Sunday Reading – 05/14/23

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.

El Niño is coming: What it means for California weather – El Niño conditions — the warming of ocean waters off South America that can alter weather across the globe, including California’s summer temperatures and the amount of rain it might receive next winter — are emerging in the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 4 years.

While El Niños do not automatically guarantee wet weather for California, historically, the stronger they are, the more likely it is that the state will have a rainy winter season. And after the dramatic series of storms this past winter that ended the drought and filled nearly empty reservoirs, another one back-to-back could increase flood risks.

“The climate models are in strong agreement that there will be an El Niño,” said Michelle L’Heureux, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who led a new report out Thursday. “At this point it’s looking likely.”

The chances of any El Niño forming are now 82% by July and 94% by November, according to the NOAA report.

More significant for California, there’s a 46% chance of a strong El Niño by November, increasing to 54% by January, NOAA researchers concluded Thursday. Read More > in the East Bay Times

Are the Bay Area’s largest downtowns caught in a doom loop? – Nordstrom confirmed last week it plans to close the flagship store this summer, along with the nearby Nordstrom Rack — two of the most prominent department stores in the heart of the city. The company cited the changing “dynamics” of downtown, a thinly veiled reference to the perception that crime and homelessness are out of control.

Police data may show otherwise — violent crime has actually fallen in San Francisco in recent years, though property crimes have spiked. And unlike most of the rest of the Bay Area, the city’s homeless population dipped slightly in 2022, according to the latest count. Still, there’s no doubt that San Francisco’s downtown is in crisis.

It’s not the only one. All three of the Bay Area’s largest cities are staring down huge setbacks to their efforts to revitalize urban cores hollowed out by a once-in-a-generation pandemic.

Last month, the Oakland A’s announced the team was decamping for Las Vegas, throwing into flux the city’s plans to redevelop Howard Terminal at the Port of Oakland. The team is leaving behind a $12 billion proposal for a gleaming waterfront stadium with new housing and retail at the site. In San Jose, Google recently announced it was reassessing the timeline for its sprawling Downtown West project, which city officials hope will add homes, shopping and office space for thousands of workers.

Factors cited in the decline of these Bay Area downtowns are numerous: crime, homelessness, income inequality, remote work, online shopping, housing shortages and poor transit alternatives. As the region emerges from the pandemic, an existential question has emerged: Are these challenges the beginning of a “doom loop” that effectively transforms downtowns into ghost towns? Or will the Bay reimagine its relationship with its city centers?

In San Francisco, officials concede a string of high-profile violent attacks, pockets of open-air drug dealing and other safety and quality of life concerns have hampered the city’s recovery after thousands of workers emptied out of downtown offices.

“Public safety is the number one issue I hear about from residents and small businesses every day,” Mayor London Breed said when announcing a measure to increase police overtime in March.

In Oakland too, business owners cite crime as the primary culprit for the challenges facing downtown.

“We get break-ins, four or five businesses every single night in Oakland,” said Ali Albasiery, the owner of a ShopRite grocery. “People are fed up. Some stores are closing up early because of this craziness going on.”

Albasiery said former customers now do their shopping in Pleasanton or Dublin because they’re afraid their cars will be broken into if they come to Oakland. Business owners are afraid to make claims against their insurance because they’re worried they’ll get booted off their policies.

“Businesses are hurting really bad,” Albasiery said. “It’s almost like the Wild West.”

In San Jose on Thursday, Mayor Matt Mahan walked through downtown and met with local businesses alongside law enforcement to emphasize his plans to double the rate at which new police officers are hired. Like other Bay Area mayors, he’s also prioritized building more homeless shelters, increasing access to treatment centers and cracking down on encampments.

“If people don’t feel safe, it’s hard to convince them that anything else matters,” Mahan said. Read More > in The Mercury News

Antioch police under the microscope – Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Wednesday that his office is launching a civil rights investigation into the Antioch Police Department. Since March, the department has come under fire after a separate, years-long investigation from the FBI and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office into the department’s improper use of force. That ongoing investigation uncovered a series of racist, sexist and homophobic texts among officers, as first reported by the East Bay Times. In response to the case, the department has placed 38 officers on administrative leave so far, according to KTVU.

  • Bonta, in a statement: “Where there are allegations of potentially pervasive bias or discrimination, it can undermine the trust that is critical for public safety and our justice system. It is our responsibility to ensure that we establish a culture of accountability, professionalism, and zero tolerance for hateful or racist behavior, on or off duty.”

Bonta’s civil rights investigation will examine whether the police department made any “systemic violations” against the constitutional rights of the community. It is different from a criminal investigation, which looks into individual incidents. Bonta’s announcement said that if the office found illegal wrongdoing, his office will determine next steps, but no further details were disclosed. 

Even before the attorney general stepped in, the police department has been facing major fallout since the controversy began. In addition to protests from Antioch residents outside police headquarters, Mayor Lamar Thorpe has pushed for an independent audit of the department’s internal affairs process and hiring practices. The police department is also bracing for a possible mass dismissal of cases and convictions stemming from the texting scandal.

It’s conceivable that these investigations could lead to federal oversight of the department, as even Antioch’s police chief has acknowledged. Adding more credence to the possibility: Civil rights attorney John Burris, who sued the Oakland police in 2003 — resulting in nearly 20 years (and counting) of federal oversight — filed a lawsuit in April against the Antioch Police seeking the same federal action. Read More > at CalMatters

The Home Buyer’s Quandary: Nobody’s Selling – Many Americans who want to move are trapped in their homes—locked in by low interest rates they can’t afford to give up

These “golden handcuffs” are keeping the supply of homes for sale unusually low and making the market more competitive and pricey than some forecasters expected.  

The reluctance of homeowners to sell differentiates the current housing market from past downturns and could keep home prices from falling significantly on a national basis, economists say. This could dull the Federal Reserve’s efforts to slow inflation by cooling the economy.

Emily and Isaac Naatz of Cottage Grove, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, had a baby last year and want a bigger place. They have lived for more than four years in their two-bedroom townhouse, and they now want a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard and space for a home office. “You get four people in here…and it feels like a large crowd,” Mr. Naatz said.

But they locked in a 30-year fixed mortgage rate of 3.4% in 2021—and don’t want to give that up to take on a new mortgage with a rate about 3 percentage points higher, especially when home prices in their area haven’t come down much.

As of March 31, nearly two-thirds of primary mortgages had an interest rate below 4%, according to mortgage-data firm Black Knight. About 73% of primary mortgages have fixed rates for 30 years, Black Knight data show. The average rate for a new 30-year fixed mortgage was 6.39% in the week ended May 4, according to Freddie Mac.  

The mortgage-rate factor is leaving some people in houses that aren’t a good fit, whether it’s a growing family without enough bedrooms or aging homeowners with too much space, or dissuading people from relocating for jobs or other opportunities. Some people that wanted to sell in 2022 or 2023 shelved their plans. 

As current homeowners stay put, “the movement up the ladder is sort of grinding to a halt,” said Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac. “It’s getting much harder for first-time home buyers to jump into the market because of the lack of supply.” Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

S.F. Bay Area home prices are up after 9 straight months of declines. What’s driving the shift?Home values in the Bay Area have begun to tick back up for the first time since mid-2022, new estimates from Zillow show.

Home values for the San Francisco metro area, which includes portions of the Peninsula, East Bay and North Bay, increased by almost $800, or 0.07%, after declining for nine straight months, according to the real estate listings site. Before that, home prices had been increasing every month for almost two years, hitting record highs in June 2022.

As the market heads into its typical busy season — April, May and June — real estate agents and economists said that the slight uptick isn’t surprising as the market recovers from the slump over the last year that followed a huge boom in home prices during the pandemic.

Patrick Carlisle, chief market analyst at real estate firm Compass, said in an email that the Bay Area has seen four major booms over the last four decades, each marked by a period of “irrational exuberance,” or skyrocketing prices with seemingly no end in sight, followed by a market correction.

“Housing and financial markets have always run in cycles, both economic and psychological, but, so far, since the days of the Gold Rush, despite all its booms and busts, the Bay Area has always rebounded once more,” he said. 

He added that a growing number of buyers have come to terms with high interest rates, which he noted have been slowly ticking down over the last two months, leading to busier open houses and quicker sales, pushing prices toward a rebound.

Some Bay Area counties are rebounding faster than others. Solano, Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties each saw an increase in home values over the last month, while Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties each saw declines. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

A larger deficit, economic uncertainty and unclear revenues: California’s boom turns bust – When Governor Gavin Newsom unveils his revised budget proposal later this week, it will likely include a larger deficit than the $22.5 billion his administration predicted in January.

But even more concerning to his administration than the growing shortfall?

Recent bank failures, climbing interest rates and a high-profile fight over the federal debt limit all pose considerable risks to the economy and California’s revenues.

On top of those looming uncertainties, the state still isn’t sure exactly how much money it has to work with this year because of delayed tax filing deadlines. After severe storms caused major damage in counties around the state, the federal government pushed the tax filing deadline for most Californians to Oct. 16. Newsom ordered the same for affected counties.

The state’s Department of Finance estimates about $35 billion in personal income and business tax payments will be delayed until the new deadline.

That forecast was already grim in January, when the Newsom administration projected a $22.5 billion shortfall. Since then, monthly revenue forecasts have consistently fallen below projections, meaning Newsom and state lawmakers will likely have a larger budget hole to fill.

The governor’s January spending plan included nearly $4 billion in “trigger cuts” to climate and transportation programs — which will now likely take effect — along with more than $7 billion in delayed funding for other initiatives.

Despite the deficit, Newsom has pledged to protect multi-year investments to fund universal pre-kindergarten and health care for all undocumented workers, two of his top social priorities. “I think that’s going to be something that you will see in this budget,” Palmer said. “We want to make sure that we protect those core programs.”

California has $23 billion in rainy day reserves, but the governor has hesitated to use those funds unless the economy enters a recession. Legislative leaders including Speaker Anthony Rendon have been more open to dipping into the state’s rainy day fund. Read More > at CapRadio

Report urges Metropolitan Water District to abandon Newsom’s $16-billion delta tunnel plan – Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration have touted plans to build a tunnel to transport water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, saying the project would modernize California’s water infrastructure and help the state adapt to climate change.

But an advocacy group is urging the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to abandon the $16-billion project, saying it doesn’t make financial sense for the state’s largest urban water agency.

In a report released this week, the California Water Impact Network said the delta tunnel may seem like a viable alternative but has three major flaws: “an exorbitant price tag, environmental restrictions on operations and the impacts of climate change on deliveries.”

The Metropolitan Water District imports water from the delta and the Colorado River and delivers it to cities and water agencies that supply about 19 million people across Southern California.

Gomberg recommended that the MWD produce detailed cost estimates that incorporate changing hydrologic conditions and that it analyze implications on the affordability of water for all ratepayers.

Instead of supporting the delta project, he said, the MWD should study investments in local projects, such as infrastructure to capture stormwater, clean up contaminated groundwater and recycle wastewater.

Gomberg said that while proponents tout the project as a way to make water supplies more reliable, “the promised reliability is highly uncertain” given the effects of climate change and environmental regulations that restrict pumping.

The Newsom administration last year released plans for the proposed tunnel, which would capture water from the Sacramento River and transport it for miles under the delta. The water would reach existing pumps that send it south through the aqueducts of the State Water Project, flowing toward farmlands and Southern California’s cities. Read More > in the Los Angeles Times

California Reparations Panel’s Recommendations Could Cost State More Than $500 BillionCalifornia’s Reparations Task Force on Saturday approved a detailed plan that, if enacted, could see the state dole out hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations payments to black residents. 

Among the recommendations included in the task force’s report, which comes after a year of work by the panel, is a payment to address harms from redlining by banks that could total as much as $148,099 per resident. The group recommended the state pay black residents $3,366 in reparations for each year they lived in California from the early 1930s to the late 1970s, when the issue was most pervasive.

In addressing the impact of “overpolicing and mass incarceration,” the report suggests each eligible person would receive, on average, roughly $115,260 — $2,352 for each year of residency in California from 1971 to 2020.

Eligible residents include any descendant of enslaved African Americans or of a “free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century.” There are roughly 2.5 million African American residents in the state, accounting for nearly 6.5 percent of its population.

The payments could see a 71-year-old lifelong state resident receive $1.2 million in reparations for those and other harms listed in the report, according to the New York Times. Read More > at National Review

California governor Gavin Newsom does NOT endorse $1.2 million reparations checks, claiming slavery’s legacy is about ‘more than cash payments’ – instead pledging ‘systemic changes’ like equity in housing, education and healthcareCalifornia‘s governor has come out against reparations checks being handed out to black residents of his state, days after a task force recommended that up to $1.2 million be given to those who met the criteria.

Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday he felt there were better ways of addressing systemic inequality than cash handouts.

The scheme approved by the nine-member reparations task force on Saturday would cost the state around $800 billion – more than twice its annual budget.

Newsom said dealing with the legacy of slavery and discrimination is ‘about much more than cash payments.’ 

He told Fox News in a statement on Tuesday: ‘Many of the recommendations put forward by the task force are critical action items we’ve already been hard at work addressing: breaking down barriers to vote, bolstering resources to address hate, enacting sweeping law enforcement and justice reforms to build trust and safety, strengthening economic mobility — all while investing billions to root out disparities and improve equity in housing, education, healthcare, and well beyond. 

‘This work must continue.’ Read More > at the Daily Mail

Cash for slavery reparations gets cool response from California officials – A proposal to pay Black people in California up to $1.2 million in restitution for slavery ran into political headwinds Wednesday as Gov. Gavin Newsom and a lawmaker who was on the state panel raised doubts about the prospect of cash payments.

State Sen. Steven Bradford said he wouldn’t count on the Legislature — though dominated by Democrats — to vote in favor of payments, one of the recommendations of a panel expected to release its final recommendations on July 1.

“I’m realistic enough to know that we might not have colleagues who are willing to do that,” Bradford told reporters.

He spoke after Newsom sparked an uproar with a statement that hailed the findings of the task force as a milestone but specifically noted that dealing with the legacy of slavery “is about much more than cash payments.”

The governor was acknowledging political reality, Bradford said.

“I think he’s setting a real realistic expectation that there probably won’t be check payments in the tune of or the amount that we’ve batted around for the last two years since we started this process,” he said.

The comments from Newsom and Bradford illustrated the considerable political obstacles to compensating Black people for the harms of slavery, even in a progressive state that drew praise for creating a groundbreaking task force. Those challenges will be magnified by California’s enormous budget deficit, the contentiousness of proposing cash payment and, Bradford acknowledged, resistance from fellow Democrats. Read More > at Politico

With George Berkeley’s slave-owner past uncovered, will the city or university consider a name change? – The problematic pasts of historical figures have forced the renaming of hundreds of buildings and the removal of dozens of statues from public squares across the U.S. But what happens when the name of an entire community is tainted by racial injustice?

It’s perhaps ironic that Berkeley is the latest place to face this question. The city’s reputation for anti-imperialism has only grown since becoming the nation’s first city to swap Columbus Day for “Indigenous Peoples Day” in 1992 and installing city-limit signs that declare “Welcome to the City of Berkeley — Ohlone Territory” in 2019. Last year, the City Council agreed to begin its meetings with a land acknowledgment, recognizing Berkeley as stolen land from its first inhabitants, the Ohlone people.

But now, historians at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, have renewed scrutiny of records indicating that the city’s namesake — Bishop George Berkeley, an 18th-century Irish philosopher and influential scholar — purchased enslaved people to toil at a Rhode Island plantation he briefly operated until 1732.

Ireland’s largest university took a stand on Berkeley last month, voting to expunge his name from its central library. The college’s researchers advocated for the decision, citing public documents showing that Berkeley openly advocated for owning, evangelizing and educating Native Americans, whom he characterized as inhumane, barbarous and savage.

No plans are currently in the works to rename the city of Berkeley nor UC Berkeley, which actually bore the moniker first. But some people think there should be.

Berkeley’s legacy began in the Golden State more than 150 years ago by virtue of a poem.

Trustees of what was then the College of California renamed the institution as the University of California at Berkeley in 1868, commemorating the Irish philosopher. While gazing toward the San Francisco Bay, those founders recalled “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America,” which waxed of another golden age and dreams that “westward the course of empire takes its way.”

The city of Berkeley did not assume that same name until its incorporation in 1878, more than a decade after the residential community was first formed and blossomed around campus. The inspired line in Berkeley’s poem appeared on the city’s former seal alongside a bust of the bishop. It’s unclear exactly when that was changed, but the city’s current logo is based on a mural the city commissioned more than 50 years ago. Read More > in The Mercury News

California readies for treasure hunt as floods wash up ‘Gold Rush 2.0’ – In the aftermath of an unusually wet winter, Californians are bracing not only for flooded fields and raging rapids, but also for a potential treasure hunt that experts are dubbing “Gold Rush 2.0.” 

“It’s one of those 100-years events,” Mark Dayton, a Sacramento Valley metal detector expert, told The Hill. 

With one atmospheric river after another this past winter, snowpack on the Golden State’s mountain peaks piled up to unprecedented heights. But as that snow gushes down the hillsides, the fast and furious flow is shuttling other materials along with it.    

“When it melts, it comes rushing down at crazy speeds through narrow gorges and canyons, and it’s a torrent of raging water,” Dayton said. “This is even crazier than whitewater.” 

The flow cascades like a waterfall from about 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet, at which point it begins “meandering into some of the foothills” and into creeks and streams, Dayton explained. 

“What happens is the material is being ripped literally right off the walls of the creeks as they reshape themselves,” he added. 

By “material,” Dayton means gold. And he said he anticipates a lot of it this year. Read More > in The Hill

‘BART must treat this like a crisis’: New poll calls on rail agency to hire more police to win back ridersBART should hire more sworn police officers and double down on keeping trains clean if it hopes to see any significant boost in ridership, according to a new poll.

The findings from a BART-specific poll commissioned by the Bay Area Council, a business advocacy group that’s supported the regional rail agency since its inception, should not come as a surprise. Crime and filth on BART tainted many people’s perceptions of the agency years before the pandemic decimated its ridership.

But the polling reaffirms the challenging path for recovery facing the Bay Area’s fare-dependent rail system.

With ridership stagnant since September, BART has a one- to two-year window to either recover large swaths of lapsed riders or secure a state or local taxpayer subsidy before incurring massive annual budget deficits. Failure could mean whittling BART service to “doomsday” levels so infrequent that it collapses the agency’s customer base.

To secure its future, BART must overcome hardened, negative perceptions from voters and riders who feel the agency hasn’t made much progress reducing crime and filth on trains and in stations. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

5G Networks Are Performing Worse—What’s Going On? – By now, the cellular industry’s rollout of 5G networks is three or four years old. And while the industry is still hunting for that killer use case that will cement 5G’s place in the highest echelons of cellular technology, the generation is doing, at its core, what it was supposed to do—sort of.

5G networks are continuing to deliver better and faster service than 4G in general. Compared to 5G service from a year ago, however, the networks’ upload and download times have generally declined around the world, according to speed test data from network diagnostics company Ookla. Even the most robust 5G networks are currently barely cracking 1 gigabit per second, well short of the International Telecommunication Union’s stated ideal download speed of 20 Gbps.

Part of the problem is the same problem had by every cellular generation. There are the normal growing pains as more customers buy new phones and other devices that can tap into these networks. “You look to 4G and we had the same,” says Mark Giles, an industry analyst at Ookla. “So with initial deployments of 4G, there was a lot of capacity to soak up those early users. And then as more and more users come on that capacity gets used up, and you need to look at densification.”

A big selling-point for 5G is the ability to tap into new bands of spectrum, most notably the millimeter wave band (24 gigahertz to 40 GHz), which can support lower latencies and greater data rates. The caveat of all higher frequencies, however, is that they don’t travel particularly far. That’s great for cities, less so for the suburbs or rural areas. As more people in more places start using 5G networks, there’s some degradation in network performance to be expected, in aggregate, because of that fact. Read More > at IEEE Spectrum

The government is very hackable, and they have your data – Data breaches and security failures happen everyday. There’s little we can do about that if we want to participate in modern society, except maybe switch out the companies we interact with for their competitors if we presume one to be more secure. There’s one service that we don’t have a choice on whether to interact with, no matter how high profile its security incidents become: the federal government.

A breach of the Office of Personnel Management announced in 2015 it had leaked background investigation records, impacting 21.5 million individuals, according to the agency. The highly publicized Solarwinds hack discovered in 2020 exposed government and business records to Russian insiders. Earlier this year, the US Marshals Service division of the Department of Justice became a target, when hackers stole personal information about investigation targets, personnel and more.

The attacks were targeted, usually seeking out some type of sensitive state information. But we all have sensitive information stored throughout federal agencies like our social security numbers or home addresses. Probably even more information is at stake if you utilize federal services like Medicare, student loans or SNAP benefits. We have no choice but to give the federal government access to our personal information in exchange for certain services, unless you’re reading this while living off grid.

In response, the federal government has developed agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to lead better security initiatives across departments. In part, this is intended to help you feel a little bit better about storing your data within federal servers by setting higher standards for how it safeguards your data. According to Michael Duffy, associate director of the cybersecurity division at CISA, since the agency’s establishment in 2018, it’s spearheaded the most progress he’s seen in his federal cybersecurity career.

So, things are improving, and you can probably trust the federal government to keep your data safe in the same way you trust the companies you interact with everyday. What makes the government so different, though, is that it’s a high profile target. Adversarial countries want in on state secrets while, at the same time, it’s hard to prioritize spending on security measures. Getting tax-payer funds to fill a pothole on your local highway is hard enough when the damage is tangible and obvious, while security is hard to quantify the benefits of until an attack occurs. In other words, the value of security investments aren’t proven until it’s already too late. Read More > at Engadget

Natural gas prices have plunged in the Bay Area. Here’s how food and other costs have changed – After spiking painfully high during the winter, the price of natural gas has plunged by more than one-third over the past two months in the Bay Area — putting it below the level of one year ago, according to the latest consumer price index for the region. 

Food prices, while still higher than this time last year, also began to edge down in the March-April period, declining for the first time since February 2021.

While overall prices still climbed in the Bay Area during the past two months, growth has continued to slow since December of last year, after consistent monthly increases of over 5% for nearly all of 2021. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes the consumer price index, includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties in its analysis of prices in the San Francisco metro area.

Natural gas prices dropped 36% in the March-April period — an abrupt turnaround from the 15% increase during December and January and subsequent 18% increase during January and February. Many Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers reported they were shocked to receive enormous energy bills, with some saying they could not afford to heat their homes. Read More > in the San Francisco Chronicle

We May Be Getting Used to High Inflation, and That’s Bad News – Last fall, Americans were obsessed with inflation. The issue dominated the midterm elections. One in five respondents called it the nation’s most important problem, according to Gallup.

These days, their attention is elsewhere. Just 9% of Gallup respondents now call inflation the most important problem, behind government leadership and the “economy in general” and just ahead of immigration and guns. It has barely come up in Washington’s fight over raising the debt ceiling.

Good news? Maybe not. It may mean people are getting used to higher inflation, which would be very bad news. The more people behave as if high inflation is here to stay, the likelier it is to stay. That would force the Federal Reserve to choose between inducing a potentially deep recession to force inflation lower, or giving up on its 2% inflation target.

The Labor Department reported Wednesday that consumer prices rose 4.9% in the year through April, the lowest in two years and down substantially from 9.1% last June, mostly because gasoline prices have fallen. That drop helps explain why people aren’t obsessing as much over inflation, though they are still obsessing more than before the pandemic.

And yet inflation is very much still a problem. Core inflation, which excludes food and energy, is a better predictor than overall inflation of underlying price trends. Core inflation was 5.5% in April, down from 5.6% in March. On a monthly basis, core prices rose 0.4%, equivalent to 5% at an annual rate, in line with the past four months. Excluding shelter, core services prices, which the Fed watches closely, rose a much more tame 0.1% for the month, according to independent analyst Omair Sharif. Wages, which strongly influence service prices, grew 4% to 5% through the first four months of the year, too high to be consistent with 2% inflation.

The original surge in inflation had two main sources: pandemic and war-related disruptions to the supply of goods, services and labor, and federal stimulus and near-zero interest rates that stoked demand.

Those factors have largely receded. Supply chains are functioning normally. Labor supply has mostly recovered, with the labor-force participation rate now in line with its prepandemic trend. Gasoline prices are back to where they were before Russia invaded Ukraine. As for demand, fiscal stimulus has expired, and since March 2022 the Fed has raised its short-term interest-rate target from near zero to between 5% and 5.25%.

The theory two years ago was that once these transitory supply and demand factors receded, inflation would return to 2%. And indeed, some prices have fallen, apartment rents are rising more slowly and employers aren’t so desperate to hire.

But this theory always carried a caveat: the longer it took for these transitory factors to subside, the greater the risk people would adjust to faster rising prices and wages which might make them self-sustaining. That may be under way now. Read More > in The Wall Street Journal

Will we ever…hibernate in space? – The year is 2039, and you’re an astronaut on your way to Mars. You’re only three months into the eight-month-long journey, and already your body is facing an onslaught of radiation from outer space. In zero gravity, your bones and muscles are at risk of wasting away.

You’re not worried though, as you are about to enter your own private stasis booth. Cocooned inside, you’ll blissfully sleep away the hours and days until you emerge fresh and rejuvenated at your destination.

For a long time a trope of science fiction stories, some scientists believe that human hibernation across the vastness of space could one day be possible.

If it were, it would be a boon for space exploration. A single astronaut consumes about 30kg (66lbs) of food and water a week. Multiply that by the approximate 16 months it would take to travel to Mars and back, and that adds up to a pretty hefty spaceship for all that life support.

Hibernating astronauts, on the other hand, wouldn’t eat or drink much, and would consume minimal oxygen. Hibernation could therefore save mission controllers a huge amount of money, reducing the amount of food cargo needed by 75% and the size of spacecraft needed by up to one-third.

Is it possible? Well, maybe. Hibernating animals are distributed throughout the tree of life, including insects, amphibians, and many mammals. Studies have also shown that scientists can use drugs to induce a state of torpor in some animals such as rats that don’t usually hibernate. The drugs act on a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating the body’s temperature and heartbeat.

Cooling the body down could also initiate a kind of torpor-like state. In the 1990s, researchers from the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh showed that rapidly cooling the circulatory system of dogs in cardiac arrest sent them into a state of suspended animation.

A similar process, known as therapeutic hypothermia, is already used in some hospitals to treat patients in cardiac arrest or with traumatic brain injuries. It’s thought that cooling the body down to around 32-34C (89.6-93.2F) reduces damage to the brain and other vital organs. This makes sense, as the cells in our body require a constant supply of oxygen to meet their metabolic demands. Under normal circumstances, the heart pumps this oxygen around our body. But in trauma patients, the loss of blood causes cells to run out of oxygen and quickly die. Cooling the body down by a few degrees reduces the body’s demand for energy and oxygen, buying physicians important time. Read More > at BBC

Fake Meat Company’s Shares Tumble to New Low Months After Factory Contamination Scandal – Shares of Beyond Meat tumbled 18 percent to new lows on Thursday after the plant-based substitute meat seller said it would sell up to $200 million worth of new shares as it faces a shrinking cash pile.

Last trading at $10.26, Beyond Meat’s stock has slumped from highs of over $239 in the months following its July 2019 initial public offer, among Wall Street’s hottest listings that year.

The stock’s collapse comes just months after leaked internal documents revealed the company’s Pennsylvania processing plant was contaminated with mold, deadly bacteria, and other toxic substances.

The El Segundo, California company late on Wednesday reported its fifth consecutive quarter of declining year-over-year revenue, and it said it expects improved sales growth in the second half of 2023.

Beyond Meat also said it has entered an equity distribution agreement with Goldman Sachs to sell up $200 million worth of its shares, or equivalent to about 30% of its market cap after Thursday’s drop.

Goldman Sachs analyst Adam Samuelson has a “sell” rating on Beyond Meat’s stock, according to Refinitiv.

Plant-based substitute meat burgers and sausages made by Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other producers, often selling at prices comparable to real meat products, have failed to catch on with consumers as much as many investors had expected, with decades high inflation adding to pressure on demand. Read More > in The Washington Free Beacon

Scientists discover microbes that can digest plastics at cool temperatures – In a potentially encouraging sign for reducing environmental waste, researchers have discovered microbes from the Alps and the Arctic that can break down plastic without requiring high temperatures. Although this is only a preliminary finding, a more efficient and effective breakdown of industrial plastic waste in landfills would give scientists a new tool for trying to reduce its ecological damage.

Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute WSL published their findings this week in Frontiers in Microbiology, detailing how cold-adapted bacteria and fungus from polar regions and the Swiss Alps digested most of the plastics they tested — while only needing low to average temperatures. That last part is critical because plastic-eating microorganisms tend to need impractically high temperatures to work their magic. “Several microorganisms that can do this have already been found, but when their enzymes that make this possible are applied at an industrial scale, they typically only work at temperatures above [30 degrees Celsius / 86 degrees Fahrenheit],” the researchers explained. “The heating required means that industrial applications remain costly to date, and aren’t carbon-neutral.”

Unfortunately, none of the microorganisms tested succeeded at breaking down non-biodegradable polyethylene (PE), one of the most challenging plastics commonly found in consumer products and packaging. (They failed at degrading PE even after 126 days of incubation on the material.) But 56 percent of the strains tested decomposed biodegradable polyester-polyurethane (PUR) at 15 degrees Celsius (59 degrees Fahrenheit). Others digested commercially available biodegradable mixtures of polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) and polylactic acid (PLA). The two most successful strains were fungi from the genera Neodevriesia and Lachnellula: They broke down every plastic tested other than the formidable PE.

Plastics are too recent an invention for the microorganisms to have evolved specifically to break them down. But the researchers highlight how natural selection equipping them to break down cutin, a protective layer in plants that shares much in common with plastics, played a part. “Microbes have been shown to produce a wide variety of polymer-degrading enzymes involved in the break-down of plant cell walls. In particular, plant-pathogenic fungi are often reported to biodegrade polyesters, because of their ability to produce cutinases which target plastic polymers due [to] their resemblance to the plant polymer cutin,” said co-author Dr. Beat Frey. Read More > at Engadget

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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