Archive for the ‘Business’ Category
Earlier I blogged a section from this LA Times article by David Lazarus, but the whole thing is at the link. From the article:
. . . As the scam plays out, the recorded voice will raise the possibility of a vacation or cruise package, or maybe a product warranty. She’ll ask if you could answer a few questions. Or she’ll make it sound like her headset is still giving her trouble and say, “Can you hear me?”
Don’t say yes.
Police departments nationwide have warned recently that offering an affirmative response can be edited to make it seem you’ve given permission for a purchase or some other transaction. There haven’t been many reports of losses, but a Washington State man reportedly got bilked for about $100.
A recorded “yes” could also could be used to deny refunds to any consumer who complains.
“If someone calls and asks, ‘Can you hear me?’, do not answer yes,” advised the Better Business Bureau. “Just hang up. Scammers change their tactics as the public catches on, so be alert for other questions designed to solicit a simple yes answer.”
Walker, the UC Santa Cruz computer wiz, has been teaching computers how to speak since the 1980s, when she worked as a researcher for the Natural Language Project at Hewlett Packard Laboratories in Palo Alto. She’s also done stints at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass., and AT&T Labs in New Jersey.
Talking machines have been epitomized for years by the automated switchboards that drive most consumers crazy. But Walker said we’re seeing the next iteration of speech technology in the likes of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa — devices that can respond to users’ requests and, to a limited extent, give the impression of conversation.
The next step, she said, will be computers that respond to voice commands to perform multiple tasks across multiple websites or platforms. For example, booking airline seats, a hotel and a rental car without a human having to look at a screen or touch a keyboard. . . .
The Department of Veterans Affairs built perhaps the most important medical computer system in history. Now it’s about to spend billions to throw it away.
Note: Links currently do not work in my Chrome browser. (They work fine in Firefox.)
Arthur Allen writes in Politico:
Four decades ago, in 1977, a conspiracy began bubbling up from the basements of the vast network of hospitals belonging to the Veterans Administration. Across the country, software geeks and doctors were puzzling out how they could make medical care better with these new devices called personal computers. Working sometimes at night or in their spare time, they started to cobble together a system that helped doctors organize their prescriptions, their CAT scans and patient notes, and to share their experiences electronically to help improve care for veterans.
Within a few years, this band of altruistic docs and nerds—they called themselves “The Hardhats,” and sometimes “the conspiracy”—had built something totally new, a system that would transform medicine. Today, the medical-data revolution is taken for granted, and electronic health records are a multibillion-dollar industry. Back then, the whole idea was a novelty, even a threat. The VA pioneers were years ahead of their time. Their project was innovative, entrepreneurial and public-spirited—all those things the government wasn’t supposed to be.
Of course, the government tried to kill it.
Though the system has survived for decades, even topping the lists of the most effective and popular medical records systems, it’s now on the verge of being eliminated: The secretary of what is now the Department of Veterans Affairs has already said he wants the agency to switch over to a commercial system. An official decision is scheduled for July 1. Throwing it out and starting over will cost $16 billion, according to one estimate.
What happened? The story of the VA’s unique computer system—how the government actually managed to build a pioneering and effective medical data network, and then managed to neglect it to the point of irreparability—is emblematic of how politics can lead to the bungling of a vital, complex technology. As recently as last August, a Medscape survey of 15,000 physicians found that the VA system, called VistA, ranked as the most usable and useful medical records system, above hundreds of other commercial versions marketed by hotshot tech companies with powerful Washington lobbyists. Back in 2009, some of the architects of the Affordable Care Act saw VistA as a model for the transformation of American medical records and even floated giving it away to every doctor in America.
Today, VistA is a whipping boy for Congress; the VA’s senior IT leadership and its overseers in the House and Senate are all sharpening their knives for the system, which they caricature as a scruffy old nag that fails the veterans riding on it. Big commercial companies are circling, each one putting forward its own proprietary technology as the answer to the VA’s woes. The VA leadership seems to agree with them. “We need to move towards commercially tested products,” VA Secretary David Shulkin told a congressional committee on March 7. “If somebody could explain to me why veterans benefit from VA being a good software developer, then maybe I’d change my mind.”
You’d have to be a very brave VA administrator, and perhaps a foolhardy one, to keep VistA in 2017: The system’s homegrown structure creates security and maintenance challenges; a huge amount of talent has fled the agency, and many Congress members are leery of it. Because it serves nearly 9 million veterans at 167 hospitals and 1,700 sites of care, however, the wrangling over VistA concerns much more than just another computer software system. The men and women who created and shaped VistA over the decades were pathfinders in efforts to use data to reshape the multi-trillion-dollar U.S. health care system. Much of what they’ve done continues to serve veterans well; it’s an open question whether the Beltway solution to replacing VistA, and the billions that will be spent pursuing it, will result in a system that serves the VA—and the nation—as well in the long run.
What’s clear, though, is that the whole story of how VistA was born, grew and slid into disrepair illustrates just how difficult it can be for the government to handle innovation in its midst.
YOU COULD SAY that VistA—which stands for the Veterans Information Systems and Technology Architecture—began as a giant hack.
Its birth occurred in 1977, far back in the era of paper medical records, with a pair of computer nerds from the National Bureau of Standards. Ted O’Neill and Marty Johnson had helped standardize a computer language, originally developed at Massachusetts General Hospital, called MUMPS, and the two men were hired by the VA to see whether MUMPS could be the basis of a new computer system connecting the VA’s hospitals. Computerizing the one-on-one art of medical care seemed like a sacrilege at the time, but the VA, struggling with casualties of the Vietnam War, was underfunded, disorganized and needed all the help it could get.
O’Neill and Johnson began recruiting other techies to the effort, some of whom were already working in VA hospitals in places such as St. Petersburg, Florida; Lexington, Kentucky; and San Francisco. Though they were on an official mission, their approach—highly decentralized, with different teams trying things in various hospitals—ran against the grain of a big bureaucracy and aroused the suspicions of the central office. The project soon had the feeling of a conspiracy, something that nonconformists did in secret. They gave themselves an internal nickname—the Hardhats. People who followed the project recall being struck by just how idealistic it was. “This will sound a bit hokey, but they saw a way to improve health care at less cost than was being proposed in the central office,” says Nancy Tomich, a writer who was covering VA health care at the time. As bureaucratic battles mounted, she says, “I remember how impressed I was by these dedicated people who put their personal welfare on the line.”
In 1978, with personal computers just starting to appear in the homes of nerdy hobbyists, the Hardhats bought thousands of personal data processors and distributed them throughout the VA. Software geeks and physicians were soon exploring how patient care could be improved with these new devices. A scheduling system was built in Oklahoma City, while technicians in Columbia, Missouri, built a radiology program, and the Washington, D.C., VA’s Hardhats worked on a cardiology program. In Silicon Valley, Steve Wozniak was building a computer in his garage that would overturn an industry; at the VA, these unsung rebels were doing something that was equally disruptive in its own way—and threatening to the VA’s central computer office, which had a staff and budget hundreds of times greater and planned to service the data-processing needs of the VA hospitals and clinics by means of leased lines to regional mainframe centers. While the bureaucrats in the central office had their own empire, Tomich recalled, the Hardhats—some of them straight-looking guys with burr haircuts and pocket pen protectors, some scruffy, bearded dudes in T-shirts—were “in the field planting seeds, raising crops and things were blossoming,’’ she says.
The Hardhats’ key insight—and the reason VistA still has such dedicated fans today—was that the system would work well only if they brought doctors into the loop as they built their new tools. In fact, it would be best if doctors actually helped build them. Pre-specified computer design might work for an airplane or a ship, but a hospital had hundreds of thousands of variable processes. You needed a “co-evolutionary loop between those using the system and the system you provide them,” says one of the early converts, mathematician Tom Munnecke, a polymathic entrepreneur and philanthropist who joined the VA hospital in Loma Linda, California, in 1978.
So rather than sitting in an office writing code and having the bureaucracy implement it, the computer scientists fanned out to doctors’ offices to figure out what they needed. Doctors with a feel for technology jumped into the fray. “I got involved because it solved my problems,” says Ross Fletcher, a cardiologist at the Washington, D.C., VA—where he is now chief of staff—since 1972. Working in close consultation with their clinical partners, sometimes coding at home at night or in their spare time, the computer experts built software that enabled doctors to legibly organize their prescriptions, CAT scans and patient notes, and to share their experiences electronically. Fletcher, who had studied a little computer science in college, worked with a software developer to help create an electronic EKG record. “The technical staff was embedded with clinical staff. I had lunch with the doctors, and in the parking lot in the morning we’d report what we’d done the night before,” says Munnecke.
Munnecke, a leading Hardhat, remembers it as an exhilarating time. He used a PDP11/34 computer with 32 kilobytes of memory, and stored his programs, development work and his hospital’s database on a 5-megabyte disk the size of a personal pizza. One day, Munnecke and a colleague, George Timson, sat in a restaurant and sketched out a circular diagram on a paper place mat, a design for what initially would be called the Decentralized Hospital Computer Program, and later VistA. MUMPs computer language was at the center of the diagram, surrounded by a kernel of programs used by everyone at the VA, with applications floating around the fringes like electrons in an atom. MUMPS was a ludicrously simple coding language that could run with limited memory and great speed on a low-powered computer. The architecture of VistA was open, modular and decentralized. All around the edges, the apps flourished through the cooperation of computer scientists and doctors.
“We didn’t call it ‘agile development,’ but it was agile,” says Howard Hayes, another VA IT veteran who served as CIO for the Indian Health Service, which adopted VistA. “Tight relationships between user and programmer, and sometimes they were one and the same.” Instead of top-down goals and project sign-offs, teams of techies and doctors kept working to improve the system. “The developer did something, the user tried it, called him up or walked down the hall and says ‘It really needs to do this.’ The next day they had another build,” says Hayes.
The VA’s centralized computer department, which relied on contractors, was not amused. Its leadership wanted control, and they believed, with a position remarkably similar to current-day criticisms of the VA’s IT work, that it made more sense to let the outside experts move the ball than have “garages” full of unconventional nerds and upstart doctors. The Hardhats were sharing records among doctors and hospitals. They were digitizing X-ray images. They were doing everything much less expensively and more successfully than the central office. They had to be stopped. In 1979, Ted O’Neill was fired (he drove a cab for a while, and later became a real estate agent). The main Hardhats office was shut down, and “pretty much everybody in the Washington part of the organization headed for the hills,” says Munnecke.
But, remarkably, the project didn’t die. . .
Very interesting. I also have seen this. Wonder how common it is. This is another place where I want a good government: an email to the state attorney general and Bob’s your uncle, if the state is well run and not corrupt (which is not nearly so common as you might think).
A pharma company that spent $500,000 trying to keep pot illegal just got DEA approval for synthetic marijuana
:sigh: One grows tired of this stuff. Christopher Ingraham reports in the Washington Post:
Insys Therapeutics, a pharmaceutical company that was one of the chief financial backers of the opposition to marijuana legalization in Arizona last year, received preliminary approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration this week for Syndros, a synthetic marijuana drug.
Insys gave $500,000 last summer to Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, the group opposing marijuana legalization in Arizona. The donation amounted to roughly 10 percent of all money raised by the group in an ultimately successful campaign against legalization. Insys was the only pharmaceutical company known to be giving money to oppose legalization last year, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance records.
Syndros is a synthetic formulation of THC, the main psychoactive component in the cannabis plant. It was approved by the FDA last summer to treat nausea, vomiting and weight loss in cancer and AIDS patients. The DEA approval places Syndros and its generic formulations in Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act, indicating a “high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule II drugs include cocaine, morphine, and many prescription painkillers.
Whole-plant marijuana remains in Schedule I of the CSA, an even stricter regulatory category that designates a lack of medically-accepted use in addition to a high abuse potential.
Insys has been active marijuana policy for several years. In 2011 it wrote to the DEA to express opposition to loosening restrictions on naturally-derived THC, citing “the abuse potential in terms of the need to grow and cultivate substantial crops of marijuana in the United States.”
Last year it petitioned the DEA to loosen restrictions on synthetic versions of CBD, another compound in the cannabis plant. The company is currently developing a CBD-based drug to treat pediatric epilepsy.
“It appears they are trying to kill a non-pharmaceutical market for marijuana in order to line their own pockets,” a spokesman for Arizona’s marijuana legalization campaign said of Insys last year. . .
When the GOP takes over, the protection of the public starts rapidly to erode. Brian Fung reports in the Washington Post:
Senate lawmakers voted Thursday to repeal a historic set of rules aimed at protecting consumers’ online data from their own Internet providers, in a move that could make it easier for broadband companies to sell and share their customers’ usage information for advertising purposes.
The rules, which prohibit providers from abusing the data they gather on their customers as they browse the Web on cellphones and computers, were approved last year over objections from Republicans who argued the regulations went too far.
U.S. senators voted by a 50-48 margin to approve a joint resolution from Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would prevent the Federal Communications Commission’s privacy rules from going into effect. The resolution also would bar the FCC from ever enacting similar consumer protections. It now heads to the House.
Industry groups welcomed the vote.
“Our industry remains committed to offering services that protect the privacy and security of the personal information of our customers,” said NCTA — The Internet and Television Association, a trade group representing major cable providers. [That seems to me to be the usual approach of companies who want to do something the public will dislike: they simply lie about what they’re doing because there is no penalty at all for lying, as President Trump repeatedly demonstrates. I do not believe the NCTA for one single second. – LG] “We support this step toward reversing the FCC’s misguided approach and look forward to restoring a consistent approach to online privacy protection that consumers want and deserve.” [No, they look forward to selling to anyone who will pay, everthing they can learn about you from monitoring your internet activity 24/7, which they can easily do through software: building detailed dossiers for each customer, selling the information for as much as they can get. And it’s profitable, because it can’t be a one-time purchase: the data are continually updated, so what you bought a few months ago is badly dated. – LG]
Consumer and privacy groups condemned the resolution.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Senate voted today to sacrifice the privacy rights of Americans in the interest of protecting the profits of major Internet companies, including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon,” said Neema Singh Giuliani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The FCC didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The agency’s rules are being debated as Internet providers — no longer satisfied with simply offering Web access — race to become online advertising giants as large as Google and Facebook. To deliver consumers from one website to another, Internet providers must see and understand which online destinations their customers wish to visit, whether that’s Netflix, WebMD or PornHub.
With that data, Internet providers would like to sell targeted advertising or even share that information with third-party marketers. But the FCC’s regulations place certain limits on the type of data Internet providers can share and under what circumstances. Under the rules, consumers may forbid their providers from sharing what the FCC deems “sensitive” information, such as app usage history and mobile location data.
Opponents of the regulation argue the FCC’s definition of sensitive information is far too broad and that it creates an imbalance between what’s expected of Internet providers and what’s allowed for Web companies such as Google. Separately from Congress, critics of the measure have petitioned the FCC to reconsider letting the rules go into effect, and the agency’s new Republican leadership has partly complied. In February, President Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, put a hold on a slice of the rules that would have forced Internet providers to better safeguard their customer data from hackers. [And that is quite revealing, don’t you think? The companies can’t be arsed to protect your data from hackers—and note that once this change (allowing ISPs to sell everything they can learn about you), there will be a LOT of your data on line, ripe for hackers. Of course, the ISPs don’t want to have to protect that data: it’s a big pain to try to keep it safe, and if it’s stolen, they really don’t suffer at all: the data will be renewed, but in the meantime, the hacker(s) and whoever they share the data with will know an awful lot about you. No biggie for the ISP, though; the apologies and promises to be made following a big loss of private customer data have already been written. No wonder they don’t want a law that will force them actually to protect the data. – LG]
The congressional resolution could make any further action by the FCC to review the rules unnecessary; Flake’s measure aims to nullify the FCC’s privacy rules altogether. Republicans argue that even if the FCC’s power to make rules on Internet privacy is curtailed, state attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission could still hold Internet providers accountable for future privacy abuses.
But Democrats say that preemptive rules are necessary to protect consumers before their information gets out against their will.
“At a time when our personal data is more vulnerable than ever, it’s baffling that Senate Republicans would eliminate the few privacy protections Americans have today,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the top liberal on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Pallone added in a statement Thursday that he hoped his House Republican colleagues “will exercise better judgment” when it becomes their turn to vote on the resolution. . . .
The GOP has never, so far as I know, shown the slightest interest in protecting consumers. The GOP is to protect and assist corporations (thus the gutting of the EPA, which is certainly going to harm the public but will be a boon to corporate profits). The editors of the NY Times write:
Shortly after Inauguration Day, the Trump camp indicated it had no immediate plan to fire Richard Cordray, the Obama-appointed director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose term runs until July 2018. The administration’s restraint was a welcome contrast to congressional Republicans’ unrelenting efforts to weaken the bureau, including calls to get rid of Mr. Cordray, an effective leader, on the ground that he had become a dictator.
Last week, however, the administration signaled it wanted to fire Mr. Cordray. Specifically, the Justice Department weighed in on a pending case in federal court that will decide how much power a president has to fire the bureau’s director. In its filing, the Justice Department has asserted that the director should be removable at the president’s will. That stance is consistent with an earlier 2-to-1 ruling by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, but it is inconsistent with the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that created the bureau in 2010 and that says the director can be fired only for cause, defined as “inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance.”
None of those criteria remotely describe Mr. Cordray’s work or the consumer bureau he helped to build. In the past five years, the bureau’s investigations and enforcement actions against banks and other lenders have returned nearly $12 billion to homeowners, students, servicemen and servicewomen, car buyers, credit card holders and other borrowers who were subject to abusive, deceptive or predatory practices. The bureau is now working on ways to regulate payday lending, where loans often end up impoverishing borrowers.
Mr. Cordray and the bureau have been doing what President Trump pledged to do in the campaign: protecting Americans from a system that has “robbed our working class.” So why would he want to fire Mr. Cordray? For one, Mr. Trump, despite his populist claims, has promised to dismantle the Dodd-Frank law, with the consumer bureau arguably the law’s most visible accomplishment. Second, the move may be part of a bigger power play.
Mr. Cordray is not the only agency head with statutory protections from removal at will by the president. The heads of the Office of Special Counsel, the Social Security Administration, the Federal Housing Finance Agency, the Federal Reserve, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other agencies are also shielded. Such protection is intended to insulate independent agencies from political interference.
But even if the full appeals court, which is hearing the case, rules that . . .
Tracy Jan reports in the Washington Post:
The order has been issued for the immediate construction of a Mexico border wall. The specs have been outlined: 30 feet high and “aesthetically pleasing.” The next thing on President Trump’s to-do list for building his “big, beautiful wall”: Hire more lawyers for a long and expensive battle over private land.
The wall will cost a lot more — politically and economically — than Trump has publicly acknowledged. To build the wall along the nearly 2,000-mile border — and fulfill a key campaign promise — Trump will need to wield the power of government to forcibly take private properties, including those belonging to his supporters.
Much of the border, especially in Texas, snakes through farms, ranches, orchards, golf courses, and other private property dating back to centuries-old Spanish land grants. As a signpost to the troubles ahead, the government has still not finished the process from the last such undertaking a decade ago.
“It’s going to be time consuming and costly,” said Tony Martinez, an attorney who is mayor of the border town of Brownsville, Tex. “From a political perspective, you have a lot of rich landowners who were his supporters.”
Trump, in his recent budget proposal, is calling for the addition of 20 Justice Department attorneys to “pursue federal efforts to obtain the land and holdings necessary to secure the southwest border.” The Justice Department would not expand upon the details. Of the department’s 11,000 attorneys, fewer than 20 currently work in land acquisition. Trump’s budget would double that.
The battle has been fought before. The last wave of eminent domain cases over southern border properties dates back to the 2006 Secure Fence Act authorizing President George W. Bush to erect 700 miles of fencing.
Of the roughly 400 condemnation cases stemming from that era, about 90 remain open a decade later, according to the Justice Department. Nearly all are in the Rio Grande Valley in southwest Texas.
The U.S. government has already spent $78 million compensating private landowners for 600 tracts of property for the construction of the existing pedestrian and vehicle fence, according to Customs and Border Protection. The agency estimates that it will spend another $21 million in real estate expenses associated with the remaining condemnation cases — not including approximately $4 million in Justice Department litigation costs. . .
And the wall is totally not needed: illegal immigration across the southern border is today negligible. OTOH, severe cuts to the U.S. Coast Guard budget to build the wall will indeed damage our national security.