Saturday, October 28, 2017

Nothing says changing of the seasons ...

... like noticing that, while we weren't quite paying attention, a group of 8 (!!) paper wasps found their way inside the house and are all clustered against the upper window.

Do paper wasps come in through the chimney? Is there anything one can do about that?

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Abaddon's Gate: a very short review

Book three of the Expanse series is Abaddon's Gate.

Abaddon's Gate starts out as a continuation of books one and two.

Which is great, and I would have been just fine with that.

But then, about halfway through (page 266, to be exact), Abaddon's Gate takes a sudden and startling 90 degree turn, revealing that much of what you thought you knew from the first two books is completely wrong, and exposing a whole new set of ideas to contemplate.

And so, then, off we go, in a completely new direction!

One of the things I'm really enjoying about the series is the "long now" perspective that it takes. You might think that a couple thousand years of written history is a pretty decent accomplishment for a sentient species, but pah! that's really nothing, in the big picture of things.

If you liked the first two books, you'll enjoy Abaddon's Gate. If you didn't like any of this, well, you probably figured that out about 50 pages into Leviathan Wakes and that's fine, too.

Bryan's simple rules for online security

I seem to be posting a lot less frequently recently. I was traveling, work has been crazy busy, you know how it goes. Oh, well.

I was looking at some stuff while I was traveling, and reviewing what I thought, and decided it still holds, so I decided to post it here.

It ain't perfect, but then nothing is, and besides which you get what you paid for, so here are my 100% free of charge simple rules for online security:

  • Always do your banking and other important web accesses from your own personal computer, not from public computers like those in hotel business centers, coffee shops, etc.
  • Always use Chrome or Firefox to access "important" web sites like the bank, credit cards, Amazon, etc.
  • Always use https:// URLs for those web sites
  • Always let Windows Update automatically update your computer as it wants to, also always let Chrome and Firefox update themselves when they want to.
  • Stick with GMail, it's about as secure as email can get right now. Train yourself to be suspicious of weird mails from unknown senders, or with weird links in them, just in case you get a "phishing" mail that pretends to be from your bank or credit card company, etc.
  • If you get a mail from a company you care about (bank, retirement account, credit card, health care company, etc.), instead of clicking on the link in the mail, ALWAYS open up a new browser window and type in the https:// URL of the bank or whatever yourself. It's clicking the link in the email that gets you in trouble.
  • At least once a week or so, sign on and look at your credit card charges, your bank account, your retirement account, etc., just to see that everything on there looks as it should be. If not, call your bank and credit card company, dispute the charge, and ask them to send you a new credit card, ATM card, whatever it was.
  • Don't accept phone calls from people who aren't in your contacts, or whose call you didn't expect. If you accept a phone call that you think might be legitimate (e.g., from your bank or credit card company), but you need to discuss your account, hang up and call them back, using the main service number from their web site, not the number that called you. Never answer "security questions" over the phone unless you initiated the call yourself. Con artists that call you on the phone can be really persuasive, this is actually the biggest threat nowadays I think.
If you do these simple things, you have made yourself a sufficiently "hard" target that the bad guys will go find somebody who's a lot easier to attack instead of you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

WC 2018 ? Not this year, I guess.

I can't say this was a total stunner, but still: USA Stunned by Trinidad and Tobago, Eliminated From World Cup Contention

The nightmare scenario has played out for the U.S. men's national team.

A roller coaster of a qualifying campaign ended in shambles, with a stunning 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago, coupled with wins by Panama and Honduras over Costa Rica and Mexico, respectively, has eliminated the USA from the World Cup. The Americans will not be playing in Russia next summer.

Trinidad and Tobago, which hadn't won in its last nine matches (0-8-1), exacted revenge for the 1989 elimination at the hands of the United States, doing so in stunning fashion. An own goal from Omar Gonzalez and a rocket from Alvin Jones provided the offense, while Christian Pulisic's second-half goal wasn't enough to save the Americans.

Oh, my.

And it seems like there's a fair chance I won't be able to root for Leo Messi, either?

Well, what shall I do?

Let's see: there's still Iceland! They're easy to root for!

Perhaps Wales? Perhaps Costa Rica? Perhaps Chile?

I'm ready, I'm an eager Yankee, looking for a team with some charisma, some elan, some heart, some fighting spirit.

Where are you? Are you out there?

It's still a few weeks until the tournament qualifications are known.

I guess I've got time to start looking...

Saturday, October 7, 2017

In the Woods: a very short review

One of my voracious reader friends introduced me to Tana French and her Dublin Murder Squad series, of which In the Woods is the first entry.

Structurally, In the Woods is a classic mystery: something horrible has happened, and the detectives are called; evidence is collected; witnesses are interviewed; leads are developed and followed; more is learned.

Along the way, we explore issues such as gender discrimination in the workplace and the ongoing effects of the great recession of 2008.

What distinguishes In the Woods is not these basic elements, but more the style and depth with which they are elaborated and pursued.

But did I mention style? What really makes In the Woods a delight is the ferocious lyricism that French brings to her writing.

For instance, here are three children, playing follow-the-leader in the woods:

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the microlandscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear. Down the faint lost paths you would never find alone, skidding round the tumbled stone walls, they stream calls and shoelaces behind them like comet-trails.

How marvelous is this, at every level!

Structurally, it's almost poetry, with a natural sing-song cadence and a subtly-reinforced pattern induced by the simple rhythms ("they know...", "they rule...", "they scramble...", "they stream...").

Stylistically, each little turn of phrase is so graceful and just right ("their own grazed knees", "wild and lordly as young animals", "calls and shoelaces").

And then:

They are running into legend, into sleepover stories and nightmares parents never hear.


Anyway, that's just page 2. French is just as polished and capable on page 302, and, like any good mystery, once you start, you won't want to stop, even as you know (or think you know) what lies ahead.

From what I hear, French's subsequent books are wonderful as well; I shall certainly read more.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

John Cochrane's After the ACA

All that anyone has been able to talk about recently (or so it seems), is "repeal and replace."

It's a pretty interesting topic to me, partly because, as I get older, I'm thinking more and more about healthcare, and partly just because I think it's an awfully important topic.

But I didn't feel like I learned a lot during all the recent debates.

So I wandered here, and I wandered there, and eventually I found myself looking at a John Cochrane paper: After the ACA: Freeing the market for health care

Now, Cochrane is a pretty serious fellow, with pretty serious credentials, so my expectations were fairly high, perhaps unreasonably high.

And this is a major effort: the paper is nearly 50 pages long, and covers lots of ground

At the very least, I hoped to learn something new, and certainly, the paper sets out well:

I survey the supply, demand, and market for health care, and health insurance, to think about how those markets should work to provide quality care, low cost, and technical innovation. A market-based alternative does exist, and it is realistic.

As a survey, I was surprised how narrowly-focused Cochrane seemed to be. For example, there is almost no discussion in the entire paper about the role of malpractice lawsuits in driving up healthcare cost, modulo a mostly-throwaway line about its role in constraining the outsourcing of certain medical work:

Personal-injury law firms are already lining up to sue based on the “inferior quality” of outsourced readings, with requisite horror stories.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effect that malpractice lawsuits have had on healthcare costs. Surely he should have more to say than this?

And I was saddened that there was very little reflection about the basic fact that the biggest reason that the United States spends dramatically more on healthcare than we did 75 years ago is because of ADVANCES in healthcare: people are living longer, so over the course of their lives they get more healthcare. Moreover, many ailments which were formerly not treatable now are reliably and safely treatable, so we treat them.

More treatment, over longer life spans, equals a greater amount of resources spent on healthcare.

But this is a GOOD thing! We should be happy that people are living longer, and are having their illnesses treated. And Cochrane seems to understand this, for he notes that

We don’t want 1950s care at 1920s prices

But then he moves rapidly on, without really spending any time to discuss how we might get by with less healthcare, overall, in some sensible fashion.

I did learn a few things:

  • I had not previously been aware of the role of the "Certificate of Need." Here's how Cochrane describes it:
    In Illinois as in 35 other states, every new hospital, or even major purchase, requires a “certificate of need.” This certificate is issued by our “hospital equalization board,” appointed by the governor and, like much of Illinois politics, regularly in the newspapers for various scandals. The board has an explicit mandate to defend the profitability of existing hospitals. It holds hearings at which they can complain that a new entrant would hurt their bottom line.
  • And Cochrane makes a well-worded argument in favor of a new conceptualization of health-care insurance:
    To summarize briefly, health insurance should be individual, portable, life-long, guaranteed-renewable, transferrable, competitive, and lightly regulated, mostly to ensure that companies keep their contractual promises. “Guaranteed renewable” means that your premiums do not increase and you can’t be dropped if you get sick. “Transferable” gives you the right to change insurance companies, increasing competition.

    Insurance should be insurance, not a negotiator and payment plan for routine expenses. It should protect overall wealth from large shocks, leaving as many marginal decisions unaltered as possible.

These are both tremendously good insights, and were certainly worth the time I invested in Cochrane's essay.

But most of the rest of Cochrane's paper baffled me.

More than just baffled me; it flat-out astonished me.

Cochrane's main point seems to be that consuming healthcare should be much more like going to a restaurant, or hiring a gardening service for your house, or buying an airplane ticket, or choosing a new set of tires for your car: you should check Yelp before you make your decision; you should shop around for the best price; you should probably even try to use a coupon or negotiate for a better deal.

Is he serious?

Does he really think that selecting medical care is like these other activities? Apparently, he does:

Health care is not that different from the services provided by lawyers, auto mechanics, home remodelers, tax accountants, financial planners, restaurants, airlines or college professors.

Does he really think that it makes sense to change medical providers on an incident-by-incident basis, just like you go to one restaurant one day, and a different one the next week? He certainly doesn't seem to think that a person's medical information is very sensitive or private, dismissing that notion breezily as:

Confidentiality regulations, apparently more stringent than those for your money in the bank.

Is it possible that Cochrane has never had to have a sensitive discussion with his doctor? Never felt like he needed to have any deeper of a relationship than he has with the barista who makes his coffee in the morning? Is his life really that uncomplicated?

Even more astonishing is this notion he has of "negotiating" for your healthcare. Cochrane is a big proponent of negotiation, and wonders why it is missing in healthcare, when it is so prevalent elsewhere:

You don’t need an “insurance” company to negotiate your cellphone contract, home repair and rehab, mortgage, airline fare, legal bills, or clothes, as we do for health.

Is he serious?

I'll grant that people certainly negotiate the price they pay for their house, and there may be some people who negotiate the price they pay for their legal bills, but do you actually know anyone who negotiates their cellphone contract? Their airline fare? The price of their clothes?

And how many acquaintances do you have (other than medical professionals) who have the requisite base knowledge to negotiate, say, a reasonable price for spinal surgery?

Discussing the well-known (and, admittedly, frustrating) strawman that "a man in the ambulance on his way to the hospital with a heart attack is in no position to negotiate," Cochrane just completely dismisses it:

Our health care system actually does a pretty decent job with heart attacks.

... have they no families? If I’m on the way to the hospital, I call my wife. She’s a heck of a negotiator.

And then continues to invoke The Mighty Yelp:

In a competitive, transparent market, a hospital that routinely overcharged cash customers with heart attacks would be creamed by Yelp reviews

Is he serious?

When you have a heart attack, your wife should be negotiating with the hospital while you're in the ambulance? Or she should be browsing Yelp, deciding whether to tell the ambulance to take you to hospital A or hospital B?

Maybe all Cochrane means by "negotiate" is "shop around", and if that's true, then certainly I grant that there's a big place for that.

For example, when my parents were planning to get cataract surgery, they certainly did their homework, tried carefully to select the best surgeon. (Although, I don't think they actually used Yelp? Maybe they did?)

And it definitely seems like it used to be Common Wisdom that for any significant medical issue, you should get a second opinion, so maybe that's what Cochrane is trying to say.

Although, when people used to say "you should get a second opinion," it was typically the QUALITY of the medical advice that was of concern, not the PRICE of the medical advice.

The people that I know are generally much more concerned about the SUCCESS of that triple bypass, not about its cost.

Most of the people that I know don't even really negotiate the price of their house. Rather, they try to pick a decent real estate agent, and let the agent handle the negotiation. I do know a handful of people that are able to do this successfully on their own; a much smaller number of them enjoyed it; a smaller segment still have actually done that multiple times in their life.

Ask around about buying a car: this is really the experience you want when you need arthroscopic surgery on your knee?

What you want is for the pain to go away, and for you to be able to take up hiking again.

So, in the end, I struggle to comprehend what sort of world it is that Cochrane envisions.

It seems like his ideal is a situation in which we are all informed consumers, and have no trouble evaluating whether we are being given a good deal for duodenal atresia surgery or base cell carcinoma immunotherapy, in which we arrange to have strokes, aneurysms, broken arms and heart attacks with enough advance notice that we can consult Yelp before the ambulance arrives, and in which we respond to being told that the yearly mammogram will cost $375 by saying: "how about $225 instead?"

I guess I'm still looking for that informed, readable, clear-headed, approachable paper which explains what we, as a society, can truly and effectively do about healthcare costs.

Thank you Mr. Cochrane for trying.

But I'm afraid that, for me at least, you were not successful.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

In which people discuss things I do not understand

We all thought: "Hey! New CEO search is over! Things will be boring and normal now!"

  • God Is a Bot, and Anthony Levandowski Is His Messenger
    In 2002, Levandowski’s attention turned, fatefully, toward transportation. His mother called him from Brussels about a contest being organized by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA. The first Grand Challenge in 2004 would race robotic, computer-controlled vehicles in a desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas—a Wacky Races for the 21st century.

    “I was like, ‘Wow, this is absolutely the future,’” Levandowski told me in 2016. “It struck a chord deep in my DNA. I didn’t know where it was going to be used or how it would work out, but I knew that this was going to change things.”

  • Uber-SoftBank Deal Ensures Limits on Kalanick’s Power
    SoftBank Group Corp. has overcome a major obstacle to its planned multibillion-dollar investment in Uber Technologies Inc. The Japanese firm agreed to block any attempts to elevate Travis Kalanick, Uber’s controversial former leader, back to the company’s top ranks, according to people familiar with the discussions.

    Venture capital firm Benchmark, which led Kalanick’s ouster in June, has sought a guarantee in writing from SoftBank that it would reject reappointing Kalanick as chief executive officer and block his appointment as chairman of the board or head of one of its subcommittees, said the people.

  • Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick just appointed 2 new board members, a defiant move the company is calling a 'complete surprise'
    Uber cofounder Travis Kalanick appointed Xerox chairwoman Ursula Burns and former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain to the company's board of directors on Friday, a surprise move that's almost certain to re-ignite the bitter internal fighting that has destabilized the ride-hailing giant for months.

    Uber quickly decried the move as "a complete surprise" to both the company and its board.

    "That is precisely why we are working to put in place world-class governance to ensure that we are building a company every employee and shareholder can be proud of," an Uber spokesman told Business Insider.

  • Here’s the proposal to change Uber’s governance, which is aimed at limiting Travis Kalanick’s power
    Some of the proposal points are expected to be voted on by the board on Tuesday:

    It would institute “one share, one vote,” which would eliminate shares distributed early in the company’s history that hold “high” voting power. Those shares are held by Kalanick and also Benchmark, the venture firm that has sued him, as well as some employees.

    Sources said Kalanick wants to defend the removal of those potentially lucrative shares, without the consent of those who have them, and that it also impacts all shareholders unfairly. Sources close to the board said that a majority of those shareholders are in favor of this change.

  • London's Uber ban shows how driverless cars will cut jobs
    Driving to work in a private car imposes an average daily commuting cost on the owner of €24 per day (about $24), UBS says. In a world of robotaxis, with no need to buy a car, that cost falls to €7.2 per day. "Getting rid of their private car would enable the shared mobility user to travel about 10,000km per year in a robotaxi and save €5,000 per year," UBS calculates:

    "Robotaxis will likely price-compete with mass-transit systems. The shift towards electric autonomous vehicles, combined with more advanced fleet optimization and servicing platforms, next-generation traffic management and more intense competition, should reduce the fee charged to passengers of robotaxis by as much as 80% versus a ride-on-demand trip today. The technology to make robotaxis a reality is already available. In this new paradigm, owning a private car will cost almost twice as much as using robotaxis regularly."

    That is an extraordinary thought: An Uber ride that costs £10 today — already roughly half the price of a back cab — might cost only £2 in a few years' time, UBS says. The cost of providing cars without drivers might be so small that companies could offer rides for free, UBS speculates, and make money on the advertising inside them.