Wine Country Fires Worst on Record, Experts Say

Why Did Wildfires Consume Wine Country in October - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

California’s Wine Country was ravaged by wildfires through most of October, marking the deadliest fire season the U.S. has ever seen. Firefighters from all over the country, including New York, traveled in to help as the death toll rose.

With more than 220,000 acres destroyed and thousands of people evacuated from their homes, experts are scrambling to explain why. Part of the reason is that wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour fed the flames and carried embers, and another part is that October is notorious for being one of the worst months each year. (The last big wildfire in California, the Valley Fire, destroyed 1,955 structures in 2015.)

“By the end of the summer and into early fall the state’s vegetation is tinder dry,” said Jan Null, a California meteorologist and owner of Golden Gate Weather. “The bottom line is that the culmination of these patterns makes October a particularly tragic month for wildfires in California.”

There was a significant amount of rain last winter in California, which means there’s more fuel for the fire. That rain caused tremendous growth in bushes, grasses, and trees – in fact, vegetation grew more this year than it has in decades. After 5 months of historically hot and dry weather, it all served as tinder for the fires. It was uncharacteristically hot, particularly in San Francisco, this summer; the area set a record when it hit 106 degrees on September 1 (the city has been tracking its weather for 150 years).

Scientists are suggesting that climate change has something to do with it, as rising temperatures make vegetation drier.

“A warmer world will have drier fuels,” said Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Science at the University of Alberta in Canada. “Drier fuels will mean it’s easier for fires to start and spread.” He also says that heavy rainfall may not be enough to offset the effects. “You only need a week of hot, dry, windy weather before you can have a raging inferno,” he said.

The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a 2016 study that said forests in the western U.S. were more likely to burn due to climate change, and that the areas susceptible would continue to grow.

What Do You Think?

What’s behind the raging wildfires in California this fire season? Could any of them have been prevented, or is this part of the cycle the whole earth goes through? Do you feel it could be due to climate change? I’d love to hear your take on it, so please share your thoughts on my Facebook page or on Twitter.

Carlos Gamino

 

Coal Plants Are Closing – But Why?

950 Jobs Lost to Closing Coal Plants in Texas - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

Coal plants all over the country are closing – most notably in Texas – despite President Trump’s campaign promises to increase coal jobs and bring the industry roaring back to life.

Director of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt claimed that there was a “war on coal,” but that doesn’t seem to be the case in light of the data from the EPA itself.

Coal jobs have been dwindling over the past several decades, not due to economic concerns or other factors, but because worldwide demand for coal is shrinking. Renewable energy has largely replaced fossil fuels, and it’s steadily becoming more affordable.

A Department of Energy report, issued on August 23, says, “The biggest contributor to coal and nuclear plant retirements has been the advantaged economics of natural gas-fired generation.”

Considering the retirement of several processing facilities, according to the report, the future of coal looks even more bleak. That’s particularly true when you consider the “clean coal” myth; coal is not inherently a clean energy like wind or solar is. When people refer to clean coal, what they’re talking about is carbon capture and storage, or CCS – and the technology for it has been around for decades. It involves capturing carbon and “storing” it under the earth’s surface, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, which some scientists say is dangerous. Further, it’s expensive to implement; plant owners would have to retrofit the technology in older plants and create new underground storage facilities, costing about $100 billion per year. The math just doesn’t add up when there are more affordable alternatives.

As of right now, 79 percent more coal processing plants are closing than experts and the White House expected. The plants closing in Texas, owned by a company called Luminant, will cost local economies 950 jobs.

Luminant says that the plants are closing due to an “oversupplied” renewable energy market and the fact that natural gas and wholesale electricity’s prices are lower than ever. The plants that are closing haven’t brought in revenue for the company in quite some time, according to executives.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your take on what’s happening in the coal industry, so please share your thoughts on my Facebook page or on my Twitter feed.

Carlos Gamino

McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce Debacle

McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce Debacle - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

How far would you go for a packet of McDonald’s Szechuan sauce?

If you’re like most people, you’d go about as far as your local McDonald’s… but thousands of fans are doing crazy things for a sauce that was made popular again thanks to a comedy show called “Rick and Morty.”

The show’s Season 3 premier featured the sauce, which was originally unveiled in 1998 for a limited time, and fans demanded McDonald’s re-release it.

The unveiling was a little disappointing for many fans, though, who claimed that the sauce wasn’t available at their locations. (It’s not as if there are more pressing issues to worry about.)

For others, getting their hands on just one packet caused quite a stir – such as a woman from Macomb, Michigan, who got her own and traded it for… wait for it… a car. The woman, Rachel Marie, is a 23-year-old graphic designer who drove 45 minutes to wait hours for the sauce to become available.

“By the time that happened, there were hundreds of people waiting,” Marie said. “The line snaked around the building.”

That particular location had just 20 packets available, but she and a friend each snagged one. Instead of smearing it on McNuggets, though, Marie traded one packet for a 2000 Volkswagen Golf MK4.

Because fans made such a big deal over the sauce, which can be made at home, McDonald’s is bringing it back this winter. Part of the company’s statement says, “Szechuan sauce is coming back once again this winter,” a statement from the company reads. “And instead of being one-day-only and limited to certain restaurants, we’re bringing back more — a lot more — so that any fan who’s willing to do whatever it takes for Szechuan sauce will only have to ask for it at a nearby McDonald’s.”

What Do You Think?

Personally, I think trading a car for a packet of sauce is overkill – but I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please, share them on my Facebook page or join the conversation on Twitter!

Carlos Gamino

Detroit Man Offers to Turn Himself In to Police for Facebook “Shares”

Redford Township Police Department Facebook Shares - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

A Detroit man going by the name “Champagne Torino” promised to turn himself in to police for outstanding warrants if his post got 1,000 shares on the social networking site. In an act of generosity, he also offered to pick up trash around the police station and bring donuts for whomever was working at the time.

The Redford Township Police Department accepted the challenge, writing on their Facebook page:

“CHALLENGE ACCEPTED!

Mr. Champagne Torino has issued the RTPD a challenge. As you can see below, if we can have this post SHARED 1000 times, he will turn himself in to RTPD on his existing warrants, clean up blight on public school property, and bring us a dozen donuts. Donuts!!!! He promised us donuts! You know how much we love Donuts!

Help us win this challenge and clean up blight in Redford at the same time! It’s as easy as a SHARE of this post.”

Despite the promise, though, Mr. “Torino” failed to bring donuts (let alone turn himself in), even after the post garnered more than 4,500 shares.

What Do You Think?

Do you enjoy watching police departments interact with their communities like this? I certainly do – and it’s happened several times (like this, this, and this), but I’d love to hear your take on it. Please share your thoughts on Facebook (but preferably on my page, not a police department’s page) or on Twitter!

Carlos Gamino

Meddling in an Election, One Facebook Ad at a Time

Meddling in an Election, One Facebook Ad at a Time - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

Facebook handed over vital information on ad buys to special prosecutor Robert Mueller in early September, claiming that Russian groups had purchased up to $100,000 in ads designed to divide and conquer the American electorate.

A Facebook official told TechCrunch that Facebook is “continuing to cooperate with the relevant U.S. authorities” during the investigation into whether President Donald J. Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to snag the presidency.

Facebook may not know the full extent of the ads purchased by Russians during the election season, though. That’s because anyone can buy ads on Facebook with a “self-service” tool that doesn’t require human interaction.

Facebook’s Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos issued a statement that said, in part, “There have been a lot of questions since the 2016 US election about Russian interference in the electoral process. In April we published a white paper that outlined our understanding of organized attempts to misuse our platform… In reviewing the ad buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”

The fake accounts, according to CNN, were linked to a pro-Kremlin “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency.

What Do You Think?

Do you believe the Trump campaign worked with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election, or do you think Russia acted alone? Do you think these ad buys were part of a bigger scheme instituted by the Russian government, or were the people who bought these ads acting alone?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to share them on my Facebook page or on Twitter using the hashtag #FacebookAds!

Carlos Gamino

Was Your Identity Compromised by Equifax?

Did the Equifax Data Breach Affect You - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

Two Equifax executives are retiring after a massive data breach affected nearly 150 million people in the U.S., and the company has come under fire for its response.

Equifax apparently learned of a huge data breach that leaked the private, credit-related information of 44 percent of Americans on July 29, more than a month before the company notified consumers that their data was compromised. (Equifax was silent about the breach until September 7.)

The hack involved names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers, according to Equifax. Nobody knows – at least according to the company – who carried out the cyberattack or what they’re doing with the information.

Instead of letting consumers know they were at-risk, Equifax executives chose to hire a private cybersecurity firm to investigate the issue… and three executives sold off about $2 million in stock during the month the company knew about the breach but refrained from telling the public. (Equifax issued a statement that said the execs “had no knowledge that an intrusion had occurred at the time they sold their shares,” but there’s an investigation underway that may reveal a different story.)

Equifax has set up a website – www.EquifaxSecurity2017.com – and a call center that you can reach at 866-447-7559 to offer impacted Americans access to a free credit-monitoring service. Despite a shaky rollout, the program seems to be working now.

You can find out whether you were affected by visiting Equifax’s website and entering your last name plus the last six digits of your Social Security number. (Never mind that that’s the type of information Equifax already let slip through their fingers.)

A large number of states have begun class-action lawsuits against the company for those affected, which experts say will soon be consolidated into regional suits.

“Equifax probably injured 143 million people, which is kind of a record,” said John Coffee, the professor at Columbia Law School who directs the schools Center on Corporate Governance.

What Do You Think?

Was your information affected by Equifax’s data breach, and if it was, have you enrolled in the company’s indentity theft protection program? Will you participate in one of the class-action lawsuits? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the company’s month-long cover-up and the executives’ sales of $2 million in stock, too, so please let me know what you’re thinking on my Twitter feed or on my Facebook page – and use the hashtag #EquifaxDataBreach to join the conversation.

Carlos Gamino

Google Blocking Ads With “Offensive” Keywords

Google’s Blocking Racist Search Ads - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

Google, the world’s largest advertising platform, is taking moves to block ads that target racist searches to help prevent advertisers from profiting from hate.

BuzzFeed ran an experiment that proved Google allowed advertisers to focus on people searching hate-driven terms, like “Jewish parasite” and “black people ruin everything.” While that’s not necessarily an indictment of Google – the Google AdWords platform is largely based on algorithms, not human input – the company has since taken action to disable what they call a “majority” of offensive keywords.

“We’ve already turned off these suggestions and any ads that made it through, and will work harder to stop this from happening again,” said Sridhar Ramaswamy, Google’s senior vice president of ads.

Like Google, Facebook temporarily disabled some advertisers’ abilities – but for a different reason. The social media giant disabled targeting of ads based on people’s education levels, self-reported interests, or other characteristics that have traditionally been used for discriminatory purposes. Also like Google’s, Facebook’s ad platform is run by an algorithm that automatically populates suggested keywords based on what users put on their profiles, the pages they “Like,” and their activity on the social media site.

“Keeping our community safe is critical to our mission,” Facebook said in a statement. “And to help ensure that targeting is not used for discriminatory purposes, we are removing these self-reported targeting fields until we have the right processes in place to help prevent this issue.” (This comes on the heels of Facebook’s revelation that Russian groups had purchased $100,000 in ads in an effort to sway the outcome of the U.S.’s 2016 presidential election, as well.)

What Do You Think?

Is Google right to prevent advertisers from running ads to people who search hateful terms, or is this an example of overreach that curbs the free flow of ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please stop by my Twitter feed or my Facebook page and use the hashtag #GoogleAds to let me know what you think.

Carlos Gamino

iPhone X Costs $1k – Is It Worth It?

Would You Spend $1,000 on an iPhone - Carlos GaminoBy Carlos Gamino

Sure, it’s the most advanced iPhone ever… but is it worth $1,000?

Apple’s new iPhone X (it’s the iPhone 10, as in it’ll cost you 10 one hundred-dollar bills) features an edge-to-edge OLED display, facial recognition technology, and a more powerful front-facing camera than previous versions.

The new iPhone, which isn’t up for pre-order until October 27, comes with plenty of bells and whistles, including:

  • Animoji face mapping. Animojis are cartoon animals that replicate your facial movements – and while they’re a neat trick, that’s what contributes to the phone’s astronomical cost.
  • A 5.8-inch screen. The screen size is 0.3 inches larger than that of the iPhone 8 Plus. (Screens keep getting bigger, by the way.)
  • Face ID technology. Apple’s face identification technology may not be as effective as fingerprint reading or passcode identification, particularly when it comes to makeup and squiggly eyebrows, considering the fact that the technology failed when Apple software engineering chief Craig Federighi tried to show it off at the unveiling.

But are all those features enough to justify a $1,000 cost?

Some people think so, despite the fact that most smartphones currently cost between $600 and $800 (with “convenient” payoff plans that get tacked right on your cell phone bill).

But critics say that’s not enough to justify the thousand-dollar price tag, noting that there are several other (and possibly better) uses for that amount of money.

Just for comparison, a new desktop computer costs between $400 and $1,900, on average. A tablet, like an iPad or Galaxy Tab, costs between $200 and $1,000, while a laptop can cost between $200 and $1,500, on average.

What Do You Think?

Are you on board to buy the iPhone X, or can you think of a thousand good reasons not to? (See what we did there?)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the new iPhone and whether it’s worth it, so please join the conversation on Twitter or on Facebook using the hashtag #iPhoneX.

Carlos Gamino

The Most Popular Drugs in America: Antidepressants

More Americans Than Ever Are on Antidepressants - Carlos Gamino

By Carlos Gamino

According to a new report issued by the National Center for Health Statistics, nearly 13 percent of people aged 12 and older said they took an antidepressant within the last month. The report gathered data between 2011 and 2014, which is the most recent available; the number had jumped about 2 percent from the period between 2005 and 2008.

Time Magazine says that about 16 million people in the U.S. are suffering from depression, and global revenue from antidepressants alone is projected to grow to nearly $17 billion within the next few years.

So why are antidepressants so popular? Are more people being diagnosed with depression and related disorders that have always been there, or are we just becoming more depressed?

Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world, not just in the U.S., and it costs the U.S. economy about $210 billion a year in lost productivity, missed work, and care.

The first antidepressants were introduced about 60 years ago, and now there are more than 20 FDA-approved drugs to treat the condition. For most people, a combination of drugs and in-person therapy can diminish depressive symptoms and speed up recovery—but for some, nothing seems to work. Approximately 30 percent of all people who have been diagnosed with depression don’t respond to the treatments available.

According to CBS News, 8.3 million adults (that’s 3.4 percent of the population) suffer from “serious psychological distress.”

Some experts, like Judith Weissman, research manager in the department of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, say that it’s an after-effect of the Great Recession that began in 2007.

“Mental illness is on the rise. Suicide is on the rise. And access to care for the mentally ill is getting worse,” says Weissman. “Earning and sustaining a living is getting harder for people, especially for men. The loss of jobs could mean there’s a loss of community and a loss of role as wage earners and providers.”

Dr. Harsh Trivedi, president and CEO of Sheppard Pratt Health System, offers another reason.

“In the past, you may go out and meet with your friends and talk about something, but when you got home you’d go to sleep,” Trivedi says. “The difficulty now is you can’t really turn things off. We don’t necessarily have downtimes to recharge and get our bearings straight again.”

What Do You Think?

Do you think we’re becoming more depressed, or simply that more cases of depression are being diagnosed? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please share them on my Facebook page or on Twitter!

Carlos Gamino

Can the Government Demand Your Personal Information?

Can the Government Demand Your Personal Information - Carlos Gamino

Business woman give business card for customer in coffee shop.

By Carlos Gamino

If you’re like most people, you assume that the websites you visit aren’t collecting too much data from you. Maybe you’ve entered your email address to subscribe to a newsletter, or maybe you’ve signed a petition by logging in to a website using Facebook… or maybe you’ve entered nothing and just browsed, assuming that you were doing so anonymously.

No matter what you think you’re providing websites when you visit, the fact is that all kinds of your personal information is let loose as soon as you log on to the internet. Your IP address (the unique numerical label assigned to every device connected to the internet), for one, shows what company you use to access the internet and where you’re located. When you consent to give a website data based on your Facebook or Google+ profile, they’re able to collect your email address, your public photos, and in many cases, even your telephone number and physical address.

So what would the government want with that information? It seems like it would be pretty useless.

But in mid-August, the Department of Justice requested the IP addresses, contact information, email content, and personal photos of 1.3 million people who used an anti-Trump website around the time of the 45th president’s inauguration. The provider that hosts the site, DreamHost, says that it’s been working with the DoJ for several months—but DreamHost believes the request goes too far under the Constitution.

The company addressed the DoJ’s warrant in a blog post, saying, “That information could be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind.”

Although DreamHost challenged the Department of Justice on its warrant, the government filed a motion in the Washington, D.C. Superior Court to ask for an order to compel the company to produce the records.

The Department of Justice claims that it wants the information to figure out who started a riot in Washington, D.C. on January 20—the day of the inauguration—but critics say that there was no riot; just overreacting police officers and exuberant protestors.

What Do You Think?

First, what do you think the government could do with that information, especially in light of the fact that the new “Voter Fraud Commission” wants voting history, party identification, and physical addresses for every voter in the U.S.?

Do you think the DoJ is overstepping its bounds by requesting personal information on more than 1.3 million people who used an anti-Trump website?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please, share them on my Facebook page or join the conversation on Twitter!

Carlos Gamino