Monday, June 21, 2021

Managing Risk When The Odds Are in Your Favor

Even he is not always right (Apple Insider photo)
In my novice investor days I would always bet too much on a story stock. Usually that stock would already have been bid up, and I was one of the last suckers buyers before the fall.

But even when I became a decent stock picker I still tended to put too much in one basket. Even the best investors in the world don't hit it out of the park 10 out of 10 times; experience has taught them how to manage portfolio risk even though they're right more often than not.

The WSJ has a simple baseball simulation game in which the player wins 57% of the time and gets paid 1 for 1; if it were a true game he would have to bet nearly $3 to win $2. He has a $100 stake, and there are 10 rounds of bets. What is the strategy? (Test yourself by clicking the link above.)

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Father's Day, 2021

Prof. Tannen and her late father, 97, in 2006
This is the second Father's Day without my father.

Linguistics professor and best-selling author Deborah Tannen shares advice about how to discover more about a father's life after he has passed away.
Many people go through their parents’ things when they die, and they find documents, notes, letters, memorabilia. If you’re interested, don’t pass up that opportunity.

Talk to people who knew him, such as a friend or sibling. Ask what he was like when he was young. You could also read about the place and time your father grew up in. Many fathers have been through wars or historical events.

And talk to your own siblings, to get their views of him. A father who has more than one child will be a different father to each of them.
My mother, brothers, and I have done more communicating in the last two years than in the past 20. There's usually an administrative or medical issue to discuss, but sometimes people just want to see each other over FaceTime or Zoom. Often there's a story about Dad that is new to the rest of us. We chuckle, and the recollections comfort.

Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 19, 2021

This Project is Not Underwater

Foster City levee construction (SF Chronicle image)
Whether or not we agreed with the premise that global warming will endanger coastal cities, we didn't really have a choice in voting for a $90 million levee to be built.

In 2014 FEMA warned that Foster City would be in a flood zone if it didn't build a new levee that would protect it from a 100-year flood. Prior to this Foster City was classified as not being in a flood zone.

Property owners faced a decision in 2017: vote for the levee and pay an additional $279 per year in property tax, or pay flood insurance premiums of at least $2,000 per year.

(Those who didn't have a mortgage would not have been forced to purchase coverage, but these owners were relatively few.)

Your humble blogger resented the obvious nudge--let's call it a shove--but voted for Measure P anyway.

So far the project criteria are being met:
The steel is thick enough to resist not only earthquakes and strong storms — and the pressure of the 100,000 cubic yards of new soil that will be packed in behind the interlocked plates — but to support an addition when and if there’s a need to go higher.
It's been decided, so we may as well look on the bright side: property values may be boosted because buyers will believe that living in Foster City is marginally safer than elsewhere along the Bay; also, construction projects like these never get cheaper; and if sea levels do rise (I give it no more than a 10% chance in my lifetime) then it will have been worth the expense.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Beating the Heat

In Foster City the thermometer hit 97 °F, but we were lucky. Inland it was 110 °F:
Our solution: one cool bedroom
Temperatures soared above 100 degrees across the Bay Area on Thursday — with Fairfield peaking at 110 — as the sweaty and sweltering sought ways to stay cool, plunging in pools and swarming to the coast for a cool breeze...

Fairfield appeared to be the hottest place in the Bay Area, reaching 110 at Travis Air Force Base, according to the National Weather Service. Concord and Livermore followed with 107 degrees.

Records were broken in San Rafael, which hit 103; Santa Rosa, 104; Kentfield, 103; Redwood City, 102; and Gilroy at 106. Santa Rosa broke a record set for the same day in 1922, when it hit 101.
Out with the old. Luckily it
was appliance pickup week.
In a rare display of forward thinking, I spent last Saturday installing a window air conditioner and disposing of a portable A/C that had stopped working. We have one cool bedroom to which family members can retire if they can't take the heat.

(Our central air conditioning coolant had leaked out in the 1990's, and I've been too cheap environmentally conscious to spend thousands of dollars just to cool off the entire house for a couple of weeks each year.)

The temps will drop back to the 70's next week. Meanwhile, I'll be drinking lots of ice water.

Thursday, June 17, 2021


(Graphic from poetsandquants)
Your humble blogger has always been in awe of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) professions. The feeling started in college; the classmates who majored in these courses were very smart and, frankly, worked harder than I did. They didn't necessarily become scientists or engineers; many became doctors, which requires lots of STEM.

Sufficient aptitude in math and statistics enabled me to enter the fields of accounting and business finance and, as they say, put food on the table. But I never thought that accountancy was as technically demanding as engineering, biochemistry, or computer programming.

However, some politicians do. The House of Representatives bill HR 3855 proposes [bold added]
To amend the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant program to promote career awareness in accounting as part of a well-rounded STEM educational experience.117th Congress (2021-2022)
(Image from Mindy Barker Assoc.)
Ever since STEM was identified as a national priority in the early 2000's, STEM education funding has steadily increased regardless of which party controls the White House or Congress.

It's great that accounting has been accorded some respect and that accounting education may soon be eligible for Federal support. There is an acute shortage of accountants relative to open positions.

Respect the green eyeshade!

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

High-Speed Rail: Staying Alive

2021: HSR construction in Fresno
We thought the multi-billion dollar High-Speed Rail (HSR) project was a bad idea in 2012 (wouldn't work, lousy project design, $billions of easily foreseeable cost overruns, less efficient than already cheap SF-LA flights).

We thought it was effectively killed when Governor Newsom drastically scaled back the project in 2019. However, a state agency kept HSR alive in 2020 despite bipartisan efforts to kill it.

The change in Administrations in Washington rewarded the bureaucrats' stalling:
California will receive $929 million in grant funding toward its high-speed rail project — funding that former President Donald Trump had previously canceled in 2019 — under a deal announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office late Thursday night.
Americans are divided over policy matters, such as where to spend government funds. But they're close to unanimous against spending money on things that will never work.

The Las Vegas Review Journal: [bold added]
In the early aughts, the state’s political class bamboozled voters into approving a high-speed rail project intended to ultimately connect Los Angeles with San Francisco. Construction was supposed to be completed early this decade, and residents were assured that the shiny new “clean energy” train could be theirs for the low, low price of $30 billion. Instead, the project is more than a decade behind schedule and is now projected to cost $100 billion … and counting. Officials now hope they can complete a 171-mile stretch between Bakersfield and Merced by the end of the decade...

The Golden State bullet train is already an environmental nightmare, and there’s absolutely no evidence it can — if it’s ever actually in operation — compete with air travel in terms of time or price. President Joe Biden might as well have held a Rose Garden photo-op while chin-flicking taxpayers and taking a blowtorch to a $1 billion pile of cash. That would have been more honest than propagating the fiction that the California high-speed rail debacle is vital to saving the planet.
Like a monster in a lucrative horror movie franchise, HSR keeps coming back after you thought it was dead.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Flag Day + 1

Long may they wave
At City Hall the flagpole has gotten a bit crowded.

The Stars and Stripes, the Rainbow Flag (it's Pride Month), and the light blue Foster City flag all flapped proudly in the breeze.

The California flag was tangled in the crossbar, unable to handle the atmospheric winds that pull it in all directions.

Speaking of crosscurrents, today California is officially re-opening: [bold added]
On June 15, California will generally align with the CDC’s mask recommendations, which means that if you’re fully vaccinated you don’t have to wear a mask in almost all settings, including shopping, going to a bar, working out at the gym or attending church services.

There are a few exceptions, such as health care settings and public transportation, including airports and transit stations.

If you are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, masks are still required indoors, and outdoors when 6 feet social distancing cannot be maintained. California will mostly rely on the honor system to enforce masking rules.
Comment 1: Honor system? I thought that went out of style half a century ago. Well, I'll put my skepticism aside and be open minded about whether that will work. Frankly, I think the danger will come from those who, lacking trust in others, will demand to see vaccination cards when they have no right to do so. I hope I'm wrong.

Comment 2: I'll still wear a mask pulled down over my chin. When I see a masked person approach, I'll pull it up out of courtesy. I often see masked parents out and about with their children, most of whom are not vaccinated. And I do believe that the risk is vanishingly small to children contracting COVID-19 when outdoors, and even if that does happen, the severity is much less. Nevertheless, parents' ability to assess risks is very poor when it comes to their children.

Be kind, even though you don't have to be--that's another meaning of the Flag.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Flag Day, 2021

Happy Flag Day!

Old Glory has been revered through most of the nation's history, to such an extent that men have given their lives to see it raised on the battlefield. It's a symbol of America, tattered, resilient, and unique among nations. Everyone who is not descended from Native Americans or African slaves can trace their ancestry to someone who chose to be here.

On this day we celebrate choice, the freedom to choose what to do with our lives regardless of the circumstances of our birth, and to succeed or fail on our own merits. Of course, these are aspirations and frequently do not depict "reality." As the saying goes, unless we know where we are going, we will never get there.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Life is But a Stream

The youth minister's office is also the streaming hub.
After "attending" church for over a year via YouTube, I must confess that I like watching services from home:
  • I don't have to get dressed up.
  • I can eat and drink. Sipping a cuppa joe while listening to the sermon is both stimulating and relaxing, if that makes any sense.
  • I don't have to worry about decorum and can go to the bathroom without "holding it", if you know what I mean.
  • I can stand, wave my arms, and do stretching and breathing exercises. You can't do that in an Episcopal church; we're not Pentecostals!
  • All that said, I've been going to in-person services since they resumed three weeks ago. It seems almost a novelty to be with people and take Communion, but the largest benefit to me has been the re-imposition of mindfulness. The cellphone is off, and I must focus on what is going on in the moment.

    Park Avenue Synagogue member Allan Ripp agrees:
    During remote services the distractions are constant, like working from home. Only instead of zoning out on a client while putting on my socks, I miss the benediction for the state of Israel. There’s also the temptation to multitask—is it a sin to empty the dishwasher while singing the Aleinu? Or to google the parents of the bat mitzvah girl? Most diverting are on-screen glimpses into congregants’ homes. I’m joining the nice couple chanting Bar’chu, while squinting at the furnishings in their elegant living room. Is that the Hamptons?
    Modern distractions are new, but the state of being distracted has been observed for centuries:
    The idea of lapsed or divided attention at prayer has long occupied Jewish scholars. Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky of Park Avenue Synagogue explains—over Zoom, of course—machshavot zarot, which a 13th-century sage described as “spurious thoughts” that creep into worshipers’ heads. “Back then, it might have been the health of your ox that intruded, whereas today it could be your bank balance or an episode of ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” he says.
    (I've never had to worry about the health of an ox, but the health of my car, that's another matter.)

    The coronavirus has irrevocably changed the world of work, and, likewise the world of worship. Having another option on Sunday morning is much better than having no option at all. As the Gershwins might have said, live-streaming is here to stay.

    Saturday, June 12, 2021

    Inflation: I Hope They Know What They're Doing

    March, 2021: Brisket $3.69/lb
    The headline story in Friday's WSJ comes as no surprise. On our weekly shopping trips we've been noticing substantial increases in the price of food, and it's a good thing that we don't drive much any more because Bay Area gas is almost $4 per gallon. As noted in an earlier post, we've been having flashbacks to the 1970's. [bold added]
    The Labor Department said last month’s increase in the consumer-price index was the largest since August 2008, when the reading rose 5.4%. The core-price index, which excludes the often-volatile categories of food and energy, jumped 3.8% in May from the year before—the largest increase for that reading since June 1992.
    May, 2021: Brisket $4.49/lb

    Consumers are seeing higher prices for many of their purchases, particularly big-ticket items such as vehicles. Prices for used cars and trucks leapt 7.3% from the previous month, driving one-third of the rise in the overall index. The indexes for furniture, airline fares and apparel also rose sharply in May.
    To be sure, a portion of these price hikes represents a springing back of demand from the lockdown economy of one year ago. A comparison with pre-COVID 2019 is less alarming:
    June, 2021: Brisket $5.49/lb
    The annual inflation measurements are being boosted by comparisons with figures from last year during pandemic-related lockdowns, when prices plummeted because of collapsing demand for many goods and services. This so-called base effect is expected to push up inflation readings significantly in May and June, dwindling into the fall.

    Compared with two years ago, overall prices rose a more muted 2.5% in May.
    Policy-makers are currently behaving as if the inflation spike is temporary.

    Despite his fears, your humble blogger hasn't seen convincing evidence that they're mistaken. Like last year, when our worries were about a different subject, we're forced to trust that the experts know what they're doing. And it worked so well the last time....

    Friday, June 11, 2021

    Episcopal Leadership: Political Partisans to the Core

    Bishop Budde: just another
    partisan political hack?
    (Note: although I did like some of his policies, I have never cast a vote for former President Trump in any election.)

    One year ago, I expressed my disappointment at another Episcopal church official using a sad incident to take a partisan shot at President Trump.

    Bishop Marianne Budde accused him of ordering "his officials" to use tear gas against protestors in Lafayette Park. Her outrage, even when transcribed on paper, is unmistakable: [bold added]
    "Consider the context," Budde said. "After making a highly charged, emotional speech to the nation where he threatened military force, his officials cleared peaceful protests with tear gas and horses and walked on to the courtyard of St. John's Church and held up a Bible as if it were a prop or an extension of his military and authoritarian position, and stood in front of our building as if it were a backdrop for his agenda. That was the offense that I was speaking to."
    It turns out that President Trump had nothing to do with clearing the park of protestors. Yes, he did use St. John's as a backdrop for a photo-op, but that was just a picture. He didn't set the Parish Hall on fire.

    Mark Lee Greenblatt
    Glenn Greenwald reports on the findings of Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt:
    “the evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow a contractor to safely install anti-scale fencing in response to destruction of Federal property and injury to officers that occurred on May 30 and May 31.” Crucially, “the evidence established that relevant USPP officials had made those decisions and had begun implementing the operational plan several hours before they knew of a potential Presidential visit to the park, which occurred later that day."
    Bishop Budde readily believed the false CNN, Washington Post, and NY Times reports that President Trump was responsible for tear-gassing (there was no tear gas, btw, but less harmful pepper spray) and made a partisan political speech.

    Even if the false reports were true, the Bishop could have reflected upon the evil that men do to each other, the sin that is ingrained in the rioters as well as President Trump, and prayed for healing and reconciliation. She could have called for the better angels of our nature.

    Instead she chose to cast all the blame upon the President, and she and St. John's rector dismissed the physical damage to the church in light of "the bigger concerns" of "systemic racism and police brutality."

    We have seen this gullibility in Episcopal leadership before:
    Episcopal leaders appear to be uncritical consumers of left-wing narratives. They are quick to issue proclamations without considering that there may be more to the story or even that the story is wrong. (Yes, your humble blogger is susceptible to confirmation bias, too, and makes a sincere effort to avoid snap judgments on fast-moving stories. I will wait to see if someone presents evidence to counter the Federalist counter-narrative.)

    I witnessed the enthusiastic reception accorded to the widespread Ferguson narrative at the 2014 Diocesan Convention in San Francisco. Priest after priest rose to speak about racism and police brutality visited upon black Americans; some had gone to Ferguson to stand with groups outraged by the shooting of the allegedly innocent Michael Brown in 2014. Mainstream media publications, long after the fact but to their credit, debunked the entire "hands-up-don't-shoot" story. Too late for the priests to take it back, however, whose righteousness had been on proud display.
    So quick to judge, so quick to agree with those who bear false witness.

    To my priests to whom I look for moral authority, how about being very slow to condemn, and, if you must, only after much prayerful consideration and after you are sure of the facts?

    Then, perhaps, when people see that you are able to place the eternal principles that you espouse above the evanescent issues of today, you will be trusted as a person of integrity, and your congregations may begin growing again.

    Thursday, June 10, 2021

    Tempest in a Chamber Pot

    The portable toilets have hand-washing stations (Chron)
    The cost of solving the homeless problem ($75,000? $336,000?) seems astronomical when it's analyzed on a per-person basis, especially compared to the living expenses of the average person.

    But it's not surprising when one considers the slow-as-molasses nature of government. Look at the dithering over portable toilets: [bold added]
    The fight over toilets gets at the bigger question of how the city with the most expensive housing in the country should respond to the issues of visible homelessness and soiled sidewalks. Some argue providing amenities like toilets encourages sleeping on the streets if and when other options are available, while others say a place to relieve oneself is a basic human dignity required to keep the streets clean when affordable housing isn’t yet accessible.
    The crux of the conflict: toilets encourage homeless camps, but they help keep streets less disgusting. Both arguments could be correct, so for heaven's sake, choose one or the other, envision the consequences and deal with those too. After all, you have $billions to, er, waste. (For the record, I'm in favor of keeping the toilets, even putting more out there.)

    About the cost:
    It costs from just over $100,000 to nearly $632,000 a year to staff and rent a toilet, depending on the kind of bathroom and how many hours it’s open a day.
    On a monthly basis San Francisco spends $8,300 to $53,000. Here are the rental rates posted by a port-a-potty company.
    VIP restroom for rent
  • $75-$100 per month for a Standard Portable Toilet with once a week service
  • $100-$125 per month for a Handicap Accessible Toilet
  • $50-$80 per weekend for a Special Event Unit
  • $700 - $1,800 per weekend for a VIP Luxury Trailer
  • Even allowing for continuous monitoring and cleaning, it's difficult to get to a toilet expense of $53,000 per month, but it's not surprising since the City is in charge.

    Flashback: the Navy spent $600 on toilet seats in 1985 in what became a mini-scandal. (They were engineered for P3 Orion planes.) Ah, the good old days.

    Wednesday, June 09, 2021

    Making Lists and Getting Serious

    I can point to a few recipes I've learned, some books I've read, and clutter I've cleared, but basically it's been an unproductive 15 months. During the pandemic it's easy to make excuses for not tackling projects that matter. Now's the time to make lists and get serious.

    Yes, it's time to get the ducks in a row.

    Tuesday, June 08, 2021

    Homelessness: We Lacked Imagination

    Under a San Francisco overhead freeway (UCSF)
    Two months ago we were taken aback by the cost of San Francisco's homeless programs of $75,000 per person per year (a rough estimate).

    Last week SF Mayor London Breed proposed spending $1 billion to solve homelessness and doubling outlays to about $150,000 per year. We only half jokingly remarked that failure will make her come back for another $1 billion in 2023.

    We lacked imagination. Headline: [bold added]

    Bay Area homelessness could be solved with $11.8 billion, says new report
    The Bay Area Council came to its estimate in a report released Thursday by calculating it would take $9.3 billion to create enough shelter and housing to put roofs over all 35,118 people now estimated to be homeless in the region’s nine counties — then $2.5 billion a year to maintain those roofs with services and staffing.
    So let's do the division: $11,800,000,000 ➗ 35,118 = $336,010.

    Given that level of expenditure, you could pick names out of the phone book who could come up with permanent solutions for much less, for instance, giving every homeless person a $10,000 cashier's check and a plane ticket anywhere at least a thousand miles from here. But that's not the point.

    After decades of working I still remember the year when my salary hit $60,000. It was indeed cause for celebration.

    Little did I know that all I had to do was pitch a tent on a Bay Area sidewalk, and I would be in line (ok, it hasn't been approved yet) to receive $336,000 in housing, goods, and services without being obliged to anyone.

    Is this a great country or what?

    Monday, June 07, 2021

    Before You Can Simulate the Universe, You Have to Map It

    Perlmutter is named after Berkeley Lab’s Nobel
    Prize-winning astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter.(WSJ)
    A powerful supercomputer will use artificial intelligence to map the universe in 3-D:
    The real power of Perlmutter, Dr. Bailey said, will come into play as the data starts to build up and researchers begin creating maps to judge their progress. Processing a year’s worth of the data, for example, would take weeks with an existing supercomputer, Dr. Bailey said.

    However, Perlmutter—which will be shared with other research teams working on other scientific projects—should be able to accomplish the task in a matter of days...

    HPE says the NERSC computer has a peak AI performance, or speed, of almost four “AI exaflops,” which the company said would make the machine the fastest AI supercomputer to date. An AI exaflop is roughly mathematically equivalent to performing 250 petaflops per second, it said. A petaflop is 1,000 trillion, or one quadrillion, operations per second.
    Today's smartphone is more powerful than all of NASA's computers used for the moon landing. Perlmutter will seem as primitive to data scientists 50 years from now as NASA's computers appear to us today.

    Given the speed that computing power is progressing, we may soon have the power to populate this 3-D map of the universe with beings who think they are "conscious." Of course, that doesn't have to mean anything about our world.