Sunday Reading – 03/29/15

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.

San Diego County Unveils Website To Track Missing Residents – Sheriff’s officials announced Monday an online expansion of a program designed to help authorities find Alzheimer’s disease patients and others with cognitive disabilities as quickly as possible should they go missing.

The “Take Me Home” service, which makes use of a database accessible by all local law enforcement agencies, is now available to the public at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s website. Previously, applicants had to go to a sheriff’s station to file their paperwork.

The program allows families and caretakers to upload key information — including photographs, physical descriptions, areas frequented and emergency contacts — that can help public-safety personnel more rapidly track down dependent and at-risk people if they wander off from their homes or get lost during outings.

Such data can help bring about favorable outcomes in missing-person cases by narrowing down searches in their critical early stages, officials said. Read More > at KPBS

Losing Faiths – …In his valuable new book, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, Gerard Russell describes some of these Christian communities, along with several other religious minorities that somehow have managed to endure in the Middle East. The book is part history and part travelogue. Russell worked for a decade in the region as a British and U.N. diplomat and speaks fluent Arabic and Afghan Persian. He spent four years researching the book. As a result, he speaks with an authority that outsiders often lack. And he does so in an engaging manner, with insight, humor, sympathy, and admiration for the groups he describes.

In addition to Coptic Christians in Egypt and Chaldean Christians in Iraq, Russell describes six such groups. There are the Mandaeans in southern Iraq, who reject Abraham but follow John the Baptist—a much greater miracle-worker than Jesus, they say. There are the Yazidis of northern Iraq, about whom most Americans first learned last summer, when ISIS militants trapped a group of them on Mount Sinjar. Yazidis revere an angel they call Melek Taoos, the Peacock Angel. This angel once rebelled against God, they say, but eventually repented and received forgiveness. Muslims see a similarity with the evil angel of Islamic tradition, Iblis, and accuse Yazidis of devil-worship. The Druze in Lebanon believe in reincarnation and the Universal Mind. Russell argues that they carry forward the religion of Pythagoras.

Another chapter describes the Zoroastrians, who maintain the ancient religion of the Persian Empire, a monotheistic, dualist faith centered on a divinity called Ahura Mazda. In Pakistan, Russell spends time among the Kalasha, the last pagan tribe that remains in the country, the descendants, perhaps, of Alexander the Great’s soldiers. Most interesting, for Christians, is his visit to the Samaritans, who still worship on Mount Gerazim in Israel, a practice Jesus himself discussed with the Samaritan woman at the well.

Three themes unite Russell’s treatment of these groups. First, there is the blunt fact of their survival over centuries in an often hostile environment. In part, Russell credits their longevity to a tradition in Islam of comparative tolerance. No equivalent faiths survived in Christian Europe, he notes. But it would be a distortion to ascribe their endurance wholly to Islamic open-mindedness. After all, these groups survived for centuries under Byzantium as well, and no one writes about Byzantine religious toleration. Although Islam often left these groups alone for decades at a time, they all suffered periodic, and brutal, repression. Read More > at The Online Library of Law and Liberty

How Obesity Became a Disease – Weight loss is a big business, and, since it’s rarely successful in the long term, it comes with a built-in supply of repeat customers. And doctors have been involved in the business one way or another for a long time. Some 2,000 years ago, the Greek physician and philosopher Galen diagnosed “bad humors” as the cause of obesity, and prescribed massage, baths, and “slimming foods” like greens, garlic, and wild game for his overweight patients. More recently, in the early 20th century, as scales became more accurate and affordable, doctors began routinely recording patients’ height and weight at every visit. Weight-loss drugs hit the mainstream in the 1920s, when doctors started prescribing thyroid medications to healthy people to make them slimmer. In the 1930s, the weight-loss chemical 2,4-dinitrophenol (DNP) came along, followed by amphetamines, diuretics, laxatives, and diet pills like fen-phen, all of which worked only in the short term and caused side effects ranging from the annoying to the fatal.

The national obsession with weight got a big boost in 1942, when a life-insurance company created a set of tables that became the most widely referenced standard for weight in North America. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company crunched age, weight, and mortality numbers from nearly 5 million policies in the United States and Canada to create “desirable” height and weight charts. For the first time, people (and their doctors) could compare themselves to a standardized notion of what they “should” weigh.

And compare they did, using increasingly clinical-sounding terms like adipose, overweight, and obese. The new terminology reinforced the idea that only doctors should and could treat weight issues. The word overweight, for example, implies excess; to be overweight suggests you’re over the “right” weight. The word obese, from the Latin obesus, or “having eaten until fat,” handily conveys both a clinical atmosphere and that oh-so-familiar sense of moral judgment.

…On a cool June afternoon in 2013, hundreds of doctors from around the country streamed into the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. They were there, on day three of the American Medical Association’s annual meeting, to vote on a list of organization policies—boring but necessary stuff, for the most part. But one item on the ballot that day would prove contentious, and not just within the paneled walls of the ballroom. Resolution 420 was short and to the point: “That our American Medical Association recognize obesity as a disease state with multiple pathophysiological aspects requiring a range of interventions to advance obesity treatment and prevention.”

…The AMA membership didn’t agree with the committee; they passed Resolution 420 in an overwhelming voice vote. I asked the organization’s president, Ardis Hoven, an internist who specializes in infectious diseases, to help me understand why the membership voted that way despite the committee’s recommendation. She wouldn’t talk to me directly, instead writing through a spokesperson, “The AMA has long recognized obesity as a major public-health concern, but the recent policy adopted in June marks the first time we’ve recognized obesity as a disease due to the prevalence and seriousness of obesity.” Read More > in The Atlantic

Facebook’s Plan to Take Over the News Business – Facebook’s plan to take over the media was first articulated in October, by the New York Times’ David Carr. The social network had become a dominant source of online news for its billion-plus users. But it found that those users were frustrated by the experience of reading news on Facebook, especially on their phones. It required clicking links to third-party media websites, whose pages were slow to load, riddled with ads, and often failed to match the promise of their clickbait headlines.

Facebook has tried to solve this problem from a number of angles, many of which I’ve written about in the past. But the ultimate solution was the one Carr laid out: Facebook would simply host news’ sites content on its own platform, then share a slice of the ad revenue that resulted.

I wrote in depth in January about Facebook’s plan to cut out the middle man, explaining how it might work and why publishers would feel compelled to participate. At the time, Facebook had just published a blog post encouraging publishers to post videos natively on its platform, so that they could play automatically in users’ feeds. (Facebook’s algorithms heavily prioritize native video posts over, say, YouTube videos.) But I predicted that we’d eventually see Facebook nudge media outlets to post full news stories directly to Facebook as well—perhaps by “late 2016.”

That prediction suddenly looks far too conservative. The Times reported on Monday that Facebook “has been quietly holding talks with at least half a dozen media companies about hosting their content inside Facebook rather than making users tap a link to go to an external site.” And it will start testing the new scheme “in the next several months,” with the New York Times, National Geographic, and BuzzFeed among the likely partners at launch. No doubt others will be lined up to follow their lead. Read More > at Slate

Gas price swings prompt questions about California’s market – State lawmakers on Tuesday questioned the recent wild swings in California’s gas prices and asked whether regulators can do more to reduce market volatility while government promotes alternative fuels to increase competition.

“How can such a well-functioning market be subject to such volatility?” asked Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who helped lead the legislative hearing in Sacramento.

California has experienced one of the largest price swings in recent history. State energy officials said two refineries that make up 17 percent of the state’s crude-oil processing capacity remain offline after a recent plant explosion and labor dispute.

Gas prices surged as much as 25 cents a gallon last month after an explosion stopped gasoline production at an Exxon Mobil refinery in Torrance, a plant that provides about 10 percent of the state’s gasoline supply. At that time, Tesoro’s oil refinery in Martinez, in Northern California, also wasn’t producing oil because of labor unrest.

The average statewide price for regular gas was $3.27 on Monday, according to the California Energy Commission. That’s compared to $2.46 for the national average, meaning Californians are paying 81 cents more per gallon.

“It is true that Californians do pay premium for their cleaner-burning gasoline, but current prices are well beyond the 20 or 30 cents more that Californians pay typically,” said Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, co-chair of the joint Senate Transportation and Housing and Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. Read More > in the Associated Press

The Only Thing Worse Than Scandals Are California’s Attempts to Stop Them – There is no greater symbol of local California corruption than Bell, a city of 35,000 people, 2 ½ square miles, and many gas stations in southeast L.A. County. For years, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo and his minions exploited every dark corner of California’s convoluted systems of local governance and finance. They paid each other scandalously high salaries (Rizzo’s package of wages and benefits was worth $1.5 million annually), used the city’s redevelopment agency like a piggybank, borrowed improperly, squirreled away money in illegal retirement accounts, purchased property off the books, approved illegal fees and taxes, and used a sham charter election to exempt themselves from state laws.

Today, five years after this malfeasance was exposed, a new narrative of Bell has emerged. That narrative is one of triumph, best exemplified by a conference on the corruption scandal organized by Chapman University last month. The tale’s heroes were all assembled: journalists who broke the story, a police whistleblower, citizens who challenged corrupt officials, prosecutors who won convictions of those officials, and state officials who put through new laws in response. They were joined by the administrators and lawyers who painstakingly put the city of Bell back together. Among their many successes is a $22 million reserve in the city’s coffers.

All this should be cause for celebration. The Bell case—and the response to it—provided a new roadmap for how California communities can respond after they are victimized by city hall. Future municipal corruption cleanup crews will have new laws and two new state appeals courts rulings to aid them in removing and obtaining restitution from corrupt officials.

But when it comes to the question of prevention—of how to make sure that California doesn’t see more Bells—there is less reason to party.

…The second option is to cheat. Or, to put it less judgmentally: to peer into the dark corners of the complicated system and invent new ways to get around the rules to govern and raise revenues. It’s worth remembering that while the Bell officials were corrupt and flouted laws, they didn’t steal and they didn’t embezzle, at least not in the traditional sense. They were just unusually brazen in exploiting the dark corners of California municipal finance. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Brands swoop in to buy .porn and .sucks before the trolls do – In 2011, the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers decided to expand the number of generic top-level domains, or gTLDs, such as .com and .net. There were 22 at that time and now there are over 547 new gTLDs on the Web, with new suffixes released every month.

Before June 1, a select group of people and companies, including trademarked brands, are getting first dibs on some of the more controversial domains. During this so-called “Sunrise period,” which is mandated by ICANN, some brands have already taken advantage.

For example, Microsoft has already registered and, according to Stuart Lawley, CEO of ICM Registry, which operates the .porn and .adult top-level domains. The same goes for and

After June 1, it’s a .sucks and .porn free-for-all. Read More > at CNN Money

7 Bay Area Fresh & Easy stores to close – Seven Fresh & Easy grocery stories will close in the Bay Area, but it appears that none of the four locations in the South Bay will be affected.

The closures are part of a larger shuttering of 50 stores announced over the weekend.

The Bay Area locations closing their doors include:

  • 460 Diablo Road, Danville
  • 1390 Silver Ave., San Francisco
  • 1827 Ygnacio Valley Road, Walnut Creek
  • 3903 Santa Rita Road, Pleasanton
  • 550 Coast Highway, Pacifica
  • 615 Elmira Road, Vacaville
  • 19691 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward

Fresh & Easy, which British supermarket giant Tesco started in the U.S. with high hopes in 2007, struggled to gain traction and was acquired by tycoon Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa Cos. in 2013. Yucaipa closed dozens of stores at that time. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

NFL suspends long-standing TV blackout policy for 2015 – The National Football League voted on Monday to suspend its long-standing television blackout policy for at least the 2015 season.

NFL teams voted for a one-year suspension of the blackout policy for both the upcoming preseason and regular season, the league said in a release.

The policy, created in the 1970s to promote ticket sales and unpopular with many fans, had specified that for a home game to be aired in the local market, it must be sold out 72 hours in advance of the kickoff.

In 2010, 10 percent of NFL games were blacked out, but there were no games kept off local television in 2014 and only two in 2013.

Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said the NFL’s decision “is a victory for the millions of sports fans and consumers across the country, and it brings us one step closer to eliminating this anti-fan measure once and for all.

“This antiquated, anti-consumer rule has for too long served only to protect the NFL’s bottom line at the expense of sports fans.”

Blumenthal and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain introduced legislation in 2013 to permanently eliminate the blackout rule. Read More > in Reuters

San Francisco Could Drop Voting Age to 16 – With shades of the 1960s Youth Movement, San Francisco might drop its voting age to 16 from 18. Doing so only would affect city elections, as other elections are affected by state and federal voting laws. Yet Fog City often has been a harbinger of national trends.

The reform is the idea of Supervisor John Avalos. He said, “I have seen the power of young people to be able to make changes and positive contributions to their community, and it makes sense to give them the right to vote.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Avalos and other supporters say it will encourage civic engagement among youths and instill in them lifelong voting habits at a time when turnout is low.” In addition, “Sixteen-year-olds can drive, work, pay taxes and be sentenced to life in prison.” Read More > at Public CEO

Plan to require fireplace retrofits at Bay Area homes for sale heats up smoke debate – In a move that could burn a hole in the pocket of property owners looking to sell or rent their homes, Bay Area air quality officials are ratcheting up their campaign against smoke pollution with a proposal aimed at phasing out the old-fashioned fireplace.

Bay Area homes with wood-burning fireplaces could not be sold or rented unless they were equipped with cleaner devices, such as gas, under the first proposal of its kind in California. Retrofit costs could range from hundreds of dollars to $2,000 to $3,000 or more — depending on the home and device installed.

Air officials also propose banning all wood-burning devices — whether or not they’re certified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency — in new construction, effective Nov. 1. Currently, only open hearth fireplaces in new buildings are banned.

The move by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District has fueled a debate on how far government should go in limiting wood burning to reduce public exposure to smoke. It also serves as an acknowledgment that Spare the Air alerts designed to curb such activities are difficult to enforce.

The rule would add a financial burden to homeowners, but proponents say the ban is worth it to protect people. Read More > in the Contra Costa Times

LAO: consider phasing out retiree health care – …As an alternative to the long-term debt of retiree health care, the state could offer new hires increased pay or contributions to a supplemental fund that could be used for health coverage or other purposes.

“Before California builds a funding model to pay for this benefit (retiree health care) for decades to come, the Legislature should consider whether this benefit should continue to be a part of the state employee compensation package for new hires,” said the analyst’s report prepared by Nick Schroeder and reviewed by Marianne O’Malley.

“If prospective employees do not value this benefit as much as it costs, the state and the new employee might be better off if the state offered future employees an alternative form of compensation.”

The Analyst’s report said there is “some ambiguity” about whether retiree health care, like pensions, is a vested right under state court decisions based on contract law, preventing cuts in the benefit offered at hire unless offset by a comparable new benefit.

If the state requires worker contributions under Brown’s plan, the contractual right to retiree health care could be strengthened, reducing future options for change. Some state workers have begun retiree health care contributions. Read More > at Calpensions

Tesla’s Plan to Kill Range Anxiety With a Software Update – Today, Tesla Motors announced it can, with a simple over-the-air software update to every Model S on the road, make it impossible to run out of juice while on the road, essentially eliminating range anxiety as an excuse for not going electric.

The company’s latest software update has two key features, Musk says. The car’s estimate of how far it can go before being plugged in will be more accurate, accounting for things like heavy winds and terrain. A new “Trip Planner” proactively warns drivers before they head out of range. By communicating with charging stations in real time, it will provide the best options for powering up and reaching your destination as quickly as possible.

The goal, Musk says, is to provide peace of mind by eliminating the perception that your car will run out of power.

…More significantly, it has built an international network of 403 “Supercharger” stations (enough to serve 2,219 cars simultaneously), where Tesla customers (and only Tesla customers, as the technology is proprietary) can charge a depleted battery to 80 percent in 40 minutes, for free. The idea is that drivers who charge up at home each night should always have enough juice for daily driving, and the Superchargers are there for the occasional road trip.

That road trip is where the anxiety kicks in. Last summer, I drove a Model S P85 from San Francisco to LA and back. Even with a string of Superchargers along my route, I felt the creep of range anxiety (mostly expressed as sweatiness), because the projected range suggested by the car didn’t always hold up. If I started out with enough mileage to get to the next station and then got stuck in traffic (accelerating and stopping repeatedly can sap power) or wanted to cruise I5 at a totally reasonable 80 mph, the buffer zone—the difference between how far the car can go and how far I needed to go—would shrink significantly. Read More > in Wired

Silenced workers who lost jobs to H-1B visa abuse (quietly) speak out – The Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing into abuses of the H-1B skilled guest worker visa program. Lawmakers heard experts describe how the use of foreign workers has come to dominate the IT industry, with many tech giants using the program to fire well-paid current workers and replace them with workers from abroad at significantly lower pay.

“The current system to bring in high-skill guest workers … has become primarily a process for supplying lower-cost labor to the IT industry,” two experts who testified at the hearing, Howard University’s Ron Hira and Rutgers’ Hal Salzman, wrote recently. “Although a small number of workers and students are brought in as the ‘best and brightest,’ most high-skill guest workers are here to fill ordinary tech jobs at lower wages.”

Exhibit A in the abuse of H-1Bs was the case of Southern California Edison, which recently got rid of between 400 and 500 IT employees and replaced them with a smaller force of lower-paid workers brought in from overseas through the H-1B program. The original employees were making an average of about $110,000 a year, the committee heard; the replacements were brought to Southern California Edison by outsourcing firms that pay an average of between $65,000 and $75,000. Read More > in the Washington Examiner


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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