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Did you receive a ‘long-term care’ email from your employer? Here’s what it means to opt-in or opt-out



The Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Flickr Photo via Tom Sparks)

They arrived over the past month in the inboxes of Microsoft coders, Amazon copy editors, and Boeing engineers along with tens of thousands of other employees across Washington state: Emails from payroll departments or human resources telling staffers that they might have the option to opt-out of a new state payroll tax to fund long-term care.

To which many employees responded: “What in the world…?”

The reason for the email is a somewhat forgotten tax and program approved by the state legislature three years ago: The Washington Long-term Services and Supports Trust Act (LTSS). This year, the Act takes effect and includes a tax paid by employees — unless those workers get an approved long-term care plan elsewhere.

Needless to say, the announcement of a new payroll tax with a perplexing opt-out provision caught many people off-guard. “I think it was confusing for a lot of people,” said Travis Prescott, who works at Microsoft. “Even though the law was passed in 2019, I think that out-of-the-blue email was the first most of us had ever heard of it.”

So here’s your primer on what the law is, what it does, and what it means to opt-in or out. And we’ve included a bonus answer about a potential loophole.

What is this tax? 

The tax is contained within the Long-Term Services and Supports Trust Act (LTSS). The first program of its type in the country, the LTSS was approved by the state legislature and governor in 2019. The act includes a .58% tax for every $100 from every paycheck and stock-based compensation. If you are making $100,000 annually, for example, it means an additional $580 dollars of payroll tax each year. Unless, of course, if you successfully opt-out of the tax (more on that in a bit). It is expected to partially fund long-term care for Washington residents who paid into the program and who are eligible.

Why fund long-term care?

To answer that you have to first look at the state’s Medicaid program. Think of Medicaid as a state arm of the massive federal Medicare program. Generally, Medicare is for people 65 and over, younger people with disabilities, and people who need dialysis. Medicare pays for many things but not long-term care. That comes from state-funded Medicaid.

With federal backing, state-run Medicaid manages and helps fund health insurance for everyone else enrolled who is not on private insurance. In Washington state, it’s called Apple Health. Most importantly for purposes here, Medicaid also is the program that provides long-term care for people who are eligible and can’t otherwise afford it.

Long-term care is massively expensive, especially for women as they tend to live longer than men. State budget analysts say the state won’t be able to afford the predicted need for long-term care. The new tax is both an effort to provide very limited long-term care and to help fund the overall Medicaid program.

An email sent to Microsoft employees about the payroll tax.

OK. So should I opt-in or out?

Those are not the actual choices. Your actual choices are to opt-in the state tax or opt-in on a private plan because the state now requires some form of long-term care coverage (we’ll get to that loophole in a bit). Not many corporation-based private insurance plans offer long-term care coverage as part of an overall plan. The likelihood is that you don’t have long-term care through your workplace. But some employer-funded programs might meet the requirement for opting out. Check regardless.

If you are self-employed, you are exempt but can opt-in.

Which is the better deal?

It depends on what you want. If you are young, healthy, and simply looking to spend as little as possible and make less than $200,000 annually, the state tax likely is the way to go. If you make more than that, find a cheap, basic private plan and provide proof of coverage to your payroll department to bypass the tax. This is a general guideline but not an absolute rule as private, long-term care plans can be more expensive for women than men — sometimes 60% more pricey. If you want to know why, simply visit any nursing home, senior center, or long-term care facility. Look at the percentage of women to men. There’s your answer.

If you are in your mid-40s or older and are thinking about long-term care insurance that provides real coverage, it’s simple: get a private plan, get proof that you enrolled in a plan, and opt out of the tax. The cost of long-term care — particularly memory care — can be financially crushing, upwards of $8,000 monthly. A policy that provides some actual coverage will set you back between $2,000 and $3,000 annually.

Why not just go with the cheaper state coverage?

It’s very, very limited coverage. If you pay into the state program for the required minimum time — a decade of payments, generally — the maximum you will ever collect is $36,000. This is the total, not just the annual amount. For long-term care, it’s a drop in the bucket. Also, not everyone qualifies for state long-term care. You must meet the eligibility criteria from both a financial and health standpoint. In essence, you must not be able to care for yourself — feeding, bathing, etc. — and you must have exhausted most of your financial assets before the state will step in and help.

Plus, if you are not living in Washington state at the time you need long-term care, you can’t collect. Again, if you are in your 20s through 30s and making less than $200,000 annually — regardless of gender — sticking with the state tax can be a worthwhile option.

When do I have to make a decision?

Technically, you have until Nov. 1, 2021 to decide if you want to go private or simply accept the state tax. You don’t have to do anything if you want to accept the state tax, and your employer will collect it. But if you want a private policy, remember that getting one isn’t an immediate process. Your potential insurer will screen you to determine your rate, then bill you, and then provide the required proof of coverage. That takes time. Experts suggest making a decision by late July or early August. But while you must make your decision by Nov. 1, you don’t have to provide proof until the end of December. So you have a small grace period.

Now, about that loophole…

Right. So among the vague provisions in the LTSS is the proof of insurance that is required to bypass the state tax. While you need to provide it, there is no clear requirement that you need to provide it each year, according to an analysis by the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine. This means you could get a policy for one year, decline renewal, and remain outside of the tax as long as you stay with the same employer.  However, if you are not paying the tax, you will never be able to receive its benefits.

If you need more help or want additional details, here are some explainers:

And here’s a handy guide, put together by Brooks, that runs through public vs. private plan comparisons (click to enlarge):


Toyota Whiffed on EVs. Now It’s Trying to Slow Their Rise



Executives at Toyota had a moment of inspiration when the company first developed the Prius. That moment, apparently, has long since passed.

The Prius was the world’s first mass-produced hybrid car, years ahead of any competitors. The first model, a small sedan, was classic Toyota—a reliable vehicle tailor-made for commuting. After a major redesign in 2004, sales took off. The Prius’ Kammback profile was instantly recognizable, and the car’s combination of fuel economy and practicality was unparalleled. People snapped them up. Even celebrities seeking to burnish their eco-friendly bona fides were smitten with the car. Leonardo DiCaprio appeared at the 2008 Oscars in one.

As the Prius’ hybrid technology was refined over the years, it started appearing in other models, from the small Prius c to the three-row Highlander. Even the company’s luxury brand, Lexus, hybridized several of its cars and SUVs.

For years, Toyota was a leader in eco-friendly vehicles. Its efficient cars and crossovers offset emissions from its larger trucks and SUVs, giving the company a fuel-efficiency edge over some of its competition. By May 2012, Toyota had sold 4 million vehicles in the Prius family worldwide.

The next month, Tesla introduced the Model S, which dethroned Toyota’s hybrid as the leader in green transportation. The new car proved that long-range electric vehicles, while expensive, could be both practical and desirable. Battery advancements promised to slash prices, eventually bringing EVs to price parity with fossil-fuel vehicles.

But Toyota misunderstood what Tesla represented. While Toyota invested in Tesla, it saw the startup not as a threat but rather a bit player that could help Toyota meet its EV mandates. In some ways, that view was justified. For the most part, the two didn’t compete in the same segments, and Toyota’s worldwide volume dwarfed that of the small US manufacturer. Besides, hybrids were just a stopgap until Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cells were ready. At that point, the company thought, hydrogen vehicles’ long range and quick refueling would make EVs obsolete.

Evidently, Toyota didn’t pick up on the subtle shift that was occurring. It’s true that hybrids were a bridge to cleaner fuels, but Toyota was overestimating the length of that bridge. Just as Blackberry dismissed the iPhone, Toyota dismissed Tesla and EVs. Blackberry thought the world would need physical keyboards for many more years. Toyota thought the world would need gasoline for several more decades. Both were wrong.

In tethering itself to hybrids and betting its future on hydrogen, Toyota now finds itself in an uncomfortable position. Governments around the world are moving to ban fossil-fuel vehicles of any kind, and they’re doing so far sooner than Toyota anticipated. With EV prices dropping and charging infrastructure expanding, fuel-cell vehicles are unlikely to be ready in time.

In a bid to protect its investments, Toyota has been strenuously lobbying against battery-powered electric vehicles. But is it already too late?

Hydrogen Dead End

Having spent the last decade ignoring or dismissing EVs, Toyota now finds itself a laggard in an industry that’s swiftly preparing for an electric—not just electrified—transition.

Sales of Toyota’s fuel-cell vehicles haven’t lit the world on fire—the Mirai continues to be a slow seller, even when bundled with thousands of dollars’ worth of hydrogen, and it’s unclear if its winsome but slow redesign will help. Toyota’s forays into EVs have been timid. Initial efforts focused on solid-state batteries that, while lighter and safer than existing lithium-ion batteries, have proven challenging to manufacture cost-effectively, much like fuel cells. Last month, the company announced that it would release more traditional EV models in the coming years, but the first one won’t be available until the end of 2022.

Confronted with a losing hand, Toyota is doing what most large corporations do when they find themselves playing the wrong game—it’s fighting to change the game.

Toyota has been lobbying governments to water down emissions standards or oppose fossil-fuel vehicle phaseouts, according to a New York Times report. In the past four years, Toyota’s political contributions to US politicians and PACs have more than doubled. Those contributions have gotten the company into hot water too. By donating to congresspeople who oppose tighter emissions limits, the company funded lawmakers who objected to certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. Though Toyota had promised to stop doing so in January, it was caught making donations to the controversial legislators as recently as last month.

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OpenAI releases Triton, a programming language for AI workload optimization



All the sessions from Transform 2021 are available on-demand now. Watch now.

OpenAI today released Triton, an open source, Python-like programming language that enables researchers to write highly efficient GPU code for AI workloads. Triton makes it possible to reach peak hardware performance with relatively little effort, OpenAI claims, producing code on par with what an expert could achieve in as few as 25 lines.

Deep neural networks have emerged as an important type of AI model, capable of achieving state-of-the-art performance across natural language processing, computer vision, and other domains. The strength of these models lies in their hierarchical structure, which generates a large amount of highly parallelizable work well-suited for multicore hardware like GPUs. Frameworks for general-purpose GPU computing such as CUDA and OpenCL have made the development of high-performance programs easier in recent years. Yet, GPUs remain especially challenging to optimize, in part because their architectures rapidly evolve.

Domain-specific languages and compilers have emerged to address the problem, but these systems tend to be less flexible and slower than the best handwritten compute kernels available in libraries like cuBLAS, cuDNN or TensorRT. Reasoning about all these factors can be challenging even for seasoned programmers. The purpose of Triton, then, is to automate these optimizations, so that developers can focus on the high-level logic of their code.

“Novel research ideas in the field of deep learning are generally implemented using a combination of native framework operators … [W]riting specialized GPU kernels [can improve performance,] but [is often] surprisingly difficult due to the many intricacies of GPU programming. And although a variety of systems have recently emerged to make this process easier, we have found them to be either too verbose, lack flexibility, generate code noticeably slower than our hand-tuned baselines,” Philippe Tillet, Triton’s original creator, who now works at OpenAI as a member of the technical staff, wrote in a blog post. “Our researchers have already used [Triton] to produce kernels that are up to 2 times more efficient than equivalent Torch implementations, and we’re excited to work with the community to make GPU programming more accessible to everyone.”

Simplifying code

According to OpenAI, Triton — which has its origins in a 2019 paper submitted to the International Workshop on Machine Learning and Programming Languages — simplifies the development of specialized kernels that can be much faster than those in general-purpose libraries. Its compiler simiplifies code and automatically optimizes and parallelizes it, converting it into code for execution on recent Nvidia GPUs. (CPUs and AMD GPUs and platforms other than Linux aren’t currently supported.)

“The main challenge posed by our proposed paradigm is that of work scheduling — i.e., how the work done by each program instance should be partitioned for efficient execution on modern GPUs,” Tillet explains in Triton’s documentation website. “To address this issue, the Triton compiler makes heavy use of block-level data-flow analysis, a technique for scheduling iteration blocks statically based on the control- and data-flow structure of the target program. The resulting system actually works surprisingly well: our compiler manages to apply a broad range of interesting optimization automatically.”

The first stable version of Triton, along with tutorials, is available from the project’s GitHub repository.


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Astronomers have spotted x-rays from behind a supermassive black hole



“This is a really exciting result,” says Edward Cackett, an astronomer at Wayne State University who was not involved with the study. “Although we have seen the signature of x-ray echoes before, until now it has not been possible to separate out the echo that comes from behind the black hole and gets bent around into our line of sight. It will allow for better mapping of how things fall into black holes and how black holes bend the space time around them.”

The release of energy by black holes, sometimes in the form of x-rays, is an absurdly extreme process. And because supermassive black holes release so much energy, they are essentially powerhouses that allow galaxies to grow around them. “If you want to understand how galaxies form, you really need to understand these processes outside the black hole that are able to release these enormous amounts of energy and power, these amazingly bright light sources that we’re studying,” says Dan Wilkins, an astrophysicist at Stanford University and the lead author of the study. 

The study focuses on a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy called I Zwicky 1 (I Zw 1 for short), around 100 million light-years from Earth. In supermassive black holes like I Zw 1’s, large amounts of gas fall toward the center (the event horizon, which is basically the point of no return) and tend to flatten out into a disk. Above the black hole, a confluence of supercharged particles and magnetic field activity results in the production of high-energy x-rays.

Some of these x-rays are shining straight at us, and we can observe them normally, using telescopes. But some of them also shine down toward the flat disk of gas and will reflect off it. I Zw 1 black hole’s rotation is slowing down at a higher rate than that seen in most supermassive black holes, which causes surrounding gas and dust to fall in more easily  and feed the black hole from multiple directions. This, in turn, leads to greater x-ray emissions, which is why Wilkins and his team were especially interested.

While Wilkins and his team were observing this black hole, they noticed that the corona appeared to be “flashing.” These flashes, caused by x-ray pulses reflecting off the massive disk of gas, were coming from behind the black hole’s shadow—a place that is normally hidden from view. But because the black hole bends the space around it, the x-ray reflections are also bent around it, which means we can spot them.

The signals were found using two different space-based telescopes optimized to detect x-rays in space: NuSTAR, which is run by NASA, and XMM-Newton, which is run by the European Space Agency.

The biggest implication of the new findings is that they confirm what Albert Einstein predicted in 1963 as part of his theory of general relativity—the way light ought to bend around gargantuan objects like supermassive black holes. 

“It’s the first time we really see the direct signature of the way light bends all the way behind the black hole into our line of sight, because of the way black hole warps space around itself,” says Wilkins. 

“While this observation doesn’t change our general picture of black hole accretion, it is a nice confirmation that general relativity is at play in these systems,” says Erin Kara, an astrophysicist at MIT who was not involved with the study.

Despite the name, supermassive black holes are so far away that they really just look like single points of light, even with state-of-the-art instruments. It’s not going to be possible to take images of all of them the way scientists used the Event Horizon Telescope to capture the shadow of a supermassive black hole in galaxy M87. 

So although it’s early, Wilkins and his team are hopeful that detecting and studying more of these x-ray echoes from behind the bend could help us create partial or even full pictures of distant supermassive black holes. In turn, that could help them unlock some big mysteries around how supermassive black holes grow, sustain entire galaxies, and create environments where the laws of physics are pushed to the limit.

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