Sunday Reading – 07/16/17

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.

Yet Another Wealthy California Town Is Short on Cash – The San Francisco suburb of Moraga seems as far as one could get from the financial pressures that have battered big cities like Detroit or Chicago. The price of a typical home has soared to more than $1.2 million, it’s not drowning in debt and there are even free summer concerts.

But on June 28, the 17,000-resident town authorized a declaration of fiscal emergency, a step California cities can take before bankruptcy. In this case, it gives officials in the affluent enclave the power to expedite a referendum on new fees to boost its revenue, which has been restrained by a lackluster retail base and property-tax limits the state enacted almost 40 years ago.

The community, where the median family income is $169,000 a year, illustrates an irony for some at the center of the California’s latest economic boom. While real estate prices have surged, the local tax collections haven’t necessarily followed the same trajectory because of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that keeps homeowners’ tax bills from rising by more than inflation or 2 percent a year. As a result, local government revenues are growing more slowly than the rest of the U.S., according to a state analysis, leaving some seeking other ways to raise money.

In Moraga, where the council discussed establishing a poet laureate position before approving the fiscal distress declaration, lowering headcount isn’t the first priority. The town’s $8.5 million budget this year authorizes about 36 full-time workers. Members instead opted to reduce services such as park maintenance in the community about 20 miles east of San Francisco.

…The squeeze on Moraga stems in part from two infrastructure failures: the damage to a bridge in April and a sinkhole that became such a civic event that residents threw it a sarcastic birthday celebration. Though officials are hoping for state and federal reimbursements, the cost to fix both depleted its savings, leaving the city vulnerable to another emergency. The general fund, boosted modestly with this year’s anticipated $46,217 surplus, has about $1.6 million in reserves.

The fiscal emergency declaration allows Moraga to put any revenue-raising measure on the ballot when it wants instead of waiting for a regularly scheduled election. Options being mulled include proposing a flat fee on property or a utility tax, Priebe said. Read More > in Bloomberg

California’s Tax Board of Confusion – No other state has a tax collection system like California’s. No other state would want one.

Rather than a single revenue department, California uses three separate agencies to manage different taxes. One of those agencies, the Board of Equalization (BOE), collects sales and property taxes, along with many smaller revenue sources such as levies on jet fuel. Now it’s taking on the new role of collecting marijuana taxes. But even as its mission continues to expand, the BOE appears to be badly mismanaged.

A recent audit from the state Finance Department found that the BOE’s elected board members have been directing civil servants to work on pet political projects. It also found that those board members, who aren’t supposed to receive political contributions exceeding $250, have been known to accept thousands in bundled donations of $249 from companies who have business before them. And although the BOE is supposed to meet in open, quasi-judicial hearings, recent legislative testimony revealed members have met privately with parties who were appealing their tax assessments, never reporting the content of those conversations. “The testimony indicated that board members were inappropriately influencing staff members in the performance of their duties,” says state Sen. Steven Glazer.

…For all its faults, however, no one in Sacramento is convinced that big changes are about to hit the agency. Many powerful interests in the state like things the way they are. Those with inroads to the board are able to wheedle favorable opinions on behalf of their clients. Board members enjoy pretty good perks, including sizable staffs. The state controller sits on the board, but other members, who are elected directly by voters in four separate districts, include ex-legislators who have chummy relations with their former colleagues. “It’s those relationships, I believe, that have kept reforms from happening,” says state Sen. Jerry Hill.

…Over the years, countless commissions and studies have recommended that state tax collection be consolidated into a single revenue department accountable to the governor — which is how most states do it. But killing off the BOE would require a constitutional revision approved by voters. That isn’t likely. Read More > at Governing

News From The Social Security Ponzi Scheme – The government is out today with its annual update of Social Security’s sick finances:

–The system is $12.5 trillion under water, up from $11.4 trillion a year ago.

–Absent law changes, checks to retirees will have to be chopped 23% beginning in 2035.

–To fix just the retirement pay program, Congress could kick up the payroll tax by 2.8 percentage points. Fixing Medicare’s disastrous finances would be in addition.

–The retirement operation is running an $86 billion annual deficit. That’s the difference between the money coming in from Social Security’s share of payroll taxes (12.4% of covered payroll) and the money going out in monthly checks and in overhead.

Ponzi? That’s too kind an interpretation. A Ponzi scheme has old investors being paid off with money raised from new ones. In this case there isn’t enough cash coming in from new players to pay off the old ones. The $86 billion shortfall is being covered in traditional federal fashion, by drawing on general tax revenues and by printing money. Read More > at Forbes

Why TV is Facebook’s next frontier – Facebook has long had a love affair with video. Recently, however, the social network has taken its video ambitions one step further: It’s diving into original programming. This involves not just news and sportscasts but also scripted shows. If that sounds an awful lot like television, well, you’re not wrong. TV is undoubtedly Facebook’s next big thing.

Most people consume video on Facebook circumstantially: They happen to stumble upon clips when scrolling through their News Feed. This all changed with the introduction of the company’s Live feature, which debuted last year to the general public. Suddenly Facebook became a video destination. The only way to catch a particular livestream was to log on to the site at that very moment. This, according to Facebook, creates an instant social environment as people convene to watch and experience the same stream together.

…Facebook becoming a TV platform might sound like a stretch, but it’s not the only social media company dabbling in the field. Twitter is doing the same with live news and sports broadcasts — everything from weekly baseball games to live coverage of Wimbledon. Twitter also partnered with Xbox to stream its E3 coverage and with Nike to cover the attempt by runners to break the two-hour-marathon barrier. Read More > at Engadget

Why is the Episcopal Church near collapse? – The headlines coming out of the Episcopal Church’s annual U.S. convention are stunning — endorsement of cross-dressing clergy, blessing same-sex marriage, the sale of their headquarters since they can’t afford to maintain it.

The American branch of the Church of England, founded when the Vatican balked at permitting King Henry VIII to continue annulling marriages to any wife who failed to bear him sons, is in trouble.

Somehow slipping out of the headlines is a harsh reality that the denomination has been deserted in droves by an angry or ambivalent membership. Six prominent bishops are ready to take their large dioceses out of the American church and align with conservative Anglican groups in Africa and South America.

…This is no longer George Washington’s Episcopal Church – in 1776 the largest denomination in the rebellious British colonies. Membership has dropped so dramatically that today there are 20 times more Baptists than Episcopalians.

U.S. Catholics out-number the Episcopal Church 33-to-1. There are more Jews than Episcopalians. Twice as many Mormons as Episcopalians. Even the little African Methodist Episcopal denomination — founded in in 1787 — has passed the Episcopalians.

Among the old mainstream denominations reporting to the National Council of Churches, the Episcopal Church suffered the worst loss of membership from 1992-2002 — plunging from 3.4 million members to 2.3 million for a 32 percent loss. In the NCC’s 2012 yearbook, the Episcopal Church admitted another 2.71 percent annual membership loss. Read more at > beliefnet

Seattle Councilman Objects to Hosing Excrement-Covered Sidewalks Because It’s Racist – A Seattle councilman has come out against an effort to hose sidewalks to wash excrement off outside local courthouse, claiming it’s racist.

The area around the local Seattle courthouse, King County Superior Court, is known to include a shelter for homeless people and other social-services for the underprivileged people in the town.

But it also contributed towards creating an “unsanitary and potentially frightening” neighborhood “that reeks of urine and excrement”, The Seattle Times reported.

“When they come to this courthouse they’re afraid to come in,” said the county’s Sheriff John Urquhart after two jurors were assaulted near the courthouse. “They’re afraid to walk down Third Avenue because what they see.”

“There is public urination, defecation. That’s a crime,” he added when testifying on the courthouse safety on Tuesday. “There is smoking marijuana in public. That’s a crime.”

Two of the court’s judges are urging the local government to fix the environment in the area, asking the city to provide power-wash the excrement-covered sidewalks.

But one councilman objected to the proposal, suggesting washing sidewalks with water is a form of microaggression. Read More > at Heatstreet

This startup will fight your traffic ticket for you – TIKD, which launched its website in February, wants to handle the ticket for you.

Users enter where and when they got the violation, the fine amount and a photo of the ticket. They pay a one-time fee that’s always less than the original ticket. From there, TIKD assumes the liability for the outcome.

The startup hires lawyers to fight the ticket and go to court in your place. And the user receives email updates on the progress.

If you get points on your license, you’ll get a refund and TIKD will also pay for the original ticket. The company says it has saved customers more than $100,000 in fines and nearly $4 million in avoided insurance costs. Read More > at CNN Tech

Nobody Loses More with the New Timeout Rule Than LeBron James – In an effort to increase their product’s pace of play, thereby making the games more entertaining to watch, the NBA announced today it has reduced the number of timeouts per game by four. Last year, each team was allowed nine timeouts, but they’ll only get seven from now on, including two (down from three) in the final two minutes.

This obviously lessens the odds of an exciting game playing out like stop-and-go traffic, and the overall flow through 48 minutes of back-and-forth action will surge. This is fantastic news for people who currently digest an unhealthy amount of NBA basketball (this writer included) and will, in all likelihood, lead to a more engaging event.

But every rule change also has unexpected results. For example, this new rule change will make it harder for certain players who log a lot of minutes to catch their breath. The league will help by cutting down on the unnecessary back-to-back games and stretches that feature four games in five nights. But will that be enough?

Probably not for one player: LeBron James. The 32-year-old just averaged an NBA-high 37.8 minutes per game during the regular season, then tacked on another 744 minutes (more than any other player) in the playoffs. Read More > at Vice Sports

Find Out Where the Bay’s Cities and Counties Stand on Pot – Through its deference to cities and counties, Proposition 64 has created a patchwork of local marijuana regulations that can sometimes be downright confusing to marijuana consumers. Some municipalities are opening their doors to pot across the board, while others are just getting around to medical marijuana. Many others have banned commercial pot activity altogether.

For those in the Bay Area, the question, “Where does my city/county stand on pot?” just got a whole lot easier to answer. The San Francisco Chronicle has created a database for all 114 cities and counties laying out their marijuana rules, both recreational and medical. It’s available via their new site on all things cannabis called Green State.

These explainers are helpful, especially since so many local government websites fail to update their information adequately and in a timely manner. Here’s a taste of what the Chronicle found:

• Fifteen Bay Area cities and counties have operational medical cannabis dispensaries.

• One Bay Area city has created recreational store licensing.

• Forty-three Bay Area cities and counties have permanent bans or moratoriums on outdoor grows for personal use. Read More > at California City News

Gymboree to close 350 stores – Gymboree, which filed for bankruptcy protection in June, will shutter roughly 350 outlets across the U.S., the company announced Tuesday.

“This was a difficult decision to make, but we are confident that it is in the best long-term interest of our Company, our customers and our broader employee base,” CEO Daniel Griesemer said in a statement.

Affected stores will launch their closing sales next week, the company said.

As of April, the San Francisco-based company operated about 1,280 locations. It also owns the Janie and Jack and Crazy 8 brands, and has more than 11,000 employees, according to a filing. Most of the store closings will be Gymboree and Crazy 8 locations.

Gymboree isn’t the only retailer to cut its brick-and-mortar footprint as online shopping booms.

So far this year, 5,300 store closings have been announced, according to Fung Global Retail & Technology, a retail think tank. Read More > at CNN Money

Seven Familiar Things That Will Disappear in the Next Decade – If you thought your parents or grandparents lived through an era of rapid technological change, wait till you see what’s coming your way in the next decade. Experts say the tech revolution is just getting started.

“It’s a whole different kind of world that’s waiting for us,” says Dr. James Canton, CEO of the Institute of Global Futures, a San Francisco-based think tank that forecasts technology innovations and trends.

As we welcome new technologies and new products into our lives, we’ll also be saying goodbye to some things that have long been part of our day-to-day existence. Here’s a list of items that Canton and other experts consulted by NBC News MACH say are likely to go the way of typewriters and cassette tapes.

Metal locks and keys have been the mainstay of home security since ancient Roman times. But not for much longer, Canton says. Newer, more secure security systems will use a fingerprint, the iris of your eye, or your DNA.

Parking Meters
Forget about digging change out of your pockets or watching the clock so you can feed the meter in time. Cars of the future will communicate directly with your parking spot and charge you accordingly, Marianne Johnson, senior vice president of product and innovation at the e-commerce technology company First Data, told NBC News MACH in an email.

Money isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure. “But its physical version is certainly under threat,” says Dr. Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Expect coins and paper notes to be replaced by newer forms of money within the next decade, he says. Read More > at NBC News

McDonald’s makes supersized effort to turn fading popularity – McDonald’s is hoping to make a difference in its future seven seconds at a time.

The company that helped define fast food is making supersized efforts to reverse its fading popularity and catch up to a landscape that has evolved around it. That includes expanding delivery, digital ordering kiosks in restaurants, and rolling out an app that saves precious seconds.

Much of the work is on display in an unmarked warehouse near the company’s headquarters in suburban Chicago, where a blowup of a mobile phone screen shows the app launching nationally later this year. McDonald’s estimates it would take 10 seconds for a customer to tell an employee their order number from the app, down from the 17-second average of ordering at the drive-thru, a difference that could help ease pileups. Elsewhere at the Innovation Center, the digital ordering kiosk shows how customers can skip lines at the register.

“Five, 10 years ago, we were the dominant player in convenience, as convenience was defined in those days,” CEO Steve Easterbrook said last month. “But convenience continually gets redefined, and we haven’t modernized.”

The push come as McDonald’s Corp.’s stock has hit all-time highs as investors cheer a turnaround plan that has included slashed costs and expansion overseas. Yet the asterisk on the headlines is the chain’s declining stature in its flagship U.S. market, where it is fighting intensifying competition, fickle tastes and a persistent junk food image.

In an increasingly crowded field of places to eat, the number of McDonald’s locations in the U.S. is set to shrink for the third year in a row. At established locations, the frequency of customer visits has declined for four straight years — even after the launch of a popular “All-Day Breakfast” menu. Read More > from the Associated Press

The crisis in America’s crime labs – Junk science endangers lives. Forensic junk science in the hands of overzealous prosecutors, ignorant police detectives and reckless experts threatens liberty.

There is a crisis in America’s government-run crime labs — and it’s not just the result of a few rogue operators. The problem is long-festering and systemic.

In April, Massachusetts state crime lab chemist Annie Dookhan made national headlines after investigations and lawsuits over her misconduct prompted the state’s Supreme Judicial Court to order the largest dismissal of criminal convictions in U.S. history.

Prosecutors were forced to dismiss a stunning 21,000-plus drug cases after Dookhan admitted to forging signatures, misleading investigators and purposely contaminating drug samples en masse over nearly a decade. Dookhan pleaded guilty to dozens of charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and tampering with evidence. Hundreds of defendants have had their convictions tossed on appeal.

…Law journals and scientific publications are filled with similar horror stories that have spread from the New York City medical examiner’s office and Nassau County, N.Y.’s police department forensic evidence bureau to the crime labs of West Virginia, Harris County, Texas, North Carolina and jurisdictions in nearly 20 other states.

…The aura of infallibility conferred on crime lab analysts by “CSI”-style TV shows exacerbates the problem when juries place undue weight on indeterminate DNA evidence of little to no probative value. Just last week, North Carolina’s Mark Carver, who was convicted of murdering a college student based on dubious touch DNA that was likely the result of investigators’ contamination, won a new court date for a hearing that may set him free. Read More > from Michelle Malkin

BART Official: Transparency on Crime Would Promote Racial Stereotypes – Bay Area Rapid Transit Assistant General Manager Kerry Hamill is taking flack for a peculiar July 7 memo in which she defended the agency’s decision to withhold information about crimes on its trains to prevent prejudice against people of color.

Some members of BART’s board of directors have criticized Hamill’s memo, which cited the media’s “disproportionate elevation” of crimes that “unfairly affect and characterize riders of color.”

“The memo was regrettable,” said BART Director Joel Keller. “Transparency trumps everything else. To not be willing to release information to the public because we think we know better what the public can handle is a mistake in my mind.”

But the memo is consistent with what board member Deborah Allen says she was told when it came to surveillance videos.

“To release these videos would create a high level of racially insensitive commentary toward the district,” it was explained to her. “And in addition it would create a racial bias in the riders against minorities on the trains.” Read More > at California County News

Why are homers up? MLB All-Stars don’t really know, but everyone has a theory – Home runs are up this season.

More than 1,100 were hit during June, the first month in the history of baseball more than 1,100 have been hit. In the first half of 2017 (2,652 games), 3,343 home runs have been hit. Baseball-Reference’s wonderful Play Index goes back to 1913 for this type of split, and we’ve never seen more home runs in the first half of a season. Of course, not all first halves have the same number of games, but only one other year is really in contention (3,312 homers in 2,590 games in 2000).

So, yep, that’s something worth talking about. And baseball folks have definitely been talking about it. Not just media types, either. Why are home runs up?

Buster Posey, Giants

Question: Do you have a theory on all the home runs this year?
Answer: “Baseballs are juiced! No, I don’t know (he was kidding, just so that’s clear). I think it’s a combination of guys throwing hard and maybe there’s not as much emphasis on location or maybe you’ve got players coming out that aren’t as concerned with cutting down when there’s two strikes, and they’re swinging a little bit more aggressively than with two strikes. I don’t know. Feels like it wasn’t too long ago we were talking about how far down home runs were, so I guess it’s cyclical. That’s my theory.”

Charlie Blackmon, Rockies

Question: Do you have a theory on why there are so many home runs this year?
Answer: “I mean, I think everybody throws like 96 now. Everybody throws so hard, so when you hit a ball that’s pitched harder, I think they go a little bit further. Which isn’t nearly as important as the fact that, if you’re getting used to 96 and you’re elevating your game up to that velocity, I think you’re a better player, and therefore you’re going to be able to hit more homers, especially against a guy who’s not throwing 96.”
Question: Do you players talk about this or is it just us media types?
Answer: “It’s funny. As a player, I want to give myself a lot of credit. I don’t want to think it’s the ball or the atmosphere or any of that stuff. But I think the game’s being played at a very high level. I also see lots of strikeouts and lots of guys throwing very hard. I see both sides of that point happening.” Read More > in the Sporting News

Tacos vs Burritos Index: The Great Divide in Mexican-American Cuisine – Americans love the genre of cuisine generally known as “Mexican food”. The cuisine of our southern neighbor has been ingrained in our culture since the early 20th century. In many respects, it has evolved beyond its origins to become something uniquely American (think Tex-Mex and giant breakfast burritos).

You can find it anywhere, from just across the border to the farthest corners of our northern states. This presents a great opportunity to explore which parts of the country offer the most for Mexican food aficionados. Which city has the most Mexican restaurants? Do some regions of the United States exhibit any preferences for tacos versus burritos?

…Ultimately we found that most major cities (e.g. NYC), as well as cities in the Southwest and California, had the most Mexican restaurants to offer. Cities in Texas, Colorado, and California reign supreme for the most restaurants per capita. In the taco vs. burrito debate, the overall skew of menu items was 56% tacos and 44% burritos nationally. Most notably, cities in Texas offered mostly taco options, while cities in the middle of the country and Northwest offered more burrito options. Read More > at Priceonomics

Why the drone industry actually wants more regulation – …Over the past few years, the Federal Aviation Administration has been slow to move on drone policy, specifically as it pertains to commercial drone use. The pace has frustrated technology companies such as Amazon, which have moved drone testing abroad because of current regulations.

And because drones in the U.S. are restricted in where and when they can fly — only during daytime and not above people, for example — the drone industry is limited in the technology’s new uses.

But new rules from the federal government could change that and open up the market, experts say.

The most significant action from the FAA came last year, when the agency issued its regulatory framework related to commercial use of drones.

The rules were highly anticipated, but experts say there are still limitations impeding the industry’s ability to pursue new uses for drones, such as drone delivery. For example, drones currently can’t fly over people, fly at night, or fly out of the operator’s line of sight.

But industry experts believe legalizing these flight scenarios could have positive economic impacts. Read More > in the Washington Examiner

The Decline of Marriage Is Hitting Vegas Hard – …Nevada’s marriage rate has plummeted in recent decades, an extreme version of a pullback happening across the U.S. The forces that have reshaped the nation’s economic life since the 1970s have helped make marriage an institution increasingly reserved for the well-educated and more affluent. A spate of recent research suggests America’s marriage gap is cementing disadvantage.

The wedding chapels where August works have seen business dwindle, he said, and Vegas is pushing to reverse the decline in an industry that generates as much as $3 billion in economic activity annually. In 2015 the surrounding county introduced a $14 surcharge on marriage licenses to pay for marketing, and local business leaders helped start a Wedding Chamber of Commerce last year. The data show an effort working against a broader national shift.

Marriage has become a clear dividing line in a stratified country. Its decline is most pronounced among those who didn’t go beyond high school, as better educated people tend to marry each other. America’s working and middle classes are faring badly, and the research points to unraveling families as one cause.

Half of Americans older than 18 were married in 2014, down from 72 percent in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center. The shift is more pronounced for the less educated, which is a loose proxy for income: As of 2014, almost 75 percent of women with bachelor’s degrees were married by their early 40s, versus less than 60 percent of women with only a high-school diploma, according to the Brookings Institution. Read More > at Bloomberg

Housing woes, labor shortages might “disrupt” Bay Area economy, forecast says – The Bay Area job market faces disruption from a lack of skilled labor and skyrocketing home prices that could throttle the region’s booming economy, according to Beacon Economics forecasts released Tuesday.

Job growth has slowed in the Bay Area’s three biggest urban centers. In Santa Clara County, the East Bay and San Francisco alike, employers simply aren’t hiring as briskly as they did in recent years, the Beacon economists said Tuesday in an assessment of regional economies in California.

“We could grow at a faster pace, but growth is being constrained by a lack of affordable housing and a lack of skilled labor,” said Robert Kleinhenz, an economist and executive director of research with Beacon. “These factors are having a disruptive effect on the job market.”

Of the Bay Area’s three major urban centers, Beacon’s outlook is brightest for the East Bay — barely. During 2017, the East Bay is expected to add jobs at a pace of 1.8 percent, while the South Bay job market will grow 1.5 percent and the San Francisco-San Mateo area will expand at a feeble pace of 0.7 percent to 1.1 percent, it said. These three areas might all lag the job growth in California this year: Statewide employment is expected to expand at a range of 1.6 percent to 2.2 percent this year, Beacon projected. Read More > in The Mercury News

Bezos, Slim, and Buffett, Publicly Pleading Poverty, Ask Congress for Help With Their Newspapers – It’s the sort of brazen move that might ordinarily trigger a front-page news story or an outraged editorial — a bunch of rich individuals asking Congress to write them a law that would give them better negotiating power against other rich individuals.

Yet in this case, the rich individuals wanting special treatment are the newspaper owners themselves. Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos (worth $83.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index), New York Times owner Carlos Slim (worth $61.1 billion), and Buffalo News owner Warren Buffett ($76.9 billion), publicly pleading poverty, are asking Congress for a helping hand in their negotiations with Google, controlled by Sergey Brin ($45.6 billion) and Larry Page ($46.8 billion).

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, David Chavern, president and chief executive of the News Media Alliance, whose board has representatives of Bezos-Slim- and Buffett-backed papers, complained about what he called “an economically squeezed news industry.” The Times, in a column sympathetic to the effort, likened the news providers to “serfs.”

Maybe Serf Bezos should have considered the economics of the news industry when he bought the Washington Post, or Serf Slim when he bought his stake in the New York Times. The idea that Congress needs to roll to the rescue of “serfs” like Messrs. Bezos, Buffett, and Slim to bail them out of bad investments just doesn’t pass the laugh test. Read More > in The New York Sun

Why Mexican Security is Crumbling – and How That Matters Here – Mexico was ranked the most-worsened country this year on the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index (FSI), tying with Ethiopia for the bottom spot. Although Mexico has long faced violence, corruption, and organized crime, these problems all worsened during the past year, countering a decade-long trend of increasing stability there. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked Eric Olson, the deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American program and senior advisor to its Mexico Institute, what explains this drop in stability, and whether uncertainty over Trump Administration policy has anything to do with it.

The Cipher Brief: Why did Mexico worsen so drastically this year on the Fragile States Index?

Eric Olson: It’s a combination of things. It’s a serious uptick in violence tied to renewed conflicts between criminal organizations in the country. Separate, but related, Mexico had several major corruption scandals at the state level involving governors and former governors. That also showed the serious institutional weakness at the state and local levels. It’s not like that was unknown before, but really the extent of it was pretty shocking.

TCB: You mentioned a serious uptick in violence in Mexico over the past year – why?

Olson: It shouldn’t be that surprising – Mexico has had ups and downs in its homicide rate. But the height of homicides in 2011 had come down in a significant way, and so for homicides to spike again is deeply troubling and unsettling. You’d have to look at each individual case and place where homicides have spiked to understand the various explanations. Most have to do with renewed conflicts between criminal organizations, especially centering around the Sinaloa Cartel and its future.

One of the dramatic things that happened last year was the arrest, then escape, re-arrest and extradition of [Joaquín] “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States. It’s quite interesting that homicides didn’t actually go up when he was arrested; it was after he escaped and then was re-arrested that homicides went up dramatically. The thinking there is that he maintained control of his criminal network during his initial arrest, but was losing control after his re-arrest and extradition, leading to renewed internal competition between factions of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of which is led by his own son, and another by the son of another leader of a criminal organization. The second factor is that in the midst of the instability within the Sinaloa Cartel, another major criminal organization – the Cartel de Jalisco Nuevo Generación – has started to challenge the Sinaloa organization for control of different areas, creating more violence.

The third element is that we see some shifts in the drug market in the United States. We see more and more demand for heroin. Roughly 80 percent of heroine supplied to the U.S. now comes from Mexico. We’ve seen a real uptick in methamphetamine trafficking with laboratories in the Sinaloa and Colima area. Colima is the smallest state by population in Mexico and yet last year had the highest homicide rate. What is that about? Part of it is that it includes the port city of Mazatlán, which is the largest commercial port. There’s a huge amount of precursor chemicals coming through Mazatlán and the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, and roads from these major port cities join up in Colima on the way to Guadalajara and north to the U.S. border converting Colima into a battleground. So the simple answer is that the increase in homicides is due, in part, to the shifting criminal landscape. Read More > at The Cipher Brief

Early returns suggest smoking drop in response to state tax – Last fall, California voters approved the biggest increase in cigarette taxes since the state first began levying tobacco in the 1950s. Advocates for Proposition 56, which passed with a fairly overwhelming 64 percent of the vote, argued that a $2 per-pack tax hike would hurt pocketbooks enough to nudge millions of California smokers to quit, or at least to light up less frequently.

When the tax went into effect in April, smokers saw the average cost of a pack of cigarettes soar from under $6 to up to $9, making California one of the most expensive states in which to buy cigarettes. But the question then: Was that enough to force smokers to kick an increasingly expensive habit?

The early data suggests that yes, California cigarette sales have declined significantly since prices went up. In fact, the drop is even sharper than the state anticipated—which could spell trouble for state coffers.

Cigarette pack “distributions”—tax lingo for a pack of cigarettes typically sold from a distributor to a retailer, and a good proxy for consumption—dropped 56 percent year-over-year in the two months following the tax increase, according to data obtained from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration and analyzed by CALmatters. That’s a decline of nearly 82 million packs. Read More > at CALmatters

Bill Introduced in Congress to Ban Shackling and Solitary Confinement of Pregnant Women – Two Democratic senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, introduced legislation Tuesday to improve the treatment of female inmates in federal prisons, including banning solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant women.

The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-TK) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), would also increase visitation rights for inmates, provide free telephone and video conference calls, and require federal prisons to provide tampons and sanitary napkins to inmates free of charge.

Women are the fastest growing segment of the U.S prison population. The female prison population has grown by 700 percent since 1980, Booker said at a press conference Tuesday morning on Capitol Hill. But they struggle to maintain contact with their children because of exorbitant prison phone fees, receive proper medical care, and maintain their basic dignity, forcing them to “have to make difficult choices whether to get price gouged to communicate with family or buy basic health products,’ Booker said.

“If you listen to their testimony,” Booker said, “it brings a shame to what’s happening in the U.S., and it violates our common values and principles.”

Women in prison have higher rates of mental illness, drug dependency, and histories of sexual and physical abuse. The vast majority of them are also mothers. Read More > at Reason

Stockton’s Mayor Wants to Pay Criminals Not to Commit Crimes – Could Richmond’s controversial Advance Peace initiative be a model for the City of Stockton? After a rash of homicides, Mayor Michael Tubbs is giving it serious consideration.

To refresh your memory, Richmond’s Advance Peace Initiative is a unique crime reduction program that essentially pays criminals not to commit more crimes.

Yes, really.

It was adopted in 2007 at a time when Richmond was grappling with one of the highest violent crime rates in the nation.

Tubbs’ administration may be feeling a sense desperation. There have been 23 homicides in Stockton this year and it’s only July.

In addition to the Richmond model, Tubbs said he’ll look into a Detroit project that beefed up security camera installations.

Stockton isn’t the only city mulling a program that rewards criminals for staying out of trouble. The Sacramento City Council will vote on a similar proposal in August. Read More > at California City News

Complaints pour in over planned East Bay water rate hike – A plan to raise East Bay water rates by nearly 20 percent partly to make up for all the lost revenue from customers who were responsible during the drought was facing a deluge of outrage Monday.

“They’re sticking their inability to get things right onto the backs of scrupulous water savers,” said Oakland hills resident Pat McBride.

At its regular board meeting Tuesday, East Bay Municipal Utility District directors are expected to approve a 19 percent price hike over the next two years. The district says it has been taking in less revenue because customers have been using less water, but that its infrastructure costs — particularly the ongoing need to replace aging pipes — remain constant no matter how much water is used.

“We are not a profit-making organization,” said EBMUD spokeswoman Jenesse Miller. “Our rates cover our budget costs.”

In the 331-square-mile system that serves 1.4 million customers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, water rates have nearly doubled over the past 10 years. Those increases took effect even though water usage went down 30 percent after customers got the message to conserve, Miller said. Read More > at SF Gate

Pairing Wine And Weed: Is It A California Dream Or Nightmare? – In the epicurean world, Northern California is famous for two intoxicants — wine and weed. With recreational marijuana about to be legal in the Golden State, some cannabis entrepreneurs are looking to the wine industry as a model.

On the elegant terrace of a winery overlooking the vineyard-covered hills of Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, a dozen invited guests are sipping pinot noir, nibbling hors d’oeuvres and taking hits off a water pipe.

They have come for a farm-to-table meal of kale salad, roasted vegetables and grilled flatiron steak paired with wine and certain types of marijuana.

…While cannabis people are excited to co-market with wine, wine people are taking a wait-and-see approach. Few of the wine trade associations contacted for this story wanted to comment on the coming of cannabis. One longtime Sonoma winemaker acknowledged “a certain level of apprehension” among his peers.

Erin Gore markets cannabis-infused confections for women, under the name Garden Society. She married into a family of grape growers, and this is her take on why those in Sonoma County may be apprehensive:

“Going down (U.S. Highway) 101 are … all the vineyards going to get ripped out and it’s only going to be pot? How bad is it going to smell? A big thing is, everyone’s going to get robbed. A lot of people are worried about marijuana-stoned driving.”

In fact, Sonoma is already struggling to accommodate its 469 wineries. Though wine tourism is the lifeblood of the economy, residents complain about the endless special events at wineries, the congested roads and tipsy drivers. Adding cannabis to the mix just heightens those concerns. Read More > at KQED

Here is what the gas tax repeal initiative title will say. Proponents say it is misleading and will sue – The state attorney general’s office on Monday released a title and summary for a proposed initiative to repeal a gas tax increase. Proponents of the ballot measure say the state-drafted title and summary are misleading and they will go to court to have them changed.

The way language on measures is written can affect whether voters sign the petitions.

Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), the leading proponent of the initiative, said he will go to court to have the title and summary changed.

…Critics of the new law have said it lacks sufficient safeguards for the money to be spent only on road repairs and transportation and could allow money to be spent on other functions.

The summary also highlights that the ballot measure “Eliminates Independent Office of Audits and Investigations, which is responsible for ensuring accountability in the use of revenue for transportation projects.” Such an office has not existed and is called for by the new law.

Allen said the lawsuit to be filed this week will detail how the statements are misleading. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

World Health Organization: Untreatable gonorrhea on the rise – Antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea are on the rise, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

An estimated 78 million people contract gonorrhea each year, says WHO of the sexually transmitted infection (STI) that was once easily treated.

“The bacteria that cause gonorrhea are particularly smart,” said WHO spokesperson Dr. Teodora Wi in a press release. “Every time we use a new class of antibiotics to treat the infection, the bacteria evolve to resist them.”

WHO researchers, whose findings were published in two separate studies this month, discovered that first-line antibiotics were ineffective in 50 of the 77 countries they analyzed. Resistance is also increasing in second and third-line treatments, the researchers found. Three strains of the STI were found to be resistance to all antibiotics. Read More > at SF Gate

Young Japanese people are not having sex – Nearly half of Japanese people are entering their 30s without any sexual experience, according to new research.

The country is facing a steep population decline as a growing number of youngsters abstain from sex and avoid romantic relationships.

Some men claimed they “find women scary” as a poll found that 43 per cent of people aged 18 to 34 from the island nation say they are virgins.

One woman, when asked why they think 64 per cent of people in the same age group are not in relationships, said she thought men “cannot be bothered” to ask the opposite sex on dates because it was easier to watch internet porn.

…The shrinking of the country’s population – deaths have outpaced births for several years – has been called a “demographic time bomb” and is already affecting the job and housing markets, consumer spending and long-term investment plans at businesses.

Other countries including the US, China, Denmark and Singapore have low fertility rates, but Japan’s is thought to be the worst. Read More > in the Independent

Kill it! Kill Windows XP now! – The headline — “HMS Queen Elizabeth is ‘running outdated Windows XP’, raising cyber attack fears” — was startling, but wrong. The United Kingdom’s newest aircraft carrier wasn’t running Windows XP. But some of the contractors that built the warship were.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, has been purchasing Windows XP support, at least through this year, so odds are our military still has XP systems running to this very day.

To which I can only say: “Just how stupid are you?”

Yes, I follow the adage “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” But guess what: XP is broke.

Mainstream XP support ended in April 2014. True, Microsoft has started reissuing general Windows XP patches because of the latest run of ransomware, but do you really think the company is going to continue to cover your rump? I don’t.

I liked Windows XP a lot back in the day myself, but come on, it’s been over three years now, and, truth be told, it was never safe from day one. It’s time to move on up to Windows 7, if not Windows 10.

Enough already. If you’re still running XP, I presume it’s because you have a program that only runs on XP and you’ve been too lazy or cheap to rewrite or replace it…

…What we do know is that FedEx, Nissan, Hitachi and Renault were all hit by WannaCry. We know that ransomware took in a billion bucks last year from its victims. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of businesses and institutions were successfully attacked.

In all fairness, it’s not just Windows XP. The recent run of ransomware was largely caused by businesses that simply didn’t bother to patch their existing “up-to-date” Windows systems. Read More > at Computerworld

Drinking until 4 a.m.? Law to extend bar hours near passage – That last call holler at San Francisco bars is one step closer to being extended to 4 a.m. now that a state bill geared toward boosting city nightlife is on its way to an assembly vote.

Senate Bill 384, otherwise known as the Let Our Communities Adjust Late Night Act, has been passed through the Assembly Governmental Organization committee, and has one more stop before the entire state Assembly puts it to a vote.

The LOCAL Act, if approved, would give individual cities the power to extend alcohol sales hours from California’s current 2 a.m. curfew until as late as 4 a.m.

…Rideshare behemoths Uber and Lyft are also in support of the bill, especially since it requires local governing bodies to ensure sufficient transit options are available in those later hours.

If passed, the bill would pertain to bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Liquor stores would be excluded from the extended sales period. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

What does the sharing economy mean for logistics? – Seven years after launching its car ride services, Uber is spreading into carrying freight – a sign of the major changes shaking up the logistics sector. After a soft launch in Texas a few months ago, Uber Freight is now rolling out in other parts of the U.S. It offers attractive seven-day payment terms to drivers as well as the use of an app which could enable them to carry a full load all the time, rather than making empty return journeys. In theory, this should increase the capacity of trucks – even though these vehicles already carry 70 per cent of goods transported in the U.S., according to the American Trucking Association.

But Dr Walter Kemmsies, Managing Director, Economist and Chief Strategist for JLL’s U.S. Ports, Airports and Global Infrastructure Group, sees the Uber Freight move as a symptom of an overhaul in logistics rather than as being the catalyst for revolution by itself. “Its entry into the market is part of the e-commerce boom we are seeing in industrial real estate,” he says. “But it may find, that unlike cars, truck freight movement is subject to very difficult regulations under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act which limits hours of service.”

Kemmsies predicts that e-commerce will double from around 10 per cent of U.S. retail sales to over 20 per cent within the next decade. However, even the e-commerce pick-up is increasingly being seen as part of a bigger story.

“The real trend is omni-channel rather than e-commerce,” he says. Under omni-channel customers buy goods and services through a range of means including mobile phones, visiting stores, fast home delivery and click-and-collect. Read More > at JLL

Old cause of pension debt gets new attention – CalPERS may soon report investment earnings for the fiscal year ending June 30 that are near or even above its long-term target of 7 percent, up from a return of 0.61 percent the previous year.

But the nation’s largest public pension system will still be seriously underfunded.

Like most public pension funds nationwide, CalPERS has not recovered from huge investment losses a decade ago. Going into the financial crisis in 2007, CalPERS had 101 percent of the projected assets needed to pay future pension costs.

Despite a lengthy bull market that followed a stock market crash in 2008, CalPERS recently was only 65 percent funded. Now CalPERS is worried about a downturn that might drop funding below 50 percent, a red line actuaries think makes recovery very difficult.

Two causes of the shortfall are often mentioned: overly optimistic forecasts of investment earnings, expected to pay nearly two-thirds of CalPERS future pension costs, and generous retroactive pension boosts at the turn of the century. Read More > at Calpensions

Why the Robot Takeover of the Economy Is Proceeding Slowly – Vik Singh’s company has powerful artificial intelligence software that helps firms hunt down the best sales leads. Getting somebody to use it — well, that’s a story that says a lot about the U.S. expansion.

U.S. businesses have every incentive to adopt labor-saving technologies, replacing factory workers with robots and desk jobs with smart software. In some areas, such as finance, machine decision-making is advancing quickly. In others, there are obstacles. Overall, while the penetration of automation in the economy is happening, it is taking place at a slower pace than futurists expected.

Hundreds of companies are trying to disrupt the way we consume, work, or move. The economy’s growth potential could be higher if smart machines could turbocharge how humans go about their tasks. Higher productivity, or output per hour, would boost corporate profits and may help U.S. workers finally get a pay rise.

That economic nirvana just isn’t happening yet.

Productivity in the U.S. rose only 1.1 percent last year and rather than being replaced by technology, more workers are being hired. Employers have added an average 159,000 new jobs a month so far in this expansion compared with 99,000 in the previous upswing. Over the same period, investment in intellectual property products, such as software, has barely edged up as a share of GDP versus the last cycle. Read More > at Bloomberg

Uber and Lyft Are Becoming More Like Public Transit – In case you haven’t heard, Lyft is reinventing the bus. In San Francisco, the ride-hailing company is beta-testing a “shuttle” service that operates along designated routes with preset stops during weekday commuting hours (6:30-10:30am, 4-8pm). It has also introduced “pickup suggestions,” a new feature that encourages customers to walk to a better pickup location for their trip when possible, based on things like traffic and one-way streets.

Uber debuted a similar feature in Manhattan in late May for UberPool, its carpooling service. “Smarter pickups” prompt riders to walk to a convenient corner during their shared ride and “dynamic drop-offs” “recalculate the best drop-off spot every few seconds” as they near their destination. Uber said at the time that those changes were designed to reduce the number of turns per mile by 20%.

This is pretty comparable to what buses do, with their “stops” that people “walk to” and “wait at.” (In Uber jargon it’s apparently known as “prioritizing human heuristics over purely system algos.”) Buses are of course bigger than cars used in ride-hailing, but it’s not hard to imagine them running the same routes and competing for the same riders. In fact, they already are. The path taken by the UberPool in the screenshot above (from Uber’s blog) is almost identical to the route traversed by the M101 bus in New York City. Read More > at Route Fifty


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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