Saturday, March 31, 2018

Eat Right, Be Happy

Foods in the Mediterranean diet (USA Today)
What we eat can dispel sadness; scientists say, sadly for some of us, it's not ice cream or chocolate cake:
a healthy diet—high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and unprocessed lean red meat—can prevent depression. And an unhealthy diet—high in processed and refined foods—increases the risk for the disease in everyone, including children and teens. [snip]

Depression has many causes—it may be genetic, triggered by a specific event or situation, such as loneliness, or brought on by lifestyle choices. But it’s really about an unhealthy brain...A bad diet makes depression worse, failing to provide the brain with the variety of nutrients it needs.
These assertions about eating right are supported by a study that observed the diets and moods of 67 people diagnosed with depression:
Half of these people were given nutritional counseling from a dietitian, who helped them eat healthier. Half were given one-on-one social support—they were paired with someone to chat or play cards with—which is known to help people with depression.

After 12 weeks, the people who improved their diets showed significantly happier moods than those who received social support.
"Nutritional psychiatrists" are developing an understanding of how diet affects mental health.
A bad diet makes depression worse, failing to provide the brain with the variety of nutrients it needs, Dr. [Drew] Ramsey says. And processed or deep-fried foods often contain trans fats that promote inflammation, believed to be a cause of depression...A bad diet also affects our microbiome—the trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut. They make molecules that can alter the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter found in the brain.
The science is somewhat new, so I'm still holding out hope for ice cream and chocolate cake.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Good Friday

On Good Friday the cross is shrouded in black, and the altar is bare.

Members of the congregation read aloud their part in John's Passion Gospel.

At the end of the service there was no recessional hymn, everyone filing out quietly. The mood is somber but not one of hopelessness. We know that the tomb is not the end of the story.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Maybe Their Time Has Not Passed

Added to the reasons against dining out (excess sugar, fats, and calories in general) is higher ingestion of phthalates. [bold added]
the phthalate levels of those who dined out often were nearly 35 percent higher than those of people who reported eating food purchased at the grocery store, and fast-food restaurants are a particularly strong source of the chemical
Phthalates affect the endocrine system. Forbes:
scientific studies...have shown how phthalates may interfere with sex hormones and suggested links between consuming phthalates and a variety of health problems such as birth defects, infertility, cancers, childhood asthma, obesity, and autism.
Phthalates are not a substance added to food but arise from contact with wrapping and other plastics.
phthalates are chemicals used in many plastic items to help them become more flexible. Therefore, phthalates may be leeching from all of these plastic items into the food that subsequently goes into your mouth.
Plastic-wrapped meats (kirwens)
Apparently we should patronize fast-food restaurants less in order to avoid phthalates. Cooking and dining at home carry their own risks, however. Meat, chicken, and fish must be inspected not only for spoilage but for the manner in which they are wrapped. (Plastic wrapping seems like progress because consumers can examine the shielded product without contaminating it.)

Supermarket butchers who wrap the orders in paper--maybe their time has not passed after all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Shore Up Your Home Front First

Something tells me that these Orange County stories are related, but I can't figure how exactly.

Orange County Was Set to House the Homeless, and There Was a Popular Revolt [bold added]
Encampment in Orange County (OC Register)
All three cities where temporary shelters had been proposed—Irvine, Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel—threatened to file their own lawsuits against the county if the plan were enacted, arguing that it placed an unfair burden on their communities.
Quote #1 - Santa Ana school board president Valerie Amezcu: “We’ve taken the brunt...our kids can’t use the libraries. Our kids go to school in the morning, and somebody is sleeping in front of our schools.

Quote #2 - Irvine mayor Christina L. Shea: “Because the county has chosen to close their eyes and not solve the problem, all of a sudden they’re saying, just build a tent here next to $1 million homes.”

Comment: in olden times caring was optional. Now, you will be made to care.

California Faces Pushback From Towns on Sanctuary State Law
OC Residents against the sanctuary state law.(OC Register)
See the women and non-white men--looks like America!
Orange County officials on Tuesday voted to condemn...California’s so-called sanctuary state law, which strictly limits when and how local authorities can cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Comment #1 (an imagined dialogue):
California: "You can take your Washington immigration law and shove it."
Orange County: "You can take your Sacramento immigration law and shove it."
California: "You can't because that's different."

Comment #2: before you go to war, shore up your home front first.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Final Act Begins

Elizabeth Holmes (Fortune image)
Like many followers of Bay Area tech, we were guardedly excited when we first heard about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos in 2013:
By extracting a few drops, not vials, of blood, instantly analyzing them, and charging much less for its service than a standard lab, Ms. Holmes' company threatens a vast industry that performs "6.8 billion lab tests annually in the U.S."

1) It does seem too good to be true.

2) Nevertheless, I wish Theranos were a public company; it would be perfect for the small speculative portion of my investment portfolio.
In 2015 the Wall Street Journal ran an exposé on Theranos' blood-testing technology:
the Journal’s article argued that [Theranos'] tests are not reliable, and revealed that it does only a few tests with its own devices, using other firms’ technology for most of them.
In 2016 it became clear that the technology was a will-o'-the-wisp, and Theranos' estimated value (it had not gone public) plunged to zero.

In 2018 began the final act ("the Reckoning"):
It now turns out that Ms Holmes’s claims were deceptive, according to the SEC. She allegedly exaggerated her startup’s capabilities. Theranos only reliably performed a dozen of the 200 tests it offered with its own technology. It also lied about its portfolio of clients. For example, investors were told that its technology had been used by the American military on the battlefield, when it had only been used in studies; and that it was poised to be rolled out by a grocery chain even when the deal had collapsed. The financial figures were apparently concocted, too. Ms Holmes told one investor that Theranos had $108m in revenue in 2014; the real figure was $100,000.
Elizabeth Holmes has been fined $500,000 by the SEC and prohibited from being an officer of any public company for ten years. The story--a self-made female entrepreneur disrupts an industry and becomes a billionaire, she was a college dropout like Steve Jobs and even wore black turtle necks like Steve Jobs---didn't play out as expected. Alas, we were the victims of our own desire.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Getting Off From Of Social Media

(From Saida Online)
Divorce lawyer James Sexton offers another reason to get off of Facebook--it tempts you to cheat on your partner: [bold added]
Facebook is the single greatest breeding ground ever for infidelity. Nothing that has come before — not swingers’ clubs and key parties, not chat rooms, not workplace temptations, not Ashley Madison, Tinder or Grindr; no, not even porn — comes within a thousand miles. I don’t keep detailed statistics on these things, but if I had to estimate I would say I get two or three new cases per week that feature infidelity that started or was made easier to perpetuate by Facebook. [snip]

There’s a popular saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, meant to discourage people in recovery from hanging around bars: “If you sit in a barbershop long enough, eventually you’re going to get a haircut.”

Quit Facebook. You don’t need the temptation and you don’t need to create the temptation for someone else. Let the past be the past.
The internet has conferred enormous benefits, but it has made a few bad things worse.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday, 2018

We marched around the block at the start of service.
Recently there's been a lot of marching.

In January was the March for Life against abortion. This weekend was the March for our Lives against guns.

On Palm Sunday Christians of all political persuasions marched in a 2,000-year old tradition that will continue long after those evanescent issues are consigned to the dustbin of history.

We are marching, marching,
We are marching, marching,
We are marching in the light of God.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Gun Control: Going National

I've already commented enough about guns, a subject about which I have no first-hand experience (I suppose I'm lucky?). Excerpts from past posts:

I have never owned a gun. The last gun I fired was in high school ROTC, and I doubt that I'll use one again. For me owning a firearm carries too much risk of an accident, of it being stolen, or, in the worst case, of me or someone I love being tempted to use it in a moment of weakness.
February 14, 2018:
As one who has the highest respect for the Constitution but at the same time doesn't regard the right to bear arms as essential to my being, I--and I suspect many Americans--am willing to consider drastic solutions, including a ban on gun sales and even a ban on gun ownership. I think either of those goals will be too difficult to attain, but if someone can put together a plausible plan that people will get behind, let's listen.
February 17, 2018:
Gun-confiscation and banishment advocates---I meet them every day in the Bay Area---have no answer to the following questions: 1) Why would passing such a law solve the mass shooting problem, when the laws don't work in stopping illegal immigration? 2) ....Or in curing the drug epidemic? 3) Shall police invade the homes of millions of owners who refuse to turn in their guns? 4) Just what is the plan to repeal the Second Amendment, which requires the assent of 38 state legislatures?
After watching some of the demonstrations earlier today, I am convinced that some conservative blogs were correct in their assessment: Was Gun Control Rally Just A Big Voter Registration Drive?

Politicians have a habit of saying whatever it takes to get elected, then not doing what they promised. Many Republican voters were sorely disappointed that a budget bill bursting with spending on Democratic causes like Planned Parenthood and nothing for the President's southern wall was signed yesterday.

As for the Democrats, they were never more dominant than from 2009 to 2010 when they had a liberal President and a filibuster-proof Congress---and they did nothing for gun control. (Another example of Democrats placing power over principle: President Trump has said that he is willing to solve the limbo-like status of the DACA children in exchange for curtailing future illegal immigration; illegal immigrants are a source of future Democratic votes, i.e., a building block to a permanent majority, while the DACA kids are already in the Democratic camp. No surprise, the President's negotiation offer has so far been rejected.)

A final note: California has some of the most restrictive gun-control laws in the nation. Wikipedia: [bold added]
The gun laws of California are some of the most restrictive in the United States. A 5-year Firearm Safety Certificate, obtained by paying a $25 fee, submission of applicant data to the state, and passing a written test proctored by a DOJ Certified Instructor, is required for the sale, delivery, loan, or transfer of any firearm. Handguns sold by dealers must be "California legal" by being listed on the state's Roster of Handguns Certified for Sale. This roster, which requires handgun manufacturers to pay a fee and submit specific models for safety testing, has become progressively more stringent over time and is currently the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit on the basis that it is a de facto ban on new handgun models. Private sales of firearms must be done through a licensed dealer. All firearm sales are recorded by the state, and have a ten-day waiting period. Unlike most other states, California has no provision in its state constitution that explicitly guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms.

Semi-automatic firearms that the state has classified as assault weapons; .50 BMG caliber rifles; and high-capacity magazines (magazines that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition) may not be sold in California.
Despite these laws, mass shootings still occur in California (2013--Santa Monica, 5 dead; 2014--Isla Vista, 7 dead; 2015--San Bernardino, 14 dead; 2017 - Tehama County, 4 dead.)

SF March for our Lives (KTVU image)
SF Chronicle: Thousands protest in Oakland, SF to demand an end to gun violence. The demonstrators can't be talking about California, because we already have the laws that gun-controllers want (a Democratic governor with a filibuster-proof Democratic legislature can do whatever they please). Maybe California's doing so great we want to go national?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Particularly Vexing

(Chronicle illustration by John Blanchard)
With all the other important events (stock market drop, gun control demonstrations, Federal budget signing, North Korea, possible trade war) that the Chronicle could cover, your humble blogger was surprised to see the Friday headline Alarming Study of Garbage Patch. [bold added]
The giant mass of floating plastic that has imperiled birds and wildlife between San Francisco and Hawaii contains 1.8 trillion pieces of trash covering an area nearly four times the size of California....

A team of scientists from the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, based in the Netherlands, said the debris field, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covers about 618,000 square miles of deep ocean and weighs 80,000 metric tons.
Two years ago we commented how scientists weren't certain about how much this massive plastic garbage heap could affect human health. Furthermore, there was some evidence that sunlight and bacteria were degrading "micro-plastic" particles, making the pollution less permanent than had been believed.

Despite greater awareness plastic trash is growing "exponentially."
Researchers said that will continue to grow exponentially unless drastic measures are taken to reduce the proliferation of plastic garbage and litter back on land, and to prevent it from flowing out storm drains into waterways that lead to the ocean.

The huge sprawl of junk is particularly vexing to environmentalists in San Francisco and other eco-friendly population centers in California, where much of the debris probably originated.
More and more of our store-bought food and goods are sealed in plastic. And we wrap our non-recyclable trash in plastic bags--easier to carry and less messy--and dispose of them in the proper receptacle. It's no surprise that plastic waste from California continues to pour into the Pacific.

Hey, but we banned plastic bags at the supermarket. Give us a medal.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Not Taught About Much

The Wall Street Journal's intrusive, irritating pop-up afflicts subscribers daily.
When website memberships were new, I furnished the minimum information necessary to gain access; often it was just a name, which could be a pseudonym, and an email address.

I was more forthcoming with Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes, which required real credit cards, names, and addresses, but when the requests became more intrusive, say with a birth date, I left it blank if it would let me, or inserted a fake birthdate.

Lately I've been declining to join any website that wants more than basic contact information. That means no rewards clubs for restaurants, hotels, and other merchants, even those that are frequented often.

A number of websites are always displaying nagging pop-ups to "complete [my] profile". Now, given the revelations about how personal data has been used, I am glad not to have filled out the forms.

But there's no outrage. Facebook and other sites are not subject to strict privacy laws (in America, not Europe) like financial institutions, hospitals, or the IRS, which demand sensitive information while providing necessary services. Social media members voluntarily provided Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. with personal information and posted trip photos. Control was lost once the file was uploaded.

The source of much of this mess was boastfulness and pride, in other words users' look-at-me-ism. The ancients considered pride to be the deadliest of the sins, but they aren't taught about much any more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Less Steak, More Spam

Whether he planned it or not, recent economic developments have helped Donald Trump in his battle with coastal elites.
  • One source of wealth, high-end real estate, will stop increasing and may even fall. The Tax Cut and Jobs Act reduces the deductions for state and local taxes and for mortgage interest. The elimination of these tax subsidies may well cool off the overheated real estate market in New York and California.
  • The drop in the stock market, whether due to the threat of a trade war, Facebook's woes, higher interest rates, political uncertainty, or all of the above, hammers the other major source of wealth for the coastal elites.
  • It's ironic that these developments will reduce the stark economic wealth inequality of the coasts versus middle America much more than occurred under President Obama, yet Donald Trump will never get a smidgeon of credit from progressives.

    Related: it's time for Costco's semi-annual sale on Spam, so I picked up a package. Less steak, more spam--time to watch my pennies.
  • Tuesday, March 20, 2018

    The Dam is Breaking

    TWTR: We've had a nice run for two years, but it's time to take profits.
    I don't trade stocks based on daily events, but this time I'm making an exception. I sold my 2-year investment in Twitter stock on Monday.

    Having missed out on Facebook (I thought in 2012 that its IPO valuation was pricey at $100 billion--owning FB would make sense if the company was worth a crazy $200 billion by 2015, now it's north of $500 billion!), I did buy some Twitter in March, 2016, at $15.95 per share as an entrée to social media investing.

    TWTR had continually disappointed analysts since its 2013 IPO at $26 per share. I rationalized the purchase by thinking that it did not have much further to fall; if it continued to under-perform someone would buy it for its brand recognition. Whatever the reason, it's been a happy ride to $36.80 last week.

    Then the dam broke. Facebook has been called on the carpet by media and government officials not only because data on millions of users was "harvested" by the Trump campaign but also for allowing outside companies access to that data as well. Congressional hearings have been called, and its clear that both Democrats and Republicans are gunning for the social-media giant, albeit for different reasons which we won't get into here. The selling wave affected all social-media stocks, including Twitter.

    There will undoubtedly be a lot of Congressional grandstanding over the next few months. There will be calls to regulate internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google. None of this will be good for those stocks, whatever one believes about their growth prospects.

    I was happy to sell Twitter at $33.14 and will look to buying it back if it goes under $30.

    Monday, March 19, 2018

    Going Full Carb

    On the way back to the Bay Area I stopped for a jolt of caffeine. Next to Starbucks was a bake shop with the intriguing name BAD Bakers. Naturally, I had to check it out.

    BAD (Bread and Doughnuts) Bakers offers discounts on orders of a half-dozen pastries or more. I ordered six of their $3 cronuts for $15, and five managed to survive on the trip to Foster City.

    BAD Bakers does not cater to the health-food crowd. Unlike stores that offer sugar-free versions of their products, it provides syringes to add sugar to the cronuts. The cashier said that the frosting could be injected into the buns' hollow pockets, which I did later that night.

    If you're going to carb, you may as well go full carb.

    Sunday, March 18, 2018

    Small-Town Church

    It's been a rough week with the deaths of two elderly relatives and last night's chauffeuring of a friend to ER. I went to bed at two, woke at six, and knew that it was futile to try to get back to sleep.

    So I decided to go to a local church. A priest once told me that there were only two types of prayer--help me, help me, help me and thank you, thank you, thank you; this Sunday it was an occasion for both.

    Five minutes late for the 8 A.M. service I thought I would sneak in. No luck.

    Both members of the congregation rose to introduce themselves, as did the lady minister. That's what I get for going to a small-town church where strangers can't hide in the back.

    The community garden, where you don't need to be a
    church member to plant a patch of land.

    At 8:15 a.m. the morning sun shone through the red-glass cross above the altar and created a halo around the minister's head. Ten minutes later, when I took the picture (right, top), the sun had moved and the moment had passed.

    A young family arrived even later than I. The kids ran around the altar while the minister celebrated Holy Communion. The Episcopal Church has loosened the liturgy quite a bit over the decades, but this was the most relaxed that I had seen.

    I chatted with the grey-haired parishioners after the service. They said that couples with children have started coming. Attendance is growing, unlike most Episcopal churches in Northern California.

    I hope they have room for old-timers. The next time I'm in the area I'll stop by again.

    Saturday, March 17, 2018

    The Need Appeared Genuine

    The ER waiting area on a Saturday night
    A friend of ours is on a tight budget. And she's possibly hypochondriacal---though having witnessed supposedly mild diseases and injuries cascade catastrophically in the aged, I'm beginning to feel that way, too.

    She said that she had a pain in her abdomen--on her left side, so it wasn't appendicitis--and needed to go to the Sutter Hospital emergency room.

    From Safeway in Sacto: Dinner
    and snacks for the trip back
    No, an ambulance was too expensive, and she had trouble activating Lyft, which her Medicare Advantage plan said they would pay for if she could only figure out how to use it. Her siblings lived outside California, and, having moved a year ago, she had no friends nearby.

    I packed an overnight bag. Our friend lived near Sacramento, 2½ hours away. True, I'm easily manipulated, but the need appeared genuine.

    Arriving, I asked how she was feeling. The pain wasn't crippling.

    She walked me through the instructions on how to take care of her dog and small animals in case the doctors wanted to keep her overnight. She kept using the phrase "if I should die", which seemed overwrought since she was moving about her house with twice as much energy as I. All the same, the prospect of tending to her pets long-term added fervor to my appeals to the Healer in the Sky.

    At Sutter Hospital my friend 1) waited an hour, 2) gave blood and urine samples, 3) waited another hour, 4) had her abdomen scanned, 5) waited some more, and 6) was released after a final interview . The diagnosis was dehydration and constipation. All told, she was very lucky. The entire process took five hours, and the doctors didn't find anything that merited hospitalization.

    She disagreed with the diagnosis. She assured me that she wasn't constipated. You should see a gastroenterologist, and you should get a colonoscopy. (She had had a bad experience with one years ago and had never been back.) Okay, but the procedure is much easier nowadays. Please think about it.

    I am not eager to repeat this experience, but if she does have a colonoscopy I'll drive up to take her.

    Friday, March 16, 2018

    If at First You Don't Succeed, Lie, Lie Again

    (No, this post isn't about politics.)

    One of the latest trends in fraud is to create fictitious people to take out loans. How can this happen in the age of Big Data, i.e., when large companies know more and more information about everybody? [bold added]
    (WSJ graphic)
    Synthetic-identity fraud exploits a vulnerability in America’s consumer-credit system. Lenders often consider a loan applicant legitimate if the applicant has a credit report at Equifax Inc., TransUnion or Experian PLC. But a new “credit file”—essentially a precursor to a credit report—often gets created when someone simply applies, even if the loan doesn’t come through.

    Some lenders approve loans after reviewing credit files, which helps turn those files into full credit reports. That’s how a fictitious person, or 300 fictional people, can end up with a credit card.
    Crooks know that the first application will be rejected, but it will allow the fake identity to get into the system and maybe some business-hungry lender will approve the next application.

    Three comments:
    1) The consumer-credit business is much less secure than other lending. Recently I've helped shepherd two real-estate deals through closure; in both cases the loans were under $500,000, the borrower's equity was 25-50%, the document requests were voluminous (tax returns, W-2's, brokerage statements, and balance sheets with questions about every line item), and numerous phone calls between borrowers and lenders.
    2) Financial institutions who make personal loans to fake people deserve the consequences. No bailouts for them!
    3) Fake identities are better than stolen identities. At least no consumers were directly harmed.

    Thursday, March 15, 2018

    Getting in the Way

    Time personalizes the cost of America's immigration crackdown through its cover story. It's not an extremely partisan piece, but by telling the stories of families who are broken up--especially kids who are left behind--the reader can't help but feel sympathy for them.

    The undocumented communities live in fear ("an explosion of fear"--I didn't say the article had no bias):
    Don’t go to the Walmart, an ICE truck was seen parked nearby. Plainclothes agents are watching the park. In a phone interview from Mexico, Alejandro told me that many of his old friends now avoid leaving the house, limiting necessary errands to blitzes after dark, when agents are thought to be less active. Sitting in a folding chair on the patio outside her home, Maria describes a similar drumbeat of distress. She doesn’t use the word miedo, fear, but a more visceral term: pavor. Dread.
    Advocates for the undocumented, IMHO, can lessen the dread by brokering a deal with the Trump Administration. By encouraging local authorities to cooperate with ICE and hand over undocumented criminals from local jails, ICE would agree to greatly reduce its community raids. (Of course, this would mean gutting the notion of sanctuary cities and states.) But if that hypothetical deal succeeds, we can talk about building a wall and formalizing a path to citizenship for the Dreamers.

    The outlines for a deal or deals are there, but I suppose people are letting their anger and moral superiority (not obvious to this blogger, by the way) get in the way.

    Wednesday, March 14, 2018

    Ready or Not, Here (Will Be How) We Go

    (Illustration from Stanford Alumni Magazine)
    Much like the automobile was in 1900, self-driving cars in 2018 are a curiosity. However, those who are involved in the research (major car companies, universities, and tech giants, not to mention Uber and Lyft) say that we are on the verge of a dramatic societal transformation:
    Babies born today won’t ever need a driver’s license....
    • Only 20 percent of Americans will own a car in 15 years.
    • Passenger vehicles on American roads will drop from 247 million in 2020 to 44 million in 2030.
    • Driverless technology will transform many, if not most, modes of transportation: trucks, tractors, ships, forklifts, trains, construction equipment.
    • Transportation costs will drop to about 20 cents a mile, at which point everyone will have affordable access to road travel. (That’s about a threefold decline, according to a 2017 AAA report.)
    Disruption may be too mild a descriptor for what is happening to our means of transportation. How we get from here to there is not merely a convenience, but rather has the potential to affect poverty levels, social standing, our daily human interactions, cultural norms and even life span, according to Stanford scientists and researchers.

    On the one hand, self-driving cars could democratize transportation, making independent travel possible for many who lack it, including people who are blind, disabled, young, old or poor. Prognosticators also expect reductions in pollution, traffic, collisions and the cost of getting around, and an increase in green space as the demand for parking lots declines.

    But skeptics worry that the adoption of driverless cars will eliminate too many jobs and give hackers a new way to attack, even possibly turning cars into lethal weapons. As the debate unfolds, autonomous vehicles are hitting the road in droves. Ready or not, say experts, here they come.
    Autonomous vehicles, robots who are smarter, faster, and stronger than we, Mars colonies, and the elimination of disease and the ravages of age---we are rushing pell-mell into a future that is barely imaginable.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2018

    Back to the Universe

    A bargain even in 2001: 2 Hawking books plus pictures at a cost of $9.99.
    Pi is an irrational number (3.14159265.... goes on forever to the right of the decimal point without repeating a sequence), and it's somehow fitting that one of the leading examples of human rationality, physicist Stephen Hawking, died on "Pi Day" (3.14) in England.

    I took a crack at his best-seller, A Brief History of Time, when it first came out in 1988 but didn't have the discipline to read it (skimming a technical text is not considered reading, by the way). I had better luck in 2001 when it was reissued with pictures and diagrams. Here is an excerpt from the chapter entitled The Arrow of Time:
    In a quantum theory of gravity, as we saw in the last chapter, in order to specify the state of the universe one would still have to say how the possible histories of the universe would behave at the boundary of space-time in the past. One could avoid this difficulty of having to describe what we do not and cannot know only if the histories satisfy the no boundary condition: they are finite in extent but have no boundaries, edges, or singularities. In that case, the beginning of time would be a regular, smooth point of space-time and the universe would have begun its expansion in a very smooth and ordered state. It could not have been completely uniform, because that would violate the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. There had to be small fluctuations in the density and velocities of particles. The no boundary condition, however, implied that these fluctuations were as small as they could be, consistent with the uncertainty principle.

    The universe would have started off with a period of exponential or "inflationary" expansion in which it would have increased its size by a very large factor. During this expansion, the density fluctuations would have remained small at first, but later would have started to grow. Regions in which the density was slightly higher than average would have had their expansion slowed down by the gravitational attraction of the extra mass. Eventually, such regions would stop expanding and collapse to form galaxies, stars, and beings like us. The universe would have started in a smooth and ordered state, and would become lumpy and disordered as time went on. This would explain the existence of the thermodynamic arrow of time.
    The above passage may be somewhat abstruse, but by the time the reader encounters it on page 191 Professor Hawking has already discussed thermodynamics, space-time, quantum mechanics, gravity, and the origin of the universe, all prerequisites to this discussion. He was a brilliant theoretician, writer, and teacher. R.I.P.

    “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist,” Hawking said of the meaning of life. “Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at.”

    Monday, March 12, 2018

    Like a Fox

    WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan, not an anti-Trump conservative, tries to put her finger on the ambivalence that many Republicans have about their leader.

    First, the positives from a Republican point of view: [bold added]
    [President Trump] has established in his government a deregulatory spirit that is fair and helpful....excessive regulation, especially when it springs from ideological animus or practical ignorance, kills progress, growth, jobs, good ideas and products.

    Mr. Trump has put a sober conservative on the Supreme Court, and many conservative judges on the lower courts. This provides greater balance in the judiciary. In a split country, split courts—balance—is probably the best we can do.

    The economy is improving. And Mr. Trump helped pass a tax bill that was better—maybe a little, maybe a lot, but certainly better—than what it replaced.

    Not bad for a first year in office!
    The negatives, however, are hard to brush off:
    You look at his White House and see what appears to be epic instability, mismanagement and confusion. You see his resentments and unpredictability. You used to think he’s surrounded by solid sophisticates, but they’re leaving. He’s unserious— Vladimir Putin says his missiles can get around any U.S. defense, and Mr. Trump is tweeting about Alec Baldwin. He careens around—he has big congressional meetings that are like talk shows where he’s the host, and he says things that are both soft and tough and you think Hmmm, maybe that’s a way through, but the next day it turns out it was only talk. This has been done on the Dreamers, on guns and we’ll see about tariffs. He loves chaos—he brags about this—but it isn’t strategic chaos in pursuit of ends, it’s purposeless disorder for the fun of it. We are not talking about being colorfully, craftily unpredictable, as political masters like FDR and Reagan sometimes were, but something more unfortunate, an unhinged or not-fully-hinged quality that feels like screwball tragedy.
    To summarize, in 13 words, "On some level this is working. And on some level he is crazy."

    The nub of her worry [bold added]:
    Crazy doesn’t last. Crazy doesn’t go the distance. Crazy is an unstable element that, when let loose in an unstable environment, explodes.
    I may be whistling past the graveyard, but I am not as concerned as she is. Here's an alternative narrative, some of which may be true!

    A lifetime in the public eye has enabled Mr. Trump to perfect his public persona, which is the following: he's a bully; he makes impulsive decisions, and he says what's on the top of his mind without thinking of the consequences. He doesn't appreciate the seriousness with which everyone takes the words of the American President. The staff turnover indicates that people who have seen him up close for just a few months can't stand him.

    Yet while the media and political opposition obsess over Russia! Russia! Russia! and the Trump insult of the day (North Korea, immigrants, s******e countries, Mexico, China, Sweden, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin, the list goes on and on and on), his Administration chugs along, ruthlessly pruning regulations, lowering taxes, and appointing judges. If the public persona were reality, very little would have been done.

    The impulsive shoot-from-the-lip President has puzzlingly refrained from talking about two key longer-term projects: the counter-Mueller investigation, led by the recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions, of powerful government agencies that spied on the Trump campaign, and the slow-motion strangulation of North Korea.

    Last week there was near-universal condemnation of the upcoming tariffs by allies, Republicans, Wall Street, and economics professors. A few days later, after the meeting with Kim Jong Un was announced, other experts weighed in on how our Dealmaker-in-Chief will be taken to the cleaners by the 34-year-old dictator.

    Just a question, chicken littles: could these moves be related? The tariffs are clearly aimed at China, which for decades has viewed the United States as a pitiful, helpless giant in trade negotiations. The falling markets, reinforced by Mr. Trump's public persona, believe that this time the American President means business about Chinese dumping.

    What if Mr. Trump is using tariffs as a bargaining chip in the North Korea negotiations? What if, in exchange for Chinese help in de-nuclearizing Korea, he relaxes or removes them? Without having tariffs in the first place the United States can't apply pressure to China, so the President took the hit now in order to strengthen his hand for the Korean talks.

    Of course, what do I know? Peggy Noonan is probably right: he's crazy.

    Sunday, March 11, 2018

    Springing Forward

    This morning the clock sprung forward and we "lost an hour." The church administrator had thoughtfully assigned me ushering and layreading duties on the one Sunday when slothful me would have really liked to sleep in (no, Jesus, I'm just joking and happy to be of service).

    Attendance was below average, but well within the margin of error---I've forgotten what that means but it sounds STEM-related and professorial. Later that day, availing myself of the Sunday Loophole, it was time to eat and drink everything that I'd been abstaining from during Lent.

    I stopped by the local 99 Ranch Market and picked up some sweet and fatty items suitable for Lent-breaking. Fortified by a couple of glasses of pinot noir, I was ready for the week.

    99 Ranch Market's duck tongues and duck heads---tempting, but I'll pass.

    Saturday, March 10, 2018

    As Easy as Predicting the Sun Will Rise in the East:

    If the project doesn't get much further, historians of the future
    will wonder why we spent billions connecting Fresno (pop
    500,000) with Bakersfield (pop 400,000) (Chronicle photo)
    I would say I told you so, but this was as easy as predicting the sun will rise in the East: California high-speed rail project facing more delays, higher costs. [bold added]
    The middle-of-the-road estimate is $77 billion, according to the draft report, which will now undergo public comment and legislative scrutiny....

    The bullet train’s most recent cost estimate was $64 billion, which was already double the original $32 billion price tag that was pitched to state voters when they authorized bond money for the project nearly a decade ago. The rail authority said it hopes to finish the full line by 2033, a delay from the most recent estimate of 2029.
    We derided the project when we first heard about it in 2012. By 2013 and 2015 it had gotten more delayed and more expensive. IMHO, the new estimates are optimistic.

    I'd bet money on this: we will put a human being on Mars before anyone travels from LA to SF on high-speed rail.

    BTW, here's another great moment in public transportation: At long last, Wi-Fi coming to BART, Caltrain — in 3 to 4 years. By comparison JetBlue began offering WiFi on its flights in 2013.

    The leaders of tomorrow, i.e., millennials, prefer socialism to capitalism, so we'd better get used to stories like these.

    Friday, March 09, 2018

    A Hunk of Horse is a Course, Of Course

    Economist writer Tom Rachman observes that gastronomy is bipolar.
    Ethical eaters demand local sourcing, organically raised happy animals, a low carbon footprint. Meantime, foodies jet around the world, charring meat in open fire pits, taking iPhone snapshots of their grub, consuming as decadently as possible. In this modern-day bifurcation, what of food taboos? Some dismiss them entirely; others clamour for more.
    (As an aside, contradictions like these are why middle America finds coastal elites so infuriating; the elites deplore a beef-loving, carbon-producing culture while they "jet around the world, charring meat in open fire pits.")

    Hunks of horse in Parma (Economist photo)
    The article is about eating raw horse meat, a practice that the wine-and-cheese crowd would sniff at if done by Americans, except that it has become popular in Parma (northern Italy).
    The raw variety – pesto di cavallo, or caval pist in Parma dialect – developed into a city speciality, likely inspired by tartare and the lingering French influence. Today, it’s a source of local pride, with fine restaurants such as Osteria dello Zingaro advertising its equine butcher on the door and offering “Horse Three Ways” (French tartare, a slice of roasted horse and pesto di cavallo).

    Professor Stefano Bentley of the University of Parma, a scholar of food culture, said pesto di cavallo has undergone a boom here in recent years, especially among the young.
    Give it an Italian or French name and the foodies swoon. Would you like to try a dollop of cavallo on your avocado toast, sir?

    Thursday, March 08, 2018

    You Need a Healthy Wallet and a Healthy Heart

    Construction on condos and townhouses is nearly completed on the last sizable parcel of open space in Foster City. They will sell for $1.0 million to $1.6 million, an unbelievable sum to those of us who paid (cough) well under that amount during the 20th century.

    In fact your humble blogger bought when Foster City homes sold at a discount to the rest of the Peninsula (our town was built on landfill over Brewer's Island, and houses "settled" about an inch a year, or so it was rumored).

    The developers aren't crazy. They're marketing the properties to the over-55 crowd, many of whom are trading down and may even be buying without taking out a loan.

    We don't have a hospital, though, so don't get a heart attack during rush hour when it takes an hour to go across the freeway.

    Homes on the lagoon cost over $2 million.

    Wednesday, March 07, 2018

    Quotation Marks Can Be Helpful

    Time headline: Scientists Found More Than a Million Rare Penguins in Antarctica

    Suggested edit: Scientists Found More Than a Million "Rare" Penguins in Antarctica
    The Adélie penguin supercolony (NY Times photo)
    A previously unknown “supercolony” of more than 1.5 million penguins has been discovered by scientists in the Danger Islands, a chain of nine islands located off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula....

    The team proceeded to count the number of birds by hand and used a modified commercial quadcopter drone to take images of the entire island from above, to help locate penguin nests that have gone undetected for decades. They counted 751,527 pairs of penguins in total.
    As an auditor I counted tons of walnuts, prunes, seeds, blooms and slabs, all for different clients, of course. And I did it while wearing a suit! And I used a notepad with a clipboard! (geezer)

    In every profession one has to pay one's dues.

    Tuesday, March 06, 2018

    That Funny Smell

    The results of a scientific study seem to be tailor-made for political comedy:
    If you hate bad body odour, you’re more likely to support Trump
    (Image from Daily Mail)
    Italian scientist Marco Liuzza theorized that people who came from regions rife with disease were especially sensitive to bad smells. This physical aversion would lead them to have "right-wing authoritarian views" that tend to reject foreign people and unfamiliar ideas. [bold added]
    Members of the team have developed a body-odour disgust scale (BODS). This is based on asking volunteers a series of questions about different scenarios, such as noticing that a friend’s feet smell. From this it can be established how strongly, on a scale of one to five, a person reacts to bad smells...

    The volunteers completed the BODS questionnaire and others that gauged the extent to which they sympathised with certain authoritarian views (“Our country needs a powerful leader, in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today”, for instance) and with more socially, fiscally or morally conservative views. The researchers found that those scoring highly on the BODS scale did indeed hold more authoritarian views. They found no such correlation between the BODS score and more broadly conservative opinions.
    (Note, dear reader, that authoritarianism and conservatism 1) are two different things and 2) were not correlated.)

    So why hasn't this study been more publicized by TV news that is 91% negative to Donald Trump? The jokes write themselves---Trump voters held their nose and voted for him, they sniff at coastal elites, etc.

    However, rejoinders are easy: Progressives stink, Occupy Wall Street was so offensive that it was closed due to health reasons, etc.

    Could the solution be this simple? Americans wouldn't be so divided if they used more deodorant.

    Monday, March 05, 2018


    At least March was better than February (Chronicle image)
    The big storm that we anticipated last week didn't exactly fizzle, but it was disappointing.
    California’s all-important snowpack measured 39 percent of average for the date at Phillips Station in El Dorado County, the state’s traditional survey spot south of Lake Tahoe, while snowpack statewide measured 37 percent of average.
    The good news is that stored water from last year's storms should allow for normal consumption in 2018.
    California’s reservoirs remain at average levels for this time of year because of last winter’s bounty, state water officials said. The supply is enough for most communities to weather the year, even if there aren’t any more big storms.
    I'd much rather spend the tens of billions about to be wasted on the high-speed rail project (that will be finished in 2030, they say) on water storage. HSR will be used by thousands of travelers while the latter will benefit 40 million Californians.

    As the President suggested in his State of the Union speech, I can dream, too.

    Sunday, March 04, 2018

    Diet, Exercise, and Pray

    (Graphic from Brainy Quote)
    After the Florida school shooting on Valentine's Day impassioned protestors marched on the State legislature in Tallahassee. Statements like these were typical. [bold added]
    We’ve had enough of thoughts and prayers. If you supported us, you would have made a change long ago. So this is to every lawmaker out there: No longer can you take money from the NRA. We are coming after you. We are coming after every single one of you, demanding that you take action.”
    No, this is not a post about gun control or gun rights; it's about prayer.

    Denigrating prayer is, er, all the rage these days, especially by those who don't engage in it much. Your humble blogger prays at least once a week--in church on Sunday!--and has grown up with the tradition of saying grace before meals and to pray as soon as I can for those in extremis.

    Prayer is a worthless undertaking if there is no One listening at the other end. And even if there is a One, he/she/it may not answer, or answer in the way we want. So what good is it?

    Prayer seems to be good for one's health. [bold added]
    A number of studies have shown associations between attending religious services and living a long time. One of the most comprehensive, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, found that women who went to any kind of religious service more than once a week had a 33% lower chance than their secular peers of dying during the 16-year study-follow-up period. Another study, published last year in PLOS One, found that regular service attendance was linked to reductions in the body’s stress responses and even in mortality–so much so that worshippers were 55% less likely to die during the up to 18-year follow-up period than people who didn’t frequent the temple, church or mosque.

    ...prayer has been shown to be powerful, in at least one way. It triggers the relaxation response, a state of mind-body rest that has been shown to decrease stress, heart rate and blood pressure; alleviate chronic disease symptoms; and even change gene expression. This state is typically linked to activities like meditation and yoga, and research suggests it can also be found through praying.
    For the overwhelming majority of people who don't have the misfortune of being in an airplane crash or a school shooting or a raging firestorm, prayer seems to increase the odds of a longer life, specifically 33% to 55% higher. The science is settled.

    Cynics may say that prayer was not helpful to the 17 people who died in the 2018 Valentine's Day massacre. Putting aside the question of how many of those murdered prayed during their last moments and whether their prayers were helpful in a spiritual reality that may exist, the rest of the 3,000 students at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School did live.

    How many of the 99.4% who survived prayed also? How many think that their prayers were answered? Have they come to some decisions about the rest of their lives? Are they enraged or grateful or both (though anger and gratitude don't often co-exist)?

    I'd like to hear more from the silent survivors, but I doubt that we will, because to reveal any thoughts or emotions that deviate at all from the current angry narrative opens oneself up to social opprobrium, and no high-school kid needs that.

    Saturday, March 03, 2018

    Peak Google?

    YouTube founders Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, Jawed Karim
    News item: a lawsuit claims that YouTube has frozen the hiring of white or Asian males for engineering positions.
    Last spring, YouTube recruiters were allegedly instructed to cancel interviews with applicants who weren’t female, black or Hispanic, and to “purge entirely” the applications of people who didn’t fit those categories, the lawsuit claims.
    Larry Page and Sergey Brin
    Without white or Asian males YouTube would not have been founded or invented.

    And the same goes for Google, the second most valuable company in the world. (Google owns YouTube.)

    Friday, March 02, 2018

    Fake Cosmology

    (Photo from the Indie Spiritualist)
    I don't think--but am not absolutely sure--that this is a parody from the Onion.

    Quantum physicist Amit Goswami (his name itself invites skepticism) said: “We Honestly Have No F*****g Idea What We’re Doing”.

    We have been just winging it to tell you the truth...Seriously, I haven’t a clue what’s going on. Either does anyone else in my field. We keep proving stuff that never actually happened...

    Over the years there have been just a handful of us pretending to know something about the universe that no one else does, but this is all lies to feed the charade. I’ve had some great times during the years; travelling the world, and giving talks on our pretend finds...

    I found out a long time ago that everything can be proven with a mathematical equation. Now, I mean everything; from unicorns, fire-breathing dragons, God and even the G-spot. None of it is true. Me and the handful that know the truth have been riding the Quantum Physicist celebrity wave for quite some time now, but it must end – before someone gets hurt.
    Quantum physics has always been unfathomable to common folk with assertions like:
    1) a cat can be both dead and alive;
    2) particles separated by vast distances can "spookily" affect each other instantaneously.
    3) light is both a wave and a particle.

    (By Sam Hollingsworth)
    An old saw, but true: when somebody with knowledge and authority tells you something that doesn't make sense, don't accept it unquestioningly.

    Now that everything's on the table, I personally am intrigued by a cosmological idea rumored to originate from Dr. Goswami's native country: it's turtles all the way down.

    Thursday, March 01, 2018

    Tiny Victory

    SF Chronicle photo of Delon Terrance Barker
    In early February I cited daytime car smash-and-grabs as one reason why San Francisco would be unlivable (for me). Well, the police caught the guy in the photograph.
    Police were able to identify him as Delon Terrance Barker, a 21-year-old resident of [Fairfield] who’s familiar to law enforcement...

    A car break-in suspect in San Francisco actually arrested? The chances of that are 1.6 percent. No, really. That was the arrest rate last year in San Francisco, which saw car break-ins skyrocket, with more than 30,000 reported to police.
    Three comments: 1) I'm glad they caught him. 2) The police need to have quite a few more well-publicized arrests before bad guys' behavior is affected. 3) Delon Terrance Barker is really, really unlucky to have broken into a car when the Chronicle photographer was watching.