Sunday Reading – 03/26/17


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.

APNewsBreak: California could free 9,500 inmates in 4 years – Corrections officials announced new criminal sentencing rules on Friday that aim to trim California’s prison population by 9,500 inmates after four years.

They include steps like reducing inmates’ sentences up to six months for earning a college degree and by up to a month each year for participating in self-help programs such as alcohol and substance abuse support groups and counseling, anger management, life skills, victim awareness, restorative justice and parenting classes.

Virtually any inmate except those on death row or those serving life-without-parole sentences would be eligible to earn the credits and lower their sentences.

It’s the latest step in a years-long drive to dramatically lower the state’s prison population in response to federal court orders stemming from lawsuits by prison advocates and pressure to turn away from mass incarceration. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Biggest Cause of Cancer? Just Plain Old Bad Luck – A new article in Science is reporting that most cancers in people are the result random copying errors that occur when cells in the body divide. Applying some sophisticated mathematics to the question of how the mutations that lead to cancers are produced, Johns Hopkins University cancer researchers Cristian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein, sought to figure out what causes 32 different types of cancers. The press release accompanying the report notes that when the two researchers looked “across all 32 cancer types studied, the researchers estimate that 66 percent of cancer mutations result from copying errors, 29 percent can be attributed to lifestyle or environmental factors, and the remaining 5 percent are inherited.”

Additionally, they calculated how big a role random errors played for various types of cancers. For example, when critical mutations in pancreatic cancers are added together, 77 percent of them are due to random DNA copying errors, 18 percent to environmental factors, such as smoking, and the remaining 5 percent to heredity. For prostate, brain or bone cancers, more than 95 percent of the mutations that lead to malignancy are due to random copying errors. However, environment does play a big role in lung cancer in which 65 percent of all the mutations are mostly due to smoking, and 35 percent are due to DNA copying errors. Inherited factors are not known to play a role in lung cancers.

The risk of cancer goes up with age. People over age 65 account for 60 percent of newly diagnosed malignancies and 70 percent of all cancer deaths. Why? Because their bodies have experienced many more cell divisions and thus have had greater chances for the sort of random genetic errors that lead to cancer to occur. Read More > at Reason

What happens if you don’t sleep for 24 hours? You’re basically drunk – For college students, new parents and employees dogged by deadlines, the all-nighter is nothing new. But going without sleep leaves you basically drunk, putting you at the equivalent of a .1% blood alcohol content as you drive to work, make decisions and interact with others.

“The first thing that goes is your ability to think,” said Joseph Ojile, M.D., a board member with the National Sleep Foundation. Judgement, memory and concentration all suffer impairment by the body’s 17th hour without sleep, he said.

“We know at 17 hours, you’re at .08% blood alcohol level,” he said, the legal standard for drunk driving. “At 24 hours, you’re at 0.1%.”

Coordination deteriorates as well in those intervening hours, said Ojile, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Irritability sets in, too. Pain becomes more acute and the immune system suffers, he said, leaving the body more open to infection. Read More > at USA Today

Hungry? Call Your Neighborhood Delivery Robot – Here’s a classic big city dilemma (sorry suburban folks): It’s late at night, the weather is bad, and you’re hungry. Your favorite restaurant is less than a mile away, but you don’t want to leave the house, and you don’t want to pay a $5 delivery fee — plus tip — for a $10 meal.

So, what do you do?

A fleet of about 20 autonomous, knee-high robots recently has appeared on the sidewalks of the nation’s capital, and they’re out to revolutionize hyper-local delivery in big cities. Their mission? Bring takeout food from restaurants to hungry customers at home — while keeping the delivery cost to around a dollar.

Each 35-pound bot is essentially a medium-sized cooler on six wheels, and drives at an average speed of about 4 miles per hour. It has lights and a tall, bright orange flag to make it more visible to pedestrians on the sidewalk. A smartphone app unlocks the shiny black lid to access the hollow, insulated holding area, and then automatically locks back into place. Read More > at WKNO

When Autonomous Cars Won’t Look Like Cars – Imagine: You exit the bustling Gare du Nord train station in Paris and walk toward a cluster of people standing in separate but quickly moving lines of travelers, organized by group size. You’re alone so you get in the single-traveler line, and soon enough, you’re at the front of the line, and your car awaits. It’s small: the interior only fits you and your suitcase. As you get inside, the lights shift to match your color preference and your favorite music comes on, both synced from your phone. There’s no steering wheel, and you post to Snapchat on the way to your hotel. When you arrive, the car drives off to pick up its next passenger, already altering its lighting and music.

This surreal scene could be the future of transportation with autonomous cars. A car could be able to personalize itself to you without you having to own a car. City streets could be full of tiny, slow moving pods that barely stop moving between picking up riders and dropping them off. Traveling in groups could lead to a car picking you up that doesn’t even have front facing seats, because no one needs to be able to look at the road. Instead, passengers could sit in a circle so they can easily see each other. Read More > at Inverse

Singapore in talks with firms to try out ‘flying taxis’ – WANT to get back home at the end of the day in a levitating hovercraft?

Flying vehicles may just be a part of Singapore’s transport network in the near future; in fact, the Ministry of Transport says that you can “bet your money” on it.

It has already taken initial steps to make it happen. The ministry’s top official has told The Business Times that it is in talks with some companies to start trials on drones that can carry passengers.

But human-carrying drones are not the only newfangled modes of transport to come to Singapore down the road – on-demand buses that ply dynamic routes may soon feature in Singapore’s public bus network as well. Read More > at The Business Times

China Sees a Manufacturing Future—in America – Sizable shifts are underway in global manufacturing and logistics, and they are tilting towards America. A search for industrial space in the U.S. involving Chinese shoe manufacturer, Dongguan Winwin Industrial, reflects the trend.

The move by Chinese companies to seek facilities in America started long before the new presidential administration took over. A report by Reshoring Initiative shows incoming jobs is nearly matching the exodus of U.S. factory jobs now.

The shift parallels changes transpiring across the supply chain, including rising wages and taxes in China, increased shipping costs and slow shipping times. Opening a facility in America begins to make sense for Chinese companies seeking to remain competitive when they factor in lower U.S. real estate and energy costs.

A key attraction for Chinese companies is advanced manufacturing. Automation in U.S. facilities helps offset factory floor labor costs, and is expected to drive future demand for skilled technicians. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Wells Fargo activates cardless withdrawals for all its ATMs – Wells Fargo’s pilot trial for cardless withdrawals must have gone well, because the bank is rolling out the feature to all of its 13,000 ATMs across the country. The company debuted the feature in select ATMs earlier this year. Starting on March 27th, though, you can withdraw cash from any of the bank’s machines using only your smartphone. You’ll have to request an eight-digit code from the Wells Fargo app to punch into the machine along with your PIN code every time you want to withdraw money. Take note, however, that the code can only be used once and won’t be enough to open some branches’ secure doors during non-business hours — you’ll still need your card for that.

“Security certainly was a big aspect of the cardless feature and the two-step identification helps reduce the risk of fraud,” Jonathan Velline, Wells Fargo’s head of ATM, said. He added that the mobile transactions will prevent scammers from skimming customers’ cards, as well. The company said it plans to roll out an update later this year that will make the process even easier. When that feature arrives, you won’t even have to request a code: you’ll only have to hold up your phone to a reader on the machine to get your money. Read More > at Engadget

Does Alexa Have Free Speech Rights? – In November 2015, Victor Collins was found dead in a hot tub in James Bates’ home in Bentonville, Arkansas. Bates was charged with murder. During their investigation, police discovered that he owned an Amazon Echo—a device that, upon voice activation through the “wake” word “Alexa,” answers questions, provides sports scores, and “[h]ears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even while music is playing.” Alexa, in other words, both speaks to users and listens to and records them. The police sought and received a warrant to obtain audio recordings made by the Echo. Concerned that “rumors of an Orwellian federal criminal investigation into the reading habits of Amazon’s customers could frighten countless potential customers,” Amazon filed a motion to quash the warrant on Feb. 17, 2017. Buried in that motion was a striking claim: that Alexa’s responses to user queries are protected by the First Amendment.

Amazon has dropped its objection since Bates himself agreed to have the information handed over to law enforcement, so the First Amendment argument will not be addressed in this case. But it’s highly likely to crop up again in the future.

Alexa is an example of weak artificial intelligence, or applied A.I. It (“she”?) responds to narrow requests with a narrow range of responses, and is a far cry from A.I. that can think like a human (called “strong A.I.” or “artificial general intelligence”). Alexa does not “think” or speak on her own; her actions are traceable to her programmers’ choices. So Amazon does not, in fact, claim that Alexa herself has First Amendment rights. Instead, it claims that Alexa’s response to users is actually Amazon’s protected speech. Read More > at Slate

Court asks who should lead prayer before government meeting – Does it matter whether a prayer opening a government meeting is led by local clergy or an elected official?

That’s a question a federal appeals court is wrestling with in a unique case examining the constitutional requirement of separating church and state. The case will likely eventually wind up before the Supreme Court.

An attorney for a North Carolina county commission told the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday that the body’s practice of beginning meetings with Christian prayers fits squarely under a high court decision in a similar case in 2014. The only difference in this case is that the Rowan County commissioners deliver the prayers themselves instead of local clergy members, attorney Allyson Ho said.

“The Supreme Court has expressly approved every feature of the county’s prayer practice, save one: that the legislators pray,” Ho said.

The case marks the first time a federal appeals court has wrestled with this issue since the 2014 Supreme Court ruling upheld predominantly Christian invocations by local clergy members in the town of Greece, New York. Read More > from the Associated Press

Bay Area population growth slows, some counties losing people – The Bay Area may be losing a bit of its luster.

After years of being overrun by new residents drawn by a red-hot economy, the number of people moving out has begun to catch up with the number moving in, new census data show.

In fact, in some parts of the Bay Area — including Santa Clara, San Mateo and Marin counties — already more people are leaving than arriving, according to the estimates released Thursday, which cover the period from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016. The same would be true in San Francisco if it weren’t for the high number moving in from abroad.

…The region’s economy, by all measures, is still robust. What’s happening, say Johnson and other demography experts, is that the extraordinary upswing that led California out of hard times last decade, with the tech sector propelling the boom, has become slightly less alluring. At the same time, housing prices have continued to grow, compounding the crunch. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Why is Sears dying? – Sears is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. All department stores have faced increased competition from Amazon.com, but Sears is out of cash and about to fail. Why?

Because the CEO, Eddie Lampert, is a guy with nutty ideas who treated Sears like a dotcom, conveniently forgetting that it has physical stores that need maintaining.

Lampert, a former Wall Street prodigy, took control of Sears more than a decade ago and became its CEO in 2013. But he’s rarely seen in the office[.] … [T]he retailer, famous for selling everything from shoes to vacuum cleaners to whole houses, is facing its biggest crisis ever. It’s closing hundreds of stores. Others are in shambles, with leaking ceilings and broken escalators. In some, employees hang bedsheets to shield shoppers from sections that stand empty. Read More > at the American Thinker

Stanford researchers show we’re sending many children to school way too early – Parents wondering whether to wait a year to send their kids to kindergarten, take note: A new study from Stanford University shows that Danish kids who postponed kindergarten for up to one year showed dramatically higher levels of self-control.

“We found that delaying kindergarten for one year reduced inattention and hyperactivity by 73% for an average child at age 11,” Thomas Dee, one of the co-authors and a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor, said in a release.

Dee did his research with Hans Henrik Sievertsen of the Danish National Centre for Social Research, who told Quartz that the impact was strong and lasted a long time: “We were a bit surprised at how persistent the effect was.” The effect of delaying school on hyperactivity and inattention didn’t diminish over time, as they expected, but increased: in fact, waiting one year virtually eliminated the chance that an average kid at age 11 would have higher-than-normal scores on those measures. Read More > at Quartz

This Just In: Boycott of N.C. Over Bathroom Bill Dies With a Whimper – The economic boycott of North Carolina over the state’s controversial “bathroom law” that requires men and women to use their respective bathrooms in public facilities is a failure.

As reported by Bradford and Valerie Richardson in the Washington Times:

Tourism has thrived: Hotel occupancy, room rates and demand for rooms set records in 2016, according to the year-end hotel lodging report issued last week by VisitNC, part of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.

Meanwhile, North Carolina ranked fourth in the nation for attracting and expanding businesses with the arrival of 289 major projects, and seventh in projects per capita — the same as in 2015, according to Site Selection magazine, which released its 2016 rankings in the March edition.

North Carolina finished first for drawing corporate facilities in the eight-state South Atlantic region, said Site Selection, which uses figures tracked by the Conway Projects Database.

And in November, both Forbes and Site Selection magazine ranked North Carolina the No. 2 state for business climate. Read More > at PJ Media

Politics, gun-control anxiety cited for California’s record 2016 gun sales – Californians bought guns at a blazing-fast pace in 2016, setting a record for the most guns ever sold in the state with 1.3 million. It was the first year Californians had ever purchased more than a million firearms.

That’s according to data from the California Department of Justice’s Dealer Record of Sale system, which tracks gun sales in the state. Data the agency provided to KPCC shows that sales accelerated as the year went on.

Experts and gun owners point to politics and anxiety about gun control measures as the driving forces behind 2016’s gun-buying frenzy.

…Some cities sell guns at far higher rates than others. Many of the state’s big, liberal enclaves, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, have low per capita sales. San Francisco, where the last gun store closed in 2015, recorded zero sales for all of 2016, according to the Department of Justice’s data.

Other areas of the state are hotspots, including large swaths of Southern California. In Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties, per capita sales outpaced the state figure. Read More > at KPCC

To Grow California’s Economy, Legislature Must Act to Stop Junk Lawsuits – …The American Tort Reform Foundation branded California as the country’s No. 1 state-level “judicial hellhole” in its 2016-2017 report, and the nation’s overall judicial hellhole in its 2015-2016 report. It’s a dishonor the state also held in 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. The Foundation reports that every year a million lawsuits are filed in state courts, one lawsuit for every 39 Californians. Tens of thousands more are filed in federal courts across the state.

California is a sanctuary state for the litigious. National Public Radio has reported that more than 40 percent of the nation’s disability access lawsuits are brought in California. The American Tort Reform Foundation says, “the principal reason the claims are so prevalent in California is that they can be brought by plaintiffs with various alleged disabilities under a combination of both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and state civil rights law, which allows for damages and attorney’s fees.”

The legal stew is so rancid in California that it is even a destination for “litigation tourism,” says the Civil Justice Association of California. Plaintiffs from other states troll the halls of California courthouses hoping to cash in on jackpot justice. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Playing in Pain in the N.F.L. – During the National Football Conference championship game this January, during the Atlanta Falcons’ victory over the Green Bay Packers, Alex Mack, the Falcons’ center, broke his fibula for the second time. When he broke it for the first time, in 2014, doctors put a plate in his leg. The second break landed just above the plate. There was some concern that he would be unable to play in the Super Bowl two weeks later, since a player normally misses six to eight weeks with that type of injury. But on the day of the Super Bowl ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Mack would be given a painkiller shot. He started the game. It was the Super Bowl, after all, and football players are celebrated for playing through pain. (The Falcons did not respond to a request for comment.) “I just know his toughness and strength is so great,” the Falcons head coach, Dan Quinn, told reporters.

Mack’s endurance is extraordinary even for an N.F.L. player—he hadn’t missed a snap in more than five seasons before breaking his fibula for the first time—but his story is not atypical. Football is a game of inches, and it is also a game of blown Achilles tendons, torn A.C.L.s, dislocated elbows, strained labra, cracked ribs, separated AC joints, cuts, and contusions. Playing injured is part of the job, and so, too, sometimes, is taking painkillers. It’s one thing to shake it off when someone steps on your hand—even if that someone is three hundred and twenty-five pounds and wearing cleats. It’s another thing to play with a torn labrum or knees that will need replacing.

The public’s glimpse into the world of painkiller use usually comes when a player is celebrated for his toughness, like Mack, or in accounts that look at the costs of glory: stories of addiction, rampant prescription-drug use in N.F.L. locker rooms, and long-term damage. Painkillers have been a hallmark of post-career memoirs and of depictions of N.F.L. life for a long time. (“Better football through chemistry,” a wide receiver says as he gets a pain-numbing injection, in the film version of “North Dallas Forty,” Peter Gent’s novel based on his time playing for the Dallas Cowboys, in the nineteen-sixties.)

But a sealed court filing in a class-action lawsuit representing eighteen hundred former players, first reported on March 9th by the Washington Post, and then published in full by Deadspin, shifts the emphasis from the lurid stories of players to the more mundane accounts of doctors and trainers—conveyed in e-mails, task forces, Drug Enforcement Administration presentations, and conference calls. What emerges is in some ways even more eye-opening than the accounts of players getting stuck with needles in order to play with broken bones.

The lawsuit alleges that teams violated state and federal laws by transporting, handling, and distributing prescription painkillers, and that they created a culture in which doctors and staff members casually dispense controlled substances, overlooking their dangers in order to keep injured players on the field… Read More > in The New Yorker

US infant mortality rates down 15% – Infant mortality rates have reached new lows, according to a report released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday.

From 2005 to 2014, the infant mortality rate in the US dropped 15%, from 6.86 infant deaths per 1,000 live births to 5.82. Sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, declined by 29%, and there were drops in infant mortality rates across most racial groups.

The largest drop among racial groups, 21%, was in Asian and Pacific Islander populations. All race and Hispanic subgroups experienced reductions in infant mortality rates except American Indians or Alaska Natives, among whom there was not a statistically significant change. The report shows significant declines among non-Hispanic black populations as well as women of Cuban descent. Read More > at CNN

California, Here We Go – Stories about the desperate living arrangements of highly compensated California tech workers sound like tales of Third World misery. One newspaper reports that a Silicon Valley engineer pays $1,400 a month just to live in a closet. He’s squeezing his wallet for the privilege of having a “private room” in a house where five adults live in bunk beds in a single bedroom. Another media outlet reported that a Google engineer moved into a “128-square-foot truck—in the company’s parking lot” because the cost of living in a real house was just too much.

Housing is so expensive across California that Joel Singer, CEO of the California Association of Realtors, said last fall that “only about one-third of our fellow citizens can afford to buy a median-priced home in the Golden State, down from a peak of 56 percent just four years ago.” Californians who own their homes spend more than a quarter of their total income on housing, the highest ratio in the nation. In 2014, Golden State renters paid 33.6 percent of their income on housing—third-highest in the nation. Despite rent-control laws—actually, in part due to those laws—San Francisco has the most unaffordable rental costs in the world, according to Nested, an international real estate service. Los Angeles is tenth on the list. Three of the five costliest housing markets in North America are found in California: San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles.

The California housing crunch is the product of a dire shortage of homes. Over the last decade, developers have built an average of 80,000 homes each year. But that number is about 100,000 units short of what’s needed to keep up with demand. According to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, the state will need to build roughly 1.8 million units between 2015 and 2025 “to meet projected population and household growth.” That would be like building more than 10 new Oaklands or nearly six new San Joses over that time.

Developers aren’t fools. They know that there is a great demand for housing in California. The profit motive would make them happy to build all those additional Oaklands. But California’s regulatory climate and development policies have eaten away at that incentive. The hurdles to building homes are high and solidly rooted: the most imposing is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which allows opponents of development to shut down projects in the courts, often with no environmental basis. But because the lawsuits can disrupt and suppress projects, the law has become, as the Hoover Institution’s Loren Kaye says, a “tool for abuse.”

Other barriers include the steepest impact fees in the nation, in some cases nearly $25,000 per unit; affordable-housing mandates in more than 170 jurisdictions that require developers either to choose between building units at below-market value or face government fines; local anti-growth policies; and rent control. Read More > at City Journal

Europe’s first sex robot brothel FORCED OUT of base as prostitutes complain of competition – The original location in Barcelona at 2 Baixada de Sant Miquel had been in the Spanish city’s Gothic quarter, north of the cathedral.

But the brothel, not far from La Rambla in the heart of the city has now moved to a mystery new location with a receptionist saying the address would only be given out to paying customers.

Prostitutes who work in the city with Aprosex – the Association of Sex Professionals – objected saying a doll cannot match the services of a real person and denigrates real sex workers to merely being an object. Read More > at Express

Sears warns of ‘going concern’ doubts – Sears Holdings Corp, once the largest U.S. retailer, warned on Tuesday about its ability to continue as a going concern after years of losses and declining sales.

“Our historical operating results indicate substantial doubt exists related to the company’s ability to continue as a going concern,” Sears said in its annual report for the fiscal year ended Jan. 28. (bit.ly/2mRUcce)

The company said an inability to generate additional liquidity might limit its access to new merchandise or its ability to procure services. Continued operating losses also could restrict access to new funds under its domestic credit agreement, according to the filing. Read More > at Reuters

Retail’s Next Challenge: Storefront Reduction – Retailers are attempting to reduce a nasty excess inventory issue in the U.S. The problem is national footprints need to shrink significantly. Consider that in the U.S. there’s roughly 48 square feet of retail space per person, compared to just 22 square feet in the U.K. and 13 in Canada.

Once considered a competitive advantage, high store counts are placing additional strains on retailers’ bottom lines. Consumer buying habits continue to be transformed by e-commerce, and that shift simply adds up to too many storefronts to meet the dwindling foot traffic.

Variations of an omnichannel strategy that utilizes stores in the online shopping process, are being tested, including product returns or pick-ups. Other retailer strategies involve plowing expected savings from store closings back into an e-commerce effort, or creating digitally-enabled stores. Even so, retail analysts argue the burden won’t lift without further closings. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

California’s Drought May Be Over, But Its Water Troubles Aren’t – In the years before California’s civil engineers got around to confining the Sacramento River, it often spilled over its banks, inundating huge swaths of the Central Valley. Sometimes the floodwater would stand for a hundred days at a time. The botanist William Henry Brewer, writing in 1862, after a season of torrential rains, described the valley as “a lake extending from the mountains on one side to the coast range hills on the other.” The water was so deep, he reported, that cargo steamers could navigate it. “Nearly every house and farm over this immense region is gone,” Brewer wrote. “America has never before seen such desolation by flood as this has been, and seldom has the Old World seen the like.” Half a century later, to solve the problem, California built a number of flood-control systems, including the Sacramento Weir, a series of forty-eight hand-operated gates placed strategically along the Sacramento and American Rivers. When the waters rose, they would now be shunted into an unpopulated expanse known as the Yolo Bypass, a floodplain roughly equivalent in size to twenty Central Parks.

This winter, for the first time in a decade, and after five years of a crippling statewide drought, the Yolo Bypass is submerged again. Situated at the heart of the Pacific Flyway, a great migratory corridor stretching from Alaska to the tip of South America, the area teems with sandhill cranes, California brown pelicans, and dozens of other bird species. But its estuarine tranquillity is deceptive. In the past five months—the wettest since record-keeping began, in 1895—California has experienced widespread hydrological chaos. In January, after a series of heavy rainstorms, water managers activated the Sacramento Weir, filling the Yolo Bypass. In February, emergency releases from Anderson Lake Dam, in Santa Clara County, flooded hundreds of homes in San Jose. The rain also caused landslides near Big Sur, washing out several roads and bridges and leaving about four hundred people stranded. But it was the near-failure of the dam at Lake Oroville, three and a half hours north of San Francisco, that made the scale of the crisis clear. Oroville is the state’s second-largest reservoir but arguably its most important; it feeds the California Aqueduct, which supplies drinking water to twenty-five million residents across greater Los Angeles and irrigates millions of acres of Central Valley farmland.

…Ask most Californians, however, and they’ll tell you that the chaos is in service of a greater good. As of last week, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, more than three-quarters of the state is out of the drought, with barely one per cent falling into the “severe” category—almost the reverse of the situation at this time last year. Already in 2017, many parts of California have received more than twice their average annual precipitation. The numbers would seem to paint a picture of watery salvation. But Peter Gleick, the chief scientist at the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, told me that one year of heavy precipitation, even a record-breaking one, will not undo the most serious repercussion of the drought: a severe deficit of groundwater. For years, Central Valley farmers have drawn liberally from the region’s aquifers to compensate for reduced supplies from canals and aqueducts. When a large enough volume of groundwater is pumped away, the land can slump like a punctured air mattress. Areas along the valley’s western edge have sunk by nearly thirty feet since the nineteen-twenties, and in some places the local infrastructure—roads, bridges, even the California Aqueduct itself—is at risk. Farmers and municipalities have responded by digging deeper wells, but such measures seem to be prolonging the inevitable. In Tulare County, south of Fresno, where groundwater overdraft has been particularly severe, the number of reported well failures has continued to climb, almost quadrupling since 2014, in spite of last year’s above-average precipitation and this year’s deluge. Read More > in The New Yorker

Autonomous Cars Will Be “Private, Intimate Spaces” – Your autonomous car could become an extension of your home. A place to eat breakfast, play video games, or have sex. And figuring out which of these activities you want to do most in an autonomous car is already on the minds of automotive designers.

…Which means that creating cars with private spaces are a big part of fully autonomous car designs. “I think people may start to consider these in-car spaces as an extension of their home or office,” he says. This could totally change how we imagine transportation.

What people want to do in their cars is likely to change what kind of cars they purchase, Kobayashi said. He imagines that we will have things like sleeper cars, or meeting cars, or kid-friendly cars. This kind of division of car-function also showed up in the workshop section itself as well. Tech 2025 is a media-strategy company that works to educate the public on emerging technologies, so it invited a bunch of non-experts to workshop design ideas with Kobayashi. Read More > at Inverse

10 Human Body Modifications You Can Expect in the next Decade – Here are 10 emerging devices and technologies that could soon enhance you in body and mind.

1. RFID Chips

Microchips are not new, but the practice of routinely implanting them in humans is. Already, biohackers are enthusiastically getting chipped, many of them undergoing the DIY surgery in tattoo parlors. With small radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted in their hands or wrists these citizen cyborgs can already eliminate many tedious rituals from their daily lives, like carrying a wallet or keys.

The chip can be used to make tap-and-go payments and can be programmed to open a home or office door electronically. No more carrying keys down to the beach when going for a swim, and no more jogging with them jangling in your pocket. One Australian biohacker, Meow-Ludo Meow Meow also thinks that chip implants could replace public transport cards.

3. Real-time Language Translation

Real time language translation applications have been around for a few years though they’ve had their share of quirks and imperfections. However, recent advances in machine learning have done a lot to improve machine translation of late—so much so that we are now on the cusp of achieving seamless translation in real time.

4. Augmented Vision

Bionic eyes are a thing! They are currently used to treat hereditary and age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and rely on a camera mounted on glasses feeding inputs to electrodes attached to the retina. This technique is a remarkable, though still imperfect, means of reversing a form of blindness.

Another kind of intraocular bionic lens is being developed by the Ocumetics Technology Corp and is currently being tested in clinical trials. The aim of the product is to restore “clear vision at all distances, without glasses or contact lenses” regardless of the age of the patient. Read More > at Big Think

Here’s how California ended up with too much solar power – California’s power-grid operators are dealing with a glut of daytime electricity produced by household, government, business and industrial solar installations.

This forces the electricity prices on state’s real-time marketplace to plummet, leading some power-plant operators to shut down until demand catches up with supply later in the day.

And increasing amounts of wind and solar energy are being wasted or “curtailed,” as they call it, because no one can use it, according to data obtained from the California Independent System Operator ( Cal ISO).

Last year 305,241 megawatt hours of solar and wind electricity were curtailed — a loss of enough carbon-free electricity that could have powered about 45,000 California homes for a year. This was almost double the amount of clean power that was lost through curtailment in 2015. Read More > at The Press Enterprise

California’s Boondoggle Bullet Train Goes Off The (Fiscal) Rails – …Worse, since the bond issue passed in 2008, cost estimates have only soared. Initially budgeted at $32 billion, the price tag is now put at twice that: $68 billion or more. Even the initial stretch of track, which lies on the flattest, easiest-to-build part of the entire total 700-mile route, has seen its cost soar 50%, from $6.4 billion to $10 billion.

Moreover, that initial part of the much bigger project was originally slated to be completed this year. But so far, not a mile has been laid. Nothing. According to a recent confidential report by the Federal Railroad Administration, the first part of the rail system is at least seven years behind schedule.

And the final stage may require the boring of 36 miles of tunnels through the earthquake-prone mountains that surround Los Angeles — a massively costly undertaking that will add billions more to the costs and delay even further its completion.

…Yet that financing is not forthcoming. As Dan Walters, the dean of California political commentators who writes for the Sacramento Bee, recently reported, “the financially challenged project … just suffered two immense hits, either of which could be fatal.”

The first was the recent auction of the CO2 emission rights for the state’s cap-and-trade market. It yielded almost nothing, meaning the rail system will get almost nothing in continuing funding.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this came after the Trump administration put a hold on $647 million in provisional funding, as questions about the troubled project grew. Read More > at Investor’s Business Daily

You can now watch these declassified nuclear test movies on YouTube – Between 1945 and 1962, the United States conducted over 200 nuclear tests up high in the atmosphere to learn about the power of nuclear weapons. The terrifying explosions were filmed from every possible angle and distance, and the movies — an estimated 10,000 of them — were then stored in high-security vaults scattered across the country.

Now, for the first time, about 4,200 of thee films have been scanned, and around 750 have been declassified by the US government. You can watch about 60 of them on YouTube. Some are in color, some in black and white, and all of them bear the whimsical names of top secret missions: Operation Hardtack, Operation Plumbbob, Operation Teapot.

The project is spearheaded by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs, who’s hoping to save the films, reanalyze them, and squeeze every bit of data out of them. In fact, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the effects of high-altitude nuclear blasts, and right now they are prohibited by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. By making the movies public and analyzing them, Spriggs hopes to help other nuclear weapon physicists learn more about nuclear explosions. Read More > at The Verge

OPEC Cutback Deal Threatened by New US Numbers – The trend in the United States of accelerating oil production does not seem to be slowing down. Recent reports show that oil production from U.S. shale producers will increase in April, according to the Energy Information Administration. High market prices are currently being supported by OPEC cutbacks, and these higher profits are funding the growth of American drilling.

The release from the EIA predicts that net oil production will increase by 109,000 barrels per day in April. The seven major oil and gas basins that were included in the report will then have an output over nearly 5 million barrels per day collectively.

…The supply increases by the U.S. have capped any gains to be seen for OPEC nations from their cutbacks. This has been keeping crude futures within a tight range. On Monday, March 13th, U.S. crude ended at $48.40, a price that hasn’t been seen since before OPEC announced their cutbacks in December 2016.

These recent developments have lead analysts to believe OPEC’s cutback policy is fated to end in the near future. It is clear that the United States has a sustainable means to regulate prices in the global oil market. Furthermore, the dynamics of U.S. outputs indicate that the country will not have any desire to participate in the cutbacks; U.S. law prohibits any such price controls. The United States will continue to threaten any gains to be had by OPEC. Read More > at Breaking Energy

California’s bumpy path to road repairs – California’s already poor roads deteriorated to a whole new level of disrepair this winter. Sinkholes have popped up throughout the state and major roads have closed because of damage.

To cite just a few major examples: Portions of Interstate 80 and Highways 50 and 49 were closed due to mudslides. Parts of Highway 1 remain closed because of storm damage. Numerous local roads were battered severely.

As Californians suffer through crumbling highways from severe winter storms, the governor and legislators are aiming to approve a transportation funding package by April 6 that will start to repair the damage.

Democrats are proposing plans that include gas tax and vehicle registration fee hikes. Republicans would instead repay transportation funds, including vehicle weight fees, that have been sent to the general fund.

According to Fix Our Roads, a coalition of local governments and businesses that support the tax and fee hikes, there is a backlog of $130 billion in needed repairs — $58 billion for state highways and $73 billion for local streets and roads. Read More > at Capitol Weekly

Capitol Journal – Here’s an idea for legislators: Figure out how to pay for a spending bill before proposing it – Here’s my suggestion for a new law — an old but scoffed-at idea: No spending bill can advance through the Legislature that doesn’t pinpoint precisely its source of money.

We have that requirement in home mortgage lending. Also, before a developer can build a housing tract, the source of water must be identified. Too often in the Legislature, however, it’s buy now, find the money later.

This particularly came to mind last week when some Assembly Democrats proposed the most generous college aid program in the nation.

The goal is to eliminate the need to borrow money for nearly 400,000 low- and middle-income students on UC and Cal State campuses. Grants would be provided to help students cover their room, board and books. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Even San Francisco, Flush With Tech Wealth, Has Pension Problems – The technology industry has transformed San Francisco with a boom other cities can only envy. But it hasn’t eradicated a problem well known to industrial-era towns: the rising cost of pensions.

The city, where the unemployment rate is just 3.2 percent and the typical home sells for more than $1 million, is facing a budget shortfall that will reach $848 million in five years. Increases in pension payments and other payroll costs are driving the gap, according to a five-year financial plan, despite a measure voters approved in 2011 that aimed to cut employee-retirement bills.

San Francisco officials, who will present an updated fiscal blueprint this week, say they can adjust spending to balance their books, as well as gird for cuts the federal government may implement. Yet the predicament, even in a city known for stratospheric wealth, underscores the financial challenge for states and cities around the country that have to make good on promises to police officers, teachers and other civil servants. Read More > at Bloomberg

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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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