Sunday, July 31, 2016

More Done Than Said

For the third time this year it was our turn to serve Sandwiches on Sunday to the teeming masses (okay, it was 60 people, but when they fed five thousand from a few loaves and fishes I bet they rounded up, too) at the community center.

If a minister is present, he or she says the blessing; otherwise, Rob or I do the honors. Rob did a conversational meditation, informal and appealing, but ended with the formal Sign of the Cross. The majority of Episcopalians no longer do the sign when "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is spoken, but many in the audience responded, indicating perhaps that they and Rob had a Catholic upbringing.

We served the lasagna, distributed the bag lunches, and scooped the leftovers into take-home containers. Sometimes the patrons linger, but today we were finished in an hour.

I joked with one of our regular volunteers, who has sat through interminable Vestry meetings: "That's the Episcopal Church, a well-oiled machine." He's a banking executive, too, so he knows meetings.

Our next Sandwiches outing is in October, when we will be hopeful that there will again be more done than said.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Point is Not Saving the Earth

The Martian is an entertaining and informative movie about an astronaut who is stranded on Mars. In order to survive, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) has to recycle everything (if you know what I mean and I think you do).

The Bay Area seems to be home to those who want to make Mark Watneys of us all. At the local Whole Foods there was a kiosk for recycling corks from wine bottles. The expense from collecting and recycling cannot possibly be less than that of producing new cork in Spain and Portugal.

Given the economics, the primary purpose of the kiosk has to be educational. It preached that harvesting cork doesn't hurt the trees, and cork is healthier than "toxic" screw caps and plastic plugs.

They could have made the sale just by saying that the bicoastal elites sniff at those who drink wine from plastic bags and screw-top bottles. It has ever been true: unless worshippers can think themselves superior to non-believers, what's the point?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Cleaned Out Again

The problem recurred less than two years later; the kitchen sink took over an hour to drain. Because the waste liquid didn't back up immediately, it was obvious that the cause was a main line blockage.

We compost most of the food waste that used to go down the garbage disposal; the line couldn't have accumulated that much gunk in 23 months, right? On successive nights I poured one gallon of lye solution (a brand that will remain unnamed) down the sink and let it sit overnight. No luck.

When the Roto-Rooter guy arrived, I saved him the trouble of working under the sink and directed him to the kitchen clean-out by the side of the house. After running the machine, he was done in under an hour. The cost was over $300, 50% higher than two years ago, and he spent less time. Well, why not? We who live on the Peninsula are all wealthy [said in a very sardonic tone for all you non-native English speakers].

I have no one to blame but myself. Forget about the drought---I'm running hot water down the sink on a regular basis and applying an enzymatic cleaner once a month. I won't be needing Roto-Rooter---at least for the kitchen---again.

On a positive note, I had spent a few bucks extra for the lye cleaner that was labelled "guaranteed to work." Home Depot gave me a full refund.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Another Bay Area Company Leads the Way

Smelting is the traditional way of disposing of lead-acid car batteries, but the environmental damage is severe:
Only one smelter still exists on the West Coast, after the closure of an Exide Technologies plant in Los Angeles County that for decades released dangerous levels of lead and arsenic into the air. Exide agreed last year to permanently close the facility and clean up the surrounding area to avoid criminal prosecution.
Aqua Metals, an East Bay company, has found a better way:
The AquaRefinery the batteries on a conveyer belt that climbs two stories. At the top of the belt, a hammer mill will smash them to bits, sending the pieces through a series of machines that separate the lead from the batteries’ plastic components. The plastic will be gathered and recycled.

The facility’s heart is a collection of enclosed plastic bins, each shaped like a small house with a peaked roof. A liquid solution containing lead from the batteries will be pumped into the bins, which use a current of electricity and slowly spinning blades to precipitate the lead from the liquid, separating the lead from impurities.

The separated lead, which looks a bit like metallic brownie batter, will slide down a chute from each bin and travel down a conveyor belt to a hydraulic press, which will stamp the lead into discs. The discs will then be melted in large kettles and poured into molds to create 22 inch-long lead ingots, also known as pigs. Those ingots, [COO Selwyn] Mould said, will be nearly pure lead and will be sold.

While the process relies heavily on water, the AquaRefinery is designed to recapture and reuse as much as possible. Sulfuric acid from the batteries, for example, is separated into water and sulfate, with the latter converted into sodium sulfate crystals that can be sold for use in detergents. Depending on the composition of the batteries processed on any given day, the facility may even end up with excess water, Mould said.
What could have been a California plant with breakthrough technology was built east of Reno, Nevada:
Nevada officials made clear to Aqua that they wanted the facility.

“When we came up to Nevada, they said, ‘How can we help?’” Mould said. “In California, you put in your permit application, and six months later, someone tells you you filled out line 26 wrong.”
In the Bay Area, home to tech companies whose combined market caps total in the $trillions, the party rumbles on. As talent continues to exit California for the greener pastures of lower taxes and lower regulation, and as companies--even those who may be sympathetic to the principles of the dominant political philosophy--expand in other states and other countries, the music will stop eventually and then we'll look around and ask what happened.

Below, the AquaRefinery by drone:

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Let the Donald Be Your Guide

I've been getting a lot of calls on the landline from local numbers that I don't recognize. They don't leave messages, a sure sign that the calls are from telemarketers.

This morning I had to answer the phone because I'm expecting a call from a contractor.

"Good morning, sir. We're contacting utility customers. How are you this morning?"

Uh-oh. Another sales call. Fine.

"Would you like to save over $70 a month on your utility bill?"

I need the landline open. I'm not interested in solar. I've already talked to a number of salesmen, if that's what you're selling.

"OK, thank you."

I wasn't rude, but directness saved both of us time. The Donald is showing us the way.

(Business Insider image)

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

America is Still Great Golden

A Foster City Big Mac is $3.99
For thirty (30) years the Economist has been tracking the Big Mac index "as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their 'correct' level". Using McDonald's flagship burger as a universal symbol of value, the current BMI shows that
In America, a Big Mac costs $5.04 on average. In Hong Kong, by comparison, the same burger costs the equivalent of $2.50 or so....In Hong Kong, where the Big Mac costs 19.20 Hong Kong dollars, that hypothetical exchange rate would be 3.81 Hong Kong dollars [blogger's note: HK$ 19.20 divided by US $5.04] to the greenback. The real, market exchange rate is much weaker: it takes 7.75 Hong Kong dollars to buy one of the American sort. According to the Big Mac index, then, the Hong Kong dollar is heavily undervalued—by more than half.
This anomaly is what keeps arbitrageurs in business; they could take US$ 5.04, convert it at 7.75 to HK$ 39.06, and get two Big Macs in Hong Kong for the price of one in the U.S. There might even be enough left over for a small order of fries.

Even more interesting is that China now has the world's largest economy as measured by "patty purchasing power."
If a country spent its entire annual income on Big Macs, how many burgers could it buy? America’s GDP is forecast to be over $18.5 trillion this year, according to the IMF. That translates into almost 3.7 trillion burgers at a little over five bucks apiece....China’s GDP will be a little over 73 trillion yuan this year, says the IMF, or less than $11.4 trillion. But in China, a Big Mac costs only 18.6 yuan. So its GDP is equivalent to over 3.9 trillion burgers, over 5% more than the American total.
Of course, I had to verify such an astounding revelation with my own eyes and went to the Foster City McDonald's, where the Big Mac costs $3.99. At that price---and we're in one of the priciest areas in the country---the U.S. can buy 4.6 trillion burgers. Whew! China still has to ketchup.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Another Reason to Respond Promptly to Notices from the IRS

It is an armed Federal agency:
The Internal Revenue Service spent $10.71 million on guns, ammunition and other military-style equipment from fiscal year 2006 to FY 2014, according to a new report.
As if they weren't scary enough.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Eighth Deadly Sin, Continued

(kidzworld image)
Since 2006 we have reflected on the eighth deadly sin:
Our minds need to be perpetually entertained, an eighth sin that the ancients would have listed if they had round-the-clock cable with 500 channels. Universal wi-fi, blackberries and cell-phones, and portable audio, video, and game players have banished boredom forever. Stimulation is available 24/7; life has become Las Vegas.
(And the first iPhone had not yet been released!)

Says Dr. David Greenfield of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction:
“Only a small percentage of people qualify as addicted...but many people overuse their smartphones....if you can’t help being on it even when you know you shouldn’t be, that loss of control is the hallmark of an addiction.”
Like other addictions, Internet smartphone use is rewiring our brains:
Referring to the Internet as “the world’s largest slot machine,” Greenfield says the fact that we don’t know what we’ll find when we check our email, or visit our favorite social site, creates excitement and anticipation. This leads to a small burst of pleasure chemicals in our brains, which drive us to use our phones more and more.
Cutting back is hard; Dr. Greenfield suggests keeping one's bedroom cellphone-free: “Nothing good comes from keeping your phone next to your bed.” I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I leave the phone charging in another room overnight.

I'm glad he didn't say anything about the iPad....

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Smart, Calculating, Unlikeable, and Worth Defending

(ABC News photo)
As one who has a moderate but not obsessive interest in national politics (I watched a couple of hours of the Republican Convention, will do the same this week for the Democrats, and rarely tune in to the Sunday talk shows), I don't see why Ted Cruz' speech has engendered so much controversy.

True, Senator Cruz did not endorse his party's nominee, but a transcript clearly shows he won't be tromping for Hillary Clinton. From his speech on Wednesday night:
Now, of course, Obama and Clinton will also tell you that they care about our children's future, and I want to believe them but there is a profound difference about our two party's vision for the future.

There's is the part that thinks ISIS is a J.V. team, that responds to the death of Americans in Benghazi, "What difference does it make?" And, that thinks it's possible to make a deal with Iran that celebrates its holidays, "Death to America Day," and, "Death to Israel Day."

My friends, this is madness....

Hillary Clinton believes that government should make virtually every choice in your life. Education, health care, marriage, speech, all dictated out of Washington. But, something powerful is happening, we've seen it in both parties, we've seen it in the United Kingdom's unprecedented Brexit vote to leave the European Union.

Voters are overwhelmingly rejecting the political establishment, and overwhelmingly rejecting big government.
Oh, the horror. It's as if a Best Actor nominee refused to smile and applaud the winner. Give Ted Cruz a break for being halfway honest.

(Disclosure: your humble blogger ranked him below a half-dozen other Republican candidates for President.)

Related: A lot of Republicans are angry at him, but Poker Theory Explains Ted Cruz’s Convention Speech.
Cruz is betting that Trump will fail, in which case he will be left holding the better hand than his remaining opponents—a record of speaking up against a terrible candidate, instead of meekly acquiescing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Su Casa Es Mi Casa

City Hall
San Francisco City Hall
Now that the Progressives have the majority on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, the already-beautiful City is on the verge of becoming Paradise on Earth, right? Au contraire mon ami!
Tuesday’s meeting was a civic meltdown.

There were insults, sniping and shouting. Members called each other hypocrites, accused each other of malicious tactics and dropped collegiality altogether. It reached the point where board clerk Angela Calvillo, generally unobtrusive, felt the need to speak up.

“Madam President,” she said, “if I may just remind the members that pursuant to Rule 5.12 — the conduct of supervisors — you may not impugn the motives of a member of the board.”

She had the unmistakable sound of the only grown-up in the room.
In other San Francisco news, property owners who rent out their homes for short periods using Airbnb have had to inventory every item in their home:
“I already paid fees to register as a business and as a short-term rental, and now I’ve gotta count all my towels and dishes and spoons?” said host Erik Puknys,....noting that their Airbnb rentals added up to just seven days for all of 2015.
Per Airbnb,
“Requiring middle class residents to use a 90-page manual to inventory every towel and toothpick after renting out a bedroom for the weekend is a perfect example of why more people aren’t registering,”
Though the average take for the City is only $60, it's the obedience, not the money, that seems to matter most to the progs.

But back to C W Nevius' account of the supervisors meeting: [bold added] 
Several years ago, the board passed the responsibility for trees on the street to homeowners. Even if they didn’t plant or even ask for a tree in front of their house, residents are not only responsible for trimming the trees, they are also on the hook for repairs if tree roots buckle the sidewalk.
The residents continue to vote for these politicians, so it seems that San Franciscans are getting what they want.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Another Modern Dilemma

(Image from Business Insider)
Psychologist Josh Cohen distinguishes between burnout and exhaustion: [bold added]
The relationship to stress and anxiety is crucial, for it distinguishes burnout from simple exhaustion. Run a marathon, paint your living room, catalogue your collection of tea caddies, and the tiredness you experience will be infused with a deep satisfaction and faintly haloed in smugness – feelings that confirm you’ve discharged your duty to the world for at least the remainder of the day.

The exhaustion experienced in burnout combines an intense yearning for this state of completion with the tormenting sense that it cannot be attained, that there is always some demand or anxiety or distraction which can’t be silenced....
"Getting away from it all" for a week or two doesn't help because in the interconnected world you can't get away:
A walk in the country or a week on the beach should, theoretically, provide a similar sense of relief. But such attempts at recuperation are too often foiled by the nagging sense of being, as one patient put it, “stalked” by the job. A tormenting dilemma arises: keep your phone in your pocket and be flooded by work-related emails and texts; or switch it off and be beset by unshakeable anxiety over missing vital business.
Having experienced burnout at times, I'm sympathetic--but not overly so--toward fellow sufferers. The millions who are unemployed find it hard to get out of bed, too, but they often lack money, self-worth, and social acceptance that comes from employment. They would love to feel the pressure of a demanding job (okay, maybe for just a little while).

Or the burned out could try charity work. Meeting people who are in dire circumstances helps one to appreciate one's own life. Gratitude can chase despair.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post are Long Gone

"PokeStop nearby" does not refer to the restaurant in Waipahu.
I love poke, the seasoned raw fish dish beloved by Islanders and increasing numbers of Mainlanders. There are now restaurants that specialize in poke, for example Pokeatery, Poki Bowl, and PokeStop.

However, be careful when typing the name of the latter on Yelp, the popular restaurant and services rating site. What pops up may not be just fish.

Yelp now has a filter that shows whether a PokéStop (a place where Pokémon Go players can get rewards) is near a business.

Gone are the days when eating establishments frowned on telephones, paper and pen, or even talking business at the tables. Today restaurants are actively courting patrons who furiously flick their thumbs across tiny screens, trying to snare imaginary monsters.

Yelp is just responding to market demand. As for the patrons, they are far, far away from their frowning grandmothers, so what's the problem?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fear Is the Key

Biographer and Time editor Jon Meacham lists What a President Needs to Know and all but declares that Donald Trump doesn't have it and won't ever get it:
You don’t need a Ph.D. to lead the nation, but you do need to know–as Trump did not appear to grasp in one of the debates–what the nuclear triad is. Or that the Quds and the Kurds, not to mention Hamas and Hizballah, are different things. Or that you can’t order military officers to engage in illegal torture. Or that Ted Cruz’s father was not linked to the Kennedy assassination. Or that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, not Kenya. At his first joint appearance with Clinton on the campaign trail, President Obama put the matter clearly: “You’ve actually got to know what you’re talking about.”
To be fair Jon Meacham gives time to the Trumpian counter-argument:
As [Trump] likes to point out, if the elites are so smart, then why is the world in the shape it’s in–and why, exactly, is he now the Republican nominee? [snip]

“Government is built with many layers to avoid making mistakes,” wrote Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of the nominee’s most important advisers. “The problem with this is that it costs a lot and little gets done. In business, we empower smart people to get jobs done and give them latitude on how to get there. I prefer to move forward and endure some small mistakes to preserving a stale status quo whose sole virtue is that it offends no one.” In this construction, lack of knowledge and a get-stuff-done attitude would be assets–even if they sometimes get stuff wrong and break some geopolitical crockery along the way.
Throughout the campaign the Trump-is-too-risky argument has been made by people who are doing just fine in the current system. So far they've been outnumbered by those who fear more of the same.

Come November, we'll see which fears carry the day.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Hexit Before Brexit

Henry VIII (
England has separated from Europe before.
“In 1534, the Act of Supremacy declares the king to be the head of the Church of England, completing the break with Rome.”
------ Kenneth C. Davis. “America's Hidden History.” HarperCollins.
Henry VIII founded the Anglican Church when Pope Clement VII would not annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In one of the most famous divorces in history Henry divorced Catherine and married Anne Boleyn.

In 1517 Martin Luther had birthed the Reformation by posting the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. A few years later, but before the events of 1534, Henry defended the Roman Catholic Church against Luther's heresies in one of history's ironies. (The Pope rewarded England's monarch with the title "Defender of the Faith").

The fracturing of Western Christianity has lasted nearly 500 years. Henry's exit ("Hexit"?) was far more consequential than Brexit is ever likely to be.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Still Not Turning It On

We've been marveling at the rapid adoption of Pokémon Go but have not played the game because of privacy issues. WSJ tech reporter Joanna Stern says that we should set those concerns aside: [bold added]
We’re standing at a defining moment in the history of technology...

If you’ve been fighting to ignore this phenomenon, you should check it out, too. Not just because you may get to know new places or people, or because you may enjoy the charming absurdity of little monsters dancing on your desk. It’s time to witness the power of augmented reality, which connects us to others and our environment in a way no technology has before.
Pokémon Go makes its players go outside, meet other players in person, and walk more (to "hatch" eggs). Even if we're already socially and physically active, Ms. Stern argues that experiencing augmented reality (AR) is another reason to play.

Just like many of us can't imagine a world without smartphones, I suppose in a few years we won't be able to live without AR glasses that explain the history of what we're looking at or superimpose a person's personal data over his image.

Nevertheless, Pokémon Go will have to wait. I've got a pile of books to finish, financial records to organize, and clutter to clear. And miles to go before I sleep....

Friday, July 15, 2016

AppleCare: Not a Loser

Transferring backup files to the replacement iPhone.
The do-it-yourself fix to the iPhone 6 freezing problem proved temporary, and having to restart the iPhone in the midst of every text message was the breaking point (phone calls weren't prematurely terminated, though). I made an appointment at the local Apple Store.

Apple's tech Genius said that the freezing of the touchscreen was a known hardware problem on the iPhone 6; luckily the iPhone was only in month 20 of its 24-month AppleCare contract.

Your humble blogger has the Apple triad--MacBook, iPad, and iPhone--and a hardware problem on at least one of them crops up every year or two.

I always buy AppleCare on all three, which is still cheaper than replacing one device when it breaks down.

Gamble if the odds are at least close to even, but not buying AppleCare is almost a sure loser.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A Concern I Didn't Use to Share

Pokémon Gym at the local church:
One way to attract the younger crowd.
The younger members of our household have been playing Pokémon Go since it was released on July 6th. Estimates of the number of players run about 20 million, the fastest rate of acceptance of any game in history---and it has yet to be distributed in Asia.

Like many tech inventions, a simple description makes it hard to see what the fuss is all about:
Pokémon Go is a smartphone game that blends the real and digital worlds, tasking players with exploring their neighborhoods to find creatures and treasure for in-game use....

Go is almost boringly simple: Once you encounter a Pokémon in the wild, Go switches into “capture mode,” where users flick Pokeballs at the creature until they nab it.
Staring at the smartphone instead of Cupid's Span (Chronicle)
As might be expected, when millions of shut-ins get out and "go," there are consequences, good, bad, and weird. From the Chronicle alone, a few headlines from the past week:

Animal shelters stand to benefit from rabid Pokémon Go gaming.

The SF Zoo finds three Pokémon Go gyms on property, rolls with it

4,500 say they'll hunt Pokémon together on the streets of San Francisco

‘Pokémon Go’ users help cops arrest attempted-murder suspect

Players get hurt hunting for ‘Pokémon Go’ monsters

Your humble blogger did download Pokémon Go but hasn't activated it due to privacy issues.

No game is that important---to be sure, a concern I would not have shared 30 years ago.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mystery Dish

When ordering a European or American dish (e.g., spaghetti, Salisbury steak, chicken parmesan) at a Chinese restaurant one must be open to surprises.

The lunch special on Monday was no exception. From the description I thought there was a good chance that my cardiologist would have approved; clearly he wouldn't have.

Can you guess what this is?

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Cheer if It's Clear

(Image from Distilled Water Association)
One of the easiest and most often recommended ways to lose weight is to drink more water [bold added]:
the main reason appears to be that it helps fill your stomach, making you less hungry and less likely to overeat. In addition, drinking more water may discourage you from guzzling soda and other calorie-laden beverages.
Drinking water makes a lot of sense, and anecdotal testimonies abound, but there hasn't been much research done on the relationship between drinking water and weight-loss until now. In a study of 9,500 adults scientists found
a link between dehydration and overweight. People who weren’t hydrated enough had higher BMIs [Body Mass Indexes] than those who were.
Useful tip:
So how can you tell if you’re drinking enough water? Instead of sticking to a cup-per-day recommendation, [U of Michigan professor Tammy] Chang says the most reliable way to tell is to check the color of your urine. If it’s light, almost the color of water, then you likely are, but if it’s dark, you need to step up your water intake.
Despite her advice, I'm not giving up my asparagus.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Question of the Day: "Will Robots Replace Accountants?"

[Author and Oxford lecturer Daniel Susskind] will be presenting a session entitled “Will Robots Replace Accountants?” at The ICAS Conference 2016. Excerpts from the preview:
“The thesis is, very broadly speaking, that we see two different futures for the professions, both of which rest upon technology.”

The first future bears a striking resemblance to the present day. Professionals will use increasingly sophisticated technologies to enhance their traditional ways of working.

The second future Daniel describes, however, is radically different from the first.

“Here technology doesn’t simply streamline and optimise that traditional approach, it actively displaces the work of traditional professionals.”
Comments, some too easy:

1) "Will robots replace accountants?" Wait, hasn't that already happened?

2) "Some of these systems will still require humans in order to function." Still? That's a relief.

3) Robot accountants don't make mistakes--and presumably will be hard-wired to be honest*--so bye-bye audits!
*Obviously, robot lawyers are many years away.

4) Robot accountants preparing financial statements and robot financial advisors making investments may be alarming, but if robots can do my tax returns I'm all in.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Understanding or Anger?

(YouTube image)
The minister's grief was evident as he began his homily:
This past week was a sad and terribly tragic week in which two black men, one in Baton Rouge, and another in St. Paul, Minnesota were shot and killed by police, only to be followed by the killing of five police officers and the wounding of another seven police officers and two civilians in Dallas....What do these events say about the United States of America as a nation? What are we to do?
I know from past discussions that he, like many Episcopal clergy, subscribe to the social justice movement, which holds that most of our troubles are the result of "-isms", i.e., racism, sexism, capitalism, and the values traditionally associated with Middle America, such as the Protestant ethic and the right to bear arms.

But today he took off his social-justice warrior hat and tried to bridge the gap in understanding [bold added]:
The young people behind the Black Lives Matter movement intend to be provocative. But in being provocative and prophetic, they are not being correctly heard. The Black Lives Matter movement has been countered by an “All Lives Matter” movement, and a “Police Lives Matter” movement. Steve Hartman of CBS News said this weekend that a necessary word needed is the word “some.” Some police shoot and kill young black men, not all police. Some young black men are out of control and dangerous, not all. Some people are racist, not all. Imagine if the word “too” was added so it would say, “Black Lives Matter too.” Wouldn’t this get to the point that black lives, as any other life matters? Wouldn’t it still point to the ongoing national tragedy of the killing of young black men?
"Black lives matter, too," has been suggested before. Whether one uses the phrase depends on whether one is trying to change the hearts of the indifferent and antagonistic or whether one is trying to silence them with one's righteous anger.

Note: the minister's sermons may be downloaded here.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Building a Wall Won't Help Here

The number of Chinese homebuyers now surpasses the number from Canada (Barron's)

Hong Kong Chinese were the first wave, many of them taking precautions against a disastrous outcome from the 1997 transfer of sovereignty. For the past two decades, though, we've had an influx of home buyers who originate from mainland China.

Barron's takes notice:
The Chinese again dominated the ranks of international homebuyers in the U.S., solidifying their first-place rank for a second straight year, according to the latest survey from the National Association of Realtors. Chinese buyers bought 29,195 homes in 2016, for a total of about $27 billion.

Remarkably, buyers from China still spent astonishing sums, paying $936,615 on average for homes from California to Texas to New Jersey in the period from April 2015 to March 2016. That’s up from $831,761 the year before — and far more than the average $477,462 paid by all foreign buyers. Another starker point of comparison: The average U.S. home buyer paid only $266,683.

61% of all Chinese homebuyers in 2016 were U.S. residents, up from 53% a year earlier. In other words, the Chinese who are in a position to buy the most U.S. real estate were those living within the U.S., not China.
From 2004: 99 Ranch Market has continued to thrive.
According to the 2010 Census Foster City's population of 30,000 is 45% Asian (in 1980 it was less than 20%). In our little neighborhood so many Chinese have bought homes that the 25-year Hispanic resident across the street complained....and she married a Chinese guy! (They have two lovely daughters by the way.)

So far I've survived in California without speaking Spanish, but I just may have to learn Mandarin...

Friday, July 08, 2016

Payments Revolution or Devolution

The new Costco Visa has a chip but the
Costco machines are swipe only. Maybe
Costco doesn't trust the technology?
Despite nearly a year of preparation, the transition has not gone smoothly. [bold added]
The new Costco credit card was supposed to make everybody happy.....

As soon the switch went into effect, though, Costco members reported problems with the card and vented their frustrations on social media. Cards weren’t mailed on time, there were long delays on customer service lines, and in some cases cards couldn’t be activated at all. Citi, the card’s new issuer, has spent the past couple of weeks extinguishing fires.

1) I activated the Costco credit card by doing it the old-fashioned way and used the phone. I then used it at Costco (without a hitch). Properly established, I set up an online ID on the Citi website and linked it to the credit card. However, the first payment will be via check.

2) When starting with a new vendor, bank, or credit card company, I always pay via check for a few months.

Get your account flowing---it's not good to miss your first payment---then set up the "modern" payment method (website, mobile pay, automatic transfer, etc.) that you prefer. Checks-mailed-to-a-lockbox are a proven system that has been around for decades, and the paperless methods for most companies are bolted on top of the existing system. Yes, planning ahead a few days is so very difficult, it's such a hassle writing a check and stamping an envelope, so go ahead and take your chances....

3) It's one's right to be a demanding customer and post complaints on message boards, but have you noticed that the majority who do the complaining are themselves quite slovenly in their work product? Conscientious workers know how hard it is to make things perfectly and make allowances when complex products are introduced.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Not 1968 Yet

This week's fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana brought the issue of "blue on black" violence to a boiling point, culminating in widespread demonstrations. Tonight's headline, Snipers open fire on officers during Dallas protest, killing 4, is shocking, but not surprising, given the inflamed emotions of the current day.

[Update - 7/9: the final casualty count is 5 officers killed, 7 officers wounded, 2 civilians wounded, and 1 shooter killed.]

The zeitgeist of the times has evoked memories of a Presidential election year a half-century ago, but we have a long way to go, thankfully, before 2016 will be as tumultuous as 1968, which had two assassinations and hundreds of American troops dying each month in a far-off war. True, there are protest movements that threaten to disrupt the major parties' conventions, there's a cloud of uncertainty over Europe as Russia and China are ascendant, and neither of the leading Presidential candidates excites the majority of the country, but 2016 is not 1968, and we'll pull through.

In one respect the past was much better than today. Here are 1968's top 20 songs, many of which are still played. (50 years from now I doubt that we'll have more than a couple from 2016.)
1. Hey Jude, The Beatles
2. Love is Blue, Paul Mauriat
3. Honey, Bobby Goldsboro
4. (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding
5. People Got to Be Free, The Rascals
6. Sunshine of Your Love, Cream
7. This Guy's In Love With You, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
8. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Hugo Montenegro
9. Mrs. Robinson, Simon and Garfunkel
10. Tighten Up, Pt. 1, Archie Bell and The Drells
11. Harper Valley P.T.A., Jeannie C. Riley
12. Little Green Apples, O.C. Smith
13. Mony Mony, Tommy James and The Shondells
14. Hello, I Love You, The Doors
15. Young Girl, Gary Puckett and The Union Gap
16. Cry Like a Baby, The Box Tops
17. Stoned Soul Picnic, The Fifth Dimension
18. Grazing In the Grass, Hugh Masekela
19. Midnight Confessions, The Grass Roots
20. Dance to the Music, Sly and The Family Stone

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Last Event in Human History?

Famous, very smart people have recently been sounding the alarm about artificial intelligence (AI).
Stephen Hawking: "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

Elon Musk: "With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon."

Bill Gates: "I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”
The concerns about AI appear to be twofold [bold added]:
many fear that machines will make millions of workers redundant, causing inequality and unrest. Martin Ford, the author of two bestselling books on the dangers of automation, worries that middle-class jobs will vanish, economic mobility will cease and a wealthy plutocracy could “shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones”. Others fear that AI poses an existential threat to humanity, because superintelligent computers might not share mankind’s goals and could turn on their creators.
Futurists' dreams---or nightmares---of artificial intelligence are close to being realized because of the convergence of three phenomena: the availability of data, the speed of computer processing, and an algorithm ("deep learning") that enables programs to teach themselves.

IMHO, the benefits of artificial intelligence exceed the risks---though the most extreme risk, i.e., human extinction, is fairly negative(!)--but I have faith that we'll come up with answers, just as we have to other concentrations of power like private monopolies (regulated capitalism) and tyranny (democracy, law, and separation of powers).

The most creative solutions will probably have the machines regulate themselves--as private actors do in free markets--though your humble blogger is certainly not smart enough to imagine what these solutions are. The same genius(es) that invented bitcoin, a currency not dependent on central or private banks, can surely come up with a self-regulating structure for artificial intelligence.

If that doesn't work, there's always the "off" button....

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

"A League-Shaking Coup"

Kevin Durant and GSW coach Steve Kerr (Chronicle photo)
Mirroring: "mutual trust, connection and understanding"
Basketball superstar Kevin Durant announced yesterday that he is joining the Golden State Warriors. NBA observers were agog at the instant creation of a super-team:
This isn’t just a signing, this is a league-shaking coup....

The Warriors have done nothing short of constructing a superteam, and they deserve full credit for the execution of their successful recruiting pitch, which reportedly included owner Joe Lacob, the team’s star players, and even a phone call from Hall of Famer Jerry West. As a result of landing Durant, Golden State’s roster now represents 25% of USA Basketball’s Olympic team and it features two MVPs, two scoring champs, four All-Stars, and four All-NBA selections (all of whom are 28 or younger). The Warriors’ fourth-best player once scored 37 points in a single quarter and their fifth-best player was named Finals MVP. Give me a break.

With all of that in mind, the best-case scenario for this experiment is a word not often spoken in the modern NBA: Dynasty.
The Warriors are not only the 2017 favorites to win the NBA title, but their odds are an unprecedented better-than-even ("the Warriors have a better chance at winning next year's title than the other 29 teams combined").

Not even Tiger Woods, who won four consecutive Grand Slam tournaments in 2000-2001, commanded such respect from the sports books. (He was even-money to win the U.S. Open in 2001.)

Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day

It's not Thanksgiving, but on the nation's 240th birthday Time lists 240 Reasons to Celebrate America (Right Now).

From national parks to restaurants to education to the arts and the world's most thriving economy, there's a lot to be thankful for. Most of all, we're grateful for Americans' "can-do" attitude, generosity, and openness to innovation, the spirit that still keeps it young after 240 years. A few from the list:

Item #233 - Giving Back is a Birthright:
Philanthropy as we understand it today, however, is a distinctly American phenomenon, inseparable from the nation that shaped it. From colonial leaders to modern billionaires like Buffett, Gates and Zuckerberg, the tradition of giving is woven into our national DNA.

America’s philanthropic instinct is not limited to the rich. The nation’s history is rife with people like Oseola McCarty, a Mississippi washerwoman who gave away her life savings of $150,000 in 1995 to fund college scholarships for low-income students with promise.
Item #64 - The Death of the Bookstore was Greatly Exaggerated:
independent bookstores are actually really healthy....the number of [bookstores] actually increased, from 1,712 to 1,775. Counting multiple locations, the total climbed to 2,311. You can’t even call it a fluke, because this is the seventh straight year it’s happened.

The numbers are growing because business is growing...according to consumer research by Nielsen, that the best method for book discovery is still standing in a roomful of books and browsing–ahead even of click-tracking, data-mining if-you-liked-this-you’ll-like-that algorithms.
Item #52 - Freedom:
Dolly Parton: My mama and daddy instilled in me the belief that this country is the greatest place on earth and that our freedoms were hard earned on the backs of our forefathers. I’ve never taken that for granted and I know that it’s because of their sacrifices that I get to live out my dreams. All of us should see freedom as a gift; my goal is to treasure that gift every single day.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Evil That Man Is Capable Of

Elie Wiesel (SF Chronicle/AP photo)
71 years after the truths of the Nazi gas chambers and crematoria became known, the mind still cannot comprehend the magnitude of the evil.

Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), Auschwitz survivor, made it his life's work to remind the world of the Holocaust, which most of us don't think about and, frankly, would rather forget.

Dozens of people die in a terrorist attack, and the incident becomes grist for editorializing and political change. Multiply such an act of terrorism by 100,000, and we are in the neighborhood of the Holocaust (6,000,000 killed).
“Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
One 20th-century society made it a deliberate goal to exterminate millions of human beings; the fact is still incomprehensible. Elie Wiesel forced us to look at the evil that man is capable of. He didn't get cheers of thanks, but we give him thanks nonetheless.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Rail Power

For years we've been pestered by door-to-door salespeople who are trying to push solar panels. Though we've given a couple of them extended hearings (some of the products are financially complex--certainly worthy of a separate post), we have declined for two principal reasons:

1) the technology is improving rapidly, and we would hate to have buyer's remorse in a few years;

2) storage (i.e., battery) solutions haven't gotten to the point where we could be completely off the grid; one of our goals is to be independent of PG&E.

Energy storage is a problem faced by alternative energy systems. The wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always shine, and both wind and solar
require extra, large-scale infrastructure to store the energy so that it is available on demand and not just when it’s windy or sunny.
Ingenious energy storage solutions often involve gravity: water is pumped uphill using solar energy during the day, for example, then rotates turbines as it runs downhill during the night. But water is not always available or suitable.

ARES: don't call it Sisyphus
Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES) has designed an ingenious energy-transfer system involving railcars that are carrying rocks:
The rocks stand in for the water in a pumped-storage system. They are carried up- and downhill by a train that is thus the equivalent of the turbines.....The hill ARES has chosen has a gradient of about 8%. The track itself is just under 9km (about 5½ miles) long. The company estimates that its proposed system will be able to store 12.5 MWh of energy, and deliver it back to the grid at a rate of up to 50MW.
Storage technology will undoubtedly improve, but probably not to the point where weights could be deposited on my roof during the day, then lowered during the evening. Besides, the neighbors will complain.

Friday, July 01, 2016

The Most Important Issue

For what it's worth, Barron's predicts a Democratic Senate and a Republican House after the November elections. A split Congress will ensure that the new President, whoever it turns out to be, will have to compromise with the opposition.
There’s opportunity for either Clinton or Trump to find areas for compromise with Congress, including a tax holiday on the foreign profits of U.S. companies and a bump up in the “carried interest” rate that private-equity firms and hedge funds pay on their profits. And regardless of who is elected, it’s unlikely we will have higher individual tax rates. At the same time, the legislative gridlock that has characterized most of the Obama administration should loosen a bit with either candidate in the White House.
Barron's doesn't mention the ramifications of the election on the Supreme Court, which currently has an unfilled seat due to the death of Justice Scalia on February 13th. If both the Presidency and Senate are in Democratic hands, as Barron's predicts, the Supreme Court is very likely to take a leftward tilt (some will say more leftward) for many years.

Immigration, trade, guns, and terrorism may command the headlines, but the direction of the Supreme Court may be the important issue of the campaign.