Sunday Reading – 11/01/15


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.

The future is the Internet of Things—deal with it – …Billions of other devices that defy the usual definition of “computer” are communicating over networks, almost entirely with other machines. These “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices send telemetry to and receive instructions from software both nearby and on far-flung servers. Software and sensors are controlling more of what once was done by humans, often more efficiently, conveniently, and cheaply.

This practice is changing how we interact with the physical world. We talk to our televisions and they listen, thanks to embedded sensors and voice processing chips that can tap into the cloud for corrections. We drive down the road and sensors gather data from our cell phones to measure the flow of traffic. Our cars have mobile apps to unlock them. Health devices send data back to doctors, and wristwatches let us send our pulse to someone else. The digital has become physical.

It has been only eight years since the smartphone emerged, introducing the new age of always-on mobile connectivity, and networked devices now already outnumber the people on the planet. By some estimates, within the next five years, the number of devices connected to the Internet will outnumber the people on the planet by over seven to one—50 billion machines, ranging from networked sensors to industrial robots.

Inexpensive computing power, cheap or free connectivity, and the relative ease with which new software and chips are making connecting will make it possible for governments, companies, and even individuals to collect detailed data from IoT devices and automate them in some way. It will be the things’ Internet; we’ll just be living in it.

But given the state of IoT today, that might be a bumpy tenancy if certain issues aren’t ironed out now. Security, privacy, and reliability concerns are the main barriers to a sudden arrival of some singularity where we all live as happy cogs in an IoT machine world. So how will the human social order take to a world of persistent networked everything? Read More > at ARS Technica

They Burn Witches Here – The men pack the witch’s mouth with rags. The time for confessions has come and gone. Neighbors crowd into a circle around her, here on this hill of rubbish next to their settlement, Warakum. They watch as the men blindfold her before tying her arms, legs and stomach to a log. They watch as wood is stacked and gasoline poured. They watch as their witch is pushed facedown onto the pyre. Camera phones are held up and aimed. The match is struck and thrown.

This is the consequence of rending the social fabric, of exercising divisive power, the men say to the thing in their midst. This creature at the center of the settlement dwellers is not a friend or a relative, as the crowd might have once thought. It is a poisonous weed, a snek-no-gut underfoot. Adulterers, the AIDS-marked unclean and witches such as this one—these evils must be uprooted from the community. It has been so for as long as any can remember.

The witch was a 20-year-old mother of two who had been blamed for the death of a 6-year-old neighbor boy in her Papua New Guinean shantytown in 2013. Based on his symptoms, the cause of the boy’s death was most likely rheumatic fever. But in PNG, any death that cannot be chalked up to simple old age is believed to have a malevolent agent behind it.

A group of 50 or so of the dead boy’s relatives apprehended the young mother, stripped her, tortured her and burned her alive in the settlement’s landfill, just outside the city of Mount Hagen. A number of bystanders were uniformed police officers who helped turn back a fire engine when it whined to the scene.

Witch hunts, which had been a part of many if not all traditional Papua New Guinean cultures, are now commonplace throughout the villages, townships and small cities dotting the country. Mobs are publicly humiliating and brutally torturing neighbors, family members, friends—often but not always women—and then murdering them, or else forcing them out of their communities, which in a deeply tribal society like Papua New Guinea amounts to much the same thing. Read More > in the Huffington Post

Greater than the sum of its parts – LIKE some people who might rather not admit it, wolves faced with a scarcity of potential sexual partners are not beneath lowering their standards. It was desperation of this sort, biologists reckon, that led dwindling wolf populations in southern Ontario to begin, a century or two ago, breeding widely with dogs and coyotes. The clearance of forests for farming, together with the deliberate persecution which wolves often suffer at the hand of man, had made life tough for the species. That same forest clearance, though, both permitted coyotes to spread from their prairie homeland into areas hitherto exclusively lupine, and brought the dogs that accompanied the farmers into the mix.

Interbreeding between animal species usually leads to offspring less vigorous than either parent—if they survive at all. But the combination of wolf, coyote and dog DNA that20151031_STP001_0 resulted from this reproductive necessity generated an exception. The consequence has been booming numbers of an extraordinarily fit new animal (see picture) spreading through the eastern part of North America. Some call this creature the eastern coyote. Others, though, have dubbed it the “coywolf”. Whatever name it goes by, Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, reckons it now numbers in the millions.

The mixing of genes that has created the coywolf has been more rapid, pervasive and transformational than many once thought. Javier Monzón, who worked until recently at Stony Brook University in New York state (he is now at Pepperdine University, in California) studied the genetic make-up of 437 of the animals, in ten north-eastern states plus Ontario. He worked out that, though coyote DNA dominates, a tenth of the average coywolf’s genetic material is dog and a quarter is wolf. Read More > in The Economist

Our Cities Will Be Beautiful In The Driverless Future—But First We Have To Get There – Imagine a city where cars roam free, dropping off their relaxed occupants and then sliding back into a sea of slow-moving but non-stop traffic. Cyclists weave through, unmolested, and pedestrian crossings flip to the green Walk sign often, almost magically syncing up with gaps in traffic.

The promise is seductive. You’ll never get hit by a drunk driver, a texting teen, or just someone distracted by their bad day. You’ll never have to circle the block looking for a parking space. Sidewalks will double in size because on-street parking is no longer needed outside of residential areas.

A driverless future seems more and more likely. It’s not just the success of Google’s self-driving cars, or the promise of huge environmental benefits. Today, our cars all but drive themselves already. Cruise control and anti-lock brakes have been joined by lane-detection, and some cars will put a computerized foot brakes if the car in front suddenly slows.

…Human-driven cars are one of the most dangerous things in the world today, but despite that fact we’re still—irrationally—scared of careening through the streets with a computer at the wheel.

This is false perception. Self-driving cars are overwhelmingly better drivers that humans. A robocar “doesn’t get distracted or tired, misjudge traffic conditions, talk or text on a cell phone, or suffer road rage,” says Nielsen.

And all those potential distractions are more dangerous than you probably think: In 2013 alone, there were nearly 6 million vehicle crashes in the U.S. that resulted in 32,719 deaths, more than 2 million injuries and 200,000 hospitalizations. All those deaths make vehicle collisions the leading cause of death for Americans under 34.

These are deaths we could stop. According to the AAA, government and safety experts say an estimated 80% of crashes could be avoided by self-driving cars. And this is on current roads, which are shared with regular cars. An all-self-driven city would fare even better. But people remain hesitant: Read More > at FAST Co. Exist

Robot Buses Are Coming To America, To Pave The Way For Driverless Cars – Self-driving buses are coming to America. The Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon, California will be the first place in the U.S. to use French robo-buses to ferry passengers around.

Perhaps the best place for autonomous vehicles to start out is in this kind of training ground, although given the safety record of Google’s self-driving cars, the training might be for us humans in getting used to them. It’s hard to argue that preset routes and low speeds aren’t ideal for an introduction to driverless vehicles, and that’s just what the Easymile company specializes in.

The EZ10 is a driverless bus designed for short hops. It has been deployed in Europe—in Finland, France, and is just about to launch in Spain. The electric vehicles carry up to ten passengers, and have ramps for wheelchairs and strollers. The idea is that they carry you the “last mile” of your journey, and one of their main uses is in theme parks.

To find its way around, the EZ10 uses GPS to follow a pre-programmed route, along with laser sensors to avoid obstacles. This is a much easier job than that of Google’s autonomous cars, which need to be on the lookout for vehicles, pedestrians, and all kinds of surprise hazards as they hurtle along at highway speeds. Read More > at FAST Co. Exist

States Struggle With What to Do With Sex Offenders After Prison – Behind razor wire and locked metal doors, hundreds of men waited on a recent morning to be counted, part of the daily routine inside a remote facility here that was built based on a design for a prison.

But this is not a prison, and most of these men — rapists, pedophiles and other sex offenders — have already completed their sentences. They are being held here indefinitely under a policy known as civil commitment, having been deemed “sexually dangerous” or “sexual psychopathic personalities” by courts. The intent, the authorities say, is to provide treatment to the most dangerous sex offenders until it is safe for the public for them to go home.

Yet not one of the more than 700 sex offenders who have been civilly committed in Minnesota over the past two decades has actually gone home. And only a few men have been provisionally discharged to live outside of state facilities under strict supervision…

But now Minnesota’s civil commitment program — which detains more people per capita than any other state — is facing an overhaul. Earlier this year, a federal judge found it unconstitutional, calling it “a punitive system that segregates and indefinitely detains a class of potentially dangerous individuals without the safeguards of the criminal justice system.”

…Civil commitment gained support in the 1990s amid reports of heinous sex crimes by repeat offenders. Today, 20 states, along with the federal government, detain some sex criminals for treatment beyond their prison time. But not all have been as sharply criticized as Minnesota’s program…

Yet even in a state that is often seen as liberal-leaning, changing the policy is politically fraught. Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, faced intense criticism before his last election over a plan, later dropped, to release from commitment — with strict conditions — a serial rapist who had admitted attacking at least 60 women. And proposals aimed at paying for regular risk evaluations for committed people, as well as other changes, have stalled in the State Legislature. Read More > in The New York Times

Bay Area’s transit and housing overlords move to cooperate with ‘miracle’ merger – The Bay Area’s biggest regional transportation agency is moving forward to consider a merger with the agency in charge of housing production assessments, potentially creating the region’s biggest government agency overseeing economic development and other policies.

Supporters hope the potential merger, between the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), will create a more unified planning vision for the area in the face of soaring housing prices and struggling transit infrastructure.

…MTC is a partner that oversees transit funding for major Bay Area projects, including the Bay Bridge East Span and San Francisco’s Central Subway. ABAG sets housing production goals for the over one hundred cities in the nine-county Bay Area, known as the regional housing needs allocation.

But critics say that ABAG has few tools to enforce the production goals, which most cities fail to meet. A larger regional agency that links housing production goals with transit funding could push for bigger production.

MTC’s board called the unanimous vote a “banner day” and “miracle” for greater regional cooperation, but the vote is just the first step. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

San Francisco Passes Ordinance Requiring Video Recording of Gun Sales – The lone gun shop left in SF says they are closing their doors because of this.

That would be High Bridge Arms, founded by Olympic shooter Bob Chow back in the 1950s.

High Bridge Arms said that among a variety of reasons, the new regulations helped push them to close.

The ordinance passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors includes requirement of video surveillance equipment as well as weekly reports detailing ammunition sales to police including the type and amount of ammunition.

San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell proposed the ordinances saying “I do believe our city government should be very protective and very restrictive around guns, and I’m not ashamed to say that and won’t back down.”

So San Francisco becomes a city without any over-the-counter gun shops, a rare sight actually. Read More > at California City News

What El Niño could mean for California: 5 takeaways – A Wednesday state Senate hearing dove into a topic on the mind of many Californians, examining how an anticipated El Niño surge of wetness could affect residents and force a pivot from drought preparedness to flood response.

“It’s definitely weather and climate whiplash,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher William Patzert testified, characterizing the weather pattern as “the great wet hope” that is now “too big to fail.”

While the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee hearing in Van Nuys focused on the Los Angeles area, here are some broader takeaways:

It’s all about the snowpack: Abundant rainfall would help replenish diminished water supplies, but the real drought-buster would be more snow in the Sierra and other places where melting snow feeds rivers and reservoirs. For Los Angeles, “what really matters is that we get huge snowpack on the Colorado river watershed” that would refill dwindling Lake Mead, Patzert testified. But forecasts calling for warmer than average temperatures bode ill.

“More likely than not the drought will still remain even if we receive significant rain this summer,” Salomon Miranda of the California Department of Water Resources testified.

Plenty of plain pain: One in five Californians lives in a flood plain, Miranda said, and “many billions of dollars in assets” lie in the path of potential inundation. The Sacramento area is especially exposed, and Southern California’s topography and climate makes it particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding, flash floods and tsunamis.

Communities around California are gearing up with the state’s assistance, Salomon said, with the Department of Water Resources training around 1,200 people on flood response and having sand bags, plastic sheeting and other materiel “strategically prepositioned” throughout the state. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Office desk of the future? New design shows we could all work lying down – This unique dentist chair-like device could be the office desk of the future.

Its high-tech design allows people to repel talkative co-workers in the “focus” position… or even have a little lie down after lunch.

The comfy body-length seat swivels into the most comfortable positions and your keyboard, monitor and supplementary laptop all follow it – held in place by magnets.

The Altwork Station, made in the leafy glades of Sonoma County, California, costs about £3,800 but is presently going for an only marginally more reasonable £2,550.

The company’s YouTube advert, which was quickly viewed more than 40,000 times , laments the fact that while cars, phones, computers, air travel and many other things have advanced the humble office environment is like something from the 1800s. Read More > in the Mirror

NFL fines DeAngelo Williams for raising breast cancer awareness during breast cancer awareness month – We’ve covered DeAngelo Williams and Cameron Heyward’s battle with the NFL over the Pittsburgh Steelers teammates’ crusade against cancer in great detail in this space, and last we heard the parties seemed to have an understanding with the league over what players can and cannot do to raise cancer awareness.

As with many things in the NFL, though, a handshake agreement isn’t worth much.

According to the NFL Network’s Aditi Kinkhabwala, Williams’ eye black featured “We will find a cure” and the breast cancer ribbon during breast cancer awareness month, and the league fined him $5,757 for supporting a cause near and dear to his heart. Earlier in October, the NFL denied Williams’ request to wear pink all season in hopes of continuing to raise awareness about a disease that took his mother in May 2014.

Oh, it gets more bizarre. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Williams hasn’t just been wearing “find the cure” eye black this October; he’s been sporting it for going on five years now, and this marks his first fine. Ironically, his first fine for raising breast cancer awareness comes during breast cancer awareness month. Read More > at Yahoo! Sports

Walgreens, Rite Aid Unite to Create Drugstore Giant – Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. agreed to buy Rite Aid Corp. for about $9.4 billion, in a move that would create a drugstore giant as companies across the U.S. health-care industry look for ways to bulk up.

Walgreens agreed to pay $9 a share in cash for Rite Aid, offering a 48% premium to Rite Aid’s closing price Monday.

The deal, which would unite two of the country’s three biggest drugstore owners, would be likely to draw scrutiny from antitrust regulators, who could demand divestitures in exchange for their approval.

It also adds to a blockbuster year for health-care mergers and acquisitions, helping to put 2015 on track to be the busiest year ever for M&A. Including assumed debt, the transaction is valued at $17.2 billion. Rite Aid’s debt totaled $7.4 billion in August.

Drug makers, hospital chains, health insurers and others have already struck some $427 billion of merger deals in the U.S. this year, according to Dealogic, as the Affordable Care Act and other factors spur them to seek more leverage with their suppliers and cut costs. By combining their drugstore networks, which together include roughly 13,000 U.S. stores, Walgreens and Rite Aid, which have both been pinched by drug-price inflation, could reap considerable savings. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

An American Strategy for the Internet and Cybersecurity – As the Senate finally prepares to vote on the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) legislation, it is important to keep in mind that CISA alone will not solve our problems with respect to cyberspace. A much broader strategy is needed. America is largely responsible for today’s Internet which, after creating enormous prosperity and human progress, is now being used to recruit terrorists, oppress freedom, harm our economy and threaten our national security.

If we are to continue to enjoy the web’s blessings, we will need to develop and execute a comprehensive strategy to deal with those who would threaten us in the cyber domain, just as we did in previous ages when our well-being was threatened on land, at sea, and later in the air and in space.

Today’s threats are well publicized. State and non-state actors stage daily attacks on critical information systems, stealing information and threatening damage and destruction; terrorists use the Internet to propagandize and recruit; autocratic powers use the Internet to censor and oppress. China alone is said to have hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Communist Party members working to ensure the truth cannot be “Googled” in the Middle Kingdom; Facebook is on the verge of exiting Russia altogether.

To preserve both internet freedom and security, America needs a clear strategy that should have at least four main elements. First, it should begin with an understanding that–unlike land, sea and the other domains–security in the cyber domain will often require that the private sector, not the government, take the lead. If entrepreneurs and innovators continue to define the future of the Internet, American interests and ideals will be well served. In doctrinal terms, that means government must frequently embrace a supporting rather than a lead role. In practical terms, that translates into things like curbing regulatory and other liabilities for sharing cyber threat information. In time it could also mean giving the private sector more freedom to act in its own defense. Read More > at Real Clear Defense

For the future of solar, we’ve got the tech—it’s the economics, stupid – In the US, the future of solar energy will be made in California. Earlier this month, the state’s governor signed legislation that commits California to obtaining half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. And to some extent, that future is now—the state’s utilities are working to meet a goal of one-third renewables by 2020.

…We don’t have to imagine what California’s 50 percent renewable grid will look like. Since their businesses depend on it, a number of California utilities asked a group of analysts to look into it. The organization they hired modeled a variety of different potential scenarios, including some with a diverse portfolio of renewable sources and some relying heavily on rooftop or utility-scale solar.

The biggest challenge with going to half renewables is overgeneration. The state receives power from a number of sources that simply can’t be shut down—combined heat and power systems and nuclear plants, for example. Layered on top of that are renewable sources like solar that generate power whether you want them to or not. This isn’t a problem with California’s 2020 goals (33 percent renewables) even on sunny days in the spring. But by the time the grid reaches 40 percent renewables, there could be as much as five GigaWatts of overproduction on a sunny afternoon. At half renewables, there’s a staggering 20GW of overproduction.

By 5pm, however, the overproduction is gone. As people get home from work and start the largest demand peak of the day, stored electricity and out-of-state imports have to be called into play to meet it.

The analysis found a variety of ways to limit the impact of this overproduction. The simplest is storage. California has targeted adding 1.3GW of storage to its grid within the decade, and it currently has about three Gigawatts of pumped hydro, the most economic form of storage. But given the recent drought, it’s not clear whether all of that will be available at any moment. In any case, it’s not going to be sufficient to absorb all of the overproduction, even assuming the storage was empty to start the day. Read More > at ars technica

California test scores in the cellar – California students continue to perform near the bottom of states in reading and math, 2015 test results released Wednesday show. And even when taking into account factors like the predominance of English learners and poor children, a new analysis indicates that the state would still end up in the academic cellar.

What’s sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card, a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math, painted a dismal picture of a state that insists it is prioritizing K-12 education, on which it is spending $53 billion this fiscal year. Average fourth-grade math scores place California among the worst, just one point on a zero-to-500 scale above New Mexico, Alabama and Washington, D.C. Eighth-graders performed a bit better, nearly the same as students in nine states, and above those in five states and the nation’s capital.

Just 27 to 29 percent of California students were rated proficient in the two subjects. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

City budget analyst projects Mission will lose Latino population – If current demographic trends continue, the Mission District will experience a massive decline in the number of households with children as well as the Latino population, the city’s budget and legislative analyst found in a report released Tuesday.

As a proportion of the population, the percentage of Latinos will decline from 48 percent in 2009-13 to 31 percent by 2025, and the number of households with children will drop from 21 percent to 11 percent, the report found.

Proponents of Proposition I, the November ballot measure to halt construction of market-rate housing in the Mission for 18 months, said the findings underscore the need for a construction pause to come up with a comprehensive plan to slow the displacement of longtime residents.

In September, the city’s chief economist, Ted Egan, concluded in a report that if Prop. I passed, it would lead to fewer units being available and harm the very residents it seeks to help. Prop. I supporters have criticized Egan’s methodology as flawed and say he failed to understand the goal of the measure. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Who funds California politicians? Initiative would have them wear the answer – A California ballot initiative would have elected officials wear their campaign contributions on their sleeves.

Like many disgruntled citizens, Rancho Santa Fe resident John Cox believes money has corrupted politics to the extent that “the Legislature only serves the special interests,” as his ballot initiative states. Rather than try to plug the flow of campaign cash itself, Cox is focusing on making politicians more honest about the sources of their funding.

His ballot initiative would have candidates declare their top ten donors in campaign advertisements. Once they get to Sacramento, elected officials would need to don “stickers or badges” detailing their biggest benefactors in type printed clearly enough that anyone can read them.

“It’s a very serious proposal,” Cox said in an interview, adding that he plans to campaign with cardboard cutouts that imitate the proposed badges by listing current officials’ backers. “We’re illustrating the fact that our legislators don’t work for us – they work for the people who give them money.” Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Big Beer mashes craft brews: Our view – The proposed merger of the two largest beer companies in the USA and the world, Anheuser-Busch InBev and SABMiller, is getting barrels full of attention. Perhaps too much. Most antitrust experts say the merged company would be required to preserve competition by spinning off SABMiller’s American assets, including the Miller and Coors brands.

But in many ways, the proposed merger is the lesser part of Big Beer’s efforts to reduce competition and consumer choice. The larger but less publicized story has been how major producers, particularly Anheuser-Busch, have been trying to thwart the rapid advance of craft breweries, which have grown in recent years to account for 11% of the market.

Both MillerCoors, the domestic brewery 58% owned by SABMiller, and Anheuser-Busch have been snapping up craft brewers. And Anheuser-Busch has bought wholesale distributors that in most states are the sole means for brewers of any size to get their products to market.

…But the biggest shortcoming is that loopholes in state laws have allowed breweries to purchase the distributors, defeating the very purpose of the three-tier system. If nothing else, these loopholes need to be plugged.

Along with high-quality wines, organic meat and produce, and a revolution in cooking, the craft beer movement has made American tables and taprooms far more interesting places. Big Beer shouldn’t be allowed to drop a keg on it. Read More > at USA Today

Bacon Panic + Poor Math Skills = Easy Money – Yesterday all over the web and on TV shows everywhere (even from sane folks like Jake Tapper) about the horrible terrible news that your bacon will be the death of you.

The WHO findings were drafted by a panel of 22 international experts who reviewed decades of research on the link between red meat, processed meats and cancer. The panel reviewed animal experiments, studies of human diet and health, and cell processes that could explain how red meat might cause cancer.

But the panel’s decision was not unanimous, and by raising lethal concerns about a food that anchors countless American meals, it will be controversial

That’s the Washington Post, at Yahoo they say this:

Each 50-gram (1.8-ounce) portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, the agency estimated.

A 50-gram portion would be the equivalent of eating one hot dog or two slices of bacon. Americans eat about 21.7 grams of processed pork per day, according to a 2011 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

…Question #1 matters because while most people hear the words “18% increase” and think that their odds of getting this disease have gone to better than 1-5 the reality is that means the odds have gone up 18% from what they actually were. For example if something has a 1% chance of happening if you increase the chances of that thing happening by 18% the new odds are not 19% as some would think but 1.1% (1/100) * (118/100) or 118/10000 = 1.1%

And Question #2 matters because we can’t find out what the actual new odds are for a particular event until we know what the old odds are, how will we know what number to multiply by 118/100?

…In other words, if this study is absolutely positively spot on correct eating that hotdog every single day for your entire life raises your odds of catching colorectal cancer by nearly but not quite….1%. Read More > at Da Tech Guy Blog

California’s ‘Motor Voter’ law in the slow lane – A measure that registers people to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses is expected to be a game changer for California elections, but there’s a catch.

Although California’s Motor Voter Act becomes law in January, it may not be fully in place until the 2018 elections at the very latest, said Sam Mahood, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

That’s because the Secretary of State’s Office must first determine the exact process and set protocols to securely access information from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla said officials are just beginning to compile a statewide voter registration database, known as VoteCal, a necessary step for the act to take effect. VoteCal is on schedule to be launched statewide in June.

Counties have been responsible for keeping their own voter registration databases. Now, the Secretary of State’s Office must centralize that information into a single database.

Other parts of the process still need to be worked out, including the frequency of data sharing between the Secretary of State’s Office and the DMV. Read More > in The Orange County Register

Falling highways: California roads crumble as tax fight wears on – Years before last week’s frightening collapse of an Interstate 880 overpass guardrail and chain-link fence onto evening rush-hour commuters, the state had declared the overcrossing outdated and dangerous.

But the $105 million project to replace it and an overcrossing just to the south has been slow to materialize, representative of the estimated $57 billion worth of backlogged state highway repairs and replacements that has become a subject of partisan impasse in the state Capitol.

The 23rd Avenue overcrossing was built in 1947 and looks its age. Construction of its replacement, planned since 2009, is expected to begin next year as a contractor finishes rebuilding the 29th Avenue crossing.

With gas-tax revenues drying up as more fuel-efficient cars take over the roads in California and across the nation, the race to repair critical highway infrastructure before tragedy strikes is becoming more pressing. Two people were hospitalized in the Oct. 20 collapse.

Infrastructure renewal is a nationwide problem that raises political hackles and is inextricably linked to economic health. In Sacramento and Washington, D.C., Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on how to pay for public works. Read More > in the Contra Costa Times

Rail stoppage is weeks away unless Congress acts soon – Railroad companies are warning customers that unless Congress acts fast, some freight and many passenger lines will shut down by the end of the year.

The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandates Positive Train Control – or PTC – safety systems be installed on rail lines that carry either passengers or toxic chemicals. The stoppage would affect Amtrak trains and freight that includes fertilizers and fuels in Sacramento and Roseville Union Pacific yards.

If there is no extension, railroads will have to cease some operations or face operating in violation of federal law and face millions of dollars per day in fines. Rail companies have been telling legislators for more than a year that they need more time, but so far nothing has been approved. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

$68-billion California bullet train project likely to overshoot budget and deadline targets – The monumental task of building California’s bullet train will require punching 36 miles of tunnels through the geologically complex mountains north of Los Angeles.

Crews will have to cross the tectonic boundary that separates the North American and Pacific plates, boring through a jumble of fractured rock formations and a maze of earthquake faults, some of which are not mapped.

It will be the most ambitious tunneling project in the nation’s history.

State officials say the tunnels will be finished by 2022 — along with 300 miles of track, dozens of bridges or viaducts, high-voltage electrical systems, a maintenance plant and as many as six stations. Doing so will meet a commitment to begin carrying passengers between Burbank and Merced in the first phase of the $68-billion high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

However, a Times analysis of project documents, as well as interviews with scientists, engineers and construction experts, indicates that the deadline and budget targets will almost certainly be missed — and that the state has underestimated the challenges ahead, particularly completing the tunneling on time.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority hasn’t yet chosen an exact route through the mountains. It also is behind schedule on land acquisition, financing and permit approvals, among other crucial tasks, and is facing multiple lawsuits. The first construction began in Fresno in July, 21/2 years behind the target the rail authority had set in early 2012.

A confidential 2013 report by the state’s main project management contractor, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff, estimated that the cost of building the first phase from Burbank to Merced had risen 31% to $40 billion. And it projected that the cost of the entire project would rise at least 5%. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Hurricane Patricia: Why a record storm did surprisingly little damage – Last week, meteorologists were (rightly) cranking the sirens over Hurricane Patricia. In the span of just 30 hours, an ordinary tropical storm had mutated into the most powerful hurricane ever measured, with ferocious 200-mile-per-hour winds. And the cyclone was barreling right toward Mexico’s southwestern coast.

But then … Patricia didn’t end up causing anywhere near as much devastation as feared. The hurricane hit Mexico’s coast at around 7 pm on Friday, a Category 5 storm with winds reaching upward of 165 mph. Within a day, the storm had weakened considerably, chewed up by mountainous terrain. So far, six deaths have been reported — far fewer than that from many other major hurricanes — and much of Mexico’s major infrastructure has survived intact.

So what happened? It’d be wrong to say Patricia was overhyped. A similar-size typhoon hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed more than 6,300 people. Rather, chalk it up to luck and readiness. Patricia ended up passing through a lightly populated area. And, crucially, Mexico is getting much better at dealing with tropical storms. In the past, the government had been slow to respond to hurricane threats. This time around, orderly evacuation efforts likely saved lives.

It’s a good reminder that “natural disasters” are never entirely natural. Smart preparation and effective response can often make all the difference.

…Also fortuitous: Despite its strength, Patricia was an unusually compact storm, with its most powerful Category 5 winds only extending about 15 miles out from the eye. And because it developed so rapidly, it didn’t have time to create a powerful storm surge and cause severe flooding inland.

After making landfall on Friday, Patricia wended its way inland through sparsely populated rural areas and soon hit mountainous terrain full of dry air that quickly chopped up the hurricane. Within 24 hours, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm. Read More > at Vox

Inside the first-ever Yahoo! livestream of NFL game with Bills-Jaguars – If you were up early Sunday morning to watch the Yahoo! broadcast of the Bills and Jaguars—Buffalo fans were served a huge helping of indigestion for breakfast—you were offered a glimpse into what will certainly be part of the NFL’s future. The league will no doubt create an online-only package at some point to complement its current broadcast and cable TV deals. That package will likely consist of a small number of games and while the attractiveness of those games will not be high, it will come at some point because the NFL does not ignore potential revenue streams. The Thursday Night Football package currently shown by CBS and the NFL Network has intentionally been kept to a one-year deal (with a one-year league option) so game inventory remains flexible. The NFL’s current media packages with the networks expire in 2021-22.

So what to make of Sunday’s broadcast, a topsy-turvy 34-31 Jacksonville win? Well, it was different, from an NFL Network pregame show leading to a CBS NFL game production, all live-streamed by an Internet company at no charge around the world on its web platforms. While NFL games have been streamed online for several years, this game was the first to be available primarily on the Internet. (The game was still seen on over-the-air television in Buffalo and Jacksonville.)

Anecdotally, and please don’t take this an absolute; it appeared most viewers were generally satisfied with the screen experience. I watched on both my iPhone and a MAC laptop. My iPhone picture quality was beautiful; it felt like a video game at times. The laptop quality was also high, though I often had some buffering, pixilation and lagging issues (the stream was well behind Twitter), especially in the first half. If you refreshed the stream, those lags did go away. One thing I heard often from non-Apple TV users was the absence of DVR-type controls. I also saw a lot of NFL fans, obviously used to continuous action on television, who found it unacceptable when their video paused on occasion in a way that would be unacceptable on TV. I received a number of comments from people who said that Yahoo’s stream that features team bloggers and fantasy expert doing commentary was excellent. I concur. That was a fun added feature. Read More > at Sports Illustrated

Will self-driving cars have to pass road tests? – Sivak and Schoettle don’t believe every single self-driving car will need to be tested and licensed, of course. However, as new models of autonomous vehicles are released, they should be required to pass tests that measure their vision, knowledge of traffic laws, and ability to drive in traffic before being allowed on the roads, the men say.

It’s easy for computers to learn the rules of the road; they can simply be programmed with the information contained in a driver’s handbook. Onboard computers can contain information from all 50 states, and the cars can use GPS to determine location and the state laws that need to be followed.

Vision is a much trickier proposition. It’s one thing for a human or a robot to see well on a clear day. Rain, snow, and darkness make it much more difficult to recognize objects or hazards, so, self-driving cars will also need to be tested under a variety of weather conditions, according to the researchers. (Google recently said it won’t offer self-driving cars in areas where it snows, at least not initially.)

A potential solution to the weather problem could be a “graduated” license, the researchers say. Self-driving cars could be licensed to drive in good weather, but not in the snow. Similarly, if a car has a problem seeing at night, it could be limited to driving during the day. When new technological advances are integrated into the vehicles, the models could get licenses that let them operate in any weather or at any hour. Read More > at CIO

Bay Area dream of a haven for those with mental illness is mired in chaos – Except for a lone caretaker and a goat that greets visitors in the driveway, this 10-acre Contra Costa farm sits empty, a symbol of unfulfilled dreams and promises.

Modeled after successful mental health programs around the nation, “the farm” was envisioned as a quiet place where clients with such conditions as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression could heal.

Now the project’s future is uncertain, a victim of stigma, a budget conflict and a lack of will.

…The idea was to establish housing both for people who needed only short-term care as well as the more seriously disabled who required a long-term, structured setting.

A developer and his wife purchased the land for the farm in Knightsen, a small, unincorporated community where there are nearly as many horses as people and where roadside stands advertise raw honey and organic produce. The land came with water rights, and the purchase price in 2008 was nearly $1 million.

In 2007, Bonita House, a nonprofit that provides housing and mental health treatment in neighboring Alameda County, agreed to develop and run the farm. The organization has a successful and long history of treating and housing people with psychiatric illnesses and addiction.

The backers of the project turned over the money and land, expecting Bonita House to open the farm quickly. But the project ran into opposition that they blamed on the stigma of mental illness that led to the advent of prison-like “madhouses” and “lunatic asylums.”

Some Knightsen residents worried that property values would plummet. Unmoved by assurances that Bonita House did criminal background checks on clients and did not accept sex offenders, they urged the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors to refuse to issue the permits needed to open the farm. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

S.F. homeless crisis: A ‘most beautiful’ spot turned into toilet – It could be the filthiest spot in a city where complaints about urine and feces on the streets have reached an all-time high.

While the human-waste problem used to be concentrated downtown, South of Market and in the Tenderloin, it has spread out into the Mission District, which tallied nearly 2,600 such complaints to the city’s 311 Web portal between January and mid-October — already a roughly 2.5-fold increase from 2011, when Mayor Ed Lee took office.

One L-shaped corridor between Sycamore Street, Mission Street and Clarion Alley — recently named one of the “most beautiful spots” in the city by San Francisco Travel Magazine — pulled in a remarkably high volume of calls.

At least 250 pieces of human solid waste were reported on the three blocks over the past 12 months, according to Public Works data, which include requests for service made through both 311 and internal sources. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

The Decline of the American Brothel – The brothel in which Odom was discovered is located about 70 miles north of Las Vegas in forlorn Crystal, Nevada, which one USA Today writer called “a pornographic pit-stop on the road to nowhere in particular.” The Love Ranch has been described as bland and desolate, surrounded by trailers and a junkyard. It has one star on Yelp.

The Love Ranch epitomizes the sorry state of the industry. Prostitution has been legal in Nevada since 1971, but only in counties of under 700,000 residents, which means brothels are sanctioned in just 12 of the state’s 16 counties. According to the Los Angeles Times, there are currently just 17 brothels employing around 300 prostitutes in the state. That’s down from 30 brothels in 2009, according to the AP.

Like many statistics on the sex trade, those numbers vary depending on who you ask. But the downward trajectory is clear. “These brothels are really a relic of the past,” a state senator told the LA Times. “The urban areas have an appetite to abolish them. And given the state’s rapid urbanization, there’s really little popular support left for these businesses.”

The oldest profession will never disappear completely, but its social and legal contours are ever-shifting. Sex is now easily procured online. As a long-time lobbyist for brothel-owners told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year, “I think legal, regulated sex for sale is on its way out.” Read More > in The Atlantic

Moss-growing concrete absorbs CO2, insulates and is also a vertical garden – Sustainability has always been a game of catch up. The current energy production and construction trends mean that sustainability researchers have to come up with clever ways to lower emissions.

Researchers at Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) in Barcelona have found a creative solution to a long-established emissions problem. They discovered how to cleverly build megastructures with a biological concrete that lowers CO2, regulates heat and is totally eye catching. Its surface grows mosses, lichens, fungi and other biological organisms.

Buildings with this concrete can—in regions with a calm mediterranean climate—absorb CO2 and release oxygen with micro-algae and the other “pigmented microorganisms” that coat it. These vertical gardens boast aesthetic appeal, but the biological concrete’s beauty also lies in its clever design.

The concrete works in layers. The top layer absorbs and stores rainwater and grows the microorganisms underneath. A final layer of the concrete repels water to keep the internal structure safe. The top can also absorb solar radiation, which insulates the building and regulates temperatures for the people inside. Read More > at The Plaid Zebra

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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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