Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Old-Time Repair Guy

Both light bulbs in the garage door opener were out, and the online manuals said to try:
1) replacing the bulbs; 2) using a screwdriver to raise the metal tabs in the light sockets; 3) cutting the power and restarting the system. No luck.

I called Brian McBride and was happy to be informed that he had not retired. Brian had installed the garage door 15 years ago and had re-aligned the track 7 years later. Brian re-examined the light sockets (step 2 above) and attacked them with more vigor than I had. Voila! the lights worked.

The fix was so quick and easy that I could tell that Brian was thinking about not charging me. That's real old school; big-time service departments always have a minimum service charge.

Partly to justify his time, I asked him to perform a maintenance check ($50) on the system and bought an extra remote control ($42) that I didn't really need. We gossiped about the neighbors; over the years Brian worked at a number of their houses and even bought a TV from one who used to work at Best Buy.

As he drove away, I didn't know whether I would ever see him again. He'll probably sell his Millbrae house ("monetize a highly appreciated illiquid asset") like dozens of retirees I know and move away.

Appreciate the old ways and the old guys, little grasshopper, you'll miss them when they're gone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Better Value

Perhaps we were unfair in judging Popeye's jambalaya (left) to be overpriced at $6.99. Perhaps our memory of other restaurants' offerings had grown overly favorable with the passage of time.

Last week we had the jambalaya (right) at BJ's Brewhouse. It had much superior ingredients, taste, and texture.

At $18.25 it was 2½ times the cost of Popeye's dish, but it was the better value.

Monday, September 19, 2016

A New Speech Paradigm

Yale Law School Dean Robert Post says that the Supreme Court justices [bold added]
have lost their way on free speech. They’re caught between two conflicting visions. In one, the First Amendment applies in the same way, all the time, regardless of context: speech is speech, period. In the other, speech should be treated differently in different contexts. It’s not just a matter of politics, he says. “There’s a genuine uncertainty about how to think about the regulation of speech that afflicts both the right and the left,” Post told me recently. “It’s not a liberal or conservative mess. It’s a conceptual mess.” [snip]

The basic problem, he argues, is that the court sometimes acts as if the phrase “freedom of speech” applies every time someone uses words. It doesn’t. In many cases of communication, it would seem absurd to say the First Amendment is even relevant: a bomb threat, a consumer product manual, insider trading. The First Amendment only comes into play when certain values are at stake. Post’s work is an attempt to deduce those values from the pattern of Supreme Court decisions. Like a mathematician plotting a best-fit line over scattered data points, he is building a theory that explains the law better than the stated doctrine does.
Robert Post believes that free speech should be afforded the highest protection in the realm of public discourse; free speech is essential to the decision-making process in a democratic system. In other contexts (e.g., a trial judge forbidding certain questions, science teachers saying the earth is flat) where self-governance is not at stake, speech may be restricted. Most people are absolutists about speech in principle until they think about specific examples, like lying about a medicine's curative properties, a CEO talking about his company's prospects, or a military reporter revealing troop movements.

Looking at the context, of course, raises other questions like "How, for instance, are judges supposed to decide what counts as public discourse?", but it's a way of thinking about the issue that, for now, seems to be independent of a political point of view.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Children of the Great Commission

There's a bit less fervor--and certitude--on the faces of these teachers than were on the disciples' in the first Great Commission, but hey, just showing up on Sunday mornings is, these days, an above-average display of motivation. During the commissioning ceremony there were prayers and promises made to set a good example for the children.

Few of the teachers will see the ultimate results of their work, as these fruits can take decades to ripen.

As for me, in the mind's eye I see Warren, Dougie, Gerard, Velma, Alan, and Milton coloring Bible stories in Sunday School. A few years later we all would dress up for Confirmation and become full-fledged members of the church at the grand age of 12.

I haven't seen some of my classmates for over 40 years, yet I remember them more clearly than business colleagues who I spent every day with.
“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.” ― Stephen King

Saturday, September 17, 2016

When Public Servants Do Product Management

No surcharge: he's not enrolled either (
Another brilliant idea by the designers of Obamacare: impose higher premiums on smokers, especially older ones ("age-dependent tobacco surcharges"); the surcharges would incentivize older smokers to quit.

Instead, smokers simply didn't enroll in Obamacare.
[Yale researchers] found a lower likelihood of enrollment—as much as 11.6 percent—for smokers who faced surcharges versus smokers who didn’t. The higher the surcharge, the bigger the dampening effect. And smokers under 40 were nearly 20 percent less likely to be insured.
Those people--smokers young and old--refused to behave as the central planners wanted them to.

How deplorable!

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Good Night

Despite the runner, the first baseman is well off the bag.
In football, basketball, or ice hockey the players move in a dervish of activity. The average fan can follow the main action around the ball or puck but little else.

In baseball there is time to observe and even think about the strategy. The pauses between pitches, and the fact that for the majority of the time the pitcher, catcher, and batter are the only ones whose actions count, allow even casual fans to appreciate the game's nuances.

Normally the first baseman stays on the bag to prevent the runner from stealing second. In the fourth inning, because there was a teammate on second base, the first base runner could not advance.

The Giants opted to allow the Cardinal runner a big lead in return for placing their first baseman in a better defensive position. The speed of the runner, the potency of the batter, and whether there were one, two, or no outs also entered into the decision. The inning did end with no runs allowed, and the Giants won 8-2. Thinking, eating, and winning are three of my favorite pastimes, and tonight I got to do all three.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Answer: Probably Not Enough for a Skyscraper

Bloomberg: "An architectural rendering of a 1,000-foot-tall wood skyscraper proposed for London."
Question: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The titular answer to the playful question is not so silly as it used to be.

The Economist: The case for wooden skyscrapers is not barking. Wood is lightweight:
There would also be less construction traffic. [Cambridge professor Martin] Ramage calculates that for every lorry delivering timber for a wooden building, five lorries would be needed to deliver concrete and steel.
Objection #1: Is wood strong enough?
there have been big advances in “engineered” wood, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) made from layers of timber sections glued together with their grains at right angles to one another.
Objection #2: what about fire?
The concrete covering the floor was mainly for sound insulation, but it helps to deal with the second worry: fire. The concrete adds a layer of fire protection between floors....But with other fire-resistant layers and modern sprinkler systems, tall wooden buildings can exceed existing fire standards, reckons Benton Johnson, a project leader with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Wood, with a little help from concrete, is strong, light, and fire-resistant.

It all looks good on paper, but the big bad wolf has yet to be heard from.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sleep: Is There Anything It Can't Do?

Lack of sleep has a deleterious effect on performance and reaction times, and it also "can upset our emotional equilibrium." [bold added]
Researchers have found that people who are sleep-deprived have difficulty reading the facial expressions of other people, particularly when the expressions are more subtle. [snip]

In neuroimaging studies, scientists have discovered that sleep deprivation can amplify activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotions, and weaken activity of the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for regulating emotions.

1) the more research that is done on sleep, the more important we're finding sleep to be;

2) don't play poker when you're tired.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Low Energy Investments

Solar-energy-company Solyndra's (2011 photo) bankruptcy
cost VCs and taxpayers over $500 million. The facility
is now occupied by Seagate, the data storage company.
Clean-energy investments have been a disaster for venture capitalists:
Venture-capital investors lost more than half of the $25 billion they pumped into clean-energy technology startups from 2006 to 2011.
The reasons: [bold added]
These investments were illiquid. They would tie up capital for much longer than the three- to five-year time horizon that VCs preferred.

It also takes a lot of money to get fundamental science right and to scale it up. Building extensive factories and building demonstration projects to scale, those were not activities that VCs ended up being willing to fund at the hundreds of millions of dollars level.

Third, energy companies or clean-tech companies were going into markets that are legacy industries, for which a product already exists that does a pretty good job. So when you’re a solar-panel company competing with cheap electricity from natural gas, you don’t have the benefits of high margins. You instead have to compete at the razor-thin margins of the commodity markets.

And finally, the fourth reason we found was that the valuation premium that companies might receive upon exit, even if they were successful, simply was not high enough to justify the investment put into them. [blogger's note: IPO's and/or selling to Big Energy wouldn't have been at ridiculous earnings multiples.]
Other reasons, IMHO, are: the lack of dependable regulatory support (alternative energy subsidies and taxes on carbon) and the fracking revolution that blew a hole in OPEC's oil price umbrella. Some day a technology like hydrogen fusion will be perfected, and the world's capital (and concomitant returns) will beat a path to its door. But that day is not today.

Monday, September 12, 2016

CSF: Too Much Can Kill You, But You Need it to Stay Alive

Those of us who are afflicted with--or have family members who are afflicted with---hydrocephalus may wonder why the brain produces so much cerebrospinal fluid (as much as three cups per day) when the body's capacity to store CSF is at most half that amount. If something goes wrong with the CSF drainage system, swelling, brain damage, and death can occur within hours. (The usual treatment is the installation of a plastic shunt that diverts the CSF to the abdomen where it can be absorbed easily; however, shunts must be monitored continually for blockages.)

But back to the original question: why manufacture so much CSF? The answer may be that chemical changes in the cerebrospinal fluid cause us both to fall asleep and to awaken. CSF's chemical composition varies throughout the 24-hour cycle; also, the volume must be sufficient to flush away the brain's waste products [bold added]
by altering the concentrations of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and proton ions found in the fluid, the researchers observed that they could manipulate the sleep-wake state of mice in the absence of neurotransmitters. Potassium in particular appears to play a key role as the levels of the ion fluctuate rapidly during sleep-wake transitions.

because the ions are positively charged, as they move back and forth between CSF and brain cells, they can change the electrical activity of cells, causing them to either polarize or depolarize. When depolarization occurs in neurons, the cells become excitable, alert, and awake.

The findings may reveal how the brain is able to accomplish the task of activating billions of nerve cells quickly, simultaneously, and on a global scale when we transition from sleep to awake. It may also show how the brain is able to maintain a state of sleep or wakefulness over an extended period of time by altering the electrical potential of nerve cells.

The researchers also observed that the chemical changes impacted the volume of brain cells. Specifically, they found that nerve and support cells in the brain shrink while we sleep, creating more space for cerebral spinal fluid to flush away waste.
CSF: too much can kill you, but you need it for sleep...and life itself.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Not in the Mood

An overlooked aspect of Christianity in the English-speaking world: churches are one of the few places where the subjunctive mood can be heard regularly.

Few are conversant with the grammatical definition, but the subjunctive mood is easily recognizable when it is used.

The Lord be with you.The Lord is with you.
God bless America.God blesses America.
Heaven forbid.Heaven forbids.
God shed his grace on thee.God sheds his grace on thee..

Rules about the subjunctive can be quite involved, and one is likely to be called a fuddy-duddy if one insists on following them. Furthermore, over-use risks losing the younger audience:
Should churches regularly update their translations, keeping the religion fresh and relevant, or preserve tradition and authenticity? The debate is as old as the faiths themselves....The practical answer is that young people and new converts should study in their own vernaculars. As they progress in the faith they can get closer to the original through study.
Personally, I like the formal--some say musty--sentence construction because it reminds me of my youth. It's inevitable, however, that as we fade away so will our language.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Memories of the Five-Year Mission

(Photo from
Though we didn't have a strict rule against watching on school nights, I missed most of 1960's television. In those days, kids, there were after-school activities, homework frequently required researching "books" in "libraries," and free time was much better spent with friends than looking at grainy black-and-white images displayed on a tiny box in the living room.

I missed Star Trek's debut on KHON in Hawaii on September 15, 1966--there was a one-week lag from the Mainland debut as programs had to be flown in on "tape-delay"--and only managed to catch a few episodes during its three-year run on the NBC affiliate. (I distinctly remember the Devil in the Dark, which had the monster that turned out to be a mother protecting her young; William Shatner called it his favorite episode.)

After we got jobs and bought a television, we would relax every night by watching Star Trek reruns.

Volumes have been written about Star Trek's impact on the culture---the crew's diversity, the first inter-racial kiss on network television, the coverage of controversial themes in an outer-space setting---but for your humble blogger, who had the rules of proper English drummed into him throughout elementary school, the most jarring aspect of Star Trek occurred at the beginning of each episode when William Shatner intoned "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Breaking the Prime Directive is bad enough, but splitting an infinitive? In space no one can hear English teachers scream.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Popeye's Jambalaya Fail

A few bits of chicken and sausage in rice do not a
jambalaya make-----especially at $6.99
I had my first taste of jambalaya when celebrity New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme came to San Francisco in 1983. I order it a couple of times a year when dining at local restaurants, but all are pale imitations of K-Paul's.

Which brings me to the new menu item, jambalaya, served at Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen in Redwood City. What a disappointment!

Originally just a fried-chicken competitor to KFC, Popeye's has been trying to upgrade its image and fare. Liking Popeye's other Cajun-themed dishes, I wasn't expecting K-Paul-like jambalaya by any stretch, but did hope for something much better than I was served. The overall portion-size was small, and one had to hunt for the bits of chicken and sausage in the bland tomato-flavored rice.

Certainly your humble restaurant critic has had much more expensive dining disappointments. However, when one is judging fast food, the cost, quality, and quantity tradeoffs are much more finely tuned. For $5-$6 one can get a decent meal, including a drink, at most places; by that standard the right price for Popeye's $6.99 jambalaya was about $2.99.

There's no escaping it, I'll just have to save for a trip to New Orleans.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Happy 65th, Mom and Dad

Facebook photo by brother Paul
Three days after my parents' 50th anniversary there occurred the worst terrorist act in American history; the celebration in 2001 was understandably short-lived.

Each year after that has been a priceless gift, not only to them but to their loved ones. So happy 65th, Mom and Dad, hope to see you soon.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

A Failure to Communicate....Tell Me Something New

(Image from
Like some latter-day Jane Goodall, Wired columnist Mary Choi, who is in her mid-thirties, examines the social-media life of teens, "with its own arcane rules and etiquette."

The platforms of choice are Instagram, basically Facebook limited to photos, videos, and comments, and Snapchat, which is Instagram with a self-destruct timer. [bold added]
[Atherton twins Lara and Sofia] know the rules. They’re bright. They get excellent grades and are wary—extremely dialed in. And while they’d never outright call them rules, they recognize guidelines that govern their social habits. For starters, as mentioned, both girls’ Instagram accounts are set to private. [snip]

Then there is the rule about likes and comments. According to Lara and Sofia, when your friend posts a selfie on Instagram, there’s a tacit social obligation to like it, and depending on how close you are, you may need to comment. The safest option, especially on a friend’s selfie, is the emoji with the heart eyes. Or a simple “so cute” or “so pretty.”

On any platform, however, oversharing is considered taboo. Or else “awkward.” Awkward is a ubiquitous teen word to denote socially unsanctioned behavior.

One example of awkward plays on Instagram: the “deep like.” This is where you lurk on someone’s account, going way back into the archives, and accidentally double-tap on an old picture...

ask any teen how to use social media—what those rules are—and they won’t be able to tell you a thing. But ask them targeted questions and they’ll break down a palimpsest of etiquette in rote, exhaustive detail: the moon emoji (indicates awkwardness), screengrabbing Snapchat messages (don’t do it), and Instagram selfie saturation points (no back-to-backs).
It appears to be impossible for someone 30 or older to be fluent in Snapchat-ese. Gen-X'ers, Millennials, and certainly Boomers shouldn't make fools of themselves by trying to speak the language.

Besides, teens have always spoken in code to shield their conversations from grownups (just as immigrants switch to their native tongues in front of non-speaking Americans). It may be slightly rude, but look at this way, eventually they are likely to come to you, so you don't have to go to them.