Thursday, February 28, 2019

Every Car Has Its Day

My brother endures teasing for a few quirky decisions, like buying a yellow cab-like car off the lot in 2014. (His regular car is a Malibu.) Since I needed a vehicle, I was grateful to be lent anything.

The 2014 Nissan NV200 doesn't have the highest-end electronics--yes to bluetooth, navigation, and rear-view camera, no to keyless ignition or even an automatic door opener--but it grows on you.

Legroom is more than ample for passengers, and the comfort, power, and handling are fine, though sub-standard for aficionados.

My brother has received unsolicited offers from Uber and Lyft drivers to buy the NV200. Every car has its day.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Bad Start

Throughout my trip I will be staying at my parents' place (they moved to assisted living in October) in the McCully-Moiliili district.

On the first night their car wouldn't start. The engine cranked--so the problem wasn't the starter--but didn't engage. After a few tries I quit. Maybe I'd flooded the engine. I will try again in the morning.

Exposed colored wires meant the
shielding was gnawed through
The morning effort to start the car was unsuccessful. Before I called a tow truck, I checked to see if the issue was something simple, like a loose wire or a clogged fuel filter.

The first order of business was to remove the engine cover on the Nissan. That meant finding Dad's hoped-for socket-wrench set in the storage shed, which only took an hour.

Removing the cover revealed that the problem was beyond my capabilities. The engine was covered with rat droppings, and a maze of wires had been chewed through. Nissan's engine cover was a good idea gone wrong. The cozy gap provided a nesting space for rats, especially since the car isn't used for weeks. I cleaned off the poop with a mild Clorox solution and called triple-A.

The dealer called to say that a complete wire-harness replacement would cost $1,700 (there was damage I couldn't see under the car); the repair would take a week because parts had to be shipped from the Mainland.

Auwe!

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Who Cares, Busybody?

Most of the structures in the old neighborhood were built pre-1970. There were no homeowners' associations or strict zoning laws. The longevity of the buildings attests to the adequacy of the engineering.

Affixing satellite dishes to the stairs makes them not only accessible but also pointed in the desired southeasterly direction. Practical, yes. Esthetically pleasing--who cares, busybody?

Monday, February 25, 2019

Don't Worry, Help is on the Way

(image from lifeimgyx.pw)
Aging has made me modestly [peanut gallery: modestly?] hypochondriacal.

Dictionary.com: [bold added]
It wasn’t until the 19th century that hypochondriac described someone who suffered “illness without a specific cause.” This sense is still widely used, though today we diagnose modern hypochondriacs by their overuse of the website WebMD.
(Wonderful! I use mayoclinic.org.)

Mental mistakes have been occurring more frequently lately, and I've become worried that they are harbingers of an underlying condition like dementia or Alzheimer's.

For example, I had booked a trip to the Islands a month ago. I thought that I was flying on Wednesday and informed everyone accordingly. Today, Monday, my iPhone chimed an alert that I was leaving on Tuesday. I checked with the airline, which confirmed that the trip was indeed tomorrow. I started packing immediately. Technology saved me from making a serious mistake.

I'm actually an optimist. Technology seems to be advancing faster than the cells are degrading. Once upon a time I had committed to memory over 50 telephone numbers. Now I know eight (8) but don't need to know any, thanks to my phone's address book. Similarly, my phone's calendar with advance notifications obviates the necessity of memorizing dates and times (like with itineraries).

In the near future, a robot equipped with artificial intelligence will have blown past the Turing Test and could fool interlocutors into thinking that they are communicating with a specific individual, for example, me. (And the robot might well be a better conversationalist than my healthy self, much like a man with artificial legs can outrun someone with intact limbs.)

So this budding hypochondriac needn't worry: technology will compensate for mental deficiencies until that moment when consciousness flickers out, then I won't care any more.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Choosing Bravely

We think of optimism or pessimism as an affect of our circumstances, that is, as an emotional reaction determined by what's happened in our lives. Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, 2018) says that it's a willed choice:
A love story with an
amphibian won Best
Picture. No wonder
he's optimistic.
Optimism is radical. It is the hard choice, the brave choice....

History and fable have both proven that nothing is ever entirely lost. David can take Goliath. A beach in Normandy can turn the tide of war. Bravery can topple the powerful. These facts are often seen as exceptional, but they are not. Every day, we all become the balance of our choices—choices between love and fear, belief or despair. No hope is ever too small.
If you ask most people what their hopes are for themselves and their children, it is that they find happiness. Guillermo del Toro seems to be saying that all they have to do is to choose to be happy. Can it be that simple?

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Socialism's Fruits

National Socialism, 1944: [bold added[
The Dutch famine of 1944, known as the Hongerwinter ("Hunger winter") in Dutch, was a famine that took place in the German-occupied part of the Netherlands, especially in the densely populated western provinces above the great rivers, during the winter of 1944-1945, near the end of World War II. A German blockade cut off food and fuel shipments from farm areas to punish the Dutch for their reluctance to aid the Nazi war effort. Some 4.5 million were affected and survived because of soup kitchens. About 22,000 died because of the famine. Most vulnerable according to the death reports were elderly men.
Venezuelan Socialism, 2019:
(From Guardian video)
Venezuelan troops have barricaded a bridge on the country’s western border with Colombia in an apparent attempt to prevent the entry of humanitarian aid sent by opposition leaders trying to force Nicol├ís Maduro from power.
A starving population is a compliant population.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Overnight Duty

Comfortable and warm enough
After a hearty dinner of Nellie’s stir-fried pork and cabbage, the Home and Hope guests helped themselves to Susan’s cherry-and-pineapple coffee cake. My contribution was steamed rice and the $5 rotisserie chicken from Costco. (I always pick up a chicken for the kids; most prefer it to the main dish unless it's pizza.)

Hank from the host Lutheran church arrived at 9. Hank, like your humble blogger, is a retiree who is able sleep on the floor. However, the number of volunteers who can handle overnight duty is dwindling--most of the younger ones have families to take care of and jobs to go to the next day--and the church might well have to cut back or cease hosting next year.

It's just four families that we can shelter at a time, but we're making a difference, and I hope they can find a way to continue.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Pig's Life

LiLou, 5, is the World's 1st Airport Therapy Pig. Of course, the airport that engages her services is SFO.

Years of experience under her belly, LiLou is rounding into form. She was trotted out at the SF Symphony’s 19th Chinese New Year concert:
In one nook, a gaggle of fancily attired women in traditional Chinese gowns hitched up their form-fitting skirts, fell to their knees and, hoping that their zippers were up to the strain, said hello to the belle of the ball, LiLou the pig.

In the Year of the Boar, LiLou, whose day job is SFO’s therapy pig, was an honored guest, decked out in pearls and red nail polish, the same color as City Hall’s dome was lit that night. LiLou herself is black and white and not at all camera shy.
LiLou likely is aware that behind their smiling faces some concertgoers viewed her as ambulatory bacon. It takes generations to change hearts, minds, and stomachs. Perhaps some day we'll chew the fat with her kind only metaphorically.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Home and Hope: Conversation Over Dinner

I piled the plate with the casserole and sat across from the mother and two kids. Volunteers for Home and Hope not only prepare dinner but engage in dinnertime conversation with the guests.

A.J. corrected his mother on her word usage. Disrespect by pre-teens toward parents is not unusual, but it's atypical to show it by means of vocabulary.

Do you like to read, A.J.? He shook his head.

"He likes math," said five-year-old Taylor, who immediately peppered him with addition problems using the biggest numbers she knew, i.e., "what's 100+50?" Addition being no sweat, a couple of questions about multiplication quickly showed that he had mastered those tables, too.

But math, in fact any subject, should be fun, not a test. I recounted the story about a famous mathematician who as a child was asked to calculate the total of the series
1+2+3+4+5....+100 = ??
(This is a familiar tale, but perhaps there are a few humanities majors reading this.) The child solved the problem quickly, confounding his teacher. How did he do it? A.J. puzzled for a minute, then shook his head.

Using pen and paper, I wrote the series in reverse order:
1+2+3+4+5....+100
100+99+98+97...+1
The total of the two series is 101+101+101+... one hundred times. So the solution is 100 x 101 divided by 2, or 5,050.

The mathematician was Carl Gauss, (1777-1855) who was seven when he came up with the answer.

A.J. enjoyed hearing about how kids in those days were pretty smart, too. If I see him again on Thursday night [update: i didn't--they had dinner elsewhere], we'll resume talking about how people, before computers, could still accomplish a lot by just using pen and paper.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Chillin'

A high school classmate posted a picture of himself in front of a work by his artist wife. He asked us to help him name the work. My response below.
"s-ENT-i-ENT" (Lord of the Rings nerdy reference).

Actually the photo of yourself Chillin' (hey, another possible title) is itself a work of art--art within art, if you will. Yes, the relief with its blue, brown, black, and white is a timeless evocation of winter, and if you were just gazing at the trees it wouldn't be adding much. But you're holding a smartphone, which places you in the 2010-2020 decade for anyone looking at this 100 years from now.

Also, you're ignoring the beauty of the art and staring at a tiny screen--a tableau of our time (hey, yet another title).

Well, enough of this---gotta get back to answering my texts.
I have to ask him who the photographer was. If it was his wife, wouldn't it be something if she created the wall art so he could be photographed in front of it. The photo was the intended work! OK, back to reality, he couldn't have married someone that smart....

Monday, February 18, 2019

Thoughts on the 2024 Presidential Election

On this President's Day there's no relief from politics: more Democratic would-be Presidents announce they're running, 16 states sue the President---this time over "the Wall" emergency funding, the 25th Amendment has been revived as a means of defenestrating Donald Trump, etc.

I can't get excited over the 2020 election. The fact that septuagenarians Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders all are thinking about running betrays the weakness of the field (DJT is 72, but wouldn't you want a young and vigorous opponent to highlight his age?---think Barack vs. John McCain).

You can hype it all you want, but it looks like the Patriots, I mean Donald Trump, will win again.

But 2024 is looking interesting.

(Facebook)
It's been decades since a California Governor was a serious candidate for President, but Gavin Newsom, 51, just may be the ticket. Tall (6'3") and telegenic, Governor Newsom has Progressive credentials. As SF Mayor, he issued marriage certificates to gay couples in 2003 long before it was legal and reinforced SF's "sanctuary city" self-designation. But there are signs that he may be moving toward the center---quietly agreeing with the President about forest-management practices and killing high-speed rail. He's focusing on enforcing existing gun laws instead of passing stricter legislation, and climate change was mentioned only in passing in the State of the State speech.

(biography.com)
Nikki Haley, 47, recently resigned--apparently on good terms with the President---her 2-year post as the U.N Ambassador and is considered to be one of the Republican front-runners for 2024. She was the first female governor of South Carolina and the second Indian-American (after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana) to hold a governorship. Known for her conservative positions (pro-life, pro-Israel, anti-tax), she can retreat when circumstances demand, such as when the 2015 Charleston church shooting made her take down the Confederate flag at the State Capitol. Being a woman and a non-white child of immigrants may win enough votes to put her over the top.

By the way, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will turn 35 the month before the November, 2024 election, and people have noticed.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Fool's Gold

Virtue Signaling:
To take a conspicuous but essentially useless action ostensibly to support a good cause but actually to show off how much more moral you are than everybody else.
The opposite of the Biblical admonition to be virtuous in secret, virtue-signalers crave social approbation by being visible: [bold added]
In 2011, the economists behind Freakonomics ran a story about the research of Steve and Alison Sexton. They wondered why it was that the Toyota Prius was designed to be such a distinctive-looking automobile. As it turns out, the unique look was no accident. The Sextons found that, in particularly conservation-conscious areas of the country, people were willing to pay as much as $4200 more for a recognizably “green” car.
"Hybrid"; barely noticeable
When we were shopping for a fuel-efficient vehicle last year, we did look at the Prius. It was too small for our needs, but the negative deciding factor was that being seen in one is strongly suggestive of agreeing with the dominant group's politics in the Bay Area.

We settled on a RAV4 Hybrid, which looks the same as a regular RAV4 save for the small sign in the rear. We're averaging 30+ MPG overall and are very happy with the purchase.

While I was working, it was sometimes necessary to make purchases solely to keep up appearances. No longer--trying to win others' approval through their notions of virtuosity is Fool's Gold.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Religion Straight Up

Frost appears on our lawn every 2-3 years
For most nights this year the low has been around 40 degrees, sometimes lower.

In other parts of the country those temperatures may seem positively balmy; however, this Honolulu native does not remember feeling this cold over such an extended period, and we've lived in the Bay Area over 40 years.

The scientists tell us the extreme chill is due to a "polar vortex", which is linked to climate change. It doesn't seem to matter whether we have a record-setting high or low, climate change is the answer to everything.

Tomorrow I'll be going to church and hear that Jesus is the answer to everything. That's why I like Sundays; in church they give you religion straight up.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Train to No---re

HSR scale-back to Merced-Bakersfield (Chron graphic)
Since 2012 we've been commenting on the complicated design, pie-in-the-sky ridership assumptions, and cost overruns of the California high-speed rail project.

On Tuesday Governor Newsom effectively killed the project by announcing that he would only commit to completing the Central Valley line between Merced (pop. 83,000) and Bakersfield (pop. 376,000).
“There simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” Newsom told a joint session of the Legislature. “I wish there were.”

He said the current project would “cost too much and, respectfully, take too long.”

But a link between Merced and Bakersfield, he added, could serve as a revitalizing force for the Central Valley, a region Newsom has promised not to neglect.
Don't call it the Train to Nowhere (WSJ)
Governor Newsom also asked everyone not to use a ready-made name for the project: [bold added]
“I know that some critics are going to say, ‘Well, that’s a train to nowhere.’ But I think that’s wrong and I think that’s offensive,” Newsom said. “It’s about economic transformation. It’s about unlocking the enormous potential of the valley.”
In a bow to ex-Governor Brown, Gavin Newsom didn't stop the entire project. Check back another year and we'll see.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

California Love Note to Small Employers

Let's say your very small business has grown to the point where you want to hire an employee. You dutifully want to comply with labor rules, regulations, and costs (workers compensation insurance, unemployment tax, state disability insurance, etc.). Maybe you're old school and want to fill out the forms by hand. Maybe you're distrustful of electronic communications, maybe you don't have an Internet computer (you do have a cellphone, let's not be ridiculous), or maybe you just like the feel of paper originals and like to keep a paper copy for your files.

Effective January 1, 2019, the State of California penalizes you for paper submittals of reports that it demands.

From the February, 2019 newsletter of the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration:
E-file and E-pay Mandate for Employers—Penalties for Paper Submittal

AB 1245 (Stats. 2015, Ch. 222) requires all employers to electronically submit employment tax returns, wage reports, and payroll tax deposits to the Employment Development Department (EDD). Effective January 1, 2019, penalties will be charged on paper filing and payment of payroll taxes as follows:

Tax Returns: $50 per return
  • DE 9, Quarterly Contribution Return and Report of Wages
  • DE 3HW, Employer of Household Worker(s) Annual Payroll Tax Return
  • DE 3D, Quarterly Contribution Return

    Wage Reports: $20 per wage item
  • DE 9C, Quarterly Contribution Return and Report of Wages (Continuation)
  • DE 3BHW, Employer of Household Worker(s) Quarterly Reports of Wages and Withholding

    Wage Reports: 15% of amount due
  • DE 88, Payroll Tax Deposit

    These penalties can be prevented by using EDD’s e-Services for Business at www.edd.ca.gov/Payroll_Taxes/e-Services_for_Business.htm to comply with the E-file and E-pay mandate. Express Pay can also be used for online payment by visiting www.edd.ca.gov/Payroll_Taxes/File_and_Pay.htm.
  • You can still use paper forms if you grovel:
    Employers who cannot file and pay electronically due to lack of automation, severe economic hardship, current federal exemption, or other good cause, must submit a DE 1245W, E-file and E-pay Mandate Waiver Request form, which can be found at www.edd.ca.gov/pdf_pub_ctr/de1245w.pdf. Employers with an approved waiver will continue to receive paper tax forms and payment coupons in the mail, and will not be subject to a penalty for paper submittal.
    The new California motto should be of the State, by the State, and for the State.

    Afterthought: a State that hates paper requires businesses to post signage that no one ever reads:

    Wednesday, February 13, 2019

    Steep Price for Corporate Virtue

    Virtue Signaling by individuals is questionable, but it only affects the person doing it. When a business virtue-signals, it can divert management's attention from key missions like serving customers and earning a profit for shareholders. Such is the case with Pacific, Gas, and Electric, now bankrupt, which curried favor with the green crowd. [bold added]
    (Chronicle photo)
    The California utility’s moves over the past 10 years to rely more on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar resulted in high scores on environmental, social and governance [ESG] metrics, which are considered by many investors to be a positive factor in choosing a stock and used by others to manage risk...

    Both firms evaluate companies on a broad range of issues. Under the heading of environmental, for example, MSCI and Sustainalytics assess corporations on issues such as carbon emissions, raw-material sourcing and climate-change vulnerability.
    ESG is a poor predictor of financial success:
    2015 VW share price after cheating 
    as of November 2018, Sustainalytics rated PG&E in the top 10% of its peers in the environmental category, and the firm had singled the California utility out in 2017 as one of 10 companies world-wide best positioned to take advantage of emerging ESG trends...

    PG&E isn’t the only high-rated company that has faced an ESG-related selloff in the past year. Facebook shares have fallen more than 20% since its peak over the summer, a decline that many analysts attribute to its handling of a data-privacy controversy...

    Similarly, Volkswagen was historically viewed as a strong ESG company before the 2015 disclosure that the German auto maker systematically cheated on emissions tests. In that case, MSCI raised governance concerns about the firm ahead of the scandal and later attributed “Dieselgate” to Volkswagen’s mismanagement....An investor who bought Volkswagen shares in April 2015 would show a loss of more than 35% on the investment.
    With its very existence at stake, PG&E seeks to shed itself of long-term renewable energy contracts that gave it a high ESG rating.
    PG&E has agreements to purchase power from about 350 energy suppliers representing $42 billion, according to Bankruptcy Court papers. The company says it entered into most of the agreements to satisfy California’s renewable energy requirements, and the contracts typically last for 15 to 20 years or more.

    Renewable energy prices have fallen significantly since the contracts were put in place, creating an opportunity for PG&E.
    When a company touts all the great things it's doing for the environment and "social justice", take a second look. If it's more than PR, do your portfolio a favor and walk away.

    Tuesday, February 12, 2019

    Good to Go

    An uprooted metal bolt in a parking lot tore the splash shield under the 2004 Camry. I reported the damage to the attendant, but it was obvious that being able to recover repair costs would take a long time, if I were lucky.

    When fixing a car worth a few thousand dollars, one has to take into account not only the instant cost but the probability of future repairs as well as the remaining useful life of the car.

    The splash shield isn't as critical as the engine or transmission, but dragging the splash shield until it fell off didn't appear safe.

    This is admittedly a personal failing: I refuse to spend a couple of hundred dollars on labor to replace a $40 part on a car that's good for maybe another two years. So I spent the afternoon under the engine, duct-taping the splash shields together. The tape should hold for a few months.

    It's not pretty, but no one's looking under the vehicle. We're good to go.

    Monday, February 11, 2019

    Still on the Scene

    Though having appeared in recent TV shows and movies, Nick Nolte is best known today to the younger generation for his infamous mug shot (right) after a DUI arrest in 2002. For years that photo was grist for late-night comics.

    Hearing him referred to as the "sexiest man alive" in a 1992 episode of Murder, She Wrote reminded us that Nick Nolte was once a Hollywood leading man.

    He burst upon the scene in the ABC mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man, which was must-see TV. In 1976 there were still only three networks, and most Americans didn't have video-recorders (the Sony Betamax had just been introduced in 1975). So we had to be home every Monday night for twelve weeks to see RMPM. It was a television event, the second highest-rated show for the 1975-76 season.

    Now 78, Nick Nolte has "ditched the booze, drugs and cigarettes that used to control his life." We wish him well.

    Sunday, February 10, 2019

    Time to Face the Music

    "Walking into the Light", Singh (fineartamerica)
    You can't change your mind on a subject if you haven't thought much about it in the first place. Yes, I haven't contemplated my own death (and this from someone who's collecting Social Security).

    Not planning for one's demise--we're not just talking about writing a will---is a big mistake; author Katy Butler says that a good death involves much preparation. First, people should specify what a "good" death means for themselves. For her:
    My wish is to die in my own bed, cared for by people I love—clean, comfortable and relatively free from pain. I hope to have time to say my goodbyes and give my final blessings.
    For many others:
    In the Kaiser study, most people cared much more about not having their families financially burdened by their care or distressed by tough medical decisions; having their medical preferences honored; and dying in peace spiritually, with their loved ones around them. Living as long as possible was at the very bottom of most people’s lists.
    Obtaining a good death can be treated as a project, like remodeling one's kitchen. It may be off-putting but it helps to concretize the task: set your goals, lay out the milestones, think about alternative strategies (for dementia, Parkinson's, cancer, etc.), and figure out how to finance each one.

    Other advice:
    Find your tribe and arrange caregivers. ....You do need one fiercely committed person to act as a central tentpole and as many part-timers as you can marshal. People who die comfortable, well-supported deaths at home tend to have one of three things going for them: money, a good government program or a rich social network of neighbors or friends...

    Take command of the space. No matter where death occurs, you can bring calm and meaning to the room. Don’t be afraid to rearrange the physical environment. Weddings have been held in ICUs so that a dying mother could witness the ceremony, and dogs have been smuggled onto hospital floors...

    Think of death as a rite of passage. In the days before effective medicine, our ancestors were guided by books and customs that framed dying as a spiritual ordeal rather than a medical event...A spiritually mature individual was expected to contemplate it ahead of time. Without abandoning the best of what modern medicine has to offer, return to that spirit. Don’t reduce the end of your life to a medical procedure or strip it of ceremony and humanity. Make sure you live and die as a full human being.
    John Lennon sang, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." But if we don't plan for it, we won't get the end of life that we want.

    Saturday, February 09, 2019

    Nice Resume and Experience, But May I See Your Yearbook?

    Our first grade class would get rambunctious during nap time, and Mrs. Alkire would threaten us by saying she would make a notation on our permanent record. Today we can laugh about our gullibility, but Sixties pre-teens didn't question teachers, especially since we needed them to tell us what to do when the Russians launched their missiles.

    60 years later we've stopped laughing about the permanent record. Databases have recorded all our communications, photos, web searches, geographical movements, and financial and medical information for nearly 20 years. Worse, the data gatherers are vacuuming up as much information as they can from the pre-Internet days.

    Headline: ‘I Was Young’ Isn’t an Excuse: Business Leaders Need to Revisit Yearbooks
    Executives and business owners would be wise to know what potentially offensive photos, audio recordings and writing attributed to them in their younger days exist and could come to light, career coaches and crisis management professionals say...

    As a best practice, companies should be doing background checks on all senior level and board hires, digging in 25 years or more. “You have to go back both virtually and physically,” he said, identifying “high school and college activities, fraternities, nicknames, everything.”
    Eric Dezenhall, crisis consultant: “Nowadays, ‘I was in my youth’ is no longer an explanation...And racism is the cyanide pill of scandals. There’s no way to get out of it.”

    In middle school we traded racial insults about Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Samoan, Filipino, Hawaiian, Mexican, Polish, black, and Jewish people, Other joke genres were religious (Buddhists, Muslims, Catholics), sexual, and intellectual (jocks and dumb blondes). Yes, it was cruel and crude, but if one is ever to go through a racist, sexist, or any other -ist phase, it's better to do so before one is an adult.

    We Boomers prided ourselves on having overthrown the vestiges of Puritanism in 20th-century America. Frankly, the censorship and sanctimony on display today are much more pronounced, and the consequences--unemployment and social shunning--are more severe.

    40-year-old job applicants in 2019 have to produce a high-school yearbook. Thank goodness I'm retired.

    Friday, February 08, 2019

    Favorable Trends

    In Santa Clara home prices stopped rising in late 2018.
    One year ago we said that Bay Area real estate had reached its peak, partly due to the tax law enacted in December, 2017:
    As of this writing house prices continue to rise, despite the reduction of favorable tax treatment for expensive houses in the recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

    The warning signs are widespread. I don't know what may trigger the fall; perhaps it will be rising interest rates, dropping tech stock prices, or fed-up tourists, but it would not be surprising to see a collapse, and an exodus of individual and business taxpayers, in San Francisco's near future.
    The Bay Area real estate market began cooling in October.
    Here’s how Core Logic breaks down November:

    The number of homes sold in the Bay Area declined more than 15 percent from last year: The total across nine counties was 6,147 houses and condos. This time last year it was 7,253, a drop of 15.2 percent. “Total November 2018 home sales in the San Francisco Bay Area were the lowest for that month since November 2014,” according to an emailed statement from the data firm.

    A trend of declining sales dominated the last half of 2018: According to previous monthly reports, “[S]ales have fallen on a year-over-year basis the past six consecutive months,” starting with an 8.3 percent year over year decline in June and peaking with a 18.8 percent crash in September.

    The effects spread across all types of homes: According to Core Logic analyst Andrew LePage, “November’s slowdown affected all major price categories, including a nearly 10 percent annual drop in $1 million-plus sales.” LePage adds, “Market corrections can spook high-end buyers.” Of course, in San Francisco most houses (but not condos) fall within the million-dollar plus range.
    High- & low-tax states (WSJ)
    Real estate in all the high-tax states is being hit, because leveraged-up homeowners can no longer deduct on their Federal returns all the property taxes and interest expense on expensive homes. Their crimped cash flow is forcing, or heavily inducing, home sales and a subsequent move to low-tax states: [bold added]
    The law that went into effect at the start of last year cut federal income taxes for most Americans, though not everyone benefited equally. That is because the law capped the deduction for state and local income and property taxes at $10,000. The bill also capped the size of a loan on which mortgage interest could be deducted at $750,000, which hurts states with higher home prices.

    Since many residents in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut had been deducting well over $10,000 a year, the new tax rules are costing them tens of thousands of dollars more than if they lived in states like Florida and Texas that have no state income tax.
    Enough high-earners are moving that politicians of high-tax states are becoming alarmed. We think that Progressives should be pleased, however, in that the TCJA is lessening inequality by making the wealthy pay more taxes and lowering house prices, making them more affordable. Strangely, these favorable trends have not been much commented on.

    Thursday, February 07, 2019

    Warriors: The Last Performance?

    When I see the Golden State Warriors, I think of the Beatles: individual talents who came together to produce magic that will be talked about 50 years after it's gone.

    When the Warriors are at their finest, such as the 51-point first quarter against the Nuggets last month, or when they made 24 of 25 shots in the the middle of the Spurs game last week, Warriors basketball is beautiful. All five men are constantly in motion, the ball flits around the court until it finds the open man, and the shot is buried, either from 3-point distance or from above the rim.



    But as with the Beatles in the late Sixties, the joy of playing together is dissipating. Superstar forward Kevin Durant didn't sign a long-term contract at the beginning of the season, which will prompt half the teams in the NBA to bid for his services in July. Sports reporters are hectoring him weekly about where he will go, creating cracks in the team's camaraderie. Other key players are also not locked in to long-term contracts and could well leave.

    Basketball has made them rich and famous, and without joy it's increasingly tempting to pursue individual goals, whatever they may be.

    John, Paul, George, and Ringo went on to varying degrees of success in their subsequent careers, but none achieved the acclaim they had as a group. The young men who comprise the Golden State Warriors have many choices to make and conflicting goals to prioritize in the months ahead.

    Not even on their list is the regret they could feel at age 60 if they break up the band too soon. Fans, appreciate them now; sometimes you don't know it's the last performance until it's come and gone.

    Wednesday, February 06, 2019

    SOTU: Interesting, For Once

    (UPI photo)
    For the record I thought that President Trump's State of the Union speech was pretty good.

    (I'm trying to separate judgment of his "speechifying" from my views on his policies, a separation which is difficult. Political partisans always say the speech was good or bad depending on whether their guy is in office, but I didn't vote for him or his Democratic opponent).

    Ladies in white (Vox photo)
    The SOTU wasn't boring to these ears because it brought attention to positive information that I had forgotten or never did know. Good news is generally given little coverage anyway, and that tendency is more pronounced with this President. I didn't mind his chest-thumping about the growing economy, higher wages, low unemployment, especially among minorities, booming energy production, and tax and regulatory reform.

    He acknowledged thorny topics (tariffs, the border) by stating his position, but at least he didn't avoid controversy as some politicians are wont to do. He didn't talk about fighting global warming climate change, the number one priority of the opposition.

    But the main reason that the SOTU was of interest was the potential for drama. While the government was "shut down" in January, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had disinvited the President from having the address in the House chambers. Would President Trump deliver red meat to his base? Would the House Democrats show how much they loathed him?

    Everyone behaved civilly, so, like the Academy Awards, we were left to comment on what the women wore.

    For the record I don't care what their politics are, when women dress up I like it.

    Tuesday, February 05, 2019

    Kung Hee Fat Choy

    (VectorStock image)
    The house was empty, and it was time to catch up on some work. But not before I gave a nod to tradition and had a bowl of jai, aka monks' food.

    Today is the Lunar (Chinese) New Year, when we usher in the Pig and say goodbye to the Dog. (While I am indeed grateful to be alive in this time and this place, the last 12 months had unhappy moments and was for me a dog of a year.)

    The jai had been kept in the freezer from last year and still retained its texture. It was made from dozens of herbs and vegetables but wasn't purely vegetarian because it contained oysters. The drawback from keeping it in the freezer for an extended period was that the oyster flavor was strong, and the overall color had been darkened from the black mushrooms and fungus.

    Making jai is a labor of love; it requires skill and patience--neither of which I have--but fortunately there are relatives in the current generation who have carried on the tradition.

    Kung Hee Fat Choy!

    Monday, February 04, 2019

    Super Bowl LIII: Confounding Expectations

    The GCOAT and GQOAT (si.com image)
    NFL rules changes intended to limit injuries have resulted in an explosion in offensive football. Last year's Super Bowl--Eagles 41, Patriots 33--was the second-highest-scoring Super Bowl in history, one point shy of 1995's contest (49ers 49, Chargers 26).

    In this year's championship the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots were both among the top-five offenses in the league--while being in the bottom half in defense--so more fireworks were expected.

    Super Bowl LIII--Patriots 13, Rams 3--confounded expectations. It was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in history and many people called it boring. Not me.

    Toward the end of a tight, low-scoring game each play's importance is heightened. If the defense makes a mistake, that could well be the decider because the offense is unlikely to come back with a score. That sort of game is suspenseful and thrilling, where just making a first down is an achievement or even grinding out field position in a punting duel is sound strategy. (Your humble blogger also enjoys 1-0 pitching duels where sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, and aiming a ground ball to advance the runner are paramount, but I'm a sports fossil.)

    I also appreciated watching Tom Brady and Bill Belichick seal their reputations as the greatest quarterback and coach, respectively, of all time. It was another chance to watch them at work, for in my lifetime I'll never see their like again.

    Sunday, February 03, 2019

    Ancient Wisdom

    Aristotle (NY Times)
    There are innumerable contemporary books on happiness. Classics professor Edith Hall of King's College says that a philosopher who lived 2,300 years ago has something meaningful to say about the subject.

    What is happiness? [bold added]
    Aristotle didn’t equate happiness with wealth, pleasure or fame. For him, happiness was an internal state of mind—a felicity or contentment that we can acquire only by living life in the best way possible.
    How do we become happy?
    In his treatises, Aristotle analyzed a wide range of traits of character—in Greek, ethos, from which we derive the word “ethics.” These included libido, courage, anger, how we treat other people and how we regard money. All of us possess these properties, and happiness comes from cultivating each one in the correct amount, so that it is a virtue (arete) rather than a vice.
    The golden mean is a term associated with Aristotle:
    It is in this notion of the “mean” that Aristotelian ethics differs from other ancient moral systems. Aristotle does not teach, for instance, that anger is a vice and patience a virtue. Rather, he believes that when we feel anger in the right amount, at the right time and toward the right people, it is virtuous. Without it, we wouldn’t stand up for ourselves or for important principles. Failing to feel anger when we are wronged is a vice, but then so is excessive, misplaced or gratuitous anger.

    And the same goes for every other quality. Fiscal responsibility, to take another example, is the virtue lying between the vices of parsimony—which Aristotle despised, especially in the rich—and reckless spending.
    From the anger on display in the public square, I get the feeling that there are many people who are not happy, even though their side is "winning."

    Saturday, February 02, 2019

    Go With the Flow

    "Constructal Law": [bold added]
    “For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve with freedom in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.” [Blogger's comment: Huh?]

    In layman’s terms, that means all shape and structure—all “design” in nature—evolves in a predictable direction: toward facilitating the movement of whatever flows through it. Designs evolve by configuring and reconfiguring themselves to move more stuff more easily. The world around us reveals a story of movement, flow, life, order and change.
    (Duke photo)
    Your humble blogger had previously never heard of Adrian Bejan or constructal law, which the J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University discovered 24 years ago.

    Why are there tree-like structures in our circulatory systems? Darwinists would attribute them to evolution. Professor Bejan saw them in both the organic and inorganic worlds, "the treelike shapes that abound in nature—in lightning bolts and river basins, in our circulatory systems and the neural networks of our brains."

    The new flow-science is beyond tree designs, and once you look for flows, you notice them everywhere:
    “This new physics is not strictly about tree-shaped flows. It is about all the morphing architectures that are macroscopic, free, observable and measurable—for example, the round cross-sections we find in blood vessels, subterranean rivers and the tunnels dugs by worms; or the seemingly precise rhythms of breathing, running, wings flapping, flags waving and smoke plumes dancing. The science of form comes predictively from principle, not from analogy. Evolution is physics, not opinion.”
    Professor Bejan has also applied constructal law to human behavior.: [bold added]
    economic and social inequality is the inevitable result of physical laws. “Hierarchy is not imposed, it is natural,” he says. “Equality, however, is artificial, because it violates the law of evolution in nature.”

    Mr. Bejan emphasizes that he does not mean this as a political statement or a moral defense of inequality: “Physics is not about justice or fairness, but about what happens in nature.” The “physics origin” of inequality, he says, “is that nothing moves unless it is pushed. Pushing comes from power, and power comes from fuel for machines and food for animals. Fuel use is the physics measure of movement, and, like movement, fuel use is distributed nonuniformly around the globe.

    “Next, because the amount of fuel consumed annually by a population is directly proportional to its annual wealth, the GDP, the life movement of a population—the economy—becomes hierarchical naturally, with a few large and many small movers. So physics and economics are two sides of the same coin. The same hierarchical-flow architecture accounts for both.”

    Harnessing that power rather than fighting it, Mr. Bejan argues, is a better way of helping the disadvantaged. “If we think about inequality as a physical phenomenon, perhaps that can inform the discussion, so that instead of trying to erase these differences, we can see how to connect the slow-moving pockets of society to the big-flow architecture,” he says. “Artificial constraints that limit the freedom of a system to change might work for a while. But they are ultimately doomed because they are not just fighting against the will of the people but the laws of physics.”

    Systems must evolve and build on the designs already in place. Thus it is folly to think one can impose radically new political and economic systems on different nations. It’s not just the lack of a specific political tradition and the absence of the channels needed to move people, ideas and goods, Mr. Bejan says: “The chief impediment is the absence of a culture that encourages and rewards freedom to question authority, to speak up, inquire, innovate and implement change.”
    Imposing taxes, subsidizing "affordable housing", and enforcing ever-stricter regulations are examples of pro-equality measures that go against the powerful forces of nature. It would be easier to help the "slow-moving pockets" join, rather than stymie and divert, the flow. Recent politics has been riven by the question of who is on the right side of history. Adrian Bejan says that we should be on the right side of science.

    Below is his 2012 TED talk:

    Friday, February 01, 2019

    Low-Hanging Fruit

    Six months ago we posted on how we've been mis-managing, or more accurately, not managing our cash savings accounts:
    The extreme low-rate environment (less than 0.5%) during the past ten years, however, has caused us to be inattentive to brokers' machinations.
    This inertia is common to many thousands of people: [bold added]
    In a few minutes and with a few clicks of a mouse, you can crank up the yield on your cash by two percentage points, often adding hundreds—even thousands—of dollars to your investment income annually. The only hard part is overcoming your own inertia.
    In September, with one mouse-click I transferred $140,000 to a money-market fund from the .2%-yielding cash account. It was a psychological boost seeing the monthly interest go from $23 to $233. (Though my jobs often require me to analyze much larger investments, these analyses are all ratiocination without intuitive understanding; I can feel the difference between $23 and $233.)

    Several months later, I sold 10,000 shares with another mouse-click and returned $10,000 to the cash account. Easy-peasy.

    So why didn't I manage money more actively sooner (by "active" I mean spend 1-2 minutes a month)? It turns out that I'm not alone.
    In all likelihood, the only thing stopping you is you.

    Inertia may be the most powerful force in financial physics. Once you have cash in a bank or a brokerage account, moving it will tend to feel harder—perhaps even “riskier”—than leaving it there. In what economists call “the flypaper effect,” money tends to stick wherever it lands...

    One study of roughly 850,000 participants in a retirement plan found that 72% had never changed how much they invested in which fund...

    If you are still earning only a fraction of a percentage point on your own cash, kick yourself into motion. You may never get an easier chance to raise your return at no extra risk.
    When beginning an exercise program the hardest step is the first.