Sunday Reading – 04/25/2021


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.

More taxpayer rebates on the way? – California is so flush with money that it may be forced to issue taxpayer rebates for only the second time in state history — but this rare occurrence is poised to become a lot more frequent, according to a Wednesday report from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office. Current law prevents California from spending more tax revenue per resident than it did in 1978, when adjusted for inflation, and requires any surplus revenue to be split between schools and taxpayer rebates. But as the gap between California’s rich and poor residents grows wider and voters approve ballot measures that hike taxes, among other factors, the state is increasingly likely to collect more tax revenue than it is authorized to spend. That excess revenue could top $10 billion by 2024-25, according to the legislative analyst. “As a result, we anticipate the Legislature will need to make — potentially major — changes to the state budget in the coming years,” the office wrote.

  • The legislative analyst“For example, this year, the Legislature could decide to issue refunds and provide additional funding to schools. This response might not be sustainable over the long term, however. As existing program costs increase, revenues available for appropriation could be insufficient to meet current service levels. Consequently, changes to the state’s revenues and expenditures” — taxes and programs — “would be required.” Read More > at CalMatters

A Young Autistic Pennsylvania Lawmaker Overcomes the Odds – When Jessica Benham talks to her fellow members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, she avoids eye contact, focusing instead on their foreheads. That’s not just a personality quirk. It’s a function of autism. “Some of the things that I do to cope are not noticeable to other people,” she says. “Or they might think are a little odd.” Even so, she manages not to feel entirely out of place in the Legislature. “I don’t think you can look at state legislators,” she jokes, “and think ‘these are the most socially graceful people ever.’”

“I’m not disabled because I’m autistic,” she insists. “I’m disabled because of the way the world treats autistic people. I often have to overcome people’s preconceptions before I can do other things. That’s my life. And I’m good at it.” When she took the oath of office as a freshman Democrat earlier this year, Benham became the first openly autistic person to serve in any legislature in the United States. “I didn’t run to be the first of anything,” she says. “I ran to make a difference.”

She is distinctive from her colleagues in one other way: She is bisexual. A 30-year-old bisexual autistic female might seem to many an unlikely candidate for office. There was a time when Benham would have agreed. “People do not often look at a queer disabled woman and see leadership,” she says.

After earning degrees in political science and communication studies from Bethel University in Minnesota, her mother’s alma mater, Benham went on to receive an M.A. in communication from Minnesota State, and an M.A. in bioethics from the University of Pittsburgh, where she also taught for several years. Read More > at Governing

The Postal Service is running a ‘covert operations program’ that monitors Americans’ social media posts – The law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service has been quietly running a program that tracks and collects Americans’ social media posts, including those about planned protests, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News.

The details of the surveillance effort, known as iCOP, or Internet Covert Operations Program, have not previously been made public. The work involves having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as “inflammatory” postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.

When contacted by Yahoo News, civil liberties experts expressed alarm at the post office’s surveillance program. “It’s a mystery,” said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, whom President Barack Obama appointed to review the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks. “I don’t understand why the government would go to the Postal Service for examining the internet for security issues.”

“This seems a little bizarre,” agreed Rachel Levinson-Waldman, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s liberty and national security program. “Based on the very minimal information that’s available online, it appears that [iCOP] is meant to root out misuse of the postal system by online actors, which doesn’t seem to encompass what’s going on here. It’s not at all clear why their mandate would include monitoring of social media that’s unrelated to use of the postal system.” Read More > at Yahoo! News

Drought emergency inflames political tensions – Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a regional drought emergency Wednesday, but stopped short of issuing a statewide proclamation or mandating water conservation measures — a decision that drew ire from some lawmakers.

Newsom’s emergency declaration applies to the Russian River watershed, which spans Sonoma and Mendocino counties and serves hundreds of thousands of Californians. The region relies on rainfall and is isolated from state and federal aqueducts, making it especially vulnerable to the drought parching California. Newsom’s order authorizes state agencies to restrict the amount of water diverted from the river and speed up contracts for certain services, such as relocating endangered fish stranded in drying puddles, CalMatters’ Rachel Becker reports.

Although the declaration also calls for a number of statewide actions — such as improved monitoring of groundwater pumping and reporting of dry wells — it wasn’t enough to satisfy lawmakers who have repeatedly called on Newsom to declare a state drought emergency and ensure Central Valley farmers receive enough water.

  • State Sen. Scott Wilk, a Santa Clarita Republican: “While the overwhelming majority of the state is experiencing extreme drought conditions, Governor Newsom has chosen to only serve his French Laundry wine and cheese crowd.”
  • Newsom: “We need to … approach the challenges with a laser-like recognition that you can’t focus this state as a one-size-fits-all solution, meaning we have to target our solutions regionally.”

The governor added that he will “add other counties to that list as necessary … based upon actual conditions on the ground.” He also said it isn’t yet necessary to mandate water conservation, noting that Californians in urban areas are using 16% less water than they were at the start of the last major drought in 2012. Nevertheless, a major Bay Area water agency — which receives about 25% of its water from reservoirs on the Russian River — on Tuesday approved mandatory water restrictions for its 200,000 residents.

Tensions are also rising on the Oregon-California border, where the federal government recently told farmers they will only get a tiny portion of the water they need even as endangered fish remain at risk. Read More > at CalMatters

Column: Newsom recall is serious — and may turn bizarre – Gov. Gavin Newsom appears certain to face a recall election later this year and once it qualifies for the ballot, as it is expected to do, the intense level of attention the campaign has received so far will pale in comparison to what comes next.

A flood of candidates are expected to run to replace Newsom. The list of announced and potential candidates is growing almost daily and ranges from former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox to Olympic gold medalist and transgender icon Caitlyn Jenner to former adult film actress Mary Carey.

Recall election voters will face two questions: Should Newsom be removed from office? Who should replace him?

If the governor is recalled, which requires a majority vote, the candidate with the most votes replaces him. That could be a relatively small number. With a likely large field, some analysts predict a candidate could become governor with between 20 percent and 30 percent of the vote.

It’s pretty easy to get on the ballot. A replacement candidate can either pay about $4,000 in filing fees — $500 more than in 2003 — or collect 7,000 valid signatures and submit them two months before the election.

poll released March 30 by the Public Policy Institute of California had Newsom’s job approval at 53 percent among likely voters. Only 40 percent said they would vote to recall him while 56 percent said they would not. The state budget has a burgeoning surplus. Read More > in The San Diego Union-Tribune

Caitlyn Jenner announces run for governor of California: ‘I’m in!’ – Reality television star Caitlyn Jenner announced plans Friday to run for governor of California.

“I’m in! California is worth fighting for,” Jenner tweeted.

Jenner, a Republican, also filed paperwork to seek the governorship and has hired several well-known Republican operatives to guide her burgeoning campaign.

She’s hoping to unseat Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces an all-but-certain recall election later this year. Read More > at Fox News

Judge Says All of Skid Row’s Homeless Must Be Offered Shelter by Fall – The city and county of Los Angeles have about 180 days to secure shelter for the entire homeless population of skid row. That mandate came from Judge David O. Carter, who sided with a group of homeowners and business owners in a lawsuit against the city and county Tuesday.

In his scathing opinion, Judge Carter said that “Los Angeles has lost its parks, beaches, schools, sidewalks, and highway systems due to the inaction of city and county officials who have left our homeless citizens with no other place to turn.” He blamed officials for focusing on building permanent housing — an inherently slow process — at the expense of offering temporary shelter.

“All of the rhetoric, promises, plans, and budgeting cannot obscure the shameful reality of this crisis — that year after year, there are more homeless Angelenos, and year after year, more homeless Angelenos die on the streets,” the judge said. Once temporary shelter is offered, the city will be permitted to enforce laws keeping its streets and sidewalks free of encampments, he added.

The county had asked to be removed from the lawsuit, arguing it is already doing enough to address the crisis. Both city and county officials say they are now considering an appeal. Read More > at California County News

Public school enrollment hits 20-year low – California’s public schools lost more than 160,000 students amid the pandemic, the largest enrollment drop in two decades and a likely harbinger of serious educational and financial challenges.

The sharp 2.6% decline, announced Thursday by the California Department of Education, doesn’t capture the full effects of the pandemic. The enrollment tally comes from a one-day headcount in October and doesn’t include students who may have left the public school system afterward. But the drop is already steeper than the 155,000-student decline state officials were projecting in January. And it’s disproportionately affecting the state’s youngest students: 88% of the drop occurred in kindergarten to sixth grade, while public preschool enrollment fell by more than 6,000 students.

  • State Superintendent Tony Thurmond“While there are many reasons to stay optimistic that enrollment will rebound as conditions improve … we must also help schools identify opportunities to engage with families who either sought new options for their students during the pandemic or need additional resources and support.”

California’s public school enrollment was already decreasing before the pandemic, partly due to slowing population growth. But it also appears that many parents decided to pull their kids out of public school as the Golden State continued to offer its students the least amount of in-person learning in the country. Charter schools saw their enrollment jump by more than 15,000 students amid the pandemic, according to state data. Meanwhile, some families decided to hold off on school altogether. Potentially tens of thousands more children than usual will enter first grade next school year without having been through kindergarten, stretching an already strained system even tighter.

  • Lorin Yin, a San Francisco public school parent“There’s no version of this where we would have voluntarily left the school. I feel pushed out of the school system. I feel like I’m not fleeing it, I feel like I’m being kicked out.”

Districts aren’t at risk of losing state funding due to declining enrollment until the 2022-23 school year. But after that, smaller rosters could cause state funding to drop by $10,000 per student or more. Read More > at CalMatters

America Is Short of Home Builders as Well as Homes – America needs more houses. But there aren’t as many home builders around to make them as there used to be.

The Commerce Department on Friday reported that construction began on 1.74 million homes in March, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate. That was a big move up from February’s 1.46 million housing starts, when winter storms stifled construction, and marked the highest level since July 2006, when the housing bubble was coming undone.

The stepped-up pace of building reflects a remarkable resurgence in the housing market that the Covid-19 crisis set off, as low interest rates and city dwellers flocking to the suburbs substantially boosted demand. There could be some bumps ahead, since rates have been trending higher, and some demand was likely pulled forward by families who would have eventually exited cities in any case.

But a combination of a growing economy, more Millennials starting families and changes in where people and businesses can locate as a result of the remote-work revolution suggest that the need for new homes will only increase. Freddie Mac estimates that as of the end of last year the country was 3.8 million single-family homes short of what is needed to meet long-term demand.

Before the housing bubble burst, that demand would have been easier to meet. There were far more home builders then, particularly speculative builders who build homes without a guaranteed buyer. In the tally of U.S. businesses it conducts every five years, the Census Bureau in 2007 counted 32,158 spec builders operating in the country. In 2017, it counted 15,483. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

California Has Seen a Staggering Amount of Unemployment Fraud During the Pandemic – This is one of the most infuriating scandals ever to plague our state. The department, which is responsible for paying out unemployment insurance claims, has been incapable of paying legitimate claims even as it has paid as much as $31 billion in fraudulent ones, often to inmates. Think about those staggering losses. They would be enough to make a dent in any number of the state’s infrastructure, budgetary, and debt-related problems.

The stories are as unbelievable as the Weekly World News‘ latest Elvis sighting. Here’s a desk-pounder from CBS Los Angeles: “A Fresno girl who just celebrated her first birthday is collecting $167 per week in unemployment benefits after a claim was filed on her behalf stating that she was an unemployed actor.”

The Southern California News Group reported last month that one man “is suspected of using the identities of 23 inmates and others to obtain more than $3 million in state unemployment benefits.”

Approximately 10 percent of the paid claims have been fraudulent, with another 17 percent under suspicion. This will be “the largest fraud investigation in the history of America,” according to one expert interviewed by CALmatters. Part of the blame, it notes, is from “the state’s own failure to cross-check unemployment applications with prison rolls.” Read More > at Reason

Hundreds of U.S. scientists feared compromised by China – More than 500 federally funded scientists are under investigation for being compromised by China and other foreign powers, the National Institutes of Health revealed Thursday.

The federal health officials told a Senate committee that they are fighting to keep up with large-scale Chinese efforts to corrupt American researchers and steal intellectual property that scientists hope will lead to biomedical advances.

China has targeted research throughout the economy from corn growers to cancer researchers. Last year, Dr. Lauer said, more than 90% of the scientists under investigation had received support from China.

U.S. officials also have sounded the alarm that China has tried to hack COVID-19 research and is intent on pilfering U.S. science and technology because it believes American innovation will enable it to overtake the U.S. as a global superpower. Read More > in The Washington Times

China launches app to report people with ‘mistaken opinions’China has launched a mobile application for citizens to report online comments against the ruling Communist Party and the country’s history ahead of the party’s upcoming 100th anniversary.

The new programme allows internet users to report those who spread “mistaken opinions” online in order to create a “good public opinion atmosphere”, an arm of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) said in a notice.

The offences that can be reported include “distorting” the party’s history, or any comments against its leaders and policies, defaming national heroes and “denying the excellence of advanced socialist culture”, the notice said.

The phrase “historical nihilism” is often used in China to describe questions and doubts over the history of the country that the Communist Party propagates.

Earlier this year, China also passed legal amendments against those who “insult, slander or infringe upon” the memory of China’s national heroes and martyrs, setting a jail time of up to three years. Read More > at the Independent

Why A Free People Cannot Exist Without Free Speech – Free speech is perhaps the most important liberty Americans enjoy. People exercise it every day without even thinking about it, and for good reason it is mentioned in the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But free speech is more than just the words in the Bill of Rights. Before there was a law, there was the idea of free speech. The law limits the government to protect the right, but does not define the right.

More than simply a legal issue, free speech is a part of American culture—an important distinction. If free speech meant only the words in the Constitution, if all it guaranteed were that the government could not jail us for our words, it would be a dead letter. Governments across the world guarantee rights in their laws yet violate them daily.

Indeed, free speech was not invented in 1791. The law only codifies what the Founders and their contemporaries already believed: that a free people must be allowed to openly express themselves, and that the cure for bad ideas is good ideas, not censorship.

The First Amendment is essential, but the American people believe in the principle of free speech. That includes more than just being free of government punishment. It includes the idea that no power — be it government, corporation, or mob — should be able to suppress the free exchange of ideas. Read More > in The Federalist

Work from home forever? After COVID, Californians want to ditch daily commutes, survey says – Californians who swapped mind-numbing traffic and packed trains for “commutes” to a home office or living room don’t want to go back to their old daily grind.

That’s according to a University of Southern California survey released Monday, which found more than half of those surveyed who are now telecommuting want to keep working from home at least three days a week after the pandemic ends. Just 18% are hoping they’ll go back to in-person work every day.

The survey, from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the California Emerging Technology Fund, looked at the impact access to broadband Internet has had on people’s ability to work, learn and conduct doctor’s visits remotely.

Like other research on remote working during the pandemic, the survey found wealthier workers are more likely to telecommute — those who were considered “low-income,” meaning they earned less than 200% of the federal poverty level, were twice as likely to report they are working in-person five days per week compared to higher earners. Just over half of people with access to broadband Internet were working at least some of the time from home.

Almost one-third of current telecommuters, 31%, say they would be happy working from home five days a week if they had that option. Read More > in The Mercury News

State preschool program lags behind – Despite spending $1 billion more on preschool than the next highest-spending state, California is falling behind in preschool access and quality, according to an annual report released Monday by the National Institute for Early Education Research. California ranked 15th nationally for preschool access in 2019-20, a step down from 14th place the year before. The report found that the Golden State would need to create around 500,000 new preschool seats to reach 90% of 3- and 4-year-olds. As it was, California’s preschool enrollment fell by more than 6,000 students amid the pandemic — a drop also seen in kindergarten and K-12 enrollment. Quality is also a concern: The state’s preschool program only met six of 10 quality standards and its transitional kindergarten program only met three standards, while six states met all 10 standards.

Newsom’s administration in December released a master plan for early learning and child care, including universal preschool for all 4-year-olds and universal preschool for all 3-year-olds with disabilities or from low-income families. But the proposal was light on details of how the state would create and pay for such programs. Read More > at CalMatters

Can Schools Punish Kids for Off-Campus Snapchats? – In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited public school officials from punishing students for exercising their First Amendment rights on school grounds unless the speech at issue “would materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline and in the operation of the school.” This year, the Court will hear arguments in a new case that asks whether that rule should be interpreted to let school officials punish students for off-campus social media posts.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. originated in 2017, when a high school freshman and junior varsity cheerleader went on Snapchat to complain about her failure to make the varsity cheerleading squad. The student—known by the initials B.L. because she is a minor—posted a picture of herself and one of her friends with their middle fingers raised. The post went up on a Saturday, accompanied by this message: “f–k school f–k softball f–k cheer f–k everything.” That post soon came to the attention of a cheerleading coach, which led to B.L.’s suspension from the squad.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled that the school was prohibited from imposing that sort of punishment for constitutionally protected speech. “Tinker does not apply to off-campus speech—that is, speech that is outside school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels and that is not reasonably interpreted as bearing the school’s imprimatur,” the appeals court held.

The Mahanoy Area School District wants the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling. Social media and related new technology act “as a megaphone for off-campus speech, ensuring that it reverberates throughout the classroom and commands the school’s attention,” the district’s lawyers told the justices. But thanks to the 3rd Circuit, school officials have been left with no authority “to discipline students for off-campus speech, no matter how obvious it is that the speech is directed at the school and will significantly disrupt the school environment.” Read More > at Reason

Renewable Energy Boom Risks More Blackouts Without Adequate Investment In Grid Reliability – In recent congressional hearings, political leaders pointed to recent electricity blackouts in Texas and California caused by extreme weather as reasons for why the federal government should increase taxpayer subsidies and mandates for renewable energy sources. 

But that’s a hair-of-the-dog cure that’s unlikely to work. Both the heat-driven August 2020 electricity shortage in California, and the cold-driven February 2021 shortage in Texas, were caused in large part by over-reliance, not under-reliance, on weather-dependent renewables like solar panels and wind turbines. As demonstrated by the temporary freeze-up of even nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants during the Texas coldsnap, what the grid needs more reliable baseload generation — not more intermittant supplies. Without infeasibly massive investments in battery storage and other load smoothing technologies, Federal policies that force states to become more reliant on renewables will only increase the probability and frequency of blackouts. 

In California, state electricity regulators over-relied on solar panels, despite warnings from the state’s grid operator that doing so was dangerous, since most of the state’s peak electricity use occurs during and after the sunset…

Over the last decade in Texas, investors sunk over $53 billion on weather-dependent energy sources, mostly wind turbines, which alongside frozen fossil fuel plants were largely unavailable during the cold snap in February. That was only partly because of the cold and mostly because of low wind speeds. The costs of the blackout, which lasted for days, will end up costing Texans nearly $200 billion.

Renewables don’t have to cause blackouts. Germany generated 37.5% of its electricity last year from wind and solar and didn’t suffer from a decline in electricity reliability. California would have avoided its blackouts had it not shut down a large nuclear plant and several natural gas power plants over the last decade. Texas may have avoided the blackouts had state regulators simply required, or compensated, natural gas suppliers to winterize their equipment while verifying that work had been completed.  Read More > at Forbes 

Ditch Google for good with these apps and gadgets – From smartphones to maps, Google has a gadget or an app for almost any job. Perhaps you haven’t realized it, but you can easily have the company’s software and hardware looking after most aspects of your life, including your schedule, communications, home, digital memories, and much more. 

But maybe you don’t want so many dealings with an internet giant keen to collect as much data about you as possible. 

Whether you disagree with Google’s ad targeting, its company ethics, software design, or something else, know that you have options. 

Vivaldi instead of Google Chrome

Google’s browser is packed with plenty of features, but Vivaldi might just have even more: it’s customizable, free, speedy, and smart. 

You get tab stacking for keeping related web pages close together, built-in note taking for those sprawling research projects, and a clever tab tiling mechanism to avoid having to open up window after window. You’ll also get support for mouse gestures to browse the web with a swipe, and a lot of options for changing the look of the browser. 

As you’re probably aware, Google keeps a close watch on what you’re searching for and likes to stuff its results pages with plenty of ads in case they might get you to buy something. 

In contrast, DuckDuckGo prides itself on how little it knows about you. It also keeps its non-targeted ads down to a minimum—which you can easily turn off completely as well.  Read More > at Popular Science

How anarchists captured Portland – The sign is Petunia’s special take on a Portlandian phenomenon that my wife Heather has come to call a “don’t-hurt-me wall” — a now-widespread attempt by local business owners to make anarchists think twice before vandalising their shop or café.

“We are a small, women and locally owned business,” Petunia’s sign pleads. “We are struggling like so many of us in this hard time, and love our community. Please don’t cause us any damage.” Welcome to Portland; the progressive dream that has turned into a nightmare.

…But its attempt to reason with the anarchists — by highlighting how it is a struggling small business, locally owned and run entirely by women — speaks volumes about day-to-day life in my home city, where negotiating with vandals has become an essential skill. Indeed, Portland is full of signs in windows and on lawns pleading with anarchists to move on and hurt someone else. These residents know they cannot depend on the police to either prevent crimes or arrest those who commit them, and who can’t manage to come together and face down a small but violent mob of misanthropes.

The streets of downtown Portland, once a bustling home to independent boutiques, are now lined with boarded-over windows and closed businesses. No neighbourhood is secure from the current wave of terror; the breaking of shop fronts, arson and harassment of sleeping citizens in their homes are all commonplace.

…So long as rioters claim to fight for the oppressed, they appear to have carte blanche. If they decide they don’t like this article, if they come to my house to menace my family as they have done to Andy Ngo, Mayor Wheeler and countless anonymous citizens of Portland, will the police intercede? I honestly don’t know.

The truth is, I rarely see any evidence of even basic law enforcement here in Portland. The police are extremely slow to respond to emergency calls. The citizens and businesses have, over the last year, been left to fend for themselves against criminals thinly cloaked in progressive slogans. And given the way the Mayor and City Council have undercut the police and allowed them to be demonised by the anarchists, it is easy to understand their reluctance — they are doing a difficult job, under a microscope, where only their mistakes count. Read More > at UnHerd

The Failed Promise of Organic Foods – It’s useful to remember what the “organic” designation was – and was not – meant to be. The goal was simply to fortify trust in the fast-growing but fragmented organic food market. “Let me be clear about one thing,” said Dan Glickman, the Clinton Administration’s Secretary of Agriculture who oversaw the organics designation. “It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

The key determinant of whether something qualifies as organic is something rather mundane: the production method. For crops, the origin of the seed is key — it must be organically grown and cannot be the product of genetic engineering (e.g. GMOs or gene editing). There is a widespread impression that organic food is grown without chemicals – and seemingly-credible outlets contribute to this impression.

The reality is that all farmers – both organic and conventional – use both chemical and non-chemical containment methods. More than 100 fertilizers and inputs (pesticides, insecticides or fungicides) are authorized by organic farming regulations in both Europe and the United States. Read More > at Real Clear Markets

The Government Is Making Us Fat and Susceptible to Viruses – In all the coronavirus coverage, one issue that rarely makes the headlines is the correlation between body weight and the severity of COVID-19’s effects. And one angle that virtually never makes the headlines is how the government funds the unhealthy foods that increase obesity rates, thereby increasing our susceptibility to such diseases.

Last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study showing that nearly 80 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 were overweight or obese. After age, body weight is the second greatest predictor of COVID-related hospitalization and death. Almost three quarters of all Americans ages 20 and up are overweight, and close to half of that group is considered obese.

That might be one of the reasons why Asian countries whose populations have low body mass indexes (BMI) have fewer deaths per capita from COVID-19, while the United States has one of the highest death rates from the virus in the world.

…Not only is the U. S. government not making any efforts to reduce the obesity epidemic, it is actively subsidizing food that contributes to the problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that people fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables, yet the vast majority of its food subsidies—$170 billion from 1995 to 2010—go toward the major ingredients of junk food, such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, and milk.

The resulting susceptibility to disease goes well beyond the current pandemic. In 2018, JAMA reported that poor diet is the number one cause of chronic disease in the United States. Small wonder, given that more than 122 million Americans are diabetic or prediabetic, 240 million are overweight or obese, and nearly 60 percent have some form of cardiovascular disease. Read More > at Reason

Science isn’t necessary to decide on getting the COVID-19 vaccine – In the debate over whether one should – or should not – get a COVID vaccine much has been said about the “science.” However, I’m not sure any encyclopedic knowledge of “science” is required to make this health decision. Simple statistical analysis should suffice to inform one’s ultimate decision.

Statistics is primarily a study of probabilities. Fortunately, as it regards COVID mortality rates, these probabilities are now known. That is, COVID mortality statistics broken down by age cohorts are now “known knowables.”

For example, through statistics as of April 7, the odds an American under the age of 25 would die from COVID were 1-in-106,217. On the extreme other end of the age spectrum, the odds an American 85 or older would die from the disease were an eye-opening 1-in-39.4. (Not surprisingly, albeit under-reported, the largest category of COVID victims by age cohort is Americans 85 and older).

This means that the probability a person in our country’s oldest age cohort (85 and older) will die from or with COVID is 2,696 times greater than the nation’s youngest citizens (those under the age of 25).

One’s race and whether one would qualify as obese are other important variables that either increase or reduce one’s mortality risks of COVID. As I’ve learned in my research, mortality among minority populations is significantly higher than non-minorities. I also recently learned that 68 percent of COVID victims met the medical definition of “obese.”

That is, one’s age, race, as well as one’s “body mass index” are all crucial variables in correctly calculating one’s own specific “risks” of dying of COVID-19. And, again, “health risks” CAN be quantified when seeking to calculate one’s own probability of dying from COVID. Read More > at AL

It’s About Time for Us to Stop Wearing Masks Outside – But now, as we’ve come to know more about the virus, as vaccinations are ramping up, and as we’re trying to figure out how to live with some level of COVID in a sustainable way, masking up outside when you’re at most briefly crossing paths with people is starting to feel barely understandable. Look: I believe masks (and even shaming) are indispensable in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Despite early waffling, public health experts are virtually unanimously in support of them and have remained so even as our early dedication to scrubbing surfaces and Cloroxing veggies wound down.

In other words, as the pandemic has progressed, so has our understanding of what safety measures are truly most useful, and which aren’t worth the alcohol wipes. And I would like to calmly suggest that now is the time we should consider no longer wearing masks when we walk around outside.

When it comes to coronavirus spread, evidence shows that being outdoors is very, very safe. A paper published in Indoor Air looked at 1,245 cases in China and found just one instance of outdoor transmission, which involved people having a conversation, which means they had to be close to one another for some period of time and face to face. According to data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, shared earlier this month with the Irish Times, of 232,164 cases in Ireland, just 262 were associated with “locations which are primarily associated with outdoor activities.” That is, about 0.1 percent. A meta-analysis published online in November in the Journal of Infectious Diseases suggests it’s possible the upper bound of cases potentially contracted outdoors is higher; it estimates that the total is less than 10 percent. When I called Nooshin Razani, an author on that report and an associate professor of  epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco, she emphasized that the real number of instances of outdoor transmission was “probably lower” than 10 percent, since the cases she and her team counted were sometimes murky: cases that occurred at construction sites, or summer camps where people were sharing bunks. That is, these scenarios likely involved some indoor time as well. They also tended to involve people who were spending time together over a period of days. “Most of the cases that happened outdoors had something about the circumstances you could point to and say, ‘That was a risk,’ ” says Razani. Just one case involved joggers—who were jogging together. Still, Razani said she couldn’t comment on whether it was OK to go maskless on a sidewalk where you’re able to mostly, but not perfectly, stay distanced from others. In an article in National Geographic by science writer Tara Haelle, other experts note that yes, we have data that the outdoors is very safe, and yet, if you can’t distance, even briefly, you might want to pull up your mask, partly out of respect, and also just to be safe. Read More > at Slate

Why We Need to Electrify America’s School Bus Fleet – The diesel exhaust emitted by America’s some 480,000 school buses is especially harmful for the growing lungs of the 26 million children they transport every school day. Levels of pollution are even worse inside the bus than outside on the roadway, and recent studies have shown that the fleet’s emissions can be associated with higher rates of school absenteeism and lower test scores. This impact is particularly concerning for children of color who live in communities that already experience dangerous levels of pollution and therefore high asthma rates.

School bus fumes are also harmful to workers and neighborhoods. Every school day, drivers, attendants and maintenance technicians are exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution on the bus, in parking lots and at service yards. This pollution spreads into the neighborhoods where these buses idle, which, as activists in New York have documented, are predominantly low-income communities of color that already suffer severe air pollution. As a result of these environmental factors, Black children are twice as likely to suffer from asthma and experience disproportionately higher rates of school absenteeism. It’s partly due to this air-pollution exposure over a lifespan that people of color are more likely to die from COVID-19.

There is a better way. Electric school buses are free of tailpipe emissions, and the technology is now effective and reliable. It’s time to make the transition from smoke-belching school buses to emission-free vehicles powered by electricity. Read More > at Governing

Police say they found mafia fugitive on YouTube, posting cooking tutorials – An alleged mafia fugitive hiding from Italian police in the Dominican Republic was arrested after being spotted showing off his cooking skills in instructional videos he posted on YouTube, according to news reports.

Marc Feren Claude Biart, an alleged member of the ‘Ndrangheta criminal organization based in southern Italy, reportedly hid his face in the cooking videos but failed to hide his tattoos, leading to his identification. The man had been hiding since law enforcement “ordered Biart’s arrest in 2014 for criminal drug trafficking on behalf of the ‘Ndrangheta’s Cacciola clan,” according to The Washington Post.

The 53-year-old Biart didn’t keep his recipes secret but “was always careful to hide his face in his Italian cooking tutorials, filming the YouTube videos while laying low from police on a sandy beach in the Caribbean,” the Post wrote. It’s not clear whether the videos are still online, but Biart and his wife “appeared to have uploaded several cooking tutorials for Italian recipes to YouTube, including ones where Biart’s tattoos were visible,” the Post wrote. Read More > at ars Technica

Omega-3 supplements do double duty in protecting against stress – A high daily dose of an omega-3 supplement may help slow the effects of aging by suppressing damage and boosting protection at the cellular level during and after a stressful event, new research suggests.

Researchers at The Ohio State University found that daily supplements that contained 2.5 grams of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, the highest dose tested, were the best at helping the body resist the damaging effects of stress.

Compared to the placebo group, participants taking omega-3 supplements produced less of the stress hormone cortisol and lower levels of a pro-inflammatory protein during a stressful event in the lab. And while levels of protective compounds sharply declined in the placebo group after the stressor, there were no such decreases detected in people taking omega-3s.

The supplements contributed to what the researchers call stress resilience: reduction of harm during stress and, after acute stress, sustained anti-inflammatory activity and protection of cell components that shrink as a consequence of aging. Read More > at Medical Xpress

Country Cat, City Catphoto essay – Bobcats (Lynx rufus) are without question my favorite species to watch and photograph. That passion has led me to observe the same bobcats over years, including a truly special mother who has raised multiple litters of kittens in a suburban environment. Bobcats live throughout the Bay Area, and the march of development into their habitat has forced them to adapt to an increasingly urban life. Relatively few bobcat population studies exist, but a recent one on bobcats south of San José found them in low-to-medium-density housing areas, while the cats were less likely to be in areas with more than five houses per roughly 2.5 acres. Other small studies in Northern California suggest bobcat populations face a multitude of threats, although recent California bans on trapping, hunting, and use of rodenticides that can kill bobcats have offered some protection. How do bobcats adapt to living in suburban settings and raise their kittens surrounded by humans?

The leap | Locating a rodent under the ice plant, the mother bobcat leaps to pounce on her prey. Here, she missed her quarry, but a talented hunter like this mother is successful in approximately one in three attempts. Bobcats often hunt in late afternoon, and their strategies include leaping in the air and coming down on the prey, lunging horizontally across the top of a gopher hole, or plunging a paw into a hole. Bobcats typically kill their prey with a bite to the back of the neck or the throat. Rodenticides can kill bobcats when they consume poisoned prey and can increase their susceptibility to mange (parasitic mites). These poisons, banned in California for consumer use in 2014, were also outlawed here for commercial use, with a narrow range of exceptions, as of January 1, 2021. Read More > at Bay Nature

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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