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.
The Millennial Generation Is Proving to Be the Most Politically Independent Yet - Millennials are poised to be the most politically independent generation yet, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. Finally, something that makes me proud of my generation! Actually, there’s much to like in Millennial viewpoints, from a libertarian perspective.
Millennials—those born between roughly 1980 and 1995 (some say 2000), also known as Gen Y—are largely in favor of marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage. They worry about the surveillance state. They shun stricter gun laws. Anecdotally, I’ve known a good deal of young, Occupy Wall Street types who are also incredibly concerned with police brutality, free speech, gun rights, drug policy, and other typically libertarian issues. It’s not surprising that 50 percent of Gen Y adults now identify as politically independent (up from 38 percent in 2004). Read More > at Reason
Experiments at Rutgers lend credence to existence of ‘earthquake lights’ - The air suddenly feels different. Dogs begin to howl, and the horses become restless. A burst of bright light, and seconds later, the ground starts to rumble and shake.
Earthquake precursors — from strange animal behavior to temperature anomalies — may sound like urban legends, but new findings have lent some scientific credence to one phenomenon called earthquake lights. The aerial flashes of light seen before or during temblors may have to do with large jumps in electrical activity as the earth cracks open.
The results were presented at the American Physical Society’s March Meeting in Denver on Thursday by Rutgers University biomedical engineer Troy Shinbrot. His lab has created a miniature model of earthquake-like jamming and cracking, and has found huge voltage jumps that result from the shifting of granular material used to mimic the earth. Read More > in The Washington Post
El Niño could return to California next winter, forecasters say - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Center activated its alert system Thursday to issue an El Niño watch.
The alert means that conditions in the eastern tropical Pacific are favorable enough that El Niño has a more than a 50% chance of forming by the summer or fall.
Though it’s too early to predict with much confidence, if El Niño re-emerges it could produce wetter weather in the southern United States next winter, bring more rain to California, temper the Atlantic hurricane season and push up global temperatures in 2015, experts say.
The El Niño cycle begins every two to seven years when weak trade winds in the Pacific allow warmer water to build up along the west coast of South America.
El Niño conditions often result in higher rainfall in California, but not always. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times
Estimate of how much state owes for retiree healthcare keeps rising - While lawmakers begin discussing ways to fix California’s cash-strapped teacher pension system, another long-term financial problem continues to fester.
The cost of providing healthcare to retired state workers is $64.6 billion more than state leaders have set aside to pay, an increase of $730 million from the previous year.
The new numbers, calculated as of last June, were released by state Controller John Chiang on Thursday.
“While most are focused on unfunded pension obligations, this is a sleeper problem that can become the next big fiscal threat if we continue to do nothing,” he said in a statement.
State workers become eligible, after 10 years on the job, to receive taxpayer-funded healthcare for life. The state picks up an even bigger share of the cost after 20 years of employment. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times
RadioShack Still Stuck in the ’80s - RadioShack Corp. is not having a good year.
Its Super Bowl ad was fantastic, featuring a gang of 1980s characters — Erik Estrada, Alf, Teen Wolf — bursting into its stores and taking away all the fusty, dated displays. The idea is that it’s getting a new look and a new attitude.
The only thing that it hasn’t got is a new reason for me to shop there. And apparently I’m not alone: The iconic chain just announced that it is closing 1,100 stores on plummeting sales.
…The fundamental problem that RadioShack has is not that its look is dated; the problem is that there’s no reason for me, or anyone else, to go in there very often.
Does that mean RadioShack is doomed? Never say never. But it is certainly in a very tough spot. And to get out of it, it needs to give its consumers a better answer to the question “Why should I go into your store?” Read More > at BloombergView
Why is American internet so slow? - According to a recent study by Ookla Speedtest, the U.S. ranks a shocking 31st in the world in terms of average download speeds. The leaders in the world are Hong Kong at 72.49 Mbps and Singapore on 58.84 Mbps. And America? Averaging speeds of 20.77 Mbps, it falls behind countries like Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Uruguay.
Its upload speeds are even worse. Globally, the U.S. ranks 42nd with an average upload speed of 6.31 Mbps, behind Lesotho, Belarus, Slovenia, and other countries you only hear mentioned on Jeopardy.
So how did America fall behind? How did the country that literally invented the internet — and the home to world-leading tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Facebook, Google, and Cisco — fall behind so many others in download speeds?
Susan Crawford argues that “huge telecommunication companies” such as Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and AT&T have “divided up markets and put themselves in a position where they’re subject to no competition.” Read More > in The Week
Safeway sale would transform supermarket industry - The days of the conventional supermarket are numbered.
Safeway’s announcement last month that it was in talks to sell itself is the latest sign from the troubled grocery industry that supermarkets have fallen out of style. A sale of the nation’s second-largest grocery chain, with a stronghold in the Bay Area, would reshape the industry, close stores across California and the Southwest, and transform Safeway into a neighborhood grocer that more closely resembles Trader Joe’s, according to analysts and industry watchers.
Reports Wednesday indicated that a sale to New York-based private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management could be finalized this week.
Smaller neighborhood markets that tout locally sourced meat and organic produce and attract customers with friendly service, ambience and one-of-a-kind items are pulling customers away from mainstream supermarkets, experts say. Analyst Scott Mushkin of Wolfe Research said Arizona-based Sprouts Farmers Market is “firing on all cylinders” with huge sales growth. Read More > in the Oakland Tribune
The U.S. Economy’s Big Baby Problem - Last September, the U.S. government announced that our birthrate fell to “another record low” in 2012, following a long, steady slide since the Baby Boom after World War II.
…The thing about an increasingly childless economy is that it has major implications for consumption. Just look at this new data from a Gallup survey released today on the average daily spending of families. Even after you control for income, age, education, and marital status, families with young kids spend more every day. These are the sort of spenders you want in a weak economy following a great deleveraging.
…The upshot is that when we think about economic growth, some of the most discussed variables on editorial pages and cable news include policy choices like Obamacare and tapering and tax rates, or international events like China’s shadow banking system and the Crimean invasion. And that’s fine: policies and global events do shape lending and spending behavior.
But buried underneath these headlines is the glacier of demographics, the steady and unyielding force of human numbers to shape the economy. The drop in U.S. fertility rates in recent years has almost certainly had a negative effect on consumer spending (and, in turn, lower birthrates are probably an outcome of the recession). In particular, childless couples don’t need space for more kids so they’re less likely to buy homes in the suburbs, depressing demand for housing in an economy that badly needs to sell more homes. Read More > in The Atlantic
Is the War Against E-Cigs About Loss of Tax Revenue? – When is a stroller a bicycle? When that stroller is in West Hollywood, where any human-powered, wheeled vehicle must yield to pedestrians on sidewalks.
Although electronic smoking devices are no more cigarettes than strollers are bicycles, the City of Los Angeles is moving to reclassify vaporizers as tobacco products that cannot be used indoors, at restaurants or in public parks. Mayor Eric Garcetti now has ten days to decide whether a product that contains no tobacco whatsoever should be regulated as a tobacco product.
There’s no debating that smoking tobacco is so bad for people’s health that society has decided to regulate when and where people can smoke. If the Los Angeles City Council has its way, doing something that vaguely looks like smoking a cigarette will be off-limits wherever smoking is prohibited.
The City Council says they want to classify e-cigarettes as tobacco products to “protect the children,” (who are already prohibited from purchasing e-cigarettes), and because they lack any evidence proving the vapor from e-cigarettes is safe (even though they lack evidence saying it is harmful, either). Read More > at Fox and Hounds
US Sues Sprint For Overbilling For Surveillance Services - Monday, the Obama administration filed a lawsuit in a district court, claiming Sprint knowingly charged $21 million extra in spying fees between 2007 and 2010.
Sprint, the telecommunications provider, complied with court orders to wiretap for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, and other government agencies. It charged the U.S. government reimbursement fees for the costs of complying with wiretaps and intercepts.
But the government finds fault with this. The U.S. points to the Communications Assistance in Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), a law that makes wiretapping more manageable for law enforcement agencies. Associated Press explains:
In 1994, lawmakers passed a law requiring communication companies to upgrade their equipment and facilities to ensure they can comply with court orders seeking wiretaps of their customers.
Section 103 of the law says that carriers are “prohibited from using their intercept charges to recover the costs of modifying equipment, facilities or services that were incurred,” U.S. attorneys wrote in the complaint. But Sprint did charge for these services, and it led to a 58 percent hike in expenses for the federal government. Read More > at Reason
Will NCAA be Pac-12 feast or famine? - The Pac-12 could have eight teams in the NCAA Tournament. Then again, it might have only three – maybe even two if things go completely haywire.
That’s how uncertain postseason positions are for the Pac-12 and both of its Bay Area teams with just two regular-season games left.
Four facts shape the discussion:
– Three respected sources – USA Today, ESPN.com and CBSSports.com – all have seven Pac-12 teams in their projected NCAA Tournament fields as of Tuesday morning. The conference has never had more than six NCAA Tournament teams.
– Four of those seven Pac-12 teams projected to be in the field – Stanford, Cal, Colorado and Oregon – are seeded 10th or worse in the ESPN projections, which means they are barely in the field. Arizona and UCLA are the only Pac-12 teams that are absolute locks, with Arizona State seeded No. 8 in all three projections. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle
Hayward puts half-cent sales tax on June ballot - City voters will decide in June whether to raise the sales tax by a half-cent to 9.5 percent.
If approved by a majority of voters, the tax would raise about $10 million a year, with most of the money paying for more police officers and maintenance workers and a new Main Library.
The City Council unanimously approved putting the sales tax proposal on the June 3 ballot shortly before midnight Tuesday near the end of a long meeting, most of which was spent debating whether to allow a developer to build 194 townhouses and 16,800 square feet of retail space on the site of the long-vacant Mervyn’s headquarters building on Foothill Boulevard. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News
Redwood park closes road to deter burl poachers - Authorities say unemployment and drug addiction have spurred an increase in the destructive practice of cutting off the knobby growths at the base of ancient redwood trees to make decorative pieces like lacey-grained coffee tables and wall clocks.
The practice – known as burl poaching – has become so prevalent along the Northern California coast that Redwood National and State Parks on Saturday started closing the popular Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway at night in a desperate attempt to deter thieves.
Law enforcement Ranger Laura Denny said Tuesday that poachers have been stalking the remote reaches of the park with their chain saws and ATVs for decades, but lately the size and frequency of thefts have been on the rise.
…A redwood tree can survive the practice, but the legacy of the organism that could be 1,000 years old is threatened, because the burl is where it sprouts a clone before dying. Sprouting from burls is the prevalent method of redwood propagation, and the source of the Latin name for coast redwood, Sequoia semper vierens, or forever living, he added. Read More > in the Associated Press
Grandpa, the College Wrestler - A coach tells the Southern Maine Huskies to stretch in the practice room until it’s time for the final home meet. But senior Rick Chipman sneaks out to the stands to visit some loved ones, including his granddaughter.
That’s right: The Huskies’ co-captain is a grandpa.
The NCAA doesn’t track athletes by age, but anyone with eligibility remaining can play. This has produced a 59-year-old linebacker and a 73-year-old junior-college basketball player.
Most old players are one-season headline makers. Chipman, 44, just completed a college wrestling career that started when he was 40. He persisted despite a freshman season in which he was ostracized by his teammates, ridiculed by his son (a fellow student on campus) and clobbered by opponents. His freshman record: 3-18.
“He wasn’t a step off, he was a lifetime off,” said Huskies coach Joe Pistone, who is seven years younger than Chipman. Initially, Pistone called Chipman “sir.”
Chipman finished his career last weekend at the NCAA Division III Northeast regional tournament. Wrestling with a fractured rib and at 174 pounds—two classes above his weight to make room for a teammate at 157—Chipman lost on opening day. His four-year collegiate wrestling record is 32-46, with no postseason wins. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal
Let’s Pull the Plug on Power Cords - Nikola Tesla first discovered wireless power back in the 1890s, and yet more than a century later we’re still stuck with cumbersome cables, at the mercy of the nearest wall outlet to power up the gadgets we increasingly rely on. Thankfully, not for long: There are signs that the electronics industry is finally putting wireless charging technology to good use.
“Wireless” power can mean two things: One is inductive charging, which requires the transmitter and receiver to make physical contact; it’s what charges your electric toothbrush as it sits in its tray. The other is trickier, and more exciting: wireless power based on magnetic resonance allows for a longer-range transmission, creating a sort of ambient, omnipresent charge. So theoretically you could walk into a room and your device would start magically charging from a energy being beamed down from several feet away.
Inductive chargers for mobile devices have been around for several years, but now the nascent technology is starting to take off. Samsung, Google, and Apple’s smartphones and tablets all support cord-less power via cases and covers, and new gadget startups have launched similar portable chargers.
Inductive charge also powers the Powermat devices popping up in public spaces like airports and restaurants. It means that in the near future—and in some businesses already—you’ll be able to set your phone down on the table next to you and it’ll charge up while you’re waiting for your meal.
That’s still slightly more convenient than toting around a power cable, and certainly better than that panic-stricken moment when you’re out and about, your smartphone dies, and you realize you’re completely lost without the internet in your pocket. But truly wireless ambient power that can charge your phone without any physical contact is the “science fiction becomes science fact” dream. That capability is considerably further into the future, but nevertheless, it’s in the works. Read More > at Motherboard
Record cost-of-living increase makes Silicon Valley 87% more expensive than U.S. average - It’s not your imagination; it really is 87 percent more expensive to live in the heart of Silicon Valley than elsewhere in the U.S.
That cost differential, which jumped nearly 20 percent last year alone, is forcing the City of San Jose to make a record wage increase for public workers.
The city will pay its workers and contractors with health benefits $17.81 per hour, or $19.06 per hour for those without benefits starting July 2014, according to new annual living wage guidelines. The new living wage numbers reflect a 12.9 percent year-over-year increase in San Jose’s cost of living — the biggest annual jump on record and three times the average 4.3 percent yearly increase since 1998. Read More > in the Silicon Valley Business Journal
RadioShack sales tumble 20 percent; to close up to 1,100 stores - Retailer RadioShack Corp (RSH.N) reported a wider quarterly loss on Tuesday and said it will close up to 1,100 U.S. stores after a huge drop in sales over the holidays, sending its stock down nearly 24 percent.
The planned closures would leave the Fort Worth, Texas-based chain with over 4,000 stores, including over 900 dealer franchise locations, its chief executive officer said.
Sales totaled $935.4 million in the quarter covering the all-important holiday season, down 20.1 percent from $1.17 billion in the year-ago period. Analysts, on average, looked for sales of $1.12 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Sales at stores open at least a year fell 19 percent in the fourth quarter on weak customer traffic.
The grim results were not entirely unexpected, considering the overall weakness in the consumer electronics industry during the holidays, but many on Wall Street took a grim view of the company’s prospects. Read More > in Reuters
America’s Angriest Store - I’ve shopped at Whole Foods in every time zone, in at least 10 different cities: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, DC and Richmond, VA. I love Whole Foods. Scratch that, I love the products Whole Foods sells, no matter what other people might have to say about them. Maybe the simplest way to phrase it is, I love whole foods. Whole Foods as an experience, that’s a whole other matter.
But here’s what sucks for Whole Foods: it has nothing to do with their employees. Across the board, across the country, they have been helpful, knowledgeable, and cordial. I’ve received phenomenal service in every department: from the beer fridge to the butcher counter to the bulk aisle. I now know everything there is to know about lentils, for instance, thanks to a guy stocking roma tomatoes in the produce section of the downtown Milwaukee store, who took the time to explain why he used red lentils for his curried lentil dish a couple nights before.
The problem with Whole Foods is their regular customers. They are, across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable. They’re worse than miserable, they’re angry. They are quite literally the opposite of every Whole Foods employee I’ve ever encountered. Walk through any store any time of day—but especially 530pm on a weekday or Saturday afternoon during football season—and invariably you will encounter a sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers.
They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal? Read More > at Medium
Anti-Tech’s New Nativism - In the past, it was racists and homophobes who attacked newcomers to San Francisco. Today, anti-tech activists are promoting a new nativism, charging incoming tech workers with undermining the city’s traditional values.
Supervisor David Campos held a meeting between tech workers and some of their critics last week. Reports on the event were illuminating.
A tech critic told the crowd “that the people who give San Francisco its character – think murals, street festivals and the city’s progressive roots – are being forced out due to the booming tech economy.” Meanwhile, a tech worker “was heckled by a woman in the crowd who accused him of not having lived in San Francisco long enough.”
Of course, anti-tech activists have no idea whether individual tech workers support mural, street festivals and the like. But stereotyping people based on a particular group membership, and charging newcomers with promoting values alien to the indigenous culture, is what nativism is all about. Read More > at BeyondChron
NFL Draft: College Football’s NFL Problem - This year, there will be at least 98 underclassmen available in May’s draft, a 34% increase from 2013 and an 85% increase from 2010, the year before the latest collective bargaining agreement. The average age of an NFL player last season was 26 years 308 days, the youngest since 1987.
Since the late 1980s, the NFL has allowed players who are three years removed from high school to enter the draft. That has led to extraordinary talents such as former Detroit Lions star Barry Sanders and current Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers going pro before they had used their four years of college eligibility. But there existed a clear incentive to stay in school, so most players did.
For the first couple of decades in which underclassmen were allowed in the draft, teams spent huge sums of money on the top picks. A high draft selection thus could leave a player set for life. For instance, the top overall selection in 2010, current St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, got a six-year, $78 million contract before throwing a single pro pass. He received 13 times more guaranteed money than the second round’s top pick, teammate Rodger Saffold.
In an effort to fix the salaries of top picks—and thus prevent unproven players from getting so much money—the latest CBA called for reform. In the 2013 draft, the first pick, Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Eric Fisher, got a four-year, $22 million deal, a fraction of what Bradford received. There is also much less difference between picks. Fisher will make only double what the 15th pick in the draft makes, while the first pick in the second round received about a fourth of Fisher’s salary.
In short, the financial incentive to stay in school and improve one’s draft position is gone, according to those inside the game. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal
‘Lone Eagle’ Cities: Where The Most People Work From Home - In an era of high unemployment and limited opportunity, more Americans are taking matters into their own hands and going to work for themselves out of their homes.
Normally small businesses have led the way during economic recoveries, but this time around they’re not creating many jobs. Instead much of the growth we are now seeing is in “lone eagle” businesses, to borrow a phrase from Phil Burgess, often operating out of the worker’s residence. This reverses the trend from 1960 to 1980, when there were steady reductions in the number of people who worked at home. Indeed, despite all the talk of increased mass transit usage, the percentage of Americans working at home has grown 1.5 times faster over the past decade; there are now more telecommuters than people who take mass transit to work in 38 out of the 52 U.S. metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 residents.
One clear driver of this trend is technology, particularly the growing ubiquity of high-speed Internet. A consultant in New York can now serve customers in Fargo, and vice versa, greatly expanding the range of places where people can live. This is particularly true for aging boomers, as well as younger workers having problems finding a full-time job in this tough economy.
Not surprisingly, of America’s 52 largest metro areas, the ones with the highest proportions of home-based workers are generally those with high-tech, information-based economies. Tops is San Diego, a major center for digital and biomedical businesses, where 6.6% of workers are based at home.
The next five metro areas, which have home worker concentrations ranging from 6.1% to 6.4%, all boast a high number of STEM workers and tech firms: Austin, Portland, Denver, Raleigh and San Francisco-Oakland. They all also have another thing in common: They tend to be popular destinations for millennials, who seem far more comfortable with unconventional work arrangements than older generations. Read More > at Fox and Hounds
Energy Storage: California’s New Green Tech Battleground - The latest example comes from the emerging energy storage market. The state is just starting to carry out a program that requires utilities to use energy storage to help them manage the increasing amount of solar and wind energy flowing into the grid. The three big investor-owned utilities are to collectively buy or own 1,325 megawatts of storage by 2020. Utilities could buy services from owners of the storage equipment installed at homes and businesses. They also could choose from a variety of energy storage technologies, not just batteries.
The grid runs smoothly when it maintains a balance of supply and demand. Utilities will use the batteries to inject power into the grid to help keep that balance in place when there is an intermittent flow of solar and wind electricity. They could accomplish this task by cranking up natural gas power plants, too, but policy makers want to gradually move California away from relying on fossil fuels.
California utilities have to get 33% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. As a result, gigawatts of solar power plants have been completed or are under construction or development.
On top of that, the state’s incentive program to encourage rooftop solar for homes and businesses has led to nearly 2 gigawatts of installations. These installations don’t count toward that 33% mandate. Read More > at Forbes
California lawmaker accused of corruption on leave - A California state lawmaker facing federal corruption charges alleging he took kickbacks while in office said Sunday evening he has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the Legislature while he awaits trial.
The departure of Sen. Ron Calderon deprives Senate Democrats of the two-thirds margin they need in the 40-member chamber to raise taxes, pass emergency legislation, override gubernatorial vetoes and put constitutional amendments before voters without Republican cooperation.
Calderon said in a statement that he wasn’t resigning but will take time to focus on fighting the charges against him.
By taking leave, Calderon will continue receiving his $95,291 annual salary but not the $163 daily expense payment he would get if he were traveling to Sacramento.
Calderon, of Montebello, is the second Senate Democrat this week to take leave while he fights criminal charges.
Sen. Roderick Wright, a Democrat who represents another Los Angeles-area district, requested the leave after he was convicted of perjury and voter fraud for lying about his legal residence. Wright is seeking to have his conviction overturned before he faces sentencing in May. Read More > in the Associated Press
Pot Initiatives Fading for 2014 - The field of marijuana initiatives for California’s November ballot has been cut in half in less than two weeks, leaving proponents of the two remaining measures in a narrower race for money and momentum while other drug advocates say the next presidential election in 2016 offers a greater chance for success.
The ballot measures no longer in contention include an initiative by the Drug Policy Alliance, a well-financed national group that led the successful 1996 campaign to legalize medical marijuana in California.
Representatives of the group confirmed that they had pulled their initiative, because of the need for more time to consult with elected officials, public health leaders and law enforcement.
On Feb. 18, in the wake of that news, prominent marijuana activist and grower Ed Rosenthal announced that he was abandoning his ballot measure this year and joining a growing coalition in support of putting forward a “winnable” initiative in 2016. Read More > at Public CEO
3 New California Rulings on Retiree Health Care Cuts - A federal appeals court last week gave Sonoma County retirees another chance to show that an implied contract gave them vested rights to retiree health care, preventing the benefit from being cut to $500 a month.
The majority ruling in a 2-to-1 vote of a 9th Circuit panel said retirees have a “heavy burden” showing county intent to create a lifetime contract, which the dissenting justice said is not supported by dozens of labor agreements submitted to a lower court.
Another 9th Circuit federal panel unanimously ruled Feb. 13 that Orange County retirees do not have an implied contract preventing the county from separating their health care from a pool with active workers, sharply increasing premiums paid by retirees.
…Compared to the attention given public pension costs, retiree health care has been a sleeper issue. Most government employers did not calculate or report retiree health care debt until accounting rules changed a decade ago.
Most still do not pre-fund retiree health care like pensions, investing annual payments to get earnings that reduce long-term costs and debt passed to future generations.
An example of what can happen is a generous state worker retiree health care plan: It’s long-term debt is already much greater than pension debt, and in five years it may be taking more money from the state general fund than pensions. Read More > at Public CEO