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.
Robots Will Transform Fast Food – …This may seem like a vision of the future best suited—perhaps only suited—to Japan. But according to Michael Chui, a partner at the McKinsey Global Institute, many tasks in the food-service and accommodation industry are exactly the kind that are easily automated. Chui’s latest research estimates that 54 percent of the tasks workers perform in American restaurants and hotels could be automated using currently available technologies—making it the fourth-most-automatable sector in the U.S.
The robots, in fact, are already here. Chowbotics, a company in Redwood City, California, manufactures Sally, a boxy robot that prepares salads ordered on a touch screen. At a Palo Alto café, I watched as she deposited lettuce, corn, barley, and a few inadvertently crushed cherry tomatoes into a bowl. Botlr, a robot butler, now brings guests extra towels and toiletries in dozens of hotels around the country. I saw one at the Aloft Cupertino.
…Robots have arrived in American restaurants and hotels for the same reasons they first arrived on factory floors. The cost of machines, even sophisticated ones, has fallen significantly in recent years, dropping 40 percent since 2005, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Labor, meanwhile, is getting expensive, as some cities and states pass laws raising the minimum wage.
“We think we’ve hit the point where labor-wage rates are now making automation of those tasks make a lot more sense,” Bob Wright, the chief operations officer of Wendy’s, said in a conference call with investors last February, referring to jobs that feature “repetitive production tasks.” Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are in the process of installing self-service kiosks in locations across the country, allowing customers to order without ever talking to an employee. Starbucks encourages customers to order on its mobile app; such transactions now account for 10 percent of sales.
Business owners insist that robots will take over work that is dirty, dangerous, or just dull, enabling humans to focus on other tasks. The international chain CaliBurger, for example, will soon install Flippy, a robot that can flip 150 burgers an hour. John Miller, the CEO of Cali Group, which owns the chain, says employees don’t like manning the hot, greasy grill. Once the robots are sweating in the kitchen, human employees will be free to interact with customers in more-targeted ways, bringing them extra napkins and asking them how they’re enjoying their burgers… Read More > in The Atlantic
Hunting down the ‘ghost boats’ – They lie washed up on the side of levees, they sit silently moored in the quiet sloughs of the vast Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, sometimes drifting aimlessly down the middle of the waterways. There are hundreds of these abandoned recreational watercraft and commercial vessels in the Delta, and some of them have been slowly wasting away for 60 years or more. Many pose a danger to navigation and the environment.
“Ground zero is the Delta and the Bay, but this is a statewide problem,” Mitch Goode of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) told a meeting of the Delta Protection Commission.
The problem is that it costs time and money – a lot of money — to remove abandoned watercraft. But who should do the work and foot the bill?
The government response has been piecemeal at best.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response will respond to abandoned vessels that are leaking substances such as petroleum or fuel oil, but they don’t remove them; the Army Corps will only get involved if the vessel is posing a navigational hazard. And while programs such as Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund and Vessel Turn In Program exist, they apply only to recreational watercraft and not the commercial vessels, which are the greater problem.
And so these vessels continue to sit, their rusty hulls wasting away in the water. Read More > in Capitol Weekly
First baby from a uterus transplant in the U.S. born in Dallas – The first birth as a result of a womb transplant in the United States has occurred in Texas, a milestone for the U.S. but one achieved several years ago in Sweden.
A woman who had been born without a uterus gave birth to the baby at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
Hospital spokesman Craig Civale confirmed Friday that the birth had taken place, but said no other details are available. The hospital did not identify the woman, citing her privacy.
For women born without a functioning uterus, “transplantation represents the only way they can carry a pregnancy,” the statement said. The group is convening experts to develop guidelines for programs that want to offer this service. Read More > at Stat
LA fires: Why 2017’s record wildfire season keeps getting worse – Scenes of California burning are filling the airwaves just two months after the Wine Country fires made international headlines. Also on Wednesday, state officials announced the stunning cost of insurance claims in the October fires in Northern California had topped $9 billion. Those firestorms killed 44 people from Mendocino to Santa Rosa, burned 8,900 structures and destroyed scores of vehicles and other personal property.
While the North Bay fires alone turned 2017 into the deadliest wildfire season in state history, the Golden State is also closing in on a near-record year for acres burned. In 2008, nearly 1.6 million acres burned across the state; this year, before this week’s fires, nearly 1.2 million acres had burned.
For Californians who welcomed one of the wettest, drought-busting winters early in 2017, the fury of the fires is startling. What’s even more surreal, however, is the timing of the LA fires:
smack in the middle of the Christmas season, with trees in living rooms and colored lights under the eaves.
Southern California fires in December “aren’t unprecedented,” said Jan Null, meteorologist at Golden Gate Weather Services, but “generally, they have their biggest fires more in October and into November.”
…Shortly after Northern California’s deadly October wildfires, the region was doused with rains, all but ending the fire season here. But the storm track avoided the southern half of the state, which has received almost no precipitation in several months. Los Angeles has received less than two-tenths of an inch of rain since May 1.
The entire state is not likely to receive rain any time soon. A strong ridge of high pressure parked over much of the West Coast is blocking storms and sending them north to the U.S.-Canada border, according to the National Weather Service. Federal scientists are predicting all of California will remain dry at least through Dec. 20. Read More > in The Mercury News
California in a ‘literacy crisis’ with children who can’t read: suit – A group of prominent lawyers representing teachers and students from poor performing schools sued California on Tuesday, arguing that the state has done nothing about a high number of schoolchildren who do not know how to read.
The advocacy law firm, Public Counsel, filed the lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court to demand the California Department of Education address its “literacy crisis.” The state has not followed suggestions from its own report on the problem five years ago, the lawsuit said.
“When it comes to literacy and the delivery of basic education, California is dragging down the nation,” said Public Counsel lawyer Mark Rosenbaum, who sued along with the law firm Morrison & Foerster.
Assessments found less than half of California students from third grade to fifth grade have met statewide literacy standards since 2015. Both traditional and charter schools are failing, Rosenbaum said. Read More > in the New York Post
Saudi Arabia’s Earth-Shaking Coup – How extraordinary to see a world-historical revolution unfolding before one’s eyes and not know how it will turn out: that’s what’s happening right now in Saudi Arabia. Mohammad bin Salman, a 32-year-old too young to be a partner in most law or finance firms, has managed, by intrigue not yet fully disclosed, to supplant his cousin Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef as heir to the throne and to carry out a purge of the royal family breathtaking in its sweep. Imagine: not only did bin Salman order the arrest of at least ten other princes and a score of former government ministers, now held in luxurious restraint in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton; he also supposedly had Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a major shareholder of 21st Century Fox, Citigroup, Apple, Twitter, and a host of other giant Western corporations, hanged upside down and beaten in an “anti-corruption” investigation.
No matter that “wasta”—corruption, kickbacks, and cronyism—has long governed Saudi Arabian business dealings. Now, the kingdom’s economic crown jewel—Aramco, the Saudi state oil company—is headed for sale on the public stock markets, and the financial future of the kingdom and its oligarchs is on the line. Sadly for the Saudis, Aramco is no longer as valuable, economically and geopolitically, as it once was. Natural gas from fracking has displaced oil as the fuel of the Western economy, with the result that OPEC (and, less critically, Russian oil) can no longer hold anybody’s economy hostage. For the Saudi government, moreover, no longer can cartel-inflated oil revenues pay for the gigantic welfare state that supports so much of the population in non–working, gilded, state dependency. What can’t go on, won’t, said economist Herb Stein sagely; and MbS, as the new crown prince is called, saw this reality and stepped in to take precautionary measures before a rapidly collapsing economic order sparked social anarchy, with an outcome no government could foresee or control.
Economic modernization and diversification, the prince saw, were essential, and they required social liberalization as the first order of business, beginning with allowing women to drive cars, the royal road to women’s liberation. Already, Saudi women are casting off the hijab and seizing modern social pleasures. The important point is that half the kingdom’s potential workforce will become free to produce, with hugely positive consequences for the economy. Read More > at City Journal
Spectacular Lighting video
BART probably won’t roll out any of the 60 new cars it promised would be running by year’s end – If you’ve been looking forward to riding one of BART’s new cars in its “fleet of the future,” you probably won’t be able to do that by the end of the year, a new report says.
Last month, Bay Area Rapid Transit said that some of its new trains failed a Nov. 3 test, with some of the new train doors not opening and other glitches affecting how they interacted with BART’s main computer. The agency said at the time that while it believes it has found what caused the problem, a fix could take weeks.
Now, local news station KTVU is reporting that delivery delays by BART’s manufacturing partner, Canadian train and plane maker Bombardier, as well as a slowdown in how the transit agency integrates its systems, are likely to put a kibosh on new trains rolling out this year. BART told the station it still hopes to roll out 10 cars sometime in December, but could not provide an exact date. Read More > in The San Francisco Business Times
The Earthquake to Come in Mexico – Among the countless personal tragedies wrought by Central Mexico’s deadly earthquake in September, the Colegio Enrique Rébsamen, a private school in the south of the capital where dozens of children were buried beneath rubble, became the emotional ground-zero. For days, the nation held its breath as emergency services and volunteers pored through the ruins of the collapsed three-storey building, looking for survivors. The 7.1-magnitude tremor, which took 369 lives across Mexico City and surrounding states, produced a sense of national unity rare in a country known for its economic and cultural divisions, as tens of thousands of citizens donated time, effort, and supplies.
Yet as the dust began to settle, both heroes and villains emerged.
Mónica García Villegas, the owner and director of the school, was charged with illegally falsifying a construction permit to expand the premises and potentially contributing to its vulnerability to the quake. Similar scandals played out across the affected area. In total, hundreds of complaints were filed in Mexico City regarding the violation of the building codes brought into law after a previous 8.0-magnitude earthquake took thousands of lives in 1985. Public officials visiting one site were attacked by residents, and Graco Ramírez, the governor of Morelos State, was accused by opponents of utilizing aid supplies for political purposes.
The earthquake and its fallout capped off a turbulent year for Mexico, in which drug-related crime again began to rise and delicate talks with the Trump administration over the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the pillar of the country’s export-driven manufacturing economy — continue. Yet as September’s tragedy illustrated, the key theme ahead of a crucial July 2018 election is quickly becoming a topic closer to home: corruption.
If lessons from Mexico’s neighbors hold true, this reckoning could lead to the country’s largest political shakeup in 20 years. Read More > at Foreign Policy
California Bill in the Works to Banish Gasoline Cars by 2040 – CA California lawmaker wants to put the state alongside China, France and the U.K. and have its legislature consider a ban on vehicles powered by fossil fuels.
California Assemblymember Phil Ting, a Democrat who is chairman of the chamber’s budget committee, said he plans to introduce a bill that, starting in 2040, would allow the state’s motor vehicles department to register only “clean” vehicles that emit no carbon dioxide, such as battery-electric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
“Until you set a deadline, nothing gets done,” Ting, who represents much of San Francisco, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s responsible for us to set a deadline 23 years in advance.”
Ting said he’ll introduce the bill when lawmakers return to Sacramento next month for the upcoming legislative session. Read More > in Bloomberg
Report: West Coast homeless crisis pushes US count higher – The nation’s homeless population increased this year for the first time since 2010, driven by a surge in the number of people living on the streets in Los Angeles and other West Coast cities.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its annual Point in Time count Wednesday, a report that showed nearly 554,000 homeless people across the country during local tallies conducted in January. That figure is up nearly 1 percent from 2016.
Of that total, 193,000 people had no access to nightly shelter and instead were staying in vehicles, tents, the streets and other places considered uninhabitable. The unsheltered figure is up by more than 9 percent compared to two years ago.
Increases are higher in several West Coast cities, where the explosion in homelessness has prompted at least 10 city and county governments to declare states of emergency since 2015.
City officials, homeless advocates and those living on the streets point to a main culprit: the region’s booming economy. Read More > from the Associated Press
Matt Lauer’s office sexcapades known to media elites, who roared with laughter over lewd jokes at 2008 ‘roast’ – …The 2008 Friars Club roast took place at the New York Hilton and was attended by everyone from future President Donald Trump to TV legend Norman Lear to a constellation of New York’s media elite including Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Nancy O’Dell and Howard Stern. Also on hand were numerous top executives from across the business and almost everyone who was anyone at NBC News. Fox News has confirmed many details of the roast with a media executive who attended, and has also drawn on the one contemporaneous account of the roast, which appeared in The Village Voice.
Speaker Martha Stewart joked, “I hear NBC executives call Matt the ‘Cock of the Rock’,” according to The Voice.
Another of the roast’s speakers was current CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker ─ then the chairman of NBC Universal ─ who last week adamantly denied that he had any idea about Lauer’s in-office sexcapades.
“It’s just good to see Matt up here and not under my desk,” Zucker said from the podium. “I don’t want to say Matt is a germophobe, but he’s the only guy I know who uses Purell both before and after he masturbates.”
Zucker also made a pointed allusion to Lauer’s marital problems. Read More > from Fox News
Nevada Dem says he won’t resign despite calls from party leaders – Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he will not resign from his post amid allegations of sexual harassment from a former staffer.
Kihuen asserted in an ABC News interview that party leaders knew last year about the woman’s allegations of sexual misconduct, but did not take action against his campaign.
A woman who previously worked as the finance director for Kihuen alleged that she was harassed by the Nevada Democrat while working on his 2016 campaign, BuzzFeed reported last week.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), who leads the House Democrats’ campaign arm, have called on Kihuen to step down.
“They looked into them. They didn’t find anything, and they continued investing millions of dollars in my campaign. They went out there and campaigned for me,” Kihuen said of Pelosi and Lujan.
Spokespeople for both Pelosi and Lujan disputed Kihuen’s claim, saying both representatives learned of the allegations last week. Read More > in The Hill
The Gubernatorial Candidates Are Missing Three Big Agendas – What are you going to do if it all goes off the rails?
Politicians are advised not to advise hypotheticals, but the candidates for governor need to be pressed to explain how they would address some likely negative turns in California in the years ahead.
The candidates are rolling out policy agendas, with Gavin Newsom very much ahead, as he has been in the polls. But none of the candidates have much of an agenda when it comes to the three big questions.
1. What’s your recession agenda?
The slow but steady economic expansion since the Great Recession has gone on for almost a decade. That’s a longtime, and the country is overdue for another recession….
2. What’s your tax reform agenda?
It’s unclear what if anything the federal government might produce in tax changes this month. But if a bill makes it through that affects California even half as much as the current legislative proposals, the next governor should tackle taxes. (The current governor should have remade the tax system, of course, but Brown never did)… Read More > at Fox and Hounds
CVS Health to buy Aetna for around $69 billion – CVS Health will acquire Aetna for roughly $69 billion in cash and stock in a first-of-its kind deal aimed at fending off challenges in retail and health care, the companies announced on Sunday.
The landmark agreement is one of the year’s largest so far. It comes as insurers are under pressure to lower medical costs, and retailers are under attack from new competitors, including an increasingly powerful Amazon. It creates the first health care triple threat, combining CVS’s pharmacy and pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) platform with Aetna’s insurance business.
Upon the closing of the transaction, three of Aetna’s directors, including Chairman and CEO Mark Bertolini, will join the CVS board of directors. Aetna will operate as a stand-alone business unit within the larger company, led by members of the insurer’s current management team.
The transaction is expected to close in the second half of 2018, subject to regulatory and shareholder approval. Read More > at CNBC
Chico is California’s ‘Drunkest’ City – 24/7 Wall St. is out with its annual list of the ‘drunkest’ cities in every state. The factors used to determine these rankings are actually pretty disheartening.
24/7 Wall St. looks at CDC data on binge drinking, plus the number of alcohol-related car wrecks to determine which cities in every U.S. state imbibe the most.
For California, the year’s designation goes to Chico.
The study found 21% of adults in Chico are heavy drinkers (the state average is 18%). A troubling 24% of driving deaths in the city were alcohol-related.
America’s drunkest city is Green Bay, Wisconsin. About 26.5 percent of Green Bay adults drink excessively.
Alcohol does go well with football… and cheese.
See a list of drunkest cities in each state here. Read More > at California City news
America’s “flyover country” is stronger than you think. – To hear the news media tell it, it’s game over for America’s “flyover country”—the vast expanse of land between the East and West Coasts, which, on the presidential-election map, is usually colored predominantly red. Yet the American interior is hardly monolithic, consisting of a collection of disparate regions: there’s Mountain West, seen in some respects as an extension of the West Coast; the Great Plains, where rural areas have long been shrinking but cities are showing surprising growth; the South, with its mix of boomtowns and struggling urban and rural regions (Texas is a land unto itself); and the Midwest and the postindustrial sections of the Northeast, still often known as the Rust Belt.
The American heartland suffers from severe problems in many places, as press coverage, including in these pages, has documented. (See “Trouble in Trump County, U.S.A.,” The Shape of Work to Come, 2017.) Many postindustrial cities, especially smaller ones with few world-class assets, have struggled to find a place in the technology and innovation economy. Such cities tend to lag the coasts in per-capita income and GDP, and many have lost population. Flint, Michigan, is an example. The birthplace of General Motors, the city was the site of the famed sit-down strike of 1936 and 1937 that helped make the UAW such a powerful labor union. GM once employed 82,000 people in Flint, a figure representing nearly half the city’s population at that time. Over 90 percent of those jobs are now gone. Flint spiraled into poverty and fiscal crisis, culminating in the state appointment of an emergency manager—a move that didn’t prevent a treatment failure in the water system, which contaminated the city’s water with lead and made Flint a national symbol of failed urban governance. Other cities, ranging from Springfield, Massachusetts, to Youngstown, Ohio, have struggled as well with severe economic and fiscal stress, along with entrenched poverty.
…As life on the coasts becomes increasingly unaffordable, the heartland’s foremost advantage is livability at reasonable prices. Its communities remain pro-growth. Major coastal cities and states have become infamous for placing restrictions on development—whether housing, infrastructure, or commercial space. Overregulation has sent housing prices soaring, pricing out most new residents unless they earn high incomes or enjoy some kind of special deal, such as a below-market subsidized apartment. Absent major housing reform, New York City and San Francisco, with their populations at record highs, are essentially “full.”
As a result, population growth in coastal cities has lagged. Of the 15 fastest-growing major metro areas since 2010, only one, Seattle, is a coastal city. Limited urban land and anti-sprawl, anti-development politics make it unlikely that these places will solve their affordability and growth challenges anytime soon. Growth is moving to the nation’s interior.
Certain regions are already showing the signs. In the Mountain West, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Boise are growing fast. Major cities in Texas and the central plains—Dallas, Oklahoma City, Des Moines, and others—are also expanding, as are parts of the Southeast. The Midwest on the whole has not kept up, but cities like Columbus, Ohio, and Grand Rapids, Michigan, are thriving. Read More > at City Journal
Has the high school diploma lost all meaning? -Last week, an NPR affiliate threw super-cooled water on D.C.’s Ballou High School’s so-called success in graduating 64 percent of its seniors, and earning every senior, regardless of whether they graduated, college acceptance. Turns out that, although 164 students were granted diplomas, more than half of those who walked across the graduation stage tallied at least sixty days of unexcused school absences, and one cap-and-gown wearer recorded more than 150.
As shocking as these seat-time revelations are, they merely add to other signs of academic struggle at Ballou. Last year, for example, only 9 percent of the school’s pupils passed the English language arts portion of D.C.’s annual standardized test. None passed the math portion.
…Ballou is far from a unique case. Rather, it’s a recent and extreme example of a nationwide issue. “This is sad and infuriating and, as local education reporters across the country know, not at all uncommon,” tweeted Erica L. Green, an education reporter at the New York Times. Indeed, just weeks before the Ballou story broke, a report from D.C.’s neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, found that 25 percent of that district’s high school graduates may not have met requirements.
So what in the world does a diploma now indicate? Not that students are ready for college. Not that they’ve learned as much as twelfth graders should learn. Not even, apparently, that they’ve shown up for school. Is it nothing more than a redundant certification that these graduates are old enough to finish twelfth grade and enter some version of adulthood? Has the high school diploma therefore lost all academic meaning? There’s a good chance that it has. And in losing all meaning, the farcical meaning that schools purport to assign to it harms our most vulnerable, disadvantaged students, especially now that America’s high school graduation rate is at an all-time high. Read More > from the Fordham Institute
Cartel Hitmen Force ‘Confessions’ From Victims Before ISIS-Style Beheadings In Mexico – Members of the Viagras cartel videotaped a rival hitman confessing to “sins” in the western Mexican state of Michoacán last Thursday, then bent his neck backward over a block of wood and sawed off his head with a carving knife.
The beheading video was posted to social media, along with a warning to the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG). In the clip, the decapitated victim also claims to be the brother of Juan Carlos Márquez Pérez, a.k.a. “El Duende” (The Goblin), a CJNG operative arrested back in 2015.
In a separate incident on Tuesday of last week, two more severed heads were found in a cooler at a television station in the nearby city of Guadalajara. The heads were accompanied by a note signed by the CJNG and addressed to a high-ranking police officer. Another cartel cooler was left at the federal courthouse building that same day, but officials refused to disclose the contents.
Mexican mafiosos appear to have borrowed the practice of beheading their enemies from Middle Eastern terrorists such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS). Decapitations in Mexico have risen dramatically over the last several years due to their perceived shock factor. Head cutting has become the signature move for crime groups looking to intimidate opposing factions, pressure law enforcement, and cow local citizens. Read More > in the Daily Beast
Bag the Mistletoe, Cut the Booze: Office Parties Sober Up – ’Tis the season to keep that office holiday party from adding to the list of workplace sexual misconduct scandals.
With the names of Weinstein, Spacey and Lauer likely getting more mentions this year than Dancer, Prancer and Blitzen, employers are making sure their year-end staff merrymaking doesn’t generate more inappropriate conduct.
There will be less booze at many. An independent business organization has renewed its annual warning not to hang mistletoe. And some will have party monitors, keeping an eye out for inappropriate behavior.
According to a survey by Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, only 49 percent of companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events. Last year that number was 62 percent, the highest number in the decade the firm has run its survey. The number had been going up each year as the economy improved.
The Huffington Post reported Friday that Vox Media, which runs sites including Vox and Recode, won’t have an open bar this year at its holiday party and will instead give employees two tickets they can redeem for drinks. It will also have more food than in years past. The company recently fired its editorial director, Lockhart Steele, after a former employee made allegations of sexual harassment against him.
A survey by Bloomberg Law said those kinds of safeguards are common: while most companies ask bartenders or security or even some employees to keep an eye on how much partygoers are drinking, others limit the number of free drinks or the time they’re available. A small minority have cash bars instead of an open bar. Read More > at Real Clear Markets
As Kratom Use Surges, Some States Enact Bans – On a sunny November afternoon in this quiet college community, a steady stream of customers walks through the doors of a local cafe called Oasis for a cup of an increasingly popular herbal beverage. The menu offers coffee, black tea, beer, wine and pastries, but nearly everyone opts for a $5 mug of kratom (pronounced KRAY-dum).
A powder ground from the leaves of an indigenous Southeast Asian tree related to the coffee plant, kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) offers pain relief and mood enhancement, similar to prescription painkillers.
Advocates say the substance, which does not depress the respiratory system and therefore presents little to no overdose risk, could help reduce the nation’s reliance on highly addictive and often deadly prescription painkillers. Some addiction experts also argue the plant could be used as an alternative to methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol in medication-assisted therapy for opioid addiction.
Now, with growing concerns about the dangers of prescription painkillers, an estimated 3 million to 5 million people are using kratom and reporting positive results, based on information from retailers. But worries that the unregulated plant product could be abused for its mild euphoric qualities and users could become addicted are spurring federal officials to issue public health warnings—and a handful of states and cities to impose bans. Read More > at Route Fifty
America’s first bullet train is already a failure and it hasn’t even been built – As we mark three-years since the unveiling of one of the most ambitious high-speed rail projects currently proposed in America, Texas Central Partner’s bullet train, its becoming clear that many of the assertions made about the project are way off track.
The 240-mile line promises to whisk riders from Houston to Dallas in less than 90 minutes with convenient departures every 30 minutes to an hour for a price comparable to that of a plane ticket. Backers of the project assert that all funding will come from the private sector and that rider demand will be sufficient to sustain operations without any taxpayer support. They point to a list of “infrastructure priorities” as proof that there is broad support for high-speed rail in Texas and that the Lone Star State is a prime location to introduce the first line in the country.
…For starters, taxpayers may be on the hook for a public funding component. Texas Central Partner has indicated that they plan to apply for Railroad Rehabilitation and Investment Financing (RRIF) loans, a federally funded taxpayer subsidy. Should the project, like many federally backed projects have before it, go under (think Solyndra) taxpayers would ultimately be left holding the bag for the entire value of the loans.
…Investors are probably starting to feel the same way and the few that have provided the 1 percent of capital raised to date may soon be looking to cut ties. Delays surrounding the environmental impact study have already put the project years behind schedule. Proposed construction costs have ballooned from $10 billion to $16 billion and the project is yet to break ground.
Overly optimistic ridership estimates also call into question the long-term viability of the project, should it ever secure the necessary funding to complete construction. Estimates from Texas Central Partner predict a ridership of 5 million annually by 2025 (up from earlier estimates of 4 million annual riders by 2035) and a whopping 10 million riders by 2050. Read More > in The Hill
The Surgeon Who Wants to Connect You to the Internet with a Brain Implant – …It’s a topic that Leuthardt, a 44-year-old scientist and brain surgeon, has spent a lot of time imagining. In addition to his duties as a neurosurgeon at Washington University in St. Louis, he has published two novels and written an award-winning play aimed at “preparing society for the changes ahead.” In his first novel, a techno-thriller called RedDevil 4, 90 percent of human beings have elected to get computer hardware implanted directly into their brains. This allows a seamless connection between people and computers, and a wide array of sensory experiences without leaving home. Leuthardt believes that in the next several decades such implants will be like plastic surgery or tattoos, undertaken with hardly a second thought.
But Leuthardt has done far more than just imagine this future. He specializes in operating on patients with intractable epilepsy, all of whom must spend several days before their main surgery with electrodes implanted on their cortex as computers aggregate information about the neural firing patterns that precede their seizures. During this period, they are confined to a hospital bed and are often extremely bored. About 15 years ago, Leuthardt had an epiphany: why not recruit them to serve as experimental subjects? It would both ease their tedium and help bring his dreams closer to reality.
…Though the answers to some of these questions were far from conclusive, they were encouraging. Encouraging enough to instill in Leuthardt the certitude of a true believer—one who might sound like a crackpot, were he not a brain surgeon who deals in the life-and-death realm of the operating room, where there is no room for hubris or delusion. Leuthardt knows better than most that brain surgery is dangerous, scary, and difficult for the patient. But his understanding of the brain has also given him a clear-eyed view of its inherent limitations—and the potential of technology to help overcome them. Once the rest of the world understands the promise, he insists—and once the technologies progress—the human race will do what it has always done. It will evolve. This time with the help of chips implanted in our heads. Read More > at MIT Technology Review
MBA student catches Stanford’s business school cheating on how it issues grants – An MBA student at Stanford’s elite business school has caught the school cheating on how it allocated its fellowship grants, a discrepancy he found after parsing a major data breach of student information.
Business school website Poets&Quants reports that MBA student Adam Allcock found that Stanford wasn’t allocating its fellowship grants on a needs-based scale, as the school has always claimed it does, but instead on a sliding ranking based on how much financial value certain students would or could bring to the school.
“Allcock found that Stanford had routinely granted fellowship money to students without regard to their financial needs, often favoring admits who were female and those from the financial sector, even though many had more savings than students who received no scholarship help or less financial support,” Poets&Quants reported. Read More > in The San Francisco Business
Supreme Court to hear arguments over sports-betting ban – A U.S. Supreme Court case next week could dramatically reshape the landscape of American sports betting, with major ramifications for casino operators and European betting shops, as well as professional sports leagues and college athletics.
A 25-year-old federal law restricts sports betting to Nevada and three other states, but a challenge to that ban by the state of New Jersey has set the stage for the Supreme Court to decide whether the law is constitutional. If the justices decide the federal ban is an unlawful intrusion on states’ rights, such a ruling could open up more of the country to sports wagering.
Analysts estimate an expanded legal marketplace for the sports betting industry could generate between $7 billion and $15 billion annually in the U.S. That is up from a current $270 million in legal betting and an estimated $3 billion generated in unregulated black markets, including through unlicensed offshore operations in the Caribbean and elsewhere that take wagers online. Read More > from Fox Business News
How Dollar General Became Rural America’s Store of Choice – Dollar General is expanding because rural America is struggling. With its convenient locations for frugal shoppers, it has become one of the most profitable retailers in the U.S. and a lifeline for lower-income customers bypassed by other major chains.
Dollar General Corp.’s 14,000 stores yielded more than double the profit of Macy’s Inc. on less revenue during its most recent fiscal year. And its $22 billion market value eclipses the largest U.S. grocery chain, Kroger Co., which has five times the revenue.
The retailer relies on rapid store growth to keep revenue climbing and investors happy; 2016 marked its 27th consecutive year of sales growth in stores open at least a year.
While many large retailers are closing locations, Dollar General executives said they planned to build thousands more stores, mostly in small communities that have otherwise shown few signs of the U.S. economic recovery.
…For decades, Dollar General prices have been marked in 5-cent increments, making it easier for shoppers to estimate the total price of their purchases. “They don’t want to be embarrassed when they get up to the register,” said Mr. Vasos, who started working in retail as an assistant manager at Eckerd Drug and rose to executive before joining Dollar General in 2008.
Many popular brands are packaged in small quantities to keep prices under $10—generally yielding higher profits per item than bulk goods at such warehouse chains as Costco, which sells half-gallon bottles of cooking oil and 7-pound packages of fresh chicken. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal
US Truck Drivers Brace for the Bot Onslaught – On Thursday of last week, Tesla unveiled its long-awaited big rig truck and made the long-established hauling industry the latest business to occupy the auto maker’s crosshairs. Tesla’s move into the tractor trailer industry is a big leap for the sleek car manufacturer, but a reasonable one. The company is fueled—pardon the pun—by a desire to switch the world’s drivers away from the internal combustion engine and towards an electric vehicle while simultaneously creating a massive solar panel and battery infrastructure of the future. The move into big rigs is a logical step toward an electric-driven, reduced-emission future considering the fact that heavy duty trucks account for a substantial share of the world’s greenhouse gasses.
Curbing such a significant source of pollution is a noble task. But with each new electric truck that Tesla rolls out, another vehicle equipped with an “autopilot” system hits the streets. According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the adoption of autonomous driving vehicles—which can automatically engage braking systems and alert drivers to lane departures—will increase safety and hopefully reduce the roughly 4,000 annual deaths in truck-related accidents. While today’s systems are only “semi-autonomous,” we are not far from a future of fully self-driving automobiles. What repercussions loom around the bend once long-haul truckers—who account for more than 5% of the American work force—are suddenly out of commission? We’ve seen what the collapse of the coal industry has done throughout Appalachia. But the collapse of an industry of roughly 80,000 workers is nothing compared to the challenges that await around the bend as more than 3.1 million drivers find themselves at risk of automation. Read More > at Geopolitical Monitor
The world’s astonishing dependence on fossil fuels hasn’t changed in 40 years – Every year since 1971, more than 80% of all our energy has come from fossil fuels. That’s still true today, which is surprising for two reasons. Most nuclear power plants came online between 1971 and 1990, and most renewable energy farms were built in the last 10 years. We’ve added so many more non-fossil-fuel energy sources in the past 45 years, and yet it doesn’t seem to be at all reflected in the chart.
There are few ways to understand why. First, most of the world’s clean-energy sources are used to generate electricity. But electricity forms only 25% of the world’s energy consumption. Second, as the rich world moved towards a cleaner energy mix, much of the poor world was just starting to gain access to modern forms of energy. Inevitably, they chose the cheapest option, which was and remains fossil fuels. Read More > at Quartz
Home prices nearly doubled in this surprising California city – …It’s Stockton, the Central Valley community twice dubbed America’s “most miserable” city by Forbes Magazine because of its high rates of housing foreclosures, unemployment and violent crime.
The jump in home prices in Stockton and neighboring Lodi — up about 92 percent over the past five years — is dramatic evidence of the ripple effects of the Bay Area’s tight housing market and the increasingly out-of-reach cost of living here. As people flee San Francisco and Silicon Valley in search of cheaper housing, heading to places like Stockton, Oakland and Sacramento, prices in those second-tier markets are rising.
…But prices in Stockton have a long way to go before they could give a Bay Area resident sticker-shock. Stockton homes sell for a median price of $260,000, compared to $1.25 million in San Francisco, $860,500 in San Jose, and $697,000 in Oakland, according to Trulia.
When Katrina Gonzalez, a manager at Red Lobster in San Jose, decided earlier this year that she wanted to buy a house, she quickly realized her options were limited. So Gonzalez and her husband, who works as a supervisor at Tesla, started looking at homes in Tracy, Livermore and Pleasanton. To their dismay, even those cities on the far edges of Silicon Valley were too expensive. Read More > in The Mercury News
Time is running out for BuzzFeed, Mashable – BuzzFeed has given up on going public for now and Mashable is looking for an emergency buyer. The honeymoon period looks to be over for online news websites — left fragile by a model built almost entirely on advertising.
Less than two years ago, blog turned news site Mashable was valued at $250 million, with Time Warner among its investors.
Today, its value has plummeted by 80 percent, and it’s reportedly about to be sold to Ziff Davis. The publisher did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, revenues that fell short of expectations at BuzzFeed — built on a combination of pop culture and social networks — mean it is no longer expected to go public next year.
The website has just announced it is letting go of around 100 of its 1,700 employees.
These sites — like others founded in the last 10 years — promised investors huge growth driven by advertising as traditional media battled for survival.
But in the space of a few months, the tide has turned — as Google and Facebook’s chokehold on the online advertising market reaches a critical point.
In 2017, the two internet giants have snapped up 63 percent of advertising revenue, compared to 58 percent last year, according to market researcher eMarketer. Next year, they are projected to rake in a 67 percent share. Read More > at Yahoo!
NBC News is erasing all memory of Matt Lauer – NBC News is bulldozing and erasing all memory of Matt Lauer from 30 Rock by demolishing his office, ripping off his name plate from the building and destroying all pictures of the shamed anchor.
Network insiders said Lauer’s office on the third floor of 30 Rock was one of many undergoing renovation, but now they have instead started tearing it apart.
One told us, “Matt’s office is being completely demolished. Everything is going, including that button under his desk, his name plate, the photos of him in the hallways, the pictures of him online and on NBC News social media. They are so sickened by his behavior it is almost like they want to pretend he never existed.” Read More > at Page Six
Honda Claims Its Electric Cars Will Charge in 15 Minutes by 2022 – Honda is planning a fix for one of the biggest downsides of electric car ownership as soon as five years from now. According to Nikkei, the world’s largest manufacturer of internal combustion engines claims it will have EVs capable of a full charge in just 15 minutes by 2022.
The key to Honda’s plan is the battery itself. Honda currently sources batteries for plug-in hybrids from Panasonic and is looking for a partner to collaborate with on its new, quick charging battery. Honda is also working with the unique challenges of electrified cars by engineering lighter bodies that are able to go farther on a single battery charge to reduce the range anxiety that’s been plaguing EV drivers since their introduction. The goal for 2022 is for a Honda EV to go 150 miles on a 15-minute charge.
Currently, the fastest quick chargers are able to charge an EV battery to about 80 percent in roughly 30 minutes. That’s pretty good, but still not good enough to establish widespread acceptance of electric vehicles with drivers who are used to the convenience of quickly filling fuel tanks for internal combustion engines in five minutes anywhere in the world’s massive network of gas stations. Read More > in The Drive