Sunday Reading – 01/03/2021


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.

Coronavirus: Without California surge, US numbers would be declining – As other regions of the country finally see some relief from the insidious coronavirus, California’s surge has grown so large it now claims a dark distinction in the nation’s outbreak: Without the Golden State, U.S. numbers would be dropping.

That’s according to The COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic, which analyzes data from across the country.

Nationally, more than 18 million people have gotten the coronavirus, and more than 300,000 have died. But former hot spots such as North Dakota, which had been seeing north of 1,000 new cases a day but is now recording just a few hundred, are improving. Things are looking up in nearby South Dakota and Wisconsin, too. But case counts remain stubbornly high across the South, from Arizona in the Southwest to Alabama and Mississippi. However, the worst numbers in recent days have been coming from California, where new case numbers are up 60 percent in the last two weeks and the state on Wednesday recorded its 2 millionth case.

Experts say an even closer look at California’s crushing spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations makes it clear that half the state is primarily pushing the latest surge.

According to John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert and professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, the statewide data masks the fact that Northern California is doing relatively well.

“Yes, California is doing terribly now,” Swartzberg said. “That is primarily Southern California, and because California is such a large state, it does drive the numbers. But I wouldn’t make a lot out of this because this is just the pattern we’ve seen. One area explodes and gets better, and another area explodes and gets better.” Read More > in The Mercury News

The Year of Driving Less—but More Dangerously – Total traffic deaths fell during pandemic lockdowns. But fatalities per mile traveled rose, due to faster driving, fewer cops, and more drug use.

In theory, bringing society to a screeching halt should curtail traffic deaths. No one’s going to bars and then driving home; few are commuting to work; the occasional trip to the grocery store does not demand excessive speed.

So when swaths of the country ground to a halt this year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it was easy to predict the results. Heeding public health officials, plenty of people stopped traveling. So yes, traffic deaths did decline, at least in the first half of the year, according to the most recent government data available. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which tracks traffic fatalities, says 16,650 people died on US roads from January through June, compared with 16,988 in the same period a year earlier, a 2 percent dip.

But the volume of traffic fell much more. As a result, more people died per mile traveled—1.25 per 100 million miles in the first half of the year, compared with 1.06 in the same period in 2019, and the highest rate since 2008. From April through June, the figures were even more dire: Deaths per mile traveled jumped by 31 percent compared with 2019, a figure that usually staid government researchers called “striking.” Read More > at Wired

This year proved once and for all: screens are no substitute for real lifeHow we will ultimately remember the pandemic of 2020 is not yet known. Right now, it is the omnipotent crisis, dominating every waking moment. For those with any interest in the news, there are the daily death totals, surpassing those of 9/11, and reminders that a vaccine is here but not here, still many months away from ending this hell for good.

But a more deadly pandemic in 1918 and 1919 was largely lost to history, swallowed by the end of the first world war and the roaring 20s, the mass death hardly making a groove in the long-term psyche of the nation. The generation that lived through coronavirus may talk about it until they die or choose, like their ancestors in the early 20th century, to bury it away and focus on new horizons.

Covid-19 has shown us, at least, what will be necessary and what we can absolutely do without. There are white-collar jobs that can be performed adequately from home. For some companies, large offices in central business districts are an extravagant waste of money. Hygiene, we hope, will change forever, with routine hand-washing and occasional mask-wearing in crowded areas becoming normalized in America. One hundred years ago, survivors of the flu pandemic learned about the importance of fresh air and proper ventilation, and this is a lesson we were forced, under horrific circumstances, to internalize anew.

We learned, too, what it is we don’t want – a world utterly consumed by screens. Yes, we will maintain our smartphone addictions, and laptops and tablets will continue to consume much of our time inside our homes. The pandemic has boosted Zoom stock by 500%. For many of us, this has been 2020: one Zoom after another, human faces in little boxes. In the early months of the pandemic, there were Zoom birthday parties, Zoom cocktails, Zoom Easters and Zoom Passovers. The life we had lost needed to be approximated, as much as possible, by Zoomworld, forging connections and alleviating boredom.

…The pandemic made it easy to imagine an approaching dystopia: one in which, in the coming years, we would all sequester ourselves away from light and air, too terrified to venture outdoors. Instead of heading to the bar or the gym, we would build worlds of our own within our four walls, content to approximate the reality we once knew.

Instead, we rediscovered parks and trails, flocked to beaches, and revolutionized city streets with outdoor dining. We wearied of our devices. There is no app or program that can replicate a friend’s laughter across the table or a teacher’s lesson at the front of a classroom. After the pandemic, in a post-vaccination world, we will race back to our old lives. Zoomworld will belong to history. Read More > at The Guardian 

Organic, non-organic meats have similar greenhouse gas impacts – Approximately the same amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas are released to produce a pound of organic meat and a pound of non-organic meat, according to calculations by a trio of German scientists.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming, researchers and policy makers need to better understand greenhouse gas impacts of different industries and production processes, according to the researchers.

When researchers calculated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the raising, slaughtering, processing and distribution of different types of meats, both conventional and organic, they found little difference in the carbon and methane inputs.

The results of their analysis were published this month in the journal Nature Communications. Read More > at UPI

A Carbon-Powered Shot – Global jubilation greeted images of a United Airlines jumbo jet being loaded for the first flights carrying the Covid-19 vaccine for distribution. Much will be written about the unprecedented efforts in developing the vaccines so rapidly.

One of the least noted aspects of that story is the carbon footprint associated with the vaccination ecosystem. This isn’t surprising, as it’s just one illustration of an unremarkable fact: everything in modern society uses energy, and that energy gets delivered wherever and whenever needed, without fuss and at costs so low as to be an irrelevant consideration.

In this context, we may want to consider the implications of the incoming Biden administration’s pledge to remake America’s energy infrastructure. Developing, fabricating, and distributing vaccines epitomizes the nature of all manufacturing and services. Getting vaccines to everyone entails more than thousands of oil-burning jumbo jet flights to deliver what brilliant scientists invented—it also takes a sprawling ecosystem of electron-gobbling supercomputers put to work by those scientists, energy-intensive manufacturing plants, football-field-sized “freezer farms” for warehousing vaccines, and kilotons of dry ice for “cold-chain” shipping.

Some irony resides in the fact that dry ice is solidified carbon dioxide. Megawatt-hours of energy are needed to solidify all that CO2, which is then used to keep certain things (especially temperature-sensitive vaccines) chilled at minus 78o F. All dry ice ends up as CO2 gas in our atmosphere because it inevitably sublimates. There isn’t a good alternative for chilling-in-transit. Indeed, the century-old cold-chain industry has become a critical part of the enormous infrastructure required for food and medical deliveries. Read More > at City Journal

Insecure wheels: Police turn to car data to destroy suspects’ alibis – In recent years, investigators have realized that automobiles — particularly newer models — can be treasure troves of digital evidence. Their onboard computers generate and store data that can be used to reconstruct where a vehicle has been and what its passengers were doing. They reveal everything from location, speed and acceleration to when doors were opened and closed, whether texts and calls were made while the cellphone was plugged into the infotainment system, as well as voice commands and web histories.

Law enforcement agencies have been focusing their investigative efforts on two main information sources: the telematics system — which is like the “black box” — and the infotainment system. The telematics system stores a vehicle’s turn-by-turn navigation, speed, acceleration and deceleration information, as well as more granular clues, such as when and where the lights were switched on, the doors were opened, seat belts were put on and airbags were deployed.

The infotainment system records recent destinations, call logs, contact lists, text messages, emails, pictures, videos, web histories, voice commands and social media feeds. It can also keep track of the phones that have been connected to the vehicle via USB cable or Bluetooth, as well as all the apps installed on the device.

Together, the data allows investigators to reconstruct a vehicle’s journey and paint a picture of driver and passenger behavior. In a criminal case, the sequence of doors opening and seat belts being inserted could help show that a suspect had an accomplice. Read More > at NBC News

‘Diversity Training’ Doesn’t Work. This Might. – Diversity-related training programs are intended to serve a range of purposes. For instance, they can provide organizations with a signaling device to show that they are ‘with it,’ and ‘doing something’ about inequality, bias or discrimination. This can be useful for PR purposes, and can also help shield organizations from legal liability. But of course, these objectives are largely implicit:  the training would not work as a virtue signaling tool if it was explicitly acknowledged as such. 

Instead, the explicit objectives of diversity-related training programs include rectifying inequalities, improving the organizational climate and employee morale, increasing collaboration across lines of difference, fostering free exchange of ideas and information, enhancing the hiring, retention, and promotion of diverse candidates, and more. 

Put another way, PR and legal purposes aside, there are real organizational needs that diversity-related training is supposed to help meet. It is no small challenge to create an environment where people with different backgrounds, worldviews, priorities and life plans can forge healthy working relationships, learn from (and grow alongside) one another, collaborate to effectively advance organizational goals, subordinate egoistic and nepotistic impulses to prioritize organizational interests and meritocratic decision-making, etc. As I’ve elaborated upon elsewhere, the typical college graduate is not well prepared to succeed at these tasks. On paper, diversity-related training is supposed to help fill these gaps. 

Unfortunately, a robust and ever-growing body of empirical literature suggests that diversity-related training typically fails at its stated objectives. It does not seem to meaningfully or durably improve organizational climate or workplace morale; it does not increase collaboration or exchange across lines of difference; it does not improve hiring, retention or promotion of diverse candidates.  In fact, the training is often counterproductive with respect to these explicit goals. Read More > at Heterodox: The Blog

The world’s growing concrete coasts – …With three tonnes per year used for every person in the world, there are few parts of the planet that concrete hasn’t reached. The production of concrete is also a huge emitter of CO2. At least 8% of humanity’s carbon footprint comes from the concrete industry, mostly from the production of cement – one of concrete’s principal components. The cement industry generates around 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year – more than any country other than China or the US.

In the oceans, concrete is the main construction material, accounting for more than 70% of coastal and marine infrastructure such as ports, coastal defence structures and waterfronts. In China, for example, around 60% of its coast is effectively concrete. Similarly, more than 14,000 miles of the US’s coastline is covered in concrete. Read More > from the BBC

Billion-Dollar Book Companies Are Ripping Off Public Schools – Over the past decade, Silicon Valley’s tech behemoths have discreetly and methodically tightened their grip on American schools, and the pandemic has given them license to squeeze even tighter. By 2017, tens of millions of students were already using Google Chromebooks and apps for reading, writing, and turning in their work. Google Classroom now has more than 100 million users worldwide—nearly seven times the number reported in The New York Times three years ago. When we emerge from the pandemic, schools will be even more reliant on such systems. Industry is bolting an adamantine layer of technology onto the world’s classrooms, in what amounts to a stealth form of privatization.

The benefits of e-books may seem obvious. They should provide a cheap, convenient way to supply millions of kids with classic novels: They don’t wear out, they can’t get lost or be defaced with underlining, doodles, or the name of your latest crush, and, with a pandemic still raging, they provide a safe, instantaneous way to distribute books to students who are stuck at home.

But in practice, this convenience comes at a staggering cost. Billion-dollar companies like Follett and EBSCO are renting e-books to schools each year, rather than selling them permanent copies. By locking school districts into contracts that turn them into captive consumers, corporate tech providers are draining public education budgets that don’t have a penny to spare.

So how much does it cost for a school to rent a book? I asked Chrystal Woodcock, library media supervisor for the Menifee Union School District in Southern California.

The Diary of Anne Frank, “a really important, classic piece of literature that social studies teachers have taught forever,” Woodcock said, “costs $27 per student for a 12-month subscription.”

In other words, you buy the book for $27, and it just—expires?

Yes, Woodcock said. “You have to budget for that every single year … The Diary of Anne FrankLord of the Flies. The books that are part of our ingrained culture… Read More > at The New Republic

How Your Digital Trails Wind Up in the Police’s Hands – Phone calls. Web searches. Location tracks. Smart speaker requests. They’ve become crucial tools for law enforcement, while users often are unaware.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS’ EVERY move was being tracked without his knowledge—even before the fire. In August, Williams, an associate of R&B star and alleged rapist R. Kelly, allegedly used explosives to destroy a potential witness’s car. When police arrested Williams, the evidence cited in a Justice Department affidavit was drawn largely from his smartphone and online behavior: text messages to the victim, cell phone records, and his search history.

The investigators served Google a “keyword warrant,” asking the company to provide information on any user who had searched for the victim’s address around the time of the arson. Police narrowed the search, identified Williams, then filed another search warrant for two Google accounts linked to him. They found other searches: the “detonation properties” of diesel fuel, a list of countries that do not have extradition agreements with the US, and YouTube videos of R. Kelly’s alleged victims speaking to the press. Williams has pleaded not guilty.

Data collected for one purpose can always be used for another. Search history data, for example, is collected to refine recommendation algorithms or build online profiles, not to catch criminals. Usually. Smart devices like speakers, TVs, and wearables keep such precise details of our lives that they’ve been used both as incriminating and exonerating evidence in murder cases. Speakers don’t have to overhear crimes or confessions to be useful to investigators. They keep time-stamped logs of all requests, alongside details of their location and identity. Investigators can access these logs and use them to verify a suspect’s whereabouts or even catch them in a lie. Read More > at Wired

She Noticed $200 Million Missing, Then She Was Fired – Earlier this year, the governing board of one of California’s most powerful regulatory agencies unleashed troubling accusations against its top employee.

Commissioners with the California Public Utilities Commission, or CPUC, accused Executive Director Alice Stebbins of violating state personnel rules by hiring former colleagues without proper qualifications. They said the agency chief misled the public by asserting that as much as $200 million was missing from accounts intended to fund programs for the state’s blind, deaf and poor. At a hearing in August, Commission President Marybel Batjer said that Stebbins had discredited the CPUC.

“You took a series of actions over the course of several years that calls into question your integrity,” Batjer told Stebbins, who joined the agency in 2018. Those actions, she said, “cause us to have to consider whether you can continue to serve as the leader of this agency.”

The five commissioners voted unanimously to terminate Stebbins, who had worked as an auditor and budget analyst for different state agencies for more than 30 years.

But an investigation by the Bay City News Foundation and ProPublica has found that Stebbins was right about the missing money.

Just days before Stebbins was fired, CPUC officials told California’s Department of Finance that the agency was owed more than $200 million, according to a memo obtained by the news organizations. The finance agency launched an investigation into the uncollected funds.

The news organizations’ investigation also found flaws in the State Personnel Board report that Batjer used to terminate Stebbins. Three former CPUC employees said in interviews that the report contained falsehoods. The report alleged that the auditor who discovered the missing money was unqualified. But hiring materials obtained by the news organizations show that state officials had determined that the auditor was the most qualified candidate, awarding him an “excellent” rating in every category. Read More > at ProPublica

Still Disinfecting Surfaces? It Might Not Be Worth It – At the start of the pandemic, stores quickly sold out of disinfectant sprays and wipes. People were advised to wipe down their packages and the cans they bought at the grocery store.

But scientists have learned a lot this year about the coronavirus and how it’s transmitted, and it turns out all that scrubbing and disinfecting might not be necessary.

If a person infected with the coronavirus sneezes, coughs or talks loudly, droplets containing particles of the virus can travel through the air and eventually land on nearby surfaces. But the risk of getting infected from touching a surface contaminated by the virus is low, says Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers University.

“In hospitals, surfaces have been tested near COVID-19 patients, and no infectious virus can be identified,” Goldman says.

What’s found is viral RNA, which is like “the corpse of the virus,” he says. That’s what’s left over after the virus dies.

“They don’t find infectious virus, and that’s because the virus is very fragile in the environment — it decays very quickly,” Goldman says. Read More > from NPR

Ten Scientific Discovers from 2020 that may lead to new inventions – Many new inventions and technologies derive inspiration from nature. The practice of modeling artificial products after biological processes is called biomimicry or biomimetics. Janine Benyus, co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, popularized the term in her 1997 book, Biomimicry. “Biomimicry,” she wrote, “is basically taking a design challenge and then finding an ecosystem that’s already solved that challenge, and literally trying to emulate what you learn.”

As scientists studying the natural world reveal their findings, inventors and engineers are drawing from these new revelations and applying nature’s solutions to new technology. Whether the problems researchers are looking to solve involve building better robots, tracking cancer cells more efficiently or improving telescopes to study space, a useful solution can be found in living things.

Here are ten findings from 2020 that could one day lead to new inventions.

Suckerfish Surf on the Backs of Other Sea Creatures

…The fish’s “sucking disc” isn’t actually sticking up against the whale’s skin either. Instead it hovers just above, creating a low-pressure zone that sucks the fish close to the whale and prevents it from flying off into the abyss—most of the time.

Flammang, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has already gotten to work on an artificial suction disk inspired by the remora that she hopes will be used to attach cameras and tracking devices to endangered marine animals, like blue whales. Currently, researchers use regular suction cups to fasten cameras to their research subjects, but those only keep their grip from 24 to 48 hours. Flammang’s new device will stay on for weeks and reduce drag. She and her team are currently testing the disc on compliant surfaces as well as designing a remora-shaped casing for the camera. Eventually, they’ll field test the device on live animals, including whales, dolphins, sharks and manta rays.

The Diabolical Ironclad Beetle’s Exoskeleton Is Indestructible

The diabolical ironclad beetle absolutely lives up to its name. While most bugs live only a few weeks, these beetles have a lifespan of about eight years, which is roughly the equivalent of a human living several thousand years. To achieve such a feat, they’ve evolved some remarkable armor.

…In their paper, the researchers suggest a beetle-inspired interlocking fastener could perhaps replace similarly-shaped, but layer-less, joints used to secure airplane turbines. The team created a 3-D printed model complete with “lamination,” or layers. They predict this finding could introduce “immediate benefit over aviation fasteners, providing enhanced strength and substantial increased toughness.” But really, this design could be used anytime two different materials—like metal and plastic—need to be conjoined, such as in bridges, buildings and vehicles, too. Read More > in The Smithsonian 

What are the most common ways people get injured? – Every year in the United States, 40 million people end up injured in the emergency department, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). From bee stings to car accidents, health care workers in emergency departments see it all. So, what are the most common ways people get injured?

“Falls by far,” said Susan Baker, an epidemiologist specializing in injury prevention at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Especially when you’re talking about non-fatal injuries.” In 2018, about 29% of percent of people who went to the emergency department because of an injury had fallen down, according to the CDC. The most common culprit? Likely stairs, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), a database of consumer product-related injuries. (The database lists stairs alongside ramps and landings.)

Stair-related injuries are a risk for older adults in particular, who tend to fall more often than younger people due to cognitive decline and loss of physical fitness. “If you don’t stay physically fit, you start to lose some of your balance,” said Lorann Stallones, the director of the Colorado Injury Control Research Center. Read More > at Live Science

Studies find having COVID-19 may protect against reinfection – Two new studies give encouraging evidence that having COVID-19 may offer some protection against future infections. Researchers found that people who made antibodies to the coronavirus were much less likely to test positive again for up to six months and maybe longer.

The results bode well for vaccines, which provoke the immune system to make antibodies—substances that attach to a virus and help it be eliminated.

Researchers found that people with antibodies from natural infections were “at much lower risk … on the order of the same kind of protection you’d get from an effective vaccine,” of getting the virus again, said Dr. Ned Sharpless, director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

“It’s very, very rare” to get reinfected, he said. Read More > at Medical Xpress

About Kevin

Manager of Mainframe Operations and Optimization – USS-UPI, Co-Founder and Board Member - Friends of Oakley A Community Foundation, Trustee RD 2137, Advisory Board – Opportunity Junction
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