Thursday, March 15, 2018

Getting in the Way

Time personalizes the cost of America's immigration crackdown through its cover story. It's not an extremely partisan piece, but by telling the stories of families who are broken up--especially kids who are left behind--the reader can't help but feel sympathy for them.

The undocumented communities live in fear ("an explosion of fear"--I didn't say the article had no bias):
Don’t go to the Walmart, an ICE truck was seen parked nearby. Plainclothes agents are watching the park. In a phone interview from Mexico, Alejandro told me that many of his old friends now avoid leaving the house, limiting necessary errands to blitzes after dark, when agents are thought to be less active. Sitting in a folding chair on the patio outside her home, Maria describes a similar drumbeat of distress. She doesn’t use the word miedo, fear, but a more visceral term: pavor. Dread.
Advocates for the undocumented, IMHO, can lessen the dread by brokering a deal with the Trump Administration. By encouraging local authorities to cooperate with ICE and hand over undocumented criminals from local jails, ICE would agree to greatly reduce its community raids. (Of course, this would mean gutting the notion of sanctuary cities and states.) But if that hypothetical deal succeeds, we can talk about building a wall and formalizing a path to citizenship for the Dreamers.

The outlines for a deal or deals are there, but I suppose people are letting their anger and moral superiority (not obvious to this blogger, by the way) get in the way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Ready or Not, Here (Will Be How) We Go

(Illustration from Stanford Alumni Magazine)
Much like the automobile was in 1900, self-driving cars in 2018 are a curiosity. However, those who are involved in the research (major car companies, universities, and tech giants, not to mention Uber and Lyft) say that we are on the verge of a dramatic societal transformation:
Babies born today won’t ever need a driver’s license....
• Only 20 percent of Americans will own a car in 15 years.
• Passenger vehicles on American roads will drop from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030.
• Driverless technology will transform many, if not most, modes of transportation: trucks, tractors, ships, forklifts, trains, construction equipment.
• Transportation costs will drop to about 20 cents a mile, at which point everyone will have affordable access to road travel. (That’s about a threefold decline, according to a 2017 AAA report.)
Disruption may be too mild a descriptor for what is happening to our means of transportation. How we get from here to there is not merely a convenience, but rather has the potential to affect poverty levels, social standing, our daily human interactions, cultural norms and even life span, according to Stanford scientists and researchers.

On the one hand, self-driving cars could democratize transportation, making independent travel possible for many who lack it, including people who are blind, disabled, young, old or poor. Prognosticators also expect reductions in pollution, traffic, collisions and the cost of getting around, and an increase in green space as the demand for parking lots declines.

But skeptics worry that the adoption of driverless cars will eliminate too many jobs and give hackers a new way to attack, even possibly turning cars into lethal weapons. As the debate unfolds, autonomous vehicles are hitting the road in droves. Ready or not, say experts, here they come.
Autonomous vehicles, robots who are smarter, faster, and stronger than we, Mars colonies, and the elimination of disease and the ravages of age---we are rushing pell-mell into a future that is barely imaginable.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Back to the Universe

A bargain even in 2001: 2 Hawking books plus pictures at a cost of $9.99.
Pi is an irrational number (3.14159265.... goes on forever to the right of the decimal point without repeating a sequence), and it's somehow fitting that one of the leading examples of human rationality, physicist Stephen Hawking, died on "Pi Day" (3.14) in England.

I took a crack at his best-seller, A Brief History of Time, when it first came out in 1988 but didn't have the discipline to read it (skimming a technical text is not considered reading, by the way). I had better luck in 2001 when it was reissued with pictures and diagrams. Here is an excerpt from the chapter entitled The Arrow of Time:
In a quantum theory of gravity, as we saw in the last chapter, in order to specify the state of the universe one would still have to say how the possible histories of the universe would behave at the boundary of space-time in the past. One could avoid this difficulty of having to describe what we do not and cannot know only if the histories satisfy the no boundary condition: they are finite in extent but have no boundaries, edges, or singularities. In that case, the beginning of time would be a regular, smooth point of space-time and the universe would have begun its expansion in a very smooth and ordered state. It could not have been completely uniform, because that would violate the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. There had to be small fluctuations in the density and velocities of particles. The no boundary condition, however, implied that these fluctuations were as small as they could be, consistent with the uncertainty principle.

The universe would have started off with a period of exponential or "inflationary" expansion in which it would have increased its size by a very large factor. During this expansion, the density fluctuations would have remained small at first, but later would have started to grow. Regions in which the density was slightly higher than average would have had their expansion slowed down by the gravitational attraction of the extra mass. Eventually, such regions would stop expanding and collapse to form galaxies, stars, and beings like us. The universe would have started in a smooth and ordered state, and would become lumpy and disordered as time went on. This would explain the existence of the thermodynamic arrow of time.
The above passage may be somewhat abstruse, but by the time the reader encounters it on page 191 Professor Hawking has already discussed thermodynamics, space-time, quantum mechanics, gravity, and the origin of the universe, all prerequisites to this discussion. He was a brilliant theoretician, writer, and teacher. R.I.P.

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist,” Hawking said of the meaning of life. “Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

Monday, March 12, 2018

Like a Fox

WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan, not an anti-Trump conservative, tries to put her finger on the ambivalence that many Republicans have about their leader.

First, the positives from a Republican point of view: [bold added]
[President Trump] has established in his government a deregulatory spirit that is fair and helpful....excessive regulation, especially when it springs from ideological animus or practical ignorance, kills progress, growth, jobs, good ideas and products.

Mr. Trump has put a sober conservative on the Supreme Court, and many conservative judges on the lower courts. This provides greater balance in the judiciary. In a split country, split courts—balance—is probably the best we can do.

The economy is improving. And Mr. Trump helped pass a tax bill that was better—maybe a little, maybe a lot, but certainly better—than what it replaced.

Not bad for a first year in office!
The negatives, however, are hard to brush off:
You look at his White House and see what appears to be epic instability, mismanagement and confusion. You see his resentments and unpredictability. You used to think he’s surrounded by solid sophisticates, but they’re leaving. He’s unserious— Vladimir Putin says his missiles can get around any U.S. defense, and Mr. Trump is tweeting about Alec Baldwin. He careens around—he has big congressional meetings that are like talk shows where he’s the host, and he says things that are both soft and tough and you think Hmmm, maybe that’s a way through, but the next day it turns out it was only talk. This has been done on the Dreamers, on guns and we’ll see about tariffs. He loves chaos—he brags about this—but it isn’t strategic chaos in pursuit of ends, it’s purposeless disorder for the fun of it. We are not talking about being colorfully, craftily unpredictable, as political masters like FDR and Reagan sometimes were, but something more unfortunate, an unhinged or not-fully-hinged quality that feels like screwball tragedy.
To summarize, in 13 words, "On some level this is working. And on some level he is crazy."

The nub of her worry [bold added]:
Crazy doesn’t last. Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that, when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes.
I may be whistling past the graveyard, but I am not as concerned as she is. Here's an alternative narrative, some of which may be true!

A lifetime in the public eye has enabled Mr. Trump to perfect his public persona, which is the following: he's a bully; he makes impulsive decisions, and he says what's on the top of his mind without thinking of the consequences. He doesn't appreciate the seriousness with which everyone takes the words of the American President. The staff turnover indicates that people who have seen him up close for just a few months can't stand him.

Yet while the media and political opposition obsess over Russia! Russia! Russia! and the Trump insult of the day (North Korea, immigrants, s******e countries, Mexico, China, Sweden, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin, the list goes on and on and on), his Administration chugs along, ruthlessly pruning regulations, lowering taxes, and appointing judges. If the public persona were reality, very little would have been done.

The impulsive shoot-from-the-lip President has puzzlingly refrained from talking about two key longer-term projects: the counter-Mueller investigation, led by the recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of powerful government agencies that spied on the Trump campaign, and the slow-motion strangulation of North Korea.

Last week there was near-universal condemnation of the upcoming tariffs by allies, Republicans, Wall Street, and economics professors. A few days later, after the meeting with Kim Jong Un was announced, other experts weighed in on how our Dealmaker-in-Chief will be taken to the cleaners by the 34-year-old dictator.

Just a question, chicken littles: could these moves be related? The tariffs are clearly aimed at China, which for decades has viewed the United States as a pitiful, helpless giant in trade negotiations. The falling markets, reinforced by Mr. Trump's public persona, believe that this time the American President means business about Chinese dumping.

What if Mr. Trump is using tariffs as a bargaining chip in the North Korea negotiations? What if, in exchange for Chinese help in de-nuclearizing Korea, he relaxes or removes them? Without having tariffs in the first place the United States can't apply pressure to China, so the President took the hit now in order to strengthen his hand for the Korean talks.

Of course, what do I know? Peggy Noonan is probably right: he's crazy.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Springing Forward

This morning the clock sprung forward and we "lost an hour." The church administrator had thoughtfully assigned me ushering and layreading duties on the one Sunday when slothful me would have really liked to sleep in (no, Jesus, I'm just joking and happy to be of service).

Attendance was below average, but well within the margin of error---I've forgotten what that means but it sounds STEM-related and professorial. Later that day, availing myself of the Sunday Loophole, it was time to eat and drink everything that I'd been abstaining from during Lent.

I stopped by the local 99 Ranch Market and picked up some sweet and fatty items suitable for Lent-breaking. Fortified by a couple of glasses of pinot noir, I was ready for the week.

99 Ranch Market's duck tongues and duck heads---tempting, but I'll pass.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

As Easy as Predicting the Sun Will Rise in the East:

If the project doesn't get much further, historians of the future
will wonder why we spent billions connecting Fresno (pop
500,000) with Bakersfield (pop 400,000) (Chronicle photo)
I would say I told you so, but this was as easy as predicting the sun will rise in the East: California high-speed rail project facing more delays, higher costs. [bold added]
The middle-of-the-road estimate is $77 billion, according to the draft report, which will now undergo public comment and legislative scrutiny....

The bullet train’s most recent cost estimate was $64 billion, which was already double the original $32 billion price tag that was pitched to state voters when they authorized bond money for the project nearly a decade ago. The rail authority said it hopes to finish the full line by 2033, a delay from the most recent estimate of 2029.
We derided the project when we first heard about it in 2012. By 2013 and 2015 it had gotten more delayed and more expensive. IMHO, the new estimates are optimistic.

I'd bet money on this: we will put a human being on Mars before anyone travels from LA to SF on high-speed rail.

BTW, here's another great moment in public transportation: At long last, Wi-Fi coming to BART, Caltrain — in 3 to 4 years. By comparison JetBlue began offering WiFi on its flights in 2013.

The leaders of tomorrow, i.e., millennials, prefer socialism to capitalism, so we'd better get used to stories like these.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A Hunk of Horse is a Course, Of Course

Economist writer Tom Rachman observes that gastronomy is bipolar.
Ethical eaters demand local sourcing, organically raised happy animals, a low carbon footprint. Meantime, foodies jet around the world, charring meat in open fire pits, taking iPhone snapshots of their grub, consuming as decadently as possible. In this modern-day bifurcation, what of food taboos? Some dismiss them entirely; others clamour for more.
(As an aside, contradictions like these are why middle America finds coastal elites so infuriating; the elites deplore a beef-loving, carbon-producing culture while they "jet around the world, charring meat in open fire pits.")

Hunks of horse in Parma (Economist photo)
The article is about eating raw horse meat, a practice that the wine-and-cheese crowd would sniff at if done by Americans, except that it has become popular in Parma (northern Italy).
The raw variety – pesto di cavallo, or caval pist in Parma dialect – developed into a city speciality, likely inspired by tartare and the lingering French influence. Today, it’s a source of local pride, with fine restaurants such as Osteria dello Zingaro advertising its equine butcher on the door and offering “Horse Three Ways” (French tartare, a slice of roasted horse and pesto di cavallo).

Professor Stefano Bentley of the University of Parma, a scholar of food culture, said pesto di cavallo has undergone a boom here in recent years, especially among the young.
Give it an Italian or French name and the foodies swoon. Would you like to try a dollop of cavallo on your avocado toast, sir?

Thursday, March 08, 2018

You Need a Healthy Wallet and a Healthy Heart

Construction on condos and townhouses is nearly completed on the last sizable parcel of open space in Foster City. They will sell for $1.0 million to $1.6 million, an unbelievable sum to those of us who paid (cough) well under that amount during the 20th century.

In fact your humble blogger bought when Foster City homes sold at a discount to the rest of the Peninsula (our town was built on landfill over Brewer's Island, and houses "settled" about an inch a year, or so it was rumored).

The developers aren't crazy. They're marketing the properties to the over-55 crowd, many of whom are trading down and may even be buying without taking out a loan.

We don't have a hospital, though, so don't get a heart attack during rush hour when it takes an hour to go across the freeway.

Homes on the lagoon cost over $2 million.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Quotation Marks Can Be Helpful

Time headline: Scientists Found More Than a Million Rare Penguins in Antarctica

Suggested edit: Scientists Found More Than a Million "Rare" Penguins in Antarctica
The Adélie penguin supercolony (NY Times photo)
A previously unknown “supercolony” of more than 1.5 million penguins has been discovered by scientists in the Danger Islands, a chain of nine islands located off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula....

The team proceeded to count the number of birds by hand and used a modified commercial quadcopter drone to take images of the entire island from above, to help locate penguin nests that have gone undetected for decades. They counted 751,527 pairs of penguins in total.
As an auditor I counted tons of walnuts, prunes, seeds, blooms and slabs, all for different clients, of course. And I did it while wearing a suit! And I used a notepad with a clipboard! (geezer)

In every profession one has to pay one's dues.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

That Funny Smell

The results of a scientific study seem to be tailor-made for political comedy:
If you hate bad body odour, you’re more likely to support Trump
(Image from Daily Mail)
Italian scientist Marco Liuzza theorized that people who came from regions rife with disease were especially sensitive to bad smells. This physical aversion would lead them to have "right-wing authoritarian views" that tend to reject foreign people and unfamiliar ideas. [bold added]
Members of the team have developed a body-odour disgust scale (BODS). This is based on asking volunteers a series of questions about different scenarios, such as noticing that a friend’s feet smell. From this it can be established how strongly, on a scale of one to five, a person reacts to bad smells...

The volunteers completed the BODS questionnaire and others that gauged the extent to which they sympathised with certain authoritarian views (“Our country needs a powerful leader, in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today”, for instance) and with more socially, fiscally or morally conservative views. The researchers found that those scoring highly on the BODS scale did indeed hold more authoritarian views. They found no such correlation between the BODS score and more broadly conservative opinions.
(Note, dear reader, that authoritarianism and conservatism 1) are two different things and 2) were not correlated.)

So why hasn't this study been more publicized by TV news that is 91% negative to Donald Trump? The jokes write themselves---Trump voters held their nose and voted for him, they sniff at coastal elites, etc.

However, rejoinders are easy: Progressives stink, Occupy Wall Street was so offensive that it was closed due to health reasons, etc.

Could the solution be this simple? Americans wouldn't be so divided if they used more deodorant.

Monday, March 05, 2018


At least March was better than February (Chronicle image)
The big storm that we anticipated last week didn't exactly fizzle, but it was disappointing.
California’s all-important snowpack measured 39 percent of average for the date at Phillips Station in El Dorado County, the state’s traditional survey spot south of Lake Tahoe, while snowpack statewide measured 37 percent of average.
The good news is that stored water from last year's storms should allow for normal consumption in 2018.
California’s reservoirs remain at average levels for this time of year because of last winter’s bounty, state water officials said. The supply is enough for most communities to weather the year, even if there aren’t any more big storms.
I'd much rather spend the tens of billions about to be wasted on the high-speed rail project (that will be finished in 2030, they say) on water storage. HSR will be used by thousands of travelers while the latter will benefit 40 million Californians.

As the President suggested in his State of the Union speech, I can dream, too.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Diet, Exercise, and Pray

(Graphic from Brainy Quote)
After the Florida school shooting on Valentine's Day impassioned protestors marched on the State legislature in Tallahassee. Statements like these were typical. [bold added]
We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers. If you supported us, you would have made a change long ago. So this is to every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. We are coming after you. We are coming after every single one of you, demanding that you take action.”
No, this is not a post about gun control or gun rights; it's about prayer.

Denigrating prayer is, er, all the rage these days, especially by those who don't engage in it much. Your humble blogger prays at least once a week--in church on Sunday!--and has grown up with the tradition of saying grace before meals and to pray as soon as I can for those in extremis.

Prayer is a worthless undertaking if there is no One listening at the other end. And even if there is a One, he/she/it may not answer, or answer in the way we want. So what good is it?

Prayer seems to be good for one's health. [bold added]
A number of studies have shown associations between attending religious services and living a long time. One of the most comprehensive, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, found that women who went to any kind of religious service more than once a week had a 33% lower chance than their secular peers of dying during the 16-year study-follow-up period. Another study, published last year in PLOS One, found that regular service attendance was linked to reductions in the body’s stress responses and even in mortality–so much so that worshippers were 55% less likely to die during the up to 18-year follow-up period than people who didn’t frequent the temple, church or mosque.

...prayer has been shown to be powerful, in at least one way. It triggers the relaxation response, a state of mind-body rest that has been shown to decrease stress, heart rate and blood pressure; alleviate chronic disease symptoms; and even change gene expression. This state is typically linked to activities like meditation and yoga, and research suggests it can also be found through praying.
For the overwhelming majority of people who don't have the misfortune of being in an airplane crash or a school shooting or a raging firestorm, prayer seems to increase the odds of a longer life, specifically 33% to 55% higher. The science is settled.

Cynics may say that prayer was not helpful to the 17 people who died in the 2018 Valentine's Day massacre. Putting aside the question of how many of those murdered prayed during their last moments and whether their prayers were helpful in a spiritual reality that may exist, the rest of the 3,000 students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School did live.

How many of the 99.4% who survived prayed also? How many think that their prayers were answered? Have they come to some decisions about the rest of their lives? Are they enraged or grateful or both (though anger and gratitude don't often co-exist)?

I'd like to hear more from the silent survivors, but I doubt that we will, because to reveal any thoughts or emotions that deviate at all from the current angry narrative opens oneself up to social opprobrium, and no high-school kid needs that.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Peak Google?

YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, Jawed Karim
News item: a lawsuit claims that YouTube has frozen the hiring of white or Asian males for engineering positions.
Last spring, YouTube recruiters were allegedly instructed to cancel interviews with applicants who weren’t female, black or Hispanic, and to “purge entirely” the applications of people who didn’t fit those categories, the lawsuit claims.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Without white or Asian males YouTube would not have been founded or invented.

And the same goes for Google, the second most valuable company in the world. (Google owns YouTube.)

Friday, March 02, 2018

Fake Cosmology

(Photo from the Indie Spiritualist)
I don't think--but am not absolutely sure--that this is a parody from the Onion.

Quantum physicist Amit Goswami (his name itself invites skepticism) said: “We Honestly Have No F*****g Idea What We’re Doing”.

We have been just winging it to tell you the truth...Seriously, I haven’t a clue what’s going on. Either does anyone else in my field. We keep proving stuff that never actually happened...

Over the years there have been just a handful of us pretending to know something about the universe that no one else does, but this is all lies to feed the charade. I’ve had some great times during the years; travelling the world, and giving talks on our pretend finds...

I found out a long time ago that everything can be proven with a mathematical equation. Now, I mean everything; from unicorns, fire-breathing dragons, God and even the G-spot. None of it is true. Me and the handful that know the truth have been riding the Quantum Physicist celebrity wave for quite some time now, but it must end – before someone gets hurt.
Quantum physics has always been unfathomable to common folk with assertions like:
1) a cat can be both dead and alive;
2) particles separated by vast distances can "spookily" affect each other instantaneously.
3) light is both a wave and a particle.

(By Sam Hollingsworth)
An old saw, but true: when somebody with knowledge and authority tells you something that doesn't make sense, don't accept it unquestioningly.

Now that everything's on the table, I personally am intrigued by a cosmological idea rumored to originate from Dr. Goswami's native country: it's turtles all the way down.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Tiny Victory

SF Chronicle photo of Delon Terrance Barker
In early February I cited daytime car smash-and-grabs as one reason why San Francisco would be unlivable (for me). Well, the police caught the guy in the photograph.
Police were able to identify him as Delon Terrance Barker, a 21-year-old resident of [Fairfield] who’s familiar to law enforcement...

A car break-in suspect in San Francisco actually arrested? The chances of that are 1.6 percent. No, really. That was the arrest rate last year in San Francisco, which saw car break-ins skyrocket, with more than 30,000 reported to police.
Three comments: 1) I'm glad they caught him. 2) The police need to have quite a few more well-publicized arrests before bad guys' behavior is affected. 3) Delon Terrance Barker is really, really unlucky to have broken into a car when the Chronicle photographer was watching.