Posts tagged ‘options’

Exaggerating Transit Use for Fun and Higher Taxes. Or How PIRG Supports the 1% over the 99%

The Arizona PIRG has a report that can be summarized as "transit is increasing fast, driving is falling, all of our future investment should be in transit".  The Valley Fever blog has the story:

Arizonans are driving less, and relying more on public transportation, according to a report from the Arizona Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.

The shift is causing the Arizona PIRG Education Fund to recommend that public officials shift funding away from more highway projects, and more toward other transportation options."

"We recommend that transportation officials and elected leaders look at the data today, and not outdated assumptions, to make sure that any highway projects are absolutely necessary," Arizona PIRG Education Fund executive director Diane Brown tells New Times....

In the Phoenix metro area, the light rail opened in late 2008 and is already experiencing ridership numbers that weren't projected to be reached until the year 2020. In 2013, the Valley Metro transit system experienced a record high annual ridership, and between 2007-2013, boardings on Valley Metro transit service jumped from 60 million to more than 75 million - an increase of 25 percent. The Northern Arizona Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority recently saw its highest monthly ridership in October 2013. And in Yuma, ridership on Yuma County Area Transit has tripled since 2011.

The report suggests that public officials re-allocate their focus and funding, away from building new highways and toward more transportation options.

This is a fantasy.

There is an enormous amount of obfuscation going on here.  The percentage rise of public transit trips is actually the miracle of small numbers -- small changes on an even smaller base.  The point of these charts is to try to say that Arizonans use a lot of transit and we should dump more billions into these projects.  As it turns out, despite all the huge public investment, transit is still a rounding error.

Note that, from their own report, driving vehicle miles per capita are 9175 per person per year.  So lets look at transit.  They exaggerate by showing averages for Phoenix and Tucson, where transit use is higher, not for the whole state like they show vehicle miles.  The total state transit miles per person in the same year, using their numbers, turns out to be as low as 64 (if no one outside of Phoenix or Tucson uses transit) and as high as 110 (if everyone outside of Phoenix and Tucson uses transit at the same rate as in the cities).  The likely number is around 75.

This means that after all these billions and billions of transit spending, transit trips are 0.8% of vehicle trips (75 vs. 9175). That is a rounding error.  You sure wouldn't get that impression from the report.  The Public Interest Research Group has a funny view of "public interest", putting the desired transportation mode of the 0.8% over the desired choice of the 99.2%

Well, you say, I should compare the increase in transit to the decrease in driving.  OK.  Again using their numbers:  Vehicle driving miles went down 348 per capita over the study period.  In the same time, per capital transit miles went up by about 26 in Phoenix and Tucson (likely less in the state as a whole).  So, at best, transit ridership accounts for about 7% of the drop in driving.

This is not nothing, but hardly justifies the enormous increase in transit spending over the last 15 years and the billions and billions in capital investment.

Oh, and by the way, Phoenix Light Rail ridership has cannibalized bus ridership about 1 for 1.  That means all that investment in light rail has just shifted riders to a more expensive, less flexible transit mode.  But that is another story.

Site Issues

Well, we had just a mess of problems here.  We have had off and on DOS attacks for a week or so, and then last night I managed to embed some oddball code in a quotation in one of yesterdays posts that caused other heartache.

After a lot of debugging, I am hoping all is well again.  I have changed the caching and security options at Incapsula, which I use as a gateway for traffic.  For many of you, you will see substantial performance improvements but at the cost of some caching which may delay your comments showing up by 10 minutes or so.

If You Love Net Neutrality, Then You Can't Complain About Lack of ISP Competition and Investment

Kevin Drum laments that net neutrality seems to be dead, as he puts it:

So Google and Microsoft and Netflix and other large, well-capitalized incumbents will pay for speedy service. Smaller companies that can't—or that ISPs just aren't interested in dealing with—will get whatever plodding service is left for everyone else. ISPs won't be allowed to deliberately slow down traffic from specific sites, but that's about all that's left of net neutrality. Once you've approved the notion of two-tier service, it hardly matters whether you're speeding up some of the sites or slowing down others.

At some level, this statement is silly.   Really, does Netflix and Gmail really need the same connection speed?  And by the way, it makes a lot of difference whether investment is to give more speed to certain websites beyond what the consumer gets now vs. slowing down all the non-payers.  What honest consumer could ever see these options as similar?  Trust a progressive to consider cutting down all the tall trees to be equivalent to raising the short trees.

But here is another thought - Drum is among those who frequently complain about his lack of ISP choices and the slowness of developing speedier service.  But if I am an ISP, do I really want to invest billions in extra bandwidth when the benefits of this investment will accrue 100% to companies like Netflix rather than myself? And don't be confused, studies have shown Netflix using a third of all Internet capacity during peak times.  (updated data here, showing Google and Netflix together using more than half the capacity).  This strikes me as a free rider problem that normally the Left would jump right on.

It's hard to guess how things will play out, but there is a case to be made that Netflix and others paying for the bandwidth they consume will be a huge boon to home ISP access.  A second stream of income to ISP's based on bandwidth and speeds may be just what is needed to revitalize that business.  Of course, monopoly providers could just drop the money to the bottom line without doing anything to their infrastructure, but I trust that Netflix and Google will have every incentive to pound the hell out of ISP's who don't actually invest.  They are not particularly happy about this extra expense, so if they pay it, they are gong to make damn sure they get the speed and bandwidth they promised.  We individual customers have in the past had little power to influence ISP's bandwidth and speed investments, but now we have powerful allies.

I Am Not Sure I am Going to Update Major Software Any More

It used to be that updates of software products were something to look forward to.  I used to be a bleeding edge guy who, like as not, was using beta versions of most software.  Now I avoid updates and upgrades like the plague, particularly since companies like Apple make it virtually impossible to roll back any software update.  The four products that have scared me off of upgrades altogether are:

  • Windows 7 to Windows 8
  • Old versions of Office to the new versions with the stupid toolbars rather than menus where I still can't find what I want all the time.  On a bunch of my computers I still use Office 2002 and 2003 and it works just fine.
  • Most all itunes updates, particularly 10 to 11 which has done nothing but make critical options harder to find and make the platform, at least on Windows, less stable.  I am told people are having major difficulty with the 11.3 to 11.4 update
  • iOS 6 to iOS 7, which decreased battery life without adding any real user features.  So glad I still have not upgraded, though I am sure I will have to soon.

And don't even get me started on software like windows 8 and most of the recent Adobe products that require some sort of user login to even use the product at all.

Gee, I Wonder Why US Business Investment Is Sluggish?

From Jon Gabriel:

Trader Joe’s wanted to build a new store in Portland, Oregon. Instead of heading to a tony neighborhood downtown or towards the suburbs, the popular West Coast grocer chose a struggling area of Northeast Portland.

The company selected two acres along Martin Luther King Blvd. that had been vacant for decades. It seemed like the perfect place to create jobs, improve customer options and beautify the neighborhood. City officials, the business community, and residents all seemed thrilled with the plan. Then some community organizers caught wind of it.

The fact that most members of the Portland African-American Leadership Forum didn’t live in the neighborhood was beside the point. “This is a people’s movement for African-Americans and other communities, for self-determination,” member Avel Gordly said in a press conference. Even the NAACP piled on, railing against the project as a “case study in gentrification.” (The area is about 25 percent African-American.)

After a few months of racially tinged accusations and angry demands, Trader Joe’s decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. “We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple,” a corporate statement said. “If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe's, we understand, and we won't open the store in question.”

Hours after Trader Joe’s pulled out, PAALF leaders arrived at a previously scheduled press conference trying to process what just happened. The group re-issued demands that the now-cancelled development include affordable housing, mandated jobs based on race, and a small-business slush fund. Instead, the only demand being met is two fallow acres and a lot of anger from the people who actually live nearby.

Wow, Thomas Friedman is A Total Joke

I missed this editorial from back in April, but it is a classic.  If you want one of the greatest illustrations of the phrase "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail", here is is.

UNTIL we fully understand what turned two brothers who allegedly perpetrated the Boston Marathon bombings into murderers, it is hard to make any policy recommendation other than this: We need to redouble our efforts to make America stronger and healthier so it remains a vibrant counterexample to whatever bigoted ideology may have gripped these young men. With all our warts, we have built a unique society — a country where a black man, whose middle name is Hussein, whose grandfather was a Muslim, can run for president and first defeat a woman in his own party and then four years later a Mormon from the opposition, and no one thinks twice about it. With so many societies around the world being torn apart, especially in the Middle East, it is vital that America survives and flourishes as a beacon of pluralism....

So what to do?  We need a more “radical center” — one much more willing to suggest radically new ideas to raise revenues, not the “split-the-difference-between-the-same-old-options center.” And the best place to start is with a carbon tax.

Passwords

I am registered at a LOT of sites - blogs, hosting accounts, stores, message boards, etc.  A few years ago I started using the Lastpass Chrome add-in to track and remember all these passwords.

One problem though: like most people I was using the same few passwords over and over.  I had fixed, mostly, the most egregious mistakes, such as using the same password for low-trust sites like bulletin boards as for critical sites like banks.  But Lastpass showed me was that I still had a lot of password duplication.

The Adobe security breach finally got me off my butt.  My user name and password were among those that Adobe lost (which was particularly irritating because Adobe was one of those software companies that demanded a registration even when one should not have been necessary).  There was nothing at Adobe of mine they could screw up -- the registration was obviously to try to sell me more stuff but I never bought anything.  But there were possibly other sites using the same password they could screw up.

So I began a mission to change my passwords to 12-digit randomly generated strings of letters and numbers.  Having Fastpass helped a ton, as I would never have remembered all the sites with which I had registrations.  There were hundreds.

This was a real slog, a task so boring it was equaled only by the month when I ripped all my CD's to my hard drive and surpassed only by the 3 months when I ripped all my DVD's to hard drives.  The problem was that every web site was essentially a little portal-like adventure puzzle, trying to figure out where the hell the options for password change could be found.  I challenge those of you who have registered at WhiteHouse.gov to sign a survey to find the place to change your password.  At JetBlue, there is no such option in the user accounts -- you have to log off and click "forgot my password" at the logon screen and then click on the option to reset the password, but the reset email never shows up.  At two or three sites I had to email the site web manager to send me a link to the password change page.

Anyway, it's finally done now.  There are a couple of sites I use from my iPad for which I had to create unique memorable passwords because iOS does not have very good support mechanisms for such services as Lastpass, though as Chrome for iOS gets better, I expect that to make the problem easier to manage.  I had forgotten how many of these passwords (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) were plugged into things like my Roku.  It was irritating with the crappy remote to enter these random strings of characters as new passwords.

Of course security of the Lastpass account becomes a problem.  I guess I have to trust them.  My password for them is unique and never has been used anywhere else and contains no real English words.  I use 2-step verification at all times to log into it, so hopefully I am moderately well-protected.

Waaaaaaaay Too Late, And I Bet Obama Knows It

Via the WSJ:

President Barack Obama said Thursday that insurers will be able to continue health-insurance coverage next year for current policy holders that otherwise would be canceled under the new health-care law....

"Insurers can offer consumers the option to renew their 2013 health plans in 2014 without change, allowing these individuals to keep their plans," a senior White House official said, previewing Mr. Obama's announcement. These consumers will be given the opportunity to re-enroll, the official said, essentially extending the so-called grandfather clause in the 2010 health overhaul that allowed people to keep their plans if they were in place before the law passed.

"This step today is in the interest of fixing some of the challenges that have arisen" since then, the official said.

Under the plan, insurers are required to notify consumers whether their renewed plans don't include coverage that was required under the new health law, which set minimum coverage standards. They must tell consumers that new insurance options and possibly tax subsidies may be available for policies bought through online federal marketplace.

1.  The President announced this today to try to head off Congressional legislation to do the same thing.  Have we just given up on the rule of law?  Can the President unilaterally modify any law he pleases?  Shouldn't a modification in existing legislation have to come from the Legislature?  Can we just make it official and change the Constitution to say that the President can alter any legislation he wants as long as his party originally passed it?

2.  How is this even going to be possible?   My understanding is that insurance companies spend months preparing the pricing and features of their products for the next year.  The have done no preparation to offer these plans in 2014, because, you know, they were (and still are, whatever the President says in a news conference) illegal.   Its like your wife telling you to take the next exit when you are in the left lane driving 75 miles an hour in heavy traffic and the exit is about 100 yards away.  With 31 business days between now and the new year, how are they supposed to do this?  Or are they even expected to be able to do so?  Is this the President's way to blame shift to insurance companies?

Update:

SopranoCare

Via the Daily Caller:

The White House is pressuring insurance companies not to speak publicly about Obama administration policies that could eliminate the existing health insurance plans of millions of Americans.

The administration made “clarifications” to the 2010 Affordable Care Act after it was passed that have already wiped out hundreds of thousands of existing health plans.

“Basically, if you speak out, if you’re quoted, you’re going to get a call from the White House, pressure to be quiet,” said CNN investigative reporter Drew Griffin on Anderson Cooper 360 Wednesday night. Insurance companies executives, Griffin said, ask heads of consulting firms not to criticize the Obamacare rollout debacle publicly.

“They feel defenseless before the White House P.R. team,” Griffin said. “The sources said they fear White House retribution.”

Prior to the Obamacare rollout, insurance companies issued warnings to the White House about the possibility of mass cancellations, which the administration ignored.

As has become usual of late, Jay Carney channels Ron Ziegler with this absurd answer.  Apparently, the fact that insurance companies are still engaged in routine conversations with their customers proves they have not been silenced from publicly criticizing Obamacare.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, however, waved off the allegations.

“That accusation is preposterous and inaccurate,” Carney said. “Plus, it ignores the fact that every day, insurance companies are out talking about the law, in large part because they are trying to reach new customers who will now have new, affordable insurance options available from providers through the new marketplaces.”

What Obama Meant When He Made His Health Insurance Promise

I thought this is a great description of what Obama really meant

And folks, the opponents of my plan are trying to scare you. But if you like your health insurance the way it is, and if I like your health insurance the way it is, then you can keep it.

Seriously, this is how Jay Carney explains it

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said President Obama's claim that all Americans could keep their health insurance plans under the new health law deserved a “fuller explanation,” acknowledging millions of consumers would not keep their current coverage.

After the passage of Obamacare, the president has repeatedly insisted that if any individual likes their health care plan, they could “keep it.”

Carney on Tuesday added a crucial caveat to that promise, saying Americans could keep their insurance if the plan is “still available.”

This is absolutely absurd.  The whole meaning of the "If you like your health insurance..." promise was that the government would not ban your current policy, that the program was simply about adding options for the uninsured, not reducing options for the insured.  Now Carney was saying, as if we all should have known, that what Obama meant was that you can keep your policy as long as we don't ban it.

 

 

The Two Lame Answers Obama Supporters Are Giving Those of Us Who Have Had Our Health Insurance Cancelled

1.  The first Obama Administration response to people (like myself) who have had their health insurance cancelled because of Obamacare and who are facing much higher future premiums is that many of can expect a subsidy.  Do you realize how awful this is?  Basically they are acknowledging that millions of people who paid for their own health care in the past will now be getting taxpayer money.  Essentially, a huge and unnecessary increase in government dependency.

2.  The other equally awful Obama Administration answer is that our new health coverage will be more expensive because it will be "better".  First, there is no evidence of this -- early returns are that people are paying more for less.  Second, though, this is horribly arrogant.  A $200,000 Maserati sedan is likely "better" than my car I am driving, but given its price I would consider myself worse off if forced to buy a Maserati.  In the same sense, forcing me to by expensive insurance options I don't want is not "better", even if I am making choices Obama's advisers would not make for themselves.  I spent a lot of time shopping for health insurance and running numbers on various cases and picking the best plan for me, and am insulted that Obama does not respect my decision.

By the way, I will remind you of what I said way back in 2007 about government health care proposals

Americans are unbelievably charitable people, to the extent that they will put up with a lot of taxation and even losses of freedoms through government coercion to help people out.

However, in nearly every other case of government-coerced charity, the main effect is "just" an increase in taxes.  Lyndon Johnson wants to embark on a futile attempt to try to provide public housing to the poor?  Our taxes go up, a lot of really bad housing is built, but at least my housing did not get any worse.  Ditto food programs -- the poor might get some moldy cheese from a warehouse, but my food did not get worse.  Ditto welfare.  Ditto social security, unemployment insurance,and work programs.

But health care is different.... what is different about many of the health care proposals on the table is that everyone, not just the poor will get this same crappy level of treatment.  It would be like a public housing program where everyone's house is torn down and every single person must move into public housing.  That is universal state-run health care.  Ten percent of America gets pulled up, 90% of America gets pulled down, possibly way down.

Obamacare Not Only Raising My Rates, But Making The Process Much Harder

On September 26 of this year, President Obama said this of the new Obamacare exchanges:

“If you’ve ever tried to buy insurance on your own,” he said, “I promise you this is a lot easier.”

Well, let's see.  Here are some notes on my previous health insurance buying decision

  • I was able to price shop policies online without creating an account, without giving up my social security number.  The websites to do so worked and operated quickly
  • A broker who had decades of experience in health care (rather than being a former Obama campaign worker with a few hours of training) walked me through the options and how they worked.
  • Once we chose a policy, the application process online was quick and easy

Here is one thing that was likely worse

  • I had to provide medical history information, which probably is not required under Obamacare because of community rating (though I am not sure)

And here is one thing that was better for me but I guess must be worse for the Left since they complain about it so much

  • There was a lot more choice.  If the process was "harder" in any way before, it was because there were far more choices.  It was harder in the same way that it is generally harder to shop in the US than, say, in the old Soviet Union.  Obamacare circumscribes policies such that a large package of benefits are mandated, not optional (I have to pay for mental health coverage and probably aromatherapy) and the size of one's deductible is capped.

It is also this latter difference that will make my next policy substantially more expensive.  In standardizing options, the Congress standardized on the most expensive options (broadest possible benefits, smallest possible deductible).

By the way, this is not proven yet but there is probably one other way my Obamacare policy will be worse than my last one:  the doctor network in my policy will very likely be a LOT smaller.  We could almost be sure this would happen precisely because Obama promised it wouldn't  (his promises on health care are pretty good "tells" that the opposite will happen).

Government-Paid Lobbyists for Incumbent Hotel Interests in New York

In New York, the local hotel industry is freaking out.  Hotels, in a wearyingly familiar pattern, want the city to ban competitors using new business models (in this case companies like Airbnb).  Of course, they can't say that they are demanding government action to block competition.  So they come up with other BS.   This statement is right out of the corporate state paybook

NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism agency, issued a statement saying, “This illegal practice takes away much needed hotel tax revenue from city coffers with no consumer protections against fire- and health-code violations.” Neither city officials nor hotel organizations would estimate how much revenue hotels and the city might be losing.

The tax argument is absurd.  There is no reason that the city could not apply lodging or some sort of new tax to the rentals if that were their real concern.  The part about fire and health regulations is equally absurd.  New York apartment and building owners would be very surprised to learn that they are suddenly somehow unregulated.  Is the implication really that New York hotels are safe but New York apartments are Triangle Shirtwaist fires waiting to happen?

This is a great example of industry capture.  A true city tourism agency should be saying "It is great that this city is developing even more options for visitors.  A diversity of lodging experiences and price levels can only help spur tourism in New York.  There may be a few regulatory tweaks that are needed to accommodate this model, but we welcome this new lodging model with open arms."  Instead, though, they are acting as government paid lobbyists for existing hotel interests.

Progressives Suddenly Support Health Insurance Marketing

For years Progressives, led by President Obama during the legislative process for the PPACA, have attacked health insurance companies for their profits and overhead.  I never understood the former -- at generally 5% of revenues or less, even wiping health insurance profits out altogether would offset less than a year's worth of health care inflation.  The Progressive hatred for health insurance overhead was actually built into the PPACA, with limits on non-care expenses as a percent of premiums.

Progressive's justification for this was to compare health insurer's overhead against Medicare, which appears to have lower overhead as a percentage of revenues.  This is problematic, because lots of things that private insurers have to pay for actually still are paid for by the Federal government, but just don't hit Medicare's books due to funky government accounting.  Other private costs, particularly claims management, are areas that likely have a real return in fraud reduction.  In this case, Medicare's decision not to invest in claims management overhead shows up as costs elsewhere, specifically in fraudulent billings.

None of these areas of costs make for particularly fertile ground for demagoguing, so the Progressive argument against health insurance overhead usually boils down to marketing.  This argument makes a nice fit with progressive orthodoxy, which has always hated advertising as manipulative.  But health insurance marketing expenses mainly consist of

  1. Funding commissions to brokers, who actually sell the product, and
  2. Funding people to go to company open enrollments and explain health care options to participants

Suddenly, now that Progressives have taken over health care via the PPACA and federal exchanges, their tune has changed.  They seem to have a near infinite appetite for marketing money to support construction of the exchanges (which serve the role of the broker, though less well because there is no support)  and information about options to potential participants.  That these are exactly the kinds of expenses they have railed against for years in the private world seems to elicit no irony.  Via Cato

Now we learn, from the Washington Post’s Sara Kliff, “Sebelius has, over the past three months, made multiple phone calls to health industry executives, community organizations and church groups and directly asked that they contribute to non-profits that are working to enroll uninsured Americans and increase awareness of the law.”

This follows on from revelations in California (revelations that occurred before a new California law that makes PPACA costs double-secret).

[California] will also spend $250 million on a two-year marketing campaign [for its health insurance exchange]. By comparison California Senator Barbara Boxer spent $28 million on her 2010 statewide reelection campaign while her challenger spent another $22 million.

The most recent installment of the $910 million in federal money was a $674 million grant. The exchange's executive director noted that was less than the $706 million he had asked for. "The feds reduced the 2014 potential payment for outreach and enrollment by about $30 million," he said. "But we think we have enough resources on hand to do the biggest outreach that I have ever seen." ...

The California Exchange officials also say they need 20,000 part time enrollers to get everybody signed up––paying them $58 for each application. Having that many people out in the market creates quality control issues particularly when these people will be handling personal information like address, birth date, and social security number. California Blue Shield, by comparison has 5,000 employees serving 3.5 million members.

New York is off to a similar start. New York has received two grants totaling $340 million again just to set up an enrollment and eligibility process.

These are EXACTLY the same sorts of marketing costs progressives have railed on for years in the private world.

Duh: By Abandoning the PC, Microsoft Windows 8 Fails to Save the PC

From today's WSJ

The personal computer is in crisis, and getting little help from Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 8 software once seen as a possible savior.

Research firm IDC issued an alarming report Wednesday for PC makers such as Dell Inc.  and Hewlett-Packard Co.,  saying world-wide shipments of laptops and desktops fell 14% in the first quarter from a year earlier. That is the sharpest drop since IDC began tracking this data in 1994 and marks the fourth straight quarter of declines.

Gartner Inc., a rival research firm, estimated global shipments sank 11.2%, which it called the worst drop since the first quarter of 2001. Gartner blamed the rise of tablets and smartphones, which are sapping demand for personal computers.

Windows 8 was never, ever going to save the PC, because Windows 8 represents an abandonment of the traditional PC.  It is essentially a touchscreen tablet OS forced onto the desktop.  Like Windows Vista, it is an absolutely awful OS that our company has banned any employee from using on a company machine.  Fortunately, we can still buy a few Dell computers with Windows 7, and when that is no longer possible, I will go back to building our company machines and putting Windows 7 on myself, the same thing I did to survive the Vista nightmare  (hanging on to XP until Windows 7 came out).

Later in the article, the author recognizes that Windows 8 is killing the PC rather than saving it

But there is little sign that buyers are responding. In a surprisingly harsh assessment, IDC said Windows 8 hasn't only failed to spur more PC demand but has actually exacerbated the slowdown—confusing consumers with features that don't excel in a tablet mode and compromise the traditional PC experience.

Mr. Chou said not only has Windows 8 failed to attract consumers, but businesses are keeping their distance as well. Chief information officers at several companies echoed his opinion Wednesday.

Ricoh Americas Corp., which replaces about a third of its 17,000 PCs every three years and upgrades to the most current operating system available, said this year it is sticking with Windows 7, released in 2009. Tracey Rothenberger, the company's chief operating officer, said the benefits of switching to the new software aren't worth the effort of training employees to use it.

I am sympathetic to Microsoft's goals, if not their tactics.  Certainly market share in OS is shifting to handheld devices, such as smartphones and tablets, and Microsoft has largely missed this market.  To stay relevant, they need to gain share in these markets -- and trying to gain a foothold by somehow leveraging their market share in desktops makes sense.  It would be great to have an OS for tablets that allowed more access to the file system and customization options, as a competitor to Apple's walled garden, though Google is way ahead in that particular niche.

But the imposition of tablet aesthetics, user interface, and apps framework on desktop PC's is just frustrating as hell for those of us who still like using a mouse and prefer our traditional desktop interface.  The training issue for employees is not a trivial one -- when Microsoft completely abandoned the menu structure and user interface of their Office products several years ago, we decided not to upgrade any of our PC's and, when necessary, to use the OpenOffice alternative, as much because it retains the old Office interface as for its being free.

I still use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint 2002 on this computer, because I have never really been happy with the new Office interface.  I use no other software even remotely that old.  I routinely upgrade everything I have.  I dutifully upgrade Quickbooks and Norton Security and a dozen other programs every year.  So to go a decade without upgrading shows how little I think of Microsoft's upgrade strategies.

Some Gaming Reviews: SimCity, Bioshock Infinite

First, an update on SimCity.  I am a huge SimCity series fan from way back.  I was excited by the new release, which turned out to be a total disaster.  I wrote several weeks ago about the horrendous decision to make SimCity an always-online game, which led on day 1 to the game being unplayable for most because of server problems and overloads at EA.

Since that time, they have (mostly) fixed the server overload issues and I have been able to play.  Sort of.  The game is beautiful and the interface is pretty nice.  And the game tantalizing retains many of the elements that made the previous games so compelling to some of us.  But in the end, the game is a fail.

First, it is full of bugs.  One horrible bug ensures that over time, almost every city you build will crash on the online server.  The only solution is to accept a rollback to an earlier state, though every once in a while this leads to a total city loss.

Beyond that, almost every element of the game is broken.  Sims will suddenly stop going to school, and complain about there being no education when an empty school is right across the street.  City water tables can be drained in a matter of months, making a city unplayable -- one can avoid this only by putting their sewer plant right by their water supply.  Certain city specializations added to the game, like gambling, don't work right.   Meteor showers cities every few months and can't be turned off.  etc. etc.

It may be that this game will be playable in 6 months or so, but even then I fear that the EA team has simplified the game so much and removed so many options to appeal to the mass market XBOX set that the wonky complexity many of us enjoyed in early games will never be there.  In particular, city size is limited such that in about 20 minutes of play I can completely fill the city space.  All that one can even do with the game after that is just sit and watch density increase and expand a fire station or two as the population grows.  In fact, a lot of the game for me runs unattended, since EA had to turn off the fast speed mode.  The city now needs to just run for hours for anything to happen, so I resorted to leaving it on in the other room and checking back on it every hour or two.

Oh, and by the way.  The highly touted multiplayer features are a bad joke.  Someone in the business department told developers that the game had to be online for piracy protection, and told them to go develop some game features that justified this decision so they could tell users that the online requirement was really for their benefit and not for copy protection.  Well, they failed.

Bioshock Infinite.   I don't play a lot of first person-shooter style role-playing games, but my son talked me into playing the new Bioshock.  He has played a lot of this genre (e.g. the Mass Effect series) and said that this was the best he had ever played.  This evaluation may be in part due to his fascination with strange dystopic visions of society, because we certainly get one in this game (as in each of the Bioshock series).

I am not every far into it but I will say that is a fun experience.  So far I would say it was less of a game and more of an immersive novel -- WTF is this place I am in and what is going on.   The environment is really fascinating to explore.  I am still trying to figure out the back story, but piecing it together is a fun process.  Already I have been to several memorable locations.

Precautionary Principle in One Chart

The ultimate argument I get to my climate talk, when all other opposition fails, is that the precautionary principle should rule for CO2.  By their interpretation, this means that we should do everything possible to abate CO2 even if the risk of catastrophe is minor since the magnitude of the potential catastrophe is so great.

The problem is that this presupposes there are no harms, or opportunity costs, on the other end of the scale.  In fact, while CO2 may have only a small chance of catastrophe, Bill McKibben's desire to reduce fossil fuel use by 95% has a near certain probability of gutting the world economy and locking billions into poverty.  Here is one illustration I just crafted for my new presentation.  As usual, click to enlarge:

precautionary-principle

 

A large number of people seem to assume that our use of fossil fuels is an arbitrary choice among essentially comparable options (or worse, a sinister choice forced on us by the evil oil cabal).  In fact, fossil fuels have a number of traits that make them uniquely irreplaceable, at least with current technologies.  For example, gasoline has an absolutely enormous energy content per pound of fuel.  Most vehicles - space shuttles, and more recently electric cars - must dedicate an enormous percentage of their power production just to moving the weight of their fuel.  Not so in gasoline engine cars, something those who are working with electric cars must face every day.

By the way, if you want to see the kick-off of version 3.0 of my climate presentation, it will be at my son's school, Amherst College, this Thursday at 7PM.  More here.

Update: By the way,  I was careful in the chart to say the two " are correlated".  I actually do not think one causes the other.  In this case, I think there are a third, and fourth, and fifth (etc.)  factors that cause both.  For example, economic development leads to (and depends on) increased fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions, and it leads to longer lives.

When I use this slide, my point is to get folks thinking about Bill McKibben's plea to reduce fossil fuel use by 95%.  I was looking for one slide to say, hey, maybe if CO2 emissions go away, some other stuff goes away with it.  Like technology, hospitals, agriculture, development ... and long lives.   McKibben paints this picture of virtually costless energy transformation, which is naive to the point of being malpractice committed against the poor of developing nations.

Just How Little Does Government Trust Individuals?

From CNN via Carpe Diem

 

A 24-year scandal was quietly acknowledged last week. On July 3 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first "rapid home" test for HIV—a test that people can take in the privacy of their own homes to determine whether they have the virus that causes AIDS.

The approval is an unambiguously good thing—or so you would think. The saliva test in question, made by OraSure Technologies and known as OraQuick, costs less than $60 and takes just 20 minutes to self-administer. According to statistics an FDA advisory committee presented at a hearing in May, it holds the potential to prevent the transmission of more than 4,000 new HIV infections in its first year of use alone. That would be about 8 percent of the roughly 50,000 new infections we currently see annually in the United States. (About 1.2 million people in the U.S. are now living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of whom about 20 percent don't realize they have it. Since the epidemic began in the early 1980s, about 1.1 million people have been diagnosed with AIDS, and more than 619,000 have died from it.)

The scandal is that the approval of a rapid home test for HIV did not occur until last week—about 24 years after the FDA received its first application seeking permission to market one.

Apparently, for years, even decades, only tests of clinical options were allowed to proceed, basically because the government considers Americans to be infants:

There was great concern that the patient receive proper counseling, both before and after the test. The patient needed to appreciate the possibility of false positives, so he wouldn't panic unnecessarily if he got one. He needed to appreciate the danger of false negatives, so he wouldn't become reckless, endangering sexual partners. And he needed to understand the options and support groups available in the event he received a true positive. (On top of all these concerns, many AIDS activists at the time were opposed to almost any form of HIV testing out of fear that results could be used to ostracize and persecute HIV-positive people—though one hopes that public health concerns were paramount to the FDA, rather than political pressure and hysteria.)

Creative Destruction

On UVA from Walter Russel Mead via Glenn Reynolds

As the NYT article points out, universities all over the country are facing a world of rapid change. This is going to be hard to face. Universities are structured to adapt slowly—if at all. Typically, university presidents have only limited controls, while faculties have a lot of power to resist. Management is usually decentralized, with different schools and departments governed under different rules and accountable to different constituencies. The fiscal arrangements of most universities are both byzantine and opaque; it can be very hard for administrators to understand or properly and fairly value the true cost and contributions of different parts of the institution.

The structural problem our universities face is this: confronted with the need for sweeping, rapid changes, administrators and boards have two options — and they are both bad. One option is to press ahead to make rapid changes. This risks — and in many (perhaps most) cases will cause — enormous upheavals; star professors will flounce off. Alumni will be offended. Waves of horrible publicity will besmirch the university’s name.

Option two: you can try to make your reforms consensual — watering down, delaying, carefully respecting existing interests and pecking orders. If you do this, you will have a peaceful, happy campus . . . until the money runs out.

This kind of organizational change issue is NOT unique to public institutions.  I think if one were a fly on the wall at Sears, or RIM/Blackberry, or AOL, one could describe exactly the same dynamic: insider constituencies were and are successful under the old model, so consensus processes involving these same constituencies seldom lead to change since these changes are inherently threatening to these same constituencies.  A simpler way of saying this is that it is really hard to obsolete oneself.  Just go ask Blockbuster Video.

But there is one difference in the world of public institutions.  In the private world, new success models in the worlds of Sears and AOL and Blackberry are already out there and growing really fast, run by outsiders who have absolutely no stake in the success of the old model (in fact by folks who have a strong economic stake in killing the old models).  But there is no parallel to capital markets and entrepreneurship in the public space.  There is no venue for new-model proponents to get capital and support outside of the old-model institutions.  In fact, if anything, public institutions will rally their political clout, up to and including sponsoring new legislation, to make sure new models are strangled in the crib.

If I were in the VA legislature and really cared about education innovation in the future, I would give up on UVA driving it and instead take 20% of its funding and hand it off to a brand new parallel entity, say UVA 2.0, run by an entirely new team.

Worst Law That I Can Remember

This is simply an awful law.  If you had asked me ten years ago if we would see the President (a Democrat yet) claiming the right to assasinate Americans and the Congress threatening to pass a bill requiring the indefinite detention, without trial, of people within our borders, I would never have believed it.  At first I was excited to see that Obama was threatening a veto, but then I read that he was not upset about indefinite detention, but only that Congress was threatening to tie his hands and proscribe certain options.  Obama wants to have the choice of whether to offer certain individuals due process or indefinite decision.

For more, see Rand Paul v. John McCain

Postscript:  As usual, I am left flat by the debate over whether certain injustices, like indefinite detention, apply to all humanity or just foreigners.  I have yet to parse anything in our founder's national rights arguments behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that justify why folks born outside our borders have fewer rights than those born inside them.

Update:  More here, including a lot from the ACLU.  We are supposed to feel better because John McCain says that this only applied to Al Qaeda.  But how in the hell do we know with any confidence that the folks the President locks up are Al Qaeda?  Its bad enough to declare a whole new crime, that of being a member of a certain organization.  The US, through its history, has been much better than most nations in avoiding banning certain parties and organizations.  But even if we accept this law, doesn't there need to be some due process?

I suppose I understand that if I captured a guy in an SS uniform in WWII who 10 seconds ago was shooting at me, locking him up as a POW might not require a ton of due process.  Last I checked, the AQ folks didn't have a uniform or anything.  And most of them are not routinely shooting at us.

We didn't even pass this kind of horrible law at the height of Cold War anti-communist hysteria.  Can you see Johnson or Nixon (or Hoover) being able to indefinitely detain anyone they thought was a member of the Communist Party?

Apple Newsstand is a Mess

I have written before that despite being a PC guy, the iPod 2 is probably the greatest piece of gear of I have ever owned.  I take it with me everywhere.

However, the newsstand is a half-baked mess, and is so bad I can't believe they saw fit to release it in this form.  The navigation is totally non-intuitive.  I am never clear if I am going to go to the store or my list of downloaded magazines when clicking on a link.  The library seems to forget that I own certain issues, and because of the choices Apple made, trying to Kluge the thing into its apps store interface, every magazine is really its own app and the Newstand is actually nothing much more than a folder holding all the apps.  This means that the interface changes radically from magazine to magazine.  In half the magazines, I still have not been able to figure out how to navigate from inside a single issue back to the overall issue list.  And don't look for an integrated issue list across all magazines - there is none.  You have to go into every single magazine app to see what issues are available in that particular product.

Worse, the subscription system does not seem to work for many of the magazines.  I have subscribed to magazines, but that fact  is not always obvious in the interface.  And in many cases, the magazines I get to download seem to have little relationship to whether I subscribed.  For example, I subscribed to PC Gamer but am not offered any of the newest issues to download -- they show up as requiring a full price purchase.

There are other bizarre touches as well.  The newstand has a little red "2" icon in the corner, which in the apps store means there are two apps that have updates.   But I can't figure which of my magazines needs updating -- there is no icon on the individual magazines hinting they need updating somehow, and there is no "update all" button or even a button to see a list of updates available as there is in the app store.  Yes, I know the new issues are theoretically supposed to download automatically.  The NYT does.  A number of magazines don't, and I have had to go into the store and click on them to get them to download.

Finally, looking at my iphone, which should have a mirror of all the magazines I have bought on the ipad (same apple account), only about half the magazines show up.

This is just a big, big disappointing mess, all the more so because the iPad feels like the perfect device to read magazines.  I can only guess this was all driven by a desire to reuse the existing apps micro-payments infrastructure, but the result is very un-Apple.  The only reason one tolerates Apple's closed ecosystem and resulting loss of options and flexibility is because it yields predictability, particularly in the interface.  Apple has thrown that all away with Newsstand and I can't believe their user community is going to tolerate it.

Update:  I just googled the Newsstand and I get pages and pages of positive reviews.  This absolutely has to be Apple fan-boy crap.  Really, the Newsstand interface is really awful.

Update#2:  The NYTimes apps seems to work beautifully, but most of the magazines have weird interfaces.  Again, Apple does not seem to have imposed a single interface structure on magazine app developers, so they all have their own.

The Union Problem

I have always defended private unions on the ground that workers have a freedom of association just as much as anyone else.  I think the government has tilted the playing field in the union's favor too much, but I will leave that aside for today.  I will also leave aside the problem of public unions, where there is no one really representing the taxpayer on the other side of the table in negotiations (many politicians in union states owe their jobs to union support).

Leave all of that aside.  The economic problem with unions tends to be that they are such a conservative (little c) force in an economy that needs dynamism to grow and expand wealth.  Here is a great example:

The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in “a change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.

Bob Samuels, the president of the union, says this effectively gives the union veto power over any online initiative that might endangers the jobs or work lives of its members. “We feel that we could stop almost any online program through this contract,” Samuels told Inside Higher Ed.

I have said for a long time that negotiations for pay and benefits (in private unions) tend to be the least problematic union activity (different story in public unions, where the relationship to management is not adversarial).  Longer term, union imposed work rules and restrictions tend to be much more costly.  The reason I think is that corporate executives can easily value the difference between various pay and benefits packages, but have a hard time valuing flexibility and dynamism.  If union rules cut off potential future as-yet-unknown growth and cost reduction efforts, the cost of these rules can be huge but equally they can be almost impossible to value (more like options pricing than straight cost-benefit).

Politicians and Entrepeneurship

Don Boudreaux asks:

Here’s a quick question for anyone who takes seriously politicians’ pronouncements about what particular industries are “vital” or are “of the future” or are “crucial to meeting consumers’ needs”: Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms? Why do virtually none of these politicians, when they leave office, found their own non-political firms – firms that specialize neither in granting clients access to incumbent politicians nor in projects that depend upon getting subsidies or other favors from those same politicians?

This question occurred to me a few days ago upon hearing that former president Bill Clinton was off somewhere talking about something to some group concerned about some issue.  His career now is to make lots of money as a sort of high-brow social healer – to emit platitudes, attend state funerals, and (pardon my switch of imagery) be a show-pony for politically correct causes.  The post-Oval Office careers of every other recent president – to the extent that they haven’t simply retired to the golf course or the study – have been largely the same, with the groups and causes served by their attentions differing only as one former president’s political affiliations differ from those of another former president.

One guy comes to mind who had a sniff of the White House and then went on to run his own business:  George McGovern.  And though its just a small Inn that will never be even a blip on the economic radar screen, it has driven McGovern dangerously close to being a libertarian.  Actually, that might be a misnomer.  He probably is still a liberal, but from the days when liberals actually cared about individual freedom and saw aggregations of power in the government to be at least as scary as those in the private world.  Take this for example:

Under the guise of protecting us from ourselves, the right and the left are becoming ever more aggressive in regulating behavior. Much paternalist scrutiny has recently centered on personal economics...

Since leaving office I've written about public policy from a new perspective: outside looking in. I've come to realize that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.

Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options? We don't take away cars because we don't like some people speeding. We allow state lotteries despite knowing some people are betting their grocery money. Everyone is exposed to economic risks of some kind. But we don't operate mindlessly in trying to smooth out every theoretical wrinkle in life.

The nature of freedom of choice is that some people will misuse their responsibility and hurt themselves in the process. We should do our best to educate them, but without diminishing choice for everyone else.

The only other place I have heard this recently on the Left was, perhaps not coincidentally, from that other child of 60's liberal politics, Jerry Brown

To the Members of the California State Senate:

I am returning Senate Bill 105 without my signature.

This measure would impose criminal penalties on a child under the age of 18 and his or her parents if the child skis or snowboards without a helmet.

While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law.

I believe parents have the ability and responsibility to make good choices for their children.

Sincerely,
Edmund J. Brown

Postscript:  The answer to Don's question is one of two.  Either a)  They are not up to it.  And/or b) There is a hell of a lot more wealth that can be captured through the exercise of government power than through private enterprise.

In Honor of Today's Gore-Fest, My Climate Video

Al Gore is doing his best Jerry Lewis imitation by holding an all day climate telethon today.  In honor of this, let me repost my climate video for those who have not seen it.

Catastrophe Denied: The Science of the Skeptics Position (studio version) from Warren Meyer on Vimeo.

Other viewing options, as well as links to download the powerpoint presentation, are here.

If You Are Buying All Your Games at Toys R Us, You Are Missing Out

For some reason I do not fully understand, there are two worlds of gaming - the Wal-Mart/Target/Toys R Us world of Monopoly and Risk, and the geeky world of strategic gaming.

It used to be that the strategic gaming world was just too complicated and arcane for prime time.  I once spent a whole summer playing through a game called "War in Europe" from SPI.  It had a 42-square foot map of Europe, thousands and thousands of counters, hundreds of pages of instructions, and simulated WWII in weekly turns.

However, there is now a whole slew of games in the strategic arena, mostly from Europe, that are very accessible.   A number are not much harder to learn than Risk but are more fun and play a lot faster.  Unfortunately, few of these have migrated to mainstream stores, so you may be missing them.  Here are a few my family plays that are excellent places to start.  I have put them in approximate order of complexity, from low to high.

[By the way, don't have a family or friends?  Your in luck!  At least 3 of the games below have very high quality iPad game apps with good to very good AI competitors]

  1. Ticket to Ride. Very easy to learn.  Even visiting kids get the idea immediately.  This is a railroad line building game.  Start with the original North American version, it is the least complicated.  Also, if you have an iPad, there is a very good game app port of this game.
  2. Small World. This is an absolute freaking classic. Totally fun, pretty easy to learn, fast to play.  Sort of a wargame ala Risk but it doesn't feel like Risk.  Very repayable because the army or race (e.g. dwarves, elves, giants, etc) you play changes each game as special powers are mixed and matched.  As important to taking territories will be recognizing when your race has become senescent and when it is time to start a new race.  If you have an iPad, there is an awesome Small World game app I heartily recommend.
  3. 7 Wonders. A new game that has quickly become a favorite.    This game is typical of many modern strategy games -- there are many ways to score and you only have a limited number of actions, so the trick is figuring out your priorities.  The play rules of this game are dead simple.  The complicated part is deciding what action to take among many alternatives, since the scoring is complicated.  Here is my advice on this game and for many of these games that follow.  Just play the game once.   This is what my kids and I did with 7 Wonders.  They yelled at me at scoring time that they hadn't understood that such and such scored so well or poorly, but they understood it better with one play-through than by any number of times parsing the rules.  This is our current favorite.  Interesting dynamic here as after each card play, everyone passes his or her whole hand to their neighbor.
  4. Dominion.  Similar to 7 Wonders in that it is a card game building to victory points.  There is a constant tradeoff of getting victory points now or building up "infrastructure" that will allow more scoring later.  It is more complex than 7 wonders as it has even more options and paths.  I play it with my family but both this and the next game fall out of what are typically called "family" games.
  5. Race for the Galaxy.  Again, similar to 7 Wonders and Dominion, just more complicated.  A planet development game.

Here are some other family accessible games I can't recommend as much

  1. Settlers of Catan. This is a popular strategy classic, and is simple to learn.  My kids think its kind of meh.  It has a diplomacy negotiating element that does not seem to work well in my family for games
  2. Cargo Noir. I have only played this once, so I can't say how it wears.  My kids liked it better than I did.  It is easy to learn, but I thought the strategic options were a bit thin.
  3. Carcasonne.  There are very few games I don't care for, but I have tried this game several times and it just does not click for me.  But it is wildly popular, so what do I know?  A game where you add tiles of roads and cities to try to score based one where you have put your mini people (meeple in euro-game speak).   There is a high quality port of this game on iPad.

Here are some games I really love but are not appropriate for the entry level family

  1. Twilight Struggle - replay the cold war.  My son and I played this and it was awesome, but it took some time to learn and was pretty wonky.
  2. Agricola - one of the reigning kings of hard-core Euro-style strategy games, this game is fairly complicated to learn (not helped by instructions that really need a re-write) and very complicated to master.   The concept -- trying to keep a medieval family alive - bored the hell out of my kids but it is similar to many of the games above in that there are far more ways to score than one can pursue in a turn, and it has a very strong element of balancing immediate returns against investments in the future.   I have never played Puerto Rico but my sense it is in a similar genre.

The Boardgame Geek website is a great place to learn about these games (I have just listed a few of the most popular of literally thousands of games).  Their ranking of top family games is here.  To give you an idea, Monopoly is rates #781 in family games and #7148 overall by their readers (though there is some geek snob factor in this, it really is not a very good game), so you probably have some good games to discover.

PS- Most all of these are on Amazon.