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Archive for November 27th, 2013

Killing bacteria by physical means (rather than biological or chemical)

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Diplacodes bipunctata dragonfly wings are covered by nanoscale pillars, which exhibit strong antibacterial activity.

Diplacodes bipunctata dragonfly wings are covered by nanoscale pillars, which exhibit strong antibacterial activity.

This is pretty cool, reported by Jef Akst in The Scientist:

The material: Black silicon, a synthetic material studded with needle-shaped nanostructures that is used primarily for sensor applications, serves as a potent antibacterial agent, killing some 450,000 cells per minute in just one square centimeter, according to a study published today (November 26) in Nature Communications.

“If it’s manufacturable, if it’s transferable to other surfaces and fabrics, it could be a major breakthrough,” said Stephen Kelly, a nanoparticle researcher at the U.K.’s University of Hull who was not involved in the research. “It’s interesting in itself in that it clarifies that you can have mechanical effects to kill bacteria, but more importantly, it offers the potential for antibacterial surfaces which will kill a whole range of different kinds of bugs.”

What’s new: Nanoparticles with antimicrobial effects have long been used to coat materials in clinical settings. “Bedding in hospitals, nurses uniforms, or bandages, you can make them antibacterial, soaking them in silver nitrate,” Kelly explained. But it was unclear whether the nanoparticles worked by some sort of chemical effect, with ions diffusing from the nanoparticles to the bacteria, or by physically distorting the cell wall and breaking open the cell. “The actual mode of antibacterial action of nanoparticles has been disputed for a long time,” Kelly said.

Now, microbiologist Elena Ivanova of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia and her colleagues have shown that certain nanostructures can indeed kill based on texture alone. The group had previously demonstrated that cicada wings (Psaltoda claripennis), which are covered in dense nanopillar structures, were highly lethal to the opportunistic human pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and provided evidence to suggest that the wings’ biochemical properties were not responsible. “We showed that bactericidal nature of the wing is due to the mechanical rapture of bacterial cells,” Ivanova told The Scientist in an e-mail.

Recognizing that dragonflies (Diplacodes bipunctata) also have similar nanopillars on their wings, and that black silicon was known for a similar nano-texture, Ivanova and her colleagues decided to explore the bactericidal potential of the two surfaces. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 2:08 pm

Posted in Medical, Science

Bargains that aren’t

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Suzanne Kapner at the Wall Street Journal breaks the illusion:

When shoppers head out in search of Black Friday bargains this week, they won’t just be going to the mall, they’ll be witnessing retail theater.

Stores will be pulling out the stops on deep discounts aimed at drawing customers into stores. But retail-industry veterans acknowledge that, in many cases, those bargains will be a carefully engineered illusion.

The common assumption is that retailers stock up on goods and then mark down the ones that don’t sell, taking a hit to their profits. But that isn’t typically how it plays out. Instead, big retailers work backward with their suppliers to set starting prices that, after all the markdowns, will yield the profit margins they want.

The red cardigan sweater with the ruffled neck on sale for more than 40% off at $39.99 was never meant to sell at its $68 starting price. It was designed with the discount built in.

Buyers don’t seem to mind. What they are after, especially in such a lackluster economy, is the feeling they got a deal. Retailers like J.C. Penney Co. who try to get out of the game get punished.

“I don’t even get excited unless it’s 40% off,” said Lourdes Torress, a 44-year-old technical designer, as she browsed the sale racks at Macy’s Inc.’s flagship store in New York on a recent afternoon.

The manufactured nature of most discounts raises questions about the wisdom of standing in line for the promotional frenzy that kicks off the holiday shopping season. It also explains how retailers have been able to ramp up the bargains without giving away the store.

The number of deals offered by 31 major department store and apparel retailers increased 63% between 2009 to 2012, and the average discount jumped to 36% from 25%, according to, a website that tracks online coupons.

Over the same period, the gross margins of the same retailers—the difference between what they paid for goods and the price at which they sold them—were flat at 27.9%, according to FactSet. The holidays barely made a dent, with margins dipping to 27.8% in the fourth quarter of 2012 from 28% in the third quarter of that year.

“A lot of the discount is already priced into the product. That’s why you see much more stable margins,” said Liz Dunn, an analyst with Macquarie Equities Research. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 1:55 pm

Posted in Business

Oops! Gates pushes Microsoft management technique onto school systems, then Microsoft abandons the technique as destructive

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Unfortunately, schools cannot simply abandon a bad technique if the technique is required by law. (See high-stakes testing.) David Morris reports at AlterNet:

Schools have a lot to learn from business about how to improve performance, Bill Gates declared [3] in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. He pointed to his own company as a worthy model for public schools.

“At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not.”

Adopting the Microsoft model means public schools grading teachers, rewarding the best and being “candid”—that is, firing those who are deemed ineffective. “If you do that,” Gates promised [4] Oprah Winfrey, “then we go from being basically at the bottom of the rich countries to being back at the top.”

The Microsoft model, called “stacked ranking,” forced every work unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor.

Using hundred of millions of dollars in philanthropic largesse, Bill Gates persuaded state and federal policymakers that what was good for Microsoft would be good for the public schools system (to be sure, he was pushing against an open door). To be eligible for large grants from President Obama’s Race to the Top program, for example, states had to adopt Gates’ Darwinian approach to improving public education. Today more than 36 states have altered their teacher evaluations systems with the aim of weeding out the worst and rewarding the best.

Some states grade on a curve. Others do not. But all embrace the principle that teachers continuing employment will depend on improvement in student test scores, and teachers who are graded “ineffective” two or three years in a row face termination.

Needless to say, the whole process of what has come to be called “high stakes testing” of both students and teachers has proven devastatingly dispiriting. According [5] to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, over half of public school teachers say they experience great stress several days a week and are so demoralized that their level of satisfaction has plummeted from 62 percent to 39 percent since 2008.

Now, just as public school systems have widely adopted the Microsoft model in order to win the Race to the Top, it turns out that Microsoft realizes its model has led the once highly competitive company in a race to the bottom.

In a widely circulated 2012 article [6] in Vanity Fair, two-time George Polk Award winner Kurt Eichenwald concluded [7] that stacked ranking “effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate.” He writes, “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

This month Microsoft abandoned the hated system.

On November 12, all Microsoft employees received a memo from Lisa Brummel, executive vice-president for human resources, announcing [8]the company will be adopting “a fundamentally new approach to performance and development designed to promote new levels of teamwork and agility for breakthrough business impact.”

Brummel listed four key elements in the company’s new policy.

  • More emphasis on teamwork and collaboration.
  • More emphasis on employee growth and development.
  • No more use of a Bell curve for evaluating employees.
  • No more ratings of employees.

Sue Altman at EduShyster [9] vividly sums up the frustration of a nation of educators at this new development. “So let me get this straight. The big business method of evaluation that now rules our schools is no longer the big business method of evaluation? And collaboration and teamwork, which have been abandoned by our schools in favor of the big business method of evaluation, is in?”

Big business can turn on a dime when the CEO orders it to do so. But changing policies embraced and internalized by dozens of states and thousands of public school districts will take far, far longer. This means the legacy of Bill Gates will continue to handicap millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers even as the company Gates founded, along with many [10] other businesses, has thrown his pernicious performance model in the dustbin of history.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 12:38 pm

Obama’s Justice Department asks court to keep key spy opinion secret

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Obama has repeatedly said that his administration would be transparent, that statement is simply false: he has embraced secrecy with a passion, and now his Justice Department is trying to keep secret judicial opinions in court cases. This is a bad direction to go. Next will be a US Star Chamber—oh, wait: we already have those: the group that decides whether to kill people with drone attacks. A secret court hearing secret evidence with the accused not represented and given no voice—and indeed probably ignorant of the trial which results in his death sentence. That is exactly a Star Chamber.

Marisa Taylor reports for McClatchy:

The Obama administration should be permitted to keep a legal opinion secret that allows the FBI to obtain certain telephone records without any formal legal process, a Justice Department lawyer told a U.S. appeals court Tuesday.

The legal assertion by the Justice Department came in response to a lawsuit that alleges the department’s Office of Legal Counsel violated the federal open-records laws by refusing to release the memo, which says the bureau can collect international phone call data without court oversight or a “qualifying emergency.” As a result of the Justice Department’s refusal to release the memo, the circumstances under which the bureau can collect the records and the precise legal authority it relies on remain secret.

Justice Department lawyer Daniel Tenny told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that the opinion should be protected from public disclosure because it was internal legal advice to the FBI, not necessarily binding policy.

“If the FBI knew that the advice it got back would be made public, then the FBI’s own deliberations would be made public,” he said. “. . . The key point is not whether all of the advice should be made public. The question is whether it should be involuntarily made public.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which sued for access to the opinion, asserted that the FBI used the opinion as “cover” for its previous actions, which were under fire as potentially illegal. As a result, the foundation argued, the opinion was relied on as binding policy and cannot be withheld from the public.

“The OLC opinion at issue in this case set forth for the executive branch an authoritative, controlling interpretation of federal surveillance and privacy statutes,” Mark Rumold, a lawyer with the group, told the three-judge panel.

The lawsuit arises out of a longstanding debate over how much the public should know about the legal rationale that supports spying programs aimed at catching terrorists. The suit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation was prompted in part by McClatchy’s reporting that highlighted the existence of the memo and the department’s refusal to release it to the newspaper chain in January 2010.

For years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the FBI sought and obtained thousands of certain telephone records for international calls in an attempt to thwart potential terrorists.

The opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel was issued in response to questions that were raised by the Justice Department’s inspector general about the legality of the FBI’s handling of those records.

A reference to the opinion appeared in the heavily excised section of a 2010 inspector general report on how the FBI abused its powers when seeking the records.

The inspector general had concluded that the bureau devised an informal system of requesting the records from three telecommunications firms to create what one agent called a “phone database on steroids,” which included names, addresses, length of service and billing information.

The inspector general described a “casual” environment in which FBI agents and employees of the telecom companies treated Americans’ telephone records so cavalierly that one senior FBI counterterrorism official said getting access to them was as easy as “having an ATM in your living room.”

In revealing the existence of the memo, the Justice Department’s inspector general said: “The OLC agreed with the FBI that under certain circumstances (word or words redacted) allows the FBI to ask for and obtain these records on a voluntary basis from the providers, without legal process or a qualifying emergency.”

In January 2010, a McClatchy reporter asked for a copy of the memo under open-records laws but was denied.

In its cover letter to McClatchy, however, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 12:35 pm

Pope Francis: Why are Deaths of the Homeless not a Headline but a 2-point Dow Jones rise is?

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I have to say that Pope Francis seems much more in tune with what I understand to be Christian values than his two immediate predecessors, who seemed mostly to focus on rigid adherence to formalize church doctrine and to quash discussion. Andreas Germanos writes at Informed Comment:

Pope Francis has issued a new document in which he rails against growing inequality, trickle-down economics and the current socioeconomic system that “is unjust at its root.”

Issued on Tuesday, his 224-page document, called an apostolic exhortation, is titled The Joy of the Gospel, and follows previous remarksthe pontiff has made against inequality.

From the document:

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Further, the Pope writes, “the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root,” and thus spawns violence.

“Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples is reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence,” he wrote.

Security is impossible in a state with rampant inequality, and cannot be provided through the surveillance state or militarism, he continued:

When a society – whether local, national or global – is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility. This is not the case simply because inequality provokes a violent reaction from those excluded from the system, but because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root.

Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. This serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.

As for adherents to so-called trickle-down economics and austerity policies, he says:

… some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

While some have welcomed Pope Francis’ comments against inequality and war, he has been the target of criticism as well, including accusations of ties to Argentina’s right-wing junta during the country’s military dictatorship.

As you know, Jesus (who for Christians is God) had strong words against wealth, something many modern Christians—and I’m thinking partly of the Tea Party—strive to ignore. For example, from the Gospel according to Luke:

24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

The speaker is God.

Also read this very good report in the NY Times. It begins:

In his first nine months as leader of one billion Roman Catholics, Pope Francis has parceled out glimpses of his vision for remaking the church — in homilies and news conferences, interviews and offhand remarks to visitors.

On Tuesday, he announced his agenda in his own unfiltered words, reaffirming the impression that he intends to jolt the church out of complacency and enlist all Catholics in his ambitious project of renewing the church by confronting the real needs of people in need.

In a challenge to the Vatican hierarchy, Francis called for decentralizing power in the church, saying the Vatican and even the pope must collaborate with bishops, laypeople and in particular women.

“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” Francis said in the first teaching document of his papacy that he alone composed.

“I do not want a church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures,” he wrote.

The document, called “Evangelii Gaudium” (the Joy of the Gospel), is an apostolic exhortation — less authoritative than an encyclical, but an important pronouncement. He drafted it in August in Spanish, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, as a reflection on a synod of bishops last year that took up the “new evangelization.”

Francis’ prescription for the church is inextricably tied up with his analysis of what is wrong with the world. He devotes many pages to denouncing the “dictatorship” of a global economic system and a free market that perpetuates inequality and “devours” what is fragile, including human beings and the environment.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” he wrote, in the folksy language that has already marked his as a memorable papacy.

Vincent J. Miller, a theologian who writes on economic globalization at the University of Dayton, a Catholic university, said that while other popes have critiqued the economy, Francis has perspective on economic injustice as the first pope from Latin America, and is putting forward the church as the counterpoint.

“He talks about an economy of exclusion, while he’s been modeling and practicing inclusion publicly through his whole papacy,” Mr. Miller said.

After months in which many have parsed his comments for hints of change, the pope used the document to reiterate church teachings on abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. On abortion, he said, “It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations,” who may seek abortions because of rape or extreme poverty. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 12:17 pm

Posted in Religion

The shakeup at the Minneapolis Fed is a battle for the soul of macroeconomics—again

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Very interesting article, slightly wonky, by Miles Kimball and Noah Smith, in Quartz:

A personnel shakeup at the US Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis last week at first flew under the radar; by the time the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported the news, followed by other news outlets, it had been percolating through the economist grapevine for weeks. But the world should be paying attention, because the shakeup may be a part of big changes that are happening at the Fed, as well as a tectonic shift in the field of economics itself.

What Happened

Two of the Minneapolis Fed’s most eminent and long-serving economists, Patrick Kehoe and Ellen McGrattan, have been fired. The Star-Tribune article makes it clear that their departure was not voluntary on the part of either researcher. (Fortunately, both Kehoe and McGrattan will be fine, career-wise—both have stellar publication records and tenured professorships at the University of Minnesota.)

Why did this happen? We cannot know, especially since Minneapolis Fed Chief Narayana Kocherlakota isn’t giving his side of the story. But Jeffrey Sparshot makes this possible connection in the Wall Street Journal 

 Mr. Kocherlakota switched in 2012 from opposing some of the Fed’s easy-money policies to calling for more aggressive Fed action to spur economic growth and employment. The move reflected a shift in his views on persistently high unemployment: He went from thinking the cause was largely structural (and thus could not be fixed with monetary policy) to thinking it was largely due to weak demand (which means it could be addressed through policies aimed at boosting demand).

In other words, although the Minneapolis Fed shakeup could be due to any number of reasons—a personality conflict, a disagreement over the Fed bank’s mission, etc.–one possibility is that the personnel changes are related to Fed officials’ changing attitude toward business cycles. To understand that possibility, it is crucial to understand an academic controversy that has been simmering for decades.

Freshwater vs. Saltwater

Patrick Kehoe, one of the economists dismissed from the Fed, is a key figure in a school of economics called “Freshwater Macroeconomics” (the other, Ellen McGrattan, is his frequent co-author). The labels “Freshwater” and “Saltwater” go back to the arguments and new ideas generated by the double-digit inflation in the 1970s. The names refer to the geography of key combatants in that period, when economists at the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Minnesota spearheaded the “Rational Expectations Revolution.” They believed that people are very, very smart and sensible in their economic decisions. Taken to its logical extreme, the idea of economic rationality led the Nobel-winning Freshwater pioneer Edward Prescott to argue that recessions are not economic failures, but instead are inevitable, healthy outcomes of economies responding to the uneven pace of technological progress. In other words, Prescott and the economists who followed his lead said that the government shouldn’t try to fight recessions.

If the Fed prints money to try to stimulate demand, they say, it will only succeed in creating inflation rather than reviving the economy. And given this view of rationality, Freshwater macroeconomics often pushes the idea that the government should keep its hands off the economy in other policy domains as well.

Prescott and his fellow-travelers established a bastion for this apotheosis of Freshwater macroeconomics at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Fed. Patrick Kehoe carries that torch, being one of the greatest of the Freshwater macroeconomists to follow the founding generation, and one of the most extreme in his views.

The Freshwater school gained enormous clout in the ‘80s. But in the ‘90s, there was a counterattack from the coast. The Saltwater macroeconomists believed that recessions were economic failures, and that monetary policy was important in fighting them. Led by Michael Woodford, they adopted the tools and language of the Freshwater economists, and managed to convince many of their Freshwater brethren to reluctantly agree that monetary policy can, in fact, boost the economy. But one bastion of hard-line freshwater thinking held firm: “Minnesota macro.” The researchers at the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Fed have largely hung onto the belief that monetary policy can affect inflation, but can’t fight recessions.

But there is good reason to think that this view is losing credibility at the Fed.

Narayana Kocherlakota is an influential Fed official, and as such is an important bellwether of Fed thinking. His views have shifted decisively toward believing that monetary policy can stabilize the economy. What changed his mind? The answer is obvious: the Great Recession, and the failure of large purchases of long-term government bonds and mortgage-backed assets—QE—to create inflation. It makes all the difference in the world when the number one event shaping the questions macroeconomists ask is no longer the Great Inflation of the 1970s, but the Great Recession that still casts its shadow over the world.

Nor is Kocherlakota the only Fed official to change his mind. So even if the Minneapolis Fed shakeup wasn’t caused by a clash of ideas, the Fed’s shift toward Saltwater macro is a real phenomenon, and needs to be understood.

Freshwater Not So Fresh?

Whether people realize it or not, the thinking behind macroeconomic policy has such a decisive influence on the world that it is worth the effort for everyone to try to understand the central ideas and characteristics of the key schools of macroeconomics. Even many non-economists will remember John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman; it is these economists whose ideas led to the theories of the Saltwater school. But very few people even know what Freshwater macro is. We hope to give you a little introduction. . .

Continue reading.

For some background on Milton Friedman, who began (and to an extent remained) a lobbyist for big business, see this profile, which points out the weaknesses of Libertarianism, much espoused by Milton Friedman.

Here’s a 2008 article blasting the Freshwater school, also identified with the U of Chicago economists.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 12:08 pm

“If you want a horse to jump a fence, make the fence as low as possible”

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In general terms, reduce impediments to actions you want people to take. In marketing that means making your product easily accessible—and thus soda-pop machines went from requiring exact change, to make change for coins, to accept dollar bills, to accepting multiple denominations, to accepting credit cards. Each step was to lower the fence a bit more.

Cass Sunstein has an interesting application in an Bloomberg article:

Here is a famous finding from social psychology. If you want to encourage people to get vaccinated against some disease, it helps to educate them about the benefits of vaccination. But you’ll have a much bigger impact if you give people a map, showing them exactly where to go to get a shot.

Elementary though it is, this finding is important, because it demonstrates that when people don’t respond to a suggestion, it may be because they need some help in identifying the specific steps they are being asked to take. People pay a lot more attention if they are given something like a map.

In its efforts to promote healthy eating, SmartReceipt Inc. is taking this idea seriously. The company’sNutricate receipt provides people with the standard information about the meal they just bought, but with a few significant twists. The receipt contains a panel with personalized information about the total calories, fats, carbohydrates and protein in the particular foods customers chose.

You also receive some simple “Did you know?” messages, specifically tailored to your own choices. You might read, “Holding the mayo on your sandwich will save you 150 calories and 10 grams of fat,” or “Low-fat milk is a great source of calcium, and you just had over 35 percent of your daily calcium requirement.”

To be sure, the Nutricate receipt isn’t likely to prove appealing to all people and all restaurants. Some customers might find it intrusive or annoying. But other customers, and many restaurants, would undoubtedly find it useful. A big question is: Will people pay any attention to it?

Kelly Bedard and Peter Kuhn, economists at the University of California at Santa Barbara, have just answered that question.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Daily life

Yet another Obamacare success story

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We’ll be reading more and more of these as people complete their searches and sign up. Michael Hiltzik writes in the LA Times:

Last summer Ellen Holzman and Meredith Vezina, a married gay couple in San Diego County, got kicked off their long-term Kaiser health plan, for which they’d been paying more than $1,300 a month. The cause wasn’t the Affordable Care Act, as far as they knew. They’d been living outside Kaiser’s service area, and the health plan had decided to tighten its rules.

That’s when they discovered the chilly hazards of dependence on the individual health insurance market. When they applied for a replacement policy with Anthem Blue Cross of California, Ellen, 59, disclosed that she might have carpal tunnel syndrome. She wasn’t sure–her condition was still being diagnosed by Kaiser when her coverage ended. But the possibility was enough to scare Anthem. “They said, ‘We will not insure you because you have a pre-existing condition,'” Holzman recalls.

But they were lucky, thanks to Obamacare. Through Covered California, the state’s individual insurance marketplace, they’ve found a plan through Sharp Healthcare that will cover them both for a total premium of $142 a month, after a government subsidy based on their income. They’ll have a higher deductible than Kaiser’s but lower co-pays. But their possible savings will be impressive.

RELATED: Yes, men should pay for pregnancy coverage. Here’s why.

More important than that was knowing that they couldn’t be turned down for coverage come Jan. 1. “We felt we didn’t have to panic, or worry,” Holzman says. “If not for the Affordable Care Act, our ability to get insurance would be very limited, if we could get it at all.”

Holzman and Vezina are exactly the type of people Obamacare is designed to help–indeed, rescue from the cold, hard world of individual health insurance of the past. That was a world where even an undiagnosed condition might render you uninsurable. Where your insurance could be canceled after you got sick or had an accident. Where your financial health was at risk as much as your physical well-being.

These are the stories you’re not hearing amid the pumped-up panic over canceled individual policies and premium shocks–many of which stories are certainly true, but the noise being made about them leads people to think they’re more common than they are.

We’ve compiled several alternative examples for this post. They’re anecdotes, sure, just like the anecdotes you’ve been seeing and reading about people learning they’ll be paying more for coverage next year.

The difference is that Americans learning that they’ll be eligible for coverage perhaps for the first time, or at sharply lower cost, are far more typical of the individual insurance market. Two-thirds of the 30 million Americans who will be eligible for individual coverage next year are uninsured today, whether because they can’t afford it now or because they’re barred by pre-existing condition limitations, which will no longer be legal. And more than three-quarters will be eligible for subsidies that will cut their premium costs and even co-pays and deductibles substantially.

Let’s hear from a few more of them.

David Shevlino, 51, is an artist in Delaware. Between the COBRA policy that extends the coverage his wife, Kathy, received at a former job and the bare-bones policy that covers himself and their 15-year-old son, they’ve been laying out $1,000 a month in premiums. Next year they’ll pay $650 a month, after the government subsidy, for a plan through Blue Cross of Delaware that covers the entire family and provides many services that have been excluded up to now.

That makes a big difference, especially for Kathy, who is still dealing with injuries she suffered in a cycling accident and that would have made her uninsurable once her COBRA ran out less than a year from now. “She had already been turned down by Aetna and Blue Cross, the very company that will now insure her,” Shevlino says. “This is a really significant thing–to me, the fact that insurance companies could turn you down didn’t make sense in terms of what healthcare is supposed to be for.”

And Judith Silverstein, 49, a Californian who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007. Her family helps her pay the $750 monthly cost of her existing plan–which she only had because of federal law requiring that insurers who provide employer-based insurance continue to offer coverage if the employer goes out of business, as hers did. Next year she’ll get a subsidy that will get her a good “silver” level plan for $50.

For Silverstein that coverage is indispensable. Her case is relatively mild, but MS is a progressive condition that typically has made its sufferers pariahs of the individual insurance market in the past. “I researched the options,” she says. “Nobody’s going to sell you insurance in the individual market if you have MS.” But these customers can’t be excluded or saddled with big premium markups any more.

It’s not only recipients of subsidies who are benefiting. Jason Noble, 44, who has his own property management firm in Southern California, found a gold plan that will . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 11:46 am

The Good Judgment Project

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A very interesting project to improve accuracy of predictions of (e.g.) political developments. The article, by Michael Horowitz, begins:

The Economist’s The World in 2014 issue just hit newsstands, focusing international attention on the geopolitical outcomes we can expect to see over the next 12-14 months. The issue features an article by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Phil Tetlock and journalist Dan Gardner on the Good Judgment Project, a research study funded by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA, the U.S. government’s analog to DARPA), which makes such geopolitical predictions every day.

Since 2011, IARPA has posed about 100-150 questions each year to research teams participating in its ACE forecasting tournament on topics such as the Syrian civil war, the stability of the Eurozone and Sino-Japanese relations. Each research team was required to gather individual predictions from hundreds or thousands of forecasters online and to generate daily collective forecasts that assign realistic probabilities to possible outcomes.

The Good Judgment Project emerged as the clear winner and the Good Judgment Project forecasters have demonstrated the ability to generate increasingly accurate forecasts that have exceeded even some of the most optimistic estimates at the beginning of the tournament. The accompanying graphic shows the predictions from three GJP forecasting methods on a recent question concerning whether the first round of chemical weapons inspections in Syria would be completed before Dec. 1 –- an incredibly important and complex topic. Each prediction is a probability forecast that can range from 0 (a forecast of a 0% chance that the event will occur) to 1 (a forecast that the event is certain to occur). . .

Syrian chemical weapons

Read the whole thing

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 11:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Politics

Obama pardons turkeys but not prisoners

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Obama does not like to exercise mercy and the power of the Presidential pardon. See Emma Roller’s article at and note these statistics:

The statistics of presidential pardon ratios as of last year—that is, the ratio of pardons granted to the number of human pardon applicants—speak for themselves:

Ronald Reagan: 1 in 8

George H.W. Bush: 1 in 19

Bill Clinton: 1 in 16

George W. Bush: 1 in 55

Barack Obama: 1 in 290

The article does note:

The Obama administration’s ratio is much better this year—now more than 1 in 35 pardons are granted—mostly thanks to a slew of 17 pardons granted after the election was over. And an estimated 46 million turkeys are killed every year for Thanksgiving, so the pardon ratio of 1 in 23 million is admittedly worse for turkeys than for people, statistically speaking.

But guess what: Last year’s pardonees, Cobbler and Gobbler, are already dead. Turkeys don’t have as long of a lifespan as humans, nor do we normally put such a premium on a turkey’s life compared with another human’s life. And while it may not make for as good of a pre-holiday photo op, returning a father to his family’s dinner table after serving years for a crime he’s been exonerated of, or the friend who’s been languishing in a jail cell for 33 years, may be just as newsworthy.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 11:34 am

False beliefs about young adults and the Affordable Care Act

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As Sarah Kliff points out, the following 5 statements are all FALSE:

1. Young adults are uninformed about the health-care law.

2. They don’t want health insurance.

3. They don’t need health insurance.

4. Young people will face steep premiums in the insurance exchanges.

5. Young people aren’t signing up for Obamacare yet.

Not one of the 5 numbered states is true. Ms. Kliff explains why.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 11:24 am

Posted in Government, Healthcare

Mark McClellan ran Medicare Part D. Here’s his advice for the Obama administration.

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Medicare Part D (prescription drug benefit) had a very rocky roll-out and the law was poorly drafted, leaving a famous “donut hold” in the coverage: in go through the year, a person using the benefit will find that for a portion of the year prescriptions were not covered. But in time things got fixed, and now people scream that the politicians had better keep their government hands off Medicare…

Ezra Klein interviews the Mark McClellan in the Wonkblog:

In the months before Obamacare officially launched, the White House health-care team talked often about everything they were doing to make sure Obamacare didn’t become the next Medicare Part D.

Fast forward a few months, and the White House health team is desperately hoping Obamacare becomes the next Medicare Part D.

Medicare Part D is the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit. It was passed by the Bush administration in 2003 and launched in 2006. The launch, to say the least, didn’t go well.

Seniors were confused by the new options. Some showed up at pharmacies only to find their benefits didn’t work, or the plan they thought they signed up for wasn’t the one they got. The initial enrollment push was a disaster, with far fewer seniors signing up than expected. Two months in, then-Majority Leader John Boehner called it “horrendous.”

But the law recovered. Today, Medicare Part D is widely considered a success. More than 90 percent of seniors are satisfied with the program. Republicans point to it as a model for their future reforms. Democrats expanded it as part of the Affordable Care Act.

This is exactly what the White House is hoping happens with Obamacare.

I asked Mark McClellan, who led the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services during Part D’s implementation, whether that was realistic. His answers didn’t foretell a pleasant 2014 for the Obama administration. But they suggested that many critics have written the law off far too early.

Even if is repaired, McClellan warned that the law’s problems aren’t anywhere near over. Part D’s worst trials came when people actually began attempting to use their insurance. Obamacare hasn’t even reached that juncture yet — and, worryingly, its sign-up process has been more troubled and more disruptive than Part D’s.

Come January there will be people who had their plans canceled by Obamacare but didn’t or couldn’t sign up for new insurance. There will be people who signed up for new insurance but their application got lost in the tubes. Some of these people will be sick, and interruptions to their care will be dangerous — not to mention widely publicized.

“There’s is a 100 percent chance that this will happen to a nontrivial number of people,” McClellan, who’s now at the Brookings Institution, said. “So the Obama administration needs some kind of plan in place for resolving those cases as rapidly as possible and making sure they get the care they need.”

As of now, McClellan said, enrollment data isn’t worth much. “It is way too early to draw definitive conclusions about ultimate enrollment numbers or whether it’ll be skewed to older, sicker people,” he said.

The Medicare Part D experience was that sign-up was slow at the outset and then rocketed upward in the spring of 2006, toward the end of open enrollment. “By that point, every senior had heard about this program or knew people in it. And everyone was familiar with the delayed enrollment penalty. Those things together led to a big bump in enrollment for people who were procrastinating. But they decided to sign up before the end of open enrollment,” McClellan said.

The White House has been explicitly comforting itself by looking to the enrollment patterns of Medicare Part D. But McClellan isn’t certain they apply. For one thing, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 11:18 am

David Brubeck said this is the “most original” cover of Take Five

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Via Informed Comment:

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 11:08 am

Posted in Jazz, Video

Very pleasant shave with Progress and Green Mountain

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SOTD 27 Nov 2013

So I begin the last lap of this year’s Scent-Off, using the Green Mountain soap, with the initial lathering done with a boar brush, my Omega Baby Pro.

As usual, lather comments are saved, but the Progress in three passes gave me a very fine shave indeed, and a splash of Creed’s Aventus made for a great finish.

Still a tiny bit of shopping to do.

Written by Leisureguy

27 November 2013 at 10:12 am

Posted in Shaving

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