Saturday, February 17, 2018

Banning Guns vs. The Surveillance State: Pick One?

Guns are big and scary-looking to us in the Bay Area (BYU)
Gun-confiscation and banishment advocates---I meet them every day in the Bay Area---have no answer to the following questions: 1) Why would passing such a law solve the mass shooting problem, when the laws don't work in stopping illegal immigration? 2) ....Or in curing the drug epidemic? 3) Shall police invade the homes of millions of owners who refuse to turn in their guns? 4) Just what is the plan to repeal the Second Amendment, which requires the assent of 38 state legislatures?

Absent changing the law about gun ownership, the most promising solution is unpalatable to many -- increasing drastically the power of the surveillance state:
technology potentially changes the equation in important ways. Big data.....can help us know who might be planning [a mass shooting] next week: Who got kicked out of school, failed to show up for a court-assigned counseling session, made a big purchase at a gun store, posted a deranged or threatening message on social media, prompted an uptick in alarmed social-media chatter by friends and acquaintances.
If we don't set up extensive surveillance, and if we don't repeal the Second Amendment, then we're stuck with the status quo: the occasional mass shooting, images of weeping families, and mourning young lives lost way too soon. We're stuck with 10,000-15,000 gun deaths per year, of which 300-500 are mass shootings, defined as "a single shooting incident which kills or injures four or more people, including the assailant". (The latter number, by way of comparison, is about the same as the number of childhood deaths from brain cancer.)

The acrimony floating around this subject makes it likely that change will happen. Let's hope that we'll gain more than we lose.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Facebook and Its Problems

An example of a link I did NOT click on.
Some of the Facebook contacts in my demographic--baby boomer, college-educated--post all the time, but most, like me, seem to be infrequent users. (I suspect that we registered initially to snoop check in on our children and grandchildren.) I still log in to view photos of family and friends, especially baby pictures, but I haven't posted anything for many months.

What's become bothersome is the political obsessions of a few. I have friends on both left and right, and, to be clear, I don't mind reading their original opinions and haven't un-friended anyone. But the constant linking to conservative and progressive propaganda is more and more irritating. I get my news from traditional publications, not from advocacy groups.

Wired's 2/12/18 cover
All these concerns and more are covered in the February 12th issue of Wired. The fifth most valuable company (behind Apple, Google/Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft) in the world has come under fire from all sides of the political spectrum because of the blatant disinformation that Russian operatives placed, possibly affecting the 2016 elections.

Yet efforts to solve the problem of "fake news" are fraught with obstacles. For example, who decides fact from fiction? Isn't it the mission of Facebook to allow users to disseminate what is interesting to them? If Facebook is not merely a platform but has some responsibility for news content, then doesn't it open itself to liability?

Mark Zuckerberg has many quirks but I get the feeling he's trying to be fair, even to those he vehemently disagrees with. He, along with Donald Trump, are billionaires who I feel a little sorry for, something I could not have imagined saying 20 years ago.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fun to Watch

The hedge, 2 years later
The drain line from the kitchen to the sewer was backed up yet again (previous blockages were in 2014 and 2016). Since the last time I had faithfully poured an enzyme solution down the drain once a month, apparently without making a difference.

My mind is a puzzle. I will happily spend thousands of dollars on vacation each year but had difficulty paying $300-$400 to deal with a biennial plumbing problem.

I took a stab at clearing the line myself. First the hedge that covered the "clean-out" next to the kitchen had to be trimmed.

BTW, my rule for attempting home repairs: my out-of-pocket cost must be at least two hundred dollars cheaper, including supplies, from what a professional would charge. Also, if failure results, I shan't have made the problem worse.

The Sears Craftsman electric power tool trimmed the hedge in 10 minutes.

Next came the plumbing snake. It encountered resistance, probably grease, at 15 feet in, but I managed to push through using the entire 25-foot length.

Finally came a gallon of Main Line Cleaner. This one was lye, friendlier on the pipes than ones that are made of sulfuric acid, and guaranteed to bust through clogs.

Well, it didn't work. When I ran the water the next day it stopped draining completely after a few seconds. I called the plumber ($358), which was always Option B.

So, why recount this tale? In business and in life one should always learn something from failure.
  • The stoppage was at 35 feet down the line. I didn't have the right tool, a drain cleaning machine, to push through the blockage. (Buying and storing one for infrequent use is not practical.)
  • Augers open pipes but don't clean them. For that you need a hydro-jet machine. How much for the service? "At least $1,000." I'll think about it.
  • Meanwhile, I'm taking a much more aggressive approach to using enzymatic cleaners, which the plumber assured me do work. I'm pouring the solution down the sink every night for the rest of the month, then scaling back to a weekly schedule.
  • If this doesn't work, I'm going to order a hydro-jet which will be expensive. But it should be fun to watch.
  • Wednesday, February 14, 2018

    Hope You Found Some Joy

    Another school shooting (17 dead so far) has ruined this Valentine's Day. The usual questions arise: how did the gunman get his weapons, were there warnings signs (emphatically yes in his case), would mere enforcement of existing laws have prevented this horror, etc. etc.

    As one who has the highest respect for the Constitution but at the same time doesn't regard the right to bear arms as essential to my being, I--and I suspect many Americans--am willing to consider drastic solutions, including a ban on gun sales and even a ban on gun ownership. I think either of those goals will be too difficult to attain, but if someone can put together a plausible plan that people will get behind, let's listen. Frankly, I think it will be easier to solve immigration or illegal drugs. [Added - 2/15: of course it's harder--a comprehensive gun ban requires an amendment to the Constitution.]

    Meanwhile, I did send a bouquet to my true love, who is visiting her mother two thousand miles away. So, Happy Valentine's Day, everyone, hope you found some joy.

    It Can't Be Racism Because No Whites Are Involved

    Taylor Farms plant in Salinas (Chronicle photo)
    I've been buying Taylor Farms organic produce at Costco for the past year and was disappointed to see this Chronicle headline: 16 former employees sue Taylor Farms for racial discrimination.

    However, there's still a chance that Taylor Farms won't be pulled from Costco shelves because the story doesn't fit the mainstream narrative of white discrimination against non-whites. In other words, there's a good chance the story will be buried: [bold added]
    African American workers faced rampant racist and discriminatory behavior at the farm’s manufacturing plant in Tracy.

    The 16 employees named in the lawsuit, all of whom are African American, described incidents in which co-workers called them “n—,” “monkey” or Spanish-language racial epithets like “congo” and “mayate.” The plaintiffs also claim they were denied promotions because of their skin color and were often forced to work in unfavorable conditions...

    According to the lawsuit, 80 African American employees worked at the facility in 2015. By 2017, there were fewer than 20...

    Many of the plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit worked for Taylor Farms between 2014 and 2017. Most of the events are described in the lawsuit as interactions between African American employees and Latino employees and supervisors.
    I think we should cut the Latino name-callers some slack. In California we don't believe in brainwashing immigrant populations with Anglo values.

    Tuesday, February 13, 2018

    Fat Tuesday

    IHOP's cinn-a-stack pancakes
    I've been good. I haven't had syrup- and whipped-cream-covered pancakes since last year's Fat Tuesday. It was time for another visit before Lent begins tomorrow.

    The pancake supper reminds us of the centuries-old tradition of emptying the larder of perishable items that will spoil during Lent's 40 days. Freezing and refrigeration have eliminated the need to empty the larder. Nevertheless, we must honor tradition...

    Monday, February 12, 2018

    For a Long Time

    (New York Times photo)

    Not surprisingly, the portraits of the Obamas that were unveiled today sparked reactions that were colored by the politics of the reviewer.

    The New York Times, predictably, was sycophantic: [bold added]
    ...each radiating, in its different way, gravitas (his) and glam (hers).

    Mr. Wiley depicts Mr. Obama not as a self-assured, standard-issue bureaucrat, but as an alert and troubled thinker. Ms. Sherald’s image of Mrs. Obama overemphasizes an element of couturial spectacle, but also projects a rock-solid cool.
    The National Review was mocking:
    Take your pick: he’s sitting by the ivy on the outfield wall at Wrigley Field in Chicago, he’s in the Garden of Eden, or this is all an elaborate promotion for The Weed Agency. (Perhaps it’s meant to suggest that when he sat in power, some Bushes were behind him?) Or maybe this is just what happens when earth tones get a lot of rain.
    Let's set politics aside for the moment and just react to the art. Let's also set aside what members of whichever tribe we belong to will say about our reaction.

    I liked the portraits. I think they're both beautiful, and I didn't vote for the guy.

    Sure, the portraits break with tradition because they're not photo-realistic, but this is not the 18th century; now we have many thousands of images of our public figures and we don't need another picture to remind us how they actually looked like. It's much more interesting to see how an artist sees them....though I'll be puzzling over the extra finger on Barack's left hand for a long time.

    Sunday, February 11, 2018

    Legacy of the Enlightenment

    Just because it was European and mostly male doesn't mean it was wrong.
    Historians say that the Age of Reason, aka The Enlightenment, ended in the early 19th century.

    Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker asserts that the Enlightenment is still important and crucial to human advancement. "The Enlightenment Is Working", he says, and numerous indicators back his claim that the world is much better off than it ever has been due to Enlightenment principles.
    Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

    Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

    Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.
    These days what people are feeling and which group they belong to seem to be more important, but I have faith (!) that humankind isn't going to return to pre-Enlightenment ways. Anyway, the robots will make sure we don't.

    Bonus Sunday footnote - Sources of Authority in Anglicanism:
    The threefold sources of authority in Anglicanism are scripture, tradition, and reason. These three sources uphold and critique each other in a dynamic way. Scripture is the normative source for God's revelation and the source for all Christian teaching and reflection. Tradition passes down from generation to generation the church's ongoing experience of God's presence and activity. Reason is understood to include the human capacity to discern the truth in both rational and intuitive ways. It is not limited to logic as such. It takes into account and includes experience. Each of the three sources of authority must be perceived and interpreted in light of the other two.

    Saturday, February 10, 2018

    Greater Than Expected

    Gloria proves that she's the monster by dancing.
    The Netflix DVD had been sitting on the table since last year, so it was high time to deal with it.

    The beginning of Colossal (2016) is unbelievable, even laughable. Gloria (Anne Hathaway) returns to her New England hometown after losing her job in New York. A monster appears in Seoul, South Korea and kills hundreds of people.

    From news videos Gloria realizes that the monster somehow is her; it duplicates her motions exactly as she walks through the hometown park (she didn't know about the damage she was causing in Seoul). She proves to her friends that she's the monster and swears them to secrecy. And that's only the first half of the movie.

    Once the preposterous premise---a small-town girl is connected to a skyscraper-sized monster in Korea---is accepted, the rest of the movie follows believably. One of her friends uses the secret to further his own ends, while Gloria is guilt-wracked over the damage she's been causing.

    Despite the title, it's a "little" movie that focuses on the conflicts between these small-town characters and how they have colossal consequences halfway around the world.

    Kudos also to writer-director Nacho Vigalondo for not introducing Gloria's secret to government agencies, which would have sidetracked the story. By the movie's end an explanation is provided for Gloria's super-power.

    I enjoyed the movie more than expected.

    Friday, February 09, 2018

    Goodbye, California

    The 1978 thriller is about a terrorist threat
    to the San Andreas fault. The next Big
    One, back to the subject,  might precipitate
    an exodus from the State, just as the 1908
    quake moved the population center south.
    A few days ago I wrote:
    The warning signs are widespread. I don't know what may trigger the fall; perhaps it will be rising interest rates, dropping tech stock prices, or fed-up tourists, but it would not be surprising to see a collapse, and an exodus of individual and business taxpayers, in San Francisco's near future.
    The data now confirm what reason says should be happening.
    Thursday CBS Headline: San Francisco Bay Area Experiences Mass Exodus Of Residents [bold added]
    The number of people packing up and moving out of the Bay Area just hit its highest level in more than a decade...Of course people come and go from the Bay Area all the time, but for the first time in a long time, more people are leaving the Bay Area than are coming in. And the number one place in the country for out-migration is now, right here.

    Topping the list is the high cost of housing.

    “You can’t even contemplate getting into the housing market here,” [Joint Venture Silicon Valley's Russell] Hancock said. “And I don’t mean just service workers, I mean highly skilled professionals. The tech elite are having a hard time affording reasonable housing in Silicon Valley. So this is difficult, this makes it very difficult for employers trying to recruit.”

    [Retired engineer Carole] Dabak cites crowding, crime and politics as the reasons for her own exodus...She plans to sell her home for about $1 million, buy a much larger place near Nashville for less than half that and retire closer to family and friends.
    During my career I turned down transfers out of California from two different employers. Given the same circumstances today,  I would make a different decision.

    Thursday, February 08, 2018

    Duck and Cover

    In a shocking display of speciesism, three men chased off ducks and geese just so that they could practice throwing around a plastic disk during a weekday lunch break.

    The formerly peaceful waterfowl loudly expressed their displeasure, depositing digestive effluvia on peacefully parked cars as they flew overhead. I kept my mouth closed from a long-ago, literally bitter experience.

    I avoided the first salvo and left. When stuff starts flying, don't stick around.

    Wednesday, February 07, 2018

    I'm Watching You Watch Me

    At the local Mickey D's the Google driver was on lunch break. In San Mateo County condos, townhouses, and apartments are springing up on every privately owned patch of dirt, accompanied by a few new roads that need to be mapped from above and from the street.

    Despite the expensive electronics, the car is totally theft-proof; everyone knows it's watching them watch it.

    Tuesday, February 06, 2018

    Knowing Myself

    Insurers have a different marketing approach.
    Companies like to say that their products make people feel good about themselves, but I actually spend a good chunk of personal money (and time) out of fear. Auto and fire insurance are legally required, and while medical insurance used to be mandatory one would be awfully risk-seeking to go without. And ever since we were in our 20's we've bought life and earthquake insurance.

    Concerning time, I spend more hours than I care to admit on security for electronic devices and communications and pore through credit card and phone bills and bank statements to look for strange activity.

    "The unexamined life is not worth living," said the philosopher. Yes, basically I quake (!) in fear; unfortunately Socrates had no recommendations for that.

    Monday, February 05, 2018

    Warning Signs

    Having worked in San Francisco for 25 non-consecutive years, I can attest to its positives: great restaurants, well-known landmarks, decent public transportation once you know the routes, and beautiful weather (fog days have lessened, perhaps due to global warming).

    However, I'm more and more grateful that I don't live in the City. The traffic is bad, often dangerous, and the prices for everything have become astronomical. Worse, "unacceptable" crimes and behavior have become commonplace.

    Photographed but not caught. Note covered-up plate
    on the thief's VW (SF Chronicle)
    The Smash-and-Grab
    Undeterred by car alarms, thieves smash windows with impunity:
    The car with no plates pulls up. Out jumps a passenger with a small tool — available online or in any hardware store — that’s intended to help people break windows if they’re stuck inside their own car.

    You just press the tool against a window, and a spring-loaded spike shatters the glass. Because it doesn’t shake the car, alarms don’t go off. The thief grabs whatever is handy and returns to the getaway car...

    Heat maps of where last year’s 30,000 police reports were taken in San Francisco show car break-ins are concentrated in tourist hot spots — from the Beach Chalet to Fisherman’s Wharf, from the Academy of Sciences to, yes, Lombard Street.
    Drug Use and Human Feces

    Originally the problems of the Tenderloin and South-of-Market districts,
    Jennifer Wong's siteused to map
    sidewalk fecal concentrations.
    Reports of improperly discarded syringes have jumped 41 percent since last fiscal year, according to a recent city controller’s report. Complaints about feces have increased by 39 percent, with every district seeing a rise in the calls.
    Meanwhile, San Francisco has declared itself to be a Sanctuary City (and spearheaded the drive to make California a Sanctuary State) and imposes a multitude of business taxes.

    As of this writing house prices continue to rise, despite the reduction of favorable tax treatment for expensive houses in the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

    The warning signs are widespread. I don't know what may trigger the fall; perhaps it will be rising interest rates, dropping tech stock prices, or fed-up tourists, but it would not be surprising to see a collapse, and an exodus of individual and business taxpayers, in San Francisco's near future.

    Sunday, February 04, 2018

    Ready to Go

    Nick Foles after a Super Bowl TD (Washington Post)
    In July, 2016 quarterback Nick Foles had been cut by the St. Louis Rams and decided to retire from football. Sports Illustrated:
    He planned to become a high school pastor and join his father, Larry, as a full-time restaurateur.
    Kansas City Coach Andy Reid contacted the 27-year-old and signed him as the backup quarterback for the Chiefs ("You have a lot of great football left in you").

    Confidence restored, he became the backup QB for the Philadelphia Eagles for the 2017-2018 season. Taking over when starting quarterback Carson Wentz went down with a season-ending injury in December, Nick Foles was so lightly regarded that the Eagles were the underdog in each of their three playoff games.

    On Sunday the Eagles were Super Bowl champions, and Nick Foles was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

    He's at the mountain top now, but he doesn't seem to be caught up in the moment.
    "I think in our society today, Instagram, Twitter, it's a highlight reel. It's all the good things. And then when you look at it, when you think like, wow, when you have a rough day, 'My life's not as good as that,' (you think) you're failing.

    "Failure is a part of life. It's a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn't be up here if I hadn't fallen thousands of times. Made mistakes.

    "We all are human, we all have weaknesses, and I think throughout this, (it's been important) to be able to share that and be transparent. I know when I listen to people speak and they share their weaknesses, I'm listening. Because (it) resonates.

    "So I'm not perfect. I'm not Superman. I might be in the NFL, I might have just won a Super Bowl, but, hey, we still have daily struggles, I still have daily struggles. And that's where my faith comes in, that's where my family comes in.

    "I think when you look at a struggle in your life, just know that's just an opportunity for your character to grow. And that's just been the message. Simple. If something's going on in your life and you're struggling? Embrace it. Because you're growing."
    Andy Reid understated how much great football he had left, but when Nick Foles eventually hangs up his cleats, it looks like he's already well-prepared for his second career.

    [Update - 2/7: Nick Foles wasn't channeling Friedrich Nietzsche ("what does not kill me makes me stronger") Giving thanks for one's own suffering is a very old Christian concept.
    we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. --Romans 5]