Smoke in the Valley

As has been widely reported, California is sorely beset by wildfires, with two of the largest in history ongoing right now. Southern California is contending with the Woolsey Fire, which for a while looked like it would be the better-known of the two as it encroached on populated areas outside of Los Angeles, evicting several celebrities from their homes, and even destroying some. That was until the Camp Fire, over an hour’s drive north fo the state capitol of Sacramento, became the deadliest fire in the history of California. Over 50 people have been reported dead, and hundreds are missing. Friends of people we know have lost their homes, and the whole town of Paradise has been effectively destroyed.

It’s ghastly, and it’s probably the new normal in California due to climate change reducing annual rainfall. Moreover, much of California is hilly or mountainous wilderness, making it difficult and expensive to manage the foliage which fuels these fires, as well as to fight the fires when they break out.

The Camp Fire erupted a week ago now, and the prevailing winds have blown a large amount of the smoke down here to the San Francisco Bay Area – over 200 miles away. Last Friday was the worst, with smoke clogging the air and everything smelling burned. Outdoor kids’ activities over the weekend – including the soccer games of our friends’ kids – were cancelled. We mostly stayed indoors. By Monday the smell had mostly abated, and the sky looked clearer, and there seemed to be hope that a change in the winds would clear things up later in the week.

It hasn’t happened: Today is nearly as bad as last Friday, and my nasal passage can feel the smoke even inside the house. I could get a filter, but I’d probably have to wear it all the time, and those filters are not really things you can sleep in. The hills – about ten miles away – are completely blocked out by the smoke. The sun is breaking through, but the sky is still quite hazy.

Imagine what it’s like for animals, especially ones whose owners have to put them outside during the day. The alternative is to, what, lock them in a small room for 8+ hours? And even then it might not help with the smoke all that much.

Meanwhile, fall weather has arrived with lows in the 30s overnight (but highs still around 70°F, thus I’m still wearing shorts during the day). But the temperature and the smoke don’t seem to affect each other at all – unless the smoke is blocking out enough sunlight to cool it down more than usual. I’m not sure. I haven’t gone running since last Wednesday, and I’ve been curtailing my outdoor walks after lunch, too. It’s bad. We’re starting to go stir crazy from being inside all the time.

The Camp Fire is still less than 50% contained, and even if it were fully contained it might keep burning for days or longer – containment just means it’s not growing any larger, but there’s still probably plenty of fuel inside the containment area to continue burning.

Our moronic President tweeted the following last weekend:

Donald Trump just doesn't get it, but what else is new?

So this awful environment is our new normal for probably the next week or more. The long-range forecast is predicting rain coming on Thanksgiving Day, and that would help a lot, but that’s also a full week away.

Climate change is already here for California. It’s coming for you too, whether in the form of heat, or winds, or storms, or food shortages. The Earth is going to be a very different place for humanity to live in a few decades. If we make it that long.

The Latest Heat Wave

So California’s in a serious drought, and this year’s wildfire season is starting a month early. So now what? How about a heat wave.

The mercury started climbing on Monday, and I biked in that day to get at least one ride in before it turned sweltering. Today it was pretty awful, getting into at least the mid-90s. Fortunately it’s not humid, but it would have been rough if not for the air conditioning – boy does this weather make me glad we moved out of the townhouse. We suffered a few uncomfortable weeks there in the years I lived there.

Wildfires? There are several around the state. The Bay Area is mostly safe from the threat of wildfires, though the hills ringing the region sometimes get hit with one – memorably, a few years ago a fire in the southern hills turned the sky a smoky red for several days. But a landfill in the south bay somehow caught fire a couple of days ago, quite some distance from any fire hydrants, and I guess the fire departments had a tricky time putting it out.

The drought so far hasn’t hit the populace of the region hard, mainly we’ve been asked to cut out water use by up to 25%, which for most people means cutting back on watering their lawns. I understand that 70% or more of the state’s water goes to agriculture, so it’s going to be hard hit. That may make for some high food prices, or even scarce items on grocery store shelves, this summer.

But for a lot of people around the state, it’s going to be a long, hot summer.

California Drought

(Alternate title: “If You’re Wondering Where Global Warming Went, It’s Out Here”)

Yesterday California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency due to the drought conditions throughout the state. He’s asking residents and businesses to voluntarily cut their water use by 20%.

2013 was the driest year on record (San Francisco’s records apparently go back to the mid-19th century); indeed, at the end of 2012 we got 2 months of heavy rain, and on New Year’s Day 2013 it seemed to just stop. Other than a solid rain shower in November, we haven’t gotten more than a little drizzle all year.

Northern California has had droughts before, of course. There was apparently a very bad one in the 1970s, and the southwest had a drought around 1993, which I kind of recall reading about (since I lived in Wisconsin at the time). I also recall that after the drought the region went through several years of torrential rain, with serious landslides causing some major property damage. When I moved here in 1999 we were a couple of years removed from that rain, but still got a decent amount of rain almost every year. While there have been a couple of winters of below-normal rain where the state worried about water supply, it’s never been as bad as this.

Reading about what we can do to conserve water, many of their tips don’t apply to us. Since our house is only six years old, it already has low-flow water appliances. We invested in a high efficiency washing machine when we moved in. We already run the dishwasher and laundry with full loads. And we do many little things like not leaving the water running while brushing our teeth.

The big area for water savings is going to be our yard. We do have a grass lawn, and we’re not prepared to (nor do we want to) move to a non-grass landscaped yard. But I will look at adjusting our automatic sprinklers to run less; that’s surely going to have the biggest impact anyway, since I think the sprinklers use more water than we use inside the house altogether.

(Ironically, my gym recently switched their shower heads to really-low-flow ones, and now I take longer showers there than I did before, because the water pressure takes a lot longer to rinse the shampoo or soap away. Probably not what they were hoping for; I wonder if it’s a net win for water use overall?)

So we’ll do what we can, and we’ll see how bad things get this summer. Meanwhile, I really hope the high pressure ridge causing this drought abates so we can get at least a couple of months of rain before the end of winter. While our 70-degree highs in January have been nice, I’d much rather have the rain.

Basketball at its Worst?

John Gruber on game seven of the NBA Finals:

But what struck me the most watching this series, and especially game seven, is what an ugly, ugly game the NBA has devolved into. No beauty and very little strategy offensively from either side. No ball movement, and lots of standing around. Very hard to believe that these are the two best teams in the league. The Lakers shot just 33 percent from the field and yet clearly deserved to win the game. For decades, a game seven in the Finals between the Celtics and Lakers resulted in basketball at its very best. Now, it’s basketball at its worst. Brutal.

There’s no particular reason that a sport, when played optimally, should be beautiful or even interesting. Most sports evolved organically, and continue to evolve (albeit slowly) under pressures other than what makes a good or interesting game. Strategy and tactics in baseball (the sport I know best) are clearly far superior to those employed even 20 years ago, in terms of teams trying to win games, yet certainly there’s some basis in arguing that the reliance on walks and home runs has made the game less exciting. (Stolen bases, while exciting, are very minor components of winning; a walk is far more valuable.)

So I wonder: Has basketball strategy been optimized such that the game has become boring, or “brutal”? Were the Lakers and Celtics playing a general style of game which gave them the best chance of winning (notwithstanding specific errors committed in-game)? Or were they playing a fairly stupid game and both teams managed to get to the finals only because of their superior talent (or luck)?

I have close-to-zero interest in basketball (slightly more than I have in hockey or soccer), so I really have no idea. But in the abstract, it’s an interesting sports question.

Speaking of interesting sports questions, has anyone else noticed that people (other than Lakers and Celtics fans) seem more upset that the Lakers won than that the Celtics lost? I guess that’s what being the Yankees of the NBA gets you.

RIP Michael Jackson

When I was a young teenager, Michael Jackson was almost inescapable: His music was on every pop radio station, and he was one of the darlings of MTV. His album Thriller was a generational advent, especially when the video for the title track showed up (it’s still influential today).

So I couldn’t help but pay attention to Michael Jackson as a teen. Despite this, I never bought any of his albums or singles. They were nice enough, but mostly not my thing. (Though to be fair, I did enjoy his music casually, especially the “Thriller” video.)

To be fair, Jackson at his best was better than dance-pop music (especially the synth-pop of the early 80s, which was largely execrable and which, unlike Jackson’s music, sounds even sillier today than it did then). It had some depth and complexity to go along with the rhythm and melody, and I think that’s what over the long haul separated him from most of his contemporaries. Jackson was also a showman, but what he brought were not just slick dance moves and a pretty face (although he brought those, too), but a sense of grown-up style atop his fundamental energy and enthusiasm. Really, all of this is perfectly captured in the cover to his album before Thriller, Off The Wall. Even in his later years, I think it’d be fair to say that Jackson was basically a big kid in an adult body.

Why do so many pop stars become so eccentric? Okay, everyone’s eccentric in their own way (look at me, for instance. No, on second thought, stop looking at me), but something about the rise to the top or the fall from the top seems to make these people nuttier than normal. Arguably Madonna and George Harrison’s eccentricities are more the result of the media coverage that they received, but consider Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, who embraced their eccentricities and ultimately crafted their images around them, and then seemed to get stuck in a feedback loop of getting weirder as they’re farther removed from their peak.

(Aside: Elvis, The Beatles and Jacko are clearly the dominant pop stars of the 50s, 60s and 80s; who was the dominant star of the 70s? The Bee Gees? Somehow they don’t seem to be in the same class.)

Jackson’s later years became more spectacle than performance (his last album was released in 2001), but his death yesterday still reverberates (even though I’m still a little surprised at the number of passionate Jackson fans out there today). I can’t yet think of the music of my teen years as “golden oldies”, but Jackson’s passing is a big step towards making it so.

(Another reminiscence at Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Midgets.)

Regarding the Economic Free-Fall

I almost never write about economics: Not my own finances, not anyone else’s, not the economy. I leave that stuff to J.D. But economics is fascinating in many ways, and never more so than these days, given the economic free-fall that many of the world’s economies are undergoing.

A couple of years ago I started getting suspicious about all the subprime lending going on. My own finances are in pretty good shape – I play things very conservatively, mostly out of laziness – but I’m not very comfortable getting an ARM due to the uncertainty it introduces, so it seemed to me that people in riskier financial shape than me were taking out mortgages a lot riskier than ARMs, and that once they reset, they were probably going to default on them. I suspected that once that happened the housing market would take a plunge.

I’m not the only one, as you can see in this YouTube video which is a series of clips from 2006 and 2007 in which Euro Pacific Capital president Peter Schiff repeatedly warns of the oncoming economic crisis, and is scoffed at – sometimes outright laughed at – by other talking heads in the shows. It’s like he was the only person on the shows who was even paying attention. (via BoingBoing.) Joe Nocera has further comments in response to the video here.

(These clips also show what an ass Ben Stein is, but we already knew that.)

If I a little smart for seeing the problems two years ago, honestly I figured that there would be 2 or 3 years of defaults and a housing slump – rather like what happened during the Dot Com Bust – and then things would be back to normal. But it looks like the recession is going to go on much longer and deeper than I’d have imagined. If I was so right, why was I also so wrong?

Because I didn’t really understand the depths of what was going on. But some people had an inkling. Take a look at Michael Lewis’ article at, “The End” (of Wall Street as we know it). Lewis is a fantastic writer, and he’s in top form in this article, which follows a small group of analysts figuring out how royally screwed up things have become on Wall Street in the last 25 years. Every page is fascinating.

Lewis concludes his article by laying much of the blame for the mess at the feet of a system which has divorced the people financing the risk-taking from the people actually taking the risks. In other words, the people taking the risks aren’t risking their money.

What’s plastered all over Lewis’ article, but not really addressed head-on, is how Wall Street for over two decades has continually come up with new ways to package and repackage and sell their ‘products’, phantasmal constructs which represent real wealth and money, but which are so separated from them that a canny (or even clueness) manager can position them to mean something very different from what they really represent. For example, the class BBB loans in Lewis’ article that gets repackaged as tranches in which a fraction of the loans become rated class AAA. It’s like this famous Sydney Harris cartoon:

Then a Miracle Occurs by Sydney Harris

It’s the miracle of high finance.

While all very clever, not only does it seem at best a delaying tactic – sooner or later you have to come down from the tree and then the tigers are going to eat you – it got to the point where no one really understands how the delaying tactics work. People started to tweak the edges, but had no idea of the ramifications of what they were doing, and worse, they didn’t even know that they didn’t know what they were doing! (I suspect this goes on a lot more than people think in industries with complicated business practices; I wonder how many people who work in managed care in the health industry really understand how it’s supposed to work, never mind how it actually does work?)

I’m generally in favor of regulation of big business, but in this case I wonder whether regulation could even have helped, short of simply prohibiting many of these practices because they were incomprehensible to the regulators. Or maybe if there were regulatory oversight that forced businesses to really understand what they were doing, that might have helped forestall the crisis.

It’s not that I don’t mind companies taking risks, but I think they should understand what the risks they’re taking mean, and the risk-takers should bear the burdens of those risks if they go poorly. Unfortunately I think our society has been set up to minimize the risks to the people who reap most of the rewards of those risks. And that’s a recipe for disaster no matter how you slice it.

(Coming soon: The credit card debacle.)

Super Bowl Sadness

The fact that I don’t have have a Football category in my journal should tell you that I wasn’t too broken up about the Patriots losing the Super Bowl yesterday. I am sad they lost it to a Noo Yawk team rather than to a team I like such as the Packers, but that’s sports.

The Giants’ defensive line played the game of their lives, and their offense exposed the Patriots’ linebackers as a bunch of old guys who could be outrun if you set up the right plays. Despite all that, the Patriots almost pulled out a win, but the Giants earned the win mainly thanks to that amazing pass from Eli Manning to David Tyree during the winning drive.

The weirdest moment was when Pats coach Bill Belichick challenged the Giants having too many men on the field during a Patriots punt, and winning the challenge. Subrata and I looked at each other and said, “I didn’t even know you could challenge that!”

It’s too bad that that we (as fans collectively) missed out on seeing something which happens less than once a generation (I heard that there have been only 3 teams in NFL history to win all their games, two from before 1940, and the 1972 Dolphins), because seeing those rare feats is part of what makes sports fun. This is not to imply that the Giants should have thrown the game (what fun would that be?) and of course fans who love the Giants or hate the Patriots won’t care about that. But it still would have been really cool.

In any event, it’s still been a hell of a decade for Boston sports: Two World Series championships, three Super Bowl titles, and the Celtics are having a great year (or so I hear, since I’m no sort of basketball fan!). So really I’m not complaining! It’s so hard to win a title in professional sports, I’m perfectly happy with this run of success.

And hey, there are still a few more years left in the decade…

Pets and the Housing Slump

A sad article in the San Jose Mercury News today: foreclosed homeowners who abandon their pets when they move out. Some pets are released outside, while others are left to starve inside the house, and animal shelters are getting overwhelmed in places with high foreclosure rates:

“[The pets’] best shot is for the owners to plan ahead some,” [Traci] Jennings [president of the Humane Society of Stanislaus County in northern California] said. “But they didn’t plan when they bought their house. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

Tragic as some of the stories in the article are, for me as a cat owner the saddest bit was about some domestic cats released into the wild:

In one such colony in Modesto, two obviously tame cats watched alone from a distance as a group of feral cats devoured a pile of dry food Jennings offered.

“These are obviously abandoned cats,” Jennings said. “They’re not afraid of people, and they stay away from the feral cats because they’re ostracized by them.”

I hope the domesticated cats at least find company in each other. Cats may have a reputation as aloof and superior, but I think they love the company of their friends just like most other animals.


In the wake of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis-St. Paul collapsing this afternoon, I wonder: Is this the fate other parts of our infrastructure will experience over the next few decades? Many states under-invest in infrastructure maintenance, and we may be seeing more such accidents as time goes on because of that.

Minneapolis’ WCCO has very good coverage of the collapse. This video is especially fascinating, particularly the wide-angle view starting about 2m 15s in. Then there’s the blog’s eye view (via T.S.).

A few of my friends from Minneapolis-St. Paul have posted that they’re okay. I’m not sure I have current contact information for everyone. Coincidentally, one friend from that area just wrote today about a car accident she was in a few weeks ago. I hope she wasn’t anywhere near this incident.