Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Eve, 2008

After a hectic day of touring San Francisco, a last-minute visit to the doctor (everything turned out copacetic), and a family gathering at a local restaurant, we went home to change. We tucked, pushed, and squeezed into our coats, ties, non-denim pants, and dresses.

The weather outside was frightful, and attendance at the "midnight" (actually 10:30) mass was down from last year. The choir began singing at 10 PM, and we listened quietly to the familiar carols. The atmosphere was more contemplative than joyous. The church seemed to be a haven from the storms outside and the tumult of a stress-filled year. A handful of happy teens showed up, brightening our spirits and inviting hope that the Episcopal church will survive for at least one more generation.

Kneeling to the strains of Silent Night, we lit our candles, symbolic of that evening two millenia ago when the Light came into the world and told us that Darkness is not our ultimate fate. Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Party, 2008

It’s been a rocky year for the investment company that I work for. Not only has our cost of funds escalated dramatically (at least we can get funds if we need them), but more customers are defaulting. Cash cushions are dwindling to an uncomfortable level, and some of the younger finance folk are getting nervous about both the company and their personal situations. Suppressing my doubts, I reassure them that these times will pass.

If you have the funds, it’s a good time to be buying. Asset prices have plummeted in nearly all categories. But cash alone is not sufficient to be a player. You need nerves and the courage to back your judgment.

This week we plunked down some precious cash and assumed some debt to make a major investment in almost-new transportation equipment. If we return to a normal business environment in short order, this purchase will be a great performer. If not, well, I’ll send my resume to the government like the rest of the nation’s jobseekers.

So an otherwise difficult year ended on an uptick, making the holiday party at the Cosmopolitan Café unexpectedly cheerful. We washed down the pupus with champagne and marveled at the youthful appearances of the retirees. Their faces had fewer lines than on the day they left. Whether we're working toward retirement or just a bigger paycheck, for this afternoon most of us really believed that next year will be better. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 15, 2008

Lost vs. Never Found

After being helplessly subjected to a yearlong financial meltdown that few Americans understand---who amongst us can explain how mortgage securitizations and credit-default swaps are supposed to work, much less why they malfunctioned?--it’s refreshing to see that an old fashioned swindlers’ device is alive and well.

Bernard Madoff executed the biggest illegal Ponzi scheme (Social Security is legal, hence the qualifier) in history. The aftershocks threaten to bring down some financial institutions that made it through the subprime earthquake. Many wealthy individuals are no longer so wealthy, and a few have been wiped out.

Mr. Madoff built up his reputation over decades. He wouldn’t accept just anyone as a customer:
In cultivating an aloof mystique, Mr. Madoff had fooled those who fancied themselves the wiser. Typically, investors needed at least $1 million to approach Mr. Madoff. Being a member of this club also helped. But even with those prerequisites, there was little guarantee that Mr. Madoff would take the client.
We’re living in a strange period when one can be grateful for not being richer or more successful. If you’re at the top of the heap in a large organization, you can be arrested, deposed, subpoenaed, and/or sued for events for which the law or media says you’re responsible, although you may really not know much about what transpired.

Or if you’ve accumulated a sizeable nest egg that you’ve entrusted to advisors with unimpeachable reputations, your wealth can still vanish overnight because of incompetence or thievery or bad luck. As for the rest of us, our struggles may be frustrating, but they are nothing compared to the miseries of the poor fallen fellow who has to start all over. Paradise Lost is worse than Paradise Never Found. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hope For Us All

The news lately has been filled with examples of massive greed, venality, and evil (have you forgotten about Mumbai already?). It is easy to give in to despair. In the face of catastrophe, one man transcends the human condition.
A grieving father and husband who lost his wife, two young daughters and mother-in-law when a Marine fighter jet crashed into their home on Monday thanked everyone who has supported him and said he does not blame the pilot of the disabled plane….

Speaking slowly, pausing between thoughts, [Dong Yun] Yoon asked the public to pray for the jet's pilot, who ejected safely in a canyon about two blocks from where the plane crashed, first on the street and then into Yoon's house.

“I don't blame him, I don't have any hard feelings. I know he did everything he could,” Yoon said.
This young father, an immigrant from Korea, lost everything. But he not only refused to lash out, he is praying for the pilot. We are entering the season that commemorates when the light came into the world. Mr. Yoon’s example shows that the light still shines.

Young Mi Yoon and Dong Yun Yoon (AP)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Day of Infamy, 67 Years Later

On December 7, 1941 Japanese bombers obliterated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. My father, a junior at McKinley High, saw the silver planes flying overhead on that clear Sunday morning but didn’t realize anything was out of the ordinary until he saw smoke rising from the Ewa (western) direction of Oahu.

It was a day that changed everything. Millions of Americans answered the call.

While the majority survived the War with life and limbs intact, hundreds of thousands did not, like my wife’s uncle. Some found the armed services to be to their liking and made it a career, like my uncle who was the best auto mechanic I ever knew. Others, like my father-in-law, seized the opportunity offered by the GI bill and went on to college and jobs that they would never previously have considered.

At the U.S.S. Arizona memorial the names of the fallen are inscribed on the wall. Are we worthy of their sacrifice? Perhaps......if we preserve, protect, and pass on the gifts they have given us.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Much To Be Thankful For

At work we’re experiencing the same stresses as are other companies: higher borrowing costs, softening demand for our products, and more uncertainty in planning. Shall we go ahead with purchases and hirings that make sense in normal or even slow times? If we’re in the midst of a long and deep recession, all bets are off.

Raises and bonuses will be minuscule this year, despite everyone working harder than ever. (Since I’ve been in the workforce it seems that every twelve to fifteen years the managers make the rounds saying, “Your bonus is you get to keep your job.”)

No, today’s travails aren’t as bad as the gas lines that we saw during the Seventies, or the 15% mortgage rates during the Eighties, but there’s enough pain and fear to instill conservative life lessons in this latest generation of risk-takers.

Baby-boomers bite their tongues when our sons and daughters proclaim current miseries to be the “worst” ever....this in a period when obesity, not starvation, is America’s principal health problem, and multiple Libraries of Congress are instantly accessible via cellphone. Boomers know that listening to such breathless exclamations is our penance for ignoring and even sneering at our own parents’ tales of real hardship. Today’s problems are nothing. We’re just at the bottom of a cycle, these times will pass, and there’s much to be thankful for. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 01, 2008

Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day I fought off the sinus infection with Tylenol and Claritin and woke before sunrise to begin dinner preparations. I emptied the plastic bag containing the 22-pound tom, which had been soaking for 36 hours in a solution of salt water, sugar, and spices. My responsibilities for the day consisted of the turkey, stuffing, gravy, broccoli, and a de-boned lamb leg that had been marinating in the fridge.

It had been years since Thanksgiving had been held at our house, and my multi-tasking abilities would be stretched to the limit. I reflected not for the first time how management scientists could have saved themselves the trouble of making factory field trips by just watching their mothers in the kitchen during Thanksgiving.

The turkey was in the oven by nine a.m. and the lamb leg joined it at two. Somewhat miraculously, the gravy, broccoli, and stuffing came together without mishap, and all the dishes were completed about the same time. As planned, the brine had made the breast moist and flavorful, so covering the turkey with gravy was merely an option and not a requirement.

Guests arrived with salad, yams, cranberry sauce, and dessert. After I said a few words of thanks, we sat and began our meal. We lingered four hours at the table, talking about everything under the sun. Later there would be clean-up (not by me, thankfully), wrapping and tupperwaring of leftovers, and feelings of regret about overeating. But for the moment there was bliss.

May you, dear reader, have had your own such moments during the past week. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who's Silly Now

After idly poking at this machine over many months, we finally hit the big prize….the 3,000-point royal flush. We should have devoted more of our hours to this time-waster than to our investments. In the real world our efforts are not only futile but damaging. At least the silly game gives us psychic income.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Focus on the Other

Second Harvest Barrel,
the sixth we've filled this year.
In economics we learned that hardship is self-reinforcing. When businesses go through tough times, they lay off employees, who then can’t pay their bills. The majority who are fortunate to keep their jobs cut back on spending due to worries about their own livelihood. Individual behavior spreads to the group, and the economy sinks.

The world of charitable giving is witness to the same phenomenon. When needs are greatest, people not only are less capable of contributing but want to protect what they do have. Donations dry up when they are needed the most.

I admire the people at my local church. Some are retired and live off investments that have cratered in this year’s market meltdown. Others have jobs and businesses that are dying or teetering. Yet they fight against the natural inclination to hunker down. They put aside fears for their own security and focus on helping the less fortunate. May you, dear reader, do the same.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Byzantium by the Bay

We have been pleased with the tankless water heater that we installed last month, but we still had to get final sign-off on the permit. We had cautioned the installer that the Foster City regulatory process was one of the most Byzantine in the Bay Area, but he assured us that, after dealing with the inspectors in Marin County and San Francisco, a Peninsula city should be easy as pie. He had forgotten that pie is a dish often served with humility.

The crusty inspector pointed out the first problem: the installer had run the gas and water feed along the exterior of the house. About 20 feet of piping had to be rendered invisible from the street, so the plumbers spent another day drilling holes in the walls to reroute the lines to the garage interior.

Next, the water heater had to be lowered from our neighbor’s view so that he would not be disturbed by the unsightly box peeking over the six foot fence. (Although it seems to me that only those who have the most extreme esthetic sensitivity would be offended by the sight of a stainless steel box, one does not argue with building inspectors. By the way, our neighbor’s a nice guy and has never complained, but his successor might.)

The ¾ -inch wrapping around the pipes was insufficiently thick for reasons not entirely clear, especially since other cities deemed that width to be adequate. The local Home Depot didn’t carry one-inch insulation, but our installer located a plumbing supply specialist who did. “Foster City?” the storeowner asked rhetorically.

The final requirement was that the black insulation had to be painted white, again for esthetic reasons. You never know when my neighbor might look at our pipes from his upstairs bedroom and be horrified by the sight of stark black against white. I took pity on our installer, who was operating under a fixed price contract, and said that I myself would slap a double coat of paint on the foam.

The inspector signed off this week. While I have to admit that some of the changes improve the look of the system, I do wonder about the cost of compliance.

© 2008 Stephen Yuen

We Won't Even Realize

(Continuation of above post) Cost-benefit analysis is one perspective from which one may view the accretion of power in our government. But I prefer to look at this subject at the ground level. The personal is the political, goes the saying.

In a thousand ways great and small our freedoms are increasingly circumscribed. I keep an eye on the traffic cameras and slam on the brakes when the light turns yellow. I paint black water pipes white because my neighbor's sensibilities might be offended. I have to check with the city before taking down a fence or putting a new one up. Whether I drive my car every day or once a month, it must pass the same smog inspection every two years. I refrain from making (overly) snarky remarks on this blog and even in friendly e-mails because a comment made in haste could some day come back to haunt me. We have to file all sorts of forms and payments with various agencies, and they must be complete and on time.

We're light years away from living in a 20th century totalitarian state, but more of our actions than we realize are dictated by compulsory rules, whether putting on a seat belt, reaching or not reaching for a smoke or a drink, or paying a nanny. We'll cede more and more of our freedoms during the next four years, and the pity is that we won't even realize that it's happening. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 10, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Obama

Conservatives in blue states can come out of hiding. Our lives will be better now that Barack Obama will be the next President. And this happy circumstance will have nothing to do with his politics.

For nearly eight years we’ve had to put up with not just whining but vituperative outbursts at home, in classes, at work, on TV, in coffee shops, and in bookstores. Exposure to the enraged is very wearying, if not hazardous to one’s health. Most conservatives avoided political arguments because they often culminated in personal insults and screaming fits.

Frankly, I feared a McCain come-from-behind win because of the anger his victory would have unleashed. (Take the Proposition 8 protests in California and multiply by a thousand.) The Obama triumph, on the other hand, has triggered overwhelming exultation in those who voted for him and only anxiety and disappointment---but very few instances of anger---in McCain supporters. The emotion matrix looks something like this:

Economists say that we shouldn’t add someone’s joy to another’s sorrow--measuring the group’s overall welfare from the sum of the parts is a methodological minefield--but any married couple will tell you that they make those calculations all the time. He will go to the opera if she will go to the baseball game [reverse the pronouns’ gender to make the last sentence more palatable, if you like]. In either case the happiness experienced by one far outweighs the mild unhappiness and boredom experienced by the other, and the net wellbeing of the couple is positive.

From a group perspective an Obama victory means that we’ll all get along a lot better. My moderate unhappiness is quickly dispelled if everyone around me is smiling. And what is the value of a mildly satisfactory McCain victory if that means we have to be surrounded by apoplectic rage for the next four years?

Love is in the air. The esteemed Governor of California remarked that, although his candidate lost, I can get back into the bedroom, so there's the big advantage.

And it came to pass, in the months before Barack ascended to his high office, that the pony lay down with the pachyderm.
© 2008 Stephen Yuen

Friday, November 07, 2008

I Spoke Too Soon

Stocks have plummeted 10% since my post on Tuesday. Commentators have blamed Cisco's disappointing earnings, higher jobless claims, and the realization that hey, we could be in a recession! But really, all that (except for Cisco, but tech stocks have been emitting mixed signals since late spring) has been known for months. What new information could possibly have come to the market's attention on Tuesday and caused investors to revise their outlook downward? It's a mystery.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Reasons to Feel Optimistic

....and not because of the outcome of today's elections.

After a dismal three months the stock market has bounced back strongly over the past week, recovering half of its recent losses. If you view the five-day graph the bounce is more noticeable.

Oil prices trade around $70 per barrel; a scant few months ago the price was over $140. Cheaper gas means more dollars in our pockets.

Even the weather is cooperating. In Northern California there had been signs of another dry winter, which could lead to water rationing in 2009. The weekend storms put us above normal.

If my candidates win, I'll be happy. But there's reason for optimism even if they don't.

Typo of the Day

"...Palin had gone completly rouge" Not the "completly" but the "rouge", (HT Mark Steyn, NRO)

Halloween, 2008

The rains came on Halloween--and none too soon—because this year’s precipitation has been well below normal. I switched off the sprinklers for the weekend and waited for the showers to stop.

We joined the line of ghosts, goblins, and princesses snaking over the Beach Park bridge. Despite the inclement weather trick-or-treating in Foster City’s safe neighborhood attracted hundreds of kids this year.

We stopped at Master Perez’ booth. (Herb Perez was an Olympic gold medalist in taekwondo and has built a popular martial arts studio in Foster City.) Everyone who walked by was greeted with a balloon and a friendly word from Master Perez. With his young family, new house, and prosperous business, he’s often remarked how lucky his life has been. I think that we’re the lucky ones.

We exited Farragut Park to check out the decorations. Some homeowners went through elaborate efforts in setting up audio-visual equipment and re-doing their whole front yard. Others just passed out candy, while a nice couple poured hot coffee and apple juice for all comers.

The youngster greeted a number of acquaintances and gabbed with other teenagers. Most teens didn’t really care about the candy. What drew them out was the primal urge to see and be seen and maybe to get away from their parents. My guy still likes having me around, but I have to maintain a discreet distance when he’s talking with his friends.

Despite having lived in Foster City over two decades, I lose my sense of direction when wandering the safe neighborhood; the streets curve into dead-end cul-de-sacs and I often have to turn around. This year, though, there’s the magical iPhone with GPS! The flashing blue dot marked our position on the map and we found our way back without any trouble.

Soon he’ll be too old to go trick-or-treating. In my second childhood I’ve found that I enjoy mingling with other parents and seeing familiar faces out and about. Maybe Master Perez can use a helping hand next year. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Friday After Hours

On Friday evening my colleague and I took a break from working on a deal and headed to Schroeder’s Café. The negotiator on the other side was in Australia and he had long since started on his weekend.

At Schroeder’s one can usually find plenty of seats---the spacious beer hall is tricked out in 100-year-old paneling and murals and doesn’t appeal to younger sensibilities. However, I had forgotten that Oktoberfest brings out the urge in everyone to party, and Schroeder’s was standing-room only. The polka band had started, and we had to shout to make ourselves heard over the din.

I was on my second beer when the text message, urgently requesting more information, came from Australia. That guy sure was dedicated. I booted up the laptop and picked out some numbers, adding them three times because I didn’t trust myself (no, using a simple summation function wouldn’t have done the trick, thanks for asking).

I shouted the amount to my fellow imbiber, and he transcribed it into a short e-mail, after rounding to the nearest $ million. If you want precision, call during weekday hours.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Poll Axed

Screenshot from RCP this morning.

Many Republicans haven’t totally lost hope. The polls are wrong, McCain adherents say (and pray), because the questions are biased toward eliciting a certain answer, because those polled don’t want to be thought of as racists, because too much weight is given to Democrats in setting up the sample, because conservatives hang up or don’t answer the phone, and any number of other reasons that Senator McCain can still win.

Where there’s hope there’s life. But why would pollsters discredit their own industry and their own brand? Surely the polling companies are aware of the possible flaws in their methods. A McCain win on November 4th would put a lot of them out of business, for who would trust their product?

Well, I suppose that if the financial system is experiencing a crisis not seen since the Thirties, a Forties-like upset of “Dewey Wins” proportions wouldn’t be a total shock. But I often hark back to a rule of thumb: expecting businessmen to act against their own best interest is a loser’s game; I don’t see why that wouldn’t be true here. The Chicago Tribune can start printing its headline now.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sorrowful Journey

To the Hawaiian diaspora, trips to our birthplace grow more infrequent as lives take root thousands of miles away. In later years more journeys originate due to family obligations, often sorrowful ones.

Less than two weeks before Election Day, Barack Obama has taken off two days from his campaign for an urgent visit to his ailing grandmother in Hawaii. Madelyn Dunham (“Toot”) was a powerful influence in the life of our likely future President. He wrote about Toot in his autobiography "Dreams from my Father", and his obvious admiration for the example she set gives hope that an Obama Administration would be more pragmatic than ideological, more problem-solving than visionary.

She had proved to be a trailblazer of sorts, the first woman vice-president of a local bank [snip].

Not that Toot had anticipated her success. Without a college education, she had started out as a secretary to help defray the costs of my unexpected birth. But she had a quick mind and sound judgment and the capacity for sustained work. Slowly she had risen, playing by the rules, until she reached the threshold where competence didn’t suffice. There she would stay for twenty years, with scarcely a vacation, watching as her male counterparts kept moving up the corporate ladder, playing a bit loose with information passed on between the ninth hole and the ride to the clubhouse, becoming wealthy men.

More than once, my mother would tell Toot that the bank shouldn’t get away with such blatant sexism. But Toot would just pooh-pooh my mother’s remarks, saying that everybody could find a reason to complain about something. Toot didn’t complain. Every morning, she woke up at five A.M. and changed from the frowsy muu-muus she wore around the apartment into a tailored suit and high-heeled pumps. Her face powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her downtown office before anyone else. From time to time, she would admit a grudging pride in her work and took pleasure in telling us the inside story behind the local financial news. When I got older, though, she would confide in me that she had never stopped dreaming of a house with a white picket fence, days spent baking or playing bridge or volunteering at the local library. I was surprised by this admission, for she rarely mentioned hopes or regrets. It may or may not have been true that she would have preferred the alternative history she imagined for herself, but I came to understand that her career spanned a time when the work of a wife outside the home was nothing to brag about, for her or for Gramps—that it represented only lost years, broken promises. What Toot believed kept her going were the needs of her grandchildren and the stoicism of her ancestors.

On the street where he lived. (KITV video)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tankless Effort

The tankless water heater that we installed two weeks ago was expensive--about three times the cost of the conventional 50-gallon heater that it replaced---but so far there's been no buyer's remorse.

Because the device heats up water only as it's demanded, the savings in natural gas usage will be substantial; there's no need to maintain a 50-gallon tank at an elevated temperature.

But it will take over ten years of lower gas bills to make back the cost differential, so economics is not the sole reason for the purchase.

Reduced natural gas emissions will reduce our carbon footprint. Whether or not one believes that global warming is caused by man ("anthropogenic"), whether it is a "bad" thing that should be reversed at considerable expense, or even whether it exists, is open to debate.

But AGW advocates could be right(!). At the margin we'll do our part not to make it worse.

The system we bought is powerful enough so that we can take a bath and run the washing machine and dishwasher without running out of hot water. Dan the plumber also said that we can take a shower as long as we want (although that kind of ran counter to the green sales pitch).

Note that a tankless system doesn't fix the problem of waiting for heated water to get to the outlet. That's why we got a recirculation pump.

And look at all the additional storage space we've gained by moving the heater outside.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"Something's Glowing in Your Pants"

....uttered by the youngster moments after I pocketed my iPhone. These words would have been alarming thirty years ago---today, not so much.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Capital Injections

The patient has lost a lot of blood, but he’s showing signs of life: the doctor has an unlimited supply of plasma. The WSJ reports [emphasis added]
The government will purchase equity shares in banks to help institutions unfreeze lending and spur economic growth. Funds for the purchases, which may amount to $250 billion, will come from the recently passed $700 billion bank rescue bill. [snip]

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will temporarily guarantee most new debt issued by insured banks. [President Bush] said that will make it easier for banks to borrow money, which can then be lent to consumers. The FDIC also will "immediately and temporarily" expand its insurance to cover every dollar in all noninterest-bearing transaction accounts, which are widely used by small businesses to cover day-to-day operations.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 11% yesterday and another 1.5% as of this writing (0710 PDT). It will be years before a full recovery, but the patient appears to be out of danger.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Doing Our Bit

In our household waiting for hot water wastes thousands of gallons of water each year, so we installed a hot water recirculation pump. Although the current low cost of clean water didn’t justify the purchase, we decided to do our bit for the environment, not to mention stimulate the sagging economy, by investing about $700 in the pump, including installation. It was placed beneath the kitchen sink, the faucet that is farthest from the water heater.

Pressing the hard-wired button or activating the wireless remote control causes the pump to draw water from the hot water line and force it back through the cold. The pump shuts off when the water turns warm. We still have to wait about the same amount of time—about 90 seconds--but at least clean water isn’t going down the drain. Perhaps it’s so obvious that it doesn’t deserve mention, but because hot water loops throughout the house, the recirculation pump saves water at each hot water outlet, not just at the kitchen sink.

My deliberate strategy of procrastinating on home improvement appears to be paying off, as the gadgets to improve our quality of life and/or help the environment are getting cheaper and better each year.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

California Bad-Dreamin'

Despite the aerospace contraction in the 1990’s and the tech bust in 2000-2001, Californians have managed to keep riding high. Our housing prices had been (a lot) more expensive than in most other states, and many homeowners were using their houses as piggy banks, borrowing more and more to finance their lifestyles.

Those who have climbed the highest have the farthest to fall. The recession will be worse in California due to our high cost of living, debt burden, government deficits that started years before the current difficulties, and labor costs that make us uncompetitive with other states, not to mention the rest of the world. One silver lining is that we’ll probably hit bottom---and start to recover---before the rest of the country.
Some economists also believe the state's housing market may hit bottom before the rest of the nation's, and could start an upward tick earlier as well. The loss of construction and finance jobs has slowed. In San Diego, one of the first housing markets to falter, home prices are roughly in line with the city's incomes and rental rates. "Housing is becoming affordable again," said Steve Cochrane, an economist at Moody's
Another silver lining may be that our kids will learn that the good life shouldn’t be taken for granted, that there’s virtue in saving for a rainy day, and that life doesn’t necessarily get better every year. At the school of hard knocks the tuition is expensive. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Dog Day Afternoon

I need an excuse to use this photo from Sunday's (next post) Blessing of the Animals.

Here's an old one.

Q. Have you heard about the dyslexic agnostic insomniac?

A. He stayed up all night wondering if there was a dog.

Sunday in the Park

Fortunately--or was it Providence?--the wind and rain of the previous day had abated. We cheerfully set up the tables and chairs at the Foster City Dog Park on Sunday and awaited our customers. About 30 arrived, some on leashes, another in a tub, and others simply were carried by their two-legged masters. All present were blessed by the priests in our church’s annual celebration of the Feast of St. Francis.

In earliest Sunday School children are taught that St. Francis of Assisi loved all of God’s creatures. Francis was reputed to have a special connection to animals, who loved him back.
The children sold dog biscuits to support Project Bay Cat, which captures and neuters stray cats and tries to place them in a home. The number of feral cats has been increasing. Cats who have been abandoned or who have escaped from their masters feed on the birds of the Bay, and cat and bird lovers are united in their effort to address the growing cat population.

A lady from Project Bay Cat joined us, and we collected over $100 in donations to the cause. Making dog biscuits to help the cats and indirectly help the birds—somewhere in heaven St. Francis is smiling.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Into the Woods

The first Act of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Into the Woods”, begins in a lighthearted fashion, as familiar fairy tale icons – Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), and Cinderella – mingle with other characters and get in the way of each others quests. Act I ends more or less happily as everyone finds what they’re looking for: true love, riches, or children.

In Act II reality sets in. There is disillusionment, disappointment, and death. Some characters react with anger, some seek revenge, and some leave for what they hope will be a better life. Those who are left accept their lot, and the end of the play, with its finale of dance and song, is unexpectedly uplifting.

I entered the theater with low expectations. The lyrics are as clever as Porter’s, but Sondheim tunes are not as hummable. (I even dozed off in Act I.) But as the characters dealt with adversity in Act II, the primary colors of the various fairy tales turned subtle and interesting. I looked at the youngster. He was captivated.

By the standards of community theater, Broadway by the Bay put on an excellent production at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center. None of the voices, whether speaking or singing, or the instrument soloists in the orchestra, caused me to wince. The actors didn’t get in the way of the production. We’ll be back later in the season.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Gone Loco

The Dow is down 500 points this morning, and I'm surveying the train wreck that is my retirement portfolio. Speaking of which, Caltrain has been delayed nearly an hour because a train hit a big rig in Burlingame. Perfect. (Fortunately, there were no serious injuries.) And I had such a good weekend, too.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Yet Another Analogy to the Financial Crisis

Some Chinese dairy producers adulterated their milk with melamine, a chemical used in the manufacture of plastics and fertilizer. When infants got sick and a few died, the malfeasance was uncovered. But the contamination was not limited to infant formula, and Chinese babies weren’t the only ones at risk. Any product that contains Chinese milk, such as White Rabbit candy shipped to the U.S., has been recalled.

We don’t know what other food products from China are unsafe, and consumers are playing it safe by switching to milk substitutes such as soy, or drinking juice instead. Fear and the lack of trust has frozen one tiny sector of the world food market.

Just imagine if the problem had been corn and all the products---flour, beef, sweeteners, and biofuel to name but a few—that corn goes into. In the back of everyone’s mind would be the question, can I trust this product? Will it kill me?

The problem with subprime mortgages has spread far beyond those who owned them. If you have a large receivable from an institution that invested in these instruments, you might not get paid, putting your own financial health at risk. Or if you owed money to that institution and were counting on it to roll over your debt, it might demand payment instead. Unfreezing the credit markets is fundamentally a matter of trust. It will take a long time to be restored. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, September 29, 2008

I Want My Billy Jeff

The events of the past few months---Hurricane Ike, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the Russian invasion of Georgia---weren’t on our radar screen when the political parties were choosing their Presidential nominees. The Iraq war, which many thought would be the most important issue in the Presidential campaign, has been relegated to the inside pages. Neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain seem up to handling the challenges of this Black Swan era, when “extreme events do happen and have a big effect” on the course of history.

Ideology is of secondary importance. We need a leader whose knowledge of economics, culture, arts, science, history, international affairs and the exercise of military power is both broad and deep. We need a President who can judge when to move quickly and when to go slow, when to act in concert with others and when to act unilaterally. We need a man or woman of experience as well as intellectual bandwidth. We need someone who can articulate his thinking clearly and bring the people around to his point of view. It’s time to repeal the 22nd Amendment. We need, and I never thought I would ever say this, William Jefferson Clinton. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Friday Afternoon Blues

The San Francisco Blues festival came to town last weekend. The amplified sound reverberated off the concrete, making it difficult to focus on the financial formulas in a complicated spreadsheet. I took the elevator down to the Plaza and watched gray-haired fifty-somethings exult to the beat. Will boomers ever start acting their age?

I went back to the office and wrapped up a couple of small projects. Glancing out the window improves one's perspective. And the Bay has a calming effect, an attribute not to be taken lightly in these tumultuous times.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Panicky Ruminations

One week ago the annual report from one of my money market funds arrived. For the first time in a long time I didn’t send it directly to the recycling pile. I scanned its list of investments. None of the recent companies in the headlines, Bear, Lehman, WaMu, IndyMac, AIG, Merrill, was on the list.

Just as seemingly healthy 40-year-old men have been known to keel over in the office, rock-solid financial names have been collapsing. Could a big bank—despite the ministrations of Doctor Fed—be next? Even if I could pull out of my (uninsured) money market funds, where would I put the money, under the mattress?

I reprised the Y2K conversation with my partner. We wondered whether we should set aside some cash—real folding money—to buy food, gas, and other essentials. Look at how the Hurricane Ike survivors are stuck without power, water, and ATM access.

My panicky ruminations were dispelled for the moment by Friday’s announcement:
The U.S. Treasury Department announced a massive program Friday to shore up the nation's money-market mutual-fund sector, responding to concerns that the global financial crisis is starting to affect those historically safe assets.
[. . .]
Under the Treasury program, the government will insure the holdings of any eligible publicly offered money-market fund. The funds must pay a fee to participate in the program.
To me insuring the safety of money-market funds was the most important of all the stabilizing actions that the government took. The public can handle a declining stock market. When millions of people can’t get at their cash, that’s when widespread panic ensues.

The Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department contained the fire last week. But it's still burning. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Choppy Seas

A little over seven years ago we experienced a day that changed everything. Yet some things, thankfully, do not change. On September 11th San Francisco Bay was as cool, breezy and inviting as ever as we locked up the office at noon. We hoofed over to Pier 40 and spent the rest of the day snacking, imbibing, chatting, and simply enjoying the view aboard our hired ferry. We had had a decent year so far, but at least we’re still around, which wasn’t so certain seven years ago.

Little did we suspect that the upcoming week’s events would change everything in the world of global finance. Time to get back to work. Maybe seven years from now we’ll be able to enjoy another boat ride.

Alcatraz: just the place to house toxic financial instruments.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

What They Are Expected to Do

Every Certified Public Accountant wants to have successful clients. Success means that there are usually no problems with the audit---when production, inventory, sales, and customer service systems are smoothly humming, it's a good predictor that accounting, reporting, and internal control systems are also reliable. The client pays your invoices on time, and the employees and managers are not only willing but eager to talk to you about their company.

And yet, although they may like the business and the people, CPA’s can’t get too close. Accountants’ principal duty is to the shareholders, lenders, and anyone else who reads the financial statements. There may come a time when auditors must disclose information that will damage the stock price. They have to make a choice between their client and their responsibility to the public. There is no question what they are expected to do.

Keeping their distance and independence is a must for CPA’s if they are to maintain trust and a reputation for integrity. Some accountants violated that trust during the go-go tech boom and Enron / Worldcom scandals. In order to save the profession, accountants had to reassert the guiding principles of independence and integrity. You don’t see auditors standing up and cheering at shareholders meetings.

In my idealistic youth I thought about a career in journalism. Woodward and Bernstein (of Watergate fame) were my heroes. They pursued a story that brought down an administration. Yet they didn’t make up facts; if information could not be verified, they left it out.

Today the profession of news journalism has lost its way. Opinion has leaked beyond the editorial pages to the rest of the newspaper. “Newsmen” publish unconfirmed rumors that support their stances and ignore inconvenient facts that don’t. Outside the office, they openly display their political preferences; there’s no attempt to maintain even the appearance of objectivity.
Yet when Obama emerged from a curtain on stage, the audience of more than 2,000 [minority journalists] bolted to its feet, cheered and whistled. His remarks drew repeated applause throughout the 30-minute broadcast, which CNN and Time Inc. sponsored.
Reporters, if you want to be an advocate, do both yourself and journalism a favor. Leave. Go to Madison Avenue. The pay’s better.
© 2008 Stephen Yuen

[Update 9/21 - a quiet Sunday morning, then Instalanche! Welcome, everyone.]

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Vegetable Lovers

Down to the last lasagna: Rob, Jim, Kay, and Marge.

When it’s our church’s turn to serve lunch at the community center in Redwood City, I’ve been making salads. No, I’m not a nutrition freak, and yes, many of the people to whom we serve a free hot meal bulk up on the doughnuts and pasta, but as one of our customers said to me, “They [the food charities] always give us the sugar.” There were more vegetable lovers among our clientele than one might suppose. But this is the Bay Area.

Salads are easy to make: I wash and chop a package of romaine and cover the greens with a layer of bright red cherry tomatoes. If I’m not too lazy, I’ll dice an onion and grate some carrots and/or cheese. Three other people brought salads. Once again we ran out of salads first, then the lasagna.

Forty people were waiting by the gate when we opened, and the gentlemen and ladies helped us unload the cars. We were a little shorthanded this Labor Day weekend and were slow in setting up, but no one complained. They knew that we weren’t getting paid—at least monetarily—for our efforts. The count rose to sixty by the time we were done. We ran out of everything except the doughnuts, which we dropped off at the Catholic workers’ house a mile away. A nice quiet Sunday afternoon--it was certainly less eventful than one year ago. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, September 01, 2008

A Teaching Moment

The Sarah Palin story won’t stop moving. Jeff Goldstein chronicles the crazy narratives that the win-at-any-cost leftists are throwing up on the wall in the hope that one of them will stick to the Alaska governor. The rumor that even most Obama-Biden supporters wouldn’t touch was the one that had Governor Palin covering up an out-of-wedlock birth of a son to her 17-year-old daughter Bristol by claiming Trig as her own.

Today the McCain campaign confirmed that Bristol is pregnant and will marry the father of the child. As one commentator remarked, Astounding!

The good news for Palin supporters is that there’s no question that Trig is Sarah’s child. It’s biologically impossible for Trig to have been born in April to Bristol and for Bristol now to be five months pregnant.

Nevertheless, Bristol’s pregnancy is a troubling distraction at best. It could raise a host of questions and commentary on the Palins’ parenting abilities, Bristol’s decision to have the baby and get married (if abortion is not an option, why not give the baby up for adoption?), what their religious beliefs say about this situation, the wisdom of joining a Presidential campaign when all this is going on in one’s family, etc.

It is also possible, however, to look at the Palin predicament as one of life’s teaching moments, the unforeseen kind that usually arises when one is presumptuous enough to make plans. The Palins are trying to be true to their faith by walking a much more difficult path, in one case carrying a Down’s Syndrome baby to term and in another case not terminating a teenaged pregnancy. The needs of the other--the child--outweigh the needs of the self.

Political opponents may characterize evangelical Christians’ support of the Palin family as hypocritical expediency, much as feminist groups rallied around Bill Clinton despite his serial womanizing. But that characterization would be wrong; it simply shows how far removed from reality is the media stereotype of sincere Christians as burn-em-at-the-stake Cotton Mathers.

Christians, whether liberal or conservative, Protestant or Catholic, rich or poor, know that they have all sinned and yet are forgiven. I have never heard a Christian (whom I personally know, not the ones on TV) pass judgment on the personal failings of others (violent terrorist actions, such as suicide bombing, I have heard condemned, but that is in a different league from what I’m talking about). This condemnatory caricature tars a whole group by the actions and words of a very small minority.

To the extent that they think to pray about these matters, I hope and expect the vast majority of Christians to put politics aside and pray for the health and welfare of Sarah Palin’s family, as they would for Barack Obama’s, Joe Biden’s, and John McCain’s. There are more important things in life than winning an election. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Golden Man

When I was ten, I tackled James Michener’s Hawaii. It had been a huge bestseller, both in the newly minted 50th State and on the Mainland. Over a thousand pages long, Hawaii was one of the first historical fiction epics. While much of it was over my head (especially the circumlocutions regarding sexual activity), I was engrossed by the compelling narratives about people who forsook their homelands for a parlous journey to the middle of the vast Pacific.

Through the magic of storytelling the grandparents of my friends came alive, and their customs were explained. I came to understand how it was that the whites (haoles) owned the plantations, why the Chinese were obsessed with real estate, what made Japanese fathers so bossy and Hawaiians so easygoing. Near the end of the book, when the races were intermingling and in a few cases intermarrying (this was still the Fifties), Michener’s prose turned almost dreamlike. He spoke of the Golden Man, a creature few of us had actually encountered.
In 1946, when Nyuk Tsin was ninety-nine years old, a group of sociologists in Hawaii were perfecting a concept whose vague outlines had occupied them for some years, and quietly among themselves they suggested that in Hawaii a new type of man was being developed. He was a man influenced by both the west and the east, a man at home in either the business councils of New York or the philosophical retreats of Kyoto, a man wholly modern and American yet in tune with the ancient and the Oriental. The name they invented for him was the Golden Man.

At first I erroneously thought that both the concept and the name were derived from the fact that when races intermingled sexually, the result was apt to be a man neither all white nor all brown nor all yellow, but somewhere in between [snip].

But in time I realized that this bright, hopeful man of the future, this unique contribution of Hawaii to the rest of the world, did not depend for his genesis upon racial intermarriage at all. He was a product of the mind. His was a way of thought, and not of birth.
49 years after he was envisioned by Michener, a Golden Man from Hawaii ascended a stage in Denver. He is adored by millions for who he is, not for what he has done. In five months he may become the most powerful man in the world. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Warm, Sunny Day

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is an odd amalgam of thrill rides and animal exhibits. When Marine World departed from its costly Peninsula digs over 20 years ago for a more spacious Vallejo spread, it stayed true, for a time, to its zoological roots. However, the crowds didn’t come, so economics forced a merger with amusement park giant Six Flags. Now the giraffes and the elephants watch bemusedly as roller coasters such as the Medusa, the Cobra, and the Roar roar overhead.

Last Saturday we meandered along the paths between the animal shows. We had long since passed the age when experiencing whiplash was enjoyable; watching the walrus was enough.

We had come with a friend. She had a season pass that enabled us to buy tickets at half-price, increasing our enjoyment.

With the money saved we stopped at Toto’s in Belmont and ordered pizza for ten people, four who were late arrivals whom we invited via text-message on the way back.

One fellow, a prosperous but overworked businessman, said it was the best party he had been to in a long time. He should get out more, perhaps to Vallejo with his family on a warm, sunny day. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Too Many Words

One of the reasons bloggers can’t enter politics---besides our their obvious personal deficiencies---is that there’s too much of a paper electronic trail to explain away. Just last month I wrote:
If I had to choose among Democrats Hillary, Biden, Richardson, Gore, and Obama to be our President, BHO would be dead last.
But how does that statement square with my effusive claim after last week’s Saddleback forum that America had picked the two best men for the Presidential finals? I can’t.

Those soulful eyes, that mellifluous voice, that handsome visage, seduced me as it has millions of others. But enough about John McCain. I’ve snapped out of it.

Walking in His Footsteps

The Post writes about how Barack Obama’s Hawaiian childhood shaped the man. The article helped me to understand him better. He was born in 1961 at the Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children. My Territory of Hawaii birth certificate refers to it more succinctly as the Kapiolani Maternity Hospital.

Barack sat in Mrs. Hefty’s fifth-grade class, while I had Mrs. Hanley for homeroom next door in the old Castle Hall. [Digression #1: Punahou School was founded in 1841 by New England missionaries, whose descendants ran the Islands (“they came to Hawaii to do good and they did well”). The names of Hawaii’s Big Five companies, such as Castle & Cooke and Alexander & Baldwin, adorn many of the campus buildings.]

View Larger Map

From Google Maps: Barack's walk to school.

Barack walked to school from his apartment on Beretania Street, a couple of blocks from the police station where my mother worked for over 20 years. [Digression #2: Hi, Mom, I hope the doctors figured out what’s wrong and that you’re feeling better.] Barack wasn’t a particularly distinguished student, nor did he identify strongly with any group. Like every teenager he felt out of place. His parents were absent, he wasn’t rich like many of the other kids, and being of mixed race unless you were part-Hawaiian was then relatively uncommon (now it’s more the rule than the exception).

Kids who enter Punahou before high school don’t have the perspective to realize how lucky they are. But neither do they manifest the Western-civ loathing that inhabits some elite enclaves. Barack Obama does not have a radical temperament. If he does have some extreme views, he picked them up where minds are corrupted, Columbia and Harvard. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Back to School Night at Staples

Along with other exasperated parents, I stood in line for nearly an hour at Staples to buy school supplies for the youngster. We couldn't have made our purchases in advance because most public school teachers only communicated their requirements on the first day of school. When a business is a monopoly, customer service brings up the rear.

But I didn't mind the wait. I had my iPhone (related post below).

But the iPhone's picture quality isn't great.

Not the Best Tool

As a blogging tool the iPhone leaves a great deal to be desired. Touch-typing skills slow to 10% of normal. The iPhone doesn't permit cutting, copying, and pasting, which makes quoting and linking extremely cumbersome.

Yet, I wouldn't trade it for anything, though it's taken me half an hour to peck this with my index fingers. Now that it's standing room only on Caltrain, having an iPhone makes the commute fly by.

With 3G reception I can browse the Web for most of the trip and not have to fumble with newspapers and magazines.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Two Best Men

Rick Warren (“The Purpose-Driven Life”) of the Saddleback Church interviewed Barack Obama and John McCain tonight. My political views are much closer to one candidate than the other, but for the moment let’s put partisanship aside. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will be nominating the two best men. They each were articulate, at ease answering the questions, and gave answers that effectively portrayed their different views of the world as well as their different personal styles. We are indeed fortunate; there shouldn’t be too many Americans choosing to emigrate on November 5th. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Off Script

Barack Obama’s life is being made into a movie. And why not? His multicultural background, his meteoric rise in the world of politics, his promise to be a uniter and not a divider, his movie-star good looks and ringing oratory all make for a boffo box office.

But Russia didn’t follow the script that ends with one big happy kumbaya world. Russia--and China too---want top billing, not to be part of an ensemble. And that’s not even counting the ambitions of the Europeans or the jihadists or the south Asians or the Latin Americans. The phrases “great power politics”, “spheres of influence”, and “balance of power” may have to be retrieved from the dustbin of history.

Come to think of it, a President Barack Obama does remind me of one of the protagonists in this old film short.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Great Humiliator

Decades ago my finance professors lectured that it was impossible to outwit the market, but I stubbornly resisted their teaching. I refused to believe that I wasn’t smarter than the average bear (or bull). The next Google or Genentech was surely waiting for me to discover it before the madding crowd did.

But the stock market is the great humiliator, where one’s dreams crash against the shoals of reality. I have leapt onto and stayed too long on investment bandwagons; technology, real estate, financials, and energy---I have ridden them all up and down. My unrealized losses are a sad testament to the weakness of holding losers too long

Three elements have kept me in the game: 1) the once-in-a-decade lucky strike that more than makes up for all the crummy picks; 2) not putting too many eggs in one basket---yes, Professor Porterfield, I was only half asleep in your class; and 3) frugality—saving at least 10% of income over a long period of time and putting the lion’s share in steady mutual funds eventually leads to meaningful growth in net worth. And if you can direct your savings into a tax-deferred vehicle such as an IRA or a 401(k), the growth will be even faster.

The fact that your employer sponsors the 401(k) doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of monitoring its performance.
Many workers with retirement accounts have built nest eggs far bigger than they ever imagined possible. But unknowledgeable ones often are far short of comfortable ……On top of all this is the havoc that the current bear market may be wreaking on older workers' accounts if they are too aggressively invested in stocks.
How have I been doing? At the end of last year I became alarmed about the economic drag of rising oil costs and the looming crisis in the banking sector. In my retirement accounts (where I allot at most 5% to speculative investments) I sold off financials, international, and technology and plopped the funds into transportation stocks, especially railroads, and cash equivalents. Since the beginning of the year the Dow Jones Transportation Average is up over 13%, while the Industrials, the NASDAQ, and the S&P 500 have moved in lockstep to the downside.

Transportations(blue), the Industrials (red), the NASDAQ (green), and the S&P 500 (yellow).

So lately it’s been going well, but I’m not fooled. The great humiliator lurks...waiting to strike during those inevitable moments of inattention and pride.

Friday, August 08, 2008

O Lucky Man

Happy birthday to my kid brother, born on this luckiest of dates 48 years ago. Fortune always seemed to favor him. He was the handsomest of us boys--not a particularly high standard to be sure. He dated the prettiest girls, he had the most friends, and he led a carefree life untroubled by thoughts of saving for the future. (Any undercurrent of envy that you sense, dear reader, is not your imagination.) He acquired a serious streak when he turned thirty and finished school, got a steady job in Southern California, and ended up with a beautiful lady lawyer.

When all’s said and done, I have to admit that he was and is a lucky guy. After all, how many people can claim me as a brother?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ticket to the 21st Century

It was time to pick up my ticket to the 21st century. After work on Tuesday I hurried to the San Mateo Cingular office to pick up my new iPhone.

Quick reactions:

It allows me in good conscience finally to trash my three-year-old Samsung cellphone handset and five-year-old brick of an iPod. (The iPhone may pay for itself just through the savings on the wear and tear on my pants pockets.) But I don’t like the fact that the iPhone can’t link to our four-year-old Mac because the Mac’s operating system isn’t current. I don’t feel like being strong-armed into spending over $100 on OSX 10.4, so I’m using the Windows version of iTunes.

3G capability enables me to browse the Web wherever there is ATT cellular service, not just at Wi-Fi access points. I can check my e-mail on the train, which I can’t do with my laptop computer.

The touchscreen interface is intuitive, but I’m still having a lot of trouble thumbing text and e-mail messages on the tiny virtual keyboard (I’m composing this little commentary on a regular computer.)

Criticism of the phone’s 2MP camera falls on deaf ears. I’ve never had a phone with a camera before.

Battery life will be a problem. Leaving the iPhone on all day---and it's not even playing music--appears to drain most of its power. I know there are ways to save the battery, such as lowering the brightness on the screen, turning off 3G, etc. but I’d like not to have to be fiddling with the settings all the time.

And oh, yes, POTS (plain old telephone service) seems to function well. Reception is clearer than on my old phone.

A promising start to what I hope will be a beautiful relationship.

Running a Tight Ship

Our new blank checks arrived over the weekend in a flat cellophane mailer, not in the convenient cardboard storage boxes that we had grown accustomed to. But my disappointment was only short-lived, as the flattened box was contained inside with helpful assembly instructions. Citibank is demonstrating shrewd acumen by saving on postage and packaging and offloading the labor cost of assembly onto its customers.

And in other news:
Merrill Lynch expects Citigroup Inc to write down about $6 billion in the third quarter and lowered its earnings estimate for the quarter to a loss….Merrill said Citigroup carries its net subprime related CDO super-senior positions at $18.1 billion, which was less than half of its September 2007 valuation of $43 billion.
$25 billion in writedowns with $6 billion to come. Citi may be having problems in structured finance, but the guy in charge of the mailroom is running a tight ship.

[Update 2 p.m.: The drip-drip-drip of bad news continued to leak out today about Citigroup and other players in the financial sector. Citi will pay beaucoup fines to Federal and State regulators and reimburse various investors for losses on esoteric securities. In Business 101 you learn to get all the bad news out at one time--the big bath approach--even writing off more than you probably should, in order to persuade the market that you have put your troubles behind you. The fact that Citi, AIG, and others have been unable to take care of these problems once and for all is a worrisome sign that financial companies are too big and complicated for even very smart people to get their arms around.]

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ducks and Cover, with Flowers

The cable box cover is an ugly lime green. One afternoon it appeared on our lawn, and I became acquainted with the term "easement". (It means that someone can come on your property and you can't stop them.) The cable company's arrogance wasn't the main reason we switched to satellite TV, but it was a factor. When we upgrade to high definition, cable won't be our first choice.

The ducks don't have an easement, but they go wherever they want according to a much older law. Speaking of the law of nature, ducks scatter natural fertilizer around Foster City, beneficial to our lawns and flowers but not so attractive to our cars and decks.

It's been atypically cool this summer, and the plants have used less water. A good thing, because if we have another dry winter water cutbacks, even rationing, could be in store next year. (California is now technically in a drought.) Showering with a friend--an Eighties tradition that's ripe for revival. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Forms in our Future

For the first time in my life I donated to a candidate for political office. No, it wasn’t a large sum. (It was $199---one dollar below the level where I would have to fill out those bothersome disclosure forms.)

I haven’t donated before because of a truce with my partner. Most of the time our votes cancel each other out and there’s no point in my sending a check to Hatfield if she’s going to respond with a donation to McCoy. But this time is different. We’re in rare accord on this particular race. She’ll be contributing her $199 soon, and, if we’re still enthusiastic in the fall, perhaps there will be disclosure forms in our future.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Obama Humor: It's There if You Look for It

Two months ago I posted without comment this observation by economist Thomas Sowell:
If Barack Obama had given a speech on bowling, it might well have been brilliant and inspiring. But instead he actually tried bowling and threw a gutter ball. The contrast between talking and doing could not have been better illustrated.
This was a bit too much for Joyce, whom I’ve known for over 40 years and who now lives in Chicago:
Steve, that was a rather cheap & mean shot. Ditto for your comments (a subsequent post) on Michelle Obama. I've read quite a few interviews of her (she is, after all, from Chicago) & I was impressed. She comes from a family that was working poor: her father has MS but he had a municipal job & supported his family. Aloha, Joyce
It’s tempting to go down the low road. Every day The Daily Show and Colbert take far cheaper and meaner shots at McCain than Sowell did on Obama. But the outcome of elections is certainly not worth losing friendships over. And I don’t want to chase Joyce away. She’s the only one who regularly reads this blog besides my mother. Anyway, here’s my answer back:
Joyce, IMHO Barack Obama has the thinnest resume of any major candidate for the Presidency during my lifetime. Law professor, community organizer, state senator, and U.S. Senator for less than one term. He's a great speechmaker, but what has he done? To me the bowling episode, minor though it is, exemplifies the risk the country is taking. If I had to choose among Democrats Hillary, Biden, Richardson, Gore, and Obama to be our President, BHO would be dead last.

Concerning Michelle, anyone who's overcome obstacles is worthy of admiration. Perhaps Obama opponents have very selectively culled her speeches for snippets that make her appear angry and ungrateful for the enormous gift of living in this wonderful country. I hope that you're right, for she is likely to be our next First Lady.
Now this pun is cheap and mean. But c’mon, it’s funny.