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September 28, 2013

Workplace wellness questionaires raise privacy, discrimination concerns

It is legal for employers to use financial incentives to encourage workers to fill out health risk assessment forms as long as that reward is based on completion of a wellness form and not tied to specific questions related to an employee's health status.

In fact, employer use of financial inducements is likely to increase under new wellness rules, scheduled to take effect in January as part of the Affordable Care Act. The rules allow employers to offer incentives of up to 30 percent of health coverage costs to employees who complete participatory wellness programs like health risk questionnaires, or biometric assessments like body-fat percentage measurements.

A workplace wellness questionnaire that asked female employees questions about their pregnancy plans might cause a disproportionate number of women to decline to participate in the program, said Matthew T. Bodie, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. If that employer also fined its employees for not filling out the questionnaire, its wellness program could potentially have a discriminatory financial impact on that company's female employees, he said.

"Down the road, the law could get a little firmer on this if there is a consensus that employers are going overboard in what they are asking," said Professor Bodie, who specializes in labor and employment law.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had a special meeting in May on wellness programs in which its legal expert concluded that the agency should issue guidance on the potential intersection of wellness programs and federal antidiscrimination laws. In particular, the expert said, the agency should clarify the meaning of "voluntary" employee participation.

A federal lawmaker is asking the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate employer wellness programs that seek intimate health information from employees, and to issue guidelines preventing employers from using such programs to discriminate against workers.

Health Plan Penalty Ends at Penn State (September 19, 2013)
Technophoria: On Campus, a Faculty Uprising Over Personal Data (September 15, 2013)
The request, by Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and a staunch advocate for health privacy rights, came a few days after Pennsylvania State University suspended part of its new employee wellness program that had drawn objections from faculty members.

"What happened at Penn State was appalling to me," Ms. Slaughter said in an interview on Tuesday, referring to the university's requiring employees to pay a monthly surcharge of $100 if they did not fill out detailed health risk questionnaires.

Called Take Care of Your Health, the Penn State program initially required employees, including faculty and staff members, to fill out the questionnaires -- which asked about workplace stress, marital problems and women's pregnancy plans -- or pay the surcharge. After faculty members complained that the program seemed coercive and invaded their privacy, the university suspended the penalty.

September 21, 2013

Aeon magaine

People say Aeon Magazine is great.

Soon, if it's not true already, magazine brands will matter more as marks of quality or tone than they do as gatherers and arrangers of content in a unified experience. By predicating its publishing model on stories that can be pried from the bundle and whose ideas stand on their own, Aeon confirms itself as a bankable brand synonymous with quality and depth. It publishes stories based not on how many clicks their headlines might generate, but on engaging people's attention for a meaningful period of time. That is the standard to which magazines of the mobile era must aspire.

-- Pando

"The longer we can defer making any commitments to a specific business model, the better we'll be," says Paul Hains,, "because the landscape is changing all the time."

That means Aeon's stories are free, even while the publication pays its writers at rates comparable to those paid by broadsheet newspapers. (The founders won't say exactly what that rate is, but Brigid Hains says 60 cents a word is "not a bad guess.") It also means there are no ads, and the editors don't mind if you leave the Aeon website to read a story somewhere else. A link to "Read later or Kindle" is placed on the same line as the by-line and the word-count, a subtle indicator that the story is king, even if it means readers ultimately spend less time on the site.


I speak four languages and am a ruthless assimilation ninja. I will renounce all kin in the name of camouflage because everything is a contest and I am a disgusting sell-out. It's the twin moon to my being popular in any context provided I put my mind to it. I'm sure there's a field of corn withering somewhere in my soul that fuels this despicable talent, but everyone's got to die of cancer some time, right?

-- My foreign mom.

September 19, 2013

Cheaper chips, cheaper tablets ? Of course.

Suneet Tuli, CEO of Datawind, maker of the Aakash 2 tablet uses the slide below to explain how cheap tablets will disrupt the market for more expensive tablets, and potentially other types of personal computing devices, like laptops. "I think [Intel's move] is the classical example of bridging the performance gap between low- and high-end products, where the increasing performance at the low-end of the market starts putting pressure on the higher end of the market," says Tuli, referring to Clayton Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma.



September 7, 2013

Werner Heisenberg

In 1973, Werner Heisenberg was diagnosed with cancer. The disease apparently went into remission, but returned two short years later. He died in Munich on February 1, 1976. His unofficial epitaph is a fitting reflection of the Uncertainty Principle. It states, "He lies somewhere here."

September 2, 2013

China's middles class affords $2500 summer camp

"Families should pay for good programs as long as they can afford them. Not attending them because of their cost is no different from giving up eating for fear of choking."

-- Shi Guopeng, deputy dean of academic affairs, Beijing No. 4 High School

"It's a privilege reserved for the wealthy, or at least for families above middle class," said Zhang Yang, who has a master's degree in education from Harvard and is the director of the overseas education department of the EIC Group, an education agency in Beijing. "I don't think these study-abroad tours are things ordinary families can afford."

A typical middle-class family could afford programs costing about $2,500, about half that of the least expensive summer sessions in the United States, he said.

When photographs of Chinese students looking forlorn as they ate hamburgers outside an American retail outlet while their teachers shopped inside appeared in mid-July on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, angry citizens asked why the teenagers were left to lounge around.

"People feel resentful because most families do not have the financial means to offer their children the opportunity to go on such tours, and they feel jealous of the families who do," said Li Jiayu, who runs the education company USAdaxue in Beijing.

Families who pay for the costliest summer programs often want to ensure that their children attend one of the 50 top-ranked American colleges, Chinese educators said, so competition for a place in one of these programs is high.

A closely supervised $14,000 program run by Elite Scholars of China accepted 26 out of 100 applicants who attended a two-week academic course at Wellesley College in Massachusetts followed by a week of visits to a dozen top colleges and their admissions officers. Participants were selected on the basis of interviews, said Tomer Rothschild, a co-founder of the agency.

Now, many Chinese companies are catering to the expanding ambitions of Chinese parents, and their offspring, by offering summer experiences costing $5,000 to $15,000 for several weeks in the United States, often a first step to an American college education, or a high school degree, which have become badges of prestige here.

But concerns about the programs' cost, far beyond the means of most Chinese families, and their effectiveness have been the focus of a sharp national discussion since the crash of Asiana Flight 214 in San Francisco last month. About 70 Chinese students headed for American summer camps were aboard, and three were killed. The news elicited sympathy, of course, but also admiration for families who had saved enough to send their children abroad.

It also stirred questions about why young Chinese must go overseas to study and -- in a nation incensed by corruption and a widening wealth gap -- about whose children can enjoy such expensive opportunities.

September 1, 2013

Math is good, math is right. Almost as good as greed

Take the centerpiece of my early career, the work on increasing returns and trade. The models I and others used were, in a way, typical of economics: clearly untrue assumptions (symmetric constant elasticity of substitution preferences; symmetric costs across products!), and involved a fair bit of work to arrive at what sounds in retrospect like a fairly obvious point: even similar countries will end up specializing in different products, and because there are increasing returns in many sectors, this will produce gains from specialization and trade. But this point was only obvious in retrospect. People in trade were not saying anything like this until the New Trade Theory models came along and clarified our thinking and language. Trust me, I was there, and went through a number of seminar experiences in which I had to bring an uncomprehending audience through until they saw the light.

The same is true for the liquidity trap. The basics of what happens at the zero lower bound aren't complicated, but people who haven't worked through small mathematical models -- of both the IS-LM and New Keynesian type -- generally get all tied up in verbal and conceptual knots.

-- Paul Krugman

Noah Smith has a fairly caustic meditation on the role of math in economics, in which he says that it's nothing like the role of math in physics -- and suggests that it's mainly about doing hard stuff to prove that you're smart.

I share much of his cynicism about the profession, but I think he's missing the main way (in my experience) that mathematical models are useful in economics: used properly, they help you think clearly, in a way that unaided words can't.

What is true is that all too many economists have lost sight of this purpose; they treat their models as The Truth, and/or judge each others' work by how hard the math is. It sounds as if Smith was taught macro by people like that. And there are a lot of people in macro, some of them fairly prominent, who are what my old teacher Rudi Dornbusch used to call "fearful plumbers" -- people who can push equations around, but have no sense of what they mean, and as a result say quite remarkably stupid things when confronted with real-world economic issues.

But math is good, used right.