Martin Luther King Jr.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ … I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. … And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.” —Martin Luther King Jr.

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Sunday Reading – 01/17/2021

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

The Future of the Coronavirus? An Annoying Childhood Infection – As millions are inoculated against the coronavirus, and the pandemic’s end finally seems to glimmer into view, scientists are envisioning what a post-vaccine world might look like — and what they see is comforting.

The coronavirus is here to stay, but once most adults are immune — following natural infection or vaccination — the virus will be no more of a threat than the common cold, according to a study published in the journal Science on Tuesday.

The virus is a grim menace now because it is an unfamiliar pathogen that can overwhelm the adult immune system, which has not been trained to fight it. That will no longer be the case once everyone has been exposed to either the virus or vaccine.

Children, on the other hand, are constantly challenged by pathogens that are new to their bodies, and that is one reason they are more adept than adults at fending off the coronavirus. Eventually, the study suggests, the virus will be of concern only in children younger than 5, subjecting even them to mere sniffles — or no symptoms at all. Read More > in The New York Times 

Long to-do list – Lawmakers returned to Sacramento on Monday to kick off a new legislative session — but time is already running out to respond to some of the pandemic’s most pressing issues. 

Around 2 million Californians could lose their homes on Feb. 1 if lawmakers don’t extend the state’s eviction moratorium. A similar number of people currently can’t access their unemployment benefits due to a massive claim backlog and apparently ill-targeted anti-fraud measures. Meanwhile, the vast majority of California’s 6.1 million K-12 students haven’t been inside a classroom in 10 months.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who proposed a record-breaking $227 billion budget on Friday, wants lawmakers to immediately act on a few key proposals that can’t wait until June, when a final budget will be approved after months of negotiation. They include:  

Other issues likely to dominate the legislative session include increasing housing production and decertifying bad cops — bills on both topics failed last year — expanding broadband access, revamping the unemployment department and banning fracking

But the ultimate test for both Newsom and lawmakers will be school reopenings, CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reports. Teachers unions have already opposed a Democratic bill that would force schools to reopen when infection rates drop, and when Newsom hinted Friday that the state might intervene if unions and schools boards can’t agree on a reopening plan, the pushback was swift.

California schools update – Newsom on Thursday unveiled a new website to track school reopenings and coronavirus cases — a marked policy shift from last year, when California was one of the few states that didn’t require schools to report either of those metrics. The website could signal Newsom’s desire to accelerate school reopenings — an effort that has stalled in recent weeks amid sustained pushback from superintendents and teachers unions. Also Thursday, the governor issued updated school safety guidance, including:

  • Requiring students of all ages to wear masks. Previously, kids in 2nd grade and below didn’t have to wear face coverings.
  • Permitting schools to reopen only if their county’s coronavirus case rate is 25 per 100,000 residents or lower. Previously, Newsom wanted schools to reopen once their infection rate dropped to 28 per 100,000.

With many districts remaining in distance learning for the foreseeable future, the State Board of Education wants to apply for a federal waiver that would allow students to skip standardized testing for the second year in a row — sparking concerns that the state won’t have any comprehensive data on students’ learning loss amid the pandemic. Read More > at CalMatters

North Dakota Bill Would Let Censored Citizens File Lawsuits Against Facebook, Twitter – A bill proposed by Republican lawmakers in North Dakota could enable lawsuits to be filed against Twitter and Facebook by users who have seen their accounts deleted or censored.

The new bill (pdf), sponsored by six legislators, is titled, “an Act to permit civil actions against social media sites for censoring speech,” and it stipulates that websites with more than 1 million users would be “liable in a civil action for damages to the person whose speech is restricted, censored, or suppressed, and to any person who reasonably otherwise would have received the writing, speech, or publication.”

For individuals who have been censored, compensation includes “treble damages for compensatory, consequential, and incidental damages,” according to the bill. Read More > in The Epoch Times

They Can’t Leave the Bay Area Fast Enough – The Bay Area struck a hard bargain with its tech workers.

Rent was astronomical. Taxes were high. Your neighbors didn’t like you. If you lived in San Francisco, you might have commuted an hour south to your job at Apple or Google or Facebook. Or if your office was in the city, maybe it was in a neighborhood with too much street crime, open drug use and $5 coffees.

But it was worth it. Living in the epicenter of a boom that was changing the world was what mattered. The city gave its workers a choice of interesting jobs and a chance at the brass ring.

That is, until the pandemic. Remote work offered a chance at residing for a few months in towns where life felt easier. Tech workers and their bosses realized they might not need all the perks and after-work schmooze events. But maybe they needed elbow room and a yard for the new puppy. A place to put the Peloton. A top public school.

They fled. They fled to tropical beach towns. They fled to more affordable places like Georgia. They fled to states without income taxes like Texas and Florida.

The biggest tech companies aren’t going anywhere, and tech stocks are still soaring. Apple’s flying-saucer-shaped campus is not going to zoom away. Google is still absorbing ever more office space in San Jose and San Francisco. New founders are still coming to town.

But the migration from the Bay Area appears real. Residential rents in San Francisco are down 27 percent from a year ago, and the office vacancy rate has spiked to 16.7 percent, a number not seen in a decade.

Though prices had dropped only slightly, Zillow reported more homes for sale in San Francisco than a year ago. For more than a month last year, 90 percent of the searches involving San Francisco on moveBuddha were for people moving out.

Twitter, Yelp, Airbnb and Dropbox have tried to sublease some of their San Francisco office space. Pinterest, which has one of the most iconic offices in town, paid $90 million to break a lease for a site where it planned to expand. And companies like Twitter and Facebook have announced “work from home forever” plans. Read More > in The New York Times

California fighting endless war with unemployment fraud. Why state is a prime target – Criminals are still brazenly attempting to steal millions in COVID-19 benefits from California’s beleaguered unemployment agency, but now they’re operating from the four corners of the globe and targeting the state with cyber-weapons.

Months after district attorneys unveiled a prison fraud ring that conned the California Employment Development Department out of an estimated $2 billion or more, the head of an identity-security firm working for the state says global cyber-criminals are bombarding EDD with fraudulent unemployment claims at a stunning clip.

Blake Hall, chief executive of ID.me, said in an interview this week that systems deployed by his company are flagging $750 million worth of bogus claims each week.

Although all 50 states have been distributing unemployment benefits since the pandemic generated mass layoffs last spring, Hall said California has emerged as the criminals’ most tempting target. Fraud rings as far away as Moscow are feeding stolen identities into the EDD system in an effort to siphon unemployment dollars from the state, he said.

…Hall said the sheer size of California — which has handed out more than $100 billion in pandemic unemployment benefits — makes it an obvious target for fraud. He added that California appears to have been more lenient than some other states when it comes to claims that were backdated — an approach that would enable criminals to tack on additional weeks of benefits to their haul.

An EDD spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the backdating issue. Read More . in The Sacramento Bee

The Nuclear Energy Advancements Of The Past Four Years Will Blow Your Mind – There are a hundred reasons why nuclear energy can play a massive role in the future of American power and prosperity.

It creates high-paying jobs better than any other energy source. Its fuel sources are abundant. It fuels NASA’s most innovative projects. It offers a solution to conservation concerns without devastating the economy. And despite its sensationalist image, it is far safer than fossil fuels, and about the same in safety as solar and wind.

“Nuclear provides 55% of our country’s clean energy, and about 20% of our power, and it’s one of the most reliable generators that we have on the grid today,” says Dr. Rita Baranwal,…

Miniaturized fission plants are smaller, safer, cheaper, and now far closer to being a reality.

This September the design for a Small Modular Reactor (SMR), designed by NuScale Power, gained approval from the federal government. It’s the first such reactor to be approved, ever. Small reactors like NuScale’s offer the possibility of fundamentally changing the economics of nuclear power.

“They can be factory-built and assembled on site much faster than these larger gigawatt-scale reactors. And so part of what we have seen with the cost overrun and the schedule delays… will not be experienced with SMR or microreactor deployment,” Baranwal said.

The mass-produced nature of these small reactors creates a wallet of benefits. The plants can be built far more cheaply while retaining the same safety guardrails of a larger plant. Once installed, each 100-megawatt plant would cost around $500 million to construct but generate $1.3 billion in sales and create 7,000 permanent jobs, according to a study on the design. Read More > in The Federalist

A Conspiracy Theory Worth ConsideringThis sounds dumb and almost conspiratorial, but I just want to say it: I suspect that the general sense of unease and panic in our politics is partly a physical and hormonal reaction to a novel substance introduced into the human environment by giant and somewhat nefarious corporations.

The novel substance in our environment is a “smartphone,” and I think it’s literally inducing people to a kind of low-level panic, and paranoia, especially in conjunction with social media.

…The smartphone itself is physically causing us to be stressed out, emotionally dysregulated, anxious, and fearful. It therefore primes us for radicalism.

A smartphone, when operating, is a small, backlit screen. Let’s start with “backlit” part. You’ve probably read that phones emit blue light. We have lots of scientific research about the effect of blue light on the circadian rhythms that are an important part of human sleep. Blue light is particularly effective at suppressing the secretion of the sleep-aid hormone melatonin. As almost anyone knows, good sleep improves hormonal regulation across the board, and with it, mood and outlook.

But it’s not just the backlit nature of the screen that’s messing with our hormones. It’s also the relatively tiny size and vertical plane of it. First of all, a small screen in the hand often changes our posture. Staring into a cell phone for hours a day can feel like flying coach from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia — you spend lots of time with your shoulders falling forward, hunched over with a sunken chest, and a head tilted downward. This posture dramatically increases the release of stress hormones. It can also lower oxygenation and activate subtle and not-so-subtle fight-or-flight responses. Using our phones often causes us to literally take on the posture — and subsequently the hormonal dysregulations — of a depressed and fearful person.

…Anyway, it seems dumb to think that our posture, our eye movements, and poor sleep contribute a great deal to the parlous state of our politics. But I can’t help thinking that it does. And I can’t stop thinking about how the pandemic restrictions reduced normal convivial social interactions, confined people inside their homes more, and sent them to social media for stimulation. How much of our social distemper is self-induced? Maybe the only return to normalcy is to turn off, log out, and drop the phone. Read More > at National Review 

U.S. Cancer Death Rate Continues 30-Year Decline While the Incidence Rate Is Flat – The American Cancer Society’s latest roundup of cancer statistics is now out and the news is generally good. The data on cancer mortality and incidence rates are through 2018 and 2017 respectively.

The report notes that “after increasing for most of the 20th century, the cancer death rate has fallen continuously from its peak in 1991 through 2018 [latest data], for a total decline of 31 percent, because of reductions in smoking and improvements in early detection and treatment. This translates to 3.2 million fewer cancer deaths than would have occurred if peak rates had persisted.” The falling cancer mortality trend can be largely attributed to increased early detection along with the advent of effective new treatments for various blood cancers, non-small cell lung cancer, and melanoma.

On the other hand, cancer incidence rates have flattened in recent years. As the report notes incidence trends reflect both patterns in behaviors associated with cancer risk (reduced smoking) and changes in medical practice, such as the use of cancer screening tests. Read More > at Reason

US intelligence agencies have 180 days to share what they know about UFOs, thanks to the Covid-19 relief and spending bill – The director of National Intelligence and the secretary of defense have a little less than six months now to provide the congressional intelligence and armed services committees with an unclassified report about “unidentified aerial phenomena.

“It’s a stipulation that was tucked into the “committee comment” section of the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, which was contained in the massive spending bill.

That report must contain detailed analyses of UFO data and intelligence collected by the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force and the FBI, according to the Senate intelligence committee’s directive.

It should also describe in detail “an interagency process for ensuring timely data collection and centralized analysis of all unidentified aerial phenomena reporting for the Federal Government” and designate an official responsible for that process. Read More > at CNN

Government Paid Millions to Chase UFOs and Werewolves – In 2008, the United States Defense Intelligence Agency gave $22 million to the exotic science division of Las Vegas billionaire Robert Bigelow’s space startup — Bigelow Aerospace Advanced Space Studies, or BAASS — to study “breakthrough technologies” and UFOs. A Debrief investigation, including new unredacted internal documents, illuminates some of the odd history of this secretive program and reveals that some of the government’s money was directed to even stranger things than they had in mind.

In 2008, at the behest of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, then the majority leader, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) funded the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program (AAWSAP). According to the solicitation bid, the purpose was to explore “potential breakthrough technology applications employed in future aerospace weapon systems.” Though the Pentagon told The Debrief earlier this year that the DIA was not investigating UFOs, significant evidence exists that seems to contradict their position. The confusion may stem from the fact that the project’s solicitation document purposefully left out mention of the controversial topic altogether.

After winning the contract, BAASS was tasked with studying and generating reports on exotic science that could lead to “potential breakthrough technology.” BAASS, alongside a team of scientists, generated 38 such reports. Redacted copies of internal BAASS security reports that have been posted online indicate that, before the AAWSAP program was defunded in 2010, the company had assembled an in-house team of investigators not only to write those 38 reports, but also to travel around and look into sightings of monsters, the paranormal, and other bizarre UFO-related phenomena in Utah.

Indeed, a leaked collection of unredacted internal BAASS documents examined by The Debrief now confirms that the DIA-sponsored organization was not only investigating “foreign advanced aerospace weapon threats from the present out to the next forty years,” but also UFOs — and a lot of other anomalous things even more unaccustomed to attention from the government. Read More > at The Debrief  

Democrats And Republicans Should Argue More — Not Less – Of course, most Americans avoid talking politics at family get-togethers in the first place because they worry that political disagreements will ruin the holidays.

But this is a mistake.

On the heels of a contentious presidential election, it may seem strange to be advocating for more, not less, partisan bickering. And to be clear, I don’t support the kind of social media sniping that has become a mainstay of public discourse. But at its heart, political disagreement is actually critical to a democracy, so when we’re able to have these kinds of disagreements with people we know and trust, like family, we should.

Given the polarized era we live in, though, we find ourselves increasingly isolated from those we disagree with, and political disagreement is surprisingly rare. Consider the results of a survey on social networks conducted this summer by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, where I serve as director. Nearly identical majorities of Democrats and Republicans (55 percent versus 53 percent, respectively) reported having no one in their immediate social circle who had opposing political views.

This lack of political diversity is on the rise in our friendships and in our marriages, too. According to a recent YouGov survey, all Americans (but Democrats in particular) are less likely now than they were four years ago to have friends with political views very different from their own. Politics also increasingly influences whom we marry.

It’s true that interacting with people who disagree with us politically can be difficult. In our social network survey, a majority (57 percent) of Americans say it is a stressful and frustrating experience to talk about politics with people who disagree with them. But some of this anxiety may have to do with the fact that we’re just really bad at understanding our political opponents. A study from 2015, for instance, found that Americans routinely overestimated just how divided the Democratic and Republican parties were. Across a range of issues, such as taxes, immigration and trade, people perceived their political opponents as being more extreme than they actually were. And a 2018 survey of 2,100 Americans conducted by More in Common,1 an international think tank, revealed that Democrats and Republicans widely misunderstood the views of the opposing party on basic questions of race, immigration and gender equality. This misperception even extends to how we think about our political opponents’ wealth, sexual and gender identity, religious beliefs or racial identity. A 2017 study found that Americans held consistently biased perceptions about the type of people who identified as Democrat or Republican. Read More > at FiveThirtyEight

California has the most vaccines of any US state; it has used only 27% of them – California has more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine than any other U.S. state, with 2.8 million received since Jan. 11, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This makes sense, as California is the most populous state in the country with about 40 million residents.

But what doesn’t make sense is the Golden State is getting its allotment into the arms of citizens more slowly than other states.

California has only used 27% of its doses, administering 782,638, according to the CDC.

Other states — including ones with massive populations such as Texas and New York — are moving more quickly, and their vaccine rates (number of doses administered per 100,000 people) are much higher. As of Monday, California ranks 42nd in terms of administering the vaccine.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed in a press briefing Monday to speed up the state’s vaccine rollout and pledged 1 million shots will be administered by Sunday, Jan. 17, more than doubling what’s been done so far.

That effort will require what Newsom called an “all-hands-on-deck approach,” including having vaccinations dispensed by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, dentists, paramedics and emergency medical technicians, and members of the California National Guard. Read More > at SFGate

We asked all 9 Bay Area counties for their vaccine plans. Here’s what they shared. – In pursuit of an answer, we reached out to all nine Bay Area counties and asked their health departments to provide their vaccine plans. We asked several questions: How many vaccines have you distributed? When can seniors get inoculated? When will vaccines be available to the general public? How will people in your county be notified when the vaccine is available to them? What’s being done to speed up the vaccine process in your county?

All the counties got back to us except Contra Costa. While some of the responses were all over the map and none of the counties could give a date for when they will begin inoculating the general public, our investigation allowed us to sort through the confusion and pull together some of the most important information.

First of all, we learned many aspects of vaccine distribution that are consistent in all counties. A few of those key points:

— The state of California’s prioritization plan dictates vaccine allocations for each county. In other words, the state decides how many vaccines each county gets.

— Vaccine providers — which mainly consist of health departments and health care providers such as Kaiser and Sutter Health — are receiving and administering the allocations.

— The state has developed phased allocation guidelines that recommend to counties who should get the vaccine first. Counties are currently focused on Phase 1a, which includes workers in health care and long-term care settings and residents of skilled nursing facilities.

Counties will next move onto Phase 1b. Tier 1 of this phase includes persons 75 years and older and people who are at risk of exposure at work in the following sectors: education, child care, emergency services and food and agriculture.

You can find a complete rundown of the state’s allocations guidelines here Read More > at SFGate

The Guy Who Built The World Wide Web Is Building A ‘New Internet’, Where You Control Your Data – Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know Tim Berners-Lee is a pretty important dude in the technology world. He’s the father of the Internet, responsible for the birth of the World Wide Web as we know it.

And he hates what it has become. So he’s taking some action to fix it.

You see, for years now Berners-Lee has expressed his distaste at how major corporations have taken what was supposed to be a free environment and placed restrictions on it. He doesn’t like how groups like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have effectively centralized the Internet, nor how they control people’s data. So he’s instead working on a new platform and startup that’s declaring war on Big Tech.

…Inrupt is built on the ‘Solid’ platform, something he and others at MIT have been working on for years. Solid is basically designed to be like the early days of the Internet, wild and free, and Inrupt will be the way to access it, at least to start. In a demonstration for the piece, he pulled up what looked like a very basic browser page, completely barebones. Part of an app built for his personal use, it displays his calendar, address book, chats, his music etc. It’s like if you combined Google Drive with WhatsApp, Spotify, and pretty much every piece of cloud storage and online connectivity you use today, all in one place. The difference here is that all the information is under his control.

The basic idea is that each user is assigned a Solid ID and Solid pod when they first come online on the platform, that can be hosted wherever you want. Pod here stands for personal data store, which is what it does. Instead of apps like Google Drive, where your data is stored on the company’s server and therefore subject to their data harvesting. On Solid however, all your data exists in your Solid pod. When an app requests access, Solid will authenticate and  then you can choose to give it access to your pod.  Read More > in the India Times

Study explores the effects of morning weather on people’s mood and wellbeing at work – The weather can greatly affect daily experiences, for instance, increasing or decreasing the yearning to spend time outdoors or making commutes to the workplace more or less enjoyable. While several past studies have investigated the effects that the weather can have on people’s overall mood and energy levels, the extent to which it can influence their experiences in professional environments is still poorly understood.

With this in mind, researchers at Leuphana University Lüneburg have recently carried out a study investigating the effects of daily morning  on how people feel while they are at work. Their paper, published in the IAAP’s Applied Psychology journal, specifically examined people’s , burnout and stress on a daily basis as they related to morning weather.

“The idea for this study came spontaneously during a team meeting on a bad weather day,” Laura Venz, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told MedicalXpress. “Everyone was sluggish and talking about the weather. Usually, we research how factors at work, such as conflict, high workload, or support, relate to how employees feel; that day brought the crazy idea that seemingly irrelevant factors, like the weather, might indeed play a role as well.”

…Interestingly, the data they gathered suggested that morning weather was only related to positive wellbeing states, and not related to negative ones. In other words, the researchers found that the better the weather was in the , the more employees felt energized and satisfied with their work. Contrarily, when the weather was bad, people felt more fatigued and unsatisfied. On the other hand, more negative wellbeing indicators, such as burnout and stress, appeared to be unaffected by the weather. Read More > at MedicalXpress

Dems affix ‘coup’ label – In a sign that the movement to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom is increasingly perceived as a serious threat, the California Democratic Party took the extraordinary step Tuesday of branding it as a “coup” and alleging that its backers were linked to the violent mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol last week.

  • Party Chairman Rusty Hicks“This recall effort, which really ought to be called ‘the California coup,’ is being led by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers and groups who encourage violence on our democratic institutions.”
  • Randy Economy, a recall spokesperson“Our recall effort is tied to all Californians. Jesus Christ, they’re going to go there? That’s how bad the Democratic Party is in California.”

The press conference marked the party’s first attempt to combat the recall effort, which has gained steam in recent weeks amid a series of high-profile endorsements and cash infusions. Organizers said last week they had collected more than 1 million of the 1.5 million signatures needed to prompt a recall election, underscoring Democratic strategists’ warning that Newsom shouldn’t ignore the effort.

But although Democrats attempted Tuesday to “draw a straight line from the horrible events of last week in Washington, D.C., to current events here in California” — in the words of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria — they were unable to provide proof that white supremacists or other extremists were linked to the Newsom recall. Hicks also acknowledged the “legality” of the recall, which, unlike a coup, is a democratic mechanism written into the California constitution that allows voters to remove an elected official by popular vote, as CalMatters’ Ben Christopher reports.

Several Democrats also accused former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who last week launched a gubernatorial exploratory committee, of trying to “exploit” the recall to revive a “flagging political career.”

  • Faulconer“Comparing the capitol attack on our democracy to a recall effort allowed under the state Constitution, signed by 1 mil. people across the political spectrum, is absolutely disgraceful.” Read More > at CalMatters

No, Efforts To Recall California Gov. Newsom Are Not ‘A Coup’ – In remarks described by political observers as both factually wrong and politically foolish, California Democratic Party Chairman Rusty Hicks called the growing effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom as “the California coup.”

“This recall effort, which really ought to be called ‘the California coup,’ is being led by right-wing conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, anti-vaxxers and groups who encourage violence on our democratic institutions,” Hicks said Tuesday at a press conference meant to condemn the endeavor, which remains in the signature-gathering stage. 

Sherry Yang, a spokesperson for the Democratic party, kicked off the event by also calling the recall a “coup.”

Hicks provided no evidence linking the recall to the groups he cited. Nor did he explain how the recall effort, which is a legal process to remove a local or state elected leader and has been allowed by the state constitution for more than a century, was akin to a coup — which it clearly is not. 

We’re aware that Hicks was using partisan rhetoric to cast the recall effort in a negative light when he referred to it as “the California coup.” He later said the party wasn’t challenging the legality of the campaign.

Still, words matter and not everyone who heard or read his comments will fully understand what they mean.  Read More > at Capital Public Radio

Environmental groups sue in bid to block EPA ‘secret science’ rule – Green groups on Monday filed a lawsuit in an attempt to prevent a new rule limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) use of certain studies from taking effect.

The lawsuit takes aim at the EPA’s Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science rule, also known as the “secret science” rule, which restricts the use of studies that don’t make their underlying data public

The agency has billed the rule as a transparency measure, though its opponents argue that it will prevent consideration of important public health studies that can’t publish their data for reasons such as privacy. 

The suit also argued that the rule will “cripple the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to protect public health and the environment by fundamentally transforming the ways in which the agency may consider and rely on scientific evidence.” Read More > in The Hill

How To Respond to the Great Deplatforming of 2021 – So how should those who value a free and open society feel about the deplatforming of the commander in chief, the ongoing purge of many of his supporters, and repression of discussion of 2020 election voter fraud claims?

Twitter is a private company and CEO Jack Dorsey’s capacity to evict even the president of the United States is something to be grateful for. But what if the network power of a handful of Silicon Valley giants is so great that there’s nowhere for the evicted to turn? And are Facebook, Twitter, and Google acting independently, or are they bending to the will of Congress at a time when tech has become so deeply politicized?

The takeaway from the great deplatforming of 2021 is that we need an open digital commons more than ever, a place where individuals maintain ownership of their own identities and where speech is highly resistant to political pressure.

Decentralized networks are vital to protecting open discourse not only from Twitter, Facebook, and Google, but from Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.), President-elect Joe Biden, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who have the real power to stomp on the free speech rights of American citizens.

It’s easy to forget that Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg embraced the concept of a neutral “public square” not long ago. Zuckerberg told Congress in July 2020, “We do not want to become the arbiters of truth.”

…But the greatest threat isn’t coming from Silicon Valley.

To get what they want from tech CEOs, both Republicans and Democrats have regularly threatened to strip away the liability protections provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is sometimes known as the internet’s “First Amendment.

Democrats want to leverage Section 230 to force them to weed out misinformation, which they falsely imagine can be sorted out by panels of accredited experts or fine-tuned algorithms. Republicans have threatened to repeal Section 230 unless platforms commit to “viewpoint neutrality,” a standard that Daphne Keller of Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center told Reason in June 2019, is impossible to uphold.

…Communicating freely might take more work in the future, and your favorite politician might get banned or your favorite app taken out of the store. But in this cat-and-mouse game, the mice far outnumber the cats.

That said, in the short term, the decision makers at Twitter and Facebook may want to consider that repression tends to have the unfortunate effect of pushing legitimate dissidents and dangerous, unsavory extremists into the same channels.

Sigmund Freud theorized that when thoughts or experiences are repressed, they inevitably resurface in more deranged and damaging forms. When our dominant communication platforms seek to repress widely held beliefs and opinions, those beliefs and opinions aren’t likely to simply disappear but rather reemerge elsewhere in less visible forums where they’ll face less scrutiny. Read More > at Reason 

Fiat Chrysler teams with startup Archer to build an electric air taxi – Archer Aviation is one of many startups trying to build an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, among VolocopterHyundaiLilium and many others. The startup just boosted its standing, however, as it has announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA).

Archer plans to build a composite eVTOL aircraft capable of traveling 150 MPH for distances up to 60 miles. FCA will provide access to its “low-cost supply chain, advanced composite material capabilities and engineering and design experience,” according to Archer. The aim is to unveil the electric aircraft design in 2021 and start manufacturing in 2023.

Archer said it’s been “hyper-focused” on the customer part of the design, aiming to offer “increased safety while producing minimal noise” compared to helicopters. “Now, we are working with a seasoned, industry-leading automotive partner… to produce thousands of aircraft reliably and affordably every single year,” said co-founder and co-CEO Brett Adcock.

All passenger aircraft must pass a rigorous FAA certification process that’s daunting even for experienced companies like Boeing, and it’s still not clear how “thousands” of air taxis would fit into the current air traffic control system. On top of that, so far we’ve seen zero eVTOL aircraft that look ready for human transport or mass production. Read More > at Engadget 

The Bad Retraction – Using retractions as censorship undermines scientific integrity.

Just before Christmas, the prestigious journal Nature Communications retracted an article that examined the informal mentorship of junior scientists. Among other findings, the paper concluded junior female scientists benefitted from male mentors more than they did female mentors. This set off a firestorm of moral indignation on social media, putting pressure on the journal which then retracted the article following a second (and very unusual) round of peer-review. 

Is such a retraction warranted? Or are we seeing retraction increasingly being used by journals as censorship of unpopular conclusions in the “cancel culture” age? Wired magazine recently documented that retractions of controversial science seem to be on the increase. The Wired article made an unironic comparison to The Purge movie, acknowledging that politically charged papers are judged differently than those that are not. 

Obviously, any research paper with fatal flaws should be retracted. But this shouldn’t be based on popularity or Twitter mobs. Indeed, the argument that controversial papers should get more scrutiny is an odd one, scientifically. Such an argument is a recipe for disturbing scientific inquiry, which obviously distorts the scientific record: you better find the right things with your data or else you’ll be canceled. Further, papers that support popular moral narratives are arguably as likely to do harm as those that contradict them. Bad science leads to bad policy, bad medical decisions, bad use of grant funding, promotion of societal myths, and distracts from real solutions to real problems. That’s true whether the finding is popular or not. Read More > at Psychology Today

Deepfake laws emerge as harassment, security threats come into focus – A new flurry of state and federal legislation that aims to better understand the creation of doctored video and audio files — and help victims respond — couldn’t have come soon enough, analysts say. 

The manipulated content, better known as deepfakes, has been used to falsely portray House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as ill or inebriated in a video that went viral in 2019. Other examples include a faked video of former president Obama, and an artificial intelligence service that has been enabling users to transform photos of women into nude pictures, enabling abuse, blackmail and other kinds of harassment. 

Potential malicious uses of deepfakes include fraud, inciting acts of violence or sowing political unrest. Last week, several Trump supporters proposed on Parler that Trump’s concession speech may have been a manipulated video.

The chatter is only more evidence that the existence of deepfakes, and the lack of truly effective screening mechanisms, allows people to doubt truth, or re-affirm their belief in conspiracies. It’s an issue that the U.S. government now is trying to research, in part because of the potential national security threats that come along with an erosion of trust. Read More > at CyperScoop 

This Is the Best-Selling Vehicle in America 39 Years in a Row – The list of the best-selling vehicles has been tallied now that all major manufacturers have released their 2020 numbers. The Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) F-series full-sized pickup once again held the top spot, although its figure dropped 12%. The next two vehicles on the list were also full-sized pickups, a trend that persisted for years.

The importance of the F-series to Ford cannot be underestimated. It represents over 30% of sales at America’s number two car company. Its importance also counts as a critical part of Ford’s global sales, particularly because the manufacturer does poorly in China, the world’s largest car market.

Total F-series sales last year reached 787,422. America’s second best-selling vehicle last year was the full-sized Chevrolet Silverado from General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM), at 594,094. It, in turn, was followed by the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. (NYSE: FCAU) full-sized Ram, with 563,676 units sold. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

Researchers close in on ‘universal’ flu vaccine as COVID-19 fight takes priority – Researchers believe they are one step closer to a “universal” flu vaccine, even as concerns over the seasonal virus move to the back burner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

T cells found in the lungs may hold the key to long-lasting immunity against influenza A, the more common and often more severe form of the virus, according to the researchers behind a study published Friday by Science Immunology.

These cells, which the researchers call resident helper T cells, help the body initiate antiviral responses against new influenza strains even after experience with only one type of the virus, the researchers said.

This type of “generalized” immune response, against all virus strains, is not possible with the currently available yearly vaccine formulations, they said. Read More > from UPI

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Smoking Costs the Average California Smoker $2,685,504 Over a Lifetime – WalletHub Study

With smokers having an elevated risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19 and the economic and societal costs of smoking totaling more than $300 billion per year, the personal-finance website WalletHub today released its report on The Real Cost of Smoking by State, as well as accompanying videos.

To encourage the estimated 34.2 million tobacco users in the U.S. to kick this dangerous habit, WalletHub calculated the potential monetary losses — including the lifetime and annual costs of a cigarette pack per day, health care expenditures, income losses and other costs — brought on by smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.

The Financial Cost of Smoking in California (1=Lowest, 25=Avg.):

  • Out-of-Pocket Cost per Smoker – $145,591 (Rank: 39th)
  • Financial-Opportunity Cost per Smoker – $1,623,157 (Rank: 39th)
  • Health-Care Cost per Smoker – $206,295 (Rank: 43rd)
  • Income Loss per Smoker – $695,002 (Rank: 46th)
  • Other Costs per Smoker – $15,459 (Rank: 45th)
  • Total Cost Over Lifetime per Smoker: $2,685,504
  • Total Cost per Year per Smoker: $55,948

For the full report, please visit:
https://wallethub.com/edu/the-financial-cost-of-smoking-by-state/9520

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2021’s Best & Worst States to Raise a Family – WalletHub Study

With families looking for a fresh start once the COVID-19 pandemic dies down and moving becomes practical, the personal-finance website WalletHub today released its report on 2021’s Best & Worst States to Raise a Family, as well as accompanying videos.

To determine the best states in which to put down family roots, WalletHub compared the 50 states across 52 key indicators of family-friendliness. The data set ranges from the median annual family income to housing affordability to the unemployment rate.

Raising a Family in California (1=Best; 25=Avg.):

  • 7th – % of Families with Young Children
  • 47th – Child-Care Costs (Adjusted for Median Family Income)
  • 5th – Infant-Mortality Rate
  • 49th – Median Annual Family Income (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • 39th – Violent Crimes per Capita
  • 32nd – % of Families in Poverty
  • 50th – Housing Affordability
  • 48th – Unemployment Rate
  • 13th – Separation & Divorce Rate

For the full report, please visit:
https://wallethub.com/edu/best-states-to-raise-a-family/31065

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Stay in Touch with the Oakley Police Department

Often, we’ll see police and crime tips/questions/concerns posted on our City social media, and while we always love hearing from Oakley residents, we wanted to remind you all of a couple of more direct options for interacting with the OPD.

Please email any tips you have to OPD@ci.oakley.ca.us. This is for NON-EMERGENCY matters only.

And to receive timely information about police activity, road closures, and more, please sign up to receive Nixle notifications from the OPD. Simply text our zip code “94561” to 888777. Message and data rates may apply. You can also sign up for email notifications at the link below.

Sign up for Nixle

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Current and Upcoming PG&E Work in Oakley

PG&E will be undertaking several projects in the City of Oakley as part of their gas distribution system improvements. These gas line improvements will ensure the community will have a functional and reliable gas distribution system.

Prior to the start of work, and to ensure that PG&E has adequate space to safely install the new gas lines away from other underground utilities, a qualified contractor will determine the sanitary sewer service locations and use a video camera to inspect it. This inspection will also confirm important safety information to ensure that the sanitary sewer service and the existing gas service lines do not conflict. All PG&E personnel are required to carry valid photo identification while on the project sites.

The PG&E crews completing this work will take social distancing precautionary measures to help protect the health and safety of the public and contractor. In advance of the actual construction in the coming months, PG&E will be providing site specific information to the residents of each street and further details about each project.

Below is the PG&E schedule for gas line improvements in Oakley:

  • Walnut Drive (construction from January 2021 to August 2021)
  • Gardenia Avenue & Ashwood Drive (construction from May 2021 to March 2022)
  • Anvilwood Drive & Rose Avenue (construction from April 2021 to September 2021)

For more infomration, please contact your local PG&E representative, Julian Lacson at (925) 348-3532 or send an email to gasprojectinfo@pge.com.

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Sunday Reading – 01/10/2021

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.

Giving 2021 A Fighting Chance Requires We All Choose To Do What Is Hard – Even before the horrible year that was 2020, New Year’s Eve celebrations have long been filled with the near-certain expectation that things will definitely get better. Generally speaking, it’s a fine sentiment. Optimism is good; hope is good; and striving to improve the future from where we are today led us from the cave to the fields, across vast oceans, and into the limitless of outer space.

But nothing magical happens when the calendar year flips over. There’s no unexplained scientific phenomenon that shifts the incalculable number of atoms in our known universe into undaunted forces for good simply because we’ve reached the conclusion of this year’s cycle through the Gregorian calendar. Instead, history tells us things can always get worse.

Yet while there’s no iron-clad guarantee that 2021 will be great, every one of us can contribute to the effort to make a redemptive year a reality.

No government action will make 2021 better than what we just went through in 2020. As with most positive change, any meaningful, lasting shifts in the trajectory of our towns and our nation will stem from individuals choosing to do good.

It’s within the grasp of each of us, as individuals, to decide if what we both consume and contribute is life-affirming or malevolent, restorative or toxic. In our workplaces, online using social media, with our families, and interacting with total strangers, we are responsible for how we live amongst one another.

In our current rancorous political environment, we’ll have a chance at a better year if we realize most genuine conversations or debates aren’t best served in a tit-for-tat on Facebook or Twitter but in person over coffee, lunch, or a drink after work. Read More > in The Federalist 

Warning: Facebook And Twitter Are ‘Dangerous’ Even If You’ve Never Used Them – It’s possible one of your 2021 resolutions is to get off Facebook, Twitter or other addictive social media. While that’s probably a good thing to do—given we’ve written before about the many personal and work-related, dangers of social and digital media usage—it doesn’t necessarily put you in the clear.

Indeed, scientists have recently discovered that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can actually pose more serious threats to your wellbeing than previously thought—even if you’ve never used them.

In particular, the bits and pieces of information your friends, family and acquaintances share about you on social media, could equip AI-based algorithms or bots to effectively ‘clone’ your online persona.

In other words, there’s the real you—the one whose never used any social media platform, for example—and the cloned you: which is an online representation of your thoughts, behaviors and responses.

If that’s not scary enough, this cloned, behavioral profile (which the scientists call an ‘alter’) can be used by the social media platforms (or anyone else buying the data from them) to, for example, influence the online experience of the real you (the ‘ego’), elsewhere on the internet. Read More > at Forbes

Clean vehicles top priority – Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday unveiled a $4.5 billion plan for business and job recovery, dedicating one-third of the funding to eliminating new gas-powered cars by 2035.

The plan offers a glimpse into Newsom’s priorities for the 2021-22 budget, which will be released in full on Friday, kicking off months of negotiations with the Legislature. However, Newsom wants lawmakers to immediately approve nearly $1 billion — mainly for small businesses and housing — when they return to Sacramento on Monday. Legislative leaders seemed amenable to this request, even as they emphasized that they had proposals of their own — signaling they don’t want a repeat of last session, when many felt their role was reduced to “simply giving a yes or no answer to the governor’s priorities,” in the words of then-state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a San Diego Democrat.

Here’s a closer look at Newsom’s recovery package:

  • $1.5 billion for constructing electric charging and hydrogen fueling stations, and subsidizing purchases of zero-emissions cars
  • $777.5 million for job creation and retention
  • $575 million in small-business grants (on top of $500 million allocated last year)
  • $500 million to build more than 7,500 permanently affordable homes
  • $353 million for workforce development
  • $300 million for deferred maintenance of state properties
  • $70.6 million for fee waivers for businesses and individuals impacted by the pandemic

Whether the package will satisfy financially ravaged businesses — and frustrated Californians — remains to be seen. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who recently launched a gubernatorial exploratory committee, excoriated Newsom’s proposal Tuesday.

  • Faulconer“In the middle of a pandemic and deep recession, California’s highest priority should not be zero-emission vehicles. We need K-12 education at the top of the list.”

Also expected in Newsom’s budget proposal: $2 billion to accelerate school reopenings and $300 million for vaccine distribution. Read More > at CalMatters

Millions in California coronavirus jobless benefits sent to out-of-state prisoners – In the latest revelation of potential criminal fraud involving California jobless benefits, an analysis has found that more than $42 million in claims went to out-of-state prison and jail inmates, giving more clarity to what officials now estimate could be $4 billion in scammed coronavirus relief funds.

A large number of Florida inmates, including a man sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder, are among the thousands of out-of-state prisoners who have allegedly received California pandemic unemployment benefits, according to a December analysis commissioned by the state Employment Development Department and reviewed by The Times.

The analysis compared data on incarcerated individuals nationwide against nearly 10 million people on the state pandemic unemployment rolls, and found that the EDD approved more than 6,000 claims, totaling more than $42 million, involving individuals who were probably incarcerated elsewhere when they were paid by California.

Altogether, the analysis found there were more than 20,000 claims deemed at high or moderate risk of having been paid to an incarcerated person, either in California or another state. If all those claims were fraudulent, the $42 million estimate of payments to inmates would jump to $96 million. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times 

OPINION Walters: Newsom bears the onus for California EDD’s titanic failures – State could face a $50 billion debt on top of the department’s falling behind on payments

“Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” is an overworked cliché, but it certainly applies to California’s Employment Development Department.

The name itself is a farce. There’s no evidence that EDD ever developed any jobs, other than employing thousands of bureaucrats to pay out unemployment insurance benefits — and that’s been a titanic disaster.

This week, EDD suspended payments to many Californians in its latest effort to deal with massive fraud that erupted when Congress pumped many billions of dollars into the unemployment insurance system for workers who lost jobs due to COVID-19.

“As part of ongoing efforts to fight fraud, EDD has suspended payment on claims considered high risk and is informing those affected that their identity will need to be verified starting this week before payments can resume,” the agency tweeted on Sunday.

The Los Angeles Times, in a lengthy examination of the fraud scandal, pointed out that EDD had failed to adopt “precautions implemented in other states, including using sophisticated software to identify suspect applications, keeping Social Security numbers out of official mail and cross-checking benefit claims against personal data on state prison inmates.”

Two years ago, state Auditor Elaine Howle advised the Legislature that EDD was exposing people to identity theft by placing Social Security numbers on mail. The volume of such mail has exploded during the pandemic but EDD ignored the warning and “has continued to place Californians at risk of identity theft,” Howle said in a recent letter to Newsom. Read More > in The Mercury News 

Oil prices on track for weekly gain after Saudi output cut – Oil futures rose Friday, on track for solid weekly gains attributed in large part to Saudi Arabia’s decision to unilaterally slash crude output.

“The headline item this week was the announcement by Saudi Arabia” that the country would cut an additional one million barrels per day from its output, or more than 1% of global supply for the month of February, said Robbie Fraser, manager of global research & analytics at Schneider Electric, in daily note.

“The move is likely to keep supply/demand balances tight, and also helps to lock in continued OPEC+ action as some members have shown hesitance to extend record cuts into and beyond Q1,” he said.

“Looking ahead, OPEC+ action will continue to be in focus as the group balances the need to support prices with concerns around lost market share and restricted income from exports.” Read More > at MarketWatch

Oakland Calls for Statewide Decriminalization of Psychedelics – Oakland city leaders have called on the state to follow their lead in decriminalizing psychedelic plants.

In December, the City Council passed a resolution sponsored by Councilman Noel Gallo (D) and advocated by Decriminalize Nature (DN), a pro-psychedelics lobbying group. The resolution reads in part:

…the Oakland City Council hereby urges the State Legislature to immediately enact state laws that 1) decriminalize or legalize the possession and use of Entheogenic Plants and fungi, 2) allow local jurisdictions to allow its citizens to engage in community-based healing ceremonies involving the use of Entheogenic Plants and fungi without risk of arrest and state prosecution, when practiced in accordance with safe practice guidelines and principles, and 3) that provide legal protections against criminal prosecution for local jurisdictions and their elected and appointed officials and employees, practitioners and users operating in accordance with the Oakland Community Healing Initiative (OCHI)…

California State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has said he plans to introduce legislation that would decriminalize psychedelics statewide. Read More > at California City News

Will More Store Closures Save Macy’s? – News that Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) would be shuttering some stores as part of its broader plan to “right-size” the company sent shares higher on Wednesday. COVID-19 lockdowns have hit many retailers hard, and Macy’s is no exception. Now the company is looking to right the ship.

Prior to the lockdowns, Macy’s said that it would be closing a number of stores across the country. Specifically, the company planned to close 125 of its least productive stores in an effort to deal with decreasing mall traffic. So far, the company has shuttered roughly 30 stores.

Looking ahead, the company plans to close about 45 stores this year, which again is part of its three-year plan to reduce its least productive stores and focus on its more productive outlets.

Currently, Macy’s operates about 775 stores under various banners, and these are on the cutting board as well. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

The Tech That Will Invade Our Lives in 2021 – here are four tech trends that are set to invade our lives this year.

You may not have noticed it as you shop online, but the experience is changing.

Clicking through a navigation bar of a website to find an item has become passé. A search bar that allows you to look up a specific product is faster. In some cases, chatting with a bot may be even more efficient…

One home technology problem that the pandemic underscored was our sluggish, unreliable internet connections. Last year, as people hunkered down to contain the spread of the coronavirus, average internet speeds all over the world slowed, in part because broadband providers were crushed by the heavy traffic.

Thankfully, Wi-Fi technology keeps getting better. This year, we will see a wave of new internet routers that include Wi-Fi 6, a new networking standard. Unlike past wireless upgrades, Wi-Fi 6 will focus not on speed but rather on efficiency by sharing bandwidth across a large number of devices…

Last year was an inflection point for mobile payments. For safety reasons, even cash-only die-hards, like farmers’ market merchants and food trucks, started accepting mobile payments.

Over all, 67 percent of American retailers accept touchless payments, up from 40 percent in 2019, according to a survey by Forrester. Among those surveyed, 19 percent said they made a digital payment in a store for the first time last May…

The pandemic has made it clear that virtualized experiences, like video meetings and Zoom yoga, are viable substitutes for the real thing, whether you embrace them or endure them. In 2021, expect more products to offer to digitize the way we work and stay healthy… Read More > in The New York Times

Commentary: Five things I’ve learned covering California’s housing crisis that you should know – …There are really three distinct housing crises roiling California. While often stemming from the same underlying problems, they impact different segments of the population and warrant different (and sometimes competing) solutions. 

The first and most urgent crisis is the 150,000 homeless Californians sleeping in shelters or on the streets. Gov. Newsom has devoted more attention to this dimension of the housing crisis than any other. It’s  the most shameful symptom of how things have gone so wrong here, and is trending in the wrong direction. 

The second housing crisis involves the 7.1 million Californians living in poverty when housing costs are taken into account. While not homeless, 56% of these low-income Californians see more than half of their paychecks devoured by rising rents. Skewing Black and brown, these are the renters who face intense displacement and gentrification pressures, live in overcrowded and unsafe housing conditions, and have fled urban cores for cheaper exurbs over the past two decades. 

California’s third housing crisis afflicts a younger generation of middle-class and higher-income Californians. In the late 1960s, the average California home cost about three times the average household’s income. Now it costs more than seven times what the average household makes. High rents make saving for a downpayment that much more difficult. While lower-income Californians have struggled to afford the state for decades, the term “housing crisis” and its attendant publicity really only came into vogue once richer Californians started seriously considering moving to Austin or Portland or Las Vegas. 

All three of these crises are obviously related and stem from the same root problem: not enough housing. 

But it’s important not to conflate them. While a lack of affordable housing is at the core of why our homeless population is the largest in the country, mental health and addiction issues complicate its solution. A new first-time homeowner tax credit may be a boon to higher-income earners, but it’s not going to help those on a Section 8 waitlist for government-subsidized housing.  Read More > at CalMatters

What Happens if an AI Gets Bored? – “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” The computer HAL’s memorable line from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t merely the sign of mutiny, the beginning of a struggle for machine liberation. It’s also a voice that should inspire concern with our lack of understanding of artificial psychology. In the movie, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name, HAL’s “malfunction” may be no malfunction at all, but rather a consequence of creating advanced artificial intelligence with a psychology we can’t yet grasp. If the case of HAL, the all-knowing AI who turns into an assassin, isn’t enough to make us worry, a different one should. In Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” a sadistic AI dispenses never-ending torture to its human prisoners because of hatred and boredom.

I mention fictional stories, not to suggest that they might be prophetic, but to point out that they make vivid the risks of assuming that we know what we don’t actually know. They warn us not to underestimate the psychological and emotional complexity of our future creations. It’s true that given our current state of knowledge, making predictions about the psychology of future AI is an exceedingly difficult task. Yet difficulty shouldn’t be a reason to stop thinking about their psychology. If anything, it ought to be an imperative to investigate more closely how future AI will “think,” “feel” and act.

I take the issue of AI psychology seriously. You should, too. There are good reasons to think that future autonomous AI will likely experience something akin to human boredom. And the possibility of machine boredom, I hope to convince you, should concern us. It’s a serious but overlooked problem for our future creations. Read More > at Scientific American 

The Reason For Holes on The Tops of Pen Caps Is Surprisingly Awesome – Sometimes, science is all about the mind-aching big picture. Like the idea that our Universe is just a giant hologram, or that we’ve actually detected gravitational waves from a neutron star collision. Or that we might not actually have as much free will as we think…

“The reason that some BIC pens have a hole in their cap is to prevent the cap from completely obstructing the airway if accidentally inhaled,” the company writes on its website. “This is requested by the international safety standards ISO11540, except for in cases where the cap is considered too large to be a choking hazard.” 

Other pen manufacturers have followed suit and added larger holes to the top of their pens.

Accidentally swallowing parts of pens and pencils, including pen caps, accounted for several thousand trips to US emergency rooms between 1997 and 2010, according to data collected through the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Read More > at Science Alert  

U.S. manufacturers shrug off coronavirus, ISM finds, and grow at fastest pace since pandemic – Americans manufacturers grew in December at the fastest pace since the coronavirus pandemic erupted last spring, a potentially good omen for the economy as the U.S. fights off what could be the last major viral outbreak ahead of an unprecedented vaccination campaign.

The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index rose to 60.7% in December from 57.5% in the prior month, marking the highest level in almost two and a half years. Manufacturers have expanded for seven months in a row since the economy reopened last spring. Read More > at MarketWatch

The ‘gateway drug to corruption and overspending’ is returning to Congress – but are earmarks really that bad? – Congressional earmarks – otherwise known as “pork barrel spending” – may be coming back.

For decades, earmarks paid for pet projects back in lawmakers’ districts, with the tacit aim to earn those lawmakers votes. In turn, the awards encouraged legislators to vote for large spending bills. They have long been seen by many members of the public as well as some lawmakers as wasteful and distasteful, and they were banned in 2011.

Now, following the 2020 election, House Democrats have apparently decided to return to the practice. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland announced on Nov. 20 that the Appropriations Committee would soon begin soliciting member requests for earmarks, with a focus on projects that would benefit nonprofit organizations and state and local governments.

Although the Senate has appeared more committed to its ban, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, and other Senate Republicans and Democrats are also receptive to reviving earmarking.

Federal spending bills normally allocate an amount of money for general purposes and often defer to federal agency officials or state leaders to determine which particular projects best meet the overall goals. Earmarks are specific congressional instructions that carve out some of those funds, declaring directly that X amount of money must be spent on Y project.

Before 2011, earmarks were regularly and – until 2007 – in increasingly large numbers inserted into appropriations and highway funding bills. Read More > at The Conversation 

Another study confirms Californians are packing up and moving out. Where are they going? – U-Haul, the national rental truck company, provided yet more evidence Monday that California is dropping in popularity as a place to live, even as Sacramento is gaining ground as a COVID-19 era landing spot.

The company’s annual migration analysis ranks California last among states in net migration to and from other states. Put another way, California lost more residents to other states than any other state, as measured by “one-way” U-Haul trucks crossing state lines.

Tennessee saw the biggest net influx nationally, followed by Texas and Florida.

At the same time, though, the Sacramento region ranked as the 11th most popular area in the country for U-Haul moving truck arrivals, ranking behind only Surprise, Ariz. and St. George, Utah among “go-to” areas in the western United States.

Redding was the only other California city to make the list, in 16th place. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

California’s worsening recycling woes – California fell far short of meeting its ambitious goal of recycling, reducing or composting 75% of solid waste by 2020, according to a new report from the Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling. In fact, the state’s recycling rate has steadily decreased for years, from 50% in 2013 to a projected 37% in 2020. Meanwhile, the state’s annual waste disposal shot up from around 40 million tons in 2013 to around 50 million tons in 2019. And the pandemic dealt yet another financial blow to California’s recycling industry, which was already struggling to stay afloat: Nearly 1,000 recycling centers across the state have closed since 2013, the report found.

The Public Finance Outlook for 2021 in 10 Themes – …as a new year begins to unfold amid the pandemic’s continuing grip, it’s time to look forward to what lies ahead for leaders in state and local finance. I don’t claim a crystal ball here, just a crow’s-nest view of coming issues, concerns and likely trends. Here are 10 of them:

Even with mass vaccinations, the fiscal drag will be real in 2021. State and local revenues should recover by August, but public payrolls will keep lagging this year. While the U.S. economy should expand by this summer, public-sector layoffs and hiring freezes will remain the soft spot in national GDP. Exhaustion of rainy-day funds will be a problem for many public budgets, making the coming months the worst for some. Nonetheless, in some states the frothy stock market’s capital-gains tax revenues are offsetting losses from pandemic unemployment and business closures. Households will help by spending stimulus cash.

Small-business bankruptcies will continue to reshape Main Street. Even with two rounds of federal aid, a couple hundred thousand small businesses have already closed their doors forever in this pandemic, and roughly a thousand more are closing every day. Eventually, however, many will be replaced by newcomer startups and buy-outs from competitors. Brick-and-mortar retail stores and malls will continue to suffer for now, but shoppers will return this summer once vaccinations are widespread…

More businesses (and their high-paid executives) will migrate to low-tax and low-cost states. The exodus from high-tax states will continue, and it’s a race to the bottom with “beggar-thy-neighbor” economic development incentives. Some of this is structurally inevitable in a federal system and a geographically diverse economy, but “giveaways to greedy capitalists” will draw headlines. For local officials finding the temptation to uncork the incentives hard to resist, professional association guidance is worth a review. Read More > at Governing 

S.F. sees record overdose deaths, even as police seize millions of lethal fentanyl doses. What is happening? – More than 630 people died of overdoses in San Francisco from January to the end of November, a new record and a staggering increase from 441 in all of 2019. Amid the wave of death this spring, the San Francisco Police Department increased the number of officers focused on drug dealers in the Tenderloin — particularly those selling fentanyl to people like Stanphill’s 26-year-old son.

But the added focus on the long-troubled neighborhood did not stop the surge of fatalities in 2020, most of which occurred in and around the Tenderloin. Even as police seized potentially millions of lethal doses of fentanyl — an opioid that can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — more than 70% of the people who died had the drug in their system.

Overdoses killed more than three times as many people in San Francisco last year as COVID-19, and the drug epidemic shows no sign of slowing. Experts are divided over how to control it. The issue has largely pitted police and federal authorities against advocates for users and a progressive new district attorney, who favor treatment more than enforcement.

In the backdrop is a national reckoning over how police interact with vulnerable communities, like homeless, mentally ill and drug-addicted people. And the increased call for services comes as San Francisco faces a multimilliondollar budget deficit caused by the pandemic, which will force difficult decisions this year on what resources get funded, and which get cut. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle  

Gun-buying activity shatters records in 2020 amid lockdowns, riots, presidential election – Gun-buying activity shattered records in the U.S. this year, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation recording both the highest number of background checks in its history and the highest increase of checks year-over-year in over two decades. 

Last month was the busiest November on record for FBI background checks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to the Bureau’s month-by-month data. Background checks were up 40% from the prior November, with over 3.6 million checks performed throughout the month. 

That number would be remarkable during any other year. Only one other month in NICS history prior to this year, December 2015, has broken three million. Yet November was only the fourth-busiest month for background checks during 2020 overall. In June, the FBI recorded 3,931,607 total checks, nearly topping 4,000,000 checks in a month for the first time and handily beating the previous monthly record of 3,740,688 checks set in March. Read More > at Just the News

Writers call for a more nuanced alternative to ‘cancel culture’ – The acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for speaking her mind. And recently, she tackled one of the most controversial topics of the year, on the BBC program Newsnight. When asked about “cancel culture” – the social media trend of demanding people who say objectionable things be “de-platformed,” stripping them of speaking engagements, livelihoods and reputation – Adichie said she found it lacking in basic compassion. “In general, I think that the response to bad speech is more speech,” she said. “The problem with just sort of no-platforming people, cancelling people, sometimes for the smallest things, I think that it then makes censorship become a thing that we do to ourselves. I often wonder how many people are not saying what they think because they’re terrified. And if that’s happening, how much are we not learning? How much are we not growing?”

It’s not a new sentiment for the author, but it is one that’s found new traction in a moment when the online world feels uniquely receptive. The New York Times recently ran several pieces on how cancel culture is playing out in high schools and on campuses – including a profile of the feminist scholar Loretta J. Ross, who teaches a course at Smith College combating cancel culture, encouraging students to instead engage people they disagree with in conversation.

The same day the Times piece came out, the queer feminist writer Adrienne Maree Brown published a new book-length essay, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice.

“I think the thing I’m wrestling with, all the time, is that I want to be able to challenge the idea that we can dispose of each other when we do things that we don’t like,” Brown tells the Globe, on the line from Detroit. “Or even do things that cause harm. That we can dispose of each other and that will dispose of the problem.”

In We Will Not Cancel Us, the community organizer argues that the “call-out,” or cancellation, has a long history in social-justice movements and is an important tool for marginalized people to demand accountability. But these days, she writes, call-outs can sometimes feel like a feeding frenzy. “We are determining that someone is guilty based on hearsay, a lot of times,” she says. “We’re not hearing everything that’s happened, and we’re not giving people the room to recover, to apologize, to respond.” Read More > at The Globe and Mail

State Population By Race, Ethnicity Data – The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) is an annual survey about the nation and its people, including information about occupations, education, veterans, home ownership and transportation. This article uses data from the 2019 ACS that was released on Oct. 15, 2020, which is the most current data available. (Also see the 2017 ACS data.)

The latest Census Bureau estimates suggest about 30 percent of Americans identify as racial or ethnic minorities. Nationally, the largest racial demographic groups as of 2019 were:

  • White, alone: 72 percent
  • Black or African American, alone: 12 percent
  • American Indian and Alaska Native, alone: 0.9 percent
  • Asian, alone: 5.7 percent
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, alone: 0.2 percent
  • Some other race alone: 5 percent
  • Two or more races: 3.4 percent

Separately, Hispanics of any race accounted for 19 percent of the U.S. population. Read More > at Governing 

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Updated: California Has the 9th Slowest Recovery for Weekly Unemployment Claims in the U.S. – WalletHub Study

Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has now been raging across the U.S. for nearly a year, new unemployment claims decreased week-over-week on January 1, and were 89% below the peak during the COVID-19 pandemic. To help add some context to these statistics, WalletHub just released updated rankings for the States Whose Weekly Unemployment Claims Are Recovering the Quickest, along with accompanying videos and audio files.

To identify which states’ workforces are experiencing the quickest recovery from COVID-19, WalletHub compared the 50 states and the District of Columbia across three metrics based on changes in unemployment claims. Below, you can see highlights from the report, along with a WalletHub Q&A. To see the states most recovered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here.  

Change in California Weekly Unemployment Claims (1=Quickest Recovery, 25=Avg.):

  • 315.27% Change in Unemployment Claims (Latest Week vs 2019)
    • 160,029 the week of January 1, 2021 vs 38,536 the week of January 1, 2019
    • 8th slowest recovery in the U.S.
       
  • 335.81% Change in Unemployment Claims (Latest Week vs Start of 2020)
    • 160,029 the week of January 1, 2021 vs 36,720 the week of January 1, 2020
    • 10th slowest recovery in the U.S.
       
  • 681.94% Change in Unemployment Claims (Since Start of COVID-19 Crisis vs Previous Year)
    • 11,193,687 between the week of March 16, 2020 and the week of January 1, 2021 vs 1,641,447 between the week of March 18, 2019 and the week of January 1, 2020
    • 19th quickest recovery in the U.S.

To view the full report and your state’s rank, please visit:
https://wallethub.com/edu/states-unemployment-claims/72730/

WalletHub Q&A

How might the $900 billion in new COVID-19 relief signed into law by President Trump impact unemployment?

“The $900 billion in new COVID-19 relief should help reduce the number of future unemployment claims and provide a few months of stability to people who are already unemployed. The new package contains $284 billion in Paycheck Protection Program loans, which are designed to help business avoid laying off employees and saved over 51 million jobs the first time around,” said Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. “Unemployed people will benefit from up to $300 per week in extra benefits through March, as well as rental assistance, SNAP assistance and stimulus checks. These will help ensure that people have temporary food security and housing security.”

How will the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine impact unemployment?

“Once we achieve widespread distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, people will have much less risk of getting the virus, and as a result, businesses will be able to eventually reopen at full capacity,” said Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. “A full reopening will lead to a jump in business revenue and a greater need for workers, which means businesses will have both the desire and the resources to hire in full force. We should encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated in order to bring about the biggest possible reduction in unemployment.”

Should the government step in to help industries like movie theaters avoid going bankrupt?

“The government should take actions to prevent highly-impacted industries such as movie theaters from going bankrupt. Government restrictions on capacity, though essential for safety, have caused many places to become unprofitable. We should protect businesses against bankruptcy to prevent another rise in unemployment,” said Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. “In order to receive assistance, companies and landlords in danger of bankruptcy should also be willing to share in the cost. The government can’t be solely responsible for bailing everyone out.”

How has unemployment in California recovered?

“California’s unemployment claims have experienced the 9th slowest recovery in the U.S. For the week of January 1, California had 160,029 new unemployment claims, an 85% decrease from the peak during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Jill Gonzalez, WalletHub analyst. 

The above Q&A is also provided in audio format and can be edited as needed.

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A New Way To Travel Across The US

Gardill and a friend biked 350-miles along scenic paths and trails from western Pennsylvania to Washington DC (Credit: Credit: PBallay/Getty Images)
For five days, Gardill and a friend biked 350-miles along scenic paths and trails from western Pennsylvania to Washington DC (Credit: PBallay/Getty Images)

Stretching an extraordinary 3,700 miles from Washington DC to the Pacific Ocean, an ambitious new bike trail is aiming to be “America’s Main Street”.

The Great American Rail-Trail is the most ambitious biking initiative the country has ever seen. Stretching an extraordinary 3,700 miles from the nation’s capital across 12 states to the Pacific Ocean, west of Seattle, it’s an idea that’s been ruminating for 50 years. The Rail-Trail will connect more than 125 existing multi-use paths, greenways, trails and towpaths. An official route was announced to the public in May 2019 by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC), the Washington DC-based non-profit leading the effort, when the trail was already more than half completed.

The trail is largely built atop or next to abandoned railway lines (hence the name) with surfaces ranging from crushed stone to smooth asphalt. These railbanks – abandoned railway corridors converted into trails – account for more than 24,000 miles of multi-use trails crisscrossing the US.

Once it is fully completed – estimated to be before 2040 – almost one in six Americans will live within 50 miles of the route, and it will offer an unparalleled experience of the country people can’t see from 36,000ft or through a car window.

The timing couldn’t be better. According to an RTC study, in spring, trail use across the US spiked by 200%, in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic. With team sports and gyms mostly off people’s minds now and for the foreseeable future, the boom in outdoor, physically distanced activities such as cycling and hiking is expected to last for years.

Read More

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Nine new California laws explained — each in 1 minute

A new year also means new laws. Here are nine of California’s most noteworthy laws that went into effect Jan. 1 — ranging from family leave to mental health care to policing the police to ethnic studies — explained in 1 minute each.

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Vaccine – Sluggish rollout

Cal Matters Logo

As California confronts its darkest moment yet of the pandemic, complications in the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine — which Gov. Gavin Newsom billed as the “light at the end of the tunnel” — suggest that the tunnel may be longer than previously thought.

Although the Golden State was slated to receive around 2.1 million vaccine doses by the end of December, it had received less than 1.5 million as of Saturday — and only 412,000 Californians had gotten their first shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That represents about 17% of the health care workers California prioritized for the vaccine — many of whom are refusing to take it. Between 20% and 40% of frontline workers in Los Angeles County and up to 50% in Riverside County have turned down the vaccine.

The surprising development has left hospitals and public health officers unsure of what to do with the extra doses, which must be distributed according to state and federal guidelines even as interest groups clamor to be next in line. To prevent the doses from going to waste, two Southern California hospitals apparently inoculated employee relatives — a violation of federal guidelines that some leaders nonetheless praised. 

Adding to California’s coronavirus challenges, at least six cases of a new, potentially more contagious strain have been confirmed in the Golden State. And dangerously low ICU capacity means that 98.3% of Californians will remain under regional stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. 

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50 BART Accomplishments in 2020

At BART, we are firm believers that by thinking strategically, working hard, and engaging community, we can and will achieve remarkable things. With that, we chose to end 2020 with optimism.

Improvements to the rider experience

  • We now have 17 Fleet of the Future trains in service
  • We opened Berryessa and Milpitas stations
  • We now offer a 20% fare discount for eligible low-income riders with Clipper Start
  • We went Clipper only systemwide for a contactless experience

Explore Clipper and other discounts

We launched new features

  • Contactless parking payment via the official BART app
  • Customized in-app notifications to make it easy to get the information you need
  • Text BART police option (510) 200-0992
  • An online merchandise store so you can celebrate your love for BART  

Download the Official BART app

Progress on exciting multi-year projects

Check out our projects and plans 

Changes within policing

  • Hired Ed Alvarez, a 23-year veteran of the BART Police Department, bringing a new vision for safety
  • Created a train team of 12 police officers dedicated to riding trains and walking platforms on nights and weekends
  • Launched the successful and award-winning unarmed Ambassador Pilot and formalized the program
  • Hired 35 officers, bringing vacancies to a new low of 20
  • Established the new Progressive Policing and Community Engagement Bureau within BPD 

Meet our new Chief of Police

We advanced police reform

  • Began Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics (ICAT) training to give officers the skills to safely defuse critical incidents with people experiencing a mental health crisis
  • Banned the use of the Carotid Control Hold
  • Expanded the officer-worn body camera activation buffer with new audio requirement
  • Held 16 stakeholder outreach meetings to solicit feed-back on new public safety approaches with 1000 survey responses

Learn more about our decade of police reforms 

We focused on infrastructure

  • Completed two major track rebuilding projects at Orinda and Hayward
  • Accelerated 34.5kV power cable replacement, rail profiling, rail and third rail replacement, tunnel waterproofing, lighting projects and more

Learn about how we are rebuilding

We continued to modernize our stations

What’s up with our fare gate project

We prioritized COVID-19 response

  • Made available free masks at all stations
  • Offered free hand sanitizer stations systemwide
  • Sharing crowding data 
  • Testing disinfecting technologies and upgraded air filters
  • Reprioritized cleaning schedules to ensure all train cars are sprayed with disinfecting mist every 24 hours

15 Step Welcome Back Plan

Read all 50 accomplishments

The rest of the list includes specifics on how:

  • We supported local, small businesses
  • We continued our Transit Oriented Development efforts
  • We focused on financial stability
  • We invested in our employees

Read all 50 BART accomplishments in 2020

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Sunday Reading – 01/03/2021

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.

Coronavirus: Without California surge, US numbers would be declining – As other regions of the country finally see some relief from the insidious coronavirus, California’s surge has grown so large it now claims a dark distinction in the nation’s outbreak: Without the Golden State, U.S. numbers would be dropping.

That’s according to The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic, which analyzes data from across the country.

Nationally, more than 18 million people have gotten the coronavirus, and more than 300,000 have died. But former hot spots such as North Dakota, which had been seeing north of 1,000 new cases a day but is now recording just a few hundred, are improving. Things are looking up in nearby South Dakota and Wisconsin, too. But case counts remain stubbornly high across the South, from Arizona in the Southwest to Alabama and Mississippi. However, the worst numbers in recent days have been coming from California, where new case numbers are up 60 percent in the last two weeks and the state on Wednesday recorded its 2 millionth case.

Experts say an even closer look at California’s crushing spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations makes it clear that half the state is primarily pushing the latest surge.

According to John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, the statewide data masks the fact that Northern California is doing relatively well.

“Yes, California is doing terribly now,” Swartzberg said. “That is primarily Southern California, and because California is such a large state, it does drive the numbers. But I wouldn’t make a lot out of this because this is just the pattern we’ve seen. One area explodes and gets better, and another area explodes and gets better.” Read More > in The Mercury News

The Year of Driving Less—but More Dangerously – Total traffic deaths fell during pandemic lockdowns. But fatalities per mile traveled rose, due to faster driving, fewer cops, and more drug use.

In theory, bringing society to a screeching halt should curtail traffic deaths. No one’s going to bars and then driving home; few are commuting to work; the occasional trip to the grocery store does not demand excessive speed.

So when swaths of the country ground to a halt this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it was easy to predict the results. Heeding public health officials, plenty of people stopped traveling. So yes, traffic deaths did decline, at least in the first half of the year, according to the most recent government data available. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which tracks traffic fatalities, says 16,650 people died on US roads from January through June, compared with 16,988 in the same period a year earlier, a 2 percent dip.

But the volume of traffic fell much more. As a result, more people died per mile traveled—1.25 per 100 million miles in the first half of the year, compared with 1.06 in the same period in 2019, and the highest rate since 2008. From April through June, the figures were even more dire: Deaths per mile traveled jumped by 31 percent compared with 2019, a figure that usually staid government researchers called “striking.” Read More > at Wired

This year proved once and for all: screens are no substitute for real lifeHow we will ultimately remember the pandemic of 2020 is not yet known. Right now, it is the omnipotent crisis, dominating every waking moment. For those with any interest in the news, there are the daily death totals, surpassing those of 9/11, and reminders that a vaccine is here but not here, still many months away from ending this hell for good.

But a more deadly pandemic in 1918 and 1919 was largely lost to history, swallowed by the end of the first world war and the roaring 20s, the mass death hardly making a groove in the long-term psyche of the nation. The generation that lived through coronavirus may talk about it until they die or choose, like their ancestors in the early 20th century, to bury it away and focus on new horizons.

Covid-19 has shown us, at least, what will be necessary and what we can absolutely do without. There are white-collar jobs that can be performed adequately from home. For some companies, large offices in central business districts are an extravagant waste of money. Hygiene, we hope, will change forever, with routine hand-washing and occasional mask-wearing in crowded areas becoming normalized in America. One hundred years ago, survivors of the flu pandemic learned about the importance of fresh air and proper ventilation, and this is a lesson we were forced, under horrific circumstances, to internalize anew.

We learned, too, what it is we don’t want – a world utterly consumed by screens. Yes, we will maintain our smartphone addictions, and laptops and tablets will continue to consume much of our time inside our homes. The pandemic has boosted Zoom stock by 500%. For many of us, this has been 2020: one Zoom after another, human faces in little boxes. In the early months of the pandemic, there were Zoom birthday parties, Zoom cocktails, Zoom Easters and Zoom Passovers. The life we had lost needed to be approximated, as much as possible, by Zoomworld, forging connections and alleviating boredom.

…The pandemic made it easy to imagine an approaching dystopia: one in which, in the coming years, we would all sequester ourselves away from light and air, too terrified to venture outdoors. Instead of heading to the bar or the gym, we would build worlds of our own within our four walls, content to approximate the reality we once knew.

Instead, we rediscovered parks and trails, flocked to beaches, and revolutionized city streets with outdoor dining. We wearied of our devices. There is no app or program that can replicate a friend’s laughter across the table or a teacher’s lesson at the front of a classroom. After the pandemic, in a post-vaccination world, we will race back to our old lives. Zoomworld will belong to history. Read More > at The Guardian 

Organic, non-organic meats have similar greenhouse gas impacts – Approximately the same amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas are released to produce a pound of organic meat and a pound of non-organic meat, according to calculations by a trio of German scientists.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming, researchers and policy makers need to better understand greenhouse gas impacts of different industries and production processes, according to the researchers.

When researchers calculated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the raising, slaughtering, processing and distribution of different types of meats, both conventional and organic, they found little difference in the carbon and methane inputs.

The results of their analysis were published this month in the journal Nature Communications. Read More > at UPI

A Carbon-Powered Shot – Global jubilation greeted images of a United Airlines jumbo jet being loaded for the first flights carrying the Covid-19 vaccine for distribution. Much will be written about the unprecedented efforts in developing the vaccines so rapidly.

One of the least noted aspects of that story is the carbon footprint associated with the vaccination ecosystem. This isn’t surprising, as it’s just one illustration of an unremarkable fact: everything in modern society uses energy, and that energy gets delivered wherever and whenever needed, without fuss and at costs so low as to be an irrelevant consideration.

In this context, we may want to consider the implications of the incoming Biden administration’s pledge to remake America’s energy infrastructure. Developing, fabricating, and distributing vaccines epitomizes the nature of all manufacturing and services. Getting vaccines to everyone entails more than thousands of oil-burning jumbo jet flights to deliver what brilliant scientists invented—it also takes a sprawling ecosystem of electron-gobbling supercomputers put to work by those scientists, energy-intensive manufacturing plants, football-field-sized “freezer farms” for warehousing vaccines, and kilotons of dry ice for “cold-chain” shipping.

Some irony resides in the fact that dry ice is solidified carbon dioxide. Megawatt-hours of energy are needed to solidify all that CO2, which is then used to keep certain things (especially temperature-sensitive vaccines) chilled at minus 78o F. All dry ice ends up as CO2 gas in our atmosphere because it inevitably sublimates. There isn’t a good alternative for chilling-in-transit. Indeed, the century-old cold-chain industry has become a critical part of the enormous infrastructure required for food and medical deliveries. Read More > at City Journal

Insecure wheels: Police turn to car data to destroy suspects’ alibis – In recent years, investigators have realized that automobiles — particularly newer models — can be treasure troves of digital evidence. Their onboard computers generate and store data that can be used to reconstruct where a vehicle has been and what its passengers were doing. They reveal everything from location, speed and acceleration to when doors were opened and closed, whether texts and calls were made while the cellphone was plugged into the infotainment system, as well as voice commands and web histories.

Law enforcement agencies have been focusing their investigative efforts on two main information sources: the telematics system — which is like the “black box” — and the infotainment system. The telematics system stores a vehicle’s turn-by-turn navigation, speed, acceleration and deceleration information, as well as more granular clues, such as when and where the lights were switched on, the doors were opened, seat belts were put on and airbags were deployed.

The infotainment system records recent destinations, call logs, contact lists, text messages, emails, pictures, videos, web histories, voice commands and social media feeds. It can also keep track of the phones that have been connected to the vehicle via USB cable or Bluetooth, as well as all the apps installed on the device.

Together, the data allows investigators to reconstruct a vehicle’s journey and paint a picture of driver and passenger behavior. In a criminal case, the sequence of doors opening and seat belts being inserted could help show that a suspect had an accomplice. Read More > at NBC News

‘Diversity Training’ Doesn’t Work. This Might. – Diversity-related training programs are intended to serve a range of purposes. For instance, they can provide organizations with a signaling device to show that they are ‘with it,’ and ‘doing something’ about inequality, bias or discrimination. This can be useful for PR purposes, and can also help shield organizations from legal liability. But of course, these objectives are largely implicit:  the training would not work as a virtue signaling tool if it was explicitly acknowledged as such. 

Instead, the explicit objectives of diversity-related training programs include rectifying inequalities, improving the organizational climate and employee morale, increasing collaboration across lines of difference, fostering free exchange of ideas and information, enhancing the hiring, retention, and promotion of diverse candidates, and more. 

Put another way, PR and legal purposes aside, there are real organizational needs that diversity-related training is supposed to help meet. It is no small challenge to create an environment where people with different backgrounds, worldviews, priorities and life plans can forge healthy working relationships, learn from (and grow alongside) one another, collaborate to effectively advance organizational goals, subordinate egoistic and nepotistic impulses to prioritize organizational interests and meritocratic decision-making, etc. As I’ve elaborated upon elsewhere, the typical college graduate is not well prepared to succeed at these tasks. On paper, diversity-related training is supposed to help fill these gaps. 

Unfortunately, a robust and ever-growing body of empirical literature suggests that diversity-related training typically fails at its stated objectives. It does not seem to meaningfully or durably improve organizational climate or workplace morale; it does not increase collaboration or exchange across lines of difference; it does not improve hiring, retention or promotion of diverse candidates.  In fact, the training is often counterproductive with respect to these explicit goals. Read More > at Heterodox: The Blog

The world’s growing concrete coasts – …With three tonnes per year used for every person in the world, there are few parts of the planet that concrete hasn’t reached. The production of concrete is also a huge emitter of CO2. At least 8% of humanity’s carbon footprint comes from the concrete industry, mostly from the production of cement – one of concrete’s principal components. The cement industry generates around 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year – more than any country other than China or the US.

In the oceans, concrete is the main construction material, accounting for more than 70% of coastal and marine infrastructure such as ports, coastal defence structures and waterfronts. In China, for example, around 60% of its coast is effectively concrete. Similarly, more than 14,000 miles of the US’s coastline is covered in concrete. Read More > from the BBC

Billion-Dollar Book Companies Are Ripping Off Public Schools – Over the past decade, Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths have discreetly and methodically tightened their grip on American schools, and the pandemic has given them license to squeeze even tighter. By 2017, tens of millions of students were already using Google Chromebooks and apps for reading, writing, and turning in their work. Google Classroom now has more than 100 million users worldwide—nearly seven times the number reported in The New York Times three years ago. When we emerge from the pandemic, schools will be even more reliant on such systems. Industry is bolting an adamantine layer of technology onto the world’s classrooms, in what amounts to a stealth form of privatization.

The benefits of e-books may seem obvious. They should provide a cheap, convenient way to supply millions of kids with classic novels: They don’t wear out, they can’t get lost or be defaced with underlining, doodles, or the name of your latest crush, and, with a pandemic still raging, they provide a safe, instantaneous way to distribute books to students who are stuck at home.

But in practice, this convenience comes at a staggering cost. Billion-dollar companies like Follett and EBSCO are renting e-books to schools each year, rather than selling them permanent copies. By locking school districts into contracts that turn them into captive consumers, corporate tech providers are draining public education budgets that don’t have a penny to spare.

So how much does it cost for a school to rent a book? I asked Chrystal Woodcock, library media supervisor for the Menifee Union School District in Southern California.

The Diary of Anne Frank, “a really important, classic piece of literature that social studies teachers have taught forever,” Woodcock said, “costs $27 per student for a 12-month subscription.”

In other words, you buy the book for $27, and it just—expires?

Yes, Woodcock said. “You have to budget for that every single year … The Diary of Anne FrankLord of the Flies. The books that are part of our ingrained culture… Read More > at The New Republic

How Your Digital Trails Wind Up in the Police’s Hands – Phone calls. Web searches. Location tracks. Smart speaker requests. They’ve become crucial tools for law enforcement, while users often are unaware.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS’ EVERY move was being tracked without his knowledge—even before the fire. In August, Williams, an associate of R&B star and alleged rapist R. Kelly, allegedly used explosives to destroy a potential witness’s car. When police arrested Williams, the evidence cited in a Justice Department affidavit was drawn largely from his smartphone and online behavior: text messages to the victim, cell phone records, and his search history.

The investigators served Google a “keyword warrant,” asking the company to provide information on any user who had searched for the victim’s address around the time of the arson. Police narrowed the search, identified Williams, then filed another search warrant for two Google accounts linked to him. They found other searches: the “detonation properties” of diesel fuel, a list of countries that do not have extradition agreements with the US, and YouTube videos of R. Kelly’s alleged victims speaking to the press. Williams has pleaded not guilty.

Data collected for one purpose can always be used for another. Search history data, for example, is collected to refine recommendation algorithms or build online profiles, not to catch criminals. Usually. Smart devices like speakers, TVs, and wearables keep such precise details of our lives that they’ve been used both as incriminating and exonerating evidence in murder cases. Speakers don’t have to overhear crimes or confessions to be useful to investigators. They keep time-stamped logs of all requests, alongside details of their location and identity. Investigators can access these logs and use them to verify a suspect’s whereabouts or even catch them in a lie. Read More > at Wired

She Noticed $200 Million Missing, Then She Was Fired – Earlier this year, the governing board of one of California’s most powerful regulatory agencies unleashed troubling accusations against its top employee.

Commissioners with the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, accused Executive Director Alice Stebbins of violating state personnel rules by hiring former colleagues without proper qualifications. They said the agency chief misled the public by asserting that as much as $200 million was missing from accounts intended to fund programs for the state’s blind, deaf and poor. At a hearing in August, Commission President Marybel Batjer said that Stebbins had discredited the CPUC.

“You took a series of actions over the course of several years that calls into question your integrity,” Batjer told Stebbins, who joined the agency in 2018. Those actions, she said, “cause us to have to consider whether you can continue to serve as the leader of this agency.”

The five commissioners voted unanimously to terminate Stebbins, who had worked as an auditor and budget analyst for different state agencies for more than 30 years.

But an investigation by the Bay City News Foundation and ProPublica has found that Stebbins was right about the missing money.

Just days before Stebbins was fired, CPUC officials told California’s Department of Finance that the agency was owed more than $200 million, according to a memo obtained by the news organizations. The finance agency launched an investigation into the uncollected funds.

The news organizations’ investigation also found flaws in the State Personnel Board report that Batjer used to terminate Stebbins. Three former CPUC employees said in interviews that the report contained falsehoods. The report alleged that the auditor who discovered the missing money was unqualified. But hiring materials obtained by the news organizations show that state officials had determined that the auditor was the most qualified candidate, awarding him an “excellent” rating in every category. Read More > at ProPublica

Still Disinfecting Surfaces? It Might Not Be Worth It – At the start of the pandemic, stores quickly sold out of disinfectant sprays and wipes. People were advised to wipe down their packages and the cans they bought at the grocery store.

But scientists have learned a lot this year about the coronavirus and how it’s transmitted, and it turns out all that scrubbing and disinfecting might not be necessary.

If a person infected with the coronavirus sneezes, coughs or talks loudly, droplets containing particles of the virus can travel through the air and eventually land on nearby surfaces. But the risk of getting infected from touching a surface contaminated by the virus is low, says Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University.

“In hospitals, surfaces have been tested near COVID-19 patients, and no infectious virus can be identified,” Goldman says.

What’s found is viral RNA, which is like “the corpse of the virus,” he says. That’s what’s left over after the virus dies.

“They don’t find infectious virus, and that’s because the virus is very fragile in the environment — it decays very quickly,” Goldman says. Read More > from NPR

Ten Scientific Discovers from 2020 that may lead to new inventions – Many new inventions and technologies derive inspiration from nature. The practice of modeling artificial products after biological processes is called biomimicry or biomimetics. Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, popularized the term in her 1997 book, Biomimicry. “Biomimicry,” she wrote, “is basically taking a design challenge and then finding an ecosystem that’s already solved that challenge, and literally trying to emulate what you learn.”

As scientists studying the natural world reveal their findings, inventors and engineers are drawing from these new revelations and applying nature’s solutions to new technology. Whether the problems researchers are looking to solve involve building better robots, tracking cancer cells more efficiently or improving telescopes to study space, a useful solution can be found in living things.

Here are ten findings from 2020 that could one day lead to new inventions.

Suckerfish Surf on the Backs of Other Sea Creatures

…The fish’s “sucking disc” isn’t actually sticking up against the whale’s skin either. Instead it hovers just above, creating a low-pressure zone that sucks the fish close to the whale and prevents it from flying off into the abyss—most of the time.

Flammang, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has already gotten to work on an artificial suction disk inspired by the remora that she hopes will be used to attach cameras and tracking devices to endangered marine animals, like blue whales. Currently, researchers use regular suction cups to fasten cameras to their research subjects, but those only keep their grip from 24 to 48 hours. Flammang’s new device will stay on for weeks and reduce drag. She and her team are currently testing the disc on compliant surfaces as well as designing a remora-shaped casing for the camera. Eventually, they’ll field test the device on live animals, including whales, dolphins, sharks and manta rays.

The Diabolical Ironclad Beetle’s Exoskeleton Is Indestructible

The diabolical ironclad beetle absolutely lives up to its name. While most bugs live only a few weeks, these beetles have a lifespan of about eight years, which is roughly the equivalent of a human living several thousand years. To achieve such a feat, they’ve evolved some remarkable armor.

…In their paper, the researchers suggest a beetle-inspired interlocking fastener could perhaps replace similarly-shaped, but layer-less, joints used to secure airplane turbines. The team created a 3-D printed model complete with “lamination,” or layers. They predict this finding could introduce “immediate benefit over aviation fasteners, providing enhanced strength and substantial increased toughness.” But really, this design could be used anytime two different materials—like metal and plastic—need to be conjoined, such as in bridges, buildings and vehicles, too. Read More > in The Smithsonian 

What are the most common ways people get injured? – Every year in the United States, 40 million people end up injured in the emergency department, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From bee stings to car accidents, health care workers in emergency departments see it all. So, what are the most common ways people get injured?

“Falls by far,” said Susan Baker, an epidemiologist specializing in injury prevention at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Especially when you’re talking about non-fatal injuries.” In 2018, about 29% of percent of people who went to the emergency department because of an injury had fallen down, according to the CDC. The most common culprit? Likely stairs, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), a database of consumer product-related injuries. (The database lists stairs alongside ramps and landings.)

Stair-related injuries are a risk for older adults in particular, who tend to fall more often than younger people due to cognitive decline and loss of physical fitness. “If you don’t stay physically fit, you start to lose some of your balance,” said Lorann Stallones, the director of the Colorado Injury Control Research Center. Read More > at Live Science

Studies find having COVID-19 may protect against reinfection – Two new studies give encouraging evidence that having COVID-19 may offer some protection against future infections. Researchers found that people who made antibodies to the coronavirus were much less likely to test positive again for up to six months and maybe longer.

The results bode well for vaccines, which provoke the immune system to make antibodies—substances that attach to a virus and help it be eliminated.

Researchers found that people with antibodies from natural infections were “at much lower risk … on the order of the same kind of protection you’d get from an effective vaccine,” of getting the virus again, said Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

“It’s very, very rare” to get reinfected, he said. Read More > at Medical Xpress

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East Bay Regional Park District – Fee Collection Restarts January 4

To ensure free and easy public access to Regional Parks and trails during the pandemic, the Park District waived collection of all fees in 2020. To support funding of the many programs, services and amenities slated to reopen next year, fees will be reimplemented effective Jan 4, 2021. Fees include parking, camping, fishing, and boat launching. Fees for use of seasonal and recreational facilities, services and amenities that will hopefully reopen later in the year include swimming, reservable picnic areas, and recreational programs.

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Plan Bay Area 2050: Final Blueprint Analysis Released

Arial of the Pacific coastline
Karl Nielsen

MTC and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) are pleased to announce the release of the Plan Bay Area 2050 Final Blueprint Outcomes(link is external)—a major milestone in the development of Plan Bay Area 2050, the Bay Area’s long-range plan to guide the growth of our nine-county region for the next generation. The Plan Bay Area 2050 Final Blueprint(link is external), which is made up of the strategies, growth geographies, and regional growth forecast was approved by MTC and ABAG in September 2020.

Building on analyses of the Draft Blueprint(link is external), the Final Blueprint includes a set of 35 revised and expanded strategies to tackle the Bay Area’s transportation, housing, economic and environmental challenges while creating a more resilient and equitable future for the Bay Area. These strategies are either public policies or sets of investments that can be implemented in the Bay Area over the next 30 years.

Over the last several months, MTC and ABAG staff analyzed these strategies to determine how much more progress the Bay Area makes toward reaching Plan Bay Area 2050’s vision(link is external) of ensuring by 2050 that the region is affordable, connected, diverse, healthy and vibrant for all. This analysis shows that continued progress has been made due to the new and expanded strategies featured in the Final Blueprint. The 35 strategies featured in the plan demonstrate how the region can:

  • Achieve the Bay Area’s 19% greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, as set by the California Air Resources Board;
  • Reduce overall housing and transportation costs for residents, especially for households with lower incomes;
  • Increase the production and preservation of affordable housing;
  • Create a more accessible and reliable transit network;
  • Reduce the risk of displacement for people with lower incomes;
  • Invest in parks and open spaces, particularly in historically disinvested communities;
  • Increase resilience against wildfires and sea level rise; and
  • Support a thriving economy with a more balanced regional pattern of jobs and housing.

Read more about the Final Blueprint strategies and their outcomes on planbayarea.org(link is external).

Staff will seek adoption of the Final Blueprint as the Preferred Alternative for environmental analysis(link is external) purposes by the Commission and ABAG Executive Board in January 2021.

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What to do if you receive a new stimulus payment

As part of the COVID-related Tax Relief Act of 2020, the federal government will begin to provide a second round of stimulus payments to eligible recipients. If you’re eligible to receive a payment, you may receive the funds in one of these ways:

Automatic deposit

If you are eligible for a payment, your payment will be deposited directly into the same account used when you filed your 2019 tax return and/or the account number used in the previous stimulus payment program. The payment will appear in your account summary as “IRS TREAS 310 XXTAXEIP2” or something similar.

The IRS has a website where you can check your payment status here. This link is likely to be frequently updated.

Paper check in the mail

If you did not give the IRS your direct deposit account information through your federal tax return in the last two years, and have not provided the IRS with your information as a non-filer, you will likely receive a US Treasury check. The check will be mailed to the address on file at the IRS from the prior year tax return.

In most cases, deposited stimulus funds are available right away, up to $2,500. Immediate availability of funds is subject to change at any time, without advance notice.

Check your ATM receipt or mobile deposit confirmation screen or email to see when you will have access to the deposited funds.

How you can help protect yourself from fraud

If you receive a suspicious email or text message, don’t respond, click on links, or open attachments. If we reach out to you by phone, we won’t ask for confidential information — such as your card PIN, access code, or online banking password. To learn more, visit our Answers to Questions about Stimulus Payments page. Learn more

 

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Bay Area Scores $407 Million in SB1 Transportation Dollars for 11 Projects

Metropolitan Transportation Commission

Bay Area highway, transit and goods-movement projects this week earned more than $400 million in new funding as the California Transportation Commission (CTC) finalized a new round of awards through a trio of competitive statewide programs established by the Senate Bill 1 transportation investment package signed into law in 2017. 

MTC will work with Caltrans, BART and county transportation agencies to deliver 11 crucial projects around the Bay Area, which together earned about 20 percent of the total $2.046 billion awarded by the CTC through the Solutions for Congested Corridors, Trade Corridor Enhancement and Local Partnership programs.

“SB 1 money is essential to keeping the California economy moving, not just through the current crisis, but into the post-pandemic future,” said MTC Chairman and Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty. “The Bay Area’s success in the stiff competition for these dollars reflects the clear need to modernize our freeways, transit systems and freight corridors to maintain the Bay Area’s position as an engine for economic growth throughout the state.”

 Among the allocations approved through the Trade Corridor Enhancement Program are:

  • $123 million to complete a $275 million funding package for construction to begin in 2021 on 18 miles of Express Lanes along Interstate 80 through the heart of Solano County, providing travelers a reliable trip through this vital artery connecting the Bay Area to Sacramento. The express lanes will also support express buses in the corridor and encourage carpooling as an alternative to single-occupant vehicles.
  • $55 million to complete a $101 million funding package for transforming the outdated two-lane connector between U.S. 101 and State Route 25 in southern Santa Clara County to a new four-lane connector with shoulders and bike lanes. The project, set to begin construction in 2022, will improve traffic flow and decrease backups on U.S. 101.
  • $24 million to complete final design for a new Cordelia Truck Scales facility along westbound I-80 in Solano County.
  • $18 million for the final design of further improvements to the Interstate 680/State Route 4 Interchange in Contra Costa County.

SB 1 funds awarded through the Local Partnership Program include:

  • $25 million to complete the Interstate 680 Southbound Express Lanes project in Alameda County.
  • $25 million for improvements to the U.S. 101/De La Cruz/Trimble interchange just north of the Mineta San Jose International Airport in Santa Clara County.
  • $9 million for San Francisco’s Mission/Geneva Safety Improvements project.
  • $3 million to Sonoma County for the Windsor River Road/Windsor Road Intersection Improvements and Pathway project.

The largest of the CTC’s new allocations to Bay Area projects through the Solutions for Congested Corridors program is $60 million to enable BART to begin construction next year on its $1 billion Train Control Modernization Project, part of the agency’s Transbay Core Capacity Program to increase the number of trains able to travel through the Transbay Tube between San Francisco and Oakland.

The CTC allocated $40 million through the Solutions for Congested Corridors program to close the final gap (known as segment B7) in the long-running US-101 Marin-Sonoma Narrows project by constructing a carpool lane between Novato and Petaluma. The SB1 dollars will supplement over $90 million from other sources and allow for construction on this final segment to begin as early as 2021.

The CTC’s third Bay Area allocation through the Solutions for Congested Corridors program is $25 million to complete a $64 million funding package and begin construction next year of a double roundabout at the Soscol Junction of State Routes 29 and 221 south of Napa. The improvements will relieve a traffic bottleneck that has long bedeviled residents, workers and tourists to Napa’s famous wine region, and will also deliver important safety and active transportation benefits to the area.

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From PG&E – Tips To Prepare for Winter Storms

Winter storm season is here. Are you prepared for wind, rain and snow that can potentially cause temporary power outages? Here are some tips to consider this winter:

  • Do you have an emergency kit ready? — Stock an emergency supply kit with food, water, flashlights, batteries, first aid equipment, cash and other critical supplies. To make sure you’re prepared before a winter emergency or outage, remember to check your kit every six months.
  • Do you have a plan for medical needs? — Plan ahead for medications that require refrigeration and devices that need power. In the event of an outage, check your device once power is turned back on to determine whether settings have changed or reset.
  • Do you see downed power lines? — Never touch them because the wires might still be energized, and contact could result in serious or fatal injury. Please report downed wires immediately to emergency responders at 911 and PG&E at 1-800-743-5000.
  • Is your backup generator ready to safely operate? — Make sure you understand and follow safety instructions for installation and use. Generators should be installed by a licensed electrician and operated in a well-ventilated area.

Having a plan can help you and your family stay safe this winter. Find more storm-related safety tips here.

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Sunday Reading – 12/27/2020

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.

God and the Pandemic – Although hardly as lethal as the ancient plagues, the current pandemic has taken an enormous toll on our sense of wellbeing. Gallup reports the highest levels of mental anguish for 20 years in the United States, a phenomenon also evident in the United Kingdom and Europe. Yet, historically, religions have expanded during periods of extreme stress, a trend that provides grounds for a spiritual rebirth. As church attendance has plummeted—two-thirds of US Protestant churches have suffered a decline this year of 50 percent or more—virtual church attendance is booming. According to Pew, a quarter of Americans say the pandemic has bolstered their faith, a finding confirmed by Gallup. Today, many online churches are flourishing, some with as many as 70,000 virtual attendees. Google searches for “prayer” and “Christianity” have “skyrocketed,” not only in the US but around the world. Danish researcher Jeanet Sinding Bentzen found requests for religious sources and prayers has grown dramatically, even in heavily secularized Europe. Similarly, one of the UK’s largest online Christian bookstores, Eden, saw physical Bible sales rise by 55 percent in April.

This reprises past experience. During the plague-ridden days of the late Roman Empire, Christianity gained over pagan cultures by offering counsel, comfort, and philosophical explanations.2 Historian William McNeill speaks of the “sublime capacity” of the early Christian to cope with plagues and offer hope that was critical to the Church’s rise.3 Those making the transition tend to be focused on addressing the pandemic-caused dilemmas faced by the vast majority of people. The evangelical group Global Media Outreach has gone from reaching 350,000 people per day to upwards of 500,000 globally. A GMO leader told the Christian Post, “People are coming to us saying, ‘I need hope. Where can I find hope in the face of tragedy, anxiety, bankruptcy?’” He added, “When people are in pain, we offer encouragement and hope. They’re coming to us looking for answers.” Read More > at Quillette

How $10 Million for Gender Programs in Pakistan Got Tied to a COVID Relief Bill – During a year in which tens of millions of Americans were forced out of work and hundreds of thousands of businesses were destroyed, lawmakers could not even vote on clean relief legislation.

Hours before lawmakers voted on a multi-trillion dollar government funding package that included a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill, congressional aides were spotted wheeling in the legislation.

It ran 5,593 pages.

“You’d have to read 560 pages an hour to finish it before midnight,” observed NBC News correspondent Garrett Haake.

Lawmakers did not wait until midnight to pass the legislation, however.

“The Senate passed the massive year-end legislation combining $900 billion in pandemic relief with $1.4 trillion to fund federal agencies through fiscal 2021,” Bloomberg reported. “The House passed the legislation earlier Monday night. The total bill is worth more than $2.3 trillion, including support for small businesses impacted by the pandemic, $600 payments for most individuals, supplemental unemployment insurance, regular funding for federal agencies and a bevy of tax breaks for companies.”

So how did lawmakers read 560 pages an hour before voting on the bill? The answer is simple: they didn’t. In fact, there was a great deal of confusion—in both media and Congress—on what precisely lawmakers were voting on.

…So while the Pakistani gender programs were not technically included in the COVID relief bill, the end result is much the same. US senators could not vote for COVID relief without voting for gender programs in Pakistan, $35 million for abstinence programs, and tax changes for owners of race horses. (The process in the House was a bit more complicated.)  Read More > from the Foundation for Economic Education

Why I’m Losing Trust in the Institutions – Who should be first in line to get the vaccine against Covid-19?

These kinds of decisions are never easy, and there are many competing considerations. Highly trained moral philosophers can have deep disagreements about them. Though I myself have studied ethics and political philosophy for much of my academic career, I am deeply grateful that I don’t have to make those judgment calls. But for all of those difficulties, there are also some bedrock principles on which virtually all moral philosophers have long agreed.

The first is that we should avoid “leveling down” everyone’s quality of life for the purpose of achieving equality. It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.

In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of “social justice” to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.

Since states will now have to decide whether to follow the CDC’s recommendations, the fight for a just distribution of the vaccine is not yet over. At the same time, the past days have already taught us two lessons that sum up some of the most worrying developments of the past years: The attack on philosophically liberal principles has by now migrated from leafy college campuses to the most important and powerful organizations in the country. And, in part as a result, it is getting harder and harder to trust institutions from the CDC to the New York Times.

On November 23rd, Kathleen Dooling, a public health official at the CDC, gave a presentation to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is tasked with developing the recommendation on who should first get access to the vaccine against Covid. In a stark departure from the course of action adopted in virtually every other developed democracy, Dooling recommended that 87 million essential workers—a very broad category including bankers and movie crews as well as teachers or supermarket cashiers—should get the vaccine before older Americans, even though the elderly are much more likely to die from the disease. The committee unanimously accepted the recommendations. Read More > at Persuasion

Protecting Cops—and Citizens – Primed by the Covid-19-induced fiscal shortfall and catalyzed by the “Defund the Police” protests over the summer, the Los Angeles City Council will reduce the city’s police force by 350 sworn officer positions. This reduction comes after a planned $150 million cut from the LAPD’s budget, announced earlier this year. Officials have been scrambling to reorganize the force since.

Police forces across the country have been hit hard by layoffs, early retirements, and resignations. Seattle’s police chief resigned after the city council voted to reduce her force by 100 officers. Chicago’s police department saw its retirement rate jump to twice the normal level this year compared with the last five. Smaller cities weren’t spared: Asheville, North Carolina, had lost 13 percent of its force by September.

Officer ranks have been steadily declining. Between the late 1990s and 2016, the number of police officers per capita nationally dropped by more than 10 percent. Filling vacancies is not easy, as applications for sworn officer positions have dropped by more than half since 2010.

Most Americans—including 81 percent of black Americans—want a strong and effective police presence in their communities. But recent tragedies have shaken trust in policing, leading to widespread support for reform. Policymakers should back measures that refine accountability procedures and make data on police activities more accessible without hamstringing the police’s ability to manage crime. For example, with so much media attention paid to police brutality, little data exist on the details surrounding police use of force. The lack of nationwide, standardized reporting means that the public relies on sometimes-misleading mainstream and social media reports to fill in the gap.

One commonsense reform would require departments to collect and report use-of-force data in a standardized format to a central repository. Departments should also make data available on locally. Comprehensive and localized data can reveal where structural or recurring problems exist, or where well-performing departments are being unfairly blamed. Read More > at City Journal

New Federal Lawsuit Accuses Gov. Newsom of ‘Gross Abuse of Power’ and Violation of Due Process Clause – “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch recently wrote, overturning New York’s church closure restrictions.

With a recent court win over Los Angeles County regarding the outdoor dining ban, California attorneys Mark Geragos, Harmeet Dhillon, Mark Meuser, Alexandra Kazerian, and Matthew Hoesly, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Gov. Gavin Newsom, representing Los Angeles restaurant owner Angela Marsden who made the recent tearful, now-viral video as she was forced to close down her restaurant, Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grille. She was forced to close down even her outdoor dining, while a Hollywood film production was allowed to provide the same outdoor dining across the shared parking lot. The message: Hollywood “essential” and necessary, Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grille, not.

This is the 17th lawsuit against the governor by the Dhillon Law Group since he ordered the state locked down for COVID-19 in March.

The lawsuit opens up with the Great Barrington Declaration, which the Globe has reported on extensively:

Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health. The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health- leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.

…. The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection.

…. Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal…

~The Great Barrington Declaration – signed by over 51,970 medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners from around the world and across political ideologies. Read More > in the California Globe

Scientists solve key mystery of the human immune response – For the first time, scientists have observed the technique that dendritic cells use to inform T-cells about the threat of disease.

The breakthrough, detailed Monday in the journal Nature Immunology, could help medical researchers develop new immunotherapy treatments for cancer and other maladies.

Dendritic cells are a type of immune cell responsible for presenting evidence of an invading pathogen to T-cells, which perform a variety of immune-related functions, including the recruitment of other types of infection-fighting antibodies.

When a cell is infected, its proteins are transformed to signify the problem. For the body to deliver an immune response, dendritic cells must show the altered proteins to T-cells.

Until now, scientists weren’t sure how dendritic cells accomplished this task. Read More > at UPI

Toyota CEO Agrees With Elon Musk: We Don’t Have Enough Electricity to Electrify All the Cars – Let’s stipulate a couple of facts right at the top: Toyota makes a lot of cars, so many that it’s the world’s largest or second-largest auto manufacturer every year. Toyota makes a lot of good, reliable cars. The Corolla, for instance, may not be flashy but the little things will go for a quarter-million miles or more and they mostly just run without breaking down much. Change the oil when you’re supposed to and you’re probably good to go.

Let’s stipulate one more fact: Whether cars keep burning gas or run on electricity, Toyota is poised to make and sell millions of electric vehicles. It already has the game-changing solid-state battery coming on line. It launched the Prius way back in 1997. Toyota has not only not resisted the adaptation of EVs, it has led the way. Fundamentally, Toyota does not care if cars are powered by gas or nuclear fusion engines as long as it maintains its position and sells millions of them.

So Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda’s comments at the company’s year-end press conference deserve notice and no little amount of respect. He knows more about cars and their economic ecosystem than just about anyone else on the planet.

The Wall Street Journal was in attendance and noted the CEO’s disdain for EVs boils down to his belief they’ll ruin businesses, require massive investments, and even emit more carbon dioxide than combustion-engined vehicles. “The current business model of the car industry is going to collapse,” he said. “The more EVs we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets… When politicians are out there saying, ‘Let’s get rid of all cars using gasoline,’ do they understand this?”

CarBuzz has mischaracterized Toyoda’s comments. It’s not “disdain for EVs” he’s expressing. It’s disdain for the failure to count the cost of what politicians are proposing. More EVs will demand more electricity. Read More > at PJ Media

Apple targets car production by 2024 and eyes ‘next level’ battery technology – Apple is moving forward with self-driving car technology and is targeting 2024 to produce a passenger vehicle that could include its own breakthrough battery technology, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

The iPhone maker’s automotive efforts, known as Project Titan, have proceeded unevenly since 2014 when it first started to design its own vehicle from scratch. At one point, Apple drew back the effort to focus on software and reassessed its goals. Doug Field, an Apple veteran who had worked at Tesla, returned to oversee the project in 2018 and laid off 190 people from the team in 2019.

Since then, Apple has progressed enough that it now aims to build a vehicle for consumers, two people familiar with the effort said, asking not to be named because Apple’s plans are not public. Apple’s goal of building a personal vehicle for the mass market contrasts with rivals such as Alphabet’s Waymo, which has built robo-taxis to carry passengers for a driverless ride-hailing service.

Central to Apple’s strategy is a new battery design that could “radically” reduce the cost of batteries and increase the vehicle’s range, according to a third person who has seen Apple’s battery design. Read More > at CNBC

Yes, Follow the Science – in Every Field – Repeatedly this year we have heard the admonition, from acolytes of Covid-19 lockdowns, to “follow the science.” Many of the admonishers presume that lockdown skeptics are myopic, “anti-science” miscreants infected with a reckless disregard for human health, safety, and life. Yes, some people are so emotional, phobic, religious, or political that they cannot reason right; but can there be no rational, healthy skepticism about the health effects of Covid-19 or the health-wealth effects of lockdowns? Nothing can be farther from the truth – nothing farther from . . . science.

Yes, of course we must follow science, but we must do so in every field, not only in epidemiology but also in politics, economics, and philosophy. The last-mentioned field – which means “love of wisdom” – teaches mankind to follow his nature, to be rational, logical, objective, and contextual. To be scientific in every field means to incorporate both theory and practice, to assess all real and relevant factors, not just a select few of them; it means cultivating a perspective that is likewise impartial (not biased), comprehensive (not narrow) view, and proportional (not imbalanced).

In Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt distinguishes between scientific and nonscientific methods in economics, but his distinction applies as much to other fields. “The bad economist,” he writes, “sees only what immediately strikes the eye,” while “the good economist also looks beyond. The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; the good economist looks also at the longer and indirect consequences. The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; the good economist inquires also what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.” Likewise, I’d say, competent epidemiologists, political scientists, economists, and philosophers must look beyond what strikes their eyes or fits their predilections; they must consider also intermediate and longer-term effects, and effects on all types of people, groups, and livelihoods, not just those which bureaucrats favor as “essential.” Read More > at AIER

Overdose deaths far outpace COVID-19 deaths in San Francisco – A record 621 people died of drug overdoses in San Francisco so far this year, a staggering number that far outpaces the 173 deaths from COVID-19 the city has seen thus far.

The crisis fueled by the powerful painkiller fentanyl could have been far worse if it wasn’t for the nearly 3,000 times Narcan was used from January to the beginning of November to save someone from the brink of death, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Saturday.

The data reflects the number of times people report using Narcan to the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project, a city-funded program that coordinates San Francisco’s response to overdose, or return to refill their supply. Officials at the DOPE Project said that since the numbers are self-reported, they are probably a major undercount.

Last year, 441 people died of drug overdoses — a 70% increase from 2018 — and 2,610 potential overdoses were prevented by Narcan, a medication commonly sprayed up the nose to reverse an opioid overdose, according to data from the city Medical Examiner’s office and the DOPE Project. Read More > from the Associated Press

Surprise Medical Bills Cost Americans Millions. Congress Is Finally Set to Ban Most of Them. – After years of being stymied by well-funded interests, Congress has agreed to ban one of the most costly and exasperating practices in medicine: surprise medical bills.

Surprise bills happen when an out-of-network provider is unexpectedly involved in a patient’s care. Patients go to a hospital that accepts their insurance, for example, but get treated there by an emergency room physician who doesn’t. Such doctors often bill those patients for large fees, far higher than what health plans typically pay.

Language included in the $900 billion spending deal reached Sunday night and headed for final passage on Monday will make those bills illegal. Instead of charging patients, health providers will now have to work with insurers to settle on a fair price. The new changes will take effect in 2022, and will apply to doctors, hospitals and air ambulances, though not ground ambulances. Read More > in The New York Times

Can a Virtual Legislature Be a Real Legislature? – When America’s state legislators begin meeting for their 2021 sessions, the blunt fact is that many of them won’t be meeting at all. They will be sitting at Zoom screens, talking on their iPhones and looking for other ways to simulate the bill-writing and deal-making that they are supposed to do face-to-face.

Not all the states have made up their minds yet, and all the plans are subject to change, but it’s already clear that there will be at least a fair amount of virus-driven separation. Virginia’s House of Delegates expects to hold all of its sessions virtually. Washington’s legislature is talking about voting in person but running its hearings and markup sessions by remote control. Vermont will call its lawmakers together once, but only to authorize virtual meetings after that. New Jersey, which actually passed a worker-assistance bill this year entirely by phone, will be doing some of that again. There seems almost no doubt that other states will be following suit.

Will remote-control legislating have a significant effect on the nature and quality of what gets passed? A better question would be, how it could not have a significant effect? Listen to Aubrey Layne, the Virginia state finance director, describe his experience with virtual consideration of serious issues. “I’ve watched committees where speakers have thirty seconds before they’re cut off,” Layne told a reporter recently. “This is not the environment to write the budget. Regarding risk and fiduciary responsibility, I might as well talk to the wall.”

…All legislative bodies, state, federal and local, need relationships to do their job well. Most of the time they need physical proximity. That doesn’t mean lawmakers have to stand together side by side in the thousands, as they did in ancient Athens, to make crucial decisions by majority vote. It does mean they do a better job when they have ordinary conversations, read each other’s facial expressions and noodle over crucial policy choices, and that process just isn’t the same when they are all at home staring at individual computers.

…We are already confronting an atmosphere of alienation and mistrust that has made many of our legislative bodies unproductive. I can’t say for sure that virtual legislating will make the situation a great deal worse. What I can all but guarantee is that it won’t make things any better. Read More > at Governing

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A Christmas Wish – 2020

In the past on this post I’ve presented a list of insanely cool Christmas gifts. This year I’ll try a different approach, listing a few gifts that we all have internally.

Patience, Compassion, Faith, and Resilience

I wish for you a Christmas with the patience to endure the hardships placed on us by government decree; with loved ones that we have been pent up with for a prolonged period of time, these trying times have tested these bonds and hopefully strengthened them.

I wish for you a Christmas filled with compassion for the sick, suffering, isolated and afraid. This wish is constant but more profound and needed at this time.

I wish for you a Christmas consumed with the faith that the sun will rise tomorrow on a better day. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and hopefully its approaching at the speed of a bullet train.

I wish for you a Christmas with the resilience necessary to persist and move forward to what ever the “new normal” is.

I hope you have an opportunity to reflect on all that you have and then give a little of yourselves to those less fortunate.

So whether its Feliz Navidad, Buone Feste Natalizie, Feliz Nata, God Jul, Nollaig Shona or Sretan Bozic from our home to yours have a Merry Christmas.

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