Saturday October 20, 12pm – 4pm Oakley Harvest Festival

The annual Oakley Harvest Festival is held at Civic Center Plaza, 3231 Main Street in Oakley. This event features old-fashioned Fall activities for the family. The “Pie Eating Contest” is always a popular activity along with the 2 costume parades. The first parade is for our canine friends and the second is a costume parade for all ages. There is no fee to participate and the parades walk a short distance around the park. Participating canines will receive a “doggy bag” and the children will receive a goody bag at the end of the parade.

There will be a children’s area with balloon art, bounce houses and crafts. Local dance troupes will perform in the amphitheater. Guests may bring a pre-decorated pumpkin to enter into the Pumpkin Decorating Contest. Vendors will be on hand with a variety of wares, activities and free hand-outs.

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When will the flu hit the Bay Area hard?

PUBLISHED:  | UPDATED: 

The misery of full-on flu season is almost here. Though the avalanche of sniffles and fever hasn’t hit yet, health officials say it’s on its way.

Since we know it’s coming, we thought you might want to find out where and when it’s striking. Here is a handy flu tracker map, where you can see exactly where in the U.S. the flu is hitting.

On the heels of last year’s nasty flu season, during which more than 700,000 people were hospitalized and 180 children died, CDC officials are urging people to plan ahead, get their flu shots and take precautions like covering coughs and washing hands.

If you want to be ready for what’s about to come, this handy Centers for Disease Control site  collects, compiles, and analyzes information on influenza activity year-round in the United States. The CDC also publishes FluView, a weekly influenza surveillance report, and FluView Interactive, if you’d like to customize your flu surveillance data.

Right now you can check out the first report of the 2018-19 influenza season. There isn’t a ton to report yet, with the CDC noting that only 2.3% of doctor’s visits pertaining to the flu can be tracked to Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada, in region 9.

Here’s the upshot on what the flu does to you. When the flu virus enters your body, it triggers your immune response — and in some lethal cases, that response pummels not just the virus but the body too.

The influenza virus hijacks human cells in the nose and throat to make copies of itself. This hoard of viral beasties triggers the immune system to send battalions of white blood cells, antibodies and inflammatory molecules to eliminate the threat, according to Scientific American. Generally, that process works to heal the body.

Stocking up on herbal tea, fruit juice and super-soft tissues can help to make the whole process less unpleasant.

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Clipper Update Wins Commission Approval

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) at its Sept. 26 meeting approved a $461 million contract with Cubic Transportation Services Inc. to design, develop and operate a comprehensive update to the Bay Area’s Clipper transit-fare payment system, which handles payment for more than 21 million bus, rail, light-rail, cable car and ferry trips operated by 22 separate transit agencies each month.

The current Clipper system, which originally launched in 2006 under the TransLink name, was designed in the late 1990s and has been operated by San Diego-based Cubic since 2009. Aging equipment and new technologies have made the current card-based system increasingly obsolete, lacking features such as mobile phone integration or the ability to immediately accommodate add-value transactions made online or by phone.

Terms of the new contract call for Cubic to update the entire Clipper system with new equipment and back-end operations that will introduce:

  • An account-based system that will let customers reload their Clipper cards through a variety of methods and use the value immediately;
  • The ability to integrate with other transportation providers, such as bike share and paratransit;
  • A new mobile app that allows customers to use their smart phones to reload their account and pay their fares; and
  • Better compatibility with transit programs operated by employers, colleges and universities.

The modernization plan calls for minimal disruption to Clipper customers, who can continue to use their Clipper cards or opt for smart phone payment. While fares are set by individual transit agencies, the new Clipper system will better accommodate fare changes and allow the agencies to offer special fare promotions.

The new contract between MTC and Cubic will commence this fall, with the first operational improvements scheduled for 2019 and rollout of the new Clipper mobile-payment app in 2020. The total redesign and development will be completed by 2021, with customers transitioned to the new system by 2023. The development portion of the contract will involve updating equipment in hundreds of stations, and on more than 3,500 buses and light-rail vehicles; replacing 6,875 payment validators on buses and in stations and terminals; and upgrading more than 600 ticket machines.

The agreement identifies up to $165 million for capital equipment plus $222 million to extend Cubic’s operation and maintenance of the system through 2032. The contract also includes $74 million to provide a 15 percent contingency and to cover estimated sales taxes on equipment purchases, boosting the total contract value for both capital and operating to $461 million.

Cubic also is the developer of fare payment systems in New York; Boston; Chicago; London; Vancouver, B.C.; and other major cities worldwide.

MTC is the transportation planning, funding and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. MTC operates the Clipper system on behalf of the region’s transit agencies.

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Oakley Students Are Invited to Submit Essays About Their Military Heroes

We all know men and women who have served in the military. They are people we admire, look up to and respect for the sacrifices they have made and for the courage they demonstrate on and off the battle field. The City of Oakley invites you to tell us about your military hero.

The essay contest is open to all K-12 students that reside in Oakley. There will be one winner in each of the corresponding categories K-5th grade, 6th-8th grade, and 9th-12th grade. K-5th grade students are invited to submit a drawing with a caption, while 6th-12th grades are to submit 300-500 typewritten words. To qualify please submit a completed essay and entry form to marquez@ci.oakley.ca.us by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, October 26th, 2018.

Winners will be given the opportunity to read their essay on Veterans Day during the City of Oakley Observance Ceremony to take place on Sunday, November 11, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. at the Civic Center Plaza located at 3231 Main Street, Oakley. Additionally, first prize winners will receive a certificate of recognition and a $50 cash prize.

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The Pothole Report: Bay Area Roads At Risk

Building on the foundation established by MTC’s original 2000 Pothole Report and then by a 2011 update, this report includes both a primer on the cost and life cycle of pavement and a comprehensive look at the current state of the Bay Area’s local streets and roads network, featuring a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction ranking of average pavement condition index (PCI) scores among the region’s nine counties and 101 cities. This analysis spotlights the myriad pavement-management challenges facing Sonoma County and the vast network of roadways in unincorporated portions of the county. It also illuminates the impact voter approval of Proposition 6 would have on cities’ and counties’ pavement maintenance programs.

If approved by a majority of voters, Proposition 6 would repeal the $5.4 billion-a-year transportation funding package approved by the state Legislature in 2017 through Senate
Bill 1 (SB 1). The measure also would subject any future taxes on motor vehicle fuels (and the vehicles themselves) to voter approval.

By far the largest recipient of SB 1 dollars is a newly-established Road Maintenance and Rehabilitation Program estimated to receive $3.7 billion annually, and through which half the funds are dedicated to city streets and county roads, with the other half going to state highway maintenance. In the nine-county Bay Area, SB 1 is expected to generate more than $200 million for city streets and county roads each year. The prospect that this revenue stream may soon run dry calls for an updated analysis of the Bay Area’s local street and road network.

The condition of the Bay Area’s local streets and roads has improved since the turn of the 21st century, primarily as a result of targeted local investment and continually improving pavement maintenance practices. Yet the typical stretch of asphalt still shows serious wear and is likely to require rehabilitation soon. At 67 out of a possible 100 points, the region’s average pavement condition index (PCI) score has climbed four points over the past 15 years, though it remains much closer to the 60-point threshold at which deterioration accelerates rapidly and the need for major rehabilitation becomes more likely than it does to the 85-point mark used by MTC to indicate a state of good repair. While years of work by MTC and the region’s local governments have forestalled a steep decline, overall conditions on our 43,374 lane-miles of city streets and county roads remain no better than “fair.”

Read the full report here

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Sunday Reading – 10/14/18

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.

If New Metal Legs Let You Run 20 Miles/Hour, Would You Amputate Your Own? – …Like most people I pose this question to, our guests respond with some variation on the theme of “no way”; the idea of undergoing a surgical procedure with the sole purpose of augmenting performance beyond traditional human limits borders on the unthinkable.

“Would your answer change if you had arthritis in your knees?” This is where things get interesting. People think differently about intervention when injury or illness is involved. The idea of a major surgery becomes more tractable to us in the setting of rehabilitation.

…As the functionality of advanced prosthetic devices continues to increase at an astounding rate, questions like these are becoming more relevant. Experimental prostheses, intended for the rehabilitation of people with amputation, are now able to replicate the motions of biological limbs with high fidelity. Neural interfacing technologies enable a person with amputation to control these devices with their brain and nervous system. Before long, synthetic body parts will outperform biological ones…

True embodiment of robotic devices has the potential to fundamentally alter humankind’s relationship with the built world. Throughout history, humans have excelled as tool builders. We innovate in ways that allow us to design and augment the world around us. However, tools for augmentation are typically external to our body identity; there is a clean line drawn between smart phone and self. As we advance our ability to integrate synthetic systems with physical identity, humanity will have the capacity to sculpt that very identity, rather than just the world in which it exists.

For this potential to be realized, we will need to let go of our reservations about surgery for augmentation. In reality, this shift has already begun. Consider the approximately 17.5 million surgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2017 alone. Many of these represent patients with no demonstrated medical need, who have opted to undergo a surgical procedure for the sole purpose of synthetically enhancing their body. The ethical basis for such a procedure is built on the individual perception that the benefits of that procedure outweigh its costs.

At present, it seems absurd that amputation would ever reach this point. However, as robotic technology improves and becomes more integrated with self, the balance of cost and benefit will shift, lending a new perspective on what now seems like an unfathomable decision to electively amputate a healthy limb. When this barrier is crossed, we will collide head-on with the question of whether it is acceptable for a person to “upgrade” such an essential part of their body.

At a societal level, the potential benefits of physical augmentation are far-reaching. The world of robotic limb augmentation will be a world of experienced surgeons whose hands are perfectly steady, firefighters whose legs allow them to kick through walls, and athletes who never again have to worry about injury. It will be a world in which a teenage boy and his grandmother embark together on a four-hour sprint through the woods, for the sheer joy of it. It will be a world in which the human experience is fundamentally enriched, because our bodies, which play such a defining role in that experience, are truly malleable. Read More > at Leaps Magazine

Bay Area Transit Upgrades Earthquake Warning Tech – Passengers riding BART may be better protected in the event of an earthquake after the agency on Monday rolled out a newly-upgraded earthquake alert system.

The first of its kind in the country, it automatically slows trains before an earthquake strikes, giving riders anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute to drop, cover and hold on.

It’s one of the ways the transit agency, which provides some 432,000 trips each weekday, has been preparing for the next big one, along with a $1.3 billion seismic retrofit of its oldest stations, which is expected to be completed in 2022.

But the system, called ShakeAlert 2.0, isn’t limited to BART’s tracks or stations. It’s part of a network of sensors in California and two other states that allows manufacturers, public utilities, fire departments and other organizations to establish their own protocols for preventative actions when quakes strike — opening firehouse doors so engines don’t become trapped, for example, or shutting down gas or chemical lines to prevent fires or leaks. Read More > at Government Technology

Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S. – The widespread failure of American mass transit is usually blamed on cheap gas and suburban sprawl. But the full story of why other countries succeed is more complicated.

…How did transit become such an afterthought in Americans’ transportation habits? I addressed that question in detail in an earlier CityLab piece. But to briefly summarize: Transit everywhere suffered serious declines in the postwar years, the cost of cars dropped and new expressways linked cities and fast-growing suburbs. That article pointed to a key problem: The limited transit service available in most American cities means that demand will never materialize—not without some fundamental changes.

The U.S. did see a resurgence of transit spending on big projects in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. But there was a big difference between America’s approach to big urban metro projects and that of Canadian and European cities: Even when the United States built expensive rail systems, it never took care of the basics. Cities rarely provided good, frequent local connections that allowed people to actually get to rail stations without walking or driving. To this day, in most parts of American cities, it is all but impossible to get anywhere on a Sunday at 8 p.m. by transit, and if you miss the bus you might be waiting an hour or more for the next one. Such a situation is virtually unheard of in most other developed countries, where even many small villages have a relatively regular bus.

That’s the fundamental problem that makes transit useless for most people in most American cities. The key to great transit service is not about getting 100 percent of people to ride transit for 100 percent of trips. It’s about giving people a viable choice of getting around without needing to drive.
Figuring out how to improve transit isn’t like curing cancer or inventing a quantum computer, either. There are good, viable models of transit systems that already exist in cities that look a lot like U.S ones. They are successful both at attracting riders and at being financially viable, from places that have more in common with American cities than one might expect.

Like Americans, Europeans saw the car as the wave of the future after World War II. Automobiles became a symbol of postwar reconstruction, from the Citroën Deux Chevaux to the Volkswagen Beetle. Cities across Europe developed elaborate plans to accommodate cars, bulldozing many historic neighborhoods (if they hadn’t already been destroyed in war) to make way for wide roads and parking. Urban areas expanded dramatically with the construction of suburbs and new towns.

There was an important difference with what was happening across the Atlantic, however. Even in a country like Switzerland in 1960, which had a per-capita income higher than the United States, vehicle ownership per capita was barely a quarter as high as in the U.S. What happened? Unlike their American counterparts, European planners designed new suburbs in ways that made transit use still viable. Many new towns were built around train and metro stations. Read More > at City Lab

Sears Has Only Itself to Blame for Its Decline – The Wall Street Journal report published late Tuesday saying Sears Holdings has hired advisers ahead of a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing this week came as a surprise to no one following the retail industry even remotely closely.

The company, a debt-laden retail Frankenstein begat from the ill-advised merger of Kmart and Sears engineered in 2004 by former hedge fund king Eddie Lampert, has been withering for years, unable to find a place for itself in retail’s new world or help itself by investing in its stores and merchandise.

Sears, which has $134 million in debt coming due Monday, saw shares plummet Wednesday morning to $0.44; shares were at $145 at the company’s peak only 12 years ago. The company did not respond to a request for comment on the prospect of a bankruptcy protection filing, but last week the company did add a board member with corporate restructuring experience.

Despite closing hundreds of stores this decade, Sears and Kmart both continued to deteriorate, with same-store declines worsening in the last few years. In fact since 2005, Sears Holdings has not reported a single year of sales or comparable sales (which strip out the impact of newly closed or opened stores) growth. The company has rung up $11.2 billion in cumulative net losses since the start of 2011. So much for a leaner and meaner Sears getting its mojo back. In 2015, Sears Holdings had annual revenue of $54 billion. For 2018, Wall Street expects it to come in at $12.4 billion.

What’s behind this chronic deterioration? Sears never gave shoppers a reason to keep going there, nor did Kmart, which incredibly was a larger retailer than Walmart only 30 years ago. The company also let too many stores fall into disrepair even as companies like Target, Walmart, and Home Depot (to which Sears has lost a lot of its appliance business) have invested heavily in their stores and the technology they use in them. With its once dominant catalog business, Sears had what it needed to win the e-commerce wars. Talk about throwing away a big lead. On the merchandise side, Sears has not been nearly as active as its rivals have: Other than the ill-fated Kardashian Kollection a few years ago, who remembers any Sears apparel? Read More > at Fortune

FDA Threatens E-Cigarette Companies With Product Removal – The Food and Drug Administration gave 21 electronic-cigarette companies a choice today: Either prove their products aren’t breaking FDA rules, or be forced to stop selling them.

The agency’s latest crackdown against vaping manufacturers is not particularly surprising. Rather, it’s just the latest development in the FDA’s war on vaping.

In a press release, the agency said it sent letters to 21 companies “about whether more than 40 products—including some flavored e-cigarette products—are being illegally marketed and outside the agency’s current compliance policy.” As CNBC notes, e-cigarette products introduced after August 8, 2016 need FDA approval before they can go on the market. The agency apparently believes some products are being sold without the relevant approval.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has now threatened the companies with enforcement actions. “Companies are on notice—the FDA will not allow the proliferation of e-cigarettes or other tobacco products potentially being marketed illegally and outside of the agency’s compliance policy, and we will take swift action when companies are skirting the law,” he says. “If products are being unlawfully marketed and outside the FDA’s compliance policy, we’ll act to remove them.” Read More > at Reason

Can America’s power grid support millions of electric cars? – There’s little doubt that a global technology revolution is under way. And the sweep of change over the past decade alone has been stunning. Electric cars and smart phones are proving that the world has gone high-tech.

Many analysts now believe that a “deep electrification” of the U.S. economy is coming, too, thanks to electric cars, electric buses, and high-speed rail. This electrification could also transform both homes and heavy industry through advances in heat pumps and on-demand water heaters. But all of it will mean a large increase in electricity needs, and it’s important to start planning now to ensure future power grid reliability.

In 2016, there were 567,000 electric vehicles on the road. But thanks to an electric vehicle boom, that number may reach a whopping 7 million cars by 2025. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, electric vehicles could account for up to 76 percent of vehicle-miles traveled by 2050, which would drive a 38 percent increase in U.S. electricity needs.

It’s not just electric cars, though. There’s also the massive power demands needed for the data centers that create, transport, and store virtual information. All of this suggests a huge shift in how Americans will consume electricity. And while electricity consumption has been fairly stable in recent years, a move toward deep electrification could send demand climbing.

Is the U.S. power grid prepared for such an increase? Unfortunately not. That’s because, even as a surge in demand looms ahead, the nation has been losing key sources of baseload power that currently anchor much of the overall electric grid. And part of the problem stems from heavy subsidization of wind and solar projects that currently deliver only 7.6 percent of U.S. electricity. Read More > in the Arizona Capitol Times

Sloppy science bears substantial blame for Americans’ bad eating habits – A spectacular case of sloppy science came crashing to a close last month. Cornell University’s Brian Wansink, a world-renowned scientist who seized headlines with his research on American eating habits, had many of his papers retracted and resigned from his professorship. Wansink’s fall is not just the tale of a single scientist gone astray. It is, instead, an indictment of an entire type of nutrition science that has led to mistaken dietary advice dispensed to Americans for decades.

…John Ioannidis, a Stanford University professor and evidence-based medicine expert, recently wrote that, given all of the problems with this kind of nutrition research, “Reform has long been due.” The claims of this weak science, when tested properly by rigorous clinical trials, have been shown in two analyses to be correct only 0% to 20% of the time. This means that 80% to100% of the time, they’re wrong.

These kinds of odds may be relatively harmless when it comes to studying our intake and enjoyment of pizza, as Wansink did. Yet for the Dietary Guidelines, much more is at stake.

The guidelines are surprisingly powerful: They drive choices for school lunches, feeding programs for the elderly, hospital food and military rations, as well as influencing the advice dispensed by doctors, nurses, dieticians and nutritionists. If the guidelines are off or downright wrong, the potential impact on our epidemics of obesity, diabetes and neurological diseases is devastating.

Critics have argued that the guidelines, launched in 1980, were based on shaky science before Wansink got involved, but his guidance arguably drove them off the rails…

Defenders of the current guidelines’ argue that the urgency of our obesity and diabetes epidemics virtually demands that we march forward with recommendations based even on imperfect data. Yet mistakes of the past, such as the now-jettisoned caps on dietary cholesterol and total fat, show the real harm of rushing to create policy based on weak science. Most people still don’t even know about these reversals in our dietary guidelines — that the weight of evidence has now shifted to sugars and refined carbohydrates as the more likely dietary culprits. However, un-learning diet rules once they have been learned proves to be extremely difficult. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Teenage Dolphins Get High on Puffer Fish Toxin – In 2014, BBC aired a two-part documentary that featured intimate and close-up footage of dolphins using remote-controlled cameras disguised as sea creatures like turtles and fish. In one of the scenes, a group of adolescent dolphins captures a puffer fish and passes the ball-shaped little guy around. But as narrator David Tennant explains, what the dolphins really appear to be after is the toxin released by the puffer.

When attacked, puffer fish release a neurotoxin. In high doses, it can kill, but in small doses, it has a narcotic effect. It seems to be affecting the dolphins. They appear totally blissed out by the whole experience. And remarkably, all take turns in passing the puffer around.

Puff, puff, pass. Puff, puff, pass. Look at these blissed-out young’uns! Read More > at Kottke

A jury’s $250 million punishment in Monsanto Roundup case might get overturned – Two months after jurors awarded a dying cancer patient $289 million, the judge is taking issue with that amount — and might overrule a huge chunk of it.

Former school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson won the landmark case against Monsanto, claiming the company’s popular weedkiller Roundup caused his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Johnson is the first of more than 4,000 cancer patients to take Monsanto to trial.

The big questions at stake were whether Roundup can cause cancer and, if so, whether Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the product’s cancer risk.

The jury sided with Johnson on both and awarded him $250 million in punitive damages (to punish Monsanto) and about $39 million in compensatory damages (for Johnson’s lost income, pain and suffering).

But on Wednesday, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Bolanos made a tentative ruling that could nix that $250 million punitive award and prompt a new trial.

She said the plaintiff “presented no clear and convincing evidence of malice or oppression to support an award of punitive damages.”

Bayer, the company that recently acquired Monsanto, said it was pleased with the judge’s tentative ruling. Bayer issued a statement saying hundreds of studies indicate glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, doesn’t cause cancer.

“The jury’s verdict was wholly at odds with over 40 years of real-world use, an extensive body of scientific data and analysis, including in-depth reviews by regulatory authorities in the U.S. and EU, and approvals in 160 countries, which support the conclusion that glyphosate-based herbicides are safe when used as directed and that glyphosate is not carcinogenic,” Bayer said. Read More > at WTVR

U.S. forecaster sees 70-75 percent chance of El Niño during winter – There is a 70-75 percent chance of the El Niño weather pattern emerging during the northern hemisphere winter this year, a U.S. government weather forecaster said on Thursday.

“The official forecast favors the formation of a weak El Niño,” the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center (CPC) said in a monthly forecast.

Last month, the weather forecaster pegged the chances of the El Niño emerging at 50-55 percent during the fall and 65-70 percent during winter 2018-19. Read More > at Reuters

Parts of San Francisco Have Become “An Open-Air Narcotics Market” and the Results Are Disastrous – San Francisco police say it has become nearly impossible to get a drug conviction in many parts of the city, turning communities like the Tenderloin into a drug free-for-all where users and dealers from other parts of the state flock to take advantage.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently scoped out some of the anarchic scenes in parts of the Bay City:

Police say drug dealers from the East Bay ride BART into San Francisco every day to prey on the addicts slumped on our sidewalks, and yet the city that claims to so desperately want to help those addicts often looks the other way.

You can walk through the Tenderloin, Civic Center, South of Market and the Mission and easily spot men handing over little plastic baggies with drugs in exchange for cash like it’s no big thing. In broad daylight. In front of pedestrians. Even in front of police.

An officer the publication spoke with called much of the city “an open-air narcotics market.”

It doesn’t take a sociologist to draw conclusions here. San Francisco’s drug problem has contributed to one of the worst homelessness crises in the nation.

Newly-elected San Francisco Mayor London Breed has vowed to root out homelessness in her city. But experts say it will require a cold, hard look at addiction and policing, not just housing.

In the midst of all this, U.S. News and World Report says Breed is considering a safe drug injection site in San Francisco despite a veto by Gov. Jerry Brown last weekend. You can read more about that here. Read More > at California City News

Ranking the States by Fiscal Condition – For the fifth and final year, we rank states according to their financial condition. On the basis of FY 2016 financial reports of the 50 states, this study ranks the states’ fiscal solvency using 13 indicators that assess the extent to which the states can meet their obligations. State finances are analyzed according to five dimensions of solvency: cash, budget, long-run, service-level, and trust fund solvency. These five dimensions are combined to produce an overall ranking of state fiscal solvency. Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Florida, and Oklahoma rank as the top five most fiscally solvent states. Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois rank as the bottom five states. This ranking highlights the relative performance of the states in one year, but understanding financial health requires looking at the underlying objective performance of each state over time. We complement this year’s ranking with a 10-year trend analysis of the states’ financial performance. We find that although, on average, state budgets have not fallen to the lows they reached during the recession, they also have not quite improved to prerecession levels. There has been a slight decline in average state operating ratios since FY 2014, but most states are still able to match revenues with expenses. Long-term liabilities have, on average, increased over time. Long-term liabilities increased the most significantly in FY 2015, largely as a result of new Government Accounting Standards Board rules that require states to report unfunded pension obligations on their balance sheets. Unfunded pension liabilities remain an ongoing problem for the states, and their magnitude is only more transparently revealed by these reporting changes. Pairing these findings with what we have learned from the past four editions of this study, we conclude with recommendations for future research that emphasize pairing quantitative and qualitative data in context to analyze state financial condition. Read More > from the MERCATUS RESEARCH

Facebook, are you kidding? – Facebook is making a video camera. The company wants you to take it home, gaze into its single roving-yet-unblinking eye and speak private thoughts to your loved ones into its many-eared panel.

The thing is called Portal and it wants to live on your kitchen counter or in your living room or wherever else you’d like friends and family to remotely hang out with you. Portal adjusts to keep its subject in frame as they move around to enable casual at-home video chat. The device minimizes background noise to boost voice clarity. These tricks are neat but not revelatory.

Sounds useful, though. Everyone you know is on Facebook. Or they were anyway… things are a bit different now.

As many users are looking for ways to compartmentalize or scale back their reliance on Facebook, the company has invited itself into the home. Portal is voice activated, listening for a cue-phrase (in this case “Hey Portal) and leverages Amazon’s Alexa voice commands, as well…

…Reminder: Facebook’s entire raison d’être is to extract personal data from its users. For intimate products — video chat, messaging, kitchen-friendly panopticons — it’s best to rely on companies with a business model that is not diametrically opposed to user privacy. Facebook isn’t the only one of those companies (um, hey Google) but Facebook’s products aren’t singular enough to be worth fooling yourself into a surfeit of trust. Read More > at TechCrunch

Battle erupts over how consumers pick electricity providers like PG&E – How people pick electricity providers — and whether consumers will be forced to pay an unfair share of the costs for a new era of choice in power companies — is at the heart of a key state panel’s decision that’s due as soon as this week.

The state Public Utilities Commission is wrestling with creating a fair marketplace for people who choose to leave utility behemoths such as PG&E to obtain power from alternative electricity providers, as well as for those customers who decide, or are forced to, remain with the legacy power companies.

The decision before the board Thursday will shape the monthly bill costs for customers who switch to new power providers, also known as community choice aggregators, as well as for those who remain with a major utility such as PG&E. PG&E has been pressing for solutions that some skeptics believe will impose too great a financial fee on those who leave the legacy power monopolies.

…In 2018, about 39 percent of PG&E customers are expected to leave the company and during 2019, the total departures are expected to amount to 54 percent of PG&E’s customer base, according to estimates provided Wednesday by the PUC.

“PG&E actually filed a rate reduction for its customers in June, but is now suggesting at the same time that the millions of customers that will be served by community choice energy programs should pay for PG&E’s allegedly higher costs,” Mayor Liccardo said Wednesday in an interview. “Both of these can’t be true. PG&E needs to pick which truth it’s going to tell us.”

PG&E bills have rocketed 20 percent higher in recent years. At the end of 2015, average monthly residential bills for PG&E’s gas and electric service combined were $137.66, but by the end of 2017 they had zoomed to $165.10 a month. Read More > in The Mercury News

‘That was a quick flight’: How astronauts kept ice cool as their rocket malfunctioned at 4,970mph on the edge of space and plummeted back to Earth in harrowing 7G ‘ballistic re-entry’ – Two astronauts kept ice cool as their rocket, travelling at thousands of miles an hour, malfunctioned on the edge of space while carrying them to the International Space Station – cockpit audio reveals.

Russian Aleksey Ovchinin and American Nick Hague made it back to Earth alive this morning after the booster on their Soyuz rocket malfunctioned at 164,000 feet and the rocket automatically turned back during a dramatic 7G ‘ballistic re-entry’.

Ovchinin retained an enviable sang-froid as he realised what was happening after they were rocked violently around in their seats by the force of the booster malfunction.

‘An accident with the booster, 2 minutes, 45 seconds. That was a quick flight,’ he said in a calm voice in a streamed video of the incident.

‘We’re tightening our seatbelts,’ Ovchinin said on the video.

At that moment the two astronauts were experiencing weightlessness, when in an ordinary launch they should still have been pinned to the back of their seats by the force of the rocket surging upwards at 4,970mph.

Russia says it has opened a criminal investigation and grounded all Soyuz flights. The accident comes weeks after a hole was discovered in the International Space Station amid talk from the Russian space authorities of deliberate sabotage. Read More > in the Daily Mail

Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Take a Sleeping Pill Every Night – Tens of millions of Americans struggle to sleep at night, and many of them turn to sleeping pills for relief. Prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids are especially popular among older adults. A recent study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that roughly one in three adults ages 65 to 80 use these drugs at least occasionally to fall asleep, and OTC meds like Benadryl and Tylenol PM are the pills of choice for sleepless seniors.

Experts say this is concerning for a number of reasons. Studies have linked the regular, long-term use of OTC sleep medicines to some potentially serious side effects.

“Many OTC sleep aids—such as Benadryl and Tylenol PM—contain diphenhydramine,” says Dr. Donovan Maust, co-author of the recent study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine. Diphenhydramine is an anticholinergic drug, which means it blocks activity of a brain chemical called acetylcholine, which plays a role in muscle activation and also in brain functions like alertness, learning and memory, Maust says.

As a result of this blocking effect, these OTC drugs can cause constipation, confusion and other side effects, which Maust says may be more likely to affect older adults. For these reasons, the American Geriatric Society has deemed these drugs “generally inappropriate” for seniors. Read More > at Time

Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture – …According to the report, 25 percent of Americans are traditional or devoted conservatives, and their views are far outside the American mainstream. Some 8 percent of Americans are progressive activists, and their views are even less typical. By contrast, the two-thirds of Americans who don’t belong to either extreme constitute an “exhausted majority.” Their members “share a sense of fatigue with our polarized national conversation, a willingness to be flexible in their political viewpoints, and a lack of voice in the national conversation.”

Most members of the “exhausted majority,” and then some, dislike political correctness. Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” Even young people are uncomfortable with it, including 74 percent ages 24 to 29, and 79 percent under age 24. On this particular issue, the woke are in a clear minority across all ages.

Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness—and it turns out race isn’t, either.
Whites are ever so slightly less likely than average to believe that political correctness is a problem in the country: 79 percent of them share this sentiment. Instead, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness. As one 40-year-old American Indian in Oklahoma said in his focus group, according to the report:

It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.

The one part of the standard narrative that the data partially affirm is that African Americans are most likely to support political correctness. But the difference between them and other groups is much smaller than generally supposed: Three quarters of African Americans oppose political correctness. This means that they are only four percentage points less likely than whites, and only five percentage points less likely than the average, to believe that political correctness is a problem. Read More > in The Atlantic

Chick-fil-A Testing New Restaurant Model With Delivery-Focused Locations – Atlanta-based chicken sandwich purveyor Chick-fil-A, which has been expanding nationally at a rapid pace in recent years, is testing a new approach: locations without dining rooms that are focused on catering and delivery.

Delivery in the retail sector is becoming increasingly important as not only restaurants but also grocers and other segments in the sector explore delivery models to compete with online retailers, including such offerings as delivered beer.

Chick-fil-A is on the verge of opening two prototype stores, one each in Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, that will not feature places to eat. Read More > at Bisnow

As Retailers Go Dark, Mall Vacancies Reach Highest Level In 7 Years – In previous real estate cycles, all of the ingredients would have been in place to foster healthy retail absorption and lower vacancies. Not this time around.

Despite the nation’s strong economy, low unemployment levels and high consumer spending and confidence, U.S. retail vacancies have reached a seven-year high.

Nationwide, mall vacancy rates rose to 9.1% in the third quarter, their highest level in seven years, according to Reis data, up from 8.6% in Q2 2018 and 8.3% in Q2 2017. Rents are down as well by 0.3% during the third quarter to $43.25/SF.

Reis defines malls as larger retail properties, not community or strip centers. Vacancies are up for those kinds of properties. Much of the upward pressure on mall vacancies has come recently from the shuttering of large department stores and anchors like Sears and Bon-Ton.

Increasing vacancies are also a function of the bifurcation of retail into winners and losers, with malls in some parts of the country on the short end of the stick when it comes to attracting customers. Read More > at Bisnow

Google is shutting down Google+ following massive data exposure – Following a massive data breach first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, Google announced today that it is shutting down its social network Google+ for consumers. The company finally admitted that Google+ never received the broad adoption or engagement with users that it had hoped for — according to a blog post, 90 percent of Google+ user sessions last for less than five seconds. In light of these newly revealed security concerns with Google+’s API, the company has opted to put it out of its misery rather than try and make the social network more secure.

The company discovered a bug in one of Google+’s People APIs that allowed apps access to data from Google+ profiles that weren’t marked as public. It included static data fields such as name, email, occupation, gender and age. It did not include information from Google+ posts. The bug was patched in March 2018, but Google didn’t inform users at that point. “We made Google+ with privacy in mind and therefore keep this API’s log data for only two weeks,” the company said in a blog post. “That means we cannot confirm which users were impacted by this bug.” Read More > at Engadget

The Lie Generator: Inside the Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings – Christopher Talbot thought he would make a great police officer. He was 29 years old, fit, and had a clean background record. Talbot had military experience, including a tour of Iraq as a US Marine, and his commanding officer had written him a glowing recommendation. In 2014, armed with an associate degree in criminal justice, he felt ready to apply to become an officer with the New Haven Police Department, in his home state of Connecticut.

Talbot sailed through the department’s rigorous physical and mental tests, passing speed and agility trials and a written examination—but there was one final test. Like thousands of other law enforcement, fire, paramedic, and federal agencies across the country, the New Haven Police Department insists that each applicant take an assessment that has been rejected by almost every scientific authority: the polygraph test.

Commonly known as lie detectors, polygraphs are virtually unused in civilian life. They’re largely inadmissible in court and it’s illegal for most private companies to consult them. Over the past century, scientists have debunked the polygraph, proving again and again that the test can’t reliably distinguish truth from falsehood. At best, it is a roll of the dice; at worst, it’s a vessel for test administrators to project their own beliefs.

…Electronic lie detection is a peculiarly American obsession. No other country carries out anywhere near the estimated 2.5 million polygraph tests conducted in the US every year, a system that fuels a thriving $2 billion industry. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2007 found that around three-quarters of urban sheriff and police departments use polygraphs when hiring. Each test can cost $700 or more. Apply to become a police officer, trooper, firefighter, or paramedic today, and there is a good chance you will find yourself connected to a machine little changed since the 1950s, subject to the judgment of an examiner with just a few weeks’ pseudoscientific training.

…Mainstream psychologists were concerned that the physiological responses the polygraph recorded could be caused by a host of things other than deception; the device might capture unrelated emotions, such as nervousness, arousal, anxiety, or fear. And once you have results, their meaning is open to interpretation. A polygraph only records raw data; it is up to an examiner to interpret the data and draw a conclusion about the subject’s honesty. One examiner might see a blood pressure peak as a sign of deception, another might dismiss it—and it is in those individual judgments that bias can sneak in.

…Data obtained by WIRED showed vast differences in the outcomes of polygraph tests depending on the examiner each candidate faced. Consider another law enforcement agency that uses polygraphs in its employment process: the Washington State Patrol (WSP). Between late October 2011 and the end of April 2017, the WSP conducted 5,746 polygraph tests on potential recruits. This was the largest data set WIRED received, including copious data on both applicants and examiners. While one examiner failed less than 20 percent of candidates, others failed more than half the applicants they screened. And while two examiners disqualified just four people in more than 1,000 applicants for supposedly having sex with animals, one of their colleagues failed more than 10 times as many for bestiality—around one in 20 of all job seekers. The same examiner was also twice as likely as the rest of his peers to fail applicants on the grounds of child pornography. Read More > at Wired

Diversify the Boardroom, Just Not Like California – For years, this column has highlighted the dearth of women on corporate boards and in executive positions. It has suggested all sorts of ways for investors and others to encourage — even force — more diversity on boards, and raised pointed questions about why there are so few women in those roles.

And so the news on Sunday that California passed a law mandating that every publicly traded company based in the state will need at least one woman on the board by the end of 2019 — and as many as three by 2021 — would seem like a welcome development.

While California’s impulse is clearly on the right side of history, the way the rule was enacted is so misguided that it might do more harm than good.

Worst of all, an onslaught of lawsuits challenging the rule could set back the meaningful progress that has been made — and hopefully will be made — in bringing more diversity to boardrooms.

The most serious issue is that California’s law could turn out to be unconstitutional. The State Legislature’s own analysis warned that it “would likely be challenged on equal protection grounds, and the means that the bill uses, which is essentially a quota, could be difficult to defend.”

…“It would, at most, increase the number of women directors at the Fortune 500 by a grand total of one,” Professor Grundfest said, reiterating a point he made in a paper he wrote assessing its impact. He said the only major company affected would be Apple, which has two women on its eight-member board and would be required to add another by the end of 2021. Read More > in The New York Times

Marijuana caused more damage to teens’ brains than alcohol, study finds – Marijuana use may pose a greater risk to the developing brains of teenagers than alcohol consumption, according to a new study this week.

The analysis, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that cannabis had greater short and long-term consequences than alcohol on four key components of teens’ memory. The finding greatly surprised researchers.

“We initially suspected alcohol would have a bigger effect,” Patricia Conrod, lead author and professor of psychiatry at the University of Montreal told USA TODAY.

Researchers looked at four cognitive functions: Problem solving, long-term memory, short-term memory manipulation and the ability to stop a habitual behavior when needed. Marijuana had “significant” negative effects on all four, while the study could not tie alcohol to negative effects, Conrod said.

However, alcohol’s effects may be greater as teens drink more later in life, Conrod said. Read More > at USA Today

FDA approves over-the-counter hearing aid from Bose – The US Food and Drug Administration has, for the first time, approved a hearing aid that can be fit, programmed and controlled by the user instead of a healthcare provider. The device comes from Bose and users can make adjustments to its settings in real time through a mobile app.

“Hearing loss is a significant public health issue, especially as individuals age,” said Malvina Eydelman, director of the Division of Ophthalmic, and Ear, Nose and Throat Devices at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “Today’s marketing authorization provides certain patients with access to a new hearing aid that provides them with direct control over the fit and functionality of the device. The FDA is committed to ensuring that individuals with hearing loss have options for taking an active role in their health care.”

This new user-controlled hearing aid was made possible through a law passed last year that approved over-the-counter hearing aids. It aims to provide adults with mild to moderate hearing loss access to hearing aids without them having to go through a physician first. The FDA says around 37.5 million adults report hearing loss ranging from “a little trouble” to “deaf.” Read More > at Engadget

Did Rite Aid Stock Just Hit Rock Bottom? – Another week, another five-year low for Rite Aid (NYSE: RAD) investors. Shares of the meandering drugstore operator plummeted another 10% last week, but the entire hit came during first two trading days of last week. Rite Aid has closed at exactly $1.15 for four consecutive trading days. It’s a coincidence, sure, but also a sign of potential stability.

The slide at Rite Aid came to at least a temporary pause early last week after the chain announced the ratification of a three-year deal with the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The pact covers 5,900 associates across 357 stores in Southern California. The new contract keeps the union workers’ healthcare plan in place, a major pressure point in the negotiations. The union is also conceding workplace efficiency measures that will help Rite Aid deliver the agreement’s wage increases. The resolution is a pretty big deal. The union had called for a boycott on Rite Aid early last month.

The rough week didn’t wrap up harmoniously on all union fronts. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters were calling for Rite Aid shareholders to take a stand on upcoming “Say on Pay” proposals late last week, rejecting executive payouts resulting from the two failed buyout attempts. The Teamsters union has a large stake in Rite Aid through its member pension and benefit funds, giving it a vocal platform to voice its displeasure in the drugstore operator’s CEO grabbing a $3 million bonus when the Albertsons deal fell apart this summer. Read More > at Fox Business News

The Dodgers Might Be in Actual Legal Trouble – Last week, we talked about a federal grand jury probe currently investigating Major League Baseball’s activity in Latin America. At the time, it appeared that the signing of Hector Olivera seemed to be a significant part of that investigation. Thanks to Carl Prine and Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, we now have a much better idea of the matters at which that grand jury is looking.

Collectively, the documents [provided to the Grand Jury] offer a vivid window into both this netherworld and the thermodynamics of the operation: How Caribbean smugglers traffic Cuban nationals to American soil, using third-country way stations. How the underground pipeline ferries Cuban players to stash houses in countries like Haiti and Mexico before they can seek lucrative contracts with MLB clubs. How teams interact with buscones, the unregulated street-level agents who often take a financial stake in Latin American players.

The dossier given to the FBI suggests the extent to which some MLB personnel are aware of—and brazenly discuss—this unscrupulous culture and the potential for corruption. While both the league office and other teams are mentioned in the files obtained by SI, the Los Angeles Dodgers, a franchise with extensive scouting and development operations in the Caribbean, figure most prominently in the dossier[.]

Prine and Wertheim provide a detailed piece that’s is worth your time. Whitney McIntosh also published a helpful summary of their work for SBNation. A couple of interesting points jump out of their reporting, however. First, the Grand Jury and FBI are already evidently receiving at least some cooperation from important witnesses. Read More > at FanGraphs Baseball

Life on the Dirtiest Block in San Francisco – The heroin needles, the pile of excrement between parked cars, the yellow soup oozing out of a large plastic bag by the curb and the stained, faux Persian carpet dumped on the corner.

It is a scene of detritus that might bring to mind any variety of developing-world squalor. But this is San Francisco, the capital of the nation’s technology industry, where a single span of Hyde Street hosts an open-air narcotics market by day and at night is occupied by the unsheltered and drug-addled slumped on the sidewalk.

There are many other streets like it, but by one measure it is the dirtiest block in the city.

Just a 15-minute walk away are the offices of Twitter and Uber, two companies that along with other nameplate technology giants have helped push the median price of a home in San Francisco well beyond a million dollars.

…Over the past five years the number of homeless people in San Francisco has remained relatively steady — around 4,400 — and the sidewalks of the Tenderloin have come to resemble a refugee camp.

The city has replaced more than 300 lampposts corroded by dog and human urine over the past three years, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Replacing the poles became more urgent after a lamppost collapsed in 2015, crushing a car.

A more common danger are the thousands of heroin needles discarded by users. Read More > at WRAL

Typhus reaches ‘epidemic levels’ in parts of Los Angeles area – Health officials on Friday reported a typhus outbreak in Los Angeles County and say it has reached “epidemic levels” in the city of Pasadena.

Twenty cases have been reported in Pasadena, mostly in the last two months, health officials told NBC News, noting that a normal year would typically only see five infections. The city of Long Beach, California, has 12 cases so far in 2018 — double the normal annual number, said Emily Holman, the city’s infectious disease response coordinator.

…The official source of the outbreak is said to be fleas from domestic and wild animals.

“Infection happens when the feces from infected fleas are rubbed into cuts or scrapes in the skin or rubbed into the eyes,” the county health department states on its website.

Some experts, however, say the true culprit is the inhumane conditions the county’s expanding homeless population lives in. Read More > from NBC News

Turn schools into teacher housing? Unique idea sparks backlash in Bay Area community – A local school district’s unique idea to turn schools into teacher housing — an attempt to tackle the region’s dire housing shortage and retain fleeing instructors — is colliding with a massive backlash from neighborhood residents.

The San Jose Unified School District has identified nine district-owned properties where it is considering building several hundred new units of affordable housing for teachers and other school employees.

The district’s proposal calls for schools — including beloved Leland High School and Bret Harte Middle School in wealthy Almaden Valley — to be uprooted and relocated to make way for housing, a prospect that has some community members up in arms.

…In San Jose, Leland High and Bret Harte Middle, built in the 1970s, made the school district’s list of potential housing sites because they are due for major upgrades, McMahon said. If chosen after a district analysis — which may take the better part of a year — the two schools could be relocated two miles away to the corner of Harry and McKean roads, next door to Challenger School — Almaden. Read More > in The Mercury News

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Two arcane ballot measures show need for reform

By | Oct. 11, 2018 | ,

There’s a symbiotic relationship between two of the 11 statewide ballot measures facing voters next month, Propositions 8 and 11.

Both would have voters decide very narrow union-management conflicts in two relatively small medical service sectors – with sponsors of both claiming that passage would reduce health care costs. And both set a very dangerous precedent.

Proposition 8, sponsored by unions, purports to limit profits in clinics that provide dialysis treatments to sufferers of kidney failure. The providers, of course, oppose the measure.
Proposition 11, sponsored by ambulance companies, would allow them to require ambulance crews to remain on call during meal and rest breaks. It draws opposition, not surprisingly, from unions.

Both are obviously important to the interests that support and oppose them. However, it’s foolish to expect November’s nine-plus million voters to make even semi-informed decisions about their provisions, much less understand how dialysis clinics and ambulance services operate, or should operate.

The initiative process should be confined to matters of more widespread and fundamental importance to the welfare of 40 million people. We’ve had relatively petty conflicts in ballot measures before, but these two take it to another level.

They are there because any interest group with a few million bucks and an axe to grind can qualify a ballot measure, regardless of their merits. Placing measures on the 2018 ballot was especially easy because a record low voter turnout at the last gubernatorial election in 2014 lowered the threshold of required signatures on initiative petitions for this year’s election.

Turnout will be somewhat higher this year for a variety of reasons, so qualifying measures in the future will be a bit more difficult, or expensive. Nevertheless, Propositions 8 and 11 have now shown the way and voters can expect to see more similarly arcane proposals in years to come.

Gov. Jerry Brown rightfully vetoed a bill to ban initiative promoters from paying for signature-gathering by each name they collect. That’s not to say, however, that the initiative process couldn’t benefit from some judicious changes, such as raising the signature threshold.

Currently, a statutory initiative must obtain signatures of registered voters equal to 5 percent of the total vote for governor in the previous election, or 8 percent if it’s a constitutional amendment.

For this year, that meant 365,880 valid names for a statutory initiative and 585,407 for a constitutional amendment. Those are pretty small numbers, given the state’s more than 19 million registered voters.

Raising the required percentages by half – perhaps 8 percent for statutes and 12 percent for constitutional amendments – might discourage the misuse of the system for issues that cannot be fairly and rationally decided by voters.

Toughening the signature requirements also is important because the Legislature – perhaps to its regret – recently decreed that sponsors of initiatives can pull them off the ballot even after they’ve qualified, giving them leverage to demand legislative “solutions” to their issues.

The genteel form of extortion allowed by the new rules happened for the first time this year and we’ll see more of it in the future. But if initiative sponsors want to game the newly revised system, they should face higher entry fees by being compelled to collect more signatures.

Perhaps we should have a two-tiered signature threshold, providing access to legislative leverage only to those who collect a much-higher number of signatures – pay to play, as it were.

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