Sunday Reading – 05/15/16


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.

Time to get rid of Olympic Games after latest doping scandal – Can we put an end to this five-ring circus? Please?

After all, what is the point of the Olympic Games anymore? What started out in ancient Greece way back in 776 BC as seemingly friendly competition by chiseled men wearing next to nothing has grown into scandal-ridden sport played out by the most un-athletic of people wearing suits and sport coats while taking and giving bribes.

And sadly, the athletes who once had the purest of intentions – being awarded a medal while standing on a podium as their country’s national anthem played – can no longer be trusted. Any of them. And neither can their coaches or their country’s governing bodies.

What more evidence do we need than Thursday’s report in the New York Times that a Russian official who was put in charge of that country’s anti-doping lab before the Sochi Olympics in 2014 was actually helping Russian athletes pass off tainted urine samples as clean? The report said that Grigory Rodchenkov was part of a state-sponsored doping program and that part of his scheme included holes in walls of anti-doping labs that enabled officials to swap tainted samples with pure ones.

I mean gee whiz, do you really think that Russia has figured out such a low tech way to beat the system but other countries haven’t, including the U.S.? This isn’t exactly the race to be the first in outer space we’re talking about, is it? Maybe that’s why it’s called doping. Read More > in the New York Daily News

Women Deacons? – This week, the leaders of female Catholic religious orders from around the world came to the Vatican for a meeting with the pope. During a question-and-answer session Thursday, they asked him why the Church bans women from serving as deacons—a kind of Catholic clergy. Why not at least study the question? they asked.

Francis said yes.

It is big news that the pope will create a commission to study the possibility of female deacons. For centuries, at least in the West, women have not served in this kind of leadership role in the Catholic Church. The Church has ruled definitively that they cannot be admitted to the priesthood; in 1994, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed this ban in his apostolic exhortation Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he wrote that the Church has “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” Although women around the world, and particularly in the United States, have pushed for their ordination as priests, it is unlikely that this will change.

…Currently, women who want to take vows in the church can become women religious—an umbrella term that includes nuns. They serve as everything from missionaries to teachers to hospital administrators, or sometimes they live a cloistered life of prayer.

If the Church were to allow them to serve as deacons, they would be able to have a more formal leadership role in Catholic parishes. Deacons are one of three kinds of ordained ministers in Catholicism—the position is one of the “major orders” in the Church. These people can preach and lead worship; conduct weddings and funerals; and baptize people. They can’t offer communion, hear confessions, or administer confirmation. Since the 1960s, “mature married men” have been allowed to serve as permanent deacons—people who wish to take a vow to serve the Church, but who do not wish to ascend to the priesthood. Read More > in The Atlantic

Just as you suspected: Carpool cheating is rampant, study shows – Law-abiding drivers have for years cursed, fumed and complained that the Bay Area’s carpool lanes are crowded with cheaters undeterred by the threat of getting busted. It turns out those observations are correct.

On average, 24 percent of the drivers in carpool lanes during the morning commute are there without the required number of passengers, a study by regional transportation officials found. During the evening crush, 19 percent of the carpool lane occupants are thumbing their noses at the law — and the poor suckers stuck in the slow lanes.

Regional transportation officials worry that the flood of carpool scofflaws will not only clog the lanes, but lead to a collapse of the system designed to entice drivers to haul along an extra passenger or two in exchange for a speedier commute.

The findings, to be presented to an MTC committee Friday, come from a comprehensive survey that placed teams of observers on overpasses above carpool lanes at 83 locations around the Bay Area. Each person was assigned a lane and counted passengers manually. In addition, video cameras were used to help identify the number of vehicles with green and white clean-air decals that allow them to use the lanes no matter how many people are in them. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Did Elon Musk Just Make California’s $64 Billion Bullet Train Obsolete Before It’s Even Built? – Just three years after Elon Musk described his sci-fi-esque vision for “hyperloop” travel, one of two competing companies, Hyperloop One, successfully conducted its first proof-of-concept test in Nevada.

Musk’s idea with hyperloop was to send floating transportation pods through depressurized tubes at speeds of up to 760 mph. At that speed, a trip from San Diego to San Francisco would take a little more than 30 minutes.

Development on Musk’s idea is now moving at hyper speed. Hyperloop One’s test, for example, came just 16 months after that company was founded. Company executives say they will be able to ship goods on its system in three years, and carry passengers by 2021. It’s already raised $120 million in private investments, and has launched a competition to see which area will be the first to host a hyperloop network.

…Contrast hyperloop’s fast-paced financing and innovation with California’s bullet train. Despite the fact that Gov. Jerry Brown calls it “a 21st-century transportation system,” it is incredibly old-world in every way.

First, there’s nothing innovative about the trains at all. High-speed rail has been around for decades. At best, the trains will run 220 miles per hour, and even that’s a stretch, given the cost and safety concerns involved.

Meanwhile, the project is mired in politics, plagued with delays, and suffering massive cost overruns.

When California voters approved the project in 2008, they were told 800 miles of high-speed rail would be up and running by 2020, and would cost less than $36 billion to build. The latest plan now says it will take until at least 2025 … to build just half of it. And the total cost has ballooned to $64 billion. Read More > at Investor’s Business Daily

Unemployment is down. Gas prices are low. Why isn’t America shopping? – For more than a year, the biggest names at the shopping mall have cast a hopeful eye on the declining jobless rate and low gas prices, betting that it was only a matter of time before consumers snapped out of a cycle of tepid spending that has left many retailers grappling with weak sales and declining store traffic.

But, with the likes of Gap, Macy’s and Kohl’s reporting this week that they rang up surprisingly dismal sales this spring, retailers — especially apparel chains and department stores — are facing a troubling reckoning. The economy is bouncing back, and customers just aren’t hitting stores or filling up digital carts like the shopping giants thought they would.

The uncertainty is lending fresh urgency to the challenges facing old-school stores, whether it is adjusting to the reality of online commerce or watching their customer base shift from big-spending baby boomers to the more cautious millennials.

The industry is suddenly awash in talk about being “overstored,” too many physical outlets chasing too few shoppers.

The rise of Internet shopping appears to be reaching a new threshold. Once, it was thought that the online universe might be perfect for selling electronics and books, but things that people need to touch and try on, like clothes, would endure in the cozy realms of bricks-and-mortar stores.

No longer.

Recent sales patterns suggest retailers have reached an inflection point. Analysts at financial services firm Cowen & Co. predict that Amazon.com is on pace to overtake Macy’s as the largest apparel retailer by 2017. Read More > in The Washington Post

IBM’s Plan To Fight Zika And Other Runaway Viruses With Watson’s Help – One of the biggest challenges posed by Zika is that it mutates rapidly, giving it the power to resist vaccines and possibly any other pharmaceutical weapons that may be aimed at the wily virus. But can computer science help outsmart Zika? The brains at IBM IBM believe it can—and they have a plan to combat not just Zika, but hundreds more viruses, ranging from influenza to Ebola.

IBM announced today that it has identified a “macromolecule”—essentially a multi-pronged chemical construct, designed from the ground up by bioengineers—that may be able to cripple the ability of many types of viruses from becoming resistant to drugs. The molecule was developed and tested by IBM Research in conjunction with Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), which formed a research partnership with the tech giant 12 years ago.

The new macromolecule employs three weapons to fight off viruses. One component of it uses electrostatic bonds to lock onto the virus and prevent it from infecting healthy cells. A second neutralizes the acidity levels inside virus cells, making it difficult for them to replicate. Finally, the molecule contains a type of sugar called mannose, which binds to healthy cells in the immune system and draws them to the virus so they can fight it off more effectively.

In the lab, the engineered molecule was effective against several types of viruses, including Ebola, dengue and herpes simplex. The scientists did not observe signs of resistance, which was key because they designed it specifically to interrupt the viral process independent of what mutations the virus takes on over time. The IBM/IBN team published their results in a recent edition of the journal Macromolecules. Read More > at Forbes

The Market Failure of First Dates – After the pleasantries are exchanged and the drinks are ordered, after the conversation moves from jobs to tastes in music to viral YouTube videos, after the awkward fumbling for the check, the walk to the curb, the stilted hug-turned-air-kiss-turned-forehead bump, after the goodbyes—every first date leaves one nagging question:

Will you ever hear from them again?

…We asked 51 straight, young professional men based largely in San Francisco and New York everything from how often they date to exactly when they knew their last failed date was going south.

The most common way our survey respondents found dates was through their extended social networks: 78% of men surveyed frequently date friends of friends and 40% had asked out a friend before. Over 1/3 of the men we surveyed also find dates online—including, unexpectedly, one from Craigslist’s Missed Connections.

…Over 66% of the men we spoke with chose “she was boring” as one of the top three dating turn-offs they encounter, making it the biggest turn-off on our list.

This outcome may seem surprising given that first dates are often designed to cover the basics and stick to neutral territory.

But according to behavioral economist Dan Ariely, this “don’t ruffle feathers” model of first dates is exactly the problem. As he writes, “when going on a first date, we try to achieve a delicate balance between expressing ourselves, learning about the other person, but also not offending anyone—favoring friendly over controversial—even at the risk of sounding dull.”

While not rocking the boat may seem like ideal strategy for getting a second date, Ariely argues that sticking to neutral topics (haven’t we all been on a date where the weather was discussed ad nauseum?) creates a “bad equilibrium”—an outcome where both sides converge, but neither side is pleased with it. Read More > at Priceonomics

Tech layoffs more than double in Bay Area – In yet another sign of a slowdown in the booming Bay Area economy, tech layoffs more than doubled in the first four months of this year compared to the same period last year.

Yahoo’s 279 workers let go this year contributed to the 3,135 tech jobs lost in the four-county region of Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and San Francisco counties from January through April, as did the 50 workers axed at Toshiba America in Livermore and the 71 at Autodesk in San Francisco. In the first four months of last year, just 1,515 Bay Area tech workers were laid off, according to mandatory filings under California’s WARN Act. For that period in 2014, the region’s tech layoffs numbered 1,330.

The jump comes amid a litany of other signs that the tech economy may be taking a breather: disappointing earning reports from stalwarts like Apple, an IPO market that has come to a near standstill, a volatile stock exchange and uncertainty in China.

Filings under WARN show Santa Clara County took the brunt of the layoffs, with 2,515, while San Francisco had 280, San Mateo 198, and Alameda 142. Outside the four counties, in Contra Costa, the only tech layoffs recorded in WARN filings were in San Ramon, where AT&T cut 104 workers. Read More > in The Mercury News

America’s infrastructure $1.44 trillion short through 2025: report – America will fall $1.44 trillion short of what it needs to spend on infrastructure through the next decade, a gap that could strip 2.5 million jobs and $4 trillion of gross domestic product from the economy, a report from a society of professional engineers said on Tuesday.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimated that through 2025, the United States has funded only about 56 percent of its needed infrastructure spending.

The nation needs to spend $3.32 trillion to keep its ports, highways, bridges, trains, water and electric facilities up to date but has funded only $1.88 trillion of that, ASCE said. The shortfall rises to $5.18 trillion through 2040 without new funding commitments. Read More > at Reuters

Of Course Facebook is Biased – Facebook must have thought the online news game was pretty easy. Two years ago, it plucked a small team of about a dozen bright, hungry twentysomethings fresh out of journalism school or entry-level reporting jobs. It stuck them in a basement, paid them contractor wages, and put them to work selecting and briefly summarizing the day’s top news stories and linking to the news sites that covered them. It called them curators, not reporters. Their work appeared in the “Trending” section of the Facebook home page and mobile app, where it helped to define the day’s news for millions of Facebook users.

That is, by any reasonable definition, a form of journalism. And it made Facebook a de facto news organization.

But Facebook refused to acknowledge that. It never bothered to reckon with the basic responsibilities that journalism entails, nor the ethical and epistemological challenges it presents—probably because they’re messy and inconvenient and might get in the way of optimizing engagement. And now it’s paying the price.

…None of this should come as a surprise to any thoughtful person who has worked as a journalist. Humans are biased. Objectivity is a myth, or at best an ideal that can be loosely approached through the very careful practice of trained professionals. The news simply is not neutral. Neither is “curation,” for that matter, in either the journalistic or artistic application of the term.

There are ways to grapple with this problem honestly—to attempt to identify and correct for one’s biases, to scrupulously disclose them, to employ an ideologically diverse staff, perhaps even to reject objectivity as an ideal and embrace subjectivity. But you can’t begin to address the subjective nature of news without first acknowledging it. And Facebook has gone out of its way to avoid doing that, for reasons that are central to its identity as a technology company.

Bias in the selection of stories and sources? Impossible. It’s all done “automatically,” by “the algorithm”! Which is as good as saying “by magic,” for all it reveals about the process.

It’s not hard to fathom why Facebook is so determined to portray itself as objective. With more than 1.6 billion active users, it’s larger than any political party or movement in the world. And its wildly profitable $340 billion business is predicated on its near-universal appeal. You don’t get that big by taking sides. Read More > in Slate

From coast to coast, middle-class communities are shrinking – America’s shrinking middle class, a growing concern for the economy and a central issue in the presidential race, cuts across virtually all communities from coast to coast, according to a study released Wednesday.

The report by Pew Research Center found that the share of the middle class fell in 203 of the 229 U.S. metropolitan areas examined from 2000 to 2014, including major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw a relatively sharp drop in its middle class.

For many areas, a big culprit in the declining middle was the falloff in manufacturing jobs during that 14-year period, when factories shed about 5 million workers from their payrolls nationally.

“The 10 metropolitan areas with the greatest losses in economic status from 2000 to 2014 have one thing in common — a greater than average reliance on manufacturing,” the Pew report said, referring to places such as Detroit; Rockford, Ill.; Springfield, Ohio; and the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton area in North Carolina.

The news was not all downcast, especially for metro areas in coastal and border regions that have benefited from the boom in technology, trade and resources.

In California, even as 22 of the 26 metropolitan areas experienced a thinning middle class between 2000 and 2014, most of those same areas saw a net gain in distribution of income, meaning the share of the upper-income tier increased more than the lower-income group. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Staples-Office Depot Merger Collapses After Block by Judge – Staples Inc. and Office Depot Inc. abandoned their merger after a federal judge sided with U.S. antitrust officials who challenged the combination of the two largest office suppliers, saying it would create an unrivaled giant.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington blocked the $6.3 billion deal late Tuesday, a victory for the Federal Trade Commission, which argued that uniting the national suppliers of pens and printer paper would harm buyers.

The FTC met its “burden of showing that there is a reasonable probability that the proposed merger will substantially impair competition in the sale and distribution of consumable office supplies to large business-to-business customers,” Sullivan wrote in a three-page order.

Staples fell as much as 16 percent to $8.69 in early trading in New York on Wednesday, while Office Depot tumbled as much as 38 percent to $3.75. Before the ruling, which the judge had said would come after the market closed, shares of the retailers rose in after-hours trading on an unverified Twitter message that the companies had prevailed.

The ruling is a win for antitrust officials who are grappling with a record wave of mergers that are marrying some of the biggest companies across industries. Sullivan’s decision marks the second time the FTC has blocked a combination between the two companies. In 1997, the commission successfully sued to halt their proposed merger.

…Defense lawyers argued that the companies needed to combine to contend with looming competition from Amazon.com Inc. and its year-old Amazon Business unit. They claimed the merger would make the enlarged Staples more efficient and allow it to pass on lower prices to consumers. The companies attacked the government’s case as contrived to make the deal appear unfairly anticompetitive. Read More > in Bloomberg

Born without hands, Chesapeake 7-year-old wins national handwriting contest

Nextdoor social site cracks down on fearmongering – After finding itself an unlikely hub for racial fearmongering, the social site Nextdoor.com says it is transforming into a model of respectful, neighborly conduct.

No longer will suspicious neighbors be able to post their fears about a stranger based on that person’s color or ethnicity, Nextdoor’s chief executive Nirav Tolia told Oakland city officials and neighborhood activists who have demanded that the company change the site to prevent racial profiling.

The 5-year-old San Francisco company is a free neighborhood bulletin board where locals trade tips about plumbers, gossip about new shops, and alert each other about break-ins. Tolia says users post 15 million messages a day across 98,000 neighborhoods nationwide.

In October, a group called Neighbors for Racial Justice said Nextdoor was also being used for something else: airing suspicions — generally about people of color — who were committing no crimes.

The group wanted Nextdoor to change how it let users post alerts, and got city officials involved. Nextdoor spent $16,000 on a lobbyist who set up meetings, many of which were difficult as people on all sides lost patience. Eventually, the company listened not only to the Racial Justice group, but also to the leadership group 100 Black Men and to the Oakland Police Department, which has been dealing with racial profiling problems of its own and had clues about what to do. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

California Tax Revenues Fall Below Estimates As Budget Talks Get Under Way – California’s economy is still growing – but at a slower pace than it has been. And that’s having a similar effect on state budget revenues, leaving Gov. Jerry Brown with less money to work with when he releases his updated spending proposal Friday.

Income taxes for the crucial month of April came in $1 billion below projections. That puts the state nearly $900 million short of Brown’s estimates this past January – just as the governor puts the finishing touches on his updated budget plan due out later this week.

But Jason Sisney with the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says that doesn’t mean California’s budget is back in deficit-land.

“Fundamentally, the state enters this new budget much healthier than it has been,“ Sisney says, pointing to billions of dollars stashed away in reserve thanks to recent state budgets and the “rainy day fund” voters approved two years ago.

“So revenues would have to drop a lot in order to put the state in a situation where its fiscal condition was dire, and where you would expect to have broad-based cuts,” he adds.

Nevertheless, Brown and state lawmakers may need to curtail their plans this year to prepare for the next recession. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

Macy’s struggles go on as it slashes profit, sales outlook – Macy’s slashed its full-year profit and sales expectations as the department store chain struggles to lure shoppers seemingly in an extended funk.

First-quarter income tumbled 40 percent and revenue fell 7.4 percent, sending shares down 10 percent in early trading Wednesday.

The report from Macy’s, following dismal sales numbers from the Gap earlier in the week, dragged down the entire retail sector in premarket trading.

After a brutal holiday shopping season, retailers are muddling through another spending slump that began in mid-March.

Macy’s had been a stand-out among retailers following the recession. Yet in the last year, the malaise suffered by others seemed to catch up with Macy’s.

Department stores are face increasing competition from online retailers like Amazon.com. Macy’s also has acknowledged that Americans, rather than spending money on clothes and accessories, are going out to restaurants or spas, vacationing, or plowing money into their homes. Read More > from The Associated Press

STD’s on the rise – ‘Swiping right’ & online dating could be to blame – Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise for the first time in roughly a decade and online dating could be a contributing factor.

‘Swiping right’ and knowing very little about the person you’re meeting online, could be factors in the latest numbers.

Reported cases of three STD’s — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — have increased for the first time since 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Young people ages 15 to 24 account for nearly half of the 20 million new cases of STD’s each year, which cost the United States an annual $16 billion.

The biggest spike is in the rate of syphilis, up 15-percent since 2013.

With more and more Americans turning to online and mobile dating sites, it’s hard to know how much of a role that behavior may play, but the nature of these sites means cases of disease are also hard to track, says Dr. Peter Beilenson, CEO of Evergreen Health. Read More > at Fox Baltimore

Facebook’s Bias Is Built-In, and Bears Watching – Facebook is the world’s most influential source of news.

That’s true according to every available measure of size — the billion-plus people who devour its News Feed every day, the cargo ships of profit it keeps raking in, and the tsunami of online traffic it sends to other news sites.

But Facebook has also acquired a more subtle power to shape the wider news business. Across the industry, reporters, editors and media executives now look to Facebook the same way nesting baby chicks look to their engorged mother — as the source of all knowledge and nourishment, the model for how to behave in this scary new-media world. Case in point: The New York Times, among others, recently began an initiative to broadcast live video. Why do you suppose that might be? Yup, the F word.

Yet few Americans think of Facebook as a powerful media organization, one that can alter events in the real world. When blowhards rant about the mainstream media, they do not usually mean Facebook, the mainstreamiest of all social networks. That’s because Facebook operates under a veneer of empiricism. Many people believe that what you see on Facebook represents some kind of data-mined objective truth unmolested by the subjective attitudes of fair-and-balanced human beings.

None of that is true. This week, Facebook rushed to deny a report in Gizmodo that said the team in charge of its “trending” news list routinely suppressed conservative points of view. Last month, Gizmodo also reported that Facebook employees asked Mark Zuckerberg, the social network’s chief executive, if the company had a responsibility to “help prevent President Trump in 2017.” Facebook denied it would ever try to manipulate elections. Read More > in The New York Times

NASA films Mercury crossing the sun’s surface – It only happens roughly 13 times every century.

Brazilian soccer star’s Olympic warning: ‘Stay home’ – “Things are getting uglier here every day,” Brazilian soccer star Rivaldo wrote on his Instagram account Sunday. “I advise everyone with plans to visit Brazil for the Olympics in Rio – to stay home. You’ll be putting your life at risk here. … Only God can change the situation in our Brazil.”

The situation in Brazil right now looks like this: The economy is crashing and no one knows quite what to do about it. The Zika virus has caused paralysis and harrowing birth defects. The Olympics are less than three months away and that will bring security concerns. It will also bring some embarrassment, as the local Guanabara Bay is filthy and rancid. The beach surrounding it has no people, but rather empty cans and vials and diapers. It was supposed to be cleaned; it might never be cleaned.

Perhaps most troubling of all: an impeachment process in the midst of a corruption crisis leaves Brazil’s political future completely uncertain. Plan A has failed and there is no Plan B. When the Olympic flame arrived here on May 3, it was met by dueling protests – one side against a “coup” and another in favor of impeachment. A schoolteacher who watched the torch relay voiced a common wish: new elections. But who is worthy to win? No one has inspired any trust. The most popular politician is someone nicknamed “Tiririca.” He’s a professional clown. His campaign slogan was, “It can’t get any worse.”

It feels like it will only get worse. Read More > at Yahoo! Sports

The Times’ survey: Which are the NBA’s best and worst referees? – Every play can result in a foul call, a technical or even an ejection. The momentum of a game and sometimes the outcome can depend on the skill of the referees blowing, or not blowing, the whistles.

This season there are 64 NBA referees, ranging from rookies Gediminas Petraitis, Tyler Ford and Mitchell Ervin, to veterans Joey Crawford (in his 39th season) and Danny Crawford (31st season), who were making calls when Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were in their prime.

Given the importance of referees, The Times conducted an anonymous survey with nearly three dozen NBA players, head coaches and assistants to see who they consider the three best referees in the league.

Nevertheless, according to our survey, here are the three best NBA referees:

1. Danny Crawford, who got 30 votes.

2. Joey Crawford (no relation), with 25 votes.

3. Monty McCutchen, with 13 votes.

And now the three worst officials in the league, according to players and coaches we surveyed:

1. Scott Foster, with 24 votes.

2. Lauren Holtkamp, with 14 votes.

3. Marc Davis, with 12 votes. Read More > in The Los Angeles Times

Q&A: Why are women generally more religious than men? – The much-debated question of whether women are more religious than men is the focus of Pew Research Center’s recently released report “The Gender Gap in Religion Around the World.” The study finds that women are generally – but not universally – more religious than men in several ways. Indeed, data collected for the study show that in some religions and some contexts, men are as, or even more, religious than women.

Fact Tank discussed the report’s findings with David Voas, head of the Department of Social Science at University College London. A demographer and sociologist, Voas has written extensively about religion, spirituality and the transmission of beliefs and values from one generation to another.

…Christianity presents itself as a religion of the powerless: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Depending on your point of view, that’s appealingly feminine or appallingly effeminate. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his characteristically abrasive way that women need “a religion of weakness that glorifies being weak, loving, and … humble as divine.”

It’s true that some religions are more appealing to women – or men – than others. If we look at alternative spirituality, some varieties attract mostly women and others are of more interest to men. (Satanism falls into the latter category.) Christianity, too, comes in many forms, to such an extent that it is difficult to generalize about its appeal. The more patriarchal versions are possibly better at keeping men involved. Where men are mostly responsible for public worship, as in Orthodox Judaism and Islam, then of course the gender gap will look different. Overall, though, I doubt that there are important differences between the major world religions in their appeal to men and women. They have all survived and thrived for centuries. Read More > at Pew Research Center

Half of Your Friends Probably Don’t Think of You As a Friend – Here’s a fun exercise: Take a minute and count up all your friends. Not just the close ones, or the ones you’ve seen recently — I mean every single person on this Earth that you consider a pal.

Got a number in your mind? Good. Now cut it in half.

Okay, yes, “fun” may have been a bit of a reach there. But this new, smaller number may actually be more accurate. As it turns out, we can be pretty terrible at knowing who our friends are: In what may be among the saddest pieces of social-psychology research published in quite some time, a study in the journal PLoS One recently made the case that as many as half the people we consider our friends don’t feel the same way.

Some caveats: The study was small, and all the subjects were undergraduates; friendships change over the course of a lifetime, and it’s certainly possible that, over time, many tenuous lopsided friendships can dwindle to a more solid few. But the study authors also looked at a handful of previous surveys on friendship, ranging in size from 82 people to 3,160, and found similar results: Among those, the highest proportion of reciprocal friendships was 53 percent, and the lowest was a bummer, at 34 percent.

“These findings suggest a profound inability of people to perceive friendship reciprocity, perhaps because the possibility of non-reciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image,” the study authors wrote. Fair enough. No one likes to think of themselves as the unwanted hanger-on, chasing a relationship that doesn’t really exist and maybe never will Read More > at New York Magazine

California Assembly Passes Gender-Neutral Restrooms Bill – California lawmakers advanced a proposal Monday that would require all single-stall public restrooms to be gender neutral.

The vote came hours after North Carolina’s governor sued the federal government to defend a law in that state requiring transgender people to use the restroom matching the sex on their birth certificate.

Members of the California Assembly voted 52-18 on an initial ballot in favor of the proposal from Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting of San Francisco. He said it aims to help transgender people, parents with kids of different genders and adults caring for aging parents.

At least three states have considered proposals in the past two years to open single-occupancy stalls to anyone as state and local governments address gender issues. Ting’s office says California’s proposal is the most comprehensive taken up so far.

His proposal would apply to all businesses in California as well as state and local government buildings, asking inspectors and officials who enforce building code to check restroom signs for compliance. A state association of health officers rescinded its opposition to the bill after Ting removed them from that list. Read More > from the Associated Press

Should the Voting Age Be Lowered to 16? – They pay taxes. They have to abide by the same laws as everyone else. And many are old enough to work and get behind the wheel.

But for teens under 18, the right to vote is still out of reach.

And that’s just not fair, say a number of youth rights groups, who for years have pushed to lower America’s voting age to 16. In a nation with notoriously low voter turnout — particularly among 18- to 24-year-olds — allowing more young people to vote, advocates argue, would boost civic participation and give students a much-needed voice in local public affairs.

But some local campaigns to lower the voting age in various cities around the country have started to gain traction, as have the broader efforts of national youth civics groups like Generation Citizen and the National Youth Rights Association.

This week, a majority of San Francisco supervisors announced support for placing a measure on the November 2016 ballot to lower the city’s voting age to 16 for local elections. The move follows a multi-year organizing effort by Vote16SF and the San Francisco Youth Commission. If the measure passes, San Francisco would become the first major city in the country to allow its 16- and 17-year-old-residents to vote. Read More > at KQED

How Armenian gangsters blew up the fingerprint-password debate – Paytsar Bkhchadzhyan is a woman with a colorful past and a bummer of a present.

She arrived this week in news stories with a string of criminal convictions and gained notoriety for pleading “no contest” to felony identity theft early this year. Her iPhone was seized from the home of her boyfriend, one Sevak Mesrobian, a member of Los Angeles-based gang Armenian Power.

Her fingerprint then began its long journey to giving civil-liberties fetishists a new storyboard for their “bad touch” role-play scenes.

Much ado has been made over a Los Angeles judge’s February decision to grant a search warrant allowing authorities to take Bkhchadzhyan’s fingerprint and use it to unlock her iPhone. Surfacing in the news this week with drama, it’s an unprecedented revelation that has divided legal experts and given our collective Big Brother paranoia and infosec hysteria a shot in the arm that we really didn’t need.

…Things would have been different had she been using a regular password or passcode, which is protected by the Fifth Amendment’s safeguards for self-incrimination.

The federal judge weighing in on the search warrant, U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Rosenberg, didn’t consider a fingerprint the same as a password. Rosenberg’s decision was preceded by a Virginia Circuit Court judge in October 2014, where it was a ruled that giving biometric data is not the same as divulging knowledge.

Some argue that what happened in L.A. does violate the woman’s Fifth Amendment rights. But the issue is far from being decided. In the meantime, some authorities are quick to exploit the law’s failure to keep pace with technological advances like Touch ID and the public’s perception of what a password really is. Read More > at Engadget

The Cure For Fear – Scientists have discovered a radical new way to treat our most traumatic memories.

…Not all fear needs to be cured, of course. A healthy amount of fear is essential to survival. When we encounter danger, the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline floods our veins, our hearts race, and our fight-or-flight response kicks into gear. The more quickly we can recognize a threat, the better our ability to avoid it in the future. In this way, our fears are lessons we have drawn from our experiences in the world. “Fear is a very adaptive emotion,” Kindt said. “Because of fear, we anticipate and plan.”

For millions of people, however, fear can be debilitating. Twenty-nine percent of people will suffer from an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. The most common are specific phobias, in which people develop an irrational fear of a situation or an object, such as heights or spiders. Some people will take extreme measures to avoid the things that trigger their fears—a height-phobic person, for instance, might drive hours out of his way just to avoid crossing a bridge. Other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and PTSD, can be even more difficult to manage.

…Science thrives on replication, and nearly every doctor I spoke with said they wanted their peers to replicate Kindt’s spider study before they thought about using her method in clinical practice. But there are few hurdles to widespread adoption. Propranolol, which has been used for decades to treat heart disease, is a safe, cheap, and common drug. (It earned its inventor, Sir James Black, the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988.) All Kindt’s method requires is a patient willing to tolerate a short exposure to their trauma and an off-label prescription. Daniela Schiller, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at NYU who, like Kindt, has studied reconsolidation in humans and its potential for treating anxiety, said she hoped their findings will become part of mainstream clinical practice within the next ten years. Read More > in the New Republic

Uncovering ancient Ashkenaz – the birthplace of Yiddish speakers – At 1,000 years, the search for the location of Ashkenaz – thought to be the birthplace of Ashkanazic Jews and the Yiddish language – is one of the longest quests in human history. It is perhaps second only in length to the search for Noah’s Ark which began in the 3rd century AD.

The place name Ashkenaz occurs three times in the Bible, but by the Middle Ages the exact origin of Ashkenaz was forgotten. Because of the migration of the Ashkenazic Jews it later became associated with Germany. This led to all German Jews being considered “Ashkenazic”, a term which was then applied to central and eastern European Jews who follow Ashkenazic religious customs and who speak Yiddish.

The Yiddish language – which consists of Hebrew, German, Slavic elements and is written in Aramaic – has been spoken at least since the 9th century AD, but its origins have been debated by linguists for several centuries. While some have suggested a German origin, others believe a more complex beginning for the language, starting in Slavic lands in Khazaria – the Middle Age Khazar Empire that covered present-day southern Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and parts of the Caucasus – and followed by Ukraine, and finally Germany. Although the language adopted a German vocabulary it retained its Slavic grammar – which is why Yiddish is often referred to as “bad German”. Read More > at Religion News Service

Who Is Ready for Baseball’s Robot Umpires? – …And yet there’s one space where no one wants to slow technology’s march: sports. Here, we want the tech, we want it precise, and we want it now, especially in the matter of officiating. Officiating (umpiring, refereeing, lines-judging, whatever) is an endeavor in which there is almost zero nostalgia for the human touch, because the human touch means occasionally getting it wrong—and getting it wrong makes players, coaches and fans, well, cuckoo.

The other night at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox designated hitter David “Big Papi” Ortiz found himself at the plate in the ninth inning with the bases loaded and Boston trailing by one run. A 3-1 pitch crossed up the Yankee catcher and appeared to dart low and outside, and Ortiz assumed he had drawn a game-tying walk. Nope. Strike two. The ump called another borderline strike on 3-2, and Ortiz went, well, Big Papi went cuckoo.

Disputed calls like that invariably provoke chatter about a surprisingly doable proposal: robot umps. Precise camera tech to pinpoint balls and strikes has existed for years. Even if the pitch tech at Yankee Stadium showed the calls against Ortiz were not so egregious, the suggestion is clear: Had a “robo-ump” been on ball-and-strikes duty, Big Papi may have marched to first base and tied a game the Red Sox instead wound up losing.

Seems reasonable, right? Whenever possible, shouldn’t tech be used to make the proper call? There are loads of examples of technology improving accuracy in sports—Hawk-Eye line-calling in tennis, for one, is crisp, quick and enjoyably theatrical (fans clap in anticipation!). The NFL, meanwhile, uses an oddball system in which an official crawls under Dracula’s cape to review replays. It mostly works, even if it often takes longer than a bus trip to Maine, and no one on earth seems to know what a catch is in the NFL anymore. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News – Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.

Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.

In other words, Facebook’s news section operates like a traditional newsroom, reflecting the biases of its workers and the institutional imperatives of the corporation. Imposing human editorial values onto the lists of topics an algorithm spits out is by no means a bad thing—but it is in stark contrast to the company’s claims that the trending module simply lists “topics that have recently become popular on Facebook.” Read More > at Gizmodo

New report officially ranks all the catastrophes that could wipe us out in 2016 – There’s no such thing as a scale of all the bad things that could actually happen to you and me, but if there were, a ‘global catastrophe’ would have to rank pretty much near the top of it, no?

These kinds of terrible happenings – defined as “events or processes that would lead to the deaths of approximately a tenth of the world’s population, or have a comparable impact” – might only be hypothetical for now, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be studying them, assessing their causes and risks, and trying our best to prevent them.

Which is where the recently released Global Catastrophic Risks 2016 report comes in. Published by the Swedish Global Challenges Foundation in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Global Priorities Project, the report – updating last year’s similarly gloomy assessment – outlines the key risk factors that could seriously threaten our way of life on the planet.

…So what are the global catastrophes we’re most at risk from now? According to the report, the most likely high-risk global catastrophic events that could occur in the next five years are pandemics – either natural, or engineered by humans – and the prospect of nuclear war.

Other high-risk threats – but ones considered less likely to wreak havoc in the next five years – are catastrophic climate change, catastrophic disruption from artificial intelligence (AI), and the potential failure of geo-engineering, which refers to how our attempts to address climate change via things like carbon sequestration could end up backfiring. Read More > at Science Alert

The Religion that the Iranian Mullahs Fear Most – Over the past few decades, Iran has seen a revival in the native religion that predates Islam—something that the ayatollahs desperately want to suppress.

…Much less well-known is that Zoroastrianism is a living faith, with communities in India, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East—especially Iran. Ten years ago, a study by the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of America concluded that there were, at most, 190,000 followers of the faith around the world. But as Laurie Goodstein noted in The New York Times, there was reason to be skeptical of this number, because of the “wildly diverging counts in Iran, once known as Persia – the incubator of the faith.”

In common with other religions, Zoroastrians in Iran have confronted both persecution and a concerted attempt by the Islamist regime in Tehran to destroy the very foundations of their faith. One critical consequence of this—no doubt unintended by the ruling mullahs—is that growing numbers of Iranians inside and outside the country are exploring a faith that crystallized two millennia before the Prophet Muhammed appeared on the scene. “Converting back” to Zoroastrianism, as many refer to the process of rediscovering their roots, has encouraged a view of Islam as an alien Arab faith that was imposed on unwilling Persians during the Muslim conquest of the seventh century.

…Anxious to acquire more knowledge about his hidden faith, Ali began studying Zoroastrian teachings. He learned about the three principles propagated by Zoroaster: Humata, Hukhta, and Hvarshta, “Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds” in Avestan, an ancient Iranian language. He learned that fire, which plays such a central role in Zoroastrian religious ceremonies, represents the divine light of wisdom. Then he decided to undergo the Navjote, an initiation ceremony into the faith that is similar to a Bar Mitzvah. Read More > in The Tower

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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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