Friday, June 30, 2023

Beginning to Push Back Against Scammers

Roger Anderson (WSJ)
Scam artists pollute all avenues of communication--telephone, email, text messages, social media...except for the plain old U.S. Postal Service!--and we've posted our frustrations over the years. I'm willing to spend time and money to entrap some of these people, but the authorities can't be bothered. The next best solution is to make the crooks spend a lot of time on a lead that comes up empty.

Roger Anderson of Monrovia, CA has written software that uses artificial intelligence whose objective is to waste the time of telemarketers and scammers.
Anderson takes pleasure in foiling them. He began his war on telemarketers nearly a decade ago, he said, after one called the family’s landline and said a bad word to his son. He started with an answering machine that said “Hello” a few times before hanging up.

Anderson has since rolled out his weapons of mass distraction. He has posted conversations between man and bot, some lasting as long as 15 minutes before the telemarketer hangs up.

The posts are part of Anderson’s own marketing. He has several thousand customers paying $24.99 a year for use of his call-deflection system, called Jolly Roger...

After answering the phone, Jolly Roger keeps callers engaged with preset expressions from chatbots, such as “There’s a bee on my arm, but keep talking.” Chatbots also grunt or say “uh-huh” to keep things going.
This sounds like a terrific invention by a motivated entrepreneur. This year our phone calls have died down, but if they pick up I'll give the product a try. $24.99 per year should buy a lot of emotional enjoyment.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Aloha to Affirmative Action

Pre-1995 California's explicit consideration of race would
have admitted a non-white, poor applicant but rejected a
white non-poor applicant of similar achievements. (WSJ video)
Gallons of ink have been spilled (sorry, dear reader, I can't come up with a post-newspaper-age metaphor) over the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action earlier today.

In Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard Ccllege
The Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to consider race in university admissions, eliminating the principal tool the nation’s most selective schools have used to diversify their campuses.

Thursday’s 6-3 decision will force a reworking of admissions criteria throughout American higher education, where for decades the pursuit of diversity has been an article of faith.
A few personal comments:

1) Growing up in melting-pot Hawaii, I hadn't heard the term "affirmative action" until I came to the Mainland.

2) I'm so old that Asian-Americans were viewed as an "underprivileged minority" when I went to college in the 1970's. I could be the beneficiary of affirmative-action policies that began in the late 1960's. (In my defense both my grades and board scores were at least as high as my white roommates'.)

3) I always wondered whether the existence of affirmative action tainted the credibility of Asians' or any other minority individuals' accomplishments. I was happy that Asian-Americans stopped being the beneficiaries of affirmative action, if they ever were, and were evaluated on their own merits by the late 1980's in the Bay Area.

4) I am all in favor of giving special consideration to students who grew up in difficult economic, family, and social environments. And one would have to be blind not to see that black and Hispanic students fall disproportionately into that category. Helping everyone in those circumstances regardless of race, IMHO, is the right policy.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

"Real Estate is Local" Beats Overall Market Trends

Zillow: these Honolulu fixer-uppers are at least $1 million
The WSJ real estate section declares, Nobody Wants to Buy a Fixer-Upper Right Now [bold added]
Real-estate agents say buyers right now seem in no mood to take on the additional costs and headaches of major renovation projects... It is one reason sellers are receiving an average of three offers now, compared with around six a year ago, according to the National Association of Realtors.

The drop in demand for unrenovated homes is mostly driven by high mortgage rates, buyers and their agents said. Fixer-uppers are always a risky proposition for buyers, but now they are more costly as the rates for home loans and construction loans have both increased, on top of high property prices.

This push higher in rates has widened the gap in sale time between turnkey and non-renovated properties, say agents. For sellers, this means a home in need of repair often sits on the market longer unless they attempt to do more work before listing....

Anything that sits on the market for more than a month is usually either overpriced or in need of significant repairs or updates, said Taylor Marr, Redfin’s deputy chief economist. Homes stay on the market for a median of 27 days, up from 19 days a year ago, according to Redfin.

“Most home buyers right now simply don’t have enough money left over to invest in major repairs or remodeling,” said Marr.
We foresaw the drop in demand when we ran the numbers 12 months ago. The overwhelming majority of home buyers must use a mortgage to finance part of their purchase price, and the main factor behind the drop in home prices is the doubling in mortgage rates.

Repair costs are usually paid from the buyer's cash reserves, because the original mortgagor won't lend on a future uptick in value. If the buyer is fortunate to obtain a home improvement loan, that rate is likely higher than the mortgage rate and in any event the loan must be repaid quickly. That's why, in general, prices are dropping more on old homes in need of repair than on homes in general.

That said, we are personally aware of at least four fixer-uppers in Hawaii. All the homes require repairs to such an extent where two may be torn down. Yet demand remains strong and prices on these old homes seem to be at or above 2021 levels, when interest rates were much lower.

When deciding what to do with a specific property, be aware of what's going on nationally but it's more important to remember that all real estate is local.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

No Cruises on the Horizon

During the 1970's we went on our first and only cruise, a trip along the "Mexican Riviera." Starting in Acapulco, the ship made its way north, stopping at port cities until it reached Los Angeles.

I immediately grasped cruising's appeal. Travelers didn't have to pack their suitcases every night to make next morning's bus or train; the floating hotel would move to the next destination while they were sleeping. At one's leisure one could disembark and see the city, or stay onboard if so inclined. Ocean cruises were something we would want to do when we retired.

During the 1990's there were outbreaks of legionnaires' disease on cruise ships. Diseases spread quickly in close quarters.

Now that we're retired we're leafing through the brochures. However, health and safety risks still appear to be as significant as they were three decades ago. Headline:

The Viking Neptune outbreak originated in Iceland
Stomach Virus Spreads Through Cruise Ships at Fastest Pace in Years
So far this year, there have been 13 outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships, according to reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That marks the largest number of norovirus incidents on these vessels in a single year since 2012—and the year is only halfway over.

The most recent outbreak occurred on a North Atlantic Viking Cruises sailing that docked in New Jersey on June 20. More than 100 passengers fell ill, according to the CDC, accounting for 13% of all vacationers on the ship. Crew members also contracted the gastrointestinal illness.
We'll still travel by ship when it's clearly the best option--for example, Alaska--but for right now there are no cruises on the horizon.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Don't Try to Catch a Falling City

Chronicle illustration of San Francisco's "doom loop"
San Francisco's deterioration as a premiere American city has attracted national attention.

The Chronicle says the persistent negativism has made San Francisco seem worse than it really is.
San Francisco is a dystopian hellscape overrun by armed criminals and fentanyl addicts, its streets teeming with human waste, its buildings crumbling before our eyes.

That’s the situation according to recent stories in major media outlets from CNN to Good Morning America, from the Financial Times to Newsweek, along with legions of posters on TikTok, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and perennial S.F. haters like Fox News, the New York Post and, of course, Elon Musk. Presidential candidates Ron DeSantis and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. also chimed in last week.
Of course, people who live in San Francisco don't have their houses or cars broken into every day, nor is there a homeless drug addict camped in front of every house. But it happens to enough residents and businesses that they're packing up and leaving, even at great cost.

Just ask Nordstrom how much it is writing off on leasehold improvements and how many lease payments it is still on the hook for in the heart of San Francisco. Just ask Nordstrom's landlord, Westfield Centre, how many millions of dollars of equity it is abandoning by turning the building over to the lenders.

The Chronicle news department itself, to its credit, doesn't try to put a positive spin on San Francisco's problems. It has run dozens of stories on homelessness, rampant shoplifting, home and car burglaries, open-air drug use, and police inaction and defunding. Last year the Chronicle reported that 8% of San Francisco residents plan to move to a different city in the next twelve months, a higher percentage than any other American city.

Frankly, I think the coverage is about right. There's no indication that San Francisco has hit bottom.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Following His Dreams

My sophomore English teacher was enamored with Simon & Garfunkel's 1965 hit, The Sound of Silence, and spent weeks on it in class. We pored over the lyrics, packed with religious and hallucinatory imagery, trying to make sense of them. The opening lines are straightforward, the later verses less so.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence.

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
No one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

"Fools" said I, "You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you"
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, "The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence"

58 years later Paul Simon is still writing songs about life, death, God, and meaning. The source of his inspiration is perhaps unsurprising.
CBS Sunday Morning Interviewer: His latest solo album, Seven Psalms, was recorded in his cabin studio. The title came to him in a dream.

Paul Simon: The dream said that you are working on a piece called "Seven Psalms."

Interviewer: He got up and wrote it down on a legal pad.

Interviewer: When something as vivid as that happens, what do you make of it?

Paul Simon: Since it came to me in a dream with someone or something's telling me to do this, I said it's not my idea anyway so I'll just wait to this clarification on what I'm supposed to do.

Interviewer: Did you get clarification?

Paul Simon: Yeah, it did come as guitar pieces.

Interviewer: The words would come later, again in dreams.

Paul Simon: I would start to wake up two or three times a week between 3:30 and 5 in the morning, and words would come. I would write them down and start putting them together.
Paul Simon goes on to say that his best work, The Sound of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water, came from dreams.

In another time he might have been called a prophet with a pipeline to the divine, except that no prophet had his gift for music.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Don't Burn Yourself

(WSJ illustration)
The word "toast" conjures pleasant images. A slice of buttered toast can be the perfect start to the day, and raising a glass in a toast fills the room with conviviality.

Bill Murray coined a third definition in the 1984 movie Ghostbusters when his character Peter Venkman declared, "This chick is toast" then blasted the demon with his proton pack.

That use of toast seemed to fill a need for a word signifying death and destruction but with a less ominous tone. It immediately caught on:
The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes Murray’s ad-lib as the earliest known occurrence of “toast” with the modern meaning, calling the usage “proleptic.” Prolepsis is a figure of speech in which a future state is represented as already occurring, so “You’re toast” joined other proleptic expressions like “You’re dead” or “You’re history.”
Your humble blogger doesn't use the term because future states sometimes don't materialize. A sage who says "Putin is toast" or "San Francisco is toast" may very well end up looking stupid. Why confirm what people are thinking if you don't have to?.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Careful How You Say That

I appreciate the effort to make legalese comprehensible to non-lawyers, but sometimes colloquial language can go too far.

Yes, risks pretty much suck after events prove them real, but in this case more legalese would have been helpful.

On the other hand, maybe the City attorney should just get a better proofreader.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

You Know That You've Been Going to Costco Too Often When

1) You have one item on your shopping list;

2) It's the first day new items are put on sale from June 21 to July 23;

3) You walk around for 45 minutes looking for something to buy;

4) You leave with only that one item.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future

Swedish then-teenager Greta Thunberg didn't do the anti-fossil-fuel movement any favors when she made the fantastical prediction in 2018 that the world would end in five years.

Most thinking adults, regardless of their position on global warming, knew that her declaration was similar to that of doomsday cultists who regularly make such predictions and demolish their own credibility.

Your humble blogger doesn't mock her for her statements--who doesn't do or say outlandish things as a teenager?--but I do blame adults for exploiting her for their own purposes. WSJ: [bold added]
Thunberg rose to international fame in 2018 when she began her school strikes outside the Swedish Parliament at the age of 15. Thunberg demonstrated every day for three weeks with a small group of students. Then she decided to hold the demonstrations on Fridays, dubbing the event Fridays for Future. She took a year off from school starting in 2019 to focus on her climate activism...

She made a name for herself with her blunt criticism of world leaders, saying they aren’t doing enough to address climate change. Time magazine named Thunberg Person of the Year in 2019, which was criticized by then-U.S. President Donald Trump. She led 25,000 climate protesters in 2021 at the COP26 United Nations climate summit, calling for a more rapid and robust response to curb growing carbon emissions.
Greta Thunberg as a pre-teen "was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), and selective mutism" (Wikipedia). She "struggled with depression for almost four years" and came out of it when she became a climate activist. She took time off from high school and graduated this month at the age of 20, two years behind her peers.

My sense is that she is not regarded positively even by people on her own side. (If she were, wind, solar, and other green-power companies would hire her for ad campaigns.) I hope she finds balance and happiness after the fever passes and people stop returning her calls.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Elemental Thoughts

Last Saturday's water shutdown in our neighborhood caused us to repair to the Hillsdale shopping center.

Unlike the emptying Westfield in San Francisco, Hillsdale is one of the Bay Area suburban malls that is experiencing growth and attracting investment.

The mall is safe enough that parents are comfortable bringing their children. (San Mateo County has a homeless population of about 1,000, and the City and County have improved security recently.) Disney set up a colorful display next to Macy's to advertise the new animated film Elemental.

The film on the whole has garnered moderately favorable reviews (WSJ: "marvelous imagery"; SF Chronicle: "absolutely gorgeous rendering of a half-baked idea").

Good special effects, plus a new, creative world of "elemental" tribes: that's enough to make me want to check it out on the Disney+ streaming service when it arrives, perhaps in September.

Postscript: I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the movie when I was a kid. I liked to keep reality, e.g., real science, separate from fantasy, e.g., cartoons and fairy tales. When I learned that Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, declared the basic elements to be fire, air, water, and earth, this fourth grader thought that was pretty dumb. Today I would be kinder--some of the greatest fiction has been spun from premises that are entirely false.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Juneteenth 2023

From the papers of Harlem poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Beinecke Library:
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Now that Juneteenth is a Federal holiday, let's all of us just celebrate it and forget about the political calculations behind it.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Father's Day, 2023

Napa, 2007: father and son
Mom called me on FaceTime yesterday. We asked each other about how our day is going, what we've had for lunch, and what the weather was like in Hawaii and California. Small talk is normally deplored; however, in our case there was no important information to be conveyed or decision to be made, we mainly wanted to hear each other's voice.

As usual, something reminded us of Dad. I told Mom about the takeout barbecue I had ordered last night, and the conversation turned to how Dad would spend all day smoking a side of beef or pork in the backyard. He became quite expert at wood-smoking for large group gatherings; for years he was in charge of food prep at the Honolulu Shriners' Club.

Dad passed away nearly four years ago, and I think of him every day if only for a moment. On this Father's Day may we cherish the memories of our fathers, living or not, because it all goes so quickly.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

This Could be the Giants' Year

The Giants lead the Dodgers 7-5 in the bottom of the 11th inning, make two defensive errors on the same play, and look like they're about to blow another lead as they did in the 9th inning. But as Yogi might have observed, the Fat Lady hasn't sung yet.

Chased Away

At 10 a.m. yesterday the water pressure in the house dropped to zero. I looked out the window. A couple of utility trucks were in the street.

Presumably the interruption was going to be brief, else the workers would have knocked on the affected homes' doors and informed everyone. One could also infer from the absence of signs that the shut-off was unplanned.

After an hour with no water I walked across the street. The homeowner explained that his plumber had damaged the line to the neighborhood, and the City had to close the valve while contractors fixed the leak. Maybe another hour, he said.

Not wishing to wait around, especially if nature called, we left an hour early for the appointment at the Apple Store to fix an Apple Watch.

Any irritation I felt evaporated. I felt sorry for our neighbor, who may be on the hook for the street repair costs, not to mention a plumbing job gone wrong. I felt grateful to live in a City that could respond so quickly to a utilities emergency. And I appreciated living close to safe shopping malls, work-out clubs, and restaurants where we could pass the hours. When we got back in the afternoon the water was back on, and the men were still working in the street.

San Francisco is only 20 miles north, but it seems much farther away.

Friday, June 16, 2023

New Traffic Lights

In March we had lamented how the neighborhood had been greatly inconvenienced by an intersection that had been torn up since the beginning of the year.

This week the work was completed, and the new traffic lights were turned on. It did take nearly six months (cue jokes about public works projects), but I must admit that the new lights are big, bright and technologically advanced.

Last year we only had a stop sign; now three stop lights face each direction, and there are two left turn lights on the main boulevard. Based on a couple days of observations, the intersection feels safer especially for pedestrians, and driving speed doesn't seem to have been sacrificed.

Traffic patterns have already changed. For some routes it's advantageous to avoid the lights, for others efficiency dictates that one should seek out the intersection.

All in all, thumbs up.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Evergreen Headline

"Water Rates are Going up Again."

With apologies to the U.S. Post Office, "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these water rates from swiftly increasing on customers' bimonthly bills."

Nothing customers do will prevent the increases. When we let our lawns die due to the drought, the fixed sewer charges (imposed even if one doesn't use any water) rose to $100 per month. Now that water is plentiful from the winter rains, the rates are still going up.

The reason is "due to projected increases in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) wholesale water rates and to provide necessary revenue for the maintenance, operation, and capital costs associated with the water distribution enterprise over a five-year term."

Economics 101 teaches that public utilities are often monopolies, can impose whatever prices they want, and therefore need to be regulated. "Regulatory capture" commonly occurs, and the regulatory agency usually rubber-stamps price increases.

That's why our water rates always go up, no matter how much or how little rain we get.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Flag Day

Outside City Hall (2021 photo)
The egalitarianism of the age frowns upon hierarchies, but as Jordan Peterson points out, hierarchical structure is not only intrinsic to human society, it's embedded in animal DNA. It was part of life long before humans walked the earth.

On the flagpole the relationships are clear. At the top is the U.S. flag, and just below it, albeit tangled, is the flag of the State of California. On the next level down is the flag of Foster City and the Rainbow Flag in honor of Pride Month.

Flags are just pieces of colored cloth, yet men have fought and died for them. Whether one stands or kneels before flags can inspire or enrage multitudes, depending on the context.

On Flag Day in our town there were no crowds or marching bands; nevertheless, there were a few of us who stopped by the flags and paused for a moment of reflection before going about our business.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Guacamole in my Future

Organic produce (blueberries, bananas, tomatoes, etc.) costs a few dollars more than the non-organic version at Costco.

However, a few days ago a bag of six organic avocados was going for $4.50, while the regular bag of six was $5.99. What was the catch (Costco never makes a pricing mistake)?

Simply squeezing the fruit yielded the answer. The organic avocados were soft and ripe--to be clear, not over-ripe or damaged--and Costco had to get rid of the inventory.

Although only one bag of six was on the shopping list, I bought two and congratulated myself on all the money I was saving.

Monday, June 12, 2023

San Mateo County Fair: Farm Animal Display

To those who are unfamiliar with San Mateo County one of the surprises may have been the display of farm animals at the Fair. The County is home to some of the wealthiest towns in California, and tech companies have a large footprint. But the land hasn't been entirely paved over.

There are still ranches along the coast south of Half Moon Bay. The Santa Cruz mountains have been a barrier to development, as environmental objections have stymied speedy transit from Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Animal husbandry will be around years longer, and so will the farm animal display at the San Mateo County Fair.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Religion - Health Connection

(WSJ illustration)
Despite the commonly held belief that religiosity is connected with good health, the causation arrow has been difficult to prove. Northeastern Professor of Psychology David DeSteno describes the current state of the research .
In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, using data from over 70,000 women who were part of the Nurses’ Health Study from 1992 to 2012, [Harvard epidemiologist Tyler] VanderWeele and colleagues found that those who attended religious services at least once a week had 33% lower mortality, from any cause, over a 16-year period. In particular, deaths due to cancer or cardiovascular disease were 75% the rate among non-attenders. While religion-associated reductions in smoking and increases in social support explained some of the benefit, the data suggested that religion worked through other, as yet unexplained, avenues too.

VanderWeele’s team found a similar benefit when it came to suicide risk. Among the nurses, attending services at least once a week or more cut the suicide rate by 80%, even when controlling for diagnoses of depression, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Researchers asked detailed questions to isolate the effect of social support from that of religious activity and found that while social connection did have a positive effect, it didn’t completely explain the benefits religion offered.

Using data from other large-scale, longitudinal studies, VanderWeele found that religiosity improves mental health. Attending services at least weekly or meditating regularly reduces feelings of depression and increases feelings of life satisfaction and purpose, even among adolescents. The health benefits are greater for those who attend services once a week or more than for those who only attend intermittently.
The aforementioned studies show that religion and health are positively correlated, but it's not clear that religion itself, as opposed to its attributes, is the key ingredient. After all, atheists can engage in healthy social interactions, lay off cigarettes, and meditate, all behaviors that have been shown to improve health.

Prof. DeSteno says that there is an additional "unexplained" health benefit that he doesn't quantify here. I guess we will have to take his claim on faith.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

San Mateo County Fair: Senior Showcase

The Senior Showcase was one of the busiest exhibits at the San Mateo County Fair. Businesses and government agencies answered questions about assisted living, Medicare and senior health insurance, reverse mortgages, medical equipment, and veterans benefits.

The themes of disability and decrepitude were covered thoroughly, as was the Big "D" by the presence of cemeteries and funeral homes.

I've never noticed an exhibit like this at a fair, probably because I wasn't looking for it. The merry-go-round and Ferris wheel period of my life went by too quickly.

Friday, June 09, 2023

San Mateo County Fair: Giant Turkey Legs

Colorful signs made me buy it
At the San Mateo County Fair the dining offerings were nothing special (hamburgers, tacos, etc.) as well as overpriced.

A surfeit of sugary options--candied apples, cotton candy, sugar-covered fennel cakes, caramel popcorn--tempted, but they were verboten to those who have to watch their sugar intake.

Then I saw the signs for Giant Turkey Legs. They fit the bill: low carb, high protein, not commonly served in nearby restaurants, and, most importantly, I happen to like turkey.

I asked the heavy-set lady, How much is a turkey leg?

"Twenty dollars."

Does anything come with it? I thought it was a sensible question ($20 for just a drumstick?).

Surprised at such a ridiculous question, she answered with a stare. Hey, don't you know it's not polite to treat a customer this way?

I don't like getting ripped off, but I also have regrets about not trying something different when given the opportunity. I handed over two sawbucks, and she wrapped the drumstick in foil and inserted same into a paper bag.

Later that afternoon I unwrapped the turkey leg. There was a smoky flavor throughout. Although the surface layers were dry, the insides were moist. It was a pleasant surprise, but at that price I wouldn't go out of my way to buy it again.

Thursday, June 08, 2023

San Mateo County Fair: Grandma's Plymouth

On Thursday the $20 admission fee ($18 if purchased online) was waived for adults over 62. That was a deal impossible to pass up, and so it was that I found myself at the San Mateo County Fair.

In the vintage-auto exhibit was a car from my childhood, a 1950 Plymouth. This one had enhancements my grandmother never had, most notably an embellished hood, but it looked like the same black car.

I checked the interior to make sure. There was the shifter that extended from the right side of the steering column, and there was the front bench seat. Grandmother would let me stand (I know, horrors) next to her as she backed the Plymouth out of the driveway. She would press in the clutch, and I would pull the handle down into first gear. Yes, thought this 4-year-old, I am driving.

Manual transmissions are rare enough today, but manufacturers no longer make steering-column-shifters at all. They were developed to accommodate front benches, which have also gone the way of the dodo bird.

As have little boys who stand next to their grandmother, "helping" her shift the gears.

Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Apple Savings: Easy to Put In, Hard to Take Out

Set up took two minutes
Six weeks ago I opened an Apple Savings account to earn the highly attractive 4.15% interest rate. The major banks now offer CD's in that range, but Apple Savings still has an advantage because the account holder can withdraw the funds instantly, or so I thought:
Some customers say it has been hard to get their money out.

Nathan Thacker, who lives outside Atlanta, had been trying to transfer $1,700 from his Apple account to JPMorgan Chase since May 15. Each time he called Goldman’s customer service department, he said, he was told to give it a few more days.

The money arrived in his Chase account Thursday morning, he said, after The Wall Street Journal contacted Goldman about his and other customers’ experiences.

Others said they also had trouble transferring money from their new Apple accounts. Customer service representatives at Goldman, which holds the deposits, sometimes gave differing responses about what to do, they said. Sometimes, their money appeared to have simply vanished, not showing up in their Apple account or in the account they were trying to move it to.
Unnerved by the Journal's June 1st article, I immediately ordered a $100 withdrawal to be sent to my bank account. The credit appeared on June 2nd, a 1-day delay that I find perfectly acceptable.

The article goes on to state that withdrawals can be delayed if there are certain "red flags": [bold added]
On brand-new accounts, like Apple’s, transfers that make up a large share of the overall balance can trigger anti–money-laundering alerts or other security concerns that require additional review, according to people in the AML field. Those delays usually last five or so days, they said.

It can also be a red flag when a customer tries to transfer a large amount of money from a newly opened savings account into an account that is different from the one where the money originally came from.
The above precautions sound reasonable, but Nathan Thacker was only trying to transfer $1,700, a small transaction in banking circles.

Although one deposit and one withdrawal went smoothly, I'm going to wait until next year before putting any more funds in Apple Savings.

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Bay Area Water Outlook: Underground Storage to the Rescue

Recharge ponds in Campbell (Mercury photo)
We've written before how the replenishment of underground aquifers is a relatively low-cost alternative solution to California's failure to build more reservoirs.

It may take years for the Central Valley to recover, but there is good news already about groundwater levels in the Bay Area. [bold added]
Groundwater provides 40% of the water supply for 2 million people in Santa Clara County. Following more than a dozen major atmospheric river storms this winter, the main water table in the county has risen 35 feet since last June — and is up 51 feet since the most extreme part of the drought in September 2021 — returning to pre-drought levels. The county’s main groundwater basin is now about 90% full.

...Readings taken two weeks ago show that groundwater is just 64 feet below the surface at the district’s main monitoring well in San Jose near the corner of Hamilton and Leigh avenues. That’s the highest level ever recorded since readings began there in 1936.

Similar rebounds have occurred in wells in Sunnyvale, Milpitas and Morgan Hill, where the main index well came up 50 feet since September of 2021 and is now at its highest level in five years.

A similar trend has unfolded at the Alameda County Water District, which provides water to 345,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City.

There, the water table has risen 13 feet since Dec. 31 at the Niles Cone Groundwater Basin, which provides 40% of the district’s supplies.
On a State-wide level recovery is less robust:
But some clues are emerging. Of 3,400 wells monitored by the State Department of Water Resources where measurements were taken this spring, 35% showed groundwater increases of at least 5 feet — however, 59% showed no change and 6% showed a decrease when compared with levels a year ago.
Regardless, California's water outlook is much better than it was a year ago.

This year's reprieve should not cause reservoir construction to slow, but historical performance would not make that a safe bet.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Apple Introduces the Vision Pro

Apple introduced its Vision Pro headset today:
Apple said the device, which will sell for $3,499 and won’t be available until early next year, would be a new way to interact with digital content in the physical space using the user’s hands, eyes and voice to interact with apps.

Users can control the device with their hands and experience movies, TV shows and games in a more immersive way. [CEO Tim] Cook called it a new “spatial computing” platform...

The Vision Pro can project a massive movie screen into any environment for a user, as well as capture or play three-dimensional video, making it possible for a user to watch a movie on a giant screen or interact with life-size personal photos or videos projected into their living environment.
The $3,499 price will be a barrier to mass adoption. However, thousands of people in the Bay Area alone have room in their budget to buy one. The question is whether the Vision Pro has enough unique and valuable features to cause these buyers to pull the trigger.

WSJ tech reporter Joanna Stern tried it on:
During my 30-minute demo, it weighed down on my nose and made me a bit nauseous. (Apple says these will get better by the time it ships early next year.) But wow…the interface and hand gestures are intuitive, 3-D movies are finally making sense and it really felt like a huge dinosaur broke through a wall right in front of me...

The Vision Pro is different from any other headset I’ve tried because of how easy it is to toggle between seeing the real world and the digital world. An Apple Watch-like Digital Crown on the right brow allows you to control the immersion: To go more virtual, you scroll in one direction; to see more reality, you scroll in the other...

Apple is differentiating itself with an experience that is fully grounded in reality. This is not virtual reality where you escape your surroundings. Instead, it’s all about bringing the digital world to your real world. What Apple calls “spatial computing.”
Like curious others I'll hie me down to the local Apple Store when the demo is available. If the experience is as immersive as some reviewers claim, and if they catch me in a weak moment, who knows what I might do?

Sunday, June 04, 2023

Creation Story

Today it was my turn to do the Old Testament reading. It was the Creation story, i.e. the entire first chapter of Genesis plus three verses of the second. It's a lengthy passage, and familiar to most churchgoers.

Later, I took another look at 1:27:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
I wonder how long that passage will remain intact.

We have previously observed how Progressive ideology is entering the Episcopal Church through language revisions that no one has bothered to explain to the great unwashed.

Substituting genderless language (e.g. "humankind" for "mankind") is probably acceptable to most, but the Church will lose many followers if the new theology embraces the idea that there are more genders than male and female and if it doesn't explain why the change is right and necessary.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Inheriting a Parent's House: Not a Hallmark movie

It's the plot of a dozen Hallmark movies. A small-town girl (the character is usually female) who moved to the big city years ago returns to dispose of the home she inherited from a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle.

During the process of putting the property up for sale she meets her high-school sweetheart who is single, divorced, or widowed, and she falls in love with him again. She also missed the small town friendliness more than she realized; the big-city partnership or corporate vice presidency she had been pursuing would not have been fulfilling. In the end she keeps the family home and moves back to the small town to form a family with her former lover.

(WSJ illustration)
But life isn't a Hallmark movie. Inherited homes are usually sold. [bold added]
One of the first things many people do when they inherit their parents’ home these days is put up a for-sale sign.

Deciding what to do with a family property is often both an emotional and financial decision, but the rising costs of renovations, property taxes and utilities are making it harder for adult children to hold on to the real estate, financial advisers say. Higher home prices and mortgage rates have often also made it impractical for heirs to buy out their siblings, said Dick Stoner, a Realtor in Rockville, Md.

The high home prices of the past few years have made the decision to sell even more attractive. If inheritors can unload a house in a hot location for a high price, the proceeds from the home’s sale can help secure their finances and fund goals such as retirement, advisers say.
Older heirs are probably comfortably situated and are unlikely to want to move to a half-century-old homestead in need of a lot of expensive repairs. Also, middle-class estates tend to be house-rich and cash-poor, so whichever sibling wants to keep the house will likely have to sell his existing home to buy out his brothers and sisters and fix the place. That's a real commitment to sentiment, and unrealistic like a Hallmark movie.

Friday, June 02, 2023

Now It’s Insurance’s Turn

Ever since we became homeowners over 40 years ago we've bought earthquake insurance. Lately the premium on our 4BR house has approached $3,000, and that's with a deductible of around $200,000. In all those years we've never made a claim.

The earthquake premium is 50% higher than a regular homeowners policy, and one would think that insurance companies would be happy to write the business. One would be wrong.

Last month we received notice (right) that our provider won't renew the earthquake policy, so we'll have to start looking.

We should count ourselves lucky that we do have homeowners coverage through July, 2024. Insurance giants Allstate and State Farm have stopped taking new customers.
It was not immediately clear what prompted Allstate’s pullback on new policies. But State Farm, the largest provider of property and casualty insurance in California, made waves in late May by announcing it would stop issuing new homeowner policies in the state due to inflation, wildfires and rising reinsurance costs.
The WSJ blames California regulators for the dwindling number of suppliers:
The nation’s top property and casualty insurer on Friday said it won’t accept new applications for homeowners insurance, citing “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market.”

In other words, State Farm can’t accurately price risk and increase its rates to cover ballooning liabilities. Other property and casualty insurers, including AIG and Chubb, have also been shrinking their California footprint after years of catastrophic wildfires, which are becoming more common owing to drought and decades of poor forest management.

Wildfires in 2017 and 2018 wiped out two times the underwriting profits that insurers had accrued over the prior 26 years. Yet state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara won’t let insurers raise premiums to account for increasing wildfire risks.
Only California can make insurance companies sympathetic.

Thursday, June 01, 2023

I Got the Jab Anyway

Three years after the government locked down everything, fear of the coronavirus has largely dissipated. Outside of hospitals and doctors' offices few people wear masks.

While mRNA vaccines appear to provide some benefit, their protection against COVID-19 isn't foolproof. Also, scientists and government officials now confirm that there can be side effects, including myocarditis and pericarditis.

Despite the apparent lessening of the COVID-19 danger, and the now-documented potential side effects of the vaccine, I got the jab anyway.

We'll be traveling next month to visit family in Hawaii, and I don't want it on my conscience should an elderly person get sick.

And yes, I'll wear a mask, too.