Sunday Reading – 04/28/19

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.

California could soon ban schools from suspending ‘unruly’ students – It could soon be illegal in California for schools to suspend students for being disruptive.

A bill banning that practice for K-12 students, in both public and charter schools, sailed to passage in the California Senate on Monday, 30-8. The bill moves on now to the Assembly.

“An overwhelming body of research confirms that suspending students at any age fails to improve student behavior and greatly increases the likelihood that the student will fail, be pushed out of school and/or have contact with the juvenile justice system,” wrote Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who is the primary author of Senate Bill 419. “SB 419 helps keep students in school, increases student success rates, and increase high school graduation rates.”

Under SB 419, schools would be permanently prohibited from suspending students for “willful defiance” of school staff for grades four through eight. Schools also would be prohibited from using those suspensions in grades nine through 12 until Jan. 1, 2025, unless the law is extended.

It’s already illegal for schools to suspend students for being disruptive for grades kindergarten through third. Read More > in The Fresno Bee

California Law Would Outlaw Small Shampoo, Conditioner Bottles in Hotels – The jury has rendered its verdict: plastic is polluting our oceans, and it’s a problem. But it’s one that won’t be solved by straw bans or prohibitions on single-use plastics.

Yet California is poised to do just that with Assembly Bill 1162, which would require that hotels and miscellaneous vacation rentals phase out small plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion by January 1, 2023. Instead, they’ll need to opt for refillable dispensers or containers that hold 12 or more ounces of product.

“We know we have an enormous problem with our world, we’ve become addicted to [plastic] and it’s caused a major dilemma environmentally,” Democratic Assemblymember Ash Kalra (District 27), who introduced the legislation, told ABC News.

…So what about those single-use plastic items—from water bottles to straws to bags—that have drummed up such animus among environmentalists and animal lovers alike? Approximately 40 percent of plastics are produced for such purposes, according to a study by Roland Geyer, a professor of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara and supporter of California’s hotel plastic ban bill.

Precisely how much of that ends up in the ocean is unclear. But recent data show that 60 percent of mismanaged plastic waste, which often makes its way into the water, comes from East Asia and the Pacific. North America—which typically processes its waste quite efficiently—has less than 1 percent.

That California’s bill will have little tangible impact is not lost on its supporters. “It’s mostly symbolic, but symbols can be powerful,” Geyer said… Read More > at Reason

How California’s troubled high-speed rail project was ‘captured’ by costly consultants. – …But significant portions of this work have been flawed or mismanaged, according to records reviewed by The Times and interviews with dozens of people involved in the project. Despite repeated warnings since 2010 about weaknesses in its staffing, the rail authority believed it could reduce overall costs by relying on consultants and avoiding a large permanent workforce. But that strategy has failed to keep project costs from soaring. Ten years after voters approved it, the project is $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule.

A reckoning may be coming very soon, however.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently told The Times that he would be taking aim at the consultants when the rail authority sends a major project update to the Legislature on May 1, including a detailed plan on building a partial operating system from Bakersfield to Merced for $16 billion to $18 billion.

“I’m getting rid of a lot of consultants,” Newsom said. “How did we get away with this?”

But actually reducing the role of consultants will be problematic because they have become cemented into place.

When state rail authority employees go to their Sacramento headquarters, they work in offices rented by a consultant. When they turn on their computers, much of their data is stored on servers owned by consultants. The software they use to help manage the project is the property of a consultant. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

US economy grows by 3.2% in the first quarter, topping expectations – The U.S. economy grew at a faster pace than expected in the first quarter and posted its best growth to start a year in four years.

First-quarter GDP expanded by 3.2%, the Bureau of Economic Analysis said Friday in its initial read of the economy for that period. Economists polled by Dow Jones expected growth of 2.5%. It was the first time since 2015 that first-quarter GDP topped 3%.

Exports rose 3.7% in the first quarter, while imports decreased by 3.7%. Economic growth also got a lift from strong investments in intellectual property products. Those investments expanded by 8.6%.

Disposable personal income increased by 3%, while prices increased by 1.3% when excluding food and energy. Overall prices climbed by 0.8% in the first quarter. Read More > from CNBC

Planned Burns Can Reduce Wildfire Risks, But Expanding Use of ‘Good Fire’ Isn’t Easy – Prescribed burns can decrease the potential for some of the large, severe fires that have affected western states in recent years. As scholars of U.S. forest policycollaborative environmental management and social-ecological systems, we see them as a management tool that deserves much wider attention.

Forests across much of North America need fire to maintain healthy structures and watershed conditions and support biodiversity. For centuries, Native Americans deliberately set fires to facilitate hunting, protect communities and foster plants needed for food and fiber.

But starting around the turn of the 20th century, European Americans began trying to suppress most fires and stopped prescribed burning. The exception was the Southeast, where forest managers and private landowners have consistently used prescribed burns to clear underbrush and improve wildlife habitat.

Suppressing wildfires allows dead and living plant matter to accumulate. This harms forests by reducing nutrient recycling and overall plant diversity. It also creates more uniform landscapes with higher fuel loads, making forests prone to larger and more severe fires.

Today many forested landscapes in western states have a “fire debt.” Humans have prevented normal levels of fire from occurring, and the bill has come due. Increasingly severe weather conditions and longer fire seasons due to climate change are making fire management problems more pressing today than they were just a few decades ago. And the problem will only get worse. Read More > at Route Fifty

Books are cool precisely because we don’t need them anymore – Luxury is the ability to indulge in the unnecessary, to enjoy extras, to relish that which isn’t strictly imperative to survival but gives us pleasure nonetheless. That makes printed books the ultimate luxury item, available to the masses yet needed by few, a way to signal your cool—on World Book Day, April 23, or any other.

Last month, when supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid were each seen carrying novels, the New York Post deemed literature the “hot new accessory.” Carry a book. Complete your look. Although some resisted this formulation and took to social media to mock the characterization of the model off-duty literary style, noting that books are not an accessory and that they are definitely not new, the newspaper did have a point.

Increasingly, reading old-school printed texts isn’t necessary. You can download any book onto a Kindle and carry a whole library with you anywhere. But books offer a sensuous pleasure, lovely covers, the satisfying sensation of flipping pages, the ability to measure one’s progress, to underline and annotate and fold paper, making these objects entirely personal. And it’s precisely because there are more efficient modes of consuming literature that the dated way is gaining appreciation.

…Given this evolving understanding of luxury, books qualify as luxury items. Anyone carrying around a text at this point, when most people are scrolling through their phones during every rare spare moment, is declaring their liberty and good taste. Readers of the printed book, and especially those who make texts part of their “look” are signaling that they aren’t slaves to efficiency, convenience, or cost, and that they value craftsmanship. While books may not be handcrafted by artisans (though typographers and cover designers deserve a nod), they have all the hallmarks of luxury today because they are extraneous, because we read these texts not for their substance alone but also appreciate them for their form. Read More > at Quartzy

After 20 Years of Reform, Are America’s Schools Better Off? – …Two decades later, after sweeping efforts that included No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core, are our schools better off? The answer is less reassuring than one would hope. On the whole, it’s certainly possible to find some evidence of improvement — but progress is easiest to find in the metrics most amenable to manipulation.

State tests in reading and math do appear to demonstrate that schools have significantly improved over the last 20 years. Between 2005 and 2009, as No Child Left Behind took full effect, the share of students who proved to be proficient in state tests rose by 1 to 2 percent per year. Over the next six years, state assessments were too varied to allow for meaningful comparison. But the same trend — with the share of proficient students increasing by 1 to 2 percent each year — did reemerge after 2015, when standardized Common Core tests became widely used. And high-school-graduation rates also skyrocketed, from 71 percent in 1997 to 85 percent in 2017.

…Fortunately, the U.S. also regularly administers the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to a random, nationally representative set of schools. Because the NAEP isn’t linked to state accountability systems, it’s a good way to check the seemingly positive results of state tests. From 2000 to 2017 (the most recent year for which data is available), NAEP scores showed that fourth-grade math results increased 14 points, which reflects a bit more than one year of extra learning. Eighth-grade math results also demonstrated significant improvement, increasing ten points in the same period. Fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores, meanwhile, barely budged. And almost all of the math gains were made in the decade from 2000 to 2010; performance has pretty much flatlined since then.

Put another way, the NAEP results raise hard questions about those cheery state-test results and graduation rates. George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy, for instance, analyzed the annual increase in the percentage of students whose NAEP results demonstrated proficiency and the percentage of students whose state tests demonstrated proficiency from 2005 to 2009. It found that, depending on the subject and grade, average gains on state assessments outpaced NAEP gains by 50 to over 100 percent. In other words, state-reported gains vastly exceeded the gains on NAEP. Similarly, high-school-graduation scandals and analysis of “credit recovery” programs have raised serious concerns about the validity of the dramatic graduation-rate gains.

Given the disparity between state tests and independent national results, it’s useful to see what the results look like on international tests. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the only major international assessment of both reading and math performance. While PISA has its share of limitations, it offers a wholly independent view of American education and accountability systems.

From the time PISA was first administered in 2000 to the most recent results from 2015, U.S. scores have actually declined, while America’s international ranking has remained largely static. Average American reading scores have declined from 504 to 497, and average American math scores have declined from 483 to 470. Compared to other nations in the same time span, the U.S.’s world ranking dropped from 15th to 23rd in reading, and from 19th to 39th in math. (The number of nations participating has increased significantly over that time, from 43 to 72, so it’s fair to say that relative American performance has remained about the same.) Read More > at National Review

Millennials Tried to Kill the American Mall, But Gen Z Might Save It – Gen Z keeps confounding Corporate America.

They’ve shunned beer, they want companies to take political stands and they trust Kardashians to make their makeup choices. But perhaps the biggest surprise about this new cohort of teenagers is the most unexpected of all: They love the shopping mall.

Around 95 percent of them visited a physical shopping center in a three-month period in 2018, as opposed to just 75 percent of millennials and 58 percent of Gen X, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers study. And they genuinely like it; three-quarters of them said going to a brick-and-mortar store was a better experience than online, ICSC found.

Gen Z—or the group of kids, teens and young adults roughly between the ages of 7 and 22—still appreciate brick and mortar. But they aren’t just millennials living in a different time. Today’s teens interact differently with stores than their older siblings and Gen X parents before them, and several retailers who didn’t understand the fundamental differences in how they shop landed themselves in bankruptcy court: Think Charlotte RusseWet Seal and Claire’s, once staples of the teen mall circuit. Read More > at Bloomberg

Can a blood pressure drug protect the brain from Parkinson’s? – A prescription drug already in use for the treatment of high blood pressure could be effective against conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s, in which toxic proteins build up in brain cells.

In experiments with zebrafish and mice, they showed that felodipine can prompt a cellular recycling process called autophagy to clear away toxic proteins in brain cells, or neurons.

“Our data suggest,” they write in a recent Nature Communications paper, “that felodipine induces autophagy in neurons and enhances removal of a range of disease-causing proteins: mutant huntingtin, mutant [alpha]-synuclein, and tau.”

Mutant huntingtin is characteristic of Huntington’s disease, while mutant alpha-synuclein and tau are hallmarks of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, respectively. Read More > at Medical News Today

California’s 6-Figure Pension Club Has Doubled in Size Since 2012 – Twenty years ago, California’s pension system was riding high.

Investment earnings had averaged more than 10 percent annually for a decade, and most of the funds within the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) were running a surplus—meaning the funds had more than 100 percent of the assets needed to meet the projected liabilities as current workers retired. Lulled into a false sense of retirement security, state policymakers made the fateful decision to pass a law boosting pension payouts to public employees.

Supposedly, it would all be paid for by the ongoing, never-ending boom of the stock market. In an analysis provided to the state legislature at the time, CalPERS promised the new pension law would not cost “a dime of additional taxpayer money.” A separate analysis conducted by the legislature itself found that taxpayers’ contributions to the CalPERS system would “remain below the 1998-99 fiscal year ($766 million) for at least the next decade.” said the Assembly floor analysis of SB 400.

The funny thing about pension systems, though, is that the liabilities created today—that is, the promises made to current workers—don’t really become a problem for a few decades, until those workers retire.

Which is why, in California’s case, looking just 10 years into the future proved to be woefully myopic. Two decades later, the surplus is long gone and CalPERS is facing a $138 billion shortfall (that’s according to the system’s own rather sunny accounting; the actual total is likely higher).

…According to newly released data from Transparent California, a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a free market think tank, the CalPERS system issued 30,969 pensions checks in 2018 that were worth $100,000 or more on an annualized basis—up from about 14,600 six-figure payouts in 2012. Of the $23 billion in pension benefits paid out by the CalPERS system last year, 17 percent went to the members of the state’s six-figure pension club. Read More > at Reason

Varying Poll Results on Death Penalty Leaves Unclear Picture – It was interesting to see opponents of the death penalty embrace the findings of a Pubic Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll soon after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a moratorium on the death penalty but remain relatively silent on the much narrower results from a subsequent Quinnipiac University poll on the same subject.

When PPIC announced that likely voters backed life without parole over the death penalty by 58% to 38%, headlines trumpeted that Gov. Newsom had his finger on the pulse of California political sentiment.

When a month later Quinnipiac found that life in prison with no chance of parole was chosen over the death penalty 48% to 41% the headlines, not so numerous, also argued that Californians were opposed to the death penalty, with a few reports noting the much narrower result compared to the PPIC poll. Quinnipiac stated there was a 4.1% margin of error in its poll, which could mean the views on the death penalty are about even.

Polling doesn’t always capture the true sentiment of voters when it comes to their final decision-making. PPIC also found wide favoritism to life in prison in 2012 prior to voters taking the opposite stand in backing the death penalty in elections that followed.

The poll reflected on the general concepts of the death penalty versus the idea of locking up murderers for the rest of their lives. However, stories of specific cases of brutal murder and torture could change the minds of voters that the worst of the killers deserve to die. Read More > at Fox and Hounds

California governor seeks explanation for high gas prices – California’s governor wants to know why gas prices are higher than in the rest of the country, blaming potential “inappropriate industry practices” Tuesday rather than the state’s higher taxes and tougher environmental regulations.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom asked the California Energy Commission for an analysis of the state’s gas prices by May 15. California drivers were paying an average of $4.03 per gallon Tuesday, or $1.18 more than the national average, according to AAA.

Higher taxes, along with a combination of tougher gas standards and environmental regulations, normally account for about 70 cents of that difference, said Gordon Schremp, a senior fuels specialist with the California Energy Commission. But the rest is a mystery.

In 2017, the state’s Petroleum Market Advisory Committee found that California has had “a continuous and significant unexplained differential compared to the rest of the country” since February 2015. That difference has cost Californians more than $17 billion, or about $1,700 for a family of four, said Severin Borenstein, faculty director at the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s business school.

In a letter to energy commission chairman David Hochschild, Newsom defended the state’s environmental standards, accusing critics of using the high prices to “undermine our clean air and safety standards.” Read More > from the Associated Press

Boom: Hispanics lead housing, income surge, poverty at record low – Latinos are finding their economic legs under the Trump administration, leading the surge in home ownership and income growth and record low poverty rates, according to two comprehensive new surveys.

While they remain far behind whites in income, they have seen their third consecutive year of income growth and have a higher workplace participation rate, according to the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals and the Hispanic Wealth Project.

In two studies just released, the groups also provided revealing details about Latinos and their growth in America. For example, by 2060, nearly one of every three in the U.S. will identify as Latino.

What’s more, the group’s goal of nudging overall Hispanic income up is showing signs of success. The group said that within the next five years, Hispanic median income will triple. Read More > in the Washington Examiner

No, Non-Believers Are Not Increasing In America – The stats are given as often and with as much confidence as they are wrong. The story goes that our nation is growing more secular with every passing day. Christianity is tanking, and atheists and generic non-believers mushrooming. The Daily Wireproclaimed that last week, with the headline, “God Help Us; Atheism Becomes Largest Religion In U.S.” CNN just reported something similar: “There Are Now as Many Americans Who Claim No Religion as There Are Evangelicals and Catholics.”

It’s not true. Not even close.

If you ask anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to what’s happening with religious faith in America, they will tell you with the confidence that the Nones (those reporting no particular faith) have grown by leaps and bounds, marking a growing secularization in America. This is not true either.

First, the “nones” are certainly not a new group of unbelievers exiting the pews of our nation’s churches. They are merely a group who are identifying more accurately what they have always been, those without any real religious practice.

Dr. Ed Stetzer, who holds the distinguished Billy Graham Chair of Church, Missions, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, has given one of the best clarifying explanations of the nones that I’ve seen. In USA Today, he wrote that “Christianity isn’t collapsing, it’s being clarified.”

He is precisely right. He further explains, “Nominal Christians are becoming the nones and convictional Christians remain committed.” This is the precise secret to understanding what’s going on. Weak Christianity is getting weaker and robust, and orthodox Christianity is getting stronger in terms of adherents, if not by theological maturity. Read More > in The Federalist

California utility seeks higher rates for wildfire safety – California utility Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. is asking state regulators for another increase in rates and profits, saying it’s needed for wildfire safety and to attract investment as the utility goes through bankruptcy.

The Sacramento Bee reports Monday that the request and a previous one could result in average PG&E customer bills rising more than $22 a month for electricity and natural gas.

Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, the state’s other major utilities, also asked the Public Utilities Commission for greater profit margins, saying they need to offer investors a higher return for taking on financial insecurity related to wildfires. Read More > from the Associated Press

A’s strike key deal to buy half of Oakland Coliseum site as redevelopment plans take shape – The Oakland A’s have tentatively agreed to buy Alameda County’s half of the 155-acre Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum site for $85 million, the San Francisco Chronicle has reported.

Alameda County, which will use the $85 million to pay off bond debt on Coliseum renovations needed to bring the Raiders back from Los Angeles in 1995, expects to save about $13 million a year from the sale.

A vote to begin negotiations on the deal is expected at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

The A’s would keep Oracle Arena and turn the Coliseum into a “roman ruin-like” multi-sports facility, according to the Chronicle, where there would also be parks, housing and a technology campus. Celebrity architect Bjarke Ingles of Bjarke Ingles Group (BIG) is on board as the designer. Read More > in the San Francisco Business Times

Who gets to skip vaccines? California plan would put the state – not doctors – in charge – …“Parents are basically doctor-shopping,” Blumberg explained. “They are going to physicians that have reportedly been giving exemptions that are far, far outside of routine medical practice guidelines for what traditional, conventional medical doctors would consider as a reasonable underlying condition that should result in a medical exemption.”

Under Pan’s measure, Senate Bill 276, the State Department of Public Health would create a standard form doctors would fill out to seek a medical exemption for students to allow them to enroll in school. The physician would have to send the document to the department to be approved or denied by the state public health officer. The measure also would establish a database to track doctors who are filing for exemptions, and for what reasons.

The California Medical Association, which represents 44,000 doctors statewide, and parents of some of the state’s sickest children support the measure. Read More > in The Fresno Bee

The Mathematics of (Hacking) Passwords – At one time or another, we have all been frustrated by trying to set a password, only to have it rejected as too weak. We are also told to change our choices regularly. Obviously such measures add safety, but how exactly?

I will explain the mathematical rationale for some standard advice, including clarifying why six characters are not enough for a good password and why you should never use only lowercase letters. I will also explain how hackers can uncover passwords even when stolen data sets lack them.

Here is the logic behind setting hack-resistant passwords. When you are asked to create a password of a certain length and combination of elements, your choice will fit into the realm of all unique options that conform to that rule—into the “space” of possibilities. For example, if you were told to use six lowercase letters—such as, afzjxd, auntie, secret, wwwwww—the space would contain 266, or  308,915,776, possibilities. In other words, there are 26 possible choices for the first letter, 26 possible choices for the second, and so forth. These choices are independent: you do not have to use different letters, so the size of the password space is the product of the possibilities, or 26 x 26 x 26 x 26 x 26 x 26 = 308,915,776.

If you are told to select a 12-character password that can include uppercase and lowercase letters, the 10 digits and 10 symbols (say, !, @, #, $, %, ^, &, ?, / and +), you would have 72 possibilities for each of the 12 characters of the password. The size of the possibility space would then be 7212 (19,408,409,961,765,342,806,016, or close to 19 x 1021).

That is more than 62 trillion times the size of the first space. A computer running through all the possibilities for your 12-character password one by one would take 62 trillion times longer… Read More > at Scientific America

The Failure of the Great Tip-Free Restaurant Experiment – Over the past three years, a number of restaurants across the geographic and economic spectrum of America have experimented with eliminating tipping. The practice is outdated, creates a difficult-to-justify wage imbalance between servers and cooks, and can result in mistreatment of staff (racism, sexual harassment) because of the fu–ed-up power dynamic it creates.

But as Grub Street’s Nikita Richardson writes, the no-tip test has largely failed, with many of those places going back to the old ways. This happened for three main reasons:

1. No tips meant higher prices printed on the menu, and customers stayed away from what they perceived as more expensive meals. That $12 burger became a $14.50 burger and all of a sudden, people knew what they were actually paying for their food. What’s interesting is that in another situation (say, having to pay to check a bag on a flight), people would be upset at not knowing the price up front and having a “hidden charge” added to their bill when they’re drunk and happy at the end of a meal.

2. Servers can make more at tipping restaurants. Places that went tip-free lost a bunch of their staff to places that still had tipping.

3. Tips make diners feel powerful. With tipping, you become the boss of your server or bartender and are responsible for a large chunk of their take-home pay. Read More > at Kottke

The Rise of “Second Amendment Sanctuaries” – Across the country, state legislatures have enacted stricter gun control laws to stem the tide of gun violence. Now, an increasing number are being met with resistance by local law enforcement officials who say they’re being asked to enforce rules that violate the U.S. Constitution.

The so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” movement claims to draw its inspiration from America’s sanctuary cities.

“There are whole sanctuary county, city, and state movements, and those are essentially saying ‘Hey, we can shield immigrants from the federal law,'” Tony Mace, Sheriff of Cibola County, New Mexico told Pacific Standard Magazine. “They’re picking and choosing which laws they want to follow as a state, so we’re thinking as a county, why can’t we take this back to our commissioners and say we’re going to draft a resolution that says our counties are Second Amendment sanctuary counties.”

Cibola is one of 25 counties in New Mexico that have passed Second Amendment sanctuary ordinances. In most cases, they amount to symbolic statements of disapproval toward new gun laws. But in some cases, sheriffs have flatly said they won’t enforce the statutes.

Second Amendment sanctuary movements are also on the march in WashingtonNevada, Oregon, and Illinois. The movement, which began in counties, has spread to cities as well.  Read More > at California County News 

California’s Job Gains Modest, Near Full Employment Hinders Growth – California continues to add jobs, though the latest employment report shows the pace has moderated. The number of payroll jobs increased by 24,500 to 17.35 million, a slight improvement over February’s revised gain of 20,900, according to the state’s Employment Development Dept.

Part of the reason the job gains have slowed is because the Golden State is close to full employment following 108 months of expansion. Employment growth was 1.4% year-over-year, as companies scraped to compete for workers in a tight labor market.

March’s unemployment rate ticked up to 4.3%, from 4.2% in February. It also stood at 4.3% a year earlier.

The construction sector led the job gains in March, adding 9,400 jobs. The manufacturing sector experienced the state’s second-highest job growth, with 4,700 new positions.

California’s largest jobs drop was in the trade, transportation and utilities sector, which shed 5,800 jobs. Economists note a likely cause was the U.S.’s trade war with China and European nations. Read More > at California Connect

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa – Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity’s forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin’s day.

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the ’90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape. Read More > at Big Think

Electric Car Subsidies Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be – For more than a decade, the federal government has picked winners and losers in the automobile market by heavily subsidizing electric vehicles (EVs). Now, with those subsidies set to phase out for the largest EV manufacturers, some lawmakers are now pushing to have the subsidies greatly expanded.

The EV tax credit, which has been around since 2008, offers consumers a subsidy of up to $7,500 off the price of a qualifying EV. Because the original intent of the credit was merely to help the nascent EV industry gain a foothold in the market, the credit is set to gradually phase-out for manufacturers that sell more than 200,000 EVs in the U.S.

…Calculations by the International Energy Agency and independent analysts produce similar estimates. The bottom line: Even if the number of electric cars in the U.S. grew substantially faster than current projections, their cumulative impact on climate trends would amount to a rounding error.

Supporters of the EV credit also tend to ignore its deeply regressive effects. While the credit is disproportionately financed by lower- and middle-income taxpayers who cannot afford to purchase EVs, the benefits of the credit flow to a small segment of high-income households, many of which would have purchased EVs even without government inducements.

Of the 57,066 households that received the credit in 2016, 78 percent had at least a six-figure income and 7 percent reported more than $1 million in income. By contrast, less than 1 percent of all EV credits went to households earning less than $50,000 in 2014, meaning that about half of Americans receive virtually no benefit from the credit. Manufacturers’ own data shows that EVs are overwhelmingly a luxury of the wealthy. Tesla’s customers have an average household income of $293,200 while even the buyers of the more modestly-priced electric Ford Focus have an average income of $199,000.

On top of the $7,500 available through the EV tax credit, electric cars owners don’t pay gas taxes to help support the roads they use, shifting more of the burden onto ordinary drivers and contributing to a massive funding deficit for our surface infrastructure. Read More > at Real Clear Energy

Good News: A Recession Looks Less Likely Now – Back in February, I wrote about an odd split in the economic data that seemed to be leaving investors unsure whether to buy or sell. Data about employment — job creation and wage growth — looked pretty strong. But data about output — like retail sales and gross domestic product — looked worrying. Which kind of data provided the better signal about the economic outlook?

In the ensuing two months, we got our answer: Somewhere in the middle, but much closer to what the employment numbers were telling us than the output numbers. The jobs data has cooled off a little bit — February’s numbers were weak, though March looked good again — but the output data has gotten much stronger. In particular, retail sales soared in March, erasing the nosedive in December that got people so worried. The various data now align around an expectation that the economy will continue growing, albeit at a modestly slower pace than it grew last year, when we were enjoying a “sugar high” from the tax cut.

And the stock market has soared again, fueled partly by this positive clarity on economic expectations, and partly by clarity from the Federal Reserve that it won’t be raising interest rates anytime soon. The Fed’s low-rate stance boosts stock prices in part because stocks and bonds compete for each other as investments: Rising interest rates would have tended to push stock prices down, with investors becoming more drawn to higher-yielding bonds. Low rates are also good for non-bank company profits, as they save companies from spending heavily on interest and make it easier to borrow, invest, and grow. Read More > at Intelligencer

San Diego communities have urged officials to keep speed limits low in conflict with state law. Now officers can’t use radar guns on those stretches of road. – …The situation is the result of a little known state law that’s vexing cities across California. It says that in many cases officials must raise speed limits or give up handing out tickets using radar or other electronic devices.

…It all comes down to the state’s vehicle code, which requires local governments to update their speed limits every five to 10 years according to what’s called the 85th percentile.

To get that number, traffic engineers clock how fast cars are traveling on a given section of road. The fastest speed at which the bottom 85 percent of vehicles travel — rounded to the nearest multiple of five — constitutes the new state-mandated speed limit.

Put another way, if an engineer records the speed of 100 cars, the 16th fastest vehicle determines the new speed limit. The thinking being that only about 15 percent of people drive recklessly fast.

The state law is intended to prevent cities from setting up speed traps while encouraging a smooth flow of traffic. Municipalities are only responsible for conducting these speed surveys on busy arteries, while residential and school zones are set by state law at 25 miles per hour.

However, while cities are conducting the speed surveys, they have been declining to update the speed limits on their streets, largely because of neighborhood opposition but also because of concerns about pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Which roads are and aren’t radar enforceable is shared with traffic courts, and defense attorneys routinely demand to see the data. Read More > in The San Diego Union-Tribune

OPINION This Earth Day, thank America: The world leader in clean air – Did you know the United States leads the world in clean air?

As I walk the halls of the Capitol, meeting with members of Congress and their staff about the energy policies that help and hurt our country’s future, I’m shocked how many people don’t know and can’t believe this fact.

Over the last 50 years, harmful air pollution known as particulate matter has plummeted. Toxic pollutants like lead, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide are now nearly nonexistent in our air. Ozone is down dramatically. We’re the only highly populated nation in the world to meet the World Health Organization’s standards for particulate matter and by a long shot. In fact, our standards are among the strictest in the world.

These radical air quality gainsoccurred at the same time our population, energy consumption, vehicle miles traveled, and gross domestic product also grew dramatically.

Our ongoing and increasingly fraught national conversation about the environment too often misses the fact that reliable, affordable energy is the critical enabler of innovation. Read More > in the Washington Examiner 

Homeless shelter, looming IPOs have San Francisco on edge – San Francisco’s renowned waterfront hosts joggers, admiring tourists and towering condos with impressive views. It could also become the site of a new homeless shelter for up to 200 people.

Angry residents have packed public meetings, jeering at city officials and even shouting down Mayor London Breed over the proposal. They say they were blindsided and argue billionaire Twitter executive Jack Dorsey and other tech executives who support the idea should lobby city officials to build a shelter by their homes.

The waterfront uproar is among recent examples of strife in an expensive city that is both overwhelmed by tech wealth and passionate about social justice. San Francisco companies Pinterest and Lyft recently went public, and Uber and Slack are coming soon, driving fears that newly minted millionaires will snap up the few family homes left for under $2 million.

City Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer fought tears at a testy hearing over a housing density development bill, inviting her critics to visit poor seniors in her district who eat cat food for dinner. Opponents of the bill stood and turned their backs on Supervisor Vallie Brown, who vigorously defended the legislation.

And as the city continues to grapple with a housing shortage, the entire Board of Supervisors was roasted on social media this month for rejecting a 63-unit housing project because it would cast shadows over a nearby park in an area with little green space.

A March New York Times story about the upcoming IPOs set off frenzied activity among potential homebuyers and a call from City Hall for a hearing on how all that new wealth will affect gentrification and city revenue.

Realtor John Townsend had the article on hand as he showed a 1,500-square-foot (139-square-meter) three-bedroom, one-bath condo listed at $1.15 million. He said he had double the traffic the weekend after ride-hailing company Lyft went public in March. The condo, which needed updates, sold above asking price. Read More > from the Associated Press

STDs Surging Across the Country – The number of sexually transmitted diseases hit record levels nationwide in 2017, with more than 2.4 million reported cases of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea, according to an analysis of the most recent STD surveillance report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In 2016, record highs were made for reported cases of STDs, but when data from 2017 became available, those record highs were replaced,” says the analysis, compiled by Health Testing Centers, an STD-testing company. “In just a year, the 2 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis increased drastically, and certain states and counties saw bigger changes than others.”

The increase marked the fourth consecutive year of rising rates of infection, a reverse after years of steady progress. Possible reasons include the increasing use of long-term contraceptives, including intrauterine devices, which prevent pregnancies but do not stop the spread of disease. Some infections, most notably gonorrhea, have become resistant to common antibiotics, making it difficult to treat or cure new cases.

“Not that long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and we were able to point to advances in STD prevention, such as better chlamydia diagnostic tests and more screening, contributing to increases in detection and treatment of chlamydial infections,” Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s division of STD prevention, wrote last year. “That progress has since unraveled.” Read More > at Route Fifty

Largest Ever Opioid Take Down: 60 Arrests, 350K Rx’s & Over 32M Pills – The Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced criminal charges on Wednesday, against 60 defendants, which included 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners, and seven other licensed medical professionals, who reportedly provided thousands of opioid prescriptions to addicted patients, essentially acting as drug dealers to their patients, and for their alleged participation in health care fraud schemes.

Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that as of June 2018, it has excluded over 2,000 individuals from participation in Medicare, Medicaid and all other Federal health care programs, which includes more than 650 providers excluded for conduct related to opioid diversion and abuse.

Since July 2017, the DEA has issued 31 immediate suspension orders, 129 orders to show cause, and received 1,386 surrenders for cause nationwide for violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

According to the CDC, approximately 130 Americans die every day of an opioid overdose. Read More > at American Security Today

After Sales Slump, Pier 1 Plans More Store Closures – In the wake of dismal fourth-quarter sales for its most recent fiscal year, home furnishing and accessory retailer Pier 1 Imports said it might close as many as 45 stores over the next year.

During the last fiscal year (ending March 2), the company closed 30 stores, leaving it with about 1,000 locations.

Pier 1 reported this week that comp-store sales during its fiscal Q4 were down 13.7% compared with the same period a year earlier.

The company closed those 30 locations last year as their leases expired. About 15% to 20% of Pier 1’s leases are up for renewal each year, interim CEO Cheryl Bachelder said during the company’s recent earnings call.

“We are considering closing up to 45 stores in fiscal 2020 at their natural lease expirations,” Bachelder said. “If we are unable to achieve our performance goals, our top-line sales targets and reductions in occupancies and other costs, we could close up to 15% of our portfolio.” 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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1 Response to Sunday Reading – 04/28/19

  1. Hal Bray says:

    Another “home run” Kevin. I recently moved to Arizona to get out of the shit hole formerly known as California, but it is still a pleasure (and informative) to get your column. Thanks.

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