Sunday Reading – 12/20/15


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.

Rise Of The Self-Driving Car—And The Next Platform Holy WarAutonomous vehicles will radically change lives. No wonder everyone wants in. – There are many potential long-term benefits to self-driving cars—ranging from environmental, safety, health, family-life balance, geopolitical and overall economic benefits.

The safety benefits will likely be material, as this will result in fewer accidents. Fewer accidents would result in less traffic and, in turn, less pollution; the environmental benefit then would be significant.

The economic benefits may be noteworthy as well—even potentially as deflationary as Amazon Web Services is today, or the fall of the Berlin Wall was in 1989. If we spend less money on fuel and repairs, then we can be less reliant on the oil sector.

…Self-driving cars may be the ultimate time creator, offering benefits both direct and indirect. They may allow us more time to spend with our families, exercising or sleeping. The result is a more balanced, healthy and happy existence. Anybody who disagrees should spend try driving in Los Angeles during rush hour.

…With so many benefits at stake, it seems like a certainty that we’ll see a software startup gold rush before long. Companies are likely to duke it out to develop the hottest auto operating system and apps to run on it. Read More > at readwrite

California’s taxable property passes $5 trillion – The value of all taxable real estate in California has surpassed $5 trillion, according to the state Board of Equalization.

The total for the 2015-16 tax roll, $5.2 trillion, is a 5.9 percent increase from the previous year’s $4.9 trillion and should generate about $57.3 billion in property taxes for schools and local governments, roughly $3 billion more than the current year’s levies. The state government also benefits because increases in school property taxes reduce the legal requirement for state aid.

All but two of the state’s 58 counties recorded gains with Kern County’s 8.6 percent decline the most noteworthy, due largely to reductions in value of the county’s underground oil deposits, which mirror a steep drop in global oil prices. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Highway robbery: Bay Area carpool cheats on the rise – Few things infuriate Bay Area commuters like carpool cheaters — those impatient and distasteful drivers who glance in the mirror to make sure no cops are watching before pulling into the fast lane without the requisite number of passengers. They speed up, while legitimate diamond-laners are slowed, and they usually don’t get caught.

As traffic worsens, drivers say this form of highway robbery is on the rise — and California Highway Patrol figures suggest they may be right.

Five years ago, the CHP issued 17,375 tickets to carpool lane violators on Bay Area roadways, according to agency records. Last year, the number climbed to 19,842, and this year the CHP is on pace to hand out more than 21,000 citations for the illegal rides — or about 80 per weekday. The rise comes as several other types of citations have fallen.

Still, it’s clear that only a fraction of offenders get busted.

An unscientific survey by a pair of Chronicle reporters on two recent mornings on westbound Interstate 80 near Berkeley — where traffic often slows from a crawl to a standstill — found a shocking mass of offenders that tended to surge and ebb as congestion shifted the balance between risk and reward.

Carpoolers on this stretch of I-80 need three people to qualify — two in a pickup truck — or a special access sticker granted to low-emission autos.

But multiple counts of vehicles in the diamond lanes between 8:15 and 9:45 a.m. found violation rates ranging from 18 to 41 percent. During most of the counts, a quarter to a third of the drivers in the carpool lanes appeared to be there illegally. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Wild Horses Are Terrible for the West – Horses, particularly wild ones, seem to embody freedom and strength. Mustang and stallion are words that capture the human imagination as icons of the untamed. When the U.S. Forest Service proposed removing a herd from Arizona’s Salt River wildlife refuge, a Change.org protest helped stop it, invoking the natural beauty that horses offer visitors.

This romanticizing is a serious environmental challenge. Horses in North America are not symbolic of wilderness; they are human introductions no more native to this continent than Norway rats.

North America’s wild horses are the feral descendants of animals brought by Europeans in the past few hundred years. Biologically speaking, this is the blink of an eye, far too short a time for horses to be considered native. More importantly, that’s much too short for native North American plants and animals to adapt to the pressures of coexistence.

Grasslands are protected by “biotic crusts” that consist of loose soil held together by tiny cyanobacteria, lichens, mosses, and green algae. They serve as a fragile glue that keeps desert soils from being washed or blown away. But these crusts are pulverized by horses, leading to poor water absorption, reduced fertility, and long-lasting environmental damage. Grasslands are disappearing as wild horse hooves crush biotic crusts, encouraging erosion that leaves wide swaths permanently degraded, replaced with barren rock

Furthermore, wild horses compete with native grazers (as well as cattle) for limited forage and water. As wild horse populations surge past the 47,000 now thundering across 31.6 million acres of public land, they threaten the survival of native species, exacerbating the impacts of climate change and habitat fragmentation. Read More > in Slate

Lettuce is ‘three times worse than bacon’ for emissions and vegetarian diets could be bad for environment – Eating a healthier diet rich in fruit and vegetables could actually be more harmful to the environment than consuming some meat, a US study has claimed.

Lettuce is “over three times worse in greenhouse gas emissions than eating bacon”, according to researchers from the Carnegie Mellon University who analysed the impact per calorie of different foods in terms of energy cost, water use and emissions.

Published in the Environment Systems and Decisions journal, the study goes against the grain of recent calls for humans to quit eating meat to curb climate change.

Researchers did not argue against the idea people should be eating less meat, or the fact that livestock contributes to an enormous proportion of global emissions – up to 51 per cent according to some studies.

But they found that eating only the recommended “healthier” foods prescribed in recent advice from the US Department of Agriculture increased a person’s impact on the environment across all three factors – even when overall calorie intake was reduced. Read More > in the Independent

Who is Having a Worse Year — VW or Chipotle? – As 2015 fades to black, Volkswagen and Chipotle Mexican Grill probably wish they could get a do-over. Both brands suffered through PR crises this year that have taken a serious toll on consumer perception and whose fallout will likely persist into 2016.

But which company fared worse?

Volkswagen — which is still coming to grips with an emissions-cheating scandal that broke in September — saw its consumer perception score plummet from a score of 10 on the day the news broke to a low of -50 on Oct. 2, according to the YouGov BrandIndex, which tracks daily consumer perception. The automaker’s score stood at -24 as of late last week.

Chipotle, which is dealing with a pair of illness outbreaks linked to its food, coincidentally also had a score of 10 on the day its bad news broke. But the restaurant chain has not fallen as far as VW, at least not yet. Its score dropped to a low of -26 on Nov. 8 with a score of -13 as of late last week, according to YouGov.

Of course, Chipotle is reeling from more recent news that began circulating early last week of a norovirus outbreak linked to a Chipotle restaurant near Boston College that had sickened 141 students, according to media reports last week. That came after an E. coli outbreak that began in October that affected 52 people from nine U.S. states, including 47 people who said they ate at a Chipotle restaurant. The outbreak contributed to a same-store sales decline of 16% in November. Read More > at Advertising Age

Gangs and Politicians in Chicago: An Unholy Alliance – A few months before last February’s citywide elections, Hal Baskin’s phone started ringing. And ringing. Most of the callers were candidates for Chicago City Council, seeking the kind of help Baskin was uniquely qualified to provide.

Baskin isn’t a slick campaign strategist. He’s a former gang leader and, for several decades, a community activist who now operates a neighborhood center that aims to keep kids off the streets. Baskin has deep contacts inside the South Side’s complex network of politicians, community organizations, and street gangs. as he recalls, the inquiring candidates wanted to know: “Who do I need to be talking to so I can get the gangs on board?”

…During the meetings, the politicians were allotted a few minutes to make their pitches. The former gang chiefs then peppered them with questions: What would they do about jobs? School safety? Police harassment? Help for ex-cons? But in the end, as with most things political in Chicago, it all came down to one question, says Davis, the community activist who helped Baskin with some of the meetings. He recalls that the gang representatives asked, “What can you give me?” The politicians, most eager to please, replied, “What do you want?”

Street gangs have been a part of Chicago politics at least since the days of the notorious First Ward bosses “Bathhouse John” Coughlin and Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna, who a century ago ran their vice-ridden Levee district using gangs of toughs armed with bats and pistols to bully voters and stuff ballot boxes. “Gangs and politics have always gone together in this city,” says John Hagedorn, a gang expert and professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s a shadowy alliance, he adds, that is deeply ingrained in Chicago’s political culture: “You take care of them; they’ll take care of us.”

To what extent do street gangs influence—and corrupt—Chicago politics today? And what are the consequences for ordinary citizens? To find out, Chicago conducted more than 100 interviews with current and former elected officials and candidates, gang leaders, senior police officials, rank-and-file cops, investigators, and prosecutors. We also talked to community activists, campaign operatives, and criminologists. We limited our scope to the city (though alliances certainly exist in some gang-infested suburbs) and focused exclusively on Democrats, since they are the dominant governing party in Chicago and in the statehouse. Read More > at Chicago Magazine

Asteroid to pass Earth on Christmas Eve – A large asteroid is approaching the Earth-moon system and will provide a good opportunity for radar observations in the days ahead. Asteroid 163899 – also known as 2003 SD220 – will come closest to Earth on Christmas Eve (December 24, 2015). It’ll pass at a safe distance, and there’s no need to worry about reports claiming it will skim the Earth, or cause earthquakes. At its closest, asteroid 2003 SD220 will be some 6,787,600 miles (11 million km) from our planet’s surface. That’s more than 28 times the Earth-moon distance! It’s so far away that only professional and advanced amateur astronomers are likely to capture optical images of this space rock.

Don’t believe any media suggesting that this space rock may cause earthquakes. Those assertions are misleading and incorrect. Even if 2003 SD220 were passing closer, it’s doubtful earthquakes would result. In fact, there’s no scientific evidence that an asteroid’s flyby can cause any seismic activity, unless it collides with Earth, but – in this case – that clearly will not be the case.

This asteroid isn’t a newly discovered object. Its name – 2003 SD220 – indicates its discovery year. The Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS) program in Flagstaff, Arizona discovered the asteroid on September 29, 2003. Read More > at EarthSky

People who are really good at swearing have an important advantage – Those who are liberal in their use of swear words are not the lazy and uneducated individuals they are often made out to be, a new study claims.

In fact, a well-stocked vocabulary of swear words is actually a healthy indicator of other verbal abilities.

Writing in the Language Sciences journal, US-based psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay, dismiss the long-held belief that swearing is a sign of inarticulateness.

Working with the “poverty of vocabulary” concept (the assumption that people swear because they lack the intellectual capacity to find another way to express themselves) their experiment aimed to find out whether those more fluent in the art of swearing are less fluent in other forms of vocabulary.

Using students as research subjects the psychologists then asked their participants to say as many different swear words as they could think of in 60 seconds. Other non-swearing tasks such as saying as many animal names in the same space of time were also set to compare the findings.

The results found that volunteers who could produce the greatest quantity of swear words could also produce the most words in other categories. If the “poverty of vocabulary” explanation was true then the opposite should have been the case. Read More > in The Independent

Raiders now serve as better rep for Bay Area fans than 49ers – There is no longer any reason to be annoyed by the San Francisco 49ers, but there is growing reason to be completely baffled by the Oakland Raiders.

In other words, the difference between a genuinely bad team and a tantalizingly mediocre one is now clear.

The 49ers are easy to understand. They win rarely, when they do it is a surprise, and when they do not, it’s because they have been roughly handled – yes, even by teams as chemical spill-y as the Cleveland Browns. Any positive narratives you might construct about them are now revealed to be fraudulent promises of something that cannot reasonably be.

In other words, if you want to have hope between now and the end of the season, your delusions are yours alone, and when you find people backing away from you slowly, you’ll know the reason. They lost, 24-10, and were lucky it wasn’t far worse.

As for the Raiders, their 15-12 victory over the Denver Broncos came because their richly maligned defense played one of its best games in years, and because the on-again, off-again linebacker Khalil Mack had the game of his career…

But they are capable of entertainment, skilled at making fans long beaten down think of a rosier future (even if it happens to be in another city, which remains a very open question a month before the next owners meetings). Read More > at CSN Bay Area

COP21: Climate obstacles emerge within hours – …The agreement’s goals include driving down carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels as soon as possible in order to limit global warming to “well below” 2C from pre-industrial times and perhaps as little as 1.5C, a target requiring much deeper emissions cuts than most countries are currently planning.

Amber Rudd, the UK energy and climate change secretary, described the 1.5C goal as merely “aspirational” while defending the UK government’s decision last month to scrap £1bn in funding for carbon capture systems that could hold emissions down. “I don’t think it was a mistake,” she said. “They are still expensive.”

Benjamin Sporton, head of the World Coal Association, said he did not see the new agreement spurring a “massive change at the moment” for companies that produce coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, because so many developing countries still plan to keep burning it.

…In the US, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, questioned the Paris deal, saying that the US portion relied on measures championed by President Barck Obama that were being challenged in the courts.

“Before his international partners pop the champagne, they should remember that this is an unattainable deal based on a domestic energy plan that is likely illegal, that half the states have sued to halt, and that Congress has already voted to reject,” Mr McConnell said.

…Still, many scientists questioned the prospect of governments being able to reach either the 2C or 1.5C goal in the Paris Agreement, saying it was premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere many decades from today.

“If such highly speculative ‘negative emission technologies’ prove to be unsuccessful then the 1.5C target is simply not achievable,” said Prof Kevin Anderson of Manchester University. “Moreover, there is only a slim chance of maintaining the global temperature rise to below 2C.” Read More > in The Financial Times

How to Fix College Admissions – …In its simplest version, the process would work like this. The application would involve a checklist of more or less objective, externally verifiable criteria. These might include GPA above a certain cutoff, scores of 4 of 5 on a given number of AP tests, and so on. Extracurricular achievements could be considered. For example, there might be a box to be checked by applicants who played a varsity sport. The application could even ask about socio-economic status, allowing applicants to indicate that their parents had not attended college or that they grew up in a high-poverty census tract.

Suppose the checklist contained ten criteria. Applicants who satisfied, say, six of them would be entered into a lottery for admission. Universities would then draw an appropriate number of admits. The whole exercise would take about two seconds.

In addition to its appealing transparency, a lottery would be extremely cheap. Under this plan, universities wouldn’t have to maintain a large and highly paid admissions office. All they’d need would be a good website on which applicants could enter their information and a few IT workers to manage the database.

…What about diversity? In the long run, the lottery would produce a student body proportional to the demographics of the applicant pool (which would not necessarily be the same as the general population). Read More > at The American Conservative

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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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One Response to Sunday Reading – 12/20/15

  1. Great stuff here! The lettuce, the swearing … love it!

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