Friday, December 24, 2021

A Niche to Fill

Computer software is mostly designed and written by young technophiles, fond of new and clever things. It is largely used by old non-technophiles of conservative tastes, people who would rather not have to learn a new interface and a new way of doing things every year, not even every decade.

That suggests the need for a middleman, a firm standing between software producers and users, providing the service of making life easier for the latter. Part would be pointing them at software that still works the way they are used to, part showing them how to configure the new version of a program to make it as much as possible like the old. Part would be telling them how to get at files written under software that no longer runs on their current hardware and operating system. 

I have come across a couple of solutions to that last problem but know of no way short of an extensive google search to find more. WriteNow is an elegantly written word processor not  available for decades — but OpenOffice can read WriteNow documents. MacDraw was long ago consigned by Apple to the trash heap of history, but EasyDraw, not the current version but one of the older versions still supported, can open documents created with MacDraw. There are doubtless many similar cases. If all else fails, the user who insists on sticking with his long obsolete software, perhaps a favorite game, could be given detailed instructions on how to emulate an old machine on a new one, along with any necessary software to do it. Running a program in emulation is considerably slower than running it natively — but current computers are a great deal faster than the machines the old programs were written to run on.

It looks like a market niche so far unfilled.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

A Project for Musk

Tesla has been working for years on self-driving cars. A simpler project with a smaller but still  significant market would be a self-driving wheelchair. The idea occurred to me talking with a woman whose husband suffered a serious stroke a few years ago, leaving him with a functional mind but imperfect control over his body. A motorized wheelchair would let him move around, but his vision is too unreliable to make that safe. If he could just tell his wheelchair to take him to the home office, or the dining room,  or ...

It should be much easier to make than a self-driving car, since a house is a much less complicated environment than the highway network — and it could be programmed to the map of a particular house. I haven't found any figure for total sales of motorized wheelchairs but there seem to be a lot of firms selling or renting them, so my guess is at least tens of thousands. And it would make people more confident in the ability of Tesla to solve the harder problem of a self-driving car.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Politics as a Spectator Sport: In praise of Manchin and Newsom

The United States Senate will cost me perhaps $11 for the year, but against that expense set the subscription price of the Congressional Record, about $15, which, as a journalist, I receive for nothing. For $4 less than nothing I am thus entertained as Solomon never was by his hooch dancers. (H.L.Mencken)

In which spirit, I note two politicians who, in the past week or so, have earned their salary. One is Gavin Newsom, my governor. Everyone else on his side has been responding to the ingenious piece of legal legerdemain by which the Texas legislature is trying to get around Roe, converting its restriction on abortion into a civil action by private parties, with outrage. Newsom has responded by pointing out that if Texas can use that device to get around Roe, California can use it to get around the Second Amendment.

The other is Senator Manchin, in his latest move against President Biden's $3.5 2.5 1.75 trillion Build Back Better bill. It isn't that Manchin is against all the good things that bill is supposed to do. He just wants to take the most popular part of the bill — I presume most popular with his West Virginia constituents — and make it even better. 

The child tax credit in Biden's proposal is for only a year, part of the attempt to make bill look less expensive by passing things for a year with the intent of continuing them forever. Manchin, in the spirit of generosity and honest labeling, wants it for ten years. 

Which will use up $1.5 trillion dollars of the $1.75 trillion that he has already gotten Biden to agree to.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Vaccination: Two Arguments

Vaccination against Covid reduces both the chance of catching Covid and the severity. Both provide arguments for vaccination, but different arguments. The first has so far been the main argument for pressuring people to get vaccinated, to reduce the infection rate and, hopefully, get us to herd immunity.

Unfortunately, protection against infections has turned out to be weaker than expected and diminishes substantially over time, which may help explain* why widespread vaccination has not led to a pattern of lower infection rates. Part of the reason may be behavioral. Vaccinated individuals are at much less risk of death or hospitalization, which may, probably does, lead them to be less careful to avoid contagion. And, because their cases are more likely to be asymptomatic, they are less likely to know they are contagious and take precautions against infecting others.

The most recent U.S. data on the new Omicron variety of Covid suggests that vaccination may provide no protection against it at all. Of cases identified so far, 79% were in fully vaccinated individuals, 21% in individuals who had also received booster shots more than two weeks before. For the U.S. population as a whole, about 60% are fully vaccinated, 15% have had booster shots. Judging by those numbers, vaccinated people, with or without booster shots, are more likely to get the disease, not less. The numbers are small enough so that could be chance variation and a more careful analysis should allow for different probabilities of a detected infection at different ages — children are both less likely to be vaccinated and less likely to get an infection serious enough to be detected than adults. But the numbers so far still suggest that vaccination provides little if any protection against catching the new variant. If so, the main argument for vaccine mandates is becoming increasingly irrelevant as Omicron spreads. 

Whether or not vaccination provides protection against getting the virus, it provides substantial protection against hospitalization or death. While protection against infection seems to be down to something like 50% after a few months, protection against severe cases remains high; that is the main reason that death rates have been substantially lower, relative to infection rates, than before. That is a good reason for me to get vaccinated and get a booster, and I have. It is a much weaker reason for me to insist on other people getting vaccinated.

A weaker reason, but still a reason. Under our present medical system, part of the cost of hospitalization from Covid is born by the patient or his insurance company but not all. Especially if hospitalization for Covid gets high enough to crowd hospitals, as it has in a few parts of the U.S. but not yet most, my hospitalization imposes a significant cost on other people. As people become increasingly skeptical of claims that herd immunity is reachable if we just vaccinate enough people, the argument for vaccine mandates shifts to keeping the hospitals from filling up.

That is an argument for requiring the vulnerable elderly to be vaccinated — but most of them already are. It is a very weak argument for universal vaccination, especially  for requiring children to get vaccinated. According to CDC figures, ages 0-17 have so far accounted for about one percent of all Covid associated hospitalizations. Protection against infection is an argument for requiring children to be vaccinated, since they can pass infection on to their much more vulnerable elders. Protection against hospitalization is not.

*The other explanation being the spread of the more contagious Delta variant.

A commenter on the version of this post on FaceBook points at a study that found no relation between level of vaccination and infection rates across both countries and US counties as of seven days before September 3rd, which suggests that the behavioral effect of vaccination may be strong enough to balance the vaccine's protection, at least that long after vaccination.