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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Coronavirus "Infodemic"

Eileen Drage O'Reilly at Axios:
Trust in public institutions and in science is key to global public health — and for the most part, many countries still retain this trust, per Wellcome Global Monitor. But even this survey pointed out several months ago that misinformation on social media is itself a "real infection."
  • And — because this particular outbreak is caused by a new virus with lots of scientific and medical unknowns — there's a higher level of fear added to the equation.
  • This combined with increased social media savvy has created an "infodemic," according to WHO's director general. Another top WHO official recently said, "We need a vaccine against misinformation."
  • Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Axios that it's "painful" to read some of the misinformation out there, ranging from fake garlic treatments, to shoddy non-peer-reviewed science studies, to conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered as a bioweapon.
What's happening: "People are very concerned about the coronavirus for a very good reason, [as] it's likely to turn into a pandemic," University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom tells Axios.
  • But this is one of the first times the public has been able to see news unfolding about the spread of an epidemic in near real-time, he says.
Three main actors are driving misinformation: People trying to inform their friends and family without vetting the information; entities aiming to harm China's ruling government; and "longer-term actors in the disinformation space that find this an extremely useful vehicle ... to undermine trust in governments, NGOs and fact-based media," Bergstrom says.
  • These include Russian and others' trolls or information bots that deliberately rile up anger and confusion because that leads to countries losing "the ability to conduct any kind of effective democratic government," Bergstrom adds.
  • "If you put out a lot of mutually contradictory misinformation, people will [eventually] give up believing in their ability to find the truth," he says.
  • His UW colleague Jevin West, who says there's an "information vacuum," also points out, "Propagandists and opportunists make money off these situations."

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Anti-Greta

Desmond Butler and  Juliet Eilperin report at The Washington Post:
For climate skeptics, it’s hard to compete with the youthful appeal of global phenomenon Greta Thunberg. But one U.S. think tank hopes it’s found an answer: the anti-Greta.

Naomi Seibt is a 19-year-old German who, like Greta, is blond, eloquent and European. But Naomi denounces “climate alarmism,” calls climate consciousness “a despicably anti-human ideology,” and has even deployed Greta’s now famous “How dare you?” line to take on the mainstream German media.

“She’s a fantastic voice for free markets and for climate realism,” said James Taylor, director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center for Climate and Environmental Policy at the Heartland Institute, an influential libertarian think tank in suburban Chicago...

In December, Heartland headlined Naomi at its forum at the UN climate conference in Madrid, where Taylor described her as “the star” of the show. Last month, Heartland hired Naomi as the young face of its campaign to question the scientific consensus that human activity is causing dangerous global warming.

“Naomi Seibt vs. Greta Thunberg: whom should we trust?” asked Heartland in a digital video. Later this week, Naomi is set to make her American debut at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, a high-profile annual gathering just outside Washington of right-leaning activists.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Heartland’s tactics amount to an acknowledgment that Greta has touched a nerve, especially among teens and young adults. Since launching her protest two years ago outside the Swedish parliament at age 15, Greta has sparked youth protests across the globe and in 2019 was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the youngest to ever win the honor.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Views of Russia

Carroll Doherty at Pew:
  • Around seven-in-ten Americans (72%) say it is very or somewhat likely that Russia or other foreign governments will try to influence the November 2020 election. Far more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (84%) than Republicans and Republicans leaners (59%) expect foreign interference in the election. Among those who see interference as likely, 82% of Democrats say it is a major problem; only 39% of Republicans say the same.
  • The share of Americans with a positive view of Russia is at its lowest point in a decade. Just 18% have a favorable impression, far lower than the 44% who viewed Russia positively in 2007, when the question was first asked.
  • Just 20% of the U.S. public has confidence in Putin to do the right thing regarding world affairs; 73% have no confidence. While Putin engenders relatively low confidence among members of both parties, a larger share of Republicans (31%) than Democrats (10%) express confidence in him. The partisan gap in views of Putin is now the largest measured by Pew Research Center.
  • Last year, half of Americans said that Russia’s power and influence posed a major threat to the well-being of the U.S. These opinions, like many about Russia, also were sharply divided along partisan lines. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (65%) said Russia was a major threat, compared with 35% of Republicans.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Housing in California

The median price for a house now tops $600,000, more than twice the national level. The state has four of the country’s five most expensive residential markets—Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Orange County and San Diego. (Los Angeles is seventh.) The poverty rate, when adjusted for the cost of living, is the worst in the nation. California accounts for 12% of the U.S. population, but a quarter of its homeless population.
Local jurisdictions in California hold enormous sway over what gets built. Officials have often caved to NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) pressure against new development, much of it in the name of protecting the environment or preserving “neighborhood character.”
Parts of the state were downzoned starting in the 1970s, making it harder to build dense urban areas and contributing to racial segregation and sprawl. Three-quarters of the residential land in Los Angeles is restricted to single-family homes, according to UrbanFootprint, software that helps government and businesses understand cities and urban markets. In San Jose, the figure is 94%.
California also has a distinct burden: Proposition 13, a measure approved by voters in 1978 that limits property-tax increases on homes until they’re sold. That’s been a boon for Baby Boomers who’ve lived in their houses for decades and aren’t assessed at anything close to their property’s market value. But it’s especially unfair to their children, who are in effect subsidizing their parents’ generation.
Prop 13 also created a fiscal incentive for many cities to favor new commercial development over residential construction—and heap fees on developers to fund budget gaps.
For decades, many Californians have just moved farther out of town to find cheaper places to live. But as climate change increases the intensity and frequency of wildfires—leading to devastation and billions of dollars in costs—officials may decide to put some areas off-limits for new construction.
 Thomas Fuller at NYT:
The reasons for California’s high costs, developers and housing experts say, begin with the price of land and labor in the state. In San Francisco a construction worker earns around $90 an hour on average, according to Turner & Townsend, a real estate consulting company.
But non-construction costs also weigh heavily.
Not taking into account the price of land, around one quarter of the cost of building affordable housing goes to government fees, permits and consulting companies, according to a 2014 study by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

For a building to be defined as affordable housing it typically obtains tax credits and subsidies. A single affordable housing project requires financing from an average of six different sources — federal, state and local agencies, said Carolina Reid, a researcher at the Terner Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of a forthcoming analysis of affordable housing costs.
She called the process “death by a thousand cuts.”
 Some cite the California Environmental Quality Act.
California law permits anyone to object to a project under the act, which when it was signed by then Governor Ronald Reagan in 1970 was seen as a landmark effort to protect the environment from reckless development.
Today the law is often used as a legal battle ax by anyone who wants to slow a project down or scuttle it altogether, Mr. Jones and many developers and experts say.
“At very little cost one individual can take a project and tie it up in years of litigation,” said Douglas Abbey, a lecturer on real estate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Saudi Arabia Spies on Twitter

A November 7, 2019 release from the Justice Department:
Ali Alzabarah, Ahmad Abouammo, and Ahmed Almutairi, aka Ahmed Aljbreen, were charged for their respective roles in accessing private information in the accounts of certain Twitter users and providing that information to officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Abouammo was arrested in Seattle, Washington, on Nov. 5, 2019. All three defendants are charged with acting as illegal agents of a foreign government; and Abouammo also is charged with destroying, altering, or falsifying records in a federal investigation.
“Acting in the United States under the direction and control of Saudi officials, the defendants are alleged to have obtained private, identifying information about users of Twitter who were critical of the Saudi government,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “Two of the defendants – Alzabarah and Abouammo – are former Twitter employees who violated their terms of employment to access this information in exchange for money and other benefits. Aside from being criminal, their conduct was contrary to the free speech principles on which this country was founded.”

Alzabarah, 35, of Saudi Arabia, and Abouammo, 41, of Seattle, Washington, were Twitter employees. According to the complaint, between November of 2014 and May of 2015, Almutairi, 30, of Saudi Arabia, and foreign officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia convinced Abouammo and Alzabarah to use their employee credentials to gain access without authorization to certain nonpublic information about the individuals behind certain Twitter accounts. Specifically, representatives of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Royal Family sought the private information of Twitter users who had been critical of the regime. Such private user information included their email addresses, phone numbers, IP addresses, and dates of birth. This information could have been used to identify and locate the Twitter users who published these posts. The complaint alleges that Abouammo was compensated for his illicit conduct, including through the provision of a luxury watch and cash. Almutairi is alleged to have arranged meetings, acted as a go-between, and facilitated communications between the Saudi government and the other defendants.
The complaint also contains allegations regarding the reaction of Alzabarah upon being confronted by Twitter about his violations of Twitter policy. According to the complaint, when Alzabarah was confronted by Twitter’s management about accessing users’ information, he sought assistance from Almutairi and others to flee the United States. Alzabarah left the country the next day and submitted his resignation from Twitter by email while en route. Shortly after his return to Saudi Arabia, Alzabarah obtained employment through which he continued to work on behalf the Kingdom. With respect to Abouammo, the complaint alleges FBI agents confronted him in October 2018 about his activities on behalf of officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In response, Abouammo allegedly lied to the agents and provided them with a falsified invoice in an effort to obstruct the investigation.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Middlefield Road and Inequality

Erica Hellerstein at CalMatters:
Middlefield Road cuts through one of the most extreme income gaps in the Bay Area, where experts say the gulf between the wealthy and the poor is already greater than any other region in California. Although it is easy to ignore that gulf in enclaves like Los Altos Hills or Blackhawk, here the disparity is stark — a region’s economic tensions, carved in miniature.”
In just a quick drive from Atherton’s 94027 ZIP code to Redwood City’s 94063 neighborhood, the median household income plunges nearly $180,000 and college education levels drop as the canopy of trees disappears, making way for car repair shops, liquor stores and commercial storefronts through unincorporated North Fair Oaks and into Redwood City. The two ZIP codes share a border along El Camino Real but for Preciado and others, it is Middlefield Road that takes them from one extreme to the other.
“I think we just accept that that’s a part of the reality,” says Teri Chin, human services manager for the City of Redwood City. “Because we are living side by side, it’s not like you have to go to another country to understand poverty.”

Atherton has a median household income of $250,000, according to 2018 census data, and two-thirds of its residents are white. In the neighboring Redwood City ZIP code, where two-thirds of the residents are Latino and a quarter of children live in poverty, median household income is $71,458.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Why Republicans and Democrats Self-Segregate

Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992, even though that election featured a wider national spread.1 During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties.
Bradley Jones at Pew:
Republicans and Democrats express sharply different preferences about their ideal communities and house sizes. And while large numbers of people in both parties say it is important to live in a community that is a good place to raise children, partisans diverge on whether it is important that a community is racially and ethnically diverse.
Nearly two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (65%) say they would prefer to live in a community where houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.
By contrast, a majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (58%) would rather live in a community in which houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores and restaurants are in walking distance.
The ideological differences in community preferences are stark, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in September among 9,895 U.S. adults. Conservative Republicans are about twice as likely as liberal Democrats to prefer a community where the houses are larger and more widely spaced (71% vs. 35%). These overall patterns of opinion are little changed from 2017.

But Democrats and Democratic leaners are nearly 30 percentage points more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say it is important to live in a community that is racially and ethnically diverse (77% vs. 48%). And while 42% of Republicans say it is important to live in a community where most people share their religious views, fewer Democrats (25%) say the same.