Sunday Reading 01/13/19


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.

Parents are using GPS ankle monitors to track their teenagers like criminals – There’s no shortage of GPS trackers for parents who want to keep tabs on their children’s driving. After all, car accidents are the leading cause of death for American teens. For some parents, that’s enough.

For others, nothing but a full-on ankle monitor—the kind used to track people released on bail or parole—will do.

Frank Kopczynski, the owner of Tampa Bay Monitoring (in fact located in Clearwater, Florida), also runs Action Plus Bail Bonds. He said the biggest challenge in strapping an ankle monitor to teenage non-offenders is whether they can remove it themselves.

Along with the 95-decibel siren, if a teen is out past curfew, their parents can call Tampa Bay Monitoring’s office, and Kopczynski or one of his employees will activate the ankle monitor’s speaker and tell the child it’s time to get home or the police will be called. Hearing “this god-like voice out of nowhere” is generally effective, said Kopczynski; since the system is two-way, staff can also monitor the teen covertly. Read More > at Quartz

10 takeaways from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s $209 billion budget – Citing a strong economy and lower-than-projected spending on health care for the poor, California’s surplus is even bigger than expected. Newsom announced a projected increase of $6 billion in extra revenue to $21.4 billion for the 2019-20 fiscal year. To put that latter figure into perspective, it’s more than the state spends on higher education in a year.

Following in Jerry Brown’s footsteps, Newsom is making public employee retirement liabilities a priority. He wants to put an extra $3 billion into the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and an extra $2.9 billion over four years into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS). These payments are on top of the state’s regular pension contribution of $10 billion in the new budget.

Yes, it sounds like a lot but the state has a long way to go. Currently, California’s retirement liabilities add up to $256.5 billion, according to Newsom’s finance department.

In addition to the state’s share of pension payments, Newsom is offering $3 billion to help school districts meet their CalSTRS obligations. Freeing up money for pension payments could allow districts to spend more in the classroom…

Newsom’s budget includes a major $1.7 billion-plus infusion of cash for affordable housing and a big stick for cities who don’t build it—a threat to take gas tax revenue for cities that don’t meet long term affordable housing goals. That’s a potent counterforce to NIMBYs who often stymie the best intentions of local officials, but, as advocates for cities immediately pointed out, it’s also an intrusion on local control.

Newsom’s budget would push California toward universal health coverage by increasing health insurance subsidies for the working poor and expanding Medi-Cal to young adults regardless of their immigration status. Read More > at CALmatters

Philly residents were determined to defy the city’s controversial ‘soda tax’ — and they did – Nearly two years on, the verdict is in on Philadelphia’s “soda tax.”
And it isn’t good.

Philadelphia’s soda tax, implemented in 2017, comes to 1.5 cents per ounce, equal to a hefty $1 tax on a typical $1.56, two-liter bottle. The city included artificially sweetened “diet” sodas in the tax, while excluding sugary fruit juices. The city government admitted the tax was about raising revenues, not just making people healthier.

The tax, justified as a kind of “sin tax” in the national war on obesity, did next to nothing for people’s health, new research has shown. Philadelphians didn’t cut calories as a result of the tax on sweetened drinks, nor did they shift towards drinking anything healthier.

Instead, most of them just drove outside the city to buy the same old sodas from stores where they didn’t have to pay the tax.

Meanwhile the poorest in the city — those who would find it hardest to drive for many miles to buy soda — just ended up paying more in taxes. Read More > at Market Watch

Richmond ferry completes maiden voyage to San Francisco, commuters aboard – The first boat left the dock at 6:10 a.m. Thursday, but passengers were trotting down the gangway at Richmond’s new ferry terminal long before then.

One hundred sixty-one riders were aboard the Pisces when it slid away from the pier, the first high-speed catamaran of a transit service that west Contra Costa residents have anticipated for years. Officials expect the 225-person capacity boat to fill up during rush hour as word spreads.

The new terminal is a sharp, steel and glass box next to the Craneway Pavilion, its architecture redolent of the old Ford assembly plant that operated during the Great Depression and into the 1950s. For now, it will run six boat trips from Richmond and six from San Francisco each weekday. Read More > at SFGate

California pot taxes lag as illegal market flourishes – The Democrat’s proposed spending plan, released Thursday, projects the state will bank $355 million in marijuana excise taxes by the end of June. That’s roughly half of what was once expected after broad legal sales kicked off last year.

Industry experts say the diminished tax income reflects a somber reality: Most consumers are continuing to purchase pot in the illegal marketplace, where they avoid taxes that can near 50 percent in some communities.

…At year’s end, California’s effort to transform its longstanding illegal and medicinal marijuana markets into a unified, multibillion-dollar industry remained a work in progress. By some estimates, up to 80 percent of sales in the state remain under the table, snatching profits from legal storefronts.

Drayton said more than half the municipalities in the state do not have laws governing the industry. That means pot businesses cannot locate there, since companies are required to have a local license before seeking one from the state. Read More > from the Associated Press

California governor links housing, transportation money – California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed a $1.75 billion plan for housing Thursday and threatened to withhold transportation money from local governments that don’t build their fair share, declaring he’s not playing “small ball” on California’s crisis.

The new Democratic governor also proposed spending $500 million for regions to build emergency shelters, navigation centers and other supportive housing to battle the state’s growing number of homeless.

Newsom announced his plans as part of a $144 billion state budget proposal, his first major spending plan as governor. Legislators still have a say over the budget, which must be finalized by June.

Newsom is a former mayor of San Francisco, and he acknowledged that local leaders might not like the strings he’s attached to the housing budget. For example, the governor wants to tie transportation money from a recent hike in gas and vehicle taxes to more affordable housing.

California is in the throes of a housing crisis, with far fewer units than needed to house the state’s nearly 40 million people and rising rents. Newsom wants to build 3.5 million new units, saying past goals weren’t ambitious enough. When housing is taken into account, California has the nation’s highest poverty rate, and it also has more homeless people than any other state. Read More > from the Associated Press

Tom Brady, Philip Rivers will be oldest pair of playoff starting quarterbacks – In a season when so many young quarterbacks have played so well, a couple of old veterans are about to square off in the playoffs.

The Chargers are heading to New England to take on the Patriots, and that means 37-year-old Philip Rivers will take on 41-year-old Tom Brady. Their combined age of 78 is the oldest ever for two starting quarterbacks in an NFL postseason game.

Brady also had a share of the previous record, set three years ago, when he was 38 and faced off against the 39-year-old Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game.

There was once an even older pair of quarterbacks in a playoff game, on January 3, 1971, when 37-year-old Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts beat 43-year-old George
Blanda and the Oakland Raiders. But although Blanda played almost the entire game, he came on in relief of the 29-year-old Daryle Lamonica, who started for the Raiders.
So the record for starting quarterbacks belongs to Brady and Manning, and will be broken next weekend by Brady and Rivers. Read More > at NBC Sports

I Gave a Bounty Hunter $300. Then He Located Our Phone – T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country.

Whereas it’s common knowledge that law enforcement agencies can track phones with a warrant to service providers, IMSI catchers, or until recently via other companies that sell location data such as one called Securus, at least one company, called Microbilt, is selling phone geolocation services with little oversight to a spread of different private industries, ranging from car salesmen and property managers to bail bondsmen and bounty hunters, according to sources familiar with the company’s products and company documents obtained by Motherboard. Compounding that already highly questionable business practice, this spying capability is also being resold to others on the black market who are not licensed by the company to use it, including me, seemingly without Microbilt’s knowledge.

Motherboard’s investigation shows just how exposed mobile networks and the data they generate are, leaving them open to surveillance by ordinary citizens, stalkers, and criminals, and comes as media and policy makers are paying more attention than ever to how location and other sensitive data is collected and sold. The investigation also shows that a wide variety of companies can access cell phone location data, and that the information trickles down from cell phone providers to a wide array of smaller players, who don’t necessarily have the correct safeguards in place to protect that data. Read <ore ? at Motherboard

AT&T says it’ll stop selling location data amid calls for federal investigation – AT&T said Thursday that it will stop selling its customers’ location data to third-party service providers after a report this week said the information was winding up in the wrong hands.

The announcement follows sharp demands by federal lawmakers for an investigation into the alleged misuse of data, which came to light when Motherboard revealed a complex chain of unauthorized information sharing that ended with a bounty hunter successfully tracking down a reporter’s device.

AT&T had already suspended its data-sharing agreements with a number of so-called “location aggregators” last year in light of a congressional probe finding that some of Verizon’s location data was being misused by prison officials to spy on innocent Americans. AT&T also said at the time that it would be maintaining those of its agreements that provided clear consumer benefits, such as location sharing for roadside assistance services.

But AT&T’s announcement Thursday goes much further, pledging to terminate all of the remaining deals it had – even the ones that it said were actively helpful. Read More > at The Inquirer Daily News

Astronomers detect more mystery radio bursts from beyond the Milky Way – Sure enough, astronomers have discovered even more of those mysterious fast radio bursts from outside the Milky Way galaxy. Scientists using the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope have detected 13 different radio bursts, including six repeat bursts from the same location in a galaxy 1.5 billion light years away. Each of those bursts represents about 25 million times more energy than the Sun, and they were collected at the lowest frequencies yet (400MHz to 800MHz)

The achievement is no mean feat given the state of the telescope. The scientists recorded the bursts during a three-week period between July and August of 2018 while CHIME was still in a “pre-commissioning phase.” The project wasn’t yet living up to its full potential, suggesting that there are plenty more bursts to be discovered.

It’s still not certain what creates these bursts. They could be the result of magnetars, or rapidly spinning neutron stars that have been strongly magnetized. Whatever the origin, their detection could provide valuable insights. Until now, there had only been one repeating fast radio burst — this provides valuable data. The University of Toronto’s Cherry Ng also told CNET that evidence of “scattering” (the effect of electrons and magnetic fields on the bursts’ long journey) could help pinpoint their origins. Read More > at Engadget

A New Idea about What Triggers Alzheimer’s – Certain inherited genetic mutations lead to Alzheimer’s disease (AD), but they are relatively rare. A recent study from my laboratory, however, shows that gene alterations that are not passed along by one’s parents may also play a key role in triggering the disease. This happens as a result of a process that occurs in the cell nucleus, known as gene recombination (GR), which can make changes to the DNA “blueprint” in human neurons.

Neuronal GR acts on a gene called APP (amyloid precursor protein), which plays a central role in Alzheimer’s, producing thousands of APP DNA variations. Such variations can occur in the normal brain but are altered further in AD. If our data are confirmed, this would indicate that recombination in these neurons may be involved in the disease process that leads to Alzheimer’s. And our findings point as well to a class of existing medicines, approved for other disorders, which can interrupt GR and thus might be used to treat Alzheimer’s. Read More > at Scientific American

Gavin Newsom deploys strike team to fix ‘chronically mismanaged’ California DMV – California’s new governor signaled on Wednesday he is making the state’s “chronically mismanaged” Department of Motor Vehicles a major priority, announcing the creation of a new team to improve services.

“By any metric, California DMV has been chronically mismanaged and failed in its fundamental mission to the state customers it serves and the state workers it employs,” Newsom said in a statement. “It’s time for a reinvention.”

The news comes as the DMV struggles with a barrage of issues, mostly with issuing federally-mandated Real ID cards and improperly registering Californians to vote through the state’s Motor Voter program. Despite setbacks, the DMV has substantially reduced wait times in recent months.

Newsom said he will also expedite an ongoing performance audit into the DMV. According to his office, he ordered an “accelerated review of early findings within 30 days” of the investigation being led by the Department of Finance.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, has been a vocal critic of the DMV and former Gov. Brown’s role in denying a separate audit request he made in August 2018. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

San Francisco’s Homelessness Tradeoff – Proposition C was approved by 61 percent of voters in November, and Ted Egan, who works out of the controller’s office in San Francisco, estimates it will raise anywhere from $250 to $300 million annually, depending on tax base growth. That money is meant to pay for services to reduce homelessness—housing, mental health care, shelters and rental assistance among the services the city could provide.

The largest, single business tax increase in San Francisco history, the 0.5 percent levy only applies to businesses with more than $50 million in local gross receipts and to corporate headquarters already paying the city’s administrative office tax. That’s only between 300 and 400 businesses among the more than 13,000 already paying a gross receipts tax, according to the city Office of Economic Analysis.

Egan calls the plan “narrowly based” as a result, but it faces legal challenges that could stall the funding for years.

Homelessness has risen sharply in major West Coast cities, and moderately in San Francisco, despite declining nationally the last five years, Egan said.

San Francisco spent $380 million on homeless services in fiscal year 2017-18, and a point-in-time count of the homeless population in March revealed about 7,000 people without shelter.

…On the flip side, the new tax will incentivize some businesses to move or add jobs outside San Francisco for a net average annual loss of 725 to 875 jobs and $200 million to $240 million in GDP during the next two decades, according to Egan’s office. That’s an average loss of 0.1 percent jobs and 0.1 percent GDP a year, which could hurt the city in an economic downturn.

“In a recession, this would be a more painful recession,” Egan said. Read More > at Route Fifty

Sears Gets Another Reprieve, But Mall Owners Just Want It To Go Away Already – Sears has once again avoided the chopping block, but some of its key landlords aren’t cheering.

Sears Holdings Chairman and former CEO Eddie Lampert has reached a deal with attorneys for his hedge fund, ESL Investments, to pay $4.4B to keep 425 locations open as the company’s bankruptcy auction proceeds. The transaction was agreed upon with the condition that Lampert pay $120M in cash Wednesday afternoon, CNN reports.

As Sears has lost money for years, Lampert’s strategy to stem the bleeding has been to close locations and cut costs, which has so far proved unsuccessful. While Macy’s has engineered a turn of fortune by spending money to revamp and adjust to the changing nature of retail, Sears and subsidiary Kmart have gathered dust, as the creditor group including Simon and Brixmor alleged in court documents.

Whether due to disinvestment from Lampert and ESL or the bad press that has surrounded the business for the better part of a decade, significantly fewer shoppers are frequenting Sears. The chain saw an 11% year-over-year drop in Black Friday shoppers this past year,…

Declining foot traffic means that Sears can’t provide the benefits anchor retailers are supposed to provide neighboring tenants, as malls including Sears saw less year-over-year growth in Black Friday shoppers as the nationwide average. Whether through creative re-tenanting or mixed-use redevelopment, many landlords are ready to move on from Sears. Read More > at Bisnow

Pot 101 Update: What are the laws surrounding second-hand marijuana smoke? – California’s recreational marijuana laws went into effect at the start of 2018. But there are still many questions surrounding what’s legal and what’s not.

Earlier this year, we published a Pot 101 guide, which answers some of the most common questions about marijuana. Throughout the year, we’ve continued to update it with answers to readers’ questions.

…As mentioned in our January article, the rules regarding smoking within your residence are different for owners and renters. If you are renting, your landlord can restrict the use of cannabis in or around the property, or completely prohibit it, under Proposition 64.

If you are the owner, you can lawfully smoke within the residence. But, the wafting smoke from your private property can fall under local nuisance ordinances, such as in Sacramento. Any activity on private property that can negatively impact others, such as dogs barking or bad odors, could be considered a nuisance. Some cities, including Sacramento, are considering implementing specific ordinances addressing the issue.

…Neighbors should be concerned about the health risks of breathing in second-hand smoke. Research shows that marijuana smoke exposure does carry pulmonary and cardiovascular health risks.

Dr. Matthew Springer is a researcher in cardiovascular disease at UC San Francisco. He says if you try to keep your kids away from second-hand tobacco smoke, you should keep them away from marijuana smoke as well.

“A lot is not known but what I think most people ignore is that cigarette smoke is a lot more than just nicotine and marijuana smoke is a lot more than just cannabinoids,” Springer said. “And all those chemicals— there’s thousands of chemicals in tobacco smoke, and they’re basically there in the marijuana smoke.” Read More > at PolitiFact

Having Won the War Against Straws, California Mulls a Crackdown on Paper Receipts – Emboldened by successfully restricting access to plastic straws, California’s busybody legislators are now mulling a crackdown on another ubiquitous feature of our consumer society: the paper receipt.

On Monday, Assemblyman Phil Ting (D–San Francisco) introduced a bill that would require businesses to provide their customers with an electronic receipt unless they specifically requested a paper one, in an effort to both cut down on waste and protect human health from the deadly chemicals found on paper receipts.

“It’s common sense legislation. We think it’s minimal cost, and we think it’s really putting the power back in the consumers,” said Ting at a press conference, standing next to an expressionless aide wearing a giant paper receipt costume on which were written fun facts about the bill.

Ting’s bill is modelled explicitly on the state’s recently passed straw-on-request bill, down to the penalties.

…According to a May 2018 report from Green America, America’s yearly receipt usage costs us 10 million trees and another 21 billion gallons of water. The group also warns that some 93 percent of receipts come coated in Bisphenol-S (BPS) or Bisphenol-A (BPA), everyone’s favorite chemicals to hate.

On closer inspection, neither of these data points seem like much to worry about.

The average American uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water a day, which works out to be about 10 to 12 trillion gallons a year for the whole country. About 15 billion trees are estimated to be felled each year globally. Paper receipts are a rounding error.

…Passing some sort of receipt-on-request law will not do much to improve the health of California’s environment or its residents. If anything, it will ensure that more of them are coaxed into giving over their data for an electronic receipt, which will almost certainly increase digital litter in their inboxes. Read More > at Reason

Three PG&E execs retire as utility’s credit slashed to junk rating, bankruptcy speculation swirls – Amid months of a plunging stock and an avalanche of scrutiny following the devastating Camp Fire, three of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s top leadership are retiring this January.

The San Francisco-based utility’s senior vice president of electric operations, Patrick Hogan, is retiring Jan. 28, with his replacement already stepping in Tuesday, according to a filing with the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission. The company’s board of directors elected Michael Lewis, who has served as vice president of electric distribution operations of PG&E since August 2018, to fill the role.

In an internal email obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, the company wrote that Kevin Dasso, PG&E’s vice president of electric asset management, and Gregg Lemler, the vice president of electric transmission, are also retiring. PG&E confirmed the two are also retiring in January. Read More > at the San Francisco Business Times

European By Design: A New Look at the Traditional Transmission Tower – Linemen have constructed large lattice towers worldwide for decades. While they have served their purpose, they have also received growing opposition in Europe, according to BYSTRUP, a design and engineering firm.

Recently, however, new tower designs are gaining traction in Europe. These designs are focused on optimizing aesthetics, the environment, technical feasibility and cost. Some of these designs have moved beyond the research and development phase, and they are now being installed and energized in Denmark and the United Kingdom.

Take a look at some of these new tower designs, which may one day find themselves connected to the American power grid.

Read More > at T&D World

The IoT Data Explosion: How Big Is the IoT Data Market? – A decade ago, it likely seemed unthinkable that our refrigerators could tell us when we were running low on milk, our doorbells could record our visitors, and our audio speaker system could also “accidentally” order toys online. And yet, here we are in the era of the “Internet of Things”, sometimes abbreviated as IoT, where these sorts of devices have exploded in popularity and are literally everywhere.

The Internet of Things typically refers to adding network connectivity to everyday objects or devices that previously were not internet-enabled. As Tony Fadell, founder IoT trailblazing company Nest commented, a hallmark of the Internet of Things space is to work on “unloved” and sometimes “utilitarian” devices (think smoke detectors, doorbells, and other sensors) and add never-before-possible functionality via network connectivity.

And while consumer IoT has received a lot of attention with the prevalence of smart speakers, televisions, and household appliances, the Internet of Things has also arrived at the enterprise as companies are using the internet to track expensive assets and optimize logistics and manufacturing.

The growth of Internet of Things in terms of number of devices, revenue generated, and data produced has been stunning, but most predictions expect that growth to accelerate. The number of connected devices is expected to grow to 50 billion in 2020 (from 8.7 billion in 2012) and the annual revenue from IoT sales is forecast to hit $1.6 trillion by 2025 (from just $200 billion today).

But perhaps most notable of all, the amount of data produced by Internet of Things is expected to reach 4.4 zettabytes by 2020, from just 0.1 zettabytes in 2013. Read More > at Priceonoimcs

How Many Stores Will JC Penney Close? Probably Several Dozen – New J.C. Penney Co. Inc. CEO Jill Soltau has decided to close three stores this spring. That is not very many, given the company’s 860-store footprint in the United States and Puerto Rico. But the closings are not over.

In a statement the company made as part of its holiday same-store sales disclosure, J.C. Penney management added, the three locations will be:

… part of an ongoing evaluation of its store portfolio occurring over the next few months, which includes assessing locations that may not meet required financial targets or represent a market opportunity to capitalize on a beneficial real estate asset. Further information related to future store closings will be shared on Feb. 28 when the Company reports its fourth quarter and fiscal 2018 results.

And the results for the holidays were poor. Holiday sales dropped 5.4% from last year, when calculated by store. That means there must be stores that do not meet the requirements of what is likely to be an analysis of profitability. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

State Threatens Viability of East Bay Green Energy Program – Just as Alameda County was launching a new, publicly owned electricity service offering greener electricity at lower prices than PG&E, state regulators put a big new obstacle in its path. A little-noticed decision in October by the California Public Utilities Commission will raise the monthly “exit fee” that customers of East Bay Community Energy and other “community choice” programs have to pay to utility companies like PG&E.

The fee is intended to compensate the companies for “unavoidable expenses” they incurred to procure electricity for customers who now buy their electricity from community choice agencies. But environmentalists say the higher exit fees threaten the viability of community choice agencies like East Bay Community Energy, which offers renewable energy sources to residents and businesses in Oakland, Berkeley, and nearby cities.

CPUC commissioner Carla Peterman, who proposed the plan, said the changes “insure a more level playing field between customers,” so those who stay with traditional utilities “don’t get stuck paying back the costs for power that was bought for customers who now are served by community choice.”

…Four Bay Area community choice agencies — MCE, Sonoma Clean Power, Peninsula Clean Energy, and CleanPower SF — have joined several statewide advocacy organizations in petitioning the CPUC to reconsider its decision. A spokesperson for the CPUC said it will “consider the applications and make a determination.” Read More > in the East Bay Express

Can Gavin Newsom be the governor of red California? – When Gavin Newsom became governor, he promised in his inaugural address to “represent all Californians, not just those who voted for me.”

That’s a promise he’ll be hard-pressed to keep in a state where voters in urban coastal communities far outnumber those in the rural parts of the state.

Just take a glance at the county-by-county map of November’s governor’s race. There’s a thick blue line down the coast where Newsom steamrolled Republican John Cox in the mega-plexes of the Bay Area, Los Angeles County and San Diego.

But it’s a different story in California’s much more conservative interior, where a few islands of blue dot a sea of Republican red.

In the battle for the state’s 58 counties, Newsom nipped Cox, 30 to 28. In politics, though, size matters. The new governor’s dominance in the population-heavy urban areas brought him nearly 62 percent of the vote, the biggest margin in a California governor’s race since Republican Earl Warren won 65 percent in 1950. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

California governor proposes wildfire investments, 911 fee – California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday pledged fresh investments to prevent, fight and escape wildfires, including millions to help local governments improve their communication during emergencies and a fee to fund an update for the state’s 911 system.

At a fire station in the fire-prone Sierra Nevada foothills, Newsom outlined $105 million in new fire-related spending on top of $200 million approved by lawmakers last year…

Newsom said the budget will include tens of millions of dollars to make up for three years worth of property tax losses in Butte and Lake Counties, which have been hit by multiple fires in recent years.

Newsom said he’ll invest millions to develop better communications strategies and improve emergency alert systems with the goal of bringing “more consistency” to the system.

He’ll also put $10 million toward digitizing the state’s 911 system, which is still analog. But he said a full digitization will likely require a fee on consumers, something the Legislature tried and failed to pass last year.

Newsom said he won’t try to enact the fee this year, but he hopes it will be in place by 2020. Raising taxes or fees requires approval from two-thirds of lawmakers, a high hurdle. Read More > from the Associated Press

After guilty verdict, prosecutors seek to strip Mongols biker gang of trademarked logo – Federal prosecutors in California pressed ahead with a novel attempt to dismantle an outlaw motorcycle club, arguing to jurors that the group should be stripped of trademarks it owns on its coveted insignia as punishment for operating a criminal organization.

Last month, at the end of a lengthy trial, a jury in Santa Ana convicted the Mongols motorcycle club of racketeering and conspiracy charges, finding the group shared responsibility for several violent acts and drug crimes committed by individual Mongol members.

Following the guilty verdict, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter had jurors return to court this week to make another decision: Whether the club’s insignia was linked closely enough to the crimes to warrant forcing the Mongols to forfeit the group’s trademarks to the U.S. government.

If there is one thing on which both sides in the case agree it is that the club’s trademarked logo — a Ghengis Khan figure in sunglasses riding a motorcycle beneath the group’s name in large block letters — is the cornerstone of the Mongols’ identity. Only members are permitted to wear large patches of the insignia on the back of their riding vests — an unmistakable totem in the insular, hierarchical world of motorcycle clubs, in which full-fledged members lord their superiority over aspiring plebes and rival clubs often clash violently in turf battles. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

How author Brad Meltzer uncovered the secret plot to kill George Washington – …When it happened, George Washington rounded up those responsible. He took one of the main conspirators and he hung him in front of 20,000 people – the largest public execution at that point in North American history,” Meltzer said Tuesday on “CBS This Morning.” “He brought the hammer down, was like, ‘I’m George Washington. Don’t mess with me. I’m going to be on the money one day.'”

So how did the story of the plot get lost in history?

“Hanging happened on June 28, 1776. Guess what was happening in the world? The Declaration of Independence. The British were literally there and this gets lost to it,” Meltzer said.

The book details an effort to undermine the American Revolution just before the signing of the Declaration of Independence and with British troops about to invade New York City. The plot connects counterfeiters, leading New York politicians and even the future president’s own bodyguards. At the time, Washington had private bodyguards, Meltzer said, who were the “best of the best” from his regiments.

“These were the men who turned on him. They were called the lifeguards because they guarded George Washington’s life. And I don’t care how strong you are — when your inner circle turns on you, it is devastating,” Meltzer said. Read More > at CBS News

Rural Recycling Hit Hard by Shifting Scrap Market – …China, for decades the world’s largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal, last year stopped accepting certain kinds of recyclables and tightened its standards for impurities in scrap bales. In making the changes, China’s Ministry of Environment Protection cited environmental damage caused by “dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes” mixed in with solid waste that can be recycled into raw materials.

Many Americans now have access to single-stream recycling, which spares them the trouble of sorting and separating plastics, paper, glass and metal. But single-stream recycling has created headaches for Chinese processors. Even after sorting at a U.S. recycling facility, a plastic container might make it into a shipment of tin cans. Glass breaks, and shards are mixed in with pieces of paper.

The industry standard for contamination typically ranges between 1 and 5 percent. Under the new policy, China’s standard is 0.5 percent.

Recyclers have stockpiled certain materials while they look for buyers. Some types of scraps have declined in value, while others have become worthless. Many large cities have just absorbed the losses, fearing that passing on the cost to residents would discourage recycling.

Small towns can’t bear that financial burden.

Instead, they’ve had to scale back the types of recyclables they accept or have started charging fees to cover the ballooning costs of their programs. The result is a growing disparity between the recycling services available to city dwellers and those for rural and small-town residents. Read More > at Route Fifty

The “skills gap” was a lie – Five or six years ago, everyone from the US Chamber of Commerce to the Obama White House was talking about a “skills gap.”

The theory here was that high unemployment reflected a structural shift in the labor market such that jobs were available, but workers simply didn’t have the right education or training for them. Harvard Business Review ran articles about this — including articles rebutting people who said the “skills gap” didn’t exist — and big companies like Siemens ran paid sponsor content in the Atlantic explaining how to fix the skills gap.

But nothing was really done to transform the American education system, and no enormous investment was made in retraining unemployed workers. And yet the unemployment rate kept steadily falling in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 as continued low interest rates from the Federal Reserve let a demand-side recovery continue. Donald Trump became president, injected a bunch of new fiscal stimulus on both the spending and tax sides, and in 2017 and 2018 the unemployment rate kept falling and the labor force participation rate kept rising.

Now along comes a new paper from Alicia Sasser Modestino, Daniel Shoag, and Joshua Ballance presented this week at the American Economics Association’s annual conference that shows the skeptics were right all along — employers responded to high unemployment by making their job descriptions more stringent. When unemployment went down thanks to the demand-side recovery, suddenly employers got more relaxed again. Read More > at Vox

U.S. Cancer Incidence and Death Rates Fall to a 25-Year Low – “The overall cancer death rate dropped continuously from 1991 to 2016 by a total of 27 percent, translating into approximately 2,629,200 fewer cancer deaths than would have been expected if death rates had remained at their peak,” notes the American Cancer Society (ACS) in its latest annual update of cancer mortality and incidence statistics. In 1991, the cancer death rate stood at 215 per 100,000 people and has fallen in 2016 to 156 per 100,000 people. The report also notes that the cancer death rate between 2007 and 2016 for both women and men declined annually by 1.4 and 1.8 percent, respectively.

In addition, the ACS reports that the cancer incidence rate between 2006 and 2015 for women has been stable while dropping by approximately 2 percent per year for men. In other words, the modern world is not producing an epidemic of cancer as predicted by so many activists.

Most of the decline in both incidence and mortality is due to reductions in smoking tobacco (which increases the risk of a number of cancers, particularly lung cancer) and advances in the early detection and treatment of cancer. According to the report, LiveScience notes, lung cancer death rates have dropped by 48 percent among men from 1990 to 2016; and 23 percent among women from 2002 to 2016. Breast cancer death rates dropped 40 percent among women from 1989 to 2016; prostate cancer death rates dropped by 51 percent among men from 1993 to 2016; and colorectal cancer death rates dropped by 53 percent among both men and women from 1970 to 2016. The reduction in death rates for breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer reflect the use of screening tests that result in earlier detection and, in the case of colorectal cancer, the removal of precancerous polyps during colonoscopy. Read More > at Reason

End of the year, end of the line: Companies we lost in 2018 – The growth of a business rarely happens in a vacuum. The rise of one company often means the fall of another.

For many business owners, the year 2018 marked the end of the line. Operating plans were scrapped and doors were closed as the landscape of business failed to play out as intended.

You can look back at some of these stories, as told by The Business Journals publications over the past year, through the gallery presented here.

Companies we lost: Year in Review 2018

Not included in the gallery are the many businesses still in operation but for which 2018 meant a time — and a need — to restructure. Many of these companies are nationally known retailers facing the continued challenges of consumers’ changing buying habits.

That list of companies, and their turning points, includes:

Claire’s files for bankruptcy

David’s Bridal plans bankruptcy filing

Mattress Firm to close hundreds of stores, offers details on potential locations

Nine West files for bankruptcy protection

Lowe’s CEO starts his retail strategy by closing 51 underperforming stores

Gun maker Remington files for bankruptcy

Rite Aid, Walgreens make $5.2B store sale deal as merger is called off

Sears files for bankruptcy, will close 142 stores

Toys ‘R’ Us will close all stores, 33,000 American jobs at stake

Read More > at San Francisco Business Times

Why United States Steel, Nucor Corporation, and the Rest of the U.S. Steel Sector Got Slammed in December – Nucor Corporation one of the largest and most diversified domestic steel mills, saw its stock price fall around 14% in December, according to data provided by S&P Global Market Intelligence. That was the low end for the steel group, with fellow electric arc mill owner Steel Dynamics down just under 15%, and blast-furnace-focused United States Steel and AK Steel Holdings dropping roughly 21% and 27%, respectively.

The interesting thing is that steel mills are generally doing quite well today, with Nucor expecting to report record earnings in 2018 and making big expansion plans. It’s not alone: Steel Dynamics has been hitting on all cylinders lately, too, and is also making plans to expand its business via ground-up construction. U.S. Steel has even brought shuttered mills back on line to help meet demand it expects to materialize in the near future

There are two stories underpinning these results. The first is tariffs put in place by the White House. Imported steel has been a major headwind to domestic steelmakers in recent years, and the levies have helped to reduce competition from lower-priced foreign products. The steel industry would like to see more tariffs, as it believes the foreign steel is cheap because of unfair support from foreign governments to their local steel industries. With the volume of steel imports down around 11% through the first nine months of 2018, this has definitely been a key support for U.S. steelmakers’ results.

But there’s a bigger issue at play: economic growth. Over the last two years or so, the U.S. economy has picked up following a long period of positive but historically slow growth. Steel, which is used in everything from cars to construction, is highly sensitive to economic swings. The faster the economy is running, the more steel is likely to be needed. In fact, Nucor CEO John Ferriola laid it out quite clearly during his company’s third-quarter 2018 conference call: “The continued strength of the U.S. economy is the primary catalyst for our earnings growth.”

And that’s why increasing concerns that U.S. economic growth could slow again became a problem for the U.S. steel group in December. One key factor in the month was the fear that the Federal Reserve’s sticking to its interest rate hike trajectory would be the catalyst for the long expansion’s demise. And with the heavy spending taking place in the steel industry on new production and increasing scale at existing mills, investors worried that companies like Nucor, Steel Dynamics, and U.S. Steel were shifting into expansion mode at the worst possible time. No wonder there was a steep price decline in December. Read More > at The Motley Fool

The Rich Never Actually Paid 70 Percent – Several Washington commentators kicked off the 115th Congress by rallying behind a newly proposed 70 percent top marginal income tax rate on the wealthiest earners. The 70 percent tax rate figures prominently in the financial equation behind the “Green New Deal” proposal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While a tax hike of this level is unlikely to clear the Republican-controlled Senate, it also portends a return to highly redistributive fiscal policy as a mainstay for the Democratic majority in the House.

The 70 percent rate would only apply to income earnings above an as-yet undetermined threshold, but it would nearly double the current top marginal rate of 37 percent. Supporters of this extreme hike have attempted to soften its radicalism by appealing to history.

Between 1936 and 1981, they note, the top marginal rate never dipped below 70 percent. In the decade after World War II, it even reached an all-time high of 90 percent on income earnings above $200,000 (or roughly $2 million in today’s dollars). Citing the prosperity of the mid-century United States, these progressive activists contend that our economy can absorb similar confiscatory rates today provided that they are only assessed on the wealthiest earners.

…Yet this historical narrative is both simplistic and wrong. It relies upon a confusion between the statutory tax rate (i.e., the number that’s on the statute books) and the effective tax rate (i.e., the percentage of income that people actually pay once exemptions, deductions, and other tax-code incentives are accounted for).

Although statutory rates were extremely high between World War II and the Reagan-era tax cuts, practically nobody actually paid the taxman’s full sticker price on their earnings. Instead, a plethora of intentional tax exemptions, deductions, and legal income shelters ensured that wealthy individuals paid a much lower effective tax rate.

How much lower are we talking about exactly? Let’s take an example from 1963, the last year that top rates exceeded the 90 percent high water mark. A single filer in the $1 million bracket ($8.2 million today) faced a rate of 91 percent for every dollar earned over $200,000. While the statutory rate dropped for earnings below $200,000, it did not drop much. The 72 percent rate’s threshold kicked in at $44,000 (about $360,000 today). A 50 percent rate applied to single-filer earnings above $16,000 (about $130,000 today), with several other rate jumps as you attained higher income thresholds in between.
While it might appear that these statutory rates ensured that the wealthiest filers had to turn the majority of their earnings over to the government, effective tax rates indicate otherwise. Persons in the $1 million income filing bracket in 1963 faced an average effective tax rate of just over 40 percent of their adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year. Read More > from the AIER

Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think? – A few years ago, the National Academy of Medicine convened a panel of sixteen leading medical experts to analyze the scientific literature on cannabis. The report they prepared, which came out in January of 2017, runs to four hundred and sixty-eight pages. It contains no bombshells or surprises, which perhaps explains why it went largely unnoticed. It simply stated, over and over again, that a drug North Americans have become enthusiastic about remains a mystery.

For example, smoking pot is widely supposed to diminish the nausea associated with chemotherapy. But, the panel pointed out, “there are no good-quality randomized trials investigating this option.” We have evidence for marijuana as a treatment for pain, but “very little is known about the efficacy, dose, routes of administration, or side effects of commonly used and commercially available cannabis products in the United States.” The caveats continue. Is it good for epilepsy? “Insufficient evidence.” Tourette’s syndrome? Limited evidence. A.L.S., Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s? Insufficient evidence. Irritable-bowel syndrome? Insufficient evidence. Dementia and glaucoma? Probably not. Anxiety? Maybe. Depression? Probably not.

Then come Chapters 5 through 13, the heart of the report, which concern marijuana’s potential risks. The haze of uncertainty continues. Does the use of cannabis increase the likelihood of fatal car accidents? Yes. By how much? Unclear. Does it affect motivation and cognition? Hard to say, but probably. Does it affect employment prospects? Probably. Will it impair academic achievement? Limited evidence. This goes on for pages.

Figuring out the “dose-response relationship” of a new compound is something a pharmaceutical company does from the start of trials in human subjects, as it prepares a new drug application for the F.D.A. Too little of a powerful drug means that it won’t work. Too much means that it might do more harm than good. The amount of active ingredient in a pill and the metabolic path that the ingredient takes after it enters your body—these are things that drugmakers will have painstakingly mapped out before the product comes on the market, with a tractor-trailer full of supporting documentation.

With marijuana, apparently, we’re still waiting for this information. It’s hard to study a substance that until very recently has been almost universally illegal. And the few studies we do have were done mostly in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, when cannabis was not nearly as potent as it is now. Because of recent developments in plant breeding and growing techniques, the typical concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has gone from the low single digits to more than twenty per cent—from a swig of near-beer to a tequila shot.

…When it comes to cannabis, the best-case scenario is that we will muddle through, learning more about its true effects as we go along and adapting as needed—the way, say, the once extraordinarily lethal innovation of the automobile has been gradually tamed in the course of its history. For those curious about the worst-case scenario, Alex Berenson has written a short manifesto, “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence.” Read More > in The New Yorker

The economy is booming. Why are so many California schools broke? – Facing a $36 million deficit and a possible state takeover, the top budget officer at the Sacramento City Unified School District has a sober message for his counterparts around California.

Sacramento is “just one of the first dominoes,” said John Quinto, the district’s chief business officer.

By any measure, Sacramento City’s distress is worse than the vast majority of California school districts.

But Quinto’s warning hints at looming problems for many more: The costs of pensions, health care and special education outpace new revenue they’re receiving from the state and they put some schools on a trajectory for red ink.

…The state’s education budget is governed by Proposition 98, the 1988 initiative that sets school funding based on a formula that accounts for the overall state general fund, student attendance and growth in personal income.

That netted K-12 schools $78.4 billion in the budget outgoing Gov. Jerry Brown signed in June, up from $56.6 billion in 2007-08. The Legislative Analyst’s Office in a November report projected another $2.4 billion increase in the 2019-20 budget.

Despite the revenue boost, schools from Sacramento to San Diego are reporting shaky finances. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Analysis: What could go wrong for Gavin Newsom? Plenty – Gavin Newsom starts his gubernatorial career as the political equivalent of a trust-fund baby. He’s been given a ton — a budget surplus of more than $14 billion and a Democratic supermajority in the Legislature — before his term even begins.

But despite that head start, Newsom will face many challenges after he is sworn in as California’s 40th governor at 12:02 p.m. Monday. One of every 5 Californians lives in poverty, and 3 million don’t have health insurance. Skyrocketing prices are putting homeownership out of reach for many, and the homeless population is spreading from cities to small towns. The public school system is among the most poorly funded in the country. Increasingly lethal wildfires threaten broad swaths of the state.

Those Democrats who dominate the Legislature are itching to spend after eight years of being held back by a tightfisted Gov. Jerry Brown. Newsom has promised not to stray from his predecessor’s fiscal responsibility. But he’s also promised to back universal health care, expand state funding for preschools, make community colleges free and build 3.5 million housing units by 2025.

Paying for big ideas: Newsom says housing, homelessness and prekindergarten education are among his top initial priorities. None comes cheap.

Start with Newsom’s desire to have free preschool for all children whose families don’t make enough to afford private alternatives. Expanding the program that now pays for preschool for 175,000 children could cost the state about $1.3 billion over three years to cover an additional 100,000 children, according to Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who has proposed legislation to do just that.

Then there’s health care.Early in the campaign, Newsom told the California Nurses Association convention in San Francisco that “you have my firm and absolute commitment as your next governor that I will lead the effort to get it done. We will get universal health care.”

The powerful nurses union has in mind a system in which the state would be the sole organizer of health care delivery, also known as the single-payer model or Medicare for all. But that idea died in the Legislature in 2017 when no one could figure out how to pay its multibillion-dollar cost, and Newsom later tempered his enthusiasm for the approach, telling The Chronicle it would take years to get there. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Smoking is at a record low in the U.S., but the benefits aren’t shared equally – Cigarette smoking is at an all-time low in the United States, but the benefits of this public health achievement are not being shared equally by all Americans.

A new analysis of health data from the nation’s 500 largest cities shows that the people who live in neighborhoods with the highest smoking rates are more likely to be poor, less likely to be white, and more likely to have chronic heart or lung diseases.

…They found that smoking was more popular in some census tracts than others — and that there were certain things these census tracts had in common.

For starters, the people living in neighborhoods with higher smoking rates tended to make less money than people in neighborhoods with lower smoking rates. The researchers calculated that a $10,000 increase in a census tract’s median household income corresponded with a 0.92 percentage-point decrease in smoking prevalence.

In addition, neighborhoods with higher smoking rates were more likely to be populated by African Americans and Latinos, while the reverse was true for non-Hispanic whites. A 10 percentage-point increase in a census tract’s white population corresponded with a 0.84 percentage-point decrease in the prevalence of smoking. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

‘The Dog Wears Prada’: $1,500-a-month doggy daycare prompts growls in San Francisco – When signage for Doggy Style began popping up in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood last month, it was accompanied with the usual grumbling and eye-rolling about the city’s nouveau riche.

After all, a private members-only doggy daycare offering an “innovative dog experience” for up to $1,500 a month in a city in the midst of a humanitarian crisis over homelessness smacks of a well-groomed French bulldog yipping: “Let them eat kibble.”

Noe Valley SF, a hyperlocal blog, decried the Doggy Style co-owner Rachel Swann for “bringing ridicule” to the neighborhood, while comments on an SFGate article about the business ranged from scoffing at “people with too much time and money” to the vaguely threatening: “When the Bolsheviks are looking for the first people to shoot, club members will be at the top of the list.”

While critics were quick to lambast Doggy Style’s prices as exorbitant, its pricing is actually in line with other doggy daycare in San Francisco. High-end daytime dog care is a thriving and competitive market in a city fueled by tech wealth and disposable income.

When Doggy Style launches this month, it will be one of at least a dozen businesses that specifically offer “playcare” during work hours within the city’s 47 square miles. Read More > in The Guardian

The Future of Crime-Fighting Is Family Tree Forensics – In April, a citizen scientist named Barbara Rae-Venter used a little-known genealogy website called GEDMatch to help investigators find a man they’d been looking for for nearly 40 years: The Golden State Killer. In the months since, law enforcement agencies across the country have flocked to the technique, arresting a flurry of more than 20 people tied to some of the most notorious cold cases of the last five decades. Far from being a forensic anomaly, genetic genealogy is quickly on its way to becoming a routine police procedure. At least one company has begun offering a full-service genetic genealogy shop to law enforcement clients. And Rae-Venter’s skills are in such high demand that she’s started teaching her secrets to some of the biggest police forces in the US, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Identifying individuals from their distant genetic relatives, a technique called long-range familial searching, is a potent alternative to the types of DNA searches commonly available to cops. Those are typically limited to forensic databases, which can only identify close kin—a sibling, parent, or child—and are highly regulated. No court order is required to mine GEDMatch’s open source trove of potential leads, which, unlike forensic databases, contains genetic bits of code that can be tied to health data and other personally identifiable information.

Currently, there aren’t any laws that regulate how law enforcement employs long-range familial searching, which hobbyists and do-gooders have turned to for years to find the biological families of adoptees. But some legal experts argue its use in criminal cases raises grave privacy concerns. They expect to see a legal challenge at some point, though probably not in the next year. In the meantime, GEDMatch is becoming even more powerful, as it grows by nearly a thousand new uploads every day. And with hundreds more cases currently in the hands of full-time family-tree builders, one thing’s for sure: In 2019, genealogy is going to send a lot more people to jail. Read More > at Wired

State’s Population Growth Continues Sluggish Pace – California’s population has grown to an estimated 39.6 million to 39.8 million, according to newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the state’s Department of Finance. That represents an annual growth rate of 0.4% in 2017-2018, down from 0.9% in 2010-2011. Since 2010, the state has added just 2.3 million people, placing its overall growth rate (6.1%) virtually on par on with that of the nation’s (5.96%).

According to the latest figures, Riverside County saw the largest population gain statewide. Its population now stands at 27,386. Los Angeles County saw its population drop by two-thirds to 10.28 million, but it remains the most populous county in California.

California’s population growth has been steadily slowing since the 1990’s thanks to declining immigration, increasing outmigration, plummeting birth rates, and an aging populace. While slower population growth could relieve pressures on housing and demands for public services, it also means a smaller pool of workers, fewer taxpayers, and the possible loss of a congressional seat. Read More > at California County news

December Hiring Robust, Wages Increase, Yet Unemployment Rises – The U.S. economy expanded by 312,000 jobs in December, though the unemployment rate inched up to 3.9%, its highest level since July. The latest Labor Department numbers showed an annual 3.2% boost in wages, following nearly a decade of lukewarm growth.

All told, 2018 was the best year for job creation since 2015. The numbers included an expansion of 2.6 million jobs and a labor participation rate that increased to 63.1% in December, up from 62.9% in November.

Employment in healthcare rose by 50,000 in December. Employment in food services and drinking places increased by 41,000 in December. Over the year, the industry added 235,000 jobs, similar to the increase in 2017 (+261,000).

Construction employment rose by 38,000 in December, with job gains in heavy and civil engineering construction (+16,000) and nonresidential specialty trade construction (+16,000). The construction industry added 280,000 jobs in 2018, compared with an increase of 250,000 in 2017.

Manufacturing added 32,000 jobs in December. Manufacturing employment increased by 284,000 over the year, with about three-fourths of the gain in durable goods industries. Manufacturing had added 207,000 jobs in 2017. Read More > at Connect California

Main Street’s hiring woes show US labor market’s growing muscle – For the first time, a shrinking talent pool is the biggest concern of mid-size companies assessing the year ahead, according to the JPMorgan Chase Business Leaders Outlook released Monday. It outstripped even the perennial challenge of increasing sales and revenue, showing that a decade-long economic recovery is finally starting to benefit rank-and-file workers, who can now command a larger salary.

“It’s something that economists have been expecting,” Jim Glassman, senior economist at the New York-based lender — the country’s largest, told the Washington Examiner. “When it’s hard to find workers, businesses work harder to try to find them, and pay is one of the things that makes that happen.”

…Indeed, 66 percent of mid-size businesses plan to hire more full-time workers this year, and some 80 percent plan to ramp up compensation, JPMorgan found. Small business owners, garnering from $100,000 to $20 million a year, were more conservative, the lender said: Just 36 percent plan to hire more employees and only 41 percent expect to raise wages.

While protectionist trade polices have pinched some smaller companies — toolmakers relying on metal imports, for example, that cost more after double-digit tariffs on steel and aluminum — most operators remain confident.

Nearly 73 percent of mid-sized companies described themselves as optimistic about the U.S. economy in 2019. While that’s a drop of 16 points from last year, it still encompasses nearly three-fourths of such firms. Read More > in the Washington Examiner

What a PG&E Bankruptcy Would Mean – On November 8, shares of PG&E Corp. (NYSE: PCG) closed near $49. A week later the closed at just over $17. What happened in between may lead the largest gas and electric utility in northern California to file for bankruptcy protection.

Late Friday, Reuters published an exclusive report that the company considering filing for bankruptcy as a result of devastating and deadly forest fires in 2017 and 2018 that could cost the utility billions in liabilities related to the fires. Also on Friday, PG&E said it would hire a search firm to find new directors for the company’s board to broaden its perspective and to beef up its fire protection processes.

The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001 following a run-up in wholesale electricity prices that were later linked to Enron’s manipulation of the California power market. Then-governor Gray Davis used state funds to bail out PG&E and paid the price at the ballot box, losing to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the next election. PG&E ultimately paid more than $10 billion to creditors on its exit from bankruptcy. The company’s customers each paid an estimated $1,300 to $1,700 over a period of nine years in the form of a surcharge on their electricity bills.

New governor Gavin Newsom is unlikely to want to follow in Davis’s footsteps and may be willing to let PG&E go through with a debtor-in-possession plan. The catch, of course, is who will eventually pay: PG&E shareholders or PG&E customers? How California answers that question this time around is the big question. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

China’s Gulag for Muslims – One of the darkest episodes of the 20th century was the gulag — the Soviet system of forced labor camps where dissidents were imprisoned in terrible conditions, often to perish. The camps were established by Lenin, expanded by Stalin and finally exposed to the world by the great Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with his 1973 masterpiece, “The Gulag Archipelago.”

Today, Russia’s gulags are long gone, as is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that operated them. But now another dictatorship, ruled by another Communist Party, is operating a new chain of prisons that evoke memory of the gulags — more modern, more high-tech, but no less enslaving.

These are China’s “re-education camps,” established in the far-western Xinjiang region, where up to a million Chinese are reportedly imprisoned in order to be indoctrinated. People are forced to listen to ideological lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write “self-criticism” essays. Survivors also tell about military-style discipline, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, beatings and torture.

The target of this mass persecution is China’s Muslim minorities — especially the Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people based in Xinjiang. They follow a mainstream, moderate interpretation of Sunni Islam. But that is enough of a “mental illness” for Chinese Communists, whose ideology considers all religions, including Christianity, to be backward superstitions that must be diluted and nationalized. That is why they go as far as forbidding people from having beards or fasting during Ramadan, and forcing them to consume pork and alcohol, both of which are forbidden in Islam.

And here is the strangest aspect of this story: China’s “re-education” policy is a major attack on Muslim people and their faith, Islam, yet the Muslim world has remained largely silent. While the policy has been condemned by human rights groups and the liberal news media in the West, along with Uighur organizations themselves, only a few Muslim leaders, like the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim and Pakistan’s minister of religion, Noorul Haq Qadri, have raised some public concerns. Not until last month did the Organization of Islamic Cooperation finally express concern about “the disturbing reports on the treatment of Muslims” by China. Read More > in The New York Times

6 Popular Dog Myths, Debunked – 1. Dogs are completely color blind. – While many movies have tried to convince us that dogs are completely color blind, that actually isn’t true. Dogs are partially color blind, but have the ability to see yellow, green, and blue or combinations of those colors. As motion and brightness are more important for dogs, their partial color blindness does not affect them much.

2. A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s mouth. – While most germs in a dog’s mouth are dog-specific and harmless to a human being, that doesn’t mean that a dog’s mouth is actually cleaner than a human’s. They’re both filled with a fairly equal amount of bacteria—not all of which can be transmitted between species…

3. . One human year equals seven dog years. – Many dog owners automatically give two ages when asked how old their dog is: human years and “dog years” (the latter of which they calculate as human years times seven). According to Jesse Grady, clinical instructor of veterinary medicine at Mississippi State University, the best way to describe a dog’s age is to sort it into a category.

The American Animal Hospital Association Canine Life Stages Guidelines is what many veterinarians use to treat their patients. This list divides a dog’s lifespan into six stages: puppy, junior, adult, mature, senior, and geriatric. And rate of maturation looks a lot different in dogs than it does in people. It takes a less than a year for a dog to reach the adult stage, and after that it takes nearly six years for it to move on to the mature stage of its life. In other words: “Dog years” depend on the dog itself. Read More > at Mental Floss

Brown cut retirement debt bigger than pensions – Most large private-sector companies and some government employers do not provide retiree health care. But state workers not only get state-paid health care in retirement, they often pay less for it than they did while working.

On the job, the state usually pays 80 percent of the average worker health care premium. The state pays 100 percent of the average retiree premium and 90 percent for dependents, if the worker had 20 years or more of service.

Since most state workers can retire at age 50, the current state retiree premium payment of $21,456 a year for a family of three or more is a particularly good deal for those who choose early retirement. Read More > at Calpensions

As California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom needs to address what no one wants to talk about – There’ll be heaps of happy talk in Sacramento this month about bold new, expensive government programs. That’s normal from an eager new governor and Legislature.

Too bad there won’t also be some bitter truth spoken about the crucial need for state government to correct festering old mistakes that threaten or already are damaging California.

But like politics and religion at some family holiday dinners, certain subjects are taboo among most politicians — such as unfunded public pension liabilities, regulatory abuse that stymies economic development and a sick, decrepit state tax code.

Democrat Gavin Newsom is anxious to inaugurate his gubernatorial regime with a popular package of programs aimed at expanding early education and childcare. He envisions a $1.5-billion one-time expense, plus $300 million in annual costs. Vital details to come.

When legislators talk about passing such an ambitious program, however, they peg annual costs at $1 billion to $2 billion.

Pre-kindergarten and childcare programs are commendable if the state can afford them without jeopardizing the treasury or forcing yet another tax increase. And that’s debatable.

…The problem is that two decades ago state and local politicians promised public employees a lot more than pension funds could afford. There’s an obvious conflict: Politicians get big hunks of campaign money from public employee unions.

Today, California’s public pension systems are badly underfunded. Under the best scenarios, they owe roughly $3 in promised benefits for every $2 in projected assets. The total unfunded liabilities for all state and local pension systems in California range from $330 billion to $1 trillion, depending on how they’re calculated.

…The options are ugly: Trim pensions, raise taxes, increase employee and government contributions or cut other public programs such as education. Local governments could also go bankrupt and slash retiree benefits.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature took at stab at a partial fix in 2012. They enacted some modest reforms that made pensions less generous for future state employees. Read More > in The Los Angeles Times

Will Half Of All Colleges Really Close In The Next Decade? – Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs. Indeed, the average tuition discount rate was a whopping 49.9% for first-time, full-time freshmen in 2017–18, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. That means that students are paying roughly only half of what colleges and universities say they charge. A tuition discount rate above 35% puts a college in a danger zone, particularly when it is heavily dependent on tuition. Many institutions have discount rates far above that now.

What makes this even worse is that the natural pressure in higher education is for costs to increase—thanks to the lack of economies of scale and the complexity of higher education operations.

According to Moody’s, at least 25% of private colleges are now running deficits. At public colleges, even in a good economy, expenses have outpaced revenue the past three years. And Moody’s examines only the stronger players in higher education—the 500 or so that issue debt through the public markets.

On top of that, demographics are beginning to work against traditional colleges and universities. The pool of 18-year-olds is starting to decline—with precipitous declines in certain regions forecast to begin in 2026. That’s a recipe for disaster for two reasons. Read More > from Forbes

Social Media (Again) Shown To Be Worse For Girls’ Mental Health Than Boys’ – We’ve heard it before: As much as it may be handy for keeping in touch with old classmates or family members, social media seems to do more harm than good, psychologically, especially for young people. And the refrain is increasingly common, not just from the friend everyone has who’s quit Facebook and never been happier, but from multiple research studies over several years (and, if you count it, from some of the developers of social media themselves who have sounded loud warnings about its risks).

Now, a new study from the University of Essex and University College London finds that teenagers who spend more hours a day on social media have a greater risk for depression, and the connection appears to be particularly pronounced for girls.

In general, girls used social media more than boys, with 40% of girls, and 20% of boys, using it for more than three hours per day. Only 4% of girls reported abstaining completely, compared to 10% of boys.

And the more a person used social media, the greater their likelihood for experiencing depression symptoms: 12% of light social media users and 38% of heavy social media users had depression symptoms. The team found that three to five hours of social media per day was linked to a 26% increase in depression scores in girls, vs. 21% in boys, compared to kids who just used it from one to three hours/day. For more than five hours/day of social media, the increase in depression score rose to 50% for girls and 35% for boys. Read More > at Forbes

Report: California Utility Exploring Sale Of Gas Division, HQ To Cover Damages From Wildfire Claims – In an effort to address liability costs from recent California wildfires, Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, could sell its gas division and sell off real estate assets including its San Francisco headquarters, NPR reported Friday.

PG&E is under investigation related to the cause of the Camp Fire that ripped through the town of Paradise in November, growing to become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. The company faces possible murder charges related to the 85 confirmed deaths from that fire.

The state’s fire agency has determined that the company’s equipment was responsible for several Northern California wildfires in 2017.

Now, according to anonymous sources quoted by NPR, the company is having internal discussions about selling off the natural gas division and/or selling its HQ building in the spring to cover those costs and avoid bankruptcy. The proceeds from the sale would be used to create a fund that would be used to pay off potential claims from the 2017 and 2018 fires, which could reach an estimated $15B, NPR reports.

If the company sells its San Francisco headquarters, it could move operations elsewhere in the Bay Area. Read More > at Bisnow

Places Where Flu Activity Has Been the Highest – While many public health departments around the nation have been reporting a slow start to the flu season, they know they’re not out of the woods by a long shot.

“We’ve had some influenza in the community, and we have treated some patients in the emergency department, as well as in-patients with influenza, but not by the sheer numbers that we’ve seen in years past,” Dr. Thomas Tobin, chief medical officer at Community Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, told WesternSlopeNow.com in an interview, noting that the peak happens sometimes between December and February. “Sometimes it hits a little later in January or February, so not sure what to make of it currently,” he said.

The Walgreens Flu Index, using statistics current through Dec. 29, showed the Top 10 designated market areas with high levels of influenza activity concentrated in Alabama, Kentucky, Nebraska, Texas and Tennessee. Read More > at Route Fifty   

About Kevin

Councilmember - City of Oakley, Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-POSCO INDUSTRIES, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Commissioner - Contra Costa Transportation Authority, Board Member - Tri Delta Transit, Transplan, San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority and RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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