Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cold Sandwiches on Sunday

An inefficient production line
but the labor was cheap
We used to make hot meals for the people who showed up at the Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City. But coronavirus safety protocols have put a stop to all that.

Now they receive a cold brown-bag lunch, which we, appropriately attired in masks and gloves, placed on the tables and stood back for fear of contagion. Up close and personal bonding between the giver and receiver has been suspended.

Lunch preparation has proven more problematic organizationally than simply having cooks prepare seven lasagnas or chicken casseroles. On Saturday eight assemblers gathered in the schoolyard to stuff each brown bag with one meat-and-cheese and one peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, one package of trail-mix, and one orange or apple.

Step away from the table!
Though the shopping list was thorough, we underestimated the quantities, as the volunteers slathered on the ingredients. All told, three trips were made to Costco, which is actually more efficient than the five separate visits to the hardware store that I average for a home repair project.

The final output was 80 bags, which we took down on Sunday. 40 people were waiting in line at 11:45, and 20 more showed up in the next half hour. The excess bags and bottled water were eagerly snapped up.

We have fewer volunteers and less resources, but we're the lucky ones. The need is greater than ever.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Slip Sliding Away

Rat Creek mudlside (Mercury News photo)
A stretch of Highway 1 near Rat Creek has fallen into the Pacific.
“It looks as if about half the road has given way now. It was hit by a debris flow, and the erosion — as its falling over the side of the road — is cutting back into the road away from the sea,” [Caltrans' Kevin] Drabinksi said.

“The mountain slid over onto the road, and in that rush, it started wearing away at the road. As it has gone over the side of the road, the erosion is cutting the road back away from the sea.”
2017 Mud Creek slide (CNN photo)
It was only four years ago that photos of the Mud Creek slide, 26 miles south of Rat Creek, made the national news.

For a State that is always asking its residents to conserve water, California sure is getting a lot of rain--enough water to cause floods and long-term road closures.

70 years ago we would have built more dams to limit flooding, store water for the summer, and generate hydroelectric power.

Now we are spending $billions to eliminate carbon emissions that the leaders say cause global warming and drought, which has not been a problem by the way for the past six years.

The social engineers who run the State today are so much smarter than the real engineers of the mid-20th century. The science is settled, unlike the ground under Highway 1.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Rents Have Stopped Dropping,

Zillow: 2BR 2BA units in San Mateo/Foster City are
renting for $2,600-$3,000,15-20% below 1 year ago.
Apartment rents have stopped dropping this month: [bold added]
San Francisco’s one-bedroom median rent was up 0.8% to $2,680 per month from the prior month, the first increase since April 2020, according to real estate listings company Zumper. San Jose was up 1.9% to $2,130 per month, and Oakland spiked 2.6% to $2,000 per month, both compared with the prior month.

San Francisco’s rents have still plunged 23.9% from the previous year, while Oakland fell 19% and San Jose was down 12.7%, according to Zumper. The widespread embrace of remote work, particularly in the tech industry, has upended a housing market that appeared unstoppable, fueled by nearly a decade of record job growth and business expansion.
The real estate market is facing large uncertainties, so it's way too early to tell if rents have stabilized. We are months away from widespread vaccinations and the lifting of the eviction moratorium, and the large employers have not publicly announced their plans for keeping jobs in the Bay Area.

If they can afford to do so, both landlords and tenants should avoid signing contracts for longer than a six-month term.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Big Market Story Yesterday

November: we bought 2 iPhones,
.000002% of Apple's 4Q revenue
Apple, at $2.4 trillion the most valuable company in America, reported record quarterly sales and earnings that handily beat Wall Street estimates.
Apple Inc. finished 2020 with its most profitable quarter ever, fueled by an uptick in higher-end iPhone sales and a pandemic-induced surge in demand for its laptops and tablets.

All together, the Cupertino, Calif., company generated $111.4 billion in quarterly sales, an all-time high and the first time it has topped $100 billion in quarterly revenue...

Profit rose 29% to $28.76 billion in the three months ended in December, its fiscal first quarter.
But Apple's announcement was overshadowed by Gamestop, a company valued at $24 billion (one percent the market cap of Apple), whose stock price increased 16-fold in one month.
Gamestop (GME) is a bricks-and-mortar videogames retailer whose prognosis was dismal. One month ago its shares were trading around $20. Yesterday GME closed at $347.51 after it rose $199.53 in one day. Not even in corporate takeovers, grossly underpriced IPO's, or cancer-cure discoveries have such "parabolic" increases occurred, especially in companies worth over $1 billion (such shenanigans do occur in the "penny stock" market).

Gamestop's action reflects something new: the power of social media to marshal the financial resources of hundreds of thousands of small investors.
The past year has seen a boom in individuals buying stocks through retail online platforms such as Robinhood. More and more, they seem to be coordinating their moves on sites such as Reddit’s WallStreetBets, placing wagers on firms that are under attack by professional speculators like hedge funds. At Tuesday’s close, GameStop, once a popular target for short sellers, was up almost 3,700% over six months.

There are two main causes of big market moves. The healthier one is when new information comes to light about a company, an industry or the economy at large, and financial assets are repriced to reflect it. The other is when market participants buy or sell in a rush, often because they suddenly need to protect their finances—in which case asset prices don’t convey much useful information.

The latter is at play now. Hedge funds’ short bets have been unsettled, forcing them to buy back the stocks to limit their losses. Also, punters have been using options contracts to prop up their targets. Such instruments can amplify even small market moves, because they force banks to take the other side and then hedge the risk by buying the actual underlying stocks. It can create a feedback loop: Those stocks then go up, and the value of the options tied to them increases even more, forcing banks to hedge further, and so on.
Your humble blogger is absolutely convinced that Gamestock will fall below $100 sometime this year. Unfortunately, buying put options or selling short the stock is extremely expensive, and knowing when the fever will break is a hazardous game; the bid-ask is $100 higher this morning before the market opens, and it's easy for a Gamestock bear to lose everything before the stock collapses.

“Markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.”--John Maynard Keynes

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Catch and Release

4 catalytic converters and burglary tools.
I'm retyping this article, because our 46-year-old free weekly newsletter, the Foster City Islander, doesn't even have a website. [bold added]

Headline: Busy Week for Foster City Police Department
Over the weekend, Foster City PD Officers stopped and arrested a Stockton resident following the theft of a catalytic converter. An alert local business owner saw the suspect on his video surveillance cameras and promptly notified the FCPD.

Officers stopped the suspect's white Lexus and found burglary tools along with four cut catalytic converters in his car. Following the arrest, the adult male suspect was cited and released for his crimes.

At midnight officers were called to the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the report of a suspicious male subject driving and walking around the parking lot. Upon arrival, they contacted two Daly City residents who were on probation for drug and theft offenses. A probation search of their vehicle revealed narcotics and stolen property from a theft reported in San Bruno. The suspect was arrested and released from the scene with a citation. The stolen property was returned to its owner.
First, kudos to the local police for their quick response. Decades ago, we lucked into buying a house in this then-middle-class planned community of 30,000. Due to its support for businesses like Gilead Sciences and Visa, Foster City enjoys a balanced budget with adequately funded police and fire departments. It's also got a racially and culturally diverse population which leans liberal in politics while also having a strong ethic of respect for the law.

However, as Californians we're also participants in the great social experiment that dismisses property crimes as no big deal. Having to replace a catalytic converter is expensive and disruptive to a car-owner's life. Inflicting that much damage to four families while getting off with only a citation encourages more property theft, and if a person cannot understand that, they must be willfully ignorant.

The great exodus from California has no signs of stopping.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Unstable Property, and We're Not Talking About Earthquakes

As we predicted when it was first enacted almost one year ago, the moratorium against evictions for non-payment of rent has been impossible to terminate. It was supposed to end in June, then September, then December, and now under a deal that's sure to be rubber-stamped by the legislature it's been extended to June, 2021.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders have agreed to extend California’s partial eviction moratorium by another five months as they prepare to hand out billions of dollars in federal rent relief to struggling tenants and property owners.

The deal, which still must pass the Legislature, was put into print on Monday morning, meaning lawmakers could vote on the bill as soon as Thursday. It would allow tenants who are facing financial hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic to stay in their homes until at least the end of June, when property owners could again pursue evictions for nonpayment of rent.
Sure, landlords, try to collect almost a year's back rent next summer. As I wrote in September
There is a next-to-zero chance of collecting the unpaid rent once a tenant moves out, so basically the State will have taken tens of $thousands per rental unit from property owners in order to effect public policy.
Your humble blogger understands why they did it--California did not want thousands of people to be out on the street while the coronavirus was raging--but the burden should have been borne widely by the State treasury, not narrowly by the landlords, once the eviction suspension lasted more than a couple of months.

Nice condo: now it won't be rented till July
It's possible, though admittedly this is probably at the high end of the range, for a landlord to be out $45,000 (15 months x $3,000). Meanwhile, the landlord had to pay property taxes, mortgage debt, maintenance, and association fees, none of which were deferred or forgiven.

We caught up with the small landlord who has been holding her rental condo vacant since last September. Though she's not wealthy by local standards, she can bear the burden ($2,200 per month) of keeping it empty until the State enforces real estate contracts again. She'd rather carry a vacant property than run the risk of getting a squatter who will stay there indefinitely. Even so, once the moratorium is lifted she will only lease to a tenant with the best credit rating and the most stable employment.

The irony is that, in the face of a housing shortage, housing is being withheld from the market not because of landlord "greed" but because of the much higher business risk that the Government has created through its constant changes to the law.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Namaste, Brother

(NBC Bay Area)
The businesses are restless. Among the increasing number of restaurants, gyms, and salons that are defying San Mateo County health orders is the Pacifica Beach Yoga studio: [bold added]
The county alleged in the lawsuit that owner Tommy Antoon has flagrantly refused to abide by various health orders for months, and has offered indoor, “mask-free” yoga classes, sometimes up to three times a day. All indoor gyms, fitness centers and yoga studios must close in areas covered by the state’s current stay-at-home orders, imposed after COVID-19 cases threatened to swamp state hospitals.

The complaint filed in San Mateo County Superior Court also said Antoon failed to require staff and customers to wear face coverings and observe other safety protocols, and has refused requests by county staff to voluntarily follow public health orders.

According to the lawsuit, on Jan. 5, Antoon told a county staffer “I’ll never close” and profanely rejected citations he’d been issued, saying he would never pay them...

So far, at least nine businesses have been fined as repeat offenders of stay-at-home orders since the County started keeping track of violations in November. They include a bar, a beauty salon, a gas station and several gyms, among others. The Pacifica yoga studio was among them.

Fines against Pacifica Beach Yoga totaled $3,750, including a $250 citation in November for advertising “mask-free” hot yoga, and another $500 fine in December for operating indoors.
You know you've lost when the owner (note: a Trump supporter) of a yoga studio swears at you.

[Update - 1/25/21: Newsom reopens California, with most counties going to ‘purple’ tier.
Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted mandatory stay-home orders across California Monday as the surge of coronavirus cases that followed the holiday season begins receding.

The move will shift counties back into the color-coded reopening system and reopening will no longer be tied strictly to the number of available beds in intensive care units.

Now, with most counties statewide poised to reenter the purple tier, some activities like outdoor dining and personal-service businesses like nail salons will be allowed to resume. Individual counties can still impose stricter requirements, despite the relaxed mandate from the state.
Some believe that the petition to recall Gov. Newsom is tied to this sudden lifting of the State-wide mandate. I don't believe this cynical interpretation. The models said it was not safe, so we locked down for almost a year. Now the same models say it's safe(r). Believe the science!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

"Buc"-ing Father Time

Tom Brady celebrates (AP/Chronicle)
In the battle of Northern California quarterbacks the San Mateo native defeated the Chico Kid to go to the Super Bowl. (Translation: Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defeated Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers, 31-26.)

The quarterback play wasn't stellar--Tom Brady threw three interceptions and Aaron Rodgers one--but both played well at the finish. In fact an excellent argument can be made that the Green Bay loss wasn't due to the quarterback but the coach, who chose to rely on his defense to get the ball back rather than count on Aaron Rodgers to tie the game:
They were helped by a strange decision by Packers coach Matt LaFleur with just over two minutes remaining and down by eight points. On fourth-and-goal, he elected to kick a field goal to get within five. Tampa Bay then ran out the clock on the Packers (14-4).
We tuned in to watch the first-ever playoff matchup between these two Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterbacks. With their combined age of 80 years, the odds are against their meeting again to play for a chance at a title. Any way, now that 43-year-old Tom Brady is in the Super Bowl, we in the senior demographic will have to cheer him on.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Second Gentleman

(WSJ photo)
Mr. Douglas Emhoff, the husband of the Vice President, has an official designation: the Second Gentleman.
Mr. Emhoff’s honorific uses “gentleman” as the male counterpart to “lady” in the traditional titles of “First Lady” and “Second Lady” for the wives of the president and vice president, respectively. But while his formal designation may be new, it’s built on centuries of linguistic etiquette.

“Gentleman” itself dates back to around 1200 in English, originally modeled on the French equivalent, “gentilhomme.”

“Gentle” originally meant “belonging to a good, upstanding family,” from Latin “gentilis,” meaning “of the same family or clan.” The title was used for a man in the lower tier of respectability—one whose family was not ranked with the nobility yet was still entitled to a coat of arms.
Words, specifically references to men and women, have been one of the flashpoints of the culture wars. Lady and gentleman are terms that still carry with them the "whiff of their aristocratic background despite the country’s ostensibly egalitarian spirit" and are not tainted with historical baggage like, for example, master and mistress.

It's nice to know that at least one subject--the proper way to address Mr. Emhoff--won't be a source of contention.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Henry Aaron

Through the mid-1960's I followed baseball as closely as I could with my Sony transistor radio and by poring over the sports sections of the two local papers. (The remote Hawaiian Islands did not have "live" TV with the Mainland until 1966, and, of course there was no ESPN.)

Beginning with Roger Maris' chase for Babe Ruth's single-season home-run record in 1961, I went through a five-year period of reading everything I could about the Giants, Dodgers, and Yankees and studied the bios of Maury Wills, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Willie McCovey, Yogi Berra, and Juan Marichal.

1974: Commissioner Bowie Kuhn presents trophy
to Hank Aaron for the home-run record (Chron)
I knew less about great players on other teams, men like future Hall-of-Famers Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, and Henry Aaron, who died earlier today.

Hank Aaron was one of those rare athletes whose accomplishments have grown more impressive with the passage of time. In his play or public persona he wasn't flashy but put up steady All-Star numbers--he was on 21 All-Star teams in his 23-year Major League career. He never hit more than 50 home runs in a season yet became the all-time leader with 755 lifetime home runs, 760 if one counts the 5 he struck in the Negro Leagues.

Today there are heated debates about systematic and institutional racism, but for baseball players half a century ago, like Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, the racism was intensely personal. During his chase for Babe Ruth's record, Hank Aaron received 3,000 hate-mail letters a day. Today players are figuratively knocked off stride by negative tweets, back then they received hundreds of death threats from areas of the country where police protection couldn't be counted on.

It's often said that there are no heroes any more because the Internet reveals everything about everyone, warts and all. The life of Hank Aaron puts paid to that claim. R.I.P.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Buying and Holding Does Not Mean Sleeping

Chevron (CVX): bought at $84.83 on 8/21/20, sold at $94.80 on 1/19/21.

Your humble blogger hasn't visited a casino in a couple of years and scratches that gambling itch by dabbling in short-term trades.The record is mixed and ST trading can't be relied upon as a source of income. The long-term approach is buy-and-hold for 95% of the portfolio and has worked much better.

Last summer the recession wrecked the fossil-fuels industry. The large oils, e.g., Exxon and Chevron, fell to less than 50% of their two-year highs. They became attractive investments, as their dividend yield was near double digits and provided protection against further drastic declines. Also, I guessed that the switch to alternative energy would occur more slowly than the optimists predicted and that when the world economy came back these stocks would show healthy gains.

I bought Chevron (CVX) as it climbed back to $84.83 on August 21st and watched bemusedly as it fell nearly 20% over the next couple of months (the $1.29 quarterly dividend provided a smidgeon of comfort with its 6% annualized yield).

When CVX rose after the November election, I felt some measure of vindication and planned to hold it for a couple of years at least. The economy will come back eventually, fossil fuel usage--probably not coal--will surge, and Chevron, Exxon, Schlumberger, Occidental, Apache, etc. should all be good investments.

Recently there has been a spate of good news about battery technology, which is bad news for the fossil fuel industry.

Tesla announces ‘tabless’ battery cells that will improve range of its electric cars

Inexpensive battery charges rapidly for electric vehicles, reduces range anxiety
Range anxiety, the fear of running out of power before being able to recharge an electric vehicle, may be a thing of the past, according to a team of Penn State engineers who are looking at lithium iron phosphate batteries that have a range of 250 miles with the ability to charge in 10 minutes...The researchers also say that the battery should be good for 2 million miles in its lifetime.
If I had to guess, I think Chevron still has room to run. But there's no sense being a hog. I took my 14.8% profit (gain plus dividends) over 5 months (35% annualized) and got out.

Even if you're buying and holding, you have to check your assumptions occasionally.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Et tu, CNBC?

I don't often watch the network news any more and stay away from the cable offerings of FOX, MSNBC, and CNN. The "news" is usually one-sided opinion and meant to heighten emotions rather than understanding. (I really can't blame anyone for following these channels obsessively, not only because I used to do it for years but because I also understand how addictive it can be.)

CNBC is an exception, because it usually conveys stock-market updates, interviews, and analysis that I can't find anywhere else. Also, its commentators for the most part keep their own political preferences well-hidden and limit discussions to how politics influence investment decisions, for example, how Washington's approach to China or fossil fuels will affect the fortunes of individual companies.

However, it is disappointing when CNBC uses some of the cheap emotional tricks employed on other channels to keep its viewers locked, like this morning's red "Breaking News" banner which turned into a nothingburger announcement about the Inauguration that we knew about for over a month.

C'mon, man!

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

No Lingering

For once politics and COVID-19 have been blown off the local front pages. The morning news reports 55 mph winds are buffeting the Peninsula. Fortunately, there are no reports of downed trees or power lines...yet.

All three of our garbage cans were intact, though many of our neighbors' had been knocked over. I would have straightened a few and retrieved the contents strewn about, but COVID-19 has made touching any surfaces potentially dangerous---that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Speaking of the coronavirus, I'll go for a long walk today. The more cautious ones in my circle have advised that I wear a mask all the time outdoors because of the micro-droplets that linger. With 55 mph winds there will be no danger in the air.

Monday, January 18, 2021

MLK Day, 2021

After re-reading my previous posts on Martin Luther King Day, the great man seems more relevant than ever to this boomer blogger. Unfortunately, his doctrine of non-violent civil disobedience seems increasingly quaint. Today speakers will honor him, all the while willfully ignoring what he called them to do. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.

From 2010:

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American original whose stature has only grown since his assassination in 1968. His I Have a Dream speech and Letter from Birmingham Jail are masterpieces of the rhetorical art, replete with religious themes, historical references, and poetic flourishes. Dr. King pushed, pulled, and forced a preoccupied postwar superpower to confront the difference between its glossy self-image and ugly racist reality.

He did this by conveying a vision of an America that was full of hope and was consistent with its founding ideals. He delivered that vision in soaring preacherly cadences that called, if not compelled, his audiences to act. On the holiday of his remembrance Dr. King's wisdom has not dulled with time's passage:

On non-violence:
In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.
On the difference between just and unjust laws:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
On civil disobedience:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
How to effect peaceful change:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
Dr. King asked his followers to “purify” themselves, that is, lead blameless lives in accordance with the very principles that they would demand others follow. Walking the talk remains as difficult as it is noble, and it is as relevant to leadership today as it was 58--and 2,000--years ago. © 2021 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Truth, If We Are Allowed to Speak It, Will Set Us Free

Wittgenstein (Brittanica)
Having only taken a couple of 1970's-era Philosophy courses--they stopped with Wittgenstein (1889-1951)--I never read in college any of the post-modernist writers that have dominated the discourse in modern Philosophy departments.

Dabbling occasionally in the literature, I think I get the foundation of post-modernism, aka relativism: because we all are unique in terms of our genetic, family, religious, cultural, and even societal backgrounds and characteristics, there is no such thing as "objective" truth; even if there were, no one could know it because of our subjective biases. More generally, one culture is no better or worse than another.

One would think that the predominance of relativism would lead to greater tolerance in the academy--you do your thing, and I'll do mine because we don't know who's right--but instead we see intolerance of people who hold different views. There are now widespread efforts to banish them not only from small study and work groups but entire institutions.

Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, in his foreword to 12 Rules for Life, points out the inherent contradiction between the there-are-no-rules philosophy that was used to tear down the values upon which Western civilization was based, and the strict set of behavioral rules and beliefs that have arisen in its place.

It's a longish read for a blog post, but worth the time.
The hunger among many younger people for rules, or at least guidelines, is greater today for good reason. In the West at least, millennials are living through a unique historical situation. They are, I believe, the first generation to have been so thoroughly taught two seemingly contradictory ideas about morality, simultaneously—at their schools, colleges and universities, by many in my own generation. This contradiction has left them at times disoriented and uncertain, without guidance and, more tragically, deprived of riches they don’t even know exist.

The first idea or teaching is that morality is relative, at best a personal “value judgment.” Relative means that there is no absolute right or wrong in anything; instead, morality and the rules associated with it are just a matter of personal opinion or happenstance, “relative to” or “related to” a particular framework, such as one’s ethnicity, one’s upbringing, or the culture or historical moment one is born into. It’s nothing but an accident of birth.

According to this argument (now a creed), history teaches that religions, tribes, nations and ethnic groups tend to disagree about fundamental matters, and always have. Today, the postmodernist left makes the additional claim that one group’s morality is nothing but its attempt to exercise power over another group. So, the decent thing to do—once it becomes apparent how arbitrary your, and your society’s, “moral values” are—is to show tolerance for people who think differently, and who come from different (diverse) backgrounds. That emphasis on tolerance is so paramount that for many people one of the worst character flaws a person can have is to be “judgmental.”* And, since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live.

And so a generation has been raised untutored in what was once called, aptly, “practical wisdom,” which guided previous generations. Millennials, often told they have received the finest education available anywhere, have actually suffered a form of serious intellectual and moral neglect. The relativists of my generation and Jordan’s, many of whom became their professors, chose to devalue thousands of years of human knowledge about how to acquire virtue, dismissing it as passé, “not relevant” or even “oppressive.” They were so successful at it that the very word “virtue” sounds out of date, and someone using it appears anachronistically moralistic and self-righteous.

The study of virtue is not quite the same as the study of morals (right and wrong, good and evil). Aristotle defined the virtues simply as the ways of behaving that are most conducive to happiness in life. Vice was defined as the ways of behaving least conducive to “happiness. He observed that the virtues always aim for balance and avoid the extremes of the vices. Aristotle studied the virtues and the vices in his Nicomachean Ethics. It was a book based on experience and observation, not conjecture, about the kind of happiness that was possible for human beings. Cultivating judgment about the difference between virtue and vice is the beginning of wisdom, something that can never be out of date.

By contrast, our modern relativism begins by asserting that making judgments about how to live is impossible, because there is no real good, and no true virtue (as these too are relative). Thus relativism’s closest approximation to “virtue” is “tolerance.” Only tolerance will provide social cohesion between different groups, and save us from harming each other. On Facebook and other forms of social media, therefore, you signal your so-called virtue, telling everyone how tolerant, open and compassionate you are, and wait for likes to accumulate. (Leave aside that telling people you’re virtuous isn’t a virtue, it’s self-promotion. Virtue signalling is not virtue. Virtue signalling is, quite possibly, our commonest vice.)

Intolerance of others’ views (no matter how ignorant or incoherent they may be) is not simply wrong; in a world where there is no right or wrong, it is worse: it is a sign you are embarrassingly unsophisticated or, possibly, dangerous. But it turns out that many people cannot tolerate the vacuum—the chaos—which is inherent in life, but made worse by this moral relativism; they cannot live without a moral compass, without an ideal at which to aim in their lives. (For relativists, ideals are values too, and like all values, they are merely “relative” and hardly worth sacrificing for.) So, right alongside relativism, we find the spread of nihilism and despair, and also the opposite of moral relativism: the blind certainty offered by ideologies that claim to have an answer for everything.

And so we arrive at the second teaching that millennials have been bombarded with. They sign up for a humanities course, to study the greatest books ever written. But they’re not assigned the books; instead they are given ideological attacks on them, based on some appalling simplification. Where the relativist is filled with uncertainty, the ideologue is the very opposite. He or she is hyper-judgmental and censorious, always knows what’s wrong about others, and what to do about it. Sometimes it seems the only people willing to give advice in a relativistic society are those with the least to offer.

Modern moral relativism has many sources. As we in the West learned more history, we understood that different epochs had different moral codes. As we travelled the seas and explored the globe, we learned of far-flung tribes on different continents whose different moral codes made sense relative to, or within the framework of, their societies. Science played a role, too, by attacking the religious view of the world, and thus undermining the religious grounds for ethics and rules. Materialist social science implied that we could divide the world into facts (which all could observe, and were objective and “real”) and values (which were subjective and personal). Then we could first agree on the facts, and, maybe, one day, develop a scientific code of ethics (which has yet to arrive). Moreover, by implying that values had a lesser reality than facts, science contributed in yet another way to moral relativism, for it treated “value” as secondary. (But the idea that we can easily separate facts and values was and remains naive; to some extent, one’s values determine what one will pay attention to, and what will count as a fact.)

The idea that different societies had different rules and morals was known to the ancient world too, and it is interesting to compare its response to this realization with the modern response (relativism, nihilism and ideology). When the ancient Greeks sailed to India and elsewhere, they too discovered that rules, morals and customs differed from place to place, and saw that the explanation for what was right and wrong was often rooted in some ancestral authority. The Greek response was not despair, but a new invention: philosophy.

Socrates, reacting to the uncertainty bred by awareness of these conflicting moral codes, decided that instead of becoming a nihilist, a relativist or an ideologue, he would devote his life to the search for wisdom that could reason about these differences, i.e., he helped invent philosophy. He spent his life asking perplexing, foundational questions, such as “What is virtue?” and “How can one live the good life?” and “What is justice?” and he looked at different approaches, asking which seemed most coherent and most in accord with human nature. These are the kinds of questions that I believe animate this book.

For the ancients, the discovery that different people have different ideas about how, practically, to live, did not paralyze them; it deepened their understanding of humanity and led to some of the most satisfying conversations human beings have ever had, about how life might be lived.

Likewise, Aristotle. Instead of despairing about these differences in moral codes, Aristotle argued that though specific rules, laws and customs differed from place to place, what does not differ is that in all places human beings, by their nature, have a proclivity to make rules, laws and customs. To put this in modern terms, it seems that all human beings are, by some kind of biological endowment, so ineradicably concerned with morality that we create a structure of laws and rules wherever we are. The idea that human life can be free of moral concerns is a fantasy.

We are rule generators. And given that we are moral animals, what must be the effect of our simplistic modern relativism upon us? It means we are hobbling ourselves by pretending to be something we are not. It is a mask, but a strange one, for it mostly deceives the one who wears it. Scccccratccch the most clever postmodern-relativist professor’s Mercedes with a key, and you will see how fast the mask of relativism (with its pretense that there can be neither right nor wrong) and the cloak of radical tolerance come off.
In case it's not clear, I don't like the atmosphere of fear that has been created. People are self-censoring out of concern that the mob will descend upon them next, and that they'll lose their jobs or worse.

The Internet, far from liberating humankind, has become an instrument of suppression.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

COVID-19 Projections: Another Reason to Leave the Bay Area

Firehouse in Old Town reopens today
Sacramento is heading in the right direction, while the Bay Area remains locked down. [bold added]
The Greater Sacramento region’s available ICU capacity is currently under 10%, but the state’s data models project it will hit 19% in the coming weeks. Officials announced Tuesday that the region would move back into the purple reopening tier — the tightest of the four, but less restrictive than the ICU-based lockdown.

The state bases its evaluations on regions, rather than by individual county, because hospital systems rely on one another for patient transport and other support, said Dr. Nancy Williams, health officer for El Dorado County.

The area — which is part of the Greater Sacramento region along with Alpine, Amador, Butte, Colusa, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Sacramento, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties — will now be allowed to reopen outdoor dining and some small businesses and services such as hair salons, museums and movie theaters. Hotels can reopen to recreational travelers.
Firehouse filet (2016) 
We know at least a dozen Bay Area residents who have re-located to the Greater Sacramento area because of its much lower house prices, lower cost of living in non-real estate categories, and up-to-date amenities.

The region's medical facilities are excellent, and SF and Peninsula specialists are less than two hours away. Concerning the better coronavirus outlook, the reason could be lower population density. It's certainly not money, because the counties in the Central Valley are doing better than we who live in wealthier zip codes.

As noted in our visit to towns near Sacramento three years ago, they're on our short list of places to retire.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Health Care Costs: As Intractable As Ever

Wednesday's post was about how Bay Area ICU availability was near zero.

In June a Seattle man was billed $1,122,501
($26,726 per day) for his COVID hospitalization
Adding to ICU capacity is extremely expensive. [bold added]
As San Mateo County reports record COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, officials announced Monday a $4.5 million agreement to staff up to 10 additional intensive care beds at Dignity Health’s Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City....

Under the agreement, approximately 40 medical personnel will be deployed to the Sequoia Hospital for at least 30 days through a partnership with AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, a company that provides clinical resources, such as personnel and health care solutions, to hospital settings worldwide.
A third grader could do the calculation: $4.5 million divided by 10 ICU beds = $450,000 per ICU bed. And the expenditure is not even an "investment" because it's short-lived ("30 days", primarily for staff costs). If these assertions are accepted at face value, the cost of an ICU bed is $15,000 per day.

After a decade of rancorous discussion about the pros and cons of public vs privatized health care, and a welter of hybrid solutions and technological innovation, the problem of rising health care costs is as intractable as over.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

De-Cluttering Priority: Hazardous Waste

Fluorescent lights, medicines, solvents:
among the many things that can hurt us.
Over the years I’ve replaced our spent fluorescent tube lights in the kitchen, bathrooms, and garage, but I've never got round to disposing of them properly. They've been accumulating by the side of the house.

Our unused Epipens, inhalers, and expired medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, had filled two boxes in the garage. These are other items that by law should not be thrown into the trash.

I made an appointment yesterday to drop off all the above, as well as old paint, pesticides, and other chemicals at the San Mateo County hazardous waste facility. They took everything except the prescription pills which they said I could deposit in receptacles at CVS or Walgreens.

It was a good feeling to clear these materials from the house. De-cluttering is a perennial New Year’s resolution, and taking a small action every month, rather than making it a huge project, may be the best strategy for this procrastinator.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Storm Before the Calm

Getting the Pfizer vaccine in San Mateo.
We noted last month how California's zero ICU capacity should not cause Bay Area residents to panic, because our still-positive capacity was being offset by negative availability in Southern California (negative availability means that patients were using hospital beds not officially licensed as intensive care).

The latest reports have caused us to worry more. Headline: Bay Area ICU availability plummets to 0.7% as California tops 30,000 deaths
Intensive care availability in the Bay Area plummeted to 0.7% on Monday, an alarming drop over the weekend that was somewhat tempered by hospitalizations for COVID-19 showing signs of leveling off across the state and region.

Though availability is technically close to 0% by California’s metrics, that does not mean there are no ICU beds available. Instead, it means that many hospitals in the region are perilously over-capacity, and that people with COVID-19 are making up a high percentage of all patients in intensive care.
In San Mateo County we still have 20 beds available, which aren't much in a county of almost 800,000 people.
Here is the most recent available ICU capacity from each Bay Area county, and the number of available ICU beds, according to state data:

Alameda: 29.1% [68 beds available]

Contra Costa: 10.7% [36 beds available]

Marin: 8% [13 beds available]

Napa: 0% [1 bed available]

San Francisco: 28.7% [70 beds available]

San Mateo: 9.7% [20 beds available]

Santa Clara: 7% (includes surge beds) [39 beds available]

Solano: 4% [9 beds available]

Sonoma: 14.4% [10 beds available]

Monterey: Percentage N/A [41 beds available]

Santa Cruz: 0% [0 beds available]
There has been a lot of controversy over whether masks, social distancing, or stopping indoor gatherings can reduce the odds of catching the virus.

Acknowledging the uncertainty, we are going to play it safer by reducing our in person interactions and by going out even less. We're all going to be vaccinated soon, so don't blow it now.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

It Would Have Been OK in Australia

Obvious once you look for it
I remember reading about a modern-art painting being hung upside down but didn't know that it was a Matisse:
In October and November of 1961, only one person among the 116,000 visitors to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition "The Last Works of Henri Matisse" noticed that one of the most elegant of the great artist’s late career cutouts, Le Bateau ("The Boat") was hanging upside down. The esteemed curators responsible for capsizing the sailboat, and even the artist's own son, the New York art dealer Pierre Matisse, had not noticed the error.

Le Bateau, executed in 1953, is comprised of paper cutouts forming a blue boat sailing on a windy day with clouds, and the water outlined with graceful, yet assertive, curving purple lines. The bottom half of the picture shows a stylized reflection of the boat and clouds...

However, a stockbroker named Genevieve Habert could not believe that Matisse would have arranged the picture in such a way as to give more detail to the reflection than the boat itself. An admirer of Matisse’s work, she visited the exhibition multiple times and on the third visit bought a catalogue, which, showing the picture correctly displayed, validated her assumption.
I was led down this path by a daily trivia question: a painting by what artist was once mistakenly hung upside-down at MOMA? The choices were Picasso, Matisse, Man Ray, and Jackson Pollock; I picked Pollock.

The 1961 mistake reminds me of this upside-down picture taken across the Foster City lagoon in 2013:

Foster City Lagoon

Monday, January 11, 2021

Appreciate It For Its Own Sake

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie’ (1866), by Albert Bierstadt (WSJ/Brooklyn Museum of Art)
A work of art that was famous, then forgotten, then rediscovered, Storm in the Rocky Mountains (1866) helped to rekindle the American spirit after the carnage of the Civil War:
Created in the gloomy Civil War era, the painting conveys the grandeur of the American West at a time when the nation’s belief in Manifest Destiny roused hopes and dreams even for citizens who were not headed west. Studded with emblems of the frontier—a soaring eagle, a black bear, pristine lakes, big skies, steep cliffs and a Native American camp—“A Storm” is, in the words of art historian Linda Ferber, writing in the museum’s 2006 “American Paintings in the Brooklyn Museum: Artists Born by 1876,” “a pivotal work in American cultural history.”
Modern historians who view history through a normative lens describe the period following the Civil War as an era to be deplored by late 20th century standards, when the United States adopted the imperialist philosophies of the European nations and rode roughshod over indigenous peoples.

If we dispense with moralizing but focus on the descriptive, the "winning of the West" was inevitable, given the developments of the Industrial Revolution, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (1869), and the incentives of the Homestead Act (1862).

The creation of the sea-to-shining-sea America in the 19th century produced an America that won two World Wars and one Cold War, the latter without significant casualties. Must we take the evil with the good? That's way above this humble blogger's pay grade.

Setting aside our--and I include myself in this tendency--to look at everything through an ideological or political lens, I can appreciate Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie as a work of art by itself. May I do more of that in the New Year.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Leaving It All Behind

Moses Striking the Rock (Tintoretto,ca.1555–1570)
Chicago Professor Leon Kass points out the similarities between the stories of Exodus and America: [bold added]
The three parts of the Exodus story—slavery and deliverance; covenant and law; worship and presence—become the three pillars of the Children of Israel’s enduring national existence.

The tale of oppressive slavery in prosperous Egypt and of the astonishing deliverance and miraculous sustenance in the wilderness—the first pillar—is the constitutive national narrative, memorialized and retold annually by parents to children at the Passover Seder. Absent a relation to God, the Jewish people might still be enslaved to man; remembering our own servitude, we should deal kindly with the vulnerable.

The covenant and constituting Law—the second pillar—establish the way of life under which the people are to live and rule themselves. Not content merely to provide instruction for rectifying mutual wrongdoing, the Law is also a moral teacher, touching all aspects of human life. Its guidelines protect human dignity against abuse and self-abasement and encourage reverence for life and property, care for the needy and fair dealing in all transactions. Aiming beyond justice, the Law seeks to promote grace and gratitude, lifting human beings to fulfill the promise implied in man’s being in the image of God.

The human longing for something better than our mortal selves is satisfied in the third pillar, a place for the community to meet and to seek and commune with God. The center of communal life, it is a home for showing gratitude and seeking atonement, for prayer and sacrifice, and for dedicating personal and collective life to serving God and His higher purposes for humankind...

(Image from pinterest)
Thoughtful people have long detected numerous parallels between the United States and biblical Israel. We Americans, too, owe our origins to an escape from despotism and a desire for religious freedom. We, too, are a particular and distinctive people with a universal creed, one of biblical provenance: In announcing our birth, we declared that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” We too have a constituting national law, a Constitution approved by the consent of the people. And when in the mid-19th century our Union was challenged and its founding creed repudiated, we renewed it through the sacrifice of a bloody civil war, so that, as Abraham Lincoln said, “this nation under God shall have a new birth of Freedom.”

Like Israel of old, we, too, have stumbled and fallen, and committed apostasy against our creed. But half a century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. , like an ancient Hebrew prophet, summoned us to return to our ideals of liberty and justice for all, appealing explicitly to our founding creed and the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. Until only yesterday, it could be said of America that it was, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “a nation with the soul of a church.”

But times have changed. For today’s reader of Exodus, a crucial question cries out from the three-pillared structure of Israel’s founding. Can a people endure and flourish if it lacks a shared national story, accepted law and morals, and an aspiration to something higher than its own comfort and safety? Can a devotion to technological progress, economic prosperity and private pursuits of happiness sustain us when our story is contested (or despised), our morals weakened and our national dedication abandoned?
At crucial times in history--the 1860's and 1960's--the American nation was riven by extreme differences but came back from the brink--in one case it also took a Civil War--when Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., called it to live up to the "better angels of our nature."

We need such a powerful voice or voices to remind us Democrats are not Communists and Republicans are not Nazis. (Both Communists and Nazis slaughtered millions of people, including their own, during the 20th century.) We need voices to remind us that we have vastly more in common in our values and dreams than in our differences.

President-Elect Biden called for us not to treat each other as enemies on November 8th, and this humble blogger, for one, will resist that temptation no matter how much I may disagree with my fellow citizens:
I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify. Who doesn’t see red and blue states, but a United States...

But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.

The Bible tells us that to everything there is a season – a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow. And a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Fog Lifting Soon

The morning fog was an old friend that we haven't seen for years. The air was cool and moist, ideal for jogging and walking.

The weather app says that the humidity is 100%. which is believable, and that visibility is 9 miles, which is not. If we drive, we'll have to do it with our headlights on until the afternoon.

ICU availability in the Bay Area has fallen to 3.5%, so we're going out infrequently and only for activities (e.g., walking on uncrowded routes) that are safe. With the vaccine being rolled out, current conditions are probably the worst they're going to be this year, and, yes, the fog will be lifting soon.

[Update - 12:30 p.m. Yep, it burned off.]

Friday, January 08, 2021

Traffic: Lighter and Deadlier

A formerly gridlocked Hwy 580 (SJ Mercury)
Traffic has been much lighter in Foster City. The majority of people now work from home, and the cancellation of in-person classes at the three elementary and one middle school in our city of 30,000 has left the streets mostly empty.

As I go on my daily walks, however, I actually have to take greater care when crossing the street. A higher percentage of the cars seems to be speeding. Too often I have seen drivers make aggressive right turns-on-red and whiz through residential neighborhoods despite the increased number of bicyclists, walkers, skateboarders, and runners.

My personal observations--less traffic but more speeders--seems to be a nationwide phenomenon: [bold added]
Fewer competing vehicles should have made driving safer—but instead, the rate of fatal crashes climbed as unimpeded speed demons put the pedal to the metal...

Nationally, vehicle miles traveled dropped an unprecedented 264.2 billion miles over the first half of 2020, a decline of 17% compared with the first half of 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In the same period, the agency estimated the number of fatalities shrank 2%, falling to 16,650 from 16,988 the previous year. But the rate of fatalities grew 18%, rising to 1.25 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, up from 1.06.

In other words, an inordinate number of people died given how many fewer miles they traveled. It was the highest motor-vehicle fatality rate for that span of time in a dozen years.
As a driver, I am much happier that there aren't any more traffic jams, especially during the morning and afternoon periods that used to be known as rush hours. Unfortunately, a minority of drivers are spoiling--often calamitously--this happiness for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Uncertain Times

When uncertainty rules, we turn to proven sources of guidance. So I cracked open a fortune cookie.

My action was rewarded when I got four, four, fortunes in one.
Time flies.
Suns rise and shadows fall.
Let time go by.
Love is forever over all.
Take your time (which flies and goes by): it's almost too much wisdom to absorb in one sitting.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

The 12th Day of Christmas

Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi (unfinished)
Brittanica: [bold added]
Epiphany, also called Feast of the Epiphany, Theophany, or Three Kings’ Day, (from Greek epiphaneia, “manifestation”), Christian holiday commemorating the first manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, and the manifestation of his divinity, as it occurred at his baptism in the Jordan River and at his first miracle, at Cana in Galilee.

Epiphany is one of the three principal and oldest festival days of the Christian church (the other two are Easter and Christmas). Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and other Western churches observe the feast on January 6, while some Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate Epiphany on January 19, since their Christmas Eve falls on January 6.
A half-century ago churches held services on January 6th no matter what day of the week it was. It was on the Feast of the Epiphany, not Christmas, that the pageant was held when the kids dressed up as angels, kings, shepherds and, of course, Joseph and Mary.

I've played most of the parts, but never Joseph. Joseph was not a desirable role to us kids--everyone else had better costumes or appurtenances like a shepherd's crook. As we got older we began to understand Joseph's honorable decisions when he found that his virgin bride was pregnant.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. ---Matthew 1:18-19
An angel told Joseph in a dream that Mary was bearing the Son of God, Joseph went ahead with his marriage to Mary, and the rest is history.

On a day when too many people have acted ignobly, give a thought to Joseph, without whom there probably wouldn't be any Christmas--or Epiphany--to celebrate.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Accelerating the Inevitable

(WSJ graphic)
Signs that the Bay Area had lost its luster abounded before COVID-19.

February, 2018: San Francisco Bay Area Experiences Mass Exodus Of Residents
Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s own study of the out-migration says workers are moving to Sacramento, Austin, and Portland due to a number of factors. But topping the list is the high cost of housing.
Last May, two months into the lockdown, we wrote:
The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed real estate values. The coronavirus earthquake of 2020 will have a like effect, though few are aware that it's happening.
Yesterday the Chronicle reported on the mounting data that California has peaked. (Out-migration is a lagging indicator because circumstances--except for natural disasters--have to become bad enough to overcome the costs of moving.) [bold added]
California suffered the steepest outflow of residents via rental truck among all 50 states in 2020, with San Francisco the epicenter of the Bay Area’s pandemic exodus for DIY movers, new data shows.

California ranked last in the nation for migration growth last year, with the largest net loss of one-way U-Haul trucks crossing its border in 2020....U-Haul used data from more than 2 million transactions annually to analyze migration trends, finding that more people left densely populated areas when the pandemic hit, particularly in the Bay Area and New York City.
Hayes St., SF (October Chron photo)
Your humble Cassandra finds a silver lining in everything: now California and the Bay Area won't have to spend a penny on "affordable housing" because the fleeing people and companies have caused rents to drop precipitously. [bold added]
San Francisco’s housing rental market saw the most dramatic changes among all U.S. cities last year during the coronavirus pandemic, new data shows.

When the pandemic began in March, moving virtually halted across the country. But as job losses rose and workplaces went remote, people started leaving pricey big metro areas in favor of more affordable cities.

The country’s most expensive big city, San Francisco, was the most affected, with rental prices plummeting 26.7% since March, according to 2020 National Rent Report from rental listings website Apartment List. The current median two-bedroom rent is $2,305. [Blogger's note: it was over $3,000 a year ago.]

San Jose landed sixth on the list with a 15.2% drop since March and a median two-bedroom rent of $2,035, and Oakland was eighth on the list, declining 14.2% since March and a median two-bedroom price of $1,952. Apartment List estimates the median contract rent across new leases signed in a given market and month.

Rents in principal cities across the U.S., which are usually the largest or have the greatest economic output in the area, fell 9.3% since January, while rents in surrounding suburban cities increased 0.5% since the start of last year. The report reflected a big exception in the Bay Area: Both principal city San Francisco and its neighbor Oakland saw dramatic declines, though Oakland’s was somewhat smaller.
I talked to a few highly paid young professionals about why they're leaving. To paraphrase Rick in Casablanca:
Rick: I came to San Francisco for the night life.
Capt. Renault: Night life?! We're locked down!
Rick: I was misinformed.
San Francisco ownership and rental values are experiencing their self-inflicted, foreseeable collapse. The coronavirus, as it has in many areas of life, has accelerated the inevitable.