Sunday Reading – 06/06/2021

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.

Masks at work, unless all vaccinated – California is set to fully reopen its economy and end its mask mandate on June 15 — but it appears many of us could still be wearing masks well past that date. That’s because the state’s workplace safety agency on Thursday night passed rules that require employees to wear masks unless everyone in the room is fully vaccinated — something almost impossible to ascertain for many businesses, as the state is not creating a vaccine passport system

However, the Cal/OSHA standards board also emphasized it will consider further loosening restrictions. It initially voted to reject the rules it eventually adopted, but that would have kept even stricter emergency regulations in place. The about-face occurred after a heated debate that lasted more than nine hours and drew about 800 participants.

Business groups said the loosened rules — which still have to be reviewed by the state Office of Administrative Law — strained credulity.

Industry groups also pushed back on a requirement that employers provide N95 masks for unvaccinated workers. Labor groups, meanwhile, said heightened safety standards are necessary to protect workers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who could overturn the rules via executive order, declined to take a stance on the issue Thursday. But he extended through the end of the year two other temporary pandemic measures: the ability for restaurants to offer to-go alcoholic drinks and expanded outdoor dining.

  • Newsom: “I’ve been up and down the state, and parklets have taken off everywhere. All I can say is, ‘Eat your heart out, Paris.’”

Another thing that’s stayed the same: California’s vaccination rate, which has continued to fall despite Newsom’s $116.5 million vaccine incentive program. But the governor’s administration is optimistic it will start ticking up today, when the state unveils the first 15 winners of a $50,000 cash prize. The next 15 winners will be announced June 11, and 10 Californians will win $1.5 million each on June 15, the date of the state’s grand reopening. You can find more information about the program here. Read More > at CalMatters

Gavin Newsom Says He Will Not Lift California State Of Emergency, Give Up Emergency Powers On June 15 – “The one thing I am certain of is: There’s uncertainty in the future,” said California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday at an event to pick winners in the state’s lottery-style Covid-19 vaccination incentive program.

Asked if he would, on June 15, lift the state of emergency that has given him the extraordinary powers to mandate such restrictions, the governor said, “The emergency remains in effect after June 15.” That date is Newsom’s own self-declared deadline to lift most Covid restrictions.

Asked to explain the reasoning behind the decision, Newsom said, “Because we’re still in a state of emergency. This disease is still in effect. It is not taking the summer off.”

The governor indicated he may need those emergency powers in the near future. “Some modifications may need to be in order on the basis of changing conditions,” he said.

Newsom was also pressed repeatedly at the event to clarify what some called the “confusing” recommendation of a CalOSHA board the night before. After a seven-hour public meeting, the board seemed to approve recommending masks be required in the workplace if everyone is not vaccinated. That would leave mask requirements in place past Newsom’s stated deadline to lift most Covid restrictions. It would also seem to penalize unvaccinated workers. The board set up a subcommittee to further study the issue.

The governor today said he was unable to be definitive about the meaning of the board’s recommendations. Read More > at Deadline

The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins – Since December 1, 2019, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 has infected more than 170 million people around the world and killed more than 3.5 million. To this day, we don’t know how or why this novel coronavirus suddenly appeared in the human population. Answering that question is more than an academic pursuit: Without knowing where it came from, we can’t be sure we’re taking the right steps to prevent a recurrence.

…On February 19, 2020, The Lancet, among the most respected and influential medical journals in the world, published a statement that roundly rejected the lab-leak hypothesis, effectively casting it as a xenophobic cousin to climate change denialism and anti-vaxxism. Signed by 27 scientists, the statement expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China” and asserted: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

The Lancet statement effectively ended the debate over COVID-19’s origins before it began. To Gilles Demaneuf, following along from the sidelines, it was as if it had been “nailed to the church doors,” establishing the natural origin theory as orthodoxy. “Everyone had to follow it. Everyone was intimidated. That set the tone.”

The statement struck Demaneuf as “totally nonscientific.” To him, it seemed to contain no evidence or information. And so he decided to begin his own inquiry in a “proper” way, with no idea of what he would find.

…Behind closed doors, however, national security and public health experts and officials across a range of departments in the executive branch were locked in high-stakes battles over what could and couldn’t be investigated and made public.

A months long Vanity Fair investigation, interviews with more than 40 people, and a review of hundreds of pages of U.S. government documents, including internal memos, meeting minutes, and email correspondence, found that conflicts of interest, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19’s origin at every step. In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it.

There are reasons to doubt the lab-leak hypothesis. There is a long, well-documented history of natural spillovers leading to outbreaks, even when the initial and intermediate host animals have remained a mystery for months and years, and some expert virologists say the supposed oddities of the SARS-CoV-2 sequence have been found in nature.

But for most of the past year, the lab-leak scenario was treated not simply as unlikely or even inaccurate but as morally out-of-bounds. In late March, former Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield received death threats from fellow scientists after telling CNN that he believed COVID-19 had originated in a lab. “I was threatened and ostracized because I proposed another hypothesis,” Redfield told Vanity Fair. “I expected it from politicians. I didn’t expect it from science.”

As months go by without a host animal that proves the natural theory, the questions from credible doubters have gained in urgency. To one former federal health official, the situation boiled down to this: An institute “funded by American dollars is trying to teach a bat virus to infect human cells, then there is a virus” in the same city as that lab. It is “not being intellectually honest not to consider the hypothesis” of a lab escape. Read More > at Vanity Fair

California eyes shuttered malls, stores for new housing – California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web.

A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods.

But local zoning laws often don’t allow housing at these locations. Changing the zoning is such a hassle that many developers don’t bother trying. And it’s often not worth it for local governments to change the designations. They would prefer to find new retailers because sales taxes produce more revenue than residential property taxes.

However, with a stubborn housing shortage pushing prices to all-time highs, state lawmakers are moving to pass new laws to get around those barriers.

A bill that cleared the state Senate last week would let developers build houses on most commercial sites without changing the zoning. Another proposal would pay local governments to change the zoning to let developers build affordable housing. Read More > from the Associated Press

School district challenges pile up – California is on track to notch a nearly record-breaking number of teacher retirements this year — but the tsunami is barely registering as a ripple in many school districts, partly because a record amount of students are also dropping out of public school, CalMatters’ Eli Wolfe reports. But other challenges loom: Many districts are scrambling to find enough teachers to staff summer school sessions, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hire for positions that were already hard to fill before the pandemic, such as special education teachers. Meanwhile, many educators feel ill-equipped to handle the mental health challenges and trauma that students will likely bring into the classroom after a year of isolation and Zoom school. California doesn’t mandate mental health training for K-12 teachers, and its average student-to-counselor ratio last year was 601 to 1 — more than twice the recommended ratio, the Los Angeles Times reports.

They Rage-Quit the School System—and They’re Not Going Back – …Espitia is a part of a wave of parents and caregivers who withdrew their children from US public schools and elected to homeschool because of the pandemic—and she’s part of a group that isn’t going back. The crisis gave rise to a diverse swath of families that are using tech to totally customize their kids’ learning, and they might even change what “going to school” means in the post-pandemic world.

While homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, it has never been considered the American norm. In 2019, homeschooled students represented just 3.2 percent of US students in grades K through 12, or around 1.7 million students. By comparison, 90 percent of US students attend public school. But a March 2021 report from the US Census Bureau indicates an uptick in homeschooling during the pandemic: In spring 2020, 5.4 percent of surveyed households reported homeschooling their children (homeschooling being distinct from remote learning at home through a public or private school). By fall 2020, the figure had doubled to 11.1 percent.

The pandemic may also have given rise to a more diverse group of homeschoolers. In 2012, 84 percent of homeschool families were white. The US Census Bureau’s survey indicates that homeschooling rates increased across all ethnic groups in the past year, and the greatest shift was among Black families, who reported a 3.3 percent rate of homeschooling in spring 2020 and 16.1 percent later in the fall.

Others are striking out to build entire microschools of their own. The promise of a blank canvas appealed to Ivi Kolasi, a parent in Berkeley, California. She and her husband work in tech. Kolasi’s two older stepdaughters, in the sixth and 10th grades, were in public school, and she was already skeptical of traditional classroom learning. The pandemic hit just as her youngest daughter was entering preschool. Could the pandemic be Kolasi’s chance to set her on a different path?

Over the past year, she researched alternative schooling movements, the kinds with lofty names like Democratic schools and maker education. She teamed up with three other preschool families, hired a private teacher, and set up a microschool in her sun-filled attic. On any given school day, the children visit the Oakland Zoo, tend their hydroponic garden, or re-create Yayoi Kusuyama’s dot artwork with multicolored stickers on the wall of the “obliteration room.” Kolasi hopes to expand in the coming years—to move the classroom out of her home, recruit more students, hire a Mandarin instructor, and give her child the years of expansive, creative educational experience that Kolasi has dreamed of. Read More > at Wired

Several Earthquakes Shake Lake Tahoe – With A Big One Overdue, Is It Coming Soon? – Multiple earthquakes rattled the Lake Tahoe region on a week ago Friday, the latest in a sequence that began in late April.

“This summer I have felt two of the strongest I’ve ever felt,” said Lynn Thompson, who was among those shaken by the most recent series of earthquakes near her Tahoe home. “We’re rocking and rolling up here.”

Many in the Tahoe area were wondering what’s next?

“Hm – I wonder if that’s going to be the foreshock, right?,” asked Graham Kent, Director of the Nevada Seismological Lab.

He knows it’s the question that’s got everyone rumbling.

The recent influx of quakes in the region, including one in Truckee just weeks ago, has his attention. Though he says the series isn’t necessarily abnormal, and he’s not worried yet.

Tahoe sits on major fault lines more than a thousand years overdue to rupture, but he says his concern will come when the magnitude hits above 5. Read More > at CBS Sacramento

Outdoor dining, to-go drinks could be here to stay – When the pandemic ravaged businesses across the country, it hit the restaurant industry especially hard. The California Restaurant Association last August warned that of the 90,000 restaurants operating in the state, at least 30% would close without significant government aid. As California counties and cities prepare to reopen entirely to pre-pandemic capacity limits, state and city leaders are exploring ways to permanently adopt some of the emergency measures.

Two bills making their way through the state Legislature, one in the Senate and one in the Assembly, aim to permanently allow restaurants to sell to-go alcoholic beverages. And several cities across the state are voting on whether to extend or cement their outdoor dining programs.

Democratic state Sen. Bill Dodd introduced a bill to allow continued off-site alcoholic beverage sales after realizing how much businesses in his Napa Valley district relied on tourism and alcohol sales to stay afloat.

Dodd’s bill passed unopposed out of the Senate and is now being heard in the Assembly. Alcohol Justice, an industry watchdog group, is the main opposition to the legislation and argues that the bill could threaten public health and safety by increasing drunk driving. Read More > at CalMatters

House Hunters Are Leaving the City, and Builders Can’t Keep Up – They had a down payment. They were prequalified for a mortgage. They were willing to move almost an hour’s drive eastward. But the number that really mattered was “32.”

If a saleswoman standing in a model unit plucked a bingo ball with that number from one of several buckets arrayed on a marble kitchen island, Jezreleen and Eric Namayan would get to pay $662,000 for a five-bedroom home in River Islands, a master planned community built around 13 man-made lakes in California’s Central Valley. If not, the home would go to one of the dozens of other prospective buyers who had lined up next to them on a Zoom webcast of the drawing. The Namayans would remain in a two-bedroom condominium with two teenagers while struggling to penetrate the white hot post-pandemic housing market.

“When they started getting closer to our lot, I almost felt like I was outside looking at myself,” Mrs. Namayan said.

Tired of being cooped up, eager to take advantage of low interest rates and increasingly willing to move two or more hours from the urban core, buyers have propelled new home construction to its highest level since 2006. That was the year when the mid-2000s housing bubble started deflating on its way to what would become the financial crisis and Great Recession.

River Islands, the development where the Namayans hoped to live, is in Lathrop, Calif., which has a population of 25,000. It sits about a half-hour beyond Altamont Pass, whose rolling hills and windmills mark the border between Alameda and San Joaquin Counties. Though technically outside the Bay Area region, Lathrop’s farms and open fields have been steadily supplanted by warehouses and subdivisions as it and nearby cities have become bedroom communities for priced-out workers who commute to the Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

In Livermore, on the eastern side of Alameda County, the typical home value is nearing $1 million, according to Zillow. That falls to $500,000 to $600,000 over the hill in places like TracyManteca and Lathrop. The catch, of course, is that many residents endure draining, multihour commutes.

The pandemic may have upended that economic order, in California and elsewhere. Thousands of families that could afford to do so fled cities last spring, and while some will return, others will not — particularly if they are able to continue to work remotely at least part of the time… Read More > in The New York Times 

Following big-money donations – When Newsom announced his first gubernatorial bid in 2015, donations to his wife’s nonprofit jumped 30%. Since then, First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s nonprofit The Representation Project has received more than $800,000 from a dozen corporations that regularly lobby the state Legislature — many of which have also donated to Newsom’s own political committees and given money to other charities at Newsom’s behest, a Sacramento Bee investigation found. Some of the companies, including Kaiser Permanente, have received prominent no-bid state contracts amid the pandemic. Although the corporations say their donations to Siebel Newsom’s nonprofit are separate from their lobbying efforts, the practice has come under fire from ethics experts and other watchdogs — especially since it appears to be increasingly common.

As CalMatters’ Laurel Rosenhall reported last year, Attorney General Rob Bonta — who Newsom recently appointed to the role — solicited more than $560,000 from companies that lobby the Legislature and redirected it to groups that employ his wife. Mia Bonta, who is now running for her husband’s vacant Assembly seat, is receiving thousands of dollars from gaming interests — which may have something to do with the fact that her husband is in charge of writing the title and summary for a recently qualified ballot measure that would allow tribal casinos and horse-racing tracks to conduct sports betting. Read More > at CalMatters

‘Shrinkflation’ – We already know that top inflation metrics have recently surged, and executives at companies like Costco are warning that price hikes are hurting their customers. Now, there’s a new inflation consequence hitting consumers: “Shrinkflation.”

I’d never heard the term before today, but new reporting from the Washington Post explains how some companies are dealing with inflation in their supply costs by shrinking the sizes of their products, to avoid the customer backlash that comes with raising sticker prices.

“Consumers are paying more for a growing range of household staples in ways that don’t show up on receipts — thinner rolls, lighter bags, smaller cans — as companies look to offset rising labor and materials costs without scaring off customers,” the Post reports. “It’s a form of retail camouflage known as ‘shrinkflation,’ and economists and consumer advocates who track packaging expect it to become more pronounced as inflation ratchets up, taking hold of such everyday items such as paper towels, potato chips and diapers.” Read More > at the Foundation for Economic Education

Lumber Is Crazy Expensive Right Now. Biden Is About To Make It Worse. – Amid surging lumber prices that are already adding an average of $36,000 to the construction cost of new homes, the Biden administration is moving forward with plans to double tariffs on lumber imported from Canada.

The Commerce Department announced on Friday that it was taking the first step toward hiking so-called “anti-dumping tariffs” on Canadian lumber from an average rate of 8.99 percent in 2018 to 18.32 percent for 2019. Yes, 2019. If approved through what is likely to be a lengthy review process, the tariffs would apply retroactively to purchases made for the past two years. That means American importers could be on the hook for millions of dollars in taxes they didn’t even know they would owe—taxes that will likely be passed down the supply chain in the form of higher prices.

That’s only the first bit of insanity here. Anti-dumping tariffs, in theory, are meant to cancel out what’s seen as unfair subsidies for foreign competitors to American companies. They are supposed to be deployed in order to prevent import prices from becoming so low that they threaten domestic producers—even though there’s really nothing terrible about low prices for imports.

But lumber prices are anything but low right now. In fact, they are up over 250 percent in the past year, and the price per thousand feet of board lumber just hit an all-time high. Read More > at Reason

Uber and Lyft rides are pricier due to a lack of drivers (and the waits are longer, too) – Uber and Lyft rides have been almost twice as expensive over the past few months in the US, because the ride-hailing companies have been having difficulties meeting demand. More and more people are going back to their old routines after getting fully vaccinated, which translates to higher demand for rides as passengers fire up their apps to go to work or to meet friends. In fact, Uber had its biggest total gross bookings this March. Not all ride-hailing drivers are keen on getting back on the road yet, however, and as The New York Times says, both Uber and Lyft admit prices are up as a result. 

In the event that demand outstrips supply, ride-hailing services typically resort to surge pricing to entice more drivers to a certain area. Surge pricing has been more common recently, though, and in some cases, can cost riders as much as a plane ride. A recent analysis by Rakuten Intelligence found that the cost of a ride in April was up 40 percent from the same period last year.

A few days ago, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said at a JP Morgan media conference that “surge level prices have increased” and wait times are longer as driver supply can’t keep up with the demand in the US. According to Uber’s latest earnings report, there were 3.5 million active drivers and couriers in the first quarter of 2021, down 22 percent from a year ago. Read More > at Engadget

Small NorCal Gas Station Boasts The Most Expensive Gas In The Country – A small, independently-owned gas station in the Northern California enclave of Mendocino now has a claim to fame: the most expensive gas prices in the nation.

Schlafer’s Auto Body & Repair, located in Mendocino — about 150 miles north of San Francisco — is currently charging $6.73 per gallon of regular, the San Francisco Gate reports.

It is the most expensive single gas station in the nation, according to GasBuddy.

For context, the average price of gas in Los Angeles County Thursday was $4.23 per gallon, according to AAA. California’s average gas price sits at $4.20 per gallon, while the nationwide average is at $3.04. Read More > at CBS Los Angeles

The Political Economy of Ransomware – Ransomware is really good at extorting money, and it can also be good at extracting geopolitical concessions. On May 7, Colonial Pipeline paid nearly $5 million to restore its systems after DarkSide used encryption to hold hostage the pipeline, which supplies nearly half of the East Coast’s fuel to 50 million people. Then, late last month, the cyber insurance company CNA paid a staggering $40 million in ransom. The problem is that, although it may be comforting to believe that these events have nothing to do with geopolitics, next time around the hackers may want something more than bitcoins.

Many scholars and observers agree that coercion is inherently difficult in cyberspace, but ransomware is quickly emerging as a counterexample. Ransomware has been able to successfully extort victims not simply because of the use of cryptocurrency, which is more difficult to trace than cash, nor just because Russia offers safe havens to cyber criminals, as some have argued. In fact, insights from game theory show that extortion using encryption has been successful so far also because it is, in many ways, a better technology for hostage-taking compared to preexisting methods, such as sieges and blockades.

This means that a failure to reconsider the fundamentals of cyber coercion could lead to strategic surprise, if U.S. policymakers fail to anticipate states using encryption coercively. For example, in 2014 North Korea tried to coerce Sony into dropping the release of The Interview because it found the movie’s portrayal of Kim Jong Un objectionable. Their next attempt at cyber coercion may leverage totally different tools.

Ransomware’s prevalence is reminiscent of the “Golden Age of Piracy.” It is fast becoming one of the biggest cyber threats in both the public and private sectors. Cybersecurity Ventures projected that, in 2021, a ransomware attack would occur every 11 seconds and the total economic damage from ransomware attacks would amount to $20 billion. The average ransom paid is rising fast as well, from $115,123 in 2019 to $312,493 in 2020. This number is likely to grow even more in 2021, as companies are frequently paying ransom amounts in the millions. In a survey of 5,000 IT managers across 26 countries, 51 percent said they had suffered a ransomware attack within the past year. The sectors affected are also diverse, including healthcare, education, manufacturing, retail, energy, and financial services. By any measure, ransomware has become a successful business model for cyber criminals. Read More > at War on the Rocks

Will there be resource wars in our renewable energy future? – Thanks to its very name — renewable energy — we can picture a time in the not-too-distant future when our need for non-renewable fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal will vanish. Indeed, the Biden administration has announced a breakthrough target of 2035 for fully eliminating U.S. reliance on those non-renewable fuels for the generation of electricity. That would be accomplished by “deploying carbon-pollution-free electricity-generating resources,” primarily the everlasting power of the wind and sun.

With other nations moving in a similar direction, it’s tempting to conclude that the days when competition over finite supplies of energy was a recurring source of conflict will soon draw to a close. Unfortunately, think again: while the sun and wind are indeed infinitely renewable, the materials needed to convert those resources into electricity — minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and the rare-earth elements, or REEs — are anything but. Some of them, in fact, are far scarcer than petroleum, suggesting that global strife over vital resources may not, in fact, disappear in the Age of Renewables.

To appreciate this unexpected paradox, it’s necessary to explore how wind and solar power are converted into usable forms of electricity and propulsion. Solar power is largely collected by photovoltaic cells, often deployed in vast arrays, while the wind is harvested by giant turbines, typically deployed in extensive wind farms. To use electricity in transportation, cars and trucks must be equipped with advanced batteries capable of holding a charge over long distances. Each one of these devices uses substantial amounts of copper for electrical transmission, as well as a variety of other non-renewable minerals. Those wind turbines, for instance, require manganese, molybdenum, nickel, zinc, and rare-earth elements for their electrical generators, while electric vehicles (EVs) need cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earths for their engines and batteries.

At present, with wind and solar power accounting for only about 7% of global electricity generation and electric vehicles making up less than 1% of the cars on the road, the production of those minerals is roughly adequate to meet global demand. If, however, the U.S. and other countries really do move toward a green-energy future of the kind envisioned by President Biden, the demand for them will skyrocket and global output will fall far short of anticipated needs. Read More > at Slate

Humans aren’t overpopulated. We’re aging and shrinking – The 20th century saw the greatest population surge in human history, rising globally from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000. That trend is over. The majority of demographic data suggest that, despite previous concerns about overpopulation crises, the bigger problem for most parts of the planet will be too few babies.

Data clearly reflects this phenomenon. In Japan, people buy more diapers for the elderly than babies. China, which long enforced a one-child policy, recently raised its child limit to three; the nation expects its population to peak and then decline in 2030. And the population growth rate in the U.S. is at historic lows, reminiscent of the Great Depression era.

A new study published in npj Urban Sustainability explores the future of underpopulation and how it’s likely to affect sustainability goals. Using demographic data from United Nations reports, the study argues that the underpopulation problem is dynamic and twofold: Populations are simultaneously shrinking and ageing.

“Globally, people above 65 years old are the fastest-growing segments of the population and in 2019, for the first time in human history, they outnumbered children younger than 5 years old,” the researchers wrote. “In 2020, 9% of the global population was above 65 years old, accounting for 728 million people. This population is projected to increase more than twofold, reaching 1.55 billion in 2050 and accounting to 16% of global population, at medium fertility rates.” Read More > at Big Think

Why churches keep winning big against California – California churches are coming out of the pandemic smelling like roses.

The state agreed this week to two settlements that block it from imposing new coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship tougher than those for similar secular activities, CalMatters’ Ben Christopher and I report. It’s the latest legal blow churches have dealt Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration amid the pandemic: The U.S. Supreme Court in February knocked down California’s ban on indoor worship and in April paused its ban on at-home religious gatherings. The rulings from the nation’s highest court prompted California to allow houses of worship to reopen indoors at full capacity in April — something other businesses won’t be able to do for another two weeks.

  • Paul Jonna, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, which represented the plaintiffs in the two cases: The settlements “memorialize what the Supreme Court has already articulated. … If it’s okay for Costco, it’s okay for churches. That’s the standard.”

In the settlements, the state also agreed to pay the two plaintiffs’ legal bills: $1.6 million for South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista and $550,000 for Father Trevor Burfitt, a Catholic priest with congregations across Southern California. Last month, Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena secured a $1.35 million settlement under similar conditions.

The California Department of Justice, which entered into the settlements, did not respond to a request for comment.

That brings the tab for California’s losing streak against churches to at least $3.5 million — as compared to $6 million lawmakers set aside Tuesday in a budget deal for “legal challenges to the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.”

California’s pandemic restrictions have been challenged in court at least 83 times, according to a CalMatters database. Although state and federal judges have generally upheld Newsom’s emergency powers, lawsuits over religious freedom have been the notable exception. Read More > at CalMatters 

A Self-Driving Truck Got a Shipment Cross-Country 10 Hours Faster Than a Human Driver – Self-driving cars are taking longer to come to market than many expected. In fact, it’s looking like they may be outpaced by pilotless planes and driverless trucks. A truck isn’t much different than a car, but self-driving technology is already coming in handy on long-haul trucking routes, as a recent cross-country trip showed.

Last month TuSimple, a transportation company focused on self-driving technology for heavy-duty trucks, shipped a truckload of watermelons from Arizona to Oklahoma using the truck’s autonomous system for over 80 percent of the journey. The starting point was Nogales, at Arizona’s southern end right on the border with Mexico. A human driver took the wheel for the first 60 miles or so, from Nogales to Tucson—but from there the truck went on auto-pilot, and not just for a little while. It drove itself all the way to Dallas, 950 miles to the east (there was a human safety driver on board the whole time, but not controlling the truck).

If you look at the most direct route, it’s pretty straightforward: there’s one fork where I-10 splits off and merges with I-20, but other than that, it’s straight on through ‘til morning. Literally, in this case; the truck drove the route in 14 hours and 6 minutes, as compared to the given estimate of the average time it takes a human to drive the same route—24 hours and 6 minutes.

Last summer, TuSimple announced plans to build a nationwide network of self-driving trucks, complete with digitally-mapped routes, terminals, and a central operations system. They already operate seven routes between Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, and Dallas, and are in the process of adding routes to Houston and San Antonio.

They haven’t had to jump too many legal hurdles, at least not at a federal level; federal regulations don’t cover automated driving systems at present, with responsibility left to individual states. Texas is an optimal state in which to carry out tests like this: tons of space, good weather, huge highways running both north-south and east-west, and a 2017 bill allowing vehicles to operate without a driver. Read More > at Singularity Hub

A rogue killer drone ‘hunted down’ a human target without being instructed to, UN report says – A “lethal” weaponized drone “hunted down a human target” without being told to, likely for the first time, according to a UN report seen by the New Scientist.

In the March 2020 incident, a Kargu-2 quadcopter autonomously attacked a person during a conflict between Libyan government forces and a breakaway military faction, led by the Libyan National Army’s Khalifa Haftar, the Daily Star reported.

The Turkish-built Kargu-2, a deadly attack drone designed for asymmetric warfare and anti-terrorist operations, targeted one of Haftar’s soldiers while he tried to retreat, according to the paper.

The drone, which can be directed to detonate on impact, was operating in a “‘highly effective’ autonomous mode that required no human controller,” the New York Post reported. Read More > at Business Insider

Stem cell therapy could reverse Type 2 diabetes for some, study finds – Stem cell therapy using cells produced from a patient’s own bone marrow may reduce reliance on insulin or other medications for Type 2 diabetes treatment, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Stem Cells Translational Medicine.

A clinical trial conducted at Vinmec Research Institute of Stem Cell and Gene Technology in Hanoi found that stem cell treatment allowed some patients to reduce or eliminate their need for other medications for at least some period of time, researchers said.

Bone marrow stem cells are able to turn into any cell type and as such have been widely explored for disease treatment, including research in recent years to evaluate their potential against diabetes. Read More > from UPI

Death penalty faces critical test – The death penalty in California could be on the precipice of a dramatic change.

On Wednesday, the California Supreme Court will begin hearings in a case challenging the state’s application of the death penalty. The state’s highest court will consider whether to raise the bar for when a jury can sentence a defendant to capital punishment, a decision that could affect pending cases and potentially reverse death sentences for the 704 inmates already on California’s Death Row. It’s a move supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who in October took the unprecedented step of filing a brief urging the state Supreme Court to change how California applies the death penalty, arguing the current process is “infected by racism.”

The landmark hearing follows Newsom’s Friday executive order mandating an independent investigation into the case of Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper, who was convicted in 1985 of a quadruple murder but continues to maintain his innocence. Also Friday, Newsom granted 14 pardons, 13 commutations and eight medical reprieves, including pardons for two inmate firefighters who were facing deportation.

California’s reexamination of the death penalty comes amid a fraught debate over public safety in the wake of a string of mass shootings and a surge in gun violence. A lot of political futures — including Newsom’s — could be on the line. The governor angered some Californians by ordering a halt to the death penalty in 2019, just three years after voters rejected an attempt to end capital punishment. Recall organizers cite the order as a key reason to vote him out of office.

Capital punishment could also play a pivotal role in next year’s state attorney general race, with Newsom appointee Rob Bonta opposed to the death penalty and his main challenger so far, Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, in favor of it.

recent poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies found that although 44% of California voters support repealing the death penalty, a sizable 21% remain undecided. Read More > CalMatters

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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