Sunday Reading – 03/19/17


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.

The Mysterious ‘Disappearance’ of Richard Simmons – One of the stranger stories in pop culture these days is the mental state of the former fitness guru.

Simmons, now 68, hasn’t been a public persona for some time. The days of his ubiquitous “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” videos are long gone. He no longer appears on “The Howard Stern Show” to get insulted by the host. Nor does he teach fitness as he did for decades.

If you want to find him now, better hit YouTube.

Not everyone stays famous forever. Some bow out of the limelight by choice. Others find the public has had enough of their face. So which is it with Simmons?

People in Simmons’ inner circle say the star simply wants to live a more private life these days. Yet rumor has it Simmons is essentially being held hostage in his own home, controlled by his longtime housekeeper, Teresa Reveles. That’s according to Mauro Oliveira, a friend of the star.

There’s even a podcast dedicated to uncovering the truth: “Missing Richard Simmons.” And guess what? The podcast is a smash. Read More > at PJ Media

One of Macy’s largest threats is getting even bigger – One of Macy’s largest competitive threats is about to get even bigger.

Off-price retailers TJX, Ross and Burlington plan to open nearly 300 U.S. stores combined this year. That’s roughly the same number of shops that Macy’s, Sears and J.C. Penney will collectively close.

Their expansion should continue to fuel off-price apparel sales, which grew 39 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to Fung Global Retail & Technology.

Yet while there’s no denying off-price chains are benefiting from department stores’ shrinking sales, some investors are starting to question if they’re getting ahead of themselves. Read More > at CNBC

Americans are quitting jobs at the fastest pace in 16 years – In January, the number of Americans quitting their jobs rose to a seasonally-adjusted total of 3.22 million, the highest number since February 2001. The quits rate rose in January to 2.2%.

People quitting their jobs in droves is seen as a sign of confidence among workers, as folks are unlikely to quit a job unless they are confident they can get another one.

A new high in job quitters comes amid a flurry of data in the past week showing confidence in the U.S. economy continues to be strong.

Earlier this week, both major U.S. CEOs and American small businesses indicated that confidence remains elevated.

On Tuesday, the Business Roundtable’s CEO Economic Outlook Index jumped 19.1 points to 93.3, the biggest jump since the end of 2009. This index measures expectations for sales, investment, and employment. As with many economic surveys, any reading over 50 indicates expected economic expansion. Read More > at Yahoo! Finance

Kernel is trying to hack the human brain — but neuroscience has a long way to go – For Bryan Johnson, the founder and CEO of neuroscience startup Kernel, the question is when, not if, we all have computer chips inside of our brains. Kernel, founded last fall with more than $100 million of Johnson’s own money, is trying to better understand the human brain, so that we may one day program it to improve.

The company is focusing first on medical applications, to gain a deeper understanding of the diverse and complex ways the brain can fail. Eventually, Johnson would like to move toward augmenting the organ to make us smarter and healthier and pave the way for interfacing directly with computing devices.

Johnson, who made his fortune selling his payments company Braintree to PayPal for $800 million in 2013, doesn’t have past experience in neuroscience. He is, however, riding a new wave of interest from Silicon Valley. There is a growing fear, among some futurists and other Silicon Valley elite, that humans will develop a crippling dependence on machines and software that continue to rapidly accelerate beyond our capabilities and understanding. This is a fear not necessarily shared by the neuroscience community, which is less focused on enhancing human intelligence, at least right now, than they are on treating people with Alzheimer’s and helping paraplegics regain movement. Read More > at The Verge

What a Fed rate hike means for you (get ready to pay more) – The Federal Reserve decision Wednesday to lift its benchmark short-term interest rate by a quarter percentage point is likely to have a domino effect across the economy as it gradually pushes up rates for everything from mortgages and credit card rates to small business loans.

Consumers with credit card debt, adjustable-rate mortgages and home equity lines of credit are the most likely to be affected by a rate hike, says Greg McBride, chief analyst at Bankrate.com. He says it’s the cumulative effect that’s important, especially since the Fed already raised rates in December 2015 and December 2016.

“These interest rate hikes could add up to hundreds of dollars per month in extra fees for credit card, adjustable-rate mortgage and HELOC borrowers,” McBride says.

The Fed’s likely decision to lift the federal funds rate, which is what banks charge each other for overnight loans, will have several effects on consumers. Here’s how it may impact mortgage rates, auto loans, credit cards and bank savings rates. Read More > at USA Today

Crazy at the wheel: psychopathic CEOs are rife in Silicon Valley, experts say – There is a high proportion of psychopathic CEOs in Silicon Valley, enabled by protective investors and weak human resources departments, according to a panel of experts at SXSW festival.

Although the term “psychopath” typically has negative connotations, some of the attributes associated with the disorder can be advantageous in a business setting.

“A true psychopath is someone that has a blend of emotional, interpersonal, lifestyle and behavioral deficits but an uncanny ability to mask them. They come across as very charming, very gregarious. But underneath there’s a profound lack of remorse, callousness and a lack of empathy,” said forensic and clinical psychologist Michael Woodworth, who has worked with psychopathic murderers in high security prisons, on Tuesday.

“They have certain characteristics like fearless dominance, boldness and a lack of emotion. Many successful presidents have scored highly [on the psychopathy scale],” said Woodworth.

According to recent studies there’s a high prevalence of psychopathy among high-level executives in a corporate environment: 4-8% compared with 1% in the general population. Read More > in The Guardian

Want to Raise Successful Boys? Science Says Do This (but Their Schools Probably Won’t) – This is a story about successful kids (especially boys), common sense, and research.

Most of us spend hours each day sitting at work. Science says it’s killing us, and we have developed all kinds of fads to combat it–from standing desks to smartphone alerts to get us up and moving.

Armed with that knowledge, however, what do we force our kids to do each day at school? Sit still, for six or eight hours.

Now researchers say that mistake leads us into a three-pronged, perfect storm of problems:

  1. We overprotect kids, trying to keep them safe from all physical dangers–which ultimately increases their likelihood of real health issues.
  2. We inhibit children’s academic growth (especially among boys), because the lack of physical activity makes it harder for them to concentrate.
  3. When they fail to conform quietly to this low-energy paradigm, we over-diagnose or even punish kids for reacting the way they’re naturally built to react.

News flash: Most boys are rambunctious. Often they seem like they’re in a constant state of motion: running, jumping, fighting, playing, getting hurt–maybe getting upset–and getting right back into the physical action.

Except at school, where they’re required to sit still for long periods of time. (And when they fail to stay still, how are they punished? Often by being forced to skip recess–and thus they sit still longer.)

It’s not just an American issue. Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland recently tried to document whether boys actually achieve less in school when they’re restricted from running around and being physically active. Read More > at Inc.

McDonald’s tests mobile ordering on coastal elite – If you’ve ever thought that fast food wasn’t fast enough, then it looks like McDonald’s latest initiative has you covered. The takeout chain has begun trialling mobile ordering at restaurants in Monterey and Salinas, California. Hungry patrons will now be able to select their meal on the way to their nearest location for instant collection. The app will even use your GPS data to determine when your burgers start getting cooked, ensuring your food stays warm and fresh. When you arrive, you just pay through the app and grab that famous brown bag from the counter, drive-thru or curbside collection point.

The California-only trial will run until March 20th, when residents of Spokane, Washington will also get access to the service. With the three cities housing a total of 80 different McDonald’s, its a solid test to see how prepared the global restaurant chain is for the full U.S rollout later this year. No date has been set for the full nationwide service, but McDonald’s claims that all 14,000 of its American branches will be ready to handle mobile preorders when the system goes live. Read More > at Engadget

Trick or Treat: Conniving Behavior Discovered in Dogs – Studies assessing the cognitive capabilities of dogs have increased in recent years. A recent one shows that dogs are able to make inferences. A border collie named Chaser could identify certain objects. When an unfamiliar toy was placed in a pile with those objects, Chaser was able to retrieve it even though she didn’t know the word in the command because she inferred that it was the toy she hadn’t seen before.

Dogs have also been found to shun unhelpful people, similar to behavior shown in human infants and capuchin monkeys. In a study, a dog’s owner would ask another person for help with a task, and some people would help and others would not. There was always also a neutral observer in the room. When offered a treat by both people, the dogs often chose the neutral observer over the unhelpful assistant, potentially showing community and loyalty. (Read more about doggy intelligence tests.)

Humans may only be interested in the so-called intelligence of dogs because we want to think they’re like us–or brag that our preferred breed s the smartest, though, according to Brian Hare of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, there is no demonstrable difference among breeds. Read More > at National Geographic

Radioshack will close 11 stores in the Bay Area as it files for bankruptcy again – Almost a dozen local RadioShack stores will close as the retailer struggles with its recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization plan, its second such filing in two years.

The company has said it will shutter 180 stores RadioShack stores this month, and will hold liquidation and store closing sales between March 13 and March 28. The cuts are part of its first round of closings, which it detailed in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week.

The Bay Area locations it will close are: San Francisco: 300 Pine Street; Oakland: 4230 Park Boulevard; 2200 MacArthur Boulevard; San Rafael: 1340 4th Street; San Leandro: 1353 Washington Avenue; San Leandro: 15100 Hesperian Boulevard; Lafayette: 3573 Mount Diablo Boulevard; San Mateo: 43 East 4th Avenue; Castro Valley: 20566 Redwood Road; Hayward: 24901 Santa Clara Street; and Martinez: Village Oaks Shop Center, 1155 Arnold Drive. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

An entire pack of wolves has gone missing in California – In August 2015, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife made a landmark announcement: Trail cameras in northern California had captured images of a pack of gray wolves. It included two adults and five loping pups, all with unusual black coats.

That made the group the first pack to settle in the state in almost a century. Gray wolves were once common in California, but by 1924 their population had been exterminated. “This news is exciting for California,” department director Charlton H. Bonham said with the announcement. “We knew wolves would eventually return home to the state, and it appears now is the time.”

Then the pack vanished.

State biologists have not spotted the wolves, which were dubbed the “Shasta Pack” because of their presence in the county home to Mount Shasta, since May, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week. That’s puzzling because wolf packs typically stick to their territory. Then again, a lack of other wolves nearby could mean the family felt free to roam more widely. Read More > in The Washington Post

Arctic ice loss driven by natural swings, not just mankind: study – Natural swings in the Arctic climate have caused up to half the precipitous losses of sea ice around the North Pole in recent decades, with the rest driven by man-made global warming, scientists said on Monday.

The study indicates that an ice-free Arctic Ocean, often feared to be just years away, in one of the starkest signs of man-made global warming, could be delayed if nature swings back to a cooler mode.

Natural variations in the Arctic climate “may be responsible for about 30–50 percent of the overall decline in September sea ice since 1979,” the U.S.-based team of scientists wrote in the journal Nature Climate Change. Read More > at Reuters

Just weeks after Oroville Dam crisis, damage found in another key California reservoir – California water officials, still struggling with fixes at Oroville Dam, will have to temporarily shut down the pumping station that delivers water to much of Southern California and Silicon Valley after discovering damage at another key state reservoir.

The state Department of Water Resources confirmed Tuesday that operators discovered damage to the intake structure at the Clifton Court Forebay, a nearly 2-mile-wide reservoir that stores water for the State Water Project pumping plant in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Tracy. Repairs will begin Wednesday. It’s not clear how long they will last.

However, state officials said State Water Project customers won’t lose any water deliveries.

“This is not an emergency of any kind,” said Doug Carlson, a spokesman for the Department of Water Resources. “The water is going to continue to flow to contractors.”

Clifton Court is a crucial piece of the State Water Project’s plumbing. Water stored in the forebay is piped to the nearby pumping station, where it’s delivered to 19 million residents of Southern California, portions of Silicon Valley and about 750,000 acres of farmland in the Central Valley. A third of Southern California’s drinking water typically flows from the Delta pumps. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Hudson’s Bay Examining Potential Neiman Marcus Buy – Ares Management LP and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, owners of Neiman Marcus Group Ltd., are in discussions with rival retailer Hudson’s Bay Co. to sell. Upscale retailer Neiman Marcus has hired financial advisors to explore strategic alternatives that would help flagging sales. The alternatives range from outright sale of the company, to debt restructuring.

The retailer is dealing with approximately $5 billion in debt, as well as weak sales and poor earnings.

The Wall Street Journal said Hudson’s Bay wants a transaction that would provide control of the business without having to assume the company’s debt. Sources told the publication that Hudson’s Bay could buy Neiman’s assets with a structure that wouldn’t trigger a change in control. It would also leave the debt on Neiman’s books.

Hudson’s Bay owns Saks Fifth Avenue. Read More > at Connect Media

To Make Us All Safer, Robocars Will Sometimes Have to Kill – Let’s say you’re driving down Main Street and your brakes give out. As the terror hits, a gaggle of children spills out into the road. Do you A) swerve into Keith’s Frozen Yogurt Emporium, killing yourself, covering your car in toppings, and sparing the kids or B) assume they’re the Children of the Corn and just power through, killing them and saving your own life? Any decent human would choose the former, of course, because even murderous kiddie farmers have rights.

But would a self-driving car make the right choice? Maybe yes. But even if it does, by programming a machine to save children, you’re also programming it to kill the driver. This is known as the trolley problem (it’s older than self-driving cars, you see), and it illustrates a strange truth: Not only will robocars fail to completely eliminate traffic deaths, but on very, very rare occasions, they’ll be choosing who to sacrifice—all to make the roads of tomorrow a far safer place.

Cut your pearl-clutching: Self-driving cars will save countless lives. Humanity needs them, badly—more 30,000 people die every year in road accidents in the United States alone. Worldwide, it’s more than a million. Because, it turns out, humans are terrible drivers. Machines, by contrast, are consistent, calculating, and incapable of getting drunk, angry, or distracted.

But autonomy can’t save everyone—the technology will never be perfect—and society must understand that very well before the technology arrives. Society also needs to understand that robocars are for the greater good. “Convincing the public must begin with understanding what the public is worried about and what the psychological mechanisms involved are,” says Iyad Rahwan of the MIT Media Lab, who’s studying just that. Read More > at Wired

Don’t repeal the Johnson Amendment, fix it – …According to section 501(c)(3) of the In­ternal Revenue Code, most religious, charitable, and educational organizations in the private sector are tax-exempt. Their income, if they have any, is not taxable. Far more important, contributions to these organizations are tax-deductible for the donors.

This generous tax treatment comes with eligibility requirements, and one of these requirements is controversial. A 501(c)(3) organization cannot endorse or oppose a candidate for political office, even by implication. Senator Lyndon Johnson inserted this restriction into a bill in 1954 after two tax-exempt organizations had attacked him politically.

…Churches have taken political positions throughout American history whenever moral issues became political issues. And that has been pretty often, from the movement to abolish slavery to the pro-life movement, from the era of the Social Gospel and Prohibition to the era of sanctuary churches.

The Johnson Amendment applies to religious and secular organizations alike. And it permits either kind of tax-exempt organization to spend money on politics if they do it right. A church could create an affiliated organization under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, and that affiliate could create a political action committee. These affiliated orga­nizations could contribute to candidates or spend freely to endorse them. These ex­penditures by affiliates would be subject to the same limits as all other political spending: no tax deduction, limits on the size of gifts, and public disclosure.

…The real free speech problem here is that the Johnson Amendment is an absolute prohibition. It applies to sermons and other things that churches say in their ordinary operations that cost no money. If the pastor says vote for the pro-life candidate, and that’s the Repub­lican, or vote for the candidate who will care for the poor, and that’s the Demo­crat, that’s political and religious speech at the very core of the First Amendment.

Pastors violate the government’s in­terpretation of the law even if they don’t identify a candidate or a party. Urging members to vote for the pro-life candidate is an implied endorsement even if no names are mentioned. A sermon on abortion, or social justice, or the war in Iraq preached close to an election can be an implied endorsement. To forbid this speech is government censorship of sermons, and it ought to be unconstitutional. Read More > at The Christian Century

Tim Berners-Lee: I invented the web. Here are three things we need to change to save it – Today marks 28 years since I submitted my original proposal for the worldwide web. I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. In many ways, the web has lived up to this vision, though it has been a recurring battle to keep it open. But over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity.

1) We’ve lost control of our personal data

The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Many of us agree to this – albeit often by accepting long and confusing terms and conditions documents – but fundamentally we do not mind some information being collected in exchange for free services…

2) It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web

Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us. And they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they are constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases, can spread like wildfire… Read More > in The Guardian

Major Retailers Expanding Grocery Delivery – Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kroger Co. and Meijer are expanding into the grocery delivery service. The big retailers are exploring ways to better compete with the likes of Amazon.com Inc.’s Prime service, which accounts for more than 50% of online grocery shopping.

Roughly one-fifth of shoppers purchased groceries online in 2016, according to the National Grocers Association. A study by Nielson and the Food Marketing Institute predicts that by 2025, spending will reach $100 billion.

The expansion into the e-commerce space by more traditional grocers is expected to better align with how consumers shop in today’s fiercely competitive market. And, it is requiring retailers to rethink how those orders will be delivered, including often ceding last-mile distribution to third-parties such as Shipt and Instacart, or even Uber. Read More > at Connect Media

Proof Daylight Saving Time Is Dumb, Dangerous, and Costly – If you hate daylight saving time and all the confusion and sleep deprivation it brings, you now have solid data on your side. A wave of new research is bolstering arguments against changing our clocks twice a year.

The case for daylight saving time has been shaky for a while. The biannual time change was originally implemented to save energy. Yet dozens of studies around the world have found that changing the clocks has either minuscule or non-existent effects on energy use. After Indiana finally implemented daylight saving, something that didn’t happen until 2006, residents actually used more electricity.

The suffering of the spring time change begins with the loss of an hour of sleep. That might not seem like a big deal, but researchers have found it can be dangerous to mess with sleep schedules. Car accidents, strokes, and heart attacks spike in the days after the March time change. It turns out that judges, sleep deprived by daylight saving, impose harsher sentences.

“Even mild changes to sleep patterns can affect human capital in significant ways,” two Cornell University researchers, Lawrence Jin and Nicolas Ziebarth, wrote (PDF) last year.

Some of the last defenders of daylight saving time have been a cluster of business groups who assume the change helps stimulate consumer spending. That’s not true either, according to recent analysis of 380 million bank and credit-card transactions by the JPMorgan Chase Institute. Read More > at Bloomberg

Capitol Journal – Will California spend more on water projects? ‘It all depends on how thirsty the governor is,’ De León says – If there ever was a politically ripe time to spend lavishly on water projects, this is it. But Sacramento Democrats are settling for a drop in the bucket.

We’ve had double the normal amount of rain throughout much of the state, ending a five-year drought that wrought havoc because not enough water had been stored in reserve.

Moreover, experts warn this volatile weather pattern has been merely a preview of California life to come with climate change.

So better try to prepare, right? Get those one or two big dams built that everyone has been yakking about for years. Compromise on a real delta plumbing fix; scrub the governor’s impractical, monstrous twin tunnels. Invest heavily in efficient groundwater replenishing, storm water capture and recycling. Expedite desalination. Bolster flood controls. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Look Ma, no hands! No steering wheel needed under new Calif. car rules – Under newly proposed California self-driving car rules, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles will let companies test autonomous vehicles that lack that quintessential car component, the steering wheel.

What else can they shed? Brake pedals and (human) drivers, anywhere in the car.

Once the cars have been tested either on a closed track or through computer modeling, self-driving cars will be able to tool around California roads without drivers or even the ability to be driven by a driver.

Prior to this, autonomous vehicles had to have a driver sitting ready to take charge at any second should anything go wrong. Read More > at USA Today

Government Collects $1.257 Trillion in Taxes in First Five Months of FY 2017 – The federal government collected approximately $1.257 trillion in taxes in the first five months of fiscal year 2017, but the federal government still ran a $349 billion deficit during that time, according to the latest monthly Treasury Department statement.

revenue from individual income taxes, corporate income taxes, social Treasury receipts include tax insurance and retirement taxes, unemployment insurance taxes, excise taxes, estate and gift taxes, customs duties, and other miscellaneous items.

In the first five months of 2017, which included the months of October, November, December, and January, the amount of taxes collected by the federal government totaled $1,256,553,000,000. The 2017 fiscal year begins on Oct. 1, 2016, and runs through Sept. 30, 2017.

After adjusting for inflation, the federal government collected $1,263,101,350,000 in the first five months of fiscal 2016, which means the government collected slightly less revenue this year. Read More > in The Washington Free Beacon

The Problem of Success – By all accounts the Saudi economy is in decline. Low oil prices are forcing the Kingdom to live off savings, a process which can only last for so long. “The International Monetary Fund in January slashed its forecast for Saudi economic growth this year to 0.4 percent from 2 percent. … Net foreign assets, though still above $500 billion, are shrinking as the government uses savings to plug a budget deficit that reached $79 billion last year — $107 billion if delayed payments to contractors are included.” The Saudi government has a six-point plan aimed at tightening its belt and minimizing economic unrest as it tries to shift away from oil but it may be too little, too late to sustain it in the same old style…

One person who understood the growing strategic weakness of the Saudi position was Rex Tillerson. Speaking in October 2016 as the chairman of Exxon Mobile, when a president Hillary was still universally anticipated, “Tillerson told Saudi Arabia’s energy minister … that fears of a new global oil supply crunch were exaggerated as the U.S. oil industry was adapting to the low price shock and was set to resume growth.” The Saudis had cut oil prices in the belief that it would bankrupt American producers. Instead innovation turned North America into the big swing producer.

The remarks by Tillerson … come as the Saudis have effectively abandoned their strategy to drive higher cost producers out of the market by ramping up cheap supplies from their own fields … shale oil producers’ resilience in cutting costs to make some wells profitable at as low as $40 a barrel means that North America has effectively become a swing producer that will be able to respond rapidly to any global supply shortage. Read More > at PJ Media

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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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