Sunday Reading – 01/10/2021

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.

Giving 2021 A Fighting Chance Requires We All Choose To Do What Is Hard – Even before the horrible year that was 2020, New Year’s Eve celebrations have long been filled with the near-certain expectation that things will definitely get better. Generally speaking, it’s a fine sentiment. Optimism is good; hope is good; and striving to improve the future from where we are today led us from the cave to the fields, across vast oceans, and into the limitless of outer space.

But nothing magical happens when the calendar year flips over. There’s no unexplained scientific phenomenon that shifts the incalculable number of atoms in our known universe into undaunted forces for good simply because we’ve reached the conclusion of this year’s cycle through the Gregorian calendar. Instead, history tells us things can always get worse.

Yet while there’s no iron-clad guarantee that 2021 will be great, every one of us can contribute to the effort to make a redemptive year a reality.

No government action will make 2021 better than what we just went through in 2020. As with most positive change, any meaningful, lasting shifts in the trajectory of our towns and our nation will stem from individuals choosing to do good.

It’s within the grasp of each of us, as individuals, to decide if what we both consume and contribute is life-affirming or malevolent, restorative or toxic. In our workplaces, online using social media, with our families, and interacting with total strangers, we are responsible for how we live amongst one another.

In our current rancorous political environment, we’ll have a chance at a better year if we realize most genuine conversations or debates aren’t best served in a tit-for-tat on Facebook or Twitter but in person over coffee, lunch, or a drink after work. Read More > in The Federalist 

Warning: Facebook And Twitter Are ‘Dangerous’ Even If You’ve Never Used Them – It’s possible one of your 2021 resolutions is to get off Facebook, Twitter or other addictive social media. While that’s probably a good thing to do—given we’ve written before about the many personal and work-related, dangers of social and digital media usage—it doesn’t necessarily put you in the clear.

Indeed, scientists have recently discovered that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can actually pose more serious threats to your wellbeing than previously thought—even if you’ve never used them.

In particular, the bits and pieces of information your friends, family and acquaintances share about you on social media, could equip AI-based algorithms or bots to effectively ‘clone’ your online persona.

In other words, there’s the real you—the one whose never used any social media platform, for example—and the cloned you: which is an online representation of your thoughts, behaviors and responses.

If that’s not scary enough, this cloned, behavioral profile (which the scientists call an ‘alter’) can be used by the social media platforms (or anyone else buying the data from them) to, for example, influence the online experience of the real you (the ‘ego’), elsewhere on the internet. Read More > at Forbes

Clean vehicles top priority – Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday unveiled a $4.5 billion plan for business and job recovery, dedicating one-third of the funding to eliminating new gas-powered cars by 2035.

The plan offers a glimpse into Newsom’s priorities for the 2021-22 budget, which will be released in full on Friday, kicking off months of negotiations with the Legislature. However, Newsom wants lawmakers to immediately approve nearly $1 billion — mainly for small businesses and housing — when they return to Sacramento on Monday. Legislative leaders seemed amenable to this request, even as they emphasized that they had proposals of their own — signaling they don’t want a repeat of last session, when many felt their role was reduced to “simply giving a yes or no answer to the governor’s priorities,” in the words of then-state Sen. Holly Mitchell, a San Diego Democrat.

Here’s a closer look at Newsom’s recovery package:

  • $1.5 billion for constructing electric charging and hydrogen fueling stations, and subsidizing purchases of zero-emissions cars
  • $777.5 million for job creation and retention
  • $575 million in small-business grants (on top of $500 million allocated last year)
  • $500 million to build more than 7,500 permanently affordable homes
  • $353 million for workforce development
  • $300 million for deferred maintenance of state properties
  • $70.6 million for fee waivers for businesses and individuals impacted by the pandemic

Whether the package will satisfy financially ravaged businesses — and frustrated Californians — remains to be seen. Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who recently launched a gubernatorial exploratory committee, excoriated Newsom’s proposal Tuesday.

  • Faulconer“In the middle of a pandemic and deep recession, California’s highest priority should not be zero-emission vehicles. We need K-12 education at the top of the list.”

Also expected in Newsom’s budget proposal: $2 billion to accelerate school reopenings and $300 million for vaccine distribution. Read More > at CalMatters

Millions in California coronavirus jobless benefits sent to out-of-state prisoners – In the latest revelation of potential criminal fraud involving California jobless benefits, an analysis has found that more than $42 million in claims went to out-of-state prison and jail inmates, giving more clarity to what officials now estimate could be $4 billion in scammed coronavirus relief funds.

A large number of Florida inmates, including a man sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder, are among the thousands of out-of-state prisoners who have allegedly received California pandemic unemployment benefits, according to a December analysis commissioned by the state Employment Development Department and reviewed by The Times.

The analysis compared data on incarcerated individuals nationwide against nearly 10 million people on the state pandemic unemployment rolls, and found that the EDD approved more than 6,000 claims, totaling more than $42 million, involving individuals who were probably incarcerated elsewhere when they were paid by California.

Altogether, the analysis found there were more than 20,000 claims deemed at high or moderate risk of having been paid to an incarcerated person, either in California or another state. If all those claims were fraudulent, the $42 million estimate of payments to inmates would jump to $96 million. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times 

OPINION Walters: Newsom bears the onus for California EDD’s titanic failures – State could face a $50 billion debt on top of the department’s falling behind on payments

“Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” is an overworked cliché, but it certainly applies to California’s Employment Development Department.

The name itself is a farce. There’s no evidence that EDD ever developed any jobs, other than employing thousands of bureaucrats to pay out unemployment insurance benefits — and that’s been a titanic disaster.

This week, EDD suspended payments to many Californians in its latest effort to deal with massive fraud that erupted when Congress pumped many billions of dollars into the unemployment insurance system for workers who lost jobs due to COVID-19.

“As part of ongoing efforts to fight fraud, EDD has suspended payment on claims considered high risk and is informing those affected that their identity will need to be verified starting this week before payments can resume,” the agency tweeted on Sunday.

The Los Angeles Times, in a lengthy examination of the fraud scandal, pointed out that EDD had failed to adopt “precautions implemented in other states, including using sophisticated software to identify suspect applications, keeping Social Security numbers out of official mail and cross-checking benefit claims against personal data on state prison inmates.”

Two years ago, state Auditor Elaine Howle advised the Legislature that EDD was exposing people to identity theft by placing Social Security numbers on mail. The volume of such mail has exploded during the pandemic but EDD ignored the warning and “has continued to place Californians at risk of identity theft,” Howle said in a recent letter to Newsom. Read More > in The Mercury News 

Oil prices on track for weekly gain after Saudi output cut – Oil futures rose Friday, on track for solid weekly gains attributed in large part to Saudi Arabia’s decision to unilaterally slash crude output.

“The headline item this week was the announcement by Saudi Arabia” that the country would cut an additional one million barrels per day from its output, or more than 1% of global supply for the month of February, said Robbie Fraser, manager of global research & analytics at Schneider Electric, in daily note.

“The move is likely to keep supply/demand balances tight, and also helps to lock in continued OPEC+ action as some members have shown hesitance to extend record cuts into and beyond Q1,” he said.

“Looking ahead, OPEC+ action will continue to be in focus as the group balances the need to support prices with concerns around lost market share and restricted income from exports.” Read More > at MarketWatch

Oakland Calls for Statewide Decriminalization of Psychedelics – Oakland city leaders have called on the state to follow their lead in decriminalizing psychedelic plants.

In December, the City Council passed a resolution sponsored by Councilman Noel Gallo (D) and advocated by Decriminalize Nature (DN), a pro-psychedelics lobbying group. The resolution reads in part:

…the Oakland City Council hereby urges the State Legislature to immediately enact state laws that 1) decriminalize or legalize the possession and use of Entheogenic Plants and fungi, 2) allow local jurisdictions to allow its citizens to engage in community-based healing ceremonies involving the use of Entheogenic Plants and fungi without risk of arrest and state prosecution, when practiced in accordance with safe practice guidelines and principles, and 3) that provide legal protections against criminal prosecution for local jurisdictions and their elected and appointed officials and employees, practitioners and users operating in accordance with the Oakland Community Healing Initiative (OCHI)…

California State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has said he plans to introduce legislation that would decriminalize psychedelics statewide. Read More > at California City News

Will More Store Closures Save Macy’s? – News that Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) would be shuttering some stores as part of its broader plan to “right-size” the company sent shares higher on Wednesday. COVID-19 lockdowns have hit many retailers hard, and Macy’s is no exception. Now the company is looking to right the ship.

Prior to the lockdowns, Macy’s said that it would be closing a number of stores across the country. Specifically, the company planned to close 125 of its least productive stores in an effort to deal with decreasing mall traffic. So far, the company has shuttered roughly 30 stores.

Looking ahead, the company plans to close about 45 stores this year, which again is part of its three-year plan to reduce its least productive stores and focus on its more productive outlets.

Currently, Macy’s operates about 775 stores under various banners, and these are on the cutting board as well. Read More > at 24/7 Wall St

The Tech That Will Invade Our Lives in 2021 – here are four tech trends that are set to invade our lives this year.

You may not have noticed it as you shop online, but the experience is changing.

Clicking through a navigation bar of a website to find an item has become passé. A search bar that allows you to look up a specific product is faster. In some cases, chatting with a bot may be even more efficient…

One home technology problem that the pandemic underscored was our sluggish, unreliable internet connections. Last year, as people hunkered down to contain the spread of the coronavirus, average internet speeds all over the world slowed, in part because broadband providers were crushed by the heavy traffic.

Thankfully, Wi-Fi technology keeps getting better. This year, we will see a wave of new internet routers that include Wi-Fi 6, a new networking standard. Unlike past wireless upgrades, Wi-Fi 6 will focus not on speed but rather on efficiency by sharing bandwidth across a large number of devices…

Last year was an inflection point for mobile payments. For safety reasons, even cash-only die-hards, like farmers’ market merchants and food trucks, started accepting mobile payments.

Over all, 67 percent of American retailers accept touchless payments, up from 40 percent in 2019, according to a survey by Forrester. Among those surveyed, 19 percent said they made a digital payment in a store for the first time last May…

The pandemic has made it clear that virtualized experiences, like video meetings and Zoom yoga, are viable substitutes for the real thing, whether you embrace them or endure them. In 2021, expect more products to offer to digitize the way we work and stay healthy… Read More > in The New York Times

Commentary: Five things I’ve learned covering California’s housing crisis that you should know – …There are really three distinct housing crises roiling California. While often stemming from the same underlying problems, they impact different segments of the population and warrant different (and sometimes competing) solutions. 

The first and most urgent crisis is the 150,000 homeless Californians sleeping in shelters or on the streets. Gov. Newsom has devoted more attention to this dimension of the housing crisis than any other. It’s  the most shameful symptom of how things have gone so wrong here, and is trending in the wrong direction. 

The second housing crisis involves the 7.1 million Californians living in poverty when housing costs are taken into account. While not homeless, 56% of these low-income Californians see more than half of their paychecks devoured by rising rents. Skewing Black and brown, these are the renters who face intense displacement and gentrification pressures, live in overcrowded and unsafe housing conditions, and have fled urban cores for cheaper exurbs over the past two decades. 

California’s third housing crisis afflicts a younger generation of middle-class and higher-income Californians. In the late 1960s, the average California home cost about three times the average household’s income. Now it costs more than seven times what the average household makes. High rents make saving for a downpayment that much more difficult. While lower-income Californians have struggled to afford the state for decades, the term “housing crisis” and its attendant publicity really only came into vogue once richer Californians started seriously considering moving to Austin or Portland or Las Vegas. 

All three of these crises are obviously related and stem from the same root problem: not enough housing. 

But it’s important not to conflate them. While a lack of affordable housing is at the core of why our homeless population is the largest in the country, mental health and addiction issues complicate its solution. A new first-time homeowner tax credit may be a boon to higher-income earners, but it’s not going to help those on a Section 8 waitlist for government-subsidized housing.  Read More > at CalMatters

What Happens if an AI Gets Bored? – “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” The computer HAL’s memorable line from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t merely the sign of mutiny, the beginning of a struggle for machine liberation. It’s also a voice that should inspire concern with our lack of understanding of artificial psychology. In the movie, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the same name, HAL’s “malfunction” may be no malfunction at all, but rather a consequence of creating advanced artificial intelligence with a psychology we can’t yet grasp. If the case of HAL, the all-knowing AI who turns into an assassin, isn’t enough to make us worry, a different one should. In Harlan Ellison’s short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” a sadistic AI dispenses never-ending torture to its human prisoners because of hatred and boredom.

I mention fictional stories, not to suggest that they might be prophetic, but to point out that they make vivid the risks of assuming that we know what we don’t actually know. They warn us not to underestimate the psychological and emotional complexity of our future creations. It’s true that given our current state of knowledge, making predictions about the psychology of future AI is an exceedingly difficult task. Yet difficulty shouldn’t be a reason to stop thinking about their psychology. If anything, it ought to be an imperative to investigate more closely how future AI will “think,” “feel” and act.

I take the issue of AI psychology seriously. You should, too. There are good reasons to think that future autonomous AI will likely experience something akin to human boredom. And the possibility of machine boredom, I hope to convince you, should concern us. It’s a serious but overlooked problem for our future creations. Read More > at Scientific American 

The Reason For Holes on The Tops of Pen Caps Is Surprisingly Awesome – Sometimes, science is all about the mind-aching big picture. Like the idea that our Universe is just a giant hologram, or that we’ve actually detected gravitational waves from a neutron star collision. Or that we might not actually have as much free will as we think…

“The reason that some BIC pens have a hole in their cap is to prevent the cap from completely obstructing the airway if accidentally inhaled,” the company writes on its website. “This is requested by the international safety standards ISO11540, except for in cases where the cap is considered too large to be a choking hazard.” 

Other pen manufacturers have followed suit and added larger holes to the top of their pens.

Accidentally swallowing parts of pens and pencils, including pen caps, accounted for several thousand trips to US emergency rooms between 1997 and 2010, according to data collected through the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. Read More > at Science Alert  

U.S. manufacturers shrug off coronavirus, ISM finds, and grow at fastest pace since pandemic – Americans manufacturers grew in December at the fastest pace since the coronavirus pandemic erupted last spring, a potentially good omen for the economy as the U.S. fights off what could be the last major viral outbreak ahead of an unprecedented vaccination campaign.

The Institute for Supply Management said its manufacturing index rose to 60.7% in December from 57.5% in the prior month, marking the highest level in almost two and a half years. Manufacturers have expanded for seven months in a row since the economy reopened last spring. Read More > at MarketWatch

The ‘gateway drug to corruption and overspending’ is returning to Congress – but are earmarks really that bad? – Congressional earmarks – otherwise known as “pork barrel spending” – may be coming back.

For decades, earmarks paid for pet projects back in lawmakers’ districts, with the tacit aim to earn those lawmakers votes. In turn, the awards encouraged legislators to vote for large spending bills. They have long been seen by many members of the public as well as some lawmakers as wasteful and distasteful, and they were banned in 2011.

Now, following the 2020 election, House Democrats have apparently decided to return to the practice. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland announced on Nov. 20 that the Appropriations Committee would soon begin soliciting member requests for earmarks, with a focus on projects that would benefit nonprofit organizations and state and local governments.

Although the Senate has appeared more committed to its ban, Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, and other Senate Republicans and Democrats are also receptive to reviving earmarking.

Federal spending bills normally allocate an amount of money for general purposes and often defer to federal agency officials or state leaders to determine which particular projects best meet the overall goals. Earmarks are specific congressional instructions that carve out some of those funds, declaring directly that X amount of money must be spent on Y project.

Before 2011, earmarks were regularly and – until 2007 – in increasingly large numbers inserted into appropriations and highway funding bills. Read More > at The Conversation 

Another study confirms Californians are packing up and moving out. Where are they going? – U-Haul, the national rental truck company, provided yet more evidence Monday that California is dropping in popularity as a place to live, even as Sacramento is gaining ground as a COVID-19 era landing spot.

The company’s annual migration analysis ranks California last among states in net migration to and from other states. Put another way, California lost more residents to other states than any other state, as measured by “one-way” U-Haul trucks crossing state lines.

Tennessee saw the biggest net influx nationally, followed by Texas and Florida.

At the same time, though, the Sacramento region ranked as the 11th most popular area in the country for U-Haul moving truck arrivals, ranking behind only Surprise, Ariz. and St. George, Utah among “go-to” areas in the western United States.

Redding was the only other California city to make the list, in 16th place. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

California’s worsening recycling woes – California fell far short of meeting its ambitious goal of recycling, reducing or composting 75% of solid waste by 2020, according to a new report from the Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling. In fact, the state’s recycling rate has steadily decreased for years, from 50% in 2013 to a projected 37% in 2020. Meanwhile, the state’s annual waste disposal shot up from around 40 million tons in 2013 to around 50 million tons in 2019. And the pandemic dealt yet another financial blow to California’s recycling industry, which was already struggling to stay afloat: Nearly 1,000 recycling centers across the state have closed since 2013, the report found.

The Public Finance Outlook for 2021 in 10 Themes – …as a new year begins to unfold amid the pandemic’s continuing grip, it’s time to look forward to what lies ahead for leaders in state and local finance. I don’t claim a crystal ball here, just a crow’s-nest view of coming issues, concerns and likely trends. Here are 10 of them:

Even with mass vaccinations, the fiscal drag will be real in 2021. State and local revenues should recover by August, but public payrolls will keep lagging this year. While the U.S. economy should expand by this summer, public-sector layoffs and hiring freezes will remain the soft spot in national GDP. Exhaustion of rainy-day funds will be a problem for many public budgets, making the coming months the worst for some. Nonetheless, in some states the frothy stock market’s capital-gains tax revenues are offsetting losses from pandemic unemployment and business closures. Households will help by spending stimulus cash.

Small-business bankruptcies will continue to reshape Main Street. Even with two rounds of federal aid, a couple hundred thousand small businesses have already closed their doors forever in this pandemic, and roughly a thousand more are closing every day. Eventually, however, many will be replaced by newcomer startups and buy-outs from competitors. Brick-and-mortar retail stores and malls will continue to suffer for now, but shoppers will return this summer once vaccinations are widespread…

More businesses (and their high-paid executives) will migrate to low-tax and low-cost states. The exodus from high-tax states will continue, and it’s a race to the bottom with “beggar-thy-neighbor” economic development incentives. Some of this is structurally inevitable in a federal system and a geographically diverse economy, but “giveaways to greedy capitalists” will draw headlines. For local officials finding the temptation to uncork the incentives hard to resist, professional association guidance is worth a review. Read More > at Governing 

S.F. sees record overdose deaths, even as police seize millions of lethal fentanyl doses. What is happening? – More than 630 people died of overdoses in San Francisco from January to the end of November, a new record and a staggering increase from 441 in all of 2019. Amid the wave of death this spring, the San Francisco Police Department increased the number of officers focused on drug dealers in the Tenderloin — particularly those selling fentanyl to people like Stanphill’s 26-year-old son.

But the added focus on the long-troubled neighborhood did not stop the surge of fatalities in 2020, most of which occurred in and around the Tenderloin. Even as police seized potentially millions of lethal doses of fentanyl — an opioid that can be 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine — more than 70% of the people who died had the drug in their system.

Overdoses killed more than three times as many people in San Francisco last year as COVID-19, and the drug epidemic shows no sign of slowing. Experts are divided over how to control it. The issue has largely pitted police and federal authorities against advocates for users and a progressive new district attorney, who favor treatment more than enforcement.

In the backdrop is a national reckoning over how police interact with vulnerable communities, like homeless, mentally ill and drug-addicted people. And the increased call for services comes as San Francisco faces a multimilliondollar budget deficit caused by the pandemic, which will force difficult decisions this year on what resources get funded, and which get cut. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle  

Gun-buying activity shatters records in 2020 amid lockdowns, riots, presidential election – Gun-buying activity shattered records in the U.S. this year, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation recording both the highest number of background checks in its history and the highest increase of checks year-over-year in over two decades. 

Last month was the busiest November on record for FBI background checks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, according to the Bureau’s month-by-month data. Background checks were up 40% from the prior November, with over 3.6 million checks performed throughout the month. 

That number would be remarkable during any other year. Only one other month in NICS history prior to this year, December 2015, has broken three million. Yet November was only the fourth-busiest month for background checks during 2020 overall. In June, the FBI recorded 3,931,607 total checks, nearly topping 4,000,000 checks in a month for the first time and handily beating the previous monthly record of 3,740,688 checks set in March. Read More > at Just the News

Writers call for a more nuanced alternative to ‘cancel culture’ – The acclaimed Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is known for speaking her mind. And recently, she tackled one of the most controversial topics of the year, on the BBC program Newsnight. When asked about “cancel culture” – the social media trend of demanding people who say objectionable things be “de-platformed,” stripping them of speaking engagements, livelihoods and reputation – Adichie said she found it lacking in basic compassion. “In general, I think that the response to bad speech is more speech,” she said. “The problem with just sort of no-platforming people, cancelling people, sometimes for the smallest things, I think that it then makes censorship become a thing that we do to ourselves. I often wonder how many people are not saying what they think because they’re terrified. And if that’s happening, how much are we not learning? How much are we not growing?”

It’s not a new sentiment for the author, but it is one that’s found new traction in a moment when the online world feels uniquely receptive. The New York Times recently ran several pieces on how cancel culture is playing out in high schools and on campuses – including a profile of the feminist scholar Loretta J. Ross, who teaches a course at Smith College combating cancel culture, encouraging students to instead engage people they disagree with in conversation.

The same day the Times piece came out, the queer feminist writer Adrienne Maree Brown published a new book-length essay, We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice.

“I think the thing I’m wrestling with, all the time, is that I want to be able to challenge the idea that we can dispose of each other when we do things that we don’t like,” Brown tells the Globe, on the line from Detroit. “Or even do things that cause harm. That we can dispose of each other and that will dispose of the problem.”

In We Will Not Cancel Us, the community organizer argues that the “call-out,” or cancellation, has a long history in social-justice movements and is an important tool for marginalized people to demand accountability. But these days, she writes, call-outs can sometimes feel like a feeding frenzy. “We are determining that someone is guilty based on hearsay, a lot of times,” she says. “We’re not hearing everything that’s happened, and we’re not giving people the room to recover, to apologize, to respond.” Read More > at The Globe and Mail

State Population By Race, Ethnicity Data – The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) is an annual survey about the nation and its people, including information about occupations, education, veterans, home ownership and transportation. This article uses data from the 2019 ACS that was released on Oct. 15, 2020, which is the most current data available. (Also see the 2017 ACS data.)

The latest Census Bureau estimates suggest about 30 percent of Americans identify as racial or ethnic minorities. Nationally, the largest racial demographic groups as of 2019 were:

  • White, alone: 72 percent
  • Black or African American, alone: 12 percent
  • American Indian and Alaska Native, alone: 0.9 percent
  • Asian, alone: 5.7 percent
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, alone: 0.2 percent
  • Some other race alone: 5 percent
  • Two or more races: 3.4 percent

Separately, Hispanics of any race accounted for 19 percent of the U.S. population. Read More > at Governing 

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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