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 very American heroism of Todd Beamer – Twenty years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001, 32-year-old Todd Beamer boarded a United Airlines flight at Newark, New Jersey, bound for a business meeting in San Francisco. He was due to fly back that night, to rejoin his pregnant wife, Lisa, and their two young sons, Drew and David. Todd worked for a computer company, selling software. His job entailed lots of traveling. This was just another working day.
Forty-six minutes after take-off, terrorists stormed the cockpit, seized the controls, and announced, ‘We have a bomb onboard.’ The plane changed course for Washington DC. Some passengers managed to make phone calls to friends and family, and news soon spread around the cabin that two planes had crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York — and that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon. It quickly became clear to Todd, and everyone else onboard, that theirs was the fourth plane.
Todd Beamer tried to make a credit card call and ended up talking to a call center supervisor for the firm who handled United Airlines’ in-flight phone service. The supervisor’s name was Lisa Jefferson (Todd was struck by the strange coincidence that she shared his wife’s name). Their 13-minute conversation is a precious record of an extraordinary act of heroism, a testament to the bravery and humanity that survived that awful day.
Todd and a group of fellow passengers (and several flight attendants) held a council of war, and took a vote, and resolved to storm the cockpit (even faced with almost certain death, American democracy prevailed). ‘If I don’t make it, please call my family and let them know how much I love them,’ he told Lisa. The last thing she heard him say was, ‘Are you ready? OK, let’s roll.’
Todd and his fellow passengers must have known their chances of success were minuscule, but they preferred doing something to doing nothing. They preferred to go down fighting. Thanks to them, Flight UA93 never reached Washington, and its intended target: either the White House or the US Capitol (though Vice President Dick Cheney had given orders that the plane should be shot down). It crashed in an empty field in Pennsylvania. Everyone onboard was killed. Four months later, on January 9, 2002, Todd’s widow, Lisa Brosious, gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Read More > at The Spectator World
Amid Western Blazes, Prescribed Fire Is Keeping Some Forests Resilient – With more than 217,000 acres burned as of September 8, the Caldor Fire southwest of Lake Tahoe has left swaths of the Sierra Nevada severely devastated. More than 900 structures have been destroyed, including virtually the entire town of Grizzly Flats.
But within the fire’s massive footprint stand patches of green, living trees. One looks like a finger poking into the eastern edge of the fire, along Caples Creek and around Caples Lake. That expanse of vitality overlaps extensively with an 8,800-acre area that had been treated in 2019 with prescribed burning, a tactic practitioners say can make fire-adapted forests less susceptible to catastrophic blazes, and limiting the threat they pose to people.
By setting smaller, controlled fires, forest managers can help eliminate the brush, branches and thickets of young trees that can supercharge fast-moving blazes, while leaving larger, older trees alive. After a century of fire suppression policies, much of California’s conifer woodlands are thickly overgrown, making them vulnerable to runaway megafires, especially in the midst of a severe drought.
In the Caples Lake area, the 2019 prescribed burn achieved its goal of clearing out ground fuel that present the biggest fire risk, said Duane Nelson, a now-retired district ranger who oversaw parts of that project. “It was on a large enough footprint that it now seems to be changing the behavior of the 15th largest fire in the history of the state,” he said.
Other burned sections of forest are currently in “beautiful” condition, said Dana Walsh, a public information officer at the U.S. Forest Service. That includes expanses near Grizzly Flats, Sly Park, Mormon Emigrant Trail, the Silver Fork American River, and along Highway 50 that had fuel reduction treatments, such as tree thinning and mulching, in recent years. With the help of that earlier work, the Caldor Fire has left some of these areas healthier than before, by paring back undergrowth. Read More > at Bloomberg
California enacts 2 laws to slice through local zoning rules – California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday approved two measures to slice through local zoning ordinances as the most populous state struggles with soaring home prices, an affordable housing shortage and stubborn homelessness.
He signed the most prominent legislation despite nearly 250 cities objecting that it will, by design, undermine local planning and control.
The outcome marks the latest battle between what’s come to be thought of as NIMBY vs. YIMBY. While most agree there is an affordable housing shortage, proposed construction often runs into “not in my backyard” opposition.
The bill by Senate leader Toni Atkins would require cities to approve up to four housing units on what was a single-family lot. They would also have to approve splitting single-family lots so they could be sold separately.
Newsom also signed a bill by Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener easing the way for local governments to rezone neighborhoods near mass transit for up to 10 housing units.
Wiener made his bill optional in response to opposition, but the advocacy groups California YIMBY and California Community Builders still hailed its passage. Read More > from the Associated Press
Where the Covid Origin Inquiry Goes Now – After the intelligence community submitted its muddled report last month on the origins of Covid-19, President Biden said “the world deserves answers, and I will not rest until we get them.” He won’t get answers from China, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. can’t do more at home.
The more the world has learned, the more plausible the lab-leak theory has become.
The latest evidence is more than 900 pages of National Institutes of Health (NIH) documents outlining collaboration between the U.S. nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance and the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Obtained by the Intercept, a left-leaning web outlet, the documents show how American taxpayer dollars were spent on risky bat coronavirus research at the opaque Chinese institute. EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak sought to shut down debate about the lab-leak theory, and his organization understood the dangers of what was being done there.
A $3.1 million grant in May 2014 gave the WIV nearly $600,000 for “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence.” The grant proposal warns about the “risk of exposure to pathogens or physical injury while handling bats” and other wildlife. The document says “fieldwork involves the highest risk of exposure to SARS or other CoVs.” It adds that in the lab “experimental work using infectious material will be conducted under appropriate biosafety standards.” Except American experts reported unsafe conditions after visiting the WIV in 2017 and 2018.
The documents show several examples of the U.S. supporting “gain of function” research, despite repeated denials from top NIH Director Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci. This controversial practice, which the U.S. banned from 2014-17, can give pathogens the ability to infect a different species. The State Department reported this year that WIV researchers became sick “with symptoms consistent with” Covid-19 in autumn of 2019. The Chinese organization also took virus databases offline and refused to provide critical data to the World Health Organization.
The 2014 grant states that “no funds are provided and no funds can be used to support gain-of-function research.” But Rutgers University molecular biologist Richard Ebright notes that other NIH documents “definitively” show otherwise. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal
Appeals Court Rules Against San Mateo in Housing Fight – The City of San Mateo has lost a legal fight concerning a four-story condominium development project that it said violated the city’s multifamily design guidelines. Friday’s decision by the California Court of Appeals could have significant implications for housing in California.
The city’s Planning Commission denied the proposed project in 2017 because of height issues. The city had received numerous complaints from residents and determined that the proposal violated the local guidelines. The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) filed suit, calling the decision subjective and illegal under the state’s Housing Accountability Act (HAA).
A lower court initially sided with San Mateo. However, the Appeals Court determined that the city’s guidelines were not sufficiently objective under the HAA.
Friday’s ruling upholds and strengthens the HAA and will lead to more housing being built across California, said CaRLA Executive Director Dylan Casey.
California’s workforce at a breaking point – California’s workers are not all right. Waves of Bay Area restaurants and pop-ups are temporarily closing to give exhausted employees a much-needed mental health break — that is, if either the restaurant or its workers can afford to take time off. Pandemic-induced burnout has exacerbated California’s already chronic nursing shortage. And even as some workers call for enhanced safety measures, increasingly strict vaccination mandates are pushing some Californians to threaten to quit their jobs — further straining the state’s workforce at a time when almost every profession is frantically trying to plug staffing shortages.
- Patrick Mulvaney, who just reopened his Sacramento restaurant after closing for 10 days: “If what we do is hospitality and what we do is take care of people, pushing people this far is not taking care of people. We have to stop and look in the mirror and say, how are we doing with ourselves?”
Meanwhile, resistance to vaccination as a condition of employment is growing. A group of Los Angeles police officers on Saturday filed a federal lawsuit against the city for mandating vaccines for public employees. Thousands of San Diego County health care workers are requesting vaccine exemptions, and 65% of San Diego police officers who responded to a recent union survey said they would consider quitting if the city were to mandate inoculation. Read More > at CalMatters
ACLU sues Bay Area school district over ‘separate, unequal and illegal’ special education program – Outcomes for disabled students — especially those who are Black or English learners — in one Bay Area school district are so poor that the district is essentially denying the students their right to an education, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.
Pittsburg Unified in the East Bay disproportionately placed Black students and English learners in special education classrooms, did not provide them the services they need, and was more likely to suspend or expel those students, according to the suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
The suit, filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court, names the district, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and the state of California as defendants.
“Black students are literally being denied access to an education, and it’s not right,” said one of the plaintiffs, Jessica Black, who said her daughter, who is Black, fell behind academically while enrolled in special education in Pittsburg Unified. “I know we’re not the only family experiencing this unfairness. I wanted to shed a light on it.”
District Superintendent Janet Schultze called the lawsuit “disappointing,” because she said much of the information is misleading and doesn’t take into account the progress the district has made the past several years in closing achievement gaps among student groups and ensuring a high-quality education for all students. Read More > at EdSource
Andrew Yang to launch a third party – Former presidential and New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang is set to launch a third party next month, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Yang is expected to start the party in conjunction with the Oct. 5 release of his new book, “Forward: Notes on the Future of Our Democracy.”
It’s not clear what the name of Yang’s third party will be or how he plans to deploy it in 2022 or 2024. Yang and his team did not respond to requests for comment.https://34d65804842eeb916434ffd53974bdc2.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
But the book’s publisher, Crown, did give some clues about the type of platform Yang may pursue. It writes that the book is an indictment of America’s “era of institutional failure” and will introduce “us to the various ‘priests of the decline’ of America, including politicians whose incentives have become divorced from the people they supposedly serve.”
The book is blurbed by businessperson Mark Cuban (“a vitally important book”) and The New York Times’ Kara Swisher (“Can there be another political party in the U.S.?…In Forward, Yang does not just give us a laundry list of intractable problems, but shows how we can find solutions if we think in new ways and summon the courage to do so.”). Read More > at Politico
Introducing RealClearInvestigations’ Jan. 6-BLM Riots Dataset – Many in the political and media establishment have cast the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol as one of the darkest episodes in American history, comparing an episode in which one person was slain (a protester shot by police) to 9/11, Pearl Harbor, the Civil War, and the British sacking of the capital city in 1814. Seizing on the gravity of a mob trying to interfere with the process of recording Electoral College votes after a presidential election, Democrats impeached Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 breach and put him on trial in the Senate. Democrats have also spearheaded a congressional investigation – one focused on the former president – that will likely stretch into next election season.
Republicans, Trump supporters, and others see a double standard at play in Democrats’ emphasis on Jan. 6. They note that many Democrats cheered nationwide protests and some even put up bail after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer — prolonged unrest that generated far more death and destruction. They argue that groups associated with the summer’s violence, such as Black Lives Matter and Antifa, themselves aim to subvert democracy, and acted accordingly in targeting cops, public offices, and private businesses.
The electorate itself is divided, but doesn’t necessarily view this issue as an either/or choice. Polling shows that a large majority of Americans support the idea of examining the causes of both the 2020 summer riots in America’s cities and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
It is clear, then, that many Americans see two sides to this story. In keeping with its mission to fill gaps in press coverage, RealClearInvestigations is launching a running compendium of data, with hyperlinked sourcing, comparing the damage done on Jan. 6, and the subsequent treatment of those accused of perpetrating it, with two other recent events: the summer 2020 riots and – in some ways a closer analogy – the all-but-forgotten riot in Washington on Inauguration Day 2017, as protesters challenged Donald Trump’s election and legitimacy much as Jan. 6 rioters challenged Joe Biden’s. Read More > at Real Clear Investigations
Monetizing Data: The EDD, ID.me, and the Unemployed of California – In the spring of 2020, the pandemic caught many by surprise – no organization, it seems, was caught more by surprise than the California Employment Development Department.
When the economy was essentially shut down by edict, both the state and federal governments scrambled to make sure that those forced from work had some source of income.
But into that stream of money stepped fraudsters: prisoners, shady characters, ex-EDD employees, massive international criminal cyber gangs, etc. all got in on the act, hoovering up billions while legitimate claimants were far too often left out in the cold, in many cases literally.
Despite clear and overwhelming evidence very early on in the pandemic that something was terribly wrong, the EDD did almost nothing to try to prevent the fraud until last September, about six months into the crisis, when it signed a contract with a Virginia identity security company called ID.me, as the Globe reported in June.
For many claimants, to continue to collect benefits they had to go through ID.me’s identity verification process, which proved to be rather frustrating in the early days particularly after the EDD summarily stopped paying 1.4 million claim last New Year’s Eve. Despite the growing pains (and, depending upon your comfort with and/or access to the latest technology, occasionally onerous process), the EDD was able to confirm the real identities of millions of people and prevent potentially billions more in fraudulent claims from being processed and paid.
But the decision to hire ID.me, which identifies itself as a “secure digital identity network” rather than merely an identity verification company, has raised a number of questions about the status of the sensitive – and extremely valuable – personal data provided to a private company at the demand of a government agency by millions of unemployed Californians.
…it should also be noted that ID.me states that it has lost millions of dollars on the services it has provided to the unemployment agencies of the nearly three dozen states, including California, that it has worked with during pandemic. Simultaneously, though, the value of the ID.me company, once a relatively small player in the identity verification field, has ballooned to an estimated $1.5 billion dollars and, in March, received an investment from Google to the tune of $100 million. Read More > at California Globe
U.S. Gasoline Prices Hit 7-Year High – U.S. gasoline demand has fallen for the fourth week in a row, but gasoline prices are climbing ever higher, spurred on by the refinery disruptions in the Gulf of Mexico caused by Hurricane Ida.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), retail gasoline and diesel prices in the United States averaged $3.176 for the week ending September 6—the highest level since 2014.
For comparison, the national average gasoline prices this time last year were $2.211. In 2019, the average at the close of the driving season was $2.550—even before the pandemic.
And now, just as the oil and gas industry struggles to recover from Hurricane Ida, another storm—Tropical Storm Nicholas, is barreling towards the Texas Gulf Coast’s refining complex, threatening even higher gasoline prices. Read More > at Oil Price
Grocery prices to rise another 3% before the end of year, Kroger warns with cost of beef already up 14% and pork 12% since December – Grocery prices will rise by another three percent before the end of the year, according to one of America’s biggest supermarkets.
Cincinnati-based Kroger generated $132 billion in sales last year, but the company said inflation is running longer than management previously anticipated, altering their expectations for prices.
Bosses now say they predict prices will rise 2 to 3 percent over the second half of this year.
It came as White House statistics last week revealed that a surge in meat prices is responsible for half of the price increase for food at home since December 2020.
Since December, prices for beef have risen by 14 percent, pork by 12 percent, and poultry by 6.6 percent.
Kroger will be ‘passing along higher cost to the customer where it makes sense to do so,’ CFO Gary Millerchip said on the company’s second-quarter earnings call on Friday.
Management at Albertsons Companies – which operates 21 retail brands including Albertsons, Jewel-Osco and Safeway – reported an estimated revenue of $70 billion dollars in 2020 and expressed similar concerns that inflation would run hotter in the second half of this year.
They also said that they would have to raise prices on some of their products. Read More > at the Daily Mail
The global food price crisis isn’t going away – Global food prices have continued to rise throughout the pandemic, and they’re now at close to the highest level they’ve been in decades.
Why it matters: Beyond the hunger and suffering that comes with costlier food, high prices are driving serious political discontent around the world — and there’s little relief in sight.
- 768 million people — nearly 1 in 10 globally — were undernourished in 2020, up 118 million from 2019.
By the numbers: According to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food prices in August were up 33% from the year before.
- Adjusted for inflation, food is now almost as expensive as it has been since the FAO’s Food Price Index began in 1961.
- “Food is more expensive today than it has been for the vast majority of modern recorded history,” Alistair Smith, senior teaching fellow in global sustainable development at Warwick University in the U.K., told Bloomberg.
Context: While no country is exempt from the effects of high food prices — including in the U.S., where prices of meat, poultry, fish and eggs were up 5.9% in August compared to the last year — poor nations bear the brunt.
- Food scarcity in Cuba led to the island country’s biggest protests in decades last month, while in South Africa, food riots in July cost retailers $340 million. Read More > at Axios
Tension over boosters rises as FDA regulators quit and publicly blast Biden’s plan – Two leading vaccine regulators who had previously announced their resignations from the Food and Drug Administration have now come out against the Biden administration’s plan to offer COVID-19 booster shots.
In a viewpoint article published in The Lancet on Monday, Marion Gruber, the outgoing director of the FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review (OVRR), and Phil Krause, the outgoing deputy director of the OVRR, argue against the current booster plans.
“Currently available evidence does not show the need for widespread use of booster vaccination,” the pair, along with colleagues, conclude in the article. Even if there are benefits from boosters, the shots still carry risks, and any benefits “will not outweigh the benefits of providing initial protection to the unvaccinated,” they write.
Gruber and Krause penned the Lancet article with 16 international colleagues, including several high-ranking experts at the World Health Organization. Krause is listed as the first author of the article and a corresponding author.
The pair’s public opposition to boosters comes just weeks after they announced their resignations from the FDA. Their departures are set for October 31 and November, respectively. Read More > at ars TECHNICA
Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That’s Exempt. – Mark Zuckerberg has publicly said Facebook Inc. allows its more than three billion users to speak on equal footing with the elites of politics, culture and journalism, and that its standards of behavior apply to everyone, no matter their status or fame.
In private, the company has built a system that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules, according to company documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.The program, known as “cross check” or “XCheck,” was initially intended as a quality-control measure for actions taken against high-profile accounts, including celebrities, politicians and journalists. Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.
At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users. In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook. Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.
A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.” Read More > in The Wall Street Journal
Fewer Pediatricians, More Cooks Seen in Dismal U.S. Jobs Outlook – U.S. employment will see stunted growth during the remainder of the decade, with technology eliminating some roles and retiring Baby Boomers contributing to a drop-off in the share of Americans participating in the job market, according to federal government projections.
The U.S. will add 11.9 million jobs through 2030, according to a new analysis from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bulk of that, however, will simply reflect a recovery from the damage caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Compared with the 2019 pre-pandemic peak for the BLS’s series, the jobs gain will be just 2.6 million — weaker than in previous decades.
About one-third of the jobs created, or 3.9 million compared with the current baseline, will be in low-wage work — a part of the economy devastated by coronavirus-linked restrictions. That covers categories that pay less than $32,000 a year, or roughly $15 an hour.
BLS analysts also project that while economic growth will run at a faster average pace than previous years and worker productivity will increase, the country’s labor participation rate will decline as the workforce ages and fewer young people work. Read More > from Bloomberg
Toilet-training cows to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. – Indiscriminate voiding of excreta by cattle contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and soil and water contamination1,2. Emissions are higher in animal-friendly husbandry offering cattle more space2 — a trade-off we call the ‘climate killer conundrum’. Voiding in a specific location (latrine) would help resolve this dilemma by allowing ready capture and treatment of excreta under more spacious farming conditions. For urination, toileting requires self-control and coordination of a complex chain of behaviors including awareness of bladder fullness, overriding of excretory reflexes, selection of a latrine and intentional relaxation of the external urethral sphincter3. Attempts to train toileting in cattle have so far been only partly successful4, 5, 6, even though their excretion and associated neurophysiological control are similar to those in species capable of toileting3. Similarly, very young infants have been considered incapable of self-initiated voiding, but they can be taught with extensive training7. Using a backward chaining, reward-based training procedure, we here show that cattle can control their micturition reflex and use a latrine for urination. Such self-control provides evidence that animals can learn to respond to and reveal internal experiences via appropriately trained operant behaviors, thereby providing another way to explore their subjective states.
In our study, 16 calves (across two cohorts, n = 8) underwent individual toilet training in a three-step backward chaining procedure (Supplemental information). In the first phase (in-latrine training), the calves were confined to a distinctive area (latrine; Data S1C) and every urination event was rewarded with food. Increasing frequency of orientation to the reward as training progressed would demonstrate success in bringing micturition under control of the rewards. In-latrine training was also designed to establish the latrine as the correct voiding location. Read More > at Current Biology