Sunday, April 23, 2017

In Praise of Doubting Thomas

Caravaggio's Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1603)
On the First Sunday after Easter the minister mused sympathetically about Thomas, the disciple who has been pilloried for millennia because mere faith wasn't sufficient for him to believe in the Resurrection:
Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
[John 20:24-29]
On a weekend where we honor science, let us praise the Thomases who stubbornly insist on seeing the evidence for themselves, despite overwhelming social pressure to go along with the crowd.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Do Not Fear Science, but Embrace It

Over the years Earth Day has become less a day of celebration and more one of advocacy. Example [bold added]:
We need to build a global citizenry fluent in the concepts of climate change and aware of its unprecedented threat to our planet. We need to empower everyone with the knowledge to inspire action in defense of environmental protection.
Your humble blogger instinctively reacts negatively to harangues, but today and for the rest of the month I will keep an open mind (after which it will snap shut, there I said it before anyone else did).

Specifically, to salute the first March for Science, also held today, I will honor the principles of the scientific method, that is, I will study facts, examine alternative hypotheses that explain the facts, and evaluate models based not on my biases about how things should be but on how well they predict outcomes.

The Gores in 1973 (photo from Inconvenient Truth)
I will re-read former Vice President Gore's Inconvenient Truth with what I hope will be fresh eyes 11 years after publication---I lazily scanned it when it first came out and read more about the book than the book itself.

Per science marcher Toledo Professor of Astronomy Adolf Witt
“I’m not going to say anything political,” Witt said. “But, obviously if our civilization is to continue, our policies have to be based on fact. On the truth. That’s what science is all about.”
On that I heartily agree.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Neglecting the Basics

The Third World struggles to meet rising electricity demand (yesterday's post), but the First World can't always keep the lights on either.

Massive power outage hits San Francisco, shuts down businesses, BART station, cable cars, traffic lights:
A spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. said 88,000 customers lost power and that there had been a fire at a substation at Larkin and Eddy streets. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the fire caused the outage, which swept through the city about 9 a.m., or was ignited as a result of the outage.

At noon, PG&E officials said crews were still working on the problem — and estimated that most customers would have their power restored by 1 p.m. Power was back on for about 10,000 customers at 11:45 a.m.
Most news outlets are saying the outage was due to the power station fire and/or circuit breakers being tripped:

Northern California companies are developing rockets, artificial intelligence, robots, self-driving cars, and virtual reality while the basic infrastructure is crumbling. (I do intend to look at solar energy for ourselves, not because it helps with global warming but because I'll be less dependent on the grid.)

[Update from KRON, Channel 4 news:
As of 1:30 p.m., power has been restored to 15,000 people in the city.

Power has since been restored to Montgomery Station thanks to a backup generator.

Service for the city’s cable car lines was also halted, and no estimation was given for a time of resumption.]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

21st Century Imperialism

Matla Coal-Fired Power Station, South Africa
The quickest means to African development is through the use of coal-fired power plants: [bold added]
African nations have an estimated 35 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves that could supply the continent’s current needs for more than a century.
Solar power has several drawbacks:
Unreliability: “People think of this continent as jungle and sunshine, but we have a long rainy season in the tropics, more like a monsoon, and there’s no sun for days,” [Engineer John] Owusu said. “That makes it hard to rely on something like solar. Wind turbines make more sense, but you still need batteries to store the power.”

Theft: "on a continent where a third of the population lives under the official U.N. poverty line, solar power users need to hire armed guards to prevent the coveted panels from being stolen."
Your humble blogger believes that each country gets to decide what energy path is best for itself. When rich, white societies try to keep poor black countries impoverished, that used to be called racism and imperialism.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Peak Housing?

It must be the curb appeal
Chronicle: Rockridge dump receives 19 offers, sells for quarter-million over asking.
The one-bedroom, two-bath bungalow built in 1905 went on the market in March for $495,000 and sold last week at $755,000...."It's quite hysterical," [listing agent Dalia] Juskys said. "Everything is dilapidated ... The only thing that's livable is the bathroom."
According to Zillow the building and lot size are 988 and 3,432 square feet, respectively. A bargain!

No heavy furniture, please

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Tax Day, 2017

This was one of the best tax filing days within memory---all returns mailed by noon, estimates paid, and nothing on extension (OK, there were some delayed information filings that I could have pushed to complete today but didn't.)

Our financial profile is simpler. We've been pruning our accounts and investments, especially those that are easy to consolidate, like CD's and bonds that have not been renewed. But the administrative burden is only a little lower than 2004. Taxes are still way too complex. Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate agrees.
If I had to distill everything I’ve learned into one sentence, it would be this: The root of all evil is the complexity of the tax code...

there are 151 million individual taxpayers, including 27 million who report sole-proprietor or farm business income with their individual returns. There are also nearly nine million pass-through entities (S corporations and partnerships), the income from which is reported on individual income-tax returns. These taxpayers desperately need relief from the extraordinary compliance burdens the tax code imposes.
Ms. Olson has a number of suggestions (e.g., why have twelve different incentives to encourage education savings?), any of which would ease our burden, but I'm not hopeful. As I've written before:
We have a complicated tax profile that is way out of proportion to our income bracket. If any of the political candidates had a credible program to simplify the tax code, I would support that candidate in a heartbeat even if it meant that my bill would be, say, 10% higher.
That was nine years ago.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Just a Mile Away

One benefit of shopping at retail stores is that one is made aware of neighborhood trends. Whole Foods is selling bare bones for meat-like prices; that clued me in to the bone broth craze.

On the negative side, thanks to the Home Depot display, I found that the wealthy Bay Area is one of the most bed bug-infested spots in the nation. Our house has so far escaped the problem, but it's good to know that I can pick up a solution just a mile away.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Taxes (Donald Trump's): It Should Be Educational

For the record I would like to take a look at Donald Trump's tax returns....mainly out of curiosity. By examining the hundreds of backup schedules in the returns we could find out a lot about how he and other very rich people arrange their financial affairs. Structures that aren't cost-effective for the upper middle class make sense for the uber-rich who are trying to avoid massive estate and income tax bills.

But back to the original reason for this post: today demonstrators across the country demanded that the President release his tax returns. (Note: here are the first two pages of his 2005 return, which Rachel Maddow released to great fanfare on March 14th.) I don't think that there's anything illegal to be found---similar to the results of the Russian-collusion investigation---and if the progressives aren't careful their complaints will boomerang, just as how the Russian-collusion investigation could lead to the discovery of National Security violations by Obama officials.

Why do I say that any Trump tax revelations will boomerang? Because it's very likely that his tax advisers have taken aggressive but legal positions and that such strategies are likely to be employed by other very wealthy people, more of whom support Democrats than Republicans.

Do the Democrats really want the public to learn how charitable foundations, dynasty trusts, and family partnerships are used to reduce, defer, and avoid taxes? Do they really want a discussion about carried interest, personal holding companies, and inside vs. outside basis?

Let the President reveal his tax returns (in exchange for concessions on tax policy, of course), then have his advisers explain what they did, then watch how Democratic donors tell their supporters to cool it. It should be educational.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Fake News....You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet

Looks more impressive from within than without
Humorist Joe Queenan says that the problem is not fake news, but fake news that makes us feel bad. If it makes us feel good, we should get more of it.
Everybody should have a fake Facebook page where they can pretend to have a great job, spouse and car—and great hair. People should fill their Facebook pages with photos of mountains they have never climbed, reefs never snorkeled, women never dated and degrees never earned. Some Facebook folks already do.
Mr. Queenan's suggestion, while amusing, has a limited shelf-life. Soon the hardware and software will become so advanced that we can create entire virtual worlds that will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

Subject to our imagination, we can be rich, beautiful, talented, and/or famous in virtual reality. The danger is that we will never want to leave.

This week Christians will celebrate Easter, when humankind overcame death. Soon we can overcome the unpleasantness of life by escaping into fake worlds.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Slowness is Good

I missed the video three months ago, but it's gotten a second life on the internet. A 12-foot alligator nicknamed "Humpback" walked across the footpath in the Circle B park in central Florida. Pedestrians watched from a distance that was still much too close for me.

If I ever do go to Florida for pleasure, I will be sure to bring someone in my party who is slower than I am.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Work in Progress

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Get This Story Out of the News, United

When we first saw the video of the passenger being dragged off of United Flight 3411 at O'Hare, we, probably like you, had three reactions:
1) he was brutally treated by the airline;
2) the passenger could have behaved better;
3) there were other ways the airline could have opened up a seat without reaching this point.
Modern journalism insists that we know more. The video will not stand on its own; we need to fill out the backstory. Was the passenger basically a victim or a partial instigator? (The answer does not change our judgment of the airline's actions, however.)

First reaction: he doesn't sound like a good guy. LA Times:
[David] Dao had previously been convicted of six felonies related to his medical practice in 2004, in which he was accused of illegally prescribing painkillers to a patient in exchange for sex.

He was given five years of supervised probation.

Dao surrendered his medical license in 2005
Second reaction: he was trying to turn his life around.
[Dao] applied for reinstatement, telling regulators it was a matter of “family honor.” In a 2014 letter, his attorney described Dao as "a grandfather, an active participant in his local church" who supports an organization that helps the homeless in his community, Elizabethtown, Ky.
Third reaction: he had mental challenges that the United police likely exacerbated.
Dao has a history of mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he has received treatment. A 2011 psychological evaluation of Dao concluded that he "lacked the foundation to navigate difficult situations, both inter-personally and in a complex profession.” [snip]

But another psychological evaluation administered in 2013 concluded that Dao “emotionally was free of debilitating anxiety, depression, or psychological turmoil to the extent that it would affect his ability to function in activities of daily living or manage the practice of medicine.”

Regulators cleared Dao to return to medical practice in 2015, in which he was initially restricted to working one day a week, supervised by another doctor.
From sin to repentance to making amends to a violent encounter with authority--a progression that resonates during Holy Week. Settle at any cost, United, and get this story out of the news.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Peggy Picks Up a Pulitzer

Peggy Noonan is a panelist on ABC's Sunday talk show.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wins the the Pulitzer Prize.

Ms. Noonan is one of the very few political professionals who became successful, trusted journalists (the late Tim Russert and William Safire also come to mind).

Excellence in journalism requires knowledge and facility with the language. It also requires a willingness to set aside biases and personal associations in the quest for truthful reporting.

Ms. Noonan was a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush ("thousand points of light" and "kindler, gentler nation" were her creations) and tends toward conservative viewpoints, but she has been critical of Republican politicians and laudatory of Democrats when her principles demanded it.

Long may she write.

Below is her most recent Journal essay, What’s Become of the American Dream?

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Palm Sunday, 2017

Re-entering the nave to "All Glory, Laud, and Honor"
Bedecked in red, the congregation marched around the block in emulation of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem.

This year we read aloud Matthew's account of the events of Holy Week through Good Friday. In a culture that has very few shared rituals it boosts mental health to turn off the cellphones and give undivided attention to what's being said, familiar though it may be.

Next Sunday we'll discover how the story turns out.