Saturday, April 30, 2022

Applause Not Needed

(photo from NY Post)
Warren Buffett is the most successful investor in history. His knowledge of the stock market and financial analysis is unrivalled, but IMHO his wisdom concerning human nature and human behavior are equally important components of that success.

And it all stems from his empathy, i.e., the ability to put himself in another's shoes. The latter was on display when he said why he doesn't talk about politics in public, at least not any more. [bold added]
the CEO explained why he’s not speaking on politically charged topics — because doing so could affect Berkshire and the companies it invests in.

“I don't want to say anything that will get attributed basically to Berkshire, and have somebody else bear the consequences of what I talk about,” Buffett said.

“Why in the world do I want to hurt the people in that other room that do all kinds of things for Berkshire? Why do I want to hurt you? Because I say something that 20% of the country is going to instantly disagree with. And sometimes they will be so upset about us that they will try and…have campaigns against our companies.”
Michael Jordan expressed a similar thought 32 years ago. When he was urged to support the Democratic candidate in a Senate race, he said, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."
My mother asked to do a PSA for Harvey Gantt, and I said, 'Look, Mom, I'm not speaking out of pocket about someone that I don't know. But I will send a contribution to support him.' Which is what I did.

"I do commend Muhammad Ali for standing up for what he believed in. But I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.

"I wasn't a politician when I was playing my sport. I was focused on my craft. Was that selfish? Probably. But that was my energy. That's where my energy was."
They refrained from politics for different reasons: Michael Jordan didn't want to hurt his own brand, and Warren Buffett didn't want to hurt the people in Berkshire's businesses. Two other similarities: both men have shown enormous discipline throughout their lives, and neither craves the adulation of people who clap because they like their politics.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Apple Rolls Along

Through yesterday's close AAPL is up 42%, vs the NASDAQ'S 12%, over the past 12 months.
It's down 2% to $160 this morning.
Despite strong revenue and earnings for the quarter ended March 31, 2022, Apple said that supply-chain shortages and strict China lockdowns will affects its performance for the rest of 2022.
Apple Inc. cautioned Thursday that the resurgence of Covid-19 in China threatens to hinder sales by as much as $8 billion in the current quarter—a setback after seeing supply-chain improvements during the first three months of the year.

The guidance from the iPhone maker came Thursday shortly after the company posted one of the best quarters in its 46-year history...

The challenges come after a blockbuster quarter. Apple’s revenue for the recent period rose 9% to $97.3 billion, far exceeding analyst expectations for $94 billion. Earnings per share rose to $1.52 from $1.40 a year earlier—beating estimates for $1.42 a share and setting a record for Apple’s fiscal second quarter.
Apple has continued to grow despite COVID-19, the ups and downs of U.S.-China relations, supply-chain issues, and the supposed limitations of being a hardware company. As we noted almost two years ago,
Apple's market capitalization when Tim Cook officially took over in October, 2011, was $344 billion. The company is valued six times [on 4/29/22 it's 7.6x] as much today. As we've observed, naming Tim Cook as his successor was Steve Job's wisest decision.
We're a holder of AAPL more for Tim Cook and his management team than for any one product, yes, even the iPhone.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Unique Menu

Sushi rolls
Five years after our first visit, we were pleased to see that Tugboat Fish & Chips had survived the pandemic.

The franchisees, an Asian couple, were still offering a unique menu: sushi plates, other Asian dishes, and English seafood & chips.

When we entered the dining room, eight middle-aged Japanese-Americans were chatting amiably at a large table in the corner. It's always a plus to see locals eating in an establishment that one is about to patronize.

Lunch special
I ordered the lunch special: deep-fried cod, french fries, onion rings, tempura zucchini, and pot stickers. My companion ordered a couple of sushi rolls. The ingredients were fresh, and the deep-fried dishes were crisp and moist inside.

The bill was $30 before tax and tip, about 25% below comparable Bay Area restaurants. We'll be back, and the interval will be a lot less than five years.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

San Francisco Housing Program: "Chaos, Crime and Death"

Tenderloin hotels Olympic and Windsor don't
look so bad from the outside (Chron photo)
A little over two years ago, just before the COVID-19 lockdowns began, the Chronicle reported on San Francisco's program to rent single-room occupancy (SRO) rooms at older hotels to house the homeless. It would be run by "motivated charities":
The oversight by motivated charities, not indifferent bureaucrats, has a good chance of identifying problems earlier. Also, the housing is available immediately, instead of waiting for the units to be built years from now.

The project risk is much lower than the cost of building shelters that turn in to white elephants, so give them props for trying.
Though it's only been two years, the results are clear: the SRO program is a disaster: [bold added]
But because San Francisco leaders have for years neglected the hotels and failed to meaningfully regulate the nonprofits that operate them, many of the buildings — which house roughly 6,000 people — have descended into a pattern of chaos, crime and death, the [Chronicle] investigation found. Critically, the homelessness crisis in San Francisco has worsened.
• At least 166 people fatally overdosed in city-funded hotels in 2020 and 2021 — 14% of all confirmed overdose deaths in San Francisco, though the buildings housed less than 1% of the city’s population...
• Since 2016, the year city leaders created the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, the number of homeless people in the city has increased by 56%...
• Residents have threatened to kill staff members, chased them with metal pipes and lit fires inside rooms...
• Broken elevators trap elderly and disabled tenants on their floors, shuttered bathrooms force people in wheelchairs to rely on portable hospital toilets, and water leaks spread mold and mildew through rooms.
Some rational tenants have moved back onto the street:
Blocks away, at the Baldwin Hotel, Richard Brustie said he became so fed up with the conditions that he and his girlfriend left in January. They opted to live in a tent outside instead.

“I moved in there and the kitchen sink had human shit in it, and the hotel has black mold,” said Brustie, also 57. Past public inspection records confirm similar violations in the Baldwin’s common areas. “So we said screw that, and we started sleeping on the streets.”
How can the SRO program be fixed? The solution, from everyone quoted in the Chronicle article, is to spend (a lot) more money.

George Christopher lured
the Giants from New York.
As your humble blogger has written before, the San Francisco voters seem to approve these policies on homelessness and crime because they keep re-electing leaders who spend $billions and not only do not fix the problems but make things worse.

George Christopher (1907-2000), the last Republican mayor of San Francisco, left office in 1964.

As a believer in democracy, I say let's continue to give the voters what they asked for, good and hard.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Lincoln, California in the Spring

November 29, 2021
April 26, 2022

The winter rains didn't alleviate the drought, but they were enough to cause the pond grasses to spring to life. A hay-fever sufferer since childhood, I felt the familiar nasal tingling that presaged an attack if I didn't leave the area.

A few hundred feet along the walking path brought me to what was an empty field two years ago. New homes priced in the $500,000 range had sprung up.

The builder, D.R. Horton, has a good reputation; just the fact that the project was nearing completion during an era of material and labor shortages is a sign of competence, IMHO.

The new development was a sign of the migration inland.

For Californians looking to get away from the over-priced, over-crowded coasts--but still be close to the perks of suburban life like shopping malls, restaurants, and recreation--the greater Sacramento area is a good landing spot.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Rocklin Repast

We were done with the tax returns for family and friends, and a 9-month project for the church had coincidentally wrapped up. It was time to reward ourselves with an overnight trip to Central California.

The head ordered the ahi salad, but the
heart wanted the drunken-pig fries.
We stopped for lunch in Rocklin. An upscale burger-and-brew operation, the University of Beer, had opened six locations in the Sacramento Valley.

The prices were roughly the same as in the Bay Area--$20 for an entrée--and the portions were larger. As the designated driver, I wistfully scanned the extensive beer collection and settled on ice water.

My annual physical was fast approaching, so I also passed on the calorie-laden burger that I really desired and ordered an ahi salad.

Everything was well-prepared, and the ingredients were fresh. My companion let me taste his order of burger and fries.

Next time I'll have what he had, and someone else can drive.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Doing, Not Just Believing, Is Important, Too

Going up for Communion in person.
Northeastern psychology professor David DeSteno ("How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion”) says that ethical behavior is not dependent on theology as much as regular attendance: [bold added]
when it comes to morality, the power of religion is more in the doing than in the believing. Studies of religion and health show that identifying with a religion—saying you believe in God or going to worship once a year on Easter or Yom Kippur—means very little. Epidemiological research shows that it is people who live their faith, regularly going to services and engaging in their religion’s rituals, who tend to live longer, healthier and happier lives.

...doing religion helps. During a moment of temptation, belief that God is watching you is difficult to ignore when you’ve been regularly reminded of this fact through prayers and rituals. That’s why people who believe in God often work harder to resist temptation the more they practice their faith.
I am acquainted with people who describe themselves as "religious" but eschew Sunday worship because they purportedly are turned off by organized religion. The science of psychology suggests that group worship does have benefits that can improve individuals' ethical behavior and spirit of charity.

It seems that there is no harm and much to gain by visiting the local churches, synagogues, or temples for a little while to test Dr. DeSteno's hypothesis, but that's just me.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Our Civic Duty

Boothbay Park
Arriving at 10 a.m. at Boothbay Park, I introduced myself to the other volunteers, three adults and two children.

It was Earth Day clean-up in Foster City, and Boothbay was one of the nine parks where residents gathered to pick up trash.

We were handed 32-inch trash grabbers, plastic bags, and orange Home Depot buckets to hold recyclables. A pleasant Saturday morning, I was prepared to stay till noon.

However, the Foster City workers said that they had to be done in an hour. No dallying if we wanted to cover the entire park.

Not bad for an hour's work.
The park's outward appearance was clean, but closer inspection revealed small pieces of gum and candy wrappers, foil, and popped balloons.

The bushes along the edge of the park yielded up more than half of the trash. The stiff winds that we had been having every other week were the culprit, and even tidy picnickers might be reluctant to wander into the moist foliage to do their civic duty.

The work was low intensity, but after an hour we had picked up more trash than I thought we would. Waste management is not my forte, as anyone in my household can tell you.

Everyone got T-shirts for their trouble. The compensation that gives the most pleasure sometimes isn't money.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Earth Day, 2022: Going Nuclear

Even Democrats are having second thoughts about
closing Diablo Canyon in 2025. (Chron photo)
On Earth Day, 2022 there are signs that the decades-long freeze against nuclear energy is over.

Biden launches $6 billion effort to save nuclear power plants
The Biden administration is launching a $6 billion effort to rescue nuclear power plants at risk of closing, citing the need to continue nuclear energy as a carbon-free source of power that helps to combat climate change...The program was funded through President Joe Biden's $1 trillion infrastructure deal, which he signed into law in November.
Question Asked: Can Coal Plants Turn Into Nuclear Reactors? [bold added]
the main issues are that you have these coal plants that are closing down that have an experienced workforce. So you could tap into the workforce, you could save some jobs, and help out local economies. And that you would reuse the site in a sense that you have these valuable grid connections that are there and that you could do something with that. And then that you would be replacing coal essentially with a cleaner energy, that nuclear is a no carbon way to make electricity. So the idea behind modular nuclear reactors is that they are smaller and faster to build.
Bill Gates’ TerraPower aims to build its first advanced nuclear reactor in a coal town in Wyoming
The Kemmerer plant will be the first to use an advanced nuclear design called Natrium, developed by TerraPower with GE-Hitachi.

Natrium plants use liquid sodium as a cooling agent instead of water. Sodium has a higher boiling point and can absorb more heat than water, which means high pressure does not build up inside the reactor, reducing the risk of an explosion...

Natrium plants can also store heat in tanks of molten salt, conserving the energy for later use like a battery and enabling the plant to bump its capacity up from 345 to 500 megawatts for five hours.

The plants are also smaller than conventional nuclear power plants, which should make them faster and cheaper to build than conventional power plants. TerraPower aims to get the cost of its plants down to $1 billion, a quarter of the budget for the first one in Kemmerer.
Nuclear power plants designed a half-century ago are being matched against today's solar and wind power technology. Comparing all non-fossil-fuel sources of energy for their current safety, cost, and reliability is a much more honest analysis.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Reminiscing, with Receipts

Thornton Wilder himself played the minister
in a 1950 production of Our Town.
Thornton Wilder's Our Town was one of the first 20th Century plays that we read.

The language was not above our heads, but few seventh graders had a lived grasp of the theme: that life in all its moments, special and jejune, is not appreciated until it's over. But who can fault us; not quite teenagers, our eyes were looking forward, not back.

Speaking of looking back, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright kept meticulous tax records:
Like any conscientious taxpayer, Wilder carefully documented his tax-deductible business expenses. His returns from 1968 to 1972 include meticulous, multi-page accounts of his work-related travel and associated expenditures. Originally intended to justify tax write offs, today these records offer a unique perspective into Wilder’s writerly life at the twilight of his career...

Wilder explained [in an attachment to his tax returns] that living in a big city or near New York subjected him to constant harassment from “interviewers, photographers, enthusiasts, student delegations, visitors from Europe and Asia.”

“It is necessary that I remove myself,” he stated...
For Thornton Wilder 1968 was especially noteworthy for his (deductible) European travels to watch and work on plays that he adapted to the American theatre. He spent months in Martha's Vineyard recuperating from surgery, then returned to Paris in the fall.
His travel and hotel expenses for 1968 totaled $4,658.76, according to the tax documents, which is about $34,000 today adjusted for inflation.

1) Thornton Wilder does look like an accountant in his college year book photo, doesn't he?

2) Yes, boys and girls, CPA's used to type the tax returns. (Look at the mis-aligned "X" in the middle photo.) Typing often took more time than filling out the draft in pencil.

3) To pre-empt possible questions, additional documents and/or explanatory notes such as Thornton Wilder's narrative descriptions were regularly attached to tax returns. Later this practice became impossible with some e-filing software.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Netflix: That Sinking Feeling

Netflix (NFLX) fell 35% today and is down 62% since January 1st
Competitive stresses had been building for Netflix, which once had the market for streaming video all to itself. The dam broke last night, when Netflix announced that it had lost subscribers, and the stock fell precipitously:
The shares shed more than a third of their value, finishing down $122.42 to $226.19. The stock was the S&P 500’s worst performer of the day. Investors had expected that the company would add new users in the quarter. Instead, Netflix said it ended the first three months of the year with 200,000 fewer subscribers than it had in the fourth quarter and said it expected to lose two million global subscribers in the current quarter...

The fall in Netflix’s shares represented its biggest single-day percentage drop since Oct. 15, 2004, when it fell 41% after saying it would cut subscription fees and postpone planned international expansion. It slashed $54.3 billion from the company’s market capitalization, its largest one-day market cap loss on record...

“Nobody was expecting Netflix to announce they lost subscribers. They were expecting a slowdown in subscriptions, but seeing Netflix losing subscribers is a big deal,” said Ipek Ozkardeskaya, senior analyst at Swissquote Bank, an online broker.
Your humble investor/blogger turned a modest profit on Netflix eleven years ago. At the time I was spooked by Amazon's entry into streaming video and thought that the much-larger company would eat Netflix' lunch.

Though I sold Netflix ten years too soon, there are only small regrets. I would probably have held on too long and watched a large Netflix holding fall by 35% in one day. Irrational, to be sure, but that's why you shouldn't listen to a blogger who gives free advice.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Tax Day, 2022

Federal extension form 4868
Following retirement and the elimination of entities (partnerships, Subchapter S corporations) that required us to wait for K-1 forms that were frequently late, there were no excuses impediments to filing our tax returns by April 15th.

California extension form 3519
Ambition, however, fell easy prey to sloth and pain avoidance, two pillars of procrastination. Over the weekend I filled out draft tax returns with only a cursory look at deductions. (A full search involves four different credit cards and three bank accounts, i.e., the pain I was speaking about earlier.)

Two extension forms, plus checks that were more than enough to cover the liability for 2021, were mailed at the post office on Tax Day, April 18, 2022.

Having the government hold on to the money a few extra months was the cost; the benefit was the first restful sleep I've had in weeks. It was worth it.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Signs of Life

With the church about 75 percent filled, the services on Easter Sunday were almost back to normal. Almost, because everyone still wore a mask, and for communion they still went single file up to the altar and received the Host spaced six feet apart. After partaking the bread sans wine, they went back to their seat.

In the courtyard there was an Easter Egg hunt. The Sunday Schoolers were joined by families from the pre-school. There were hundreds of eggs, candies, and tchotchkes to be found, and the children scampered about while the grown-ups lunched and drank coffee.

On Resurrection Sunday the church is showing signs of life.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter, 2022

Resurrection of Christ by Raphael
After two consecutive years of not attending Easter services, I won't miss a third.

Resurrection Sunday is the holiest of all feast days because to Christians it commemorates the most important event in human history--the triumph of life over death.

The actuarial tables say that 80% of my life has passed, and so, as I wrote last year, after a lifetime of ignoring the Resurrection I am thinking about it more and more.

I'll even put on a tie. Yes, it's that important.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

You Deserve Egg Whites Today

While placing an order for others this morning at the local McDonald's:
I’d like a Sausage McMuffin with egg whites.

“We have brown eggs.”

Never mind.
I didn't want to embarrass the earnest young newbie at the cash register by explaining the difference between egg whites and white eggs. Besides, the line was building up behind me.

If you're high maintenance and go to McDonald's, either adjust your expectations or don't bother going.

Friday, April 15, 2022

Good Friday, 2022

In his homily (YouTube 14:30-23:27) the priest said he is troubled by the basic conception of Good Friday--that Jesus died for our sins so that we might live.

Atonement theory states that Christ had to die. The priest explained that the "irreducible minimum" of atonement theory was:
Man was bad,
God was mad,
Somebody had to pay for it.
Referring to his own experience as a parent, the priest said that he believes that Good Friday is an example of unconditional love by the Father toward children who are behaving at their worst.

Though I admire his insightfulness, I'm not going to set aside decades of instruction on the priest's say-so that Atonement Theory is "repugnant." And there's no reason that the priest can't be right, too, that on Good Friday we should focus on God's limitless love rather than on how man nailed God to a tree.

As others are wont to say, Embrace the healing power of and.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Twitter: Fun to Watch But Not to Invest

Elon Musk gave a TED presentation on Thursday in
Vancouver. Twitter questions begin 11 minutes in
Elon Musk sucked the air out of the trading room on Thursday with his offer to buy Twitter at $54.20 per share.
Elon Musk went full-on corporate raider a week into his rolling clash with Twitter Inc., offering a $43 billion bid for the company and warning he might sell his stake in the service if rebuffed.

The Thursday offer was the latest in a will-he-or-won’t-he saga between the world’s richest person and the social-media service. The offer was at once serious—Mr. Musk disclosed it in a federal filing—and at the same time tinged with humor, as the offer was for $54.20 per share, a barely veiled marijuana reference...

The offer of $54.20 a share represented a 54% premium over the day before he began investing in Twitter, and a 38% premium over the day before his investment was publicly announced. Over the past year, Twitter’s shares have traded as high as $73.34.
The stock market currently values Twitter (TWTR) at about $35 billion. The platform's content attracts millions of eyeballs as a go-to place both for breaking news and unfiltered communication from entertainment, political, sports, and wealthy celebrities.

However, Twitter has struggled to "monetize" this popularity through ads or subscriptions. Today the stock trades 8% above its November, 2013 IPO close of $41.65, the worst return of any social media company.

Your humble blogger took a flyer on the stock back in 2016 when the price dipped to $16 per share. (See chart below.)

Twitter then, as now, had no earnings and a large footprint. But it had potential upside at $16 per share. A $10-$12 billion valuation in 2016 was a relatively inexpensive price to pay for a company to acquire a readily existing user base.

An acquisition never happened, but Twitter's visibility increased markedly from 2016 to 2020 because of President Trump. I sold one-third of the stake when the price had doubled to $33 in 2018 and got out completely at $54.20 (I like to sell and Elon likes to buy at that price) in February, 2021 after the Tweeter-in-Chief had been kicked off the platform.

It's going to be fun watching the proceedings between Elon Musk and Twitter, but I won't be buying into the stock at its current level. There's risk of a 25-30% drop if a deal doesn't go through, and a new investment would take the fun out of it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Fluke Infection

From egg (right) to bird droppings to snail to larva
to fish to dog. (Orchard Hills Animal Hospital)
Sushi restaurants have been part of the American dining scene for at least 40 years, and the widespread hesitancy over eating raw fish has largely abated. But there was good reason for that historical repugnance, as this report reminds us: [bold added]
Salmon Poisoning Disease can affect dogs and potentially kill them after they consume raw or cold smoked fish, including freshwater fish carcasses, that are infected by a “bacteria-like organism” which is transmitted by a flatworm, also known as a fluke, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials said in a news release...

Symptoms of Salmon Poisoning Disease are similar to that of distemper, wildlife officials said, including a rise in body temperature, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, listlessness and rapid weight loss...

About 90% of dogs with symptoms that don’t receive treatment die, wildlife officials said. Dogs that don’t receive treatment will typically die within two weeks of eating infected fish, officials said.
Flukes and bacteria can also make humans sick and are not present in the salt-water fish served in sushi restaurants. Fresh-water fish should always be cooked before serving it to ourselves or our four-legged friends.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Bay Area Housing: Lease vs. Buy

The original owners bought this Foster City house for
under $200K in 1978. It sold for $3.3 MM in 2021.
And it needs work! (photo February 2022)
Using current data, the Chronicle reports on the results of rent vs. buy analysis for three cities in the Bay Area:
For the three largest Bay Area cities (San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland), these data points were factored in:
  • Median household income from the U.S. Census.
  • Typical two-bedroom home value from real estate listings site Zillow from February, 2022.
  • Estimate of two-bedroom apartment rent from Apartment List from February 2022...

    We entered these values into a rent vs. buy calculator, adjusted home appreciation to 5%, set mortgage interest rate to 5.1%, which was the national average as of Sunday, and assumed a 20% down payment on a house.

    In all three cities, it’s less costly to rent in the shorter term — no surprise, given the upfront costs necessary for homeownership. But the break-even point occurs at a different moment for the three cities, and later than the national average, especially in San Francisco.
  • The "break-even point", as defined in the NerdWallet model, is the number of years the prospective buyer would have to live in the home to make it worthwhile to own instead of rent it. The results, using the basic assumptions set forth above, were:
  • San Jose - 9 years;
  • Oakland - 11 years;
  • San Francisco - 26 years.
  • The NerdWallet model is fairly sophisticated because it takes into account the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest and property taxes, as well as the hypothetical capital gain from the sale of the home. However, I don't think (because we can't see under the hood) it includes the $10,000 SALT cap or the $750,000-mortgage-limit under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. The model results are indicators that purchasing is a better value in the East and South Bay, and not in San Francisco or the mid-Peninsula.

    If you are thinking about buying a house, you should really use a customized analysis because individual circumstances are so different. And because a home is the largest purchase you are likely to make, you should take the time to build the model or get an accountant or financial analyst to build it for you.

    Another unrealistic assumption in almost all lease vs. buy models is that the monthly savings from renting over ownership are assumed to be invested rather than spent. Speaking from personal experience, I know that very few renters have that discipline, and that the lifestyle of new homeowners is less luxurious than if they had continued to rent. The forced-savings aspect of home ownership is often underestimated.

    Finally, most models haven't adapted to the newest trends in real-estate, e.g., the ability to live farther away from the office because of the increased possibility of remote work, the changes in the rental market because of corporate ownership and eviction moratoria, the trend towards lower-density housing, etc.

    When decisions have so many variables, I'd talk to friends and relatives, play with the numbers, but finally go with my gut. Frankly, if I were 30 years younger, I'd strongly doubt that I would stay in the Bay Area for more than 10 years, and I definitely would not be a buyer.

    Monday, April 11, 2022

    The Science and the Air are Unsettled

    I came to Ocean Beach for the fresh air. "Fresh air? What fresh air? We're in Ocean Beach."
    I was misinformed.----with apologies to Casablanca
    Air quality monitors have consistently shown that a surprising section of San Francisco has harmful air pollution, according to EPA standards for particulate matter. [bold added]
    The Chronicle’s analysis shows that the PM 2.5 levels of six sensors in the Outer Sunset located within two blocks of the shore all exceeded the annual average daily exposure standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter set by the Environmental Protection Agency...The median PM 2.5 over the one-year period recorded by the three sensors closest to the shoreline was about 14 micrograms per cubic meter, compared with about 9 among sensors citywide, data showed.
    The reasons are not the usual suspects: traffic, wildfire smoke, or inversion layers.
    [Air quality scientist Michael] Flagg had noticed that the huge spikes in PM 2.5 readings from sensors along the Great Highway tended to coincide with certain meteorological conditions. “It would be when the surf and swells were well over 10 feet and the winds were either light or slightly onshore,” he said.

    That led him to suspect that a phenomenon called sea spray aerosol — tiny particles from the ocean that scatter into the air — could be playing a part in the high PM 2.5 levels.
    It's always refreshing to encounter a scientist like Michael Flagg who, in seeking to solve a puzzle, doesn't try to bend the facts to fit a theory but constructs hypotheses to fit the facts.

    Sunday, April 10, 2022

    Palm Sunday, 2022

    It was the first "normal" Palm Sunday since 2019. The congregation commemorated Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem by marching around the block, then settled in to listen to the familiar Passion of Christ (Luke 22-23).

    This time I paid attention to every word. When something has been taken away unexpectedly for two years, one appreciates it more. Moreover, the impossible has now proved possible--it can be taken away again.

    The liturgical color of Palm Sunday is red, symbolizing Jesus' blood that will be shed later that week.

    I wore a red shirt, as did many worshippers, and ruminated briefly on the symbolism of the red shirt in Star Trek (it means imminent death).

    Given what we've all been through for two years, I don't think we need any visual aids to remind us.

    Saturday, April 09, 2022

    Against the Stereotype

    Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson flanked by
    husband Patrick and daughter Leila (Chron)
    Do Supreme Court justices mostly make decisions that favor their own personal politics?

    Partisans seem to think so (Catholic justices are anti-abortion, Democratic justices-of-color are in favor of quotas, etc.)

    Indiana professor Leslie Lenkowski cites one prominent example of when justice-in-waiting Ketanji Brown Jackson went against the stereotype by ruling against the Obama Administration's targeting of a non-profit linked with Israel: [bold added]
    The case involved Z Street, which provides information to the public on issues related to Zionism, Israel and the Middle East. At the end of 2009, it applied for tax exemption as a public charity under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. Six months later, an IRS representative allegedly told Z Street a decision would be delayed because the agency had a special unit to examine requests from groups dealing with Israel to determine whether their views contradicted the Obama administration’s policies.

    Z Street sued, and the case was assigned to Judge Jackson. In a 2014 ruling, Judge Jackson dismissed the IRS’s argument that its judgments about tax exemptions had immunity from judicial review. She accused the IRS of using procedural claims to block litigation of a constitutional issue.

    After Z Street finally received its tax exemption, Judge Jackson approved a 2018 agreement in which the IRS expressed its “sincere apology” for the delay and acknowledged that its criteria for approving requests for tax-exemption shouldn’t include political beliefs—though the agency still denied it had applied a political test to Z Street’s application. In her conclusion of the case, Judge Jackson declared it was “wrong” to use the tax laws against any group “based solely on any lawful positions it espouses on any issue” or its “association with a particular political movement, position, or viewpoint.”
    President Obama weaponizing the IRS against his opposition was not a fevered dream of Republicans but was confirmed by government audit:
    the retrospective audit turned up almost 150 organizations that had been subjected to unusually intense IRS scrutiny, generally during the early years of the Obama administration. These organizations faced what the inspector general called “unnecessary questions” and longer-than-normal delays in processing their applications. This was on top of the nearly 300 groups that a separate 2013 audit found had received special IRS attention because of their association with the tea party.
    Justices appointed by a Republican President, e.g., David Souter and Anthony Kennedy, regularly disappointed Republicans. Although few expect them, don't be surprised if Justice Jackson will have a few surprises during her term.

    Friday, April 08, 2022

    Justice is Served

    Juli Mazi
    Last July we noted the arrest of Napa homeopathic doctor Juli A. Mazi for selling fake vaccination cards and "homeoprophylaxis immunization pellets." She has now pleaded guilty.
    Juli Mazi accepted a plea agreement in February and pleaded guilty this week to one count of wire fraud and one count of making false statements related to health care matters, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California...

    Her sentencing is scheduled for July 29. She faces the possibility of up to 20 years in prison for the wire fraud charge and up to 5 years in prison for the false statements charge, as well as a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release for each charge, officials said.
    Given the relaxation of COVID-19 protocols, vaccination cards are rapidly depreciating, both legally and medically (vaccine efficacy diminishes rapidly over time). Juli Mazi will be sentenced one year after arrest, a time when even legitimate vaccination cards will have little value. Justice, though slow, is served.

    Thursday, April 07, 2022

    Math Education Debate Goes as Expected

    A policy debate about whether to teach Algebra in middle school has embroiled Berkeley and Stanford professors on opposite sides. Tweets by the professors and others have escalated into charges of racism and police harassment.

    Background: non-white, non-Asian students have fallen behind in math, and the State has produced a 900(!)-page math framework to foster "educational equity." [bold added]
    Jo Boaler
    Stanford University Professor Jo Boaler has led the effort to rewrite the state’s math framework with a stated focus on students of color and English learners. Her work is now the catalyst for a proposed statewide math framework similar to San Francisco’s, which pushed Algebra 1 to ninth grade.

    But Boaler’s work has drawn ire from those who want algebra as an option for eighth-graders and worry that without it, taking calculus in high school — which selective colleges often expect — becomes difficult...

    Elizabeth Statmore
    That debate boiled over Tuesday after a math teacher at San Francisco’s Lowell High School who opposes Boaler’s approach posted on Twitter a contract that seemed to show the professor made $5,000 an hour to train teachers in the Oxnard school district...

    Yet the contract included not only Boaler’s fees, but her home address — which, Twitter notified the original poster, was a violation of the social media site’s policies. The Lowell teacher, Elizabeth Statmore, said she wasn’t aware the contract included a home address and deleted the posts.
    After Elizabeth Statmore took down her tweet about Jo Boaler's fees, the personalization of the debate could have been defused. Then a Berkeley math professor got involved. (bold added]
    Jelani Nelson
    UC Berkeley Professor Jelani Nelson, who teachers electrical engineering and computer science, however, retweeted one of Statmore’s posts about the contract, criticizing Boaler for “alarmingly lucrative consulting deals.”

    Nelson told The Chronicle Tuesday evening that he didn’t retweet the post that included the address.

    Boaler said after his retweet that she contacted Nelson via email, notifying him that police and lawyers were taking up “the sharing of private details about me on social media.”

    “I was shocked to see that you are taking part in spreading misinformation and harassing me online,” she wrote to him in an email.

    Nelson, who is Black, then posted the email online, accusing Boaler, who is white, of unjustly calling the police on a Black person.

    “A professor just threatened me with police. After BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, Golfcart Gail, and all the memes, we now have Retweet Rachel,” he posted on Twitter. “Public advisory: don’t call the cops on black people for no reason. Black people disagreeing with you on Twitter is not a crime.”
    The people in this debate do upend a few stereotypes. Lowell teacher Elizabeth Statmore calls for more academic rigor, as does Jelani Nelson, despite his being quick to play the race card.

    Nevertheless, it's a very sad commentary on the times that discussions over serious matters seem inevitably to be pulled toward the racial and sexual identity of the speakers, their biases, and motivations (which people who don't know them personally seem easily to ascertain). The accusations are blasted widely on Twitter, then the mob gets involved, resulting in threats to people and property. One can barely recall the substantive arguments.

    After all that sturm und drang, a few changes have been made to the proposed framework:
    After extensive feedback, the framework toned down some of the social justice language that inflamed critics. However, it changed from the current framework to suggest Algebra 1 in middle schools should be a local decision. The state Board of Education is expected to vote on the framework in July.
    When your humble blogger went to school, Algebra in eighth grade was the norm; it was offered in seventh grade to "advanced" students. 55 years later, the educational establishment seems to be saying that Algebra in eighth grade is either too tough or shouldn't be taught for "social justice" reasons. I've long since ceased to be angry at the current state of affairs and am just sad.

    Wednesday, April 06, 2022

    Forgetfulness: Not Just an Elderly Problem

    (Image from Dr. Jenny Brockis)
    We've written about memory issues before. They are most apparent in elderly acquaintances who have dementia and/or Alzheimer's disease. Now they are increasingly manifested in younger people. [bold added]
    Short, temporary instances of forgetfulness—those ‘senior moments’—are happening to more of us more often these days, memory experts say. We’re finding it difficult to recall simple things: names of friends and co-workers we haven’t seen in a while, words that should come easily, even how to perform routine acts that once seemed like second nature.

    We’re living in yet another moment of big change as we return to offices, create new routines and find our footing in yet another new normal. (And don’t forget a scary war in Europe on top of that.) All this change consumes cognitive energy, often much more than we think, neuroscientists say. It’s no wonder we can’t remember what we had for breakfast. Our minds are struggling with transition moments...

    The chronic and cumulative stress of the past two years has taken its toll, too. Research led by Dr. Shields shows that people who have experienced recent life stressors have impaired memory. Stress negatively affects our attention span and sleep, which also impact memory. And chronic stress can damage the brain, causing further memory problems, says Dr. Shields, an assistant professor in the department of psychological science at the University of Arkansas.

    The deluge of information coming at us on multiple channels is cluttering our brains, too. We’re terrible at paying attention, constantly scrolling our phones while we’re doing other things, which neuroscientists say makes it hard to encode memories in the first place. And it can be hard to remember something out of context, such as the name of the co-worker suddenly talking to us in person, rather than on Zoom.

    Then there’s the sameness of our lives during the pandemic. How are we supposed to remember a specific event when each day was exactly the same as every other?

    Memory benefits from novelty,” says Zachariah Reagh, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “When all of our experiences blend together, it’s hard to remember any of them as distinct.”
    Alzheimer's may not be under our control, but our environment mostly is. So turn off the TV, radio, and other distractions while you are focusing on a task, pay attention to the other person while engaging in conversation, and get enough sleep.

    The brain is the most important organ, and compared to the heart, lungs, liver, and stomach we are still at the early stages of learning how to take care of it.

    Tuesday, April 05, 2022

    "The Worst Allergy Year Ever"

    The flowers are nice to look at on daily walks
    but they do mean a higher pollen count.
    Spring is here, the flowers are blooming, and today your humble blogger suffered the worst hay fever attack in years. The reason is due to (what else?) climate change: [bold added]
    When accounting for the expected increase in carbon dioxide concentrations as global temperatures rise, researchers predicted up to a 200% increase in pollen emissions.

    The study found that pollen seasons could start at least 40 days earlier in the spring and last for nearly three weeks longer than the average over the past two decades — potentially affecting people previously untroubled by allergies...

    UCSF allergist and immunologist Eugene Choo said he’s noticed the trend too.

    “We’re seeing patients complaining more and more that this year is the worst allergy year ever, and the next year it becomes the new worst allergy year ever,” he said. “It’s not just a fiction … symptoms are generally getting worse.”
    I popped a couple of Benadryl® tablets and went to bed. I used to prefer other allergy medicines that were less powerful but didn't bring on sleepiness, a side effect of diphenhydramine.

    Now that I'm having trouble getting enough sleep and being productive during the day is no longer a priority(!), Benadryl is the allergy medicine of choice.

    Monday, April 04, 2022

    Fisherman's Wharf: Surprisingly Pleasant

    We only go to Fisherman's Wharf to meet out-of-town visitors, but how long has it been since we have had those? (Answer: four years.)

    Given the pandemic, the lockdown, and the publicity about San Francisco's homelessness, property-crime outbreak, high prices, and filthy streets, our friends and relatives have gone elsewhere. Until tonight.

    The sojourn was surprisingly pleasant.

    Despite the lifting of pandemic restrictions the Wharf was far from "normal"; the streets and sidewalks were the emptiest I had ever seen. And they were very clean; we didn't have to watch where we were stepping.

    A pleasant dinner at Boudin's was followed by a stroll to Ghirardelli Square, where there was only a five-minute wait for a table at the ice cream parlor.

    On the way back to the parking garage we passed by the first and only homeless tent we saw tonight.

    I am sure that the police, like their counterparts in Honolulu, have something to do with keeping the area attractive to tourists. Let's hope that they keep doing it when the crowds come back.

    Sunday, April 03, 2022

    Mergers and Acquisitions

    Good Shepherd Episcopal, Belmont, merged
    We've noted the decline in church membership and the attrition of clergy as recently as February. To arrest the closure of churches, one turnaround specialist suggests that merging is the answer:
    The good news is that there’s a way to save a failing church: a partnership, or merger, with a thriving one. Most often this means a comprehensive relaunch for the struggling congregation—rebranding the church and giving it a new vision, staff, programming, facilities and training.
    with Holy Family Episcopal, Half Moon Bay
    This strategy can work, just as it can in business when a growing enterprise takes over a failing one. But just like in business, thriving churches are as hard to find as unicorns.

    In our Episcopal deanery (a subsection of the diocese), two hundred-year-old churches have had to merge; they lost their parish (financially independent) status and now share the expenses of a vicar. These venerable institutions sit on valuable Bay Area land, and they could survive a long time financially through judicious sale of now-excess property.

    Combining churches is much more common as a tactic to hang on a few more years rather than as a strategy to grow. Starry-eyed seminarians dream about expanding their flock; like freshly-minted MBA's, little did some foresee that they'd become turnaround specialists.

    Saturday, April 02, 2022

    They'll Have to Pry the Stick From My Cold, Dead Hands

    The VW foils thieves who don't use a
    stick. Also, there's no gas in the tank.
    I have been thinking of selling the 1967 VW bug because modern cars are safer and more practical.

    However, the rationale for keeping it, which I wrote about in 2020, has grown stronger:
    A 2016 survey revealed that only 18% of Americans know how to drive a stick...Periodically one hears of a car hijacking that is foiled because the thief can't operate a manual transmission.

    Other advantages of driving an ancient automobile:
    1) no GPS for Big Brother to track;
    2) A terrorist EMP attack would cripple newer cars only;
    3) No biennial smog check.
    The escalating costs of gas and car repairs are added reasons:
    Manual-transmission cars are also easier and cheaper to repair. Although the latest automatic transmissions are more fuel-efficient than older versions, Consumer Reports suggests that manual transmissions can improve gas mileage by 2 to 5 miles a gallon, partly from the decreased weight of the car. The purchase price of a new car often runs $800 to $1,000 lower.
    And for those who are prone to distractions, having to keep both hands and legs occupied focuses the mind:
    Using a manual transmission might even make you a safer driver. A study from the National Institutes for Health found that manual transmissions enhance the attention and driving performance of adolescent males with ADHD. The study concluded that “objectively, participants drive safer in the manual transmission mode.”
    Safer, cheaper, simpler, and the kids can't steal it. Guess I'll hold on to it for a bit longer....

    Friday, April 01, 2022

    No Fooling

    Today's Star Advertiser headline, no fooling:

    Report calls for ‘better, honest’ government [bold added]
    A recently formed commission is recommending passage of 14 bills at the Legislature largely aimed at combating public corruption, improving government transparency and changing fundraising and campaign spending rules.

    The Commission to Increase Standards of Conduct, formed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 17, a week after bribery indictments were brought against two former Hawaii lawmakers, released a preliminary report Thursday focused on legislative reform that can be implemented this year.
    It's easy to ridicule the banality of the headline, but motherhood (a condition of birthing people) and apple pie (too much sugar) are no longer universally praiseworthy.

    So, why not "better" and "honest"? As the wealth, influence, and power of government have grown, those qualities are more elusive than ever.