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.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Palm Sunday, 2024

With four different priests, not to mention the addition of COVID protocols, the Palm Sunday liturgy for the Episcopal Church in Foster City has changed in each of the past five years. Today there would be no burning of incense, the services would not start outside, and there would be no marching around the block in emulation of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem.

One constant was the wearing of liturgical red by the priest and many in the congregation. Another was the reading of the Passion Gospel (Mark 14-15), with various church members voicing the parts of Jesus, Pilate, the "crowd," the chief Priest, etc.

When I was a child I couldn't identify with major sections of the Passion Gospel: how could His loyal disciples deny knowing Jesus? why would the crowd choose to free the murderer Barabbas and crucify the peaceful Jesus? how could He be cheered upon his entrance to Jerusalem yet hated enough to be put to death less than a week later?

The answer is obvious to anyone who follows the news and is a riposte to those who say that Christianity has no relevance today.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

FAIR to No One

Riverside County fire in October, 2023 (CNBC)
It's old news that California's property insurers are withdrawing from the state; this week State Farm announced that it would not be renewing 72,000 policies (it had already stopped writing new ones last year).

Thousands of homeowners in risky wildfire areas can only be covered by California's insurer of last resort, the Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) plan. However, the FAIR plan's financial condition has become precarious: [bold added]
The number of homes and commercial properties in high-risk wildfire areas covered by the California FAIR Plan has more than doubled, from 154,000 in 2019 to 375,000, and liability exposure has ballooned from $50 billion in 2018 to $336 billion in February, its president told lawmakers at an insurance committee hearing last week...

The state created the California FAIR Plan in the 1960s in response to insurers refusing to cover inner-city businesses following riots in Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood. It’s a nonprofit association of all the state’s authorized property insurance providers, chartered to provide temporary basic insurance for properties deemed so high risk that companies refused coverage.

The FAIR plan isn’t tax supported, and its bare-bones coverage — just fire and smoke damage — is paid from policy premiums that can be much more expensive than regular insurance because the risk pool is much higher.

The plan also isn’t subject to the insurance regulation under Proposition 103, the check on rates voters approved in 1988. But it is regulated by the state legislature and its rates approved by the elected insurance commissioner, though not under the review of consumer groups, which can intervene on regular policies.

[FAIR Plan President Victoria] Roach said that the FAIR Plan has encountered the same problems as regular insurance providers in getting policy rate increases approved to provide enough revenue to cover its risk exposure. Approvals take too long and don’t allow the plan to include the cost of reinsurance — which helps insurers absorb losses — or to factor in catastrophe risk models.

“Our rates are never actuarially sound because not all of our expenses are included in that ratemaking,” Roach told lawmakers. The plan must file for rate adjustments every two years, and she said its last increase requested in 2021 should have been “around 70%” but the plan asked for 48.8%. The insurance department approved only a 15.7% increase, she testified.

At the same time, the huge increase in properties needing last-resort coverage has greatly inflated the plan’s risk liability...

Roach said the FAIR Plan has cash on hand “somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 million.
Your humble blogger does agree that insurance needs regulation--insurers could collect premiums and flee without having to make good on claims--but as usual California, in the name of protecting the consumer, has made it impossible to supply the product, even by the non-profit entity it created.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Off-Islander Goes Local, Returns Home, Makes Good

The dorms that are occupied mostly by Mainland
students have expanded a lot since 1970.
When we went to the Mainland for school, we used to joke about the Mainland kids who came in the other direction. The University of Hawaii was a decent college at the time but wasn't renowned in any field of study (except oceanography and bioscience) so we knew what these kids were likely doing here. Overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class (room and board wasn't cheap), they were in Hawaii to have a good time.

Somehow they had sweet-talked their parents to send them across the Pacific and learn the rigors of independent living in a campus where the beach was a mile away.

Whether or not Scott Swift had similar motivations is unclear. He traveled 5,000 miles to spend his freshman year playing Rainbow football.
Scott Swift’s collegiate football career was brief. The lanky teenager from Pennsylvania transferred to a school closer to home after one season and attended the University of Delaware before becoming a successful wealth manager.
Scott and his daughter Taylor in 2015 (Miller/WSJ)
When Scott Swift was in Hawaii, Al Michaels ("do you believe in miracles?") was a young broadcaster who did the radio for UH sports. Scott Swift calls the presence of Al Michaels his "first brush with fame." Unfortunately, Al Michaels did not remember him.

His second brush with fame has lasted nearly two decades and is still continuing. This time the famous person he knows doesn't have to be reminded who he is.

Scott Swift joins the list of Mainlanders (e.g. actor Beau Bridges and talk-show host Michael Savage) who attended the UH and struck gold later in life. So parents, don't discount their pleadings: it might not be for everyone, but the University of Hawaii may provide just the education your son or daughter needs.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Educators Won't Support the SAT Now that Some Colleges Require It

Last month we posted about how some elite colleges are again mandating that applicants submit scores on standardized tests. Yale Admissions' Jeremiah Quinlan:
students with higher scores have been more likely to have higher Yale GPAs, and test scores are the single greatest predictor of a student’s performance in Yale courses in every model we have constructed.
While neither the University of California nor California State University schools require test scores, many California students now want to sit for the Scholastic Aptitude Test because of the requirement from out-of-state colleges. (California private universities, e.g., Stanford and Caltech still don't require the SAT either.)

Fewer students took the now-optional SAT in 2021-2023 (Chron)
When COVID made group testing impracticable, the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities removed the test requirement in 2020. California high schools immediately stopped setting up testing sites. Now that this admissions precondition has partially resumed
Fewer than half of the schools that served as testing centers before the pandemic have returned,
Since many California educators subscribe to the ideology that testing is racist and inequitable, that ideology is probably a factor in their dragging their feet on resuming "School Day" testing, where the test is held at the students' school on a weekday. Some test-takers have to travel out-of-town on weekends in order to sit for the exam, which, of course, adds to the stress and inequity for students who can't afford to do so.

Some high-achieving but underprivileged students want to better their lives by going to and winning scholarships at out-of-state colleges, but educators won't support testing because they think they know what's better for the students than the students themselves.

The rot is pervasive, and it will take years to clean it up if that's even possible.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Generative AI: Some Fruit are Poisoned

(WSJ image)
Data integrity, aka garbage-in, garbage-out, has been a problem with computing since its inception. With the rise of artificial intelligence and our projected future dependence on AI, the phenomenon has been given a frightening name: data poisoning. [bold added]
This is when malicious actors insert incorrect or misleading information into the data used to train an AI model with the aim of spreading misinformation, undermining the chatbot’s functionality or getting it to do something bad, such as share sensitive information.

While data poisoning is a concern with all types of machine-learning algorithms, some researchers say generative AI models could be particularly vulnerable because they must ingest vast amounts of text, imagery and other data from the public internet to gain the knowledge they need to create something on their own.

Researchers say this reliance on a vast number of data sources from the open web—rather than curated, locked-down data sets, which are harder for hackers to penetrate—could make it difficult to spot and eliminate poisoned data, only a small amount of which is needed to affect AI’s outputs.
In 2023 lawyers were caught citing fake cases in legal briefs produced by artificial intelligence (ChatGPT).

In recent months Google's Gemini image generator, which clearly had racial diversity as a bedrock principle, produced images that were the object of ridicule:

This latter example is not so much "data poisoning" as it is a matter of algorithmic over-ride of good data.

Artificial intelligence is still in its early stages, but already it has given users reasons to distrust its output. The lazy or the indifferent won't bother with performing checks, so I'd bet that we never get rid of the poison in the system.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Toe Spacing: More Important Than You Probably Thought

Toe spacers can be built into socks (bottom right)
The hot new fitness device is toe spacers.
The pursuit of perfect toe alignment has made the humble toe spreader the new must-have training tool after previously being associated mainly with pedicures and bunions. You place it between your toes to improve alignment, like braces. The items can cost under $10...

The foot should act like a tripod, with weight evenly distributed between the center of the heel, the ball of the big toe and the base of the little toe.

The spacing should be widest at the toes, says Dr. Dennis Cardone, a sports medicine specialist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. When the toes get scrunched, the foot tripod narrows, which can affect our balance, he says.

Tight shoes that cramp the toes can lead to deformities, such as bunions, where the big toe is pulled toward the smaller toes, and hammer toes, where the toe becomes bent at the middle joint. The wrong shoes can also cause inflammatory conditions like plantar fasciitis...

A study published in the medical journal Clinical Biomechanics linked the presence of toe deformities, combined with toe weakness, to increased falls in older people...

The devices can be made from felt, foam or silicone gel. You can find basic toe spreaders in drugstores, while foot specialists sell versions for up to $65. Companies are designing colorful spacers in aqua and plum, and blingy spreaders shaped like gemstones.
Several in our household wear special orthotics indoors. I don't need them--yet--but toe spacers look like an inexpensive preventive device that can pay huge dividends.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Sites Reservoir May Come On Stream in 2032

Sites Reservoir will cover some of this
area in Colusa County (Merc photo)
The long-delayed Sites Reservoir will start construction in 2026 and come on stream in 2032, all contingent upon overcoming objections by the usual suspects:
If the project overcomes opposition and a lawsuit by environmental groups, the 1.5 million-acre-foot Sites Reservoir would be California’s eighth largest. It would be four times the size of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park, which is the main water supply for San Francisco and the Peninsula. It would provide water to 500,000 acres of Central Valley farmlands, and 24 million people, including parts of Silicon Valley, the East Bay and Los Angeles.
The $4.5 billion project will be funded from a half-dozen different sources and has been "discussed on and off since the 1950s." With over 90% of the financing in place, and with a signoff from all major State and Federal agencies, Sites looks likely to happen. It's nice to know that California can still get things done.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Unexpectedly Nice

Every 500 feet on its portion of the Bay Trail the City of Foster City has placed benches for people to take in a view of the lagoon.

Some kind soul placed a bottle of flowers at one bench to brighten everyone who chanced to rest there.

I don't wish to over-praise the effort or its importance, but it was an unexpectedly nice public-spirited gesture in a world that could use more of them.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The future Fresno station: too bad we'll never see it. (Chron)
We were skeptical of the high-speed rail project when it was announced in 2012. As cost estimates tripled, milestones got pushed out, and expectations were massaged down, we became convinced it would never be completed. From 2018:
I'd bet money on this: we will put a human being on Mars before anyone travels from LA to SF on high-speed rail.
In 2024 harsh realities are at last sinking in.
the project remains about $7 billion short of the cost to complete the initial segment from Merced to Bakersfield.

The rail project also needs about $100 billion to make the original vision of linking San Francisco and Los Angeles via bullet trains a reality. And some of the project’s watchdogs say state leaders need to decide soon whether to commit to the entire project — or abandon it.
In an election year no one in power will admit to this multi-billion-dollar disaster, much less allow the project to be cancelled. Nevertheless, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel---and it's not an oncoming train.

Friday, March 15, 2024

Nyet to Neti Pots

Neti pots (Mercury News/AP)
When the hay fever gets intense and when the pills and inhalers don't provide relief, allergy sufferers can rinse their nasal passages with saline solution. However, the appliance of choice, the neti pot, now comes with a warning from the CDC: [bold added]
Neti pots are one of the better known tools of nasal rinsing. They look like small teapots with long spouts, and usually are made of ceramic or plastic.

Users fill them with a saline solution, then pour the liquid in one nostril. It comes out the other, draining the nasal passage of allergens and other bothersome contaminants...

More than a decade ago, health officials linked U.S. deaths from a brain-eating amoeba — named Naegleria fowleri — to nasal rinsing. More recently, they started to note nasal rinsing as a common theme in illnesses caused by another microscopic parasite, Acanthamoeba.

Acanthamoeba causes different kinds of illness but is still dangerous, with a 85% fatality rate in reported cases...

This amoeba can be found naturally all over the environment — in lakes, rivers, seawater and soil.

It can cause diseases of the skin and sinuses, and can infect the brain, where it can cause a deadly form of inflammation. The microorganism also has been connected to non-fatal, but sight-threatening, eye infections, sometimes through contaminated contact lens solution.

U.S. health officials have identified about 180 infections from the single-cell organism since the first one was diagnosed in 1956.

In the vast majority of cases, researcher don’t know exactly how people became infected. But in reviewing cases in recent decades, CDC researchers increasingly received information that a number of the cases had done nasal rinsing, Haston said.

Research also has indicated it’s common in tap water. A study done in Ohio in the 1990s found more than half of tap water samples studied contained the amoeba and similar microorganisms.
I use a neti pot occasionally, and warm tap water brings relief when nasal passages are swollen. However, I'm going to switch to distilled or pre-boiled water. I've lost enough brain cells already.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Her Honesty Research Was Dishonest

Francesco Gino
You can't make this stuff up.

Harvard University has found that "prominent" researcher Francesco Gino, "known for her research into the reasons people lie and cheat", manipulated her data.
The investigative committee that produced the nearly 1,300-page document included three Harvard Business School professors tapped by HBS dean Srikant Datar to examine accusations about Gino’s work.

They concluded after a monthslong probe conducted in 2022 and 2023 that Gino “engaged in multiple instances of research misconduct” in the four papers they examined. They recommended that the university audit Gino’s other experimental work, request retractions of three of the papers (the fourth had already been retracted at the time they reviewed it), and place Gino on unpaid leave while taking steps to terminate her employment.
After this incident and the Claudine Gay fiasco, it would be nice if Harvard people became less insufferable, but don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

A Straw to Grasp

2023 gathering in Dolores Park (Chron)
When I hold losing stocks, I often seize upon any positive bit of news to justify holding on (and rationalizing my poor buy decision). Here's a straw for die-hard San Francisco believers to grasp:
San Francisco’s pandemic exodus is over, and its population grew slightly last year, new census data shows.

The city’s population increased to an estimated 808,988 residents as of July 2023, up 0.15% from the prior year’s revised 807,774, according to census data released late Wednesday. It remains far below its pre-pandemic level, down nearly 65,000 people or an estimated 7.4% compared to April 2020, after seeing some of the heaviest losses in the country.
Going up by a thousand people hardly signifies a turnaround--or even a bottoming out--of San Francisco, especially in the face of macro data:
There are other signs that the city is still struggling: Apartment rents are still below 2019 levels, making San Francisco an anomaly. Retailers are still shuttering downtown, citing lack of foot traffic. A record number of vacant offices are listed for lease.
The artificial-intelligence hiring boom isn't broad enough to offset the losses in non-AI tech, retail, finance, and travel and leisure, but hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Checking and Refilling Tires: Easier Than Ever

"That tire looks flat." More often than not, that statement from a stranger is what usually prompted me to check the air pressure on car tires for over 50 years. (I won't be too self-deprecating; I always checked the water, oil, and tires before leaving on an out-of-town trip.)

Fast forward to 2024. The dashboard on the Lexus flashed the warning light (right). One or more tires had low pressure. Sure enough, the tire pressure gauge showed all four tires to be in the 27-29 PSI range, when they all should have been at 33 PSI.

When I started driving, every service station had an air pump that customers used for free. When self-service became the norm, the air pumps began costing at least 50 cents, and if the customer wasn't quick the machine would turn off after 5 minutes, and he had to feed in more quarters.

Today there is only one service station in Foster City that has a free air pump, and there is usually a line of cars waiting to use it.

But refilling tires has also moved into the 21st century. The local Costco has installed two air pumps by the tire center. No ID required: just input the pressure target, in this case 33 PSI, affix the end of the green tube, and the machine fills the tire until it hits the mark, beeps, then turns off. Repeat three times, et voila, properly pressurized tires. The dashboard warning light switched off.

Costco even uses pure nitrogen gas, which causes less wear and tear than ordinary air.

I'd still shop at Costco even if it didn't have the fancy Nitrogen air pump, but amenities like these only make customer loyalties stronger.

Monday, March 11, 2024

Easy Risk Evaluation

The now half-empty San Francisco
Centre was filled in 2003
It's no surprise that banks are experiencing losses on property loans in U.S. cities: [bold added]
two banks that have reignited worries about property lending in recent days are one based in the New York region, New York Community Bancorp, and one based in Japan, Aozora Bank. Shares of both banks plunged this past week after they reported increased credit concerns related to commercial property risks in the U.S...

At Aozora, the at-risk property loans identified were concentrated in big cities. Of the 21 nonperforming U.S. office loans, with $719 million outstanding, that it reported this past week, the largest chunks by city were $171 million in Chicago and $127 million in Los Angeles. “The volume of property sales remains very low,” the bank wrote about Chicago’s office market in a presentation.

In a January report, Moody’s Analytics found the biggest percentage-point increase in office vacancies among U.S. metro areas over 12 months was in San Francisco, followed by Austin, Texas.
Other concentrations of problematic real estate loans were in New York and Los Angeles. Note: every single one of the cities named in the article has a Democratic mayor. Were your humble blogger a bank risk officer he would simply deny real estate loans to cities that had Democratic leadership. (Yes, I'd miss out on some profits in, for example, Knoxville, TN or Columbia, MD, but in banking big write-offs are to be avoided more than profits on risky loans are sought). Then I'd go home and have an untroubled sleep.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Hell of Our Imaginings

(From infernodotblog)
There are as many--perhaps more--visions of hell as there are of heaven. They range from the elaborately constructed nine circles of Dante's Inferno to an infinitely large room of emptiness.
Is the eternal fire a metaphor? If so, what does it mean? Is hell a physical place or a state of mind? Is there such a thing as eternal life—and if God’s verdict goes against you, does that mean a life of everlasting torment? Is it possible to believe in hell if you don’t believe in God, or is hell the terrible solitude of living without God?

Pope Francis himself has defined hell as “eternal solitude.” By contrast, Jean-Paul Sartre, the pontiff of existentialism, wrote that “hell is other people.” Which is it?

Evelyn Waugh proposed a darkly witty version of hell in his novel “A Handful of Dust.” It ends with the hero, an English gentleman lost in the Amazonian rain forest, held prisoner by an illiterate mixed-race Guianan who happens to own a complete set of Dickens and forces his captive to read it aloud, over and over again, without hope of release.

Hell expanded centuries ago from theology into literature. Great writers have had a crack at it. Dante set the standard. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is magnificent, although, as Samuel Johnson remarked, “no one wished it longer.” Milton’s fallen Lucifer sounds unexpectedly modern when he cries, “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.” Is it the case that we make our own hell?
Whatever our visions of hell, it does seem that we are much less concerned with the afterlife than were our ancestors. The rewards of heaven and the miseries of hell don't seem to motivate people's behavior. As for me, as I enter the winter of my life, the reasoning of Pascal's Wager appeals, so I may as well try to be good and do good.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

One Sign That Inflation is Abating

Spam is on sale again at Costco. At eight cans for $17.99, it's the same price as it was 17 months ago.

For comparison sake pre-COVID prices were $14.99 in 2019 and $13.99 in 2018.

Inflation is abating, but hopes for disinflation back to 2019 price levels is not going to happen any time soon. But that's ok. I have plenty of Spam to tide me over.

Friday, March 08, 2024

Fill the Bottle, Shake, Pour

I've given blood and urine samples before, but this time the urologist wanted samples covering a 24-hour period.

The orange bottle came with detailed instructions about collection, refrigeration, shaking the bottle for one minute, pouring samples into other containers, labeling and sealing the bottles, putting them in plastic bags, and completing the accompanying forms. When leaving home, I carried the bottle in a discreet shopping bag. It was a relief dropping off the samples (but not the orange container) early this morning.

The lab thought of everything. There were instructions (below) to get a second bottle if the first, which held about one gallon, was insufficient to hold the day's production. One orange bottle was more than adequate.

If I made a mistake on any step in the process, I would have to do it all over again. This was a test in more ways than one. I hope I passed.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

Life's Purpose: A Psychiatrist Has the Answer

I'm always interested in hearing what people have to say about life's purpose (while noting that a sizeable number who are overwhelmingly atheist assert that life has no purpose).

Yale Associate Professor of Psychiatry Samuel Wilkinson thinks he has found the answer based on his studies of evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology.
In an interview with Yale News, Wilkinson discusses what inspired his fascination with understanding life’s purpose, how nature instills in humans a “dual potential,” and the evolutionary forces that spur us to be our more altruistic selves.

“When you combine the concept that we are free to choose with the dual potential of human nature, to me this strongly implies that life is a test,” said Wilkinson, who is also director of the Yale Depression Research Program. “The purpose of life is to choose between the good and evil impulses inherent within us.

“This seems to be written into our DNA.”

...I totally acknowledge we have a capacity for selfishness, but in other ways we also have a deep capacity for altruism. In a way that was unexpected to me, evolution has shaped us such that we are pulled in different directions. This is a core example of how nature has left us conflicted, what in the book I call the “dual potential” of human nature.
Prof. Wilkinson has a scientific explanation for the selfish and altruistic duality of human behavior--it's built into our DNA. But I'm still at a loss to see why one is necessarily better than the other, or why life is a "test" to see whether we will choose altruism. Who is the Grader?

Science is excellent at explaining why things work, but it's so far been lacking in determining answers to basic questions, for example, if I died today did my life have value? By the way, by what criteria does one determine that value?

Or maybe I had value because I left children behind. So that's it: propagate the species? If so, individual rats and cockroaches do more for their species than I did for mine. And so on and so forth.

For now I'll search for answers in the writings of philosophers and theologians rather than psychiatrists. One good things about Prof. Wilkinson's attempt is that it prompted me to get cracking on reading Paul Tillich and Teilhard de Chardin while there's still time to do so.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Upper Arlington High School Orchestras

On one of my visits to the Ala Moana Shopping Center last month, I stopped to listen to the Upper Arlington High School (Ohio) orchestras. Their intonation was good, they watched the conductor assiduously, and half the string players had decent vibrato.

After the second orchestra took the stage, I asked one parent (she was wearing one of the UAHS aloha shirts) whether there was any difference between the two. She said that both were equally talented, which is something I would say if I were in her place. It turned out that the first was a full orchestra with brass and woodwinds, while the second was all strings. For my money, the latter seemed more skilled but I'm biased because my instrument was the violin.

Both orchestras ended with a patriotic medley bookended by the usual standards America the Beautiful and the Star-Spangled Banner. When I was a kid (hey boomer), everyone stood when the national anthem was played, but on this day no one budged from the chairs. To be fair, most of the seated were elderly, and some looked like they could be foreign visitors. Nevertheless, in today's America accepted cultural understandings are exceedingly rare, as are excellent public high school orchestras.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Primary Election Day

Foster City Library
I did my civic duty and cast my ballot in person earlier today at the Foster City library.

There were a limited number of offices to vote on, and only one proposition, Proposition 1, a $6.4 billion bond to build mental health treatment facilities and housing for the homeless. I voted "no" on Prop. 1, not because I don't want to spend money on mental health and/or the homeless but because I have little faith that the monies will actually help the intended recipients. They'll probably be diverted to consultants, planners, government agencies, and non-profits. We've been fooled before: in 2014 Californians approved a $7.5 billion bond measure to build more water storage; ten years later not one reservoir has been built.

The U.S. Senate race I also found interesting because of the way in which Democrat Adam Schiff "picked his opponent," Republican Steve Garvey. In California the top two vote getters in the primaries face off in the general election, and Adam Schiff ran ads that warned against Steve Garvey's conservatism, boosting the latter's profile amongst Republicans and some independents. A Democrat like Katie Porter would have likely proved a tougher opponent in November. If one is a fan of political strategy, one has to give credit where it's due.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Living Fossils

Alligator gar (Yale News)
No, this isn't a post about politics.

"Living fossils," (Darwin's term) specifically the gars, have little species diversity and have evolved so slowly that their genome is nearly the same as gars during the age of the dinosaurs. Importantly, understanding gars' cellular mechanisms could lead to a cure for cancer (!).
The researchers speculate that gars have an unusually strong DNA repair apparatus, allowing them to correct somatic and germline mutations — alterations to DNA that occur before and after conception — more efficiently than most other vertebrates.

If confirmed, these findings could have profound implications for human health, said [Prof. Thomas J.] Near, the Bingham Oceanographic Curator of Ichthyology at the Yale Peabody Museum.

“Most cancers are somatic mutations that represent failures of an individual’s DNA repair mechanisms,” he said. “If further study proves that gar DNA repair mechanisms are extremely efficient, and discovers what makes them so, we could start thinking about potential applications to human health.”
Another Eureka moment in science, this time from a species that is little changed from its ancestors a hundred million years ago.

Sunday, March 03, 2024

They Won a Battle in a Long War

St. Mary's College (Bettag/WSJ)
St. Mary's College, a 180-year-old Catholic college for women in Indiana, had announced that transgender women would be admitted in 2024. Several undergraduates started a petition to reverse the decision, then alumnae and parents signed on. Finally the Church weighed in.
“Saint Mary’s departs from fundamental Catholic teaching on the nature of woman and thus compromises its very identity as a Catholic woman’s college,” Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend wrote in a Nov. 27 statement. The bishop added that his duty is to “promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening” of the college’s Catholic identity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “each of them, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his/her sexual identity.”
The Board of Trustees and President Katie Conboy rescinded their original decision, making St. Mary's one of the few women's colleges that has refused to bow to Progressive theories about gender.
Commitment to Catholic teaching on sex is what distinguishes St. Mary’s from nearly all colleges across the country. Twenty-three women’s colleges admit “at least some” transgender-identifying male students, according to Campus Pride, a national pro-transgender organization, while only three don’t. The outcry over the policy shows there’s demand for a school that’s different because it’s firm in its faith and principles.
One has to admire the two undergraduates, Macy Gunnell and Claire Bettag, who brooked the opposition of many students, most faculty, and the dominant trans-women-are-women ideology to stand up for what they felt was right. They won this battle because there are enough stakeholders at St. Mary's who adhere to Catholic teachings, but it's only a battle in a long war.

Saturday, March 02, 2024

Portland, OR: Where the People Get What They Want

One of an estimated 800 encampments in Portland
Portland reverses its 3-year Progressive experiment on "victimless" drugs.
Oregon’s political leaders...are now on the cusp of ending a three-year experiment as the first and only state in the nation to allow people to freely use drugs from heroin to cocaine to fentanyl...

Backers of the 2020 ballot measure, which passed with 58% support, successfully convinced their fellow residents of the left-leaning state that decriminalization would mean fewer nonviolent drug addicts in prison and more in treatment.

But while the first part of the prediction proved true, the second didn’t. Without the threat of imprisonment, few people have proved willing to take advantage of the expanded addiction services the measure funded. Instead, public drug use has become rampant, as people can now smoke fentanyl and use other drugs on sidewalks with no consequences.

Residents, business owners and law-enforcement officials have become infuriated, and a poll last year found most people wanted to reverse course and make drug possession a crime again. Advocates said they would try to put a measure on this year’s ballot ending decriminalization if the legislature didn’t act.
Up and down the West Coast people are realizing that these nostrums don't work. Homelessness, property crime, and deaths from substance abuse are all up because of the Progressive belief that "carceral" systems not only unjustly punish but are racist to boot. The whole episode has a silver lining: democracy works, because the voters got what they wanted in 2020, and now they're getting what they want in 2024.

Friday, March 01, 2024

New Name for an Old Problem

Legacy systems guy (BairesDev photo)
"Technical Debt":
an accumulation of quick fixes and outdated systems never intended for their current use, all of which are badly in need of updating.

Technical debt manifests in myriad ways, from system failures and slower innovation, to security breaches...

This technical debt would require $1.52 trillion to fix, and costs the U.S. $2.41 trillion a year in cybersecurity and operational failures, failed development projects, and maintenance of outdated systems, according to a 2022 report by a software industry-funded nonprofit.
Let's face it: management is highly incentivized to come out with new products and features, not to spend resources on making old software more secure or efficient. If management is lucky, potential weaknesses will never become actual weaknesses and see the light of day.

There's never been a better time to start a business when the old competitors are burdened by legacy software and customers are stuck doing things the old way,