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.
Official: California snowpack at 136 percent of normal – The water content of the Sierra Nevada snowpack in drought-stricken California was 136 percent of normal Wednesday when officials took the winter’s first manual survey – an encouraging result after nearly no snow was found at the site in April.
The latest snow level is a good sign, “but that’s it – it’s a start,” said Frank Gehrke, chief of the California Cooperative Snow Surveys Program for the Department of Water Resources.
After four years of drought, Gehrke plunged a measuring pole into a thick field of snow in the Central Sierra, which includes Lake Tahoe. His survey followed an electronic measurement last week that put the water content of the snowpack at 112 percent of normal. Even more snow has fallen since then.
The snowpack provides about 30 percent of California’s water supply during the months when it melts and rushes through rivers and streams to fill reservoirs that remain critically low. Read More > from the Associated Press
The Year in Television: 2015 – This fall, however, prime-time TV has something close to a demilitarized zone. By mid-December, only two shows had been cancelled: Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, NBC’s “What were they thinking?” attempt to revive the long-dead variety show, and Wicked City, a creepily intense ABC cops-and-serial-killer that ran afoul of a new-found and doubtless short-lived critical burst of conscience over drama that depicts violence against women.
The shortage of quickie cancellations is not a signal that the 2015-16 TV season was a creative or financial bonanza. Actually, it was quite the opposite, without a single breakout hit among either audiences or critics.
Rather, the networks’ live-and-let-live policy is a recognition of technological changes that are shaking the industry. For one thing, the nets now have so many platforms to feed—cable subsidiaries, digital sub-channels, their own streaming sites—that it no longer makes financial sense to quickly cancel a show and lose the substantial start-up investment. Instead, the networks reduce the number of episodes they’ve ordered (typically 13) by a third and count on repurposing to cut their losses. Several low-rated fall shows that would undoubtedly have been canceled in years past—some idiotic, like NBC’s The Player and Truth Be Told; others, like ABC’s Blood & Oil or Fox’s Minority Report, the victims of bad marketing or even bad luck—instead got the trimmed-episode treatment.
More fundamentally, in the age of the DVR, overnight Nielsen ratings have lost their ability to define winners and losers. A show can be a real-time flop and a time-shifted hit; the average ratings of Fox’s slasher satire Scream Queens grew 53 percent over the three days after each episode aired.
Yet that’s not really good news for the television industry, at least in its current configuration, since nearly all those DVR viewers zap right past the commercials. That makes streaming services like Hulu, with their subscription fees and embedded commercials (that, though limited, cannot be zapped) increasingly important. And as the gaps between the screening of network shows and their release to streaming sites shrinks, cord-cutting has turned from a scary story TV executives tell themselves around the campfire to a measurable and accelerating phenomenon, with five million households departing the cable universe this year. Read More > at Reason
A California Gas Leak Is the Biggest Environmental Disaster Since the BP Oil Spill – The largest natural gas leak ever recorded is jeopardizing health and causing evacuations for thousands of Southern California residents. And two months into it, scientists and engineers still can’t figure out a way to contain the seeping gas.
It is easily the worst environmental disaster since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Tellingly, some experts who stopped that leak are working to contain this one.
For two months the leak has been spewing natural gas into the atmosphere at up to 110,000 pounds per hour. Why is it such a big deal? Although natural gas is a better energy source than coal when it comes to emissions, in its raw form this is the same climate-destroying gas that 195 countries have been trying so hard to keep out of the atmosphere, according to a report by the Environmental Defense Fund, which is tracking the amount of gas leaked in real time.
That’s not just bad news for local residents, who are suffering from headaches and trouble breathing (two schools have been relocated for the 2016 semester), it’s potentially devastating on a planetary scale. A spokesperson for California’s Air Resources Board told Mashable the leak is dumping the equivalent of “eight or nine coal plants” worth of methane into our already fragile climate. Read More > at Gizmodo
More And More Twins Are Being Born In The U.S. – In 2014, 33.9 sets of twins were born per 1,000 births in the United States, according to a new report on birth data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a very slight increase from 2013, which saw a rate of 33.7 sets of twins per 1,000 births. But, more importantly, it’s the culmination of three decades’ worth of rising twin birth rates—in 1980, only 18.9 sets of twins were born per 1,000 births, according to the CDC. What’s causing the dramatic rise—and why doesn’t the same hold true for births of three or more, the rates for which are down 5 percent between 2013 and 2014?
One reason for the increased twinning rates seems to be the increase in assistive reproductive technologies. These include fertility-boosting medications and artificial insemination, but in-vitro fertilization (IVF) is the most popular. As the average age of a first-time mother has risen in recent years—in 2014 it was 26.3, compared to 22.7 in 1980)—older moms with reduced fertility have a greater need for fertility-boosting technologies in order to conceive.
There are, of course, other factors that have led to more twins in the U.S. One may be the sheer fact that mothers are older overall; hormonal changes may make older women more likely to release more than one egg at a time. The social and biological factors that have caused the rising twin rates don’t seem likely to change anytime soon, so, chances are, the trend will continue. Read More > in Popular Science
The case against sleeping in on weekends – Every week, you’re giving yourself jet lag.
When you switch from an 11 pm to 6 am sleep schedule on the weekdays to a 2 am to 9 am sleep schedule on the weekends, you are effectively moving over three time zones. Mondays are awful because they are Mondays. But they are also bad because we’re forcing ourselves into a circadian misalignment.
This amounts to what researchers call “social jet lag,” and scientists are just beginning to learn whether it’s as bad as the real thing.
…The circadian system is the body’s internal clock. It keeps time so that our bodies can anticipate our daily actions. For instance: Our bodies expect us to eat a meal after waking up, so we produce the most insulin in the morning. We’re primed to metabolize breakfast before even taking a bite. It’s more efficient that way. And the circadian system doesn’t just prime us for food or sleep. Circadian rhythms regulate many of our organ systems and even the expression of our genes. In animal studies, it’s been found that throwing off sleep patterns can cause toxins to accumulate in individual cells.
A circadian misalignment — jet lag — means you’re eating when you should be fasting, You’re trying to sleep when you should be awake. That burdens the body, and could, in theory, be making us sick. Read More > in Vox
Santa Clara County: Tobacco purchase age rising to 21 – The new year will usher in a Santa Clara County law that officials hope will deter kids and young adults from getting hooked on nicotine by raising the minimum age to purchase tobacco and electronic smoking products to 21.
The Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance in June at the behest of Supervisor Ken Yeager, who said he hopes the county’s model will spur other municipalities into similar action. The law only covers unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County, affecting 17 retailers.
…Proponents cite research that shows 95 percent of smokers began the habit before they turned 21. They also say raising the age will curb some very young smokers, as kids in their midteens are more likely to socialize with 18 year olds than with 21 year olds. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News
A year after Congress voted to end war on medical pot, raids continue in California – When Congress effectively lifted the federal ban on medical marijuana a year ago, Californians drove the landmark change, which was tucked into a sprawling spending package by a liberal lawmaker from the Monterey peninsula and his conservative colleague from Orange County.
A year later, marijuana legalization advocates are conflicted over how big a victory the congressional vote, which was repeated this month, has turned out to be.
“The number of raids has dropped substantially, though not completely,” across the country, said Mike Liszewski, government affairs director for Americans for Safe Access, a medical marijuana advocacy group. A federal court ruling this fall, if it is upheld, would limit federal agents from targeting all but operations that are clearly flouting state law, he noted.
But in California, in particular, federal prosecutors continue to pursue cases, in large part because of flaws in the existing state medical marijuana law, which all sides agree is long overdue for an overhaul. Gov. Jerry Brown has signed three measures to clarify the state law, but those won’t take effect until 2018. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times
Samsung turns its TVs into smarthome hubs – You’ll be able to do a lot more with your Samsung television next year.
The Korean tech giant on Tuesday announced that all of its web-enabled Smart TVs in 2016 will also serve as hubs for its SmartThings platform — a way to connect Samsung’s smarthome products, such as coffeemakers, light bulbs and security cameras, to a wireless network.
That means users will be able to control various web-enabled devices through their TV sets.
Adding the functionality into TVs may get SmartThings into a lot of homes in 2016, but Samsung remains far from the only player in the Internet of Things market.
Apple is working on similar smarthome capabilities with Apple TV, and Google has similar plans with its own new wireless router. Read More > at CNBC
What Price Will Californians Pay for Decent Roads? – California Republicans and the Sacramento Bee have welcomed Gov. Jerry Brown (D) back to Sacramento from the climate change discussions in Paris. And now that he has finished, for the time being, saving the world, they are hoping Brown is ready to tackle, as the Bee put it, “the more prosaic reality of California’s miserable roads.”
California Democrats and Republicans might disagree on the cause and cure of climate change, and what Brown and the rest of his climate change compadres in Paris really accomplished for Mother Earth.
But they have agreed the roads in their state are among the worst in the nation. There is also a bipartisan consensus it is going to take billions of dollars to repair and replace those pothole-filled stretches of asphalt. However, still at question is the most important issue to settle: Who’s going to pay the bill?
It is shaping up to be a classic political battle between those who live by the edict of tax and spend, and those who would rather not. A special legislative session in the final months of 2015 did nothing but build walls between the two camps.
Both sides plan to roll out the heavy guns in 2016.
Beyond the debate over political and spending philosophies, what rankles Republicans, and many residents, the most is that California motorists pay one of the highest gas taxes in America and are still bouncing over some of the most cratered roads in the nation. Read More > at PJ Media
Bay Area Job Growth Slows After Minimum-Wage Hikes – The pace of hiring in the leisure and hospitality sector fell to a five-year low for the Bay Area last month, Labor Department data show. Job gains have slowed to less than half the rate that preceded Oakland’s and San Francisco’s adoption last spring of the highest citywide minimum wage in country.
After rising close to 5% a year, hiring at restaurants, hotels and other leisure sector venues rose just 2.2% from a year ago in November. Meanwhile, in the rest of California, where the minimum wage is generally $3.25 below the $12.25-an-hour level set in Oakland and San Francisco, leisure and hospitality employment rose 4.9%.
The data suggest potential employment headwinds from the higher minimum wage, which jumped 36% in Oakland and 14% in San Francisco. On top of that, Oakland’s minimum wage is set to rise to $12.55 in January while San Francisco’s will jump to $13 in July. Read More > at Investors
Twilight of the Headbangers – How long can the legends of heavy metal keep on rocking? – …There is a second prime, we are discovering, in the life cycle of a rock-and-roller, a madder and more precarious second heyday. The potency of early manhood passes, and its beauty is a memory. Barely a blip now travels around the once-blazing circuit of your inspiration. Your bones ache, your voice is shot, and the rags of age are upon you. But you keep going. You keep playing. And gradually this becomes the thing about you: You’re still there. You endure, you defy, and the older and gnarlier you get, the more magnificent the rebellion is. Creaking recklessly, in swaggering infirmity, you sally forth; you hit the road again and again (and again) and you give the people what they want. And now, check it out, they don’t just worship you. Now they love you.
In hard rock and heavy metal, of course, this dynamic and its attendant pathos are magnified, because in hard rock and heavy metal everything is magnified. Voices are distorted, amps are overdriven, performance is an onslaught. Volume projects power: A scream or chord, inhumanly sustained, outfaces mortality. And then there’s the lifestyle, a long-term test of the capacities. Some droop, some drop, but the music never subsides. Slayer just released Repentless, its first album without guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who died in 2013 of alcohol-related cirrhosis; now all of the band’s songs are written by Hanneman’s co-maniac, Kerry King. Iron Maiden has a new album out, too. Bruce Dickinson recorded the (characteristically soaring and outrageous) vocals with an undiagnosed tumor on his tongue. (“[They] took a scan of it,” he told the BBC , “and went, ‘You have head and neck cancer.’ So I went, ‘That’s a bit of a blow.’ ”)
…For AC/DC, too, it’s been a rugged season. Last year it was announced that rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young, 62, Angus’s brother, was suffering from dementia and could no longer continue in the band. Grotesque irony, that Malcolm, author of the most unforgettable riffs in rock and roll, should now be unable to remember them. Then Phil Rudd, the drummer whose disco-pistoned simplicity drove AC/DC from 1975 to 1983 and again from 1994 to 2014, was arrested last November and later convicted of drug possession and threatening to kill a former employee. Chris Slade is now on the drums, while Malcolm’s slot has been filled by his 58-year-old nephew, Stevie. (The Youngs are a clannish crew.) Stevie Young fits right in, presenting next to Angus a spectacle of withered and slightly vicious consanguinity. But Malcolm is irreplaceable: the huge, benign tensions he summoned on the fretboard of his Gretsch, the anti-chords called into being by his chopped super-chords, his grimly joyful face and grimly twitching body. Then again, replacing the irreplaceable is what AC/DC does. When Bon Scott, the original singer, died in 1980 at the age of 33, after choking on his own vomit in a parked car, it took the band mere weeks to hire Brian Johnson and start recording Back in Black. Read More > in The Atlantic
Windows 10 covertly sends your disk-encryption keys to Microsoft – There’s no way to turn off the “recovery” feature that sends your disk encryption keys to Microsoft by default, without notice — though you can (and should) ask Microsoft to forget the keys later.
The new disk encryption protocol in Windows 10 is in stark contrast with Microsoft’s Bitlocker product, a hardcore, Fed-infuriating full-disk encryption system that allows you to decide whether or not to escrow your keys with Microsoft.
Windows 10 has many unprecedented anti-user features: a remote killswitch that lets it disable your hardware; keylogging and browser-history logging that, by default, sends it all to Microsoft, and a deceptive “privacy mode” that continues to exfiltrate your data, even when you turn it on. Read More > at boingboing