Saturday, December 31, 2022

Time to Bag It or Maybe Not

Hillsdale shopping center in the rain
The rain fell steadily all day, but we were lucky. The places we frequent aren't flooded, but many nearby areas were.

The City of San Mateo announced that free sandbags were available:
SAN MATEO PD: Update - Sandbag materials are at the Corp Yard located at 1949 Pacific Blvd. City of San Mateo residents only.
A few hours later the offer was withdrawn due to flooding at the pickup site:
We confess that we had a quiet chuckle.

Tonight we're staying home and will lift a glass to the passage of the old year. We still share the optimism that our own lives and the general condition of mankind will get better.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2022

Solar Canals: A Great Idea with a Health Caveat

"Solar canals" in India
The benefits sound compelling. Putting solar panels over California's aqueducts will reduce evaporation and generate green energy.
The California Department of Water Resources is funding the $20 million pilot program with the intention of learning where solar panels might be viable along the state’s 4,000 miles of canals and aqueducts...

The [UC Merced / UC Santa Cruz] study detailed other benefits, too. Vast tracts of pricey new land wouldn’t be needed to generate solar energy, minimizing debate over the conversion of farmland or pristine desert for throngs of arrays. The solar panels on the canals also would operate more efficiently because the water would keep them cool.
A caveat from history: to help the environment California tends to go all-in on solutions that are not only costly but end up creating environmental damage worse than the original problem.

Case in point: MTBE. California imposed stricter requirements for oxygenated gasoline than set forth in the 1990 Federal Clean Air Act. Refiners added MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) to gasoline, which was found to be highly toxic when it leaked from tanks into the water supply. IMHO, most people would rather take their chances with smog than drink water that may have been poisoned.

Now back to the subject at hand. Solar panels contain toxic materials, e.g., lead and cadmium, that make them difficult to dispose of properly. If California covers its 4,000 miles of canals with solar arrays, surely there will be some leakage, if not breakage that could jeopardize the water supply.

I just hope that California tests the concept thoroughly before it goes big.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Wet Weather: Dampening the Scoldings

December snow in Tahoe, which is under flood watch
We're ending the year with a series of storms.

Headline: Entire Bay Area under flood watch this weekend as more storms roll in
A flood watch will be in effect for the Bay Area from Friday evening to Saturday evening as more rain arrives in the region, according to the National Weather Service.

Moderate to heavy rain is expected during that time frame, and it could be more than already saturated soils can absorb.

Rapid rises of rivers, streams and creeks are expected, the National Weather Service said, and urban areas and roadways with poor drainage may see flooding...

A brief reprieve is expected on New Year’s Day before more rain moves in, the National Weather Service said.
I'm sure the nattering nabobs of global warmism will insist one rainy season doesn't make up for years of dryness and that we should continue to conserve water, but I'm taking this year by year.

Let's be thankful that there won't be mandated cutbacks and usage penalties next summer and even more thankful that the drought/climate alarmists will dampen, somewhat, the volume of their scoldings.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

I Predict This Business Will Wane

Fortune-cookie fortunes fall into two general categories: predictions ("you will get good news at work") or self-improvement ("eat more protein").

Your humble blogger has noticed a recent annoying tendency to insert fortunes with political messages.

There's no sanctuary from people who, ironically, like to create safe spaces and sanctuaries for various groups, just not consumers of fortune cookies.

Monday, December 26, 2022

The Day After Christmas

Left: during the week before Christmas the mall wasn't particularly busy. We did our shopping at the Apple Store and exited to the plaza. There was no one within 50 feet of the Christmas tree.

Right: On the day after Christmas the parking lots were filled. This time people milled around the Christmas tree taking selfies. The Apple Store required everyone to make an appointment.

We stopped by to make an exchange. The recipient of an iPad wanted more memory (he paid for the upgrade), and fortunately one was in inventory.

We went to restaurant row and bought a cheesecake. The Christmas task list was finally complete.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Christmas Eve Service

The Episcopal Church welcomes everyone: male or female, old or young, black or white, straight or gay, believers or non-believers, masked or unmasked, sinners or non- ...actually, everyone sins.

The Episcopal and Catholic churches have a name for everything. The thurifer is the acolyte who holds the censer, which holds the incense. For those of us with allergies (cough), I'm glad the church doesn't burn incense as much as it used to.

The priest read the passage from Luke:
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
Bah, humbug! We go overboard with inclusive language. Much better:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Songs of the Season


In the late 1990's my former employer could draw on a talent pool of more than 200 financial professionals to put together a decent holiday choir. The grainy video (VHS tape) and monaural audio won't attract any hits today, but Christmas is a time of nostalgic sentimentality...

Note: here are parts Two, and Three.

Part Four is below:

Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow...

But the fates do not allow. As this year has reminded us, Our time together is fleeting, gone in the wink of an eye. Like the ghostly watchers in Grover's Corners, we have an eternity to mull the regrets of moments unappreciated until too late.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Free the Tree

"Stanford hates fun" passes for controversy in 2022
Each of the two institutions of higher learning that I attended in the 1970's had a marching band that annoyed alumni greatly. Their halftime shows were filled with iconoclasm, not to mention scatological and sexual humor.

The more that our elders' generation was horrified the better. Halftime shows were a rollicking time, often better than the football game.

50 years later the people who want to clamp down on politically incorrect humor come from within the band, the student body, and faculty. Stanford University is a leader in this role reversal, and its mascot, the Tree, has become the center of a cultural contretemps. During halftime at a game between Stanford and ASU, "the Tree unfurled a 40-foot banner that said 'Stanford Hates Fun.'” [bold added]
The students on the band’s executive committee said in a statement to the Stanford Daily that they suspended the Tree because he used his platform to spread a message without going through the required channels.
"Required channels"? These brilliant students, many of them not old enough to drink, are going to be our future leaders and are already inured in bureaucratic pettifoggery. But it gets worse.
Administrators this year published a 13-page index of words to be avoided on the school’s websites. It suggested “ballsy” be replaced by “risk taker,” “you guys” by “everyone” and “Karen” by “a demanding or entitled White woman.”
The language policing is far more extensive than anything the blue noses attempted to do back in my day. With its multi-billion dollar endowment Stanford asks for but doesn't need my money. And I don't intend to give a another cent, at least until the Tree is free.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

San Francisco Has Peaked

(photo from the Real Deal)
There are numerous reasons to leave San Francisco--and post-office and IRS data show that people are leaving--but one reason stands above all: [bold added]
The desire for a larger home was the top reason people say they moved to and within the San Francisco metro area, which includes Oakland and Hayward, according to a recently released federal housing survey conducted in 2021.

Among the survey respondents who said they moved in the S.F. metro area — either from elsewhere or within the area, nearly half cited wanting a larger or better quality home as the reason for relocating, the American Housing Survey data shows...

San Francisco saw a steep population loss and an exodus of wealthy residents during the pandemic. Likely as a result of wealthier people moving out, the surrounding Bay Area saw the largest drop in household income in the country.

The housing survey data suggests the exodus is expected to continue, as San Franciscans are more likely to consider moving out of the city in the next year than any other major metro.
San Francisco's homelessness, crime, drug, public education, and transportation problems capture the headlines, but the main reason people move away is pedestrian; residential real estate is too expensive. Increasing the housing stock will take years, if not decades, to effect because of red tape and NIMBY homeowners' resistance.

COVID-19 may have been the catalyst, but now the widening gyre is nearly impossible to reverse. San Francisco has peaked.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Sounding Off

Swedish offshore wind farm (tos)
Two weeks ago we noted that environmentalists claim that lobster fishing is killing North Atlantic right whales (it's speculative because no whale carcasses have been found entangled in lobster-fishing lines.)

But environmentalists have ignored the danger that cacophonous offshore wind farms pose to the whale population.

The harmful effect of noise on whales is well documented:
Anthropogenic noise can change a whale's behaviour, such as causing the marine mammals to feed less or to produce fewer calls. Shipping noise also cause whales to become stressed, with the build-up of stress related chemicals linked to growth suppression, lower fertility and poor immune system function.
To environmentalists wind farms are more important than whales, which are more important than the lobster industry.

Your humble blogger likes both whales and lobsters and hopes technology will provide a solution to whale entanglement, if indeed it's proven to be a problem.

As for offshore wind power, not only does it kill whales, it's not keeping anyone warm on freezing, breezeless nights. I'll take always-on natural-gas or nuclear power plants. And so will our friends, the whales.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Spirit of Christmas

Presents for the kids, gift cards for the adults
There are still Christmas cards to mail and presents to shop for, but again we took a scheduled break to help out strangers (your humble blogger did so grumpily at the start of the morning and is not a good role-model).

After wrapping and boxing the gifts for the families assigned by Samaritan House, I called to schedule the drop-offs in San Mateo. The mothers and I (the mothers are always the contact persons) played telephone tag, made worse by the fact that their English is barely better than my Spanish. (My sour mood was also due to my Spanish-speaking friend begging off at the last minute.)

At the first appointment the lady of the house could not hide her joy at the sight of presents for her children. The delivery man's spirits improved, another confirmation of the truism that the giver receives greater rewards than the giftee.

When I delivered the next box, the lady asked me to wait. Her six-year-old son ran to their upstairs apartment and came back holding a small bag of hand-made items. Thank you. "You're welcome," he said.

I'm keeping the bag where I drink coffee every morning as a reminder not to let the busy-ness of life get in the way of the spirit of Christmas, a spirit that is alive and well in a little boy in San Mateo.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Accountants Get Their Due

(Rasmussen image)
Accountants are in demand:
A deepening shortage of accountants is driving a growing number of companies to raise salaries or seek temporary help to strengthen their finance teams amid a slowing economy...

But, the problem for companies isn’t just the tight labor market. The profession is also attracting fewer job entrants, with the number of U.S. students who completed accounting degrees falling by 2.8% for bachelor’s and 8.4% for master’s in the 2019 to 2020 academic year compared with the prior year.
As it was 45 years ago when your humble blogger was a new CPA, accounting still is seen--rightly, IMHO--as an unglamourous profession. Many accountants labor in the back room, re-checking reams of data and summarizing them in bite-size chunks so that executives can understand them.

What accountants do is unnoticed when things are running smoothly. but like when something goes wrong with the out-of-sight electrical or plumbing systems, the problem often must be fixed immediately. (When payroll or cash collections or vendor payments stop, it soon becomes a crisis.)

In an age of self-aggrandizement, it isn't surprising that diligent detail work in the backroom doesn't appeal to young people. Fortunately, we live in a market economy where prices (wages) rise so that supply meets demand.

It's nice to see accountants get their due.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

A New Mission

This week we took a break from shopping for friends and relatives and shopped for strangers.

Our Foster City congregation filled 50 boxes of food for clients of the Episcopal Church's Bayview Mission, which ministers to the residents of Bayview-Hunters Point. There was also room in the Outreach budget to replace the mission's freezer and place a Safeway gift card in each box.

Our new priest became familiar with and volunteered for Bayview Mission when he attended the Berkeley seminary 14 years ago. Not only has he brought fresh ideas and perspectives, he also has stimulated our suburban church into forming new relationships.

We expect to have a monetary and personal stake in Bayview Mission next year.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

San Francisco: Where Bureaucracy Reigns Supreme

Tesla's Powerwall battery.
When we visited the Tesla dealership in 2017, I saw our path to going green.

During the day rooftop solar panels would produce excess power. The power would not be sold to PG&E (and repurchased that evening) but would be stored in batteries in our garage, where our Tesla EV would be charging at night time. An added benefit is that we would be independent of unreliable brown-out prone PG&E.

The dream would wait, as solar and battery technologies were improving rapidly. Besides we had a fairly new natural-gas water heater and furnace that were reliable and inexpensive to operate. Their useful lives would expire in the mid-2020's, which would be a good time to execute the solar panel==>battery==>EV vision.

But if we lived in San Francisco, one of the greenest cities in America, the dream would be impossible. [bold added]
San Francisco needs power when the fog comes out and after the sun sets. Meeting that demand without fossil fuels will be impossible if we don’t start storing our solar energy for off-hours use.

And yet for the past three years in San Francisco, it has been illegal to install a battery storage system over 20-kilowatt hours on a one- or two-family home. For context, that’s not even enough to power a 2013 Nissan Leaf, one of the smallest electric cars on the market.
San Francisco's fire-safety concerns over battery storage are "unproven" and not subscribed to by any other Bay Area city. They're emblematic of a City bureaucracy that prevents its own citizens from doing the very things that City leadership advocates.

Meanwhile, San Francisco faces a budget deficit of $200 million in the next fiscal year and is looking for places to cut.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Bottoming Temperature ==> Bottoming Fortunes?

A cold snap is upon us:
a ridge of high pressure digs in further and gives way to a cold weather outbreak. The region can expect some of the coldest air of the winter season tonight and over the next couple of nights, with temperatures dropping into the 30s across large swaths of Bay Area.
Though much chillier than this Hawaiian-born immigrant is accustomed to, the freezing temperatures have coincided with heavy snowfall in the Sierras, signalling a possible end to the drought.
This frigid air mass comes to the Bay Area from the Arctic Circle and has quickly made itself at home as it spins over Nevada’s Great Basin. The Sierra’s northern, central and southern snowpacks are all currently running over 195% of normal levels.
The past several years have been pretty rough for the region. The dismal economy, wildfires, the coronavirus, inflation, the population exodus, not to mention crime and homelessness, have afflicted the once-paradisiacal Bay Area.

Maybe the cold, accompanied by heavy snow, is a sign that we've bottomed out.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Muddled TV Dialogue: More Solutions

The sound customization menu (right) on our Sony Bravia
As we noted last month, television viewers who are not hearing-impaired are turning on closed-captioning:
But your TV is just one of the culprits. The rest of the problem lies within virtually every other step of the audio process, from a studio’s production choices to the device used to watch the content.
In addition to closed captioning and turning up the volume on all sound, newer TVs can amplify speech. On the Sony purchased this year I adjusted the "Voice zoom" from 0 to 4 (picture top).
Go to Settings > Display & Sound > Sound > Sound mode > Dialogue. On the company’s Bravia TVs, there is also Voice Zoom, which lets you adjust how much you would like the dialogue to stand out. Open Settings > Display & Sound > Sound > Sound customization > Voice Zoom.
The WSJ lists buying headphones, investing in speakers, and/or the aforementioned boosting dialogue feature as solutions to unclear speech. As in many aspects of life, tech caused the problem and is providing the solution.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022


Regifting is a breach of etiquette in some circles, but re-foaming should be universally lauded.

We have received over a dozen deliveries for Christmas, but rather than immediately tearing down and recycling the boxes and packing materials we are re-using them for shipments of our own.

Some of these, like plastic foam, are non-recyclable, and it's an environmental benefit to use them for as many purposes as possible before they enter the landfill.

Whatever your views on recycling or the environment, dear reader, re-foaming can't hurt and may help. Here's hoping that you are surviving the busy-ness of the Season.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

The Endeavor Was a Partial Success

Yesterday's post described how our tankless water heater had stopped working because the thermal fuse had been triggered. (The fuse is a single-use wire that had to be replaced and is marked by the red arrow in the picture.)

The heater itself is a marvel of compactness compared to a conventional 50-gallon tank. However the design is not conducive to an easy repair. Replacing the fuse, a $20 part, requires the removal of the entire internal apparatus. Several plumbers quoted over $1,000 for the job.

Even if the fuse was replaced successfully, there was a distinct possibility that the heat exchanger was damaged. That was an $800 part (the brass box in the upper half of the picture), and we were quoted $3,000 to replace both the thermal fuse and heat exchanger.

Some helpful contractors suggested that I simply buy a new heater at a cost of $4,000-$5,000, depending on the model. The life expectancy of a tankless water heater is 15-20 years, and even if we were to repair our 14-year-old appliance we might have to replace it anyway in 3-5 years.

Not liking the choices I was given, and sensing that I was being ripped off by plumbers who view all Peninsula homeowners as rich patsies, I decided to take a shot at fixing the thermal fuse myself. Even if I ended up paying someone $thousands, I could see little harm in trying.

To make a long story short, dear reader, the endeavor was a partial success. I overnighted the part from the manufacturer and took apart the water heater. The work was much more involved than DIY Internet videos and instruction manuals imply. There were dozens of connectors, screws, and subassemblies that had to be marked and sorted as they were taken out. Eventually I was able to remove the old fuse and wrap the new one around the heat exchanger. When I put everything back, the unit wouldn't start; even the error-message panel was blank. It was time to call in a professional.

I contacted a large San Jose contractor recommended by the manufacturer. The technician came the following morning. Before disassembling the unit, he decided to see if what I had done had some value. He rechecked all the connections and tightened some that were loose. He plugged in the heater, and it turned on! Hot water was back.

The technician suggested that the issue was probably a grounding wire that I had not secured properly. I was happy to pay his invoice of $275; his fee for a fuse replacement would have been $1,150. I tipped him and sent him on his way.

Meanwhile, I won't forget to scale the pipes.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Wishful Thinking

2 gals. vinegar recirculated for 1 hour
When the temperature drops below 50°F--yes, we who were born in Hawaii are wimps--the worst appliance to go out may be the hot water heater. (One can get through a furnace failure by adding enough layers and blankets.)

Our 14-year-old tankless water heater flashed an unfamiliar message--error code 14--that meant that the thermal fuse had been triggered due to an overheated heat exchanger (HE). The problem was likely caused by scale build-up in the pipes.

I spent a moment being mad at myself for believing the plumber who told me three years ago that annual flushing with vinegar was unnecessary; Foster City didn't have hard water and we wouldn't have scale. Before I called a repairman to replace the thermal fuse (expensive) and/or the heat exchanger (very expensive), it couldn't hurt to flush the water heater.

Two hours later--et voilĂ !--there was no error code 14, the water heater fired up, and hot water poured from the spigot. We had lucked out. Maybe the thermal fuse was still intact. Maybe it was merely emitting a warning signal. (This is a textbook example of wishful thinking, dear reader.)

Three days later error code 14 came on and stayed on. No amount of flushing or rebooting would activate the water heater.

To be continued....

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Market Segmentation: Too Far?

Candace Cameron Bure will leave Hallmark
to make movies for Great American Family.
For over five years I've been watching Hallmark movies. The plots lack in suspense. Most conflicts are resolved happily, there are no really bad guys except in the murder-mystery movies, and love always wins over career opportunities and peripatetic inclinations.

To be perfectly honest, I often run the Hallmark Channel as a form of background music when I'm doing something else, like composing this blog post.

Hallmark movies are rife with religious values, e.g., lead characters are always volunteering to help poor orphans, but there are very few explicitly Christian movies on the channel. Church scenes are limited to weddings and funerals, and the words "God," "Jesus," or "Lord" are absent from scripts. The audience is often left to infer that characters are religious by their actions and the values they espouse.

Now some of the biggest Hallmark stars are leaving for a faith-based network: [bold added]
These days, the genre that Hallmark pioneered is everywhere, from major streaming platforms like Netflix to more niche channels like the Food Network and HGTV. While the movies may differ, most share an abiding reluctance to dwell on Christianity.

Great American Family enters the scene with the opposite point of view. With a name that conjures red-state pride and content that embraces faith, the channel is presenting itself as the choice for Christians who think Hollywood is ruining Christmas. Mrs. Bure, a former child star best known as D.J. Tanner from “Full House,” is the religious influencer who serves as its face...

The channel’s formula is what [CEO Bill] Abbott calls “soft faith,” a Christian message he said is there for viewers who are looking for it but doesn’t aim to proselytize. Great American Family also offers holiday films that follow conventional secular story lines: The New York advertising hotshot who falls in love while trying to sell the family farm, the luxury travel blogger who stumbles into romance at a bed-and-breakfast, and the like.
Your humble blogger has long had an aversion to shows that are overtly message-y. Lead characters on network shows sometimes launch into speeches against business polluters, real estate developers, racists, and -phobics who condemn others for "being different." Once the writers' agenda is revealed, then it's clear that the characters are there to serve the agenda.

I won't watch shows where the plot is subservient to ideology, even though I might agree with aspects of the ideology. I'll check out the Great American Family network, but it will be on a short leash.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Walden by the Bay

The car-free Great Highway during summertime
when the livin' is easy (Chron photo)
San Francisco's movement to ban automobiles from certain streets was burgeoning.

When the sun's shining and the weather's warm, walking or biking along the car-free Great Highway next to Ocean Beach is a pleasurable experience. Ditto for John F. Kennedy Drive, the main East-West artery through Golden Gate Park. Families with children don't have to worry about speeding vehicles or breathing in their pollution.

Now that a cold, wet winter is upon us, some San Franciscans are having second thoughts. [bold added]
A group of merchants on San Francisco’s Valencia Street abruptly canceled this weekend’s “Shared Spaces” road closure and outdoor festivities due to rainy forecasts — and a growing contention that banning cars is bad for business.

Among them is Valencia Cyclery bike shop owner Paul Olszewski, who sent a mass email to his neighbors late Thursday. Cutting off motorists from using the street lessens the chance of making a sale in inclement weather, Olszewski said...

Such comments marked the latest point of friction for Slow Streets and Safe Spaces, programs that embraced the idea of blocking automobile traffic to lure more people outside during pandemic lockdowns. Now these efforts face an uncertain future, as San Francisco and other cities struggle to revive their economies...

Jonah Buffa, president of the Valencia Corridor Merchants Association and owner of the barbershop Fellow Barber, said he’s hearing concerns from a number of store owners who feel the Shared Spaces events have outlived their use, particularly in cold and inclement weather.

He harbors his own doubts about the viability of Shared Spaces. A couple of weeks ago Buffa said he stepped out of his shop on a Friday evening, after crews had shut off the three blocks to traffic.

“I saw one person wandering in the middle of the street, and a few cyclists using it,” Buffa said. “I think there would have been more business if the streets were open to traffic.”
Ambling from store to store on a sunny day in a road-cum-park is living a dream. But the dream will disappear if San Francisco Thoreauvians force the stores to go out of business.

Friday, December 09, 2022

Saving the Whales and Lobster Dinners

During last month's birthday we treated ourselves to our first lobster dinner in a year.

The enjoyment of the meal, however, was slightly tinged by reports that North Atlantic right whales were dying because of entanglement in the trap lines that lobster fishermen use. Now it appears that this problem may be solvable through technology:
Mr. [Rob] Martin is one of more than two dozen lobstermen now testing new, ropeless fishing gear designed to protect the North Atlantic right whale, a docile giant whose numbers in recent years have plunged, from an estimated 481 individuals in 2011 to 340 in 2021. The endangered whales can have trouble feeding or breathing—sometimes with deadly results—after becoming entangled in the ropes that secure the lobster traps to the buoys.

The hope is that the ropeless gear will help ensure the whales’ survival while keeping the fishing industry afloat.

Several kinds of ropeless gear are being evaluated in the program, which includes a total of 30 lobstermen actively testing the gear and 20 who are waiting to join their ranks. The program aims to identify which gear works best and might be scaled up for broad commercial use.
WSJ illustration: the lines are stowed on the traps and rise to the surface when pop-up buoys, inflatable
bags or buoyant spools are activated by a signal from a boat. Then the traps are hauled up.
The incentive is more than academic:
A federal judge ruled in July that NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] hadn’t done enough to protect the right whale and in a subsequent ruling gave agency officials two years to come up with a plan to reduce whale deaths by 90 percent.
The whales vs. lobster industry dispute has become heated because of the lack of direct evidence that the lines are the cause of the whales' decline. "Researchers rely on indirect evidence, since most dead whales aren’t found." Meanwhile, we applaud the NOAA for funding, designing, and testing solutions where both sides can win.

We'll treat ourselves to another lobster dinner this Christmas season.

Thursday, December 08, 2022

“The eyes are truly the window to our souls”

Maybe her eyes can tell us what she's thinking
The nature of consciousness has long been a fundamental question of human existence, and it's no surprise that scientists are employing scientific methods to improve our understanding of the subject.

For example, human beings are not "conscious" when they are asleep, so one criterion of consciousness is that a person must be aware of objects in the person's surroundings: [bold added]
[Researchers] used a combination of artificial intelligence, mathematics, and a close examination of the eye movements of individuals as they were shown images of people’s faces.

As it turns out, they found that important clues are revealed in the eyes. When people were shown clear images, their eye movements showed a distinct pattern that indicates they were aware of their surroundings. However, as the subjects were presented with progressively dimmer images of faces, the pattern of eye movement changed. Tracking these changes, [Yale Prof. Hal] Blumenfeld said, allowed researchers to discern whether the subjects actually perceived the face or not without asking them.

“The eyes are truly the window to our souls,” he said. “We can tell if people are aware of something by simply looking at their eyes.”

The eye-tracking tool allowed researchers to explore the amorphous dividing line between consciousness and unconsciousness, a state most obvious as we awake from sleep. People become progressively more aware of their surroundings as slumber recedes, a process that is controlled in a region of the brain known as the thalamus.

Ultrasound waves directed at the
thalamus can "jump start" coma
patients (Medindia)
The Yale researchers found that when people awake the thalamus discharges a brief pulse which jumpstarts the transition to consciousness. However, this activity is only a first step in a series of actions throughout the brain that leads to full awareness, they found. For instance, that initial pulse from the thalamus may fail to activate other neural networks, keeping the individual unconscious of most surrounding stimuli. However, the pulse can also activate neurons involved in processing visual cues in the frontal cortex, which in turn amplifies circuits involved in arousal and attention. At the same time, signals irrelevant to the event are turned off.
To those of us who have friends or relatives who regularly experience visual and/or auditory hallucinations, the research into consciousness and awareness can't proceed fast enough.

But for those like your humble blogger, whose brain is healthily grounded in reality (!) and is concerned about scientists being able to read thoughts through eye movements, wearing sunglasses is strongly recommended.

Wednesday, December 07, 2022

A Premium Business That Didn't Tend to the Basics

2013: the $85 Meat Board
Top to bottom: Broccolini fried in lard, pork chops,
rib-eye steak, lamb chops, goat, tri-tip, Italian sausage
During our infrequent trips through the North Bay we liked to stop at the Belcampo Meat Company in Larkspur. In 2013 the quality of the food and excellence of the staff seemed to justify the premium prices:
The Belcampo Meat Company is "a farm, a processing plant, a butcher shop, and a restaurant [that manages] the entire production chain to bring you delicious, safe, healthy, organic, and humane meat"...

The chops and roasts were prepared skillfully. The beef centers were medium rare, while the other meats were cooked thoroughly without being dry. None of the cuts had thick marbling, but all were tender. Aging and light seasoning brought out complex flavors; a glass of house pinot complemented the dishes perfectly.
Our last visit was in 2018. The prices were higher, and the food wasn't quite as good as we remembered. (Experiences often do become exaggerated with the passage of time.) Maybe the decline wasn't a trick of memory, because the fall accelerated:
Belcampo, whose slogan was “meat you can trust — transparency from start to finish,” had been passing off lower quality meats as its own. Within six months of the controversy, Belcampo shut down in October 2021. Little public attention was paid to the Siskiyou County plant, where all of Belcampo’s popular products, from sausage to steaks, were processed...

The USDA released 81 pages of documents dating from January 2020 to November 2021, which paint a limited yet concerning picture of Belcampo’s plant: the discovery of a leaking, blood-covered box with “discolored” meat inside; mold growing on pallets; pork product giving off a “foul smell.”
Belcampo opened a restaurant in San Mateo three miles away in late 2019. It closed during the pandemic, and we never did get to try it. Initially disappointed, we turned out to be lucky.

Tuesday, December 06, 2022

A Lot Further to Fall

The Bay Area economic outlook is gloomy as tech companies, including some big names, announce thousands of job cuts:
Tech companies are eyeing layoffs that will eliminate jobs for thousands more workers in the Bay Area, a brutal new round of terminations poised to jolt the owner of the Facebook app, Amazon and Juul Labs.

All told, tech companies have decided to chop 2,564 more Bay Area jobs, according to official notices that the firms sent to the state labor agency.

The tech and biotech job cuts in the Bay Area: well over 10,000 in October, November and December, according to this news organization’s review of numerous WARN letters to the state Employment Development Department.
Are 10,000 jobs a lot? Numerically speaking, 10,000 is "only" 0.4% of total employment in the SF-Oakland-Hayward triangle of 2.5 million. But the impact is much greater than the direct numbers indicate.
  • Loss of higher-income tech jobs affects the economy more than the loss of lower-paid ones.
  • Companies cut back on other expenses, e.g., travel, conferences, restaurants, supplies, before turning to layoffs. Lowering these other expenses affects thousands of supporting companies and their employees in the region.
  • The real estate market, already slowed by higher interest rates, continues to spiral down as more residents have difficulty making rent or loan payments.
  • Elon Musk has shown that Twitter could lay off more than half its 7,500 employees and still function. If that's indicative of the bloat in other tech companies, employment has a lot further to fall.

    Monday, December 05, 2022

    For Richer, For Poorer

    (Time photo)
    Researchers say that couples who combine their finances are happier. [bold added]
    deciding to move your money in together can have a big impact on future wealth. Couples who combine bank, credit-card and investing accounts are happier in the long term and find that pooling resources helps clear the path to traditional money milestones such as buying a house and saving for retirement, studies have found.

    Married couples hold four times as much wealth as unmarried couples who live together, and researchers point to combining finances as one reason why.
    Trust is one of the most important elements in a relationship, but circumstances can also dictate one's financial arrangements. For example, newly-formed older couples who have significant assets may wish to keep them separate for estate purposes, especially if there are children already in the picture.

    For the record we owed $thousands in student loans and had negligible assets when we tied the knot, so it was an easy call to start off with joint accounts in everything. (In a community property state like California half of each spouse's income is the property of the other.) It's not clear whether joint finances augmented the balance sheet, but our life has been simpler because of it, and that's worth something in itself.

    Final comment: this research may suffer from the basic flaw of survival bias, that is, it looks at existing couples, their financial relationship, their wealth, and their happiness. It doesn't include couples who took the risk of combining their finances and broke up. (Bet they're quite unhappy.) If these couples were included, the conclusions might not be so compelling.

    Sunday, December 04, 2022

    Sunday Ruminations

    The pasture celebrated his birthday with a "cow cake" from a Hayward bakery.

    During coffee hour the air churned with friendly conversation.

    Despite efforts to steer the discussion we could not hide from puns that were udderly cringeworthy.

    I herd the spirit of the bovine move through the gathering, and I had a lot to chew on afterwards. 

    Saturday, December 03, 2022

    Fixers, Fix Yourselves

    (NuTech illustration)
    Consumers who struggle with loan payments often turn to credit-repair consultants that purport to improve consumers' scores by the credit-reporting companies Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.

    The problem is that some fixers employ illegal methods: [bold added]
    In recent years, a government website has made it easier for people to file claims of identity theft so they can remove fraudulent accounts from their credit reports...These companies file false identity-theft claims on items that bring down customer’s credit scores, like delinquent credit-card debt, often without that person’s knowledge.

    The move often removes that information from the consumer’s credit reports while the claim is investigated. The practice is known in the industry as credit washing, since a person’s credit reports can look better than they really are, at least temporarily, and so can their scores...

    Naftali Harris, chief executive at SentiLink, a company that works with lenders to help stop identity fraud, said many lenders tell him that 80% to 90% of the claims they receive about identity theft are fraudulent.
    More details on how identity-theft protections can be exploited:
    When a person provides the required paperwork to Equifax, Experian or TransUnion stating that an unpaid loan or other negative information on a credit report is the result of identity theft, the companies in many cases must remove the information within four business days if they can’t verify it is legitimate. They and the lenders can continue to look into the claim, and later reinstate the account if it’s found to be legitimate. Meanwhile, the borrower is in a better position to apply for new loans from other lenders.
    There are ethical companies in the credit-repair industry who do help those who suffer from identity theft.

    Unfortunately, bad behavior (e.g., cryptocurrency, misleading "news" reporting, pharmaceutical claims, nonprofit politicking) have caused the public to distrust entire industries and institutions.

    Friday, December 02, 2022

    Steller's Sea Cow

    Steller's sea cow could weigh four tons
    and had a length of up to 25 feet (Chron)
    By eating kelp the extinct giant Steller's sea cow caused Pacific-Coast kelp forests to thrive:
    The researchers say that the sea cow helped the kelp forest grow more robust, even when eating its weight in seaweed, because it grazed kelp near the surface of the water. That allowed more light to penetrate, encouraging more growth of both kelp and other types of algae...

    “If you spend time in a kelp forest today, at least a healthy one, one of the impressions we take away is it’s dark, almost cathedral like, and the light is filtering down. The kelp absorbs most of the incoming sunlight right at the surface,” said Peter Roopnarine, coauthor of the study and a curator of geology at the California Academy of Sciences. “If the sea cow was grazing the canopy there would have been more light penetration.”

    Knowledge of the Steller’s sea cow is based on fossils found from Baja California to Northern Alaska, skeletons collected when they were hunted and historic observations made in Alaska, especially by the scientist Georg Wilhelm Steller who gave it its name. The animal may have had a peak population of 200,000, according to a study published this year.

    Like its closest living relative, the dugong, a marine mammal in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans that is in the same family as manatees, the beast had a long, rotund body, short front flippers and a whale-like tail. Its skin was “more the bark of an old oak tree, than the skin of an animal,” Steller reportedly observed. It also had a downturned snout for feeding on kelp while floating on the surface, Roopnarine said.
    Two points:

    1) It seems to be a law of nature: thinning forests on land or sea will make them stronger.

    2) The age of exploration marked the end of the Middle Ages and rejuvenated Europe. However, the same philosophy that embraced a limitless world for the taking left in its wake the extinction (circa 1700) of creatures like Steller's sea cow. It's unfortunate that the error was realized centuries too late.

    Thursday, December 01, 2022

    Rain, Rain, Don't Go Away

    A rare day when the postman opened his umbrella
    It rained last month on Election Day, and a colder, wetter storm is hitting the Bay Area today:
    the combination of strong winds and the risk for flooding will make for a hazardous morning for commuters across the Bay Area. Thankfully, the winter storm will quickly exit the Bay Area this afternoon, and both winds and rain will completely clear out by sunset.

    Just be sure to crank up your heater tonight. This storm will leave behind bitterly cold air across Northern California that will settle over the valleys and basins of the state. The National Weather Service has issued a freeze watch from Thursday night to Friday morning for the North Bay valleys, where temperatures will likely drop down to the upper 20s...

    North Bay: A deluge will set up over Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Solano counties this morning as widespread showers clog up rural roadways with rain and tree limbs. The Petaluma and Napa valleys can expect strong 30 to 40 mph gusts as the winter storm roars into the region. Pockets of valleys closer to Guerneville and Healdsburg are likely to see ponding and urban flooding as the strongest showers roll in between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.
    It's a triple-win: 1) the sprinklers have been turned off, saving on our water bill (over $200 per month, half of which is fixed sewer cost); 2) the augmentation of the Sierra snowpack reduces the odds of water rationing next summer; 3) I had some outdoor chores to do, and now I have an excuse not to do them.

    Wednesday, November 30, 2022

    Upper Crust

    I saw it. I wanted it. I can't get it. "It" is Hormel's Figgy Pudding Spam.
    Let's start with what's in "classic" Spam: pork, sugar, water, salt, potato starch, and sodium nitrate (a preservative).

    The new seasonal Spam includes additional "fig and orange flavors, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and all spice."
    This is not your grandmother's Spam. FPS retails at 2 cans for $10 and can only be found at,, and I'm used to paying less than $2.50 per unit for basic Spam at Costco.

    Figgy Pudding Spam is beyond my normal price point, but for this I'd make an exception.

    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    Enjoy the Ride

    (Merriam-Webster illustration)
    This hypothesis makes sense once one thinks about it:

    Inequality in Society Drives Stock-Market Performance [bold added]
    The argument is pretty simple, as laid out by Jacques Cesar, a former managing partner at Oliver Wyman now leading a research project for the management consultancy: The rich save more and are more willing to take the extra risk of putting their savings into stocks. Mr. Cesar calculates that one household earning $1 million a year would put about 20 times as much into stocks as the total invested by 20 households each with an income of $50,000, based on averages for their income groups, even though their overall income is the same. Raise inequality and demand for stocks goes up, and so do prices.
    The rich not only save a greater percentage of their income, they also invest in riskier assets, e.g. stocks, that over time produce a higher return.

    Every investor benefits from a rising stock market, but a rich investor benefits disproportionately more, putting even more distance from the rest of society.

    The conventional wisdom is that the stock market makes millionaires out of startups' founders and creates inequality. But it also may be true that inequality causes the market to rise. If we do have a "virtuous circle," enjoy the ride

    Monday, November 28, 2022

    Patty's Floral Designs

    The florist in her workshop
    In my recent trip to Honolulu I had a late request from California HQ to get some flowers for a friend's birthday. The arrangement should be tropical and not Mainland (roses, carnations) themed. I called Patty, whom I had never met but who had delivered flowers for us over the years.

    Context: it was Saturday afternoon, and the flowers had to be delivered Sunday when her store and messenger services were closed.

    She said that she could put something together but that I had to pick up the flowers at closing and deliver them the next day. No problem, but after peppering her with questions about overnight storage, I sensed that she didn't quite trust this brown-thumbed delivery person with her pulchritudinous product.

    And so it was that I showed up at her store just before noon on Sunday, when Patty was working on weddings in the back room. The delivery went smoothly.

    California HQ complained about Patty's cost (over $100) and said that I should have checked out other florists on Saturday.

    The complaints stopped when the recipient called to express her happiness over not only the gift but also the manager's effectiveness in getting an employee to work on his Hawaiian vacation. It looks like I get to keep my job.

    Sunday, November 27, 2022

    Back in the Sweaters Again

    Foster City lagoon, 7:14 a.m.
    The sun rose at 7:02 a.m.

    The temperature is 43 °F.

    It hasn't rained for two weeks.

    It's quiet (but not too quiet).

    There is hardly any traffic.

    Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Hawaii any more.

    Saturday, November 26, 2022

    The Audio Doesn't Equal the Video.

    The hearing aids that I got in 2018 have been very helpful.

    Every day speech with real people is comfortably decipherable--by the way, have you noticed that old people frequently mumble? that's a subject for another day--but for television I often still must turn on closed captioning. More people with normal hearing are also using the feature.
    “If you have people talking or shouting during the adventure scenes, the explode-y sounds are way higher than the dialogue,” said Melanie Brooks, a 43-year-old professional musician in Boston. Catching some of the lines in her favorite fantasy and adventure TV series is hard without captions, she added.

    People tend to blame their flat-screen TVs for bad sound. The tube TVs of decades past had front-facing speakers that sent audio toward you, while new, super-thin models have speakers that are behind the screen or point downward, bouncing sound away from you. But your TV is just one of the culprits.

    The rest of the problem lies within virtually every other step of the audio process, from a studio’s production choices to the device used to watch the content, said Richard Nevens, senior director of audio-hardware product management at Avid Technology, which specializes in audio- and video-editing tools.
    Movie sound technology has outstripped the capabilities of the speakers on home devices, including TV's.

    It's a relief that I don't have to upgrade my hearing equipment.

    Meanwhile, I'll be setting closed captioning to "on."

    Friday, November 25, 2022

    The Day of Departure

    The cup leaked badly
    On the day before my return to San Francisco I cleaned out the fridge, reviewed Mom's tax records, and filled up the gas tank. The next morning was scheduled for laundry, packing the suitcase, and visiting Mom.

    But the first thing on the agenda was to walk to the Waikiki Starbucks, which had become part of the daily routine.

    That part didn't go well. After a few minutes coffee dripped down my hands and onto my shoes. I checked the lid several times, but it turns out that there was a pinhole leak on the bottom. Auwe!

    From the McCully 7-Eleven
    After dumping the rest of the cup I stopped by a 7-Eleven to buy an Azuki Bean scone, regretting briefly the enthusiasm for disposing of some tasty leftovers the night before.

    Departure day had a few more hiccups: Mom was fast asleep when I stopped at the assisted living facility (we talked on FaceTime the next day, but it wasn't the same), the airport Agricultural-Inspection conveyor belt was broken, causing thousands of pieces of luggage to back up, and not coincidentally my flight was delayed an hour.

    It was 45 °F when I arrived at SFO, and out came the jacket that had last been worn when I left San Francisco. I was home.

    Thursday, November 24, 2022

    Thankful for the Memories

    Today we are thankful for our memories of those who have walked the way with us.

    We are thankful that we have become better at distinguishing the important from the unimportant.

    And we are thankful that we have learned not to let the unimportant stuff bother us as much.