Sunday Reading – August 5, 2018


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.

Details Surface About Chinese Spy Who Worked For Sen. Feinstein – New details emerged Wednesday about how a mole for the government of communist China managed to stay by Senator Dianne Feinstein’s side for nearly 20 years.

It happened five years ago, but additional information is just surfacing about how the Bay Area senator’s office was infiltrated by a Chinese spy.

Now, all eyes are on Chinese intelligence in the Bay Area after the website Politico reported last week that a staffer for Senator Feinstein turned out to be a Chinese spy who reported back to the government officials about local politics.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered additional details in a column written by reporters Phil Matier and Andy Ross.

The column revealed that the Chinese spy was Feinstein’s driver who also served as a gofer in her Bay Area office and was a liaison to the Asian-American community.

He even attended Chinese consulate functions for the senator. Read More > from KPIX

Most Americans Overlook Restaurants’ Nutrition Labels – Despite recent federal Food and Drug Administration rules mandating that U.S. restaurants post nutritional information for menu items, Americans are no more likely to peruse this type of information now than they were five years ago. Today, less than half of Americans (45%) say they pay “a great deal” (16%) or “a fair amount” (29%) of attention to nutrition details at restaurants, similar to the 43% found in 2013.

Though the national menu labeling policy just took effect in May, New York City passed a calorie count law for restaurants in 2006, and California became the first state to pass such a law in 2008. Since then, other states and municipalities have followed suit — though similar legislation has stalled in many local governments.

About three in 10 Americans say they do not pay much attention to nutritional information at restaurants (31%), while 23% pay no attention at all.

This could change given the new federal regulations, as more Americans will see the labels as they dine out this year and in the future. Read More > at Gallup

Pope rules out death penalty in change to church teaching – Pope Francis has decreed that the death penalty is “inadmissible” under all circumstances and the Catholic Church should campaign to abolish it, a change in church teaching that could influence Catholic politicians and judges in the U.S. and across the globe.

The change, announced Thursday, was hailed by anti-death penalty activists and scorned by Francis’ frequent conservative critics, who said he had no right to change what Scripture revealed and popes have taught for centuries.

The Vatican said that Francis had amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the compilation of official Catholic teaching — to say that capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an “attack” on the dignity of human beings.

Previously, the catechism said the church didn’t exclude recourse to capital punishment “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Past popes have upheld that position, though St. John Paul II began urging an end to the practice and stressed that the guilty were just as deserving of dignity as innocents. Read More > from the Associated Press

LASD Gang Probe Underway – The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is investigating allegations that secret deputy cliques may be operating as gangs out of the department’s Compton station.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s announcement came amid mounting pressure to open a formal probe into the matter. He stopped short of calling it an “investigation,” however, instead referring to it as an “examination.”

The troubling allegations first surface as part of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of a man who was shot and killed by L.A. Sheriff’s deputies. As many as 20 deputies at the Compton Station have matching tattoos of a rifle-bearing skeleton, it was revealed during the trial.

The revelation was concerning given the department’s sordid history with secret department gangs accused of advocating and rewarding violence. Allegations of LASD gangs go all the way back to the 1970s.

The examination is now underway. A report on the findings is expected within the next three months. Read More > at California County News

Are Dollar Stores The True Retail Disrupters? – Lost in all the news this past week about Amazon’s massive Prime Day results, Walmart multi-pronged effort to stay competitive and assorted Chinese e-commerce shenanigans was perhaps the single most important statement about the current state of American retailing.

Dollar Tree parent company to both its namesake stores and Family Dollar, announced it had just opened its 15,000th store.

That would be remarkable unto itself if it weren’t for the fact that in reaching that total, Dollar Tree only equals the approximate number of stores operated by its main rival in the small-box discount category, Dollar General DG +1.3%, which also has around 15,000 doors.

Think about that: 30,000 stores between just two retail chains. And that doesn’t include all the dollar-wannabes like 99¢ Only Stores, Dollarama , Five Below, Jack’s and on and on.

And by the time you finish reading this, one or two additional stores might have opened.

The numbers are astonishing:

  • The two big dollar chains combined have more stores than the six biggest U.S. retailers – Walmart, Kroger, Costco, Home Depot, CVS and Walgreens – combined.
  • Grouped together, all the major department store chains in the country – Macy’s, Kohl’s, Nordstrom, JCPenney, Dillard’s, Saks/Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and Belk – equal less than 15% of the total number of dollar stores.
  • Even the high-flying off-pricers don’t stack up very well: TJX, Ross, Burlington and Big Lots together have less than a third the number of stores that the two big dollar players operate.
  • On the revenue side, the numbers are less dramatic but no less worth noting. The annual sales of Dollar Tree and Dollar General together are more than those of Macy’s and JC Penney together, of TJX and Ross together, and of Apple Stores – including iTunes. Read More > at Forbes

The explosive race to totally reinvent the smartphone battery – If you’re reading this on your smartphone, you’re holding a bomb. Beneath a protective screen, lithium – a metal so volatile that it can ignite on contact with water – is being taken apart and reassembled in the intense chemical reaction that powers much of the modern world.

Lithium is in our phones and tablets, our laptops and smartwatches. It’s in our e-cigarettes and our electric cars. It is light, soft and energy dense, which makes it perfect for portable electronics. But, as consumer technology has grown more powerful, lithium-ion batteries have struggled to keep up. And now, just as the world has been gripped by its addiction to lithium, researchers around the world are scrambling to reinvent the batteries powering our world.

Huge glowing screens, faster processing, speedy data connections and a fashion for thinness mean that some smartphones struggle to make it through a day without being charged. Often more than once. After two years, the battery life of some devices falls off a cliff and they are consigned to the scrapheap.

…But battery life is named by consumers as the single most important feature of a smartphone in poll after poll. As power-hungry 5G rolls out over the next decade, the problem will only get worse. There are huge rewards on offer for those who can solve it.

Ionic Materials is just one of dozens of companies engaged in the epic race to radically rethink the battery. It’s been plagued by false starts, bitter lawsuits, and failed startups. But after a decade of slow progress, there is hope. Scientists at startups, universities and heavily-funded national labs around the world are using sophisticated tools to hunt for new materials. They are seemingly on the verge of vastly improving the energy density and longevity of smartphone batteries, and creating greener, safer devices that will charge in seconds and last all day. It has been an explosive journey. Read More > at Wired

From Californian Exceptionalism to Statewide Gentrification – A recent study by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analysts’ Office (LAO) noted that between 2007 to 2016, 1 million more Californians left the state than moved in. These numbers are fairly consistent with trends we’ve seen in the last two decades, but the LAO researchers offer two reasons why this time is more alarming.

First, the states Californians are moving to and those newcomers are arriving from. Californians are moving to Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon by the hundreds of thousands. And they’re coming from New York, Illinois, New Jersey, and Michigan in the tens of thousands. The report notes that this is the first time there has been this level of consistency.

Secondly, the report highlights the particular people who are coming and going — in ways that dismantle California’s long-held image of itself as a burgeoning middle-class paradise, which McWilliams described more than half a century ago. By annual household income, Californians left the state in every category from “Under $15,000” up through $110,000. Starting at $111,000 and up, we see increases in new Californians moving in. What’s more, the LAO writes, “Families with kids and those and those with only a high school education predominate among those moving from California.” More kids (those under 18 years old) have left California in the last decade than any other age cohort.

A state once known as a middle-class oasis is becoming increasingly older, richer, and less family-friendly. The reasons for these movements are well-known, from sky-rocketing housing prices to a lack of lower-middle-class jobs to the cost of energy — and don’t forget those taxes. A recent state-by-state study by CNBC even found the average cost of a ribeye steak and a gallon of milk to be higher in California than almost every other state, giving us an “F” grade in “Cost of Living.”

We agree with California real-estate writer and analyst Patrick Sisson’s recent assessment of these developments: “California’s experiencing what looks like statewide gentrification.” Read More > at Real Clear Policy

How Generation Z Became America’s Most Intolerant Generation – The post-millennials have arrived. As the oldest millennials turn 37, demographers have designated a new generation for those born after 1996, Generation Z. The oldest members of this cohort just graduated from college and had their first (legal) alcoholic beverages. As they wind their way through college, post-millennials will change higher education, just as previous generations did.

Generation Z is racially diverse, increasingly secular, and very much online. Non-Hispanic whites make up just over half of this cohort, compared with 72 percent of Baby Boomers. In religious terms, 13 percent of Generation Z identifies as atheist, compared with only 7 percent of millennials. And according to a 2015 Pew report, 92 percent of teens access the internet daily and 73 percent have access to a smartphone.

Born in 1997 or later, Generation Z was too young to form a coherent memory of the September 11th terror attacks. They have no memory of a pre-9/11 world or a time when the U.S. didn’t have a military presence in Afghanistan. Many are too young to remember a time before smartphones. Apple released the iPhone in 2007, and by 2012, more than half of all Americans owned a smartphone.

The members of this generation have different problems: they’re less prone to criminality and substance abuse but more susceptible to depression and suicide. And one thing that has especially emerged as a defining characteristic—of at least some large portion of them—is their tendency to be intolerant and to wish authority to make others behave as they wish.

…Dundon is a passionate advocate for reading and literacy. In his view, book reading is critical to intellectual development. Once when he gave an exam, he noticed that one of his students had finished early and was quietly reading a paperback under her desk. Dundon told her that he was happy to see students reading and she didn’t have to hide her book. That led to a student complaint and a summons to the principal’s office. An anonymous student complained that Dundon had advocated reading in a math class. The authorities deemed his remarks too controversial, inappropriate for the classroom, and reprimanded him.

In an earlier time, this type of complaint would be dismissed as frivolous. But today, a student’s right not to be offended doesn’t depend on whether they’re justified in taking offense. The fact that a frivolous student complaint can potentially derail a career has a chilling effect on speech.

Among active higher ed faculty, the fear is palpable. In the past half-decade, aggressive student protesters have driven faculty and administrators from their positions: the Christakis at Yale, Brett Weinstein and Heather Heying at Evergreen State College, Tim Wolfe at Missouri. A career that took decades to build can be destroyed in a social-media minute.

When educators fear their students, something has changed in our culture… Read More > at Intellectual Takeout

N.Y. Fair Vendors Have Nearby 7-Year-Old’s Porch Lemonade Stand Shut Down – Kid sets up a lemonade stand outside his home, which happens to be next door to the Saratoga County Fair in Ballston Spa, New York. Vendors at the fair call state health officials to complain. State health officials show up, determine the kid doesn’t have a permit, and shut him down.

In case anybody needs a reminder of why a lemonade brand actually produced a marketing campaign in which it funded kids so they could legally operate lemonade stands, there you go. It’s also a helpful reminder that while we’re told that permitting and licensing programs are all about public safety, they are frequently used as bludgeons to keep competitors out of the marketplace.

And what a stupid fight this was. The Albany Times Union has the details. Vendors were selling fresh lemonade inside the fair for $7 a cup. Brendan Mulvaney, 7, was selling premixed lemonade from his family’s porch for 75 cents a cup. Four separate vendors called state health officials to complain and ask if Mulvaney had a permit. He did not. So a health inspector actually came to the family home over the weekend and shut the lemonade stand down.

…Perhaps these politicians can direct some attention to the state’s burdensome occupational licensing and training programs that do the same thing to adults that the health department did to a 7-year-old. The Institute for Justice notes that becoming a barber in New York State requires two and a half years of professional training. Becoming a child care worker requires a year of training, more than in any other state besides New Jersey.

Sadly, not enough people make the connection between these lemonade crackdowns and the broader ways licensing and permitting laws restrict people’s ability to earn a living. They see stories like this as an outrageous abuse of authority, but they often don’t question the authority itself. They really should. Read More > at Reason

America’s Long Love Affair With Beer Is on the Rocks – Not anymore. Last year, for the first time, Americans reaching for a drink more often chose a glass of wine or a cocktail.

U.S. drinkers, particularly young ones, are having relationship problems with the national beverage. It’s no longer true they start out favoring mild pilsners and low-calorie beers, then graduate to harder stuff later in life, if at all. Now they are thinking about other things: taste, value, beer bellies.

According to the Beer Institute, a trade group, drinkers chose beer just 49.7% of the time last year, down from 60.8% in the mid-’90s. Among 21- to 27-year-olds, the decline has been sharper. Anheuser-Busch, Budweiser’s owner, found that in 2016, just 43% of alcohol consumed by young drinkers was beer. In 2006, it was 65%.

In some ways, big brewers are facing the same seismic shifts in taste as other large consumer-goods and packaged-food giants. Consumers, especially younger ones, are gravitating toward smaller brands marketed as healthier, more natural or made closer to home. Brands such as Kellogg’s cereal, Campbell’s soup and Aunt Jemima pancake mix are all feeling the pinch.

Mass-market beer makers are losing drinkers to an explosion of spirits brands, such as Tito’s vodka, owned by Fifth Generation Inc. Craft beer brewers rode that wave, too, but their volumes haven’t come close to making up for declines in mainstream beer. More recently, craft-beer sales also have slowed. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

France bans smartphones in schools – Under a new legislation, French students will be prohibited from using smartphones and tablets while at school. The law, which was originally noted in President Emmanuel Macron’s election campaign, was elevated to a matter of public health amidst concerns French youth has become super-connected.

France endorsed a blanket ban on smartphone usage for drivers (even those who move to the side of the road) earlier this year, so more action in school settings is not unexpected.

Agence France-Presse reports that a softer ban — which prevented smartphone usage during class hours — has already been in practice since 2010. The latest prohibition will completely forbid phone use between classes and even during meal times, although schools have been given the option to make ‘pedagogical’ exceptions. Read More > at Engadget

California’s new online-only community college – Daunting and impersonal as online education seemed more than a decade ago, there’s no question now that it has a place at the learning table.

At the same time it is not exactly setting the academic world on fire. The novelty of those MOOCs — massive online open courses, including ones taught by Stanford professors with hundreds of thousands of “students” at least ostensibly following the coursework — has worn off. When’s the last time you heard anyone talking about one?

But the eminently practical aspects of online learing, from the private training courses at for-profit places such as lynda.com to the large universities public and private that have begun to incorporate online sessions into their mix of classes, show that learning away from the bricks-and-mortar model is here to stay.

Online learning should never take over higher education entirely. Socialization, dressing for the occasion, personal interaction with peers and professors, learning to show up on time, stay awake, not have your face in Facebook — all of these are important to later life and work.

…Brown succeeded in his goal to create an entire online community college that is overseen by the governing board in charge of California’s 114 community colleges with campuses you could find on a map. Bowing to simple reality, the Academic Senate for the community colleges has dropped its official opposition to the plan that will provide training for medical coding workers and other IT professions. Read More > in the Orange County Register

‘Calexit’ leaders are back with a new plan to set aside land for Native Americans – The activists behind the “Calexit” proposal to cleave California are scrapping their old plans in favor a new secessionist proposal, one that would create what organizers call an “autonomous native nation” within a new independent state.

The California secretary of State cleared the group Yes California in April to begin collecting signatures from voters to place on the 2021 ballot the question of whether California should secede from the United States.

But with the group’s Oct. 17 deadline to deliver signatures from 365,880 registered voters fast approaching, organizers are moving away from that effort and redirecting resources to the new proposal, said Marcus Ruiz Evans, president of Yes California.

The new plan would combine secession with the creation of the “autonomous native nation” within that newly independent state of California, Evans said. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

California blazes tax budgets, firefighters: ‘Fatigue is starting to set in’ – California’s firefighters are stretched as thin as they have ever been, state officials said Tuesday, with no indication that the wave of fires scorching the Golden State will ease in the coming months.

It used to be that the fire season picked up at the end of August and ran through October. That changed with the state’s five-year drought, and this year’s outbreak in July has officials worried about firefighter fatigue.

It was an unprecedented month for fires, both in the number of acres burned and the cost of fielding crews to douse the flames.

The state spent $125 million in July fighting wildfires. That was more than one-fourth of what was budgeted for the entire fiscal year, which began July 1 and won’t end until June 30, 2019. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Big water moves mark Brown’s final months – Nearly six decades ago, shortly after becoming governor, Pat Brown persuaded the Legislature and voters to approve one of the nation’s largest public works projects, the State Water Plan.

New reservoirs in Northern California, including the nation’s highest dam at Oroville on the Feather River, would capture runoff from snowfall in the Sierra, and a massive aqueduct would carry water southward to San Joaquin Valley farms and fast-growing Southern California cities.

As a gesture to what was then a nascent environmental movement, the Water Plan included a “peripheral canal” to carry water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and thus, it was said, protect its fish and other wildlife.

However, the canal was never built, and the California Aqueduct, named for Pat Brown, continued to pump water from the Delta itself, which, as feared, degraded the estuary’s habitat.

Two decades after the Water Plan was approved, Pat’s son, Jerry, became governor and muscled authorization for the canal through the Legislature, only to see an odd-bedfellows alliance of San Joaquin Valley farmers and environmental groups block it via a 1982 referendum.

Three-plus decades later, a new version of the peripheral canal – twin tunnels to carry water beneath the Delta – emerged. Then Jerry Brown re-emerged for a second governorship and adopted the tunnels, later dubbed WaterFix, as his own.

Brown now only has a few months before relinquishing the office again, and he is trying, almost desperately, to move the project to the point of certainty and may succeed. Read More > at CALmatters

“Nanette” and why a new wave of comedians don’t want to be funny – …The trend that Wolf critiques been building for a while. In 2015, Megan Garber argued in The Atlantic that comedians were the new public intellectuals. More and more comedy came with moral messaging, she pointed out: “Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers—as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment.” Whereas once philosophers and political theorists held a public role of guiding national debates and parsing the nuances of current affairs, comedians were increasingly taking on that responsibility.

…Comedy is no less powerful a weapon today than in earlier decades, but what has changed is the environment and audiences that comedians address. Just as politics has become more partisan, so too has culture more broadly. Comedians today are predominantly on the left of the political divide and catering to an audience that shares the same views. Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, and Bill Maher are all explicitly left-wing, and embrace that ideology in their comedy…

…But though comedians’ political rants may go viral, they’re not necessarily that insightful. Basic, feel-good statements about the importance of respect and equality are emotionally evocative, and they can even be powerful. Progressive viewers may take solace in in the knowledge that John Oliver has the same opinion of Trump’s Supreme Court choice as they do: “For anyone who believes that the constitution protects things like reproductive and LGBT rights, this is bad,” he said earlier this month. But this is not exactly advancing the conversation or saying anything new.

…Humor is the intellectual twist that comedians bring to public affairs, just as philosophers and theorists bring their intellectual expertise. Without any such insight, comedians may take on the role of public intellectuals, but they won’t be doing a very good job. Read More > at Quartzy

EPA: Key Air Pollutants Drop 73 Percent Since 1970 – Americans who value clean air and robust economic growth do not need to make an either-or choice, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new annual report on air quality.

The EPA report released Tuesday finds that between 1970 and 2017, the combined emissions of six main kinds of pollutants decreased by 73 percent even as the U.S. economy grew substantially over the 47 years.

In a formal statement, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said:

Through federal and state implementation of the Clean Air Act and technological advances in the private sector, America has achieved one of the great public-private successes of our time—dramatically improving air quality and public health while simultaneously growing the nation’s population and economy.

This report details a remarkable achievement that should be recognized, celebrated, and replicated around the world. A 73 percent reduction in any other social ill, such as crime, disease, or drug addiction, would lead the evening news.

Congress originally passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, following up with major revisions in 1977 and 1990. Under the law, the EPA must rely upon scientific data to create “national ambient air quality standards” for pollutants. Read More > at The Daily Signal

Building Homes in Flood Zones: Why Does This Bad Idea Keep Happening? – …Many vulnerable areas of the country are seeing significant residential and commercial development despite the long-term flood risks. Governing analyzed the latest U.S. Census Bureau survey data using a methodology from the New York University Furman Center to estimate the population living in FEMA-designated 100-year floodplains. Nationally, the number of Americans living in these high-risk areas in 2016 climbed 14 percent compared to those living in the same neighborhoods in 2000. That’s actually faster than in areas outside of flood zones, where the population increased 13 percent. “The nation is spending billions every year to move people into flood-prone areas and keep people living in flood-prone areas,” says Rob Moore of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We’ve gotten exactly what we paid for.”

Nationally, much of the development that’s taken place in floodplains is a consequence of federal regulations that do little to discourage construction in flood-prone areas. Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers, sees it as a system of perverse incentives. Regardless of whether states take any steps to discourage risky developments, they still receive generous disaster relief assistance when devastation occurs. The federal government typically pays for about three-quarters of disaster assistance and over 90 percent after the most destructive storms. “They need to create some incentives for states and locals to do the right thing,” Larson says. “Right now, it’s going in the other direction.”

…Mounting evidence further suggests that the overall breadth and severity of flooding risks have been understated. One study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters earlier this year estimated that three times as many Americans lived in 100-year floodplains as those identified using FEMA maps, which guide local land use regulations and flood insurance premiums. The maps are widely considered to be inadequate. Most notably, they don’t account for future sea-level rise. Some communities’ maps were last updated over a decade ago. And while the standard 100-year floodplain designation is supposed to identify areas with a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year, many regions are experiencing far more frequent flooding. A study published in Risk Analysis found that in some places, more than half of the properties sustaining flood damage were actually located outside designated FEMA flood zones. Read More > at Governing

First tests are in, and 1 in 5 marijuana samples in California isn’t making grade – One in five batches of marijuana has failed laboratory testing since new state safety requirements kicked in July 1, according to data from the California Bureau of Cannabis Control.

Failures have been triggered by inaccurate labeling or contamination from pesticides, bacteria or processing chemicals.

Those testing requirements and results have left some retailers with severely limited inventory over the past few weeks, as cultivators and product manufacturers scramble to get compliant products to market.

There was a big gap at the beginning of the month with the supply of marijuana buds in particular, according to Nick Rinella, chief operating officer of Verdant Distribution, a Long Beach-based independent cannabis distributor.

The new testing requirements have also created backlogs at busy labs. Read More > in the Orange County Register

Young people don’t want construction jobs. That’s a problem for the housing market – The construction business is having trouble attracting young job seekers.

The share of workers in the sector who are 24 years old or younger has declined in 48 states since the last housing boom in 2005, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Issi Romem, chief economist at construction data firm BuildZoom. Nationally, the share of young construction workers declined nearly 30% from 2005 through 2016, according to Mr. Romem.

While there’s no single reason why younger folks are losing interest in a job that is generally well-paid and doesn’t require a college education, their indifference is exacerbating a labor shortage that has meant fewer homes being built and rising prices, possibly for years to come.

…The dearth of construction workers across America has been well documented, but accurately measuring it at the local level has been more challenging. Mr. Romem, the economist, used job listings data from Greenwich.HR to drill down to the state level.

He found that states hit hardest by the housing bust saw on average the greatest decrease in the share of young workers between 2005 and 2010. Delaware and Vermont lost the largest share of young workers, followed by states such as Maryland, California and Arizona.

States where cost of living are high, such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and California, have the worst overall shortages of construction workers, as measured by the number of online construction job postings that stayed up for 45 days or longer in 2017, according to Mr. Romem’s analysis. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

U.S. Cities in ‘Waiting Game’ as Recycling Industry Faces Major Correction – U.S. recycling companies—and the local governments they work with—are grappling with the new market reality that dawned this spring when China severely restricted imports of recycling material from abroad.

Beijing announced China’s new policy to restrict recycling imports—called “National Sword”—in July 2017. It took effect in March 2018. Then in May, Beijing announced it would accept no recycling material at all from the United States for a month.

The new Chinese policy both bans certain kinds of recycling imports and requires any materials the country does accept to come in much cleaner—a level of clean some have said is nearly impossible to meet.

How the market change might translate on the ground in the United States is only now coming into focus. Enormous amounts of material and significant local revenues are at stake.

…The report explained that beginning this year, however, much of the same material has become a great surplus that has sent market values spiraling downward. The few countries buying recycling—among them Brazil, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico and Vietnam—have dramatically dropped their prices. The price paid for a ton of recycling in the non-China Asian markets reportedly fell from $150 to $5 this year. Read More > at Route Fifty

Man legally changes gender to get cheaper car insurance: report – A Canadian man lied to a doctor to change the gender on his birth certificate — all to save some dough on car insurance, according to a report Monday.

“I’m a man, 100 percent. [But] legally, I’m a woman,” the Alberta resident, identified only as David, told The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “I have taken advantage of a loophole.”

David, 24, called an insurance company last year for a quote on a new Chevrolet Cruze he planned to buy — and learned he’d be charged $1,100 less per year if he were female, he told the outlet.

The worker told him he needed to be listed as female on official government documents before she could do that, David said. So he did some research and learned he could easily change his gender with a doctor’s note. Read More > in the New York Post

Off-Price Concepts Lead the Market in Performance – Last October, Moody’s Investors Service predicted that off-price retailers would remain the industry’s top performers over the next 12 to 18 months, while their full-priced department store counterparts continued to struggle. Nine months into that time frame, Moody’s senior analyst Christina Boni said, “I don’t think there’s anything that ultimately changes our view.”

Even as Nordstrom remains one of the healthier department store chains in the U.S., it’s achieving much of its growth from its off-price concepts. The Seattle-based retailer’s Nordstrom Rack brand now outnumbers its full-priced locations, and the company has plans to open 12 more Rack stores by the end of the year. The company also operates two Last Chance locations, with full-priced merchandise marked down by up to 70%.

And, while Macy’s has been closing stores, it has ramped up its off-price business. The company now has seven freestanding Macy’s Backstage locations, and plans to open Backstage sections in 100 Macy’s stores this year.

…That being said, there are signs that off-price growth won’t continue indefinitely. Retail Metrics data show that sales at off-price locations open for at least a year have been slowing.

The firm’s Ken Perkins told the Tribune that the off-price stores, many of which haven’t emphasized e-commerce, face greater competition from online merchants because of the Web’s pricing transparency.

There’s also a potential issue in obtaining quality merchandise. Designers such as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors have cut back on production to protect their brands and pricing. Read More > at Connect Retail

The Long, Knotty, World-Spanning Story of String – The void opened suddenly—a negative space where there had once been sand. Kathryn Bard stuck her hand straight through the gap and felt nothing but air. It just kept going. She considered her surroundings: a slope of windblown sand near a terrace of fossilized coral 700 meters inland from the modern-day Egyptian coast. The recess in front of her, Bard realized, was probably not a result of geological processes; it was too deep. This was something else, something deliberate. Perhaps a tomb. Or a gateway.

Throughout the winter of 2004, Bard, an archaeologist at Boston University, and a team of excavators kept digging through the sand, eventually revealing a cave intentionally carved from fossil coral. Over the next seven years, Bard and an international team of researchers unearthed seven more caves, part of an ancient harbor called Saww, known as Wadi Gawasis today. The ancient Egyptians probably used the caves as shelters and workshops between 2000 and 1750 BCE. Some of the caves contained limestone anchors, timber, steering oars, a bowl, and charred barley seeds. In Cave 5, the researchers discovered a set of particularly stunning artifacts. Not a fleet of intact ships, or protocompasses, or chests of gold and jewels; something much more ordinary, yet indispensable for any seafaring nation—for any civilization.

Bard remembers when she first saw them. She squeezed through a small opening and shuffled sideways through a long narrow passageway to the very back of the cave. There they were: more than 20 thick papyrus ropes, neatly coiled and, by all appearances, so exquisitely preserved it seemed a sailor might come along and scoop them up at any moment. “It was a scene frozen in time,” Bard says. “They hadn’t been disturbed for close to 4,000 years.”

In his 1956 book The Marlinspike Sailor, marine illustrator Hervey Garrett Smith wrote that rope is “probably the most remarkable product known to mankind.” On its own, a stray thread cannot accomplish much. But when several fibers are twisted into yarn, and yarn into strands, and strands into string or rope, a once feeble thing becomes both strong and flexible—a hybrid material of limitless possibility. A string can cut, choke, and trip; it can also link, bandage, and reel. String makes it possible to sew, to shoot an arrow, to strum a chord. It’s difficult to think of an aspect of human culture that is not laced through with some form of string or rope; it has helped us develop shelter, clothing, agriculture, weaponry, art, mathematics, and oral hygiene. Without string, our ancestors could not have domesticated horses and cattle or efficiently plowed the earth to grow crops. If not for rope, the great stone monuments of the world—Stonehenge, the Pyramids at Giza, the moai of Easter Island—would still be recumbent. In a fiberless world, the age of naval exploration would never have happened; early light bulbs would have lacked suitable filaments; the pendulum would never have inspired advances in physics and timekeeping; and there would be no Golden Gate Bridge, no tennis shoes, no Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

“Everybody knows about fire and the wheel, but string is one of the most powerful tools and really the most overlooked,” says Saskia Wolsak, an ethnobotanist at the University of British Columbia who recently began a PhD on the cultural history of string. “It’s relatively invisible until you start looking for it. Then you see it everywhere.” Read More > at Hakai Magazine

How Silicon Valley Became a Den of Spies – We tend to think of espionage in the United States as an East Coast phenomenon: shadowy foreign spies working out of embassies in Washington, or at missions to the United Nations in New York; dead drops in suburban Virginia woodlands, and surreptitious meetings on park benches in Manhattan’s gray dusk.

But foreign spies have been showing up uninvited to San Francisco and Silicon Valley for a very long time. According to former U.S. intelligence officials, that’s true today more than ever. In fact, they warn—especially because of increasing Russian and Chinese aggressiveness, and the local concentration of world-leading science and technology firms—there’s a full-on epidemic of espionage on the West Coast right now. And even more worrisome, many of its targets are unprepared to deal with the growing threat.

Unlike on the East Coast, foreign intel operations here aren’t as focused on the hunt for diplomatic secrets, political intelligence or war plans. The open, experimental, cosmopolitan work and business culture of Silicon Valley in particular has encouraged a newer, “softer,” “nontraditional” type of espionage, said former intelligence officials—efforts that mostly target trade secrets and technology. “It’s a very subtle form of intelligence collection that is more business connected and oriented,” one told me. But this economic espionage is also ubiquitous. Spies “are very much part of the everyday environment” here, said this person. Another former intelligence official told me that, at one point recently, a full 20 percent of all the FBI’s active counterintelligence-related intellectual property cases had originated in the Bay Area. (The FBI declined to comment for this story.)

Political espionage happens here, too. China, for example, is certainly out to steal U.S. technology secrets, noted former intelligence officials, but it also is heavily invested in traditional political intelligence gathering, influence and perception-management operations in California. Former intelligence officials told me that Chinese intelligence once recruited a staff member at a California office of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, and the source reported back to China about local politics. (A spokesperson for Feinstein said the office doesn’t comment on personnel matters or investigations, but noted that no Feinstein staffer in California has ever had a security clearance.) At the Aspen Security Forum last week, FBI director Chris Wray acknowledged the threat Chinese spying in particular poses, saying, “China from a counterintelligence perspective represents the broadest, most pervasive, most threatening challenge we face as a country.” Read More > in Politico

The IRS Has Rehired Hundreds of Fired Employees. Congress Should Step In. – According to the Treasury Department’s inspector general, the IRS did not provide officials responsible for hiring decisions with information about employment history, though that information is readily available. As a result, the IRS—an agency with nearly unrivaled access to citizens’ personal information and capacity to harass individual taxpayers—rehired:

  • A fired worker with several misdemeanor theft convictions and one count of felony possession of a forgery device.
  • 11 employees previously disciplined for unauthorized access to taxpayer accounts.
  • An employee who was absent without leave for 270 hours—the equivalent of 33 work days.
  • An employee fired for physically threatening co-workers.
  • An employee fired for lying about previous criminal convictions on employment forms.
  • 17 employees previously caught falsifying official documents.

Often, these employees do not have to wait long to get their old offices back. Two IRS employees fired for poor performance were rehired within six months.

Faced with these findings, the IRS was unapologetic. In a response letter to the Inspector General’s Office, the IRS’ chief human capital officer wrote that the IRS “determined its current process is more than adequate to mitigate any risks to American taxpayers, federal agencies, and its employees.” Read More > at The Daily Signal

Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet – Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parent’s dream and a student’s misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.

One straightforward way to trace the growing influence of English is in the way its vocabulary has infiltrated so many other languages. For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Görlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English – he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes – published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include “last-minute”, “fitness”, “group sex”, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.

…Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology. Read More > in The Guardian

U.S. Crude Oil Production And Exports Soar To Record Highs – The oil rhetoric coming out this past week has us all nauseated. I mean, which one is it guys: is oil going to hit $400, is oil going to hit $200, is oil going to hit $90, or is oil going to hit $45?

So, let’s hit a few things that we know.

This oil market is filled with a variety of bearish factors: rising U.S. production, rising Saudi production, an emerging U.S.-China trade war, a rising dollar, potential tapping of the U.S.

Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a Brazil oil industry that is stronger than being reported, and a reopening of Libyan ports – just to name a few. These stand against some bullish factors such as new sanctions on Iran and the latest flavor of the week scare: the International Maritime Organization’s move to cut sulfur in marine fuels starting in 2020. For reference, the global shipping fleet’s use of high sulfur fuel oil now accounts for ~4% of the world’s total oil demand, and don’t underestimate the ability of clean LNG to fill the void or the ability of refineries to adapt.

We also know that weekly U.S. crude production has averaged an all-time record 11 million b/d for the past two weeks, a 16% boom since early-January. We’ve passed Russia to become the largest crude oil producer in the world, yet at over 13 million b/d, we have been the “largest oil producer” for years now. Although a very large one, “crude” is only a subset of “oil.”

Indeed, the future shines even brighter for the U.S. oil industry: the International Energy Agency just reported: “the shale sector as a whole is on track to achieve, for the first time in its history, positive free cash flow in 2018.” Investments were up 60% last year and are expected to be up another 20-25% in 2018. Read More > at Forbes

Drivers are fed up with the DMV. So are California lawmakers. – Over the last year, spiking wait times have hit particularly hard at DMV offices in the Sacramento region. Waits have increased by 60 percent, compared to a 48 percent increase in the Bay Area and 46 percent statewide. Some California lawmakers are infuriated with the DMV’s handling of the issue, accusing upper management of fudging wait times, misleading the public and poorly preparing itself for increased customer traffic expected with the advent of the Real ID card, which requires a visit to the DMV.

When the Legislature reconvenes on Aug. 6, rising wait times will be at the top of the list of priorities. Some are calling for a comprehensive audit into the department’s management, and Democrats are considering a plan to provide more money.

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto acknowledged the department has had problems implementing Real ID, but defended the DMV’s management of the problem. “We’re definitely not just sitting here in our offices,” Shiomoto said. “We’re getting out to the regional offices….We have hard-working managers.”

She said there have been bureaucratic delays in getting spending authority to hire more workers. Some employees have had difficulty adapting to the department’s updated system for managing workflow. And customers sometimes misread the wait time explanations on the department website or fail to bring proper documents to the field offices, she said.

…In an Aug. 8 committee hearing, Patterson plans to request a formal audit into the DMV’s management. He said he had a private meeting last month with Shiomoto, the DMV’s director, and was dissatisfied with her responses to his questions.

The Legislature approved a budget trailer bill in June, allocating $16.6 million for the DMV to “alleviate field office wait time.” Patterson claims the wait times have only gotten worse since then and that the DMV has a history of poorly managing its money. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Study: ‘Medicare for all’ projected to cost $32.6 trillion – Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” plan would increase government health care spending by $32.6 trillion over 10 years, according to a study by a university-based libertarian policy center.

That’s trillion with a “T.”

The latest plan from the Vermont independent would require historic tax increases as government replaces what employers and consumers now pay for health care, according to the analysis being released Monday by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia. It would deliver significant savings on administration and drug costs, but increased demand for care would drive up spending, the analysis found.

The Mercatus analysis estimated the 10-year cost of “Medicare for all” from 2022 to 2031, after an initial phase-in. Its findings are similar to those of several independent studies of Sanders’ 2016 plan. Those studies found increases in federal spending over 10 years that ranged from $24.7 trillion to $34.7 trillion.

Kenneth Thorpe, a health policy professor at Emory University in Atlanta, authored one of those studies and says the Mercatus analysis reinforces them. Read More > at ABC news

The Hollowing-Out of the California Dream – Progressives praise California as the harbinger of the political future, the home of a new, enlightened, multicultural America. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill has identified California Senator Kamala Harris as the party leader on issues of immigration and race. Harris wants a moratorium on construction of new immigration-detention facilities in favor of the old “catch and release” policy for illegal aliens, and has urged a shutdown of the government rather than compromise on mass amnesty.

Its political leaders and a credulous national media present California as the “woke” state, creating an economically just, post-racial reality. Yet in terms of opportunity, California is evolving into something more like apartheid South Africa or the pre-civil rights South. California simply does not measure up in delivering educational attainment, income growth, homeownership, and social mobility for traditionally disadvantaged minorities. All this bodes ill for a state already three-fifths non-white and trending further in that direction in the years ahead. In the past decade, the state has added 1.8 million Latinos, who will account by 2060 for almost half the state’s population. The black population has plateaued, while the number of white Californians is down some 700,000 over the past decade.

…CityLab has described the Bay Area as “a region of segregated innovation.” The Giving Code, which reports on charitable trends among the ultra-rich, found that between 2006 and 2013, 93 percent of all private foundation-giving in Silicon Valley went to causes outside of Silicon Valley. Better to be a whale, or a distressed child in Africa or Central America, than a worker living in his car outside Google headquarters.

For generations, California’s racial minorities, like their Caucasian counterparts, embraced the notion of an American Dream that included owning a house. Unlike kids from wealthy families—primarily white—who can afford elite educations and can sometimes purchase houses with parental help, Latinos and blacks, usually without much in the way of family resources, are increasingly priced out of the market. In California, Hispanics and blacks face housing prices that are approximately twice the national average, relative to income. Unsurprisingly, African-American and Hispanic homeownership rates have dropped considerably more than those of Asians and whites—four times the rate in the rest of the country. California’s white homeownership rate remains above 62 percent, but just 42 percent of all Latino households, and only 33 percent of all black households, own their own homes. Read More > at City Journal

The Opioid Epidemic Is Turning Commercial Buildings Into Deadly Hazmat Zones, And No One Knows What To Do About It – Imagine this: a custodial crew walks into a hotel room or an office bathroom to find the victim of a drug overdose dead on the floor.

Hours later, a custodian passes out, and someone who used that hotel room or office bathroom is experiencing breathing problems. If they don’t get medical attention soon, they might die, too.

That scene is playing out more frequently, in places from New England to Canada to California — a threat few, if any, are prepared to face.

It might seem easy to turn a blind eye to the opioid epidemic, but North American commercial real estate is having to face the latest deadly phase of this public health crisis: fentanyl. Unlike heroin and other opioids, when fentanyl is used a certain way, the drug can linger in the air and make any area a potential death trap for innocent bystanders.

Bisnow has followed companies and business organizations over the last four months as they tackle the fatal ramifications of a narcotic once used to treat pain that has been retooled into one of North America’s deadliest illicit drugs. Bisnow interviewed more than two dozen law enforcement personnel, researchers, business owners and government officials and arrived at one conclusion: When it comes to fentanyl, everyone is at a loss on how to proceed with finding a solution. Read More > at Bisnow

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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