Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why Trader Joe's Decision to Cut Part-Time Worker's Healthcare is the Right Thing to Do


Trader Joe's is generally considered one of the best national grocers in terms of how they treat their workers. Historically if you worked just 18 hours a week there, you'd get full benefits. Under Obamacare, covering these workers is not required, and Trader Joe's has cut the health benefits of part-time workers. Normally this would be a political football for the right-wing political sphere, saying Obamacare has caused a reduction in care. But there's more to the story.

Trader Joe's is providing these workers a $500 healthcare stipend instead, and asking workers to go and get care on their own. This means not only do workers get healthcare - even if they only work a few hours, nevermind 18 - they also get it decoupled from Trader Joe's, meaning they can leave for another company, start their own business - whatever they elect to do, all with no interruption in healthcare, and more importantly, all without the scary prospect of losing their care altogether for leaving.

Depending on your income the subsidies built-in to Obamacare may get a TJs part-time worker healthcare for as low as $27/month, certainly within the $500 stipend. Obamacare has unquestionably been pivotal in this new policy.

Trader Joe's has taken an unusually generous benefits plan and made it even more generous - by making it easier for their workers to leave for that next stepping-stone.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

When Poverty Kills Children

“I just shot my daughter and shot all my grandkids. And I’ll be sitting on my steps, and when you get here, I’m going to shoot myself.” -Multiple Shooting Deaths in Gilchrist County

A grandfather calls the police, and they arrive to his killing his daughter, his grandchildren, and himself. All with a gun purchased on the black market, after he and his family tumbled for years at financial rock bottom.

So much of what's wrong in the US at play here.

The Community is Enough
The community says they all saw the suffering but no one could have seen this coming; and yet, upon further reading, they're so predictable any reasonable person would feel disgraced. The Miami Herald documented 500 children dying prematurely in the state of Florida alone in a single year under similar, desperate family circumstances.

Pull Yourself Up
There's a belief today that the poor lack work ethic, and if their life is garbage, that's deserved - it's their motivation to pull themselves up. But there's a difference between motivating people, and desperation. Leaving people to struggle desperately and bitterly turns them against the system, others, and themselves - sometimes, as terrible as it plays itself out here. Other times, as petty crimes, theft, and emergency room visits after it's too late. We do need better motivation in the system, but risk is a motivator; despair is not. We need opportunity. And we need to stop dismissing government assistance out of hand, especially when studies show programs' overall monetary cost is cheaper than proceeding without them.

Tough on Crime
Americans favor exactly one intervention for the poor, and that's prison. Multiple members of this family spent time in prison, and it lead to even more hardship, in part due to a lack of job opportunity. More significant interventions were made available by child services, like therapy and counseling, but all of them were optional. The police were called repeatedly, but cops are meant to intervene in situations of imminent harm - they aren't trained counselors. We send the wrong people to domestic violence situations, and they lack any appropriate remedies at their disposal.

Don't Let the Government Have a List of Gun Owners
There's a subculture in America that believes any gun registration will allow the government to track down every gun owner in some hellish coming act of tyranny; this leads to private, undocumented sales, and laws pushing for legalization of those sales, all wrapped in a seriously misled idea of patriotism. Today, because of this broken belief system, every state in the union has at least one way to legally buy a gun without review or documentation. One of the strangest roots of this belief system is, "Criminals will get guns anyway," a strangely self-fulfilling prophecy. It's used to dismiss the obvious harm of acting on this broken belief. This is a cultural problem first, and a legal problem second.

Sneering is No Way to Build a Stronger America
We need to end this American love for desperation and suffering, justified by a hatred for "entitlements." Hatred of the other is a great campaign slogan but there is no public benefit. We need a system that really motivates and provides people with the opportunity to work and share their talents with the world, and that means first identifying those motivators, and mitigating desperation with a helping hand. And we need to reform our punishment-only prison/rehabilitation system, with real interventions.


Multiple articles and reporters collected different portions of the facts of this story - I've linked several above to their most pertinent reports, and below are 2 more which document a bit more.

http://www.miamiherald.com/news/state/florida/article2203558.html

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/911-call-florida-murder-suicide-reveals-shooters-final-moments-n209581

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Your Couch Is Giving You Cancer - Our Stupid World

In 1953, a company that makes flame-retardant scored a win when the US passed a law requiring it in children's pajamas. That turned out to be a bad idea when that chemical was associated with inhibited brain development and cancer, so in 1978 it was banned from children's pajamas.

Desperate to keep their business going, the company that made it then bribed their way into a California state law to require it in furniture. Unfortunately, most US furniture manufacturers responded by including it in all furniture, to avoid the fussy complication of making special California-only furniture.

A well-meaning chemist, Arlene Blum, began to fight this chemical manufacturer in the 1970s, and has been fighting for FORTY YEARS to get this stupid chemical out of the seat you're sitting on right now. At every turn the company has lobbied and bribed their way into keeping the law on the books, and the chemical has remained.

Finally, in California, a win for Arlene Blum. The chemical is no longer required. Strangely though, it is still not banned, in a partial-win for the lobbyists.

Fire-Retardants in Furniture: Manufacturers Adjust - KPCC

And they're suing to stop the law from going into effect - thankfully so far, losing:

Judge Tosses Challenge to Flame Retardant Rules - Chicago Tribune

Unfortunately that means all your furniture is probably still cancerous, including what you're sitting on right now:

Cancer-Linked Flame Retardants Eased Out of Furniture in 2014 - Scientific American

TDCPP Flame Retardant - Wiki

In the meantime you can look (hard) for furniture that explicitly contains no flame retardants. Buying such a piece of furniture was actually illegal in California until Jan 2014, but is finally legal here as well.

You can see Arlene Blum here fighting paid lobbyist dirtbags:

California Flame Retardant Law Sparks Debate - PBS

We all owe Arlene Blum a tremendous thank you. Instead of posters of athletes on their walls, kids should have posters of Arlene Blum.

Arlene Blum: Current Work - Wiki

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Drug Given to Pigs Probably Causes Heart Attacks - Our Stupid World

Credit: farmsanctuary.org
A drug in US pork is probably damaging your heart, but rather than checking on that, US pork producers want to force other countries to accept pork drugged with it.

Ractopamine is a steroid originally designed to treat human asthma, but it's been found to increase the growth rate of some pigs. Unfortunately it also causes heart failure in many of them, though slaughterhouses just chop those pigs into pork early and off it goes to you.

Banned in 160 Nations, Why is Ractopamine in U.S. Pork?

This has become more awkward for the pork industry given that 160 countries have banned pork treated with the drug, and so, banned US pork. The pork industry is trying to force Europe to accept its drugged pork, and Europeans are protesting.

US pork producers' use of drug may derail European trade deal

The pork industry, for its part, says that Europeans aren't listening to the science - except the only human safety test of Ractopamine involved 6 men, one of whom had to drop out because his heart began racing erratically. There's no evidence to show it's safe in any dose for humans, and given how similar pigs are to us and their pattern of heart failure with the drug, it's probably not wise for us to be eating it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rise of the Warrior Cop

A journalist tracks the increasing role of US police as bullies, rather than protectors. He points to some of the historical and modern causes, and to an odd stat to identify the worst departments: The number of dogs killed by cops. As cops are increasingly deployed into other people's neighborhoods, sitting isolated from people in cars built like tanks, instead of walking a beat, wearing body armor and given access to a literal armory, they're increasingly disinterested in the well-being of the community they serve.

He also notes the rise of the drug war, as federal funds are awarded for number of drug busts, and dubious-necessity military-grade weapons provided to even small-town police departments.

Cops killing dogs is an odd stat to track, but it's easy to find and calculate - and trends closely with areas where people perceive a department as failed.

Once a Town Gets a SWAT Team, You Want To Use It (salon.com)

Dogs (warning: sad):
Los Angeles, CA
Idaho
Salt Lake City, Utah
West Virginia

Self-solver - Cop literally shoots himself in the foot trying to kill someone's dog.

Small Town Police Department Questioned as to Why It Needs Two Grenade Launchers

There are a lot of good police out there, but with cops like these in some departments it's hard to trust them knowing you might just be inviting armed thugs.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Nasa's EagleWorks project is trying to validate their warp drive concept

Nasa's EagleWorks project is trying to validate their warp drive concept. How's that going?

Well, slowly. They were completely shutdown during the government furlough, which slowed things considerably. Now that they're funded again, they need to prove the idea is even viable, and to do that they need to prove they can trigger the Casimir Effect that the concept is based on. The Casimir Effect involves pumping a bunch of electricity into a metal donut, and in theory that should expand space time. The way the donut is shaped means that expansion of space time forms a warp bubble. So, does it?



The amount of energy required is massive, so they're trying to create as small an effect as possible - so they can run it over and over without say, taking out the entire electrical grid or building their own neighboring nuclear reactor. The current experiment uses a 1cm-wide donut with enough power to produce a space-time expansion of just 6nm, which is not measurable with today's instruments.

So, they've spent a lot of time and money developing higher-resolution measurement devices. In the meantime they've seen effects that could be noise or could be nothing - the effect is either too small to see, or non-existent. Why don't they just increase the amount of energy to increase the size of the effect instead of wasting all this time developing better measurement devices? They do plan to, but only after they've exhausted the better measuring option, with no timeline on when they'll make the switch. They haven't stated how much electricity they're having to blast into the donut in current tests, but I'm guessing it's incredible.

A talk in which NASA's Harold White discusses the above (1 hr)

A quick glossary of terms discussed in the video:

Exotic Matter/Exotic Mass: A somewhat confusing term meaning the expansion of space-time. We know that a large mass, like the Earth, creates a field of Gravity around it. Gravity warps space-time by shrinking it - bunching it up, pulling it towards the center of the mass. Expanding space-time then would require Negative Gravity, often abbreviated NEG, and the general term for stuff that would create Negative Gravity is Exotic Matter, which has an Exotic Mass. So, Exotic Matter is a confusing term that means Expansion of Space-Time, or negative gravity. You don't gather up exotic matter.

The method of expanding space-time in the proposed warp drive involves creating no mass or matter of any sort. It involves applying crazy amounts of electricity to a metal donut, which creates a large amount of potential energy, triggering the Casimir Effect and expanding Space-Time in a bubble around it. Some call this "creating exotic matter," which seems like a misleading phrase but perhaps a physicist can explain otherwise.

"Fee" (Phi) or York Time: The Greek character Phi is used to represent how much you've expanded Space-Time. This measurement of expansion is also called York Time. You'll hear him say phi (pronounced "fee") a lot in the video.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Restore Public Oversight of Secret Warrants

This is an attempt at forcing the US back into reasonable public oversight without having to build ironic technology solutions outside the US to enable basic Constitutional rights for its citizens. Since I'm not a lawyer, there's probably a lot wrong with it - I'd love to hear ideas for improving it. I wouldn't be terribly interested in diatribes about why it wouldn't work. The internet has hit its quota for those.

This is a follow-up to Privacy - What's Possible With the NSA Watching.

I'll try to stick to the technology side of things and openly punt on the legal ins and outs.

A brave coder could create a data service that just moves things securely in and out, that other convenient, secure services could be built on top of. Secure email, text messaging, phone calls (voice service), whatever you like. With Congress and members of the NSA etc apparently unwilling to admit that what they're doing is violating basic US rights, it may be possible to force public oversight on this process with technology despite laws and programs to the contrary.

Basic Security

First, the service itself could be secured with HTTPS PFS, described in the previous article. That takes care of connections. On the servers themselves you've got a regularly rotating key for encrypting user data you share with no one, including the government.

But there's still the sticky problem of whatever poor jerk runs this site being served a secret warrant, and no legitimate legal challenge being available because the actual person whose rights are being violated isn't allowed to know. To untangle this gross catch 22 the government's assembled, what you really need to enable here is 3 basic principles: separation, anonymity, and civil disobedience.

Separation

If the author of the code doesn't actually control the service, they just maintain the code the service uses to operate, they can provide some insulation between themselves and the service. The service could be designed to generate its own keys, keep them completely private, and expose them to no one - even the author of the service. If we assume the author of the service can't avoid being identified, the trick is to ensure they can never be compelled to expose user data. Suppose the NSA says to the author, someone on your network is a person of interest, tell no one, go get their data for us. If the author doesn't have any access to the keys that data is being stored with - if the software itself is the only entity with actual access to the keys - there's not much the author can be asked to do here. Except - they could be compelled to write code that modifies the software so it exposes those keys, or exposes what a specific person has said.

Civil Disobedience and Anonymity

So, if the service was setup so the only way it could be modified is via a public channel, like a public code repository, you would force any malicious code like the above to be exposed to the public. You could further force any modification to the code through a public review process - ideally by anonymous coders so they can't be compelled to approve malicious code - you would place a pretty strong lock and key on the code. To do this you have the software update itself periodically, by pulling the latest approved code from the public repository. You could design the software in a way that it destroys all the keys (making the data leftover garbage) if it's modified in any other way. This creates a remaining risk of the repository itself being attacked, so whoever hosts the repository would also be at risk of being compelled. Worst case you could host the repo with the rest of the service, and have the software respond to an attack by destroying the keys.

The coders that do these code reviews would have to accept a serious legal risk by participating - whatever is ensuring their anonymity could always be pulled back, so they could potentially be compelled to approve malicious code - it could get pretty ugly. That's civil disobedience. There may be other ways to protect the coders besides anonymity - for example if only a small, random subset of the coders was allowed to perform a given code review/approval, all coders gain plausible deniability as to who actually said no to a malicious code submission, and no one coder is the ideal target for threats to get them to approve malicious code.

An Olive Branch

As I said earlier, the goal is not to build the one place actual terrorists can have a nice secure chat about blowing up a building. You do still want it to be possible for warrants to be served on real, actual criminals - you just don't want it to be outside the realm of public oversight with nothing but a "Just Trust Us" PR campaign as guarantee it's not being abused.

So, the goal is to make it possible to serve warrants into this system - basically to the software - and a group of people - a jury of your peers in a sense - get to decide whether that warrant is valid and reasonable.
  1. Make the only way to get access to private data in this system via an electronic warrant filing system. From a technical perspective, you could just have the system email some government email address a key periodically that they can use to validate themselves as government actors, and they can make up their own minds about how they want to gate use of the system. They've shown themselves to be plenty resourceful in screwing us so far, I'm sure they can do smart things with this as well.
  2. Every user of the system is a member of the jury of peers. When a secret warrant is issued, a small pool of members is selected, and sent the warrant. Since it's a secret warrant, their receipt of it is illegal - another piece of civil disobedience. But if you manage to keep step 1 air tight, you may be able to force the government into step 2. A lawyer would know better than I what would be necessary in the electronic warrant system for it to feel comfortable for NSA etc to use, and legally cover members as well as possible.
  3. The random pool of users decides whether the warrant should be honored. If they decide it should, the selected communications are turned over, simple as that. If they decide it should, but there's no reasonable justification for this warrant being secret, they can turn it over, but have the software publish the warrant publicly. If the warrant is completely unreasonable, they can turn nothing over and have the software publish it to remind the government of its duties. You can ensure the pool is always an odd number and a simple majority wins on both the "turn records over" and "make public" votes.
That's it - a way to put a jury of your peers and public scrutiny back into the US legal process. It's possible there are parts of this that just aren't viable inside the US - in fact, the author of the software could probably have some really terrible things happen to them regardless of where they lived, so they'd probably need to be as anonymous as possible. Go America.