Friday, June 29, 2012

The PPACA Decision

The SCOTUS has issued its ruling (PDF) on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  A couple of months ago I attempted to guess at what the outcome would be.  I didn't get it spot on, but was reasonably close (at least in my own opinion).  The tax-and-spend powers of Congress were critical to upholding the individual mandate, there were end-of-the-world dissents, etc.  Kennedy's was the only vote I got wrong with respect to the mandate.  The surprising part was the decision on the expansion of Medicaid -- that the threat to withhold all Medicaid funding from a state that failed to expand its program per the PPACA is unconstitutional.  It seems to me that this opens a heck of a can of worms.

Congress has a long history of making funding for programs available to the states, and the funding almost always comes with strings attached.  When I worked as a legislative budget analyst looking at human services programs, knowing about the strings was one of the most important parts of my job.  It was one of the basic messages that I tried to communicate to new members of the General Assembly: federal money has strings; ignoring the strings can get you in trouble; please speak with the budget staff or the Department of Human Services staff when you propose shuffling money around.  The episode that made me look the least competent on the job occurred because there was a string I didn't know about.

A majority of the Court ruled that, in effect, the expansion of Medicaid included in the PPACA wasn't an expansion of an existing program, but a whole new program.  And that because federal Medicaid money was such a big part of state budgets, it was unconstitutional to threaten to take the old money away if a state didn't buy into the new program.  Historically, Medicaid is an all-or-nothing deal; states must meet certain minimum conditions or they get zero funding.  From time to time, Congress has raised the level of those minimums so that states must cover additional people, or provide more extensive services.  But according to the Court, there are limits to how much established requirements can be changed.

You have to wonder how far this goes.  If Congress had said, instead, that effective 1/1/2014, Medicaid is repealed and a new PPACA program commenced, which just happens to look exactly like Medicaid plus today's PPACA extensions, would that have passed muster?  Or if Congress wants to simply repeal Medicaid and replace it with nothing, is that okay?  Is the money now an entitlement for the states that Congress can't take away?  Rep. Ryan's budget proposes to convert today's Medicaid into a block grant program where there is a cap on the amount the states receive and far fewer strings on how the money can be spent; will those changes meet with the approval of the Court when liberal states sue because the block grant is less than they would have received under the old rules?

I've always thought that the purpose of the Court was to provide clarity.  In this case, they appear to have achieved exactly the opposite.  The decision looks to me like an invitation for states to sue any time Congress changes the Medicaid rules in ways those states dislike.  Or federal funding for roads.  I'm sort of a closet states' rights guy, in the sense that there are things the federal government should leave to the states, even if that list is shorter than it was in bygone days when 50% of the population was involved in agriculture, acquiring land was a matter of walking far enough west, and getting mail from the Ohio Valley to an East Coast city took weeks.  And while there's no question that this part of the Court's decision has made the states stronger relative to Congress, there will be considerable pain involved in figuring out how much more powerful.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The World's Most Sophisticated Whole-House Fan Controller™

One of the nice things about living in a high-altitude semi-arid climate is that, except for a small number of days per summer, it cools off nicely when the sun goes down.  So while it may be 95 at 2:00 in the afternoon, overnight it will drop down into the 60s.  As a result, it's possible to use a whole-house fan and opening and closing windows appropriately to maintain the internal temperature of the house within a relatively narrow range: say 66 to 76 °F for most of the summer.  For those not familiar with a whole-house fan, it's a large fan that sucks air from the house's living space into the attic (where it is vented to the outside), drawing relatively large volumes of outside air through open windows.

The usual control mechanism for a whole-house fan is an on-off timer and a high-low switch.  You set the speed to high or low, then twist the spring-driven timer to set the length of time the fan should run.  A certain amount of guesswork is involved in setting things before you go to bed.  Err to one side and you wake up with the house warmer than you would like: you ran the fan on low, but it should have been on high.  Err on the other and it can be a tad on the brisk side: a cold front went through and it's 56.  A year-and-a-half or so ago, my wife decided that she wanted more control over how the fan behaved.  It should be capable of switching speeds, shutting off if things got too cold, etc.  As no such controller appeared to exist commercially, I was charged with building one.

The result was The World's Most Sophisticated Whole-House Fan Controller™.  Yes, it appears crude, but with a touch screen, a temperature sensor, and everything controlled by software, it can do many different things: multiple operating modes, the ability to reconfigure the button layout if you're left-handed, and a wireless remote control to name some of them.  If you include my hours at a reasonable rate, it probably also qualifies as The World's Most Expensive Whole-House Fan Controller, but that's not the subject of this post.  So, if that's not the point, then what is?

First, I suppose, is that it works.  No more 56-degree mornings.  And in some modes, the software decides how long to run on high before shifting to low while still having a good probability of reaching the desired temperature.  Certainly I have a much better idea when I go to bed of what the temperature in the house will be in the morning than I did before.

Second is that the device is characteristic of the sea change that has happened with control applications over the last 15-20 years.  The device consists of a single-chip microcontroller, some sensors, and a few actuators.  Everything else is software.  While that provides a great deal of flexibility, it also means that the whole approach is dependent on the continued availability of large-scale integrated circuits.  In the near term, that's not a problem.  In the longer term, with constraints on energy availability, limits on the scope of trade, preserving the production capability may be more difficult.  Certainly if you believe in anything approaching the Mad Max scenarios, integrated circuit fabs will disappear quickly.  Are we building ourselves into a corner?

Third, and this is mostly whining, concerns the fact that it looks... tacky.  The problem of mounting the various parts in a good-looking enclosure is, in fact, one of the most challenging parts of hobbyist projects like this one.  What I would have liked to buy was the LCD panel and touch screen all mounted in a nice plastic box.  One where everything was properly centered and aligned, and with enough room behind the display for the small custom printed circuit board.  Granted that this type of hobbyist market is small — how many times was I told that I shouldn't be building a box to mount on the wall, I should be writing a smart-phone app to control the fan? — but it seems like it would be big enough to support such a widget.

Ed Quillen Died This Week

Ed Quillen died this past Sunday.  Long-time readers of the Denver Post will recognize Quillen as a regular columnist whom I always regarded as the local curmudgeon.  There were some recurring themes in Ed's columns that I always regarded fondly.

At the top of the list was his impatience with people who built houses in one of the Stupid Zones.  Colorado has several different types of Stupid Zone: "...flood plains, unstable soil, wildlife corridors, flash-point forests, avalanche runs, etc."  When you build a house in one of the heavily-wooded areas in Colorado's foothills or mountains, one where 100 years of fire suppression policy has allowed enormous fuel loads to build up on the ground, where you are one lightning strike in a dry year away from a catastrophic forest fire, and then demand that public officials provide you with fire protection, well, that's pretty standard for the Stupid Zone.

Another of my favorites concerned "exporting" Colorado natural resources to other states.  Historically, Colorado consumers enjoyed some of the lowest prices for natural gas in the country.  Over the last 20 years, it is possible to determine when new pipelines capable of carrying gas out of the state to other markets were opened or expanded: local prices took a significant step up.  Ed liked to point out that if lawmakers (and he accused members of both political parties) really cared about consumers to the degree they said they did, they would oppose such pipelines.  IIRC, in at least one case he suggested that the governor could best serve Colorado consumers by blowing up a couple of the newer, larger ones.

I will sorely miss his conversations with his favorite inside source, Ananias Ziegler, media relations director for the Committee That Really Runs America.  Ananias was fond of calling Ed to see how the latest piece of misdirection by the political classes would play with the common man.  I've always wondered if politicians and their handlers ever read Ed's columns, and if so, if they asked themselves, "Does what we're saying really sound that stupid?"

Occasionally Ed wrote about computers.  He started writing on PCs in 1984, he assembled some of his own machines, he held strong opinions about the overall (in his opinion) poor quality of Microsoft products, and was a Linux fan.  He had a possibly unique form of off-premises back-up storage: "old coffee cans filled with backups on optical disks."  Since Ed was able to, as circumstances required, access years-old files from his backups, it's hard to argue with the method.

Did I say "curmudgeon" in the opening paragraph?  Sadly, Ed was only 61 when he died.  Which is close enough to my own age to put me in the curmudgeon category.  I guess I need to complain about things more often when I'm writing here.