Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Couple of Diversions from the Chaos of the Last Few Weeks

I was taken aback by two things relating to the George Floyd murder.   First, there has to a recognition that the officers involved exceeded the bounds of appropriate police behavior.  But second, we seem to have lost our ability to have a civil discussion about a real issue.  I am pretty sure that Senator Tim Scott's bill on police reforms was not perfect.  I am equally sure the alternative which Senator Kamala Harris was not either - but in olden days the two sides would have had a substantive debate on the floor of the Senate about the alternative approaches.   But 45 members chose to throw the discussion into the fray in November ignoring the immense benefit that such a public discussion could have on having all of us think about the issues here.  It is not hard to wonder why Congress is held in low esteem.

Also, yesterday I spent part of my afternoon with a Zoom call for the Common Sense Party - its leader is Tom Campbell - who combines brains and ethics.  Tom was a superb member of the California Senate and then a member of Congress.  Most of his politics closely align with mine (he is socially liberal and fiscally conservative) but he also spends a lot of time trying to think out the right solution for a variety of issues.    Normally, in order to qualify for status a party needs about 65,000 signatures and the party was well on its way to getting those pre-Covid.  Tom told the group that they had filed against the Secretary of State to waive the requirements.  If the suit is successful the party could begin as soon as this fall.  WIth the way term limits work over the next couple of years it could offer a set of candidates in the 2022 elections and beyond.   I think Californians are not big fans of either the Dems nor the quickly declining GOP.  (Turns out that a fast growing party in the state is the American Independent Party - which is a remnant of an earlier conservative party but evidently a lot of Californians (a bit more than 550,000 voters) think by registering with them they are declaring their independence.   If you are a Californian you might want to check out their site. -

But enough of that discussion.  This week, I completed a chapter for the book I have discussed and am presenting it below.   It is now one of 28 chapters completed.  The book will be divided into three sections - one on family; one on ideas that drive me; and one on questions of interest to either me or our daughter.   So here is a sneak peak at one of the efforts I have been doing for the last few months:

So Just Who was Jonathan Archer and Why was he Important to Me? 
I was named after an ancestor who came to California in 1849 seeking gold, lived here about a year and died of a burst appendix.   Part of the story of Jonathan Archer is his journey and part is of the family that stayed behind.  There are all sorts of problems in trying to understand a namesake who came to California when conditions were primitive and who stayed in the state for only a short time.   But I do have some artifacts of his trip including a series of letters that he wrote home to his mother.  I first came in contact with those when my Aunt Mary transcribed them.  That was not an easy task.  In order to save money, letters of the time were written on onion skin paper on all sides and with more than 170 years, the ink has faded and bled.  At the same time writing styles of the 1850s were different than now, they look a lot like German Script.  So Mary spent several months trying to decipher the letters.  I truly appreciated the effort. Mary was never one for sentimentality but she knew the importance of the legacy for me.
The picture above is of the receipt that Jonathan got for booking with the Sloop South Carolina.  It cost $250, which was not an insubstantial sum.   A dollar in 1850 would be worth about $35 dollars in 2020, so his fare would be something more than $8700 in today’s terms.   But that estimate is misleading.  Many jobs were not compensated in  money at the time. So the amount was perhaps even more substantial. His commitment was even larger. Without any reliable communications  mechanism - getting messages back home was by no means assured.  So making the decision to move involved possibly never seeing your family again.
Jonathan was the oldest brother of Oliver Hazard Perry Archer (1825-1899).  His dad was also Jonathan.  His father figured in the purchase of a sloop called Harriet which is referenced in some of the family papers. OHPA was a good friend of the Commodore Vanderbilt according to his obituary. Jonathan's father may have know Perry or was simply caught up in the excitement of Perry's military record. Jonathan’s younger brother, known as OHP in the family, was an original investor in the Erie Railroad  with Jay Gould.  He was successful in many ways. Two of his daughters later owned a summer home in Vermont called Quiturcare.  At one point when we were on the East Coast we found the cottage in Southern Vermont.  
OHP married Mary Dean. Their wedding certificate is above  - their marriage lasted 45 years.   When he died he was reputed to have left “many millions of property” in his estate. (According to one obituary at the time).  That was divided between his wife and his three sons; he even offered a $500 bequest to his loyal coachman.  
OHP had an estate in Allendale New Jersey and and he and his wife built Archer Memorial Church which is now the Archer United Methodist Church
He was an important member of his community. One of his traditions that affected me directly was his habit of obtaining a type set of mint American coins at the beginning of each year.  In my coin collection I have a couple of those sets (which include all the coins from that year from one mint).  Another was his propensity to invest in diamonds and other jewelry.   Each of my siblings received stones or jewelry from his purchases when we were about to get married. My share was three one carat diamonds which was made into an engagement ring for Quinlan.

One of OHP’s sons, Harry M. Archer (1868-1954), was a physician, who after a short career as a medical examiner for a New York Life insurance company, became the chief medical officer for the Fire Department of New York.  Harry, was my grandmother’s dad.  When I first became interested in finding out about my family, I wrote to the then mayor of New York, Ed Koch, who I had known slightly in Congress, and he sent me back a magazine about Harry Archer, which detailed his career with the NYFD 2 years after his death. My grandmother’s mother (Helen Louise) died relatively young suffering an embolism in a department store. Harry went on to marry a woman named Emily June who most of the family did not like.  She had been a secretary to Harry.   She evidently treated Nana, my grandmother poorly.   Emily June was horrid.  She was reported to have had the habit of donning her fur coat, jumping into her red sports car to collect rents from the tenants in the tenements that they owned.  She evidently reveled in evicting people who could not pay.

Grace (Nana), my grandmother, grew up in luxury.   When Harry died he donated his home in Manhattan to the NYFD.  It is still used as a fire station today.  When we were in NY for cousin Claude’s wedding we went by and visited the site.  Technically, that house would revert to our family if the NYFD ever decided to decommission the fire station. 

As I began to figure out who Jonathan Archer was, I found plenty of information about his father and at least something about successive generations.  Unfortunately, the specific information about my namesake is limited to the remaining letters he sent back to his home on Broome Street in New York City and some scattered ships records and books on the Argonauts of California.  Many of the civic records of the time were destroyed either by floods in Sacramento or by the earthquake and fire in San Francisco. His letters seem to have been sent back to New York after he arrived in California.
Jonathan’s trip to California started when his ship left New York harbor on January 24, 1849 about a year after President Polk acknowledged the gold find in Coloma.  The ship had a first cabin of 60 and a total passenger list of 163.   A trip around the horn took between six and seven months, depending on how favorable the winds were.  So it is likely that Jonathan arrived in San Francisco in spring of 1849.  The best dating comes from a letter he drafted in San Francisco in May of that year.  There is one other convention which makes the comments in the letters confusing.  They look like most all of them were composed over a period of time, this is sort of like a diary entry but with the cost of mail I am sure it was thought prudent to accumulate material before sending it off.   Unfortunately, they do not have separate dates for each entry.
Jonathan had extended entries for his time in Rio de Janiero.  They spent several days there ultimately leaving on March 10 (thus, it took from about a month to get from New York to Rio). His letters were good at what we would call “color commentary” today. He told a story of a Navy Midshipman who took up an offer from the Brazilian government to plant a flag on the top of Sugarloaf (4237’) which he described as “dominating” the harbor as you enter.   An earlier attempt had failed when a French sailor fell and broke his neck.  The American was successful but the Brazilian government reneged on the deal. Jonathan described the Brazilian officials as not having”souls above buttons”, which was to pay the successful person $2000. The government now promised again to offer the reward.  So the Midshipman climbed again and the second time the government paid off.
Rio at the time, he estimated, was about half the size of New York with about 200,000 people but had a much longer history.   He also made some telling comments about the state of the slave trade in the city at the time.  He described the treatment of the slaves as brutal.  Many were naked and showed signs of extreme lacerations on their backs.   They lived on the streets and when they died were transported to a common grave to “await the requisition of our Divine Master.”   Although at least one of my ancestors fought for the confederate army - Jonathan would not have joined him.
Jonathan visited a Catholic Church and was amazed at the statuary - which he said was mostly from Italy. He also visited the theater.  He and his friends (Captain Chandler, Doc Rogers, a navy Captain named Bartlett and four others) attended a theater performance of something by Ravel and then got a tour of the house including the Emperor’s box.   As they were leaving they were surrounded by a military party that was heavily armed.  He thought the performance was “full of gibberish.”   At the end of the evening they got some slaves to row them three miles back to the ship, although they were stopped by a military group.   The incident ended well because one of the party could speak Spanish (?) so they convinced the group they were not leading a slave rebellion. 
Jonathan was also taken by Rio Grande (Rio Grande de Sul) which is across the bay from Sugarloaf.  He described the beautiful beaches and the mansions which ran along about two miles of shoreline.   On their stroll they were invited by a Frenchman to visit his gardens and orange grove.   They were offered fine hospitality by the Frenchman and his two daughters.  It was such a pleasant experience that the group visited them once more before they left.
When they did leave Rio they made very good progress for the first couple of days arriving at the Falkland Islands on April 1. They were then were becalmed and alternatively caught in gales for two weeks,   Finally, the winds refreshed and they made a “good run” toward Cape Horn.  As they got to the Cape they were again beset by quirky winds for 34 days.  They reached Latitude 60 south and the storms again were intense - leaving the sails “looking like glass.”  When they finally transgressed the Cape they were blown back by about 100 miles.  They finally got clear of the Cape again and they headed for the Islands of Juan Fernandez, to refresh their water.   The island chain is about 300 miles off Chile’s coast.  They were famous because that was the location of the story of Robinson Crusoe.   One of the islands in the chain is named after the marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who inspired the story.   He was shipwrecked there for four years in 1704.  The islands were also mentioned in Two Years Before the Mast, Dana’s account of life at sea.
As the crew set about toward the island to find a place to anchor, their launch came next to a whale which ultimately came up underneath the rowboat,  It breached but did not capsize the small craft. The watering island had fifteen inhabitants and their major commerce was suppling ships with water and dried fish.   When they got to the island they had a picnic and did some hunting of goats and ducks.
The island’s cook caused great amusement to Jonathan Archer.   She used an old stocking to clean out her frying pan to prepare their salted fish and fried goat.  As he described it when the meal was about half cooked she brought it to the table with a couple of forks and spoons.   Jonathan protested that the spoon was dirty, so she spat on it and wiped it off with the bottom of her dress.   Jonathan decided to not partake of the feast and he and his friend Palmer decided to go outside the hut and to “cogitate on the matter.”  When they asked about accommodations for the night - they were similarly sumptuous.   They consisted of a hut and a couple of goat skins.   The proprietor/cook finally agreed to throw an old sail over the two and Jonathan said he was fast asleep.  The proprietor and his wife the cook slept in the same room.   Jonathan and his buddy got up early to go back so they could have breakfast on the ship.
As they continued North they went through periods of calm and on those days would catch fish.  One day they caught seven sharks including one which was fourteen feet long.   The rigged a mast on its head and another at mid-body and then threw him back in and watched him struggle.   They also caught two barrels of black fish.
About 900 miles west of San Francisco they caught a westerly and were able to get into San Francisco Bay.  His description of the bay coincides with other contemporary ones I have read - it was filled with ships.  At the entrance to the harbor they sighted a Barque, called the Ocean Bird, that had sailed one month before the South Carolina left New York.  He described the total trip as about five months - thus I have him arriving in California in May of 1849.
He is clearly in awe of his new home.  The city had grown twenty-five fold in about a year and when he got there was now about 25,000 residents.  Before they disembarked the captain went to get provisions for the passengers.  Beef was $1 per pound and onions were $2 per pound.   That was all that was available.
Jonathan was amazed at the relative values in the city.  He passed several small gambling establishments and saw one miner loose several thousand dollars of gold dust, saying only that he had more where that came from.  He commented “ they think no more of $100 than you would of 50¢ in New York.”   Flour was the only commodity that was in reasonable range - at $6 per barrel. 
Jonathan went to Burgone and Co. which was a gold broker.  He was surprised to find that gold would net $16 per ounce for commodities or $15.25 for cash.   When a miner asked for cash he was paid $1,452 for his stash.   Miners could make between $16 and $100 per day but it was “very hard work.”
Jonathan met a man from Panama who wanted a house built and had to pay a carpenter $16 per day.  If you were living on a ship it cost $2 to go in during the day and $10 to return at night.  He described a corner lot house in the city that was worth $200,000.
He got to Sacramento in August of 1849.  He did a letter to his brother on August 12, who was contemplating joining him.  Jonathan cautions him about coming to “the new El Dorado”. He and some friends, after spending some time in San Francisco, chartered a schooner to get to Sacramento.  He thought the Sacramento River was the most “beautiful” he had ever seen.  He waxed sentimentally about going up the Sacramento with a “Washbowl on his knee”.   At one point on the trip the Captain halted the progress and got drunk.  A couple of the passengers embarked to hunt - they got chased back to the ship by a wild bullocks.   When they got to Sacramento the river was 25 feet below the top it had been during the rains.  The older parts of Sacramento were eventually raised after Jonathan died to compensate for the periodic flooding.  The trip to Sacramento took several days, including the unplanned stop.  He described the pleasure of sleeping on the ship for at least three nights.
Jonathan seems to have been an enterprising fellow.   He evidently brought provisions from New York for resale and added to his stash in San Francisco.  Jonathan sold pickles at $100 per barrel, mackerel at $36 per barrel and pork at $40.   His uncle Leonard had given him some pork which he sold to a New York merchant who declared it was the best pork he had ever seen.   One interesting comment was that there were no coopers - so evidently part of the price of a commodity was based on the barrel.  Coopers at the time made $30 per day.
He recognized that in the inflated economy of the gold fields that costs and prices were inflated.  So a bowl of mush with milk was two schillings; milk $1 per quart and board could be between $21-30 per week.  But through enterprise Jonathan was able to accumulate $300 in gold dust and a horse, saddle and bridle worth $200.  Doctor visits were $16.   He derided the lazy fellows and bragged that he had earned some money painting signs.
The descriptions about his life in Sacramento are a bit less thorough in many ways than the ones of his trip.  We know from one letter of his aunt that he found gold near Buzzard’s Bar on the North Fork of the American River.  But from the letters, while he was hunting for gold his real interest seems to have been in thinking entrepreneurially. 
Jonathan recognized the perils of mining.  “A rich man here is no more than a poor one if he cannot get work - he goes to the mines.”   Mining is hard work and and he recognized that not everyone is successful.  New people to California came with “broadcloths and patent leather boots” but were soon converted to “rawhide boots, coarse pants and an indigo blue shirt and straw hat.”  The way of making money in his new home was from “speculations.”   Rumors spread quickly in the gold fields - a man who dug out $3000 will soon find stories of him finding $40,000 - most of those stories emerged from men who kept stores in the region.   He has a long lament “Where gold is supposedly most plenty, it is very rocky.  You have to descend up a ravine of one to two thousand feet and then turn over stones of one pound to a ton weight and then dig into the surface five or six feet under the surface.   Do this for a week and make $10 or a thousand, or perhaps nothing.”   But he concludes the lament “I intend to remain and not be bluffed out.”
The last communications from Jonathan Archer in California comment about how he was the only passenger on his ship that had not gotten sick.  He did express some concern about the opening of the rainy season in California.   In those times cold and wet were double whammys.  He also discussed his budding lumber and charcoal business.  He had contracted with an acquaintance to sell 4-500 cords of charcoal which would bring in lots of funds.  Always with an attention to markets he thought that what would bring in $40-50 in October would soon bring in more.   He was willing to sell the wood for a bit below market because cartage and storage might cost $5 per cord.
The last communication about Jonathan came from California in February of 1850.   The letter goes into some detail about his last few days.  He had been about 100 miles from San Francisco engaged in cutting wood.   But his property had been flooded to a depth of a foot for about a month.  The letter goes into some details about his illness - which my brother Dan surmised was a burst appendix.   After he died his body was taken back to San Francisco and he was interred in the cemetery there after a funeral service presided by a Reverend Williams.   But cemeteries of the time were moved or abandoned as the city grew.   The Yerba Buena  cemetery, which was the largest in the city in 1850 became the site of the SF Public Library.  The people who witnessed his death and interment sent a summary of expenses (the funeral and casket cost $130).  They also sent personal effects including a ring, watch, bible, and some gold dust found at Buzzard’s Bar on the North Fork of the American River.   Those were forwarded to his mother Hannah on April 30.   After deducting his expenses they also sent back $111.35 in cash which amounted to the new proceeds of selling the effects (including clothing) which were not sent back to his mother.


For me the story of my namesake was important, even as I was growing up.   I do not remember when I first heard about him but I was very young.  I heard stories about him from many sources.   When I first read his letters, I was in my late twenties, I was struck with two things.  From his father’s estate records, Jonathan came from an upper middle class family in New York.  So he could have easily stayed in the city of his birth and done quite well, but something drove him to take a different path.   But he soon recognized the old adage that the ones who got rich in gold discoveries were the people who sold the miners equipment.   He clearly did some mining on the N. Fork of the American River - above Auburn.  But his real interest in California rested on a timbering business and in arbitraging commodities between one market and another.

At the same time, even when I was little, I fantasized what it would have been like to travel from the relatively sophisticated New York to California on a ship through pretty horrible conditions.  The 17,000 mile trip involved a series of risks which no modern traveller would have to endure.  Would the winds remain for the most part favorable?  Would the trip around the Cape force the ship deeply into the Southern Crossing?   While the answers to most of the questions were answered mostly positively - there were still ships lost.   If a traveller decided to go across the Isthmus instead of rounding the Cape they risked a series of alternative terrors including tons of opportunities for diseases.  So if you decided to go find your fortune - it was not a simple decision.   And yet Jonathan Archer took the leap.   His younger brother did not and ended up a very prosperous man.

But because of the time, there are many things that cannot be answered.   I would have loved to have an image of my namesake - but that was before such things were common. There is a record of a daguerreotype that was taken before he left New York but I have no idea where it could be located.  There are plenty of images of OHP - so to the extent that siblings had similar characteristic one could get an idea of his image.

I suspect that part of my contrarian nature comes from the same gene pool that drove my namesake to relocate.  Clearly his younger brother did quite well with a less risk oriented set of strategies.

There is a second characteristic that I think I got from Jonathan Archer’s quest.   Kevin Starr was the California State Librarian and a professor at USC, and a good friend.   He wrote a series of books about California called Californians and the American Dream where he described the special attraction that the state had for the rest of the nation.  He commented “From the beginning, California promised much. While yet barely a name on the map, it entered American awareness as a symbol of renewal. It was a final frontier: of geography and of expectation.”

California in recent decades has lost that quality.  It is unclear why that is.  There are at least three explanations.   First, the perception could have been overstated.   I doubt that.  In the time that I was growing up California was clearly seen as a destination.   It had growth opportunities in industries that were very visible in technology and aerospace.  Venues like Disneyland also gave the state some panache.   

A second explanation could be that other states have taken its place.  If you understand the history of the US, California was the end of the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis - we always had a chance to move forward by going west.   When California became established other indicators replaced Jackson’s explanation.   In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” Jackson argued that westward expansion was a major motivator for the country.   When I first read Jackson in college I was conflicted.   His thesis was a simple explanation for a number of trends - but in the end I concluded it was too simple.   Whether Jackson’s thesis has any relevance today clearly other states, in various ways, have taken the place of California as the land of promise or expectation.  No other state has the history that California does - Starr’s books help to explain that intellectual history in a convincing manner.  At the time his first book was an eye opener.   Places like Texas and Florida and even Arizona and Nevada have taken a bit of California’s luster.  But none of those have the complexity of history which Starr’s books explained.

The third explanation is the most troubling and while there are elements of truth I think it does not offer the full story.  Much of what was accepted as California history was simply a caricature.   California was a place of opportunity - witness the immigrant waves starting with the Gold Rush and the large influxes of population in the thirties and the fifties.   It had a mix of conservatives and liberals - so California could boast about Upton Sinclair coming close to getting elected in the middle of the depression as Governor.  For a relatively young state it produced some prominent figures and stories.  But it also had a series of exclusionary laws including racially restrictive land covenants and even something called the Asian Exclusion Act(s).  Until the early 1960s it was a right to work state and yet had large factions of Wobblies. Even into the 1970s California had a series of rules that denied equal opportunity.  At one point the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Wilson Riles, was forced to enter a private club for a dinner with University trustees through the service entrance.  Even with all those flaws, the state had an expectation of promise.  Friends from Texas will dispute the distinction.   But I grew up in California and during that time California was clearly in the lead of the expectations game.

Yet, sometime in the last three decades of the twentieth century, the state began to change.  There are several lines of demarcation that might have been tipping points.  The Summer of Love in the late 1960s might be one place to start - many conventions were thrown out - some of those were well justified, some were not. That period produced the beginning of the tech revolution and the Manson Family,  Patty Hearst and at least two genres of rock music.  

Another demarcation could have been the 1958 election, where the dominant GOP tried a switch between the Governor and a Senator and where organized labor got a successful right to work abolition on the ballot.  That election saw the first term of Pat Brown, whose influence on the state was profound.  The state’s almost consistently conservative politics was moved in that election.  That could have reflected new population in the state or other forces.

The agonizingly close election of Jerry Brown in 1974, caused in good part because of another Californian’s fate (Richard Nixon) also tilted the state.   Brown preached an “era of limits” guided by the ramblings of a British economist named E.F. Schumacher.   One could even discuss the range of human potential movements (EST, and a raft of real and imagined psychological movements which had a profound influence on many in the 1970s) could be yet another. 

Any of those time periods could mark the change in the state.   More likely the changes came about over a longer period and not as a result of one precipitous event.  For those or any number of other explanations the state began to change.  It became at once more fearful and yet more accepting of ideas outside the norms of conventional society.  An acceptance of eccentricities, which Starr points out in his first book, was well accepted in the history of the state.   But at some point California began to be derided as the “granola” state - “take away the fruits and you are left with flakes and nuts. ” 

The state of the California’s role in expectations is not as simple as many would like to present it. Beginning in the 1980s California became a magnet for immigration.  In the last two decades of the twentieth century California took one quarter of all immigrants to the US.  And in spite of tensions among the state’s residents some interesting things began to happen.   According to the Public Policy Institute of California  almost 70% of our immigrants speak English fluently.   They acquired English faster than any prior generation.  And California began to achieve some interesting results on things like marriage; intermarriage rates between among Hispanics and Asians and Whites and Blacks continue to increase.  27% of the state’s population was foreign born.   Immigrants own about a third of the small businesses in the state.   Mexican born immigrants make up 40% of the immigrant population; Asians about 34%.  At one point as you came into LAX in the Bradley Terminal there was a graphic which listed the number of nationalities in the LA Region which were the second largest outside of the home country.  It was an impressive list. Those demographic changes are huge.  So excuse us if we have taken a bit of time to get to know each other.

So what are the consequences of all this change?   For me the best explanation of where the state’s prior sense of optimism has gone is probably divided among a myriad of causes.  We have been enriched by all our new people but that has created difficulties in creating a common set of cultural assumptions.   In the age of political correctness many would like us to continue to be divided into groups or as Joel Kotkin called them Tribes.  Our political system is not helping us advance to common goals and yet I remain an optimist about the potential for the state.

Near the end of his letters Jonathan commented about his feeling on the benefits of his adventure  “The trip is a good lesson to many a man. I would not have missed it for five thousand dollars.  I am well repaid.  I have sailed two thirds of a way around the world and visited many countries, the ways of different people.   If I was in New York at this present moment, and knew that I had to endure the same difficulties; I would twirl around and take the same trip over.”

Monday, June 1, 2020

Traveling in the time of COVID

Sometimes I feel a bit like Gilligan.  We originally came to SMA for five weeks - that was in March.  But when our government said "Your government wants you back" I checked with my doctors who were unanimous in wanting me to stay in place - "Why go through airports - even if they are empty".

Soon after that decision the Mayor locked the city down - cancelling everything including Semana Santa (Holy Week).  That was a big blow to a city that relies on tourists. He got the city locked down inside too.  You could soon see Civil Protection, in their white hazmat suits - stopping people without masks, taking temperatures and spraying down the streets.   At one point a couple of 20 somethings walked without masks and gave the CP guys lip - that landed them in the Carcel.

We cooked at home this trip more than we ever have in all the time we have owned the house.  Our market only allowed one person per household to shop - so I got deputized.  As the weeks passed the rules got stricter.   The last time I went they asked you to wear plastic gloves.   There are arrows on the floor.  But supply, except for sanitizing wipes, on all goods was never in doubt.   Mexican supermarkets are a bit less predictable than ones in California.  So, for example, lemons are not always for sale - limes (two types) are.  And vegetables rotate a lot like they used to in the US before the global supply chain enhanced options.

A few weeks after the initial rules the Mayor established checkpoints into the city all all three roads.  He also created an order with conditions for the city to reopen.  Like the orders in the US - some a sound, others are silly.  All restaurants are now required to be certified by the city - the certification requires restaurants to reduce their capacity but also to put in shoe washing pads for patrons and for patrons to sign in to the restaurant.   He also said that until the city reaches stage 3 (we are now at stage 0) short term rentals (Air B&B) will not be able to operate.

For the past three months I have been involved in just three types of activities.   I have gotten some reading done and have completed 23 chapters of the Storyworth project that Emily wanted me to do.  At one point I did five chapters on things that motivate me.  Those chapters were much more formal (with footnotes and all!).   Quinlan read the first one and commented it looked a lot like my dissertation.   I have also walked (mostly on a treadmill) about 5 miles a day.   Finally, I spent a lot of time on Zoom - Quinlan's Knitting Group (ZOOM), my buddies who I have had lunch with for the past 40 year (ZOOM), a series of meetings on the University where I chair the board (ZOOM and WEBEX).   I have developed a new condition, which at this point has no cure, called ZOOMbutt.

The Video Conferencing space continues to elaborate.  FaceTime is good for Apple users but limited in the number of participants.  Google revised their video App (Which is think at this point runs a poor fourth - although expect them to spiff it up soon).   Jitsu is a new service that is web based, open source and free.  Microsoft has an offering that has a lot of nice integrations with other MSFT products.  Then there is WEBEX - which is mostly commercial.   As happens in other tech products - etiquette is evolving, but very rapidly.   Our kids have been using Houseparty which is fun for family chats - it has a couple of games embedded.   All of our grandkids are a whiz at video conferencing.

One other indicator about life in SMA came from a project we started.   We have a Sala (Patio) in the front of the house which is great for breakfast and for late afternoons.   When we bought the house it had traditional furniture which was old.  Between the sun and the elements - it is shot.   So we contacted a carpenter to build us some new stuff out of a wood called Salam (which is a very dense and beautiful wood).   Normally a project like this would take a couple of months but with the slack in the economy - our carpenter took the designs we send and will be finished a couple of days after we leave.  As you can find here easily, without going to Craig's list or Etsy, we found a woman who can make cushions.  Her work looks exceptional.  So next time we come back we will have a new patio.

For Quinlan there was one other exciting event for this trip; besides the occasional scorpions (which come inside at this time of year.   One night she came into the kitchen and saw something dart under the fridge.   Our gas to our stove malfunctioned and so we called some people to fix it - and when sliding out the stove - they found a tailless lizard in the corner - when the guys went to grab it it darted into a cupboard.  They tried to get it out humanely but it eventually perished.  The lead guy called me into the kitchen and held the lizard up and asked "Carnitas?"

At the end of March - the University board met via WEBEX and for the first time in the three years got totally engaged in thinking about a major capital project that we have been working on for a new campus.  The President and I showed them - we formed a series of task forces of the President's Cabinet and the Board to think about all the ramifications of the project.  Knowing the Regents well and the cabinet that the President has assembled over the last year - I expected good results.   But the three groups far exceeded my expectations.   Planning in this time is not simple - no one has a firm idea about how many students will actually show up in the Fall. During the time of our deliberations two independent colleges in California announced their permanent closure and if Fall enrollment is way down - several more will follow.   But the three groups were aggressive in testing the assumptions and rethinking virtually everything.  We have a board meeting at the end of this week to decide on how we will proceed.

So after two false starts we decided to return to California on June 1.   We moved our tickets, rescheduled the shuttle and then started reading the stories about the disruptions in US Cities in reaction the horrible murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. I understand and even support peaceful protest. But the rampant destruction of property is unacceptable.  Over the weekend we watched as riots erupted all over the country.   On the 31st  we found that LA (which is where we are going to pick up our car) has a curfew.  We wondered whether when we got to LA we would be able to get across town to Eagle Rock.   We called the LAPD and the dispatcher said the curfew would not apply to us.   We also talked to our son Peter and there has been lots of vandalism in Sacramento - as well as a story of a young Black kid who came downtown to help sweep up from the creeps.  That kind of story gives one hope.

May in San Miguel is usually very hot and dry - but this one thankfully has been mostly mild and we've had bouts of rain - that makes the gardens shine.  During our enhanced stay SMA has, indeed, been a sanctuary.  In many ways the City's responses have been sounder than in many places in the US.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

John Reed lives! (For NOW)

For those who have not heard of him, John Reed was either a heroic figure of the Russian Revolution or a fake news provider.  He was a true believer in Leninism and produced a book which I read as an undergraduate called 10 Days the Shook the World (later produced as a movie by Sergei Eisenstein).  It described adoringly the revolution that deposed Kerensky.  Reed started out as a journalist but then graduated to advocacy - he was there for the Petrograd revolution - then returned to the US to tell how wonderful Lenin's vision was, was ultimately hassled by a Senate committee and eventually fled the US on a forged passport, returned to Russia and in 1920 died of influenza.  He is the only American citizen who is buried in the wall of the Kremlin.

I thought about Reed this week because I began writing a chapter for the book that my daughter asked me to write - Taking up Reed's meme I tried to name ten events that were particularly meaningful during my lifetime.  I ended up coming up with eleven each of them.  I did not include my wedding - although that was certainly important to my life.  They include:

  1. The Bay of Pigs - a story which transfixed 1962.  We ended up finding the restaurant where the agreement to reduce the tensions was hammered out - in DC.
  2. The Assassinations of JFK and RFK - anyone who was alive in 1963 stopped the nation like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  3. The Gas Cut Goof - the first and only time I got national coverage in newspapers.  I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.
  4. The birth of our daughter Emily
  5. The birth of our son Peter
  6. October 19,1987 - the consequences of the first big dump in the market that I experienced.
  7. The Rodney King and Watts riots
  8. The Loma Prieta Earthquake
  9. AB 2227 - a major fight in the Legislature against the Speaker of the Assembly - where we beat him in the Governor's office
  10. 9/11
  11. The 1998 Commencement at my Alma Mater where the Governor commended my work.
As I thought about it, although I am sure that it will offer tons of stories I chose not to include COVID.  COVID is clearly going to change things even more than some of the events on the list.   I've spent the last couple of weeks talking with my colleagues on the Samuel Merritt University regents about what the place will look like in the Fall and beyond. It clearly will not be the same ever again.   As one doctor friend told me nine weeks ago - "handshakes are gone."  Many other things will also change.   The question I keep thinking about is whether we as a people can get our mojo back - and yet COVID did not get on my list - in part because as I have experienced it so far the changes for me have been moderate, sometimes annoying, but not cataclysmic.   Ive had a couple of friends die of the disease and lots of prominent people have also succumbed - John Prine to name one.

This week there was plenty of COVID related news in SMA and California.   Last week SMA moved into Stage III which means mandatory masks in town.  The city seems to be stable in case load (9) with no deaths.   We also learned about something called "ley seca" which means dry law in Spanish.  Under it, a public official - Mayor, Governor, President can prohibit the sale of alcohol.   Last weekend for the Dia de los Trabadores - it seemed like an easy call.  The privations were huge - we actually ran out of white wine!  This weekend Mother's Day also got the mayor to invoke lay seca to prevent all those raucous moms and grandmothers from their bacchanal displays.  Compliance with the new mask requirement has been very good here - although two young men with attitude who refused to comply spent a night or two in jail.  If you walk with purpose and a mask - the officials (rightly) don't seem to bother you.

If we stay in the compound we have a pool and a complete gym with treadmill and weights.  I have ventured out to get things like fresh vegetables and to do Saturday shopping but we could easily hunker down here for a while longer.

Right now we are coming back to California in early June.   From my long distance view, I think San Miguel has managed the crisis better than California - fewer cases and fewer shortages.  That could be luck or sound policy.  There have been some odd events - like the confrontation we had in the supermarket last week explaining to the guard at the door that the three of us entering were only "vecinos" not in the same household.  But for a town with more than 170,000 people in the municipo, and with a lot of elderly expats the numbers are phenomenal.   Mexico City has not been as successful.  

In California the Governor announced a deficit for the coming budget of more than $54 billion dollars. (Note the first year I worked with the legislature the total state budget was less than $6 billion.).    That amounts to roughly a 21% reduction for spending but because of Proposition 98 - those cuts to non-K-12 could be higher.  While I have generally admired the Governor's early responses to the problems of COVID IMHO he has played a bit of politics by on the on hand suggesting he was ready to open the state up but also by establishing guidelines which could be hard to implement.   He picked a fight with two cities north of Sacramento when the mayors wanted to open their cities.   I thought that was counter productive

Let me be really clear, I think it is time to open the state and the nation with all deliberate speed not recklessly but we cannot have perfect safety whatever we do.  Regardless of when we re-open, there will be additional COVID deaths.   But I was struck thus afternoon walking down to get some takeout food in SMA at the difference between inconvenience and devastation.  We know who the target population for COVID is - and it is a very small group. (Based on age and medical conditions).  For most of the rest of the population the risks are minimal. We had good news this week that one company has been granted a Stage 2 test on their vaccine.  One thing the Economist pointed out this week is that there have been a lot more infected people and fewer deaths - that means the original models were way off.

On my walk - properly attired in what Quinlan calls my Señor Covid mask - I came by a small restaurant that normally on a Sunday would be filled but they had the following sign in front.

So here is the difference between inconvenience and devastation.   Most of my acquaintances have been inconvenienced by COVID.  They cannot go where they want to, it is tougher to travel, some products are not available in stores.   But Online shopping is way up (guess who is buying those things) by 22% in sales for the year.   You can't go to your favorite restaurant but they can send their food to you.   Compare that to the situation for your favorite waiter, or barber, or taxi driver - my barber in SMA is down by more than 50%; one restaurant that we love (even with delivery) is down by 95%.   I have not found a cab driver here who is not down by more than 80%.   All of these people are light on savings and light on disposable income - that isn't inconvenience it is devastation.

One other comment, which I believe many of my readers will find harsh.   I've read the documents for governors who are moving to open their states more quickly.  The press has been inaccurate in reporting the care that they have taken in adjusting to local conditions.   One of the beauties of federalism is that we can produce different solutions of different regions of the country and for different regions of the state.  But a good deal of the main stream media has one storyline which they want to perpetuate.  The idiot reporter who asked the President whether he thought it was terrible if more people have died of COVID than died in the Vietnam war, should be dismissed not just for sloppy reporting but also for an inability to make a logical comparison.   The only continuity between those two figures is the counts.  When you do read about how individual governors actually think about problems in their state you recognize that there are many options, none of which will be perfect, but which may achieve an objective for that state.

One of the things about the year before COVID is that we had some truly remarkable economic data.  For the first time in almost two decades, real wages (after inflation wages) were rising faster than the underlying inflation rate.  At one recent jobs report the country actually had more job openings than job seekers - that augers well for continued wage growth at the bottom of the curve.   But the huge numbers of newly unemployed wiped that hope out.

In the last job I had in Washington before returning to California we considered a series of what were called "choke or freeze" options.  I was working at the start of the Federal Energy Office (later the Department of Energy) during the Arab oil embargo.   We spent a lot of time looking at ways to distribute the pain - in manufacturing petroleum you have a choice between producing more gasoline or middle distillate fuels (which are used for home heating fuel).   If we produced more gasoline for people in the west, the nation would have less home heating oil for a cold winter and that would force power plants to switch to more coal.  In the case of COVID, I think the choices are much less stark.   We can either choose to open up the economy as quickly as possible or face a very long multi-year decline.  Whatever choice is going to be made, there will be costs on either side (the economy or public health) but at this point I believe we should err on the side of the economy.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Of Locks, Zoom and Steps

This week in the US there was a lot of discussion about when things should open up again.  I'm of the firm opinion that we should be being creative about how to open up as much of the economy as we can, as soon as we can.   I'm not convinced that any of our political leaders are trying to figure out how to make those moves.   This is not a question of scientific knowledge - we have learned more about how the disease travels in the last few weeks - a lot of very smart doctors and researchers have spent some productive time in figuring out what we need to know.  But the questions here are broader.

From my perspective we now know that the disease is not as deadly(except for some classes of people) as originally thought. The SIR model works from statistics and algorithms and as we get more data we know more.  I'm not uncomfortable with that.   The data, as more of it becomes available, is striking - high concentrations of deaths are in people over 65. (80%+) Not surprisingly places with higher concentrations of people are more likely to have worse statistics on deaths.  But those results are not uniform.  We also now understand that the disease came to the US sooner than we thought.   We should not have been surprised to learn that nursing homes are hotbeds of the worst consequences of the disease.  The NYT charts on incidence and morbidity suggest that results can vary even if some states do things differently.   Florida, which has been widely criticized for not shutting down early - they are also a state with a disproportionate supply of seniors (California's average age is 6 years less than Florida) and yet morbidity per 100,000 residents is 4 compared to California's 3.   Louisiana has seven times the deaths than Florida does,

A lot of small businesses in the US and in Mexico are paralyzed.  It is an odd feeling to have most of my friends, here and there, having the Pauline Kael effect - that is not knowing anyone who has been economically devastated by the lockdown.   Our family, fortunately, has jobs which allowed members to continue with the minor inconvenience of doing all their meetings by Zoom.   I broke down last week and bought the service and lo and behold have used it for all sorts of purposes to the tune of about 3 hours a day.  It is a real innovation.  It has even spawned the inevitable imitators (one called LOOM is just too close).

I went to my doctor in SMA to get my port flushed.  When you have one of these little devils you need to make sure they do not clot up - so about every six weeks you inject saline and then an anti-coagulant to keep it useable.   Quinlan asked about his experience and he responded "I only lost the first three patients I did this procedure on" - After Quinlan guffawed - he said he had been doing the procedure for a couple of decades.   The associated blood tests continue to show numbers in the right direction.   So now we can make a calculated decision about when to return to California.  From the news at home right now we are not in a hurry.

On Tuesday, I went down to one of our favorite restaurants here and spoke to both the owner and one of the waiters.  The waiter is really worried about when he will be able to be back and to offer his services.  He depends on the job to feed his family.  The owner told me, even with the then current requirements of 50% capacity, that they were operating at about 5%.   We ordered dinner for delivery (which was marvelous), but even that option will go away, starting Monday.

Starting next week, SMA will go into a deeper state of lockdown.  Groceries and a couple of other things will be open - but as you can see in the four pictures in this post (which are part of an APPLE PHOTOS collection called San Miguel Empty) the city is quieter than I have ever seen it.   We will be basically "restricted to barracks" - even more than we have been for the last couple of weeks.  Two banks downtown were closed by the city because they had long lines in front.  (SEE THE TOP PICTURE)   When we went into stage III all public areas were sequestered even more tightly than they had been before.   Next week there is an expectation that local authorities will begin to question people who are on the streets. 

I am concerned about the seemingly blithe response to a couple of whopper numbers.  Although applications for unemployment have dropped slightly this week - the last two weeks suggested that job losses are unprecedented.  The first two weeks of numbers were in excess of 15% of the workforce and these numbers take a while to develop. (That number is now closing in on 20 million workers). In LA County one reliable estimate suggests that unemployment in the region will reach 31% by May.   The extended and enhanced UI benefits will help - but not sure what effect they will have on return to employment when we begin to come out. 

We just pumped in more than 10% of GDP into the economy which moved our deficit levels to WWII levels and there is more on the way.   Interest rates are the lowest in a lifetime and oil prices went negative for a short time earlier in the week,  Public sector deficits in the states are gigantic.  In California, the Governor tamped down expectations for spending before the crisis and it looks a lot like those reserves have been blown through quickly.  That is decidedly not a political comment - on the whole I think the Governor has performed well.  But public pension plans which in California were seemingly close to actuarial solvency have been rocked again.  In the last week I've heard from a lot of university officials who breathed a sigh of relief that they made it through the Spring (two independents in California did not and announced permanent closures in the last couple of weeks).  But there is genuine concern about how many more will make the same decision based on who shows up in the Fall.

It is not all gloom and doom.   I chair a University board.  For the last several years we have moved erratically from one option to another to build a new campus.   At the end of February the board did a Zoom meeting where I think for the first time we got the entire board to realize the scope of what we were trying to do.  That led the President and me to set up some task forces to challenge the assumptions that we had looked at this project.   We do need a new campus and we should have a commitment to serving our community in the place we were founded.  But we now have a chance to challenge the assumptions going forward - how do we serve the students we have and the ones we hope to attract; what kinds of provisions should we make for classrooms/labs/ faculty and staff offices? Many of the bounds of common wisdom two months ago are simply wrong now and in the future.   But then a lot of "experts" have gotten on the web based only instruction mantra; that is simply nonsense and not any more convincing than it was when I first heard it 20 years ago.  In Spanish educators talk of "formation" and that is hard to do electronically.

San Miguel had a message from our Mayor this morning which involved a lot of speechifying.   He announced a $30 million peso fund to help support our neighbors in need. (About $1.2 million US).  I guess beyond the finger wagging - he actually made some sense.  On Monday the city goes to the next stage of lockdown.   So I got a haircut today - my barber, Jorge, told me his business is down 50%; so as I have done with cabbies for the last month I said "Durante esta pandemia quizás un precio especial."  All of us who can should be generous.   Jorge is open on a more limited basis with lots of new things - lots of alcohol and sanitizer and washing each tool in alcohol before and after.   I walked up the hill to our house and met our painter, Javier - who is now selling pizzas - we got one for dinner tonight.  Somehow lots of things here have given me hope that we will work our way through.

Finally - Kiplinger had a posting today which mentioned eleven things (Click on the link to see if you agree) which are likely to go away after the pandemic.  Some of them are surprising but they offer some food for thought (without fast food workers).

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Five thoughts at Day 25

We have spent some delightful days in San Miguel - staying in place. This year has been an inexpensive visit caused by two factors completely out of our control.   First, the Dollar is in very good shape to the Peso, over the last year the relative rates have declined by 25%.  At the same time with all the restaurants closing we've been eating at home - going to the market once a week and then preparing meals at home.  There has been a rumor in town that the President may invoke a prohibition order - so we have been stocking the wine cellar.  (No we are not anticipating the hoarders)   For now, we are limited to one family member in the market.  SO I get to do the shopping.    But today is a chance to offer some reflections, not in any reasonable order.

#1 TieIns - I have been amused and amazed at the range of businesses that have tried to link COVID to their enterprise.   I received a Yelp Notification this morning which had the headline - Staying Fit in this time.  TO my great surprise
when you opened YELP I found two options for restaurants in the Sacramento Area - both of which I have been to but in previous visits I have never found free weights or stairmasters.    The YELP post reminded me that in the last couple emails I have received from a home security company, a podiatrist, and a dentist, and even a garden maintenance company.  Oddly, those kinds of activities give me hope.

#2 Sadness.   In the last couple of days we've heard of the passing of Ellis Marsalis - the father of a very successful family of classical and jazz musicians.   If you have not listened to any of his albums - you should.   I still keep an album that his son Wynton, called Baroque Duet (with Kathleen Battle and John Nelson) as a standby whenever I want to be inspired.   Last night we heard that John Prine had died of the disease.   He was a terrific musician with a creative flair for lyrics.  Paradise is the ringtone I have for my son on my phone.   My son got to see him live a couple of years ago.   John Prine suffered two bouts of cancer and became an inspiration to me.  He was one of the first artists to leave the recorded labels (starting Oh Boy Records) - so in addition to being creative he was a first rate entrepreneur.   We also lost a friend in Oakland, whose husband (Con Hopper) I first new but who was a prominent person in her own right.

#3 Hope.  The work of University of Washington's Christopher Murray ( has been interesting.  His model has shown a slowing of the SIR model - meaning the original projections on the disease have been adjusted significantly.    Like all models they are based on a set of assumptions but his current numbers show a final result (assuming we continue to stay in place) that would produce deaths of less than 80,000.  I am wonky enough to want to understand the models - so this is a dream come true.  

Our middle granddaughter dislocated her patella at the start of the week.  We were pleased with two results.  First, this young lady was a trooper.  When they popped the thing back in place - she dealt with it and is even a bit proud of the crutches she gained in the deal.   Second, we were pleased that the health system in Sacramento reacted very well.

Both of our kid's families are being creative about how to make the situation as manageable as possible.  After a few days of home schooling one our kids posted an assessment - "I would like to have one of my students sent to the office and the teacher was fired for drinking on the job!"   Humor is essential.

#4 Bouncing Cats - Over the last week the financial markets have recovered a lot of their initial losses - that is just dandy.   But in a conference I did with the American Association of Individual Investors last night (my video conferencing skills are improving!) we heard about the risk of a dead cat bounce.  In some downturns there is a false plateau where the markets recover and then another leg down.  The most important principle that came out of the discussion was a recognition that panic selling is really brutal.  In 1987 many investors dumped their equity positions - and those that did not saw two things - there were HUGE buying opportunities and the recovery was pretty short.  So whether this is a "dead cat" the smart move seems to be to act cautiously.

#5 Compliance.  There have been some good indications that all over the world that compliance with staying out of public places.   The Wall Street Journal's Daily Shot included a graphic  on compliance.  Perhaps more stark is a picture taken yesterday in SMAs Jardin (City Center).   This week is essential to SMA - in a normal year Semana Santa (Holy Week) we would have thousands of visitors - but the Mayor prudently canceled all of the public celebrations and remembrances.   Normally on Palm Sunday there would be 2500 participants in the Palm Sunday march from Parque Juarez to the Jardin.  The two other photos are of the Jardin (above) and the Brown's Palm Sunday procession. (Left)