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.
US cold snap was a freak of nature, quick analysis finds – Consider this cold comfort: A quick study of the brutal American cold snap found that the Arctic blast really wasn’t global warming but a freak of nature.
Frigid weather like the two-week cold spell that began around Christmas is 15 times rarer than it was a century ago, according to a team of international scientists who does real-time analyses to see if extreme weather events are natural or more likely to happen because of climate change.
The cold snap that gripped the East Coast and Midwest region was a rarity that bucks the warming trend, said researcher Claudia Tebaldi of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the private organization Climate Central.
…The study by the World Weather Attribution analyzed weather records dating back to 1880 and found the cold weather that hit a swath of the U.S. from Maine to Minnesota tends to happen once every 250 years. In the early 1900s, it happened about once every 17 years. Climate change has made such cold spells less common and less intense, the group said. Read More > from the Associated Press
Strongest holiday sales since Great Recession, up 5.5%, topping industry’s forecast – Holiday sales jumped 5.5 percent compared with last year, marking the largest jump seen since the end of the Great Recession, the National Retail Federation said Friday.
Total sales for November and December were $691.9 billion, exceeding the industry trade group’s forecast of between $678.75 billion and $682 billion, which would have been an increase of between 3.6 and 4 percent.
“We knew going in that retailers were going to have a good holiday season but the results are even better than anything we could have hoped for,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said.
Economists and advisors had expected robust spending across the board due to strong employment and consumer confidence. However, many questioned exactly where that increased spending would go.
Over the holidays, the strongest performers were building materials and supply stores (8.1 percent growth ), furniture (7.5 percent growth) and electronics (6.7 percent growth). Clothing/accessories and health/personal care clocked in weaker growth, up 2.7 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively. Read More > at CNBC
California’s timber industry was sacrificed for the spotted owl. Now pot farms pose a new threat – The economy in rural Northern California was crippled in the 1990s when a federal judge shut down logging in old growth forests to protect the northern spotted owl.
Now, researchers worry that the underground marijuana industry that sprang up in timber country after the collapse is contributing to the owl’s ongoing demise.
A study released Thursday by UC Davis with the California Academy of Sciences says an alarming number of spotted owls are being found dead with illegal rodent poison in their systems – poison that researchers say is being set out by clandestine marijuana growers protecting their lucrative crop from rats and other pests. The owls eat the rodents poisoned by the powerful toxin that causes massive internal bleeding.
The problem, according to the researchers, is that most of the grow sites are operating without a permit on private timber lands and have little oversight from state and federal regulators. In Humboldt County alone, the researchers estimate there are between 4,500 and 15,000 private cultivation sites, almost all of which are operating without any rules. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee
Why dolphins are deep thinkers – …All the dolphins at the institute are trained to hold onto any litter that falls into their pools until they see a trainer, when they can trade the litter for fish. In this way, the dolphins help to keep their pools clean.
Kelly has taken this task one step further. When people drop paper into the water she hides it under a rock at the bottom of the pool. The next time a trainer passes, she goes down to the rock and tears off a piece of paper to give to the trainer. After a fish reward, she goes back down, tears off another piece of paper, gets another fish, and so on. This behaviour is interesting because it shows that Kelly has a sense of the future and delays gratification. She has realised that a big piece of paper gets the same reward as a small piece and so delivers only small pieces to keep the extra food coming. She has, in effect, trained the humans.
Her cunning has not stopped there. One day, when a gull flew into her pool, she grabbed it, waited for the trainers and then gave it to them. It was a large bird and so the trainers gave her lots of fish. This seemed to give Kelly a new idea. The next time she was fed, instead of eating the last fish, she took it to the bottom of the pool and hid it under the rock where she had been hiding the paper. When no trainers were present, she brought the fish to the surface and used it to lure the gulls, which she would catch to get even more fish. After mastering this lucrative strategy, she taught her calf, who taught other calves, and so gull-baiting has become a hot game among the dolphins. Read More > in The Guardian
Banks criticised for funding coal deals despite Paris agreement – Environmental campaign groups have accused many of the world’s largest banks of actively undermining the Paris agreement on climate change by pouring billions of dollars into coal plant developers.
Between January 2014 and September 2017 international banks channelled $630bn to the top 120 companies planning to build new coal plants around the world, according to research by campaign groups including the Rainforest Action Network, BankTrack and Friends of the Earth.
The researchers highlighted Beijing-based Industrial and Commercial Bank of China as the biggest underwriter for bond and share issues of coal plant developers, providing more than $33bn over that period.
The campaign groups said the figures were startling against the backdrop of the two-year anniversary of the Paris accord, where 195 countries agreed to fight global warming.
Jason Disterhoft, senior campaigner at Rainforest Action Network, a Californian environmental organisation, said: “With the Paris agreement now in its second year, there is no excuse for banks and investors to support companies that are planning to build new coal-fired power plants, which fly in the face of the international commitments to limit global warming. Read More > in the Financial Times
Judge Orders Return of Oregon Boys Taken Because State Deemed Parents Not Smart Enough – An Oregon judge has ruled that the state cannot take away a couple’s young children and put them into foster homes merely because the parents have low I.Q.s.
Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler of Redmond were not accused of neglecting or abusing their two sons, one of whom is nearly a year old and one of whom is 4. But the parents both had I.Q. levels well below average—72 and 66, respectively—and the state removed their kids pretty much because officials were afraid they wouldn’t be raised well.
Right around Christmas, a judge ordered the youngest son returned, determining that the state hadn’t proven that the “parenting deficiencies” the government described rose to the level of neglect or abuse. Officials had dinged the couple for things like not applying enough sunscreen to their children and neglecting to wash their hands thoroughly after using the restroom. Read More > at Reason
Pew: US media bias ranks worst in the world – More than in any other country, Americans on both sides of the political aisle believe the media does a poor job covering political issues fairly, according to a blockbuster new survey of media consumption in 38 nations.
What’s more, the Pew Research Center’s study found that supporters of President Trump believe the media is doing a worse job covering politics than the supporters of any of the other international political leaders in countries surveyed.
“Large gaps in ratings of the media emerge between governing party supporters and non-supporters. On the question of whether their news media cover political issues fairly, for example, partisan differences appear in 20 of the 38 countries surveyed. In five countries, the gap is at least 20 percentage points, with the largest by far in the U.S. at 34 percentage points,” said Pew.
The survey found that just 21 percent of Americans supportive of Trump and Republicans believe the media is fair. But it also found that just 55 percent of those who don’t back Trump also believe the media is not fairly covering politics in the U.S. Read More > in the Washington Examiner
Walmart is abruptly closing 63 Sam’s Club stores and laying off thousands of workers – Walmart is closing 63 Sam’s Club stores across the US, the company told Business Insider on Thursday afternoon, after reports of abrupt store closings began to emerge.
Sam’s Club has not said how many employees are losing their jobs. Each Sam’s Club warehouse employs about 175 people, meaning more than 11,000 people could be impacted.
In some cases, employees were not told their store had closed before showing up to work on Thursday. Those employees learned their store would be closing when they found the store’s doors locked and a notice announcing the closing, Sam’s Club workers told Business Insider. At some stores, employees were turned away by police officers.
…”After a thorough review, it became clear we had built clubs in some locations that impacted other clubs, and where population had not grown as anticipated,” Furner said in the email. “We will be closing some clubs, and we notified them today. We’ll convert some of them into eCommerce fulfillment centers — to better serve the growing number of members shopping with us online and continue scaling the SamsClub.com business.”
Sam’s Club membership fees — which cost $45 annually — will be refunded to customers affected by the closings, a Walmart official said. Read More > at Business Insider
Pink pussyhats: The reason feminists are ditching them – A year ago, they stormed the streets of big cities and small towns to make their views known: Women’s rights are human rights. Many wore on their heads what became the de-facto symbol of feminism in 2017, the pink pussyhat.
The Women’s March is back in 2018 with its Power to the Polls anniversary protests on the weekend of Jan. 20-21. The focus during this Women’s March reboot is to register more women to vote, and to elect women and progressive candidates to public office.
But this time when marchers take to the streets in cities from Lansing to Las Vegas, there could be fewer pink pussyhats in the crowds.
The reason: The sentiment that the pink pussyhat excludes and is offensive to transgender women and gender nonbinary people who don’t have typical female genitalia and to women of color because their genitals are more likely to be brown than pink.
“I personally won’t wear one because if it hurts even a few people’s feelings, then I don’t feel like it’s unifying,” said Phoebe Hopps, founder and president of Women’s March Michigan and organizer of anniversary marches Jan. 21 in Lansing and Marquette. Read More > in the Detroit Free Press
How emoji are born: Questions of characters – We have a smiling pile of poop. What about one that is sad?
There is a loaf of bread and a croissant. But where is the sliced bagel?
How can our emotional vocabulary be complete without a teddy bear, a lobster, a petri dish or a tooth?
These are the kind of questions that trigger heated debates and verbal bomb tossing — or at least memos with bursts of capital letters — among members of the group burdened with deciding which new emoji make it onto our phones and computer screens each year.
And now more people are getting in on the act.
The Unicode Consortium is tasked with setting the global standard for the icons. It is a heady responsibility, and years can pass between inspiration — Hey, why isn’t there a dumpling? — to a new symbol being added to our phones.
These tiny pictographs became a part of our online language with the ascent of cellphones, getting their start in Japan in 1999 — “emoji” combines the Japanese words for “picture” and “letters.” At first, there were just 176: simplistic, highly pixillated icons such as a heart, a soccer ball and a rocking horse. Today there are more than a thousand. Because none are taken away, their number only keeps growing.
Anyone can propose an emoji. But for it to make it to phones and computers, it has to be approved by Unicode. The nonprofit group, mostly made up of people from large tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, translates emoji into one standard, so that a person in France, for example, can send an emoji or a text message to a person in the U.S. and it will look the same, no matter what brand of phone or operating system they use. Read More > at The Japan Times
Governor Unveils Proposed FY 2018–19 Budget – Gov. Jerry Brown held a press conference in the Capitol to unveil his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, which includes $131.7 billion in General Funding spending and — with proposed special fund and bond proceed allocations — totals $190.3 billion.
Despite increased revenue from growing economy and booming stock market, the Governor urged continued prudence and caution, and proposes to put most of the projected $6.1 billion surplus into reserves.
Pointing to charts highlighting California’s past boom-and-bust revenue cycle and the length of the current economic expansion, the Governor reminded reporters of inevitability of a future downturn. Also highlighted were federal policy changes that could cause uncertainties for the state budget, including recent and potential changes affecting health care and tax reform.
The Governor proposes to allocate $5 billion to ensure the state’s Rainy Day Fund is funded to its full constitutional target of 10 percent of the General Fund, at $13.5 billion. In other areas, the budget document summarizes areas of achievement since 2011 when the state faced a $27 billion deficit, to stabilizing state finances and paying down an accumulated “Wall of Debt” from $35 to less $6 billion. Also highlighted is the Administration’s work on corrections policies aimed at reducing the state prison population, addressing transportation and other state infrastructure deficits and climate change. Estimates also are included for allocations of the pending $4 billion park and water bond (June ballot) and $4 billion housing bond (November ballot) should voters approve them.
The proposed budget includes $4.5 billion in new funding for state and local transportation projects from League-supported SB 1 (Beall). In FY 2018–19 cities and counties will receive $2.7 billion total for local streets and roads, with $1.2 billion being generated by SB 1. The first payments FY 2017–18 the new transportation revenues will begin flowing to cities in February. Read More > from the California League of Cities
California Politicians Misunderstand How To Fix Its Housing Problem – Housing is a problem in much of California. Prices are high and rising fast in most areas close to the coast. To find affordable housing, millions of people make long commutes with some people spending three or four hours per day driving to and from work. In many cities, long-time residents complain about gentrification forcing them out of rental apartments, leaving them unable to find new, affordable housing, and changing the character of neighborhoods. Everyone knows a problem exists. Unfortunately, most California politicians and activists are relying on exactly the wrong policies to fix the situation.
The reason coastal California is experiencing a crisis of affordable housing is simple: the supply of new housing has not been sufficient for the increase in employment and population. In the nine-county San Francisco metro, commonly referred to as the Bay Area, there has been a recent uptick in home building that has seen about 20,000 housing units added per year, enough to be considered a building boom by local standards. Yet, from November 2016 to November 2017, employment in the same nine counties rose by about 74,000.
Even if every new household was a two-worker household, the San Francisco metro would still only be adding half the housing it needs to keep up with demand. When demand far exceeds supply, the result of rising prices is inevitable. Yet, Californians continue to pursue policies that have either no effect on supply, or, worse, negative ones.
…Two potentially helpful ideas are percolating around California. One idea is for the state to bribe local governments to approve more housing by rewarding those cities and counties with contributions of state money to their underfunded and very expensive pension systems. While it is depressing that such bribes are needed to convince local governments to allow development, it might be a very effective policy with the main loser being state taxpayers, especially those in the parts of the state that are not short of housing now (translation: the places farther from the coast that are already affordable).
The second idea is a State Senate bill proposing the state force upzoning anywhere in the state within a-half mile of a train station or a-quarter mile of a bus route with busses at least every fifteen minutes. Within these zones, the state would ban local governments from restricting density, height, or just about any other feature of development. This would allow developers to build any project they think has buyers and would greatly increase housing availability exactly in the locations most likely to have the infrastructure in place to handle that new growth. Again, this would likely lead to a large increase in housing supply and thus a fall in prices. It would also greatly slow the gentrification in many neighborhoods because allowing more density means fewer existing buildings need to be redeveloped. The downside is that mass transit availability does not ensure that all infrastructure is in place (roads, water, sewer, schools, etc.) so this upzoning could put significant pressure on local governments to keep up. Of course, the new growth should produce new tax revenue sufficient to cover that cost, especially if the bill includes the ability to charge impact fees for this purpose. Read More > at Forbes
By 2040, Islam could be the second-largest religion in the US – he Muslim population is growing, and in the next two decades Muslims could become the second-largest religious group in the United States, according to a Pew Research study.
However, that’s not the whole story.
The Pew Research Center combined studies they conducted in 2007, 2011 and 2017 with yearly data from the US Census (which does not track religious affiliation) to put together a portrait of the future of Muslims in America.
According to their data, the Muslim population is growing at an accelerated rate, and will more than double from an estimated 3.45 million in 2017 to an estimated 8.1 million in 2050. In the meantime, Muslims are expected to surpass Jews as the second-largest religious group.
Why? One easy answer is immigration — Pew’s research showed a record number of Muslims immigrated to the US in 2016. In fact, according to Pew, three-quarters of Muslims currently in the US are immigrants or children of immigrants.
There is another factor as well. On average, according to Pew, the Muslim population is younger than other religious groups, which means they have a higher fertility rate.
However, even as the Muslim population in America is set to double in the next few decades, they will still account for a tiny fraction of the overall US population, and shifts in other groups will also have a big impact on the country’s makeup.
For instance, in 2020, the projected Christian population will be 252,970,000 — almost 70 times the projected Muslim population. Read More > at CNN
California’s Brown Raises Prospect of Pension Cuts in Downturn – California Governor Jerry Brown said legal rulings may clear the way for making cuts to public pension benefits, which would go against long-standing assumptions and potentially provide financial relief to the state and its local governments.
Brown said he has a “hunch” the courts would “modify” the so-called California rule, which holds that benefits promised to public employees can’t be rolled back. The state’s Supreme Court is set to hear a case in which lower courts ruled that reductions to pensions are permissible if the payments remain “reasonable” for workers.
“There is more flexibility than there is currently assumed by those who discuss the California rule,” Brown said during a briefing on the budget in Sacramento. He said that in the next recession, the governor “will have the option of considering pension cutbacks for the first time.”
That would be a major shift in California, where municipal officials have long believed they couldn’t adjust the benefits even as they struggle to cover the cost. They have raised taxes and dipped into reserves to meet rising contributions. The California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the nation’s largest public pension, has about 68 percent of assets needed to cover its liabilities. For the fiscal year beginning in July, the state’s contribution to Calpers is double what it was in fiscal 2009.
Across the country, states and local governments have about $1.7 trillion less than what they need to cover retirement benefits — the result of investment losses, the failure by governments to make adequate contributions and perks granted in boom times. Read More > at Bloomberg
Some PG&E customers will soon begin paying different rates based on the time of day they use energy – Beginning in April, some Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers will begin paying variable rates based on what time of day they are using energy, the energy giant said this week.
Called “variable rates,” the new sliding scale will apply at first to about 150,000 customers and will be calculated based on when they use their electricity. PG&E said it will begin charging more for electricity used during 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., with an aim to roll out the plan to almost all of its 5.4 million electricity customers by 2020.
Utilities that use these types of tiered rates are usually trying to encourage customers to think more about their energy usage, by charging more during peak hours, like late afternoons on a hot day, for example, or during evenings if that’s when people are most likely to be home running appliances. That reduces stress on the power grid, proponents say, and gives solar power a boost. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times
This Could Be the Best News Sears Holdings Has Heard in a While – Sears Holdings can’t be displeased at the struggles facing Mattress Firm, the bedding subsidiary of financially troubled Steinhoff that recently announced it was closing 200 stores.
Because Sears is trying to engineer its own turnaround by opening small-format stores dedicated solely to appliances and mattresses, news that a rival is shutting down potentially competitive outlets has to be seen as good news.
Sears needs something to help its investors get a good night’s rest, because its slide into oblivion is quickly gathering steam. And if it turns out the holiday season was really bad at Sears and Kmart stores, that could hasten the exit of suppliers who are already antsy they won’t be paid for merchandise they ship.
Sears Holdings also just announced it was closing another 100 stores of its own, which probably won’t be the last time we hear the retailer say it’s doing so. What makes it worse, the company’s plan to open up these dedicated small-format stores is dicey at best.
Even before Steinhoff acquired Mattress Firm in 2016, the bedding market was not doing well. Mattress Firm had tried to achieve economies of scale by rolling the industry up under its big blanket by acquiring the likes of Mattress Giant, Mattress Train, Sleep Experts, Mattress Liquidators, Bed Mart, Back to Bed, and Sleepy’s, but it struggled to incorporate them seamlessly into its operations.
Steinhoff, which has been referred to as the “Ikea of Africa,” then made a play for Mattress Firm, acquiring it in a $3.8 billion deal. It didn’t take long before the wheels came off, and Steinhoff was plunged into crisis. Read More > at Yahoo! Finance
100 Days: Energy Lifts Consumers, Economy – You don’t have to look very far at all to see the American energy renaissance at work for U.S. consumers. Start with U.S. retail gasoline prices since 2009.
Falling prices at the pump reflect reduced crude oil prices worldwide – in good measure, because of rising U.S. crude output over the same period.
Increased global supply puts downward pressure on crude prices. The result for consumers is significant savings when they fill up. AAA estimates Americans saved, on average, more than $550 per licensed driver in 2015. That’s more than $115 billion compared to the previous year, which translates into increased disposable household income for individuals and families, as well as cost savings to manufacturers and other businesses for transportation of raw materials and finished goods. Consumers ultimately benefit from those savings, too.
For this we can all thank the U.S. energy renaissance – increased domestic oil and natural gas production, most of it safely developed with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. That output has made the United States the world’s leading oil and gas producer.
Yet, the benefits of abundant American energy extend beyond our fuel tanks. According to one study, plentiful natural gas from shale put an extra $1,337 back in the pocket of the average U.S. family through lower home energy costs and lower costs of goods and services. Here’s another data point: Since 2008, roughly the start of the America’s production surge, average annual energy costs per U.S. household have dropped 14 percent, lowering Americans’ overall cost of living. Read More > at Energy Tomorrow
Move Over Ambulances, Uber’s Coming – As a mode of transportation to a hospital when a patients’ illness, injury or affliction precludes them from driving, ambulances are a blunt method that is far from perfect. Patients sometimes find themselves hit with substantial bills or end up at out-of-network hospitals that raise the price of care. Recent policy changes may also be exacerbating the situation, as one study found that the Affordable Care Act slowed ambulance response times by almost 20 percent.
According to a new working paper by David J. G. Slusky of the University of Kansas and Leon S. Moskatel of Scripps Mercy Hospital, some people are foregoing ambulances and opting for ride-hailing services instead.
A person suffering from a heart attack could certainly require an ambulance complete with paramedics and their tools to give some medical care en route to the hospital. The minutes the ambulance could shave off transport times because it does not have to follow traditional traffic rules could prove important. But a recent Washington Post article cited one patient who was charged $3,660 for a four-mile ride in an ambulance.
While a traditional ambulance often makes sense, a person might need quick transportation to get medical attention in a range of less urgent situations. In some circumstances, these alternatives can offer a less expensive option, and also allow the patients to choose their hospitals.
Previous research had found that some degree of unnecessary ambulance use in the past was due to a lack of feasible alternatives. Read More > at Economics 21
Losing Faith in the State, Some Mexican Towns Quietly Break Away – …Local orchard owners, who export over $1 million in avocados per day, mostly to the United States, underwrite what has effectively become an independent city-state. Self-policing and self-governing, it is a sanctuary from drug cartels as well as from the Mexican state.
But beneath the calm is a town under tightfisted control, enforced by militias accountable only to their paymasters. Drug addiction and suicide are soaring, locals say, as the social contract strains.
Tancítaro represents a quiet but telling trend in Mexico, where a handful of towns and cities are effectively seceding, partly or in whole. These are acts of desperation, revealing the degree to which Mexico’s police and politicians are seen as part of the threat.
Visit three such enclaves — Tancítaro; Monterrey, a rich commercial city; and Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, just outside the capital — and you will find a pattern. Each is a haven of relative safety amid violence, suggesting that their diagnosis of the problem was correct. But their gains are fragile and have come at significant cost.
They are exceptions that prove the rule: Mexico’s crisis manifests as violence, but it is rooted in the corruption and weakness of the state. Read More > in The New York Times
Oil giant ExxonMobil counters climate-change suits by SF, other governments – Oil giant ExxonMobil has launched a counterpunch to the lawsuits filed by San Francisco and other communities that seek damages for climate change, alleging that the California jurisdictions conspired to vilify and taunt the oil industry.
In a court filing submitted Monday, the Texas-based company said the California communities quietly met in La Jolla (San Diego County) six years ago to concoct plans to use government investigations and legal action to force oil producers to respond to climate change.
The document said the so-called La Jolla playbook was politically motivated and an abuse of power. It said that if the communities were genuinely concerned about the costs of climate change in their jurisdictions they would have disclosed the threat in their bond reports, which they did not do, according to the filing.
Seven cities and counties filed lawsuits last year against ExxonMobil and other big oil companies, demanding they pay billions to cover losses from rising seas. The suits say fossil-fuel production is responsible for climate change and its consequences and that industry officials went so far as trying to cover up their impact. Read More > at SF Gate
James Damore just filed a class action lawsuit against Google, saying it discriminates against white male conservatives – James Damore, a former Google engineer who was fired in August after posting a memo to an internal Google message board arguing that women may not be equally represented in tech because they are biologically less capable of engineering, has filed a class action lawsuit against the company in Santa Clara Superior Court in Northern California.
His claims: that Google unfairly discriminates against white men whose political views are unpopular with its executives.
Damore is joined in the 161-page suit by another former Google engineer named David Gudeman, who spent three years with Google working on a query engine. According to Gudeman’s LinkedIn profile, he left the company in December 2016 and has been self-employed since.
The lawsuit, filed by Dhillon Law Group, says it aims to represent all employees of Google who’ve been discriminated against due to their “perceived conservative political views by Google,” due to “their male gender by Google” and “due to their Caucasian race by Google.”
More specifically, it accuses Google of singling out, mistreating and systematically punishing and terminating employees who “expressed views deviating from the majority view at Google on political subjects raised in the workplace and relevant to Google’s employment policies and its business, such as ‘diversity’ hiring policies, ‘bias sensitivity’ or ‘social justice’…” Read More > at Tech Crunch
Which Cleaning Products Pollute Your Home the Most? – When you use a household cleaning product, to what extent are you releasing pollutants into your home?
Many common cleaning products rely on petroleum-based manufacturing and release toxic compounds into your home. The EPA broadly classifies these chemicals as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which includes airborne emissions like formaldehyde and car exhaust, as well as consumable compounds like ethanol and acetic acid.
Even in small quantities, VOCs are dangerous to inhale. Over time, these chemicals can build up and cause headaches and nausea, as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation. Certain VOCs have been linked to the development of allergies and asthma, and even complicated medical manifestations like sick building syndrome.
…The product that expelled the most harmful compounds per use is Wet Ones wipes, followed by Mrs. Meyer’s air freshener spray. Over a year of use, Wet Ones would release the most VOCs into your home: nearly half a kilogram (464,000 milligrams). Emissions from air freshener plug-ins add up over time (with hourly puffs of scent) to up to 100,000 milligrams per year. Read More > at Priceonomics
Bussed out – How America moves its homeless – Cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate elsewhere for at least three decades. In recent years, homeless relocation programs have become more common, sprouting up in new cities across the country and costing the public millions of dollars.
But until now there has never been a systematic, nationwide assessment of the consequences. Where are these people being moved to? What impact are these programs having on the cities that send and the cities that receive them? And what happens to these homeless people after they reach their destination?
In an 18-month investigation, the Guardian has conducted the first detailed analysis of America’s homeless relocation programs, compiling a database of around 34,240 journeys and analyzing their effect on cities and people.
A count earlier this year found half a million homeless people on one night in America. The problem is most severe in the west, where rates of homelessness are skyrocketing in a number of major cities, and where states like California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have some of the highest rates of per capita homelessness. Read More > in The Guardian
This Case Against Western Ranchers Shows Why Americans Are Right to Fear Government – Recently revealed actions by the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency under the Department of Interior charged with managing federal land, are reminiscent of the IRS scandal in which that agency targeted conservative tea party groups for extra scrutiny.
A federal judge ruled Dec. 20 that she was throwing out the Bureau of Land Management’s case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy because the prosecution withheld key facts.
On Monday, the same judge ruled that the case could not be tried again due to the actions of the prosecution, which she said had been “outrageous” and “violated due process rights,” according to azcentral.com.
…The level of malfeasance of which one of its own accused the Bureau of Land Management is stunning.
Dan Love, the Bureau of Land Management law enforcement officer who led the 2014 raid on the Bundy compound in Clark County, Nevada, was fired recently amid charges of corruption. That was something prosecutors denied until pressured to release his fellow agent’s report to the defense.
Worse, an investigative report by one of the bureau’s own special agents revealed that the agents in the Bundy case acted with “incredible bias” and likely broke the law, as The Daily Caller News Foundation reported.
In the memo, lead investigator Larry Wooten explained how agents acted maliciously toward the Bundys. He said the “punitive” and “ego-driven” campaign against the ranchers was all an effort to “command the most intrusive, oppressive, large scale, and militaristic trespass cattle impound possible.”
Wooten wrote: “The ridiculousness of the conduct, unprofessional amateurish carnival atmosphere, openly made statements, and electronic communications tended to mitigate the defendant’s culpability and cast a shadow of a doubt of inexcusable bias, unprofessionalism, and embarrassment of our agency.” Read More > at the Daily Signal
Sears’ Decline Actually Demonstrates Amazon’s Vulnerability – Those who fear Amazon is on the verge of becoming a monopoly that eats all competitors and locks up the retail market should take note of an announcement last week by Sears Holdings: The company will be closing another 100 stores this year.
Some will see Sears’ downward trajectory as proof that Amazon is on the verge of assuming near-monopolistic dominance of the retail market. In fact, it proves the opposite: No one can blithely assume that kind of power, at least not for long. Just look at Sears’ history: Back in the 1960s, many feared the Sears chain would mow down all that stood before it, with sales revenue that equaled 1 percent of U.S. GDP – more than Amazon’s sales do today.
…The purpose of a market economy is not to preserve businesses or jobs – it is to satisfy consumer needs and desires. The reason we work is to be able to consume. The company that comes up with the easiest, cheapest and most efficient way for us to do that will earn our loyalty – and hold it only until someone else comes up with a better formula.
One should first quickly dispense with the argument that Amazon’s internet-based rise is eliminating jobs. One can only feel sympathy for Sears employees. But Amazon has tens of thousands of job openings across the United States, to help fulfill customer orders. Many economists argue that e-commerce has created more jobs than it has eliminated, largely in customer fulfillment centers, which pay about 25 percent more than retail jobs. In fact, while the Department of Labor recorded a loss of 67.000 retail jobs last year, the Wall Street Journal reports the department didn’t count as retail 74,000 jobs in transportation and warehousing – jobs made possible by Internet shopping. And Amazon has launched a competition to choose a city to host a second headquarters, projected to provide 50,000 six-figure jobs.
…The internet is not the first vehicle of commerce to transform the relationship between sellers and buyers. Which brings us back to Sears. In happier days for the company, when Sears, Roebuck introduced its first catalogue, it generated as much disruption to the retail industry of the time as Amazon has today. The Sears’ catalogue – known as the “farmer’s friend” because of the convenience it offered rural consumers – no doubt drove many country stores out of business and eliminated many jobs. It aroused at least as much retailer ire as internet companies do today. Many rural newspapers refused to run Sears’ ads, and children were given a dime or a movie admission pass for every catalogue they turned in, which were sometimes publicly burned. But the catalogue became more popular than ever, because it offered consumers a convenient way to access wider range of goods at a lower price. Sound familiar? Read More > at Real Clear Markets
Why Does Oregon Have Gas Station Attendants In the First Place? – In the vast majority of states across the U.S., if you want gasoline, you have to pump it yourself. However, in two states laws forbid you from placing a pump inside your own gas tank and filling it up. In Oregon and New Jersey, gas station attendants do it for you.
At least, that used to be the case. The new year has brought new laws to the state of Oregon, and now residents of the Beaver State are allowed to pump their own gas, at least in some counties. Distraught Oregonians have been complaining on Facebook that the new rule forces them to learn how to operate gas pumps and get out of their cars.
But beyond laughing at the hapless Oregonians, the news raises an interesting question: Why does Oregon even have gas station attendants in the first place?
In 1951, when Oregon first passed the law mandating gas station attendants, the rule made sense. The state was concerned about random, untrained people handling potentially explosive liquids. At the time, many states had similar laws on the books, but a lot has changed since 1951, and gas stations and pumps are much safer now. Read More > at Road and Track
Cancer Deaths Continue a Steep Decline – From 1991 to 2015, the cancer death rate dropped about 1.5 percent a year, resulting in a total decrease of 26 percent — 2,378,600 fewer deaths than would have occurred had the rate remained at its peak.
The American Cancer Society predicts that in 2018, there will be 1,735,350 new cases of cancer and 609,640 deaths.
The latest report on cancer statistics appears in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.
The most common cancers — in men, tumors of the prostate; in women, breast — are not the most common causes of cancer death. Although prostate cancer accounts for 19 percent of cancers in men and breast cancer for 30 percent of cancers in women, the most common cause of cancer death in both sexes is lung cancer, which accounts for one-quarter of cancer deaths in both sexes.
In women, 14 percent of deaths are from breast cancer, 7 percent from pancreatic cancer, and 5 percent from cancer of the ovaries.
In men, prostate cancer causes 9 percent of deaths, while 7 percent are due to pancreatic cancer and 6 percent to liver cancer. In both sexes, 8 percent of deaths are from colon and rectal cancer. Read More > in The New York Times
Extreme hurricanes and wildfires made 2017 the most costly U.S. disaster year on record – Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria combined with devastating Western wildfires and other natural catastrophes to make 2017 the most expensive year on record for disasters in the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Monday.
The disasters caused $306 billion in total damage in 2017, with 16 events that caused more than $1 billion in damage each. The bulk of the damage, at $265 billion, came from hurricanes.
Hurricane Harvey, which sparked extreme flooding in Houston and the surrounding area in August and September, caused $125 billion in damage, the year’s most expensive disaster. Hurricane Maria, which in September set off a fatal and ongoing humanitarian crisis in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and elsewhere, caused $90 billion in damage. Hurricane Irma raked across the Caribbean and hit Florida in September, causing $50 billion in total damage, NOAA reports.
Western wildfires cost an additional $18 billion and 54 lives, the report found. This, too, was an annual record. Other large costs came from tornadoes, droughts, flooding and other severe weather events.
The previous most expensive disaster year was 2005, when events such as Hurricane Katrina caused $215 billion in U.S. damage when adjusted for inflation. NOAA’s record of billion-dollar natural disasters goes back to 1980. Read More > in The Washington Post
Fitzgerald: Requiem for a ‘bait fish’ – A word that belongs in the ossuary of terms used to describe humankind’s most abysmal failures and its darkest sins. Words like genocide and Holocaust.
Extinction is where the Delta smelt appears headed. In the latest fish population count, only two were found in four months. Even after last year’s drenching rains.
Surely there are more smelt out there in the veins and capillaries of the Delta where they used to abound; whether enough to survive as a species, however, appears doubtful.
…Because Democrats are just as bad. I wonder how Gov. Jerry Brown could rail so piously this week against President Donald Trump’s move to allow offshore oil drilling when California’s watery heart is dying.
Might extinction, too, be something to decry, governor? Or will that displease the donors? The interests who sustained you as an elite in exchange for short-term gains at society’s expense?
Granted, the weight of corporations on politics is not the smelt’s only mortis causa. Other culprits include invasive species, urban sewage, and powerful agencies such as Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District. Read More > in Stockton Record
Federal Investigators Couldn’t Illegally Buy Guns Through Legitimate Websites Despite 72 Attempts – Federal agents posing as criminals were unable to purchase any firearms from legitimate online marketplaces despite dozens of attempts over a two-year period.
Between July 2015 and November 2017 investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), following up on a congressional request, tried to make the illegal private gun purchases through a number of online forums and market places. They made 72 attempts over that time but couldn’t complete a single sale using legitimate sites.
In 29 attempts the gun sellers refused the sale after being asked to illegally ship the gun to the buyer. Twenty-seven sellers refused after being told the potential buyer was a felon, domestic abuser, or otherwise prohibited from buying a firearm. Eleven sellers attempted to scam the investigators after finding out they were prohibited from buying firearms with two successfully obtaining money from investigators but never sending the promised firearm. Another five attempts to illegally purchase firearms were ended when the investigators’ accounts were shut down due to suspicious activity. Read More > in the Washington Free Beacon
In “triumph of ignorance,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop touts $135 coffee enema – Down the hatch, coffee can jumpstart a day. But, according to dubious advice from Gwyneth Paltrow’s posh lifestyle and e-commerce site, Goop, the popular brew can also kick off a whole year—when taken up the bum.
Yes, Goop suggests that a coffee enema is a “clutch” way to “supercharge” your “annual goop detox” and start the year in tip-top health. In its latest guide for “deep detoxification,” the Goop team recommends a device called an “Implant O’Rama” for squirting coffee up your keister at home. The product, sold by Implant O’Rama LLC for a bargain $135, is merely a glass bottle with silicone tubing attached.
First things first, as we’ve noted before, there’s no need to “detox”—unless you have kidney or liver failure, and/or have been poisoned recently. When in good working order, your body naturally clears any toxins you might encounter. And there’s no evidence that any DIY detoxing cleanses or diets improve health. That said, there’s plenty of evidence that coffee enemas and colon cleanses in general can cause harm.
…For its part, Implant O’Rama LLC claims on its website that coffee gulped from the glutes “can mean relief from depression, confusion, general nervous tension, many allergy related symptoms, and, most importantly, relief from severe pain. Coffee enemas lower serum toxins.”
But the claims are quickly followed by a lengthy disclaimer that notes such claims are “not necessarily” based on scientific evidence, and the company’s products are not intended to “treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure any condition or disease.” The company ends by stating that by “using this site for any purpose whatsoever… you are agreeing to indemnify Implant O’Rama LLC… from any claims or responsibility for anything.” Read More > at Ars Technica
Embezzlement plagues union offices around U.S., records show – As the UAW, Fiat Chrysler and federal investigators unravel a scandal over the misappropriation of millions of dollars meant for worker training, federal records show that embezzling from union offices is endemic around the country.
U.S. Department of Labor documents obtained by the Free Press show embezzlement from hundreds of union offices nationwide over the past decade. In just the past two years, more than 300 union locations have discovered theft, often resulting in more than one person charged in each instance, the records show.
Two UAW incidents uncovered in 2017, one in Michigan and the other in New Jersey, exceed the $1-million mark, among the biggest labor theft cases in a decade.
Cases involved unions representing nurses, aerospace engineers, firefighters, teachers, film and TV artists, air traffic controllers, musicians, bus inspectors, bakery workers, roofers, postal workers, machinists, ironworkers, steelworkers, dairy workers, plasterers, train operators, plumbers, stagehands, engineers, electricians, heat insulators, missile range workers and bricklayers. Read More > in the Detroit Free Press
Marin County has long resisted growth in the name of environmentalism. But high housing costs and segregation persist – …When a Los Angeles-based nonprofit examined demographic data on wealth, education, criminal justice and other issues, it found that Marin is home to the largest inequities between racial groups of any county in California. Disparities in homeownership rates and housing costs between whites and blacks and Latinos were a predominant factor leading to Marin’s ranking.
In recent years, Marin residents have blocked housing of all kinds. The 400-unit project that county supervisors rejected in December was the third in six years developers proposed on the site, where a former Baptist seminary now sits abandoned. Another stalled project would have built 224 homes for low-income seniors and families on land owned by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. A failed effort to redevelop a run-down strip mall into 82 apartments primarily for low-income residents fueled the defeat of a county supervisor who backed it.
…Marin residents’ resistance to development exasperates low-income housing advocates, who say the opposition from locals is antithetical to their professed values. The county, while predominantly wealthy and white, is also one of California’s most liberal: Almost 80% of voters there chose Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
…Some of Marin’s housing problems can be traced to the 1940s, a time when development in the county was booming. As it did in other communities across the country, the federal government guaranteed bank loans to developers of white-only subdivisions in Marin, promoted the use of racially restrictive covenants on deeds to prevent people of color from buying homes and subsidized white residents’ mortgages but not others, according to a recent report by county officials on housing disparities.
Congress outlawed housing segregation in the late 1960s, a national effort that coincided with a push by Marin activists to restrain growth in the name of an ascendant environmental movement. The county blocked new highway construction, curbed connections to water sources and limited home building on large plots of land.
Now, almost 85% of the county is off limits to development. At the same time, affordable housing in Marin County is all but unavailable and racial disparities and segregation continue. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times
Why Free College Tuition Is Spreading From Cities to States – To churn out more workers with marketable skills, an increasing number of states are offering residents free tuition to community colleges and technical schools.
The move also is a reaction to fast-rising tuition costs — increases that stem, in part, from states reducing their financial support of public colleges and universities.
But the free tuition push hasn’t produced an economic bonanza for any of the pioneering cities—at least not yet — and some states have struggled to come up with the money to keep their end of the bargain.
The free tuition trend began in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which launched a privately funded effort to combat its economic decline. The movement has quickly spread: Today roughly 200 localities offer young residents free tuition to local community colleges and technical schools.
In the past two years, 12 states have enacted legislation to join them. The state rush to offer free tuition began with Tennessee in 2015, but other states quickly followed. Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island have started programs, and Nevada plans to launch one this year. California and Montana last year enacted legislation to create programs but have yet to appropriate funds. Read More > at Stateline