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 Science Behind Your Cheap Wine – We live in a golden age of wine, thanks in part to thirsty millennials and Americans seemingly intent on out-drinking the French. Yet for all its popularity, the sommelier’s world is largely a mysterious one. Bottles on grocery store shelves come adorned with whimsical images and proudly proclaim their region of origin, but rarely list ingredients other than grapes. Meanwhile, ordering wine at a restaurant can often mean pretending to understand terms like “mouthfeel,” “legs” or “bouquet.”
“I liked wine the same way I liked Tibetan hand puppetry or theoretical particle physics,” writes journalist Bianca Bosker in the introduction to her new book Cork Dork, “which is to say I had no idea what was going on but was content to smile and nod.”
Curious about what exactly happened in this shrouded world, Bosker took off a year and a half from writing to train to become a sommelier, and talk her way into wine production facilities across the country. In the end, Bosker learned that most wine is nowhere near as “natural” as many people think—and that scientific advances have helped make cheap wine nearly as good as the expensive stuff.
… However, starting in the 1970s, enologists (wine scientists) at the University of California at Davis took the science of winemaking to new heights, Bosker says. These entrepreneurial wine wizards pioneered new forms of fermentation to help prevent wine from spoiling and produce it more efficiently. Along with the wide range of additives, winemakers today can custom order yeast that will produce wine with certain flavors or characteristics. Someday soon, scientists might even build yeast from scratch.
Consumers most commonly associate these kinds of additives with cheap, mass-produced wines like Charles Shaw (aka “Two Buck Chuck”) or Barefoot. But even the most expensive red wines often have their color boosted with the use of “mega-red” or “mega-purple” juice from other grape varieties, says Davis enologist Andrew Waterhouse. Other common manipulations include adding acidity with tartaric acid to compensate for the less acidic grapes grown in warmer climates, or adding sugar to compensate for the more acidic grapes grown in cooler climates. Read More > in the Smithsonian Magazine
How the 2017 NFL Schedule Was Made – The slate wasn’t finalized until a computer in western Europe spit out option number 52,129, which accounted for marathons in Detroit and Chicago, turned Los Angeles into an odd focal point on New Year’s Eve and made teams playing overseas happy with their byes.
The Raiders are back. Oakland had one prime-time game in 2015, and two in 2016. This year, the Raiders have the NFL max of five prime-time games, plus four doubleheader games that will be nationally televised. The league will be in a TV mess if the Raiders are not the emerging star team they appeared to be at the end of 2016. “Most years,” said North, “you count on seeing Dallas, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and New England in prime time a lot. This year you’ll get five Raiders games and four doubleheader games, meaning more than half their games will be on national TV. It’s been a long time since that’s happened—maybe a generation.”
…One of the strangest things about the 2017 NFL schedule: All four California teams will be playing in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve. The Raiders are at the L.A. Chargers, and the 49ers are at the L.A. Rams. Both games kick off at 4:25 p.m. ET. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. It’s just odd. Read More > at MMQB
Toughest NFL schedules in 2017? Cowboys lead pack – …The ‘Boys highlight my list of teams with the hardest schedules in large part because of their division. The NFC East has no easy outs. The division also faces tough non-conference games against a similarly deep AFC West. And the Cowboys finish with three out of four games on the road, the only home December date coming against Seattle.
The NFL schedule is nearly impossible to handicap in April, but Dallas’ slate has few weak spots. Football Outsiders ranks the Cowboys’ schedule as the toughest in football. There are five Cowboys prime-time games and they will probably be flexed into a sixth, leading to some funky travel weeks.
…The Raiders give up a home game against the Patriots to play in Mexico City. That’s a game that hometown Raiders fans, not to mention coach Jack Del Rio, surely would love to have in Oakland.
The Raiders also play Christmas night in Philadelphia and then head to Los Angeles on a short week for a potentially decisive Week 17 matchup against the Chargers. At least they are in prime time five times. Read More > at NFL
Sacramento Kicks the California Can to Future Generations – In the last month, California Governor Jerry Brown declared the 5-plus year California drought officially over and Sacramento Democrats, with the help of one rogue Republican State Senator, passed a $52 billion gas and vehicle tax increase. Both actions were applauded by Sacramento leaders as fixing serious challenges facing the state, but in reality, California’s one-party rule squandered two excellent opportunities to ensure two serious problems plaguing the Golden State were sustainably resolved. At the end of the day, California will not be ready to weather the next drought and despite the new taxes, California’s transportation infrastructure will continue to crumble.
The Drought that Could Have Ended Future Droughts: A rainy and snowy winter and spring brought an end to one of the worst droughts on record. Despite the destruction the drought wrought on California, it did showcase the serious deficiencies with California’s water system: 1) an overlapping quagmire of water rights makes water allocations tenuous and vague, 2) the state fails to capture and store sufficient amounts of available water due to the system being almost wholly-dependent on snow-melt, 3) the regulatory environment and the lack of clearly defined and enforceable water rights renders water markets essentially nonexistent, and 4) a political environment that pits north against south and farmers against environmentalists and suburban homeowners. This system may have been sufficient to ensure water availability the last 100 years, but with California breaching 40 million people, precipitation patterns changing, new water demands for environmental protection efforts, and a southern shift in the state’s population center, these deficiencies, if left unreformed, will likely ensure every drought – regardless of severity – will be devastating to the state’s population, environment, and economy.
…Following in Pat’s, not Jerry’s, Transportation Footsteps: There’s no debate: California’s transportation infrastructure is crumbling beneath our feet. The Golden State’s transportation system – championed by former California Governor Pat Brown – was the envy of the country and is a major reason why and how California became the nation’s most populous and economically-dominate state. Yet starting with Governor Jerry Brown’s first stint in Sacramento, California’s leaders failed to maintain and build on Pat Brown’s transportation legacy. Governors and legislative leaders, including the current one-party rule in Sacramento, have under-funded transportation maintenance and construction in state budget, raided funds meant for transportation infrastructure to plug budget holes in other areas, and pursued environmental policies that ignore the transportation realities of California – such as promoting the high-speed rail at the expense of regional transit or encouraging the sale of vehicles that use little to no gas when the entire funding mechanism for transportation infrastructure is designed around gas tax revenue. To top it off, money that does eventually make its way to transportation infrastructure maintenance is wasted via the inefficient and ineffective tendencies of the California Department of Transportation (or Caltrans). Read More > at Real Clear Markets
Yahoo’s Demise Is a Death Knell for Digital News Orgs – Yahoo filed its final quarterly report this week. And just like that, the once-mighty tech firm is exiting public trading.
The company has been unraveling—slowly and spectacularly—for more than a decade now. But this particular moment is a good one for reflecting on how Yahoo’s troubles are likely to be replicated in a wave across the web, and soon, among businesses like news organizations that rely heavily on advertising revenue for their survival.
Print newspapers will continue to fold, but Yahoo’s demise is a signal that web-native companies are next. If you run a business that relies on digital-advertising revenue for an outsized portion of your funding, you need to find new streams of revenue. Now. It may already be too late.
…Though Yahoo’s failures were multi-faceted, the company’s fundamental problem was that it could not figure out a way to command a significant enough piece of the advertising money that is increasingly rushing to Facebook and Google.
It seems preordained now, having watched Yahoo stumble for so many years, but there was a time when Yahoo was much bigger than either company. It is true that Yahoo was “never able to decide on exactly what it wanted to be,” as Jonathan Weber and Jeffrey Dastin put it for Reuters last year. Perhaps if it had committed to search, for instance, it could have fended off Google. And remember Yahoo’s failed attempt to buy Facebook for $1 billion in 2006? Instead, Verizon’s deal to buy Yahoo is expected to close in June, at which point Yahoo and Verizon-owned AOL will become a new brand called Oath. Read More > in The Atlantic
Nobody Works in One in Five U.S. Families – No family member was employed in 16,069,000 U.S. families in 2016, or 19.6 percent of families, according to newly released data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of families with nobody employed increased by roughly 19,000 from 2015 to 2016, although the percentage slightly declined from 19.7 percent to 19.6 percent.
For the purpose of the study, the bureau counts a family as households headed by a married couple or by unmarried women or men. The definition includes households with children under 18 years old and households without children. There were 82,092,000 families in the United States in 2016, according to the bureau. Read More > in The Washington Free Beacon
Immigrants flooded California construction. Worker pay sank. Here’s why – Eddie Ybarra and Francisco Martinez, both in their 40s, work side by side building the walls of two of the newest condo buildings in downtown Los Angeles. They drive pickup trucks to work, park in adjacent lots and both take their lunch break around 10 a.m. That’s about all they share.
Ybarra, born in Los Angeles, has built a solidly middle-class lifestyle on more than two decades in the carpenters’ union, earning $40 an hour on top of a pension, healthcare and unlimited vacation days.
Martinez, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, works for a nonunion contractor, installing metal panels and other parts for $27.50 an hour. He doesn’t have retirement savings, his insurance doesn’t cover his family and he gets five vacation days per year.
In the span of a few decades, Los Angeles area construction went from an industry that was two-thirds white, and largely unionized, to one that is overwhelmingly Latino, mostly nonunion and heavily reliant on immigrants, according to a Los Angeles Times review of federal data.
At the same time, the job got less lucrative. American construction workers today make $5 an hour less than they did in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times
Gentry Liberalism in San Francisco – Local minimum wage hikes cause restaurants to leave or shut down and deter new ones from entering, according to a new Harvard Business School study of the San Francisco Bay Area restaurant industry that contradicts the orthodox liberal view that steeply raising the cost of unskilled labor will not affect jobs or hiring.
More interesting, though, are the study’s findings about which restaurants are forced to leave by the higher wage floors. The authors compared rates of departure of restaurants across different Yelp ratings, and found that the policy hit low and mid-quality restaurants much harder than top-tier restaurants. “Our point estimates suggest that a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to an approximate 14 percent increase in the likelihood of exit for the median 3.5-star restaurant but the impact falls to zero for five-star restaurants.”
While a restaurant’s Yelp rating doesn’t correlate directly with its price range, this differential effect suggests that it’s easier for rich people to ignore the deleterious effects of minimum wage hikes. Virtually all of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco have four or more stars; the city’s business and professional elite are unlikely to see many of their favorite high-end destinations pushed out of the city. Poor or middle-income workers are less likely to have the luxury of only frequenting top-rated establishments, not to mention that they are more likely to work at the restaurants that the hikes put out of business. Read More > at The American Interest
Concentrates are the future of cannabis – The cannabis industry is in the midst of an unprecedented renaissance. Strains are stronger, consumption methods more numerous and availability greater than ever before. Medical-grade marijuana now averages around 20 percent THC — a threefold increase from the “hippie weed” your parents toked back in the ’60s. Smoking has been usurped by vaping and edibles as the preferred dosing methods, making the concentrates and oils more valuable commodities than the flowers they’re derived from. The good times certainly are rolling, but how long can we keep up this relentless march toward pure THC distillate?
Nearly impossible to find a decade ago, cannabis concentrates are now a mainstay of the commercial cannabis industry. “Today we see concentrates are used in probably 95 percent of the branded products,” Michael Kay, co-founder and executive director at Bloom Farms, a San Francisco–based medical cannabis company, said during a recent interview. “The vape oils, the vape cartridges, the edibles — it’s the base, essentially, for all of these products.”
And like the flowers they’re made from, concentrates are becoming increasingly more potent as well. Lightly processed concentrates like kief and hash range from 20 to 60 percent THC, while extractions like BHO and CO2 oils range from 50 to 90 percent THC. What’s more, distillate (also known as “clear”), which exceeds 90 percent THC, is becoming commercially available, albeit still severely limited. “We’ve only recently started to see products over 90 percent THC, and they are usually high-demand and few and far between,” said Holli Bert, HR director and community liaison at San Francisco’s Green Cross dispensary. Read More > at Engadget
Predicting the knowledge–recklessness distinction in the human brain – Because criminal statutes demand it, juries often must assess criminal intent by determining which of two legally defined mental states a defendant was in when committing a crime. For instance, did the defendant know he was carrying drugs, or was he merely aware of a risk that he was? Legal scholars have debated whether that conceptual distinction, drawn by law, mapped meaningfully onto any psychological reality. This study uses neuroimaging and machine-learning techniques to reveal different brain activities correlated with these two mental states….
Imagine you are a juror in the trial of a defendant who admits to having transported a suitcase full of drugs across international borders. However, you do not know how aware she was of the presence of drugs in that suitcase. The degree of awareness she had at the time she crossed the border will make a difference to her criminal culpability and, in turn, to the amount of punishment she faces.
Currently, the most frequently used tool to study the neural correlates of “mental states” is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (3). fMRI analysis has been recently used in the context of the law, from trying to predict psychopathy (4) to trying to understand what goes on in the brains of jurors when they are deciding whether to punish (5). However, no fMRI studies of which we are aware have attempted to determine whether and how the “culpable mental states,” as defined by the MPC, map onto differential activations in the human brain.
Given that the main distinction between the knowing and reckless mental states relies on the differential perception of probabilities and uncertainty associated with an outcome (if knowing you are “practically certain” of the outcome, i.e., P = 1, whereas if reckless you are aware of a “substantial” risk but uncertain, i.e., 0 < P < 1), potential brain areas differentially associated with the knowing or reckless mental states could be areas previously found in the neuroeconomics and decision-making literature to be implicated in encoding probability or uncertainty and risk (6⇓⇓⇓⇓–11)… Read More > at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
It’s a seller’s market again as prices surge across Bay Area and supply dwindles – The housing crunch in the Bay Area is intensifying, after new listings for homes plunged 12 percent from the same period last year and the median home price climbed into double digit increases year over year.
The data come from a new report from the California Association of Realtors released this week. It shows home prices climbing across the entire Bay Area, as well as the rest of the state, as more people look for housing in places with limited housing supply.
The housing crunch in the Bay Area is intensifying, after new listings for homes plunged 12 percent from the same period last year and the median home price climbed into double digit increases year over year.
The data come from a new report from the California Association of Realtors released this week. It shows home prices climbing across the entire Bay Area, as well as the rest of the state, as more people look for housing in places with limited housing supply.
“Sales of single-family homes rose 6.9 percent year-over-year in California; in the nine-county Bay Area, the increase was 6.4 percent. Statewide, the median price rose 6.8 percent to $517,020, while the Bay Area median rose a whopping 10.1 percent to $837,720,” the Mercury News reports.
“In Contra Costa County, sales grew by 11.2 percent and the median climbed 6.6 percent to $585,000. In Alameda County, sales were up 5.5 percent and the median jumped 10.0 percent to $833,750,” the paper reports. “These are the numbers for San Francisco: Sales up 12.6 percent, but the median price down a smidgen (-0.4 percent) to $1,350,000.” Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times
AP Exclusive: Missteps made in handling of dam crisis – Late in the afternoon of Feb. 12, Sheriff Kory Honea was at the emergency operations center for the tallest dam in America when he overheard someone say something that stopped him in his tracks:
“This is not good.”
Over six straight days, the operators of the Oroville Dam had said there was no immediate danger after water surging down the main spillway gouged a hole the size of a football field in the concrete chute. But now suddenly they realized that the dam’s emergency backup spillway — essentially an unpaved hillside — was falling apart, too, and could unleash a deadly torrent of water.
Honea reacted by ordering the immediate evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream.
In the end, after frantic action by the dam’s keepers, catastrophe was averted. But an Associated Press examination of state and federal documents, emails obtained under public records requests and numerous interviews reveal a sequence of questionable decisions and missteps, some of them made years ago, some of them in the middle of the crisis.
Among other things, the dam’s federal and state overseers overestimated the durability of the two spillways. And in public statements during the emergency, they failed to acknowledge — or perhaps recognize — that while they were busy dealing with one crisis, they were creating a possible new one.
During the darkest hours of the emergency, the fear was that if the hillside collapsed, “it was not whether people would die, but how many would die,” Honea recalled. Read More > from the Associated Press
Aaron Hernandez: A Waste in Every Sense – Spare no sympathy for Aaron Hernandez, who was blessed with rare ability and promise but left a swath of ruined lives, from his victims and their families to his now-fatherless daughter—and of course, himself.
There will be more facts to emerge in the coming days about the death of the convicted murderer and former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was found in his Massachusetts prison cell on Wednesday morning, an apparent suicide. But whatever the rest of the story is, this is what we know now: Hernandez wasted his life, destroying what could have been a consistent Pro Bowl career, with an all-time great quarterback targeting him endlessly. He wasted it, period. Don’t make any excuses for him. It’s on him. At the same time, he was responsible for the death of a 27-year-old acquaintance, Odin Lloyd, who was found with 10 bullets pumped into him in an industrial park. Hernandez was charged but found not guilty last week in the deaths of two other men in a drive-by shooting. Another man accused Hernandez of shooting him in the eye so that he wouldn’t testify in the drive-by case.
So senseless, all of it. Hernandez, with a decade of football greatness ahead of him four years ago, dead. Three others dead, at least one of whom he killed. Another with only one working eye.
Five men, with families. Hernandez, with a fiancée, and now with a 4-year-old daughter who will never know him. Lloyd, with a family still grieving. Two other men, Safiro Furtado and Daniel de Abreu, whose murder cases will now apparently grow cold, with families who left a courtroom last week thinking, Where is the justice for us? And the one-eyed Alexander Bradley. This is a case of a wasted life wasting other lives. That’s why I feel no sympathy for the cold-hearted Hernandez. Read More > at MMQB
Don’t Worry, Driverless Cars Are Learning From Grand Theft Auto – In the race to the autonomous revolution, developers have realized there aren’t enough hours in a day to clock the real-world miles needed to teach cars how to drive themselves. Which is why Grand Theft Auto V is in the mix.
The blockbuster video game is one of the simulation platforms researchers and engineers increasingly rely on to test and train the machines being primed to take control of the family sedan. Companies from Ford Motor Co. to Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo may boast about putting no-hands models on the market in three years, but there’s a lot still to learn about drilling algorithms in how to respond when, say, a mattress falls off a truck on the freeway.
If automakers and tech enterprises want to make their deadline, they have to hurry up. The test cars tricked out with lasers, sensors and cameras being put through the paces on tracks and public roads can’t do it on their own. Simulators never run out of gas — and the ones at Waymo can model driving more than 3 million miles in a single day.
“Just relying on data from the roads is not practical,” said Davide Bacchet, who leads the simulation effort in San Jose, California, for Nio, a startup aiming to introduce an autonomous electric car in the U.S. in 2020. “With simulation, you can run the same scenario over and over again for infinite times, then test it again.”
As improbable as it may seem to the lay person, hyper-realistic video games are able to generate data that’s very close to what artificial-intelligence agents can glean on the road. AI software has been playing around with games from Super Mario Bros. to Angry Birds for a while now, tackling problems in controlled environments and learning through trial and error. Read More > at Bloomberg
The Retail Apocalypse Is Suburban – It has been a decade since the media declared the death of the mall, in a year that would be the first in a half-century that no new malls were built in America. It has since become apparent that the problem is a little bigger than that: Brick-and-mortar retail in general is gasping for breath. The Limited, a women’s clothing store, shut down 250 stores and laid off 4,000 workers earlier this year. Sears Holdings will close 150 stores, including 108 Kmarts, and Macy’s will close another 100. As anchor stores close, more and more malls are entering foreclosure. Financial instruments composed of debt from mall deals are looking as risky as their counterparts in residential debt did before the housing crisis.
Several months of job losses in certain retail categories—at a time when the economy is otherwise healthy—have sounded the alarm for the transition that economists have long feared from the rise of e-commerce in general and Amazon in particular.
…The retail sectors in which recent job loss is concentrated belong largely to American suburbs. Seventy-one percent of workers in sales and related occupations live in the suburbs, according to the Brookings Institution, about 2 percentage points higher than the average for U.S. workers.
Leading the pack are department stores; general merchandise stores; and sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores. Each of those categories has lost jobs for five straight months, dating to November. Clothing stores, after experiencing a big holiday spike, have lost jobs for two straight months.
In other words, it’s exactly the industries you’d expect to be hit hard by the rise in e-commerce, and as the Houston Chronicle’s Lydia DePillis succinctly shows, a much larger, longer trend is in skyrocketing warehouse employment. (How those jobs compare to traditional retail jobs in quantity and quality is a question for another day.) Retail sectors with less developed online analogues—like grocery stores, gas stations, and car dealers—are chugging along just fine. Read More > in Slate
Report: Flaws in Design, Building and Upkeep Led to Oroville Spillway Failure – An independent analysis of the spillway failure at Oroville Dam concludes that extensive sections of the concrete structure disintegrated due to a series of design, construction and maintenance flaws stretching back more than half a century.
The root-cause analysis, by Robert Bea, a retired professor of civil engineering at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the university’s Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, contends that “the gated spillway failures are deeply rooted in pervasive design defects and flaws developed by the California Department of Water Resources” — the agency that built the dam in the 1960s and now owns it.
Those defects include slabs that were much too thin — an estimated 4 to 6 inches in critical spots — and lacking in the reinforcement and anchoring they needed to withstand the destructive power of repeated water releases.
DWR compounded those initial flaws, Bea’s report says, by failing to ensure that the giant concrete chute was built on competent rock. Contractors also used “native soils” — mostly clay — to grade sections of the spillway foundation, allowing extensive erosion and displacement of gravel intended to support a crucial drainage system, Bea concludes.
The spillway’s built-in problems led to extensive cracking of its concrete surface and openings in the joints between adjacent slabs of concrete. Bea says repeated repairs to the concrete were ineffective in preventing large volumes of water from getting under the concrete and further eroding the surface below. Read More > at KQED
California again leads list with 6 of the top 10 most polluted U.S. cities – California’s smoggy reputation appears to be deserved: Six of the USA’s 10 cities with the worst air pollution are in the Golden State, according to a new report.
Bakersfield, Calif., again holds the dubious distinction of having the USA’s most days of highly polluted air, based on data from 2013-2015, the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report released Wednesday found.
In addition to the worst spikes of short-term pollution — led by Bakersfield — the report also lists the cities with the worst overall year-round pollution — led by Visala/Hanford, Calif.— and the worst ozone pollution, led by the Los Angeles/Long Beach area.
…Overall, the report is a mixture of good and bad news: While year-round pollution has improved, short-term spikes of intensely polluted air have increased.
“While most of the nation has much cleaner air quality than even a decade ago, many cities reported their highest number of unhealthy days since the report began” 18 years ago, it found. Read More > in USA Today
The Murder Rate Jumped Again In 2016. A Handful Of Cities Are Largely Responsible. – A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law says Americans are “safer today than they have been at almost any time” in the past quarter-century, but projected an 8 percent increase in the nationwide murder rate.
The report’s authors calculated the estimates based on preliminary FBI data from the first half of 2016. When the FBI releases its full set of 2016 crime statistics later this year, the Brennan Center predicts, the national murder rate will be at 5.3 murders per 100,000 people, about the same as it was in 2008. The national murder rate peaked at 9.8 murders per 100,000 people in 1991, nearly double the estimated 2016 murder rate.
The report finds that just a few U.S. cities played an outsized role in the nationwide uptick in the murder rate in recent years and had a distorting effect on the overall murder rate. Three cities ― Baltimore, Chicago and Houston ― “account for around half of the increase in murder in major cities between 2014 and 2016,” the report says.
In the 30 largest cities in the country, the murder rate increased by about 14 percent from 2015 to 2016, but Chicago alone “was responsible for 43.7 percent of the rise in urban murders in 2016,” according to the report. (There were more than 700 murders in Chicago last year, making it the deadliest year the city had seen since 1996.) The murder rate jump in certain cities, such as Chicago, is “indicative of localized problems in some cities, but not evidence of a national crime wave,” the report states. Read More > in The Huffington Post
Tired of Daylight Saving Time, Lawmakers Look to Lock the Clock – The movement to “lock the clock” is growing as more research indicates that the biannual ritual of changing the time is not only annoying to some but harmful to public health, productivity and safety. This year, about half of states have considered or are considering time-related bills.
Bills to abolish daylight saving time have been introduced for years, and have always faced opposition, including from sport and retail industries that say the extra hour of evening sun in the summer brings them more business.
But in the past few years, more states are considering another idea: If everyone likes evening sunlight, why not stay on daylight saving time year-round? Bills have been introduced this year in at least six states — including Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and Wyoming — that would effectively move the states to the next time zone to the east.
Under federal law, all states that choose to participate in daylight saving time must do so on the schedule set by the federal government, moving an hour ahead on the second Sunday in March and moving an hour back on the first Sunday in November. Read More > at Route Fifty
Can Public Workers Get Pension Benefits Without Actually Working? California Supreme Court Will Decide – Instead of working additional years to qualify for a higher pension, some public employees in California simply can buy those better benefits.
It’s a pension spiking technique known as “airtime purchases,” and this week the California Supreme Court agreed to review a key ruling from last year that said the state was allowed to curtail the practice and only pay pension benefits for time actually worked. A union representing state firefighters initially sued to block that reform and is now appealing the December ruling from the state’s First Appellate District Court.
It’s the second major public pension case to make its way to California’s highest court this year. Both are hugely important for governments and taxpayers in California, which has some of the nation’s worst pension debt, and could be bellwethers for other states dealing with similar problems.
Here’s how airtime purchases work. In California, like in most other cities and states where defined benefit pensions are offered to public employees, a worker’s pension is based on a formula that takes into account the worker’s final salary (sometimes an average of his or her salary over the last five years or so) and the amount of time working in the public sector. Play around with either of those two numbers and an employee can end up with a larger pension than the rules suggest he or she should. Read More > at Reason
Comparing average property taxes for all 50 states and D.C. – American homeowners paid property taxes totaling nearly $278 billion in 2016, according to a new report from ATTOM Data Solutions, the nation’s largest property database (Here’s how to cut your property taxes). That means that each of the country’s 84 million single-family homeowners paid an average of $3,296 in property taxes, which amounts to an average 1.15% effective tax rate.
According to the report, there were nine counties in the country with a population of at least 100,000 that had average annual property taxes of more than $10,000: Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties in New York; Essex, Bergen, Union and Morris counties in New Jersey; Marin County, California; and Fairfield County, Connecticut.
And of the 586 total counties, there were 32 with average annual property taxes of $7,000 or more, including some in Illinois, Texas, Virginia and Massachusetts. Read More > at <strong>USA Today
‘Ghosts’ In The Cockpit—Pilotless Flight Takes Off – Instead of hailing an Uber for a crosstown business meeting, what if you could summon an autonomously flown private plane to fly to a business meeting three states away? That future may be closer than you think.
General aviation aircraft have already demonstrated their capability for fully autonomous flight. Meanwhile, commercial airline manufacturers aren’t sitting on the taxiway, waiting for the technology to develop. Airbus Group has announced its own plans for forays into autonomous flight. Airbus plans to fly a prototype craft at the end of this year. One of the biggest drawbacks: reliable sense-and-avoid technology, which is now at work in autonomous cars. “That’s one of the bigger challenges we aim to resolve as early as possible,” said Rodin Lyasoff, CEO of A^3, the company’s advanced projects and partnership group.
Lyasoff believes there will be a global demand for autonomous flight services. “In as little as ten years, we could have products on the market that revolutionize urban travel for millions of people,” Laysoff said. Read More > at GE Reports
Why Does It Cost $409 Billion To Figure Out What We Owe In Taxes? – Tax Reform: If President Trump wants to drain the swamp, the best place to start is with the tax code, which is so complicated that Americans spend billions of hours and hundreds of billions of dollars just trying to figure out how much they owe.
The IRS instructions for filing out the 1040 form include a box near the back that estimates how much time it takes to fill that one form out. This year, it’s 15 hours. That’s a 67% increase from 1988. This year, the instruction booklet runs 241 pages. In 1988 it was fewer than 80.
The tax code has become so complicated that even the IRS complains about it. In its annual report to Congress, the IRS’ national taxpayer advocate, Nina E. Olson, writes that the tax code imposes a “significant, even unconscionable, burden on taxpayers.”
This is the hidden tax.
…Looked at another way, we spend around $1 in compliance costs for every $10 paid in federal taxes.
Here’s the rub: This money buys nothing. It doesn’t help the poor. It doesn’t improve the nation’s security. It doesn’t go to education, the environment, roads or parks. Read More > at Investor’s Business Daily
AAA to offer one-way hourly car rentals in East Bay – The American Automobile Association, the 115-year-old auto club founded when cars were poised to disrupt the horse and buggy, is branching into a new business, anticipating major changes in car ownership.
AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah is starting Gig Car Share on April 30 in Oakland and Berkeley. It will be the Bay Area’s only one-way, short-term car rental service.
Car sharing is the industry parlance for short-term car rentals, often hourly, available from dispersed locations. Established services like Zipcar and City Car Share require cars to be returned to their original locations.
Beginning with a fleet of 250 black Toyota Prius C hybrids with teal-blue roof bike racks, Gig will let customers pick up cars at locations throughout Berkeley and Oakland and then drop them off at street parking spaces in those cities. Parking fees are included in the rental price. Read More > at SFGate
Berkeley Once Again Dissolves Into Chaos Over Free Speech – For the third time in as many months, the city of Berkeley has been in the news for violent clashes between members of the right and left.
Extreme leftist protesters, many wearing bandanas to conceal their faces and claiming to be part of a group called Antifa—for “anti-fascists”—showed up to a free speech rally put on by members of the right. While some at the event could be considered part of the “far-right,” many were just free speech advocates who say things the left doesn’t like.
In just hours, rally attendees and protesters would engage in what Daily Beast contributor Frances Dinkelspiel called a “little American civil war.”
…But in today’s hyper-sensitive, assume-ill-intent culture, words are equated to violence. And, once words are interpreted as violent, physical violence becomes an acceptable response.
Dinkelspiel, who has covered riots in Berkeley for years, said it appeared as though “the far left, the black clad demonstrators, initiated much of the violence.” At least one right-leaning attendee of the rally, Kyle Chapman (known as Based Stickman), suggested others prepare for violence, advising viewers to bring protective gear and explaining how to create shields and use flag poles as weapons. Read More > in the Obsever
Racing to Be First: How Autonomous Vehicles Will Affect Our Communities – The race towards fully autonomous vehicles has shifted into overdrive. In the past year, major partnerships and acquisitions between tech firms and traditional automakers have signaled the race is heating up for the future of transportation—and the stakes are high.
Traditional automakers like GM, Ford, Daimler and Fiat are taking the competition posed by Google’s Waymo and Musk’s Tesla seriously—partnering with car-sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft as well as acquiring their own autonomous capabilities in firms like Cruise Automation. Nearly every major auto manufacturer has set a target for full autonomous production by 2021 or before, while autonomous vehicles are already on the streets of Singapore, Tempe, and Pittsburgh. If major investments by the sector’s most prominent firms are anything to go by, producers are betting that the future of mobility, especially urban mobility, will be in autonomous fleets of shared vehicles collecting reams of data as they drive through our city streets.
…Autonomous vehicles are already on our city streets, and for the foreseeable future, a variety of vehicles will operate on our roads with varying levels of automation. There are many benefits that autonomous technology can bring, including reduced congestion and traffic deaths, increased mobility for the disabled and seniors, and greater equity in access to transportation. The challenges are real, however, as illustrated in recent conflicts between cities, state regulators, and AV testing operators. Read More > at Route Fifty
Most of us are using our phones while driving – Between the hefty fines, disturbing PSAs and social shunning that comes from using your phone while driving, it turns nearly everyone is still texting, tweeting and generally fiddling with their phones while behind the wheel. According to Zendrive’s extensive three month study of three million US drivers, we’re use our phones at least once during 88 percent of our trips.
Yeah, that’s not good.
The study analyzed 570 million trips over 5.6 billion miles and determined that on average, we used our phones instead of paying attention to the road for 3.5 minutes every hour. The state with the most distracted drivers was Vermont and the least distracted was Oregon. Both have hand-held phone bans. The most distracted city was Los Angeles while California as a whole was one of the least distracted states.
With motor vehicle deaths up six percent in 2016 from 2015, and 14 percent from 2014 to 2016, this study is a stark reminder that while automobiles are getting safer, drivers are actually getting worse behind the wheel. Taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds increases the possibility of a crash 24 times. It takes an average of five seconds to text during which a car traveling at 55 miles per hour can cover an entire football field. So maybe put your phone away next time you’re driving. Read More > at Engadget
Burger King launches TV ad that triggers Google Home: clever marketing trick or invasive ploy? – On Wednesday, a Burger King television ad likely became the first ever to intentionally trigger smart devices like Google Home and Android phones. In the commercial, an actor faces the camera and clearly enunciates the phrase, “Okay, Google. What is the Whopper burger?” at the end of the advertisement.
Around the country, the audio clip prompted a response on a number of devices, with phones and smart speakers listing off the ingredients in the burger from the Whopper’s information page on Wikipedia.
The new ad, however, was not well received by all. Some saw the triggering of their devices by the ad as a nuisance, while others found the commercial to be an uncomfortable reminder of the intrusion of advertising in a world peppered with “always-listening” smart devices. Google, which had not consulted with Burger King for the commercial, disabled the Google Home’s ability to be awakened by the advertisement within a day of its first airing.
The response to the new ad highlights many of the concerns associated with privacy and security concerns in an increasingly digital world. But while this might be the first ad to target users who already own a Google Home or other listening smart device, privacy-invading strategies companies use to target customers are nothing new, says Saleem Alhabash, a professor of Public Relations and Social Media at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich. Read More > in The Christian Science Monitor
AI and robots will take our jobs – but better ones will emerge for us – An increasingly popular concern is that robots will eat up labour’s share of income at an accelerating rate, leaving ordinary workers impoverished and unemployed. A common dinner conversation topic in Silicon Valley is universal basic income, and the typical argument advanced for UBI is that we are destined to indefinitely continue losing jobs faster than we replace them. Variants on this theme have circulated since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Improvements in farming technology have been greeted with skepticism since ancient times for these reasons. Mechanical contraptions for sewing and other tasks were decried as potentially ruinous to workers in Elizabethan England. Around the same time that working-class Luddite Rebellion and Captain Swing protestors rioted and destroyed machinery, upper-class Victorians issued treatises on the bleak prospects for most workers.
There is always a grain of truth to these complaints because technological innovations inevitably displace some segment of the workforce. In general, the current technological revolution is displacing those workers whose jobs consisted of routine, repeatable tasks. The information architecture underpinning the work processes of all our major industries is being upgraded to cloud and mobile ecosystems and is leveraging big data in thousands of new ways — a trend we describe in The Smart Enterprise Wave. One consequence is that many cashier, telephone operator, mailroom, clerical, stenographic, and data-entry jobs are on the way out. In addition, advances in machine learning and robotics make it possible for manufacturers to accomplish more with fewer workers. We may also experience temporarily higher unemployment as semi-autonomous vehicle technology enables a pair of truck drivers to safely navigate a convoy of multiple trucks. Roughly 50 per cent of jobs in the US economy have been replaced with new forms of labour every 60 to 90 years.
Innovation is the only sustainable way to make society wealthier and better off. In terms of real GDP, Americans are on average more than eight times wealthier today than they were in 1917 2. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth was practically the only person wearing silk stockings. In the 21st century, any American woman can. A similar point holds true for cars, plumbing, electricity, and a variety of other modern wonders that began as luxury goods. When technological unemployment occurs, laid-off workers seek retraining and private sector leaders create transitional infrastructure to reabsorb them into the economy. Innovative technologies create more wealth and better jobs in the end by eliminating unpleasant rote work and increasing overall productivity. Read More > at Wired
For Profit, Anti-Poverty – No institution or agency has done more to help the poor than Walmart – …Walmart’s benefits are obvious to shoppers and to economists like Jason Furman, who served in the Clinton administration and was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama. In a paper, “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story,” Furman cited estimates that Walmart, by driving down prices, saved the typical American family more than $2,300 annually. That was about the same amount that a family on food stamps then received from the federal government.
…Some argue that Walmart exerts downward pressure on retail wages, but even if that’s true—and it’s debatable —the effect is tiny compared with the savings at the cash register. According to Furman, Walmart lowered American retail workers’ pay by less than $5 billion while saving shoppers more than $250 billion with lower prices on food, clothing, and household staples.
Anti-Walmart agitators complain about the government subsidies that some of the company’s workers receive for health insurance, which, they argue, burden taxpayers. But these are the same Medicaid subsidies available to low-income workers at other stores and in other industries, or in any kind of employment, including public schools and other government jobs. It makes zero sense to single out Walmart employees, as the state of Maryland did with a law (eventually struck down in court) forcing Walmart alone to forgo government subsidies and shoulder these costs by itself.
If the activists succeed in their quest to transfer these health-care costs to Walmart, they’ll be striking yet another blow against the poor. When low-income workers receive subsidized health insurance through Medicaid, the money comes out of general tax revenue—paid mainly by upper-income taxpayers. If Walmart becomes responsible for paying for its own subsidies, the company might offset the expense by reducing its workers’ cash wages. Or it might raise prices, which would effectively be a new regressive tax hitting its low-income customers hardest. Either way, the burden would shift from affluent taxpayers to the working poor. Read More > at City Journal
US Shale Grows Stronger – Rigs aren’t a perfect metric for measuring the health of the oil industry. When oil prices were high, companies were expansive in their shale ambitions and the rig count ballooned accordingly. Following the crude price collapse, those same firms shut down their least-productive and least-profitable wells, leaving behind the gushers and the real money-makers. While the rig count fell from more than 1,600 down below 400, U.S. oil production dipped just 200,000 barrels per day over that time period.
That said, it’s fair to say that the rig count today, coming off the back of a bearish time in the oil market, is a more accurate measure of how well the U.S. shale industry is doing. The fact, then, that it added 11 rigs in the past week is confirmation of something we’ve been watching carefully in recent months: Shale is booming once again, and the U.S. energy outlook is looking awfully bright. Read More > at The American Interest