Thursday, October 31, 2019

Like Salmon, Except There's No Spawning

The men's room code is 2345. Why bother?
Finishing the morning walk, I stopped by Honolulu Coffee Co. for an hour of caffeinated relaxation in an aesthetically pleasing, air-conditioned room. Uh-oh, I left the wallet back at the house (the loss of memory engrams is becoming really bothersome).

It turned out to be my lucky day; on Thursdays my brother's kid works at that location. He signaled to the barista that everything was copacetic; he would pay for my order. He's a thoughtful nephew and must get that from his mother.

Though I've lived nearly 50 years on the Mainland, I still run into and recognize people I know in Honolulu. It makes little financial sense to move from horrible California to almost-as-horrible Hawaii during my final years, but the call of my birth State is getting stronger.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

First Day: Could Have Gone Better

After landing at Honolulu International, I joined Mom and two of my brothers for lunch at the Mini Garden. Yes, it's a bad habit but an enjoyable one, like many bad habits are. Offering to take Mom back to her assisted living apartment in Hawaii Kai, I envisioned that it would be a quick trip at two o'clock, well in advance of rush hour.

At the Mini Garden 
Something was amiss. The street lights were off, making a left turn from eastbound Kalanianaole Highway into Hawaii Kai hazardous. In Northern California, where power outages are the new normal, we are very familiar with the rule that intersections with non-functioning lights are to be treated as four-way stops.

In Hawaii not everyone knows the rule; some cars, assuming they had the right-of-way, barreled through at 45 MPH while other lanes came to a stop. As I said, hazardous.

Arriving at the assisted living facility, we learned of the power outage that affected East Oahu.
A tree that fell on power lines knocked out electricity to thousands of customers across east Oahu on Wednesday.

HECO said the outage started about 1 p.m., and affected customers from Hawaii Kai to Waimanalo.

Some 13,000 customers were affected initially, and electricity was restored in waves.

By 5:30 p.m., all but a few pocket outages remained.
The only way to get to Mom's apartment was via one of three elevators, all useless. I waited with Mom in the lobby for the next three hours until the elevators came back on. (She was actually safer than the residents stuck upstairs, who would be in a bind if there were a fire or other emergency; most of them use walkers and wheelchairs.)

Kalakaua Avenue banyan
Comments:

1) This is a good wake-up call for the assisted living facility; evacuation protocols when the power is out were non-existent.

2) Trouble Follows Me Dept.: having escaped the PG&E shut-offs, I ran straight into one on my first day in Hawaii. Luck and life can turn on a dime.

3) Sodden thought; if it weren't for trees there would be no wildfires or power interruptions in Northern California, or trees falling on power lines in Hawaii. Go ahead and love them, but with eyes open.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Hell of Our Own Making

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

(Wallpaper safari image)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
We first pondered Robert Frost's short and superficially simple poem in grade school. By then we were familiar with scientists' predictions about the fate of our planetary home: the sun will become a red giant and envelop the earth, which, if it somehow remained intact, would spend eternity frozen in the orbit of a dead star. But our elementary minds couldn't fathom the poet's allusions to the emotions of desire and hate. Hey, we're talking science here! (Wikipedia: "John N. Serio claims that the poem is a compression of Dante's Inferno.")

As we contemplate the disasters that are unfolding in California--wildfires, high winds, evacuations, and power shut-offs--we are catching a glimpse of what the poet is referring to. With thousands displaced, the damage only beginning to be assessed, and new fires popping up, some prominent politicians are laying blame, resulting of course in counter-accusations:
The Soda Rock Winery, Healdsburg (Chronicle photo)
Gov. Gavin Newsom is trying to deflect political blame. “It’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change. It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement,” Mr. Newsom declared. But Democrats for years have treated PG&E as their de facto political subsidiary. The wildfires and blackouts are the direct result of their mismanagement...

Yet PG&E received no safety fines related to its power-grid management over the last several years. The commission has instead focused on enforcing the Legislature’s climate mandates.

State law mandates that utilities obtain 33% of electric generation from renewables such as wind and solar by 2020 and 60% by 2030. Utilities must spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to reduce the cost of green energy for low-income households. PG&E has prioritized political obeisance over safety.

In 2018 PG&E spent $509 million on electric discounts for low-income customers in addition to $125 million for no-cost weatherization and efficiency upgrades for disadvantaged communities. Utilities also receive allowances from the state’s cap-and-trade program—$7.5 billion since 2012—to pay for other “ratepayer benefits” that reduce emissions.
In a discussion with a climate-change activist over the weekend, he named PG&E as the cause of the entire disaster. I said that PG&E is a regulated monopoly and is following the directives of the Public Utilities Commission. "So it's the government's fault?" my friend asked. No. It's all our fault--we elected the politicians who gave the marching orders to PG&E.

Besides, if I blamed the government or the Democratic Party--which are synonymous in California--we'd get into a heated, purposeless argument.

One thing that we and Robert Frost can all agree upon, albeit for different reasons: we are in a hell of our own making.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Impeachment Advice from Willie Brown

Seasoned Democratic leader Willie Brown says the Democrats are playing with fire by holding secret impeachment hearings:
(Photo from Willie L. Brown, Jr.., Institute)
Americans inherently distrust any kind of government action that takes place out of public view, whether it’s a city council closed session or a closed-door congressional hearing.

For years, Democrats have led the charge for transparency in government, be it foreign policy or investigations into police shootings. Now these same Democrats are going behind closed doors to get the goods on Trump.

They can point to Republicans’ private interviews during their endless Benghazi investigations as justification for their strategy. But it wasn’t a good look then, and it’s not a good look now. Be better, right?

If the Democrats have hard evidence on Trump, they need to display it to the public in real time, rather than having bits and pieces and opening statements leak out without the context of the questioning that followed, from members of both parties.

Because the danger is there’s no bombshell, and Democrats replay their overhyping of Robert Mueller’s probe into the 2016 election, with no time to recover before November 2020.
The Republican theory is that the Democrats hope to damage President Trump's re-election prospects by not resolving impeachment until sometime next year, maybe even through the November election. If the Democrats had the goods they would present the case to the American people in open proceedings; because they don't, they can leak selective information from partisan "whistleblowers" to damage the President and his party. They and an anti-Trump media can bomb away without consequence; the President and the Republicans are helpless to respond to an unofficial inquiry.

The risk to the Democrats, IMHO, is that if secret proceedings carry on too long a disgusted electorate will nationalize the Congressional races more than usual. Enough Democratic seats will flip to the Republican side to limit the impeachment circus to Mr. Trump's first term.

If they open up the proceedings, Democrats have a chance of keeping the House and keeping impeachment going. They should listen to Willie Brown, but they probably won't.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Barring Barr

The attorney general gives a speech on secularism, and the left goes bananas.
--William McGurn, WSJ

(Photo from National Catholic Reporter)
Speeches by public figures are so numerous and predictable that I rarely pay attention, but because of the brouhaha I had to take a look. Aside: the Barr speech and the reaction to it are a version of the Streisand effect, named after Barbra Streisand's 2003 attempt at photo suppression that backfired by calling widespread attention to pictures of her Malibu home.

I personally found the speech by Attorney General William Barr (below the page break) to contain a main proposition that should be debated: [bold added]
Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.

No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.

But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.

On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles....

Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves – freely obeying the dictates of inwardly-possessed and commonly-shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will – they must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.

In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people – a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.
Rather than debate William Barr's ideas--ideas that trace back to the Enlightenment--opponents prefer to shout him down and associate him with the worst villains of history:
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman accused Mr. Barr of “religious bigotry” and described his words as a “pogrom type speech.”

Political ethicist and professional attention seeker Richard Painter tapped out a series of even more furious tweets, here calling the speech the latest episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there suggesting Mr. Barr isn’t much of a Christian, here again saying Mr. Barr sounded like “vintage Goebbels.” Over at MSNBC, meanwhile, retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, once chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, told Joy Reid the attorney general is “Torquemada in a business suit,” a reference to the Spanish Inquisition’s grand inquisitor.
Mr. Barr is pondering an age-old question: how do we form a good society? The innate sinfulness of man (too quaint? contemporary terms are racism, sexism, greed, narcissism, tribalism, sociopathy, psychopathy, misanthropy, and misogyny) requires controls to prevent individuals' most harmful actions.

If "coercive" government is the sole means of restraint, the result is ultimately tyranny. And, unless the powerful government is administered by selfless philosopher-kings, it becomes peopled with sinful individuals who can act with no hindrance--no one governs the governors--in satisfaction of their own appetites. Ultimately every Socialist or National Socialist society becomes corrupt--the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Maoist China are also the deadliest examples--as the favored few become immensely wealthy over the immiserated masses (ironically this was the capitalist evil that Marx railed against).

William Barr embraces the "Framers' view" that a people and society steeped in religion will act morally most of the time and need only limited government and laws to hold society together.
“Law reflects but in no sense determines the moral worth of a society. The values of a reasonably just society will reflect themselves in a reasonably just law. The better the society, the less law there will be. In heaven there will be no law, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. The values of an unjust society will reflect themselves in an unjust law. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.”---Grant Gilmore (1910-1982)
Come, Progressives, let us reason together. Don't shout down people who question the ever-expanding role of the State. After all, they want what you want: a State that will wither away.



Saturday, October 26, 2019

California: Enjoy the Comic Circumstances

California local governments have been able to harvest significant sums from the taxi industry; permit fees have to be purchased in each city and can total $3,000 to $13,000 depending on where a cab operates.

(Chart from Rideguru)
Ride-sharing companies have severely damaged this revenue source in recent years. It had been hoped that a new California law going into effect would increase the taxes on Uber and Lyft and help taxis compete. As is too often the case, the law has unintended consequences: [bold added]
California’s new gig work law, which takes effect in January, sought to prod Uber and Lyft to turn their drivers from independent contractors into employees.

It could hit the taxi industry instead.

Taxi drivers are generally contractors. While many say they might benefit financially by making minimum wage and overtime plus benefits, they also fear their industry is so financially precarious that the additional expenses could make it collapse.

“If we weren’t struggling to stay afloat, I would probably support AB5 for taxi drivers,” Marcelo Fonseca, a longtime San Francisco driver, said of the gig-work law. But “in this current market, AB5 will probably bankrupt the taxi industry.”
Uber and Lyft plan to fight the gig-workers-are-employees law in the courts and through ballot propositions, bypassing the legislature:
Uber and Lyft don’t intend to reclassify their drivers, despite the law. They are pursuing a 2020 ballot initiative to allow independent contractor drivers to receive some benefits and minimum earnings guarantees. Uber says it will battle reclassification in court.

“The supreme irony is that these companies with their billion of dollars in venture capital can fight this off, and probably prolong that fight for a very long time, whereas the taxi industry may be subject to this on very short notice,” Gruberg said.

“If the taxi industry has to absorb employee status while Uber and Lyft get a pass because they go to the voters or drag it out in the courts for years, this could be our death knell.”
In the one-party State of California your humble blogger has grown accustomed to laws being passed and then watching the scramble to undo the unintended consequences.

We can't do anything about it, so we've learned not only to accept but enjoy the comic circumstances.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Steve Job's Wisest Decision

Unlike other Silicon Valley tycoons opposed to Donald Trump--a redundant description now that the President's only major SV supporter moved to LA--Tim Cook has kept the lines of communications open:
(WSJ photo)
Mr. Cook is one of the few executives in a hyperpolarized political era who has managed to both support and challenge the president’s agenda in a way that has kept him in Mr. Trump’s good graces while avoiding any public backlash from either employees or customers.
The laudatory Journal article, IMHO, understates the business and political skill of Tim Cook. He can express disagreement with the President and his own virulently anti-Trump work force without being vilified by either. And he is able to maintain cordial relations with China though Apple is one of the most prominent symbols of America and a visible target for China's displeasure.

This month the Apple CEO was named the chairman of the advisory board for Tsinghua University's economics and management school, aka the "Harvard Business School" of China. The appointment was lambasted by some American hard-liners, but declining the position would not only have hurt Apple but also the U.S.-China trade negotiations. The result is that Tim Cook has the ear of everyone and is respected by everyone.

Most of us didn't see it clearly in 2011, but naming Tim Cook his successor was Steve Jobs' wisest decision.

AAPL has outperformed the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Neflix, Google) stocks in 2019.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Familiar Stories

Voters: this is what our taxes should go for (Daily Republic)
It's a familiar story of government--propose higher taxes (in this case gas taxes), promise the voters that the funds are only to be spent on road repair, then divert the monies to other uses. Even in the single-party State of California it was too much for some Democrats: [bold added]
[Governor Gavin] Newsom stepped onto a political land mine when he called for $5 billion in annual transportation funds to be diverted to projects that would “help reverse the trend of fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” mostly coming from cars and trucks.

Representatives from both parties panicked, worrying that Newsom would raid funding for their roads and highways and spend it on his own pet projects. They feared, moreover, that he might target money generated by a gas-tax increase that’s angered people in the car-dependent Central Valley and Southern California. The gas tax — called SB1 — led Orange County voters to recall a state senator who supported it, and prompted an unsuccessful repeal campaign last year...

“Raiding funding from important local projects in the Central Valley is wrong,” said Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock (Stanislaus County), in a statement. “We pay outrageously high taxes — including for gas — and it’s time we start seeing some of the benefits we paid for.”

Harder’s concerns were fueled, in part, by a recent state transportation budget proposal. It included cuts to a road-widening project on Highway 99, which runs through the Central Valley.
Central Valley Democrats can identify with African-American voters. The Party thanks you for your faithful support every two years. Now let us get onto important things like climate change, forbidding travel to pro-life states*, banning plastic straws and shopping bags, taxing churches, impeachment, and open borders. Quit bothering us with your petty concerns.

*San Francisco’s policy, which eventually becomes California’s, which eventually becomes part of the Democratic Party platform.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Homelessness: We Only Say It's Our Top Priority

A recent poll found Californians' top concern to be homelessness, and the Chronicle offers only a perfunctory solution: [bold added]
San Jose homeless encampment (Mercury News)
Their two other top issues — jobs and the economy, followed by housing costs — are closely related to homelessness.

...No city in California can do it alone, in fact. The magnitude of the state’s intertwined problems on housing and homelessness has outstripped the resources of any one local government. Judging from the Public Policy Institute poll results, voters appear to be realizing this. Now they just need their state and local governments to work together on a solution.

For the Bay Area, that means a regional solution, with each city doing its part to increase all housing in general and very low-income housing for the homeless population. Because too many cities have failed to do their fair share, it makes sense for the state to take on a strong enforcement role.

All of our elected leaders need only look at voters’ top concerns to see the wisdom — and the necessity — of this course.
Commuters in stopped traffic trying to get home on the
Hayward-San Mateo Bridge 10 mi away (Mercury News)
The Chronicle editorialists are correct in saying that the problems are "intertwined" but their solution--adding a layer of regional bureaucracy and more power to the State for "enforcement"--is pedestrian, slow, costly and likely to produce reports that would be obsolete as soon as they're printed.

A far more pragmatic approach would be for individual cities to free up housing development on the many thousands of acres of open space in the Bay Area. These lots could be as highly regulated as the cities want to make them and could be developed on a pilot basis. Less bureaucracy, more property tax dollars, less traffic congestion and pollution would be the benefits.

But of course this approach wouldn't even be considered, since we Peninsula property owners prefer the open spaces that we visit 1-2 times a month over our East Bay neighbors who sit on the bridges, cars idling, for hours every day.

So let's get yet another regional planning board going. At least it will create more government jobs, though that's not what the California poll respondents had in mind.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

California Offshore Disaster, Western Civ to Blame

Yet another ecological disaster is unfolding, this time off the coast of California. [bold added]
(Chronicle graphic)
A climate-related catastrophe off the California coast has resulted in the death of 90% of the kelp from San Francisco to Oregon as an explosion of ravenous urchins devours everything in sight. And it’s happening at the same time native fish in San Francisco Bay are dying out, two studies released Monday documented...

The kelp study, published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, chronicles a dramatic decline in the ocean ecosystem that started in 2013 when millions of sea stars along the coast of California withered and died. Without their main predator, the native kelp-eating purple sea urchin population skyrocketed to 60 times its historic numbers.

That was followed, from 2014 to 2017, by a marine heat wave and an El NiƱo weather event of unprecedented scale. The ocean heated as much as 6 degrees during that time, and toxic algae formed along the coast, killing many species.

The warm water began killing off the lush forests of bull kelp, and then ravenous urchins finished them off, leaving a barren seascape.
Urchins, urchins everywhere (Chronicle photo)
The sea stars dying in 2013 was the triggering event--scientists aren't certain why--and the article tries to attribute the disaster entirely to climate change. That indeed may turn out to be the case, though it's too bad the writers couldn't get one scientist to go on the record with an unequivocal statement about the sea stars' death. Then the opening sentence could have said "climate-caused catastrophe" instead of "climate-related", but they're counting on readers not noticing.

The go-to villain, Donald Trump, wasn't even in politics in 2013, and we certainly can't blame Barack Obama or Jerry Brown.

Why oh why do these bad things keep happening to California?

Monday, October 21, 2019

Finance: An Ala Carte World

Amidst some fanfare Charles Schwab announced this month that its customers will pay no commissions on trades.

WSJ columnist Jason Zweig explains how the firm can afford to do so: customers leave $billions of their cash in "sweep" accounts that pay nearly zero. The almost-interest-free loan that Schwab gets from these accounts dwarfs any commission that it could earn on trades.
Schwab can offer such cheap options partly because of how it handles investors’ cash. The firm automatically sweeps idle cash not into money-market mutual funds or other assets that could yield about 2% at today’s rates, but into its own bank, which pays peanuts....

As of June 30, deposits at Schwab’s bank totaled $208 billion. This week, clients were earning between 0.12% and 0.55% on those balances.
Working for nearly 2% extra is a small step for a man but a giant
leap for Schwab's earnings (Crane Data via WSJ)
Last year we noted how Charles Schwab (whose services we like, by the way) was paying us a paltry 0.2% on our cash balances. This year we've begun managing our accounts again, i.e., monitoring the balances, transferring cash to higher-yielding (2-3% -- whoop-de-do!) money-market accounts, and selling the money-market funds and transferring the proceeds back when we needed cash.

I'm going through the trouble because 1) money management is worth several hundred dollars a month, and more importantly 2) a big financial institution thinks I'm too lazy to do it and I'll show them that they're wrong (mostly)!

Historical fun fact: Merrill Lynch invented the Cash Management Account (CMA) a generation ago, which promised to pay customers money-market rates on cash balances. The CMA proved extraordinarily successful because no longer would retail customers like us have to actively manage their cash, savings, and brokerage accounts.

We've now come full circle and gone back to active management. Like air travel, phone service, fine dining, medical insurance, and a host of other products, in personal finance it's now an ala carte world.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Holy Alliance

(Photo from tom-holland.org)
Two political opponents--radical feminism and evangelical Christianity--came together in the 1980's to outlaw pornography (they failed). Since then this unexpected alliance has reconstituted itself whenever their interests align--for example, in questioning whether transgender women are truly women.

Historian Tom Holland sees another cross-over point--The Christian Roots of #MeToo: [bold added]
“#MeToo would not have any impact—would have no resonance,” Mr. Holland says, “if it were not culturally taken for granted that men do not have the right to force themselves on their inferiors. This is a cultural given in the United States, that men do not have this right.”

It is, however, “a very, very culturally distinctive assumption.” In ancient Rome, for instance, “the essence of being a male citizen was that you had the right to penetrate pretty much anyone who was not a citizen, or the wife of a citizen, or the chattel of a citizen.” In that world, the “sexual binary” was not between men and women but between those who had power and those who lacked it.
The Christian roots of #MeToo are another example of inconvenient historical truths, like how slavery eventually became unconscionable due to the Christian belief that every human being is a child of God, or how the Republican Party was a far less racist party than the Democrats (Lincoln was a Republican, KKK leaders were Democrats, Republicans helped Lyndon Johnson pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964).

If we know where we're from it helps us get where we're going.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Lavatories of Democracy

It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.--- Louis Brandeis (1856-1941)
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' dissent in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262 (1932) gave rise to the popular description of States as "laboratories of democracy" in the American system of governance.

Politicians of all stripes generally view Federalism favorably, at least in the abstract, because of its potential for innovation through experimentation at the State level, just as free-market economies are structurally more prone to improvement than ones that are centrally planned. However, let us also reflect on the other benefit cited by Justice Brandeis, that bad ideas have a greater chance of being stopped before they spread to the rest of the country.

It's become clear that two States, California and New York, that are world-class leaders in technology and finance, respectively, are jeopardizing the sources of their wealth by being a "laboratory" for utopian visions . [bold added]
PG&E: blackouts could occur for 10 more years (WSJ)
Millions of California residents were left in the dark last week, and it wasn’t because of an earthquake or storm or terrorist attack. It was the result of government mismanagement of a state utility, which intentionally cut off power to avoid wildfires caused by outdated electric lines. Instead of upgrading its equipment, Pacific Gas & Electric has been spending billions to fight global warming at the behest of state lawmakers. Californians already pay electricity bills well above the national average and nearly double what customers pay in neighboring Oregon. In return they get rolling blackouts reminiscent of the Third World.

Los Angeles made news earlier this year because of a typhus outbreak. Rat infestations, linked to homeless camps, were discovered at City Hall. In June the city reported that its homeless population had grown by 16% over the past year. Since 2017 it has risen 17% in San Francisco and 43% in Alameda County, which includes Oakland.

California’s homelessness rate is the nation’s highest, and its growth in recent years has coincided with a conscious decision by the state to go easier on criminals—a disproportionate number of whom are homeless. Thanks to a ballot initiative that passed in 2014, the theft of goods valued at less than $950 is considered a misdemeanor rather that a felony and usually results in no punishment....

NYC homeless shelter in 2014 (Gotham Gazette)
New York is another state where progressives call the shots and where progressivism has been disastrous. Earlier this month, a homeless man in New York City was charged with beating four sleeping men to death with a metal rod. Less than a week later, another vagrant was arrested for body-slamming a 6-year-old boy who was waiting in front of his grandparents’ home for a pizza delivery. Both suspects have histories of crime and mental illness, but progressive policy makers are loath to institutionalize such people. The rights of the homeless and mentally unstable trump the rights of others to walk the streets safely.

Or consider upstate New York, an economic dead zone for decades. The region had much to gain from the fracking boom because it happens to sit on the Marcellus Shale formation, one of the largest sources of natural gas in the country. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo takes his orders from antifracking environmentalists, not upstate voters, so the region continues to suffer.
Experiments that turn out disastrously teach valuable lessons, and there's no reason to repeat them elsewhere.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Rejecting a Solution That is Worse Than the Problem

Tourists climb on the Lombard residents' walls (Chron photo);
the proposed bill didn't penalize pedestrians, however.
Last month we noted the proposal to tax cars that drove down Lombard, the "crookedest street in the world." Governor Newsom vetoed the bill last Saturday.
"I am acutely aware of the need to address congestion and safety around Lombard Street,” Newsom said in a veto message. “However, the pricing program proposed in this bill creates social equity issues. Access to this iconic attraction should be available to all, regardless of their ability to pay.”
The state of our State is indeed dismal when Gavin Newsom, the politician whom I will never vote for, seems like the only sane voice in Sacramento.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Across the Lagoon

The night was cold and clear. An hour before midnight I had the boardwalk to myself. Across the lagoon the lights on Whaler's Island shone brightly.

It was late on Thursday, but after last week's power shut down maybe we're all appreciating the lights a little bit more.

Update: 10/18/2019 - The houses do seem more cheery in the sunlight.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Probiotics: Not So Fast

Our home-brew kefir collection
We have been adding probiotics to our diet in the furtherance of gut health. (For example, we've been drinking kefir for the past two months.)

As with any foods or treatments that have become popular due to purported health benefits, probiotics research has ramped up. One study by the University of Texas cautions that supplements may actually do more harm than good. Dr. Lorenzo Cohen: [bold added]
My personal results were mirrored by a study that our MD Anderson team had just presented at an international meeting. The provocative findings received a lot of publicity. The preliminary results showed that patients who reported taking an over-the-counter probiotic supplement had a lower probability of responding to immunotherapy as well as lower microbiome biodiversity. But those eating a high-fiber diet were about five times more likely to respond to immunotherapy and had high gut bacteria diversity, including bacteria previously linked to a strong immunotherapy response....

Yet I now believe that the cheapest and safest way to improve our microbiome and gut health is to make simple dietary changes to feed the development of good bacteria and crowd out the bad. There is no pill, special food, unique diet or quick fix for what ails our health and diet. The key is simply to focus on eating a diverse, whole-food, plant-centered, high-fiber diet.
Dr. Cohen seems to be saying that we shouldn't get our probiotics from a pill or a bottle but have to do it the hard way. How does he expect to get any grant money?

From the early 20th century: Swamp Root cures
"internal slime fever". At least it's plant-based.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Our Tax Freedom Day, 2019

This was the pile from 2016. The 2018 heap is lower by 10%.
Despite earlier resolve, I couldn't scrounge up any meaningful reductions to the draft worked up in April. Today was the final date extensions were due for filing one's 2018 Federal and State income tax returns. We actually mailed them last week.

The paperwork has gone down over the years. We've been simplifying our financial lives by getting rid of small accounts, which reduces fees and saves time opening the mail and filing documents away.

Tax Freedom Day is popularly known as the date average Americans start working for themselves, assuming government gets first claim when the New Year starts. For us Tax Freedom Day is when we file our returns.

We'll enjoy the next few weeks, then start looking at the 2019 picture for ourselves and a few others.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Happy Columbus Day

To commemorate Columbus Day the Christopher Columbus statue on Telegraph Hill was vandalized:
2008 file photo of Telegraph Hill (Chronicle)
A statue of Christopher Columbus at San Francisco’s Coit Tower was vandalized with red paint over the weekend.

The words “Kill all colonizers” were painted on the concrete that encircles the statue, said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose district encompasses the park.

By Sunday afternoon, crews had cleaned up the paint on the statue, located on Telegraph Hill in North Beach...

The federal holiday of Columbus Day is celebrated Monday. San Francisco supervisors voted in January 2018 to instead celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.
Following the modern tendency of viewing the deeds of historical figures and cultures through the prism of today's morality, we eagerly await critical academic analysis of Indigenous People's practices, such as human sacrifice, cannibalism, and polygyny (one man, two or more wives).

While they're working on it we lift a glass to Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella. Salud!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Jeremiah: Relevant Advice

As an infrequent Old Testament reader, your humble blogger was surprised by today's lesson from Jeremiah 29: [bold added]
Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel ceiling
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.
Before the Babylonian Exile the prophet Jeremiah was a haranguer; he constantly admonished the Jews to change their evil ways, to no avail. Babylon destroyed the Jewish kingdom and deported its leaders.

Once the Exile became fact Jeremiah softened his tone and told the Jews to accept their new lives and "settle down". Moreover, they were to "seek the peace and prosperity" of their new country because it would benefit the Jews as well.

If today's migrants followed that advice--and if host nations trusted that they were trying to do so---the world would be a much happier place.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Doin' It Different Because We're Better

Gas price map from https://gasprices.aaa.com/
I pulled into the South City Costco gas station. The price was $3.939 per gallon, 30 cents higher than last week.

Quick thought--it must be another Mideast crisis; it can't be the economy, which appears to be slowing.

Nope, the AAA website didn't show a national spike. What was puzzling and galling was the map's average nation-wide price of $2.636.

The Wall Street Journal explains why our prices are 50% higher on a commodity: [bold added]
Gas prices in the Golden State have shot up 30 cents a gallon in the last week amid problems at in-state refineries to a statewide average of $4.03 a gallon and may be headed higher. Prices rose a mere 10 cents nationwide in the week after the attacks on Saudi facilities and have since ticked down a few cents.

A big reason gas prices didn’t spike after the Saudi attack is growing U.S. shale oil production, which has doubled since 2012 to about 12.5 million barrels a day and added about six million barrels to global supply. This has more than offset the 5.7 million barrels that were temporarily knocked out of Saudi production.

Yet oil production in California has declined about 18% since 2012 as older wells are exhausted and regulatory costs make it less profitable to drill new ones. California has made up for its declining domestic production by importing more foreign oil by tanker, especially from, you guessed it, Saudi Arabia—which emits more CO2.

Regulatory costs have also forced many refiners in the state to close. The California Energy Commission notes that “the cost of complying with environmental regulations and low product prices will continue to make it difficult to continue operating older, less efficient refineries.” Few refineries outside of the state produce the unique fuel blends required by California.

Thus when California refineries experience problems, retailers must import foreign gasoline at steep prices, a challenge partly exacerbated by the outages in Saudi Arabia. Add California’s 61-cent-a-gallon gas tax—the highest in the country—and this is why its gas prices are now nearly $1.40 higher than the U.S. average and $1.70 more than in Texas.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently remarked that “Saudi Arabia is showing us how dependent we are on foreign oil.” By “we,” he means the royal California.
I blame the rich, greedy oil companies that like to rip off Californians but go easy on the rest of the country (sarc!).

Related -- CNN May, 2019 headline on Venezuela: Why the country with the world's largest oil reserves faces gas shortages. California isn't as bad as Venezuela, but just give us time.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop The Subject

(WSJ graphic)
The state of politics stresses out many Americans: [bold added]
A study published in September in the journal PLOS One found that politics is a source of stress for 38% of Americans.

“The major takeaway from this is that if our numbers are really anywhere in the ballpark, there are tens of millions of Americans who see politics as exacting a toll on their social, psychological, emotional and even physical health,” says Kevin Smith, lead author of the study and chair of the political science department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The study included 800 people in a nationally representative poll and asked them 32 questions. Among the findings:
* 11.5% say politics has adversely affected their physical health.
* 18.3% say they’ve lost sleep because of politics.
* 26.4% say they have become depressed when a preferred candidate lost.
* 26.5% say politics has led them to hate some people.
* 20% say differences in views have damaged a valued friendship.

...Common problems include sleep disturbances and falling out with family members and friends with divergent views. Social media battles are another source of tension. [Dr. Amanda Johnson, Iowa psychologist,] advises patients to take breaks from social media and watching the news. “If they want to be engaged, we work on finding ways they could have some effect on change, like becoming more involved with a campaign,” she says.

She also encourages patients to set boundaries with family and friends to avoid inflammatory conversations.
Too bad the survey didn't provide details about the political views of those who are losing sleep, initiating the breakup of friendships, or feeling angry. I daresay the vast majority of the troubled oppose President Trump. Living in the great Blue State of California, I often experience people bringing politics into discussions--usually out of nowhere and usually not just critical but scornful of the President.

I remarked on this anger and polarization in 2008, breathing a sigh of relief when President Obama was elected though I didn't vote for him:.
Put in the pictures of Hillary Clinton and Donald
Trump, and the matrix is still valid
For nearly eight years we’ve had to put up with not just whining but vituperative outbursts at home, in classes, at work, on TV, in coffee shops, and in bookstores. Exposure to the enraged is very wearying, if not hazardous to one’s health. Most conservatives avoided political arguments because they often culminated in personal insults and screaming fits.

Frankly, I feared a McCain come-from-behind win because of the anger his victory would have unleashed. (Take the Proposition 8 protests in California and multiply by a thousand.) The Obama triumph, on the other hand, has triggered overwhelming exultation in those who voted for him and only anxiety and disappointment---but very few instances of anger---in McCain supporters.
I thought that not only the Obama victory but the Democratic sweep in 2009-2010 would have ratcheted down the temperature in American politics. Everyone can see that the pendulum swings, power isn't permanent, and each side gets a chance. Boy, was I wrong; in 2019 the anger seems more pronounced than ever.

My advice, which I've followed (most of the time) during the Obama and Trump years: Turn Off the television, Tune Out the news, and drop politics from your discussions.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Glimmer of Green

Inoperative Tesla charging station in Napa (Chron photo)
During yesterday's electricity shutdown, conservative websites chuckled about expensive, idle Teslas that weren't able to recharge.

As we've noted before, if you're going with alternative energy, go all in. Vertically integrate an electric car with solar panels and a storage system.

What many neglect to include is the latter. Rather than purchase electricity high from fickle PG&E during the night and sell it low to them during the day, for us it's essential to find a storage solution, typically a battery.

2017: independence means buying two.
With car, battery, and panels, one can be completely independent of PG&E. The economics of this solar triad weren't appealing when we first looked at Tesla's PowerWall in 2017. The costs may still be higher than we want to pay, but does the concept work?

Headline: Tesla owners weather PG&E’s power outage as gas stations across CA shut down. The headline doesn't tell the complete story: [bold added]
Amidst the chaos surrounding the state, Tesla owners who purchased a Powerwall 2 battery with rooftop solar systems have reported that they are barely feeling the effects of the ongoing outage. Mark Flocco, a homeowner who acquired two Powerwalls for his home, noted in a Twitter post that his battery units have been powering his house with no issues since the outages started.

Considering that there seems to be enough sun in CA these days, Flocco noted in a follow-up post that his two Powerwalls haven’t dipped below 68% before the next day begins and they can start getting power from the sun again. Thus, for now, the Powerwall 2 owner’s home could remain powered indefinitely, or at least until the days start getting shorter...

Tesla’s electric car and energy storage business is designed to promote an ecosystem that allows customers to achieve energy independence from the grid. By using the company’s electric cars together with its solar panels and home batteries, owners could essentially power their vehicles and houses with the sun. This, ultimately, is Tesla’s endgame, and if the performance of Powerwall 2 batteries and solar panels in PG&E’s current outage is any indication, a good number of homeowners might very well end up purchasing batteries and solar systems for their houses after this incident.
At the time we roughed out the cost, installation of two PowerWall batteries and Tesla's panels (really energy-collecting shingles) would have totaled around $40,000. When one adds the car, we're talking six figures.

With technology improving and costs coming down each year, the question for us is when, not if.

We may not be "green" in the ideological sense, but we are finally seeing a glimmer of green in a switch to alternative energy.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Fiddling Around, But At Least We're Not Burning

Pacific Gas & Electric shut off the power to an estimated 800,000 Californians today. [bold added]
Scores of Northern California residents are preparing to lose power for an extended period because the company that provides their electricity chose to shut down its infrastructure so it doesn’t start yet another catastrophic wildfire during high winds and low humidity.
(Chronicle graphic)


PG&E helpfully provided county-by-county outage maps.

In general, areas like Foster City were in no danger of wildfires and avoided the shutdown.

Foster City, built on landfill, is miles away from the green tree-covered hills that are covered with brown tinder during drought years.

Already anger is building toward PG&E, not so much for the decision itself--economic estimates for the shutdown are about $1 billion to avoid the $8 billion in damage from wildfires like those in the recent past--but for the mismanagement that put us in this situation.

I think the critics are being too harsh. The utility has been focusing on California's stated priority of converting power sources to renewable energy (except for nuclear), where PG&E is ahead of schedule. They're just doing what we wanted them to do.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

It's All Connected

James Peebles, 2019 Physics Nobel laureate, discusses his work in cosmology: [bold added]
Michel Mayor, Didier Queloz, and James Peebles (WSJ)
“We have very clear evidence that our universe did expand from a hot, dense state, but although the theory is thoroughly tested, we still must admit that dark matter and dark energy are mysterious,” Dr. Peebles said. “Although we have made great advances in understanding the nature and evolution of our universe, there are still many open questions.”
Lyrics from the first verse of the theme song of the hit series The Big Bang Theory:
Our whole universe was in a hot dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started. Wait...
The Earth began to cool
The autotrophs began to drool
Neanderthals developed tools
We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery
That all started with the big bang!
In the series finale of the Big Bang Theory Sheldon and Amy win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In the real-life presentation of the Physics award to Dr. Peebles, Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor, and Swiss astrophysicist Didier Queloz, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences member Ulf Danielsson quoted,
"Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state, then nearly 14 billion years ago expansion started.'
Historians of the distant future may well be perplexed by this melding together of music, television entertainment, and theoretical physics in a hot dense state. And note the coincidence of the fictional culmination of the 12-year TV show in Stockholm with the actual Physics award going to someone who studied the Big Bang as his life's work.

The (inter) action is spooky.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Willie Brown: Rooting for a Rematch

Party elder Willie Brown thinks the strongest Democratic Presidential candidate in 2020 would be Hillary Clinton:
Clinton is the only candidate short of Barack Obama who has the brains, the battle-tested brawn and the national presence to take out Trump. And Obama can’t run.

Bernie Sanders was fading even before his heart started acting up. Joe Biden has become Trump’s main talking point in the whole Ukraine-China impeachment mess, which hardly helps him. And he wasn’t exactly running away with it before that.

Elizabeth Warren has a following, but it’s not that much broader than Sanders’. If he drops out, she might pick up some of his votes. But there’s the big question of whether she appeals to anyone besides the furthest left element of the Democratic Party.

Depression over the current field was swirling through my head the other day when I popped into the office of my friend Steven Kay and saw that famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing victorious over Sonny Liston hanging on the wall.

That’s when the light went on: “Rematch!”

Think about it. Hillary is still the smartest of the bunch. She’s also better known than any of the candidates, so she doesn’t need a lot of money.

Most of all, she can take a punch. Heck, she can take a 2-by-4 over the head and stay standing.
Willie Brown's assessment of the field makes sense. But will Mrs. Clinton still excite enough Democrats in the swing states to tip the election? (Blowout victories in California and New York don't count more than close ones.) It seems to this observer that other candidates would do a better job with younger voters. But what do I know--I'm neither young nor a Democrat.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Blessing of the Animals, 2019

Since 2006 local Episcopal priests have set up shop next to the Foster City Dog Park on the first Sunday in October.

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, celebrates the life of one of the greatest saints in Christendom with the Blessing of the Animals.

A line of pets and their owners had assembled at 12:30 when we arrived.

Some were regulars at this annual event; one even brought us cupcakes.

Newcomers said they had seen the notice on the Marquee, Foster City's large electronic billboard at Hillsdale & Shell.

Some animals were young and frisky, just getting their start in life. Others were old and sickly and had seen better days. From the way their human companions handled them, all were loved.

800 years after he died, St. Francis' spirit is alive and well.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

Invented in America

Vivian Chan and Jennifer Qiao
in Redwood City (SMDJ photo)
Over 40 years ago my wife changed out of the traditional wedding gown used for the Christian ceremony into a cheongsam for the reception.

There haven't been many changes to the latter in the intervening years, and two recent Yale graduates were unhappy with the selection:
Best friends Vivian Chan and Jennifer Qiao, both 28, founded East Meets Dress about a year ago after Qiao had a hard time finding the right cheongsam for her own wedding...

"Vera bespoke dress"
"We've taken the key elements of a traditional cheongsam, for example the Mandarin color and Pankou knots, and we've added them to more modern silhouettes that are flattering for many different types of body types," Qiao said...

The dresses are made in China in towns such as Chaozhou, where the two founders built relationships with dressmakers who have been making cheongsams for decades.
Like many entrepreneurs, the founders were in the market for a product, didn't like what was available, and built it themselves.

Friday, October 04, 2019

California: Marshes and Wildfowl Over the People

For decades environmentalists have regarded the Environmental Protection Agency as their bailiwick. Where the law was ambiguous, sympathetic EPA staffers, especially under Democrats, often gave environmentalists what they wanted through regulations, rulings, and interpretations.

President Trump has reversed some of these regulations and Executive Orders that he believes were not in keeping with the original laws passed by Congress. The latest skirmish is over the Clean Water Act: [bold added]
Andrew Wheeler (NPR photo)
At issue is the reach of the Clean Water Act and, more precisely, what waterways should be regulated. While for years it was unclear whether the nation’s small tributaries warranted protection by the federal government, President Barack Obama sought to remove the ambiguity by ordering the EPA in 2015 to safeguard all bodies of water that feed larger rivers and lakes.

Andrew Wheeler, the current EPA administrator, claimed the law amounted to government overreach that left landowners at the mercy of “distant unelected bureaucrats.”

The new rule maintains federal jurisdiction over navigable waters and their tributaries, Wheeler said, but removes ponds and sloughs unconnected to larger bodies of water from EPA jurisdiction.

The environmental groups, co-represented by the Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy law firm of Burlingame, claim the Trump administration’s decision to repeal the rule opens up thousands of miles of streams and wetlands throughout the country to development, including pipeline construction.
In the Bay Area that specifically re-opens the question of developing the Cargill salt ponds:
Homes on the Cargill site would be only a few
miles from Oracle and Facebook.
The salt ponds have been owned since 1978 by Cargill Inc., which withdrew a proposal to build 12,000 homes on the flats in 2012 in the face of intense community opposition. Environmental groups would like to see wetlands restored there.

“We’re not going to stand by while Cargill uses the Trump administration’s eagerness to gut our environmental laws for its own economic advantage,” said Megan Fluke, executive director of the Committee for Green Foothills. “The salt ponds are part of the bay. Development here would not only destroy restorable natural resources, it would put homes and businesses in the path of sea-level rise, on an earthquake liquefaction site and next to heavy industry.”
What the environmentalists are really thinking, but not saying, is that thousands of homes, including the entire cities of Foster City and Redwood Shores, don't meet their criteria and would never be approved today. If they really prioritized alleviating the housing shortage and eliminating carbon emissions from thousands of cars, they would welcome building where the jobs are. Judging by their actions and not their fine words about "climate change" and "inequality" they really don't.

President Trump may be impulsive, a bully, uncouth, obnoxious, and any number of other bad things. But he has exposed the progressive left as elitists who choose marshes and wildfowl over people. Hey, I don't mind; restricting the supply keeps my house price up.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

SF: Can We Sell It Short Yet?

Despite the litany of San Francisco problems--homelessness, crime, needles and human waste on the sidewalks, astronomical real estate prices, astronomical taxes, boulders in the streets, taxpayers leaving, empty storefronts, $billions of transportation over-runs, not to mention picking fights with the Federal Government over immigration and the environment--now activists want San Francisco to set up its own bank.
Advocates for a public bank in San Francisco are rejoicing over Gov. Gavin Newsom signing legislation that will allow them to create a local institution to finance priorities like low-income housing, public infrastructure and small businesses...

Supporters have pushed San Francisco officials for years to consider municipal banks as an alternative to traditional commercial institutions, whose interests prioritize creating value for their shareholders over benefiting the communities where they do business. But setting up a public bank will be a complicated, time-consuming and expensive process — it could take the city 10 to 30 years to break even. But supporters are undeterred by the hurdles.
San Francisco can't even adhere to basic standards of health and citizen safety that are met by towns across the U.S., and it thinks it has the expertise to set up a bank?

If only the City of San Francisco were a stock, I would sell short in a heartbeat.