Sunday Reading – 05/17/15

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.

Poker Pros Win Man vs. Machine Showdown – But Not by Much – A poker showdown between professional players and an artificial intelligence program has ended with a slim victory for the humans — so slim, in fact, that the scientists running the show said it’s effectively a tie. The event began two weeks ago, as the four pros — Bjorn Li, Doug Polk, Dong Kim and Jason Les — settled down at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh to play a total of 80,000 hands of Heads-Up, No-Limit Texas Hold ’em with Claudico, a poker-playing bot made by Carnegie Mellon University computer science researchers. Claudico’s poker face is unbeatable, but its tactics weren’t entirely sound, the players soon found.

“There are spots where it plays well and others where I just don’t understand it,” Polk said in a Carnegie Mellon news release. Claudico’s creators warned that the AI might play like “a Martian,” and it lived up to the promise. “Betting $19,000 to win a $700 pot just isn’t something that a person would do,” Polk continued.

No actual money was being bet — the dollar amount was more of a running scoreboard, and at the end the humans were up a total of $732,713 (they will share a $100,000 purse based on their virtual winnings). That sounds like a lot, but over 80,000 hands and $170 million of virtual money being bet, three-quarters of a million bucks is pretty much a rounding error, the experimenters said, and can’t be considered a statistically significant victory.

But a tie is significant in and of itself: It suggests that Claudico is at least a match for human players, at least one-on-one and in this particular game. A more decisive win might have been a point of pride for humanity, but we’ll have to settle for a stalemate for now. Read More > at NBC News

The day when roads will harness solar energy is drawing near – There are some 60 million kilometers (37.3 million miles) of roadways in the world, just sitting there. But adapting these surfaces to do anything besides passively carry traffic has proved difficult and prohibitively expensive.

Past attempts include trying to convert the vibrations on roads into electricity. But this technology is only economically feasible on the busiest thoroughfares, which account for a tiny proportion of the world’s huge network.

But the idea that has gained the most traction in the last few years is to embed solar cells in roads. In 2014, an American couple launched the Solar Roadways project and collected more than $2 million on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. Their effort, however, is much farther from reality than the Netherlands-based consortium SolaRoad, which has been operating a 70-meter (230-foot) cycle path that generates enough electricity for one or two households.

The principle is simple. The photovoltaic cells that generate electricity are protected by glass on the top and supported by rubber and concrete at the bottom. The glass, apart from letting light through, has properties similar to asphalt or concrete: it is durable, glare-free, and skid-resistant. Each unit is connected to a central system, where the electricity generated is fed to the grid. Read More > at Quartz

El Niño weather pattern could stay through winter – The on-and-off-again weather system that could bust the four-year drought in California is back, and possibly much stronger than expected.

Scientists confirmed Thursday that an El Niño condition, which can trigger the rain-producing Pineapple Express, has taken hold in the Pacific Ocean and there is a strong chance it will last through the year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center said there is a 90 percent likelihood the El Niño will last through the summer and an 80 percent chance it will endure through the winter. Read More > in Los Angeles Daily News

Not enough money for highway repairs, Brown’s budget acknowledges – Brown’s proposal would boost general-fund spending on transportation from $200 million in the current year to $261 million in 2015-15, a 30.5 percent increase. There’s also $8.86 billion in special funds and $2.1 billion in bond funds earmarked for transportation, bringing next year’s total to about $11.2 billion.

But the past decade’s spending was mostly on reducing traffic jams, allowing for faster shipping of goods, funding local streets and roads, and transit facilities, the proposal notes. Meanwhile, highway repair and maintenance — though crucial to California’s economy — has “largely been overlooked,” the budget plan acknowledges.

Current gas-tax revenue covers only about $2.3 billion of the state’s $8 billion in annual highway repair needs, Brown’s plan notes, and so there’s $5.7 billion each year in deferred maintenance.

And gas-tax revenue is decreasing as cars become more fuel efficient and some drivers switch to hybrids or electric cars — good for the environment, but bad for highways. “While the state is accelerating the pilot program to explore a potential mileage-based revenue collection system, or Road Usage Charge, implementation of a broader statewide program is not likely for a number of years,” the plan says. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

As Google deploys new robot cars on city streets, DMV scrambles to finish self-driving rulebook – After a year of testing its bubble-shaped driverless cars on the empty roads of a shuttered Central Valley military base, Google is about to deploy its fleet on the busy streets of Silicon Valley.

For now, the cars must have safety drivers ready to grab the wheel or hit the brakes if something goes wrong. But self-driving software could soon move from test cars to consumer vehicles as the California Department of Motor Vehicles puts finishing touches this month on new operational rules for autonomous cars, making it the first government in the world to create a detailed handbook for robots on the road.

Citing his engineering team’s major advancements in the past six months in understanding a bicyclist’s hand signals and other real-world scenarios, Brin stood by his prediction that the technology is “still roughly on track” for consumers boarding fully autonomous cars by 2017. But a scholar advising the DMV on its new rules believes a car that can safely navigate by itself through crowded San Francisco streets is still “many decades” away.

Unlike Google, most of the companies with permits to test self-driving cars in California — including Mercedes-Benz, Delphi Labs, Tesla and Audi — are aiming to advance and sell products that assist human drivers rather than fully take over.

The competing predictions, and varying degrees of robot control, leave regulators with the challenge of balancing the rules that are needed now — as the technology still has unforeseen hiccups — with a future when fully autonomous vehicles become more common. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

Amtrak speed control system installed but wasn’t turned on – Amtrak had installed the “Positive Train Control” system on the track where a speeding train fatally crashed Tuesday, but the system was not switched on.

The system could have automatically slowed the Amtrak 188, but instead it jumped the rails, killing 8 people and injuring more than 200.

According to a top congressional aide, Amtrak told the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that the PTC system was installed along the section of track outside Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, where the crash occurred, but it was not operating.

The aide said Amtrak informed the committee it has encountered delays turning the PTC on throughout its system because of the need to get the bandwidths required to upgrade the radios to a higher MHz, which improves reliability.

Amtrak has worked out a deal with the Federal Communication Commission to get the broader bandwidth either late last year or early this year, an aide said.

…”Due to PTC’s complexity and the enormity of the implementation task,” the an association statement said, “and the fact that much of the technology PTC requires simply did not exist when the PTC mandate was passed and has had to be developed from scratch, much work remains to be done. Despite railroads’ best efforts, various technical and non-technical challenges make full development and deployment of PTC by 2015 impossible.” Read More > in the Washington Examiner

City offers training on how to cope with majority-female council – Women currently hold seven of the 11 seats on Austin’s City Council.

Clearly, this is a bit too much for some Texans to handle.

To respond to the gender change, a two-hour training session was held earlier this year to, um, help people cope, or something like that.

The Austin American-Statesman reports: “Apparently this represented such a huge change in governance that the city manager’s office thought the city staff who regularly interact with the City Council needed extra training – in the form of a two-hour training session in March with two speakers from Florida – on how to talk to a female-dominated City Council after decades of rule by men.

“The first speaker was Jonathan K. Allen, who was a city manager of the relatively small Lauderdale Lakes, Florida. Allen was considered an expert in this field because his local city commission was all-female. His advice included:

  • Women ask lots of questions.
  • Women don’t want to deal with numbers
  • Women are taking over, Hillary Clinton will only encourage this.  Read More > at Public CEO

Facebook Is Eating the Media. Is That Such a Bad Thing? – Wednesday, May 13, 2015: That’s the day journalism sold its soul, according to some of the more hysterical corners of the media echo chamber.

What actually happened is that Facebook launched a feature called Instant Articles. The feature allows Facebook users to read full, interactive stories from the New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, and others without leaving Facebook. In the past, media outlets simply posted links on Facebook that directed readers to their own websites to read the full story. Now they’re allowing Facebook to host those same stories, which gives Facebook unprecedented control over their content.

You can see the inaugural batch of Instant Articles today by logging into the Facebook mobile app on an iOS device. (An Android version is reportedly in the works.) If your friends happen to be sharing them, they’ll appear in your News Feed just like any other Facebook post would. Otherwise you can seek them out at, although you’ll have to do it in the latest version of the mobile iOS app if you want to see what they look like. On your Web browser, they’ll just look like normal articles. Read More > at Slate

Hold your breath to dampen the pain of an injection – Painful needle heading your way? A sharp intake of breath might be all that is needed to make that injection a little more bearable.

When you are stressed, your blood pressure rises to fuel your brain or limbs should you need to fight or flee. But your body has a natural response for calming back down. Pressure sensors on blood vessels in your lungs can tell your brain to bring the pressure back down, and the signals from these sensors also make the brain dampen the nervous system, leaving you less sensitive to pain. This dampening mechanism might be why people with higher blood pressures appear to have higher pain thresholds.

Gustavo Reyes del Paso at the University of Jaén in Spain wondered whether holding your breath – a stress-free way of raising blood pressure and triggering the pressure sensors – might also raise a person’s pain threshold. To find out, he squashed the fingernails of 38 people for 5 seconds while they held their breath. Then he repeated the test while the volunteers breathed slowly. Both techniques were distracting, but the volunteers reported less pain when breath-holding than when slow breathing.

Reyes del Paso thinks holding your breath might be a natural response to the expectation of pain. “Several of our volunteers told us they already do this when they are in pain,” he says. But he doesn’t think the trick will work for a stubbed toe or unexpected injury. You have to start before the pain kicks in, he says, for example, in anticipation of an injection. Read More > in the New Scientist

Before we can address the California drought, we need a geography lesson – …Look how the average annual rainfall increases from south to north: 6.5 inches in Bakersfield, 11.5 in Fresno, 18.5 in Sacramento, 26.7 in Chico, 34.6 in Redding. That’s a 28-inch spread from very dry to very wet.

Temperatures don’t vary as dramatically, but it is hotter in the south than in the north. July high and low thermometer readings in Bakersfield are 97 and 71, in Sacramento 92 and 58, in Chico 94 and 61. That means less evaporation of irrigation water as you move north.

It all calculates to a greater need for irrigation in the south than in the north.

…Numbers have been compiled by Josue Medellin-Azuara, senior researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. He figures it takes 4 acre-feet of irrigation water to grow an acre of almonds or pistachios in the Tulare Basin, where nut orchards have expanded the most in the last decade.

In the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, it requires 3.4 acre-feet. But in the Sacramento Valley, these nuts need only 2.4 acre-feet. That’s a difference of roughly one acre-foot, or nearly 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two households for a year.

There are 916,000 acres of almond and pistachio trees in the semi-arid San Joaquin, Medellin-Azuara says, but only 162,000 acres in the wetter Sacramento Valley.

In past columns, I have suggested that the state consider regulating crops based on their water demands and location. Gov. Jerry Brown flatly rejects that notion. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Cable News Nightmare: Turn Off, Tune Out – …That, says Ezra Klein, is the primary problem with the cable news industry right now: Nothing’s happening. The job market could be better, but it’s no longer in “stockpile canned goods and ammunition” mode. America is not fighting any wars of note, and we can’t seem to work up any interest in some far away squabble over islands we’ve never heard of. Our stalemated Congress probably couldn’t even pass a resolution to declare June 31st National Hug a Tree Day.

Surely, this is part of the equation. But 2014 was not entirely without interest: We had protests in Ferguson and beyond, followed by a midterm election that produced a landslide for the Republican Party. Ratings still fell sharply from the previous year.

So what else could explain the shift? Let’s start with the fact that cable audiences seem to be slowly but surely falling, particularly among younger viewers. There are sometimes quarterly gains, but overall, the trend is down. Fewer cable consumers means a smaller pool who might tune in CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.

People also have wildly more news sources than ever before. During the Rodney King riots on CNN 20 years ago, my whole dorm was glued to the television, because cable news was the only place you could find out what was happening in LA. During the Baltimore riots over the past month, I watched some cable, like many of you. (We boosted their ratings quite a bit.) But I could also listen to the Baltimore police scanner streaming online, get live tweets from people who were there, and read the live updates from the Baltimore Sun, which made its coverage available free. These sources told me more of what was happening, much more quickly, than cable news did; on the TV was yet another anchor remarking that people in Baltimore seemed very angry. I did watch a lot of footage of the riots that came from cable television cameras — but I watched much of it in streaming snippets, not from tuning into the television. When I did that, I did not watch any of their ads or help their ratings. This is a broad problem afflicting more than just the three major cable news networks: When was the last time you turned on the Weather Channel to find out whether it was going to rain today? Read More > at Bloomberg View

Starbucks to uncork beer, wine, small-plates menu across Bay Area – As part of coffee giant Starbucks’ recent rollout of its “Starbucks Evenings” program, which offers beer, wine and small plates, the mega-chain is launching booze in its Bay Area stores.

The Starbucks at the corner of 9th Avenue and Irving Street will start selling beer and wine after 4pm, as Hoodline reports. That store recently got a revamp and reopened May 6 with expanded seating, although the new evening menu isn’t up yet. An employee told the site that the store will begin offering beer, wine and evening-only food in June.

Starbucks has a pending application to serve alcohol at another location at 685 Beach St. in Fisherman’s Wharf and 12 other pending applications for beer and wine licenses in the Bay Area, including Napa, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Newark, Pleasanton, Millbrae, San Mateo, Emeryville, Fairfield and two in Livermore, according to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control’s website. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Coffee Research Casts Further Doubt on Warnings About Energy Drinks – In a New York Times article posted on Monday, Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, reviews the epidemiological research on the health effects of coffee consumption and finds little evidence of harm. In fact, there is pretty strong evidence suggesting that drinking coffee is good for your health. The research is especially interesting in light of recent attempts by various news outlets, conspicuously including the Times, to stir up alarm about the allegedly lethal dangers of caffeine in energy drinks, which contain less of the stimulant per ounce than coffee does.

During the last few years, New York Times business reporter Barry Meier has repeatedly warned that energy drinks can trigger fatal cardiovascular reactions. Yet as Carroll notes, a 2013 meta-analysis of “36 studies involving more than 1,270,000 participants” that looked at the relationship between coffee consumption and cardiovascular health “showed that those who consumed a moderate amount of coffee, about three to five cups a day, were at the lowest risk for problems,” while “those who consumed five or more cups a day had no higher risk than those who consumed none.” An eight-ounce cup of coffee (the usual definition in these studies) typically contains between 100 and 200 milligrams of caffeine. Assuming an average of about 150, three to five cups contain 450 to 750 milligrams of caffeine. That is the level of daily consumption associated with the lowest cardiovascular risk in these studies.

By comparison, eight ounces of Monster energy drink contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, about half as much as coffee. A 16-ounce can contains 160 milligrams, and a 24-ounce can contains 240. In light of the epidemiological data, the notion that two 24-ounce cans, drunk a day apart, would be enough to cause a fatal cardiac arrythmia through “caffeine toxicity”—as alleged in the case of Maryland teenager Anais Fournier—seems implausible, to say the least. Even the two-day caffeine total (480 milligrams) is toward the low end of the healthiest range for daily consumption in the coffee studies. If that amount of Monster energy drink were potentially lethal, drinking a tall (12-ounce) Starbucks coffee on each of two consecutive days, thereby consuming 520 milligrams of caffeine, would be even more dangerous. I may have missed them, but I do not recall any lawsuits claiming that Starbucks is killing teenagers by selling them coffee. Read More > at Reason

This is how the NFL let deflate-gate get out of control and ridiculous – …Still, at this point it’s worth contemplating the totality of evidence, as Wells likes to write. And what’s apparent is deflate-gate was more misdemeanor than felony, a molehill that commissioner Roger Goodell’s office turned into a mountain via incompetence, vengeance or both.

…It doesn’t matter whether you think Brady and New England are guilty or innocent, punished properly or inappropriately. Me? I go with common sense and common sense says the Patriots’ equipment guys did it to gain some advantage and Brady was approving of the act. Yet the biggest take away from this tiresome ordeal is how Goodell’s lack of touch, vision, courage and guile created a circus.

Start with this: the story didn’t go big until ESPN reported about 24 hours after the game that the NFL had discovered that 11 of the 12 footballs were measured to be more than 2 pounds per square inch below the league minimum of 12.5.

That gave a subject that almost no one knew much about context, significance and potentially sinister intent. ESPN cited a nebulous “league source” at a time when it’s believed no one outside the NFL office knew the actual measurements.

Of course, that story wasn’t true. It wasn’t even close to true. Wells’ report showed that none of the footballs, each measured twice, were that underinflated.

…What’s also clear is the NFL never cared a whole lot about the inflation levels of footballs, probably because it doesn’t impact the game very much. The refs check the footballs pregame with a pressure gauge (which vary wildly) and that’s about it. It’s all a loose guess. In November, when Carolina and Minnesota were caught trying to doctor the footballs by warming them on a cold day, they each got a warning and everyone laughed at the story. Read More > at Yahoo! Sports

Economic Tale of Two Regions: Los Angeles vs. Bay Area – A new study “Economic Tale of Two Regions: Los Angeles vs. Bay Area” uses data compiled by the Center for Jobs & the Economy to show that jobs created in the past 24 years have been at opposite ends of the wage spectrum—either low-wage or high-wage—leading to a diminishing middle class and the creation of a two-tier economy and growing lower-wage class in California.

Using two of the state’s key geographic jobs centers, Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, this new report shows a steady decline in middle-class wage jobs since 1990 and a substantial increase in lower wage jobs. The report also highlights that the economies in these two regions are being driven by contrasting industry structures: Silicon Valley and its related information industries that have been subject to far less direct regulation and which pay the high salaries employees need to cope with high housing prices, growing energy costs and other costs of living versus Los Angeles’ more traditional industry mix that is more directly impacted by the state’s ever-growing regulatory, tax and energy costs.

The Bay Area accounts for more than 60 percent of the state’s net employment gains since 2007, but job growth has been led by higher wage jobs of the expanding new industries and the lower wage primarily population-serving service jobs related to that growth. By contrast, Los Angeles presents a trend largely of jobs stagnation under which middle class wage jobs have been steadily replaced by lower wage service jobs.

This report clearly reinforces what many economists and some policy makers have been saying – that jobs recovered are not the same as jobs that were lost. Because we are not growing middle class jobs we are now faced with a two tier economy where lower wage earners have far fewer economic opportunities to move up the wage ladder to support their families. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

UVA Dean Sues Rolling Stone for $7.5 Million, Makes One Hell of a Case – Today Rolling Stone was hit with the first, much-anticipated lawsuit stemming from Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s “Jackie” story: University of Virginia Associate Dean of Students Nicole Eramo has filed a $7.5 million suit against the magazine.

Eramo, who was chosen by Erdely and her editors as a manifestation of UVA’s purported indifference to the plight of rape victims, claims the magazine made categorically false statements that resulted in undeserved shaming and abuse. Rolling Stone acted with “actual malice,” according to the lawsuit, since Erdely had every reason to suspect that her source for the story—Jackie—was lying. Indeed, Erdely has already admitted to feelings of nervousness about the story’s veracity around the time of its publication.

From the lawsuit:

Erdely and Rolling Stone acted with actual malice when they published A Rape on Campus. Erdely and Rolling Stone knew that Jackie was not a reliable source for truthful information about her interactions with Dean Eramo. They had serious doubts about the truth of the disparaging claims they planned to make about Dean Eramo, but intentionally violated commonly accepted journalistic norms and consciously failed to investigate sources and information that they believed would have revealed the falsity of the charges they leveled. Erdely and Rolling Stone were intent on painting a narrative that depicted Dean Eramo as complicit in a cover up of Jackie’s allegations and, having made the decision to so accuse Dean Eramo, celebrated their preconceived narrative by including an intentionally doctored illustration of Dean Eramo that depicts her as callous toward a sexual assault victim sitting and crying in her office.

It will be tempting for some to dismiss this lawsuit as excessive—$7.5 million is certainly a lot of money—but most of the claims it makes are verifiably true. By Erdely’s own admission, she knew, or should have known, that Jackie was stringing her along. Rolling Stone editors have already confessed to sidestepping the normal fact-checking process during the vetting of Jackie’s story. And the investigations by The Columbia Journalism Review and the Charlottesville police lend powerful credence to this lawsuit’s claims. Read More > at Reason

Why Driverless Cars Don’t Need Windows – For the last 80-some years, the model car has been pretty standard. The tail fins and bucket seats came and went, but there were almost always four wheels, two headlights, and windows, plenty of big, clear windows ringing the car. All of that will change soon because the robot cars upend so many parts of the game that the designers can begin again with a clean file in their design software.

Reconsidering the role of car windows may be the most obvious.

Windows won’t be necessary when there’s no human inside who needs to see to pick a path. The autonomous cars will use five, 10, or even more cameras looking at every angle and these cameras don’t need to be much bigger than the dots on the back of a phone. Some may use elaborate laser range finders that currently live perched on the roof of some of the prototypes but these whirling gadgets don’t need windows either.

When riders start having a choice, will they pick and choose autonomous cars with glass portals to the world? The first robot cars will almost certainly have them because it’s never good to ask people to endure too many radical changes.

…Daimler, though, understands that they have an opportunity to throw away the old rules and they’ve been muscling into the picture with the Mercedes-Benz F-015, a futuristic concept car that looks like a silver kidney bean. To the outsider, it’s often hard to tell if there’s any windows at all because the glass is coated to have the same silver gloss as the metal. The riders, though, can still see out a big front windscreen and slim side glass. But Daimler doesn’t seem to think the passengers will spend much time actually looking out them. A number of the photos from the company emphasize the way that four passengers can sit facing each other, talking, working or playing games, all while ignoring the outside world.

If they do look out, they’re just as likely to see the big touch screens on each door—screens that seem bigger than the slim windows. These can let anyone take control of the car— Daimler calls it “conducting”—and also pull up any other images. Read More > in The Atlantic

American Religion: Complicated, Not Dead – Every American has a religion story. There are those who were raised devout, only to lapse toward lazy Sundays and sporadic church attendance later in life; those who found a different God in adulthood, perhaps after getting married or going through a conversion of the heart; and those who define themselves by their faith, their congregations a source of casseroles and companionship in times of celebration and grief.

Every American has a religion story, which is why it’s a little strange to think of America as an increasingly secular nation. That would be one way to read the Pew Research Center’s new Religious Landscape Study, a massive survey of more than 35,000 American adults. Over the last seven years, it found, the share of Americans who aren’t part of any religion has grown significantly, rising from 16 to nearly 23 percent of the population. A small portion of this group are atheists and agnostics—3 and 4 percent, respectively. More commonly, though, they are detached from organized religion altogether. When asked what religion they identify with, they answer simply: “Nothing in particular.” All in all, roughly one in ten Americans say religion is “not at all important” to them.

But the survey actually reveals something more complex than a slow and steady march toward secularization. Those who didn’t identify with any particular religion were asked a follow-up question: “How important is religion in your life?” The answers reveal that this group might be churchless, but it’s not wholly faithless: 44 percent said religion is “very” or “somewhat” important to them, while 56 percent said religion isn’t important to them, according to Greg Smith, Pew’s associate director of research. This is a slight drop compared to findings from a similar survey taken in 2007: That year, 48 percent of the “nones” said religion was important to them, while 52 percent said it wasn’t. Even taking this decline into account, there’s a pretty significant group of Americans who don’t identify with a particular denomination or congregation, but who still care about religion to some degree. That’s not the pattern of a Godless nation; it’s the pattern of people finding God on their own terms. Read More > in The Atlantic

Water Flows Freely in Drought-Resistant Farm Towns of Southern California — For Now – …Farmers here don’t have to worry about wells running dry (there are none) or dwindling snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada.

“We’re worried about snowpack in the Rockies because that’s where our water comes from, not from the Sierras,” says Kalin.

Thanks to so-called first-in-time federal agreements established nearly 100 years ago, Imperial County drinks up the lion’s share of Colorado River water that flows into Southern California, buffering it from much of the drought anxiety gripping the rest of the state.

…The Colorado River is in its 14th year of drought, though officials have yet to cut allocations to California and other states.

Richard Atwater of the nonprofit Southern California Water Committee says that as drought persists across the West, first-in-time water agreements will be harder to justify.

“Farming in Imperial Valley and Coachella,” wonders Atwater. “What’s the rationale for them to get first rights on the Colorado River when Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and 19 million people in Southern California all depend on Colorado River water, too?” Read More > at KQED

Rebound in US shale will limit oil price recovery – It has been one of the less widely noticed oil price surges. Since January, benchmark Brent crude has risen from less than $47 per barrel to more than $65 per barrel, an increase of about 40 per cent.

The rise has reversed less than a third of the plunge in oil from its peak above $115 per barrel last summer, but there have already been signs that the increase is starting to unsettle debt and equity markets.

While the rebound in oil has been rapid, though, there are good reasons to expect that it will not continue for much longer. The shale oil industry of the US is emerging as the world’s “swing producer”, bringing more crude on to the market when prices rise, and putting a ceiling on its potential price — that will probably now be well below $100 per barrel.

…Regardless of whether they are right, however, there is a more fundamental reason why we can expect the rise in oil prices to be limited: that drilling activity in the US is likely to be picking up again soon. The prospect that renewed production growth in the US would limit any oil price recovery has been talked about in hypothetical terms for some time, but in the past week we have seen evidence that it is becoming a reality.

In a round of earnings statements last week, some of the leading companies in the US shale oil industry, which have cut their drilling activity sharply since last summer, started talking about stepping it back up again. Harold Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources, one of the leading operators in the Bakken formation of North Dakota, said: “$70 is the price that turns it on for us.” Read More > in the Financial Times

East Contra Costa Co. fire station closes ahead of dangerous fire season – Monday was a day that many people in eastern Contra Costa County were worried about – the day that they lost one more fire station to budget constraints.

The Knightsen fire station shut down for good at 8 a.m. That left thousands of people farther away from their nearest fire crew.

John Meyersieck loves living on Bethel Island right on the Delta. “This is where we plan to retire,” he said.

But living here is now far more risky, because help is five miles farther away. “Scares the heck out of me. God forbid. We’re as much at risk as anybody else,” said Meyersieck.

The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District shuttered the Knightsen fire station after district residents voted down a benefit assessment that would have cost about $100 per year per home.

It also means the temporary closure of a Brentwood fire station is now permanent. “Some of these emergencies will have a different outcome. Where a house, it may have been a single house or room and contents, it may be the whole house. It could be two homes,” explained Fire District Chief Hugh Henderson.

The fire district covers 249 square miles east of Mt. Diablo, and some 105,000 residents, now with just three fire stations, and nine firefighters on duty. “We’ll hope our neighboring agencies are available to help, but unfortunately, there’s no guarantees in that.” Read More > at KTVU

The flailing fast food industry has an unlikely savior: breakfast sandwiches – Reinvention is never easy, but for McDonald’s and its burger- and taco-slinging peers, it’s become essential. And the Golden Arches are creaking under the pressure.

With consumers ditching fast food for fresher, healthier-seeming options, McDonald’s has tried to woo them back by phasing out some antibiotics from its meat, giving Ronald McDonald a makeover, arguing (using science!) that the McRib isn’t gross, and calling one of its chicken sandwiches “artisan.” It’s asked customers to “pay with lovin’ ” instead of dollars, and, in what can only be interpreted as an awkward pitch to millennials, last week even recast the Hamburglar as a stubble-faced rake in skinny jeans. Still, global sales keep sliding, now for 11 months straight. More than ever before, McDonald’s and the larger fast food sector need a savior.

Already, though, a source of partial salvation is emerging. And it happens to be the one thing fast food doesn’t need to rebrand: breakfast sandwiches.

Dunkin’ Donuts executives are touting their breakfast innovations on earnings calls, while Taco Bell has volleyed biscuit tacos and morning wraps at the masses. When Starbucks reported its second-quarter earnings in late April, executives pointed excitedly to a 35 percent increase in breakfast sandwich sales since the same period in 2014, led by a demand for new selections like a spinach and feta wrap and a reduced-fat turkey bacon, egg, and cheese. For McDonald’s, the standard-bearer of its industry and now the epitome of its woes, breakfast has remained a lone bright spot. The Big Mac may have fallen out of favor, but the Egg McMuffin is as beloved as ever. Read More > at Slate

California governor, other top officials get 3 percent raise – Gov. Jerry Brown and other California leaders already making six-figure salaries got a raise on Monday for the third year in a row.

A citizen panel granted top elected officials and state lawmakers a 3 percent bump as it continues rolling back pay cuts imposed during the recession.

The Citizen Compensation Commission approved the salary and benefit increases on a 4-0 vote after less than an hour of discussion.

Rank-and-file California lawmakers — who are already the nation’s best-compensated — will now make salaries of a little more than $100,000. They can reject the raises if they choose.

During the recession, the commission cut lawmaker pay 18 percent and eliminated their state-owned vehicles. Lawmakers are also eligible for a $168 daily cost-of-living allowance, but they don’t get pensions.

Members of the commission say the state’s top elected officials, including the governor and attorney general, might deserve even more generous compensation because their pay lags counterparts in other states or at local levels, such as district attorneys and county supervisors. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Whose Fault is the California Drought? This Week in Drought-Shaming – It’s hard to keep up with whose fault the California drought really is, but here at The Snitch, we’re committed to providing you with the latest in finger-pointing on a semi-regular basis (maybe). As a country, we’ve already churned through blaming almond growers, meat-eaters, marijuana growers, and environmentalists for the drought. Next up? Celebrity estates and Walmart.

Over the weekend, the New York Post compiled aerial photographs of celebrity houses in LA with green, water-wasting lawns. Among the guilty are Jennifer Lopez, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, Jessica Simpson, Khloe Kardashian, Barbara Streisand, and Hugh Hefner. According to the Post, these celebrity water vampires are sucking the state dry to maintain their well-manicured lawns, and their neighbors are pissed about it. Read More > at SF Weekly

Record Antarctic sea ice a logistic problem for scientists – Growing sea ice surrounding Antarctica could prompt scientists to consider relocating research stations on the continent, according to the operations manager of the Australian Antarctic Division.

Rob Wooding said that resupplying Australia’s Mawson Station — the longest continuously operated outpost in Antarctica — relied on access to a bay, a task increasingly complicated by sea ice blocking the way.

“We are noticing that the sea ice situation is becoming more difficult,” Wooding told a media briefing on Monday ahead of two days of meetings between top Antarctic science and logistics experts in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Read More > at Yahoo! News

Doing the math on California’s bullet train fares – Riding California’s bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco would cost “about $50 a person,” supporters wrote in ballot arguments seven years ago when voters approved billions in funding for the project..

In the years since, the state high-speed rail agency has projected the fare would be $83, $105 and, most recently, $86.

The current estimate would be one of the world’s cheapest high-speed rail trips on a per-mile basis, assuming that it reflects a typical fare between downtown stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco, a Times analysis found.

As a practical matter, no one can say how much an end-to-end ride on the bullet train would actually cost if and when the system becomes fully operational, a milestone the state expects to reach some time in 2028. At that point, ticket pricing will be set in consultation with a private company hired by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to operate the system, said rail agency Chief Executive Jeff Morales.

…”Any time you are trying to project more than five years out, you are just spitballing,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a USC associate professor in transportation and urban planning. “So many things can change dramatically in five years.”

…”The train will lose money and require a subsidy,” said Joseph Vranich, former president of the national High-Speed Rail Assn. “I have not seen a single number that has come out of the California high-speed rail organization that is credible. As a high-speed rail advocate, I am steamed.” Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

REPORT: Professor requires students be naked in visual arts final exam or fail it – A University of California San Diego visual arts class requires students to perform naked as part of its final exam, a mandate that has one mother of a female student in the class furious, ABC KGTV-News reports.

The class, “Performing for the Self,” is made up of a series of “gestures,” and the final gesture – called “Erotic Self” – consists of the students and their male professor getting naked in a room lit only by candlelight, ABC News reported – adding that students have to be nude to pass the final.

The professor, Ricardo Dominguez, told the news outlet that the exam is “all very controlled,” and added students know what is expected, that if they are uncomfortable with the final “gesture” they should not take the class. Read More > at The College Fix

Revenues May Be Rolling In—For Now—But State Budget Must Heed Lessons Of Past – Those experienced in California’s boom and bust budget cycles are getting dizzy.

As the Governor prepares an updated budget proposal, the expanding recovery is pushing state revenues ever higher—perhaps $4 billion over this year’s budget. For many, this inspires euphoric speculation about how the money could be spent. But if history is any guide—and it is—the endorphins won’t last.

For sure, there is no shortage of worthy public programs. But the long-term viability of those programs will be influenced by how well lawmakers incorporate into next year’s budget the lessons learned over the last 15 years—and how smart they can be about the next 15 years.

…Remember 2005? Remember 1999? Tax revenues poured in after Tax Day in those years—billions more than expected. Both times, lawmakers spent the money as if it were a “new normal.” In 2000, K-12 schools received a $6 billion baseline increase, and lawmakers cut the car tax—twice. In 2005, schools and social services received a $10 billion boost, and lawmakers opted not to pay off the budget debt from the previous recession.

Within a year of these spending sprees, recessions hit. With more obligations than money, the state cut deep into programs for vulnerable Californians. Billions were borrowed; credit ratings went down and borrowing costs up. California made international headlines for its fiscal profligacy.

…According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Prop. 98 school funding guarantee will sweep up the first $4.4 billion of this year’s revenue growth, and as much as 40 cents of every dollar above that.

But Prop. 98 does not dictate how that money is spent on K-14 education. Some one-time investments—in facilities, technologies and paying down retirement obligations, for example—could provide benefits now and reduce long-term costs so school districts can avoid cuts to operating budgets in the next recession. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Why Microsoft is calling Windows 10 ‘the last version of Windows’ – “Right now we’re releasing Windows 10, and because Windows 10 is the last version of Windows, we’re all still working on Windows 10.” That was the message from Microsoft employee Jerry Nixon, a developer evangelist speaking at the company’s Ignite conference this week. Nixon was explaining how Microsoft was launching Windows 8.1 last year, but in the background it was developing Windows 10. Now, Microsoft employees can talk freely about future updates to Windows 10 because there’s no secret update in the works coming next. It’s all just Windows 10. While it immediately sounds like Microsoft is killing off Windows and not doing future versions, the reality is a little more complex. The future is “Windows as a service.”

Microsoft has been discussing the idea of Windows as a service, but the company hasn’t really explained exactly how that will play out with future versions of Windows. That might be because there won’t really be any future major versions of Windows in the foreseeable future. Microsoft has altered the way it engineers and delivers Windows, and the initial result is Windows 10. Instead of big releases, there will be regular improvements and updates. Part of this is achieved by splitting up operating system components like the Start Menu and built-in apps to be separate parts that can be updated independently to the entire Windows core operating system. It’s a big undertaking, but it’s something Microsoft has been actively working on for Windows 10 to ensure it spans across multiple device types.

…With Windows 10, it’s time to start thinking of Windows as something that won’t see a big launch or major upgrade every few years anymore. Much like how Google’s Chrome browser gets updated regularly with version numbers nobody really pays attention to, Microsoft’s approach will likely result in a similar outcome. This is really the idea of Windows as a service, and the notion that Windows 10 could be the last major version of Windows. Microsoft could opt for Windows 11 or Windows 12 in future, but if people upgrade to Windows 10 and the regular updates do the trick then everyone will just settle for just “Windows” without even worrying about the version number. Read More > at The Verge

Wells report disregards Anderson’s “best recollection” on a key piece of evidence – To summarize, the NFL had two air pressure gauges available at the game. One had a Wilson logo on the back and a long, crooked needle. The other did not have a Wilson logo, and a shorter, straighter needle.

The gauge with the logo and the longer needle generated higher measurements of the Patriots footballs at halftime, ranging from 0.3 PSI to 0.45 PSI higher for each of the 11 footballs. If that gauge — the one with the logo and the longer, crooked needle — were used to set the PSI for the balls before the game began, the measurements from that gauge are the right measurements to rely upon at halftime. And those measurements show that there was no tampering, because most of the footballs fell within the 11.52 to 11.32 PSI range for halftime, as predicted by the Ideal Gas Law.

Referee Walt Anderson didn’t clearly recall which gauge he used to set the pressure in the Patriots balls at 12.5 PSI before the game. Page 52 of the Wells report reveals that it was Anderson’s “best recollection” that he used before the game the gauge with the logo and the longer, crooked needle. In other words, Anderson recalls using the gauge before the game that, based on the halftime measurements, leads to a finding of no tampering.

So how did Ted Wells get around the “best recollection” of Walt Anderson? Wells persuaded Anderson to admit that it’s “certainly possible” he used the other gauge. And the company hired to provide technical support for the Wells report concluded based on a convoluted explanation appearing at pages 116-17 of the report that it is “more probable than not” that Anderson used the other gauge. Read More > at NBC Sports

Oakland’s Young City Council, Once Full of Promise, Reverts to Its Old Ways – When the band of black activists unfurled their banner of protest at Tuesday night’s Oakland City Council meeting and forced it to early adjournment, it meant more than another high-profile and effective use of civil disobedience for the group that also shut down BART last Black Friday, it signaled the end of the illusion that this new group of City Council leaders is any different than its ineffectual, possibly corrupt predecessors.

…This massive changeover, which added two new members last November, was supposed to herald change in Oakland city government. No more shady backroom deals with developers and special interests. No more sweetheart deals for friends and associates. But, that seems to have all changed over the past few months with the controversial East 12th Street remainder parcel sale, However, there were already hints of a council reverting to its old ways beginning with a raft of alleged ethics violations uncovered before Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney’s election as council president.

Like in the past, nearly the entire council dusted off its institutional blinders and placed them squarely on their faces. Some said they needed more information on the McElhaney’s deals involving the use of city staff. Only Councilmember Noel Gallo took a stand and took early steps to censure McElhaney, which never took hold because of a lack of support from his colleagues.

Then came the April 14 Community and Economic Development meeting that revealed the potential for corruption involving the proposal $5.1 million sale of public land near Lake Merritt to UrbanCore, LLC, developers planning to build a luxury 24-story tower. Credit Councilmember Abel Guillen for being the impetus for the shocking reveal forced upon McElhaney and Reid that afternoon. Read More > at Public CEO

Cities And States Are Making Risky Bets To Cover Pension Costs – For years state and local governments have borrowed money to bolster their underfunded pension systems, even though the practice is controversial and played a role in municipal bankruptcies in Detroit and Stockton, Calif.

Undeterred, cities and states that face growing retirement costs are looking to issue new rounds of pension bonds and hoping they can parlay the borrowed money into big gains in the stock market. If these governments bet wrong, taxpayers could pay a steep price.

Kansas’ legislature earlier this year approved a $1 billion package of pension obligation bonds, while Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed $3 billion in debt to augment the state’s steeply underfunded pension funds.

Legislators in Kentucky have been debating a proposal by the state’s teacher retirement system, with $14 billion in unfunded liabilities, to borrow $3.3 billion.

…Stockton sought to boost its sagging pension funds by borrowing $125 million in 2007. When the stock market crashed the following year, Stockton lost about 30% of the borrowed money on top of the $400 million its pension system already owed. The city sought federal bankruptcy protection in 2012 and agreed to repay pension bond creditors 55 cents on the dollar. Read More > at Investor’s Business Daily

How Much Longer Can The Oil Age Last? – History has been so fascinated with oil and its price movements that it is indeed hard to imagine our future without oil. Over the last few months, we have witnessed how oil prices have fluctuated from a 6 year low level of $42.98 per barrel in March 2015 to the current levels of $60 per barrel. It is interesting to note that, in spite of the biggest oil cartel in the world deciding to stick to its high production levels, the oil prices have increased mainly due to falling US crude inventories and strong demand. However, the current upward rally might be short lived and there may yet be another drop in the international oil price when Iran eventually starts pumping its oil into the market at full capacity, potentially creating another supply glut. In these endless price rallies, it is important to take a holistic view of the global energy industry and question which way it is heading. Are the dynamics of global energy changing with current improvements in renewable energy sources and affordable new storage technologies? Can the oil age end in the near future? Will we ever stop feverishly analyzing the rise and fall of oil prices? Or, will oil remain irreplaceable in our life time?

With little or no pollution, renewables like solar, wind and biofuels are viewed by many as a means to curtail the rising greenhouse emissions and replace oil as a sustainable alternative. There is little doubt as to why China, US, Japan, UK and Germany, some of the world’s biggest energy gluttons have invested heavily in renewables.

However, according to a study conducted by Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the total global investments in renewables fell by 14% to $214 billion in 2013.

…According to Bank of America and Merrill Lynch commodity researchers, if crude prices stay in the range of $50 – $70, peak oil demand would be pushed beyond 2030. This delay in peak oil demand would definitely hurt renewables and anyone who is investing in them.

…These are two of the world’s fastest growing economies that are investing heavily in renewables but also safeguarding their oil and gas aspirations. Moreover, when we analyze past oil price trends, we find that volatility related to geopolitical equations, speculations, wars, economic sanctions and climate change have always kept the global energy markets guessing about the future. The world is still myopic when it comes to energy. Yes, it wants to embrace renewables but not at the cost of oil. Whatever happens to oil prices in the coming years, one thing is certain: that the age of oil isn’t ending anytime soon, at least not in the next 30 years. Read More > at Oil Price

AP Exclusive: Self-driving cars getting dinged in California – Four of the nearly 50 self-driving cars now rolling around California have gotten into accidents since September, when the state began issuing permits for companies to test them on public roads.

Two accidents happened while the cars were in control; in the other two, the person who still must be behind the wheel was driving, a person familiar with the accident reports told The Associated Press.

Three involved Lexus SUVs that Google Inc. outfitted with sensors and computing power in its aggressive effort to develop “autonomous driving,” a goal the tech giant shares with traditional automakers. The parts supplier Delphi Automotive had the other accident with one of its two test vehicles.

Google and Delphi said their cars were not at fault in any accidents, which the companies said were minor. Read More > from the Associated Press

Conservative Voters Give Pollsters Politically Correct Answers . . . and Then They Vote – The website of Nate Silver, the American polling expert, surveyed all of Britain’s public-opinion surveys on Election day in Britain and declared that the chance that David Cameron’s Conservatives would win a majority of seats “was vanishingly small when the polls closed — around 1 in 500.” But that is precisely what happened, leading Nate Silver to write a piece titled “The World May Have a Polling Problem.” He listed the errors that overtook “probably the four highest-profile elections of the past year, at least from the standpoint of the U.S. and U.K. media”:

Silver came up with various explanations for the errors, noting first of all that voters are becoming harder to contact, so pollsters rely less on direct contact and more on online questionnaires. Some of those online polls abandon probability sampling, the bedrock of polling methodology. In addition, he also observed that “some pollsters have been caught withholding results when they differ from other surveys, ‘herding’ toward a false consensus about a race instead of behaving independently.”

…Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Political Forecasting Unit at Nottingham Business School, sums it up: “If you really want to know a likely election result, ignore the polls and look at the betting markets. It’s a mystery why pollsters are taken more seriously.” From now on, if pollsters are to regain any credibility, they must be more transparent, spend the money to conduct real surveys, resist the temptation to withhold polls they don’t like, and realize that more and more of the public is starting to pick up a whiff of the same bias in pollsters that they detect in the media as a whole. Read More > at the National Review


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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