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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Obama's Attack on Civil Liberties

Read this very interesting article/interview with Noam Chomsky on his thoughts of Obama's terrible history of civil liberty violations.



Definitely read the full article, but here are a couple snippets:

Noam Chomsky: Obama's Attack on Civil Liberties Has Gone Way Beyond Imagination

On 'Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project':
"Under Obama's administration, if you meet with someone in a terrorist group and advise them to turn to nonviolent means, then that's material assistance to terrorism."



On Obama's prosecution of whistle blowers:
"I don't think he's doing anything besides alienating his own natural base. So it's something else.
What it is is the same kind of commitment to expanding executive power that Cheney and Rumsfeld had."

On drone strikes:
"It's interesting to see the way in which due process is being reinterpreted by Obama's Justice Department in regards to the drone killings. Attorney General Eric Holder was asked why the administration was killing people without due process. Well, there was due process, he said, because they discuss it within the executive branch. King John in the 13th century would have loved that."




On the expansion of the "surveillance state":
"It's an enormous expansion of executive power. I doubt that they can do much with this information that's being stored. I've had plenty of experience with the FBI in simpler years when they didn't have all this stuff. But they had tons of information. They were just drowning in it and didn't know how to use it. It's sort of like walking into the New York Public Library and saying "I want to be a chemist." You've got all the information there, but it's not doing any good."


To top it all off, the article is posted by AlterNet, "a progressive [i.e. liberal; don't you love euphamisms?] news magazine and online community" (via its own Twitter).
To put into context the magnitude of what Obama's actions are and to the extent that he is pursuing them; those who should be Obama's strongest supporters and base are now critically attacking him and his policies.


Crowdfunding Overload

As Crowdfunding gains more and more attention with each high-profile campaign, media coverage increases with them, further fueling the campaigns and driving them to more success.

In particular, the campaign for a 'Veronica Mars' movie garnered especially high coverage and fanaticism, raising over $5.7 million!
Its success caused some to murmur the beginning of the end for traditional Hollywood movie funding. While this is unlikely, it did catch almost everyone's attention and led to Zach Braff's own campaign and will likely spawn many others. (*Side note: I very much support Zach Braff's efforts, as I loved his first movie 'Garden State', so go support him if you're so inclined! http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1869987317/wish-i-was-here-1)

I don't begrudge the success of any project because I know there is hard work behind each. However, while there may be many causes, projects, and inventions that are worthy of support, there are also an increasing number of products that are more marketing than innovation.
Additionally, I've noticed fewer projects are getting recognition that are actually start-up based and require the funds to launch. (This may also be due to Kickstarter's recent policy change that requires prototypes to be made and pictured, as opposed to computer renderings).

In some instances, they are even just flat-out scams.
One such example was a project that was selling some rather good looking watches for $100. It was later discovered that the exact same watch was already available, for $15 each. But if you don't do your research, it seems quite easy to fall prey to any number of seemingly new and ingenious projects.

While I believe deliberate scams are a small fraction of crowdfunding projects, I also think many are not too far off.

Just one of the latest examples of such a product is 'Pucs'.

Monday, April 29, 2013

American Experience: Silicon Valley

Here's a fantastic PBS documentary on Silicon Valley and its foundation, laid down by Robert Noyce.


Watch Silicon Valley on PBS. See more from American Experience.

In the 1950s, it was more or less a given that employees would stay with their company for the duration of their professional careers.
Noyce's (as well as seven others') departure from Shockley Semiconductor, their founding of Fairchild Semiconductor, and later Noyce's founding of Intel basically kickoff the startup culture in Silicon Valley and the rest of the United States tech industry.

Technology, innovation, corporate counter-culture.
Could there be a better story?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

They're Just Numbers

Unfortunately, we make significant decisions on numbers.



What got me thinking about this was the recent report that the 'Bureau of Economic Analysis' (apparently it's a thing) has decided to modify the formula it uses to calculate Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a key indicator on the financial standing of the economy.

U.S. economy set to grow 3 percent -- on paper

"The U.S. economy is set to see a major growth spurt in July -- at least on paper. That's when the government will start including so-called economic intangibles, like film royalties and spending on research and development, in how it calculates the size of the economy.

The change by the Bureau of Economic Analysis will increase the nation's gross domestic product by 3 percent -- an amount equal to the total GDP of Belgium. It is part of an effort by the U.S. government to capture aspects of the economy that are now omitted and thus better measure the nation's economic output.

Currently R&D spending is figured as a cost of doing business. This means the final output of a Ford Mustang is included in the GDP, but all the money that goes into engineering and design isn't. Under the new system these R&D costs will count as an investment, and this alone will add about 2 percent to the size of the economy. Creative works -- movies, TV, books, music and theater -- are expected to add another half-percent to the GDP.

Not everyone is happy about the proposed change. For one thing it will be applied retroactively. Brian Moulton, of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, admits that it is rewriting economic history but believes it will present a better picture of what actually took place.

Critics also complain that the unilateral move will make it impossible to compare U.S. figures with those from other nations. If so, it shouldn't be for long. Because America sets the standard for GDP measurement, other countries are likely to change their statistics as well.

There are also concerns that the new method will result in double-counting some economic activity. While no one doubts the value of these intangible assets, some economists believe they are already accounted for under the old methodology as "brand value."

Brand value represents the present value of a branded product compared to the value of the same product sold without the benefit of that brand. For example, though there are many tablet computers on the market, the Apple iPad is the biggest seller. The quality of the product is what has made the brand so powerful in the eyes of consumers. At the same time, consumers are willing to buy new products just because of the Apple name. Both of those qualities -- the value of the brand -- are based on R&D spending.
" (CBS News)
Obviously, if the changes results in a "more accurate" picture of the economy it can be more easily justified. However, as is, the usage of GDP as an indicator is being questioned and not considered by some economist when evaluating state/world economics.

Additionally, one cannot help but think that the alteration is, in part, politically fueled.
Announcing that GDP grew by 3% since last announced would be a nice headline and boost for the Obama administration.

"Unemployment"

To that note, if you do not think economic numbers are skewed for political gain (after the past couple elections, does anyone?), take a look at the figures for "unemployment".

This is just incredible to me:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics also calculates six alternate measures of unemployment, U1 through U6, that measure different aspects of unemployment: 
U1: Percentage of labor force unemployed 15 weeks or longer.
U2: Percentage of labor force who lost jobs or completed temporary work.
U3: Official unemployment rate per the ILO definition occurs when people are without jobs and they have actively looked for work within the past four weeks.
U4: U3 + "discouraged workers", or those who have stopped looking for work because current economic conditions make them believe that no work is available for them.
U5: U4 + other "marginally attached workers", or "loosely attached workers", or those who "would like" and are able to work, but have not looked for work recently.
U6: U5 + Part-time workers who want to work full-time, but cannot due to economic reasons (underemployment). (Wikipedia)
Six numbers to report unemployment!
Granted, each of these figures is useful to some extent, but it also leaves a lot of leeway for the term "unemployment" to be construed, particularly by unscrupulous politicians.

My Solution

Report full-time Employment numbers. (Perhaps part-time numbers could occasionally be included as well).

On a larger scale, this figure seems more robust and comparable long-term.
    Ex. Employment was at 85% last month and grew to 86% this month. Therefore, 14% of the population is not working.
Forget those unemployed for 1 week, 15 weeks, or 100 weeks; anyone looking for a job within the past four weeks or once every other month; those who have given up looking; or those who "would like" work but have not looked recently. Regardless of what they say they are doing, they're still unemployed.

Additionally, there's no need to track those who choose to file for unemployment or continue reporting that they are underemployed. Simply take monthly reports on payroll (or other) tax filings. The government already does this and can aggregate the total number of those paying federal taxes.

Unfortunately, this term is too simple and cannot be manipulated. Thus, its usage will never be widespread.
I'm being a bit facetious, but why don't we use this number instead of six different ones?

Thoughts on using Employment numbers over Unemployment?
Any economists out there that want to weigh in?


Song of the Moment: Train - Sing Together

Actually not a real big fan of any of the Train songs currently being played on the radio from their latest album ("Drive By" is ok; "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" sounds annoying like "The Phantom of the Opera" theme; "Mermaid" is just annoying).

However, I really like this simple, catchy song:



Monday, April 15, 2013

Marathon Monday 2013

Finally home after a long, unbelievable day...

Quick shout out to all my friends who competed in today's events, and glad to report that all are safe and accounted for.
Also, thanks to my friend, Joel, for letting me crash at his place while the day unfolded. If not for him, I would have had to wander around while chaos erupted and the city was being locked down.



Patriot's Day has always been my favorite day to walk around Boston.
The temperature is usually just right (one of the rare, not too hot, not too cold, days) and the atmosphere is incredibly joyous with families and friends of runners celebrating their loved ones' feats of human strength, will, and determination.

I often think about what an odd sporting event a marathon is and almost remarked on social media the strange way we choose to acknowledge a Greek messenger's 26.2 mile run to Athens, after which he collapses and dies of exhaustion.
I'm glad now I did not, because the story seems both inappropriate and sickly prophetic considering the day's events.

There will be many more outlets to see and hear about today's news, but here are a couple that quickly sum up the events:

CNN photo gallery [Warning: Some images may be graphic]: http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/15/us/gallery/boston-marathon-explosions/index.html

The Atlantic photo gallery [Warning: More graphic images]:
http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/04/photos-of-the-boston-marathon-bombing/100495/

And finally, this video will be shown a hundred times over, but it is an incredible up-close account of the explosion and rapid response thereafter:


Friday, April 5, 2013

Well, Obamacare is going well...

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), affectionately called "Obamacare", was supposed to do two things: 1) protect patients, primarily those with preexisting conditions, and 2) make healthcare affordable.
Both objectives are incredibly important and while the legislation is succeeding in its first goal, the second is a massive failure.

Health Insurers Warn on Premiums
"Health insurers are privately warning brokers that premiums for many individuals and small businesses could increase sharply next year because of the health-care overhaul law, with the nation's biggest firm projecting that rates could more than double for some consumers buying their own plans.

The projections, made in sessions with brokers and agents, provide some of the most concrete evidence yet of how much insurance companies might increase prices when major provisions of the law kick in next year—a subject of rigorous debate.

The projected increases are at odds with what the Obama Administration says consumers should be expecting overall in terms of cost. The Department of Health and Human Services says that the law will "make health-care coverage more affordable and accessible," pointing to a 2009 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office that says average individual premiums, on an apples-to-apples basis, would be lower.
"

"Starting next year, the law will block insurers from refusing to sell coverage or setting premiums based on people's health histories, and will reduce their ability to set rates based on age. That can raise coverage prices for younger, healthier consumers, while reining them in for older, sicker ones. The rules can also affect small businesses, which sometimes pay premiums tied to employees' health status and claims history."

"Aetna Inc., in a presentation last fall to its national broker advisory council, suggested rates on individual plans not being grandfathered under the law could go up 55%, on average, and gave a figure of 29% for small business rates. Both numbers included 10 percentage points tied to medical-cost inflation, not the law. An Aetna spokesman said the numbers are "still generally in line with what we've been estimating," and represented the average impact in a typical state.

An official with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina told a gathering of brokers last week that individual premiums could go up by as much as 40% to 50%, according to brokers who were present. A spokeswoman for the insurer said "we don't have final numbers" yet on premiums.
" (The Wall Street Journal)

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions".
Low cost healthcare for everyone is something we should all aspire to have in a (relatively) prosperous nation such as ours. I agree with the attempts to protect those with preexisting conditions and those previously deemed "uninsurable". I can also be swayed to believe that, to be sustainable, we need those who can afford it to pay for healthcare to cover the costs for those who are utterly unable to pay for their own.
While this conflicts with my beliefs in individualism, the poor will get medical treatment when they need it. Regardless, taxpayers will end up paying for this. For example, if someone can afford it, but chooses not to pay for healthcare, then gets hurt. They could potentially be bankrupted by the malady and, if they were unable to pay for the entire cost of treatment, taxpayers would end up paying for that person as well. Thus, were he compelled to pay for health insurance while healthy, at least some costs would have been paid for up front.

However, I believe implementation and cost analyses of the PPACA was completely botched and citizen reaction to the legislation was not understood at all.


In fact...

Obamacare's Target Audience Doesn't Particularly Want It
"Over at Investor's Business, the always-interesting John Merline sends word of a troubling development when it comes to Obamacare: The very people it was supposed to help the most - the uninsured - don't seem to want the damned thing.

After looking at a series of slides posted by Health and Human Services (HHS) that lay out the department's marketing plan to reel in new customers, IBD's editorial board notes,

It turns out that the Democrats and the Obama administration apparently didn't bother to investigate who these uninsured people actually are before they forced through a $1.8 trillion plan to help them.

What they've learned since is that more than half of the 48 million who the government says are uninsured aren't interested in health insurance, which is why they don't bother to buy it in the first place....

The biggest market segment identified by HHS, in fact, is what it describes as "healthy and young," who make up 48% of the uninsured population."
"Obamacare backers pushed the plan as a way to cover the 50 million Americans who didn't have health insurance coverage (and let's be clear that having health insurance isn't the same thing as having good health). After the law passed, they chucked the idea that 50 million people were going to get covered, usually dropping the number down to around 30 million. Which off the bat is a tell of some sort: Why are we spending trillions of dollars and creating a new, untested program to cover 30 million people (while leaving another 30 million out at sea)? If basic insurance coverage was the goal, wouldn't giving people some sort of voucher or payment ticket to buy insurance be a cleaner, easier solution (and one that could have been implemented overnight)? Not that such a system wouldn't have caused all sorts of unintended havoc on the status quo, but it wouldn't have created an tsunami of uncertainty and guaranteed rate hikes that are everywhere around us." (Reason)
Another problem inherent in government, is that it doesn't follow the most efficient path that the market dictates.
It paves a road it thinks is best and, whether the road is used or not, taxpayers must pay for it.


And another curious response popped up.

Doctors and an Oklahoma hospital leave the traditional healthcare and billing model... and (surprise!) costs come down!

The Obamacare Revolt: Physicians Fight Back Against the Bureaucratization of Health Care
"Dr. Ryan Neuhofel, 31, offers a rare glimpse at what it would be like to go to the doctor without massive government interference in health care. Dr. Neuhofel, based in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas, charges for his services according to an online price list that's as straightforward as a restaurant menu. A drained abscess runs $30, a pap smear, $40, a 30-minute house call, $100. Strep cultures, glucose tolerance tests, and pregnancy tests are on the house. Neuhofel doesn't accept insurance. He even barters on occasion with cash-strapped locals. One patient pays with fresh eggs and another with homemade cheese and goat's milk.

"Direct primary care," which is the industry term for Neuhofel's business model, does away with the bureaucratic hassle of insurance, which translates into much lower prices. "What people don't realize is that most doctors employ an army of people for coding, billing, and gathering payment," says Neuhofel. "That means you have to charge $200 to remove an ingrown toenail." Neuhofel charges $50.
"

"This model is growing in popularity. Leading practitioners of direct primary care include Seattle, Washington-based Qliance, which has raised venture capital funding from Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, and comedian (and Reason Foundation Trustee) Drew Carey; MedLion, which is about to expand its business to five states; and AMG Medical Group, which operates several offices in New York City. Popular health care blogger Dr. Rob Lamberts has written at length about his decision to dump his traditional practice in favor of this model."

"Direct primary care is part of a larger trend of physician-entrepreneurs all across the country fighting to bring transparent prices and market forces back to health care. This is happening just as the federal government is poised to interfere with the health care market in many new and profoundly destructive ways.

Obamacare, which takes full effect in 2014, will drive up costs and erode quality—and Americans will increasingly seek out alternatives. That could bring hordes of new business to practitioners like Neuhofel, potentially offering a countervailing force to Obamacare. (One example, the Surgery Center of Oklahoma's Dr. Keith Smith, profiled for Reason TV in September, is doing big business offering cash pricing for outpatient surgery at prices about 80 percent less than at traditional hospitals.)
"
This is incredibly enlightening... Take 7 minutes to watch!
"The efforts of these doctors and others will undoubtedly help constrain exploding health care costs and improve care. But it's hard to fathom how within the legal constraints of Obamacare we'll see the sort of innovations that could solve the very problems that, ironically, were used to justify Obamacare's passage. As economist John Cochrane puts it, without government meddling, health insurance would be "individual, portable, life‐long, guaranteed‐renewable, transferrable, [and] competitive." And going to the doctor would be as simple and straightforward as eating out. What needs to be done to get there is painfully obvious.(Reason)
I thought this was incredibly encouraging.
I know for a fact that many doctors are discouraged by the current system and the overwhelming amount of paperwork that must be done to ensure patients are billed correctly and the hospitals can be reimbursed by health insurers. Hopefully many will take notice of what is happening at the Surgery Center of Oklahoma and similarly run clinics increase in popularity and quantity.



Thursday, April 4, 2013

Way Too Much To Post & More on Our Rapidly Declining Education System

Too Much To Post

I've been trying to get myself to write another post, but there's just so much, I've been feeling overwhelmed with too much information.

From now on, I'm going to try and write more frequent, shorter posts...


And now...

More on Our Rapidly Declining Education System

Obviously Education is an increasingly interesting topic for me.
I've come to believe many of the country's problems stem from an education system that is failing the nation on almost all fronts. From the economy to political gridlock to social issues, were citizens not so ignorant to facts, we would be in a much better position than we are today.

I'd like to dissect each of these articles, but in the interest of time, I'm simply going to post them with a couple thoughts.
Obviously, you should follow the source links and read the full articles for context and additional information.


"The American higher education system is the envy of the world, or so the cliché goes. The sons and daughters of foreign potentates flock to our shores, while kids raised on apple pie and Sesame Street claw each others’ eyes out for the chance to attend a top university. With more than 18 million current undergraduates—who pay average annual tuition of $32,000 each—the market for higher education seems to be going gangbusters.

Expanding post-secondary education is a government priority, too. In his 2009 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that “every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.” He sounded a similar note three years later, saying that “higher education can’t be a luxury, it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

But despite—or because of—this attention, there is trouble in paradise. Enrollment may be skyrocketing, but so are student debt levels and default rates. Tuition costs are increasing many times faster than income, or than prices in any other sector. This is in large part thanks to the gusher of federal money pouring into American colleges in the form of Pell Grants, subsidized loans, and research dollars, totaling nearly $200 billion a year. While the dream is to make college accessible to all, the reality is that subsidies contribute to skyrocketing prices, making college an increasingly expensive and risky undertaking.

Students arrive on campus underqualified, courtesy of an American public school system that has flatlined in quality while tripling its per-student cost. They do less academic work yet receive better grades than their parents did. And their post-college job prospects are dim, with unemployment rates for recent grads hovering at 12 percent.
" (Reason)
This quite a bit of the article, but I thought it was short enough to copy/paste the majority of it.
It also succinctly expresses my general view of the educational system; i.e. that it is a massive problem spanning all aspects, from elementary school to higher education.

Another factor is our teachers. Detailed analysis of our teaching force is needed, from how we pay to how we evaluate teachers.
Two of the biggest obstacles to change are the Teacher's Union and the practice of tenure...


"At no other time in history has the American higher education system been in greater need of radical change. The place to start: abolishing tenure.

Originally established in the late 1700s to protect academic freedom at religious schools (which are less than a fifth of the 4,703 U.S. colleges today), tenure has morphed into a guaranteed "job for life," a benefit no longer enjoyed by any other segment of the U.S. workforce. Even the United Kingdom did away with tenure in the late 1980s when then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher implored the nation's colleges to become more productive. (Tenure does exist in some form in other European universities, as well as Chinese and Indian schools.) While not all of academia's problems can be laid at tenure's doorstep, tenure has hamstrung colleges' ability to fulfill their two fundamental missions of advancing knowledge and disseminating it. Here's why.
"
"The impact on knowledge

U.S. colleges' once-undisputed superiority is under siege. Fifty-one of 76 U.S. universities lost ground in the UK magazine Times Higher Education 2012 list of the world's top 200 universities. The country's bragging rights in science and engineering are especially in doubt.
"
"In the U.S., research is a primary prerequisite for tenure, meaning that professors of all disciplines feel pressured to research — even if their subject area is static and less critical. Without tenure, it would be easier to shift research efforts toward emerging, fast-changing, and vital fields."
"The impact on teaching

Tenure locks in big costs and makes it difficult for universities to explore more productive teaching techniques. Mark C. Taylor, chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion and author of a book critical of tenure, estimates that a college ties up between $10 million and $12 million of its endowment to support a single tenured professor for a 35-year career."

"Tenure also limits how nimble colleges can be in deploying their staff to subject areas that will better equip students for employment.
"
"While tenure's proponents argue that it can always be revoked, in fact only 50 to 75 professors out of 280,000 lose it annually, said a study published in 1994 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The number has likely not changed, according to Harvard University researcher Cathy A. Trower."
"From tenure to contracts

Tenure could be replaced with contracts similar to those in the business world. Merit-worthy professors could be offered multiyear contracts that give them time to prove themselves; full professors could enjoy rolling contracts that provide reasonable amounts of job security. As in business, the contract can be bought out if the professor does not perform.
"
"To make such changes possible, colleges need to make use of the same tools used in the business world such as employment contracts instead of jobs for life, process innovation, better allocation of resources, and more careful scrutiny of how research gets funded. Every college's business school has taught how restrictive work rules and high labor costs for many years made American automotive, electronics, and other industries less competitive. Now universities need to adopt their own teachings and end tenure." (Harvard Business Review)
Guaranteeing any job will result in a degradation of productivity. While some people may have a constant drive to work hard regardless, if you were not afraid of losing your job, would you work as hard as you possible could each and every day, year after year?

Tenure was previously established to enable college professors to pursue academic studies and research on whatever topic they chose without repercussion from the school administration.
These days, the threat of politically-fueled dismissals are more rare and all employees are better protected by the law against discriminatory behavior.


Obviously there are many more factors contributing to the failings of education in this country, but these were two articles recently published and I like to always have sources to back up any claims.
As additional stories/reports/studies come out, I will be sure to post them.

Your thoughts on any of these pieces or related topics?