Friday, June 28, 2013

CELL PHONES | Keeping Costs Down Overseas

June 28, 2013–I am in UK with my good old iPhone 4 and no one covering my roaming charges. I have been trying to balance the high cost of roaming charges and the need to be in touch with people, which is why I have the  iPhone.

The key to controlling vulnerability to roaming charges overseas is the "Settings" icon. Under "General" settings, go to the "Cellular" and then "Data Roaming" setting. Keeping this set to "Off" means you won't get roaming charges. You also won't get emails and phone calls unless you are in a WiFi zone.

If you really need to be accessible and you aren't near a WiFi hotspot, I am aware of just three options (assuming you aren't a frequent user and have a roaming plan). The ATT representative I spoke with had no additional options to suggest:

1. Find a WiFi hotspot and stay in it. WiFi provides access to all Internet and phone features with no roaming charges. But you usually need a password and when you get out of range you lose access.

2. Turn on the "Data Roaming" setting and set yourself up to incur charges at the rate of about $20 a minute (based on my experience). The good news, which I am sharing, is that it is then possible to call ATT at 1-916-843-4685 and retroactively purchase blocks of data - think of it as blocks of time - at a much lower rate. By calling ATT I reduced roaming charges from $220 to $30, i.e., from exorbitant to manageable given the emergency need.

3. "Unlock" the iPhone and buy a local Sim card. Information on this for ATT phones is at I did this for my iPhone 3, but have not felt it necessary to do this for my iPhone 4 given the availability of the Data Roaming option.

Please comment if you know of other options and I will amend this post.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

FED | Does This Look Like Recovery?

Civilian employment/population ratio, 2003-2013
Paul Krugman in his NY Times blog today has a terrific chart from the FRED database at the St. Louis Fed website.

It shows that the key ratio of employment to population is still depressed–more than four percentage points below the level in 2007. Mr. Bernanke: Does this look like recovery?

Why is the employment-population ratio the best indicator to look at? Because, compared with the unemployment rate, it has:
  • A more reliable numerator (number of employed civilians in the USA) and 
  • A more reliable denominator (U.S. civilian population). 
You can take this number to the bank. The unemployment rate, by contrast, is based on a small 70,000-or-so monthly sample of U.S. households and depends on someone knowing and saying whether someone else in the household has been looking for work or not.

Krugman notes that there may be a downward bias from the aging of the population, but that could be exaggerated. People are also working to a later age, because (1) as younger people remain unemployed, older people in their family feel they must keep working to keep up the family income, (2) Social Security eligibility is being delayed, (3) 401k expectations are way down because of the financial meltdown and continuing low interest rates on bonds, and (4) people are living longer and lot of them like to keep working.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Even Longer War

Afghanistan War Became Longest  U.S. War Ever. But Isn't
the Gulf War  Longer than All 20th Century Wars Combined?
The "Long War" is a term used by Philip Bobbitt in his (long - 1,000 pages) 2002 book to label the battle between fascist and communist  forces in the 20th century. The fight was over which system would replace the colonial system of the previous century. The Long War takes place between 1914 and 1990.

Unlike the 20th century wars, however, the current "War on Terror" has continued uninterrupted since 1990.

Last month, on May 23, President Obama said that the United States can't continue in a state of perpetual war. "This war, like all wars, must end." The New York Times editorial board agreed.

How long have we been at war in the Gulf and how does that compare with how long we were actually at war during the 1914-1990 period?

One answer is a list of wartime periods on a Veterans Administration web site, where it is posted for administrative purposes, to comply with the law on computing pensions and pension eligibility. The VA needs to know whether the United States is at war or not when someone is on active military duty. Under current law, the VA recognizes the following wartime periods:

World War I  - April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918 - 1.5 years
World War II - December 7, 1941 – December 31, 1946 - 4 years
Korean War ("conflict") - June 27, 1950 – January 31, 1955 - 4.5 years
Vietnam War ("era")  I February 28, 1961-August 4, 1964 - 3.5 years (only in Vietnam)
__________________ II August 5,1964-May 7, 1975 - 10.5 years (region-wide)
Gulf War I August 2, 1990-September 10, 2001, 11 years
________II September 11, 2001, followed by the "Authorization for Use of Military Force" that continues through a future date to be set by law or by Presidential Proclamation.

If I understand the VA website correctly, we can conclude from it the following:
  • In August 2013, the Gulf War will have continued for 23 years.
  • If we count the Vietnam War as having started only in Phase II (i.e., in August 1964), we have now been at war in the Gulf longer than all four of the prior wars combined. 
  • If we count the Vietnam War as having started in Phase I, in February 1961, then the four prior wars add up to 24 years and their duration will be exceeded by the present Gulf War in August 2014.
So our current Gulf War is now, or will be within about a year, longer than the actual U.S. wartime periods in the  "Long War".

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lessons from Sandy Regarding the Elderly, Heating

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice prepared an in-depth report on the ways in which special groups of New Jersey residents were permanently hurt by the storm, more than the average resident. The report can be accessed here.

The report found that (1) Sandy deaths in New Jersey were concentrated among elderly people and (2) many of these deaths might have been prevented if the victims had been better informed about using generators and ovens for heating.

This post reviews the information. Relative to population, the incidence of deaths was greatest in New Jersey. As of November 17, 2012, Hurricane Sandy was blamed for the loss of 106 lives in the tri-state area – 64 in New York State (mostly in Queens and Staten Island), 37 in New Jersey, and five in Connecticut (

Most of Hurricane Sandy’s fatalities in New Jersey have been among the elderly: 21 of the victims, or 57 percent of those who died, were 65 or older; and 31, or 84 percent, were 50 or older. The numbers are similar for New York. (See Chart 1.) 

Chart 1. Hurricane Sandy Deaths, by Age, NJ and NY
Note: The total U.S. death count was 132 as of January 7, 2013, according to the New York Times, Jan. 7, 2013. Source: Chart computed by NJISJ from database posted by the New York Times, November 18, 2012.

Hurricane Sandy has exposed shortcomings in health care, especially for the elderly. The list of causes of death of the elderly shows repeated instances of preventable fatalities.

Some people killed by Hurricane Sandy were drowned by rising water or hit by a falling tree. These accidents could happen to anyone, although people who have restricted mobility are particularly vulnerable to them. The major remediable cause of death in New Jersey was asphyxiation, which includes carbon monoxide poisoning.  (See Chart 2.)

Chart 2. Hurricane Sandy Deaths by Cause, NJ & NYS
Note: “Was hit” generally means by a skidding vehicle on a street. “Asphyxiation” includes carbon monoxide inhalation from heating via a stove or running a generator in a closed space; such deaths are called “indirect” by the National Hurricane Center. “Tree/debris” as cause of death usually means a branch or tree falling of its own weight, or debris propelled by wind. Such deaths are described as “direct” consequences of the storm. Source: Chart computed by NJISJ based on database posted by The New York Times November 17, 2012 (

Asphyxiation is typically caused by residents’ attempts to alleviate the cold during a power outage.  Some may light a fire in the home that gets of control or sucks out the oxygen, while others run stoves or generators inside or near a living space, which can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Some in New Jersey also died of the cold itself – that is, of hypothermia due to loss of heat and lack warm clothing or blankets. The rate of asphyxiation and hypothermia continued to be much higher than normal for some weeks after Hurricane Sandy, as a cold spell hit and many displaced people lived in unheated conditions, leading to reliance on stove heat.

Another common problem during and after Hurricane Sandy hit was lack of backup power for medical equipment such as respirators. Special trips to replace run-down batteries on medical equipment were priced as high as $200. Service delayed for some meant service denied, and in some cases it meant death. Elderly people who were isolated and could not help themselves perished for lack of family, friends or a service to check on them.

The Dangers of Physical and Social Isolation

During the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the neighborhood of Englewood had 11 times as the neighborhood of Auburn Graham. The difference can be attributed to the strength of contacts among members of these communities (Eric Klinenberg in “Adaptation”, The New Yorker, January 7, 2013, p. 32, People in Auburn Gresham communicate, and life expectancy is high. Compared with Englewood, says Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson, communication in Auburn Gresham is as effective in preventing heat-related deaths as having a working air conditioner in every room.

Communication among neighbors and centers of community activities is important for two reasons:
  • It amplifies the transmission of useful information around the community, ensuring for example than no one is unaware of the risks of using a generator or how to mitigate those risks.
  • It allows Good Samaritans to check to see who nearby needs help.

Main Conclusion

Most of the New Jersey residents who died as a result of the storm were 65 or older. The leading causes of death among this age group were asphyxiation, as respirators could not work without electricity, and carbon monoxide poisoning from fires or generators.

Some of these deaths might have been prevented by means of greater communication among and with vulnerable groups. A plan for achieving this goal should be developed before the next storm season.

Recommendations to Agency Planners: Prepare for the Next Storm with the Elderly in Mind
  • Organize  buddy systems for the elderly, pairing those with phones with those who do not have them. Encouraging able-bodied and socially connected neighbors to keep tabs on the elderly in their community who would otherwise lack social support in a crisis. The cost of such a program would be minimal if volunteers could be recruited from churches, senior centers and other socially involved community meeting places.
  • Special efforts should be made in a storm to identify and communicate storm warnings and advice to elderly or disabled people.
  • An educational campaign is needed to explain the shortcomings of ovens and generators as heating sources in a blackout. Public utilities could be enlisted to circulate information on avoiding death from this cause.                      
  • When medical equipment is installed in the homes of elderly people, the length of time that backup batteries work should be communicated to the families and professionals who look after the elderly in case of a disaster, and a follow-up system needs to be in place. Governments’ and utilities’ storm warnings should alert people to check and recharge batteries. Similarly, the medical profession and pharmacies should alert patients to the need to have several weeks’ worth of life-sustaining prescriptions available in an emergency because it may not be possible in a blackout to dispense prescriptions.
PSE&G is prepared to assist families reliant on medical equipment if they pre-register with PSE&G to receive priority attention in the event of an outage. To request the service, call 1-800-436-7734.                 

Recommendations to Households: Make Sure All Adults Know How to Operate a Home Generator Safely

Home generators are handy for backup electricity in case of a power outage, but must only be used in accordance with the manufacturer's guidelines.
  • A back-up generator may only be connected to your home's electrical system through an approved transfer panel and switch that has been installed by a qualified electrician. Never connect the generator to your home's main wiring circuit.
  • Never plug a generator into a wall outlet, as serious injury can result when the current produced by the home generator is fed back into the electrical lines, and transformed to a higher voltage. Disconnect your home from the power system before hooking up a generator. Feeding electricity back to the grid can endanger the lives of utility employees working to restore power.
  • Plug lights and appliances directly into the generator. Use extension cords if necessary, but do not exceed the recommended wattage noted on the generator and use properly rated, UL or CSA-approved  cords.
  • To operate a generator safely, follow the manufacturer's instructions and operate the generator outdoors in well-ventilated conditions, well away from doors or windows, to prevent exhaust gases from entering the house. Gasoline powered generators can produce carbon monoxide, which can be deadly.