Sunday Reading – 07/17/2022


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.

It’s official: Bay Area home values are finally going down – As mortgage rates climb and stock prices founder, housing markets in the Bay Area and Northern California are cooling faster than the rest of the country, according to data provided by two national real estate listing sites.

The slowing demand has yet to translate to notable declines in home prices in the Bay Area, but it’s given active buyers something they lacked in the past two years amid a historic growth in home prices: leverage.

The latest data from home listings website Zillow shows that home values have started cooling in the Bay Area for the first time since the start of the pandemic. There was a slight month-over-month decrease in typical home values from May to June for five out of the top 50 largest metro areas: San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Austin and Seattle. Matt Kreamer, data spokesperson for Zillow, said the main theme among these areas is affordability.

Meanwhile, Redfin data shows similar trends as the real estate listings site lists five California cities among its “fastest-cooling housing markets.” San Jose (1st), Sacramento (2nd), Oakland (3rd), Stockton (5th) and San Francisco (10th) made up half of that top 10 in a report by Redfin. The site ranked markets based on year-to-year price growth, price drops, supply, sales, and home-sales speeds from February to May. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

Could CA labor law derail the supply chain? – California’s long-simmering war over a controversial state labor law is threatening to boil over at the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland — sparking fears of disastrous ripple effects across a global supply chain already at its breaking point amid pandemic backlogs, ongoing labor disputes and inflation at a 40-year high.

The escalating dispute is increasing pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to outline a game plan for implementing AB 5, a law he signed in 2019 requiring companies to reclassify many of their independent contractors as employees and grant them the requisite benefits.

On Monday, truckers are expected to protest AB 5 at the Port of Oakland — as they did Wednesday at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The law was originally set to go into effect in 2020, but tangled legal battles temporarily blocked it. However, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 30 cleared the way for the law to proceed when it declined to consider a challenge brought by the trucking industry, though legal fights are still playing out in lower courts.

The move threw into legal jeopardy the status of California’s approximately 70,000 independent truck owner-operators, who, in order to comply with new regulations, may have to obtain licenses and insurance that trucking officials say could increase their annual operating costs by $20,000 — forcing some out of the industry, straining an already overstretched workforce and raising consumer prices. But some truckers support the law, saying it will protect them from wage theft and other abuses.

It remains unclear when and how the state will start enforcing AB 5. Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

But that isn’t the only labor dispute putting stress on the supply chain: About 20,000 pieces of cargo have been piled at the Port of Los Angeles for more than nine days awaiting rail transport, up from a typical wait of about two days, Gene Seroka, the port’s executive director, said Wednesday. Part of the reason: A railroad labor standoff that could lead to tens of thousands of workers across the country walking off the job on Monday if the Biden administration doesn’t intervene before then.

Separately, West Coast dockworkers and shipping companies are engaged in high-stakes negotiations over a contract that expired July 1, though both sides have committed to continue working until a deal is reached. Read More > at CalMatters

California went big on rooftop solar. It created an environmental danger in the process – California has been a pioneer in pushing for rooftop solar power, building up the largest solar market in the U.S. More than 20 years and 1.3 million rooftops later, the bill is coming due.

Beginning in 2006, the state, focused on how to incentivize people to take up solar power, showered subsidies on homeowners who installed photovoltaic panels but had no comprehensive plan to dispose of them. Now, panels purchased under those programs are nearing the end of their 25-year lifecycle.

Many are already winding up in landfills, where components that contain toxic heavy metals such as selenium and cadmium can contaminate groundwater.

“People just don’t realize that there are toxic materials in those electronics, that it’s fine if it’s just sitting in a box in your house,” said Natalie Click, a doctoral candidate in materials science at the University of Arizona who studies the issue. “But once it gets crushed and put into the landfill, a lot of those toxic chemicals and materials are going to leak into your groundwater.”

Sam Vanderhoof, a solar industry expert, says that only 1 in 10 panels are actually recycled, according to estimates drawn from International Renewable Energy Agency data on decommissioned panels and from industry leaders.

The looming challenge over how to handle truckloads of contaminated waste illustrates how cutting-edge environmental policy can create unforeseen hazards down the road.

“The industry is supposed to be green,” Vanderhoof said. “But in reality, it’s all about the money.”

It’s not just a problem in California but also nationwide. About 140,000 panels are installed every day in the United States, and the solar industry is expected to quadruple in size between 2020 and 2030.

Although 80% of a typical photovoltaic panel is made of recyclable materials, disassembling them and recovering the glass, silver and silicon is extremely difficult. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

California taxed millionaires to fix its mental health crisis. Why it’s fallen so short – Nearly two decades ago, California voters passed a landmark tax on millionaires envisioned as a game changer for mental health.

Supporters promised the new money would drastically reduce homelessness and improve access to services for all Californians.

“No one who is mentally ill and now on the street will be on the street in five years,” promised the late Rusty Selix, who was executive director of the Mental Health Assn. of California and a co-author of the ballot initiative, Proposition 63. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be homeless. But you will see a measurable decline.”

Since voters approved the tax in 2004, it has generated an escalating gusher of money — $29 billion in total, half of which has come in just the last five years.

Those funds have boosted early intervention programs in schools and communities, created wraparound services for severely mentally disabled homeless people and enhanced community outreach. Backers say the money has drastically improved life for hundreds of thousands of Californians.

But amid a steadily worsening homeless crisis, it’s clear the results have fallen far short of the initial promise.

A Los Angeles Times review points to several major, overlapping reasons, including chronic and systemic underfunding of other social and mental health programs, unpredictable swings in revenue, bureaucratic infighting between state and county officials and, in the last few years, a severe shortage of mental health clinicians. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Why do criminals covet French bulldogs? Breed offers quick cash, but big problems – …Sailor is one of 2 million dogs stolen every year in the United States. But she’s also one of the lucky 10% of those reunited with their owners.

French bulldogs, like many other purebred dogs, are targets for theft because of their high value. Swindlers are looking to “dog flip” — steal, take in and adopt dogs to breed, and resell them for a quick profit.

Even Lady Gaga has been a victim of the trend. Her French bulldogs, Koji and Gustav, were stolen in a 2021 street robbery that left her dog walker shot and critically wounded.

Tales of violent encounters and snatched Frenchies are common across the country…

Breeder Diana Zingaretti, owner of Miami Blue French bulldogs, has heard stories of stolen Frenchies way too often. The breed can range from $5,000 to $200,000 for one pup, which entices thieves looking to make a quick buck.

Breeding French bulldogs is expensive and time-consuming, said breeder Michael Gomez, owner of Bulldogs4Ever in the Miami area. That’s why the average price for a pup from a reputable breeder in South Florida ranges from $3,500 to $10,000. They require blood tests, frequent medical care and C-sections. Read More > in the Miami Herald  

Shell Has Big Plans to Drill in the Gulf of Mexico Despite Climate and Political Debate – Political uncertainty is clouding prospects for new drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, but Shell  PLC—the Gulf’s biggest producer—is still investing billions of dollars in its waters to pump oil for years to come.

Shell’s continued ambitions in the Gulf are on full display in a sprawling fabrication yard in southeast Texas. There, the company is putting the finishing touches on Vito, its 13th major offshore project in the region, with a cost of around $3 billion, according to energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, shared by Shell and its partner, Norway’s Equinor  ASA. Later this month, three tugboats will tow Vito to waters around 4,000 feet deep some 150 miles southeast of New Orleans, where it will start pumping oil and gas from eight wells.

The investment decision on Vito was made in 2018, and Shell will need to invest billions of dollars more in years to come just to maintain current Gulf production levels, said Paul Goodfellow, the U.K. oil company’s global head of deep-water operations. He said the company is confident in a long-term future of steady returns in the Gulf, despite mixed signals from the Biden administration. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Study: COVID-19 widens socio-economic gap in Californians’ life expectancies – Racial and economic health disparities exposed by the pandemic have factored into a widening gap in Californians’ life expectancies, according to a study published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Researchers found that between 2019 and 2021, the life expectancy for Latino Californians fell by almost six years — from 82.5 years to 76.8. That plunge is twice the average decline of about three years for all Californians and three times more than the decrease for white Californians of close to two years. 

Prior to the pandemic, white Californians had a lower life expectancy than Latinos of 80.5 years. In 2021, the expected life span of whites had decreased to 78.6 years.

Life expectancy is a hypothetical measure of how long those born in a specific year will live based on that year’s mortality rates. It is not a measure of actual life spans, but researchers use it to understand loss of life within various populations, according to the California Policy Lab.

It decreased by nearly four years for Black Californians, from 74.8 years to 71, and by three years for Asian Californians, from 86.6 years to 83.5, the study says. Read More > in the VC Star

The Decline Of The American Work Ethic Will Exacerbate The Oncoming Recession – The Atlanta Federal Reserve recently projected that second-quarter GDP fell by 1.9 percent. If its model proves correct, the U.S. economy has fallen into a recession with GDP shrinking for two consecutive quarters. Whether we are technically in a recession is far less important than the reality of the recession Americans have been experiencing for months. At this point, with ongoing historic inflation, Americans are also likely enduring stagflation.

On Friday, the Labor Department announced that the economy created 372,000 jobs in June and the unemployment rate held at 3.6 percent. President Biden has continually bragged about the supposed historic job creation under his watch taking credit for people returning to work following the pandemic.

Yet the labor market isn’t as rosy as the topline unemployment rate suggests. There are still over 500,000 fewer people working today than before the pandemic despite the V-shaped recovery Biden inherited from President Trump. 

Yet, employers are desperate to hire. There are 11.3 million unfilled jobs nationwide. That’s nearly 2 jobs for every unemployed person. This obviously raises the question: why are fewer people working than was the case pre-pandemic?

Well, the answer is equally obvious. Not enough Americans are willing to work. The labor force participation rate remains well below its pre-pandemic standard. In fact, were labor participation today the same as when the pandemic began, the unemployment rate would be 5.5 percent. It’s only 3.6 percent because fewer people are working or actively looking for work.

Generous social welfare programs, expanded during the Covid-19 pandemic, help explain this labor market paradox. Read More > in The Federalist

Electricity Blackouts Are Here, and Regulation By Wishful Thinking Won’t Cut It – Hardly a week goes by without reports regarding the growing threat of electricity blackouts in the U.S.  It brings to mind Ernest Hemmingway’s line in The Sun Also Rises about bankruptcy happening “two ways…gradually, then suddenly.”  For years, electric reliability has been an increasing concern.  Nonetheless, it’s all a bit jarring to see evidence that much of the U.S. is shifting from the “gradually” phase of electric reliability decline and into the “suddenly” phase.

My former agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, recently released its summer reliability assessment, and it is concerning.  The problem is not limited to just one region of the country – it spreads across two-thirds of it.  While the blackouts in Texas and California are the most obvious examples of the reliability cliff, they are no longer alone.  The Midcontinent Independent System Operator, which runs the grid in much of the central U.S., lost 2.3 percent of its generating capacity in just the last year and is issuing notices that it may be short of power during the summer.  Much of the Western U.S. is also at risk.  New York’s and New England’s vulnerability to disruption, especially in the winter, is real and troubling.

My point here is not to bash renewable energy or other emerging technologies, but we had better have a plan for how to integrate them reliably before giving up the resources needed for 24/7 power.  We should listen to the engineers who run the grid as we embark on the clean energy transition.  But herein lies the rub.  In my years as an energy regulator, I witnessed a steady rise in regulation by wishful thinking, prodded by a bevy of influential energy think tanks and non-profits. Read More > at Real Clear Energy

Inflation rose 9.1% in June, even more than expected, as price pressures intensify – Shoppers paid sharply higher prices for a variety of goods in June as inflation kept its hold on a slowing U.S. economy, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday.

The consumer price index, a broad measure of everyday goods and services, soared 9.1% from a year ago, above the 8.8% Dow Jones estimate. That marked another month of the fastest pace for inflation going back to December 1981.

Excluding volatile food and energy prices, so-called core CPI increased 5.9%, compared to the 5.7% estimate.

On a monthly basis, headline CPI rose 1.3% and core CPI was up 0.7%, compared to respective estimates of 1.1% and 0.5%.

Taken together, the numbers seemed to counter the narrative that inflation may be peaking, as the gains were based across a variety of categories. Read More > at CNBC

Scammers are blackmailing restaurants across the US with one-star Google reviews – For the past week, a handful of high-profile and Michelin-starred restaurants from San Francisco to New York City have been targeted in an extortion campaign weaponizing Google reviews. It appears to be a coordinated effort: The restaurants receive a barrage of one-star reviews on Google — you know, the ratings that show up when you search for anything on Maps — and then the owners receive an apologetic email asking for a $75 Google Play gift card in order to stop the digital bombing.

Kim Alter is chef and owner of Nightbird, a fine dining restaurant in San Francisco that was hit by this campaign. On July 5th, she shared an email she received from the extortionists after her restaurant was inundated with negative reviews. The email read as follows:

“Hello. Unfortunately, negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us. And will appear in the future, one review a day. We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice. The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive. We are begging you to send us google play gift card worth $75.”

The message then offered a link to buy the gift card on PayPal and an email address to receive the code. It concluded with another apology. Read More > at Engadget

Social Security cost-of-living adjustment could be 10.5% in 2023, according to new estimate – Social Security beneficiaries will be in line to receive a record high cost-of-living adjustment in 2023 due to inflation. The question is exactly how high it may be.

Based on new consumer price index data for June released Wednesday, The Senior Citizens League, a nonpartisan senior group, now estimates the cost-of-living adjustment will be 10.5% for 2023.

A 10.5% COLA would amount to a $175.10 increase to the average monthly retirement benefit of $1,668, according to The Senior Citizens League.

In comparison, the group’s estimates from the past two months indicated the COLA for next year might be 8.6%. Read More > at CNBC

Biggest Reason Why People Aren’t Buying Electric Cars Revealed in New Survey – A survey discovered that charging logistics is the primary reason why Americans aren’t buying electric vehicles.

Consumer Reports, which said it surveyed around 8,000 Americans, found that 61 percent said they wouldn’t seek to own an electric vehicle because of charging logistics while 55 percent cited the number of miles a vehicle can go per charge. Another 52 percent said that the costs of buying and maintaining an electric vehicle are cost-prohibitive.

Another 46 percent of the respondents stated they have not heard of any financial incentives available for owners of electric vehicles.

“We found that 14 percent of American drivers say they would ‘definitely’ buy or lease an electric-only vehicle if they were to buy a vehicle today,” said Consumer Reports. “That’s up markedly from the 4 percent who said the same in a 2020 nationally representative survey from CR of 3,392 licensed U.S. drivers.”

According to recent figures from Kelly Blue Book, the average price of a new electric vehicle hovered at roughly $56,000. In contrast, the average price of a new compact was about $25,000 at about the same time. The average price of a new, non-electric SUV was $34,000, while the electric version was nearly $45,000. Read More > at The Epoch Times

3 rules to catch a liar – If life is a computer game, then lying is the cheat code. In a world governed by truth-default theory, the deceiver is king. We lie to get ahead in life and to get an advantage over others. For instance, lying about an infidelity keeps the family together and avoids that messy, expensive divorce. “Exaggerating” your qualifications gets you a much better paid job. Saying that you’ve read War and Peace when you’ve only watched the TV adaptation makes you sound intelligent, educated, and determined.

With such benefits, it’s no wonder that lying comes easily and naturally to us. Children as young as two years old will lie, and by eight years old, 80 percent of children will lie if they can get away with it. One study suggests that most of us lie at least once in a ten-minute conversation. That means most of us are throwing out around 30 fibs a day.

If lying is the way we get to the top and take advantage of each other, it pays to be able to spot a liar. When Simon is cheating at the game, we need to call him out. When Suzie is exploiting everyone else, we need to make sure she gets her comeuppance.

A few years ago, a research paper came out that examined the various techniques used in “high-value detainee interrogation” — basically, how to interrogate the sort of bad guys you might see in a movie. Based on this research, we can summarize three rules to catch a liar.

Rule #1. Keep them talking

Outside of lawyered-up police interrogation chambers, most people will answer your questions. Rarely do we tend to answer friends or family with, “No comment.” While truth-tellers do tend to speak and reveal more, liars are often hesitant or unable to do so because “they cannot draw on real memories, lack the imagination to fabricate a detailed, plausible story, or fear that they will give themselves away.” What the study found is that letting someone talk reveals them as a liar far better than “accusatorial methods” (of the “I know you did it!” style).

So, if you want to spot a liar, be a good listener. …

Rule #2. Listen to their feelings (or lack thereof)

In the interrogation literature, there’s an idea called “reality monitoring.” This concerns the “process by which an individual attributes a memory to a real experience or to imagination.” Essentially, it asks us to consider how we store memories compared with how we store fictions. One key insight is that when we recollect a true memory, we reference sensory details (how things looked, smelled, etc.), as well as how we felt about a specific event. On the other hand, when we’re rattling off a made-up narrative, we often use “cognitive operations,” which are much more logical and matter-of-fact. Read More > at Big Think

Surgeons at NYU Langone transplanted pig hearts into two brain-dead humans – Earlier this summer, physicians at NYU Langone were able to successfully transplant pig hearts into two recently-deceased humans. The medical team performed the procedures on June 16 and July 6, using special pig hearts that were genetically modified to be more acceptable for transplantation into a human body. Both the bodies were donated by recently deceased individuals and were placed on ventilator support so the efficacy of the pig hearts could be measured more accurately.

The study arrives as the field of xenotransplantation — or the act of transferring organs from one species to another — is under increased scrutiny. The first person to undergo a pig heart transplant died earlier this year, of what scientists believe was an adverse reaction to a drug to prevent rejection. The heart also contained DNA associated with a pig virus. Since the incident, the medical community has called for more meaningful research on the subject, as well as better safety protocols. Meanwhile, the FDA is considering approval of clinical trials for pig heart transplantation in humans, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.

Both human subjects — a 72-year-old Navy veteran and a 64-year-old retired New York City teacher — were monitored for three days before being taken off life support. Neither heart needed any outside support and functioned normally, which researchers are seeing as a promising sign for future research. Despite the NYU experiment’s positive outcome, surgeons cautioned that much more research is needed before pig heart transplants can be a viable alternative for people with heart disease. Read More > at Engadget

Tesla asks Texans to avoid charging their EVs during peak times because of the heatwave – Tesla is asking its customers in Texas to avoid charging their electric vehicles during peak times in order to prevent overtaxing the state’s power grid. The alerts come as Texas’ grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas or ERCOT, is calling on residents to conserve electricity during the recent heatwave, as the system is being pushed to near-emergency conditions.

Tesla sent an alert to customers’ in-car screens advising them to avoid charging their vehicles from 3PM–8PM. “A heat wave is expected to impact the grid in Texas over the next few days,” the alert reads, according to Electrek. “The grid operator recommends to avoid charging during peak hours between 3pm and 8pm, if possible, to help statewide efforts to manage demand.”

Keeping an EV unplugged during peak times can help Texas’ grid avoid blackouts. Triple-digit temperatures typically place more pressure on electrical systems as customers are more likely to blast their air conditioners. The heat dome fueling the heatwave is also depriving Texas of its wind power, which typically generates about a quarter of its electricity. Read More > at The Verge

Dozens of criminal cases dropped over crimes and misconduct by East Contra Costa cops, DA says – As state and federal criminal probes into Antioch and Pittsburg police officers continue, Contra Costa County prosecutors have dropped dozens of cases after determining the officers behind them can no longer be trusted.

In a statement to the Bay Area News Group, Chief Assistant District Attorney Simon O’Connell said an ongoing review found that “approximately 40” cases have been “compromised to the point they cannot be salvaged” because of crimes and misconduct by officers who played key roles in the investigations.

“At this point in time, due to the nature of the criminal wrongdoing and misconduct of the involved officers, approximately 40 cases have been compromised to the point they cannot be salvaged and have subsequently been dismissed,” O’Connell said. “The cooperation of the Antioch and Pittsburg Police Departments has assisted greatly in this complex endeavor.”

O’Connell said the DA’s office “remains steadfast in preserving as many cases as possible.”

The DA’s office has refused to disclose which cases were dropped, citing the ongoing review.

Last March, the FBI and the DA’s office confirmed a joint investigation was underway into unspecified crimes involving Antioch and Pittsburg police officers. Law enforcement sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told the Bay Area News Group the probe involves several officers and includes a review of use-of-force incidents; cocaine and steroids are also said to be involved. Read More > in The Mercury News

Analysis of Covid funding reveals California districts have spent little so far to address learning loss – One year after Congress passed record funding in Covid relief, a new analysis reveals that California school districts so far have spent little of it on efforts to address learning setbacks caused by the pandemic. This despite data that indicates that learning slowed, especially among the youngest students, and gaps in achievement between Black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers widened during distance learning in 2020-21.

As Thomas Kane, the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “The achievement loss is far greater than most educators and parents seem to realize.”

The analysis by the California School Boards Association, released earlier this month, represents the first comprehensive look at how the state’s school districts have used a total of $40 billion in federal and state funding dedicated to helping them cope with Covid. It covered reports for spending through March 31.

While the report clearly lays out how much money districts collectively have spent, it’s less clear on what they specifically spent it on.  In part, credit Congress for that.

The spending categories that Congress set are broad and include the catch-all wording “other evidence-based interventions” for the learning loss money and “other activities necessary to maintain operations” for all other rounds of funding.  Most districts appear to have listed most of the money they spent in that all-but-the-kitchen-sink category, which could include raises and bonuses to retain staff. Read More > at EdSource

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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