Sunday Reading – 12/18/16


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.

Finding North America’s lost medieval city – A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region’s tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

At the city’s apex in 1100, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what became the United States, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.

Despite its greatness, the city’s name has been lost to time. Its culture is known simply as Mississippian. When Europeans explored Illinois in the 17th century, the city had been abandoned for hundreds of years. At that time, the region was inhabited by the Cahokia, a tribe from the Illinois Confederation. Europeans decided to name the ancient city after them, despite the fact that the Cahokia themselves claimed no connection to it. Read More > at Ars Technica

The Legal Lanes Are Opening Fast for Driverless Cars – 2016 was a big year for autonomous cars. Uber launched the first U.S. pilot program of a self-driving taxi fleet in Pittsburgh. Otto completed the first beer run ever guided by a self-driving truck. All the opportunities and problems associated with driverless technology are emerging at a faster rate than some experts expected even two years ago.

How will our lawmakers respond to this new autonomous world? Right now the guiding principle appears to be, “Drive and let drive.” Newly passed state laws and a key Cabinet nomination by President-elect Donald Trump indicate that tech and auto companies will continue to shape the driverless future as they see fit in the near term.

This year, California, Florida, and Michigan all passed laws allowing for the operation of autonomous vehicles that lack a steering wheel, a brake pedal, or even an onboard human driver. Michigan’s laws, signed by Governor Rick Snyder last week, go the furthest in establishing a comprehensive framework for how driverless cars can legally operate. The state will now allow driverless cars on public roads beyond the previous limitation of only test drives. It means automakers can set up driverless ridesharing networks, like the one General Motors is building with Lyft. And it will let companies build self-driving truck platoons for shipping goods. The new laws also clarify that the company that creates an automated driving system is legally responsible for any traffic violations that its cars commit, rather than the humans who are along for the ride.

…Overall, though, both tech companies and longstanding automakers are finding states largely receptive to their self-driving businesses, especially in comparison to the intense pitched battles that peer-to-peer services like Uber and Airbnb have waged against local governments in recent years. Their endgame, though, isn’t to lobby 50 state governments to endorse self-driving vehicles — they’d rather have the feds go ahead and grant a nationwide stamp of approval. “Self-driving vehicle hardware needs a single national framework to avoid an inconsistent patchwork of state laws and regulations,” wrote David Strickland, counsel of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group backed by Ford, Volvo, Uber, Google, and Lyft. “The complex and evolving nature of self-driving technology requires not only a flexible approach by policymakers at all levels of government but also one that provides consistency across the country.” Read More > at The Ringer

A Brave New World of Human Reproduction – Advances in reproductive technology may radically change the options we have for starting a family. We’re not too far from fundamentally redefining what it means to start a family.

Do you want to have children, but don’t have a partner? Do you want children with your partner, but it’s a same-sex relationship? Or perhaps you’re a woman who wants children without the burden of a 9-month pregnancy. You might opt for ectogenesis, or moving gestation to an artificial womb.

Here’s a glimpse of this brave new world of baby-making.

In 1924, British physiologist and geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane coined the term ectogenesis. Haldane was thinking of an artificial process in which development, from fertilization to birth, could occur outside of a woman’s body.

He described ectogenesis in a work called Daedalus, where he predicted that about 70 percent of human babies would be born this way by the year 2074. Today, 92 years after Daedalus, judging by the pace of neonatology, genetics and other areas of biomedicine, it appears that we’re on track to have an artificial uterus-placenta of some kind within Haldane’s predicted timeframe.

Thus far, the youngest surviving premature infants were born at gestational ages of 21 weeks, 5 days (weight 624 grams) and 21 weeks, 6 days (283 grams), respectively in 1987 and 2006. In recent years, a growing number of infants have survived after just 22 to 23 weeks gestation, but nobody has broken the age record, despite enormous technical advances in neonatal critical care. Read More > at Discover Magazine

Oakland Raiders stadium plan clears hurdles – Fans and business interests pushing to keep the Raiders in Oakland cleared a hurdle Tuesday when two legislative bodies — the Oakland City Council and the Alameda County Board of Supervisors —approved a nonbinding term sheet for a $1.3 billion stadium plan.

“To me, it’s worth taking the next step because we’re not committing taxpayer dollars to do it,” board President Scott Haggerty said.

Both bodies passed the terms with solid majority support: The City Council approved the terms 7-0 with one abstention, and the Board of Supervisors backed them 3-1 with one abstention.

Under the plan, the city of Oakland and Alameda County would chip in 105 acres at the Coliseum site to the Fortress Investment Group and a development team helmed by former National Football League star Ronnie Lott to build a stadium and parking lot. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Uber Self-Driving Cars Are Here – Uber is bringing a small number of self-driving cars to its ride-hailing service in San Francisco — a move likely to excite the city’s tech-savvy population and certain to antagonize California regulators.

The Wednesday launch in Uber’s hometown expands a public pilot program the company started in Pittsburgh in September. The testing lets everyday people experience the cars as Uber works to identify glitches before expanding the technology’s use in San Francisco and elsewhere.

California law, however, requires a test permit for self-driving prototype vehicles, and Uber does not have one. The company argues that the law doesn’t apply because its cars require a human backup.

Uber’s self-driving tests in San Francisco will begin with a “handful” of Volvo luxury SUVs — the company wouldn’t release an exact number — that have been tricked out with sensors so they can steer, accelerate and brake, and even decide to change lanes. The cars will have an Uber employee behind the wheel to take over should the technology fail. Users of the app may be matched with a self-driving car, but can opt out if they prefer a human driver. Self-driven rides cost the same as ordinary ones.

The cars will be put to the test in the congested streets of San Francisco. The city can be a daunting place to drive given its famously steep hills, frequent fog, street and cable cars, an active bicycle culture, and roads that are constantly being repaved, remarked and restricted for bike lanes and traffic management. Read More > at USA News & World Report

California’s Gift to Its Neighbors: Expanded Cigarette Smuggling Opportunities – …And then Californians went to the polls on Election Day and hiked their cigarette taxes by $2.00 per pack. Business opportunities, here we come.

California will rake in “[a]dditional net state revenue of $1 billion to $1.4 billion in 2017-18, with potentially lower revenues in future years” according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. Potentially lower revenue? The analysis acknowledges that “revenue losses would occur due to lower consumption of tobacco products due to the higher excise taxes” although the decline in smoking “appears to have stalled in recent years.”

So legislative analysts acknowledge that a dramatic tax hike from 87 cents per pack to $2.87 is high enough to depress revenue over time.

Actually, that’s kind of a feature to the hike’s sponsors, who sold it as a social-engineering measure to “save lives” by “getting people to quit or never start this deadly and costly habit” (which they deliberately make more costly, of course). That’s a goal that inherently works against any promises of billions of dollars in raised revenue.

But “revenue losses” might also result from Californian smokers purchasing cigarettes on the black market where higher taxes don’t apply. After all, even at the old 87 cents per pack tax, a third of cigarettes consumed in the state have been smuggled in from elsewhere. There’s no particular reason to assume that the black market in affordable smokes is going to shrink now that voters have self-righteously increased the cost of every pack by two bucks. And when that black market grows, it really should come as no surprise to state officials or California voters.

“If Proposition 56 passes, California may open itself up as a more desirable cigarette smuggling destination as neighboring Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona all impose cigarette tax rates nearly $1 lower than the proposed California rate,” the Tax Foundation’s Morgan Scarboro warned before the measure’s passage. Read More > at Reason

Google is spinning out its self-driving car business into a new company called Waymo – Google is spinning out its self-driving car project into a new company called Waymo, signaling its commitment to become a serious player in the automotive market even as it scales back some of the lofty plans it initially set out with.

Waymo, which stands for “Way forward in mobility,” has the mission of making “it safe and easy for people and things to move around,” executives said at a press conference announcing the news in San Francisco on Tuesday.

…But the first version of Waymo’s self-driving technology to become available won’t be quite the revolution that Google once promised. While Google has been testing a fleet of pod-shaped autonomous vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, executives acknowledged on Tuesday that, for the time being at least, cars will continue to be piloted by humans, with Waymo’s self-driving technology included as a feature.

The spin out of the self-driving car unit, which is currently housed in X, another Alphabet company, has been expected for some time. But the move comes as Google has faced some setbacks in bringing its vision of a steering-wheel free car to market and as it faces increases competition from Uber, the ride-hailing company which is also developing self-driving cars, as well as other automakers. Read More > at Business Insider

Contra Costa County adopts agriculture and open space policy – The county’s local regulatory commission recently adopted county-wide policies to preserve farms and open land and put limits on urban sprawl, but specifics and details continue to be worked out.

On Nov. 9, the Contra Costa Local Agency Formation Commission adopted policies governing the conversion of open space and agricultural lands into land for development.

The commission looked at three separate versions that gave a varying degree of responsibility to either LAFCO or the developer to propose conditions when converting these lands to other uses.

Version 1 allows the applicant to come up with his own proposals to minimize impacts on agricultural operations or open spaces, without baseline measures from LAFCO, as a starting point with the opportunity to review after one year.

“There was concern from the building community, so the commissioners said ‘Let’s start with version 1 and when we review it in a year, we will see how it’s worked out and reassess whether we need to beef it up a little,’” Texeira said. Read More > in the East County Times

Why your car will be your second office by 2021 or sooner, General Motors CEO says – Self-driving cars are about to make your vehicle your office within five years or less, the CEO of General Motors said in an interview this week, as the company began testing autonomous cars in San Francisco.

“Whether it’s a second office or entertainment, I think there is a lot of new opportunities when you have that person in the vehicle,” CEO Mary Barra told Business Insider this week.

GM is currently testing 40 of its self-driving cars (dubbed Bolts) in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Ariz. The automaker acquired S.F.’s autonomous car startup Cruise Automation for a reported $1 billion earlier this year and has quickly gotten to work putting its technology to use. Read More > at the San Francisco Business Times

The NFL’s damning silence on a new case of underinflated footballs – Just listen to those crickets. A conspicuous hush is emanating from the NFL office on the subject of those soft footballs the New York Giants retrieved from the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. Where was the outrage, the treating of ball-inflation and pounds-per-square-inch as more serious than a hijacking? Compare the screams of scandal NFL executives emitted toward Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to this smothered, pillow-over-the-face reaction.

It’s a guilty silence, and it leaves NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell beached and exposed. Goodell has always struggled with the demands of speech, but his wordlessness in this instance has nothing to do with competence but rather dishonesty. Any serious examination of those footballs from the Giants-Steelers game might well show that Goodell owes the Patriots and Brady an apology and material recompense. Which is exactly why the league is shutting the matter down and shutting it down now.

When the Giants tested air pressure on two footballs they captured against the Steelers and reported them to be below the permissible range of 12.5 PSI, league officials should have leaped into action. They should have told Steelers officials, “You’re in big f—— trouble” and then leaked erroneous amateur-hour data that poisoned the public understanding. They should have triggered a massive multimillion-dollar investigation, complete with footnoted junk science, that tarred a future Hall of Famer and resulted in fines, a forfeited draft pick and a four-game suspension. They should have invoked the words “scheme” and “tamper” and “cheating” and “competitive integrity,” even compared the offense to “performance-enhancing drugs.”

Instead? Nothing. NFL execs were neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed by the report of soft footballs. They weren’t whelmed at all. Instead there was this throbbing stillness. Followed by an attempt at denial and misdirection. After Jay Glazer of Fox Sports broke the news that the Giants had gone to the league with measurements showing loss of air pressure, the NFL replied with a stiff-necked yet ducking statement: “The officiating game ball procedures were followed and there were no chain of command issues. All footballs were in compliance and no formal complaint was filed by the Giants with our office.” – Read More > in The Washington Post

Yes, Smoking pot can keep you from being able to buy a gun, and other pot questions answered – Yes. If you want to purchase a firearm and you’re a marijuana user, you can be turned away.

When you buy a gun, you have to fill out a federal Firearms Transaction Record before you’re approved for your purchase. On that form you have to check yes or no to the following question, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?” If the answer is yes, then you will be denied the purchase.

That’s because the federal government lists marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that they don’t consider it to have any medical benefits, putting it in the same category as heroin and LSD. The difference between how the federal government and state governments classify marijuana is behind a lot of the tension around the legalization of cannabis.

Can you carry marijuana in your car?

Yes. According to Proposition 64, it’s now legal for anyone over 21 years of age to “possess, process, transport, purchase, obtain, or give away to persons 21 years of age or older without any compensation whatsoever, not more than 28.5 grams of marijuana not in the form of concentrated cannabis.” The same rule applies to edibles and up to eight grams of marijuana concentrate.

It’s a different question if you’re transporting a large amount of marijuana for business purposes. If you’re carrying more than an ounce with you, under the new law you need to have a special license to do so. That licensing system hasn’t been built yet, leaving those who transport marijuana for medical dispensaries throughout the state in legal limbo.

If you’re caught with more than one ounce of weed, you can be charged with a misdemeanor and a fine.

And as a reminder, don’t smoke and drive. It’s illegal and dangerous. Read More > at KPCC

Fewer Women In New California Legislature, But More Win Local Office – Last month’s election saw the number of women serving in the California Legislature fall, down to less than a quarter. At the same time women gained ground in city and county offices around the state.

Female representation in the Legislature has actually slid for the last couple elections, but statistically, that might not mean much.

“Looking at the Legislature, while it’s very important, it’s kind of a bad marker from a trend line, because the sample size is so small,” says Robb Korinke the principal of Grassroots Lab, a research and advocacy firm based in Long Beach. He says there are thousands of local elected offices around California. And at the city council level, Korinke says women are on the rise. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

There’s hope: Fewer teens are doing drugs than ever before American teenagers are the best behaved they’ve ever been — drinking and smoking less and doing fewer drugs than their predecessors in more than 40 years of tracking.

Even use of marijuana is down among 8th- and 10th-graders, though it’s flat among high school seniors, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey of American teens.

“The question is: Why is all this happening?” asked Lloyd Johnston, who has led the survey since it was begun in 1975. “Even though we have some hypotheses, I don’t know that we necessarily have the right ones.”

He and other experts believe that a decline in smoking may be largely responsible for the broader decline. For young teens, smoking is a gateway to other illicit activities, and by cutting smoking rates, fewer adolescents are moving on to alcohol and drugs, said Johnston of University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Read More > at USA Today

The Perfect Gift? It’s the One They Asked For – Social scientists bear glad tidings for the holiday season. After extensively observing how people respond to gifts, they have advice for shoppers: You don’t have to try so hard.

You’re not obliged to spend hours finding just the right gift for each person on your list. Most would be just as happy with something quick and easy. This may sound too good to be true, but rest assured this is not a ploy by some lazy Scrooges in academia.

…In experiments using greeting cards and gifts, psychologists found that people typically feel obliged to choose unique items for each person on their list even when the recipients wouldn’t know if they got duplicates — and even when one particularly good gift would work better for everyone.

The more gifts you select, the more likely you’ll pick some duds. If you can find one sure thing, don’t be afraid to give it more than once.

Don’t be ashamed to regift. Researchers have found that most people assume that someone who gave them a gift would be deeply offended if they passed it along to someone else. But these same studies show that most givers actually aren’t offended. Read More > in The New York Times

Flickering LED lights could treat Alzheimer’s disease – Twinkling lights aren’t just pretty — if they’re flickering at a specific frequency, they could also treat Alzheimer’s disease. A group of researchers have tested the effectiveness of LED lights flashing at 40 hertz as a treatment for Alzheimer’s on mice genetically engineered to develop the condition. They found that exposing mice in the early stages of Alzheimer’s to the lights for an hour lowered the beta amyloid protein levels in their brains. Beta amyloid accumulates to form plaques that interfere with normal brain function. Further, when they used the same technique on mice already in the advanced stages of the disease for seven days, they found that the method “markedly reduced” the plaques in their brains.

The flickering lights work by stimulating gamma oscillation, which is believed to be impaired in people suffering from the illness. Gamma oscillation transforms immune cells called microglia, which become inflamed and secrete toxic chemicals in Alzheimer’s patients, back to their old self. Since microglia are in charge of clearing out amyloids, turning them back into functioning immune cells fights off the formation of plaques.

Despite these findings, the team still has to find out whether the technique will work on actual Alzheimer’s patients. They need to perform additional tests to see how long the method’s effect can last, since using it on early stage mice only lowered the animals’ amyloid levels for 24 hours. The scientists also need to check whether using the technique to clear out plaques that are already there leads to behavioral changes. In short, it’ll take a long time to know whether it’s a feasible treatment. But since the neurodegenerative illness still has no cure, keeping an eye out for the future findings is definitely worth it. Read More > at Engadget

Bay Area home sales jump in November as interest rates spike – The number of home sales in eight Bay Area counties rose by 10 percent in November compared to the prior year, but higher interest rates and low supply could dampen future activity, according to brokerage Pacific Union.

A total of 5,081 properties were sold in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties. Sales were down 6 percent from October, but that was a smaller drop that the average 16 percent decrease between November and October over the past four years.

Sales of luxury homes priced between $2 million and $3 million jumped 38 percent between November 2016 and November 2015. Home sales between $1 million and $2 million rose 26 percent.

Buyers may have been motivated by spiking mortgage interest rates to make a purchase now before they go higher, said Selma Hepp, chief economist at Pacific Union. Read More > at the San Francisco Business Times

Autonomous droid makes first fast-food delivery – Just Eat claims to have made the world’s first ever online food delivery using a self-driving robot. As part of the takeaway food firm’s pilot with Starship Technologies, a robot delivery droid was dispatched to autonomously deliver a customer’s order in London.

The delivery was made in Greenwich, in the south-east of the city, after five months of testing in the area with the robots. A local resident by the name of Simone is said to have placed the order with a nearby Turkish restaurant via the Just Eat mobile app. One of the robots was sent to the restaurant from the Starship Technologies HQ and the prepared meal put in its secure cargo hold, after which the robot continued to the delivery address.

A text message was sent to Simone to inform her that her meal was on its way. Another message, containing a unique link for accessing the cargo hold, was sent once the robot had arrived. This allowed Simone to access her order before the robot returned to Starship HQ. Read More > at New Atlas

With Uber and Lyft Nearby, Rental Cars May Be Ripe for a Comeuppance – The day before Election Day, even the most frequent of travelers may have missed the bad news about Hertz. After a disappointing earnings release, its stock fell by 23 percent.

The trouble seemed to come mostly from too many of its cars losing value too quickly, but revenue fell, too. Which could not be less surprising, given the enormous user experience problem the car rental industry faces.

Every time I’ve traveled since Lyft and Uber achieved near ubiquity — whether for work or pleasure, trips long or short — I’ve tried my level best to avoid renting a car. And there’s no better way to explain why than to catalog every negative feeling the industry inspires on any given itinerary.

1. There is probably a bus at the airport to get to the line to get your keys, so you can get to the lot, so you can get to your car, so you can get going. You don’t know when the bus will come — your company’s bus will surely come last, and it is crowded and lurching and too cold or hot.

…3. The wait once there is also totally unpredictable, and when you get to the counter you will endure Faustian refueling options and a scary insurance upsell. That’s “hate-selling,” as the folks at the travel news and research company Skift have memorably termed it. If you are a loyalty program member and can go straight to your car, lucky you. But beware of confused drivers while you wander the lanes looking for your vehicle.

…Or here’s another alternative: You can press a button on your phone when you get off the plane, climb into a Lyft or Uber and go. Read More > in The New York Times

Michigan Just Embraced the Driverless Future – You can hardly blame Michigan for trying to scarf down its piece of pie before someone swipes it off their plate. The Wolverine State just became one of the first in the country to formally give the thumbs-up to autonomous cars on public roads, with no driver in the front seat.

Friday, Governor Rick Snyder put his signature on bills permitting automakers to operate networks of self-driving taxis in the state.1

The legislation reverses a 2013 law that required autonomous vehicles to have a backup driver aboard, and comes as the home teams move toward delivering the tech for real. Ford has pledged to deliver fleets of fully autonomous cars, without a steering wheel or pedals, by 2021. GM has partnered with ride-hailing tech company Lyft to create a fleet of electric self-driving taxis in the next five years or so.

To date, five states—California, Nevada, Tennessee, Florida, and Michigan—and the District of Columbia have passed laws dealing with autonomous driving. As you’d expect, these laws aren’t exactly identical. Rather, the 50 states are looking more like 50 mini-policy labs, where lawmakers, government officials, academics, and, yes, the big company players shape regulations to fit their specific needs.

…As future-friendly as these rules are, not everyone’s thrilled. “States play an important role in road safety, such as licensing and registration, but the federal government should provide the national framework to prevent a patchwork of state laws and regulations,” David Strickland, counsel for Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Volvo, said in a statement. Read More > at Wired

Two years later, few Hobby Lobby copycats emerge – Obamacare supporters warned two years ago that if the Supreme Court allowed the owners of Hobby Lobby craft stores to eliminate birth control coverage because of their religious beliefs, others would rush to follow — and not just to eliminate contraceptives, but also, potentially, treatments like blood transfusions and vaccines.

Those fears haven’t been borne out.

Since the 2014 high court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby, only 52 companies or nonprofit organizations, have told the government they plan to opt out of Obamacare’s requirement to cover birth control because it violates their religious beliefs, according to a POLITICO review of Obama administration records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

That’s in addition to the employers who filed about 100 lawsuits against the contraception mandate, as well as an unknown number of employers that may have directly informed their insurer, instead of the government, of their religious objections — a tack taken, for example, by Georgetown University, a Catholic institution that offers insurance to students and employees. Telling the government or one’s insurer that the mandate violates one’s religious beliefs sets in motion the court-ordered accommodation that requires the insurer to provide and pay for such coverage directly.

Several insurance industry sources say they haven’t gotten many such requests. Read More > at Politico

State Democrats put their supermajorities to waste. – The California Legislature last week received a load of bad publicity because of a new law that attempts to reduce the methane output of dairy cows dramatically — putting California on the cutting edge of worldwide efforts to regulate cow flatulence. It sounds like one of those overstated internet memes, but sadly, it’s a true story.

And it’s not even the most ridiculous case of gaseous emissions coming from Sacramento. As the Legislature went back into session Monday, the state’s newly empowered Democratic majority (following the Nov. 8 election, it now has supermajorities in the Assembly and the state Senate) spent much of its first-day floor session passing meaningless resolutions condemning the incoming Trump administration.

As the Los Angeles Times reported: “Gaveling in a new two-year session, lawmakers announced bills that would provide attorneys to immigrants in the country illegally, refuse assistance to any proposed registry of Muslim immigrants and require any wall built along the Mexican border to first be approved by California voters.” Most memorably, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, stated: “Californians do not need healing. We need to fight.”

Even those of us who aren’t fans of these particular Trump proposals can’t help but mock the self-importance of an increasingly left-leaning state Legislature vowing to strike a states’ rights pose and disobey the incoming GOP administration. This is symbolic blather, at a time when California has plenty of real issues (business flight, pension debt, etc.) to address. Then again, the legislative speech-ifying will be far less harmful than the cow-fart law. Read More > in The American Spectator

Sears Transformed America. It Deserves to Die With Dignity. – Listening to a Sears earnings call in 2016 is like realizing that the twinkling light you’re admiring in the night sky is from a star that died 50 years ago.

Sears Holdings Corp. lost $748 million last quarter amid falling sales, an even worse performance than the dismal losses of the period a year earlier. There is no obvious reason that the business might improve. And yet executives are still discussing how important its shopper loyalty program is “to the future and growth of the company,” as if the company were going to have growth, and shoppers and a future.

Sears was the Wal-Mart of its era, that era being the 1890s to the 1930s. The company used economies of scale to become the comprehensive retailer to the large segment of the population that lived in small towns with few retail options. Then, as now, smaller local retailers might resent it, but the “wishbook,” aka the Sears Roebuck catalog selling spices and plows and player pianos and seemingly everything else, could be found in almost every farmhouse in America.

Eventually, the firm moved into brick-and-mortar retail. World War II left the company in trouble. With inventories and cash low because of wartime shortages, Sears embarked on an audacious expansion plan, building new stores and investing heavily in the automobile suburbs that were springing up everywhere. This decision by Sears helped create the retail landscape that many of us remember from our childhood: the massive suburban shopping mall, anchored by a giant Sears store.

…But however brilliant this move was at the time, it has heavy costs now. Retailers have a lot of assets: brand, human talent and of course their physical inventory. But ultimately every major brick-and-mortar retailer’s biggest asset is geography — as the real estate brokers like to say, “location, location, location.” Geography saved Sears, for a time, but now its biggest asset is an albatross.

The malls that Sears anchored for decades now seem to be slowly dying. They, like Sears itself, are suffering from online competition. Companies in this situation are often urged to find a new business model, but when your core asset is prime locations that are no longer so prime, that’s hard advice to follow. Read More > at Bloomberg

South Korea’s parliament votes to impeach president over corruption scandal – South Korea’s National Assembly voted by a huge margin Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye over her role in a corruption and influence­ peddling scandal, forcing her immediately to hand over the running of the country to a caretaker prime minister.

But despite clear condemnation from politicians and the public, Park signaled that she would remain defiant even while being stripped of power. She said she would wait with a “calm and clear mind” while the conservative-leaning Constitutional Court decides whether to uphold the legislature’s impeachment motion.

That means South Korea could be in for a long period of paralysis. The court has six months to rule, creating a power vacuum in South Korea at the same time the United States is going through its own presidential transition. Read More > in The Washington Post

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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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