Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 21st, 2013

The way government does tech is outdated and risky

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A really fine article by Lydia DePilis really lays out the fundamental, systemic problems that led to the Healthcare.gov debacle—and they’re substantially deeper and more serious than deciding how the project would be coordinated.

Really, read it.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 October 2013 at 4:29 pm

Great sentence of the day: “Republicans are furious that more people can’t sign up for this law they want to repeal altogether.”

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From this article on Wonkblog by Ezra Klein.

Can’t you just see the hearings, “And, Secretary Sebelius, was it not common knowledge that millions of people wanted and needed this service, so any reasonable person could foresee that traffic would be heavy on opening day and thereafter?” (Aide whispers into Representative’s ear.) “Let me rephrase that question …. “

Written by LeisureGuy

21 October 2013 at 4:03 pm

Good journalism: “Everything you need to know about JPMorgan’s $13 billion settlement”

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Excellent summary and backgrounder on the MPMorgan settlement in an article by Neil Irwin at the Washington Post:

PMorgan Chase is nearing a $13 billion civil settlement with the Justice Department for its mortgage lending practices. So what’s going on here? We’re here to help.

What is JPMorgan Chase?

It’s the largest bank in the United States, with $2.4 trillion in assets. It is active in a wide variety of financial services businesses, including both what you might think of as ordinary consumer banking–taking deposits and offering car loans, mortgages, and credit cards–and more exotic Wall Street deal-making like helping large companies issue stocks or bonds. It has 255,000 employees, about the population of Orlando.

Its history dates back to 1799, with the Bank of the Manhattan Co., founded by Aaron Burr (the guy who killed America’s first treasury secretary in a duel), which helped finance the Erie Canal; that is one of more than 1,000 banks that have merged over the generations to become the colossus that is now JPMorgan Chase.

The most important of those predecessor firms is J.P. Morgan & Co., founded by the great Gilded Age financier in 1871, which played a key role financing the American rail system, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Panama Canal. Morgan was a titan of American finance, helping guide the young republic through a series of financial crises at a time there was no central bank. Think Tim Geithner circa 2008, but with less hair and a groovy mustache.

J.P. Morgan merged with Chase Manhattan in 2000, leading to the current JPMorgan Chase. It is run by Jamie Dimon, who is arguably the most successful banker of his generation. Dimon also has better hair than J. Pierpont Morgan.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon at the Justice Department, where he met with Attorney General Eric Holder last week. Excellent hair. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

So what is this settlement about?

In the years before the 2008 crisis, large banks were in the business of “mortgage securitization.” They would take home loans made by retail banks and mortgage brokers all over the country, and sell them to others.

The government-sponsored mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought some of these mortgages. And the banks also packaged some of them into complex, privately issued  “residential mortgage backed securities” that were bought by investors around the globe.

But a lot of the loans that the banks sold were bad. Many were subprime, meaning to people with weak credit, small down payments, or both. Many more were “Alt-A”, a category of loan quality a little better than subprime but worse than prime loans. The companies buying the mortgages knew that they were investing in lower-quality credit risks. What they may not have known is just how bad lending standards had become, that many of the people taking out mortgage loans didn’t make as much money as they said they did, for example, or that there were other red flags to suggest that they wouldn’t be able to handle their mortgages.

As a result, the people who ended up owning the loans–both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the private investors who purchased mortgage backed securities–ended losing money as borrowers were unable to make their mortgage payments.

What did this have to do with the financial crisis? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 October 2013 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Secrecy leads to ignorance

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The problem with keeping things secret from everyone is that you are deprived of useful input. President Obama, despite his talk of “transparent” and “open” has in practice greatly increased the secrecy of our government, as we daily learn. And now, I think, that approach has backfired badly: the incredibly poor implementation of Healthcare.gov would, in times past, been a breaking story months ago: whistleblowers would have been talking to the press about their frustrations and the lack of closure and the impossibility of implementing in the timeframe left with the specifications incomplete, and so on. Those stories would have hit the press, and Obama would have realized from reading them that the reports he was undoubtedly getting up the chain of command were misleadingly optimistic—and not through any desire to deceive. At every level from coder to Kathleen Sebelius,, including all the project team leaders and their managers and their managers, there are filters: managers don’t report to their bosses the problems that the managers believe they can fix. No one wants to report that he is not able to solve a problem, and moreover bosses push back: “You solve that problem, and fast—think outside the box, and do more with less. Work smarter, not harder,” and so on. So the simmering problem doesn’t make its way to the top because at every level people are determined to solve the problem and not bother their boss.

But with a whistleblower, the early problems are leaked, everyone up the entire chain reads about the problems in the Washington Post, and very quickly the problems are addressed.

That didn’t happen with Healthcare.gov. Secrecy was maintained, no one knew what was happening, and now it’s a mess.

From a report by Amy Goldsteini in the Washington Post:

“Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans,” HHS officials said in a blog post Sunday afternoon, acknowledging what has been obvious to millions of insurance seekers who live in the three dozen states relying on the federal exchange. For the first time, the administration appealed to people to report their interactions, good or bad, with the exchange, a core element of the 2010 health-care law.

Emphasis added. I can’t believe that didn’t build feedback into the system.

Also from that article:

The remarks Sunday, and Obama’s expected comments Monday, represent a slight strategic shift for an administration that has repeatedly refused to say publicly exactly what is wrong with the site or what is being done to fix it. The new tack offers a bit more information while allowing officials to strike a sympathetic tone toward consumers exasperated by their experiences.

Even now, administration officials are declining to disclose many details about the debugging effort. They will not say how many experts — whom they describe as “the best and the brightest” — are on the team, when the team began its work or how soon the site’s flaws might be corrected. Still, in talking about the repairs, administration officials for the first time conceded that the site’s problems extend beyond well-publicized front-end obstacles, such as with setting up a personal account.

Since the exchange opened, officials at the White House and HHS had until now insisted that the site’s problems were caused primarily by its popularity — that more people were trying to get on than could be accommodated at once. Even Sunday, the HHS spokesman said the “main driver of the problems is volume.”

Yet insurance companies, consumers and health policy experts have noticed problems that occur further along in the process of using the exchange. The Web site sometimes gives inaccurate information about the federal tax credits that will help most people pay for a health plan, they say. And it sometimes erroneously tells low-income people that they are not eligible for Medicaid.

Note that the Obama Administration is still trying for secrecy — a modified limited hangout is all they can bring themselves to do. I think it would have been smarter and more efficient to go an open-source route so that more eyes could look at the problems and more people contribute to the success.

Secrecy can screw things up badly, as we see. When an organization is determined to keep everything secret from “outsiders,” often those in charge of the organization are similarly kept in the dark, just not so much. But generally some disaster will reveal what has been going on.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein has a brief report in the Washington Post, which repeats the obvious question: If they’re putting the “best and brightest” on the project to fix it, who was on it before?

One thing we know:

The key coordinator — which not only oversaw CGI Federal but all the other contractors building the site — was the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and in particular, their IT department. But CMS didn’t have the technological expertise to carry out this role — and they still don’t.

Someone decided that that CMS would play the role of coordinator (instead of hiring a company with relevant experience in coordinating massive software projects—e.g., IBM). Who was that person? Who made that decision? That would be interesting to know, but the secrecy of the Administration protects the person, who will doubtless go on to make other ill-founded decisions.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 October 2013 at 12:00 pm

Supersmooth shave

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SOTD 21 Oct 2013

Another superb soap from HowToGrowAMoustache.com. However, I see a flaw in the design of the label: the lid label should include identification of which fragrance it is. I normally store my soap with the top uppermost, but of course with HTGAM soaps, that hids the fragrance, so these will have to be stored upside down. I think not having a place on the top label to indicate fragrance is a mistake—particularly should the soap start being carried in B&M stores: getting home and finding that you inadvertently got the wrong fragrance is not going to sit well.

Still, the lather was superb. I used the Omega boar brush shown, and the large surface area of the puck gave me a better chance to observe the loading process and how the soap gradually moves up the knot as you load the brush. The soap’s fragrance is light but pleasant. I think I would like a straight Vetiver better, however.

No problems at all in getting three, passes from the brush, which held enough for several more passes. The Personna Lab Blue blade in the bakelite slant is still doing well.

A good splash of Saint Charles Shave’s Very V aftershave. I suddenly am really tuned in to this fragrance, and I’m liking this aftershave a lot.

Next week will be the Sharpologist “Scent-off”: an examination by several judges (including me) of a variety of shaving soaps just recently formulated to have fall/winter fragrances—associated with season, with holidays, with whatever. More later.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 October 2013 at 8:40 am

Posted in Shaving

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