bovine methane factories, but I still have to breathe, don’t I? CO2---the new original sin.

Staying married because you promised God that you would is passé. Do it for Mother Earth.