Today, video games have their day in court. The Supreme Court is going to hear arguments of a California law meant to restrict the sale of extremely violent video games to minors, and to punish those who do so by fine.
A 2005 California law prohibits selling or renting such games to minors based on legislative findings that they stimulate “feelings of aggression,” reduce “activity in the frontal lobes of the brain” and promote “violent antisocial or aggressive behavior.” The law never took effect because lower courts found it violated free-expression rights. In a 2009 ruling, a federal appeals court in San Francisco said the state provided no credible research showing that playing violent videogames harmed minors, and found the law was an unconstitutional effort “to control a minor’s thoughts.” [Wall Street Journal]
Despite the fact that this law was stuck down multiple times and so never went into effect—and the fact that the Supreme Court declined to hear related First Amendment cases—the court accepted this one.
California’s Proposition 19, a November ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, has fueled the ongoing fight over the drug’s health risks. While that battle has a month to go, a new study out in the British Journal of Psychiatry this backs up the idea that pot’s cognitive impairment is all about the makeup of the marijuana you’re smoking.
Valerie Curran and colleagues studied 134 volunteers as those volunteers smoked from their private stashes in their homes. The scientists had their subjects take a series of cognitive tests, both high and sober. They then took a small portion of the pot to the lab for analysis.
Curran found striking differences in the chemical compositions of different users’ marijuana, and those differences appeared to play a large role in how well the smokers performed on the tests while high.
Worrying about water (and fighting over it, and creatively diverting it) is a way of life in the arid American West. However, according to reports out this week, the ever-precarious water level is nearing a breaking point where the states of the West might have to put emergency plans into place.
Lake Mead, the giant reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas Nevada, is fast approaching its all-time low level of 1,083 feet set more than half a century ago. Should the level dip below 1,075, things will get serious.
That will set in motion a temporary distribution plan approved in 2007 by the seven states with claims to the river and by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and water deliveries to Arizona and Nevada would be reduced. This could mean more dry lawns, shorter showers and fallow fields in those states, although conservation efforts might help them adjust to the cutbacks. California, which has first call on the Colorado River flows in the lower basin, would not be affected. [The New York Times]
California’s aggressive energy rules require its utilities to hit an ambitious target: 20 percent of their electricity should come from renewable sources by the end of this year. They’re not going to make it. But because of the drive for renewables, they are close to building some of the biggest solar power projects in the country—including one that would be the biggest ever.
The Beacon Solar Energy Project received the seal of approval from the California Energy Commission (CEC) this week. Beacon will be a 250-megawatt plant built north of Los Angeles near Mojave, California, and would cover more than 2,000 acres.
Beacon is solar thermal: Rather than converting sunlight to electricity through photovoltaic cells, solar thermal projects use mirrors to concentrate the heat of the sun, creating steam to turn turbines.
California hasn’t issued a license for this kind of big “solar thermal” power plant in about 20 years. But in the coming months, the energy commission will vote on eight other, large-scale solar projects that the state needs to meet its renewable energy goals. [San Francisco Chronicle]
Hasta luego, plastic bags? This week the California State Assembly approved a measure to ban single-use plastic bags, and if the state’s Senate approves it too, California will likely become the first of these United States to ban the bags. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated that he supports the bill, and will sign it if it lands on his desk.
Shoppers who don’t bring their own totes to a store would have to purchase paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled material for a minimum of 5 cents or buy reusable bags under the proposal, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2012 [San Francisco Chronicle].
Convenience and drug stores, as well as small businesses, would get a little longer to switch over. The law wouldn’t go into force for them until July 2013.
The comeback of the bald eagle has been one of America’s great environmental success stories. The mighty eagles nearly vanished from the continental United States in the 1970s due to habitat loss, hunting, and use of the pesticide DDT, which thins the birds’ eggshells. But bald eagle populations have rebounded in the decades since the federal government banned DDT and put strict protections in place, leading conservationists to reintroduce the eagles to historic habitats, like Southern California’s Channel Islands. But a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the story’s happy ending may be more complicated than expected.
Conservation biologist Seth Newsome of the University of Wyoming reconstructed the eating habits of the bald eagles who lived on the islands until the late 1960s by analyzing old bones and feathers. He found evidence that resurgent eagles on the Channel Island may threaten another endangered species.
It’s not easy to survive century after century, through droughts and storms and oscillations of the climate. So California’s majestic coastal redwoods have developed a few tricks, like their great height: The trees can grow to more than 350 feet high, allowing their treetops to pull in moisture from the fog to keep their water levels refreshed. But, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the fog is on the decline, which could spell trouble for redwoods and other area species.
Fog often rolls ashore along the California coast from June through September. The hot, dry inland air rises and creates a vacuum that sucks in the cold, vaporous air from over the ocean [Wired.com]. While the small strip of land about 50 miles inland from the coast where the redwoods live is dry and hot, this influx of moisture keeps the giant trees hydrated.
After 20 years in one spot, anyone can get restless. That goes for the famous sea lions of San Francisco’s Pier 39. They swelled to their largest population ever just a couple months ago and then almost totally disappeared this month, baffling local marine experts.
The animals have been a fixture on Pier 39 since 1990, when a big herring run lured the sea lions into San Francisco Bay. The Marine Mammal Center gets so many questions about the 1,000-pound creatures that the nonprofit staffs a small kiosk on Pier 39; the pier’s insignia includes the silhouette of a sea lion [San Francisco Chronicle]. In October more than 1,700 sea lions laid about on Fisherman’s Wharf. But the exodus began the day after Thanksgiving, and by yesterday only 10 remained hanging out near the docks.
Groundwater levels around the country have been sinking as wells for drinking water and irrigation pull water out of aquifers faster than they can naturally recharge. Now, using gravity-measuring satellites, NASA and California researchers have documented the extent of water loss in California’s Central Valley, and the results aren’t good.
The measurements show the amount of water lost in the two main Central Valley river basins within the past six years could almost fill the nation’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead in Nevada [AP]. The total is about 30 cubic kilometer; one cubic km contains more than 264 billion gallons of water.
In a central California area with a history of dramatic earthquakes, researchers have detected a worrisome amount of seismic activity deep underground. The researchers looked at data from 76 monitoring stations along the central California stretch of the San Andreas fault, and found that almost 2,200 “deep earth tremors” had shaken the earth since 2001, a span of time that included two earthquakes. Tremors increased around the time of those two quakes in 2003 and 2004, and rates have remained high since then. “What’s surprising is that the activity has not gone down to its old level” [Reuters], says study coauthor Robert Nadeau. It’s possible that the continuing tremors could presage another quake, researchers say.
Tremors vibrate quietly and can continue for days. Tremors also tend to happen in a deeper, softer part of the Earth’s crust, rather than in the upper part typically thought to generate earthquakes [Los Angeles Times]. Researchers don’t yet know whether tremors are accurate predictors of the larger earthquakes that can convulse the earth’s surface, but Nadeau says they may be a symptom of stress building up on a fault. “We’ve shown that earthquakes can stimulate tremors next to a locked (fault) zone, but we don’t yet have evidence that this tells us anything about future quakes,” Nadeau said…. “But if earthquakes trigger tremors, the pressure that stimulates tremors may also stimulate earthquakes” [San Francisco Chronicle].