Sunday, December 17, 2017

Stocking Stuffers, 2017



Jill moved to Sonora in 2016 but returns to the Peninsula every December. Her calling--creating "stocking stuffer" bags for elderly shut-ins, residents of veterans' hospitals, and the homeless--will not let her rest. And inspired (shamed?) by her example we, her followers, cannot do less; after all we don't drive three hours to get here.

We arrived at the Palo Alto Boy Scouts center at 11 a.m. last week Thursday. The production line was ramping up. Each bag had toothpaste, soap, shampoo, body lotion, a book, candy, a comb/nail clipper/grooming item, and a scarf or small pillow.

We assembled about a thousand bags, which were transported by other volunteers that afternoon.

We don't know how long Jill can keep doing this, but we'll be there.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Net Neutrality: Keep Them on a Short Leash

The Economist has a restrained view of this week's repeal of the "net neutrality" regulations. First, let's define the term:
Put simply it is the principle that all internet traffic, whether from Netflix, Tinder or a news website, is treated equally by the “pipe” companies carrying that traffic, like AT&T or Verizon....With the rise of Netflix and its ilk in streaming media, broadband companies began to suggest that they may have to charge more for some types of traffic, or slow down some services (“throttling” them). Net-neutrality activists argued that if providers could discriminate between different types of traffic, they would have far too much power over the internet. They could privilege their own services over competitors’, or they could even throttle or block some services they did not like. The Obama-era rules were designed to prevent that.
After considering the pros and cons the Economist concludes: [bold added]
In the end the argument about net neutrality boils down to whether internet-service providers should be regulated before they have shown they might abuse their power, or only after they have actually done so. The current FCC has just opted for the latter.
The regulatory mindset is ascendant, and it's refreshing to see it halted, if only temporarily. However, we harbor no illusions about the beneficence of the internet providers. We have seen how these same companies behave in the wireless and television markets and expect them to try to raise prices and degrade service where there is no competition. However, regulation can also stifle innovation by forcing new players to spend resources on compliance.

Let's give the providers the benefit of the doubt but keep them on a short leash.

A confused message, since the FCC would be doing the regulating.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Anybody But Him

Imagine that you were mayor and believed with absolute certainty that paying taxes was wrong. So you ban all City employees' tax withholdings and other tax collections that are under your purview. Your ban wouldn't last long (though some citizens might gleefully follow your orders) until State and Federal authorities forced you to comply. You could well be impeached or recalled because you knowingly violated your oath to uphold the laws of your city, state, and nation.

Marriage license line at San Francisco City Hall, 2004
Elected officials always encounter laws that they disagree with. They can comply with them albeit minimally, and they can work to change them with the appropriate legislative body. In our democracy executive-branch officials are in charge of law enforcement and are not allowed to openly violate the law; if they can't enforce laws they believe to be wrong, the honorable and moral course of action is to resign.

In 2004 San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom knowingly violated the law by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For the record I supported gay marriage but thought his action was anti-democratic.
But I am just a humble citizen with an opinion. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom showed that he is unfit for higher office by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in direct contravention of state law. The executive has a special responsibility to uphold the law, even those he disagrees with. Given the strong arguments on either side of issues such as abortion, capital punishment, recreational drug use, and immigration, to name but a few in addition to gay marriage, it is not only possible but likely that the chief executive of a city, state, or even the nation would not agree with some of the laws it is his duty to uphold. If he didn’t think that he could enforce these laws, then he shouldn’t have taken the oath of office.
Gavin Newsom is now the front-runner in the 2018 race for Governor of California. He is being lauded for his "pivotal role" is furthering the cause of gay marriage.
For Newsom, the gay-marriage battle was a defining moment, the likes of which few politicians experience. He seized a contentious issue, pushed it forward while others resisted or held back, and then waited for public opinion to reward his foresight.
I didn't want Barack Obama and I don't want Donald Trump to pick and choose which laws to enforce. Such Executive power is not democracy but tyranny.

Gavin Newsom showed he had no qualms about picking and choosing if he were in charge. I will support any candidate, Democratic or Republican, who runs against him.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective

(From the Stanford GSB website)
Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America became a best-seller, Americans have been fascinated by visitors' opinions of America. A recent example of this genre is Puzhong Yao's essay The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective. Now 32, he dismisses any comparison with the French chronicler (who was 33 when the first volume of Democracy was printed):
I don’t claim to be a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, nor do I have much in common with this famous observer of American life. He grew up in Paris, a city renowned for its culture and architecture. I grew up in Shijiazhuang, a city renowned for being the headquarters of the company that produced toxic infant formula. [Blogger's note: ok, be on the look out for ironic observations and amusing asides.] He was a child of aristocrats; I am the child of modest workers.
Despite the sweeping title, the essay is more of a journal along the lines of "what I have learned about life so far."

Puzhong Yao describes himself as "an average student in an average school" who happened to show (a lot of) math aptitude, found the competition in China to be too tough, then settled for an easier scholastic path at Trinity College, Cambridge(!). In 2007 Goldman Sachs hired him as a bond trader. After being promoted, he realized that he needed to learn the soft skills of emotional and social intelligence to become truly successful in Western business, so with Goldman's encouragement off he went to Stanford Business School.

Though he plays the naïf, Mr. Yao shows doubt about some of which passes for elite business education. And, dear reader, if you think that the humor in the first paragraph below is unintentional, you must learn to read more carefully:
One class was about strategy. It focused on how corporate mottos and logos could inspire employees. Many of the students had worked for nonprofits or health care or tech companies, all of which had mottos about changing the world, saving lives, saving the planet, etc. The professor seemed to like these mottos. I told him that at Goldman our motto was “be long-term greedy.” The professor couldn’t understand this motto or why it was inspiring. I explained to him that everyone else in the market was short-term greedy and, as a result, we took all their money. Since traders like money, this was inspiring. He asked if perhaps there was another motto or logo that my other classmates might connect with. I told him about the black swan I kept on my desk as a reminder that low probability events happen with high frequency. He didn’t like that motto either and decided to call on another student, who had worked at Pfizer. Their motto was “all people deserve to live healthy lives.” The professor thought this was much better. I didn’t understand how it would motivate employees, but this was exactly why I had come to Stanford: to learn the key lessons of interpersonal communication and leadership.

On the communication and leadership front, I came to the GSB knowing I was not good and hoped to get better. My favorite class was called “Interpersonal Dynamics” or, as students referred to it, “Touchy Feely.” In “Touchy Feely,” students get very candid feedback on how their words and actions affect others in a small group that meets several hours per week for a whole quarter.

We talked about microaggressions and feelings and empathy and listening. Sometimes in class the professor would say things to me like “Puzhong, when Mary said that, I could see you were really feeling something,” or “Puzhong, I could see in your eyes that Peter’s story affected you.” And I would tell them I didn’t feel anything. I was quite confused.
He will probably make a lot of money in quantitative finance, maybe even trading bitcoin, but I hope he continues his writing. De Tocqueville was interesting but not very funny. Puzhong Yao is both. (H/T Tyler Cowen for the link.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Old Reasons Haven't Gone Away

(UCSF photo)
Headline: UCSF fired head of sexual harassment prevention office [bold added]
she ordered an employee to falsify dates on complaints to make it appear that they were handled more efficiently, The Chronicle has learned. The medical school confirmed that it fired Cristina Perez-Abelson in April after an investigation prompted by a whistle-blower found she also had instructed her staff to hide files from an auditor.
Be honest, what was the first thought that crossed your mind after seeing just the headline? Right, another one--probably a man--bites the dust for sexual misconduct or worse.

What a relief, it was plain old falsifying data. We have new reasons to fire or even prosecute people, but the old reasons haven't gone away.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Missing Him Already

Ed Lee with former mayors Willie Brown, Dianne Feinstein, and Gavin Newsom (Chronicle photo)
"You won't miss him till he's gone" is a cliché that happens to be true in the case of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who died earlier today of a heart attack.
Lee was city administrator in January 2011 when the Board of Supervisors appointed him to replace Mayor Gavin Newsom, who had been elected the state’s lieutenant governor...

Lee initially said he wasn’t interested in being mayor, but relented and took the job after a public campaign led by Chinese American civic leaders — the slogan was “Run, Ed, Run!” He said he wasn’t interested in a full term, but after solid job reviews and months of urging from former Mayor Willie Brown, now a Chronicle columnist, the late Chinatown power broker Rose Pak and, ultimately, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Lee changed his mind...

Lee won election to a full term in November 2011 and was re-elected in 2015. An early accomplishments was 2011’s “Twitter tax,” which cut payroll taxes for six years on a sketchy stretch of Market Street and lured thousands of tech jobs and workers to the city. While Mid-Market has since been partially redeveloped with new offices and hotels, the overarching effect of the tax cut was to draw startups and established tech companies to the city, which now has one of the lower unemployment rates in the country.
City administrator Lee's appointment to interim Mayor in 2011 might well have caused a lesser man to kick back and enjoy the perks of office; instead he worked much harder. He brought tech companies--and jobs--into the City, then worked to mitigate prosperity's adverse consequences (congestion, high housing prices, and homelessness).

Many people liked him, recalling another cliché: he could "disagree without being disagreeable". He was nice to everyone and apparently didn't play "dirty politics." Although spending long hours, Mayor Lee displayed publicly a "friendly and often jokey personality" that showed that work for him wasn't everything. His lack of ambition helped to make him popular: not only did he not seek higher office, he didn't even want to be mayor.

Note to Republicans: whoever the Mayor is, he or she will never agree with your position on sanctuary cities, climate change, tax cuts, or social spending. Given that premise, Mayor Lee, who advocated business-friendly policies, was the best that you could have hoped for. Wait till you see who comes after, and, yes, you'll miss him now that he's gone.

[Update - 12/13: Ed Lee's obituary in the Chronicle.
And when starting a speech, he often began, to the chagrin of his staffers, “I’m going to keep this short, because I am short.”
The most disarming humor is the self-deprecating kind.]

Monday, December 11, 2017

Hard to Defend

Nov. 16th: 210,000 gallons spilled in SD (WSJ photo)
In news that was largely overlooked last month (not by you, dear reader) the Keystone Pipeline sprang a leak.
the rupture in the pipe may have been caused by a weight placed on the pipeline during its construction meant to keep it from floating in groundwater.
Although I believe that the benefits of Keystone outweigh the costs, incidents like these make the pipeline hard to defend. The owner had given assurances that technological and engineering advances had minimized the environmental risks, but now they look like the worst stereotype of greedy capitalists who care not one whit for the environment. (It's the second leak since the beginning of 2016.)

Note: for historical perspective here are the 10 worst oil spills in history. 1989's Exxon Valdez at 11 million gallons doesn't even make the list.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Jerry Does Jeremiah

The Drudge Report is known for the sometimes amusing, ironic placement of news stories on its home page.

On Saturday Governor Brown opined that President Trump doesn't fear the "wrath of God" while huge swaths of California burned.

Jesuitically trained Jerry Brown knows better than to presume how God will judge others ("judge not lest ye be judged", "why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?"). Unfortunately, liberal Christians have shown that they are just as judge-y as those whom they deride. Their New Testament love, tolerance, non-judgmentalism, and kindness are cast aside (as in my Episcopal Church) when the political winds start blowing against them.

Time for some good ol' fire and brimstone.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Jury Nods

(photo from Aspen Advocacy Books)
Dismissing jurors who fall asleep is now a thing:
Last week, federal judges in two New York trials—one involving charges of sanctions evasion, the other concerning allegations of corruption in international soccer—dismissed jurors who were dozing off....

In one current trial, Manhattan federal prosecutors are seeking to convince a jury that a Turkish banker is guilty of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. The testimony has focused on emails, spreadsheets and wiretapped calls—mostly in Turkish and translated by a live interpreter.

The alleged scheme is so complex prosecutors asked one witness to draw the banks and front companies involved on a large sheet of paper. By the end, the witness had drawn a maze of boxes connected by multicolored lines and arrows to indicate the money flow.
Some have attributed juror napping to the "short attention span" and lack of sleep that are phenomena of the smartphone era. However, to this observer the practice of law gets most of the blame.

Everyone, except lawyers it seems, has adapted to the need to tighten up presentations, to practice getting one's message across in an elevator pitch. (Watch a few TED talks to see how experts distill big, complex topics to five minutes.)

Well, at least lawyers have the good sense to let the judge wake the sleepers:
The government and defense are generally careful not to call out a sleeper in open court, to avoid embarrassment and turning the juror against one side.
Interesting...and amusing...throughout.

Friday, December 08, 2017

California Conflagrations

Current SoCal fire map (Cal Fire)
Californians love trees for esthetic and environmental reasons, but the recent spate of catastrophic fires should make everyone cautious about their homes being surrounded by trees and other flora.

Fires continue to burn out of control north (Ventura County) and south (San Diego County) of Los Angeles. [bold added]
firefighters in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles, gained 10 percent containment of the largest and most destructive fire in the state, which has destroyed 430 buildings. The so-called Thomas Fire has grown to 206 square miles (533 sq. kilometers) since it broke out Monday. Fire crews also made enough progress against other large fires around Los Angeles to lift most evacuation orders.

The fire 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of San Diego, driven by winds above 35 mph (56 kph), razed rows of trailer homes in the retirement community, leaving charred and mangled metal in its wake.
Meanwhile, in contrast to October's Northern California fires for which PG&E was quickly blamed, the media has been uncharacteristically silent about possible causes for fires in the Southland.

Dinocrat speculates that officials are behaving as if they are trying to trap arsonists. If so, I hope they get the max sentence.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Day of Infamy, 76 Years Later

My father's generation was there, and to honor him and the few who remain I am reprising this post.

On December 7, 1941 Japanese bombers obliterated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. My father, a junior at William McKinley High, saw the silver planes flying overhead on that clear Sunday morning. He didn’t realize anything was out of the ordinary until he saw smoke rising from the Ewa (western) side of Oahu. My mother, a middle-schooler at Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate, was preparing to go to Sunday services downtown.

It was a day that changed everything. Millions of Americans, including Dad and his six brothers, answered the call.

While the majority survived the War with life and limbs intact, hundreds of thousands did not, like my wife’s uncle who died somewhere over the Pacific. His body was never found.

Some found the armed services to be to their liking and made it a career, like my uncle who was the best auto mechanic I ever knew. Others, like my father-in-law, seized the opportunity offered by the GI bill and went on to college and jobs that they would never previously have considered.

At the U.S.S. Arizona memorial the names of the fallen are inscribed on the wall. Are we worthy of their sacrifice? Perhaps......if we preserve, protect, and pass on the gifts they have bestowed to us.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

His Pride Was Pricked

His IMDB photo drips with humility.
Justifying a Will & Grace episode that shows a bleak portrait of historical NYC, executive producer Max Mutchnick said in EW (12/8/17): [bold added]
"It's important to note no matter how much complaining that a certain part of this country is doing, the good ol' days weren't actually that good when you jump back 90 years...The world we live in now is better than it once was."
Comments:
  • Max, why can't people agree with both premises--the past wasn't that good and the world is better than it once was--and still disagree with you politically?
  • Way to go, dissing a good chunk of your customer base. I guess I wouldn't care either, if my net worth was $100 million.
  • We can't enjoy sports or entertainment as an escape. It's all politics, all the time.
  • Tuesday, December 05, 2017

    The Best Age to Have a Baby

    Forget health, science, culture, and religion. From an economics point of view,
    What’s the best age to have a baby? The answer: [bold added]
    Fertility graph (pregnancy.sogc.org)
    To maximise their lifetime earnings, women should aim to have their first child between the age of 31 and 34.

    the [Danish] study concluded that women who waited until 31 to have a child earned more over their entire careers than women without children.

    The study’s authors suggest that older women, who tend to be more highly skilled, are harder to replace in the workplace – so companies may bend over backwards to support them. Older women may also be more attached to their careers, and less willing to give them up. And they tend to earn more so are better placed financially to offload their children on other people during the day.

    Yet according to this study, there’s not much to be gained financially from delaying having children until after the age of 34. College-educated women who have their first child between the ages of 31 and 34 earn on average 13% more than women without children. However, women who have their first child between the ages of 34 and 37 earn only 2% more than women without children.
    Other tidbits:
  • "Having a child before the age of 25 is particularly impoverishing."
  • Conceive with a younger man: "there was a 62% drop in sperm supply between men in their early 30s and those in their early 40s."

    What is a bug to some is a feature to others: 20-somethings who don't want to get pregnant should take another look at 50+ year old guys, who take less energy to keep happy and would be very grateful for the attention....or so I've heard. Besides, you can't argue with fertility science.

    [On a serious note, as the latter-day Reign of Terror obliterates all progressive strongholds, i.e., Hollywood, government, the media, and (eventually) academia, your humble blogger must point out that he is only referring to situations where women initiate contact. So please spare me, he whimpered.]
  • Monday, December 04, 2017

    Lost in Translation

    Bahtiyar Duysak (Times Union)
    President Trump's Twitter account was shut down for 11 minutes in November. The "rogue employee" has left the United States and has been identified as a German contractor who no longer works for Twitter. [bold added]
    [Bahtiyar] Duysak, who had not previously been identified as the person behind the takedown, told TechCrunch that he considered Trump’s temporary silencing a “mistake” and never thought the account would get deactivated.

    It was not a planned act, he said. Rather, he said, the chance to shutter the account fell into his lap near the end of his scheduled final shift, and he decided to take it.

    “There are millions of people who would take actions against him if they had the possibility. In my case, it was just random,” Duysak said in a video of the interview posted online. He wore a gray sweater emblazoned with the American flag.
    "Random" (made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision) doesn't mean what he thinks it means.

    Sunday, December 03, 2017

    God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman

    One of my favorite TV shows in the Sixties was Gomer Pyle, USMC. Jim Nabors, who died Thursday at the age of 87, played the titular character, whose innocent naïveté always prevailed over the tough-as-nails Sergeant Carter.
    Gomer was a recognizable kind of American hero: a good-hearted, gentle, unsophisticated sort (not unlike Forrest Gump of a later era) who encounters a harder, more cynical modern world — in this case embodied by Southern California — and helps redeem it.

    “Sheldon Leonard and his co-creators astutely chose a Southern California Marine base for their hero,” Gerard Jones wrote in his 1992 history of the American sitcom, “Honey, I’m Home!”

    He added: “In various episodes Gomer connected with the movie and TV industries, the music business, the surf scene, the Beverly Hills rich — all the easy symbols of modernity. Everywhere he went he left a trail of fond smiles and innocence — at least temporarily — restored.”
    It was easy for kids to identify with Gomer, whose bumbling caused him to be yelled at by Sgt. Carter. Somehow Gomer always triumphed in the end, but that wasn't his only super-power. In one or two episodes per season Jim Nabors unleashed a powerful baritone that incongruously coexisted with a high-pitched (for a male) speaking voice.

    After television Jim Nabors had a second career as a singer. He moved to Hawaii in 1976 and lived with Stan Cadwallader, whom he married in 2013. He kept a low profile, never speaking on controversial topics and giving generously of his time, treasure, and talents. R.I.P.

    In the spirit of the season below is the 79-year-old Nabors singing "Silent Night" with the Marine Corps band in Hawaii.

    Saturday, December 02, 2017

    Sorrow and Loss

    “The interest of the figure was not in its
     meaning, but in the response of the
    observer.” - H. Adams (WSJ photo)
    The Adams Memorial grave marker (1891) at Rock Creek Cemetery, DC is not well known, but its image haunts the memory far longer than more famous American works.

    The Memorial commemorates historian Henry Adams' wife, Clover Adams, who committed suicide in 1885 at the age of 42.
    When [Augustus] Saint-Gaudens undertook the Adams commission, he drew on the precedents of both Eastern and Western art. Because of its cloak and flowing drapery, we presume the statue to be female, but Adams wrote that he wanted an expression of “universality and anonymity.” The sculptor achieved this by making the figure just over life-size and generalizing the features.
    If the viewer is moved, as was your humble blogger, to a sense of sorrow and loss as well as contemplation, then the artist likely has achieved his goal.

    Friday, December 01, 2017

    Only One Night for Me

    After a dinner of spaghetti, green beans, and chicken, the kids grabbed the hula hoops and raced around the room. The cooks remembered a time when children should be seen and not heard when the grownups are talking, but those days are gone forever.

    On the bright side, social interaction, even the raucous kind, was welcome.

    It was refreshing to see children---strangers---from different families playing together sans electronic devices.

    Liv, Lorie, and Leda relax after doing the dishes.
    This week was our turn to make dinner for Home and Hope, a network of 30 Peninsula churches and synagogues who provide temporary shelter for displaced families.

    It was also a chance for people from different circumstances to spend a few hours together. We swapped stories about the places we grew up and how we came to live in the most beautiful place on earth. We talked about our childhood and parents.

    The volunteers left around 8, and Hank and I rolled out our sleeping bags. I didn't sleep comfortably, but, unlike our new friends, the lack of comfort will only last one night.

    Thursday, November 30, 2017

    Two Lives Intersect, One Dies, Millions Affected

    Jose Inez Garcia Zarate
    Nearly two-and-a-half years after Kate Steinle was shot by a five-times-deported illegal immigrant, a San Francisco jury finds her killer innocent of murder:

    [Jose Inez] Garcia Zarate was charged from the beginning with murder, and prosecutors gave the jury the option of convicting him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Jurors rejected all three.
    He was convicted of being a "felon in possession of a gun", which carries a sentence of up to three years. He will get credit for the more than two years he has already been held in jail.

    Kate Steinle
    Ever since her death in 2015, the Steinle case has been cited as the consequences of lax enforcement of immigration law. If anything, the verdict will inflame passions on both sides, leading to resumption of Trump Administration efforts to build a wall on the southern border, as well as pushback against the Sanctuary City/State movement:[bold added]
    The San Francisco Board of Supervisors amended the city’s sanctuary policies after the shooting. But if a person with Garcia Zarate’s record before the Pier 14 shooting were in San Francisco jail today, and eligible for release, he would still be freed rather than turned over to immigration agents in the absence of a federal warrant.
    The right to a jury trial is enshrined in the Constitution; sometimes the result is hugely unpopular, but that's the price for keeping one of the fundamental rights that protect everyone.

    Tuesday, November 28, 2017

    No Reason to Feel Superior

    Within the past 60 days your humble blogger
  • dropped an unprotected iPhone onto concrete, cracking its screen,
  • completely overlooked a registration renewal, incurring a $195 penalty,
  • lost his wallet.
  • No appointment? The line goes out the door at the DMV.
    Each mistake had a reasonable excuse---the iPhone was perched on some papers and two cups of coffee as I tried to pull open a door, the DMV invoice was stuck behind other papers, and the wallet fell through a car-door crack while I was dozing---but maybe they're not a coincidence. Maybe the long slide into mental oblivion has begun.

    Losing a wallet was most burdensome because it entailed the cancellation of four credit / debit cards and the replacement of a California driver's license in person at a DMV office. I surveyed eight locations and selected the one with the closest appointment, which was three weeks from now (forgetting one's valid license at home is an infraction that can be dismissed if one produces it, but I would not have been able to produce one for three weeks). My intrepid spouse persisted in searching after midnight for an appointment , however, and so it was that I found myself at the Hayward DMV office at 9 a.m., less than 24 hours after the wallet was lost.

    The appointment line had only one person ahead of me. I was done in less than an hour, temporary license in hand, while the 50-deep no-appointments queue had hardly budged. Once upon a time I might have mocked others for their lack of foresight, but these days I have no reason to feel superior.

    I (again) resolved to be more mindful about what I'm doing, but I'll probably forget this promise by tomorrow.

    Monday, November 27, 2017

    Fantasies Change with Age, Too

    Candace Cameron Bure seems to be
    in every other Hallmark movie.
    TV ratings are down, but not at the Hallmark Channel.
    In 2016, Hallmark saw a 10 percent increase in total viewership and a 26 percent increase among viewers 18-49. During the 2016 election week, it ranked No. 4 among primetime cable networks – even ranking above MSNBC.

    ...the Hallmark Channel has become a growing safe haven for those weary of the violence, conflict, and uncertainty churned out by both news broadcasts and apocalyptic-themed TV dramas.
    There are absolutely no surprises in a Hallmark movie. The boy and girl (no LBGTQ romances ever) always meet in the beginning, surmount obstacles (different stations of life, disapproving parents, etc. etc.), and wind up in each others arms at the end, usually engaging in their first kiss.

    ...and Lacey Chabert seems to be
    in the rest.
    Children are not a barrier to romance; often they're the ones who encourage a single parent to start dating. They want Mom or Dad to be happy again and have an extraordinarily grown-up attitude about replacing the usually-deceased-not-divorced parent. Yes, that's why Hallmark movies are well-liked--they're fantasy.

    The Christmas movie is a sub-genre that is especially popular.
    Often there’s a struggling family business that needs saving, like the cozy inn in “Christmas at Holly Lodge,” the old-fashioned holiday shop in “Sharing Christmas,” or the theater that loses its lease in “Christmas Encore.”

    A big-time star encounters small-town romance in “Marry Me at Christmas,” “A Song for Christmas” and “Rocky Mountain Christmas.” In “The Perfect Christmas Present,” the hero is a personal gift buyer known to his clients as Mr. Christmas—not unlike the nickname for the title character in “Miss Christmas,” whose job is finding the perfect tree for Chicago....

    In addition to a feel-good finale, there’s an atmospheric checklist for every movie. “Buying a Christmas tree. Wrapping gifts. Thinking of gifts. Baking and cooking meals. Family gatherings. All of the things that you think of as traditional,” says Randy Pope, senior vice president of programming.
    (For further study, here are 12 Rules of Hallmark Christmas Movies.)

    I started watching the Hallmark and Hallmark Mysteries Channels a few years ago when visiting my mother. Now they're a favored way to relax, with G-rated happy endings, deus ex machina financial windfalls, and selfish characters always changing their ways.

    I will go gently into that good night illuminated by the faint glow of the Hallmark Channel.

    Sunday, November 26, 2017

    Costco Food-Buying Normalization

    A half an hour before closing on Friday the Costco store and parking lot were nearly deserted.

    Though Costco is one of the few major retail outlets without an official "Black Friday" sale, some items, particularly those related to Thanksgiving dinner, were heavily discounted.

    The turkey-stuffing-gravy combo was marked down to $15 from the original $30. Reason prevented the purchase, as did the recollection of our refrigerator overflowing with leftovers.

    We did leave with a shopping cart of items, mostly food, that cost $110. Two days later I couldn't tell you what we bought.

    Saturday, November 25, 2017

    Obvious Nudge

    Foster City begins the hard sell on a new bond issue.

    Would we rather pay $279/year (bond payments on a new levee) or $2,000/year (flood insurance)? Duh, I don't even need the calculator for that one.

    They've already appealed to FEMA about the City's flood-zone classification, to no avail.

    But there are other considerations. Those of us who are risk-seeking and would not be required to purchase flood insurance by our lender (if any) might well vote against the bond issue.

    I'll need to run my own numbers when the time comes....and decide how much I trust the assumptions. I hate being so obviously nudged, at least be more subtle about it.

    Friday, November 24, 2017

    Thursday Night Shopping

    Waiting in line for a scratch-off ticket, I won a $10 gift card.
    Because all the cooking and clean-up were done Wednesday (see post below), Thursday evening was open. What else was there to do but get an early start on Christmas shopping?

    The parking lots were half full when we arrived at the San Bruno mall at 6 p.m.

    There were long lines at Gamestop and Target, both of which had Black Friday promotions.

    Not intending to buy anything, I headed for Starbucks, which turned out to be one of the few stores that were closed on Thanksgiving night. I picked up dinner at the Food Court. It wasn't turkey.

    Thursday, November 23, 2017

    Early Turkey

    Wednesday's child is full of stuffing.
    Because some of us had travel plans today, we celebrated Thanksgiving Wednesday night. The hastened schedule resulted in some of the usual items--vegetables, potatoes--being purchased pre-cooked then microwaved (BTW, the quality is improving every year), but the turkey was roasted traditionally.

    Consequently on Thanksgiving Day the kitchen was uncluttered and the only cooking involved was reheating leftovers.

    Hmm, I'm thinking of starting a new tradition..... (Hey, Black Friday now starts on Thursday or earlier.)

    Thanksgiving, 2017

    A reflection on wealth, updated from last year's post:
    The wealthiest person in the world is Jeff Bezos, whose personal fortune is currently estimated to be $93 billion by Forbes Magazine.

    But historians say that the wealthiest person who ever lived was John D. Rockefeller, who at one time controlled 90% of the oil industry. Money Magazine took John D. Rockefeller’s fortune in relation to a much smaller American economy and also adjusted it for inflation. Money Magazine estimated that his wealth would be like having $250 billion today.

    John D Rockefeller (Daily Mail / Getty)
    100 years ago John D. Rockefeller was 78 years old---by the way he would live another 19 years---but would you trade places with him? He had an army of servants, but here’s a little of what we have and he didn’t:

    1) We can be in Paris in 11 hours. It would take him a couple of weeks to get to Europe from California by rail and then by ship.

    2) If any of us had a medical emergency, paramedics would be here in 10 minutes or less. We would be treated by methods that would be infinitely better than were available in 1917 by the best doctors in the world.

    3) We have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. No matter how many people John D. Rockefeller had working for him, it would take them hours to research a topic in the Library of Congress and we can do it in minutes. For that matter, we have movies--with sound--and huge music libraries at our fingertips, too.

    4) I am sure each of us can think of many more examples of progress---about how we can carry on a live conversation with a relative halfway around the world and see their faces, about how we can forecast to the hour when rain is about to start, about how we no longer need to keep a stack of maps in our glove compartment to know where we’re going.

    When you look at it that way, hundreds of millions of us ordinary folk are each richer than Rockefeller.

    How much of our wealth is represented by what’s in our bank account, and how much wealth do we have merely because we are alive in this time and this place?

    Wednesday, November 22, 2017

    Like Children Again

    Schwinn Meridian: the front tire kept rubbing against the
    fender, which I eventually removed.
    Though we are fortunate to possess fairly good health into our 60's, the handwriting is on the wall: our once proudly-independent selves will decline to mewling helplessness. Safety becomes more important than power and speed. We'll be like children, minus their energy and recuperative powers, again.

    And so it was that I spent six hours assembling a Schwinn Adult Tricycle. Gone are the days of shifting into high gear along the biking paths. "Triking" at a walking pace is the new speed limit.

    Being a novice assembler, I took my time putting the tricycle together. The trickiest parts were tightening the chain and adjusting the brakes and cables so that there was no friction while moving, with only a light squeeze necessary to begin the slowdown. The last touch was putting in the decorative front fender (picture), which despite numerous adjustments kept rubbing against the tire. Finally, I just took it off.

    Various family members pronounced the ride "fun", so my inefficient labors were in the end successful.

    BTW, your humble blogger had difficulty riding the tricycle! In bike riding one of the first lessons one learns is to "counter-steer" (i.e., when going left, turn the wheel to the right--on paper it sounds odd but is necessary to retain balance; after a few minutes one does this without thinking about it).

    Counter-steering is precisely the wrong move when trike riding. If you are veering right and want to go left, don't turn the front wheel right as you would with a bike. I went off into the bushes several time until I realized that to go where I wanted, just point the wheel in that direction, as any 4-year-old knows.

    We are going to be helpless as children again, but we may not be as smart.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2017

    Long Train

    Hoppers, food, coal, and tank cars: a diversified load.
    In Central California Union Pacific trains are a regular sight. The wait time at crossings has risen due to the increase in freight traffic. City transplants may be irritated, but the railroads were here first.

    In the San Francisco Bay Area under- and over-crossings cost in the tens of millions of dollars.

    Though the population has grown in Sacramento and surrounds, it will be many years before the crowding and wealth have increased enough to justify bypass construction.

    Monday, November 20, 2017

    The Meaning of Charity

    Our four boxes (marked) were passed out later that day.


    Yesterday I dropped off four boxes of non-perishable food at CALL Primrose, a Burlingame food-outreach venture founded by the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

    It was a few days after the deadline, but the items were gratefully received nevertheless. The bright side of my tardiness was that (previous years' posts are here, here, and here) I was there for the Thanksgiving food distribution. Clients had filled out a form months earlier and received a claim ticket; from the carefulness with which they removed it from their wallets it was something precious to them.

    Donating food boxes requires some organization, because CALL Primrose has standardized the contents ("Please stick to the list to ensure all boxes we distribute are the same"). Our parishioners check off the items on the list stapled to each box, and I complete the unfilled items (this year we were 15 cans/packages short). For the record each box contained:
  • 2 cans (15 oz) yams
  • 1 bag (16 oz) mini marshmallows
  • 2 cans (15¼ oz) corn
  • 2 cans (14½ oz) green beans
  • 2 cans (14½ oz) fruit (any fruit or fruit cocktail)
  • 1 can (14 oz) cranberry sauce
  • 1 box (6 oz) stuffing mix
  • 1 box (13-14 oz) instant mashed potatoes
  • 1 jar/can (12 oz) chicken/turkey gravy
  • 1 box (8 ½ oz) cornbread / muffin mix
  • 1 bottle (48 oz) vegetable cooking oil
  • 1 bag/box (16 oz) pasta
  • 1 can/bottle (20 oz) pasta sauce
  • 1 box (5 oz) chocolate jello pudding/pie mix
  • 1 no-bake graham cracker pie crust, and
  • 1 can (14 oz) condensed milk.
  • CALL Primose' Thanksgiving and similar activities have often made me contemplate the meaning of charity. I could write (or ask the church to write) a check for, say, $100 a box and ask CALL Primrose to buy the supplies, which they have said they would be happy to do. That would save me the time of making the announcement, assembling the boxes and posting a list on each, counting and backfilling the inventory, and transporting the containers to Burlingame. Against this personal cost is the benefit of group participation, especially by our children, in helping others in our community.

    Such an analysis is not that simple; inputs should include the valuation of my personal time and the amount of my net worth. For example, if both were very high I could pay a teenager say, $20 an hour, to do everything. The solution would be win-win-win (CALL Primrose, the teenager, and me), yet I have a feeling that I'm missing something.

    Well, too many brain cells have already been expended on what should be a simple act of charity. I'll just keep doing the same thing every year until I can't do it anymore.

    Sunday, November 19, 2017

    Collapsing Like a House of Cards

    I knew something was true but couldn't prove it.

    I knew that the sexual depredations of various Christian leaders--Catholic priests, television evangelists, and conservative religious politicians--trumpeted almost gleefully by the media, could not have been the whole story. Every practicing Christian I encounter knows that he is a sinner, but regularly repents and tries to do better next time. How come the only abusers and harassers of women and children were Christians and/or conservatives? How come Hollywood, the media, and academia, rife with people who are not religious and often proudly so, were so free of sin?

    Now we know that they were not, their actions have been more numerous and severe, and their deeds have been actively covered up for at least the 20 years dating back to the Clinton Administration. The whole edifice is collapsing like a House of Cards.

    Much more important than the current
    discussion, the congregation blessed Jared
    and Alexandra, who grew up in our church,
    on their wedding earlier this week.
    Dear Lord, please forgive me for any feelings of satisfaction or vindication that I feel. If I were more secular, I would crow about justice being served (is this the "social justice" that I keep hearing about?), but that would be wrong.

    Let's all start by taking a break from deploring the repugnant cultural other.

    There are numerous reflections on this topic. Here are a few:

    Ross Douthat, What if Ken Starr Was Right?

    Andrew Sullivan, The Danger of Knowing You're on the Right Side of History

    David Brooks, The Siege Mentality Problem

    Saturday, November 18, 2017

    Things Will Get Brighter

    High-res picture of my lens and retina.
    "But doc, you said it would be ten years before I had to do something about it."

    In 2015 he had spotted a cataract growing in my left eye.

    Today he told me that the lens had clouded to the point where I could justify having the surgery now. He pulled out one of the favorite doctorly strategems ("if it were my eyes...")

    [Sigh] at least the timing was propitious. It's open enrollment for another couple of weeks, so I'll check out the providers who cover cataract surgery in 2018.

    I'm aware of one bad experience, but the dozen or so other acquaintances who have gone through it had excellent results.

    Friday, November 17, 2017

    We Are Wiser and More Believable Now

    Sen. Gillebrand (NY Daily News)
    Senator Kirsten Gillebrand (D-NY), a staunch long-time supporter of both Clintons, now says President Clinton should have resigned 20 years ago during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
    The comment drew immediate fire from Philippe Reines, a top aide to Mrs. Clinton, who was first lady at the time of the affair. “Over 20 yrs you took the Clintons’ endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite,” he wrote on Twitter. “Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries. Best of luck.”
    After decades of silence, Democrats are finding it advantageous to denounce sex-abuse and sex-crimes committed by members of their own party (during this period there's been no such reticence about pillorying Republicans), though it means throwing the Big He and She under the bus.
    Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others.--Groucho Marx

    Thursday, November 16, 2017

    Don't Hold It Up for Me

    Because both House and Senate versions of the new tax law eliminate the deduction for state and local taxes (SALT), the tax on long-term capital gains will go up for individuals in high-tax states:[bold added]
    New York City residents, for instance, pay a top income-tax rate of 12.7%—8.8% to the state and 3.9% to the city. In California the top rate is 13.3%. Absent the deduction, then, New York City and California investors in the top bracket would pay a total—federal, state and local taxes—of 36.5% and 37.1%, respectively, on their capital gains.

    The top federal rate on ordinary income is 39.6%, so deducting state and local taxes reduces their burden by that proportion for high earners. In theory that should lower the total capital-gains tax to 31.5% in New York City and 31.8% in California. In practice the figures are somewhat higher, since other provisions of the federal tax code—the alternative minimum tax and the Pease phase-outs of deductions—reduce the value of the SALT deduction for high-income taxpayers. But every investor who itemizes and lives in a state that taxes capital gains would face some increase under the GOP plans.
    Higher taxes on capital gains cause taxpayers to be hesitant to take gains at the margin---from personal experience and that of acquaintances I believe this effect on behavior for certain individuals to be noticeable----and result in capital being being "locked in", i.e., appreciated assets are held onto longer.
    The lock-in of capital gains reduces the mobility of private capital—and, more important, its flow to the new, small and rapidly growing companies that create the most jobs.
    (Business Insider graph)
    Two comments:

    1) Despite the authors' claims, the lock-in effect on capital markets cannot be large. Two-thirds of equity investors (see chart) don't pay taxes; mutual funds, hedge funds, international, and other institutional investors are legally exempt or can afford the expertise to structure around taxes. Of the remaining third, i.e., households, only a small percentage reside in high-tax states. Only a subset of this subset are in such a high bracket that State taxes are the deciding factor against a capital asset sale.

    2) Possible estate-tax repeal, and even high estate-tax exemptions, are a much more powerful inducement to hold onto appreciated assets than the lack of a SALT deduction. If a well-off taxpayer can afford to live the rest of her life without selling her home or her Alphabet stock, those assets will be "stepped up" to Fair Market Value at her death. There won't be much, if any estate tax because of changes to the law, and her heirs will pay much less income tax because the stepped-up basis will have shrunk the gains dramatically when it comes time for them to sell the assets.

    BTW, your humble blogger lives in high-tax California and is sitting on some assets (hey, I mean that figuratively) that have grown fatter in recent years; I won't sell them unless it's an unexpected emergency, so go ahead and pass the d*** law already, Republicans, don't hold it up for me.

    Wednesday, November 15, 2017

    Business-Friendly Enough

    Sen. Ron Johnson (Washington Times)
    Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson opposes the current Senate tax proposal: [bold added]
    Mr. Johnson said Republican plans prioritize corporations over “pass-through” entities—sole proprietorships, partnerships, limited liability companies and S Corporations—whose owners pay taxes through individual returns and at individual income-tax rates, rather than corporate rates. The Senate plan, like the House plan, proposes to cut the corporate rate from 35% to 20%.
    As an owner and part-owner of various pass-through LLCs, your humble blogger is in favor of the bill in its current form though my LLCs won't gain directly. I am also an owner of publicly traded stocks that will benefit from lowered corporate taxes; from personal experience I know many LLC-owners who are in my position.

    Furthermore, when a business achieves scale it often is structured with multiple pass-through as well as taxpaying ("C Corporation") entities, so many C-Corp beneficiaries are S/LLC/partnership owners as well. It is exceedingly rare to find a strictly pass-through owner who won't benefit from a lowering of C-Corp taxes.

    The bill is business-friendly enough, and I find it hard to believe that Senator Johnson is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2017

    I'm Just Not Into Social Media

    Last week's Economist rambles, but it's a rambling topic:

    Do social media threaten democracy?

    Social media initially appeared to be a positive force when it helped to overthrow authoritarian governments in the Middle East in 2010-2012 (the "Arab Spring").

    However, internet practices such as doxxing ("to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge") and the widespread forwarding of "fake news" have halted the cheerleading.

    Some remedies: [bold added]
    The social-media companies should adjust their sites to make clearer if a post comes from a friend or a trusted source. They could accompany the sharing of posts with reminders of the harm from misinformation. Bots are often used to amplify political messages. Twitter could disallow the worst—or mark them as such. Most powerfully, they could adapt their algorithms to put clickbait lower down the feed. Because these changes cut against a business-model designed to monopolise attention, they may well have to be imposed by law or by a regulator. [blogger's comment: nope, regulators are not impartial; the cure is worse than the disease.]
    I try to support trusted sources by buying subscriptions to Time, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle (note: I do not support many of these publications' editorial positions), among others, all of which pre-dated the internet and, not coincidentally, adhere to standards of journalism no longer widely practiced.

    I try to live outside a political bubble by reading publications--both free and paid--that I disagree with.

    I try not to inflame others by using language that provokes (exception: stuff that I find funny), nor do I forward articles that leave out strong (IMHO) counter-arguments or, more importantly, facts that contradict the main arguments.

    I still believe in the ultimate rationality of human beings, and that the truth will become known.

    On the other hand I still think Donald Trump can be a good President though I didn't vote for him, so consider the source.

    Monday, November 13, 2017

    Same Persons, Different Decisions

    We've always driven--and obviously owned--our cars for at least 150,000 miles, but when the 18-year-old Dodge Caravan finally expired in 2015 we decided to lease its replacement. The century-old automobile industry is undergoing such speedy technological change that it would be imprudent to absorb the capital cost of an asset that could well be obsolete in 3-5 years.

    Over-capacity, a plethora of producers, and rapid obsolescence should make it a buyer's market for used equipment, such as cars coming off lease, but to almost everyone's surprise prices are holding steady. One of the reasons is hurricane damage.
    The number of lease returns is expected to reach 11.3 million in the three years ending in 2019, 49% more than the same three-year period that ended in 2016, according to research firm J.D. Power.

    Thus far, the market is absorbing the extra supply thanks to tighter inventory controls by various industry players and the loss of as many as a half-million cars to hurricanes in Texas and Florida.
    If both new- and used-car prices go crazily upward in a year, that would be a compelling reason to buy the Lexus when the lease expires in October (at a fixed price of 70% of cost and mileage of 30,000). Otherwise, we're returning the best car we've ever driven.

    We're the same persons today as we were decades ago, but our decisions sure are different.

    Sunday, November 12, 2017

    Facing Facts

    Artificial intelligence---and machines mimicking, if not having, consciousness and sentience---has revived arguments over what it means to be human.

    The debate has its origins in antiquity, when philosophers reflected on whether animals were capable of rational thought (their answer: no).

    Dolly, the first cloned sheep, circa 1996 (newscientist)
    Modern scientists who have examined the communications and learning abilities of chimpanzees, dolphins, and other mammals have shaken that ancient certainty.

    And then there are sheep, which can recognize people from photographs, even those taken from different angles. Scientists
    trained the sheep to associate the image of one person, Barack Obama for example, with a food reward. They were shown both an image of Obama and another face next to it. When the sheep tapped the former president's image, it broke an infrared beam and dispensed the treat. Eight times out of ten, the eight sheep in the study knew which face to associate with food.

    To truly test that the sheep were recognizing faces and not just familiar photos, the researchers also presented them with different images of each celebrity, including from skewed angles. When shown these different perspectives of each face, the sheep still recognized them more than half the time.
    I enjoy dining on lamb and pork as much as the next person, but qualms about the morality of eating animals that evince some forms of intelligence are growing. As for chicken or fish, bring on that second helping.
    “To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

    Saturday, November 11, 2017

    Friday, November 10, 2017

    Disappointing the Plaintiffs

    Deep-pocketed PG&E has responded to a blizzard of lawsuits over last month's fires by stating [bold added]
    last month’s Wine Country wildfires may have been started by electrical equipment not owned or installed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the utility said in a legal filing Thursday.

    A filing Thursday from PG&E states that while fire investigators are still trying to determine what caused the Tubbs Fire, “preliminary investigations suggest that this fire might have been caused by electrical equipment that was owned, installed and maintained by a third party.” [snip]

    October’s wildfires, which included blazes in the Sierra foothills and Orange County, caused more than $3.3 billion in damage, according to an estimate from the state’s insurance commissioner. California utilities can be held liable for economic damages from wildfires caused by their equipment, even if they followed all applicable safety regulations.
    Marginally relevant: the aging telephone pole
    outside my parents' home has more cables and
    transformers every time I visit Honolulu.
    Even if PG&E equipment did not initiate the fire, downed power lines likely contributed to its spread. The utility will have to cough up something, though that amount will disappoint the plaintiffs.