Sunday, March 07, 2021

Seemed Like a Reasonable Request

A bleak place to die (WSJ photo)
The Supreme Court, in a relatively unpublicized action (e.g., there was no mention in the SF Chronicle) on February 12th, stayed an execution because the State of Alabama would not allow condemned prisoners to have their ministers present.
Alabama said Mr. Smith was being treated fairly because prison policy currently allows no inmate to have a minister alongside as they are put to death. Mr. Smith argued that a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, required the state to accommodate his request.

Writing for the plurality, Justice Elena Kagan said federal law had guaranteed Mr. Smith “his last wish.” Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, along with Justice Barrett, joined her opinion.
Willie B. Smith III
was convicted of the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22 years old, whom he and a teenage accomplice first kidnapped and robbed when she stopped at an ATM in Birmingham, Ala. The jury voted 10-2 for a death sentence instead of life imprisonment.
While a complete count was not forthcoming, it has been disclosed that the three "liberal" Justices (Breyer, Kagan, and Sotamayor) were joined by Amy Coney Barrett and either or both Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito to comprise the majority that rejected Alabama's position. Three "conservative" Justices (Kavanaugh, Roberts, and Thomas) would have allowed the execution to proceed.

The outcome is an illustration of how Justices' viewpoints are so easily and mistakenly caricatured during their Senate confirmation hearings. Justice Kavanaugh, for example, was not an automatic pro-Christian vote, while the liberal Justices said that religious expression trumped the State's position.

Acknowledging that non-believers may be using religious rights as a tool to forestall the death penalty, your humble blogger is nevertheless glad that a blow has been struck in favor of religious expression.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Teach Your Substitute Children Well

"Cakes has developed a taste for
Kentucky Fried Chicken." (WSJ)
It's not news that the Wall Street Journal ran an article on fat cats. However, this time the phrase was meant literally.
So many people have struggled with weight gain during the pandemic that the term “Covid 15” has gained currency, a variation of the familiar “Freshman 15” weight gain in college. Their pets aren’t far behind...

Among 1,000 dog and cat owners surveyed in October by Banfield Pet Hospital, the nation’s largest general veterinary practice, with hospitals in 42 states, 42% said their pets had gained weight during the quarantine, up from 33% in May.
One dog cries during a Zoom business call to extort a treat from her owner. Other pets divide and conquer by exploiting their owners' failure to communicate with each other about how many treats have been doled out.

For many people cats and dogs are substitute children. Like real children, pets have learned how to get what they want from their parents.

Note: during the past year wild animals have gotten fatter, too. In Foster City the portlier ducks didn't flee and gazed half-expectantly when I approached them. Where did they learn that behavior?

Friday, March 05, 2021

The Dismal Classroom

Although my chosen profession of finance and accounting provided me with a good living and decent retirement, Ben Stein's economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off always punctures any pretentiousness that I may have had about my line of work:



It's pathetic that I (still) know the answers to Ben Stein's questions.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Guns: Stuck in the Same Old Arguments

SF Police Commissioner John Hamasaki (Chron)
Speaking as one who has never owned a gun, I nevertheless comprehend the motivation of law-abiding citizens to own guns, especially if they believe the police cannot reliably protect them. Reducing gun violence must accommodate the on-the-ground reality of living or working in dangerous neighborhoods. That's why it was refreshing to see San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki call for understanding for the teen when the NY police seized a gun from the 17-year-old:
“Uncomfortable truth,” Hamasaki wrote in the tweet. “Taking a gun from one kid may as likely stop violence as end up in that kid getting killed. It may feel good to post this photo, but I’ve known too many kids who were killed for being in the wrong neighborhood (often their own) & being unable to protect themselves.”
San Francisco Supervisors Catherine Stefani, Myrna Melgar, and Ahsha Safai immediately called for Commissioner Hamasaki's resignation because he deviated from the absolutist no-gun position. IMHO, he responded reasonably:
Hamasaki responded that he “actually work(s) and spend(s) time in the communities impacted by gun violence.”

“I have had clients and their families killed by guns, and I have consoled the fathers, mothers, and children killed by guns,” he continued. “The world is bigger and more complicated than D2 and the Marina.”

Hamasaki said he was not calling for teens to be armed, but for nuance in the debate.

“I think the reading of (the tweet) that some people took was a little bit disingenuous,” Hamasaki said. “I don’t want, approve or encourage people to use guns to solve their problems.”

Hamasaki said while it’s a great idea to take guns off the streets, the realities for some neighborhoods are more complex.

“When you simplify it, it justifies the system of mass incarceration that we have,” he said. “I just have a real hard time passing the same level of judgment to a kid who’s living in a neighborhood infested by drugs and violence.”
The politics of the main actors may be a little surprising:
Stefani and Safai are known as the two moderate Democrats on the Board of Supervisors, while Hamasaki more closely aligns with the city’s more left-leaning contingency.
It's not an election year, so now is the time to question and test assumptions about gun violence without worrying about what political opponents will say. Otherwise, we'll stay stuck in the same decades-old arguments.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

A Time Gone By

I've slowly been making my way through the pile of books on the nightstand and have gotten to Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), which I bought in Portland 2½ years ago. Jack Kerouac's writing is consistent with the language and style of half a century ago, and one easily gets a sense of how rapidly cultural references are changing. It's unlikely that younger, educated readers will understand all four of the highlighted terms below (I didn't know "pulled wrists").
I went to the cold-water flat with the boys, and Dean came to the door in his shorts. Marylou was jumping off the couch; Dean had dispatched the occupant of the apartment to the kitchen, probably to make coffee, while he proceeded with his love-problems, for to him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to make a living and so on.

You saw that in the way he stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding, like a young boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every word, throwing in a thousand “Yeses” and “That’s rights.” My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry—trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West. In fact he’d just been working on a ranch, Ed Wall’s in Colorado, before marrying Marylou and coming East. Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil gray New York pad that she’d heard about back West, and waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room. But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things. That night we all drank beer and pulled wrists and talked till dawn, and in the morning, while we sat around dumbly smoking butts from ashtrays in the gray light of a gloomy day, Dean got up nervously, paced around, thinking, and decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor. “In other words we’ve got to get on the ball, darling, what I’m saying, otherwise it’ll be fluctuating and lack of true knowledge or crystallization of our plans.” Then I went away.
cold-water flat: early-to-mid 20th-century apartments had running water, but real luxury was having water heaters and separate pipes for hot water. Perhaps the last cold-water flat in New York City was being rented for $28 per month in 2018.

Gene Autry (1907-1998): popular Oklahoma singer, movie star, TV actor and producer, and owner of the California Angels, Gene Autry "is the only entertainer to have all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one each for Radio, Recording, Motion Pictures, Television, and Live Theatre/performance."

Seated Nude (1918)
longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman: Amedeo Modigliani was "a painter and sculptor known for his simplified and elongated forms." Like Vincent Van Gogh, Modigliani (1884-1920) died destitute and was not highly regarded in his lifetime; one of his paintings sold for $157 million in 2018.

pulled wrists: arm-wrestling.

His prose has a kinetic energy, and I do admire his descriptions, so I'll read a few pages of Jack Kerouac every day.

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Jeremy Lin: Continuing to Walk the Walk

Time, February 27, 2012
Nine years have passed since Jeremy Lin became an international sensation for the New York Knicks. His star turn lasted less than two months, but even today followers of the NBA remember that one brief shining moment when an undrafted Harvard graduate not only made an NBA roster but was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for two weeks in a row.

After the Knicks he became a journeyman NBA player, then went to the Beijing Ducks for a year. He's now playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the "G League" (the NBA's version of baseball's minor leagues).

Jeremy Lin has largely been quiet about the racist insults he's experienced throughout his college and professional career but last week spoke against physical assaults on Asian-Americans.
Lin, who’s playing for Santa Cruz at the G League bubble near Orlando in hopes of resuscitating his NBA career, took to Instagram on Thursday in response to a recent surge in violence against Asian Americans. In the post, he offered examples of racism that he has personally experienced.

“Being a 9 year NBA veteran doesn’t protect me from being called ‘coronavirus’ on the court,” Lin wrote.
The G League is investigating who might have said "coronavirus" to Jeremy Lin, but he said he is “not naming or shaming anyone.”

Your humble blogger, who has sometimes been on the receiving end of such remarks, firmly believes that the world is a better place because over 90% (just a wild guess) of those insulted let the comments slide. The Internet now gives us the ability to ruin a career and personal life because of spoken indiscretions. Outing these speakers--there's no question they're in the wrong--is a weapon to be wielded with care.

Jeremy Lin continues to follow his faith's principle of turning the other cheek, a rare example in a world where publicizing the sins of others is lauded and rewarded.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Spring is Coming

JNJ vaccines preparing to ship (WSJ)
March may not be roaring in like a lion weather-wise, but this morning the stock market is pushing higher--the averages are up 1.5%--principally on the basis of the improving outlook for coronavirus vaccinations.

The CDC signed off on Johnson & Johnson's (ticker: JNJ) vaccine yesterday, making it the third vaccine approved for distribution (the others are Pfizer's and Moderna's). JNJ's offering is likely a game-changer: [bold added]
The J&J vaccine, the first administered in a single dose, is expected to bolster a mass-vaccination campaign that is pushing to end the deadliest pandemic in more than a century.

As of Saturday afternoon, 48.4 million Americans—14.6% of the population—had received one or more doses of the two previously approved Covid-19 vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Johnson & Johnson ($423 billion market cap) will have a steep ramp in production.
The Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the vaccine would lead to an initial supply of nearly 4 million doses delivered as early as Tuesday morning, administration officials said Sunday. The administration said it expects about 20 million doses to be delivered by the end of March....J&J has said it expects output will quickly increase, enabling it to deliver a total of 100 million doses for use in the U.S. by the end of June.
Finally, JNJ's vaccine requires normal, not specialized refrigeration:
Janssen’s [note: JNJ subsidiary] single-dose vaccine candidate is estimated to remain stable for two years at -20°C (-4°F), at least three months of which can be at temperatures of 2-8°C (36°F–46°F). The Company will ship the vaccine using the same cold chain technologies it uses today to transport other innovative medicines.
Can you feel it? Spring is coming.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Early on a Sunday Morning

After running an errand, I stopped by Starbucks at 5:30. I was happy that they were open early on a Sunday morning, though with no other customers but me I wondered about their business savvy.

Two baristas were busily wiping the surfaces and tuning up sundry machines.

My order, a "black eye" (large coffee with two shots of espresso), was ready. "Good morning," I said, "Thank you."

The parking lot was deserted except for my 17-year-old Camry. As I departed, another customer arrived. He seemed to be in a hurry. Golfer? Fisherman? Work? The old reasons for rushing about haven't applied for nearly a year.

When it's quiet, dark, and lonely, being with strangers is better than just ourselves.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks (1942), Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Machinery is Working

The big trucks have been in our six-house courtyard all week. The men have been jackhammering, digging, and sucking up mud, sand, and gravel.

On Wednesday I went over to the supervisor to ask about the project. The storm drain at the end of the cul-de-sac wasn't draining, and water was accumulating.

The problem wasn't the usual clogging of debris; it was poor design of the grade, which erosion had made worse.

The rains of early February prompted the City, finally, to rectify the problem. The crew laid pipe at a sufficient angle to ensure draining, then connected it to a line to the Bay that they knew was working properly.

They sealed the opening and coned off the area to let the asphalt cure.

Yesterday, county vector control inspected the exterior of all our houses to make sure that there was no standing water where mosquitoes could breed.

Governments at all levels have been under a lot of criticism, but our little community of Foster City seems to be working just fine.

Friday, February 26, 2021

White Supremacy Math

NY Times: Capitol Riot Costs Will Exceed $30 Million, Official Tells Congress
The architect of the Capitol and other officials told lawmakers that the physical and psychological toll of the Jan. 6 riot — including damaged artifacts and staff trauma — will be extensive.
Wow, that's horrible.

Axios on last summer's riots: Exclusive: $1 billion-plus riot damage is most expensive in insurance history [bold added]
The protests that took place in 140 U.S. cities this spring were mostly peaceful, but the arson, vandalism and looting that did occur will result in at least $1 billion to $2 billion of paid insurance claims — eclipsing the record set in Los Angeles in 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers who brutalized Rodney King.
The summer riots caused 33 to 67 times the damage of January 6th, but pointing this out is probably white supremacy math.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

This Retailer Was Something Special

Palo Alto Fry's, 2003: when you couldn't find parking
My first visit to Fry's Supermarkets was in Fremont in 1976, when we bought our first home in the then-sleepy East Bay town at the BART terminus. Fry's had an aisle devoted to electronics parts, an unusual feature in an era when grocery stores only offered food and household items.

Over the next few years Fry's found its niche in the tech-happy Bay Area and switched out of the cutthroat supermarket business.

Fry's Electronics became a fixture in Silicon Valley. There are hundreds of stories about engineers running down to the local store to pick up a crucial part for research that couldn't wait.
Fry’s Electronics was a mainstay for electronics experimenters from the 1980s through at least 2018 and one of the “must see” locations during visits to the Bay Area of California. They supplied many of the electronic parts, computers, tools, test equipment and accessories needed by Silicon Valley startups and other geeks living in the area.
Even your humble blogger, no tech whiz, kept his old equipment alive by going to Fry's for an old part; sometimes I would find something on a nearby shelf that might work better. I kept my 2009 MacBook alive by swapping out the hard drive in 2012 and again in 2014.

But Fry's, like many retailers, couldn't survive the trend towards online sales. Today the company announced the closure of all its stores.
After nearly 36 years in business as the one-stop-shop and online resource for high-tech professionals across nine states and 31 stores, Fry’s Electronics, Inc. (“Fry’s” or “Company”), has made the difficult decision to shut down its operations and close its business permanently as a result of changes in the retail industry and the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Company will implement the shut down through an orderly wind down process that it believes will be in the best interests of the Company, its creditors, and other stakeholders.

The Company ceased regular operations and began the wind-down process on February 24, 2021.
Fry's fell victim not only to Amazon but also to the shrinking of its customer base. There are fewer people who have the knowledge, motivation, and courage to work on hardware---either as fixers or inventors--with only speciailzed tools, a soldering iron, and an oscilloscope. A bygone store for a bygone era.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Twilight of the Mom-and-Pop Landlord

Landlord Rian de Laat, left, and tenant Ollie Aldama (Time)
Time has been covering the eviction crisis from multiple angles, including the plight of small landlords. [bold added]
More than 70% of properties with four or fewer rental units aren’t owned by fat cats at all, according to the National Association of Realtors, but rather people like [Rian] de Laat: mom-and-pop landlords who often live nearby; manage the property themselves; and rely on the rental income to pay their own mortgages, health care bills and monthly expenses.

Almost half the nearly 49 million rental units in the U.S. are owned by individuals, who tend to offer more affordable housing in their communities than the billion-dollar conglomerates that build high-rises with marble counters and rooftop pools.

These small landlords are shouldering a huge burden during the pandemic. For many, it’s increasingly untenable. De Laat, who has since found a good new job working in gene therapy for a pharmaceutical company, is on better financial footing now. She remains “morally opposed to putting people out if they can’t pay, especially under these circumstances,” she says, but notes that “every bit” of the extra income she’s making goes toward paying for [tenant Ollie] Aldama’s housing. “It’s not sustainable,” she says. “But I also don’t see a means for them ever to be able to work on paying stuff back.”
This condo is vacant until evictions become legal again.
We've been writing about the looming eviction tidal wave since June. The repeated extensions of the eviction moratorium have caused mom-and-pop landlords to get deeper into the hole because they have been prevented from getting a new tenant who will cover more of their expenses.

When the bank, the local government (delinquent taxes), or the homeowners' association (unpaid dues) eventually seizes the property, the fruits of the eviction policy will be the ruination of some small landlords just so that tenants can live a few months longer in a place they can't afford.

The increased business and legal risk in real estate rental will cause a reduction in the supply of housing. No, it's not the opinion of your humble blogger, it's what's going on in the market.
Alex Brendon, who owns an investment property in the Seattle area, is among a growing group of small landlords considering getting out of the rental game altogether. After losing his own job in July and struggling to support two toddlers, Brendon was unable to evict his tenant, even though that tenant had stopped paying rent three months before COVID-19 began spreading rapidly in the U.S. After 10 months–and more than $18,000 in unpaid rent–Brendon took back ownership of his unit by moving into it himself.
Like small retailers, small landlords have been devastated by a government that has removed their legal protections. When after a few years people wonder why they have to rent an apartment or buy groceries from a big corporation, progressives will say it's a result of capitalist "greed", but we know who changed the rules to force small businesspeople or landlords out of the marketplace.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Another High Income Taxpayer Flees San Francisco

"The apartment is on the top floor of a boutique
building in the city’s SOMA neighborhood." (WSJ)
The deal is in escrow for Kamala Harris to sell her San Francisco condo:
The property had been on the market for just over a week asking $799,000, according to listings website Zillow. Listing agent Anne Herrera of Sotheby’s International Realty confirmed that the property was in contract but didn’t comment further.

The apartment, on the top floor of a boutique building in the city’s SOMA neighborhood, is about 1,069 square feet spread over two levels, the listing shows. There is a main floor living and dining space with high-ceilings, a home office alcove and a small outdoor space as well as a loft level with a bedroom, a bathroom and a walk-in closet.

Ms. Harris bought the apartment for $489,000 in 2004, records show, the year she began serving as California’s first Black district attorney. The unit is about a mile’s walk from the San Francisco Superior Court House.
The Vice President and Second Gentleman Doug Emhof have the condo in San Francisco, a condo in Washington, and a home in Brentwood.

IMHO, she should have held off the SF sale until she knew whether the movers should deliver the furniture to Blair House or the White House.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Urban Decline and Fall

From a Chronicle analysis of San Francisco out-migration
In a survey of demographic trends--specifically the exodus from cities--San Francisco is again number one:
For sheer lunacy, it is impossible to beat San Francisco, the pri­mary breeding ground for well-financed digital start-ups. The city continually places new taxes and burdens on tech firms, rejecting even their charity. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently voted ten to one to officially condemn Mark Zuckerberg for donating $75 million to a hospital. As observer Michael Solana suggests, activists now blame Zuckerberg and other oligarchs for having somehow “ex­tracted” their wealth from the terroir of San Francisco, and they deserve to be “demonized, scapegoated, and punitively targeted.” Of course, some tech firms are oligarchical and often socially insensitive, but scores of other communities, in Texas or elsewhere, are happy to welcome similar wealth “extraction.”
The old standard: people who didn't express gratitude had bad manners. The new standard: "condemn" gifts from the rich.

Hey, oligarchs, I know plenty of cities and people--including me--who will be happy to send you a thank-you note for amounts much less than $75 million.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

I Went to a Fight Tahoe the Other Night and a Hockey Game Broke Out

Vegas and Colorado practiced on Saturday (Guardian photo)
Making Lemonade Dept:
The pandemic has afforded a unique opportunity for the National Hockey League to stage outdoor hockey games in venues that could not accommodate thousands of fans. This weekend the NHL scheduled two games at Lake Tahoe.
The Edgewood Tahoe Resort will become its own bubble. Only those credentialed will be permitted through the gates.

Everyone will be tested and adhere to strict protocols. Teams and staff members will not be permitted to leave the grounds during their stay...

The NHL will build everything needed for an NHL game but, by design, little else. It will create locker rooms that feel like wooden cabins; the players will shower at the hotel. The scoreboard will be retro.
While most of us want to go back to the way things were just before COVID-19, the coronavirus has reminded us that the back-to-basics life can be beautiful.