Sunday Reading – 11/23/14

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

Physicists Explain Why Coffee Is More Prone to Spills Than Beer - Coffee simply does not like to stay in place. Restaurant servers soon learn to pour coffee at the table or to carry the poured cup and saucer separately, lest they wind up with a half-empty coffee cup sitting in a pool of spilled liquid.

Beer, however, presents no such challenge. Servers can maneuver through crowds while carrying a fully-loaded tray of beers fresh from the tap and filled to the top—all without spilling so much as a drop.

Both coffee and beer are liquids, however, so why is one of those beverages so much more prone to sloshing over the edge of its cup or glass than the other?

Curious physicists have now identified the answer—it all comes down to foam.

Just as solid foam reduces noise by absorbing sound waves, liquid foam does the same for motion. The researchers discovered foam’s insulating effects by performing controlled lab experiments on coffee and beer. They used high speed cameras to record the waves of motion that rocked through the surface of coffee, an amber beer and Guinness. The more foam that was present, they observed, the more energy was absorbed and the less sloshing occurred. Read More > in the Smithsonian Magazine

There’s No Room for Cinderella Teams in New College Football Playoff - You are invited to the biggest party of the year on the condition that you sit in the corner the whole time and don’t bring any of your friends. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.

And that’s roughly what happened behind closed doors in the making of the College Football Playoff. It’s why we are where we are now, with five conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC) holding all the power and five known as the “group of five” (Mountain West, Sun Belt, American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American) not whining because they’re just happy to be invited, sort of.

It’s the dysfunction that explains why we have two undefeated teams so far apart in the rankings. One is Florida State, the defending national champs, ranked No. 3, and likely headed to this year’s playoff. The other is Marshall, unranked, with zero chance of getting into the playoff. It also had zero chance before the season even started.

It explains how college football has killed Cinderella. Read More > in the Bleacher Report

Is violence more common in same-sex relationships? – A study in the US suggests that same-sex relationships suffer higher levels of domestic violence than heterosexual ones. Why is this, and how are Americans dealing with the problem?

Last year, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released figures showing people in same-sex relationships experience levels of domestic violence just as often as those in heterosexual relationships.

But the conclusions of another study this year by the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago – a review of data from four earlier studies, involving 30,000 participants – go further.

“One of our startling findings was that rates of domestic violence among same-sex couples is pretty consistently higher than for opposite sex couples,” says Richard Carroll, a psychologist and co-author of the report. Read More > in the BBC

Social Security: Why the Nazi Controversy Matters More Than You Think - Tens of millions of Americans rely on Social Security benefits, and hundreds of millions more expect to receive those benefits at some point in the future. Yet a recent controversy concerning Social Security payments made to suspected Nazi war criminals has reopened a pressing question that could have broader implications in future years: when the government can take away your Social Security benefits.

The case at issue involves dozens of concentration-camp guards and others suspected of supporting the Nazi war effort and millions of dollars they received through Social Security. Under federal law, even those whom the government forced out of the country were allowed to keep their benefits as long as they were never formally deported, according to an Associated Press investigation. Many government officials didn’t approve of the practice, which was intended to head off extended deportation hearings and raise the number of former Nazis forced to leave the country, and the resulting international consequences led to tension among some U.S. allies.

…Few would argue that rewarding suspected war criminals with financial incentives to leave the U.S. was an intended use of Social Security funds. Yet the speed with which Congress is taking action raises questions that every American needs to ask: just how secure are your right Social Security benefits, and could lawmakers take them away from you as well?

…Yet the Supreme Court has already ruled that Americans don’t have a property right to their Social Security benefits. In a 1960 case with similarities to the current Nazi controversy, a man named Ephram Nestor was deported for being a Communist Party member, and a federal law required that deportees have their Social Security benefits stopped. Nestor pointed to the taxes he had paid as entitling him to benefits, but the Supreme Court disagreed, refusing to see Social Security as similar to a private annuity contract. Read More > at The Motley Fool

Secret California water deal left high and dry in D.C. – After months of secret negotiations and without a single public hearing, a bill that would have built dams and reservoirs in California – and rolled back environmental laws – has been shelved. At least for now.

California’s record drought prompted both the House and Senate to pass their own version of water bills. The House version – cosponsored by the entire CA GOP delegation - would roll back environmental protections and rewrite water contracts.

Dianne Feinstein’s Senate version, co-sponsored by California colleague Barbara Boxer, was a more middle-of-the-road measure — with some protections for the Sacramento River delta — but  opened the door to negotiations with the House.

The battle attracted big money from the nation’s largest agricultural interests. Westlands Water District spent $600,000 on four different lobbying firms last year. The Fresno Bee reported that the head of Westlands, Tom Birmingham, was in Washington this week. Read More > at KPCC

The hyper-real robots that will replace receptionists, pop stars… and even sex dolls: Unnervingly human androids coming to a future very near you - Chillingly life-like robots are causing a storm in Japan – where their creators are about to launch them as actresses, full-size mechanical copies for pop idol fans, and clones of the dearly departed.

There is even talk that the naturalistic, even engaging, she-droids may be taken up as men as partners in the not-too-distant future.

Android Asuna was a star attraction at Tokyo Designers’ Week showcase earlier this month and she is one of a series of geminoids, as their inventor dubs them, that are ripe for commercialisation say their creator robotics professor Hiroshi Ishiguro.

Gobsmacked men attending the show told MailOnline that she was well made, very convincing and had a nice voice. One man joked that Asuna would make ‘a good date; a cheap date!’

From others, covering their mouths in astonishment at Asuna’s realistic skin and facial expressions, the frequent response from the public was ‘sukoi’ which translates as ‘amazing’ in English.

Asuna is so convincing that many bowed respectfully before requesting politely to take her photo or join a selfie. Read More > in the Daily Mail

How the War on Poverty Has Hurt American Marriage Rates - It is no accident that the collapse of marriage in America largely began with the War on Poverty and the proliferation of means-tested welfare programs that it fostered.

When the War on Poverty began, only a single welfare program—Aid to Families with Dependent Children —assisted single parents.

Today, dozens of programs provide benefits to families with children, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Women, Infants and Children food program, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, child nutrition programs, public housing and Section 8 housing, and Medicaid.

Although married couples with children can also receive aid through these programs, the overwhelming majority of assistance to families with children goes to single-parent households.

The burgeoning welfare state has promoted single parenthood in two ways. First, means-tested welfare programs such as those described above financially enable single parenthood. It is difficult for single mothers with a high school degree or less to support children without the aid of another parent. Read More > at The Daily Signal

RG3′s fall from grace as stunning as his meteoric rise to stardom - Less than two years ago some believed Robert Griffin III could change the way the United States was governed.

Not just change the football fortunes of the Washington Redskins, not just change the bottom line for Nike or Subway or anyone else who’d jumped in with a pleasant, charismatic and dynamic quarterback, not just change how his position is played, in his case with 4.3 speed and an accurate arm.

No, he could change American governance.

RG3 was such an overnight superstar that when it came out that he – young, black, exciting – might be a Republican, political types wondered if he could serve as an outreach for the party into a pool of voters it rarely attracts.

Griffin has never confirmed his political preferences, but it didn’t stop some from believing that he could swing elections locally and federally, if not just become the candidate himself.

“I think we will see RG3 run for office someday very soon,” Sarah Davis, a Republican state representative from Houston, predicted back then.

Two years later and Griffin probably couldn’t win a caucus in his own locker room. As for the fans, if chants during Sunday’s demoralizing 27-7 destruction to Tampa Bay count as a straw poll, then backup Colt McCoy would beat him in a landslide.

Once untouchable, unassailable, un-tackle-able, Griffin spent the past few days playing horribly, conveying his frustrations to the media by blaming [at least in part] his teammates and finally getting absolutely lit up by his rookie head coach. Read More > at Yahoo! Sports

Fallen Arches: Can McDonald’s get its mojo back? – Perhaps no episode captures what’s ailing the world’s largest restaurant company better than the Mighty Wings Debacle of 2013. In September of last year, McDonald’s launched an ambitious program to sell deep-fried chicken wings across its 14,000 U.S. locations. The wings were a staple in Hong Kong, where the crisp cayenne-and-chili-pepper coating was developed. And a similar version tickled palates in Atlanta during testing. One blogger wrote: “Holy crap, those are really freakin’ good.” The wings were giant (“bone in,” as the jargon went) and meaty. And by the end of the heavily advertised eight-week promotion, McDonald’s was left with 10 million pounds of unsold chicken, a whopping 20% of its inventory. The Mighty Wings didn’t flap.

At corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., executives began pointing fingers. Some blamed the coating, which was too spicy for broad American tastes, they said. Some blamed the price, at a hefty $1 per wing. A box of five Mightys cost a buck more than the equivalent number at KFC. McDonald’s ( MCD 0.29% ) had justified the lofty price because the wings were so immense, taken from its suppliers’ gigantic eight-pound chickens. The wings were arguably a bona fide deal. But this brings up problem No. 3: Customers didn’t make that connection. Cost-conscious diners gazing up at the menu didn’t realize they’d be getting “absurdly huge drumettes,” as the blogger put it. “This was quality for price,” a former executive tells Fortune, “but McDonald’s is known for quantity for price.” McDonald’s might have thought they were value. Customers simply viewed them as expensive.

CEO Don Thompson, then in the job for a little over a year, had needed the wings to be a hit. The company’s performance had slipped on his watch, suffering from disappointing sales growth and deteriorating margins. Since then things have gotten worse—much worse. In late October, McDonald’s reported a significant loss of market share and its fourth straight quarter of negative same-store sales in its U.S. operations. Overall, the company reported a distressing 30% decline in profit. Expenses were growing even as sales were falling—a big problem for any company.

Analysts are now predicting that 2014 will be the first year of negative global same-store sales since 2002. Read More > in Fortune

California Can’t Ask Sex Offenders to Report Their Internet User Names - A federal appeals court has blocked California from enforcing new rules requiring people in its sex offender registry to report their Internet activity.

Proposition 35, a ballot measure passed by a 4-to-1 margin in 2012, mandated that people on the sex offender list inform the state of “any and all Internet identifiers” they create or use. That includes user names, screen names, and e-mail addresses, according (pdf) to the law. Every time someone registered as a sex offender gets a new Internet service account or Internet identifier, Prop 35 also requires him to notify the government within 24 hours.

That runs afoul of the right to free speech, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded in a decision (pdf) issued Tuesday, Nov. 18, upholding a lower court injunction. Prop 35, the court found, is too vague about what it requires, too lax about protecting the privacy of people’s Internet information, and too broad and burdensome. “There can be little doubt that requiring a narrow class of individuals to notify the government within 24 hours of engaging in online communication with a new identifier significantly burdens those individuals’ ability and willingness to speak on the internet,” Judge Jay Bybee wrote. Read More > in Bloomberg Businessweek

In California, West Nile deaths highest in nearly a decade - While much of the nation has been focused on Ebola recently, hundreds of Californians have been contracting another virus: West Nile.

There have been 752 cases of West Nile Virus reported in California so far this year. That’s more than three times the average number of annual cases over the past five years.

More than half of 2014′s cases have come from Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to state data.

Most people who are infected with West Nile don’t develop any symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About one in five people will develop a fever, with other symptoms like headache, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rash.

Typically, less than 1 percent of people with West Nile will develop a serious neurologic illness, and about 10 percent of them will die, according to the CDC.

But California has recorded 27 West Nile-related deaths so far this year – about 3.5 percent of all cases. The state hasn’t seen that many fatalities from the virus since 2004, when 29 people died of the disease. Read More > at KPCC

America’s Casino-Saturation Problem - In the summer of 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie travelled by helicopter to Atlantic City for what the local media described as a historic press conference. The news out of the city had been growing steadily worse, and by the time of Christie’s appearance it was clear that, nearly four decades after it had legalized gambling in an attempt to avoid economic ruin, Atlantic City was back where it had started. Standing in front of Boardwalk Hall, next to the mayor and members of the city council, Christie declared, “Atlantic City is dying.” The city, once known as the World’s Playground, had become unclean and unsafe. The number of visitors had fallen, and casino revenues were plummeting. Christie then announced a plan to return Atlantic City to its rightful place as the East Coast’s premier entertainment destination. There would be a sparkling new tourist district, with more conventions, restaurants, retail outlets, and non-gambling attractions. Also in development were bold new marketing plans and nonstop air routes to deliver fresh gamblers. Atlantic City, the Governor promised, would become “Las Vegas East.”

Four years later, Christie’s plan has failed. Four of Atlantic City’s twelve casinos have gone out of business this year, including Revel, an estimated $2.3-billion jewel that opened just two years ago; another, the Trump Taj Mahal, has announced that it could close within weeks. An estimated eight thousand jobs have already been lost, and thousands more seem likely to follow. Since Christie’s 2010 press conference, the assessed value of all the property in the city has declined by nearly half.

While it would be easy to conclude that Atlantic City’s demise is the predictable result of decades of well-documented greed, corruption, and incompetent leadership, the city is in fact one of the first casualties of a nationwide casino arms race. Eager for new jobs and new revenues that don’t require raising taxes, states from coast to coast have turned to gambling: in 1978, only Nevada and New Jersey had commercial casinos; today, twenty-four states do. Atlantic City once had the densely populated Northeast all to itself, but now nearly every state in the region is home to casinos. And with both New York and Massachusetts poised to open massive new gambling resorts, the competition for the fixed number of gamblers there will only get tougher. “It’s a war,” Father Richard McGowan, a professor of management at Boston College who studies the gambling industry, said. “It’s remarkable to me how the states are fighting each other for gambling revenue.” Read More > in The New Yorker

California’s illegal immigrant population drops, still largest – California still has, by far, the nation’s largest population of illegal immigrants, but it declined between 2009 and 2012, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

The overall number of illegal immigrants in the nation was virtually unchanged at 11.3 million in 2012, Pew said, but it increased in seven states while declining in California and 13 other states, largely due to a sharp drop in immigration from Mexico.

The estimated drop in California was fairly scant, down 50,000 to 2.45 million, about 6.4 percent of the state’s overall population. However, Pew says illegal immigrants are 9.4 percent of California’s labor force, second only to Nevada’s 10.2 percent. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

BART line to San Jose lurching into view, in fits and starts - Long considered a good idea, getting BART to San Jose continues to be a struggle — despite the generosity of South Bay voters, who have twice raised their sales taxes, and support from the tech industry.

After already curtailing plans for a Silicon Valley BART extension once, South Bay transportation officials are retrenching and considering cutting back again, this time by eliminating two stations from a future extension now seeking funding.

The original plan for BART to San Jose, hammered out between BART and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in 2001, envisioned a line taking off from Fremont, now the end of the line, and extending all the way to Santa Clara, passing through a subway beneath downtown San Jose en route.

Two key stretches of that line are under construction. BART is extending its tracks to the Warm Springs area of south Fremont, near the Tesla plant, and expects to start running trains to the new station late in 2015. At the same time, the VTA is building a 10.2-mile extension that BART will operate south to Berryessa in northeast San Jose. VTA expects it to open near the end of 2017.

But the dream of taking BART to downtown San Jose — or beyond, first envisioned in the 1960s — clashed with reality and had to be scaled back to improve the project’s chances of winning federal funding. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Are We Doomed To Arctic Winters In America? – There’s an unwelcome guest on your doorstep, America.

It comes from the north, dragging frigid air and awful commutes like an terrible shroud over the continental United States, from the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Atlantic. While the East Coast saw temperatures about 10 degrees below average, snow hit much of the Midwest following a 40 degree drop over just a couple days in Chicago, and a region stretching from Denver to Montana saw sub-zero chills and record lows.

This morning, in the stairwell of an apartment building, even New York City’s relatively mild mid-30s weather prodded a father into a shouting match with his weeping child: “But I don’t want to go to school today! It’s too cold to go outside!” “Put your coat on, now!” And in the halls of climate research centers and weather stations across the nation, the cold snap is spurring a more technical, but no less divisive debate — one that matters to millions of Americans who remember the last awful winter: Is this the new normal?

…All other things being equal, meteorologists expect a weak but warming El Niño effect to render this winter a relatively mild one, though forecasters have lowered the probability from 65 to 58 percent at last measure.

Hoerling, along with most other researchers, says there’s no reason to expect the current cold snap to portend a trend this season. But Francis isn’t so sure.

“It all depends on what happens with El Niño — if it does form, what we’re seeing right now will probably end,” she says. But she says it looks more and more likely that won’t happen. “The pattern of surface temperature in the North Pacific look a lot like last winter.”

In other words, let’s hope that unwelcome guest packs up and leaves for good. But if it comes back, bringing with it plunging mercury, snot-icicles, and general misery, you’d best be ready. Shiver Read More > at Popular Science

Results Are In! Voters Stayed Away - Look at the results of this last election here in California. There were 100 state legislative seats up for election – the entire Assembly of 80 members and half the Senate’s 40 members. Of those ‘competitions’ – as we used to think of elections – about 10 of them were in play between two reasonably competitive candidates. The rest were either cakewalks or exhibited no opposition to speak of. A total of only about 4 million votes were tallied for these legislative races. This, for a legislative body more than a majority of citizens feels is dysfunctional.

…Should we be concerned that so few registered voters showed enough interest to cast a ballot? Just when you realize that this is a dangerously low number of interested citizens, we should remind ourselves that this percentage is only of REGISTERED voters. There are vast numbers of people – the estimate is north of 6 million people – who are eligible to vote but for one reason or another don’t even bother to register.

…This leads to another question – is this lack of participation a bad thing? Some may argue that as long as there is a cadre of informed voters who participate, it is disruptive and potentially harmful for a group of uninformed participants to muddy the process. Is that what we want? Is that what makes our democracy more powerful?

This would surely be news to the Founders. They sought independence from a King who wielded power arbitrarily. They envisioned an active democracy that involved citizens exercising an informed power at the voting booth. Madison and Jefferson didn’t see political activity as a business; they regarded it as a sacred duty of a free people.

They were correct. Freedom isn’t free. The price of a lack of informed involvement on the part of the electorate is a government that imposes its will without popular support. It is likely a government ruled by corruption and cronyism, much as we see in less developed nations or banana republics. While the United States is considered far removed from that category, we are a country with serious problems and in need of reform in many areas, reform that is potentially stifled by special interests funders committed to preserving a status quo from which they benefit. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Crime Trends in California - California’s violent crime rate is at its lowest level since 1967.
After increasing slightly in 2012, California’s violent crime rate dropped by 6.5% in 2013, to a 46-year low of 397 per 100,000 residents. From 1960 to 1980, the state’s violent crime rate increased from 239 to 894 violent crimes per 100,000 residents—a staggering 274% rise. After declining in the early 1980s, the rate rose to a peak of 1,120 in 1992. Since then, violent crime has declined substantially. Nonetheless, in the most recent national data (from 2012), California’s violent crime rate of 422 per 100,000 residents was higher than the national rate of 387 and ranked 16th among all states. In 2013, 59% of violent crimes in California were aggravated assaults, 35% were robberies, 5% were rapes, and 1% were homicides.

After a noticeable uptick in 2012, the property crime rate decreased in 2013.
The 2013 property crime rate of 2,665 per 100,000 residents is down 3.9% from 2012 and close to the 50-year low of 2,594 reached in 2011. Like violent crime, property crime increased dramatically between 1960 and 1980—from 3,177 per 100,000 residents in 1961 to a 50-year peak of 6,939 in 1980. But the property crime rate fell in the 1980s and ’90s, and by 2011 it was down almost 63%. Despite a 6.6% increase in 2012, California’s property crime rate remained below the national rate and ranked 24th among all states. Of all reported property crimes in California in 2013, 61% were larceny thefts, 23% were burglaries, and 16% were auto thefts. Read More > at Public CEO

Reimer: Legalizing sports gambling is a good bet - We’re a nation of gamblers, and it’s time we admit it. Betting on sports is an American tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation.

Granddad used to place wagers with his bookie, Dad runs his office’s fantasy football league, and his millennial son has several accounts on gambling websites.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recognizes this, which is why he’s calling for the national legalization of sports gambling.

“I believe sports betting should be brought out of the underground and into the sunlight where it can be appropriately monitored and regulated,” Silver writes in The New York Times.

The NBA and the other three major professional leagues have fought to stop the spread of legalized sports gambling since the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was passed in 1992. PASPA prohibits sports betting in every state except Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon.

But that law has been a losing battle for the same reason true-blue Massachusetts voters refused to repeal the casino law. It’s also why Massachusetts and New York are ready to roll out billion-dollar gaming palaces even though New Jersey casinos have been going belly up. Read More > in the Boston Herald

High court allows delta water contracts to be challenged - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday allowed environmentalists to challenge the government’s renewal of 41 long-term contracts for irrigation water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in a lawsuit seeking greater protection for the endangered delta smelt.

Water districts had asked the justices to review a ruling in April by a federal appeals court in San Francisco. That ruling reinstated a suit by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups claiming the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation should have consulted with government biologists before renewing contracts with farms and water districts for as long as 40 years. The justices denied the districts’ request on Monday.

The Bureau of Reclamation first granted long-term contracts in 1964 for water from the Sacramento River and the Delta-Mendota Canal. When the contracts came up for renewal in 2004, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists said the deliveries would not jeopardize the delta smelt, a 3-inch fish whose numbers are considered an indicator of the estuary’s health.

The biologists re-examined the issue in 2008 and reached the opposite conclusion. The environmental groups argued that the Bureau of Reclamation should have consulted the scientists, regardless of their changing views, before renewing the irrigation contracts in 2004-05. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Here’s how NFL players and coaches use Microsoft’s custom-built Surface tablets on the sidelines – Thanks to Microsoft’s $400 million, five-year contract with the NFL, players and coaches this season have started ditching the traditional paper black-and-white images of plays used to review previous possessions, and instead are taking advantage of a customized Surface Pro 2 that Microsoft built specifically for NFL sidelines.

We had a chance to check out the devices today, and the first thing I noticed was the sheer weight of the waterproof tablets, which have sturdy casings that add about two pounds and can withstand temperatures ranging from 120 to negative 45 degrees.

…I spent a few minutes playing with the software, and it’s easy to see why these tablets are more efficient than the traditional paper printouts — 15 times faster, Tran noted. Images from each play — on offense, defense, and special teams — are labeled, with the ability to make annotations on each photo with the Surface Pen. Players and coaches can “favorite” specific screenshots that they want to bookmark.

Traditionally, images would be sent to a printer, and a team assistant would have to print the photos and compile them into a binder.

That’s all changed with the Surface. Tran noted that while some are adapting the digital tools slower than others — it seems some commentators haven’t caught on yet, either — 95 percent of coaches in the booths don’t user their printers anymore because they’re relying on the tablets. Read More > at GeekWire

Rising retirement costs help drive UC plan to raise tuition - When the University of California Board of Regents on Wednesday debates a plan to raise tuition by up to 5 percent annually over each of the next five years, they will focus on how the revenue could benefit the university’s academic mission: expanded course offerings, more support services, 5,000 more slots for California students.

But UC officials say the system also needs the money to help rescue its pension fund – neglected for two decades and facing $7.2 billion in unfunded liabilities – and to cover the growing cost of retiree health benefits.

“They’re going to have to ramp up contributions considerably over the next few years in order to maintain the financial health of the system,” said Adam Tatum, a retirement systems specialist at California Common Sense, a nonpartisan policy research organization. “What is certain is that the UC needs more money to pay off these unfunded liabilities – if not now, then in the future. That’s inevitable.”

This year, UC will pay about $1.3 billion to the pension fund, about 5 percent of its overall operating budget. UC officials want the state’s general fund to pick up nearly a third of the payment, which would cover the university’s portion of pension contributions for faculty and other employees who are paid from state funds. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

San Jose pension reform: new players, new ruling - In what looked like a referendum on a voter-approved pension reform, a supporter, Councilman Sam Liccardo, was narrowly elected mayor of San Jose. He defeated a union-backed reform opponent, Supervisor Dave Cortese, who conceded last week.

Local, state and national public employee unions reportedly spent more than $800,000 to defeat Liccardo with a campaign warning that pension cuts were causing the city to lose police officers, endangering public safety.

…The widely watched San Jose reform, approved by 69 percent of voters in June 2012, could lead to a state Supreme Court review of “vested rights” and whether pensions current workers earn in the future can be cut, while benefits already earned are protected.

“Public unions assert that pensions are inviolable, but California’s high court has never decided whether future benefits are protected under the state constitution,” a Wall Street Journal editorial about Liccardo’s victory said last week.

A series of state court decisions, a key one in 1955, are generally believed to mean the pension offered public employees when hired becomes a “vested right,” protected by contract law, that can only be cut if offset by a new benefit of comparable value.

Pension reform advocates, such as the watchdog Little Hoover Commission, say state and local governments need to be allowed, like private-sector employers, to control unaffordable costs by cutting pensions current workers earn in the future. Read More > at Calpensions

Vallejo’s Struggles Capture CA City Perils - After three years spent in bankruptcy, 2008-11, running the city of Vallejo is still a struggle.

Facing a weakened police force and a failed experiment in citizen-driven budgeting, Vallejo’s structural challenges have persisted. In the wake of the pension crisis that helped plunge the city into bankruptcy, residents have become resistant to spending more money.

Hungry for cash, the City Council has turned its attention to a raft of proposals for big-ticket projects like large new casinos. Meanwhile, law enforcement has attempted to staff up even while suing the city for modifying proposed pension benefits during its bankruptcy proceedings.

All told, this portrait of a precarious, ailing city has cast doubt even on bankruptcy as a reliable fix for the budgetary woes imposed by public pensions — a challenge still unmet across California. Read More > at Public CEO

Alzheimer’s Test Detects Disease Decade Ahead of Onset in Study - A new blood test for Alzheimer’s appears to detect the disease as many as 10 years before clinical diagnosis is possible — far sooner than other tests in development.

The test, described publicly for the first time yesterday, could soon be used to identify and treat patients with Alzheimer’s earlier in their disease progression. Those people could participate in clinical trials to help find new treatments. Already, the test distinguishes between patients and healthy elderly with 100 percent accuracy. Read More > in Bloomberg

WSJ: California State Bar in Turmoil After Shake-up Triggers Whistleblower Claim - The California State Bar was thrown into turmoil this week after its ousted executive director struck back with retaliation claims alleging that he was fired for complaining about ethical breaches inside the organization.

Joseph Dunn, a Democratic former California state senator, claims in a whistleblower lawsuit filed in California state court Thursday that the state bar fired him from his job last week after he accused the bar’s top disciplinary officer of lying about the organization’s handling of attorney misconduct complaints.

The bar’s leadership won’t say what was behind the shake-up, and Mr. Dunn says he wasn’t given an explanation when the bar notified him of his termination when was in San Francisco giving a speech on Nov. 7.

The bar put out a statement Thursday saying that it had terminated Mr. Dunn and that the bar’s president, Craig Holden, and a deputy executive director would be assuming Mr. Dunn’s duties on a temporary basis. It did not have an immediate comment on Friday.

The bar, an arm of the California Supreme Court, is the state’s legal gatekeeper, overseeing bar admissions and managing the state’s attorney discipline system for its 181,000 active members.

Mr. Dunn alleges that the bar’s chief trial counsel, Jayne Kim, who oversees investigations into complaints about attorneys, “unlawfully removed” backlog cases from official reports. “This was done to benefit Ms. Kim in her upcoming evaluation and to fraudulently inflate the productivity of her office,” the complaint says.

Ms. Kim, the lawsuit says, retaliated by filing an internal complaint against Mr. Dunn. The bar then retained an outside firm that billed it $300,000 — at $800 an hour — to conduct an evaluation of Mr. Dunn, according to his complaint. Read More > at Tax Prof Blog

Federal drug agents launch surprise inspections of NFL teams following games - Federal drug agents conducted surprise inspections of National Football League team medical staffs on Sunday as part of an ongoing investigation into prescription drug abuse in the league. The inspections, which entailed bag searches and questioning of team doctors by Drug Enforcement Administration agents, were based on the suspicion that NFL teams dispense drugs illegally to keep players on the field in violation of the Controlled Substances Act, according to a senior law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation.

The medical staffs were part of travel parties whose teams were playing at stadiums across the country. The law enforcement official said DEA agents, working in cooperation with the Transportation Security Administration, inspected multiple teams but would not specify which ones were inspected or where.

The San Francisco 49ers confirmed they were inspected by federal agents following their game against the New York Giants in New Jersey but did not provide any details. “The San Francisco 49ers organization was asked to participate in a random inspection with representatives from the DEA Sunday night at MetLife Stadium,” team spokesman Bob Lange said in an e-mailed statement. “The 49ers medical staff complied and the team departed the stadium as scheduled.” Read More > in The Washington Post

November 29 – Small Business Saturday

“There are few experiences in life as painful and brutal as the failure of a small business. For a small business conceived and nurtured by its owner is like a living, breathing child. Its loss is no less traumatic than losing a loved one.” – William Manchee

Between Black Friday and Cyber Monday is a day dedicated to supporting small businesses nationwide. Last year, over one hundred million people came together to Shop Small® in their communities on Small Business Saturday®. small_business_saturday_for_your_store

Since it first took place on November 27, 2010, the annual Small Business Saturday has become a part of the “post-Thanksgiving” shopping craze, joining Black Friday and Cyber Monday as one of the busiest shopping days of the year, and one on which merchants welcome shoppers with arms wide open in the hopes of spurring a record holiday sales season.

Contrary to the eye-catching ads and doorbuster sales of the big box stores, the purpose of Small Business Saturday is to draw attention to the many brick and mortar businesses in customers’ own towns that frequently get overlooked. Check out the Facebook page

Saturday, November 29, 2014 is Small Business Saturday, a day to celebrate and support small businesses. The City of Oakley joins other communities nationwide in supporting Small Business Saturday. The campaign calls on residents to dedicate a portion of holiday shopping to local small businesses.

Small Business Saturday’s objectives align with the goals of the Oakley First campaign, which encourages residents to look for opportunities to shop within Oakley. Oakley First, like Small Business Saturday, strives to increase visibility, awareness, and prosperity of local businesses, services, and restaurants. Consumers should understand that these initiatives acknowledge the importance of small businesses and the strength they provide to Oakley’s economy.

“In choosing where to shop, many people look first at prices, then location and then the name of the store, with little thought given to the importance of supporting small, local businesses. Shopping at small, local businesses can have a significant positive impact on the local economy.” Oakley City Councilman Kevin Romick

Every taxable dollar spent in Oakley benefits important City‐provided services like public safety, street maintenance, streetlights, and parks. The sales tax, equivalent to one percent of gross taxable sales, generated from Oakley transactions stays in our community. More information about Small Business Saturday is available at www.smallbusinesssaturday.com

Action & Media Alerts on Secret “Drought” Bill – Update 11/21/14

WASHINGTON — Farmers and communities in California’s Central Valley better hope for more rain because they won’t be getting any drought relief from Congress this year.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Thursday that attempts to forge compromise legislation have ended, even as she vowed to try again next year.

She was one of the key players trying to bridge major differences between separate House and Senate bills. In her statement, she said it was clear an agreement would not be reached before Congress adjourns for the year.

Democratic lawmakers from Northern California applauded Feinstein for stepping away from what they said was deeply flawed legislation designed to benefit a few water exporters.

restore_the_delta_header

 

ACTION ALERT:

We need to keep the pressure and the records of opposition going. Please make phone calls to Senator Boxer’s and Feinstein’s district offices. According to various reports, Senator Feinstein is no longer answering phone calls to her Washington D.C. office. Please call Senator Feinstein’s district offices.
Here is what you can say to Feinstein: “I oppose the federal drought bill that is secretly being negotiated in the Senate to over pump the Delta and override environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein District Offices
San Francisco office: (415) 393-0707
Los Angeles office: (310) 914-7300
San Diego office: (619) 231-9712
Fresno office: (559) 485-7430

Senator Barbara Boxer: (202) 224-3553
Senator Boxer is not involved with secret negotiations on the Delta, please remain positive and polite when speaking with her staff.
Here is what you can say to Boxer: “I oppose the federal drought bill that is secretly being negotiated by Feinstein to over pump the Delta and override environmental protections such as the Endangered Species Act. I urge Senator Boxer to block her colleague’s bill.”
Senator Barbara Boxer District Offices
Oakland: (510) 286-8537
Fresno: (559) 497-5109
Riverside: (951) 684-4849
Los Angeles: (213) 894-5000
Sacramento: (916) 448-2787
San Diego: (619) 239-3884

If you not have contacted our list of important Senators yet, watch our story and share our alert.

NEWS ALERTS:
Sac Bee Editorial: Feinstein freezes out north state in water bill talks
LA Times Editorial Why are U.S. lawmakers making California water deals in secret?
Mother Jones: Is Dianne Feinstein Crafting a Secret Water Deal to Help Big Pistachio?

Read here: Environmental Water Caucus Comment Letter Opposing Senator Dianne Feinstein’s and Representative Kevin McCarthy’s “Federal Drought Bill” Introduced as S. 2198 – November 18, 2014

Maintain Don’t Gain Holiday Tips

A little exercise each day helps you melt your stress (and calories) away.images

Have you noticed that we tend to substitute food for entertainment around the holidays? While sitting around the table and enjoying good company and good food is part of many of our traditions, consider scheduling some group activities to get you and your guests moving (and away from the table!). You will all benefit from better digestion, circulation and the stress release.

  1. Active games like charades, taking family photos ‘in action’ at your local park, neighborhood treasure hunts or simply walking through local neighborhoods to appreciate the holiday décor are all easy and fun ways to move away from food and move closer to interacting with one another.
  2. Move the buffet table and chairs aside and turn on the music! Dancing is a perfect way to liven up a party, get people moving and burn some calories.

When you make a little time to move during the holiday season, you are more likely to keep your mood and spirit in check!

Scam Of The Week: Black Friday Coupon Alert

It’s the Holiday Season for the bad guys too! But not the way you might think. They go into scam-overdrive mode. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the busiest on-line shopping days and they are out to get rich with your money. So what to look out for?

  1. At the moment, there are too-good-to-be-true coupons that offer free phones or tablets on sites all over the Internet. Don’t fall for it. Make sure the offers are from a legitimate company.
  2. Watch out for alerts via email or text that you just received a package from FedEx, UPS or the US Mail, and then asks you for some personal information. Don’t enter anything. Think Before You Click!
  3. There is a fake refund scam going on that could come from Amazon, a hotel, or a retail chain. It claims there was a “wrong transaction” and wants you to “click for refund” but instead, your device will be infected with malware.

So, especially now, the price of freedom is constant alertness and willingness to fight back. Remember to only use credit cards online, never debit cards. Be super-wary of bulk email with crazy good BUY NOW offers and anything that looks slightly “off”.

If you think you might have been scammed, stay calm and call your credit card company, nix that card and get a new one.

Highway 4 Construction Work – Week of November 17, 2014

The SR-4 corridor construction area is a 55 mph zone and a double fine zone so remember to slow for the cone zone!

Full Freeway Closures

Eastbound:
There are no eastbound full freeway closures planned for this week.

Westbound:
The westbound direction of State Route 4 will be closed from Laurel Road to the State Route 160
Connector Ramp on Sunday through Wednesday evenings between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am.

all lanes

State Route 160:
There are no eastbound or westbound full freeway closures of State Route 160 planned for this week.

Highway Lane Closures

State Route 4:
There will be highway lanes closures in the eastbound direction of State Route 4 between Somersville  Road and Lone Tree Way/A Street on Monday through Thursday evenings from 11:00 pm to 6:00 am  and Friday evening from 11:59 pm to 6:00 am.

There will be highway lanes closures in the westbound direction of State Route 4 between Somersville  Road and Lone Tree Way/A Street on Monday through Thursday evenings from 11:00 pm to 4:00 am  and on Friday evening from 11:00 pm to 6:00 am.

There will be highway lane closures in the westbound direction of State Route 4 between Laurel Road  and the State Route 160 connector ramp on Sunday through Thursday evenings from 8:00 pm to 5:00  am.

There will be highway lane closures in the eastbound and westbound direction of State Route 4
between Sand Creek and Balfour Road on Monday evenings through Friday evenings between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am.

State Route 160:
There are no SR160 lane closures planned for this week.

Ramp Closures

State Route 4:
The State Route 4 eastbound off ramp at Contra Loma Boulevard will be closed on Monday through Thursday evenings from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am and on Friday evening from 11:00 pm to 8:00am.

eastbound offramp closure

The State Route 4 westbound on ramp at Contra Loma Boulevard will be closed on Monday through Thursday evenings from 11:00 pm to 4:00 am and Friday evening from 11:00 pm to 6:00 am.

westbound offramp closure

The State Route 4 westbound on and off ramps at Sand Creek Road will be closed on Monday evenings through Friday evenings between 10:00 pm and 4:00 am.

ramp

 

State Route 160:
There are no ramp closures for State Route 160 planned for this week.

Local Street Closures

Cavallo Road will be closed in all directions between Sunset Drive and East Tregallas Road underneath
the State Route 4 overpass between 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning and 5:00 a.m. Monday morning.

Questions or comments can be directed to the Highway 4 widening hotline at (925) 756-0721 or visit our web site at http://widensr4.org.

Sunday Reading – 11/16/14

 

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

Gorgeous time lapse of the Sun

The Central Role of Cities in an Urban Century - For the first time in human history the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including 80 percent of Americans and 3 billion people worldwide. And this number is only expected to grow – current projections estimate by a third over the next three decades.

As you might expect, increasing population growth in cities not only leads to increasing citizen demands on local government, but an entire new ecosystem in which local government must respond and adapt. From the sharing economy to innovation districts to open datapolicies and much more, city leaders nationwide are already facing disruptions that are upending traditional industries and economic development patterns.

While urban innovation is exciting and welcome, offering new opportunities for a better quality of life for the nation’s city dwellers, these changes are creating unanticipated regulatory challenges. Entirely new or radically reformed industries are being created that must be examined, understood and incorporated into municipal operations, especially if cities are to achieve a vision of inclusive growth in which everyone in their communities can participate.

Within the technology and transportation sphere for example, driverless cars and personal drones are just two new technologies that are well on their way to being a part of our urban environment. Washington, DC as well as a handful of states have passed laws or are in the process of reacting to this coming shift in the driving environment. And, the FAA is deliberating final regulations for the usage of commercial drones in the nation’s airspace.

In a world where the only constant is change, it is imperative that cities allocate time to understanding and weighing the costs and benefits of these emerging technologies and development trends. Read More > at Public CEO

Smart LED Bulb Knows When Someone Falls - Union Tool Co out of Japan developed a smart LED light bulb that can monitor what’s going on in the room below it. Specifically, it was designed to automatically detect an elderly person falling and call for help.

The bulb has a 24 GHz milliwave radar, developed by Panasonic, pointing downward that can measure the distance to a person’s skull below it. If this distance suddenly and rapidly increases, the bulb assumes someone fell and uses an on-board networking chip to send a signal that can be picked up by a professional service or relayed to family or caretakers.

The bulb hanging at 3 meters above ground can cover an area of 13.2 square meters (142 sq ft). Having these bulbs throughout the house should be sufficient to cover most of the living space where accidents can happen. Read More > at medGadget

Walmart Will Start Price-Matching Amazon at Its 5000 Stores - You’ll now be able to get Amazon’s bargain prices at your local Walmart, as the company embraces price-matching with online retailers.

Reuters reports that Walmart told managers at its roughly 5000 stores that they’ll officially be able to offer customers the often cheaper prices available online. In the past, stores typically only matched published prices for other brick-and-mortar establishments. No longer. Apparently, about half of stores were already matching online prices, so the new move is meant to “formalize” the practice.

Amazon’s prices are basically the only one cheaper than what you’ll find at a big box store like Walmart. In light of Amazon’s recent push for same-day delivery, though, it’s not surprising that Walmart needs to give people a little extra incentive to walk in the door. Read More > at Gizmodo

Shame of Jameis Winston and Florida State: football above all else - If you don’t think Florida State, the university, has a vested interest in keeping Jameis Winston, the football player, eligible for the remainder of the season, the university just played its hand for all to see.

It has been nearly two years since Winston was first accused of sexual assault, and the university has now decided a couple more weeks — or months — won’t make a difference.

Welcome, everyone, to football above all else.

“First and foremost, a student deserves due process; that’s what our country is all about,” one Power 5 athletic director told me today. “But I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the optics of something look so poorly on so many involved.”

With seemingly so little care.

According to multiple reports, Winston, Florida State’s star quarterback and the foundation of the Seminoles’ 25-game winning streak, had his code of conduct disciplinary hearing moved from next week to Dec. 1 — nearly two years after the initial complaint.

If that doesn’t make you double-take, this will:

Under the university’s code of conduct bylaws, a formal decision on the hearing will be sent to the student “within 10 class days of the conclusion of the hearing.” It then goes on to state, “the time limit may be extended if additional consideration of evidence and deliberation is required.”

Look, maybe Winston and his attorney are playing by the rules, a process by which any student can be protected. Or maybe the university has done everything it possibly can to keep Winston out of harm’s way until it doesn’t matter anymore.

And by that I mean, until FSU’s 2014 football season is complete. Read More > in the Sporting News

The Worldwide Leader in Hypocrisy - On a day when ESPN’s Outside the Lines exposed more than two-dozen cases since 2000 of NFL players guilty of domestic violence not missing a down in the league, the four-letter network earlier this week hired retired cage fighter Chael Sonnen, a convicted money launderer and habitual steroid cheat, to analyze mixed-martial arts. The Worldwide Leader in “Do as We Say, Not as We Do” strikes again.

Cheater A-Rod in the batter’s box? Bad. Bad. Bad. Cheater Chael in the broadcast booth? Cool.

As ESPN morphed from cable-television outpost for game highlights into a jock crime blotter, a pixelated, sports version of the National Enquirer, and an elongated public-service announcement exposing the evils of homophobia, bullying, and concussions, its preachy self-righteousness exploded.

The sanctimony enabled ESPN to ritualistically broadcast a nightly Two Minutes Hate on former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice of Atlantic City elevator infamy even as it employs former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis of Atlanta bloody-jacket infamy; air wall-to-wall coverage of Brett Favre sexting a sideline reporter even as it muzzled sexual harassment allegations levied within the network against Monday Night Football play-by-play man Mike Tirico; and harp on the hapless Roger Goodell for softness on domestic violence as it publishes the articles of Howard Bryant, allegedly witnessed by multiple people striking and choking his wife outside of a Massachusetts pizza joint several years ago. Bryant reached a deal, much like Ray Rice, which enabled him to serve probation in exchange for dropping the domestic-violence charges.

Why didn’t Bill Simmons call for his Disney bosses to resign for their handling of Howard Bryant as he called on Roger Goodell to resign for his handling of Ray Rice?

The sports media demands that leagues impose high standards upon twentysomething athletes for the privilege of tossing a ball around in front of spectators. The standards they impose upon their own fall short of what they propose for the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL. The company enjoying revenues roughly equivalent to the NFL’s surely represents merely the richest, not the only, double-standards malefactor. Read More > at Breitbart Sports

Might California’s Low Voter Turnout Spark 2016 Initiative Frenzy? – Here’s one to ponder as we await the tallying of tens of thousands of uncounted ballots: Will this fall’s voter malaise in California plant the seeds for a ballot initiative frenzy in two years?

What’s the connection, you say? Simple. It’s in the state constitution — a little-talked-about provision that uses votes cast in a gubernatorial election as the measuring stick for future initiatives.

Article II of the California Constitution says that the number of valid voter signatures to qualify an initiative is based on the total votes cast in the most recent race for governor. For initiatives that seek to amend the state constitution, the signatures must equal at least 8 percent of the gubernatorial vote; for those that would create new statutes (state law), it’s 5 percent of the gubernatorial vote.

For the 2012 and 2014 elections, that threshold was set in the 2010 contest between Gov. Jerry Brown and GOP challenger Meg Whitman. For 2016 and 2018, the threshold will be set by what happened on Nov. 4.

And as we’re now seeing, that total vote was low. Historically low. Read More > at KQED

California pension funds are running dry - A decade ago, many of California’s public pension plans had plenty of money to pay for workers’ retirements.

All that has changed, according to a far-reaching package of data from the state controller. Taxpayers are now on the hook for billions of dollars more to cover the future retirements of public workers, with the bill widely varying depending on where they live.

The City of Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension System, for instance, had more than enough funds in 2003 to cover its estimated future bill for workers’ retirement checks. A decade later, it is short $3 billion.

The state’s pension goliath, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, had $281 billion to cover the benefits promised to 1.3 million workers and retirees in 2013. Yet it needed an additional $57 billion to meet future obligations.

The bill at the state teachers’ pension fund is even higher: It has an estimated shortfall of $70 billion. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Bank branches slowly fading away in neighborhoods - Bank branch closures are heading for a record year as the industry trims down and services get increasingly electronic.

Institutions have shut 2,599 branches in 2014 against 1,137 openings, a net loss of 1,462 that is just off 2013′s record full-year total of 1,487, according to SNL Financial. The move brings total U.S. branches down to 94,752, a decline of 1.5 percent.

The trend, which has branches at their lowest aggregate level in at least eight years, has come about due to a plethora of reasons: A surge in mergers and acquisitions, primarily concentrated in regional banks but recently spreading to larger ones; the move to e-banking where customers can do most of their tasks either online or at automated tellers; and the economics of a low-interest-rate narrow-yield-curve environment that makes it less profitable to be spread out. Read More > at CNBC

Americans’ Cellphones Targeted in Secret U.S. Spy Program - The Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of mobile phones through devices deployed on airplanes that mimic cellphone towers, a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects that is snagging a large number of innocent Americans, according to people familiar with the operations.

The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

Planes are equipped with devices—some known as “dirtboxes” to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them—which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, these people said. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

More Californians may carry concealed guns after ruling - A ruling with the potential to expand the number of Californians permitted to carry hidden, loaded guns in public to almost 2 million won’t be reheard by an appeals court as the state’s attorney general requested.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals voted 2-1 Wednesday to deny a bid by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a gun control organization and two police lobbying groups to challenge the court’s February ruling that any responsible, law-abiding citizen is entitled under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment to possess a concealed firearm in public for self- defense. Harris may appeal the decision. Her spokesman, David Beltran, said the office is reviewing it.

The panel ruled in February that San Diego County’s process for determining who qualifies for a permit to carry a concealed weapon violates the right to bear arms. California’s concealed- carry laws are among the most stringent in the U.S.

The case was brought by freelance videographer Edward Peruta, who sued after his application to carry a concealed Colt 1911 .45 caliber pistol as he traveled through high-crime neighborhoods was denied by the sheriff in San Diego County.

Experts have said that allowing the February ruling to stand may increase the number of people with concealed guns to as much as 5 percent of the general population in California. That would equal 1.9 million of the most populous U.S. state’s 38 million residents.

If the ruling is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could put the scope of the right to bear arms back in front of the high court justices, six years after they struck down a District of Columbia law that banned handguns in the home. Read More > at Reading Eagle

How financially stressed is your city? – A new, controversial list from the California Policy Center ranks the California cities most likely to default.

The list has sparked controversy, leading the group to include new disclaimers at the top of their municipal rankings.

“Any attempt to rank the financial health of a city, or any financial entity, will rely on criteria and formulas that are debatable. How much emphasis to place on historical performance, debt, unfunded liabilities, cash flow, general fund balance, budget deficits vs surpluses, interest and pension expense, and a host of other relevant data will inevitably result in differing results,” the group writes. “Nonetheless we believe the rankings we have come up with, based on the information we had to work with, would not have been substantially different, were we to have used alternative but credible systems of analyses.”

In other words, never let the facts get in the way of a good, sensationalistic story. And only half of the cities on the list have a greater than 1% chance of actually defaulting, according to the study. But it does offer a collection of cities that are facing some financial stress.

The cities that made the roster are all under various levels of financial pressure, even as the state’s economic picture continues to stabilize. Where did your city rank?

Here is the so-called Unlucky 13:

(1) COMPTON – Default Probability, 4.01%

(2) KING CITY – Default Probability, 3.38%

(3) SUTTER CREEK – Default Probability, 2.79%

(4) IONE – Default Probability, 2.17%

(5) MAYWOOD – Default Probability, 1.46%

(6) ATWATER – Default Probability, 1.22%

(7) HURON – Default Probability, 1.08%

(8) CHICO – Default Probability, 0.88%

(9) CALIPATRIA – Default Probability, 0.84%

(10) RIDGECREST – Default Probability, 0.76%

(11) SAN FERNANDO – Default Probability, 0.75%

(12) BLYTHE – Default Probability, 0.74%

(13) FIREBAUGH – Default Probability, 0.74%

You can read more about why each city is on the list at CPC’s Web site. Read More > at California City News

Rescue the Perishing - Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a remarkable book, both for its breadth and vision. Russell, a former British diplomat (who claims on the book’s jacket to speak fluent Arabic and Dari but within the book’s pages speaks a little bit of nearly every Middle Eastern language) surveys seven religions that are not only forgotten but vanishing, at least within their native lands.

Survey isn’t really the right word. Russell takes his readers to remote villages, sacred festivals, and obscure languages. Sometimes he hits roadblocks. The Druze will hardly ever reveal any of their mysteries. But without embarking on extensive (and risky) travel, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is the closest most of us will come to these faiths’ ancient homelands.

The Samaritans are the smallest of the seven groups. Russell estimates that around 750 Samaritans still live, in one village on the top of their sacred Mount Gerizim and on one street in Tel Aviv.

…History is full of the emergence, evolution, and disappearance or absorption of cultures, including their religions. One can climb hillsides in southern Germany and see — within a few hundred yards — the remains of Celtic walls, Roman fortifications, Christian monasteries, and Nazi amphitheater. Not everything makes it, a humbling thought. Some traditions gradually vanish; others are forcibly stamped out. My co-blogger Philip Jenkins has written recently about both the continued (if somewhat reduced) fade of mainline Protestantism and the threatened extinction of Middle Eastern Christian communities.

…The bloody disappearance of minorities in the Middle East is one of the most significant religious developments of our age. Perhaps the only good news is that the United States has provided asylum for hundreds of thousands of those afflicted. Read More > at Patheos

The rise of Christianity in China - As he stood in the hot sun and watched a dozen earth movers smash through the walls of the Sanjiang church, Mr Dai felt a great sadness and also fear – for himself and for the future of his fellow Christians. “There were so many police blocking the road and surrounding mountains. They had cut off power to the whole area and blacked out mobile phone coverage and they were trying to stop anybody coming near,” he says.

By pretending to be part of the demolition crew, Dai managed to get through the outer cordon of riot police and huddle with a small group of believers on a hillside watching the massive building collapse under the onslaught. “Words can’t express how traumatic it was,” says the devout Christian, who had travelled from another parish to join members of the congregation trying to protect the church. “I just kept thinking of Jesus’s words – ‘They know not what they do’ – they don’t realise it but they will surely be judged by God.”

The demolition of this towering Protestant cathedral on the outskirts of the coastal Chinese city of Wenzhou on April 28 2014 marked the spectacular launch of a government campaign to curtail the fastest-growing religion in nominally atheist China. There are now about 100 million Christians in the world’s most populous nation, eclipsing the 86.7 million-strong membership of the ruling Communist party. According to western intellectual tradition, modernity is supposed to bring secularisation but in modern Communist China it has been accompanied by an extraordinary rise of religions formerly banned as “opiates of the masses”.

Perhaps most surprising, given its status as a “foreign” religion and its close association with an earlier era of gunboats and imperialism, Christianity (particularly the Protestant variety) has been the big winner in the competition for Chinese souls. If it continues to spread at its current pace, the country is very likely to be home to the world’s largest Christian population within the next 15 years. For China’s authoritarian leaders, who despise and fear any force not under their direct control, this seemingly unstoppable trend is very disturbing. Read More > in the Financial Times

Bad News for Long-Term Pot Smokers - The short-term effects of smoking weed are obvious: An increase in giddiness, an insatiable desire for Doritos, and a casual acceptance of one’s loserhood. But, after the high wears off and the smoke clears, are there lasting effects upon the brain? This has been a contentious issue for many years; competing studies claim different results.

A new study published in the very high quality journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claims to measure three major statistically significant brain alterations caused by marijuana use. It’s mostly bad news.

MRI scans were performed on the brains of a group of very heavy marijuana smokers. These subjects averaged roughly three joints per day and had been smoking on average roughly nine to ten years. MRI scans were also performed on a second group of non-smokers with otherwise nearly identical characteristics.

A computer algorithm processed both sets of images, dividing up the areas of the scan into gray matter (the main masses of neurons), white matter (nerve pathways which connect areas of gray matter), and cerebrospinal fluid. The computer then used some heavy math to compare the amount of each tissue in the brains of the smokers and non-smokers.

The analysis yields three very interesting conclusions. The first and biggest: the smokers had a significant reduction in the volume of gray matter in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC is located just behind the eye on each frontal lobe of the brain. Studies find that this area seems to be involved with correlating sensory inputs with rewards (such as a particular taste or touch being associated with a good or bad experience) and plays a part in decision-making.

Most significantly, the OFC seems to function “in controlling and correcting reward-related and punishment-related behavior.” Losses in this area might not come as a surprise to those with friends who partake regularly. Read More > at Real Clear Science

Poison being released into Mountain Lake to kill nonnative fish - Poison will be pumped into Mountain Lake early Wednesday, killing the last remaining invasive fish and clearing the way for ecosystem restoration.

The death of the former pet goldfish, bass and sturgeon dumped into the 4-acre Presidio pond comes after biologists tried for three years to remove the gilled intruders without using poison.

“We have done everything we could to get rid of the fish humanely,” said Terri Thomas, the director of conservation for the Presidio Trust, which oversees the lake. “Nobody likes to use pesticides. We tried everything that we knew we could do. It’s the last alternative.”

About 47 gallons of a concoction made of the chemical rotenone will be pumped from a boat into the lake, amid the tules and around the lakeshore starting early in the morning. The chemical, which is made from plants and is contained in a widely used commercial product called Legumine, can be toxic to humans and other animals in high concentrations if swallowed, but it is particularly lethal to fish and other animals with gills, which quickly suck up the poison.

…Young plans to use gill nets to determine whether any carp survived. If all is clear in May, then biologists will begin reintroducing three-spined sticklebacks, western pond turtles and, starting next winter, chorus frogs. The lake’s remaining crawfish, which are non-native, should provide the native turtles with a ready-made food source, he said.

Young said he is working with aquatic biologists on methods of raising and reintroducing a native mussel called the California floater, a filter feeder that improves water clarity.

The overall plan is to transform what for years was a filthy, polluted pond full of alien species into a clean, healthy natural preserve. It is the first time anyone has tried to restore an ancient lake ecosystem in an urban area to the way it was before Europeans arrived in America. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

California local governments have spent $45 million on spying technology, report says - A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union attempts to document for the first time what local governments in California are spending for what the ACLU considers to be spying on its citizens.

The report s the first attempt to show the extent of surveillance technologies being used in counties across California. It was compiled by combing through the minutes of public meetings in which budgets and spending were discussed. The report offers county-by-county tallies of who’s using what and examines the process for adopting the technology in each case.

Are there drones, license plate readers, or other surveillance technologies in use in your community? How much money has been spent? Was there public debate? Are there surveillance use policies to help prevent misuse?

The ACLU has even put together an interactive map, where readers can see the spending and equipment used county by county. Read More > at California County News

Virus that ‘makes humans more stupid’ discovered - A virus that infects human brains and makes us more stupid has been discovered, according to scientists in the US.

The algae virus, never before observed in healthy people, was found to affect cognitive functions including visual processing and spatial awareness.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Nebraska stumbled upon the discovery when they were undertaking an unrelated study into throat microbes.

Surprisingly, the researchers found DNA in the throats of healthy individuals that matched the DNA of a virus known to infect green algae. Read More > in The Independent

Almost Everything in “Dr. Strangelove” Was True - This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.

The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?

With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Read More > in The New Yorker

Your Cat Is Pretty Much a Wild Animal - If your cuddly feline appears to think he’s a vicious wildcat—well, he’s actually got it almost right. A study finds that genetically, our house cats aren’t very different from their wild cousins, despite thousands of years of domestication, Time reports. “We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations,” the study’s senior author tells the Los Angeles Times, which calls house cats “only semi-domesticated.” Researchers compared the genomes of domestic cats with wildcats, the Guardian reports; the results showed how the “domestic” animals have kept their excellent hearing and vision, among other abilities.

A recent study suggests cats and humans have lived side-by-side for some 5,700 years, though the Times puts the figure closer to 9,000. Living with the animals doesn’t, however, mean we made them our own; in fact, it’s only in the past two centuries that humans have exerted a strong influence on their breeding. What’s more, some domestic cats continue to mate with wildcats. Humans have, however, affected cats’ looks, helping to drive selection for appealing colors. We’ve also made them at least somewhat more docile, the researchers say—thanks, in part, to stroking them. People may have been more likely to breed cats who were into petting and getting treats, the Guardian reports. (But that doesn’t mean we should treat them as if they were dogs.) Read More > at Newser

Did the government hack a CBS journalist? Maybe. – Sharyl Attkisson was hacked. The computers used by the former CBS News investigative reporter were found to have been remotely accessed and tampered with, according to both a CBS-hired forensics expert and by a reputable information security firm that did an analysis commissioned by Attkisson herself. Those are the facts as we know them.

Currently, that’s where the facts end and the allegations begin. Attkisson, whose book Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation and Harassment in Obama’s Washington was released this week, claims to have evidence that she was hacked by someone working for the government. She says the digital intrusion was part of a campaign to get her to stop pursuing stories critical of the Obama administration. [Atkisson, in a follow-up email, clarifies: "I theorize the digital intrusion was an attempt to surreptitiously monitor my work to see who was talking to me and how much I knew on various stories."]

Attkisson is confident in her story, but others aren’t so sure. Some aspects of her account don’t resonate well with many of the people in the security field that Ars has spoken to [including Robert Graham of Errata Security, who posted an analysis of Atkisson's claims on his blog, and dozens of others I spoke both via public Twitter conversations and in person. David Ottenheimer of Flyingpenguin, Jeremi Gosney of Stricture Group and Sagitta Systems are also on the record here, and a few others—the majority of them politically opposed to the Obama administration, have declined to be named because they would rather not get "thrown into that hornet's nest," as one said.] Certain details of Attkisson’s sound like they’re right out of a bad hacker movie or some episode of a CBS drama.

In the hope of getting some clarity about what did and what did not happen to Attkisson’s computers and other aspects of her digital life, Ars interviewed the reporter directly. We talked on the phone, and Attkisson provided an advance copy of her book. Perhaps, we thought, we could get past the largely partisan back-and-forth over her accusations and independently assess the relevant claims—that because of Attkisson’s views against the current administration, she was a target for government-directed surveillance and intimidation. Read More > at Ars Technica

With mid-term elections over, state politicians jump to 2016, beyond - For California politicos who spent the last year yawning over a predictable top-of-the-ticket race, what has been shimmering in the distance is suddenly much closer. The next few statewide elections hold the promise of turnover unseen in a generation.

For 22 years, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have held the state’s U.S. Senate seats. Both must soon decide whether to seek reelection; for Boxer the announcement will come sooner, as her seat is up in 2016, two years before Feinstein’s.

If Boxer bowed out — and there is no assurance she will — it would usher in swift calculations among a generation of Democrats whose upward mobility has been blocked. That is because in 2018, five of California’s eight statewide offices will be open, including the governorship, along with the possibility of Feinstein’s seat were she to retire.

Presume that Boxer departs. The existential question for would-be candidates: Do I jump at 2016, or take a chance on waiting for 2018? Perhaps more importantly: What will my competitors do?

Sure, it’s all hypothetical. But early jockeying was evident in the just-concluded election.

…California Democrats most often come with one of two pedigrees: Bay Area or Los Angeles. A ranking Democrat in the Bay Area is known by more than a quarter of the state’s Democrats; a Democrat in the Southern California area commands the attention of upward of 40%. That is a key advantage over politicians from other areas, but the edge vanishes if it’s divided by multiple candidates.

For example, Newsom and Harris. Their profiles in the recent poll were almost identical. Each was at least twice as popular in the Bay Area as in Los Angeles County, though Newsom was more popular up north, on their joint home ground; their standings among Democrats, independents, minority voters, urban residents, men and women, young and old were remarkably similar.

One of them against, say, Villaraigosa, would be a classic North-South clash. But if there were two candidates from the north, the edge could move south. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

The Caffeine-Alcohol Effect – One in four people in their early 20s have done it—mixed the stimulating effects of an energy drink with the buzz-inducing properties of alcohol. While partiers swig and stay out late, health experts worry that alcoholic energy drinks cloud their judgment in two important ways: by making people think they are not as drunk as if they’d only had alcohol, and causing them to crave another round more strongly. These effects could explain why people who add caffeine to their cocktail are at greater risk of being in an accident or making a decision they will later regret (like getting in the car with a drunk driver) than those who stick to straight booze.

When the world’s first energy drink debuted in 1987, it didn’t take long for Red Bull to find its way behind the bar. Bartenders soon started mixing Red Bull, Monster, and Rockstar with vodka, gin, Jagermeister, and hard cider. These caffeine-laced cocktails became so popular, major beverage companies created canned and bottled versions like Four Loko to sell in convenience stores.

…Cecile Marczinski, a psychological researcher from Northern Kentucky University, says the caffeine in these drinks has the ability to mask intoxication which could make people underestimate how drunk they are and impair their ability to cut themselves off. Subjects in several of her experiments who drank alcoholic energy drinks rated their own drunkenness as lower than subjects with the same blood alcohol content who only had alcohol.

Marczinski also says feeling tired is an important factor in many people’s decision to stop drinking, but that caffeine renders these feelings obsolete. “Since caffeine lasts for six hours, that extends that time when you feel really stimulated and alert and that makes you want to drink more,” she explains. Energy drinks contain between 50 and 500 mg of caffeine, along with additives like guarana and ginseng that also act like stimulants in many people. Sodas, another common mixer, contain about 34 mg to 54 mg of caffeine, but can also heighten intoxication as compared with alcohol alone when used as mixers. Read More > in The Atlantic

Colon Cancer Rates Rising in Young Adults - Incidences of colorectal cancer have been decreasing by about 1 percent a year since the mid 1980s, but incidences among people under 50 — the recommended screening age — has been increasing sharply, and these younger patients are more likely to present with advanced disease.

The study, published in JAMA Surgery, used a national database of 400,000 patients with colon or rectal cancer. Incidences decreased by about 1 percent a year over all but rose among people 20 to 34, with the largest increase — 1.8 percent a year — in disease that had already progressed to other organs.

Incidence rates today, per 100,000 people, are 3 for ages 20 to 34; 17 for ages 35 to 49; and 300 for people over 50. But by 2030, the researchers estimate, one in 10 colon cancers and one in four rectal cancers will be in people under 50, and rates among those over 50 will be 175 per 100,000.

The study draws no conclusions about whether screening should begin at a younger age. “There are always risks and unintended consequences of screening tests,” said the senior author, Dr. George J. Chang, an associate professor of surgery and health services research at the University of Texas. Read More > in The New York Times