June 23, 2017

Arlo: DIY Home Security

We already have a traditional home security system; but I’m a nerd so can’t resist the new gadgets. The sandbox for my experiment is Mary’s currently unprotected vegetable garden. Despite a fence, it is subject to immediate attack by critters unknown whenever a leaf pokes above the dirt. Nothing can survive there except weeds (critters don’t eat weeds), grapes, and raspberries. Obviously we need a crittercam to identify the culprit.

I bought Arlo (see picture below) because it’s double wireless: runs on lithium batteries and uses WiFi to talk to its base station. Software nerds try to avoid wires. The camera includes a motion detector so it only records video when it thinks something is going on. Video clips go immediately go the cloud where they’re stored free for seven days with more time available at a premium; the critter won’t be able to destroy anything to cover its video tracess. Arlo supports IFTTT (If This Then That), which lets me program connections with other devices. It comes from Netgear as does my router making me think (correctly) that setup would be easy, Arlo got pretty good reviews on Amazon. I did not do a thorough search of competitive devices – too many of them.

The starter kit comes with one camera and a base station, which can support up to 5 cameras on the free plan. The base station is physically connected to your router with an included Ethernet cable; does mean you must have a port available on your router. You put batteries in the camera and turn it on. You pair it with the base station by holding it close and pushing the pair button on both devices. Easier than Bluetooth. However, this tells us that the camera is communicating directly with the base station by WiFi and is not actually part of the WiFi network managed by your router.  You won’t like this limitation if you have used multiple routers to extend the area of your home WiFi network; the cameras will still all have to be in direct range of the base station and you may need multiple base stations.

You use the Arlo smartphone app (iOS or Android) to set up the camera and then the app is the best way to monitor what’s going on. First I put Arlo on a table in the living room. Every time I walked by, my phone promptly buzzed. The app let me view the latest recording (me shambling by), earlier recordings, or a “live” view – whatever the camera sees now regardless of whether motion has been detected. There is also a browser-based version of the app for use on your computer. If you want it to, Arlo will send you an email when he detects motion. Most intriguing, Arlo triggers IFTTT events; this means IFTTT scripts could be written to do almost anything when motion is detected including setting off an alarm (or perhaps a sprinkler in the garden). Will blog about that when I do it.

Once Arlo passed the living room test, it was time to install him as crittercam. The base is a metal hemisphere which attaches with one screw (even I can do that). There is a magnetic indent in the back of Arlo which gloms onto the hemisphere so you can angle the camera in a good range of directions. We angled him towards a collection of lettuce we’d put out as critter bait.

Arlo (2)

I may have angled Arlo too high. He reported a couple of intrusions but there was never anything to see. I do expect some false alarms; things move outside. Then I went out to take Arlo’s picture for this post. I thought he’d take a video of me taking a picture of him. But he didn’t notice me until I was latching the gate on the way out. I could need an Arlo Pro with advertised better sensitivity, a wider angle lens, and sound; nerds are suckers for upgrades.


Haven’t caught the critter yet but it won’t be long.

June 20, 2017

Teach a Person to Fish and…

We all know the Chinese proverb:

“You give a poor man a fish and you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime.”

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, thinks that robots will do all the fishing we need so we’ll have to provide free fish daily:

“There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better. I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen. And if my assessment is correct and they probably will happen, than[sic] we have to think about what are we going to do about it? I think some kind of universal basic income is going to be necessary…”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich agrees:

“…we will get to a point, all our societies, where technology is displacing so many jobs, not just menial jobs but also professional jobs, that we’re going to have to take seriously the notion of a universal basic income.”

I think this is elitist nonsense. “You are useless,” is what Musk and Reich are saying to many people around the world; “but don’t worry; we’ll feed you like the animals in the zoo (so long as you vote the right people into office).” It’s hard to think of any worse solution to the non-existent problem of not enough jobs than a universal dole.

Bernie Sanders, whom Reich supported in the primaries, does believe in jobs. His plan for free college, at its best, would be a form of teaching people to fish. However a degree in political correctness with minors in sloppy thinking and grievance politics doesn’t teach you how to bait a hook… or how to weld or wire circuits or plumb. Of course there are college whose students are taught to fish. Champlain in Burlington, VT (of which Mary is a Board member) teaches not only accounting but also digital forensics. Not surprisingly, almost all its graduates get jobs.

Donald Trump, whom Reich calls a fascist, also believes in jobs; that belief got him elected. IMHO the reason so many people voted for Sanders and Trump is these voters don’t like being told by elites that they are useless. I think Trump is wrong to blame unemployment principally on foreign competition (including illegal immigrants); I think he is absolutely right to support apprenticeship programs as a way to teach fishing and welding and circuits and plumbing.

Apprenticeship is also the best way to learn computer programming, as I know from experience. Two more advantages of apprenticeship as opposed to classroom learning: your teacher is a useful role model because she is practicing what’s she’s teaching and you learn that you can learn a skill. The specific skill may become obsolete; it will certainly change. But, once you know you learned how to catch trout, you will be confident that you can learn to catch tuna.

We know there is no current shortage of skilled jobs, for many of which a college degree is useless. There is no unemployment among commercial truck drivers, welders, plumbers, electricians, dispatchers, etc. etc. Anyone with these skills can find work (although sometimes relocation is necessary).

But what about unskilled jobs? Well, they certainly haven’t disappeared yet; look at the help-wanted ads. Retailers are finding they need to pay more to get workers; always a good sign. One reason why entry-level wages haven’t gone up faster, unfortunately, is that welfare benefits in many states including Vermont go down more quickly than take home pay goes up at salaries near the minimum wage.

Farmers around the country are complaining that Trump has scared away the undocumented workers who used to work at minimum wage (if that) so there’s no way to harvest the crops or milk the cows. I admire the migrant workers and their work ethic. Farm work is hard; legal residents can earn as much or more at McDonalds, which doesn’t hire undocumented workers. Farmers will need to pay more to get people who do have an alternative to take hard farm jobs. That’s a good thing even though food prices will go up some. People won’t stop eating. But there are jobs!

Will these jobs exist tomorrow or will they all be automated away as Musk and Reich seem to think? My friend Andy Kessler writes:

“This is a false premise. All through history, automation has created more jobs than it destroyed. Washboards and wringers were replaced by increasingly inexpensive washing machines, while more women entered the workforce. Automated manufacturing and one-click buying has upended retail, yet throughout the U.S. millions of jobs go unfilled…

“The economics, which they apparently stopped teaching at Harvard, are straightforward: Lowering the cost of goods and services through automation allows capital—financial and human—to attack even harder problems. Wake me up when we run out of problems.”

Milking a cow is done with a machine. Clerks at McDonalds enter orders on computers. Automation makes each human’s contribution worth more, not less. All the jobs will change; some will disappear. New unimagined and better jobs will materialize. I’ve made a living for most of my life from computer programming. The job didn’t exist when I was born.

No one is “useless”. Our affluence lets us help those who need help; we should do that generously. The best help will often be teaching a person to fish.

See also: No Job is Bad

June 15, 2017

Fathers Are Coconut Shells

That’s our role with respect to our daughters; I have two. Father’s Day reminds me of this, but it’s been known since antiquity.

We’re supposed to be very tough, protect the vulnerable young ladies from any and all threats. Locking a girl up in a tower may be a bit extreme; but, if you remember, Rapunzel ended up living happily ever after.

We’re supposed to be very tough (I may have said this already); but we’re also supposed to lose. It wouldn’t be good for the coconut species if the fruit could easily be eaten by rodents; it also wouldn’t be good for the species if the shell were made of plastic. Eventually it has to rot away. It’s our job to lose, but not until the right suitor comes along.

If a young man blanches at the prospect of cleaning the Augean Stable, good riddance to bad rubbish. Do you think he’ll take out thrash? If he won’t fight the Nubian Lion, how’s he gonna deal with the IRS. If he can’t kill a Hydra, think of the crabgrass problem they’ll have. Don’t think he gets welcomed with open arms after he finishes his Herculean labors, either. By definition no one is good enough for a daughter.

His last task is to convince his beloved she wants to be with him even more than she wants to obey her father and then to bravely abscond with her. At that point we do our job and lose. The coconut shell shreds. Hopefully they live happily ever after.

We may even get to play with the grandchildren when our sons-in-law forgive us. They do get very understanding as soon as they have daughters of their own.

BTW, mothers have their own methods for dealing with unworthy daughter-in-law candidates. But they (the mothers) play rough.

Happy Father’s Day.

June 13, 2017

The World is Getting Fat

More than 10% of us are obese. That’s not “us” Americans; that’s “us” citizens of the world. According to a study funded by the Gates Foundation and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the number of obese people has doubled or worse in 75 countries in the last 25 years. It hasn’t gone down in any of the 195 countries studied. Although a greater percentage of adults than children are obese, the obesity rate among children has been going up faster than among adults in many countries. In this study, obesity is defined as a body-mass index (BMI) over 30; people with a BMI between 25 and 29 are classified as “overweight”.

From the study:

“In our systematic evaluation of the health effects of high BMI, we found that excess body weight accounted for about 4 million deaths and 120 million disability-adjusted life-years worldwide in 2015. Nearly 70% of the deaths that were related to high BMI were due to cardiovascular disease, and more than 60% of those deaths occurred among obese persons…

“… Across levels of development, the prevalence of obesity has increased over recent decades, which indicates that the problem is not simply a function of income or wealth. Changes in the food environment and food systems are probably major drivers. Increased availability, accessibility, and affordability of energy-dense foods, along with intense marketing of such foods, could explain excess energy intake and weight gain among different populations. The reduced opportunities for physical activity that have followed urbanization and other changes in the built environment have also been considered as potential drivers; however, these changes generally preceded the global increase in obesity and are less likely to be major contributors.”

Malthus has apparently been turned on his ear by abundance (and foreign aid):

“Many of the countries with the highest increases in the prevalence of obesity are those that have a low or middle SDI [roughly prosperity level - TE] and simultaneously have high rates of other forms of malnutrition. These countries generally have limited financial resources for nutrition programs and mostly rely on external donors whose programs often preferentially target undernutrition; consequently, food security frequently takes precedence over obesity in these countries.”

The word starvation doesn’t appear in the study and malnutrition only once, so I don’t know if death rates from lack of food have gone down as much as death rates from too much food have gone up. In the developed world, death rates from BMI-related causes have not gone up as much as average BMI has; the study speculates that more treatment for these diseases is available in the wealthy world. Probably one cause of rising health care costs.

In a generation, the world’s problem with food has shifted, in many places, from too little to too much. This change is largely due to technology and the increase in productivity both of people and of farm land. We live in a time of abundance, something I’ll write about more. Ironically abundance, like scarcity, can be a problem.

June 09, 2017

Swampy Puddle Drained

Good news from DC.

Tuesday Attorney General Sessions sent an order ending the practice of using settlement money from corporate wrongdoers for political slush funds. His statement accompanying the order says:

“When the federal government settles a case against a corporate wrongdoer, any settlement funds should go first to the victims and then to the American people— not to bankroll third-party special interest groups or the political friends of whoever is in power. Unfortunately, in recent years the Department of Justice has sometimes required or encouraged defendants to make these payments to third parties as a condition of settlement.  With this directive, we are ending this practice and ensuring that settlement funds are only used to compensate victims, redress harm, and punish and deter unlawful conduct.”

According to a UPI story, the Justice Department previously forced Bank America and Citicorp to make payments to groups which Congress had deliberately defunded including National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, and NeigborWorks America. You may or may not agree with these groups. You may or may not choose to contribute to them yourself. You may even lobby your Congresspeople to have money appropriated to these groups. None of that justifies Justice (or any other department) having the ability to appropriate what would have been funds paid to victims or the government; appropriations need to be made by Congress even if Congress doesn’t always do what you want.

Note that none of this is an argument for reducing the penalties that corporations pay for breaking the law; the question is just who decides where the money goes. There shouldn’t be any question. If there are identified victims, they should be compensated. If there is a fine, the money goes to the Treasury and should be spent per Congressional appropriation.

Allowing a corporation to pay part of its penalty with contributions reduces the punishment and makes the deterrence less effective. Fines aren’t tax deductible; contributions can be. Moreover, a contribution can be used for positive PR.

From a good government PoV, the party which appoints the federal attorneys should not be able to use settlements to reward its supporters. Do you want Trump appointees deciding which interest groups should be funded? Neither do I. I didn’t like Obama appointees making these decisions either. This may not be illegal but its corrupt.

One more example of such a settlement is Volkswagen and its cheating diesels. I have one; I was very proud of my 40+ MPG until I found out this was at the cost of heightened nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is not only a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; it also has a direct negative effect on human health. Part of what VW is paying is $2.7B to fund “environmental remediation” projects and $2B for charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Victims (including me) also get their cars fixed and some other money.

Superficially this sounds good; VW harmed the environment; they should pay to fix it. But no one knows how these mitigation funds will be spent. Part goes to a trust fund administered by the states. The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources is asking for public input on how it should spend our share. In other words, the federal attorneys who settled this case with VW (subject to court approval) get to create slush funds in each of the states which will be spent without appropriation by the state legislatures.

If Sessions’ order had been in effect when this settlement was reached, the $4.7B would have gone into the US Treasury. If Congress felt that it was best spent on some sport of environmental projects, they could have appropriated it for that purpose. If they felt it was better used for healthcare or defense or addiction-prevention, they could have so appropriated it. It could even be a drop in the tax relief bucket.

Sessions order is a welcome small step back to good (and constitutionally correct) government.

June 06, 2017

Minimizing Civilian Casualties

The question is which civilians when and where.

“US military reports 484 civilian deaths by US-led coalition attacks, but outside monitors put the number much higher,” says an Aljazeera story about the battle for Mosul since mid-2014 when ISIS took control there. Life and death are surely hell for the people caught between ISIS and very slowly advancing Iraqi forces who have “coalition” (mainly US) air support. But life and death were hell for many of them since ISIS took over the city. We don’t know how many people were killed for the sin of being Shiite or not properly following ISIS orders in Mosul alone. We know how many victims of ISIS-inspired terrorism there have been in the West. We have no idea how many people have been murdered, tortured, or sold into slavery by ISIS-affiliates in the Middle East and Africa – but we know the numbers are huge.

Aljazeera goes on to quote its reporter Osama bin Javaid:

“Saving people is proving to be easier said than done. Aid workers and rights groups have been repeating their concerns that in the process to push ISIL out, Iraqi forces must make sure that civilians are not caught in the crossfire.”

Javaid doesn’t explain how the Iraqi forces are supposed to “make sure” that civilians whom ISIS is hiding among and behind are “not caught in the crossfire”. The New York Times explains the problem:

“Some of the soldiers here, as well as one resident who had managed to flee, spoke of the Islamic State fighters’ trying to round up anyone still living in the area and forcing them to retreat with them toward the Old City.

“It’s a chilling thought, horrifyingly consistent with how the Islamic State has fought this battle for months. The militants’ last stand may well take place behind a wall of civilians.”

The only way to prevent these civilian deaths would be to stop fighting ISIS – which would lead to many more civilian deaths. Perhaps some civilians in Mosul would be spared if the ISIS fighters were allowed to escape Mosul and continue killing somewhere else. But this is not an acceptable solution.

Meanwhile the battle for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS caliphate, has just begun. Crushing the head of the ISIS snake in Raqqa won’t end terrorism, of course. However, decapitating the command structure will help prevent ISIS from organizing the kind of huge attack on the West it is longing to commit (and no doubt planning). The US finally decided to ignore Turkish objections and armed Kurdish forces, who are willing to fight for Raqqa. We are also supplying air support and advisors. A swift victory in Raqqa is important in order to capture and kill as much of the ISIS leadership as possible. There will be more civilian casualties. That is terrible. But not as terrible as allowing ISIS to regroup and continue its murderous ways.

Al Jazeera quotes UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein:

“[the] rising toll of civilian deaths and injuries already caused by air strikes in Deir Az Zor and Raqqa suggests that insufficient precautions may have been taken in the attacks…just because ISIL holds an area does not mean less care can be taken. Civilians should always be protected, whether they are in areas controlled by ISIL or by any other party.”

The story does not contain any suggestion from al-Hussein on how citizens who are being used as shields should be protected. The NY Times story describes ISIS snipers shooting fleeing civilians. These lives could be saved if ISIS would let people get out of the way of the battle instead of shooting them.

We don’t have to – and can’t – wait for another 9/11. As painful as it is, we must recognize that civilian casualties in Mosul and Raqqa are the terrible price the world pays – because of ISIS – in order to prevent even more civilian casualties in more places later. This is a terrible choice to make. We must face it.

May 31, 2017

Merkel and Trump are Both Right

Europeans should take their fate into their own hands.

European self-reliance is good for us (the US), good for them, and bad for Putin despite the nattering talking heads opining on how he is enjoying what appears to be a NATO spat. The first result of this need for self-reliance is that Germany will begin to up its contribution to NATO to the required 2%. Merkel had been pushing for that. According to The Economist, her opponent in the upcoming election Martin Schulz is against an increase in German defense expenditure. Trump has helped Merkel’s argument that Germany can’t free-ride on American expenditures. If German and other continental European contributions go up, NATO will be stronger, as it needs to be to confront an increasing Russian threat.

Merkel said: “The times in which we could totally rely on others are to some extent over, as I have experienced in the past two days.” Rebuilding Europe including our former adversaries after WWII was a brilliant stroke of US policy. An alliance with Europe is still crucial, but treating these countries as continuing dependents is no longer useful nor needed. The second benefit to Europe paying their fair share to NATO is that they will feel and act like equal partners.

The USSR used to draw a parallel between its construct of satellite countries and US-financed NATO. The comparison was always far-fetched but it is ironic that NATO remained US-financed as the satellites became independent nations. An alliance of equals will be a strong hedge against resurgent Russian colonialism. Trump and Merkel are helping make that alliance more equal.

May 26, 2017

It’s Time for “Anonymous Sources” to Stand Up

Or shut up.

Anonymous sources have an honorable role in bringing down dishonorable governments; remember Deep Throat and Watergate. But today’s news – at least in some outlets – is built entirely on anonymous sources. Some may be in the White House, itself, as far as I know; others are in the vast bureaucracy which is congenitally resistant to change.

The leak channel is not used only to discredit the Trump administration. This week someone with a security clearance leaked British intelligence on the Manchester bombing to the NY Times where it promptly appeared on the front page and at least temporarily disrupted intelligence sharing during an ongoing investigation. Someone should go to jail for that, even if it’s the same someone or someones who’ve been leaking the details of investigations of the Trump campaign. Publication of the Manchester intelligence by the NY Times  is a sign of anonymous source addiction.

If someone really knows that candidate Trump or a member of his campaign staff had treasonous conversations with Russian officials, then the good of the Republic demands that someone stand up and detail the evidence in person and for attribution. Is he or she afraid of losing his or her job? Not a good enough excuse. Is she or he afraid for her or his life? Not plausible; this isn’t Russia. The media aren’t afraid for their lives.

Why do we need multiple parallel investigations if someone already has the evidence? If no one is willing stand up, then the “media” should turn off the leakers as a source on this story. Cover ups are where we need leaks. We don’t have to worry in this case that there’s a cover up underway. There is a special prosecutor; there are multiple Congressional investigations.

At the least papers like the NY Times and the Washington Post should hold their leakers accountable when they leak false information. My friend Dan Gillmor, no friend of the current administration and a vigorous proponent of a free press, wrote:

"A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.

"The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.

"Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources to do [sic]  its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us... "

Last fall the Washington Post ran a story that Burlington Electric has been hacked by Russians, sources anonymous. Turns out that anonymous sources were wrong (to be polite). Washington Post finally confirmed no evidence of the hack but never outed the sources or explained how it happened to get misled so badly.

A few weeks ago sources leaked that then FBI chief James Comey requested more money for the investigation of Russian interference in the US election just before he was fired. The story died a day or two later when the current acting Director testified to Congress not only that this didn’t happen but that the FBI doesn’t ask for money case-by-case. The story should have continued with who leaked a lie. Lying sources don’t deserve protection.

I do believe that media are free to keep making the mistake of using these sources, but media could do us all a great favor by telling sources to stand up or shut up and exposing those sources who lie. There should be no tolerance for those who leak information like the British intelligence on the Manchester bombing. The Times running that story is a sign of anonymous source addiction.

May 22, 2017

Comey Proved Himself Unfit to be FBI Director

What Trump did TBD.

Anonymous sources (natch) have leaked that former FBI Director James Comey wrote a memo after a meeting in February with the President quoting Trump as saying “I hope you can let this [an investigation of just-fired National Security Advisor Flynn] go”. Assuming that the leak is accurate and the memo exists, which seems likely since the sources are described as Comey’s friends and the ex-director hasn’t repudiated it, this tells us more about Comey than it does about Trump.

We don’t know if the President is accurately quoted  or not. We may never know. And, if he did say it, we don’t know without more context whether it constituted obstruction of justice.

If Comey just made this up, he is clearly not fit to be FBI Director.

But let’s assume Trump said what Comey says he said and Comey took it to be an attempt to obstruct justice. In that case Comey had a duty to report the statement immediately. But he didn’t. He just created a memo to be part of a file to be used if he ever had a dispute with the President. He got fired; out came the memo. It didn’t come out when he told Congress that the investigation hadn’t been interfered with. It came out a day or so after Comey’s former colleague and temporary replacement Andrew McCabe also testified that there had been no political interference with the probe. He must not’ve gotten the memo. That’s not a joke; shouldn’t Comey have left a copy of this memo for his successor?

J. Edgar Hoover was infamous for the files he kept on friends and enemies alike. The files arguably kept Hoover in power through the terms of six US presidents until he finally died in office. His name is on the FBI HQ; his practice of political blackmail should not be kept alive in the building.

The bipartisan hypocrisy around Comey has been incredible. Back in the Obama days, he fell out of favor with the White House for confirming that there is a “Ferguson” effect – an increase in murder rate attributable to police reluctance to police in a climate of extreme political hostility. Then Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton in the case of her email server, strangely taking on the role of a prosecutor, and he was back in favor with Democrats and out of favor with Republicans. Trump accused him of whitewash. Then he announced he was reopening the Hillary investigation because of documents found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Trump said Comey redeemed himself. Democrats excoriated him and called for his resignation. Then he quickly announced no new evidence. Trump accused him of whitewash again. In the end  Clinton accused Comey of costing her the election which, she said, she was on track to win before the grand reopening. Finally, Trump fired him and some Democrats hope that the firing and what’s in Comey’s memo file will be enough evidence for impeachment. Enough to make your head spin.

Comey and Trump can’t both be right but they can both be wrong. Comey’s unfitness for office doesn’t imply anything one way or the other about Trump. Unless the conversation was recorded, we’ll probably never know what the President actually said. None of this tells us anything about relations between the Trump campaign and Russia or, even more broadly, about Russian interference and attempted interference in our election. These are the most important issues and are what we have a special prosecutor for. Obstruction of justice is important as well; it brought Nixon down when he tried to cover up Watergate – it can also be an excuse for prosecutorial overreach. However these issues work out, the country is better off without James Comey as FBI Director.

May 16, 2017

Vermont Teachers Should Send Their Union to Detention

As most Vermonters know by now, the legislature is in extended session trying to deal with the issue of teacher healthcare. The position the Vermont NEA, the teachers’ union, has taken puts job protection for union staff ahead of the interest of the teachers, the students, and the taxpayers. Teachers should tell their union to back off.

All involved agree that, because of provisions in the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), the current health plans the teachers have all must be changed or they will be classified as “Cadillac Coverage” and penalized. The need to change to health care plans means that every Vermont school district is negotiating health care with its employees at the same time. This synchronization creates a unique opportunity to combine all health care coverage for teachers in Vermont public schools into a single large contract which the state will negotiate both with the NEA and with the insurance carriers rather than individual districts, of which we have hundreds, negotiating separately with the union and the insurance carriers. Since there are only two insurance carriers in Vermont, leverage in this negotiation is important.

Governor Phil Scott, who proposed the plan being debated, has estimated that savings will be over $76 million/year, partially because the new plan – to avoid being a Cadillac plan – will have higher deductibles and copays. Scott has proposed that roughly $50 million of that savings be used to fund Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) for teachers, who will be able to use these HSAs to cover the higher deductibles and copays. In this way the teachers are held harmless even though they are losing their Cadillac plans. “Held harmless” is pretty good; Blue Cross, the biggest of the two health insurers left in the state is asking for a 12.7% increase. Most private sector employers will have to pass most of whatever Blue Cross is eventually allowed onto their employees.

The remaining $65 million of ANNUAL savings will relieve pressure on the education fund, which is mostly funded by property tax revenue from sky-high property taxes. TBD whether this savings is used to take pressure off other education programs which might have to be cut without this savings or is used for property tax relief (or some degree of both).

So the education fund benefits. The taxpayers benefit. And the teachers keep very generous health benefits without having to pay more. What’s more both teachers and students benefit from having local school boards concentrate on local educational issues rather than the esoterica of healthcare What’s the problem?

The teacher’s union apparently isn’t focused on the very real benefit to its members or the taxpayers. It is incensed that they will no longer get to spend expensive staff hours negotiating with every school district in the state over healthcare; they will only get to negotiate healthcare once with the state. BTW, all other negotiations stay local. So the NEA is adamantly against this plan. And the NEA is a big campaign contributor.

To its credit, the Vermont Legislature despite its overwhelming majority of Democrats and Progressives, has not given the NEA the support it probably thought it would get. There were enough Progressive and Democrat votes in the Vermont House to give the plan a one vote victory until the House Speaker cast an unusual vote to create a tie and kill the bill. The Governor has threatened to veto a budget which does not accomplish the goals of the plan he proposed. It’s clear that there are not enough votes to override a veto; the legislature is still looking for a compromise.

Linda Joy Sullivan, a former public school teacher and one of the Democrats in the Vermont House who voted for the savings, wrote the following on vtdigger.com:

“What Gov. Scott recently asked my colleagues in the Legislature was simply to allow the state, with its superior bargaining power, to negotiate a better deal. I was a bit skeptical about whether we will achieve $26 million in savings, and I knew that any tax savings would not have directly reduced property taxes, but I could not see how it wouldn’t have improved our ability to secure quality health care – full health care benefits for our teachers – at a far better cost.

“From a business perspective, it’s a no-brainer. If the plan was to downsize health care coverage for teachers, that would be one thing. I was not hearing that – I heard instead that the proposals under consideration had the support of Vermont’s school superintendent association and are supported by actuarial analyses that seek to better match our spending to experience.”

All of us Vermonters, teachers included, need to be in contact with our legislators this week to make sure union staff cannot put their interests before the interests of teachers, students, and taxpayers.

May 12, 2017

Perpetrator of Fraudulent Vaccine Scare Speaking in Stowe

Should he be allowed to speak?

The most prominent speaker at a “Hope and Healing” event to be held next week in Stowe, VT is a despicable charlatan. Andrew Wakefield’s manipulation of test results to indicate a non-existent link between vaccines and autism made Time’s list of five great science frauds. More importantly, the hysteria he started and cynically exploits is partially responsible for a rise in preventable diseases. According to Time:

“…the General Medical Council in the U.K. revoked Wakefield’s medical license, citing ethical concerns over how he recruited the patients in the study as well as his failure to disclose that he was a paid consultant to attorneys representing parents who believed their children had been harmed by vaccines.[emphasis mine]”

Should he be allowed to speak? Yes; people who want to hear him have the right to do so. Free speech is not just for popular ideas.

Should he be speaking at Stowe High School, which, incidentally, does require its students to be vaccinated? That’s a tougher question but the answer is still Yes. The School is available for rent and this makes its auditorium an asset to the town outside of school hours. The school board should not be put in the position of deciding which opinions are allowed. Every opinion has opponents.

But what can we do to counter this harmful narrative?

  1. Don’t pay to go to the event. According to organizer Chiropractor Bradley Rauch as quoted in The Stowe Reporter the money earned from the conference will go first to speaker fees and expenses. In other words, if you buy a ticket, you are helping to fund Wakefield’s campaign of misinformation. The website for the conference “All profits will go to charity…” However, one of the organizations in the list of charities, Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice does not appear to be a charity. Its website does not say it is a 501(c)3 or that donation are tax deductibles. The coalition IS a cosponsor of the event. So actually at least part of the profits are going to the sponsors despite the claim that “All profits will go to charity…”.
  2. Be informed and help inform others. Bad ideas need to be countered with good ideas. I started this post with an ad hominem attack on Wakefield even though I generally deplore such attacks. However, it is relevant that his contribution to the study of autism (the subject he is speaking on) was a deliberate harmful fraud. The last part of this post is the argument for mandatory vaccination.
  3. Don’t go to Bradley Rauch for medical services. According to The Stowe Reporter story, he is planning to open a clinic in Stowe to treat autism. I’m not suggesting a boycott to punish him for his ideas. I am saying that he has demonstrated terrible medical and ethical judgment in his choice of speakers so I wouldn’t want him treating anyone I care about.

The argument for mandatory vaccination which you won’t hear at the conference.

We used to have periodic epidemics of polio, smallpox, rubella and other diseases. Huge numbers of people were either killed outright or left badly damaged. When I went to grammar school a long time ago, there was usually at least one classmate in permanent braces as a result of polio. Not true anymore. Because of vaccines, smallpox has been eradicated and we no longer have to vaccinate against it; polio is almost there.

So why can’t people just decide for themselves whether their children should be vaccinated? Two obvious reasons are that parents don’t have an inherent right to risk the life and health of their children and that, especially in a society where many health costs are socialized, everyone else will have to pay for the disease that could have been prevented. But let’s put those two arguments aside.

There are always some people who cannot be given a particular vaccine, either because of a general medical condition or because they’re allergic to the ingredients of the vaccine. So long as everyone who can get vaccinated does, the risk to those who can’t get vaccinated is very low

According to the Wrold Health Organization paper Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide (which is also the well-documented source for other assertions in this post):

“’Herd protection’ of the unvaccinated occurs when a sufficient proportion of the group is immune. The decline of disease incidence is greater than the proportion of individuals immunized because vaccination reduces the spread of an infectious agent by reducing the amount and/or duration of pathogen shedding by vaccinees, retarding transmission.” [footnotes deleted but available via the link]

Those who can’t be vaccinated need herd protection. Those who diminish the herd effect by refusing vaccination for themselves and their children are putting those who can’t be vaccinated at deadly risk.

Most vaccines are not 100% effective, even if they are always administered properly, which, of course, can’t be the case. However, so long as there is sufficient herd protection, there is very little risk for those few whose shots didn’t take for one reason or another. However, if there is a large enough group who just don’t get vaccinated, then those individuals for whom the vaccine didn’t work are at great risk.

California used to have very liberal laws on refusing vaccination. NOT vaccinating became a fad among the nominally well-educated health-food-eating citizens in affluent Marin County. In 2015, only 84% of that County’s students entering kindergarten were fully vaccinated according to the San Francisco Chronicle in a story about the ensuing measles outbreak. “Last year there were 61 measles cases in California — the highest since the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. The state beat that number in the first month of this year.” California, seeing that there could easily be epidemics of more deadly diseases, has sensibly made it more difficult to avoid vaccination except for those who have a specific medical condition which would make a particular vaccination unsafe.

Part of the anti-vaccination hysteria comes from the falsified study by Wakefield. Because of the scare the article engendered, huge followup studies were done. That was easy because there is lots of vaccination. Absolutely no statistical or causal link has been found between any vaccination and autism. Nonetheless, the myth lives on.

The truth is that every vaccination does have some small risk. If it’s by injection, there’s a tiny chance of infection. There’s a very small chance that the vaccine, like anything else, can be contaminated. There’s an equally tiny risk that the recipient will have an undiagnosed allergy to the infection. Obviously new vaccines like the one for Zika have to be thoroughly tested and procedures can always be improved. We always must be aware new data can surface.

Ironically, as long as almost everyone else gets vaccinated, those who opt their families out of the very small risk of a tested vaccine get a free ride on the very herd protection they are compromising. Society can’t afford to let that happen. We can’t leave those who can’t get vaccinated or whose vaccine doesn’t work at risk. We can’t give preventable epidemics room to blossom. Some vaccinations must be mandatory. This is an example of a case where the needs of the society come before the needs of the individual and state compulsion is justified.

May 07, 2017

Why Government Subsidies Never Make Anything More Affordable

And why we can never get rid of them.

The chart from American Enterprise Institute could almost be this whole post. Costs

As you can see college costs have increased almost four times as fast as general inflation over the last twenty years. Four-year college has gone from being a stretch for middle income families to being affordable (at list price) by only the very rich. How can a product get priced out of reach of its customers? It takes government help.

Now It’s a laudable goal to make sure that everyone who wants to do the work can get a college education and prepare for better paying jobs than he or she would be able to get without a degree. So the US government provides grants and subsidized loans, both with a means test, and “unsubsidized” loans without a means test. I put “unsubsidized” in quotes because the interest payments on these loans don’t begin to cover the default rates and because no commercial lender would make these loans at these rates.

If this aid were available only to the most needy, it would not have had this distorting effect. But it’s hard to get votes for a program just for the needy, so aid for the middle class was added as well. Student debt has gone up about 400% after accounting for inflation in roughly same period according to Pew Research Center. To the young, loans on which they don’t have to make payments until after graduation are close to being grants. Colleges have no need to be frugal since parents no longer have to come up with the payments. In fact, in order to attract the students and the federal money that comes with them, college are in an arms race building fancier and more elegant dorms and rec centers as fast as they can. College costs have soared. Graduates are burdened with onerous debt. The extra money has made college LESS afforfable

How do we break this cycle of increasing subsidies pushing costs higher? Socialists say “make college free”. Of course that doesn’t reduce the cost, it only shifts it. And recipients of free tuition have even less reason to care about the actual cost of their education than those who must pay for it someday.

We will have to cut back on loans to the middle class; there will be not only cries of anguish but also real pain since college costs have ratcheted up to unaffordable.  College costs will come down in response to customer pressure; but this will also be painful. Colleges bonded to fund their luxury offers to students; a decrease in revenue will put some out of business.

It’s a lot easier to start an entitlement than to stop it. Does that sound like health care whose cost increase are also much above inflation? Stay tuned.

May 01, 2017

Internet Fast Lanes

You may be surprised at who has them.

The Internet Association - lobbying organization for Internet giants like Google, Amazon and Netflix – is adamant that it is necessary to apply of 1935 phone regulation (Title 2) to the Internet to assure that there are no premium “fast lanes”, that all bits are treated equally, that Internet access providers (ISPs) do not prioritize their own content over content from competitors.

Internet Association members sometimes say that they could actually afford to pay more for fast lanes but they are worried about the little guys, the startup, who may not be able to pay more and whose websites therefore won’t be as zippy as they need to be.  They’re worried about innovation. They’re worried about you.

In fact, however, the web giants like Google and Amazon have private networks which connect to the Internet in many locations. They have data caches (think of them as content warehouses) around the world. Their websites DO pop up faster than yours because their bits travel mostly on their private networks and avoid Internet backbone and interchange congestion. In other words, they have private fast lanes. You can't achieve this speed for your website unless you A) build a private network of your own (unlikely); B) host your website on Amazon or Google in which case they MAY share some of their private access network. I have hosted services on Amazon; they charge me more depending on how many locations I want my data served from. In other words, faster is more expensive on their network.

Conveniently these private fast lanes are specifically exempt from the 2015 FCC regulations which reclassified Basic Internet Access Service (BIAS) in a way which lets the FCC micromanage it and prohibit public “fast lanes”. The members of the Internet Association are “edge services” so unregulated.

From a technology PoV the ISPs could offer small customers premium transport which allows your site to compete better with Amazon. The 2015 regulations make that illegal. They protect Amazon and Google from competition both by you and by the ISPs – all in the name of “Net Neutrality”. Do you think this had anything to do with the fact that Google made a 180 degree switch? It lobbied for years to assure that the Internet was not treated like a telephone network. That was when telcos wanted regulation to protect themselves from competition. Now it’s the members of The Internet Association who would rather compete in the regulatory arena than in the marketplace.

It is true that Internet speeds are not what they could be, especially in rural areas. Part of that problem is that there relatively few Internet access providers.  But is there more concentration in Internet access than in search? I don’t think so. Should Google be regulated? No. But neither should they be able to use regulation to protect themselves from competition. Google correctly sees the ISPs as potential threats. They were once going to compete with them by offering Google Fiber. That would be good for all of us. But Google isn’t going to string fiber if it is cheaper to use regulation to protect themselves from competition.

The current regulations, which I think should be repealed, protect the members of the Internet Association from ISPs. Even more importantly, they protect the big Internet content providers, who own their own fast lanes, from the competition you might provide if you could rent a fast lane from an ISP when you’re still too small to have your own private network.

See also:

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

Net Neutrality. What’s It All About?

Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

April 28, 2017

An Open Letter to My Friends at Google

You run a fantastically successful business. You deliver search results so valuable that we willingly trade the history of our search requests for free access. Your private network of data centers, content caches and Internet connections assure that Google data pops quickly off our screen. Your free Chrome browser, Android operating system, and gmail see our communication before it gets to the Internet and gets a last look at what comes back from the Internet before passing it on to us. You make billions by monetizing this information with at least our implied consent. I mean all this as genuine praise.

But I think you’ve made a mistake by inviting the regulatory genie on to the Internet. Have you considered that Google is likely to be the next regulatory target?

The Internet and its many business have flourished for the last twenty years under the light regulatory touch that Google used to espouse in the early days of the Internet. It is just as true now as it was at the end of the 20th century that imposing regulations designed for monopoly telcos on the Internet will decrease competition, stifle innovation, and certainly not achieve “Net Neutrality”.

Twenty years ago it was the telcos who wanted regulation to protect them from innovative Internet competitors. With Google’s help, innovation was preserved. But in 2015 Google was a leader among companies which successfully lobbied the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to end twenty years of bipartisan regulatory forbearance and declare that Internet access providers (ISPs) are common carriers under the telecommunications act of 1934 and should be regulated as such. Do you think Google needs regulatory help to fight off the ISPs as potential competitors? Once you meant to compete with them by building Google Fiber. We do need competition. Neither Google nor the telcos should be shielded from it.

When Congress cancelled a pending “privacy” regulation from the FCC earlier this year, which was based on this new regulatory authority, a misinformed congressman complained that he didn’t want Comcast knowing his underwear size. He apparently searched for underwear online and was then deluged with underwear ads. But you know that he got those ads because of his search history, not because his ISP was disassembling his packets. How long do you think it will before there is significant pressure in the US to stop the abuse the congressman claims to have suffered by regulating search providers? I think that would be a terrible idea and I’m sure you do as well.

How long do you think it will be before protestor signs says that a neutral Internet requires neutral search engines? Even if you protest that Google search IS neutral – just as the ISPs say they don’t favor their own packets – the protestors will say that Google is a profit-making enterprise so proactive regulation is needed. And shouldn’t a neutral Internet require neutral browsers? There are already stories that Google is planning to put code in Chrome which blocks some ads. Do browsers need to be regulated? What about email services which have all our private communications? What about mobile phone operating systems which see all our bits before they even get to the “evil” ISPs.

You at Google have shown your ability to learn and adapt. It’s probably too much to ask that you reverse your lobbying efforts again and support efforts to undo the unwise Internet regulation promulgated in 2015. But it might be a good idea to concentrate more on actually competing with ISPs in the marketplace rather than in in the regulatorium where you won’t be able to innovate either. We’ll all be losers if Google innovation is shutdown.

See excellent Boston Globe article Trump’s FCC can save the Internet — by doing nothing by Hiawatha Bray.

See also Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies, Net Neutrality. What’s It All About? and Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

April 23, 2017

Don’t Make the Internet Safe for Monopolies

This week I’m going to Washington to argue against regulating Internet access as if it were phone service. Twenty years ago I was there for the same reason. My concern now as it was then is that such regulation will damage the economy and reduce opportunity by stifling innovation and protecting the current dominant players from the startups which would otherwise threaten them.

At that time the proponents of Internet regulation were most regional monopoly telephone companies, who were regulated themselves (and very comfortable living in a regulated environment). The then small Internet industry (including me) argued that startups were not monopolies and could not afford the batteries of lobbyists and regulatory compliance lawyers needed to survive in a regulated world. “Imagine,” we said, “if each new Internet app had to be approved by some commission or another”.

Fortunately Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Reed Hundt, a Democrat appointed by Bill Clinton, and a majority of commissioners agreed with us. The Commission policy on Internet regulation became one of forbearance. The monopolists were right to worry. The Internet was disruptive. If they had won, there would be no such thing as Skype or Vonage; calls to China would still be $3.00 minute; and 800 numbers might still be more important than websites for shopping. Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Amazon wouldn’t be the companies they are today.

Hundt’s successor William Kennard, also appointed by Clinton, listened carefully to all arguments and continued the policy of benign forbearance. Innovation flourished. When Bush was elected,  Internet folk were afraid that his FCC appointees would be more responsive to telco lobbying. We could no longer argue that the Internet was a fledgling industry but could and did argue the public benefits of innovation and rapidly evolving business models. Michael Powell, Bush’s first appointee as FCC Chair, and the Commission debated and then issued the “Pulver Order” declaring that Voice over IP was not a telecommunications service. That meant in practice that the FCC, whose mandate only extends to telephony services, would have no reason to regulate the Internet.

The FCC did NOT regulate the Internet from then until now. However, in the waning days of the Obama administration, the FCC promulgated a regulation saying that Internet access is a telecommunications service (regardless of whether voice over IP is involved.). Therefor the FCC has the right to regulate Internet access as it used to regulate monopoly phone service. Big reversal.

Those who now want regulation are Google, Facebook, and other major Internet players. They are good marketers so this regulation is called “Net Neutrality”. Who could be against a neutral Internet where all bits are equal? Ironically it is the telcos and cable companies (ISPs) who are on the other side and against reregulation; they are the ones who will be regulated.

There are four major things wrong with the “Net Neutrality” regulations as promulgated (they are not yet in effect):

  1. All users of the Internet as well as the economy itself will suffer if regulation is used to throttle innovation – that’s as true now as it ever was.
  2. This regulation protects the powerhouse incumbents – Google, Facebook et al – from effective and needed competition. It protects them on one side from rich ISPs (why?) and on the other side from would be new providers of Internet access (think mesh networks, access from drones, whatever) who won’t be able to satisfy the regulations made for the technologies they are obsoleting.
  3. There is probably no legal justification for the FCC regulating the Internet. FCC has jurisdiction over basic telecommunications service. They said the Internet isn’t such a service for years; just saying it is all of a sudden a basic telecommunications service doesn’t make it so.

Google may yet regret its call for regulation of any part of the Internet value chain. A Wall Street Journal story last week says that Google is working on an ad-blocking filter for its Chrome browser. Will the FCC next declare browsers a telecommunication service and require browser neutrality?  

With all due respect to many people I respect who support the “Net Neutrality” regulations, I’m as much against regulating the Internet now as I was 20 years ago although I no longer have any direct financial interest except as a consumer. I hope both that the legal challenge to this extension of the FCC’s reach will continue and that the current FCC will undo the harm that its immediate predecessors did and return to the policy which has so successfully supported economic growth and innovation for the last twenty years.

See https://www.bna.com/pai-engages-silicon-n57982087000/ for a Bloomberg story on this issue.

April 20, 2017

Net Neutrality. What’s It All About?

The fear is that your Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be able to determine what Internet content you get to access or at least make it more expensive or less convenient to access some content than other content. Most Americans get their fixed line Internet access from either a phone company or a cable company. Former phone companies like AT&T (owns DirecTV)  and Verizon (buying Yahoo) are increasingly in the content business, and cable companies like Comcast have always owned and controlled content.  Why wouldn’t an ISP favor their own content over that from Netflix or Amazon or YouTube? They could, for example, prioritize the packets which carry their own shows over packets from others; you would have a good experience watching content from the ISP and a lousy experience with content from others – constant freezes and stutters. Yuk!

So is this a credible threat? Do we need a law or regulation to protect us? Google and Amazon and Netflix think we do; they lobbied successfully at the end of the Obama administration to have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) promulgate a regulation protecting “net neutrality” which essentially mandates that at least wireline ISPs treat all traffic equally and that the FCC gets to decide exactly what this neutrality means. Obviously these companies have a commercial interest in protecting themselves against “ discrimination” by ISPs who have ambitions to sell search and content. But an argument motivated by commercial interest doesn’t have to be wrong in terms of the public interest.

Not surprisingly the ISPs argue that their Internet access business, which has been unregulated so far, should remain unregulated. They say that there have not been proven instances of any such discrimination, that consumers would simply switch away from them if they interfered with customers’ content choices, and (somewhat contradictorily)  that they invested in their networks so they should be able to use them profitably. If they are regulated, they say, they won’t invest an Internet access will not improve. These arguments are also profit-motivated; but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong from a public interest PoV. The now Republican FCC agrees with the ISPs and is getting ready to reverse the net neutrality regulation.

History tells us that regulation is the enemy of innovation (and usually the friend of monopolists). In the last fifty years of regulated telecommunication, the only innovations we saw were the dial tone and 800 numbers. Just compare the capabilities of your smartphone connected to a largely unregulated data network and your desk phone attached to the regulated phone network which can’t even text.

Internet pioneers lobbied AGAINST attempts to bring the Internet under common carrier regulation; the FCC under Democrats and Republicans agreed; the result was the tidal wave of innovation which brought us to where we are today. Interestingly it was then many of the telcos that wanted to regulate the Internet to prevent it from becoming competition. Good thing they lost or you wouldn’t be Skyping today.

The regulations promulgated last year do exactly what Internet companies, until recently, were against: they impose “common carrier” regulation on ISPs. The common carrier regulations were devised when phone companies were granted monopolies. They gave us some degree of protection (not much) against monopoly pricing and they gave the monopolies protection against competition.

So, if regulation isn’t the answer to potential predatory behavior by ISPs, what is? And what about the danger that ISPs will sell a history of everything we browse which I blogged about last week? Stay tuned.

April 17, 2017

A For-Profit Surgical Center is a Good Idea for Vermont

A group of local investors want to build a $1.8m surgical center in Colchester, VT for surgeons who prefer not to operate in a hospital setting, according to a story in VTDigger last week. Opening such a center, even when no public money is involved, requires a certificate of need from the Green Mountain Care Board. Vermont’s non-profit hospitals (there are currently no “for-profit” hospitals in the state) are urging the Board not to grant the certificate saying that it would result in an increase in health costs.

From the VTDigger article:

“The investors argue such centers save patients and insurance companies money because both Medicare and private insurers pay them less than hospitals for the same procedures. These types of facilities are called ambulatory surgical centers and are both licensed and regulated by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

“Christina Oliver, the vice president of clinical services at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, said the proposed facility is not needed because the hospital’s operating rooms and procedure rooms are working far below capacity. ‘We have open time available every day that is staffed but unused,’ she said.”

I am an admirer of and contributor to UVM Medical Center; but I think that the for-profit surgical center hospital should be allowed to open. The quality of care I've gotten at UVMMC has been excellent; once the hospital saved my life. But that doesn't mean that Vermont won't benefit from competition to keep medical costs down.

We will attract more doctors to the state if they have a choice of being in a wonderful research and teaching hospital like UVMMC or providing care in a smaller, more flexible organization.

There may be plenty of surgical operating rooms in Vermont, as Ms. Oliver said; but I know from experience that does not mean that minor non-emergency operations can be scheduled expeditiously. If a for-profit operation can provide faster care in these cases, that will be a help to many Vermonters.

We are not cost conscious medical consumers in Vermont because we have neither enough choice of providers nor transparent pricing to compare. The proposed center will offer both choice and transparency.

Finally, "for-profit" is not an epithet. A for-profit provider will fold if it does not offer something better than its non-profit competitors. There will be, and should be, quality regulations to assure that efficiencies are not achieved by cutting corners which shouldn't be cut.

It would take a lot to convince me to choose some other provider over UVMMC or Copley; they have set a high bar for quality. Nevertheless, prices are anything but transparent and waits for non-critical care do exist. Competition should be allowed.

The Green Mountain Care Board has a website for public comment. If you have an opinion on this issue – pro or con, please post it at http://gmcboard.vermont.gov/board/comment. Of course your comments are welcome here as well.

April 13, 2017

Do you Want Comcast to Know Your Underwear Size?

Congressman Michael Capuano (D, MA) complained on the House floor that he bought some underwear online and that he thinks that Comcast, his internet service provider (ISP), is selling information about his purchase. He was testifying against Republican legislation which prevents a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation promulgated in the waning days of the Obama administration ostensibly to protect Internet privacy from going into effect. Trouble is the congressman doesn’t understand who is selling his undergarment preferences. It’s highly unlikely that it’s Comcast.

We’ve all had the same experience. You break your ballpeen hammer; you google ballpeen hammers; your search leads you to Amazon where you make a purchase. Immediately your online experience is framed by a flock of ballpeen hammers. You look at weatherunderground: rain tomorrow and ballpeen hammers. Check the local news: headline is arson under a banner ad for ballpeen hammers.

How does that happen, you ask?  Did my ISP spy on my search or my transaction with Amazon and then sell my information to the makers of ballpeen hammers? Is that what happened to the congressman and his underwear order? Nope. It was either Google or Amazon (or both) who “monetized” the information you gave them about your purchase intentions. Here’s how it works:

When you did your search, Google put a “cookie” – a snippet of information only Google and you can read – on your computer. Amazon put an Amazon cookie on as well. The cookies either contain the specifics of what you were searching for or an identifier which lets Google or Amazon retrieve information about searches done from your computer or by you if you happen to be signed on to Google or Amazon at the time.  

Now you go weatherunderground, Google or Amazon or both have bought ad space on the weatherunderground webpage. Their ads run in a “frame” on the webpage which means they have code in them which actually communicates with Google or Amazon and not with weatherunderground. This frame looks to your browser like it is running at Google or Amazon so it has access to the cookies which Google and or Amazon left behind. Aha. As fast as speeding electrons, Google or Amazon “know” that you will be interested in a chance to buy a ballpeen hammer so they give you that chance (I don’t know why Amazon apparently doesn’t know you already bought one). Up pops the hammer. The process is slightly more complex if you are on a different device, but the ballpeen ads can get to your smart phone as well as your computer.

As far as I know Google and Amazon don’t sell the information directly to purveyors of ballpeen hammers; but that’s only because this is not the best way for Google or Amazon to make money from the information. Amazon obviously gains if they can sell you something you want. Google makes most of its money by selling ads. In general they get paid when the ad is clicked on; so they make the most money by serving you an ad you’re likely to respond to. They’ve used the information to make you a source of profit. That’s not a sin, just a fact. You get free searches from Google in return for the information you give them. You pay low prices and get great choices and maybe free shipping at Amazon because they are so good at getting you to buy.

So why does the FCC want to regulate ISPs rather than Google and Amazon? Is that regulation a good idea? How should privacy be protected online? How can you protect yourself? Stay tuned to this blog (it doesn’t put cookies on your computer).

April 10, 2017

Motives Are for Mysteries

Is it more heinous to kill someone for their ethnicity than for their money? Is it worse to beat someone up because of their sexual orientation than because you “just” hate them personally? Yes and yes according to multiple US laws. For example, according to Wikipedia, “The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, enacted in 28 U.S.C. § 994 note Sec. 280003, requires the United States Sentencing Commission to increase the penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person. In 1995, the Sentencing Commission implemented these guidelines, which only apply to federal crimes.” There are numerous other state and federal laws which make the same distinction.

Without making the slightest excuse for crimes motivated by hatred, I think this is absurd. “No, your honor, I didn’t kill him because of his religion; I killed him because he didn’t open the cash register fast enough when I was robbing his store. I should get a lesser sentence.”

Motive is often important in the detective work that leads to an arrest. After arrest and conviction, the punishment should depend on the crime that was committed, not what led the person to commit the crime. A murder should be punished for murder, not for what he said while committing the act.

Over-emphasis on motivation rather than action is not confined to criminal prosecution.

According to NPR, The Hawaii court which issued an injunction against Trump’s second immigration order  "…concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that 'a reasonable, objective observer ... would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]' " Does that mean that the same executive order would pass legal muster if it were issued by someone else? The order is either constitutional or not; the Supreme Court will decide. It’s either good policy or not; you can decide that on your own and probably have. But whether the court can overturn a law or an order should depend on the language of the law or order, not on the intent of the person who promulgated it. Should we undo the First Amendment if we find out that James Madison was trying to protect himself from a libel suit?

Intelligent friends and relatives have told me that they think our missile attack on the Syrian nerve gas base was a good thing to do and in the interest of both humanity and the United States. “But,” some of them have said, “I don’t trust his motives.” How will we ever know his motives? He probably was aware that sticking a thumb in Putin’s eye would help dispel the allegation that he is Moscow’s man in DC. He probably knew that this action would get the bipartisan support he has not gotten for anything else in his presidency. And no reason to think he wasn’t horrified by the gassing.  You can have more than one motive at a time. But none of that matters. What matters is whether the use of force was right or wrong.

Obama’s extreme detractors say he didn’t act when Assad crossed the chemical red line because he (Obama) wanted to weaken the United States. This is the motive argument backward. If you do something I don’t agree with, you must have a bad motive. In my opinion Obama made a very serious mistake, probably did it with the best of intentions. Doesn’t matter. Actions matter; motives are for mysteries.

April 07, 2017

The World is a Tiny Bit Safer This Morning

The long-overdue attack on Assad’s forces finally came together at unheard of speed – almost faster than leaks about its planning could escape from the Pentagon. That’s only one of the good things about the action President Trump ordered against the Syrian airbase.

Most important, it may deter other horrible chemical attacks against civilians in Syria or elsewhere. It won’t end other atrocities, of course; and it won’t end the complex war in Syria. But it’s still crucial in humanitarian terms that one red line is back.

There was constructive collateral damage to any hopes Russia may have had that Trump would be their man in Washington. According to the NY Times:

Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, told reporters Friday morning that the strike “deals a significant blow to relations between Russia and America, which are already in a poor state,” …

Although the Pentagon says that it warned Russian forces and tried to avoid killing them at the airbase, we also made clear that we do not regard the Russian presence in Syria as a shield for Assad. That’s important. The Russian troops were inserted after President Obama made the worst mistake of his presidency by setting and then ignoring a red line at the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Putin likes the checkers tactic of occupying vulnerable squares first so that action by the Us and its allies is frozen by fear of Russian casualties and wider consequences (see Ukraine).

President Xi of China is at Mar-a-Lago for his first visit with President Trump. The attack on Syria adds credibility to Trump’s message that China must constrain North Korea or the US will.

Two quibbles:

Before the latest chemical weapons atrocity, the Trump administration did signal that there might be a role for Assad in post-war Syria. We’ll probably never know if that emboldened Assad (if you can use the word “embolden” to describe a cowardly attack). But this signal may have had two fortunate results: 1) the aftermath shows that acts have consequences; 2) there is no appearance that the administration was “out to get Assad”. He was offered an olive branch; he committed a barbarous act; his ability to act was diminished.

My second quibble is that we didn’t do more. “Proportional response” has not proven an effective deterrent. It leaves the enemy contemplating a tit-for-tat and the short patience we Americans have. I think we should have totally destroyed Assad’s air force. I certainly don’t think we should have made the public statement, which we did, that this is all that we’re doing. Too much useful information for the enemy. Why not let them worry?

I’m overjoyed to see that Trump can change his mind as facts evolve. This is a strength and not a weakness. Too often American politicians are trapped by not being able to admit they were wrong.

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