TIME Environment

California Set to Enact First Statewide Ban of Plastic Bags

Jerry Brown, Neel Kashkari
California Governor Jerry Brown, left, listens as Republican challenger Neel Kashkari speaks during a gubernatorial debate in Sacramento, Calif., on Sept. 4, 2014 Rich Pedroncelli—AP

After state lawmakers passed a bill

California is poised to become the first U.S. state to ban single-use plastic bags after Governor Jerry Brown said Thursday that he expected to sign a bill nixing their use.

The legislation — which would oust single-use plastic bags from grocery stores and pharmacies in 2015, as well as from convenience and liquor stores a year later — is similar to laws on the books in more than 100 California municipalities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in individual towns and cities across the U.S.

Like those municipal laws, the California bill also authorizes stores to levy a $.10 charge on paper or reusable bags. In addition, it extends some $2 million in loans to plastic-bag manufacturers in an effort to soften those factories’ shift toward producing reusable bags.

American environmentalists and lawmakers have seized on banning non-biodegradable bags as a way to cut down on waste and clean up the country’s waters. But bag manufacturers have lobbied fiercely against such measures, warning that as bags disappear, so do the jobs in their factories.

Brown has until the end of September to sign the bill, passed by state lawmakers in a 22-to-15 vote last week.

“I probably will sign it, yes,” said the Democrat on Thursday evening, during a televised debate with his Republican rival Neel Kashkari, who is challenging Brown in the Nov. 4 gubernatorial election, the Los Angeles Times reports. “This is a compromise. It’s taking into account the needs of the environment, and the needs of the economy and the needs of the grocers.”

Republicans in California’s legislature had opposed the bill, calling it unwarranted government involvement in local business, as well as a burden to job-creating manufacturers.

Kashkari — who trails the incumbent Brown by 50% to 34% in recent polling — said in the Thursday debate that there was “no chance” he would sign the bill.

TIME Environment

Solved: Mystery of Moving Stones in Death Valley

A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, CA.
A sailing stone in Racetrack playa, Death Valley, in California Mark Newman—Getty Images

A group of scientists say they've figured out how the "sailing stones" glide along the desert floor on their own

So-called sailing stones in California’s Death Valley National Park have perplexed tourists and scientists alike for their apparent ability to move on their own, leaving sometimes meter-long tracks in their wake.

But after years of speculation, researchers with patience, remote weather monitors, cameras, and stones that are fitted with GPS say they have discovered the force behind the phenomenon.

Wind (very strong winds) and ice (very thick ice) have long been considered as possible explanations for why the rocks, sometimes weighing hundreds of pounds, move. It’s actually a combination of a little of both, the team of researchers say in their study, published in the journal PLOS One this week.

Rainwater in what is known as the Racetrack Playa creates a shallow pond over the playa that, in cold winter temperatures, freezes over. When the ice begins to melt under the sun, it first breaks up into large panels thin enough that, with a nudge from even light winds, they shift — and push whatever rocks may lie in their path.

TIME natural disaster

How 10 Seconds Could Save Lives During Earthquakes

Napa Area Businesses Continue Recovery Effort From Earthquake
A crack runs down the center of an earthquake-damaged street in Napa, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2014 Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

California eyes warning system after latest quake

Ten seconds could save your life. That’s the message from researchers developing an early-warning system in California that could eventually alert the public an earthquake is about to hit.

The research program, run by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in partnership with several California universities, is still in beta form, but was put to the test last weekend when an earthquake struck the Napa area. At the University of California, Berkeley, to the south, the system detected and sent out a warning signal to the scientists about six seconds before the tremor reached the area.

The technology behind the system uses sensors across the state that detect early waves from an earthquake before the main event strikes. While it’s not possible to issue warnings to those located right next to an earthquake epicenter, those further away could be warned seconds or even a minute in advance.

Doug Given, USGS’s early-earthquake-warning coordinator, says 10 seconds might not seem like a lot, but it could be enough for people to take cover before an earthquake hits and for public services and private industry to take precautionary steps. This might include systems that force elevators to let passengers off at the closest available floor and those that let first responders know they should open garage doors ahead of tremors so they can quickly begin search-and-rescue missions afterward. Given says other applications include letting hospitals know an earthquake is coming, so they can prepare doctors and patients. “If you’re in an MRI machine, you might want them to pull you out before it starts shaking hard,” says Given. Likewise, he says surgeons performing delicate operations — on eyes, for example — could have notice that their work is about to be interrupted.

“Imagine being a dental chair,” says Margaret Vinci, manager of the Office of Earthquake Programs for the California Institute of Technology, one of the colleges partnering with USGS. “Would you not want that dentist to pull that drill out of your mouth?”

Given and Vinci also say a statewide early-earthquake-warning system could tell rapid transit systems to slow trains to help prevent derailments. A similar alert program exists in earthquake-prone Japan, where earthquake warning alerts automatically slow bullet trains.

Japan and Mexico are two countries that already have the kind of earthquake-warning system California lacks. Devastating quakes in those countries prompted major public investments in such systems. As recently as April, residents in Mexico City had a full minute of warning before a 7.2-magnitude quake 170 miles away rocked the capital.

California’s program, though, is hobbled by lack of adequate funding, according to Given, who says the program needs an investment of $80 million over five years and about $12 million a year to maintain operations. California passed a law recently calling for a statewide early-earthquake-warning system to be set up, but did not provide funding. Given says the program currently includes about 400 sensors set up around the state, but needs at least double that figure for the warning system to be fully functional. “We hope we will be the first country that builds its system before the big earthquake rather than after,” Givens says.

Investments in the system itself wouldn’t include spending by local governments and private businesses that would need to establish response plans, and possibly automated systems, to take advantage of the USGS warnings. As for the public, earthquake warnings could be sent out via text message and through local television and radio stations, but that too requires advance planning and spending. Vinci says if the early-warning system was fully funded, it could be ready for public consumption in two years.

In the meantime, researchers involved in the project are asking public and private organization to test whether the alert system works and offer suggestions about how to improve it. Disneyland, the city of Long Beach and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system are among those serving as testers. Researchers are also studying which kinds of warning sounds and signals work best with the public. When activated, the existing system, which is called ShakeAlert and which runs on computers for those involved in the program or serving as beta testers, kicks in to tell users an earthquake is coming, how soon it will happen and how severe the shake will be. The warning includes a loud quick buzz with a speaker saying, ”Earthquake! Earthquake!”

“Right now the ShakeAlert we have now is kinda scary,” Vinci says.

MONEY Tech

How to Flip Your ‘Kill Switch’ and Protect Your Smartphone from Thieves

140826_EM_KillSwitch
Nathan Alliard—Getty Images

Starting next summer, every smartphone sold in California must have an anti-theft device. Here's what you can do to safeguard yours right now.

Smartphone theft just got a whole lot less lucrative. Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring that all smartphones sold in the state include a “kill switch,” software that makes it impossible for thieves to use stolen phones.

Here’s something you may not know: Your phone could already have such a switch. Both iPhones and Samsung phones have new software that “locks” the device so that unauthorized users are unable to activate it. According to the San Francisco Police Department, the city saw a 38% drop in iPhone thefts in the six months after Apple released its kill switch. In June, Google and Microsoft promised to offer kill switch technology in their next operating systems, and for now, both offer other apps to help you protect a lost phone.

The California bill requires that tech companies make the kill switch feature standard on all phones starting July 1, 2015. In the meantime, you can enable your phone’s available security features by turning on the right settings. Here’s how.

iPhones

Do this right now: Make sure you have iOS7 software (if you haven’t already, you can download the upgrade on iTunes). Go to Settings, then iCloud, and then flip on “Find My iPhone.” If your phone gets lost, you’ll be able to track it on icloud.com.

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Go to icloud.com/find and sign in using your Apple ID and password. There, a button lets you play a sound on your iPhone to help you locate the device. You can also put the phone in “lost mode,” which gives you the option to display an alternate phone number and a message explaining that the phone has been lost, so Good Samaritans will be able to find you.

If you’re sure your phone has been stolen, erase the data. Remember that this is a last resort: Once you’ve erased your phone, you won’t be able to track it. But that way, the only way someone will be able to activate it is by entering your Apple ID and password. (And in the event that you find your phone again, you can restore the data using iCloud backup.)

Android

Do this right now: Android doesn’t have a kill switch yet, but it has still some helpful anti-theft features. Start by downloading the free “Android Device Manager.”

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Sign in to the Android Device Manager using your Google account and password. Again, you’ll be able to play a sound, track your phone, reset the screen lock PIN, and erase the data. (Remember, once you erase the data, you won’t be able to track the phone anymore.)

However, hackers may still be able to reset and reactivate the device. Expect a tougher kill switch feature in Google’s next software upgrade.

Samsung

Do this right now: If you’ve got a Samsung Android phone, you’re in luck. Go to Apps, then Settings, and then Security. Check the box next to “reactivation lock.” You’ll be prompted to either sign in to your Samsung account or create one.

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Go to findmymobile.samsung.com and log in with your Samsung account. Like “Find My iPhone,” Samsung lets you track your phone, play a sound to help you find it, and lock your device remotely.

If your phone has been jacked, the reactivation lock renders it useless. Once you’ve turned the feature on, no one can reset the device without your Samsung account and password.

Windows Phone

Do this right now: Windows phones don’t have kill switches yet either, but they do have a device tracking feature. Go to Start, then App, then Settings, and then “Find My Phone.” You can opt to save your phone’s location every few hours, which could give you a more accurate reading of its last known location if the battery dies.

Do this if your phone gets stolen: Go to windowsphone.com and sign in with your Windows Live ID. You’ll be able to track your phone, play a sound, lock your phone with a message, and erase your data.

Windows also plans to add a kill switch in the future.

TIME Food & Drink

The California Quake May Cost Wine Country Billions

On the other hand, it could have been much worse

Financial damage from the earthquake that rattled California’s Napa Valley on Sunday may barrel from hundreds of millions of dollars of immediate property damage to billions in total economic losses, Reuters reports.

On top of more than 200 people injured, around 50 buildings in the city of Napa — the famed wine region’s economic hub — were deemed unsafe to enter following the 6.0-magnitude quake. The temblor was the fiercest to hit the state’s Bay Area in 25 years, Reuters says.

Disaster-modeling firm CoreLogic estimated that the total insured economic losses to the region could range from $500 million to $1 billion; but as only 6% of local homes are estimated to have earthquake coverage, according to the Insurance Information Institute in New York City, the total bill is likely to be much higher.

While Napa’s 2014 vintage is still slated for great things, a large amount of stock was destroyed by the quake. “It’s a big mess right now,” Rick Ruiz, operations director for the wine retailer TwentyFour Wines, told Reuters. “It’s a logistical nightmare.”

However, wine buffs need not totally despair, as the timing of the quake was in fact somewhat fortuitous — coming after the 2013 vintage had been dispatched for delivery but before most of the current year’s grape harvest was picked.

[Reuters]

TIME natural disaster

Damage from California Earthquake Could Top $1 Billion

6.0 Earthquake Rattles Northern California
A building is seen destroyed following a reported 6.0 earthquake on Aug. 24, 2014 in Napa, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

Strongest to strike northern California in 25 years

The earthquake that struck northern California over the weekend is estimated to have caused at least $1 billion in damage and economic losses.

The 6.0-magnitude earthquake was the strongest the area has experienced in 25 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS estimated the high economic loss from the widespread damage the quake caused. More than 60,000 Californians were left without power in the quake’s wake. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the effected area on Sunday, which includes Napa, Solano, and Sonoma counties.

The USGS said there is a 29% probability for a strong aftershock within the next week, though there is only a 5-10% chance that any aftershock will be stronger than the initial quake within the next week.

TIME natural disaster

Northern California Earthquake Leaves Area Devastated

The worst earthquake in California's Napa Valley in 25 years left scores injured and widespread damage in its wake

TIME justice

California to Fight Ruling Against Death Penalty

California Attorney General Kamala Harris Announces Lawsuit
California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks during a news conference on October 10, 2013 in San Francisco. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

State Attorney General Kamala Harris to appeal

California is appealing last month’s federal court ruling that declared the state’s enforcement of the death penalty to be unconstitutional.

State Attorney General Kamala Harris said Thursday that she would appeal the ruling by Judge Cormac Carney of the U.S. Central District of California, who said that the state’s death penalty violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last month, Carney, a Republican-appointed judge in Orange County, vacated the death sentence of Ernest Jones, who was convicted in the 1995 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s mother but is still on death row. In a lengthy decision, Carney ruled that uncertainties and delays over executions in the state violated inmates’ constitutional rights.

“The dysfunctional administration of California’s death penalty system has resulted, and will continue to result, in an inordinate and unpredictable period of delay preceding their actual execution,” Carney wrote. “As for the random few for whom execution does become a reality, they will have languished for so long on Death Row that their execution will serve no retributive or deterrent purpose and will be arbitrary.”

The case will now move to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am appealing the court’s decision because it is not supported by the law, and it undermines important protections that our courts provide to defendants,” Harris said in a statement. “This flawed ruling requires appellate review.”

Only 13 people have been executed in California since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978, and no inmate has been executed since 2006. More than 900 are currently on death row in the state.

TIME Fast Food

Fast-Food Franchise Holders in California Score a Major Legal Win

A McDonald's restaurant sign is seen at a McDonald's restaurant in Del Mar, California
A McDonald's restaurant sign in Del Mar, Calif., on April 16, 2013 Mike Blake/Reuters

Supporters of the SB 610 bill say employees as well as franchisees will benefit

Major fast-food companies — ranging from McDonald’s to 7-Eleven — will find it harder to terminate agreements with their franchise holders after the California state legislature passed the SB 610 bill granting franchisees additional rights.

The proposed law pits industry bodies like the International Franchise Association (IFA) and the California Chamber of Commerce against small businesses as well as labor unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The SEIU argues that the bill’s passage will pave the way for increased wages and benefits for employees, as franchisees no longer have to worry about the threat of contract termination for introducing such benefits.

“Corporate headquarters control nearly every aspect of our business — we can be punished for speaking out or joining with other franchise owners to improve business conditions, and the franchises can even be shut down for arbitrary reasons — as mine was,” said McDonald’s franchisee Kathryn Carter to SEIU California.

Opponents, however, say the bill will negatively affect quality control and consistency — and reiterated their concerns following the assembly’s 41 to 27 yes vote.

In a statement obtained by MSNBC, IFA president and CEO Steve Caldeira criticized language used in the bill: “SB 610, particularly the termination language, is more vague and obscure in its definition than any other state franchise law.”

He added: “This bill without question will undermine franchise growth in California, lead to frivolous, unnecessary and costly litigation, reduced product quality, harm brand integrity.”

The bill’s next stop is California’s senate, where it is expected to pass.

TIME weather

Firefighters Wrap Historic Buildings to Protect Them From Forest Fires

Foil, but for foiling forest fires

Firefighters in central California are doing a bit of redecorating: They’re wrapping historic buildings in a foil-like covering to protect them from the radiant heat and flying embers of the French Fire—a massive conflagration that’s consumed 13,700 acres and is 60% contained.

The wraps are similar to ones firefighters use for personal safety on the job, though they’re thicker and the Forest Service says they’re not exactly fireproof. While no buildings have been destroyed yet, drought conditions have managed to worsen the blaze.

These wraps are straightforward to apply—essentially you use staples and special tape to hold it fast against the building, so the high winds of a wildfire don’t blow it off—and appear to have the potential to keep the structures intact. It’s not cheap: Wrapping a single cabin costs nearly $1,200 of the stuff, and it takes six to seven hours to secure to a building.

All this said, there’s a version available commercially; let’s hope you never have to use it.

[ABC]

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