Thursday, March 23, 2023

It Won't Make Your Heart Beat Faster

I use the Keurig most days. Time permitting, I
steep the grounds in the "French press" mug.
Coffee is a miracle substance. Its taste is pleasurable, it has documented health benefits, and its stimulative effects are well known (they were the original reason your humble blogger began drinking coffee in the first place.) However, the caffeine in coffee is also a concern for people who are worried about heart problems.

A recent study may reduce that worry.
Coffee consumption doesn’t increase abnormal heartbeats associated with an increased risk of the most common heart rhythm disturbance [atrial fibrillation], according to a new study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers monitored the hearts, activity and sleep of 100 people without underlying heart conditions over two weeks. They found that the key cardiac risk marker remained about the same for coffee drinkers as it did for non-coffee drinkers.
The coffee drinkers in the study did sleep an average of 35 minutes per night less than non-coffee drinkers, a finding consistent with my own experience. After twelve noon I drink decaf.
Dr. Larry Chinitz, director of the Heart Rhythm Center and co-lead of NYU Langone Heart, said if people are looking to improve their heart health, drinking coffee or staying away from it isn’t likely to be the most critical factor.

He said the kind of lifestyle choices that most people need to make to prevent and control cardiac conditions are much harder than picking up or avoiding that daily cup of coffee.

“People ignore exercise, diet and sleep patterns, and those may be the greatest contributors to cardiovascular disease,” he said.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Taxman Cometh for Them, Too

American influencers should be grateful they only have
the IRS to deal with. Influencer Viya was ordered to pay
1.34 billion yuan ($210 million) in back taxes, late fees
and fines to Chinese authorities. (Time - 12/21/21)
I sympathize with people's tax problems (unless they are committing fraud) but I have a hard time getting worked up over this one:
If an influencer receives a free, unsolicited product from a company, and there’s no agreement to promote it, do they still have to pay income tax?

It all boils down to intent. Accountants will want to know more about the influencer’s relationship to the brand, or how many free items they get, or how they use them.

“The way I see it, it’s all income,” said Lynne Fuentes, managing partner at Fuentes & Angel CPAs and president of the New York State Society of CPAs. “And influencers should be keeping track of it.”

Accountants said the more transparent influencers are with their tax preparers, the easier it is to figure out what’s taxable and what’s not.
"Social influencers" seek fame in order to attract money and merchandise from businesses, who hope that the influencers' use of their wares will induce their followers to buy them.

Successful influencers will get unsolicited free merch, maybe a lot of it. Setting up a system to administer the stuff was a foreseeable consequence of success, and influencers should just deal with it.

Note: Actors, musicians, athletes, etc., for whom becoming an influencer was a secondary consequence of what made them famous have had to struggle with this gift-merch issue long before the internet was invented. For them I do have sympathy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

There's Still Plenty of Dough in Silicon Valley

One-hundred-twenty-five dollars and 90 cents?
If it was $125 per pound I might have bought some.
After last year's opening crowds had checked out its price-to-value proposition, I wasn't optimistic about Eataly's long-term chances.

That is why I didn't go into marketing: nine months later it was still going strong.

On Sunday afternoon we ordered sandwiches, pizza slices, and desserts from the first-floor vendors and shopped for imported foodstuffs on the third floor.

All told, we got out of there having spent less than $200, and no, we didn't buy any Wagyu beef.

[Update - 10PM: Valley Fair in San Jose adds merchants, hits record sales and visits]
Westfield Valley Fair in San Jose has begun to attract visitors and retail activity at levels that top the big shopping mall’s activity even prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

After the opening of the popular Eataly Italian food hall, the retail complex is preparing for the opening of other high-profile merchants.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Decarbonising the Gut

(Image from
"Good" gut bacteria can multiply faster by starving them of carbon.
The Yale team...found that the beneficial gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron responded to starvation for carbon — a main building block for all cells — by sequestering a portion of the molecules for an essential transcription factor within a membrane-less compartment...

An awareness of these membrane-less compartments actually goes back a hundred years, [Yale geneticist Eduardo] Groisman said. [Postdoctoral fellow Aimilia] Krypotou’s key insight, he said, was to deduce novel properties for the bacterial transcription factor — termed Rho — based on the extra region. Sequestration of the transcription factor takes place by a process known as liquid-liquid phase separation, a ubiquitous phenomenon present in a wide variety of cells including those of humans.
My college roommates who were going to medical school said that molecular biology was their toughest course, and the preceding paragraph is an example of the concepts they had to deal with. Far be it from this non-STEM major to understand bacterial transcription and membrane-less compartments, but I am able to figure out from the article that if one is starving in general, then one is starving for carbon.

The bottom line is that this research provides yet another reason--gut health--to go on a fasting diet.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Father Brother Encourages

Under an exchange program with the Church of Our Savior in Mill Valley, its rector, the Reverend Brother Richard Edward Elmer, was our priest today.

Father Elmer, or as he jokingly referred to himself "Father Brother," is a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory (BSG), a community of friars in the Episcopal Church. The BSG calls its members to service and prayer, and because it is the season of Lent, Father Elmer focused on the "Daily Office", that is, the services of Morning, Noonday, Evening, and Compline prayer, all of which may be found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

Pre-1979, Episcopal services alternated between Holy Communion and Morning Prayer. Beginning in 1979 Holy Communion has been the norm nearly every Sunday. The morning prayer service, in fact the BCP itself, is used infrequently in the modern Episcopal Church.

Father Elmer encouraged us to engage with as many parts of the Daily Office that we can. If we don't have a prayer book at home, the Daily Office may conveniently be found online.

His words struck a chord. The time may be right to give it a try.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Catalyzing the Decision

Our Asian-American nephew is departing for Yokohama after living his entire life in the U.S. His wife, a Japanese national, and their two children have already moved. He is prepping their San Jose house for sale and wrapping up projects for work.

For his birthday dinner we took him to Gyu-Kaku, a Japanese barbecue restaurant in San Mateo. It was a bittersweet celebration, and there was laughter and a few tears while the beer flowed and a variety of meats were grilled.

The night ended happily with promises to stay in touch and even make a serious attempt to visit each other.

The next day he reported a real downer: the catalytic converter was stolen from his Prius after he returned home. The wait for a replacement is at least three months and the cost is at least $2,000, and the schedule for his remaining months in the Bay Area has been severely disrupted.

The silver lining is that the theft of his converter reinforces the rightness of his move. Japan is a better place to raise his kids (who are fluent in both Japanese and English) and safer for the whole family.

Alison Gerken and Amanda
Arguile (Chron photo)
In general the majority of people who do leave the Bay Area are happy they did so. A minority have second thoughts, and a few regret the decision so much that they move back. One couple returned to San Francisco, the experience was the opposite of their rose-colored memories, and they're leaving again. [bold added]
Alison Gerken and her wife, Amanda Arguile, who rejoiced when they got jobs in the veterinary field, bringing them back to San Francisco from Florida and its miserable anti-LGBTQ politics last fall after a three-year break. They missed the freedom, the weather, the beauty, the quirky small businesses and the easy road trips to the redwoods, Napa, Tahoe and Yosemite. They missed their home.

Then reality struck in the form of a swiped catalytic converter, a theft that ended up revealing a surprising amount about their new, old city. The saga that followed the crime reminded them of what’s not working in San Francisco — and convinced them to leave for good...

She was reluctant to drive the car on the neighborhood’s steep hills and ran inside to call the police non-emergency number to report the theft and file a police report online. By the time she got back to her car, it had a street sweeping ticket — one she felt sure would be dismissed if she explained what happened. It wasn’t.

Gerken had the right to further contest the parking ticket at a hearing, but figured the outcome wouldn’t change and her time was more valuable than the $87 fine. So she paid it.

Meanwhile, she learned from the local Toyota dealership that, because so many Prius owners were seeking catalytic converter replacements, the waiting list was months long. [The Chronicle reporter] called San Francisco Toyota on Tuesday morning to ask how long it would take to get a catalytic converter for a 2013 Prius, and the parts department worker who answered the phone let out a long whistle. “Five or six months,” he said...

Finally, she gave up. A few weeks ago, she had Cash for Cars haul it away in exchange for $2,400, far less than its value before the theft...Gerken received six parking tickets and has paid four of them so far.
This is the reality of living in San Francisco:
“We couldn’t wait to leave Florida,” Gerken said. “But coming back, it was this abrupt holy s—. This is bad. We kind of forgot what it was like.”

San Francisco is just as expensive as ever, they said, but the streets are far less lively. Some of their favorite small businesses have closed and are boarded up with plywood. More of their middle-income friends have been priced out, and they have co-workers commuting from as far as Santa Rosa and Oakley.

The streets seem dirtier, they said, and open-air drug dealing seems more prevalent with cops just passing by. They see bodies sprawled on the street and wonder if they should stop to make sure the person is OK. Usually, Gerken said, she keeps walking, but feels awful about it.
Catalytic-converter theft is rampant, there's next to nothing done to stem the tide, and victims like Alison Gerken pile up fines until there's no alternative but to scrap their cars.

Every individual has his breaking point, and life in the Bay Area produces more than its share.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Pig Butchering on LinkedIn

My nine most recent invitations from LinkedIn
Lately I've been receiving regular invitations to connect on LinkedIn. None of these individuals are known to me, nor do we have any shared organizations (schools, businesses) in our histories.

They do have attributes in common with each other: young, female, attractive, and Asian, mostly Chinese and Chinese-American. Yes, these are honey traps. [bold added]
The profile of “Mai Linzheng” is actually one of the millions of fraudulent pages set up on LinkedIn to lure users into scams, often involving cryptocurrency investments and targeting people of Chinese descent all over the world. Scammers like Mai claim affiliation with prestigious schools and companies to boost their credibility before connecting with other users, building a relationship, and laying a financial trap...

This wasn’t the first time [Financial Times columnist Jeff] Li had noticed what he thought were fake LinkedIn accounts. Starting in late 2021, he says, he started seeing profiles with less than a few dozen connections—rare for real LinkedIn users—and with profile photos that were always good-looking men and women, likely stolen from other websites. Most appeared to be of Chinese ethnicity and to live in the United States or Canada.

Scammers involved in this practice, which started as early as 2017 in China, create fake profiles on social media sites or dating sites, connect with victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually persuade the victims to transfer over their assets. The scammers themselves came up with the name “pig butchering,” comparing the intensive and long-term process of gaining victims’ trust to raising a pig for slaughter.
Guys, know yourself: if a pretty girl strikes up a conversation with you, it's not because she's interested in a romantic relationship. The saying on Wall Street applies to social media: "Bulls make money, bears make money, pigs get slaughtered."

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely

2020: in front of four EV's Gavin Newsom bans the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035.
Gavin Newsom's war against fossil fuels has been waged across several fronts, including
Banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035;

Imposing "price gouging" penalties on the oil and gas industry;

Prohibiting improvements to and retrofitting of pre-existing wells around which communities have sprung.
Yesterday the Governor withdrew the price-gouging legislation in favor of setting up an Executive Branch "watchdog": [bold added]
On Wednesday, the governor’s office said it is proposing legislation to create a watchdog body, backed by subpoena powers, within the California Energy Commission to investigate the state’s oil refinery market and gas prices. Based on findings from the watchdog entity, the commission could issue penalties at its discretion on the state’s oil refiners, according to advisers in the governor’s office.
IMHO, the new proposal is worse than the one it replaced. "Penalties at its discretion" is an invitation to corruption, i.e., payments to the right people will get fines waived since there don't seem to be objective criteria about where the penalty lines are.

It's also clear that a persistent price premium must have an explanation other than capitalist greed, which, if that were the case, would exist peculiarly only in California. My hypothesis: gasoline producers have only 12 years to recover their investment in California plant and equipment, after which the market for gasoline will dry up. In the rest of the country refiners can count on a useful life of 20 years or longer, thereby lowering the prices they require to turn a profit.

Come summer hellfires or winter high waters, the Progressives in charge of the one-party State are marching California to their utopian destination, while making sure that they're getting their cut along the way.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

That's Amore

It's easy as π (3.14159265...) to calculate
the square inches of the 16" wheel
In honor of Pi day (3.14.23) we ordered pizza last night. Our favorite joint was closed on Tuesdays, so we ordered take-out from Velo City Pizza. (The name isn't as clever as the owner thinks.)

The #2 special--sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, bell peppers, black olives--was delish. The crust was thin and crisp, the cheese and tomatoes didn't overwhelm, and the spicing was delicately complex.

The verdict was unanimous: we have a new favorite pizza place.

When you take the night off, that gives customers a chance to sample the competition.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

English Breakfast: Good, But Once Was Plenty

On my first business trip to London in the 1990's the stereotype about English food ("bland, soggy, overcooked, and visually unappealing") I found generally true. But I was pleasantly surprised by the English breakfast.
The full English breakfast has been a staple of the nation’s diet for hundreds of years, but no one can quite agree on what should be included—or left out...

Almost everyone agrees sausages and bacon belong on the plate, but after that things get more complicated. What about mushrooms, fried bread or grilled tomatoes? Should eggs be fried, scrambled or poached? Hasn’t anyone heard of vegetables?
The breakfast that was served to me had fried tomatoes and beans but no blood sausage. In a bow to American sensibilities the restaurant offered, and I gratefully accepted, coffee. (I'd rather have eaten the blood sausage than drunk the abominable tea-with-milk-and-sugar.)

The English breakfast was expensive--£12, when the exchange rate was about $1.60 / £1 and it was 30 years ago--and the travel policy covered it. Given the quantity of food, I refrained from having another "full English" and contented myself with a croissant for breakfast the rest of the trip. It was good, but once was plenty.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Forever Bond

The business news through the weekend has been all about bank failures and their effect on interest rates and the economy. At the heart of the problem is the inability of banks to pay off deposits when customers show up during a bank run.

Bank deposits are "hot money" because they are liabilities that can be redeemed at any time. Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank failed because they didn't have enough cash on hand (or could get cash quickly enough from asset sales or borrowings from other institutions).

"When this bond was written on vellum in 1648,...
its wide margins were empty. Over many years,
the margins were covered with the records of the
interest returned to its owner."
At one end of the duration spectrum are bank deposits. At the other is a 375-year-old “perpetual” Dutch bond.
One of Yale’s most intriguing investments is a 375-year-old “perpetual” Dutch bond that still pays interest. It was issued by the Hoogheemraadschap Lekdijk Bovendams, a semi-public organization charged with maintaining the dike along the Lek river in the Netherlands.

The water authority was founded in 1323; its successor still operates today, in the province of Utrecht, as the Stichtse Rijnlanden.
The bond is a "bearer bond," which is a key plot point of many a murder-mystery novel:
The text makes clear that the bond was transferable, and payment was to be made to the bearer of the security, not to someone listed in a registry.
However, what may dissuade someone from acquiring the instrument via foul means is that the bearer must show up in person to receive the interest. Also, the amount at stake is not enough to quit one's day job:
Beinecke curator Timothy Young presented the allonge in 2015 at the Stichtse Rijnlanden offices to collect the subsequent twelve years of payments. The latter amounted to the equivalent of $153.
The water company paid its obligation, even when the Netherlands were annexed by France in 1810. When the debt was issued in 1648, the payment of same was viewed as a moral imperative. It's nice to know that some people and cultures still subscribe to that principle.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Believe the Science

According to the Babylon Bee, the science is settled: go to church!
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry looks like
he's having fun (Florida Times-Union)
WORLD - According to a breaking news report, you should go to church, you insolent heathen. The report, released this morning, which is Sunday, the day people go to church, indicated that you are still at home playing on your smartphone instead of getting your family ready to go mingle with a bunch of weirdos, eat some stale donuts, and enter the presence of the Almighty God to worship Him and learn from His Word. "The data is clear, and the science has spoken," said one expert who helped run the study underlying the report. "You are not at church, and it is the Lord's Day, and you should be at church. Therefore, if you want to follow the data, you need to get your butt out of bed right now and get your family ready to worship Jesus." Well, folks, looks like the science is settled: go to church!
The above is probably fake news, the giveaway being that the Bee is a satyrical rag. The Bee's stories have been fact-checked and found to be untrue more frequently than stories in the mainstream media.

But I'll still go to church this Sunday.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Inevitable Deflation

There was a party at the house at the end, one of the few that has little kids.

The air pump was working from dawn to dusk. It had rained all week but today we only had a few drops. Were our neighbors lucky or smart?

After the fun came the inevitable deflation.

A truck came to haul the carcass away.

Everyone should sleep well tonight, though they have one hour less to do it.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Silicon Valley Bank Lent Long and Borrowed Short

Police at SVB HQ in Santa Clara (Mercury News)
The failure of Silicon Valley Bank today appears ("appears" because it's still early days) to be contained to the bank itself and does not foretell other failures in the banking sector.

However, the latter possibility affected the stock market, whose major indices were down between 1 and 2%. [bold added]
SVB Financial bought tens of billions of dollars of seemingly safe assets, primarily longer-term U.S. Treasurys and government-backed mortgage securities...These securities are at virtually no risk of defaulting. But they pay fixed interest rates for many years. That isn’t necessarily a problem, unless the bank suddenly needs to sell the securities. Because market interest rates have moved so much higher, those securities are suddenly worth less on the open market than they are valued at on the bank’s books. As a result, they could only be sold at a loss.

SVB’s unrealized losses on its securities portfolio at the end of 2022—or the gap between the cost of the investments and their fair value—jumped to more than $17 billion.

At the same time, SVB’s deposit inflows turned to outflows as its clients burned cash and stopped getting new funds from public offerings or fundraisings. Attracting new deposits also became far more expensive, with the rates demanded by savers increasing along with the Fed’s hikes. Deposits fell from nearly $200 billion at the end of March 2022 to $173 billion at year-end 2022.
The failure of SVB is symbolically meaningful because it puts an exclamation mark on the decline of the tech industry in California. SVB's customers are concentrated in tech, and the steep rise in interest rates over the past year has made risky investments in those customers much less attractive.

In California financial stress has been exacerbated by high taxes and regulations, which have caused high-profile companies like HP, Oracle, and Tesla to move out of State. It is easy to imagine that the run on California's premier tech bank is related to the exodus of businesses out of the State.

A negative number indicates the 1-year Treasury rate
is greater than the 10-year. (SF Federal Reserve)
The weekend hiatus provides time for cooler heads to prevail. According to the Journal article, SVB's problems seem to stem from lending long and borrowing short. That strategy produces regular profits, except for the infrequent occasions when the short rate exceeds the long. Duke University finance professor Campbell Harvey:
"If you lock your money up for a longer period of time, you almost always get a higher interest rate..."However, today, things are backwards - 10-year interest rates are far below short-term rates. This is known as an 'inverted yield curve.' In the past 50 years, we have seen seven inverted interest rate curves. Each one was followed by a recession."
Silicon Valley Bank bet that normal would continue. That bet proved disastrous when it kept having to refinance deposits and other short-term borrowings as rates climbed rapidly higher. Major banks are required to "stress test" for just such an eventuality; let's hope they didn't cut corners.

Thursday, March 09, 2023

It Won't be a Chinese Century

1975: "Practicing family planning is conducive
to protecting the health of mothers and children"
China's one-child policy may have provided economic benefits over three decades, but it has turned out to be a long-term disaster: [bold added]
The Chinese family is about to undergo a radical and historically unprecedented transition. Extended kinship networks will atrophy nationwide, and the widespread experience of close blood relatives will disappear altogether for many. This is a delayed but inescapable consequence of China’s birth trends from the era of the notorious one-child policy (1980-2015). The withering of the Chinese family will make for new and unfamiliar problems, both for China’s people and its state. Policy makers in China and abroad have scarcely begun to think about the ramifications...

A “kin famine” will thus unfold unforgivingly over the next 30 years—starting now. As it intensifies, the Chinese family—the most important institution protecting Chinese people against adversity in bad times and helping them seize opportunity in good times—will increasingly falter in both these crucial functions.

By a grim twist of fate, China’s withering of the family is set to collide with a tsunami of new social need from the country’s huge elderly population, whose ranks will more than double between 2020 and 2050.... By 2050 living parents and in-laws will outnumber children for middle-aged Chinese men and women. Thus exigency may overturn basic familial arrangements that have long been taken for granted. The focus of the family in China will necessarily turn from the rearing of the young to the care of the old...

Owing to the surfeit of baby boys under the one-child policy and declining cohort sizes, growing numbers of men in decades ahead will enter old age without spouses or children—the traditional sources of support for the elderly. By our projections, by 2050, 18% of China’s men in their 60s will have no living descendants, twice the fraction today.
The thinning of family trees has significant societal implications:
China’s coming family revolution could easily conduce to a rise in personal risk aversion. Risk aversion may in turn dampen mobility, including migration. Migration is a risky act that requires knowledge of opportunities and trusted people who can help obtain them. Without the ability to stay on a cousin’s couch, so to speak, migration will become riskier, harder, and, almost certainly, rarer. Less migration means less urbanization, which means less growth—and possibly still more pessimism and risk aversion.

The change in Chinese family structure also promises political reverberations. If the waning of the family requires China to build a huge social welfare state over the coming generation, as we surmise it will, Beijing would have that much less wherewithal for influencing events abroad through economic diplomacy and defense policy.

Further, our simulations suggest that by 2050 at least half of China’s overall pool of male military-age manpower will be made up of only children. Any encounter by China’s security forces involving significant loss of life will presage lineage extinction for many Chinese families.
If China's hegemonic ambitions can be contained over the next decade, then the inexorable reality of its demographics will cause expansionist looking outward to become contractionist turning inward.

China is and will continue to be a great power, but it won't be a Chinese century.