Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Look, Touch, But Don't Ride

Gripmen grip only your cameras
In news you may have missed,

The cable cars are back — but only for photos
The cable cars are back, and did indeed roll down the streets — but only to pose for pictures, welcome passersby and tourists and let them ring the bell at the Powell Street turntable...

Leonard Oats, a cable car gripman for 21 years, said the goal was to get the cable cars back in the sunlight and the public view and to give visitors, who are slowly returning, a chance to see one of the city’s top attractions — even if they can’t ride them.
Cable Car museum and operations center
where the wheels keep spinning

Six months into the lockdown the City judges that a Potemkin-like experience is better than none. And why not? Disney World proved that a façade is worth a thousand pictures.

The visitors will go home with T-shirts and memories that might even be pleasant enough to induce them to return.

It does seem incongruous, though, to tow the trolley to Powell St. station when the cable sounds like it's running perfectly well under the street.
Although the clank and whir of the underground cable could be heard Saturday morning, Cable Car 26 made its way to Powell Street pulled by a tow truck.

“We weren’t allowed to grip the cable,” Oats said, sounding somewhat disappointed.
The logic and workings of SF Muni will always be puzzling to this humble observer.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Monday, September 28, 2020

Trump's Taxes: Not Surprising if You Know the Basics

Many pundits are posting their opinion about the NYT's feature on President Trump's income taxes. I will do so only lightly because I haven't seen the tax returns. (Responsible analysts also make this disclaimer.)

Haven't we learned anything from the quick takes on stories like the Covington Catholic School kids, Ferguson's "hand's up, don't shoot" falsehood that was debunked by the WaPO and NYT, Jussie Smollett's faking his racist, anti-gay attack, and many other news reports that were later proved wrong?

Wait for other, non-NYT analysts to weigh in on the President's taxes, a subject more complicated than the above topics.

Understanding the income taxes of a man who controls $billions of real estate requires many hours of study of source documents by accountants and lawyers to present a "fair" picture of his finances (fairness about the tax code is something very different).

Just because you do your own tax return doesn't mean you can have a decent understanding of how the tax returns of "hundreds of companies" (NYT's words) are prepared. It's like me reading a few sci-fi books and discussing time travel and black holes with a theoretical physicist.

Regarding my own background, I worked 24/7 during the busy season in the Tax Department of a Big Eight accounting firm over 40 years ago. It was the first time I was exposed to how very wealthy families build a network of interlocking entities to organize their businesses.

Those who work on Donald Trump's taxes likely refer to a chart depicting the ownership, cash flows, and goods-and-services flows among the entities. Trump accountants, because of the heavy emphasis on real estate, should be familiar with at-risk rules, the difference between recourse vs nonrecourse debt, the tax attributes of C corporations, S corporations, partnerships (limited and general), and single-owner LLCs.

They also should be acquainted with issues such as controlled groups, consolidated returns (where going from 79% to 80% corporate ownership has important ramifications), fiscal year vs calendar year elections, inside basis vs. outside basis of pass-through entities, foreign tax credits, NOL carryforwards and carrybacks (different for individuals vs corporations), and entity formation and liquidations, to name a few.

These complicated arrangements are often created for reasons other than income taxes. 1) Certain structures minimize estate taxes; 2) In businesses with high-value assets, each asset and its related debt are housed in separate entities for their legal protection; 3) These entities are billed for management fees and administrative expenses by other entities. Who owns the management companies? That's worthy of a separate discussion.

After spending hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, looking over the documents, the NY Times doesn't headline a meaningful finding, such as an in-depth assessment of the financial health of Trump Consolidated. Instead it leads off with
Donald J. Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency. In his first year in the White House, he paid another $750.

He had paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years — largely because he reported losing much more money than he made.
To the Times it doesn't matter if the "hundreds of companies" Donald Trump controls have paid millions in taxes. It doesn't matter if he paid millions in tax years other than 2016 and 2017.

His accountants, as they were supposed to, used their knowledge of the tax code to minimize the taxes on Form 1040. Undisclosed are how much taxes were paid on Forms 1065, 1120, 1041, and others.

If the President is re-elected, I hope that he appoints a public-relations tax accountant to make sure he pays some individual income taxes each year. For example, one of his companies could declare a special distribution or sell a minor asset for a gain. There are countless ways to be tax-positive if your name is Donald Trump. He just has to remember to do it.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

He's Past Dissembling

86-year-old party elder Willie Brown wants the Democrats to win, but that doesn't stop him from giving them advice they might not want to hear.

WB: our next Justice (WSJ)
Forget about the Court and Concentrate on November
Forget about it, it’s over. Democrats need to put the Supreme Court appointment fight behind them as quickly as possible and move on to the real battle in November.

They have no power in the Senate, and they cannot afford to spin their wheels over an appointment whose conclusion is already foretold by the Republican majority.

And there is no avenue of attack open to them. The fear of a rollback of Roe vs. Wade or a shutdown of Obamacare plays well in blue states, but it also carries the potential for blowback in the battleground states.
Admit D.C. and Puerto Rico as States (after winning the Presidency and Congress)
Flag of Puerto Rico
Democrats’ best revenge for the Republican court packing is to win the White House and Congress in November — then immediately admit the heavily Democratic District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as the 51st and 52nd states.

It would forever shift control of the Senate to Democrats and go a long way toward fixing the red-state bias of the electoral college.
Because their economies are dependent on Federal spending, Puerto Rico and D.C. will add four reliably Democratic Senate votes for the foreseeable future. Your humble blogger would cheer this development if the people of Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico vote for Statehood. (I would also cheer California splitting into at least three States, but that's for another time.)

"Idiot" Trump has a Point on Mail-In Ballots
it’s very hard to strike someone from the voter rolls. The rule is, if someone misses two consecutive federal general elections — a presidential election and a midterm — and then misses two more after failing to respond to a mailed query from county registrars, they’re supposed to be tossed off the rolls.

So, you can be gone from your registered address — or dead — for a long time before the state gets around to erasing you. Some estimates say that up to 10% of California’s 20 million registered voters aren’t where the state thinks they are.

Nonetheless, ballots will be going to their listed addresses. So some people who have moved won’t get ballots. Residents at the old addresses will get ballots for people who are no longer living there or are no longer living, period.
For the sake of the Republic and the Constitution I hope a clear result obtains in November. That's more important than my choices winning.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

It Was Tough Enough Keeping Her Business Going

Brenda Buenviaje (Chronicle photo)
Louisiana-born Brenda Buenviaje never claimed she was Black. The Filipino-Italian-French restauranteur owns Brenda’s French Soul Food, which some social media sites mistakenly listed as Black-owned. She was accused of race fraud.

The activist Chronicle food writer says this attempted cancellation was going too far:
race in no way limits culinary expertise. I know Black chefs cooking Italian food, and as is the case with Brenda, a multiracial Filipina chef cooking Creole food.

“I don’t know what to do here, because I’ve never at any time said I was Black,” Brenda told me last week when the dialogue around her race was reaching a peak. “I’ve talked about my identity before, and even on my YouTube page and on my website, you can see pictures of me. I wish I could clear this up.”

I imagine some of this anger was born out of disappointment, as Black folks who only knew Brenda’s food and not Buenviaje herself hoped her popular Creole spots were Black-owned. And, honestly, I can understand that desire. Eventually, the situation cooled off for Brenda online as people talked, and some clarity was gained about her background.
Brenda, like most business people, embraced the power of the Internet to showcase her cooking talent. Unfortunately, she was unwillingly sucked in to today's culture wars, which restricts careers, political, religious, and artistic expression, even speech and language, to members of approved groups.

Once Yelp created a category for Black-Owned Restaurants, controversies became inevitable. Thank goodness in this case there appears to be no lasting damage to Brenda and her restaurants. And if you don't have a friend in the media, God help you.

Friday, September 25, 2020

A Miserable and Thankless Task

(Chronicle photo)
It's easy to make a joke here, but it's not funny to the City workers who have to deal with the problem: (bold added)
San Francisco workers say it’s hard enough cleaning up after the homeless, but having to share toilets with them is too much to bear...

Interviews with several Public Works staffers, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said that some of the 49 Pit Stop toilets installed by the city for use by the homeless and the public are at times downright scary.

“Someone heard banging coming from one of the toilets. When they unlocked it, they found a homeless man inside. He had been in the toilet all the way from the street to the yard,” [Theresa Foglio-Ramirez of Local Union 261] said. “If you are sanitizing after every use, how do you explain that?”
We approve of stories that criticize hypocritical politicians who won't use mass transit or send their kids to public school. Here we make an exception. These workers should not have to use public restrooms; they're not responsible for the mushrooming homeless population that befouls public spaces. The task is miserable and thankless enough.

The Chronicle had the good taste not to show pictures of the facilities in question. Like with horror movies, we're most frightened when the sights are left to our imaginations.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Not the Win, But the Game Itself

Why are moderate Senators like Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) reversing their position on voting for a Supreme Court nominee before the election?

I suspect that they feel compelled to fill the seat because of the high likelihood the Supreme Court will be called upon to rule on some aspect of the election. With the possibility of a 4-4 SC deadlock, a Court of Appeals or a State Supreme Court (e.g., Florida, 2000) somewhere could determine the next President.

It's more important that the mechanism be in place to decide the election, not whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump is President, or whether the Senate majority is Democrat or Republican.

I do fantasize that the President and the entire Senate can set aside their differences and agree on a jurist who is not "perfect" to either the left or the right. Wouldn't that be great if he or she gets at least 60 votes? Our constitutional democracy is at stake; like the Christmas truce of World War I, suspend hostilities for a week for the common good, then go back to killing each other.

Note: my ADD-brain flitted to the Play from the Cal-Stanford game in 1982. With 5 laterals, the Stanford Band, cheerleaders, and bench players on the field, the outcome was and is highly controversial. Now just imagine if there were no referees to make the call--it could be a foreshadowing of Washington, D.C. in December, 2020.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Diamonds + Bitcoin = Diamond Coins

Five months ago we viewed the Federal Reserve's unprecedented commitment to support the entire economy as the beginning of a multi-year cycle of inflation.
Now the Fed is buying corporate debt--even some risky pieces that pension funds won't touch--and the debt of state and local governments. It has crossed a line and can't go back. ("Why are you letting [State name] go bankrupt?") Eventually the tidal wave of government debt and paper money will cause an inflation that will dwarf that of the 1970's.
We already see the signs in rising prices of bitcoin and gold (see above graphs)

(Image from tokenpost)
Now there's a move to resurrect diamonds as a store of value: [bold added]
Here’s how the new market would work: Diamond Standard plans to sell 5,000 coins each worth $5,000. The company will then use an automated process to bid on millions of diamonds and adjust its bids until it can buy a sample of about 50,000 to 60,000. That bidding process will include many big diamond vendors, creating the first global diamond exchange.

The geological information about the diamonds purchased by the company will be put in a public database. From there, a computer program will select a comparable distribution of 11 or 12 to go into each coin.

The vendors must comply with know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering requirements in a process supervised by the Gemological Institute of America to ensure no conflict diamonds used to finance wars are involved. Diamond Standard is also regulated by the Bermuda Monetary Authority and audited by Deloitte LLP.

The GIA will then grade each diamond and assemble the coins before delivering them to customers in mid-October. Each coin also carries a computer chip that makes it a digital asset using blockchain—the technology that supports the digital currency bitcoin—letting holders buy and sell on digital exchanges. Those trades will dictate the price of coins after the initial offering. The top of the plastic coins is transparent to display the diamonds.
I admire the entrepreneurs for trying to use 21st-century technology to solve the diamond market's twin problems of questionable provenance and synthetic manufacturing. As a money-like asset instead of jewelry, diamonds like gold will experience much greater demand ($1.2 trillion?!? per the WSJ article).

As for your humble blogger, if I were looking for inflation protection I would invest in real estate. If it all goes south at least I could live in it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Such Language

It's easy to get lost in streaming video, just like the internet itself: one views an article or video, clicks on a related item, then goes to another, etc., and four hours are gone.

(Amazon image)
On Netflix I've been watching episodes of Glee, which I missed when it ran on Fox from 2009 to 2015. (Confession: I usually fast-forward through the drama about the members of a high-school glee club and go right to the song-and-dance numbers.)

Two episodes of Season 4 were devoted to Grease. Performed by the Glee cast, the tunes were catchy, and the choreography was professional quality. So I gave the 1978 film, also streaming on Netflix, another look. I enjoyed it far more than I did when it first came out. The film had non-stop kinetic energy, and leads John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John showed why they were apex entertainers in the '70's and '80's.

A new generation of YouTube reviewers has been impressed by the 42-year-old musical.

But this is not another geezer posting about the talent back in his day. This is about language--how in the 1970's movies and music could get away with words that would not get past the self-censorship of today.

Below are the lyrics from Greased Lightning, a paean to a car and the sexual hopes of teen-aged boys. By the way, Grease was and is rated PG:
(Image from Vanity Fair)
Greased Lightnin'

Why this car is automatic
It's systematic
It's hydromatic
Why it's greased lightnin'! (Grease lightnin'!)

We'll get some overhead lifters, and four-barrel quads, oh yeah
(Keep talkin', oh keep talkin')
Fuel injection cut off, and chrome plated rods, oh yeah
(I'll get the money, I'll kill to get the money)
With a four-speed on the floor, they'll be waitin' at the door
You know that ain't no shit
We'll be gettin' lots of tit in grease lightnin'

Go, grease lightnin', you're burnin' up the quarter mile
(Grease lightnin', go grease lightnin')
Go, grease lightnin', you're coastin' through the heat lap trials
(Grease lightnin', go grease lightnin')
You are supreme, the chicks'll cream for grease lightnin'

We'll get some purple French tail lights and thirty-inch fins, oh yeah
A palomino dashboard and dual muffler twins, oh yeah
With new pistons, plugs, and shocks, I can get off my rocks
You know that I ain't braggin',
She's a real pussy wagon - grease lightnin'

Go, grease lightnin', you're burnin' up the quarter mile
(Grease lightnin', go grease lightnin')
Go, grease lightnin', you're coastin' through the heat lap trials
(Grease lightnin', go grease lightnin')
You are supreme, the chicks'll cream for grease lightnin'

Go, grease lightnin', you're burnin' up the quarter mile
(Grease lightnin', go grease lightnin')
Go, grease lightnin', you're coastin' through the heat lap trials
(Grease lightnin', go grease lightnin')
You are supreme, the chicks'll cream for grease lightnin'

Monday, September 21, 2020

Who Benefits? Not Me

At the top of Sunday afternoon's Facebook page was an inquiry about whether I was registered to vote.

I didn't respond. What benefit was there to answering?

I don't want to be shunted to a political discussion board. Discussing politics on social media is a time sink. We are asked to justify our positions to strangers who don't know or care about us. Negative emotions get stirred up. And if you do happen to discuss politics with friends, you can only lose them.

I don't want my virtual mailbox filled with more ads for various candidates and propositions, or worse, pleas for money.

By the way I am registered. I'll do my civic duty and vote, in person, on November 3rd.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

It Made Sense at the End

Naomi and her daughters-in-law (Chagall, 1960)
On this Sunday morning the passing of Justice Ginsburg prompts this reflection about her first name, Ruth. (I'm old enough to remember when the first name was called the Christian name, but that term has fallen out of favor.)

In the Book of Ruth Naomi and her husband and two sons left Judah for Moab to escape famine. The sons married two Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah (fun fact--Oprah Winfrey was named after the Biblical character Orpah, but Oprah changed her name due to constant mispronunciation). All three men died, and the three widows faced a bleak future.

Naomi decided to seek refuge with her relations in Judah and encouraged Orpah and Ruth to return to their families in Moab; both were young enough to find husbands and bear children. Orpah did go back to Moab after some protest, but Ruth stayed with Naomi:
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”--Ruth 1:16-17
Ruth's willingness to sacrifice her own future to accompany Naomi has served as a model to generations of Jews and Christians who have been confronted with a similar decision. (Spoiler alert: it works out for Ruth in the end, but it was far from certain that it would.) Ruth is a name with a virtuous antecedent, and being called "ruthless" is not a compliment.

Inspired by the birth of "Baby Ruth" to President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland in 1891, Ruth ("compassionate friend") was a popular girls' name in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In my own family my maternal grandmother and her sisters--Ruth, Esther, Sarah, Eunice, and Bertha--were all named after women in the Bible. My grand-aunt Ruth was the eldest and thus received the first choice of girls' names.

Branches of modern philosophy say that meaning does not exist but is an artifact of the human mind. That may be true, but for your humble blogger people and their names grow old together until the name becomes inextricably linked with the individual. They have meaning together.

It's difficult to imagine Ruth Bader Ginsburg--or for that matter my grand-aunt Ruth--being known by a different name. Somehow it made sense at the end.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Justice Ginsburg (1933-2020)

We take a break from the partisan wars to honor the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Chief Justice John Roberts: “Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her—a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

Former President Barack Obama: "Over a long career on both sides of the bench — as a relentless litigator and an incisive jurist — Justice Ginsburg helped us see that discrimination on the basis of sex isn’t about an abstract ideal of equality; that it doesn’t only harm women; that it has real consequences for all of us. It’s about who we are — and who we can be."

1958: Martin, Ruth, and 3-y.o. Jane (Time photo)
The longer she lived, the wider her reach and the deeper the appreciation for her years on the bench. At the opening concert of the National Symphony Orchestra in Sept. 2019, Kennedy Center chair David Rubinstein introduced the dignitaries in the audience. When he got to the justice, women rose to applaud her. Then, the men quickly joined in until everyone in the hall was standing...

This wasn’t an audience of liberals, but a cross-section of the capital touched by a once-young lawyer who saw unfairness and quietly tried to end it during her 60 years of public service.
Proclamation by President Donald Trump:
In India with the late Justice Scalia (Instgm)
Today, our Nation mourns the loss of a trailblazer, not only in the field of law, but in the history of our country. Ruth Bader Ginsburg served more than 27 years as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. She was a loving wife to her late husband Martin, and a caring mother to her two children Jane and James.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an inspiration to all Americans. Having lost her older sister and mother before graduating high school, she entered law school as both a wife and a mother, and one of the few women in her class. After graduating from law school in 1959, she worked tirelessly for more than 34 years as a litigator and jurist and, in 1993, she became just the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States. Renowned for her powerful dissents at the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg epitomized powerful yet respectful argument; that you can disagree with someone without being disagreeable to them. Justice Ginsburg’s work helped bring about greater equality for women, secure rights for the disabled, and will continue to influence our Nation for generations to come. In addition to her quick mind, she brought flair to the bench with her stylish jabots and her warm friendships among colleagues, even those with whom she often disagreed, most notably with the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

A fighter to the end, Justice Ginsburg defeated cancer and the odds numerous times — all while continuing to serve on the Court. Her commitment to the law and her fearlessness in the face of death inspired countless “RBG” fans, and she continues to serve as a role model to countless women lawyers. Her legacy and contribution to American history will never be forgotten.

As a mark of respect for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the United States, I hereby order, by the authority vested in me by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America, including section 7 of title 4, United States Code, that the flag of the United States shall be flown at half-staff at the White House and on all public buildings and grounds, at all military posts and naval stations, and on all naval vessels of the Federal Government in the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its Territories and possessions until sunset, on the day of interment. I also direct that the flag shall be flown at half-staff for the same period at all United States embassies, legations, consular offices, and other facilities abroad, including all military facilities and naval vessels and stations.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this eighteenth day of September, in the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and forty-fifth.
Thank you, Justice Ginsburg. R.I.P.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Disappointing, But Not Shocking

Screenshot of tweet with red circles added
The shoes are the same, and the "news" organization is the same.

The opinions about the wearer's fashion choice are very different.

If the critical responses were reversed, the howls about racism would be deafening.

True, fashion is of minuscule importance compared to Middle East peace (silence), riots (silence), systemic racism (wall-to-wall coverage), and police use of force (wtwc).

The bias pervades matters large and small. They don't even bother trying to hide it.


Thursday, September 17, 2020

Man's Best Friends

(WSJ photo)
“You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”--Harry S Truman
Dogs and cats are not only good friends, but they're also safer for their owners than other human beings in the age of the coronavirus. [bold added]
In all, the OIE ["L'Organisation Mondiale de la Sante Animale"--World Organization for Animal Health] has recorded roughly 20 individual cases, as well as some larger outbreaks among groups of animals living in close proximity, since the pandemic began.

In almost all these cases, public-health authorities concluded the animals became infected through contact with an infected human—an owner, household member or, in the case of the Bronx Zoo, a zookeeper.

Few animals get badly sick. The cases recorded with the OIE list symptoms including cough, wheezing, some loss of appetite and mild digestive issues.

And there are no recorded instances of pets passing on the virus to humans.
The CDC's advice is to be as cautious as one would be with humans:
For pet owners, the CDC advises treating the household dog or cat as any other family member during the pandemic: Don’t let them interact with people outside the household, and if someone within the household falls ill, isolate them away from others, including pets.
You won't catch the virus from your pet, and your pet won't argue with you about politics. That's a good friend to have in Washington, in fact everywhere.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Last Mile is the Hardest

Alan Turing (
Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science, proposed in 1950 a way of distinguishing human from artificial intelligence in what has become known as the Turing Test. Though the Test is highly structured (typewritten communication in a laboratory with a human being and a computer), it has been popularly simplified to the question of whether one can tell if one is talking to a computer or a live person.

Alan Turing predicted that by the year 2000 a computer would have a 30% chance of fooling its interlocutor. We're a few years behind schedule, but his prediction has been fulfilled:
GPT-3 can work out analogy questions from the old SAT with better results than the average college applicant. It can generate news articles that readers may have trouble distinguishing from human-written ones.

And it can do tasks its creators never thought about. Beta testers in recent weeks have found that it can complete a half-written investment memo, produce stories and letters written in the style of famous people, generate business ideas and even write certain kinds of software code based on a plain-English description of the desired software. OpenAI has announced that after the test period, GPT-3 will be released as a commercial product.
GPT-3 (Generative Pre-trained Transformer, third generation) seems to "understand" fairly complex texts. Example:
(WSJ image)
I copied and pasted the first paragraph of George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address: “The period for a new election of a citizen to administer the executive government of the United States being not far distant, and the time actually arrived when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made.”

GPT-3 gave me its translation: “I am not going to run for president.” Take a bow, HAL 9000.
Nowhere in the Washington quote does the word "president" appear. Scary.

But the GPT-3 isn't perfect.
Yet when I gave it the famous first line of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”—“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”—the AI was puzzling to watch. In the course of my first four tries, a few of its answers were sort of in the ballpark without being quite right. (For instance, “A man with a lot of money must be looking for a wife.”) Then on my fifth try, it seemed to crack up: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man with a good fortune must be in want of a wife, because men are very vain and they want to be seen as wealthy, and women are very greedy and they want to be seen as beautiful.”
I took satisfaction from knowing that the artificial super-intelligence had as much trouble with Jane Austen as I did. It is a truth universally acknowledged that female communications are still too complicated for the presumptively male programmers to figure out. Eventually, the AI suffered the fate of male brains: "it seemed to crack up."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Apple Must-See for Me

It's not the must-see event that it was when Steve was alive, but the company, which is six times as valuable as when he passed in 2011, isn't the same either.

I'm watching the livestream at 10 a.m. PDT though Tim Cook reportedly won't be talking about the iPhone.

My 2014 iPad Air has a cracked screen that kinda works, and I have a version 3 Apple Watch that doesn't have all the health bells and whistles. I'll be buying something Apple makes soon.

10:03 a.m. Tim Cook speaks from the Apple spaceship HQ. Camera angle shows vast expanse of the interior garden of the space ship.

10:05 Tim says they'll be covering only Apple Watch and iPad. Wonder if they'll be doing one more thing that Steve used to do?

10:08 Testimonies from Watch customers. I suppose they have to do marketing. Not everyone is an Apple technophile.

10:09 COO Jeff Williams introduces the Series 6 Watch. Blood Oxygen app measures blood oxygen in 15 seconds.

10:15 Touts Apple Silicon, display always on, continuous altimeter for hikers.

10:17 New Apple design faces. OK, but not world-beating.

10:19 New watch bands - solo loop with no clasps. It stretches! My Timex did that back in the 1970's.

10:20 Family Setup allows multiple watches to be paired with one iPhone. Many individualized programming options for each watch wearer; obviously valuable for young and old people who don't have iPhones.

10:23 Apple Watch SE is cheaper option ($279+) with most important features, except for blood oxygen measurement. Uses slower S5 chip. Apple Watch series 6 starts at $399.

10:28 New watches are available this Friday, September 18th.

10:39 Apple Fitness+ ($9.99 per month per family) has workout videos for many activities.

10:37 Apple One combines iCloud, Music, TV+, Arcade, News+, Fitness+. For $29.95 per month you get all services for the family, or you can get fewer apps at a lower price.

10:40 Tim's back to talk about the iPad.

10:42 Product Manager Ted Merendino on 8th generation iPad: begins with A12 chip. "2x faster than Windows laptop" Neural engine: 5 trillion operations per second. Keyboard options, Apple Pencil. iPad OS14 allows handwritten text into input boxes. iPad 8th Generation starts at $329.

10:48 Tim Cook introduces new iPad Air. Laura Legros, VP Engineering, starts with design and colors. 10.9" liquid retina display. Touch ID not on screen but on top button. Tim Millet on A14 Bionic chip: 5 nanometer technology--efficiency, speed. 40% performance improvement than previous iPad Air. 2x graphics improvement over comparable laptop.

10:56 Game, music, photo developers extol the new iPad Air.

10:57 Laura - USB-C performance improvement; 7 MP camera front, 12 MP camera back. Stereo audio speaker system.

11:00 iPad Air starts at $599, available "beginning next month" -- October [ ]?

11:02 Tim announces New OS for iPhone, iPad, Watch, and TV available tomorrow. That's it, no one more thing.

I'm guessing the announcements disappointed most people, but I'll be buying the iPad Air and the Watch. I'll also be a subscriber to Apple One. I probably won't be buying the new iPhone, whenever it is announced, because the 2018 iPhone XS Max is doing just fine.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Comforting Words to the Speaker, Not the Listener

George McCalman (Chron photo)
For years San Francisco artist George McCalman has heard words of sympathy from well-meaning white friends when a black person's death is in the news.

He's sick of the words that seem to comfort them more than they do him:[bold added]
This summer brought a reverberating pattern of conversations and emails and texts from friends, collaborators and acquaintances, revealing a prescribed and self-accepted way of communicating. A form letter of sameness of how white people in America discuss race, with us and themselves...

In staring at my mourning, I began to collect the phrases that had triggered me the most — variations on the same theme of a lack of accountability, a blithe uselessness and an emotional apathy. They communicated a silent expectation that the burden was mine to carry, that it was for me to orient and settle the speaker. My role was victim and teacher all at once. I was the antagonist, and they were the protagonist in their own narrative. “Race” was being done to them. This was the language of white America that I knew. Far away and up close. It sucked the air out of our exchanges. And I wanted to breathe...

In a flash of Black anger, I wanted to act. My soul and sanity demanded it. I decided I was going to paint the phrases. Art as therapy. I wanted to create billboards as three-dimensional totems and reflect them as far away as possible. I wanted to return them energetically to their origins. I wanted to take these seemingly benign words and show the garish truth. Reveal the context of their meaning, back to its source. Away from me.
Some of the phrases that set him off, and his explanation why:
“Here If You Ever Want To Talk” (Unsolicited kinship with no context.)

“For Your Selfcare” (Unsolicited money being offered to pacify the speaker.)

“I’m Ashamed Of My Complicity” (Said by too many white women everywhere.)

“I’m Just Here To Listen” (For what, exactly?)
George McCalman responds creatively and honestly to his pain. I doubt his politics agree much with mine, but I'll bet we foresee a familiar outcome to this recent turmoil. As I wrote three months ago:
I am not going to dismiss or deride the feelings of those who are upset, but this geezer has seen such emotion many times before. Programs will be started, most of which will be ineffectual.

All this, too, shall pass.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Changing the Old in Moderate Doses

Rev. Dr. Shane Scott-Hamblen
Our rector of 23 years retired in July, and the interim minister is trying new things.

Father Shane gives the sermon right after the opening prayers. The re-arranging of the service order reminds me of film courses where the professor talks about the movie we're about to see, possibly spoiling the enjoyment of students who have never seen it. On balance it's a reasonable trade-off, i.e., elucidation over suspense, but more so in church because there's no ruined suspense in discussing biblical passages that we've heard many times before.

Another change: today we recited an Affirmation of Faith in place of the Nicene Creed. (The Affirmation was approved by the Anglican Church.) It was refreshing for its clarity and brevity, focusing on the second member of the Holy Trinity, and leaves out most of the theology contained in the Creed.
Though he was divine,
he did not cling to equality with God,
but made himself nothing.
Taking the form of a slave,
he was born in human likeness.
He humbled himself
and was obedient to death,
even the death of the cross.
Therefore God has raised him on high,
and given him the name above every name:
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
and every voice proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The Affirmation was emotionally inspiring, which the Creed is not, but the true Faith isn't just about emotion but also about reason, Scripture, and tradition.

Change is stimulating and educational; in moderate doses it can make one appreciate what has gone before.

Another Cheerful Time Cover

Last week your humble blogger pointed out how easy it was to detect the bias of a publication.

Because Time wanted to minimize the damage of Black Lives Matter protests, Time used statistics instead of a count: 570 violent riots in 220 cities and towns in three months became "93% of Black Lives Matter Protests Have Been Peaceful, New Report Finds". Reporting it in this manner gave the impression that the movement is mostly peaceful.

On the other hand a statistical headline--for example, "Americans have a less than 0.1% chance of dying from the coronavirus in 2020"-- doesn't horrify the reader. Instead, the emphasis is on "the absolute number of deaths"-- 189,000 in the United States at the time of the post.

U.S. infections and deaths as of this writing
As predicted, this week's cover, in funereal black, anticipates U.S. virus deaths reaching 200,000. As of this writing the toll is 193,000; it's almost as if Time can't wait to trumpet the milestone.

In our vast nation, where the annual number of deaths from heart disease and cancer are 655,000 and 606,520, respectively, 200,000 virus deaths are a sign of monumental failure, and Time knows who to blame:
Although America’s problems were widespread, they start at the top. A complete catalog of President Donald Trump’s failures to address the pandemic will be fodder for history books. There were weeks wasted early on stubbornly clinging to a fantastical belief that the virus would simply “disappear”; testing and contact tracing programs were inadequate; states were encouraged to reopen ahead of his own Administration’s guidelines; and statistics were repeatedly cherry-picked to make the U.S. situation look far better than it was, while undermining scientists who said otherwise. “I wanted to always play it down,” Trump told the journalist Bob Woodward on March 19 in a newly revealed conversation. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
"Statistics repeatedly cherry-picked"--that's a good one by a publication that cherry-picks numbers every week to flog systemic racism or denigrate Donald Trump.

"The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." – Josef Stalin, reportedly.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Not Their Target Demographic

When the Wall Street Journal started sending me the oversized WSJ Magazine, with ads for jeans, shoes, and personal items that start at four figures, I knew that I probably didn't fit in with the subscriber base.

Curious about a 24-day trip ("Take the Trip of a Lifetime With WSJ and National Geographic Expeditions"), the details of which the WSJ didn't want to put in the email, I clicked the link, then had to login to my subscriber account. They didn't want any Tom, Dick, or Harry to check out the offer; it's bad form to horrify the hoi polloi.

I do like National Geographic products and do watch the channel, but I don't love it to the tune of $4,000 per day for 24 days. Strike that, I wouldn't be going alone, so that would be $8,000 per day for 24 days. I'm definitely not in the WSJ's subscriber demographic.

Wait a minute, the "complimentary" Ground Voyager Bag valued at $1,099 looks awfully tempting.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Somehow Fittingly, Today's 9/11

The Victorians ("Painted Ladies") of Alamo Square (maybejb)
Over one day later Bay Area residents are still buzzing about Wednesday's orange skies:
The otherworldly phenomenon was a result of smoke from multiple wildfires burning in Northern California, Oregon and Washington blowing into the Bay Area.

The wind pushed it to lower elevations, where it rested atop the foggy marine layer. The sun filtering through produced ominous shades of orange and red.
The Painted Ladies on a normal day (Times of India)
Though omnipresent, the ominous orange did not correlate with poor air quality.
the air quality was moderate in much of the Bay Area for most of the day.

“People were seeing the reddish orange skies and thinking the worst, but in actuality today’s air quality is worse,” said Walter Wallace, Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokesman, on Thursday. “The smoke has fallen today.”

A very unusual sky shouldn’t necessarily make people think the air quality is hazardous, he said.

“We’ve had much worse air quality days and didn’t have nearly as crazy a sky as we did yesterday,” Wallace said.
To the list of apocalyptic afflictions and warnings (crime, homelessness, COVID-19, unemployment, school closures, business closures, heat waves, power failures, lightning, wildfires, and polluted air) we can add an orange sky that no one had seen before. And 2020 has nearly four months to go...

Situation normal, nothing to worry about (Chron photo)
BTW, in case you missed it, a pyrocumulonimbus cloud appeared over Northern California:
That’s the name for a rare formation that NASA dubbed “the fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” It occurs when the scorched air from within a wildfire or volcano meets moist, buoyant air a few miles above the earth. The resulting mass is essentially a rain-less thunderstorm sitting atop a giant fire.
To quote the great Han Solo: "everything's under control...Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh... everything's perfectly all right now. We're fine."

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Pride and Prejudice: Getting Unstuck

In June I described why I found the novel Pride and Prejudice to be heavy going:
I find English manners in the 19th century to be stupefying, when women can only meet the male object of their desire by being properly introduced through a mutual acquaintance, they spend chapters discussing how they can manipulate the mutual acquaintance, woman and man have the meeting where a few words are spoken, then the women discuss for chapters what the words meant. Arrggh.
Though Jane Austen's prose wasn't difficult, the various story lines moved at a glacial pace. Finally I got unstuck by watching the 2005 movie, which by necessity had to dispense with wordy nuance and even some minor characters in order to do justice to the major plot lines within the two-hour running time.

One example: a pivotal point in the book, about halfway through, is the letter that Mr. Darcy writes to Elizabeth Bennett. One chapter is a recitation of the text of the letter, and the next chapter is devoted to Elizabeth's thoughts about it. Just one minute of the film is spent on both, as the letter is reduced to a few bullet points while the actress Keira Knightley's facial expressions communicate her reaction to each revelation.

Once I knew where the novel was going, I resumed reading. With the impetus of finding-out-what-happens removed, I could better appreciate the descriptions of early 19th century England, the obsession with class and wealth in a world where learned but unmarried women had few property rights and could easily fall into a life of desperate poverty, and the interior monologues of the Bennett women (Jane Austen's narrator wasn't privy to the thoughts of the male characters).

The younger me would have refused to see the movie or read the Cliff's Notes version in order experience the novel as the writer intended. The older me is more interested in finishing things, and not necessarily in the best way possible. When the clock is running out, you use the tools at your disposal to get unstuck.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Orange Sky at Morning

On summer mornings we're used to seeing bright blue skies over our neighborhood next to the Bay.

Instead, distant wildfire smoke, cool fog, and still air combined to turn the sky orange. It was so dark that the automatic street lights were on at 10 a.m.

Over the weekend the 100 degree heat kept us indoors. Now, at 70°F, it's a vague apprehension.

Life is a Stream

Netflix (NFLX) is one of the beneficiaries of the stay-at-home economy, its stock appreciating by 57% this year (chart below).

Netflix (NFLX) fell along with the rest of the market in March but more than recovered by May.

Reid Hastings is one of Silicon Valley's acknowledged visionaries. In his short interview with the Wall Street Journal he displays the frankness that comes from being a billionaire founder who doesn't have anything to prove.
WSJ: Have you seen benefits from people working at home?

Mr. Hastings: No. I don’t see any positives. Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative. I’ve been super impressed at people’s sacrifices....

WSJ: Netflix is known for paying top-of-the-market salaries. Are you concerned that has driven up costs for you and others in Hollywood?

Mr. Hastings: When you’re looking at great sports teams, they’re often the teams that can pay high for the best players. We want to have the absolute best players and compensation is one part of that. We’d rather have three outstanding people than four OK people...

WSJ: How would the Netflix culture work in politics?

Mr. Hastings: Politics is tough because in many ways people elect people who lie a lot. In business, we really try to avoid that. The skills to succeed in politics are really quite different than in business.
In his final question and answer--
WSJ: If Netflix options your book, who should play you?

Mr. Hastings: There’s always Brad Pitt.
I think he's joking, but maybe not.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Lies, Damned Lies, and Headlines

Peaceful protest, no photos of violence in Time.
Those who are familiar with the art of spin can easily spy the conclusion that Time wants readers to draw:

Headline: 93% of Black Lives Matter Protests Have Been Peaceful, New Report Finds

The use of percentages is a dead giveaway that the writer is trying to downplay the violence, rioting, and destruction in some BLM demonstrations. Here's the text: [bold added]
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) analyzed more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in all 50 states and Washington D.C. that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s death between May 26 and August 22.

Their report states that more than 2,400 locations reported peaceful protests, while fewer than 220 reported “violent demonstrations.” The authors define violent demonstrations as including “acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors.” Their definition includes anything from “fighting back against police” to vandalism, property destruction looting, road-blocking using barricades, burning tires or other materials. In cities where protests did turn violent—these demonstrations are “largely confined to specific blocks,” the report says.
The meaning would be quite different if, using the same facts, the headline were
"220 U.S. Locations Report Violent Demonstrations in 3 Months".

Source: NY Times 9/7/2020
In the opposite vein writers accentuate the horror of COVID-19 by tracking the absolute number of deaths, which have reached 189,000 in the United States.

Reporters who wanted to downplay the virus' magnitude could say only 1.9% of the U.S. population (328.2 million) have contracted the disease, and if someone is unlucky enough to have been infected, he has a 97% chance of survival. To really minimize the virus' importance one could say that an American has a less than 0.1% chance of dying from it this year.

None of the above is an opinion about BLM violence or COVID-19's severity. It just illuminates what the media would like you to think--BLM violence occurs rarely, while COVID-19 is spreading out of control. Read and believe what you want, dear reader, but do read critically.

Monday, September 07, 2020

Spam: When You Just Gotta Have It

No sale, and quantities are limited to 2.
Another probable casualty of the coronavirus: Costco's semi-annual Spam sale.

After skipping it in September, 2019, I looked for the sale this March; however, it wasn't there. We were just beginning to experience the supply shortages brought on by the virus. Surely by now, September, the shelves would overflow with America's favorite canned luncheon meat. Alas, again there was no sale.

We were down, uncomfortably, to our last eight cans, so I bought 16 more at full price.

Hey. don't judge. When the power goes out for days, I'll be dining on a slice of moist, salty goodness to accompany a hunk of bread or a scoop of rice, while others will be picking through formerly refrigerated spoils. It would have been nice, though, if I had gotten $5 off each package.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Pax Vobiscum

Throughout your humble blogger's childhood the 1928 Book of Common Prayer dictated the structure and wording of all Episcopal services.

(Image from ancient faith blog)
The 1979 revision to the BCP was much thicker than its predecessor; not only did it retain most of the original 1928 prayer book, it offered contemporary wording for those who found the sound of thees and thous to be as discordant as clanging cymbals. One insertion was permanent, however. All four versions of Holy Communion now had the Passing of the Peace.
It is initiated by the celebrant, who says, "The peace of the Lord be always with you." The people respond, "And also with you." The ministers and people may greet one another in the name of the Lord (BCP, pp. 332, 360). Any appropriate words of greeting may be used in the exchange of peace that follows between individuals (BCP, p. 407). The gesture of greeting has been expressed in a variety of ways, including a kiss on the cheek, an embrace, a handclasp, or a bow. The peace is also known as the kiss of peace and the Pax (from the Latin, "peace").
The Peace is a two-thousand-year-old tradition that had been eliminated by the Anglican Church in 1552, 18 years after its founding. Now that the Peace has been restored, it's difficult to imagine services without it.

John Danforth, Episcopal priest and former Missouri Senator, and Matt Malone, Catholic priest, believe that something as simple as passing the peace can reduce the polarization of American politics:
John Danforth
This may sound fantastical or naively optimistic, but a common element in the traditions of both our churches may provide a practical model for reducing polarization. It is called the exchange of peace, a simple act of reconciliation before beginning the most sacred part of the liturgy. We turn to one another and say: “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” This practice should go beyond our sanctuaries. Imagine if Americans began to exchange the peace with their political opponents. In a secular setting they could simply say, “I am your friend.”

This would transform the tone of politics. Treating opponents as friends would be more than a nicety. By showing that we are disposed to listen as well as speak, it would make possible real dialogue.

Matt Malone
It would be a step toward bridge building and away from confrontation. Christians have a mandate to take up such a ministry of reconciliation—to help heal this country. For in the Christian tradition, truth is ultimately a person, the one who is “the way and the truth and the life.” Truth, therefore, is someone encountered in love, not something wielded as a weapon. No opinion, however passionately held, can ultimately be called truthful if it isn’t spoken in charity. That is precisely what St. Paul meant when he wrote: “Though I speak in the tongues of angels, but have not love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

For Christians to embark consciously on a ministry of reconciliation would be a profound gift to America. This would be an ambitious ministry requiring dedication, imagination, persistence and interfaith coordination. But with prayer and imagination, we can find countless ways in countless situations to exchange the peace.
Face-to-face contact makes it more difficult to hate the person with whom one is so engaged. Such contact is forbidden in the year of the coronavirus and makes it all the more urgent that religious services be resumed.

There is a disease that can yet kill thousands, but there is a different disease abroad in the land that can kill the entire body that holds everything together.