Tuesday, November 30, 2010

XMind: Software made in China for OS X and Windows

I am a niche market; I need software that few people care about.

For example, I need software to dynamically manage concepts (ex: “ideas”), concept properties (“attributes”) and relationships. These products are usually marketed as “mind map” or “outliner” or (less often) concept mapping tools.

Even though this is a niche market where good software goes to die, geek developers cannot resist it. So they create beautiful products with relatively short lifespans. Past examples include Symantec’s MORE 3.1 (my all-time favorite), Ecco Professional, Lotus Agenda, Symantec’s GrandView, and Inspiration [1] (Mac, Windows, Palm!). There are many other examples.

Current examples include MindManager ($$$), FreeMind, Freeplane and OmniOutliner (OS X, outliner only). There are many others, the Freemind wiki has two pages describing Freemind’s alternatives.

One of those alternatives is XMind. There’s something special about XMind. XMind has been made in Shenzhen China since 2006. It’s currently available for Windows and OS X. It is the only multinational consumer-oriented Windows  productivity software I’ve come across that is made in China; I don’t know of any OS X productivity software made in China.

This is an intriguing, even historic, development. [2]

[1] Didn’t exactly die, went to a school-only market.
[2] I don’t recommend the software though. The churn in this market and the costs of data lock mean I wouldn’t consider any product that used a proprietary file format. The XMind file format is proprietary. Even with open source products you need to evaluate the data store strategy.

Celebrating the war for the preservation of slavery

It’s been 150 years since the war for the preservation of slavery began …

Secession Defended on Civil War Anniversary - NYTimes.com

… James W. Loewen … put it: “The North did not go to war to end slavery, it went to war to hold the country together and only gradually did it become anti-slavery — but slavery is why the South seceded.”…

Of course millions in the South were anti-slavery too. Unfortunately, they were slaves.

Some wish to celebrate the event …

… events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.

In addition, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and some of its local chapters are preparing various television commercials that they hope to show next year. “All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves,” says one ad from the group’s Georgia Division…

“Govern ourselves”. Uh huh.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Who’s betting on China’s bubble blowout?

China will be the third great bubble blowout in a bit over ten years, following the .com and leverage bubbles. The world, of course, will go back into yet another great recession (YAGR).

What a way to start a millenium!

When will China’s bubble blow? I’m guessing within the next 12 months, but since I usually guess early a more likely answer is 18 months from now.

That much is obvious. What I want to know is how the Lords of Finance are placing their bets. I assume the big money will be in currency shifts.

When China’s bubble collapses the remninbi will drop compared to the US dollar. So I’m assuming those with money will bet using a convoluted and indirect equivalent of buying the right to exchange renminbi for dollars in 2012 at today’s exchange rates. Since it’s widely assumed that the renminbi will rise over the next few years those contracts may discounted.

So here’s the assignment for an ambitious journalist. Figure out how the bet will be made, then look for evidence that billions of dollars are already on the sidelines.

I suspect Soros has something on the line …

Sunday, November 28, 2010

wikileaks: An unstable China

Reuters' hit list of this week's top WikiLeaks was remarkably uninteresting except for this one ...

Factbox: WikiLeaks cables offer inside peek at global crises | Reuters

... China's Politburo directed the intrusion into Google's computer systems in that country, a Chinese contact told the U.S. Embassy in January, as part of a computer sabotage campaign carried out by government operatives, private experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into U.S. government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002, cables said."...

This confirmation is relatively newsworthy; it's consistent with China's rare earth embargo and China's support for North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island. China is less stable than most imagine.

Update 12/1/10: Subsequent leaks portray China's leadership much more favorably. In particular, they are portrayed as more sane about North Korea and Iran than I expected.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Destination Cross country resort-class trails within five hours of Minneapolis St. Paul (MSP)

Nordic skiing (cross-country for Americans) has been in decline since the 1970s. Too warm.

Last winter, though, was pretty good in MSP. The temperatures were above 20th century means, but unusually moist air made up for that. Even better, my Machiavellian schemes worked and we got the kids to join us.

We're trying again, including planning our Feb (President's Day) family trip. The now defunct Telemark Lodge was the near-perfect spot for our gang, so now I'm looking for alternatives I can cobble together. I'll probably have to combine something like an AmericInn with not-too-distant trails.

It's oddly hard to assemble a list of reasonable candidates, but I've got a few. Since I've done the work, here's a short list for the three other humans with similar interests. All of these places are listed on Adelsman's Cross-Country Ski Page. I prefer single track to today's skateways, but unless otherwise noted these trails are very wide. Most of these places have no WiFi and some have limited cell service.

All distances are from St. Paul, Minnesota. I've bolded a few I'm focusing on ...

Zone 1: 2-3 hours from MSP

Zone 2: 3-4 hours

  • Mogasheen Resort:
  • 23380 Missionary Point Drive, Cable, WI 54821. Cabins with a pool/game room building. Small local trail, extensive trail systems about 20-30 minute drive. Small swimming pool, food in cabin or local restaurants (20-30 min). Mostly snowmobile but significant cross-country. Dogs welcome but not, I think, on trails.

Zone 3: 4+ hours

I've generally linked to business web sites, but in several cases there are more interesting and useful associated Facebook pages. The remaining lodges seem effectively adult only; I don't think our team would be a good fit (Emily and I would love them however!).

Only Mogasheen is both Nordic Ski and kid friendly, though in winter they don't get that many kids. The distance is good.

Minocqua, ABR Trails and Brainerd would mean staying at a Hotel and driving 15-30 min to trails. The Minocqua and ABR Trails sites are considerably further than Brainerd from MSP, but the trails are better and it's much more of a focal nordic scene (great description in 1994 Stride and Glide: A Guide to Wisconsin's Best Cross-Country Trails).

Update Dec 2021

I was delighted to find this long forgotten post in my archives. Since 2010, as we expected, snow coverage has declined. These days we typically make two sets of reservations that can be canceled and choose one based on snow conditions. We may pick one west of Lake Superior and one South of Superior. Most resorts don't allow short-term cancellations so we have to do hotel reservations and resorts at the last minute.

As our children have grown wifi is more of an issue. My wife and I would love rustic cabins with limited mobile service, but it's a deal killer for our young adult children. Many of the best XC ski resorts won't work for them.

One day Emily and I might make it to Stokely Creek. There might be snow there.

Snow Depth and Condition Maps

Friday, November 26, 2010

Price Discrimination and Black Friday

My family doesn't normally shop on Black Friday -- the savings aren't worth the pain. Today, though, I took the boys to a local nordic ski shop. The timing was right, and I figured a specialty shop like Finn Sisu wouldn't get a lot of sales traffic.

Wrong. We walked in, looked around, and walked out.

Which made me wonder - why is Black Friday such a mess?

It's the same reason that clipping coupons is a tedious chore. Coupon clipping and Black Friday sales enable price discrimination. Black Friday wait times eliminate people who will pay full price, while pulling in people who won't pay full price.

(PS. I figured out the price discrimination angle myself, but instead of writing a long and ill-informed post I found someone who'd written a good explanation. See also: Price discrimination - Wikipedia.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Perhaps man was not meant to fly after all

Most things do not end the way I once imagined. The buildings don’t collapse because the foundation is gone. They sag. They fade. For a long while nothing seems all that different. One day we realize they’re really gone.

I thought fax machines would be gone by 1990. This morning I explained to Emily how our never used Brother MFC fax function could be, in theory, receive a fax sent to our home number.

After the anthrax attack I though letters would go away; that PDF would replace both paper mail and, incidentally, fax. I still get letters.

I don’t get many letters though, and I don’t get many faxes. Postal stations are closing. Kinkos, where we used to send and receive faxes, is going away. Faxes, letters, pay phones, printers – they’re joining slide rules, typewriters and carbon paper.

In November of 2001 I thought the era of mass air travel would end. It seemed too expensive to secure planes given the psychology of fear and the limitations of human risk assessment. Havoc was simply too inexpensive, too easy. I thought the teleprescence market would take off. I didn’t expect Al Qaeda to spend 9 years being stupid. Alas, they seem to have gotten smarter lately.

Now, 9 years later, air travel is much more expensive and uncomfortable than it used to be. Now the poor sods doing TSA work are mocked and scorned. Now my employer rarely flies any worker bees anywhere. Now Apple markets FaceTime (though nobody actually uses it).

Popular aviation is looking rusty, and the Great-Recession-deferred 2011 $5/gallon gasoline I predicted in 2007 is still coming, albeit two years late. As gas prices rise, so will the price of aviation fuel.

Faxes may be gone by 2020. I think so will the air travel we once knew. The world is going to get much bigger.

See also:



Sunday, November 21, 2010

Speculation: The corporate ecosystem and American stasis

To speculate is to "form a theory or conjecture about a subject without firm evidence" [1]. My speculation tagged posts are things I suspect are true - even though I know I lack evidence. This is one of them.

For some years [2] I have been playing with a speculation that large publicly traded corporations [1], independent of their managers, are self-sustaining super-organisms of commerce-space that, like biological organisms, can change their (legal, regulatory and cultural ecosystem) to their peculiar tastes. I call this entity AmoebaCorp; I imagine it oozing and absorbing in an abstract "space" where individual humans are invisible atoms.

Over the last two hundred years of American history corporate power and influence has waxed and waned. Within the past year the corporate entity reversed a small transient setback and completed a dramatic transformation of its political ecosystem. The power of AmoebaCorp is higher than average, perhaps as high as it has ever been. The power of individuals, both the few that are strong and the many that are weak, has been commensurately reduced.

I wonder what that means for us. Corporations, after all, are not (yet) enemies of individual humans. They need us the way software needs hardware and memes need brains. They certainly need the rule of law; most AmoebaCorp hate war [3]. We individuals, CEOs and peons alike, are frenemies of AmoebaCorp .

On the other hand, I don't think AmoebaCorp can get its mind around what we need to do for global climate change. Its timescape is even shorter than ours. With CT2 (Carbon Tax and Tariff) AmoebaCorp would be our friend, without CT2 it will be our enemy.

In the near term, I fear that AmoebaCorp is and will be an enemy of true invention, and without invention and innovation humanity will be in a world of hurt. AmoebaCorp cannot like disruptive technology, it may be happiest in the periods of stasis common in human history. I think we may be seeing the effects of that stasis in the IP (patent troll) wars, and in the recent history of small startup companies ...

I, Cringely » Blog Archive » No Life Insurance for Bull Riders - Cringely on technology

... Exchange Traded Funds are forcing more and more good tech companies to abandon the idea of ever going public. We saw this trend on this summer’s Startup Tour where not one of more than 30 companies we visited saw an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in its future. Every company saw itself eventually being acquired. But there’s a problem with being acquired, which is that it greatly limits the upside for entrepreneurs...

Cringely misses the point. There's a bigger problem here that fewer billionaires. The problem is that the innovations of those startups will die. They are often acquired to prevent disruption, rather than to enable disruption.

Stasis isn't the worst thing in human history, but we live in a world of 8 billion people. We are exhausting that world. Stasis is not a desirable option. The AmoebaCorp may now be more enemy than friend.

[1] Oxford American Dictionary.

See also:

[1] Private, and effectively private, corporations like 2010 Apple and 1893 J.P. Morgan and Company are much more idiosyncratic. [2] Charles Stross has been well ahead of me on this. Marx, of course, had similar intuitions, which did not lend themselves to good history. [3] Some companies sell weapons or invest in security theater of course, so it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Update 12/1/10: The next step.

The obvious is shouted, the interesting is whispered

Perhaps it was always this way, and it is only with time that I see it.

Or perhaps our media is less interesting, more controlled, than it once was.

The obvious is shouted a thousand times an hour. The interesting is whispered in closed doors.

This morning, for example, I wrote ...

Gordon's Notes: The iPhone iAd framework and parental controls

... iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) come with parental controls. Android OS, interestingly, does not ...

...  iOS comes with FairPlay DRM (digital rights management), Android OS lacks a DRM standard. Even Gruber, a giant of fan blogs, does not seem to get this. FairPlay is worth billions to the iOS App market...

This is a small thing, in a technical domain, but it is not hard to discover. It is not a matter of opinion. Any reasonable person who thinks about it for a moment will agree - yes, the way FairPlay DRM manages iOS apps is extraordinarily important to Apple's revenue stream.

Yet this goes unspoken. Unspoken, that is, in the media. I am sure it is discussed at Google and Apple.

I've written before about dogs that don't bark in the night. These silences speak volumes. In my blog I now tag them as unspoken.

Why are some important and obvious things unspoken?

Sometimes it is because people with power understand, often wisely, that the less said the better. China's rare earth embargo is an example.

Sometimes it is because some things aren't obvious until they are spoken. Not just spoken in an eccentric blog with an unusual readership, but spoken in a bigger platform. These silences end in time.

Most often though, I think it is because most struggles are bipolar, and neither of the two parties wants to introduce a meme that might disturb both. Perhaps, as happens in American politics, there is something both parties agree should happen, but one party wishes to maintain an illusion of total opposition. Perhaps the unspoken fact might introduce a disruptive third position, and both parties prefer the enemy they know.

These days, when I write in this blog, I try to write about things are not spoken. My Reader Share, and its secondary (inferior) twitter stream, are for interesting things that are shouted.

The iPhone iAd framework and parental controls

iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) come with parental controls. Android OS, interestingly, does not. This is rarely discussed [1].

Parental controls should be important to parents with children who, by age or disability, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and injury. They are, of course, also important for cultural reasons.

Even though Apple's iOS includes parental controls, they are very weak. Disabling Safari does not disable embedded browsers, and many, many applications embed WebKit browsers. It is not hard, for example, to navigate from the NYT's iPhone App to Google's image search.

The worst offenders use Google's AdMob/AdSense/Mobile Ads platform. That platform, unsurprisingly, uses WebKit. A product that uses Google's Ad Platform breaks iOS Parental Controls.

Apple has an ad platform too. It's called iAd. It's not based on WebKit, it's an Objective C (Cocoa) framework. This morning I viewed the Tron iAd featured on the New York Times iPhone app. The Ad was ... impressive.

Clearly Apple's iAds have a high barrier to entry. Perhaps not as high as a television or major print advertisement, but much higher than traditional web advertising. The one I saw was essentially an application. iAds will need to scope their material to the parental control rating of the container application.

The Tron Ad did not have an obvious WebKit escape. Whether one exists or not, it is clear that iAds can achieve their goals within a fully constrained environment. Apple's iAds are Parental Control friendly, Google's Mobile Ads are not. If Apple were to enable a Parental Controls block for embedded browsers, they'd break Google's Ad Platform on iOS devices. Children are an important advertising target. This should be interesting.

[1] Another unmentionable is that iOS comes with FairPlay DRM (digital rights management), Android OS lacks a DRM standard. Even Gruber, a giant of fan blogs, does not seem to get this. FairPlay is worth billions to the iOS App market.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Climate Change 2010: Plan B

It was always a long shot, but 2010 was when we knew that plan A for greenhouse gas management had failed.

Plan A was Europe, China and the US agreeing to limit CO2 emissions and then extending that agreement to India and every other country that mattered.

Plan A might be known as Plan Gore, because Al Gore was a leading exponent. His personal life went down in flames around the time Plan A died. Plan A was always a longshot, but it was stone dead when the ailing US economy flatlined at the end of the Bush II. The Great Recession killed Plan A, but it also dramatically reduced world greenhouse gas emissions. So maybe it was a bit of a wash.

So what's next? Plan A isn't coming back any time soon. Europe's economy is on the ropes. China is fragile and facing history's greatest economic bubble. The US economy is tottering along, but the GOP thinks a dead America is better than America cheatin' with Obama.

Yes, it does seem a bit bleak. On the other hand, even if Gore had won in 2000 it would have been hard to equal the greenhouse gas decreases of the past three years of economic misery. I can even imagine, if the GOP won it all, that Plan A might return. Only Nixon could go to China, and in the US only the Crazy Party can manage the fear filled right.

In the meantime, there's Plan B.

How could Plan B work?

Well, we know where we need to go. We need a worldwide Carbon Tax and a Carbon Tariff (CT2). The Carbon Tax is obvious. The Carbon Tariff is how nations manage cheaters -- other nations that don't play along.

With CT2 everything else plays out. We get investments in energy conservation technologies, we get energy conservation directly, and we get investments in every conceivable form of low carbon energy production technology. CT2 also brings in a boat load of revenue, which each nation may use as it sees fit. Some may offset other consumption taxes (ex: VAT), others may subsidize transit or invest in energy research.

We know where we need to go to CT2, but how do we get there? Most of all, how do we break the WTO rules that would block Carbon Tariffs?

What if a small nation, like the Maldives for example, started by introducing CT2 locally -- with rates that seem right for a global regime? Then the Scandinavians sign on. The big one next one is the EU. After that it gets harder. Canada, Australia, the US and China are all going to hold out. I'm guessing the next big ones would be India, Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina.

The US, Canada and Australia go next.

China goes last.

That's Plan B.

See also:

Wetware routers and intermittent consciousness

Today's Carl Zimmer article gives new insight into the nature of consciousness. Even in neurotypical brains decision tasks create a psychic bottleneck, which is also a sort of perceptual blindspot. Our consciousness goes "offline", very briefly, when we make choices (emphases mine) ...

The Brain: The "Router" in Your Head—a Bottleneck of Processing | Carl Zimmer | DISCOVER Magazine:

... The brain is, in the words of neuroscientist Floyd Bloom, “the most complex [jg: known] structure that exists in the universe.” Its trillions of connections let it carry out all sorts of sophisticated computations in very little time. You can scan a crowded lobby and pick out a familiar face in a fraction of a second, a task that pushes even today’s best computers to their limit. Yet multiplying 357 by 289, a task that demands a puny amount of processing, leaves most of us struggling.

... The fact that we struggle with certain simple tasks speaks volumes about how we are wired. It turns out the evolution of our complex brain has come at a price: Sometimes we end up with a mental traffic jam in there...

... If we don’t have enough time between two tasks, we slow down on the second one—a lag known as the “psychological refractory period.”...

... Psychologists have long been puzzled by the psychological refractory period because it doesn’t fit with other things we know about how the brain works. We are very good at doing many things at once... Yet there are simple jobs—like math problems—that our brains can handle only one at a time. It is as if signals were flying down a 20-lane superhighway, and then the road narrowed to a single lane...

Each time we perform a task we perform it in three steps. Step 1: Take in information from the senses. Step 2: Figure out what to do in response. Step 3: Carry out that plan by moving muscles...

...  scientists varied one of the three steps of the thought process to see if they could change the length of the psychological refractory period. Only when they tinkered with step 2—figuring out what response to make—could they produce a change...

... when we have any two simple decisions to make, we must wait for the first task to move through a bottleneck before taking on the second. That is what makes mental multiplication so hard. Instead of carrying out many steps simultaneously, we have to do them one at a time.

... In 2008 the scientists reported that during the psychological refractory period, a network of brain regions are consistently active, some near the front of the brain and some near the back...

... these regions appear to be part of a network that is important for our awareness of our own experiences. This helps explain why we are oblivious to our mental traffic jams.

.. The brain began measuring how long a task took only after the previous task moved out of the bottleneck. Whenever a perception of a sound or a letter got stuck in the mental traffic jam, the subjects were not aware of it...

... The neurons that take in sensory information send it to a neural network that he and his colleagues call the "router." Like the router in a computer network, the brain’s version can be reconfigured to send signals to different locations. Depending on the task at hand, it can direct signals to the parts of the brain that produce speech, for instance, or to the parts that can make a foot push down on a brake pedal. Each time the router switches to a new configuration, however, it experiences a slight delay...

The "router" theory is very much an unproven model. If something like it holds up, however, we will find variations in router performance. There may be advantages and costs to different router algorithms. There will be articles on router performance in autism and schizophrenia and in disorders of consciousness (coma, etc). Perhaps we will discover ways  to train and retrain our internal routers for different settings.

It wasn't the primary emphasis of the article, but I'm struck again by the contingent and intermittent nature of our consciousness. Continuity of consciousness is very much an illusion. We are offline, briefly, thousands of times a day.

Rajini Vaidyanathan, Gordon Brown and me - strange loops in 2010

I'm killing time at DC's Union Station, waiting for my train to BWI and home, when I'm accosted by a young woman with a note pad. She tells me she's from the BBC, and she wants to know what I think of an engagement.

Even I couldn't escape that news. I knew someone named Kate was marrying an English aristocrat. I had nowhere to go that minute, and she seemed to be in pain, so I tried to come up with something quotable. She told me to look to the BBC site ...

BBC News - Rajini Vaidyanathan - Royal wedding: American reaction to the Prince's engagement

... But even those who won't be across every dress, table arrangement and invite, are celebrating the news.

"It's fun," says John Faughnan of Minnesota. "It beats reading about the great recession."

Mr Faughnan said he had only learned Kate Middleton's name this morning, and the future Queen's profile here in the US is still relatively low.,,,

My Manchester born mother was thrilled, and it was a funny enough story to share on Facebook. Then it got more interesting.

On Facebook a friend pointed out that Rajini Vaidyanathan is a bit of a comer, as can be seen in her YouTube interview with Gordon Brown. She's not always stuck with boring reaction interviews on a painfully boring topic.

The lady has a trajectory, and I met her near the start.

A strange loop.

Michelle Bachman and Jesse Ventura: Fruitcakes are not the worst

Minnesota has an undeserved reputation as a sober sort of place. So it surprises some to learn that the Tea Party's Michele Bachman hails from a GOP safe seat in the burbs of the Twins.

The truth is, Minnesota is a cross between California and Oregon. I love it here, but we made the wrestler and talk show host Jesse Ventura Governor in 1999. Ventura only served one term; after four years everyone, including Jesse, was happy to see him go. Minnesota then elected Tim Pawlenty Governor. Pawlenty is now running for President.

Bachman is 100% fruitcake, but Ventura isn't far behind. Pawlenty, on the other hand, is not a fruitcake. Pawlenty is a devout Marketarian, a banal servant of money and power.

Bachman is a lousy Representative. Ventura was a lousy governor. Even at his worst though, Ventura did less harm to Minnesota than Tim Pawlenty.

Bachman is a wart on the face of American democracy, but she's not a cancer. There are worse things than fruitcakes in government.

See also: Why you should vote for the Tea Party’s coven in the century of the fruitbat.

The phone call is dead - sort of

Phil Bradley comments on a Tech Crunch essay on the death of the phone call.

That seems strange to me, since I spend a lot of time on the phone. Reading more closely though, neither is claiming that remote voice communication is dead. What they're trying to say, but can't quite get it, is that the unscheduled phone call is dead. (Voice mail is beyond dead.)

I agree, and Thank Darwin it's gone.

The unschedule phone call was rude. It was almost as rude as having a neighbor walk into your bedroom unannounced. Does anyone of a certain age remember enjoying the sound of a ringing phone (ok, teenage passions excepted)?

We only tolerated it because there were no alternatives.

Now, when we need to talk, we schedule it. My mother knows I phone her daily at a certain time [1]. When Emily and I need to do an impromptu conversation  we usually text first to setup the call. At work all my phone calls and conferences are scheduled, even if only by email or IM.

The unscheduled phone call is going away, and the world is a better place without it.

[1] Via Google voice to Montreal. GV has saved me about $4,000 in phone bills over the past 2-3 years.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Argentina of the North? We should be so lucky.

Like Nicholas Kristoff, I’ve used Argentina as a metaphor for the twilight of America. I thought of it as an example of a rich nation that quietly fell apart even as its income disparity grew.

I’ve called American "Argentina of the North”.

Now, like Kristof, I am apologizing to Argentina …

A Hedge Fund Republic- - Nicholas Kristof - NYTimes.com

… The best data series I could find is for Argentina. In the 1940s, the top 1 percent there controlled more than 20 percent of incomes. That was roughly double the share at that time in the United States.

Since then, we’ve reversed places. The share controlled by the top 1 percent in Argentina has fallen to a bit more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, inequality in the United States has soared to levels comparable to those in Argentina six decades ago — with 1 percent controlling 24 percent of American income in 2007…

Another metaphor bites the dust. Sorry Argentina, but at least we can aspire to learn from your experience.

Torture and the constitution: The fury beings with the Ghailini trial

Now we get to the discussion we’ve long expected.

Civilian courts do not allow testimony obtained through torture. The GOP is the party of torture, so they are enraged.

Incidentally, this NYT article has one of the most misleading and lousy headlines of the past few months atop an article that buries everything that matters.

What is being tested here is not Obama’s strategy, but rather America’s care of its Constitution (emphases mine). America will fail …

Terror Verdict Tests Obama’s Strategy on Trials - NYTimes.com

Ahmed Ghailani will face between 20 years and life in prison as a result of his conviction on one charge related to the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa. But because a jury acquitted him on more than 280 other charges — including every count of murder — critics of the Obama administration’s strategy on detainees said the verdict proved that civilian courts could not be trusted to handle the prosecution of Al Qaeda terrorists.

… the reason some Guantánamo cases are hard to prosecute is that under the Bush administration, evidence was obtained by coercion, creating a problem for prosecutors regardless of the legal venue

… many observers attributed any weakness to the prosecution’s case to the fact that the Judge Lewis Kaplan, who presided over the trial, refused to allow prosecutors to introduce testimony from an important witness apparently because investigators discovered the man’s existence after interrogators used abusive and coercive techniques on Mr. Ghailani

… But the question of where Mr. Mohammed will be prosecuted has remained in limbo, and Mr. Holder has made no more referrals from the detainee population to either system.

While Judge Kaplan could still sentence Mr. Ghailani to a life sentence, even some proponents of civilian trials acknowledged that his acquittal on most of the charges against him was damaging to their cause because it was a stark demonstration that it was possible that a jury might acquit a defendant entirely in such a case

“The paradox with these kinds of cases has always been that if these individuals are found not-guilty, will the American government let them go free, which is the construct of a criminal proceeding? And the answer is no. That is the reality. This case highlights that tension, and will complicate the political debate about how to handle more senior Al Qaeda figures, like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed cannot be convicted in a constitutionally valid trial because he was abundantly tortured. That was one of the GOP’s gifts to America.

The GOP has been, and will be, the party of torture. That is the source of their rage; they love their vision of the Constitution, but they hate the reality of the Constitution.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Apple-Google armistice day - Google Voice for the iPhone is available.

Google Voice for iPhone is available, the first Apple Google war is over. It lasted from about July 27, 2009 to Nov 9, 2010.

I speculated on why it was ending in September when the ceasefire was official. I listed nine items. If I had to pick one cause it would be Facebook shafting Apple at the Ping launch.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Detroit, dialysis and special needs

Charlie LeDuff has written an essay on the state of the worst bits of Detroit. If you're feeling sturdy, you can follow it with a Robin Fields review of the state of America's universal care system for dialysis provision.

Have you read them both? No, Scotch is not a good solution.

Both essays made my skepti-sense tingle. It feels like we're missing some context, that we're probably getting a simplified view. The dialysis experience described here, for example, is not what the insured middle class gets. Even so, I think there's fundamental truth in both stories.

The dialysis problem feels most "easily" fixable. Health Care Reform, once it survives Limbaugh and Palin, can absorb this isolated program. Yes, it will survive. Mega corporations are now pivoting to life in a post-HCR world. They control Limbaugh, he will do their will.

Detroit is harder. Everyone who can leave has left. The remainder are the disabled and the children of the disabled, enmeshed in a nest of poverty. To a first approximation, it's a densely concentrated adult special needs community, with a high concentration of special needs in children as well. (I know a special needs community well. You would be wrong to read this as a condemnation.)

I think there are fixes for Detroit. We need to look for lessons from New Orleans pre and post Katrina, lessons from the most impoverished aboriginal communities, and lessons from war ravaged cities like 1980s Lebanon and 2010 Baghdad, lessons from 1970s Harlem. Detroit can be improved, but it will take decades ...

Slow hard work. There is no lack of challenge in the world.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Instapaper makes you more productive ...

This can help get to Inbox zero ...

Gordon's Tech: Instapaper: editor's picks and more

... You know you do it. Sitting in a boring phone meeting... Browsing web sites on your corporate box (or iPhone* or iPad). All's fine until you see something you really want to read. That's crossing the line though. I can't read something good and pay attention to a dull meeting. Worse, I might continue when the meeting is done -- when I should be doing real work. (I assume everything I do on a corporate machine is monitored of course.)

Instapaper solves the problem. I click the Read Later bookmarklet and put the browser down. I'll read the article, elegantly formatted, on my iPhone later. If you don't have an iPhone, you can read it with any web client through your free Instapaper account...

The most vile societies in human history...

Adam Goodheart is blogging the Civil War ...

A Senator Secedes – Reluctantly - NYTimes.com

... The imperious, aristocratic senator was no bleeding heart, to say the least. Master of more than 300 slaves, he did not hesitate to flog them when they transgressed, wielding the whip with his own hand. Nor did he hesitate to take sexual advantage of the women under his power, fathering several children with them. (In one instance, he did so with a household servant, and then with her teenage daughter.) In politics, he had popularized the phrase ‘cotton is king,’ and gave a notorious speech in 1858 arguing that every society, even a republic, needed an inferior ‘mud-sill’ class to ‘do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life...

White South Carolina was "wild for secession" after the election of Lincoln. However we may see the early Lincoln now, white Southerners believed he would end the slavery they seemed to love.

How much, I wonder, was their passion driven by shame and guilt? The greatest anger I see comes from men and women (and children!) accused of crimes they deny to themselves. Crimes they deny to themselves, even as they know they are guilty.

The white southern United States of 1860 was a vile society, among the most vile of the past three hundred years.

Which others belong in that hall of shame?

Nazi Germany, of course. But who else? The obvious other examples, such as Pol Pot's Cambodia, Mao's China, and Stalin's Russia were all essentially medieval tyrannies in modern times. They were as much evil regimes as evil societies.

Are the only contenders 1930s Germany and 1860s American South?

Friday, November 12, 2010

America the senescent

I think, more than all of the economic and demographic indicators, this tells us that America's time as a great nation is over ...

The baby steps that have taken the United States from decrying torture to celebrating it.  - By Dahlia Lithwick - Slate Magazine

... In an America in which the former president can boast on television that he approved the water-boarding of U.S. prisoners, it can hardly be a shock that following a lengthy investigation, no criminal charges will be filed against those who destroyed the evidence of CIA abuse of prisoners Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.* We keep waiting breathlessly for someone, somewhere, to have a day of reckoning over the prisoners we tortured in the wake of 9/11, without recognizing that there is no bag man to be found and that therefore we are all the bag man...

Move over France, we need a spot on that bench.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Voice menu systems don't understand you? Try my fix

Cheap commercial voice "recognition" systems, like the one used by my employer's outsourced HR services, don't recognize my voice. Google has no problems, but when I say "benefits" they hear "please, torment me".

At home I can ask Emily to speak for me, but she's not always available. I need a substitute voice that's always available.

Fortunately I carry one.

The next time I face the cheap VR demon, I'm going to have my iPhone's VoiceOver voice talk for me.

Here's how it works. In settings go to General:Accessibility and set triple click to turn VoiceOver on/off.

In VoiceOver set Typing Feedback to "nothing". Set Pitch Change to OFF and speed to slow.

If VoiceOver is oddly silent, by the way, check this fix.

Now I'm ready. The next time I have to talk to a low end machine, I'll type the words and numbers into my iPhone. Then I'll use VoiceOver and let the phone do the talking for me. I bet it gets a lot more respect than I get.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Edging to AI: Constructive (almost) comment spam

It took me a day to realize that this comment on Gordon's Notes: Apologetics: God and the Fermi Paradox was a spam comment (Spomment):

Luke said... Interesting questions you ask - as always enjoy reading your posts. We all have our personal experiences & beliefs, but I do have to challenge you to check out an event coming up in the spring that I recently was introduced to. March 12, 2011 a simulcast called The Case for Christianity is taking place that will address the very question you have asked. Led by Lee Strobel (former Legal Editor of the Chicago Tribune) & Mark Mittelberg, all of the most avoided questions Christians don't like to answer or even discuss. Both are authors of extremely intriguing books, I encourage you to check them out as well as the simulcast in March. Definitely worth the time & worthy of the debate! Thanks again!

It's obvious in retrospect "interesting questions you ask" is a give away. It doesn't address any specific aspect of my post, and it leads directly into an event promotion.

Still, it snuck under my radar -- and Google's too. It's well constructed.

Of course the construction was human, only the targeting was algorithmic. It's a bit of a milestone though -- it's almost a relevant comment.

Charles Stross and others have speculated that spambot wars will spawn hard AI. First, though, they have to become specific, relevant, and constructive. We're getting closer ...

Incidentally, shame on Strobel and Mittelberg for using this kind of sleazoid marketing.

See also:

Sunday, November 07, 2010

My Google Reader bundles - November 2011

Google Reader lets us create bundles of our favorite feeds to share.

Here are some of mine as of Nov 11. Click on each link and there's an option to subscribe to some or all of the bundled feeds:

My shared item page has everything.

Nordic skiing: how to tow a kid

In a previous life I had one of the earliest english language web pages on skijoring (nordic skiing with your dog). In today's life Kateva prefers running to pulling, and sometimes my kids need a bit of a boost miles from the trailhead.

So now I'm the dog. Call it Skidadding - nordic skiing with your Dad.

I don't need a pulk, I want the kids to stay on their skis. I need a lead and I need a skijoring harness they can wear. That leaves my harness to develop.

I thought of anchoring to my shoulders, but they move too much and that places too much strain on my back. A friend's friend is co-leader of Minnesota's Wilderness Classroom, she suggested adapting a pulk harness.

Ready made pulk harnesses are hard to find in the US, but another Minnesotan, Ed Bouffard, has a web site on building your own ski pulk or mountaineering sled or gear sled. He sells parts for pulks, and provides a free PDF on pulk construction.

Mr. Bouffard advises building a harness using either a Camp Trails replacement backpack belt (alas, I don't think these are sold any more!) or a heavy duty lumbar (fanny) pack with built in shoulder straps. A canvas repair shop can sew on loops made of 3/4" nylon webbing. Carabiners can then be attached just behind the lateral hips loops.

I can then use a nylon loop from the binners to a skijoring lead attached a skijoring harness on a child.

Seems simple enough -- a fun project for the fall. I'll update this post with what I end up doing.

Update 11/8/10: Some products I probably won't buy due to cost, I think I can make something sufficient for my needs.

Canicross is cross country running with a dog ... "Fast for a human is five minute miles over a marathon distance. That is 12 miles per hour. Dogs on the other hand can run 12 miles per hour all day long. Sled dogs at the world championship often run 20 miles per hour for over twenty miles...? (Only true in cold weather by the way. Humans rule in hot weather.)

Apologetics: God and the Fermi Paradox

As a Catholic schoolboy in 1930s Quebec my father practiced a form of polemics known as Apologetics [1]. He argued through reason for the the existence of God.

Dad tells me he was good at Apologetics. As best I can tell he's an atheist, which probably helped his rhetoric.

I think I share the same gift. So I've long been surprised that theists don't use the Fermi paradox in their arguments. I suggested they pursue this back in 2003 ...

SETI, the Fermi Paradox and The Singularity: Why our search for extraterrestial intelligence has failed

... The universe we live in was designed so that we would be alone. There are a few variants on this idea, but they're fundamentally very similar. I list three here. In some ways the Fermi Paradox may be an even stronger "existence of God" argument that the usual "balance of physical parameters" argument.

  1. Some non-omnipotent entity created our universe (there are allegedly serious physicists who speculate about how one might create a universe) and deliberately tweaked certain parameters so that sentience would occur on average about once per galaxy. Maybe they lived in a crowded galaxy and thought an alternative would be interesting.
  2. God created the world in 7 days, and He made it for man's Dominion. He didn't want anyone else in our galaxy, maybe in the entire universe.
  3. Nick Bostrom makes a credible argument[9] that there's a reasonable likelihood that we exist in a simulation. If so, then perhaps the existence of an non-human civilizations does not suit the purposes of the simulation. (This could be considered a special case of "God created the world...")

Today, for the first time, a Google news search filter of mine found a Kevin Roeten post making an Apologetic argument ...

Atheists Beware--A Bona Fide Reason for God

... Assuming 10 billion years for the age of the Milky Way galaxy, there was at least 2000 chances for all additional civilizations (#16, p.48, Show Me God) to settle the entire galaxy. Italian physicist Enrico Fermi asks, "Where are they?" Hence, Fermi's Paradox...

...  For civilizations 15 light years away, they should be receiving signals from TV shows transmitted by earth, such as "I Love Lucy". Their signal to earth should be arriving back about now. We've received nothing...

I doubt this is really the first time anyone but me has made a connection between the Fermi Paradox and apologetics, but it's the first one my filters have caught. Congratulations Kevin.

This is why, though I'm functionally an atheist, I'm technically agnostic [2]. Personally I assign a non-zero probability that we're living in a simulation, which is just about the same as saying there somewhen existed one or more all powerful creators. Of course this says nothing about their attitudes towards us. Given the nature of reality I rather hope we're unnoticed mice in the walls, but I fear they're sadists.

Of course I assign a higher probability to the Fermi paradox answer that a "great filter" eliminates all biological civilizations. Still, I'm glad to see theists picking up on an interesting argument.

[1] The word "apologetics" is all but forgotten. It deserves a resurrection.

[2] It's impossible to truly disprove the existence of the supernatural, at best we can only prove it's not necessary to model what we measure. So, really, there are no rational atheists, there are only functional atheists. Incidentally, I'm very sympathetic to the religious inclination. Reality is overrated.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Inbox zero - zero - at last

November 6, 9:45pm CT:

Gmail inbox empty

"No new mail!" Sweet words.

I got to Inbox zero at the office ten months ago, but it was much harder to do the same at home. I couldn't dedicate concentrated time to slashing the backlog, so I had to go at it gradually. It took two months to get through the last ten or so, while also managing incoming email.

Last January I wrote about the techniques I used at work ...

... after 20 years of struggling with email, I have finally figured out how to do it.

... The most important intervention was reducing inflow. Of course I got rid of all email lists, newsletters and the like -- if an organization can't figure out blogs they're unlikely to have anything useful to tell me.

Most of all though, I reduced the number of email replies and misdirected emails that I get. I reduced the number of email replies by, paradoxically, spending more time crafting precise responses, and by being quicker to convert dysfunctional email to a meeting or phone call.

I craft my response to an email so that no further correspondence should be necessary. If an email discussion goes beyond two cycles that's a meeting. It's almost always, in this context, a brief, productive, and satisfying meeting. The body of the meeting appointment, by the way, includes the last email sent. (In Outlook drag and drop the email on the calendar icon.)

I reduced the number of emails I had to reply to by gently educating my correspondents about what goes on the To line. The To line should include only people with tasks - such as the single person who should respond. I reduced the time required to process and triage email by gently teaching about the correct use of the subject line. It should tell the reader what the email is about and what's needed. I change the subject line when I reply to precisely describe my replay -- including an answer summary...

Those techniques still work. I think I've actually improved the quality of all of our division's email -- some memes are contagious.

Ten months later I'm even better at deleting, at cutting off email by going directly to actions, and at scheduling thoughtful responses. The best killer of email noise remains the well crafted reply that allows no response. I'm very good at editing the 'email tail' so it tells a story in a small space.

These are work techniques though. At work productivity is our goal and email is a mixed blessing. It's a means to an end.

Personal email is different. I don't like getting email at work, but I do like to hear from friends and family! I'm not trying to make them better correspondents. (Emily, btw, does email very well.)

So at home I had to use slightly different techniques. I also use different software at home -- Gmail, Toodledo/Todo.app, and Google Calendar. This is what I do at home ...

  • I forward email that requires more than a few minutes to my toodledo email connector and archive the message. Then I schedule times to work on those.
  • Since Google threads emails by subject, when I replay I expose subject lines and revise them to prevent message loss in threads.
  • At home as at work I use iPhone Mail.app to triage messages during down times and write short and quick replies.
  • I long ago eliminated any email lists from my personal account. It if doesn't have a feed, it's not for me.
  • I'm much better at responding quickly rather than deferring for a time that never comes.
  • I keep my replies short - blogs are for rambling on about space, politics and fate.

Inbox zero zero. It's a good feeling.

Update 11/10/10: Past posts of mine, and a PPT shared via Google Docs

Nostalgia with Klatchian coffee

Knurd ...

  • Being drunk is to be intoxicated by alcohol to such an extent as to be unable to perceive the world clearly through the senses.
  • Being sober is to be able to perceive the world clearly through the senses, yet humans are quite capable of giving themselves illusions and little stories to make life more bearable.
  • Being knurd is to be (un)intoxicated with Klatchian Coffee to such an extent that all such comfort stories are stripped away from the mind. This makes you see the world in a way 'nobody ever should', in all its harsh reality.

Stross on sympathy for times gone by ...

... If the past is another country, you really wouldn't want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat... It's the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing ...

They also tortured animals for play.

Wolf and dog, Neandertal and human, and the limits of taxonomy

Laypersons think of wolves and dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) as different species. That is not so, though the taxonomy is confused (see wikipedia page on "disambiguation" of the term Wolf).

Canis lupus includes domestic dogs and all "wolves", each as a "subspecies". So Huskies and Great Danes and Chiwawa are all Canis lupus familiaris, whereas the Husky-like wolf is a different subspecies.

A Wolf in truth, is simply a Canis lupus subspecies that is not domesticated, and a Dog is a Canis lupus subspecies that is domesticated (Canis lupus domesticus).

Canis lupus used to be the most widely distributed of all mammals, until humans took that spot.

Humans being "Homo sapiens", sometimes called "Homo sapiens sapiens" (see the problem?);  a species distinct from  Homo neanderthalensis and other Homo.

But if it is accepted that our most common ancestor interbred with Homo neanderthalensis to create us, shouldn't we follow the example of the Canids? Living humans might be considered Homo sapiens domesticus, Neanderthals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, and Homo heidelbergensis would  be Homo sapiens heidelbergensis.

Of course if we follow the wolf example we'd probably start carving up Homo sapiens domesticus based on fur color and ancestral ranges. So at some point we probably need to admit taxonomy has its limitations.

PS. I wrote this post because Google couldn't find any other posts comparing the fraught and confusing taxonomy of Canis lupus with the even more fraught taxonomy of Homo sapiens. I think it's curious that we should have so much trouble classifying the two species we know best.

Middle aged lesson #434: Most contractors don't read books

It took me a long time to realize that most of the contractors we hire don't read books or journals about how to do their work.

Most of our contractors do what they've learned from colleagues, friends and family, and what they've invented on their own. The best of them know local code. Only a very few seem to read books and magazines related to their craft. (Some of which, of course, are nonsense -- this is not a peer reviewed literature.)

This means that contractors practices can be very far from best practices. A home owner can't hire a good contractor until they study books and journals first [1]. Then it's possible to have an informed conversation, and ask a contractor to exlain their (often correct) deviation from what's written.

This should not have surprised me.  North American trained physicians have very strong native study skills and strong legal and strong professional incentives to learn and adopt best practices. But we struggle to do that. Why should contractors, who are not selected for academic excellence, be any different?

[1] Yes, paper. This domain is very poorly represented online.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Understanding the elections - what's really changed

How can we best understand what's recently changed in American government?

First, we need to simplify. Any government, but especially a democracy, is a dynamic and chaotic sum of numerous conflicting powers.

Some of these powers are made of atoms - billionaires, CEOs, the well employed, the weak.

Others rule a different realm. Corporations are partly the will of their managers, partly powerful but dull amoeboid rulers of org space, changing their environment to suit their nature.

I think we should reduce this chaos to three agents: The corporation (private and public), the strong (healthy and wealthy) and the weak (30% of humanity). These agents are not enemies; they are sometimes allies, sometimes frenemies. Some corporations need employees and all need customers. The strong may love the weak, or at least may not want them rioting. The weak need the strong - and they need work.

This is how I imagine the American government was balanced in the spring of 2010:

Screen shot 2010-11-04 at 10.46.17 PM.png

This is how I think it will look in the winter of 2011, once the GOP takes the House

Screen shot 2010-11-04 at 10.45.04 PM.png

This was a very good election for corporations. Or so they think, but of course what they want isn't necessarily what they need.

The physics of mind and the limits of AI

Consider these three recent articles together ...

One ...

Dienekes' Anthropology Blog: Brains to Hand-axes quoting Science Daily

Stone Age humans were only able to develop relatively advanced tools after their brains evolved a greater capacity for complex thought, according to a new study that investigates why it took early humans almost two million years to move from razor-sharp stones to a hand-held stone axe...

Two ...

Gordon's Notes: The new history is deep history

... What did humans do in Georgian caves for 30,000 years? Thirty thousand years of waving and sewing and nothing changes?! They could not have had the same brains we have ...

Three ...

Optimization at the Intersection of Biology and Physics - Natalie Angier - NYTimes.com

... the basic building blocks of human eyesight turn out to be practically perfect... Photoreceptors operate at the outermost boundary allowed by the laws of physics, which means they are as good as they can be, period. Each one is designed to detect and respond to single photons of light — the smallest possible packages in which light comes wrapped...

... Photoreceptors exemplify the principle of optimization, an idea, gaining ever wider traction among researchers, that certain key features of the natural world have been honed by evolution to the highest possible peaks of performance ...  Scientists have identified and mathematically anatomized an array of cases where optimization has left its fastidious mark, among them the superb efficiency with which bacterial cells will close in on a food source; the precision response in a fruit fly embryo to contouring molecules that help distinguish tail from head; and the way a shark can find its prey by measuring micro-fluxes of electricity in the water a tremulous millionth of a volt strong — which, as Douglas Fields observed in Scientific American, is like detecting an electrical field generated by a standard AA battery “with one pole dipped in the Long Island Sound and the other pole in waters of Jacksonville, Fla.”

... Simon Laughlin of Cambridge University has proposed that the brain’s wiring system has been maximally miniaturized, condensed for the sake of speed to the physical edge of signal fidelity.

According to Charles Stevens of the Salk Institute, our brains distinguish noise from signal through redundancy of neurons and a canny averaging of what those neurons have to say...

Photoreceptors are a specialization of brains. Brains have been evolving for a very long time.

Long enough, perhaps, for brains to run up against the constraints of physics.

It's not something most of us have contemplated. It is probably misleading, it might be more true that brains have run up against the constraints of room temperature physics operating on biological systems. Still, it's interesting.

If true, it doesn't mean that an artificial brain couldn't be substantially smarter than the smartest human. It might suggest, however, that it could't be qualitatively smarter. The Ais might think us a bit dull and slow, but they might still want to talk ...

The GOP likes a fight

A neighbor of mine has edited the autobiography of Walter Mondale (our copy has both Mondale and Hage's signature).

Reading Mondale's story, you learn two things.

One is that progress happens.

The other is that it's always a hell of a fight.

Some people get energy from fighting. Those people enjoy AM talk radio. You may have noticed this talk radio is almost always radio GOP. It's a trait of American conservatives; they like the fight. They like to win most of all, but they get energy from the battle.

My mates don't get energy from fighting. We get a headache. We want to figure things out, then find a solution. We enjoy intelligent debate, we can even appreciate discussions that run into the wall of pure belief, but we don't like the shouting matches and the purely irrational.

So we have a natural disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the GOP. The GOP loves a fight. In Minnesota they lost a tight election to Senator Al Franken in 2008 and they fought like rabid wolverines in a leg trap. This week they lost to Governor Dayton and they swear they'll scream ten times as hard.

We can't fight like that, but we can't give up either. We don't have to scream, but we have to fight.

Staying home is not an option. We have to be the parent, but not the pushover.

Like Mondale.

That's how progress happens.

The Health Savings Account preventive visit scam

I got stung this time. I was a mark.

Darn it.

My excuse is that this scam was a subtle one. I'd classify it as an occult emergent fraud. It's the third one I've met from Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield; health insurance is a breeding ground for these things.

The trick starts with making a "preventive care" or "routine physical" visit a "free" part of a health savings account insurance plan. These are commonly included in HSA plans ...

... A recent industry survey found that in July 2007 over 80% of HSA plans provided first-dollar coverage for preventive care. This was true of virtually all HSA plans offered by large employers and over 95% of the plans offered by small employers. It was also true of over half (59%) of the plans which were purchased by individuals. All of the plans offered first-dollar preventive care benefits included annual physicals, immunizations, well-baby and well-child care, mammograms and Pap tests; 90% included prostate cancer screenings and 80% included colon cancer screenings ...

At first, and even second, glance this looks like a nice benefit. After all, HSAs are all about having individuals feel the true cost of care, so we will inevitably reduce our use of preventive services. Making those "free" seems to make a care plan less harmful.

The catch is, as I recently discovered, is that it can be quite tricky for an adult to get this benefit. The responsible physician has to choose to bill a care episode as "preventive". These visits, however, pay poorly -- they're only cost effective if they can be done very quickly. A physician, meanwhile, is legally and ethically responsible for overall patient health. Any adult over thirty, and many younger, has health problems that can, at the least, be reviewed to confirm all is well enough.

So the physician is biased to doing at least a moderate amount of work, which makes the preventive care payment uneconomical. So these visits will usually be charged as something other than preventive care, which means they come from the general HSA pool -- not the free preventive care visit. (Immunizations and such will be covered, but not the physician fee.)

This should be possible to study. What percentage of adult males, we could ask, actually manage to get their visits billed as preventive care services?

In my particular case I was steamed about being charged a Level III fee when I had worked quite hard to get my "free" preventive care visit -- including confirming with Anthem that it would be covered. I even complained about it to the physician's billing office. It was only when I worked out the angles that I realized I'd been stung, and that I just needed to shut up and pay up. It wasn't my physicians fault, or the fault of their billing office. It was just the way the system works.

I doubt anyone planned this out. It's just a happy coincidence that an expensive (to Anthem) benefit ends up not being used. The emergent fraud aspect is that once an unintended scam like this emerges, nobody will work very hard to fix it.

See also:

Update 11/7/10: The "13 month preventive medicine" visit is a variant of this scam. Marketing and legislative presentations will claim a yearly physical is part of a plan. This does not, however, mean that one can schedule a covered preventive medicine visit on Nov 1 and March 3rd. In practice a "year" means "no less than 365 days apart". Many people fall prey to this trick.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Midterms 2010

So far I've found three things that seem novel about the American 2010 midterm elections.

The first is that the federal results were unsurprising. In the blog age any interested person has access to the analytic work once limited to a few newspapers or to major political campaigns. We knew what would happen, and it happened. This is different.

The second is that the results, at first glance, seem to be very much to the taste of the Corporate Entity (CE). I have more to say about this. The CE should not be confused with shareholders, the board, or the CEO. The CE interacts with our material universe, but it's not made of atoms.

The third is that candidates identified as crazy by the national media lost. That's interesting.

Looking for glimmers

About as bad as expected nationally, worse than expected in my home state of Minnesota.

Two glimmers of hope:
  1. The average voter has a 3 month memory. In 2012 there is now a chance that they'll remember the GOP.
  2. In Minnesota the GOP will have to balance the state budget. This will be a disaster for special needs education, but they'll have to make some very hard choices that they would prefer to avoid.
Any other glimmers?