November 06, 2023

Guest post on Israel and Palestine

This guest post is by my nephew Noah Evslin. It was originally on Facebook.
 
Thoughts on what’s going on in Israel and Palestine
 
After the terrorist attack on Israel on October 7th that left 1300 dead, I’ve been unusually quiet.
 
Of course I was gutted and horrified but considered myself bereft of knowledge to even formulate an opinion as the situation in the Middle East is so unbelievably complex.
All I knew is that my Jewish brethren, who only make up .2% of the world’s population, just endured the greatest loss of life since the Holocaust and leaders of Hamas went on record that this was only the beginning.
 
I think my silence had to do with the fact that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the policies of the current Israeli Prime Minister and how that’s affected the people of Palestine.
I also have numerous Palestinian friends whom I adore and who, prior to these attacks, I’ve had long chats with about the issues facing both our peoples… yet I still wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my response.
 
One final preface before I begin: I hate the loss of life. Any life. Israeli or Palestinian. And I condemn any and all war crimes being committed by both sides.
 
But as anti-Semitic attacks grow against fellow Jews across the country, I knew I had to formulate an opinion… quickly.
 
And what I learned gutted me even more. I read that although we’re only .2% of the world’s population, we’re subjected to 60% of the world’s hate crimes.
 
In fact, the current FBI director is on record saying that Jewish people face more hate crimes in America than any other protected group and that in 2022 these same hate crimes rose to historic levels.
 
And that was before the Hamas attacks… Jews are now seeing a 600% rise in hate crimes since this war began.
 
I learned that while the policies of Israel can be viewed as extreme to many (even me at times), their homeland is under constant attack.
 
I learned that Palestine was offered their own state, multiple times, and rejected it.
 
I learned the horrific slaughter publicized on social media was meant to provoke Israel to strike because Hamas welcomes this war.
 
My heart of course ached when I saw that Israel allegedly struck a hospital and a refugee camp killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians but then I subsequently learned the hospital was bombed by a jihadist group and the refugee camp is being used as a cover for Hamas’ HQ, housing many of their top military leaders.
 
To me, that doesn’t justify the death of civilians, but it helps me understand it… especially when Israel asked them to evacuate as a strike was forthcoming.
I learned the reason Israel has an Iron Dome at all is that since 2001, various Palestinian militant groups have lobbed almost 20,000 rockets and mortars into Israel and that number doesn’t include the more than 5000 rockets shot on October 7th alone.
 
And I learned far more about the October 7th attack then I ever intended: the murder of babies, the rape of teenagers, all the deaths at that music festival.
I also learned a lot about Palestine. The suffering they’ve gone through. And continue to go through. The lack of resources. Food. Health care. The anger over lost land. The tens of thousands of lives lost, many civilians, due to attacks by Israel.
 
Debates like this often devolve into “who suffered more” and “who hurt who more”… and any deep dive into the issue will show there’s been immense suffering on both sides. Suffering I wish would end.
 
So the question I wanted to answer for myself is who wants peace in the region because I know I do. Peace for both sides. And prosperity.
 
And I learned this was exactly what was being offered to both Palestine and Israel right before the attack… and it was this very idea of peace that caused Israel to be “asleep behind the wheel” so to speak when the attacks happened. They were on the edge of a new dawn, rejoicing in the idea of peaceful co-habitation between themselves and their mostly Muslim neighbors which has eluded them for so long.
 
But peace is not what Hamas wanted.
 
So they attacked.
 
Killed 1300 civilians. Women. Children.
 
Hamas wanted a war and they got a war.
 
I’ve been silent as I see friends flood social media sites with pro-Palestinian messages and images.
 
Because I understand their pain and desire to live in a world where there’s peace in the Middle East.
 
But ironically this desire for peace is not supported by those they’re supporting.
 
Hamas wants Israel annihilated. Nothing less than that will make them stop their attacks.
 
As a necessary aside, I am aware that Hamas’ extreme militant views do not represent the views of all the Palestinian people, many who do want peace, while the Israeli government’s actions and fervor for retaliation do not represent the views of all Jewish people everywhere…
 
That said, I’m also keenly aware how social media works. Sides have been picked. And those sides often have less to do with the actual issues at hand than the desire for political and social identity and companionship…
 
The “other side” chose Israel a long time ago and so this side must choose Palestine.
 
But I ask you to be aware that amongst your ranks are scores of Jewish people who marched with you during BLM, Me Too, Roe v Wade, the Muslim ban and most other social and political movements including the Civil Rights marches in the 60s and 70s, yet are now having Jewish stars and swastikas spray painted on their homes and work places while many of the people they marched with either remain silent, or worse, blame the Jewish people for their own persecution.
 
We stood with you.
 
We are you.
 
But now it feels like we stand alone in the face of a conflict too few fully understand.
 
I used to be silent.
 
I don’t think I can be silent anymore.
 
See also: 

November 03, 2023

“Proportionate Response” Encourages Escalation

That which doesn’t kill the enemy makes him stronger.

This post is about Ukraine, Israel. and Gaza.

Some History

Americans, like most people, don’t like war. Since this is a democracy, our political leaders avoid war as long as they can. Sometimes our wars have been longer than they had to be because we started too late and escalated too slowly.

Except for abolitionists, Northerners did not want a civil war with the South. Even after South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln struggled to get support for an all-out effort against the South. Towards the end of the war, now being pursued aggressively by Grant and Sherman, many in the North called for a truce which would leave slavery intact. Lincoln felt he had to be less than forthcoming about emissaries from the South who’d approached him lest Congress force him to negotiate. The war and slavery ended with the surrender of Lee at Appomattox.

The US stayed out of World War I for two years after Germany sank the passenger liner Lusitania in 1915 with many Americans (and some ammunition) aboard. In 1917 Germany resumed unrestricted submarine attacks on US shipping and the Zimmerman telegram from Germany was revealed promising the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico in return for joining an alliance against the US. The US declared war on Germany. That war ended in an armistice; twenty years later Europe was at war again.

President Roosevelt faced enormous resistance to joining the war against the Nazis. He was well ahead of the American public in his willingness to supply the British with food and ships so they could continue to fight. There’s no telling when or if we would have entered the war had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor. Conspiracy theorists still claim that Roosevelt deliberately ignored warnings of the attack in order to get public support for joining the war. That war ended in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. They are now both prosperous and close allies.

Whether we ever should have been at war in Vietnam is questionable. However, the fact that we escalated slowly gave the North Vietnamese forces time to grow stronger. Opposition to the war grew in America. In the end we fled and South Vietnam fell. Although the people in South Vietnam are not particularly fond of their current rulers in Hanoi, Vietnam is now an increasingly prosperous country and a friend if not ally of the United States.

We were slow to take ISIS seriously, President Obama called them the “junior varsity”. It took terrible urban warfare in Fallujah and other cities with massive civilian casualties to dislodge them from territory they occupied in Iraq and Syria. The battle against them is not over yet.

Winston Churchill, who made many military mistakes but learned from them, said the path to victory is sudden, overwhelming force.

Ukraine, Israel, and Gaza.

President Biden has led the free world’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is possible that he led our war-adverse nation and under-prepared allies as fast as he could; but, with hindsight, we gave Russia too much slack to pull its woeful army together and learn from their mistakes. Last summer’s Ukrainian offensive, when expectations were low, was a huge success. This summer seems to have ended in stalemate. If we and the rest of NATO had given Ukraine the artillery, rockets, and tanks we’re giving them now in the beginning of the war when Russian troops were in disarray, it’s possible Russia would have been driven from much of Ukraine. Instead, in the interest of signaling to the Russians that we didn’t want a wider war, we said out loud what we were not going to give Ukraine. If the Russians had been in doubt over whether new weapons would suddenly appear on the battlefield, they would have had to divert some of their over-stretched resources to worrying about whether Abrams tanks would overrun their positions. They should be worried now that they will lose their airforce to F-16s without warning instead of getting day-by-day reports on the slow training of Ukrainian pilots.

But Biden has been much better at countering Russian aggression than Obama and has been a much more effective leader of NATO than Trump. We have time to step up the game to help Ukraine regain the offensive with sudden, overwhelming force.

Some people have called for “proportionate response” from Israel to Hamas atrocities. I don’t think they really mean that Israeli soldiers should rape their way across Gaza beheading babies as they go. Perhaps they mean that Israel should have stopped once an equal number of Palestinians were killed. That doesn’t work when your enemy values the lives of its own citizens much less than you value them.  Hamas says it intends to conduct more attacks like Oct. 7 and destroy Israel; there is no reason not to believe their intent. Israel’s objective – what Biden has called “its responsibility” – is to eliminate Hamas as a military and political power. This disproportionate response, like the destruction of ISIS strongholds or Allied bombing during WWII, is absolutely necessary. The war should end with the unconditional surrender of Hamas, release of all hostages, and trials for the leaders and the actual perpetrators of war crimes on Oct. 7. Hamas (and their enablers and abettors in Iran) would prefer to fight until the last Gazan is dead. Allowing Hamas any illusion that it will once more be saved by world condemnation of Israel only prolongs the suffering of Gazam civilians. The world – and certainly the US – should demand that Hamas surrender so that the killing on both sides can stop.

Meanwhile Iranian proxies are shooting not just at Israel but at US troops in Syria and Iraq. We are responding “proportionately” to show Iran that we don’t want a wider war. We will only prevent a wider war by retaliating massively and disproportionately. Any attack on US soldiers by Iranian proxies must be met not only with overwhelming force against the assets of the attacker but against the head of the snake in Iran. That’s the way to avoid a wider war than we will have otherwise. We may be expanding the war in the short-term by taking the attack to the enemy, but anything which doesn’t kill him makes him stronger.

Peace is served by disproportionate response to aggression.

See also: Thank You, President Biden

October 23, 2023

Green Mountain Power’s Very Good Idea

Undergrounding power lines is good energy, environmental, economic and customer service policy.

Green Mountain Power, Vermont’s largest utility recently announced its “Zero Outages Initiative”. According to the press release:

“…a comprehensive, data-driven plan that creates layers of resiliency across Vermont by building on GMP’s successful and proactive undergrounding and storm-hardening of lines, as well as deployment of energy storage through batteries and microgrids. Combined, this work will keep customers and communities connected while lowering costs for all. The phased initiative rapidly accelerates this resiliency work through 2030, tackling the hardest hit areas in rural central and southern Vermont first, following a devastating year for the state that saw an unprecedented string of damaging storms due to climate change.”

Keeping the grid operating has become more expensive in recent years because of more storms and difficulty in finding and retaining linespeople. The cost of an outage to us, the consumers, has grown as we become more dependent on electricity and as more of us work at home. My family has a generator; and, although it is rarely used, it’s essential that the generator be there when needed. It costs several hundred dollars/year to maintain. As Vermont has reforested, there are more tall trees to fall on power lines and there’s an increased economic and environmental expense in constantly cutting them back.

What about cost?

Power companies used to say that the cost of installing and maintaining underground lines in rural areas was prohibitive. As rare as breaks were in underground lines, they were expensive to find and repair. Now very inexpensive microelectronics both detect weakness before it becomes failure and pinpoint any break. Pacific Gas and Electric (whose lines were responsible for many deadly California forest fires) wants to bury its lines and is running into regulatory resistance. “I did it myself as a utility executive—we told everyone it was too expensive,” [PG&E CEO Patti] Poppe said. “We have to unteach them, and show them how the map has changed because the conditions have changed.”

In California PG&E faces resistance to its undergrounding plan from those who want to spend more on subsidies for EVs and heating rather than on these practical grid upgrades. However, making electricity reliable is an effective and practical way to convince people to buy electric cars, electric ranges, and even electric heat pumps. The benefits of reliable electricity and lower maintenance costs are shared by all consumers, however; not just those who buy EVs. We may fight this battle in Vermont as well.

Count me as a radical. A reconstructed grid should be considered Vermont’s main “green” program; all its benefits are certain and felt here at home. It should be financed by eliminating the subsidies Vermont utilities now pay those who buy EVs, electric lawnmowers, and heat pumps. A super-reliable grid and lower electric bills will be incentive enough. Eliminating these subsidies may also make it practical for Vermont’s smaller utilities to become as reliable as GMP is going to be (if its plans are approved).

What about the batteries?

Part of GMP’s plan is to supply its customers with batteries like Tesla Powerwalls. The cost of burying a line for miles to reach just a few houses is unreasonable. These houses can and should get to “zero outages” with local backup. Batteries are almost but not quite at the point where they are practical for more than short outages. If the line crews can concentrate on only a few lines in a storm, perhaps all outages will be short.

One caveat not in the GMP press release; houses which are not on the ultra-reliable part of the grid cannot rely on electric heat pumps.  Home generators and batteries can power the fans, pumps, and ignitors in gas, oil, or woodchip furnaces. They cannot power electric heat pumps.  The usable stored electricity in a Tesla Powerwall (13.5 kWh) is not enough to keep heat pumps running more than half an hour in 20 degree weather in an average 2500 square foot house. Moreover, the batteries can’t currently discharge fast enough to run the heat pumps at all. This is not a flaw in the plan so long as we realize that it is perfectly OK to say electric heat will not be practical in some places.

The battery in a Tesla Model 3 comes in 50kWh and 82kWh sizes. You wouldn’t want to drain your Powerwall to fill your car if there’s a grid outage. You may want to use the energy in your car to keep your home running (that is beginning to be practical and is part of GMP’s longterm planning). However, you do need to have transport during an outage.

In the press release, GMP talks about eventually supplying battery backup alternatives to all their customers.  “The Zero Outages Initiative would provide residential batteries to customers in remote locations, delivering resiliency where it is needed most first, with a goal to have all customers have energy storage [emphasis added].”

GMP may be right that local microgrids and local storage are a good alternative for lowering overall electricity cost and the size of the transmission network needed. The PUC will need to evaluate this separately from the Zero Outages Initiative since no home which is dependent on batteries for eliminating outages can also be dependent on electric heat.

Kudos to GMP for being innovative in planning and climate mitigation.

See also: Let’s Really Build the Electric Grid Back BETTER

October 12, 2023

Thank You, President Biden

Your unequivocal support for both Ukraine and Israel are not only morally right but also strategically essential for the United States. Ukraine’s survival so far is a tribute to the bravery of its own people and the strength of its leadership; but both may well have been in vain had you not led NATO’s support for their heroic resistance.

The people of both Israel and Gaza have very tough days, perhaps months, ahead of them. Their suffering will end when Hamas is gone. Any delay defeating Hamas means continuing death, destruction, and despair in both countries. Your statement that we have Israel’s back and the strong US actions which followed shorten the road to peace and security. America’s will and determination will reduce the temptation for would-be adversaries around the world to gamble on US inaction.

I voted for you reluctantly in 2020. I disagree with many of your domestic policies and, especially with hindsight, wish you had and hope you will take a stronger stance with the Iranian leaders who are happy to arm others to fight until the last Yemeni, Syrian, Gazan, and Israeli (not to mention bareheaded Iranian woman) is dead. Nevertheless, I am deeply grateful as both an American and a Jew for the passion and strength in your speech yesterday.

Thank you.

October 02, 2023

Artificial Intelligence Can Cure Educational Disparities for Real

It should be required, not banned.

The first week I took physics a million years ago, we were taught to use a sliderule, an indispensable tool of the trade. When electronic calculators became affordable, they were banned in some classrooms because students who pushed buttons might never learn to use sliderules. Now almost no one can use a slide rule! So what? We can solve physics problems much faster than we used to.

For research, we were taught how to use library card catalogs and The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. We haven’t needed them since the first internet search engines. We have almost all the knowledge in the universe at our fingertips. Sure, there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet. There was in books and periodicals, too; it was just harder to cross-check sources.

Now some schools say it is “cheating” to use ChatGPT to write or help write an essay. Baloney. It is malpractice not to teach students how LLMs (Large Language Models like ChatGPT) can be used to research and write. Part of that teaching, of course, must be how to cross-check answers, how to check for hallucinations (plausible but incorrect answers), and how to add human insight. But those skills have always been needed even though they’ve been lamentably ignored.

AI is a leveler. See the ZDnet article “Generative AI can be the academic assistant an underserved student needs” (which I found with the help of ChatGPT and Bing):

“From essay writing to standardized test prep and scores, navigating the higher education path involves complex twists and turns that can put students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage…

“Due to time and importance, many students seek costly outside services. A Google search of ‘college essay assistance’ revealed an oversaturation of services. One such service, PrepMaven, costs $79 to $349 per hour, with a minimum $510 package. With a PrepMaven subscription, students are entitled to an initial consultation and multiple essay revision cycles, according to the website.

“Conversely, ChatGPT and other AI writing assistants have the ability to provide the same ideation services and grammar-specific essay guidance -- for free.”

Many high school students, especially those in inner-city schools, are woefully underprepared; we’ve failed them. They can catch up in a hurry if they learn to use LLMs not only to substitute for the basic skills they were never taught but also to give them a leg up on those who only know how to Google.

A rich parent can afford tutors and “coaches” (ie ghostwriters) to help with college entrance essays. Given Internet access and a smartphone or a computer, ChatGPT is free. It may well do a better job than tutors and coaches. Just teach the kids how to use it! They will be qualified for the colleges they get into because they already will know how to use these new tools. They will have a good chance of being able to do the college work.

In many cases college itself isn’t necessarily needed for a great career – especially if AI is available as a handy tutor and assistant. But training in using AI is essential; it will help nurses and carpenters as much or more than it helps “knowledge” workers, whose “knowledge” may be as useful as the skills required to use a sliderule. It can go a huge way towards making up for the education our kids – and other people’s kids – haven’t been getting. It will help with both social mobility and inequality. It must be taught aggressively and used to its fullest, not banned in the classroom.

See also:

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

September 28, 2023

What’s More Dangerous: AI or Elon Musk?

Both have great potential.

Elon says that AI is a “civilizational risk” which requires government regulation. He also tweets “Like Gulliver, tied down by thousands of of [sic] little strings, we lose our freedom one regulation at a time.” Possible explanation of this paradox: Musk would like development in AI tied down by thousands of little strings until he and his new company xAI can catch up with OpenAI, which he helped found and lost control over.

In some contexts Elon plausibly claims leadership in artificial intelligence because of his achievements with autonomous machines including self-driving cars and the amazing rocket-boosters landing themselves for reuse on robotic barges in the ocean.  Notably he doesn’t have “civilizational” concern over this technology although millions of computer-controlled cars on the road and rockets coming down from space are better armed to do immediate harm to humankind, were they so inclined or so programmed, than disembodied chatbots running in the cloud.

Right after the Russian invasion, Elon’s Starlink helped save Ukraine by enabling the defenders to communicate even as the aggressors destroyed much of the fixed infrastructure. According to stories I’ve heard, Starlink engineers defeated Russian hackers trying to shut the links down. When the Defense Department couldn’t decide whether to pay for Starlink terminals, SpaceX decided to keep supplying them to Ukraine anyway. But later, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Elon decided not to allow Starlink to be used as part of a Ukrainian attack on the Russian navy in Crimea because he thought it might lead to a wider war. [He later backtracked and claimed that he really had no discretion because US trade embargos meant that he couldn’t legally activate Starlink over Russian-occupied Crimea.]

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, among others, questions whether billionaires should be making foreign policy. It’s a good question although one might ask whether foreign policy, instead, should be made by millionaire Harvard professors. Without the technology Musk is responsible for which made Starlink possible and without the billions he spent through privately owned SpaceX to make it happen, there would’ve been no decision to be made. The US has a strategic advantage because SpaceX is based here and because we are deploying a military version of the service which will be under full control of the military and not Musk, On the other hand…

Artificial intelligence is already enabling medical research which will save and improve lives. AI is a leveler, which will allow those who’ve received a poor formal education to compete with the educationally well-endowed. Yes, it can be used to write an essay which a student claims as her own. It can also write a better resume and employment letter than she might have been able to without its help and do the bureaucratic part of a job for her. AI is used both to help hackers scam and to defeat scams from hackers.

OpenAI, Google, and Facebook trained their LLMs (Large Language Models like ChatGPT) to be politically correct and as inoffensive as they could make them. Elon says that the xAI product will not be trained in political correctness. Is that a double danger to civilization or an opportunity for that LLM to make discoveries further from the beaten path?

Musk and AI both have huge potential and pose huge risks. I don’t think we should attempt to put either the genius or the genie back in the bottle. We will have to watch them both.

See also:

Artificial Intelligence Can Learn But It Can’t Think

Is AI Dangerous?

Why Artificial Intelligence Will Lead to Job Growth

Better Learn to Do Carpentry

September 18, 2023

Tablo Replaces Amazon FireTV Recast for Over-The Air-Viewing and Recording

Amazon has abandoned this market.

Below is a picture from my blog four years ago when we replaced DIRECTV with Amazon devices.

Old replace

Now the Amazon FireTV Recast (lower right above) is gone and replaced by a Fourth Generation Tablo device below.

Tablo

The Recast and the Tablo have the same functions: capture live TV from the over-the-air-antenna hanging on the wall, record it for future viewing, and redistribute the over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts and stored shows to our four TVs scattered around the house. We don’t have cable or DIRECTV but have access to (almost) everything we want to watch either by streaming (we have Netflix and Amazon Prime) or OTA.

Back then I wrote “No question Amazon enabled us to break the dish. I do wonder who will disrupt Amazon when.” Turns out Amazon disrupted themselves; they discontinued the Recast I liked so much; and, although they nominally still support the device, support has gotten worse and worse and bugs and glitches have been proliferating. Although the Tablo is better than the Recast in some ways: cheaper low-end model, better picture and sound, easy to extend storage with an external hard drive, records free ad-supported streaming channels (FAST), it’s not really disruptive. I wouldn’t have bought it if the Recast were still working well.

Why would Amazon abandon Recast?

Amazon’s device division has been underperforming and reportedly losing money. Kindle changed the way people read books and served its purpose for Amazon by creating an enormous market for ebooks. Alexa was a hit for a while but lost lots of her alure when she was caught eavesdropping. AmazonTV and the Amazon Firestick share a market with Roku, Apple, Google, and others and Recast only served the Amazon portion of that market. To have a hit of Amazon scale, Recast would’ve had to work in these other ecosystems. The Recast developers may have wanted to do just that; upper management may have asked “what’s the strategic advantage?” A competitor like Tablo is incented to serve the whole market; they are working hard to do that.

It's also possible that Amazon decided over-the-air TV is a market not worth investing further in despite the fact that the number of households using antennas grew by 10%  in 2021 according to Nielsen. Antenna use accelerates with cordcutting since local channels are not fully available through streaming; but, if everyone is eventually broadband connected, will local stations continue to maintain costly broadcast antennas or simply “broadcast” all content online? Topic for another post.

Tablo facts

The Tablo 4G product I bought is very new and somewhat buggy according to Reddit forums. It’s predecessor at first flourished by supporting alternative to Amazon FireTV and by offering services like automatic ad-skipping, which FireTV doesn’t support. Ad-skipping is not available in the 4G product and, so far, it can only record two channels at once while its predecessor had available support for four simultaneous channels. The three main advantages to the new product are better signal processing to correct for glitches in antenna reception, better picture and sound because the video stream is not compressed in storage or on the way to the TV, and a free program guide. It is available for as little as $99 or $109 with an antenna. Onboard storage is only 50 hours but you can attach an external hard drive (I did) for about $100 to increase capacity.

The Tablo box connects to a coax cable from the antenna and can be connected to your router either with WiFi or an ethernet connection. I’m using WiFi and so far that is working fine. Setup is with an app which works on Android or Apple IOS. You then need to download a Tablo app to your smart TVs. It currently works with Roku, firetv, androidtv, GoogleTV, and Apple and Android phones and tablets. According to Tablo, support for AppleTV, Samsung, LG WebOS, and Vizio is “coming soon”.

All of the supported devices must be on the same WiFi network as the Tablo box but that network can be one which has been extended with a mesh. We use Orbi (RBR20 base unit) for mesh. Recast had problems being reachable through the mesh. So far Tablo has been fine although there are reports on Reddit of problems with other types of mesh network.

I had one glitch during setup and chatted online with tech support. Minimal wait for an agent and an easy fix (just retry). Tech support emailed a copy of the chat without being asked.

Recommendations

Don’t buy Amazon Recast even though some are still in stock; it’s an unloved orphan. I’m recycling mine rather than reselling or even gifting.

If you have Recast and it’s still working for you, wait awhile for the Tablo 4g product to settle down before replacing Recast.

If you are considering cutting the cord, you will probably still want local TV and network sports. Some streaming bundles include them but at a fairly steep price. Over-the-air TV is a cheaper alternative if you live within range of a good signal. The Federal Communication Commission has a web page which shows where your nearest towers are and what signal strength you can expect for each network. You’ll need a device like Tablo if you want to record over-the-air shows and play them back with fast forward, rewind etc. Tablo has competitors I haven’t tried and my experience with it is very short; this post should just be one data point in your evaluation.

See also:

A Tale of Two Antennas – The Cord Cutting Saga Continued

FireTVStick Thrashes at&t’s DIRECTV

https://www.reddit.com/r/tablotv/

September 08, 2023

Where Have All the Children Gone?

Who will take care of us when we’re old?

A long time ago when I was young, old people often lived their last years with their offspring or offspring raised their children in the home that grandma still lived in. “We need to have children to take care of us in our old age,” people often said.  “We need children to help on the family farm.” “Our children will help grow the family business.” The people who said these things went ahead and had said children, children like me and my three siblings or Mary and her six siblings.

Social security, as it was first designed, paid enough so that grandpa could retire and live with his kids without being a net burden on the family finances.  Needs-based benefits to those over 65 who retired before they had a chance to contribute to the system were capped at $30/month (about $620 of today’s dollars). It was partially meant as an inducement to get older people out of the depression-era workforce so that younger people could be employed.

No matter what our parents’ plans were for us, starting with my war baby generation it became less and less common for adults with children to also take in or live with them. Many people did – and do – contribute money and time to eldercare. We have also taken collective responsibility for older people with vastly increased social security payments and Medicare. Our children go to daycare and our parents go to eldercare or get home health care. We took collective if not individual responsibility for our parents. The collective responsibility was affordable because there were a lot of us thanks to the baby boom and relatively few of them.

We also had fewer children, in part because we had no grandparents living with us to share their care and in part because we “knew” that whatever we needed beyond our retirement savings would come from social security and Medicare. We weren’t counting on only our own kids to take care of us, our care would be the collective responsibility of our childrens’ generation. Mary and I each have 2 biological children; that’s below the rate of childbearing needed to keep the population from shrinking. Current lifetime births per woman in the US are 1.789, about half of the 3.5 births per woman at the height of the baby boom in 1950. Were it not for immigration and the fact that us geezers are living longer, total US population would be shrinking.

We know that this shrink will continue for at least a generation because the birthrate has been below the replacement level since 1973. We not only have a shortage of workers but also a shortage of women of child-bearing age to give us more workers even if the fertility rate increases.

Who will take care of us?

We shifted the eldercare burden from individual families to society as a whole. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, since we didn’t need to have lots of children individually to provide for our old age, we had less children collectively. No matter how much they may want to, the skimpy number of successors we raised is going to have a very hard time caring for us collectively or individually. There aren’t enough of them to staff nursing homes or home health. There aren’t enough of them to keep the social security and Medicare trust funds topped off. There aren’t enough of them either to pay for or provide the increasing amount of hospital care we want to prolong our lives.

Some things could go right here in the US.

  • Artificial Intelligence will both increase the productivity of essential workers and reduce the number of white-collar workers necessary to deliver services. My smarter car is already helping me drive; I’m counting on self-driving for the time when my kids would otherwise feel obliged to take my keys away. Other automation will make up for human aids we can’t get.
  • We geezers in the US have accumulated a lot of wealth, much of it in our houses. For the first time in decades interest rates are substantially higher than inflation so our own savings will stretch further. And we have less kids than our parents did to include in our wills.
  • World population probably won’t peak until sometime in the 2080s. There are millions of would-be immigrants who want to work in the US. As more places, like Vermont, suffer a shortage of workers, a political solution to the immigration impasse could provide a legal path to increase the number of people available to work directly for us geezers and to help support us by paying taxes. AARP should lobby for that!

See also:

Malthus Was Very Wrong

August 31, 2023

Vermont Starlink FAQs Updated

Revised 6/27/23

  1. What Is Starlink?

Starlink is a very high-speed low-latency space-based internet access service originally designed for use in rural areas worldwide which lack adequate terrestrial broadband infrastructure. The service is now available for use in vehicles including boats and planes far from cell towers and is often used to provide emergency broadband when infrastructure has been damaged. The company Starlink, which offers the service, is a subsidiary of SpaceX, the private for-profit space launch company founded by Elon Musk.

  1. What speeds does Starlink offer?

According to the Starlink service map, download speeds in Vermont are between 55 and 183 megabits per second (Mbps), uploads are between 11 and 23 Mbps, and latency (critical for Zooming) is between 44 and 56 milliseconds. All these well exceed the State of Vermont’s minimum standards. I have been getting speeds in these ranges for the last two plus years in Stowe, Vermont.  Starlink says these speeds will improve as they add satellites and upgrade technology, but best to judge by what is demonstrated today.

  1. Do streaming to multiple devices simultaneously, teleconferencing, and VoIP work over Starlink?

Yes.

  1. How can a satellite service have low latency? Older satellite services like HughesNet are unusable for Zooming, phone calls, or even much web browsing.

The old satellite services used geostationary satellites, which must be 22,000 miles from earth. Even at the speed of light, it takes a relatively long time for a signal to get there and back, hence the latency. Starlink uses low earth orbit satellites (LEOS), which are only a couple of hundred miles high. The travel time for the signal is not significant.

  1. What does Starlink cost?

The basic residential service costs $599 for the initial kit including a WiFi router and everything you need for a ground installation (close to $700 when you add Vermont tax and shipping). The monthly fee is $90 in Vermont (which Starlink considers an under-deployed area) with no minimum commitment or contract; $120 in areas of the country where there has been more demand. 30-day money back guarantee on everything.

“Business” service is suitable for small to medium rural businesses and can be used for web-hosting (although I’d recommend doing that in a cloud). It starts at $250/month with a $2500 equipment fee.

“Roam” service is good for camping, RVs, on-the-road, and emergency use. It also costs $599 for equipment but the monthly fee is $150 for use anywhere in the US and $200 for use worldwide. It has lower priority than the residential service so can be slower in congested times at congested places. It’s designed for permanent mounting on a vehicle and does work while vehicles are in motion.

“Mobility” service is a high-speed version of Roam which Starlink says has download speeds up to 220Mbps and is “for critical in-motion applications.” It starts at $2500 for equipment and $250/month. It can also be used on boats far from shore and higher-priced versions can be used on planes.

“Swarm” provides connectivity for remote sensors and devices with low bandwidth requirements. Cost can be as low as $5/month which is much better than cellular can offer and works where cellular doesn’t. Swarm was a recent acquisition by Starlink and I don’t have any direct experience with it nor do I know anyone who has.

  1. Does Starlink have data caps?

If a residential user exceeds one-terabyte (one trillion bytes) per month of access between 7AM and 11PM in any one month, the priority of their service will be reduced for the remainder of the month. This is called a “fair use policy” and mainly serves to prevent extensive resale of residential service and to force those who do resell into buying Business Service.  Cable companies and other ISPs have similar policies often with lower limits. In Vermont there is not much difference between priority and non-priority service because the state has such low density of use.

  1. Where in Vermont is Starlink available?

See https://www.starlink.com/map for the latest on availability. As of now (8/28/2023), Starlink is available immediately everywhere in Vermont. It is designed for use at “the end of the road” since all the required infrastructure is in the sky. Starlink cannot be used where it is not possible to get an unobstructed view of the high northern sky. The mountains around you probably won’t matter unless you’re in a very narrow valley; the trees in your yard can be a problem.

  1. How does Starlink get installed?

It is self-installing. Out of the box, Starlink can be set on the ground where there is a clear view of the high sky. In Vermont it doesn’t need to see the southern sky. The dish has a motor and positions itself correctly for its location (see video). You do have to find a way to put a single wire through your wall which then carries both signal and power to the dish. At extra cost, you can buy kits for no-holes roof mounting or pole mounting. You use a smartphone app to set up your WiFi network.

  1. Is paid installation available from Starlink?

No.

  1. What happens if the dish is covered by snow or ice?

Doesn’t happen, even in Vermont. The dish is heated.

  1. How reliable is Starlink?

According to Starlink and my own experience, the service is available more than 99.5% of the time. It is sensitive to obstructions like tree limbs which typically cause 5-15 second outages (you freeze on Zoom). Choosing a good location for the dish is critical. Even with no obstructions, there are occasionally Zoom-freezing blips; but most people have found it more than adequate for work-at-home, especially compared to DSL.

  1. Does Starlink degrade in bad weather?

Not noticeably. Unlike satellite TV or service from wireless ISPs, where the radio signals travel almost horizontally, the Starlink signal is going almost straight up so is through the weather in just a few miles. It is affected by a thunderstorm directly overhead.

Starlink is far more reliable than any terrestrial service in a weather emergency so long as you have backup power at your location. The satellites are far above the weather which may topple telephone poles or bring down the lines. They are solar powered so remain in operation regardless of what’s going on below unlike the towers of cellular operators and wireless ISPs (WISPs) which can run out of fuel for their generators in a prolonged emergency.

  1. Is Starlink service likely to degrade as more users are added to the system?

Probably not. So far Starlink is limiting the number of new signups to the number of people in each area they can serve without degrading service. As of August 2023, they had launched over 5000 satellites– each satellite circles the earth every ninety minutes. Approximately 60 new satellites are launched every two weeks.

  1. When is Starlink the best choice for broadband in Vermont?

The best broadband service is the broadband service you can get now. There was a huge waiting list for Starlink in Vermont but most people have now received their dish. Currently Starlink is available for delivery everywhere in Vermont. See Where is Starlink Available Now? Finally An Official Map.

If fiber runs by your house and you can have it installed NOW at a reasonable price, it is probably the best option for you. See Starlink Beta vs. Fiber.

If you can get enough bandwidth for your needs NOW from a wireless ISP at less cost than Starlink, you may want to do that even though you won’t get the same speed you’ll get with Starlink. See Starlink or Your Local WISP for Broadband Service.

If you don’t currently have cable or excellent wireless ISP service and neither a fiber build or wireless ISP tower is firmly scheduled for 2023 for your location and you can afford it and you can see enough of the sky, you ought to order Starlink. It is certainly better quality than DSL from Consolidated if you have that option. Ordering requires a $99 deposit but the deposit is fully refundable in case you have a better option sooner. The deposit is applied to equipment cost when the equipment is shipped.

The Starlink service is about on a par today with what you might get from a cable company unless they are supplying fiber. It is about the same cost as rural fiber plans offering similar speeds – although this may be more speed than you need.

  1. Is Starlink an opportunity for Vermont?

Starlink is an opportunity which many Vermonters are already taking advantage of on their own either because they have no other broadband service available or because they’re not satisfied with their existing choices. Starlink is being used in locations which are shown on the most current maps from the Department of Public Service as having no service available which meets the State’s minimum standards.

Without Starlink, there is no way to get broadband access NOW in places where it is most needed. With Starlink, the problem of accessibility becomes a problem of affordability.

  1. Is a subsidy from the State needed to bring Starlink infrastructure to unserved parts of Vermont?

No. The common infrastructure for Starlink is the satellites SpaceX is launching and the Starlink-built ground stations around the world. Your dish and associated electronics don’t depend on any terrestrial infrastructure in the State.

From a public policy point of view, it may well be desirable for the State to subsidize the one-time costs of hookup to services which are available now including Starlink where no other high-quality services are available.

  1. The legislature has authorized towns to form and join Communications Union Districts (CUDs) in order to bring broadband access to the places which don’t have it. Will Starlink make it impossible for the CUDs to perform their mission?

No. The mission of the CUDs is to bring broadband to unserved Vermonters. Prior to the advent of services like Starlink, it was assumed that this meant bringing fiber to every home. CUDs other than ECFiber, which is already in operation, are not promising to get fiber to end-of-the-road locations which most need broadband for at least six years and even then at a very high infrastructure cost – often estimated at more than $3000 per house and escalating the less dense the neighborhood is.

The CUD’s mission of highspeed broadband everywhere in Vermont is made easier – and achievable sooner – with the option of using Starlink. CUDs can expand fiber out from their hubs without asking those at the end of the road to wait six years or more.

The CUD’s mission should not be limited to fiber as a solution. Starlink is a useful option for accomplishing the connectivity mission NOW. Those now ordering Starlink are not waiting for fiber to reach them. If fiber does come to their neighborhoods at a reasonable cost and/or offers better service than Starlink, they can and will switch to the fiber provider. If fiber is not able to offer them better price performance, there is no point in building out the infrastructure.

  1. How do we know Starlink works in Vermont?

News stories on WCAX, in Seven Days, and on VPR cite successful installations. Reports on Stowe Front Porch Forum indicate generally good results. There is a very large Starlink community on Reddit where successes and failures are discussed. Many of these users are in climates more extreme than Vermont.

You can track the experience of two Vermont users at https://starlinkstatus.space/stations. These users are uploading performance data from their Starlink installations every 15 minutes. See Now Available – Worldwide and Local Current Starlink Performance.

  1. How do I know if Starlink will work at my house, especially given the trees in my yard?

There is a free app available for download from Starlink which will help you tell if you have a good location for the Starlink dish. See How to Find Out Free If Starlink Will Work at Your House. The website https://satellitemap.space/# shows in real time what satellites your dish would be able to see given your location but does not take obstacles into account. See Another Free Way to Tell if Starlink Broadband Will Work at Your Location.

  1. How do I order Starlink?

www.starlink.com. You must make a $99 refundable deposit with your order.

  1. How soon will an order be fulfilled?

New orders from Vermont are being filled immediately so it only takes a week or so.

These FAQs were originally prepared by Jock Gill of Peacham and Tom Evslin of Stowe. I (Tom) prepared this update on 8/28/2023 and am responsible for any inaccuracies. Neither of us have any financial interest in nor business connection with Starlink (except that I am a subscriber) or any affiliated company. For more information see the official Starlink FAQs at https://www.starlink.com/faq.

For more on Starlink see these posts.

August 23, 2023

Vermont Needs a New State Mental Hospital

Deinstitutionalization turns out to be a cruel alternative.

My friend Bill Shubart wrote a wise and kind essay on the need for a new institution for those who are homeless. He lists some of the institutions which used to fill this role including the Vermont Asylum for the Insane (Waterbury), the Weeks (reform) School, and the many poor farms.

The book and movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest helped turn America against large “mental hospitals”. The horror of some of these institutions had long been documented. We decided to shut these places down and end the misery and abuse of patients. The theory was that modern psychiatry and drugs would allow the inmates to lead lives in the community or in pleasant local institutions. Deinstitutionalization became the rule; large institutions like Waterbury were emptied out and not replaced as they fell into decay.

The problem is that the theory was wrong. The community institutions were never built, largely because of community resistance. People with acute mental problems are not very good at taking the drugs prescribed for them – and are easy marks for those selling drugs which make their problem worse. Psychotherapy is hardly a quick or certain cure. Housing is hard enough to obtain and maintain for those with moderate income; it is impossible for those with severe mental problems. Our cities are spotted with filthy homeless encampments. Emergency rooms are increasingly dangerous for both patients and staff because the mentally ill are bought there and then remain far too long.  Although most people with untreated mental illness are more danger to themselves than others, too much violence is committed by mentally ill people who are known and repeated offenders. The streets of Burlington, VT are increasingly scary at night.

“Let us imagine,” Bill writes, “a new institution, a dignified but modest communal home for the many Vermonters struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction disorders, extreme poverty, or who are simply unhoused.”

I agree with Bill that we need “a new institution” but think it should specifically be and only for those “struggling with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction…”. Those who are suffering from “extreme poverty or simply unhoused”, including those who were recently displaced by flooding, will be much safer and better off in housing which already exists or congregate housing if they don’t have to share these facilities with people who ought to be either incarcerated or institutionalized.

Decker Towers in Burlington provided subsidized housing in the city’s tallest building. Two stories on WCAX (here and here) document the problems residents are facing:

“I see drug deals happening in the parking lot. I see them at the side door. I see them all around the building,” said one resident.

“The drug dealers, the people that steal all these goods, they know that Decker Towers is open for business,” said another.

“Residents have sent photos of needles scattered inside and outside the property, as well as bodily fluids and people sleeping in the stairway,” reports WCAX.

Steven Murray, the director of the Burlington Housing Authority, says “It’s not just Decker Towers, it’s just about every major apartment building in town.”

Those housed in motels around the state both before, during, and after the pandemic as well as the motel owners and neighbors, complain about rampant crime and drug use in their accommodations. The pods recently sited in Burlington for the homeless are now greatly resented by their neighbors because of the lawless crowds they attract. Neighborhood resistance to low-income housing is inflamed  because the housing is used not only for those who need shelter for economic or other misfortune but also for those who cannot live safely outside of institutions.

Bill Shubart is right that incarceration should not be the only option for those who cannot safely live with others and who don’t belong on the streets, although he and I probably disagree on how often incarceration is appropriate. Everyone suffers from the lack of an institution, a modern Waterbury Hospital, where those with currently uncured mental problems can safely and humanly be cared for by professionals. Existing congregate shelters and subsidized housing – and emergency rooms - will be better and safer alternatives for those who need them if they are not dumping grounds for the mentally ill.

See also:

Burning the Ships After Landing

Bill Schubart: A new asylum for our communities (VTDigger)

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