Sunday Reading 08/11/19

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.

Florida company offering ‘alien abduction insurance’ has sold nearly 6,000 policies – Looking for a big insurance payout? Try getting abducted by aliens.

At least that’s what one Florida company is telling its customers. The St. Lawrence Agency, also known as the “UFO Abduction Insurance Company,” offers a very specific type of policy: For just $19.95, you can protect yourself against extraterrestrial encounters.

The insurance plan, which includes $10 million in coverage, was invented by Mike St. Lawrence, who describes himself as being in the “humor business,”according to Florida’s WFLA News.

Humor aside, the success behind St. Lawrence’s alien policy is very real. He says he’s sold nearly 6,000 plans since first launching his company in 1987.

The policy offers plenty of absurd benefits for any would-be abductees, including psychiatric care, “sarcasm coverage” and “double identity coverage.” For just $5 more, customers can also get a paper certificate as evidence of their purchase. Read More > at Yahoo! News

Uber has more than 100 million users, but is still losing moneyUber might seem ubiquitous, but the ridesharing company is still growing, it reported in its quarterly earnings. In July, more than 100 million people took Ubers or used the company’s services. That’s the first time it hit that monthly milestone. Trips rose 35 percent in Q2 compared with the previous year, up to 1.67 billion. Revenue is up as well. At $3.17 billion, it rose 14 percent year-over-year, though it was lower than the expected figure of $3.36 billion and growth is slowed overall.

UberEats certainly boosted the bottom line, as it helped bring in new customers. The number of people Uber delivered food to over the quarter rose by 140 percent from Q2 2018. “Over 40 percent of new Eats consumers had never used Uber’s platform before,” the company said.

Uber’s net loss over the quarter amounted to $5.24 billion, but that’s perhaps not quite as bad as it seems on the surface. The majority ($3.9 billion) is a result of stock-based awards to employees after its IPO in May. It also doled out a $298 million “driver appreciation award” related to the IPO. Even discounting those, Uber lost over $1 billion for the second quarter running. Read More > at Engadget

Is California’s ethnic studies plan too politically correct even for California? – As Americans grapple with shifts in culture and demographics, majority-minority California is developing a high school curriculum in ethnic studies, one of the first nationally. Not long ago — while managing his extracurriculars and winnowing his college choices — Eli Safaie-Kia, 17, found time to discover a draft of it.

Its contents were, in some ways, standard-issue: readings and projects aimed at fostering tolerance, offering non-traditional perspectives and helping a massive, multicultural populace better understand one another. But in other ways, the draft was confusing even to a Generation Z kid from a blue-state. For one, it presented Israel in a way that went heavy on Palestinian oppression and scarcely mentioned the Holocaust.

So unsettled was the Israeli-American teen by the California Department of Education’s proposed model curriculum, required by a 2016 law, that the Los Angeles high school senior fired off a comment to the department.  “I kinda came across the document,” he said, “and once I began reading through it, it was a little bit disturbing to see how one-sided some parts of the ethnic studies proposal was.”

Now, as the comment period for the draft approaches its Aug. 15 deadline, hundreds of complaints, suggestions and op-eds have posted, from conservatives who don’t like its depiction of capitalism as a “form of power and oppression,” to parents stumped by its academic jargon to no small number of Californians who, like Safaie-Kia, wonder why it says so little about anti-Semitism. A billwinding its way toward the governor’s desk (Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed an earlier version) would make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement. Read More > at CALmatters

California’s largest recycling center closes, shuttering 300 redemption sites – California’s largest operator of recycling redemption centers shut down Monday and laid off 750 employees.

RePlanet closed all 284 of its centers, and company president David Lawrence said the decision was driven by increased business costs and falling prices of recycled aluminum and PET plastic, the San Jose Mercury News reported .

The move came three years after RePlanet closed 191 of its recycling centers and laid off 278 workers.

Now many San Francisco Bay Area residents have few or no options for redeeming their recyclables, which is especially concerning for those who live in poverty or experience homelessness and rely on recycling for income.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that studies issues in California’s recycling industry, estimated that more than 40% of all redemption centers have closed in the last five years. The closures result in consumers only getting back about half of their nickel and dime bottle and can deposits, according to a recent report from the nonprofit. Read More > from the Associated Press

Derailing the bullet train – A decade ago, shortly after California voters narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue to finance a statewide bullet train system, an official involved in early planning for the project confided a dirty little secret.

While a 200-mile-per-hour bullet train was the sizzle sold to voters, he told me, the unspoken motive was getting more money to expand commuter transit services in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California without having to directly ask voters.

The bond issue set aside $950 million for such auxiliary transit systems on the theory that they would feed passengers into a bullet train system.

By and by, as construction of the initial bullet train segment in the San Joaquin Valley stalled due to mismanagement, cost overruns and stiff local opposition, advocates of the regional urban transit projects began to chip off pieces of the other $9 billion in bonds that voters had approved.

The most aggressive raids were led by sponsors of upgrading the Caltrain service between San Francisco and San Jose from diesel-powered trains to electrification – especially after bullet train officials stopped trying to build a separate line down the San Francisco Peninsula due to adamant local opposition and agreed to “blend” with Caltrain.

An amendment to the 2012 state budget allowed bond money to be used for “bookend” projects, meaning Caltrain and Southern California’s Metrolink service, and a 2016 bill, patched together in the final days of that year’s legislative session, legitimized the raid on bullet train funds even further.

Now, as the bullet train project gasps for air, more diversions of voter-approved bullet train bonds may be in the offing. Read More > at CALmatters

Wholesale inflation dead in the water, PPI shows – The wholesale cost of U.S. goods and services rose modestly in July, but inflation more broadly appeared dead in the water and showed little sign it’s about to speed up.

The producer price index increased 0.2% last month, matching the forecast of economists polled by MarketWatch.

Yet the pace of wholesale inflation over the past year was flat 1.7%. And more closely followed measure that strips out volatile food, energy and trade-margin costs fell for the first time in almost four years. The so-called core PPI dipped 0.1%. Read More . at MarketWatch

Home Price Increases Battle Tepid Sales; Forecast to Continue Rising into Mid-2020 – CoreLogic’s latest home price index and forecast shows home prices rose both year over year and month over month. The Irvine, CA-based researcher’s CoreLogic Home Price Index (HPI) and HPI Forecast for June 2019 noted home prices increased nationally by 3.4% from June 2018. On a month-over-month basis, prices increased by 0.4% in June 2019.

“Tepid home sales have caused home prices to rise at the slowest pace for the first half of a year since 2011,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist at CoreLogic. “Price growth continues to be faster for lower-priced homes, as first-time buyers and investors are both actively seeking entry-level homes. With incomes up and current mortgage rates about 0.8 percentage points below what they were one year ago, home sales should have a better sales pace in the second half of 2019 than a year earlier, leading to a quickening in price growth over the next year.”

Single-family home prices stand at an all-time high and continue to increase on an annual basis, with the CoreLogic HPI Forecast indicating annual price growth will increase by 5.2% from June 2019 to June 2020. On a month-over-month basis, the forecast calls for home prices to increase by 0.5% from June 2019 to July 2019. Read More > at Connect California

Putting America’s Problems in Perspective – …That said, one way to explain what I mean is to consider the law of diminishing returns. This is a phenomenon commonly associated with economics, but it also exists in psychology and virtually every sphere of life. Low-hanging fruit are easy to pluck. So, in the beginning you can get a lot of apples with comparatively little effort. The last, say, 10 percent of the apples require more effort and risk than the first 90 percent because you have to climb to the top of the tree.

If you’ve ever dieted, you know the first 20 pounds are wildly easier than the last five. In psychology, we get a lot more satisfaction from an activity in the beginning, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to squeeze out the joy.

Now consider politics. For understandable reasons, America is in a kind of panic about bigotry here. But if you look at America from outside the distorting fishbowl of the current moment, an impartial observer might think we’re way into the last 10 percent. Slavery was banned more than 150 years ago. Women got the vote almost exactly 99 years ago. Jim Crow was outlawed more than 50 years ago.

By any measure America has become astoundingly less racist since then. In 1958, according to the Brookings Institution, 44 percent of whites said they’d leave if a black family moved in next door. In 1998, only 1 percent did. In 1990, according to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of non-blacks expressed dismay at the prospect of a close relative marrying a black person. By 2016, that number had dropped to 14 percent. In 1967, only 3 percent of Americans married outside their race or ethnicity. Today, nearly one-fifth do.

There has been, according to some measures, a modest uptick in hate crimes since 2015, but there’s also been a huge increase in sensitivity to hate crimes and thus much more reporting of it.

The fact that the country is so concerned about bigotry and violence is good, because it’s a sign that our tolerance of such things has shrunk. All I’m doing is asking that people take a breath, count to ten, and put it all in some perspective. Read More > at National Review

Baseball’s future: Declining attendance – and shrinking stadiums to match – For more than a decade, from coast to coast, they rose from urban cores and suburban sprawl alike, feats of architectural perfection that defined the fan experience in Major League Baseball – in perpetuity, it seemed.

The great ballpark building boom that spanned the 1990s and into the millennium’s first decade was a welcome correction from the multi-purpose mausoleums that dotted the landscape in the 1970s. And the billions and billions of dollars expended – much of it coming from taxpayers – to create a more intimate setting felt like a permanent fix.

Yet as the industry discovers the appetite for live baseball may be shrinking, a third wave of stadiums are gradually coming online, revealing franchises’ desire to further shrink the ballpark – be it new or already existing.

…Kaval is charged with finding a new ballpark for the A’s and the club has progressed significantly on a waterfront project at Howard Terminal, near Jack London Square. Major hurdles remain, most notably Oakland City Council approval of a complicated deal centered on a 34,000-seat stadium.

Since 1989, every major league club save for the A’s and Tampa Bay Rays have inhabited a new or significantly renovated stadium. The Rays’ failed attempt at building in Tampa’s Ybor City aimed for a ballpark with 28,000 seats; they have already reduced capacity at Tropicana Field to 25,000.

…The A’s are aiming for distinct in their desired home, hiring a Danish firm to design a stadium that would include a rooftop park that encircles the stadium. A panoramic view of the bay – not visible from stadium seats for myriad reasons – would be the catnip to encourage fans to circulate throughout the game.

For now, they’re using antiquated Oakland Coliseum as a petri dish for that concept, selling monthly passes to “The Treehouse,” an area above left field with 1,500 seats and nearly as many libation options. The idea is to roam during the ballpark and enjoy “multiple experiences,” Kaval says, during each game.

Yet for all of Kaval’s globetrotting, his vision of a new stadium is largely driven by a development just a few miles from home.

“The iPhone has ushered in a whole new era,” says Kaval. “We just found the fans wanted – younger fans, Millennials and Gen Zers – experiential things they can show on their Instagram, their Snapchat. Live sports are changing. Entertainment is changing. Read More > at USA Today

Prisons are packed because prosecutors are coercing plea deals. And, yes, it’s totally legal. –  America is the most prosperous country in the history of the world. We excel at innovation and mass production — and nowhere is that more true today than our criminal justice system, which features a streamlined process for transforming millions of suspects into convicted criminals quickly, efficiently and without the hassle of a constitutionally prescribed jury trial.

It’s called coercive plea bargaining, and it’s the secret sauce that helps us maintain the world’s highest incarceration rate.

According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, of the roughly 80,000 federal prosecutions initiated in 2018, just two percent went to trial. More than 97 percent of federal criminal convictions are obtained through plea bargains, and the states are not far behind at 94 percent. Why are people so eager to confess their guilt instead of challenging the government to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of a unanimous jury? Read More ? from NBCNews

Why Is Participation in Sports Down Among American Children? – In America today, the average child spends less than three years playing a sport and quits by age 11, according to a new national survey of sports parents conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University.

According to the Aspen Institute’s survey of parents of youth athletes, the primary reason kids are quitting sports is because they simply aren’t having fun playing them anymore.

Last year, only 38 percent of kids aged six to 12 played team sports on a regular basis, down from 45 percent in 2008, according to research which was conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA).

And those numbers only get worse with age, as 56 percent of teen girls and 48 percent of teen boys do not participate in sports, according to statistics provided by DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation’s Sports Matter — an initiative which has pledged to provide access to sports for one million youth athletes over the next five years — at a recent panel event.

Besides the declining fun factor, the biggest reason kids aren’t playing sports as much as they once did is the increasing fees involved with participation.

Sports Matter’s statistics show that while 63 percent of school sports budgets are stagnant or decreasing, 58 percent of community-based sports fees are rising, which means parents are having to pay more for their children to play (if they can even convince them to). Read More > at Inside Hook 

24 Ways The World Is Better – Famine Hugely Reduced – Literacy Soaring – Life Expectancy Up – Degraded Landscapes Restored – How many people know that life expectancy worldwide is increasing, hunger decreasing, access to drinking water and clean water for sanitation increasing poverty decreasing, literacy increasing, access to internet increasing, child mortality decreasing and all those things?

Short summary

  1. Close to universal literacy in many countries, few with less than half unable to read and write
  2. Women now have the vote everywhere that men do – Saudi Arabia held out until 2017
  3. Life expectancy at birth gone up hugely (including a major reduction in mortality for young children).
  4. Huge reductions in large scale famine
  5. Child mortality (before age 5) way down
  6. The number of hungry people is down (though with some setbacks due to conflict and global warming effects)
  7. Childhood deaths from the five most lethal infectious diseases worldwide way down:
  8. Renewables growing rapidly – in many places not needing incentives any more, it’s less cost and better return to do a new renewables plant, and that trend is going to continue.
  9. Access to an improved water source improving:
  10. Much fewer die of natural disasters (better warning and better prepared e.g. improved building standards)
  11. Population leveling off due to prosperity rather than scarcity, already reached close to peak child and our population grows because we are living longer
  12. Death rate from wars way down:
  13. Large parts of the world are in nuclear weapon free zones, including nearly all the southern hemisphere: Read More > Science 2.0

Mass shootings are about alienation, not ideology – Before you even clicked the headlines, you could have guessed a great deal about the background of the murderers in Ohio and Texas who killed at least 29 people and injured many more in the span of roughly as many hours.

You knew they would be white, of course, and young. They would probably be unmarried or estranged from their wives or girlfriends. They would have no children, perhaps have vexed relationships with their own fathers, and, indeed, few if any close male friends. They would likely be gamers and participants in bizarre online alternative communities to which they turn in the hope of finding the acceptance unavailable to them in the real world and shared norms — of opinion, of language, of tastes and interests and humor. There’s a decent chance they would be users of cannabis, the psychosis-inducing properties of which our elites (with a handful of honorable exceptions) will be too blinkered to discuss until we are unable to do anything about it. This is because many or all of these things are true of virtually every other person who has shot four or more people in the spontaneous eruptions of spontaneous violence that have been occurring in this country in the last two decades.

What about politics? Much has been made by opportunists, cynics, and the willfully ignorant about the contents of the El Paso shooting suspect’s so-called “manifesto.” What we are meant to take away from the lunatic ravings of this person is that President Trump or the GOP or the Sedgwick County Republican Party are to blame. It is true that he talked about a “Hispanic invasion” and cited a recent massacre in New Zealand as inspiration. He also ranted about “sustainability” and echoed the talking points of ’70s-era leftist population-control cranks. Is concern for the environment also a Trump talking point? Meanwhile, the Dayton killer was a soi-disant “pro-Satan leftist,” a registered Democrat, and a supporter of Elizabeth Warren who claimed to hate the president and police officers generically. (On a side note, it is worth pointing out that in a state in which unarmed black men are routinely killed by police officers, the El Paso shooter was able to throw up his hands and calmly submit himself to justice. Why?)

This is not about ideology. Nor, in any straightforward sense, is it about what we now call “mental illness,” for which millions of Americans are treated each year. It is about alienation… Read More > in The Week

Automakers Need to Start Worrying About the Batteries Lurking in Older EVs – After a few years, most of us begin to notice our smartphones have developed an inability to hold a charge like they used to. The fix used to be pretty simple, no worse than swapping a couple of AAs into the remote. Order a new battery online, pop off the back of the device, and replace the run-down cell with a fresh one. Unfortunately, this simple act grew more difficult as manufacturers gradually decided to seal off access to your phone’s internals — mimicking the plight facing EV owners whose energy source is losing capacity.

A number of electric vehicles in the United States are about to celebrate their 10th birthday. A bunch of them are Nissan Leafs, the first mainstream BEV made widely available in the U.S. market. At the same time, customers have begun complaining about diminished range, with some asking for a battery refurbishment program like the one enjoyed by customers living in Japan.

So far, the best they’ve received is a confident “maybe” from the manufacturer. It might behoove them to expedite things and pull the trigger. Automakers are running behind in terms of establishing a global solution to aging EV batteries, and they’re risking a lot by not already having one in place.

For many consumers, swapping an old battery pack with new one is prohibitively expensive. Replacing the comparatively small units found in a hybrid vehicle can cost anywhere between $2,000 to over $7,000. However, the worst you’ll have to endure on a hybrid up until that point is a slew of warning notifications stating your battery is dying until the car finally fails to start. In the interim, you might also notice a modest MPG reduction. But you’ll probably have to start worrying about other major repairs by the time that happens, perhaps propelling you into a new car.

Purely electric vehicles are different. Range will gradually become an issue, worsening every year until the car becomes unusable for anything other than a trip around the block. As if that weren’t enough, their larger batteries cost quite a bit more.

…Unless you’re an electrical engineer hungry for an at-home project, the only sensible solution is to just lease these cars from the start and have someone else deal with it later. But even that’s just kicking the can down the road; it does nothing to address the larger problem. Leasing agencies won’t be happy auctioning a car that has deprecated to nothing and dealerships absolutely aren’t going to want to dump huge investment into a used EV that forces them to sell it at a loss. As for the factory, establishing a procedure to fix up old batteries has to be done in a way that’s financially viable. Otherwise, they won’t bother.

And that’s unlikely to change unless EV sales continue to rise like they did in 2018. Adoption rates may begin to stall unless mainstream consumers feel truly confident they can get the most out of their vehicle’s battery — or at least have it refurbished/repaired for a reasonable price. That makes this a bit of a Catch-22, one the industry has spent billions of dollars setting up. If it doesn’t want to see those funds flushed down the toilet, it might be worth spending a little more to establish a better support network. Read More > at The Truth About Cars

Sonoma County housing, hotel project sued over greenhouse gas emissions concerns – Healdsburg has begun its review of a developer’s proposal to build what would be the city’s largest housing project, a plan on the north end of town that has restoked the fiery debate in this Wine Country destination over the pace of residential growth and hotel development.

Already, the proposal by Southern California-based Comstock Homes has drawn a legal challenge against the city, with opponents asserting the expansive development would run afoul of state environmental regulations.

The project, on a vacant former lumber yard bounded by Healdsburg Avenue and Highway 101 north of Simi Winery, currently calls for more than 350 units of housing and a 120-room hotel.

The housing would be split between 132 income-restricted rental units for the local workforce and a 220-unit senior living community. Plans also call for 20,000 square feet of retail space.

But Sebastopol-based California River Watch has filed suit contending that Healdsburg failed to lawfully account for the greenhouse gas emissions the luxury hotel would generate. The lawsuit is a key piece of the group’s goal to force local governments to more closely account for the climate impacts of commercial growth and the region’s tourism economy.

…Yet to attract new housing affordable for its workforce, the city and others in the county have often had to settle for mixed-use developments that offer trade-offs. The common strategy includes deals allowing more profitable elements, such as market-rate homes or hotels, to offset the cost of income-restricted units.

…Healdsburg’s addition of new hotels means its large hospitality and tourism workforce will grow — and will be searching for places to live. For the city, that means a greater need to add new housing for middle- and low-income workers, or settling on a commuter workforce that travels longer distances, which creates even more greenhouse gas emissions, said Gail Jonas, who has lived in Healdsburg for 52 years. Read More > at North Bay Business Journal

1,200 retirees earn pensions that exceed federal limits. Cities and Counties pay. – More than a thousand public retirees in California are earning pensions that exceed the federal limit of $220,000, according to data from CalPERS. Last year, 1,205 retirees took home these inflated benefits, which altogether totaled $197 million in 2018. Four years ago, just 684 retirees earned benefits above the federal limit.

As the Sacramento Bee reports, this is placing added pressure on cities and counties.

Taxes on the above-limits portions of the pensions cost cities and counties extra, consuming taxpayer money that could go toward street maintenance, parks, police or firefighters…

Many of the retirees on the list held management positions in cities, counties and special districts that now pay money out of their operating budgets for their pensions. To comply with tax law, the agencies provide benefits above the federal limit by paying the remainder as wages.

In 2013, pensions were capped under the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act. But that only applies to new retirees. That means a stream of high bills coming due in future years as the current stock of workers retire.

The Bee has a list of mind-blowing examples, including a former county administrator taking home $402,000 per year and a retired city manager with an annual pension of around $337,000.

Read more here. Read More > at California County News 

Companies Collect a Lot of Data, But How Much Do They Actually Use? – For all the talk of how data is the new oil and the most valuable resource of any enterprise, there is a deep dark secret companies are reluctant to share  most of the data collected by businesses simply goes unused.

This unknown and unused data, known as dark data comprises more than half the data collected by companies. Given that some estimates indicate that 7.5 septillion (7,700,000,000,000,000,000,000) gigabytes of data are generated every single day, not using  most of it is a considerable issue.

Before diving into the analysis, it’s worth spending a moment clarifying what we mean by the term “dark data.” Gartner defines dark data as:

“The information assets organizations collect, process and store during regular business activities, but generally fail to use for other purposes (for example, analytics, business relationships and direct monetizing). 

Fifty five percent of all data collected by companies is dark data. Within this category of dark data lies two subcategories  data that they know has been captured but don’t know how to use and data that they are not even sure with certainty that they have. 

Furthermore, while 55% is the global average for dark data, some companies have a lot more and others less.  Read More > at Priceonomics

‘Sue the suburbs’ group strikes again, attacking another Bay Area city over housing – In a low-key San Francisco office decorated with “legalize housing” T-shirts and a fluffy, avocado-shaped throw pillow, a tiny group of advocates is trying to sue their way out of the Bay Area housing crisis.

The four-person California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CaRLA, has one reason for being — to sue cities that reject housing projects without a valid reason. The litigious nonprofit with YIMBY roots struck again last month, suing Los Altos after the city rejected a developer’s bid to streamline a project of 15 apartments plus ground-floor office space.

It’s a bold strategy and one advocates say fills the enforcement hole in California housing policy. But it’s also helping push housing decisions out of city council chambers and into the courtroom — removing those key issues from local control and further stoking the flames of bitter contention that often surround Bay Area housing debates.

…But critics argue suing the suburbs is not the best way out of the housing crisis. Development decisions should be made locally and with community input, not in courtrooms under pressure from outside groups such as CaRLA, said Mill Valley resident Susan Kirsch, founder of slow-growth group Livable California. Read More > in the Marin Independent Journal

Cupertino May Face State Lawsuit If Vallco Housing Doesn’t Get Built – The fate of the long-delayed project to replace the old Vallco Shopping Mall in Cupertino with housing could reportedly leave the city facing a lawsuit from the state.

Developers, who are planning to build more than 2,400 units, half of them affordable, along with 1.8 million square feet of office space and 400,000 square feet of retail, have faced a battery of roadblocks.

The developers have invoked Senate Bill 35, a state law that aims to make it easier to build affordable housing units. Meanwhile, opponents have filed a lawsuit against the project.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, state housing officials are threatening to sue Cupertino if the project fails to materialize, because the city could fail to meet state housing goals.

Cupertino is responsible for zoning over 1,000 new housing units by 2023.

In a statement to KPIX 5, Cupertino officials said “The City is aware that it will need to take action to ensure that sufficient sites are zoned for housing in the event the SB 35 project is overturned.” Read More > at CBS SF Bay Area

Housing crisis looms large – When the state Legislature returns to Sacramento this month after its summer vacation recess, it will have just four weeks to do something meaningful about California’s single most important issue – a housing shortage that takes a heavy economic and psychological toll on many Californians and is getting worse.

While legislators enjoyed their summer break, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a rather startling report that “the first half of 2019 saw a substantial decline in the number of new housing units authorized by building permits.”

The recession that clobbered California a decade ago drove housing construction, once as high as 200,000 units a year, to a low of 35,000. The state has an estimated shortage of 2.3 million units, and state officials say we needed to build 180,000 units a year to cope with that deficit, offset losses of existing housing and keep up with population growth.

However, there were only 104,000 housing starts in 2018 and the net gain was under 80,000. During the first six months of this year, PPIC says, new construction dipped 16%, meaning the yearly total would be just 93,000, and multi-family construction, the most urgent need, was down 23%.

…The biggest impediment to investment is the hostility of many local governments, especially cities, to large-scale housing construction, mirroring the “not in my backyard” sentiments of their residents and voters.

Legislation to overcome NIMBYism, Senate Bill 50, died an unceremonious, backroom death before the summer recess, reflecting the stiff opposition of city officials.

While Newsom says he wants to compel communities to be more receptive, and sued one city, Huntington Beach, for failing to meet its state-established housing quota, he’s been paying more attention to burnishing his national image as a leader of the anti-Donald Trump “resistance” than to California’s biggest problem.

Meanwhile, another bill that’s aimed at overcoming local resistance to housing, Senate Bill 330, has, unlike SB 50, made it through the Senate and now faces a showdown in the Assembly. It declares a housing supply crisis in California and overrides local restrictions for some forms of housing development. Read More > at CALmatters

New study highlights explosion in local governments’ pension costs – Between 2007 and 2016, median pension costs for cities and counties in California increased $7,022 per worker — six times as much as the rest of the country — according to new research by UC Berkeley associate professor of public policy Sarah Anzia.

“This dataset is unlike any that existed before, and it is uniquely suited to the task of assessing the on-the-ground experiences of American cities and counties,” Anzia said of her research, which analyzed pension spending across 442 local governments including 26 in California.

“It stands to affect everyone who relies on local government service provision, including police and fire protection, refuse collection, public parks, libraries, and county court systems,” wrote Anzia. “Rising pension expenditures are already changing the landscape of local government, and the findings here suggest that the future of local government may look very different than the past.”

Rising pension costs are eating through California’s city and county budgets. According to the study, they consumed an additional 2% of general revenues over the 10-year period. Nationwide, that figure was 0.7%.

Anzia also found a positive relationship between pension cost growth and strong organized labor movements.

Read the entire study here, plus this summary from the Sacramento Bee.  Read More > at California City News

Risky mobile transactions have spiked this year as patch providers race to keep up – It’s hardly news that scammers are taking money in various ways from unsuspecting smartphone users, but a new analysis of 30 billion online transactions shows that the fraudsters are adapting and innovating in ways that much of the public doesn’t understand.

One number tells the story: Iovation, a fraud detection firm acquired in 2018 by TransUnion, flags risky transactions worldwide and then looks more closely at how they happened. In recent years, about one-third of all flagged transactions involved mobile devices.

In the first half of 2019, that number jumped to 49%, according to findings released Tuesday.

Iovation defines “risky” based on the number of transactions in a given period of time from a device, geolocation anomalies, potential bot activity and other actions that typically result in fraud. The findings only provide the latest evidence that mobile devices, which will be the primary way most of the world will access the internetwithin a few years, are riddled with malicious software, dodgy apps and other technologies used to steal victims’ data.

Meanwhile, mobile service providers are scrambling to keep up. Android and iOS vendors created 440 security patches over the first half of 2019, up 30% from the same time period last year, according to an analysis of 40 million devices conducted by the vendor Zimperium. Rogue Android apps were an especially toxic threat, with 45% of all attacks from mobile devices originating with a program that was not what it appeared, Zimperium found. Read More > at cyberscoop

California Follows the Disastrous Flood Insurance Path to Fire Insurance Fiasco – There’s a crisis threatening to scorch state homeowners, Californians say. Residents in forested areas threatened by wildfires are running into problems finding affordable insurance as insurers adjust premium prices—or refuse coverage—to reflect the risk and expense of settling amidst pretty tinder. But, as you might expect, politicians propose to “fix” the problem. Their scheme follows the path set by government-funded coastal flood insurance, spreading costs to taxpayers who live far from danger areas to effectively subsidize development in high-risk areas for the lucky few.

“California’s wildfires have found yet another way of doing serious harm to rural California—by hammering its housing market,” the Sacramento Bee reported last week. “The refusal of insurance companies to cover homes in fire-prone areas is prompting home buyers to cancel purchases and look elsewhere.”

Insurance companies aren’t completely exiting the market. In many cases, they’re dramatically hiking premiums to reflect the costs they’ve run into after two truly disastrous wildfire seasons.

But California regulators don’t just report costs—they increase them, too. In 2018, the California Department of Insurance leaned on insurers to “provide up to 100 percent of contents (personal property) coverage limits for fire survivors who experienced a total loss and relieve them from the requirement of providing a detailed home inventory.”

No doubt, homeowners much appreciated that gesture. But it certainly left room open for fraud—and generated higher costs that played a role in companies’ decisions to hike premiums and withdraw from high-risk markets.

For homeowners struggling to find wildfire insurance—which is generally required before you can land a mortgage—state insurance companies have grouped together to provide last-resort coverage under the FAIR Plan. But FAIR coverage is expensive and intentionally bare-bones. California politicians think they can do better—at least in terms of pleasing the folks who vote them into office.

Their plan is to make taxpayers pay some of the insurance costs of homeowners who want to live in areas prone to fire. Read More > at Reason

How to Fill the 7.35 Million Job Openings in America – After last week’s unemployment and payrolls report for July, the U.S. Department of Labor has released its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. The report is for June, as it comes with a one-month lag, but economists, employers and investors look at the data for the underlying health of the jobs market with more detail than the monthly Employment Situation report.

The Labor Department reported that there were 7.35 million job openings in June. While this is still enough jobs for almost every single adult counted as unemployed or underemployed, this was a 0.6% decline from the June 2018 report and was said to be the first decrease on a year-over-year basis since 2017.

The overall tone of the report is that the total number of job openings is still holding close to all-time highs, but employer demand for new jobs (and replacement jobs) has weakened since 2018. A lower number of job openings also seems to coincide with a slowdown in hiring and the monthly payrolls gains.

Recent data also shows that employers in the nation have averaged about 165,000 new jobs per month during the period of January to July in 2019. While not unimpressive, this is lagging the 2018 average of about 223,000 jobs per month. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

The Economy Isn’t Just Adding Jobs. It’s Adding Good Ones. – Even if the rate of U.S. job growth is slowing this year, there’s encouraging news hidden in that overall number.

A large chunk of the deceleration is attributable to a near halt in the growth of lower-paid jobs, despite those positions continuing to show strong wage growth – a sign that perhaps for lower-paid workers we are seeing dynamics approaching full employment. At the same type, the continued steady growth in higher-paid knowledge jobs should embolden those who believe this expansion can continue for quite a while longer. And along the way, more Americans in both categories are finding decent-paying jobs.

When people talk about the labor market slowing, what they’re really referring to is the past six months. The recent peak in the year-over-year pace in jobs growth occurred in January at 2.82 million. Since then it has slowed somewhat, largely shown in the weak jobs reports in February and May, in which both months resulted in fewer than 100,000 jobs being added in the economy.

But as the economic cycle has become more advanced, the composition of the labor market continues to change. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lowest-paid industries – retail and leisure/hospitality. From January 2011 through January 2019, those two industries added on average 600,000 jobs per year, or 50,000 per month, with the pace of growth beginning to slow noticeably in 2017. In the past six months, however, those industries have shown no growth. If they had grown at a similar pace as they did in 2017 or 2018, overall job growth would have shown very little deceleration. Read More > from Bloomberg

In Hong Kong, It’s Now a Revolution – Defying stern warnings from both the local government and Beijing, people in seven districts in Hong Kong—most notably teachers, airport workers, and civil servants—participated in a general strike Monday, shutting down portions of the territory. For instance, more than a hundred flights were cancelled.

The strike followed weeks of sometimes violent protests in the territory, a semi-autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. Youthful demonstrators over the weekend surrounded and attacked police stations, and enraged residents drove riot police from their neighborhoods.

Roving protesters, dressed for urban combat, created a series of confrontations across the territory, even closing the main tunnel linking Hong Kong Island with the rest of the territory. A beleaguered police force, demoralized and fatigued, was unable to keep up with the mobile bands of radicalized youth.

…Sustainability is the key for the protestors if they want to win freedom from China. “They keep saying ‘be like water,’” Michael Yon, the American war correspondent and author, told the National Interest over the weekend, noting young protestors are modeling themselves after martial arts legend Bruce Lee. “I keep telling them be like Poland. Never quit and you can actually be free. Maybe. But never quit.” Read More > at The National Interest

Impending Defeat for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Most of you think that the world, in general, is getting worse. You are wrong. Citing uncontroversial data on major global trends, I will prove to you that this dark view of humanity’s prospects is, in large part, badly mistaken.

First, though: How do I know most of you believe that things are bad and getting worse? Because that’s what you tell pollsters. A 2016 survey by the public opinion firm YouGov asked folks in 17 countries, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better or worse?” Fifty-eight percent answered worse, and 30 percent chose neither. Only 11 percent thought things are getting better. In the United States, 65 percent thought that the world is getting worse and 23 percent said neither. Only 6 percent responded that the world is getting better.

So why are so many smart people like you wrong about the improving state of the world? For starters, almost all of us have a couple of psychological glitches that cause us to focus relentlessly on negative news.

Way back in 1965, Johan Galtung and Mari Holmboe Ruge of the Peace Research Institute Oslo observed “a basic asymmetry in life between the positive, which is difficult and takes time, and the negative, which is much easier and takes less time.” They illustrated this by comparing “the amount of time needed to bring up and socialize an adult person and the amount of time needed to kill him in an accident; the amount of time needed to build a house and to destroy it in a fire, to make an airplane and to crash it, and so on.” News is bad news; steady, sustained progress is not news.

…Another reason for the ubiquity of mistaken gloom derives from evolutionary psychology. A Stone Age person hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it’s the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then that person does not live to become one of our ancestors. We are the descendants of the worried folks who tended to assume that all rustles in the grass were dangerous predators. Due to this instinctive negativity bias, most of us attend far more to bad rather than to good news.

…The fact that we denizens of the early 21st century are much richer than any previous generation accounts for much of the good news. Thanks to technological progress and expanding global markets, the size of the world’s economy since 1820 has grown more than 100-fold while world population grew somewhat less than eightfold. In concrete terms, world gross product grew from $1.2 trillion (in 2011 dollars) to more than $116 trillion now. Global per capita GDP has risen from $1,200 per year in 1820 to more than $15,000 per person currently.

The astonishing result of this increase in wealth is that the global rate of absolute poverty, defined as living on less than $1.90 per person per day, fell from 84 percent in 1820 to 55 percent in 1950. According to the World Bank, 42 percent of the globe’s population was still living in absolute poverty as late as 1981. The latest World Bank assessment reckons that the share of the world’s inhabitants living in extreme poverty fell to 8.6 percent in 2018. In 1990 about 1.9 billion of the world’s people lived in extreme poverty; by 2018, that number had dropped to 660 million.

In Christian tradition, the four horsemen of Famine, Pestilence, War, and Death usher in the apocalypse. Compared to 100 years ago, deaths from infectious diseases are way down; wars are rarer and kill fewer people; and malnutrition has steeply declined. Death itself is in retreat, and the apocalypse has never looked further away. Read More > at Reason

Claw machines are rigged — here’s why it’s so hard to grab that stuffed animal – At some point or another you’ve probably played one of these claw machines, hoping to score the plush toy of your dreams. But despite your skill at perfectly positioning the claw over the prize and activating it, you’ve found that the pincers just don’t grab tightly enough to pick up a stuffed animal.

It’s not your imagination. Those claw machines are rigged. But they’re rigged in a surprisingly clever way — and not the way most people suspect.

Some people think the claw machine is so hard to win because the stuffed animals are packed so tightly together. But the bigger reason is more insidious than that: the claw machine is programmed to have a strong grip only part of the time.

The machine’s owner can fine-tune the strength of the claw beforehand so that it only has a strong grip a fraction of the time that people play.

The owner can manually adjust the “dropping skill,” as well. That means that on a given number of tries, the claw will drop a prize that it’s grabbed before it delivers it to you.

The machines also allow the owner to select a desired level of profit and then automatically adjust the claw strength to make sure that players are only winning a limited number of times. Read More > at Vox

Smart people understand why it pays to swear at work – Researchers say people who swear can seem more honest, credible and persuasive. There is, of course, swearing and swearing. A US study that found profanity could be persuasive arrived at the conclusion after testing people’s reactions to “damn”, a word so mild it barely qualifies as an obscenity in many offices.

Context also matters. A four-letter-word howl at a jammed printer is more acceptable than one hurled at a boss. And when workers are asked if they approve of bad language in the office, they invariably say they do not.

Yet fruity language need not be an obstacle to career success, which is something a lot of smart business leaders have long understood. Read More > in the Financial Times

The Rise Of The Subcontractors: Labor Shortage Keeping Skilled Workers In Control – The labor shortage in the construction industry is one of the country’s great, unsolved problems as the economic expansion has continued. While it has caused prices to shoot up, it has also created a new dynamic in which subcontractors are now arguably the most powerful entity on a job site.

For companies who provide specialized labor to construction companies, the Great Recession was a game-changer. And when it comes to pricing and availability, subcontractors — an industry that cycles between feast and famine — are expected to retain their power over pricing and timing for the foreseeable future.

“All of this is driven by workforce, manpower and skilled trades,” Associated General Contractors of Georgia CEO Mike Dunham said. “The [subcontractors] are just constrained by the sheer availability of skilled workers. I don’t have anybody who doesn’t need people. The subs right now are in the catbird seat. They are at an absolutely maximum capacity.”

The decimation of America’s skilled construction workforce has been a story since the recession. The construction industry saw the numbers of workers drop from 7.7 million people in 2006 to a floor of 5.5 million in 2011, according to a recent NAIOP report.

Since then, despite a desperate need for workers — which has led to rising wages — the number of people in the construction and extraction industry has barely risen. Last year, there were 5.96 million construction workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Read More > at Bisnow

Now even funerals are livestreamed—and families are grateful – In a culture obsessed with tweeting and Instagramming every moment of life, it’s little surprise that streaming extends to death. Funeral livestreaming services have been around for more than a decade, but the practice has recently exploded in popularity, says Bryant Hightower, president-elect of the National Funeral Directors Association. He estimates that nearly 20 percent of US funeral homes now offer the service—a big number in an industry resistant to change—in response to demand from clients. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs offer livestreaming as a service to hesitant funeral directors.

Gary Richards, founder of OneRoom, a company that offers livestreaming services to funeral directors in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the US, says he’s noticed that many of the families that use his service are recent immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, or India, who are looking for a way to connect with family and friends from back home. He’s says he’s also noticed a considerable number of Americans looking to bridge the east and west coasts. Read More > at Wired

Are shared e-scooters good for the planet? Only if they replace car trips – Shared dockless electric scooters, or e-scooters, transport riders over short distances in cities. Ride share companies promote them as an environmentally friendly choice that reduces dependence on cars.

To properly assess these claims, it’s important to consider all relevant environmental factors, including the materials and energy required to manufacture scooters, the impacts of collecting them daily for charging and redistributing, and the electricity that charges their batteries.

I study methods for assessing environmental impacts of products and materials. In a newly published study, I show that e-scooter programs may have larger total environmental impacts than the transportation modes they displace. But if cities update their policies and mobility companies tweak some of their practices, there are opportunities to make e-scooters a greener option.

The transportation sector generates nearly one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and a large share of smog and asthma-inducing pollutants. With no tailpipes to spew emissions, it would be easy to assume that shared e-scooters are an environmentally preferable option. E-scooter companies often tout the environmental benefits of their “carbon-free” and “earth-friendly” rides.

To support these claims, Lime has pledged to purchase renewable energy credits to cover the electricity it uses for charging and carbon offsets for their operations. Bird purchases renewable energy credits and carbon offsets to cover electricity and scooter pick-up and drop-off.

However, claims of a full carbon-free ride don’t hold up when all of the actions required to have an e-scooter ready, at the right location and charged for use are considered. With North Carolina State University engineering students Joseph Hollingsworth and Brenna Copeland, I turned to a life cycle approach to fill in the gaps. Read More > at The Conversation


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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