Sunday Reading – 03/12/2023

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.

New cost estimate for high-speed rail puts California bullet train $100 billion in the red – When Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled his scaled down blueprint for the California bullet train four years ago, he proposed building a 171-mile starter segment in the Central Valley that would begin operating in 2030 and cost $22.8 billion.

Today, the blueprint is fraying — costs now exceed future funding, an official estimate of future ridership has dropped by 25%, and the schedule to start to carry people is slipping. That’s raising fresh concerns about the future of the nation’s largest infrastructure project.

New cost figures issued in an update report from the California High-Speed Rail Authority show that the plan to build the 171-mile initial segment has shot up to a high of $35 billion, exceeding secured funding by $10 billion.

The cost of that partial system is now higher than the $33 billion estimate for the entire 500-mile Los Angeles to San Francisco system when voters approved a bond in 2008.

What’s worse, that full system cost is set at up to $128 billion in the update, leaving a total funding gap of more than $100 billion for politicians to ponder.

The $128 billion price tag does not include cost updates for two separate segments between Palmdale and Anaheim, because the rail authority in the past has not updated costs until it completes environmental assessments. There could be additional jolts of sticker shock when those costs are added in the future.

The report also indicates that the date for operating the 171-mile system could stretch out to 2033 from 2030, which would delay the public benefits and account for cost pressures. Read More > at CalMatters

House Votes 419-0 To Declassify All Intel On COVID Origins – The House voted overwhelmingly on Friday morning to approve the declassification of all Biden administration intelligence on the origins of COVID.

The House voted 419-0 in favor of the bipartisan measure, according to Axios. The Senate voted unanimously last week to approve a similar measure. The bill would require the declassification and release of all intelligence related to the origins of COVID and the virus’ possible connections to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) within 90 days of receiving the president’s signature.

The Department of Energy and FBI both delivered assessments recently that concluded that COVID most likely originated in a leak from the Wuhan lab. The theory, known as the lab leak hypothesis and pursued by Republicans, was dismissed as a conspiracy theory early on in the pandemic by top medical and science officials, including former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci.

Investigations into the origin of COVID have been hampered by China, which has rebuffed requests for information and access for investigators. Beijing has floated that COVID did not originate in Wuhan at all, and instead is a creation of the U.S. military. Read More > at The Daly Wire

Here’s how the second-biggest bank collapse in U.S. history happened in just 48 hours – On Wednesday, Silicon Valley Bank was a well-capitalized institution seeking to raise some capital.

Within 48 hours, a panic induced by the very venture capital community that SVB had served and nurtured ended the bank’s 40-year-run.

Regulators shuttered SVB Friday and seized its deposits in the largest U.S. banking failure since the 2008 financial crisis and the second-largest ever. The company’s downward spiral began late Wednesday, when it surprised investors with news that it needed to raise $2.25 billion to shore up its balance sheet. What followed was the rapid collapse of a highly-respected bank that had grown alongside its technology clients.

Even now, as the dust begins to settle on the second bank wind-down announced this week, members of the VC community are lamenting the role that other investors played in SVB’s demise.

“This was a hysteria-induced bank run caused by VCs,” Ryan Falvey, a fintech investor of Restive Ventures, told CNBC. “This is going to go down as one of the ultimate cases of an industry cutting its nose off to spite its face.”

The episode is the latest fallout from the Federal Reserve’s actions to stem inflation with its most aggressive rate hiking campaign in four decades. The ramifications could be far-reaching, with concerns that startups may be unable to pay employees in coming days, venture investors may struggle to raise funds, and an already-battered sector could face a deeper malaise.

The roots of SVB’s collapse stem from dislocations spurred by higher rates. As startup clients withdrew deposits to keep their companies afloat in a chilly environment for IPOs and private fundraising, SVB found itself short on capital. It had been forced to sell all of its available-for-sale bonds at a $1.8 billion loss, the bank said late Wednesday.

The sudden need for fresh capital, coming on the heels of the collapse of crypto-focused Silvergate bank, sparked another wave of deposit withdrawals Thursday as VCs instructed their portfolio companies to move funds, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The concern: a bank run at SVB could pose an existential threat to startups who couldn’t tap their deposits. Read More > at CNBC

How much California relies on imported natural gas might surprise you – Some California residents saw their natural gas bill increase 146% in recent months. Today, we look at the state’s reliance on natural gas and if there’s relief in sight during a cold winter.

Californians’ issues with gas prices aren’t just at the pump. Californians use natural gas to heat their homes, cook food, charge electric vehicles at night and make electricity. The cold spells this winter brought up demand for natural gas heating, which 70% of California homes require.

Capacity limitations in a pipeline flowing from Texas to the west put additional constraints on supply because the state imports about 90%-95% of its natural gas. Southern California’s supply comes from as far away as Texas and Louisiana. Gas can flow through the pipeline at about 20-30 mph.

California invests in renewable energy. The state produces the third-most (in 2022) megawatt hours of renewable energy behind Texas and Washington. But it is a glutton for the gas line as well. In 2021, U.S. total consumption of natural gas was about 30.66 trillion cubic feet.

The five states that consumed the most natural gas in 2021 by amount and percentage share of total U.S. natural gas consumption were:

1. Texas: 4.67 tcf — 15.2%

2. California: 2.09 tcf — 6.8%

3. Pennsylvania: 1.81 tcf — 5.9%

4. Louisiana: 1.75 tcf — 5.7%

5. Florida: 1.54 tcf — 5.0%

California produced about 500,000 cubic feet of natural gas in the 1980s. It has steadily been declining in production. It dropped to less than 200,000 cubic feet in 2018 and was 133,136 cubic feet in 2021, which was about 7% of the state’s consumption needs. Read More > in the Los Angeles Daily News

PG&E customers’ March natural gas bills expected to decrease on average 75 percent – After three months of higher-than-normal natural gas market prices driving up energy bills, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) announced on Monday that customers can expect, on average, a 75 percent decline in their March natural gas bills.

According to the news release, the decrease is due in part to PG&E distributing the state’s April Climate Credit one month earlier than in previous years. Even without the Climate Credit, March natural gas bills, on average, would decrease 40 percent because of a significant drop in the market prices PG&E pays to buy natural gas to serve its customers, and customers using less gas as colder temperatures moderate.

The estimated decrease, which is for natural gas usage in March, is based on customers using 38 therms (a unit of energy) compared to 50 therms in February. Depending on billing cycle, customers may not receive statements for March usage until April.

The average residential non-CARE customer bill for natural gas service in March is projected to be about $37.00, which includes the gas Climate Credit of $52.78. In February, the average residential non-CARE customer bill was about $150.00.

Natural gas prices also affect the cost of electricity since many power plants use natural gas to generate electricity. Customers can expect, on average, a 37 percent decrease in March electric bills. The average residential non-CARE customer bill for electric service in March is projected to be about $91.00, which includes the Climate Credit of $38.39. That’s compared to $145.00 in February. Read More > in the East Bay Times

When a Renegade Church and a Zealous County Health Department Collide – Santa Clara County, California, imposed some of the harshest Covid restrictions in America. A church and its members defied them — and became the targets of an unprecedented surveillance operation

Long famous as the core of Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, California, also earned the distinction in the last three years as perhaps the most aggressive and punitive enforcer of pandemic restrictions in the country. On March 16, 2020, Santa Clara, along with a half-dozen other Bay Area counties, was the first in the nation to announce a shelter in place order, commanding all citizens to remain at home other than for specific activities that the county deemed essential, such as food shopping or medical care. It wasn’t until mid-October — seven months after the initial order — that Sara Cody, the head of the county’s public health department, began allowing indoor gatherings at churches, provided they were no more than 100 people or 25 percent of a facility’s capacity, whichever was fewer. At these limited gatherings face coverings and social distancing were required, and singing was banned.

San Jose’s Calvary Chapel, led by its pastor, Mike McClure, brazenly defied these orders. On May 24, 2020, McClure stated publicly that he would reopen the church the following week, regardless of the health department’s orders, and that he would never close the church again. After two months of isolation, many congregants were teetering toward despair. They were suffering greatly from loneliness, depression, and crippling anxiety — the church was their community, and returning to the normalcy of its rituals and in-person fellowship was vital for their mental, spiritual, and physical well-being. 

True to McClure’s word, at the end of May Calvary began holding indoor gatherings, often with hundreds of worshipers, a large portion of whom were without masks, in breach of distancing rules, and singing. This set off a collision between the openly defiant church and the county that culminated in two lawsuits. One, in federal court, in June 2020, by the church against the county, claiming the restrictions violated a list of constitutional rights, and the other, in state court, in October 2020, by the county against the church, for “flagrantly and repeatedly” violating public health orders and nonpayment of fines. 

Both cases are still in litigation, but extensive legal documents, totaling more than a thousand pages, reveal a county, and its health department, that went to extraordinary, and potentially unlawful, lengths to enforce its decrees. These efforts include levying more than $2 million in fines against Calvary, and a multi-faceted surveillance program of the church and its members, breathtaking in scope and reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, rather than an American county health department — the spy operation included stakeouts, forced in-person monitoring of prayer groups and other intimate activities, and tracking the cellular mobility data of churchgoers.

The county’s public health orders, which were applied incongruently to different entities, and its enforcement mechanisms raise important legal and ethical issues about government infringements on citizens’ rights related to privacy, assembly, and religion that run well beyond the context of the pandemic and have potential implications for Americans regardless of their religious or political affiliation.

On August 23, enforcement officers from the county’s Business Compliance Unit began regular surveillance of the church. On the first visit they entered the premises, observed the congregants, and then left to write up a Notice of Violation for masking, gathering, singing, and distancing violations. When the officers returned shortly after to deliver the Notice they were denied entry and told to get off the property. From then forward, each Sunday the enforcement officers were locked out of Calvary. But this did not stop them.

Barred from the premises, the Unit struck an agreement with the law-abiding church next door to Calvary for the officers to set up camp there for their operations. Enforcement officers, often working in pairs, conducted dozens of stakeouts, spying on Calvary staff and members by peering at them through a chainlink fence from the adjacent property. 

Among the hundreds of court documents filed in the state case are extensive declarations from multiple county enforcement officers. It is in these declarations where they describe in granular, mundane detail the illegal goings on at Calvary Chapel. Masking and distancing infractions of church greeters and of attendees being welcomed into the building were documented over and over again. The officers also surveyed the church’s several parking lots each week, counting the number of cars to estimate how many people were inside. Read More > at Silent Lunch, The David Zweig Newsletter

One plan to fix Bay Area traffic congestion: A toll for driving on the region’s highways – Bay Area transportation planners predict that by 2050, the region’s highways will be overwhelmed by miserable traffic congestion, with the skies clouded by the attendant pollution.

To avoid that grim future, planners are in the middle of a two-year study examining what, they say, could be a potential solution: charging people a per-mile fee to drive on Bay Area highways and, possibly, surrounding arterial roads, starting in 2035.

The study led by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the region’s transportation planning body, has not determined specifics, such as price points and which highways or surrounding arterials motorists would pay to drive on. Still in its early stages, an actual recommendation won’t come to light until winter 2024.

The goal, however, is clear: use the potential tolling fees to move people away from driving single-occupancy vehicles and drive less or use other transportation modes, such as transit.

Conceptual plans unveiled this week hint at how Bay Area transportation officials could seek to manage the unwieldy highway congestion projected in the coming decades.

Two of those strategies involve “all-lane” tolling on highways with “existing or planned regional rail or frequent express bus service.” The proposals highlight most major Bay Area highways, such as Interstates 880, 680, 580, 280 and 80, and Highway 101 as potential tolling candidates. Enacting tolls on most or all of those highways would make it highly unlikely motorists would avoid paying a fee to get around the region by car. 

Another concept expands all-lane highway tolling to include “major parallel arterials to limit diversion” — which, in theory, could entail roadways such as San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay, which runs next to Interstates 580 and 80. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

‘I can’t deal with this’: BART’s inspector general resigns, slamming agency on way out – The inspector general tasked with investigating fraud and waste at BART will resign next week, leaving behind a bitter relationship with the transit agency’s leaders and a bevy of audits spanning allegations of wage theft, conflicts of interest, and opaque spending.

“There comes the point where you just say, ‘I can’t deal with this anymore,’” Harriet Richardson told the Bay Area News Group in an interview on Thursday, saying the agency, backed by BART’s staff, board, and unions, undermined her oversight by restricting access to documents and employees.

She is leaving the BART’s Office of the Inspector General with four and half months left on a four-year term.

Richardson’s departure comes as BART faces a dire financial shortfall. The agency needs to rally the Legislature behind a difficult push for a new taxpayer subsidy, even as the state faces its own looming budget deficit.

But as BART pushes for money it says will stave off drastic service cuts, Richardson’s departure underscores deep division on providing enhanced oversight at the agency. State Sen. Steve Glazer is leading calls to tie any new BART funds to a strengthened inspector general’s office.

BART is “probably the least effective agency I’ve worked for” when it comes to oversight, said Richardson, who previously worked as Palo Alto’s city auditor along with positions in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington state. Her advice to the next inspector general: “Stand firm, and do not let others try to break (you) down.”

Glazer led the establishment of the inspector general’s office as part of an agreement to win his support for Regional Measure 3 in 2018, which raised Bay Area bridge tolls to fund transit projects.

Since then Richardson’s department has produced a number of audits, including one on a BART manager failing to disclose family ties to a company awarded a $40 million contract, another on an employee who secured $2.2 million in contracts shortly after leaving the agency, and a third on $350,000 spent on a homelessness program that resulted in just one confirmed person receiving its services.

But her department has also faced a “pattern of obstruction” from staff and major unions, an Alameda County civil grand jury report said. Read More > in The Mercury News

Odds of El Niño returning to California are increasing. Would it bring even more rain? – The stubborn La Niña climate pattern that gripped the tropical Pacific for a rare three years in a row is waning, and the odds of an El Niño system forming later this year are getting stronger, according to recent meteorological reports.

The El Niño-La Niña Southern Oscillation, sometimes referred to as ENSO, has a major influence on temperature and rainfall patterns in different parts of the world, with La Niña often associated with drier-than-normal conditions in California, especially the southern part of the state.

El Niño, on the other hand, is linked to an enhanced probability of above-normal rainfall in California, along with accompanying landslides, floods and coastal erosion, though it is not a guarantee.

The latest outlook from the World Meteorological Organization says there is a 90% chance of a return to “ENSO-neutral” conditions from March to May, with that probability decreasing as the summer goes on.

That decrease “can be seen as a potential precursor for El Niño to develop,” with a 35% chance of El Niño developing from May to July, the agency says.

Longer-lead forecasts show an even stronger chance of El Niño developing from June to August — 55% — though the forecasts are “subject to high uncertainty associated with predictions this time of year.” Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

Impacts of the snow – California’s mountains are in hot pursuit of the state’s all-time snowpack record. On Friday, March 3, the state’s latest measurement at Phillips Station in the Sierra Nevada found snowpack was 177% of average for that date. 

The deep snow — which, in some regions, is trailing just behind that of the record 1982-83 winter — comes after a wildly stormy January. Sierra Nevada snow is vital for the 19 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland that receive water from the State Water Project. 

Water officials have fingers crossed that the coming weeks are cold and snowy — not warm and wet, which could prematurely melt snow, cause flooding in the Central Valley and result in too little runoff in the spring months. 

You can keep track of the situation with the CalMatters drought monitor.

Following Friday’s report, another “significant storm” over the weekend was expected to add another four to six feet of snow, according to the UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab

The severe weather has led to a state of emergency in 13 counties throughout the state — including Southern California’s mountain communities. Some have been trapped in their homes for a week, and are grappling with power outages, roof collapses, a lack of baby formula and medicine they rely on.  Read More > at CalMatters

Oroville Dam floodgates opened as storms fill massive reservoir – In another sign that the drought is ending across much of California, state water officials opened the floodgates at Oroville Dam on Friday to let water out of the state’s second-largest reservoir to reduce the risk of flooding to downstream communities.

“After three years of drought and low lake elevations, it’s really good to see the lake rising,” said Ted Craddock, deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources.

At noon, water began cascading down the huge concrete spillway for the first time in four years.

On Friday, Oroville reservoir was 75% full — or 115% of its historical average for early March. It has risen 180 feet since Dec. 1, and continued to expand steadily with millions of gallons of water pouring in from recent storms.

Lake Oroville, built on the Feather River about 70 miles north of Sacramento by former Gov. Pat Brown in the 1960s, is the linchpin of the State Water Project, a system of dams, canals and pumps that provide water to 27 million Californians from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. The purpose of the dam is not only to store water, but also to provide flood protection to communities in the Sacramento Valley.

In wet years, dam operators draw down the reservoir in winter when its level gets too high. The purpose is to create enough space in the lake so that it can capture huge inflows of water in atmospheric river storms, or in heat waves that might melt the Sierra snowpack. That extra capacity reduces the risk that deluges will hit an already full reservoir, sending water uncontrollably downstream and leading to major flood damage to homes, farms and businesses.

As the weeks pass and spring nears with less and less likelihood of major storms, dam operators allow reservoirs to fill to the top to maximize water storage.

Craddock said Friday that with the huge Sierra Nevada snowpack this winter — the largest in 30 years — the water being let out now will be replaced. Read More > in The Mercury News

IRS audit finds 42,000 feds cheating on taxes – More than 42,000 federal employees “repeatedly” failed to file their taxes with the IRS, according to a new audit that said the government is limited in its ability to punish the cheats.

Known as “federal employee nonfilers,” the cases are considered particularly egregious since they involve those paid by taxpayer money but shirking taxpayer obligations.

But the IRS devotes little effort to targeting federal nonfilers, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. And the law restricts how much information the IRS can share with other federal agencies, so they’re limited in their ability to prod or punish the employees, the audit found.

As of 2021, delinquent federal employees owed $1.5 billion in unpaid taxes.

“Repeatedly not filing a tax return when a taxpayer is required to do so is a brazen form of noncompliance. Federal civilian employees with tax delinquencies have a legal and ethical requirement to be current with their tax obligations,” the inspector general said in the report Thursday.

TIGTA found that tax compliance among federal employees has been trending down in recent years. As recently as 2017, just 108,000 employees were delinquent in filing or paying. But in 2021, that rose to 149,000 cases, out of a federal workforce of 3 million.

That works out to a delinquency rate of about 5%.

More striking were the persistent cheats. The audit found 42,047 employees who missed multiple years of filing or payment over the review period. That works out to about 1.5% of federal employees.

More than 100 employees were delinquent in at least eight years, TIGTA said. Read More > in The Washington Times

Vast majority of U.S. homes are unaffordable to the average buyer – The cost of buying a home is drifting further out of financial reach for the average American, according to a report from Redfin. 

The real estate website analyzed homes that went on sale last year and found that only 21% of them were affordable, meaning that nearly 80% of homes were outside the typical buyer’s budget. By comparison, about 60% of homes were considered affordable in 2021, the report released Friday found.  

Redfin Deputy Chief Economist Taylor Marr said those stats boil down to one truth: housing affordability is at its lowest point in history. 

“Many millennials were able to buy their first home before or during the pandemic homebuying boom, but many others were priced out of homeownership and forced to keep renting,” he said in the report. “That means a lot of young adults missed out on a major wealth-building opportunity: the value of homes owned by millennials has risen nearly 30% in the past year.”

Redfin defined an “affordable” home as one whose mortgage payment would equal 30% or less of the average monthly income of residents in the county where the home sits. Redfin found that the highest percentage of affordable homes were in Akron, Cleveland and Dayton in Ohio, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, Missouri. Five California cities — Anaheim, Los Angeles, Oxnard, San Diego and San Francisco — had the lowest percentage of affordable homes. Read More > at CBS News

Truckpocalypse Now – As I’ve been expecting a glut of car inventory due to inflation, rising interest rates, and all the demand destruction of the Biden Recession, I’ve been paying more attention to the car market just in case dealers had to liquidate new cars at absolute fire sale prices and I could swoop in and take advantage. So far that hasn’t happened, and prices haven’t behaved they way I’ve expected. (Used care prices are rising because inventory is tight despite dealers overpaying in 2022?)

But one thing I have noticed: Pickup truck prices have gotten absolutely insane.

Pickups used to be the steady, dependable, unglamorous vehicles of ordinary blue collar Americans. Lately, car makers seem to have turned them into cash cows by pricing them like luxury goods for rich people.

As the Ford F-series is the most popular pickup truck, I though I would look at the prices there. The average selling price for a 2023 Ford F-150 is an eye-watering $82,395. Given the rule of thumb that you should never pay more than a maximum of 35% of your yearly income for a new car, which means that buyers should be making $235,000 a year to afford a new F-150. That’s not “HVAC Repairman” money. Hell, it’s barely “guy who owns his own HVAC shop” money. And this despite Ford having such quality control problems that they’ve issued a slew of recalls.

Assuming I was insane enough to buy a new Ford F-150 at the average selling price, and no down payment, I would be looking at $1,521 in monthly payments, or more than I was paying for my home mortgage until a few years ago. (Thanks to rising tax valuations and insurance, now it’s just a little more than that. My car has long been paid off.)

Ford and other auto makers are pricing their traditional customers out of the market by making pickup trucks luxury goods. Just as in the 1970s, American car manufacturers are pricing themselves out of the market and are inviting foreign manufacturers to swoop in and snatch market share from them. Read More > at Lawrence Person’s BattleSwarm Blog

Why used car prices are going up again – New data shows used car prices which surged during the pandemic, are now stubbornly remaining there despite recent weakness in the market.

According to the highly-watched Manheim Used Vehicle Value Index (which tracks wholesale used-car prices at dealer auctions), used car prices jumped 3.7% in February compared to January of this year, which was also higher than the prior month. Manheim says the 3.7% jump in February was the largest increase for the month on record since a 4.4% rise in February 2009.

Manheim says this jump in prices is not typical for the time of year.

After the index hit an all-time high of 257.7 in January 2022, it has been steadily falling every since, hitting a low of 217.6 in November of 2022, however it has been climbing back ever since, culminating in February’s big pop.

While February’s reading of 234.5 is down 7% year over year, the entire index still remains elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels. February 2020 saw the index at 156.6. Read More > at Yahoo! Finance

Bigger budget woes – The latest numbers confirm what many, including the Legislative Analyst’s Office, predicted: California’s revenues will be lower than expected. 

February’s personal and corporate income taxes fell $1.2 billion below the administration’s January budget projection.

The shortfall was driven largely by layoffs in the tech and finance sectors — despite an otherwise strong labor market — and the collapse of the IPO market last year.

Scott Graves, director of research at the California Budget Center, said the latest numbers mean policymakers may end up having to look at solutions that the governor didn’t propose in January: 

  • Graves: “We may see a situation in May or June that they decide, we actually need to dip into the reserves to help bring the budget into balance without making deep cuts to public services.” 

Another option is to raise revenues, including by trimming corporate tax breaks. 

A special challenge during the budgeting process will be working off of numbers that remain uncertain due to the federal and state extensions of the tax filing deadline to October 16. 

“They’ll be making some assumptions with really incomplete info about how revenue comes in later in the year,” Graves said. “So we may see some corrections down the road.” Read More > at CalMatters

Ransomware gang leaks data stolen from City of Oakland – The Play ransomware gang has begun to leak data from the City of Oakland, California, that was stolen in a recent cyberattack.

The initial data leak consists of a 10GB multi-part RAR archive allegedly containing confidential documents, employee information, passports, and IDs.

“Private and personal confidential data, financial information. IDs, passports, employee full info, human rights violation information. For now partially published compressed 10gb,” stated the cybercriminals on their data leak site.

In an updated statement posted yesterday, the City stays that they are monitoring the situation and will notify any individuals whose personal information was exposed.

“While the investigation into the scope of the incident impacting the City of Oakland remains ongoing, we recently became aware that an unauthorized third party has acquired certain files from our network and intends to release the information publicly,” the City of Oakland said in a statement.

“We are working with third-party specialists and law enforcement on this issue and are actively monitoring the unauthorized third party’s claims to investigate their validity. If we determine that any individual’s personal information is involved, we will notify those individuals in accordance with applicable law.”

The City suffered the ransomware attack on February 8th, with all IT systems taken offline until the network was secured. Read More > at BleepingComputer

Most Oakland homicides go unsolved. Why don’t officials have a plan to fix it? – …Watkins was one of 120 people killed in Oakland last year. By the end of 2022, the Oakland Police Department reported “clearing” — meaning resolving a case, either through an arrest or other means — just 32 out of those cases, or 27%. The FBI defines a clearance rate as the percentage of homicides from a given year that were resolved — as well as cases that were resolved from prior years. That gave Oakland police an official 2022 clearance rate of 36%.

Oakland’s rate is far below other large California cities, including San Francisco, and a national average that suffered during the pandemic, declining to about 50% in 2020, the most recent year for which the FBI had figures.

The Chronicle analysis found homicides in 2022 were more likely to go unsolved in East Oakland, where the majority of the city’s lower-income Black and Latino residents live, and more likely to be solved in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods closer to the city’s affluent population, like downtown and, increasingly, West Oakland.

In a city whose Police Department has churned through a dozen chiefs while under federal oversight for 20 years, the reasons for Oakland’s consistently low solve rate may be myriad.

A 2020 UC Berkeley study uncovered “stark racial disparities in arrest rates for homicides” and many complaints about the way Oakland police respond to homicides. Victims’ families, particularly Black ones, reported “disrespectful and discriminatory” treatment and that police didn’t take their safety concerns seriously enough as cases dragged on unsolved. The study found that this contributes to the difficulty police have in getting witness cooperation, and raises grave fears of retaliatory violence.

The homicide unit is significantly understaffed compared to accepted national standards. Oakland’s homicide investigators sometimes work twice as many cases per year as the U.S. Department of Justice recommends. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

California has nearly 100 new housing laws. Are they fixing the affordability crisis? – Facing a massive affordable-housing crisis pushing Californians out of their hometowns and some onto the street, state legislators passed law after law to boost housing production. Now, Sacramento is asking itself the million-dollar question: Is it working?

The answer: not as quickly as anyone hoped.

Nearly 100 housing bills have been signed into law since 2016 as legislators, in the midst of intense pushback from some growth-resistant city officials and residents, made supercharging the state’s housing supply a top priority. Despite that monumental effort, housing production has remained relatively stagnant, according to data tracked by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The disappointing results, laid bare during a recent joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly’s housing committees, point to holes that still need to be fixed before the state can build its way out of the crisis — such as high costs and a significant lack of funding. At the same time, lawmakers are hopeful the volume will improve, insisting some of this new legislation just needs more time before it will fully bear fruit.

The number of homes permitted across California has increased 16% since 2018 — the year the landmark Senate Bill 35 began forcing cities to approve and expedite certain projects that include affordable units. That’s hardly impressive, considering just 132,811 homes were permitted in 2021 — less than half of what state officials say California needs every year to achieve its target 2.5 million new homes by the end of the decade. And with interest rates and construction costs rising, it’s getting even harder to build.

But while the new housing laws have been slow to boost overall production, they’ve already made a noticeable difference when it comes to affordable homes and small in-law units known as accessory dwelling units, or ADUs.

Permits for low-income and very-low-income units nearly doubled to 20,245 between 2018 and 2021, while permits for higher-priced units increased by just 5%. Many of the state’s new housing laws either don’t apply or aren’t as useful when it comes to market-rate units. And while low-income units are crucial, they make up a small fraction of the state’s overall housing production. Experts agree they can’t fix the crisis by themselves. Read More > in the East Bay Times

Federal Appeals Court Upholds First Amendment Right To Warn Drivers of Police Ahead – Michael Friend was arrested in 2018 for holding a sign that read “Cops Ahead” near a police checkpoint. That arrest violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A federal appeals court ruled that a Connecticut man’s First Amendment rights were violated when police arrested him for holding a sign warning drivers of police activity ahead.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed a lower court decision and held that a police officer in Stamford, Connecticut, violated Michael Friend’s First Amendment rights and had no probable cause to arrest him for standing on a public sidewalk and holding a sign that read “Cops Ahead.”

Friend was standing on a sidewalk near a Stamford police checkpoint on April 12, 2018, holding a “Cops Ahead” sign when Sgt. Richard Gasparino approached Friend, took his sign, and threatened to arrest him. Friend instead made a larger sign and moved to a different spot. Gasparino then handcuffed and arrested Friend, who was charged with misdemeanor interference and held on a $25,000 bail. Prosecutors later dropped the charge.

Friend, represented by the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a civil rights lawsuit, arguing that Gasparino’s seizure of his signs and his arrest violated Friend’s First and Fourth Amendment rights.

A U.S. district court dismissed Friend’s suit in 2020, finding that: Friend’s sign “did not discuss a topic or express his opinion on it;” that Gasparino had a compelling government interest in stopping Friend from spoiling the police sting; and that Gasparino had probable cause to arrest Friend for returning after he told him not to. 

The 2nd Circuit ruled that the district court erred in all three of those findings, citing the 1987 Supreme Court ruling in Houston v. Hill: “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state.” Read More > at Reason

Researchers Explore Why We’re So Afraid of Clowns – Are you scared of clowns? You are not alone. Coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns, is a widely acknowledged phenomenon. Studies indicate this fear is present among both adults and children in many different cultures. Yet it is not well understood due to a lack of focused research.

While numerous possible explanations of the phobia had been put forward in academic literature, no studies had specifically investigated its origins. So we set out to discover the reasons people are frightened by clowns, and to understand the psychology behind this. We also wanted to explore how common the fear of clowns is in adults and to look at the severity of the fear in those who reported it.

To do this, we devised a psychometric questionnaire to assess the prevalence and severity of coulrophobia. The Fear of Clowns Questionnaire was completed by an international sample of 987 people aged between 18 and 77.

More than half the respondents (53.5%) said they were scared of clowns at least to some degree, with 5% saying they were “extremely afraid” of them. Interestingly, this percentage reporting an extreme fear of clowns is slightly higher than those reported for many other phobias, such as animals (3.8%), blood/injection/injuries (3.0%), heights (2.8%), still water or weather events (2.3%), closed spaces (2.2%), and flying (1.3%).

We also found that women are more afraid of clowns than men. The reason for this difference is not clear, but it echoes research findings on other phobias such as the fear of snakes and spiders. We also discovered coulrophobia decreases with age, which again matches up with research into other fears. Read More > at Real Clear Science

Exercise more effective than medicines to manage mental health – University of South Australia researchers are calling for exercise to be a mainstay approach for managing depression as a new study shows that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or the leading medications.

Published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the review is the most comprehensive to date, encompassing 97 reviews, 1039 trials and 128,119 participants. It shows that physical activity is extremely beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress.

Specifically, the review showed that exercise interventions that were 12 weeks or shorter were most the effective at reducing mental health symptoms, highlighting the speed at which physical activity can make a change.

The largest benefits were seen among people with depression, pregnant and postpartum women, healthy individuals, and people diagnosed with HIV or kidney disease.

According to the World Health Organization, one in every eight people worldwide (970 million people) live with a mental disorder. Poor mental health costs the world economy approximately $2.5 trillion each year, a cost projected to rise to $6 trillion by 2030. In Australia, an estimated one in five people (aged 16-85) have experienced a mental disorder in the past 12 months. Read More > at Science Daily

A good night’s sleep may ward off depression – A new poll on sleep and mental health has found that more than 90% of adults who reported they get good sleep were also free of depressive symptoms.

In its annual poll, the nonprofit National Sleep Foundation (NSF) focused this year on the impact of sleep on mental health because of the current mental health crisis in the United States.

“In the day-to-day execution of our sleep health mission, we give lots of simple, evidence-based and consensus-driven tips and tools to help people get enough of the quality sleep they need. For this year’s poll, we were compelled to look again at the connection between sleep health and mental health conditions like depression,” NSF CEO John Lopos said in a foundation news release.

The Sleep in America poll also found that about 65% of adults who were dissatisfied with their sleep experience had mild or greater levels of depressive symptoms.

Those who reported difficulties falling or staying asleep just two nights a week had higher levels of depressive symptoms than those without sleep difficulties.

About 50% of all adults who sleep less than the recommended seven to nine hours nightly experienced mild or greater levels of depressive symptoms. Read More > at UPI

There’s a big Girl Scout cookie shortage, and the group is frustrated with its main baker – This is the way the Girl Scout cookie crumbles.

Amid widespread cookie shortages, the Girl Scouts of the USA said they are “keeping all options open” as frustrations mount with one of their baking partners, Little Brownie Bakers, which is owned by Italian confection giant Ferrero.

Little Brownie Bakers, or LBB, notified the Girl Scouts on Monday morning that weather-induced power outages at their Louisville, Kentucky, factory, halted cookie production for the weekend of March 5, setting inventory even further back.

The power outages come amid a series of production delays and problems that LBB has cited to the Girl Scouts since January, the beginning of the selling season, according to a person familiar with the matter. In an email obtained by CNBC, Girl Scout executives told local troop leaders that they expected their baking partners to be “more ahead of demand” than LBB has been so far.

The inventory woes have caused a shortage of some cookie flavors that have sent Girl Scout cookie resale prices skyrocketing. Boxes of the newest, limited-edition flavor, Raspberry Rally, are being sold on eBay for $35. Boxes of Girl Scout cookies typically go for $5 a pop. Read More > at CNBC

The End of Obesity? – Americans are fat and getting fatter. But now pharmaceutical companies are rolling out new prescription drugs that really do help people lose and keep off significant amounts of body fat. Celebrities like Elon Musk have touted their benefits. The side effects appear minimal, but the weight stays off only as long as users keep injecting the drugs weekly.

The share of overweight Americans has been ticking relentlessly upward. In 1960, 31.5 percent of adults in the U.S. were overweight (13.4 percent of whom were obese); today, 73 percent are overweight (42.4 percent of whom are obese.). Overweight and obese are defined as having a body mass index over 25 and 30, respectively. A body mass index measures the ratio of a person’s height to his weight to roughly estimate his amount of body fat.

And not just Americans are getting fatter. Worldwide, 39 percent of adults are overweight (of whom 13 percent are obese). Earlier this month, the World Obesity Federation (WOF) projected that if current trends continue, more than half world’s population, around 4 billion people, will be overweight by 2035. Two billion of them will be obese.

Now, several new drugs initially developed to treat diabetes also help users lose body fat. The New York Times called them “a game changer.” The Washington Post hailed the new weight loss drugs as “a milestone for the obese,” while worrying that the poor will not have access to them. “Weight-loss drugs will be tech breakthrough with most direct effect on people,” asserted an op-ed in The San Diego Union-TribuneThe Economist declared, “New drugs could spell an end to the world’s obesity epidemic.”

The drugs, semaglutide and tirzepatide, are better known by the brand names they’re marketed under: Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro. Both drugs work by targeting specific hormones to suppress appetite, reduce food cravings, and improve control over eating with the result that users lose body fat. (Basically, the antithesis of the black market “fatkins” treatments that supercharged metabolism to burn off fat in Cory Doctorow’s 2009 novel Makers.)

So how much body fat do users tend to lose? One study reported that users of the Wegovy semaglutide and the Mounjaro tirzepatide lost, on average, about 12.4 and 17.8 percent of their starting weights, respectively. Depending on which drug he takes, a male standing five feet 10 inches and weighing 240 pounds would likely lose about 30 or 45 pounds. This would lower his BMI from obese to overweight and lower his average blood sugar levels (A1C) while improving various measures of cardiovascular health. Read More > at Reason

Love mushrooms? California is having an epic ‘supershroom’ season – -Stu Pickell, mushroom hunter, is elbow-deep in dirt.

Lying flat on the ground in a narrow canyon under a towering bigcone Douglas fir, he paws up handfuls of gently fragrant humus. Occasionally he sniffs it, searching for the scent of his quarry: a unique type of black truffle that hasn’t ever been observed before in drought-parched Southern California. This tiny pocket of trees in the Santa Ana Mountains could be its ideal habitat, he thinks—and now could be the best time ever to actually find it.

Normally at this time of year, Pickell might be hunting for chanterelles in Mendocino or searching for slime molds in Alaska. But today, the fungi aficionado and photographer is searching just a few minutes from home, near Los Angeles’s suburbs—barely out of sight of the city, but in a whole different world.

That’s because over the past few months, a remarkable series of deluges, unexpected for drought-stricken California, have sparked an epic, once-in-a-blue-moon mushroom season, giving mushroom hunters across the state a chance to pursue their passion in their own backyards.

“It’s a super-shroom!” says Justen Whittall, a botanist at Santa Clara University—the mushroom equivalent of a wildflower “superbloom.” Years this good are rare in Southern California; some hunters say the last was in 1997, more than 20 years ago.-

Fungi may represent one of the greatest outstanding scientific mysteries of the modern world.

There are an estimated three or more million species—but only about 150,000 have been described scientifically. We’ve also only scratched at the surface of their potential as foodmedicineenvironmental cleanup agents, and more. Read More > at National Geographic

We Can’t All Get Along: What’s Driving Modern Secession Movements – Nearly a dozen counties in Oregon have voted to leave Salem behind and join Idaho. Local secession movements have sprung up in multiple states due to the urban-rural political divide.

Americans at all levels of government are casting about for more agreeable neighbors. Residents of Buckhead, a wealthy enclave with Atlanta, have temporarily shelved their plans to break off and form a separate city, due to opposition from state officials, but that effort will likely continue for years to come. In numerous other states, multiple counties are looking for ways to escape states where their residents feel like political minorities. On Tuesday, a Texas state senator introduced a bill that would allow citizens to vote next year on leaving the union entirely.

America has been undergoing a “big sort” for decades now, with people moving into communities where they’re surrounded by like-minded people, whether deeply conservative or highly progressive. In presidential elections, most counties are now decided by landslide margins of 20 percentage points or more. During the 2016 and 2020 elections, more than 20 percent of counties were decided by “super landslides,” giving 80 percent of more of their vote to one side or the other. That’s up from just 6 percent of counties back in 2004.

The concentration of people with the same political stripes has led to an increasing interest in secession movements. “A lot of political tension happens in our states because of this urban-rural divide,” says Matt McCaw, spokesman for Greater Idaho, which is seeking to couple a majority of the land mass of Oregon with its neighbor to the east. “In Eastern Oregon, we have government that doesn’t match out culture, our values, our life.”

They’re not alone. In Illinois, more than two dozen counties have voted to break away and create a new state, including three last fall. Parts of Colorado would prefer to join Wyoming. There are officials in Western Maryland who want to be part of West Virginia. Residents in parts of Southern Oregon and Northern California have talked for decades about forming a new state of Jefferson. In 2018, the California Supreme Court blocked an initiative that would have split that state into three.

It’s possible that southwestern Oregon — along with most of the state east of the Cascade Mountains — will throw in its lot with Idaho instead. In May, residents of Wallowa County, Ore., will vote on the idea of joining Idaho. Assuming that measure passes, Wallowa would be the 12th Oregon county to approve what amounts to a secession vote, in order to get away from a state government long dominated by residents of the Portland area. Read More > in Governing

Joseph Stalin in His Own Words – This week marks the 70-year anniversary of the funeral of Joseph Stalin, the Marxist dictator who led the Soviet Union during World War II and the height of its terror state.

Stalin, who followed in Vladmir Lenin’s bloody footsteps, suffered a stroke and died at his Kuntsevo Daach on March 5, 1953. He was 74. A state funeral in Moscow took place days later—on March 9—and in typical Soviet fashion, even the funeral turned into a disaster. When hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens turned out to “pay their respects” (more likely they were afraid to draw attention of state police for not attending; the level of fear and paranoia in the USSR was high, as the below clip from the 2017 film The Death of Stalin comically shows), a human crush formed, killing hundreds of people, perhaps thousands.

Soviet historians would later estimate that some 20 million civilians died under Stalin’s regime from famine, executions, forced collectivization, and in labor camps.

Despite these atrocities, Reuters recently ran an article exploring Stalin’s “mixed” legacy in the nations he once terrorized.

Readers of course can determine for themselves whether Stalin was a Communist hero or an evil tyrant. While we believe the historical record speaks for itself, here are some (sourced) quotes from Uncle Joe himself that might help readers decide what kind of man Joseph Stalin truly was.

  1. “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?” -as quoted in Quotations for Public Speakers: A Historical, Literary, and Political Anthology by Robert G. Torricelli
  2. “Death is the solution to all problems. No man, no problem.” The New York Times, 1989
  3. “Gratitude is an illness suffered by dogs.” -as quoted in Stalin’s Secret War (1981) by Nikolai Tolstoy
  4. “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how.” -said in 1923, as quoted in The Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary (text in online Russian)
  5. “Education is a weapon, the effect of which is determined by the hands which wield it, by who is to be struck down.”-interview with H. G. Wells, 1934. Read More > at FEE

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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