Thursday, June 26, 2008


Our city is now going through the sort of budget crunch that neighboring cities went through several years ago. I’m not sure how we avoided it for so long, but the consequences are starting to become clear. Increased class sizes and much less foreign language instruction, dozens of layoffs in the school system, no new trees planted by a city that used to be proud to be a National Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA, no replacements for retired cops and firefighters, and a 91% cut to the budget for part-time help in the library.

City Hall is feeling the pinch, too. Not a single layoff, of course. The mayor sets the budget, and the mayor runs City Hall. But no shifting from answering machines to new-fangled voicemail. That would be about communication, and the city is resolutely opposed to communication. They’re actually slashing the IT budget as well, and removing a number of high-speed Internet lines serving City Hall. You’d think Comcast would be willing to donate a little broadband to City Hall in thanks for the egregious monopoly that the city enforces (No FIOS for YOU!), but the budget is really just an excuse for City Hall to become even more remote.

Daily life in the city won’t change much. Parents will be rightly concerned about the school system, and there will be pockets of public discussion about property tax overrides and debt exclusions, but most people care about their personal economic situation much more than the city’s. And that’s ok, or it would be if families weren’t all making those same choices that the city is making.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Photo by Michael


Photo by Michael

Monday, June 23, 2008

Open wi-fi: comments

I was greatly cheered to see a signboard outside a rural Maine library last month declaring that the library is now a wi-fi hot spot at all times, not just when the library is open. Like post offices that provide access to P.O. boxes 24/7 simply by leaving the outer lobby unlocked, libraries can easily provide Internet access 24/7 (to anyone with a laptop) at no additional cost to themselves. Putting a sign up saying so helps out anyone driving by, and certainly clarifies whether it’s ok to use their wi-fi.

Photo by Michael

I used open wi-fi networks when I was traveling, back before anyone suggested that it would somehow be wrong to do so. I run an open wi-fi network at home because it makes it easier for myself and my friends to connect to it, but I certainly wouldn’t mind if someone driving by used it to check their e-mail. Since it’s a home network with limited capacity, I’d prefer that it not be used for steady high-bandwidth uploading and downloading by passing strangers—that should be common courtesy. If my router made it easy to do so, I’d probably enforce that by offering unlimited bandwidth to listed computers and limited bandwidth to unlisted computers.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marshall Point

Photo by Michael


Photo by Michael


Photo by Michael, Arrangement by Lisa

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Cigna math: inexcusable

Warning: this will hurt your brain.

I’m baffled. I know that “Submitted Charge” is the amount the provider submitted. “Charges Not Covered” is the difference between the submitted charge and the negotiated (or contracted) price that Cigna has agreed to pay for the mystery service. We have a $100 copay, so the negotiated price is applied to the deductible until we hit $100, and then it shifts over to “Covered Balance.” So on the first line, 108–56.14=51.86. Fine. But then how is Cigna getting to $8 under “Cigna Coinsurance” and $8 under “Member Coinsurance”? And what are they 0% and 100% of? Well, $8 is 100% of the submitted charge of $108 less the copay of $100, but that makes no sense because the coinsurance is supposed to be calculated based on the negotiated price, not the submitted charge. And $8 isn’t 0% of anything, even with rounding. This utter nonsense continues on the next two lines, where the percentages and the dollar values are completely disconnected.

So how was the final column, “Member Responsibility,” calculated? In the first line, it’s the negotiated price minus either the Cigna coinsurance or the member coinsurance. But on the second and third lines, it’s the charges not covered. On the fourth line, it’s the amount that was applied to our deductible, which is also the negotiated price minus the Cigna coinsurance. So it’s possible that there were only two different calculations used in the first four lines to figure out the Member Responsibility. And one of those calculations might be right.

The fourth line looks like it could be right. We pay $19.81 towards our copay, reaching $100 total, and then the remainder of the negotiated price is paid by Cigna. If the member responsibility is supposed to duplicate the copay amount, then that line is ok.

But then we reach the magical fifth line. Cigna’s coinsurance suddenly jumps to 208%, while the member coinsurance jumps to 108%, for a total coinsurance of 316%. That’s a lot. Strictly as a percentage, 108% is 100 points less than 208%, so it’s the absolute value of X (|X|%) in the formula 208% + X% = 100%, since the two coinsurance percentages should total 100%. And I cannot imagine a reason that a set of calculations like this should ever be using absolute value to convert negative amounts or percentages into positive ones.

Why is Cigna’s coinsurance the exact amount of the submitted charge, and why is the member coinsurance the exact amount of the charges not covered? The total of the two coinsurance payments should be the negotiated price, which is neither of those numbers (and in fact is smaller than either of those numbers).

Perhaps the details are the problem, and I should just look at the totals. The EOB ends up with a total copay of $100 (which is correct), a total member coinsurance of $91.96 (which is not correct), and a total member responsibility of $119.30 (which is neither correct nor connected to the first two numbers). On the summary of claims page, which links to individual EOBs like this one, the total member responsibility is listed as $8.04. That happens to be the difference between the total copay and the total member coinsurance, but there’s no reason why that calculation should ever be done. Nor any reason why the total member responsibility should be different on the summary page and on the EOB.

How an EOB should be calculated

(A) Submitted Charge: A
(B) Negotiated Price (not shown): B
(C) Charges Not Covered: C=A–B
(D) Applied to Deductible/Copay: D=B until deductible/copay is reached, then D=0
(E) Covered Balance: E=B–D
(F) Cigna Coinsurance after out-of-pocket limit is reached: F=100% of E
(G) Member Coinsurance after out-of-pocket limit is reached: G=0% of E
(H) Member Responsibility: H=D+G

How Cigna works

(F) Cigna Coinsurance after out-of-pocket limit is reached: F=A–copay, or F=A, or F=E
(G) Member Coinsurance after out-of-pocket limit is reached: G=F, or G=A, or G=0% of E, or G=C
(H) Member Responsibility: H=D–F, or H=D+G, or H=C

My brain hurts. How’s yours?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Help us to lie down in peace

Are there particular prayers in the Shabbat service that you find comforting or moving, even out of the context of the service?

My favorite has always been hashkivenu:

Help us to lie down in peace, Lord, our God, and awaken us to life again, our King. Spread over us Your shelter of peace, guide us with Your good counsel. Save us because of Your mercy. Shield us from enemies and pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow. Remove the evil forces that surround us, shelter us in the shadow of Your wings. You, O God, guard us and deliver us. You are a gracious and merciful King. Guard our coming and our going, grant us life and peace, now and always. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace. Praised are You, Lord who spreads a shelter of peace over us, over all the people Israel and over Jerusalem.
It’s not a prayer for which I’ve ever known a melody, though there are of course scores out there. I grew up with the congregation reciting it in English in unison, and for the past decade it’s been a silent reading at the services I attend. The sung liturgy is what draws me to the service, but hashkivenu is the heart of the service for me.

I see it as a wish for peace in several forms, not just a peace that is the absence of conflict. Other prayers ask for justice and for the defeat of our enemies, but this one asks for a shield rather than a sword, peace rather than victory. We ask for life and peace, because without peace there is no meaningful life. I’ve thought about inscribing it on a mantel or a bed canopy, to give the prayer some real form and indulge my literalist tendencies.

Where the questions stop, nobody knows

Having agreed to continue the interview concept:

Anyone who wants me to interview them leaves a comment on this note so indicating. I come up with five questions. That person posts the questions’ answers on their own blog, should they be embloggened, or should they be disembloggened for whatever reason posts the answers as a further comment here. In addition to the answers, however, the interviewee must agree to become the interviewer in turn, offering to ask five questions of anyone so inclined.

and having nearly finished answering the questions posed of me, I hereby make good on my commitment by inviting anyone who wants to be interviewed in this fashion to let me know in a comment here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hereditary executive

From Vardibidian: What do you think would be good qualifications (personal history, traits, skills, priorities, etc) for a mayor of a town like yours or mine: old, 50,000-75,000 or so residents, a suburb of a bigger town (the state capitol, actually), lots of retirees, lots of schoolkids, lots of single-family houses and triple-deckers? How could you tell if somebody in town would make a good mayor?

I have no idea. I used to think I knew, when the town government seemed more remote and monolithic. I’d want someone creative and curious, skilled in listening to people and talking to people, able to recognize expertise and accept advice, and able to inspire lots of people to contribute to the greater good. Pretty much what I’d want of a person in any leadership position.

The practical reality seems very different to me now, and I’m not sure what would be good qualifications. Our mayor brings in a tremendous amount of state and federal funding, but I’m not sure how he manages that. Other than bringing in outside money, I’m not sure exactly what his job entails, so I’m not sure how the job would be different if the characteristics of the town that you mention were different.

In a town like this one with hereditary job positions, the way I’d tell if somebody in town would make a good mayor is to check their family tree, on the assumption that a mayor wouldn’t be effective if he didn’t come from one of the political families because he’d obtain no cooperation from the other people in power.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

In the eye of the beholder

If you got to nominate somebody for a MacArthur Fellowship (the genius grant), who would it be?

Aside from me, my wife, and my friends?

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. Recipients may be writers, scientists, artists, social scientists, humanists, teachers, entrepreneurs, or those in other fields, with or without institutional affiliations. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.
Victor Gaultney, type designer at SIL and the designer of Gentium. His work is thorough and brilliant, both in producing fonts and in writing about their design and history, and I’d love to see what he will do next.

Kirk Hawkins, if he successfully brings the ICON light sport aircraft to the market. We’ll know in 3 years.

Matt Ruff
, author of two of the best books I’ve read (Fool on the Hill and Set This House in Order).

Jeffrey Summit, who has created a campus Hillel organization at Tufts that inspires and engages an incredible number of people, continually develops new programs that help the community, and serves as a national role model. He’s done this while also teaching, doing an advanced degree and research in ethnomusicology, and engaging in side projects like putting together a Grammy-nominated album.

I’m a little surprised that I’m having trouble naming artists for this. Lars-Erik Fisk (sculpture), Jan Owen (calligraphy), Shayna Leib (glass), Josiah McElheny (glass). Ok, maybe I’m not having trouble. They’re all producing work that is original, unusual, thought-provoking, and finely executed.

Moses Pendleton, founder, artistic director, and choreographer for Momix. Co-founder of Pilobolus. Though I’m not sure a MacArthur would actually change what he’s doing at this point, because he’s already been so successful.

Long as God can grow it

Do you miss having long hair?

(Background: I’m answering interview questions from Vardibidian. Until April 14, 2005, it had been approximately 18 years that I’d worn my hair in a ponytail.)

When the immediate need had passed to have short hair, I considered growing it back out. My appearance in the mirror hadn’t changed as much as the general feel of turning my head. But I found I don’t mind having short hair, and I like the folks who cut my hair every 5-6 weeks now. The answer is no.

I do miss the sense of freedom that allowed me to choose to have long hair, and I miss the ways of looking at the world that vanished around the same time and for the same reasons. But I’ve actually needed to maintain a short cut for the past 18 months for other reasons, so it’s been convenient to have already chosen to keep my hair short.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Put another nickel in

What’s your favorite venue for seeing live music?

That would have to be Circle of Friends Coffeehouse in Franklin, MA. The sound there has always been excellent, and that, to me, is the most important criterion. The crowd is always friendly, plenty of people who know each other but never unwelcoming to new people, and they don’t talk during the music but do respond to the performers. The space is comfortable enough, sightlines are generally acceptable, tickets are reasonable, there’s plenty of parking, restrooms are clean, so there’s no particular drawbacks to the venue if you don’t mind general admission. There’s an amazing selection of affordable desserts available before shows and during intermission, but not enough beverage selection (mostly coffee, water, or tea).

A close second would be the Sunday brunch at Tryst in Arlington, MA, only because they have a jazz trio that I absolutely love paired with a phenomenally good chef and pastry chef and a comfortable space. Normally I’d really prefer to separate live music from food service, but the combination works there.

I’ve seen live music at venues ranging from my living room (Ken Batts) to Madison Square Garden (Paul Simon). I almost always prefer smaller venues, as long as there is enough of a crowd to generate some energy for the performers. (I did discover once that the Wang Center (Tori Amos) could feel just like a small venue if you have second row center seats.) I want to hear the music, and sound systems designed to fill a large space are rarely crisp. Symphony Hall in Boston (k.d. lang) does have great acoustics, and if I had to choose a venue for seeing a show from the last row of the balcony, that would probably be it.

And for a festival atmosphere, buskers around Harvard Square or Faneuil Hall on a summer night can be a treat.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Photo by Michael

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Maine rocks

Photo by Michael

My family are rock people. My father's father's family quarried granite, as did other branches of the family that came from England around the same time (and my theory is that my family name is corrupted from a term related to carrying stone). My father's mother's family name is Blackstone. The foundations of my parents' house and barn is granite slab and fieldstone, none of which traveled from far away before it supported a home. My niece picks up rocks no matter where she is. I personally breathe a sigh of relief whenever I see bedrock exposed to the air. My favorite beach in Hawaii wasn't sandy, it was the one that was entirely black stone ranging from too big to carry in one hand all the way down to too small to bother you between your toes.

These Maine rocks are pretty small. You could put half a dozen of them in your pocket if you didn't greedily choose the largest ones. Or you could choose a few and stack them, adding a bit of instability to the landscape.

Outside the house where we stayed there was a rock too big to even call a boulder. The exposed part was the size of one of the rooms in our house. It made me feel grounded and calm---the tides would come and go, but that rock was going nowhere, no matter how hard my niece tried to move it and we both wished we could bring it home. (By "we" I mean me and my niece. I don't know if Michael lusted after that same rock.)


Monday, June 9, 2008

Herons in the cove

Photos by Michael

On Wednesday morning, we woke up at 6:30 to discover 3 great blue herons fishing in our cove. We went out on the deck and watched them for an hour before deciding it was too cold to stay outside any longer. The next morning there were 4 great blue herons for a time. Herons, laughing gulls, herring gulls, eiders, mallards, and cormorants were all taking turns during the week feeding on small fish and mussels in the cove, a steady banquet. On Saturday morning an enormous group of ducks, 8 adults and 7 ducklings, found their way to the cove in the thickening fog. We had seen a group just like that near the Marshall Point lighthouse a few miles away on Thursday afternoon, and it was fun to imagine they had followed us home. Birds were in the air all week as well, from enormous osprey to a hummingbird that suddenly rose out of nowhere to hover right across the deck railing from my face for a few moments before zooming off. Swooping finches (gold and purple), loudly territorial crows, doves, chickadees and more all shared the tall pine trees. And a wild turkey greeted us as we crossed the causeway onto the island for the first time, near where the fox had appeared last year.

The amazing ornithology teacher at my high school, Arthur Cooley, promised that he could increase any student’s repertoire of birds they could identify by a factor of 10 over a year, regardless of where they started. I loved going on the nature hikes he’d lead, and I sure wish he’d been up at that cove with us.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Permanent record

In my work in scholarly publishing, I care deeply about preserving the integrity of the scientific and academic literature. In the print age, when scholarly publishers had sizable and discrete print runs, most readers could be assured that they were reading the same version of a work as their colleagues. We developed an esoteric jargon of editions and printings, copyright dates and publication dates; and none of these were relevant for differentiating versions of the typical work which came out in a single edition. The electronic age, however, makes it easy to disseminate a near-infinite variety of drafts of any given work, with major or minor changes sometimes dependent on the vagaries of your own computer if you are reading or printing a pdf file. Since there are still advantages to knowing that you are reading the same version of a work as your colleagues, I put a lot of effort into ensuring that a single version of a work is reproduced consistently across formats and across print runs, even when those print runs are individual copies printed by readers. The scholarly conversation should be about data and theories and ideas, not arguments or questions about what an author actually said in a published work.

A blog like this one has a marked flexibility to me, on the other hand. I frequently make small corrections a few minutes after publishing a post, and sometimes rework sentences days or weeks later in random fits of editing. I’ve occasionally removed entire posts, and one of my first comments (also deleted) was from someone wanting to find a post I’d written about First Alert’s carbon monoxide detectors and then removed. I sometimes feel a twinge from my academic publisher side, but my editor side feels indulged and contented.

Not a design blog

I peruse design blogs for fun. I love the steady stream of clean photos, pithy text, and endless comments of “where can I buy that?” I’m not starting a design blog, but I may do an occasional design post like this one.

Derek Marshall ( is a glass artist who makes beautiful wall sconces, some with iron work by David Little of Winnepesaukee Forge (

I picked up David’s business card at some art show or other, probably because he also makes really cool furniture ranging from ornate to simple: