Sunday Reading – 06/22/14


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.

Fractured California – a New Opportunity – California is on the verge of a major political opportunity – if only the state can seize it. With Kevin McCarthy’s election to Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, California now has both the majority and minority caucus leaders in the House of Representatives coming from the same state: McCarthy from Bakersfield in the Central Valley and San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi. If the two leaders can actually work together on California issues, there is a huge opportunity for the state to see a reversal in the proportionate decline of Federal money going to it since the early 1990s. California used to be slightly more than even in the dollars sent to the Federal government and those that came back to it. Today, it recoups only 81 cents back for every dollar sent to D.C.

…One of the key issues that exacerbates this regional distortion is the relative lack of available investment from the Federal government. California is one of the largest “donor states” in the nation, paying to Washington far more than it receives. And when California does attract large shares of Federal money, the dollars tend to be funneled into existing facilities such as the coastal research universities, the two national labs in the Bay Area, the remaining military and defense facilities, and of course NASA. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Could Drinking Seawater Be Good For Us – …But there is one water resource we’re underutilizing: seawater. Reverse osmosis (RO), the leading technology for seawater desalination (as well as for brackish and river water), is both simple and scalable.

RO membrane technology separates and removes dissolved salts and impurities from water through the use of a semi-permeable membrane. In the RO process, high-salinity water is forced by pressure through a membrane that rejects salt ions; high-purity water is filtrated out. This process has been around for a half century: The first viable membranes for water desalting were developed in the early 1960s at the School of Engineering at UCLA, which then commissioned the world’s first reverse osmosis plant for brackish water desalination in the Fresno County city of Coalinga. It is estimated that, in 2011, the capacity of desalination plants around the world (either in production or under construction) amounted to about 80 million cubic meters/day with over 17,000 desalination plants in 150 countries. The global desalination market is estimated at approximately $18 billion, but that figure could rise to as high as $30 billion within a few years.

Critics contend that reverse osmosis desalination requires large amounts of energy. But so do our home refrigerators, air conditioners, and washing machines. The real issue is the cost of water desalination relative to other available sources. For example, bottled water costs range from $1 to $3 per liter in the U.S., depending on the brand and location of purchase. In comparison, seawater desalination costs can be as high as about $0.45 per 100 liters and about $1.50-$2.00 per 1,000 liters for large-scale production. Of course, the above cost does not include conveyance of the water to the customer.

Over the next few years, it seems likely that the cost of desalination water production will be reduced by 20 to 40 percent. Around the world, many large desalination plants have been in operation for decades, and thousands of smaller plants are being built.

…Seawater is a large water resource that is not subject to droughts. In that sense, it provides a large reservoir that—in proportion to surface water—is “limitless.” Seawater desalination could provide the necessary buffer the state needs to make up for water shortages now and in the future. Read More > at Public CEO

Gallup poll: American confidence in the news media keeps getting lower – Just 18 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the TV news media, while newspapers perform a little better at 22 percent, according to the latest Gallup poll.

U.S. adults are no more or less confident in the Internet: only 19 percent indicated “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Web news. That’s more or less the same as in 1999, the only other time Gallup measured confidence in Internet news. But back then, TV and newspapers were hovering in the mid-30s, so the gap between confidence in traditional news sources and the Web has narrowed. Read More > at Poynter

Everest, Heald and WyoTech colleges threatened with closure – Corinthian Colleges Inc., a vast education company that gets $1.4 billion a year in federal aid for 72,000 students – including thousands enrolled at its for-profit Everest, Heald and WyoTech colleges in California – said Thursday that it may be forced to shut down in the wake of a federal investigation.

The publicly traded company told the Securities and Exchange Commission that it may go bankrupt because the U.S. Department of Education is delaying federal aid payments by about three weeks to all of its campuses.

The Education Department has been investigating allegations that the Santa Ana-based company not only falsified job-placement rates to attract students, but altered grades and attendance.

The Department said Thursday it had sent Corinthian five letters since January requesting documents about job placement claims for graduates and other information, but determined this month that the company hadn’t complied. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Dan Walters: California’s deteriorating highways need a different revenue system – A long-standing tax system based on fuel volume has become obsolete as autos have become more fuel-efficient.

Meanwhile, electric vehicles bypass tax-collecting fuel pumps altogether, even though they add to congestion and highway wear.

Inflation compounds the crisis.

A study by the University of Southern California estimates that with adjustment for inflation, the state’s gas tax is worth much less than 50 percent of what it was in 1970, even with some rate increases during the period.

Basing road revenue on fuel gallonage, or even prices, is no longer realistic, and we should shift to mileage-based financing. It’s kicked around transportation circles for decades, but is gaining new traction among highway advocates.

The state Senate has approved a bill by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, which would, as recently amended, create a “Mileage-Based Fee Task Force” within the California Transportation Commission to recommend a pilot project.

As passed by the Senate, Senate Bill 1077 would have ordered the California Transportation Agency to develop the pilot program, but the amended version adopts a more circuitous process.

The USC study said that a mileage fee of 2.1 cents per mile could completely replace the gas tax, and while it could take many forms, all raise questions of privacy. If travel is to be monitored and taxed, then how can the data be collected without a governmental Big Brother knowing where motorists are driving? Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

A dog ate my e-mails – IF YOUR taxes are being audited and you tell the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that you just so happen to have lost the records relating to the period in question, you cannot expect much sympathy. The taxman has heard it all before, and “the dog ate my accounts” gets you nowhere. Odd, then, that the IRS is offering more or less exactly that excuse to Congress.

As some Republicans waste time on yet another pointless probe into Benghazi, others have their teeth in a real scandal. To recap, the IRS has admitted that some of its staff targeted groups with “Tea Party” or “patriot” in their names—plus a few liberal groups—for extra scrutiny. Several conservative groups found their applications for tax-exempt status held up in the period before the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. Lois Lerner, the then IRS official at the centre of the storm, said this was a mistake by a confused regional office, not a deliberate attempt to intimidate conservatives. Before Congress she invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; then she clammed up.

The Republican-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform demanded to see all of Ms Lerner’s e-mails. Late last Friday (the traditional time to bury news), the IRS released 27 pages of documents. Tucked away in the second half was the bombshell that e-mails sent by Ms Lerner during the two years under scrutiny had been lost when a computer crashed, and that the back-up tapes had already been “recycled”.

On Tuesday it emerged that the e-mail records of six other IRS officials whose role is under scrutiny had also been lost. And the House oversight committee has found that before the 2010 election the IRS handed 1.1m pages of tax information on non-profit groups to the FBI—a big no-no. Read More > in The Economist

The team and NFL should change the Redskins name, not the federal government – Now that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has struck a governmental blow against commodified ethnic insults, I’m nervous, because I may have “disparaged” somebody this morning when I buttered my toast. After I put away the Land O Lakes butter with that Indian maiden logo on the box, I bit off a chew of Red Man tobacco and climbed into a Jeep Cherokee.

The Washington football club ought to ditch its slur of a trademark, voluntarily. It ought to do so on the grounds of basic decency and good taste, and, you’d hope, with an intelligent sense of history, context and place. If they won’t do it willingly, then the rest of us and their colleagues in the NFL ought to embarrass, jeer and cajole them into it. But the method currently being employed, the mobilization of the U.S. government in favor of a correct sensibility, is wrong.

The split decision, 2-1, by the U.S. Patent and Trademark panel to cancel the Washington football club’s trademark registration is hollow for three reasons. First, team management again failed the decency and intelligence test in response to it. Second, the practical effect isn’t that they have to stop using the name, only that they might have trouble successfully barring others who use it. Third, and most important, government coercion is a lot more harmful than a lousy word.

Nobody would like to see a name change more than me, and no one has made more fun of owner Daniel Snyder on this subject. But the USPTO decision came in a political climate that is queasy-making. It came after months of various Feds leaning on the team in ways that make it hard to feel a sense of victory. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has threatened to examine the NFL’s tax-exempt status. The Federal Communications Commission has threatened to bring a criminal charge against the club for “indecency.” Read More > in The Washington Post

Survey Says: Californians Concerned By Low Voter Turnout, Unsure of Solution – Two weeks ago California held a statewide primary election. Didn’t know? Initial vote tallies indicate you’re far from alone. It appears that three-quarters of Californians also missed the memo. Fewer than one in four registered voters bothered to cast a ballot on June 3rd, putting California on track to set a record low for turnout in a statewide primary once all votes are tallied.

The primary results have left many in political circles scratching their heads trying to answer one question: Why did 13.3 million registered voters sit out the election? Many theories and solutions have been proposed in the wake of the election, but given the general lack of consensus, California Forward asked its email subscribers to weigh in.

Nearly 1,000 Californians completed our brief survey, which is 1,000 more people than the total number of voters that showed up to a Rohnert Park polling place. Low turnout is bad enough, but zero in an entire day in Rohnert Park? Wow.

Respondents, 89 percent to be exact, overwhelmingly agreed that low turnout is cause for concern. However, as with the press and election administrators, opinions varied greatly as to what might be depressing turnout, clearly demonstrating a long-held belief that there is no silver bullet in election reform.

When asked why millions of Californians aren’t voting, 91 percent agreed that people think “their vote doesn’t matter.” Three-quarters attributed lower participation to an uneven electoral playing field tilted toward special interests. According to the poll, just one in five respondents believe that the constant election cycle may be to blame, which is particularly interesting given many cities are considering shifting their election calendar to consolidate elections in an effort to boost turnout. Read More > at Public CEO

Statistics: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid. – David Spiegelhalter, a distinguished British statistician and the Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, is a fan of numbers. But, like a carton of eggs, they should be handled with care. Unfortunately, the media often splatters them all over the place.

Take this headline for example:

Eating bacon every day boosts the risk by cancer 20 percent

Eating bacon every day boosts the risk by cancer 20 percent? Sounds alarming, doesn’t it? Now, let’s look at the statistics behind that claim in a slightly different way.

The study in question examined a particular type of cancer: pancreatic. Pancreatic cancer is quite deadly, but thankfully, it’s rare. Approximately five out of every 400 people will develop it. Now, let’s apply that 20% increase…

“If all of those 400 all stuff their gob every morning with a great big greasy bacon sandwich, that five would increase by 20% which means going up to six,” Spiegelhalter explained to the BBC’s The Infinite Monkey Cage. “Told in that way, it’s a complete non-story.”

The framing of a story about risk, health, and death makes a big difference as to how many people will read it – the scarier the better, generally. Accuracy often suffers in the process. Read More > at Real Clear Science

California’s Budget Is a Monument to One-Party Rule – With a few hours to spare before the June 15th midnight deadline, the California State Legislature passed its Fiscal Year 2014-2015 budget. At $156 billion in general and special fund spending, the budget represents a sharp spending increase buoyed by stronger than expected revenues thanks to two temporary and precarious sources: Proposition 30’s $6 billion-a-year tax increase set to expire in Fiscal Year 2018-2019, and a resurgent stock market driving increased capital gains tax revenue.

As always, the spending runs the gamut, including politicians’ pet projects like $264 million for former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s pre-school expansion, along with programs that actually enjoy broad public support. Here are some of the best and worst highlights.

The Good: California isn’t necessarily known for its fiscal restraint, but at times, there are glimmers of hope (for instance, the passage and continued support of Proposition 13). The budget includes provisions related to the revised ACA 4, a “rainy-day” fund plan negotiated by state Republicans and Democrats that will go before voters in November. While this isn’t the first attempt at a budget reserve, many are hopeful that this plan will be more successful.

…The Bad: Of all the pet projects funded in the budget, Gov. Brown’s high-speed rail might be the most egregious. Under scrutiny by the courts and Congress, the project is facing serious funding problems, a myriad of legal and environmental challenges, and declining public support. Yet its many demerits didn’t stop the legislature from earmarking $250 million of current cap-and-trade revenues, and 25% of future cap-and-trade funds to the project. While the funds allotted to the rail are substantial, they won’t come close to covering its $67 to $100 billion price-tag. Worse, the appropriation is an affront to the intent of the cap-and-trade program, which aims to reduce California’s carbon footprint by 2020. 2020 will predate the completion of the high-speed rail; that is if it manages to be built at all. This will likely lead to additional legal challenges.

The Ugly: The ugliest feature is not what is in the budget, but how the budget came to be. It was largely written, negotiated, and debated in back-rooms, without input from the budget conference committee’s two Republicans, state Senator Jim Neilson and state Assemblyman Jeff Gorell. Read More > at Real Clear Markets

A bump at the pump? Senators propose a 12-cent hike in federal gas tax. – A bipartisan Senate proposal emerged Wednesday to rescue beleaguered federal transportation funding by raising the tax on gasoline by 12 cents a gallon.

The proposal to hike the 18.4-cent federal tax for the first time since 1993 came from Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and won quick endorsement from an array of advocates ranging from road builders to AAA.

In addition to increasing the tax by 6 cents in each of the next two years, the senators want the rate indexed to inflation. Failure to keep pace with inflation over the past 20 years, along with steadily increasing fuel economy, has caused the Federal Highway Trust Fund that receives the money to sink to a dangerous level.

The Transportation Department projected this week that by midsummer, the fund will no longer be able to meet its obligations. The Obama administration, citing a fragile economic recovery, has been reluctant to endorse a gas-tax increase. Members of Congress facing midterm elections have preferred to look to other sources. Read More > in the Washington Post

Amazon’s first smartphone, explained – Three years ago, Amazon introduced the Kindle Fire, the company’s first color, multitouch tablet. Now, the company is expanding the Fire line with its first smartphone. Here’s what you need to know.

Creating its own smartphone gives Amazon a kind of insurance policy. If customers ever have trouble getting Amazon content on third-party platforms, they can always buy an Amazon phone (or tablet) to access that content. And having that option in his back pocket gives Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos a stronger hand to play in negotiations with other big companies.

The biggest feature of the phone, from Amazon’s perspective, is tight integration with Amazon’s own content and services. If you buy a Fire Phone, it will be tightly integrated with your library of Amazon content — books, movies, music, software, and so on.

Amazon is leveraging the vast network of internet servers it already has to give Fire Phone users a seamless experience. For example, if you take photos with the Fire Phone, they’re automatically synced with Amazon’s cloud storage service, allowing users to access the photos from other devices.

The Fire Phone also has a neat new feature called Firefly. If you scan an object — a book, barcode, or even a painting — Firefly will recognize it and offer users options. If it’s a product Amazon sells, the user will be given the option to buy it, an aid to the controversial process of showrooming. Firefly can also listen to songs or television programs, identify them, and give the user the option to purchase a copy. Point Firefly at a famous painting and it will show you the Wikipedia page describing that painting.

Finally, the Fire Phone has a 3-D feature, allowing users to view objects on the screen in three dimensions without wearing 3-D glasses.

The Fire Phone display is 4.7 inches and has a resolution of 1280 x 720. That’s a bit smaller than Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S5, which has a 5.1 inch display with a 1080 x 1920 resolution. It’s larger than the iPhone, which has a 4-inch screen with a resolution of 1136-by-640.

The Fire Phone’s camera has a 13 megapixel rear-facing camera and four 2.1 megapixel front-facing cameras. The Galaxy S5 camera has 16 megapixels, while the iPhone camera has 8 megapixels. More pixels aren’t necessarily better, though — other characteristics of a camera can matter more than the raw number of pixels. Read More > at Vox

Water flows boosted in American River to block salty incursion to Delta – Water flows into the American River were increased Tuesday, despite the ongoing drought, because state and federal officials are fighting to keep salinity from San Francisco Bay from intruding into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation boosted water releases from Nimbus Dam into the American River from 2,000 to 2,500 cubic feet per second. This follows other increases in late May for the same reason.

Due to the drought and very low snowmelt, there simply isn’t enough natural runoff from the Sierra Nevada to keep salinity out of the Delta. Controlling salinity is essential because the Delta provides fresh water to 23 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.

Although water deliveries from the Delta have been reduced to historic lows because of drought, officials want to keep salinity out of the Delta because, once it intrudes, the salty water can take weeks or months to flush out. As the summer wears on, sufficient water for that task in upstream reservoirs could run out. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

California soda warning label bill stalls in committee – California lawmakers on Tuesday turned back legislation that would require warning labels on sugary beverages, voicing skepticism about the public health benefits.

“It’s an honorable effort but I feel it’s ineffective,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who acknowledged that soda manufacturers are prominent job generators in her district. “I think this bill creates as much confusion as it does information. A label which will appear on soda and sports drinks with no labels appearing on chocolate milk, juices or alcoholic beverages sends the wrong message.”

Senate Bill 1000 slipped out of the Senate last month with the bare minimum 21 votes needed to advance. Legislators on the Assembly Health Committee halted its progress, with two Democrats voting against the measure and four others abstaining. The measure fell three votes short of the 10 needed to pass. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Appeals court throws out $340,000 online libel ruling – On Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed (PDF) an online libel case and annulled the award of hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The court found that the site was protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which bars website liability from material created by its users.

The case, known as Sarah Jones v. Dirty World Entertainment Recordings LLC et al., concerns a website known as TheDirty.com. That site allows users to upload anonymous comments, photos, and videos that are almost always of a gossip-minded and salacious nature.

Between October 2009 and January 2010, Sarah Jones, a former cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals football team, was the target of a number of posts on the site. The first post provided a photo of her with Shayne Graham, then a kicker with the Bengals. The post alleged that Jones had “slept with every other Bengal Football player. This girl is a teacher too!! You would think with Graham’s paycheck he could attract something a little easier on the eyes Nik!” Read More > at ars technica

Top 5 Taxes You May See on 2016 Ballot – Like meteorologists tracking distant storms heading their way, some folks in Sacramento are watching for signs that tax increases are building momentum for the 2016 ballot when the Proposition 30 temporary taxes begin to fade away.

Now that this year’s state budget is done with increased spending in place, and the promise for more spending if revenue exceeds expectations, how are the programs going to be funded if there is a dip in the economic cycle or the temporary taxes disappear? Tax increases are one way and members of the majority party and the interests that support them are not shy about talking about possible tax increases. There are also those interests considering the tax route to discourage the use of certain goods or products.

Looking into a crystal ball that admittedly has a couple of cracks in it, here’s a list of possible tax increases that could appear on the 2016 ballot. Or could we see more than one?

5. SODA TAX. The push is on to raise taxes on sweetened beverages. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Why Using Toilet Seat Liners Is Basically Pointless

UglyGorilla Hack of U.S. Utility Exposes Cyberwar Threat – Somewhere in China, a man typed his user name, “ghost,” and password, “hijack,” and proceeded to rifle the computers of a utility in the Northeastern U.S.

He plucked schematics of its pipelines. He copied security-guard patrol memos. He sought access to systems that regulate the flow of natural gas. He cruised channels where keystrokes could cut off a city’s heat, or make a pipeline explode.

That didn’t appear to be his intention, and neither was economic espionage. While he was one of the Chinese officers the U.S. charged last month with infiltrating computers to steal corporate secrets, this raid was different. The hacker called UglyGorilla invaded the utility on what was probably a scouting mission, looking for information China could use to wage war.

UglyGorilla is one of many hackers the FBI has watched. Agents have recorded raids by other operatives in China and in Russia and Iran, all apparently looking for security weaknesses that could be employed to disrupt the delivery of water and electricity and impede other functions critical to the economy, according to former intelligence officials with knowledge of the investigation. The incursions spurred a debate in the Obama administration over whether and how to respond, and raised alarms among lawmakers briefed on the incidents. Read More – in Bloomberg

Whooping Cough Officially Epidemic in California: Officials – The number of whooping cough cases in California has officially reached epidemic proportions, the California Department of Public Health reported.

Whooping cough, known to doctors as pertussis, has experienced a resurgence this year with more than 3,400 new cases reported between January 1 and June 10, according a statement released by the department.

The department said whooping cough is cyclical, peaking every three to five years. The last big spike in cases was in 2010.

Los Angeles County has experienced around 350 new cases so far this year with Long Beach being hit especially hard. The city has seen more than 90 new infections, making up nearly 20 cases per 100,000 people.

Pertussis is a highly infectious bacterial disease that can be spread by coughing. Symptoms of the disease vary by age group. Read More > at NBC News

Ryan Chamberlain Pleads Not Guilty To Bomb Charges, New Case Details Emerge – In federal court today, former San Francisco politico and alleged bomb-making/toxin-ordering suspect Ryan Kelly Chamberlain II pled not guilty to one felony charge of possession of an unregistered destructive device and a new felony charge of possession of firearm with the serial number filed off.

At this morning’s hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Nathanael Cousins denied Chamberlain’s request to be released on his on recognizance, primarily because federal prosecutor Philip Kearney delivered what SFWeekly called, “a harrowing, 10-minute soliloquy regarding ricin, bombs, and menacing Google search terms” while arguing that Chamberlain was a possible threat and a likely flight risk.

According to Kearney, in addition to the abrin and pure nicotine that Chamberlain allegedly purchased online through a dark web site called Black Market Reloaded, investigators also found 20 to 40 castor beans in his apartment. Castor beans, in case you missed that season of Breaking Bad, are used in making the deadly toxin ricin.

Although he was connected to three separate, deadly toxins Chamberlain has not been charged with any crimes relating to the poisons. He did, however, did receive a second felony charge for possession of a small .22-caliber handgun found with the serial number filed off. Chamberlain’s defense attorney Jodi Linker argued that the weapon was “almost novelty sized,” the Weekly reports, “like the sort of thing you’d take to a party.” Read More > at SF List

Cable TV boxes become 2nd biggest energy users in many homes – In the middle of the night, when most Americans are sound asleep, their lights and appliances off, a power hog is wide awake and running at nearly full throttle: the boxes that operate their cable or satellite television service..

The seemingly innocuous appliances — all 224 million of them across the nation — together consume as much electricity as produced by four giant nuclear reactors, running around the clock. They have become the biggest single energy user in many homes, apart from air conditioning.

Cheryl Williamsen, a Los Alamitos architect, has three of the boxes leased from her cable provider in her home, but she had no idea how much power they consumed until recently, when she saw a rating on the back for as much as 500 watts — about the same as a washing machine.

A set-top cable box with a digital recorder can consume as much as 35 watts of power, costing about $8 a month for a typical Southern California consumer. The devices use nearly as much power turned off as they do when they are turned on. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

U.S. Officials Keep Close Eye On ‘Miserable’ Mosquito-Borne Chikungunya Virus – First there was West Nile virus. Now health experts are warning about another virus carried by mosquitoes.

The chikungunya virus — or “chik-v” — has sickened tens of thousands of people throughout the Caribbean with high fever and severe pain. Now Americans are coming down with it, too, and there’s fear that it will spread, CBS 2′s Kristine Johnson reported.

“This is not a fatal infection; it’s just a miserable infection,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Preventive Medicine.

Cases of the mosquito-borne virus have been confirmed in 15 states, including New York. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25 cases have been reported in Florida alone.

“The chikungunya fever will last for three, four, five days,” Schaffner said. “You’re miserable. Then you’ll get better. We can treat you symptomatically.” Read More > at CBS New York

Purdy: San Francisco Olympics in 2024 unlikely – The exploration surely will uncover nothing new. We all know that San Francisco cannot be the host “city” for any Olympics in a singular sense. It’s too small a municipality, both in population and square mileage. Thus, any local bid for the Olympics must involve the entire Bay Area, with the bulk of events taking place outside San Francisco.

And therein lies the rub.

Like so many outside entities, the U.S. Olympic Committee doesn’t “get” how Northern California works. That effectively doomed previous Olympic bids.

Yes, San Francisco is our undeniable postcard/tourist capital. But eight of 10 people in the Bay Area live somewhere else. More dwell in San Jose, which is the larger city. The area’s business capital is in Silicon Valley. The education capitals are in Berkeley and Palo Alto. Right now, Oakland might be the Bay Area hipster capital. Marin County has its own center of attitudinal gravity.

In other words, this isn’t like other metropolitan areas in America, which have one dominant city and entirely subservient suburbs. Each corner of the Bay Area has its own vibe and agenda. Getting all the political entities on the same page is terribly difficult. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

Law by algorithm: Are computers fairer than humans? – From speeding fines to determining how long police can track a suspect, algorithms seem good at doling out justice – but their objectivity maybe an illusion

NINE years ago, federal agents stuck a location tracker on a nightclub owner’s car without a warrant. The agents thought their suspect might be dealing drugs, and four weeks of GPS data ultimately proved them right. He countered that the prolonged tracking had violated his privacy, and therefore his constitutional rights. The case fell apart in the Supreme Court, where justices debated the length of time that police could tail citizens before routine investigation became all-out invasion. Was four weeks too long? What about three days, or four hours?

Last week, a high-tech solution was proposed: let algorithms set the guidelines for us. Since computers are able to unearth subtle patterns in data, the thinking goes, they could help lawmakers quantify how much or how little surveillance is fair.

“Some justices think four weeks is too much and they’ve never been able to explain why,” says Steven Bellovin at Columbia University in New York City. “I saw there was a natural way to answer some of the questions by using these techniques.”

Bellovin, along with specialists in computer science and law, analysed previous research on tracking to learn what such data could uncover about an individual’s characteristics and daily habits. They concluded that one week of data would reveal enough information to constitute a threat to privacy, and so would be a reasonable place for the law to draw the line (NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, doi.org/s5d).

They also suggested taking the process a step further, using algorithms to set different limits for different enquiries into a suspect’s personal life, such as their drug habits. Read More > at NewScientist

A Fourth Drought Year for California: What Are the Odds? – Vegas has nothing on Davis.

As talk turns to whether California’s drought will stretch into a fourth year, two co-founders of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis decided to handicap it. Their conclusion: don’t bet on wet.

Jay Lund, who specializes in the engineering side of water and geologist Jeff Mount, now a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, looked at more than a hundred years of precipitation records and drought patterns in the Sacramento Valley, and calculate that the chances of another winter with below-average precipitation to be nearly three in four. Lund and Mount figure there’s about a one-in-four chance of a “critically dry” year, using the five-category nomenclature of state water managers. “There’s a good chance that if you’re in a dry year this year, you’ll be in a dry year next year,” says Lund. They write on the center’s California Water Blog:

“In all, there’s a 71 percent chance that next [water] year will be Below Normal or drier and only a 29 percent chance of experiencing an Above Normal or Wet year.

Based on 106 years of record, only 13 percent of years have been Critically Dry. But the odds facing California for next year aren’t as good. In the Sacramento Valley — the state’s largest source of water supply — there’s a 29 percent chance that the 2014-15 water year will also be Critically Dry, and a 64 percent chance that it will be Dry or Critically Dry — not favorable conditions for water management.” Read More > at KQED

Politicians don’t make a peep on teacher tenure ruling – Rarely has a major court decision been met with such stony silence by California politicians as the ruling declaring that the state’s teacher tenure laws hurt poor and minority-heavy schools and are unconstitutional.

Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to comment. Same with Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office defended the state when the lawsuit was argued in Los Angeles.

Likewise, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who blasted out five tweets within hours of Texas Gov. Rick Perry likening homosexuality to alcoholism – hasn’t uttered a word on the ruling that threw out California’s tenure laws.

“Let’s get real here. Do you really think they want to bite the hand that feeds them?” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Meth pours into Central California as liquid – In methamphetamine’s seedy underworld, traffickers are disguising the drug as a liquid to smuggle it into the United States from Mexico.

Dissolved in a solution, it’s sealed in tequila bottles or plastic detergent containers to fool border agents and traffic officers. Once deep in California’s Central Valley, a national distribution hub, meth cooks convert it into crystals — the most sought-after form on the street.

Tough policing has driven the highly toxic super-labs south of the border where meth is manufactured outside the sight of U.S. law enforcement, but the smaller conversion labs are popping up domestically in neighborhoods, such as one in Fresno where a house exploded two years ago. Read More > at Yahoo! News

Online Journalism Is Suffering Print’s Fate – If you want the pithiest summation of the problem facing modern journalism, here it is: dollars in print, dimes on the Web, pennies on mobile.

That’s advertising revenue we’re talking about. Journalism is what economists call a “two-sided market”: Media companies sell news and entertainment to you, and they sell you to advertisers. Outside of some specialty trade publications, subscriptions have never covered the cost of producing newspapers and magazines. In fact, they rarely exceed the cost of printing and mailing the things. The actual work of reporting has always been paid for by the advertisers.

The Web has slashed the costs of distributing our product, but it hasn’t done that much to change the cost of gathering the news. Oh, sure, there was fat in the industry, accumulated during flush times; journalists still get kind of misty when they hear the words “Time magazine drinks cart.” But researching, reporting and writing stories consume a surprising amount of time and money. Readers are always shocked when I tell them how much effort goes into producing a single 2,500-word feature.

The problem is, advertising dollars are shrinking. We just can’t charge as much for Web advertising as we used to for print advertising. A decade ago, when I entered professional journalism and began earnestly discussing its financial future, there was a reasonable case that, eventually, digital advertising would be worth more than print advertising — you could precisely target it, after all, and measure its effects. As soon as we got better at building digital ad products and educated advertisers, in theory we’d be in better shape than ever.

That theory has, alas, been pretty well destroyed by the last 10 years. Advertisers still won’t pay print rates for digital. Worse, the money that does get spent on digital advertising increasingly isn’t going to news outlets; it’s going to Google and Facebook and Yahoo. Read More > in Bloomberg

The Dog Ate My E-Mails, for Two Years – Who knew that the Obama administration had a penchant for black humor? Earlier this year, in February, President Obama told Bill O’Reilly during an interview on Fox News that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” in the IRS scandal involving the targeting of conservative nonprofit groups. In July 2103, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew foreshadowed his boss’s nonchalance by insisting that there was “no evidence” that any political appointee had been involved in the scandal.

Now we may know why. After months of delay in responding to congressional inquiries, the IRS now claims that, for the period of January 2009 to April 2011, all e-mails between Lois Lerner — the IRS official at the center of the scandal — and anyone outside the IRS were wiped out by a “computer crash.” As House Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp wrote in a statement, this loss means that “we are conveniently left to believe that Lois Lerner acted alone.” After all, there isn’t a “smidgen” of e-mail evidence to suggest otherwise.

A growing number of computer professionals are stepping forward to say that none of this makes sense. Norman Cillo, a former program manager at Microsoft, told The Blaze: “I don’t know of any e-mail administrator [who] doesn’t have at least three ways of getting that mail back. It’s either on the disks or it’s on a TAPE backup someplace on an archive server.” Bruce Webster, an IT expert with 30 years of experience consulting with dozens of private companies, seconds this opinion: “It would take a catastrophic mechanical failure for Lerner’s drive to suffer actual physical damage, but in any case, the FBI should be able to recover something. And the FBI and the Justice Department know it.” Read More > at the National Review Online

Board approves sewer rate hike for Pittsburg, Antioch and Bay Point residents – Higher rates for sewer service are in the pipeline for residents throughout East Contra Costa County.

The Delta Diablo Sanitation District board this week unanimously approved a 6.5 percent increase, meaning that Pittsburg, Antioch and Bay Point residents will pay an additional $1.49 per month, or $17.88 per year, for wastewater treatment.

More than half of the rate increase is aimed at covering expenses Delta Diablo has no control over, such as chemicals and electricity, along with replacing aging pipes and pump stations, said Karen Ustin, the district’s business services director.

“This plant has been here for close to 40 years now, and things are starting to wear out. We must maintain those to provide the service to protect public health and the environment,” Ustin said.

The remaining amount will be set aside to build a $125 million facility to meet new regulatory requirements to remove ammonia and other nutrients in water treatment. Read More > at InsideBayArea

Major progress reported on Highway 4 project – While the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is carrying traffic, major highway projects are still underway. Most notably, the $1.3 billion transportation corridor which will revolutionize traffic on Highway 4.

This is a true game changer for Bay Area transportation and new business growth. Highway 4 is one of the nation’s worst commuting headaches, and now it will no longer hold that dubious distinction by the end of next year.

Thanks to Contra Costa voters, the massive project is going full steam ahead.

“You’re gonna take an antiquated four lane facility and you’re gonna make it a modern 10 lane facility, so you’re gonna add capacity,” says Randy Iwasaki, Director of the Contra Costa County Transportation Authority. Read More > at KTVU

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About Kevin

Mayor - City of Oakley, Data Center Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit and Transplan
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