Sunday Reading – 09/15/19


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.

How to Upgrade to an iPhone 11 Without Getting Ripped Off – Pre-orders for the iPhone 11 and its Pro siblings start on Friday at 5am PDT/8am EDT. While Apple didn’t announce a ton of new features for the devices this year, there are some subtle but important changes happening around trade-ins and upgrades. So we made you a little guide to make sure you don’t get bamboozled by one of the richest companies in history.

The first thing to know about iPhone upgrades is that they’re pretty much carrier-agnostic these days. It used to be that you got a new device every couple of years as long as you renewed your contract and promised to keep paying that carrier a monthly bill. That was typically the best way to get a new iPhone for the least amount of cash upfront.

But things have changed! Carriers still offer upgrade programs, and Apple has its own upgrade program too. There’s also the option of just trading in an old device and paying the difference. The most metal of all is just paying for the iPhone outright.

We’re going to walk you through all of these different options and highlight the pros and cons of each. The fact of the matter is that there’s not a singular best option for everyone to upgrade their iPhone for the least money and trouble. But there’s surely a best option for you. Read More > at Gizmodo

How to Buy a Vineyard – Despite the fact that the U.S. wine industry has experienced continuous growth since 1994—it is now a $70.5 billion market, according to wine data firm Wines Vines Analytics—the odds of creating a profitable vineyard are slim. “It’s a very capitally intensive business,” says Robert Nicholson, principal of International Wine Associates, a consulting firm based in Healdsburg, Calif., specializing in wine industry mergers and acquisitions. “There’s no formula for success, but finding the right place, terroir, vineyard—this can be a long-term proposition.” Locating, purchasing, developing and farming the land takes years before the first commercially apt harvest can occur.

As with many passion investments, the ownership of a vineyard is primarily led by emotion. “To be successful in this industry,” says Colgin, “you have to be really committed and passionate about what you produce. That’s the first and foremost.” Following her example, here’s what you need to know to buy and develop a vineyard.

…Before even looking for a property, have an idea of what you want to do with it, says Robert Nicholson, whose firm has completed more than $1.8 billion in wine asset transactions. “Do you want to sell grapes and have a nice house on a vineyard, or do you want to produce wine?” he asks. Selling grapes is the more financially accessible pursuit but is unlikely to cover the costs of operating a vineyard; on the other hand, growing and bottling wine offers higher returns, but requires larger capital expenditures upfront for equipment and facilities. Both options require years of investment before seeing any profit. Surrounding yourself with the right people—a viticulturist, a winemaker, a financial advisor versed in the wine industry—will help you understand the economics of a vineyard and how you decide to make use of it. Read More > at Worth

U.S. autism rates rising fastest for Hispanics, blacks – Autism rates among U.S. children are rising fastest among blacks and Hispanics, researchers say.

“We found that rates among blacks and Hispanics are not only catching up to those of whites — which have historically been higher — but surpassing them,” said study author Cynthia Nevison, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Some of the increase among minorities is due to more awareness and better detection, but it’s likely that other factors are involved, according to the researchers.

“There is no doubt that autism prevalence has increased significantly over the past 10 to 20 years, and based on what we have seen from this larger, more recent dataset it will continue to increase among all race and ethnicity groups in the coming years,” said study co-author Walter Zahorodny, an autism researcher and associate professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. Read More > at UPI

California Passes Statewide Rent Control Despite a Massive Housing Shortage – On Wednesday, California lawmakers approved AB 1482, which caps rent increases at 5 percent per year plus inflation, and prevents landlords from evicting tenants without citing a government-approved reason.

Wednesday’s vote makes California the latest state to pass a rent control bill. Oregon passed a statewide cap on rents in February. In June, the New York legislature passed a bill strengthening existing rent controls in New York City while giving other cities in the state the ability to pass their own rent regulations.

Economists and other policy experts have long criticized rent control for reducing the supply and quality of rental housing in the long-run. California’s rent control bill is no exception says Michael Hendrix, state and local policy director at the Manhattan Institute.

study of rent control in San Francisco published in the journal American Economic Review this month found that “while rent control prevents displacement of incumbent renters in the short run, the lost rental housing supply likely drove up market rents in the long run, ultimately undermining the goals of the law.” Read More > at Reason

Retail sales get big lift from auto purchases as consumers drive U.S. economy forward – U.S. retail sales got a big boost in August from purchases of new autos and building supplies, but most other stores reported weak or declining receipts in a sign that consumers trimmed spending toward the end of summer.

Retail sales rose 0.4% last month, the government said Friday, but sales were flat excluding new cars and trucks.

Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast a small 0.1% increase in sales after a big 0.8% increase in July spurred in part by Amazon Prime Day.

Sales jumped 1.8% at auto dealers to mark the biggest gain in five months.

The relatively robust level of car sales suggest consumers are still confident in the economy. Purchases of big-ticket items usually wane when the economy slows or Americans become worried about their jobs. Read More > at MarketWatch

What teachers think about race and school discipline – School discipline has long been at or near the top of the list of public concerns about education. Indeed, polls show that student discipline was the public’s top concern 50 years ago, in 1969, and for 15 of the next 16 years. More recently, education reformers’ concerns have focused more on how students are disciplined than how disciplined they are. Arguments that suspensions are unproductiveharmful to recipients, and unfairly administered by race led the Obama administration to tackle the issue through 2014 federal guidance encouraging leaders to seek alternatives to exclusionary discipline and reduce racial disparities in suspensions. This was criticized as a top-down overreach, and subsequently scrapped by the Trump administration without any further substantive action. Despite the federal walk-back, pressure for centralized solutions remains, as evidenced by the pending California legislation that would ban all suspensions for disruptive behavior.

That noted, polls also reveal a great deal of support for alternatives to suspension. Fordham finds that 81% of teachers view restorative justice practices as somewhat effective alternatives, and PDK finds that two-thirds of all adults see mediation as more effective than detention or suspension. One of the drivers of this appeal for alternatives is pronounced distrust of disciplinary practices. PDK finds that only 59% of all parents trust their child’s school to administer discipline fairly—a number that falls to a mere 40% among black parents. This racial disparity is understandable given that 15% of black parents report having a child suspended or expelled from schools, double the percentage of white parents. These views are aligned with the pressure in education reform circles to move away from suspension and reflect some sympathy for the Obama and California regulatory moves.

Despite the support for alternatives, teachers believe that suspensions should play a role in school discipline, and may not currently be employed often enough. Fordham found that more than four in ten teachers believe out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are not used enough, while just one in ten believed they are used too much. More than 80% of teachers agree that out-of-school suspensions are useful for communicating the seriousness of a student’s infractions to parents, and for removing disruptive students from the classroom so that others can learn.

While recent surveys suggest parents and teachers like the idea of moving away from suspensions, polls also indicate an awareness of their utility for serious infractions. Fordham found just 12% of teachers believe suspension is warranted at the first instance of a verbal disrespect offense, but when the disrespect is repeated 64% favor suspension—a response California is about to outlaw. When it comes to serious offences—those involving weapons, drugs, and some assaults—support for strict zero-tolerance suspension policies is twice as large as opposition. Read More > at AEI

New California Bill Says Uber’s Drivers Are Employees. Uber Disagrees. – In a move that labor activists and liberal legislators hailed as a win for the little guy, California’s AB5, which is poised to classify gig economy workers as fully-fledged employees, passed the state Senate on Wednesday. But Uber—the main target of the legislation—said in a statement that its drivers perform work “outside the usual course” of the company’s business and will thus remain independent contractors.

Under the proposed law, reclassifying gig economy workers would entitle them to wage protections and a full slate of benefits, including health care, paid time off, and reimbursement for expenses. Yet Uber claims the law does not actually affect the drivers who use the company’s app to give rides. “AB5 does not provide drivers with benefits, nor does it give drivers the right to organize. In fact, the bill currently says nothing about rideshare drivers,” Tony West, Chief Legal Officer at Uber, wrote in a statement. “What AB5 does do is fairly straightforward: it inserts into the California labor code a new legal test that must be used when determining whether a worker is classified as an independent contractor or an employee.”

That standard was established in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, a 2018 California Supreme Court decision that created the “ABC test” for ascertaining employee versus contractor status. To prove that their workers are contractors and not employees, companies must show that those workers control their workload, perform work that falls outside of the business’s normal scope, and are “customarily engaged” in the occupation or business.

…If drivers found themselves classified as employees, gig economy companies would need to schedule workers in shifts, limiting employee hours and removing the autonomy that has come to define app-based professions. They would also have to eliminate scores of positions in order to remain financially solvent. About 6,461 Lyft drivers in Gonzalez’s district alone would find themselves without work, according to a study prepared by the consulting firm Beacon Economics LLC for the ride-hailing company.

That’s a big change for a business model that, in its current state, allows workers to simultaneously contract for competing companies and is available to large swaths of eager workers. Uber’s door is currently wide open, so long as you are 21, have a driver’s license, and own a decent car. That accessibility has been a game-changer for vulnerable populations. In Manhattan, first-generation immigrants who speak English as a second language make up 90 percent of app-based drivers. Read More > at Reason

California Has Completely Crapped the Bed Rolling Out Legal Marijuana – Thanks to high taxes and overregulation, California reportedly has three times as many illegal marijuana dispensaries as it does licensed shops.

And that’s probably an undercount. The numbers—873 legal vs. 2,835 unlicensed—come from a marijuana dispensary trade association that made its calculations by looking at who is advertising on Weedmaps, a site helping pot users order marijuana from dispensaries online. There’s probably more than a few unlicensed dispensaries out there who don’t advertise on Weedmaps either.

The trade association that provided this count, the United Cannabis Business Association (UCBA), has a mad-on for Weedmaps because it has been allowing unlicensed dispensaries to use its platform. The UCBA, which already pushed through a law increasing the fines on unlicensed vendors, is now lobbying for a bill that would prohibit sites like Weedmaps from hosting advertisements from unlicensed dispensaries, enforced by even more fines.

…We’re talking about marijuana here. After decades of a failed drug war, it’s comically absurd to think a state or city can somehow wipe out illegal pot sales now when it was unable to do so before. Black markets persist when it becomes too difficult for consumers to purchase what they want legally. How many times do we need to learn this lesson? Read More > at Reason 

The True Power of the Afghan Drug Trade – Despite significant growth in the capacity of the Afghan Government and its security forces, the Taliban still controls more territory than at any point since 2001. If Afghanistan is to ever prevail against this threat, it is imperative to understand what has enabled the Taliban to not only survive, but flourish against formidable counterinsurgency efforts. One likely source of strength is the drug trade.

The source of nearly 90% of the world’s supply of heroin, Afghanistan’s drug trade is as unique as it is vast. There are few modern examples of narco-states where drugs have become so intertwined in the political, economic and social structures of the nation.

The Taliban’s links to this trade are undeniable. Despite an inconsistent approach to narcotics when the Taliban held power in Afghanistan, the group has always managed to profit from its cultivation in one form or another. As a conflict crop, the value of this commodity was born out of the Soviet-Afghan war where the Mujahideen taxed local farmers to fund their insurgency.

…Opium production (like many other narcotics) is labour intensive. Its cultivation, transportation and refinement involve an enormous workforce that transcends the criminal, insurgent and civilian dimensions of the society. Once established, it becomes very difficult for the local economy to switch to other alternatives.

In an impoverished country like Afghanistan where credit is rare and poverty is often the greatest threat to individual livelihoods, the drug trade is able to offer credit and a guaranteed return that far exceeds its legal alternatives.

Consider then the importance of the Taliban in this equation. If the Taliban is able to provide land, credit and a guaranteed demand for the commodity, then they are also creating significant political capital in these areas.

The population’s livelihoods have now become dependent on the very commodity that the Taliban is facilitating. Whether the population likes the Taliban is largely irrelevant. In fact, recent surveys have certainly indicated the extent to which much of the population rejects Taliban ideology. Despite this, they have no alternative but to support the Taliban. Read More > at Grounded Curiosity

Gun sales surge 15% – The leading indicator of gun sales jumped in August, driven in part by Americans seeking self-protection and deep concerns congressional Democrats are going to push through expanded gun control legislation.

The overall number of background checks recorded in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System surged 15.5%, said the National Shooting Sports Foundation. That figure includes background checks done for security, concealed carry permits, and gun sales and was the highest August number ever recorded.

The industry group said that August FBI background checks adjusted for sales surged 15.2% over August 2018. The adjusted August number was second only to August 2016 during the heated presidential election.

The new surge came in the wake of heightened pressure for gun control, sales bans on military-styled rifles, and limits on ammo following a spike in mass shootings. Read More > in the Washington Examiner

Where Is Everyone? 4 Possible Explanations for the Fermi Paradox – As we go on with our everyday lives, it’s very easy to forget about the sheer size of the universe.

The Earth may seem like a mighty place, but it’s practically a grain within a grain of sand in a universe that is estimated to contain over 200 billion galaxies. That’s something to think about the next time you take life too seriously.

So when we gaze up into the starry night sky, we have every reason to be awestruck—and overwhelmed with curiosity. With the sheer size of the universe and the number of galaxies, stars, and planets in it, surely there are other sentient beings out there. But how come we haven’t heard from them?

This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox. Named after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, the paradox describes the seeming contradiction between the potential for intelligent life in the cosmos and the fact that we have yet to detect any.

Other scientists like Frank Drake have attempted to quantify the statistical probability of life existing elsewhere in the universe. By taking into account factors such as the estimated number of sun-like stars, habitable earth-like planets and a conservative assumption of life developing in those planets, the Drake equation estimates anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000,000 radio-communicative civilizations in the Milky Way alone. Read More > at SingularityHub 

Meet the artificial embryos being called “uncanny” and “spectacular” – Researchers are getting close to manufacturing viable human embryos from stem cells. They say there needs to be a law against turning them into people.

The stem cells live only a few days, lodged between tiny pillars on the surface of a microfluidic compartment. Yet during that time, stop motion video shows, the cells being multiplying, changing, and organizing themselves into hollow spheres.

They are following their ultimate program—to try to turn into an embryo. And they are doing a startlingly good job of it.

Today, researchers at the University of Michigan are reporting that they’ve learned to efficiently manufacture realistic models of human embryos from stem cells. They think the advance will let them test fertility drugs and study the earliest phases of pregnancy, but it is also raising novel legal and ethical issues.

For now, scientists say, these aren’t true embryos and lack the capacity to turn into a person. However, as similar research races forward in Europe and China it is raising questions about how close scientists really are to synthetically creating viable human embryos in their labs. Read More > at MIT Technology Review

The U.S. isn’t building enough houses — and that’s not changing anytime soon, economists say – Home-building activity has never fully recovered from the last recession.

Real-estate website Zillow ZG, +1.20%  and research firm Pulsenomics conducted a survey of more than 100 economists, real-estate experts and investment strategists to gauge their expectations regarding the U.S. real-estate market. A 54% majority of those experts said they don’t expect new-home construction to reach an annual rate of 1 million units until 2022 or later.

And that has implications for buyers. “Without new homes to meet population growth and replace an aging housing stock, home buying is expected to move further out of reach,” Skylar Olsen, Zillow’s director of economic research, said in the report.

Since 1959, single-family housing starts have occurred at an average seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 1 million homes. In 2006, just before the recession, housing starts hit an all-time high pace of 1.8 million units.

But in the years following the Great Recession, the U.S. has not built homes at that pace — let alone the long-term historical average rate. And the situation isn’t expected to look much better in the coming years. Read More > at MarketWatch

How to Get the Most Out of the Final Months of Life – We are all going to die — and most of us will be able to see death coming, months or even years before it happens. That foreknowledge means we should embrace the end of life as a distinct life stage, just like childhood, adolescence and maturity, says Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Boston University. In the 2019 Annual Review of Sociology, Carr and her co-author, Elizabeth Luth of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, explore how to make the most of this final stage in our lives.

In past centuries, people tended to die younger, but more important, they tended to die quickly after they became ill. The end of life was basically a week, if that. People died at home. Today, with people dying of conditions like dementia and cancer, someone can experience a month or 10 years between diagnosis and actual death. And today, ventilators and feeding tubes allow people to prolong the length of their life, even if not the quality of life. So it’s a longer and more uncertain stage than in the past.

A good death typically has several pillars. First and foremost is freedom from pain. A sizeable portion of dying patients have physical pain and difficulty breathing. So the use of painkillers, palliative care, devices that allow someone to breathe comfortably, is very important.

Another is self-determination. Dying patients and their families want to have some control over the process. They want to choose where they die: at home or in a hospital. They want to choose what kind of treatment they get, whether they get life support.

And the third pillar is a broad category called death with dignity. People want to be treated as a whole person. They want their spiritual and psychological needs met. People even think about planning a funeral that has their favorite music and foods. They want to die being the human being they were in their younger years.

…Despite all the positive trends, there are still millions of Americans who do not take steps to prepare adequately. It goes back to fear and discomfort about death. People are afraid to talk about these issues — they may think “Oh, it looks like I’m after my mom’s inheritance if I talk about it.” But these are conversations that everybody needs to have. Just like parents should have the drug conversation, people should have the death conversation, to talk about their hopes for what they will experience at the end of life. You aren’t going to achieve what you want unless you articulate it to people who can help you sort it out.

If we can normalize and destigmatize death, and recognize it as a normal part of life and aging, that will empower people to discuss these difficult issues. Read More > at Real Clear Science

A man was charged with fraudulently earning more than 42 million frequent-flyer miles worth $1.75 million – A man was indicted by federal prosecutors this week, accused of earning more than 42 million Delta frequent-flyer miles by committing fraud.

Prosecutors said on Thursday that Gennady Podolsky, a managing partner of a Chicago travel agency, Vega International Travel Services, earned the miles through Delta’s SkyBonus program, which lets businesses earn frequent-flyer points when their employees travel.

The indictment said Podolsky created a SkyBonus account for a fertility center owned by a relative of Vega’s president. When Podolsky’s customers flew Delta and booked through Vega Travel, he would enter the fertility center’s SkyBonus information, even though the travelers were not employees of the fertility center and didn’t have any connection to it, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said that this way Podolsky earned and redeemed more than 42 million SkyBonus points, which the airline valued at $1.75 million. Read More > at Business Insider

An underground forest fire has burned west of Yosemite since at least 2014 – Something strange is happening deep in the Stanislaus National Forest — an underground fire that dates at least to 2014.

It is burning in a small area near Rosasco Meadow, about 12 miles southwest of Twain Harte and seven miles west of Yosemite National Park.

How the fire started, and what’s fueling it, are a mystery, Groveland District Ranger Jim Junette said by phone Friday. He oversees the southern part of the Stanislaus.

The site is amid the 150,000-plus acres burned in the Rim Fire of 2013. Junette said fires have been known to flare up after a year, but not this long. He checked lightning records and found nothing that would explain the ignition.

The site is close to the route of a railroad that hauled logs out of the woods until the 1960s. Junette said it’s possible that the remains of creosote-treated ties might play a part in today’s fire.

“The only thing we compare it to is some coal-seam fires in the Midwest that have been burning for decades,” he said. Read More > in The Modesto Bee

Vaping industry breathes easier: For now, California lawmakers won’t restrict its business – It’s been a bad week for Juul — which faces a growing health scare and federal accusations of false advertising to minors. But as of today, the San Francisco-based e-cigarette giant can rest assured that Sacramento legislators will not be adding to their woes anytime soon.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, a moderate Democrat from Merced, announced that he was tabling his bill that would have placed new regulations on vendors of e-cigs and vape pens. His goal, he said, is to make the legislation stronger before bringing it back next year.

As a consequence, Juul and other companies that produce and sell vaping products seem to have gotten pretty much exactly what they wanted out of the 2019 legislative session.

In the first half of this year, Juul and the Vapor Technology Association, a trade group, spent a combined $314,418 on lobbying state legislators. Since early last year, Juul has contributed $95,150 to California lawmakers (including $33,800 to Gray and his associated fundraising committees) and $278,750 to other political groups, including the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.

The year began with more than half a dozen bills aimed at reining in the industry, including a series of outright bans on candy and fruit flavored vapes. In the end, only one bill — a proposal by San Mateo Democratic Sen. Jerry Hill that would have required that vaping paraphernalia be “conspicuously labeled” as a tobacco product—has made it to the governor’s desk. Read More > at CALmatters

September 11th: Evil Is Real And So Is Courage – Eighteen years have past since the horrific events of September 11th. Eighteen years. It’s crazy to think that right now, there are teenagers walking around who have lived their entire lives after Sept. 11, 2001. What they know about 9/11 is what they’ve been taught in school, what they’ve seen on TV and the internet, and what those of us who lived through it tell them.

It’s a lovely fall evening tonight here in the Pacific Northwest. On a similar evening 18 years ago, there were 3,000 people in this country who went to bed not knowing the horror that await them the following day. Of course, we all know what dreadful events would happen next.

It’s been said that 60% of Americans watched the attacks occur live on television or saw them replayed over and over again in the days, weeks and years following the attacks. I was one of those Americans and this is what I tell those who came after.

September 11, 2001 was the day that we were violated on our own soil, the day that we were made to face the reality that there are those in this world who want us dead simply because we are American. That day we watched four coordinated terrorist attacks, by the simply evil Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, use commercial passenger aircraft filled with hundreds of people, slam into buildings. And then we watched those buildings crumble to the ground, killing thousands more. We watched men and women show us what American Exceptionalism meant; watching them go back into the inferno to save others over and over. We watched them give themselves, their futures, and their very lives. Heroism and courage abounded. Read More > at Victory Girls

The Housing Crisis Part I: Pasadena – The Fight Over City And State Development Laws – Since 2015, California has been adding more and more laws to create more affordable housing. With a rise in rents and homelessness, laws such as a measure forcing new developments to include low-income housing, have been passed by the Legislature. Others measures, such as SB 50, which would have streamlined development for larger and denser housing, even in residential areas, have not been as lucky. For anything passed by the state, they have the power to automatically trump local laws, for better or for worse.

Very few cities have defied state law. The first city, Huntington Beach, was sued by the state in January for blocking such housing. Pasadena, as it turned out, would be the second.

For several years, a 92-unit apartment building in the heart of Pasadena, known as the 253 South Los Robles project, had moved through different committees in the Pasadena government. But during the final vote before City Council in July, it was defeated due to a last minute change of vote.

The main issue was over the most controversial part of the proposal: the affordable housing concession. Under state law, if a development adds over the allotted number of low-income housing units, the proposed building can get some bonuses. This can include extra floors and volume. In the voted down South Los Robles projects case, it would have led to an additional 21 units and two extra floors if they added 8 more low-income units.

…At a recent Pasadena city council meeting over the South Robles project, the developers lawyer, Richard McDonald, explained point blank on how the laws were set up and how cities couldn’t turn down any developments.

“You have to give us concessions,” stated McDonald, “You have no choice. You can quibble about height. You can quibble about FAR (Floor Area Ratio). You’d have to have substantial evidence to deny them.” Read More > at California Globe

Record number of workers quitting shows labor market still strong even as job openings drop and hiring slows – Job openings in the U.S. fell slightly in July to a five-month low in a sign of slackening demand for labor, but layoffs remained extremely low and the number of people quitting hit an all-time high, typically a mark of a strong jobs market.

The number of open jobs slipped to 7.22 million in July from 7.25 million in the prior month, the government said Tuesday.

Job openings are still quite high and easily exceed the 6 million Americans officially classified as unemployed, but companies aren’t filling positions as rapidly. The U.S. has added an average of 150,000 new jobs a month in the past six months, down from 232,000 in January. Read More > at MarketWatch

Target, UPS Set Seasonal Hiring Plans – It’s nearly that time of year again. Now that back-to-school shopping is behind us, U.S. retailers are looking ahead to the holiday season, which generates as much as 30% of annual sales for some of them.

The holiday shopping frenzy also generates a lot of temporary seasonal jobs. According to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, seasonal retail hiring totaled around 700,000 jobs last year.

On Monday, United Parcel Service Inc. announced that it planned to hire about 100,000 seasonal workers this year, equal to the number it hired in 2018. Jim Barber, UPS’s chief operating officer, commented: “We expect another record Peak season this year, with daily package deliveries nearly doubling compared to our average of 20 million per day.”

Target Corp. said Tuesday that it plans to hire 130,000 seasonal employees this year, about 10,000 more than it hired last year. Without specifying a number, the company said it planned to double the number of new hires who will be fulfilling digital orders from its brick-and-mortar stores. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

Let’s All Just Chill About Processed Foods – You are you and I am me because of processed foods, because our ancestors learned how to cook meat and make bread and, perhaps more importantly, beer. Accordingly, our brains grew and our guts transformed. But those two words smashed together, processed foods, take on new terror in this era of organic, locally sourced, artisanal, cage-free, free-range, I-want-to-know-the-given-name-of-the-chicken-I’m-eating food.

Into this zeitgeist of culinary purity waltzes the plant-based meat movement, providing beef alternatives that are about as processed as processed can be. The Impossible Burger, for instance, is engineered taste by taste, smell by smell, texture by texture, to replicate ground beef—the stuff even bleeds like the real thing. KFC is testing plant-based chicken nuggets and wings. But some chains like Chipotle are crying foul, saying the stuff is too processed for their delicate tastes. (This is Chipotle, after all: that bastion of healthiness where a typical meal packs more than 1,000 calories, along with a massive amount of sodium and saturated fat.)

But it’s time to get real about processed foods. For one, processed doesn’t have to mean unhealthy, and indeed it’s only because of certain processed foods that people around the world get the nutrition they need. Two, processed foods keep better, cutting down on food waste. And three, if we expect to feed a growing population on a planet with finite arable land, we have to engineer new sources of food, protein in particular.

The core of the confusion around processed foods is definitional. According to the Institute of Food Technologists, processing is—and get ready for this—“one or more of a range of operations, including washing, grinding, mixing, cooling, storing, heating, freezing, filtering, fermenting, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, frying, drying, concentrating, pressurizing, irradiating, microwaving, and packaging.”

So … virtually everything you put in your mouth is processed. “Highly refined foods like yogurt, olive oil, and bread have many, many processing steps, and they don’t look anything like the original product they started with,” says Connie Weaver, a nutrition scientist at Purdue University.

What people likely mean when they invoke processing has more to do with ingredients. Any bread will involve grinding, mixing, fermenting, and heating. But white bread goes through an extra step to bleach the flour, which removes some natural nutrients, which are later added back in to make it fortified. And something like a Twinkie takes processing to a whole new level, with added corn syrup and, for good measure, high fructose corn syrup thrown in as well.

It’s the added ingredients that have given processed foods a bad name, because while not all processed foods are junk foods, all junk foods are processed. Supercharging taste with saturated fat, sugar, or salt can be easy, but they’re unhealthy hacks when taken too far. Read More > at Wired

Why Electric is Driving the Future of Auto Luxury – …When you no longer have to make room for an internal combustion engine, you can create an amazing living space inside a gorgeously designed car with an interior that features silk and cashmere, together with more futuristic elements such as ceramic tile. With a flat-floor and an innovative roof opening, the internal space is so commodious, you can step into the car at full height. The Lagonda concept also explores the potential for autonomous driving, with the ability to turn the living room style chairs around to converse with each other without getting a crick in your neck. For Bond types, the electric motor enables you to get up to full speeds blindingly fast. For tech heads, the car will be fully connected with the road, with the office, with cybersecurity measures. And for those who love SUVs, a Lagonda All-Terrain Concept vehicle is planned as well.

The downside for all zero emission vehicles is the limited driving range before charging and the time it takes to charge the car. The CEO of Aston Martin Lagonda, Andy Palmer, introduced the Nissan Leaf to the world in his previous job and bringing out these all-electric Lagondas is both his passion and serious business. The desired range will be 400 miles with a fast-charge time of under an hour (by comparison, the Tesla X outside range is 370 miles and charging time is 75 minutes to 10 hours, depending on the station). The downside: It will not be available until 2022. The upside: Battery, connected car and autonomous technologies will be further along and offer greater functionality and ease of use. Read More > at Worth

The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat aren’t healthier. Fast food’s meatless marvels are just P.R. – The impossible isn’t in any sandwich — it’s in changing the American perspective on meat.

Fast-food restaurants across the country are embracing a meat-free mentality nowadays, with several big brands adding meatless sandwiches to their menus. Burger King was among the first to do so, partnering with plant-based burger brand Impossible Foods to create the Impossible Whopper.

Many other brands since then have announced that they will be followed suit. Subway said they are introducing plant-based meatballs from Beyond Meat to create the Beyond Meatball Marinara Sub. White Castle’s Impossible Slider, Carl’s Jr.’s Beyond Famous Star, The Cheesecake Factory’s own Impossible Burger, Del Taco’s Beyond Meat tacos and now KFC’s Beyond Chicken are all meat-free options here now or forthcoming for the person looking to grab something a little healthier on the go.

The challenge here is that these offerings aren’t actually any healthier. The Impossible Whopper, for instance, not only has comparable caloric and fat levels as its meat-based counterpart, but it has more salt per serving; the Del Taco options are comparable. The Impossible Slider has more calories, more fat and more sodium than the meaty original (before you add cheese to either).

In fact, when you start to compare all of these offerings to their meat-based counterparts, you realize it’s the same story no matter what brands you’re talking about — you might possibly save a few calories or carbs, but you’ll probably get way more salt. Read More > at NBC News

US high schoolers have less sex and do less drugs, but vape a lot more – American kids these days—they’re just so well behaved. They do less drugs and they have less sex. Unless you count Instagram and Snapchat, vaping is the only vice clearly on the rise among US teens.

According to data from a survey from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the use of nearly every major drug fell among 12th graders in the US over the past two decades. In 2018, about 40% fewer kids reported drinking alcohol in the last 30 days and 75% fewer reported smoking cigarettes than did in 2001. The percentage who reported having been drunk in the past 30 days almost halved, from 34% in 1997 to 18% in 2018. MDMA, often called “molly,” is also down (it’s not listed in the chart below due to a change in how the question was asked over the survey period). Marijuana use has remained about the same, making it the exception to the rule. Read More > at Quartz

America Still Loves Cars, But Some Cities Are Starting to Ditch Them – For years, many cities have pushed their residents to adopt car-free lifestyles. Doing so can help limit further traffic congestion and pollution, while also saving people money and improving their physical fitness.

By and large, though, the vast majority of Americans aren’t ready to ditch their vehicles. According to the latest Census Bureau estimates, only 8.7 percent of U.S. households reported not having any vehicles available last year. That’s actually down slightly from a year ago and is at about the same level as before the Great Recession.

A stronger economy explains, in part, the small decline in car-free households. Demographics, fuel prices and where people live — more Americans are migrating from cities to less dense suburbs — also play a role in whether a household goes car-free. Read More > at Governing

Daimler starts testing self-driving trucks on public roads – Daimler’s plan for self-driving big rigs just came one step closer to fruition. The automaker has started testing trucks with Level 4 autonomy (that is, fully self-driving in specific situations) on public roads in southwest Virginia, near the home of recently acquired autonomous tech developer Torc Robotics. They won’t be strictly driverless — a specially trained safety driver will be ready to take over in a pinch, and an engineer will watch over the system. Still, it’s an important step that should help Daimler compete with Volvo and others inching toward real-world uses for self-driving trucks.

The public tests fulfill a promise to start testing in 2019, and come right as Daimler is solidifying its strategy. It recently created an Autonomous Technology Group to handle the roadmap for self-driving trucks, starting with narrowly defined uses like this.

Don’t expect to see these machines regularly hauling cargo, however. While testing is underway, Daimler expects a lot of work over the next decade. The challenge now is to refine the technology and make it truly road-ready. These machines have to be intelligent enough to handle rough weather and complex environments without fail, and it could take years before they’re up to the job. Read  More > at Engadget

New prosthetic legs let amputees feel their foot and knee in real-time – There’s been a lot of research into how to give robots and prosthesis wearers a sense of touch, but it has focused largely on the hands. Now, researchers led by ETH Zurich want to restore sensory feedback for leg amputees, too. In a paper published in Nature Medicine today, the team describes how they modified an off-the-shelf prosthetic leg with sensors and electrodes to give wearers a sense of knee movement and feedback from the sole of the foot on the ground. While their initial sample size was small — just two users — the results are promising.

The researchers worked with two patients with above-the-knee, or transfemoral, amputations. They used an Össur prosthetic leg, which comes with a microprocessor and an angle sensor in the knee joint, IEEE Spectrum explains. The team then added an insole with seven sensors to the foot. Those sensors transmit signals in real-time, via Bluetooth to a controller strapped to the user’s ankle. An algorithm in the controller encodes the feedback into neural signals and delivers that to a small implant in the patient’s tibial nerve, at the back of the thigh. The brain can then interpret those signals as feedback from the knee and foot. Read More > at Engadget

Information Gerrymandering – …Researchers, however, have published an article in Nature in which they describe a more insidious form of distortion – information gerrymandering. This amounts to a rigorous mathematical description of a phenomenon we have been discussing, the effect of social media networks on public opinion. They found:

Players are assigned to competing groups (parties) and placed on an ‘influence network’ that determines whose voting intentions each player can observe. Players are incentivized to vote according to partisan interest, but also to coordinate their vote with the entire group. Our mathematical analysis uncovers a phenomenon that we call information gerrymandering: the structure of the influence network can sway the vote outcome towards one party, even when both parties have equal sizes and each player has the same influence.

Their results show that just the arrangement of the information networks could distort the outcome by up to 20%. So even if the teams were split 50-50, the vote could be rigged to come out 60-40. A tie could be turned into a landslide. They also found that strategically placing just a few zealot bots in the information network could have a similar influence.

This result has significant implications for any modern democracy in the age of social media and AI. The fact is, people are social creatures who can be psychologically manipulated. This is nothing new, and is essentially the foundation of politics – pushing emotional buttons to influence voters. The question is (as is often the case) one of magnitude.

With traditional politicking, the politician themselves has to get out there and make their case. If they are manipulative, it’s by definition in the public eye, and at least they can be called out for it and the public can make their choice. Manipulating social networks and deploying influencer bots, however, can be done under cover of darkness by hidden agents. It can even be done by a foreign power.

If these laboratory results apply to the real world, then the magnitude of this effect is sufficient so that the real contest for votes may be occurring behind the scenes among those trying to manipulate social media. We may be ultimately voting for influencer bots. Read More > at Neurologica 

How Google Discovered the Value of Surveillance – In 2000 a group of computer scientists and engineers at Georgia Tech collaborated on a project called the “Aware Home.” It was meant to be a “living laboratory” for the study of “ubiquitous computing.” They imagined a “human-home symbiosis” in which many animate and inanimate processes would be captured by an elaborate network of “context aware sensors” embedded in the house and by wearable computers worn by the home’s occupants. The design called for an “automated wireless collaboration” between the platform that hosted personal information from the occupants’ wearables and a second one that hosted the environmental information from the sensors.

There were three working assumptions: first, the scientists and engineers understood that the new data systems would produce an entirely new knowledge domain. Second, it was assumed that the rights to that new knowledge and the power to use it to improve one’s life would belong exclusively to the people who live in the house. Third, the team assumed that for all of its digital wizardry, the Aware Home would take its place as a modern incarnation of the ancient conventions that understand “home” as the private sanctuary of those who dwell within its walls.

All of this was expressed in the engineering plan. It emphasized trust, simplicity, the sovereignty of the individual, and the inviolability of the home as a private domain. The Aware Home information system was imagined as a simple “closed loop” with only two nodes and controlled entirely by the home’s occupants. Because the house would be “constantly monitoring the occupants’ whereabouts and activities…even tracing its inhabitants’ medical conditions,” the team concluded, “there is a clear need to give the occupants knowledge and control of the distribution of this information.” All the information was to be stored on the occupants’ wearable computers “to insure the privacy of an individual’s information.”

By 2018, the global “smart-home” market was valued at $36 billion and expected to reach $151 billion by 2023. The numbers betray an earthquake beneath their surface. Consider just one smart-home device: the Nest thermostat, which was made by a company that was owned by Alphabet, the Google holding company, and then merged with Google in 2018. The Nest thermostat does many things imagined in the Aware Home. It collects data about its uses and environment. It uses motion sensors and computation to “learn” the behaviors of a home’s inhabitants. Nest’s apps can gather data from other connected products such as cars, ovens, fitness trackers, and beds. Such systems can, for example, trigger lights if an anomalous motion is detected, signal video and audio recording, and even send notifications to homeowners or others. As a result of the merger with Google, the thermostat, like other Nest products, will be built with Google’s artificial intelligence capabilities, including its personal digital “assistant.” Like the Aware Home, the thermostat and its brethren devices create immense new stores of knowledge and therefore new power — but for whom?

Wi-Fi–enabled and networked, the thermostat’s intricate, personalized data stores are uploaded to Google’s servers. Each thermostat comes with a “privacy policy,” a “terms-of-service agreement,” and an “end-user licensing agreement.” These reveal oppressive privacy and security consequences in which sensitive household and personal information are shared with other smart devices, unnamed personnel, and third parties for the purposes of predictive analyses and sales to other unspecified parties… Read More > at Longreads

Is a Dark Ages disease the new American plague threat? – Diseases are reemerging in some parts of America, including Los Angeles County, that we haven’t commonly seen since the Middle Ages. One of those is typhus, a disease carried by fleas that feed on rats, which in turn feed on the garbage and sewage that is prominent in people-packed “typhus zones.” Although typhus can be treated with antibiotics, the challenge is to identify and treat the disease in resistant, hard-to-access populations, such as the homeless or the extremely poor in developing countries.

I also believe that homeless areas are at risk for the reemergence of another deadly ancient disease — leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease. Leprosy involves a mycobacteria (tuberculosis is another mycobacteria) that is very difficult to transmit and very easy to treat with a cocktail of three antibiotics.

Untreated, Hansen’s disease causes disabilities over time, with the peripheral nerves affected and the fingers and toes becoming numb. Multibacillary Hansen’s disease, the more serious version, also causes skin lesions, nodules, plaques and nasal congestion. With eye involvement, corneal ulcers and sometimes blindness can occur.

According to the CDC, there are between 100 and 200 new cases of leprosy reported in the U.S. every year. A study just released from the Keck Medical Center at the University of Southern California looked at 187 leprosy patients treated at its clinic from 1973 to 2018 and found that most were Latino, originating from Mexico, where the disease is somewhat more common, and that there was on average a three-year delay in diagnosis, during which time the side effects of the disease — usually irreversible, even with treatment — began to occur.

And it seems only a matter of time before leprosy could take hold among the homeless population in an area such as Los Angeles County, with close to 60,000 homeless people and 75 percent of those lacking even temporary shelter or adequate hygiene and medical treatment. All of those factors make a perfect cauldron for a contagious disease that is transmitted by nasal droplets and respiratory secretions with close repeated contact. Read More > in The Hill

America’s aging population is leading to a doctor shortage crisis – As America’s population ages and demand outpaces supply, a physician shortage is intensifying.

Projections from the Association of American Medical Colleges say the U.S. will see a shortage of 46,900 to 121,900 physicians by 2032 in primary and specialty care.

The aging of America’s population is slicing the health-care industry in multiple ways. Americans are living longer and seemingly healthier lives — and requiring more care later into life. What’s more, one-third of all doctors currently working will be older than 65 in the next decade, and retirements may squeeze supply.

The need for physicians is felt more intensely in some states and localities than others. Arizona is facing shortages of primary-care physicians in all counties, and the issue is worse in rural areas, meeting under half of primary care needs. The state ranks 44th of 50 for total active primary caregivers at 77.9 per 100,000 population. The U.S. is 91.7 per 100,000. The issue is troublesome because Arizona has the fourth-fastest population growth. Right now, the state needs just under 600 primary caregivers, a number that will grow to nearly 2,000 by the year 2030, according to a report from the University of Arizona. Read More > at CNBC

‘There’s Nothing Better Than a Scared, Rich Candidate’ – These are boom times for political consultants—by one rough estimate, more than $6 billion will go to or through consulting firms during this year’s elections—and the scene at the conference was befitting of an industry awash in cash. Booths showcased the wares of campaign-literature printers, data-acquisition specialists, automated-phone-call vendors, online-fund-raising experts, and social-media-analytics firms. Whole companies exist just to manufacture the throwaway trinkets campaigns hand out, from stress balls with a candidate’s name on them to red-white-and-blue fingernail files.

But all was not well at the Pollies. A confab intended to be a sun-soaked junket was instead shadowed by the island’s debt crisis, the Zika virus, and a forecast of stormy weather throughout the week. It was almost too perfect a metaphor: Despite all the money pouring into political consulting, a palpable sense of unease looms over the profession. The consultants may be getting rich, but recent events suggest they don’t have any idea what they’re doing.

Consider a few of this year’s election results. In the most expensive House primary in the country, a wealthy Maryland Democrat hired some of the best pros money could buy and bombarded voters with TV and radio ads, direct mail, and robocalls—only to finish the race $13 million poorer and seven points shy of victory.

At the presidential level, Hillary Clinton’s push for the Democratic nomination was nearly derailed by a candidate whose campaign manager was a comic-book-store owner with no experience in elections outside of Vermont. And while Clinton’s staff-heavy operation ultimately prevailed, her worst showings came in caucuses—the sort of contests where on-the-ground organizing is supposed to make the biggest difference. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, is a field-organizing specialist.

On the Republican side, the most expensive and professional presidential campaigns proved remarkably ineffective. Ted Cruz’s campaign paid almost $6 million to a state-of-the-art analytics firm that touted its slicing and dicing of the electorate based on personality profiles. Marco Rubio’s campaign and super pac spent $105 million; Ben Carson’s spent $78 million. Most notoriously, Jeb Bush, between his campaign and his super pac, employed a flotilla of the best-credentialed consultants in Republican politics, burned through $139 million of his donors’ money—and dropped out after just three primaries, having won four delegates and as little as 3 percent of the vote in the states where he competed.

And then there was Donald Trump, whose smash success in the Republican primaries was an emperor-has-no-clothes moment for political consulting if ever there was one. Trump spent the primaries boasting about his lack of a super pac or traditional fund-raising operation. He didn’t employ a pollster or chief strategist or speechwriter. His campaign infrastructure was nonexistent; he spent only about $19 million on television ads. His campaign manager was a former cop with no experience in a presidential race, and his press secretary was a 27-year-old fashion publicist. Yet Trump dominated a 17-candidate field that many pundits had considered the deepest bench of Republican talent in decades. Read More > in The Atlantic

Global Economy Forecast: Not As Bad For The U.S. As Headlines Imply – The global economy is growing moderately, but that’s a great deal better than news headlines imply. World GDP is likely to expand by 2.8 percent his year, inflation adjusted. That’s down from 3.4 percent two years ago, but still decent growth.

That forecast and the more specific projections below come from FocusEconomics. They add up country-level forecasts made by economists on the ground around the world. Their coverage is quite broad, and looking at a consensus figure avoids the risk of picking the wrong guru. Forecasts are not always right, of course, but consensus forecasts tend to work better than any particular forecast.

The Euro Area is having the most severe deceleration. The entire global slowdown affects some of Europe’s major economies, especially export-heavy Germany. Protectionism around the world creates uncertainty that slows capital spending. Brexit is the gold medal winner of uncertainty, though Italy’s internal politics merit honorable mention. On the positive side, consumers are in good shape in most of Europe, supporting total spending. The European Central Bank is likely to provide some monetary stimulus soon. The Euro area is too developed to get “catch-up” gains, and their economies are sufficiently strong that they don’t have great hordes of unemployed people to put back to work. As a result, Europe’s upside isn’t too strong, but moderate growth is likely, 1.2% in 2020 according to the FocusEconomics consensus.

Asia is also growing at a slower pace. China is the center of the deceleration, with ripple effects in her nearby neighbors. Hong Kong, in particular, is slowing due to both the mainland deceleration and uncertainty about the island’s political future. China’s GDP growth is officially 6.2 percent, but increasing evidence of statistical manipulation argues for a lower number. The state is likely to pursue both fiscal and monetary stimulus, and the yuan has dropped to the lowest level in a decade. President Trump’s trade stance is certainly hurting Asian economies. The consensus forecast for Asia is 4.6% growth in 2020. Read More > at Forbes

It looks like a keyboard. It’s warm. It’s the perfect way to keep your cat from sitting on your real keyboard. Meet the “Laptop or keyboard simulating pet bed.” Patent 10398125, issued September 3, 2019.

More info: Patent 10398125, issued September 3, 2019.

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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