Thursday, March 30, 2023

The IRS "Free Tax" scam and the hilarious reason why Turbo Tax is the only good free solution.

I wrote this for Facebook friends but I keep seeing people praising the "Free Tax" program and dissing Turbo Tax -- without any actual knowledge. So reprinting it here:

We did B's tax returns for 2022 using the IRS "Free Tax" program. This being America is kind of a scam. Sharing this as a guide to the unwary.

We used "TaxAct". She had state income tax forms for MN and CO. At the very end of the process you learn it costs $40 to print each state return. (Be careful when navigating, at first it seemed Federal eFile was not free; if you defer the state returns you just completed then the free option is available.)

MN is supposed to support Free File [1] but even after we removed Colorado from her form TaxAct still wanted $40 to print the state return. So reentering on the paper form.[2]

[1] Free File program are Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia.

[2] If you start at the MN site they don't include TaxAct on their list of FreeFile options. So if one chooses a vendor from MN site you might get a better results.

Hilariously, if you hunt around you can find the free and effective Turbo Tax program for simple returns. It's free because Intuit is in litigation and need to keep it free until that's done

ChatGPT's 155 IQ and passing the Sebastian's children puzzle

A Scientific American contributor found ChatGPT (probably 3) scored 155 on a standard IQ test:

Estimated on the basis of five subtests, the Verbal IQ of the ChatGPT was 155, superior to 99.9 percent of the test takers who make up the American WAIS III standardization sample of 2,450 people. As the chatbot lacks the requisite eyes, ears and hands, it is not able to take WAIS’s nonverbal subtests. But the Verbal IQ and Full Scale IQ scales are highly correlated in the standardization sample, so ChatGPT appears to be very intelligent by any human standards.

We don't need to worry though because it couldn't answer this question:

ChatGPT easily fails at obvious riddles, such as “What is the first name of the father of Sebastian’s children?” (ChatGPT on March 21: I’m sorry, I cannot answer this question as I do not have enough context to identify which Sebastian you are referring to.) It seems that ChatGPT fails to reason logically and tries to rely on its vast database of “Sebastian” facts mentioned in online texts.

This is what happened when I tried the Sebastian test on GPT-4:

Ah, I understand now. This riddle is a classic play on words. The answer is "Sebastian" himself, as he is the father of his children.

Ok, so that's reassuring. 

A response to Scott Aaronson's rejection of an AI pause.

Scott Aaronson, who works on AI safety for OpenAI, wrote a critique of AI Pause that was not up to his usual standards. Here's what I wrote as a comment:

Hi Scott — I was confused by your post. I’m usually able to follow them. I won’t defend the letter directly and Yudkowsky/TIME is not worth a mention but maybe you could clarify some things…

1. 6m seems a reasonable compromise given the lifespan of humans, the timescales of human deliberation and the commercial and military pressure to accelerate AI development. Short enough to motivate urgent action, but long enough that reflection is possible. (I doubt we actually pause, but I agree with the principle. China isn’t going to pause of course.)

2. Let’s assume GPT 5 with an array of NLP powered extensions exceeds the reasoning abilities of 95% of humanity in a wide variety of knowledge domains. That’s a shock on the scale of developing fire, but it’s occurring in a hugely complex and interdependent world that seems always on the edge of self-destruction and actually has the capabilities to end itself. We’re not hunter gatherers playing with fire or Mesopotomians developing writing. There’s no precedent for the speed, impact and civilizational fragility we face now.

3. It’s not relevant that people who signed this letter were previously skeptical of the progress towards AI. I recall 10 years ago you were skeptical. For my part I’ve been worried for a long time, but assumed it was going to come in 2080 or so. 60 years early is a reason to pause and understand what has happened.

Lastly, I read the OpenAI statement. That seems consistent with a pause.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Everything is just fine.

The ad-funded internet is collapsing. It's been ailing for years but, as seems to the rule, the last bit is happening quite quickly. I'm guessing advertisers, who must be kind of dim, finally realized they were wasting their money. They did much better funding special interest magazines but those are gone now. Much of Silicon Valley has been funded by a now defunct business model. So maybe this is not a good time to be there. (Or, if you are young and have some money, maybe this is the best time to be there.)

Meanwhile human-cognition level AI has arrived. About 60 years earlier than I'd hoped. And some people thought "Don't Look Up" was about climate change. As a guide I recommend the movie Superintelligence; particularly the protagonist's approach to the end of the world. (Spoiler: It's a rom-com. Her world does not end.)

It's whitewater world all over now. On the bright side, we don't need to waste too much time on longterm planning. I retired in August of 2022 so I think I'll focus on mountain bike trail maintenance and, like Superintelligence's Carol Peters, on the needs of friends and family.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

I ask ChatGPT about the next step.

 Not a bad response.

”Describe what happens when ChatGPT is enhanced with natural language processing and domain-specific knowledge modules.”

--


When ChatGPT is enhanced with natural language processing and domain-specific knowledge modules, it gains several capabilities that allow it to better understand and respond to user input.


Natural language processing (NLP) is a field of artificial intelligence that focuses on enabling computers to understand and interpret human language. By incorporating NLP into ChatGPT, the model can better analyze and interpret user input, including understanding sentence structure, recognizing named entities, and determining the meaning of words in context. This allows ChatGPT to generate more accurate and relevant responses to user queries.


Domain-specific knowledge modules provide ChatGPT with specialized knowledge related to a particular field or topic. For example, if ChatGPT is enhanced with a medical knowledge module, it can better understand medical terminology and provide more accurate and relevant responses to medical-related queries. By incorporating domain-specific knowledge modules, ChatGPT can tailor its responses to specific user needs, making it a more effective conversational agent.


Together, these enhancements enable ChatGPT to better understand and respond to user input, providing more accurate and relevant information to users. This can lead to a more engaging and satisfying user experience, as well as improved productivity and efficiency in a wide range of applications.”

Monday, February 20, 2023

Be afraid of ChatGPT

TL;DR: It's not that ChatGPT is miraculous, it's that cognitive science research suggests human cognition is also not miraculous.

"Those early airplanes were nothing compared to our pigeon-powered flight technology!"

https://chat.openai.com/chat - "Write a funny but profound sentence about what pigeons thought of early airplanes"

Relax

Be Afraid

ChatGPT is just a fancy autocomplete.

Much of human language generation may be a fancy autocomplete.

ChatGPT confabulates.

Humans with cognitive disabilities routinely confabulate and under enough stress most humans will confabulate. 

ChatGPT can’t do arithmetic.

IF a monitoring system can detect a question involves arithmetic or mathematics it can invoke a math system*.


UPDATE: 2 hours after writing this I read that this has been done.

ChatGPT’s knowledge base is faulty.

ChatGPT’s knowledge base is vastly larger than that of most humans and it will quickly improve.

ChatGPT doesn’t have explicit goals other than a design goal to emulate human interaction.

Other goals can be implemented.

We don’t know how to emulate the integration layer humans use to coordinate input from disparate neural networks and negotiate conflicts.

*I don't know the status of such an integration layer. It may already have been built. If not it may take years or decades -- but probably not many decades.

We can’t even get AI to drive a car, so we shouldn’t worry about this.

It’s likely that driving a car basically requires near-human cognitive abilities. The car test isn’t reassuring.

ChatGPT isn’t conscious.

Are you conscious? Tell me what consciousness is.

ChatGPT doesn’t have a soul.

Show me your soul.

Relax - I'm bad at predictions. In 1945 I would have said it was impossible, barring celestial intervention, for humanity to go 75 years without nuclear war.


See also:

  • All posts tagged as skynet
  • Scott Aaronson and the case against strong AI (2008). At that time Aaronson felt a sentient AI was sometime after 2100. Fifteen years later (Jan 2023) Scott is working for OpenAI (ChatGPT). Emphases mine: "I’m now working at one of the world’s leading AI companies ... that company has already created GPT, an AI with a good fraction of the fantastical verbal abilities shown by M3GAN in the movie ... that AI will gain many of the remaining abilities in years rather than decades, and .. my job this year—supposedly!—is to think about how to prevent this sort of AI from wreaking havoc on the world."
  • Imagining the Singularity - in 1965 (2009 post.  Mathematician I.J. Good warned of an "intelligence explosion" in 1965. "Irving John ("I.J."; "Jack") Good (9 December 1916 – 5 April 2009)[1][2] was a British statistician who worked as a cryptologist at Bletchley Park."
  • The Thoughtful Slime Mold (2008). We don't fly like bird's fly.
  • Fermi Paradox resolutions (2000)
  • Against superhuman AI: in 2019 I felt reassured.
  • Mass disability (2012) - what happens as more work is done best by non-humans. This post mentions Clark Goble, an app.net conservative I miss quite often. He died young.
  • Phishing with the post-Turing avatar (2010). I was thinking 2050 but now 2025 is more likely.
  • Rat brain flies plane (2004). I've often wondered what happened to that work.
  • Cat brain simulator (2009). "I used to say that the day we had a computer roughly as smart as a hamster would be a good day to take the family on the holiday you've always dreamed of."
  • Slouching towards Skynet (2007). Theories on the evolution of cognition often involve aspects of deception including detection and deceit.
  • IEEE Singularity Issue (2008). Widespread mockery of the Singularity idea followed.
  • Bill Joy - Why the Future Doesn't Need Us (2000). See also Wikipedia summary. I'd love to see him revisit this essay but, again, he was widely mocked.
  • Google AI in 2030? (2007) A 2007 prediction by Peter Norvig that we'd have strong AI around 2030. That ... is looking possible.
  • Google's IQ boost (2009) Not directly related to this topic but reassurance that I'm bad at prediction. Google went to shit after 2009.
  • Skynet cometh (2009). Humor.
  • Personal note - in 1979 or so John Hopfield excitedly described his work in neural networks to me. My memory is poor but I think we were outdoors at the Caltech campus. I have no recollection of why we were speaking, maybe I'd attended a talk of his. A few weeks later I incorporated his explanations into a Caltech class I taught to local high school students on Saturday mornings. Hopfield would be about 90 if he's still alive. If he's avoided dementia it would be interesting to ask him what he thinks.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Tips for the geriatric CrossFit addict (Update: a parallel essay by ChatGPT 4)

My 10 year CrossFit anniversary is two months away. A few months after I started as an old man of 53 I wrote:
... I now do CrossFit twice a week; that's about as much as I have been able to safely handle ... physically I perform and feel more like I did at 44 than at 54. That's a big difference; if I feel at 62 the way I was at 52 I'll be content...  At 54 I'm into managed-decline rather than improvement ... Will I still be doing CrossFit at 64? It seems unlikely, but it's not impossible ... I  rather doubt I'll be doing "Murph" in this life ...
Almost 10 years later I don't go twice a week, I go four or five times a week. I am better and stronger at all CrossFit things now than I was at 53. I didn't do "managed decline", I improved in most things until I was about 60 to 61; I set a lifetime record for my front squat at 63. Barring a surprising injury I'll probably be doing CrossFit at 64. I've done Murph many times, albeit not with a weighted vest.

I've run into a few issues along the way. I inherited my mother's arthritis; my left wrist now limits my bench press and I now do pushups off a dumbbell rather than the floor (aka "true pushups").  I squashed a lumbar disc and even though the minor foot drop went away (took 2 years but they aren't supposed to resolve so I'm happy) I now limit my lifts to under 250 lbs. I've seen a physical therapist a few times over the years and I developed a somewhat extreme back maintenance program. On the other hand my body has bounced up from a few mountain bike crashes and my back has been much better than it was from 1980 to 2009.

In other words, I've been successful so far at geriatric CrossFit. Here's what I do to get by: (I'm a puny guy by the way, my lifetime best lifts are warmups for many men and women in their 40s and well beyond.)
  1. I lift 10 lb weights carefully. That's because I once injured my back carelessly lifting a 10 lb weight! Olds get hurt taking plates off the barbell -- because they don't pay attention to such a small weight.
  2. I substitute reps for weight. My current weight cap is about 250 lbs, so rather than try a 300 lb deadlift I'll do several reps at 245. If my arthritic wrist is limiting my bench press I'll find a weight I can lift with wrist comfort and stability and then do reps until I fail. I miss the fun of the 1 rep max but they don't build functional strength so subbing reps isn't all bad.
  3. I've become an amateur physical therapist (it helps to be a physician). With my experience and some online resources I can treat most overuse issues myself. If I'm not succeeding I see a professional.
  4. I generally follow a blend of the Rx (elite) women's and men's standard but if I'm on my third day in a row I've beaten my ego back enough to super-scale. That gives me 80% of the benefit and 5% of the overuse risk.
  5. I start my personal warmup 30-40 minutes before the class warmup starts. It helps to be retired. If we're doing a power lift I'll work up to 80% of my target weight during the warmup.
  6. I rarely do more than 3 consecutive days of CrossFit. I like to do two days on, one day off. During my off days I do other things - bicycling, hockey, inline, skiing, etc.
  7. I do protein drinks and morning eggs and the usual protein things. Olds need more protein. It seems to help. (I exercise enough that I usually eat 4 meals a day.)
  8. This isn't really a geriatric CrossFit thing but it's probably worth mentioning that puny guys like me should never try to out-lift an elite woman CrossFitter. That way lies humiliation and broken bits.
  9. It takes a while for my cardio system to engage. In cardio workouts I usually start slow and finish better. I do 90% of my capacity rather than 100% -- I don't like having my blood pressure drop out when my heart can't keep up.
  10. Don't laugh when the super-fit 40yo next to you complains about being old (a small ironic smile is ok). In general don't talk about age unless asked. Your younger colleagues don't need to know and Oldness is kind of a downer. Also, whether you like it or not, you are often their model for what they want to be in 20 or 30 years. They may talk about you. So suck it up.
That's my list of tips for now, I'll update this post if I think of some others. Please note I'm not actually recommending CrossFit as a great activity for 60+. I enjoy CrossFit, but there are less extreme group exercise programs that are probably safer. Just a lot less fun and a lot less effective.

UPDATE 3/28/2023. I asked ChatGPT to create something like this blog post. Damn but it's not bad. It's more generic than my tips, but it didn't actually have my blog post (knowledge base is 2021). It had to have 10 items on the list of course.

Prompt

Write a list of tips for persons over 60 years old doing CrossFit to maximize benefit and minimize injury. Write in the style of the blog at notes.kateva.org.

Result (ChatGPT 4, March 28, 2023)

CrossFit for the Golden Generation - Maximize Benefits and Minimize Injuries After 60

CrossFit is an excellent way for individuals of all ages to stay active and maintain their fitness. For those in their golden years, taking up CrossFit can be an empowering and effective way to promote overall well-being. However, it's important to be aware of certain precautions and modifications to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here are some tips for those over 60 years old embarking on their CrossFit journey:
  1. Consult your doctor: Before you jump into a CrossFit routine, consult your physician to determine whether you have any health conditions or physical limitations that may require modifications.
  2. Choose a suitable CrossFit gym: Look for a CrossFit gym (or "box") that is known for catering to a diverse range of ages and abilities. A good gym will have experienced coaches who understand the unique needs of older adults.
  3. Start slow and steady: Don't rush into high-intensity workouts. Begin with lower intensity exercises to build up your strength, endurance, and flexibility gradually.
  4. Prioritize form over intensity: As an older adult, it's essential to focus on proper form and technique to reduce the risk of injury. Don't hesitate to ask for guidance from your coach.
  5. Modify exercises when needed: Be mindful of your limitations and work with your coach to modify or scale exercises as needed. There's no shame in scaling back to protect your body.
  6. Emphasize mobility and flexibility: Incorporate stretching and mobility exercises into your routine to improve your range of motion and decrease the risk of injury.
  7. Listen to your body: Pay attention to any pain or discomfort you experience during your workouts. If something doesn't feel right, stop and consult your coach or a medical professional.
  8. Stay hydrated and nourished: As you age, your body may require more time to recover from strenuous activities. Ensure you're staying hydrated and consuming a balanced diet to aid in recovery and overall health.
  9. Rest and recover: Give your body ample time to recover between workouts. Schedule rest days and prioritize sleep to allow your body to repair itself and avoid overtraining.
  10. Build a supportive community: Surround yourself with like-minded individuals who share your fitness goals and can offer encouragement, camaraderie, and motivation.
By following these tips, you can maximize the benefits of CrossFit while minimizing the risk of injury. Embrace this new challenge and enjoy the journey to better health and fitness in your golden years!

Wednesday, November 02, 2022

What I learned about managing catalytic converter theft: OEM vs aftermarket vs universal

The catalytic converter on my much loved 2010 Kia Sedona van was stolen. (I think there are two and the rear converter was removed. I'm not a car guy.) It's an every day thing around here.

This is what I learned about this problem.

  1. Manufacturers only stock OEM converters for 10y post model date. So there's no OEM solution.
  2. The normal option to an OEM converter is a "bolt-on" aftermarket product. This is typically installed by a service garage or muffler shop. In Nov 2022 there are none available for the Kia Sedona and many other vehicles. It's a national shortage.
There are three remaining options:
  1. A "straight pipe": This is illegal but in our fallen times nobody seems to care. (Mad Max didn't even have a muffler.) Done by some muffler shops and by guys working out of their home. Oxygen sensor is a common issue, there are probably others. Not so good for the environment, but neither is replacing the vehicle.
  2. A "universal catalytic converter". Insurance companies will send customers to a muffler shop that will install (weld I think) a "universal converter". These are not a perfect match to the vehicle so they may cause performance issues and trigger a check engine light. For this reason service shops avoid them in normal times. That "we don't go there" rule can cause some bad advice in post-apocalyptic times.
  3. Sell or junk the vehicle and pay $50,000 for a new van. If sell then the buyer does one of the above.
Our garage mechanic didn't mention the "universal catalytic converter" option because "they don't do that". Sadly he hadn't updated his algorithm to deal with the national shortage. Now we have a new mechanic (He did apologize for his error, but hd didn't think to offer a retention incentive. I think he'll give better advice in the future.)

If you do replace a catalytic converter it may, of course, be stolen again. Consider a weld-on cage so thieves choose a neighboring vehicle instead. Or a straight pipe so they don't bother. It's handy to have a junk car when parking in unsecured lots in metro Minneapolis St Paul.

[Political aside: property crime will elect the GOP in America. Don't get fooled into thinking that only violent crime rates matter.]

Monday, October 24, 2022

Installing a NiteRider headlamp on a Bell helmet's GoPro mount with K-Edge adapter and Suptig thumbscrews

My Bell Super Air mountain bike helmet (removable face guard) came with an undocumented snap-in GoPro mount. I figured I'd use it to hold a NiteRider light for night trail rides (a relatively common Minnesota activity, we use one bar light and helmet light). This was more of a journey than I expected, so I wrote this up to share.

The first mistake I made was treating the Super Air GoPro mount as removable. It broke and in COVID times it took months to get a replacement. When you snap that thing in don't try to remove it; I think it's designed to safely break under stress. 

You can see the mount on the photo below, as well as my light, the NiteRider approved K-Edge adapter ($30 with shipping!, but if you know what to look for you can get it via Amazon for $20 with Prime), the remnant of a Best Tek Amazon adapter (very good except it broke after 3 uses, $10) and "Suptig thumbscrews for GoPro" ($7).


The bottom line is to mount a light on this helmet's GoPro mount you need the K-Edge adapter (their site, NiteRider site) and the Suptig thumbscrews. If you're Amazon Prime you can get both for $27. (I think K-Edge makes a range of GoPro mounts that can be used with NiteRider and this adapter.)

There are limited directions for installation so check out the photo on the K-Edge site; it shows how you orient it in the NiteRider groove.)

The K-Edge is a tough of alloy. You slide it in the NiteRider groove and once you have a good balance point position you tighten two small hex bolts. It ain't coming off without an Allen key.


I actually liked the Best Tek adapter better, it looked like a regular NiteRider mount fused to a GoPro. Sadly it was made using a very inexpensive plastic, didn't slide in and out very well, and the release tab broke off the 3rd time I used it.

Here's the K-Edge with Suptig thumbscrew on the Bell Super Air's Go Pro mount. It's very solid and a great location on the helmet for trail illumination. Of course we have to watch for branches, I've walked lights more than once.


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

On buying a less expensive bike for riding dirt trails - used and new

A friend asked me for advice on buying a bicycle suited to dirt trails (up to novice singletrack as well as city trails). She would want to spend under $1500 (preferably under $800!). See also: online sources and buying a used road bike.

The best choice for this is probably a hard fork mountain bike with 2" tires. These, however, do not exist short of very high end gravel bikes that are way overkill for her. The next best options are 

  1. Hard fork fat bike with 4" tires and a less aggressive tread. This works reasonably well for shorter road trips, avoids all the cost and complexity associated with a quality front shock, and will be comfortable on any kind of sand and dirt and most novice trails. Alloy frame.
  2. A "hard tail" (front but no rear suspension) mountain bike. Alloy frame.
Used or new?

Most used bikes are overpriced. Always compare to new and consider bike shop customer support. Don't buy used without an expert friend to inspect. A 1996-2010 26" wheel size hard form mountain bike with a quality front fork that still works can be a good deal. These are hard to find but often good value; sometimes they show up at community bike restore/sell shops and used bike dealers. Bicycle BlueBook helps with evaluating costs. Always compare to cost of new similar bike. Get help to avoid buying stolen bikes. Buying a used road bike is a bit dated but mostly still true.

A 1994 high end hard fork 26" mountain bike can be a good deal. Very hard to find. Consider calling Mr Micheals Reycles Bicycles and asking them to keep an eye open.

A disadvantage of older trail bikes is their "geometry". Modern trail bikes have been changed so they are much harder to go over the front wheel; older bikes are more responsive up front but sometimes that's a problem.

Bike shop employees sometimes sell 1yo bikes for what they paid for them (half-new) but these are usually high end bikes.

Mail order?

New bikes are considerably cheaper when ordered by mail but this is more for an expert buyer.

Local Bike Shops

In the MSP metro area I've been happy with Freewheel, Erik's and REI. There are some other high end shops I like but they are much more money.

Outfitters!

Outfitters that do mountain bike tours often recycle their fleet yearly. They buy on a discount and I think they sell for something close to what they paid. This can be a great bargain but the bikes go fast. I get an email every fall from Western Spirit giving me a chance to buy.

Some "reference" new bikes to use when shopping

I like Trek bikes. They are well made, well warranteed, easy to get parts for, easy to service locally, and are fairly priced.

1. Trek Roscoe 7 is a serious modern hard tail mountain bike. It's also over $1900. The Marlin is their entry level bike and is also quite good at $850.

REI store brand bikes can also be a reasonable deal, but in practice most good bikes are very similar prices.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

What is "manliness" in 2022?

Over the past year or two several of my favorite writers have expressed uncertainty about the American cultural standard for "manliness". Some wonder if it even exists.

Speaking from Oldness I would say that there is a clear standard of "manliness" in American culture and that it has changed relatively little over the past 80 years.

Manliness is Shane in 1949. It's the MCU's Steve Rogers (more than the comics actually). It's Aragorn in the LOTR. In the 1970s it's James Bond and Playboy and, more recently, Men's Journal. It's Kipling's (yes, that one) 1943 poem ...
If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too ...

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same ...

... If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son

Manliness includes enjoying toys, whether they are garden tools or drills or mountain bikes or skis or Lego models. There is continuity with Boyliness.

While Manliness has not changed much, there have been changes in who can be Manly. The role was once restricted to penis people. It's now open to all. Once you understand that you can see the continuity of the cultural model.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Phone and data services for travelers to Europe

Our daughter is doing a semester abroad in Florence Italy so I've been looking into voice, SMS and data services. In particular the transition from physical SIM to eSIM has given us new options and new complexity. 

I found these sites useful:
Some key findings:
  • The use of SMS as 2FA means she needs access to her US SMS number
  • Although AT&T charges $10 a day for data access it's capped at 10 days of use a month. So max of $100 a month. As soon as you data roam the charge is activated for one day (I think local midnight?)
  • For $15/month she can call US numbers toll-free and send and receive SMS without a fee.
  • The Savvy Backpacker overstates how established eSIMs are in Europe -- especially if you want a local number. I think physical nano-SIMs are still the default and are more economical
  • European eSIMs are often data only, there's no local number. I wanted a local number she could use though we may find that's not necessary.
  • eSIM prepaid plans vary in when the clock starts running and when service expires ("credit validity"). Expiration is in the range of 2 to 4 weeks from either purchase or first use or activation.
  • Supposedly any EU mobile plans works without roaming fees.
  • Foreigners buy SIMs in Italy probably need to jump through paperwork with hidden feeds for "antiterrorism" measures -- and because this is Italy.
We decided to:
  • Pay the AT&T international plan fee so she can do SMS and phone on her US SIM.
  • Accept that at first she may roam on her AT&T SIM for $10/day ($100/month) until we sort out options
  • Switch her iPhone to use AT&T eSIM even though that will cause AT&T to charge us an "activation fee" of $30 (I hate that scam). That frees up a slot for a local SIM card. (We found that the on-iPhone SIM-to-eSIM conversion does not trigger an AT&T activation fee!)
  • Plan on buying a physical SIM in Italy, compare options to Lebara.
Update 9/22/2022

Some things we learned after going through the process ...
  1. We switched her US AT&T SIM to eSIM so we freed up her physical SIM slot.
  2. On arrival she used her AT&T SIM until she had a local SIM ($10/day of use, max $100/mo)
  3. In Italy her host organization recommended a local vendor and SIM at a reasonable monthly rate. They streamlined the paperwork.
  4. With iPhone dual SIM her phone is set to:
    1. AT&T eSIM: no roaming, active so can receive texts and calls (no fee to receive)
    2. Local Italian physical SIM: no roaming but provides local data services. Can send and receive calls and texts.
For my part I'm traveling to Florence in a few days. I'm planning to just pay AT&T $100 and use their roaming service. (I tried to be sneaky and sign up for T-Mobile's Network Pass, but of course that doesn't qualify for roaming services.)

A reader, Fran├žois H., provided some additional useful information for longer term visits (like my daughter's):

① Expect paperwork in any EU country to open a phone line. It is normal procedure to be asked for a passport and proof of address in the form of a lease agreement, landline bill or some other antiquated piece of paper (gas bill, tax return…). I share your feelings on how intrusive and pointless this is, but this is, sadly, a universal hurdle. At a pinch, a handwritten sworn statement from a host often works, alongside a copy of their own ID.

② Beware of eSIMs: they work well but many companies force users to start with a physical SIM before switching to an eSIM, especially when replacing the SIM after the loss or theft of the original phone, supposedly “for security.” This makes your decision to leave the physical slot open in Europe all the more important, as it may be impossible to activate or renew an eSIM directly. (The biggest trap is that it is usually possible to open a new line as an eSIM, but not to transfer or restore it without going physical for “verification” purposes.)

③ Beware of EU roaming: yes, it is possible to roam in the EU without incurring additional charges, thanks to one of the EU’s few straightforwardly positive laws. However, there is a so-called fairness clause attached: travellers must still use more data or minutes per month in the plan’s home country than they do in other EU countries. Failing this, the phone company will be allowed to charge extra. This is to prevent consumers in expensive EU countries from purchasing cell plans in cheaper countries and using them at home full time. In other words, EU-wide roaming works great when travelling within the EU but cannot be relied on to source a cheaper or better plan for someone who plans to remain in another country. (It is also not uncommon for schools and various government offices to require local phone numbers, making the use of a foreign number rather risky.)

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Putting down a marker on post-COVID encephalopathy (PCE)

I generally have opinions on things even in the absence of science or data. They are often wrong. Even so, for my own future amusement, here's my take on fatigue/cognitive symptoms persisting months after a COVID infection:
  • I think direct post-viral fatigue, including post-COVID is in the head. Specifically, in brain tissues. Something along the lines of an encephalitis or MS -- encephalopathy is probably the best term. A persistent inflammatory condition related to immune dysfunction or persistent infection by something (like reactivated latent viruses, COVID, etc).
  • It's very hard to separate post-viral neuronal dysfunction from anxiety, depression, ongoing dementing processes, coincident head injuries, coincident brain disorders, sleep disorders and the like. It's all in the brain after all. (These aren’t exclusive conditions, so some unlucky person must get all of them at once. Heck, for all we know depression is partly a postviral damage disorder.) We need better tech -- maybe a combination of anatomic and functional brain imaging will help one day. Maybe it will be something we can diagnoses between MRI and lumbar puncture/CSF samples.
  • I think one day we'll find post-COVID encephalopathy (PCE I'll call it) occurs in less than 1 in 500 ever-infected people and in most it improves over 3m to 1y.  In most, but we now believe MS is an infrequent or rare sequelae of Epstein-Barr infection. So we gotta worry that some PCE is not going to get better unless we come up with new treatments.
  • There are almost certainly other viruses that cause similar conditions (post-viral encephalopathy). Maybe non-COVID coronavirus URIs aren't as benign as we thought.
Maybe in 2030 I'll come across this and update with how it turned out.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Paxlovid indications and the Test to Treat program

Paxlovid is indicated for persons at significant risk of bad COVID. As of June 2022 it's crazy-making hard to find a description of what makes someone high risk (and I'm a doc). The only readable and public summary I found is from Mayo Clinic and it's quite long. Basically high risk is a mixture of COVID-immune status (vaccination, prior infection), age (65+ but especially 85+), immune suppression (disease, meds), chronic disease of lungs, heart, liver, kidney (dialysis!), psychiatric and cognitive disorders and Downs syndrome. I'd add substance use disorders (alcohol, fentanyl, etc.)

In general if you regularly see a subspecialist for anything you're high risk (and if also not immunized/prior infected you are kind of suicidal).

If you are not high risk and you are well vaccinated think twice about Paxlovid. It's a serious medication.

So you think you have COVID and you are higher risk, how do you get Paxlovid? 

One problem is you need to get it pretty soon (2 days ideal!) after infection, and current antigen tests are turning positive later in the disease (unclear why, maybe antigen drift). So if a test is positive you need it fast. I'd personally like to see highest risk patients have a two day supply on hand to start taking as soon as the test is positive. They would need significant support and education though.

The best current solution appears to be a program even I had not heard of -- the Federal Test to Treat program (phone 1-800-232-023). You can enter your address in a locator and it tells you where to go. Bring test results or they test, bring your meds because drug interactions are a big deal (Paxlovid is intentionally designed to screw up liver drug metabolism because the active ingredient is super expensive and would be rapidly cleared by the liver.)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

What is Great Replacement Theory?

 [Copied over from a tweet stream.]

So now I'm trying to figure out what Great Replacement Theory is. It seems to be one part true and one part sort-of true.

The true part is that we expect a low-melanin blond-red hair (LMB) phenotype to become less common barring genome hacking. That's been well expected since at least the 1970s (perhaps 1870s?). These are recessive genes and migration and differential birthrates mean they will become uncommon.

The sort-of true part is that libs like me don't care about this. It's not just that my white skin is a PITA (thin, burnt, premalignant), it's also that we have a lot more to worry about. Like civilization for example.

The mostly untrue part is that libs/dems are conspiring to accelerate the decline of the LMB phenotype.

It's true we hope the GOP's white nationalism will discourage "non-white" (whatever whiteness is) voters, it's true we encourage immigration as a generally good thing for a low birth rate America that has benefitted from attracting worldwide talent, it's true that we enjoy and appreciate novelty and diversity, and it's true that we think it would quite good if all this led to the GOP to morph into a non-racist opposition party.

But it's not true that this is an explicit conspiracy.  It is, perhaps, an emergent result of our not caring that much about preserving a particular phenotype, our interest in preserving human and American civilization and our affection for novelty and diversity. I can, however, see why people who are passionately attached to LMB phenotypes would confuse this emergent result with a diabolical conspiracy.