Sunday Reading – 06/14/15


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.

Twitter removing the 140 character limit from DMs in July – Twitter really wants you to start using Twitter DMs to privately chat with your friends. Of course, when you’re chatting with folks, a 140 character limit means you have to span your long messages over multiple posts which sort of kills the flow of a story. But, starting sometime in July, you won’t have to worry about that because the company is removing the 140 character limit in DMs. So go ahead, leave long meandering messages to your friends via DMs. The news was dropped by Product Manager for Direct Messages, Sachin Agarwal on the Twitter developer channel. As for regular public facing Twitter, it will still be limited to 140 characters. Read More > at Engadget

As BART system melts down, new budget offers little relief – The Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s board of directors has approved a $1.57 billion budget Thursday designed to squeeze more capacity out of the financially and physically constrained system and improve on-time performance.

The budget doesn’t allow for adding trains, since new cars on order won’t be available until late 2017. However, plans call for deploying an additional 30 train cars during peak hours and adding 16 trips each weekday for the fiscal year beginning July 1, BART said.

The new budget assumes that average weekday ridership on the already overcrowded system will jump 1.8 percent in the next fiscal year, from about 422,000 now to nearly 430,000.

Already, the system is experiencing frequent delays, track-repair issues and fairly regular service meltdowns, including a May 6 track incident in San Francisco that shut down much of the system for most of a work day, creating a hellish commute day for tens of thousands of Bay Area residents.

…Funding in the budget is being shifted to lengthen some trains, extend hours, add cleaning staff and devote $20 million to replacing aging tracks. But that $20 million will cover just a fraction of needed track repairs and replacements through 2024. The total expected budget for track work during that period is $320 million, according to earlier comments by BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

And BART has plenty of much larger capital needs to fund longer-term. It has projected $9.6 billion in capital needs through 2024, but has identified funding for just half of that total, leaving $4.8 billion in unfunded needs. About $2.5 billion of that capital is designated for buying new train cars, ultimately replacing its entire current fleet of 669 aging railcars.

BART has ordered 775 new cars with a price tag of $3.2 billion and hopes to find funding for 225 others.

The new budget assumes that BART will raise fares by 3.4 percent on Jan. 1, as part of a multi-year program to raise the cost to passengers of riding the 107-mile BART system. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Saving Internet Freedom – In barely 20 years, the Internet and other communications breakthroughs have changed the world immeasurably. The information age has transformed economies, expanded growth, and improved the quality of life for billions. It has also greatly enhanced freedom for individuals — political freedom in the public square, economic freedom in the marketplace, and social freedom in the community.

What made all that progress possible was that Internet developers, innovators, investors, and operators were able to work largely free of government restraint. Today’s Internet, with competing networks and an almost endless array of apps, was not created or funded by the government (or by Al Gore, for that matter). These are all marvels of private-sector ingenuity. And these incredible advances in Internet and digital technologies have happened because there have been few government regulations to stifle innovation and competition.

But now all of these freedoms are being threatened by our own federal government and governments around the world, which intend to control and tax the Internet. Freedom House’s latest survey of global political rights and civil liberties found that freedom on the Internet has declined for the fourth straight year. Around the world, more and more governments are censoring speech and shackling enterprise on the Web.

The United States has largely escaped direct infringements of political rights and speech. But we face challenges of different kinds. In recent weeks, the looming expiration of the PATRIOT Act sparked passionate debate about how to balance the sometimes competing goals of national security and individual privacy.

When judging how much control of the Internet We the People should cede to government, we should first try to imagine what could happen if that control falls into the hands of those who would abuse their power. After all, bureaucratic power corrupts as absolutely as any other. Read More > at Real Clear Policy

 

Partisan divide stalls ideas for boosting California road-repair funding – State lawmakers are busy this week cobbling together a state budget plan that’s due on Monday — but that isn’t all they are wrestling with. Among big issues still looming is how to fix California’s roads.

Everyone agrees that deteriorating highways are becoming more hazardous. The Brown administration reports the state has deferred some $59 billion in road maintenance. But partisan divisions may block allocation of additional funding for road repair.

Here’s the difficulty: Democrats and Republicans each have their own ideas for raising the money — but they need each other to pass legislation.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins proposes to create a road user fee to raise $2 billion over five years. Motorists would pay about $1 per week.

In the upper house, the chair of a Senate transportation committee proposes to raise gasoline prices by 10 cents per gallon along with other vehicle-related fees. Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose promotes Senate Bill 16 as a way to fix California’s current streets and roads, not build new infrastructure.

Republicans, on the other hand, suggest California should repair its infrastructure by using dollars it already has. Specifically, Senate Republicans propose SCA 7, which would raise nearly $3 billion in ongoing funding by redirecting cap-and-trade funds that support the high-speed rail program. Read More > in the Sacramento Business Journal

We Ask California Legislators: Do You Help Draft Bills For Influential Groups? – Multiple state Capitol sources will confirm, quite comfortably as long as they aren’t on the record, that legislators routinely ask their own lawyers — at taxpayer expense — to privately draft bills for influential groups and lobbyists, bills those powerful players can then attempt to inject into the legislative bloodstream at just the right time for quick action.

But saying it on the record? That’s a different story.

In late April, the Office of the Legislative Counsel denied a KQED News request for data pertaining to “unbacked bills,” draft laws that have no official author — no legislative backer — in either the Assembly or Senate. The request wasn’t for the contents of those bills, knowing that would likely spark questions attorney-client privilege; rather, it was simply a request for data on how many unbacked bills had been drafted in the 2013-14 legislative session and data on how many per legislator.

Lobbyists and legislative staffers alike defend the existence of unbacked bills as a way to ensure laws are written better, and they say that there’s virtue in a legislator helping a like-minded group get its ideas onto paper. The question asked, though, wasn’t whether unbacked bills are bad, but why their existence — part of the way influence can open doors unavailable to those without political muscle — shouldn’t be disclosed. After all, if there are good reasons for having legislative lawyers draft
bills for outside groups, then surely there’s no reason not to reveal how many of these requests are made, and for whom. Read More > at KQED

The Downside of Treadmill Desks – Treadmill desks are popular, even aspirational, in many offices today since they can help those of us who are deskbound move more, burn extra calories and generally improve our health.

But an interesting new study raises some practical concerns about the effects of walking at your workspace and suggests that there may be unacknowledged downsides to using treadmill desks if you need to type or think at the office.

The drumbeat of scientific evidence about the health benefits of sitting less and moving more during the day continues to intensify. One study presented last month at the 2015 annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in San Diego found that previously sedentary office workers who walked slowly at a treadmill desk for two hours each workday for two months significantly improved their blood pressure and slept better at night.

But as attractive as the desks are for health reasons, they must be integrated into a work setting so it seems sensible that they should be tested for their effects on productivity. But surprisingly little research had examined whether treadmill desks affect someone’s ability to get work done.

…The results, when the researchers compared the treadmill walkers with the people sitting at their desks, substantially favored sitting. The people who had walked during the testing performed worse on almost all aspects of thinking, including the ability to concentrate and remember, compared with those who had been seated.

And they were much worse at typing, being substantially slower and more error prone than the sitting group.

No one should be surprised by this deterioration of typing ability while using a treadmill desk, said Michael Larson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at B.Y.U. who led the study. “You’re not stationary,” he said. Even if the oscillation in your body position is slight, you are moving first closer to and then further from your keyboard. “It’s like typing while rowing,” he said.

But the lower cognitive scores among the treadmill walkers, compared with people in chairs, were unexpected, Dr. Larson said. Most studies of the effects of physical activity on cognition show that moving improves thinking. Read More > in The New York Times

OPM Hack Far Deeper Than Publicly Acknowledged, Went Undetected For More Than A Year, Sources Say – The massive hack into federal systems announced last week was far deeper and potentially more problematic than publicly acknowledged, with hackers believed to be from China moving through government databases undetected for more than a year, sources briefed on the matter told ABC News.

“If [only] they knew the full extent of it,” one U.S. official said about those affected by the intrusion into the Office of Personnel Management’s information systems.

It all started with an initial intrusion into OPM’s systems more than a year ago, and after gaining that initial access the hackers were able to work their way through four different “segments” of OPM’s systems, according to sources.

Much of that data has been stored on OPM systems housed by the Department of the Interior in a Denver-area data center, sources said. And one of the four “segments” compromised held forms filled out by federal employees seeking security clearances.

As ABC News previously reported, the 127-page forms — known as SF-86’s and used for background investigations — ask applicants for personal information not only about themselves but also relatives, friends, and potentially even college roommates.

OPM insists the information compromised by the intrusion into its systems does “not [include] the names of family members.” Read More > at ABC News

If Government Needs a Warrant to Read Our Mail, Why Not for Our Email as Well? – Should the contents of email messages be protected from unwarranted law enforcement scrutiny to the same extent as physical letters sent through the mail? The answer seems obvious. Email is today’s postal service, and the personal contents of email messages are as private to people as the letters sent through the U.S. Postal Service.

But as obvious as that may seem, it is not what the law states. Today, some of the contents of email—most notably emails stored on a server, such as through Gmail—are not as well-protected.

To read Americans’ mail as it is in transit with the Postal Service, the government generally needs a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate and must have probable cause to believe the search will provide evidence of a crime.

To read the content of email messages stored on a cloud server, the government does not need a warrant at all—it can view the content by issuing a subpoena to the cloud service provider. Unlike a warrant, a subpoena is not based on probable cause and is not reviewed by a judge before it is issued. In practice, it is issued by a prosecutor, is unchecked by a judge and can be based on most any ground.

The reason for this difference in treatment is more historical than malevolent. The law that protects email communications—the Electronic Communications Privacy Act —was written in 1986, when Gmail did not exist, cloud servers were a dream of the future and nobody could imagine storing email for any length of time because digital storage costs were so high.

As a result, under current law, as data moves from local storage to the cloud, the government argues it does not need to ask the owner of the data for permission to see it. Instead, the government claims it can go to the cloud provider, demand the data with a subpoena and prohibit the data owner from being notified. This law needs to change: When government agents want Internet service providers and cloud providers to disclose sensitive data, they should have to obtain a warrant from a judge. Read More > at The Daily Signal

George Washington’s Oh-So-Mysterious Hair – That hair you’ve seen so many times on the dollar bill? That hair he’s got crossing the Delaware, standing by a cannon, riding a horse in those paintings? His hair on the quarter? On all those statues? The hair we all thought was a wig? Well, it wasn’t a wig. “Contrary to a common belief,” writes biographer Ron Chernow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington: A Life, George Washington “never wore a wig.”

I’m stunned.

Turns out, that hair was his. All of it—the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck. What’s more (though you probably already guessed this), he wasn’t white-haired. There’s a painting of him as a young man, with Martha and her two children, that shows his hair as reddish brown, which Chernow says was his true color.

The whiteness was an effect. Washington’s hairstyle was carefully constructed to make an impression. It wasn’t a sissyish, high-society cut. It was, back in the 1770s and 1780s, a military look, something soldiers or want-to-be soldiers did to look manly. “However formal it looks to modern eyes,” Chernow writes, “the style was favored by military officers.” Read More > at Phenomena: Curiously Krulwich

Goodbye neighborhood polling places? – Driven by record low voter turnout, California election officials on Wednesday proposed a system that would deliver vote-by-mail ballots to all registered voters, eliminate many neighborhood polling places and replace them with larger voting centers that allow early voting.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced the plan during a news conference in Sacramento.

“California ranked 43rd in voter turnout nationally for the 2014 General Election. This problem cannot be ignored,” said Padilla, a Democrat and former state senator from Los Angeles. He added that the new plan “would provide citizens more options for when, where and how they vote.”

The changes would allow voters to drop off or cast a ballot at any vote center in their county, rather than being tied to a single polling place.

While many neighborhood polling places would be eliminated, state officials say the smaller number of voting centers, established at schools or other community centers, would take their place and be open for 10 days before Election Day. Read More > in The San Diego Union-Tribune

Paul Ryan’s Pelosi-Esque Obamatrade Moment: ‘It’s Declassified And Made Public Once It’s Agreed To’ – Chief Obamatrade proponent House Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) admitted during Congressional testimony on Wednesday evening that despite tons of claims from him and other Obamatrade supporters to the contrary, the process is highly secretive.

He also made a gaffe in his House Rules Committee testimony on par with former Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) push to pass Obamacare, in which she said infamously said: “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

“It’s declassified and made public once it’s agreed to,” Ryan said of Obamatrade in Rules Committee testimony on Wednesday during questioning from Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX)

What Ryan is trying to convince House Republicans to do is vote for Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) which would fast-track at least three highly secretive trade deals—specifically the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP)—and potentially more deals.

Right now, TiSA and T-TIP text are completely secretive and unavailable for even members of Congress to read while TPP text is available for members to review—although they need to go to a secret room inside the Capitol where only members of Congress and certain staffers high-level security clearances, who can only go when members are present, can read the bill. Read More > at Breitbart

Bipartisan Agreement: Foreign Governments Pay Former Senate Leaders to Sell TPP – In a scene all too typical in present day Washington, the culmination of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, along with the push for passage of related legislation such as Trade Promotion Authority (or Fast Track) have set off a lobbying frenzy.

While liberal organizations and members of Congress deride the TPP as the biggest boondoggle since NAFTA and President Obama defends it as “the most progressive trade treaty ever,” the influence peddlers who populate K Street see opportunity.

Policy makers aren’t simply facing a lobbying barrage from the typical slate of domestic interest groups. Foreign governments are running sophisticated operations to influence Congress and gather intelligence in Washington as the negotiations proceed.

This is now “par for the course,” according to Lydia Dennett, an investigator at the Project on Government Oversight [POGO], a nonprofit watchdog. “If a certain country wants trade legislation that will be beneficial to them they can hire an American lobbyist to get them the access the need.”

Leading the way among TPP nations seeking to sway American policy makers is Japan, which signed up former Democratic Leader Tom Daschle’s firm as well as well-connected public relations firm DCI.

We won’t know the full extent of Mr. Daschle or DCI’s work on behalf of Japan until their next series of Foreign Agent Registration Act [FARA] disclosure reports are filed with the Department of Justice in a few months. Read More > in the Observer

California is sinking, and it’s getting worse – California is sinking – and fast.

While the state’s drought-induced sinking is well known, new details highlight just how severe it has become and how little the government has done to monitor it.

Last summer, scientists recorded the worst sinking in at least 50 years. This summer, all-time records are expected across the state as thousands of miles of land in the Central Valley and elsewhere sink.

But the extent of the problem and how much it will cost taxpayers to fix are part of the mystery of the state’s unfolding drought. No agency is tracking the sinking statewide, little public money has been put toward studying it and California allows agriculture businesses to keep crucial parts of their operations secret.

The cause is known: People are pulling unsustainable amounts of water out of underground aquifers, primarily for food production. With the water sucked out to irrigate crops, a practice that has accelerated during the drought, tens of thousands of square miles are deflating like a leaky air mattress, inch by inch.

Groundwater now supplies about 60 percent of the state’s water, with the vast majority of that going to agriculture. Tens of thousands of groundwater pumps run day and night, sucking up about 5 percent of the state’s total electricity, according to a Reveal analysis of the increased pumping resulting from the historic drought. That’s an increase of 40 percent over normal years – or enough electricity to power every home in San Francisco for three years.

The sinking is starting to destroy bridges, crack irrigation canals and twist highways across the state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Read More > at Reveal

California’s Rice Crop Predicted To Be 30 Percent Below Normal – Because of California’s historic drought, the state’s rice crop will be 30 percent below normal –- at 375,000 acres. Experts say the smaller planting will hurt the economy and wildlife that depend on shallow flooded fields.

Tim Johnson, the President of the California Rice Commission says the largest impact will be felt in the small towns like Colusa, Marysville and Yuba City where farmers and workers depend on the rice industry for jobs.

“But, also in places like the Port of West Sacramento where we export our rice internationally and the rice mills and rice driers you see around the community,” says Johnson.

The ripples will be felt statewide. Johnson says the fallowed acreage will costs California’s economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

Dry fields are also bad news for ducks and geese that depend on flooded rice fields for food and breeding grounds. Mark Bittlecomb is the Ducks Unlimited Western Regional Director. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

Here’s What’s Different About Windows 10 for Windows 7 Users – Unlike Windows 8, Windows 10 actually feels designed for a PC with a keyboard and mouse. Windows 7 users will be much more at home with Windows 10, but there are still some big changes.

If you’re a Windows 7 user, you might be surprised to see just how much has changed after you upgrade. Thankfully, there are no weird hot corners to learn.

The Start menu looks very different from how it did on Windows 7. The live tiles found on Windows 8’s Start screen make a return here. But, don’t worry — you can remove all the live tiles if you don’t like them. Just right-click them and remove them. The Start menu looks a bit different, but it has all the usual features you’d expect — a list of all your installed applications as well as power options for shutting down or restarting your PC. Move your mouse to any edge of the Start menu and you’ll be able to resize it. Read More > at How-To Geek

Proposed bullet train into Los Angeles draws mostly fire – Bullet train bosses said they’d come to listen. And the audience, made up primarily of their opponents, came from across Greater Los Angeles on Tuesday to talk.

Hundreds of city officials and residents from Palmdale to Burbank streamed into Los Angeles, mostly to protest newly recommended potential bullet train routes before a meeting of the state High-Speed Rail Authority board.

“I am here to tell you not to destroy the schools and churches and homes of our city of Santa Clarita,” said Councilman TimBen Boydston, representing the third largest city in Los Angeles County, and home to one of four proposed rail routes. “But I’m also here to tell you: Do not destroy the historic city of San Fernando.

“Do not destroy the neighborhoods of Shadow Hills and Sunland and Sylmar. Do not destroy Kagel Canyon and La Cañada. Do not destroy Acton and Agua Dulce. Put this train underground — where the people of this county will not be divided, one against another. We will be united.” Read More > in the Los Angeles Daily News

Take a Shot of This: In-Car Drunkness Detection Systems Being Tested By NHTSA – Hoping to make drunk driving a literal impossibility, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rolled out a prototype drunkenness-detection system for cars that would disallow vehicle operation if the driver is above the legal limit. Working with auto-industry members, NHTSA has been working on DADSS—Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety—and presented its ideas for stopping drunk-driving accidents before they happen before Congress and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Drunk driving is of course dangerous, illegal, and just plain stupid. Helpfully, then, NHTSA is working to make its in-car drunk-detection tech as seamless and unobtrusive as possible. Currently, DADSS has come up with two solutions (see them in action at the bottom of this page), one being touch-based, while the other is breath-based. Neither involves any uncomfortable—or possibly exciting—probing, blood samples, or the like, and both take less than a second. The touch detector centers around the steering wheel and uses an infrared scanner to analyze the topmost layer of the driver’s skin, reporting the chemical concentration of alcohol back to the car. If they’re above the legal 0.8-percent blood-alcohol level, the car won’t start.

The breath-based system is more hands-off, as an ultra-sensitive breathalyzer analyzes the driver’s BAC without requiring a deep inhale, exhale blow into a tube. Instead, the system simply analyzes the driver’s natural breath in much the same way as the touch-based system, using a beam of infrared light, the data from which is passed through a slightly different set of analysis protocols and can tell the car how much the driver has had to drink. Both are clever solutions, and each one is being investigated by a Tier One automotive supplier, something NHTSA seems to think ensures potential market feasibility down the road. Read More > at Car and Driver

These Are The 10 Most Boring Places In California – From ziplining through the redwoods in Sonoma to spelunking through the caverns that dot the southland, California is rife with places just bursting with exciting things to do, see, and eat. Not everywhere in the Golden State is so brilliant, however. Just like any other state, it has places where the excitement gauge never gets above empty, where the most thrilling things residents do is count the change in their jars marked “vacation fund.”

The Movoto Real Estate Blog has looked at plenty of exciting places—large, mid-sized, small, and suburban—but this time we’re slowing down to a snail’s pace in order to rank the most boring spots in the state of California. Using math and data (both of which we actually find to be quite stimulating) we discovered that the dubious title of most boring in the state goes to the city of Lakewood, a veritable dead zone of fun adrift in the alphabet soup of cities comprising the Los Angelesmetro sprawl. Misery loves company though, so it wasn’t alone. These are the 10 most boring places in California:

1. City of Lakewood
2. City of Lancaster
3. City of West Covina
4. City of Victorville
5. City of Merced
6. City of Alhambra
7. City of Ontario
8. City of Modesto
9. City of Hesperia
10. City of Carson

Read More > at Public CEO

The Fall Of The 49ers – It was just 17 months ago that the San Francisco 49ers fell short of their second straight Super Bowl appearance by the length of Richard Sherman’s fingertips, but now it would appear that any hope of returning to the big game is as far off and distant as it was when Steve Young’s career ended in 1999. And now not even all the players that were on the team just weeks ago seem interested in sticking around for what could be a long, tough road back to the top.

With right tackle Anthony Davis announcing a surprise retirement on Friday, saying that this would give his “Brain and Body a chance to heal,” the 49ers have lost four key starters to retirement this offseason. While Justin Smith’s retirement was somewhat expected, San Francisco now must scramble to try to fill the voids left by Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Davis, all of whom have called it quits at ages where giving up a multi-million dollar job seems crazy.

But those retirements are only the tip of the iceberg that Levi’s Stadium is heading directly toward.

The 49ers also lost running back Frank Gore to free agency after he’s led them in rushing every season since 2005. Guard Mike Iupati, who has gone to each of the last three Pro Bowls, signed with the Cardinals. They lost both starting cornerbacks: Chris Culliver went to Washington, Perrish Cox to Tennessee. Michael Crabtree, the leading receiver in 2011 and 2012, signed with Oakland. And another linebacker left when Dan Skuta signed a $20.5 million deal with the Jaguars.

Beyond the player changes, though, the entire ship is now being run by a head coach who has exactly one game of head coaching experience: Jim Tomsula, the former defensive line coach. If the inmates aren’t running the asylum, then they’re certainly fleeing it.

…Of the entire 53-man active roster from their 2012 Super Bowl season, just 16 players remain, 17 if you include Hunter, who was on injured reserve. That’s losing basically 70 percent of a great roster through just two seasons of play.

So we know that the 49ers are disintegrating like a shoddy sand castle at high tide, but does that mean they will fall to the bottom of the standings with what they have left? It certainly appears that way. Read More > at Sports on Earth

Driverless Cars Are Coming. Is Congress Ready? – …That means that, under the best case, Congress will be setting policy that runs through 2021. And by then, roads and the cars driving on them are likely to look very different. Google hopes to have a fully autonomous car on the road by 2020, as do GM, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Nissan, and other automakers. Cadillac has said its CTS will be equipped with a vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) system, allowing cars to communicate with each other, as early as 2017. Even Apple is said to be working on autonomous driving.

The length of the bill is no small thing: Think of the changes that have come since Congress last passed a long-term bill in 2012. Fuel efficiency has improved faster than expected, which has zapped the Highway Trust Fund. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Car2Go have also upended car ownership, while GPS navigation is treated as a given, not an add-on.

The future of transportation is even more transformative. Before driverless cars will make it out of the garage, states will need to lay the groundwork with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems connecting cars and roadways (so, for example, if a bridge is unexpectedly shut down, it can alert drivers). Engineers are working on V2V systems that would let cars communicate with each other, automatically stopping to avoid crashes and ensuring that everyone has a safe following distance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has predicted that V2V and V2I technology could eliminate as many as 80 percent of the 33,000 annual accidents involving non-impaired drivers, while the technology can also make roads less congested and cars more efficient.

That means that the entire way planners think about roads could change. Future congestion needs, for example, could be met simply by making cars drive closer together rather than building out new freeways. But before automated cars can roam, states have to get their highways ready, and that’s where the federal transportation bill can help. Read More > in the National Journal

First phase of bullet train is cut due to Bakersfield, Shafter disputes – State bullet train officials have cut eight miles of track from an initial 130-mile section of construction in the Central Valley as a result of legal disputes with local cities..

Instead of ending in the outskirts of Bakersfield, the rail work will now stop just north of Shafter. A still-pending legal battle also could eliminate a proposed elevated structure that would have carried high-speed trains through Shafter’s downtown.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says the distance covered by the initial construction plan had to be reduced because of a December agreement that settled a lawsuit brought by Bakersfield officials. The settlement calls for a review of the proposed route through the city.

The change is the latest development stemming from legal disputes over the effects of the massive project on Central Valley counties, cities and farms. Additional meetings and studies of the route could take months.

…Alexis said she believes the cutback was driven in part by budget pressures at the authority — something high-speed rail officials deny. State rail officials say bids on construction contracts for the Central Valley segment have come in under authority cost estimates.

How the state will fully fund the $6-billion initial construction phase is not entirely certain, however.

The federal government has provided grants of $3.2 billion. The amount includes about $2 billion that must be matched with an equal amount of state money that has to be spent by September 2017. Federal funds left unspent after that date would be returned to the U.S. Treasury. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Democrats push spending plan that relies on higher revenues – With California’s budget deadline a week away, Democratic state lawmakers are using higher revenue estimates to bolster their argument for spending more on social programs for the poor despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s cost concerns.

The Legislature is finalizing a proposed spending plan that’s roughly $2 billion higher than Brown’s $115 billion spending plan. The increase is based on upbeat revenue assumptions from a nonpartisan budget analyst.

Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and have made it their priority this year to improve working conditions for poor and minority Californians. They want higher state spending on health care, welfare, child care and higher education, among other things.

Democrats say their plan carefully balances the need to end recession-era cuts while maintaining fiscal stability. But the Brown administration is warning against committing the state to ongoing spending that would have to be cut during the next economic downturn. Read More > in the Associated Press

Malls Washed Up? Not Quite Yet – Maybe it’s that reporters don’t like malls. After all they tend to be young, highly urban, single, and highly educated, not the key demographic at your local Macy’s, much less H&M.

But for years now, the conventional wisdom in the media is that the mall—particularly in the suburbs—is doomed. Here a typical sample from The Guardian: “Once-proud visions of suburban utopia are left to rot as online shopping and the resurgence of city centers make malls increasingly irrelevant to young people.”

To be sure, there are hundreds of outmoded malls, long-in-the-tooth complexes most commonly found in working-class suburbs and inner-ring city neighborhoods. Some will never come back. By some estimates, something close to 10 to 15 percent of the country’s estimated 1,000 malls will go out of business over the next decade; many of them are located in areas where budgets have been very tight, with locals tending to shop at “power centers” built around low-end discounters such as Target or Walmart.

But the notion that Americans don’t like malls anymore is misleading. The roughly 400 malls that service more-affluent communities—like those typically anchored by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom—recovered most quickly from the recession, and now appear to be doing quite well.

Looking across the entire landscape, it’s clear the mall is transforming itself to meet the needs of a changing society but is hardly in its death throes. Last year, vacancy rates in malls flattened for the first time since the recession. The gains from e-commerce—6.5 percent of sales last year, up from 3.5 percent in 2010—has had an effect, but bricks and mortar still constitutes upwards of 90 percent of sales. There’s still little new construction, roughly one-seventh what it was in 2006, but that’s roughly twice that in 2010. Read More > in New Geography

The top four modern killers in the west – Cancer, dementia, heart disease and new – or new strains of – infectious diseases are what modern westerners are dying of now

The fight against cancer has proved to be one of the greatest intellectual and practical challenges of modern times. A hundred years ago, surgical interventions backed by early forms of radiation therapy were the only weapons at the disposal of doctors. Since then, a number of key revolutions have changed that.

The first was the introduction of chemotherapy, in the form of drugs that were derived, ironically, from the mustard gas which was used as a weapon during the first world war. Doctors who carried out autopsies on gas victims noted that it inhibited cell division, and developed versions that helped to stop tumour cells from proliferating. These became routine treatments in the 1950s.

As genomic research progressed in the 20th century, scientists have used that knowledge to develop new treatments. Recent advances have included targeted therapies. These are more specific in their action against tumours because they act on molecular targets associated with particular cancer cells, whereas most standard chemotherapies act on all rapidly dividing cells, be they normal or cancerous.

…Dementia is not actually a disease. It is the outcome of many different conditions. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common of these but others include vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia. All of these forms share common symptoms, however. These include memory loss, confusion and personality change.

While dementia is certainly not an inevitable outcome of getting old, the likelihood of developing the condition undoubtedly increases with age. Thus, as infectious diseases were vanquished in the UK, and mortality rates for cancer and heart conditions forced down, more and more people have been able to live to old age. (Life expectancy in the UK is now 79 for men and 83 for women.)

Today, it is calculated that there are now more than 850,000 people with dementia in the UK.

By 2025, the number of cases of dementia in the UK is expected to rise to more than 1 million. By 2050, it is projected to exceed 2 million. In addition, the condition has been found to be particularly common in women. Of the 850,000 dementia patients in Britain, 500,000 are female. As a result, women over 60 are now twice as likely to get dementia as breast cancer. Read More > in the guardian

Why The Military Will Drive Energy Innovation to a New Level – One of the biggest challenges the military faces is getting energy to troops in the field. Whether it’s a base in another country or a remote site operation, energy is always needed and is often hard to come by in abundance. Energy convoys have long been a target for opposition forces; if the military could rely on renewable on-site energy, there would be “no supply chain vulnerability”, as Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army in charge of energy security, said in 2013.

The solutions the military is looking for include microgrids and portable power. On the microgrid side, SunEdison (NYSE: SUNE ) , SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR ) , and First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR ) are all working on ideas that could create solutions very soon.

On the portable power side, progress is slower. Goal Zero, a company NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG ) bought last year, provides some small, portable solar cells, and a battery as well. SunPower has dabbled in small chargers, but so far it hasn’t made a big investment in portable power.

For the solar industry, this could be the biggest opportunity in the next five years. It’s proven that stationary energy production using the sun is possible; now that technology needs to be made portable if the military is going to use it on a larger scale. Read More > at The Motley Fool

BART to halt S.F.-East Bay service for 5 days of track upgrades – BART is preparing to halt all train service between San Francisco and the East Bay over the upcoming three-day Labor Day weekend — and the first weekend of August as well — for what is being billed as “critical track maintenance” near the entrance to the system’s Transbay Tube.

“We plan to have a substantial ‘bus bridge’ available for BART passengers traveling between Oakland and San Francisco” during the anticipated five days of service disruptions, BART Assistant General Manager Kerry Hamill said in a memo sent to Bay Area transportation agencies.

They are going to need it.

The system carried 98,000 passengers through the Transbay Tube on Aug. 30, 2014 — the first day of the Labor Day weekend. Ridership was almost identical on Aug. 2, 2014, a Saturday. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

California keeps talking climate change, but who’s listening? – The outcome was never in doubt when California’s Democratic-controlled Senate last week took up – and passed – the latest package of environmental bills to come out of California.

Still, lawmakers argued a familiar litany of points for their cause.

Legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the state’s reliance on renewable energy, they said, will create green technology jobs, reduce the health effects of pollution and guard against fluctuations in the price of oil.

For residents of this liberal state, the rhetoric was hardly new. It has been almost 10 years since then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, signed California’s landmark greenhouse gas reduction law, and Gov. Jerry Brown, his Democratic successor, has made climate change a priority of his final term.

Yet while California’s environmental polices have long served as a model for other governments, including on fuel efficiency and emission standards, the resonance of the broader climate change message remains unclear.

Most Americans believe the climate is changing, according to various polls, but double-digit percentages do not. And of those who acknowledge the problem, the number of people who think humans are responsible – or who are alarmed by it – falls much lower. In California, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last year, an overwhelming eight in 10 people view global warming as a threat to the state’s economy and quality of life, but fewer than half – 49 percent – say it is a very serious problem. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

The Quest to Engineer the Perfect Potato – A genetically modified potato that could resist destructive blight, defend itself against parasitic worms, avoid bruising, and cut down on the accumulation of a suspected carcinogen during cooking would be worth many billions of dollars per year to potato producers across the world. It could also serve as a model technology for addressing issues that affect many different crops and are increasingly likely to cause concerns about global food security as the population grows and the world’s climate becomes more unpredictable (see “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods”).

This mega-resilient potato is the goal of a new project officially launched by researchers in the United Kingdom this week. If they are successful, this would be the first potato to have all these traits, each of which has already been demonstrated in previous genetically modified versions of popular potato varieties. The five-year endeavor will be led by Jonathan Jones, a scientist at Sainsbury Lab in the U.K. and one of the world’s leading experts on the genetics of plant diseases.

The potato Jones is aiming for will contain three genes his group has shown to confer resistance to late blight and two genes researchers at the University of Leeds have found to block infestation by a tiny worm called the potato cyst nematode. It will also have DNA the U.S. company J.R. Simplot used to engineer a potato variety, recently commercialized, that has fewer dark spots and contains less asparagine, a chemical that can cause the accumulation of a suspected carcinogen during high-temperature cooking. Read More > at MIT Technology Review

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About Kevin

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