Monday, November 30, 2009

Comfort Food

Only five people attended our Thanksgiving dinner, but that didn’t dissuade me from roasting a 21-pound tom. We didn’t finish even half the bird, but the food didn’t go to waste (I will spare you a feeble clich├ęd pun--I’m too tired to come up with something witty). We had plenty of leftover turkey, stuffing, gravy, vegetables, and pie to comfort us through the cold weekend.

A good roast turkey is dependent on preparation. I cleaned a new plastic $3 bucket from Home Depot and mixed two gallons of brine on Tuesday. Some brining formulas can be complicated, but mine was simple: boil one gallon of water containing carrots, onions, garlic, celery, and whatever spices I had in the cabinet (e.g., tarragon, thyme, oregano, bay leaf, pepper) for several hours, then let cool and discard the vegetables. I did the same with a second gallon of water that contained one cup of sugar and one cup of table salt. The combined solution was cooled overnight, and the volume was just enough to immerse the turkey for 24 hours beginning Wednesday morning.

A good roast turkey is dependent on knowing your equipment. The recipe books recommended heating the oven to 325 degrees F. But at that temperature the skin started browning after just 40 minutes, so I dialed the convection oven down to 250 degrees. Tenting it with foil (during the Eighties I used wet paper bags) would keep the bird moist but ran the risk of steaming the brine-soaked meat, so I roasted the turkey old school, i.e., uncovered.

A good roast turkey is dependent on paying attention. I checked on it every hour, basting the bird with pan juices. After four hours the turkey was pulled from the oven, its skin a golden brown. The meat was slightly moist, not too dry and not too wet.

The proof was in the eating. The critics whom I live with willingly dined on leftovers throughout the weekend. May your Thanksgiving, dear reader, have been as comforting and filling.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Irish Eyes

Irish journalist and film-maker Phelim McAleer on the Dennis Miller show:
I came to America looking for right-wingers obsessed with bedrooms and sex. Then I discovered all these left-wingers and liberals obsessed with every other room in the house.

They want to know what's in your fridge, is it bottled water, how much electricity your fridge uses, what's in your thermostat? How [do] you insulate your attic? What's in your garage? What's your car? They even want to know what's in your lightbulb, what's in your lamp?
In the tradition of de Tocqueville, some of the keenest observations about America are made by outsiders.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Value Purchase

The Wall Street Journal Holiday Gift Guide suggests this business classic as a stocking stuffer. The book's predictions were a bit off, but the convergence of the rapid ascent of commodity prices and the book's descent in value [$1.99(!)] may make it worth the paper it's printed on. And you can't say that about the currency used to buy it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pottery Barn Redux

Now that health care legislation is moving forward in the Senate, it’s time to revisit an expensive lesson learned by the previous Administration. [In keeping with journalistic standards the following quotations have been obtained from reputable climate scientists.]

The Pottery Barn rule on the invasion of Iraq: “if you break it, you own it.”

GWB: “it’s not going to be that bad. Let’s get that ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign ready.”

The Pottery Barn rule on the impact of the public option on the health care system: “if you break it, you own it.”

BHO: “Precisely. What’s the problem?”

Friday, November 20, 2009

Cardinal Star Rising

The Stanford football bandwagon is picking up speed. After notching two consecutive wins over top-ten opponents Oregon and USC, Stanford is a two-touchdown favorite in tomorrow’s Big Game. Its leading rusher, Toby Gerhart, is on the short list of Heisman contenders. Cardinal freshman quarterback, Andrew Luck, is being compared to Peyton Manning and John Elway. And coach Jim Harbaugh has been the subject of flattering coverage by the national media.

When he took over the reins in 2007, expectations were low. But in his first year Jim Harbaugh’s team pulled off what is perhaps the most colossal upset in college football history, Stanford’s victory, 24-23, over then-number-one ranked USC on USC’s home turf. USC had been favored by 40 points against a Cardinal team that had been blown out by average squads, and that loss ruined USC’s hopes for a national championship.

Last Saturday Stanford visited the LA Coliseum as a slight underdog and scored the most points ever recorded against the Trojans. This year’s win wasn’t as improbable as the 2007 upset, but the one-sidedness of the score, 55-21, over perennial preseason national-champion pick USC was almost as surprising. Fans on the Farm are now aspiring to the Rose Bowl, as well as future years of contention for the Pac-10 title.

But we have seen this act before. In 1998 Stanford’s men’s basketball team played above their heads and made it to the Final Four. Despite excellent recruiting classes and holding the number-one ranking during ensuing regular seasons, the Stanford basketball team never made it back to the show. The current football squad displays similar promise, but Stanford major sports teams often disappoint in the favorite’s role.

It is premature to count on the Axe being returned. Anything can happen, as it did 27 years ago. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

[Update - 11/23: It was an exciting but not surprising contest, as Cal "upset" Stanford, 34-28, on Saturday. Coach Jim Harbaugh's star dimmed a little, and his mettle will be tested next year when Stanford won't catch anyone by surprise.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Too Much TV

Last summer the price of high-definition plasma and liquid crystal displays fell to the point where I could no longer put off getting a high-definition TV. This recalcitrance had been puzzling to the spouse of the guy who sprung for a Sony Profeel component video system (with a 25-inch monitor!) in 1981, back when $2,000 was real money.

For about the same price as that old Profeel, which, by the way, gave us 20 years of excellent service, we bought a Sony 46-inch Bravia LCD set, the XBR9. Best Buy allowed us to spread the payments over three years with no interest. Besides, it's our patriotic duty to stimulate a moribund economy.

Another major innovation that we had adopted years ago is the digital video recorder. It’s difficult to explain the advantages of the DVR to those who are comfortable recording shows on VHS tape or DVDs, but the ability of DVR machines to record favorite broadcasts without having to look up the times, fast-forward much more speedily than one can through a tape, and check the inventory of the titles stored on the hard drive has transformed the video experience.

Three months after the purchase I have regrets, not because of any problems with the equipment, but because TV has become irresistible. The high-definition picture and the size of the screen, combined with a growing inventory of programs on the DVR, compel me to watch. Like a hungry diner at an all-you-can-buffet, I have piled too much TV on the DVR platter. At least 20 hours of shows are automatically recorded each week, and that total doesn’t even include news and sports.

I am now handling video much as I manage magazine and newspaper articles. I read a couple of paragraphs or watch the first few minutes of a show; if they’re marginal, I move on and push “delete” without guilt. It’s rare that a limp beginning straightens itself out.

Even the shows that I do choose to stay with are rarely viewed in their entirety. I fast forward through the commercials and sequences of lab work in crime procedurals. I’ll skip past gunfights and car chases; what matters to the story is who dies, who gets caught, and what is revealed.

It’s possible that HD widescreen, digital videorecording, and a menu of five hundred channels will push me over the edge into television addiction. Now that I recognize the problem, I can take steps to avoid it. Well, that discussion’s over, let's move on. The Dolphins are at Carolina tonight, and I’ve gotta order the pizza and beer. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

On an HD screen you can see the slope of the green.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another Reason to Turn Off the TV

Halfway through Levitt & Dubner’s Super Freakonomics, the bestselling sequel to Freakonomics, the authors search for an explanation for the explosive growth in crime during the 1960’s.
By 1960, the crime rate was 50 percent higher than it had been in 1950; by 1970, the rate had quadrupled. Why? [snip]

One major factor was the criminal-justice system itself. The ratio of arrests per crime fell dramatically during the 1960s, for both property and violent crime. But not only were the police catching a smaller share of the criminals; the courts were less likely to lock up those who were caught. In 1970, a criminal could expect to spend an astonishing 60 percent less time behind bars than he would have for the same crime committed a decade earlier. Overall, the decrease in punishment during the 1970s seems to be responsible for roughly 30 percent of the rise in crime.

The postwar baby boom was another factor. Between 1960 and 1980, the fraction of the U.S. population between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four rose by nearly 40 percent, an unprecedented surge in the age group most at risk for criminal involvement. But even such a radical demographic shift can only account for about 10 percent of the increase in crime.

So together, the baby boom and the declining rate of imprisonment explain less than half the crime spike. [snip] Decades later, most criminologists remain perplexed.
Levitt & Dubner say the culprit was…television! They compared cities that began receiving TV signals at different times---the national roll-out during the 40s and 50s was far from uniform—and measured crime rates. They even looked at kids of different ages in the same cities to see if the older ones who didn’t have television throughout their lives had different outcomes from those who did.

For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property-crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent-crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.
The relationship between TV watching and crime is so strong that one is tempted to disbelieve the study. Not helping their cause, the researchers at this point can only speculate about the reasons. And, really, how exactly did Lucy, Ozzie, Gilligan, and Jed inspire violence? Turning the dial to Lawrence Welk and Perry Como could drive kids crazy, but in my case I simply retreated to my room with a good book.

Whatever the explanations turn out to be, parents would do well to turn off the tube power down the plasma. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Green Shoots

Two contrasting stories from above the fold. First the bad news on the local employment front:

Santa Clara-based Applied [Materials], the world's largest maker of semiconductor production equipment, said it will cut 1,300 to 1,500 jobs, or 10 percent to 12 percent of its global work force. The news followed layoffs announced Tuesday by software maker Adobe Systems and Monday by video-gaming company Electronic Arts.
[Note: if you read all the way to the bottom of the Mercury News article, you'll see Adobe's term for cheap-labor countries, "lower-cost geographies." Creative, but I don't think it'll catch on.]

Now some good news for Bay Area techworkers:
There is a hint of that old boomtown feeling again in the Bay Area [emphasis added]-- this time in living rooms and garages and cubicles where a cottage industry is unfolding around the iPhone app.

Despite the recession, hundreds of start-ups have sprung up in the area since Apple Inc. launched the iPhone two years ago and opened up the device so third-party developers could create games and other software applications for it.
This creative energy, talent, and money devoted to furthering the iPod and iPhone can only help the fortunes of Apple, a Bay Area employer. And many of these companies must be working to port their applications to other platforms, such as the Android developed by Mountain View-based Google. It's way early to mark the start of another boom in Bay Area employment and real estate, but the seeds have been planted. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

One Week Later

Malik Nadal Hasan - there's a rhythmic staccato to the three names of the man who perpetrated the horror at Fort Hood one week ago. Two syllables and five letters each, consonants and vowels alternating. Even the sound of his military title, "Major,” gloves in.

The mind wandered after the initial shock. The mind searched for relationships. Muslim, Jordanian, that fits a profile, but psychiatrist? An Army major? And Virginia Tech where he took ROTC? a flukish connection to another massacre of innocents.

Faith in our institutions has become increasing shaky. Big banks and insurance companies teeter on the edge of insolvency, churches are rife with scandal, and hospitals incubate killer infections. And the safest place in the country – the center of a large military base—proved to be no haven. Malik Nadal Hasan, another villain in a decade full of villains, committed an atrocity. But perhaps his most damaging blow was to discomfit those of us who sit safely thousands of miles away. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

The picture that seems to be crystallizing is that last Thursday’s massacre at Fort Hood is another example of Islamic terrorism. It’s another reminder that, however much we may wish that it weren’t true, war and killing have ever been part of the human condition.

Today we honor those who took up arms to protect us. In this month of Thanksgiving we especially give thanks to our Veterans. Our debt to you can never be repaid.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Temptress

The FTSE 100, Dow, NASDAQ, and S&P 500 are up 50-70% since early March.

Stock market indices continued their extraordinary eight-month rally today:
The Dow Jones Industrial Average leapt to a new 13-month high Monday as investors grew more optimistic about the continued flow of easy money to support economic recovery.

The Dow climbed for a fourth straight day, up 203.52 points, or 2%, to end at 10226.94, its highest finish since Oct. 3, 2008 and the second 200-point gain in three trading days. The blue-chip measure has risen 4.7% over the four-day winning streak that began with the Federal Reserve's policy statement last Wednesday, which quelled fears that the central bank might raise rates soon.
For what it’s worth I had been taking some money off the table in recent weeks. I had feared that stocks were overvalued compared to a mediocre-at-best near-term economic outlook and that this bull cycle / bear market rally had about run its course. But the bull appears to have a second wind.

We can already hear political spinmeisters explain the reasons for the market’s cheer: Obama supporters will say that this is a sign that the Administration’s economic policies are working, assisted by the House passage of a healthcare bill last weekend. Opponents will say that the Republican comeback in the November 3rd elections promises that no radical healthcare, carbon-emissions, or tax-increase legislation will be enacted this year and ruin the recovery.

Either way, it seems that we should be buyers. Thus the cruel temptress lures us to our doom. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Buyers have driven stocks higher every day since the election.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A New Yankee Century?

The New York Yankees are World Champions, defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 4 games to 2.

Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Microsoft or Exxon. The Yankees are the biggest and richest sports organization and don’t bother with growing the best talent because they can buy it. Nevertheless, as the previous eight years have shown, having the most dough doesn’t guarantee championships.

Whether due to being repotted to a new stadium or their desire to win one for ailing owner George Steinbrenner, the Yankees finally broke through to win their 27th World Series championship. Over 80 years ago, after two years of being stymied by the then-New York Giants, the Yankees moved to Yankee Stadium in 1923 and finally beat the Giants to win their first title.

The new ballpark likewise has been christened with a championship. Are we at the dawn of a new Yankee century? Dunno about that, but their dominance is comforting in an age of uncertainty. Oldsters had the Babe, Gehrig, and Joltin’ Joe, boomers knew the Mick, Maris, and Yogi, X’ers grew up on Reggie and Thurman. The Yankees aren't loved; in fact, all's right in a world where everyone loves to beat them because it's so hard to do (who cares about beating the Cubs?).

A-Rod, C.C., and Jeter are the current residents of the pinstripe penthouse. And it doesn’t look like they’ll be moving out anytime soon. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

One-Bowl Meal: Chinese-Style Fried Rice

Rather than let rice and assorted meats and vegetables spoil in the refrigerator, one tasty solution is to make a panful of fried rice. I need to allot about 40 minutes for the preparation, which is why in our household it’s a dish mainly served on weekends.

You’ll need at least three cups of leftover rice, so if you don’t have enough, start making up a new batch now. Use the “quick cook” setting; don’t worry if it comes out a little chewy because the rice will cook further later in the pan. After slicing the meats and the vegetables—for food safety use a separate cutting board and knife for uncooked meat—scramble 3 to 5 eggs in a wok or large frying pan, remove, dice, and set aside.

Thoroughly cook the raw chicken, beef, pork, and/or sausage (if you don’t use raw meat you can shorten the prep time by 10 minutes), remove and set aside with the eggs. You can use one big bowl to store all the cooked ingredients.

Sautee the onions and other vegetables until nearly soft, then throw in cooked sausage, spam, and other cooked meats for a couple of minutes until heated. Empty the pan into the big bowl.

Coat the wok with a little oil or Pam so that the rice doesn’t stick. Heat the pan to medium high and stir-fry the rice. I like to make the rice a little crispy but it needs to be turned about once a minute to prevent blackening. For white fried rice just heat the rice enough to make it hot.

Mix in soy sauce, oyster sauce, and/or ham ha (preserved shrimp sauce) to enhance the taste, but if you’re concerned about sodium, go light on these ingredients or skip this step altogether. Empty the bowl of meats and vegetables into the pan, and you’re done. Serves 4-6, and the leftovers can easily be reheated in the microwave for a quick one-bowl meal. © 2009 Stephen Yuen