Sunday Reading – 01/31/16


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.

Las Vegas Sands proposes $1B domed stadium; Adelson to meet with Raiders owner – Casino giant Las Vegas Sands Corp. will lead a consortium of investors planning to build a $1 billion domed stadium on 42 acres near the University of Nevada, Las Vegas that would house the school’s football team — and possibly a National Football League franchise.

Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands’ senior vice president of government relations and community development, said Thursday that Las Vegas needs a modern stadium with at least 65,000 seats to drive additional tourism to Southern Nevada.

Mark Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, is scheduled to meet with Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson, and team representatives are expected to tour the site Friday.

The NFL earlier this month rejected a Raiders move to Los Angeles. Abboud said Las Vegas Sands also has had conversations with officials from other NFL teams. Read More > in the Las Vegas Review Journal

Inside Facebook’s Decision to Blow Up the Like Button – The most drastic change to Facebook in years was born a year ago during an off-site at the Four Seasons Silicon Valley, a 10-minute drive from headquarters. Chris Cox, the social network’s chief product officer, led the discussion, asking each of the six executives around the conference room to list the top three projects they were most eager to tackle in 2015. When it was Cox’s turn, he dropped a bomb: They needed to do something about the “like” button.

The like button is the engine of Facebook and its most recognized symbol. A giant version of it adorns the entrance to the company’s campus in Menlo Park, Calif. Facebook’s 1.6 billion users click on it more than 6 billion times a day—more frequently than people conduct searches on Google—which affects billions of advertising dollars each quarter. Brands, publishers, and individuals constantly, and strategically, share the things they think will get the most likes. It’s the driver of social activity. A married couple posts perfectly posed selfies, proving they’re in love; a news organization offers up what’s fun and entertaining, hoping the likes will spread its content. All those likes tell Facebook what’s popular and should be shown most often on the News Feed. But the button is also a blunt, clumsy tool. Someone announces her divorce on the site, and friends grit their teeth and “like” it. There’s a devastating earthquake in Nepal, and invariably a few overeager clickers give it the ol’ thumbs-up.

Changing the button is like Coca-Cola messing with its secret recipe. Cox had tried to battle the like button a few times before, but no idea was good enough to qualify for public testing.

…The solution would eventually be named Reactions. It will arrive soon. And it will expand the range of Facebook-compatible human emotions from one to six. Read More > at Bloomberg Business

France is going to build more than 600 miles of solar-paneled roadways – As an Idaho couple continues to develop their crowdfunded solar roadway prototype, France is now leaping ahead with its own solar roadway project.

Last week, the country’s minister of ecology and energy, Ségolène Royal, announced the government would pave 621 miles (1,000km) of road — about the distance from Boston to Cleveland—with photovoltaic panels in the next five years, Global Construction Review reported.

The project aims to supply electricity to 5 million people—about 8% of France’s population.

The first test panels will be constructed this spring. They’re being produced by a French company called Colas, which is calling the project Wattway. The panels are composed of stacked photovolatic cells that “ensure resistance and tire grip.” They also don’t require destruction of existing roadways; instead, they can simply be added on to them.

Both the Idaho and French projects will be months behind the first active solar roadway, unveiled in the Netherlands, which opened in November. Read More > at Fusion

Deadly threat to citrus prompts quarantines in Bay Area – An insect pest that is threatening the historic orange and lemon groves of Southern California has begun moving into the Bay Area, where it could kill backyard citrus trees of every variety.

Known as the Asian citrus psyllid (pronounced sill-id), the insects were detected in Daly City and Pacifica three months ago. Some 64 square miles of San Francisco and San Mateo County, and 173 square miles around San Jose and southern Alameda County, are now quarantined to prevent the citrus trees or their leaves and branches from being moved out of the area.

…The insects and the bacteria they carry are harmless to humans and animals, but they swiftly destroy all types of citrus: orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangerine and mandarin, as well as kumquats and pomelos, which citrus gardeners often graft onto their trees. The bacterial disease causes the tree’s leaves to turn yellow and its fruit to be distorted and bitter tasting.

“There is no cure, and once infected, a tree will die,” Hornbaker said.

There have been no reports of psyllids north of San Francisco, Hornbaker said. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

The Unexpected Return of ‘Duck and Cover’ – Sixty years ago, in 1951, Ray Maurer and Anthony Rizzo produced a film for the federal government’s Civil Defense agency in response to Soviet nuclear tests. Featuring an animated turtle named Bert and real-life schoolchildren from New York, the film, Duck and Cover, became an icon of the Cold War, seen by many as evidence of the absurdity of the government’s response to the nuclear threat. Against the threat of a nuclear attack, how much good would diving under a desk really do? Originally aimed at teaching children how to respond to a surprise nuclear strike, by the 1980s Duck and Cover was a piece of 1950s kitsch, mocked in such anti-nuclear films as The Atomic Cafe.

But now “duck and cover” is back, not as kitsch but once again as serious advice from the federal government. Faced with growing concerns about a nuclear attack on one or more major cities — this time from terrorists, or bombs smuggled instead of dropped by countries like Iran or North Korea — authorities are once again looking to educate citizens about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. And that advice sounds a lot like what they were saying in my grandfather’s day: Duck and cover.

So was the advice crazy back then, and is it crazy now? The answers are “probably not,” and “no.” The snark, though understandable, is misplaced.

Even short-term sheltering (a day or two) before attempting to evacuate the area will dramatically increase the number of survivors. The difficulty, as the planning document puts it, will be overcoming people’s “natural instincts to run from danger and reunify with family members.” Overcoming those instincts will require preparation and education on the part of public health and school authorities. Read More > in The Atlantic

30 years later, Challenger widow tells her story – “I often say that we were tremendously excited, the whole bunch of us were tremendously excited that we were kind of on this major interstate highway moving toward the heavens,” says June Scobee Rodgers, remembering Jan. 28, 1986, the day her husband, Cmdr. Dick Scobee, boarded the Challenger space shuttle.

“And then this terrible, numbing accident happened,” she says. “And he just kept on going toward heaven. And he left me dangling at the edge of that highway.”

Thirty years later, memories of the launch still bring Scobee Rodgers to tears. The seasoned NASA wife stood alongside civilian Steven McAuliffe, whose wife, Christa McAuliffe, was participating in the mission as the first teacher in space. They both had their children by their sides.

“The most memorable for me, and I’ve never spoken about it, but now that he’s so much older I think I can,” says Scobee Rodgers. “[Their son] Scott McAuliffe sat at the window with his nose against that window, waiting for the launch. And he wouldn’t move. That little boy stood there, glued.”

But within 73 seconds of takeoff, Scobee Rodgers and Steven McAuliffe — and the rest of America — could plainly see that something had gone terribly wrong. The shuttle exploded into two ghastly smoke streams in the air, and the families watching in shock in Cape Canaveral, Fla., tried to tell each other that perhaps their loved ones had survived. But within an hour, it was official: No one in the Challenger Seven was alive. Read More > at Yahoo! News

Big Zika Virus Outbreak Unlikely In The U.S., Officials Say – The outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil and other countries has raised concern that the pathogen could start spreading widely in the United States as well. But federal health officials and other infectious disease specialists say so far that seems unlikely.

“Based on what we know right now, we don’t think that widespread transmission in the United States is likely,” says Dr. Beth Bell, director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are several reasons for Bell’s cautious optimism that isolated cases that show up in the U.S. could be contained. The first is that the two species of mosquitoes that could be capable of transmitting the virus, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, live mostly in the southern, more tropical parts of the U.S. That makes it likely that transmission would be limited primarily to these areas. And for various reasons, the chain of events and conditions the virus needs in order to spread is more easily disrupted in the U.S. than elsewhere.

…Bell says she doubts Zika would fan out across the U.S. in the way that West Nile virus has spread. For one thing, West Nile is primarily transmitted by a different type of mosquito — one that is found throughout the country. Also, birds can be infected with West Nile and carry it from place to place. That doesn’t happen with Zika virus, which has no known bird or animal reservoir. Read More > at KQED

$74 billion tab looms for state’s retiree health costs through 2045 – California faces a $74.1 billion obligation to cover state retirees’ medical expenses over the next three decades, according to a new report released by state Controller Betty Yee.

The figure, which captures unfunded retiree health care costs as of mid-2015, grew nearly $2.4 billion from the year before. It does not account for the impact of future inflation.

Still, the increase was $1.5 billion less than actuaries anticipated a year earlier. Insurance claims grew more slowly than expected, while changes to how health care is delivered and assumptions about long-term trends lowered the liability by $1.76 billion, actuaries estimated. Against that, demographic shifts among retirees added more than $250 million to the debt figure.

The state pays retiree medical expenses as they come up, about $1.9 billion for the current fiscal year. But since the pay-as-you-go policy doesn’t set aside anything for promised benefits, the annual costs increase as more state employees retire and need health care. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Bullet train chairman projects lower cost, longer timeline – …The 2014 business plan said the first 520-mile phase linking the San Francisco Bay Area to greater Los Angeles would be finished in 2028, but construction has been beset by delays in acquiring land needed for the first segment in the Central Valley and by slow-going environmental approvals.

The head of an independent review group tasked with overseeing the rail agency’s planning said even though it considers California’s projections “state of the art,” no one really knows how much the rail system will end up costing.

“No one should tell you now that the number is going to be 67 or 43 or anything like that. Nobody knows,” said Louis Thompson, chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group. “There is a range of variation and we have to understand that that’s what we’re working with.” Read More > from the Associated Press

Harvard: eat more food to lose weight…as long as its fruit – It might seem like the last thing dieters should do, but eating more could be the key to losing weight.

Scientists at Harvard University found that upping daily intake of fruit actually prevents weight gain, even when eating the same amount of calories.

Researchers say it is all to do with flavonoids, naturally occurring compounds which occur in fruits and vegetables which have been linked to weight loss.

…Figures showed that increasing levels of anthocyanins, flavonoid polymers and flavonols – which are found mainly in blueberries, strawberries, apples, pears and oranges – had the greatest overall impact. Tea and onions were also beneficial. Read More >  in The Telegraph

Why the Calorie Is Broken – Calories consumed minus calories burned: it’s the simple formula for weight loss or gain. But dieters often find that it doesn’t work. The calorie is broken—and this is why.

…Nash and Haelle are in good company: more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. For many of them, the cure is diet: one in three are attempting to lose weight in this way at any given moment. Yet there is ample evidence that diets rarely lead to sustained weight loss. These are expensive failures. This inability to curb the extraordinary prevalence of obesity costs the United States more than $147 billion in healthcare, as well as $4.3 billion in job absenteeism and yet more in lost productivity.

At the heart of this issue is a single unit of measurement–the calorie–and some seemingly straightforward arithmetic. “To lose weight, you must use up more calories than you take in,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dieters like Nash and Haelle could eat all their meals at McDonald’s and still lose weight, provided they burn enough calories, says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Really, that’s all it takes.”

But Nash and Haelle do not find weight control so simple. And part of the problem goes way beyond individual self-control. The numbers logged in Nash’s Fitbit, or printed on the food labels that Haelle reads religiously, are at best good guesses. Worse yet, as scientists are increasingly finding, some of those calorie counts are flat-out wrong–off by more than enough, for instance, to wipe out the calories Haelle burns by running an extra mile on a treadmill. A calorie isn’t just a calorie. And our mistaken faith in the power of this seemingly simple measurement may be hindering the fight against obesity.

…All of these factors introduce a disturbingly large margin of error for an individual who is trying, like Nash, Haelle and millions of others, to count calories. The discrepancies between the number on the label and the calories that are actually available in our food, combined with individual variations in how we metabolise that food, can add up to much more than the 200 calories a day that nutritionists often advise cutting in order to lose weight. Nash and Haelle can do everything right and still not lose weight.

None of this means that the calorie is a useless concept. Inaccurate as they are, calorie counts remain a helpful guide to relative energy values: standing burns more calories than sitting; cookies contain more calories than spinach. But the calorie is broken in many ways, and there’s a strong case to be made for moving our food accounting system away from that one particular number. It’s time to take a more holistic look at what we eat. Read More > at Gizmodo

Billions spent, but fewer people are using public transportation in Southern California – For almost a decade, transit ridership has declined across Southern California despite enormous and costly efforts by top transportation officials to entice people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the region’s largest carrier, lost more than 10% of its boardings from 2006 to 2015, a decline that appears to be accelerating. Despite a $9-billion investment in new light rail and subway lines, Metro now has fewer boardings than it did three decades ago, when buses were the county’s only transit option.

Most other agencies fare no better. In Orange County, bus ridership plummeted 30% in the last seven years, while some smaller bus operators across the region have experienced declines approaching 25%. In the last two years alone, a Metro study found that 16 transit providers in Los Angeles County saw average quarterly declines of 4% to 5%.

Years after the end of the worst recession since World War II, which prompted deep service cuts, transit agencies are still trying to figure out where their riders have gone and what can be done to bring them back, including major changes to routes and schedules.

Officials say ridership is cyclical and customers will return as traffic congestion worsens, bus service improves, new rail lines open and more of the region’s population moves to walkable neighborhoods near transit stops.

But some experts say the downturn could represent a permanent shift in how people get around, propelled by a changing job market, falling gas prices, fare increases, declining immigration and the growing popularity of other transportation options, including bicycling and ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

We Already Know Who Lost The Super Bowl – The city of San Francisco, already facing a deficit, is realizing two weeks before the big game that Super Bowl festivities will leave them with more than $4.3 million in costs.

To cover it, a city analysis shows, the mayor’s office has asked departments to identify million in surplus moneys, or to redirect staff time and other resources from projects to support the Super Bowl.

The departments have found the surpluses, the analysis found, and that’s not good news –because they weren’t supposed to have surpluses, at least according to what they told the Board of Supervisors during the budget review for this fiscal year.

Even worse, San Francisco has no written agreement with the NFL or the Super Bowl host committee, and the city’s fire, police and emergency management departments, when the Bay Area bid on the game, signed letters promising not to seek reimbursement from the NFL for public safety services in support of Super Bowl-related events.

And the game itself isn’t in San Francisco—it’s in Santa Clara (which did get a written agreement on costs). Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Circuit City Set To Return This Spring – …Once the No. 1 CE specialty chain, Circuit City succumbed to a rapidly changing marketplace in 2008, and misfired in its second incarnation as an online-only sister site to Systemax’s TigerDirect.

This time, what Circuit City has in store is an ambitious, multi-tiered game plan that calls for retail outlets, web sales, branded and private-label products, licensed kiosks, mobile shops and franchise opportunities, all under the iconic red-and-white banner.

The fun is expected to begin in June when the company opens its first store, most likely in the Dallas market, and relaunches CircuitCity.com.

…Shmoel, CEO of the enterprise, expects to have 50 to 100 corporate-owned stores up and running by next year and, eventually, an additional 100 to 200 franchised locations.

Other brick-and-mortar offshoots will include a franchised, 1,500-square-foot Circuit City Mobile concept, and turn-key Circuit City Express sections, offering kiosks, end caps, slot walls and in-store displays. The Express shops will feature a tightly edited assortment of $9.99 to $29.99 headphones and accessories, replenishable via a B-to-B portal, which can provide convenience stores, college bookstores, hardware stores and pharmacies an easy entrée into CE.

Shmoel projected 5,000 to 10,000 such locations over the next five years. Read More > at Twice

Officials say California has more snow than the drought-stricken state has seen in five years – Recent El Nino storms have boosted the Sierra Nevada snowpack to 115 percent of normal — more than the drought-stricken state has seen in five years, officials said Tuesday.

The electronic reading by the state Department of Water Resources was the highest since it reached 129 percent in 2011.

The Sierra snowpack contributes nearly one-third of California’s water when it melts in the spring.

However, officials say the snowpack would have to be at 150 percent of normal by April 1 to ease the four-year drought.

State water managers have said reservoirs remain far below average levels for this time of year, despite the recent wet winter.

It said precipitation stands at 116 percent of normal in Northern California, where vast amounts of water are collected in reservoirs and sent through canals to farms and communities as far south as Southern California. Read More > from the Associated Press

It’s back to the negotiating table for transportation funding, threat of cuts – When the California Transportation Commission said last week that it planned to sharply reduce funding for transportation projects due to declining gas tax revenue, the resulting publicity served to reinforce Gov. Jerry Brown’s appeal for new taxes and fees to pay for road and highway work.

The announcement, issued one day after Brown renewed his pitch in the State of the State speech, followed a year in which Brown and the Legislature failed to agree on a multibillion-dollar road funding package. The commission’s estimated spending reduction, $754 million over five years, cut deep.

…Much of California’s highway system was built before the 1970s, and with more people traveling more miles on increasingly dilapidated roads, the transportation network has suffered. Motorists feel the effects. A majority of California voters want more money spent maintaining existing infrastructure, according to a Field Poll last year, and a plurality of voters favor spending on new construction. But there is no public consensus about how to pay for it.

…The state’s gas tax last went up in 1994, and more recent efforts to increase transportation funding have faltered. In 2014, transportation advocates proposed – then abandoned – a ballot initiative to more than double the vehicle license fee for road improvements. The last statewide transportation bond was approved during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, in 2006.

…Funding for road projects has traditionally benefited from support not only from Democrats and their construction union allies, but also from Republicans sensitive to commercial interests in transportation.

Yet Republicans in the Legislature have objected to new taxes or fees for roads, arguing money is available elsewhere in a state budget currently running a surplus. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

More shoppers buying ‘natural’ food, yet most don’t know what it means – The U.S. has a confused consumer epidemic — more shoppers are seeking foods labeled “natural” despite not fully understanding what the claim means.

The percentage of people who regularly buy food labeled natural has grown from 59% in 2014 to 62% in 2015, yet confusion abounds, according to research out Wednesday from Consumer Reports. The study shows the majority of people don’t know what they’re paying for when it comes to natural labels. At the same time, pressure is mounting to define a term that’s never been legally regulated.

At least 60% of people believe a natural label means packaged and processed foods have no genetically modified organisms, no artificial ingredients or colors, no chemicals and no pesticides, according to the study by Consumer Reports. And 45% think that natural is a verified claim. It’s not.

In fact, none of those attributes is necessarily true, because use of the word is not regulated. At least, not yet. Read More > at USA Today

Lawsuits Claim Disney Colluded to Replace U.S. Workers With Immigrants – Even after Leo Perrero was laid off a year ago from his technology job at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. — and spent his final months there training a temporary immigrant from India to do his work — he still hoped to find a new position in the vast entertainment company.

But Mr. Perrero discovered that despite his high performance ratings, he and most of the other 250 tech workers Disney dismissed would not be rehired for at least a year, and probably never.

Now he and Dena Moore, another American laid off by Disney at that time, have filed lawsuits in federal court in Tampa, Fla., against Disney and two global consulting companies, HCL and Cognizant, which brought in foreign workers who replaced them. They claim the companies colluded to break the law by using temporary H-1B visas to bring in immigrant workers, knowing that Americans would be displaced.

The lawsuits by Mr. Perrero and Ms. Moore, who each filed a separate but similar complaint on Monday seeking class-action status, represent the first time Americans have gone to federal court to sue both outsourcing companies that imported immigrants and the American company that contracted with those businesses, claiming that they collaborated intentionally to supplant Americans with H-1B workers.

A furor over the layoffs in Orlando last January brought to light many other episodes in which American workers, mainly in technology but also in accounting and administration, said they had lost jobs to foreigners on H-1B visas, and had to train replacements as a condition of their severance. The foreign workers, mostly from India, were provided by outsourcing companies, including the two named in the lawsuits, which have dominated the H-1B visa system, packing the application process to win an outsize share of the quota set by Congress of 85,000 visas each year. Read More > in The New York Times

Yes! Deep-Frying Vegetables Makes Them More Nutritious – A recent study at the University of Granada in Spain has found that frying vegetables in extra virgin olive oil changes them for the better, adding phenolic compounds, which have antioxidant properties. Boiling and other methods of cooking veggies have no such benefit.

Phenolic compounds are substances produced by plants, and as such are present in many of the foods we eat. In plants, they can serve as a sort of protection against insects or other pests, and they also add color or flavor to the plants. And when we humans eat plants, we reap the benefits of the phenos’ antioxidant properties, which have been associated with reducing the risks of certain diseases.

To determine the superiority of frying, the researchers cooked potato, tomato, eggplant, and pumpkin using four different methods: deep frying, sautéing, boiling in water, and boiling in a water-and-oil mixture. Then, the cooked vegetables were analyzed for fat content, moisture, and total phenols. Deep frying and sautéing in extra virgin olive oil, as you might expect, increased the fat content, but the total phenolic compound levels also increased, while the boiled vegetables either had very similar or lower phenolic compound levels when compared to the raw veggies. Read More > at Popular Science

Headbanging in the house of God: Rio congregation worships with heavy metal – Of the many macabre ways in which the Metanóia chapel differs from its counterparts around the world, perhaps the most revealing is its noticeboard.

As well as the usual updates on services, baptisms and weddings, it includes a host of blood-curdling advertisements for upcoming events.

“Night of the Massacre”, “Into the Infernal” and “Blood Fest” scream the headlines that might, at first sight, leave a visitor to a Catholic chapel alarmed or, at least, perplexed.

Given the chapel’s location in Maré – a huge favela complex in Rio de Janeiro that is so difficult for the authorities to control that it was recently occupied by the Brazilian military – some might wrongly assume the signs refer to conflict between police and gangs.

In fact, they are gig notices that testify to a small but growing heavy metal evangelical movement that is upturning Brazilian stereotypes of Catholicism, samba and favela violence.

Metanóia, a second-floor church that attracts a small but dedicated group of followers, is testimony to the diversity and complexity of Brazil’s pick ‘n’ mix culture.

The setting is studiously gothic. In one corner a skeletal grim reaper peers out from an open coffin. In another, a skull is chained above a dusty Bible. The walls are decorated with spiders, bats and saw blades. Black crucifixes dangle from the ceiling. On the altar, between a tabernacle and a sword, sits a goat skull pierced by a jewelled dagger. Behind it, a giant banner declares, “Jesus Christ is Lord of the Underground.”

The message is underscored by the founding pastor Enok Galvão. “Here in the underground, in our own way, we welcome God into our hearts,” the tattooed preacher declares to his congregation, who raise their fists to the heavens and declare, “Praise be to the Lord.”

Once his sermon is over, the music – and the moshing – begins. Four bands, ranging from soft evangelical rock to hardcore Christian death metal, take the mood as far from a traditional church choir as can be imagined. Read More > in The Guardian

NFL says it’s ready for a super soaking in Santa Clara – Santa Clara, where Super Bowl 50 will be played, is getting far less attention than its prestigious neighbor 45 miles to the north. But the South Bay city has at least one big advantage over San Francisco when it comes to outdoor sporting events, especially one held in the middle of an El Niño winter: It gets a lot less rain.

The city totals about 14 inches of rainfall annually, compared with San Francisco’s 24 inches. That’s largely due to the Coast Range to the west, where the tallest peaks top 3,500 feet and wring much of the moisture from Pacific storms before they pass over the Santa Clara Valley.

This so-called rain shadow, however, may not be enough to keep 70,000 fans dry when they crowd into Levi’s Stadium for the Super Bowl on Feb. 7. The federal Climate Prediction Center’s new two-week outlook says there’s a 40 percent chance that the Bay Area will be significantly wetter than normal through Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7.

Some long-range computer models are showing a significant storm over the Bay Area that day, although weather watchers caution that forecasts this far out can be dead wrong. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

This is what happens when McDonald’s listens to its customers – It’s no secret that McDonald’s has been struggling. At a time when specialization is increasingly important in the food business, the brand has opted for breadth, offering everything under the moon: hamburgers, salads, yogurt parfaits and fancy chicken wraps. And it hasn’t worked. In fact, that’s putting it mildly.

Each time McDonald’s has announced how much money it’s making, the company has been forced to share an embarrassing truth: Americans are eating less and less of its hamburgers, chicken nuggets and French fries. The routine became so consistently depressing that McDonald’s decided to quit sharing monthly performance data altogether in March.

But all of that seems to be changing: For the first time in a long time, McDonald’s is thrilled to tell everyone how it’s doing.

On Monday, McDonald’s said that same-store sales (those open for at least 13 months) increased by 5.7 percent in the last three months of 2015, more than twice what analysts had expected. The hefty jump is the largest the company has reported in almost four years.

The news comes on the heels of a major concession by the fast-food chain, which is no coincidence. For years, adoring fans pleaded with McDonald’s to extend its breakfast menu beyond the current 10:30 a.m. cutoff. For nearly as long, the fast-food behemoth shrugged off the ask, saying it doesn’t have the capacity to make breakfast and everything else at the same time. But this October, McDonald’s finally gave in, agreeing to offer Egg McMuffins and other breakfast fare from open to close. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Read More > in The Washington Post

Rep. Mia Love wants to limit congressional bills to one subject at a time – Rep. Mia Love wants to crack down on Congress dumping controversial legislation into unrelated, must-pass bills in the middle of the night.

The Utah Republican has introduced a measure to limit bills in Congress to one subject at a time. It would prevent lawmakers from bundling things together or folding legislation into large appropriations bills. Each bill would rise and fall on its own merits.

“Members of both parties have made a habit of passing complex, thousand-page bills without hearings, amendments or debate,” Love said. “That process and the collusion that goes with it are why we are $18 trillion in debt and why the American people have lost trust in elected officials.”

Love’s proposal takes a page out of the Utah Constitution, which requires the Legislature pass bills containing only one subject and that is clearly expressed in the title. Read More > in the Desert News

Wifi Networks Can Now Identify Who You Are Through Walls – Who needs a peep hole when a wifi network will do? Researchers from MIT have developed technology that uses wireless signals to see your silhouette through a wall — and it can even tell you apart from other people, too.

The team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab are no strangers to using wireless signals to see what’s happening on the other side of a wall. In 2013, they showed off software that could use variations in wifi signal to detect the presence of human motion from the other side of a wall. But in the last two years they have been busy developing the technique, and now they have unveiled the obvious — if slightly alarming — natural progression: they can use the wireless reflections bouncing off a human body to see the silhouette of a person standing behind a wall.

Not only that, the team’s technique, known is RF-Capture, is accurate enough to track the hand of a human and, with some repeated measurements, the system can even be trained to recognise different people based just on their wifi silhouette.

So how does it work? It’s actually relatively straightforward: a device transmits wireless signals on one side of the wall, which propagate through it and are then reflected by bodies on the other side. The device then captures the reflections, which are passed to software to be cleaned up. As you might expect, this part requires some pretty serious processing, as different body parts, humans and objects introduce all kinds of interference. Read More > at Gizmodo

Amazon Prime Air: Drones to carry 5lb packages over 10 miles in 30 minutes – In an interview with Yahoo News, Amazon has revealed a little more about its forthcoming drone-based delivery system. Paul Misener, Amazon’s vice president for global public policy, said that the company has very specific targets for “Prime Air.”

“So Prime Air is a future delivery service that will get packages to customers within 30 minutes of them ordering it online at Amazon.com,” he told Yahoo News. “The goals we’ve set for ourselves are: The range has to be over 10 miles. These things will weigh about 55 pounds each, but they’ll be able to deliver parcels that weigh up to five pounds. It turns out that the vast majority of the things we sell at Amazon weigh less than five pounds.”

…Another obvious problem is that if Amazon and its rivals are successful, urban airspace will become saturated with buzzing drones. Misener told Yahoo News that Amazon has proposed the Federal Aviation Administration (and other regulators around the globe) create a layered airspace that would leave room for drones. “We were thinking: Manned aircraft above 500 feet. Between 400 and 500 feet there’d be a no-fly zone—a safety buffer,” he said. “Between 200 and 400 feet would be a transit zone, where drones could fly fairly quickly, horizontally. And then below 200 feet, that would be limited to certain operations. For us, it would be takeoff and landing. For others, it might be aerial photography. The realtors, for example, wouldn’t need to fly above 200 feet to get a great shot of a house.” Read More > ARS Technica

Maven, GM’s Car-Sharing Scheme is Really About a Driverless Future – …The classic “owner-driver” model that has been the cornerstone of the auto industry for a century won’t disappearing anytime soon, but the industry is in the midst of radical change. GM claims some 5 million people worldwide use vehicle sharing services like Uber, and that number is expected to hit 25 million by 2020. That emerging industry will be completely remade by autonomous vehicles, and GM is trying to position itself for that change now. “We feel that we are very well-positioned as a company to be at the very forefront of this change in ownership model, change in mobility, particularly in the urban environment,” says GM President Dan Ammann.

Maven is key to how GM is addressing that shift. At first, it will be available to students and faculty at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. Chevrolet vehicles—Volts, Sparks, Malibus, and Tahoes—will fill 21 parking spots. Users can reserve cars through the Maven app, and use their phone to unlock and start the vehicle. The cars will support Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so users can tote their digital lives with them into whatever car they rent. It’s a “truly personalized experience,” says Julia Steyn, GM’s head of urban mobility programs. “You can take your life with you.” The program is free to join and charges as little as $6 an hour to use a car, which includes insurance and gas.

GM’s not the only one experimenting with new business models. Ford, among other experiments, is trying peer-to-peer car sharing for its employees, and will soon let up to six people jointly lease its cars. BMW ran a car sharing program in the Bay Area until November of last year, and Daimler’s Car2Go service operates in dozens of cities throughout the US and Europe. In November, Audi launched a premium car sharing service in San Francisco and Miami. Read More > at Wired

Flint’s water crisis isn’t a failure of austerity. It’s a failure of government. – Flint, Michigan, near where I live, has become a national scandal for distributing lead-laced water to its residents for 16 months. Lead poisoning, especially among children, is linked to irreversible brain damage, violent behavior, Legionnaire’s disease (a form of pneumonia), and numerous other health problems. That such a Third World-worthy disaster should happen in a rich country like America is shocking and shameful.

But its root cause is not a cheapskate Republican governor hell bent on imposing a diet of austerity on a struggling city, as many liberals have concluded. It is that entrusting government, which failed spectacularly at every level, to protect the health of its citizens is dangerous naivety.

It is true that the debacle happened on the watch of an emergency manager whom Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed in 2011 to help this Rust Belt city, built before Michigan’s auto industry (literally) went south, balance its books and avoid bankruptcy. After decades of fiscal mismanagement by local leaders, Flint’s $1.1 billion unfunded legacy obligations and dwindling population base was making it difficult to fund city services and day-to-day operations. At the same time, the city was re-negotiating a 30-year contact with its water supplier, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department.

Facing future rate hikes as well as greater liability for stranded costs — i.e. how much of the bond payment for upgraded infrastructure Flint would be on the hook for if it prematurely quit the contract — Flint in 2013 decided against renewing its Detroit contract. It opted, instead, to switch to a new regional system drawing water from Lake Huron that was offering cheaper rates and better terms.

There was no disagreement among any of the stakeholders that this was a sensible move for a city desperately looking to control costs and pay its bills. However, since the Huron system wouldn’t be up and running for a few years, in the interim a fateful decision was made to reopen a mothballed Flint water plant that relied on the polluted Flint River rather than pay the extra $10 million in higher rates over two years that Detroit would charge for a temporary contract.

There is no doubt that because Flint was using Flint River as its source, it needed to be extra cautious to ensure water quality. Instead, it ignored even elementary controls.

Residents started complaining about the taste and color of the water right after the switch in April 2014. The city denied anything was wrong, but later discovered that the water contained a higher-than-recommended concentration of TTHM (trihalomethanes) — a byproduct that is generated when too much chlorine is required to disinfect the water. This, along with some other issues, prompted General Motors to quit the Flint water system after its auto parts started corroding. Yet Democratic Flint Mayor Dayne Walling was still telling residents the water was safe, even advising them that buying bottled water would be “wasting their precious money.”

After the initial botch up, one would think the authorities would have woken up, especially since these early problems were a harbinger of lead poisoning, among the worst possible things that can happen to a water system. That’s not because the Flint River itself contains lead. It’s because when acidic, chlorinated water flows through pipes, it destroys their coating, allowing lead to leach in. This is a totally avoidable problem whose cure was not necessarily to return to more expensive Detroit water. Rather, it was to simply add phosphorous to the water, something that could be done for as little as $50,000 annually, well within the means even of a cash-strapped city, sources knowledgeable about the problem maintain.

But instead of doing this, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that oversees it started a year-long Sherlock Holmes-style investigation.

…In short, the problem that could have been averted by less than a hundred thousand dollar investment will now end up costing hundreds of millions without ever being able to undo the damage to the health and lives of Flint residents. This is not the fault of government austerity — but government incompetence, negligence, and rank stupidity on the very part of those agencies that are entrusted with public health. And there is no amount of government spending that can fix that. Read More > in The Week

Dan Walters: Big budget issue for California is whether to save or spend money – The single most important factor in writing a new state budget is determining how much money there is to spend.

It’s not an easy calculation under any circumstances, because it involves forecasting – or guessing – how the state’s economy will perform many months in advance.

It’s become even more difficult in recent years not only because the economy has undergone wide swings, but because the budget has become increasingly dependent on taxes from a relative handful of high-wealth Californians. Their incomes are even more volatile than the economy as a whole.

The tendency has been for Capitol bean counters to underestimate the upside during economic expansions and the downside during recessions.

Moreover, there are often wide discrepancies between projections from the governor’s Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The early stages of the 2016-17 budget process appear to deviate from that pattern. Unusually, Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor generally pronounced Brown’s revenue estimates an “excellent starting point,” which is his way of saying he agrees with them.

That’s a little disappointing to Taylor’s bosses, who want to spend considerably more money than Brown proposes, mostly on “safety net” health and welfare programs. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Wal-Mart: It Came, It Conquered, Now It’s Packing Up and Leaving – The Town’n Country grocery in Oriental, North Carolina, a local fixture for 44 years, closed its doors in October after a Wal-Mart store opened for business. Now, three months later — and less than two years after Wal-Mart arrived — the retail giant is pulling up stakes, leaving the community with no grocery store and no pharmacy.

Though mom-and-pop stores have steadily disappeared across the American landscape over the past three decades as the mega chain methodically expanded, there was at least always a Wal-Mart left behind to replace them. Now the Wal-Marts are disappearing, too.

Oriental is hardly alone. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said on Jan. 15 it would be closing all 102 of its smaller Express stores, many in isolated towns, to focus on its supercenters and mid-sized Neighborhood Markets. The move, which will begin by the end of the month, was a relatively quick about-face. As recently as 2014, Wal-Mart was touting the solid performance of its smaller stores and announced plans to open an additional 90.

Wal-Mart has been under increasing pressure lately as sales in the U.S. have failed to keep up with rising labor costs. It’s also been spending more on its Web operations. In October, the company announced that profit this year would be down as much as 12 percent. The outlook contributed to a share decline of 29 percent during the past 12 months. Read More > at Bloomberg

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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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