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Balloon Juice - 14 min 28 sec ago

Andrew Sprung at Xpostfactoid notes one group of low income people who could be better off under the BCRA; poor people who would have been Medicaid expansion eligible if they lived in states that expanded Medicaid. The subsidy structure of the BCRA sells the baseline plan at 2% of income for people up to 100% of Federal Poverty Line. The Benchmark plan is 58% actuarial value.

The BCRA does toss a bone to the dis-insured poor by offering private-market subsidies to those who are shut out of Medicaid. Under the ACA, in the 31 states plus D.C. that accepted the law’s Medicaid expansion (rendered optional to states by the Supreme Court), anyone whose household income is below 139% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) qualifies for Medicaid, and so not for subsidies in the private plan marketplace (with one class of exceptions*). In states that refused the expansion — a possibility not envisioned by the law’s drafters — eligibility for Marketplace subsidies begins at 100% FPL, and those below that level are left out in the cold — because their state’s governors and legislatures wanted it that way. The BCRA allows people with incomes in 0-100% FPL range to buy a “benchmark” plan for 2% of income, and those in 100-133% FPL range** to buy one for no more than 2.5% of income…

For low income enrollees [ACA] – the majority of marketplace enrollees — silver plans are enhanced by Cost Sharing Reduction (CSR) subsidies that raise AV to 94% ….That usually means deductibles in the $0-250 range for people with incomes up to 150% FPL…
The Senate bills drops the AV of a benchmark plan to 58% — below that of the ACA Marketplace’s bottom-level bronze plans, which have an AV of 60%. Bronze plans generally have single-person deductibles over $6,000

Prof. John Graves from Vanderbilt has a great illustration of comparative actuarial value:

The value of these plans mainly accrue to providers and hospitals.

It is very hard to design a 58% AV plan given the lack of change in out of pocket maximum where there are any services excluded from cost sharing. Donut designs where a few PCP visits and low cost generic drugs are no cost sharing are plausible at 60% or 61% AV. Using the 2018 AV calculator, I could only get a 59% AV Bronze plan with a $7,150 deductible that applied to everything.

There is some money allocated to bring down out of pocket expenses. If it is used as a state based CSR, it is grossly insufficient compared to current funding. There is less money and a larger gap. Someone who makes 100% FPL today receives a 24 AV point bump to get to a 94% plan with a $100 deductible and $1000 out of pocket maximum. That same 24 point bump produces an 82% AV plan with an $1825 deductible that applied to everything. That person is still massively underinsured as the out of pocket exposure of 10% of their income.

So when someone who earns 100% of FPL or less has a catastrophic event, the benefits will be in the form of unpayable debt and care for them. The doctors and hospitals will have a fixed limit of unpayable debt. If there is matched CSR, it might be $1,825. If there is no CSR, it could be $7,500. For diagnoses that routinely generate $100,000 claims over the course of treatment in a year, this is an acceptable discount. For PCPs and low level specialists, this will be 100% bad debt.

This has an interesting risk pool aspect. Third party payment of premiums will be quite common for patients who are guaranteed to run up $50,000 or more claims. Paying a few hundred dollars to minimize the amount of bad debt an oncology practice incurs is a smart business decision. It will make the risk pool even uglier.

So yes, there will be some poor people who are better off because their states have refused to accept significant federal funds to provide 98% actuarial value insurance. Now they will be getting 58% actuarial value insurance for 2% of their income. But they won’t be able to use it for common care as they can’t come up with out of pocket first dollar cost sharing.

Categories: Politics

Abbreviated pundit roundup: Senate GOP unveils massive tax cut for the rich as its health care bill

Daily Kos - 28 min 22 sec ago

We begin today’s roundup with The New York Times and its editorial on the Senate Republican health care bill, which is nothing more than a massive tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable:

It would be a big mistake to call the legislation Senate Republicans released on Thursday a health care bill. It is, plain and simple, a plan to cut taxes for the wealthy by destroying critical federal programs that help provide health care to tens of millions of people. [...]

If passed in its current form, the Senate bill would greatly weaken Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides insurance to nearly 69 million people, more than any other government or private program. It would do this by gradually but inexorably shifting more of the financial burden of Medicaid to states, in effect, forcing them to cover fewer people and to provide fewer services. Over all, the Senate would reduce federal spending by about $1 trillion over 10 years and use almost that much to cut taxes for rich families and health care companies.

The Washington Post agrees:

It includes a range of mostly unwise and ungenerous changes to the nation’s health-care system, but it might, if enacted, end up as mostly a massive, unpaid-for tax cut for wealthy people and industries with pull on Capitol Hill. [...] 

The cynicism of this exercise is evident in its staging. The bill would kill a variety of taxes right away, but the subsidy and Medicaid cuts would not phase in until after the 2018 midterm election. It would be left to future Congresses to allow severe cuts to the safety net or major expansion of the federal debt, or a combination of the two. Instead of forcing this choice between Americans’ physical health and the nation’s fiscal health, senators should end this repeal-and-replace disaster now.

Categories: Politics

Mac malware continues to grow, reports McAfee, but is again mostly adware

9to5Mac - 50 min 51 sec ago

McAfee tells us that the growth in Mac malware seen last year has continued into this year, growing 53% in the first quarter alone. The total number of instances of malware detected has reached over 700,000.

As before, though, the headline number isn’t as alarming as it might appear …

more…

Categories: Misc

NBA Draft: Freshmen dominate early; Bulls trade Jimmy Butler to Minnesota

Medina Gazette - 1 hour 4 min ago

NEW YORK — Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and the future of the NBA arrived Thursday night.

Categories: Misc

Cavaliers: No deal reached with Chauncey Billups

Medina Gazette - 1 hour 4 min ago

Chauncey Billups remains the only candidate to head the Cavaliers’ front office, but the job was still vacant Thursday night.

Categories: Misc

Indians 6, Orioles 3: Tribe's rollin' O topples reelin' O's

Medina Gazette - 1 hour 4 min ago

BALTIMORE — The Cleveland Indians put on another offensive show against a Baltimore Orioles pitching staff that’s poised to set a record for extended futility.

Categories: Misc

Open Thread: You Come At the Queen…

Balloon Juice - 1 hour 8 min ago

Cue the Somewhat Soiled Lady, a day late and a hot-take short — “Nancy Pelosi Tells Democratic Critics, ‘I Think I’m Worth the Trouble’”:

The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, strolled before the cameras on Thursday with defeat at her back once more, projecting a well-worn swagger — brash, defiant, more than a little off key — as she insisted that her moment had not passed…

With six words, Ms. Pelosi, 77, demonstrated the self-assurance that has powered her as one of the most successful congressional leaders in the modern era. Yet even as Democrats enjoy a surge of grass-roots energy that could resurrect their House majority, some members of Ms. Pelosi’s own party are impatient for her to give up her 15-year grip on power.

She is the Democrat most crucial to determining whether her party can take back the House and torpedo President Trump’s agenda — an avatar of the kind of coastal excess that Republicans abhor and that some progressives have come to view suspiciously in an age of ascendant populism.

“Everybody wants leaders,” she said in an interview in her office at the Capitol, during which she was often as dismissive of critics in her own party as she was of the Republican opposition. “Not a lot of people want to be led.”

To many Democrats, Ms. Pelosi is their own indispensable woman, a legislative genius, tactical wizard and prolific fund-raiser whose ability to hold together a fractious caucus is written in her own success in passing many laws, and blocking even more.

But some in her caucus have reached a different conclusion: She is not, well, worth it.

Representative Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York, said flatly that Democrats had lost their way and could not win the majority back with Ms. Pelosi leading the party. Ms. Rice hosted a Thursday afternoon meeting of just over a dozen anti-Pelosi House Democrats, according to Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, who attended. The would-be coup plotters did not emerge with “any action items,” Mr. Ryan said…

Youngbloods gonna youngblood, but their ongoing problem remains: The only people who really want Pelosi to retire are Republicans and the More-Progressive-Than-Thou men who wouldn’t vote for a mere Democrat if the alternative were undergoing vasectomy with a melon baller.

Mr. Charles P. Pierce, on the button, as usual:

If you’re proposing to replace Pelosi, prepare for the inevitable result. The pressure on the replacement—from Republicans, certainly, but also from the elite political media—to work “on a bipartisan basis” with the zombie-eyed granny starver and his band of cutthroats, or to find “common ground” with the folks down at Camp Runamuck, is going to be well-nigh overwhelming. And that’s not even to mention the both-siderist frenzy that will erupt during the fight to elect a new leader. Dems In Disarray is a Beltway classic. This would be its loudest revival performance in years. And, in any case, if you’re demanding that Pelosi be dumped because of her usefulness as a Republican cartoon, aren’t you already pretty much admitting defeat?

One of these days, Pelosi will step down (or die in harness, like Teddy Kennedy). But before she can be replaced, somebody needs to demonstrate that they could actually do the job she does. If it were as easy as she makes it look, the Media Village Idiots’ long-hoped-for “coup” would have happened years ago. And if she were as “obsolete” as the Repubs like to pretend, she wouldn’t be their go-to Lie-bral Boogymonster.

Categories: Politics

Apple inviting UK website visitors to help victims of London’s Grenfell Tower fire

9to5Mac - 1 hour 13 min ago

As it often does after a disaster, Apple is inviting website visitors to contribute to a fundraising appeal – this time for victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in London in which 79 people are either confirmed or presumed to have lost their lives.

The 24-floor residential tower block, devoted to social housing, caught fire overnight on 14th June after a fridge-freezer burst into flames. Design features that should ensure a fire is contained within a single apartment for 60 minutes somehow failed, and the fire spread, aided by flammable cladding on the exterior of the building …

more…

Categories: Misc

The best iPhone apps for tracking steps

iDownloadBlog - 1 hour 13 min ago

No matter the extend, or amount of joy we derive from it, until anti-gravity boots have been invented and immobilized humanity once and for all, we all have to walk. To work, from work, to run errands, to take the dog to the park, to pick up the kids, to the pub on weekends. Sometimes home on all fours after that. But it is also a loved activity for those seeking a healthy lifestyle or regular exercise. In any event, with your iPhone in the pocket, it is easier than ever to record, visualize, or even gamify your endeavors.

To do justice to the wide array of step trackers available, we have parsed the App Store with the aim to only pick apps standing out for at least one unique quality. The result is – hopefully – a small but diverse sample of the best step tracker apps that is representative of the larger flock of step counters, some of which you might argue should or should not have been included based on merit, features or simply personal allegiance.

If that’s the case, as always do let us and your fellow readers know in the comments. And now, without further ado, let’s get into our list of the best pedometer apps!

The best pedometer apps Activity Tracker

We’re starting at the proverbial shallow end with Activity Tracker, meaning an app not too complex with respect to stats and analytics. Instead of drowning the user in numbers and tabs, Activity Tracker is a great candidate for those appreciating aesthetics and simplicity. A the same time, it manages to smartly condense the most important information about your activity and hide it in plain sight.

Activity Tracker records and presents your daily steps in a very familiar activity ring fashion, in addition logs flights, time, distance and also calories burnt, a giveaway other apps will already demand you go premium for. Moreover, the app icon badge can display your daily number of steps and a reasonable widget is being offered as well, certainly not the best among the pack but a nice to have all the same.

Finally, Apple Watch users are likely to appreciate the wrist implementation of Activity Tracker, as it bundles all the important information (steps, kcal, miles) in one quick glance. For more stats (hourly, monthly) and complete HealthKit integration you’ll have to upgrade to premium for $2.99. Either way, the basic app is a solid place to start your step counting journey.

• Device support: iPhone, Apple Watch
• Widget: Yes (Steps, Miles)
• Notable features: app icon badge, weekly goals, calories
• Cost: free ($2.99 premium)

Pacer

Pacer’s full name – Pacer: Pedometer plus weight loss and BMI tracker – more aptly encompasses the allrounder that this app really is. To its credit, it somehow manages to not stretch itself too thinly taking on step counting, weight monitoring, personal coaching, but also social challenges and group forums. Yet on the flip side, it can for sure be a little overwhelming to those seeking out a straightforward pedometer.

To flesh it out briefly, the free app boasts a regular step counter comprising steps, flights, distance and plenty of graphs (for both portrait and landscape orientation). More exclusively to Pacer, it also features stats for weight, BMI & blood pressure. Refreshingly, Pacer houses a free community of user groups, which can be joined for discussions and the hunt for shared goals. Public events can be attended as well, boosting morale as you sure don’t want to sit at the bottom of the participant’s list.

Pacer offers a subscription based Pro service (at $3.99 per month) that covers a plethora of goodies such as a personal coach for exercise plans and weight loss, guided challenges, plus more personal stats. And as you would expect from a jack-of-all-trades app like Pacer, it packages a potent Apple Watch companion as well.

• Device support: iPhone, Apple Watch
• Widget: Yes (Steps, Cals, Time, Distance)
• Notable features: calories, public events, groups 
• Cost: free ($3.99 a month)

Pedometer++

Pedometer++ dates back all the way to 2013 and the release of Apple’s M7 motion coprocessor. Back then, it spearheaded the new movement and was among the first apps to embrace the freshly-fitted piece of hardware. Because of that pedigree alone, we’d be remiss to ignore the application. Besides, it’s the only app (next to StepsApp) to equip you with a nifty iMessage chat extension for friendly banter between you and your friends.

Outside of that, Pedometer++ is a straight shooter, only asking for a daily step goal and taking over from there. Perhaps its biggest strength is the UI, managing to boil down all the information (steps, floors, distance, a color chart) of the tracker in one single page, all the while retaining a clean look. As a result, there is no learning curve with this tracker, no hidden gestures or buttons, no fear of missing out. Via settings, Pedometer++ can also make use of the app icon badge to display the current step count. In addition, the app earns its stripes through accessibility features such as a wheelchair mode and a switch for rest days.

In closing, Pedometer++ can be stripped off its ads for a small tip of $0.99, plus comes in conjunction with an Apple Watch app capable of timing and recording your walks.

• Device support: iPhone, Apple Watch
• Widget: Yes (Steps, Miles, Floors)
• Notable features: app icon badge, daily goals, wheelchair mode, rest days
• Cost: free

Stepz

Stepz most distinguishing feature is not its atrociously spelled name, but an emphasis on social and trophy hunting. The app has dedicated tabs for Achievements and Friends, each making clear where priorities lay during the development of Stepz. Fortunately, that gamble has paid dividends, as scoring and sharing achievements like ‘You have walked the length of the London Underground’ is actually a playful source of motivation.

At the same time, Stepz has been mindful with the implementation and ensured it doesn’t bleed into the core step tracking functions. The latter performs slightly above average amongst all apps featured, with rich and informative data, detailed graphs and an outstanding history tab for everything ever archived on your iPhone. To make sure they leave no stone unturned, an app badge switch and Lock screen widget (Steps & Distance) have been thrown into the bargain as well.

Suffice it to say that the dev team has done their homework on watchOS too, which for all intents and purposes wraps up the package nicely. For $0.99, you get to wipe the interface clean and remove all ads.

• Device support: iPhone, Apple Watch
• Widget: Yes (Steps, Miles, Progress)
• Notable features: app icon badge, daily goals, calories, achievements badges, friends
• Cost: free ($0.99 premium)

Steps

Steps not only beats Stepz to its grammatically sound name, but also broaches the concept of a step counter from an entirely different angle. Essentially, Steps is the cleanest, least pompous pedometer in our line up, so much so that the entire display can be reduced to a single number (your step count).

Under its surface, one tap will reveal distance and time travelled, a swipe up invokes a brief history of the previous three days, while a swipe to the left is utilized to set a daily steps goal. Believe me that we are not trying to shortchange the app, but with the exception of a daily update notification, this is practically it. And that’s precisely the sales pitch.

If you grow fond of the slim step counter, for $1.99 Steps complements its service with a calories tracker.

• Device support: iPhone
• Widget: Yes (Steps, Progress)
• Notable features: daily goals
• Cost: free ($1.99 premium)

StepsApp

StepsApp will tickle your fancy for various reasons, most likely though because of its breadth of customization abilities, especially with regard to your daily goals and notifications along the way. To give you an idea, you can flick on or off notifications for steps, calories, distance, time, weekly reports and an app icon badge. It additionally boasts the option to alter colors inside the app (limited until you go premium), which even redesigns the app’s look on your iPhone’s Home screen. Nice little touch there, StepsApp.

That is just the tip of the iceberg though, and the foundation is equally solid: the app sports a beautiful interface including a monthly calendar view akin to Apple’s own activity app calendar, interesting diagrams and submits one of the best widgets on iPhone any app in this roundup has to offer.

What’s more is that on Apple Watch, StepsApp’s prowess (i.e. amount of data and breakdowns) comes close to rivalling Apple’s proprietary activity and exercise app, so much so that it can serve as a fully fledged outdoor GPS tracking device for walking and running. For $2.99, even more customization, Apple Health integration, and Apple Watch complications await.

• Device support: iPhone, Apple Watch
• Widget: Yes (Steps, Miles, kcal, Time, Graph)
• Notable features: app icon badge, various daily & weekly goals, app customization, calories, GPS tracking
• Cost: free ($2.99 premium)

Step Counter

Step Counter arguably tries to accomplish a little less at once, albeit rocking a design quirky enough to have earned a spot in our list. Unlike the majority of step trackers, Step Counter asks you to select a character and matching attire first, presuming that a personalized avatar is going to funnel extra inspiration and ultimately motivation.

Once completed, the app emulates a fairly plain step counter sans notable bells and whistles. Such being the case, you will get steps and distance measurements, plus gratis hourly breakdowns. Furthermore, step, calories and distance goals can be adjusted and notifications hooked up to help you meet them as you go. Contrary to what some freemium apps at first skimp on, Step Counter is fully integrated into HealthKit from the get-go.

Conversely, they too are guilty of holding back some items to sway you in the direction of the $1.99 in-app upgrade, most pertinently calories analytics and personalized goals. Irrespective of redeeming the entry ticket or not, Step counter does not come with an Apple Watch application or a tailor-made widget for your iPhone.

• Device support: iPhone
• Widget: No
• Notable features: personal avatar, hourly breakdowns  steps and distance
• Cost: free ($1.99 premium)

Honorable Mention

Wokamon 

Before we draw the curtain on this, one final app for you to consider goes by the name of Wokamon. If the success of Pokemon Go has proven anything last year, it would be that above all else, gamifying walks is going to get certain people off the couch. If you are guilty of the need for instant gratification, Wokamon could be the one app closest to a regular step tracker appealing to you. Start by walking to hatch an egg, subsequently keep logging steps to grow and foster your digital pet. Wokamon even features a weekly breakdown of your steps, so by any standards it sure is a pedometer, if slightly whacky at that.

• Cost: free (in-app purchases)

Conclusion

It is easy to get lost in the vast ocean of pedometers out there, and in the likely event that you bank on an application not featured in our roundup, as mentioned earlier, don’t hesitate to fill us in!

Apart from that, the time has come to download one of the apps above, put on some walkable shoes and rediscover the joys of the great outdoors!

"The best iPhone apps for tracking steps" is an article by iDownloadBlog.com.
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Categories: Misc

Why were insurers so hot and bothered for HIT

Balloon Juice - 1 hour 16 min ago

Dylan Scott in Vox yesterday looked at what the health insurance lobby got from not actively fighting against the BCRA/AHCA in the Senate:

The major health insurance companies made a tactical decision to work with Republicans on their plan to repeal and replace Obamacare rather than lobby to stop it….

For insurers, at least for now, there is a lot to like in the Senate plan. It repeals Obamacare’s tax on health plans, a $144 billion tax cut over 10 years, per an analysis of the House bill. It provides $50 billion in federal funding in the short term to shore up the private insurance market and $62 billion over the longer term for state programs that help stabilize their insurance markets.

I don’t grok this.

I’m looking at things through the lens of profitability not total revenue.

The individual market so far has been a break even at best business for most insurers. 2017 is looking better with very low MLR in quite a few states for a wide variety of providers. But it is not boringly profitable. Medicaid managed care is boringly profitable. A barely competent MCO should scrape out a consistent 1% or 2% per year. When I worked at UPMC Health Plan, we budgeted for 2% profits and as I was leaving we were looking at 5%+ profitability for FY17. Medicaid is getting whacked. One of the first things states will do to compensate for less federal funding is squeeze MCO profit margins by reducing rates while mandating a year to hold providers harmless. Medicaid anyways is a much bigger market than the individual market.

The thing that I really don’t get is the push to eliminate the health premium tax. It is a tax that all fully insured plans pay. This basically means small and medium group employer sponsored plans, individual policies, and Medicare Advantage plans pay. Large, self insured, employer groups don’t pay, traditional Medicare fee for Service does not pay. If we assume a perfectly elastic market, I could see the self-interested push to eliminate the tax as it would make going fully insured marginally less expensive than going to self-insured ASO contract arrangements for medium size employers or make Medicare Advantage bids slightly more attractive. But in the individual market all of the carriers in the 2018 rate filings indicate that the insurers assume it is a market with low elasticity of demand. The tax incidence is overwhelmingly borne by the buyer and does not eat into the operating margins of the insurer.

Most of the tax savings will accrue to the policy buyers not the insurers in competitive markets. In non-competitive markets like Alabama with a dominant Blue, more the tax savings can be captured by the insurer. But I am trying to figure out exactly how much more profitable this tax cut makes insurers. It will be billions but it will not be a hundred billion dollars of additional profitability.

I’m having a hard time grokking the actual incremental profitability that insurers got out of the BCRA compared to the assured losses they will be taking on Medicaid managed care cuts.

Categories: Politics

Netflix Launches New 'Interactive Shows' That Let Viewers Dictate the Story

Slashdot - 2 hours 14 min ago
Netflix announced that it's launching an all-new interactive format that turns viewers in storytellers, letting them dictate each choice and direction the story takes. "In each interactive title, you can make choices for the characters, shaping the story as you go," according to Netflix. "Each choice leads to a different adventure, so you can watch again and again, and see a new story each time." The Next Web reports: The first two interactive shows that will be available on Netflix are Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale and Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile. Puss in Book launches globally today, with Buddy Thunderstruck slated to make its debut a month from now on July 14. The new experience will be available on most television setups and iOS devices. "Content creators have a desire to tell non-linear stories like these, and Netflix provides the freedom to roam, try new things and do their best work," Product Innovation director Carla Fisher said. "The intertwining of our engineers in Silicon Valley and the creative minds in Hollywood has opened up this new world of storytelling possibilities." Fisher further added that, for the time being, the streaming service will be mainly focusing its efforts on producing interactive content for children -- especially since their research has shown that they already tend to be prone to interacting with the screen.

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Categories: Misc

On The Road

Balloon Juice - 3 hours 14 min ago

Good Morning All,

This weekday feature is for Balloon Juicers who are on the road, travelling, etc. and wish to share notes, links, pictures, stories, etc. from their escapades. As the US mainland begins the end of the Earth day as we measure it, many of us rise to read about our friends and their transient locales.

So, please, speak up and share some of your adventures, observations, and sights as you explore, no matter where you are. By concentrating travel updates here, it’s easier for all to keep up-to-date on the adventures of our fellow Commentariat. And it makes finding some travel tips or ideas from 6 months ago so much easier to find…

Have at ’em, and have a safe day of travels!

 

Should you have any pictures (tasteful, relevant, etc….) you can email them to picstopost@balloon-juice.com or just use this nifty link to start an email: Start an Email to send a Picture to Post on Balloon Juice

 

Two Blue Damselflies

Two Blue Damselflies, Colorado

This was my pond, and these damselflies were born and raised in it. It was scary the first time I ran into the aquatic stage of this glorious creature – they look like mean-ass water bugs you shouldn’t mess with. I learned to carefully preserve them when I did major pond cleanings to ensure their lives weren’t snuffed out too soon.

 

And now, back to Italy….

The grand finale (for now!) of JRinWV’s diary and picture album:

 

I’m reprinting the entire diary because I hurt my eye today and I would prefer to rest it, so figuring out what I’ve published before isn’t as easy as normal.

Trip log of our travel to Italy in May, 2017.

We departed Monday morning, May 8th,and met friends we were traveling with in Atlanta, where we boarded Air France flights to Paris connecting to Florence, Italy. I was interested to learn that in Italy, Florence is actually Firenze. All the signage refers to Firenze, they don’t admit that Florence is a name of their city at all.

We flew overnight, after a good meal in Preferred Economy class. Air France does a good job with everyone who flies with them. We arrived in Firenze Tuesday morning, and took the shuttle to the rental car mall nearby, where a BMW station wagon was reserved for us. It was OK, had just enough room for 4 adults and the luggage.

I had an International Drivers License, $23 from AAA. Mike had rented cars in England, where they allow one to use their national driver’s license for up to 6 months, unlike the rest of the EU. So I was the designated driver, as the only person with the right papers. We had a hell of a hard time getting onto the southbound freeway, A1 Sud towards Sienna. We had a tablet with directions, and the car came with a GPS map too.

We found A1 repeatedly, but never at an interchange. We did get to see many out-of-the-way spots in Firenze, that most tourists never see. Finally, we were nearing what appeared to be an interchange, I looked over the maps while Mike went to talk to a service station guy. Success!

We drove south to the Poggibonsi Sud exit, and followed both the directions from Riserva di Fizzano as well as the map on the BMW’s dashboard, with no further trouble. The resort was ancient looking, but modern under neath. A big rose garden of yellow roses, very efficient and pleasant staff at the registration desk, apartments rather than little rooms, and a wonderful view from a high ridge top location.

We ate at the Fizzano dining room that first night, and crashed early. The next day, Wednesday, we visited the winery Rocca della Macie of which Reserve di Fizzano is one of the vineyards. We went to Castellino in Chianti before the winery tour, had a good lunch, saw that it was an interesting medieval town with shops, banks, a hospital, a rebuilt ridgetop fortress with a museum in it, etc.

Castellino in Chianti was a walled city on a steep ridge top, and today there’s a street that was beside the city wall that’s now roofed over with dwellings and small commercial shops. It’s dark, but lit with lamps in the floor and such. There are arrow slits, narrow vertical openings on the outside of the wall, but wide inside to allow archers and later marksmen to shoot at a wide field of fire, while making it difficult for attackers to hit someone inside the wall. This is common in European cities of this age.

Many of the shops aim at the tourist trade, but at least as many are local shops with food and sundries for daily life.

At the winery, which receives grapes from several local vineyards, the buildings are large stoneworks, with a giant steel statue of a rooster in the courtyard, roosters played a part in settling a dispute without outright warfare hundreds of years ago, so many genuine branded Chianti wines receive the right to use a rooster on their wine bottles.

A very pleasant woman took the four of us (Martha and I, Mike and Ruth) and a friendly Swiss couple around their 7 million bottles a year operation. Vats beside a drive-through that surrounds the main buildings receive grapes, and gently crush them as they move them into the machinery. The juice is pumped into large outdoor vertical steel tanks for the first fermentation, and then horizontal steel tanks in the cellars, then finally large oak barrels from Croatian oak for the aging of the majority of the wine.

All these large vats and barrels can be entered by a slender agile person for scrubbing and washing. The oak barrels are also abraded between uses to allow the oak to be penetrated by the wine to flavor the wine more quickly.

The best wine, though, got a longer spell in smaller French oak barrels, smaller so there is a larger ratio of oak surface to a volume of wine. Lots of discussion of the flavors the different oak barrels pass to the wine as it ages. After the tour of the winery, we sat down to taste the wines produced, from least expensive to most. They were all good, and got better as we went along.

It’s a well planned marketing effort, including the tours, discussion of the different wines and flavors, drinking lots of tiny glasses of different wines, then a sales pitch to have cases shipped home. Mike and Ruth took advantage of the sales offer at Rocca della Macie, Martha and I did not.

That night the Reserva di Fizzano restaurant, not having a reservation for us, wasn’t able to serve us, so we drove back to Castellino di Chianti and ate in one of the small restaurants on the pedestrian street there.

All the food we ate in Italy was good, some was of course better than others.

Despite a huge search, we were unable to find any bad wine either!

The next day was our scheduled Tuscan cooking lesson, at a farm called Tenuta Casanova, where the wine was organic, without sulfides. They also produced balsamic vinegar aged from 8 years to 30 years, as well as virgin olive oil, and essential oils from lavender, rosemary, and other herbs.

The farm was founded by Stephan who was a retired Veterinarian and his wife Rita? who taught the cooking class. There were peacocks, chickens, and pigs, mostly corralled away from the guests. Stephan hunts for truffles, an underground mushroom that comes in two varieties, black and white, with the necessary aid of a “truffle hunting” dog, who was very affectionate with everyone.

We started out in the cellars below the house, where dozens of oak barrels were full of organic wine aging slowly in the cool underground. Then he showed us the cellar where wine was aged into balsamic vinegar. Those barrels each had an opening in the top of the horizontal barrel, covered with a cloth. This allowed the wine to both work with native yeasts and to evaporate slowly, so that a barrel that started with 90 gallons of wine would after 8 years have half as much vinegar, and after 30 years would have a tenth as much vinegar as wine they started with.

Rita had a young assistant who helped teach the class, Francesca, who washed dishes and translated into English. Really, both of them knew the curriculum cold and led us through the many recipes so that no one could make a real mistake.

We worked to make pasta and bread dough, which was used for Ciaccino, with a variety of flavorings. The pasta was cut into fettuccine and used to make ravioli with cheese and spinach filling. We also made Tiramisu for dessert, which was among the best Tiramisu we had in Tuscany.

Along with all the dishes we made, we were served all the various wines made at the farm, and desert was both the Tiramisu we made that morning as well as vanilla ice cream with 30 year old balsamic vinegar – as odd as that sounds, it was a great contrasting set of flavors. All in all a great experience. And at the end, we were provided with a handy order sheet to have our choice of their wines, vinegars, olive oil, truffle oil and essential herbal oils shipped to our home address.

This time we went with the inevitable and picked out most of the flavors to have at home with friends and neighbors.

That evening we had most excellent left overs for supper as darkness came over the Riserva di Fizzoni. And a bottle of excellent Italian Tuscan wine, of course.

The next day, after an excellent breakfast of pastries, cheeses, meats, fresh squeezed orange juice, and fruits, we went to spend the day at Castellino di Chianti – to take advantage of the entire town, its historic opportunities, shopping, the ancient tombs, the views from the high ridgetop, and a great lunch, perhaps the best meal we had in Italy.

We paid the parking fee, which you do at an automated machine that produces a parking permit when you feed it the proper amount of Euros… then you put the permit on your windshield, inside the car, so the municipal polizia know not to write you a ticket. Then we walked slowly up the street towards the museum, inside the original fortress on a high spot along the ridge.

The first part of the walk was on a now roofed over street right beside the fortress wall around the city of Castellino di Chianti – almost like a tunnel, with lights both overhead and in the floor. And the arrow slits in the city wall let in some daylight. And the tunnel like walkway was really clean! Sweet.

Then we found the Museum. Museo Archeologico del Chianti Senese to be specific. We had been looking for it the past couple of days we had visited the little town, and finally strolled up a hilly street from the through pedestrian walkway, and there it was. Towering over the town.

The Museo was primarily the site for remnants found around an Etruscan tomb on a nearby hilltop. The tomb – aka Tumulo di Montecalvario – is four burial chambers on the cardinal directions, on a hill top just north of town, the highest point for miles. The tombs were robbed long ago, but as usual, many important scientific bits were left, and used by archaeologists to add to the little bit we know about the Etruscan culture.

Of course, for any ancient culture there is little we can know about them. These folks cared a good bit about their leaders, and worked their tails off to build them a vault where they could rest in safety. The current occupants have created a nice park at the Tumulo, a circular railing around the hill top, with the four tombs excavated and left open, anyone can walk into the ancient tombs and see the stone work done by folks thousands of years ago.

We have no idea whose tombs these were, but given the difficulty of making a living back in 800BCE, we know that a huge amount of work was invested in making their afterlife a comfortable thing for their descendants to remember.

They had some nice things left in the tombs, even the tiny bit of things left today was interesting. The pottery and adornments, the pitcher and chariot pieces showed a rich and productive life was led by the Etruscans, as far as we can tell. They are one of the more mysterious cultures left for us to puzzle about. Along with the Cathars of SW France.

We toured the museum, which had first a well-done exhibit of the remnants of Etruscan culture found on the hill tops, and then you could climb and climb up stairs ’til you come out on the rooftop, with views for Kilometers in every direction. There was also a display paying homage to the town orchestra, with some old instruments still in good shape. The old fortress was converted into a good museum covering the town’s history for the past 2900 years or so. And then we left to find the Tumulo de Montecalvario on the hill just North North West of the Museum.

It wasn’t really hot that day, but once you walked uphill for 45 minutes, being an old fart, you could work up a sweat. Luckily the tombs were in the shade of pine trees planted a generation or two ago. Most of us looked into most of the tombs, some of us not at all, some of us only for the bigger and more interesting buildings, which were very interesting. After an hour or so on site, we headed back to town for lunch and a beer.

Interestingly, the small nearby restaurant was really popular with both local folks and the visitors from far away. It was the best presentation of good food we saw in Tuscany.

The next day we headed for Firenza, with our Hotel keyed into the Google Maps application. Once we turned off the A1 highway, it got really confusing really fast.c There is nothing like trying to drive in a city “designed” for carts, horses, and men on foot! Two hours later we knew we were close, and Mike and Ruth got out to search door to door for the hotel. As designated driver, I was sort of parked in a bus stop, which lead to much horn blowing, so I drove away, after promising to meet there asap.

The tablet navigator told me to turn right and right and right, and we still weren’t where we were trying to get to. Eventually we reached the final destination. Hotel Spadia~!! Between a tiny shop and a corner beer joint/snack bar there was a pair of sleek glass sliding doors, no more than 10 feet wide, with a discreet sign. State of the art moderne hidden in a medieval stone building.

A bell man showed up a cart for the luggage, and all that was left was to find the rental car return garage nearby, some where. The tablet with talking Google Maps directions was no more help than before, with little idea of one way streets we couldn’t enter. We wound up going around the block if I missed a turn on a round-about, and the block we went around was composed of two bridged across the River Arno! Mike was helpful as in retrospect he could figure out wnat we had done wrong the last time we came to the same place, so we could figure out what to do differently the second or third time.

After finally finding the return location, they told us to drive “just around the corner, a right and a right!!!” to the actual garage, which we did actually drive right to, although the “just a right and a right” was a typical exageration! But they accepted the black station wagon, and called us a cab… 3 minutes they said, it would be here in three minutes.

And it was. Every time, the Taxi showed up in 3 or 4 minutes. The best organized bit of Italian culture we saw while we were there.

And the women, Martha and Ruth, were waiting with Prosecco in their hands when we got back. They had also wrangled an upgrade of our rooms, no charge, to rooms with free mini-bars and giant Jacuzzi tubs along with a glass waterfall shower. It was pretty swanky, with a lounge where they covered the bar with tapas style munchies during happy hour, and actually had real Bourbon, Makers Mark and Buffalo Trace.

Upstairs they served a very complete European breakfast from 8 until 10, IIRC, with cappachino, expresso, tea, juices, yogurt and fresh fruit, bacon and eggs, rattatouille, various great breads and rolls with and without fillings. No charge. Actually, I never got charged for the drinks at the lounge, either. Mike may have picked that up. Two days later when we checked out, I owed 18 Euros for some kind of room tax, that was it. When they said the trip was all inclusive when we bought it, they were not kidding!

That first night in Firenze we walked around the square across the street from the Hotel Spadio, and looked at the street market at the far end of the square, Martha stepped into a couple of leather goods shops, one of which had a salesman who was VERY persistant, would not let go. Mike and I found a bench in the first shop next door, and were offered yet more Prosecco while we waited for the shopping to conclude, which was pretty quickly, really.

We didn’t come to shop, we came to fine out about wine and food and history, and mission accomplished!

Back in Castellino in Chianti, there was a war memorial… we were curious, and Mike and Ruth discovered that it was mostly dedicated to World War I, the war to end all war! There was a small side plaque that informed the world that Italy was valorous in overthrowing the fasciests and fighting for freedom at the end of World War Two, which was true as far as it went. There’s some history for you.

But back in Firenzia there was a butt-ton of history on every building’s corner. And Mike and Ruth had just read Dan Brown’s successful novel Inferno which appears to be about Firenzi, the Medici rulers of the city for three hundred years, a pretty good run in old time Italy, which was fought over by various European powers like two big dogs over a very juicy bone. Evidently, in to the novel, the Medici rulers had a “secret” passage from their home fortress on one side of the River Arno, to the city’s ruling palacio fortress, which ran through buildings and across streets, AND across the Ponte Vecchio bridge, on top of the many shops built on the sides of the big bridge.

And in truth, there is a connection between the top of the Ponte Veccio to ther buildings on both ends of the bridge, and there are many short bridges between buildings above the streets all over the old town. Obviously, not terribly secret, but also quite secure compared to walking on the thronged streets.

Every two blocks there appears another basillica or cathedral or giant Abbey, with different styles.

1000290 Etruscan jars in Castellina in Chiati museum

1000290 Etruscan jars in Castellina in Chiati museum

 

1000296 Etruscan potsherds in Castellina in Chianti museum

1000296 Etruscan potsherds in Castellina in Chianti museum

 

1000299 Etruscan bronze figurine, about 15 cm tall

1000299 Etruscan bronze figurine, about 15 cm tall

 

1000307 Etruscan bronze pitcher about 30 cm tall

1000307 Etruscan bronze pitcher about 30 cm tall

 

1000308 Etruscan bracelet, silver_ or bronze 3-4 cm tall

1000308 Etruscan bracelet, silver_ or bronze 3-4 cm tall

 

1000309 Arrow slit in Castellina Fortress

1000309 Arrow slit in Castellina Fortress

 

1000320 Fortress courtyard - well into cistern

1000320 Fortress courtyard – well into cistern

 

1000323 Etruscan war chariot reconstructed from brass at dig

1000323 Etruscan war chariot reconstructed from brass at dig

 

1000325 Etruscan war chariot reconstructed from brass fittings

1000325 Etruscan war chariot reconstructed from brass fittings

 

1000335 Arrow slit in upper level of Fortress in Castellina in Chianti

1000335 Arrow slit in upper level of Fortress in Castellina in Chianti

 

1000351 Etruscan War Chariot closeup

1000351 Etruscan War Chariot closeup

 

1000222 Balsamic vinegar aging 8-30 years in Tenuta Casa Nova

1000222 Balsamic vinegar aging 8-30 years in Tenuta Casa Nova

 

1000274 Peacock at Tenuta Casa Nova

1000274 Peacock at Tenuta Casa Nova

 

1000286 Municipal fortress museum of Castellina in Chianti

1000286 Municipal fortress museum of Castellina in Chianti

 

1000287 Etruscan carving in Castellina in Chianti museum

1000287 Etruscan carving in Castellina in Chianti museum

 

1000611 Ponte Vecchio Bridge

1000611 Ponte Vecchio Bridge

 

1000622 Ponte Vecchio collonade

1000622 Ponte Vecchio collonade

 

1000693 DaVinci Art film projected on all surfaces of a performance space

1000693 DaVinci Art film projected on all surfaces of a performance space

 

1000698 Da Vinci painting _Lady Holding an Ermine_ projected onto a crucifix

1000698 Da Vinci painting _Lady Holding an Ermine_ projected onto a crucifix

 

1000699 Crossing the Ponte Vecchio Bridge

1000699 Crossing the Ponte Vecchio Bridge

 

1000703 Across the Ponte Vecchio bridge to the south Old City

1000703 Across the Ponte Vecchio bridge to the south Old City

 

1000710 residential neighborhood near the Plazzo Piti

1000710 residential neighborhood near the Plazzo Piti

 

1000716 Back of the Pitti Palazzo - seat of the rulers of Florence

1000716 Back of the Pitti Palazzo – seat of the rulers of Florence

 

1000717 defaced ancient art, in the back yard of the Pitti Palazzo

1000717 defaced ancient art, in the back yard of the Pitti Palazzo

 

1000717 defaced ancient art, in the back yard of the Pitti Palazzo

1000717 defaced ancient art, in the back yard of the Pitti Palazzo

 

San Gimignano, 15 Km from Riserva di Fizzano

San Gimignano, 15 Km from Riserva di Fizzano

 

1000580 Church across the river

1000580 Church across the river

 

1000581 The River Arno in Florence

1000581 The River Arno in Florence

 

1000598 Bridge over the River Arno in Florence

1000598 Bridge over the River Arno in Florence

 

1000601 Famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge with buildings and upper story in Dan Brown fiction

1000601 Famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge with buildings and upper story in Dan Brown fiction

 

Thank you for that amazing submission JR – I hope we have more to look forward to! Now I need to go rest my eye.

 

Have a great day and weekend everyone. I plan a bunch of catch-up photos from a number of folks Monday and Wednesday, with Tuesday and Thursday devoted to catching up on so many of Le Comte de Monte Cristo’s fantastic submissions.

Categories: Politics

Plato

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"Man - a being in search of meaning."
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John Dryden

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"Words are but pictures of our thoughts."
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Charlotte Bronte

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"Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs."
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Sophocles

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"Our happiness depends on wisdom all the way."
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Helen Keller

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"What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us."
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Josh Billings

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"Love looks through a telescope; envy, through a microscope."
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Dalai Lama

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"Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive."
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Gilbert Parker

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"Imagination is at the root of much that passes for love."
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