January 25, 2021

#Newnormal: The Great Repurposing

Don’t build new.

Remember soaring city rents and shortages of housing and office space. Forget about those. That was yesterday. Downtown rents are dropping like highspeed elevators. Some urbanites are fleeing for cheaper and safer and lower tax climes. Surviving businesses are looking for ways to break their leases. Business hotels are renting themselves out as homeless shelters. Downtown retail and restaurants have a precarious future and you should be glad if you don’t own a shopping mall. Small colleges were folding before the pandemic in rural and urban areas alike; the failures have accelerated leaving dorms, classrooms, offices, and event spaces on the market. IMO these trends will continue post pandemic.

We all used to take up too much space. We still need homes, of course. May even need an extra room or two because we’re working from those homes (#WfH). But we no longer need a space of our own in an office building somewhere else. Sure, there’ll be (some) in-person meeting in the future and some collaborative projects; but those’ll be in a much smaller office or in shared space Many of us used to leave both our office space and our home space empty while we took frequent business trips. We know now that we don’t need nearly so many trips and homes away from home to stay in. We’ll travel more than we’re doing now, especially to see family and see the world, but far fewer meetings and trade shows on the other side of the country or the ocean. Frugal businesses – the survivors – aren’t going to pay for them.

Hard to see why anyone would build a new office building when need for space is contracting as more and more employees work from home more of the time. If tremendous growth is forcing expansion, there are great bargains available in existing buildings. Even if space on the market doesn’t exactly meet the need, buying or renting something at ultra-cheap prices and refitting is the way to go. Even if there are penalties for canceling a project which is already far along, the economic justification needs rethinking in the new normal. Those who had the forethought to build flexibly with movable partitions are already benefitting. Any refits should be done with our new knowledge of how quickly things can change.

What about new residences? There is still a shortage of “affordable” housing in urban areas. However, existing urban rentals and condos are getting cheaper by the month. Rents will fall even faster when the various eviction moratoriums end. Landlords haven’t had any incentive to reduce rents which are being paid by government rather than the tenants or aren’t being paid at all. People who work from home can move away from the city. Those who choose to stay will have a better selection of housing. Should there still be demand for urban housing, let the conversions begin. The place to start is hotels and dorms. Office buildings are next.

We are only limited by our imagination. @RoxieMoxie tweeted this very smart reply to a tweet of mine: “I can see a software company turning an office building into a ‘company town’ where workers can live near office areas with high-speed scanners/copiers yet do most of their work in their own residential units. Fitness clubs, parklets, etc.”

We are only limited by our imagination… and by zoning laws. The best thing governments can do to speed the recovery is a great loosening of zoning laws so conversions can proceed without endless delay. In some cities changing offices to residences can be near impossible because of zoning. Restrictive zoning has been used far too long by the #NIMBY crowd - liberal and conservative - to keep “them” out of “our” neighborhood. We have a good opportunity to promote both social justice and economic recovery at the same time by removing these obstacles to repurposing.

There may be reason to build new factories to produce new goods or to produce goods further from less populous cities, but repurposing is an option to gain manufacturing space as well. Shopping malls and their huge parking lots are available throughout the country There is a market for new residences away from the cities. Dormitory, office, and hotel repurposing will supply much of the multifamily demand; but single-family houses are being built and selling for good prices here in Vermont. Many of our new residents still work for the same employers; they’re just not taking up office space anymore.

Those who don’t adapt to the #newnormal will perish economically. Sticking to a plan that made sense pre-pandemic may be the dumbest thing anyone can do now. Taking advantage of the way things are and the way things are gonna be is the formula for success for a family, a business, a government, or a non-profit. NOT building new is almost always the right answer. Repurposing is the “plastics” of today.

More posts on the new normal are at https://blog.tomevslin.com/newnormal/.

January 21, 2021

Is Starlink the Tesla of Broadband Access?

I have a chance to find out.

Starlink is satellite internet access from SpaceX, one of Elon Musk’s other companies. If it lives up to its hype, it will cure the problem of broadband availability in rural areas although affordability will still be an issue.

Most satellite-based Internet access sucks (that’s a technical term). If based on geostationary satellites (ones you can point a dish at), the distance to the satellite is so great that the round-trip time for data is forever; this problem is called latency. High latency doesn’t matter much if you’re uploading or downloading files; it’s incredibly annoying if you’re web surfing; and pretty much unusable for VoIP and especially for Skyping and Zooming. Technical details at Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To.

Services like Iridium use LEOS (Low Earth Orbit Satellites) so they don’t have a latency problem; but, for technical reasons, they have speeds that you thought you left behind when you stopped doing dialup – and they’re very expensive to boot. Way better than nothing if you’re in the middle of the ocean and need to see a weather forecast or send an SOS but not a reasonable alternative for home or office use.

Starlink also uses LEOS but has much, much greater bandwidth than any other low-orbit service, at least in part because SpaceX has used its rockets to launch swarms of tiny satellites. And, according to an email I just got today (an Inauguration Day present?), Starlink is now available in limited supply in my service area (North Central Vermont).

“During beta users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all. 

“As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically. For latency, we expect to achieve 16ms to 19ms by summer 2021.”

A latency of 40ms is acceptable for almost all uses except very high-speed gaming and stock trading. 16-19ms (milliseconds) is what you’d expect from cable.

The speed is considerably less than the GB/s service advertised by some fiber providers. Most of us don’t need anywhere near that speed today. But uses will be found for it (3D conferencing with avatars?) because it exists. Remains to be seen if Starlink can scale to these speeds,

Reliability should be better than cable or even service from a wireless ISP. So long as you have electricity from some source, you’re not going to lose your Internet access because of a storm or other local emergency.

So what’s the rub? Price, at least for now.

To take part in the Beta, I had to buy a $499 dish and other equipment (actually $581.94 with tax and shipping) and agree to pay $99/month plus taxes for service. However, that’s less than the price of most smartphones and not much more than cellphone monthly charges. There is no contract and there is 30-day nofault money back guarantee on the equipment.  I expect there will be higher and lower prices available for different tiers of service and that competition will bring the equipment cost down. Richard Branson is also launching tiny satellites although has no service based on them yet

If this all works and service is available nationwide, there should be no reason why any child in rural areas can’t go to school online or why any of us can’t benefit from telemedicine. Affordability is a problem we can afford to fix – not by subsidizing SpaceX and eventual competitors  but with direct aid to low income households. Many users will have offsetting savings from canceling their old-fashioned phone service and from cancelling satellite TV since streaming video will rock at these speeds.

Rural economies are already benefitting from urban-flight – at least those rural areas which have decent broadband. The cost of this service is miniscule if you’re already buying a house in Vermont to work from. If you’re an early adopter moving to a rural area, you’ll save lots of money overall because houses are cheaper where there is no good broadband today. Welcome to Vermont!

If Spacelink pans out (and it’s still an if), it will be a greater contribution to the common good than Teslas. I’ll let you know how the Beta goes.

You can find out if you can be part of the beta by clicking  CHECK AVAILABILITY.

See also:

Satellite Broadband Access – OK If You Have To

Why Satellite Internet Access Sucks

January 18, 2021

#Newnormal: Will Workers or Employers Pocket the Profit from #WFH Productivity?

It’s not a zero-sum game.

A Fortune newsletter by Aaron Pressman quoted my post on the 50 hour family work week and then asked: “Trillion dollar question: Will workers share in the savings from remote work?”

His skepticism is illustrated with a story. Last week Fortune published a commentary by Drew Houston, the cofounder and CEO of Dropbox. Dropbox, in case you missed it, is one of the services which has helped to make work from home (WfH) practical. Not surprisingly, Drew is a WfH fan:

“We’ve gone through a one-way door. The shift to distributed work is the biggest transformation to knowledge work since the term was invented in 1959. Its impact will be comparable to the rise of mobile and the cloud. Distributed work will unlock the potential of these technologies in the same way the highway system unlocked the potential of cars and ultimately reconfigured modern life.”

Pressman comments:

“Ironically, the day after we ran Houston’s essay, Houston’s company executed one of the old-fashioned, less desirable ways to become more productive: It laid off 315 people, or more than 10% of its workforce. ‘Our Virtual First policy means we require fewer resources to support our in-office environment, so we’re scaling back that investment and redeploying those resources,’ Houston wrote in a memo to employees.”

If the 315 people were engaged solely in supporting the office infrastructure, then this layoff doesn’t mean that Dropbox is doing the layoff because the people who work at home are more productive. This layoff is like terminating the office lease. Drew, himself, is somewhat ambiguous. In the same memo to employees, he says that their focus on “Virtual First” (which I think is more a description of their product line than a description of the way they work) requires them to defund initiatives which don’t directly add to this initiative.

Regardless of exactly why Dropbox had its layoff, who will profit from the increased productivity is still a trillion-dollar question. We can pick away at it:

These gains go to the employee initially.

  • The dollars and time spent commuting.
  • At least some of the cost of daycare.
  • The cost in space/and or dollars of having to live close to work.
  • Eating lunch out.
  • Flexibility
  • Dressing below the waist.

And these to the employer.

  • The cost of owning or renting office space.
  • The cost of people devoted to maintenance of the office space (see Dropbox above).
  • Any subsidy including parking spaces supporting commuting.
  • The need to provide free coffee etc.

The savings above are big so will make both WfH employees and employers wealthier.

The elephant in the converted spare bedroom is who gets the productivity savings.

Pressman quotes a study Dropbox commissioned at The Economist which concluded that workers lose 28% of their productivity because of distractions and says this agrees with my estimate that 25 hours at home is equivalent to a 9-5 day at the office (nit, he somewhat misinterpreted the study). The trillion dollars of productivity he writes about is this lost 28% in the US.

I claimed that workers will benefit by either working less or earning more. Pressman cites the layoff at Dropbox as an indication that employers will simply expect more from each employee and lay off those who are not working very well from home. If it happens as Pressman suspects, then employees will still work 35 or 40 hours even though they’re home; they’ll accomplish more; the employer will be more profitable.

The new normal will differ industry be industry depending both on how easy it is to measure productivity in an industry and the balance between jobs to fill and employees available to fill them. Since physical proximity to the office is not required, employers get to pick from a nationwide (or worldwide!) pool of applicants. On the other hand, workers can apply for jobs at companies anywhere. This is globalization without green cards.

WfH is not a zero-sum game. Both workers and employers benefit. The environment benefits from less commuting.  Housing affordability benefits from less concentration. Children will see their parents more. But the benefits will be uneven and we must be more sensitive to a growing economic divide than we were during round one of globalization.

See also:

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

January 13, 2021

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

Rush hours are history.

Covid has given mass transit systems an opportunity to reinvent themselves to serve the new normal. This opportunity is mandatory. If they don’t reinvent, they will wither away; downtown districts will suffer and an opportunity to make the huge pandemic drop in energy use permanent will be squandered.

Mass transit infrastructure – like many utilities and like highways – has always been designed for huge twice daily peaks. The peaks determine how much track is needed; how many tunnels; how many busses, light rail, and subway cars. For almost twenty hours each day, much of that capacity is idle. In rush hour in many cities the vehicles are full in one direction and nearly empty in the other. The time between the beginning of the morning peak and end of the evening peak means that two shifts of workers must be hired even though there isn’t sixteen hours of work for them to do.

That was then; this now.

The successful new normal transit system has more frequent service throughout the day than it used to and much, much less rush hour capacity.

Many people are going to continue to work exclusively from home. Others will come into “the office” or into town for meetings some of the time. The idea of an office as a place where everybody needs to be 9-5 is history. Of course there will still be many people whose jobs require them to work away from home; but their hours don’t have to be divided into the traditional three shifts. High frequency transit service throughout the day both enables flexible hours and encourages using mass transit instead of cars even when flexibility is needed.

The successful new normal transit system provides door-to-door service. If I have to get into my car, drive to a terminal, pay to park, leave my car idle for the day, walk a very long distance or take an expensive taxi when I get near work, and then reverse the process at the end of the day, I’m just going to take my car into the city. Rush hour won’t be a problem for cars, either, in the new normal. Algorithms like those used by Uber make it possible to dispatch small transit vehicles like a ride-share service at the ends of the transit network. Transit systems can also work with existing ride-sharing service. The objective is to make it so convenient to take transit for a partial WFH family that two cars aren’t necessary. Autonomous vehicles will have a big role to play here in the future but not significant for a couple of years.

The successful new normal transit system has smaller vehicles.

Smaller vehicles allow more frequent service and even on demand service; they also reduce energy costs. The hulking big busses were necessary for rush hour service and used to run three-quarters empty the rest of the time.

The successful new normal transit system depends on riders feeling secure.

Not much a transit system can do about hastening vaccination, but they do depend on it. One more reason why public policy may have to require vaccination. New vehicles will have to provide better air quality; frequent cleaning of vehicles, which most transit systems have already initiated, makes them more attractive but doesn’t do much to eliminate spread of airborne Covid. Crime is up in major city transit systems as well as in the cities themselves.  Smaller vehicles will help with transit crime, but law enforcement is also required. During the pandemic I hear there are more homeless people living or camping in busses and subway cars. The problems of the homeless must be addressed but allowing them to live in transit vehicles will help keep those vehicles empty of other riders.

The successful new normal transit system cancels capital plans based on the way things used to be.

All those new vehicles planned or on order: cancel them if you can. Without the need to service rush hours, there are already too many vehicles and too much outstanding debt. Smaller vehicles will be what’s needed. The new tunnel; the expanded track: probably not needed any more. Plan for frequency; plan for end-to-end service; plan for agility; plan for efficient fuel use.

The successful new normal transit system helps the new normal downtown develop.

There are already less cars going to city centers this year than last. If a reinvented transit system can help assure that a flood of cars doesn’t come back, cities can create more open space for walking and biking. City rents are plummeting. Office buildings will be repurposed as residential keeping downward pressure on rents and making the city affordable for those who want to live there. Ironically, when they must make a visit to an office or a client, city dwellers may be going to the burbs. But remember we now have frequent transit service with good connections at both ends. The transit service will benefit from having riders going in both directions at all times of day. The urbanites won’t need cars.

The successful new normal transit system will allow us to continue energy use and emission at the low levels the pandemic forced us to without hindering economic recovery. The best is yet to come.

See also:

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Forward to a New Normal

January 10, 2021

Pelosi Must Get Impeachment to the Senate Now

Republicans should demand no less.

According to a front-page story in The New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t plan a vote of impeachment until Tuesday and then is considering NOT sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate until after Trump is already out of office.  

Pelosi correctly called Trump “deranged, unhinged, dangerous”. How can she possibly justify any delay in getting him out of office? Pelosi contacted the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about her concern that Trump holds the codes for a nuclear strike. That call may have been improper and her publicizing it was dubious; but, given her justified concern, how can she delay giving the Senate the opportunity to remove him? This is scarcely a time for politics as usual.

Those Republicans in the House who care more for country than party should be announcing their support for the articles of impeachment and pressing for an immediate vote. How could the Speaker resist that? Senate Republicans can’t properly commit to voting for removal from office yet since they  will be serving as a court which must rule on the indictment bought by the House, but they can certainly make clear they are open to removing him ASAP and don’t want any claims of procedural delay by the outgoing Majority Leader to deny them a chance to vote.

In the past Senators have been reluctant to overturn the results of an election; they should be. But removing Trump after he has already been fired by the electorate doesn’t have that problem. No President in our history has ever been removed from office by the Senate. No one has earned that distinction more than Trump.

If impeachment is voted by the House (tomorrow – Monday - would be a good time) and if enough Republican Senators make clear that they will vote to remove him, there is some possibility that he will resign as Nixon did. That would spare him the ignominy of being removed, which is a shame. However, the country’s main concern must be getting him the hell out of there before he can do any further harm.

There couldn’t be a better time to write your Congress person and Senators regardless of whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. They should support immediate impeachment in the House; immediate forwarding to the Senate; and a fast vote there. The time for grandstanding is long past; the country needs Trump out of the White House.

See also:

Trump Should be Impeached Now

January 07, 2021

Trump Should be Impeached Now

Congress should do its job.

It is dangerous to leave Trump in office a moment longer than necessary. His behavior must be censored, and part of an impeachment can be a ban on his holding office in the future.

Minority Leader Schumer (he’s still minority leader until Inauguration) and Speaker Pelosi say they will consider impeachment if the Trump’s cabinet doesn’t act to remove him as “incapacitated” under the 25th Amendment. Waiting for that to happen is a bad idea. Congress was attacked. Congress should act. Republicans have a shot at redemption by cooperating in a swift process.

During a time of constitutional crises, it is important to follow the Constitution closely. The 25th amendment was passed to deal with an “incapacitated” President. Trump has too much capacity for further harm. He should be removed because he has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors”  - exactly what impeachment was meant to deal with. It would be bad precedent to have the 25th amendment used as a punishment or for what could be taken as a political purpose. Impeachment is appropriate. Two simple counts would be fine: attempting to induce election fraud as demonstrated in his phone call with the Georgia Secretary of State and fomenting insurrection in his instructions to his supporters.

If Trump attempts something truly crazy during the impeachment process, the cabinet should be prepared to use the 25th amendment as a backstop.

Part of the longer-term constitutional problem we face is that Congress prefers to avoid action. Why get yourself pinned down by a vote when you can fall back on presidential orders, court rulings, or reams of regulation by unelected bureaucrats? Why go through impeachment if you can get the cabinet to do your job?

It will a monstrous defeat for all of us if Congress evades using the self-defense weapon given to it in the Constitution precisely for situations when the co-equal branch is under attack.

BTW, I voted for Trump in 2016 after opposing him in the primaries. Thought he was the lesser of two evils. That’s something I have to live with.

January 06, 2021

#Newnormal: The 50 Hour Family Work Week

Work from home (#WFH) has the potential to restore better family life for some without reducing net income. With two parents working a total of 50 hours at home, they’ll be able both to care for their kids and be as productive as they were when nominally working 80 combined hours in the office and commuting to boot. They won’t be materially worse off either. Both parents can have careers. Even single parents will benefit from a shorter WFH week, although certainly not as much.

Why do I think 25 hours/ week is the equivalent of a 50-hour week (counting commuting)?

  • Given a nine-to five schedule with an hour for lunch, the 40 hour work week was only 35 to begin with.
  • As an ex-CEO, I think that at least ten hours of each workweek go to socialization, surfing the internet, checking with the spouse or checking up on the children, chatting on smartphones etc. (Mary thinks only five).
  • Meetings and travel to meetings waste a huge amount of time and money. One reason that Zooming appears not to have reduced productivity is that many of the meetings weren’t productive to begin with.
  • Office space and often parking are expenses to the employer but they are not income to the worker. If office space and all its attendant costs can be drastically reduced, employers can afford to pay more dollars in salary for the same productivity.
  • Commuting expense including perhaps even the second car, daycare, clothing and dry-cleaning bills, and paid before and after school activities whose purpose is to supervise school age kids are all expenses which go away when parents can work from home. Even if the WFH employee has less gross taxable income, he or she will have more cash at the end of each month.

It’s a slam dunk even if Mary is right! BTW, employers will benefit in many ways if they learn to manage by actual productivity rather than by time in the office. Subject for another blog another day.

The social benefits of two parents who can participate in child-rearing are enormous. Both still get to have careers. Much less childcare needs to be outsourced. There will be more time to meet with teachers and make sure they are doing their job. It will be possible to shoo children out to play rather than ferry them to playdates when there are parents at home and more parents with eyes on the street. Empty homes are dangerous to kids, especially adolescents. Schools won’t have to try to take over so many parental teaching chores; and parents can help with homework more.

It can be better than the Leave it to Beaver days with its stereotypes of the homemaker and the breadwinner. If Dad works from home, it’ll be hard to say I can’t take kiddo to the doctor for his Covid shot or help with the birthday party.  Some families may still choose to have one breadwinner working 50 hours; but, if that 50-hour week is at home, there will be plenty of income for the whole family. People who want more money, particularly those without children, will be able to work two jobs in 50 hours or at least deliver 50 hours equivalent of productivity to their employers and make gobs of money.

Single parents will still have a very tough job. They may still need daycare when working from home if they have preschool children but will be better able to match working hours with the time children are home from school.

A danger in this utopian WFH future is that it widens the gap between those who can work from home and those who can’t – a category which includes most essential workers. There must be higher hourly wages for those who must work away from home. I believe that their workweek will eventually become 25 hours as part of the new normal; more on that in another post.

If COVID gets us off the too-many-hours-wasted-away-from home-treadmill, it will at least have a silver lining.

See also:

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

#Newnormal: Will Workers or Employers Pocket the Profit from #WFH Productivity?

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Forward to a New Normal

January 04, 2021

Working from Home Defines the New Normal

Changes family life, housing, daycare, climate, and infrastructure needs.

Not everyone can work from home (WFH), of course. But the huge shift to WFH will change life for everyone, even the essential many who still need to commute to their jobs and will be paid more for the extra effort. As new legislatures convene in the new year, they will try to spend billions to restore the old normal and solve problems which WFH is solving for us. We can’t let them do that. There will be new problems of the new normal which do need solutions.

The long-term effects of WFH are:

  • Obviously fuel usage and associated emissions are way down. Gasoline sales are down 13% from 2019 to 2020 according to the US Energy Information Administration. That’s like taking one of eight cars off the road.
  • The combination of WFH and more flexible hours means less rush-hour congestion. Although we have a huge backlog of repair projects for existing roads, bridges, rails, and airports, increasing rush-hour capacity should be on hold. I would’ve sworn the NY metro area needed a third train tunnel from NY to NJ. Maybe it doesn’t. If the Biden Administration passes a huge infrastructure bill, it must be for the priority list of the new normal including universal high-speed broadband.
  • Less rush-hour congestion means that most mass transit systems have more busses, light transit vehicles, and subway cars than they need since they had to have fleets capable of handling rush hour. As people lose their fear of contagion, mass transit can come back by providing better schedules around the clock with the workforce and capacity it already has. Time to cancel orders for the capacity that was needed yesterday.
  • A massive repurposing of real estate will happen. When I commuted to work, I had a house, an office, and frequent hotel rooms I occupied on business trips while both my home and office were vacant. If I were mainly working from homing and Zooming to meetings, many of those offices and hotel rooms would no longer needed. This dislocation can either result in hollowed out downtowns or, with some creativity. the buildings can be repurposed as residences. We’ve seen the start of this during the pandemic with hotels converted to homeless shelters. Government can hurt this effort by bailing out the owners of buildings no longer needed for their original purpose or can help with permissive rezoning to make sure repurposing can happen and there is some market for the stranded assets.
  • Daycare at an affordable price was an Achilles’ heel of our all-parents-working economy. Daycare centers now have vacancies! If parents are working from home, the time they used to spend commuting and communing around the office coffee machine can be used to keep an eye on pre-school kids without loss of productivity. Yes, I know which gender ends up with most of the keeping-an-eye-on chores in most households; but us Dads’ll have less of an excuse when we’re around as much as Mom is. Very seriously, this is a help but not a solution for single working parents. Parents who must still commute to work (most essential workers) will benefit from more availability of daycare. They must be paid more to make daycare and their other commuting expenses affordable. Government should not subsidize no-longer needed daycare slots; that will only hurt the daycare providers who have enough business to prosper.
  • For at least the intermediate term, the world will be way ahead of UN targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction. Not only are people driving less, there will be much less new construction since new rush-hour capacity is no longer needed and because many people will no longer be occupying a home, an office, and many business hotel rooms. Construction, particularly the production of concrete, releases huge amounts of GHGs. Leisure travel will probably come back; business travel probably not very much. Aviation fuel usage will decline. Even under pessimistic scenarios, the doomsday clock has been set back far enough so that longer-term solutions and mitigations for climate change can be more effective at less cost than the many subsidies and mandates of the Green New Deal.

This is a time of enormous challenge and opportunity. We’ll blow it if we try to put the old normal back together again or persist in solving yesterdays’ problems. We’ll certainly blow it if we persist in trying to preserve asset values for the wealthy. Much of what passes for “bipartisan” pandemic relief already looks more like wealthfare than help for those who need it.

There is an automatic WFH bonus for the families who now don’t have to spend time and money paying the expenses of commuting; we will not be able to make minimum wage apply to them; they will be measured by productivity. We need a much higher minimum wage for those commuting workers who’ve just shown how essential they are and who work where hours can be measured. The extra cost of higher wages to essential workers will be a reasonable expense to us in the WFH crowd when we use their services directly and indirectly.

See also:

If There Were No Welfare, There’d be No Need for a Minimum Wage

Celebrate Labor Day and Essential Workers by Substantially Raising Minimum Wage

Forward to a New Normal

#Newnormal: Mass Transit

January 01, 2021

Grandson Jack's Good Riddance to 2020


December 28, 2020

UVMMC Ransom Attack Postmortem

Preparing for next time.

First, kudos to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for not giving any serious consideration to paying ransom, as reported in VTDigger. Even if they had trusted the hackers to unlock the files and remove all malware, each ransom paid guarantees more attacks on someone else. The hackers are in it for the money.

Second, more kudos to the staff of the hospital system who soldiered on without access to key information as round two of the virus pandemic reared its ugly head. They worked very hard to protect their patients from both dangers.

Third, though, based on public information, the hospital should have planned better for recovery from an attack like this one. They had to wipe 5000 computers clean and put them back in service before they could use their applications again. Even a month later and with the help of the National Guard and a private security firm, the hospital had not restored full functionality and estimated the cost for each day the systems were down at a million and a half dollars NOT counting the toll on the staff and the dangers to patients.

Planning for a disaster means having a plan which works even if the original computers have been hacked, burned, or flooded out of existence! Apparently UVMMC did not have such a plan.

Hospital leadership says attacks like this are inevitable; they’re right. They cite an arms race between hackers and defenders in which the good guys sometimes lose. True also. But, if you know there is a significant chance that you are going to lose access to all your servers and laptops, then you must make sure that you can restore service without those laptops and servers. The plan must be made and rehearsed in advance of the disaster. Even the “unsinkable” Titanic had lifeboats.

According to the hospital, 1300 of the infected computers were servers – more on them in a minute – leaving 3700 infected laptop and desktop machines. Even assuming these cost an average of $3000/each (a lot) and assuming that all of them had to be replaced for service to resume, buying all new laptop and desktop machines would have cost only about $10 million – less than seven days of outage. Buying new computers quickly – starting with cheap ones to get back up and running – as well as a rehearsed protocol for loading all needed software onto them from somewhere other than the infected servers must be part of a disaster recovery plan. Replacing the desktop and laptop machines is actually the easy part of the recovery.

The hard part is doing without the servers which have been infected. Two parts to this:

  1. Getting access to the data. Presumably UVMMC transmits a copy of its data to a location which is both physically offsite and is not part of the hospital network. I would be very surprised if they weren’t doing this. Even if the hackers locked up the onsite data, they shouldn’t have had any access to offsite data.
  2. Putting the data back on servers which are not infected. As UVMMC saw, you cannot assume that your old servers will be available. Unlike the desktops and laptops, it’s not practical to buy all new servers on a moments notice. However, the advent of cloud computing means that you can rent the capacity of thousands of servers from providers like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, or IBM with just minutes of notice and without a standby fee. You pay for and use these only until your old servers are back. Rent stops as soon as you can turn them off.

However, turning up a thousand servers in a cloud, loading them with your applications, restoring backup data to them, and putting them in use in place of your own compromised servers only works if the process has been carefully planned and practiced. Even for installations larger than UVMMC, recovery should take hours, not days or weeks – if it’s been practiced. Fatalities were high in the Titanic disaster because the crew and passengers had not had proper lifeboat drill.

I’m not writing this to be critical of UVMMC; I owe the hospital my life for their medical skill. I’m writing in hope of encouraging those who are responsible for critical IT systems in an age when attacks are inevitable to make sure that, even if there is no fool proof way to prevent all attacks, there is always a quick recovery path which does not require regaining use of the compromised computers.

See also:

Vaccine for the Hacker Attack Epidemic

Protecting an Enterprise from Cyber Catastrophe

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