Sunday, September 16, 2018

Doing It Right

One of the organizations we've long supported is Episcopal Relief and Development, which "provides relief in times of disaster and promotes sustainable development by identifying and addressing the root causes of suffering." In other words ERD "gives a man a fish" for disaster relief but "teaches a man to fish" to make a permanent difference.

CEO Robert Radtke
We spent the weekend at the Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park, where we were brought up to date with Episcopal Relief's mission and operations. Last year's expenditures were $23.3 million (programs $19.6, administration $1.1, fundraising $2.6). 90% of donated dollars go directly to programs because administration and fundraising are partially funded by investment income and service-subsidies from the Episcopal Church. That's the principal reason I like ERD--the dollars go where they're supposed to go. (Charity Navigator gives the organization a four-star rating.)

Other takeaways:

1) Episcopal Relief has focused its sustained-development efforts on Women, Children, and Climate. While the latter is fraught with politics in the U.S. (because, IMHO, the climate-change movement tries to scold/strong-arm people into changing their behavior based on "science" that does not explain contradictory phenomena), ERD
focuses on how families and communities can work together to adapt to the effects of rapidly changing weather patterns. This work includes preparing for and recovering from climate-influenced events such as floods, hurricanes and other disasters.
No scolding, no politics, just preparation and recovery.

2) Episcopal Relief has embraced asset-based community development, which involves analyzing a community's existing assets (e.g., individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations, government) and their relationships. By marshaling these assets and relationships it's possible to effect positive change. In the United States "community organizing" has a negative connotation because of its association with wealth redistribution and identity politics, but in the so-called Third World the political element is much less emphasized. There is no rich uncle that can be tapped to save the community, it must save itself.

3) Episcopal Relief works alongside Anglican organizations who are "close to the ground" in order to make sure funds are spent judiciously. It declines to work in stricken areas where there is no Anglican presence. Such temperance is a point in its favor, IMHO.

4) Nearly half of donations are specified for aid for specific disasters (e.g., Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Sandy). Because funds are received fairly immediately, but disaster aid is spent--it's easy to waste--over a period of years, the accounting and ethical administration of these funds is not simple. I was impressed with the ERD leadership, which has clearly thought about this issue.

I have been critical about several aspects of the Episcopal Church. Episcopal Relief and Development is an example of the Church doing it right.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Alzheimer's Patients: the Fifties Were Happier

I'd be happier there, too (WSJ photo)
A new aid for Alzheimer's patients is reminiscence therapy, [bold added]
a therapy that uses prompts from a person’s past—such as music, movies and photographs—to elicit memories and encourage conversation and engagement.
The 1950's are reconstructed in
Glenner Town Square, a new adult day-care center for dementia patients that is like entering a time warp. The 11 storefronts that surround an indoor park represent the time period from 1953 to 1961, when most of the patients were in the prime of their life.
Reminiscence therapy is not a cure, and the jury's out as to whether it even slows the advancement of the dieease:
Most participants showed no improvements in a series of cognitive tests done before and after the intervention. But they did become better at talking about autobiographical memories when triggered from older objects....The program is mostly geared toward patients who are in the early to moderate stages of dementia, who are typically living with family or at home with caregivers. Their family members or caretakers drop them off at the facility.
Glenner Town Square is an ingenious effort but only an intermediate treatment that will be superseded by virtual-reality rooms similar to Star Trek's holodeck minus the corporeal elements (touching a Studebaker instead of only viewing it).

There's nothing wrong with dementia sufferers reliving past times when they were happier. When the technology becomes available, we'll start doing it, too.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Vallombrosa: Placid Amid the Noise and Haste

Despite having lived on the Peninsula for over 30 years, I had never been to the Vallombrosa Center in Menlo Park.

Vallombrosa ("shady glen") was built by E.W. Hopkins, the nephew of San Francisco railroad magnate Mark Hopkins, after the Civil War. Acquired by the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1947, the ten-acre site serves as
an ideal location for groups seeking a quiet and serene setting, with its beautiful grounds, comfortable accommodations, and friendly, helpful staff. It is also a gathering place for friends and neighbors to rest, to worship, to learn and grow.
Before our meeting on Friday, I strolled the buildings and grounds. Given the premium on Peninsula land (Facebook paid $400 million for a 56-acre property on which it will build housing in Menlo Park---simple interpolation puts Vallombrosa's land value at $72 million), a place like this would not be constructed today.

Vallombrosa's unlikely existence is a reminder that not every organization needs to have "highest and best use" as its highest principle.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Know Your Luncheon Meat

We thought we liked Spam, but clearly not as much as shoppers at the South San Francisco Costco.

Costco has an unsurpassed inventory tracking system that matches supply to estimated demand. The quantity on display was more than double that in Foster City.

For its semi-annual sale there are even several pallets of original-formula Spam, which has 33% higher sodium content.

In south City they know their luncheon meat.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Hard to Stop

The new iPhone lineup (WSJ photo)
We've had the discipline not to upgrade the iPhone 6, but now it looks like we'll have to open the old wallet (though at these prices we might have to take out an installment loan). The 6 is just too slow, freezes occasionally, and runs down its battery in three hours.

Apple announced its new iPhone lineup today, so we'll take a close look at the iPhone XR ($749) and the iPhone XSMax ($1,099). The latter at its highest memory configuration sells for a whopping $1,449.

As with cars and other purchases--we've reached an age where deferred gratification is not of paramount importance--so we'll probably end up spending at or near the top end of the range. When we start buying what we want, not what we need, it's hard to stop.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

One Reason for Living

Tribute in light (WSJ photo)
Memories of September 11, 2001 don't fade much for us who were around that day, but, as with the greatest generation who responded to the Day of Infamy, we, too, will pass.

Terabytes of archival information have been preserved for study, but what will be lost are the emotions of that time, the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

There have been high and low moments since 9/11, but I suspect the importance of some effects have not been appreciated or even revealed. As with the fateful year 1968, historians will know a lot more 50 years later. There are long odds against my being around to share their understanding, but that's one reason for living.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Out With the Old, In With the Older

An acquaintance's house sold much more quickly than expected, and she had two days to vacate. And so it was that she was happy to sell us for a few hundred dollars furniture that had cost her well over $1,000. (I was still basking in the afterglow of last week's clutter reduction and would have declined the deal, but I don't make these decisions.)

The bottom section had begun to separate from the main body of our new but old rosewood cabinet, so I spent a couple of days gluing and clamping (one day per side). Houses and calendars fill up quickly without constant vigilance.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Beyond Human Understanding

Example of complexity analysis on an algorithm
From the Dawn of Man human beings have worshipped phenomena--e.g., volcanos, hurricanes, the sun, moon, and stars--beyond their understanding.

Now mankind's own creations are on the verge of joining the ranks of the incomprehensible. Algorithms--step-by-step instructions that computers use to perform tasks--have become so complex that they defy analysis by the most expert programmers. In other words "God is in the Machine". According to an anonymous algorithm-builder in a very large, well-known company [bold added]
Within his tech giant, algorithms rarely stand alone. Instead, they exist within webs. “I rely”, he said, “on signals that are produced by other algorithms.” His algorithm was fed by outputs that were shaped by other algorithms. It was like a car assembly line. He, like his colleagues, worked on a small, specific part of a much larger process.

The algorithm was also constantly changing. The data inputs were flowing into the algorithm in real time, but the actual weights, measures and trade-offs that the algorithm made weren’t static either. Some of the functions that the researcher had woven in used machine learning – techniques where the machine constantly learned and adapted to what the most important patterns, correlations and relationships were. It meant that the algorithm was constantly changing and moving as the world moved around it, and its diet of data changed to reflect that.

We sat there, looking at the computer, his creation laid out in multi-coloured type. “This is all to do with complexity,” he said contemplatively. “Complexity of input. Complexity of analysis. Complexity of how outputs are combined, structured and used.” One of the reasons that he’d been employed to build a process like this was exactly because it could handle complexity by being complex itself. It grasped the blinding number of factors, signals and influences that bounced off each other at every moment in ways that we simply cannot.

Algorithms have changed, from Really Simple to Ridiculously Complicated. They are capable of accomplishing tasks and tackling problems that they’ve never been able to do before. They are able, really, to handle an unfathomably complex world better than a human can. But exactly because they can, the way they work has become unfathomable too. Inputs loop from one algorithm to the next; data presses through more instructions, more code. The complexity, dynamism, the sheer not-understandability of the algorithm means that there is a middle part – between input and output – where it is possible that no one knows exactly what they’re doing. The algorithm learns whatever it learns. “The reality is, professionally, I only look under the hood when it goes wrong. And it can be physically impossible to understand what has actually happened.”
We can still pull the plug but won't because we can't give up the benefits of the brave new world that has been built. Just pray that the God we are creating will be merciful.

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Continuing the Decluttering

Continuing the decluttering begun earlier this week, we took a dozen pair of old shoes to the donation bin outside Marina Foods in San Mateo. The member of our household who thinks of these things tied the shoelaces so that the pairs would stay together. She's thoughtful that way.

1) None of these shoes was mine.
2) The donated shoes were all in better shape than the ones I currently wear.
3) The younger generation is pickier (you may choose a different word, dear reader).
4) On the other hand, I could be a cheapskate.
5) Both (3) and (4) could be true.

Friday, September 07, 2018

Spam: the All-Purpose Substitute

It's September, which means it's time for Costco's semi-annual Spam sale.

Spam is an all-purpose substitute for the cook who doesn't have much time. For split-pea soup, fried rice, or ramen I prefer to use fresh ham, chicken, and pork, respectively, but when there isn't time to go to the store and/or spend an additional half-hour cooking, popping the can is the easy solution.

All the better if the members of the household aren't discriminating diners.

We have plenty in the pantry, but one can never have too much Spam.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Credit Where It's Due

The 100-year-old seawall enabled the construction of modern San Francisco (Port of SF image)

(Chronicle / Port of SF image)
In November San Francisco voters will decide whether to pay $425 million for "the engineering, design and construction of the first round of improvements to the 3-mile-long" Embarcadero seawall.

There are two major problems, one short-term and one long-term, with the seawall: [bold added]
A major earthquake could make the aging barrier of rocks and concrete lurch out into the bay while the soils behind it turn to soggy mush. But the estimated cost of needed seismic repairs already is at least $2 billion. Adapting it to prepare for 5 feet or more of sea-level rise could double the price tag.
It's not often that we say this, but two cheers for the City: 1) San Francisco will be addressing a deferred-maintenance problem before, it is hoped, the Big One causes office towers to tumble into the Bay; 2) San Francisco will spend $billions on "unseen infrastructure"--if you can't see it or touch it, it often doesn't get done.

We're not giving three cheers because, after all, Measure A hasn't passed yet. Also, the final project costs will undoubtedly exceed the expected $2 billion and even the maximum estimated $5 billion. Nevertheless, credit where it's due.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Take It or Leave It

I came across this WSJ article after deciding to claim Social Security benefits at the full retirement age of 66:

Readers Argue for Collecting Social Security Right Away But our advice is still to delay benefits as long as you can.

Reader arguments were: 1) You never know what's going to happen; 2) Related to (1)-- the breakeven age of 82 is too far away; 3) Taking SS benefits sooner will preserve one's nest egg; 4) There can be a favorable impact on others' payouts under disability or special circumstances.

The letter-writers did not dissuade author Glenn Ruffenach, who argues for waiting:
First, many Americans simply haven’t saved enough money for retirement. And second, many of us will live longer than we imagine. (For 65-year-olds today, more than 1 in 3 will live to age 90, and more than 1 in 7 will live to 95.) We are likely to need every dollar we can get our hands on in later life, and waiting to claim Social Security is one of the best ways to do that.
1) I haven't reconsidered my decision to claim benefits now. (By the way, Social Security does allow you to reverse your decision if you give the money back within 12 months.)
2) Counter-intuitively, I'm beginning to think that people with more income and assets should claim SS now because of income taxes on required minimum distributions from IRAs and 401(k)s. Also, if a high-income person has a rate of return of 8% or higher, then investing the lower SS payout now will beat the higher payouts later.
3) The basic advice may well be: if you need the money now, wait; but if you don't need the money, take it!
4) These general rules ignore a host of other factors, such as the likelihood that Social Security and the taxability of benefits will change, the solvency of the system, the rate of inflation, and individual considerations (health, dependents, spouses).
5) Maybe the rule should be: there are so many variables that it's impossible to make the right decision without consulting a professional advisor.

Note - related to (2) above: this chart by the Motley Fool says that the crossover age is 90 if the recipient takes the lower distributions now and invests them at 5%.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Garbage Out

After months of procrastination, I called Recology for a bulky-item pickup. The original strategy of sorting the trash and clutter then calling the garbage company wasn't working. I needed a deadline--which was today--to focus.

Once started, the process was easier than expected. The guideline for the household was: don't agonize over an item, when in doubt, keep it. Even so we had enough for two pickups.

Out to the curb went an unrepairable exercise bike, used carpet, a beat-up particle-board cabinet, a Samsonite suitcase that had served us for 30 years but wasn't immortal, cracked plastic containers, and a tattered office chair, not to mention six trash bags. There was momentary suspense when the truck came: did we set out too much? was there an item that didn't fit the criteria? No, they took everything.

We spend most of our lives acquiring stuff, and happiness is achieved by getting rid of it.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The Fruits of My Labor

(Image from ABC Fine Wines and Spirits)
On this Labor Day I made the decision to enjoy the fruits of my labor sooner rather than later. Specifically, I decided to claim full Social Security retirement benefits when I turn 66 rather than wait until I am 70. Waiting ("deferral") would result in a monthly payment that would be 32% higher and would very probably be the wise choice if I lived a long life, but wrong if I do not. How long would I have to live to make deferral the right decision?

The crossover age, simplistically, is 82.5 years. Assume that the full retirement benefit at age 66 is $1,000 per month, while the deferred benefit at age 70 is $1,320. At 82.5 years the 66 y.o. claimant shall have received (82.5-66)*12*$1,000=$198,000 in the aggregate, and the 70 y.o. claimant shall likewise have received (82.5-70)*12*$1,320 =$198,000.

The chart prepared by Charles Schwab (below) shows the breakeven longevity to be 76 (early retirement claimant at 62 vs full retirement at 66), 79 (early retirement at 62 vs deferred retirement at 70), and 82 (full retirement at 66 vs deferred retirement at 70).

Focusing on the crossover ages is, however, too narrow a perspective. The longer a Social Security recipient lives, the bigger the gap between the curves and the more incorrect would be the decision to take benefits earlier.

On the other hand the inclusion of a discount rate shrinks the advantage of deferral. (The previous analyses assumed no discount rate, i.e., a dollar today was worth the same as a dollar in the future.)

There are several ways of looking at discount rates, but one simple approach is to view it as the rate one earns on savings. For example, if the rate is 3%, a dollar received today would grow to $1.127 after 48 months, assuming monthly compounding. Including interest, the full retiree would have amassed $51.06 by age 70, not the $48 in the simplistic no-interest analysis. Because the deferral cash flow has a bigger gap to make up, the crossover age at 3% interest becomes 87.

If the earnings rate is 6% the crossover age is 101. (Your humble blogger has--cough--outperformed this rate over the long term, though truthfully there have been some down years when I could least afford it). Extrapolating past performance into the future, as financial institutions always disclaim, is not guaranteed, but doing so argues for taking the money now. Getting to 101 is pollyannish, even for me. (And, yes, a number of friends' deaths by the age of 72 have influenced my deliberations.)

Sunday, September 02, 2018

The Times We Live and Die In

(Image from Express news)
This has been a sad year. I've attended memorial services for four (unrelated) people. They ranged in age from 66 to 90; all deaths were due to natural causes, so no one's passing was a tragedy in the life-suddenly-cut-short sense.

At each ceremony there were tears but laughter, too, as speakers lovingly talked about incidents that most had forgotten. That's how it is with memorial services--kind words for the deceased, memories of good times, and, for a few hours, suspension of any conflict among the persons gathered.

That's why the recent memorial services for John McCain and Aretha Franklin were so disappointing, even appalling. I can't fathom the insensitivity that caused some speakers to allude--though not by name--to the current President and what he does that angers them.

Just imagine if we did that in normal America---"Ruth was a wonderful, helpful teacher, not like certain individuals who didn't work a minute of overtime and are just hanging around for retirement" or "Julia was a decisive, but caring leader at XYZ Corp., unlike others in the company who enjoyed slashing budgets and managing by intimidation." No, it's not about other people, even those whom the speakers find despicable and whom the loved one may be far superior to.

I suppose the lesson is to be careful when selecting speakers for a funeral. Most are classy enough to focus on the mission--honoring a life- but some can egomaniacally deflect the attention to themselves and their ephemeral concerns.

The last thing a grieving family needs to worry about is whether a eulogist will be kind and thoughtful, but those are the times we live and die in.