About Mark

I am a landlord in Berkeley, California. I rent houses to college students. I make chocolate and have a free chocolate store for my tenants.

MY CHRISTMAS GIFT TABLE IS NOW OPEN!

Come on over and pick up a gift from my Christmas gift table. It’s first come, first served, so I recommend that you come sooner than later. The best stuff get taken first of course.
 
LAUNDROID.
 
I saw a Laundroid at a recent landlord convention. The salesman said: ‘All your tenants will want a Laundroid!’ I have no doubt that he was right about that; however, you aren’t going to see a Laundroid at my Christmas gift table. A Laundroid is a clothes folding machine. It works this way. You take your clothes out of the dryer and put them in a Laundroid. Using artificial intelligence, the machine figures out what each item of clothing is, folds it, and puts it in a neat pile with other clothes of the same type – shirts in one pile, pants in another pile, etc. It folds everything except socks. Apparently, folding socks is too complicated for the machine to figure out. A Laundroid is quite large, about the size of a stacking washer and dryer; however, that isn’t the reason I’m not putting a Laundroid on my Christmas gift table. It’s the price. A Laundroid is $16,000. So sorry, I know rent in Berkeley is high, put you are going to have to continue to fold your own clothes until the price and size of this machine comes down – a lot. Laundroid video.
 
GIFT CARDS.
 
If you get gift cards this Christmas, remember that gift cards do not improve with age, like fine Spanish sherry. If you have gift cards from troubled retailers or restaurant chains, you should spend them as soon as possible. Once a company goes bankrupt, its gift cards can become worthless overnight. Americans are holding onto millions of useless gift cards from bankrupt retailers. When Toys R Us declared bankruptcy and closed all its stores, their gift cards became worthless. Even though Toys R Us stores remained open for months after they declared bankruptcy to hold inventory liquidation sales, they would not allow customers to pay for stuff with Toys R Us gift cards. Now, what about Sears? Sears declared bankruptcy last month. For the time being, Sears continues to honor their gift cards, but if the company is forced to liquidate, Sears gift cards could become impossible to redeem. Sears is the parent company of K-Mart, which is also in serious financial trouble. I wouldn’t hold onto K-Mart gift cards either. My advice is to spend gift cards from financially troubled companies as soon as you can and for whatever you can get.

WHAT IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ANIMAL IN THE U.S.?

Is It Sharks? I know people who will not go into the water at Santa Cruz or Stinson Beach because of fear of sharks. Yes, there definitely are sharks off the California coast, and we see shark attacks on TV more often than we used to. However, that is not because there are a lot more sharks off the California coast than there used to be. It is because people now go the beach with cellphones and make videos of sharks, so now we can see sharks and shark attacks on TV, whereas in the past we only heard and read about them. But just how common are shark attacks? Fatal shark attacks in the United States are actually rare, averaging less than 1 per year. You are far more likely to be killed by many other animals than sharks. Here are the numbers of deaths by various animals in the U.S. per year.
 
Sharks. Less than 1 per year. Over 75% of all fatal shark attacks in the U.S. happen in Florida.
Alligators. 1. All in Florida.
Venomous snakes. 6.
Horses. 20. Almost all from falls. I knew a woman here in Berkeley who rode a horse to the edge of a cliff. The horse fell off the cliff, killing them both. That surprised me because the woman worked at a stable and rode horses every day. Many famous people died from falling off a horse, including William the Conqueror, Genghis Khan, Geronimo, and Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman.
Cows. 25. This one surprised me. People don’t think of cows as dangerous animals, but some farm workers and ranchers are gored to death by cows every year, and a kick from a cow can be fatal.
Dogs. 30. About half of all fatal dog attacks involved pit bulls and similar dogs.

Bees, wasps, hornets. 80. Mostly allergic reaction to stings.

Deer. 200. Far more Americans are killed by deer than any other animal, making deer the most dangerous animal in the U.S. Who would have guessed?! Deer commonly leap into traffic on highways, and when they see oncoming traffic, they tend to freeze in the middle of the road and just stare at the oncoming cars, a.k.a. ‘deer in the highlights.’ I almost hit a deer last week in the Oakland hills, which is what prompted me to write this. The deer keep running slightly ahead of my car, running onto and off the road. I nearly ran into the deer several times. When I slowed down, so did the deer. It was very frustrating. This went on for almost half a mile.
Sharks. Galeophobia (fear of sharks) seems to be built-in to our DNA. Donald Trump frequently tweets about his hatred of sharks, and he is not alone. Sharks have very few friends. However, fatal shark attacks are quite rare compared to other risks you face on a trip to the beach. So Yes, it is possible that you could be killed by a shark at Santa Cruz; but it is far more likely that you will be killed by a deer running across Highway 17 on your way home.
 
Mosquitoes. On a worldwide basis, mosquitoes are, by far, the deadliest animals on Earth. Almost 1 million people die every year from diseases they get from mosquitoes, mainly malaria and yellow fever. At the time of the American Civil War, malaria was one of the 5 leading causes of death in Louisiana and Florida. Scientists only figured out that malaria was caused by mosquito bites in the late 19th Century. Before that, people thought that malaria was caused by breathing hot, swampy air; hence the name ‘malaria’, from the Italian ‘mal aria‘, meaning bad air.

MOLASSES COOKIES.

Have you tried my chocolate bottomed molasses cookies? They are one of my favorites. Molasses cookies are an old Southern staple, a little chewy, and flavored with molasses and ginger. Molasses isn’t as popular as it used to be. 100 years ago, everybody had a bottle of molasses in their kitchen, but the popularity of molasses has been on the decline for a long time. That’s too bad. Molasses has a lot of flavor to it, and molasses is far more nutritious than white sugar. During World War 1 and World War 2, molasses sales skyrocketed. That was because during the World Wars, white and brown sugar were strictly rationed, and even if you had the required ration coupons to buy sugar, stores were often out of stock. Liquid sweeteners, including honey, maple syrup, and molasses were not rationed during World War 2, so cooks made a lot more cookies and cakes with molasses and honey. The reason that liquid sweeteners were not rationed during World War 2 is because it was easy for the army to ship white sugar to the troops overseas, but liquid sweeteners like molasses are hard to ship and make a terrible mess if a bottle breaks. When sugar rationing ended in 1946, most people went back to using white sugar.

FACEBOOK & HOLIDAYS.

Before you leave town for Winter Break, remember — tell your friends about your trip after you return, not before or during the trip on social media websites. Burglars scan Facebook, Twitter, etc. to find out who is away from home. Yes, burglars really do that! Also, ask a friend or neighbor to check your porch for parcels, newspapers, advertising circulars, and other things that might tip off passers-by that no one is home. Put a lamp on a timer. If you don’t have a lamp timer, see me, and I will lend you one.

THE CALIFORNIA HOUSING CRISIS. All explained with just one statistic.

We need to build 200,000 housing units in California every year to keep up with population, but we are only building 80,000, and this has been going on for 20 years. This one fact explains everything. It explains why rent is so high, why house prices are so high, why people are doubling up in apartments, why recent college graduates in California move back home with their parents, and why even high paid software engineers in Silicon Valley are living in RVs. All this is happening because we are building less than half the number of housing units that we need to keep up with population. Why is this happening?
 
NIMBYism. It’s all due to NIMBYism. California is where the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement began. While everyone in California knows that we need to build more housing, everybody wants that housing to be built someplace else, not near them. You can see the effect of this very clearly at BART stations. When our subway system was built 50 years ago, everyone assumed that high density housing would be built around BART stations, but for the most part, that never happened. The area immediately around most BART stations looks exactly like it did 50 years ago. Why? Because the people who live near BART stations want new housing to be built at somebody else’s BART station, not their BART station. Just stand in the middle of the parking lot at the North Berkeley BART station and look around. All the buildings you see are old, built before the subway was constructed. The same is true at the Ashby, Rockridge, Orinda, Lafayette, and most other stations in the BART system. Why? It isn’t because real estate developers wouldn’t like to build high-rise apartment houses and condos near BART stations in desirable neighborhoods. It is because the people who already live in those neighborhoods won’t let them. Unless this attitude changes, and I see no evidence that it is changing, California’s housing crisis will only get worse. It is sad. This is, after all, aside from the high cost of housing, the best place in the world to live.

LATE FEES.

Late fees on credit cards are a major source of revenue for banks and credit card companies. Some banks make more money on late fees than interest. How can that be? If you make a late payment on a credit card, you will typically find a charge of $25 to $35 on your next monthly statement, but that isn’t where banks rake in the dough on late fees. If you make a late payment on a credit card – just one – the interest rate on your unpaid balance may automatically skyrocket. That’s particularly common on low interest rate credit cards. If you make a late payment on one of these credit cards, the interest rate on your balance may automatically go from 0% interest to 30% a year! Yes, that’s legal and, as I said, it is a very common practice. You agreed to that in the fine print of the terms and conditions of the credit card offer, the fine print that nobody reads. Plus, there are other negative consequences to having a late fee charged against you. The late fee will likely show up on your credit report because banks report late fees to the credit rating agencies. That can lower your credit score, which can lead to other negative consequences.
 
Leon’s Loan Offer. One of my cousins recently got a loan offer in the mail. (See photo below.) The loan offer says: ‘Skip the Fees‘ in bold type. Then in smaller type it explains what ‘skip the fees’ means. It says: “There are no late fees as long as you pay on time.” Gee, what a great line! Maybe I should use that line the next time I get a move-out notice from one of my tenants. I could say in my rental ad: “No late fees as long as you pay your rent on time, and no returned check fees as long as none of your checks are returned.” I could also advertise: “No cat deposit required if you have no cat.” That reminds me of an ad I once saw from a jewelry store chain. They advertised: “100% Satisfaction Guaranteed! If after you have purchased a diamond ring from us, you are dissatisfied with your purchase for any reason, you can keep it.”

WHAT SHOULD WE CALL AMERICAN INDIANS?

I haven’t figured this one out. The word ‘Indian’ to describe Native Americans (as opposed to people from India) is considered politically incorrect by many people, and not just here in Berkeley. But what term should we use? There is no agreement on this. When American Indians are asked by pollsters what collective name they would prefer the general public to use, most say that they would prefer to be called by their tribal names rather than a term that encompasses all the native people of North America. In Berkeley, the city council passed a law a long time ago that says that American Indians should be called Indigenous People. On Berkeley parking meters, one of the free days is listed as ‘Indigenous People’s Day, formerly Columbus Day.’ The Federal government still uses the word Indian, as in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Gaming Act. Some states mandate the use of the term Native Americans. In Canada, Indians are called First People. In Mexico, they still use the word Indian. As I said, I still haven’t figured out what is the right term to use.
 
William Tecumseh Sherman. William Tecumseh Sherman was the nastiest of all the U.S. generals at war with American Indians. He was the person principally responsible for forcing the Indians off the Great Plains and onto reservations. He did this by making total war on Indians, not just on one tribe or another, but all of them. It made absolutely no difference to Sherman whether a tribe was friendly or hostile or whether they had a treaty or not. Sherman’s principle method of forcing Indians onto reservations was starvation. He learned this tactic in the Civil War, where he used it to great effect against the Confederacy. Sherman’s army shot all the American bison they could find, very nearly bringing the species to extinction. This was very popular with White settlers in the West. Killing off the bison got both the bison and the Indians off the land that they wanted for themselves. With their food supply gone, the Indians had no choice but to go onto reservations. Sherman was brutally candid and shameless about what he was doing. When Sherman was called to testify to a Congressional committee, he was asked by a Senator how he defined the term ‘Indian reservation.’ Sherman said: “An Indian reservation is a completely worthless piece of land, completely surrounded by White men, all of whom are thieves.” He wasn’t laughing when he said it. What has always struck me as particularly ironic about Sherman is that he was named after a famous Indian orator and peacemaker, Chief Tecumseh.
 
Indian Summer. Indian Summer is defined as a period of unseasonably hot dry weather that occurs in the Autumn just before the start of winter. California gets Indian Summer nearly every year, and predictably, this is when we usually have a lot of wildfires. Nobody knows who coined the term ‘Indian Summer’ and it is not clear when it first came into use in the English language. I know that the term Indian Summer predates the Civil War because Indian Summer is mentioned in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem ‘Hiawatha’ which was published in 1855.  Indian Summer occurs all over the world in the Northern Hemisphere. In Europe, Indian Summer is known by other names, but these names all seem to be just as politically incorrect as well. In Poland, Indian Summer is called ‘Bable Lato’ meaning ‘Old Woman’s Summer.’ It is called ‘Old Woman’s Summer’ in other Slavic countries as well. In Germany and Austria, it is called ‘Altweibersommer’, which also means ‘Old Woman’s Summer.’ In many Roman Catholic countries, the season has a religious name. For example, in France and Spain the season is called St. Martin’s Summer. In Bulgaria, Indian Summer is called Gypsy Summer. All these names would offend somebody. If we have to rename Indian Summer, I think that we should use the Turkish name for this season ‘Pastrami Yazi’ which means ‘Pastrami Summer.’ In Turkey, early November is considered the best time of the year to make pastrami. I like pastrami; however, I know that the animal rights activists here in Berkeley would have serious (perhaps even violent) objections to renaming Indian Summer ‘Pastrami Summer.’ Well, I give up. I don’t know what we could call Indian Summer that wouldn’t offend somebody.
 
Indian Pudding. I’m also not sure what we should call Indian pudding. Indian pudding is a traditional New England dessert made from corn meal, eggs, milk, and maple syrup. I haven’t seen Indian pudding in a long time. I never liked it, and it was never popular on the West Coast. I have never seen it on a menu here in California. I suppose we could call it Indigenous People’s pudding here in Berkeley, but I know that some people would have objections to that too.

DOES PRESSURE TREATED WOOD CONTAIN ARSENIC?

I recently had some decks and exterior stairs at my properties replaced using pressure treated lumber. I get questions about pressure treated lumber from tenants quite often, and with good reason. Pressure treated wood used be a very toxic product. For a long time, pressure treated wood was infused with Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA). As the name implies, it contained arsenic. If termites ate wood that was treated with CCA, they would die. One of the many dangers of CCA was that the arsenic in the wood eventually leached into the nearby soil and poisoned the ground. Pressure treated wood no longer contains arsenic. The federal government banned arsenic in pressure treated lumber in 2003.
 
The History of Arsenic. People have known since ancient times that arsenic is highly toxic. Nevertheless, at the turn of the 20th Century, arsenic could be found in hundreds of household products. Arsenic was commonly used as a dye to make clothing and paint bright green. Many people died as a result of that. Women who wore green dresses in the 19th Century often became sick and died from the arsenic in their clothing. Weavers and dyers also became sick and died from handling thread all day long that was soaked in arsenic. Napoleon Bonaparte died of arsenic poisoning. That has been known for a long time, but until recently, no one knew where the arsenic came from. A lot of people suspected that his English jailers put arsenic in his food, but that isn’t what happened. When Napoleon was living in exile on the island of St. Helena, his friends in France had his bedroom wallpapered to make the room look more cheerful. That house still stands. The wallpaper in Napoleon’s bedroom was recently tested and found to be loaded with arsenic. It is now believed that the arsenic in Napoleon’s wallpaper gasified in the warm humid climate of St. Helena and killed him. A lot of people in Europe and America died that same way in the 19th Century. A lot of cosmetics sold in early 20th Century also contained arsenic, like arsenic face cream, which was sold everywhere. Smearing a blemish on your face with arsenic cream will actually make the blemish go away – but at a price. Arsenic face cream will eventually kill you. Cosmetic companies also sold arsenic wafers, arsenic pills, arsenic shampoo, arsenic hair tonic, and arsenic soap. When Teddy Roosevelt created the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1906, one of the first things they did was ban arsenic, mercury, and lead in cosmetics. As a result, many cosmetic companies went bankrupt. Today, there are still some consumer products on the market that contain arsenic. The FDA is still debating whether to ban arsenic from commercial chicken and turkey feed, where it is still in common use.
 
Don’t eat tomatoes grown in arsenic. (That’s actually good advice.) A few years ago, a tenant of mine on McAuley Street showed me tomato plants that she grew in her garden and offered to give me few of them. Her tomatoes looked really beautiful, but I noticed that her tomato bed was full of ant stakes. I recognized the brand and knew that they contained arsenic. I told her the truth about this product and that I don’t eat vegetables grown in soil with arsenic in it (and neither should you!) I know that I disappointed her, and I felt bad about that. I know she put a lot of work into her tomato garden – but arsenic really is very bad stuff. A very small amount of arsenic can kill you. Historically, arsenic poisoning was a common method of murdering people. That’s because until the late 19th Century, there was no way to chemically test for arsenic poisoning, so it was very hard to prove in court. Also, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning can be vague – headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, etc. These are conditions that could have a long list of causes. When in doubt about chemicals that you use in your garden, read the label. If a product contains arsenic, they have to state that someplace on the package. Don’t underestimate the danger of arsenic. Just because a product is legal doesn’t mean that it is safe.

LINCOLN’S GETTYSBURG ADDRESS.

Donald Trump recently said that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was “ridiculed” at the time by the “fake news” press. Mr. Trump said: “You know when Abraham Lincoln made the Gettysburg Address speech, the great speech, you know he was ridiculed. And he was excoriated by the fake news. They had fake news then. They said it was a terrible, terrible speech.” Well, I teach Civil War history, and I have a lecture that I give on widely-held myths about Abraham Lincoln, and this myth is high on my list. It is widely-believed that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address got universally bad reviews at the time, but in reality, the reviews of Lincoln’s speech mostly fell along party lines. Republican newspapers thought the speech was great. Democratic newspapers thought it was mediocre, and predictably, Confederate newspapers thought the speech was just awful. There was one thing that everyone who was at Gettysburg did agree upon –  everyone was surprised at how short Lincoln’s speech was. Lincoln only spoke for 2 minutes. Just before Lincoln spoke, Edward Everett, a famous orator of the day, delivered a speech that was 2 hours long, and most people assumed that Lincoln would speak at least as long as Mr. Everett. Here is the review of the Gettysburg Address that appeared the next day in the Providence Journal (a Republican newspaper.) “We know not where to look for a more admirable speech than the brief one that the President made at the close of Mr. Everett’s oration. Could the elaborate and splendid oration be more beautiful, more touching, more inspiring than those thrilling words of the President? They have in our humble judgment the power and charm of the very highest eloquence.” That sounds like a pretty good review to me! Lots of other Republican newspapers gave the speech their highest praise. Another widely held myth about the Gettysburg Address is that Lincoln wrote it on the back of an envelope while he was on the train to Gettysburg. That isn’t true either. Lincoln knew that this was going to be an important event with lots of famous people and newspaper reporters present. Lincoln worked on his speech for weeks. 5 early drafts of the Gettysburg Address still exist and are at the National Archives. A lot of what people think they know about Abraham Lincoln is really just a collection of popular myths garnered from politicians and movies – two equally unreliable sources of historic information.
 
Vampire Hunting. The movie ‘Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter’ has been on TV a lot lately. Just in case you were wondering, this movie is not historically accurate. At various times in his life, Abraham Lincoln worked as a farm hand, a railsplitter, a boatman, a storekeeper, a postmaster, a soldier, a surveyor, a lawyer, a state legislator, a Congressman, and President of the United States. However, I am unaware of any evidence that Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires.

I DON’T GET GOAT YOGA.

Goat yoga is popping up everywhere. There are goat yoga studios all over the country now. There are several of them around the bay, including one in Berkeley. I do not understand goat yoga. What is the appeal of doing yoga exercises with a goat standing on your back? I don’t understand what the goats do or what benefit anyone receives from this. I heard about goat yoga just a couple of months ago at a magic convention in Las Vegas. When I first heard about it, I thought the guy who was telling me about goat yoga was pulling my leg, but he told me to check it out on Google, which I did, and I was amazed to discover that he was telling the truth. I looked at photos on Google of people doing yoga exercises with goats standing on them. I said to this guy: “I notice that the goats in these Google photos are not wearing diapers. Are these goats housebroken?” (You know what I mean.) He said: “I don’t know. That’s an interesting question.” Yes, that is an interesting question. If you are going to be doing yoga exercises with a goat standing on your back, it would be nice to know if the goat is toilet trained.  But besides that, what do these goats do besides stand on your back – or your stomach? What is the point of this? As I said, I don’t get goat yoga. I’m not being coy. I really don’t get it. Don’t misunderstand me – I like goats. I petted a goat just recently at the Oakland Zoo. So did my sister. However, I had no desire for the goat to stand on my back, and as I recall, my sister didn’t express any desire for a goat to stand on her either. Can somebody explain to me what is the appeal of goat yoga? I don’t get it.
 
Update: BEER YOGA. I just got an Eventbrite invitation to go to a ‘Beer Yoga Session’ in San Francisco. See picture below. I just checked this out on Google. Beer yoga is now a real thing. There are dozens of beer yoga studios in the U.S. and Europe. This sounds almost as bizarre as goat yoga. Is anybody doing chocolate yoga?