Sunday Reading- 12/02/18


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.

Oil’s plunge propels gas prices toward lowest of this year – Americans are paying less to fill up their SUVs for a seventh week in a row as the price of gas slides toward yearly lows.

“Many states will see prices continue to decline,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy, which helps drivers find cheap fuel. Gas prices generally track the price of oil, but lag one to three weeks, said DeHaan of the impact on consumers from fluctuations in crude.

Since hitting a four-year high near $77 a barrel at the beginning of last month, oil prices have plummeted about 30 percent, briefly sinking below $50 a barrel Thursday. The oil market has been in a slump amid rising stockpiles of U.S. crude and thoughts of slowing global growth and softer demand for the commodity.

The national average for a gallon of gas on Thursday came to $2.51, according to AAA. Drivers in Texas and Missouri were paying just above two bucks a gallon, and motorists paid more than $3.00 a gallon in fives states — California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Alaska, according to AAA.

The national average is likely to briefly dip into the $2.30s, but could range from $2.35 to $2.55 a gallon for the rest of the year, a scenario that could change with next week’s OPEC gathering, DeHaan said. Read More > at CBS News

With Bauman out, state Democrats wrestle with another issue: What gave rise to all the bad behavior? – Days before the November election in which California Democrats expanded their dominion over the state with sweeping victories in almost every electoral battleground, a handful of people inside the party’s inner circle knew of a problem that would ultimately topple their leader.

Serious allegations had been quietly lodged about the behavior of Eric Bauman, the state party’s chairman. Shortly after the accusations were revealed, Bauman apologized. And on Thursday, less than 24 hours after a Times investigation found that multiple party members accused the Los Angeles Democrat of making crude sexual comments and engaging in unwanted touching or physical intimidation in professional settings, he announced his resignation.

…Elected officials and activists alike said the Democratic Party must take a more inclusive approach to leadership, with more roles for its most junior members. And few denied the accusations against Bauman had cast a bright and uncomfortable light on the party’s inner workings.

…Over the last year, as the #MeToo movement has swept through Hollywood studio lots and legislative chambers, Democrats have led the charge for strong laws protecting the rights of sexual harassment victims. The state party had updated its own rules too and conducted sexual harassment prevention training at its Sacramento headquarters this summer.

Assemblywoman Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), who led this year’s effort in the Legislature to revise sexual harassment procedures and policies, urged the party to implement new training for employees and top leaders as well as clear instructions for when to report allegations of improper behavior.

Kounalakis said an unprofessional workplace culture made her uncomfortable as a California Democratic Party staff member in 1992. She said she’s surprised it hasn’t changed much. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Better bridges – Infrastructure in this country is crumbling and will continue to get worse at an alarming rate unless government leaders immediately take action.

Bridge infrastructure is particularly troubling. According to the most recent report from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), 54,259 of the nation’s 612,677 bridges are classified as “structurally deficient. If placed end-to-end, these bridges would span the distance from New York City to Miami. Data shows cars, trucks and school buses cross these compromised structures 175 million times every day. While many of these bridges aren’t imminently unsafe, they are in need of immediate attention.

Brittney Kohler, program director for infrastructure at the National League of Cities, points out the problem is mostly at a local level. “When you look the national bridge inventory… when we talk about the structurally deficient bridges in the country – the bad bridges, the bridges that engineers have to go check and monitor to make sure nothing’s going to happen to the public – that list of bridges shows most of the trouble areas are off the national highway system.”

…Herrmann explains most of America’s bridges were built during the 50’s and 60’s during the interstate highway system’s massive expansion, meaning they are all on the same timeline for becoming obsolete. “The average age of bridges is 43 years old, and 39 percent of them are over 50 years old,” he says. “If you go back to when those bridges were designed, they were probably designed for a 50-year life.” Read More > at American City & County

Victoria’s Secret Created an Impossible Ideal of Sexy. Now It’s Struggling to Stay Relevant – …For a long time, playing on these two fantasies–being as alluring as the brand’s Angels and living a life of European luxury–resulted in fabulous success. Victoria’s Secret counts 1,170 stores in the U.S. and Canada with an additional 460 in more than 70 countries around the world. It’s the only retailer with its own fashion show on network television. During the height of its popularity, in the fiscal year that ended in January 2016, Victoria’s Secret recorded more than $7.7 billion in sales, accounting for more than half of all revenue at its parent company L Brands, which also owns Bath & Body Works, among other brands. Just a few weeks earlier, L Brands’ stock reached its all-time high of more than $100 a share.

Since then, however, Victoria’s Secret has struggled. Sales have fallen. L Brands’ stock has plunged below $40. On Nov. 19, the company announced it was cutting its annual dividend in half. And CEO Jan Singer recently stepped down after only two years on the job.

Perhaps the most important factor in this decline is the reality that the company’s one-note definition of sexy is no longer shared by many American women. Of course, plenty are still interested in push-up bras and would love to have the abs of an Angel, and L Brands is hardly the only brick-and-mortar retailer to face headwinds in the era of online shopping. But as brands like Aerie, ThirdLove and Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty move into the market, capitalizing on the sex appeal of all body types, Victoria’s Secret finds itself an odd fit for lingerie’s new feminist era. (Victoria’s Secret declined to comment on a detailed list of questions from TIME.)

In an Instagram post in October, the model Robyn Lawley called for a boycott of the brand’s fashion show until Victoria’s Secret “commits to representing ALL women on stage.” Meanwhile, Rihanna has drawn an explicit contrast between their brand and hers: “I’m not built like a Victoria’s Secret girl,” she told Vogue in a profile touting the launch of Savage X Fenty. Read More > at TIME

Strange waves rippled around the world, and nobody knows why – On the morning of November 11, just before 9:30 UT, a mysterious rumble rolled around the world.

The seismic waves began roughly 15 miles off the shores of Mayotte, a French island sandwiched between Africa and the northern tip of Madagascar. The waves buzzed across Africa, ringing sensors in Zambia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. They traversed vast oceans, humming across Chile, New Zealand, Canada, and even Hawaii nearly 11,000 miles away.

These waves didn’t just zip by; they rang for more than 20 minutes. And yet, it seems, no human felt them.

Only one person noticed the odd signal on the U.S. Geological Survey’s real-time seismogram displays. An earthquake enthusiast who uses the handle @matarikipax saw the curious zigzags and posted images of them to Twitter. That small action kicked off another ripple of sorts, as researchers around the world attempted to suss out the source of the waves. Was it a meteor strike? A submarine volcano eruption? An ancient sea monster rising from the deep?

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it,” says Göran Ekström, a seismologist at Columbia University who specializes in unusual earthquakes.

“It doesn’t mean that, in the end, the cause of them is that exotic,” he notes. Yet many features of the waves are remarkably weird—from their surprisingly monotone, low-frequency “ring” to their global spread. And researchers are still chasing down the geologic conundrum. Read More > at National Geographic

Couple forced to prove New Mexico is a state while applying for marriage license – Gavin Clarkson, a recent candidate for New Mexico secretary of state, experienced a one-of-our-50-states-is-missing moment earlier this month when applying for a marriage license in the nation’s capital.

Clarkson, who lives in Las Cruces, and his then-fiancée visited the District of Columbia Courts Marriage Bureau on Nov. 20 to apply for a marriage license.

But, once there, the couple encountered a small problem, Clarkson said. The clerk wouldn’t accept Clarkson’s driver’s license – from New Mexico – as proof of his identity. Rather, the clerk, who mistakenly believed Clarkson was a foreign citizen, said he would have to provide an international passport to get the marriage license.

After Clarkson objected, the clerk went to check with a supervisor, who confirmed Clarkson would need a passport.

“You know you are from flyover country when you are applying for a marriage license, give them your New Mexico driver’s license, and they come back and say: ‘My supervisor says we cannot accept international driver’s licenses. Do you have a New Mexico passport?'” Clarkson posted on Facebook recently.

Speaking with the Sun-News about the incident, Clarkson said the clerk went back to check a second time about whether she could accept a New Mexico driver’s license as proof of identify. After that, the staff finally concluded New Mexico was in fact a U.S. state and accepted his driver’s license along with the application. Read More > at 10 News

When Governments Restrict Guns, People Make Their Own By the Millions – Around the world, governments attempt to limit subjects’ legal access to weapons—ostensibly to keep the peace, but in reality often done to minimize challenges to government power. And, around the world, those subjects defy such restrictions, often going so far as to manufacture weapons outside official channels. In fact, DIY firearms ranging in sophistication from muskets to grenade launchers exist in the millions across the planet, according to a new report that should (but won’t) finally demonstrate to government officials the futility of efforts to disarm people who insist on being free.

I’ve written before that defiance of restrictive gun laws is far more common than compliance with them, and not just in the United States but in countries as far apart as Australia and Pakistan. People refuse to register their firearms, they modify them, they smuggle them, and they make them at home and in illegal workshops.

…That illicit production is so common shouldn’t be a surprise. The authors point out that production techniques for firearms continue to be based on 19th-century technology. In an era when home-based hobbyists have access to equipment that would make industrial age entrepreneurs drool, that means there’s little barrier to making what can’t be legally purchased.

“Consequently,” the report notes, “individuals with the desire to undertake fairly straightforward research and acquire basic tools and equipment can manufacture viable homemade small arms.”

While many headlines have been devoted in recent years to 3D printing and CNC machinery, which ease the task of manufacturing goods including firearms, these high-tech approaches haven’t been necessary to kneecap efforts by governments to disarm their subjects. They do, however, lower the barrier to entry for those who would make their own guns. Read More > at Reason

Legislators spared from living in their districts – Equity and logic would seem to dictate that state legislators should live in the districts they represent and thereby share their constituents’ daily experiences.

State law has said as much for many decades, and from time to time, individual lawmakers have been caught registering to vote in their districts but actually living somewhere else, either by their opponents or reporters.

…Last August, in the dying moments of the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature approved a bill that would make future prosecutions of politicians for misstating their true places of residence almost impossible.

Building on a 1984 law with the same goal, the new legislation, Senate Bill 1250, basically said that wherever a politician registered to vote would be conclusively deemed to be his or her domicile. It specified a long list of factors, such as claiming a homeowner’s tax exemption for another home, that could not be cited to prove otherwise.

…The Legislature could have gone the other way, eliminating any ambiguity about residence in the previous law by making the requirement to live in one’s district absolute.

Instead, Senate Bill 1250 is a virtual invitation for politicians to claim bogus residences as their official domiciles – effectively gaining the same dubious privilege that McClintock and other members of Congress enjoy. Read More > at CALmatters

Suicide, at 50-year peak, pushes down US life expectancy – Suicides and drug overdoses pushed up U.S. deaths last year, and drove a continuing decline in how long Americans are expected to live.

Overall, there were more than 2.8 million U.S. deaths in 2017, or nearly 70,000 more than the previous year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. It was the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago.

The increase partly reflects the nation’s growing and aging population. But it’s deaths in younger age groups — particularly middle-aged people — that have had the largest impact on calculations of life expectancy, experts said.

The suicide death rate last year was the highest it’s been in at least 50 years, according to U.S. government records. There were more than 47,000 suicides, up from a little under 45,000 the year before. Read More > from AP

The Next Data Mine Is Your Bedroom – It’s a familiar feeling: Type something into Google’s search bar, and then start seeing ads for it everywhere. Sometimes you don’t even need to search—Google’s already triangulated your desires based on your emails, your demographics, your location. Now that familiarity stands to get a lot more intimate. With a fascinating pair of new patents for smart-home technology, Google is hoping users will open their home to its trademark eavesdropping.

In the first patent, Google imagines devices that would scan and analyze the surroundings of your home, then offer you content based on what they detect. According to the patent, the smart cameras in such a device could, for example, recognize Will Smith’s face on a T-shirt on the floor of a user’s closet. After matching this analysis against your browser history, the device might then say aloud, “You seem to like Will Smith. His new movie is playing in a theater near you.”

It doesn’t stop at Will Smith movies. The patent imagines that smart-home devices would make all types of inferences about users, sorting them into categories based on what the devices see in their most personal spaces. Using object recognition, they could calculate “fashion taste” by scanning your clothing, and even estimate your income based on any “expensive mechanical and/or electronic devices” they detect. Audio signatures, too, could be used to not only identify users, but to determine gender and age based on the timbre of their voice. The smart home would recommend what to watch and where to shop, all based on how it sorts users into categories of taste, income, and interest. Read More > in The Atlantic

Is Your Boss Secretly Reading Your Emails? – Email monitoring at work is not only a common practice but, generally speaking, a legal one. Consider yourself warned.

For better or worse, email is a part of life at most jobs, and many employees use work email accounts to communicate not only with business associates and colleagues but with friends and family members as well. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing the latter, just like there’s technically nothing wrong with using email as a forum in which to vent your frustrations about boring job-related projects, unreasonable deadlines, or insufferable coworkers. But what happens when a seemingly harmless tirade on your part or a casual reference to a wild and crazy night out with friends results in your job being compromised?

Believe it or not, it can happen — especially if your company has a policy that allows it to read employees’ emails. And if you’re not careful, the things you say over
email could come back to bite you.

Though email monitoring might seem creepy, the reality is that your company has every right to do it, provided you’re given ample warning that your electronic communications are subject to review. Generally, companies will spell out their rights to read your work emails in employee handbooks or provide some other type of official notice that makes workers aware of such policies. But even if your company doesn’t put that information in writing, it might still have the right to monitor information submitted through a company account or server. Read More > at The Motley Fool

Public Money, Private Records: Parts Of The Amazon Deal Concern Critics – The devil is in the details, and ever since Amazon cheerfully announced on Tuesday that it is bringing half of HQ2 to Northern Virginia, skeptics and critics have found what they say are a few devils buried inside the agreement signed between the Commonwealth and the Seattle-based internet retailer. One deals with a usual point of contention — the public money that’s offered up to private companies to locate their headquarters in a specific place. The second touches on how much information about the deals can be made public. And then there’s the helicopter pad.

As part of Amazon’s announcement that it was splitting HQ2 between Crystal City and Long Island City, it also disclosed what it was getting by way of financial incentives. In Virginia’s case, it’s $573 million — $550 million from the commonwealth in payments to Amazon for the expected 25,000 employees it hires (at an average salary of $150,000), and $23 million in grants from Arlington County if hotel stays tick up over the next 15 years.

But there’s more: the per-employee payments to Amazon could increase to $750 million if the company hires 37,850 people by as late as 2038. The deal also commits Virginia to spending up to $295 million on transportation upgrades, and Arlington County says it will spend up to $28 million from 2021 to 2030 on infrastructure improvements. Finally, Virginia is putting $250 million into a new Virginia Tech graduate campus in Potomac Yard and $125 million to help expand George Mason University’s Arlington campus.

All told, Virginia’s incentives and investments related to Amazon could total $1.4 billion.

…Another provision that quickly drew criticism deals with what information about the deal itself can be made public. The provision says that while “portions of certain materials, communications, data, and information” related to the deal between Amazon and Virginia are subject to disclosure under the Commonwealth’s Freedom of Information Act, Amazon is to be given a two-day window to “seek a protective order or other appropriate remedy” to fight the disclosure of certain documents.

While that provision isn’t new — a mid-2017 agreement between Arlington County and Nestlé has similar wording — and trade secrets and proprietary information is already excluded from public disclosure, open-government advocates worry that Amazon gains too much power under the deal. Read More > at WAMU

Government Works Better When Divided – The results of the U.S. mid-term elections were good news for not only the winners, but for most Americans. Yes, the federal government works better when divided, not unified. The 116th Congress—with the House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats and the Senate and White House under Republican command—may work better than the unified 115th Congress did.

…In making the case for a divided government, Niskanen played three cards. First, the likelihood of entering a major war is much lower with a divided than a unified government. In the 20th century, all major wars have been entered into during periods when the President and Congress were of the same party. Interestingly, the Democrats have been the war party. Indeed, all the major U.S. wars lasting more than a few days, with the exception of the Iraq War, were undertaken when Democrats occupied both the White House and Congress.

Niskanen’s second card concerns major reforms. They have a better chance of being sustained when enacted with bipartisan support by divided governments. Remember Reagan’s revolutionary tax reforms of 1981 and 1986. They came to life during divided governments. Both of those tax reforms have largely survived, as have many other major reforms that were the products of divided governments. Read More > at Forbes

COMMENTARY | Washington Watch – Hope for Fixing the Heart of America’s Voting Problems – …It’s as plain as it can be that we need to address problems with our voting system — its supervision, structure and technology. Management is too decentralized, with most states delegating administrative responsibilities to their counties, including ballot design and the actual vote counting. Supervision is politically dicey, leaving us with situations like those we saw this time in Florida, Georgia and Kansas, where candidates for office were responsible for conducting the process. And the voting machinery is outdated, affecting both reliability and security. To update it, states will have to spend more, but Congress needs to help out.

Another problem is the shortage of poll workers, who can make the difference between a smooth, efficient electoral process and a chaotic one. Good workers are getting harder to find. In the wake of the 2012 election, President Barack Obama ordered a full review of all election procedures. The national commission he created found that one of the central weaknesses of the electoral system was “the absence of a dependable, well-trained corps of poll workers.”

Finally, we need to make voting easier. I know that’s a politically charged recommendation, though it shouldn’t be. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that about 80 percent of Democrats felt that everything possible should be done to “make it easy for every citizen to vote,” while about half of Republicans agreed. Majorities in both parties also favored a requirement that all voters show a government-issued ID, though Republicans were far more supportive (91 percent) than Democrats (63 percent). Read More > at Governing

Oakland A’s Reveal Plans for New Stadium, Changes for Oakland Coliseum – The Oakland A’s are looking to build a new stadium near the waterfront in downtown Oakland while also acquiring the land where the Coliseum and Oracle Arena currently reside to redevelop that land.

On Wednesday, the club announced its plan to build a new stadium at Howard Terminal that will be “bigger than baseball” in addition to a redevelopment plan around the team’s current stadium. The new stadium will feature “a bold vision and real benefits tailored specifically to the residents of East Oakland.”

“We are excited to build a bold, iconic ballpark at Howard Terminal,” A’s president Dave Kaval said. “This design will allow us to blur the boundaries of a traditional ballpark and integrate into the surrounding neighborhood.”

The total capacity for the new stadium will only be 34,000, making it the smallest venue in MLB.

You can check out illustrations of what the new park and redeveloped area around the Coliseum are expected to look like here. Read More > in Sports Illustrated

CVS, Aetna finalize $69B merger – The nation’s largest retail pharmacy, CVS, announced on Wednesday it had completed a $69 billion acquisition of health insurance giant Aetna.

Aetna counts 23.1 million medical members, 14.5 million dental members and 15.2 million pharmacy benefit managers as customers, according to the company’s website. CVS is a pharmacy benefit manager with more than 9,700 location and $40 billion in specialty drug revenue.

Experts believe the acquisition of Aetna would give CVS better leverage in pricing discussions, which would be particularly valuable at a time when companies are inundated with public pressure to reduce costs. It could also usher more patients into its MinuteClinics for care. Read More > at Fox Business

Gov. Jerry Brown asks California Supreme Court to keep pardon records sealed – Gov. Jerry Brown has asked the California Supreme Court to keep records sealed that involve his pardon of former state Sen. Roderick Wright, arguing confidentiality is consistent with historic practice and is supported by state law.

A court filing was submitted late Monday by Peter A. Krause, the governor’s legal secretary, after the nonpartisan First Amendment Coalition last week petitioned the court to unseal records filed by the governor’s office, including a review of the pardon application and letters that supported clemency for Wright.

Krause said confidentiality is particularly important for clemency application records “which contain highly sensitive, and potentially embarrassing materials” about the applicant as well as candid views of victims and prosecutors.

Making records public would have a “chilling effect” on the willingness of witnesses to participate, Krause said in the filing.

On Wednesday, Brown pardoned Wright, who resigned in 2014 after being convicted of felony charges including perjury and voter fraud for lying about living in his legislative district.

In his pardon of Wright, Brown wrote: “He has shown that since his release from custody, he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character, and conducted himself as a law abiding citizen.”

Brown’s office released a letter to the court giving the rationale for a pardon, but declined to make available investigative reports on Wright’s application or letters of support from the public. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

NYT: Biofuel Mandates Have Been an Environmental Disaster – Gridlock that stops any legislation from being passed is usually better than “bipartisanship.” To get bipartisan support, legislation has to buy off power brokers and special interest groups in both political parties. A classic example is America’s harmful legislation requiring the use of biofuels. It has resulted in the destruction of vast areas of tropical rainforest, massively increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The New York Times describes this in a story called “Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet. Instead It Unleashed a Catastrophe.” The story explains that “A decade ago, the U.S. mandated the use of vegetable oil in biofuels, leading to industrial-scale deforestation—and a huge spike in carbon emissions.” In some areas once covered by rainforest, there are now “only charred stumps poking up from murky, dark pools of water.” As the Times explains:

Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe.

Despite this massive destruction of forests, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the Speaker of the House at the time, continues to defend the “biofuels mandate she shepherded into law.” She claims it is “reducing emissions” when it obviously isn’t. Her fellow Democrat and political ally, former Congressman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), admits as much. He helped enact the mandate as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. But he now recognizes the obvious reality that the mandate is “doing more harm to the environment” than any fossil fuels it has replaced. Read More > at the Foundation for Economic Education

Flying cars, robocars and more will rewrite the rural landscape, for good and ill – How and where we live is governed most by transportation, and all the new mobility technologies are poised to cause big changes. Today, I want to look at the following technologies and how they will affect life outside the city. In many case, they will come last to the country, but in other cases, they may come first.

  • Flying Cars — access to everywhere with a clearing
  • Walking pack robots — to carry cargo and even people through rough terrain
  • Robocars — widely varied vehicles on demand, plus off-road and simple road ability
  • Automated high speed aviation — offering quick travel to other locations
  • Cheap solar — power almost anywhere.
  • Cheap batteries — the other half of power everywhere
  • Water purification — water in many more places
  • Universal Online Shipping — buy anything with short delivery times at low cost
  • Robot Delivery (drone and road) — get anything (small) to any location.
  • Satellite, balloon and low cost wireless data links — be on the net, connected to society, anywhere
  • Telepresence — engage more fully in activities at remote locations
  • Hyperloop — much more speculative, but with interesting potential to make certain remote places seem local

The short summary of the effect of all these technologies is it will be possible for far more people to live easily and at reasonable cost in vastly more places. It will be practical to build and have housing in immensely more locations, some of them very attractive places to live. It will be practical to live in those locations with less sacrifice of urban amenities. It will be possible to be much more engaged with people from the urban world, including doing many more jobs and social activities. And it will be faster and more convenient to travel to other places when needed, including commuting from a much larger potential area.

Of course, just because it will be possible to live nicely almost anywhere, this does not mean everybody will want to live there. Many people will still crave the advantages of urban life — walking (or very short trips) to the people and things you want in your life. Social interactions and entertainments of all sorts that are only found in cities. The list is long and particularly for those without children, the appeal is high.

But there is also much that people find appealing to remote locations. Many love isolation, privacy and quiet. Fresh air and beautiful views. Room to move and play. Outdoor recreation. Escape from crowds and crime and pollution and the negatives of cities.

Today, people have much less choice about which environment they will live in. Some must live in one for their work. Some have strong priorities, and today there are clear trade-offs between the two; to get one you must sacrifice most of the other. In the future, many more people will have the choice, with fewer trade-offs. Read More > at Brad Ideas

Campbell’s Soup Is Reportedly in Financial Trouble, So Enjoy Your Cream of Mushroom Now – At the risk of putting a major damper on your holiday spirit, I’m here with news on the seemingly devastating state of things over at Campbell’s Soup. According to the New York Times, not only is the company billions of dollars in debt, but it’s also reportedly refusing help from a hedge fund hoping to overtake majority share in Campbell’s to turn things around.

Last quarter alone, “earnings were down 50% … soup sales have been eroding and the company’s chief executive, Denise Morrison, stepped down under pressure in May,” the Times explains. Attempts at salvaging things with new acquisitions left the company “billions in debt.”

That and the fact that generations of descendants of John T. Dorrance, the man behind the condensed soup formula, still depend on the money they receive from the company’s earnings to live their “comfortable lives” doesn’t help. Many of the Dorrance descendants are worth billions because of the continued Campbell’s kickbacks. They are reportedly not willing to make changes to the company that conflict with any part of the Campbell tradition, whether it be the soup itself or the money they see from it. They also own about 40% of the company combined. Read More > at Good Housekeeping

California Doesn’t Have a Budget Surplus – It’s become common folklore that California is booming and incoming Governor Newsom and the Democratic supermajority have more taxpayer money than they will know how to spend, save, or invest. Nothing could be farther from the truth; and it’s the California voters and taxpayers who will continue to be pay for this mistake. We literally owe trillions that isn’t being discussed. Just the estimated payments on public employee pensions in California will increase from $31 billion in today’s dollars to $59 billion in 2024; and this number is based on non-recessionary conditions or a major correction in the stock market. And California immediately needs $800 billion to over $1 trillion worth of infrastructure repairs, upgrades and new construction.

A conservative estimate of California’s total debt by the California Policy Center in a 2017 study – before new tax and bond obligations recently voted in were factored – puts California’s total local and state debt at $1.3 trillion. The Stanford University Pension Institute (www.pensiontracker.org) in 2017 calculated California’s unfunded liability at $1.4 trillion and CalPERS also with an unfunded liability of $1.4 trillion, with CalSTRS billions underwater as well to give, “real state debt of $2.8 trillion.” Read More > at Fox & Hounds

Chinese scientist claims he edited babies’ genes with CRISPR – A Chinese scientist claims to have created the world’s first genetically-edited babies using the CRISPR/Cas9 tool. He Jiankui  told the Associated Press that twin girls, Lulu and Nana, were born earlier this month following embryo-editing using CRISPR to disable the CCR5 gene, which allows the HIV virus to infect cells. An American scientist, Michael Deem, also reportedly assisted He on the project at the Southern University of Science and Technology of China.

According to He, embryos were edited for seven couples affected by HIV, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He added that the patients refused to be identified or interviewed.

However, the hospital where He reportedly conducted the work has poured cold water over his claims. “What we can say for sure is that the gene editing process did not take place at our hospital. The babies were not born here either,” a spokesperson for Shenzhen HarMoniCare Women’s and Children’s Hospital told TechCrunch.

The news is already causing an outcry among researchers in the US, who slammed it as “unconscionable” and “immoral and unethical.” It follows similar reactions to China’s breakthrough on genetically-modified human embryos in 2015, which saw researchers remove a gene called HBB, responsible for the fatal blood disorder β-thalassaemia. Read More > at Engadget 

The Fax Is Not Yet Obsolete – Who even uses fax machines anymore, let alone depends on them?

A lot of people. Fax, once at the forefront of communications technologies but now in deep decline, has persisted in many industries. Law-enforcement agencies remain heavily reliant on fax for routine operations, such as bail postings and return of public-records requests. Health care, too, runs largely on fax. Despite attempts to replace it, a mix of regulatory confusion, digital-security concerns, and stubbornness has kept fax machines droning around the world.

Doctors rely heavily on faxes in both routine and high-stakes situations. According to Vox, one industry analyst estimates that 75 percent all of all medical communications still happen by fax. Occasionally, news outlets describe this phenomenon, mostly as human-interest stories: “Medical Students Flummoxed by Fax Machines” or “Med Students Are Puzzled When Forced to Use This Ancient Technology.” Despite confusion and frustration, though, the business of faxing continues on. Part of this has to do with an interpretation of a clause in HIPAA, a U.S. health-privacy law, which requires health providers to take reasonable steps to safeguard patient information. Because this rule explicitly mentions fax and not email, some providers interpret the law to mean that records must go by fax. Read More > in The Atlantic

Gap says it will close underperforming stores – Gap will seriously consider closing hundreds of “underperforming stores,” CEO Art Peck told analysts in a conference call Tuesday.

While some of the company’s brands reported improvement — like Old Navy, Athleta, and Banana Republic — the namesake Gap brand itself had a 7 percent sales decline in the third quarter from a year ago.

“We are clearly not satisfied with the performance of Gap brand,” Peck said. “We know this iconic brand is important to customers, and we are committed to taking the bold and necessary steps to ensure that it delivers value to shareholders.”

The Gap operates 798 stores in North America as of the end of Q3. On the conference call, Peck said a number of Gap stores have been doing poorly for some time, and he wants to close those that don’t improve quickly. These stores, he said, were “a drag on the health and a drag on the performance of the brand.” Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Why the housing slowdown won’t become a housing crash – The housing market has been cooling down, but there’s no need to panic.

U.S. homebuilding rose in October, led by multi-family housing projects. Single-family homebuilding, however, fell for the second month in a row, decreasing 2.6% year-over-year — the largest drop since March 2015.

Meanwhile, existing-home sales increased 1.4% in October from the previous month. But sales are down 5.1% from a year earlier, representing the largest annual decline since 2014.

“Given the rapid increase in home prices over the past few years, and the recent pick-up in mortgage rates, the housing market continues to struggle with diminished affordability. The notable deceleration in median home price growth, 3.8% in October compared to roughly 6% in 2017, is a positive sign, as it indicates that home prices are rising at a more sustainable pace,” according to Mortgage Bankers Association Chief Economist Mike Fratantoni.

“The most likely scenario for housing is a soft landing, not a recessionary slowdown. With fiscal stimulus and a strong labor market boosting growth, the Fed should take comfort that rate hikes have traction slowing part of the economy. Rather than cause a recession, some managed weakness in housing may actually prolong the current recovery,” according to Credit Suisse. Read More > at Yahoo! Finance

GM plan is good for GM—and it could shake up things at Tesla and Ford too – General Motors Co.’s newly announced cost-cutting plan has drawn praise on Wall Street, with analysts applauding the car maker for sharpening its focus on higher-growth areas such as driverless and electric vehicles and forestalling a slowdown in its business.

Some analysts said there are implications for Ford Motor Co. and Tesla Inc. including the possibility that Tesla could pounce on an idled GM plant as the Silicon Valley car maker expands its car offerings.

GM on Monday unveiled a sweeping restructuring road map that includes closing plants, laying off about 15% of its workforce, and streamlining its vehicle lineup in the next few years.

The company said the measures would save about $6 billion in the coming years, including about $4.5 billion in cost cuts, and promised to funnel more resources into autonomous and electric cars. Read More > at Market Watch

Thieves found a way to beat auto break-in charges. This California bill could stop them. – When is a vehicle break-in not a vehicle break-in? In California, it’s when the burglar smashes a window and then unlocks the door.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, announced Monday that he intends to introduce a bill to close what his office described as a loophole in state law when the California Legislature convenes Dec. 3.

Wiener introduced a similar bill, SB 916, in the last legislative session, but it died without a vote on the Senate floor.

If passed, the bill would eliminate the requirement of proof that a vehicle door was locked prior to the break-in.

District attorneys have a hard time proving their case in situations where the offender breaks a vehicle window to complete the theft and then leaves the vehicle door open or unlocked. Also, the vehicle owner or renter cannot remember whether they locked their door or are unavailable to testify that the door was locked. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Social-Media Idealism Collides with Human Nature – There was a time, not too long ago, when the American tech billionaires truly believed they could have it all. They believed that they could create platforms for all people, encourage engagement and dialogue, get immensely rich, and change the world in a specific, progressive way.

Think back to 2011. That was the era of the “Twitter Revolution,” the social-media-empowered revolts of the Arab Spring that brought dictators to their knees. As Wired magazine put it, social networks didn’t overthrow governments, but “the speed of communication through digital channels [gave] activists unprecedented agility during street operations.”

America’s newspapers were full of think pieces analyzing the role of Twitter and Facebook in these protests. In those early days, the conventional wisdom was clear. The Arab Spring was good, and social media played an important role in making it happen.

Where are we now? The Arab Spring spawned brutal, genocidal warfare, and the world quickly learned that vicious jihadists could be just as adept at Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook as young democracy activists were. Lies can spread quicker than the truth, and ancient hatreds don’t necessarily dissolve through dialogue. Instead, they can be stoked to white-hot intensity.

…These commentators are responding to a blockbuster article in the New York Times that exposed how Facebook responded to Russian effort to use Facebook to influence the 2016 election and to Cambridge Analytica’s deceptive efforts to obtain private user data. There is no real evidence that either effort had a meaningful impact on the 2016 election (truly, Russian efforts were “tiny” compared with overall campaign spending), but just as Facebook was hyped in Obama’s 2012 victory, it is hyped in Hillary’s 2016 defeat.

Twitter, quite simply, is flailing. It has drafted an extensive hateful-conduct policy that’s broad enough to encompass an enormous amount of speech on contentious topics yet also vague enough to empower blatant double standards. Thus, Twitter preserves a platform for a man like Louis Farrakhan, who recently called Jews “termites.” When it is specific — as when it bans “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals” — its clear priority is putting its thumb on the scales for social justice.

…It turns out that when you give human beings access to public platforms — and when you create a marketplace of ideas — you often unleash forces that you can’t control. Human nature asserts itself.

It also turns out that when you place even idealistic progressive icons in the crosshairs of a public-relations nightmare that threatens their life’s work, they will react defensively. They’ll seek first to preserve their corporation and their reputation. Human nature asserts itself again.

…Our social-media companies face a series of fateful choices. If they choose to be primarily platforms for human expression, they’ll empower many millions of voices that they despise. They’ll facilitate outcomes they may loathe. If, by contrast, they choose to prioritize progressive ideology and progressive outcomes, they’ll limit their reach, their influence, and their wealth. They’ll open themselves up to aggressive competition. Read More > at National Review

On Black Friday, more U.S. shoppers chose the computer over the mall – The Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday kickoff of the U.S. holiday shopping season showed the increasing preference for online purchases, as more Americans opted to stay home and use their smartphones while sales and traffic at brick-and-mortar stores declined.

The ongoing shift to online shopping has forced retailers across the country to invest heavily in boosting their e-commerce businesses, and also highlights the impact of early holiday promotions and year-round deals on consumer spending.

The weekend also redefined the importance of Black Friday. For the past few years, Black Friday was believed to be waning in importance, but it is now turning into a day when shoppers do not necessarily flock to stores but spend heavily online. Read More > at Reuters

Los Angeles DA Announces Criminal Charges in Cash and Cigarettes Voter Fraud Scheme – The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced last week that it has filed charges against nine individuals accused of committing voter fraud in 2016.

According to prosecutors, the group approached people living on skid row and asked them to forge signatures on state ballot measure petitions and voter registration documents, sometimes in exchange for money or cigarettes. If convicted, some of the individuals could face up to six years and four months in prison.

District attorney spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales said no homeless people were charged in the scheme. L.A. County Registrar Dean Logan said the fraudulent signatures were likely spotted by his staff but that he takes seriously any crime with the potential to undermine faith in the electoral process. Read More > at California County News

As Housing Pressures Increase In The Bay Area, Multifamily Developers Focus On Contra Costa County – With several multifamily developments rising up around the Bay Area, many developers have started to turn their attention to Contra Costa County. With rents and housing prices rising around the Bay Area, parts of Contra Costa are becoming more affordable comparatively and ideal places for millennials and other generations to raise families.

Developers are hoping to capture this shifting demographic as demand for housing shifts to the outer areas of the Bay Area. Walnut Creek and Concord have specifically benefited lately from new investment.

…Unlike other Bay Area markets, there aren’t thousands of units teed up in Walnut Creek, Gruendl said. The costs are rising in the Tri-Valley and are becoming cost-prohibitive. A no-growth movement is growing in Pleasanton so there will be a natural cap on growth in that area, which bodes well for Walnut Creek, he said. Read More > at Bisnow

Millennial Homeownership on the Rise, Survey Finds – Homeownership is up this year compared to two years ago among millennial Americans, a demographic group that now includes people well into their mid-30s, according to recent survey results released by the professional services firm Ernst & Young LLP.

But a report about the results also points to estimates indicating that 80 percent of people in this age bracket say student loans have forced them to delay homeownership. The poll found 40 percent of millennial respondents now own homes compared to 26 percent in 2016.

Across the two years, the share of millennial renters was steady at 43 percent, while the proportion living with their parents dropped to 16 percent from 30 percent.

Fifty percent of those surveyed were either paying off, or planning to take on, student debt in 2018, down slightly from 53 percent in 2016. Read More > at Route Fifty

Over a third of online Black Friday purchases came from phones – If you spent Black Friday hunting for deals on your smartphone, you’re not the only one. Adobe analysts have determined that just over a third (33.5 percent) of online Black Friday sales were completed on smartphones — a large uptick from 29.1 percent just one year earlier. People were willing to splurge, too. There was over $2.1 billion in sales, a leap from the previous record ($1.4 billion) set on Cyber Monday, not Black Friday.

This comes on the back of a spike in Black Friday sales, with people spending $6.22 billion (a 23.6 percent increase over 2017). Not surprisingly, tech led the way — laptops, Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee and God of War were some of the biggest hits on Black Friday, while the day before saw people snapping up the Nintendo Switch, Beats headphones and Red Dead Redemption 2 in large numbers. Read More > at Engadget

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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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