Sunday Reading – 05/03/15

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.

Starbucks bottled water plant draws ire from drought-stricken California residents – There’s no question that water has become a contentious issue for California residents as the state continues to struggle with drought. That has raised questions about how much of the precious resource businesses are using.

Now, though, a bottled water plant in the small town of Merced, Calif. in the state’s parched Central Valley, has residents questioning the plant’s right to tap into the spring.

A report on the news site Mother Jones looked into the issue and found that Starbucks’ (Nasdaq: SBUX) Ethos brand water came from the Merced plant.

“The Starbucks water bottled at the plant comes from private springs in Baxter, a small unincorporated community in Placer County, a few hours north of Merced in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The spring water comes free of charge—in California, water companies typically don’t have to pay for the groundwater they use,” the report found.

Starbucks says the water the company uses from the area comes from “a private spring source that is not used for municipal water for any communities.” Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

The best coffeemaker – After two months surveying readers; interviewing coffee experts; researching makes, models, and reviews; and testing five finalist machines with a 10-person tasting panel, we recommend the $190 Bonavita 1900TS. It’s the best coffeemaker for most people who love good coffee but don’t have the time or patience for pour-over. The 1900TS brewed the most consistently delicious coffee among all of the machines we tested better than anything I used in my past life as a barista. That’s thanks to smart internal design: a wider showerhead, a flat-bottomed filter (the normal, wavy kind), and a built-in pre-infusion timer. This coffee machine will brew coffee 90 percent as good as pour-over every single time.

To get to these picks, I talked to coffee experts of various backgrounds from different parts of the industry: Humberto Ricardo, the owner of the renowned Manhattan coffee shop Third Rail Coffee; barista Carlos Morales, who just won third place in the Northeast Brewers Cup Championship; and Mark Hellweg, who founded and runs the specialty coffee accessory company Clive Coffee, which recently developed and released a high-end coffee machine of their own design. I also chatted with pretty much every barista I encountered at shops to get their perspectives. Read More > at Engagdet

California gasoline prices jump because of refinery issues – The average cost for a gallon of regular in California was $3.532 on Thursday, up from $3.194 a week earlier, according to AAA. The average price jumped 6 cents from Wednesday.

The swift rise, experts say, is because of problems at some refineries in the state. Prices are up nationwide after a rebound in crude prices, but nowhere is the jump as severe as in the Golden State.

California refineries often produce gasoline at near capacity, leaving little margin for supply disruptions. And the state’s special cleaner-burning blend is expensive for outsiders to make and deliver, causing most production to occur within the state.

…The state has been grappling with tight supply after a February explosion at Exxon Mobil Corp.’s Torrance refinery, analysts said. Oil Price Information Service, an energy information service, reported it might take until July before operations there return to normal.

An Exxon Mobil spokeswoman said the company doesn’t comment on the details of daily refinery operations. Last week, Chevron Corp.’s Richmond refinery reported it was flaring, and Tesoro Corp. indicated it was experiencing minor issues at its Martinez refinery, according to GasBuddy. The incidents trimmed output, worried traders and sent wholesale prices shooting up, Mac said. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

People love chickens that are “vegetarian fed.” But chickens are not vegetarians. – A carton of Eggland’s Best advertises that the company uses “vegetarian fed hens.” Horizon promises that their eggs “come from hens that are fed a 100% organic, vegetarian diet.” Land O Lakes hens have a diet with no animal fat or by-products.

Yet for the chickens, who are natural omnivores that readily devour bugs and small animals when they’re available, the forced vegetarianism can be a disaster.

Chickens on an unsupplemented vegetarian diet typically fall short of an essential protein-based amino acid known as methionine, and without it, they fall ill. Worse, the birds will also turn on each other, pecking at each other in search of nutrients, and these incidents can escalate into a henhouse bloodbath, farmers say.

“They’re really like little raptors – they want meat,” said Blake Alexandre, the owner of a 30,000 chicken operation in far northern California that keeps its birds on pasture. “The idea that they ought to be vegetarians is ridiculous.” Read More > in The Washington Post

Bonds, baseball, and prosecutorial BS – Eugene already noted (here) the excellent decision last week by the en banc 9th Circuit to vacate Barry Bonds’ conviction for obstruction of justice. To the extent we care about it at all (which is, for many people, not a very great extent), I suspect that we have all, by now, processed the Bonds baseball story, and are sick of hearing more about it. But having read through the various opinions in Bonds’ appeal, I suddenly see that the Bonds story turns out to be a more interesting law story than it is a baseball story.

It’s another example – Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby come immediately to mind, but there have been many others – of a high-profile defendant investigated for wrongdoing by the prosecutors at great length (and great expense), who is then charged not with the offense for which he/she was being investigated but instead for impeding the prosecutors – providing false information, or perjury, or obstruction of justice.

It’s a very disturbing trend: “You didn’t help us get information we need to send you to prison; turns out we can’t actually charge you with anything else, but a charge that you got in our way will at least make it look like we weren’t wasting time and taxpayer dollars” – and the Bonds case is a startling illustration of the phenomenon. Read More > in The Washington Post

Microsoft thinks it can guess your age – Microsoft launched a cool new tool for flattering — or offending — anyone with a few free minutes to kill.

Upload a selfie or type your name into the search bar at to do Bing image search, and Microsoft’s “How Old Do I Look?” tool takes a stab at guessing your age and gender.

Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) is playing a dangerous game. Guess too high and people are offended. Guess too low and they think the tool doesn’t work. Guess right on the nose and they’ll probably wish it had low-balled by a few years.

The company announced the site at its Microsoft Build developer’s conference in San Francisco on Thursday. It’s meant to show off the power of Microsoft’s face detection API tools and its Azure computing platform for developers.

Part of Microsoft’s Project Oxford, the Face Detection engine can also detect the same person in multiple photos. (You can test its face-matching tool here.) Third-party developers can use these features in their own apps, say for photo editing or sorting through a library of images. Read More > at CNN Money

Appointment Process for Castro Valley’s ‘Un-City Council’ to Be Held Without Public – For residents of unincorporated Castro Valley, the Municipal Advisory Committee is its de facto local government. In county literature it’s even called Castro Valley’s “Un-City Council.” But, the seven-member committee has no real power and its members are appointed exclusively by Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley.

In recent years, some Castro Valley residents have grown critical of the arrangement for its lack of transparency and a direct connection to the public. A vocal minority has routinely urged Miley to make the committee an elected board.

The lack of a true government body for Castro Valley residents to control their own destiny appears to be manifesting around three open seats on board, known as the CV MAC, soon to be filled by Miley.

A reported 16 candidates have applied for the appointment, but the interview process scheduled for Wednesday night in Castro Valley is not open to the public. Read More > at Public CEO

Cameras reveal the secret lives of Chernobyl’s wildlife – Automatic cameras in the Ukrainian side of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have provided an insight into the previously unseen secret lives of wildlife that have made the contaminated landscape their home.

Throughout 2015, the cameras will be positioned at 84 locations, allowing a team of scientists to record the type of animals passing through the area and where they make their home.

In the first four months since the cameras were deployed, the team has “trapped” more than 10,000 images of animals, suggesting the 30km zone, established shortly after the April 1986 disaster when a nuclear reactor exploded, ejecting radioactive material across the surrounding terrain and high into the atmosphere, is now home to a rich diversity of wildlife

The network of cameras is gathering data that will help scientists choose the most appropriate species to fit with collars that will then record the level of radioactive exposure the animal receives as it travels across the zone. Read More > in the BBC

Twitter at the Crossroads – Twitter as we know it is over. While the early release of ugly revenue numbers sent the company’s stock spiraling Tuesday, the actual quarterly earnings report that followed that afternoon was even worse. Twitter is acquiring users more slowly, particularly on mobile. It is failing to monetize these users as well as expected. And it is tapping other companies like Google, with whom it will partner to take advantage of its DoubleClick ad-serving platform, for lifelines. As a consequence, the ultimate value of the social network’s nearly 300 million users is looking significantly lower than previously thought. Twitter is well aware of these factors. Its recent actions signal that it is trying to redefine its business, not as a service that monetizes its users, but as a crowdsourced media platform and advertising agency—a dangerous bet that is unlikely to pay off.

Twitter’s strength is being the pulse of the Internet, the place where news gets broken in 140-character messages, where important topics start trending the second they enter the collective hivemind, and where politicians and celebrities and thinkers of all stripes can make announcements without the bother of a press release or the filter of the media. Yet this has always made Twitter Janus-faced: Is it a real-time news aggregator or a social network? More importantly, how will it make money? The conventional wisdom was once that Twitter would monetize its users by showing them ads that are extremely relevant to them. It is now obvious that Twitter’s future does not lie in a Facebook-like model, but in something else entirely. Twitter sees its user base, whose growth is flattening, not as customers but as content producers. In which case, who are its customers? Read More > in Slate

Big Support In Bipartisan Poll For a More Transparent California Legislature – A newly released poll commissioned by the institute finds an impressive breadth and depth of support among likely voters for five different changes in the way the Legislature conducts its business:

  • Requiring all documents, including the state budget, to be online and easily searchable: 91 percent support
  • Requiring the Legislature to produce a detailed report every quarter of its spending, including on travel and any perks: 90 percent support
  • Requiring that all proposed laws be in print at least 72 hours before any final legislative vote: 89 percent support
  • Requiring that video recordings of all legislative hearings be online within 24 hours of the event: 86 percent support.
  • Requiring that all bill analyses be written by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, not legislative staff: 82 percent support.

“It is clear that the public wants information, and they want it presented in a way that is quick and easy to find, understand and act upon,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in a statement. Newsom is on the Cal Poly institute’s advisory board.

The survey, conducted jointly by both Democratic and GOP pollsters, also found overwhelming support for knowing more about the powerful forces that flex their political muscle in Sacramento. Of those polled, 82 percent said it’s important to know more about which interest groups are behind a proposed law (something at which we recently took a closer look). And 78 percent said it should be easier to know how much money that interest groups donate to elected officials. Read More > at KQED

U.S. Officials Expect Bird Flu to Return in the Fall – U.S. agriculture officials say it is “highly probable” that the virulent avian flu viruses that have hit U.S. poultry operations hard in recent weeks will return next fall when wild bird populations migrate south, potentially spreading the viruses into new regions of the country.

Officials with the Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the H5N2 virus, along with two other highly pathogenic strains of bird flu, would probably be passed among birds at breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada through the summer.

The strains are difficult to control, say scientists, in part because wild birds can carry the viruses without appearing to be sick.

The statement marks a shift in tone in the agency’s assessment of the likelihood for a renewed outbreak tied to fall migration. More than 15 million commercial birds nationwide have died or are expected to be killed in the current outbreak, and exports of U.S. poultry and eggs have slowed sharply. Read More > in The New York Times

The Untold Story of Silk Road – The fact was, Green wasn’t just your average Mormon grandpa. Over the past few months he had been handling customer service for the massive online enterprise called Silk Road. It was like a clandestine eBay, a digital marketplace for illicit trade, mostly drugs. Green, under the handle Chronicpain, had parlayed his extensive personal narcotics knowledge—he’d been on pain meds for years—into a paying gig working for the site. Silk Road was hidden in the so-called dark web, a part of the Internet that’s invisible to search engines like Google. To access Silk Road you needed special cryptographic software. Combining an anonymous interface with traceless payments in the digital currency bitcoin, the site allowed thousands of drug dealers and nearly 1 million eager worldwide customers to find each other—and their drugs of choice—in the familiar realm of ecommerce. For a brief time, from 2011 to 2013, it was a wild success. In that relatively short span, Silk Road managed to rack up (depending on how you count) more than $1 billion in sales.

Which is why Green found himself surrounded by an interagency task force. He had been hired by Dread Pirate Roberts, the mysterious figure at the center of Silk Road. DPR, as he was often called, was the proprietor of the site and the visionary leader of its growing community. His relatively frictionless drug market was a serious challenge to law enforcement, who still had no idea who he or she was—or even if DPR was a single person at all. For over a year, agents from the DEA, the FBI, Homeland Security, the IRS, the Secret Service, and US Postal Inspection had been trying to infiltrate the organization’s inner circle. This bust of Green and his Chihuahuas in the frozen Utah desert was their first notable success. Read More > in WIRED

Microsoft just showed off the future of the PC – Some day soon, your smartphone might be able to replace your work PC and home laptop. You could keep your computer in your pocket, because your phone will be your PC.

At its Build developers conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Microsoft (MSFT, Tech30) unveiled a new Windows 10 feature called Continuum for Phones.

Continuum will allow Windows to dynamically switch its appearance to fit the screen and device you’re using.

For example, if you are running Windows on a tablet, apps will display apps full-screen. But if Windows senses that you have connected a keyboard and a mouse, apps will automatically switch to a desktop experience.

Since Windows 10 phones will run virtually the same code as Windows 10 PCs, you will be able to connect a Bluetooth monitor, keyboard and mouse to your phone, and run a PC-like experience from your smartphone. Read More > at CNN Money

Why the NFL decided to start paying taxes – After over 70 years, the NFL has reportedly given up its nonprofit status and will begin paying taxes, starting with the 2015 fiscal year.

Commissioner Roger Goodell explained the decision to the NFL’s owners in a memo tweeted by Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnick, calling the league’s tax-exempt status a “distraction.”

It’s a bit confusing why the NFL is tax-exempt in the first place. Normally, we associate the concept of a “nonprofit” with charities, religions, and schools — organizations that are supposed to value making the world a better place rather than earning cash. Meanwhile, the NFL is a billion-dollar behemoth that has almost perfected the art of money-making and pays its commissioner almost $50 million.

…The NFL as a whole made a reported $10 billion in revenue in 2013. The NFL’s league office reported a revenue of $326 million in 2012.

That’s what’s been exempt. The league said that after $317 million in expenses, its total income for the year was just $9 million.

…How will this change things?

Quite frankly, not very much. A 2013 report by Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the league would pay $109 million in taxes over 10 years. This is essentially nothing to the NFL.

The one major difference is that we will probably never again know Roger Goodell’s salary. We know Roger Goodell made $44 million in the fiscal year ending in March 2013 because nonprofits have to report their executive pay to the IRS in a publicly available filing. Read More > in SB*NATION

Lake Mead Has Dropped To Its Lowest Level Ever – California isn’t the only one having a water crisis. Yesterday, Lake Mead sank to its lowest level yet. The watery behemoth created by the construction of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s was reduced to a mere 1,080.07 feet above sea level, minimally smaller than the previous record of 1,080.19 set last August.

The difference of 1.44 inches might seem small, but it has a lot of people worried. With an incredibly dry summer anticipated out west, experts fear that the lake could sink to a water level of 1,073 feet. For comparison, the highest water level in the lake was 1225.85 feet, recorded back in 1983.

Millions of people in the region rely on Lake Mead for water and electricity generated at Hoover Dam. Unfortunately, as water levels fall, it gets more difficult for the dam’s turbines to produce electricity. Engineers at the dam are installing turbines that could extend the ability of the dam to produce power, even if the water levels fall to 950 feet, but that’s a worst case scenario.

To address the decreasing water supply to communities in the region, engineers are also working on a much deeper intake point, the Third Straw, ensuring that a thirsty Las Vegas will be able to suck water from the bottom of the lake even as the surface level falls. Read More > in Popular Science

Blame the Machines – In late July 2013, 16-year-old Pablo Garcia, who was in the hospital for a routine colonoscopy to check on his congenital gastrointestinal condition, began complaining of numbness and tingling all over his body. Soon he was having seizures. What caused this strange condition? His medication, it turned out: He’d been given 39 times too much antibiotic. How this occurred is the subject of a fascinating piece on Medium, which I urge you all to read. But if I had to condense its five parts’ worth of fascinating insights into one sentence, here’s how it would read: “Machines make us stupid.”

For example, I spent three months traveling last fall, with only a few weekends in the District of Columbia. By the time I returned, I had forgotten the number of our landline. To be sure, we don’t use it very often. Still. We’ve had that number for five years. I forgot it in less than one football season.

But of course, I no longer need to remember phone numbers. I have a cell phone for that. For any other knowledge I need handy, I have a computer. For anything I need to learn, there’s Google. In some sense, this means that I have a better memory and wider knowledge than I used to. But if I’m cut off from these tools, I am suddenly a moron. Read More > at BloombergView

Is Safeway ripe for a new IPO? – Safeway’s parent company is plotting an initial public offering, according to CNBC, which quoted unidentified sources.

The news comes just months after AB Acquisition, the company that owns Safeway and Albertsons, closed the transaction that combined the two grocery chains and made Safeway a private company. The deal closed Jan. 30.

According to CNBC, AB Acquisition has hired bankers to handle the IPO, which would raise more than $500 million and could occur in the next few months.

If AB Acquisition takes Safeway and Albertsons public, this would be the third time for Safeway. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Global Warming More Moderate Than Worst-Case Models – A new study based on 1,000 years of temperature records suggests global warming is not progressing as fast as it would under the most severe emissions scenarios outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Based on our analysis, a middle-of-the-road warming scenario is more likely, at least for now,” said Patrick T. Brown, a doctoral student in climatology at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “But this could change.”

The Duke-led study shows that natural variability in surface temperatures — caused by interactions between the ocean and atmosphere, and other natural factors — can account for observed changes in the recent rates of warming from decade to decade.

The researchers say these “climate wiggles” can slow or speed the rate of warming from decade to decade, and accentuate or offset the effects of increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. If not properly explained and accounted for, they may skew the reliability of climate models and lead to over-interpretation of short-term temperature trends.

The research, published today in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, uses empirical data, rather than the more commonly used climate models, to estimate decade-to-decade variability. Read More > at Duke Environment

San Francisco: Whiter than ever and getting whiter – California is a paragon of ethnic diversity. We are a plurality Latino state, and will be for the forseeable future. Large numbers of immigrants from Asia are continuing to change the demographic composition and cultural mix of the Golden State.

Well, not everywhere.

The heart of the tech boom, San Francisco, is whiter than ever, and getting whiter. According to a new study, “San Francisco’s share of people of color is declining, while diversity in every other Bay Area county is climbing, according to a new demographic profile of the region released by the social equity group PolicyLink.

“The report predicts that by 2040, San Francisco will be the whitest county in the region—a startling difference from the 1980s, when the city was an island of diversity in an otherwise homogenous region,” Citylab reports.

“One of the most talked-out reasons for this trend is the Bay Area’s tech-boom-induced gentrification. According to Governing magazine, 28 percent of the city’s Census tracts were gentrifying between 1990 and 2000, with 19 percent gentrifying since 2000. The city has become so ridiculously expensive that even white, middle-class residents—typically considered gentrifiers in other cities—can’t afford to live there.” Read More > at California City News

The California Drought Crisis Is Everyone’s Fault – My grandfather used to tell the story of traveling from Bakersfield to San Francisco by boat as a boy in about 1910. First up the Tulare Lake, then up the San Joaquin River, and through the Delta. In those days, water in California’s San Joaquin Valley must have seemed inexhaustible.

Then, the lakes were drained and the rivers dammed; the valley floor was plowed and cities grew. Water was used at an ever-increasing rate. More and more wells were drilled and reservoirs built. There would be dry years and wet years. The water table dropped and wells went dry.

Last year, however, wells started going dry at an alarming rate. Residents in some areas have been without water for several months. The waiting list for a drilling rig to extend wells was up to a year. Today, up and down the San Joaquin Valley, signs along the freeway lament the water crisis. Everyone is ready to place blame, especially on the favorite whipping boys: Los Angeles and agriculture. But the truth is everyone is to blame and there are no easy solutions. California just doesn’t have enough water to meet the demand. Hydrologists have been warning us since the 1970s that this was coming.

California has been operating at a water deficit since at least the 1950s. Hydrologists estimate that on average 800,000 acre feet per year is pumped from the aquifer annually. Last year alone, closer to 2 million acre feet of water was pumped. Read More > at Public CEO

Email: Unloved. Unbreakable – 584,341. That’s the number of unread emails in my in-box as of this morning. There’s simply no way I’m going to dig myself out, and I’m fast approaching what many others do at this point: Declare “email bankruptcy” by marking them all as read, and start from scratch. I’m not the only one in this situation. According to McKinsey, we spend nearly one-third of our workweek managing email.

Several startup companies with talkative titles—Yammer, Chatter, Convo, HipChat—have sprung up in recent years to openly wage war on email. With inter­faces inspired by today’s social networks, their software aims to replace email, which was designed to be asynchronous, with real-time communication tools that can be as broad or focused as needed. Businesses certainly seem to like the idea: In 2012, Microsoft paid $1.2 billion for Yammer, which is used by Shell, Capgemini, and Nationwide, and investors value HipChat parent Atlassian at more than $3.3 billion. (The startup counts Netflix, Dropbox, and Intuit as customers.)

Yet we continue to spend more time in our in-box. Even Stewart ­Butterfield, the founder of Slack, another email killer with an almost $3 billion valuation, says he spends three to four hours a day sifting through email. His unread-email count: 16,000.

Are we waging a war that has no chance of being won?

Email promised efficiency and simplicity. But Tomlinson and team could never have imagined the volume we see today. The business world accounts for more than 108.7 billion emails sent and received per day, according to market researcher Radicati Group. That number is expected to increase to 139.4 billion by 2018. What makes email so useful—its ability to work across various devices and integrate different services—is also its greatest challenge.

And what about email exchanged with people beyond corporate walls? Yammer founder David Sacks, now COO of Zenefits, says some of the tasks for which people use email are moving to other apps. We no longer primarily use email to share photos and personal news; that’s what Facebook is for. We now send files with services such as Dropbox and Box. The best way to fix email may be to let it shrink back to its first role: digital mailbox rather than catchall communications hub. Read More > at Fortune

Corinthian Colleges’ collapse sparks debate over future of for-profit colleges – The closure of 28 career-college campuses on Monday — most of them in California — marked the final chapter in the unprecedented collapse of a giant in the field, Corinthian Colleges, which for years has faced widespread allegations of fraud, deception and waste of taxpayer dollars.

And as some 16,000 displaced students at Heald, Everest and WyoTech wonder what to do next, a bigger question looms: What will this mean for the for-profit college sector?

“This is the first time we have seen a collapse on this big of a scale, but whether it’s enough to cause change, I don’t know,” said Robyn Smith, a former California deputy attorney general who works with the National Consumer Law Center. “I just think this is another wake-up call.”

The sector’s reputation certainly has been tarnished in recent years as companies like Corinthian have been accused of aggressively recruiting military veterans, the poor and others eager to get on a stable career path — and then charging them tens of thousands of dollars for degrees with questionable value. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

California Lawmakers Reject Attempt To Speed Up Water Storage Projects – Supporters of a bill that would have streamlined the environmental review process for water storage projects stood on the steps of the state Capitol next to dead almond trees.

“These dead almond trees to my left represent not only lost trees and investment of that farmer, but lost jobs and lost opportunity throughout the Central Valley,” says Assemblymember James Gallagher.

He authored the legislation that he says would help speed the construction of Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and Temperance Flat near Fresno.

“If we can do that for the Sacramento Kings Arena, then we need to do that for these vital water storage projects that affect us all,” says Gallagher.

The bill didn’t specifically mention the two reservoir projects. While both could receive some funding from the voter-approved water bond, it’s a competitive process that will be vetted by the California Water Commission.

An Assembly committee killed the bill on a party line vote. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

California prepares for the next ‘big one’ – The 800-mile San Andreas Fault, which runs from northern California to Mexico, has been the source of the state’s biggest earthquakes. Known as the ‘sleeping giant’, it is one of more than 350 faults that are found across the state.

Scientists now predict that the risk of a mega quake in the next 30 years is higher than was previously thought.

The Third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF3), published in March, includes newly discovered fault zones and accounts for the possibility of an earthquake jumping between them. This could result in multiple faults shaking in a simultaneous mega quake (magnitude-8), releasing enough energy to cause massive destruction.

The report says that, while there is a lower likelihood of moderate-sized earthquakes, the odds of a mega quake occurring in the next 30 years have increased from 4.7 per cent to 7 per cent.

Earthquakes are nothing new for Californians. The state experiences 1,000 quakes a year, but most are too small to be felt. While the San Andreas Fault has experienced massive earthquakes in the central and northern segments — Fort Tejon in 1857 and San Francisco in 1906 — the southern section has not had a large quake for more than 300 years. Read More > in the Financial Times

Amazon’s true brilliance shone this week in a tale of three clouds – This was earnings week in the tech industry, but the one report everybody was waiting for came out on Thursday.

That’s when Amazon broke out detailed financial results from Amazon Web Services, its cloud computing business, for the first time.

That’s when the world discovered that Amazon is making about $1 billion a year on more than $6 billion in revenue from its enterprise computing business — a business that not only did not exist 10 years ago, but that nobody in their right mind would have predicted 10 years ago.

Amazon? The online bookstore that turned into a kind of Best Buy/Wal-Mart online? A giant of enterprise computing? No way.

Amazon launched AWS in 2006 as a way for other companies to host their web applications on Amazon’s machinery in Amazon’s data centers, rather than having to buy a bunch of hardware and software and hire a huge IT staff to keep the whole mess working.

…When Amazon got into the cloud game, it had no enterprise business to leverage. It had no relationships with CIOs and IT departments or longstanding software licensing agreements with Fortune 500 companies. It had no salespeople. It had no enterprise support staff.

All it had was some really well-run infrastructure and a brainstorm to turn that into a working business. Read More > at Business Insider

Parcel Taxes as a Local Revenue Source in California – A movement is under way in California to transfer authority from the state government to local governments. Public Safety Realignment and the Local Control Funding Formula have shifted some of the responsibility for corrections and school funding to local authorities. These initiatives are consistent with public opinion, which favors transferring many obligations from the state to localities. However, a stronger local public sector requires not only more responsibility but also adequate revenue, a concern since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. That initiative limited property tax increases and replaced locally determined rates with a statewide rate, thereby constraining local government finances.

In many cases, local governments have responded by turning to another source of revenue—the parcel tax. The parcel tax is a tax on parcels of real property collected as part of a property tax bill. Unlike the property tax, the parcel tax cannot be based on property value. Typically, it is a at tax that does not vary with the size or characteristics of a parcel. To impose a parcel tax, governments must win support from two-thirds of voters. From 2002 to 2012, California cities, school districts, and special districts placed almost 700 parcel tax proposals on the ballot, of which more than half passed.

…Other states do not levy parcel taxes. California turned to it only because of Proposition 13’s limits on the property tax. Yet in this large and complex state, the parcel tax plays a useful role, helping California’s diverse localities tailor public services to the needs and desires of their communities. It is vital then that California make the best possible use of this tax to promote government efficiency and help ensure that residents get the services they are willing to pay for. Read More > at PPIC

Pepsi is ditching aspartame — based on no evidence whatsoever – On Friday, Pepsi announced that it would remove the artificial sweetener aspartame from all diet sodas sold in the US and replace it with sucralose.

The reason? Flagging sales. According to the Wall Street Journal, consumer surveys had showed “the presence of aspartame to be the number one reason that Americans are scaling back on diet colas.”

Yet this trend appears to be driven by a widespread — and largely unfounded — fear the public has about aspartame. This move might be good for Pepsi’s business. But it probably won’t help dispel any of the myths about artificial sweeteners that have persisted for decades.

Aspartame has been studied for more than 30 years, and there’s no good evidence suggesting it causes harm to humans. The European Food Safety Authority recently completed one of the most thorough risk assessments of aspartame ever done, looking at all the available research evidence.

Its conclusion? “Following a thorough review of evidence provided both by animal and human studies, experts have ruled out a potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer.” The researchers found that aspartame does not harm the brain or nervous system, or affect behavior or cognitive function in children or adults. Read More > at Vox

California’s Imported Oil Problem – California is the most critical state in the country, with 38.2 million people and a GDP of $2.3 trillion, equal to Texas and Pennsylvania output combined. Depending on your perspective I guess, California has become famous/infamous for its progressive energy policies. California is our “clean energy” capital, with cap-and-trade, the most alternative fuel vehicles, unmatched efficiency laws, and a 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard for electricity by 2020. Yet, electricity (+40%) and gasoline (+$1.00) prices in the Golden State are well above the U.S. average, and oil and natural gas are still easily the state’s leading sources of energy. Stringent regulations for exploration and production, uncertainty surrounding future policies, and lengthy permitting processes have pushed many oil companies away. And many in the state are against the shale and offshore development that has large potential. California has slipped to 3rd place in highest crude producer in the country, down 36% since 1990 to 560,000 b/d. This has installed a growing reliance on imported petroleum, although gasoline imports are limited because strict environmental policies block outside suppliers from entering California’s CARBOB market.

…When played out under real market conditions, it’s the unintended consequences of well-intended “clean energy” polices that can be the ultimate in “unsustainability.” California’s LCFS discriminates against key North American oils, most remarkably even against crude produced in California itself, while favoring the light oil that is produced in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), cited as a “cartel” by both liberal and conservative outlets that controls 40% of the world’s crude oil production. More specifically, California’s crude oil laws hinder access to heavier grades of oil, such as those from neighbor and ally Canada, while favoring oil imports from OPEC members Ecuador, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Mexico’s chance to export more of its heavier crude continues to be limited by infrastructure and a peaking of the country’s output in 2004. California has also been unable to properly access the light, tight oil glut arising in America’s heartland due to a lack of pipelines and an environmental push against rail, truck, and barge. This is unfortunate because the less carbon-intensive and higher quality Bakken (API gravity 41°) and West Texas Intermediate (API gravity 39.6°) crudes that have flooded into other states haven’t been able to help California meet its high standards for liquid fuels. Read More > in Forbes

A group of teachers went to China and realized that the West is instructing students wrong – Seventy teachers from the UK were sent to Shanghai to study classroom methods to investigate why Chinese students perform so well. Upon their return, the teachers reported that much of China’s success came from teaching methods the UK has been moving away from for the past 40 years.

The Chinese favour a “chalk and talk” approach, whereas countries such as the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand have been moving away from this direct form of teaching to a more collaborative form of learning where students take greater control.

Given China’s success in international tests such as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, it seems we have been misguided in abandoning the traditional, teacher-directed method of learning where the teacher spends more time standing at the front of the class, directing learning and controlling classroom activities.

Debates about direct instruction versus inquiry learning have been ongoing for many years. Traditionally, classrooms have been organised with children sitting in rows with the teacher at the front of the room, directing learning and ensuring a disciplined classroom environment. This is known as direct instruction.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, teachers began to experiment with more innovative and experimental styles of teaching. These included basing learning on children’s interests, giving them more control over what happened in the classroom and getting rid of memorising times tables and doing mental arithmetic. This approach is known as inquiry or discovery learning.

Based on this recent study of classrooms in the UK and China and a recent UK report titled What makes great teaching?, there is increasing evidence that these new-age education techniques, where teachers facilitate instead of teach and praise students on the basis that all must be winners, in open classrooms where what children learn is based on their immediate interests, lead to under-performance. Read More > in the Business Insider

Poll hints of political train wreck over Common Core – If it was big news last week that most parents know nothing about new K-12 testing aligned to the Common Core, consider the headlines later this summer when the results come back and only a fraction of the students pass.

That’s the scenario that the California State Board of Education has been bracing for and why the Brown administration has so vigorously fought off efforts by the U.S. Department of Education to use the results for federal accountability purposes.

It’s also why the state has delayed setting the critical scoring marks that will separate the students passing the new tests from those that fail – even though most districts are already engaged in administrating the exams.

The poll, a survey of education issues conducted every year by the Public Policy Institute of California, found 55 percent of public school parents said they knew nothing about the new Common Core testing.

The finding probably didn’t surprise too many inside the education system but it does signal even more ominous developments surrounding the test results.

If most parents whose children are taking the new tests this spring know little about it, how will they – along with lawmakers, taxpayer groups and the mainstream media – react when they learn that a large, perhaps very large, percentage of kids failed. Read More > at Cabinet Report

There’s No Mayonnaise Like My Mayonnaise – Mayonnaise is nothing more than a bland emulsion of eggs and oil, but it triggers profound responses and cultural divisions. “Gentiles,” Robin Williams once pointedly observed, “are people who eat mayonnaise for no reason.”

The ratio of oil to egg, a measure of paprika or mustard, and the method of whipping can create differences that seem insignificant on paper but are profound in the jar. Add too much sugar or the wrong kind of vinegar, and a brand will be dismissed out of hand.

Americans, sandwich lovers that we are, spend about $1.86 billion annually on mayonnaise, nearly half of that on Hellmann’s, according to data from the market research firm Nielsen.

That’s nothing compared with Russians, the world leaders when it comes to mayonnaise. They eat nearly twice what Americans do, or about 11 pounds per capita a year. Russians coat herring with mayonnaise and use it to bind together a Soviet-era salad built from chunks of potato and hard-boiled eggs with chicken, ham or bologna and flavored with mustard and pickles.

Other countries love it, too. Belgians and Germans eat it with fries, and the Japanese squeeze it on nearly everything, even pizza. (The popular brand Kewpie, sweet with rice vinegar and creamier than American versions, was introduced in 1925 by a Japanese student who had studied in the United States.)

Still, in America, mayonnaise is the condiment of choice, outpacing ketchup by half in terms of sales. Mustard sales aren’t even close. Read More > in The New York Times


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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