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.

DON’T ANNOUNCE YOUR TRAVEL PLANS ON SOCIAL MEDIA WEBSITES.

Are you planning to travel at Thanksgiving or during the Christmas break? Remember, you should NEVER discuss or even mention your travel plans plans on social media web sites until you are back home from your trip. If you want to tell your friends about your trip to Acapulco or Paris on Facebook or Twitter, do it after you return, not before you go or while you are there! Professional burglars are constantly scouring the internet looking for houses to rob! No foolin.’ They really do that! Criminals have software that allow them to identify people who are traveling or who will be traveling soon and then identifying where they live. And Yes, people actually do get burglarized this way. Lots of people.  Also, remember that many burglars look for houses to rob the old-fashioned way, by driving around and looking for houses with obvious signs that nobody is home. (Did you see ‘Home Alone’?) Before you travel, arrange to have someone check your porch regularly for signs that nobody is there, like parcels sitting on the porch or an overstuffed mailbox.

(P.S. – If you did see ‘Home Alone’, remember that a 10 year old Macauley Culkin look-alike cannot protect your home from burglars.)

RUDY GIULIANI AND THE ‘DEAD FISH LOOK.’


My father used to use the expression, ‘the dead fish look’. I think he invented this expression because I have never heard anyone else use it. My father used this term to describe a look of feigned surprise. The dead fish look is looking at someone with your eyes and mouth very wide open, pretending to be surprised. If you’ve ever seen dead fish, they actually do look like that. When people pretended to be surprised in this way, my father would say: “Oh, don’t give me the dead fish look. You know what I’m talking about.” I hadn’t thought about this expression in perhaps 30 years; however, Rudy Giuliani has refreshed my memory. Giuliani does this quite often, and he is not convincing when he does it. When he is asked a tough question, Giuliani frequently goes into ‘the dead fish look.’ He looks away from the interviewer with his eyebrows up, his eyes bulging in their sockets, and with his mouth wide open, and sucking in air. Then he says something like: “Well, I never heard that before!” It’ is painfully obvious that he is just pretending to be surprised, and he is terrible at this! Really terrible! Look at the photos below. These photos have not been photoshopped. These are actual photos of Rudy Giuliani pretending to be surprised by a question. I think he looks ridiculous. Don’t you? The next time you see a dead fish, look at the expression on its face.

NIXON’S WATERGATE DEFENSE STRATEGY.


I just ran across something that I wrote in 2010 for an American history class I was teaching at that time. Here is what I wrote:
“In 1973, at the start of the impeachment investigation by the House of Representatives, President Nixon relied on a 3-point defense strategy, which he repeated often.
1. The Watergate investigation is a witch hunt. (A witch hunt is defined as a search for or harassment of a person or persons with unpopular views or opinions.)
2. The press has a liberal bias and is out to destroy me, led by the Washington Post and the New York Times.3. I am not a crook. The real criminals are the leakers.”
Hmmmm. This sounds vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? In 1973, the Washington Post reported that Richard Nixon was going around the White House telling people that the Watergate investigation was just a ‘witch hunt by the Democrats and the Washington Post, who he claimed were trying to overturn the results of the 1972 election. Of course, the Watergate investigation proved to be more than just a witch hunt, but Nixon was right in his belief that leakers in the White House were doing great damage to his presidency. The 2 leakers who did the most damage to Nixon were the anonymous ‘Deep Throat’ and Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, John Mitchell. Martha Mitchell was an alcoholic, and when she got drunk, she would call reporters on the phone in the middle of the night and tell them about crimes being committed by President Nixon and her husband. Although she was drunk, her calls were surprisingly detailed and verifiable. John Mitchell went to prison as a result of his wife’s drunken phone calls. (Not surprisingly, John Mitchell divorced Martha.) After Nixon resigned as president, he said in a TV interview that: “Without Martha Mitchell, there would have been no Watergate.

AMATEUR PLUMBING PHOTOS.


A lot of people (including a few landlords I know) hire unlicensed plumbers and handymen to do plumbing work that really should be done by professionals. People do this for the obvious reason – to save money. Licensed, insured plumbers are expensive. I know mine is! However, here is what happens when amateur plumbers fix things. Many of the things pictured below are actually very common plumbing mistakes.

1. Attaching a grounding wire to a plastic pipe. Although this plumber used the right clamps and wire, apparently he didn’t know that plastic pipe does not conduct electricity. I have seen this a number of times. I have also a pipe with a grounding wire clamped onto it that was connected to another section of that same pipe. I am often surprised at the number of people who do not seem to understand the most basic principle of electrical wiring – that electricity flows though a wire. If there is no place for the electricity to go, it can’t just pile up inside the wire.
2. Vent pipes that go down and then up. This is actually very common. It can be dangerous.
3. Leaving in place old worn-out plumbing fixtures. People do this to save money on hauling and dump fees. This guy left the old water heater in place and just attached a new water heater to it.
4. Using inappropriate materials to make plumbing connections. I am very suspicious of flexible drain pipes, even when they are done properly and with the right materials.
5. Not thinking about where you are placing things in a bathroom. Look at where the toilet paper holder is mounted. How would you use it? I have also seen toilets placed in a bathroom in a way that prevents the door from opening or closing.
6. Bad judgment by tenants. This isn’t the plumber’s fault. The tenants in this apartment left candles on a plastic toilet tank unattended. Something like this once happened to me. A group of U.C. college students rented the house next door to me. They placed a bunch of candles on the top of the wall furnace in their living room. Then they turned on the furnace. The candles melted, the wax flowed into the hot furnace, the wax erupted into a ball of fire, and that set the living room on fire. After the fire was out, one of the tenants said to me: “There is something wrong with your furnace.” Fortunately for them, I never yell at people, so I didn’t tell them what I thought of that explanation.

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.