Sunday Reading – 12/06/15


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.

California Isn’t Any Better at Reducing CO2 Emissions Than The Rest of the U.S. – The United Nations Conference on Climate Change currently being held in Paris seemingly has everyone focused on this issue. Oddly enough, even though they can’t negotiate for the United States (nor, are the U.S. negotiators likely to listen to them), California has a large delegation in France’s capital, including Governor Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, and a host of legislators and business leaders. Instead, they hope to highlight California’s aggressive stance on climate change to coax others to follow. Since California only emits 1% of global CO2 emissions, its efforts are useless if global action doesn’t occur. But this does raise the question of just how effective California policy choices are when it comes to reducing emissions.

It is undeniable that California has been among the most aggressive in tackling climate change in the nation. Dating back to Governor Ronald Reagan signing the California Environmental Quality Act, California’s public policy has had a particularly green hue about it. But passing laws just for rhetoric’s sake isn’t helpful (and actually could be detrimental). Policy should achieve its goals and that requires assessing its results. One would assume, given California’s aggressive anti-carbon policies, that California’s emission reductions would exceed that of the rest of the United States – especially given the U.S.’s overall lackadaisical approach to climate change. But probably surprising to most, California doesn’t perform any better.

In 2000, California emitted 381.8 million metric tons of CO2 vs. 353.1 million metric tons in 2013. This represents a 0.6% average annual decrease. Meanwhile, the remaining 49 states emitted 5.5 billion metric tons in 2000 decreasing to 4.9 billion metric tons in 2013 – a 0.7% annual average decrease. We find similar results if we assess CO2 emissions per capita and CO2 intensity of the economy, which examines carbon emissions relative to economic output. During the time period, California’s per capita metric tons of CO2 decreased an annual average of 1.5% compared to 1.4% for the other 49 states. And in terms of metric tons of CO2 per real GDP, California’s carbon intensity of the economy decreased an annual average of 2.2% compared to 2.4% for the rest of the nation. In other words, California has performed over the last decade-plus essentially the same as the rest of the country.

…Yet, while California’s aggressive climate change policymaking hasn’t yielded dividends in CO2 emission reduction, it has produced the expected downsides – making energy more expensive. For instance, California’s all sector average electricity price in September 2015 was almost 60% higher than the rest of the nation’s average price and California’s average regular gasoline price was 33% above the national average (without California) as of November 30th. Policy decisions always have trade-offs. Those trade-offs need to be understood and debated because when looking at the facts, it becomes clear that California’s war on climate change is more rhetoric than results. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

The High-Stakes Race to Rid the World of Human Drivers – The race to bring driverless cars to the masses is only just beginning, but already it is a fight for the ages. The competition is fierce, secretive, and elite. It pits Apple against Google against Tesla against Uber: all titans of Silicon Valley, in many ways as enigmatic as they are revered.

As these technology giants zero in on the car industry, global automakers are being forced to dramatically rethink what it means to build a vehicle for the first time in a century. Aspects of this race evoke several pivotal moments in technological history: the construction of railroads, the dawn of electric light, the birth of the automobile, the beginning of aviation. There’s no precedent for what engineers are trying to build now, and no single blueprint for how to build it.

Self-driving cars promise to create a new kind of leisure, offering passengers additional time for reading books, writing email, knitting, practicing an instrument, cracking open a beer, taking a catnap, and any number of other diversions. Peope who are unable to drive themselves could experience a new kind of independence. And self-driving cars could re-contextualize land-use on massive scales. In this imagined mobility utopia, drone trucks would haul packages across the country and no human would have to circle a city block in search of a parking spot.

If self-driving vehicles deliver on their promises, they will save millions of lives over the course of a few decades, destroy and create entire industries, and fundamentally change the human relationship with space and time. All of which is why some of the planet’s most valuable companies are pouring billions of dollars into the effort to build driverless cars.

“This is an arms race,” said Larry Burns, a professor of engineering at the University of Michigan and a former GM executive who also serves as an advisor to Google. “You’re going to see a new age for the automobile.” Read More > in The Atlantic

The end of Sears is ‘very near’ – Sears has been crashing for the past decade.

The retailer, which also owns Kmart, reported a loss of $454 million in the third quarter. The massive loss is the latest in 10 years of declining same-store sales.

Sears’ comparable sales declined 9.6% in the third quarter, while Kmart’s declined 7.5%.

Executives blame weak results on warmer-than-usual fall weather that kept consumers from buying items like coats and gloves. They say that the brand is investing in its “Shop Your Way” loyalty program, which offers personalized deals.

But many retail experts believe Sears is denying a darker truth: It is beyond the point of returning to its post as a major US retailer. In fact, it’s in danger of not existing at all.

Sears is closing hundreds of stores around the country. Read More > at Yahoo! Finance

Biafra May Be Staging a Comeback – Dissatisfied with Nigeria’s messy governance and the recent election of a Muslim president from the country’s north, the Igbo people are starting to talk again about reviving Biafra, the secessionist state that was repressed in a brutal civil war in the late 60s.

In Europe, nobody would doubt that Biafrans constitute a nation and have the right to a state. The Igbo population, at 32 million, is larger than 22 members of the EU. In Africa, they’ve been told they are a tribe, and in 1970 the world stood by as they were starved into surrender.

Yet even today, the thought of encouraging Biafran independence gives Africa policy wonks the hives: If one big tribe goes for independence, how many others will follow? Africa will be drenched in blood as the different ethnic groups sort themselves out. There are good reasons for worrying about this. The history of Europe from 1850 to 1950, the history of what was once Yugoslavia, the remnants of Iraq and Syria today: These all show how identity wars can plunge whole regions into terrible conflict. Moreover, the bloodshed in South Sudan shows that the dangers of breaking up African states aren’t imaginary. Partitioning Sudan did not end the bloodshed.

None of that, however, means very much to Igbos who want independence from the dysfunctional and corrupt ramshackle entity that calls itself the state of Nigeria. And this points to another problem. We all sing hymns to the wonders of diversity and to the value of cosmopolitan society these days, but multi-ethnic federations are often not very well run. That was true of the Ottoman, Russian, and Hapsburg empires in 19th-century Europe and the Middle East. Nationalist movements inside those empires thought—in many cases correctly—that a smaller state, built on the culture and language of a single ethnic group, could get better results. Read More > at The American Interest

Big data and tater tots: How Sonic chooses where to open restaurants – Fast-food chain Sonic is primarily a southern institution, but it’s not planning to stay geographically limited for long. Sonic’s working to bring more of its cheeseburgers, tater tots and roller-skating carhops to the Northeast and the West, identifying places to open new restaurants and studying predicted sales trends.

Chain restaurants have been doing this kind of work for decades – the margins in the industry can be fine, so big chains work hard to minimize the risks involved in any investment they make in new locations. In the past, according to Sonic Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analyst Bradford Zygmontowicz, that meant boots on the ground.

Companies would scout trade areas, seeing which competitors were present, how far they were from major intersections, what kinds of foot and car traffic there was, and so on. Information had to be collected and collated more or less manually.

Today, rather than an army of analysts, a combination of free government data, paid market research and heavy automation means that Sonic can do a great deal of the intelligence work on sales and expansion plans with just a few experts working at their computers.

…Zygmontowicz detailed some of the setup that Sonic uses for its analytical operations. The first part is a mapping and visualization solution called Sitewise, made by market analysis service provider Tetrad, which also operates Sonic’s private cloud.

The second major piece is a sales forecasting model provided by business intelligence consultant Intellytics, which integrates with Sitewise to provide richer data for any given geographic location, according to Zygmontowicz. Finally, the company uses a data blending and analytics service called Alteryx to incorporate information from many sources and serve as a hub for Sonic’s big data. Read More > at Network World

Women Can Assume All Combat Roles in U.S. Military, Despite Marine Corps Objections – The Pentagon announced Thursday that it will, for the first time, allow women to assume all combat roles in the U.S. military. “There will be no exceptions,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said at a news conference announcing the change, which negates a 1994 rule restricting women from artillery, armor, infantry, and other combat roles (at least officially; female soldiers often wound up in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan).

“As long as they qualify and meet the standards, women will now be able to contribute to our mission in ways they could not before,” said Carter. This includes participating in front-line combat positions and serving as Army Rangers and Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine Corps infantry, and Air Force parajumpers, jobs that were previously only open to men.

The decision to open all combat positions to qualified women—which comes following a three-year review—was supported by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Special Operations Command. Only the Marine Corps requested some exemptions, which Carter denied. Read More > at Reason

SF Housing Group Renews Call to “Sue the Suburbs” – The San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation doubled down on a pledge it made in September to sue the city of Lafayette for not building enough housing, saying they will file a lawsuit next week in what they promise is just the first volley in a longer war against suburbs that fail to construct their share of new housing.

“Lafayette is the beginning,” said Brian Hanlon, a member of the federation and part of the legal effort. The pro-development group held a panel discussion yesterday at the Women’s Building on 18th and Guerrero to review how state law might favor their legal suit against the East Bay suburb and to call for more volunteers to join the suit.

…The legal basis for the suit against the suburb comes from the 1982 Housing Accountability Act, a state law that prohibits cities from blocking higher density affordable housing without a specific finding that it threatens health and safety in an unfixable way.

“I cannot imagine a housing project that would have a significant adverse impact,” said panelist Linda Klein, a land use attorney with the real estate law firm Cox, Castle & Nicholson. Klein said the novel application of the act would be useful “up to the city council period,” meaning she was unsure of its success once a city has chosen to go through with their version of the project as Lafayette has.

The law is typically used by developers to force city approval of a project when it’s been stalled by density concerns. But Hanlon and Sonja Traus, the founder of the renter’s federation, are approaching it from a tenant angle, gathering at least 28 plaintiffs (more were recruited after the meeting) who would have been eligible for the original 315-unit complex. This will give them legal standing to sue Lafayette for “removing” units they might have otherwise lived in. Read More > at Mission Local

6 myths about Amazon Prime Air and drone delivery, debunked – The Amazon.com Inc. AMZN, +0.49% video showing the latest update on the Amazon Prime Air drone delivery program has been met with extreme skepticism since it was released Sunday night.

Many have suggested drone delivery technology isn’t viable yet, that it faces insurmountable hurdles and Amazon Prime Air is really just a marketing stunt.

But San Francisco Bay Area startup Matternet is already delivering medical goods and specimens by drone in other countries, in a process not so different from what Amazon Prime Air might look like.

The absence of laws legalizing and regulating commercial drone use is a hurdle for any company wanting to deliver by drone in the U.S.

But the technology exists, and many of the problems commonly dredged up to explain why drone delivery won’t happen soon — if ever — don’t take into account recent technological and logistical developments. Many of the obstacles people harp on are, in fact, on the cusp of being solved. Amazon Prime Air won’t become a reality tomorrow, but the “not too distant future” — as the video says — isn’t out of this world.

Amazon drones are currently advertised as being able to carry packages up to five pounds, so it’s true that the current drones being tested can’t carry much weight.

But 86% of the items that Amazon delivers weigh less than five pounds, Jeff Bezos said in a 2013 interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes”.

Drone delivery has never been touted as the service to deliver a television or a piece of furniture; instead it’s being thought of as the “anti-Costco” — a service to bring you individual items that you might need right away. The package being delivered in the Amazon video is exactly that: a pair of soccer shoes. Read More > at Market Watch

Threats to the Main Driver of California’s Economy – Since the Great Recession, California’s labor force and economic growth has been dependent on one region: the Silicon Valley-Bay Area. For instance, without the Silicon Valley-Bay Area, the Golden State’s employment growth between 2009 and 2014 and real gross domestic product per capita between 2009 and 2013 each drop about 2 percentage points. This is a 55% reduction in economic growth and a 25% cut in employment growth for California without this one region.

Relying on just one region for a significant portion of economic and employment activity places the nation’s largest state in a precarious position. But this also has problematic budgetary effects. It is no secret that California’s budget is entirely dependent on its economic health for one reason: its volatile, extremely progressive income tax system. As of the enacted Fiscal Year 2015-2016 budget, the personal income tax accounts for 67% of all general fund revenues and 49% of all general and special fund revenues. Because of the personal income tax’s reliance on capital gains tax revenue (which in California is taxed as ordinary income), this dominant revenue source experiences wild roller-coaster-like swings when the stock market and economy move. During good times, revenue overwhelmingly flows into state coffers, but even the slightest of downturns threatens to turn off the cash spigot.

And personal income taxes follow the economy and employment. Just as the Silicon Valley-Bay Area is the driver of economic and labor force growth for California, it is the cash cow for California’s treasury (again, Greater Los Angeles is presented for comparison).

First the facts: Greater Los Angeles consists of the Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Ventura counties, while the Silicon Valley-Bay Area consists of San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Santa Clara, and San Mateo counties. As of 2012, the Greater Los Angeles region’s total assessed personal income taxes totaled $24.1 billion compared to $20.9 billion for the Silicon Valley-Bay Area region. But again, Greater Los Angeles is almost 3 times are large as the Silicon Valley-Bay Area. On a per capita basis, the Silicon Valley-Bay Area’s total assessed personal income taxes were approximately 2.5 times Greater Los Angeles’. Read More > at Real Clear Markets

Climate Change Will Not Be Dangerous for a Long Time – The climate change debate has been polarized into a simple dichotomy. Either global warming is “real, man-made and dangerous,” as Pres. Barack Obama thinks, or it’s a “hoax,” as Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe thinks. But there is a third possibility: that it is real, man-made and not dangerous, at least not for a long time.

This “lukewarm” option has been boosted by recent climate research, and if it is right, current policies may do more harm than good. For example, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and other bodies agree that the rush to grow biofuels, justified as a decarbonization measure, has raised food prices and contributed to rainforest destruction. Since 2013 aid agencies such as the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have restricted funding for building fossil-fuel plants in Asia and Africa; that has slowed progress in bringing electricity to the one billion people who live without it and the four million who die each year from the effects of cooking over wood fires.

…The last IPCC report also included a table debunking many worries about “tipping points” to abrupt climate change. For example, it says a sudden methane release from the ocean, or a slowdown of the Gulf Stream, are “very unlikely” and that a collapse of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets during this century is “exceptionally unlikely.”

If sensitivity is low and climate change continues at the same rate as it has over the past 50 years, then dangerous warming—usually defined as starting at 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels—is about a century away. So we do not need to rush into subsidizing inefficient and land-hungry technologies, such as wind and solar or risk depriving poor people access to the beneficial effects of cheap electricity via fossil fuels. Read More > at Scientific American

Walnut Creek’s new mayor is Loella Haskew – The city’s new mayor for 2016 will be Councilwoman Loella Haskew, the City Council decided Tuesday.

Her colleagues unanimously elected Haskew to the post in front of an appreciative audience with many former mayors in attendance.

Political dramas punctuated the generally jovial evening. The council passed over Councilman Justin Wedel to name Councilman Rich Carlston mayor pro tem.

…In his first action this year as a regular councilman instead of as mayor, Bob Simmons nominated Carlston and Cindy Silva seconded the motion.

Wedel, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the city administration and his concerns about city spending, said he was disappointed and embarrassed by the action.

He said it was because of his policy positions, but both Simmons and Silva said they believed he had reservations about the amount of time he could devote to the job.

Wedel said he had volunteered for several extra duty assignments and called the comments regarding not having time for the job laughable.

The council, he said, was discriminating against him for having a family and a job. Read More > in the Contra Costa Times

San Diego County Facing ‘Monster’ Meth Epidemic – Despite two decades of work by a special task force designed to combat methamphetamine use, a new government report shows that the lethal drug’s popularity has reached a five-year high in San Diego County.

The county review, released Monday, shows that 4,991 people who were admitted to publicly-funded drug treatment facilities in 2014 listed meth as their primary drug of choice. The trend, officials said, is largely due to a new strain of meth that is more pure, potent and inexpensive—and comes courtesy of the Mexican drug cartels.

“The methamphetamine we are talking about today is not the methamphetamine of 25 years ago,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said at a news conference Monday. “These laboratories are producing literally thousands of pounds of methamphetamine on a monthly basis at a 96 percent purity level… The dominance of these laboratories are, without a question, the most challenging trend we are facing.”

In the last five years, the number of adults who tested positive for meth following an arrest increased from 27 to 45 percent. Among juveniles, it’s up from 8 to 13 percent. Border seizures, emergency room visits and deaths related to methamphetamine use have also reached epidemic proportions. Read More > at California County news

Long-Hidden Details Reveal Cruelty of 1972 Munich Attackers – In September 1992, two Israeli widows went to the home of their lawyer. When the women arrived, the lawyer told them that he had received some photographs during his recent trip to Munich but that he did not think they should view them. When they insisted, he urged them to let him call a doctor who could be present when they did.

Ilana Romano and Ankie Spitzer, whose husbands were among the Israeli athletes held hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, rejected that request, too. They looked at the pictures that for decades they had been told did not exist, and then agreed never to discuss them publicly.

The attack at the Olympic Village stands as one of sports’ most horrifying episodes. The eight terrorists, representing a branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization, breached the apartments where the Israeli athletes were staying before dawn on Sept. 5, 1972. That began an international nightmare that lasted more than 20 hours and ended with a disastrous failed rescue attempt.

The treatment of the hostages has long been a subject of speculation, but a more vivid — and disturbing — account of the attack is emerging. For the first time, Ms. Romano, Ms. Spitzer and other victims’ family members are choosing to speak openly about documentation previously unknown to the public in an effort to get their loved ones the recognition they believe is deserved.

Among the most jarring details are these: The Israeli Olympic team members were beaten and, in at least one case, castrated. Read More > in The New York Times

France calls for ‘enlightened Islam’ against jihadist ideology –  Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged French Muslim leaders on Sunday to develop an “enlightened Islam” to confront what he called the obscurantist views of Islamic State that lead young Muslims into violence.

At their first meeting since the Nov. 13 killings of 130 people, he told about 400 Muslim leaders, imams and activists that France would do everything it could to track criminals, but only they could win the battle of ideas within Islam.

The unusual meeting of 10 Muslim federations and five grand mosques was arranged to “cry loud and clear our condemnation of these acts,” Anouar Kbibech, head of France’s Muslim Council (CFCM), said of the massacre in Paris by mostly French and Belgian recruits to the Syrian-based Islamic State movement.

It swore allegiance to France and ended with the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. France’s five-million-strong Muslim minority, Europe’s largest, makes up about 8 percent of the population. Two-thirds of them are French citizens. Read More > in Reuters

Game Changers: An electronic strike zone? – Last July, left-hander Wander Beras of the San Rafael Pacifics threw the opening pitch of an independent league game against the Vallejo Admirals. Dean Poteet, the 40-year veteran umpire behind home plate, didn’t even flinch. In fact, he’d been instructed to hook his strike-calling thumb into his belt loop. Milliseconds later, former big league outfielder and MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes, parked at the edge of the backstop with a computer monitor in front of him, leaned into a microphone and let out a “Hyahhh.” It was the first pitch ever to be called by a computer in a professional baseball game.
Byrnes, who retired from Major League Baseball in 2010 but played a few games for the Pacifics in 2014, suggested the club try out PITCHf/x, the same Sportvision-designed, three-camera tracking system used by MLB Advanced Media in big league parks to collect data on pitch location, speed and movement since 2006. Byrnes advocates the use of the system to call balls and strikes at the Major League level.

It is a subject of much controversy in baseball, met with everything from curiosity and enthusiasm to skepticism and outrage. While nearly everyone agrees that umpires judging 100-mph fastballs simply can’t always get it right, baseball purists strongly oppose the use — or overuse, as it may be — of technology in the game.

Now that the majority of baseball broadcasts include an on-screen graphic that shows viewers where each pitch lands in relation to the strike zone, it is usually possible to discern whether an umpire gets a call right or wrong.

…MLB says it is intrigued by the technology and is tracking its evolution, but it is pleased with its current umpiring situation.

“The Major League umpires have never been more consistent in calling balls and strikes, and during a time when they are subject to more scrutiny than ever before, they do an excellent job,” an MLB spokesman said. “Technology is, and will remain, a significant part of how the performances of the umpires are evaluated after each and every plate assignment. The umpires have embraced many tools to help them achieve their fundamental purpose, which is to get as many calls correct as possible.” Read More > at MLB.com

No more league of denial: This NFL season is terrible all over – That Ravens-Browns game Monday night wasn’t rock bottom for a terrible NFL season. The quality of play in America’s dominant sports league can’t go any lower, no matter how much evidence those two teams presented to a national audience.

It was just another bad game between two bad teams led by backup quarterbacks, climaxed by another inept display that drove its loyal, long-suffering, big-paying fans to madness . And, of course, assisted by another blown officials’ call.

…This has nothing to do with Deflategate or Greg Hardy or the union or any of the other off-field problems the NFL has had to constantly navigate the last couple of years.

This is about the league entering December with 14 of the 32 teams having winning records, but only seven of them with a record more than one game over .500. It’s about 12 teams defining mediocrity, either one game over or one game under break-even. It’s about two 6-5 teams leading the AFC South, and two 5-6 teams leading the NFC East . All of this casts a pall over a season in which two teams entered Thanksgiving still undefeated, and one, the Panthers, still has a chance of going undefeated … at least in part because they play so many bad teams down the stretch.

It’s about Baltimore, the winner of Monday’s debacle, being two games out of a wild-card spot with a 4-7 record, and Dallas, which lost seven straight games and which lost Tony Romo twice to broken collarbones, being two games out of first place. Read More > in the Sporting News

Four Signs You Have a Dead-End Job – The balance of power in the workplace has begun to shift subtly from employers to employees, resulting in what the Harvard Business Review dubs a “candidate-driven” economy. That means if you’re a young professional unhappy with what you’re doing, you’re in a better position than ever to make a move.

But it’s not always obvious what a bad job looks like if you haven’t been in the workforce very long, said Catherine Tinsley, a Georgetown University management professor who researches workplace dynamics. Women, especially, are known to stay in work environments that aren’t conducive to career advancement, she said, because they are more conservative about taking job risks. Women are so aware of seeming annoying in a negotiation that some won’t negotiate at all, she said.

Tinsley has noticed that certain company policies can signal that advancement will be difficult for the average employee—and for female employees in particular. The signs she identifies can help anyone, male or female, figure out whether her daily grind will add up to a promotion or whether it’s time to dust off the résumé. Here are Tinsley’s four red flags:

Many companies have annual performance reviews only during set windows when an employee can seek a promotion (just when everyone else is asking for one), hurting your odds of getting ahead, Tinsley said. If that’s the case, creating your own timeline by meeting with your superior every quarter will alleviate the pressure of an annual performance review and help you correct mistakes sooner. “You’re putting a bug in their ear,” said Tinsley. “Touch-base meetings will give you more opportunities for feedback on what excellent performance looks like and how it will be rewarded.” Read More > in Bloomberg

California’s snowpack is deeper than last year, but more is needed, officials say – First, the good news: Thanks to a series of frosty winter storms, California’s snowpack is now double what it was last year at this time, according to officials.

Now the bad news: The amount of water actually contained in the fluffy white stuff is still well below average.

Snow levels measured statewide on Tuesday showed that water content was 56% of the historical average for Dec. 1. One year earlier, the water content measured just 24% of average.

“It’s certainly a better sign than there was last year,” said David Rizzardo, chief of snow surveys for California’s Department of Water Resources. “Anything is better than zero.” Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Berkeley Passes Strict Laws For Sidewalks, Homeless – Despite heated opposition from homeless advocates, the Berkeley city council voted Tuesday night in favor of a strict set of laws that will ban people from taking up more than 2 square feet of space on sidewalks.

The laws ban people from sleeping in planter beds, leaving any personal belongings in trees, and also tighten existing bans on public urination and defecation.

Vice Mayor Linda Maio says the rules are meant to help the homeless. Read More > at CBS SF Bay Area

Ethicists square off over editing genes in human embryos – …CRISPR-Cas9 works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.

Advocates have said the technology can speed the day that scientists can prevent hereditary diseases. Opponents worry about unknown effects on future generations and the temptation for future parents to pay for genetic enhancements such as greater intelligence or athletic ability.

There appeared to be broad agreement at the meeting that “somatic” cell editing, in which the changes are done in non-reproductive cells and are not passed along, posed few risks.

Some scientists believe it is already too late to ban any use of the technology in human reproductive cells because the technology is easily accessible and in widespread use in many labs.

“It’s just not feasible,” Debra Mathews of Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics told a news briefing on Monday.

But researchers and the growing field of well-funded start-up companies that hope to commercialize the technology are clearly worried about possible regulations. Read More > at Yahoo! News

Israel Invests in Desalinization; California Builds High-Speed Rail – California is reeling from a drought, rather like the one suffered by Israel in 1998-2002. California, with an 840-mile coastline on the world’s largest ocean, has a water shortage; Israel, with a mere 170-mile coast line, does not. Israel invests in desalinization; California is building a high-speed train at a cost of somewhere between $68 billion and $90 billion, the most expensive public works project in the nation’s history with no completion date in sight, but finds the $1 billion price tag on its first desalinization plant too high to bear, even though its 50 million gallon per day output would meet the daily requirements of something like 280,000 of the modest-income consumers now the hardest hit by the rationing system in place.

Besides, such plants have what the LA Times calls “a weighty environmental footprint” stemming from their high energy use. Better no water than more emissions, and no price too high to pay for mass transit, serving locations and on schedules specified by central planners. Oh, I forgot to mention that economist Charles Cicchetti, a long-time colleague now resident near the City of Angels, points out that California’s porous infrastructure loses half the water put into it through leaks and evaporation, an example of politicians’ preference for new attention-getting projects over mundane maintenance.

Having misallocated capital to needs less pressing than coping with its drought, California finds it necessary to ration water. Israel puts its farmers first; California allocates precious water to preserve the tiny delta-smelt, leaving thousands of acres fallow as a result. And now new regulations seem to be doing something surprising for this left coast state, home to progressive ideas. One would expect that any rationing scheme would be tilted towards meeting the needs of lower-income residents. Think again. The New York Times reports that a water user in a “working-class town” has cut her use to 178 gallons per day by, among other things, only flushing every third time, tearing out the lawn, and giving up daily showers. Meanwhile, one resident of fashionable Los Angeles Hills uses 30,000 gallons per day, “the equivalent of 400 toilet flushes each hour with two showers running constantly, with enough water left over to keep the lawn perfectly green.” Oh, yes. And the low-income consumer ($22,000 per year) was hit with an $80 fine on her most recent two-month water bill, while the water guzzlers in Bel Air easily kept within their quota. Besides, if they are fined they don’t notice it because, says Marty Adams, a senior assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (annual budget in excess of $800 million, more than 8,500 employees), “accountants or landscapers pay the water bill, and they don’t even see it.” Read More > in The Weekly Standard

Dan Walters: Our cities have become vulnerable – …Six cities made the initial list, with the most troubled being Richmond in Contra Costa County, the only one to flunk all five criteria of risk.

▪ Howle issued the list just a few days after the Richmond City Council gave its city manager, Bill Lindsay, a four-year contract extension with compensation totaling nearly $400,000 a year, more than twice what the governor is paid.

One credit rating organization has dropped Richmond’s debt to junk bond status and another to nearly that level.

“Richmond’s problems stem from a fiscally inept city council majority that continues to pile on debt because it’s unwilling to acknowledge the city’s financial plight and make tough decisions,” the Contra Costa Times editorialized.

▪ Richmond is not alone in piling on debt. State Treasurer John Chiang reported that $1.5 trillion in bonds have been issued by state and local governments over the past 30 years. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Contradictions in Tax Philosophy on Cigarettes and Marijuana – Isn’t there something odd about the tax arguments tied to the proposed initiatives on cigarettes and marijuana?

One of the arguments for raising taxes on cigarettes is to discourage their use. Raise the tax and fewer people will want to buy the product. Of course, some will seek cigarettes in the black market or online.

One of the arguments for legalizing marijuana is to tax it as a source of new revenues. No talk of using taxes as a disincentive here.

So the theory goes, taxing cigarettes might drive some people to the black market while legalizing and taxing marijuana would bring users into the sunshine away from illegal activity.

Because marijuana is not taxed now, legalizing it and taxing it will immediately bring in additional revenue. An increased cigarette tax will also boost revenue.

But if cigarette use diminishes over time then the tax revenue will fall off, especially if the new tax increase further discourages more smoking as proponents say they want. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

The Silicon Valley Suicides, why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto? – …In McGee’s third month on the job, about three weeks before Cameron’s death, a girl from a local private school had jumped off an overpass. Then, a day later, a kid who’d graduated from Gunn the year before, Quinn Gens, had killed himself on the tracks. Now it was not even Thanksgiving, and two students affiliated with Gunn were already dead.

Suicide clusters—defined as multiple deaths in close succession and proximity—feed on viral news, which feeds on social connections. McGee and the other administrators worried about vulnerable students reading too many details and overidentifying with Cameron. He had played basketball for years, so he knew people at both public high schools in town; his sister was in middle school; he seemed to have friends everywhere, and the grief was gathering momentum. Diorio had been the head of guidance at Palo Alto High (“Paly,” as it’s known in the community) in 2009 and 2010, during the last suicide cluster, but the big differences this time, she told me, were smartphones and social media. All day long, kids at Paly could get updates from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By second period many already knew it was the Caltrain, again. That day, like every day, you could hear the train from most of the classrooms, passing every 20 minutes or so. That day, one student later told me, the warning whistle seemed like the cannon that goes off in The Hunger Games every time a kid dies.

Thankfully, or maybe eerily, the school district was stocked with suicide-prevention experts: professionals from Stanford and amateurs who’d become deeply knowledgeable in recent years. After the 2009–10 cluster, the school district had put together a comprehensive post-suicide “toolkit” and trained the staff on what to do to help prevent another cluster from developing. Statistically, that had been unlikely. “Echo clusters,” meaning second clusters in the same location within a decade, are extremely rare. Gunn’s teachers were told they could have a substitute for the day if they felt too traumatized. Grief counselors roamed the school grounds, making themselves available to the groups of students who were standing around crying. Staff checked in with students who were thought to be especially vulnerable.

In training, they’d learned that one key to heading off copycats was not romanticizing the death, so they struggled to hit just the right tone. They had to avoid turning Cameron into a hero or a martyr without insulting his memory or his devastated family. They had to make a space for the kids to grieve without letting wreath-and-teddy-bear memorials take over the campus. In 2009, to commemorate Jean-Paul “J.P.” Blanchard, the first kid in that cluster to die on the tracks, students had spread rose petals all over the school. Tarn Wilson recalls them as beautiful and haunting but also morbid, and exactly the kind of prop that a depressed teenager might imagine as a backdrop to his own future tragedy. Read More > in The Atlantic

Smoking high-strength cannabis may damage nerve fibres in brain – High-strength cannabis may damage nerve fibres that handle the flow of messages across the two halves of the brain, scientists claim. Brain scans of people who regularly smoked strong skunk-like cannabis revealed subtle differences in the white matter that connects the left and right hemispheres and carries signals from one side of the brain to the other.

The changes were not seen in those who never used cannabis or smoked only the less potent forms of the drug, the researchers found.

The study is thought to be the first to look at the effects of cannabis potency on brain structure, and suggests that greater use of skunk may cause more damage to the corpus callosum, making communications across the brain’s hemispheres less efficient.

…But even with the uncertainty over cause and effect, she urged users and public health workers to change how they think about cannabis use. “When it comes to alcohol, we are used to thinking about how much people drink, and whether they are drinking wine, beer, or whisky. We should think of cannabis in a similar way, in terms of THC and the different contents cannabis can have, and potentially the effects on health will be different,” she said. Read More > in The Guardian

Amazon’s Delivery Drones: Where Will They Land? – Assuming drone developers overcome the plethora of challenges in the way of package delivery, from regulators to battery life, another question remains open: Where will the unmanned vehicles land?

Amazon is suggesting it has created a workable solution, but one that also puts the onus on customers.

In a video Amazon posted on its website over the weekend, a new drone prototype alights on a square placard bearing the company’s logo placed in a customer’s yard. After dropping a package on the landing pad, the drone ascends and the customer retrieves her package and the square.

That suggests the drone scans for the pad to distinguish where to land, so that the craft doesn’t drop on a pond, a dog or a slanted rooftop. But the video indicates the drones need more space than just a doorstop and possibly even a wide open backyard, free of trees, telephone wires or other obstacles. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Political Correctness Goes To War on American History – George Orwell once remarked that Stalin’s Soviet Union was a place yesterday’s weather could be changed by decree. America, it seems, is not wholly immune to this totalitarian impulse either. It increasingly manifests itself in political correctness, a phenomenon that is flourishing at elite American universities. Make no mistake: the authoritarian implications of this movement, as Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, should not be pooh-poohed. Quite the contrary. The tribunes of political correctness, Chait notes, “ are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first-order goal.”

The New York Times is thus featuring a story on a plot against Woodrow Wilson—or, to put it more precisely, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. A student group called the Black Justice League is demanding that Princeton University, which Wilson molded in his image first as professor, then as the school’s president, acknowledge “the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” and move to strip his name from both the public policy school and the residential college. For good measure, these student radicals want Princeton to institute courses on “the history of marginalized peoples” as well as “cultural competency training.”

Well.

Wilson, a great Progressive hero, the would-be spreader of democracy and freedom around the globe, was indeed a racist—a nasty disposition that he happened to share with a number of his contemporaries. Read More > at The National Interest

Gun Homicide Rate Down 49% Since 1993 Peak; Public Unaware – National rates of gun homicide and other violent gun crimes are strikingly lower now than during their peak in the mid-1990s, paralleling a general decline in violent crime, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data. Beneath the long-term trend, though, are big differences by decade: Violence plunged through the 1990s, but has declined less dramatically since 2000.

Compared with 1993, the peak of U.S. gun homicides, the firearm homicide rate was 49% lower in 2010, and there were fewer deaths, even though the nation’s population grew. The victimization rate for other violent crimes with a firearm—assaults, robberies and sex crimes—was 75% lower in 2011 than in 1993. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall (with or without a firearm) also is down markedly (72%) over two decades.

Nearly all the decline in the firearm homicide rate took place in the 1990s; the downward trend stopped in 2001 and resumed slowly in 2007. The victimization rate for other gun crimes plunged in the 1990s, then declined more slowly from 2000 to 2008. The rate appears to be higher in 2011 compared with 2008, but the increase is not statistically significant. Violent non-fatal crime victimization overall also dropped in the 1990s before declining more slowly from 2000 to 2010, then ticked up in 2011. Read More > at Pew Research Center

Cover-Up in Chicago – THERE’S been a cover-up in Chicago. The city’s leaders have now brought charges against a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, for the first-degree murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. But for more than a year, Chicago officials delayed the criminal process, and might well have postponed prosecution indefinitely, had it not been for a state court forcing their hand.

They prevented the public from viewing crucial incriminating evidence — first one police car’s dashboard camera video; now, we learn, five such videos in total. And these senior officials turned a blind eye to the fact that 86 minutes of other video surveillance footage of the crime scene was unaccountably missing.

The Cook County prosecutor, Anita Alvarez, must have had probable cause to indict Officer Van Dyke for the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of Mr. McDonald the moment she viewed the police dash-cam video, after her office received it two weeks later. That video, in her own words, was “everything that it has been described to be by the news accounts. It is graphic. It is violent. It is chilling.”

Ms. Alvarez, and other city leaders, surely knew they would have to indict Mr. Van Dyke for murder as soon as the public saw that footage. “I have absolutely no doubt,” Ms. Alvarez finally said last week, “that this video will tear at the hearts of all Chicagoans.”

But the timing, in late 2014, was not good.

Then up for re-election, the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, was looking ahead to a contested election on Feb. 24, 2015, which would ultimately result in a runoff election on April 7. In Ferguson, Mo., a grand jury was hearing testimony on the police shooting of Michael Brown. The video of Eric Garner being choked to death during an arrest in New York had gone viral. The Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum across the country. Read More > in The New York Times

California drought: Project to drain largest reservoir in Santa Clara County a year behind schedule – No matter how much it rains this winter, one of the Bay Area’s largest reservoirs won’t fill up.

Seismic safety concerns are already restricting the amount of water that can be stored in Anderson Reservoir, and now the discovery of new “trace faults” near the dam have further stalled a $193 million project to strengthen it.

A few years ago, state regulators ruled that the vast lake near Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County — which holds more water than the other nine reservoirs in the county combined — could not be any more than 68 percent full because geologic tests found that in a major earthquake, its 240-foot-high earthen dam could slump, releasing a wall of water that could generate a trail of death and destruction all the way to San Jose.

With the plan to shore up the dam already a year behind schedule, officials at the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which owns Anderson Reservoir, announced earlier this month that instead of breaking ground in early 2017, they now hope to begin construction in early 2018. That means work won’t be finished until 2021 or 2022. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

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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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