Profile cover photo
Profile photo
Shawn Willden
Shawn's posts

Good/Bad vs Legal/Illegal

I have noticed that there's one element of my thinking about political questions that is different from the way many people I talk to think about them. Namely, that I automatically and reflexively separate questions of morality and legality. To many people I talk to, it's clear that making such a distinction requires an extra step in their thought process. They often have to be prompted to do it, and often are vaguely comfortable with it even while agreeing that it makes sense. I think many people deeply believe, below the level of conscious thought, that morality and legality should be the same thing and rational argumentation separating them is suspect, even if it appears valid. I think this perspective is near-universal among conservatives, but the vast majority of liberals also embrace it.

This particular thinking habit may be one of the hallmarks -- or perhaps causes? -- of libertarian political views. The more extreme libertarians (i.e. free-market anarchists) take the view that there should be no state and hence no notion of legality or illegality, other than that which complies with the terms of contractual agreements (legal) and that which does not (illegal). More pragmatic libertarians (like me) accept the need for a state which makes and enforces laws in order to minimize systematic imbalances of power which destroy the level playing field which libertarianism requires, but see regulation as a pragmatic necessity which should be structured so as to do the job with minimal side effects, and which is completely divorced from morality.

Some examples: I find abortion to be reprehensible, but don't see a way to use the state to restrict it without stomping on the right of women to control their own bodies. I think that homosexuality is immoral (on religious grounds), but don't believe the state should regulate sexual relations between competent, consenting adults, in any number or combination, nor that the state should restrict such relationships by regulating marriage, etc. I don't use alcohol or drugs and think their use is a very bad idea, but I don't think the state should control what competent adults choose to put in their bodies.

On the other side, I don't think there's anything morally wrong with hunting wild animals, but it's appropriate to restrict hunting to specified seasons, bag limits, etc., to prevent excesses that would damage this common resource. The same applies to lots of other commons, where morally good (or at least not morally bad) behaviors should be restricted to avoid indirect harm to others. I think restricting greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming is an appropriate function of government. I can even be convinced (with a great deal of evidence) that taxation-driven wealth redistribution schemes can be appropriately used to solve systemic social problems, even though I believe that good people make their own way.

Comments? How do you feel when you see something that you find morally wrong but is legal? Or something you think is morally right is illegal? Does it create any feeling of discomfort or cognitive dissonance? When looking at a proposed law, do you first consider the societal effect, or do you first think about the morality of the affected behavior?

Just bought my LEAF off the lease. I leased it three years ago, on a two-year lease, for $200 per month. A year ago I extended for a year. Today I bought it out for $6900 for a grand total (lease payments plus buyout) of $14,100. Not bad, considering it was about $27K to buy new (after tax credit). Leasing was definitely a good choice.

Of course, the reason the buyout was so cheap is that with the Bolt, the 2018 LEAF, and (eventually), the Tesla Model 3 all coming and all with much larger batteries, the price of the older LEAFs has dropped significantly. But that's what I expected to happen when I decided to lease instead of buy originally.

Post has attachment
Mark Twain's comment that one should "Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel" comes to mind. I think that applies even when you're the president of the Unites States. I guess he figured it worked for him as a candidate...

Actually, I don't think he figures any such thing. I don't think there has ever been any calculation in Trump's bombastic presentation. His supporters who laud his "straight talk" are exactly right... he just says what he means. That would be great if what he says weren't stupid and full of falsehoods. I mean, claiming he had the biggest electoral win since Reagan? Really? That's not some obscure factoid that's hard for people to check, or that has any nuances to debate.

Back to the "ink by the barrel" comment, I wonder how Mr. Twain would describe the wisdom of picking a fight with the world's most powerful spy agencies. For what it's worth, I have tremendous respect for our intelligence agencies, even though I believe they need to be reined in. Even their missteps and overreach were made with the greatest of good intentions, and I don't think the "leakers" that Trump is aggressively decrying were doing anything but what they saw as their patriotic duty, in defense of the nation and in compliance with their oaths to the constitution. But they're still human and Trump's threats to investigate "criminal" leaks are going to push them into deliberate opposition out of self-defense. If he really pushes it, they'll need to discredit him to protect themselves. Not that I believe they'll violate their oaths to do it, but I'm sure it won't be hard for people to convince themselves that exposing Trump's misdeeds are good for the nation and necessary to protect the integrity of our system.

I need to check my popcorn supply.

Post has attachment
I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of my very first custom-designed printed circuit board. It's very simple, with only six parts (power connector, tiny wifi-enabled Arduino board, voltage upconverter, capacitor, resistor and LED strip connector) and 14 traces. Still it's my first attempt at this sort of thing, and I'm excited.

The board will connect the pieces required to use a Spark Core to control a strip of RGB LEDs. The Spark is a very small Arduino with built-in Wifi. The LED strips are one meter in length and contain 60 LEDs, but you can chain them together and it's reasonable to control a few hundred LEDs on one chain. The largish capacitor is to smooth out power fluctuations as current drawn by the chain of LEDs changes and the resistor is to protect the Arduino from power fluctuations feeding back into its data output pin. The voltage upconverter (basically just a transistor, in fact I would just have used a transistor, but the upconverter was recommended for electrical reasons I don't understand) addresses the fact that the Arduino data pin generates 3.3V signals, but the LED strip needs 5V signals.

My current application for this is an improved grade monitor for Jace's grades. Last year I posted about his single-LED monitor, which flashed his current grades in different colors in sequence. The improved form uses a separate set of 8 LEDs for each class. The first is his grade, represented as a color from red (60% or below) to yellow (80%) to green (100% or above) and the remaining LEDs are used to show a count of missing assignments. Each missing assignment causes one LED to pulse blue.

The way the grade information gets delivered to the Arduino controlling the LED is through the Spark Core's cloud. I have a cron job running on a Raspberry Pi that uses "curl" to retrieve a web page containing Jace's current grades from the school's web site. A Python script parses the HTML and extracts the relevant information, then uses the cloud API to send (via HTTPS POST; it's a RESTful API) the data to the Arduino, which receives and displays the data. If the Arduino hasn't received any data in the last 30 minutes, it changes the LEDs to a test pattern (which freaked Jace out when he saw it, because it looks like he has many missing assignments in Advisory, which doesn't give assignments).

Right now my breadboarded grade monitor is just sitting on the kitchen counter. After I get the PCB and solder the components to it, I'll mount it on the wall right above the computer that Jace uses, so it's always visible when he's playing video games :-)

EDIT: I have contacted my Senators and Representative and urged them to take all possible action to get Trump to reverse this order, or to pass legislation to remove his power to issue it. I urge everyone else to do the same. You can find your Senators' contact information here: and your Representative's here:

Today I find myself proud of my employer and disgusted by my country.

There are a number of Google employees affected by Trump's executive order banning entry by anyone from a set of Middle-Eastern counties, people who live and work in the US on green cards or work visas and who happened to be out of the country, traveling for work or pleasure. When news of the executive order leaked, the company contacted such employees, urging them to return immediately and offering assistance in making the arrangements. The company will provide assistance to employees who couldn't make it back before the door was slammed. Some of them have spouses and/or children still in the US, and the employees trapped abroad will need housing and funds.

This is a dark day for American ideals.

I'm flying to Spain today, and this makes me vaguely uneasy about leaving the country. There's no reason I should be barred re-entry of course. I'm a native-born citizen, white, Christian. On the other hand, I have been publicly critical of Trump...

Such thoughts are ludicrous, of course. But significantly less ludicrous than they were yesterday.

Post has shared content
Worth signing. Whatever you think of Trump, transparency is important. Especially at the level of the presidency.
The ACLU has a popular petition to (ask for/demand/whatever petitions do) that American citizens (must/should) know Trunp's conflicts of interest. This isn't addressed to Trump (he won't listen), but rather Congress. Congress might listen when the number of signatures gets up into the multiple millions: some of them will be running for election in 18 months.

Airlines are dumb

Kristanne and I are flying to southern Spain on Saturday, we'll be there for a week. It's going to be a lot of fun. We get back late on Sunday, February 5th, and it turns out that I need to be in Mountain View on Monday morning. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just have the airline change my flight so that my return connection in JFK goes to SFO rather than SLC, then add a return leg to SLC later in the week. I'll expense whatever the fare change is." Basically, on the way home, Kris and I will land in New York and there we'll separate, her going home and me going to California.

Well, it's a good thing I asked the airline agent to calculate the fare change for me before making any changes, because the fee was a whopping $3800. Meanwhile, I checked and found that I could buy a JFK->SFO->SLC ticket, for the dates/times in question, for $300.

So, the obvious solution here is that I bought that other ticket and I'll just leave the last leg of my original ticket unused. Because I'll be a confirmed and checked-in passenger on that flight, the airline won't be able to sell my seat to someone else. That'll work well for Kris because she'll have an empty seat next to her.

Actually, it occurs to me that if the airline asks for volunteers to be bought off of that flight, I can and will accept whatever their offer is, to be bought off of a flight that I have no intention of boarding! My flight to SFO leaves an hour after our flight to SLC, from the same terminal, so I'll be there with Kris until they board.

If the airline had offered $300 -- or even a bit more! -- to change my return I'd have taken it, and they could have resold my JFK->SLC seat. But, no, they insist that the only way to change a ticket is to reprice the entire flight, and since my initial purchase was a deeply-discounted fare and now we're less than seven days and they're charging full fares, the price difference is huge. If instead they just priced the JFK->SFO and SFO->SLC and subtracted the original price of the JFK->SLC leg, they'd be money ahead, assuming they could sell that seat. Which they almost certainly could, since the flights are almost always full.

Fine, whatever. Airlines are dumb.

Post has shared content
This is just... bizarre.

I mean, it's rather self-aggrandizing for a president to declare his inauguration day as a national observance, but the name "National Day of Patriotic Devotion" sounds like something from a communist country's propaganda machine. And as if that weren't weird enough, why bother to declare it about a past day?

If it weren't from a government site, I'd write this off as a fake created by some anti-Trump zealot. Even as it is, I'm wondering if it's not a joke by some government employee, and if there is no actual intention to publish it tomorrow.

Or at least, I was wondering until I googled it and found

All I can conclude is that Trump actually thinks he's accomplishing something by this.
By Presidential decree, January 20th, 2017 has been named "National Day of Patriotic Devotion."

I shit you not. It is in the Federal Register, right here:

Our new government's propaganda department apparently has very twentieth-century tastes. I'm mentally interpreting this as an attempt to say "День все-страны преданности Родине" in English, possibly by a fluent but non-native speaker.

h/t to @kenklippenstein over at Twitter for spotting this.

Adblock rules for slashdot

If you're a slashdot reader, you probably know that users with high karma used to have the ability to disable ads. New management has removed this option, which disrupts my slashdot reading. In fact they've structured things to make it a little bit difficult to use AdBlock Plus's "block an ad on this page" feature, adding a "modal overlay" that makes it impossible to click on things (unless you first block the overlay).

A few minutes' effort yielded this set of manual adblocking rules that clean it all up nicely, though.[class="ad-blocked-newsletter"]*[class*="sponsor"]*[class*="deals"] * iframe

The first line removes a slashbox ad for a newsletter.

The second line removes sponsored articles and sponsored thumbnail links at the bottom of the page.

The third line removes "deals" from the slashboxes and from the bottom of hte page.

The fourth line removes a different kind of sponsored ad that shows up as an iframe inside the firehose.

I philosophically support the right of sites to show ads to fund themselves, and don't mine seeing ads... but only as long as they're unintrusive and don't bother me. When they get in my way, I configure my computer not to display them.

What's your medical bill payment strategy?

For the last several years, I've had a high-deductible health insurance plan with a health savings account. Both philosophically and financially, I like this approach to healthcare coverage.

Philosophically, it seems good and right that I should pay for my family's healthcare out of pocket, giving us an incentive to minimize costs and maximize value. I'm a strong believer in the power of free markets, and while there are some significant problems with the market for healthcare in the US (notably, a serious lack of transparency around both pricing and outcomes) it still seems like the right approach. As a practical matter, though, I also want some hard limits on what I might have to pay in a given year so I can plan my fincances. So having coverage, but setting the deductible and out-of-pocket limits as high as I can confidently afford seems right. But I also want to be able to pay for healthcare with pre-tax money (not for any philosophical reasons, really, beyond a lack of confidence that the government spends my money well), so the pre-tax health savings account system is great.

Financially, it seems to work out well, too. When I model the costs of various options (all provided by my employer, which is kind of weird but that's the system we have), the high deductible is more than offset by the lower premiums in a typical year -- which is exactly what you'd expect since I'm taking on some of the risk inherent in the variability of healthcare needs, but of course I'm buffering against that risk by maintaining savings that can cover it.

The net is that I feel good about how I'm paying and what I'm paying, and that I'm gradually building up a healthcare savings nest egg against the future when I'll need it more. But damn is it complicated to manage!

Kristanne and I have long had a tradition of doing "accounting" on a weekly basis, usually on Sunday afternoon after church. In the past this has mostly involved entering the week's receipts into financial management software[1] and looking at how our spending is tracking against our budget. But since we got onto a high-deductible/HSA plan, our accounting always starts with medical bills, and in fact the expense-tracking and budgeting portion of the exercise often gets short shrift because we're burned out by dealing with the healthcare stuff.

With six people on our healthcare plan we have a fair number of medical bills to deal with. But it's not so much the number that's the problem. We receive EOBs (Explanations of Benefits) from the insurance company, and we get bills from providers. Because we don't have a standard set of copays, providers almost never charge us at point of service, or if they do charge us it's only an estimate (which complicates things further since their estimate is always wrong). So, they have to send us a bill, which we match up against the relevant EOBs. Sometimes matching them up is difficult, particularly if providers aggregate multiple services onto one bill. Sometimes they never bill us, so we just have a pile of unmatchable EOBs[2]. Sometimes they bill the wrong insurance (notably, they bill BlueCross of Utah, when our coverage is through BlueCross of California -- no, I don't know why that confuses the insurance company) and the request gets rejected and we get a bill for the full amount even after we've met the deductible and the insurance company is supposed to pay. That requires calls to the provider to get them to resubmit the bill to the right insurance company.

But where it gets really complicated is when we pay the provider and they don't receive the money. This happens in at least a couple of ways.

My strategy has been to go to my HSA bank's web site where they conveniently list all of the claims and I can click a few buttons to send payment to the provider directly from the HSA. This seems like it should be a good idea, but it's often the case that the provider's address and the provider's billing address are different. The HSA receives the former on the claim, but the latter is where the provider wants to receive the money. The billing address is always on the bill, so we have learned to be very careful to always enter the correct destination rather than relying on the address the HSA has on file. But sometimes I mess up, or sometimes something just goes wrong and a couple of months later the payment is returned to my HSA account because the check was never cashed or vCard[3] payment never collected.

The other thing that happens is that the provider just loses the payment. They cash the check, but then don't have any record of having done so.

In both cases, we get follow-on bills from providers, often showing past-due balances and occasionally with late charges added. So, we have to pull out the old EOBs and bills (which must all be kept in order to handle these situations as well as, I suppose, to substantiate the expenses for the IRS should they ever audit our HSA usage) and match everything up. This is again often complicated by the provider aggregating fees for different services onto their statements. Then we have to track down what happened to the payment and try to fix it. In the case of a returned payment, that involves double-checking the payment address and re-sending... unless the provider has handed the payment off to their "troubled accounts" department in which case there's usually a different billing address, so we have to be very, very careful, and being sure where to send the money often involves making phone calls (which we can't do on Sunday afternoon).

In the case of a lost payment, fixing it always involves multiple phone calls, to the provider's billing agency, the insurance company, and sometimes more. Generally we end up having to request that the insurance company fax proof of payment to the provider. This often doesn't work the first time.

If this sounds like way more work than makes any sort of sense, you're absolutely right.

So, I think I'm going to try a different strategy. First, I'm going to stop using the HSA bank's direct payment system. I don't think it's actually their fault, but way too often payments go awry and it makes a mess. It's also a fairly slow process when they have to mail checks, which often results in increased odds of accounts being classified as "troubled", late fees being assessed, etc. Instead, as soon as the claim shows up on the HSA system I'll have them immediately send the money to me. That process is fast and painless; they direct-deposit the money into my bank account, usually the very next day.

To pay, I'm going to use the online pay-by-credit-card services that pretty much every provider has. I'll get the online receipts and stash them in a Google Drive folder in case I need to prove payment -- but I've never yet needed one of those in the cases I've paid by credit card. We'll still need to match the EOB against the bill and against the likely-already-done HSA reimbursement, but because we'll pay instantly upon receiving the bill there will be less opportunity for fee aggregation and no (legitimate) opportunity for late fees, etc. We'll also get 1% cash back because we'll pay it with a cash rewards credit card.

I think this will work out much better. We'll find out if I'm right.

In case it doesn't, does anyone have a better approach? If you have high-deductible insurance and an HSA, what's your strategy for managing your medical bills?

[1] We used Quicken for years until Intuit screwed us by disabling features of the software to force us to upgrade. We switched to Moneydance and are quite happy with it -- and quite happy to pay a yearly upgrade fee for new features, not because the old software is being arbitrarily disabled. Why, yes, I am still quite angry at Intuit about that.

[2] I'm amazed by how often providers simply don't send a bill. I can understand it when the service was billed for $120, the insurance allowed $40 (negotiated rates) and so our 10% of it is $4. I'm sure it often costs more than $4 to send the bill and process the payment. But there was one this year where the service was a CT scan, billed for $6000, the insurance allowed $2000 and our portion was $200. $200 seems like it's worth collecting to me.

[3] I don't know what a vCard is, but it's apparently a system for electronic payments to health care providers. It's faster and less likely to go wrong than mailed checks, but not perfect.
Wait while more posts are being loaded