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.]