Sunday Reading – 04/30/17


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.

Waterworld flops, Six Flags slides back into Concord – Waterworld California will have a new operator this summer: The Six Flags Entertainment Corp..

Six Flags will take over operations of the Concord water park from EPR Properties, the park owner and Kansas City-based real estate investment trust.

Waterworld California first opened in 1995, covers 30 acres and has 35 attractions.

“This is an exciting new venture and a great opportunity to provide families with more entertainment options in this important market,” Six Flags President and CEO John Duffey said in a statement. “Guests in Northern California will now have the opportunity to enjoy two beautiful Six Flags parks. This is truly a win-win, as we welcome our 20th property—Waterworld California—back into our family of parks.”

Six Flags, based in Grand Prairie, Texas, previously owned and operated the park from 2004 to 2006. Waterworld California is 18 miles from the closest other Six Flags park. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Red Flag Draft: NFL Teams Live on the Edge in Round 1 with Slew of Risky Picks – As the craziness of the night unfolded, and the trades flew, and the insanity grew, and the pockmarked players were picked early and often, a general manager provided the perfect phrase for the draft.

“This is the Red Flag Draft,” he texted.

This wasn’t a description just about players and their off-field issues. Though that will certainly be a part of this draft’s lore. The Red Flag Draft encompasses everything: medical issues, experience questions, among others.

In fact, it’s likely when we look back at this draft that we will see it as one with more questionable picks than maybe any other we’ve seen. After just the first round, this was already likely the most risk-filled draft in recent league history.

None of this means these players won’t succeed. It’s that we’ve never seen teams take not just so many risks, but so many dramatic ones.

…Then there was the insanity of the Bears. They swapped places with the 49ers, moving from third to second, but gave up a staggering payment in addition to that third pick: third- and fourth-round picks in this draft, and a third-round selection in 2018. All that to get North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky.

One AFC general manager called this move “one of the more desperate I’ve ever seen.” Read More > at Bleacher Report

Real books are back. E-book sales plunge nearly 20% – New data suggest that the reading public is ditching e-books and returning to the old fashioned printed word.

Sales of consumer e-books plunged 17% in the U.K. in 2016, according to the Publishers Association. Sales of physical books and journals went up by 7% over the same period, while children’s books surged 16%.

The same trend is on display in the U.S., where e-book sales declined 18.7% over the first nine months of 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback sales were up 7.5% over the same period, and hardback sales increased 4.1%. Read More > at CNN

Are dead people taking your parking place? – A recent state audit found a serious problem with the way California handles its parking placards and license plates for the disabled: Many of the roughly 2.9 million people with disabled parking privileges likely are dead.

Yet their placard or plate continues to live on and is possibly used by perfectly able-bodied people.

In a computerized cross-check of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ database of placard holders and the federal government’s main database of the deceased, auditors with the Bureau of State Audits identified almost 35,000 likely matches. Given variations on names, auditors said that number could be even larger. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

BART police chief: Spike in crime preceded teen mob robbery at Coliseum – A 22 percent increase in nearly all types of crimes at BART preceded the mob of marauding teenagers who robbed seven passengers and beat two more at the Coliseum station Saturday, BART’s chief of police said Thursday.

Since the start of the year, every type of crime except auto thefts and bike thefts had increased compared to the same period last year, said acting BART police Chief Jeff Jennings. The spike follows three years of decreases in crime, with a 3 percent decrease in overall crime in 2016, and a 5 percent drop in 2015.

It is unclear what is driving the crime spike, but Jennings said the agency has grappled with the issue before. In 2014, BART helped form a task force with area cities to address an increase in robberies involving groups of youths, he said. One group called themselves “Band Camp,” referring to the bands wrapped around wads of cash, and “camping out” to target robbery victims, he said. Read More > in the East Bay Times

Most Americans Don’t Want People To Buy Soda And Candy With Food Stamps – It should come as no surprise that Americans hold strong opinions about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially known as “food stamps.” But there appears to be more of a bipartisan consensus on the matter than heated rhetoric on the matter might suggest.

According to a study released Wednesday by the Voice of the People, a nonpartisan polling group, and conducted by University of Maryland researchers, an overwhelming majority of American voters of both parties favor restricting SNAP benefits from being used to buy soda and candy, as well as incentivizing fruit and vegetable purchases and increasing the overall amount of SNAP benefits available.

The study’s findings are timely in light of recent media coverage surrounding new research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture detailing what SNAP recipients buy with their benefits and how those purchases compared to non-SNAP shoppers.

The federal data indicated that SNAP recipients purchased more soft drinks than any other category of grocery good, but also found that there were “no major differences” between what SNAP households purchased at the grocery store and what non-SNAP households bought.

Nevertheless, outlets like The New York Times still went ahead with stories painting SNAP recipients as buying soda by the cartload, a characterization that SNAP experts widely panned and the Times’ public editor, Liz Spayd, seemed to agree was at least somewhat misleading. Read More > in the Huffington Post

UC President Janet Napolitano hid $175 million while raising tuition, paying excessive salaries – A state audit released Tuesday concludes that the University of California Office of the President, led by former Obama administration DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, hid away $175 million while paying excessive salaries to staff and raising tuition on students. Auditor Elaine Howle also says someone from Napolitano’s office interfered with questionnaires sent to various UC campuses as part of the audit. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The UC Office of the President amassed millions in the secret reserve funds in part by overestimating how much it needed to run the 10-campus university system — and then spending less than budgeted, the audit said. From 2012 to 2016, the office sought increased funding based on the inflated estimates, not actual spending, according to Howle…

About $32 million of the $175 million that Howle’s audit found in the secret reserve came from campus assessment fees — money that the auditor said could have been spent on students and should be returned to the campuses.

Even as it accumulated the campus fees, Napolitano persuaded the Board of Regents to increase those fees in two of the four years audited, Howle said.

There are nearly 1,700 people working in the Office of the President. The audit notes that number is significantly higher than other similar offices. Read More > at Hot Air

Comparing the Compensation of Federal and Private-Sector Employees, 2011 to 2015 – The federal government employs about 2.2 million civilian workers—1.5 percent of the U.S. workforce—spread among more than 100 agencies in jobs that represent over 650 occupations. As a result, the government employs workers with a broad complement of talents, skills, and experience, and it competes with other government and private-sector employers for people who possess the mix of attributes needed to do the work of its agencies.

In fiscal year 2016, the government spent roughly $215 billion to compensate federal civilian employees. About two-thirds of that total was spent on civilian personnel working in the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the Department of Homeland Security. Federal employees typically receive periodic increases in their wages on the basis of performance, longevity, and changes in private-sector pay. However, lawmakers eliminated annual across-the-board increases for most federal civilian workers in calendar years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

How does the compensation of federal civilian employees compare with that of employees in the private sector? ….

Wages

  • Federal civilian workers whose highest level of education was a bachelor’s degree earned 5 percent more, on average, in the federal government than in the private sector.
  • Federal civilian workers with no more than a high school education earned 34 percent more, on average, than similar workers in the private sector.
  • By contrast, federal workers with a professional degree or doctorate earned 24 percent less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts. Read More > at CBO

ESPN Firing Over A Hundred Employees Today – For several years I have been writing on this site about the coming business implosion at ESPN. Today, with the announcement that over 100 on air talent at ESPN were being let go, many will finally come to realize what Outkick readers have read here for the past several years — ESPN’s business model is fundamentally broken and there is no saving it. The continuing collapse of ESPN is the biggest story in sports — the sub-prime mortgage crisis with bouncing balls.

The people being fired at ESPN today aren’t being fired because they are bad at their jobs, they’re being fired because ESPN’s business is collapsing. That collapse has been aided by ESPN’s absurd decision to turn into MSESPN, a left wing sports network, but that’s more a symptom of the collapse than it is a cause of the collapse. ESPN’s business is collapsing and the network is desperately trying to find a way to stay above water….

That’s why ratings are down 16% this year compared to last year and viewers are abandoning the network in droves.

Middle America wants to pop a beer and listen to sports talk, they don’t want to be lectured about why Caitlyn Jenner is a hero, Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson of sports, and Colin Kaepernick is the Rosa Parks of football. ESPN made the mistake of trying to make liberal social media losers happy and as a result lost millions of viewers. Read More > at Outkick the Coverage

Lawyers sue Times, CNN, Fox News for racial discrimination – Three of the nation’s largest media organizations are being sued — two by the same lawyer — for ­racial discrimination.

A half-dozen people have filed suits against the New York Times and Fox News, while as many as 175 current and former employees have contacted lawyers about joining a class-action suit against CNN.

The Times plaintiffs claim in a suit filed last year by New York lawyer Douglas Wigdor that “the Gray Lady” prefers to hire white employees to help target a white audience.

“Unbeknownst to the world at large, not only does the Times have an ideal customer (young, white, wealthy), but also an ideal staffer (young, white, unencumbered with a family) to draw that purported ideal customer,” a complaint states.

…The lawsuit against CNN, meanwhile, claims the company’s Atlanta headquarters is rife with racism.

Minority employees had to endure bigoted remarks such as “It’s hard to manage black people” and “Who would be worth more: black slaves from times past, or new slaves?,” according to a complaint by former workers Celeslie Henley and Ernest Colbert Jr. filed in Atlanta federal court. Read More > in the New York Post

Animals Set Survival Record Inside Artificial Womb – Philadelphia doctors have kept fetal lambs alive in a uterus-like plastic sack for weeks, a technological leap toward caring for premature infants that also raises questions over how early babies might be considered viable outside the womb.

The device, eyed as an improvement over incubators, kept fetal animals alive using a sterile, temperature-controlled plastic bag filled with amniotic fluid.

Physicians at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia placed fetal lambs into the transparent bags and connected their umbilical cords to a machine that oxygenated their blood. The lambs own hearts provided the pumping power.

Eight lambs survived for as long as four weeks inside the devices. The gestational age of the animals was equivalent to a human fetus of 22 or 23 weeks, about the earliest a human baby can be born and expected to survive outside the womb. A full-term baby is born at 40 weeks.

…About one in 10 births in the U.S. are premature, or at least three weeks before a baby’s due date. Of those, around 30,000 each year are critically preterm, or younger than 26 weeks. Babies born that early risk lung problems as well as delays in physical development and learning.

Currently, premature babies are placed inside an incubator that warms them and protects them from germs. Partridge says placing babies inside the new device, which imitates a woman’s uterus, could lower the risk of death or long-lasting problems by allowing babies to finish developing. Read More > at MIT Technology Review

Lawsuit Challenges Oregon Law Prohibiting Mathematical Criticism Without a License – …It all started in 2013 when Mats’s wife received a red light camera ticket, which sparked Mats’s interest in how exactly yellow lights are timed. He began writing and speaking publicly about how red light cameras misuse the standard mathematical formula for timing traffic lights, leading to unsafe driving conditions and unfair citations when drivers slow down to turn. People wanted to hear Mats’s ideas—local news covered his story and he presented his research at a national conference of the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

But Oregon’s engineer-licensing board had heard enough.

After a two-year investigation, the board fined Mats $500 for the unlicensed practice of engineering. If Mats continued to “critique” traffic lights, he could face thousands of dollars in fines and up to one year in jail for the unlicensed practice of engineering.

The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying also said that Mats cannot even call himself an “engineer,” even though he has a degree in electrical engineering and decades of experience in technical fields. Like most engineers in Oregon, Mats is not a state-licensed “professional engineer.” (A professional engineer is the specialist who would be responsible for designing a bridge or the electrical system for a school.) Yet the board thinks that only licensed professional engineers should be able to call themselves “engineers.”

…In recent years, the board has launched investigations against similar speech in voter guides, a town hall meeting, a political ad and even in the “Oregon Women 2015” edition of Portland Monthly. One retiree was fined hundreds of dollars for complaining about his flooded basement. When he wrote to the Board seeking help, the Board fined him for truthfully calling himself a “professional engineer” in his letter, because he had been licensed in another state. Read More > at Institute for Justice

1 in 5 Bay Area home buyers are looking to leave: Here’s where they’re going (map) – Faced with some of the steepest home prices in the United States, Bay Area residents are searching for cheaper cities to settle down.

According to new data out from real estate information site Redfin, almost 20 percent of the region’s prospective home buyers are eyeing residences outside the region. The San Francisco Bay Area topped the list of places in the U.S. with the largest net outflow, followed by New York and Los Angeles. At the state level, California also came in No. 1 with the largest overall net outflow of residents.

So where is everybody in the Bay Area going? The top destination, both in-state and overall, is Sacramento, with 22.4 percent of Bay Area Redfin users searching for homes in California’s capital. The second-most-popular search is for pads in Seattle, with about 14 percent of Bay Area Redfin users looking at places in the northwestern tech hub.

Los Angeles is the third most popular search for Bay Area residents looking to pack up, with 12.3 percent of them taking a peek at prices in SoCal. San Diego, Modesto and Salinas are also popular in-state searches.

Trendy out-of-state searches include Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and Denver. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Albertsons is interested in buying Whole Foods, report says – Albertsons is apparently still shopping around in the organic aisle.

The grocery chain’s owner is reportedly considering a takeover of high-end grocer Whole Foods Market Inc., according to a report Monday from the Financial Times. The news comes just weeks after Bloomberg reported that Albertsons had preliminary discussions about merging with another organic grocery chain, Sprouts Farmers Market Inc.

Citing unnamed sources, the Financial Times said Cerberus Capital Management — a New York private equity firm that owns Albertsons and Safeway among other grocers — has had early talks with bankers about making a bid for Whole Foods.

Whole Foods, Albertsons and Cerberus all declined to comment on the Financial Times report. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Higher sodium intake associated with lower blood pressure. You read that right. – …High blood pressure is a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Hence, lowering salt intake is supposed to lower blood pressure and thus reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. But the study found that supposition to be unfounded.

Moreover, the lowest blood pressure was recorded by those who consumed 4,000 milligrams or more a day — amounts considered dangerously high by medical authorities such as the American Heart Association.

Those taking from 2,500 milligrams to 4,000 milligrams a day had very slightly higher blood pressure, but significantly below the low-sodium group. The average American consumes 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day.

Higher levels of calcium, potassium and magnesium were also associated with lower blood pressure. The lowest readings came from people who consumed an average of 3,717 milligrams of sodium and 3,211 milligrams of potassium a day.

The study is an offshoot of the groundbreaking Framingham Heart Study. Both are projects of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute and Boston University. Read More > in The San Diego Union Tribune

Drugged driving eclipses drunken driving in tests of motorists killed in crashes – For the first time, statistics show that drivers killed in crashes are more likely to be on drugs than drunk.

Forty-three percent of drivers tested in fatal crashes in 2015 had used a legal or illegal drug, eclipsing the 37 percent who tested above the legal limit for alcohol, according to a report released Wednesday by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility.

Of the drivers who tested positive for drugs, more than a third had used marijuana and more than 9 percent had taken amphetamines.

“As drunken driving has declined, drugged driving has increased dramatically, and many of today’s impaired drivers are combining two or more substances,” said Ralph S. Blackman, president of the foundation, a nonprofit founded and funded by a group of distillers.

The report is narrowly focused on fatal crashes. It shows that among fatally injured drivers with known test results, 2015 was the first time that drug use was more prevalent than alcohol use. Read More > in The Washington Post

Is Every Speed Limit Too Low? – …Every year, traffic engineers review the speed limit on thousands of stretches of road and highway. Most are reviewed by a member of the state’s Department of Transportation, often along with a member of the state police, as is the case in Michigan. In each case, the “survey team” has a clear approach: they want to set the speed limit so that 15% of drivers exceed it and 85% of drivers drive at or below the speed limit.

This “nationally recognized method” of setting the speed limit as the 85th percentile speed is essentially traffic engineering 101. It’s also a bit perplexing to those unfamiliar with the concept. Shouldn’t everyone drive at or below the speed limit? And if a driver’s speed is dictated by the speed limit, how can you decide whether or not to change that limit based on the speed of traffic?

The answer lies in realizing that the speed limit really is just a number on a sign, and it has very little influence on how fast people drive. “Over the years, I’ve done many follow up studies after we raise or lower a speed limit,” Megge tells us. “Almost every time, the 85th percentile speed doesn’t change, or if it does, it’s by about 2 or 3 mph.”

As most honest drivers would probably concede, this means that if the speed limit on a highway decreases from 65 mph to 55 mph, most drivers will not drive 10 mph slower. But for the majority of drivers, the opposite is also true. If a survey team increases the speed limit by 10 mph, the speed of traffic will not shoot up 10 mph. It will stay around the same. Years of observing traffic has shown engineers that as long as a cop car is not in sight, most people simply drive at whatever speed they like. Read More > at Priceonomics

Flying Cars Are Becoming Reality—But Do You Have What It Takes to Own One? – German firm Lilium demonstrated on Thursday that its all-electric two-seater air taxi really flies. Its vehicle, which offers vertical take-off and landing and uses 36 jet engines mounted on 10-meter-long wings to push it through the sky, is the kind of thing that fuels Uber’s fever dreams of an on-demand aviation network.

It’s designed to travel around 180 miles on a charge, hitting speeds of 180 miles per hour in flight, and Lilium claims that it could whisk you from central Manhattan to JFK Airport in five minutes at a cost of $36—which it contrasts to a 55-minute taxi ride that could, on a bad day, cost double that. That’s the charm of the skies: less traffic and more direct routes.

But Lilium’s vehicle isn’t road-going, and at any rate who wants to ride in a flying car when you could own one instead?

Right on cue, Slovakian company AeroMobil has also unveiled its first market-ready flying car. The appropriately named, er, Flying Car, which can also whisk you down highways and is pictured above, has been in development for years—a prototype first flew in 2013. But now AeroMobil is making 500 of the vehicles commercially available, promising to deliver them to customers by 2020. Read More > at MIT Technology Review

More Retail Stores Are Closing Than at the Height of the Great Recession: Report – This week it was Bebe. Last month it was Staples. In February it was JCPenney.

Stores are closing at an epic pace. In fact, the retail industry could suffer far more store closures this year than ever.

Brokerage firm Credit Suisse said in a research report released earlier this month that it’s possible more than 8,600 brick-and-mortar stores will close their doors in 2017.

For comparison, the report says 2,056 stores closed down in 2016 and 5,077 were shuttered in 2015. The worst year on record is 2008, when 6,163 stores shut down. Read More > at KTLA

Retailers Are Going Bankrupt at a Record Pace – Retailers are filing for bankruptcy at a record rate as they try to cope with the rapid acceleration of online shopping.

In a little over three months, 14 chains have announced they will seek court protection, according to an analysis by S&P Global Market Intelligence, almost surpassing all of 2016. Few retail segments have proven immune as discount shoe-sellers, outdoor goods shops, and consumer electronics retailers have all found themselves headed for reorganization.

Meanwhile, America’s retailers are closing stores faster than ever as they try to eliminate a glut of space and shift more business to the web. S&P blamed retailer financial struggles on their inability to adapt to rising pressure from e-commerce.

Urban Outfitters Chief Executive Officer Richard Hayne said as much on a conference call with analysts last month. There are just too many stores, especially those that sell clothing, he said.

…Department stores, electronics retail, and apparel shops are at highest risk, according to S&P. The food and home improvement segments are safest. Read More > at Bloomberg

Leaving California? After slowing, the trend intensifies – Given its iconic hold on the American imagination, the idea that more Americans are leaving California than coming breaches our own sense of uniqueness and promise. Yet, even as the economy has recovered, notably in the Bay Area and in pockets along the coast, the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that domestic migrants continue to leave the state more rapidly than they enter it.

The San Francisco Bay Area lost more than 600,000 net domestic migrants between 2000 and 2009 before experiencing a five-year respite. Now, sadly, the story seems to be changing again. Housing prices, first in the Bay Area and later in other metropolitan areas, have surged mightily, and are now as high as over nine times household incomes. In 2016, some 26,000 more people left the Bay Area than arrived. San Francisco net migration went from a high of 16,000 positive in 2013 to 12,000 negative three years later.

Similar patterns have occurred across the state. Between 2010 and 2015, California had cut its average annual migration losses annually from 160,000 to 50,000, but that number surged last year to nearly 110,000. Losses in the Los Angeles-Orange County area have gone from 42,000 in 2011 to 88,000 this year. San Diego, where domestic migration turned positive in 2011 and 2012, is now losing around 8,000 net migrants annually.

The major exceptions to this trend can be found in the somewhat more affordable interior regions. Sacramento has gained net migration from barely 1,800 in 2011 to 12,000 last year. Even some still-struggling areas, like Modesto and Stockton, have seen some demographic resurgence as people move farther from the high-priced Bay Area. Read More > in The Mercury News

That gas tax hike? It’s not enough to fix California’s roads, group says – A newly passed transportation funding bill that raises California’s gasoline tax by 12 cents a gallon isn’t a long-term fix for the state’s crumbling roads, according to a report released Monday by a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.

Better fuel economy and the growing number of electric, hybrid and zero-emission vehicles make the gas tax an outmoded, unreliable funding source for transportation, states the report, “Beyond the Gas Tax: Funding California Transportation in the 21st Century,” put out by Next 10 in conjunction with Beacon Economics.

…“Inflation adjusted fuel-tax revenue declined 20 percent from 2010 to 2015, despite the fact that Californians have been driving more every year, logging a record 335 billion vehicle-miles traveled last year.”

The drop in gas-tax revenue coincides with improvements in fuel economy and the rising popularity of zero-emission vehicles, the report found. Light-duty vehicles improved their fuel efficiency by 27.4 percent in the past decade and 258,000 of the 530,000 zero-emission vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2016 were bought in California, the report said.

While Californians are driving more than ever, they’re not buying as much gas. The average amount of fuel sold per day in 2015 was half as much as it was in 2002, according to the report.

If the state meets its 2025 goal of putting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road, it would cost $572 million in state gas-tax revenue and $276 million in federal gas-tax revenue, the report found. Read More > in the Los Angeles Daily News

The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think How did big media miss the Donald Trump swell? News organizations old and new, large and small, print and online, broadcast and cable assigned phalanxes of reporters armed with the most sophisticated polling data and analysis to cover the presidential campaign. The overwhelming assumption was that the race was Hillary Clinton’s for the taking, and the real question wasn’t how sweeping her November victory would be, but how far out to sea her wave would send political parvenu Trump. Today, it’s Trump who occupies the White House and Clinton who’s drifting out to sea—an outcome that arrived not just as an embarrassment for the press but as an indictment. In some profound way, the election made clear, the national media just doesn’t get the nation it purportedly covers.

…But journalistic groupthink is a symptom, not a cause. And when it comes to the cause, there’s another, blunter way to think about the question than screaming “bias” and “conspiracy,” or counting D’s and R’s. That’s to ask a simple question about the map. Where do journalists work, and how much has that changed in recent years? To determine this, my colleague Tucker Doherty excavated labor statistics and cross-referenced them against voting patterns and Census data to figure out just what the American media landscape looks like, and how much it has changed.

The results read like a revelation. The national media really does work in a bubble, something that wasn’t true as recently as 2008. And the bubble is growing more extreme. Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the bubble is both geographic and political. If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties. And you’ve got company: If you’re a typical reader of Politico, chances are you’re a citizen of bubbleville, too.

The “media bubble” trope might feel overused by critics of journalism who want to sneer at reporters who live in Brooklyn or California and don’t get the “real America” of southern Ohio or rural Kansas. But these numbers suggest it’s no exaggeration: Not only is the bubble real, but it’s more extreme than you might realize. And it’s driven by deep industry trends. Read More > at Politico

Spring housing: ‘Strongest seller’s market ever’ – Spring homebuyers are pounding the pavement at a furious pace, but the pickings are getting ever slimmer.

Even as more homes come on the market for this traditionally popular sales season, they’re flying off fast, with bidding wars par for the course. Home prices have now surpassed their last peak, and at the entry level, where demand is highest, sellers are firmly in the driver’s seat.

“I’ve been selling real estate for 25 years and this is the strongest seller’s market I have ever seen in my entire real estate career,” said David Fogg, a real estate agent with Keller Williams in Burbank, California. “A lot of our sellers are optimistically pricing their homes in today’s market, and I have to say in most cases we’re getting the home sold anyway.”

Fogg listed a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,240-square-foot home in Burbank for $789,000 and had three offers before the first open house Sunday. In the Los Angeles-area market, that is considered an entry-level home. The open house drew more than 100 potential buyers, most of them already weary of the competition. Read More > at CNBC

California unemployment rate reaches lowest point in a decade – California’s unemployment rate dropped below 5 percent last month, reaching the lowest point in a decade, state officials announced Friday.

Statewide unemployment fell to 4.9 percent in March, down one-tenth of a percent from February, the Employment Development Department reported. In the four-county Sacramento region, the unemployment rate was 5.0 percent, also down one-tenth of a percent.

More significantly, California continued to lead the nation in job growth, with its 19,300 new jobs accounting for nearly 20 percent of the 98,000 created in the United States. The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 4.5 percent for March. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Will El Niño return in 2017? – …In more recent times, climate experts began to understand that this coastal event is related in a general way to a phenomenon that occurs throughout the entire Pacific Basin and affects weather patterns across the globe. Right now, there is evidence that an El Niño event has begun to develop off the coast of Peru, according to climate expert Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“The temperatures there are more than 3 degrees Celsius [5 degrees Fahrenheit] above normal,” Trenberth says. “The magnitude of the sea surface temperatures anomalies are as high as they’ve ever been … As a result, that becomes a center of action.”

…Whether the coastal El Niño will expand into the central Pacific is the big question, Trenberth says. He would be surprised if it did. “We’ve just had [an El Niño] and that has actually taken some heat out of the tropical Pacific Ocean,” he says. “So, in that sense, there is less fuel available for the next one.” Read More > at PRI

Is It Time to Break Up Google? – In just 10 years, the world’s five largest companies by market capitalization have all changed, save for one: Microsoft. Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Citigroup and Shell Oil are out and Apple, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Amazon and Facebook have taken their place.

They’re all tech companies, and each dominates its corner of the industry: Google has an 88 percent market share in search advertising, Facebook (and its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger) owns 77 percent of mobile social traffic and Amazon has a 74 percent share in the e-book market. In classic economic terms, all three are monopolies.

We have been transported back to the early 20th century, when arguments about “the curse of bigness” were advanced by President Woodrow Wilson’s counselor, Louis Brandeis, before Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court. Brandeis wanted to eliminate monopolies, because (in the words of his biographer Melvin Urofsky) “in a democratic society the existence of large centers of private power is dangerous to the continuing vitality of a free people.” We need look no further than the conduct of the largest banks in the 2008 financial crisis or the role that Facebook and Google play in the “fake news” business to know that Brandeis was right.

Could it be that these companies — and Google in particular — have become natural monopolies by supplying an entire market’s demand for a service, at a price lower than what would be offered by two competing firms? And if so, is it time to regulate them like public utilities? Read More > in The New York Times

End of an era, again: Genova closes Oakland ravioli factory – Four generations of the family had worked in the factory and in the deli since the businesses opened on Telegraph Avenue in 1926, when Temescal was an Italian enclave. But after vandalism during protests and rising rents, the family decided to close the deli in April 2016.

It appears vandalism also played a role in closing the factory, which was relocated to Broadway across the street from Oakland Technical High School after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

Patti DeVincenzi said one bill to fix the factory’s windows cost $15,000.

“We had planned to open a ravioli direct to customer operation from our factory on 4300 Broadway but with so much vandalism and graffiti we just couldn’t take it anymore,” she said in an email. “Recently, I was out scraping graffiti from the windows and was threatened from a group of youths from across the street that ‘tomorrow there will be more.’ And worse. And to be sure it was done, (they) actually etched into the windows.” Read More > in The Mercury News

107 cancer papers retracted due to peer review fraud – The journal Tumor Biology is retracting 107 research papers after discovering that the authors faked the peer review process. This isn’t the journal’s first rodeo. Late last year, 58 papers were retracted from seven different journals— 25 came from Tumor Biology for the same reason.

It’s possible to fake peer review because authors are often asked to suggest potential reviewers for their own papers. This is done because research subjects are often blindingly niche; a researcher working in a sub-sub-field may be more aware than the journal editor of who is best-placed to assess the work.

But some journals go further and request, or allow, authors to submit the contact details of these potential reviewers. If the editor isn’t aware of the potential for a scam, they then merrily send the requests for review out to fake e-mail addresses, often using the names of actual researchers. And at the other end of the fake e-mail address is someone who’s in on the game and happy to send in a friendly review.

…This most recent avalanche of fake-reviewed papers was discovered because of extra screening at the journal. According to an official statement from Springer, “the decision was made to screen new papers before they are released to production.” The extra screening turned up the names of fake reviewers that hadn’t previously been detected, and “in order to clean up our scientific records, we will now start retracting these affected articles…Springer will continue to proactively investigate these issues.” Read More > at Ars technica

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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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