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.
Could Plastic Driver’s Licenses Become a of Past? – Millions of people may be able to show their smartphones rather than a plastic card to prove they’re legit to drive, vote or buy a beer in coming years.
Louisiana in July became the first state to make digital licenses available to anyone who wants them, and at least 14 other states either have developed a program, run a pilot or are studying the possibility, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
Seventy-seven percent of American adults already own a smartphone, including 94 percent of adults under 30, and many state motor vehicle officials think residents will appreciate the convenience of having their driver’s license available in an app.
Officials also like that the licenses are connected to a central database and can be updated easily with, for example, suspensions or revocations. Read More at Route Fifty
Living on the Edge – Just as coastal communities must learn to live with hurricanes, communities that edge up against forests are going to have to learn to live with fire.
It’s hard to look at the images of what used to be Paradise. On Nov. 8, California’s Camp Fire tore through the Sierra Nevada foothills town of 27,000 people with little advance warning. It destroyed homes, incinerated cars—many of which were abandoned on roads that had became gridlocked by fleeing residents—and left a death toll of 77 people and climbing. Nearly 1,000 remain unaccounted for. But if you look closely at photos and video of the aftermath, you’ll notice something surprising. The buildings are gone, but most of the trees are still standing—many with their leaves or needles intact.
The Camp Fire is generally referred to as a forest fire or, to use the term preferred by firefighting professionals, a wildfire. As the name suggests, wildfires are mostly natural phenomena—even when initially triggered by humans—moving through grasslands, scrub, and forest, consuming the biomass in their paths, especially litter and deadwood. Visiting the disaster area, President Donald Trump blamed poor forestry practices and suggested California’s forests should be managed more like Finland’s where they spend “a lot of time on raking and cleaning.”
But the photos tell a different story. Within Paradise itself, the main fuel feeding the fire wasn’t trees, nor the underbrush Trump suggested should have been raked up. It was buildings. The forest fire became an infrastructure fire. Fire researchers Faith Kearns and Max Moritz describe what can happen when a wildfire approaches a suburban neighborhood during the high-wind conditions common during the California fall: First, a “storm of burning embers” will shower the neighborhood, setting some structures on fire. “Under the worst circumstances, wind driven home-to-home fire spread then occurs, causing risky, fast-moving ‘urban conflagrations’ that can be almost impossible to stop and extremely dangerous to evacuate.” The town of Paradise didn’t just experience a fast-moving wildfire, its own layout, building designs, and city management turned that fire into something even scarier.
… And yet, like almost every disaster that kills large numbers of people and damages communities, the causes of the tragedy in Paradise are more complex than it first appears. The failure of the power line was the precipitating factor, but other factors came into play as well: zoning laws and living patterns, building codes and the types of construction materials used, possibly even the forestry management practices Trump inelegantly referenced. (Many residents of Finland got a chuckle out of Trump’s “raking and cleaning” comment, but Trump isn’t alone in calling for more aggressive management of California woodlands.)
A number of environmental, political, and economic trends converged in Butte County in just a few hours on Nov. 8 to spark this fire. But the tragedy was the result of many longer-term decisions, decades in the making. Read More > at Slate
Texas Is About to Create OPEC’s Worst Nightmare – The map lays out OPEC’s nightmare in graphic form.
An infestation of dots, thousands of them, represent oil wells in the Permian basin of West Texas and a slice of New Mexico. In less than a decade, U.S. companies have drilled 114,000. Many of them would turn a profit even with crude prices as low as $30 a barrel.
OPEC’s bad dream only deepens next year, when Permian producers expect to iron out distribution snags that will add three pipelines and as much as 2 million barrels of oil a day.
The U.S. energy surge presents OPEC with one of the biggest challenges of its 60-year history. If Saudi Arabia and its allies cut production when they gather Dec. 6 in Vienna, higher prices would allow shale to steal market share. But because the Saudis need higher crude prices to make money than U.S. producers, OPEC can’t afford to let prices fall. Read More > in Bloomberg
Can Lip Balm Make Your Chapped Lips Worse? – You need your lips to talk, take duck-face selfies and kiss your loved ones. That’s why dry, chapped lips can not only be itchy and painful, they can sometimes be downright embarrassing. But repeatedly applying lip balms and products may not help your case.
Lip balms provide only temporary comfort, and some types can make scaly lips even drier.
That’s because, in part, when the thin film of moisture from the lip balm evaporates, it dehydrates your lips even more. “It starts a vicious cycle,” Dr. Leah Jacob, an assistant professor of dermatology at Tulane University, told Live Science.
…Some lip balms contain ingredients that can be irritating or drying. Menthol, salicylic acid, cinnamic aldehyde and peppermint flavors are all culprits, Jacob said. “A lot of people don’t have any problems with these ingredients, but people with sensitive skin or allergies may be more sensitive to these on their lips, as well,” she said. Read More > at Live Science
‘Vagina Monologues’ Canceled At University Because ‘Not All Women Have Vaginas.’ Conservative Twitter Has Some Thoughts. – Eastern Michigan University (EMU) canned its production of “The Vagina Monologues” because of its lack of “diversity and inclusion.” Apparently, not all women have vaginas.
The school’s Women’s Resource Center (WRC) informed students via email that, following an evaluation of survey responses about the production, “The Vagina Monologues” was canceled.
“Survey respondents opposing the production consistently indicated they were concerned that the play centers on cisgender women, that the play’s version of feminism excludes some women, including trans women, and that overall, ‘The Vagina Monologue’ lacks diversity and inclusion,” reports Ann Arbor News. Read More > in The Daily Wire
Get Your Telescopes Ready: Neptune Is Coming – There’s no greater scientific thrill than discovering something brand new for the very first time. For millennia, humanity knew of only five planets in the sky: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The reason? They’re the only planets easily visible with the naked eye. As time went on, we realized that there was a sixth, as Earth was a planet as well, all of which orbited the Sun. In 1781, a serendipitous discovery by William Herschel heralded the 7th planet: Uranus. After perhaps 60 years of observation, anomalies in its orbit let to the proposal that a new, outer planet must exist to cause this odd gravitational behavior. Lo and behold, in 1846, within a single degree of the predicted location by theorist Urbain Le Verrier, the 8th and final planet, Neptune, was found.
As far as we know, that’s it for our Solar System, although many other interesting moons, dwarf planets, asteroids and Kuiper belt objects certainly exist in great abundance here. What’s perhaps remarkable is that Neptune, despite being 30 times as far away from the Sun as Earth is, is visible with even the most primitive telescope you can find, if you know where to look.
…On a few occasions every year, the planets, as viewed from Earth, make close passes to one another, known as conjunctions. Even more rarely, the planets will actually appear to overlap in the sky, where the nearer planet passes in front of the farther one, causing an occultation. Although Galileo observed Neptune and Jupiter very close to a chance occultation that occurred a week later, in early 1613, there have been no planet-planet occultations in 200 years. (The next one occurs in 2065, when Venus occults Jupiter.)
However, conjunctions are much more common, and a spectacularly close pass will occur on December 7th between Mars and Neptune. Separated by a mere 0.03 degrees, these two planets will be visible in the same field-of-view through practically any binoculars or telescope. Read More > at Forbes
The Decline and Fall of the Zuckerberg Empire – Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the first person in human history to draw inspiration from Augustus Caesar, the founder of the Roman Empire, but he’s one of a very few for whom the lessons of Augustus’s reign have a concrete urgency. Both men, after all, built international empires before the age of 33. “Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established 200 years of world peace,” Zuckerberg explained to a New Yorker reporter earlier this year. “What are the trade-offs in that?” Augustus, Zuckerberg explained, “had to do certain things” to ensure the stability of his empire. So too, apparently, does Facebook.
A 6,000-word report published in the New York Times last week disclosed in humiliating detail the lengths to which Facebook has gone to protect its dominance and attack its critics. As various interlocking crises concerning hate speech, misinformation, and data privacy widened, top executives ignored, and then kept secret, evidence that the platform had become a vector for misinformation campaigns by government-backed Russian trolls. The company mounted a shockingly aggressive lobbying and public-relations campaign, which included creating and circulating pro-Facebook blog posts that were functionally indistinguishable from the “coordinated inauthentic content” (that is, fake news) Facebook had pledged to eliminate from its platform. In one particularly galling example, the company hired a political consultancy that spread a conspiracy theory accusing George Soros of funding anti-Facebook protests. Zuckerberg, it seems, had taken the “really harsh approach” to establishing digital hegemony.
Augustus, at least, was a charismatic leader and confident ruler. No one at Facebook comes across in the Times piece as a similarly bold visionary. Not Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s top lobbyist, who encouraged the company to suppress and hold back findings of Russian influence campaigns for fear of alienating Republicans. Not Chuck Schumer, who confronted one of the Senate’s top Facebook critics and told him to figure out how to work with the company. (Schumer’s daughter works for Facebook.) Not Sheryl Sandberg, the adult-in-the-room COO who presided over the entire suspicious and hostile crisis response. And certainly not Zuckerberg, who seems to have been consistently absent — or plainly uninterested — during key meetings about Facebook’s handling of hate speech and misinformation. It’s hard to be a historical visionary hailed for brokering stability by making morally complex decisions if you can’t even be bothered to show up to the Morally Complex Decisions meetings. Read More > in the Intelligencer
Is California going the way of Germany when it comes to energy? – One place possesses the fourth-largest economy in the world. Another is home to the fifth-largest.
Both places have instituted ambitious energy and climate goals.
But one — Germany — is struggling to meet those targets and its citizens pay some of the highest electricity prices in the industrialized world. Is the German experience a cautionary tale for the other place — California?
It’s a question increasingly on the minds of some energy experts in the Golden State.
Keen to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transform its energy sector, German leaders adopted a vast program called Energiewende eight years ago and the country prides itself on setting the pace for change in the European Union.
In the U.S., California sees itself in the same light — leading the nation in a raft of metrics, such as the number of rooftop solar installations, and mandates, like the establishment of the country’s most aggressive Renewable Portfolio Standard.
But Germany has suffered a series of setbacks on its path to become cleaner and greener.
It set a long-term goal to generate 80 percent of all its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. In the interim, Germany planned to slash CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels.
But earlier this year, officials admitted the country will not hit the 2020 goal, saying it would reach 32 percent at best.
Greenhouse gas emissions in Germany have not decreased for the last nine years and emissions from the transportation sector have not fallen since 1990. In fact, the United States has reduced carbon emissions more than Germany, in both real and nominal terms. Read More > in The San Diego Union-Tribune
What FEMA Is Doing, and Not Doing, in Response to California’s Fires – The Federal Emergency Management Agency, often maligned for its response to prominent natural disasters, is quietly helping California respond to and recover from the wildfires across the state, including the deadliest in the state’s recorded history.
State officials said the blaze in Northern California, known as the Camp Fire, is 80 percent contained, leaving at least 81 dead, destroying nearly 20,000 structures and burning over 150,000 acres.
Here’s what FEMA is doing — and what it is not doing — to help and why it is frequently criticized for its response to natural disasters.
As with most natural disasters, FEMA is operating in a support role in California. The responsibility of first responder falls to state and local governments, with the agency coordinating federal aid.
For a state to use the federal resources at FEMA’s disposal, the governor must request, through the regional FEMA office, that the president formally invoke the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. The governor must also indicate the amount of federal resources needed to respond to the disaster.
Since President Trump issued a major disaster declaration this month for the state of California, the agency has approved more than $12.7 million in federal assistance for survivors affected by wildfires in three California counties, Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura, according to Elizabeth Litzow, a spokeswoman for FEMA.
The funding includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. FEMA has joined with California to set up a disaster recovery center, a one-stop shop where residents affected by the fires can file insurance claims, obtain grants for food and shelter, and register for other federal aid. The agency has so far received more than 16,000 applications for assistance. About 550 FEMA staff members are on the ground helping local officials, Ms. Litzow said. Read More > in The New York Times
New House: More Democrats from California than from 36 other states combined – Nearly 7 in 10 Democrats in the new House majority are from the East and West coasts, the latest sign of the party’s lack of connection with the heartland and South.
And even more dramatic, there will be more Democratic members from liberal California than from 36 other states combined, according to an analysis from the bipartisan Washington firm Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen, and Thomas.
“Democrats now dominate the coasts,” said the election analysis.
“155 of Democrats’ 233 Members Will Come from East or West Coast. More Dems from CA alone (45) in the 116th Congress than 36 other states combined (AK + AR + ID + MT + NE + NE + ND + SD + WV + WY + KS + OK + UT + AL + DE + DC + KY + LA + ME + MS + VT + HI + IN + MO + NH + NM + RI + TN + IA + SC + NV + NC + WI + NJ + ME).” Read More > in the Washington Examiner
Federal judge finds female genital mutilation law unconstitutional – In a major blow to the government, a federal judge in Detroit has declared the nation’s female genital mutilation law unconstitutional, thereby dismissing nearly all of the charges against two Michigan doctors and seven others accused of subjecting at least nine minor girls to genital cutting in the nation’s first FGM case.
The historic case involves minor girls from Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, including some who cried, screamed and bled during the procedure and one who was given Valium ground in liquid Tylenol to keep her calm, court records show.
U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman concluded that Congress did not have the authority to pass the 22-year-old federal law that criminalizes female genital mutilation in America. FGM is banned worldwide and has been outlawed in more than 50 countries, though the U.S. statute had never been tested before this case.
Friedman’s ruling stems from a request by Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and her co-defendants to dismiss the genital mutilation charges, claiming the law they are being prosecuted under is unconstitutional. Read More > in the Chicago Tribune
This Flu Season, Consider Whiskey over Modern Medicine – Forget everything you’ve ever known about modern medicine and dump all your fancy pills down the toilet; there’s a new flu-fighter in town and his name is whiskey. In a recent article by The Kitchnn, we’re introduced to Bourbon Cough Syrup for Grownups. Quite different than the other grown-up cough syrup we’re used to hearing about in modern music, this recipe calls for four simple ingredients: two ounces of bourbon, half a lemon, four ounces of water, and one tablespoon honey.
While anecdotally considered an effective painkiller, consider this 1941 article from TIME magazine in which whiskey is referred to as “one of the cheapest and best painkillers known to man.” In the piece, Whiskey for Pain, two doctors reported that only a few ounces of booze raised their “‘threshold’ of pain 45% for two hours.”
The Kitchnn nails it by giving out this simple little recipe, while noting that it’s really the honey that does the trick, as it acts as a natural chest decongestant. Too much whiskey can actually dehydrate you, which is bad. You don’t want that. Just something to consider, unless you love feeling awful all the time. Read More > at Thrillist
How Misguided Environmentalism Is To Blame For California’s Wildfires – The federal government owns 45.8 percent of California’s land, while 4 percent is owned by the state and 51 percent is privately owned. CAL FIRE manages both state and private land. Part of the reason it is so difficult to manage California forests is the bureaucratic milieu. The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of land, has 28,000 employees, and has an annual outlay of $7 billion a year, according to a 2017 Analytical Perspective from the budget of the U.S. government.
For decades, environmental protection schemes have usurped common sense. For example, most fire ecologists say that the surest way of preventing massive forest fires is to use prescribed burns. The California Environmental Protection Agency states that “prescribed burning is the intentional use of fire to reduce wildfire hazards, clear downed trees, control plant diseases, improve rangeland and wildlife habitats, and restore natural ecosystems.”
Prescribed burns keep forests healthy by burning up the underbrush that accumulates on the forest floor and by thinning trees. Yet for decades the Forest Service has suppressed most fires. According to a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection executive summary: “Land and fire management have in many cases increased fire hazard. In some shrub types, fire suppression appears to have shifted the fire regime away from more, smaller fires toward fewer, larger fire.”
Despite scientific evidence, the federal government continues spending more money on fire suppression than prescribed burns. The Forest Service has performed prescribed burns on an average of 2,187,64 2 acres a year for the past ten years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Read More > in The Federalist