Sunday Reading – 04/09/17


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.

Bee Experts Challenge Environmental Claim That Wild Bees Are Near Extinction – Colony Collapse Disorder, the belief that honeybees, an important pollinator, are being killed off in droves, has been good for environmental fundraising but hasn’t had a scientific foundation.

Nonetheless, it has persisted for 10 years despite data showing that periodic die-offs in bees are as common, and therefore predictable, as solar cycles and California droughts. From the time that records of bees were formally kept, there were reports of mass die-offs without explanation, a thousand years before pesticides even existed.

But pesticides are the moneymaker. Activists can’t gather $1 billion per year complaining about nature, like parasites. Yet despite some short-term buzz, the arguments rang hollow. Targeted seed pesticides, like the neonicotinoids that replaced broad-spectrum spraying, were the go-to fundraising claim until it was shown that bees were not declining everywhere they were used. In places like Australia, they didn’t decline at all, while in northern Europe bee numbers correlated better to land use changes. More bees died in truck accidents hauling around bees to places where they were supposedly in decline, and due to beekeeping amateurs not knowing what they were doing, than can be attributed to science.

Once it was revealed that honeybees were actually at a 20 year high, environmentalists wisely changed tack – they began to claim instead that wild bees were dying due to pesticides. This was smarter, because we can’t actually count wild bees. There is not even a baseline. Of the 25,000 species of bees worldwide, only 7 even have hives in which they could be counted. If the only number is guesswork, then guess at a baseline and then use guesswork later to claim it has declined. Read More > at Science 2.0

The Pointless Prop 54 – Prop 54 didn’t last long.

The bill was approved last year overwhelming, with all right thinking Californians, good government types and newspaper editorialists backing it as a necessary reform. Only a few of us dead-enders – we were accused of being against mom and apple pie – dared speaking against it.

Prop 54 was going to end all the late, dirty dealing. There would be no late rushed bills before a deadline. There would be sunshine and open debate and transparency, because all bills would have to be in print 72 hours before people voted on them.

The transportation deal put the lie to all those claims, effectively showing Prop 54’s failure, less than six months after its passage.

The legislature made several non-transparent deals to win people over. The overall deal included a budget provision to win one Republican vote that wasn’t in print at the time of the vote. And amendments in the Assembly happened just minutes before the vote. Voters who wanted to know what the deal really was – they were in the dark. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Even under adjusted funding formula, California’s poorest schools still lose out, report says – A funding formula signed into law four years ago has mostly leveled the playing field among the state’s school districts, a report released Thursday found — but the money is not necessarily going to the neediest students.

The Local Control Funding Formula, championed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, was intended to remedy educational inequities by giving districts extra money based on how many of their students were in high-needs categories: low-income children, foster youth and English learners.

What the report released by Education Trust-West — an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for educational equity — found was that districts with the highest concentrations of poor students indeed were now receiving more funding on average than wealthier districts.

However, the neediest schools within those poor districts are not always the ones getting extra resources. “In some cases, these gaps have widened,” the report found.

In the 2004-2005 school year, the districts with the highest poverty rates received $653 less per student than those with the lowest poverty rates; by 2015-2016, the poorer districts were getting $334 more than their counterparts. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

America’s Retailers Are Closing Stores Faster Than Ever – The battered American retail industry took a few more lumps this week, with stores at both ends of the price spectrum preparing to close their doors.

At the bottom, the seemingly ubiquitous Payless Inc. shoe chain filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to shutter hundreds of locations. Ralph Lauren Corp., meanwhile, said it will close its flagship Fifth Avenue Polo store — a symbol of old-fashioned luxury that no longer resonates with today’s shoppers.

And the teen-apparel retailer Rue21 Inc. could be the next casualty. The chain, which has about 1,000 stores, is preparing to file for bankruptcy as soon as this month, according to people familiar with the situation. Just a few years ago, it was sold to private equity firm Apax Partners for about a billion dollars.

The rapid descent of so many retailers has left shopping malls with hundreds of slots to fill, and the pain could be just beginning. More than 10 percent of U.S. retail space, or nearly 1 billion square feet, may need to be closed, converted to other uses or renegotiated for lower rent in coming years, according to data provided to Bloomberg by CoStar Group.

The blight also is taking a toll on jobs. According to Labor Department figures released on Friday, retailers cut around 30,000 positions in March. That was about the same total as in February and marked the worst two-month showing since 2009. Read More > at Bloomberg

Payless ShoeSource bankruptcy is the latest blow for retail bondholders – Payless ShoeSource’s bankruptcy filing has propelled Fitch Ratings’ U.S. retail default rate higher and kept the sector on track for up to $6 billion of defaults this year in the latest blow to retail bondholders.

The rating agency’s trailing 12-month loan default rate for the retail sector has climbed to 1% in April from 0% in March and 0.5% at the end of February, according to the rating agency.

Fitch is expecting the rate to spike to 9% by year-end as retailers continue to struggle with slowing traffic, shrinking margins caused by steep discounting and the competition from juggernaut Amazon.com AMZN, -1.21% . Consumer behavior is also changing with experiences and services more in demand than “stuff”.

Payless was one of nine retailers on Fitch’s “Loans of Concern” list, which comprises issuers with a significant risk of defaulting on their debt in the next 12 months. The other eight with combined loan debt of nearly $6 billion are Sears Holding Corp. SHLD, +2.28% with about $2.5 billion of debt, 99 Cents Only Stores LLC, Charming Charlie LLC, Gymboree Corp., Nine West Holdings Inc.; NYDJ Apparel LLC; rue21, Inc.; and True Religion Apparel Inc. Read More > at Market Watch

Why French Fries Are More of a “Superfood” Than Kale – ..Frankly, the superfood term could use a sensible and scientific makeover. The foods most commonly crowned with the description are fruits and vegetables with high concentrations of antioxidants and vitamins. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, studies conducted “generally don’t provide strong evidence that antioxidant supplements have a substantial impact on disease,” so there’s no reason to assume that eating tons of so-called “superfoods” would impart added benefits over a balanced diet. Moreover, the body doesn’t need mega doses of vitamins, and too much can actually be harmful. For example, consuming an average of 1.5 cups of cooked kale a day over a six-year timespan could result in chronic vitamin A toxicity, and that assumes no other dietary intake of the vitamin.

Clearly, someone could not subsist on the current conception of “superfoods,” so how “super” are they really? A truer superfood, one which provides almost everything the body needs, is the humble potato. Packed with starch, fiber, and protein, as well as a plethora of vitamins and minerals, it may be the most complete food on the planet. Cut one up and lightly fry the slices with a little canola oil and a pinch of salt, and you’ve got yourself a healthful feast!

While one might be able to live on potatoes alone, a better solution is simply to eat a balanced diet. Feel free to even include a few superfoods like kale, blueberries, dragon fruit, oca, and French fries. Read More > at Real Clear Science

Bay Area housing crisis splits young and old – Generation X and baby boomer homeowners in the Bay Area are considerably more opposed to construction of new housing in their neighborhoods than millennials and those who have moved to the region in the last few years.

Moreover, a greater number of newer residents are worried about whether they can find affordable homes in the region than those who have lived here for many years.

That’s the bottom line, according to a new poll released Sunday by the Bay Area Council showing generational divides in residents’ attitudes toward the region’s housing crisis. Among millennials — ages 18-39 — 70 percent say “yes” to new housing in their neighborhoods. But only 57 percent of residents age 40 and older support such housing.

A majority of residents — 62 percent overall — supports putting new housing in their neighborhoods, up from 56 percent in 2014. Read More > in The Mercury News

Mercedes and Bosch want you in a self-driving taxi ASAP – Mercedes parent Daimler has put aside its own project to develop a self-driving car and will now collaborate with automotive supplier Bosch. The two companies plan to deliver fully autonomous “level 5” tech by the “beginning of the next decade,” with a focus on city driving and autonomous car-sharing. “It will allow people to make the best possible use of their time in the vehicle and open up new mobility opportunities for people without a driver’s licenses,” Daimler said in a press release.

The company depicts the future in a fanciful image (above) with self-driving buses, a bicycle tower and its own crazy F015 self-driving car concept. Another (below) shows how you’ll call a vehicle via an Uber-style app, then be picked up and delivered to your destination without even seeing a human being (“my dream — fast transport without having to talk to people,” says my colleague).

Despite already being a leader in self-driving tech, Daimler teamed with Bosch to keep its place in the fast-moving a autonomous vehicle game. It figures working with Bosch “should ensure the earliest possible series introduction of the secure technology.” The goal is as little as three years out, but it’s roughly the same timeframe promised by Ford, BMW, GM, Waymo and others. Read More > at Engadget

Police arrests are plummeting across California, fueling alarm and questions – In 2013, something changed on the streets of Los Angeles.

Police officers began making fewer arrests. The following year, the Los Angeles Police Department’s arrest numbers dipped even lower and continued to fall, dropping by 25% from 2013 to 2015.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Police Department also saw significant drops in arrests during that period.

The statewide numbers are just as striking: Police recorded the lowest number of arrests in nearly 50 years, according to the California attorney general’s office, with about 1.1 million arrests in 2015 compared with 1.5 million in 2006.

It is unclear why officers are making fewer arrests. Some in law enforcement cite diminished manpower and changes in deployment strategies. Others say officers have lost motivation in the face of increased scrutiny — from the public as well as their supervisors.

The picture is further complicated by Proposition 47, a November 2014 ballot measure that downgraded some drug and property felonies to misdemeanors. Many police officers say an arrest isn’t worth the time it takes to process when the suspect will spend at most a few months in jail. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Detroit Is Stomping Silicon Valley in the Self-Driving Car Race – If you’re betting on Silicon Valley stars like Google, Tesla, and Uber to free you from your horrorshow commute with autonomous driving technology, don’t. That’s the key takeaway from a new report that finds Ford—yes, the Detroit-based, 113-year-old giant—is winning the race to build the self-driving car, with General Motors running a close second. Renault-Nissan, Daimler, and Volkswagen round out the top five. Meanwhile, Waymo—aka Google’s driverless car effort—sits in sixth place, with Tesla in twelfth. Uber languishes in sixteenth, behind Honda and barely ahead of startup Nutonomy and China’s Baidu.

That may sound all kinds of wrong to anyone who has seen Uber, Waymo, and Tesla flaunt their tech, and regards Detroit’s old guard as ill-prepared for the robotic future. But it’s the state of the race according to Navigant Research, whose newly released “leaderboard” report ranks these players not just on their ability to make a car drive itself, but on their ability to bring that car to the mass market.

“The technology is great, but unless you can build tens of thousands of cars and get people in those cars, it’s not really all that useful,” says Navigant’s Sam Abuelsamid, who wrote the report with David Alexander and Lisa Jerram. The report selected the 18 biggest companies pursuing fully driverless cars, and ranked them based on nine criteria, including tech, go-to-market strategy, production prowess, staying power, and sales, marketing, and distribution. Read More > at Wired

Could Dianne Feinstein’s age hurt her re-election chances? – She’s the oldest U.S. senator, and she’s staggeringly popular with her constituents — at least until you remind them that she’s the oldest U.S. senator.

Then voter enthusiasm dips for 83-year-old Dianne Feinstein, according to a new poll, and the dip may be enough to raise some questions about a Feinstein run for a sixth term in 2018.

The poll, conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, asked 1,000 registered California voters if they thought Feinstein running for re-election would be “a good thing for California.” About half of respondents — 48 percent — said Feinstein on the ballot in 2018 would be good for the state.

But among voters who were reminded that Feinstein will turn 84 next year, that dropped to 38 percent, with 62 percent saying another Feinstein campaign would be bad for the state. Read More > in The Mercury News

Young Americans Are Killing Marriage – There’s no shortage of theories as to how and why today’s young people differ from their parents.

As marketing consultants never cease to point out, baby boomers and millennials appear to have starkly different attitudes about pretty much everything, from money and sports to breakfast and lunch.

New research tries to ground those observations in solid data. The National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University set out to compare 25- to 34-year-olds in 1980—baby boomers—with the same age group today. Researcher Lydia Anderson compared U.S. Census data from 1980 with the most recent American Community Survey data in 2015.

The results reveal some stark differences in how young Americans are living today, compared with three or four decades ago.

In 1980, two-thirds of 25- to 34-year-olds were already married. One in eight had already been married and divorced. In 2015, just two in five millennials were married, and only 7 percent had been divorced. Read More > in Bloomberg

How to Find Your Missing Keys and Stop Losing Other Things – You were sure you left the keys right there on the counter, and now they are nowhere to be found.

Where could they be?

Misplacing objects is an everyday occurrence, but finding them can be like going on a treasure hunt without a map.

Here are some recommendations from experts to help you recover what is lost.

Stay calm and search on

One of the biggest mistakes people make is becoming panicked or angry, which leads to frantic, unfocused searching, said Michael Solomon, who wrote the book “How to Find Lost Objects.”…

Be disciplined in your search

A common trap is forgetting where you have already searched, Corbin A. Cunningham, a Ph.D. student at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, said in an email…

Focus on cluttered areas

An experiment at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland tested how efficiently we conduct searches. A computer screen was manipulated so a target that participants were searching for was readily visible in one half and blended in on the other half. Researchers monitored participants’ eye movements using a high-speed infrared camera. Read More > in The New York Times

Housing, traffic woes stoke urge to flee Bay Area, new poll shows – Choked by traffic and overwhelmed by skyrocketing housing costs, a greater percentage of Bay Area residents than a year ago now say they yearn to flee the region.

In a new Bay Area Council poll released Thursday, 40 percent of the region’s residents said they want to move away in the next few years, a marked increase from the 33 percent who said in 2016 they wanted to leave.

Even worse, the new survey found that young adults are more inclined to leave: 46 percent of millennials want to lead the charge out of the Bay Area in the next few years. Read More > in the East Bay Times

Check your receipts: Some Bay Area cities just raised their sales tax almost 10% – A host of Bay Area cities had their sales taxes raised effective April 1, after 42 California cities and seven counties voted for new hikes in rates last November.

Locally, that’s pushed the sales tax as high as 9.75 percent in cities like Newark, or up to 8.25 percent in St. Helena. Silicon Valley saw even higher rates, with the sales tax spiking to 9.25 percent in Campbell and San Jose and up to 9 percent throughout Santa Clara County.

“The inherent problem with sales taxes of course, is they tend to be horribly regressive, hitting the poor and working class harder because they spend on consumer goods as a percentage of their disposable income than do the wealthy,” on Coupal with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a critic of tax increases, told KCBS. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Nanogrids, Microgrids, and Big Data: The Future of the Power Grid – For about a century, affordable electrification has been based on economies of scale, with large generating plants producing hundreds or thousands of megawatts of power, which is sent to distant users through a transmission and distribution grid. Today, many developments are complicating that simple model.

At the top of the list is the availability of low-cost natural gas and solar power. Generators based on these resources can be built much closer to customers. So we are now in the early stages of an expansion of distributed generation, which is already lessening the need for costly long-distance transmission. That, in turn, is making those new sources cost competitive with giant legacy power plants.

While it certainly helps, the declining cost of renewables and gas-fired electricity is not all that’s spurring this change. To be competitive, the entire distributed system will have to work well as a whole. Quite a few technological advances are coming together to make that possible: advanced control systems; more compact, smarter, and efficient electrical inverters; smart electricity meters and the burgeoning Internet of Things; and the ever-growing ability to extract actionable information from big data.

Amid this changing scene, a picture is beginning to emerge of what a typical electrical grid may well look like in 10 or 20 years in most of the developed world. Yes, generation will be much more decentralized, and renewables such as solar and wind will proliferate. But other aspects are also shifting….

The grid will evolve in other ways, too, and quickly. One of the most important trends, already well under way, is the increasing use of microgrids. A microgrid is a group of connected power sources and loads. It can be as small as an individual house (often dubbed a nanogrid) or as large as a military base or college campus. Microgrids can operate indefinitely on their own and can quickly isolate themselves if a disturbance destabilizes the larger grids to which they are normally connected. Read More > at IEEE Spectrum

Retail bankruptcies march toward post-recession high – The number of retailers filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection is headed toward its highest annual tally since the Great Recession.

Nine retailers have filed in just the first three months of 2017, according to data provided exclusively to CNBC from AlixPartners consulting firm. That equals the number for all of 2016. It also puts the industry on pace for the highest number of such filings since 2009, when 18 retailers resorted to that action.

The rising number of retail bankruptcies comes as consumers are making more purchases online, and shifting their spending toward travel and other experiences. Meanwhile, the supply of physical stores continues to outweigh shopper demand, putting pressure on the industry’s profits.

The industry’s pain is far from over. The number of retailers on Moody’s distressed list is also at its highest level since the Great Recession, as several other chains that were targeted by private equity firms struggle to turn around their businesses. They include names like J. Crew and Claire’s Stores.

…In addition to the nine retailers who have already liquidated or are working to reorganize, Payless and Bebe are expected to add their names to that list.

A spokeswoman from Payless declined to comment on a recent Bloomberg report saying the chain will soon close up to 500 locations and file for bankruptcy. A spokeswoman for Bebe, which said earlier this month that it is exploring strategic alternatives, did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for additional information. Read More > at CNBC

Forecast calls for an extra buggy spring and summer – Long-legged bugs that look like mosquitoes on steroids are the first wave in what’s expected to be a prolonged inundation of insects this year in San Diego County and much of California.

Experts said heavy winter precipitation has fueled plant growth not seen since at least 2005, and that in turn should produce bumper crops of butterflies, moths, beetles, mosquitoes and even subterranean termites.

“Because of the rain we’ve had, there is an abundance of food out there. Insects are famously reproductive; they lay a ton of eggs, so if there is food available, they will get to work,” said Michael Wall, curator of entomology at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

Some of the critters are downright harmless — including Tipula silvestra, the crane fly, that previously mentioned creature that resembles a gigantic mosquito (but actually has no relation to mosquitoes and doesn’t eat them). Crane flies don’t bite or sting or otherwise hurt people during their short life span.

Other insects, such as termites and caterpillars, can wreak havoc on houses and gardens with their voracious appetite. Still others are considered public-health targets because they can carry devastating, even deadly, diseases. West Nile virus, dengue fever and the Zika virus are among the threats associated with mosquitoes, which breed in lakes to pools to droplets of standing water. Read More > in The San Diego Union-Tribune

Even Healthy-Looking Suburbs Are Dying From Drugs – Full of historic suburban towns on Boston’s outskirts, Essex County, Massachusetts, does not look sick on paper. It is not plagued by obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Folks get a fair amount of exercise. Most are insured. Judging by social factors that influence health, it should actually be in better-than-average shape: Nearly 38 percent of the population is college-educated. Only 11 percent live in poverty.

Yet all is not well in Essex County. Drugs are claiming lives at a growing rate. In 2010, drugs were responsible for the deaths of roughly 11 out of 100,000 people countywide—a rate that nearly tripled to 31 by 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Essex County’s lethal spike—driven by heroin and prescription painkillers—speaks to a national opioid addiction that’s been growing for years. It is also a poster child for the emerging geographic dimension of this crisis: Larger, suburban counties outside of major metros—in some cases, places that “should” be healthy by other standards—are where drugs are claiming the most lives.

Released Wednesday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2017 County Health Rankings and an accompanying report analyze county-level data from all 50 states on more than 30 public health outcomes and behaviors. The report finds there’s been a clear flip in the geography of addiction: One decade ago, large suburban areas experienced the lowest rates of premature deaths due to drug overdoses. In 2015, they had the highest. Read More > at Citylab

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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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