Category Archives: Policy

Transportation: Tesla deletes car features via software update, after cars are sold, used

Should Tesla be allowed to remove features from a vehicle that’s bought secondhand?

Source: Tesla yanks Autopilot features from used car because ‘they weren’t paid for’ | ZDNet

This is a troubling issue where we rely on software for every feature of consumer products. Software that can be updated to add features can also be downgraded to remove features.

Years ago, Amazon deleted e-book copies of George Orwell’s novel, 1984. Apparently Amazon did not have the distribution rights signed up correctly and customers who had bought the e-book addition discovered Amazon remotely deleted their copy of the book. (Amazon did refund the purchase price). That this was a giant corporation removing, of all things, 1984, was a bit of a shock to many.

Meanwhile, the FAA has proposed a massive, Rube Goldberg-like regulatory scheme for small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS), also known as remote control model aircraft. The FAA envisions a world where all model aircraft regulations are enforced by software, logging their position with government designated Internet databases, once every second during flight – rather than the traditional trust and enforcement mechanisms of all other laws. There are multiple issues with the FAA’s proposal, but one side effect of their attempt to enforce the law via software is they’ve managed to eliminate essentially all indoor flight by model airplanes and quadcopter – because a one-size fits all rule does not work. They’ve also created a monster that would enable automated  drone fleets – and consumer drones – to be enlisted by foreign adversaries in international espionage, permitting – indeed, encouraging – all drones to collect aerial imagery and other data as they fly over our homes and cities.

Transportation: Congress proposing an annual Federal tax on electric vehicles

Source: Congress could make EV drivers pay – POLITICO

My state, Oregon, introduced state fees for fuel efficient vehicles, beginning January 1, 2020. These fees are added to existing annual license fees. Oregon issues vehicle licenses for a 2 year period, not one, so the fee paid when renewing is twice the value shown:

a) For vehicles that have a rating of 0-19 MPG, $18.

(b) For vehicles that have a rating of 20-39 MPG, $23.

(c) For vehicles that have a rating of 40 MPG or greater, $33.

(d) For electric vehicles, $110.

The reason they charge for 2 years is it enables the state to increase the effective rate. On average, people will sell their car with one year of their license remaining. However, when sold, there is no refund. And presumably you buy a new vehicle and pay a new license fee. Same thing if you move out of state – you lose the unused portion of the fee. Now they offer a 4-year pre-paid option – don’t go there!

Oregon has also introduced a “pay per mile” license tax and says that some people may pay less fees under this scheme. When I checked the numbers for my Honda Fit, I would pay more under their pay-per-mile scheme – and I only drive about 7,000 miles per year. Sure, that pay–per-mile fee makes sense – not!

The state increased the regular vehicle license fee by 30% in 2017, and increased the state’s gasoline sales tax, which will increase every other year through 2024. The State also increased the title records fee and added a per-vehicle-sold tax on car dealers, and added a $15 tax on new bicycle purchases.

The proposed Federal tax – amount unknown – would be in addition to State license fees.

Software: Why hiring professional software engineers might have been a good idea #IowaCaucus

Oh my:

It wasn’t so much that the new app that the Iowa Democratic Party had planned to use to report its caucus results didn’t work. It was that people were struggling to even log in or download it in the first place. After all, there had never been any app-specific training for his many precinct chairs.

No training? This points to a lack of common sense and systems analysis at the start of the project. How was this missed?

Further, they likely had not created use cases, which would have caught the next set of failures.

So last Thursday Mr. Bagniewski, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa’s most populous, decided to scrap the app entirely, instructing his precinct chairs to simply call in the caucus results as they had always done.

The only problem was, when the time came during Monday’s caucuses, those precinct chairs could not connect with party leaders via phone. Mr. Bagniewski instructed his executive director to take pictures of the results with her smartphone and drive over to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters to deliver them in person. She was turned away without explanation, he said.

Source: ‘A Systemwide Disaster’: How the Iowa Caucuses Melted Down – DNyuz

I live in the state that featured Cover Oregon[1], a $450 million health exchange that never enrolled a single individual subscriber. It was a complete failure. Healthcare.gov received most of the media attention concerning large government failed software projects but several state projects also failed.

Both health exchange fiascos – and the Iowa Caucus disaster – point to over reliance on software and an assumption that more tech is always better. Tech can make things better, but only when qualified people are involved in all aspects of the project.

Update – my guess was correct says the NY Times:

Shadow was also handicapped by its own lack of coding know-how, according to people familiar with the company. Few of its employees had worked on major tech projects, and many of its engineers were relatively inexperienced.

Only 25% of precinct  chairs were able to successfully install the app. Colossal failure. The system relied, in part, on “security by obscurity”, which never works.

Update: “They” have quite a history with  failed software development. The Associated Press said it could not name a winner of the Iowa Democratic Party Caucuses.

Continue reading Software: Why hiring professional software engineers might have been a good idea #IowaCaucus

Privacy: Spooks figure out ways to trick you into not using encryption

Picsix’s tool creates a fake cell tower that can fool a target’s phone into transmitting data to it. The device cannot read encrypted data, but instead tries a different tactic to get private information: making encrypted apps glitchy or even totally unusable. It’s a subtle but strong way to push a frustrated target away from a private app and toward a non-encrypted service that can easily be intercepted and eavesdropped on. The encryption itself is never broken—it is simply rendered useless.

Source: Cops see an encryption problem. Spyware makers see an opportunity. – MIT Technology Review

Increases in student loan availability lead to increases in tuition and fees

Stated another way, the more money poured in to student loan programs, the higher the tuition charged. Tuition goes up because of student loans rather than the view that student loans go up in response to higher tuition.

Consistent with the model, we find that even when universities price-discriminate, a credit expansion will raise tuition paid byall students and not only by those at the federal loan caps because of pecuniary demand externalities. Such pricing externalities are often conjectured in the context of the effects of expanded subprime borrowing on housing prices leading up to the financial crisis, and our study can be seen as complementary evidence in the student loan market.

From: Lucca, D., Nadauld, T., Shen, K. (2015, 2017). Credit supply and the rise in college tuition: Evidence from the expansion in Federal student aid programs. Staff Report no. 733. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

As the authors note, this is similar to other areas where a third party supply of money causes prices to rise – such as the effect of cheap mortgages causing home prices to rise.

A similar effect occurs in health care where third party “insurance” benefits are an enabler of higher priced health care services.

Whenever the cost of goods are services are subsidized such that their immediate direct costs are lower than the market clearing price, demand for those goods and services will increase. As demand increases relative to supply, the prices charged increase to a new actual and higher market clearing price.

Student loan programs are a major cause of tuition hikes. Cheap mortgages are a major cause of rising home prices. Health “insurance” is a major cause of higher prices charged in health care.

Health policy: “The U.S. can slash health-care costs 75% with 2 fundamental changes”

This makes a lot of sense, thus it will never happen, unfortunately:

Fund the HSA deductible, as Indiana and Whole Foods do, and put real prices on everything.

Source: The U.S. can slash health-care costs 75% with 2 fundamental changes — and without ‘Medicare for All’ – MarketWatch

The Affordable Care Act, according to co-architect Jonathan Gruber, was about coverage. As he put it, in his own words “we paid lip service” to cost controls. In fact, in the unsubsidized individual market, insurance premiums rose by 100 to 200% (that’s two to three times higher prices). This market is probably about 18 million people, plus another 6 million or so who remain uninsured due to the high prices and are not normally counted.

How expensive is the ACA market? For those in their 50s and up, premiums may cost thousands of dollars per month, with $2,000 or more being common. That’s $24,000 per year for a high deductible “insurance” plan – often meaning $30,000 or more out of pocket before receiving benefits. Surprisingly, the subsidy cut off level for 2020 is about $68,000 per year. If you earn this much or more, you are not eligible for any subsidy assistance. You’ll pay $30,000 out of pocket on your $68,000 pre-tax income – and you still need to pay taxes, housing, food and transportation costs.

Actual price quote, HealthCare.gov, 64 year old married couple living in Laramie, WY – this is the cheapest Silver plan.

How did this absurdity happen? Jonathan Gruber made numerous errors in crafting the ACA. One of which is that the subsidy cut off level is determined as a factor of the regional poverty income level. It has nothing to do with actual insurance prices. Gruber never envisioned insurance premiums rising so high, so rapidly. Thus we have absurd cut off levels having no relationship to actual prices of insurance!

Part of the reason prices rose so rapidly is because 35 state run high risk insurance pools were shut down and all of their high cost/high risk patients were moved into the ACA individual market. Prior to 2017, some of these high costs were shared with most insured people in the country. But beginning in 2017, these risk sharing measures were ended and the individual market had to share these costs exclusively, turning the individual market into a de facto high risk/high cost insurance pool.

For those that are subsidized, the Federal taxpayer picks up the extra charge. In fact, through various quirks, many subsidized consumers pay less than they did in 2014, and some even pay ZERO premiums – receiving insurance for free.

Meanwhile, those in the unsubsidized market have seen a doubling or tripling of their costs to the point they have been forced to drop out of the market. Much political ventings drones on about the Individual Mandate but that is irrelevant. The ACA itself exempts people from the mandate if the least cost Bronze plan exceeds about 8% of your household income. This turns out to be true for most families in their 40s and up and most married couples in their 50s and up.

The primary point of the ACA was to provide insurance access to the non-group market. Contrary to poplar misconception, the HIPAA of 1996 provided pre-existing condition exclusion protections to all those with employer sponsored insurance. Medicare, Medicaid and VA coverage already provided protection. Nearly everyone had pre-existing condition protections – except for the small non-group or individual market (actually about 24 states enacted their own forms of protection). The ACA provided those protections but at the expense of pricing millions out of access – which is a big miss for an Act whose title begins with “Affordable”. (Technically it was Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but still…)

Business: San Francisco to require tech entrepreneurs to receive a permit from the city before launching their tech products

Guess San Francisco doesn’t want to be a center of tech innovation:

But the office will do more than just help eager tech firms obtain approvals and permits. It will also have the power to weigh the potential impact of a proposed technology on city infrastructure and public safety — as well as privacy and security — before giving a green light to a pilot project or product launch.”

Source: New San Francisco Office Could Curb ‘Reckless’ Rollouts of Emerging Tech | KQED News

The city will review and issue a permit – or advise the company how it may need to alter its product – before its product can be trialed or launched in San Francisco.

Faceless bureaucrats with no skin in the game will sit in the driver’s seat. What could possibly go wrong?

A call for a code of tech ethics?

Facebook and the like need to craft a professional code of ethics for the technology industry.

Source: A Facebook request: Write a code of tech ethics – Los Angeles Times

Where this is headed, naturally, is the concept of licensed professional engineers (P.E.) in software engineering. Development of a professional engineering licensing exam for software engineering was done many years ago. I believe Texas was the only state to offer the exam; however, due to low participation, they are discontinuing the software engineering PE exam as of April 2019.

“Algorithms have gotten out of control. It’s time to regulate them.”

A guy with a PhD in English Literature has never heard of the First Amendment, apparently, and proposes regulating technical speech:

These complex equations have huge influence on our lives — but they operate with very little oversight

Source: Algorithms have gotten out of control. It’s time to regulate them.

He proposes a new government agency and “Algorithm Czar” to regulate the use of algorithms. He is seriously talking of regulating all algorithms used in computing. Give a moments thought to what he is advocating – government control over information processing of all types. Imagine having to apply to a government bureaucrat for nearly every app or application that is developed, seeking approval or a license to use it. The author is oblivious to the concept that algorithms are considered speech in the U.S., protected by the First Amendment. The same Amendment that permitted a magazine to publish the author’s nonsense.

His nonsense is so far out there that I thought it was an April Fools column, but no, it was published on April 3rd.

When Women Stopped Coding : Planet Money : NPR

For decades, the share of women majoring in computer science was rising. Then, in the 1980s, something changed.

Source: When Women Stopped Coding : Planet Money : NPR

NPR makes an assertion that 1984 is when personal computers in the home emerged and that parents only bought personal computers for their sons. The first assertion is false and the second assertion is made without any supporting evidence.  The latter assertion provides no meaningful explanation for women in computer science prior to the mid-1980s nor that most young women today have a personal computer but still are, apparently, not going into computer science.

The above NPR report is one that makes you think you have just learned something but in fact, fails to explain anything.

Here is a chart I made showing the percent of homes with a PC, from 1984 to 2012. Data provided by the US Census up through 2012.  Data was not collected every year so some years have no data.

You can see that home PCs went from 8% in 1984 to 15% in 1989. Both are small values. This does not explain why fewer women students pursued computer science after the mid-1980s, contrary to the NPR report’s claim.

In roughly the last 20 years, access to personal computers, by gender and age, is widespread but there was no upsurge in computer science enrollment by women which would be expected if the NPR thesis were true.

Another issue is to understand what is being measured. Most discussions of “women in STEM” are referring to “women in computer science” or sometimes “women in computer science and engineering” – and are mistakenly presented as a proxy for women in science.   Many STEM metrics specifically omit degrees in (especially) the health sciences as “STEM” when they are also science-based degrees.

Women represent about 90% of all nursing (and elementary school teaching) jobs – fields that employ far more people than are employed in the computer sciences.  In terms of overall degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, women graduates were just barely above 50% (last I checked NSF data – It depends on how you define “STEM”). Women are way above 50% in terms of overall 4 year college degree graduates and have been since the early 1980s. 49.8% of medical school students are women and are 78% of veterinary school students.

(From National Girls Collaborative Project)

This shows the same information as trend line over time:

But there is no concern – and instead, silence – about diversity and balance in fields outside of computer science. There is a problem in computer science but unsound assertions, as described in the NPR report, do not lead to useful solutions.