Sunday Reading – 02/12/17


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.

Lack of Competition Is Leading to a Costly Electricity Glut in California: – A top California utility official once quipped that he was one of the few executives in the country who earned a profit merely by remodeling his office. He was referring to the way the state’s regulated utility system is designed. Companies are granted an electricity monopoly for a particular region, then are guaranteed a hefty rate of return for the infrastructure investments they make.

This price system, critics say, results in unforeseen consequences. A recent investigative report found that California’s utility companies have been involved in a power-plant building spree, even though Californians have significantly cut their electricity usage over the same time period. In three years, the state is projected to be producing 21 percent more electricity than it needs, without counting the growth in rooftop-solar applications, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Last year, the California Independent System Operator had 24 percent in actual reserves—far above the targeted 15 percent goal. Even that 15 percent goal is 50 percent higher than what’s necessary to protect the system from disaster and blackouts, according to some experts.

As the Times’ report put it, “California has a big—and growing—glut of power.” It’s a matter of incentives. Because utilities are guaranteed a 10.5 percent rate of return on each new plant they build, regardless of whether customers actually need it, they can make more money building new plants than they could buying power from existing competing plants. Read More > at Reason

Politics Have Turned Facebook Into a Steaming Cauldron of Hate – …Therein lies the rub. We know our country has become more partisan. We know there are communities of people in the US — on the left and the right — who hold views we don’t get. We crave the empathy that comes with understanding those views. We know the “filter bubble” about which Eli Pariser first wrote back in 2011 is part of the problem—it limits the viewpoints we see to those that reflect the opinions we already have. And yet we double down on that bubble, muting and blocking and unfriending people who think differently from us, if they make it into our social streams at all. We hate ourselves a tiny bit for this. And yet, if we do the opposite — engage on social media with people who hold different viewpoints — it almost always goes sideways. Next thing you know, you, like my mom, aren’t talking to Marge.

It’s too easy here to hate on Facebook — to blame the technology for the problem. Yet Facebook is not without responsibility. Many of our interactions on the site are guided by the subtle (or not-so-subtle) direction of its design, which is, in turn, determined by its business model. The company has honed the software to get us to spend as much time as possible on it—and to provide information about ourselves in the process—so that it can sell more ads. In Menlo Park, the company is scrambling to better navigate the tensions that arise between building a good business and building a socially responsible service.

But we have another option. We can choose to spend less time talking to our friends on Facebook — and more time investing in smaller communities. Read More > at Backchannel

Brown’s big legacy projects could be Trump’s targets – Gov. Jerry Brown devoted most of last month’s State of the State address to excoriating Donald Trump, who had been president for just four days.

…Brown’s “tunnels and railroads” obliquely refer to the two immense public works projects he hopes will be a legacy – twin water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a north-south bullet train system.

Both are financially shaky, together lacking the $100 billion or so they would require, and both need federal money and/or permits to proceed.

The Obama administration gave California a few billion dollars to partially finance an initial bullet train segment in the San Joaquin Valley – money the state was supposed to match, but hasn’t yet, thanks to a waiver.

Brown has pitched for more, hoping that Trump’s fondness for “fast trains” would overcome his dislike of California, which he describes as “out of control.”

Trump could demand the matching money or cut off a $650 million grant for electrifying Caltrain commuter service on the San Francisco Peninsula, a vital part of the “blended” bullet train system. California’s Republican congressional members have urged Trump to hold up the grant. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Careful with those headphones—1 in 4 Americans have noise-induced hearing loss – Cans, beats, buds, pods—whatever you stick over or into your ears, be careful.

Noise-induced hearing loss starts young—perhaps younger than you might expect. That loss is often not linked to noise exposure from work, suggesting our leisure-time listening can be dangerous. And many people have no idea that their hearing is already damaged. That’s all according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

…Overall, 24.4 percent of people in the survey had notches in the graphs for one or both of their ears. That percentage represents 39.4 million people in the US.

Males were nearly twice as likely as females to have a notch. Older people in the survey were more likely to have notches, too, which squares with well-established data showing that the risk of hearing loss increases with age. But the young weren’t in the clear: of the 20 to 29-year-olds surveyed, 19.2 percent had notches. Read More > at Ars Technica

Comcast told not to claim it has ‘America’s fastest internet’ – Comcast has agreed to stop advertising its Xfinity broadband service as “the fastest internet in America” after an ad industry group said the claim doesn’t jibe with the data. The company based the slogan on user Ookla tests, which the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) said were “not a good fit” for the fastest speed claims. After Verizon (the owner of AOL, Engadget’s parent) first challenged the ads back in August and won, NARB upheld the decision and recommended Comcast discontinue specific assertions.

The problem? For one, Comcast’s own Ookla data showed that Xfinity customers who participated in the tests were on the fastest Xfinity tiers, whereas Verizon’s FiOS users weren’t. And while the Ookla data (which NARB doesn’t dispute) shows a faster 104.56 Mbps Comcast download speed compared to 83.39 Mbps for Verizon, FiOS customers actually had better upload speeds. In addition, it found that Comcast didn’t provide adequate proof for its rather silly “fastest in-home WiFi” claims. Read More > at Engadget

Did you notice PG&E raised their business rates as much as 32% over the last year? – The double-digit rate hikes that are squeezing many local PG&E customers have affected business owners as well, with the utility raises some services as much as 32 percent during 2016, the company confirmed Thursday.

Earlier this week, the utility said that between December 2015 and December 2016, “a number” of approved rate increases resulted in residential rates increasing 21 percent. Those hefty bills for January did not go unnoticed by consumers, who immediately cried foul, prompting a state senator to begin investigating the utility.

…Cutler said that the “largest driver of these rate increases” was the gas transmission and storage regulatory rate review last summer. California regulators approved an 82 percent increase for gas transmission and storage, which Cutler said is related to revenue requirements, not the rates charged to customers.

“It isn’t a direct impact on rates but it is related,” Cutler said. “The rate design process takes into account a number of different variables, including customer type and other mandates, that then result in the rates that are crafted and approved by the CPUC. All of that is posted on our Tariffs website.” Read More > at the San Francisco Business Times

Got a Self-Driving Car? Soon, No License Will Be Required – …In October, the California Department of Motor Vehicles announced that it won’t require drivers licenses for self-driving cars if the federal government deemed them safe enough.

“If there is no driver, there is no need for a driving license, just as the passenger in a taxi needs no license to get a ride,” Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor in the School of Law at the University of South Carolina, tells Inverse. “The relevant state law questions are whether an automated vehicle requires a human driver, who that driver is, and what she must do and may not do.”

…In the end, the debate is likely to focus on politics. People that are unable to drive a car, like certain groups of disabled people, will benefit from self-driving cars as a way of getting around, but the technology is useless if they’re required to pass a test to show they can drive a traditional car “just in case.” On the other hand, truck drivers and others that drive for a living may pressure state legislatures to retain such restrictions, making a safety argument. These factors may determine how quickly policy changes make it through state legislatures. Read More > at Inverse

UPS drivers don’t turn left—and it saves them 10 million gallons of gas a year – It might seem strange, but UPS delivery vans don’t always take the shortest route between stops. The company gives each driver a specific route to follow and that includes a policy that drivers should never turn through oncoming traffic (that’s left in countries where they drive on the right and vice versa) unless absolutely necessary. This means that routes are sometimes longer than they have to be. So, why do they do it?

UPS have moved away from trying to find the shortest route and now look at other criteria to optimize the journey. One of their methods is to try and avoid turning through oncoming traffic at a junction. Although this might be going in the opposite direction of the final destination, it reduces the chances of an accident and cuts delays caused by waiting for a gap in the traffic, which would also waste fuel.

UPS have designed their vehicle routing software to eliminate as many left-hand turns as possible (in countries with right-hand traffic). Typically, only 10% of the turns are left turns. As a result, the company claims it uses 10 million gallons less fuel, emits 20,000 tonnes (22,000 tons) less carbon dioxide, and delivers 350,000 more packages every year. The efficiency of planning routes with its navigation software this way has even helped the firm cut the number of trucks it uses by 1,100, bringing down the company’s total distance travelled by 28.5 million miles—despite the longer routes. Read More > at Quartz

Hole in Oroville Dam spillway expected to grow – A cavity that opened in the Oroville Dam spillway Tuesday is expected to grow as rain continues to pound Northern California, but there is no “imminent danger” to the public or the dam, according to the acting director of the Department of Water Services.

“We wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of this wet season much of the lower portion of the spillway has been eroded away,” Bill Croyle said during a news conference Wednesday.

“Things are going to change out there and they kind of need to because we need to push water down through that system,” he continued. “We believe the top of the spillway is competent and that’s the key to the success of being able to operate that system.” Read More > in the East Bay Times

How San Diego Went From Booster to Skeptic on the State’s Massive Water Project – Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build two 35-mile underground tunnels to keep water coming south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. The San Diego County Water Authority used to pine for such a plan. But now, emboldened by its drought-proofing projects and wary of shocking ratepayers, the agency is aggressively questioning Brown’s delta tunnels.

For over 50 years, the San Diego County Water Authority championed projects that bring water to Southern California from Northern California. But no more.

Leaders of the Water Authority look at Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to ensure water keeps flowing to Southern California with skepticism and dismissal.

The Water Authority now says it may turn its back on that whole endeavor and is, by some accounts, working to undermine the governor’s most important piece of unfinished business.

Brown wants to build two 35-mile underground tunnels to keep water coming south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, a series of waterways and wetlands fed by snow melting in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The tunnels would be 150 feet underground. The price tag would be at least $17 billion. Read More > at Voice of San Diego

Richmond Makes Cuts To Services As Pension Costs For Public-Sector Workers Mount – Many cities across California face rising costs for public employee retirement benefits. And for some, that’s laying bare a stark reality — it’s getting tougher to provide basic services and meet the pension obligations promised years ago.

The city of Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area illustrates the tough choices cities are having to make.

On a recent day, Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown gave a tour of his department’s headquarters. It’s housed in a space that’s leased from a fiber-optics company. Richmond’s plans for a new public safety building were put on ice a long time ago, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Last year, the city faced a potential $13 million budget hole. City leaders had to make cuts, including leaving five police officer positions vacant.

This belt-tightening comes at a time when he said the number of homicides has been climbing.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said policing isn’t the only service that’s been affected.

“We’ve neglected filling positions in departments like the library and recreation. I think the fire department’s kind of down to the bone,” Butt said. “If we cut anybody else in there, we’re going to have to start closing fire stations.”

Butt says one big reason is that costs for employees’ retirement benefits keep climbing. The city’s finance director said in an email that over the next five years, Richmond’s pension costs are projected to jump almost 40 percent. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

Half Of U.S. Adults Believe Women Should Be Required By Law To Change Their Last Names After Marriage & The Reason Why Isn’t Promising – A woman’s right to make her own choices for herself is an ongoing concern, particularly in our current political climate. Choices about what she does with her body, what profession she pursues, and whether or not she takes her spouse’s last name after marriage. And believe it or not, this last one is still a very sticky spot, as roughly 50 percent of Americans think that the law should require women to change their last names to those of their husbands after marrying. I really want to drive this point home, so I’m going to repeat it, this time in bold: Half of U.S. adults believe it should be required by law to take your husband’s last name.

What’s more, researcher Emily Shafer made even more startling discoveries than this during the course of her study. The most common reason participants gave for believing that a woman should change her last name is that she should prioritize her marriage and family ahead of herself. In particular, men with less education say this is a must and believe that a woman who does not take her husband’s last name is not as committed to their marriage. These same men also said that the husband would be more justified in filing for divorce if the wife works too much, by the way. Read More > at Bustle

Macy’s may be bought by owner of Saks and Lord & Taylor – Macy’s stock soared 10% Friday after the Wall Street Journal reported that Hudson’s Bay, the Toronto and New York-based parent company of Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, might be interested in buying the iconic retailer.

A source familiar with the matter confirmed to CNNMoney that an offer has been made but that discussions are still in preliminary stages.

Spokespersons from Macy’s (M) and Hudson’s Bay said they do not comment on rumors and speculation.

But questions about the future of Macy’s have been swirling for some time, and they have intensified in recent weeks.

Last month, Macy’s announced plans to shut down 68 stores and cut more than 10,000 jobs following disappointing sales during the holidays. Read More > at CNN Money

Tax cheats kept jobs at IRS, audit finds – Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration found that 1,580 employees willfully violated tax law from October 2003 to September 2013. The IRS was supposed to fire all of those staffers, under a 1998 law.

But the inspector general found that the IRS commissioner saved 960 of them — 61 percent in all — who were instead given counseling, reprimands or suspensions.
“Given its critical role in federal tax administration, the IRS must ensure that its employees comply with the tax law in order to maintain the public’s confidence,” Russell George, the tax administration inspector general, said in a statement.

The inspector general’s report added that the commissioner’s reasoning for saving employees who violated tax laws wasn’t always clear. In some of those cases, employees were found to have cheated on their taxes multiple times, and weren’t trusted by IRS brass — yet still kept their jobs.

Those employees also broke tax law in a variety of ways, including overstating expenses, repeatedly missing the tax deadline and even claiming a tax credit for first-time homebuyers without purchasing a house. Read More > in The Hill

Pastors Without Politics – …Fast forward many years to the writing of the federal tax code. Religious organizations had been exempted from taxation in revenue bills before the income tax. After the income tax, donations to tax exempt entitites became exempt as well (1917). Years later corproate donations to tax exempt entities became deductable (1936).

The idea that the government couldn’t tax religious institutions was simple common sense.

There were limitations. Non-profit requirements for charities came early (1904), but religious institutions were exempt from taxation, and speech limitations on that exemption did not exist. (For more details, see the document: “A History of the Tax-Exempt Sector”.)

The political speech prohibition did not arise until 1954. Then-Minority Leader Sen. Lyndon Johnson needed a quiet re-election campaign for the tight 1954 mid-term elections. He pushed through an amendment to the tax code which prohibits “political activity” by 501(c)(3) entities, i.e. religious institutions and non-profits. Lots of senators were fine with quiet churches. One less thing to worry about.

Since enacted, the Johnson Amendment has been lightly — and selectively — enforced. Various test cases have appeared in the courts trying to figure out just what political activity is prohibited, without much success. Read More > at Arc

The High Cost of a Home Is Turning American Millennials Into the New Serfs – American greatness was long premised on the common assumption was that each generation would do better than previous one. That is being undermined for the emerging millennial generation.

The problems facing millennials include an economy where job growth has been largely in service and part-time employment, producing lower incomes; the Census bureau estimates they earn, even with a full-time job, $2,000 less in real dollars than the same age group made in 1980. More millennials, notes a recent White House report, face far longer period of unemployment and suffer low rates of labor participation. More than 20 percent of people 18 to 34 live in poverty, up from 14 percent in 1980.

They are also saddled with ever more college debt, with around half of students borrowing for their education during the 2013-14 school year, up from around 30 percent in the mid-1990s. All this at a time when the returns on education seem to be dropping: A millennial with both a college degree and college debt, according to a recent analysis of Federal Reserve data, earns about the same as a boomer without a degree did at the same age.

Since 2004, homeownership rates for people under 35 have dropped by 21 percent, easily outpacing the 15 percent fall among those 35 to 44; the boomers’ rate remained largely unchanged. Read More > in the Daily Beast

Uber Hires Veteran NASA Engineer to Develop Flying Cars – …Moore acknowledged that many obstacles stand in the way, and they’re not only technical. He says each flying car company would need to independently negotiate with suppliers to get prices down, and lobby regulators to certify aircrafts and relax air-traffic restrictions. But he says Uber, with its 55 million active riders, can uniquely demonstrate that there could be a massive, profitable and safe market. “If you don’t have a business case that makes economic sense, than all of this is just a wild tech game and not really a wise investment,” Moore says.

Uber’s vision is a seductive one, particularly for sci-fi fans. The company envisions people taking conventional Ubers from their homes to nearby “vertiports” that dot residential neighborhoods. Then they would zoom up into the air and across town to the vertiport closest to their offices. (“We don’t need stinking bridges!” says Moore.) These air taxis will only need ranges of between 50 to 100 miles, and Moore thinks that they can be at least partially recharged while passengers are boarding or exiting the aircraft. He also predicts we’ll see several well-engineered flying cars in the next one to three years and that there will be human pilots, at least managing the onboard computers, for the foreseeable future. Read More > in Bloomberg

Budweiser’s Pro-Immigrant Super Bowl Ad Is ‘Mostly Fiction,’ Anheuser-Busch Expert Says “Adolphus Busch did not arrive poor and struggling. He was from a fairly well-to-do, successful family. He wasn’t tremendously wealthy, but it would be highly doubtful that he encountered whatever that was at the beginning with him jumping off the boat and people shouting at him,” the author said. “He arrived with a ticket and had his own money. Unless they got a hold of some letters from his family, I don’t know where they get all that information. It’s not something that anyone that’s written about Anheuser-Busch has ever seen before.”

Knoedelseder added that German immigrants in the mid-1800s likely wouldn’t have faced anti-immigrant prejudice of the same magnitude as “the poor Irish who had to fight their way in block by block. By the time he got to St. Louis, there was a very sizable German population there. They all arrived in America with money, and deference comes with cash.”

While the ad has gained widespread attention due to current events, Budweiser vice president Ricardo Marques denied that the ad was intended as political commentary in an interview with Ad Week. Read More > at The Wrap

Trump Is Right: Silicon Valley Is Using H-1B Visas To Pay Low Wages To Immigrants – On the heels on its controversial immigration ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries, the Trump administration has drafted a new executive order that could actually mean higher wages for both foreign workers and Americans working in Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley companies, of course, will not be happy if it goes into effect.

The order aims to overhaul and limit work visas, notably the H-1B visa program. Tech companies rely on these to bring in foreign talent. Their lobbyists claim there is a “talent shortage” among Americans and thus that the industry needs more of such work visas. This is patently false. The truth is that they want an expansion of the H-1B work visa program because they want to hire cheap, immobile labor — i.e., foreign workers.

To see how this works, note that most Silicon Valley firms sponsor their H-1B workers, who hold a temporary visa, for U.S. permanent residency (green card) under the employment-based program in immigration law. EB sponsorship renders the workers de facto indentured servants; though they have the right to move to another employer, they do not dare do so, as it would mean starting the lengthy green card process all over again. Read More > in the Huffington Post

Conspiring to stifle free speech is a crime – Whether or not Berkeley loses its federal funding over the Milo riots (and it won’t), I think it’s time for action to address this double standard. First, state and local law enforcement agencies need to target violent rioters who seek to silence speakers. It is a felony under federal civil rights law to conspire to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights, among which is free speech. In addition, many states have laws (generally called Klan laws) that punish people who engage in mob violence or intimidation while masked. These should be applied as well.

Second, perhaps it’s time to have a Title IX-style law banning discrimination according to political viewpoints on campus. Many states (including California) already have laws banning discrimination in hiring and firing based on political viewpoints. Perhaps we need a federal civil rights law providing that colleges that receive federal funds (which is pretty much all of them) can lose those funds if they discriminate against students because of their political views.

Some colleges may complain that this is federal interference in their internal affairs, but given the limited resistance they’ve mounted to intrusive Title IX regulations, it will be hard to take such complaints seriously. America’s colleges and universities have a free speech problem. It’s appropriate for the federal government to take action to protect the civil rights of those affected. Read More > at USA Today

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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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