Sunday Reading – 01/06/19


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.

More US police officers die on duty than before – More police officers have died in the line of duty this year in the United States than in 2017, according to data released Thursday. The most common cause of death was gunfire, and vehicular accidents claimed nearly as many officers’ lives.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund said in a report that 144 federal, state and local officers have died so far in 2018. That figure represents roughly a 12 percent increase from the 129 who died in 2017.

The majority of the officers who died were either shot — 52 this year, up from 46 in 2017 — or fatally injured in car or motorcycle crashes, which accounted for 50 deaths. Other fatalities involved heart attacks, strokes, drownings and cancer and other illnesses among those who responded to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.

Of the officers who were shot, eight were killed during investigative activity and six were killed while responding to calls of a domestic or public disturbance, according to the report. Two were fatally shot while serving warrants, two died while handling or transporting prisoners and two others were inadvertently shot by other officers.

Craig Floyd, the fund’s chief executive officer, called the increase in deaths disappointing after a decline in 2017. Read More > from the Associated Press

Forget the iPhone Shortfall. Apple’s All About Services Now – Only a few months ago, Apple was crowned the first company to be valued at more than $1 trillion. Now, in the wake of a surprise profit warning, its entire future is being questioned. Both reactions are extreme. A victory lap wasn’t warranted last summer, nor is a eulogy now. The company is at an inflection point. Apple, like others before it, is attempting to navigate the shift. It’s fair to wonder if it can; it’s premature to conclude that it can’t.

Apple’s dramatic announcement of a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall came at a particularly sensitive time for financial markets, which have been sinking on fears about the economic outlook. It took only a few hours before a rough thesis emerged that the combined effects of the China-US trade war, waning consumer confidence, and market volatility are finally denting economic activity domestically and globally, with more pain ahead. As Apple CEO Tim Cook explained, the company “did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China.” Investors took that as a sign that we are potentially on the verge of an economic cliff.

Apple’s precipitous decline from a $1 trillion company in the summer to a $675 billion company after warning of weaker iPhone sales has not been in isolation. Other tech shares have been plunging, albeit not as precipitously. Apple’s specific challenge is how to transition to a business less about selling stuff than providing services to people who buy your stuff. I’ve written about this over the past year; this week, it’s more relevant than ever. From its elliptical communications over the past few years—emphasizing the growth of Apple Stores, the robustness of the App Store, and storage—it’s been clear Apple knows that it is at peak hardware and that simply selling more devices is not a viable path forward, however lucrative it has been until now.

That may be why the company announced it would no longer disclose the number of iPhones, iPads, and Macs it sells each quarter. It may also be why, a few hours after the revenue warning, it issued a press release touting record-breaking App Store sales over the holiday week of $1.2 billion. If it could maintain that pace going forward, that could be more than $60 billion in App Store business a year. Not all that goes to Apple—it’s shared with developers—but it’s a very high-margin business. It would not nearly make up for the possible shortfall from a saturated smartphone market, with fewer sales in China and longer times between user upgrades, but it would be a start. Read More > at Wired

The Coming Democratic Disillusion – …Pelosi’s not the resigning type. But don’t pretend that she will emerge from this trial unscathed. Republican control of the Senate is but the first difference between the 116th and 110th Congresses. The second is within the Democratic Party itself. Not only must Pelosi balance the progressives against members from swing districts. She has to manage her comrades during a rowdy and unpredictable presidential primary. Hillary fighting Obama was nothing compared to the coming rumble. Already Bernie is leaking against Beto, Warren is downing beers on Instagram, and someone reminded the New York Times of accusations of sexual harassment within Bernie’s campaign. “We’re headed for disaster,” frets Michael Tomasky.

Very soon, news from the trail will overtake the goings-on in Congress. House Democrats won’t just have trouble changing laws. They also will have difficulty promoting their message. Especially considering the third and greatest difference between 2007 and 2019: the presence of Donald Trump. There’s no evidence that Pelosi has any better an idea of how to deal with him than her predecessors. Whenever Trump focuses his attention on reelection, and sets the agenda of cable news coverage by attacking his rivals on Twitter, Pelosi will be less than powerless. She will be irrelevant.

The partial government shutdown is a prelude to an unpredictable two years of conflict, deadlock, breakdown, acrimony, dissatisfaction, and annoyance. At the end, Democrats will be reminded that, thanks to congressional delegation of authority, the House doesn’t count for much. What matters is the presidency. Ask the GOP.

Even there, Republicans will tell you, be careful what you wish for. Read More > in The Washington Free Beacon

Will Gavin Newsom change the state’s water course? Fish and farmers will soon find out – In the final weeks of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, his appointees on a state board ordered some powerful water districts to cut their historic river diversions to protect endangered salmon populations.

It was a major move by a panel that in the past has often been leery of flexing its regulatory muscles.

But while the State Water Resources Control Board was demanding more water for fish, other Brown appointees were busy crafting deals that could ultimately mean less water for the environment.

Despite a flurry of activity, Brown is leaving plenty of unfinished water business as he heads to his ranch in the Sacramento Valley.

Brown-backed plans to build two giant water tunnels still need key state permits. The water board is in the midst of adopting new flow standards for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the rivers that feed it. Federal agencies are revising Endangered Species Act protections in the delta, the center of California’s vast water system.

After Gavin Newsom moves into the governor’s office, the state’s position could change on all of those initiatives.

Newsom has previously said he favors a scaled-down tunnel project. Whether he reappoints state water board chair Felicia Marcus will signal whether he wants the board to stand firm or back down on the flow requirements. His picks for top posts in the Natural Resources Agency will determine whether his administration goes along with a potential weakening of delta protections by the Trump administration — or fights it. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

U.S. gains 312,000 jobs in 10-month high that shattered Wall Street forecasts – The U.S. gained 312,000 new jobs in December, capping off the biggest increase in hiring in three years and showing that second longest economic expansion in U.S. history still has plenty of staying power despite growing worries about a slowdown.

The surge in hiring was the largest since February. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had forecast a 182,000 increase.

Hiring in November and October was also stronger than originally reported, the government said Friday. Read More > at Market Watch

How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually. – In late November, the Justice Department unsealed indictments against eight people accused of fleecing advertisers of $36 million in two of the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered. Digital advertisers tend to want two things: people to look at their ads and “premium” websites — i.e., established and legitimate publications — on which to host them.

The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist. Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.” Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

…Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures. In October, small advertisers filed suit against the social-media giant, accusing it of covering up, for a year, its significant overstatements of the time users spent watching videos on the platform (by 60 to 80 percent, Facebook says; by 150 to 900 percent, the plaintiffs say). According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site, and the number of video views in Instant Articles. Read More > at Intelligencer

Germany’s Leading Magazine Published Falsehoods About American Life – The word spiegel means “mirror” in German, and since its postwar founding, Der Spiegel has proudly held a mirror up to the world. When the magazine published top-secret information about the dire state of West Germany’s armed forces in 1962, the government accused it of treason, raided its offices, and arrested its editors. The resulting “Spiegel affair” led to mass demonstrations against police-state tactics and established an important precedent for press freedom in the young democracy. Throughout its history, the newsweekly has helped set the national agenda, like Time in its heyday.

Over the past weeks, however, the name of the magazine has assumed a new relevance. Der Spiegel has cracked, and revealed ugliness within the publication as well as German society more broadly.

On December 19, the magazine announced that the star reporter Claas Relotius had fabricated information “on a grand scale” in more than a dozen articles. Relotius has been portrayed as a sort of Teutonic Stephen Glass, the 1990s New Republic fabulist. “I’m sick and I need to get help,” Relotius told his editor. While that may very well be the case, his downfall is about more than just one writer with a mental-health problem.

A motif of Relotius’s work is America’s supposed brutality. In one story, he told the macabre tale of a woman who travels across the country volunteering to witness executions. In another, he related the tragic experience of a Yemeni man wrongly imprisoned by the United States military at Guantánamo Bay, where he was held in solitary confinement and tortured for 14 years. (The song that American soldiers turned on full blast and pumped into the poor soul’s cell? Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”) Both stories were complete fabrications.

Der Spiegel is conducting an internal review to explain what went wrong. But it seems to me that the blame lies not only with Relotius or a few careless checkers or even the publication’s research methods, but with the mentality of its editors and readers. Relotius told them what they wanted—what they expected—to hear about America; this is a case of motivated reasoning if I’ve ever seen one. Read More > in The Atlantic

Did non-citizens vote last year? California officials still can’t say – California officials still can’t say whether non-citizens voted in the June 2018 primary because a confusing government questionnaire about eligibility was created in a way that prevents a direct answer on citizenship.

The snag comes from a voter eligibility questionnaire that lumps five separate characteristics, such as age and citizenship status, into one prompt that people see at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they try to get or renew a driver’s license.

Investigators can see that people marked themselves as ineligible to vote or declined to answer eligibility questions, but they can’t tell why.

“We can’t assume why they declined to answer eligibility questions or why they said they were not eligible,” the Secretary of State’s Office wrote in an internal memo on Oct. 8, 2018.

That email and other documents The Sacramento Bee obtained through the Public Records Act shed light on why the Secretary of State has been unable to say clearly whether non-citizens voted last year. The Bee filed a legal complaint for the records when the Secretary of State initially withheld most of them.

The email shows that, for months, California officials have been examining whether non-citizens voted last year. On Thursday, Secretary of State Alex Padilla confirmed for the first time that his office has an active internal investigation into the matter. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Introducing PolitiFact California’s ‘Newsom-Meter’, tracking the campaign promises of Gavin Newsom – During his run for governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom promised to rapidly expand California’s housing supply, saying he’d “lead the effort to develop 3.5 million new housing units” by 2025 to address the state’s affordable housing crisis.

Newsom, who will be sworn in as governor on Jan. 7, also pledged to ensure health care access for everyone in the state regardless of income or immigration status, guaranteed two free years of community college and said he will create universal preschool and launch college savings accounts for every incoming kindergartener.

PolitiFact California has been following Newsom’s pledges made to voters in speeches, interviews and on his campaign website. Today, we launch our ‘Newsom-Meter’, which will track the progress of 12 of Newsom’s most significant campaign promises over the next four years.

The Newsom-Meter will measure whether Newsom is able to accomplish what he told voters and ultimately rate each promise as ‘Kept’, ‘Broken’ or ‘Compromise.’ It’s the same process PolitiFact used with the Obameter to hold President Obama accountable and is currently used with the Trump-O-Meter to track President Trump’s commitments.

Political observers consider many of Newsom’s pledges, especially on housing, health care and education, to be bold and likely unreachable. Newsom has said that doesn’t bother him.

“I’d rather be accused of (having) those audacious stretch goals than be accused of timidity,” Newsom told CALmatters in October 2018. “Because I just don’t think the world demands timidity.”

He’s also pushed back against the idea that he’s “promised” some of these outcomes, such as the 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. That’s despite the fact that they’re listed on his campaign website as items that “As Governor, Gavin will” accomplish. Read More > at PolitiFact

Retiree Health Care Liabilities Keep Stacking Up For States – State governments face mounting costs for non-pension retirement benefits—mainly consisting of health care expenses, newly updated figures from The Pew Charitable Trusts indicate.

Pew says states reported total liabilities of $737 billion for “other post-employment benefits,” or OPEB, in 2016, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available. The latest figure marks a 6 percent increase from $692 billion in 2015.

These liabilities are not all due at once, but rather are the estimated costs of the benefits for retired public employees in the years ahead. They increased by about 5 percent in 2015 over 2014.

Meanwhile, the amount of assets states reported having to pay the benefits fell to $46 billion in 2016, from $48 billion in 2015, Pew said. Read More > at Route Fifty

Carl’s Jr. Goes Beyond – The Beyond Famous Star® Now on Menu – 2019 is kicking off with a meaty milestone: We’ve teamed up with Carl’s Jr., our largest US restaurant partner to date, to bring forth a major innovation in fast food. Say hellooooo to the Beyond Famous Star, a plant-based version of the restaurant’s most iconic burger build. The quarter-pound Beyond Burger patty is cooked top-to-bottom on an open flame in Carl’s Jr.’s unique char broiler, packing its delicious flavor right into the burger.

“We know people are looking for options – in fact, roughly one-third of consumers identify as flexitarians – and we’re thrilled to partner with Beyond Meat to bring more delicious, irresistible flavors to our menu,” said Jason Marker, CEO, CKE Restaurants. “The new Beyond Famous Star is a true industry game changer.”

Starting today, January 2nd, fans can order The Beyond Famous Star from over 1,000 participating locations. It comes topped with melted American cheese, lettuce, tomato, sliced onions, dill pickles, special sauce and mayonnaise on a seeded bun. For a plant-based option, simply ask for it without cheese and mayo. Read More > at Beyond Meat

Apple knows the age of yearly iPhone upgrades is over – After Apple introduced the iPhone XS, XS Max and XR, I wrote that consumers didn’t seem to mind how much more expensive iPhones had gotten over the past few years. But after Apple unexpectedly admitted yesterday that revenue for the last quarter would fall short of Apple’s projections, I might have overstated things. It sure seems that the days of a new iPhone automatically driving big sales may be behind us. But those extremely high iPhone prices are just one piece of the puzzle, though — let’s break it down.

In a letter to investors, CEO Tim Cook noted that while the “vast majority of the year-over-year iPhone revenue decline” came from China and other emerging markets, demand wasn’t as strong in developed markets either. Cook cited a handful of reasons for that, including fewer carrier subsidies, price increases due to the strength of the US dollar and customers taking advantage of “significantly reduced pricing” for iPhone battery replacements.

That last point is particularly telling. As a reminder, Apple pledged to replace iPhone batteries for a reduced price of $29 throughout 2018, a big discount from the standard $79 charge. The company cut replacement pricing after it was revealed that Apple throttled iPhone performance as batteries aged to keep the battery from failing altogether. Now, it seems that plenty of iPhone owners chose to replace their old battery as a way of putting off their next upgrade.

And why not? iOS 12 made older iPhones run much better than they did on iOS 11, to the point where using a three-year-old iPhone 6S became totally viable, especially with a fresh new battery. And keeping an older phone is even more attractive for customers who were no longer making monthly payments for the device through the now-common installment plan. When faced with either buying a new iPhone — a minimum of $30 a month for two years — or upgrading iOS and spending $30 once on a battery replacement, it’s easy to see why many opted to keep their old phone around longer. Read More > at Engadget

Gavin Newsom made these 10 promises on the campaign trail. Let’s see of he can keep them – Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom made promises on these 10 topics while campaigning for California’s highest office.

1. Combat homelessness

As San Francisco mayor, Newsom put tremendous effort into combating chronic homelessness, and he leaned on that experience in his gubernatorial campaign to highlight a statewide crisis: about 135,000 homeless people, a quarter of the nation’s total. He proposed creating a cabinet-level position to lead a “regional approach” for addressing homelessness. Many cities and counties have abdicated their responsibility to help those in need, he said, shifting the burden onto communities like San Francisco that provide robust services. Newsom told The Bee in July that he wants to tie state funding to increased development of supportive housing, as an incentive for local governments. He also wants to help them enroll more homeless people in the federal disability program that provides a monthly stipend.

2. Build 3.5 million new homes by 2025

California’s housing affordability crisis was central to the gubernatorial campaign. Newsom pledged to confront the problem with an ambitious goal: 3.5 million new housing units by 2025. Reaching that figure, which the building industry says is necessary to meet projected population growth, would require the state to quintuple its current rate of production. To boost construction, Newsom has proposed increasing tax credits for affordable housing development, bringing back the anti-blight local redevelopment agencies and streamlining the process for approving land use. He also said he would hold cities accountable for failing to meet their housing quotas set by the state and revamp the tax code, which he believes encourages commercial development over building new homes.

3. Strengthen tenant protections

Newsom opposed a November ballot initiative to repeal a state law that severely limits rent control in cities across California. He said the measure, which would have given local governments broad authority to craft new rent restrictions, could discourage housing development. It ultimately failed, but Newsom pledged to immediately begin working on a deal that would nevertheless expand rent control. Read More > in The Modesto Bee

Habitat for Humanity struggling to provide low income housing in the East Bay – Low-income home builder Habitat for Humanity can no longer keep up with the rising construction costs of the East Bay coupled with a steep decline in public funding.

In Fremont, the nonprofit group is selling 19 of 30 condos in the pipeline to households “whose income is 40 to 115 percent higher than that of the buyers originally targeted,” according to the East Bay Times.

Habitat reportedly said that even with many volunteers, the organization cannot raise money at the pace required to cover the increasing divide between what beneficiaries can pay and the actual costs of development.

Across the Bay Area, developers are experiencing huge spikes in construction costs, by some estimates rising by 10 percent a year. A 2017 study by construction consultant Turner and Townsend found that San Francisco has the second-highest development costs in the world at $330 per square foot, behind only New York.

“If you look broadly at affordable housing, it’s never been more expensive than it is right now to build,” Janice Jensen, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley, told the East Bay Times. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

CoreLogic Reports Home Prices Increased by 5.1%; Growth Projected to Slow in 2019 – Irvine, CA-based CoreLogic says its latest research shows home prices rose both year over year and month over month for November 2018. Home prices increased nationally by 5.1% year over year from November 2017, according to the CoreLogic Home Price Index. On a month-over-month basis, prices increased by 0.4% in November 2018.

Looking ahead, the CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicates home prices will increase by 4.8% on a year-over-year basis from November 2018 to November 2019. On a month-over-month basis, home prices are expected to decrease by 0.8% from November to December 2018.

“The rise in mortgage rates has dampened buyer demand and slowed home-price growth,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. He notes, higher rates and home prices have reduced buyer affordability. In turn, sellers are responding by lowering asking prices, a condition reflected in the slowing growth of the CoreLogic Home Price Index. Read More > at Connect California

Is There Any Hope for J.C. Penney? – The stock of J.C. Penney recently closed under $1 per share for the first time in its history, highlighting its parallels with Sears Holdings all too closely. Yet where the bankrupt retailer Sears just got a stay of execution as Chairman Eddie Lampert submitted a last-minute bid to buy it, J.C. Penney apparently doesn’t have a deep-pocketed savior waiting on the sidelines.

It increasingly looks like J.C. Penney could go under, and there may be no recourse to resurrect the 117-year-old retailing icon.

The Christmas season was the retailer’s last chance to show it can remain a viable business. Mastercard’s SpendingPulse report found strong consumer confidence during the holidays, with U.S. retail sales between Nov. 1 and Dec. 24 hitting over $850 billion, a 5.1% jump over the same period in the previous year, the largest increase in the last six years. Department store online sales were 10% higher than last year.

Yet investors don’t see those gains applying to J.C. Penney as the SpendingPulse report also indicated that sales at physical locations of department stores fell 1.3% for the two-month holiday period, suggesting that even with store closures and employee layoffs, retailers were still having a rough time.

…Although trading under $1 per share is a warning sign, Penney isn’t in immediate danger of being delisted. The stock only closed below $1 on one day — Dec. 27 — and the NYSE wouldn’t begin the delisting process until the stock closed below $1 for 30 consecutive trading days.

That doesn’t mean investors shouldn’t worry. The troubled department store needs to begin showing signs it is reversing course and can attract customers once again. It needs to generate more cash because it carries a heavy debt load exceeding $4 billion while having little money in the bank.

It will continue to be cash-flow-positive by the end of the year, and that’s no small thing, but having closed below $1 per share for the first time indicates that Wall Street really doesn’t hold much long-term hope. Read More > at The Motley Fool

Tech companies have proved themselves to be cowards – and Netflix is no different – On the morning of the first day of the year, the Financial Times gave us about three seconds to enjoy 2019 before reporting that Netflix had pulled an episode of its comedy series Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj in Saudi Arabia, at the request of senior Saudi Arabian officials. In the stand-up set, Minhaj blames the Saudis for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and criticises the government for the ever-changing and dodgy nature of the story, taking particular aim at Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

…I don’t know how many times to say it, or how many different ways to spin it. Even the “nicest” global tech companies (the ones considered to be your most beloved services and apps), do not care about what you want or think if it doesn’t drastically affect their revenue. I’ve written about this before, even as recently as December, when Tumblr implemented a porn ban. In the piece, I complained about having to write the same article over and over again, perpetually lamenting tech companies’ short-sighted decisions, spending less time thinking about their reputation amongst their users and a lot more time thinking about greater interests. And, in less than a month, here I am, writing it again. Netflix has shown itself to be no different to its fellow tech giants, displaying a level of cowardice and disregard entirely common in its industry.

Clearly Tumblr banning porn is not a human rights issue on the scale of murdering a journalist in an embassy. Indeed, many of the issues we’ve seen from tech companies recently (like Facebook potentially being responsible for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and Twitter failing to ban Nazis) affect human rights in very different ways. However, despite their nuances, these issues are all born out of the same problem: tech companies are, on the whole, prioritising influential, lucrative interests over what their users expect, want, and most importantly, actually need. Whether that be investments, ad sales, or powerful governments, tech companies are far less concerned with providing an ethical and responsible platform that keeps their users safe than they are with what’s going to make them money. Losing a couple of principled subscribers over this decision is worth it for Netflix to stay in the good graces of the Saudi kingdom, which controls its access to hundreds of thousands of current subscribers (and a growing subscriber base) in the country. Read more > at New Statesman

I read 1,182 emergency room bills this year. Here’s what I learned. – For the past 15 months, I’ve asked Vox readers to submit emergency room bills to our database. I’ve read lots of those medical bills — 1,182 of them, to be exact.

My initial goal was to get a sense of how unpredictable and costly ER billing is across the country. There are millions of emergency room visits every year, making it one of the more frequent ways we interact with our health care system — and a good window into the health costs squeezing consumers today.

I started my project focused on one specific charge: the facility fee. I found this charge for walking through an emergency room’s doors could be as low as $533 or well over $3,000, depending on which hospital a patient visited and how severe her case was. I also learned that the price of this charge had skyrocketed in recent years, increasing much faster than other medical prices for no clear reason.

…Some of the patients I read about come in for the reasons you’d expect: a car accident, pains that could indicate appendicitis or a heart attack, or because the ER was the only place open that night or weekend.

Some come in for reasons you’d never expect. Like the little girl who swallowed a coin to hide it from her sister, the 12-year-old boy who was hit by a home run ball at a professional baseball game (who, incidentally, was given a $60 ibuprofen at the local children’s hospital), and the adult who ate an entire bag of chocolate candy … without realizing it was edible marijuana. Rest assured, they are all fine!

1) The prices are high — even for things you can buy in a drugstore

One bill that left an impression on me came from a woman seen in the emergency room the day after her wedding. Her eye was irritated from the fake eyelashes she’d worn the night before, and she worried that her cornea might have been scratched.

The providers checked out her eye, squeezed in some eyedrops, and sent her home. She later got a bill that charged $238 for those eyedrops, a generic drug called ofloxacin. According to GoodRX, a website that tracks drug prices, an entire vial of this drug can be purchased at a retail pharmacy for between $15 and $50.

This is something that I saw over and over again reading emergency room bills: high prices for items that a patient could have picked up at a drugstore.

2) Going to an in-network hospital doesn’t mean you’ll be seen by in-network doctors

On January 28, 34-year-old Scott Kohan woke up in an emergency room in downtown Austin, Texas, with his jaw broken in two places, the result of a violent attack the night before. Witnesses called 911, which dispatched an ambulance that brought him to the hospital while he was unconscious.

Kohan, who submitted his bill to our database, ended up needing emergency jaw surgery. The hospital where he was seen was in network; he Googled this on his phone right after regaining consciousness. But the jaw surgeon who saw him wasn’t. Kohan ended up with a $7,924 bill from the surgeon, which was only reversed after I wrote about his bill in May. Read More > at Vox

Why Are NFL GMs Being Let Off the Hook? – Within 24 hours of the 2018 regular season ending, eight teams had vacancies at the head coach position. The number of general manager openings this year? One.

Every situation is different, but the fact that blame was unequally assigned to coaches over personnel executives for failed seasons raised eyebrows around the league.

In Arizona, Steve Wilks was one-and-done after a season with a rookie quarterback and a flawed roster, while GM Steve Keim will hire his third head coach. Vance Joseph was dismissed after two seasons with Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Case Keenum as his quarterbacks—each brought in by John Elway. In Tampa Bay, Jason Licht will search for a replacement for Dirk Koetter, who was let go because he couldn’t win enough games with Jameis Winston, the quarterback that Licht picked No. 1 overall in 2015.

But this year in particular raises another question: Why are GMs—not head coaches—getting more chances to steer a team in the right direction? Both Keim and Licht will be working with their third head coach, and Elway his fourth. Over the past five years (not including this one) there have been 34 head coaching changes compared to 20 GM changes, by unofficial count. (We should note here that in Dallas and Cincinnati the club owners also serve as de-facto GMs, and in New England, Bill Belichick is both the head coach and GM).

If, as is so often said at season-ending press conferences, accountability for a lost season is shared by all, why are head coaches disproportionately bearing more of the consequences? GMs are usually in a position to build a closer relationship with the owner, who ultimately makes the firing and hiring decisions; in failed arranged marriages between a coach and a GM, it’s more often the GM that’s given a chance to hire his own head coach, rather than vice versa… Read More > at Sports Illustrated

If This Man’s Speech Isn’t Protected, No One’s Is – In the age of online shaming and political correctness, many people rightly fear that they could lose their employment for their private opinions. Last month it was Kevin Hart, who stepped down from hosting the Oscars over homophobic tweets from his past. Before him, Nicholas and Erika Christakis were forced out of their roles as faculty in residence at Yale’s Silliman College for their remarks on Halloween and cultural appropriation.

You may think that you are surely safe from all this. After all, you won’t be hosting the Oscars or working with hyper-sensitive college students. Nor do you have wrong opinions on anything too controversial. You may think you are immune. But you are wrong. After all, many, if not most, victims of public shaming and retaliation for “wrong think” are average citizens. Just ask Salvatore Davi, who worked as an administrative law judge in New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance from 2010 to 2015. He was considered an exemplary employee. Yet Davi’s employers charged him with seven counts of professional misconduct for comments he made while debating politics on Facebook.

What sort of comments warranted seven counts of professional misconduct? Perhaps Davi spoke too critically of his superiors or of his department’s policy? Perhaps he embraced racism? Or perhaps he dared to speak out against one of the two sacrosanct achievements of the sexual revolution—abortion or marriage equality?
It was nothing so exciting. Davi was charged with professional misconduct for expressing an opinion on Facebook about welfare reform.

It all began when one of his Facebook friends posted an article from The Daily Kos arguing that welfare programs such as food stamps were working well and should be expanded. Davi offered a mild objection. He offered the opinion that the article used “the wrong metric” to weigh success. The efficacy of welfare programs, he suggested, should be judged by measuring “how many people or families they get back on their feet.” A truly effective social safety net, he added, should be “of limited duration and designed to get people back to self-sufficiency.” Read More > at Real Clear Politics

Why The Permian Basin May Become The World’s Most Productive Oil Field – Many people will tell you that the production rate of Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar oil field, which has yielded 5 million barrels of petroleum per day for decades, will never be surpassed. In fact, no other oil field has ever come close to topping the production rate of Ghawar, and up until recently I would have agreed its production would never be topped.

But I am becoming more convinced that the Permian Basin could eventually give Ghawar a run for its money.

That argument would have been laughable a decade ago, but there are three pieces of data that suggest the argument isn’t as preposterous as I once believed it was.

First, there is the actual production rate in the Permian. Consider for a moment that the Permian Basin has been producing oil since the 1920s, and reached the two million BPD mark in the 1970s. Production slowly declined, until dipping back under one million BPD around the turn of the 21st century.

Permian Basin oil production slowly crept back up to one million BPD in 2010, and then hydraulic fracturing sent production soaring. By the end of 2018, production had reached 3.8 million BPD, vaulting the Permian into second place among the world’s leading oil fields. In under a decade — and after already producing oil for a hundred years — Permian Basin production has increased by 3 million BPD: Read More > at Forbes

Is Self-Storage’s Ballooning Inventory Cause For Concern? – Self-storage facilities have proliferated across the country in the past three years at unprecedented speed, according to a new report.

Public Storage, the largest self-storage REIT in the country, told investors it expects 2018 to have seen $4B worth of construction when all is said and done, the Wall Street Journal reports. The company expects 2019 to virtually match that number, which is quadruple the average speed of construction in the decade ending in 2016.

Some analysts and market-watchers are concerned that the pace of construction is too much, the WSJ reports, citing a Green Street Advisors study showing the rapid construction pace. Public Storage, CubeSmart, LifeStorage and Extra Space Storage, the four largest REITs in the sector, have all at least quadrupled their stock value in the past 10 years, according to the WSJ. Read More > at Bisnow

Why Millions Of Kids Can’t Read, And What Better Teaching Can Do About It – …Across the country, millions of kids are struggling. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders aren’t reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced.

One excuse that educators have long offered to explain poor reading performance is poverty. In Bethlehem, a small city in Eastern Pennsylvania that was once a booming steel town, there are plenty of poor families. But there are fancy homes in Bethlehem, too, and when Silva examined the reading scores he saw that many students at the wealthier schools weren’t reading very well either.

…One big takeaway from all that research is that reading is not natural; we are not wired to read from birth. People become skilled readers by learning that written text is a code for speech sounds. The primary task for a beginning reader is to crack the code. Even skilled readers rely on decoding.

So when a child comes to a word she doesn’t know, her teacher should tell her to look at all the letters in the word and decode it, based on what that child has been taught about how letters and combinations of letters represent speech sounds. There should be no guessing, no “getting the gist of it.”

And yet, “this ill-conceived contextual guessing approach to word recognition is enshrined in materials and handbooks used by teachers,” wrote Louisa Moats, a prominent reading expert, in a 2017 article. Read More > at NPR

A “Little Shop of Horrors” Legislature? – Elements of the hit 80s musical Little Shop of Horrors might serve as a parable for the way California governance is shaping up for the new year. With all the demands for new programs and more taxes can’t you hear an echo of the Shop’s devouring plant in the quest for an enlarged government: Feed me!

As reported in the Sacramento Bee, in the first 24 hours of the legislative session, lawmakers introduced more than 100 bills that contained more than $40 billion in proposed new spending.

In one 24 hour day!

How much will be requested before the bill introduction period passes?

More importantly, how many new programs and increased spending will occur under the greatly empowered Democratic supermajority and incoming governor who promised new and often expensive priorities? Read More > at Fox and Hounds

Outrage after Netflix pulls comedy show criticising Saudi Arabia – Netflix has taken down an episode of a satirical comedy show critical of Saudi Arabia in the country after officials from the kingdom complained, sparking criticism from Human Rights Watch, which said the act undermined the streaming service’s “claim to support artistic freedom”.

It comes three months after the brutal killing of the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – which US senators have blamed on the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman – and as the war in Yemen continues to devastate the country.

The American comedian Hasan Minhaj was critical of the Saudi heir in an episode of the standup show Patriot Act, delivering a wide-ranging monologue mocking the Saudis’ evolving account of what happened inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul in October, when the journalist was killed.

Human Rights Watch said artists whose work is broadcast on Netflix should be outraged, adding that Saudi Arabia has no interest in its citizens exercising democratic rights.

“Every artist whose work appears on Netflix should be outraged that the company has agreed to censor a comedy show because the thin-skinned royals in Saudi complained about it,” a spokesperson said. “Netflix’s claim to support artistic freedom means nothing if it bows to demands of government officials who believe in no freedom for their citizens – not artistic, not political, not comedic.” Read More > in The Guardian

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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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