Monday, April 22, 2024

A Rare Public Works Project

Sometimes it's not the story itself but the reaction to the story that makes news. The completion of the infamous $1.7 million toilet for $200,000 occurred quietly last week.

The citizens of the Noe Valley neighborhood held a potty party on Sunday.
A group of acrobats juggled plungers. Children circled a maypole clutching long strands of toilet paper. Partygoers downed lemonade and chocolate cupcakes adorned with poop emojis. Organizer Leslie Crawford said the event, dubbed the “Toilet Bowl,” embraced the oddity of honoring an otherwise unremarkable public potty.

“This whole thing got so ridiculous, so why not be ridiculous?” Crawford said.
On second thought, a completed public works project that minimized waste is so rare that it is indeed worthy of celebration.

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Good Shepherd Sunday

Roman catacombs, circa 2nd century (aleteia)
On Good Shepherd Sunday the hymns, Bible passages, and sermons may vary, but one constant is always the 23rd Psalm. The lady minister said today that there are two major themes: the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep, and the feast that awaits us. It is a Psalm that many learned in Sunday School and is often read at funerals.

Despite many attempts to make the passages sound modern, your humble blogger has always preferred the King James version. See if you agree, dear reader, with the KJV and NIV (New international Version) laid side by side:

Psalm 23: KJVPsalm 23: NIV
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters.He leads me beside quiet waters,
He restoreth my soul;He refreshes my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name's sake.He guides me along the right paths
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deathEven though I walk through the darkest valley
I will fear no evil;I will fear no evil,
For thou art with me;For you are with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Thou anointest my head with oilYou anoint my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.My cup overflows
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the House of the Lord for ever.And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

California: Blaming Everyone but Itself

Once again California's high gas prices have made the headlines: [bold added]
'Gas prices are spiking again in the Bay Area — as much as 20 to 30 cents a gallon higher than the California average and at least $2 a gallon more than the rest of the country, according to the latest data from the American Automobile Association (AAA).

The national average on Friday was $3.67 a gallon, compared to the Golden State’s $5.45, the highest in the U.S., according to AAA.

Bay Area drivers who are sometimes stuck paying close to $6 a gallon said they are suffering and finding alternate ways to get around.
AAA's Andrew Gross provides part of the explanation for the Bay Area's "premium" over the national average:
Gross said spring is also the time where gasoline is switched from winter blend to summer blend, which is more expensive to refine but helps keep air quality cleaner.

“And then you have to take into account location. The West Coast is what many consider an oil island in that it is far from the main oil production centers of Texas, Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast and those mega refineries down there as well,” Gross said. “And west of the Rockies it’s more challenging to build pipelines, so you tend to move product by rail and truck more than say east of the Rockies. So you also have higher distribution cost that factor in as well.”
Oil Price Information Service's Tom Klosa points to refinery closures:
In 2020, Marathon closed its refinery in the Bay Area, and over the last year Phillips 66 stopped processing crude oil at Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo and Rodeo in Contra Costa County, Klosa said.

“Both companies idled their refineries and are concentrating on supplying renewable fuels such as renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel. Neither is making gasoline, and that leaves the area without a safety net. Should one of the remaining refineries (Chevron Richmond, Valero Benicia or PBF Martinez) have issues, supply can become very challenging,” Klosa said.
The American Energy Alliance adds two more factors, taxes and regulation:
California has the highest gas tax in the country at 68 cents per gallon, compared to 39 cents for the national average, according to the American Energy Alliance.

The state also has a cap-and-trade program and low-carbon fuel standard that adds roughly another 46 cents a gallon, according to the group.
As surely as night follows day, California blames high prices on greed and price-gouging:
Newsom in November accused “Big Oil” of raking in “huge profits” last summer while gas prices spiked and said that “we’re continuing to hold them accountable with the new tools from our gas price gouging law.” But it remains to be seen how the new Division of Petroleum Market Oversight will affect gas prices.
California's blaming the industry is reminiscent of its railing against insurance companies until enough of them stopped writing policies. It's mystifying to these non-businessmen that oil refiners and insurance companies are leaving the State instead of getting in on that price-gouging action. Over a year ago we wrote:
It's also clear that a persistent price premium must have an explanation other than capitalist greed, which, if that were the case, would exist peculiarly only in California. My hypothesis: gasoline producers have only 12 years to recover their investment [because of the ban on new gas-powered vehicles starting in 2035] in California plant and equipment, after which the market for gasoline will dry up. In the rest of the country refiners can count on a useful life of 20 years or longer, thereby lowering the prices they require to turn a profit
Not all California's politicians are that stupid, of course. They know full well that the high gas prices that their policies have caused are forcing drivers to consider buying EV's, but they're deflecting blame on to the fossil fuel industry, the left's whipping boy for the past 50 years. Very few in the media or academia are calling them out, so they continue to get away with their disingenuous explanations.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Keep Telling Yourself It's the Safest Way to Travel

My brother's flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu on Thursday was delayed by a stuck door handle. The pilot announced that the problem was "fixed" and the United Boeing flight went on to Honolulu.

Normally I wouldn't have given the matter a second thought but for the spate of recent headlines:

February 6: Boeing 737 MAX Missing Critical Bolts in Alaska Airlines Blowout, NTSB Says

April 9: Boeing Engineer Says Company Used Shortcuts to Fix 787 Jets

April 17: Boeing’s Quality Complaints Mount as Another Whistleblower Comes Forward

We all were relieved when brother landed safely.

For the first time in my life, I'll check the price of flight insurance the next time I take a Boeing flight.

Thursday, April 18, 2024

It's Da Bomb (for Toilets)

Sure, ChatGPT can help us draft letters and research topics faster, but artificial intelligence has so far not come up with blockbuster products that live up to all the AI hype. That is, until now. [bold added]
Clorox thinks it can help with a new toilet bomb, a tablet of pre-dosed cleaner that foams and fizzes in the toilet bowl and releases a pleasant scent. “People are looking for a spark of fun and joy,” said Rhonda Lesinski, Clorox’s general manager of cleaning. “We all know the world can get messy, but we understand the link between a clean environment and one’s physical and emotional well-being.”

As part of what Clorox calls a “consumer-obsessed” approach, staffers started using artificial-intelligence tools last year to scan digital media for new ideas. The Foaming Toilet Bomb, going on sale nationwide next month, is its first product from this initiative.
The phrase "toilet bomb" doesn't immediately evoke "a spark of fun and joy" in most people's minds, but let's give AI a chance. Like Steve Jobs, maybe AI has come up with a product that we didn't know we needed.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

When There's No Pressure to Do Something, Nothing is Done

San Diego, March 22, 2024 (Calmatters/Mercury)
One could suppose a one-party state like California may impose a solution to homelessness because there is no effective opposition, but one would be wrong. [bold added]
For the second year in a row, Democrats on Tuesday voted down a bill that sought to ban homeless encampments near schools, transit stops and other areas throughout California.

Despite the fact that cities up and down the state are grappling with a proliferation of homeless camps, legislators said they oppose penalizing down-and-out residents who sleep on public property...

During Tuesday’s hearing, more than three dozen people voiced their opposition to the bill, speaking on behalf of organizations such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union California Action.

The bill’s supporters, who numbered far fewer, included the mayor of Vista and a representative from the city of Carlsbad.

The lone “yes” vote came from the committee’s only Republican, Sen. Kelly Seyarto of Murrieta.

“We had a slew of people that came forward to tell us about what we shouldn’t be doing,” he said. “But what the hell should we be doing? Because right now we’re not doing anything.”
Any solution would cause some inconvenience to the homeless, so the politicians do nothing, and the encampments continue to befoul the sidewalks. This is what happens when politicians have no fear of losing their jobs, and, as we've said before
Californians keep electing the same crowd that spends $billions, produces negative results, then keeps raising taxes because we supposedly haven't spent enough on these problems. As a believer in democracy, I suppose we're getting what we wanted.....and deserve.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Round and Round We Go

Slowing the traffic in the old neighborhood.
I encountered my first traffic roundabout in New England over 50 years ago. Navigating it was intuitive because it was a single-lane circle, and all cars had to make a right turn to enter. It wasn't obvious who had to yield to whom, but because the roundabout slowed everyone down, there were usually no accidents, and those that did occur were at low speeds.

Traffic circles have become so ubiquitous that there's even a simple one five blocks from my parents' home in Honolulu. It was installed in 2021, probably to slow the cars headed to Waiola Shave Ice.

Intersection of Hwys 156 and 25 in Gilroy (Merc)
The traffic engineers may have pushed a good thing too far with the installation of a "turbo" roundabout, whose rules are hard to learn when driving a car at highway speeds. [bold added]
When drivers first crossed this particular roadway in San Benito County last February, they encountered an intersection never before seen in California — a multi-lane “turbo roundabout” shaped like a cartoon hurricane.

And, while the turbo roundabout has a history of making intersections safer throughout Europe, here the Scandinavian rotary has led to confusion among some drivers who have been seen entering the intersection backward, hopping over lane dividers, and cutting through yield signs...

In the weeks following the opening of the roundabout, the intersection saw crashes at more than three times the rate than the year before it was built — jumping from about one accident approximately every eight days to one accident every two and a half days, on average...

But despite the spike in incidents, officials and experts said they are confident this is all part of a “learning curve” that often happens with new roundabouts, and point out that deaths and serious injuries have dropped to zero since the new intersection was completed.
Californians view themselves as smarter than people who live in the rest of the country. This is a real-world test of that hypothesis.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Way to Go, SF

The new $200,000 toilet in Noe Valley (Chron)
This is not exclusively a "dump on San Francisco" journal, though with so much material it's difficult to keep such posts down to, say, one a week. We didn't remark on the $1.7 million public toilet proposed in 2022, because there was little to add to all the derisive worldwide coverage.

The original plans were withdrawn, the project was scaled down, and the toilet is now operational for a mere $200,000.
The San Francisco toilet that made international news when a Chronicle column revealed its $1.7 million price tag, opened quietly on Monday morning, after installation and an inspection were completed.

The bathroom, which ultimately cost the city about 12% of the original estimate, is tasteful if underwhelming, with cinder block walls painted orange-red, standing sentry near the northeast entrance of the well-used public plaza where it now resides. With the loo open for business, Noe residents have gained two things: a place to go and San Francisco’s newest landmark, arguably the most famous toilet in the city’s history...

The cinder block walls’ fiery shade matches the chairs and playground slide in the plaza. There’s a sloped roof of corrugated metal and some light landscaping, small jasmine bushes next to a black trellis on either side of the bathroom’s exterior...

Inside the tight 50-square-foot bathroom there’s little to see except a single metal toilet, two metal railings and a fixture that fits three standard size rolls of toilet paper. (Will that even be enough to last the morning?) In true San Francisco fashion, something already appears broken: the hand sanitizer dispenser. “We apologize for any inconvenience, and we are working on the issue,” a Rec & Parks sign reads. (A sink and soap dispenser on the outside wall were in full operation.)
The late Herb Caen used to call San Francisco the "City that knows how." Perhaps one day it can earn back that title.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

We'll Miss It When It's Gone

Graph from
Related to last Sunday's post ("A Progressive Sees the Social Benefits of Religion"): a "growing body of research" covering many thousands of people showed religiosity is correlated with good mental health.
“There is a mounting body of empirical evidence suggesting that people who are active in their faith tend to be the recipients of a number of important physical and mental-health benefits,” says Byron Johnson, professor of social sciences at Baylor University.

Believing in a higher power can foster a sense of connection, research has shown. Helping others, which many religions facilitate through organized-outreach programs, builds compassion, which psychologists have found can improve mental health.
Now that religion is on the wane its societal benefits have become more obvious, even to social scientists who are not religious advocates. Let's hope that it's not too late for organized religion to escape its own "doom loop."

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Brain Trends: the Science isn't Settled

(Quora image)
Last September we posted about how the human brain has shrunk by the size of a lime since the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Scientists even hypothesized the reason:
Traniello said the inspiration for applying this idea to why human brains may have shrunk came from “ultrasocial” insects such as ants. Ants form highly cooperative societies in which division of labor has favored smaller-brained individuals due to an advanced level of social organization.

The researchers suggested that perhaps our need to maintain a large brain—to keep track of information about food, social relationships, predators and our environment—has also relaxed in the past few millennia because we could store information externally in other members of our social circles, towns and groups.
The increased offloading of storage and other tasks to the cloud means that our personal computers and cellphones don't need to have as much memory. The brain analogy: no longer do we have to memorize phone numbers, recipes, and addresses, nor do we have to know how to hunt, fish, and farm in order to survive. If we need it, the information is available on the internet. (Isaac Asimov envisioned a future where all knowledge is stored in an Encyclopedia Galactica.)

But what are we to make from this week's headline?

(Image from bigthink)
Our brains are getting bigger — and that could lower the risk of dementia
Human brains are gradually getting bigger, decade by decade, potentially lowering people’s risk of developing age-related dementia, according to a recent study published by Alzheimer’s researchers at UC Davis Health.

People born in the 1970s have more brain volume and more brain surface area than people born in the 1930s, according to the study, published March 25 in JAMA Neurology...

The reasons brains are getting larger are believed to be linked to improvements in the early childhood environment at the population level, including better prenatal care, nutrition, health care and education...

Researchers found that brain volume and surface area grew gradually but consistently in people who were born in each subsequent decade between the 1930s and 1970s. People born in the 1970s had 6.6% more average brain volume than those born in the 1930s — 1,321 milliliters compared with 1,234 milliliters, the analysis found. And people born in the 1970s had nearly 15% more average brain surface area — 2,104 square centimeters compared with 2,056 square centimeters.
There are scenarios where both studies could be true, for example, brains have been shrinking over millennia, but they have been growing over the past century. If I haven't lost so many brain cells, I might be able to think of more of them.

Friday, April 12, 2024

O.J.'s Legacy

The 1994 Bronco "chase" (spectrum)
Every newspaper (yes, I still read at least three of them every day) has carried obituaries of O.J. Simpson, who died this Wednesday from cancer at the age of 76. His outstanding career in college and professional football and his subsequent work in film, TV, and advertising alone merited pages, but the big story was his 1994-1995 trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. WSJ columnist Peggy Noonan captures that unique, "crazy" period in history:
Our crazy country. The O.J. Simpson case was the beginning of knowing we were crazy and admitting it. It was 30 years ago this June, the murder followed by the Bronco chase, and I find myself wanting to tell those who weren’t there what a sensation it was, what an amazement.

Everyone over 40 this weekend will be saying, “I’ll never forget when I heard the verdict,” and, “Did you watch the Bronco?” The case burned itself into our retinas; everyone in the country was in the path of totality.

As much as anything and more than most, the story was the beginning of the modern media age. It was the beginning of hypercelebrity and marked by the emotionalism of crowds. Crowds ran to California freeway overpasses on June 17, 1994, to see the Ford Bronco containing Simpson roll by, surrounded by police cruisers. They cheered and pumped their arms. They didn’t see it as a tragedy, the story of the beautiful young woman and mother, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her 25-year-old friend, Ron Goldman, who had been brutally stabbed to death. They saw an exciting drama unfolding before their eyes, like Al Capone shooting his way out of a bank heist surrounded by cops. Simpson was a guy everyone liked. So they cheered. And people watching thought: Whoa, what are we seeing, what is this?

Some new kind of fame was being presaged. A close friend of O.J.’s, Los Angeles lawyer and businessman Robert Kardashian, an apparently quiet fellow no one had heard of, was thrust into the case from the beginning. At a news conference he read a public letter from O.J., just before he turned himself in. The letter said he had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder. “I loved her. . . . If we had a problem, it’s because I loved her so much.” It was classic abusive-husband patter.

Kardashian, like other O.J. attorneys, would become famous, and the fame would be a lesson to many. After fame comes wealth and power and everyone gives you a good table. It is probably true that none of this was lost on his former wife, Kris, who had been one of Nicole Simpson’s best friends, or on his children, Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Rob. Their show, “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” debuted in 2007. They were the first reality-TV family, famous for being famous. They are billionaires now.

“It marked the end of cozy, afternoon soap opera entertainment and ushered in a tabloid culture of Kardashians, Jenners, and lesser beings,” former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter said by email. “Also, it made, for a time, Dominick Dunne the most recognized print reporter in the world.” Dunne’s colorful and breathless reports each month in Vanity Fair covered the case like a blanket—who snubbed whom in the courtroom, who said what at Brentwood’s glittering dinner tables...

If the signal moment was the Bronco chase, it was the court case that would have lasting significance. It was a prime example of how our legal system got bogged down in distractions, inanities, and poor police and legal work. It dragged on nine months. The judge, Lance Ito, also became a celebrity, and apparently liked it. He kept three open computers on his bench. No one had ever seen that before. Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” had a regular sketch, the “Dancing Itos.” There were endless, meandering objections. The prosecutor, Marcia Clark, had to get her hair and makeup done, and a new wardrobe.

And the cast of characters! Kato Kaelin, the house guest who never left. Mark Fuhrman, the police detective who seemed solid on evidence and then was torn apart for having once used racial epithets and was accused of planting evidence.

And the phrases that bubbled up from the courtroom and entered the national consciousness: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

And, of course, the terrible and historic moment when the jury announced its verdict.

The trial felt like it had gone forever but the verdict came in within a day. No one in America did a bit of work from the moment it was announced that the jury had a verdict. Everyone ran to a TV set. From Robert D. McFadden’s O.J. obit in the New York Times: “Even President Bill Clinton left the Oval Office to join his secretaries. In court, cries of ‘Yes!’ and ‘Oh, no!’ were echoed across the nation as the verdict left many Black people jubilant and many white people aghast.” Exactly true.

A friend wrote Thursday afternoon: “Trial as spectacle has been with us for a long time (think Lizzie Borden), and so have juries doing unusual things. But this seemed to take it to a new level. If memory serves, the volume of the New York Stock Exchange went down to basically nothing for a few minutes as the verdict was announced. That’s real.”

Reaction famously fell almost completely along racial lines. It was one of those 20th-century moments when you realized race is here to stay as an unending factor, an unyielding actor in American life. White and black saw two different realities. Whites: All the evidence points to his guilt, he’s one of the most admired men in America, race isn’t the story here.

Blacks: This is what you do to black men, you railroad them on cooked-up evidence, there’s plenty of room for doubt.

It showed in some new and unforgettable way the divided country. The verdict itself didn’t divide the country; it revealed it, again and not for the last time, as divided. Reaction was called shocking, revelatory. But what it was, was simpler. It was painful. It left you with a tight and mournful feeling in your throat.

Before O.J., American blacks lacked confidence in the legal system. After O.J., everyone lacked confidence in the legal system. It looked cynical, performative, agenda-driven, not on the level.

I would say he got away with murder because I believe he was guilty. But in a way he didn’t get away with it; it stalked him the rest of his life. And that is tragedy, too, because he’d been such a hero, a winner of the Heisman Trophy, a football star, a man of great accomplishment whom everyone admired.

That’s all.

The O.J. case revealed so much and started a new age. Within a few years the internet would become ubiquitous, and at that point the new age would become more so.
I remember going to lunch at a popular bar-restaurant in San Francisco. Instead of the TV being tuned to sports, it showed a slow-moving Ford Bronco being trailed by police cars on an LA freeway. I couldn't hear the sound and had no idea what the fuss was about.

Over the next year, one could not avoid the O.J. Simpson story; it was on all the network news. In their thirst for material reporters unearthed every scrap of information about every character in the drama: the defense team, the prosecution, law enforcement, and witnesses. Many cashed in on their new found fame.

The O.J. Simpson trial showed how much society had regressed in the late 20th century. Tribalism had taken hold; it didn't matter what you did, what group you belonged to determined whether you deserved punishment, facts and evidence be damned. It was okay to exploit the tragedy of a double murder if it meant a lucrative book deal.

The genie was out of the bottle, and there would be no turning back.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Incompetence We Voted For

Los Angeles,  June, 2023 (patch)
"California has been wasting billions of dollars to no good effect."

That statement can be applied to any number of topics: high-speed rail, water storage, green energy, education, "low-cost" housing, etc. In this case we're talking about homelessness. [bold added]
California has spent $24 billion to combat homelessness over the last five years—and what did it get for its money? More homelessness, according to a new state audit that should embarrass Sacramento and infuriate taxpayers.

The Legislature charged state auditor Grant Parks with reviewing the state’s homeless spending as the numbers camping on streets rise. Alas, his report this week concludes that the state “lacks current information on the ongoing costs and outcomes of its homelessness programs.”

The agency in charge “has not consistently tracked and evaluated the State’s efforts to prevent and end homelessness,” he adds. Translation: California has been wasting billions of dollars to no good effect.

According to the audit, 181,399 people were homeless at some point in 2023, up from 118,552 in 2013 and 151,278 in 2019.
Californians keep electing the same crowd that spends $billions, produces negative results, then keeps raising taxes because we supposedly haven't spent enough on these problems. As a believer in democracy, I suppose we're getting what we wanted.....and deserve.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

They Aren't Forget-Me-Nots

Yesterday I couldn't remember the name of this flower that's been blooming in our yard for over 20 years. Refusing to do an internet search, I wanted to see when the name would come back to me. This morning, after six hours of sleep, the answer came instantaneously: nasturtiums.

Such lapses now come about once a month--well within "normal" and not necessarily a sign of impending dementia--yet I have come to realize that I could have taken better care of my brain when I was middle-aged:
More scientists are looking for clues in the midlife brain because efforts to target dementia in older people have largely failed, says Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience also at Duke...

Parts of the brain start to change faster during middle age, especially the hippocampus, which is important for remembering everyday events, says Sebastian Dohm-Hansen, a doctoral student at University College Cork in Ireland and first author of a March review study on brain aging published in the journal Trends in Neurosciences.

In your 40s and 50s, the white matter in your brain—the connections between brain areas—decreases in volume, says Dohm-Hansen. That likely results in slower processing speed, which could have further effects on cognition, he says.

In addition, proteins can build up in your blood, resulting in low-grade inflammation that can affect the hippocampus’s ability to encode and store new information, he says.

People keep their verbal language-based skills their whole life, says Moffitt. But the speed at which you process information and your capacity to solve new problems of logic and reasoning gradually diminishes with age...

There are no guaranteed ways to prevent dementia. But steps that help both your brain and your heart include exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking, as well as trying to avoid getting or managing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and obesity, and treating obstructive sleep apnea...

Also important is staying socially and mentally active and engaged, [Mayo Clinic Dr. David] Knopman says. “There are benefits of working in a challenging environment—it stimulates the brain—and it seems to be associated with better outcomes,” he says.
It's too late for me but maybe not for you, dear reader. Save yourself!

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

The Re-rating of Murphy Beds

(WSJ gif)
Like other items (e.g., iron cookware, analog appliances) associated with a humble past, Murphy beds are now considered a prestige item:
Beds once associated with claustrophobic Depression-era flophouses are popping up at ski resorts, timeshares and luxury suites.

Hotel rooms are shrinking, and travelers are increasingly demanding their rooms be more than just places to catch some shut-eye. That has led hotel developers to turn to an old standby—the Murphy bed.

Today’s hideaway wall bed isn’t the rickety, dust-covered last resort many travelers might expect, say hoteliers, designers and furniture companies. They pitch it as an aesthetic marvel that’s also comfortable.
Murphy beds were a staple of pre-War comedy, which showed characters stuck in the walls. Older folks still chuckle at the memory, then their eyes widen in surprise at what modern designers have done with Murphy beds.

Monday, April 08, 2024

Tax Audits: Good News and Bad News

(Image from mymcmedia)
There's good news and bad news if you're worried about being audited. The bad first: [bold added[
The most recent data suggests the IRS is still focused on the middle class. As of last summer, 63% of new audits targeted taxpayers with income of less than $200,000. Only a small overall share reached the very highest earners, while 80% of audits covered filers earning less than $1 million...

Tigta reports that revenue-agent recruitment is “far below” the agency’s target, and it hired only 34 in the first six months of its expansion, according to trade publication Government Executive. That compares with its goal of 3,700 in the first year.

The agency faces the same tight labor market as any other employer, but the job specs aren’t bad. A typical salary for these agents is about $125,000, plus public-employee perks such as up to $60,000 in student-loan forgiveness. But for one reason or another, America’s treasurers and accountants aren’t lining up to become federal tax collectors.
Thousands-fewer IRS agents reduces the likelihood that anyone would be audited (good), but Joe Biden's focus on under-$200,000 returns (bad) puts the lie to his promise that the agency would focus on over-$400,000 returns. Disappointing, to say the least.

Sunday, April 07, 2024

A Progressive Sees the Social Benefits of Religion

(Atlantic image)
A self-proclaimed Progressive agnostic now laments the emptying of pews across America:
As an agnostic, I have spent most of my life thinking about the decline of faith in America in mostly positive terms. Organized religion seemed, to me, beset by scandal and entangled in noxious politics. So, I thought, what is there really to mourn? Only in the past few years have I come around to a different view. Maybe religion, for all of its faults, works a bit like a retaining wall to hold back the destabilizing pressure of American hyper-individualism, which threatens to swell and spill over in its absence...

Suddenly, in the 1990s, the ranks of nonbelievers surged. An estimated 40 million people—one in eight Americans—stopped going to church in the past 25 years, making it the “largest concentrated change in church attendance in American history,” according to the religion writer Jake Meador. In 2021, membership in houses of worship fell below a majority for the first time on record...

That relationship with organized religion provided many things at once: not only a connection to the divine, but also a historical narrative of identity, a set of rituals to organize the week and year, and a community of families. PRRI found that the most important feature of religion for the dwindling number of Americans who still attend services a few times a year included “experiencing religion in a community” and “instilling values in their children.”..

“Places that used to anchor community life, like libraries and school gyms and union halls, have become less accessible or shuttered altogether.” Many people, having lost the scaffolding of organized religion, seem to have found no alternative method to build a sense of community...

I’m not advocating that every atheist and agnostic in America immediately choose a world religion and commit themselves to weekly church (or synagogue, or mosque) attendance. But I wonder if, in forgoing organized religion, an isolated country has discarded an old and proven source of ritual at a time when we most need it. Making friends as an adult can be hard; it’s especially hard without a scheduled weekly reunion of congregants. Finding meaning in the world is hard too; it’s especially difficult if the oldest systems of meaning-making hold less and less appeal. It took decades for Americans to lose religion. It might take decades to understand the entirety of what we lost.
I appreciate what he's trying to do, but writer Derek Thompson's reconsideration of the value of religion is along utilitarian lines; just as Marxists trash religion because it causes more people to be anti-abortion or pro-military or less inclined to overthrow capitalism, religion is beneficial because it encourages face-to-face interactions, makes people put down their smartphones, gets them off the couch on Sunday mornings, etc.

"Go to church, young man, it's good for you," is not an inspiring motivator. Is the religion true, does it help explain what's going on with you and the world?--those are the reasons you should go.

Saturday, April 06, 2024

The New Stupid Party

Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Miami (Fine Arts)
Three Democratic congressmen couldn't resist tweaking former President Trump's nose, perhaps responding to Republican attempts to rename Dulles International after him:
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, and two other House Democrats want to name the Miami federal prison after former President Donald Trump.

The legislation, which has little chance of passing, would change the Federal Correctional Institution Miami’s name to the Donald J. Trump Federal Correctional Institution. The prison, located about 90 miles from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, is a low-security facility that holds about 1,000 men convicted of federal crimes...

The legislation proposal came days after seven House Republicans introduced a bill to rename the Washington Dulles International Airport after Trump. (No California Republicans have signed onto the bill.)

...Trump is facing charges in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida related to his alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving office. It’s unclear when the trial could start, but if convicted and sentenced to prison, it’s possible he could be sent to FCI Miami.
IMHO, there's zero chance that former President Trump will be sent to prison on the documents charge, but that's an argument for another day.

The Trump booking photo (Fox News)
Haven't Democrats learned anything from the past year? Every "lawfare" move against Mr. Trump only strengthens his support. The infamous "mug shot," instead of eroding his presumed law-abiding base, only made him look defiant and determined.

And if the Federal prison is renamed after him, he'll make it work to his advantage. If he's elected, perhaps President Trump would order the Trump prison to house illegal aliens who have committed capital crimes; the numbers will astonish those who get their news from the mainstream media who only report on these instances piecemeal.

Self-aware Republicans often call themselves the "stupid party." Now it's not so clear which party deserves that title more.

Friday, April 05, 2024

Ignoring the Politics When Buying a Car

The 2024 Tesla Model 3 starts at $38,900 (kbb)
In the modern era politics infects (infests?) even minor decisions. Artists speak out on controversial issues, and even if their books, movies, or music are critically acclaimed, some segment of the market will avoid their products simply because it despises their politics.

Not seeing a specific movie or reading a specific book has no lasting impact on a consumer's life. But will he let politics be the deciding factor on what may be the best value on a car? Car critic Dan Neil cites the example of his sister.
When it came to buying a replacement, safety was her top priority. Who makes the safest car on the market? she asked. I warned that she might not like the answer.

Tesla. Tesla models have earned five-star ratings from regulators in every global market, the highest cumulative scores in the industry. These marks capture Teslas’ crash resilience, their inherent stability (low center of gravity) and advanced driver-assist systems. Tesla’s standard suite of optical sensors and automatic braking would have at least mitigated the collision that took out her Kia.

“How about a Model 3?” I suggested. Kathy rolled her eyes. “I will never buy a car from that man,” she said, referring to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. “You’ve never even met the man,” I said, knowing that wouldn’t help.

Last week Kathy and her husband, Bill, signed a three-year lease on a 2024 Tesla Model 3 Rear-Wheel Drive: $331 per month, with a $4,400 down payment. Their modest monthly includes a $7,500 federal tax credit, a 15,000-mile annual mileage allowance and $1,000 incentive from Tesla, since expired...

She admitted it was a case of enlightened self-interest. “It’s just that when you look at how much car and how much money,” she explained, “you’d be crazy to buy anything else.”

...This is the first U.S.-market Tesla to rely on lithium iron-phosphate (LFP) batteries, which are broadly superior to nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) cells in cost, safety, climatization, charging speed and durability. My sister’s car extracts 272 miles of range from a comparatively small battery, a reported 57.5-kWh of usable storage. At a Tesla Supercharger it can add up to 175 miles of range in 15 minutes. If you were waiting for the proverbial game to change, pay attention...

Build quality: Kathy’s car was one of 32 delivered by the local Tesla center that day, handed over with little ceremony by hustling Tesla team members. In other words, a random sample. It looked perfect to me. Door and panel gaps, window glazing and trim, fit and finish? All flush and razor straight...

Charging [at home] at overnight rates, roughly 10 cents per kWh, it will cost $5.85 to fully recharge the battery, or 2 cents per mile. Even if my arithmetic is 100% wrong, that’s still only 4 cents per mile. Isn’t it?
At $38,900 the basic Tesla Model 3 is cheaper than the last two internal-combustion cars that I purchased in 2018 and 2019. If I were in the market for an EV, and even if I found Elon Musk's recent antics upsetting (I don't), I'd buy a Model 3.

Thursday, April 04, 2024

Going Up and Going Down

430 California (Chron)
S.F. tech company quadruples office space as it looks to hire hundreds
Tech firm Rippling has signed a 123,000-square-foot lease for a new San Francisco headquarters, quadrupling its office space as it plans to hire hundreds of new local workers.

Rippling, which creates workplace management software for human resources and finance, will move into nine floors at 430 California St. It now leases 30,000 square feet across two floors at 55 Second St.

The new lease is the city’s second-largest of the year, following Adyen’s 150,000-square-foot deal last month.
(cocoadocs image)
Apple lays off hundreds of Bay Area workers in first mass cuts since the pandemic
Apple is laying off 614 employees in Santa Clara as part of its first mass job cuts in years, according to a state filing.

An attorney for the tech giant wrote that the layoffs are effective on May 27, in a letter last week to the California Employment Development Department.

The move, which spans eight offices in Santa Clara, follows reports that the company canceled a decade-long electric car project. The filing did not mention the project, but affected roles include “machine shop” managers, hardware engineers and product design engineers...

The layoffs affect 371 jobs at 3689 Kifer Road, 58 at 1705 Wyatt Drive, 52 at 3260 Scott Blvd., 49 at 3111 Coronado Drive, 35 at 3250 Scott Blvd., 23 at 2945 San Ysidro Way, 15 at 2975 San Ysidro Way, and 11 at 3000-3008 Kifer Road.
Among its mega-cap peers, Apple is known for being slow to hire and fire. The layoffs should not come as a surprise, since Apple discontinued its electric-car initiative last month. Nevertheless, Apple couldn't move 614 employees to other parts of the company, perhaps a sign of dimming growth prospects.

Meanwhile, Rippling's new lease is another counter to the validity of San Francisco's "doom loop" narrative. Furthermore, Rippling is not in the AI industry, where San Francisco's bounce-back seems to be coming from. The reports of the City's death appear to be premature, if not greatly exaggerated.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Big Sur: the Latest Closure

Hwy 1 "slip out" in Monterey County
One week ago we posted about a mudslide in Santa Cruz County that has disrupted the lives of five households. On a much smaller scale it reminded us of the 2017 mudslide that inconvenienced thousands who travel on Highway 1 in Big Sur.

Last week Highway 1 was closed again, this time in Monterey County.
The slip-out occurred Saturday, causing the highway to be closed and stranding an estimated 1,600 residents and visitors. Since Sunday, Caltrans has been opening Highway 1 twice a day to convoys, but those convoys have been canceled Thursday and Friday because of the rain forecast. They are expected to resume Saturday.
The good news is that single-lane traffic in the affected area is safe, provided that rain doesn't weaken the structure further. However, hoping that there will be no more damage is a gamble:
Officials issued an evacuation warning on Wednesday for the region south of the existing slip-out near the Rocky Creek Bridge ahead of the coming storms. Anyone within the evacuation zone was urged to leave before anticipated road closures.

“If you feel unsafe, medically fragile, or are unprepared to be isolated for several days, leave immediately ... storms may cause additional damage along Highway 1,” Monterey County officials wrote in an alert.

The convoys are expected to halt Thursday and Friday but will resume once the storms clear, likely on Saturday, Monterey County spokesperson Nicholas Pasculli said.

With more storms on the way, meteorologists were concerned that additional rain could trigger landslides on other parts of the famed highway.
The Big Sur Highway has been called one of the top scenic drives in the world and attracts millions of visitors every year. However, mudslides cost millions of dollars to repair, and it's only a matter of time before the tectonic plates shift and cause worse damage than slides. When it's man against nature, nature usually wins. In a hundred years, if it does remain open, count on it to look very different.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Retirement: How Much is Enough?

WSJ illustration
Seventeen (17) years ago I did a quick-and-dirty estimate of the nest egg required for us to have a "sleep-well" retirement. The answer: $2 million.
We can spend a lot more time fine tuning the calculation to include taxes, Social Security, lumpy expenditures such as medical care, cruises, and cars, and whether the savings are in tax-deferred or taxable accounts, but the extra precision won’t change the final number much. Am I there yet? Let's put it this way, I've got to keep working for a while---there are a few more years of mortgage and college payments--but I'm sleeping well, too.
In the intervening years we've been lucky. The performance of the stock market has kept our savings above $2 million, and we have paid off the mortgage. On the other hand, inflation has rocketed past the 3% used in my old calculations, and doesn't appear to be dampening anytime soon. The upshot: retiring in the SF Bay Area now requires more than $2 million to have sleep-well golden years (remember this is my personal opinion!), but that amount seems more than enough in other parts of the country.

A recent survey places the subjective target at $1.46 million.
It would take $1.46 million to retire comfortably, according to a recent survey of 4,588 adults released Tuesday by financial-services company Northwestern Mutual. That is up from $1.27 million a year ago. And over $1 million more than the average survey participant’s nest egg.

The rising magic number reveals more about retirement anxiety than retirement planning, said Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
Money isn't the only way to buy retirement happiness, of course. Having trusted friends and family members--preferably younger--helps, as does living in a safe community with ample medical services. If through planning, skill, and luck you have all that, you're living the true American dream.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Lightening the Gloom

In 2004 at the age of 37 Jane Fraser joined Citigroup and became known for her April Fools' Day pranks. Her predilection for practical jokes doesn't seemed to have harmed her career. In 2021 she became the CEO of Citigroup. Her mischievousness continues.
In early 2022, Citigroup Chief Executive Jane Fraser startled her senior team with a request: Please sign these waivers to go skydiving.

Executives questioned the sanity of the bank’s leaders all jumping out of a plane. Does the board know, one of them emailed. I’m not sure my heart is healthy enough, another replied.

Karen Peetz, the chief administrative officer hired to repair Citigroup’s relationships with regulators, tried to calm the kerfuffle. She said she’d gone with her old bank and it was great.

After watching her team squirm for a while, Fraser emailed again: April Fools’.

It was March 31.
In business it requires excellent judgment to discern when humor crosses the line. Hopefully it's reflective of the judgment that will be needed to overcome Citigroup's problems.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

An Offer We Can't Refuse

Holy Week plumbs the depths and heights of human experience. Whether sad or joyful, Christians normally take the whole week seriously.

Good-natured humor not related to the Easter bunny is relatively rare, but the Babylon Bee comes up with a take (excerpt):
But then He did something really strange that didn't make a ton of sense to anyone: instead of canceling humanity, He sent His Son to pay for the sins of the world and offered to cancel forever the sin-debt of those who believe in Him.

Reports indicated that for those who were dead in their sins, "God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross."

However, sources warned that God has canceled humanity once before with water and will do it again with fire one day, for those who reject His offer of canceling their sins forever.
Happy Easter!

Saturday, March 30, 2024

Another Addition to the Heap of Worries

The complete collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge when one vertical support was struck by a container ship highlights a similar vulnerability in thousands of U.S. bridges. In this group eight major U.S. bridges are "fracture critical":
At least seven bridges, some of them twin spans, have clearance similar to the Key according to the National Bridge Inventory, a collection of the inspection records done on the nation’s thousands of highway bridges, based on last year’s version of the data released by the Federal Highway Administration. An eighth has piers that stand on or next to land. The eight are part of important transportation systems in California, Maryland, Oregon, New York and Washington.

All but one are older than the Key, and all contain what is known as “fracture critical members,” meaning the failure of even a single steel component in tension could cause a collapse.
The San Francisco Bay Area is fortunate that a supersize container vessel hasn't gone astray and damaged either of its iconic bridges, but the lack of capital reserves means that this addition to the heap of worries won't be relieved anytime soon.

Friday, March 29, 2024

It Is Finished

Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.

When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Thursday, March 28, 2024

San Francisco Won’t Be Detroit

How do we know that San Francisco won't follow the path of 1950's Detroit into crime, economic destruction, and population decline? When a new restaurant opens to crowds clamoring for a taste of $158 caviar and Peking Duck. At Z&Y Peking Duck
a server ferries your pre-ordered duck ($78 whole, $48 half), one of 20 prepared each day, from the kitchen to the carving station next to the bar. A dedicated duck chef works quickly and expertly, making precise 45-degree cuts with a long knife down one side of the body and then the other...

All this is more than enough to make for a meal worthy of a special occasion. But then there’s the caviar. For an additional $80, your Peking duck experience can begin with a plated appetizer: five rectangles of spongy pancake topped with cucumber, scallion, sauce and duck, crowned with a thimbleful of Bulgarian Osetra caviar. Edible flower petals and herb sprigs are tweezered about the plate.
The City by the Bay isn't going to be Motor City anytime soon.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Slow Landslide

Residents have to walk around the slide to get home.
When I think of a "landslide," I imagine a wall of rocks and mud and/or dirt crushing all before it, posing an immediate threat to life and property. Some residents in Santa Cruz County are suffering through a landslide that moves a foot a week.
County officials first became aware of cracks appearing on a portion of Mountain Charlie Road just south of Lexington Reservoir on Feb. 26. The slide, which officials say is currently still moving at a rate of at least one foot per week, has rendered a portion of the road inaccessible to cars and barely accessible on foot, and almost completely decimated a private driveway just off the road that leads to five houses.

Residents of the five houses currently have tenuous access to water, internet and propane, and were forced to carve out a trail down a steep hill to walk by foot onto Mountain Charlie Road since the driveway is completely inaccessible by car and by foot. For residents living south of the landslide, the portion of Mountain Charlie Road that was affected by the landslide remains temporarily accessible on foot, but ongoing movement with the slide and intermittent rain may change that in the near future.

With fire season approaching, residents are also worried that the landslide could block emergency vehicles from accessing their homes in the event of a fire or other emergency...

But since the slide is moving every day, it will soon be inaccessible by foot, and all residents will be forced to drive several miles to Scotts Valley to safely get onto Highway 17, making a 15- to 30-minute commute now one to two hours. And with the onset of warmer weather and a corresponding increase in traffic from beachgoers using Highway 17, they’re worried that these already long commutes could double or even triple in length.
After the slide slows to 3-6 inches a week, repairs to the road will take one to three years. The effect of this slow-moving slide is reminiscent of the mudslide that sorely inconvenienced thousands in 2017.

Despite wildfires, earthquakes, and other natural (and human-caused) disasters, there are still millions of us Californians who would not live anywhere else. Go figure.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

The Grief of the Chronically Ill

I'm lucky that old age has been a long, slow descent. The mind has time to adjust to the fact that I'll never be able to do some things as well as I used to or in some cases ever again.

When disability strikes at younger ages the grief never goes away completely.
The grief of those with chronic health issues—for the loss of capabilities, for changed or ruptured relationships, for changes in appearance, for the forced end of a career, or for former dreams for the future—can last for long periods and recur often, as losses and uncertainty become a constant feature of life...

People who have intimate knowledge of the grief that comes with chronic health issues say it has a trajectory all its own—a trajectory that many mental-health professionals, friends and family often don’t understand. The idea that everyone goes through five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—doesn’t ring true for many disabled people. Chronic illness, other disabilities and the grief they bring often run an unpredictable course, easing but then flaring up again, a cycle that can recur over time.  
Physical disabilities are tough enough to deal with. Combined with the emotional toll, it's nearly impossible for normals to understand what the chronically ill are going through.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Gross Over-Reach

A property that could be seized by New York (Le Monde)
At one of my previous employers my job was to price loans, leases, and equity to corporations who were our customers. The corporations always put the best face on the assets we were advancing money on, and one of my department's jobs was to ascertain those assets' realistic value in the event of a default and ultimate liquidation of the property.

Another task was to price the risk we were taking. In addition to the value of the assets we had to look at the financial strength of the borrower and assess the likelihood of being repaid if the business functioned under stress. The higher the risk, the higher the rate we would charge.

Often we would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars analyzing and negotiating terms that were acceptable to both parties. Larger deals, such as the loans made to Donald Trump's businesses, would go to senior management committees for their approval, and hundreds of thousands of dollars would be spent on legal documents that captured the nuances of the deal.

It's possible for financiers to lose a lot of money on loans, of course. None of them put the coronavirus lockdown in their models, or the permanent shift to working from home, or the cessation of downtown foot traffic, or the inability of cities to protect properties because of police defunding. And it's still possible to defraud sophisticated lenders with the inclusion of fake properties or fake financial statements.

Judge Arthur Engeron ruled that sophisticated lenders were fooled by fraudulent Trump financial statements and calculated the fine based on the additional rate the Trump organization would have paid had the lenders not been misled. For example, Deutsche Bank would have charged 400 basis points more:
The memo indicated that for Trump Chicago, the Commercial Investment Bank Division would be willing to provide a loan on a non-recourse basis (i.e., no personal guarantee) at LIBOR plus 8%, and that the private wealth division would be willing to provide a loan on a full recourse basis (with an unconditional personal guarantee) at LIBOR plus 4%.
Judge Engeron misunderstands, perhaps wilfully, the give-and-take of commercial real estate finance. If Deutsche Bank had smelled a rat, it would have priced the loan, say 100 bp higher at LIBOR plus 5%. If it had regarded a Trump guarantee as worthless, it would have reverted to LIBOR plus 8%, which is extraordinarily expensive given the collateral, and Trump would have gone elsewhere. All these dynamics are familiar in business-to-business finance, which is not the same as business-to-consumer where one party has a distinct knowledge advantage. The bottom line: Trump would never have paid the LIBOR plus 8% on which Judge Engeron based his penalty calculation.

Today the appeals court reduced Trump's fine:
Donald Trump needs to pay just $175 million to put his $454 million civil fraud judgment on hold during his appeal, a New York appellate court ruled, giving the former president a crucial win on the cusp of a financial deadline.
From the point of view of fair dealing, especially since neither borrower or lender were harmed, there should have been no fine. But New York Attorney General Letitia James found a unique New York law that allowed her to impose a financial death penalty on Donald Trump's organization. To this humble blogger it's a gross over-reach of prosecutorial power, but then again I'm no lawyer.