Sunday Reading – 09/09/18


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.

Is This The Beginning Of The End For Facebook? – There is an alternative. On Tuesday, Tim Wu, an internet policy expert most famous for coining and championing “net neutrality, spoke with the Verge’s Nilay Patel about a radical new way to approach Facebook’s moderation problem: Break it up. Which sure sounds a lot like government regulation, but Wu’s argument places a lot of faith in the free market to correct itself. Broadly speaking, the tech industry is dominated by a handful of big companies — Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, Amazon — and potential competitors are merely trying to figure out ways to fit within these existing giants.

“Google and Facebook didn’t start that way. There’s a really profound difference in the kind of innovation you see when people are afraid of disturbing the mothership versus what you do when you sense a real opportunity. No one’s willing to fund [profound innovation] because you’re not going to displace Facebook or Google. So we go around the edges somewhere and try and find some cute little thing that doesn’t bother anybody too much and get bought out.”

Breaking up Facebook wouldn’t solve the inherent issues of trying to moderate a user base of 2 billion people, but it would encourage space for competitors to finally attempt to pull users away from the platform for greener pastures.

And maybe there’s no better time for trust busting the tech giants, especially Facebook. A study released today by the Pew Research Center found that 42% of Americans have taken extended breaks from Facebook and three quarters of US Facebook users have taken some action — by either leaving, adjusting privacy settings or deleting the mobile app — to reduce the impact that the website has in their lives.

Talk to anyone, and you’ll probably get this vague notion that everyone feels that Facebook is bad. But this recent Pew study is perhaps the first real confirmation of this shift in public perception. In a media narrative that at times seems everywhere but unknowable, it’s the first real sign of the beginning of the end. Read More > at Digg

The Next Recession Could Kill J.C. Penney – The U.S. economy is booming. Consumers are spending. Brian Cornell, CEO of retailer Target, called the current consumer environment “perhaps the strongest I’ve seen in my career.”

But you wouldn’t know it looking at J.C. Penney’s (NYSE:JCP) results. The department store reported abysmal second-quarter numbers, featuring a massive loss and extremely sluggish comparable sales growth. Its full-year guidance was slashed, and the stock unsurprisingly plunged.

If J.C. Penney is doing this poorly when times are good, it will take a miracle for the century-old retailer to survive when times are bad.

J.C. Penney posted a net loss of $101 million during the second quarter, more than double its loss in the prior-year period. The company was forced to mark down prices to clear out slow-moving seasonal inventory, knocking down gross margin.

But the company’s inventory problems go beyond seasonal merchandise. J.C. Penney took actions during the quarter to clear excessive inventory across many categories, beyond seasonal products or fashion misses, according to CFO Jeffrey Davis. The plan going forward is to buy less merchandise instead of simply filling up the stores by default. That probably should have already been the plan, given that the company’s sales have been depressed since 2012.

I’m starting to think that J.C. Penney doesn’t have a good handle on what its customers want to buy — or who its customers are, for that matter. Merchandising is a core competency for any retailer. If you can’t get merchandising right, that’s the ball game. Read More > at The Motley Fool

Looks Like Pharma Has Given Up on Alzheimer’s Cure – Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association. About 5.7 million Americans currently suffer from the disease, with around a half-million new cases diagnosed every year. Fourteen million Americans are projected to have Alzheimer’s by 2050.

That is an enormous toll taken on patients and families. But unfortunately, the outlook on finding a cure is equally grim, as STAT reporter Sharon Begley recently reported. After more than 20 years of failure to reverse or slow the disease by targeting amyloid plaques in the brain, Begley writes, there are now literally no experimental drugs in late-stage clinical trials to treat moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, the latter of which is characterized by extreme confusion requiring round-the-clock care patient care.

The last drug for Alzheimer’s was approved in 2003. So 15 years and we have had nothing.

I talked about the situation with patient advocates and neurologists and people in the lab desperately trying to come up with something to help people. One expert used a term that made me just sit up and practically gasp. He called it “therapeutic nihilism.” And by that he meant the disease has proved so challenging to scientists that people have almost given up.

In studies, drug after drug has failed. The drug companies have spent and lost billions of dollars trying to find something that works for Alzheimer’s patients. And they’re giving up.

We all hope they can stop Alzheimer’s at earlier stages. We all know somebody who has Alzheimer’s, and when they first get it if you could look at that person and say, wow, you don’t actually have a diagnosis yet, but you’re on the cusp, so here’s a drug that will help you from getting Alzheimer’s … .

But there are 5.5 million people and growing that already have the disease. So what we’re essentially saying to them is that it’s really unfortunate but we have nothing that will help you. And if there’s nothing in the pipeline for people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s, that means there will be nothing for anybody who is diagnosed in 2018, in 2019, and probably for the next 10 years. Read More > at KQED

Don’t Be Fooled: Weather Is Not Climate – I’m going to say something controversial. As a climate scientist, I predict a sustained, noticeable, and severe cooling trend across the Northern Hemisphere. The cold will begin soon, if it hasn’t already, and last until at least the end of the year. Some regions will freeze, it will snow, and climate deniers will gloat. The cause is a phenomenon that, while mysterious, is known to science. We call it “winter.”

I won’t be sad to see the end of this summer. It’s been brutal: heatwaves in London and Tokyo, scorching temperatures and melting permafrost in the Arctic, wildfires ravaging California and Greece. A city in Oman saw temperatures exceeding 108 degrees F. At night. I wonder if this could be the year the world finally wakes up to the reality of climate change. And then I remember last summer, when hurricanes flooded Houston and devastated Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. And the year before: the hottest ever recorded. Something is clearly happening here. I think, when we talk about it, we need to keep four things in mind.

Weather is not climate

As Marshall Shepherd brilliantly puts it, “weather is your mood, climate is your personality.” Weather is short-term and impossible to predict far in advance. I have no idea what the weather will be like in New York City on January 20, 2021. But I’m fairly confident it will be chilly, because New York winters are cold. Climate is just the average weather over a long time. A freakishly warm January day doesn’t make New York a winter vacation paradise. And a cold day, month, or even year doesn’t mean the climate’s not heating up.

Weather is affected by climate

Because of this, many people are nervous when talking about extreme weather events in a climate context. But a changing climate can “load the dice” on weather, making certain kinds of extreme event more likely. For example: the amount of water vapor that the atmosphere can hold increases with temperature. Heat it up by 1° F, and the moisture content increases by about 3 percent. The result? More intense rainstorms. Similarly, heat waves happen more often when the planet as a whole gets warmer.

Does one torrential storm or one bad heat wave prove climate change is happening? Of course not. Multiple long-term lines of evidence do that. But climate change will make heavy rainfall even heavier, and heatwaves hotter and more frequent. It’s reasonable to suspect that climate change plays a role in recent events.

It’s never just climate

Extreme events don’t matter on an empty planet, and climate change doesn’t happen in a pristine world. It’s our presence that turns weather events into disasters. And we’re complicated. Climate change will result in more wildfires, but the way we manage land is a huge contributor to their severity. Warming sea surface temperatures may fuel stronger hurricanes, but where we choose to live and build will determine the damage they cause. Read More > at Scientific America

California Dam Repairs Hit $1.1 Billion, Could Climb Higher – The cost of repairs and other improvements stemming from last year’s near-disaster at the nation’s tallest dam is $1.1 billion, a staggering total nearly $250 million over projections at the start of the year and that could go higher, California officials said Wednesday.

Recent additions to crews racing to meet a Nov. 1 deadline to fix spillways at Oroville Dam before winter rains arrive is the primary cause of the increase, the state Department of Water Resources said.

Both spillways at the dam crumbled and fell away during heavy rains in early 2017, prompting fears of a catastrophic dam collapse.

…Nonetheless, state water officials were left with a massive construction project to make the dam safe.

The department initially awarded a $275 million contract to a private contractor in April 2017 to make the repairs. Five months later, the cost estimate soared to $500 million and then to $870 million in January.

Unexpected excavation projects have also added to the latest cost increase involving the dam about 160 miles (258 kilometers) northeast of San Francisco, department spokeswoman Erin Mellon said.

The water agency plans to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for 75 percent of the repair costs after the project is finished. The rest would be borne by State Water Project customers.

FEMA could reject all or portions of reimbursement requests if it determines the crisis was caused by poor maintenance, agency spokeswoman Brandi Richard said. Read More > from the Associated Press

More than 23,000 Californians were registered to vote incorrectly by state DMV – Tens of thousands of Californians have been registered to vote incorrectly by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, including some who were assigned the wrong political party preference, officials said Wednesday.

Officials insist the errors were limited to 23,000 of the 1.4 million voter registration files sent to elections offices between late April, when California’s new automated “motor voter” system went into effect, and early August. Californians who were affected will soon receive notifications in the mail instructing them to check their voter registration status.

The errors, which were discovered more than a month ago, happened when DMV employees did not clear their computer screens between customer appointments. That caused some voter information from the previous appointment, such as language preference or a request to vote by mail, to be “inadvertently merged” into the file of the next customer, Shiomoto and Tong wrote. The incorrect registration form was then sent to state elections officials, who used it to update California’s voter registration database.

A small number of the mistakes — officials estimated around 1,600 — involved people who did not intend to register to vote. State officials said no people in the country illegally — who are eligible to get a special driver’s license in California — were mistakenly registered to vote. An unknown number of errors included voters whose political party preferences were changed without their consent. Officials did not provide additional details about the errors they uncovered during a monthlong investigation.

State officials said they found the errors by comparing DMV records, which had the correct information, with what was sent to elections officials. Californians also undoubtedly saw mistakes in their mailbox: Anyone who registers to vote is sent a card with their registration information. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

The NFL’s Best Players Are Getting Richer Than Ever – For years Khalil Mack has been one of the most productive pass rushers in the league. So this summer, he held out from the Oakland Raiders in search of a richer contract. And he got it.

But he didn’t get it from the team for which he became a superstar. The Raiders balked when the negotiations became too expensive. In exchange for two first-round draft picks, Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears, where he was rewarded with the richest contract ever for a defensive player in NFL history, worth a reported $141 million over six years. That broke a record that had lasted…less than a week.

…But the biggest theme heading into the season, which opens Thursday night, has been the gamut of historic deals. The NFL’s best players are getting richer than ever.

In a slew of deals in recent days, stars have broken the bank like never before. Right before the Bears forked over a fortune to Oakland for the right to pay Mack a fortune, the Los Angeles Rams had made defensive lineman Aaron Donald (briefly) the highest paid defensive player in the NFL at $135 million over six seasons. Prior to that, the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. inked a record deal for a wide receiver for $90 million spanning five years.

Then there was the deal that broke records and didn’t need a qualifier for position. Rather than entering contentious waters in negotiations in years to come, the Packers made quarterback Aaron Rodgers the priciest player in the game’s history.

Record contracts in the NFL aren’t exactly new. Rodgers’s deal, with a reported $100 million or so guaranteed and worth up to $174 million over six years when totaled with his current contract, broke a record set by Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan in May, which broke a record that had already been broken several times in the previous year. Prior to that, quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matt Stafford and Derek Carr had all been able to claim they were the top-paid player in the NFL by some reasonable measure. And the fact that Carr, whom nobody would call the best passer in the league, once topped that list says everything about how timing can be crucial. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Toyota is recalling 1 million hybrids at risk of catching fire – The automaker said Wednesday that the safety recall covers its Prius, Prius plug-in hybrid and C-HR SUV models and is intended to repair a problem with their electrical systems, which in some cases can cause fires.

More than half of the affected vehicles are in Japan, while just under 200,000 are in the United States. The rest were sold in Europe and other markets. US drivers will start receiving recall notices by mail this month.

Toyota (TM) said the problem involved wire harnesses that connect to the cars’ power control units. These can wear away over time, generating heat. Read More > at CNN Money

Bernie Sanders Introduces a New Bill in His Latest Hit Against Amazon – The fight between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I’Vt.) and Amazon has escalated with a new piece of legislation.

Previously, Sanders accused Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos of contributing to the “gap between the very rich and everyone else,” since he’s worth $155 billion while a number of Amazon employees live on taxpayer-funded welfare programs. Because of this, Sanders argues, Bezos is being subsidized by taxpayers.

Today Sanders introduced the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, otherwise known as the Stop BEZOS Act. The legislation would require companies with more than 500 employees to fully pay for the government benefits received by any of its workers. Sanders said at a press conference that “the taxpayers of this country would no longer be subsidizing the wealthiest people in this country who are paying their workers inadequate wages.”

In a tweet about the bill, Sanders stressed that he still thinks the government “has a moral responsibility to provide for the vulnerable. But taxpayers should not have to expend huge sums of money subsidizing profitable corporations owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country and the world.”

Amazon has not yet responded to the bill, but last week it issued a press release calling Sanders’ criticisms “misleading and inaccurate.” The company argued that its average hourly wage is $15 an hour plus overtime, paid family leave and other flexible leave options, and “a comprehensive benefit package including health insurance, disability insurance, retirement savings plans, and company stock.” The company also said that the figures Sanders used included people who worked Amazon for a short time and those who chose to work part-time. Read More > at Reason

Oakland Planning Lawsuit Against Raiders, NFL Over Move to Las Vegas – Oakland Coliseum officials say that a potential lawsuit by the city against the Raiders and the NFL could cause the team to leave after this upcoming season, according to Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Tuesday, Oakland Councilman Noel Gallo told the Chronicle that the multimillion-dollar antitrust lawsuit against the Raiders and the NFL over the team’s impending move to Las Vegas that the City Council authorized is expected to be filed and announced before the Raiders open their 2018 season at home against the Rams Monday, Sept. 10.

Outside attorneys are handling the up-front costs of the lawsuit in exchange for a portion of whatever the city can collect in damages from the Raiders and the league. The city attorney’s office is preparing to file the suit and is waiting for contract language sign-offs from the outside firms that will handle the litigation, according to the Chronicle. Gallo said Oakland could potentially win $500 million in the lawsuit. Read More > in Sports Illustrated

Why Haven’t We Cured The Common Cold Yet? – Polio, smallpox, hepatitis A and B are all serious viruses humanity learned to subdue with effective solutions. Even the flu, which can shift and mutate each year, has a vaccine. And yet, there’s no remedy for the lowly cold.

That’s not for lack of trying, though. The hunt for a cure for the common cold began in the 1950s, shortly after scientists discovered the primary group of pathogens—known as rhinoviruses—behind the sniffles. Together it accounts for up to 75 percent of colds in adults. But scientists quickly ran into an issue that still stymies researchers today, says Peter Barlow, an immunologist at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland who is working on a cure for the cold. “The main challenge with rhinovirus is the number of circulating strains,” he says.

There’s at least 160 different strains, or serotypes, of rhinovirus, Barlow says. That means cracking the cold isn’t so much looking for one solution to one problem as it is trying to design a master key to open hundreds of different locks at once. “It’s incredibly difficult to create a vaccine or drug that will target all of those 160 [strains],” Barlow says. Read More > at Scientific American

Social Media’s Opaque Response to Conservative-Bias Charges – The question of whether Silicon Valley is biased against conservatives was back in the news recently, along with the usual denials of ideological bias and apologies that any perceived bias was merely a human or algorithmic accident. The problem is that for all their assurances of impartiality and bias-free moderation, the social media platforms refuse to release any data that would prove or disprove their neutrality. They also make it nearly impossible to understand why they remove a particular piece of content.

Take last month’s actions by Facebook when it removed links to an article by Salena Zito. A veteran political reporter who covered the 2016 campaign with distinction for The Atlantic and New York Post, Zito wrote a piece explaining why Donald Trump voters have not changed their views despite the convictions of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. Zito posted a link to her story on her personal Facebook page at 7:55 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 23. Within two hours, she heard from friends who couldn’t access the post and whose own posts linking to her work had also been removed. In each case Facebook said it had removed the post either because it was considered “spam” or because it violated the company’s content standards.

As is typical in such cases, Zito tried exhaustively to contact Facebook to ask why it had censored her writing and to get it to correct its mistake, to no avail. Only when the ban itself provoked an outcry did the company restore the posts and offer its boilerplate statement: “Yesterday we fixed an issue affecting our automated systems that caused some posts to be incorrectly marked as spam. We have restored the posts that were affected and we apologize for the inconvenience.” When asked why some of the posts were allegedly flagged as violating its content standards instead of being listed as spam, the company declined to comment.

Unfortunately, Zito’s experience is merely par for the course in today’s online dictatorships, in which a handful of private companies now control what we are permitted to read and write, subject only to the whims of their founders. Even though social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are where we increasingly consume news, as private companies they are not subject to First Amendment protections of free speech and can legally ban anyone they dislike and delete any viewpoints they disagree with.

…Social media companies are not accountable to anyone but their shareholders, meaning they have little incentive to make it easy for users to complain when their posts are deleted or their accounts suspended. They typically decline to take any action or even respond in a timely fashion when they mistakenly delete a post or account. Ordinary users who run afoul of Facebook’s opaque rules have little hope of the company responding to their complaints and little recourse. It usually takes a public outcry and a growing media storm before Twitter and Facebook will reverse themselves and issue the predictable statement about human or machine “error” and apologize for the “inconvenience.”

Given the growing number of suspensions, deletions and other actions against leading conservative voices and the lack of recourse to reverse those actions, it is unsurprising that Silicon Valley has faced increasing concern over whether it exhibits ideological bias. The companies freely acknowledge that their staffs tend to be overwhelmingly liberal but argue that their written policies explicitly prohibit bias and thus there cannot be bias.

…In the end, the real story is not whether there is ideological bias. It is about the absolute power a handful of companies in California now wield over what Americans are allowed to say and see online — as well as the companies’ total lack of accountability. Read More > at Real Clear Politics

Who controls your data? – The average American, one study tell us, touches their phone 2,600 times per day. By the end of a given year, that’s nearly a million touches, rising to two million if you’re a power user.

Each one of those taps, swipes and pulls is a potential proxy for our most intimate behaviors. Our phones are not only tools that help us organize our day but also sophisticated monitoring devices that we voluntarily feed with interactions we think are private. The questions we ask Google, for instance, can be more honest than the ones we ask our loved ones — a “digital truth serum,” as ex-Googler and author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes in Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are.

Hoover up these data points and combine them with all of our other devices — smart TVs, fitness trackers, cookies that stalk us across the web — and there exists an ambient, ongoing accumulation of our habits to the tune of about 2.5 quintillion (that’s a million trillion) bytes of data per day.

…There is an elephant in the room to address here: Understanding data privacy is fundamentally boring, if not unintelligible, to a regular user.

Privacy policies are the backbone of understanding data rights. They’re also legalese-packed documents thousands of words long and describe an infrastructure of data movement that many companies can’t keep track of themselves. Reading every privacy policy you encounter in a year would take 76 full workdays, according to a 10-year-old study by Carnegie Mellon researchers (and consider how many more apps we encounter daily in 2018). To not read them is a basic, wholly understandable human aversion toward ennui.

This touches on what academics call the digital-privacy paradox. When polled, people say they care deeply about privacy, but in reality, they will give up their data or even the email addresses of their friends in exchange for something as trivial as a pizza. Read More > at Engadget

Innocent people with dirty-sounding last names face the “Scunthorpe problem” – Sitting through roll call in school is already bad enough if you have a last name like Weiner, Butts, Cummings, Medick, Dickman, or Suconcock. But if that sounds rough, just try getting past the first stage of an online registration process.

The internet-related woes of people with dirty-sounding last names are officially known as the Scunthorpe problem. Websites routinely use tools to prevent users from making accounts with fake or obscene words—but overzealous filters and poorly written code often flag innocent phrases that either happen to contain obscene words within them, or are legitimate use cases of such words. The name “Scunthorpe problem,” for example, refers to the issues that residents of the English town have encountered with AOL and Google profanity filters because of the profane word contained within the town’s name. Read More > at Quartz

Required Vote For Local Tax Increases In Legal Limbo – California’s booming economy is pouring many billions of additional tax dollars into state and local government treasuries.

Nevertheless, the locals – cities and school districts, especially – find themselves in an ever-tightening fiscal vise because mandatory payments into public employee pension funds are growing much faster than revenues.

That’s why dozens of them are asking their voters this year to approve new taxes, although they typically, for political reasons, don’t specify pensions as the reason.

Laws governing those tax elections, however, are in a state of legal flux.

The state constitution separates local tax proposals into those meant for general purposes and those for specially designated purposes. It allows simple majority voter approval of the former and requires two-thirds voter approval for the latter.

Last year, the state Supreme Court shook up those provisions, implying in a Southern California marijuana case that if special purpose tax measures are placed on the ballot by initiative petition, rather than by the local governments themselves, the two-thirds vote threshold might not apply. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Gas prices to drop this fall, here’s how much – Drivers could be in for a little reprieve this fall, as experts forecast gas prices could drop meaningfully from current levels.

According to AAA, the national average will decrease to $2.70 in the coming months, which is 14 cents less than the current average price and more than 25 cents less than the recorded high of the year – $2.97, set in May.

“Cheaper-to-produce gasoline and relatively stable crude oil prices in August, combined with an anticipated drop in consumer gasoline demand post-Labor Day, means consumers will see savings when they fill-up at the pump this fall,” AAA spokesperson Jeanette Casselano said in a statement.

The overall trend in 2018 has been a year-over-year increase in gasoline prices, where AAA notes the national average has been about 41 cents higher this year when compared to 2017. In some states, including California and Hawaii, average prices have been more than 50 cents higher when compared to last year. The prices that have seen the smallest increase include Nebraska (35 cents), Iowa and Louisiana (36 cents), and Missouri and South Dakota (37 cents). Read More > at Fox Business

8K TVs are coming, but ignore the hype – It’s time to throw out your 4K TV, 8K is here! Well, not quite. At IFA in Berlin this week, Samsung, LG and TCL showed off their upcoming 8K sets. It’s like a flashback to the early days of 4K in 2013 — all of a sudden the video format we’ve been hearing about for years is finally gearing up to reach consumers. Samsung is planning to actually sell its 8K QLED TV, LG gave us a glimpse at the world’s first 8K OLED TV. But is this actually a huge leap beyond 4K? That’s where things get complicated.

With 8K, it’s almost like we’re seeing history repeat itself. Sure, it has a ton more pixels than 4K, but you’ll have to sit very close to a 100-inch TV to truly perceive that difference. And it’s going to be a long while before you’ll actually have any native 8K video to watch. Samsung is trying to make up for that with AI upconversion in its new QLED, which will scale up lower quality video into 8K. But while that might lead to some image improvements, it won’t be anything dramatic, and it certainly won’t match up to something actually designed for that resolution.

Even if 8K TVs were affordable and readily available, it’ll still be years before there’s enough native content to warrant the upgrade. Netflix only started adding 4K shows in 2014, and it took a while for it to build up a decent library of content. On the production level, 8K will also introduce a whole new set of problems. Studios will have to buy new cameras, and invest in enough computing power and storage to handle those massive files. Read More > at Engadget

Why the Muslim world isn’t saying anything about China’s repression and ‘cultural cleansing’ of its downtrodden Muslim minority – China’s crackdown on its Uighur citizens, a mostly-Muslim ethnic minority group, has faced heavy international scrutiny in recent months.

In August the United Nations said it was “deeply concerned” by reports that China had forced as many as 1 million Uighurs into internment camps in Xinjiang, western China. In April, the US State Department said it had heard of Uighurs who had “disappeared” or were unexpectedly detained.

Meanwhile, Muslim countries have been deafeningly silent.

Many Muslim-majority countries aren’t speaking out because they don’t want to jeopardize their economic relationships in China, experts say.

Several states in Central Asia and the Middle East are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive project launched in 2013 linking 78 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania through a network of railroads, shipping lanes, and other infrastructure projects.

Many of these deals entail China giving hefty loans to economies with a bad credit rating, which countries such as Pakistan are already finding difficult to repay. And it appears that these economic partnerships are stopping these countries from speaking out about Xinjiang. Read More > at Business Insider

Who Wants to Buy Barnes & Noble? – Can things get worse for Barnes & Noble? In 2018, it comes across as a silly question. Decades removed from its heyday as the brutalizer of small bookshops—the inspiration for Tom Hanks’s soul-destroying monolith in You’ve Got Mail—the store is running on fumes. Its stock price sits at five dollars. Its high-profile attempts to compete with Amazon in e-commerce and e-books have been expensive failures. It has had four CEOs in the past five years, a period in which it has closed stores and laid off staff, including 1,800 in February.

But on Tuesday, Barnes & Noble hit a new low when its last CEO, Demos Parneros, sued the company for defamation and breach of contract. Parneros alleges that he was pushed out after a deal to sell the company to an unnamed buyer fell through, and that Barnes & Noble covered it up by bringing bogus charges of sexual harassment and bullying against him. Barnes & Noble fired back that Parneros had been “terminated for sexual harassment, bullying behavior, and other violations of company policies.” (It had previously declined to specify the former CEO’s alleged misdeeds in a statement announcing his departure on July 3.)

Parneros’s filing is apparently designed to generate a settlement and should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, its contents are damning. It portrays a company in dire straits being presided over by a longtime chairman, the 76-year-old Len Riggio, who spends his time berating subordinates. While Riggio has presented himself as the heart and soul of the company, the lawsuit depicts him as an albatross. It shows that the company is struggling in every conceivable aspect of its business, which means that finding a new CEO—let alone a buyer capable of turning the company around—will be exceedingly difficult. Read More > in The New Republic

San Francisco, rich and poor, turns to simple street solutions that underscore the city’s complexities – To the uninitiated, the bright-orange, Tic Tac-size specks scattered on the sidewalks, wedged into the openings of heating grates and piled in small mounds along curbs here are a bit of a mystery.

They are the sterile plastic caps to hypodermic needles, tossed aside by the scores of heroin addicts who dwell outside Twitter and Banana Republic and City Hall. The local government distributes them free to protect drug users from disease.

At the same time, the city has banned the use of another plastic item: the drinking straw. The law’s supporters say it will prevent a million straws a day from washing into the San Francisco Bay.

“Napkins, straws, and bags are available upon request,” reads a footnote on the menu of the Sentinel, a walk-up sandwich shop in the city’s thriving financial district. “You can still get needles for free though. Welcome to SF.”

The streets of San Francisco — hilly, curvy, cinematic and, in recent years, a bleak showcase for the mentally ill and economically displaced — have long reflected this eccentric city’s governing priorities and many civic contradictions.

…The shifts have made the city, once a cradle of counterculture and now a mecca of the mainstream economy, among the most exciting and puzzling in the nation.

It is a magnet for young tech talent and a public venue for despair, a place with the lowest percentage of children of any major American city that can spend weeks debating the pricing for permits to test on-street delivery robots. It spends more than a quarter-billion dollars a year on issues surrounding its 7,500 homeless — and has the third most billionaires of any city in the world. Read More > in The Washington Post

Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years – This fall, 19.9 million college students will be traveling to college campuses across the United States to start a new school year. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades.

In his recent book, “The Innovative University,” Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business.

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody’s Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double. Read More > at CNBC

America is moving toward an oligarchical socialism – Where do we go after Trump? This question becomes more pertinent as the soap opera administration seeks its own dramatic demise. Yet before they can seize power from the president and his now subservient party, the Democrats need to agree on what will replace Trumpism.

Conventional wisdom implies an endless battle between pragmatic, corporate Clintonites on one side, and Democratic socialists of the Bernie brand. Yet this conflict could resolve itself in a new, innovative approach that could be best described as oligarchal socialism.

Oligarchal socialism allows for the current, ever-growing concentration of wealth and power in a few hands — notably tech and financial moguls — while seeking ways to ameliorate the reality of growing poverty, slowing social mobility and indebtedness. This will be achieved not by breaking up or targeting the oligarchs, which they would fight to the bitter end, but through the massive increase in state taxpayer support.

Historically, liberals advocated helping the middle class achieve greater independence, notably by owning houses and starting companies. But the tech oligarchy — the people who run the five most capitalized firms on Wall Street — have a far less egalitarian vision. Greg Fehrenstein, who interviewed 147 digital company founders, says most believe that “an increasingly greater share of economic wealth will be generated by a smaller slice of very talented or original people. Everyone else will increasingly subsist on some combination of part-time entrepreneurial ’gig work‘ and government aid.”

Numerous oligarchs — Mark Zuckerberg, Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, Elon Musk and Sam Altman, founder of the Y Combinator — have embraced this vision including a “guaranteed wage,” usually $500 or a $1,000 monthly. Our new economic overlords are not typical anti-tax billionaires in the traditional mode; they see government spending as a means of keeping the populist pitchforks away. This may be the only politically sustainable way to expand “the gig economy,” which grew to 7 million workers this year, 26 percent above the year before.

Handouts, including housing subsidies, could guarantee for the next generation a future not of owned houses, but rented small, modest apartments. Unable to grow into property-owning adults, they will subsist while playing with their phones, video games and virtual reality in what Google calls “immersive computing.” Read More > at the OC Register

‘It’s the New Form of Affordable Housing’: More People Are Living in Their Cars – There’s been an explosion in many major cities — from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore., to San Francisco — of “vehicular homelessness.” The issue is of particular concern on the West Coast, where rents have skyrocketed and the number of homeless people who don’t live in shelters is up 20,000 from 2015 to 2017.

“It’s the new form of affordable housing,” says Sara Rankin, professor at Seattle University School of Law, who specializes in homeless rights advocacy.

The rise of people sleeping in their cars presents unique challenges for cities and homeless advocates.

Some cities have launched so-called safe parking programs to help this population. Meanwhile, other cities are exacerbating this population’s problems by criminalizing their current way of life.

While not a long-term solution, many homeless advocates are urging cities to start more seriously thinking about safe parking programs — in which certain lots are designated for people living out of their cars — as vehicular homelessness continues to climb. Read More > at Governing

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About Kevin

Mayor - City of Oakley, Data Center Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit and Transplan
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