Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bringing the Condition Home

Walking in someone else's shoes even for a brief period fosters empathy. And so it is that today many people, including your humble blogger, can better identify with the struggles of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). [bold added]
Howie Mandel has been afflicted with
ADHD and OCD since childhood.
(Psychology Today)
Life for everyone in the Bay Area right now---with the intense handwashing, fear of leaving the home and fear of causing harm to others---resembles some of the classic OCD struggles. And indeed, OCD sufferers with contamination-related compulsions are facing heightened anxiety during the pandemic.

But many others are reporting that years of therapy have made them the calmest person in their household. And the sheltering has the potential for a big positive — a turning point for a disorder that has been marked by a lack of understanding in the media and popular culture.

Jeff Bell, a KCBS radio anchor and mental health awareness advocate who documented his own OCD struggle in the 2007 memoir “Rewind, Replay, Repeat,” said he’s already seeing signs of empathy from the public, who are getting a sample-size version of the trials of an OCD patient.
Fictional characters like Sheldon Cooper of The Big, Bang Theory and Adrian Monk of Monk depicted OCD in characters whose quirks were highly first. But as the audience grew to know them over the series' 12-year and 8-year respective runs, the disorder became recognized as integral to their characters' positive attributes. The overwhelming majority of people do not have OCD, but society's fear-filled response to COVID-19 brings the condition home.

Monk, 2002-2009, was a dramedy about a brilliant detective. Tony Shalhoub and some of the cast reprised their roles in this new YouTube short.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

All That Remains

(Chron photo)
When we saw the pictures of the Saturday morning fire at Fisherman's Wharf, we feared the worst. Some of our favorite San Francisco stops are Scoma's Restaurant on Pier 47 and Musée Mécanique on Pier 45. The fire was at Pier 45.

The damage was confined to Shed C, which contained $5 million of fishing gear. The local fishing industry suffered the brunt of the damage due to the loss of an estimated 7,000 crab traps, 2,000 shrimp traps and 500 black cod traps.

When Fisherman's Wharf opens up again, we'll return. It will be up to us locals to keep the businesses afloat until the tourists come back.

The Musée Mécanique machines are all that remains of Playland-at-the-Beach

Monday, May 25, 2020

Memorial Day, 2020

Golden Gate National Cemetery, San Bruno, CA
Today I thought about my Dad, who passed away in June. He was the last of seven boys, six of whom served during World War II.

I thought of Harry Truman, who made the now-controversial decision to drop the bomb. After 3½ years of all-out war, I can see why he wanted to end it.

Look at us, we can barely tolerate two months of being confined to our air-conditioned Internet-enabled homes.

I probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for the bomb. Dad was training in Texas in the spring of 1945 and would have been part of an invasion of the Japanese homeland that would have cost the lives of up to a million U.S. soldiers and many more Japanese.
"I was terrified at what might happen and damned relieved when the invasion became unnecessary. I accept the military estimates that at least 1 million lives were saved, and mine could have been one of them."
----James Michener
Today we remember and give thanks for the lives of Dad, his brothers, Harry S. Truman, and all who wore the uniform to give their descendants blessings that many of them could not have imagined.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Agony, Ecstasy, and a Life Well Lived

Michelangelo produced dozens of sculptures, and his Pieta and David alone catapulted him to the front rank of Renaissance artists.

As a painter he was rivaled only by Raphael, Leonardo, and Botticelli, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling and Last Judgment are the most famous frescoes in Western art.

At 71 Michelangelo took on his greatest challenge: [bold added]
(WSJ Image)
In 1547 Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo, then age 71, to take over as architect of St. Peter’s. “I am not an architect,” the sculptor protested. But Michelangelo had also once claimed not to be a painter, and yet, pre-pandemic, more than 22,000 people lined up to visit the Sistine Chapel every day. Michelangelo could also protest that he was an old man—and he was. In an era when most people died by age 45, he had lived well beyond Renaissance life expectancy. He wanted to retire and return to Florence. But you do not say “No” to a pope.

The young Michelangelo who had done everything himself and had astonished the world by creating marvels was now intensely spiritual, preoccupied with death, sin and salvation. His age, a mounting number of incomplete projects, and a numbing series of losses of family and friends focused the artist’s attention on the one project that truly mattered. Although he knew he would never live to see it completed, he devoted the final 17 years of his life to St. Peter’s. He firmly believed that he was “put there by God,” that he was God’s architect.

The St. Peter’s Michelangelo inherited was a depressing mess. The project had begun in 1505 when Pope Julius II decided to replace the original basilica, built in the fourth century over the grave of the Apostle Peter. But after more than 40 years, the largest construction site in the world looked more like a Roman ruin than a new church. Broken pieces of the Early Christian church lay strewn about, pulled down by the first architect, Donato Bramante, properly maligned in his day as “Bramante Il Ruinante.” Vaults linked the four massive piers, but the central crossing over the apostle’s grave remained exposed to the elements. The entire structure was encased in scaffolding, festooned with ropes, cranes and hoists, and littered with disordered piles of stone, equipment, and animal droppings.

In addition, the building suffered from the incompatible designs and ill-conceived construction efforts of a half-dozen previous architects, none of whom had considered the most important problem of all: how to raise a dome the diameter of the Pantheon but nearly three times as tall. Michelangelo’s most urgent task, then, was to strengthen the four crossing piers and the basilica’s exterior walls, which together would support the weight and thrust of the enormous dome.

At St. Peter’s, Michelangelo was more than an architect and designer. He was the elderly overseer of a sprawling construction site: project engineer, CEO, business manager and public-relations officer.
The construction project required the depth of knowledge and experience of Michelangelo but also the energy of a much younger man. Knowing that he wouldn't live to see its completion, he had to leave detailed instructions for his successors, Michelangelo died just shy of his 89th birthday in 1564, and the dome would be completed in 1590.

Art professor William E. Wallace:
So, are you thinking of retiring? Just because you are in your 70s? Michelangelo was just entering the busiest and most creative years of his life. And look what he accomplished 52 years after completing the Sistine Chapel [in 1512].

Saturday, May 23, 2020

What is This Absurdity?

Edward Luttwak (Guardian)
Author and historian Edward Luttwak, 77, is known for his in-depth knowledge and bold predictions, some accurate (Soviet weakness, rise of populism) and some not (Sino-Soviet war, thousands of American casualties in Gulf War I).

He likens China's mishandling of the coronavirus to Chernobyl, which he views as the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. [bold added]
Along with Chernobyl comparisons, Chinese citizens online started describing the regime as “ridiculous,” Mr. Luttwak says. “Not evil, not bad—ridiculous. Suddenly, they’re ridiculous.”...Mr. Luttwak doesn’t go so far as to foretell the fall of Chinese communism, but he’s bearish on Mr. Xi.
Regimes need respect born out of fear or love in order to rule, and they cannot long abide ridicule. However, the U.S. would be unwise to pin its strategy on his prediction, especially since it's very tempting to believe that Chinese Communism will collapse on its own.

In the Soviet Union of 1984-1985 another source of scorn was the appointment of the sickly Konstantin Chernenko, then 73, to General Secretary of the Communist Party.
He could barely talk. He could barely walk. However, the requirements of the Soviet system were that when a new general secretary is installed, his colleagues are filmed saying that they swoon with delight, as if it’s a beautiful 19-year-old girl in a bikini coming out of the water,” Mr. Luttwak says. Chernenko “never did anything. His name is associated with nothing. And now, they’re all pretending that they are swooning with delight.”

People throughout the Soviet Union, including party elites, were disgusted with the spectacle. They wondered, in Mr. Luttwak’s words, “What is this absurdity?
It looks like Edward Luttwak has a point to make about U.S. Presidential politics as well.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Dispelling the Fog

(WSJ graphic - click to enlarge)
At the beginning of the coronavirus panic we were given a few rules:
1) stay indoors as much as possible;
2) wash hands frequently;
3) practice social distancing;
4) wear a mask;
5) stop touching our face.

Recently we haven't heard much about touching our face---btw, what's up with that?---but that dictum made me switch from contacts to glasses two months ago. (We wouldn't want to stick washed and sanitized fingers in our eyes because rules.)

But wearing spectacles led to another problem: they fog up when wearing a mask, especially when exercising.

The WSJ describes a simple trick: place a folded tissue inside the mask at the top. It's the most useful advice I've read in the paper all week.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

SF: the Real Pain Hasn't Set In

Casa Quezada, where 26 residents tested positive (Chron)
Single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in San Francisco are old, lacking in amenities, and situated in areas where one would not want to go at night. On the other hand rooms can be booked for $50 per day.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SRO's have become a source of coronavirus outbreaks:
Cases among SRO residents and staff have increased by 1,888% since April 1, when nine residents at eight SROs had tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Monday, there were at least 179 cases among residents and staff at 60 residential hotels, according to an SRO report provided to The Chronicle. The city’s overall case count increased by 306% during that same time period...

More than 19,000 San Franciscans live in 500 SROs across the city, many of them older or with chronic health conditions, putting them at high-risk for severe cases of COVID-19. Communal bathrooms and kitchens, a common feature in the hotels, make it difficult or impossible for residents to social distance or self-isolate.
Like a movie character right after the event, San Francisco doesn't realize that it and the high-density urban model are shot. When hotel taxes, business taxes, and later in the year property taxes on homes and businesses come in, the real pain will be felt.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Stories of One: Politics and Real Estate

Stories of one that mean something or nothing:

Republicans flip seat in California House delegation: [bold added]
Nancy Pelosi and Rebecca, Mike, and Preston Garcia (Chron)
Mike Garcia was sworn in Tuesday as the first Republican to flip a Democratic-held congressional seat in California in more than 20 years. But for both parties, his election means far more than the single GOP vote he’ll bring to the House for the next six months.

For Democrats, Garcia’s surprisingly easy special election win last week over Assemblywoman Christy Smith, D-Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County), is an instant warning that November’s effort to hang onto the seven California congressional seats they grabbed from Republicans in 2018 will be anything but a cakewalk.
IMHO, the range of election outcomes is large. There are important known unknowns like infections and deaths from COVID-19, economic recovery, the mental and physical health of Joe Biden, and tensions with China. As for unknown unknowns, by definition we don't know what they are, but one or two will manifest, it's been that kind of year.

Devastated SoMa restaurant told to pay full rent starting in July. Its landlord? The city of SF [bold added]
Banana Blossom Salad
[Owner Thai] Van temporarily shuttered Green Papaya this month with the hopes of reopening whenever conventions come back to San Francisco — but he’s in a bind, as his landlord wants him to resume paying his normal $11,000 monthly rent payments July 1, even though he doesn’t expect it to be open and making money by then.

Van wouldn’t be so surprised if it weren’t for the identity of his landlord: the city of San Francisco, which also owns Moscone Center. Convention centers are in the state’s fourth and final phase of reopening, coinciding with the end of the stay-at-home order.

How are they going to ask me to pay rent when they’re not allowing customers to come in? It’s like they want me to pay for a hotel room and tell me to stay outside,” he said.
I have first- and second-hand experience with the plight of landlords. Popular sympathies go to residential tenants who are out of work and commercial tenants whose businesses are closed.

But what about the landlords, most of whom don't have mortgages guaranteed by the Federal government? The banks do not have to give such landlords loan relief--which applies just to owner-occupied properties--while their non-paying tenants cannot be evicted. (Note: in residential real estate about half of the nation's 50 million residential units are owned by individual, i.e., "mom-and-pop" investors, not fat-cat corporations.)

The government has decreed that lease agreements can be violated without penalty by tenants. The good news for landlords is that the moratorium stops after May 31st or June 30th, depending on local law.

The City of San Francisco's hard-line approach against Green Papaya gives cover to landlords who want to restore the integrity of their executed leases.

However, we admit that we do feel a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Van, whose landlord did shut down his wherewithal to pay the rent.

[Update - 5/21] - the Power of One: After The Chronicle reported on Green Papaya’s predicament Wednesday, Mayor London Breed said in a tweet that the city was working on “relief efforts, including rent forgiveness” for small businesses like Van’s.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Giving His Party the Willies

(Photo by Dallas Morning News)
Willie Brown is a partisan grey eminence of the Democratic Party, but that doesn't stop him from making political assessments that his colleagues don't want to hear. [bold added]
In the case of the pandemic, our best interests are twofold: our physical health and our economic health.

So far, Democrats give the impression they hold our health in highest regard. Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and our own Gavin Newsom have been the party’s most vocal supporters of a stay-at-home strategy.

Republicans, of course, are taking their cue from President Trump and presenting themselves as the champions of the economy. The sooner the full reopening, the better....

The question is, which side will voters be on come November?

My bet is on the reopening

People are concerned about their health, but their fear of not making the rent or mortgage is much more tangible and immediate.

We Democrats try to assure people that we can have a shutdown and still help them with the rent.

But the public doesn’t see it. Those $1,200 stimulus payments are already a distant memory.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s push for a $3 trillion spending package, much of which would help city and state governments cope with the pandemic, is great public policy. But unless your paycheck comes from the government, you probably don’t care that much about state and local budgets.

You care about the rent.
IMHO, Willie Brown is probably right about Republican success in November, but a second wave of infection could make him wrong.

By the way, the Chronicle headline writer took liberties with the text by converting Willie Brown's "economic health" into the more value-laden "Wealth". Indeed, the Chronicle is just reinforcing the readership's beliefs that Republicans choose filthy lucre over health and safety, and it's not the worst misrepresentation we've ever seen.

Monday, May 18, 2020

That's Still Funny

One of the silver linings in the coronavirus cloud ("bad cloud", as opposed to "good cloud" like Microsoft's Azure and Amazon Web Services) is that boredom and ennui have led to revisiting old videos.

Tosh Togo
The Three Stooges were a top-three favorite when my parents let this kindergartener watch on the old black-and-white during the '50's. I howled at the ridiculous physical comedy, complete with the sound effects of face-slapping, head-bashing, and eye-poking.

[Related: I also enjoyed watching the fake violence of pro wrestling on Saturday mornings and was later thrilled when Tosh Togo got the role of Oddjob in Goldfinger.]

But back to the Stooges, who had material for the adults, too. In 1940 they starred in one of the first anti-Hitler Hollywood films. You Nazty Spy! is filled with Nazi references such as "storm" troopers who wear raincoats while carrying umbrellas and "books" burning to erase gambling debts.

When arms dealers seek to install a puppet dictator, they entice wallpaper hanger Moe and his assistants Larry and Curly. Dialogue:
Paper-hanger Moe smears black
paint above his lip by accident.
Moe: What does a dictator do?

Arms manufacturer: A dictator, why he makes love to beautiful women, drinks champagne, enjoys life, and never works. He makes speeches to the people, promising them plenty, gives them nothing, then takes everything. That's a dictator!

Curly: A parasite! That's for me.
The cinematography is obsolete, but the script is not.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Life is But a Stream

Two weeks ago our rector reluctantly withdrew from streaming church services:
Today was his last sermon, at least until the lockdown is lifted. He turns 66 this week and, according to both the Diocese and the County of San Mateo, cannot attend even small gatherings.
I spoke too soon. He simply pre-recorded his sermon and spliced it into the livestream on YouTube. And why not?

(Image from Ascension Press)
Long before the 21st century Christians believed that it wasn't necessary to be physically present in order to participate in worship services.

From the Apostle's Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen
When I first learned in Sunday School about the ghosts who gather around the altar during Holy Communion, it freaked me out. Now I kind of believe it's true (he said apprehensively).

Saturday, May 16, 2020

RV Trend Confirmed

Three weeks ago I picked up shares of Winnebago (WGO) at $36.40 due to a late-night inspiration.
Winnebago's Solis starts at $100K
When summer travel partially opens up, there are two near-certainties: gas will be cheaper than it has been in generations, and COVID-19 standards of cleanliness in hotels, airplanes, and car services aren't guaranteed.

RV's provide a solution--see America without having to worry about bedbugs or worse.
Today's WSJ confirms that travel by recreational vehicle is a hot trend this summer:
Solis interior (Winnebago photo)
Only 14% of travelers feel safe taking a domestic flight, and 17% feel safe at a hotel or resort according to a late-April survey by MMGY Global for the U.S. Travel Association.

Jon Gray, the CEO of RVShare, a similar peer-to-peer platform boasting more than 100,000 recreational vehicles among its nationwide listings, has noticed that a lot of people don’t want to risk hopping on airplanes to get where they’re going: “We’re seeing our drive-to markets doing particularly well right now.” The site has seen a 650% rise in RV rental bookings since early April...

“We have been flooded with new inquiries, and an unusually high number of longer rentals (lasting from one to three months in duration),” said [Livmobil CEO Bill] Ward. “I think this is going to be the trend for the remainder of 2020 and 2021, at a minimum.”
WGO closed at $50.58 yesterday.

Friday, May 15, 2020

The COVID-19 San Francisco Earthquake of 2020

Despite widespread lease defaults by apartment tenants, retail stores, and restaurants, the entire real estate market has not collapsed: [bold added]
Investors are flocking to America’s mega landlords, drawn by signs the companies that emerged from last decade’s foreclosure crisis owning huge pools of rental houses are weathering the economic shutdown far better than feared. Many also expect that the coronavirus pandemic will make suburban single-family homes both more desirable and more difficult to buy for even the relatively well-heeled...

Rental executives say some recent move-ins chose to rent instead of buy given the economic uncertainty. Others have leased houses to get out of apartment buildings, given the contamination risks associated with close living.
There's been anecdotal evidence of fed-up San Franciscans leaving the City for open spaces, and we expect that future tax and payroll data will confirm this suspicion.

A month ago we wrote:
Post-war Levittown, PA (photo: J Reps)
Here is a pretty safe prediction about attitudinal change and consequential action: the urban model is passé. Mass transit is dangerous. The risks of city living are too high for children. The flight to the suburbs and rural areas will accelerate because living there is not only safer but cheaper.

The suburbs boomed after World War II changed the country. COVID-19 is likely to have the same effect.
At the time we hadn't mentioned commercial real estate, but a similar decline appears inevitable. Not only are weaker tenants defaulting, but financially stable companies are realizing that working from home requires much less office space. (Headline: Twitter announces work from home policy will continue indefinitely.)

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed real estate values. The coronavirus earthquake of 2020 will have a like effect, though few are aware that it's happening.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Meat Prices: Trends Continue

Econ 101: more supply
means lower prices
Last week we noted how beef prices were rising faster than pork, despite the coronavirus having significantly affected all meat-processing capacity.

Since then the pork belly has fallen by 80 cents to $2.99 a pound, while the 10-pound beef brisket had risen again to $4.99 / lb., double the price of last year.

The crisis of high beef prices is simultaneously the opportunity to prepare dishes that we would otherwise have never learned to cook. Use your time wisely, grasshopper, for this crisis and opportunity may never come this way again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Commercial Aviation: It's Worse Than You Think

The Kinsley Gaffe--defined as politicians saying a truth that they had not intended to reveal (for example, what they really thought about some of their supporters)--is a political term, but it can apply equally to business leaders. For example, here's Boeing CEO David Calhoun: [bold added]
Now he smiles rarely (Chicago Trib)
Boeing’s report came as Chief Executive David Calhoun painted a dire near-term outlook for the airline industry, saying growth wouldn’t likely return to 2019 levels for three to five years.

Mr. Calhoun told NBC’s “Today” show that passenger traffic won’t be up to 25% of pre-pandemic levels by September, possibly approaching 50% by the end of the year.

He predicted the collapse of air-travel demand would “most likely” force a major U.S. carrier to go out of business.
Mr. Calhoun and Boeing have been trying to walk back his statement that United, American, or Delta will go out of business, but that's what many analysts within the industry are already saying.

From an aviation webinar: how many companies will survive until 2023?

In "normal" aviation downturns, there are always some bright spots in the industry. For example carriers may postpone new deliveries but keep operating older airplanes intended for the scrap heap, and the MRO (maintenance, repair, and overhaul) sector of commercial aviation does well.

This time demand has fallen so drastically that old and new airplanes are being put in storage, which means that airplanes requiring multi-million dollar overhauls per FAA regulations are themselves parked and a new one pulled out of inventory. There's much lower demand for MRO in the next two years.

To an industry that operates on thin margins and high fixed costs and debt, conditions are the worst that anyone can recall (9/11 was a blip compared to COVID-19). The number of players who have cash and credit resources to survive until 2023 is minuscule.

I'm glad to be retired.