Sunday, July 16, 2017

Someone else’s need

The Atlantic has published a lengthy article about the current debate in the Conservative Jewish movement over interfaith marriages. While this is clearly an important debate to many people in the Conservative movement, there aren’t very many people left in the Conservative movement. Perhaps it’s because the Conservative movement has spent decades driving away enormous segments of its membership.

Rabbi David Wolpe is quoted in the article as saying “I don’t necessarily feel that someone else’s need is my obligation. Someone else may need a rabbi to bless that union, or may want a rabbi to bless that union. It doesn’t mean that I have to do it.”

That is the exact attitude that rabbis and synagogue leaders decry in the unaffiliated and the underaffiliated. People do not join synagogues or do not provide enough money or time to keep synagogues afloat, saying “I don’t necessarily feel that someone else’s need is my obligation. Someone else may need or want a synagogue to feel connected to a Jewish community, to provide Jewish education for children or adults, to offer worship services or social services, or to help with major life events and transitions. It doesn’t mean that I have to support a synagogue.”

I certainly cannot persuade someone who has no need for a synagogue that they should personally support a synagogue. I feel I can make a reasonable case to someone who does sometimes need or want a synagogue, as long as rabbis and synagogue leaders are not actively dismissing them. The quote from Rabbi Wolpe, on the other hand, makes that case much harder to make. I am sure he would be able to explain why I should not expect him to extend his logic to refusing to lead a funeral or refusing to counsel a congregant, though I do not see that distinction in his quote.

Someone else’s need is not my obligation.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Onwards

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” —Deuteronomy 30:19

Prioritizing people’s lives over convenience should not be a difficult or controversial position for a synagogue to take. Yet our synagogue has refused to stop serving nuts and mango at events connected to the Hebrew School, despite knowing that doing so endangers our child’s life. After over two years of discussions, endless meetings, and broken promises, it is clear that the synagogue has other priorities.

The synagogue watched a child in their Hebrew School have to leave family programs in tears on two separate occasions because they decided to serve nuts or mango in the middle of the program. The Chanukah party was also directly connected to the Hebrew School, but our request to make that party nut-free was met with overt hostility rather than any shred of concern for ensuring the safety of our child.

In the minds of many people in the synagogue leadership, it is fine to continue to exclude a child with life-threatening food allergies from active participation in synagogue life. It is more important that they be able to serve foods with nuts at every Tot Shabbat than to allow that child to be welcome and included at onegs and kiddushes. It is more important that they be able to serve mango sorbet than to allow that child to play with other children afterwards. It is more important to avoid any additional thought or possible inconvenience than to care about a vulnerable member of the community. Instead they are willing to tell a child that his life is unimportant and does not have inherent worth.

That does not reflect any values that I recognize as Jewish, human, or decent.

The synagogue leadership has spoken repeatedly about how the rabbi has a responsibility to make the synagogue into a community of chesed, of caring. But the rabbi is not the Wizard of Oz who will make this tin man synagogue discover that it had a heart all along. He can talk about the value of welcoming and including others all he wants, but he will never truly reach people who focus on Otherness and do not start out with a true interest in being welcoming or inclusive, people who do not have a core of caring to start with.

The synagogue leadership is not monolithic. But sadly, it has now transitioning from non-functional to non-existent. I've come to lectures and classes and services and family events for 5 years, I've donated hundreds of hours of my own time to the synagogue over the past 2 years of being on the board, and there are many people I will miss seeing. But David is now old enough to start seeing the world as it could be in addition to seeing the world as it is, and to understand that individual people are responsible for making decisions that hurt him, that exclude him, or that risk his life. It is vital for his sake that he know that I am not one of those people.

When we formally converted our child to Judaism, we promised to raise him in a Jewish community. Calling this synagogue a Jewish community makes a mockery of Jewish values and of the term “community.” The Jewish values I was raised with, the values I still hold, insist that I leave.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Choice in health care

Choice is such an important term in health care. People want to choose their doctors, their treatment options, their hospitals, and their insurance plans. Every informed consent form spells out the alternative to make it clear that you made a choice to consent.

Choice is a proxy for agency, the notion that we control our destinies. We believe that if we get to make choices, we will make the right choices. We will find better doctors, more effective treatment options, kinder hospitals that will soothe us and salve us. Placebo effects suggest that this belief can actually be important.

We extend this preference for choice into insurance plans to our own detriment. Insurance plans are deliberately complex, designed to limit care and limit payments for care. It can be very difficult to understand all the details of the insurance plan you have, let alone all the plans you might choose among. Choosing an insurance plan also requires you to guess at your future health needs, which are inherently unpredictable. You may be able to make reasonable guesses, but serious injuries and severe acute illnesses are unplanned.

Our employer-based insurance allows us to choose among four plans, all with an identical provider network and similar plan limitations. Choosing is made easier by knowing that we have chronic illnesses in our family which require expensive care, and by knowing that shifting thousands of dollars from premiums to out-of-pocket expenses allows us to seek third-party reimbursement for some expected medical expenses. (Would you rather pay $10,000 in premiums and $4000 for specific care, or $4000 in premiums and $10,000 for specific care? That’s an easy choice if you know that half of your specific care might get reimbursed.) Despite that, there are two plans out of the four that could make sense for our family, and no way to be certain which was the right choice until after the year is completed.

Choosing between plans with different provider networks is far more error-prone. You may know one or more of the doctors you expect to see regularly, and should choose a plan which includes those doctors. You may be fortunate enough to have them continue practicing and stay in network for the entire year. But a new medical condition may require one or more new specialists, and even in a doctor-rich area like Boston there may only be one specialist who is the right one to see. How can you possibly know ahead of time which specialist you will need for a condition you don’t yet have, and confirm that they will be in your insurance network?

There are also many medical specialties and situations where you have no choice in provider. The canoncial four specialties where providers often refuse to join networks because they are reimbursed far more being out-of-network are radiology, anesthesia, pathology, and emergency room care. Those happen to also be specialties where the patient typically has no choice in who is providing the care. Being in a hospital is also a vulnerable time when you have no control over who is providing the care. You may never even meet the person who will be billing your insurance, and then you.

The flip side of telling people that they have choices in health care is assigning them blame when those “choices” don’t turn out optimally. Lousy doctor? You should have chosen a different one. Side effects from medication? You should have read the pages of boilerplate warnings.

And that blame gets worse with insurance catastrophes. We can tell ourselves and each other that we would not have ended up seeing a provider who is not in our network, or that we would have chosen a different insurance plan that had the right network, or the right limits on the right services, or the right assortment of deductibles and coinsurance and copays. When we tell that tale in a year when we ourselves had few serious or unexpected medical issues, it has the ring of truth. That just makes the falseness of it all the more pernicious.

It doesn’t have to work this badly, but the plans being floated -- plans to allow more choices in insurance plans with smaller networks, plans to allow balance billing even in network (a long-time favorite idea from Tom Price), plans to shatter the core of Medicare into a voucher system paying into a fractured assortment of privatized plans -- those plans make the situation worse. We end up with more risk, more expenses, more medical bankruptcies, and more blame assigned to people who “made the wrong choice” when they discovered their plan didn’t adequately cover the newly discovered cancer, or the birth defect, or the premature baby, or the medicine they suddenly need that costs $100,000 per year.

Don’t fall for these sorts of changes. Work for health insurance for everyone, with no annual limits, no lifetime limits, no balance billing, no narrow networks, and no constantly shifting exclusions. Work for a public option, for single payer, for transparent and reasonable pricing, for affordable cost-sharing, for sane financial policies, and for choices that provide benefits rather than blame. Work for an end to medical bankruptcies, so if you like your house, you can keep it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Why shovel? and ice dam info

Today was the first day that really felt like winter here. Even with the dusting of snow on the ground Monday morning, the air on Monday just wasn’t as brisk as today.

We have a roof rake. We have ice melt. We have a shovel, and we probably have ice scrapers for the cars. And our neighbor just got a snowblower and says he’s looking forward to doing the whole block.

But we don’t have Heat Trak mats for our front steps. Those look convenient.

Update February 19, 2017:

The second winter after having our roof redone, it started leaking into our enclosed porch again. We think that it wasn’t through the roof itself this time, but rather from behind the gutters. The gutters filled with ice, the melting snow from higher up pushed its way backwards through the fascia and soffit boards, and came in dripping from the soffit boards inside the porch. Unlike 2 years ago, there was no water coming in through the porch ceiling.

Even if our house were completely unheated, we would have snow melt on our roof because of sunshine. With the right combination of cold temperatures and snow melt, the front gutter will gradually fill with ice and create a larger and larger block of ice.

We need to replace the fascia and soffit boards when we rebuild the front porch, and we need to replace the beat-up gutters anyway. Hopefully with a proper pitch to the soffit boards and a sane flashing approach, we can keep the water that backs up behind an iced-up gutter from backing into the porch itself. In part, that requires a contractor who understands that the gutter will ice up, that snow will melt, and that we want a backup plan for keeping the water outside.

I’ve also been looking into heat tape or heat cable for the gutter and downspouts. There are two basic types of heat cable: constant wattage, and self-regulating. We want self-regulating. We also want some sort of sanity control that turns it off if the weather is warm or if there’s no snow, so it’s not using power when it’s not needed. Perhaps a wifi-interactive switch would help.

If we want to melt ice on the eaves, there’s lots of panel choices shown here:
http://www.meltyourice.com/wp-content/uploads/Product-selection-guide1.jpg

Here are some other useful local links:
http://www.heaterzone.com/Roof_Gutter_De_Icing_Heater_Cable_s/36.htm?gclid=CNTz38WFm9ICFY6KswodJ7kGtA
http://www.moonworkshome.com/gutters/
http://www.negutterkings.com/products/gutter-protection/

Moonworks and NE Gutter Kings both offer gutter caps that can have heat cable run through them, which seems helpful in terms of distributing the area that can melt.

In general with gutters, we want to look at materials options and size options. Larger size seems better, given that the majority of the overly large house roof goes down to a total span of 25 feet of gutter. We want strong, because we don’t want ladders to damage the gutters. Would fiberglass or nylon be strong enough? Would the heat transfer characteristics be better or worse for preventing ice build-up and for letting the heat cable work?

How far out of the downspouts do we want to run the heat cable?

Where should the outlet and switch be for ease of installing heat cables?

Do we want cleanouts to create escape paths for water? Removable gutters for the winter? Rain chains instead of downspouts?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Make the investors unhappy

When would you be willing to go to jail? What would be so worth protesting that you would give up your liberty and maim your future in order to speak out?

But wait. What would going to jail accomplish?

Does it increase your credibility once you regain your voice?

Does it amplify your message?

Are the people who run our justice system and our jails going to be horrified at jailing you or a thousand like you? Are you human to them in a way that millions of others are not? Are you immune from vilification? From lies and smears and innuendo and mockery and disbelief and dehumanization?

Will our justice system and our jails be overwhelmed by the vast numbers of protestors? In this existing and scalable system of mass incarceration, the largest in human history, will so many people join you that the cells will fill and no more will be able to be built?

Will the cries from broken families reach the privileged who have not had to hear the cries from hundreds of thousands of families torn asunder by our deportation of millions over the past two decades?

You may not be able to avoid jail. You may decide to engage in meaningful speech or action that puts you at risk of being jailed (whether you realized it or not), where jail is a side effect. But do not kid yourself that jail itself is a practical or even impractical path to resistance or change.

Find another path.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-09/private-prison-stocks-are-surging-after-trump-s-win

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Rig sailboats, not elections

Yes, our elections are rigged. Not by people faking the results as they count ballots, but by the rules that prevent too many people from voting to start with.

Voter id laws are specifically designed to drive down the ability to vote for the less privileged. The biggest effect is to suppress voting for racial minorities. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/voting-rights-court-decisions-racism/493937/

Closing polling places creates obstacles for people with less free time and fewer transportation options, suppressing votes from the less privileged. Choosing which polling places to close based on demographics or voting patterns is even worse. https://www.thenation.com/article/there-are-868-fewer-places-to-vote-in-2016-because-the-supreme-court-gutted-the-voting-rights-act/

Every presidential election, there are stories about people waiting in line for hours to vote. Those stories are overwhelmingly from urban areas, and it suppresses votes from minority populations and from the less privileged.

And decades of mass incarceration overwhelmingly targeting the black community, combined with laws removing the right to vote from those in jail and those who have already served their time, has created enormous racial disparities in who is allowed to vote.

Every registration deadline is an unnecessary hurdle. Every obstacle to early voting and absentee voting suppresses votes. Every flimsy excuse used to toss voter registrations and every even flimsier excuse to toss ballots is a failure to respect democracy.

Having 50 states running 50 different voting systems could be a wonderful laboratory for experimenting and figuring out how to increase voting rates, but instead is being used to develop more and more precise ways to reduce voting rates among less privileged populations. And every disparity in how voting works across the country makes it harder to have a sensible conversation about how voting should work.

And then there’s the Electoral College, which is weighted to ensure that people who live in small states and rural states have a larger voice than people who live in large states and urban states. Maine gets 4 votes in the Electoral College. The population of Massachusetts is 5 times the population of Maine, but we don’t get 20 votes in the Electoral College. We get 11.

We could solve this. We could demand a Voting Rights amendment to the Constitution. We could ensure that everyone who wants to vote has a reasonable chance to vote, and that your opportunity to vote does not vary dramatically depending on where you live. We could insist that voting matters because a government’s legitimacy depends on consent of the governed. We could insist that voting matters because a population that has a voice is more engaged in the necessary shared task of living together. And with time, we might even collectively start to believe it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wait, now they recommend car seats?

When David was a newborn, we carefully followed the AAP recommendations about how to avoid SIDS: no crib bumpers, put down on his back for sleeping, nothing else in the crib for the first year. I heard plenty from prior parents of newborns about how different the recommendations were, and I heard the doubt in their voices (whether it was intended or imagined on my part) about whether these recommendations were really necessary. How could they doubt, I wondered. Human knowledge advances, and of course we should follow the latest advice.

Now AAP recommends that newborns sleep in the same room as the parents for the first year. And here I am doubting the new recommendation, or possibly just feeling the gut-level punch of being told we hadn’t done the best we could as parents. We put David in his own room across the hall after about a month, and we know we all got more sleep that way. But if this recommendation had been in place five years ago, we would have taken it as the current gospel, and we would never have known any differently. I know that, just like I’ve always known that recommendations would continue to change. Maybe I just figured it would take longer than 5 years to start feeling like I belong to a previous and outdated generation of parents.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Why are j2 and efax so expensive?

Short answer: because customers don’t shop around.

If you want a simple voicemail line because you don’t want to use the voicemail service that came with your cell plan or your home line, Google Voice is free. Maxemail was $24 to $84/year. j2 and efax cost even more, if you can even get their voicemail service to work correctly. Why use j2 or efax?

If you want a simple fax line, Maxemail was $24 to $84/year. efax is over $200/year. You can see some other prices at www.faxcompare.com: typically $60 to $120/year. The cost for efax is through the roof.

What bonus do you get with efax? Semi-personalized trolling if you dare to criticize them publicly. And while efax might outsource their customer service to the lowest bidder in other countries, the efax troll could be someone in your own country! I’ve removed over 10 nasty comments from the efax troll just this past week. That kind of semi-personalize trolling service that efax provides costs money, so rest assured that the revenue from efax’s premium prices are being put to good use.

A smart troll would cost more. Perhaps when efax raises their prices again, they’ll be able to afford that.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Kids Footstop

Time for new shoes for David, and we had heard good things recently about Kids Footstop in Winchester. Those good things were right! Friendly and competent help, a nice selection of decent brands, and they carefully measured David’s feet with the same sort of Brannock device that I remember from when I was a kid. Turns out he’s currently a 12.5 with regular width, so aiming a little up for longer wear means either 12.5 in Tsukihoshi or 13 in most other brands. No wonder he was having trouble getting his size 11 Stride Rites on.

The Tsukihoshi shoes are machine washable and unbelievably lightweight, but don’t come with light-up options. The Skechers had an on/off switch for the lights, which we really liked the idea of, but the foodbed was too squishy. The Pediped shoes were waterproof, which would have been really nice for the winter, but they were too stiff and might have been a bit too tight across the toebox. The Stride Rites that he landed on, the same brand that he just wore out, have a very odd-looking tread that resembles rubber balls. He declared them “perfect!”

The price was pretty much the same as Zappo’s, with some assurance that he’s actually getting the right size shoe and a chance for him to try them on first. We could have saved a few dollars if we knew exactly what we wanted and shopped around online, and it would have been the wrong few dollars to save.

Reputation management, j2 style

Are you concerned about the reputation of your business? Do you want to know how to turn unhappy customers into your best asset? Well, j2 has the winning formula!

Keep unhappy customers focused on your business! A happy customer tells 3 others about your business, while an unhappy customer tells 100 others about your business. But sometimes 100 isn’t enough. If you can keep those unhappy customers thinking about your business, you can persuade them to expand their reach. Maybe they will keep writing about your business, and that’s marketing that you just can’t buy.

Demean your unhappy customers publicly! Call them names. Accuse them of being dishonest or stupid. Hurl the worst insults you can think of, like “feminist.” Don’t worry about changing the opinions of your unhappy customers. Your real audience is prospective future customers. They want to know how you treat your current customers, and this is your chance to show them what life will be like if they decide to go with your business.

Do not try to resolve complaints! Never show weakness in any way. If you decide that it’s really important to offer some sort of refund or compensation for having failed to provide the product or service you promised, then make sure to include a statement blaming the customer for your failure. Remember, an unhappy customer tells many more people about your business than a happy customer does, and how you respond to failure is what truly decides whether customers are happy or unhappy.

Do not listen to your customers! You know your business better than anyone else, so why would you listen to people who have different priorities? They will wind up diverting you from your real priorities. There is nothing you can learn from listening to your customers, because customers are notoriously focused on silly distractions like pricing, products and services, and customer service.

Ignore the Better Business Bureau! The BBB is an antiquated holdover from before customers could talk to each other directly and before sites like Ripoff Reports or Google. Nobody cares about an F rating from the BBB any longer.

Hide behind multiple business names! Shell games have a long and glorious history. If your customers can’t figure out whether you are j2, eFax, TrustFax, RapidFax, or lots of other names, they won’t be able to figure out where those pesky credit card charges are really coming from. And you can stop them from leaving for months by pretending that they are contacting the wrong company. Want to cancel? Oops, guess again!

If all else fails, you can always buy another competitor, jack up the prices, and hope that some of their customers are too busy to notice and find a better alternative.

Friday, September 30, 2016

An online chat with eFax (a j2 company)

Note: j2, which owns eFax and many other disreputable companies, has an F rating from the BBB with hundreds of complaints. Before you trust them with a credit card number, take a look at their Google search results.

 Stanley Kox: Hi, my name is Stanley Kox. How may I help you? 
 Michael: I am responding to your email saying that you have moved my service from Maxemail to eFax (both companies now say they are one company). I do not agree to the eFax terms and conditions. I have been saying this since your first warning that you were going to change the terms and conditions.

Regarding Account Number: [-----]
Fax Number: [-----]
Temporary Password: [-----]

As I have said before by email and by phone, I demand that eFax cancel this account immediately. I also demand that you refund the prepaid charges for the remainder of the year, since you refuse to honor the prepaid contract under the previous terms and conditions.

On February 4, 2016, I paid $ [-----] for one year of voicemail service for this phone number. The invoice number was  [-----]. The Visa card charged ended in  [-----]. Because Maxemail and eFax forced me to stop using that phone number as of August 30, 2016, I was only able to use 6 full months of the service. eFax owes me a refund of $ [-----]. That refund should be sent by check to the name and address on file. 
 Stanley Kox: I will be glad to assist you with the cancellation request via this chat session. Would you like to proceed? 
 Michael: Yes. 
 Stanley Kox: Thank you for providing the information. Please allow me a moment while I pull up your account. 
 Stanley Kox: As per the records, there is a voicemail service activated on your account. 
 Stanley Kox: I hope you are still online with me. 
 Michael: Yes. 
 Stanley Kox: Please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation: 
1) Moving to another provider 
2) Bought a fax machine 
3) Business or role changed 
4) Short term project completed 
5) Financial reasons 
6) Problems with faxing or billing 
7) Dissatisfied with quality of service 
8) Too costly 
 Michael: I told you. I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. 
 Stanley Kox: I completely understand your wish to discontinue. I'd like to suggest that you make use of our service at least for the period you have paid for, so that you can receive and send any pending faxes. 
 Stanley Kox: This will also ensure that you make the maximum utilization of our service. The usage charges for sending faxes are applicable. 
 Stanley Kox: All you need to do is to just contact us once at the end of your current billing cycle. 
 Michael: No. I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. 
 Stanley Kox: Please remember once this number is closed, your number will be reassigned and you will no longer have access to any new faxes sent to you at this number or have access to faxes stored in your online message center. 
 Stanley Kox: Would you like to keep your number active till the end of your current billing cycle? 
 Michael: No. I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. 
 Stanley Kox: Okay, I will go ahead and cancel your account.
An e-mail confirming that your account has been canceled will be sent to your registered e-mail address.
Is there anything else I may assist you with? 
 Michael: Yes. Please send the refund that I have been demanding. 
 Michael: I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. You therefore owe me a refund.
 Michael: See above for details. 
 Stanley Kox: I will go ahead an cancel your account. However, please contact our Billing Support department over the phone as they will be able to assist you better with your concern regarding refund. You can reach them at 1-323-817-3205. 
 Michael: Your billing support department on the phone has refused to provide a refund, claiming that eFax is under no obligation to provide any service or honor any contract at all. 
 Michael: They are not able to assist me better. 
 Stanley Kox: I am sorry, as per the company policy there is no refund applicable towards your account. 
 Michael: Because? 
 Michael: I do not accept your change in the terms and conditions. You therefore owe me a refund.
 Stanley Kox: I apologize for the inconvenience. However, as mentioned above there is no refund applicable towards your account. Kindly check paragraph 17B of our Customers Agreement athttp://www.efax.com/customer-agreement#17. The paragraph clearly mentions that the activation fee, the monthly or the annual fee are non refundable. 
 Michael: That's the agreement that I do not accept. 
 Stanley Kox: Please contact our Billing Support department for further assistance regarding refund. 
 Michael: I have done that. They have refused. 
 Michael: I have now spent close to an hour on this online chat. 
 Michael: Will you provide that refund? 

 Stanley Kox: I am sorry, there is no refund applicable towards your account. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Are you considering eFax? Or any other j2 company?

Note: j2, which owns eFax and many other disreputable companies, has an F rating from the BBB with hundreds of complaints. Before you trust them with a credit card number, take a look at their Google search results.

j2 owns about half of the fax line companies out there, including eFax. The web is littered with complaints about those companies. What is particularly striking is the companies that were independent and had good reputations, but had slews of complaints after j2 bought them.

j2, in the guise of eFax, recently bought MaxEmail. The transition has not yet completed, but customers like me have already fled. I was glad to leave j2 in 2005, and there is no way I’m going back to a j2 company like eFax.

The companies say that prices will remain the same. Reality check: one line I looked at is going from $14.85 to $84.00 under eFax, more than 5.5x the previous price.

The companies say that the allowed fax pages will remain comparable. Reality check: one line I looked at is going from unlimited inbound pages to just 250 inbound pages. And I will lose the rollover of over 22,000 pages/messages, as well as the usage credit on the account.

The companies say that the terms and conditions will remain comparable. Reality check: if I want to reclaim my own fax number that I had ported in originally, MaxEmail charged nothing, while eFax charges between $40 and $500.

The companies say that the services will remain comparable. Reality check: we had a couple of voicemail lines with MaxEmail which allowed callers to leave messages without pressing buttons. That may sound unimportant for human callers, but it’s actually critically important with a number of health care providers for our child who use automated systems to leave messages. Those automated systems can leave a message with MaxEmail, but they cannot with eFax, because eFax doesn’t offer that capability.

The companies say that customer service will remain good. Reality check: eFax refuses to issue refunds for prepaid services even when they unilaterally change terms and conditions, and even when they disable necessary features. When I tried emailing four different fax services to ask similar questions, three of those fax services answered the questions within a couple of hours. eFax did not reply for 3 days.

I don’t know if MaxEmail will be kept around as a zombie brand, the way j2 has done with so many other brands. I’ve recommended MaxEmail many times between January 2005 and August 2016. That’s why I feel like I need to publicly unrecommend them now.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Out with the old, in with the new

February 2016: I lost my primary credit card processor when Amazon Local Payments closed. (Advance notice: several months.) I replaced them with Square, which had been our previous credit card processor and which we still had as a backup. Getting our data out of Amazon Local Payments before they deleted their records took some hours. At least they gave a few months notice. No other costs.

June 2016: I lost my shopping cart service when Americart folded. (Advance notice: initially 1 week, then 4 weeks, then uncertain, then they surprised us one morning.) They replaced themselves with Capital One Spark Pay, which has been buggy and dim-witted, but at least saved us from having to redo the shopping cart integration on thousands of web pages. Setting up the new back end took about 100 hours including testing. Putting in bug reports has taken about 20 hours, and is ongoing.

August 2016: I lost my primary software sales channel when Kagi folded. (Advance notice: none at all.) I replaced them with FastSpring. Switching took about 20 hours of research, 10 hours of setup, and a week of downtime while switching over. Other costs: income for some sales that vanished along with Kagi.

August/September 2016: I lost two voicemail lines and one fax line when Maxemail folded. (Advance notice: 1-4 weeks estimated, with no certainty.) I replaced the voicemail lines with Google Voice and the fax line with Nextiva vFax. Setup for the voicemail lines was about 30 minutes and worked immediately. Setup for the fax line was about 2 hours of phone calls and paperwork, and 15 days of waiting to port the number. Other costs: $50 in advance payments to Maxemail gone, and some hours of research to decide on replacements.

September 2016: I lost my ability to process credit cards from web site orders when Capital One Spark Pay decided that they would no longer allow manual processing. (Advance notice: none at all, then 8 days.) I replaced manual processing with Stripe’s online gateway. Research was about 30 hours, setup was about 1 hour, testing is ongoing.

At the end of all of this, I am simply dealing with different providers. Nothing is better or cheaper or more likely to work correctly. And all of the changes since June have been one crisis after another with little warning and lousy communication.

I’m hesitant to even think about the providers who are acting reliable this year. At this point it feels like another shoe is always about to drop.

Spark Pay is removing manual credit card processing

Capital One’s Spark Pay (aka SparkPay) division offers shopping cart software for web sites. They provide the back end that lets our customers put items into a shopping cart and then enter payment information. With a credit card, a merchant might use a payment gateway to charge the card automatically, or the merchant might collect the credit card information from Spark Pay to charge the card manually (offline processing).

The merchant might prefer to do offline processing of the credit card for any number of reasons: to examine payments for fraud attempts, to use a processor which isn’t connected to a gateway that the shopping cart software can interface with, to wait to confirm that an item is in stock or to wait until the item has shipped before charging the card, or to confirm total order amounts before charging a card.

Spark Pay used to offer both options. Starting September 27, that’s over, according to this email from Spark Pay:

We're enhancing security.

Starting September 27, 2016, we'll no longer be able to store your CVV data for
offline processing. 

What This Means for You

Your customers' CVV data will not be available after September 27th. You'll need to
modify your manual offline credit card processing before then to ensure compliance
with PCI standards. 

Capital One(r) will not impose any fees for this change.

What Spark Pay is not mentioning is that processors all require the CVV code in order to charge a card. When Spark Pay no longer gives that CVV data to the merchant, the merchant cannot charge the customer’s card at all. It’s completely unclear why Spark Pay would give the merchant the remaining credit card data, since it’s basically useless without the CVV code. (Note: to be precise, it’s actually the CVV-2 code, which is the security code printed on the card, rather than the CVV or CVV-1 code which is encoded in the magnetic stripe.)

PCI standards (both for PCI-DSS and for PA-DSS) are very clear that merchants and payment applications must not store CVV data after the card is authorized. But if you delete the CVV data before the card is authorized, you’ll never get to charge the card at all. That’s precisely why the CVV data is so important to protect: it’s what lets you use the card to make purchases.

But Spark Pay is insisting that they cannot store CVV data BEFORE authorization, a complete misstatement of the PCI standards. And Spark Pay insists that merchants can still charge credit cards without the CVV code, even though that’s just not true. In fact, their own credit card processing division is perfectly happy to confirm that a charge will be denied without a CVV code. Spark Pay tried last week to identify an alternative processor that does not require a CVV code, and could not find any.

With almost zero notice, Spark Pay is effectively disabling their shopping cart software, while still pretending that merchants will be able to process credit cards without a CVV code even though Spark Pay knows that isn’t true.

Do you use a processor which doesn’t require CVV codes? Please speak up in the comments here. (Though be aware that they’re likely to start requiring CVV codes soon if they don’t already, because everyone else has started doing that in recent years.)

Do you know a payment gateway which doesn’t require PCI compliance paperwork? Please speak up in the comments here. We were delighted to stop having to do PCI compliance paperwork every quarter when we switched from using Elavon to using Square for processing credit cards, but Spark Pay doesn’t offer Square as a payment gateway.

If you are a Spark Pay merchant who is affected by this, give them a call at 1-800-936-9006, Ext. 1, between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. CT Monday to Friday. Ask for an account manager. Ask for a supervisor. And good luck to us all.

Added on September 18, 2016: If you go to Spark Pay’s support page at http://kb.mysparkpay.com/what-are-cvv-authentication-codes-and-why-are-they-not-stored.aspx you’ll find the following about CVV codes:

Storing CVV-2 Information

This information is not permanently stored because that action is prohibited by law. The Visa USA Inc. Operating Regulations explicitly prohibits merchants and/or their agents from storing the CVV-2 data. The merchant may require this code to complete any transaction, whether it be online, over the phone, or in person. Some merchants chose to process payment on purchase of the item, while others wait until the order has been shipped. To accommodate these methods,Spark Pay online store CVV-2 information until the order payment is obtained, then it is stricken.

Prohibited by law? Technically, our laws are written by Congress, not by Visa USA. Also, the CVV-2 data cannot be stored after authorization. Other than that, this is a reasonable policy that meets the requirements of credit card processing, data security, and common sense. Keep the data only as long as you need it, then delete it. Too bad they aren’t sticking with this policy.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

More than test scores

Our town’s schools are not well regarded by anyone except parents with kids in the schools, and perhaps some of the kids themselves. We don’t invest a lot in the schools, we don’t maintain the schools, the population is lower income, there’s a long history of people in the community using Catholic schools instead of public schools, and the test scores are mediocre. But lots of parents with kids in the schools are happy with them.

Is this like Congress, where everyone is happy with their personal Representative/teacher but hates Congress/schools as a whole? Or is this a case where people have no real comparison point because they haven’t experienced many different schools? Or is this like preschool, where kids are pretty well guaranteed to learn lots of things because that’s how growing brains work, so if the preschool doesn’t actively hurt the kids they naturally seem like they’re doing a good job?

The most common story I hear about school ratings is that it’s based on test scores, which correlate to family income, family educational attainment, and other factors which aren’t changed by moving to a new town. But the core question as we decide whether to try to stay here or move to a different town is will our child do better in a different school with the same family, since we’re not willing to change his family.

Here’s a local parent talking about a recent ranking of area schools where our town did poorly: “Oh yay, another list where you have to scroll down past 25 or 30 to see a town with a median home price under $900,000. They do provide some interesting data for constructive criticism and feedback to school boards (class size is a good example) - but the emphasis on sports and AP courses is always going to skew results and take emphasis away from equally - if not more important factors - like music and arts, after school activities, volunteer/community service clubs, cultural programs, etc.”

So it sounds like we compare poorly on class size, sports, and AP courses as well, not just on test scores. I agree that the last set of factors are important too, but I’m not convinced we actually do better on any of those other metrics. Are we giving kids three hours a week of music and arts, while other towns are only giving kids one hour a week? Do we have more field trips, more in-school enrichment, more volunteer opportunities, or more after school activities?

My guess is that we are comparable or worse than lots of towns on those other factors as well. We tell ourselves stories about those other factors precisely because they aren’t measured, and therefore we don’t have to worry about facts contradicting our narrative.