~ Archive for Uncategorized ~

Google Play Music for Classical Music Fans

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Sonos replaced my dead eight-year-old player for a reasonable price (earlier post) and threw in a coupon for 60 days of unlimited Google Play Music. I decided to try out this competitor to Rhapsody, Spotify, Pandora, et al. I clicked on a classical “radio” station. Unlike any classical FM station, but like the other streaming services, this turns out to be classical tracks selected at random. So you might get the second part of a string quartet followed by the first part of a symphony composed 100 years earlier.

Is it illegal to stream complete classical albums or at least four tracks in a row so that listeners can hear a whole symphony? If not I can’t figure out why none of the streaming services offer this from their “radio” stations. (Paying Rhapsody customers can stream entire albums, so it definitely is not illegal if the user selects the music rather than the service/station.)

Video Conversation as Online Dating Profile?

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Folks:

Nearly everyone in the U.S. has Internet access. Many online dating services are inexpensive or free. Many people are single and say that they would prefer to be partnered and/or married.

From the above facts I think it is reasonable to infer that online dating services are not very effective (see my 2011 posting on the subject).

What could work better? What about a way to learn how a person interacts with other people, e.g., in a conversation? A way to hear how they talk, laugh, respond? Why not a simple video recording of a conversation on general topics? Not “What are you looking for in a partner?” or “How many children do you want to have?” but “What did you do last weekend?” or “What do you think about some recent news stories?”

As I am a documentary filmmaker (translation: “I own a video camera”), it was easy to do a test last weekend. My friend Avni, a single 35-year-old Bostonian interested in marriage, was over for dinner. I recorded about 30 minutes of conversation and edited it down to a five-minute YouTube video.

What do folks think about the result? Does it give a better sense of Avni than a standard online dating profile listing favorite books and movies?

(And finally, if you’re looking for a warm and wonderful partner in the Boston area, send me an email and I will forward it to her!)

[Please forgive some of the technical shortcomings. It was dim light and I had an f/1.8 lens mounted and what looked like sharp focus on the back of the camera doesn't look sharp now. If you're a camera/video nerd, the equipment used was a Canon 5D III on a tripod, an 85/1.8 lens, and, most important, an Azden wireless microphone system (one lav mic mapped to the left channel and one to the right).]

Related: a dating profile that I created for a friend a few years ago; she married a medical doctor with a passion for online communities who was a reader of my site and now they have a very lively two-year-old daughter.

Good article for inspiring young people to learn Mandarin

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New Yorker magazine carries an article (full text available to all) about a young self-made billionaire whose success was partly due to having put in the effort to learn Mandarin while in high school.

Separately, the article covers the question of whether people will benefit from being able to get blood tests more easily and cheaply, e.g., without having to first visit a physician and without having a vein opened up. A doctor friend says “Never order a test unless you know what you’re going to do with the answer.” If he is correct then generally we will not be healthier if we get more numbers more frequently. the article also covers the question of the extent to which the FDA will regulate vertically integrated blood testing labs differently than labs who buy their machines from third-party vendors.

Regarding the second question, I queried a friend in the pharma industry. Here’s what she had to say…

A couple of things struck me, the first being the powerful friends/supporters that she has on her Board.  I really do believe that this has insulated her from some rather obvious scrutiny.  The second was the FDA representatives who appear to not have a clue regarding their own regulations.
Item: Definition
If a product is labeled, promoted or used in a manner that meets the following definition in section 201(h) of the Federal Food Drug & Cosmetic (FD&C) Act it will be regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a medical device and is subject to premarketing and postmarketing regulatory controls.
A device is:
“an instrument, apparatus, implement, machine, contrivance, implant, in vitro reagent, or other similar or related article, including a component part, or accessory which is:
  • recognized in the official National Formulary, or the United States Pharmacopoeia, or any supplement to them,
  • intended for use in the diagnosis of disease or other conditions, or in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, in man or other animals, or
  • intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals, and which does not achieve its primary intended purposes through chemical action within or on the body of man or other animals and which is not dependent upon being metabolized for the achievement of any of its primary intended purposes.”
Item:  21 CFR 820.1
This part of the CFR details the Quality System Requirements for all Medical Devices.  In the scope section it states: “(a) Applicability. (1) Current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) requirements are set forth in this quality system regulation. The requirements in this part govern the methods used in, and the facilities and controls used for, the design, manufacture, packaging, labeling, storage, installation, and servicing of all finished devices intended for human use.”  (Theranos is utilizing these devices for the diagnoses of human ailments, so this should be applicable.)
This section of the Code of Federal Regulations discusses exemptions for diagnostic devices, and specifically states: “…must still submit a premarket notification to FDA before introducing or delivering for introduction into interstate commerce for commercial distribution the device…”  and goes on to list circumstances and applications which appear to fit the description of this application.
I think the crux of the argument here is the interstate commerce clause, however the argument could certainly be made, and I think effectively, that because this device is being utilized as a diagnostic tool in multiple states, Theranos has definitely crossed the line into interstate commerce.

Revisiting the 21st Century Draft Horse posting

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In August 2010 I wrote a posting titled “unemployed = 21st century draft horse?” that questioned the extent to which American employers were likely to want to re-hire the lowest skilled workers in the U.S. Today’s New York Times has a related article: “The Vanishing Male Worker.” The article starts off with a guy that has been fired from two jobs that don’t require especially high levels of skill. It quotes an economist:

“They’re not working, because it’s not paying them enough to work,” said Alan B. Krueger, a leading labor economist and a professor at Princeton.

The (mostly American, presumably) readers take up this idea eagerly. There are hundreds of comments supporting raising the minimum wage and other non-market approaches to getting the least-attractive-to-employers Americans into well-paid jobs.

The employers’ perspective was not sought by the New York Times.

My own casual discussions with employers reveal a picture in which anyone with a reasonable level of attention to detail already has a job. A friend is an attorney in Denver, Colorado, where the cost of living is close to the national average. She is trying to hire an administrative assistant. This job requires no legal knowledge. The worker has simply to show up on time, be able to use Web sites such as Orbitz to book travel, be organized enough to keep a calendar, etc. How much will she have to pay to get someone qualified? “At least $70,000 per year,” was her answer, and in fact she hasn’t been able to find anyone good so far.

[In response to comments, I researched the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers on what admin assistants get paid. It seems that roughly $50,000 per year is a national median, with a range of $32,000 to $75,000 per year going from the 10th to the 90th percentile. Thus the lawyer's expectation of  her (large) firm paying $70k/year for a high quality assistant is not unreasonable  Returning to the median $50,000 number, that's about 3X current minimum wage for a job that requires no specialized training or degrees (i.e., a diligent high school graduate could be effective in the role). In my opinion this supports the theory that any American who can be effective in a modern workplace is already highly sought-after by employers and therefore continued economic expansion won't result in a flood of job offers to the men featured in the New York Times article.]

So… was the 2010 posting prescient? Or will the seventh year of “recovery” somehow make American employers enthusiastic about those working-age Americans who’ve spent the past six years at home?

[Note that government regulation over the past six years has made low-skill workers less attractive to employers. Obamacare requires that more employees be provided with health insurance (a big fraction of the total cost of hiring a low-skill worker). Minimum wages are higher in some places and for some employers, e.g., those with government contracts. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009) opens up new fields of potential litigation.]

Maryland Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making

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On December 1, 2014 the Maryland Commission on Child Custody Decision-Making issued its final report. This committee, most of whose members are attorneys or people who get paid to serve as custody evaluators or expert witnesses in divorce lawsuits, recommended statutes and procedures for resolving child custody disputes in Maryland going forward. Note that this commission did not address Maryland’s child support guidelines, which determine the cash value of obtaining custody.

The commission recommended as a guiding principle “there should be no presumed schedule of parenting time.” In other words, a judge can impose any schedule between 0/100 and 100/0 on the child of two fit parents. Attorneys we’ve interviewed nationwide say that this leads to the most litigation and the highest total fees billed. It also puts a premium on attorneys’ personal connections with judges because we were told that, in the absence of striking facts (e.g., one parent is a drug addict), judges generally award custody and set parenting schedules based on personal prejudice and/or their relationships with attorneys. A litigant who has the means to hire a well-connected attorney can reasonably hope for a better custody outcome when there are no limits on what judges can do. (Rigid guidelines, such as “mother always wins; children with father every other weekend” or “neither parent can become primary via litigation; absent parental agreement, children alternate weeks or have a 2-2-5-5 schedule” lead to the least litigation.)

The commission’s proposed statutory language enables a judge to use virtually any conceivable basis for an award of a 0/100 or 100/0 schedule, or any schedule in between. Judges are encouraged to investigate the share of parenting responsibilities “performed by each party … before the initiation of litigation.” Aside from this approach having been discredited by academic psychologists (see the Linda Nielsen interview in one of our draft chapters), attorneys that we interviewed said that it led to substantial rewards for people who engage in pre-lawsuit planning. If Parent A expects to sue Parent B, Parent A will eagerly volunteer for all kinds of child-related tasks while asking Parent B to shop, cook, work extra hours, and do other non-child-related tasks in the marital partnership.

The commission’s proposed statutory language encourages judges to deny shared parenting to parents who are in conflict by making “the ability of each party to effectively communicate with the other party” a factor. In nearly every state where this is a factor litigators told us that parents who thought that they had a good chance to win primary custody, and the child support profits to accompany it, would simply generate conflict with the other parent. How does that work? Here’s a text message exchange contained in an exhibit to a motion in a Massachusetts case, Kosow v. Shuman. The mother of a 2-year-old sued the father following four years of marriage, seeking primary physical custody and approximately $5 million in tax-free child support. The parents, who live about 15 minutes’ drive apart from each other, are trying to coordinate an exchange:

Jessica: She gets picked up at noon if she were to go to school. Drop her off at noon.
Michael: I won’t be home till 12:45. I can drop her off at 9:30 if you u want but she will prob sleep late
Jessica: Ok well WTF. School is out at noon.
Jessica: U r fucking a selfish fuck
Jessica: And u r no role model
Jessica: I wont even say it and it is sooooooo vile
Michael: I can drop her off at 1 or u can pick her up earlier. What is ur problem?
Jessica: Fuck u
Jessica: I have had it with u and ur abuse

(After a 2012 trial, Judge Maureen Monks of Middlesex County awarded Ms. Kosow about $2 million in child support cash, a free house for 20 years, all of the expenses of the child paid (including a nanny to relieve Ms. Kosow of any hands-on child-related chores), health insurance for herself, $50,000 in annual alimony, and half of her attorney’s fees. We estimated that Kosow, while relaxing at home, out-earns her average full-time employed University of Pennsylvania classmate by 3.2:1.)

If the proposed statute is passed, Maryland should be on track to build up courthouse filing cabinets full of similar material.

The commission proposes changing some language so that it is more gender-neutral and rubs less salt into the wounds of loser parents (who will have “parenting time” rather than “visitation” under the proposed statute). Other states and countries have tried this over the past 20 years and the attorneys we interviewed generally said that it didn’t affect the amount of litigation. As long as it was plain to litigants that there would be a primary parent collecting money every month and a secondary parent paying the money the court battle could continue until all parental resources were paid over to attorneys, psychologists, and other segments of the divorce industry. Here’s a snippet from our book:

The lawyers we interviewed who had not been involved in this kind of legislation scoffed at the renaming, e.g., “You get sued, have to pay me $200,000 to defend the lawsuit, lose your parental role, are ordered to pay 100 percent of a child’s expenses plus 100 percent of the mother’s expenses to live in a five-bedroom house and not work, and babysit for free what used to be your kid every other weekend. If you can’t recognize that this is a loss because the court calls you a ‘secondary parent’ instead of a ‘noncustodial parent’, you’re an idiot.”

In something of a side-note on page 29, the commission recommends “statutory or rule change” so that it is easier for judges to make the higher-income parent (usually the defendant) pay the lower-income parent’s attorney’s fees in an “adequate and predictable” manner. This would encourage more people to file lawsuits, since they wouldn’t have to pay the costs of attorneys on either side, and would ensure that litigation could continue until the savings and income of both parents had been consumed.

If the proposed statute is adopted, Maryland will be in pretty much the same situation it is now. Children are cash-producing assets whose ownership is uncertain. The profits from ownership of these assets may be greatly in excess of what a college degree will generate. Ownership of these cash-producing assets will be determined by a single person, the family court judge, based on a combination of (1) evidence that is considered irrelevant by academic psychologists, (2) attorney argument, (3) personal prejudice, and (4) personal connections to the attorneys. Thoughtful litigants who engage in pre-lawsuit planning and post-lawsuit conflict generation will be rewarded with more time with their children and enhanced cash profits.

[How profitable are children in Maryland? Using UCLA Professor of Economics Bill Comanor's numbers on actual child-rearing costs (previous post), the OECD's estimate of how much time working parents spend on child care, a 67/33 parenting time split, and the Maryland Child Support Guidelines, obtaining a custody of a child whose other parent earns $180,000 per year will generate about $77 per hour in tax-free cash. This is more than 3X the median (taxable) hourly wage in Maryland (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Adjusting for taxes, the successful custody/child support plaintiff in Maryland will out-earn the worker by 4:1.]

Note that I don’t want this posting to be seen as an attack on the integrity of litigators, including those on the Maryland committee. Most of the 100+ litigators that we’ve interviewed for our book seem like good people. But at the same time they can’t help but feel very comfortable with what they do every day, i.e., litigate. They often don’t see litigation as harmful to children and when litigation consumes 100% of a family’s assets and parental energy for several years they explain the phenomenon by saying that there was some sort of psychological defect in the litigants. “They were high conflict people,” a litigator will say about a case that went to trial over custody of children with a cash value of $5 million, not “Our legislature, with input from our bar association, set up a completely unbounded winner-take-all system and both parents tried hard to be the winner rather than the loser.”

One more reason why I love Sonos

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No suburban paradise is complete without whole-house music. In setting up the latest here in Lincoln, Massachusetts I plugged in a Sonos ZP100 that the company’s records show I purchased in 2006 (yay for the RDBMS!). It failed to boot. I called the company on a Sunday, was connected to a competent native speaker of English, and offered the chance to pay about $150 (including shipping, tax, etc.) to swap the dead eight-year-old box for a working new one (retail price: $500). Of course they are sending me the new one right away and I will return the old one in the box that they provide.

Now my only complaint about Sonos is that they don’t make dishwashers

Golden opportunity for online universities: campus rape stories

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The media are carrying a lot of stories about rape on campus lately. The latest is a retraction by Rolling Stone of a story about University of Virginia. The stories fall into various broad categories:

  • a high percentage of women who live on campus are being raped
  • universities falsify statistics and/or cover up rape reports
  • kangaroo courts set up by university administrators, at the behest of their federal overlords, are overly skeptical regarding rape allegations brought by women, resulting in men being wrongly acquitted
  • kangaroo courts set up by universities are insufficiently skeptical, resulting in men being wrongly convicted

If we combine the above concerns with the multi-decade trends of tuition costs outpacing inflation and parents wanting to supervise their child’s every moment (“helicopter parents”), it seems as though there is no better time to be marketing online education.

Western Governors University, for example, charges about $6000 per year, barely enough to pay for library coffee bar lattes at the universities that are featured in the news. Why wouldn’t they buy ad space next to stories about on-campus rape? The headline could be “Wouldn’t you rather keep your 20-year-old darlings safe at home? (and save $250k)”

Income inequality leads to lower marriage rates?

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Today’s New York Times carries a story that shows a correlation between income equality and marriage rates. From this correlation, the author, an academic sociologist, infers causation.

For me the article raises a few questions. First, are the data presented correct? This almanac shows a steady marriage rate, per 1000 population, from 1900 to 1970, a period over which the article shows a huge increase in the rate at which American men in particular careers were actually married. The author uses “U.S. born men ages 20 to 49″ for the chart. Just using this age range has the potential for distortion if the age of first marriage changes (example: if all men wait until age 50 to get married, the charted rate of marriage would go to 0). This almanac page shows that the age for men of first marriage did indeed reach a low point in the 1960s.

The second question would be why having an income lower than a successful physician or a Wall Street banker would lead to remaining single. A “poverty line” standard of living today is similar to a “middle class” standard of living in the 1950s. So two people who are officially “poor” can afford the same square footage of house and other items that were formerly considered requisites for being married. And if we still believe that “two can live as cheaply as one” (possibly even “three can live as cheaply as one” using UCLA Professor of Economics Bill Comanor’s analysis), wouldn’t people of modest means be more inclined to marry (or at least cohabit) than people of higher incomes?

A third question would be “What about international data?” https://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s1336.pdf shows that countries that are cited as examples of equality among citizens, such as Denmark and Sweden, have lower rates of marriage than the U.S. and higher percentages of children born to unmarried women.

There have been a lot of legal changes in the U.S. since the 1960s peak of marriage in the article’s chart. We have introduced no-fault divorce. We have introduced child support guidelines that make out-of-wedlock children equally profitable compared to children of a marriage. If you believe that one reason Americans get married is to realize an economic benefit by being able to spend the income of a partner, the law has substantially changed the incentives faced by Americans. It is no longer necessary to get married or stay married in order to spend someone else’s income (a one-night encounter in a bar in will suffice in every state, though the revenue is likely to be highest in California, Massachusetts, or Wisconsin). Could it be these legal and social changes that are driving any fall in rates at which Americans are getting or staying married?

Should we have unarmed police?

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Apropos of the recent protests regarding Americans killed by police… Now that the crime rate has fallen so much in the U.S., why continue to arm the typical police officer? It is true that we are a nation of gun nuts, but it is still a minority of Americans engaged in criminal activity who carry guns, right? Why should every police officer bring a gun onto the scene? That would seem to invite a huge escalation of the violence, either with the officer afraid that the suspect is going to grab the gun or that the suspect might choose to shoot him or her before the gun can be pulled out, etc. The British seem to manage with the first line of law enforcement being unarmed with deadly force. Is it crazy to think that it could work here? (The Economist did a comparison of shootings by police in Britain versus the U.S. in an August 15, 2014 story.)

Related: My October 2014 posting about armed police approaching a stalled-out car.

Best way to publish a narrated slide show?

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Folks:

I have about 200 images from Burning Man that I’d like to present with audio narration. I want the slides to be shown at maximum quality (i.e., I’m not sure if an MPEG video from YouTube is the best idea). I want to record the audio and the timing/sequence myself. Right now the slides are already a Google Plus album (friends who are programmers at Google: Why isn’t this a standard feature? “Add narration to an album”? Microsoft PowerPoint lets you do it, so it can’t be impossible to code.).

What’s the most practical way to do this? If worst comes to worst I guess I wouldn’t mind publishing it as a 1080p video on youtube.com but even then I have to author it somehow. I do have Adobe Premiere but I feel that there should be an easier way to author. I think that if I make every photo a PowerPoint slide I can have PPT export a WMV file.

Thanks in advance for any help.

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