New potatoes

We planted a four foot row of potatoes right after we moved in to our new place, back in November. Something ate most of the leaves from the plants, and they slowly withered and died. This evening, Carol said we should look to see if there were any potatoes. I turned the heavy black soil over with a spading fork, and she sifted through looking for potatoes. We wound up with about a pound and a half of new potatoes. I took them in to the kitchen and carefully scrubbed them, trying to keep as much of the tender skin as I could.

When they were washed, I cut up the larger ones. I put them in a pot of simmering water for a few minutes. We served them with nothing more than some olive oil, a little kosher salt, and a sprinkling of black pepper.

Less than an hour after we pulled them out out of the soil, we were eating them. They tasted wonderful: faintly earthy, with a delicate texture.

It’s that time of year

Five minutes ago, Carol was sitting in the living room staring at her laptop, and I was in the kitchen reading a murder mystery. Suddenly my ears caught the sound of something outside the window. I stopped to listen, and it came again.

“Hear the owl?” I said to Carol.

“No,” she said. “Where?”

I opened one of the kitchen windows a crack, and we stood there and listened.

“Hu-hu, hu, hu,” said the owl in a nearby tree.

Carol and I grinned at each other. This is one of those times when we really like living in a cemetery. “Great Horned Owl,” I said.

“Hu-hu, hu-hu.” It’s mating season.

Portable radio

Michelle and Don stopped by this morning to pick up some amateur radio gear I got from Dad that I’m no longer using. We stood around talking for a while, and Don showed me the prototype of a large variable air capacitor he’s fabricating for use in magnetic loop antennas. So of course I had to show off my latest project: a portable box containing a low-power transceiver, digital interface, power supply, antenna tuner, and antenna.

OK, in terms of raw geek street cred, my portable radio box isn’t as cool as fabricating a large variable air capacitor. But it’s worth something as a small piece of systems engineering that addresses a specific problem that I face: our new house is clad with stucco on wire mesh, which means I live inside what is essentially a Faraday cage; and the landlord does not allow permanent outdoor antenna installations (let’s face it, most visitors to a cemetery don’t want to see a big antenna array). Now I can grab this box, walk out to our fenced-in patio, sit down and get on the air. Mind you, as with any good DIY maker-type project, there is room for improvement and expansion: it definitely needs a door on the front to protect everything; I’d like to add a straight key for Morse code and a space to store an Android tablet for digital modes; I’m thinking of a separate battery and solar cell unit to go with this; maybe someday I’ll add a small linear amp. But in the mean time, this works as is, and it was fun to sit outside in the sun yesterday and monitor the mobile maritime net.


Carol and I have decided that it’s easier to move a thousand or more miles away, as we have done four times now, than it is to move two miles away, as we are doing right now. When you are contemplating a long distance move, you know you have to plan everything well in advance. When you’re moving two miles up the street, you think it’s going to be easier, so you relax.

But a move of two miles is not much easier than a move of two thousand miles. Friday, while we were in the middle of schlepping boxes, Carol looked at me and said, “This is traumatic.” OK, maybe “traumatic” is too strong a word; it certainly is extremely unpleasant.

Housing solution

I wrote recently about how insanely difficult it is to find housing in the Bay Area. Since then, the East Bay Times reported that high housing costs have contributed to recent job losses in the Bay Area:

“The Bay Area’s job losses stem from two distinct phenomena: Some employers are slashing positions, and others are unable to hire. Some economists attribute this second problem to structural barriers posed by skyrocketing housing costs. The lack of affordable places for workers to live appears to have hobbled the region’s ability to fill jobs as briskly as in prior years.

“‘Housing is the chain on the dog that is chasing a squirrel,’ said Christopher Thornberg, principal economist and founding partner with Beacon Economics. ‘Once that chain runs out, it yanks the dog back.'”

High-cost municipalities like Palo Alto have been experiencing a net decline in population for over a year now — while housing costs continue to rise. It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out. I suspect that changes in policy will have much effect on rising housing prices; this suspicion is based on what Jay Forrester wrote in his 2009 paper “Some Basic Concepts in Systems Dynamics”:

“People seldom realize the pervasive existence of feedback loops in controlling everything that changes through time. Most people think in linear, nonfeedback terms. … people see a problem, decide on an action, expect a result, and believe that is the end of the issue. [This is] the framework within which most discussions are debated in the press, business, and government.” Yet the world does not really work in a simple, linear fashion. Instead, says Forrester, “we live in a complex of nested feedback loops.”

Another way of saying this is that we human beings like to think of the world in terms of simple, linear, cause-and-effect relationships. Linear thinking provides a reasonably good model for most of our day-to-day actions, and we like to think it will work in all situations. A better model is to think of the world in non-linear terms, as a complex of interconnected feedback loops.

However, in practice it has proved very difficult to get most people to adopt a non-linear model of the world. I see this all the time in my work life. For example, when I’m doing pastoral counseling with people, I see that people often shy away at understanding their personal, spiritual world in terms of nonlinear feedback loops; they prefer to think that a personal, spiritual problem is easily addressed using linear cause-and-effect solutions; and those linear solutions may work in the short term, but after short terms gains there are typically feedback loops in the family and in other social relationships which tend to draw the person back to their original equilibrium.

In another example from my work life, congregations try to solve their problems using linear cause-and-effect thinking. If a congregation wants to increase membership, for example, they will typically find a linear cause-and-effect solution like improving their Web site or doing other advertising to draw new people in the door. One common result of this kind of linear “solution” is that there is a brief influx of newcomers, and a brief increase in attendance, but then within a year various feedback loops bring the congregation back down to the size it was before the advertising campaign.

So the reason I see little hope for policy solutions to the housing crisis in the Bay Area is that most policy efforts are driven by linear cause-and-effect thinking. Build more housing and housing prices will drop; implement rent stabilization measures and housing prices will at least be stable; — both these measures will fail because they don’t take into account the complex of feedback loops that are driving high housing costs, including availability of a range of jobs, transportation infrastructure, national and world forces bearing on the region, etc.

We have managed to solve our own immediate housing crisis. After the landlord sold the building we live in, we spent a month looking for housing and yesterday we signed a lease. We will be living in a cemetery — I kid you not — in a nice two-bedroom house that had been built for a caretaker. We solved our immediate problem with a linear cause-and-effect solution; but we have not solved the longer term problem of how two people who are not earning those six-figure high-tech salaries can afford to live in Silicon Valley.


We’re looking for a new place to live — our landlord is finally selling the duplex where we live, so he can use the money to enjoy his retirement. We’ve been looking for most of a month now, and it has not been easy. The average rent for an apartment around here is ridiculously high; the Bay Area has some of the highest housing costs in the U.S. In some cities in the Bay Area, you can make over $80,000 a year and still qualify for affordable housing options.

We refuse to spend more than a third of our combined gross income on rent, and we would prefer to spend only a quarter of our gross income. The apartments we can afford are either tiny, or shabby, or sometimes both tiny and shabby. To make matters worse, competition for these relatively affordable, tiny or shabby apartments is intense. All this combines to make our search for housing into an unpleasant task.

The ridiculously high cost of housing, and the shortage of affordable housing, are problems that will not be solved any time soon. Build more affordable housing? Recent news stories carried by Bay Area media outlets make it clear that demand will outpace supply of new affordable housing for the foreseeable future. Impose rent control? Most local rent control initiatives have failed, under intense pressure from the real estate lobby. Leave the Bay Area? That’s the answer for many people; several cities in Silicon Valley have lost population in the past few years. Live on the streets? The homeless population in the Bay Area continues to grow.

I don’t have any answers. But I do know that we here in Silicon Valley have a front row seat for watching the growth in income inequality.


We were awakened Sunday night by the smell of smoke. We got up in the dark and tried to figure out where the smell was coming from. Maybe the neighbors left a fire burning in their fireplace overnight, and the slight breeze was blowing it into our house? When we got up on Monday morning, we read that thousands of acres were burning about 70 miles north of us; we had smelled the smoke from those fires.

The wind shifted yesterday and the air cleared, but today the smoke returned. It appeared to be an overcast day, but it was smoke, not clouds, blocking the sun. Over in the East Bay, Ms. M.’s spouse saw ash falling out of the sky in Oakland. I stayed indoors with the windows closed.

In the afternoon, Carol found an apartment for us to look at over in Half Moon Bay. We drove up Highway 92 into the hills west of San Mateo. The smoke reduced visibility so that from the flats where we started out, the tops of the hills looked blue and misty.


In Half Moon Bay the air smelled clean; the line of hills to the east, and an onshore breeze, kept the smoke away. But we could see the smoke above us, a wide plume about a thousand feet up. As the sun got low in the sky, the plume of smoke turned it into a lurid red glowing ball, like a huge red traffic light in the sky.


Our landlord is selling the place we live in. Finding a new apartment in the tight Bay Area rental market has become our all-consuming task (we had a lead on one place, but that fell through). If you don’t live in the Bay Area, you won’t believe how tight the rental market is here. If you do live in the Bay Area, and you know of a one-bedroom apartment that’s reasonably priced within an hour’s drive of Palo Alto, let me know!

Heat and smoke

The temperature reached 104 degrees at San Francisco airport this afternoon, which is about 6 miles from our house.

We drove to Berkeley to see my cousin, and when we got to the Bay Bridge, you could barely across San Francisco Bay because of the smoke that has drifted down from the wildfires burning to the north.

More heat and smoke forecast for tomorrow.

Now I know perfectly well that climate change cannot be traced in short-term weather patterns: climate change is traced through analysis of wider trends, which is what makes it so difficult for human beings to understand. And I know perfectly well that just because we have extreme heat today, and Europe had extreme heat a couple of weeks ago, and there are forest fires raging across the Pacific Northwest because of hot and dry conditions up there, and a devastating hurricane swept through Houston — I know perfectly well that these things, by themselves, do not indicate that climate change is getting worse.

But I can say, with some accuracy: Guess we’d better get used to heat and smoke (and hurricanes, and…), because we’re just going to have more of them.