Sunday Reading – 02/21/16


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.

Bullet train battle: Is main funding source a ‘fantasy’? – A day after Silicon Valley leaders praised the state’s new plan to lay the first stretch of bullet train track between San Jose and the Central Valley by 2025, critics of the project smelled blood in the water.

They said the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s new construction scheme left them with new questions and even more doubts about the state’s chances of ever completing the $64 billion project.

The revised plan is already upsetting some South Bay and Peninsula residents and threatening to undermine the train’s political support among Southern California politicians who expected construction to begin in their region. In addition, the authority concedes that several lawsuits seeking to kill the project are unresolved and that a myriad of environmental clearances are needed before construction is ramped up.

Most worrisome for bullet train boosters are claims by opponents who insist that the rail authority’s main projected source of income — California’s cap-and-trade fees on big polluters — is set to expire in four years. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

Hospital paid hackers 40 bitcoins to get its network back – After more than a week of computer problems for Hollywood Presbyterian Memorial Medical Center, President & CEO Allen Stefanek announced (PDF) that it has decided to pay 40 bitcoins, or about $17,000 to fix the issue. The hospital’s network was struck by ransomware on February 5th, and Stefanek’s letter explained that the one his organization got hit by encrypted files and demanded money for an encryption key. Previous reports put the pricetag for access at $3.6 million, but the executive claims that is false, and the hospital chose the “quickest and most efficient way to restore our systems and administrative functions.”

The medical record system was apparently back up and running on Monday, and the letter says there is no evidence patient or employee information was accessed. Even if that is true, with malware continuing to spread this is probably not the end of the story for Cryptolocker and other ransomware variants hitting vulnerable individuals and businesses. Read More > at Engadget

How People Learn to Become Resilient – Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist and clinician at the University of Minnesota, met thousands of children in his four decades of research. But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.

The boy with the bread sandwich was part of a special group of children. He belonged to a cohort of kids—the first of many—whom Garmezy would go on to identify as succeeding, even excelling, despite incredibly difficult circumstances. These were the children who exhibited a trait Garmezy would later identify as “resilience.” (He is widely credited with being the first to study the concept in an experimental setting.) Over many years, Garmezy would visit schools across the country, focussing on those in economically depressed areas, and follow a standard protocol. He would set up meetings with the principal, along with a school social worker or nurse, and pose the same question: Were there any children whose backgrounds had initially raised red flags—kids who seemed likely to become problem kids—who had instead become, surprisingly, a source of pride? “What I was saying was, ‘Can you identify stressed children who are making it here in your school?’ ” Garmezy said, in a 1999 interview. “There would be a long pause after my inquiry before the answer came. If I had said, ‘Do you have kids in this school who seem to be troubled?,’ there wouldn’t have been a moment’s delay. But to be asked about children who were adaptive and good citizens in the school and making it even though they had come out of very disturbed backgrounds—that was a new sort of inquiry. That’s the way we began.”

Resilience presents a challenge for psychologists. Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount? Read More > in The New Yorker

The Neuroscience of Wine – Why our minds can be led astray about the tastes of wines.– Galileo Galilei is best known for his novel way of looking at Earth’s place in the solar system and his consequent problems with the Vatican. But long before all the fuss blew up over his cosmology, Galileo told us that while the physical attributes of the planet are present, they are perceptually nonexistent until they have been interpreted by our senses. This theory applies to wine as much as to anything else, and Galileo, who described wine as “sunlight, held together by water,” did not forget that fact. As he put it, “A wine’s good taste does not belong to the objective determinations of the wine and hence of an object, even of an object considered as appearance, but belongs to the special character of the sense in the subject who is enjoying this taste.”

Anyone who has ever attended a wine event knows the five S’s of wine tasting: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Savor. The five S’s allow us to directly hit three of our five senses—sight, smell, and taste. This leaves us with two senses that we rarely associate with wine—hearing and touching. But ignoring them is a mistake. There are few things more satisfying than the classic Pop! of a Champagne bottle, however déclassé purists may consider it (they prefer an unostentatious hiss). More important, what a person has heard about a wine usually influences his or her perception of it. In fact, the multimillion-dollar wine advertising industry depends on this aspect of wine appreciation. As for that fifth sense, touch is also critically important in how we perceive wine—not through our fingers but through touch sensors in our mouths and throats. If we couldn’t feel the wine in our mouths, our experience of it would be incomplete.

The role that our senses play in our attraction to and appreciation of wine has been illuminated by generations of wine writers and critics. What has undeservedly received less attention is the brain, the hugely complex organ within which all that sensory information is processed and synthesized. We don’t just taste with our senses, we taste with our minds. And our minds are routinely affected by a host of influences of which, quite often, we are not even aware. Both our senses and our common sense can be led astray by any number of extraneous factors originating in what we know, or think we know, about the wine we are drinking. Figuring out how our minds work in such complex domains as the evaluation of wines—which are, among other things, economic goods—is the province of neuroeconomics.

To study the relationship between consumer preference and, for example, the cost of wine, neuroeconomists typically set up blind experiments, in which the subjects are unaware of the parameters of the experiment. Researchers at the Stockholm School of Economics and Yale University have conducted a double-blind experiment—in which both the subject and the experimenters with whom they come into contact are unaware of the parameters involved—upon this relationship. Their sample of over 500 subjects included experts, casual wine drinkers, and novices. The experiment was simple. Subjects were asked to taste a succession of wines and rate them as Bad, Okay, Good, or Great. The wines ranged in price from $1.65 to $150, and the subjects were not told the cost. The responses for each wine were tabulated, and statistical analyses applied. Now, the average wine buyer might have hoped that this experiment would show that the price of a wine is correlated with its quality. This would certainly simplify life. But the researchers discovered that “the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” Read More > at Nautilus

Campaign 2016: Nobody Cares About Climate Change – Frustrated that nobody seems to care about climate change, “the country’s biggest individual political donor during the 2014 election cycle” has pledged even more in 2016. Tom Steyer spent nearly $75 million in the 2014 midterms, reports Politico. He intends to “open his wallet even wider” now.

But just what do his millions get him in this “crucial election”? Based on history, not much.

In 2014, his NextGen Climate Action group specifically targeted seven races. Only three went his way, i.e. to Democrats.

…On February 11, Politico released survey results from “a bipartisan panel of respondents” who it claims are “Republican and Democratic insiders”…“activists, strategists and operatives in the four early nominating states” who answered the questions anonymously. The results? As one Republican respondent from South Carolina (SC) put it: “Climate change is simply not a front burner issue to most people.” A Nevada Democrat agreed: “I don’t believe this is a critical issue for many voters when compared to the economy and national security.”

One SC Republican said that no “blue-collar swing voter” ever said: “I really like their jobs plan, but, boy, I don’t know about their position on climate change.” Over all, the Republicans don’t think that opposing public policy to address the perceived threats of climate change will hurt their candidates. The topic never came up in the recent SC Republican debate.

Steyer sees that on the issue of climate change, “the two parties could not be further apart.” However, the “insider” survey found that Democrats were split on the issue. When asked if “disputing the notion of manmade climate change would be damaging in the general election,” some thought it would, but others “thought climate change isn’t a major issue for voters.” One SC Democrat pointed out: “the glut of cheap energy sources makes green technology less of an immediate priority for Congress, investors and the voting public.” Read More > in The American Spectator

Flying cars are just TWO years away: Terrafugia claims its TF-X will be ready to take to the skies by 2018 – Traffic can be a real grind. For those travelling between work and home by car every day, the seemingly endless cycle of gas-brake-repeat at a snail’s pace can wear thin.

But commuters of the very-near future may be granted some respite by taking to the skies in a flying car.

The US company behind the concept vehicle TF-X is hoping a prototype will be ready to fly in just two years – and it will go on general sale within eight.

According to Massachusetts-based Terrafugia, a full-size unmanned prototype is expected to be ready by 2018.

However, Massachusetts-based firm Terrafugia said the TF-X will still be another eight to twelve years in development.

Last year, the same company unveiled a flying car known as the Transition, which has space for two passengers,

It is expected to cost around £183,000 ($261,000) when it goes on sale.

Owners will need a pilot and a driver’s licence to operate the road-legal airplane, in addition to 20 hours of flying time under their belt. Read More > in the Daily Mail

FDA Says ‘Parmesan’ Cheese Might Actually Be Cheddar or Wood Pulp – Add Parmesan to the list of foods that come with more than you bargained for: The FDA warns Parmesan fraud has become a serious problem for American consumers. Tests show products described as “100 percent Parmesan” routinely have cut-rate substitutes — like wood pulp, and cheaper cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and mozzarella.

As part of its new leaf, the agency has stepped up prosecuting industry offenders, and right now it’s in the middle of a criminal case against Castle Cheese, once a top supplier to the big grocery chains, for selling “Parmesan” products that would give old-world cheese-makers in Parma a coronary. Per the FDA, Castle made shoddy cheeses for almost 30 years, and supplied the Market Pantry brand at Target and two others for Associated Wholesale, the nation’s second-largest retail wholesaler, all of which contained “no Parmesan cheese” despite claiming on their labels to be 100 percent.

Castle is the FDA’s highest-profile case of Parmesan-maker-gone-awry — its president is supposed to plead guilty this month to charges that could mean a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and Bloomberg notes its scam cheeses made money hand over fist, enough to adorn the factory “with crenelated battlements and curved archways” so it looked like “a medieval castle.” But while the company actually filed for bankruptcy in 2014 after a fired factory worker ratted the company out to the FDA, people in the industry still say packs of grated Parm are full of fraud: One cheese-maker fighting for stricter labeling laws says 40 percent of what’s out there isn’t even a cheese product, and a Dairy Farmers of America subsidiary claims its tests showed only one-third of labels are accurate. Read More > at Grub Street

China is building malls of the future that could come to the US soon – …“In the US, the malls look exactly the same they did 20 year ago,” Deborah Weinswig, executive director at Fung Business Intelligence Centre, said recently in a talk at a JDA Executive Luncheon. “We’ve got to make it more exciting, and more fun, and more experiential.”

Changing consumer tastes and the rise of e-commerce means shoppers are visiting malls less and less, with Weinswig reporting that the average American now visits a mall three to four times a year, as opposed to five to six. To compete with online shopping, malls need to match e-commerce in convenience and create experiential reasons to visit the mall that you cannot find online.

…In the US, Ralph Lauren is testing interactive mirrors in fitting rooms that allow shoppers to change the lighting, request different sizes, browse through other items, or interact with a sales associate.

Store are also testing retail robots, like Pepper, Japan’s SoftBank’s four-foot tall, humanoid bot who is fluent in eight languages and can serve as a personal stylist and salesperson. The robot can even follow up with customers using emails and text messages.

To give customers a reason to visit retailers in person, malls are creating new, futuristic events. Macerich, for example, has partnered with HGTV to create Santa HQ — a holiday pop up that allows guests to play with functions like augmented-reality selfie videos and receive texts when Santa is ready to see them.

These new services attempt to give customers tech that they can’t access in their own homes. However, the other major shift in the mall of the future is in customers’ own hands — their smartphones. With the chance to connect, some malls are now texting shoppers. Read More > at the Business Insider

‘Pac Man’ for cash? States weigh rules for new kind of slots – It’s like “Guitar Hero” that pays you back, if you’re any good.

At least, that’s the pitch gambling regulators across the country are hearing as they consider whether to allow casinos to offer slot machines that mimic video and arcade games in an effort to attract younger gamblers.

The latest is Massachusetts, where the state Gaming Commission released draft regulations governing the new machines on Thursday.

Marcus Prater, executive director of the Association of Gaming Equipment Manufacturers, a Nevada-based industry trade group, says so-called “skill-based” slot machines are meant to appeal to millennials who tend to skip over traditional machines because they see them as old-fashioned.

…What the industry considers “skill-based” slot machines runs the gamut.

Some manufacturers have unveiled machines giving gamblers the option of playing classic video games like “Space Invaders” and “Pac Man” as a sort of bonus round to earn more betting credits in between typical slot machine play.

Others are toying with gambling versions of arcade games like pinball and video game console products like “Guitar Hero.” Still others are developing casino gambling versions of popular smartphone games like” ”Angry Birds” and “Words with Friends.” Read More > at The Big Story

Indicted Texas mayor posts bond after disturbance arrest – A Texas mayor was released from jail Wednesday, a day after he was accused of disrupting a City Council meeting while fighting a recall effort that began before his indictment in a public corruption investigation that also has ensnarled most of the council.

Crystal City Mayor Ricardo Lopez posted a $12,000 bond Wednesday afternoon and told reporters as he left the Zavala County Jail he would not attend any more council meetings.

“I will not step in another council meeting. Don’t care who the mayor is. Don’t care if I’m the mayor,” he said.

However, he did not say he would resign his office, as called for in a recall petition.

Lopez’s refusal to attend council meetings caused a Wednesday night session to be canceled for lack of a quorum. The group had planned to take up business left unfinished after Tuesday’s meeting ended in chaos.

Lopez and two council members were indicted this month in a federal bribery and conspiracy investigation, though one of the councilmen has since resigned. Another council member was arrested in January on unrelated human smuggling charges, leaving only one member of Crystal City’s City Council not facing criminal charges. The South Texas city of about 7,100 residents is about 115 miles southwest of San Antonio. Read More > at WTHR

Say Yes to Legislative Transparency – California Forward has been in existence for nearly a decade and during that time we’ve talked with people around the state about how to improve and reform our state government.

There have been a number of good ideas that have been expressed, but few of them have more support than what is called the 72-hour in print rule.

That is why CA Fwd is announcing its support of an effort to place the California Legislature Transparency Act on the November ballot.

The act would require that all legislative measures to be publicly posted online at least 72 hours before the final vote, require that all legislative hearings be video recorded and available online, and guarantee the rights of every individual to record and share recordings of public legislative meetings.

…For democracies to work, elected leaders need to be responsive and representative, and voters must be able to hold elected officials accountable for results. The 72-hour rule is another good idea toward reaching that goal.

The Hold Politicians Accountable Committee is leading this effort and CA Fwd is proud to lend its support. If you want to join the effort or learn more about it, visit the coalition’s website or send email to Info@HoldPoliticiansAccountable.org. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Explaining Apple’s Fight With the F.B.I. – Tuesday evening, a federal court ordered Apple to help the F.B.I. unlock an iPhone used by one of the attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December.

Wednesday morning, Apple said in a strongly worded letter that it would challenge the court’s request. While technology companies recently have resisted government demands, Apple’s letter is one of the industry’s most forceful pushbacks against a court ruling.

In the hours after Apple’s letter was published, technologists and legal experts have been dissecting what, exactly, the Cupertino, Calif., company can’t — or won’t — do to help the government.

What is the government asking for?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to examine the iPhone used by Syed Farook to determine whether he and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, had planned the shooting directly with the Islamic State. The iPhone, a 5c version of the smartphone that was released in 2013, is locked by a passcode, which the F.B.I. wants Apple to circumvent.Apple would have to build a new version of its iOS smartphone software that allows the F.B.I. to bypass certain restrictions. Apple claims this software can give someone “the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone’s physical possession.”

…What Apple is most worried about is the precedent that compliance can set for future requests from the government. There are few earlier rulings courts can use for guidance, and Apple does not want to pave the road for similar requests to itself and other tech companies.

Other countries, like China, could also make similar demands.

“The key question here is how far can the government go in forcing a third party to aid in surveillance?” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Apple will most likely file an appeal with the court in the coming days. Read More > in The New York Times

Did a Massachusetts court ruling essentially ban Catholic schools? – …Beckwith was responding to a court ruling that Fontbonne Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Milton, Mass., violated state anti-discrimination laws. The ruling suggested that religious freedom exemptions do not apply to the school because it accepts non-Catholic students.

“If this decision stands, it will either force faith-based schools to close their doors to anyone who is not of the same religion or they will have to give up their beliefs and hire without any regard to faith which will ultimately cease to make them faith-based institutions,” Beckwith said.

In June 2013, Matthew Barrett was hired as a food services director at Fontbonne Academy. But the school rescinded the job offer a few days later after discovering that Barrett was in a civil same-sex marriage.

Fontbonne Academy’s CEO, Mary Ellen Barnes, told Barrett that he could not be hired because his lifestyle is inconsistent with the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage. She explained that every employee is expected to be a minister of the school’s Catholic mission.

The school is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston. The college preparatory high school says it offers students of all faith an “education that opens them to the Catholic heritage of the search for God and the expression of faith through concern for the dear neighbor.”

Shortly after Barrett’s job offer was rescinded, he sued Fontbonne Academy. He claimed that the school discriminated against him because of his gender and his sexual orientation. Read More > at CNA

Stop pretending like you know your favorite athlete – you don’t – The seemingly friendly man who has been selling us Papa John’s pizza all these years may be a sexual deviant.

Due to a lawsuit filed against the University of Tennessee athletics department that mentions Peyton Manning and claims the department condoned a “hostile work environment”, as well as a New York Daily News column published over the weekend that reexamines the quarterback’s behavior towards a female UT staffer in 1996, Manning’s clean-cut image has taken a fresh beating since he lifted his second Lombardi Trophy less than two weeks ago. And this all has resurfaced less than two months after an Al Jazeera America documentary linked the 18-year NFL veteran to HGH.

So who is Peyton Manning? Is he the aw-shucks funnyman he’s branded himself to be, whose worst sin is maybe a penchant for schlepping his business partners a bit too enthusiastically? Or is he the avatar for the entitled athlete who thinks he can get away with anything, from using PEDs and intimidating a witness to placing his testicles on a female trainer’s head and then using the power of his family to discredit and defame the woman he assaulted?

The clear answer is … we don’t know.

…The guy you think is a hero could be a well disguised monster. The guy you think is a monster could be a misunderstood hero. The athlete with the highly cultivated brand could be building that image in front of a closet full of skeletons. Or that brand could be wholely organic and angelic. We’ve all been proven wrong enough times on both sides that we should be smart enough to stop handing out the black and white hats altogether. It’s probably smarter if we just watch sports for sports – for the entertainment of watching the world’s finest athletes compete against each other – and leave the grand pronouncements of good and evil on the bench. Read More > in The Guardian

What Do Dogs Dream About? – When Fido’s legs twitch in his sleep, is he really dreaming of chasing rabbits?

Probably, researchers say. The “rabbits” part is up for debate, but the scientific evidence strongly suggests that not only do dogs dream, but they likely dream about waking activities, much like humans do.

“Dogs do dream,” said Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia and the author of “Do Dogs Dream? Nearly Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know” (Norton, 2012).

Dogs sleep more than people do, Coren told Live Science, and they have a particular penchant for catnaps. But the structure of their sleep looks remarkably human: Like humans, dogs cycle through stages of wakefulness, rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid-eye-movement sleep. Scientists reporting in the journal Physiological Behavior in 1977 recorded the electrical activity of the brains of six pointer dogs for 24 hours, and found that the dogs spent 44 percent of their time alert, 21 percent drowsy and 12 percent in REM sleep. They also spent 23 percent of their time in the deepest stage of non-REM sleep, called slow-wave sleep. [10 Surprising Facts About Dogs] Read More > at Live Science

Why OPEC Will Cut Production – Every few days it seems like oil prices make some recovery based on a proposed discuss between OPEC members. With OPEC historically cutting production in the face of a drop of oil prices, the current oil crisis is commonly considered something out of the ordinary.

OPEC is definitely hurting though. The company has an impressive share of the world’s production and many of its members require noticeably higher prices to balance their budgets. With the U.S. oil companies already significantly affected, it is worth knowing that never again will money be so easily available to American oil companies.

Before we talk about what OPEC needs, it is best to start by discussion OPEC overall. OPEC, known as the organization of petroleum exporting countries, is a group of oil countries that controls a significant percentage of the world’s oil reserves. Together, these countries make output decisions that affect the world’s supply.

The reason for OPEC’s control comes from two main things. The group controls 79.6% of the world’s oil reserves but only 30% of the world’s oil production. As a result, the company has the share of production necessary to make a difference in the global oil markets. The majority of these reserves come from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, followed by Iran, Iraq, and Kuwait. Read More > at Seeking Alpha

BART will ask San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa for $3.5B bond – The beleaguered BART system will ask voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa counties for a $3.5 billion “mega-bond” in November, a measure that will need a two-third majority to pass and which will up the amount each household pays for the transit system.

San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross report that BART appears to have enough support to pass the measure in Alameda and San Francisco, but is not seeing nearly as much support in Contra Costa, where two BART strikes in 2013 left commuters disgruntled.

“It’s going to be a uphill fight,” BART board member Joel Keller told the paper.

BART, which has seen an 6 percent increase in ridership every year for the last three years, conducted a poll last summer that found 76 percent of respondents would vote for a $2.5 billion bond measure for the system. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Bay Area weather: New radar better predicts just where and just how much rain to expect – As a wet and windy storm blows in off the Pacific, a new San Jose-based radar system is watching it with the greatest precision ever, estimating rainfall in individual communities rather than providing a more general Bay Area forecast.

Discrete patches of incoming moisture are detected by a humming “X-band” radar unit on the rooftop of a treatment plant owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, predicting precipitation and flood risk with much greater accuracy than current technology. Four more units will be phased in over the next five years for the Peninsula, East Bay and North Bay.

It will offer more detailed information on when, where and … what the intensity is going to be,” Carl Morrison, director of the Bay Area Flood Protection Agencies Association, said of the $19 million radar project, funded by a 2006 statewide bond measure.

While the overall science of forecasting is constantly improving, weather has been notoriously tough to predict in the Bay Area, a mountainous landscape perched on the edge of the cold ocean. Low and fast-moving jets of moist air rush in from the Pacific, striking our topographically varied coast and then scattering into a patchwork quilt pattern of precipitation.

…Until now, forecasters have relied largely on “S-band” units such as the one atop Mount Umunhum — the National Weather Service’s main radar system for the greater Bay Area. A technology first used to detect thunderstorms in the Midwest, S-band radar has a long range, capable of detecting rain clouds as far as 80 miles away. More than 3,000 feet above sea level, it scans distant skies for incoming storms.

But Mt. Um’s radar misses the fast-moving lower storms that are more typical of “atmospheric rivers,” those tropical storms that can deliver up to half of the Bay Area’s annual moisture.

The five new “X-band” units — one on top of the treatment plant and others planned for the flanks of Mount Hamilton, Montara Mountain, Rocky Ridge in San Ramon and Sonoma Mountain — have a more limited view of only 25 miles. Read More > in the San Jose Mercury News

Can These New Startups Convince Americans to Carpool? – Americans don’t carpool. The proportion of U.S. commuters who share rides peaked at about 20 percent in the 1970s, and it’s less than half that today. In Europe, carpooling app BlaBlaCar is worth $1.5 billion. In the U.S., where gas is much cheaper, nobody’s created a breakout app that matches drivers with riders for long trips. The last serious effort, a service called Zimride aimed at college students, came about a decade ago. Its founders eventually put the idea aside to start Lyft, which along with Uber has made people more comfortable with digital ride hailing.

In the past year, a series of startups has arisen to give carpooling a fresh chance. “It’s no longer weird to get in the car with a stranger,” says Jonathan Sadow. “If Zimride had started in 2014 instead of in 2007, it would have been wildly successful.”

Sadow and his brother, Robert, co-founded Scoop, a year-old San Francisco company that’s struck partnerships with big Bay Area employers that don’t have great public transit access, including Kaiser Permanente and Cisco Systems. Hovee, also in San Francisco, matches carpoolers who are connected through social media. Ride, co-founded by Uber’s first chief technology officer, runs its national service out of New York and Philadelphia. And Google subsidiary Waze is testing a carpooling service in Israel.

It’s become a lot easier for these services to sign up and track the critical masses of users they need, says Julie Ask, an analyst at researcher Forrester. Says Ann Fandozzi, chief executive officer of Ride: “The technology is finally at a place where people can connect the dots.”

Apps can help resolve many of the problems with carpooling, says Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. Among other things, they can remove much of the planning and all the cash transactions. Scoop users schedule their rides ahead of time (9 p.m. or earlier for the following morning; 3:30 p.m. or earlier for the coming evening), and pay one another via smartphone based on the app’s distance rates. A 15-mile trip from Fremont to Pleasanton runs $6. As for awkward conversation, none of the U.S. services has duplicated the BlaBlaCar feature that matches people based on chattiness. Read More > in Bloomberg

‘Costcoholics’: Costco’s $113.7 Billion Addicts – …She is just one of the over 75 million “mainlining” Costco members (and growing at a high single digit percentage rate annually), with an average annual income of $100,000, paying a $55 annual membership fee (or $110 for an executive level membership). Three million members a day enter Costco’s stores to get their fix.

Yes, you read those numbers right. In today’s over-stored and over-stuffed retail environment, the equivalent of almost one-fifth of the U.S. population is paying for the privilege to shop at a particular store. And this is not a one-off, let’s-see-what-it’s-like kind of visit. The renewal rate is a whopping 90 percent each year. I guess that captures the power of an addict’s behavior.

Not only is 80 percent of Costco’s gross margin and 70 percent of its operating income derived from its Costcoholics’ membership fees, Costco collects most of its profits 12 months in advance, not at the eleventh hour of the fiscal year like most other retailers.

These “druggies” bought enough stuff during Costco’s 2015 fiscal year (ended August 30), to pump revenues up to $113.7 billion (a 3 percent increase over 2014). Costco is the second largest retailer in the U.S. after Walmart, with 488 warehouses. Internationally there are 90 Costco warehouses in Canada, 36 in Mexico, 27 in the UK, 24 in Japan, 12 in Korea, 11 in Taiwan, 8 in Australia and 2 in Spain. And Costco plans to open 32 net new warehouses in fiscal year 2016.

…How does Costco manage to offer such down-and-dirty prices? For starters, it has enormous economies of scale. Costco buys more apple juice, diapers, pasta, towels—in fact, more of any product it decides to offer its members—than just about any other retailer, allowing it to negotiate the lowest prices from vendors. It sets the standard for the lowest pricing in the industry; not even Amazon can beat it. As a result, the Internet has disrupted Costco less than it has other retailers.

And since 80 percent of its gross margin and 70 percent of its operating income come from its membership fees, Costco keeps margins razor thin, with markups at 15 percent or less, compared to 25 percent for supermarkets and 50 percent for department stores. Costco’s prices are on average 30 percent below large supermarket chains’. Read More > in Forbes

Risks rising for cost increases on high-speed rail construction – The prospect of higher-than-expected costs for high-speed rail construction in Fresno and Madera counties is prompting the California High-Speed Rail Authority to consider a big change in its allowance for potential cost overruns.

“At this time, we are forecasting a need to increase the contingency by about $150 million” for Construction Package 1, the first 29-mile segment from Fresno to Madera, agency risk manager Jon Tapping told the authority’s board members at their meeting Tuesday in Sacramento. That’s on top of the original $160 million contingency allowance that was established for the $1 billion contract awarded in 2013 to Tutor Perini/Zachry/Parsons, the prime contractor for the work.

Tapping said increased contingency requirements across the entire San Joaquin Valley sections of the planned bullet-train system from Madera to Bakersfield could add about $262 million to the $5.7 billion project budget – unless the agency takes steps to reverse the cost trends. Read More > in the Fresno Bee

Audit: Covered California Remains “High-Risk” – California’s state-run health insurance marketplace continues to be rated “high-risk” by the state auditor.

A new audit released Tuesday expresses uncertainties about the sustainability of Covered California.

USC health care finance professor Glenn Melnick says the concerns it identifies have existed since the launch of the state marketplace.

“The troubling news in this report is not surprising,” Melnick says. “It’s a start-up business that had a tremendous amount of subsidies from the federal government, and now those subsidies are going to run out.”

Federal funding will expire this year. That will leave Covered California to rely solely on revenue from health insurers. The amount they pay is dependent on how many people enroll in insurance plans through Covered California. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

Finally, You Can Sing “Happy Birthday to You” Without Owing Royalties – After 3 years of battling in court, Warner Music and its affiliates that held the rights to “Happy Birthday to You” agreed to return the song to the public domain. Under the tentative settlement, they will drop their claims to future royalties from the copyright and pay $14 million to those who have had to fork over licensing fees to use the song in the past.

Originally recorded in 1893 by Mildred and Patty Hill as “Good Morning to All,” the birthday-themed lyrics of the modern tune were published in 1911. The central dispute in this case was whether and to whom the Hills had transferred the rights to the original tune.

The judge ruled that, since the original copyright on the song expired in 1949 and the Hills’ publisher had never acquired the rights to the lyrics, Warner’s current copyright is not valid. As such, the agreement adds, “All parties believe the song will be in the public domain on the final settlement date.” Read More > at Reason

AT&T 5G Trials To Begin In 2016 As Competition Intensifies – Not to be outdone by Verizon, AT&T will begin testing 5G networks later this year as it seeks to gain an advantage in the development of the next generation of wireless communications standards.

Although the technical details of the new wireless communication standard — to be known as 5G — are yet to be finalized, and likely won’t be for several years, U.S. mobile networks are eager to make sure they are ready to offer the new service to their customers when it comes online.

Verizon announced in September that it would begin trials of its 5G network in 2016, eyeing speeds up to 50 times faster than its current 4G network. AT&T’s trials will begin in the second half of 2016 with lab experiments before rolling those out in field trials in Austin, Texas. AT&T will work with Intel and Ericsson to deliver the new standard but it has not said how fast it expects its network to be.

The next generation communication standard will not be all about speed. While improvements of somewhere between 10 to 100 times the fastest of today’s networks are clearly going to grab headlines, 5G will also bring more reliable communications at lower costs and with improved security. It will also help the expansion of the internet of things as it will scale down to smaller, low-cost sensors that will be embedded in everything from light bulbs to fridges. Read More > at International Business Times

Baseball needs timeouts, to end these boring time sucks – The pace of play needs to be picked up in baseball. That is why a set number of timeouts must be added.

Sounds counterintuitive – to speed up the game, we must supply managers the ability to stop it.

But there already are timeouts. The problem is they are unlimited. A catcher wants to visit the mound, sure, go for it. The same for an infielder. A pitching coach literally could come out once every inning to chat with a pitcher, no problem. A hitter can wander down to a third-base coach to make sure he has the squeeze sign.

We have too many accepted stoppages that disrupt the flow of the game. So give each team five timeouts and – aside from injury – make those the only points at which the game can be stopped for chats. Read More > in the New York Post

Narcissism Is Increasing. So You’re Not So Special. – MY teenage son recently informed me that there is an Internet quiz to test oneself for narcissism. His friend had just taken it. “How did it turn out?” I asked. “He says he did great!” my son responded. “He got the maximum score!”

When I was a child, no one outside the mental health profession talked about narcissism; people were more concerned with inadequate self-esteem, which at the time was believed to lurk behind nearly every difficulty. Like so many excesses of the 1970s, the self-love cult spun out of control and is now rampaging through our culture like Godzilla through Tokyo.

A 2010 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that the percentage of college students exhibiting narcissistic personality traits, based on their scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, a widely used diagnostic test, has increased by more than half since the early 1980s, to 30 percent. In their book “Narcissism Epidemic,” the psychology professors Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell show that narcissism has increased as quickly as obesity has since the 1980s. Even our egos are getting fat.

This is a costly problem. While full-blown narcissists often report high levels of personal satisfaction, they create havoc and misery around them. There is overwhelming evidence linking narcissism with lower honesty and raised aggression. It’s notable for Valentine’s Day that narcissists struggle to stay committed to romantic partners, in no small part because they consider themselves superior.

The full-blown narcissist might reply, “So what?” But narcissism isn’t an either-or characteristic. It’s more of a set of progressive symptoms (like alcoholism) than an identifiable state (like diabetes). Millions of Americans exhibit symptoms, but still have a conscience and a hunger for moral improvement. At the very least, they really don’t want to be terrible people. Read More > in The New York Times

We Are Hopelessly Hooked – “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day—an average of every 4.3 minutes—according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

…It is the troubling aspects of social and mobile media that Sherry Turkle attends to in her wise and observant new book, Reclaiming Conversation. A clinical psychologist and sociologist who teaches at MIT, Turkle is by no means antitechnology. But after a career examining relations between people and computers, she blends her description with advocacy. She presents a powerful case that a new communication revolution is degrading the quality of human relationships—with family and friends, as well as colleagues and romantic partners. The picture she paints is both familiar and heartbreaking: parents who are constantly distracted on the playground and at the dinner table; children who are frustrated that they can’t get their parents’ undivided attention; gatherings where friends who are present vie for attention with virtual friends; classrooms where professors gaze out at a sea of semiengaged multitaskers; and a dating culture in which infinite choice undermines the ability to make emotional commitments. Read More > in The New York Review of Books

6 dead, 14 wounded in weekend shootings in Chicago – Six people were killed and at least 14 others were wounded in shootings in Chicago over the weekend as the level of gun violence in the city so far this year remains well above that of recent years, according to police.

Shootings in 2016 are more than double the same period in 2015, according to data kept by the Tribune. Killings are up 130 percent. As of Sunday, at least 365 people have been shot in Chicago this year and at least 70 of them have been killed.

The weekend’s homicides included two men who were found Sunday in a Bronzeville apartment, a woman who was shot in the head while trying to break up a fight in South Austin on Saturday, and a man shot while driving in Longwood Manor.

Three men were shot early Saturday after what witnesses described as a shootout between two vehicles in West Lawn. All three went to Holy Cross Hospital and then to Mount Sinai Hospital, where one of them was pronounced dead. Read More > in the Chicago Tribune

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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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