Sunday Reading – 01/15/17

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.

Families Projected to Spend an Average of $233,610 Raising a Child Born in 2015 – Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released the 2015 Expenditures on Children by Families report, also known as “The Cost of Raising a Child.” The report, developed by economists at USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), estimates that for a child born in 2015, a middle-income* married-couple family will spend between $12,350 and $13,900 annually (in 2015 dollars) – or $233,610 from birth through age 17 – on child-rearing expenses. Families with lower incomes are expected to spend $174,690 and families with higher incomes are expected to spend $372,210 from birth through age 17. Many state governments use this annual report, first issued in 1960, as a resource in determining child support and foster care guidelines.

“As the economy continues to improve, USDA is committed to supporting the nutrition and health of individuals and families through our research and programs,” said Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. “This report, which we have produced for 55 years, gives families a greater awareness of the expenses they are likely to face, and serves as a valuable tool for financial planning and educational programs, as well as courts and state governments.”

“Understanding the costs of raising children and planning for anticipated and unexpected life events is an important part of securing financial health. The U.S. Department of the Treasury, among other Federal agencies, has a wealth of information and tools that can help Americans plan for their future. can help you make a budget, find assistance with child care costs and save for emergencies or big purchases like a home or college education,” said Louisa Quittman, Director of the Office of Financial Security for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. “ can also help you provide money management lessons for your children to help them be more prepared for their financial future.” Read More > from the USDA

Scientists can now grow a beating human heart from stem cells – A team of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have used adult skin cells to regenerate functional human heart tissue.

The study, published in the journal Circulation Research, detailed that the team took adult skin cells, using a technique called messenger RNA to turn them into pluripotent stem cells, before inducing them to become two different types of cardiac cells.

Then for two weeks they infused the hearts with a nutrient solution, allowing them to develop under the same circumstances a heart would grow inside a human body.

After the two week period, the hearts contained well-structured tissue, which appeared similar to that contained in developing human hearts.

When shocked with electricity, they started beating. Read More > in the Independent

San Diego faces reality of NFL stadium frenzy with Chargers move – There is no good football reason to cheer the San Diego Chargers’ long-plotted northward march to Los Angeles, which became official on Thursday.

A city that had demonstrated no great yearning for professional football has now been stuck with two teams in the last 13 months—not good teams, either, but historically middling franchises that have lately hit bottom. They have combined for one playoff appearance in the last seven seasons. Neither has a head coach; both finished in the league’s bottom seven this year.

But the relocation circus of the last two years never had a whit to do with what the people of Los Angeles wanted, or for that matter with football. It had everything to do with the arms race among owners to build the most futuristic and opulent stadiums possible, which began in earnest in 2005, when the City of Arlington broke ground on Jerry Jones’s $1.2 billion palace in Dallas. It opened in ’09 as the sport’s first ten-figure stadium. The Jets and Giants owners topped that just the next year, with the ribbon-cutting at the $1.6 billion MetLife Stadium. Then came the $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara in ’14, and the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis for 2016. And next year will bring the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

These buildings are in use no more than a couple dozen days each year, and they are built, in most cases, with substantial contributions from taxpayers. They are incapable of achieving many of their supposed purposes—creating economic stimulus, providing public space—but they sure make imposing if not especially enduring monuments to NFL owners. (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”)

This boom will reach its apogee with the expected 2019 opening of Stan Kroenke’s $2.6 billion Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park. (Two-plus billion buys you quite a mouthful.) That real-estate development, which will include offices, restaurants, TV studios, luxury hotels, and a theater in addition to the stadium, is nothing less than the reason the Rams were allowed to leave St. Louis last January. The proposed shared Chargers/Raiders building in Carson, Calif.? A puny $1.78 billion project. Hence NFL owners’ preference for Kroenke’s relocation application, and the Chargers’ looming status as his tenants. Read More > at Sports Illustrated

Breaking Down the Financial Impact of Self-Driving Cars – …Barclays, the British banking and financial services company, notes that transportation in the U.S. is the second highest average household expenditure and that the average car is parked 95 percent of the time. It estimates that the average U.S. household will reduce its car ownership from today’s 2.1 vehicles to 1.2. (A figure also cited in a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study.) For states and localities, such a reduction could signal an end to what Barclays calls “the fretting” about investing in additional highway lanes or new roads.

That lack of fretting would have quite an effect on infrastructure and the municipal bonds that finance it. The impact starts with this forecast from several researchers: A single self-driving car could replace up to 12 regular vehicles. If that happens, it would affect some of the existing $3 billion in dedicated tax-exempt state and local parking revenue bonds. It would also affect airport revenue bonds. Airports currently generate 28 percent of their operating revenue from rental cars, parking and ground transportation — revenue that could be at risk from the cascading parking effects of self-driving cars.

The influence on general obligation bonds would be significant in a more positive way. The greater efficiency of self-driving cars and the ability to fit triple the amount of traffic in existing lanes could sharply reduce current projected needs for infrastructure and therefore the need to borrow money to build new roads.

There are other revenue savings. Self-driving cars are predicted by the National Transportation Safety Board to save “many, if not most, of the 33,000 lives lost to traffic fatalities every year on our streets and highways.” If true, this would lead to a major benefit via the $18 billion annual health-care costs from emergency room visits related to motor vehicle injuries, injuries that currently average 15 percent of hospitalized injuries — not to mention the costs to local emergency responders. Read More > at Governing

Call it the Southern California drought. Rain and snow end Northern California water woes – What was once a statewide drought this week became a Southern California drought.

A week of powerful storms has significantly eased the state’s water shortage, pulling nearly all of Northern California out of drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The report underscores what experts have been saying for several months. As a series of storms have hit Northern California this winter, the drought picture there is improving, but water supply remains a concern in Southern California and the Central Valley.

More than 40% of the state is no longer in a drought, according to the data released Thursday.

Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir and a major source of water for San Joaquin Valley agriculture, is 82% full and releasing water to create more storage room. Oroville, which supplies the State Water Project, is 77% full and also making releases.

At present, conditions are considered normal in almost all of the state north of the Bay Area, according to the new federal drought report. (Authors use measurements of climatic, hydrologic and soil conditions and consider reported impacts and observations to create the map.)

Thursday’s assessment was less rosy for Southern California. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

New developmental league could mark shift for college football, NFL – When junior quarterback Deshaun Watson led Clemson past Alabama in a championship game thriller Monday night, it was another reminder of a lifeblood to the multibillion-dollar college football industry: a monopoly on players three years or fewer removed from their high school graduating class, who by rule are ineligible to enter the NFL Draft.

What if some of those players didn’t have to wait to go pro?

The people behind a new professional league that hopes to launch in 2018 say they don’t intend to compete with the NCAA. They have a long way to go financially and otherwise just to get their venture off the ground. But if they can play even one season, paying the bills and cutting 18- to 22-year-olds in on the action, it’s easy to see where the impact could be significant.

The plan: Four teams based in Southern California, each playing an eight-game schedule on Sundays during the sports dead zone of July and August. Roughly 50 players per team making an average salary and benefits package of $50,000 a year, which they’d be free to supplement with endorsements. Rules tweaked to enhance safety and give NFL scouts matchups they want to see. Coaches with NFL experience, who would teach pro-style schemes in an immersive environment unbound by rules regarding classroom time. Any player four years or fewer removed from high school would be eligible, including college underclassmen who’d entered the NFL draft. Read More > at USA Today

Branding Bud: Marijuana companies want California to issue trademarks for pot – The sandwich baggie brimming with buds is gradually becoming a thing of the past in California. In its place, an era of name-brand marijuana is emerging.

Celebrities—including actress Whoopi Goldberg, rapper Snoop Dogg, rocker Melissa Etheridge and the family of reggae legend Bob Marley—are branding their own herb. Law firms have sprouted to help marijuana sellers brand their goods. Pretty packages of cannabis-infused products bear labels like “Highland Pantry” (almond butter), “Madame Munchie” (cookies) and “Sweet ReLeaf” (skin cream).

Branded pot products gained footing in recent years as California sanctioned medical use of marijuana, and other states began permitting recreational use. Now that California voters have approved a ballot measure allowing all adults to use the drug, cannabis businesses want more authority to brand their products. Read More > at Calmatters

Another Double-Digit Homicide Spike – FiveThirtyEight‘s latest tally of murder trends in America’s biggest cities contains some eye-catching data points:

Murder almost certainly increased substantially in the U.S. in 2016, one year after it rose at its fastest pace in a quarter century. […]

This year’s rise appears slightly smaller than last year’s dramatic increase. The big cities experienced roughly a 11.3 percent increase in murder in 2016, which is down from the same group’s 14.8 percent increase from 2014 to 2015. Still, the figures suggest that big cities have seen murder rise by more than a quarter in just two years, likely the biggest two-year increase since 1989 to 1991. […]

…Since Donald Trump started to make the crime uptick a centerpiece of his campaign (often invoking inaccurate or exaggerated data), many journalists and fact-checkers have made a point of noting that Americans are actually safer than they have been for most of the past several decades. And this is true—since the crime wave broke in the mid-1990s, the murder rate has fallen dramatically. Fewer Americans are killed every year now than were when President Obama took office.

But as with most social phenomena, including immigration and the economy, what matters when it comes to public perception of crime is not the absolute level but the rate of change. And the last two years have seen more than a 25 percent increase in the rate of killing, according to FiveThirtyEight data. This is a significant surge, and it’s not surprising that Americans’ concerns about crime and violence are at their highest than at any time since 2001.

While Trump has pushed crime to the center of the public debate, he has offered more bluster than policy proposals for reducing the number of killings. Meanwhile, journalists and experts who should be thinking about policy fixes have been busy scoffing at Trump or declaring concerns about rising murder rates to be a front for bigotry. It’s time for this issue to be taken seriously as a failure of governance—for wonks and policymakers to put the difficult task of crime control at the top of their agenda. And that probably means hiring more cops and detectives and helping police departments build better relationships with the communities they protect. Read More > at The American Interest

Move Over Mobile Phone: The Next Ad Frontier is the Windshield – The next frontier in digital advertising may be your car’s windshield.

Automakers, technology companies and glass manufacturers are teaming up to turn the display that graces the front of an iPhone into the windshield of a car — one that can show ads, directions and vehicle information to the person behind the wheel.

The advent of connected cars is creating a new sales battleground, and using a vehicle’s windshield may be the next way to pitch more products and services to consumers. McKinsey & Co. estimates that mobile and data-driven services in autos will generate $1.5 trillion by 2030. At least part of that will be spent projecting information to drivers and passengers right before their eyes

Here’s how a smart windshield may work. A driver that’s close to running out of gas would see an alert pop up that notes the fuel situation and offers to find a nearby gas station. The car’s virtual assistant will offer a choice, again on the windshield, of two options, including directions to a station where the driver is eligible for a free cup of coffee — an ad placed by the gas company that fits with the driver’s buying patterns, also known by his smart car. Read More > at Bloomberg

What will we do in our cars when we no longer have to drive them? – In the future, our cars will drive themselves. That much is clear. But what we choose to do with our time while being driven to our destinations has sparked a weird, little-noticed movement in the technology and auto industries to redefine automobiles as social environments on par with our homes and work places, a space also known as the “third place.”

Take Rinspeed, for example. The Swiss automaker (and self-described think tank) showed up at CES this year with a concept car that turned more than a few heads: the Oasis, an adorable, semi-translucent, self-driving pod with gesture control, white leather swivel seats, an augmented reality windshield. Funkier still, the Oasis had a tiny garden of succulents growing on the dashboard, injecting a little photosynthesis in our increasingly synthetic lifestyles. It was a literal breath of fresh air in a sea of sterile technology.

The Oasis is not a real car, nor will it ever be. It was meant to serve as a platform on which other carmakers, designers, and transportation visionaries could potentially build their own visions for the future of mobility. But it also fit neatly into a growing trend among technology and automotive companies to turn our cars into a third place for social interaction.

Typical third places include barber shops, cafes, parks, clubs, or even Starbucks. But can cars, with their enclosed environments, no fixed location, and demands on our attention, be considered a third place? Beyond Rinspeed, mainstream automakers are beginning to embrace this idea as well, thanks to two trends in transportation: the growing popularity of ride-sharing, car-sharing, and carpooling; and the advent of driverless technology. They think that as our attention shifts from driving to being driven, we will use our time to work, play, consume content, and interact with one another. Some companies have declared explicitly they want their cars to be the new third places. It’s a dramatic reinterpretation of what constitutes a social environment, and maybe not in a way we’re ready to accept. Read More > in The Verge

U.S. Could Become ‘Energy Independent’ by 2026, Report Finds – The U.S. could become a net energy exporter by 2026 as crude oil and natural gas production continues to increase in the country, according to a new report.

The landmark achievement—often referred to as “energy independence” by politicians—means the U.S. would export more energy resources like crude oil than it imports. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) report evaluates a number of factors that might affect the U.S. energy industry including the pace of technological growth, the level of economic growth and oil and gas prices. In some cases, like fast-paced technology development, net exports would grow dramatically. In other cases, like low oil prices, net imports would expand. The reference case, which assumes current regulations remain intact and trends continue, shows the U.S. exporting slightly more energy than it imports.

The surge in U.S. energy production is largely due to increased access to U.S. oil and gas reserves thanks to new technology like fracking that has made previously inaccessible areas relatively easy to develop. Read More > at TIME

Growing food-stamp program welcomed at drive-throughs, farmers’ markets and Amazon – It’s always a sign that a government program has a bad reputation when its name is changed.

The federal program that used to be known as “food stamps” is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, except in California, where it’s called CalFresh.

In 1969, there were about 2.8 million people on the program. In 1979, 17.6 million. In 1989, 18.8 million. In 1999, 18.1 million. In 2009, 33.5 million. And last year, 44.2 million.

The average benefit per person nationally was about $125 per month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program. In California, the average monthly benefit is about $200. Eligibility and benefits are calculated under a complex set of rules that considers income, housing costs, and other government benefits.

But that’s only the beginning of the complexity.

…SNAP benefits can’t be used to purchase alcohol, for example, but the USDA gave up on the idea of trying to set rules for nutrition or value in eligible foods. In a 2007 report, officials concluded that it would be impossibly complicated—and an embarrassing mess at the checkstand—if they tried to make some foods ineligible for purchase based on a high price or sugar content.

Still, it’s complicated. SNAP benefits can be used to purchase a live lobster, but not a live chicken. Cod liver oil is eligible, flax oil is not. SNAP benefits can be spent to buy a fruit tree or a corn husk but not an ice cream cone. Birthday cakes are eligible as long as the non-edible decorations account for less than 50 percent of the price of the cake, so if a girl is going to pop out of it, she’d better be a volunteer.

…But not everybody cooks, so some counties, including Los Angeles, allow some people to use their SNAP benefits at USDA-approved restaurants like Burger King, Jack in the Box and McDonald’s.

Drug dealers take SNAP benefits, too. The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency found so many Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards during drug raids that one congressman proposed a bill to limit the number of times a “lost” EBT card could be replaced, to prevent people from trading the cards and their PINs for drugs. Read More > in the Los Angeles Daily News

Gov. Jerry Brown has a bigger plan to fund transportation, though a political deal remains elusive – With negotiations stuck in a traffic jam of competing priorities, Gov. Jerry Brown’s new state budget offers another effort to boost California’s transportation funding by raising the gas tax paid by the state’s drivers.

Brown’s plan unveiled on Tuesday would add $4.3 billion a year over the next decade on everything from repairs to additional public transit. The governor convened a special session of the Legislature to deal with transportation funding in the summer of 2015, but it finally fizzled out last fall.

The governor’s proposal would set the state’s gasoline excise tax at 21.5 cents per gallon, up from his proposal last year for 18 cents per gallon.

Democrats legislators have suggested a larger package , while all efforts to raise the gas tax — requiring a supermajority vote in both houses — have failed. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Brown, Legislature differ sharply on California budget – Gov. Jerry Brown sees a budget deficit and an urgent need for spending cuts.

Legislative leaders see a surplus with room to comfortably increase expenditures.

Always at odds when it comes to the budget, the Democratic governor and the Democratic Legislature are particularly far apart this year as they embark on six months of spending negotiations amid uncertainty about federal funding under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Brown staked out a conservative opening position Tuesday, warning of a potential $1.6 billion budget deficit and proposing a spending plan that keeps general fund expenditures flat at $122.5 billion. Since costs rise every year, his plan would require cuts to keep pace, and he suggested eliminating billions of dollars allocated to education, state building construction, subsidized housing, college scholarships and child care providers.

He seeks to boost the state’s reserve fund to $7.9 billion – up from $6.7 billion in the current budget year – to help soften what he warned is an inevitable recession after 10 years of economic recovery. Read More > from the Associated Press

Here’s Why It Hurts So Much When You Step on a Lego

After CES: Automakers Shift from Horsepower to Processing Power – Judging from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, mobility has supplanted that long-standing automaker race to get from zero to 60 in record time. Just days ahead of the Detroit Auto Show, major automakers revved into Vegas with a major change from the past 50 years and a clear signal about where their industry is headed: from the thrill of driving to the thrill of … riding.

“We’re a mobility company!” nearly every automaker screamed on the showroom floor. It’s quite the change from just two years ago, when companies such as Tesla, Toyota and Chevy drove into CES with flashy new electric vehicles or environmentally conscious concept cars in tow. Last year, brands including Mercedes, Faraday and Audi teased that they’d be more focused on autonomy. But this year, major automakers are increasingly transforming into true technology companies that are thinking about holistic mobility — even if that means prepping for a world in which car ownership declines. Here’s how:

Licensing Must-Have Software: Autonomy is on its way to ubiquity. Mercedes, Nissan, Hyundai, Faraday and other carmakers have all touted their unique autonomous technology. Toyota and Honda made waves with their Alexa-like artificial intelligence–driven assistants — a personification of vehicles that sense and respond to both your emotions and needs. It won’t be long, I suspect, before we see car companies that own the right kind of intellectual property being able to license their software to other manufacturers or inject the technology into derivative products.

Services: Rather than just manufacturing vehicles for the likes of Uber and Lyft, several car companies, including Hyundai and Cadillac, revealed plans to “Uberize” their own fleets so that subscribers can summon, share or rent certain vehicles. Ford, perhaps the furthest along in this area, bought Chariot, a ride-sharing service in San Francisco that is already helping the company monetize its own fleet as a service. Mercedes’ new app, Mercedes Me, turns its vehicles into giant sensor-laden Fitbits — able to access and analyze your driving behavior, appointments, sleep quality, physical activity and stress levels, as well as traffic and weather information. The company essentially wants to act as the central operating system (OS) for your connected world combining data from, say, your Nest smart home hub, Apple Watch and Withings Aura sleep sensor, with data from your car.

…Of all the products and technologies at CES, autonomy has the greatest potential to change life as we know it. As Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans points out, autonomy will have a drastic impact on the global economy — whether through oil production, population (see: fewer annual road deaths and fewer organ donations), city infrastructure, logistics, insurance and so on.

Think about the way our world has changed since the iPhone launched nearly a decade ago now — and multiply that many times over. Yes, autonomy will give birth to entirely new economies that transform dining, shopping, entertainment and media, productivity, education and manufacturing. And after getting a peek into the future this past weekend, it’s clear that we’re in for a ride. Read More > at Ozy

Pot’s legal in California. So why are people still getting busted in Yosemite? Think pot is now legal in California? Try telling that to the National Park Service rangers ready to bust people caught with marijuana in Yosemite, Redwood, Death Valley and other federal lands across the state.

The federal government says it’s not backing off on citing people who are caught with marijuana in California’s national parks, monuments, recreational areas and other federal lands regardless of the landslide vote that legalized recreational marijuana in the state.

“Marijuana – recreational, medical or otherwise – remains prohibited on federal public lands and property, regardless of state laws,” said Andrew Munoz, Pacific West spokesman for the National Park Service. “So there is no change: We will continue to enforce marijuana prohibition as before.” Read More > in the Fresno Bee

Proposed federal water bill would streamline new dam projects – Decades of planning for dams that could capture storm runoff in parts of Northern California has yet to lead to the building of such structures, a situation a Central California congressman hopes to change with a new bill that would cut through existing legal requirements and environmental regulations.

Republican Congressman David Valadao is the bill’s sponsor. His district includes the farms visible along Interstate 5 from Bakersfield north for 160 miles. Those farmers want water, and his new bill, HR 23, is designed to streamline the dam approval process.

The bill, which Valadao has dubbed the GROW Act, an acronym for Gaining Responsibility on Water, would put the federal Bureau of Reclamation in charge of coordinating local, state and federal permitting of new dams.

The bill would also impose deadlines to finish feasibility studies on proposals for the Sites Dam along the Sacramento River, and the Temperance Flat Dam along the San Joaquin River. Valadao was not available to answer KPCC’s questions about the bill, and members of his staff declined to be quoted about it. Read More > at KPCC

Running on Fumes: Pandemonium at Mexico’s Gas Pumps – A week of protests in Mexico has devolved into looting, vandalism, and violence after a double-digit increase in gas prices that landed with a bang as the New Year began.

On Saturday, hundreds of protestors descended on the border dividing San Diego from Mexico, taking control of Mexican Customs and forcing a southbound border shutdown lasting several hours. Thousands of Mexicans returning home from California were forced to turn back toward the U.S. and seek out alternative border crossing points. And that was neither the worst nor the end of it.

These increasingly violent protests did not begin because of “The Wall” that U.S.-President-Elect Donald Trump will ask Congress to fund (for now), but they will certainly have an impact on the border he says he wants to defend. And the more he pressures Mexico economically, the worse it’s going to get.

Through the week, roads across Mexico were blocked by protesters and burning tires, thousands of businesses were ransacked, upward of 1500 people—among them, police officers— were arrested, and at least five people were killed as furious citizens took to the streets following the more than 20 percent price gas hike. Read More > at The Daily Beast


Grand Theft Journalism – …Last year’s explosive WikiLeaks and “Panama Papers” revelations, as well as the prizes showered on journalists who worked with Edward Snowden, raise the question of whether the pursuit of journalistic glory in the digital era means becoming routinely complicit in, and even actively encouraging, illegal breaches of privacy, proprietary information and national security.

Put another way, journalism sometimes looks like it’s the wheelman at a robbery. News outlets are taking digital skulduggery and running with it even as it covers hacking as one of the biggest and most destructive crimes of the Information Age.

…But collateral issues raise concerns. If, as is widely alleged, agents of the Russian government performed the hacking of Democrats’ emails to sway the presidential election, the press needs to ask if it can have it both ways. Is it appropriate to publish knowing you may be a tool of a hostile foreign government and only later decry its perfidious intent?

Few questions are harder to answer. A basic journalistic instinct is to verify the information and then publish, even if you can’t establish the source. But is that good enough in an age when authoritarian states like Russia and North Korea are or might be the sources? If Snowden was working for Russia, as some believe, should that change the decision to publish stories based on his leaks of American intelligence secrets?

(Let’s pause here to contemplate the irony of progressives who celebrate Snowden yet bay for Russia’s blood over election-year hacking activities – and those on the right suddenly warming to the previously loathed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for denying Russian involvement.) Read More > at Real Clear Investigations

Calif. Legislator Wants to Expand Teen Driving Curfews to Some Adults – Under 21? Better have the proper papers to drive late at night. One California state legislator wants to expand the state’s apparent desire to treat grown adults like teens by restricting their driving rights.

California last year passed legislation increasing the legal age for residents to purchase cigarettes to 21. Now Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Oakley has introduced legislation to treat adult drivers like they’re still teenagers until they reach 21.

Frazier has introduced AB 63, which expands California’s provisional driver’s licensing program to all drivers under 21

Existing law, the Brady-Jared Teen Driver Safety Act of 1997, establishes a provisional licensing program and generally requires that a driver’s license issued to a person at least 16 years of age but under 18 years of age be issued pursuant to that provisional licensing program. During the first 12 months after issuance of a provisional license, existing law prohibits the licensee from driving between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. and transporting passengers who are under 20 years of age, unless he or she is accompanied and supervised by a licensed driver, as specified, or a licensed or certified driving instructor. Existing law provides limited exceptions to these restrictions under which a licensee is authorized to drive under specified circumstances, including a school or school-authorized activity or an employment necessity, and requires the licensee to keep certain supporting documentation in his or her possession. A violation of these provisions is punishable as an infraction.

This bill would expand the scope of the provisional licensing program by extending the applicable age range for the program to 16 to under 21 years of age. Read More > at Reason

The Latest Driverless Cars Don’t Need a Programmer Either – An unusual fleet of self-driving cars will take to the road in coming months. Unlike most automated vehicles, which are programmed to deal with the situations they may encounter, these cars will have taught themselves, in simulation, how to handle tricky scenarios safely.

The cars will learn to navigate busy intersections, crowded highways, and packed rotaries using reinforcement learning, an approach inspired by the way animals learn to associate a reward with the behavior that led to it.

Mobileye, an Israeli company that provides vehicle safety systems to many carmakers, announced at CES in Las Vegas last week that it will test the approach on the road, in collaboration with the German automaker BMW and the chip company Intel, in the second half of this year.

In reinforcement learning, a computer is not hand-coded, or given specific examples to learn from; instead, it experiments, altering its own programming in light of the behavior that most reliably leads to a certain result. In the case of automated driving, the goal might be entering a rotary or merging into traffic safely and smoothly. The technique has proved an effective way of training computers to do things that are hard to capture with code, such as learning how to achieve superhuman skill at Atari video games and the board game Go. Read More > at MIT Technology Review

The big takeaway from this year’s CES – …In fact, you almost can’t turn a corner — and there are many of them at the 2.47 million-square-foot show — without seeing a product that features Alexa. Amazon’s voice assistant jumped to an early lead in the market at the show. Whether Alexa can keep that lead, however, is debatable. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)

Virtual assistants can now understand what you say and even interpret the many ways you may say it. Shawn DuBravac, an economist for the Consumer Technology Association, said that machines now have the same word error rate — that is, the batting average of understanding what we’ve actually said — as humans. That’s up from a 23 percent error rate in 2013, meaning that the tech is getting better, and quickly.

That fact has made the dreams of a “Star Trek”-like computer come closer to reality. The hope is that these assistants will move even beyond our sci-fi dreams and learn our habits and needs well enough to anticipate them. At the show, voice assistants were being shown off in cars, refrigerators, nightstand clocks — they were just in everything. Read More > in The Washington Post

The FBI Is Apparently Paying Geek Squad Members To Dig Around In Computers For Evidence Of Criminal Activity – Law enforcement has a number of informants working for it and the companies that already pay their paychecks, like UPS, for example. It also has a number of government employees working for the TSA, keeping their eyes peeled for “suspicious” amounts of cash it can swoop in and seize.

Unsurprisingly, the FBI also has a number of paid informants. Some of these informants apparently work at Best Buy — Geek Squad by day, government informants by… well, also by day.

According to court records, Geek Squad technician John “Trey” Westphal, an FBI informant, reported he accidentally located on Rettenmaier’s computer an image of “a fully nude, white prepubescent female on her hands and knees on a bed, with a brown choker-type collar around her neck.” Westphal notified his boss, Justin Meade, also an FBI informant, who alerted colleague Randall Ratliff, another FBI informant at Best Buy, as well as the FBI. Claiming the image met the definition of child pornography and was tied to a series of illicit pictures known as the “Jenny” shots, agent Tracey Riley seized the hard drive.

Not necessarily a problem, considering companies performing computer/electronic device repair are legally required to report discovered child porn to law enforcement. The difference here is the paycheck. This Geek Squad member had been paid $500 for digging around in customers’ computers and reporting his findings to the FBI. That changes the motivation from legal obligation to a chance to earn extra cash by digging around in files not essential to the repair work at hand. Read More > at Tech Dirt

The Limited Is Closing All 250 of Its Stores – And another bites the dust.

Women’s apparel chain The Limited on Sunday began closing all 250 of its stores across the United States and is slashing 4,000 jobs, the latest casualty of shopping’s move online and the growth of fast fashion chains.

And just like Chico’s, Ann Taylor and other women’s apparel stores struggling with big drops in sales, The Limited has been struggling with shifts in consumer behavior and interest, a greater number of rivals and longer store leases.

A message on The Limited’s web site said the retailer would continue to sell items online. But it’s not clear how much longer that will last: in December, Bloomberg News reported the company was likely headed for liquidation, and on Friday, Sun Capital said it was writing down the remaining equity value of Limited Stores to zero. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Read More > in Fortune


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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