Sunday Reading 10/13/19

The following links are just news items and opinions that pass my desk throughout the week. I don’t necessarily support or advocate any of the items, they are just interesting reads.

California Unplugged – The very idea makes the mind reel: San Francisco, San Jose, Silicon Valley—all gone dark. The electric-car charging stations, the $500-a-plate sushi restaurants, the rows of workstations at Google, Uber, Facebook, Twitter, and Salesforce—all suddenly unplugged. This summer, blackouts could plunge large swaths of California into darkness—an act of deliberate policy, not equipment failure or operator errors.

Pacific Gas & Electric, Northern California’s largest power supplier, recently announced that it will begin shutting down parts of the grid, possibly for days at a time, to help reduce the risk of wildfires. Known as “de-energization,” the process sounds like a metaphor for societal collapse—a return to the Dark Ages—but the policy carries a certain perverse logic.

…As with most vicious problems, the roots of the state’s power dilemma go back decades. For starters, the state is fire prone. “It’s a place that nature built to burn,” writes fire historian and Arizona State University professor Stephen J. Pyne. Almost all the region’s precipitation falls during the winter. By early summer, the hills are stocked with fuel and tinder-dry. And California’s federal and state lands are chronically undermanaged when it comes to controlled burns and reducing fuel loads. (President Trump evoked chuckles when, visiting the Camp Fire site, he described Finland’s superior forest management practices as “raking and cleaning.” Though inelegantly expressed, his recommendations reflected those of many wildfire experts.)

Then California’s ferocious winds, especially in late summer and fall, disrupt the usual flow of air off the Pacific: huge rivers of hot, bone-dry air from the state’s deserts and mountains rush unstoppably toward the coast. Known as the Santa Ana winds, the gusts can roar at 40 miles per hour or more for days at a time. Imagine a smoldering cigarette butt sitting on a pile of crumpled newspaper and being blasted by a hair drier—for hours on end—and you start to appreciate the havoc a single ember can wreak on the desiccated California landscape.

A wildfire that passes through uninhabited forests and grasslands doesn’t do much permanent damage. In fact, these ecosystems have evolved to benefit from occasional fires. In recent decades, though, California’s wild areas have filled up with people. (Though the media portrayed Paradise as a small town, the mountain community was actually home to 27,000 people. That’s roughly the population of New London, Connecticut) Even big cities bump up against wild country, with subdivisions filling mountain canyons and advancing into brushy deserts. Fire experts call these zones the “wildland-urban interface.” Nearly a third of California homes are built in these hard-to-protect areas.

Where people go, power lines must follow. Utilities have no choice but to serve fire-prone communities. And power lines themselves vastly amplify the risk that fires will occur. Overgrown vegetation can cause short circuits and dead branches can ignite if they get blown into wires. In high winds, the lines themselves sometimes “slap” into each other and shower the ground below with sparks. Cal Fire, the state agency that manages wildfire policy, recently confirmed that a PG&E power line did indeed spark the Camp Fire blaze. “The booming industry up here in Butte County is the lawyers signing people up to sue PG&E,” a former Paradise town councilman said. PG&E says it has set over $10 billion aside to cover fire claims. Read More > at City Journal

California ignores the science as it OKs more homes in wildfire zones, researchers say – California’s top firefighting authorities want to use chainsaws and flames to thin out forests and mow down brush on at least half a million acres a year from Redding to San Diego.

The plan — which aims to roughly double the current pace of so-called vegetation management within five years — comes at the behest of Gov. Gavin Newsom and is the state’s primary response to the massive blazes that have ravaged communities across the state.

However, an emerging body of scientific research on patterns of homes destroyed by fire suggests the state’s approach may be ignoring one of the most crucial elements for keeping people safe and limiting wildfire ignition sources.

Scientists have increasingly found that loss of property and life from fire is overwhelmingly the result of precariously placed housing in and bordering wildland areas — residential developments that are, themselves, a major driver sparking conflagrations. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

The Lights Are Out in California, And That Was the Plan All Along – The bottom line is that California has always had a high threat from wildfires and always will. The issue is how will that threat be managed, accommodated, or avoided?

To better understand how we came to today’s blackout, it is useful to look to the past. When the gold rush led to modern California, early photographers chronicled the landscape. In George E. Gruell’s 2001 book, “Fire in Sierra Nevada Forests: A Photographic Interpretation of Ecological Change Since 1849” the wildlife biologist depicted a California countryside of grassland with isolated stands of pines and oaks. The native Americans in the region frequently used fire to shape the landscape to increase the food available for them, as not a lot of sustenance grows on a dense forest floor.

In this environment of frequent fire, brush was thinned, and the first pine branches started just out of reach of a typical low-intensity grass fire. But with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Americans came a thriving economy and the order of government. Trees were useful and valuable, and therefore harvested. Fire was a threat to towns and cities, and thus, suppressed.

For decades, up until the 1970s, California would harvest and replant about as much wood as could be grown through an abundance of sunshine, snow, and rain. But in the 1990s, concern over logging’s effect on the spotted owl (largely misplaced, as time would tell) led to a massive slowdown in the timber harvest, especially on the federal lands that make up about 60 percent of California’s forests.

With a decline in the harvest came a decline in the allied efforts to clear brush, build and maintain access roads and firebreaks. This led inexorably to a decades’ long build-up in the fuel load. Federal funds set aside for increasingly unpopular forest management efforts were instead shifted to fire-suppression expenses.

All of this was clearly foreseen by the Western Governors’ Association 13 years ago when it published a Biomass Task Force Report that accurately predicted: “over time the fire-prone forests that were not thinned, burn in uncharacteristically destructive wildfires… …In the long term, leaving forests overgrown and prone to unnaturally destructive wildfires means there will be significantly less biomass on the ground, and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” Read More > in The Federalist

PG&E can’t keep power on. Is wildfire risk turning California into a ‘Third World’ state? –  The darkened traffic signals, long lines for gasoline and the sight of senior citizens laboring to recharge their medical devices have forced the world’s fifth largest economy to confront its vulnerability to wildfires — while exposing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to withering criticism about its aging power equipment.

For the seventh time in less than a year, California’s biggest electrical provider has deliberately shut off electrical power in a vast stretch of its service territory — this time on an unprecedented scale, throwing 1.5 million residents into darkness.

Is this, then, the future of California?

And will the blackouts always be this widespread?

Utility officials said it was necessary to protect the state from a repeat of last November’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and destroyed much of the foothill town of Paradise in Butte County. Cal Fire said the Camp Fire was caused by a faulty transmission tower.

In doing so, the utility is in effect saying its power grid, which runs from the coast to Nevada and from the Oregon border to Kern County, remains so fragile that it could fail in high winds and cause another mega-fire.

Outside energy experts said PG&E probably had little choice — but questioned whether the utility could have handled the mass blackout differently.

“This is the appropriate path to take until we have a safer grid,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Climate and Energy Policy Program and an advisor to the Legislature on wildfire issues. “They want to err on the side of false positives.”

But Wara said PG&E, which had resisted deliberate blackouts until a year ago, has yet to perfect a “surgical approach” that would limit the power shutoffs to those areas truly at risk. Read More > in The Modesto Bee

Mobile and internet service falters as PG&E shutdown in Northern California exposes network holes – The planned power shutdown affecting up to 2 million Northern and Central California residents disrupted telecommunications service for some of the nation’s largest providers, including Comcast, and top U.S. wireless carriers including AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint. Phone and internet outages and spotty service were reported in Santa Rosa, across Sonoma County and Bay Area.

An AT&T spokeswoman acknowledged Wednesday that the PG&E shutdown amounted to a “difficult time” for cellphone users in more than 750 zip codes across the state. The company responded by offering “unlimited talk, text and data” to affected customers through Sunday.

The problems exposed holes in a wireless and internet network increasingly used to communicate in emergencies.

The disruptions even extended to Sonoma County’s emergency operations center, a command post used by officials to direct the local government response to the powers shutdown. The facility, like much of the region, uses Comcast as its broadband provider.

…Throughout the state, Comcast equipment was knocked offline by PG&E’s power shutdown, Hammel said. The cable company was “only using generators in very discrete and specific cases where there’s a demonstrated need,” such as a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, she said.

…But reports of cell service problems started to crop up early Wednesday, hours after the outage was in effect.

T-Mobile spokesman Joel Rushing said “only a small number of sites” were down in some of the areas affected by the power shut-off.

“Our priority is to keep our customers connected,” he said, “and we continue to work closely with the local utilities monitor the situation and respond where needed.”

Sprint also acknowledged that “the power shut-offs may impact cell sites in the area.”

Verizon said its network was able to withstand the blackout, saying it was “prepared to keep customers connected during any disruption in commercial power.” Read More > in The Press Democrat

Future Power Outages Predicted, Until CA Grid Restructured – California has always prided itself on being a high-tech pioneer. One exception? Power distribution.

With Pacific Gas & Electric Co. expected to cut electricity to 800,000 customers this week, the state is confronting its reliance on a transmission network that predates climate change, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, depending instead on electric lines strung over thousands of miles on vulnerable wooden poles.

“Society has been delivering electricity the same way for 130 years — exposed lines on wood poles over dry grass,” said David Rabbitt, a county supervisor in Sonoma County, one of the areas hit by the massive blackout. “I think we know more now, certainly, and it’s time to actually move on with making the investments going forward.”

Will the current outages be a pivotal moment in transforming California’s power grid? If so, the transition will likely include Californians generating power closer to their homes via solar panels and wind generators. It will also include communities building microgrids, distinct power systems that can operate independent of massive utilities like PG&E, a behemoth that serves 16 million people spread across 70,000 square miles of Central and Northern California.

In the meantime, utilities will continue to practice what is known as “de-energization,” otherwise known as blacking out customers.

…Severin Borenstein, a professor of business administration and public policy at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said he can see a future in which utilities install concrete poles in the areas most exposed to wind. Alternately, if the state permits, they could refuse to deliver power to new developments altogether, instead requiring that they provide their own electricity.

Up until now, utilities sought to balance the cost of preventing wildfires with the need to sell power at the lowest possible rates. Read More > at Governing

PG&E shut-off: Your food is spoiled, business shut down — can you file a claim with the utility? – It’s been three days, your power is still out due to dangerous fire weather and you’re forced to dump your spoiled spaghetti and meatball leftovers and the rest of your perishables. Your neighbor’s restaurant has been closed and he’s lost $3,000 in business.

Can either of you get reimbursed?

The answer is — no. Pacific Gas & Electric has many variables that factor into when it issues a Public Safety Power Shutoff. It’s a nuanced decision. But what is black and white is the utility’s policy not to reimburse customers for losses during an outage.

PG&E customers can file a claim for a shut-off that’s not safety-related, although there’s no guarantee they’ll get paid. On its claim form, PG&E says it evaluates food spoilage claims based on U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. A fully stocked freezer can usually keep food frozen for two days after losing power, a half-full freezer for about a day, and food in the refrigerator up to four hours — if the doors remain mostly closed.

For other outages caused by “emergency events such as severe storm conditions,” PG&E has a service guarantee program that credits customer’s residential bill $25 for each 24-hour period after the household has been without power for a full day.

The CPUC has no guidance over claims, said spokeswoman Terrie Prosper. However, an unsatisfied customer with a rejected claim can always take PG&E to small claims court to recoup the losses. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

‘A cool billion’: Economists estimate PG&E outages could have big impact – Economists estimate that PG&E power outages across northern California could cost businesses and residents millions or even billions.

Michael Wara, director of the energy and climate program at the Stanford Woods Institute and member of the state Commission on Wildfire Cost and Recovery, said on Twitter that the impact to residential customers could be $65 million. Adding in small commercial and industrial customers could raise it to $2.5 billion. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Are many homeless people in L.A. mentally ill? New findings back the public’s perception – Mental illness, substance abuse and physical disabilities are much more pervasive in Los Angeles County’s homeless population than officials have previously reported, a Times analysis has found.

The Times examined more than 4,000 questionnaires taken as part of this year’s point-in-time count and found that about 76% of individuals living outside on the streets reported being, or were observed to be, affected by mental illness, substance abuse, poor health or a physical disability.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, which conducts the annual count, narrowly interpreted the data to produce much lower numbers. In its presentation of the results to elected officials earlier this year, the agency said only 29% of the homeless population had either a mental illness or substance abuse disorder and, therefore, 71% “did not have a serious mental illness and/or report substance use disorder.”

The Times, however, found that about 67% had either a mental illness or a substance abuse disorder. Individually, substance abuse affects 46% of those living on the streets — more than three times the rate previously reported — and mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, affects 51% of those living on the streets, according to the analysis. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

The Streets of San Francisco – This city has been conducting a three-decade experiment in what happens when society stops enforcing bourgeois norms of behavior. It has done so in the name of compassion for the homeless. The result: Street squalor and misery have increased, while government expenditures have ballooned. Yet the principles guiding city policy remain inviolate: Homelessness is a housing problem, it is involuntary, and it persists because of inadequate public spending. These propositions are readily disproved by talking to people living on the streets.

“Everyone’s on drugs here . . . and stealing,” an ex-convict named Shaku explains from an encampment of tents, trash and bicycles across from Glide Memorial Church in the heart of the Tenderloin district. A formerly homeless woman living in a city-subsidized hotel, asked if she does drugs, replies: “Is that a trick question?” Jeff, 50, slumps over his coffee cup at 7:30 a.m. A half-eaten muffin sits next to him on a filthy blanket. “I use drugs, alcohol, all of it,” he tells me, his eyes closed. “The whole Tenderloin is for drugs.”

…The stories the homeless tell about their lives reveal that something far more complex than a housing shortage is at work. The tales veer from one confused and improbable situation to the next, against a backdrop of drug use, petty crime and chaotic child rearing. There are few policy levers to change this crisis of meaning in American culture. What is certain is that the continuing crusade to normalize drug use, along with the absence of any public encouragement of temperance, will further handicap this unmoored population.

Carving out a zone of immunity from the law and bourgeois norms for a perceived victim class destroys the quality of life in a city. As important, that immunity consigns its alleged beneficiaries to lives of self-abasement and marginality. Tolerating street vagrancy is a choice that cities make. For the public good, in San Francisco and elsewhere, that choice should be unmade. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

San Francisco’s False Solution – Prop C, dubbed the “Our City, Our Home Fund,” passed in November of 2018 with 61 percent of the vote. Since then it’s been hotly contested. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has sued the city. “Approval for special taxes needs a two-thirds majority, so it’s now in the appeals process,” says senior staff attorney Laura Dougherty. “We need the clarity of the California Supreme court.” Meantime, the tax revenue is being collected, but the city is holding the funds until it gets the nod to spend them.

If you believe that lack of funding is the cause of San Francisco’s homelessness problem, then the measure is a great idea. Fifty percent of the funding would go toward housing, 25 percent to mental health and addiction programs, 15 percent to people who are at risk of becoming homeless or have recently become so, and 10 percent to short-term “residential shelters and hygiene programs.”

It won’t help. The plan is wildly expensive. After administrative costs are skimmed from the top, the remainder will be distributed among the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, and the Department of Public Health. Combined, these agencies employ hundreds of government workers, whose average compensation (salary and benefits) is $175,004. The city will then parcel out the rest to dozens of non-profit agencies, each with its own set of directors and employees. Just how much is left for those they purportedly serve remains to be seen, but chances are it won’t be enough.

The homelessness crisis in San Francisco is unquestionably dire. Recent numbers indicate a 30 percent jump in people living on the streets since 2017, and the official count is roughly 9,780. Whatever the city has been doing with its $250 million annual budget has been unsuccessful, doubtless because it is focusing on the symptom, not the illness. Despite what homeless activists may claim or what self-reported data indicate, the majority of the homeless are there because they have a substance addiction or suffer psychological troubles (and very often both), not because they’re down on their luck. “In San Francisco, 95 percent are using drugs,” says Thomas Wolf, who was once a homeless heroin user and is now a case manager for the Salvation Army, working with homeless veterans. “Everyone I came across on the street had a substance abuse problem. The statistics are wrong, so they’re basing their programs on false numbers.” Read More > at City Journal

Lessons of the Bowery homeless-slay horror – America abandoned a custodial approach to mental illness a half-century ago, and the results have been obvious in the nation’s streets and public spaces ever since — and never more so than on the Bowery early Saturday morning.

The Bowery has been a last stop for the down and out since forever — well-known for moral dysfunction and urban despair, though not so ­often for bloody murder.

Enter Rodriguez “Randy” Santos, by most accounts a toxic broth of insanities, addictions and violent impulses so profound his own mother is said to be terrified of him. Police allege he savaged five fellow Bowery derelicts with a makeshift iron wrecking bar in the twilight hours, killing four outright and hospitalizing the fifth with critical injuries.

Santos is in custody, and thus now begins a complex adjudication process focused almost solely on him: his actions, his incapacities and his legal culpability. His victims, and the safety of the city itself, are very much on the periphery.

Ditto the matter of whether Santos should have been on the streets in the first place. He had 14 prior ­arrests, apparently was out on bail for at least two violent attacks, was said to be a crack addict and, it seems generally agreed, was howling-at-the-moon mad.

He is a poster child, forgive the benign analogy, for a return to ­aggressively custodial approaches both to mental-health treatment and public-safety policy. Read More > in the New York Post

Gov. Newsom’s Executive Order Authorizing Theft of Voter-Approved Gas Tax Money – Through an Executive Order, California Governor Gavin Newsom has redirected gas tax money to fund railway systems and other projects. The gas tax revenue would have repaired and upgraded the state’s broken highways and roads.

Californians pay the highest gas prices in the nation, most of which is taxes.

Of vital concern, Newsom’s latest road plan for California eliminates two important highway expansion projects on vital freight corridors in Central California.

Governor Newsom signed Executive Order N-19-19 September 20, directing the already controversial gas tax money away from fixing local highways in favor of rail projects.

Gov. Newsom’s office issued a press statement to explain the plan, just ahead of Climate Week:

Transportation Systems: The California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) is directed to invest its annual portfolio of $5 billion toward construction, operations and maintenance to help reverse the trend of increased fuel consumption and reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector. CalSTA, in consultation with the Department of Finance, is also directed to align transportation spending, programming and mitigation with the state’s climate goals to achieve the objectives of the state’s Climate Change Scoping Plan, where feasible. Specifically the Governor is ordering a focus for transportation investments near housing, and on managing congestion through innovative strategies that encourage alternatives to driving.

Read More > at California Globe

California State Transportation Agency Secretary David S. Kim clarifying remarks on Governor’s executive order – California State Transportation Agency Secretary David S. Kim today issued this statement following his remarks at the California Transportation Commission meeting in Modesto on state efforts to align climate goals with transportation spending:

“While it has been the subject of discussion in transportation circles, we need to set the record straight on the Governor’s September 20 executive order on climate change.

“The Governor ordered agencies to update their approach to spending up to $5 billion of discretionary transportation funding – out of a total of $17 billion in annual transportation funding – to advance the State’s progress on combatting climate change. If we are going to be serious about preparing for climate change, we have to start planning now, considering the long lead-time for transportation projects. That said, some facts bear repeating.

“First, an executive order does not supersede existing state law. Gas taxes, including SB 1 funds, are protected under Article 19 of the constitution, and we will honor the will of the voters, and this is unchanged by the executive order.

“Second, the state will continue the “fix it first” approach outlined in SB 1. Maintaining the condition of our highways, roads and bridges is of the utmost importance to the Governor and this approach will continue.

“Having said that, we are legally required to meet climate goals through AB 32 and SB 32. The transportation sector contributes more than 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Therefore, we must take the necessary steps to reduce the share of greenhouse gas emissions that come from the transportation sector. Read More > at CalSTA

Newsom signs 18 housing bills into law – Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a stack of bills on Wednesday to address California’s housing crisis and many of them are aimed squarely at controlling the actions of cities and counties.

Among the legislation signed is SB 330, which streamlines the building permitting process, prohibits local governments from increasing local permitting fees after a project is approved, and reduces the number of public hearings that can be held on proposed housing developments.

Newsom also signed a package of bills that will remove local impediments to accessory dwelling units or so-called “granny flats.” Cities across California can therefore begin bracing for more backyard construction.

Click here for a full list of the housing bills the governor has signed into law. Read More > at California City News

New California law allows voters to register at all polling places on Election Day – California will allow voters to register on Election Day at all polling places in 2020.

Legislation signed Tuesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom expands conditional voter registration in the state. Voters who register conditionally on Election Day will not have their ballots counted until their registration has been verified.

In the 2018 election, more than 57,000 people cast ballots after registering in such a manner.

California’s voter registration period closes 15 days prior to Election Day. The conditional registration period is anytime between 14 days prior to an election and Election Day.

Starting next year, voters can register to vote anywhere ballots are cast. This will also allow voters to changer their party preference at the last minute. Read More > at ABC 7

California eases mandatory sentences, restricts body cameras – California will soon end some mandatory sentences, make it easier to expunge old criminal records, bar charging inmates for medical care and ban police from using facial recognition software on body cameras under more than two dozen criminal justice bills that freshman Gov. Gavin Newsom announced signing into law late Tuesday.

The measures continue the state’s march away from get-tough measures that once clogged California prisons, prompting a federal court-ordered population cap.

Among the measures are two that remove mandatory sentences. One ends a one-year enhancement added to current sentences for each prior felony jail or prison term. The other ends mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, leaving the sentences to judges’ discretion.

State officials estimated that about 10,000 inmates currently have the one-year bumps in their sentences. Eliminating that requirement alone could shave tens of millions of dollars a year from prison and jail costs. But the measure was opposed even by some of Newsom’s fellow Democrats who supported longer sentences for repeat felons.

The measure requires the state to automatically clear records after people complete their sentences for certain felonies, as well as for those who were arrested but never convicted. The group estimated that eight million Californians have convictions or records that can make it more difficult to obtain jobs or housing. Pennsylvania and Utah also both recently adopted automated expungement laws. Read More > from the Associated Press

Gov. Newsom Signs Law Capping Rent Hikes Amid California’s Ongoing Housing Crisis – California will limit rent increases for some people over the next decade after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law Tuesday aimed at combating a housing crisis in the nation’s most populous state.

Newsom signed the bill at an event in Oakland, an area where a recent report documented a 43% increase in homelessness over two years. Sudden rent increases are a contributing cause of the state’s homeless problem…

The law limits rent increases to 5% each year plus inflation until Jan. 1, 2030. It bans landlords from evicting people for no reason, meaning they could not kick people out so they can raise the rent for a new tenant. And while the law doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, it would apply to rent increases on or after March 15, 2019, to prevent landlords from raising rents just before the caps go into place.

California and Oregon are now the only places that cap rent increases statewide. Oregon capped rents at 7% plus inflation earlier this year.

California’s rent cap is noteworthy because of its scale. The state has 17 million renters, and more than half of them spend at least 30% of their income on rent, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

But California’s new law has so many exceptions that it is estimated it will apply to 8 million of those 17 million renters, according to the office of Democratic Assemblyman David Chiu, who authored the bill Newsom signed. Read More > at KTLA

With Streaming And Vinyl Growing — What About CDs? – Between the still-growing music streaming services and the return of vinyl, the compact disc is in danger of disappearing.

As the medium becomes more rare, some of those CDs stacked up on your bookshelf could actually be valuable.

Most won’t, of course. For financial purposes, most are no more of an antique goldmine than cassette tapes.

But there are a few rare CDs that still could fetch some serious coin.

Revenue from streaming music grew 26% in the first half of this year to $4.3 billion, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Buying of actual physical recordings — CDs or records — pales in comparison, coming in at just $485 million in the first half of this year. So nobody’s getting rich off LPs anymore.

Record stores selling new records are hard to find. The companies actually pressing records are mostly very small, privately held, boutique companies.

One big company that did get back into vinyl because of its new popularity: Sony Corp which made a celebrated return to vinyl two years ago.

While CDs still outsell vinyl in terms of units sold by quite a bit, vinyl records have nearly caught up in terms of dollar amount. In the first half of the year, CD sales brought in $248 million, and were essentially flat from last year.  Read more > at Benzinga

It Dominates Everything It Touches. But Can Amazon Compete With . . . Walmart? – You can purchase an electronic safe for your handgun on Amazon and get free delivery a day later.

For more trusting souls, Walmart employees will begin this fall to enter homes and stuff groceries into pantries and refrigerators when the owners aren’t around.

And Target — a favorite of young families — can deliver diapers within an hour after they have been ordered online.

The last mile of a marathon is always the toughest — and Amazon, the capitalist colossus intent on owning much of the world’s wallet share, is in the closing sprint alongside increasingly web-savvy brick-and-mortar rivals like Walmart and Target. The victor will be the firm that can most rapidly deliver online orders to customers’ homes, within a day or less.

Amazon, with its online prowess, is undeniably ahead. Yet worryingly for the Seattle company and its enigmatic CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, it cannot match the thousands of stores that Walmart and Target have in close proximity to consumers and that are being used to warehouse and quickly distribute products ordered online. It is these warehouses that pose a serious threat to Amazon — perhaps the most serious threat it has faced in decades. Read More > at Institutional Investor

Tarantulas Take Over the Bay Area – It’s tarantula mating season and the Bay Area is being hit hard.

Experts say the eight-legged creatures have been out in full force in San Francisco and surrounding areas thanks to warmer temperatures.

“Great time of year. You only get to see it once a year,” Sonoma County Reptile Rescue Director Al Wolf told CBS News.

Great unless you’re an arachnophobe, that is.

The deluge should be winding down soon so if you’ve caught a glimpse of one, consider yourself lucky. They’ll be gone before you know it — until next year. Read More > at California City News

Sharyl Attkisson: Where Did The $91 Billion For Hurricane Recovery In Puerto Rico Go? – Imagine having the task of distributing the most aid money ever for a natural disaster responsibly to a government mired in corruption and under FBI investigation. That’s what’s happening right now in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico two years after two hurricanes, Maria and Irma. You have $91 billion reasons to care. That’s how much of your tax money is intended for recovery. Today, we go to Puerto Rico to follow the hurricane money and the fraud.

A Full Measure investigation crunched the numbers:

An estimated $48 billion dollars for Puerto Rico will come from emergency recovery funds.

$43 billion more has been appropriated by Congress so far.

In all, it’s estimated the recovery effort in Puerto Rico will amount to $91 billion U.S. tax dollars.

Of that amount, we found that the island has only received about $14 billion.

The biggest single chunk, $5 billion was spent fixing the electric system, which was already failing before the hurricane.

Nearly $20 billion has been earmarked for housing and shelter under “community planning and development” but two years after Maria, less than a million ($913,000) dollars has been paid out.

…not one damaged Puerto Rican school has seen permanent repairs in the past two years.

Fueling discontent in Puerto Rico is news that the FBI is investigating a number of government officials and contractors are under FBI investigation over allegations of misuse of all the taxpayer money sent in after Hurricane Maria.

The FBI has arrested six top Puerto Rican government officials and consultants.

Also charged— FEMA official Ahsha Tribble – once an Obama homeland security adviser. Tribble took the lead on getting Puerto Rico’s electric grid fixed. Now she is accused of taking bribes to steer a $1.8 billion dollar contract to a company called Cobra. Cobra’s CEO at the time and a FEMA friend of Tribble’s who went to work for COBRA were also arrested.

All have denied wrongdoing. Read More > at Real Clear Politics

Are Cities Going to the Dogs? – Roughly 600,000 dogs live in New York City, along with half a million cats. About half of U.S. households own a pet, which adds up to at least 77 million dogs and 54 million cats. Generationally, millennials are the most enthusiastic pet owners, with some 70 percent boasting of having at least one pet.

What you’re less likely to see, especially in America’s largest cities, are children. Pets are now more common than kids in many U.S. cities. San Francisco, for example, is home to nearly 150,000 dogs but just 115,000 children under age 18. Farther north, Seattle has more households with cats than with kids. Nationwide, pets outnumber children in apartment buildings. In New York neighborhoods like Long Island City and Williamsburg, wealthy singles have the highest number of pooches per capita.

In a recent Atlantic essay, Derek Thompson wrote about how “America’s urban rebirth is missing a key element: births.” Manhattan’s infant population is projected to halve in 30 years. High-density cities are losing families with children over age six, while growing their populations of college-educated residents without children. Indeed, the share of children under 20 living in big cities has been falling for 40 years.

The cost of ownership over a medium-sized dog’s lifetime has grown at twice the rate of inflation since 2008, to $12,700. Americans spent $70 billion last year caring for and feeding pets; they spent $59 billion on child care. No wonder pet insurance is now “the hottest employment benefit,” especially when it runs north of $100 a month in New York for the most comprehensive plans. In my Chelsea neighborhood, the local pet boarder comes with a chef, chauffeur, and a private room larger than my own. Read More > at City Journal

Electric cars could be just another ecological disaster – Electric vehicles currently account for less than 0.5% of the world’s cars. That will change soon. Many countries, including France, Canada, the UK and Norway, have set target dates for ending the sale of gasoline or diesel vehicles between 2025 and 2040, and major car manufacturers are racing to dominate this new and lucrative market.

Around the world, consumers have so far been reluctant to embrace electric cars, but a tipping point will come when there are sufficient charging points and drivers realize that a car that runs on fossil fuel has no resale value. And when that happens, whether the electric car is going to save us or destroy us will depend on what type of power we use to charge its batteries.

When the UK announced in 2017 that the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles would be banned from 2040, there was a sharp intake of breath from the national grid. With 9 million vehicles being charged daily, the current maximum peak-time demand for electricity could increase by as much as 50%, which is beyond current capacity. As this scenario will be replayed wherever millions of electric cars are plugged in, the most pressing question will be: Where will we get the electricity to charge them?

If it comes from renewable sources, all well and good. Some countries are already gradually increasing the share of renewables in their power mix. But the overall, global picture looks very different.

According to oil company BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy, the contribution of solar and wind power to global electricity production in 2018 was just 9.3%. Coal is still king at 38% and coal usage is actually increasing, mainly in the rapidly expanding economies of India and China. This is despite a 25% increase in the use of renewables in both those countries last year, which BP warns is not enough to keep pace with rising demand for electricity. A sudden escalation in the production and use of electric cars will only compound this reality.

…Until our power comes from renewables, this could be the safest road ahead. Embracing electric cars may salve our conscience, but ditching the devil we know for the one we don’t yet understand could be a well-intentioned move that backfires badly. Read More > in the Asia Times

STDs Combine for Record High in U.S.CASES OF THREE COMMON sexually transmitted diseases in the U.S. reached a record level in 2018, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gonorrhea and cases of primary and secondary syphilis – the disease’s most infectious stages – both reached their highest levels since 1991 last year. The country’s 115,045 syphilis cases included more than 35,000 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, marking a 14.9% rate uptick from 2017. Meanwhile, there were more than 583,000 cases of gonorrhea, a rate increase of 5% from 2017, and the rate of reported chlamydia cases rose 3% to total more than 1.7 million in 2018 – nearly two-thirds of which were among people 15 to 24 years old, the report shows.

Together, the diseases accounted for more than 2.4 million cases – an all-time high since data on all three conditions was first collected in 1984. Read More > in U.S. News and World Report 

Major Threat to U.S. Economy – Unfunded Retirement Deficits (They’re Almost As Big As Our Debt) – Most people realize that America’s $22 trillion debt is a problem. After all, that money—or at least the interest on it—will have to come out of workers’ paychecks, leaving them with less money to spend on everything else.

Much less recognized are America’s hidden pension, or retirement, debts. That hidden debt is the money that workers across the country have been told they will receive in retirement—money that, all too often, simply is not there.

Social Security is the most obvious of America’s pension debts. The program has $13.9 trillion in unfunded obligations over the next 75 years. Fifteen years from now, when its notional trust fund runs dry, all retirees will receive about a 25 percent benefit cut.

For the average Social Security recipient, a loss of $4,200 per year in income would be a significant financial hit.

Unfortunately, the retirement outlook is drastically worse for private union workers and state and local government employees. On average, their pension funds are only 43 percent and 35 percent funded, respectively.

Multiemployer pensions have promised $638 billion more than they’ve set aside to pay their retirees. State and local pension plans are short between $4 trillion and $6 trillion.

A private union member with a $24,000 pension, could lose $14,000.

State and local workers could be even worse off. Some of those funds have mere pennies on the dollar on hand to pay promised benefits. Read More > from The Heritage Foundation

Police Body Cameras Aren’t Having the Effects Many Expected – For years, many people hailed body-worn cameras as a potential key to improving police transparency and strengthening often-fractured relationships with the communities they serve. But so far, academic research suggests the technology largely hasn’t lived up to those expectations.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

Researchers reviewed 70 empirical studies on body cameras’ effects, ranging from officer and citizen behavior to influences on law enforcement agencies as a whole. While much of the research remains mixed, it counters some promised benefits of body cameras at a time when departments are increasingly adopting the technology.

…One impact the cameras do seem to have is a reduction in the number of citizen complaints. The vast majority of the studies reviewed show that officers wearing body cameras receive fewer complaints against them than those not being recorded.

The reasons for that remain unclear. It’s possible that officers change their behaviors, leading to fewer complaints. But officers have suggested that citizens are less likely to file unfounded complaints when they know incidents are recorded.

“Officers are liking body-worn cameras more and more because they see it as protection against frivolous complaints,” Lum says. Read More > at Governing 

Will the Supreme Court Strike Down Inclusionary Zoning? – Marin County is committed to building affordable housing. Indeed, the most exclusive county in California doesn’t have much choice.

Back in May, authorities in Marin entered into a new voluntary compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build new low-income housing outside areas where black or brown residents make up the majority. This is now the county’s second big push since 2010 to satisfy the government’s demand that it work on desegregating its affordable housing.

Fair housing is a challenge for Marin, an enclave of million-dollar bungalows across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. According to a nonprofit project called Race Counts, it has the highest racial disparities of any county in California. That’s in part because Marin County doesn’t want to build any housing. Homeowners here are at the forefront of NIMBY efforts to stop plans for new construction, whether they’re localregional, or statewide.

The county’s iron grip on its land is the backdrop for a case that may soon appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. Back in 2000, two Marin County property owners, Dartmond and Esther Cherk, looked to split their undeveloped land into two single-family-zoned lots. As developers, they were liable to preserve some part of the property for affordable housing or pay into a low-income housing production fund. The fee was nearly $40,000; the Cherks sued.

The Marin County case may test the constitutionality of inclusionary zoning, a tool that local jurisdictions rely on to expand the supply of affordable housing, especially in tight housing markets. The court has expressed an interest in the case, which the justices may wind up using as a wedge to reshape property rights. It’s possible the inclusionary zoning ordinances—and local regulations more broadly construed—will not stand under the court’s scrutiny. Read More > at City Lab

GE freezes worker pensions — what to do if your employer changes the terms of your retirement plan – General Electric is pulling the plug on its pension plan, and that’s a surefire way to derail workers’ retirement planning.

GE announced on Monday it was freezing pensions for 20,000 employees with salaried benefits in an attempt to reduce its $8 billion pension deficit, and that it would also freeze supplementary pension benefits for about 700 workers. Current retirees already receiving their pension payments will not be affected and no new hires have been enrolled in the pension plan since 2012.

When a pension is frozen, it is no longer earning benefits, but it is still federally insured and employees do receive whatever amount of money was already accrued. Still, it means potential earnings are lost and workers must scramble to create a plan to ensure they have enough money in the future for their retirements (usually by saving their own dollars, as opposed to relying on their company to do so). Read More > at MarketWatch

Tracking California’s Great Tech Migration – Since January 2010, 58 of the 89 San Francisco Bay Area-headquartered tech and life science companies with 100,000 square feet or more have taken 30.4 million square feet of office space in other cities in the U.S. Cushman & Wakefield’s research team just released a compelling new infographic, The Great Tech Migration, which offers some data points on tech expansion, highlighting which markets are booming tech hubs and why.

CushWake researchers pointed out while the category’s footprint has expanded nationally, growth also has continued in the Bay Area. The same tech and life science companies committed to 55 million square feet, and now control more than 103 million square feet of office and R&D space.

Cushman & Wakefield’s Robert Sammons says, “Expanding tech companies based in the San Francisco Bay Area are spreading far and wide across North America, not just in search of areas with less expensive cost of living and/or cost of doing business, but equally if not more so the crucial need for talent.

“This is among the key reasons we’ve seen such significant tech growth in markets such as New York, Washington, D.C. and Boston—the hunt for talent, as these jobs often require highly-specialized skills. That said, many of these very same influential tech companies have also continued their growth within the Bay Area over the past decade, and at a rapid pace. It is no mystery that the Bay Area has been, and likely will forever be, the tech hub of the world,” he added Read More > at Connect

Exercise could slow withering effects of Alzheimer’s – Exercising several times a week may delay brain deterioration in people at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study that scientists say merits further research to establish whether fitness can affect the progression of dementia.

Research from UT Southwestern found that people who had accumulation of amyloid beta in the brain – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease – experienced slower degeneration in a region of the brain crucial for memory if they exercised regularly for one year.

Although exercise did not prevent the eventual spread of toxic amyloid plaques blamed for killing neurons in the brains of dementia patients, the findings suggest an intriguing possibility that aerobic workouts can at least slow down the effects of the disease if intervention occurs in the early stages.

“What are you supposed to do if you have amyloid clumping together in the brain? Right now doctors can’t prescribe anything,” said Dr. Rong Zhang, who led the clinical trial that included 70 participants ages 55 and older. “If these findings can be replicated in a larger trial, then maybe one day doctors will be telling high-risk patients to start an exercise plan. In fact, there’s no harm in doing so now.” Read More > at UT Southwestern

The race to create a perfect lie detector – and the dangers of succeeding – We learn to lie as children, between the ages of two and five. By adulthood, we are prolific. We lie to our employers, our partners and, most of all, one study has found, to our mothers. The average person hears up to 200 lies a day, according to research by Jerry Jellison, a psychologist at the University of Southern California. The majority of the lies we tell are “white”, the inconsequential niceties – “I love your dress!” – that grease the wheels of human interaction. But most people tell one or two “big” lies a day, says Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire. We lie to promote ourselves, protect ourselves and to hurt or avoid hurting others.

The mystery is how we keep getting away with it. Our bodies expose us in every way. Hearts race, sweat drips and micro-expressions leak from small muscles in the face. We stutter, stall and make Freudian slips. “No mortal can keep a secret,” wrote the psychoanalyst in 1905. “If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips. Betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

Even so, we are hopeless at spotting deception. On average, across 206 scientific studies, people can separate truth from lies just 54% of the time – only marginally better than tossing a coin. “People are bad at it because the differences between truth-tellers and liars are typically small and unreliable,” said Aldert Vrij, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth who has spent years studying ways to detect deception. Some people stiffen and freeze when put on the spot, others become more animated. Liars can spin yarns packed with colour and detail, and truth-tellers can seem vague and evasive.

Humans have been trying to overcome this problem for millennia. The search for a perfect lie detector has involved torture, trials by ordeal and, in ancient India, an encounter with a donkey in a dark room. Three thousand years ago in China, the accused were forced to chew and spit out rice; the grains were thought to stick in the dry, nervous mouths of the guilty. In 1730, the English writer Daniel Defoe suggested taking the pulse of suspected pickpockets. “Guilt carries fear always about with it,” he wrote. “There is a tremor in the blood of a thief.” More recently, lie detection has largely been equated with the juddering styluses of the polygraph machine – the quintessential lie detector beloved by daytime television hosts and police procedurals. But none of these methods has yielded a reliable way to separate fiction from fact.

That could soon change. In the past couple of decades, the rise of cheap computing power, brain-scanning technologies and artificial intelligence has given birth to what many claim is a powerful new generation of lie-detection tools. Startups, racing to commercialise these developments, want us to believe that a virtually infallible lie detector is just around the corner.

…But as tools such as EyeDetect infiltrate more and more areas of public and private life, there are urgent questions to be answered about their scientific validity and ethical use. In our age of high surveillance and anxieties about all-powerful AIs, the idea that a machine could read our most personal thoughts feels more plausible than ever to us as individuals, and to the governments and corporations funding the new wave of lie-detection research. But what if states and employers come to believe in the power of a lie-detection technology that proves to be deeply biased – or that doesn’t actually work?

And what do we do with these technologies if they do succeed? A machine that reliably sorts truth from falsehood could have profound implications for human conduct. The creators of these tools argue that by weeding out deception they can create a fairer, safer world. But the ways lie detectors have been used in the past suggests such claims may be far too optimistic. Read More > in The Guardian

The Las Vegas A’s? Baseball commissioner tells Oakland it could happen – Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred made it clear to Oakland officials that the A’s proposed waterfront ballpark and the team’s desire to develop at the Coliseum is an “all in one” proposition — and that the city needs to drop its lawsuit over the Coliseum land sale to the A’s or risk the team relocating to another city.

And apparently, everyone got the message.

“He kind of laid down the law,” said City Councilman Larry Reid, who also sits on the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority. He attended separate meetings Manfred held last week with Mayor Libby Schaaf and council President Rebecca Kaplan. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Supreme Court begins election year term full of big cases – The justices are returning to the Supreme Court bench for the start of an election year term that includes high-profile cases about abortions, protections for young immigrants and LGBT rights.

The court meets Monday morning for its first public session since late June. First up is a death penalty case from Kansas about whether states can abolish an insanity defense for criminal defendants.

The justices also will hear arguments Monday in a challenge to a murder conviction by a non-unanimous jury in Louisiana.

The term could reveal how far to the right and how fast the court’s conservative majority will move, even as Chief Justice John Roberts has made clear he wants to keep the court clear of Washington partisan politics. The court is beginning its second term with both of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, on board. Read More > from the Associated Press

About Kevin

Mayor - 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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