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.
Measles has been eliminated in the Americas, WHO says – A half-century after scientists first introduced a vaccine to combat measles, the disease has been eliminated from a swath of the globe stretching from Canada to Chile — and all the countries in between.
The region is the first in the world to have eliminated the viral disease, the Pan American Health Organization and World Health Organization announced September 27. That’s different from eradication, which means an infectious disease has been scrubbed out permanently, worldwide. So far, only smallpox has been eradicated.
Though measles outbreaks still crop up occasionally in the Americas (this year 54 people have contracted the disease in the United States), they stem from travelers bringing the virus in from other parts of the world. A home-grown outbreak in the Americas hasn’t occurred since a 2002 outbreak in Venezuela. Read More > at Science News
Here’s The Biggest Threat to Costco and Sam’s Club – When Costco and Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club rose to prominence in the mid-1980s, they offered an easy-to-understand shopping proposition.
Consumers paid a membership fee to join these warehouse clubs and in exchange got access to goods at cheaper prices than in traditional stores. Costco and Sam’s location were no-frills affairs where goods sat stacked high on basic metal shelves. In addition, customers generally had to buy in bulk in order to save, but if they took home toilet paper by the pallet, they paid a better price per roll.
Both chains were value-driven, places where people could save money without ever knowing before going in exactly what they might buy. It was a smart model that grew through the 1980s and ’90s, while staying strong even as the internet began to hurt other traditional retailers. Now, a new report from Cowen & Co., which was first reported by Business Insider, shows that the growth of one online membership program may be bad news for Costco and Sam’s.
What does the report say?
Numbers are growing for Amazon.com’s Prime service, which among other benefits gives members free two-day delivery. The Cowen note said that the percentage of households in the United States that only pay for Prime membership has gone from 7.1% in 2013 to 16.2% in 2016. During that same time period, the number of U.S. households that only use Costco has dropped from 14.9% to 9.8%, while Sam’s Club has been hit even harder, falling from 16.9% to 9.7%. Read More > at The Motley Fool
Is rooftop solar worth it? Californians consider the question as use, complaints rise – As surely as the sun rises in the East, Californians regularly encounter advertisements for the benefits and cost savings of home solar systems and energy efficiency upgrades. Their ubiquity reflects California’s policy goals. Solar power and energy-efficient homes are two blocks in the edifice of climate-friendly energy programs California has been building.
The state oversees a small galaxy of programs encouraging residential solar energy generation, which lawmakers regularly seek to bolster. Local governments have opted into programs like Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, which allows consumers to upgrade their homes with loans repaid through their property taxes.
…And people who sign up for PACE are not always expecting higher tax obligations.
“The county has received a few complaints from people who are surprised when their tax bill has increased,” said Robert Davison, chief of Sacramento County’s engineering division.
Consequences can go beyond a bigger tax bite. The PACE financing agreements typically place a lien on someone’s property, to be paid off over as much as 20 years. Because paying off that lien takes precedence over settling other types of home debt, carrying that obligation can make it harder to refinance a mortgage or sell a home. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will not buy or refinance mortgages with PACE liens.
A law just signed by Brown will furnish consumers with more information. Assembly Bill 2693 requires PACE agreements to come with a disclosure form detailing how much more customers would need to pay. It also extends a window to cancel new contracts. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee
California eases restrictions on ‘granny units’ – California homeowners interested in building accessory dwelling units on their property just caught a break, potentially shaving off thousands of dollars in fees and permits.
In a move proponents say will help ease the Bay Area’s housing crisis, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed Senate Bill 1069, making the so-called “granny units” easier and less expensive to build throughout the state.
Accessory dwelling units (ADUs), including backyard cottages and some studio apartments, are typically more affordable than market-rate rentals.
Under the new law, water and sewer agencies would be prevented from charging hookup fees for ADUs built within an existing house or an existing detached unit on the same lot. Local agencies also cannot impose parking rules for certain ADUs, including those located within a half-mile from public transit, or units that are part of an existing primary residence.
The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties opposed the bill, arguing that it took away cities’ power to regulate these units and could hinder a neighborhood’s character. Read More > in The Mercury News
Defending Against Hackers Took a Back Seat at Yahoo, Insiders Say – Six years ago, Yahoo’s computer systems and customer email accounts were penetrated by Chinese military hackers. Google and a number of other technology companies were also hit.
The Google co-founder Sergey Brin regarded the attack on his company’s systems as a personal affront and responded by making security a top corporate priority. Google hired hundreds of security engineers with six-figure signing bonuses, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in security infrastructure and adopted a new internal motto, “Never again,” to signal that it would never again allow anyone — be they spies or criminals — to hack into Google customers’ accounts.
Yahoo, on the other hand, was slower to invest in the kinds of defenses necessary to thwart sophisticated hackers that are now considered standard in Silicon Valley, according to half a dozen current and former company employees who participated in security discussions but agreed to describe them only on the condition of anonymity.
When Marissa Mayer took over as chief executive of the flailing company in mid-2012, security was one of many problems she inherited. With so many competing priorities, she emphasized creating a cleaner look for services like Yahoo Mail and developing new products over making security improvements, the Yahoo employees said. Read More > in The New York Times
Millennial shoppers driving growth at JC Penney – Sure, millennials love Amazon. But the generation’s increasing spending power is also fueling sales growth at a less obvious retailer: J.C. Penney.
The recovering department store on Tuesday detailed plans for its fall men’s apparel lineup, which “caters to millennial guys.” It includes the addition of Russell Simmons’ Argyleculture collection, and an expansion of the Ecko and Michael Strahan labels.
“Young men, ages 25 to 35, are driving big growth at J.C. Penney,” John Tighe, the company’s chief merchant, said in a release. “This demographic has a lot of spending power and is very opinionated about the style and fit of his clothes.”
Tighe’s comments follow similar insights that the Penney’s team shared with analysts last month. The chain’s emerging customer base — which it’s labeled the “modern American mom” — accounts for 45 percent of its sales and growing, management said. On average, this shopper is 33 years old, female and identifies with more than one culture. Read More > at CNBC
Roller Coasters for Kidney Stones?
A driverless future is coming — but it won’t start with self-driving cars – Self-driving cars are coming.
Tesla is aiming to have a fully driverless car ready by 2018, and Uber recently kicked off a pilot in Pittsburgh where select users can hail a ride in a self-driving car. And many other companies have plans to roll out some form of self-driving cars by 2020.
But chances are, you’re more likely to see a driverless truck in practice before a self-driving car.
There’s two reasons for this, the first being the tech itself.
It’s a lot easier to build autonomous tech for highway driving than city maneuvering. On highways, there are fewer obstacles for the vehicles to worry about. Cities are a mess of pedestrians, cars, potholes, traffic cones — you get the point. All of those obstacles mean driverless cars have a lot to keep track of, and it can be easy to miss something. Read More > at Business Insider
Violent crime rises in California, U.S. – but is still low compared to past – Violent crimes increased in California and across the nation in the last year but continue to remain well below historic peaks, according to FBI data released Monday.
Murder increased nearly 11 percent nationwide. In California, it was 9.5 percent, according to data provided by local law enforcement agencies to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which compiles data on murders, aggravated assault, car thefts and other crimes.
UC Irvine Professor Charis Kubrin, of the department of criminology, law and society, cautioned that the numbers may look alarming but “there’s no evidence of a national homicide wave.”
Instead, crime trends have held steady, she said.
“It is important to remember that at the end of the day, even with this increase, we are still lower than 30 years ago,” Kubrin said. “In California, if you look at major cities with populations over 400,000, the state has fared pretty well.” Read More > in The Orange County Register
Physical fitness central to Sacramento district’s focus on the ‘whole child’ – When Gov. Jerry Brown pushed his idea for giving local schools and districts more control over decision making, few people would have predicted that in at least one California elementary school district physical education would rise to the top of its list of priorities.
That’s what happened in the K-6 Robla School District on the outskirts of Sacramento which serves mostly low-income Latino and Asian students. Using funds received from the Local Control Funding Formula, the district hired five new physical education teachers this year – one for each school in the district.
But school leaders have gone way beyond more P.E. They have come up with an ambitious plan to revolutionize the way the district’s 2,200 students, their families, teachers and staff eat, exercise and relax – with additional help from charitable organizations.
…In the future, he wants to put even more emphasis on exercise and healthy eating. “Besides teaching kids math and language, we also have a responsibility to the whole child, and that includes physical activities,” he said.
One element of Reyes’ plan involves daily walks. That’s why on a recent Friday morning, 45 first-graders and their teachers at Robla’s Taylor Street Elementary School walked from their classroom right after attendance was taken and crossed a street to get to a neighborhood park. Read More > at EdSource
There Is Absolutely No Reason to Even Consider Eating Reduced-Fat Cheese, Says Science – Here’s some good news for cheese lovers (you, me, all of us).
Attention shoppers: Put down that ball of skinny mozzarella and and step away from the reduced-fat cheese aisle. According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, regular-fat cheese has no marked effect on your bad (LDL) cholesterol, but it does have a positive effect on your good (HDL) cholesterol—and it’s better for your HDL than that low-fat nonsense you’ve been (crying over) eating all these years.
Sure, conventional wisdom seems to make logical sense—regular-fat cheese is packed with saturated fat, so lots of governments have issued dietary guidelines recommending people eat reduced-fat cheese, instead. So when researchers in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen undertook the study, aiming to determine the effects of different-fat cheeses on cholesterol and “risk factors for MetS (Metabolic Syndrome—risk factors that increase your chances of getting heart disease, diabetes, and stroke), they were probably surprised to find that higher-fat cheese don’t increase risk factors at all, at least when it comes to LDL. Read More > at Food and Wine
Here’s how selfies will keep you safe when hailing an Uber – Uber now requires that drivers periodically take a selfie that will then be compared to an image on file. The selfie requirement is part of Uber’s Real-Time ID Check that utilizes Microsoft Cognitive Services to ensure riders know exactly who their driver is. Before going online and sporadically in between their work hours, Uber drivers will be asked to take a selfie. Verification, Uber claims, only takes a few seconds. If the image doesn’t match the one on file, the Uber driver’s account will be temporarily blocked.
The selfie program was first instituted in China earlier this year, with select cities in the US, which include New York, Atlanta, Miami, and Los Angeles, requiring drivers to use the technology. But the safety feature will now be expanded to the entire nation. Joe Sullivan, Uber’s security chief, claims that more than 99 percent of drivers were verified during the company’s testing period over the past few months in a blog post on the company’s website. Read More > at Autoblog
Chinese City Urges Comrades to Do Their Part and Reproduce – For 36 years the Chinese state nearly turned out the lights on childbearing, ordering most families to have just one child and to focus instead on economic growth. An authoritative public letter to Communist Party members from the central government in September 1980 detailed the one-child policy.
The program was effective. In the city of Yichang in the central province of Hubei, the fertility rate today is just 0.72 children per woman, according to a study by city officials and Chinese academics that was reported by Pengpai, an online news website. That is one of the lowest in the country. Data from the Chinese government’s national census in 2010 puts the overall fertility rate at 1.18, below the replacement rate of more than 2.1.
So this week Yichang officials snapped on the lights again, issuing another public letter — this one to local party members and civil servants — urging them to fulfill their duty and procreate for China’s new two-child policy, which came into force nationwide on Jan. 1. Read More > in The New York Times
America’s Monopoly Problem – …In the past few decades, however, the economy has come to resemble something more like a stagnant pool. Entrepreneurship, as measured by the rate of new-business formation, has declined in each decade since the 1970s, and adults under 35 (a k a Millennials) are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation on record.
This decline in dynamism has coincided with the rise of extraordinarily large and profitable firms that look discomfortingly like the monopolies and oligopolies of the 19th century. American strip malls and yellow pages used to brim with new small businesses. But today, in a lot where several mom-and-pop shops might once have opened, Walmart spawns another superstore. In almost every sector of the economy—including manufacturing, construction, retail, and the entire service sector—the big companies are getting bigger. The share of all businesses that are new firms, meanwhile, has fallen by 50 percent since 1978. According to the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank dedicated to advancing the ideals of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, “markets are now more concentrated and less competitive than at any point since the Gilded Age.”
To comprehend the scope of corporate consolidation, imagine a day in the life of a typical American and ask: How long does it take for her to interact with a market that isn’t nearly monopolized? She wakes up to browse the internet, access to which is sold through a local monopoly. She stocks up on food at a superstore such as Walmart, which owns a quarter of the grocery market. If she gets indigestion, she might go to a pharmacy, likely owned by one of three companies controlling 99 percent of that market. If she’s stressed and wants to relax outside the shadow of an oligopoly, she’ll have to stay away from ebooks, music, and beer; two companies control more than half of all sales in each of these markets. There is no escape—literally. She can try boarding an airplane, but four corporations control 80 percent of the seats on domestic flights.
Politicians from both parties publicly worship the solemn dignity of entrepreneurship and small businesses. But by the numbers, America has become the land of the big and the home of the consolidated. Read More > in The Atlantic
California’s November Ballot Features Record Number of Revenue Measures – Californians who go to the polls this November will be asked to approve more local revenue measures than have been proposed in any of the last five gubernatorial or presidential elections, according to a new analysis from government finance consulting firm CaliforniaCityFinance.com. There are a total of 650 local measures before voters, including 427 tax or bond proposals. Before now, the record was 268 local revenue measures put to voters in November of 2014.
The barrage of monetary requests comes after years of cutbacks to state and local programs. Some of the largest bond measures include $3.5 billion for Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), $1.2 billion for homeless housing in Los Angeles, and $950 million for affordable housing in Santa Clara. Another 184 local measures are aimed at funding school and community college projects to the tune of over $25 billion.
All of this comes on top of a string of statewide ballot initiatives covering everything from marijuana to tobacco taxes to criminal justice reform. The state voter guide now clocks in at 224 pages and weighs over half a pound! Read More > at California County News
Transportation Special Session in Gridlock – Much like much of the state’s traffic, the legislative special session on transportation/infrastructure is stuck in gridlock. Democratic legislators have a plan to provide $7.5 billion a year in new tax revenue. The governor’s plan also includes tax increases. Republicans want to use current tax revenue more efficiently, cap and trade funds for roads or direct some of the road related monies like truck weight fees directly into road improvements. Neither side budges.
Could this gridlock be altered by the results of November’s elections?
If the Democrats secure the two-thirds majority that would allow them to raise taxes without Republican support, then its game over, right? The Democrats will pass a tax increase and the governor will sign it.
While many Democrats are happy to blame the Republicans for the gridlock over the special session because the GOP won’t okay taxes, the scolding Democrats conveniently overlook a good portion of their own caucus, which is wary of raising gasoline taxes on constituents. Read More > at Fox and Hounds
Bay Area wages soaring — but still can’t keep up with housing prices – The Bay Area’s wages are getting higher, far outpacing most of the country, but more residents are finding their paychecks can’t keep up with the region’s skyrocketing cost of living.
The typical Silicon Valley income — well over $100,000 annually — is now double the national average, according to a Bay Area News Group analysis of ten years of federal data. But while pay here is soaring, the cost of housing is rising even faster.
Over the last five years, average wages in the Bay Area’s five most populous counties have risen by roughly 30 percent. In those same five years, the period of recovery and economic expansion after the Great Recession, home prices in those counties have soared more than 87 percent. In the more affordable East Bay, the median home price has doubled.
The gap between wages and home prices isn’t the only disparity underscored by this news organization’s analysis of wage trends in the Bay Area.
Wages in the three counties with higher concentrations of technology companies far outpace those in counties with relatively few tech jobs. At the end of June, Santa Clara County had 344,700 tech jobs, and the East Bay had 137,400. At the end of March, annual pay averaged $114,920 in Santa Clara County, $114,140 in San Mateo County and $106,808 in San Francisco, according to the federal government’s closely watched Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.
But in the East Bay, wages averaged $70,356 in Alameda County and $66,820 in Contra Costa County.
And Sonoma and Solano have even lower average wages. Read More > in The Mercury News
Jobs Recovery Reaches Plateau, Posing a Challenge for Forecasters – After a half-decade of steady gains, the U.S. labor market appears to be leveling off. What that plateau means for the economy’s trajectory is one of the biggest questions hanging over policy makers and investors.
Hiring is consistent but slower than in recent years, the unemployment rate is no longer falling and layoffs are holding at a historically low level. But participation in the workforce is stuck near a 40-year low.
If the moderate hiring rate continues, that should keep the unemployment rate in check by absorbing new entrants to the workforce. That’s a good thing, but it might not be enough to deliver significantly higher paychecks for workers or draw discouraged Americans back into the labor force.
The labor market “is close to as good as it gets,” given the underlying fundamentals of the economy, said IHS Markit Chief Economist Nariman Behravesh. “But averages hide a lot of problems. A lot of low-skilled and blue-collar workers have been left behind. They might have a job, but it pays less than the job they had before the recession.” Read More > in The Wall Street Jounral
The boho-drain: bohemians say goodbye San Francisco, hello LA – Once upon a time it seemed San Francisco artists visited Los Angeles only on condition they were tripping on LSD, or some other hallucinogen.
How else to survive the concrete landscape and endless traffic, the airheads and flakes, the tinsel and hustle and sheer vapidity of a metropolis which considered la-la-land a compliment?
So the beat poets and hippies and all the other bohemians would make fleeting forays south before returning to their foggy bay area sanctuary with tales of sun-frizzled vulgarians.
Then everything changed.
“San Francisco turned into this billionaire playground. Everything I identified with was being pushed out. The community that I loved was crumbling and disappearing,” said Andrew Schoultz, a painter. “I just didn’t want to be in that city anymore. So I moved to LA.”
A burgeoning community of San Francisco transplants – musicians, writers, designers, comedians – appears to be growing fast, injecting fresh talent into a city which thrums with new museums, galleries, events and artistic experimentation, giving it plausible claim as the US’s cultural capital. Read More > in The Guardian
Don’t Look Now, but the Global Oil Surplus Just Tripled – Way back in June of 2014, oil was trading above $110 per barrel and producers were sitting pretty. Now, some 27 months later, those same producers have been put through the wringer and been forced to endure prices that dipped as low as $27 per barrel at the start of this year before recently settling in the $40-50 range. A global oversupply precipitated this price collapse, and its persistence has been as much of a boon for buyers as it has been a headache for sellers. Now, as Bloomberg reports, that glut appears to have tripled over the course of the past month:
More than 800,000 barrels a day of additional crude is pouring into the global market this month compared with August as Russia pumps at an all-time high while Libya and Nigeria restore disrupted supplies, according to statements from their ministry officials. That would imply a tripling of the supply surplus, estimated currently at about 400,000 barrels a day by the International Energy Agency. […]
The global oil oversupply will persist into 2017 as members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries such as Saudi Arabia pump near record levels, others such as Iran and Iraq bolster capacity and production outside the group weathers the price slump, according to the IEA. Prices may struggle to hold above $40 a barrel unless OPEC acts, Citigroup Inc. predicts.
This ought to give the delegates from various petrostates assembling in Algiers next week extra motivation to come to an agreement to freeze their collective agreement. The Saudis, for their part, seem more willing to play ball this time around, and have reportedly agreed to cut production by 1 million barrels per day if Iran joins in and other countries roll back their output to levels they hit earlier this year. Read More > at The America Interest