Sunday Reading – 02/26/17


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.

Why it’s raining so much in California – Two words: Pineapple Express.

In a typical year, California has between 10 to 15 “atmospheric river” storms — the fire hoses that rampage in from Hawaii and account for up to 50 percent of the state’s annual rainfall — and nearly all of its floods. But since the rainy season began on Oct. 1, there already have been 30. And there are two months of winter to go.

“We are well beyond double what is normal,” said Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at UC San Diego.

Ralph, one of the nation’s experts on atmospheric rivers — which are often called Pineapple Express storms when they come from the tropics — calculated the big boost in atmospheric river storms last week for the state Department of Water Resources. He found that from Oct. 1 to Feb. 16, there was an average of one atmospheric river storm every 4.6 days that made landfall in California. Nine of them were of strong or extreme strength.

There have been other years with a similarly large number of atmospheric rivers, including 2006 and 2010, but scientists don’t know for sure why they’re seeing so many this year. Read More > in The Mercury News

JCPenney’s store closures could push hundreds of dying shopping malls over the edge – A tidal wave of store closures is about to hit the US, experts say, and the result could be catastrophic for hundreds of lower-tier shopping malls.

JCPenney announced Friday that it would close up to 140 stores in the next couple of months.

That follows decisions by Macy’s and Sears to close a collective 218 stores in the first half of the year. Other mall-based stores including American Apparel, The Limited, Bebe, BCBG, and Payless have also recently announced that they are shutting down all or most of their stores.

The rate of closures is higher than in previous years, signaling a new reality for the retail industry that consists of far fewer stores and, ultimately, fewer shopping malls.

…The loss of department stores like JCPenney, Sears, and Macy’s will likely plunge many of these malls further into distress and put some out of business. That’s because department stores, also known as mall anchors, take up the large, multistory buildings at shopping center entrances that are responsible for large portions of mall traffic and rental income. Read More > at Business Insider

GOP senator, a Vietnamese refugee, removed from California Senate floor after criticizing Tom Hayden – Republican legislators are decrying what they call a free-speech violation after Sen. Janet Nguyen, an Orange County Republican, was forcibly removed from the Senate floor Thursday morning during an attempt to criticize the late California Sen. Tom Hayden.

The unusual scene, captured on video, shows the Vietnamese-American lawmaker being led from the floor by Capitol security officers.

Nguyen, who fled communist Vietnam with her family and arrived in the U.S. in the early 1980s when she was a young child, is critical of Hayden’s anti-Vietnam War activism. Hayden, who died in October, is a polarizing figure in the Vietnamese-American community, as is his former wife, actress Jane Fonda, who was widely accused during the Vietnam War of giving “aid and comfort” to the North Vietnamese enemy.

Hayden was memorialized in the Assembly earlier in the week. So Nguyen rose Tuesday to criticize his radical legacy, speaking first in Vietnamese and then in English. She was told repeatedly by presiding Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, that she was out of order.

Nguyen’s microphone was turned off, but she continued talking. Lara later ordered sergeant-at-arms officers to escort her out of the room. read More > in The Mercury News


Most scientists ‘can’t replicate studies by their peers’
– This is frustrating clinicians and drug developers who want solid foundations of pre-clinical research to build upon.

From his lab at the University of Virginia’s Centre for Open Science, immunologist Dr Tim Errington runs The Reproducibility Project, which attempted to repeat the findings reported in five landmark cancer studies.

“The idea here is to take a bunch of experiments and to try and do the exact same thing to see if we can get the same results.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that should be easy. Experiments are supposed to be replicable.

The authors should have done it themselves before publication, and all you have to do is read the methods section in the paper and follow the instructions.

Sadly nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth.

After meticulous research involving painstaking attention to detail over several years (the project was launched in 2011), the team was able to confirm only two of the original studies’ findings.

Two more proved inconclusive and in the fifth, the team completely failed to replicate the result.

“It’s worrying because replication is supposed to be a hallmark of scientific integrity,” says Dr Errington. Read More > at BBC

Self-Driving Cars: Do Humans Have An Obligation To Stop Driving? – Autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars are coming. Experts predict that every major auto manufacturer will have a self-driving car on the market by the early 2020s. And this has got many people talking about the business impacts.

Every revolutionary technology brings with it revolutionary change. Businesses and industries that don’t adjust quickly could face catastrophic consequences. Consider the jobs lost for truck, taxi, and delivery drivers, the lost revenue to many car-related enterprises like parking companies, insurance companies, and even personal injury lawyers, local municipalities that rely on revenue from traffic violations, and so on.

And it’s already begun. There are cars with autonomous capabilities already on the road. I was struck recently by a video that surfaced of a Tesla in Europe that predicted a car crash ahead and alerted the driver, and applied the brakes seconds before the crash actually happened.

Essential to this story is that no one — no human — could have predicted the crash and reacted the way the car did. It is likely that the car prevented the crash from becoming a pileup and a much worse situation.

…Therefore, I would argue that it is our obligation to hand over to smart machines as soon as the technology is safe and tested.

This sort of thing will have to be litigated and regulated because many people will not want to give up their “classic” cars. Many people also fought mandatory seatbelt laws, child-car-seat laws, airbag and backup camera requirements; yet with the benefit of hindsight, we know that these laws and regulations have saved countless lives. Read More > at Forbes

How to scrub your private data from ‘people finder’ sites – It doesn’t matter what you do online: The internet knows a ton about you, and that information is a mouse click away.

Search any people finder site—Spokeo, PeekYou, Whitepages, to name a few—and odds are you’ll find a page listing your full name, date of birth, names of family members, current address, and phone number. Depending on the site’s aggressiveness, it may offer (for a low membership fee or the price of registering an account) additional details such as past addresses, social media profiles, marital status, employment history, education, court cases such as bankruptcies, hobbies, and even a photo of where you live.

Forget the National Security Agency. Aggregator sites such as Intelius, Radaris, and PeopleFinder have data warehouses full of information about you, accessible to people without your permission, and used for purposes you know nothing about. While these sites ostensibly provide background checks and other public services, they also simplify identity theft, stalking, and doxxing (exposing personal information online to encourage harassment), which is both creepy and downright dangerous.

Fortunately, most aggregators have an opt-out policy, so you can explicitly order them not to use your information. But for many of them—surprise!—the opt-out process is time consuming if not irritating. It’s also an ongoing project because opt-out requests tend to have a temporary effect. Still up for it? Then let’s begin. Read More > in Network World

America’s Predictable Pension Crisis – Some American disasters come as bolts from the blue — the stock-market crash of October 1929, Pearl Harbor, the designated hitter, 9/11. Others are predictable because they arise from arithmetic that is neither hidden nor arcane. Now comes the tsunami of pension problems that will wash over many cities and states.

Dallas has the fastest-growing economy of America’s 13 largest cities, but in spite of its glistening commercial towers, it represents the skull beneath the skin of American prosperity. According to its mayor, the city is “walking into the fan blades” of pension promises: The fund for retired police and firefighters is $5 billion underfunded. Prompted by projections that the fund will be exhausted within 20 years, retirees last year withdrew $230 million from it in a six-week span. In the entire year, the fund paid out $283 million and the city put in just $115 million. Last November, the New York Times reported that the police and fire fund sought a $1.1 billion infusion, a sum “roughly equal to Dallas’ entire general-fund budget and not even close to what the pension fund needs to be fully funded.”

Nowadays, America’s most persistent public dishonesties are the wildly optimistic, but politically convenient, expectations for returns on pension-fund investments. Last year, when Illinois reduced its expected return on its teachers’ retirement fund from 7.5 percent to 7, this meant a $400 million to $500 million addition to the taxes needed annually for the fund. And expecting 7 percent is probably imprudent. Add to the Illinois example the problems of the 49 other states that have pension debt of at least $19,000 per household and numerous municipalities, and you will understand why many jurisdictions will be considering buyouts, whereby government workers are offered a lump sum in exchange for smaller pension benefits. Last September, in the seventh year of the recovery from the Great Recession, the vice chair of the agency in charge of Oregon’s government-workers’ pension system wept when speaking about the state’s unfunded pension promises passing $22 billion. Read More > at National Review

AFL-CIO Dismissing Staff Amid Declines in U.S. Union Membership – The AFL-CIO is dismissing dozens of staff members as part of a restructuring amid continuing declines in union membership and fresh political threats to labor rights.

“We will have to end support for some programs that don’t go to our core priorities,” said AFL-CIO spokesman Josh Goldstein, who declined to discuss the number of staff affected. “This is about reimagining and realigning our core priorities to best serve our affiliates.”

The affected employees, who include both union members and management, were informed Wednesday and Thursday of the cuts. Three people familiar with the cutback said several dozen jobs were lost. The AFL-CIO’s latest federal filing listed about 400 employees.

Amid “well-financed anti-union opposition,” Goldstein said, the federation is undergoing a shift in resources. Labor officials expect that restructuring to be a major topic of debate when the AFL-CIO’s executive council meets next month in Texas.

In 2016, 10.7 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S. belonged to a union. That’s just over half the rate it was 1983. Read More > in Bloomberg

3 reasons not to retire before age 66 – Many working Americans jump at the chance to retire early. It’s estimated that nearly half of the U.S. population stops working by age 63, and because you can file for Social Security beginning at age 62, some folks call it quits right then and there.

Of course, there are benefits to retiring earlier in life – namely, the opportunity to enjoy more of your free time while you’re relatively young, and the ability to leave a potentially stressful career behind sooner rather than later. But early retirement isn’t all rosy, and there are consequences that can come along with it. Here are three compelling reasons to consider waiting until age 66 – or later – to exit the workforce permanently.

1. You’ll reduce your Social Security benefits

Your Social Security benefit payments are calculated based on your top 35 years of earnings. Once your base benefit amount is established, you actually have the ability to raise or lower that number depending on when you first file for Social Security. The benefit of waiting until your full retirement age is that you won’t face a reduction in benefits; rather, you’ll get to collect your base payment amount in full. Filing early, on the other hand, will lower your benefits for life.

2. You’ll have a longer retirement to fund

According to Transamerica, retirees in the U.S. have a median savings balance of $119,000. Now that may seem like a decent sum at first glance, but when you consider the fact that Americans are living longer these days, it actually paints a pretty bleak financial picture.

Over the course of a 20-year retirement, $119,000 gives you just $5,950 a year, or $496 a month, of income. Even if you factor in Social Security benefits, which, for the average retiree today, equal $1,360 a month, that’s still just $1,856 per month, or $22,272 per year, to pay your living costs in their entirety. Read More > at USA Today

Delaine Eastin kicks off 2018 bid: “Time for California to have a woman governor.” – Former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Schools Delaine Eastin acknowledges that being the only declared female candidate is the least of her challenges in her quest to become the next state’s governor.

There’s raising money, establishing name recognition, and overcoming the fact that she’s been out of public office for more than a decade. The former State Assemblywoman, 69, has been viewed as so much of a dark horse that, to date, she still hasn’t been included in any of the major polls on the race.

But at a campaign kickoff event at a supporter’s home in Davis Tuesday, Eastin told a packed crowd of enthusiastic backers that she has what no other candidate in the race does: a singular focus on education, an issue she says will shape California for generations to come. Read More > at Politico

Social Media Are Driving Americans Insane – If you pull out your phone to check Twitter while waiting for the light to change, or read e-mails while brushing your teeth, you might be what the American Psychological Association calls a “constant checker.” And chances are, it’s hurting your mental health.

Last week, the APA released a study finding that Americans were experiencing the first statistically significant stress increase in the survey’s 10-year history. In January, 57 percent of respondents of all political stripes said the U.S. political climate was a very or somewhat significant source of stress, up from 52 percent who said the same thing in August. On Thursday, the APA released the second part of its 1 findings, “Stress In America: Coping With Change,” examining the role technology and social media play in American stress levels.

Social media use has skyrocketed from 7 percent of American adults in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015. For those in the 18-29 age range, the increase is larger, from 12 percent to a remarkable 90 percent. But while an increase in social media usage is hardly surprising, the number of people who just can’t tear themselves away is stark: Nowadays, 43 percent of Americans say they are checking their e-mails, texts, or social media accounts constantly. And their stress levels are paying for it: On a 10-point scale, constant checkers reported an average stress level of 5.3. For the rest of Americans, the average level is a 4.4. Read More > at Bloomberg

UPS wants UAVs to cover its ‘last mile’ deliveries – Drone-based deliveries are quickly moving out of the realm of science fiction. Amazon, 7-11 and a host of startups are already toying with the idea. Now, UPS, one of the biggest parcel delivery services on the planet, is testing a system that will drop packages at your door while the driver moves on to the next house.

The “last mile” isn’t just an issue for broadband service providers. That last bit of distance between a UPS driver’s van and the recipient’s door is the least efficient portion of the entire shipping process. In fact, UPS figures that if it can cut just one mile from the 66,000 routes its drivers cover every day, the company could save upwards of $50 million annually. Read More > at Engadget

Verizon will test 5G wireless in 11 cities by mid-2017 – Verizon isn’t going to let AT&T’s 5G plans go unanswered. The carrier (and our corporate overlord) says it will pilot the gigabit-class wireless in 11 cities by the middle of 2017, including major urban hubs like Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Seattle and Washington, DC. These will be “pre-commercial services” offered to specific customers, so don’t expect to try extra-fast cellular data in your neighborhood. Instead, this is about investigating “scenarios and use cases” before Verizon is ready to ask for money.

It’s not certain when you’ll see honest-to-goodness paid service, although Verizon has been aiming for sometime in 2017. However, any widespread deployment is likely to be contingent on a formal 5G standard, which doesn’t exist yet — and that’s not including the necessary hardware. You might not want to get too excited, then. While 5G may well usher in an era where your smartphone data speeds are as fast as a fiber optic line, the technology is still very much in the early stages. Read More > at Engadget

Driverless cars could change urban landscape – Architects and urban designers, including those in Chicago, have started shaping bold new city planning ideas to prepare for the coming era of the self-driving car.

These designers view driverless cars not simply as a new transportation technology, but as a kind of liberating agent that would free vast stretches of cities from the one-dimensional role forced on them in the auto age.

The possibilities are dazzling. If self-driving cars lead to a significant drop in the number of vehicles on the road, parking garages could be turned into apartments or stores. Curbside parking could be converted into rainwater-collecting bio swales that help prevent sewers from backing up. Roads would narrow. Sidewalks would widen.

More people would use trains because driverless cars would pick them up and finish the “last mile” of their journey. The remaining parking garages will be able to accommodate up to three times as many vehicles because driverless cars would be able to maneuver far more reliably than cars controlled by humans.

That, at least, is the utopian scenario, which also foresees self-driving cars giving the elderly, the disabled and maybe even children new opportunities to get around.

There is also a dystopian alternative offered by futurists who paint a picture of technology run amok: If autonomous vehicles dramatically lower driving costs and give people a new incentive to take to the road, streets could be overwhelmed. Suburban sprawl would increase rapidly as high-speed driverless cars cut commute times and make it profitable for builders to construct new subdivisions in distant exurbs.

Such disparate possibilities have galvanized planners, who are haunted by the technology-first mindset of the mid-20th century, when tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for expressways and roads sliced up sylvan parks. Read More > in the Chicago Tribune

Move over, Amazon: Here comes Walmart – Walmart reported its latest results Tuesday: Earnings topped forecasts, while overall sales missed estimates slightly.

The surprising news was that Walmart’s e-commerce revenue in the United States rose 29% from a year ago. That compares with a 22% increase in total sales at Amazon.

Walmart didn’t say how much money it generated from its digital business. And Walmart  is still smaller than Amazon online. But the pride of Bentonville, Arkansas, is catching up fast

Last year, Walmart bought the e-commerce startup Jet, which also owns online furniture seller Hayneedle, for $3 billion. Walmart has also expanded its online grocery business. It offers curbside pickup and home delivery in some places.

The company also acquired ShoeBuy, a competitor to Amazon-owned Zappos, last month. It will be run by the Jet team. And just last week, Walmart bought Moosejaw, an online retailer of outdoor apparel and sporting equipment.

And Walmart now has a stake in JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce company that competes with both China’s market leader Alibaba and Amazon.

That investment should help Walmart increase online sales for both the core Walmart brand and its Sam’s Club warehouse in China. Read More > at CNN Money

Burger King and Tim Hortons owner to buy Popeyes for $1.8 billion – Restaurant Brands International Inc (QSR.TO), owner of the Burger King and Tim Hortons fast-food chains, said on Tuesday it would acquire Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (PLKI.O) for $1.8 billion in cash.

The deal is a bet by Oakville, Ontario-based Restaurant Brands that it can use its international reach to introduce Popeyes’ Louisiana-style fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits to more diners globally.

Popeyes shareholders will get $79.00 for each share they hold, a 19.5 percent premium to the stock’s Friday close. Read More > at Reuters

A New Holiday? Privileged Workers? – If Assemblyman Chris Holden’s AB 542 offering another holiday to public employees becomes law it will widen the divide between public and private workers and may even aid pension reformers. AB 542 would add presidential Election Day to a list of holidays public employees and public school employees enjoy that the general private worker does not. Providing a holiday under the law for one set of workers creates an image of a privileged class.

Why should public workers be the only ones who get Election Day off? Don’t private sector workers also have to balance work and children and errands and other activities along with their voting obligations?

Wariness about this proposal feeds off the old suspicion that government officials take care of those who take care of them. A headline created on the Flash Report website linked to an article about the bill suggests AB 542 is intended to boost Democratic turnout at the polls. The logic behind this headline comes from the fact that public employees, through their unions, strongly support the majority Democrats. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

How to pair beer with Girl Scout cookies Why pair Girl Scout cookies with milk if you can pair it with beer? Brass Tap beer expert Matthew Stock said the many ingredient variations in beer makes it easier to pair with food.

Everything from cinnamon to coriander can be found in brews in the U.S.

“There are just a lot more flavors in beer because of its larger ingredient list,” Stock said.

Anyone building their own personal beer-cookie flight can either pair like flavors to like flavors – or use complementary flavors, depending on the cookie, Stock said.

Caramel deLites

The coconut baked onto the cookie gives it a tropical feel. Go with a beer that complements it with other tropical flavors – such as a German hefeweizen, a yeast forward beer that has banana and clove flavoring. Read More > in the Orlando Sentinel

Dem rep to file lawsuit over controversial police painting – Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) will file a federal lawsuit on Tuesday against the Architect of the Capitol for removing a constituent’s painting that depicted police officers as animals from the Capitol complex.

Clay will argue that the painting’s removal, which followed outcry from House Republicans and police advocacy groups, violated his constituent’s First Amendment rights to free expression.

The painting by student David Pulphus showed a confrontation between black protesters and police officers with guns drawn, depicted as feral pigs. Read More > in The Hill

Payless Will Reportedly Close 1,000 Stores as it Edges Closer to Bankruptcy – Speculation that Payless ShoeSource Inc. is on the verge of bankruptcy is heating up yet again.

The debt-saddled retailer is in talks with its lenders over a restructuring plan that includes closing approximately 1,000 stores, those with knowledge of the matter reportedly told Bloomberg this week.

Payless may consider filing for bankruptcy if it’s unable to reach a deal with the creditors, the sources told Bloomberg, and a decision whether to restructure in or out of court may be reached as soon as this month.

This news follows a series of decisions by Payless over the past few months that seemed consistent with a retailer on the path to bankruptcy. Read More > at Footwear News

Is Big Oil Underestimating Autonomous Vehicles? – Companies like Tesla, Uber and Google have sparked a lot of interest in the roll out of autonomous vehicles (AVs), or driverless cars, and while it is still early days, the transition to AVs could have enormous implications for the oil industry.

There is a great deal of logic in AVs. For instance, an estimated 4 percent of total household vehicles are in use at any one time. AVs promise to make the transportation system much more efficient by allowing for the shared use of vehicles. Instead of every single person needing their own car, which they use only a fraction of their day, a single AV could service multiple households. Or, more specifically, a pool of AVs could provide enough transit service for a much larger number of people.

This will cut down on fuel consumption, traffic, air pollution, and potentially provide an economic jolt from the savings.

AVs are also billed as a much safer option, although this still needs to be proven on a large scale. The software in the AVs are expected to be more reliable, eliminating human error. One study pegged the annual car crashes due to distracted drivers at between 4 and 11 million. If AVs prove to be less error-prone, thousands of lives could be saved. Moreover, people who cannot drive – the elderly, people with disabilities, those without drivers’ licenses – would be able to move around with much greater ease.

Crucially for the oil market is the fact that AVs can be built lighter, more efficient and on an electrified platform. In other words, not only will AVs cut down on oil consumption because we will need fewer cars, but many of the driverless cars are expected to be electric as well. Read More > at Oil Price

Find out which bridges near you are ‘structurally deficient’ – America’s road network isn’t in amazing shape. A new report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) confirms a massive problem. The organization’s report takes a look at the condition of bridges in the US, and finds that nationwide, just over nine percent of the country’s bridges are “structurally deficient.”

ARTBA’s website also has a map that shows how many bridges in each state are in need of repair or replacement. It even provides locations of each bridge when you click on a state, in case you’re interested in seeing whether the bridge you cross on the way to work is sound or deficient. According to the map, there are 23 states where more than 9 percent of the bridges are structurally deficient. On the flip side, citizens of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Texas, Florida, and Washington D.C. can take pride that less than 5 percent of each location’s bridges are in the deficient category.

Now before you start adjusting your commute to avoid a neglected bridge, we should mention that ARTBA’s chief economist told CNN that the structurally deficient classification only means a bridge needs repair, not necessarily that it’s dangerous. It’s something that may see some construction in the near future, but more than likely will not crumble under your tires. The main takeaway is that there is still a large portion of our country’s infrastructure that really needs some attention. Read More > at Auto Blog

Another Big Company Departs California — Will Last One To Leave Shut The Lights? – Nestle USA is moving its headquarters from Glendale, Calif., a pocket suburb just miles from downtown Los Angeles, to Rosslyn, Va., near Washington, D.C., and taking 1,200 California jobs with it. Why? As many companies have found, California is an awful place to do business.

Well, apart from having higher taxes, absurd housing costs and more regulations than nearly any other state, California’s wacky laws have turned the Golden State into a venue of choice for activist groups to file costly class action lawsuits — or to launch anti-corporate PR campaigns against big, wealthy targets like Nestle.

In recent years, Nestle has faced two such activist-led actions, both spurious: One involves allegations that Nestle improperly documented its anti-slave-labor policies. Not that it employed slave labor, it just didn’t document it online.

The other involves Nestle’s selling of California mountain water under the Arrowhead brand, a decades-old business that has suddenly become environmentally incorrect. Read More > at Investor’s Business Daily

Lawyers could be the next profession to be replaced by computers – Technology is often blamed for destroying traditional working-class jobs in sectors like manufacturing and retail.

But blue collar jobs aren’t the only ones at risk.

The legal profession — tradition-bound and labor-heavy — is on the cusp of a transformation in which artificial-intelligence platforms dramatically affect how legal work gets done.

Those platforms will mine documents for evidence that will be useful in litigation, to review and create contracts, raise red flags within companies to identify potential fraud and other misconduct or do legal research and perform due diligence before corporate acquisitions.

Those are all tasks that — for the moment at least — are largely the responsibility of flesh-and-blood attorneys.

Increasing automation of the legal industry promises to increase efficiency and save clients money, but could also cut jobs in the sector as the technology becomes responsible for tasks currently performed by humans. Read More > at CNBC

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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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