Sunday Reading – 02/19/17


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.

PG&E profits jump amid rising customer bills – PG&E profits soared in the fourth quarter, an increase powered primarily by the favorable timing of a rate case and sharp rises in customers’ gas bills.

The embattled utility, which now is a convicted felon after being found guilty of crimes it committed before and after a fatal explosion in San Bruno, earned $675 million in the October-through-December quarter. That was more than double the profits of $247 million for the year-ago fourth quarter.

“The increase in quarter-over-quarter earnings from operations reflected additional authorized revenue as a result of the 2015 gas transmission and storage rate case, timing-related tax items, the impact of a nuclear refueling outage in the prior period, and growth in rate base earnings,” PG&E said in its earnings release Thursday.

On Aug. 1, average gas bills for typical residential customers jumped $6.80 a month, or 14 percent. The increase in gas costs wasn’t particularly noticeable until customers sought to heat their homes more often during cold weather.

After gas and electricity monthly bills increased again on Jan. 1, some ratepayers began complaining of major increases in monthly PG&E bills, including some that doubled from prior months. Read More > in The Mercury News

This Startup’s New Self-Driving Car Video Is Way More Impressive Than Tesla’s

Woolly mammoth on verge of resurrection, scientists reveal – The woolly mammoth vanished from the Earth 4,000 years ago, but now scientists say they are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.

Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”

The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr. Read More > in The Guardian

Oroville Dam drags California’s $65 billion infrastructure annual price tag into the open – Shock over the emergency evacuation downriver from the Oroville Dam has given way to serious questions about how California is coping with its aging infrastructure — which the American Society of Civil Engineers says would cost the state a staggering $65 billion per year to fix and maintain after years of neglect.

Fixing old roads, bridges and dams is a costly proposition that is often the first to be put on hold during times of fiscal crisis, experts say. They note that the physical underpinnings of our society tend to be invisible until they fail and there’s a mad scramble to repair the damage.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed investing $43 billion in infrastructure over the next five years, with the vast majority of the money going to transportation. California voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond in 2014 for a range of needs from flood control to water storage, but that falls far short of needs for flood control and increasing the water supply.

With its extraordinarily complex system of levees, dams and pipelines, the state needs to spend $2.8 billion per year for a decade to protect its citizens from floods, according to the 2013 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Failing to do so, the report warns, could lead to dire consequences: “A catastrophic failure of any one of the levee systems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta carries with it the very real potential to be a mega-disaster greater than Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans.” Read More > in The Mercury News

How Robots Helped Create 100,000 Jobs at Amazon – Accelerating technology has been creating a lot of worry over job loss to automation, especially as machines become capable of doing things they never could in the past. A recent report released by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that 49 percent of job activities could currently be fully automated—that equates to 1.1 billion workers globally.

What gets less buzz is the other side of the coin: automation helping to create jobs. Believe it or not, it does happen, and we can look at one of the world’s largest retailers to see that.

Thanks in part to more robots in its fulfillment centers, Amazon has been able to drive down shipping costs and pass those savings on to customers. Cheaper shipping made more people use Amazon, and the company hired more workers to meet this increased demand.

So what do the robots do, and what do the people do?

Tasks involving fine motor skills, judgment or unpredictability are handled by people. They stock warehouse shelves with items that come off delivery trucks. A robot could do this, except that to maximize shelf space, employees are instructed to stack items according to how they fit on the shelf rather than grouping them by type.

Robots can only operate in a controlled environment, performing regular and predictable tasks. They’ve largely taken over heavy lifting, including moving pallets between shelves—good news for warehouse workers’ backs—as well as shuttling goods from one end of a warehouse to another. Read More > at Singularity Hub

Colorado governor says California faces challenges in legalizing pot – Five years after Colorado voters approved a measure to legalize marijuana, Gov. John Hickenlooper warned California officials Tuesday that they face challenges now that voters have approved recreational use in the Golden State.

Legalization requires urgent attention to multiple public health issues that include preventing impaired driving and making sure edible pot products are not made to be attractive to minors, Hickenlooper told California lawmakers Tuesday at a legislative hearing at the Capitol.

…It took Colorado officials a year to reach an agreement to set a standard for what constitutes impaired driving, the governor said. The standard is met if a blood test finds 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, but the governor warned that it may be difficult for Californians to agree on a standard because people may argue that a particular level is too high or too low.

“We think 5 nanograms is the right number,” he said. “We went through a lot of testing.”

Proposition 64 does not set a standard, and California’s police chiefs have called on the Legislature to adopt a 5-nanograms standard, but marijuana activists say the measurement is not a good way of determining impaired driving.

Hickenlooper also said that Colorado initially did not require proper labeling of edibles, so brownies containing up to eight doses of THC were being sold without the consumer knowing the levels. He also said some edibles were made to look like popular candies, but that the state has since adopted labeling and marketing rules. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

How California could get a Republican governor – …Wilson later won the governor’s office in 1988, eventually turning to the right, especially on the issue of immigration, and along the way ushered in today’s era of almost absolute Democrat rule in the state.

Now Kevin Faulconer, another moderate Republican San Diego mayor, mulls the idea of running for governor soon after allowing his city’s professional football franchise to move 100 miles north to Los Angeles. Faulconer knows the state’s top-two primary election system, adopted via Proposition 14 in 2010, could give him a leg up not enjoyed by any of the several strong — on paper — Democratic possibilities to succeed Brown when he’s termed out of his second go-’round as governor late next year.

…It’s Democrats who now face issues of party discipline in the just-begun run for governor. Their corps of candidates, declared and not, includes Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Treasurer John Chiang, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, financier Tom Steyer — star of a plethora of liberal commercials during last fall’s presidential campaign — and former state Schools Supt. Delaine Eastin.

If they all run, be sure only one Democrat will make the November 2018 ballot. A primary with so many major Democrats would likely splinter the party’s vote.

Meanwhile, Faulconer today is the only major Republican officeholder seriously considering a run. He ran second behind Newsom in the first major survey on this contest. But he’s not certain whether to run, perhaps because he knows that if one or two more other Republicans get in, he might not muster enough primary votes to make the runoff. Read More > in The OC Register

This summer, O.J. Simpson is up for parole. How good are his chances of getting out of prison? – As prison life goes, you could do worse than a stretch at the Lovelock Correctional Center. The inmates at Lovelock—1,680 when filled to capacity—are fed fresh fruit and permitted to watch ESPN. Each 80-square-foot cell is shared by two men. The facility is designated “medium custody,” so the inmates’ relationship with guards tends to the cordial, and violence is rare. Located in the windswept midsection of Nevada, an hour and a half northeast of Reno off I-80, Lovelock sits on a vast tract of land, allowing for multiple prison yards and sports fields.

Lovelock’s most prominent inmate is number 1027820. Controversial as it may be, his record indicates no prior felonies. It lists him as standing 6′ 2″, 235 pounds, with a “medium” build and “dark” complexion. Brown eyes. Black hair, though in the official prison photo, it’s more salt than pepper and appears to be in a state of retreat. The same manifest lists a series of aliases that includes “Juice.”

O.J. Simpson turns 70 in July. Incarcerated since 2008, he is due to go before the Nevada parole board as early as this summer. Depending on the board’s recommendation, 2017 might well be the year that perhaps the most famous inmate in America—the subject of an award-winning documentary and an award-winning scripted show two decades after his Trial of the Century—returns to society.

Before handicapping the chances of Simpson’s release, take a moment to reflect on how Simpson ended up here—a journey wreathed in ironies. In 1995 he was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. Nerves from that verdict remain raw. And they were exposed further last year with the release of the transcendent documentary O.J.: Made in America, which argued to great effect that the jurors’ verdict was less about the merits of the case than it was about exacting karmic justice on the LAPD for years of perceived racial bigotry.

…In 2007, Simpson and a team of cohorts confronted memorabilia collectors Alfred Beardsley and Bruce Fromong in a Las Vegas hotel room in an effort to reclaim numerous items of Simpson’s, including photos of his children. During the clumsy confrontation, one of the men with Simpson drew a gun, and in the end the crew left with as many as 800 collectibles, many having nothing to do with O.J.

Simpson would be charged with 12 counts, including conspiracy, burglary, robbery, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. On Oct. 3, 2008—exactly 13 years to the day California jurors found Simpson not guilty of murder—Nevada jurors found him guilty on all 12 counts. Judge Jackie Glass sentenced Simpson, then 61, to 33 years in prison, with a chance for parole after nine years. Read More > in Sports Illustrated

Raiders Fans Deserve Better – One thing is clear after Raiders owner Mark Davis and company blew up, in a matter of days, their partnership with the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and jeopardized their bid to move to Nevada: the players, and Raiders fans everywhere, deserve better than the people who are in charge.

What’s not clear, after hearing the Sands’ side of the story, is whether the Raiders unwittingly sabotaged their chances or acted in bad faith. The team submitted a draft lease that cut out casino and resort magnate Sheldon Adelson, and they changed their minds on a number of key negotiation points, such as non-football stadium event profits and stadium branding. Either way, a Sands rep described the latest developments in an extensive interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a stunning miscalculation.

Nothing about this latest twist makes sense. And if the Raiders ownership and management have a good explanation, they’re not sharing it. (The team declined to speak on the record for this story.)

Even so, it’s hard to imagine a group of men in charge of one of the most iconic franchises in sports—an organization worth roughly $1 billion—wittingly and knowingly inviting an Adelson rep to a stadium committee meeting, then submitting at that very same meeting a lease proposal that cut out Adelson. But that’s exactly what Davis, Raiders president Marc Badain and executive vice president Dan Ventrelle did in late January, baffling their guest, Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations and community affairs for the Las Vegas Sands Corp.

A public apology to a scorned business partner who hasn’t been shy about withdrawing his sizable investment would have been an unimaginable scenario when Mark’s father, Al, was running the team. But these aren’t Al’s Raiders. A once-proud franchise finished the 2016 season last in attendance despite the team’s resurgence on the field, and it has made little headway with local politicians in efforts to replace or renovate the aging Oakland Coliseum. Read More > at MMQB

Target 2021: BMW’s bold plans for fully automated driving within half a decade – BMW has set itself the ambitious target of unleashing self-driving cars on the world by 2021, but currently no one anywhere in the world has developed anything beyond part-automated driving. So what makes BMW think they can go one better? We find out

We all know that driverless cars are racing toward us, and even at this stage we know it’s a matter of when not if they arrive, but getting us to the point where we can safely take our hands off the wheel isn’t a simple task. To do that, we need cars that can think for themselves, not to mention overcoming various liability and regulatory issues. German car giant BMW has a plan though, and says it can deliver fully autonomous, sleep-in-the-driving-seat, take-your-eyes-off-the-road, cars by 2021. Read More > at Factor Tech

Buy a car, help fix California’s roads – Assembly Republicans released a road-funding plan Monday that contains no new taxes but poses a $4.6 billion hit to the general fund, the main source of money for state programs.

The $5.6 billion package would get the bulk of its revenue from the estimated $3 billion in sales tax collected on vehicle purchases – money that currently flows into the general fund.

In addition, the plan would redirect $1.1 billion in truck weight fee revenue that now goes toward paying off past transportation borrowing. And the plan takes $550 million in vehicle insurance fee revenue away from general fund.

Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, and state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, have put forward similar road-funding proposals that would raise $6 billion annually. Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan, meanwhile, calls for $4.2 billion in annual spending. Those proposals include a mix of gas tax increases, raising the vehicle registration fee, and imposing other charges, which would require a two-thirds vote. Read More > at Capitol Alert

Study finds churches with conservative theology still growing – Canadian researchers are revisiting a hotly debated sociological question: Why do some churches decline while others succeed?

Since the 1960s, overall membership in mainline Protestant Christian churches has been dropping in both the U.S. and Canada.

But some congregations have continued to grow, and a team of researchers believes it now knows why. It’s the conservative theological beliefs of their members and clergy, according to researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University and Redeemer University College in Ontario.

…But, comparing the religious beliefs and practices of both the declining and growing churches, Haskell said more clergy and congregants of the growing churches held firmly to “traditional” Christian beliefs and were more diligent in practices such as prayer and Bible reading. That includes a more literal interpretation of the Bible and greater openness to the idea that God intervenes in the world, he said.

For example, 93 percent of growing-church pastors said they agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” compared with 56 percent of declining-church pastors, according to the summary.

And 71 percent of pastors at growing churches said they read their Bibles daily, compared with 19 percent of pastors at declining churches. Read More > at Religion News Service

Building emotionally aware cars on the path to full autonomy – Recent innovations around the autonomous car have shaken up the automotive industry. Manufacturers and their suppliers are all accelerating their work on the cars of the future, both regular human-operated cars and driverless or semi-autonomous vehicles. But beyond just issues of autonomy, these cars of the future are undergoing a fundamental shift in human-machine interaction. Consumers today crave more relational and conversational interactions with devices, as evidenced by the popularity of chatbots and virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa — and the automotive industry has taken notice.

As such, next-generation cars are emerging as advanced artificial intelligence (AI) systems that will power an entirely new automotive experience in which cars will become conversational interfaces between the driver, passengers, the vehicle itself, and its controls — all connected to the IoT and mobile devices we use. Leveraging emotion recognition technology that senses and analyzes expressions of emotion, cars will soon come equipped with the ability to perceive our reactions and moods and to respond accordingly. These “emotionally aware” vehicles will benefit the automotive industry and consumers in a number of ways.

…Many in the automotive industry are focused on the creation and deployment of autonomous vehicles, all powered using AI. By tapping into passengers’ emotions, AI systems can adapt to control the operation of the vehicle accordingly and can offer valuable insight into how autonomous cars should operate.

For instance, in semi-autonomous cars it is critical to determine whether a driver is engaged and alert before the car hands back controls. And if a self-driving car perceived emotional distress from passengers, it could drive more slowly or play soothing music to assuage their anxiety. In addition, AI systems could be integrated with other IoT devices and data inputs — such as traffic and weather reports — in order to better inform navigation, and prepare passengers for potential stressors that may arise from traffic delays or poor driving conditions. Read More > at Venture Beat

ESPN Profit Plummets As Network Turns Left – Yesterday afternoon Disney announced its quarterly earnings and something I’ve been predicting for several years now was at the forefront of most of those stories — ESPN’s income declined 11% compared to last year. The drag on earnings and revenue from ESPN led to a quarterly miss of estimates for ESPN’s parent company, Disney. Fortunately for Disney the company has made smart strategic moves in other arenas — buying Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel among others — that have helped to defray the coming collapse of ESPN. So while Disney may not suffer terrible consequences thanks to the success of the Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar films and the continuing popularity of its theme parks — I’ll be spending a ton of money there next week on “vacation”with my kids — ESPN is a dead company walking.

And the story here is simple — ESPN is losing millions of subscribers and viewers that add up to billions of dollars a year in losses and is on the hook for tens of billions of dollars in sports rights costs in the years ahead.

Presently ESPN has the following yearly sports rights payments: $1.9 billion a year to the NFL for Monday Night Football plus an additional playoff game which costs the network an additional $100 million, $1.47 billion to the NBA, a deal I told you flat out wasn’t sustainable back in July because it meant every single cable and satellite subscriber in the country was paying an average of $30 a year for the NBA whether they watched or not, $700 million to Major League Baseball, $608 million for the College Football Playoff, $225 million to the ACC, $190 million to the Big Ten, $120 million to the Big 12, $125 million a year to the PAC 12, and hundreds of millions more to the SEC.

Add it all up and the amounts are staggering, tens of billions of dollars in yearly fees owed regardless of what revenue looks like. With most companies you can cut costs if your revenue declines. Not ESPN. It owes these tens of billions for the next decade to come and more.

The result of this coming financial calamity has been panic, which has primarily manifested itself in a desperate ploy for relevance. ESPN decided to become a social justice warrior network, treating all liberal opinion makers as those worthy of promotion and casting aside all those who had the gall to challenge the new Disney world order. Read More > at Outkick the Coverage

Why Whole Foods is now struggling – Organic food has never been so popular among American consumers. Ironically, that’s bad news for the brand that made organic a household name — namely, the Austin-based Whole Foods.

On Wednesday, Whole Foods reported what is arguably its worst performance in a decade, announcing its sixth consecutive quarter of falling same-store sales and cutting its outlook for the year. The company is closing nine stores, the most it has ever closed at one time. A mere 16 months ago, Whole Foods predicted it would grow its 470 U.S. locations to more than 1,200.

The problem is one that chief executive John Mackey probably didn’t predict when he first opened Whole Foods as a neighborhood natural foods store 36 years ago: Organics, then a fringe interest, have become so thoroughly mainstream that organic chains now have to face conventional big-box competitors. Mass-market retailers were responsible for 53.3 percent of organic food sales in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association; natural retailers clocked in just north of 37.

And Whole Foods is hardly the only store feeling the squeeze: Sprouts and Fresh Market, the second- and third-largest publicly traded organic stores, have also seen falling stock prices. 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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