Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Know When to Sell

The top Dow stock, Apple rose 86% in 2019. It blew away the indexes, which rose an impressive 22%-34%.
It always happens. Whenever your humble investor takes profits, the stock price continues to go up after the sale.

A scant two months ago I sold Apple (AAPL) at $255. It had already had a marvelous bull run in 2019 (it was at $142.19 on 1/3/2019). Today AAPL closed at $293.65.

Apple still comprises the largest holding in my portfolio, so i'm not really disappointed. Just greedy, and we know what happens to pigs on Wall Street.

Here's hoping that we all have chances to be a pig in 2020, and may we exercise good judgment when the opportunities present themselves.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Please Don't Lean Against It

(abcnews photo)
Willie Brown:
And while you’re out there, be sure to check out the giant Christmas tree on the fourth floor of the Westfield San Francisco Centre.

I’ve seen a lot of big Christmas trees in my time, but this the first one that’s upside down.
Upside-down trees are not just for expensive displays. What started as an upscale affectation has moved down market:
[Home Depot] sells artificial upside-down trees ranging from $79.99 to just under $300.

"People are really gravitating toward them now and putting them in their homes because it's fun and exciting for people looking for something different. People who buy it say it showcases their home and when friends walk in it's a conversation starter," Charles explained.
Fans of living trees will have to pass on this trend. Getting mud and water all over one's floor and presents doesn't make for a jolly holiday.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Sandwiches on the Last Sunday

On the unofficial "low" Sunday after Christmas and before New Year's Day (technically Low Sunday is the Sunday after Easter) we didn't know how many helpers would be present for Sandwiches on Sunday.

Not to worry--our regulars brought friends, and we had 18 volunteers to serve and clean up.

At Sandwiches on Sunday churches and other non-profits serve lunch every Sunday at a community center in Redwood City.

70 diners came, and after second helpings of lasagna and salad the rest of the food was taken home in containers.

As they exited, each person received at least one brown-bag lunch of sandwich, fruit, and cookies prepared by St. Pius Catholic Church of Redwood City.

After they had cleaned and locked up, several of our new volunteers said that they found the experience meaningful and would like to come back. Yes, sometimes, unexpectedly, one receives more than one gives.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

California Blamin'

No surprise: homelessness is growing nationwide. Perhaps a surprise: homelessness is falling in a "majority" of states. The Chronicle editorial board faces facts: [bold added]
From Dec. 16: homeless camp in Santa Rosa
the entire national increase and more can be attributed to California alone.

With a majority of states experiencing decreases in homelessness over the past year and only one small state, New Mexico, suffering a larger proportionate increase, California’s dire statistics underscore the extent to which state and local policies drive an extraordinary and persistent failure to shelter the equivalent of a midsize city...

While the nation’s homeless population remains about 10% lower than it was a decade ago, California’s has expanded more than 22% in that time.
Your humble blogger expects that California will blame President Trump for its homelessness problems, as it has done for wildfires, drought, and mass shootings.

Why national policies cause homelessness in California, but not in other states, is indeed a puzzle, but I'm sure we'll find reasons why it's not our fault.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Brutalism: Not Ready for Revival

Geisel Library, UCSD (WSJ photo)
Not so brutal in the San Diego sun.

"Brutalist" architecture is enjoying a mini-revival: [bold added]
Brutalism, the oft-derided architectural style of blockish buildings and naked concrete, is making a comeback. Fans have mobilized on social media, and there are waiting lists for apartment buildings once dubbed eyesores...

Architectural styles fall into and out of fashion, but few have been as controversial as Brutalism. It flourished in the post World War II period of public-housing construction and tight budgets. It was known for gray concrete, no decoration and severe geometric lines. Boston City Hall and the Geisel Library in San Diego are frequently cited U.S. examples. Latin America abounds with such buildings.
1) Brutalism has a powerful association with decrepit housing projects and government buildings in run-down areas.
2) Well-maintained brutalist structures, e.g., UCSD's Geisel Library and Boston City Hall, still are attractive.
3) After enough buildings are torn down, the negative associations are likely to be forgotten.
4) A more pronounced revival will have to wait until this generation--the one with the bad associations and all the money--passes from the scene.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Feeling Better Already

View south from Foster City:  Oracle HQ, Redwood Shores
For the first time in memory I didn't attend services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

A bad cold, though not incapacitating, made it unwise to risk infecting other worshippers.

Besides, one of the joys of Christmas is belting out the familiar carols; a horrid croaking does not harmonize with the music of the spheres.

'Twas a gray and cold Christmas; nevertheless a stroll along the Bay Trail for a few minutes was refreshing. I felt better already.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

(I'm so old that I remember when the piece was sometimes introduced as the "Carol of the Drum.")

Pentatonix jazzes up Little Drummer Boy but also harks back to the original 1941 composition in which voices simulated the drum-like rhythms.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Twenty Years Ago


In the late 1990's my former employer could draw on a talent pool of more than 200 people to put together a decent holiday choir. The grainy video (VHS tape) and monaural audio won't attract any hits today, but Christmas is a time of nostalgic sentimentality...

Note: here are parts Two, Three, and Four.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Held Up Very Well

(Image from Smithsonian Magazine)
The first Christmas card was created by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. The Londoner was facing the daunting task of answering "stacks" of holiday correspondence.
He approached an artist friend, J.C. Horsley, and asked him to design an idea that Cole had sketched out in his mind. Cole then took Horsley’s illustration—a triptych showing a family at table celebrating the holiday flanked by images of people helping the poor—and had a thousand copies made by a London printer. The image was printed on a piece of stiff cardboard 5 1/8 x 3 1/4 inches in size. At the top of each was the salutation, “TO:_____” allowing Cole to personalize his responses, which included the generic greeting “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year To You.”
The themes have proved to be durable: family, charity, conviviality, and a simple "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year", with no religious or commercial messaging. After 176 years and many variations, the original design seems humdrum, but when you think about it, it's held up very well.

Note: the local angle is that John Crichton of San Francisco owns one of the few surviving copies of the card and is lending it to the Charles Dickens Museum in London.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Religious Delusion

Economics professor Walter E. Block distinguishes
  • good capitalism (freedom with property rights),
  • bad capitalism (crony capitalism),
  • good socialism (monastery, kibbutz, commune, and family); and
  • bad socialism ("Venezuela, East Germany, Maoist China and the U.S.S.R.").

    WSJ letter writers were quick to pounce upon Professor Block's efforts to find a pony somewhere in socialism. Excerpts: [bold added]
    The only “good” socialism Prof. Block cites involves voluntary arrangements among small groups of people, such as in convents, cooperatives or even families, in which members know each other and feel accountable to the group. Today’s debate about socialism and capitalism, however, takes place at the country level, not at the level of the kibbutz or commune, and there are no countries in which socialism has worked on a large scale. At the country level, capitalism works and socialism doesn’t—ever.

    Prof. Block says convents, Jesuit seminaries and kibbutzim are examples of successful socialism. But how many of their members were dragged in by a majority vote? I have chosen not to join a convent or Jesuit seminary or kibbutz. When the votes are counted in the 2020 election, will I be allowed to decline membership in Sens. Sanders’s or Warren’s socialist state?
    The Episcopal Monastery in Santa Barbara will close
    in 2021 due to lack of interest.
    It has always perplexed your humble blogger why leaders of the Episcopal Church are overwhelmingly socialist. Now I have a glimmer of understanding.

    I will never forget that, when the Bishop of my Diocese recited Marx's famous "from each..to each" principle, his face became as beatific as when he read the Gospel. Perhaps the Bishop's socialism experience---and that of other clergy---consisted of the spirit of the monastery, likely to be very positive.

    It's nearly impossible to scale the monastic religious fervor necessary for socialism to work to the country level (unless you want to go the "National Socialism" route--any takers, Progressives?). The person at the DMV doesn't love us, and the food-stamp screener probably doesn't consider us a child of God but as a case number. Sure, keep the Church out of the State, but let's leave the State out of the Church as well.
  • Saturday, December 21, 2019

    SF: Bye-bye to Mom-and-Pop

    Black boxes are parking spaces lost (Chronicle)
    San Francisco's vision of the future does not include cars: [bold added]
    The San Bruno Avenue Multimodal Improvement Project will turn a scruffy neighborhood in San Francisco’s Portola district into a vision of the city’s future: wide sidewalks, short crosswalks, big “bulb-out” curbs and bus zones long enough to fit two coaches.

    Such street designs are proliferating throughout the city, pointing to a distinct political shift: Cars no longer reign supreme in San Francisco. Instead, the mayor and transportation agency are making swift transit and pedestrian safety the priority.

    In the Portola, these ideals have met stout resistance — particularly from merchants who say they will lose business when customers can’t find a place to park.
    Giannini's Barber Shop lost a quarter of its business after
    37 parking spaces were removed. (Chron photo)
    San Francisco fancies itself to be a European country village friendly to pedestrian shoppers and the occasional bicyclist. Its unceasing quest to be green also favors buses and light rail, ergo streets uncluttered by cars.

    The issue that the central planners haven't addressed is what will happen to the storefront small businesses--the restaurants, shops, hair salons, etc.--that give San Francisco its charm.

    Because enough customers do not live within walking distance, the empty storefront problem will become much worse. Certainly suburban patrons like ourselves will stop going to the City--it will be more of a hassle to park or worse, park then take a bus--to drink in the village-like ambience which is disappearing anyway.

    San Francisco ought to embrace the consequences of its master plan by allowing property owners to salvage some value by re-zoning small commercial spaces to residential. The City needs more housing anyway.

    Friday, December 20, 2019

    iPhones Then and Now

    iPhone 4 next to iPhone XS MAX
    For the iPhone's tenth anniversary there were lighthearted reviews of how the original 2007 iPhone functioned in 2017.

    WSJ technology writer Joanna Stern updated the experiment in 2019 by testing the 2010 iPhone 4. There's no question that the advanced tech confers advantages today, but there were benefits in going retro:
    there was the disappointment and anxiety when I wanted to FaceTime with my 2-year-old son but couldn’t. It seems the smartphone has in many ways eliminated the human emotion of missing people. It wasn’t fun, yet I have to admit that there was also something sweet, something poignant, something human about missing somebody you love...

    I ended up using a paper map and directions given to me by actual humans to get where I wanted to go. Sure, it took me 30 minutes longer to get to my destination than if I had used Google Maps. But I was thrilled to see that the part of my brain that had to link together different highways, cardinal directions and instructions from gas station attendants still worked.

    More than that, it allowed me to better visualize where I was in the physical world because I knew how I had gotten from there to here. You feel strangely grounded in a way you can’t be when you’re vacantly making turn after turn dictated by a computer. Again, it has only been a decade, but I had forgotten what that felt like.

    The best part of my only-tech-from-2010 challenge? No never-ending social-media feeds.
    It's ironic that many who turn off their pocket supercomputer feel more empowered.

    Related: a man had his smartphone stolen in 2017 and says the thieves did him a favor.

    Thursday, December 19, 2019

    The Decade Past: Remind Me Again?

    WSJ montage: I could name about 80% without looking anyone up.
    There were no World Wars or moon landings, but the past decade did have its share of memorable events that will have an impact far into the future. The WSJ's Decade in Review shows just how much happened and how much we may have forgotten.

    Every year had at least eight such items. Below is your humble blogger's entirely subjective assessment of the top three each year:

    2010: 1) iPad introduced; 2) Obamacare signed; 3) Deepwater Horizon explodes.

    2011: 1) Arab Spring; 2) Japan quake and tsunami; 3) Steve Jobs dies.

    2012: 1) Facebook IPO; 2) Xi Jinping is leader of China; 3) Obama re-elected.

    2013: 1) Pope Francis named; 2) Boston Marathon terrorism; 3) U.S. #1 energy producer

    2014: 1) Ferguson riots and verdict; 2) Malaysia Flight 370; 3) Trade with Cuba ok'ed.

    2015: 1) Gay Marriage legal; 2) Apple joins Dow; 3) Paris Accord.

    2016: 1) Brexit; 2) Trump elected; 3) 4 states approve recreational marijuana.

    2017: 1) Hurricanes Harvey and Maria; 2) New tax bill passes; 3) Harvey Weinstein resigns.

    2018: 11) Tariffs imposed; 2) North Korea diplomacy; 3) Wildfire destroys Paradise, CA.

    2019: 1) 737 MAX grounded; 2) Hong Kong protests; 3) Trump impeached (kind of).

    There is a possibility that none of the above will be regarded with importance in a few years. It may turn out that we'll all be dead from climate change by 2030 or that life extension science will enable human beings to live well past a hundred.

    But very few people are betting hard dollars as if either of those are coming to pass, and neither am I.

    Wednesday, December 18, 2019

    The Sand Pebbles (Science)

    Front-page article in the Tuesday fishwrap - "Conquer climate change by sprinkling pebbles on tropical beaches."
    Papakolea Beach, Big Island (Chron photo)
    Let's pound some green sand.
    Eric Matzner, who co-founded the nonprofit Project Vesta this year, intends to mine tons of a soft, crumbly green volcanic stone called olivine, grind it into pebbles and spread it on shorelines, coves and beaches, where the wave action will weather it down like a river sculpts gravel.

    Scientists say the process of erosion chemically alters the acidic molecules in seawater and converts carbon dioxide into bicarbonate, thereby taking the heat-trapping gases out of circulation and reversing acidification, one of the primary concerns of global warming. The more the rock breaks down, the more carbon dioxide is taken out of the sea.

    It is a natural process that is believed to occur faster in the tropics, where warmer temperatures help the dissolution process. That explains Matzner’s desire to do a trial run there.
    The potential sounds almost too good to be true:
    There is enough olivine to remove all human emissions, ever,” Matzner said. “We think this is a viable method to remove CO2 on a large scale.”
    Some conservatives believe that the whole climate-change/global-warming brouhaha is a progressive plot to have government seize control of the economy.

    Well, I don't believe it; given the stakes--the fate of the world--environmentalists should be on board with a solution like olivine pebbles or a "global sunshade" despite some side effects, e.g., a decline in agricultural production ("For agriculture, it might not work that well, but there are other sectors of the economy that could potentially benefit substantially.")

    Eliminating fossil fuels by fiat, not by choice, will shrink the economy by $trillions. The magic-bullet solutions will "only" cost in the low $billions and maybe even anti-warmists would be willing to give them a try. The goal is saving the world, not to destroy capitalism, right?

    Tuesday, December 17, 2019

    The Sand Pebbles (Film)

    (This post was going to be about another subject--see above, but the title got me to thinking about a movie I saw over 50 years ago.)

    (From All Posters)
    My Uncle James took me to see the 1966 film, the Sand Pebbles, because it was about China and Steve McQueen was in it. (Uncle also took me to see another action movie, the Magnificent Seven, in which Steve McQueen had a major role.)

    Ostensibly The Sand Pebbles was set in the gunboat diplomacy period of Chinese history, though the New York Times said it was really about Vietnam.

    5,000 miles away literally and a light-year away metaphorically from NY intellectual circles, my teenaged self hadn't a clue about the Vietnam subtext, and though the cinematography was gorgeous--no HD, much less color TV in my house--I didn't much like the movie. There were no good guys with the Americans and Chinese both behaving badly, and nearly everyone dies in the end.

    Born too soon to be Person of the Year (Guardian photo)
    I did infer a reference to the Korean War, when the Chinese "human wave" tactic overwhelmed the UN positions. Stay away from China, the movie seemed to be saying, they don't care how many people die as long as you die, too.

    In 1966 the purges of the Cultural Revolution had just begun

    Western suspicions were confirmed about how the Chinese regarded human life. Millions perished and 20th-century norms and technology were rebuked by youthful ideologues who didn't know anything about how the world works and for that matter, how to survive without the advancements they decried.

    Come to think of it, maybe the Sand Pebbles does have a message to future viewers.

    Monday, December 16, 2019

    Wildfires and Homelessness, Too

    San Francisco's homelesness gets all the publicity, but other cities in the Bay Area have major problems, too.

    In the North Bay Santa Rosa struggles with biggest homeless camp in county history: [bold added]
    (Photo from Santa Rosa Press Democrat)
    Kat MacKay is tired of screams erupting around her at night. She’s tired of the outbreaks of syphilis and stomach flu in the nearby tents, the stench of trash, the rats and mice chewing anything resembling food.

    MacKay is one of 300 people living at the biggest homeless camp Sonoma County has ever seen, a mile-long sprawl of tents alongside Highway 12 at the southwest end of Santa Rosa on county parkland. Still, there are two things the 19-year-old likes about the settlement: She can stop hunting for places to sleep, and she has lots of company in her misery.
    Santa Rosa, 60 miles north of San Francisco, has a population of 180,000 and is wrestling with 3,000 homeless. Far wealthier San Francisco has a population five times as large and can't solve the problem of 7,000-10,000 homeless.

    Like most people I know, I have tried to help with time and money. But continued proximity to the tents, drugs, and unsanitary conditions also degrades our own neighborhoods and hardens our hearts. So I feel some compassion for the people of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, too.

    Sunday, December 15, 2019

    We'll be Sorry When It's Gone

    Rabbi Michael Gotlieb of Santa Monica laments the decline in church attendance ("less than half of millennials identify as Christian"):
    Jews and Christians break bread in Santa Monica
    I pray this trend reverses and Christianity begins to thrive again. The adage “a rising tide lifts all boats” isn’t limited to economics. Historically Judaism gave form to Christianity. A revitalized Christianity can help invigorate contemporary Judaism. When devoted Christians go back to, and advocate for, their tradition, asking and struggling with timeless questions, so too will Jews return to theirs. Judaism never has grown out of a vacuum.

    Only religion can provide answers to life’s most vexing and critical questions. Chief among them is whether God exists. This is foundational to issues that wrestle with ultimate meaning, afterlife, morality, human nature, holiness and compassion. When religious institutions lose sight of these timeless questions, they run the risk of becoming outdated and irrelevant.
    Modern life is full of distracting pleasures. We don't want to "wrestle with ultimate meaning, afterlife," etc. It's tiring and boring when so many shiny objects abound.

    Boomers are lucky; when life crises arise that we can't buy or talk our way out of, there are still enough churches, synagogues, and priests around to help guide us through our struggles. When succeeding generations cry out, perhaps only robots and unblinking screens will answer.

    Saturday, December 14, 2019

    Not the Answer But the Question

    Peggy Noonan's weekly opinion piece has a small deception.

    The title is Who Can Beat Trump?, and a reader would naturally expect her answer to be contained somewhere therein.

    Cover from 2016: he should have gotten it
    again because he dominated the airwaves.
    I guess they're saving him for 2020.
    But the essay is really about how the question itself has become paramount to Iowa Democratic voters--not the impeachment and not specific issues like taxes, trade, or medical care.
    But “Beat Trump” is back. When 2019 began Democrats were thinking that was priority No. 1. Then other things became more important—Medicare for All, climate change, policy. But it feels like Democrats here are circling back to their original desire. “Who can beat Trump?” is again the most important question. They don’t know the answer. They’re trying to figure it out.
    After all the sturm und drang it's probably going to be another pedestrian nomination: Democrats won't vote where their heart is but for the person least likely to scare Republicans and Independents. At the moment it's Joe Biden, the safe candidate who inspires few.

    The Republicans, by the way, often opt for safety, too. In 1976 they nominated Gerald Ford over the inspirational but scary Ronald Reagan...and lost.

    As the sports folk like to say, if the game were held today it would be Trump over Biden, but a lot can happen in the next eleven months.

    Friday, December 13, 2019

    Energy and the Environment: Elections Have Consequences

    While California is busily trying to set national energy policy, the Trump Administration counterattacks.

    Headline: Trump administration OKs leasing for new oil drilling in California [bold added]
    Pump jacks near Bakersfield (KVPR)
    Under the plan advanced Thursday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will offer new oil and gas leases across more than 1 million acres between Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. The leases will be the first made available on federal land in the region in five years...The BLM released its court-ordered study of fracking in the form of a 174-page environmental impact report in April. This week, the agency officially signed off on the report, concluding that the adverse impacts of fracking could be moderated.
    Environmentalists will have difficulty halting the energy leases, which will occur on Federal lands over which the State has no jurisdiction. And California, which is leading the crusade against fossil fuels, does allow drilling on State land:
    Still, over the past year, California has approved hundreds of new wells on state land, and the demand for oil in California has remained robust.
    For decades progressives have expanded the EPA's powers. Now that someone else is in charge, they don't like it.

    Related: EPA: San Francisco’s ‘Homeless Crisis’ Impacting Water Quality
    “'piles of feces'” on sidewalks and streets in these cities is becoming all too common.”

    “The EPA is concerned about the potential water quality impacts from pathogens and other contaminants from untreated human waste entering nearby waters.”
    When we're on the receiving end of EPA over-reach, it's not as much fun.

    Thursday, December 12, 2019

    Cross-Over Continuity Confusion Clean-Up

    I had begun following the DC Universe again but was not all-in; it's been too much of a commitment to watch a half-dozen shows on the CW Network.

    Last week I tried to catch up by taking in three hours of Crisis On Infinite Earths, the highly touted cross-over event based on DC's comic series from the mid-1980's. In the 1980's Crisis cleaned up the many inconsistencies in the DC multiverse and permitted nearly every character to reboot his or her origin tales.

    On television the DC heroes' stories differ significantly from the comics, and occasional viewers-cum-comics readers are easily confused. Like the print version, the TV Crisis (so far) has destroyed many worlds and heroes. Good, there's a lot of history I no longer have to learn.

    Going forward, six shows a week is still too much of a time sink.

    I do intend to tune in to the cross-over episodes, especially when the casts find an excuse to showcase their song-and-dance talents. (Many of the actors in DC shows have musical training.)

    Below is a number from a 2017 episode of The Flash, in which Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) and Flash (Grant Gustin) find themselves trapped in a dream world:

    Wednesday, December 11, 2019

    On Holiday

    Clothes for fans of the Hallmark Channel
    Two weeks before Christmas, and I'm tired of looking at screens. It was time to meet real people and examine real merchandise in nearby brick-and-mortar stores.

    The first task was to buy presents for the Samaritan House kids. Target and Costco had a broad selection of clothes, toys, food, and gift cards, and the shopping for 10 people was done in four hours.

    At Hallmark I picked up a sympathy card. Sadly, I've been buying a lot of them recently.

    A few more items on the gift list were checked off at the renovated Hillsdale mall.

    The Apple Store moved to a premier location fronting the square. Charging the purchase to the Apple Card, I felt only fleeting satisfaction from the 6% cash back on Apple merchandise; it wasn't enough to offset the 9.25% sales tax in San Mateo County.

    I gave the Samaritan House gifts to Clara, who will wrap and deliver them. I've played Santa before but don't have the requisite cheeriness. She does, and so we make a good team. At Christmas time play to your strengths. Take a holiday from working on your weaknesses, and save them for next year's resolutions.

    Apple Store (left) at the renovated Hillsdale Shopping Center

    Tuesday, December 10, 2019

    Mr. Brown, You're Doing a Heckuva Job

    (Chronicle photo)
    Democratic éminence grise Willie Brown opined five months ago that Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg would be the Democrats' dream ticket.

    Now that Senator Harris dropped out of the race, Willie Brown has changed his estimation of the ability of his former protégé:
    Kamala Harris should go on vacation, get away from the cameras and then get back to work...But having been cut, tailored and stretched by advisers, Harris needs to get back into her own skin.

    Running for president forced her to pass herself off as an expert on health care, the economy and foreign policy.

    She’s not.
    Credit goes to Willie Brown for changing his stance when events prove him wrong, but it will cause this humble reader to view his predictions a little more skeptically.

    Another reason I'm happy that Kamala Harris is no longer running for President: I don't have to read her memoir, which Time declared a "must-read" last January.

    I subscribe to Time because it occasionally commits journalism, but its monochromatic anti-Trump editorial positions have affected other departments like book and movie reviews. Sadly, I trust partisan Willie Brown a lot more than America's former greatest news periodical.

    Monday, December 09, 2019


    In case you missed it November was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The organizers of NaNoWriMo encourage aspiring writers to produce a 50,000-word novel by the end of the month by committing to a daily word count "without worrying about quality". Author Mur Lafferty:
    "Even if you write complete garbage that you don't keep, you are still learning what doesn't work."
    As readers of this humble journal can attest, the "complete garbage" part is covered. How long does it take to find out what works? It's been sixteen years....

    Sunday, December 08, 2019

    Itself Alone

    (Columbia University photo)
    Economists readily acknowledge that the concept of economic man (homo economicus), which is necessary for building their models, is a simplification of reality; human beings do not always behave rationally!

    But attributing irrational behavior to "cognitive biases" is equally simplistic, according to economist Richard Robb. There are other explanations for behavior besides purposefully acting in the pursuit of rational or irrational goals. [bold added]
    “Certain actions,” he says, “are undertaken by people not for any tangible benefit, but for their own sake.” These actions belong to “a second realm of human behavior” that is neither rational nor irrational. Mr. Robb calls these “for itself” actions, which he defines as “unproblematic, intrinsically human impulses” undertaken “without regard to whether they’re better than some alternative.”
    Dr. Robb uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate:
    (From ancient-origins.net)
    “He lavishes all this attention on one random man,” Mr. Robb says. “It’s an act of mercy that’s not optimal in any way. If he cared about humankind in some sort of coherent way, he’d get this one guy up and on his way and then go find somebody else who was also robbed on the side of the road.”

    Mr. Robb next tests the behavioral-economics explanation. Are we going to say that the Samaritan is subject to a cognitive bias—a salience bias in response to the one person right in front of him—so he makes the wrong choices? “I don’t think so,” he says. “It doesn’t feel right to say that the Samaritan is irrational, or that he’s got a cognitive defect he needs to correct, and that somebody needs to point out to him that he’s reached the point of diminishing marginal returns with this one man and should therefore go on and find a different man.”

    Rather, the Samaritan’s actions lift his behavior into a realm beyond rational choice. “If he’d lavished that degree of care on every beat-up person he’d found, he’d never have made his way out of Jerusalem,” Mr. Robb says. His was an act of for-itself mercy.
    Economists can explain why some people give nothing to charity while others devote their lives to it. They have difficulty explaining why a significant number are willing to help one or a few strangers but no more. The dismal science has a long way to go.
    Love reckons by itself—alone—
    "As large as I"—relate the Sun
    To One who never felt it blaze—
    Itself is all the like it has—
    ----Emily Dickinson

    Saturday, December 07, 2019

    Day of Infamy, Plus 78 Years

    My father was there, and to honor his memory I am reprising this post.

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

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

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

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

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

    Friday, December 06, 2019

    Slow Learners

    Giant tortoises have "surprising cognitive powers": (H/T Tyler Cowen) [bold added]
    Galapagos tortoises at Honolulu Zoo
    Tamar Gutnick and Michael Kuba at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel, and Anton Weissenbacher at Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna trained Galapagos tortoises (Chelonoides nigra) and Aldabra tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) to bite a ball of a particular colour — blue, green or yellow.

    When tested three months later, the tortoises recalled the task. The authors tested three of the tortoises again after nine years and found that all three responded to toys of the correct colour. The researchers also found that both species of tortoise could be conditioned with fewer training sessions if they were taught in groups than if learning occurred in isolation, hinting that tortoises learn from watching their peers.
    There are other slow-moving creatures that display unusual mental attributes. Memories can be transferred from one snail to another. And researchers have shown that elephants don't forget.

    A lack of physical quickness could be correlated with mental acuity. It sounds plausible--until science proves this wrong, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

    Thursday, December 05, 2019

    Stocking Stuffers, 2019

    We first posted about Senior Stocking Stuffers in 2006, when Jill lived in Foster City.

    Our Lady in Sonora now lives over two hours away, yet returns to the Peninsula every Christmas to make over 1,000 gift bags for seniors and other shut-ins.

    We arrived at the Palo Alto Boy Scouts clubhouse at 11 a.m. Jill and her helpers from the Santa Clara Thunderbirds Club were mostly finished.

    There would be another assembly line tomorrow at the VA Hospital, where the small items we brought could be used.

    Jill provides an example of the most effective style of leadership---leadership by example. She works harder than anyone else.

    As long as she wants to do Stocking Stuffers, we'll be there.

    Wednesday, December 04, 2019

    An Impossible Task

    A bankruptcy judge has ruled that PG&E must compensate the fire victims for damages caused by its equipment. The judge's ruling seems clear-cut to us non-lawyers, but an unfamiliar legal term slowed down this reader. [bold added]
    Judge Dennis Montali said Wednesday the principle of inverse condemnation applies to PG&E, rejecting an argument that the utility was attempting to invoke to limit the amount it owes for homes and businesses destroyed by the fires...

    The idea behind the doctrine of inverse condemnation is that operators of public utilities should have to pay for damage done to private property, whether the utilities are public or owned by investors, as PG&E is.

    PG&E argued that the doctrine is unfair because it won’t be able to raise electric rates to cover the cost of wildfire damages. Judge Montali said the utility is speculating and doesn’t know what state regulators would say if it asked for a rate increase and proved its operations were safe.
    What is "inverse condemnation? Wikipedia [bold added]
    Inverse condemnation is a term used in the law to describe a situation in which the government takes private property but fails to pay the compensation required by the 5th Amendment of the Constitution, so the property's owner has to sue to obtain the required just compensation. In some states the term also includes damaging of property as well as its taking. In inverse condemnation cases the owner is the plaintiff and that is why the action is called inverse – the order of parties is reversed, as compared to the usual procedure in direct condemnation where the government is the plaintiff who sues a defendant-owner to take his or her property.
    Bloomberg explains PG&E's legal argument:
    Inverse condemnation usually applies to government agencies that damage private property while providing a public service. But courts in the Golden State have ruled that the doctrine also can be used against utilities, since they’re authorized by the state to provide a vital public service.

    That’s why California utilities can be held liable for damages from fires sparked by their equipment, even if they followed all of the state’s stringent safety rules. They can try to pass on those costs to ratepayers, but there’s no guarantee such efforts will get approved by the state’s California Public Utilities Commission.
    The arcane becomes a little clearer. PG&E followed the safety rules dictated by the Public Utilities Commission, yet inverse condemnation makes it liable for damages as if it were a public agency. However, PG&E is not the government and so can't raise taxes to pay for its debts. It must apply for a rate increase to be approved by the PUC. Just try getting that through when everyone seems to want the utility's blood, if not its dismemberment.

    As we've said before, under the current constraints running PG&E is an impossible task.

    Related--given that PG&E is held liable for wildfires but not power shutdowns, its behavior is perfectly understandable: PG&E Refuses to Get Burned--Under the utility’s incentive structure, blackouts make sense.

    Tuesday, December 03, 2019

    Take This Job and Shovel It

    Three Albany, NY, police officers shoveled snow for a 99-year-old woman who called for help: It's heartwarming that they cleared her driveway, but what the heck is she doing driving a car....in the snow no less?

    Monday, December 02, 2019

    Okay, Doomer

    It's like Omaha outlawing cattle-grazing or New York prohibiting lending.

    Grilling at Chez Panisse, from Netflix documentary
    Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, based on the book
    The City of Berkeley climate fundamentalists have banned natural gas on new construction, which cuts the legs out of Berkeley's renowned restaurant industry.

    The California Restaurant Association has filed a legal challenge:[bold added]
    The suit argues restaurants rely on natural gas and chefs are trained in using it to prepare particular types of food like flame-seared meats, charred vegetables, or using intense heat from a flame under a wok. Losing it will slow down service, reduce chefs’ control, and affect the food — plus cost businesses more, the suit said.
    Nearly 50 years ago Alice Waters pioneered California cuisine (fresh, local, organic ingredients) when she opened Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse not only uses natural gas but grills over an open flame. Sure, Chez Panisse' kitchen will be grandfathered, but with restaurants going out of business all the time and gas-less new ones taking their place the Berkeley dining experience will inevitably go downhill.

    I don't see any reason to go to a Berkeley restaurant for microwaved plant-based foods. Okay, doomer, but maybe that's what you wanted.

    Sunday, December 01, 2019

    Stewardship Isn't Easy

    'Tis the season for giving, but J.K. Rowling says, Don't Give Your Time or Money to Orphanages [bold added]
    (Time photo)
    [Western volunteers and donors] brought foreign money into the country and we do know that some orphanages are set up literally to exploit children. The children are the bait for foreign donations and a volunteer experience, and the money is going into the pockets of the people running the orphanages....

    I suppose I would say there are three big things that people can do watching this.

    The first is and I’m sure by now very obvious, don’t volunteer in orphanages. Don’t give your time to propping up a system that we know does real, serious harm.

    And then there’s the financial aspect. If you have money to give when you are travelling, put it into local businesses because that helps communities. That’s something real you can do when travelling. Don’t go and visit orphanages.

    If you want to support charities or projects, just do a bit of due diligence and make sure you’re dealing with the root causes here: look at poverty and building community services and so on.

    The last thing I’d say, and what we would love to see as an organisation, is to see businesses amending their social responsibility policies. We’d love to see those corporate policies changed to make sure they’re not supporting so-called orphanages or child institutions. That is something hugely powerful that everyone can do.
    1) Westerners, and Americans especially, are suckers for good sob-stories, more so now that there are visuals. (By the way, me too.) Just use the same level of due-diligence that you would use for your investments.
    2) Actually, more due-diligence because there is no SEC regulating charities. With U.S. non-profits there's some limited oversight by the IRS, but assume there's none with overseas organizations.
    3) J.K. Rowling argues that capitalism is the best way to pull people out of poverty ("put it into local businesses"). Of course, identifying these local businesses can't be easy either.
    4) Giving away one's wealth should require as much effort as earning and saving it, that is, if one cares about how the donations are used. Stewardship isn't easy.

    Saturday, November 30, 2019

    Blown Away

    Today's fishwrap
    The winter storm has brought blessed relief, not only from worries about drought but the incessant coverage of climate change.

    Headline: San Francisco ties cold record as Bay Area freezes [bold added]
    Tahoe this week (Chron photo). Crazy, because
    snowfalls are a thing of the past.
    The high temperature in the city on Thursday was forty-eight degrees. That tied a record high temperature for the coldest date for San Francisco in the month of November. That record had stood unchallenged since November 27th, 1896, when it last happened.
    San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day set a cold temperature record not seen during the 20th century. It's strange how that happened, given all the reports that it's hotter than it's ever been.

    The experts tell us that it's going to be a wet, chilly December.
    The first of the storms, considered part of an “atmospheric river,” is expected to arrive Saturday with breezy winds in the morning and light rain after noon. Rains will pick up in the early evening before soaking the Bay Area and the northern part of the state overnight. The downpour could continue through Tuesday night with a slight break until Thursday morning, when the next storm is expected to arrive.

    “For the average person, it’s just going to seem like it’s raining all the time,” said Drew Peterson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Monterey. “A lot of rain’s coming.”
    I just don't see why a little cold and wet weather stopped the news about the existential threat to the world.

    I guess I'll have to wait for the first hot day in 2020 for the stories to resume about how to save ourselves.

    Friday, November 29, 2019

    Cold-Blooded (Un) Realism

    The statues of Beniamino Bufano (1890-1970) are scattered around Hillsdale mall.

    I can usually identify the animals they represent, but I had trouble with this one.

    Care to try your luck, dear reader?

    (Answer after the break).

    Thursday, November 28, 2019

    Thanksgiving, 2019

    I've been reading the Wall Street Journal since 1973. It has run the following Thanksgiving posts since 1961.

    The language of the 17th century is from a distant, unfamiliar perspective, but so to a lesser extent is the essay from a mere half-century ago.
    The Desolate Wilderness

    (WSJ image)
    Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:

    So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

    When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

    The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

    Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

    Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

    If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

    And the Fair Land

    (Getty image via WSJ)
    Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

    This is indeed a big country, a rich country, in a way no array of figures can measure and so in a way past belief of those who have not seen it. Even those who journey through its Northeastern complex, into the Southern lands, across the central plains and to its Western slopes can only glimpse a measure of the bounty of America.

    And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.

    So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. Yet the visitor, if he is to make an honest report, must also note the air of unease that hangs everywhere.

    For the traveler, as travelers have been always, is as much questioned as questioning. And for all the abundance he sees, he finds the questions put to him ask where men may repair for succor from the troubles that beset them.

    His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.

    How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places—only to find those men as frail as any others.

    So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?

    Of course the stranger cannot quiet their spirits. For it is true that everywhere men turn their eyes today much of the world has a truly wild and savage hue. No man, if he be truthful, can say that the specter of war is banished. Nor can he say that when men or communities are put upon their own resources they are sure of solace; nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.

    But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere—in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

    We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

    And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.

    Wednesday, November 27, 2019

    Bowing Was Inevitable

    Kippy Marks, 52, is a self-taught violinist who's so talented that he doesn't need to play for his supper on the sidewalks of San Francisco.
    ..one day, in the fourth grade, his true calling came to light. He was giving a presentation to his class when the school orchestra walked in...

    “I just watched the body mechanics of the man playing violin and saw the triangular shape he made with his body, and I knew I could do that too,” Marks said....“In that moment I knew that all I wanted to do was play the violin for the rest of my life,” Marks said.

    When he arrived in San Francisco, he knew he wanted to get involved in the gay community. He began meeting charity groups and donating his time as a volunteer. After people heard his talents, he started getting gigs. He no longer needed to play in BART stations and began performing throughout the city, at farmers’ markets, corporate events and restaurants.
    Black, gay, and never having taken a lesson, Kippy Marks overcame astronomical odds to make a living playing the violin "in 'the most expensive city in the world.'"

    There have been so many feel-bad stories about San Francisco that it's nice to come across one that makes us feel good.