Sunday Reading – 05/02/2021

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.

California home prices hit record high – Never has it cost so much to buy a house in California.

The median price for a single-family home shot up to a staggering $758,990 in March — a nearly 6% increase from the previous record of $717,930 set in December and a whopping 24% increase from March 2020, according to figures released Friday by the state Department of Finance. It’s at least the sixth time the Golden State’s housing market has broken its own record amid the pandemic — it did so five times in 2020 alone, cracking the $700,000 median price mark for the first time in August.

Meanwhile, housing production has strayed farther and farther from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s campaign goal of building 500,000 units annually as the state’s homeless population swells to record levels. California approved permits for 102,800 new housing units in 2020 — an 8.8% decrease from 2019, itself a 3.8% decrease from 2018. Lawmakers are currently considering a raft of bills to increase affordable housing production after similar efforts faltered in past years.

Further complicating matters, California’s eviction moratorium — which expires in two months — is structured in such a way that an untold number of residents are falling through the cracks, CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias reports. For example, tenants who owe money directly to landlords are eligible for relief, but not tenants who took out loans to pay their rent in full. And relief is conditional on landlords giving the OK — which they may be disincentivized to do, particularly for rent-controlled apartments.

California loses congressional seat for first time – For the first time in its 171-year history, California’s political voice is about to get a little quieter.

After months of delay, the U.S. Census Bureau today released new population estimates for each state. The bad news for California: It loses a seat in Congress, down from 53 House districts to 52.

The worse news: Not only does that mean the state will have one fewer representative in the House, it also means one fewer vote in the Electoral College that decides the presidency and proportionately less of the $1.5 trillion in federal money distributed by population each year. 

Maybe the hardest news to take of all: While California is seeing its national stature shrink ever-so-slightly, that power is being shunted to our faster-growing rivals, Texas (which adds two seats) and Florida (which gets one). In all, seven House seats will shift among 13 states, the smallest change since 1941.   

The federal government is required to conduct the census every ten years. That data is used to dice the country up into 435 roughly equally sized congressional districts. Read More > at CalMatters

PPIC: California’s stalled population growth – The state’s population growth has been slowing for at least 20 years, but growth came to an effective stop between 2019 and 2020, increasing just 0.05%.

Demographers break population growth into natural increase—births minus deaths—and net migration—the flow in minus the flow out. Recent trends are being driven by slowdowns in both categories: the state’s population is aging as its birth rates decline, and net migration has turned negative in the past few years, after almost a decade of growth. CDC data shows that deaths accelerated dramatically in the second half of 2020 during the strongest COVID surge, and births are also down. The CDC’s July 2021 report may show that natural increase—which has been slowing down for many years—took a sharp downturn during the pandemic.

Net migration can be divided into international and domestic flows, and most of the recent migration shift is domestic: a function of residents leaving California for other states. While immigration from other countries has declined, it has not changed nearly as much. Nor are these patterns really new. In most of the past 30 years, domestic migrants moving to other states have been replaced by immigration from other countries. What is relatively new is a domestic outflow large enough to be a drag on the state’s overall population growth, with net outflows of about 170,000, 240,000, and 260,000 in each of the past three years. Read More > at Capitol Weekly

California Is Awash in Cash, Thanks to a Booming Market – As the pandemic raged last May, California was reeling. Spending on unemployment assistance and health care had jumped, while tax revenues were on the verge of cratering. State officials, just months earlier counting on a $5.6 billion budget surplus, now anticipated a $54 billion shortfall. Severe cuts would be needed, making an already frightening recession even worse.

Then Wall Street came to the Golden State’s rescue.

The stock market, after a steep but brief downturn in March 2020, has soared to new heights, prompting a record number of companies — many of them based in California — to go public. The rising market minted new millionaires and padded the incomes of the state’s wealthiest residents, who typically own a lot of stock. And for California, that meant a windfall. Its taxes on such stock-based gains are the highest of any state, and its largest revenue source is personal income taxes.

According to its most recent forecast, California is expecting a roughly $15 billion budget surplus next fiscal year, which runs from July through June. It is putting money into its rainy-day fund and is expected to reverse some cuts, including to the wages of state workers, which were imposed just a few months ago. The state is so flush that it is running its own stimulus program, writing one-time checks of $600 or $1,200 to poorer households and spending some $2 billion on aid for small businesses. Read More > in The New York Times

San Francisco Contends With a Different Sort of Epidemic: Drug Deaths – More people died from overdoses than from the coronavirus in San Francisco last year. Some think the toll, tied to homelessness, should force the city to re-examine its approach to illicit drugs.

The drugs killed them in plain view — in front of the public library, at the spot on Powell Street where the cable car used to turn around. Others died alone in single-room apartments or in camping tents pitched on the pavement, each death adding to an overdose crisis that is one of the worst in the nation.

Drug overdoses rose across the country during the coronavirus pandemic. But in San Francisco, they skyrocketed, claiming 713 lives last year, more than double the 257 people here who died of the virus in 2020.

San Francisco’s overdose death rate is higher than West Virginia, the state with the most severe crisis, and three times the rates of New York and Los Angeles. Although overdose data from the past year is incomplete, one researcher found that San Francisco — where overdoses have more than tripled since 2017 — has more overdoses per capita than any major city on the West Coast.

The drug deaths in San Francisco — about two a day — stem from a confluence of despair. Fentanyl, an opioid that was not a severe problem for the city just a few years ago, has fully permeated its illicit drug market and was a factor in most overdoses last year. A culture of relative tolerance toward drug use has allowed it to spread quickly. And fentanyl, much more powerful than heroin, has found fertile ground among the city’s thousands of homeless residents, who have died of overdoses in large numbers.

Unlike areas in the rural Midwest that have also been devastated by fentanyl, San Francisco has a well-funded and sophisticated public health system. The overdose crisis is calling into question the city’s nonjudgmental tolerance of illicit drugs and adequacy of its programs that focus on providing users with clean needles and medication to reverse overdoses. Read More > in The New York Times

Blighted San Francisco Diagnoses Its ‘Perilous Trifecta’ — and Bungles the Cure – San Francisco is coming undone. In recent years, the city has manifested a series of visible and persistent inequalities, with a spoils-to-the-victor world for its technological elite, and a chaotic, brutalized world for its dispossessed. In the city’s Tenderloin district, men openly hawk drugs on the street corners, desperate addicts are crumpled across the sidewalks, and first responders dart through the chaos to revive overdose victims.

The city has become a web of contradictions. There are thousands of new millionaires, and, by the latest estimates, 18,000 people in and out of homelessness. The headquarters of Uber, Twitter, and Square are blocks away from the open-air drug markets of the Tenderloin, Mid-Market, and SoMa. Wealthy families attending an art opening at the Civic Center have to cross through the tent encampments that line the sidewalks.

Residents, property owners, and small businesses—who pay an enormous premium to live and work in San Francisco—have begun to erupt in frustration. Citizens tell pollsters that homelessness is the city’s most pressing issue and business owners tell pollsters that “conditions on [the] streets have progressively deteriorated.”

City Hall has begun coming to terms with the crisis. Mayor London Breed recently hired a director of mental health reform, Dr. Anton Nigusse Bland, who compiled a statistical summary of the problem. People have long known that San Francisco has a homelessness problem, but Nigusse Bland discovered a population-within-a-population—the so-called “perilous trifecta”: 4,000 men and women who are simultaneously homeless, psychotic, and addicted to alcohol, meth, or heroin. About 70 % of them have been on the streets for more than five years; 40% have been on the streets for more than 13 years.

This is the city’s fundamental predicament. How do you help people in the grips of the perilous trifecta? What interventions could make progress? Where do social workers even start? It’s almost impossible to understate the depths of this challenge. Read More > at Real Clear Investigations

California spent $50 million for a COVID vaccine scheduling website. It flopped – The good news: More than one-third of all eligible California adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The not-so-good news: Few of them scheduled their jabs using the $50 million MyTurn website that the state specifically designed to help residents book vaccination appointments.

“Only 27% of vaccinations booked each day use MyTurn,” wrote Barbara Feder Ostrov of CalMatters, who described the state-funded website as “a lightning rod for many Californians frustrated by their inability to get vaccinated quickly and return to a normal life.”

MyTurn, initially pitched as a one-stop-shop where Californians could easily schedule vaccination appointments, appears to have instead become the state’s latest bumbling technology fiasco. CalMatters reported that the site has been used to schedule an estimated 100,000 appointments a day, but that’s not enough to help the vast majority of Californians.

“The technology was hastily deployed, leading to inevitable glitches because it wasn’t vetted enough before it was unveiled,” wrote Feder Ostrov. “It can’t reliably cope with the state’s constantly changing rules and wide variety of local eligibility qualifications. And the vaccine supply hasn’t kept up with demand, so until very recently, appointments were unavailable for most people.” Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

U.S. Household Income Surged by Record 21.1% in March – Household income rose at a record pace of 21.1% in March as federal-stimulus checks helped fuel an economic revival that is poised to endure with an easing pandemic.

The 21.1% March surge in income was the largest monthly increase for government records tracing back to 1959, largely reflecting $1,400 stimulus checks included in President Biden’s fiscal relief package signed into law in March. The stimulus payments accounted for $3.948 trillion of the overall seasonally adjusted $4.213 trillion rise in March personal income.

Spending was also up sharply, increasing 4.2%, the Commerce Department said on Friday. That was the steepest month-over-month increase since last summer.

Consumers shelled out more money on goods, particularly big-ticket items such as autos and furniture, compared with services in March. But economists expect that to change in the coming months due to widespread vaccinations and the broader reopening of the economy.

“If we have Covid-19 cases under control, that would ideally make way for us to reopen the services sector of the economy,” said Pooja Sriram, U.S. economist at Barclays. “That, in fact, is a crucial aspect of ensuring that this recovery continues.”

Americans will have cash to spend. The personal-saving rate surged to 27.6% in March, the second highest rate on record, eclipsed only by last April when a first round of government aid was distributed early in the pandemic. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Why Your Grocery Bills Are Going Up (And Are Only Expected to Get Bigger) – Americans spent a lot of money on groceries over the past year—and it isn’t just because they were eating more meals at home. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices jumped 3.9 percent in 2020, nearly triple the rate of inflation.

Unfortunately, this trend seems poised to continue. The US Department of Agriculture estimates grocery bills could increase by another 3 percent in 2021, while some experts are betting on even longer-term problems.

So, what’s causing the spike? A perfect storm, really. Bad weatherstockpiling, increased demand from China, global shipping interruptions, and inflation caused by the extreme money printing by central banks all get honorable mentions. But a significant number of the factors to blame can be traced back to the government’s lockdowns and regulatory policies.

Meat processing plants were one of the industries hardest hit by the lockdowns. Many were forced to close for extended periods of time, and others invested in expensive new equipment and technology to reduce their in-person workforce. These costs were of course ultimately borne by the consumer, and the closures led to supply chain disruptions. Both made the price of meat go up. Read More > at the Foundation for Economic Education

Everyday products are about to get more expensive, companies warn – Toilet paper, baby care products, soft drinks and many other everyday products are about to get more expensive.

Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Coca-Cola have all warned that they’ll raise prices on many of their products as raw material costs rise. Plastic, paper, sugar, grain and other commodities are all getting more expensive as demand outpaces supply. Companies are also paying more for shipping as fuel costs rise and ports experience longer delays because of congestion.

The potential hit to consumers’ wallets comes as the economy returns to some semblance of normalcy. Vaccine distribution continues at a steady pace, promising to put the worst of the pandemic and business shutdowns in the past. States have been loosening restrictions and businesses are reopening to a lot of pent up demand from people who have been staying cautiously close to home during the pandemic. Read More > at WBIR 10 News

Facebook, Google, other corporate giants flooded Newsom with record $226 million in charity donations in 2020 – Facebook, Google and Blue Shield of California are among the companies that contributed $226 million to government causes on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s behalf last year, an unprecedented level of spending that is raising alarms about the influence large corporations are amassing in Sacramento.

State records reviewed by The Times show that so-called “behested payments” surged in 2020 compared with the year prior, when companies gifted $12.1 million on Newsom’s behalf. The governor’s haul last year during the COVID-19 pandemic was six times as much as that reported by former Gov. Jerry Brown during his final eight years in office combined.

With no limit on how much money can be donated by organizations or individuals at the behest of the governor, millions of dollars flowed in to prop up public services during the pandemic and fund Newsom’s favored programs, including an effort to address homelessness and a public safety campaign promoting the importance of wearing masks.

The corporations say they were simply trying to help the state in a time of need. But no matter how noble the cause, critics fear the donations could allow corporations to hold more sway in state government. They noted many of the donors have other business before the governor, received no-bid government contracts over the last year or were seeking favorable appointments on important state boards, which they say creates the appearance of a pay-to-play system. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

The wires may be there, but the dollars aren’t: Analysis shows why millions of California students lack broadband – Depending on a student’s access to reliable internet, the last year of virtual school has ranged from enriching to impossibly discouraging. 

Which kids have access follows a stark pattern: Across urban and rural areas alike, public schools with more students in poverty were far more likely to serve households that lacked a basic broadband connection at home in the months before school went online, according to an unprecedented CalMatters analysis. For the vast majority, the barrier to access was not a lack of internet infrastructure — indicating that the more common obstacle was affordability. But for the state’s small population of rural students, those two obstacles unite, leaving three in ten households without a reliable connection.

Though schools have scrambled to deliver laptops, tablets and hotspots to students, and promoted low-income internet plans offered by telecoms companies like AT&T and Comcast, one in five California households with K–12 students told the Census Bureau in late March they don’t always have the internet access needed for virtual school. Interviews with over 30 students, teachers, researchers, advocates and education leaders revealed that hotspots and discount broadband are often unreliable, leading to a year of education disrupted by screen freezes, distorted audio, and getting booted out of Zoom classes.

Barriers to home broadband access generally boil down to two main factors. Has an internet company connected the household to its complex above- and below-ground network of high-speed fiber, copper wires, cables, towers and antenna? If so, is the household able to afford the plan?

Efforts to solve California’s digital divide have often focused on the former: funding broadband infrastructure in remote parts of the state. If only we could get telecommunications companies to build out the last miles of high-speed fiber to California’s remote communities, we could close the gap, the thinking went.

Yet CalMatters’ analysis, backed up by a 2019 study from the California agency that regulates internet service providers, paints a more complicated picture. Cost stood out as a more common barrier for most California students, in rural and urban areas alike. In other words, even if high-speed broadband were available to every California household, many families wouldn’t feel they could afford it. Read More > at CalMatters

Not in our Backyard – Rural America is fighting back against large-scale renewable energy projects

Renewable energy is politically popular. Polling data show that about 70 percent of Americans want more wind energy and 80 percent want more solar. Regulators at the local, state, and federal levels have responded to this popularity by passing a myriad of goals, mandates, and subsidies to encourage the development and consumption of wind and solar energy. The Sierra Club claims that “over 170 cities, more than ten counties, and eight states across the U.S. have goals to power their communities with 100% clean, renewable energy.

In addition to their political popularity, a spate of academic studies released over the past few years have claimed that the U.S. can run most or, all, of its economy solely on renewables. No oil, coal, natural gas, or nuclear required. Although renewables are popular among voters and professors at elite universities, they also have several problems, including their intermittency, need for high-voltage transmission lines, and resource intensity. Several analyses, including one done in 2019 by the Natural History Museum in London, have documented the enormous amounts of metals and rare-earth elements that will have to be mined in order to manufacture the vast amounts of solar panels and wind turbines needed for such a large effort.

But the most important — and the most obvious — challenge in converting to a renewables-only economy is commandeering the enormous amounts of land needed to accommodate the staggering amounts of solar and wind generation capacity that will be required to meet domestic energy needs. As longtime consulting electric engineer Lee Cordner summed it up, “Where are you going to put it? How are you going to connect it? And how are you going to pay for it?” This paper addresses those issues. Read More > at American Experiment

Electrification To Fight Climate Change: The Challenge Of A Lifetime – The reality is obvious: the climate goal of electrification could surge U.S. electricity demand. As we seek to decarbonize, more of our economy electrifies and more of the load shifts to the grid. In the U.S., this is a really big deal. Hovering around 4,100 terawatt hours, most Americans probably do not realize that our national power consumption has been flat since The Great Recession of 2007-2009. No wonder then that the coal industry might be electric cars’ biggest fan.

A overwhelming statistic illustrates our Herculean task for electric cars: we have 270 million oil-based cars (i.e., internal combustion engine) and only around 2 million that run on electricity. The amount of electricity that could be needed to change this may be incalculable but we know it is immense. Packing a mighty punch, oil-based gasoline has 100 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery utilized in electric cars.

Experts at the University of California, Berkeley calculate that by 2050 the U.S. will need almost 90% more electricity than it did in 2018, in a scenario where all new passenger vehicles sold by 2030 are electric, with buildings and factories also electrifying quickly. This analysis is part of a comprehensive 2020 study looking at what it would take to make the power grid 90% carbon-free by 2035.

Again, none of this is hard to imagine. All we have to do is look at Norway, where electric cars account for about 55% of new sales, thanks to a plethora of government incentives. At an astounding 26,500 kWh per person per year, Norway has the second highest (after Iceland) electricity use rate in the world, more than double that of the U.S. And at almost $70,000/capita/year/, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, so residents can afford much higher cost electric cars. For measure, the U.S. has nearly 65 times more people and 100 times more vehicles than Norway.

Americans will not buy into the “electrify to fight climate change” goal if costs are too high. We are engaged in a very delicate dance on climate policy. Public opinion polls show that nearly 70% of Americans would not pay just $10 a month in higher electric bills to combat climate change. The wind and solar power and CO2 reduction schemes that we want to utilize have already been proven expensive, as seen in such green-tinted policies coming from CaliforniaGermanyDenmarkAustralia, and Ontario. Read More > at Forbes

California Has A Recycling Problem – It’s like magic: Every week, plastics, mixed paper and cans go in a big blue bin, are hauled out to the curb and then — poof! — recycled into something new in some distant facility. 

In reality, there’s more myth than magic at work. 

“Twenty to 40% percent of what ends up in somebody’s curbside bin has a chance of being landfilled,” said Jeff Donlevy, general manager with Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento. “And a lot of it has to do with mislabeling and contamination of materials.”

In 2016, the state sent over 9 million tons of potentially recyclable materials to China. The materials had an estimated value of over $2 billion — if they could be properly sorted, cleaned and recycled. Allen and others claim China would typically pick out the most valuable materials and burn or dump the rest. 

Two years later, China and other countries stopped taking recyclable materials from the U.S., in part because it was becoming less profitable. That created a serious problem for California. Read More > at Capital Public Radio

Ford, BMW and Honda cut production due to global chip crisis – Despite the best efforts of chip makers, the production crisis sparked by a global shortage in semiconductors is getting worse. Demand has outsripped supply in the wake of a pandemic-induced buying spree that saw the public snap up everything from gaming consoles to TVs during lockdowns. As a result, many of the tech products that rely on these chips — like the PS5, Xbox Series X/S and the iPhone 12 — have quickly sold out, suffered delays or been prone to extended shipping times. Now, the situation is deteriorating for one of the worst hit sectors: Automotives. Bloomberg reports that car makers across three continents are currently warning of production cuts.

In the span of 12 hours, Ford in the US said the chip shortage could halve production in the current financial quarter; Japan’s Honda announced it will halt production at three domestic plants for five to six days next month; and BMW warned of delays at its facilities in Germany and England. 

What started as a blip caused by factory shutdowns during the pandemic, has morphed into widespread disruption on the back of high demand for chips across other industries. Vehicles use semiconductors to power their advanced driver assistance systems, including anti-lock braking and parking assist. The more tech is squeezed into cars, the more chips they will inevitably require. 

The news is hardly better for the tech industry. Coming off mammoth financial results, both Apple and Samsung have admitted the chip shortage will cause a significant impact in the near-term. Despite their push to make more in-house processors, the announcements underline Apple and Samsung’s reliance on a vast procurement network. Read More > at Engadget

Millions Are Skipping Their Second Doses of Covid-19 Vaccines – More than five million people, or nearly 8 percent of those who got a first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, have missed their second doses, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is more than double the rate among people who got inoculated in the first several weeks of the nationwide vaccine campaign.

Even as the country wrestles with the problem of millions of people who are wary about getting vaccinated at all, local health authorities are confronting an emerging challenge of ensuring that those who do get inoculated are doing so fully.

The reasons vary for why people are missing their second shots. In interviews, some said they feared the side effects, which can include flulike symptoms. Others said they felt that they were sufficiently protected with a single shot.

Those attitudes were expected, but another hurdle has been surprisingly prevalent. A number of vaccine providers have canceled second-dose appointments because they ran out of supply or didn’t have the right brand in stock. Read More > in The New York Times

Pausing the J&J vaccine was a damaging failure to balance costs and benefits – It’s been a week since the FDA and CDC lifted their pause on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine. The pause lasted only 11 days, but the damage has been done. The move destroyed public confidence not only in what could have been an important vaccination tool both at home and abroad, but possibly also in the entire vaccination endeavor. What were they thinking?

In imposing and then lifting the pause, both the CDC and FDA leadership stressed that safety was their priority. Unfortunately, that priority crowded out all other considerations, especially the particular benefits of the J&J vaccine. Everyone acknowledged that the health complications in question were extremely rare: blood clots in the brain (cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, or CVST) coupled with low platelet counts in six vaccine recipients (later upped to 15) out of more than 7 million doses administered. But in their zeal to protect the public, the agencies became practitioners of the precautionary principle.

J&J’s is the only Covid-19 vaccine available that can be given in a single dose. It is also transported and stored in regular refrigerators, in contrast to the ultra-cold freezers needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. These attributes make it the vaccine of choice for hard-to-reach populations like the homebound, the elderly, and rural residents who might otherwise go unvaccinated.

During the pause, many among these groups had to forgo the benefit of being vaccinated. Some undoubtedly contracted Covid-19. Some will likely go on to die—an irreversible cost. In addition, the pause undermined public confidence in the J&J vaccine, and possibly Covid-19 vaccines in general, which could result in many people skipping vaccination and thus additional infections, illnesses, and deaths. Read More > at City Journal

Cuomo Aides Spent Months Hiding Nursing Home Death Toll – The effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office to obscure the pandemic death toll in New York nursing homes was far greater than previously known, with aides repeatedly overruling state health officials over a span of at least five months, according to interviews and newly unearthed documents.

Mr. Cuomo’s most senior aides engaged in a sustained effort to prevent the state’s own health officials, including the commissioner, Howard Zucker, from releasing the true death toll to the public or sharing it with state lawmakers, these interviews and documents showed.

A scientific paper, which incorporated the data, was never published. An audit of the numbers by a top Cuomo aide was finished months before it became publicly known. Two letters, drafted by the Health Department and meant for state legislators, were never sent.

The actions coincided with the period in which Mr. Cuomo was pitching and then writing a book on the pandemic, with the assistance of his top aide, Melissa DeRosa, and others.

And they came as the governor’s approach to nursing homes was receiving intensifying scrutiny from critics and Republicans, including former President Donald J. Trump, whose administration made a public show of requesting nursing home death data from four states with Democratic governors, including New York. Read More > in The New York Times

Why fully investigating COVID-19’s origins still matters – As terrible as COVID-19 has been, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that we’ll face another pandemic unless we identify how this crisis began and fix our biggest shortcomings. Yet, well more than a year after the outbreak, we still lack a credible, comprehensive international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. That should frighten everyone.

Although global media reports have repeatedly referenced a “World Health Organization investigation” into COVID-19 origins, it may surprise many people to learn that this review process was not carried out by the WHO and was not, by the admission of its leader, even an investigation. Instead, an independent committee of experts organized by the WHO, with a very limited mandate, spent only two weeks on the ground in Wuhan, China, engaging in a highly curated, restricted study tour during which they were denied access to basic essential information. 

On the day this international committee and its Chinese counterparts released their highly incomplete joint report — which significantly echoed the Chinese government’s position on COVID-19 origins — WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom released a statement highlighting the difficulties the international experts experienced accessing raw data and rejected the joint study team’s recommendation to restrict the scope of the examination and to conduct no further examination of a lab-leak hypothesis for the pandemic’s origin.  

…It’s harder to understand why the international expert committee recommended no further examination of the lab incident hypothesis. Perhaps some of its members felt that even limited collaboration with their Chinese counterparts, made possible through a restricted process, was better than none at all.

But any effort to prevent a full investigation into all pandemic-origin hypotheses with unrestricted access to all relevant records, samples and personnel in China and beyond should be recognized for what it is — a threat to all of us and to future generations. Everyone on Earth is a stakeholder in getting to the bottom of how this terrible crisis began and our many other ensuing failures as essential first steps towards addressing our greatest vulnerabilities. Read More > in The Hill

Do Brain Implants Change Your Identity? – It is almost a quarter of a century since the F.D.A. first approved the use of a deep-brain-stimulation device—to treat essential tremor and advanced Parkinson’s disease. Today, at least two hundred thousand people worldwide, suffering from a wide range of conditions, live with a neural implant of some kind…As we enter this new era of extra-human intelligence, it’s becoming apparent that many people develop an intense relationship with their device, often with profound effects on their sense of identity. These effects, though still little studied, are emerging as crucial to a treatment’s success.

The human brain is a small electrical device of super-galactic complexity. It contains an estimated hundred billion neurons, with many more links between them than there are stars in the Milky Way. Each neuron works by passing an electrical charge along its length, causing neurotransmitters to leap to the next neuron, which ignites in turn, usually in concert with many thousands of others. Somehow, human intelligence emerges from this constant, thrilling choreography. How it happens remains an almost total mystery, but it has become clear that neural technologies will be able to synch with the brain only if they learn the steps of this dance.

….For the great majority of patients, deep-brain stimulation was beneficial and life-changing, but there were occasional reports of strange behavioral reactions, such as hypomania and hypersexuality. Then, in 2006, a French team published a study about the unexpected consequences of otherwise successful implantations. Two years after a brain implant, sixty-five per cent of patients had a breakdown in their marriages or relationships, and sixty-four per cent wanted to leave their careers. Their intellect and their levels of anxiety and depression were the same as before, or, in the case of anxiety, had even improved, but they seemed to experience a fundamental estrangement from themselves. One felt like an electronic doll. Another said he felt like RoboCop, under remote control.

Many people reported that the person they were after treatment was entirely different from the one they’d been when they had only dreamed of relief from their symptoms. Some experienced an uncharacteristic buoyancy and confidence. One woman felt fifteen years younger and tried to lift a pool table, rupturing a disk in her back. One man noticed that his newfound confidence was making life hard for his wife; he was too “full-on.” Another woman became impulsive, walking ten kilometres to a psychologist’s appointment nine days after her surgery. She was unrecognizable to her family. They told her that they grieved for the old her. Read More > in The New Yorker

Most Societies Completely Misunderstand Yawning – Yawning, it seems, is a form of social empathy, a subtle communication that we’re feeling what our friends feel. This is why yawns are contagious, and seem to be more contagious amongst friends and family compared to acquaintances or strangers. This infectious quality doesn’t just apply to humans, but to all sorts of animals. For example, a recent study found that yawning seems to help lions synchronize their movements.

Moreover, as Novella noted, yawning is theorized to help keep animals alert, and to remind conspecifics to do so as well.

One of the most intriguing explanations for yawning is that it helps us thermoregulate, often to keep the brain cool.

“Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in the regulation of skin blood flow, and the thermoregulation this blood flow does. Increases of serotonin have been shown to increase body and brain temperatures, a change that causes the body to trigger more yawns, in an attempt to cool itself,” Ada McVean wrote for the McGill Office for Science and Society. Read More > at Real Clear Science

‘Self-driving’ cars are still a long way off. Here are three reasons why – Experts talk about six levels of autonomous vehicle technology, ranging from level 0 (a traditional vehicle with no automation) to level 5 (a vehicle that can independently do anything a human driver can).

Most automated driving solutions available on the market today require human intervention. This puts them at level 1 (driver assistance, such as keeping a car in a lane or managing its speed) or level 2 (partial automation, such as steering and speed control).

These capabilities are intended for use with a fully attentive driver prepared to take control at any moment.

Level 3 vehicles have more autonomy and can make some decisions on their own, but the driver must still remain alert and take control if the system is unable to drive.

For higher levels of automation, a human driver won’t necessarily be involved in the driving task. The driver would effectively be replaced by the AI self-driving software.

Level 4 is a “self-driving” vehicle that has a bounded scope of where and when it will drive. The best example of a level 4 vehicle is Google’s Waymo robotaxi project. Other companies are also making significant progress in developing level 4 vehicles, but these vehicles are not commercially available to the public.

Level 5 represents a truly autonomous vehicle that can go anywhere and at any time, similar to what a human driver can do. The transition from level 4 to level 5, however, is orders of magnitude harder than transitions between other levels, and may take years to achieve.

While the technologies required to enable higher levels of automation are advancing rapidly, producing a vehicle that can complete a journey safely and legally without human input remains a big challenge.

Three key barriers must be overcome before they can be safely introduced to the market: technology, regulations and public acceptance. Read More > at The Conversation

Body’s natural pain killers can be enhanced – Fentanyl, oxycodone, morphine—these substances are familiar to many as a source of both pain relief and the cause of a painful epidemic of addiction and death.

Scientists have attempted for years to balance the potent pain-relieving properties of opioids with their numerous negative side effects—with mostly mixed results.

Work by John Traynor, Ph.D., and Andrew Alt, Ph.D., and their team at the University of Michigan Edward F. Domino Research Center, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, seeks to side-step these problems by harnessing the body’s own ability to block pain.

“Normally, when you are in pain, you are releasing endogenous opioids, but they’re just not strong enough or long lasting enough,” says Traynor. The team had long hypothesized that substances called positive allosteric modulators could be used to enhance the body’s own endorphins and enkephalins. In a new paper published in PNAS, they demonstrate that a positive allosteric modulator known as BMS-986122 can boost enkephalins’ ability to activate the mu-opioid receptor.

What’s more, unlike opioid drugs, positive allosteric modulators only work in the presence of endorphins or enkephalins, meaning they would only kick in when needed for pain relief. They do not bind to the receptor in the way that opioids do instead binding in a different location that enhances its ability to respond to the body’s pain-relieving compounds. Read More > at Medical Xpress

People Emerge From Cave After Intense 40-Day ‘Deep Time’ Experiment – What happens if you put 15 people together in a dark cave and take away their ability to track the passage of time? An extraordinary experiment in France has attempted to answer this question, and the results are fascinating.

The environment was most certainly rough, with the temperature fixed at 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) and the relative humidity pinned at an oppressive 100%. Not a single ray of sunlight leaks into this cave, requiring the team to depend exclusively on artificial lighting. And with no way to communicate with the outside world, team members lost touch with their friends, families, and the daily news cycle.

Importantly, they also lost track of time, as no clocks of any sort were allowed in the cave. For this was the point of the “Deep Time” project, organized by the Human Adaptation Institute, which is seeking to understand how humans adapt and work together to recreate “synchronization outside the usual indicators,” as the group explains at its website.

When asked how long they had stayed in the cave, the team collectively figured it was around 30 days (though, as The Guardian reports, one person estimated the total duration at 23 days!). That the team had somehow lost track of 10 whole days (or more) is somewhat astounding and testament to our dependence on clocks or the day-night cycle to keep track of time. Our internal clocks, it would appear, really, really suck, and are subject to considerable drift—even across the relatively short time span of 40 days.

This research will hopefully shed light on the physiological and cognitive processes involved with social isolation, clock-deprivation, and the tracking of time, but there’s a practical aspect to this as well. This work could ultimately lead to improved conditions for submarine crews, miners, and operators of boring machines. It could also be of benefit to future explorers on the Moon and Mars, who would likewise experience disruptions to a 24-hour day. Read More > at Gizmodo

California trucks salmon to Pacific; low river levels blamed – California officials will again truck millions of young salmon raised at fish hatcheries in the state’s Central Valley agricultural region to the Pacific Ocean because projected river conditions show that the waterways the fish use to travel downstream will be historically low and warm due to increasing drought.

Officials announced the massive trucking operation on Wednesday, saying the effort is aimed at ensuring “the highest level of survival for the young salmon on their hazardous journey to the Pacific Ocean.”

“Trucking young salmon to downstream release sites has proven to be one of the best ways to increase survival to the ocean during dry conditions,” Jason Julienne, North Central Region Hatchery Supervisor said in a statement.

More than 16.8 million young salmon from four Central Valley hatcheries will be trucked to coastal sites around the San Pablo, San Francisco, Half Moon and Monterey bays. Read More > from the Associated Press

Rebuilding Big Basin – Big Basin Redwoods State Park exemplifies both the destruction of California’s wildfires and the resilience of nature: 97% of the state’s oldest park burned in one day last summer as lightning-sparked wildfires ravaged forests of giant redwoods. CalMatters’ Julie Cart was one of three reporters invited to tour the park and observe its regrowth. What she saw was humbling — thousands of dead, blackened trees litter the ground — but also hopeful: Towering redwoods still dominate the skyline, and vivid green shoots are already sprouting out of the ground. Check out Julie’s report for a firsthand account of the park’s transformation — and what it will take to rebuild.

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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