Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Joke Backfired

Volkswagen made an April Fool's joke related to the intense interest in electric cars. Unfortunately the joke backfired:
Volkswagen AG’s U.S. subsidiary said Tuesday the company would rebrand itself as Voltswagen of America to promote its electric car strategy, but a spokesman for the parent company in Germany later said the move was a joke.

The name change, which immediately lit up social media and online news sites, was originally intended as an early April Fools’ Day stunt to get people talking about VW’s ambitious electric car strategy.
Too bad, the Volkswagen-with-a-K nameplate on my 1967 Beetle could have become a collector's item.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

A Great Country

4th St: wide open road
Traffic was heavy coming off the freeway yesterday, but after cars scattered to their destinations it was apparent that San Francisco streets were still much emptier than 2019.

I parked at the 5th and Mission garage and walked down 4th to the Moscone Center.

It was time for my second Pfizer injection.

There was no line at the entrance. I showed the guard my ID and vaccination card that was received three weeks ago.

March 29: empty compared to March 9th
It had Monday's appointment inscribed on the back, and he waved me right in.

There were a dozen kiosks ready to register people, but only three were busy.

The lady checked the information on the ID, saw it agreed with the 2:30 appointment, and pointed politely to the escalator.

None of the stanchions used to manage crowds were necessary today. I walked straight to the main convention floor.

Line on March 9th
Over a hundred chairs were set up in the pre-injection waiting area, but none were in use.

I went right to an injection station, where for the third time I had to show my ID. Then I had to answer a raft of questions ("do you have COVID-19", "have you been sick recently", etc.) where "no" was clearly the right answer.

To save trouble I thought about lying when the technician asked if I had ever had an allergic reaction to an injection.

The golden ticket
Yes, I admitted, I did have a reaction 15 years ago when a nurse accidentally mixed too strong an antigen into the solution. I have since gotten monthly injections without incident.

Whether it was because I sounded sincere or because I threw out the word "antigen" (in my ratty attire, she did look surprised) or because it was just normal protocol, I'll never know, but I got the shot and waited 15 minutes like everyone else.

It only cost a few bucks in gas and parking, some soreness in the arm and a mild headache, but now I have protection against the virus that has put the world on hold for a year.

Krispy Kreme: 1 free doughnut (WSJ)
As an added bonus, the vaccination card is a golden ticket to wonderful promotions and discounts.
The push to get shots in arms has morphed into a kind of freebie frenzy, with businesses ranging from marijuana dispensaries to arcades promoting giveaways. The companies say the idea is to support the country’s vaccination program at a critical time during its rollout—and if a side effect is a boost for business, all the better.
Is this a great country or what?

Monday, March 29, 2021

Book Deal

"New" edition of LOTR coming out in 2021!
I'll buy it if there's a new preface by the author.
The Wall Street Journal writes that its parent News Corp is about to acquire the consumer arm of book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:
The deal, which the people said could be announced as early as Monday, would add a portfolio of high-profile novels from authors such as George Orwell, Philip Roth and J.R.R. Tolkien to News Corp’s HarperCollins Publishers division. Terms of the deal couldn’t be learned.
1) "Terms of the deal couldn't be learned" is probably not entirely true because the WSJ reporters' contacts with the finance industry are second to none, and they also have internal connections with parent News Corp. However, for legal and ethical reasons only the parties directly involved can release merger information. This information restriction is an example of the Chinese Wall.

2) Nice to know that someone still thinks that they can make money off of books.

3) "authors such as George Orwell, Philip Roth and J.R.R. Tolkien" -- I have read and like these well-known writers, though I hope that they're getting some authors who, you know, aren't dead.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday, 2021

Holy Week begins today, and like last year only virtual services were held.

The last normal Palm Sunday was in 2019, when the congregation marched around the block in symbolic remembrance of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem astride an ass (yes, dear reader, the grade school boomer snickered when he first heard the passage from the King James Bible; "ass" became "donkey" in later versions).

On Palm Sunday 2019 Tiger Woods won the Masters, his first major-tournament win after 11 years. His world was bright, and ours was too, with plentiful jobs and a soaring stock market. Now Tiger is recovering from a horrific car crash, and he is struggling to learn to walk again, much less play professional golf. Most of us, and very likely including Tiger Woods, want to go back to the way things were.

(From Catholic Americans in Korea)
The priest talked today about various concepts of time:

Chronos is the dominant mode of modern thinking--the past, present, and future are distinctly different, i.e., "chronological".

Kairos, another Greek word, is about propitious moments, e.g., saying the right words and saying them eloquently are important, but saying them at the right time maximizes their impact. Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem at Passover is an example of Kairos.

Transhistoricity is above history, that is, a thing or concept "that has always existed and is not merely confined to one particular stage of human history." Christians and followers of other religions believe that God and universal truths exist independently of human-defined periods of history.

The priest further explained: events and people are unified across time. We are limited in our understanding if we think that Palm Sunday, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection happened in the past. We are there now, cheering for Jesus, shouting for Barabbas to be freed, and witnessing His death at the Cross.

In science fiction movies, chaos results when past, present, and future converge. Fear not, said Jesus, whom we proclaim will come again but according to transhistoricity may be already here. Uh-oh, I'm not ready, but few of us are.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Thank Goodness I Got Through Friday

Friday started off promisingly.

I dashed off a letter to Mom, then used the Starbucks app to order a blackeye (two shots of espresso added to a regular coffee). I grabbed the car keys, iPhone, wallet, and letter before heading out the door.

The first hitch in the plan for a beautiful Friday was the discovery of a flat tire on the Camry. Changing it would take some time, so as a temporary fix the cigarette-lighter-powered air pump reinflated the tire. The leak could be a one-off occurrence, but 9 times out of 10 the cause is a nail and repair or replacement will be necessary.

Forget esthetics, I want protection
What happened next can only be excused by too many distractions--mailing the letter, picking up the coffee, and worries about the tire--for the aging mind. I had earlier put the iPhone on the car roof and forgot to remove it.

At Starbucks the realization dawned that the phone was missing. Hurrying home, I walked the car's path for the first couple of blocks without success. (Having bought a "military grade drop tested" case, the phone probably survived.)

I returned to the car and drove slowly along the entire route, glancing at the Apple Watch to see if the iPhone was within bluetooth range. Again, no luck, maybe somebody had picked it up.

The "Find My" app on the Mac showed the iPhone to be a half-mile from the house. That was good news, because it meant that the phone was intact.

I'll save you the litany of false steps that were made, dear reader, including getting back in the car for one more search. Suffice it to say that your humble blogger was not aware of all the alert and messaging features of the "Find My" app. The man who found the iPhone showed up at my door. He was tall, ruddy, masked, and middle-aged, with a baseball cap and walking shorts.
How did you know my address?

"It popped up briefly." [After reading the "Find My" instructions, I still don't see how that happened.]

Here, let me give you something.

"Oh, no," he said, waving his hands.

Thank you sir.
And with that, he was gone, and I don't even know his name.

I do have a picture of his shadow (right), which the camera took while he was looking at the display.

Lessons learned:
  • Kind strangers still exist;
  • Flat tires are minor compared to other problems;
  • Never put stuff on the roof of your car.
  • Friday, March 26, 2021

    Breakfast of Champignons

    Dried (left), fresh (right), mushroom salt (middle)
    Over the past year your humble blogger has spent many hours in the kitchen trying out various ingredients and cooking methods.

    Mushrooms have proved to be a can't-miss flavor enhancer, infusing different cuisines with complexity and heft. Apparently many home chefs have likewise discovered fungal joy.

    Mushroom consumption has taken off:
    (WSJ illustration)
    According to projections from the firm Transparency Market Research, the global mushroom market is expected to reach $69.3 billion by the end of 2024, up from $34.1 billion in 2015. Some of this growth is being driven by consumers in China, but the biggest share of the market is still in the U.S. and Canada, where mushrooms are suddenly associated with “wellness.”...

    Mushrooms may not be as high in protein as meat (although they do contain 1-3% protein by weight, depending on the species), but they are rich in B vitamins, high in fiber and, perhaps more important, so rich in meaty flavors that you hardly miss meat...

    Why do mushrooms taste so meaty? The short answer is that, like meat, they are rich in the umami flavor compounds that impart a savory or brothy taste.
    In simple Chinese dishes such as chicken asparagus or beef broccoli I've found that replacing half the meat with mushrooms is not only flavorful but reduces the requirement for sodium-filled soy or oyster sauce.

    As we strive to reduce our carbon footprint, mushrooms should be eaten on more than a spore-adic basis because it's the morel thing to do.

    Thursday, March 25, 2021

    Making a Hash of It

    The slicing, chopping and dicing takes time.
    Slow-roasting the corned beef on St. Patrick's Day didn't turn out well. The meat was too dry and salty; normal boiling would have lessened the brininess. The beef was edible, but no one was enthusiastic about having leftovers.

    And so it was that I made pans-full of corned beef hash over the next two weeks.

    The time-consuming part was the prep work, boiling and peeling the potatoes--one of us has an allergy to potato skins, chopping the onions, and dicing the corned beef. Prepping the night before makes it easy to fry everything in the morning for breakfast. I add eggs and boiled carrots from the dinner, then hot sauce to taste on individual servings.

    It's best to do it right the first time, but successfully recovering from a mistake has its own pleasures.

    Wednesday, March 24, 2021

    The Revolution Eats Its Own

    SF School Board VP Alison Collins (Chron photo)
    Viewing everything through the lens of race eventually pits non-white groups against each other.

    Note: European history teaches how revolutionaries become ever-more extreme, end up killing each other, and inflict greater cruelties on the general population than the regimes they overthrew. The internecine battles of the Girondist vs. Jacobins and the Mensheviks vs. Bolsheviks in the French and Russian Revolutions, respectively, come to mind. I wonder how modern wokes plan to avoid these precedents or whether they even studied them in school.

    Speaking of school, SF School Board Vice-President Alison Collins has been called out for her racist tweets against Asian-Americans in 2016:
    In the tweets posted in 2016, Collins said Asian Americans had used “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’”

    “Where are the vocal Asians speaking up against Trump? Don’t Asian Americans know they’re on his list as well?” Collins had tweeted. Using asterisks in references to the racial epithet, Collins continued, “Do they think they won’t be deported? profiled? beaten? Being a house n****r is still being a n****r. You’re still considered ‘the help.’”

    Collins, who is Black, said she wanted to again express her “sincere and heartfelt apologies,” although she didn’t specify further. In a previous statement Saturday, she apologized for the hurt caused by the tweets, which Lam called a “non-apology.”
    For the record your humble blogger thinks that Alison Collins should not be removed from her job for tweets made before she was on the school board. And if she still believes that Asian-Americans should stop studying hard, she should say so and not cave to the outrage. If they want to remove her, let them do so by legal means and not bully her into resigning.

    Alison Collins is one of the Board members who thinks Lincoln was too racist to name a school after him, so I gotta admit, it's kinda fun watching her squirm.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2021

    Landlord Relief: Opting Out Because the Price is Too High

    We have posted frequently on the unstable rental housing market, specifically about how the eviction moratorium--originally in effect for three months but extended to more than a year--has imperilled the finances of some small landlords.

    Burned by the government's bigfooting of lease contracts, some landlords are refusing to take relief money because of conditions that may well guarantee future losses.
    ...thousands of building owners across the country are rejecting the government offer. They say the aid often has too many strings attached, such as preventing them from removing problematic tenants or compelling them to turn over sensitive financial information to government agencies or contractors.

    “If you have someone who wasn’t upholding their end of the contract…you’re asking the housing provider to sign up for essentially another year of this person being in this unit unable to pay,” said Amanda Gill, government affairs director for the Florida Apartment Association, a landlord trade group.
    To be sure, many landlords are accepting the money and terms. They will get partial payment of the liability (they are required to waive 20% of the unpaid rent) and will continue to lease to problematic tenants. However, some landlords may wish not to take the deal in favor of cutting their losses in hopes of finding more creditworthy renters.

    Over the past year the government has not shown itself to be the most trustworthy counterparty, so it's understandable that some landlords think the price of receiving COVID relief is too high.

    Monday, March 22, 2021

    Do Not Attribute the Sins of Individuals to the Group

    The 32 killed by Seung-Hui Cho in 2007; at least 27 (84%) were non-Asian. Was he racist?
    Seung-Hui Cho will never be forgotten by the families of his victims, yet few in the general public remember his name 14 years after he killed 32 people, then himself, on the Virginia Tech campus.

    Asian-Americans universally deplored the massacre, and some feared that they would suffer reprisals from other Americans. The story of Seung-Hui Cho was swept up in the anti-gun-violence crusade of the period, and no sweeping generalizations were made about Asian hatred and violence toward non-Asians.

    Asian activists, however, do not hesitate to call the white gunman who killed eight people, six of them Asian-American women, in Atlanta on March 16th an exemplar of white culture. [bold added]
    “This mass shooter was targeting Asian women and their businesses. This isn’t an isolated incident. There have been 500+ hate crimes targeted at Asian people this year alone,” social media specialist Mark Kim wrote on Twitter. “This Atlanta tragedy lies at an intersection of race, gender, class and the legacy of America’s history of colonization and violence in Asia,” journalist Elise Hu said on the site. “I don’t have the words. I’m just despondent. Protect Asian women, solidarity with sex workers, #StopAsianHate.”
    So far the killer has claimed that his motivations stemmed only from hatred of sex workers. It's still possible that race was a factor, though even if it were, to assume that millions of white Americans hold the same beliefs is a gross generalization not supported by concrete evidence. Besides, if the society were so biased, how could Asian-Americans have succeeded in great numbers in the culture that activists decry?

    America aspires to judge people by their individual words and deeds (obviously not always successfully), and not judge members of groups that wayward individuals share some characteristics with.

    Asian-Americans should be grateful that the sins of Seung-Hui Cho were not attributed to them, and they should grant the same consideration to others who have nothing in common with the Atlanta gunman but their race.

    Sunday, March 21, 2021

    Spring is Here

    The Foster City condos on Hillsdale Ave., from across the San Mateo lagoon
    It's cold, 45 degrees in the Bay Area as Easterners scoff, but the sky is blue, and the sun is out.

    Spring is here, literally and metaphorically. Traffic is picking up, and the children have started attending classes again.

    The older folks will complete the vaccination regimen this month, while the younger members of the family will start theirs.

    Fruit and oatmeal this morning, or should I get doughnuts and coffee with extra shots of caffeine like in the old days?

    You don't have to ask twice.
    All those days in the sun
    What I'd give to relive just one
    Undo what's done
    And bring back the light

    Days in the sun will return
    We must believe as lovers do
    That days in the sun
    Will come shining through.

    Saturday, March 20, 2021

    OK, Don't Listen to the Car Guy Who 's in the Top Two

    Green enough: our 2018 RAV4 hybrid has a range of 400 mi.
    In a largely overlooked speech from last December Toyota President Akio Toyoda derided the"excessive hype" over electric vehicles: [bold added]
    advocates failed to consider the carbon emitted by generating electricity and the costs of an EV transition.

    Toyota President Akio Toyoda said Japan would run out of electricity in the summer if all cars were running on electric power. The infrastructure needed to support a fleet consisting entirely of EVs would cost Japan between ¥14 trillion and ¥37 trillion, the equivalent of $135 billion to $358 billion, he said...

    In a country such as Japan that gets most of its electricity from burning coal and natural gas, EVs don’t help the environment, Mr. Toyoda said. “The more EVs we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets,” he said.

    He said he feared government regulations would make cars a “flower on a high summit”—out of reach for the average person.

    With models like the Prius, Toyota is a leader in hybrid cars, which combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor and can be refueled at traditional gas stations. It doesn’t sell pure battery EVs for the mass market in the U.S. or Japan, although it does have a model that runs on a hydrogen-powered fuel cell.
    California has banned the sale of gasoline-powered cars after 2035. Also, California EV's will charge overnight using electricity from renewable sources, which are planned to power 100% of the grid by 2045. Therefore, the thinking goes, that unlike Japan recharging car batteries overnight will not cause CO2 emissions to spike.

    Your humble blogger believes that 100% dependence on solar and wind power is nuts. Single sourcing of electricity and transportation systems should not be on notoriously unsteady renewable energy, especially during extreme weather events that knocked out power during the California wildfires and the Texas freeze.

    Battery technology is improving rapidly, but it's not at the point where we can pull the plug on the oil and gas that run the vast majority of our cars and power plants. (For an example of how well government predicts construction of technologically advanced infrastructure, see California's high-speed rail fiasco.)

    Well, there's no need for me to get worked up. When the conversion happens, I'll either be dead, too old to drive, or too addled to care.

    Friday, March 19, 2021

    The Harshest Judge

    (WSJ illustration)
    Tom Hanks regrets the "accumulated minutes wasted" playing solitaire (the old-fashioned way with cards, not on the computer) this past year.
    And what else was there to do?

    Actually, there was plenty to do! Damn! There was a sink to clean out and a dishwasher to empty. Laundry to sort. Rice to put in the cooker with the timer set for breakfast. Letters I could have written and the typewriter and stationery to do it.

    Books I had packed in a suitcase were set on a reading stack, unread, even though I was, sort of, always reading one of them. There were floor exercises and yoga stretches to do. I have kids to talk to when they are available. I have business partners to contact. I have friends who are hilarious and interesting. I have scenes to study and work to prepare. I have stories in my head—and I tell stories for a living—that could have been sketched out, noted, outlined. I could have re-watched “Chernobyl” on HBO!
    As with many successful people, Tom Hanks' harshest judge is himself.

    "I did get around to doing many of those things. I lived up to most of my responsibilities," he says, and yet like the common men he often portrays,thinks he didn't do enough.

    Tom Hanks is one of the most successful, famous, and admired people in the world. At the age of 64 he may be sensing his mortality, accentuated by his and his wife Rita's battle with COVID-19 in 2020.

    If he wanted to quit, or at least kick back, no one would begrudge him. He just has to give himself permission.

    Thursday, March 18, 2021

    The Apotheosis of the 21st Century

    Rickrolling meets monetary policy meets deepfake technology.

    St. Patrick's Day: It Really Was Better Back Then

    St. Patrick's Day used to be an unofficial holiday in San Francisco.

    The City would close Front Street to traffic, and Harrington's Bar and Grill was the center of the milling about.

    Last fall Harrington's shut down rather than gut it out to the re-opening.
    Harrington’s Bar and Grill will permanently close after an 85-year run in San Francisco. Michael Harrington, its third-generation owner, shared the news in a short message posted on the business' website...

    “The decision was very difficult to make but with everything we have to do regarding reopening in an unsafe environment for each of us,” Harrington wrote. “To wait out this pandemic was financially unreasonable.”
    Some of what we have lost is permanent.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2021

    St. Patrick's Day, 2021

    Brisket is a tough, inexpensive cut, and slow-cooking at a low temperature--my oven works best at 225 °F (107.2 °C)--tenderizes adequately if I can roast it for at least eight hours.

    Corned beef, which has always been made in our kitchen on St. Patrick's Day through the traditional boiling method, is simply seasoned brisket. Slow-roasting should work (at least that's what food bloggers claim).

    And so it was that I began prepping the corned beef at 5:30 a.m. The spices from the seasoning packet were rubbed into the fatty half, and each slab was wrapped in aluminum foil.

    (We need leftovers for sandwiches tomorrow, I bought two 3½-pound pieces.)

    Into the oven at 6 a.m., and the rest of the day is free. That's another advantage of slow-roasting; you don't have to rush back to the kitchen because over-cooking the dish won't ruin it.

    I stopped by Starbucks at 6:15 for an extra jolt of caffeine, which will be desperately needed to tackle a couple of tax returns today.

    Don't forget to wear something green!

    Tuesday, March 16, 2021

    Trust the Science: Relax

    I meditate, most productively when lying down (mindful)
    Neuroscience says that downtime (aka "doing nothing") increases productivity. Specifically,
  • Take a long shower
  • Play a game without keeping score
  • Cook a big meal
  • Take a solo walk
  • Just sit down.

    I've been diligently performing these "activities" over the past year, but the people in the household say that there's been no visible increase in productivity.

    Taking a page from global-warming stalwarts who've been saying "snowfalls are now just a thing of the past" for 21 years, I say, be patient.

    Trust the science.
  • Monday, March 15, 2021

    The Mean Streets of San Francisco

    The man lay in the median-strip shrubbery
    on Webster (Google street view)
    Hundreds of people drove or walked by the prone figure on February 4th.

    Payal Gupta noticed from her second-floor window that the man hadn't moved for seven hours, and called 911.

    Emergency units declared the man dead and cleared the scene at 2:49 a.m., 5½ hours after Ms. Gupta's 911 call.
    The medical examiner’s office later identified the man as Dustin Walker. He was 37 and homeless. His cause of death is under investigation...

    Scores of neighbors responded, several of them saying they’d seen people appearing to be asleep or unconscious on the street many times and had not known what to do.

    Amid San Francisco’s triple crisis of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction, it’s common to see people in distress or simply passed out on the sidewalk. It’s such a familiar sight that many of us just walk on by.
    This incident is partly an example of the bystander effect made famous by the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964:
    The phenomenon, called the Bystander Effect or the Genovese Syndrome, attempts to explain why someone witnessing a crime would not help the victim.

    Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley made their careers studying the Bystander Effect and have shown in clinical experiments that witnesses are less likely to help a crime victim if there are other witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely any one person will intervene.
    It's easy to deplore San Franciscans' lack of compassion, but I don't believe that attribution is justified. There's too much risk of being infected or provoking a violent reaction from attempting to rouse a person lying on a sidewalk (some social workers advise tapping the soles of the subject's shoes).

    The mean streets make everyone meaner.

    Sunday, March 14, 2021

    Sunday, Light-Hearted Sunday

    Thomas Aquinas was in favor of eutrapelia,
    though he doesn't look it.
    In keeping with his pedagogical proclivities the priest in the Sunday sermon introduced another concept rooted in antiquity, eutrapelia. In this instance the term was Greek (εὐτραπελία), not Latin. Aristotle [bold added]
    believed that what was required for proper relaxation and enjoyment was not just a social skill but a special virtue, another kind of temperateness. He called it eutrapelia (another good name for a cat!).

    With this virtue a person will know that he or she must relax, and will know when and how to do it. Because it is a virtue, concerned with what is morally good, it will not allow us to enjoy ourselves at the expense of others or in a way that is wrong (destructive or obscene, for example). Like all virtues it stands between two extremes, buffoonery (stupid carry on) and boorishness (inability to take a joke). Eutrapelia strikes the right note, helping us to relax in a healthy way.
    Lent with its unremitting seriousness would be too much for us common folk to endure, so Sunday is the day for taking a break with light-heartedness, humor, and eutrapelia.

    Note: I drank from the cup of Aristotelian virtue by watching Coming 2 America on Amazon Prime.

    Eddie Murphy produced this PG-13 sequel to his R-rated Coming to America. The humor is self-deprecating, and the racial and sex jokes are toned down from the 1988 original (but push the boundaries of wokeness in 2021).

    I chuckled a lot, but I suspect many viewers won't find it as funny as I did.

    Saturday, March 13, 2021

    Was the Tent Included?

    City homeless encampment on Gough (Chron photo)
    Headline: S.F. pays $61,000 a year for one tent in a site to shelter the homeless. Why?
    San Francisco is paying $16.1 million to shelter homeless people in 262 tents placed in empty lots around the city where they also get services and food — a steep price tag that amounts to more than $61,000 per tent per year...

    The annual cost of one spot in one site is 2½ times the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.
    The arithmetic: a 1 BR apartment rents for $2,033 per month while the monthly cost of a tent site is $5,083.

    The Chronicle article cites four reasons for the high costs:
  • hastily built encampments;
  • failure to send contracts out for bid;
  • hooking up water and electricity;
  • round-the-clock security.

    We are not overly condemnatory of the immense sums that were spent during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic when lives and livelihoods were endangered. Undoubtedly, there was waste, profligacy, and profiteering in addition to courage, self-sacrifice, and severe financial hardship.

    Now that normalcy is returning, $61,000 per tent per year is not "normal," is not sustainable, and is precisely the wrong message to be sending to those who need to get off the couch and go back to work.
  • Friday, March 12, 2021

    Reading, like Wine, Can be Better After Aging

    2019's Little Women was the most recent film adaptation
    Sure, you've "read" a book, but how much of it did you retain, and how much of it did you understand?

    I read Little Women as a schoolboy. Enjoying the tale of Jo March and her sisters, I picked up its sequel, Little Men, which sat on the Louisa May Alcott shelf in the Winne Units library. The latter book about the following generation wasn't as compelling, but I digress.

    As a junior staffer I had a boss who bent the rules without much self-reflection. His favorite aphorism was "it's easier to be forgiven than to ask permission." He was not successful in his business or personal life and was fired two years later.

    Revisiting Little Women in 2020, I came across the passage where the teenaged Jo is earning good money for writing "sensational" fiction but doesn't want to tell her parents:
    She had a feeling that Father and Mother would not approve, and preferred to have her own way first, and beg pardon afterward.
    Four decades after hearing my ex-boss's wisdom, I made the connection to a sentence from a 19th-century children's book.

    If good writing is re-writing, then appreciative reading is re-reading, sometimes 60 years later.

    Related, from The Therapeutic Value of Reading:
    When times are uncertain and scary, something familiar can be a source of solace. The survey of pandemic reading habits conducted by the researchers at Aston University found two types of readers: Those who focused on reading something new to them, to expand their knowledge, and those who re-read familiar books for the sense of comfort and stability and the lack of surprises.
    The writer was being too dismissive: re-reading can expand knowledge, too.

    Thursday, March 11, 2021

    Thank Goodness WHO Was Not in Charge

    The WHO team arrives at Wuhan on February 3, 2021 (WSJ)
    Dr. Fauci, the CDC, and other health officials have faced withering criticism for their mistakes over the past year.

    (Aside: for the record, your humble blogger's personal preference during times of high uncertainty and paucity of knowledge is to distribute as much information as widely as possible. Tread lightly on mandates and enforcement and trust people to make their own decisions.)

    For all their faults American officials are speedy geniuses compared to the World Health Organization: [bold added]
    Scientists will likely discover the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic within the next few years, after they pursue and zero in on an animal source for the new coronavirus, a member of an international team of investigators led by the World Health Organization said Wednesday...

    International team members learned on the trip that meat from animals known to carry coronaviruses belonging to the same family as the pandemic virus were sold in the Huanan market, Dr. Daszak said.
    One year after the lockdown Americans are being vaccinated in increasing numbers, with widespread immunity forecasted by Memorial Day.

    Meanwhile, WHO is still figuring out where the virus came from, with the "likely scenario" that it originated from a bat near the Huanan market. Thank goodness WHO was never put in charge of developing a vaccine.

    Wednesday, March 10, 2021

    Breaking the IRS Machine: Millions of 2020 Amended Returns

    Fun fact: the top half of the IRS logo is the "IRS Eagle",
    which I initially thought was an image of a forlorn
    taxpayer dropping a return into a mailbox.
    Just two days ago we wrote about how the IRS is buckling under the physical pressure of the COVID-19 lockdown and the systemic pressure of administering benefit payments and tax law changes.

    With the prospect of re-opening becoming ever more real, and new tax legislation, if any, usually occurring in the fall, one could well hope that the IRS will have a "normal" tax season and spend the rest of the year fixing its problems. But one would be wrong. [bold added]
    Congress is about to change a piece of the tax code affecting the returns being filed by as many as 40 million Americans—a month after the tax-filing season started.

    The move, approved by the Senate on Saturday and headed for House passage on Tuesday as part of the coronavirus-relief bill, would exempt the first $10,200 of 2020 unemployment benefits from income for households that made under $150,000. That could save households about $25 billion, but implementing the change would be a challenge for the already-burdened Internal Revenue Service, and it could lead to unusual disruptions.

    As of late February, the IRS had already received more than 45 million tax returns, some of which will now likely have to be amended. And the IRS will need to reprogram its computers to include the new, retroactive change as people file returns to take advantage of it. That is happening during an already messy tax season complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, remote work and a pile of other tax-law changes.
    Retroactive changes to tax law, even well-intentioned, are enormously disruptive.

    There are often ways to achieve the same financial effect without resulting in millions of past-year tax returns being amended. For example, Congress could have authorized an additional payment of, say, 10% in 2021 to compensate taxpayers for the taxes they would have to pay on their 2020 unemployment benefits.

    The impetus towards big government seems unstoppable, and the least that politicians can do is to make sure that the machinery of government is working well. In the case of the IRS, the machine is broken (my mother, like millions of others, still hasn't had her 2019 return processed), and Congress keeps adding to the load.

    Tuesday, March 09, 2021

    Dawn is Breaking

    I'm in the over-65 cohort that is supposedly prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine. In February the only site that was open for San Mateo County seniors was the Oakland Coliseum, 22 miles away, and the appointment would have been more than two months distant.

    Very recently I became aware of two local, non-health-care, non-senior individuals who were scheduled for vaccinations this week. What the heck?!?

    On Sunday I again checked and found that a number of slots were available in San Francisco on Monday, so I grabbed 2:30 p.m. at the Moscone Center.

    Hundreds of people were in front of me on the sidewalk, but the line moved quickly. Americans may not have a lot in common with each other any more, but most of us learned how to behave in lines at Disneyland, where everyone wants the same thing and the quickest way to get it is to follow the instructions.

    From start to finish took one hour. I entered the line outside Moscone at 2:15 and was inside my shot kiosk at 2:45. Again I was asked for my ID and birth date (the first time was to get in the door). The technician, who I could tell was not a medical person because she totally mispronounced anaphylaxis, (I, on the other hand, was familiar with the term because I have had a couple of anaphylactic reactions at the doctor's office) asked me to wait 30 minutes after the injection, which she administered skillfully and painlessly. I will return in three weeks for the second shot.

    We can talk about the poor decisions that have been made, the half-million deaths in the United States alone, and the immense financial damage which $trillions of relief can only partially alleviate, but in the end I am very grateful that, only one year after a mysterious disease shut down the economy, the fear is rapidly dissipating.

    Dawn is breaking across the land.

    Monday, March 08, 2021

    IRS Failure: Disappointing But Easily Foreseeable

    Mom's 2019 status on 3/6/21.
    Some government entities, such as Foster City where I live, seem to be functioning well, but the Internal Revenue Service, long the bane of nearly everyone, seems to be cracking up.

    The IRS can't even perform its basic function of processing returns. One year after I mailed in Mom's 2019 tax return, the IRS2GO app (right) continues to report that the return is still being processed. From February 18, 2021: [bold added]
    A group of Republicans on the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee sent a letter Wednesday to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig complaining about the backlog of approximately 11 million unprocessed tax returns from the 2019 tax year. The backlog of unprocessed mail from the pandemic has created a ripple effect that’s continuing into this year’s tax-filing season, which opened last Friday.

    The problem isn’t only with the mail, which piled up last year in trailers outside IRS facilities until IRS employees could return to their offices and open it. While most of the millions of pieces of mail have reportedly been opened, much of it remains unprocessed. That’s causing headaches for taxpayers and tax professionals alike, who are coping with past due notices sent automatically by IRS computer systems, even when payments were sent months ago, according to the investigative news site ProPublica. Taxpayers have had trouble with receiving their Economic Impact Payments from last year and are also having trouble reaching the IRS by phone this year, with the agency continuing to be understaffed due to the pandemic and budget cuts in past years.
    Some have tried to blame Republican Congressional representatives for underfunding the Service, and indeed that is one reason the IRS is failing.

    But in my humble opinion the primary problem is that Congress has assigned new responsibilities to the IRS that it was never designed to do, such as administer penalties and credits for the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and then to dole out stimulus payments ("refundable tax credits") resulting from pandemic legislation.

    When an organization is being strained, one does not pile on additional tasks without a great deal of planning. Any experienced manager knows that you can't just throw money at the situation, you have to lay out the new requirements, figure out how they can fit in with the current systems, design and test the add-ons before widespread adoption, and then train the staff.

    Of course, the COVID-19 response shut down the offices for months, just when a 24/7 work schedule was necessary to give the IRS even a chance to fulfill its new duties. Large tech companies, who have people who are accustomed to working around the clock to develop new products and services, would have had a prayer. But the IRS, or any other government agency? Not a chance.

    Sunday, March 07, 2021

    Seemed Like a Reasonable Request

    A bleak place to die (WSJ photo)
    The Supreme Court, in a relatively unpublicized action (e.g., there was no mention in the SF Chronicle) on February 12th, stayed an execution because the State of Alabama would not allow condemned prisoners to have their ministers present.
    Alabama said Mr. Smith was being treated fairly because prison policy currently allows no inmate to have a minister alongside as they are put to death. Mr. Smith argued that a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, required the state to accommodate his request.

    Writing for the plurality, Justice Elena Kagan said federal law had guaranteed Mr. Smith “his last wish.” Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, along with Justice Barrett, joined her opinion.
    Willie B. Smith III
    was convicted of the 1991 murder of Sharma Ruth Johnson, 22 years old, whom he and a teenage accomplice first kidnapped and robbed when she stopped at an ATM in Birmingham, Ala. The jury voted 10-2 for a death sentence instead of life imprisonment.
    While a complete count was not forthcoming, it has been disclosed that the three "liberal" Justices (Breyer, Kagan, and Sotamayor) were joined by Amy Coney Barrett and either or both Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito to comprise the majority that rejected Alabama's position. Three "conservative" Justices (Kavanaugh, Roberts, and Thomas) would have allowed the execution to proceed.

    The outcome is an illustration of how Justices' viewpoints are so easily and mistakenly caricatured during their Senate confirmation hearings. Justice Kavanaugh, for example, was not an automatic pro-Christian vote, while the liberal Justices said that religious expression trumped the State's position.

    Acknowledging that non-believers may be using religious rights as a tool to forestall the death penalty, your humble blogger is nevertheless glad that a blow has been struck in favor of religious expression.

    Saturday, March 06, 2021

    Teach Your Substitute Children Well

    "Cakes has developed a taste for
    Kentucky Fried Chicken." (WSJ)
    It's not news that the Wall Street Journal ran an article on fat cats. However, this time the phrase was meant literally.
    So many people have struggled with weight gain during the pandemic that the term “Covid 15” has gained currency, a variation of the familiar “Freshman 15” weight gain in college. Their pets aren’t far behind...

    Among 1,000 dog and cat owners surveyed in October by Banfield Pet Hospital, the nation’s largest general veterinary practice, with hospitals in 42 states, 42% said their pets had gained weight during the quarantine, up from 33% in May.
    One dog cries during a Zoom business call to extort a treat from her owner. Other pets divide and conquer by exploiting their owners' failure to communicate with each other about how many treats have been doled out.

    For many people cats and dogs are substitute children. Like real children, pets have learned how to get what they want from their parents.

    Note: during the past year wild animals have gotten fatter, too. In Foster City the portlier ducks didn't flee and gazed half-expectantly when I approached them. Where did they learn that behavior?

    Friday, March 05, 2021

    The Dismal Classroom

    Although my chosen profession of finance and accounting provided me with a good living and decent retirement, Ben Stein's economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off always punctures any pretentiousness that I may have had about my line of work:

    It's pathetic that I (still) know the answers to Ben Stein's questions.

    Thursday, March 04, 2021

    Guns: Stuck in the Same Old Arguments

    SF Police Commissioner John Hamasaki (Chron)
    Speaking as one who has never owned a gun, I nevertheless comprehend the motivation of law-abiding citizens to own guns, especially if they believe the police cannot reliably protect them. Reducing gun violence must accommodate the on-the-ground reality of living or working in dangerous neighborhoods. That's why it was refreshing to see San Francisco Police Commissioner John Hamasaki call for understanding for the teen when the NY police seized a gun from the 17-year-old:
    “Uncomfortable truth,” Hamasaki wrote in the tweet. “Taking a gun from one kid may as likely stop violence as end up in that kid getting killed. It may feel good to post this photo, but I’ve known too many kids who were killed for being in the wrong neighborhood (often their own) & being unable to protect themselves.”
    San Francisco Supervisors Catherine Stefani, Myrna Melgar, and Ahsha Safai immediately called for Commissioner Hamasaki's resignation because he deviated from the absolutist no-gun position. IMHO, he responded reasonably:
    Hamasaki responded that he “actually work(s) and spend(s) time in the communities impacted by gun violence.”

    “I have had clients and their families killed by guns, and I have consoled the fathers, mothers, and children killed by guns,” he continued. “The world is bigger and more complicated than D2 and the Marina.”

    Hamasaki said he was not calling for teens to be armed, but for nuance in the debate.

    “I think the reading of (the tweet) that some people took was a little bit disingenuous,” Hamasaki said. “I don’t want, approve or encourage people to use guns to solve their problems.”

    Hamasaki said while it’s a great idea to take guns off the streets, the realities for some neighborhoods are more complex.

    “When you simplify it, it justifies the system of mass incarceration that we have,” he said. “I just have a real hard time passing the same level of judgment to a kid who’s living in a neighborhood infested by drugs and violence.”
    The politics of the main actors may be a little surprising:
    Stefani and Safai are known as the two moderate Democrats on the Board of Supervisors, while Hamasaki more closely aligns with the city’s more left-leaning contingency.
    It's not an election year, so now is the time to question and test assumptions about gun violence without worrying about what political opponents will say. Otherwise, we'll stay stuck in the same decades-old arguments.

    Wednesday, March 03, 2021

    A Time Gone By

    I've slowly been making my way through the pile of books on the nightstand and have gotten to Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), which I bought in Portland 2½ years ago. Jack Kerouac's writing is consistent with the language and style of half a century ago, and one easily gets a sense of how rapidly cultural references are changing. It's unlikely that younger, educated readers will understand all four of the highlighted terms below (I didn't know "pulled wrists").
    I went to the cold-water flat with the boys, and Dean came to the door in his shorts. Marylou was jumping off the couch; Dean had dispatched the occupant of the apartment to the kitchen, probably to make coffee, while he proceeded with his love-problems, for to him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life, although he had to sweat and curse to make a living and so on.

    You saw that in the way he stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding, like a young boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every word, throwing in a thousand “Yeses” and “That’s rights.” My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry—trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West. In fact he’d just been working on a ranch, Ed Wall’s in Colorado, before marrying Marylou and coming East. Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil gray New York pad that she’d heard about back West, and waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room. But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things. That night we all drank beer and pulled wrists and talked till dawn, and in the morning, while we sat around dumbly smoking butts from ashtrays in the gray light of a gloomy day, Dean got up nervously, paced around, thinking, and decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor. “In other words we’ve got to get on the ball, darling, what I’m saying, otherwise it’ll be fluctuating and lack of true knowledge or crystallization of our plans.” Then I went away.
    cold-water flat: early-to-mid 20th-century apartments had running water, but real luxury was having water heaters and separate pipes for hot water. Perhaps the last cold-water flat in New York City was being rented for $28 per month in 2018.

    Gene Autry (1907-1998): popular Oklahoma singer, movie star, TV actor and producer, and owner of the California Angels, Gene Autry "is the only entertainer to have all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one each for Radio, Recording, Motion Pictures, Television, and Live Theatre/performance."

    Seated Nude (1918)
    longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman: Amedeo Modigliani was "a painter and sculptor known for his simplified and elongated forms." Like Vincent Van Gogh, Modigliani (1884-1920) died destitute and was not highly regarded in his lifetime; one of his paintings sold for $157 million in 2018.

    pulled wrists: arm-wrestling.

    His prose has a kinetic energy, and I do admire his descriptions, so I'll read a few pages of Jack Kerouac every day.

    Tuesday, March 02, 2021

    Jeremy Lin: Continuing to Walk the Walk

    Time, February 27, 2012
    Nine years have passed since Jeremy Lin became an international sensation for the New York Knicks. His star turn lasted less than two months, but even today followers of the NBA remember that one brief shining moment when an undrafted Harvard graduate not only made an NBA roster but was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for two weeks in a row.

    After the Knicks he became a journeyman NBA player, then went to the Beijing Ducks for a year. He's now playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the "G League" (the NBA's version of baseball's minor leagues).

    Jeremy Lin has largely been quiet about the racist insults he's experienced throughout his college and professional career but last week spoke against physical assaults on Asian-Americans.
    Lin, who’s playing for Santa Cruz at the G League bubble near Orlando in hopes of resuscitating his NBA career, took to Instagram on Thursday in response to a recent surge in violence against Asian Americans. In the post, he offered examples of racism that he has personally experienced.

    “Being a 9 year NBA veteran doesn’t protect me from being called ‘coronavirus’ on the court,” Lin wrote.
    The G League is investigating who might have said "coronavirus" to Jeremy Lin, but he said he is “not naming or shaming anyone.”

    Your humble blogger, who has sometimes been on the receiving end of such remarks, firmly believes that the world is a better place because over 90% (just a wild guess) of those insulted let the comments slide. The Internet now gives us the ability to ruin a career and personal life because of spoken indiscretions. Outing these speakers--there's no question they're in the wrong--is a weapon to be wielded with care.

    Jeremy Lin continues to follow his faith's principle of turning the other cheek, a rare example in a world where publicizing the sins of others is lauded and rewarded.

    Monday, March 01, 2021

    Spring is Coming

    JNJ vaccines preparing to ship (WSJ)
    March may not be roaring in like a lion weather-wise, but this morning the stock market is pushing higher--the averages are up 1.5%--principally on the basis of the improving outlook for coronavirus vaccinations.

    The CDC signed off on Johnson & Johnson's (ticker: JNJ) vaccine yesterday, making it the third vaccine approved for distribution (the others are Pfizer's and Moderna's). JNJ's offering is likely a game-changer: [bold added]
    The J&J vaccine, the first administered in a single dose, is expected to bolster a mass-vaccination campaign that is pushing to end the deadliest pandemic in more than a century.

    As of Saturday afternoon, 48.4 million Americans—14.6% of the population—had received one or more doses of the two previously approved Covid-19 vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
    Johnson & Johnson ($423 billion market cap) will have a steep ramp in production.
    The Food and Drug Administration’s authorization of the vaccine would lead to an initial supply of nearly 4 million doses delivered as early as Tuesday morning, administration officials said Sunday. The administration said it expects about 20 million doses to be delivered by the end of March....J&J has said it expects output will quickly increase, enabling it to deliver a total of 100 million doses for use in the U.S. by the end of June.
    Finally, JNJ's vaccine requires normal, not specialized refrigeration:
    Janssen’s [note: JNJ subsidiary] single-dose vaccine candidate is estimated to remain stable for two years at -20°C (-4°F), at least three months of which can be at temperatures of 2-8°C (36°F–46°F). The Company will ship the vaccine using the same cold chain technologies it uses today to transport other innovative medicines.
    Can you feel it? Spring is coming.