Sunday Reading – 01/09/2022


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.

Sacramento gas price could soar above $5 per gallon by spring. Here’s what we know so far – Sacramento’s national pump price is predicted to soar to over $5 by spring, according to a new gas report.

According to GasBuddy, a fuel-saving website, most major U.S. cities could see prices peak around $4 per gallon. But California cities like Sacramento could see average prices for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline reach between $4.95 and $5.25 this year.

The reason for the predicted jump is largely due to pandemic recovery.

As of Monday, California’s price for a gallon of regular fuel was $4.66, which is about the same price as one month ago but roughly $1.41 more than one year ago, according to the American Automobile Association. But the state’s average for a gallon hasn’t surpassed the Nov. 27 record average of $4.71. Read More > in The Sacramento Bee

Just how serious is California’s COVID-19 situation? – On the one hand, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health official, on Wednesday extended California’s indoor mask mandate — which was set to run through Jan. 15 — through at least Feb. 15, citing a surge in COVID cases that has pushed the state’s test positivity rate to a whopping 21.3%.

On the other hand, Ghaly acknowledged that the state lacks critical data on just how severely the virus, especially the omicron variant, is affecting Californians. He noted that around 8,000 of the state’s approximately 51,000 hospital patients on Wednesday morning had tested positive for COVID. But, Ghaly said, it’s unclear how many of those patients were hospitalized because of COVID versus how many were admitted for different reasons and ended up incidentally having COVID.

  • Ghaly: “That distinction … is really important and helps us not only help manage the staffing challenges within some of the hospitals, but also project out the need for additional ICU capacity. … And as we see an increasing number of fully vaccinated individuals, boosted individuals, admitted to the hospital with incidental COVID … I think we’re starting to see a sort of different approach to that.”

Indeed, as of Tuesday, roughly two-thirds of COVID-positive patients at hospitals run by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Services were admitted for something other than the virus. Marin County hospitals on Monday had a near-record high of 19 COVID patients — but at least 42% were incidental cases. And Berkeley is experiencing a “phenomenal” surge in cases, but only three residents at minimum have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the past month.

Hospitalization data may be opaque, but staff shortages are clear. Thousands of police officers, firefighters and paramedics are in quarantine, straining critical public safety services. Unprecedented numbers of health care workers have been sidelined after testing positive for the virus, prompting some hospital departments to operate at half capacity and others to postpone elective surgeries. Ghaly said California has brought in more than 1,800 out-of-state health care workers to fill gaps at more than 150 facilities and is working to hire even more.

Although Ghaly emphasized that both he and Gov. Gavin Newsom don’t foresee future COVID-related shutdowns, they’re happening anyway. Courtrooms up and down the state are temporarily suspending jury trials, as CalMatters’ Byrhonda Lyons reports. The Los Angeles City Council has returned to virtual meetings, and Newsom cleared the way for state agencies to do the same in a Wednesday executive order. Some Sacramento restaurants are closing, and on Wednesday the Grammy Awards ceremony was postponed indefinitely.

But the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, got an implicit go-ahead from Ghaly.

  • Ghaly: “I think Californians are excited to see that event occur, and the work is to make sure that as it is moving forward and planned, that the mitigation strategies that create safety around that event are in place.” Read More > at CalMatters

Crime, drug crisis stay in spotlight – Other issues certain to keep dominating California discourse in 2022: rising crime rates and the drug overdose epidemic. Los Angeles closed out 2021 with its highest rate of gun violence in 15 years, notching 392 homicides as of Dec. 29 — the city’s highest total since 2007 and a more than 50% increase from 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times. Oakland, meanwhile, finished the year with 134 homicides, its largest tally since 2006, and has already recorded its first murder of 2022, the Mercury News reports. Despite Newsom pledging to spend more on crime-fighting efforts and other prominent California Democrats ramping up their tough-on-crime rhetoric, some shaken residents are taking matters into their own hands: After four men robbed him at gunpoint, longtime Oakland resident Trevor Lawrence bought a firearm of his own.

  • Lawrence“When you’ve been through that level of trauma, I feel that’s the only sense of security I have.”

Another jaw-dropping statistic: San Francisco police in 2021 seized 56 pounds of fentanyl from the Tenderloin neighborhood alone — a 500% increase from the amount seized there in 2020. The figure, which police officials described as “unprecedented,” was released a few days after San Francisco supervisors approved Mayor London Breed’s proposal to declare a state of emergency in the Tenderloin to ramp up the city’s response to overdose deaths. “This is a status quo that we absolutely need to challenge and disrupt with everything we have,” Supervisor Matt Haney — who’s running for a state Assembly seat — told the San Francisco Chronicle. Read More > at CalMatters

California continues to face wildfire risks. Insurers think they have an answer. – California is struggling to prevent wildfires from decimating communities each year. Now insurers wonder if they can accomplish what politicians can’t.

State leaders are pouring money into firefighting and clearing brush from drought-parched forests. They’ve allowed utilities to cut power on the riskiest days. But they’ve done little to discourage residents from living in extreme fire areas. And they’ve continued to allow development on the outskirts in a state desperate for housing.

Enter the insurance industry, which says it can no longer afford to back homes facing a high risk of burning up each year. It’s pushing for a new model that would account for future climate change risks — an approach that California has been alone in resisting.

…Many property owners are already struggling to find insurers willing to renew their policies. The state also has intervened, demanding that they continue covering at-risk homeowners for the time being. But insurers dropped about 212,000 California properties in 2020, and about 50,000 homeowners — many in the Sierra Nevada foothills on the eastern side of the state — couldn’t find another option on the private market.

That has led to a reckoning over whether California should allow insurers to account for future climate change risks.

The industry is arguing the state should let the market reflect the true risk. Insurers say the time is ripe to unlock a long-sought policy tool: Basing rates on estimates of fire damages to come, rather than actual damages from the previous 20 years. Read More > at Politico

Headaches and Backlogs Loom as Tax Filing Season Nears Again – The third tax-filing season during the coronavirus pandemic is set to begin soon with more delays, uncertainty and frustration likely for taxpayers and tax preparers.

There will be some signs of business as usual. The individual tax deadline will return to its usual mid-April date for the first time since 2019, and the Internal Revenue Service says it has been steadily reducing its backlog of 2020 returns and other lingering paperwork.

Even so, the agency is still contending with piles of work from the messy 2020 tax year while facing new challenges, including the prospect of retroactive legislation and pandemic-era tax-law changes that will require extra attention from taxpayers.

“The IRS is going to start the filing season in a hole,” said Erin Collins, the national taxpayer advocate, who leads an independent group within the IRS.

In late December, the IRS said it was on schedule opening its mail and that it has processed returns it received before April 2021 that didn’t require special attention or contained errors. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Activist makes list to bust imposters claiming to be Native American – They’re coming for white lies.

A list of allegedly fake Native Americans has begun circulating in tribal and academic circles, accusing 195 people of falsely claiming an Indian identity for personal gain. 

The “Alleged Pretendians List” is the creation of Jacqueline Keeler, a Native American writer and activist who has spent years busting fakers in politics and academia.

The list is a hodgepodge, with some entries containing detailed genealogical records to back up the claims, while others offer little beyond Keeler’s j’accuse. The list contains both those being probed and those who have already been disavowed by tribes they claim affiliation with.

The list includes well-known imposters and claimants like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Johnny Depp, but also less well-known figures in media and the arts.

The issue of Pretendians made headlines last month when Canada’s top indigenous health expert, Carrie Bourassa, was ousted after her claims of membership in the Métis nation were debunked. Researchers found her people actually originated from Eastern Europe and Russia. Read More > in the New York Post

No convincing scientific evidence that hangover cures work, according to new research – A new systematic review has found only very low-quality evidence that substances claiming to treat or prevent alcohol-induced hangover work.

The researchers call for more rigorous scientific exploration of the effectiveness of these remedies for hangovers to provide practitioners and the public with accurate evidence-based information on which to make their decisions.

Numerous remedies claim to be effective against hangover symptoms; however, up-to-date scientific examination of the literature is lacking. To address this gap, a team of researchers from King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust conducted a systematic review to consolidate and assess the current evidence for hangover treatments.

The study, published today by the scientific journal Addiction, assessed 21 placebo-controlled randomized trials of clove extract, red ginseng, Korean pear juice, and other hangover cures. Although some studies showed statistically significant improvements in hangover symptoms, all evidence was of very low quality, usually because of methodological limitations or imprecise measurements. In addition, no two studies reported on the same hangover remedy and no results have been independently replicated. Read More > at Medical Xpress

When They Warn of Rare Disorders, These Prenatal Tests Are Usually Wrong – …Ms. Geller had been misled by a wondrous promise that Silicon Valley has made to expectant mothers: that a few vials of their blood, drawn in the first trimester, can allow companies to detect serious developmental problems in the DNA of the fetus with remarkable accuracy.

In just over a decade, the tests have gone from laboratory experiments to an industry that serves more than a third of the pregnant women in America, luring major companies like Labcorp and Quest Diagnostics into the business, alongside many start-ups.

The tests initially looked for Down syndrome and worked very well. But as manufacturers tried to outsell each other, they began offering additional screenings for increasingly rare conditions.

The grave predictions made by those newer tests are usually wrong, an examination by The New York Times has found.

That includes the screening that came back positive for Ms. Geller, which looks for Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that offers little chance of living independently as an adult. Studies have found its positive results are incorrect more than 90 percent of the time.

Nonetheless, on product brochures and test result sheets, companies describe the tests to pregnant women and their doctors as near certain. They advertise their findings as “reliable” and “highly accurate,” offering “total confidence” and “peace of mind” for patients who want to know as much as possible. Read More > in The New York Times

L.A.’s Arms Race of the Affluent – In Beverly Hills, even the purchase of a firearm comes with certain…expectations. The city’s only gun store, Beverly Hills Guns, is a “concierge service” by appointment only, for a largely affluent clientele. And business is booming.

Since opening in July 2020, the store has seen upscale residents from Santa Monica to the Hollywood Hills increasingly in a panic following several high-profile smash-and-grab and violent home invasion robberies. The apparent siege has brought in a daily stream of anxious business owners and prominent actors, real estate moguls and film execs, says owner Russell Stuart. Most are arming themselves for the first time.

“This morning I sold six shotguns in about an hour to people that say, ‘I want a home defense shotgun,’” says Stuart, whose store is discreetly located in a Beverly Hills office building, with no sign on the doors, down the hall from a diamond dealer. “Everyone has a general sense of constant fear,  which is very sad. We’re used to this being like Mayberry.”

That fear has the wealthiest of local gentry contemplating every more elaborate security measures: armored luxury cars, safe rooms and bullet-proof glass in their homes. One client asked about creating the “Tony Stark-level” security of a half-dozen automated drones to hover over his house, says Stuart, whose gun store is part of his larger security company, Force Protective Agency. Read More > at Los Angeles Magazine

$29,000 for an Average Used Car? Would-Be Buyers Are Aghast – Consider that the average price of a used vehicle in the United States in November, according to Edmunds.com, was $29,011 — a dizzying 39% more than just 12 months earlier. And for the first time that anyone can recall, more than half of America’s households have less income than is considered necessary to buy the average-priced used vehicle.

The days when just about anyone with a steady income could wander onto an auto lot and snag a reliable late-model car or buy their kid’s first vehicle for a few thousand dollars have essentially vanished.

When the government reported that consumer inflation rocketed 6.8% in the 12 months that ended in November — the sharpest jump in nearly 40 years — the biggest factor, apart from energy, was used vehicles. And while the rate of increase is slowing, most experts say the inflated vehicle prices aren’t likely to ease for the foreseeable future.

The blame can be traced directly to the pandemic’s eruption in March of last year. Auto plants suspended production to try to slow the virus’ spread. As sales of new vehicles sank, fewer people traded in used cars and trucks. At the same time, demand for laptops and monitors from people stuck at home led semiconductor makers to shift production from autos, which depend on such chips, to consumer electronics.

When a swifter-than-expected economic rebound boosted demand for vehicles, auto plants tried to restore full production. But chip makers couldn’t respond fast enough. And rental car companies and other fleet buyers, unable to acquire new vehicles, stopped off-loading older ones, thereby compounding the shortage of used vehicles.

Bleak as the market is for used-car buyers, the computer chip shortage has also driven new-vehicle prices higher. The average new vehicle, Edmunds.com says, is edging toward $46,000.

Even so, prices of used cars are likely to edge closer to new ones. Since the pandemic started, used vehicle prices have jumped 42% — more than double the increase for new ones. Last month, the average used vehicle price was 63% of the average new vehicle cost. Before the pandemic, it was 54%. Read More > at U.S. News & World Report

California court rejects early releases for violent crime – The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled Monday that corrections officials need not consider earlier release for violent felons, even those whose primary offense is considered nonviolent under state law.

The ruling stems from inmates’ latest attempt to expand the application of an initiative championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by nearly two-thirds of voters in 2016.

But the high court ruled that corrections officials acted properly in drafting regulations that “exclude from nonviolent offender early parole consideration any inmate who ‘is currently serving a term of incarceration for a ‘violent felony.’”

The justices said that includes prisoners serving sentences for a combination of violent and nonviolent felonies. Read More > from the Associated Press

This Mysterious Fire in Australia Has Been Burning For at Least 6,000 Years – In a national park a four-hour drive north of Sydney in Australia, a fire is smoldering out of control – and it’s been doing so for at least 6,000 years.

Known as ‘Burning Mountain’, the mysterious underground blaze is the oldest known fire on the planet. And some scientists estimate it may be far more ancient than we currently think.

Located under Mount Wingen in the state of New South Wales (Wingen means ‘fire’ in the language of the local Wanaruah people, the traditional custodians of the land), this underground smolder is a coal seam fire – one of thousands burning at any one time around the globe. 

Once ignited, these subterranean fires are almost impossible to put out. Slowly but intensely, they travel through the coal seam, a layer of coal that naturally occurs beneath Earth’s surface. 

Unlike a typical fire, a coal seam fire burns underground; it’s smoldering, which means there’s no flame and it’s more like embers in a barbecue, rather than a typical coal fire. It’s also not to be confused with more dramatic coal seam gas fires, which are known to set even waterways on fire.

The fire at Mount Wingen is currently burning around 30 meters underground, and moving south at a speed of around 1 meter (3.2 ft) per year. Read More > at Science Alert

5 Places Where World War III Could Erupt In 2022 – Entering 2022, the world looks more dangerous than it has at any time since the late 1980s. Real conflicts of interest in Eastern Europe and the East China Sea have set the table for the first serious great-power conflict in decades. Crises in the Middle East, Northeast Asia, and the Himalayas continue to smolder.

Here are the five most dangerous flashpoints for the eruption of World War III, in descending order of peril:

Ukraine

Easily the most likely flashpoint for great power war in 2022 lies along the border between Russia and Ukraine.

Over the past six months, Russia has steadily built up forces along the frontier as Kyiv, Moscow, and Washington have traded barbs. Russia’s immediate concerns involve the Ukrainian acquisition and use of Turkish drones along its border regions, along with a general increase in Ukrainian military power. Moscow’s long-range problem is its inability to reverse the Western orientation that Kyiv has adopted since 2014…

Taiwan

Over the past year, long-simmering US concern over the Chinese threat to Taiwan has seemed to come to a boil.

Chinese military capabilities have grown rapidly over the past decade, and now constitute a major obstacle against US intervention. At the same time, China’s military remains untested, and an amphibious assault across the Taiwan Strait would constitute one of the most sophisticated military operations in history… Read More > 19fortyfive

With Sexually Transmitted Infections Off the Charts, California Pushes At-Home Tests – California has become the first state to require health insurance plans to cover at-home tests for sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, chlamydia and syphilis — which could help quell the STI epidemic that has raged nearly unchecked as public health departments have focused on covid-19.

The rule, part of a broader law addressing the STI epidemic, took effect Jan. 1 for people with state-regulated private insurance plans and will kick in sometime later for the millions of low-income Californians enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program.

By making it easier and cheaper for Californians to self-administer tests in the privacy of their homes, the provision could bring better disease monitoring to rural and underserved parts of the state, reduce the stigma patients experience when seeking care and give them more control over their health, say experts on infectious diseases.

But being first has its downsides. Because the concept of insurance coverage for home STI tests is so new, the state’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal, could not establish by Jan. 1 the billing codes it needs to start paying for tests. Federal regulators also haven’t approved the tests for home use, which could make labs reluctant to process them. And a state analysis predicts most in-network health care providers won’t start prescribing home tests for at least a year until they adjust their billing and other practices. Read More > at California Healthline

California adopts water restrictions as drought drags on – For the second time in a decade, Californians will face mandatory restrictions governing their outdoor water use as the state endures another drought and voluntary conservation efforts have fallen short.

The rules adopted Tuesday by the State Water Resources Control Board are fairly mild — no watering lawns for 48 hours after a rainstorm or letting sprinklers run onto the sidewalk— and could take effect as soon as the end of the month. Scofflaws could face $500 daily fines, though regulators say they expect such fines will be rare, as they were in the last drought.

The action comes as Californians have failed to meet Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call for a voluntary 15% reduction in water use compared to last year. Between July and November, the state’s water usage went down just 6%.

Among the water uses that won’t be allowed under the new rules: outdoor watering that results in excessive runoff into the street and sidewalks; using water for landscaping and irrigation during the 48 hours after storms that bring at least .25 inches (.63 centimeters) of rain; washing cars with hoses lacking shut-off nozzles; using potable water to wash driveways, sidewalks, buildings and patios and for street cleaning or to fill decorative fountains or lakes. Read More > from the Associated Press

New Mercedes could be Tesla killer with 47in TV on board and 620 mile range – The vehicle could be set to rival Elon Musk’s electric Tesla and looks like the perfect mashup between classic and futuristic.

Mercedes tweeted: “Introducing the most efficient Mercedes-Benz ever built: the VISION EQXX.

“Making way for a new era of electric mobility with a range of over 1,000km on a single charge and an outstanding energy consumption of less than 10 kWh per 100 kilometers.”

That means the car could travel 620 miles on just one charge.

That’s the equivalent of a trip from Berlin to Paris or New York to Cincinnati, Ohio on a single charge.

Mercedes intends for a road-legal version of the car to prove this range by spring this year.

It has solar panels on its roof for added energy and an aerodynamic design. Read More > in The U.S. Sun

Prop. 47 targeted by Dem, GOP lawmakers – Little did California voters know, when they approved a 2014 ballot measure that reduced penalties for certain theft offenses, that their decision would still be making headlines in 2022.

On Tuesday, Democratic Assemblymember Rudy Salas of Bakersfield introduced a bill that, if passed by state lawmakers and a majority of voters, would reverse a key aspect of Prop. 47 by moving the felony threshold for petty theft and shoplifting from $950 back to $400.

  • Salas: “Enough is enough, we need to fight back against the criminals who are stealing from our communities. We have seen the unintended consequences of Prop. 47’s weakening of our theft laws and I believe California voters are ready to make their voices heard on this issue again.”

Salas’ statement sharply contrasts with those from prominent Democrats including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta, who have repeatedly emphasized that Prop. 47 has nothing to do with California’s surge in smash-and-grab robberies. But it could help Salas, who’s running for the U.S. House of Representatives seat currently held by Republican David Valadao, court GOP voters — many of whom blame Prop. 47 for the uptick in organized retail crime.

Indeed, a few hours after Salas unveiled his bill, a group of Republican state lawmakers — including Assemblymembers Kevin Kiley of Rocklin, James Gallagher of Yuba City and James Patterson of Fresno — introduced a proposal to repeal Prop. 47 altogether. Read More > at CalMatters

The great population growth slowdown – At the stroke of midnight on January 1, New York City welcomed its first new inhabitant of 2022: Leyla Gessel Tzunun Garcia, born as the new year began at Coney Island Hospital in Brooklyn.

Given changing trends around population and fertility, though, there’s less competition to become the first baby of the new year than there used to be. Fewer babies were born in New York City in 2020 than any year on record, while the US population grew by just 0.1 percent in the year between July 2020 and July 2021, with the country adding just 392,665 people from net migration and births over deaths.

That’s the lowest numeric increase since the Census Bureau began making annual population estimates at the beginning of the 20th century. On a percentage basis, it’s the lowest growth in the nation’s history.

Increased deaths from the pandemic plays a role, as do inevitably creeping mortality rates in an aging population. But the primary cause is declining fertility rates, as fewer Americans have children, and those that do tend to have smaller families. The total fertility rate in the US — an estimate of the average total number of children a woman will have over her lifetime — has declined from 2.12 in 2007 to 1.64 in 2020, well below the 2.1 needed for a population to replace itself without immigration.

Nor is this merely an American phenomenon. By one estimate, half the world’s population lives in countries with below-replacement-level fertility, and nations like Japan — with very low birth rates and little immigration — are already experiencing population decline. Read More > at Vox

New DHS data reveals border jumpers no longer predominantly Mexicans – The old model of illegal immigration along the southern border was shattered in 2021, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security this week that shows the demographics of the typical border jumper have been completely rewritten.

Mexicans, who for decades represented the overwhelming number of illegal immigrants, dropped to 28% of the flow, their lowest share “in recorded history,” according to Customs and Border Protection. Meanwhile, the number of women and girls jumping the border soared to nearly 400,000, more than doubling the average in recent years.

The figures were released in a belated fiscal 2021 data dump from Customs and Border Protection, which included a warning that the shifting demographics are making jobs more challenging for immigration agents. Read More > in the Washington Times

Tax hikes for universal health care? – To implement single-payer health care, or not to implement single-payer health care?

That’s the question facing state lawmakers after a group of Democratic legislators on Thursday unveiled a package of bills to create a universal health care program called CalCare. The proposal has already earned better reception than it did last year, when it was tabled without a hearing after lawmakers raised concerns about its lack of a funding source.

Democratic Assemblymember Jim Wood of Santa Rosa said Thursday that he will vote to move the bill forward next week when it’s scheduled to be considered by the Assembly Health Committee, which he leads.

  • Wood: “I continue to feel the frustration, desperation, and quite frankly, the anger that many Californians experience in their efforts to access quality and affordable health care. … Something’s got to give, so next Tuesday, I’ll be voting for change.”

But the funding source — taxes — proposed in a separate bill will likely face an uphill battle. Tax hikes must be approved by two-thirds of lawmakers in both the state Assembly and Senate — a tall order, especially in an election year — and a majority of voters to go into effect. And the doctors’ lobby, insurance industry and business groups are already mobilizing against the bill.

  • Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable: This “middle-class tax increase will drive more families into poverty, force more small businesses to close and compel more employers — and jobs — to leave this state.”

Here’s a closer look at how state lawmakers are proposing to pay for universal health care, which state analysts in 2017 estimated could cost about $400 billion annually:

  • A 2.3% excise tax on businesses after their first $2 million in income.
  • A 1.25% payroll tax on employers with 50-plus workers.
  • An additional 1% payroll tax on wages for resident employees earning more than $49,900.
  • A progressive income tax starting at 0.5% for Californians earning more than $149,500, up to 2.5% for people making about $2.5 million annually. (Those rates would also be adjusted for inflation.)

The bills present a conundrum for Gov. Gavin Newsom, who vowed to implement single-payer health care when campaigning for the governorship in 2018. That earned him the backing of powerful groups like the California Nurses Association and progressive activists — and now they want him to make good on his promise, especially after they mobilized to help him defeat the recall last September. An estimated 3.2 million Californians remain uninsured. Read More > at 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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