Sunday Reading 03/10/19

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.

Amazon’s joint healthcare organization is called ‘Haven’ – Last year, Amazon announced a healthcare venture with Warren Buffet and JPMorgan Chase. It was still in the planning stages at the time, but now the tech giant and its partners are finally ready to present their project to the public. They’ve named their venture “Haven,” and according to the websitethey’ve launched along with the revelation, the name “reflects [their] goal to be a partner to individuals and families and help them get the care they need, while also working with clinicians and others to make the overall system better for all.”

Haven, the website says, is a nonprofit that aims to make primary care easier to access, make prescription drugs more affordable and insurance benefits easier to understand. When the partners first announced the endeavor, they said they want to accomplish those goals with the help of technology. That hasn’t changed: they explained that they’re looking at new ways to use data and technology to better the healthcare system.

The organization will start with addressing the healthcare needs of 1.2 million Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase workers in the US. Ultimately, the partners intend to use whatever they learn from that initial period and the solutions they come up with to improve the system for everyone. Read More > at Engadget

Scientists Still Stumped By The Evolution of Human Breasts – “How about breasts?” The question came from a jock-y guy in one of my graduate school classes on human evolution.

Far from offensive, the query was appropriate and astute. My classmates and I nodded approval, and the professor added it to a growing list on the board.

We were brainstorming features that distinguish our species, Homo sapiens, from other primates. That list includes human peculiarities like big brains, upright walking, language, furless bodies … and permanently enlarged breasts after puberty.

In other primate species, only pregnant or lactating females have bosoms. The animals stay flat-chested for the rest of their lives. In humans, pubescent girls accumulate fat around their milk glands, which stays for life and seems to hold sex appeal in every culture. Those permanent, alluring mounds of fat on women’s chests are indeed an evolutionary anomaly, begging for an explanation. Read More > at Discover

New Bill Would Create a Regional Housing Government for the Bay Area – State lawmakers are proposing to create a housing agency for the San Francisco Bay Area, with the ability to impose regional taxes to fund development, local planning and tenant assistance.

The legislation, set to be unveiled on Thursday, would create a new agency to address a problem felt by residents in all of the region’s nine counties. Assembly Bill 1487 is the cornerstone of a controversial regional housing agenda being pursued at the state Capitol.

“It is central to what we’re trying to do with a regional approach,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, who authored the bill.

The idea for the regional entity — dubbed the Housing Alliance for the Bay Area (HABA) — was birthed from CASA, a committee of elected officials, developers and affordable housing advocates who drew up a set of ideas to ease the housing affordability crisis in the Bay Area.

AB 1487 would give state authority to HABA to raise up to $1.5 billion through ballot measures voted on in all nine counties.

…A separate bill in the state Legislature could make it easier to pass a regional housing tax.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 would lower the threshold needed to pass a sales tax or parcel tax from two-thirds to 55 percent, if the funds are used for infrastructure or affordable housing. Read More > at KQED

The continued resilience of Quiet America – Fifty years ago, the United States was facing crises and unrest on multiple fronts. Some predicted that internal chaos and revolution would unravel the nation.

The 1969 Vietnam War protests on the UC-Berkeley campus turned so violent that National Guard helicopters indiscriminately sprayed tear gas on student demonstrators. Later that year, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of major cities as part of the “Moratorium to the End the War in Vietnam.” In Washington, D.C., about a half-million protesters marched to the White House.

Native American demonstrators took over the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and stayed there for 19 months, declaring it their own sovereign space.

In November 1969, the American public was exposed to grotesque photos of the My Lai Massacre, which had occurred the year before. The nation was stunned that American troops in Vietnam had shot innocent women and children. My Lai heated up the already hot national debate over whether the Vietnam War was either moral or winnable.

…Newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon characterized the national divide as the “silent majority” of traditional Americans fighting back against radical changes in culture and politics.

Under the strain of constant protests, the cultural and moral fabric of the country seemed to be tearing apart. Alternative lifestyle choices sometimes led to violence or death.

When a West Coast version of Woodstock was tried a few months later in Altamont, California, the concert ended up an orgy of murder, drug overdoses, random violence and destruction of property.

…Yet a wounded United States did not just survive 1969, but reached new heights of scientific, technological and cultural achievement.

For the first time in history, a national economy produced more than $1 trillion worth of goods and services in a single year, as American nominal GDP for 1969 exceeded that level.

America also put the first humans on the moon in 1969 — and did it twice the same year, with the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 lunar missions.

…Fifty years later, what are the lessons of the chaotic year 1969 for our similarly schizophrenic age of polarization, civil disunity and unprecedented wealth and scientific advancement?

America is such a huge and diverse country, and so abundantly endowed with natural and human resources, that it is capable of achieving unprecedented scientific, economic and technological breakthroughs even as its social fabric is tearing apart.

Or, put another way, while the media highlights crime, protests, grievances and civil disorder, a majority of Americans still go to work unbothered each day.

And in a rare society with a free market, constitutional government and individual freedom, people continue to do amazing things even amid the utter chaos around them. Read More > in The Washington Times

Why Eating Roadkill Makes Roads Safer for People and Animals – Between 1 million and 2 million large animals are hit by vehicles every year in the United States in accidents that kill 200 people and cost nearly $8.4 billion in damages, according to estimates from the Federal Highway Administration.

Instead of wasting roadkill or mocking it as hillbilly cuisine, Idaho is tracking the carnage and allowing residents to salvage the carcasses to reduce the number of vehicle-animal collisions and feed hungry people.

Now more states are joining Idaho and others, letting people like Lindskoog, owner of a local breakfast and burger joint, reclaim fresh, nutrient-dense, grass-fed meat that might otherwise end up as a grease stain on the highway.

…California’s policy may soon change, however. State lawmakers now are considering new legislation that would legalize roadkill salvaging. One of Cleland’s old game warden colleagues helped write the bill after, he said, he witnessed how successful salvaging can be for a community and potentially a state.

Roy Griffith, legislative liaison for the conservation group California Rifle & Pistol Association, reworked language from similar Idaho, Oregon and Washington laws to fit California and found a willing lawmaker, Democratic state Sen. Bob Archuleta, to introduce the legislation. The tens of thousands of animals killed on California highways every year may not die in vain, he said. Read More > at Route Fifty

The Geography of Partisan Prejudice – We know that Americans have become more biased against one another based on partisan affiliation over the past several decades. Most of us now discriminate against members of the other political side explicitly and implicitly—in hiringdating, and marriage, as well as judgments of patriotism, compassion, and even physical attractiveness, according to recent research.

But we don’t know how this kind of stereotyping varies from place to place. Are there communities in America that are more or less politically forgiving than average? And if so, what can we learn from the outliers?

To find out, The Atlantic asked PredictWise, a polling and analytics firm, to create a ranking of counties in the U.S. based on partisan prejudice (or what researchers call “affective polarization”). The result was surprising in several ways. First, while virtually all Americans have been exposed to hyper-partisan politicians, social-media echo chambers, and clickbait headlines, we found significant variations in Americans’ political ill will from place to place, regardless of party.

We might expect some groups to be particularly angry at their political opponents right now. Immigrants have been explicitly targeted by the current administration, for example; they might have the most cause for partisan bias right now. But that is not what we found.

In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.

We see this dynamic in the heat map. In some parts of the country, including swaths of North Carolina and upstate New York, people still seem to give their fellow Americans the benefit of the doubt, even when they disagree. In other places, including much of Massachusetts and Florida, people appear to have far less tolerance for political difference. They may be quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts, on average. Read More > in The Atlantic

The first all-female spacewalk takes place March 29th – NASA is set to hold its first-ever all-female spacewalk later this month.

American astronauts Anne McClain and Christina Koch will take part in the spacewalk at the International Space Station, according to Florida Today.

Both were chosen as NASA astronauts in 2013, but it will be McClain’s first time in space and Koch’s first spacewalk.

The spacewalk is scheduled to take place March 29.

The two astronauts will be led with support on the ground by flight directors Kristen Facciol and Mary Lawrence. Read More > in The Hill

More migrants crossing US southern border in large groups – The number of migrant families crossing the southwest border is again breaking records, and the crush is overwhelming border agents and straining facilities, officials said.

More than 76,000 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last month, more than double the number from the same period last year. Most were families coming in ever-increasingly large groups — there were 70 groups of more than 100 people in the past few months, and they cross illegally in extremely rural locations with few agents and staff. There were only 13 large groups during the previous budget year, and only two the year before.

The system “is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said during a press conference Tuesday.

..While fewer people overall are being apprehended crossing the border illegally each year — about 400,000 over the last budget year compared with the high of 1.6 million in 2000, the increasing numbers are alarming, officials said.

Those apprehended used to be mostly single men from Mexico, but are now mostly families from Central America — since October, more than 130,000 families have been apprehended between ports of entry. From October through September 2018, about the same number of families was apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Tens of thousands of children illegally cross the border alone. While single men used to evade capture, the families are seeking out agents. Read More > from the Associated Press

California officials focus on forest management after fires – After successive years of devastating wildfires, California’s fire agency announced a plan Tuesday that would dramatically increase the removal of dead trees and other forest management efforts with the help of the National Guard.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released a list of 35 priority fuel-reduction projects it wants to start immediately across the state over roughly 90,000 acres. That’s double the acreage the agency aimed to cover in the current fiscal year, CalFire Deputy Chief Scott McLean said.

The 35 projects are based on input from local Calfire units and would reduce wildfire risk to more than 200 communities, according to Calfire. They include removing dead trees, clearing vegetation, and creating fuel breaks, defensible spaces and ingress and egress corridors.

The projects prioritize communities at high risk from wildfires but also with significant numbers of vulnerable groups such as the elderly or poor. They include work around the city of Redding, which was also devastated by wildfire last year, and in Butte County, where Paradise is located.

An estimated 15 million acres of forest land in California are in need of thinning or other restoration work, so the 35 projects are just a start, Calfire officials said. The agency wants to establish incident bases with the National Guard close to vulnerable communities to coordinate fuel-reduction projects. Read More > from the Associated Press

Only One Blockbuster Store Left in the World – Blockbuster was once one of the largest retailers in the world. It helped move the consumers’ ability to watch movies from the theater to the home, via stores that offered videotapes of mainline films for rent. Eventually, it was buried by Netflix and other companies that offered DVDs via mail, and then the emergence of streaming. Two blockbuster stores survived as of this week. One will close later this month, and that leaves only one left in the world.

Blockbuster was founded in 1985. At its peak, in 2004, it had over 9,000 stores. About half of those were in the United States. Blockbuster’s employee count in the same year was 84,000, which is nearly triple what Google parent Alphabet has today. Blockbuster’s primary products were VHS and Betamax tapes rented to customers who did not want to invest in large, expensive video libraries of the clunky videotape boxes.

Like McDonald’s, Blockbuster owned some of its own locations and others were owned by franchisees. At the start of March, there were two franchises left. All the company-owned stores had been gone for years. One is in Perth, Australia. The second is in Bend, Oregon. The management of the Bend store found out the Perth store would close when it received a call from an Australian radio station, which broke the news. According to the Bend Bulletin, Sandi Harding, the store’s general manager said, “I had no idea. I wondered which one of us was going to hold out the longest.” Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

With a whopping 2,628 bills pending, here’s the one most popular among California legislators – Nobody can say California lawmakers haven’t kept busy. Between their December swearing-in and a late-February cutoff, they introduced an average of more than 32 bills a day. Now they face a June deadline to decide which of those 2,628 ideas will advance out of either the Assembly or state Senate.

Many are mere placeholders. In the coming months they will be fleshed out, amended, and/or gutted. New authors will hitch themselves to clear political winners, while more controversial bills may see their backers back down.

But the policymaking—and political pandering—priorities of Sacramento are beginning to take shape. A by-the-numbers overview:

The most popular bills

Tax-free tampons, tax-free text messages, tougher police accountability measures, and a host of proposed remedies for California’s housing crisis—you can tell a lot about lawmakers’ goals by the bills they’re most eager to slap their names on.

Excluding procedural measures and symbolic resolutions, the single most popular bill in the Legislature—at least the one that more elected members opted to co-author than any other—would eliminate the sales tax on tampons and other menstrual products.

The most bipartisan bills

It’s easy to forget, but Republicans and Democrats don’t disagree on everything. Specifically, tax credits for renters, empowering nurse practitioners and boosting college aid for foster youth have all attracted bipartisan support this year.

Looking at popular bills (those with at least 10 coauthors), Orinda Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer’s proposal to boost the state tax credit for renters attracted a group of coauthors who most closely resemble the partisan breakdown of the Legislature itself. With 24 Democratic and 6 Republican coauthors, it is, in short, the most bipartisan bill of the year. Read More > at CALmatters

California lawmakers target cities’ ability to block new housing – The conversation has changed dramatically since state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation last year to limit cities’ ability to block large apartment and condominium complexes near public transit. That bill, which aimed to get more people out of their cars and closer to their jobs, faced such stiff opposition that it died in its first committee.

But it’s back this year with lower height limits and provisions to prevent the displacement of low-income residents, changes designed to reduce opposition among progressives. SB50 would prohibit cities from restricting housing developments up to 45 feet tall within a half-mile of major job centers and transit stops, such as a BART or Caltrain station. Within a quarter-mile, projects could be 55 feet tall.

Other bills would guarantee approval for apartment and condominium projects for low- and middle-income earners in certain communities that have resisted dense development, and remove local lot-size requirements for cottages and other secondary units that homeowners build on their properties.

Later this year, lawmakers are expected to consider changes to the fees that local governments can charge housing developers to offset the impact their projects have on public services. The issue is a priority for home builders, who say exorbitant fees and other mandates that delay approval for projects make construction prohibitively expensive in California.

Among the boldest measures is SB330 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would declare that California is experiencing a “housing supply crisis.” It would prohibit cities with high rents and low vacancy rates from changing zoning laws to reduce the size of potential housing projects, imposing new parking requirements or costly design standards, or capping the number of housing units that could be built for the next decade. It would also force local governments to approve or reject a project within one year after it’s proposed. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Another study finds no link between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccine – The measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine isn’t associated with an increased risk of autism, even among kids who are at high risk because they have a sibling with the disorder, a Danish study suggests.

Concerns about a potential link between the MMR vaccine and autism have persisted for two decades, since a controversial and ultimately retracted 1998 paper claimed there was a direct connection. Even though subsequent studies haven’t tied inoculation to autism, fear about the risk has weighed on parents so much in several communities across Europe and the U.S. that vaccination rates have been too low to prevent a spate of measles outbreaks.

In the current study, researchers examined data on 657,461 children. During this time, 6,517 kids were diagnosed with autism.

Kids who got the MMR vaccine were seven percent less likely to develop autism than children who didn’t get vaccinated, researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Read More > at NBC News

Expect More Store Closings at J.C. Penney and Macy’s – Over the past couple of years, J.C. Penney’s financial results have gone from bad to worse. Macy’s has done a little better, returning to comp sales growth in late 2017, but sales trends slowed last quarter and its pre-tax margin has continued to sink.

Executives at both companies are working to drive better sales trends (and thus better earnings results). Macy’s is further ahead in this respect, while new J.C. Penney CEO Jill Soltau is still finalizing her strategy. However, both chains have also announced a handful of store closures this year as part of their turnaround plans. And while maintaining scale is important for Macy’s and J.C. Penney, there are probably a lot more store closures ahead for both of them.

Macy’s closed more than five dozen stores in 2017. Its store closure activity has moderated since then. Earlier this year, Macy’s announced that it would close eight stores in 2019. Most of the eight stores are in oversaturated markets where the company likely has too many locations. (In fact, four of the stores set to close are within five miles of another Macy’s store.) The only real exception was the Macy’s store in Casper, Wyoming, a small market that the chain is exiting.

Meanwhile, J.C. Penney announced in January that it would close at least three stores in 2019, but hinted that the number would probably be higher. Last week, it confirmed that it will close 18 full-line stores this year, as well as nine home and furniture stores. Management indicated that these stores have low sales productivity and are facing steep comp sales declines.

J.C. Penney hasn’t provided a list of all the stores it is closing, but the identities of most of the affected stores have trickled out in the past few days. Many of the stores are in struggling malls that have already lost one or more anchors, such as Cary Towne Center in Cary, North Carolina; Midway Mall in Elyria, Ohio; and The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Others are small-town stores or stores that the company has probably sold for redevelopment. Read More > in The Motley Fool

Guerneville floods more than anywhere in the Bay Area. Why can’t it be fixed? – It is a scenario familiar to Northern California residents: A wet winter arrives with heavy storms, and Guerneville, the picturesque Sonoma County town 75 miles north of San Francisco, is hit with flooding.

Since 1940, the Russian River has poured over its banks at Guerneville a stunning 38 times, an average of nearly once every other year.

Why can’t the river be fixed and the misery ended for people who live nearby? Building a dam or other major flood control project would be prohibitively expensive for a town of just 4,500 people, experts say. And federal law doesn’t allow tax money to be spent on large water projects whose benefits are worth far less than the costs of the project.

Guerneville, which now has 4,500 residents and hosts popular summer festivals, flooded badly in 1940, 1964, 1997, 1986 and 2006.

…Instead, Sonoma County began a program in 1995 to pay 75 percent of the cost of raising homes in Guerneville and other areas at risk of flooding.

Funded with more than $12 million so far, most of it from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the program provides up to $39,000 per home. Homeowners raise their first floor to 10 feet or more off the ground, and must sign deed restrictions agreeing to use the bottom level only for a garage or storage. They also must obtain flood insurance.

Roughly 250 homes in Guerneville have been elevated in the past 20 years, and about 200 more are still in need. Read More > in The Mercury News

New data detail soaring costs of California school pensions – California school districts’ costs for employee pensions nearly tripled over six years to a statewide average of $1,407 per student, according to newly released state data. And those expenses will rise at least several hundred dollars more per student before stabilizing two years from now. They will continue eating up a significant portion of new state revenue that districts could use in other ways, such as expanding academic programs, hiring school nurses and school counselors, or raising teachers’ pay.

Unlike the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which distributes additional funding to districts with high proportions of low-income children and English learners, cutbacks in spending attributable to higher pension costs will not spare districts with higher-need students.

“These required increases in contributions are inevitable and present potentially more severe equity challenges to an already inadequate system of finance,” writes Christopher Edley, president of the Berkeley-based Opportunity Institute, in an analysis for Getting Down to Facts, a 2018 research project by Stanford University and the nonprofit PACE on California’s education policies and needs.

…CalSTRS and CalPERS rely primarily on investment income earned on contributions to those accounts to pay teachers and other employees their pensions once they retire. Districts’ increases in contributions have soared, in part because both pension funds’ investments lost about a quarter of their value during the Great Recession in 2008. Once investments fall that far, it is hard to make up for lost income, even though the stock market rebounded.

On top of that, recognizing that its earnings expectations were too high, CalSTRS over the past decade cut its expected annual rate of return on investments from 8 percent to 7 percent — a significant change that then shifts the burden to higher contributions. A third factor was a recalculation of pension obligations because teachers are living longer.

The combination of a plunge in market value, a lower rate of return and changing actuarial assumptions has created a massive unfunded pension liability of $107 billion for CalSTRS as of June 30, 2017. That’s the shortfall CalSTRS faces in meeting its payout responsibilities to retirees over the next 30 years. If CalSTRS ever did run out of money, pensions would have to be paid out of the state’s general fund. Read More > at EdSource

Gap Closing 230 Stores, Spinning Off From Old Navy – Gap Inc. is planning to close about 230 of its Gap-branded stores over the next two years and divide into two separate publicly traded companies in the near future.

Apparel purveyor Old Navy will be the basis of one of the successor entities, while a yet-to-be-named entity will consist of the Gap brand, Athleta, Banana Republic, Intermix and Hill City.

The company hasn’t detailed which Gap stores will be shuttered, though it will not be its first round of closures. Starting in 2017, the company closed about 200 Gap and Banana Republic stores. Currently there are about 775 Gap stores worldwide.

The reorganization comes on the heels of disappointing quarterly numbers for Gap Inc. The company’s fiscal Q4 comparable-store sales were down 1% compared with a 5% increase last year. Read More > at Bisnow

How local TV news stations are playing a major (and enthusiastic) role in spreading the Momo hoax – Here are two truths and a lie. Which one is the lie?

1. Pedophiles are taking advantage of YouTube’s algorithm to spread child pornography.

2. Children and teens are being encouraged to commit suicide via footage sliced into YouTube videos.

3. Children and teens are being encouraged to commit suicide via the viral “Momo challenge,” spliced into YouTube videos and on WhatsApp.

Numbers 1 and 2 are true. It has been confirmed that pedophiles are taking advantage of YouTube’s algorithm to spread child pornography, and that some YouTube Kids videos had suicide tips spliced into them (in that case, there are corroborating screenshots and videos).

But #3, the Momo challenge? It’s fake. It’s a hoax. Not only that, it’s an old (in internet years) hoax. Per The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz

…But the main reason parents believe the hoax is probably that local media are reporting it as fact. It is being not just spread but seemingly embraced by local news sources — especially local TV news stations, where it fits in well with their standard “Will this thing kill your child? Watch Action 4 at 11 to find out” framing.

…Some of the local TV news stations’ stories are littered with “reportedlys,” but in other cases, the Momo challenge is presented as fact. Perhaps most maddeningly, some of the stories present the fact that the story is a hoax as just “one view” or “one side.”

In many of the stories that I’ve seen, the sources are mothers who’ve seen rumors online; young children prompted either by the reporters of the stories or by their parents; and — yikes! — local fire departments, police stations, and schools. Read More > at NiemanLab 

California Supreme Court Dodges a Hard Call in Pension Ruling – The California Supreme Court may have saved taxpayers some money today, but it also nimbly dodged the question of whether public employees’ pension benefits can ever be scaled back.

The ruling leaves intact what is known as the “California Rule,” a series of court precedents that have set up a legal regime where the state and its municipalities are only able to alter pensions benefits in one direction: more. Even as pension obligations threaten to bankrupt cities and even the entire state, courts have consistently ruled that pension benefits for employees cannot be scaled back once they have been offered.

In this particular case, the state’s Supreme Court was asked to determine whether local governments could end the practice of “airtime purchases.” This is the pension-spiking practice where public workers were permitted to “buy” an additional five years to attach onto their total time as a government employee. So, for example, a firefighter who worked for 20 years could be credited as working for 25 years, which jacks up the total pension that firefighter will be paid in retirement.

Today the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the fire union. That’s good news for anybody who cares about the state’s fiscal sustainability. But the California Rule remains intact. The court ruled that airtime purchases are not contractually protected benefits under the state’s pension regulations. Thus, the state can alter the rules for airtime purchases at it sees fit without violating the “California Rule.” It’s not a contractual benefit—it’s a bonus. Read More > at Reason

World’s Top Bridge Player Suspended For Doping With Synthetic Testosterone – The World Bridge Federation announced today that Geir Helgemo, the world’s top-ranked bridge player, has been suspended after testing positive for two banned substances: synthetic testosterone and clomifene (a female fertility drug).

Yes, doping. In bridge. The World Bridge Federation is a member of the IOC, and thus adheres to that organization’s anti-doping rules, whether or not those banned substances have any impact on a competitor’s ability to excel at bridge. While it’s unclear why Helgemo was using testosterone and what sort of advantage it would confer to a bridge player, a study found “winners of chess tournaments show higher T levels than do losers.”

Helgemo’s suspension is not the first time a bridge player has been caught using banned substances. Back in 2015, the Independent reported that the World Anti-Doping Agency found prohibited substances in the systems of bridge players and anglers—but primarily concentration aids, as bridge tournaments can be marathon events (some stretch as long as two to three weeks). Read More > at Deadspin

How Perception of Fossil Fuel Futures Have Evolved – A couple decades ago an international team of volcanologists arranged for the tag-on launch of a first generation orbiting gravimeter in order to study volcanism (the legitimate auspicious being pure scientific endeavor). While that intended function was successful, a much more important capability unexpectantly came to pass. Subsequent generations of these devices showed exactly where and to what extent natural gas, oil and coal were located as they have revealed progressively higher resolution images of Earth’s deep interior. Several more generations of these devices are possible and this explains the recent substantial increases in estimated recoverable oil and gas and coal for that matter. Meanwhile, fracking and horizontal drilling have enormously reduced the costs and surface-area-impact of fossil fuel recovery.

In the 1920’s we believed, quite honestly, that there were only 5, maybe 10 more years of recoverable oil. The simplistic plan was to make hay while the Sun shined…the economy was rocking.

In the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and half way through the 2000’s we still thought precariously 10, maybe only 20 more years. And this thinking prevailed year after year even as an inundation of Peak-Oil concerns came from every direction in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s.

But in around 2008 something remarkable happened. A fantastically improved 3rd generation orbiting gravimeter gave a much more clear view. So now here we are in the 2010’s and we now believe, and for good reason, that there is a century, likely two centuries, and possibly 5 centuries of economically recoverable fossil fuels. That realization changes things quite a bit.

And guess what else, it turns out that North America has more oil and more natural gas and more coal than anywhere else in the World. Who’ed ‘a thunk-it? Read More > at Watts Up With That

Why Renewables Can’t Save the Planet – …In 2002, shortly after I turned 30, I decided I wanted to dedicate myself to addressing climate change. I was worried that global warming would end up destroying many of the natural environments that people had worked so hard to protect.

I thought the solutions were pretty straightforward: solar panels on every roof, electric cars in every driveway, etc. The main obstacles, I believed, were political. And so I helped organize a coalition of America’s largest labor unions and environmental groups. Our proposal was for a $300 billion dollar investment in renewables. We would not only prevent climate change but also create millions of new jobs in a fast-growing high-tech sector.

Our efforts paid off in 2007 when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama embraced our vision. Between 2009–15, the U.S. invested $150 billion dollars in renewables and other forms of clean tech. But right away we ran into trouble.

The first was around land use. Electricity from solar roofs costs about twice as much as electricity from solar farms, but solar and wind farms require huge amounts of land. That, along with the fact that solar and wind farms require long new transmissions lines, and are opposed by local communities and conservationists trying to preserve wildlife, particularly birds.

Another challenge was the intermittent nature of solar and wind energies. When the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing, you have to quickly be able to ramp up another source of energy.

…Without large-scale ways to back-up solar energy California has had to block electricity coming from solar farms when it’s extremely sunny, or pay neighboring states to take it from us so we can avoid blowing-out our grid.

Despite what you’ve heard, there is no “battery revolution” on the way, for well-understood technical and economic reasons.

As for house cats, they don’t kill big, rare, threatened birds. What house cats kill are small, common birds, like sparrows, robins and jays. What kills big, threatened, and endangered birds—birds that could go extinct—like hawks, eagles, owls, and condors, are wind turbines.

In fact, wind turbines are the most serious new threat to important bird species to emerge in decades. The rapidly spinning turbines act like an apex predator which big birds never evolved to deal with.

…You can make solar panels cheaper and wind turbines bigger, but you can’t make the sun shine more regularly or the wind blow more reliably. I came to understand the environmental implications of the physics of energy. In order to produce significant amounts of electricity from weak energy flows, you just have to spread them over enormous areas. In other words, the trouble with renewables isn’t fundamentally technical—it’s natural.

Dealing with energy sources that are inherently unreliable, and require large amounts of land, comes at a high economic cost.

There’s been a lot of publicity about how solar panels and wind turbines have come down in cost. But those one-time cost savings from making them in big Chinese factories have been outweighed by the high cost of dealing with their unreliability.

Consider California. Between 2011–17 the cost of solar panels declined about 75 percent, and yet our electricity prices rose five times more than they did in the rest of the U.S. It’s the same story in Germany, the world leader in solar and wind energy. Its electricity prices increased 50 percent between 2006–17, as it scaled up renewables.

What about all the headlines about expensive nuclear and cheap solar and wind? They are largely an illusion resulting from the fact that 70 to 80 percent of the costs of building nuclear plants are up-front, whereas the costs given for solar and wind don’t include the high cost of transmission lines, new dams, or other forms of battery.

It’s reasonable to ask whether nuclear power is safe, and what happens with its waste.

It turns out that scientists have studied the health and safety of different energy sources since the 1960s. Every major study, including a recent one by the British medical journal Lancet, finds the same thing: nuclear is the safest way to make reliable electricity.  Read More > at Quillette

Amazon Plans To Open Its Own Line Of Non-Whole Foods Grocery Stores – Amazon is apparently not content to just use Whole Foods as its vehicle for domination of the grocery store market.

The e-commerce giant is planning to launch its own line of grocery stores, independent of Whole Foods, The Wall Street Journal reports. Its plan calls for dozens of stores across multiple major cities, starting in Los Angeles as soon as the end of this year, according to the WSJ’s anonymous sources.

Amazon has reportedly already signed leases for two locations beyond its first location in L.A., with planned openings for early next year. While lease signings do not necessarily translate to store openings, they reflect a level of commitment. The company is negotiating locations in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, the WSJ reports.

The reason behind the new brand is reportedly to hit a lower price point than the high-end Whole Foods brand, which has quality standards for ingredients that preclude many of the food industry’s biggest names. Presumably, lower prices would also target a different demographic, much like the Whole Foods 365 brand was meant to do before it was discontinued in January.  Read More > at Bisnow

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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