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  Edition # 116  
San Francisco, 06-18-2016

Figure [1]: Residents of San Francisco's Castro neighborhood are mourning the victims in the Orlando shooting.

Angelika Unless you've been hiding under a blanket the last couple of weeks, you've probably heard of the Orlando massacre. 49 dead and 53 injured by a lunatic who entered an Orlando night and dance club and opened fire on the guests. Once again, this triggered new discussions about gun laws, which I suspect won't lead anywhere.

Figure [2]: Handwritten signs at the memorial service for the victims.

The dance club in Orlando was a popular gay venue, which was the reason it was targeted by the shooter. June is the month of "Gay Pride" celebrated by the gay and lesbian community all over the United States. The parade and its festivities in San Francisco are legendary. The entire city is covered in rainbow flags and many happy party goers celebrate, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Figure [3]: Personal words by a San Francisco citizen mourning the victims of the Orlando shooting.

People were looking forward to the celebration, because the supreme court had just legalized same sex marriage last year in June. But what happened in Orlando, has now tarnished the festivities. In the Castro, our famous gay neighborhood, many residents were shocked and concerned and showed their empathy with the victims of Orlando.

Figure [4]: A sit in on the sidewalk to give passersby the opportunity to talk.

On 18th Street at the corner of Castro Street, we saw a sea of flowers on the sidewalk for the victims. At Harvey Milk Plaza, many people had written notes on paper and posted them at a nearby fence. And whoever needed someone to talk to was offered the opportunity by sitting down in a circle drawn with chalk on the sidewalk.on with likeminded individuals.

By the way, tomorrow morning, exactly seven days after the attack have gone by, Michael will be flying to a Perl conference scheduled at a location set years ago in advance, guess where? Orlando, of all places. Live goes on.

A Big Dent in Our Rental Car

Figure [5]: Michael managed to put a big dent into our rental car's bumper.

Michael Every time we book a rental car on vacation, the agent behind the counter brings up the question on how to insure the car. In California, rental car agencies are required by law to provide liability insurance at no extra cost with the rental. In case of an accident, it covers bodily injury to other people and damages to their cars. But watch out, these policies only cover the minimum required by law, which is a measily $30.000 in California. You're personally on the hook for any damages exceeding this amount, which can easily occur if you scrap someone else's luxury car or run over a pedestriant. Especially with severe bodily injury cases or even fatalities, damages can easily go into the millions in our litigious country. People who live here usually already have insurance for their cars at home, and the contract typically also covers rental cars while on vacation. But read the fine print of your contract to make sure this actually applies to your personal situation.

Figure [6]: Rental car damage claims can be filed with American Express on yourcarrentalclaim.com.

Secondly, there's the question on how to insure the rental car. Who's going to pay if some bum smashes the side window on a parking lot in a tourist location? What happens if there's tire damage or if a pebble hurled up by the next car on the highway hits the windshield and leaves a crack? What happens if the rental car gets stolen? The car rental companies offer insurance products for these scenarios as well, it costs about $15 per day to cover them, but I always decline such offerings while looking straight into rental agent's pretend-horror faces. I always leave covering the extended liability to my home car insurance and the collision/theft coverage to my credit card. For example, my American Express card provides collision/theft protection if I use it to pay for the rental. Ironically, last time we went to Hawaii on vacation, we've found ourselves in the somewhat unfortunate situation to verify how that will actually play out.

Figure [7]: Three weeks later "Viking Billing Services" wants to see 490 Dollars.

It happened on the first day, right after we had arrived at our vacation rental location from the airport. I had the very clever idea to back up the rental car on the place's rather steep driveway all the way to the house's doorstep to avoid having to haul our luggage up by hand. Hertz had given us a Mazda 3 with an generously sized trunk with dimensions not easily fathomable by simply turning your head and peeking through the rear window from the driver's seat. To get up the steep incline, I stepped on the gas in reverse quite a bit, and didn't notice until I heard an infernal noise that a stone wall had been in the way, protruding diagonally upwards from the ground to about 2 feet on its highest end.

Figure [8]: The total damage amount is the sum of repair cost, administration fees and loss-of-use payments.

It wasn't until a few days later, that I realized that our rental car actually sported a rear facing camera projecting live video onto the dashboard, to allow the driver to follow along what's happening behind the car going in reverse -- and to prevent exactly this kind of mistake from occurring. Oh well! Anyway, the damage had been done, and the car's rear had been badly dented. The giant piece of plastic, serving both as trunk backwall and bumper, was in a rather wretched condition. I tried to get the plastic to pop out again by pulling it outwards like The Hulk, but a few very visible slashes and scratches remained.

Figure [9]: Amex pays the bill, but won't cover administration fees and parts of the rental company's loss of use demands.

When we returned the car at the end of our vacation, one and a half weeks later, I pointed out the damage to the rental car return agents at the airport, and they politely filled out an incident report form for me, featuring long columns of numbers, to which I simply added a verbal description of the incident and my signature. Then, we swiftly proceeded to the departure gate, to catch our flight home to California. We boarded the plane and flew out, relieved to have gotten everything over with so quickly -- in order to be prepared to deal with any unforseen issues without time pressure, we had arrived at the rental car return place an hour ahead of time.

At home in San Francisco, I pulled up our Amex credit card's insurance web page at yourrentalcarclaim.com, and it took all of 15 minutes to click through and submit the claim forms. Shortly after, I received an email, and a day after, another one, assigning an agent to the case.

Then, nothing happened for three weeks, until a letter arrived via regular mail, sent by "Viking Billing Services", which started with the words "You recently rented a Hertz car". Apparently, this was sent by Hertz's collection agency, and as you can see in Figure 8, they asked us to pay a total of $490.37. A closer look revealed, that the repair of the car amounted to $332.98, and on top of that, Hertz charged $72.00 for "loss of use", which are rental fees for the repair days the car couldn't be rented out to other customers, and an "administration fee" of $85.39.

I dialed the phone number listed on the collection agency's letter, got a very professionally sounding young man on the line and told him that my Amex credit card would cover the cost. I confirmed my name, my address, and the claim number I had received from Amex when I reported the incident. That was it! Two weeks later, we received a letter from Amex, to confirm that of the demanded $490.37, they had paid exactly $378.03 (Figure 9) to Viking. The car repair of $332.98 they had covered in full. Of the $72.00 charged by Hertz for loss of use, they paid only $45.05. The remaining $26.95, as well as the "administration fee" of $85.39 was left for me to pay, just as the Viking agent had already warned me about that Amex might not cover. So I was stuck with a total of $112.34, which, when Viking sends me the bill, I will pay by check.

To summarize, I have to say that Amex did a pretty good job resolving the claim. Sure, those extra "loss of use" charges and the fishy "administrative fee" trumped up charges they didn't cover may raise some eyebrows, but at least I know now that I can rely on the insurance provided by the credit card when getting a rental car going forward. I guess that being on the hook for a few hundred dollars is a calculable risk not only for me, but for most people. The process seems to work, and proves that the extra collision insurance that is aggressively being peddled by the car rental agencies is not required at all if your credit card contract's fine print offers the same insurance. I have no intention of ruining another rental car, of course, but it's comforting to know how to resolve any issues that might arise from the rental process. I'll keep using my Amex card for future rentals, knowning I'm in good hands if things go south.

Smash and Grab

Figure [10]: Another car with a broken window on city streets.

AngelikaSan Francisco has been in the news lately with one sad record after another. The out of control rent spiral has catapulted us past New York City, now San Francisco is the most expensive city in the United States. Along with that, we're also number one in property crime like burglaries and theft. Lucky for us, the murder rate is lower than in comparable American cities.

New Yorkers have been calling San Francisco "Smash-And-Grab-City" lately, because no other urban center has more car break ins: Burglars first smash the side window, then reach into the car an grab whatever's there. Victims are mostly tourists, who while going on city sightseeing tours, often leave valuables behind in their cars, unaware of the rampant property crime. The rude awakening usually comes very quickly. But even locals, who sometimes leave items in their parked cars need to be prepared to get their windows smashed. After all, thieves don't know if a backpack left in the car actually contains a laptop or just sweaty gym clothes, and steal it just in case. And there's even reports of break-ins into cars that didn't have anything of value inside at all.

It's quite common in San Francisco to see entire lines cars with smashed windows in the morning. Marauding bums are roaming the city streets during the night unencumbered, breaking into cars, rifling through the interior and stealing everything sellable, even low-value items. The official statistics report 70 break-ins per night on average within city limits, but the inofficial numbers are probably several times higher because most people have given up on reporting property crime altogether, because of general and blatent desinterest by San Francisco's police force (SFPD) in doing anything about it. That, and the antiquated and unnecessarily arduous reporting process that only under very rare circumstances leads to any arrests.

Figure [11]: This San Francisco Peacenik implores to marauding bums to not break into his Prius.

How did this car break in epidemic come about? Breaking into cars and stealing content from within is no doubt profitable for the thieves in the long run, simply because police hardly ever catches any of them in the act. Also, residents broadly agree that the so-called "Proposition 47", signed into law in 2014, has been the main driver of the steep rise of brazen breaking and entering crimes throughout California. The law dictates that non-violent crimes, such as posession of drugs or theft are to be treated as misdemeanors instead of felonies.

California prisons are overcrowded and cost vast amounts of tax dollars every year, so Proposition 47 was meant to reduce the number of inmates. Here's typical criminal offences covered under Prop 47: Shoplifting or burglary if items stolen are worth less than $950. Possession of stolen merchandize, if their value is less than $950. Check fraud if the value of the check is less than $950, and possession of drugs for personal use. And indeed, statistics showed that shortly after the law went in effect, the prison overcrowding problem seemed to go away. In Los Angeles, the number of inmates dropped from 18,601 to 17,285 in 2015. However, as a side effect, crimes like burglaries and thefts in major cities like San Francisco began to skyrocket.

Although burglars could still be charged under Proposition 47 and sentenced to up to one year in jail or to pay a fine, in practice it's up to the district attorney in San Francisco, who often doesn't care and simply won't even take the case. On top of that, police very rarely catch the perps in the first place, so residents have pretty much given up on reporting crimes, some even feel misdirected empathy for the burglars who they assume are poor. The situation has become completely hopeless.

The most worrying aspect of the car break-in frenzy in San Francisco is the rising number of stolen firearms. They're often used shortly after in criminal activities. Believe it or not, a total of 57 firearms have been reported stolen since 2015 from parked cars in San Francisco. It's already disturbing to find out how many people apparently are driving around with firearms in their vehicles. Some of the victims were law enforcement personel, who were armed as part of their function. Three weeks ago, an FBI agent had his gun stolen from his car while visiting the city. Some of the guns weren't even properly secured in a locked container, as required by law. Four murders were committed recently in San Francisco and the surrounding area, using guns previously stolen from parked vehicles. The Wild West, indeed.

SF MoMA Renovated

Figure [12]: The new addition to the SF MoMA looks just like a crumpled bed sheet.

Angelika Last weekend, we finally managed to visit the newly renovated San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or SF MoMA for short. After a whopping three years of renovation, it reopened at the end of May 2016. They spent 305 Million Dollars on the new addition, right behind the old building, which had been designed by Mario Botta 20 years ago. The addition serves to host new works by various artists. The Fisher family, founders of the San Francisco based apparel store GAP, had loaned the museum a total of 1100 artistic works, but the old building simply didn't have enough space to put them all on display.

Figure [13]: Gold members like us receive free entrance tickets for SF MoMA.

I vividly remember that when we moved to San Francisco almost 20 years ago, everyone was complaining about the then new SF MoMA building and what looked like a gigantic ash tray sitting on its roof. But in the meantime, it's become an essential part of the skyline and no one can imagine it not being here anymore. So the new architects got the offer to design a new building that integrated well with the old one. The city awarded the Norwegian architect firm Snohetta with the contract, and they created a white building which looks a bit like a crumpled up blanket. But the interior is quite lofty, has a Scandinavian feel to it and is minimalistic and functional.

Figure [14]: Art lovers admire a painting by Chuck Close.

Figure [15]: The interior of the new SF MoMA resembles a Skandinavian furniture store.

What we liked best is that museum visitors can go outside on almost every floor, to enjoy views of the city. Many sculptures decorate these mezzanines, and one of them features a giant green wall of plants, which currently seems to be the hot spot everyone wants their picture to be taken in front of. Several cafes and restaurants invite even art sceptics. Aficinados of new art can indulge in works of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Calder, Rothko, Arbus, and many more. The entrance fee is $25 per person, children under 18 enjoy free admission. We've been members of the museum for decades and can go there free of charge whenever we feel like it. It is open every day (except Thanksgiving and the 25th of December), unlike other museums which are closed on Mondays. Swing by when you're in town!

Figure [16]: Diese rostigen Spiralwände stehen in der rückwärtigen Eingangshalle des Museums.

Figure [17]: Amazon has custom fitted Hawaiian car seat covers.

MichaelSince Angelika is traveling a lot of miles by car on her work commute every day, and our backup car, Perly Perlman, was decommissioned recently (Rundbrief 02/2016), I purchased a new vehicle for her, a 2011 Honda Fit, which we've nick-named "Brummi". It's a nice, agile commute mule, and it has the unbeatable advantage that you can fold down the rear bench and the passenger seat in such a neat way, that even "Catchy the Wavecatcher", my 9 footer surf board for slow days, fits in with the hatch closed.

The car only has 117 horsepower, but it's so light that I've startled many a Porsche driver with it when the light switched to green. Okay, at mid range speeds, the lack of torque due to the small engine is evident and severly lacks the required oomp, but I've gotten so used to it that I prefer city driving it to my beloved "Rocket" 1998 Integra GSR, a car preferred by Asian teenagers and our successor of the legendary Perly Perlman. Its engine its screaming until 8000 rpms, and those 170 horsepower developed during that stage feel like you're driving the Rallye Monte Carlo.

Figure [18]: Those semi-custom made seat covers fit like a glove.

It's been a long standing tradition for me to buy the most outragious and colorful seat covers for our cars possible. This time, my eye caught the bright red Hawaiian Covers sold by "Totally Covers" on Amazon. While normal run-off-the-mill seat covers come in one-size-fits-all and fit more or less on different car seats, this company offers a "semi custom fit" for the unbeatable price of $99.99 per pair, tailored for the seat size of a specific car. I just added the make, model, and year of our car to the order, and after about a week, I received the covers by mail. They came with matching head rest covers, and the seat parts had the required openings for the side airbags embedded in the seats to deploy, and even knew about the unusual arm rest on protruding from the right side of the driver seat in the Honda Fit. Fits like a glove!

Top Product: Kathi's Pretzel Mix

Figure [19]: This package contains the ingredients for nine freshly baked German pretzels.

Michael As you know, we're living in a dystopian region with regards to availability of fresh German-style pretzels. In Rundbrief 09/2008, I told you about "Ester's" German bakery in Mountain View, whose pretzels are decent when they come straight out of the oven, but have typically exceeded their expiration date when they arrive in stores in San Francisco. They're on sale at the local alternative supermarket "Rainbow", but you have to be pretty heavily pretzel deprived to pay nine dollars for five stale pretzels. Yet, I take the plunge every now and then.

Figure [20]: Home baker Michael elegantly slings the pretzel dough into shape.

You can find American style pretzels in shopping malls, sold at shops like "Auntie Anne's", but I wouldn't eat their yeasty squishy pretzels even if they paid me to. Baking crunchy German pretzels requires a hot oven and special browning lye, which is only sold to licenced individuals in the U.S., because it is actually poisonous if not baked thoroughly. Lacking fresh, proper, professionally-made pretzels in the Bay Area, I went out to research alternative production methods, and found that the "World Market" chain of supermarkets is selling a do-it-yourself kit labeled "Kathi's Pretzel Mix". It contains a flour mix, yeast, coarse salt, and some lye powder, to be turned into baking lye by adding water. I purchased the kit in Daly City, a few miles south of our place, and started baking.

Figure [21]: After 20 minutes, the freshly baked crunchy pretzels come out of the oven.

In a pretzel-baking Youtube-Video I published the results of the procedure, Angelika was holding the camera in our kitchen while I kneaded and shaped the dough, and pushed the raw pretzels in the oven.

The whole procedure, including resting of the dough and baking time in the oven, takes about two hours, the video cuts it down to 10 minutes, illustrating only the most important steps. The pretzel mix costs about $6, and provides enough raw ingredients for about nine pretzels. So far, I've baked pretzels on three different occasions, and my skills of kneading the dough and shaping perfect pretzels is steadily improving. The secret is to stretch out the dough into really thin and long lines, making sure the pretzels don't come off the baking sheet doughy and soft but slim and crunchy, just like they sell them at bakery shops in Bavaria. Take a look, and study the process, there's lots to pick up!

California: Minimum Wage and Birth Control Pills

Figure [22]: California's governor Jerry Brown Foto: Steve Rhodes

Angelika We just went through the last phase of the presidential primary elections here in the United States, while scratching our heads upon the fact that Donald Trump won the Republican mandate. At the same time, our California governor, Jerry Brown, has signed two different pieces of legislation, which many consider to be pretty progressive, compared to other states. One raises the minimum wage in California, currently at $10/hour, to $15 in 2022. Individual states can set the minimum wage independently, as long as it is higher than the federal minimum, which is $7.25/hour. Cities and counties in turn can ask for more than their state requires. In this way, the minimum wage in San Francisco currently is at $12.25/hour, starting July this year it is going up to $13, and will reach $15 in 2018, four years before the state sets this amount. The state of New York, always in an arms race with California, also decided to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour.

Figure [23]: Pharmacy chain Walgreens recently started carrying over-the-counter birth control pills.

Another new bill signed by Jerry Brown enables women in California, regardless of age, to get access to birth control pills after a short consultation with the pharmacist, without requiring a prescription by a doctor. As reported on previously, in the U.S., pharmacies selling prescription drugs are often integrated with major drug store and supermarket chains. Similar laws covering access to birth control pills already exist in the States of Washington, Oregon, and Washington D.C.. The idea behind it is to avoid unwanted pregnancies. This might not sound spectacular, but in the traditionally rather prude and conservative U.S., the new law is a small sensation.

Figure [24]: Birth control pills aren't available on the shelf, but the new law allows sales through the pharmacy window in the back.

What's noteworthy about all this is how Jerry Brown used his pragmatism and negotiation skills to push through many democratic agenda items in California. This worked, because he cleverly took advantage of a democratic majority in the California State Senate -- compare that to Barack Obama, who totally missed out on this opportunity during his first term, by not acting while he still had a democratic majority in both chambers of Congress. Jerry Brown gives indeed hope that there's not only crazy polititians in this country playing to the gallery while producing nothing but hot air. Jerry Brown's term ends in 2018, and according to California law, he can't run for another one, as since 1990, California only allows two terms per governor, for a total of eight years. But by then, he'll be 80 years old, and might want to retire anyway.

The 800 Dollar Pimple Balm

Figure [25]: This pimple-fighting balm costs 800 Dollars a piece.

AngelikaStrangely, even at my fairly advanced age, my skin is still behaving as if I was a teenager going through puberty. For this reason, my dermatologist recently prescriped a balm named "Tazorac", which keeps pimples in check. But, when I wanted to fill the prescription at Walgreen's, the person there told me that our health insurance would only pay for it when prescribed to patients under the age of 30. Well, bummer, that doesn't apply anymore! So I carefully inquired about the cost if I had to pay for it out of pocket, and the pharmacist told me without hesitation: "800 Dollars".

Welcome to Absurdistan! The balm apparently also contains an ingredient to fight wrinkles, and that's the reason why our health insurance company puts it into the "beauty" category for patients who are at an age when wrinkles could be an issue.

And, for this reason, patients must pay for it out of pocket! But, come on, 800 Dollars for a small tube of balm? That's just plain crazy! Our pharmacist explained that the balm is a brand name item, an not a generic product, which are more reasonably priced. And our health insurance suggested a number of alternative products. But I'm not a fan of treating minor issues with potent pharmaceuticals anyway, so I'll go ahead and try treating my skin with a few natural products made by Dr. Hauschka. They're downright bargains in comparison.

Surfing with Children

Figure [26]: Even small children enjoy surfing with their parents.

Once again, we spent our summer vacation on Oahu this year. Traditional surfing is still in high demand on the islands, in fact, I think it will continue to thrive as long as the islands persist. Every couple of years, however, there's a new trend in Hawaiian water sports. First there were the kite surfers, criss-crossing on the waters propelled by giant parachutes, to Michael's dismay. They're still doing their thing, although we've noticed a decline in popularity, which is highly appreciated by swimmers not having to constantly worry about kite surfers losing control and dumping their chute on them. Then came the paddle boarders, trying to stand upright while pushing themselves forward by paddle strokes. This variant even has some history on Hawaii, but recently, lots of unfit surfers flock to this method, crowding the waters.

Figure [27]: Some surfers even carry two kids on their board.

Lately, we've noticed a new trend: lots of moms and dads are surfing with toddlers! We saw tiny children who couldn't possibly surf on their own, even on boogie boards. They sit on the front part of the board, while mom or dad are paddling into small waves, pop up, and steer the board through the waters. I was stunned when I first saw this, because many children barely seemed to have passed the diaper age. But it's commonly known that people on the islands are born with a surfboard, and they quickly learn their way around it. At home in San Francisco, Michael has started to drive down to our home beach of Pacifica three to four times a week. He is surfing like a maniac down there and lately, there's some kind of Hawaiian vibe around him.

Aloha from San Francisco!

Angelika and Michael Edit

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