Monday, November 30, 2020

Pumpkin Pie: Diminishing Marginal Digestibility

Costco bakes a decent pumpkin pie--you can't beat the $7.99 price--and your humble blogger picked one up last week for Thanksgiving dinner.

On the day after Thanksgiving, aka Black Friday, there were dozens of Costco pumpkin pies available for $3.97.

Normally, I would have considered taking a few to the local food banks, but none of them are accepting donations in kind due to the coronavirus.

I was tempted by the 50% markdown to get another one for our table, but who was I kidding? We still hadn't consumed most of last night's pie.

Still feeling the after-effects of Thanksgiving dinner, I passed; $3.97 was too high a price for a second unit. The economics term is something like "diminishing marginal digestibility", but if it's not, it oughtta be.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Under the Playground Awning

Under the playground awning the youth group gathered---masked, gloved, and social distanced--to assemble the brown bag lunches for Sandwiches on Sunday.

The volunteers and their parents produced 80 bag lunches consisting of sandwiches, chips, and fresh fruit for anyone who will show up at the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City at noon today.

We were blessed with sunshine on a cool, breezeless Saturday afternoon, and our initial effort at making sandwiches went smoothly.

In previous years we would prepare a hot lunch of salad and baked chicken or lasagna to be served cafeteria style. St. Pius Catholic Church would furnish the sandwiches to be handed out when people were leaving.

COVID-19 and the aging out of its community outreach crew have caused St. Pius to discontinue the sandwich-making, so churches like ours have picked up the slack.

No more hot lunches, unfortunately, but such is the new normal.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

"The Most Significant Fraud on Taxpayer Funds in California History.”

(Fmtrust image)
We're familiar with the reports of prisoners running drug rings and scamming the IRS out of tax refunds. But the new honey-pot is the unemployment benefits enlarged by coronavirus aid.

Headline: Prisoners’ fake unemployment claims cost state hundreds of millions, California D.A.s say [bold added]
The officials said the stolen money amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars and that the fraudulent claims were paid out falsely using the names of tens of thousands of local, state and federal inmates.

Documented cases of fraud in jails and prisons in the past have seen inmates file false claims using their own Social Security numbers, with unincarcerated accomplices receiving the money. Some scammers may also have ripped off Social Security numbers sent through the mail, undisguised, by the state’s Employment Development Department.

Other schemes may have involved online identity theft, the letter said. The district attorneys cited media reports of criminals obtaining personal information from the internet and using it to file claims under the names of unwitting people.

“The word I’ve used is behemoth. This is massive. There is money going out of this state; there is money going out of this country,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, whose office is part of the investigation, during a news conference Tuesday.

Schubert said the scams are ongoing and that attempts to work with top officials at the EDD have been unsuccessful.

Schubert said 35 other states have systems that cross-check inmate data with unemployment claims, but California does not. “We need to do what other states are doing,” she said.
The State of California likes to brag about its technological prowess. However, it's clear that the skills lie with the private sector. Want another example? [bold added]
The state auditor sharply criticized the EDD in a report last week for sending out at least 38 million pieces of mail with undisguised Social Security numbers, despite being warned about the practice.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Climbing the Wall of Worry

When we went around the table and listed the things that we were most grateful for this year, I included the stock market. Financial matters are not as important as our health, families, or friends, but they do make a difference in well-being. And for us (largely) retired folk, our ability to recover from setbacks is limited, so we're indeed grateful that we've dodged the bullet this time.

Whether or not one is glum about the economy, COVID-19, or politics, the markets signal that the clouds are lifting.
Upbeat trial results for coronavirus vaccines developed by Moderna Inc. and the duos of Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE and AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford are reordering the market’s winners and losers, prompting wagers that the U.S. economy will return to normal more quickly than anticipated.
2021 is just around the corner. Hang on tight, we've almost made it.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving, 2020

I'm repeating last year's Thanksgiving post, which itself is a copy of the Wall Street Journal's 1961 editorials that are republished annually. Given the increasing hostility toward the American mythology, it may be that the essay's days are numbered. I hope not, because that it is the day I will stop subscribing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Fair Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A Turkey of a Dish

Still dithering over the sourcing of our Thanksgiving dinner (this year there have been strong pleas to order takeout to support struggling restaurants), I purchased the ingredients last Thursday.

Except for the bird itself, most of the dishes just require heating in the microwave. We'll cook the curkey because I like having leftovers in case people drop in to munch on while watching football.

After decades of experimentation, and more than a few failures, I'm going with the low-heat method, which is very forgiving if the turkey is left in the oven too long.

This Thanksgiving trend-watchers expect more turkey disasters than usual:
Public officials have issued blunt warnings or orders for Thanksgiving during the pandemic: Don’t travel and keep gatherings small. That means many people who have skated for years as guests without cooking Thanksgiving dinner are having to face making the holiday meal for themselves this year...

The Turkey Talk-Line expects an influx of callers “who are actually preparing their Thanksgiving all by themselves for the very first time,” said Carol Miller, a [Butterball] supervisor.

“It could be the auntie who always took the pies to the Thanksgiving meals,” she said. ”She did the Easter ham and really didn’t worry about the turkey.”

It could be someone who is staring into the cavity of a raw turkey for the first time.

“Maybe you’ve never looked for the giblets in the turkey before,” Ms. Miller said.
The first time one tries to duplicate a recipe from written instructions or even a YouTube video rarely results in a passable dish, and I do speak from personal experience.

The good news, dear reader, is that this year the only victims of the attempt will be the few in your household instead of members of a large family gathering....And there will be more leftovers, too.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Hi, Gene, Looking Keen

(Image from wellnessmama)
Swimming against the 2020 cleanliness tide, James Hamblin of the Yale School of Public Health says people bathe too often: [bold added]
"Five years ago, I stopped showering,” begins James Hamblin....In the microorganisms that live on our skin, Hamblin finds some explanation for what he experienced in his no-shower experiment (which, he freely admits, was born more of curiosity and laziness than ideology). After forgoing all the deodorants and cleansers he’d previously associated with cleanliness, he was . . . fine. And he didn’t smell too bad, either [blogger's note: sez who?].
In the 1980's I encountered startup millionaires who wore sandals, let their hair grow to their waist, rarely bathed, and were computer geniuses. One literally held one's nose to do business with them.

They are now in their 70's and appear none the worse for their unusual hygienic habits.

Perhaps Mr. Hamblin is right; leaving good bacteria alone can help one live to a "ripe" old age.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Dog Bites Man

Most conveniently, a French Laundry
dinner equals one stimulus check.
Governor Gavin Newsom has taken heat for attending an indoor dinner party earlier this month at the French Laundry Restaurant in Yountville. [bold added]
Based on current Napa County infections, the [Georgia Tech] model calculates a 12% likelihood that one guest at an event of 10 people would have COVID-19. Using Sacramento County, where many of the guests were from, gives it an 11% chance...

The Nov. 6 dinner attended by at least 12 people was celebrating the birthday of lobbyist Jason Kinney, a close friend of Newsom’s....Newsom and his wife joined members of several other households at the event — including two California Medical Association executives — despite his administration urging against private gatherings of more than three households.
Governor Newsom apologized for not following his own administration's coronavirus rules. As with most politicians, he knew what he was doing and he's really sorry...about getting caught.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Relative Importance

Two Sixties icons: JFK and Pope Paul VI (WSJ)
In the Hawaii of the '50's and '60's nearly everyone I knew was Christian. (The Jewish and Buddhist kids I could count on the fingers of one hand, and absolutely no one would cop to being an atheist.)

One's Protestant denomination was important, while Catholics were "different."

John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was such a big deal during the 1960 Presidential campaign that there was worry that he "would take orders from the Pope."
“I do not speak for my church on public matters,” John Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, “and the church does not speak for me.”
The culture has changed to such an extent that on general principles I admire anyone who takes his or her religion seriously. It usually means that they've thought about life and the relative importance of material things and politics.

John F. Kennedy, who nearly died for his country in World War II and was assassinated 57 years ago, would have understood.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Deferred Gratification: One Key to Happiness

My lifelong cheapness frugality, besides helping augment the retirement nest egg, has another benefit, as noted in 2013 when the 35-year-old furnace was replaced.
technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that the replacement unit, even one with just average features, is leaps and bounds ahead of the unit that it replaced. The new system is cleaner, quieter, and much more energy efficient. It has an electronic ignition, i.e., no pilot light.
We've encountered the replacement-is-so-much-better-than-the-original phenomenon when we junked our 18-year-old unfixable car in favor of a hybrid.

Even small items like electrical outlets (pictured) are much improved. The replacement to a 30-year part that had become loose had more secure grounding screws, an LED power-detection light, and USB-A and USB-C slots to charge cellphones and tablets.

Today's wisdom: there is happiness in being able to fix things oneself and, when replacement is finally necessary, happiness in marveling at how the new one is so much better. (Note: this does NOT apply to relationships.)

Friday, November 20, 2020

A Kinder, Gentler Cut

Manscaped ad with all-Pro tight end Rob
Gronkowski and partner Camille Kostek (WSJ)
Among things that long ago I never thought that anyone would need: the Lawn Mower 3.0 razor, "an electric razor specifically designed for pruning a man’s nether region."
A study published in 2016 in the American Journal of Men’s Health found that 50.5% of the men it surveyed “reported regular pubic hair grooming".....Manscaped heavily touts its Lawn Mower 3.0’s “skin safe” ceramic blade, which it claims prevents cuts more successfully than traditional metal blades.
No longer an anti-nick niche, the potential size of the market has attracted big players like Gillette and Royal Philips.

In the 21st century the change in societal norms has accelerated to such an extent that, who knows, in a few short years you may need a Lawn Mower version X to look presentable on your profile pic. (No more smirkin' at your merkin, gentlemen.)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Philosophical Underpinnings

(Examiner image)
Out of curiosity more than necessity your humble retired accountant has been sampling online Continuing Professional Education courses that CPA's take to maintain their active status.

It's a hard slog, with tax modules grinding through Internal Revenue Code sections and accounting training covering the recently recompiled accounting bible, the Accounting Standards Codification. Right, I could barely keep my eyes open writing the previous sentence.

If you can handle the tedium, you can find nuggets of substance, such as:
An entity should aggregate or disaggregate disclosures so that useful information is not obscured by either the inclusion of a large amount of insignificant detail or the aggregation of items that have substantially different characteristics.
Don't overwhelm the reader with "insignificant detail", yet don't combine dissimilar information if it will mask meaning. Holding to these principles requires deep understanding of the material by the writer and an ethical obligation both to present and not to omit significant information.

Long ago I seriously considered a career in journalism, and I thought its aspiration to report the truth without fear or favor was similar to accountancy.

Both professions fall short of that ideal, of course, but IMHO most journalists no longer view truth as their ideal anyway; rather, they seek to weave a narrative to influence readers toward a particular point of view.

Accountancy harks back to an Enlightenment perspective: present all information that will be important to rational, intelligent readers of financial statements (e.g., lenders, investors, employees, customers, etc.) in making their decisions. Despite the mockery they must endure, accountants can take pride in the philosophical underpinnings of their profession.

Now, back to the dusty ledgers and green eyeshades....

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Stuck With Nowhere to Go

Postscript to yesterday's visit to the dentist: Stan gave me the usual sampler kit upon leaving. The items are perfectly suited for the toiletry bag in the suitcase.

Of course, no one has gone anywhere recently, and we're deterred from doing so not only by the health risk but also by the COVID-19 question, "Have you gone outside the Bay Area in the past 14 days?" that stops one from getting into places.

Overstocked, we normally donate toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss to charities that take hotel soaps and shampoos, but they've stopped taking donations in kind.

So, like many people, processes, and dental sampler kits, we're stuck with nowhere to go.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Embracing the Suck (at the Dentist)

Stan the Dentist likes to keep up with technological advancements, but this year's coronavirus-protection device (right) wasn't in his long-range plan.

It's a combination vacuum hose and HEPA filter that supposedly sucks up the air and moisture emitted by the patient.

But as its mouth hovered noisily over mine, I could think of nothing else but the sandworms of Dune or the Graboids from Tremors. The disturbing movie imagery was further aggravated by the head-to-toe PPE that the dental assistants wore.

Dune sandworms
They resembled space-alien abductors who are about to begin an anal probe. Maybe they start at the other end?

The examination and cleaning went well--no signs of cavities or gum disease.

Unlike last time I didn't stop to socialize. Maybe we'll catch up at the next appointment in August.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Out with the Old, In with the SKU

The latch on the door to the garage got stuck. No amount of WD-40 would loosen it because the problem was a spring that had lost its springiness.

After disassembling the doorknob, I took the part to Home Depot.

There were shelves upon shelves of new locksets but nowhere a spare latch to be found.

The old-timers who used to work at Home Depot would have walked the customer to the spot and fished for the part out of a box.

Instead, that morning, there was only a kid, barely out of high school, who was restocking the shelves. He was proficient at scanning numbers on boxes, looking up their location on a hand-held device, then putting the box on the proper shelf.

He didn't need to know anything about hardware; he could be filling up the spaces with cans of soup or cotton socks.

I showed him the latch. He asked, "What's the "skew"?" (Yes, I know he meant SKU.)

Largely successful in eliminating sarcasm--the kid didn't deserve it--I replied, "The latch is over 20 years old. I don't think it had a 'skew.' It's a latch for a Kwikset lock."

He struggled, furiously typing on his device.

I pulled up the Home Depot app on the iPhone, searched for Kwikset, and scrolled down to the SKU (pictured) in 20 seconds. He re-entered the numbers and found the item at location L-something, hidden behind some boxes on the floor. I found a new latch for $8, so the expedition was a success.

I did give a passing thought to the old-timers. They would know what to do with the part after taking it home, but that knowledge is unnecessary to the functioning of 21st-century retail stores. The kid's job is safer, but I felt sorry for him, too. The robots are coming.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Reckoning Time

The odds are against it, but this week's Time cover has the potential to be as memorable as the famous "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline on the November 3, 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune.

If President Trump succeeds in his challenges to the validity of the vote count in certain states, he could still become the next President.

Time's unqualified declaration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President-Elect and Vice-President-Elect would become in retrospect the high water mark of fake news, and the masks on the two individuals will be seen to have multiple meanings.

It will become a cover that rivals Dewey Defeats Truman.

My base expectation is that there will be proof of the existence of fraudulent Biden-Harris ballots, but there will not be proof, just suspicions, that there exist enough of them to overturn the election. Joe Biden is still a heavy favorite to be the next President, and everyone should make their plans accordingly.

However, these suspicions will be enough to poison the discourse of the body politic for months, even years.

I wonder if Time and other news organizations will have the courage to investigate how ballots were counted in the major cities of swing states after President Biden is inaugurated. The fact that the stories by Time and other news organizations on November 4th said that the claims of fraud were "debunked" when the claims were still being prepared is not encouraging.

There will be a terrible reckoning---we don't know when or in what form---but both the guilty and innocent will suffer. Hey, it's Sunday, it's time to use Biblical language.


The Hallmark Channel began running its Christmas movies a couple of weeks ago, and though many of the plots are familiar love stories where the boy and girl build snowmen, decorate trees, bake cookies and find the meaning of Christmas together, sometimes one wants to escape from a clangorous world into stories that are as comfortable as an old sweater.

Recently Hallmark has been putting more bucks into production. Stories have been filmed on location in Rome, Paris, and London. Song-and-dance productions are occurring more frequently. It's a pleasant surprise how many of the regular actors have musical training.

One actress that I had never seen before was violinist Lucia Micarelli, who stars in The Christmas Bow.

Actors and actresses can fake being singers or pianists reasonably well, but not the violin (note to producers of Sherlock Holmes movies: you can ruin an otherwise good show by having the esteemed detective try to fiddle around).

Lucia Micarelli not only plays the violin, she also shows off her vocal chops in the movie. In a clip from one of her concerts below she sings an old standard by Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne and includes a short violin interlude:

If you're going to fiddle around, do it right:

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Thanksgiving Before Christmas

It's not technically a present because they were paid for by the recipients, but to two members of the household it felt like Christmas because of the arrival of two iPhones 12 Pro MAX. Once they're connected to speedy 5G, they'll be the cat's pajamas.

As for your humble blogger, I'm still very appreciative of the two-year-old iPhone XS MAX, which is entirely adequate to handle all the music, video, and game apps acquired with Apple One earlier this month.

Stretching out the enjoyment of new things, rather than partaking of them all at once, makes for a happier life.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Thursday, November 12, 2020

On the Bright Side We Won't be Fighting Over Politics

Norman Rockwell repast: in the past
Here's another norm that 2020 has flipped over:

It's better for your student to stay in the basement.
many families will welcome home a college student for Thanksgiving...we must ensure that colleges do not unwittingly turn students into ticking time bombs unleashed upon the nation’s transportation hubs and dinner tables.
There's nothing that harshes your marshmallows more than COVID-19.

No, Johnny, you can't go outside to be with your friends. How about playing videogames the whole weekend?

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

MacBook Air Life Extension

Last month the touchpad on the 6 year-old MacBook Air became catatonic. The cursor would alternately freeze or skitter across the screen in random directions. Worse, it would open multiple applications and documents, and I had to press the power button to shut down the computer manually.

As the smart people recommend, I zapped the PRAM and reset the SMC but the dysfunction recurred after a few minutes.

Was it time to buy one of the new Macs that were announced today?

Maybe, but just one more try.

I wiped out the disk--something that I used to do every six months on Windows machines--then reinstalled everything (of course, this was after performing a back-up to a hard disk). Restoring the Mac to factory settings has the benefit of eliminating all the stray fragments of deleted files that build up over time.

The half a day that it took to clean and reinstall the programs and data was worth the effort.

The touchpad functions like new, and an additional 10GB space was freed up on the solid state drive as a bonus.

The just-announced Macs have switched from Intel-based microprocessors (the speed of the MacBook Air's i7 is perfectly adequate for your humble blogger) to Apple's self-designed M1 microschip (3.5x faster!).

Buying a new MacBook Air was tempting, but thanks to this life-extension project, I'll wait for the M2.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Timely Move

Calling it a "purification system" makes it $175.
Normally I replace the furnace filter every 12-15 months. However, the ash and soot from the summer wildfires prompted me to change the part last night after an interval of nine months.

That was timely, because the overnight temperatures plummeted to 40 °F, and the heat came on when the house fell to 60°. The old furnace needed $5 air filters, but its 2013 replacement requires a Climate PureAir System Annual Maintenance Kit that runs $175. The latter includes a charcoal catalyst and ultraviolet bulbs in addition to the box-shaped filter.

Though I grouse, I am happy that we had bought the UV-bulb add-on to zap COVID-19 and other nasty pathogens.

Only two months ago Foster City was sweltering in 100° heat, but it didn't stay that way.

One has to be prepared. In all aspects of life, things can turn on a dime.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Vaccine--Coming, Elections--Wait and See

In what may be the most important news of the past week--and that's saying something--the stock market averages increased sharply this morning after the announcement that a vaccine with greater than 90% effectiveness has been developed and that it could be distributed as early as this month.
A vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. PFE +11.87% and partner BioNTech SE proved better than expected at protecting people from Covid-19 in a pivotal study, a milestone in the hunt for shots that can stop the global pandemic.

The vaccine proved to be more than 90% effective in the first 94 subjects who were infected by the new coronavirus and developed at least one symptom, the companies said Monday.
As of 10 a.m. EST the indexes are up 8% over the past week. The travel and leisure cohort, especially the airlines, are seeing 20% pops. Meanwhile, the stay-at-home winners (Zoom, Netflix) fell back this morning.

Some commentators (WSJ, Yahoo News) also attribute today's bounce to the consensus forming around a Biden victory. IMHO, that's only a small factor because the recounts and legal battles have another month to go. While Mr. Biden is likely to prevail, some reports of fraud from cities in battleground states do seem worthy of investigation, so we'll wait and see.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

A Sarbanes-Oxley Act for Elections

SOX: how many governments would pass?
Those who had some connection to the accounting function of a public company---from the lowliest billing clerk to the CFO and CEO--during the early 2000's, found it to be a very tough slog.

The scandals of Enron and WorldCom defrauded investors of $billions, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was enacted in 2002 to prevent a repeat of these occurrences.

SOX required companies to diagram in great detail their entire accounting system (e.g., billing and collections, payroll and personnel, accounts payable, inventory, etc. etc.), identify weak points, and list management's means of correcting mistakes and preventing fraud at hundreds of these weak points.

The accounting function, which was understaffed because it was often regarded as a necessary evil--certainly less important than sales, marketing, production, and engineering--was highly stressed because of the Sarbanes-Oxley work on top of its regular responsibilities.

But the benefits of doing that work were substantial: many weaknesses were discovered--often the concentration of tasks in one person--and controls, supervision, and money were added to beef up areas that could significantly harm the organization. Also, with the benefit of experience, some of the burdensome requirements that did little to reduce risk have been lifted .

The private sector still has financial scandals, of course, and we can't know how many of these scandals SOX has prevented. But now that the price to put in SOX has been paid, trust in financial reporting has largely been restored.

The same can't be said for the public's trust in election results. After the Presidential election of 2000, there was universal shock at the abysmal state of the country's election apparatus. What was clearly needed was a Sarbanes-Oxley Act for government systems, especially for elections.

But because no such requirement was imposed in the intervening years, the weaknesses of election systems--and their lack of controls--have not been corrected; in fact they have been exacerbated by the increasing ways that false or changed ballots can be added to the count. The deficiences are glaringly obvious to reasonable people, regardless of whether their side won or lost.

Repairing our elections so that fraud will be prevented, or if discovered can be quickly corrected, won't be easy given the principle and fact of local government autonomy.

We could start by publishing recommended-but-not-mandated "best practices" for elections and form a Federal election-systems audit team that would examine State and local voting systems and make recommendations to officials. These examinations will be resented, of course, as were SOX auditors (I didn't like them either), because they will always find weaknesses in the way things are done.

There will be technical obstacles unique to elections---for example the dual priority of identifying legal voters and keeping the ballot secret--but are solvable using blockchain and similar technologies.

We sometimes forget that one of the foundational principles of democracy is that the losers accept the result because they trust the process. That trust is near tatters, but it can be restored by demonstrating to everyone, clearly and transparently, that cheating can't turn an election.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

For the generations that grew up with only three TV networks (plus PBS), this was a familiar problem:

The Trouble With Words We’ve Read but Not Heard

My high school classmates and I may have developed reasonably large vocabularies and become good spellers, but unless we heard the words spoken aloud in the classroom or on TV, mis-pronunciation was a common “fox pass."

The dictionaries were not much help with their pronunciation keys:
                as in…
i              fleece /flis/
i              happy /ˈhæpi/
ɪ              kit /kɪt/
ɛ              dress /drɛs/, carry /ˈkɛri/
æ            trap /træp/
ɑ              father /ˈfɑðər/, lot /lɑt/
ɔ,ɑ          hawk /hɔk/, /hɑk/
ə              cup /kəp/, alpha /ˈælfə/
ʊ              foot /fʊt/
u              goose /ɡus/
ɔr            force /fɔrs/, north /nɔrθ/
ər            nurse /nərs/
If you know how to sound out the symbols in the left column, you were a better student than I.

When a prominent person misspeaks publicly -- for example, when President Obama mispronounced corpsman as "corpse-man" in a speech --it not only lowers our estimation of the person but we also feel pained empathy from remembering our own similar embarrassments.

Mine was in high school, when I spent days crafting a speech on moral philosophy. It would have been pretty good had I not pronounced mores like the marshmallow sandwich (S'mores) instead of the eel (Moray). Of course, I wasn't aware of the error until the teacher interrupted with the correct pronunciation.

It's not the million dollar words but the simplest ones that can trip you up.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Social Media: Avoid the Suck

(Gallup photo)
Given that social media are polarizing the American polity, what is the precise mechanism by which that happens?

The conventional wisdom is that we self-select into groups of similar thinkers. We share news and opinions with like-minded people---the "echo chamber" effect. But the conventional wisdom may be wrong: [bold added]
And new research suggests that one often-proposed solution—exposing users on the platforms to more content from the other side—might actually be making things worse, because of how social media amplifies extreme opinions...

when you repeatedly expose people on social media to viewpoints different than their own, it just makes them dig in their heels and reinforces their own viewpoint, rather than swaying them to the other side...

Because social media and Balkanized TV networks tend to highlight content with the biggest emotional punch—that is, they operate on the principle that if it’s outrageous, it’s contagious—when we’re exposed to a differing view, it often takes an extreme form, one that seems personally noxious.
Exposure to the extreme opposite of one's views has a powerful polarizing effect:
Mr. Sabin-Miller and Dr. Abrams, both mathematicians, call this effect “repulsion.” In addition to the “pull” of repeatedly seeing viewpoints that reinforce our own, inside of our online echo chambers, repulsion provides a “push” away from opposing viewpoints, they argue. Importantly, this repulsion appears to be a more powerful force, psychologically, than attraction to our own side of a debate.
Repulsion leads to disgust, then to anger, a witches' brew.

As for me, I now spend less than 15 minutes a day reading but very rarely contributing to Facebook or Twitter.

Similar to the reason that alcoholics don't enter bars, I don't watch Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. They all have stories about how individuals have been mistreated by politicians or groups that the network is trying to portray negatively, I get angry and am sucked in.

Avoid the suck. Turn them off.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

Apple One: Distractions Welcome

Because seven(!) hours a day of screentime is not enough, I signed up for Apple One on Sunday. Apple One is Apple's bundled subscription to a number of its services.

The Premier plan, which has been shared with each member of the household, costs $29.99 a month and is a bargain.

It includes Apple Music, TV, News, Arcade, 2TB iCloud storage, and a soon-to-be-released Fitness app.

I had not heretofore explored the game and music libraries, and they are a welcome distraction from the post-election scrum.

We won't know definitively about who controls the Senate until the runoff elections for two Georgia Senate seats on January 5th. As for the Presidential race, it looks like Mr. Biden will soon have the necessary 270 Electoral votes, but there seems to be evidence of vote fraud that could reverse the result.

So it looks like we'll have at least two more months of politics to obsess over, argue about, and ruin our Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I never thought I'd be saying this, but being distracted by games, music, and video entertainment will be a better use of time than the alternative.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Doing Nothing In Times of Uncertainty

As of this writing, the President and Senate races haven't been resolved, but the trends lean toward Joe Biden and a Republican majority, respectively.

With the House of Representatives secured by Democrats, it is almost certain that the United States will again have a divided government, that is, where the President and at least one house of Congress will be controlled by opposite political parties.

It's been fashionable to lament the brakes the Founders put in to the Constiution--six-year terms of Senators, two Senators for each State regardless of size, the Electoral College, the difficulty in amending the Constitution, even the permissibility of divided government--but when the country is split relatively evenly and the sides are far apart, the wisdom is clear.

It's very difficult to enact major changes; either the sides compromise or nothing happens. And sometimes nothing is the way to go.

The stock market, which has moved upward during the week, likes the prospect of nothing.

So a tip of the hat to the Founders, who knew nothing about the technological and scientific wonders of the 21st century but knew a lot about human nature.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Election Equanimity

Turnout across the country appeared to be high before the polls close, and media of all stripes have said that it's the most important election in our lifetime.

But I've been hearing that overheated proclamation for every Presidential election in 30 years, and somehow the country has survived.

Because of Joe Biden's double-digit lead in the polls, I've been mentally preparing for his Presidency. My finances should improve: 1) Better relations with China should pop the stock market; 2) A Blue Wave election would restore unlimited State Tax deductions, which would lower my Federal income taxes by $thousands; 3) A COVID-19 aid package would include aid to profligate States, lessening the chance of California enacting novel schemes like the wealth tax. All of these benefits would come at a long-term price, which may not have to be paid until after I'm dead and gone.

A Trump victory would be more in accord with my philosophical leaning against cancel culture and the elevation of group politics over individual rights. I also expect some restoration of respect for the property of others.

So I'm optimistic about tomorrow---that's my attitude and I'm sticking to it.

The air was cool, and the lagoon shimmered in the sun.

Election Day

All this just for me
Avoiding the rush, I voted on Monday, in person, at the Community Center. At noon there was no line. Otherwise, it felt like cramming for an exam.

It took two hours to review the stack of election materials and fill out the cheat sheet. The Presidential race and a few State Propositions--22 (independent contractors), 15 (property tax modification), and 16 (affirmative action)--have garnered all the publicity, but there were nine other propositions to study, school boards and harbor district boards to elect, and bond measures to consider.

I continue to follow my two general rules posted in 2010 for voting on candidates and propositions:
1) I don’t vote for lawyers. Some of my best friends are lawyers, and they’re some of the smartest and most honest (really!) people I know, but lawyers are vastly over-represented in government. The legal mentality---I know I’m exaggerating—believes that a desirable outcome can be obtained by passing the right law or by crafting a regulation with just the right words. That’s not how the world works; the right words don’t clean up oil spills or dissuade people from crossing the border illegally or produce quality cars and emergency rooms.

2) I don’t vote for propositions. Somehow I’ve managed to live over half a century without the [five] state ballot initiatives that have been proposed this year. New laws usually add to the burden, not the joy, of living. Unless there is a severe problem that our elected representatives have decided not to address--such as the State’s overflowing treasury from a 1970’s real-estate boom that produced the property-tax limits of Proposition 13—I automatically vote against propositions. (One cheerful exception would be a law that retires or replaces two or more others; wake me when that happens.)
Update: I've had to modify rule #2 above. Now that California is a one-Party State, that is, it's run by a Governor and filubuster-proof Legislature of the same political party, there's been a lot of mischief concocted since 2010, so I will vote for Propositions that overturn some of that mischief.

Happy Election Day, everyone! © 2020 Stephen Yuen

Monday, November 02, 2020

Netflix' Holidate

It's the plot of at least a half-dozen Hallmark Christmas movies:
Fed up with being single on holidays, two strangers agree to be each other’s platonic plus-ones all year long, only to catch real feelings along the way.
The movie even has Hallmark regulars Frances Fisher and Kristin Chenoweth acting in the roles of secondary characters.

So why is Holidate on Netflix? The lead actress' monologue in the first minute gives the viewer a clue.

Nothing like smoking a cigarette and an f-bomb to tell us we're not in Hallmark any more

The two leads are attractive, the humor is laced with sexual and scatological references, and the swearing is pervasive with even child characters indulging. Nevertheless, at the center of its beating heart is a sweet Hallmark movie with the ending telegraphed in the first five minutes. Holidate has got some laughs and is a pleasant enough way to spend the afternoon, but not with the kids around.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Halloween, 2020

(Image by Willow Glen merchants)
Two years ago we had a record 132 kids show up at our door. This year the neighborhood--in fact the entire Foster City--was blacked out; the air wardens of my parents' childhood would have approved.

Our candy expenditure was near-zero. (It was not zero because I had bought a package a few weeks ago as a precautionary measure; well, the candy won't eat itself, you know.)

In 2020 we have discovered that a lot of necessary things weren't, and some frivolities were more important than we had thought.

Here's hoping Halloween will be back next year.