The future, now-er

A couple of years ago, I posted a blog entry on the advances of Supercomputers, and how close we were coming to the theoretical processing power requires to emulate a real-time human consciousness.

At that time (2011), we had just hit 10 Petaflops. Today, a US company announced they are developing a 300 Petaflop machine (150 Petaflop sustained)

The original estimate I read was that a human consciousness emulation would take about 10 Petaflops, but that got bumped a few years ago to 100 Petaflops.

Get ready for the future, digital consciousness is now a real possibility. OK, there is a little matter of Software, but I'm sure there are a few smart guys out there working on it!

The joys of health insurance - part 9, dental "insurance"

As part of my return to the land of the self-employed, I have had to once again purchase my own health insurance. In this marvelous internet age, that is far less of a chore than it would have been a few years ago - ehealthinsurance.com lets you compare health insurance companies, and find the best plans.  In the end, I picked a medical plan very similar to that my last employer provided. The difference? My employer-sponsored plan cost the company in the region of $700/month, buying direct costs less than $200/month. True that my portion under the employer-sponsored plan was only $50-ish/month, but it just irks me to see some middle man pocketing $500/month, even if it is not coming out of my pocket...

Anyway, on to the point of this blog, dental insurance. Last time I was self-employed, I picked up a cheap dental plan, which was a mistake. So, this time I did a lot of shopping, and decided to pick (what I thought was) a decent dental plan. It still has lots of restrictions, waiting periods, and copays, and costs close to $800/year, but after carefully working out the expected return, I figured that it would pay out a little more than we pay in.

Well, I guess that should be a hint, shouldn't it. Dental insurance companies are not, in fact, in the business of providing any sort of accessible dental services, or anything like that. They are in the business of making money - in other words, ensuring that they pay out less than the subscribers pay in.

So, after my first routine dental checkup, I got my statement from the insurance company. True, they only pay out 70% for services, and there is a $50/year co-pay - that I was expecting, and had taken into account in my calculations. However, there is a little catch that they do state, but that makes it almost impossible to really calculate your costs and benefits in advance - they only pay out on what they say is a "reasonable and customary cost for services". My dentist is pretty reasonable, and I after a little checking, it looks like he charges right around the average for San Jose. However, my insurance company expects him to charge half of that! So that is the basis that they pay 70% on. The bottom line? They paid out only 40% of the cost, rather than the 70% I was expecting. Take out the deductible, and that comes down to fifty bucks they paid out.

So, that changes the balance in my equations. On calculating 70% of actual costs, I figured we would be a little in front, or maybe break even. When they are only paying 40%, its definitely a no-win situation. Couple that with the fact that there is an 18-month waiting period for major items such as crowns, it really doesn't seem worth it.

Hmm, I just had an idea. Maybe I will reverse-insure. I'll take the $65/month I would have paid in dental insurance, and buy lottery tickets. One big win, and my teeth will be covered for life! Now that's more my kind of idea!


COBRA is an absolute ripoff!

I just changed jobs, and went from being an employee, back to the wonderful life of being a consultant - in other words, a small business owner. So, I have embarked upon the task of procuring for myself, all of the little details and benefits that an employer usually provides. Now that I am both employer and employee, it behooves me to ensure I get the best deal possible!

Now, I have done all of this before, so I pretty much know the ropes. I Still have a Self-Employed 401k plan (which is much better than the plan that was used by my previous employer), I know where to apply for Business Licenses, DBA's, etc... And of course, it is time to tackle Health Insurance.

Now I am a big proponent of HSA's (Health Savings Accounts). When coupled with an "HDHP" (High Deductible Health Plan), they allow you to put pre-tax money into a special savings account. This is kind of like a special 401k plan, with the added advantage that you can draw out money straight away, and as long as it is used for "Approved Medical Expenses", it remains tax-free. I could go on at great length as to why HSA's are such a good deal - feel free to ask, I will bore you to tears on the subject!

Anyway, back to the subject in hand - COBRA. Now, the idea of COBRA is a good one - it allows people that are leaving (or are laid off from) a job to be guaranteed continued health care coverage. This is a government mandate from back in the 80's. Sounds like a good thing, right? Righhhhhhht.....

So the problem is, companies (at least on paper) pay far more for health insurance than individuals do. Ridiculously so, to the point that I have a very hard time believing it. I just got my COBRA offer to continue my HDHP with Blue Shield - over $900/month for myself and my Spouse! That is an outrageous charge. Was my Company really paying all of that? 

So, off to a little website (www.ehealthinsurance.com) to get a competing quote. A similar plan from Blue Shield (and mind you, similar is always the best you can do - the insurance companies make sure that there are so many plans with so many small differences, that it is really difficult to compare) came out with a retail price of $172/month. Yes, $172 compared to $900. For almost the same plan, from the same insurance provider. Something is definitely out of whack here...

OK, we are lucky enough to be healthy, so that is a big plus. If we weren't, or we were older, then it would probably cost far more, and the COBRA amount of over $10k/year might start to look good. But doesn't that seem odd as well? That if we were old or sick, we would have to pay so much more for the health insurance, and we would be so less likely to be able to afford it...

Now I ran into a slightly different situation a while ago, and that gave me a suspicion as to what I think is going on. I had some routine medical tests done, and when I got the Bill, the fees were over $600. But, luckily for me, my insurance company had a "negotiated rate" - of $150. No wait a minute, if I had gone in there without health insurance, I would have paid 4x as much? Where is the sense in that? And if this medical company can survive with getting paid $150 for these services, how do they justify ever charging 4x as much?

So, let me tell you my suspicion - The healthcare industry, just like a lot of retail industries, inflates their "retail price" artificially, and then give discounts, bonuses, and rebates to bring the amounts back down to a "reasonable" amount. But because there are so many rules and regulations, it makes it even trickier - and I think that it has grown to outrageous proportions - and is bouncing around in all parts of the system. So, the medical providers jack up their retail prices, and then offer bigger discounts - i.e. the income stays the same, but it just looks like the costs of healthcare are "spiralling out of control". The insurance companies probably do the same thing - jack up the prices of the plans that they sell to employers, and then give discounts, rebates, etc. These discounts, of course, are hidden from the poor schmuck that is footing the bill for COBRA...

Anyway, these are just my suspicions. Its time someone blew the lid off this whole thing....

The future, now.

OK, so how far off could I be in my Supercomputer predictions? 10 PetaFlops is here, today, in little-old 2011 - 9 years ahead of (my) schedule. And the interesting thing from this article - they are now predicting *exaflop* (that is 1000 petaflops) by 2020. In other words, my predictions need to be adjusted by 100x.

My other prediction was that consumer-grade technology follows the peak of research technology by about 20 years. So I was predicting 10 peta-flop consumer grade technology by 2040. So, bring that in to 2031, and that means we may well have "AI-class" computing power in a small enough package to be portable by then. "Uploading" is starting to look more and more of a reality...

Chris.





AI - how far away can it be?

 
As I wrote 2 years ago:

"IBM has announced that they are working on a 10 PetaFlop computer, and expect to have it operational by 2010"

(see the full entry here).

Well, they seem to built one, Although the article states that they don't know "when it will be available", it seems to indicate that they have a working prototype.

All this was in respect to modelling a human personality, which was estimated a long time ago to require about 10 PetaFlops of performance. In the same article, they go on to say:

"[Mira]  is a stepping stone on the path to an exascale supercomputer, which is expected to arrive in the 2020 time frame and will be at least 100 times faster than Mira".

Holy cow, ExaFlop level by 2020! My year 2000 predictions are looking like being 100 times off (I had predicted 10 PetaFlop by 2020).

Start writing those AI modeling programs now...



EMail to Senator Barbara Boxer about Californian High Speed Rail

 Dear Senator Boxer,

Thanks you for your recent message about high-speed rail. That is some great news about the extra funding - and I have a suggestion on exactly where that could be applied.

Currently, the planning commission is refusing to even consider constructing tunnels for the train as it passes San Jose. Their potential solutions all involve a system of bridges and flyovers. Now San Jose does not have exactly the prettiest skyline to start with, but it seems that the planing commission is firmly stuck in the 20th (or perhaps 19th?) century style of railroad building. I believe that their decision was based purely on cost, and as far as I know a full review of underground options has not been performed.

Obviously America lags the rest of the world in passenger rail infrastructure. Here we have the chance to put California IN FRONT - rather than compromising on a system that is obsolete the day it is put into operation (take, for example, San Jose's compromise on the Light Rail, a system so hobbled by design compromises that it is almost useless for regular commuting).

European train systems make enormous use of tunnels, and I see no reason why the same can't be done in America. That is where the rail infrastructure belongs in highly populated areas. I urge you most strongly to push heavily for a full investigation into putting the trains underground as they pass through San Jose. The same would probably be true further up the peninsula, through cities such as Palo Alto, Menlo Park, etc. Please, lets make this venture an exercise in 21st Century design and construction, and create something that will allow California to say, not just "yes we have one too, sort of", but "look - we are the leaders in world technology, and to prove it, we have the best high-speed rail in the world"!

Regards,
Chris.

ps - to see what a little bit of will (and some huge machinery) can achieve when it comes to public transit tunneling, please research the construction of line 2 in the Cairo Metro system

Its broken, and no one has the will to fix it...

In the US, sales tax varies from state to state, and even from county to county (and possibly city to city, for all I know). Back in the dark ages (i.e. pre-internet), that was fine - each shop new its local tax rate, added it on to the bill, and charged you the final result. The end user didn't have to worry too much - well aside from the "sticker shock" - where you wind up paying more than the advertised price. Although I loath this tendency in the US, at least it applies to pretty much everything - you know that any time you see a price, there are going to be a bunch of hidden fees and extras.

Now even back in the dark ages, you could purchase things by mail order, and if you bought something from out of state - even if you bought it from a place that would charge a local resident Sales Tax - you got it tax-free. In theory, the purchaser was supposed to track all of those, and declare them to the State at tax time (assuming that they live in a State that actually charges sales tax). Of course, how can you trust the consumer to do this, when there are no checks in place? Big ticket items such as cars were handled separately, so it was hard (although possible) to get around the sales tax there, but It was pretty much a given that no one would voluntarily cough up the sales tax on out-of-state purchases.

So, zoom forward a few years, and we are in the golden age of e-commerce. A large percentage of purchases are made online, and that means the States are missing out on a large chunk of potential revenue. Some states, such as Colorado, are trying to make online retailers collect the sales tax based on the purchase location - to which the online retailers heartily object. Other states, such as my home-state of California, are pushing the consumer to do the work, and making threats to assist in the motivation.

In California, the "State Board of Equalisation" (though exactly what they are trying to equalise, I am not sure) has started a push to collect back-owed Sales Tax on out of state purchases. They're being smart about it, rather than going after Joe Consumer, they are starting off targeting businesses with over $100k in revenue, and making them fill in extra declarations on purchases. Unfortunately for me, I fall into that category, so I have just landed myself with a huge bunch of extra paperwork - going back through all my purchases for the last few years, and checking for any possible places where Sales Tax should have been paid, but wasn't. Of course, I am very meticulous, and keep good records, so it should be relatively easy for me to show where Sales Tax was already paid, and find any cases that might have slipped through the cracks. I can't really cry "unfair" on this, but it does seem a little tough - because Joe Consumer is unlikely to have kept the sort of records necessary to do this, he gets away with it. Well, for now, there's no telling whether the state might go after everyone next...

Still, putting the burden of this work on the consumer is ridiculous. So, what is the answer? Simple. One flat-rate sales tax, similar to VAT in Europe, that is collected by every single retailer. All prices would be post-tax, so what-you-see is what-you-pay (well, assuming we can get this horrible tipping thing wrapped into restaurant prices as well). Simple, clean, it would eliminate loopholes, reduce the burden of collecting the money, and increase the revenue. There would probably be some teething problems, as there was with VAT in Europe, but in the long run, it really is the only realistic solution.

Why don't I think this will happen?
 - Online retailers benefit by not charging sales tax, meaning they can offer a lower bottom-line price
 - Retailers benefit from hidden prices, to confuse the consumer as much as possible
 - The individual states (/counties/cities) either want to keep control of this revenue source (despite the fact that some of them are spending a fortune trying to collect on it), or want to keep the benefits they gain by collecting no sales tax.
 - Consumers would eventually wind up paying more, so they are not going to be excited about it.
 - Politicians are so beholding to special-interest groups, that they will take one look at all the above, and decide that their campaign contributions are worth more than fixing something that is so obviously broken. 

Please, won't somebody stand up and fix Sales Tax in the US???

(no subject)

Well my predicitions were a bit off. There are various calculations floating around estimating that a human brain requires around 10 PetaFlops of processing power. About 10 years ago, I calculated that Supercomputers would reach this performance level by 2020, and that by 2040 hat sort of performance could be packed into a laptop size package. Last year, my estimates were still looking on target - Super Computers were breaking the Petaflop barrier, and we looked to be running a little bit ahead of my prediction.

Now IBM has announced that they are working on a 10 PetaFlop computer, and expect to have it operational by 2010. That's shaved 10 years off my calculations! Time to start dusting off "Eliza" and see what sort of personality emulator can be run with that sort of number-crunching capabilities behind it...

Chris.

Parasites in the system

You have probably heard about the big debates over US healthcare that are going on, and for those of you outside the US, you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. The US is currently trapped in a vicious circle of spiraling health costs (note, I didn't say health *care* costs), and the bottom line is that a large number of people in the US have no health insurance - which means basically, no health care, aside from emergency treatment (for which they will still be billed exorbitant amounts).

But why is it that the US suffers so greatly from this problem, where as other countries seem to keep it maneagable. Yes, each country's system has its own inherent problems, but none seem to go through quite the issues that the US is facing.

My analysis - parasites in the system.

It is no secret the the US economy functions on a real Capitalist basis. That is, bottom-line is the driving factor. That has become so deeply ingrained in the US culture, that often the quest to make a profit (and a short-term profit, at that), generates sacrifices in many other areas, such as job security, job creation, etc. The problem is when this Capitalist bias runs into something that requires a Socialist basis - i.e. anything where we cannot let money be the driving force. For all the materialistic things, fine, but when it comes to health, doesn't everyone deserve good treatement, irrespective of net worth? Not necessarily equal treatment, I have no problems with the well-off paying more for "better" (usually, more personalised) treatment. But at the end of the day, you have no choice (OK, lets not get into the grey area of health-effecting lifestyle choices) about whether you get sick or not, and it should be a goal of a supposedly fair and equal society to ensure that all its citizens have access to health care, without having to mortgage the rest of their lives.

I had a medical recently, which required a few extra tests. Now I have the cheapest health insurance plan possible, and so a large deductible - which means that most of cost comes out of my own pocket. I received a bill for the tests - $495. That is a heft chunk of change. However, my insurance company apparently "negotiates" with providers, and procured me a discount of $352.51 - leaving me a balance to pay of about $140.

Lets be clear, that $352 was not money the insurance company paid out. So what was the "real" cost of the tests? $500, or $140? Now I have no idea how all of this works under the hood (as Scott Adams would say, it is a "Confuseopolis", designed specifically to hide its own workings from the consumer so the consumer doesn't know when he is being screwed...). So, it seems that someone without medical insurance would have been billed $500, where as someone with medical insurance is billed only $140. Does that make *any* sense what so ever? The medical provider is trying o make a fat profit, off the group of people who probably can't even afford the health insurance in the first place. I'm sure the $500 is what is reported to the government, and used for their "cost of healthcare".

Another interesting number is what I pay for health insurance. There is a big scare over the price of health insurance, but when I was self employed, I paid only $150/month to cover myself and Jenny. Yes, that was a "High Deductible" plan, which means I could have to pay thousands in a year before the insurance kicks in, but as a healthy couple with no kids, that is usually not a problem (and the savings in premiums over a lower deductible plan would just about cover any deductible I would have to pay). Now I am an employee, and my employer pays part of my health insurance - and for the same plan, they pay 3-4 times as much. So what is the "cost" of insuring me? Again, you can be sure that the numbers are extremely complex, but if a health insurance company can sell me a plan direct for $150, and sell it through a third party to my company for $500 - well, again someone is getting royally screwed.

I don't have the answers to America's healthcare problems - heck, I know that I have no chance of even figuring out what the problem is from where I stand, and I consider myself far more informed than the majority of healthcare consumers. But I'll tell you this - if a commission was formed to route out the parasites, profiteers, and money-drains from the healthcare industry (and by that, let me be clear that I am talking about companies and individuals that have nothing to do with sick people - to these parasites, sick people only exist on statistical charts), we would be one step closer to getting the problem under control, so that true change can then occur.

Mr. Fixit

My life still seems to be full of mechanical goings-on. A week or so ago, I noticed that the pump on the Hot Tub was starting to make an odd noise. Sure enough, a few days later - no pump at all. I dug into pulling it apart this weekend, hoping that it was going to be an easy fix such as removing a blockage or some such.

I started off by shutting down the power, and unbolting the control panel so that I could get to the pump. I then unbolted the electric motor from the base, and from the pump itself (A Hot Tub pump has two parts - the "Wet End", which is where the water circulates, and the impeller spins, and the actual electric motor itself), hoping that I would be able to remove the motor without actually removing the "Wet End". No such luck though, the impeller is tightly attached to the motor shaft, probably an "interference fit" (i.e. it is pressed on). So, there was nothing for it but to drain the whole hot tub, and remove the entire pump unit.

Getting the pump to the bench, the first thing I tried was manually turning the motor - there is a covered slot in the end of the shaft opposite the pump, which can be turned manually with a screwdriver. But with crunching and grinding, I could only turn the shaft about a 1/4 turn - not a good sign.

A little more inspection showed a water stain underneath the impeller housing - it looks like the main seal (which seals the water inside the impeller housing) had a leak - very small, but enough to start to contaminate the main bearing of the motor. When turning the motor by hand, the main bearing was obviously the blocking point, and forcing it to turn started to release some rusty debris - looks like the main bearing had actually rusted and disintegrated!

Now fixing this is not beyond reason - but does require some specific tools for pulling and pushing bearings, and requires finding very specific repair parts. A little web research showed that I could purchase a brand new pump and motor for $260 (including shipping) - so I placed the order, and stuck the old motor on a shelf in the garage - fixing it will become a project for another time!

So, no hot-tubbing at the lounge for the time being, Which is a real pity as the new patio furniture and pirate-bar (complete with draft "Hop Along Silver" beer) is ready for christening!