Monday, April 25, 2016

We Didn't See Any Cats, However

Running an errand in the South Bay, we stopped for lunch in tony Los Gatos. As in other Bay Area towns, Los Gatos real estate prices are exploding because of the Silicon Valley tech boom; Netflix is headquartered here. On Monday afternoon traffic was heavy on narrow roads that were designed half a century ago.

We had a juicy burger and pungent garlic fries at the Super Duper Burger on Los Gatos Blvd.

The small chain was celebrating its sixth birthday. It posted a sign that said there were "free" burgers from 3-4 p.m. We returned at the appointed hour.
  • We're not too proud to admit that a free hamburger will draw us out.
  • Surely there wouldn't be a line in the the 33rd wealthiest city in the United States.
  • We were wrong.

    Note: Los Gatos ("the cats") is named for the cougars and bobcats that once roamed the area. We didn't see any cats, however.
  • Sunday, April 24, 2016

    Our Church in the 21st Century

    No surprise: [bold added]
    by a whole series of yardsticks, women are generally more devout than men....Some 60% of American women consider religion very important, against 47% of men. Daily prayer is practised by 64% of female Americans against 47% of males; and weekly church-going is a habit among 40% of American women versus 32% of men.
    A quick glance at the various churches that I have attended supports the Pew global survey. (Of course, the anecdotal observations of your humble blogger mean nothing, but that's what we do with surveys/statistics/science---if it agrees with our personal experience, or biases, it must be true!)

    The older U.S. population skews female (Wikimedia)
    The Economist's writer traces the American church-going female majority back to the same tendency in European Catholic culture, but I suspect there's a simpler explanation: people tend to become religious as they age, and women outlive men. We have a half-dozen widows whose husbands used to attend our 100-family church.

    Regardless of the explanation, there are more women than men in all of our ministries, e.g., choir, teaching Sunday School, community outreach (except for ushering, which has strangely remained a male province oblivious to the attentions of feminists). Older, female, and dwindling: our church in the 21st century.

    Saturday, April 23, 2016

    The Latest Wall Street Buzzword: Positioning

    (Image from Trillium)
    Your humble blogger has neither the skill nor the financial and technical resources to be a stock trader; hence, his basic approach is fundamental analysis:
    Fundamental analysis is the foundation of solid investing. It helps you determine the underlying health of a company by examining the business’ core numbers: its income statements, its earnings releases, its balance sheet, and other indicators of economic health. From these “fundamentals” investors evaluate if a stock is under- or overvalued.
    Stock traders, mutual fund managers, and others who invest for a living look at many other factors besides the financial statements of individual companies. For example, Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT)--maybe not so modern since it was originated in 1952--holds that macroeconomic factors, in particular the "risk-free" interest rate (whose proxy is the U.S. Government bond rate), have much more powerful effects on the direction of stock prices than picking the right stocks.

    Now, apparently, fundamental analysis and MPT have been pushed aside by positioning:
    That’s the word used to describe how fund managers, traders, and the like have invested their portfolios....the fascination with what everyone else owns has reached a ridiculous extreme.
    It's a very old principle: keep an eye on what everyone else is doing. Regardless of how strongly one believes in one's analysis, don't buy when everyone is heading for the exits. Don't fight the tape.
    “The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.”
    --J. M. Keynes

    Friday, April 22, 2016

    It's Not the Jet Lag

    (today.com image)
    Most of us have had the experience of sleeping fitfully the first night in a strange bed but more easily in the nights thereafter. There's now a scientific explanation: [bold added]
    from previous work conducted on birds and dolphins...these animals put half of their brains to sleep at a time so that they can rest while remaining vigilant enough to avoid predators....[Humans'] first-night effect is a mechanism that has evolved to function as something of a neurological nightwatchman: to wake people up when they hear noises when sleeping in an unfamiliar environment, even one with a comfy king-size bed, jacuzzi, deluxe minibar and a distinct lack of predators.
    The left side of our brain doesn't sleep in an unfamiliar environment because it's watching for predators.

    Our caveman ancestors had no use for high coil-counts and sleep numbers. A trusty spear, on the other hand, meant nighttime bliss.

    Thursday, April 21, 2016

    Recaptured for an Evening

    Diane explains a point while I eat the macaroons.
    One benefit of volunteering at Home and Hope is the opportunity to engage in conversation with fellow human beings outside of work and family.

    Smartphones and other electronics are put away because, frankly, it would be rude to flaunt such devices in front of families (not all of them, to be sure) who can't afford them. So we have to talk....about the weather, about sports, about growing up in the 60's-70's-80's in [fill in the blank], about school and work, but only if the other party invites the conversation.

    Between cooking, serving, and cleaning up, not to mention sharing a meal and conversation, the evening went by quickly. We closed up at nine and headed back home. Everyone would be in bed by ten, and so were we, the evening rhythm of a pre-digital age recaptured for an evening.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2016

    The Hand, the Eye, the Image

    "Let me draw you a picture" is a favored learning technique, and it may also be the most effective way of committing something to memory.
    a group led by psychologist Jeffrey D. Wammes recruited sample groups of students and ran seven different trials of essentially the same experiment on them. In all of the trials, the scientists started with a list of 80 simple words—all nouns and all easy to draw, such as balloon, fork, kite, pear, peanut and shoe. A random series of 30 of those words were flashed on a screen along with instructions either to draw the object or write down its name.

    But no matter how many variations of the test the researchers ran, one result was consistent: Drawing the object beat every other option, every single time.
    GWB self-portrait (People)
    Your humble blogger has zero artistic ability but is thinking of taking a few drawing or painting classes, if for no other reason than to stave off age-related memory loss.

    Note: once again George W Bush leads the way.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2016

    A Bit Differently

    About half became leftovers
    After picking up the roast ham in Foster City and the carrot salad in Belmont, I headed over to the church where the Home and Hope families were staying. Susan dropped off potatoes, a salad, and frosted cupcakes, while I contributed chicken, another salad, and ice cream bars. We had to cook for 12 people, eight of them children.

    I kept the kitchen open for three hours due to the four adults' different work schedules. No matter, I had overnight duty so I wasn't going anywhere.

    Luis, a high student who also volunteers at St. Anthony's in San Francisco, arrived after dinner and was the other overnight monitor. He peppered me with questions about what we had to do and when. It was simple: lock the doors at ten, wake-up everyone at six, set out breakfast, put the dishes away, and make sure everyone had departed by 7:15. Luis said that he will write up his week's activities as a school project and intends to help us throughout the year.

    He recorded his thoughts and took a short video with his smartphone. I also did some volunteering when I was in high school, but the kids these days do it a bit differently.

    Monday, April 18, 2016

    The Other Side of the World

    (Reuter's photo)
    The Economist decries the cult of Xi Jinping. Excerpts: [bold added]
    Mr Xi has acquired more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong...In three and a half years in charge, he has accumulated titles at an astonishing pace. He is not only party leader, head of state and commander-in-chief, but is also running reform, the security services and the economy.

    he has flouted the party’s ban on personality cults, introduced in 1982 to prevent another episode of Maoist madness. Official media are filled with fawning over “Uncle Xi” and his wife, Peng Liyuan, a folk-singer whom flatterers call “Mama Peng”

    there [has] been such a sweeping crackdown on critics of the party. Internet censors have been busy deleting messages posted on social media by outraged citizens in response to the vaccine scandal.

    He is using the party’s own thuggish investigators to take on graft. But they have a greater interest in settling political scores than in ensuring laws are applied fairly.

    he is providing neither the country with prosperity and freedom, nor reassuring the rest of the world with stability.
    Worshipping the leader's personality, censoring dissent, investigating one's own scandals, using the government to settle political scores----thank goodness none of that can happen in America.

    Sunday, April 17, 2016

    The Harder I Work, the Luckier I Get

    Psychologist Anders Ericsson has studied expertise:
    At the heart of Mr Ericsson’s thesis is that there is no such thing as natural ability. Not for Mozart, nor for Garry Kasparov. Traits favourable to a task, such as perfect musical pitch, help at the outset but confer no advantage at higher levels. Rather, after a basic ability, it all comes down to effort.
    I find it hard to believe that genetics, culture, and family wealth are secondary to hard work. However, if Mr. Ericsson is right, inequality can be at least partially rectified by effort.

    Government policies are heavily directed toward taking from Peter to pay Paul. Perhaps they should encourage Paul to work harder? Heaven forfend!

    Saturday, April 16, 2016

    The Real Tax Burden

    Basis calculations can be a real bear. That's the dumb reason why I hang on to some assets way past their should-sell date---I don't want to plow through many years of tax return files to calculate the amount of gain (or loss). Unfortunately for me, in 2015 there was an involuntary disposition of an earning asset that I had held since the 1980's, and to which adjustments had been made for half those years. The good news was that the disposition resulted in a loss, hence my 2015 tax bill was reduced.

    However, at this point in my life the dollars saved don't compensate for the headache:
    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, and in our case we’re talking about an increase of thousands of dollars.
    I think I'll hang on to those files a little longer.

    Friday, April 15, 2016

    Tax (Scam) Season

    According to the Internal Revenue Service there has been an upsurge in scams that threaten taxpayers with legal action by the IRS:
    The IRS has seen a surge of these phone scams in recent years as scam artists threaten taxpayers with police arrest, deportation, license revocation and more. These con artists often demand payment of back taxes on a prepaid debit card or by immediate wire transfer. Be alert to con artists impersonating IRS agents and demanding payment.
    Case in point--the following message was left on our answering machine today:
    "Regarding an enforcement action instituted by the United States Treasury intending to [garbled] against you. Ignoring this message will be an intentional second attempt to avoid an initial appearance before the magistrate judge of a grand jury for a Federal criminal office. The number to reach us would be (305) 587-2971. I repeat the number is (305) 587-2971. I advise you to cooperate with us. Thank you."
    Of course I didn't call them back. I wish there was a way to "cooperate" with these scammers and even send them a few $$ to help nail them on wire fraud or some other charges. However, law enforcement advises that it's best not to do anything and let the authorities handle the situation.

    The most successful cons prey on people's greed (unclaimed million$ in a Nigerian bank account), hopes (cures for an incurable disease) and fears (ruin by the IRS). It's a sad reflection on the relationship between the government and the governed that the fear scam has been so successful.

    Thursday, April 14, 2016

    One More

    One sign that the Golden State Warriors are must-see TV is that it's difficult to land a seat at a sports bar to view the game.

    We did garner a table last Saturday, but we had to watch the Dubs at a distance. The waiter parked us in the one corner with TVs that didn't show close-ups of Steph Curry.

    Cleveland-Chicago basketball, NHL hockey, and even a video poker game were the choices. No matter, 12 big screens enabled us to follow the action to the very end of an exciting game: Warriors 100, Grizzlies 99. Waiter! yes, I'll have one more.

    Wednesday, April 13, 2016

    Warriors: Appreciate the Moment

    The Golden State Warriors' quest to break the all-time record of 72 victories by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls was looking a bit shaky two weeks ago when they dropped two games at home to the underdog Celtics and Timberwolves.

    Warriors fans were worried by the uncharacteristic pair of losses, but the NBA and television networks were overjoyed; normally the top teams rest their star players to get ready for the playoffs but now the Warriors had to win the last four games of the season to notch 73 wins. It was must-see TV, not only in the Bay Area but for basketball fans nationwide.

    Tonight, the last game of the season, they won their 73rd victory, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies 125-104.

    Stephen Curry after 3-pt shot No. 400 (Chronicle photo)
    And oh yes, Stephen Curry made his 402nd three-point shot for the season, which obliterated the record of 286 set by him last year. The NY Times says that 402 three-pointers "is the equivalent of hitting 103 home runs in a Major League Baseball season."

    Why are we mentioning these records? Because we doubt strongly that we will see either of them broken in our lifetime. Next year the Warriors are likely to be slowed by age, injury, and key departures of players and coaches. Also, the NBA's defensive minds will come up with schemes to defang their high-powered offense.

    Appreciate the moment, folks, because it won't come our way again.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2016

    Lee's Comics, San Mateo

    "Print is dead"---Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters, 1984.

    Although we have become accustomed to the disappearance of newspapers, magazines and bookstores, it was nevertheless jarring when Lee's Comics closed its San Mateo store last month. For 29 years Lee's had been a fixture on El Camino Real south, on the way to Hillsdale Shopping Center.

    Twice a year Lee's would have a sale, when we would fill a shopping bag with heavily discounted comics and graphic novels; at a list price of $20 or more, graphic novels often cost more than a "real book." Even at the sale prices, our youthful interest waned and our trips to the store--and purchases--grew more infrequent.

    Despite unfavorable demographics, the owner has promised to keep the Mountain View store open. We wish him well.

    Monday, April 11, 2016

    Multi-pronged Approach

    Coral bleaching, Thailand 2010 (NOAA photo)
    Warming oceans endanger coral reefs, but not because heat kills coral directly [bold added]:
    Bleaching occurs when corals respond to the stress of warmer temperatures by expelling the colorful algae that live within them. Some coral are able to recover, but too often the coral dies, and the entire ecosystem for which it forms the base, virtually disappears.
    Reversing the rise in ocean temperature is extremely costly, if not impossible, so British scientists are exploring another method of keeping the coral alive: increase the supply of algae that can survive at higher temperatures.
    the algae inside the Persian Gulf corals were in fact a different species from that commonly found in other parts of the world. It was this species’ ability to tolerate extreme heat that appeared to be crucial for its hosts’ survival.
    Solutions to global warming have focused on cutting back carbon-producing activities. A multi-pronged approach would include ways to mitigate warming's effects, such as building higher sea walls, planting drought-tolerant crops, developing efficient solar energy.....and breeding higher-temperature algae.