Thursday, November 30, 2023

Less Bad--Don't Call it Better--Than Before

Unusual sight this week: no tents at Larkin & Eddy (Chron)
San Francisco cleaned up its streets for the Dreamforce conference in September and APEC in November. How quickly would homeless encampments come back? The consensus seems to be not quickly and not as extensively.
So far, the diminished homeless presence in and around what was the cordoned-off APEC zone in the South of Market area appears to be holding. Even in the Tenderloin, street conditions seemed to be a bit better than usual on a recent morning, though some local leaders said they were seeing signs that the pre-APEC status quo is returning to their neighborhood, which has long struggled to address open-air drug markets and homelessness.

...the areas radiating from the edges of the zone, particularly in the Tenderloin past Market Street and SoMa west of Fifth Street, seemed to only moderately be back to pre-APEC levels.

There were fewer tents than normal except at perennial cluster points such as Willow Street and along parts of Ellis and Eddy streets. Unhoused people throughout the Tenderloin and SoMa said city street cleaning and police patrols were maintaining what they thought was stepped-up pressure in the past month.
Plaudits to Mayor Breed and the City for making San Francisco less dystopian. However, long-lasting solutions won't be effected if the homeless and their advocates continue to hold this viewpoint: [bold added]
“I’ve already had a couple of ambassador types tell me to move and I tell them to get lost,” Billy Saccorccio, 41, said as he panhandled on Powell Street in front of the Walgreens near the cable car turnaround at 10:30 a.m. “I get it — they want us gone. They need things clear for the tourists. Do I want to live like this? F—, no. You want us gone, give us somewhere to live, bro.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Henry Kissinger (1923-2023)

Henry Kissinger dated glamorous
celebrities like Jill St. John (NY Post)
When there were only three channels on TV, when every city had two newspapers, when print magazines (Time, Newsweek, U.S. News, Life, Look, etc.) each had millions of subscribers, Henry Kissinger headlined all of them. He was the rock star of the Nixon Administration long before "rock star" became a term of approbation in fields other than music.

Henry Kissinger's Harvard professorship lent an aura of intellectual respectability to Nixon's foreign policy, defusing some of the critics' attacks. His "shuttle diplomacy" brokered the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, peace between Israel and Egypt during the Yom Kippur war, and the historic opening of ties with Mao Tse-Tung's China.

It only added to his stature when he dated some of the most glamorous women in the world.

Henry Kissinger has his detractors from the left (bombing of Cambodia) and the right (detente with the Soviet Union). Nevertheless, it is clear that much of today's geopolitical landscape is the result of actions he took 50 years ago. R.I.P.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Advantage of Being a Night Owl

The nocturnal sturgeon survived, while the
dinosaurs did not (NYNHP image)
Evolutionary biologists, by using computer modeling, genetics, and datasets that weren't available until recently, theorize that nocturnal behavior helped species avoid extinction.
Researchers already knew that many nocturnal mammals survived the mass extinction that followed an asteroid strike 66 million years ago, whereas the dinosaurs, which were largely diurnal, did not (except for birds). The new study extends that pattern to other catastrophes and other species, including aquatic ones.
But how did researchers know that species that lived millions of years ago were nocturnal (fossils provide very little information)?
Maxwell Shafer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Toronto, and his colleagues at the University of Basel focused on living fish, which represent half of all vertebrates. They combed the literature to determine the day-night behaviors of almost 4000 bony fish species and 135 cartilaginous ones, such as sharks, and plotted these behaviors on a fish tree of life. Then they carried out many computer simulations of possible day-night activity patterns in the ancestors of modern fish, until they came across the one that best reproduced the day-night patterns of today’s species.
The nocturnal "advantage" may also apply to mammals:
Previous studies had suggested early mammals were nocturnal to avoid dinosaurs. After those predators disappeared, mammals switched to being active during the day. Amphibians and other land vertebrates also tended to be nocturnal throughout much of their evolution, according to other studies, but more and more have become diurnal. Shafer’s team proposes that for all vertebrates, nocturnality was a survival advantage during catastrophes.
Our family is a mixture of night owls and early birds. It's comforting to know that some of us have an improved shot at surviving an extinction-level event.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Two Ex-es Can Live as Cheaply as One

(Image from Freepik)
High housing costs have forced some divorcing couples to continue to live together:
Behind the uneasy arrangement is the housing market. Mortgage rates are over 7% and average home prices have hit record highs. This means more couples can’t afford to leave their home with its less than 3% mortgage interest rates and set up two different households.

Renting isn’t always an option either given that rents have risen more than 9% over the last two years.

Estranged couples stuck together are trying to create boundaries. Husband on the second floor. Wife on the first. They assign his and her cupboards in the kitchen, schedule laundry time and text whereabouts as needed. One woman locks her bedroom door and keeps her supply of batteries and toilet paper in her closet.

Many don’t tell colleagues about the set up because it seems unthinkable or they are embarrassed. They try to maintain civility for the kids and hold tight until they can afford to buy, rent and furnish two homes.
Couples used to remain together because of the social stigma of divorce.

Today the norm is to move out, "move on," and cut ties as quickly as possible.

If the couple still lives under the me roof, their acquaintances may correctly surmise that they don't have the funds to split up.

The new morality: failure in a marriage is no longer embarrassing, but it is shameful if one doesn't have the money to move out. The world has changed, not necessarily for the better.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Gratitude Weekend

It was the day of turkey reckoning. As we had noted previously, turkey was not on the menu for Thursday. However, the ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving meal had been sitting in the refrigerator for nearly a week. Roasting the bird had been deferred, not cancelled.

And so it was that the turkey entered the oven at 8 a.m. It was cooked at 225 degrees Fahrenheit and required minimal oversight. We had dinner at 7.

There was no need to say again our gratitude for the big things that we were thankful for. Today, the end of gratitude weekend, we just gave thanks for the turkey (and gravy and stuffing and cranberry sauce and...) and the company gathered 'round.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Stonestown: Turning the Corner

The parking lot was filled, but Stonestown
wasn't crowded on the day after Black Friday
Stonestown Galleria has become a regular stop for us on the way back from appointments on the west side of San Francisco. The mall has very few empty storefronts and has become a hangout for young urban Asians:
Lately, on San Francisco’s west side, where I [reporter Harry Mok] live now, Stonestown Galleria is in a mini-boom, with new stores and restaurants replacing many of those that closed before or didn’t survive the pandemic.

While there will be Christmas decorations and Santa Claus, Black Friday at Stonestown will also have a decidedly Asian vibe, especially the food options.

On a recent visit, I noticed that seven of the 10 restaurants in the food court were Asian, along with a few others around the mall. And, as I was walking around, it dawned on me that nearly everyone there was Asian American.
One sign that retail has turned the corner: we used to go to particular restaurants or stores, but now the Mall itself has become the destination.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Dead Giveaway

We take a break from the busy-ness and stress of Thanksgiving week to admire the handiwork of thieves:
Two people were arrested early Friday morning for allegedly driving a stolen vehicle outfitted with a handwritten license plate, Benicia police said...

A check of the Kia’s vehicle identification number indicated the car had been reported stolen out of Alameda County, according to Benicia Police Lt. Kenneth Hart.

The driver, identified as 38-year-old Angel Rachiene Bolton from San Jose, was arrested for allegedly possessing the stolen vehicle and for allegedly possessing a narcotics pipe located inside the car, Hart said.

The passenger, a 30-year-old man from Alameda whom police did not immediately identify, was also allegedly in possession of a narcotics pipe and was booked for possessing a controlled substance. Hart added that the passenger had three out-of-county warrants out for his arrest.
I wonder what gave the police a hint that something was amiss. It could have been the hand-drawn alphanumeric characters or the lack of colors on the "plate" and the month and year "stickers." For me it would have been the duct tape, the dead giveaway that something is not professionally done.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Thanksgiving, 2023

(WSJ photo)
Like many others, we're not making a turkey today, but this is ridiculous:
[Kimberly Darling] forgoes the familiar turkey in favor of an alligator she traps on one of her many hunting expeditions, then she brines, smokes and wraps it in bacon before serving her guests.

“People walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s a literal alligator. What did we sign up for?’” she says.

But the mild taste and tender texture can’t be beat, adds Darling, a 40-year-old nurse anesthetist who lives near Chicago.
I retract my statement. This is not ridiculous. This is America. What a country.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Remembering That Day

On the 60th anniversary of his assassination, I am rerunning this post I wrote 20 years ago:
Mrs. Matthews calmly told us the news, but her normally severe demeanor seemed strained. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. The class grew quiet. In the face of tragedy we tried to act like adults, who we thought would not cry or shout or otherwise carry on.

After an interminable wait, school finally let out, and kids got into their buses or waiting cars. My ride wouldn’t come for another hour so I wandered around the empty halls. I thought about going to the main office to call Mom, but the phone was only to be used in the direst emergency, like the time I got sick in Mrs. Millar’s fourth grade class and my father had to take off work to pick me up. I borrowed a book from the library and went across the street to wait for my uncle. I opened the book but didn’t see the pages.

These days we say we are “shocked” or “stunned” by an occurrence, when, in truth, our imagination, combined with knowledge of actual horrors experienced over the past 40 years, has inoculated us against surprise. But those reactions are appropriate to this seminal event, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that signaled the end of our childhood.

The entire week was quiet. No one felt like playing football, so games were cancelled. The churches were filled, just as they were a year earlier when we prayed that God would spare the world. It was a week of blackness--black suits, dresses, and veils filling our black-and-white TV sets and newspapers.

In 1960 my parents supported Richard Nixon, and, being an imitative child, so did I. But once JFK was elected, he became the President and had our unswerving allegiance. The world was extremely dangerous. As we learned in geography, Russia had the most land, China had the most people, and these colossi were united against us. And more and more were joining their fold: people in Africa, in South America, even in neighboring Mexico, were burning the flag (I remember when some burned the old flag with 48 stars: didn’t they know that Hawaii and Alaska had become States?). The map of the world that hung on the bedroom wall was bathed in red, the color of communism, while the blue part--the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan—seemed puny in comparison.

At school we would practice ducking under our desks in case the bombs started falling. People say now that these instructions were a big joke, but I didn’t know anyone who laughed. Life and Look magazines ran page after page on the devastation wrought by atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I studied the huge mushroom cloud produced by the thousand-times more powerful hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll. Today children have nightmares about the Twin Towers falling; we worried about towers vaporizing…..everywhere.

President Kennedy also contended with many problems on the Mainland, as we called the contiguous 48 states. (I don’t want to give the impression that in my tender years I was a news junkie: it was primarily to advance my vocabulary that I read the grown-ups’ newspapers, the morning Advertiser and evening Star-Bulletin.) Good news was rare. Powerful labor unions, such as the Teamsters and steelworkers, went on strike and shut down much of the country. Troops had to be sent to Alabama because Governor Wallace wouldn’t let black kids go to school. The powerful Mafia was a big problem on the East Coast, and Robert Kennedy, the callow Attorney General, seemed inadequate to the task. As the Untouchables TV series vividly showed, you needed men with machine guns to take them on, and the President’s younger brother did not have the authoritative air of Elliott Ness.

The troubles came to a head in October, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. The fear in adults was palpable, and I became convinced, after a few days of excruciating tension, that the world was going to be destroyed. Every night I concentrated with special fervor on the final line of the children’s prayer, “if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take”. When the Russian ships turned around, and Mr. Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba, I felt the exultation of the patient who is given a second chance, and President Kennedy was my doctor.

He is remembered for his grace, his wit, and his handsome family. But I remember most of all the contrast between the joyful heights of Thanksgiving, 1962 and the somber depths of Thanksgiving, 1963. He saved us all, and then he was gone.
© 2003 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

If China and the U.S. are Both Against These People, They Must Be bad

As of March: My nine most recent invitations from LinkedIn
We posted about "pig butchering" earlier:
Scammers involved in this practice, which started as early as 2017 in China, create fake profiles on social media sites or dating sites, connect with victims, build virtual and often romantic relationships, and eventually persuade the victims to transfer over their assets. The scammers themselves came up with the name “pig butchering,” comparing the intensive and long-term process of gaining victims’ trust to raising a pig for slaughter.
I have never connected with any of the attractive Asian women who send me invitations on LinkedIn. Nevertheless, I still get 1-2 requests to connect every week. It's annoying.

China, which was suspected of being one of the sources of the scam, has cracked down on pig butchering:
In recent months, China has unleashed its most aggressive effort to crack down on the proliferation of the scam mills, reaching beyond its territory and netting thousands of people in mass arrests. Its main target is a notorious stretch of its border with Myanmar controlled by narcotics traffickers and warlords.

Five suspects, flanked by Myanmar police,
were turned over to China. (WSJ)
For decades, frontier fiefdoms such as those in Myanmar have been havens for gambling and trafficking of everything from drugs to wildlife to people. Now, they are dens for pig-butchering operations.

The scammers operate out of secretive, dystopian compounds, many of which are run by Chinese fugitives who fled their country to places where it was easier to flout the law. They cheat Chinese citizens out of billions of dollars each year, as well as victims across the globe. The U.S. Treasury Department in September warned Americans about the scams...

For Beijing, it is a significant source of embarrassment that Chinese criminals are at the center of scams ensnaring people the world over, said Jason Tower, Myanmar country director for the United States Institute of Peace, an independent research organization founded by the U.S. Congress that specializes in conflict mitigation.

China is “quite sensitive to the narratives that could potentially emerge,” he said. “These are largely Chinese crime groups which China, for years, did very little to check.”
Although the crooks will regroup and move on to other locales, this effort will save many thousands of people from being scammed in the immediate future.

Monday, November 20, 2023

The Foster City Levee

The levee (under construction in 2021) obscures the Bay from the ground level.
The view of the Bay is nice from the top (Chron)
The $90 million Foster City levee is complete. The Chronicle encourages Bay Area residents to see it, because something like our levee is in their future:
Welcome to Foster City’s new improved levee, fortified by plates of corrugated steel and roughly 6 feet taller than the prior edition. It’s also a rock-solid reminder that as the Bay Area prepares for the likelihood of sea level rise along its shorelines in coming decades, the result often won’t be pretty.

That’s why the $90 million, 6.2-mile project is worth a visit for anyone wondering what the future might hold — in this case, a glum wall with great public access. The original premise of Foster City, proximity to the water, has disappeared from sight where it should pull you close...

There’s a bleak simplicity to the levee, and its intent is clear — protection from whatever the bay and natural forces might dish out in decades to come. As an element in the landscape, though, the impression it leaves is multilayered.

Down on Beach Park Boulevard, what you see is what you get, a long ridge hiding any sense that water lies beyond.

The experience on top? Totally different.

The views of the bridge and bay are alluring, even if the tall thick concrete thwarts any visceral connection to the shoreline.
You can't walk from the path to the water any more
We've written before about the levee project to protect Foster City against "100-year floods." To recap, FEMA designated Foster City as a flood zone in 2014, meaning most homeowners would have to buy flood insurance costing $2,000-$3,000 per year or spend $279 per year to pay for the levee.

We won't know whether the levee was necessary until long after we're gone, but I can't complain. $90 million is a bargain compared to what San Francisco may have to spend.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Liberal Anglicanism: It's Not for Everyone

Pope Francis at the Synod on Synodality on Oct. 23.
He's the guy with the big chair (WSJ photo
Religions don't survive long unless they provide answers to basic philosophical questions. Furthermore, the questions should not be limited to those that puzzled its original adherents. To endure centuries, even millennia, they must address the human condition broadly. The trick is to understand which principles are immutable and which are not.

Ontario priest Raymond de Souza laments that Pope Francis is overturning too many beliefs too quickly.
conversations veered off to consider whether Catholicism would do better as a facsimile of liberal Anglicanism: ordaining women, revising sexual morality, enhancing lay governance—and, of course, trying to arrest climate change.
Ouch. We Episcopalians felt that one.

Father de Souza wants more dogma and fewer questions.
The articulation of dogma—traditionally the work of Rome—doesn’t bind the soul as much as it frees it, in the same way that a martyr is free, already living beyond the world’s power. Such confidence and clarity have dissipated in Rome in recent years. Question marks litter the landscape; certainty appears to be the problem, not the solution. Without dogma, we’re left only with our own conclusions, which aren’t truths worth dying for and thus aren’t truths worth living for.
I personally like having the Catholic Church argue articulately for traditional Christian theology and practices. Such voices have been stilled in the Episcopal Church, and they shouldn't be excised from American Christianity entirely.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Haughty Insouciance

I've written about this phenomenon before:
After generations of protected status the ducks have lost all fear of humans. They sleep in large groups, not caring about our presence...The ducks waddle about, leaving their organic matter everywhere.
In the above photo the ducks stroll fearlessly on a road that snakes around condominiums. As I approached on foot, they looked at me with haughty insouciance but eventually backed away, quacking their displeasure.

Ducks seem to know that cars, slowed by speed bumps and 15MPH signs, will stop for them when they're on this particular road. They also know to stay away from the main avenue a few yards away, where the cars move at 40 MPH.

They've adopted to human environments better than some people have.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Reflections on Replacing a Lock

The old parts are held at the bottom.
One reason for calling in an outside professional (plumber, electrician, etc.) is that not only will he do projects right, but he will eliminate the possibility of damage from amateur attempts gone awry. If the home handyman knows his limitations, however, he can save money.

For example, last month the 30-year-old knob on the door to the garage stopped working. The task was to replace the knob and match the key to the deadbolt. The knob was Kwikset, which is the cheapest of the major brands. Home Depot had a $25 knob that would fit the opening but didn't quite match the look of the old knob and deadbolt. And the key would still have to be fitted.

The easiest and most expensive solution would be to summon a locksmith to replace and re-key the part for about $150. Instead, I took the old knob and latch to a locksmith in San Mateo. He had a same-model Kwikset in inventory and adjusted it to fit the old key. The total cost: $80.

I could affect a false frugality and say $70 saved here and there really adds up, but to be perfectly honest I hated spending $70 for being too lazy to take a few minutes to put in a lock. Self-knowledge may not always make one happy, but it can avoid disgruntlement.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Riskless Jab (for me)

COVID-19 immunization is completely covered by my health plan, so I got another booster earlier today.

I know that the vaccine's efficacy in questionable, but the mild side effects from experience only last 1-2 days. Even if there was a 1% chance it would prevent me from catching the virus, or just lessen its symptoms, it would be worth the trip to the clinic.

What I'm really fearful of is brain fog from long COVID. In my dotage the brain has become foggy enough already.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The U.S. and China Come to the Table

40 years after the "walk in the woods", Presidents Xi and
Biden walk around the Filoli Gardens in Woodside, CA (ABC)
When China adopted a hybrid version of capitalism, it was nearly a foregone conclusion that China would eventually become the world's dominant power. Although its per-capita GDP was "only" USD $13,000--a fraction of the United States' $75,000--China's GDP of $17.7 trillion was rapidly approaching the U.S.' $23.3 trillion in 2021. China was marching inexorably toward number one.

Not so fast. As Presidents Xi and Biden met today at nearby Filoli Gardens, China is struggling with a number of worrisome economic issues. [bold added]
China’s economy is beset by multiple challenges, from a deflating property bubble and unmanageable local government debts to slumping confidence and deflation. The U.S., meanwhile, has just recorded its strongest quarter in nearly two years while inflation subsides. China’s gross domestic product, which was 75% the size of the U.S.’s in 2021, had slipped to 64% in the third quarter, roughly where it was in 2017...

China’s growth, which averaged 10% a year from 1980 to 2012, was always bound to slow around now because of an aging population, less rural-to-urban migration and diminishing opportunities to catch up to wealthier countries.

But the slowdown has been sharper than expected. The World Bank now expects China’s annual growth in the next two years to average 4.5%, roughly a percentage point slower than it projected a decade ago. The International Monetary Fund sees growth averaging just 3.9% over the next five years...

During the global financial crisis of 2007-09 China launched a massive stimulus program aimed at infrastructure, housing and later, technology. Local governments and developers financed this investment by borrowing from banks and the Chinese public, using new financing vehicles to get around borrowing restrictions imposed by Beijing...

Whereas the U.S. has too few houses and infrastructure, China now has too much of both. Millions of apartments are vacant. Guizhou, a relatively poor province, is home to 23 of the world’s 100 highest bridges. High-speed railway track is growing more than twice as quickly as passengers, according to Rogoff and Yang.

Much of the debt to finance that investment, issued by developers and local governments to ordinary Chinese or Chinese banks, is in danger of default. The IMF estimates 30% of local government debt is nonviable. Collapsing revenue from land sales and business taxes have saddled local governments with yawning deficits. An August Rhodium report co-authored by Wright concluded that China has much less fiscal space than widely believed to finance industrial policy, defense and its Belt and Road Initiative of foreign infrastructure loans...

China’s declining population is a slow-moving problem that suddenly accelerated in the past two years. In 2017 the fertility rate, the number of children a woman could expect to bear over her lifetime, was around 1.6, below the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population...

Chinese authorities are ideologically opposed to boosting consumption, such as through more generous healthcare and retirement benefits, which would reduce the need to save. Meanwhile, Xi has worsened confidence through “a series of profound policy choices…that are now coming back to hobble the Chinese economy and its recovery,” said Barry Naughton, an expert on Chinese industrial policy at the University of California San Diego.

Starting in 2020, the Communist Party unleashed a regulatory crackdown on private businesses in online commerce, online education and gaming, ostensibly to clamp down on privacy and anticompetitive abuses but mostly to cement its control over the private sector.
Despite these recently surfaced weaknesses, China still has immense power, particularly in manufacturing. It can easily disrupt supply chains of major industries around the world if it so chooses. And China's quest to expand territory, most notably to annex Taiwan, will threaten political and economic stability for decades.

The interesting aspect of this civilizational contest between China and the West is that, for the first time in memory, time is not on China's side. Its aging, shrinking population will force China to turn inward, while immigration and open markets are likely to continue growth for the U.S. and its allies.

Of course, President Xi is aware of these demographic realities. The near-term danger is that he may be tempted to accelerate his expansionist plans before the West gets stronger and China gets weaker.

Let's hope that President Biden can offer him deals that will help the Chinese people and their economy while at the same time defusing the prospect of military conflict.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Social Security: Deferral Isn't for Everyone

(WSJ image)
Most popular financial literature recommends that Social Security recipients not claim early retirement benefits at 62 but wait until "full retirement" age between 66 and 67, depending on the year of birth. If possible, one should wait until 70 to maximize the monthly benefits.

Each year of deferral raises the payment by about 8%, which can amount to a substantial number if one lives a long life. After a discussion with family members, your humble pensioner filed for benefits at the age of 66.

Although I was confident that I would make it to at least 90 (justifying delaying benefits to 70), others weren't so sure. (My family is a barrel of laughs.)

The WSJ lists poor health and current cash flow shortfalls as two reasons to take Social Security earlier rather than later.
There is little sense in delaying if—because of health or genetics—you think there is a good chance that you’ll die relatively young. There also may be little sense to wait past full retirement age if survivor benefits aren’t necessary for a spouse...

Early payouts can help when there are shortfalls between income and expenses...

Indeed, while delaying made more sense a few years ago, when near-zero interest rates meant there was less incentive to hold on to cash, the equation has changed. Now that interest rates are higher, fixed-income allocations may produce more significant returns in a portfolio. So, taking payouts now and using them to help with cash-flow shortfalls means your savings in your portfolio can stay intact, compounding and growing.

“Right now you can earn 5% on cash,” says [retirement researcher David] Blanchett. “The higher the returns you expect to earn in the market or on interest rates for annuities, the more claiming early can make sense.”
We know a couple of families whose budgets are strained because they're waiting until 70 to maximize their benefits. Although in the long run that still might be the best decision for them, I'm not confident that it is; these families have been forced to sell some assets or withdraw funds from retirement plans to pay expenses.

Financial rules-of-thumb are generalizations that don't fit every individual situation. Run the numbers, or get someone to help you. Then make the decision using the best information you have, and don't look back.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Picking Up Their Marbles

2018 rubble of the city once known as Paradise.The old
advice to stand under a doorway during an earthquake
seems to have some basis in fact. (Chron photo)
Insurance companies are walking away from California's home and auto business, and the Chronicle editorial board--stop the presses!--sympathizes with the companies: [bold added]
Seven of the state’s top 12 insurers have paused or restricted new business since 2022, and consumer options seem to shrink every day. The latest examples: Farmers Direct Property and Casualty Insurance Co. recently announced plans to end coverage in California and shift most policyholders to its parent company, Farmers — which has itself already limited coverage in the state. Last month, four small insurers said they would stop renewing California policies in 2024...

California is among the states with the nation’s highest cost of living but comparatively low insurance rates. This is partly due to Proposition 103, which established a robust regulatory process that, among other things, requires the insurance commissioner to review and approve any rate changes.

Prop. 103 had the admirable intent of protecting consumers and increasing transparency. But in practice, it has discouraged insurers from raising rates above a 7% threshold that triggers a more extensive and often costly review process. In 2022, it took the California Insurance Department an average of 349 days to approve rate filings, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis.

This has hindered California’s insurance market from nimbly adjusting rates to match conditions on the ground...

It’s one thing to be wary of “unchecked corporate interests,” as the congressional delegation put it. It’s another to deny that a business needs to make money in order to stay afloat. Over the past 10 years, insurance companies’ direct profit on insurance transactions in California was -6.1%, compared to 4.2% nationwide.
Economics teaches that, if prices are held below the level at which demand meets supply, shortages of the product or service will result. And so it is that California has a shortage of policies and the companies that write them.

(Note that I am not advocating a total elimination of government oversight. Without regulation a business could collect premiums and flee without having to make good on claims.)

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Defeating Envy

(Quora image)
The traditional view of envy--or any of the other deadly sins--is to suppress or control it so that it doesn't consume our lives.

The new approach: there are good and bad forms of envy, and "good envy" may spur us to improve ourselves.
Malicious envy arrives with anger, frustration and a sense of wanting to take an advantage away from another person, says Jan Crusius, psychologist and professor of motivation and emotion at University of Greifswald in Germany.

Benign envy, on the other hand, is when you wish you were in someone else’s position but don’t feel compelled to tear them down. That envy can spark self-reflection and the motivation to set new goals.
Analysis of one's own feelings is a basic psychological technique that applies to a wide range of situations, including internal battles with envy.
“When you say, ‘I’m so jealous of your boat,’ you might mean, ‘I’m so envious of your money, your freedom, or your success,’” said author and podcast host Elise Loehnen, whose new book explores why women often repress feelings like pride and envy.

Ask yourself how you’d feel if your name was attached to the thing you envy. Consider the critiques as well as the praise that might come with it. That alone may quell your envy; if it doesn’t, and the idea is still appealing, use that answer to guide your pursuits. If it doesn’t hold allure, you might be envying an idea, rather than reality.
Your humble blogger has never been able to use negative emotions successfully. I'll-show-them drives comic-book villains. In real life it may lead to short-lived achievement, but satisfaction is very rarely the result.

The cure for envy is a long life; many of the aspects that we envied in others, e.g., wealth and social recognition, become much less important with the passage of time. Also, it turned out that some of our heroes had feet of clay, while others had struggles that made their days the opposite of halcyonic.

Victory over envy results when one truly rejoices in the good fortunes of others.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Who's Rescuing Whom?

Having a dog helps mental health, too.
Research has confirmed what pet owners have long suspected: Dogs Help Us Lead Longer, Healthier Lives

Resistance to Allergy
A considerable body of research has found that young children who grow up with dogs in their households are less likely to develop allergies, eczema or asthma, which often occur together as part of what’s called the allergic triad.

The theory, according to allergists, is that early exposure to dog dander could induce a high-dose tolerance to allergens. By stimulating their immune system not to react to dog dander and other microbes carried by canines, growing up with a dog helps kids develop a greater tolerance for certain germs and airborne allergens, thus preventing potential allergies from developing.
Pain Management
When it comes to pain, having a dog doesn’t make you impervious, but it can make the discomfort more bearable. This is partly because having a canine companion provides a continuous source of meaning, connection and support.

Research led by Mary Janevic of the University of Michigan School of Public Health examined how older adults with chronic pain felt their pets affected them. Participants reported that their dogs motivated them to get up and get moving, which helped alleviate their pain. The pets distracted people from their pain and generally improved their moods.
Cardiovascular Health
Research also suggests that having a dog is associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and reduced physiological responses to stress. These effects may partly explain why dog ownership is associated with a 31% decreased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Across various age groups, multiple studies have found that our heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels tend to be lower when there’s a dog around.
What the studies cannot yet show is how taking care of a dog can give purpose to one's life. It is a reason to keep on living.
your relationship with your dog may alter your attitude toward health and life in general. If you want to be around as long as possible to take care of your beloved canine companion, you may feel inspired to improve your lifestyle and stress-management habits.
"For it is in giving that we receive."--St. Francis

Friday, November 10, 2023

Clever, But It's a Job That's Going Away

If you thought that washing windows on upper floors required scaffolding or at least a ladder, you would be mistaken.

These fellows have implemented a safer, cheaper method that doesn't need advanced technology.

I imagine that drones will soon be doing this job. They can "see" dirt that is missed from a distance and can apply precise pressure to stubborn spots.

They can service much taller buildings and their arms don't get tired.

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Just Wanting to be a Regular Person

Strive to be regular in all things.
Sleep longevity (7-9 hours every night) has been difficult to achieve for many people, including your humble blogger. But there could be another path to good health: sleep regularity.
A recent study looking at sleep and longevity found that sleep “regularity”—going to bed and waking up at consistent times with few mid-slumber interruptions—matters more than how long you sleep. Sleeping six hours every night on a consistent schedule was associated with a lower risk of early death than sleeping eight hours with very irregular habits.
This finding comports with my personal experience. I frequently wake at 2 a.m. and putter around for a couple of hours. After I return to bed, the total time asleep, according to the Apple Watch, may be close to seven hours. But I feel better rested when I sleep for six hours straight.

Late in life I'm finding how crucial regularity is to good health in more than one bodily system.

Wednesday, November 08, 2023

Citibank's Squeeze: I'm Not the Only One

Banks used to give out small appliances for new accounts.
Tangible non-monetary rewards look good now. (TVtropes)
Twelve days ago I wrote about my irritation at being arm-twisted into paperless banking by Citibank. Apparently, I am not the only financial dinosaur. [bold added]
Citi’s policy is one of the harshest yet for the holdouts. The effort is part of a beta program rolled out to a small number of customers who access accounts online but still get paper statements, a Citigroup representative said.

The bank didn’t say how many people received these messages. Though the policy requires customers to enroll in paperless billing to continue using their account online, they can switch back to paper later and retain access to the bank’s site and app, the representative said.
Comment 1: at least Citi didn't say "a small number of technophobic, antiquated customers."

Comment 2: Switching back to paper is not easy. "After multiple calls to the bank’s customer-service line, he was able to reinstate the paper billing."

Paper statements and invoices have been a part of audit controls for decades. For example, accountants would stamp invoices "paid" and attach a copy of the purchase order authorizing the expenditure and a copy of the check. If necessary, the cancelled check could be retrieved. I have yet to be persuaded that doing everything electronically provides as much assurance as a paper trail.

Paper invoices are a more useful reminder than e-mailed ones, which get buried in the hundreds of daily messages in my inbox. Also, because I currently handle most of the household's billings (my wife is equally capable and used to do it before my retirement), mailed invoices make it a lot easier for her to review and pay if something should happen to me.

Citibank is not the only major bank that has raised fees and minimum balances while cutting back on services. Squeezing customers occurs in a host of industries--banking, cable TV, cellphone, and magazine subscriptions, to name but a few.

I put up with it because it's a hassle to change until my tipping point--admittedly different for everyone--is reached, then my group of accounts goes elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Slow News Day at the Chronicle

No point in doing an excerpt, here's the entire text, complete with what must be a stock photo (right):
San Francisco Fire Department officials said firefighters responded Tuesday to an electrical lighting outlet at the Westfield Mall on Market Street that was malfunctioning, throwing off sparks and smoke.

Firefighters arrived to the mall shortly before 8 a.m., Fire Department officials said.

The sparking outlet "was quickly mitigated thanks in part to the quick response of the San Francisco Fire Department and the collaboration with Westfield building staff," Fire Department officials said.

The mall was scheduled to open at its regularly scheduled time, and no one was injured.
The Westfield Centre is the poster child for San Francisco's "doom loop." Once it was on the list of top SF destinations. Then the mall's tenants, notably Nordstrom's, preferred to incur substantial financial penalties by cancelling leases and writing off their capital improvements rather than soldiering through. The landlord / owner stopped making its loan payments and turned the keys over to the lenders.

I suppose that it's a sign of improvement that this Westfield story was a smoking electric fire where no one was injured and little damage occurred (inferred from the mall's regular opening).

Monday, November 06, 2023

Too Late for a Party

The apartment building that my father built is 63 years old. I lived in one of the units for ten years, and the property is still owned by my mother.

Through all that time I've never been to the roof. One of the reasons is moderate acrophobia. Dad used to balance a ladder precariously on a ledge in the back, then climb to the top. He never asked me to join him, and I certainly didn't offer.

Last month my brother hired a construction company to make sure the roof was sealed before the rainy season started. It looks sturdy now, and the view is nice.

If there was a safe way to climb to the top, we could add guard rails and have a party up there.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Christian Teacher

Fr. Lehrer prepares for Communion
Today was the Rev. Christian Lehrer's last Sunday as our supply priest.

("Lehrer" means teacher in German, and I doubt that there has ever been a person's name--Christian teacher--more suited to his or her eventual profession.)

During the coffee hour Father Lehrer spent quite a bit of time talking to us about the search for a new Bishop in the Diocese. The field has been winnowed to three candidates and the vote will be taken next month. Our smallish church will have two voting delegates, while larger ones have many more.

Christian was an active member of St. Luke's in San Francisco before he was accepted to seminary. As a lay delegate he participated in past elections. It took only three rounds of voting to select the current Bishop, but the previous incumbent was elected after 19 ballots. IMHO, the previous guy was better; the difficulty in deciding a winner is not necessarily indicative of his excellence or effectiveness.

The ability to upend expectations both positively and negatively has always been a characteristic of human beings, and as humanity enters the age of predictive analytics, genetic determinism, and algorithmic predestination (dare we call it psychohistory?), long may we continue to surprise.

Falling Back

One signpost of technological progress is how few clocks had to "fall back" this morning. 40 years ago there were a dozen time pieces, including wristwatches, that had to be adjusted twice a year. Now the majority change themselves.

Still, I enjoyed turning back the hour hand on two old analog clocks this morning.

It was just enough time to reminisce and appreciate an activity that won't be necessary much longer.

Saturday, November 04, 2023

The Shine Will Return

At Friday's close, Apple was up 36% for the year, beating the NASDAQ's 27%.
The conventional wisdom is that Apple is a great company but just a mediocre stock. After announcing its September quarter results on Thursday night, AAPL fell 92 cents (0.52%) on Friday:
Apple said sales fell for the fourth consecutive quarter, including a decline in China that came as the company faces a broad economic slowdown in the country and new competition from rival Huawei Technologies...

The challenges in China have spooked Apple investors, sending shares down more than 10% since the company’s all-time high earlier in the summer. In late June, Apple became the world’s first corporation to close with a market value above $3 trillion.
The reasons that Wall Street has become less enamored of AAPL are simple:
1) Sales in China have fallen because the government has openly discouraged the purchase of non-Chinese products;
2) overall iPhone unit sales have declined world-wide;
3) services and new products aren't growing rapidly like Apple's peers, especially in artificial intelligence,
4) Apple's stock performance is the worst of the "Magnificent Seven" megacaps (Alphabet/Google, Apple, Amazon, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft, Nvidia, and Tesla).

Your humble blogger has reached the age where he no longer fears missing out on the stocks that got away, believes that the shine will return next year, and is quite happy with 36%.

Friday, November 03, 2023

Early Birthday Present

My purchase didn't help AAPL's stock today
It seems to be an ironclad law of the universe (which BTW strengthens the argument that we live in a simulation) that shortly after a person begins to brag he gets his comeuppance.

In my case I've been bragging how my 2014 MacBook Air is still going strong while other more recent computers have had to be junked.

A little over a month ago the Air's hard drive failed. It wasn't a simple battery replacement this time. True, it could have been fixed for about $500 including labor, but the MacBook Air's advancements in its retinal display and M2-processing speed over the past nine years strongly incentivized me to get a new one. Another factor was that Apple's days of supporting Intel-based Macs were numbered, and through sad experience I've found that it's wise to be in control of a conversion rather than have it forced upon me.

As an early birthday present to myself I bought a MacBook Air in September. It's functioning as advertised. I hope it lasts at least nine years.

Thursday, November 02, 2023

A Last Gift to the Kids

(WSJ drawing)
We are lucky that our mothers--both over 90--are still with us.

That fortunate circumstance also means that we haven't gone through the stress and emotion of having to sort through our parents' material things. It's still possible for us to go over their possessions with them; we've had halting, piecemeal conversations but it's unlikely we will make much progress.

While that day looms, we have our own houses to de-clutter. We need to do it not only for ourselves but to relieve that burden from our children. Some from the next generation are pleading for us to get rid of our stuff. [bold added]
By now, it is common knowledge that millennials like me don’t want the old furniture, china or trinkets that we could inherit when our relatives die, or are offered to us as our parents downsize. In general, we want to experience the world, but not have physical items signifying it. As I’ve watched my parents navigate their own parents’ deaths, and have observed the sheer number of physical items to sort through, I wondered: “How do we millennials know what to throw away and what to save?”

Home organizers, financial planners and consignment shops tell me it’s a conversation they have with clients every day. They say, though awkward, it is better to have open and honest conversations about estate planning when you can, rather than trying to navigate doing so in the anguish or time crunch after a family member dies.
Here's where technology can help in cutting the cord. We can and probably should take pictures of objects that are precious to us, attach notes or even audio-video files that explain why they are meaningful, and send them off to Goodwill or even the landfill.

We'd be cleaning house as a last gift to the kids, and, really, it's just a fraction of the effort we spent in raising them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2023

SF: Doubt Has Only Started to Creep In

Homeless encampment, Ellis St., SF (Chron photo)
The grumblings have gotten louder. More San Francisco voters have become disenchanted with Progressive governance. [bold added]
Voters are dissatisfied with the status quo — which many seem to associate with incompetent progressive governance. Last year, fed-up San Franciscans recalled progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, ousted three members of a school board that had drawn national scorn for its out-of-touch priorities and elected moderate Democrat Joel Engardio to the Board of Supervisors over progressive incumbent Gordon Mar...

Progressive Democrats across California are increasingly fighting the growing perception that they pursue ideological purity to the point of absurdity. Progressive state lawmakers in Sacramento, for example, hastily reversed themselves after receiving intense public backlash for killing a bill to increase criminal sentences for repeat child traffickers and for refusing to consider bills to toughen penalties for fentanyl dealers.

[Venture capitalist Lee] Edwards told me that progressives routinely dismiss criticisms of San Francisco as conservative distortions. Yet “when it comes to crime, shoplifting, homelessness, drug addiction, housing affordability, we have regressive outcomes here — and they know that!”
Despite the disaffection with Progressivism, it's way too early for Republicans to dream of being elected into any office in San Francisco.
As of September 2023, nearly two-thirds of San Franciscans were registered as Democrats and 29% were independents or voters registered with other parties. The remaining roughly 7% were registered Republicans.
At 7% of San Francisco's 500,000 voters, Republicans have zero influence. Conditions have to get much worse, and for longer, before the electorate even begins to entertain the notion that religious, gun-loving, uneducated, blue-collar deplorable Republicans might have better solutions to the City's problems.