Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Crazy for Living Next to a Volcano? No, Just Insured

Keli'i Akina of the Grassroot Institute, a Hawaii think-tank, says that Hawaii insurance laws encourage building homes next to active volcanos: [bold added]
Lava nears a Pahoa house (Reuters/Japan Times)
The destruction caused in the early 1990s cost private insurers millions of dollars, prompting them to stop insuring property in the most vulnerable areas, called Lava Flow Hazard Zones 1 and 2....

the Hawaii state government stepped in. In 1991 the legislature created the nonprofit Hawaii Property Insurance Association, which provides policies to people who can’t buy them on the market. But private insurers are forced to join the HPIA as a condition of doing business in the state....In essence, Hawaii law requires all private insurers to pool their resources to subsidize policies in Lava Zones 1 and 2.

Ordinarily, people would be hesitant to build homes in a place that’s too hazardous to insure, but here the Legislature’s actions created incentives. The result was a housing boom on the edge of an active volcano. By 2008 there were more than 2,400 HPIA policies in the area, providing more than $700 million of insurance to the highest-risk lava zones in Hawaii.
This case is one example of moral hazard, in which an arrangement (insurance) meant to reduce risk encourages behaviors that increase risk. The writer, Mr. Akina, recommends that "Hawaii’s leaders should wind down the HPIA." On Hawaii it's been tough to breathe lately, but we're not holding our breath for that one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Lightning Rod

I don't think it's his main criterion for selecting officials, but if President Trump's appointees can drive his opponents barking mad, he probably regards it as a plus.

Chronicle Saturday headline: Trump appoints new EPA head in SF who led ‘lock her up’ chants against Clinton. [bold added]
(Chronicle photo)
A Santa Barbara County attorney who has fought for farmers and fossil fuels and led the “lock her up” chants in opposition to Hillary Clinton was appointed by the Trump administration Friday to head the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pacific Southwest office in San Francisco.

The appointment of Mike Stoker, a former county supervisor and GOP stalwart, infuriated environmentalists and further annoyed Bay Area Democrats and San Francisco power brokers reeling from what they view as assaults by the administration on environmental policies.
Actually, when one looks past the political theatrics (I regard "lock her up" as of a piece with Democrats calling for Mr. Trump's impeachment) of the past two years, Mr. Stoker looks like a mainstream Republican:
Business and industry leaders supported the hire.

“To grow jobs in California, we need balance between our important environmental needs and diverse economy,” said Robert Lapsley, the president of the California Business Roundtable... “His qualifications as an agricultural law attorney, with an emphasis in environmental law, combined with his decades of experience as an appointed and elected policymaker ... will serve California well.”
Mr. Stoker will be a lightning rod that will intercept some of the bolts meant for Scott Pruitt, the EPA head, and Mr. Trump, whom I did not vote for.

The aftershocks of the 2016 election have furnished a lot more entertainment than I expected.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Lennon-ist, not Leninist

St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle (Rutland Herald)
The beauty of Anglicanism was on full display Saturday during the wedding of Harry and Meghan. Certainly there are larger, more magnificent cathedrals where the ceremony could have been held, but St. George's Chapel was just the right size for the number of attendees (or it could be that the guest list was pared to accommodate seating).

The Most Reverend Michael Curry (Reuters)
I'd like to put in my two cents about the sermon by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.

Both admirers and detractors pointed to the novelty of having an African-American preacher speak to the royal family. How wonderful/how horrible that he brought up Martin Luther King and slavery at a wedding ceremony! They behaved as partisans who do not delve beneath surface appearances and the surface meaning of words. They rendered a quick verdict depending on whether black Americans are in or out of their tribe.

In my humble opinion Michael Curry's sermon rose above politics. He spoke about the power of love, a phrase that was repeated nine times.
“Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history. A movement grounded in the unconditional love of God and for the world. And a movement mandating people to live and love, and in so doing, to change not only their lives, but the very life of the world itself. I’m talking about power, real power to change the world.”
He did not give social-justice proponents the red meat they want, i.e., there is no need to seek to overthrow hierarchies or resist repression if we focus on love, which is revolutionary enough. Nor did he let the powerful off the hook:
Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way … unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. Then no child would go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
By speaking about love, by being Lennon-ist not Leninist, Michael Curry's sermon rose above politics.

Note: another aspect that may have been disconcerting to English listeners was the use of elements of black preaching styles by Bishop Curry. He didn't use full-throated call-and-response or convicting the audience or vision casting (one of the best examples is Martin Luther King's I Have A Dream); even toned down, new cadences reverberated shockingly throughout St. George's Chapel.

Simply reading the text of Bishop Curry's sermon doesn't capture the experience of listening and watching (video below).

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Pentecost, 2018

Blessing the seminarian as he departs for the summer.
On Pentecost Sunday half the congregation remembered to wear red. Less familiar than Christmas and Easter, Pentecost (“Whitsunday”) is the third great feast of Christianity and commemorates the Holy Spirit coming into the world on “tongues of fire, (Acts 2:1-4)” hence the red garb.

Red has been on our minds lately--the red death of yet another school shooting and the red lava against which nothing can stand.

Ancient Christians embraced the notion of an eternal Spirit as a symbol of hope for a life that was nasty, brutish, and short. While our lives are undoubtedly better than in Hobbes' 17th century, there are still many things that we do not control, and physical death, though postponed, still claims us all.
Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Perfect Princess for A Hashtag World

Still sparkling (her not him) after the wedding
vows (Daily Mail)
at thirty-six...Meghan is not only three years older than her husband-to-be, she is a fully-formed adult who has already had a successful career...

One of the reasons that Meghan has settled so quickly into royal life is that she already knows what it’s like to look down the barrel of a dozen telephoto lenses and smile as if she hasn’t a care in the world. Anyone who has worked the red carpet for years will be inoculated against the spiteful tabloid comments about a glimpse of cellulite, or a stray gray hair.

Not many civilians can adjust seamlessly into the rigors of working for ‘The Firm’, as the Royal Family is sometimes nicknamed. But as a successful television actress, Meghan already knows what it is like to be in the public eye, and how to say the same thing over and over again as if she means it.
As if it were professionally arranged, Harry has picked the perfect princess for a hashtag world.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Gentlemen Songsters Off on a Spree

50 years after Yale College admitted women (they were in the Class of 1971), a woman will join the Whiffenpoofs:
SofĂ­a Campoamor ’19 auditioned and was tapped for the 2019 Whiffenpoofs. “To have a year to sing semi-professionally and tour around the world is an amazing opportunity,” says Campoamor. She is currently music director of the all-gender group Mixed Company, for whom she has also composed and arranged music.
Baa, Baa, Baa.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

How You Get Another Proposition 13

Using math to persuade--good luck with that. (Chron photo)
In December we noted how residents of high-tax states were early-paying their 2017 state income and property taxes because their Federal deduction would be limited in 2018. (The Milton, MA treasurer said, "Thank you, Mr. Trump, for solving my cash flow issues.")

Your humble blogger joined the check-writing spree by making payments to the State of California and San Mateo County one to four months before they were due. It's not hard to imagine that I was joined by millions of Californians who itemize their deductions and engage in a modicum of personal financial planning.

Five months later, the State of California has collected $8.8 billion in "unexpected" tax revenue. The surplus has been attributed to "boom times" and not to voluntarily accelerated payments prompted by the new tax law (heaven forfend that President Trump or the Republicans were responsible). We will soon have a better understanding of the reasons if tax collections rise or fall in a strong 2018 economy.

Governor Brown (to his credit, IMHO) wants to set aside most of the $8.8 billion for a rainy day fund:
“We’re nearing the longest recovery in modern history, and as Isaac Newton observed: What goes up must come down,” Brown said. “This is a time to save for our future, not to make pricey promises we can’t keep. I said it before and I’ll say it again: Let’s not blow it now.”

The surplus will be fiercely fought over in the Legislature during the next month of budget negotiations for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Brown is proposing to stash $7.6 billion, with $3.2 billion going toward the state’s budget reserve for unexpected expenses like wildfires and floods, and $4.4 billion into a rainy-day fund that would be used during a recession.
Various interest groups, of course, are holding their hands out for "badly needed" housing, education and health care. The tax windfall parallels the 1970's, when the real-estate boom caused tax revenues to soar (property taxes were based on the market value of homes). Despite the pauperization of seniors living on a fixed income, the government refused to adjust the calculation or refund the excess. The consequence was the crude, flawed, effective Proposition 13 which severely limited increases in property taxes.

Sacramento is riding high now, and the single-Party state seems impregnable, but the grasping behavior 40 years after it was enacted is how you get another Proposition 13.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Plenty Good Enough

Old iPhone 6 and "new" iPhone 6 Plus
The screen on my iPhone 6, though protected by a case, had acquired three hairline cracks. The risk of breakage had increased. Would I succumb to that new phone fever?

I had gone half a year without buying an 8 or an X, so my head was telling me to wait until fall for the new models. Normally I would give in to my heart (buy a new phone now! what are you saving it for?) but what swung the decision to wait was the presence of a bent-but-working iPhone 6 Plus that no one had been using since August. The cost of repair, including a new battery, was $215.

I have an upgrade that techies would sniff at. But the screen is gorgeous, and the 6 Plus is plenty good enough for me.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tripping Again

(Image from Live Science)
One Sixties trend that petered out quickly was the use of psychedelic drugs. While LSD use could be mind blowing, there were many credible reports of "bad trips that sent people to the psych ward". (Whether or not it influenced their behavior, LSD became associated with the Manson Family serial killers.)

New research into psychedelics, however, has shown that they could have powerful positive effects: [bold added]
a single guided psychedelic session can alleviate depression when drugs like Prozac have failed; can help alcoholics and smokers to break the grip of a lifelong habit; and can help cancer patients deal with their “existential distress” at the prospect of dying. At the same time, studies imaging the brains of people on psychedelics have opened a new window onto the study of consciousness, as well as the nature of the self and spiritual experience. The hoary ‘60s platitude that psychedelics would help unlock the secrets of consciousness may turn out not to be so preposterous after all.
Brain imaging and other techniques not available to Timothy Leary show how psychedelics may work:
When scientists at Imperial College began imaging the brains of people on psilocybin, they were surprised to find that the chemical, which they assumed would boost brain activity, actually reduced it, but in a specific area: the default mode network...

Our ego defenses relax, allowing unconscious material and emotions to enter our awareness and also for us to feel less separate and more connected—to other people, to nature or to the universe. And in fact a renewed sense of connection is precisely what volunteers in the various trials for addiction, depression and cancer anxiety trials have all reported.

This points to what may be the most exciting reason to pursue the new science of psychedelics: the possibility that it may yield a grand unified theory of mental illnesses, or at least of those common disorders that psychedelics show promise in alleviating: depression, addiction, anxiety and obsession. All these disorders involve uncontrollable and endlessly repeating loops of rumination that gradually shade out reality and fray our connections to other people and the natural world. The ego becomes hyperactive, even tyrannical, enforcing rigid habits of thought and behavior—habits that the psychedelic experience, by loosening the ego’s grip, could help us to break.
As is often true in science, something that we thought we knew about can turn out to have surprising, new, beneficial applications.

Peripherally related: writer Tom Wolfe, 88, died today.
Mr Wolfe was also on the cutting edge of the so-called New Journalism that exploded onto the scene in the 1960s along with sex, drugs and rock and roll. Mr Wolfe travelled with Ken Kesey, one of the apostles of psychedelic drugs, and captured the experience in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968).
TEKAAT is an acclaimed depiction of Sixties phenomena that according to admirers helps us to understand what is going on today.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Homelessness and State Politics: Just a Coincidence

HUD 2017 Annual Homelessness Assessment: Total homeless pop. on Jan. 2017 was 553,742.
Additional color on California's "skyrocketing" growth in homelessness is provided by excerpts from Politifact's post in March: [bold added]
A December 2017 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is considered the authority on state-by-state homeless counts....

California’s homeless numbers jumped nearly 14 percent in 2017 as nationwide levels remained nearly flat...

Meanwhile, the report showed two other states, Hawaii and New York, have a higher per capita homeless rate than California’s.

Finally, it shows California, indeed, has the highest total homeless population at 134,278, far more than second place New York.
The states with the highest homelessness rate per 10,000 people are: 1) Hawaii - 51; 2) New York - 45; 3) California - 34.

The Democratic Party has a hammerlock on all Statewide political offices (Governor, Senators, Attorney General, etc.) in all three states.

I suppose that truth-seeking journalists and academics would have investigated this perfect correlation between homelessness and party politics, so the whole thing must just be a coincidence.

Update: the District of Columbia homelessness rate is 110 per 10,000 people, more than double the rate of the worst state, Hawaii. The three elective offices of DC--the Mayor, Attorney General, and District Council Chair--have always been Democrats throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Just another puzzling coincidence.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day

This Sunday we experienced a rare sight in the 2018 Episcopal Church--a fully staffed, all-male altar crew. It was only fitting, since the mothers who serve as celebrants and lay Eucharistic ministers (they serve the bread and wine at Communion) should not be working today.

Happy Mother's Day!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Time to Put Them Up

Encampment by Angels Stadium, Anaheim (WSJ photo)
1½ months ago we commented on Orange County's homelessness conundrum: OC residents don't want the homeless living in tents and they don't want to build homeless shelters in their cities. (The obvious answer, which politicians seem to be reticent to voice out loud, is to move the homeless away--far, far away.)

Homelessness seems to be worsening more in California than in other states: [bold added]
Last year California’s homeless population jumped 13.7%, compared with 3.6% in New York and 1% nationwide, according to an annual survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most homeless people around the country live in emergency shelters or public transitional housing. But in California they camp outside in public spaces.
Southern California's year-round temperate climate is one reason for the encampments. (There's a similar phenomenon in Hawaii.) Two other factors make it worse.
What’s causing the surge? For one thing, skyrocketing rents have made it harder for low-income people to find affordable quarters. Because of regulatory restrictions on development, the demand for housing hugely exceeds the supply. The stock of public and rent-controlled housing is especially limited.

Another apparent culprit is Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced jail sentences for nonviolent crimes, including shoplifting, theft of less than $950, and drug use. Police officers have reported that they no longer arrest thieves and drug users, since offenders now often get released in short order.

People who once would have been locked up, including those with drug addictions and mental-health problems, have been left to the streets. Many steal to feed their habits. Since Proposition 47 passed, property crime has soared in many California cities even while falling nationwide. Between 2014 and 2017, larceny increased by 9% in Anaheim, 22% in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, and 44% in San Francisco.
Leaders in our one-party State exude confidence about how progressive goals (e.g., open borders, carbonless energy, high taxes and high services like universal health care) will lead to a glorious future. If they can solve the homeless problem, they'll have a lot of credibility with many, including me.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Another Five Years

Five years ago, a year and a half after Steve Jobs' death, Apple's stock was in the doldrums. A post from April, 2013:
There's no question that the past year has dissipated the aura of coolness that surrounded the ownership of Apple products or Apple stock. Last year's "new" product releases represented incremental improvements--some features were impressive, to be sure---but, alas, the revolutionary, industry-changing devices that were supposedly in the pipeline when Steve Jobs died appear to be a figment of the biographer's imagination.

Your humble observer is a long-time holder of AAPL and, like other investors, has been disturbed by the stock's 28% drop in price over the past year and 42%(!) fall from the $705 all-time high of last September.
When the above lament was written, AAPL was selling for $406.13 per share, the equivalent of $58 after 2014's 7-to-1 split. Over the next five years Apple has tripled to close at $188.59 last Friday. The biggest company in the world has substantially outperformed the S&P 500 and NASDAQ indices (see chart below) during that period.

Before the May 1st earnings announcement the analysts were saying the same thing as they did in 2013: Apple is a hardware/iPhone company, it hasn't come up with anything revolutionary since Steve Jobs died, and its growth prospects are lower than those of tech giants Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

As expected, iPhone sales did fall from the December quarter, though they did manage to increase from the same quarter last year. However, three bright spots more than made up for any disappointment from the iPhone.

  • Cash returned to shareholders.
    Apple’s $100 billion share-repurchase plan is the largest ever announced by a U.S. company, according to data from research firm Birinyi Associates. Apple said its board also approved a 16% increase in its quarterly dividend. That put it on track to spend $14.82 billion a year in dividends, making it the largest dividend payer, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.
  • Services revenue.
    The services business has become one of Apple’s biggest growth engines, with revenue in its last fiscal year rising 23% to $30 billion. Apple aims to lift that number to $50 billion by 2020.

    The company has 1.3 billion iPhones and other devices in active use and earns an estimated $30 per device on music subscriptions, app store purchases and other services, according to Morgan Stanley, which expects services to account for about 60% of Apple’s revenue growth over the next five years.
  • Berkshire Hathaway bought more shares.
    (CNN Money image)
    75 million--That’s how many more shares of Apple that Warren Buffett bought in the first quarter of this year, adding to the almost 170 million shares that Buffett-run Berkshire Hathaway owned at the end of 2017. “It is an unbelievable company,” Buffett said in a CNBC interview, and investors responded by pushing Apple up about 4 percent Friday, closing at a record $183.83.
    Apple's still growing, and its cash-generating ability has risen with the 2017 Tax Cut and Jobs Act. If the 87-year-old Warren Buffett can buy more shares, then I'll show a little faith by holding on to mine for another five years.
  • Thursday, May 10, 2018

    Stepping Up

    Camping in a classroom: good thing I've lost my
    fear of toys and stuffed animals coming to life at night.
    Note: sleeping by the altar is different.
    "Aging out" of activities not only happens to kids, it also occurs with middle-aged adults. At Home and Hope, which provides short-term shelter to families, older volunteers eventually find it too difficult to sleep on the floor, even helped by the cushioning of air mattresses and sleeping bags. So we're shorthanded.

    I actually look forward to these overnight stints. It's a chance to reconnect with friends at the Lutheran church, which is in a wooded area in the Belmont Hills. At night the classroom is quiet, bereft of electronic distractions. I usually get 5-6 hours, but they're good hours.

    The rotation says we're not on the shelter schedule until Thanksgiving. If a church has to drop out, as sometimes happens, we'll do our part and step up.

    Wednesday, May 09, 2018

    "I can't go that high....It must have been God or something."

    Dwight Clark makes The Catch over
    Cowboy DB Everson Walls (SI photo)
    Dwight Clark is dying of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease). He is 61.

    On January 10, 1982 Dwight Clark made one of the most famous plays in football history. With less than a minute to go in the game The Catch propelled the young San Francisco 49ers into the Super Bowl over the perennial powerhouse Dallas Cowboys.
    a dynasty was born and a dynasty ended. The 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl - the first of four in nine years for [QB Joe] Montana and five in 14 years for the Niners - and the Cowboys slowly deteriorated, which led to the legendary Tom Landry getting fired in 1989.
    During the pre-salary-cap 1980's owner Eddie DeBartolo spent lavishly to create and maintain the 49ers dynasty:
    A real estate scion from Youngstown, Ohio, he put his fortune, and his heart, into the 49ers after buying them in 1977. To play for the team was to have your wife receive flowers on her birthday, to fly to Hawaii on team trips, to bring your kids to the Christmas party and find real, live reindeer there to greet them. To be treated, as [Hall of Fame safety Ronnie] Lott puts it, as part of an ever-growing family.
    18 years after he gave up his team and 36 years after The Catch, Eddie DeBartolo still looks after his "family."
    “Like a guardian angel for us,” says [running back Roger] Craig, citing how DeBartolo has helped dozens of former players with medical expenses, eventually launching the Golden Heart Foundation with a million dollars of his own money (challenging the Yorks, who succeeded him as owners, to match it, which they did), providing a fallback for retired players who slip through the cracks.
    Last month 49ers of the '80's and '90's (and a few others) gathered at Eddie D.'s Montana ranch to say goodbye to Dwight Clark. To non-football fans most of the names will be unfamiliar. For those of us who were followers, especially if intimations of our own mortality have become louder, the chronicle of The Last Huddle is an emotional read. Bring Kleenex.

    Front row, L-R: Carlton Williamson, Lindsy McLean (49ers trainer), Huey Lewis, Dwight Clark, Eddie Debartolo, Michael Zagaris (longtime 49ers photographer, seated), Carmen Policy, Ronnie Lott, Gary Plummer, Fred Formosa (former 49ers director of security), Kirk Reynolds (former 49ers PR man)
    Middle row, L-R: Rick Winters (friend of Clark’s), Paul Hackett (former 49ers assistant coach), Garrison Hearst, Eric Wright, Mike Wilson, Roger Craig, Dwight Hicks, John Faylor, Lawrence Pillers, Russ Francis, Guy McIntyre, Ron Ferrari, Harris Barton; Third row, L-R: Dwayne Board, Dr. Ken Kenyhercz, Charles Haley, Kirk Scrafford, Kevin Gogan (SI photo)

    Note: articles like these are expensive to produce and are likely to have a limited audience. I've come around to the belief that professional publications, including those whose politics are not the same as mine (wall-to-wall partisanship of any kind I won't countenance, however), should be supported. After a long hiatus I restarted my subscription.