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.

MUIR WOODS.

About Muir Woods. If you have never been to Muir Woods, go there as soon as you can! Muir Woods is a pristine old-growth redwood forest in an isolated canyon 25 miles from Berkeley. You can walk for miles among redwood trees that are 300 feet tall. Many of these trees are over 500 years old. Some are over 1,000 years old. I love the smell of this place. The odor of a redwood forest is just amazing. Nobody forgets a visit to Muir Woods. Before you go, remember that there is no cell phone or wi-fi reception in Muir Woods, so make your phone calls before you get there. Also, stay on paths and don’t touch unfamiliar vegetation. There is poison oak in Muir Woods. And whenever you walk through a forest anywhere, it’s wise to wear long pants and closed shoes. The park entrance fee is $15 for adults. Children age 15 and younger are free.

Parking at Muir Woods. The parking rules have changed. Until 2018, Muir Woods didn’t have parking reservations. You could just drive your car to the parking lot, park your car (if you could find a space), and walk into the park. Now if you want to drive to Muir Woods, you need to make a parking reservation in advance. Go to Go Muir Woods. If you drive to Muir Woods without a parking reservation, you may not get into the parking lot, and there are no parking lots nearby. How far in advance you need to make a reservation depends on the time of year. In the summer and on holiday weekends, parking lot reservations can sell out months in advance. Parking a car costs $8 a day. The drive to Muir Woods from Berkeley passes a lot of beautiful scenery. The road also wraps around San Quentin Prison, the most famous prison in the United States. Whenever I drive past San Quentin, I think about some of the infamous men who live or lived there, men like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan. San Quentin Prison has a gift shop where they sell handicrafts made by the prisoners, but I’ve never been to it.

Public Transit. You can get from Berkeley to Muir Woods by public transit, but it’s a long trip. Take BART from Berkeley to the Embarcadero BART station in San Francisco. Walk to the Ferry Building, 1 block away. Take the Sausalito ferry. Check the schedule before you go. The ferries can be far apart. At the Sausalito ferry terminal, get the Marin Transit #66 Muir Woods bus. It goes from the ferry terminal to the entrance of Muir Woods. There are frequent buses during the day. The bus ride is 1 hour each way. 

Uber and Lyft. Can you take Uber or Lyft to Muir Woods? That’s a tricky question. You can take Uber or Lyft to Muir Woods, but since there is no cell phone reception at Muir Woods, how would you get back? How would you order an Uber car to pick you up at Muir Woods, and how would the driver find you? I found out about this problem recently from somebody I know who drove to Muir Woods without a parking reservation. The parking lot was full, so he parked his car several miles away and took Uber to Muir Woods. It was only when he was ready to go home that he found out that cell phones don’t work at Muir Woods. He had a lot of trouble getting back to his car.

Why is top quality redwood lumber so expensive? It’s a matter of supply and demand. The demand is high, and the supply is low. Redwood trees only grow in a small area along the California coast. Most of the old-growth redwood trees were cut down a long time ago, and young redwood trees produce relatively little top quality or ‘heart’ redwood. Heart redwood is the lumber that is all red. Redwood is beautiful and is naturally resistant to rot and termites. Redwood is more resistant to rot and termites than any other kind of commercially available lumber.

Pressure treated lumber. The principle alternative to redwood in outdoor construction is pressure treated wood. Pressure treated wood is not pretty to look at, and it is infused with chemicals designed to prevent rot and kill termites if they try to eat it. You may have heard that pressure treated wood is soaked in arsenic. That used to be true, but arsenic has been banned in pressure treated lumber since 2004. Nevertheless, pressure treated wood is still not food-safe. You should never grow vegetables in pressure treated wood planter boxes. If someone gives you a planter box or kitchen cutting board made out of pressure treated wood, put it in the garbage can! Also, never burn this stuff! The smoke from burning pressure treated wood is dangerous to inhale.

HERE’S WHY STATEWIDE RENT CONTROL IN CALIFORNIA IS BAD NEWS FOR THE POOR.

The California state legislature just passed statewide rent control. It goes into effect January 1, 2020. If you want to know what’s the problem with rent control, just take Econ. 101 at Cal. Whenever there is a shortage of a commodity, the price of that commodity will go up. (That’s in ‘Microeconomic Theory’,  the Econ. 101 textbook.) When the government fixes the price of a commodity, including rental housing, at a price that is below the market rate, it creates a shortage and make an existing shortage worse. (That’s also in ‘Microeconomic Theory.’) The truth is that it is hard to find a noted economist anywhere who supports rent control, even here in Berkeley.

Why is the rent in California so damn high? We have a huge rental housing shortage in California, and it is getting worse every year. In 1970, the population of California was 20 million. Today, it is 40 million. In 1945, the population of California was only 8 million. That means that for every 1 person who lived in California in 1945, there are now 5 people living here. Up until the 1960s, new apartment construction kept up with population growth, but then a gap started developing, and the resulting shortage has grown with time. This happened for a long list of reasons: the NIMBY movement ‘Not In My Back Yard’ started here. I know people who are perfectly willing to concede that we need to build a lot more housing, but they just don’t want that housing built near them. We also have high permit fees, restrictive zoning regulations, historic landmarking, environmental laws – including greenhouse gas emission restrictions, and lawsuits – lots and lots of lawsuits. And now we have to add to that list statewide rent control.

We need to build 200,000 new housing units in California every year just to keep up with population growth, but we are building less than 100,000 units a year, and this has been going on for over 20 years. Here in the Bay Area, the shortage is even worse. In San Mateo County, the heart of Silicon Valley, for every 4 jobs created over the past 10 years, 1 housing unit was built. It is this gap between supply and demand for housing in California that explains why house prices and rents are so high. We need to build a lot more rental housing in California, but who is going to build that housing and where will the money come from to build it? Rent control is not an incentive to build rental housing. It is a disincentive.

I have been expecting statewide rent control for a long time. It’s the reason why I never bought an apartment house. I prefer to rent houses and condos, which are exempt from rent control. I once owned a 3 unit property in Oakland, but I converted it to condos. Now that we have statewide rent control, I expect that a lot of apartment house owners across the state will convert buildings to condos and then sell them to owner-occupants, but that will just make the rental housing shortage even worse.


What happens to the poor? Statewide rent control in California is especially bad news for the poor. Whenever there is a shortage of a commodity that everybody wants, like housing, who gets it? Do the poor really get an equal shot at it with the rich? Suppose a landlord has an apartment for rent, and he receives 10 or 20 applications for it. Who is he going to rent to? How will he choose among the many people who want it? Will he rent this apartment to a wealthy applicant who can easily afford to pay the rent, or will he rent the apartment to a much poorer applicant, someone who can pay the rent, but only with difficulty? You know the answers to these questions. Whenever there is a shortage of something that everybody wants, it is the rich who get it first, and the poor who get it last, if they get any at all. Throughout the history of the world, this has never changed. You may not like that, but it’s the way things are.


Trump’s Trade War With China Is Making Things Worse. The California Building Industry Association estimates that President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports have increased the cost of building a new home in California by $30,000, a figure that they expect will rise. The National Association of Home Builders agrees, pointing out that over 500 types of products commonly used in housing construction are imported from China, including appliances, lighting, countertops, cabinets, tiles, nails, and laminates. The price of some lines of Chinese kitchen and bathroom cabinets has doubled since the trade war began. Needless to say, these costs are ultimately passed along to the people who live in newly constructed houses and apartments.

NEW SMOKE ALARMS.

I recently replaced the smoke alarms in all my properties, including the smoke alarms in my own home. These alarms hadn’t expired, so you may be wondering why I did it. When smoke alarms first came on the market, they worked by ionization. Ionization smoke alarms contain Americium, a radioactive man-made element. Americium is far more radioactive than Plutonium, from which it is made.  I can’t explain to you how ionization smoke alarms work or how much Americium is in them. I know nothing about nuclear physics. My new smoke alarms are photoelectric. They work on a different scientific principle than ionization and contain no radioactive material. Photoelectric smoke alarms work much better than ionization smoke alarms. Photoelectric smoke alarms are far less likely to emit false alarms than ionization smoke alarms. My old ionization smoke alarm used to go off every time I broiled a hamburger, but since I switched to a photoelectric smoke alarm, that doesn’t happen anymore.


Are radioactive household products safe? The Federal government says that radioactive smoke alarms are ‘safe’, but I am suspicious of that claim. I am old enough to remember lots of consumer products that the government said were safe but that were later off the market because they emitted too much radiation, like wristwatches with radium dials and chemistry sets with uranium in test tubes for kids to play with. I didn’t have a chemistry set, but I did have a wristwatch with a radium dial. Back in 1920s and 1930s, several companies in Germany made chocolate bars with radium in them. People often ask me to make chocolate bars with weird stuff in them, but nobody has ever asked me to make radioactive chocolate bars – at least not yet.

Have You Ever Heard of Vaseline Glass? If you’ve never heard of vaseline glass before, and you may find this story hard to believe. Vaseline glass is glassware that contains uranium. It’s called vaseline glass because the color of this glass is similar to that of petroleum jelly. Under black light, vaseline glass turns a bright iridescent green from the uranium in it. The amount of uranium in vaseline glass can vary a lot. Some vaseline glass is only 2% uranium by weight, but some of it is 25% uranium. Vaseline glass that is 25% uranium is dangerous to touch or even be around. Unfortunately, you can’t tell how ‘hot’ a vaseline glass item is by looking at it. In the 1920s and 1930s, millions of vaseline glass household products were made and sold in the U.S. The manufacture of vaseline glassware briefly stopped during World War 2 because the government bought all the uranium available to make atomic bombs. A lot of people collect vaseline glass, even though they know it is radioactive. There are thousands, literally thousands, of vaseline glass objects for sale right now on eBay. Some are quite beautiful. Just take a look at the pictures of them on eBay. A lot of vaseline glass objects were made for children, including toys, dolls, cups, and mugs. What sort of parent would serve their children milk or juice in radioactive glasses? I knew a woman in Oakland who had display cases in her living room containing hundreds of vaseline glass objects. She invited me to her home to show me her collection and to have a meal on her vaseline glass dinnerware, but I made an excuse for not going. Frankly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable eating food on radioactive plates. Would you? I have known several people in my life who were big-time collectors of weird and disturbing things like radioactive dinnerware. My stepmother collected tobacco jars. She began collecting them late in life and after a number of people who she knew well had died from lung and throat cancer caused by smoking. At the time of her death, my stepmother had over 300 tobacco jars in her home. They were everywhere. She also collected carved elephant ivory figurines, an even more antisocial product in my opinion. I don’t understand why people collect creepy stuff like this, but many people do. The federal government says that uranium glass is ‘safe’; however, if you have vaseline glassware in your home, my advice is to get rid of it.

SAN FRANCISCO’S BIZARRE 6X6 SHOPPING MALL.

The 6X6 Mall on Market Street between 5th and 6th Streets is the biggest shopping mall in downtown San Francisco. This huge 5-story mall is beautiful and has everything you would expect to find in a luxury shopping center, including a 4-story greenhouse atrium and a double helix escalator that can be seen from the street. There is only one thing missing from this shopping mall – stores! There are no stores. There are no restaurants. There are no kiosks. This mall was completed in 2016, but it is still completely vacant. The owners have tried everything to lure in tenants, but nothing has worked. The problem is the location. The 6X6 Mall is in a bad section of the Tenderloin district. All of the stores adjacent to this mall and on the other side of the street are abandoned and boarded up, with homeless people sleeping in doorways. This is another example of: ‘What were they thinking?“, building a luxury shopping mall in the poorest and most depressed area in the city. A few weeks ago, the 6X6 Mall was sold to a couple of major commercial real estate investment firms. They haven’t said what they plan to do with it.

LAS VEGAS REALLY IS GETTING HOTTER.

I recently returned from a convention in Las Vegas. It was 110 degrees every day I was there. A lot of long-time visitors to Las Vegas say that it seems that Las Vegas is getting hotter, but most of them assume that its just their imagination. It isn’t. Las Vegas really is getting hotter. According to the U.S. Weather Service, the average daily temperature in Las Vegas has risen by 6 degrees since 1970. That is a very big increase for 50 years. You might assume that this is because of global warming, but that isn’t the reason. Las Vegas is what climatologists call a ‘heat island’. In 1940, the population of Las Vegas was just 8,000. When I first visited Las Vegas in 1970, the population of the city was a little over 100,000. Today, the Las Vegas metro area is home to 2 million people, and the temperature has risen with the population. Here’s why:

1.    Building materials. As the city grew, more and more of the desert was covered with concrete, asphalt, and buildings. Buildings and paving materials absorb heat during the day and release that heat more slowly than the sandy desert that they covered over.

2.    Color. The desert around Las Vegas is mostly light-colored sand, which reflects much of the sunlight that falls on it back into outer space. However, the streets of Las Vegas are covered with asphalt, which is black, and there are tens of thousands of houses in Las Vegas covered with dark colored roofs, which also absorb heat.

3.    The air. As the city grew, so did the number of automobiles, trucks, and smokestacks. When Las Vegas was a small town, the air was thin and clean. Now the air is much denser and full of smog. The air in Las Vegas now absorbs more heat than the air in the desert around it.

What is happening in Las Vegas is also happening in Phoenix and several other fast-growing cities in the southwest. Some long-term real estate investors (including people I know) will not invest in Las Vegas. It can take 15 to 20 years to recover the cost of building an apartment house, and what will the climate in Las Vegas be like then? What will the air be like? What will the traffic be like? Will tourists still want to visit there if the average daily temperature in summer is 120 or 130 degrees? Las Vegas is heading in that direction now. I’ve been in Las Vegas when it was so hot that you could get a first-degree burn by touching something made out of metal, and that happened to me. I once tripped on the sidewalk in front of Circus Circus and put my hand on an aluminum lamppost to break my fall, and I burned my hand. Now, I don’t touch anything outdoors in Las Vegas that is made out of metal on hot days unless it is in the shade.

WHY I DON’T REPAIR OLD APPLIANCES.

When major appliances need repairs, I usually don’t fix them if they are over 10 years old. I replace them. Tenants sometimes ask me why I don’t repair old appliances. That happened just recently. I replaced a 15-year old refrigerator that needed a new door gasket. That seemed wasteful and bad for the environment to my tenants, sending a 15-year old refrigerator to the dump that could be repaired. This isn’t because I don’t think about the environmental consequences of my business decisions. I think about that a lot. I used to fix old appliances, but not anymore. And here’s why…..

The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. In 1973, a number of Arab countries launched a coordinated invasion of Israel on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. It became known as the Yom Kippur War. The U.S. and many other Western nations supported Israel in this war. In retaliation, Arab oil exporting nations declared a oil embargo against the West. The embargo lasted for over 6 months and led to a very serious economic crisis in the U.S. The wholesale price of oil went up by 400%. Gas stations rationed gasoline, if they had any, and many didn’t have any. People couldn’t get to work. Trucks couldn’t deliver food to supermarkets, etc. Because of the crisis, Congress passed a series of laws in 1973 and 1974 designed to make the U.S. less dependent on imported oil. The best known of these laws was the one that required automobile manufacturers make cars more fuel efficient, with deadlines phased in over a number of years. You have probably seen the stickers on new cars that show you how many miles per gallon a car gets. Well, we didn’t have those stickers before the Arab Oil Embargo. There was no way for car buyers to know how many miles per gallon a car got. Once the government starting testing cars, they found that the average new car in the U.S. got only 11 miles per gallon in 1973. Today it is 25 miles a gallon. In 1973, new houses were not required to have insulation in the walls or attic. Now they do, also as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo. Another law mandated that manufacturers of major appliances make them more energy-efficient. A refrigerator sold today in the U.S. uses 75% less electricity than one of the same size made in 1973. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? The motors are more efficient, and the insulation and door seals are much better than they used to be. This is why I don’t repair old refrigerators. Washers, dryers, kitchen stoves, water heaters, and dishwashers are now all far more energy-efficient than they were in 1973 as well. During the Yom Kippur War, both sides suffered heavy losses, but neither side won. The U.N. negotiated a cease fire, leaving both sides about where they were at the start of the war. I think the real winner of this war was the American public, because Congress would never have passed these dramatic energy efficiency laws if it hadn’t been for the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Although most Americans have never heard of the Yom Kippur War or the resulting Arab Oil Embargo, that war had a huge impact on the way we use energy in the United States today.


AM I A LANDLORD?

The Berkeley city council voted unanimously last week to ban gender-specific words. That means that words like ‘landlord’ and ‘landlady’ are out. So – what am I supposed to call myself? Should I call myself a ‘landperson’? To me, ‘landperson’ sounds like a person who lives on the land, as opposed to a person who lives in the sea, like Aquaman. I suppose we can’t say Aquaman either in Berkeley. ‘Aquaman’ is gender-specific. I guess he’s now ‘Aquaperson.’ I asked an aide to a councilmember what city employees intend to call landlords now. He said ‘property owners.’ I told him that ‘property owner’ and ‘landlord’ do not mean the same thing. Most property owners in Berkeley are homeowners, not landlords. He said he knew that; however, a lot of the new words the council approved do not mean the same thing as the words they replaced. For example, according to the new law, a ‘sportsman’ is now to be called a ‘hunter’ in Berkeley, but those 2 words don’t mean the same thing. You don’t have to kill something in order to be a sportsman. A yachtsman is a sportsman. So is a professional soccer player. In most European languages, the word for ‘landlord’ doesn’t carry the emotional baggage of the word ‘landlord’, which sounds sinister and arrogant. You know, we aren’t actually ‘lords of the land.’ In most Latin-based languages, the word for ‘landlord’ means ‘proprietor.’ In French, the word for landlord is ‘propriétaire.’ That sounds far nicer than ‘landlord.’ In German, the word is Vermieter, which means ‘he who rents’. That also sounds nicer than ‘landlord.’ So back to my original question –  what am I supposed to call myself now?

WHO WAS THE WORST PERSON TO WIN A NOBEL PRIZE?

The Nobel Peace Prize. Some people with a lot of blood on their hands have been awarded Nobel Peace Prizes, people like Yasser Arafat and Henry Kissinger, who got a Nobel Peace Prize during the Vietnam War. This happens because the Nobel Prize committee sometimes gives peace prizes to people as an incentive to make peace rather than as a reward for actually making peace. And sometimes they award a Nobel Peace Prize to somebody for no apparent reason at all, like the one they gave to Barack Obama soon after be became President of the U.S. As at a press conference shortly after the prize was announced, Obama said he truly had no idea why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry and/or Physics. This award is usually noncontroversial and goes to worthy recipients like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. However, some terrible people have also received a Nobel prize in science. Who was the worst of them? My vote goes to the German chemist Fritz Haber. Fritz Haber was the father of chemical warfare. He invented the first poison gas weapons, beginning with chlorine gas, which he invented shortly after World War 1 began in 1914. Later that same year, Haber invented mustard gas, which is even deadlier. Fritz Haber’s wife Clara, who was a noted chemist in her own right, was horrified by her husband’s work and tried unsuccessfully to get him to give it up. She became increasingly depressed as her husband enthusiastically invented ever more deadly poison gases. In 1915, Clara shot herself in the heart and died. In her suicide note, she begged her husband to give up his work with poison gas. By the end of World 1, over 1 million men were killed or permanently disabled by poison gases invented by Fritz Haber. In 1918, at the end of the war, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. What were they thinking!?! In the 1920s, Fritz Haber invented Zyklon, a form of cyanide gas, similar to mustard gas. Zyklon was used by the Nazis to murder millions of Jews, including most of Haber’s own relatives. When Hitler came to power in Germany, Fritz Haber moved to Switzerland, where he died unrepentant right to the end. Shortly before World War 2 began, Fritz Haber’s son Hermann Haber moved to the United States. He too became depressed thinking about his father’s work and committed suicide in 1946. Fritz Haber reminds me of Dr. Frankenstein, the mad scientist who was completely oblivious to the moral dimension of what he was doing. It seems to me that the Nobel Prize committee was also completely oblivious to the moral dimension of what they were doing when they awarded a Nobel Prize to Fritz Haber.


THE LAS VEGAS MONORAIL.

This is the stupidest mass transit system in the U.S. The Las Vegas monorail runs behind the big hotels on the east side of the Las Vegas Strip; however, the majority of the big hotels are on the west side of the Strip and set back from the street. As a result, monorail stations are a long walk from most hotels. For example, from the entrance of Caesar’s Palace to the Caesar’s Palace Monorail Station is over 1/2 mile. From the Mirage, the monorail station across the street is over a mile away. How many tourists and convention goers are going to walk that far? But the route isn’t the stupidest thing about the monorail. The stupidest thing about the Las Vegas Monorail is that it ends across the street from the airport. The last station on the monorail is the MGM Grand hotel. From the MGM, you can see the airport across the street, but you can’t get there on the monorail, and you can’t walk there either. The entrance is on the opposite side of the airport, almost 2 miles away. The reason that the monorail doesn’t go into the airport is because the taxi and limo drivers in Las Vegas objected to the monorail going into the airport; however, the investors decided to go ahead and build it anyway. This is another example of: ‘What were they thinking?’ Predictably, the Las Vegas monorail went bankrupt after just a couple of years of operation, and there is still no plan to extend the monorail into the airport across the street from the last station.

DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR FIRE EXTINGUISHER IS?

Every kitchen should have an ABC (dry chemical) fire extinguisher with a visible pressure gauge. I put them in all my rental units, usually under the kitchen sink. If your fire extinguisher is missing or if the pressure is low, see me and get a replacement. You can pick up a new one in my chocolate room. All fire extinguishers lose pressure over time. Check the pointer on the pressure gauge. See the picture below. If the pointer is in the red zone, it is time to replace your fire extinguisher. Do you know where your fire extinguisher is? If you can’t find your fire extinguisher or if the pressure is gone, it is useless to you in an emergency. Remember, every year, 1 out of 8 homes in the U.S. has a kitchen cooking fire.