Sunday Reading – 12/11/16

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.

Pig to greet travelers at San Francisco airport – This has certainly been the year for flying pigs, but the San Francisco International Airport has the first official one.

Although LiLou, a Juliana breed pig, doesn’t actually fly, she does hang around with humans who do. She is the first swine to join the airport’s a team of therapy animals, and is believed to be the only airport porker in the country.

She’s part of the airport’s Wag Brigade which includes about 300 cats, dogs and rabbits whose presence help make the strains of travel a bit easier.

The brigade was formed in December 2013, and all of the animals are trained by the San Francisco SPCA, and certified to be Animal Assisted Therapy animals. The pets are carefully selected for their temperament and airport suitability, and they wear vests that read “Pet Me!” to encourage interaction with airport guests.

LiLou was chosen for her winning personality, and her overall cuteness, which is off the charts. She’ll be greeting travelers in a series of costumes and with perfectly manicured “nails.” Read More > in The Mercury News

Growing mosquito populations linked to urbanization, DDT’s slow decay – Mosquito populations have increased as much as ten-fold over the past five decades in New York, New Jersey, and California, according to long-term datasets from mosquito monitoring programs. The number of mosquito species in these areas increased two- to four-fold in the same period.

A new study finds the main drivers of these changes were the gradual waning of DDT concentrations in the environment and increased urbanization. The findings were published December 6 in Nature Communications.

The potential effects of climate change on the spread of insect-borne diseases is a major public health concern, but this study found little evidence that mosquito populations in these areas were responding to changes in temperature or precipitation.

“At first glance, recent increases in mosquito populations appear to be linked to rising temperatures from climate change, but careful analyses of data over the past century show that it’s actually recovery from the effects of DDT,” said corresponding author Marm Kilpatrick, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz.

…Mosquito control programs continue to help limit mosquito populations in many areas, but currently available techniques are not nearly as effective as DDT was, Kilpatrick said. “Everyone knew DDT was an extremely effective insecticide, but I was surprised by how long-lasting its effects were. In some areas, it took 30 to 40 years for mosquito populations to recover,” he said. Read More > at Science Daily

Lab-grown meat may be meal of the future – If you could have a gene put in into you to prevent Parkinson’s would you? Or cure your daughter’s cystic fibrosis? Reduce susceptibility to breast cancer?

If you answered “yes” that means you aren’t against the idea of humans being genetically modified organisms.

What about altering a gene in a potato to make it more resistant to blight? The potato still tastes the same, but needs a lot fewer pesticides. And could save farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses in the U.S. alone. Yet the idea of tweaking a potato creates public outcry.

The science of gene modification is not stopping, not even slowing, while the public debates whether or not this is something they want. The fact is, when something costs less or is potentially healthier, people want it. Slap all the labels in it you want and it will still get bought.

…The next step in genetically modified meat market is the creation of hybrids. Imagine an oversized earthworm whose muscles were the same as a cow’s. These boneless worms could be easily raised, “slaughtered” and ground into meat. This sounds like science fiction, but the recent advances in genome engineering have made inserting or replacing genes both accurate and easy. Perhaps you’ve heard of “spider goats” — no joke, these goats have a gene from the orb weaver spider inserted into their DNA so that their milk creates spider silk proteins that can be harvested and spun into microfibers. Pigs have been modified to need and excrete less phosphorus, cows less flatulent, tilapia mature faster and mosquitoes die faster (to lessen malaria transmission).

The final step will be to bypass the animals altogether and create meat in a lab. Read More > in The Mercury News

Pentagon buries evidence of $125 billion in bureaucratic waste – The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget, according to interviews and confidential memos obtained by The Washington Post.

Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.

The report, issued in January 2015, identified “a clear path” for the Defense Department to save $125 billion over five years. The plan would not have required layoffs of civil servants or reductions in military personnel. Instead, it would have streamlined the bureaucracy through attrition and early retirements, curtailed high-priced contractors and made better use of information technology.

…For the military, the major allure of the study was that it called for reallocating the $125 billion for troops and weapons. Among other options, the savings could have paid a large portion of the bill to rebuild the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal, or the operating expenses for 50 Army brigades.

But some Pentagon leaders said they fretted that by spotlighting so much waste, the study would undermine their repeated public assertions that years of budget austerity had left the armed forces starved of funds. Instead of providing more money, they said, they worried Congress and the White House might decide to cut deeper. Read More > in The Washington Post

Fake news is not a technology problem – Ever since the election, we have heard a chorus of voices, largely in the media, explaining that a key influence on the election results was the spread of “fake news” online. This term is used to refer to a combination of deliberate propaganda, crankish speculation, and wild assertions, especially spread via social media, but sometimes also ranked highly by search engines. The Guardian recently published a pointed critique of Google, opening with the claim that “Google must urgently review its search ranking system because of “compelling” evidence that it is being “manipulated and controlled” by rightwing propagandists.” The story goes on to quote various “concerned experts” who solemnly intone that “unless Google acknowledged responsibility for the problem, it would be a ‘co-conspirator’ with the propagandists.” Similar pieces have appeared blaming Facebook for making it too easy to share “fake news.” This critique is wide of the mark: “Fake news” and misinformation are not new problems, and are also not primarily technology problems.

…Facebook didn’t invent rumor-mongering. It doubtless has made the problem more visible, since what used to be merely asserted drunkenly in saloons or spoken on talk radio is now in publicly visible text online. But visibility is not the same as impact and we should not assume without evidence that technology has made false rumors more dangerous to society. (The election of Donald Trump is not evidence that falsehood has any new potency. Partisans have been repeating lies about their opposition since the birth of democracy.)

…The Guardian and its “gravely concerned” experts argue that Internet companies should adopt more editorial responsibility. But this is a task that the Internet companies are ill-suited for and that their users do not want. Google and Facebook are in the business of showing results that users find relevant, not the editorial business. If users are seeking carefully curated news, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are both available online, and there is no particular reason why Google ought to compete directly against them. As Google founder and CEO Larry Page put it, the perfect search engine is something that understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want. Alas, for most people, what they want is not pure truth.

In America, we allow both broadsheet newspapers and supermarket tabloids to be sold. The underlying philosophy of the First Amendment (and free speech generally) is that society should leave people to make their own truth judgements, and should not rely on appointed authorities to promulgate truth and suppress falsehood. The technology industry stands on solid philosophical ground with its desire to concentrate on building content-neutral platforms, rather than to be the world’s arbiter of fact. Read More > at Tech Policy Daily

Two-Thousand Years of Grinches – I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the real meaning of Christmas has been sadly overtaken by wanton capitalism in recent years. “This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy,” as one critic put it. “The tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.”

The year was 400, and the anxious writer was the Cappadocian Bishop Asterius of Amasea. Asterius’ pious fretting is quoted in Canadian historian Gerry Bowler’s Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, which makes clear that hand-wringing over the correct way to celebrate the Christ child started practically before the kid left the manger.

The refreshing takeaway of Christmas in the Crosshairs is that most contemporary agita about Christmas’ supposed decline is misplaced. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t a recent development; St. Augustine was pleading with people to give alms instead of holiday gifts in the early fifth century. The supposed erasure of Christ from Christmas isn’t new, either; devout killjoys have forever lamented the season’s secular revelry. And the “war on Christmas” has been enlisting troops for centuries; in Communist Russia, Christmas trees were banned, and children were told their gifts came from Stalin, not Santa. Despite all these obstacles, Christmas is now, Bowler announces, “the biggest single event on the planet.” Read More > in Slate

Purdy: The Kap vs. Alex argument is settled–and it’s become obvious the 49ers made the wrong choice When it comes to the 49ers, we can spend many hours–or days or weeks and bye weeks–arguing about exactly how it all went so wrong for them over the last few seasons. But one issue is coming into clarity.

That would be the longstanding debate about whether, in 2012, the team should have stuck with Alex Smith at quarterback for the long term instead of Colin Kaepernick.

Frankly, the debate is settled. Alex Smith’s side wins. The 49ers should have kept him as a starter and never traded him before the 2013 season. Instead, they dealt Smith to Kansas City where . . . gee what do you know? Here he is again. His team is contending for a playoff spot and faces the Raiders on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium. If the Chiefs win, they will be in the pole position to claim the AFC West title.

As for Kaepernick . . . whatever happened to him, anyway?

No, that’s not a snarky joke question. I really wonder what happened to him. It has been stunning to witness a man who seemed to have such unlimited potential as well as a palpable desire to become a NFL star instead turn out to be . . . well, whatever it was we saw in Chicago last Sunday as Kaepernick lost his seventh straight game as a starter. Read More > in The Mercury News

California’s new Legislature has biggest gender gap in quarter century – As California’s state legislators began a new session this week, data shows the 120-member Legislature is far more male and white than the state it represents.

The new Legislature will have fewer female lawmakers than any since the early 1990s. And the proportion of Latinos in the statehouse lags far behind the state’s demographics.

The information comes from the California State Library, a public research arm of state government. Experts say the gaps seen in the lawmakers’ numbers have a significant impact on decisions and policies, and they won’t be easily closed.

…The issue extends to candidates running for office, not just those who win. KPCC analyzed the results of legislative races in the November 2014 and 2016 elections. Of 395 candidates for Assembly and Senate, just 97 were women — that’s about one in four.

…The state’s data also exposes significant gaps between the race and ethnicity of Californians and their legislators. While Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the Californians, they’re just 22.5 percent of state legislators.

The reverse is true for whites. They make up 38 percent of the state but 57 percent of Senate and Assembly members. The proportions of black and Asian-American/Pacific Islander legislators are roughly in line with the state’s population. Read More > at KPCC

Why the Automotive Future Will Be Dominated by Fuel Cells – You’d have to be completely uninterested in cars or any other type of transportation to not recognize that automobiles are undergoing a major transition. They no longer run solely on internal-combustion engines and burn petroleum-based fuels. Nowadays, consumers routinely purchase vehicles that run in part or entirely on electricity.

There are different forces behind this colossal shift. For one, electrically powered vehicles reduce the emissions of pollutants that degrade local air quality and of carbon dioxide, which poses significant worry about altering the climate.

…Electric vehicles can be divided into three groups. Most common today, of course, are hybrids, which combine batteries, electric motors, and internal-combustion engines. Although these vehicles have many virtues, in particular high efficiency, all but the plug-in hybrids ultimately draw all of their power from petroleum-based fuels.

The second group is battery electric vehicles, or BEVs, such as the Nissan LEAF and the Tesla Model S, which are now reasonably common. While the electricity they use to charge their batteries comes primarily from fossil fuels, BEVs are advantageous because they use that energy more efficiently than a car with an internal-combustion engine. The grid is also moving to more renewable power, further reducing the carbon signature associated with BEVs.

A third budding category consists of fuel-cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs, which are just emerging, but as I argue below, represent the electric vehicle that most people will ultimately select as their principal car. Read More > at IEEE Spectrum

Future of Free Speech Grim on Social Networks – Reddit has suffered a rocky year, having weathered months of censorship concerns and subreddit shutdowns. Recent revelations that co-founder and current CEO Steve Huffman was surreptitiously editing Reddit posts critical of him have thrown the community into still more chaos. But Reddit is far from the only social network struggling with the tension between speech and sensitivity. Similar snafus at other services have been dominating recent headlines: there’s “fake news” on Facebook, “hate speech” on Twitter, and the continued scourge of rude comment sections.

Social-media platforms are finding it harder to mouth free speech platitudes (and enjoy the corresponding cultural benefits) while at the same time actively curating a sanitized media feed. Yet to not curate or censor is to be accused of aiding and abetting a parade of horribles ranging from online jihadis to the “alt-right.”

…Of course, internet companies like Reddit and Twitter are private corporations that can run their businesses however they see fit. If that includes censorship, so be it. Users are free to seek or build a better alternative—as users of the still relatively-obscure Voat or Gab platforms have—or just stop using the service altogether.

Yet a social network is only as valuable as, well, its network. If everyone you know insists on using a certain service, you’re probably going to use that one, too. Even if you don’t personally use a particular network, if enough people in a country or planet do use it, then its policies and priorities could have a major impact on your life.

And then there’s the value of “free speech” on a conceptual level. If you hold free speech to be an ideal worth fighting for, you will push platforms to protect it, even if it is costly or inconvenient. Read More > at Reason

Volkswagen launches Moia, a new standalone mobility company – Volkswagen Group is making a significant bet on future mobility services with Moia, a new separate company that will exist under the VW umbrella of brands focused specifically on providing mobility solutions, including fleet-based commuter shuttles and, eventually, autonomous on-demand transportation.

…To do this, Moia will be focused first on setting up on-demand shuttle services, using original designs for small, multi-passenger shuttles that are intended to operate with electric drivetrains for maximum efficiency with minimum impact.

Users will be able to hail shuttles from an app, and join them from designated pick-up points along routes near their location on short notice. If users hail during a time when they’d be the only passenger, Moia is currently planning to potentially outsource that to partners like Gett or others operating ride-hailing services to ensure users still get a ride when they need one. Read More > at Tech Crunch

Amazon unveils smart convenience store sans checkouts, cashiers – The tech giant has built a convenience store in downtown Seattle that deploys a gaggle of technologies similar to those used in self-driving cars to allow shoppers to come in, grab items and walk out without going through a register.

The 1,800-square-foot store, officially dubbed “Amazon Go,” is the latest beach in brick-and-mortar retail stormed by the e-commerce giant, which already has bookstores and is working on secretive drive-thru grocery locations.

…Shoppers walking into the store call up the Amazon Go app and hold their smartphone to a scanner as they would at an airport security line. That opens a gate. Then they just pick any combination of products and walk out. Amazon charges them after they leave the store.

Unlike the self-serve registers present at many supermarkets, there’s no need to stand in line or go through any register.

The store features ready-to-eat meals and snacks prepared by on-site chefs or local bakeries. There are also essentials such as bread and milk, as well as high-end cheese and chocolate. Read More > in The Seattle Times

‘Locked, loaded and ready to roll’: San Andreas fault danger zones – A series of small earthquakes up to magnitude 4 started popping off right next to the San Andreas fault at the end of September, giving Californian seismologists the jitters.

This swarm of more than 200 mini-quakes radiated from faults under the Salton Sea, right down at the southern end of the San Andreas fault.

And although the small quakes only released tiny amounts of energy, the fear was that this fidgeting could be enough to trigger an earthquake on the big fault. “Any time there is significant seismic activity in the vicinity of the San Andreas fault, we seismologists get nervous,” said Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Centre in Los Angeles.

Because despite a plethora of sensitive instruments, satellite measurements and powerful computer models, no-one can predict when the next big one will rattle the Golden State.

…But most worrying of all is the southern portion (from San Bernardino southwards through the Coachella Valley), which last ruptured in the late 1600s. With more than 300 years of accumulated strain, it is this segment that seismologists view as the most hazardous. Read More > at Cosmos

Three Political Parties Populate the New Legislature – If you listen closely to post election chatter you must conclude that there will be three political parties that occupy seats in the legislature sworn in today: The Democrats, the Republicans and the Moderates.

Questions about moderate Democrats, the so-called “Mod Squad,” and how they may influence the legislative process is a major unknown for the coming session. The number of centrist candidates became greater in the recent election, yet the California legislature continues to veer leftward and is expected to remain on that trajectory as it battles mandates from the Trump administration.

Frustrating Trump in California is one of the goals expressed by California’s political leaders. That insistence likely will wash up against efforts by the Mod Squad to bring a more centrist attitude and bi-partisan spirit to Sacramento.

The goal of many moderate legislators is to boost the middle class. Jobs and economic growth are the tried and true formula but that prescription often finds road blocks from environmental advocates, coastal elites, influential public unions, and progressive politicians who goals of reducing traditional energy sources and mandating new requirements and fees on business reduce job creating incentives. Read More > at Fox & Hounds

More Central Americans are giving up on the U.S. and looking instead to a Mexican dream – Unable to find work and terrified by the street gangs that brazenly roamed the streets, Karen Zaldivar was one of tens of thousands of young people who fled Honduras in 2014.

Caught trying to slip across the U.S.-Mexico border, she was promptly deported.

Last year, Zaldivar set out again, but with a new destination: Mexico. She now lives in a small city just north of the Guatemalan border along with growing numbers of other Central Americans who have concluded that if they can’t reach the United States, the next best thing is Mexico.

Estimates of how many Central Americans are living in Mexico are hard to come by, in part because some, like Zaldivar, have obtained forged Mexican identity documents. But statistics show more and more are staying legally by seeking political asylum or humanitarian visas.

Asylum applications in Mexico nearly tripled over three years, hitting 3,424 in 2015. Asylum requests this year are poised to be twice that, human rights advocates say, with most filed by Hondurans and Salvadorans. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Move Over, Fracking. There’s a New Technology in Town – What do Hot Pockets and oil shale have in common? As it turns out, more than you might imagine. True, you can’t bake oil shale the way you can Hot Pockets. And you can’t steam Hot Pockets (unless you like ’em soggy) the way you can oil shale when you want to siphon off its black gold. But there is one preparation method that works for both these two improbable sources of abundant energy, and it’s probably in your kitchen at this very moment: microwaves.

As strange as it sounds, producers are experimenting with ways to zap previously unextractable oil resources with microwaves, which has the potential to kick-start an even bigger energy revolution than fracking — and appease environmentalists while they’re at it. This is potentially “a whole shift in the paradigm,” says Peter Kearl, co-founder and CTO of Qmast, a Colorado-based company pioneering the use of the microwave tech. Some marquee names are betting on the play: Oil giants BP and ConocoPhillips are pouring resources into developing similar extraction techniques, which can be far less water- and energy-intensive than fracking.

If producers can find a way to microwave oil shales in the Green River Formation, which sprawls across Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, the nation’s recoverable reserves could soar and energy independence could become more than an election slogan. Read More > at Ozy

Our 8 second attention span and the future of news media – A recent Microsoft consumer study claims that the human attention span today is 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. The goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds. Make do of what you want with this research, but I don’t believe that this warrants lamentations about phones ruining our minds. Instead, over the past decade or so with the advent of social media, our minds seem to have evolved to adapt to the information flood from the synergy between news media and social media.

During this time many news media companies transitioned from print to online while keeping their ad revenue-heavy business model. Some of these news media companies discovered a game-changing formula with social media — more sharing translates to more ad impressions/clicks and more revenue. And as social media became more mainstream (when your grandma joined Facebook and your mom got on Snapchat), news media companies became increasingly dependent on it. Yet,it was only a couple of years ago that 68-percent of journalists said that journalism can no longer operate with social media.

In 2015, social media drove more referrals to news sites than search engines. Today, digital advertising revenue accounts for 36 percent of the New York Times’ advertising revenue and 70 percent of Forbes’. Social media is the pedal behind the wheels. In addition, new notable printless news media companies were born out of this social media proliferation era such as the Huffington Post (2005), BuzzFeed (2006, same as Twitter), Business Insider (2009) Mic (2011), and Quartz (2012). – Read More > at Venture Beat

Hotels are ditching nightstand bibles. The new religion is Wi-Fi – Hotels guests are seeking a connection with something they cannot see. But no longer of the spiritual kind.

Religious materials, particularly bibles, have been a nightstand staple at American hotels for decades. Yet innkeepers are now ditching holy books for more modern amenities.

A survey conducted by the American Hotel and Lodging Association and hotel research firm STR found that just 46% of American hotel rooms included religious material in rooms, less than half of what it was a decade ago.

But hotels, faced with increased competition due to a building boom and competition from Airbnb, are trying to appease the modern traveler—a fickle customer and a noted workaholic. For many travelers these days, rooms with no Wi-Fi access would be unthinkable. Nearly all—98%–of the 8,000 respondents in the survey said their properties had in-room wireless internet, up from 82% a decade ago. Read More > at Quartz

College football bowl schedule for 2016-17 – A complete breakdown of all the matchups for this season’s bowl schedule which starts on Dec. 17 at the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque.

The 41-game postseason extravaganza continues for the next three weeks through the College Football Playoff national championship game scheduled for Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla.

The bowl lineup (all times are ET):

Dec. 17 — New Mexico Bowl, New Mexico vs. Texas-San Antonio, Albuquerque, 2 p.m. (ESPN)

Dec. 17 — Las Vegas Bowl, Houston vs. San Diego State, Las Vegas, 3:30 p.m. (ABC) Read More > at USA Today

Should California secede? How the state is politically out-of-step with the rest of the country – …To dispense with the prospect of California’s seceding from the union: On the gonna-happen scale, it’s a Not. “We’d either have to win the ensuing civil war or have Congress kiss us goodbye,” says Joel D. Aberbach, director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA. “There isn’t a procedure for seceding” in the Constitution. The very notion of the U.S. as a divisible entity was settled by the Civil War.

A constitutional amendment is the longest of long shots. It must be approved by a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states (38 of the 50).

But the conflicts between state and federal policy will be serious. Here’s a look at what may be some of the most important.

Climate change: California has been among the national leaders in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and as recently as September strengthened its policies with a law mandating the reduction of climatologically harmful emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030. Its auto emission rules traditionally have set a benchmark for the auto industry and federal regulators.

During his campaign, Trump dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax and pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which already has been ratified by 113 of the 197 signatory countries. The U.S. ratified the agreement by presidential order on Sept. 3.

Gun control and marijuana: Voters on election day flouted federal policy in both areas. Proposition 63 mandates background checks for ammunition sales and outlaws high-capacity ammo magazines. Proposition 64 legalizes marijuana.

Trump established himself as an ally of the National Rifle Assn. during the campaign, but White House policy may not be the biggest problem for the state’s firearms policy: the courts would be. In rulings in 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court extended the reach of the 2nd Amendment’s protection of the right to bear arms. Within a day of the election, the NRA was talking about challenging Proposition 63 and related state laws before the courts. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times


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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