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Complexity

Complexity of human life is increasing, perhaps more rapidly than any increase in human ability to cope with complexity. For instance, the simple act of buttering one's bread, once a mindless matter of spreading butter, now involves a complicated choice: Is it better to use butter, or to select one of several ersatz alternatives?

Butter is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which are linked to heart disease. Margarine contains unsaturated fat, but some varieties contain trans fats, which are also dangerous. Nutritionists suggest closely inspecting the label of your brand.

“Your goal is to limit intake of saturated fats and to avoid trans fats altogether,” according to Harvard Medical School.

“Look for a spread that doesn’t have trans fats and has the least amount of saturated fat,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
- DANIEL VICTOR, Butter or Margarine? In Dunkin’ Donuts Lawsuit, Man Accepts No Substitutes, NYT, APRIL 4, 2017



I believe the accelerations set loose by Silicon Valley in technology and digital globalization have created a world where every decent job demands more skill and, now, lifelong learning. More people can’t keep up.... ...
When you get that much processing power, putting out that much data exhaust with ever-improving software, you create a world where we can analyze, prophesize and optimize with a precision unknown in human history. We can see trends we never saw, predict when engine parts will break and replace them before they do, with great savings, and we can optimize everything.... ...
The notion that we can go to college for four years and then spend that knowledge for the next 30 is over. If you want to be a lifelong employee anywhere today, you have to be a lifelong learner.
And that means: More is now on you. And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill. ...
So the tough news is that more will be on you. The good news is that systems — like Khan-College Board — are emerging everywhere to enable anyone to accelerate learning for the age of acceleration.
- Thomas L. Friedman, Owning Your Own Future, NYT, MAY 10, 2017


The cyberattack was able to spread so quickly in part because of its high level of sophistication. The malware, experts said, was based on a method that the N.S.A. is believed to have developed as part of its arsenal of cyberweapons. Last summer, a group calling itself the “Shadow Brokers” posted online digital tools that it had stolen from the United States government’s stockpile of hacking weapons. ...

Industry officials said law enforcement officials would find it difficult to catch the ringleaders, mostly because such cyberattacks are borderless crimes in which the attackers hide behind complex technologies that mask their identities. And national legal systems were not created to handle such global crimes.
- MARK SCOTT and NICK WINGFIELD, Hacking Attack Has Security Experts Scrambling to Contain Fallout, NYT, MAY 13, 2017


The rejection of the complexity of modern politics — as well as modern business and modern life in general — lies at the core of populism’s appeal. The first American president with no record of political or military service, Donald Trump ran on a platform of denigrating expertise. His message was that anyone with experience in politics was a corrupt insider and, indeed, that a lack of experience was the best qualification.
- Masha Gessen, Trump’s Incompetence Won’t Save Our Democracy, NYT, JUNE 2, 2017


In the long months since the election, I have been doing some deep thinking about America, trump-supporters, and the future. I have come to believe that it is not low income and education which are the defining characteristics of the trump-supporter, rather it is fear of / inability to handle complexity. The modern world frightens them; the future frightens them. They fear the adaptability, the flexibility needed to survive and thrive. They don't have it and they don't want it. They want a stable, secure, predictable world to live in and Trump promised them that world. He can't deliver, anymore than he can bring back all the manufacturing jobs lost to technology.
- sjs from bridgeport, ct, comment on America in Retreat by THE EDITORIAL BOARD, NYT, JUNE 3, 2017


For a car owner — and certainly renters who might not know what they are getting into — the best way to prevent an unpleasant middle-of-the-night surprise is to check for a spare and be sure that it holds air. If there’s a sealant kit instead, read the owner’s manual (which may be on a DVD or available on the car’s display screen) and learn how to use it.
- NORMAN MAYERSOHN, Cars Lose the Spare Tire for a Leaner Ride, but It Could Cost You Wheels, NYT, NOV. 9, 2017


In May, Mr. Swanljung handed his Medicare prescription card to the pharmacist at his local Walgreens and was told that he owed $83.94 for a three-month supply.

Alarmed at that price, Mr. Swanljung went online and found Blink Health, a start-up, offering the same drug — generic Crestor — for $45.89.

It had struck a better deal than did his insurer, UnitedHealthcare. “It’s completely ridiculous,” said Mr. Swanljung, 72, who lives in Anacortes, Wash. ...
The system has become so complex that “there’s no chance that a consumer can figure it out without help,” said the expert, Michael Rea, chief executive of Rx Savings Solutions, whose company is paid by employers to help them lower workers’ drug costs. ...
Consumers also may face penalties if they don’t use their insurance and pay cash to save money. In many cases, insurers won’t let them apply those purchases to a deductible or out-of-pocket spending maximum. ...
Several independent pharmacists said there might be safety issues if consumers buy drugs at different pharmacies. If those prescriptions are filled without an insurance card, pharmacy systems may not catch dangerous drug interactions. “That, to me, is a recipe for disaster,” said Craig Seither, who owns Fort Thomas Drug Center in Fort Thomas, Ky.

- CHARLES ORNSTEIN and KATIE THOMAS, Prescription Drugs May Cost More With Insurance Than Without It, NYT, DEC. 9, 2017


In late 2008, at a meeting with academics at the London School of Economics, Queen Elizabeth II asked why no one seemed to have anticipated the world’s worst financial crisis in the postwar period. The so-called Great Recession, which had begun in late 2008 and would run until mid-2009, was set off by the sudden collapse of sky-high prices for housing and other assets — something that is obvious in retrospect but that, nevertheless, no one seemed to see coming.

Are we about to make the same mistake? All too likely, yes. Certainly, the American economy is doing well, and emerging economies are picking up steam. But global asset prices are once again rising rapidly above their underlying value — in other words, they are in a bubble.
- DESMOND LACHMAN, The Global Economy Is Partying Like It’s 2008, NYT, DEC. 13, 2017


Facebook recently announced that it would offer users 50 different possibilities and permutations of gender identification. In the gender category under “Basic Information,” the drop-down box now includes such “custom” choices as non-binary, intersex, neutrois, androgyne, agender, gender questioning, gender fluid, gender variant, genderqueer and neither.
- AIMEE LEE BALL, Who Are You on Facebook Now?: Facebook Customizes Gender With 50 Different Choices, NYT, APRIL 4, 2014


Mr. Rothenberg’s organization has long pushed for stronger standards for online advertising. In a speech last year, he implored the industry to “take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.” But he conceded the business was growing and changing too quickly for many to comprehend its excesses and externalities — let alone to fix them.

“Technology has largely been outpacing the ability of individual companies to understand what is actually going on,” he said.
- Farhad Manjoo, Tackling the Internet’s Central Villain: The Advertising Business, NYT, JAN. 31, 2018



Modern hormonal treatment allows male humans who wish to do so to grow breasts. Soon men may also be able to breast-feed their children. Wouldn't it be fairest for men to do an equal share of infant feeding, along with changing diapers and helping with housework?

Within a month, according to the journal Transgender Health, the woman, 30, who was born male, was producing droplets of milk. Within three months — two weeks before the baby’s due date — she had increased her production to eight ounces of milk a day.

In the end, the study showed, “she was able to achieve sufficient breast milk volume to be the sole source of nourishment for her child for six weeks,” according to the journal. ...
The transgender woman in the experiment... approached the medical professionals for hormonal medications in 2011 as part of transgender treatment. She had been receiving it for several years before she began breast-feeding, according to the study. She had not had gender-reassignment surgery nor breast augmentation.
She took on the responsibility of breast-feeding because her partner, who was five months pregnant when they approached the hospital, did not want to.
- CEYLAN YEGINSU, Transgender Woman Breast-Feeds Baby After Hospital Induces Lactation, NYT, FEB. 15, 2018


Still, there is potential for decluttering, which leaves us with a pressing question: Just what records should we be keeping and for how long, and what can we safely shred or delete?

Turns out that you still need to keep more than you might think. ...
Keep copies of all major insurance policies, and a home inventory of things you’ll want to replace if they are damaged or stolen. And hang onto the agreements for all major loans, from student to mortgage, and any letters confirming payoff. Keep child support, alimony and other payment records forever too, along with the divorce documentation.... ...
Estate planning documents can also be a source of contention, so hold onto the originals of any will, trust and related documents, plus beneficiary designations from insurance policies or investment accounts. If you’ve received an inheritance or a gift, you’ll need to document the event and the value as well, perhaps through a formal appraisal. Vanguard notes the need to keep the relevant I.R.S. forms — 706, 709 and 8971 — indefinitely.
- RON LIEBER, The (Long) List of Financial Documents You Should Keep, NYT, FEB. 23, 2018


But each company has filed patent applications, many of them still under consideration, that outline an array of possibilities for how devices like these could monitor more of what users say and do. That information could then be used to identify a person’s desires or interests, which could be mined for ads and product recommendations.

In one set of patent applications, Amazon describes how a “voice sniffer algorithm” could be used on an array of devices, like tablets and e-book readers, to analyze audio almost in real time when it hears words like “love,” bought” or “dislike.” A diagram included with the application illustrated how a phone call between two friends could result in one receiving an offer for the San Diego Zoo and the other seeing an ad for a Wine of the Month Club membership. ...
Sam Lester, the center’s consumer privacy fellow, said he believed that the abilities of new smart home devices highlighted the need for United States regulators to get more involved with how consumer data was collected and used.

“A lot of these technological innovations can be very good for consumers,” he said. “But it’s not the responsibility of consumers to protect themselves from these products any more than it’s their responsibility to protect themselves from the safety risks in food and drugs. It’s why we established a Food and Drug Administration years ago.”

- SAPNA MAHESHWARI, Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?, NYT, MARCH 31, 2018


And notices in fine print are often ignored or misunderstood. Several people who used the app told The Times that they were not aware that it had harvested their data. Studies and surveys have shown that most people click agree to terms and conditions without actually reading them.

- Sheera Frenkel and Linda Qiu, Fact Check: What Mark Zuckerberg Said About Facebook, Privacy and Russia, NYT, April 10, 2018


“I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached,” Hitler had said. “Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them. ... I, on the other hand ... reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.”

She leaned forward, a look of concern in her eyes. “How do you attract voters and public support compared with the flashiness of exciting, chaotic, fact-ignoring populism?” she asked. “The reason Hitler won was because all of the other politicians were giving complicated and difficult explanations about difficult things. Hitler just told people simple things that they wanted to hear.”
- Guy Lawson, First Canada Tried to Charm Trump. Now It’s Fighting Back., NYT, June 9, 2018


People don’t have time, let alone the cognitive focus, to shop for treatments while having a heart attack, or during any other emergency.

But not all care we need is related to an emergency. Some care is elective, and so potentially “shoppable.” Scholars have estimated that as much as 30 or 40 percent of care falls into this category. It includes things like elective joint replacements and routine checkups.

And yet very few people shop for this type of care, even when they’re on the hook for the bill. Maybe it’s just too complex.
- Austin Frakt, Shopping for Health Care Simply Doesn’t Work. So What Might?, NYT, July 30, 2018


"It has been said that I owe my success to the fact that I have created a mystique ... or more simply that I have been lucky. Well, I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them. In these circumstances they preferred to leave it to the professional politicians to get them out of this confused mess. I, on the other hand, simplified the problems and reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me."
- Adolf Hitler, quoted in Bullock A., Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, New York: Harper & Row, 1962, p. 381


To simplify a complex process, people are supposed to sign up for Part B when they turn 65, unless they are working and have coverage through an employer, or a working spouse’s employer.

Yet as people approach age 65, Mr. Riccardi pointed out, “there’s no notice that says, ‘It’s time to enroll in Medicare and if you don’t, you could have problems.’”

One factor underlying the confusion, experts say, is the decoupling of Medicare eligibility from the Social Security full retirement age. Both threshold ages used to be 65 but now, the full Social Security retirement age has passed 66 and will gradually rise to 67.

Enrollment in Medicare Part A, which covers hospitalization and requires no premiums for most beneficiaries, occurs automatically at age 65 if you’re drawing Social Security retirement benefits. You have to take steps to enroll if you delay taking Social Security past age 65.

If you’re not yet receiving Social Security benefits, you also have to sign up for Part B, which this year costs $134 a month, more for individuals with incomes over $85,000 a year. The question is when to enroll.

Bear with me... keeping in mind that I’m talking about Medicare based on age. Younger people with certain disabilities, also insurable through Medicare, contend with different rules.

You have seven months — the month in which you turn 65 and the three months both before and after it — to apply for Part B without penalty. You can apply online at https://www.medicare.gov/sign-up-change-plans/how-do-i-get-parts-a-b or at a Social Security office.

If you’re still employed and working at a company or organization with 20 or more employees (or your spouse is), and you’re covered by an employee health plan, you may not need Part B yet. Instead of paying premiums, it could make financial sense to hold off. But it’s important to know that after losing employee coverage — due to retirement, layoffs or any other reason — you have an eight-month “special enrollment period” to sign up for Part B.

If you miss that window, you have to wait for the general enrollment period, which runs from January 1 through March 31 each year. That creates two problems.

First, Medicare will add a permanent 10 percent penalty to your premiums for each year you delayed. Mr. Zeppenfeldt-Cestero has to pay $187.60 per month now because he waited more than three years to sign up. If he had enrolled when he was 65, his monthly premium would be $134.

“Without good information, people make mistakes and they’re costly,” Dr. Neuman said. “In this case, it’s a cost that continues the rest of your life.”

The second problem: the general enrollment period imposes coverage gaps.

The general enrollment period (not to be confused with the Open Enrollment Period currently underway when those already receiving Medicare can change plans) runs from January through March, remember. But coverage doesn’t begin until the following July 1.

If you didn’t sign up for Part B and recognize your error in March, you can be insured in July. If you figure it out in April, however, you can’t enroll until the following January and coverage begins the following July.

“It could be well over a year, depending on when you discover the problem,” said David Lipschutz, senior policy lawyer at the Center for Medicare Advocacy. “Unfortunately, some people discover it when they get sick.”
- Paula Span, Why You Shouldn’t Wait to Sign Up for Medicare Part B, NYT, Oct. 26, 2018


A report published in May by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve system showed that under two-fifths of non-retired American adults described their retirement savings as on track, and one-quarter had no retirement savings or pension at all.

Preparing for retirement can be a confusing and overwhelming task, and three-fifths of non-retirees reported “little or no comfort in managing their investments” in self-directed retirement savings accounts, according to the Fed report, in which 12,246 people were surveyed. On average, those surveyed answered fewer than three of five basic financial literacy questions correctly.
- ELIZABETH HARRIS, Think Saving for Old Age Can’t Be Fun? Try Making It a Game, NYT, Nov. 3, 2018


Confused about what to eat and drink to protect your health? I’m not surprised.

For example, after decades of research-supported dietary advice to reduce saturated fats to minimize the risk of heart disease and stroke, along comes a new observational study of 136,384 people in 21 countries linking consumption of full-fat (read saturated) dairy foods to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

But without dissecting each study included in this meta-analysis, it is not possible to say what might be behind this surprising result and whether you should now resume putting cream in your coffee and whole milk in your cereal bowl. The study may simply mean that consuming the equivalent of three servings of dairy products a day is healthful, not saturated fat per se.

Caution is in order, especially since another new study, this one a randomly assigned clinical trial, found that three weeks on a diet rich in saturated fat caused liver fat and insulin resistance to rise far higher than diets high in sugar or unsaturated fat. ...
The answer, as Dr. Nestle’s extensive research shows, is that the unstated goal of most company-sponsored studies is to increase the bottom line. “It’s marketing research, not science,” she said in an interview. ...
The “who sponsored it” issue forms the crux of Dr. Nestle’s book. It is a critically important question to ask, not just with regard to foods, but also for drugs, supplements, exercise regimens, skin creams, mattresses and any other product or service that may — or may not — impact the health of consumers.

Increasingly, actual or potential conflicts of interests — factors that can consciously or subconsciously influence the outcomes of research — are being brought to public attention. In September, the director of clinical research at the prestigious Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center relinquished his post after failing to disclose the millions of dollars he received from pharmaceutical companies whose drugs he studied. An investigation revealed that he had put a positive spin on results that other researchers found wanting.

In September, a piece in the Upshot section of The New York Times described yet another type of conflict prominent in the reporting of drug trials: What studies get published (most negative findings never see the light of day), how their results are reported and spin that casts negative or nonsignificant findings in a positive light. The problem is often confounded hundreds of times when these spurious study results are cited over and over again by other researchers.
- Jane E. Brody, Confused by Nutrition Research? Sloppy Science May Be to Blame, NYT, Oct. 29, 2018


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