November 30, 2017

Vermont Shouldn't Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

State of Vermont

In my last post I blogged that the world’s CO2 output is still rising despite various treaty commitments and huge expenditures on renewables. However, the US stands alone in having exceeded the emission reduction it would have been obligated to had we signed the Kyoto treaty. This accomplishment owes something to deployment of renewables but is largely the result of substituting natural gas for coal in our power plants.  Even though natural gas is also a fossil fuel, it emits less than half as much CO2 per Megawatt-hour of electricity generated than coal.

According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, in 2014 Vermont had the lowest output of CO2 in the country per electrical Megawatt hour (Mwh) generated: 19lbs/Mwh; the national average is 1123lbs/Mwh. However, at that time, 72 per cent of our electricity was generated at a nuclear power plant which has now shut down. 4.4% of our production was from wind and .2% from solar.

Now we generate less than 35% of the 5.5 million Megawatt-hours we use annually. The rest is carbon-free power from Hydro Quebec and “traditional” power from the New England Grid.  As a whole, New England in 2014 emitted 571lbs/Mwh of generation. Net net we are responsible for a lot more CO2 emissions than we were when Vermont Yankee was still producing.

Our wind generation rose rapidly a few years ago but has since plateaued. It was 293,000 Megawatt-hours in 2016.

As with the nation, natural gas is a bright spot in Vermont. The electricity we’re now importing from the rest of New England would be far more expensive if the price of the natural gas used to produce it weren’t historically low.

Very close to home Vermont Gas (VGS) and NG Advantage (NGA), a company I am chair of (please note I do have a pony in this race) deliver natural gas to significantly reduce CO2 emissions. Vermont Gas sells pipeline gas to residential, commercial, and industrial customers in Vermont. NG Advantage (NGA) trucks gas to large users including factories, asphalt plants, and hospitals located beyond the reach of pipelines; NGA buys the majority of its gas from VGS.

All NGA customers once used oil as a fuel. Because natural gas had become much cheaper than oil on a per BTU basis, they were at a disadvantage compared to competitors located on pipelines. They spent millions of their own dollars (no grants available) to upgrade their boilers to natural gas once they knew we could deliver it to them. Some might well have gone out of business without the savings we could help them achieve.

But they save more than dollars. The smoke that comes out of their stacks isn’t black anymore. They no longer emit SO2 and have virtually eliminated NOx.. Their neighbors like the change; first responders appreciate that natural gas is safer than oil or propane because it is lighter than air and can’t cause a sea of flame in an accident or pollute ground water. Replacing oil with natural gas reduces CO2 emissions by 26%, about 5 lbs. per gallon. Last year alone NGA customers reduced CO2 by at least 160,000,000 lbs.

What does that mean?

It’s the equivalent of taking 15,000 cars off the road.

It also stacks up favorably against CO2 savings from wind turbines. Let’s assume that the 293,000 of Megawatt-hours (Mwh) of electricity generated by wind in Vermont last year reduced CO2 by the full amount of the New England average, 571lbs/Mwh; that’s a total savings 168,768,000 lbs. In other words, NGA’s natural gas was responsible for about the same amount of CO2 reduction as all the wind turbines in Vermont. I’m proud of that. Next year NGA will do better.

Exclusive of sales to NGA, VGS sells almost twice as much gas as NGA. If they weren’t selling that gas, their customers would probably heat with oil or propane as most Vermonters do. If VGS weren’t selling that gas, there’d be another 300 million or so pounds of CO2 discharged annually in Vermont and their customers would be paying more for burning a dirtier fuel. Last year VGS completed an expansion to Middlebury and took over some service NGA used to provide. That’s a good thing; made gas even cheaper for those people and added residential customers whom our equipment isn’t suited to serve. I hope VGS will expand to Rutland where NGA also provides service. If that happy day comes, NGA will use its trucks to serve institutions somewhere else.

But What about the Negatives?

I wrote about fracking safety here and claims that “fugitive emissions” of natural gas outweigh the CO2 reductions in net greenhouse effect here. The facts are that drilling for natural gas is much safer than it’s ever been (but, of course, must be done right).  According to an extensive study by Argonne National Laboratory (done during the Obama administration), the environmental benefit of natural gas use far outweighs the environmental cost of leakage and leakage continues to be reduced while extraction increases rapidly. Moreover, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, the bible of climate change, atmospheric methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is stable to declining despite more drilling than ever.

CO2 levels in the atmosphere, on the other hand, are increasing. That’s one problem natural gas can help with.

And in Conclusion

Renewables alone are not sufficient to reduce atmospheric CO2 as quickly as many people believe it must be reduced to avoid catastrophically rapid climate change. Nuclear power and natural gas both have an important role to play in that reduction. Unless there is massive permitting reform (or massive subsidies), nuclear is very expensive and very slow to deploy. Even where there are massive deployments of solar and wind, natural gas “peaker” plants are needed to fill in for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Thanks to new technology, America has huge new natural gas supplies economically accessible. We are buying American energy because we have product at the best price. We are becoming a supplier of natural gas to the world rather than a dependent on risky foreign oil.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Wherever it displaces coal or oil, there is an enormous environmental benefit. Those who oppose natural gas use, no matter how well-meaning, are delaying the day when we can burn less coal and oil. They are imposing the extra economic and environmental cost of dirtier, more expensive fuels on their neighbors, their communities, and the world. We don’t want to make some theoretical perfect fuel the enemy of all the good that increased natural gas substitution can do.

We want to drill (safely, of course), build pipelines where justified, and truck natural gas where pipelines don’t reach and aren’t economic. We don’t need incentives or mandates for this part of our environmental mission; we only need to make sure that our regulatory and permitting processes are reasonable. Natural gas adoption pays for itself. That’s sustainable!

November 28, 2017

Don’t let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good

Increased use of natural gas has so far been the most effective way to reduce CO2 emissions. Natural gas is an excellent complement to renewables for electricity generation since it can be used effectively at almost any scale to fill in when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.  Not surprisingly, those who sell competitive sources of energy like nuclear, oil, and coal are not fans of natural gas since it beats them on price, at least in North America. Many, but not all, marketers of renewables object to natural gas because it is a “fossil fuel” and because it is not carbon-free, despite the fact that natural gas is helping to reduce emissions and making renewables more practical.

I’m in the natural gas business so you should assume that I’m affected by self-interest like any businessperson. Nevertheless, this and my next couple of posts will be about why we should be using more natural gas to make the world a better place and why declining to do that means more carbon emissions and makes the perfect (carbon-free fuels) the enemy of the good (less emissions of CO2 and no emission of SO2 and other noxious gasses).

Let’s Start with the State of the World

Despite various climate accords, worldwide emissions of CO2 have continued to climb:

image from naturalgasnow.org

Germany, which has invested very heavily in renewables and has some of the highest electric rates in the developed world, has actually had a small increase in emissions for each of the last two years and has announced that it will miss the emission reduction goals it set for itself. Part of Germany’s problem is that it decided to shut down its nuclear plants after Fukushima. Germany also made a political decision against fracking so natural gas is expensive there (and comes in a dangerous degree from Russia). Renewable can’t replace the baseline power; Germany is burning more coal. The results are blowing in the wind.

And Now the State of the US

Our CO2 emissions continue to go down:

image from naturalgasnow.org

 

The United States is the only nation to meet the climate control goals set for it in the Kyoto Treaty – even though the US Senate never ratified it.   According to the EPA, almost all the US reduction in CO2 is result of a massive switch from coal to natural gas for electrical generation. This switch was driven by simple economics: the invention of horizontal drilling and the development of hydraulic fracturing made natural gas cheaper than coal. Fifty percent less greenhouse gasses are released per unit of energy when natural gas rather than coal is the source of that energy.

The US switched from coal to natural gas largely because natural gas is less expensive. Government didn’t drive this switch. Certainly, the Kyoto treaty had nothing to do with it.  Nevertheless, the switch and the consequent environmental benefits are “sustainable”. They are not dependent on either regulation or subsidy. The US leads the world in carbon reduction because we have allowed new technologies to reduce the cost of cleaner energy. We haven’t insisted on perfection; we have achieved good.

Next post, the state of the State of Vermont

November 16, 2017

I want Judge Moore to be Guilty – That’s a Problem

Roy Moore shouldn’t be a US senator IMO; but he’s running for the senate from Alabama where I’m not a voter so my opinion doesn’t count. Until last week it looked like Alabama voters would elect him easily despite (or because of) the fact that he lost his job as chief justice of that state’s supreme court twice, once for disobeying orders to take the ten commandments down in the court house and a second time for refusing to recognize gay marriage. Public officials are not entitled to substitute their own opinions for law (although it is certainly honorable to resign rather than enforce a law you don’t agree with).

Now there are specific and credible (but not proven) allegations by five women that Moore abused them when he was in his thirties and they were in their teens. I was happy to hear the allegations and hope they are true so that he won’t become a senator.

I’m wrong to feel this way.

I want people to believe that he is guilty of the women’s charges so he won’t be elected senator; but I already didn’t want him to be elected because of both his fundamentalism and his previous disregard for the law. The women’s charges may well not be proven by election day; but I want him to be considered guilty anyway , not innocent until proven guilty. I want it to be impossible for Alabamans to make a decision I don’t want them to make.

Similarly many people I know and like want Trump to be guilty of colluding with the Russians so they can undo the choice the electorate made.

Other people would like Hillary Clinton to be guilty of various crimes, at least partly to prove that they were right not to vote for her. (Times change: Bill Clinton probably would’ve been removed from office for the Monica Lewinsky affair had it happened today. At least those allegations were true.)

Obviously, if Trump did collude with the Russians, he should be impeached; but I hope that he didn’t. If there was a real quid-pro-quo in contributions to the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s acts as Secretary of State, she should be prosecuted; but I hope there wasn’t.

It adds to the danger of the times when we consider people guilty just on the basis of accusations because we want to criminalize our opponents.

But I still hope Roy Moore is defeated.

November 13, 2017

Google Now a Target for Regulation

Headline in the Washington Post:

Tech companies pushed for net neutrality. Now Sen. Al Franken wants to turn it on them.

The time was – way back around the turn of the century – when all Internet companies believed that the Internet should be free from government regulation. I lobbied along with Google and Amazon to that end (there were no twitter and Facebook then); we were successful over the objection of traditional telcos who wanted the protection of regulation. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) under both Democrats and Republicans agreed to forbear from regulating the Internet the way they regulate the telephone network; the Internet flourished, to put it mildly.

Fast forward to 2015. Google and other Internet giants and their trade group, the Internet Association, were successful in convincing the Obama FCC to reverse that policy and regulate Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the same regulation which helped to stifle innovation in telephony for decades. The intent, according to the Internet Association, was to protect Net Neutrality (a very good name) and assure that ISPs didn’t either censor or prefer their own content over the content of others – Google, for example. The regulation was acknowledged to be preemptive - ISPs weren’t discriminating but they might.

This spring Trump’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, announced the beginning of an effort to repeal the 2015 regulations and return the Internet to its former lightly regulated state. The Internet Association and its allies mounted a massive online campaign against deregulation in order, they said, to protect Net Neutrality. One of their allies was the Open Market Initiative, which was then part of The New America Foundation. More about them below.

I blogged to 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?”

It didn’t take long.

In August the European Union declared a penalty against Google. Barry Lynn of the Open Market Initiative posted praise for the EU decision on the New America website. According to the NY Times:

“The New America Foundation has received more than $21 million from Google; its parent company’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt; and his family’s foundation since the think tank’s founding in 1999. That money helped to establish New America as an elite voice in policy debates on the American left and helped Google shape those debates…

“Hours after this article was published online Wednesday morning, Ms. Slaughter announced that the think tank had fired Mr. Lynn on Wednesday for ‘his repeated refusal to adhere to New America’s standards of openness and institutional collegiality.’”

Mr. Lynn and his colleagues immediately founded The Open Market Institute. The front page of their websites says:

“Amazon, Google and other online super-monopolists, armed with massive dossiers of data on every American, are tightening their grip on the most vital arteries of commerce, and their control over the media we use to share news and information with one another.”

Sen. Al Franken and the Open Market Institute held an event which led to the WaPo headline and the article which begins:

“For years, tech companies have insisted that they're different from everything else. Take Facebook, which has long claimed that it's a simple tech platform, not a media entity. ‘Don't be evil,’ Google once said to its employees, as though it were setting itself apart from the world's other massive corporations.

“But now, some policymakers are increasingly insisting that firms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter really aren't that special after all — and that perhaps it's time they were held to the same standard that many Americans expect of electricity companies or Internet providers.

“Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) became the latest and most vocal of these critics Wednesday when, at a Washington conference, he called for tech companies to follow the same net neutrality principles that the federal government has applied to broadband companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast.”

I’m not happy to have been right; on the contrary, I’m appalled. The last thing we should want is the government regulating Internet content, especially at a time when both the political right and the political left are anti free speech. But there is no principled argument that Google’s potential competitors, the ISPs, should be constrained by regulatory oversight while Google, much bigger than any of these competitors and much more dominant worldwide, can exert its dominance freely. Google truly opened a Pandora’s box and let out a regulatory genie.

As much as I am against regulatory oversight of content, I do believe that the government has a very proper role both in antitrust and in truth in advertising. These are some of the tools which do need to be used to keep new or old oligarchs from ruling the world.

November 01, 2017

The Zen of Bicycle Tire Changing

Mary and I just spent a wonderful five days biking down the coast of Portugal from Porto (from whence Port Wine gets its name) to Praia de Sao Pedro de Moel. Much of the ancient forest we cycled through had burned to a crisp in the last few months (more in a future post). The beaches were wonderful; the weather atypically beatific for this time of year.

We were on an unescorted tour which meant that our bags magically got from hotel to hotel but that we were responsible for getting ourselves and our bikes from place to place. There was a GPS with a track on my handlebar and we had fairly detailed maps so navigation was simple except when you needed it most – getting in and out of cities, especially over a bridge which required instant decisions on whether there was a bike path on the outside of the guardrail, a wide shoulder on the inside, or just ride in traffic and pray. We did some of each but not always the right choice for the bridge we were on. Portuguese drivers, however, are understanding and forgiving.

Besides a GPS and a burn phone to call for help, the tour company provided us with a repair kit. I paid little attention during the briefing since I haven’t had a flat in five years of riding in Vermont. I do have a tire repair kit at home which daughter Kate gave me and I had leafed through the instructions once.

Day two. Mary stops fairly suddenly. “Bear, I think I have a flat.” Yup, the rim of her rear tire is on the gravel bike path (actually, as we saw, gravel and glass). Front wheels are easy to takeoff. On these bikes removing the back wheel means disentangling the gears from the chain, big opportunity to get covered with grease. But what you really need to be paying attention to is the relationship between the sprockets, the chain, and the derailleur (the thing that keeps tension on the chain). I didn’t.

Next step is to use three handy shims that were in the kit to get one side of the tire out of the rim. At this point Mary had found instructions and was reading to me as I worked. We did have spare tubes so I didn’t need the patch kit. Mary, as instructed, felt around the inside of the tire and did find and remove a piece of glass which was waiting to puncture the new tube.

“This #### tube is too big for the rim,” I growled.

“Partially inflate the tube to make it easier to handle,” Mary read from the instructions. I did; now it more or less fit. For no good reason I had removed both sides of the tire from the rim but finally figured out one needed to be replaced, then the tube put on, finally the other side tucked back in. Easier said than done. I had 300 degrees of tire in the rim.

“You are now at the hardest part of your task,” Mary read. “It is preferable that you tuck the tire in with your fingers rather than use a tool which may puncture the tube. Most important is patience.” Yeah, sure. But finally the whole tire was back on the wheel. I inflated it with the hand pump, screwed the cap down tight on the stem, and got the hub hopelessly entangled with the chain because, of course, I hadn’t paid attention to how I removed it. Fortunately, we had my intact bike to use as a model of what the reassembled rig was supposed to look like so, lots more grease stains later, it was all put back together.

Just as I was ready to triumphantly turn the bike right side up, I noticed that the new tire was completely flat!

More in despair than hope, I pumped it up again. This time I heard the air hissing out from the valve as I screwed the cap on. I backed off from tightening the cap and the hissing stopped. Put some more air in, put the cap halfway on, and were back on the road. Total time 1 hour, 15 minutes. Had to skip lunch.

Next day my back tire went flat. Couldn’t inflate the first new tube I tried; pump just wouldn’t move. We had asked to have extra tubes dropped with our luggage so had another which did inflate. Total time of repair 20 minutes. I’m educable.

But I also like to think of myself as an engineer by inclination if not by training. Thought a lot about the tires the next night. The valves were different than what we’re used to in the US: Presta instead of Shrader.

Screenshot-2017-10-30 bicycle tube valves - Google Search

Maybe, I thought, the little valve on the top needs to be turned to open and then turned again to close BEFORE the cap is put on. That would explain both problems. I tried partially unscrewing the cap on the tube I hadn’t been able to inflate and then pumping. It worked.

“I’m going to fix the valves on both the tubes I replaced,“ I told Mary before we started off on the next leg. Managed to deflate both. Theory was right but practice more difficult. Total time lost 35 minutes. In Vermont they say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But you know engineers.

October 23, 2017

The Vermont Legislature MUST Understand the EB-5 Disaster

If we don’t know what went wrong within state government, how do we know it won’t happen again?

The EB-5 program promises US green cards to foreign investors who put $500,00 to work to create private sector jobs. In Vermont the state Agency of Commerce was responsible both for promoting and administering the EB-5 program. On the state’s watch hundreds of millions of dollars were apparently diverted by the promoters of various projects. Governor Shumlin assured investors that the state was “auditing” these projects. Vermont’s clean brand was a key part of the sales pitch to investors

 It is by far the largest scandal to surface in the E-5 program nationwide. The investors may lose both their money and the chance of a green card since diverted funds didn’t create jobs. Jay Peak, home to several of the projects, is in receivership. Some Vermont contractors, who have had to wait years for payment, have gone out of business. There’s an empty hole in the ground in downtown Newport, dug in conjunction with a project that was supposed to bring biotech manufacturing to the Northeast Kingdom but, which, accordingtothe feds, was almost a complete fraud.

How could this have happened on the state’s watch? The legislature has not held a single hearing to find out.

Let’s assume that all state officials were completely innocent of any criminal wrongdoing (it may take a special prosecutor to find out if this is true). If that’s the case then something is terribly broken inside state government. The federal government wants to immediately remove the state’s oversight. Well it should since we still haven’t discovered how the oversight was so incredibly deficient. The investors, the contractors, and the state’s brand have been deeply damaged. But the legislature seems incredibly uncurious about how all this could have happened.

Did the conflict between the Commerce Agency’s promotional and supervisory roles make this inevitable? If so, does Commerce have other such conflicts? What about other agencies? Does Agriculture both promote farming and administer various farm programs? Are there conflicts like this in the vast reach of Human Services? How do we know another huge scandal isn’t brewing? Does the Attorney General’s office have an impossibly conflicted role in both defending state government and state employees and enforcing the state’s laws?

Do we need to reorganize parts of state government? Do we need some new laws? These are questions which are best answered through legislative hearings. These hearings should not be a witch hunt. They certainly shouldn’t be partisan. But, before further damage is done by and to the state, these hearings must happen.

See also:

Governor Scott Should Follow his Soul, Not the Advice of the Attorney General

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

Governor Scott Considering EB-5 Special Prosecutor

October 16, 2017

Governor Scott Should Follow his Soul, Not the Advice of the Attorney General

Last month Governor Phil Scott said that the idea that the state is immune from all litigation “doesn’t give me a good feeling in my soul” and that it undermines trust in government. He said that he would consider appointing a special prosecutor to make sure we understand how Vermont happens to be the locus of the biggest EB-5 scandal in the nation. Last week he said he doesn’t believe now would be the right time for such an action because of the state’s pending lawsuit against the developers. Lawsuits take a long time. “Not now” could well be after unsolved problems which led to the EB-5 scandal further damage the state.

Scott says he is relying on the expertise of Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who’s doing “what he thinks is his best to represent the state of Vermont.” The Attorney General’s office is defending the state against a lawsuit alleging state complicity in the EB-5 fraud and, like any good lawyer would, is trying to have the case dismissed. However, the Attorney General, whose client is the GOVERNMENT of the state of Vermont, not the people of Vermont, is giving very bad advice from a public policy point of view.

Donovan argues that, if the state waived its sovereign immunity, state government would collapse. Without sovereign immunity “you wouldn’t have anybody working in government or anybody willing to make a decision in government exercising their discretion for fear of being sued,” he said. That argument is insulting as well as wrong.

Local governments don’t have sovereign immunity; people still work for them. Those of us in the private sector don’t have sovereign immunity; we make decisions (and get sued) all the time; we still do our jobs. Doctors don’t have sovereign immunity; they make life and death decisions – and put up with being sued. Teachers have no sovereign immunity. State workers won’t resign en masse if the state waives its sovereign immunity in a case which has blemished our reputation and which is, just as Scott feared, undermining trust in government.

Moreover, Donovan’s statements make clear that, since his office does have a responsibility to defend the state government and the state workers named in a lawsuit, the AG’s office has a conflict in fully investigating what went wrong. “The AG”s office is alleging fraud against Quiros and Stenger, that’s where we should focus,” He said. Certainly the AG’s office should be pursuing the case against Stenger and Quiros – one might even ask what took them so long – but what if government officials were criminally involved with these two (something which certainly has NOT been proven), would the AG’s office have to back off from the prosecution because any such allegation would damage the interests of its client, the government of the state of Vermont?

If the AG’s office can’t investigate possible state malfeasance, then there is the need for an investigation separate from the AG’s office. Moreover, even if the actions of state employees were entirely legal (as they may have been), shouldn’t the Governor, whose watch this did NOT occur on, want to know exactly what went wrong? Shouldn’t he want to know what went wrong now in case there are similar scandals brewing? Scott’s soul was right; public trust in government is extremely low. Now is the time for him to take advice from his soul and not from the AG.

All direct quotes in this piece come from a VT Digger article.

See also:

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

Governor Scott Considering EB-5 Special Prosecutor

October 13, 2017

Trump’s Attacks on First Amendment Rights Are Appalling

Could the Trump Administration shut down NBC?

First Amendment to the US Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

President Trump tweeted “Network news has become so partisan, distorted and fake that licenses must be challenged and, if appropriate, revoked. Not fair to public!” He was enraged at what he says was a false story on NBC. Later he doubled down on his anti First Amendment sentiment: “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write and people should look into it,” I heard him say on CSPAN.

I’m not a member of the “resistance”; I support some of Trump’s policies and some of his actions; but I am appalled by these statements. Even if the NBC story is 100% wrong (it is thinly and anonymously sourced), the press has a right to be wrong. Reporterrs and editors often are. We can’t have a free press if there is some government agency deciding who is telling the truth and who gets to keep reporting. The whole point is that the press IS able and MUST be able to write whatever they want. We can turn off NBC in our houses but the government can’t do that to us. It’s OUR First Amendment right.

OK; we all agree on that. But could an administration which was so inclined actually take away NBC’s license? It’s unfortunately time to think about that.

On a superficial level, there’s no problem. NBC the network does not have a broadcast license because it doesn’t broadcast; it supplies content. Each of its over-the-air affiliates has its own license from the FCC. NBC owns only eleven stations; there are almost 200 separately owned affiliates. There would be a lot of licenses to take away, many held by rich and powerful people.

Moreover, since the demise of the “fairness doctrine” – needed when there were just a few broadcast licenses available in each area – the FCC has only considered technical and bureaucratic conditions in awarding and renewing broadcast licenses. Stations must stay within their allocated frequencies; can’t sell banned drugs; can’t knowingly abet a fraud (but let’s watch that!); have to pay their fees, file for renewal on time, and tell the truth in the paper work they file with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In theory a station could be shut down for pornography; that’s why certain words were banned on TV and radio. But that hasn’t even been threatened lately.

But let’s be paranoid. Broadcast licenses are worth hundreds of millions of dollars even now that most content stays on the Internet and isn’t broadcast at all. Suppose that the affiliates of an obstreperous network were suddenly threatened with license revocation for trivial technical violations – they probably exist and could certainly be alleged. Suppose a routine filing to move an antenna or make some other technical change were suddenly delayed almost indefinitely for “procedural” reasons. Might not the owner of the license pressure the network which supplies it with news to stop pissing off the President. All members of the FCC are appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. FCC Chairman have been known to follow White House “guidance”. Business people have been known to bury their personal scruples to protect their investors.

It appears that the IRS was weaponized to some extent during the Obama administration. Could that happen with the FCC in the Trump administration? Unfortunately it’s the President himself who suggests the answer may be “yes”.

October 10, 2017

Fear Leads to Fascism

In an emergency, we’re used to giving up some liberties. If you’re in a fire, you do what the firemen say. In general we obey police orders. A city can impose a curfew to protect lives and property. A mandatory evacuation order can be given. In an extreme, marshal law can be declared and most civil liberties suspended (Lincoln did that).

There’s probably something in primate DNA which suspends our usual obstreperousness and makes us take orders in a dangerous situation.

But there’s a dark side to this survival trait: when we’re afraid, we forget that we want to be free. We listen for a strong voice, look for a master who will protect us, and focus on the immediate danger which has frightened us rather than the long-term risk that our protector will become a tyrant.

I saw this danger first hand a long, long time ago in 1968 when I was a National Guardsman mobilized for the Chicago Convention riots. We were stationed in our armory which abutted a park in the then-decayed northwest side of the city. We patrolled the park because that’s what soldiers do and because our helicopters landed there. It was hot, boiling hot. We were heavily armed.

 “I’m so glad you boys are here,” an old lady said. “We haven’t been able to come to the park at night for years.” She was Polish; her children had long since gone to the suburbs. The neighborhood was definitely not Polish anymore. And it wasn’t safe for her. She was happy to have an army on her street. We were no threat to her. We made her safe. She wasn’t worried about a civil society. She was afraid.

Mary and I bought our first handgun the day after the first night we spent in an isolated summer home. All the talk in the neighborhood was about the armed robbery that had just occurred at the drugstore. We weren’t giving up our freedom; but we also weren’t confident that government could protect us from the special danger addicts present. We acted (rationally, I think) but out of fear.

The City of Burlington can’t figure out how to protect its citizens – or even its police – from a group of dangerous miscreants in City Hall Park. Calling a social worker instead of a cop doesn’t work; but the cops are expected to act like social workers. Meanwhile people aren’t as safe as they should be downtown. People who are afraid will vote for drastic solutions (see election 2016).

The US is at danger from a North Korean sociopath armed with nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The North Korean arsenal has grown from test devices to a serious threat during Republican and Democratic administrations alike. It must be dealt with. Americans - afraid of an increasingly dangerous world including ISIS, Iran, North Korea and, of course, homegrown terrorists of the right and left and demented killers - elected Donald Trump. Will he over react? Is over reaction or under reaction more dangerous now?

This is a dangerous time for the country. To survive as the kind of civil society we want to be, we must both avoid over reaction and avoid under reaction to evil, which leaves people afraid. We do have to make our streets safe (yes, that means patrolled by police); we do have to take violent people off the streets no matter what mental illness, addiction, childhood experience made them dangerous; we must confront nations and non-nations which threaten us with harm.

Those of us inclined to vote for leaders who think dialog is always better than confrontation must think of the harm that ducking confrontation may cause. Those inclined to vote for authoritarians because we’re frightened need to realize authoritarians don’t give up power lightly. We all need to work for and find pragmatic candidates who know there are no easy answers; that not acting is itself an act.

A frightened electorate will vote for frightening leaders. Leaders who don’t keep us safe pave the way to despotism.

October 04, 2017

Your Android Phone is Eavesdropping

Are the Russians listening too?

I’m getting paranoid about devices listening to me.

Gotham Gal recently blogged about friends who started to get ads for things they never searched for but had recently talked about (not talked about online, just talked about with a group of friends). Alexa was the first suspect; she was there and she listens. But Alexa somehow would have had to sort out all the different voices and have some way of associating them with people and the computers and phones they use to search the web. Nevertheless, I always switch Alexa’s listening off unless I specifically want to talk to her.

Commenters on Gotham Gal’s post pointed a finger at the Facebook smartphone app. It would recognize its owner’s voice. It would know exactly where in the database to put the possible new interest and how to serve ads which catered to it. I don’t use the Facebook app or Facebook itself much, so I filed my suspicions away for future investigation.

Yesterday I realized that my Android was eavesdropping.

Screenshot

“say OK Google” it said in the search box of the home screen. If I said “OK Google”, I could then give it a voice command like “navigate to the nearest saloon”. Very good for handsfree driving. But, if it’s listening to see whether I say “OK Google”, then it has to be listening to everything I or anyone else says in the car and whatever I listen to on the car’s audio system. Maybe it ignores all that until it hears “OK Google” and maybe it doesn’t. How can I be sure? What if it thinks it heard “OK Google”; then I know it’ll send what it hears next to the Google cloud for interpretation.

What if it’s been hacked? There’s a story in today’s Wall Street Journal saying that Russians are hacking the smartphones of NATO troops. I don’t want to be alarmist but does that mean that if the phones are listening to the troops then the Russians can as well?

No thanks, I don’t want it to listen.

So, of course, I googled how to turn off “OK Google”. The instructions, even from third parties are simple but also misleading. If you go into settings for the Google app, you can turn off “OK Google”. Trouble is that doesn’t turn off listening, If you then say “OK Google”, you get an alert telling you that you turned off the functionality. The only way the phone can give you the alert, obviously, is if it’s till listening. Problem NOT solved.

But you can turn off eavesdropping. You go into settings for the phone, choose apps, choose the Google app, choose permissions, choose microphone, and turn it off. You’ll get the warning below and there are serious consequences for turning this off.

Warning

Once you have told the Google app it can’t listen, it won’t. Not even if you tap the microphone option at the right of the search box. It goes into listen mode in this case but never says it is ready for you to speak or even says it won’t listen. You have to type in your request. So you pay a price for stopping the phone from listening. For me the security is worth the price. If I want to talk to Google, I turn its ability to listen back on.

Android ought to support a mode in which the phone only listens AFTER the microphone button is tapped and this ought to be the default. Security is too important to have all new phones in an insecure mode. There is also no good reason, although there are some bad ones, to force a choice between convenience and security in this particular case. The microphone button ought to be an on-off switch for the microphone. Even better, there should be a hardwired mute button for the mike, as there is on Alexa, so it can’t be hacked on.

Note: I have a Moto Z2; it is possible that other Android phones behave differently. If you have an iPhone and you can wake it up by saying “Siri”, then it is always listening to you. You don’t know who else may be.

See also: Alexa – Cover Your Ears

September 28, 2017

Governor Scott Considering EB-5 Special Prosecutor

There is a chance that Vermont will investigate itself and find out how the biggest scandal in the EB-5 program nationwide happened here under state supervision. When asked at a news conference about the idea of appointing a special prosecutor, Scott said “[It’s] the first I’d really contemplated something of that magnitude, but it could be something that could be beneficial. We’ll talk about it.”

“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Scott said of the EB-5 program. “We’ll see what happens in the near future, but I want to make sure that we release all the information we can so that … people have some trust with the government,” he continued.

Scott’s point about releasing all information possible is spot on. So far the attorney general’s office, whose role is to defend the state and state employees, has done everything it can to prevent the release of information needed to understand what happened. On the one hand the AG’s office argued that, because of a doctrine called sovereign immunity, a lawsuit against the state should be dismissed and the legal process called “discovery” can’t be used to compel the state to release its records or former state employees to give testimony. On the other hand, according to VTDigger, the AG’s office also says that 50,000 pages of state documents about Jay Peak are exempt from release under the relevant litigation clause of the Vermont Public Records. These two arguments together are a dangerous catch-22 which comes close to a cover-up: 1) litigation can’t be used to compel disclosure; 2) because there is litigation, the Public Records Act can’t be used to obtain information.

Scott also said, correctly IMO, that arguing the state is immune from lawsuits doesn’t inspire faith or trust in government. “When I read the media reports, when I hear immunity, and that’s the basis for an argument that we won’t know what’s happening — that the state is immune from litigation — that doesn’t give me a good feeling in my soul.”

The EB-5 projects under investigation are not the only EB-5 funded projects in the state. But, even projects without a hint of scandal will have a harder time raising money both because the feds are threatening to and probably will shut down the state’s authority to regulate these projects and because the Vermont brand as a good place to invest has been damaged. Most important, we can’t trust a government which hides its own mistakes and protects possible wrong doing. If you agree that we need to investigate this scandal ourselves, please write or call the Governor’s office and support the idea of a special prosecutor. If you think the legislature should be more aggressive in investigating the executive branch, please write your legislators. Posting on Front Porch Forum is effective as well.

More at Vermont Should be Investigating Itself.

September 27, 2017

Live Discussion of Does Vermont Need a Special Prosecutor for EB-5 Scandal

I'll be on Mike Smith's show "Open Mike" on WDEV at 10:30 this morning to discuss how Vermont government ought to investigate itself to determine state government's role in the EB-5 mess in the Northeast Kingdom. The Attorney General's office is the lawyer FOR the state and is claiming, in that role, that the state is immune from prosecution and discovery in this matter. So hard to see how the AG's office can also investigate state agencies and officials.  Do we need a special prosecutor to determine what went wrong and assign responsibility? I think our brand, which was heavily used to market EB-5 investments. is endangered if we leave all investigation to the feds. At the very least, legitimate EB-5 projects in the state will be unfairly tarnished. At the worst we - and others - lose faith in the honesty of our state government.

The show is live streamed from the WDEV site and you can call in with your opinion.

More at Vermont Should be Investigating Itself.

VTDigger has been key to unearthing facts about this scandal. Their coverage, which has earned national recognition, is at https://vtdigger.org/eb5-an-investigation/.

September 25, 2017

Vermont Should be Investigating Itself

Our brand is becoming “non-sustainable”.

Tiny Vermont has the distinction of biggest EB-5 scandal in the country. EB-5 is a program which grants US residency to foreigners who invest in certified job-creating projects. Jay Peak Resort was built out with EB-5 funds. The same group which developed Jay also raised EB-5 funds for a biomanufacturing plant in Newport, VT, which is now a hole in the ground (really!) with no apparent prospects.

The government of the State of Vermont is impeding investigation of its own involvement in this scandal by withholding key documents and asserting immunity from lawsuits. The Vermont Legislature has yet to investigate this massive scandal and the State’s role in it.

According to VTDigger, which has done Vermont a great service by relentless coverage of this scandal:

“In April 2016, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged [Ariel] Quiros [former owner of Jay Peak] and [Bill] Stenger [former President and CEO of Jay Peak] with 52 counts of securities fraud and with misusing $200 million in immigrant investor funds through the EB-5 visa program, which grants permanent residency to foreigners who invest $500,000 or more in U.S. businesses and create at least 10 full-time jobs. In all, 836 investors from 74 countries were allegedly defrauded by the developers…[Stenger has since reached a settlement with the SEC]

“Many of the investors blame the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center, an arm of state government that was charged with monitoring the EB-5 program in Vermont, for not properly overseeing the Jay Peak projects. Top state politicians, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Gov. Jim Douglas all promoted the developments to investors overseas on behalf of Stenger and Quiros.”

Last month the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which oversees the EB-5 program for the feds, wrote to Vermont that it is planning to terminate the State’s authorization to oversee the program saying “the Regional Center’s failure to provide adequate oversight and monitoring of its projects allowed the alleged malfeasance by Quiros and Stenger to occur and jeopardize the Regional Center’s ability to promote economic growth within EB-5 program requirements, as well as the EB-5 investors’ investments.”

Some investors have sued the State and former officials for their lack of oversight and active promotion of the projects. According to VTDigger:

“Megan Shafritz, the lead lawyer for the state, has said Vermont officials have 'absolute immunity' in the case, which protects them 'from the burdens of discovery and litigation generally.'

“Shafritz has urged the court to block the release of documents and the deposition of a key witness in the investors’ case until after the court has ruled on a motion to dismiss, which the attorney general’s office has yet to file.”

The former officials and the State are being defended by the attorney general’s office, which is the State’s internal law firm and usually defends actions against the State; the accused officials are certainly entitled to a defense.  However, if the AG’s office’s role is defense and protecting the State, then who represents the citizens of the State if officials are guilty of wrongdoing? Are we totally dependent on the feds and/or private lawsuits to protect us against state government malfeasance?

In the federal government there is a recognized problem with the Justice Department headed by the attorney general, who is a presidential appointee, investigating the president; that’s why we have special prosecutors. But in Vermont the AG is elected independently. Do we still need a special prosecutor because the AG’s office needs to defend instead of investigate and prosecute state officials? Hard to believe but, if so, we should appoint one to look at the state’s role in this fiasco!

Meanwhile where is the legislature on this? Where’s the investigative committee? Don’t we want to know whether the feds are right in calling us incompetent or worse? Don’t we want to know how our brand got tarnished by the biggest EB-5 scandal in the country? Complacency will lead to disaster.

September 20, 2017

Let’s Not Talk about CyberSecurity

Friends have asked me (since I’m an official nerd), whether I blocked credit agencies from reporting on my credit to potential lenders to assure that new accounts are not opened by imposters pretending to be me. Blocking makes it harder for someone to use your ss# for identity theft; but, since you give part of your ss# to request a block, you give the credit agencies even more information about you which might be exposed in a future breach. I’m not telling what I did.

Following the Equifax breach, Facebook is ablaze with security discussions as are other online forums. Here’s some free advice: Don’t post what you decided to do about your credit! Don’t say online whether or not you’ve stopped credit checks at the rating agencies.

Either way you make yourself an easier mark for those who want to steal your identity. If you’ve blocked opening new accounts, they can say that when they pretend to be you and work on getting the unlock pin or convincing someone to give credit without it. If you haven’t stopped new accounts, then they know to go after you directly. Information about you is what hackers need; don’t post it online!

While we’re at it, don’t say online what kind of home security system you use. Don’t helpfully review your home security system on Amazon or your blog. Don’t rate your home security installer any way but anonymously (and how do you know if you’re anonymous?) Why tell hackers or burglars what technology they’re dealing with? I’m not sure the decals like “protected by ADT” are a good idea since they give useful information. Maybe just “Very well-protected. While you were reading this your picture went to the cloud!”. I’m still wrestling with how to blog about my expanded home security system without compromising our security.

For good advice on dealing with the Equifax breach see Wired for Safety: How to deal with the Equifax security breach on VTDigger; it’s part of a weekly column on cybersecurity by the very knowledgeable digital forensics faculty at Champlain College.

September 14, 2017

The Dreamer Dream

It is now squarely up to Congress to assure that Dreamers have a path to stay and work in the United States.  If Congress does its job, some of those who were brought illegally to the US as children will have a much more secure future than they had under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), President Obama’s executive order.

From a Dreamer’s PoV, there are three problems with DACA:

  1. It provides amnesty and the right to work in the US only two years at a time; there is no path to citizenship or permanent residency.
  2. It is (as we’ve now seen) subject to withdrawal by the same kind of executive action which created it.
  3. The fact that it was promulgated as an executive order makes it vulnerable to the Supreme Court finding it unconstitutional. The Court split 4-4 (after the death of Justice Scalia) and allowed an injunction preventing a DACA expansion to stand.

If Congress were to pass a law which did simply what DACA did, issues 2 and 3 go away. I hope Congress can do better than that and provide a path all the way to citizenship for the Dreamers; but the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good. We actually have many more immigration issues to deal with than just the Dreamers; there are a large number of people who entered the country illegally as adults. We’re not going to just deport all of them either. But let’s take one bipartisan step at a time and make sure we do the right thing by the Dreamers.

According to WikiPedia:

To qualify for DACA, applicants must meet the following major requirements, although meeting them does not guarantee approval:[55]

  • Came to the United States before their 16th birthday
  • Have lived continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007
  • Were under age 31 on June 15, 2012 (i.e., born on June 16, 1981 or after)
  • Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making their request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS
  • Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012
  • Have completed high school or a GED, have been honorably discharged from the armed forces, or are enrolled in school
  • Have not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanors, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety

(Remember that children born to illegal immigrants IN the US are US citizens already. No one can take their rights away.)

There will be, and should be, debates in Congress over whether these requirements should be made looser or more stringent. A danger will be that the far left and the far right will dig in their heels on some specific issues in hopes of torpedoing a compromise. Trump has already signaled the right that he is willing to do without their votes by saying he will NOT insist that building The Wall be part of the deal. He will want to see some enhancements to border security to be sure that good treatment of the Dreamers doesn’t incent another wave of illegal immigration.

TBD whether the Democratic leadership can or will walk away from their left wing. A bill doesn’t need a majority of Democrats in either house to pass; but it will need a sizable contingent of Democrats to make up for right-wing Republican defections.

The Dreamer issue is now squarely before Congress, where even Obama agreed it should be. This is a time to write your Congressperson and tell her or him to do the job he or she was elected for. Doing that job means compromise.

September 12, 2017

Both Parties Lost the Last Presidential Election

Will that loss put a dent in hyper-partisanship?

The Republican establishment lost during the primaries. Whatever Donald Trump may be, he is not an establishment Republican. Bernie Sanders came damned close to knocking off establishment Hillary Clinton. According to promotional leaks from her book, Sanders was one of the main reasons she lost the general election.

With no proof whatsoever, I think the two most important reasons people voted against the establishment candidates of both parties were disgust with hyper-partisanship and a realization that, despite the surface partisanship, the leaders of both parties are almost identical in their crony-capitalist support for major donors at the expense of the rest of the country. In fact, the PACs which represent Wall Street are careful to be major donors to both parties. Sanders most telling blows against Clinton were for her well-paid speeches to bankers.

Since the President isn’t a Republican or a Democrat in the traditional sense, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he can abandon partisanship when he thinks either the country’s or his own interests require bipartisanship. IMO he was right not to follow the Republican inclination to derive the most possible partisan advantage from the need to fund hurricane relief. Debt ceiling and budget debates can be put off until after the hurricane season and should not be put off longer. A Republican-majority congress has not passed a budget so, obnoxious as it is, a short continuing resolution is in order.

More importantly Trump signaled the fiscal-extreme wing of Republicans that they’ve lost their veto. As much as my own residual partisanship hated seeing the cat-that-got-the-cream smiles of Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, I know that the polarizing right had to be defanged. However, so does the polarizing left; this shoe is yet to drop. But I’m an optimist; one shoe always comes off before the other.

A wonderful outcome would be bills that are routinely passed with some votes from the minority party. These bills will not be as far-reaching as bills which only Democrats or Republicans can support like ObamaCare or ObamaCare repeal, but they can be incremental steps towards solving the country’s problems.

Now for real wishful thinking: if a new middle forms, it should retain enough of the populism of the tea party and occupiers to abandon crony capitalism.

August 30, 2017

Unpardonable Pardons

Pardons are for guilty people. According to the US Supreme Court in Burdick v. United States, accepting a presidential pardon "carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it." If you disagree, as I do, with President Trump’s decision to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, it is probably only small consolation to know that, by accepting his pardon, Arpaio technically acknowledged he was guilty. Some people, including newspaper editor George Burdick, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, have refused to accept a pardon.

The presidential pardon power was controversial even as it was written into the US Constitution. Anti-federalists recalled pardon’s abuse by the British Crown and royal governors. Alexander Hamilton argued that the pardon power might be needed to end rebellions. He was prescient; George Washington pardoned the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion on his last day in office.

President Andrew Johnson pardoned many Confederate leaders after the Civil War. Apparently some of their statues have been unpardoned.

I was outraged when Ford pardoned Nixon (outrage was less common way back then). With hindsight I’m not so sure. That pardon let the country move forward. It may well have cost Ford any chance he had for reelection.

President George H. W. Bush pardoned six participants in the Iran Contra affair including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Independent prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh was outraged and said Bush might have been covering up his own complicity in the events that happened when Bush was Reagan’s Vice President. But the pardon ended the investigation.

As described in Wikipeida:

“…[President Bill]  Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 members of FALN, which is a Puerto Rican paramilitary organization that set off 120 bombs in the United States, mostly in New York City and Chicago.… The 16 were convicted of conspiracy and sedition and sentenced with terms ranging from 35 to 105 years in prison… Clinton offered clemency on the condition that the prisoners renounce violence, seeing as none of the 16 had been convicted of harming anyone and they had already served 19 years in prison. … The commutation was opposed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and was criticized by many, including former victims of FALN terrorist activities and the Fraternal Order of Police.[7] Hillary Clinton, then campaigning for her first term in the Senate, initially supported the commutation,[8] but later withdrew her support.[9]

“Congress condemned this action by President Clinton, with votes of 95–2 in the Senate and 311–41 in the House.[10][11] The U.S. House Committee on Government Reform held an investigation on the matter, but the Justice Department prevented FBI officials from testifying.[12] President Clinton cited executive privilege for his refusal to turn over some documents to Congress related to his decision to offer clemency to members of the FALN terrorist group.”

The power to commute sentences derives from the pardon power in the Constitution. Other Clinton pardons and commutations appear merely venal. They include:

  1. Fugitive financier Marc Rich whose ex-wife donated generously to both the Clinton Library and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Again from Wikipedia:

“According to Paul Volcker's independent investigation of Iraqi Oil-for-Food kickback schemes, Marc Rich was a middleman for several suspect Iraqi oil deals involving over 4 million barrels (640,000 m3) of oil.[26] Longtime Clinton supporters and Democratic leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter, James Carville and Terry McAuliffe, were all critical of the Clinton pardon. Carter said the pardons were "disgraceful."[27]

  1. Susan McDougal who had loyally served eighteen months in prison for refusing to testify about Clinton’s role in the Whitewater affair.
  2. Roger Clinton, the President’s brother, on drug charges.

President George W. Bush was blamed both for commuting the sentence of Scooter Libby, former chief of staff for VP Dick Cheney, and for not granting him a full pardon.

FALN leader Oscar López Rivera refused to renounce violence so was not included in Clinton’s commutation. However, President Barack Obama commuted his sentence without conditions. The Washington Post editorialized:

“FBI agents discovered dynamite, detonators and firearms at two residences occupied by Lopez Rivera. At trial, a cooperating witness from the FALN testified that Lopez Rivera personally trained him in bomb-making.

“So Lopez Rivera is neither a low-level offender nor a nonviolent one. Nor, crucially, is he repentant…

“Obama's offer this week came with no such requirement [renouncing violence]— in puzzling contrast not only to Clinton's policy in 1999, but also to White House statements that Chelsea Manning deserved clemency because she accepted responsibility and showed remorse.”

Some of us, including me, also disagreed with Manning’s commutation. You’ll remember that she made her publisher, WikiLeaks, famous - before they became infamous when they publishing purloined documents from the Democratic National Committee.

One bad pardon doesn’t excuse another. I still think Trump was wrong to pardon the sheriff because he is condoning vigilantism by law enforcement. The pardon of Manning condones unilateral declassification of secret material by anyone through whose hands it passes. Washington was probably right to pardon the Whiskey rebels and I think Andrew Johnson was right to pardon Confederates. Since pardons are for the guilty, a President walks a fine line between healing and promoting bad behavior when he or she exercises the pardon power.

August 24, 2017

Don’t Believe Caller ID

Or the From address on an email.

Got a phone call from 802 760 xxxx the other day. My number is 802 760 yyyy. “A neighbor,” I thought, even though I didn’t recognize the specific number and it had no name associated with it. I answered. It was a scam. Didn’t stay on long enough to know precisely which scam and wasn’t close to revealing any identifying information or sending money in order to free my lottery winnings.

It’s unlikely this call originated in Stowe even though that’s where 802 760 xxxx numbers are. With voice over IP services like Vonage, you can actually buy a number anywhere; we used to have one in the UK so our daughter,who lived there, could call us cheaply. But this wasn’t a number designed to be called. This was a SPOOFED number, a number inserted into the data stream by the computer that was making the call.

In the old days of the hard-wired phone network, the phone company’s switch figured out what number a call came from because it knew which pair of wires the call came in on. That was then; this is now. All bulk calls including legit ones are placed by computers which tell the phone company computer the caller’s phone number. It’s no surprise that computers can be programmed to lie. The new thing is to have the fake phone number have the same area code and even the same exchange as the called number in hope that you’ll pick up and let yourself be scammed.

Similarly it’s easy to create an email which looks like it came from you. Scammers get hold of millions of emails with carelessly many people on the “to:” and “cc:” lists, usually from failure to use “bcc:” properly to hide email addresses.  The scammers create new email, which usually pretend to be from the sender of an innocent email the scammers have possession of to each of the listed recipients of the innocent email.  The subject is something generic like “Hey, look at this” or “wow, made me think of you.” The email either has a toxic attachment or an evil link. Open either at your peril. You can’t believe an email is from a friend just because it says it is. Sometimes these “spearing” emails are sent from an infected computer whose address book is being used; but usually they are just created from carelessly long address lists not put in the BCC field.

I don’t open attachments or follow links in emails unless I know that I know whom the email is coming from. If the email is from my friend, for example, and it has text that says the picture reminds me of you falling out of the sailboat on our last trip and I did fall out of a sailboat, then I assume it’s safe (if maybe not pleasant) to look at the picture. If I’m not sure, I write to the alleged sender FORWARDING the suspicious email and typing the address or entering it from my address book, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER by replying because a fake email will have the reply go back to the scammer, who will then reply “Yes, it’s real,” pretending still to be your friend.

We live in a dangerous cyberworld. Be skeptical and careful.

See CC’ing Will Get Your Friends Speared for how to properly use BCC.

August 22, 2017

Is Medicaid Helping Fuel the Opioid Crisis?

Probably.

According to Express Scripts, which is a large manager of pharmacy benefit plans including Medicaid, “Medicaid members are 10 times more likely to suffer from addiction and substance abuse than the general population.” Unfortunately Express Scripts doesn’t give a source for this statistic and it doesn’t appear in the full text of their report. This sentence may refer to both drug and alcohol abuse and it doesn’t help us untangle cause and effect.

Some people qualify for Medicaid because substance abuse restricts their income.  Almost 25% of 3.1 million Medicaid subscribers whose records were scrutinized in the Express Scripts study had opioid prescriptions in 2015.   Having Medicaid available to pay for pain killers relieves pain which people might otherwise have suffered. But does having Medicaid available encourage opioid abuse?

In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal  says: “Evidence suggests the program may contribute to the epidemic… Overdose deaths per million residents rose twice as fast in the 29 Medicaid expansion states—those that increased eligibility to 138% from 100% of the poverty line—than in the 21 non-expansion states between 2013 and 2015.”  Their argument comes from a statement Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) made, which doesn’t appear on his website and for which I can’t find a link.

In the statement Johnson quotes a letter he sent to the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, which I also can’t find online: “it appears that the program has created a perverse incentive for people to use opioids, sell them for large profits and stay hooked.”

If Johnson is right, this is a huge problem. The incentives are easy to understand. If an addict has anything of value, he’ll sell it to feed his habit (except possibly pills which he can take himself). The copay on legally prescribed opiates is far, far less than their street value. If there were no abuse, it would be truly extraordinary. What matters is whether the abuse is significant and is helping fuel the crisis

The WSJ’s only source for this statistic is “a federal Health and Human Services analysis requested by the Senator”. No link to any such study. No study I can find on Google. Because I think the subject is crucially important, I did some research. Age-adjusted opioid deaths by state for 2013 and 2015 can be found in a report from the Centers for Disease Control. I found a list of states which expanded their Medicaid programs here. Note that my source lists 19 states which didn’t expand eligibility while WSJ says 21. Since they didn’t give their list, I can’t reconcile the difference.

Using these sources, I get the same results as the WSJ. The statistical method is somewhat suspect, however, since it averages results from states with different populations. Population adjusted, deaths from opioids increased “only” 59% faster in expansion states.  Statistically, the fact that this correlation exists both state by state and in the aggregate increases the likelihood that it is more than a coincidence  , and so this is not good news.

Another possible reason to discount the statistic as being evidence of cause and effect is that there are demographic differences between the mostly red states which rejected Medicaid expansion and the mostly blue states which implemented it. WSJ tries to address this by comparing states with similar demographics: “Deaths increased twice as much in New Hampshire (108%) and Maryland (44%)—expansion states—than in Maine (55%) and Virginia (22%). Drug fatalities shot up by 41% in Ohio while climbing 3% in non-expansion Wisconsin.”

Here WSJ is cherry-picking to some extent. Vermont is more like Maine than New Hampshire is and Vermont is an expansion state. There was “only” a 6% increase in opioid-related deaths in Vermont from 2013 to 2015; but I can’t find many such exceptions among similar states. There are states like Vermont which did support Medicaid expansion and had relatively low increases: California (5%), Oregon (11%), Arizona (4%); but these are exceptions. Maine is the “no” state with the highest increase; most of the rest of the “no”s had relatively low increases or, in a few cases, decreases.

It looks like there is a statistical correlation between expanding Medicaid eligibility and increases in opioid related death rates. A statistical correlation does NOT prove cause and effect. There is also a possible explanation for cause and effect: the huge difference between the copay on opioids and their street value coupled with the need of addicts for money.

Only 4.1% of Medicaid’s costs are the direct fulfillment of opioid prescriptions according to The Express Scripts study. However, the indirect costs of addiction to Medicaid must be much higher both since addiction itself needs treatment which must be paid for and because addiction leads to diseases and accidents which must be treated. If Medicaid is fueling addiction, then its costs will keep spiraling up.

The cost of addiction to society is huge and growing. Addiction is devastating both to addicts and to their families.

If expanding Medicaid caused drug-abuse to increase significantly, then base Medicaid is also likely fueling the problem, which is actually a crisis. Although nothing above proves that expanded Medicaid causes increased drug abuse, there is clearly enough reason for urgent study. Since Medicaid administration is a state responsibility (with many federal rules), states – including Vermont – ought to both examine the safeguards against over-prescription and resale and do actual forensic investigation of possible abuse including, of course, doctors and pharmacies. Of course, the feds should be looking as well.

Making sure everybody has access to affordable basic health care is a laudable goal. Avoiding the unintended consequence of damaging public health and safety with misspent healthcare dollars is a necessity.

August 17, 2017

American Tears

My nephew Luke’s maternal grandparents are holocaust survivors. On his paternal side we’re descended from refugees fleeing Eastern European pogroms. Luke’s wife, Sokchea, survived the Cambodian genocide. The events in Charlottesville led Sokchea to write this sad and beautiful letter to their baby daughter.

My innocent girl, in a few years, you will learn humanity's saddest lesson. No matter who you are or what you do, there are people who will hate you. They will say it's because of the color of your skin or where your ancestors came from. But it's just because you are different than them.

On that sad day, your dad and I will hold you and we will explain to you that nothing is wrong with you. You are a little girl who is loved by two very different people who found love by embracing their own differences. You don’t look like mommy, because you are unique. You don’t look like daddy, because you are unique.

You will have people ask you "what are you?" You will even have people call you names just because you look different. You’ll be faced with the gawking pupils of white men who may look at you in disgust. Or worse. And then you'll wonder why there are white women who are doing the same.

I write you this today because I saw something that struck me. Today I saw a sign calling out Jews and condemning immigrants to hell. They’re talking about you. They want to burn your Jewish side and desecrate your Cambodian soul. And I kept wondering, “how can they think that about you?” If only they can see your smile. Feel the gentle snuggle of your hugs in the mornings. Laugh at your baby babbles. Or maybe if they saw how you've learned to fake laugh or cry to get your way, would they still carry those signs and chant hatred? I wish more than anything that I can explain to them that you are not evil. You cry, laugh, and bleed just like them and their children.

But in the end - what I really want for you to know is that you are different. And that that difference is what makes this world worth exploring. Worth enjoying. Worth loving. Because if we were all alike - then we might as well live in front of a mirror. When you finally lose your innocence and begin to learn what makes you different - please remember that difference is what created you.

Stay safe, my love.

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