Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Amazon and sales taxes

Amazon has agreed to collect sales tax in Massachusetts starting next fall. This is supposedly good news for local businesses.

Except that the prospect of being forced to collect sales tax is what stopped Amazon from building local warehouses and offering cheap overnight or even same day delivery. How will local businesses compete then? Local businesses don’t have many advantages when competing with Amazon, but actually being local was one of them. So much for that advantage.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Surprise! Lactaid milk contains lactose (if you buy the wrong Lactaid milk)

Here’s an example of the lies that Lactaid (McNeil Pharmaceuticals and Hood Dairy) is spreading:

“No matter what type of Lactaid Milk you buy, you are getting 100% farm-fresh, delicious milk with all the nutrients and none of the lactose.”

The reason why Lactaid’s statement is false is that Lactaid makes a milk that isn’t lactose-free. Their “70% lactose free” Lactaid milk contains lactose. You may not have seen this milk, since many supermarkets that carry the “100% lactose free” Lactaid milk don’t carry this badly-labeled alternative. But sometimes it turns up, looking like Lactaid milk, fooling customers.

No big deal, right? Some lactose is probably the same as no lactose. Except for people who are actually lactose-intolerant. Since those folks are the core demographic for Lactaid, I’m baffled as to why Lactaid would risk the health of their customers in order to sell a completely unnecessary product. Why does Lactaid want to make people sick? How does Lactaid benefit from people asking “Why did this Lactaid milk make me sick?”

Lactaid wants people to believe that their brand means “100% lactose free.” They want people to believe that so much that they write advertising copy saying so. They don’t even admit that they sell a Lactaid milk containing lactose on their website where they supposedly show all of their products. Lactaid lies about it on Facebook and on the telephone. And all for what? So that Lactaid can fool people into buying a product that will hurt them?

Lactaid’s 70% lactose free milk contains lactose, and not just trace amounts. This isn’t cross-contamination. This is market segmentation at the cost of people getting sick because they trusted Lactaid.

My local supermarket this morning said that they do not want to carry the 70% lactose free Lactaid milk, and their working theory is that Lactaid is deliberately shipping it to stores that haven’t ordered it in an attempt to move the product. If that’s true, then Lactaid is lying to stores as well as hurting consumers.

Milk straight out of the cow contains approximately 5% lactose. I haven’t yet heard from the FDA whether I can legally label regular milk as “95% lactose free.”

Update: I have had the following correspondence with Lactaid.

  • Hi Michael,
    Our Consumer Care Center informed me that you have concerns around our LACTAID® 70% Lactose Free Milk. This item was actually our original LACTAID® milk product. At the time it was launched, the technology was not as advanced as today, and it was possible to eliminate only 70% of the lactose found in regular milk. Lactose intolerance varies greatly among individuals and experts agree that most people with this condition can tolerate low levels of lactose in their diet. We’re now able to provide milk that is 100% lactose free. The product you contacted us about is clearly marked as 70% lactose free and the packaging looks much different from the 100% lactose free options.

    I apologize if your original inquiry was met with some confusion, and hope that your questions have been answered. Please contact us again if you would like any additional information.

    Maureen Conway
    Director, Nutritional Affairs
  • Reply from Michael

    The phrase "70% lactose free" makes no sense to anyone I've spoken to, since milk straight out of the cow is 95% lactose free.

    Lactaid's own reps on the phone and on facebook do not believe that the "70% lactose free" product exists. They have told me flat out that Lactaid does not distribute a milk containing lactose.

    Lactaid's own website avoids any mention of this "70% lactose free" product.

    The FDA clearly says that the phrase "lactose free" should not be used on a product that contains lactose. This product contains lactose. Why not use the phrase "reduced lactose"? And why market it under the Lactaid brand, teaching customers not to trust your brand?

    And the excuse about the product being clearly marked on the packaging is truly hard to swallow. People with food concerns are taught to read the ingredients list and nutritional info box, not every word everywhere on the package. Furthermore, your company has spent a fortune advertising your brand of milk as universally lactose free, and you splash your brand name all over this packaging. If your advertising is effective at all, customers concerned about lactose may justifiably see "Lactaid" at the top and stop reading. Your advertising supports that decision. Your information for health care providers says that all of your milks are lactose free, leading doctors to tell patients to choose Lactaid milk.

    I have personally been buying Lactaid milk for many years. I have never seen this "70% lactose free" milk in a store until this fall, because my local stores did not carry it. Until this fall, I had no idea that it existed. Until this fall, I believed that all Lactaid milks were 100% lactose free. (And you clearly want customers to continue to believe that lie.) When a friend or family member wanted to use milk as in ingredient in something I could eat, I told them to buy Lactaid milk. As it turns out, buying the wrong Lactaid milk would make me very ill.

    You are expecting every person who is trying to avoid lactose for themselves or for someone else to disbelieve your advertising, disbelieve your information for health care providers, ignore Lactaid's own employees, read every word on every grocery item they purchase, and figure out that "70% lactose free" does not actually mean lactose free. You expect every potential customer to be fully literate and to be fully numerate. And you are comfortable with the notion that people who trust your brand will be made ill if any of those expectations are not met. I am appalled.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

German citizenship for children born outside of Germany

If you’re a German citizen, your child also has German citizenship. Unless the child is born outside of Germany and you fail to register their birth with the appropriate office in Germany before the child is 1 year old.

I don’t know what the rules are for adopted children, where the finalization or even the placement sometimes does not happen until the child is more than a year old.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Too many numbers

We have an opportunity to rethink our phone lines and phone numbers, since it's no longer urgent if an agency can't reach us. We also have a prompt to do so now that our home line is going up in cost from $240/year to $600/year.

Our current setup feels overly complicated. We have two landlines at the house. One is for home ($600/year) and one is for business ($720/year), but really we have two lines so that we can both be on the phone at the same time. I have a Chicago-based number ($25/year) through maxemail to receive voicemail for home when calls are forwarded there, and a different Chicago-based number ($15/year) through maxemail to receive voicemail and faxes for work. I have a remote call forward number ($348/year) which was my advertised business phone line, and a different one ($360/year) which was my advertised business fax line. Plus two cell numbers ($50-$100/year each), though we don't really use our cell phones much, and three Google Voice numbers (free) that we're not doing anything with yet. That's $2218/year in total, and we don't have smartphones. Sigh.

For actual phone numbers, I need to keep the remote call forward numbers around somehow. I'm asking maxemail if they can port the remote fax number over to them, since $84/year through maxemail would be better than $360/year through Verizon. That seems like an obvious step to take. It reduces costs, even if it doesn't reduce the total number of lines.

If I could port the remote voice number directly over to my current business landline, I could save another $360/year. Verizon won't let me do that. I may be able to port it to a forwarding service like Google Voice, if I can convince Verizon to let me port the number over to a cell phone first and then port it from the cell phone to Google Voice. All so that Google Voice can send my phone calls straight to my business line. I'm nervous about what happens if my remote number gets stuck on the cell phone and can't be forwarded back out.

If maxemail allowed conditional messages based on the forwarding line, I'd only need one maxemail account instead of two or three. But that's not going to happen any time soon, and their service works really well as it is, so I don't want to mess with it.

If at some point you try to reach us and can't, try email. We have no current plans to mess with that. But any of our phone numbers may suddenly stop working as expected, or go away entirely, because 11 phone numbers is too many when only 2 of them are important. It's not that we don't want to talk to you on the phone; apparently we REALLY want to talk to people on the phone.

Update on November 27, 2012

STEP 1: I've ported the remote fax number to maxemail, which went very smoothly.

STEP 2: I've signed up for a FIOS installation, which should take over our home phone number as part of a package where the phone line basically costs nothing for at least two years. We'll lose the home voicemail that we're used to, but supposedly FIOS can forward voicemails to email just like maxemail has been doing. We'll also lose our good international calling from the home line, so any international calls will have to go through the business line. (I realized that the $2218/year total didn't include our separate long distance bill of $120/year, which could in theory drop by $40/year if we move all outgoing domestic long distance calls over to the FIOS line.)

STEP 3: I'm considering porting the remote voice number to maxemail. This is the public work number which is on every book, catalog, user manual, and postcard I've created in the past 18 years. If I do this, the number would always go straight to voicemail.

If step 2 works, I'll have reduced the total from $2338/year to $1462/year, which is more reasonable. Step 3 would bring it down to $1198/year (or persuading Verizon to replace my home business number with my remote business voice number would bring it down to $1114/year).

STEP 4: Replace the business landline with a smartphone, since the cost of a smartphone is not a lot higher than the $720/year cost of that landline. Open question: keep the copper line open with few features, useful for extended power outages? With a small child and a dog, how long are we really going to stick it out around here during an extended power outage anyway? Small added savings would be only needing 1-line phones in the house (saving $200 when I replace the dying cordless phones next year), not needing my $50/year basic cell, and perhaps not needing the $120/year long distance service at all.

Update on January 30, 2014

STEP 5: Home and work landline numbers now go to two smartphones (one for me, one for Lisa), and the landlines have been disconnected. Both smartphones use maxemail for voicemail. Cost is similar to what the two landlines cost.

STEP 6: FIOS took over the remote voice number, and that now goes to all of our landline phones. Savings: $360/year.

STEP 7: Our long distance account has been closed, since we no longer have any lines where we can choose a long distance carrier. Savings: $120/year.

Notes for the future: If we need to replace phones in the house, we can get 1-line phones. It’s hard to imagine needing a second landline as long as cell phones keep working. If David needs a phone, he can get a cell phone.

Current cost for cell phones: $1080/year. Voicemail lines: $40/year. Fax line: $84/year. FIOS business line: free, since we have television and internet with FIOS anyway. Total cost right now: $1204/year, including data on our smartphones. And we had to buy smartphones.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Otter Point

I’m really torn between these two approaches to this wave sequence at Otter Point in Acadia National Park. The series above focuses on a single enormous splash, the shape forming and unforming. The series below adds an anchoring foreground, a sense of a vantage point, and the balanced timing of the foreground splash receding as the more distant splash explodes. If printed large and hung at eye level, the bottom sequence should still allow the viewer to focus on the more distant splash.

I think the top sequence is more successful because of its simplicity, and the bottom sequence is more interesting.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Five identical visits to the chiropractor

Billed in different combinations, processed for varying amounts.

98942: $40
97012: $0

98942: $40
97110: $0

98940: $32
97110: $15

98942: $40
97110: $15

98942: $40
97012: $10

So 98942 (adjustment of 5 or more regions) is worth $40, and 98940 (adjustment of 1-2 regions) is worth $32. 97012 is worth $0 or $10 at random. 97110 is worth $0 or $15 at random. For any given trip to the chiropractor, there’s no way to tell whether I’ll be billed for a 98942 adjustment or 98940 adjustment. The billing could theoretically turn up as 98941 and just hasn’t recently. There’s no way to tell whether I’ll be billed for 97012 (mechanical traction) or 97110 (therapeutic exercise). Neither seems related to reality, but one of them is always billed. The total could be $32, $40, $42, $47, $50, or $55, all for the same basic visit to the chiropractor with the same adjustment done.

Since I’m within my deductible, I actually pay all charges after the insurance company rolls the dice. This isn’t just an exercise in theory. 20 visits a year should total $640, but can actually total up to $1100. That’s a bit of a difference over time, and makes it difficult to plan for.

It’s a relief to have this figured out even this much, because it had been a black box for ages while the billing codes were entirely hidden.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Amazon and the Out of Print lie

Amazon is listing some of our books as “Out of Print” when they are not out of print. This misinformation has both business and legal ramifications to the extent that anyone believes Amazon.

“Out of Print” is a long-standing publishing term meaning that a book is no longer available from the publisher and is not expected to become available again in the near future.

Amazon is free to say that they do not have copies of a book. They are free to say that they don’t want to have copies of a book, or that they don’t like a book. But they are not free to lie to customers by saying that a book is out of print when it isn’t. That lie can cause a customer to give up on finding a way to buy the book. That lie can damage the reputation of a publisher who keeps books in print. That lie can convince an author that the rights should be reverting back to the author if the contract allows for that when a book goes out of print. That lie can cause someone to think that photocopying or scanning the book is ok if they believe that they are allowed to do so (or should be allowed to do so) with out of print books.

I have seen this same misleading behavior from Amazon before. I talked with someone in their legal department many years ago, who agreed that Amazon should stop doing that and who promptly made sure that our books were not wrongly listed as being out of print. And yet Amazon is back to the same old dirty tricks (or perhaps never really stopped).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

One of these banks is not like the others

I’ve received five letters from banks in the past five days:

American Express: Sorry about Sandy, let us know if we can help in any way.
Capital One: Sorry about Sandy, we’re here to help.
Citicards: Sorry about Sandy, we might help somehow.
Citizens Bank: Sorry about Sandy, here are some specific ways we could help.
Elavon: That bogus one-time fee that we shouldn’t have charged? We’re making that an annual fee.

One of these companies has a bigger lock-in on their customers than the others.


At the county and state level, the only contested races on our ballot on Tuesday will be for State Rep and for Middlesex Sheriff.

I’m delighted to be voting for Carl Sciortino for State Rep—he is caring, smart, and honest, he listens to his constituents and his conscience, he talks to people, and he works really hard. I can’t imagine anyone better for the job.

The Middlesex Sheriff’s race is between Koutoujian, who was appointed to the job recently, and Petrone, who is a corrections officer who touts his lack of political experience. They both seem ok. I’m voting for Koutoujian, who has been proactive in the job about working with more communities to help clean up graffiti and vandalism.

I’m voting yes on all three ballot questions. The folks behind Q1 (right to repair) reneged on the deal they struck to get a compromise bill passed by the legislature, and I’m unhappy about that dishonesty. But their ballot question is good for car owners and independent repair shops, and my mechanic (who I trust) is in favor of the measure.

Q2 is the physician-assisted suicide question. I wish nobody ever wanted to use this option, and maybe someday we’ll make enough strides in pain management and palliative care to remove the need. We’re not there yet.

Q3 is medical marijuana. The arguments against it sound like paranoid fantasies.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sandy begins

The sky is filled with leaves
far above the maples’ canopy.
A grievous wind enumerates complaints
against the framework of my house,
as I count fallen branches more than raindrops.
A tree is more than branches until
not yet
but soon.
And one leaf takes pause outside my window,
peering in, fluttering in place,
and skitters off.
The storm is here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

A few notes from the Boston Conservatory production of Jesus Christ Superstar

Stephen Markarian as Pontius Pilate showed a lovely singing voice, great dynamics, and real sympathy for Jesus. It’s a challenging role from which to connect to the audience, because Pilate is at a remove from most of the storyline. He shows up for an Act 1 solo song out of the blue, and vanishes again before being more integrated into Act 2. This production reinforced that separation both from the audience and the primary stage action by putting Pilate on a constructed balcony to one side. His position as the Roman political authority puts him at odds with the other characters, and his role as the one who sentences Jesus puts him at odds with the audience. Yet Markarian manages to keep Pilate likeable, and convincingly convey in the space of a few minutes both his reluctance to sentence Jesus and his frustrated shift to following the demands of the crowd.

Riley Brack as Caiaphas has the bass voice needed for the part, and was a very tall, very entertaining, and very unserious Caiaphas. He always seemed at least half-amused, and I’d love to see him in a comic role.

Marc Koeck as Jesus was too restless in his group work, but was very impressive in his solos. I’d love to see him perform in something with more thorough direction.

Jordan Fantauzzo as Judas was phenomenal. Seriously, he made the music his own, he made the role his own, and he did not hit a single wrong note all evening in pitch or tone. I was blown away by his performance in a way that hasn’t happened in a musical in quite a long time. (Not since one of the female leads in Rent on Broadway.)

I wanted to like the updating of the setting to the modern Middle East, and some conceits worked. Judas and Jesus on cell phones to each other at the beginning, pizza and beer in Gethsemene, that worked. The riot police would have been ok if their costumes hadn’t been so cheap. But it was hard not to bust out laughing at the zombie scene (heal yourselves = eat your own brains?), heaven as Vegas was bizarre, and I had not been expecting to see the three witches from Rupert Goold’s Macbeth show up.

With a score that I know so well I was very prepared to be disappointed, but it turned out to be a wonderfully entertaining evening. The live orchestra was excellent, the set was used well, and the very large cast worked well together. And most importantly, they did real justice to a fantastic score.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tired of the foreclosure crisis?

A lot of people would be able to afford their mortgages if they could reduce their interest rate to current interest rates and/or refinance to a 30-year or 40-year mortgage. The problem is that banks don’t want to make new loans to people underwater on their mortgages, even though those people already have loans. We’ve spent several years pushing banks to make mortgage modifications, and banks have refused. So let’s offer mortgages directly on conservative terms for everything except the loan-to-value ratio. That ratio is the only real problem, and it’s only a problem because OMG what if the person doesn’t keep paying their mortgage and you have to take their house as collateral and the house isn’t worth enough, even though refusing to allow refis is vastly increasing the risk of default. But as a society, we don’t want foreclosures, so let’s put policies in place to avoid foreclosures by offering better mortgages.

The underwater problem could also be solved by using eminent domain. Problem: homeowner has a house worth $200K, but owes $500K on their mortgage. Solution: government seizes the house, pays the bank fair market value of $200K, and sells it back to the homeowner for $200K. This has been floated as an idea in California, and the only significant argument against it from mortgage lenders is that they’ll stop lending if the government does that. See paragraph above.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Baby food and the terrormoms

A terrormom email list I’m on has just spewed up the usual assortment of strident opinions about baby food. “Making your own is better, easier, cheaper, more nutritious, more varied.” “Only lazy people use premade.” We currently use a mix of premade and homemade, and we’re perfectly comfortable with that. Here’s some responses I didn’t send to the list:

Rational point: When you make your own food, plastic containers can leach small amounts of various chemicals into the food. Consider using glass containers if you want a more inert container.

As the terrormoms would put it: When you make your own food and put it in a plastic container for storage, you might as well be injecting your child with cancer. Use a glass container, or your child will probably die.

Rational point: Freezing food can reduce some nutritional value of the food. Include a mix of fresh foods along with the frozen foods.

As the terrormoms would put it: When you make your own food and freeze it for later use, it’s no better than your child eating styrofoam. I love my child, so I would never freeze her food.

Rational point: If you trust the baby food manufacturer, they may have better quality control over their sources than what you pick out at the supermarket. For example, you probably don’t test the rice you buy for arsenic levels.

As the terrormoms would put it: Foods from the supermarket are full of arsenic! I only grow my own ingredients, in dirt that has never been near a road or a house, using only filtered water. I make my child’s yogurt myself at home, using milk from my own organic cows and hand-selected bacterial cultures from my own skin. Our aquaculture setup actively filters out all contaminants, and we feed the fish nothing but proteins we have synthesized in our own home lab. After final inspection in a level-4 biohazard lab, the food is carefully pipetted into our child’s mouth in a slightly pressurized environment to ensure that no food spills onto external surfaces before being consumed. Because unlike you, I care about my child.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Leader: Rabotai n’varech.

Everyone, let us bless.

All assembled: Y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach mei’atah v’ad olam.

May the name of Adonai be blessed now and forever.

In the 1787 haggadah, the start of the grace after meals, or birkat hamazon, is much shorter than today’s standard beginning. The preliminary Psalm 126 is not there, nor is this opening exchange between the leader and the no-longer-hungry assemblage.

(Aside: no better time than the afternoon during the Yom Kippur fast to take a look at the grace after meals, right?)

In the Rishon Transliterated Haggadah, the first word rabotai is translated here as gentlemen, though elsewhere that haggadah translates rabotai as rabbis. Gentlemen is the modern usage of rabotai, as in givrotai v’rabotai, ladies and gentlemen. Given the extent of this barech section, to be followed immediately by the lengthy hallel section, it would not be wrong to think of this call back to liturgy following the Passover feast as “Gentlemen, (re)start your engines.”

I like the echo of rabotai to rabbis in the sense of teachers, because we are all following the seder’s mandate to teach our children about Passover, so we are all teachers at that table. But unless we want to make that explicit, we are left with the question of how to translate rabotai. Rabotai is a term of respect, as is gentlemen, but those are gendered. Friends is more casual, and is certainly appropriate if you change rabotai to chaverai. Y’all is a touch regional. The intent is to say hey, everybody, to get people to focus. Rabotai, everyone.

N’varech, let us bless.

The response is Psalm 113:2. It starts y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach, may the name of Adonai be blessed. There’s been a comprehensive shift during my lifetime from translating Adonai as Lord to simply using the word/term/name Adonai in place in translations. It’s one of the changes I welcomed quickly and easily.

While the passive voice is often best avoided, one important reason to use the passive here is because we are hoping for eternal praise for God, not that we personally always be here to do the praising. As “may we bless the name of Adonai now and forever,” it could come across as wishing for too much for ourselves, as well as distracting from the focus on God. We could say “blessed be the name of Adonai” instead, or a more interesting “May the name of Adonai be in blessings.” It can be easy to say we are thankful in a general way without paying attention to the source of what we are thankful for. This phrase says that thankfulness should be explicitly directed to God. And I’m interested in the idea of saying we want the name of Adonai to be in (our) blessings because it implies that we are still seeking to know the name of God.

Psalm 113:2 continues mei’atah v’ad olam, now and forever. We start our barech by setting a very large context. We do this because it should always be done, everywhere and always. That phrase “everywhere and always” captures the dual time and place meanings of olam. In the prayerbooks when I was growing up, olam in prayers was simply translated as world. It became more common to translate it as universe, and the new conservative machzor we used last night translates olam as time and space: melech haolam, ruler of time and space. A little astrophysics to ground us or to lift our spirits. But we don’t just want Adonai’s name to be in blessings everywhere and always; we want to bless Adonai ourselves, right now! Now and forever.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dangerous crib from Baby Cache and Munire

We discovered yesterday that there’s a dangerous aspect of the crib design in the Baby Cache Uptown crib. This defective crib is made by Munire and sold by Babies R Us. I don’t expect them to be selling unsafe cribs.

The front and back corner posts of the crib flare outwards toward the top. The slats are mostly straight, which means most of the openings are consistent. On the sides of the crib, the front slat is contoured to match the outward flare of the corner post. This is the slat with the green arrow pointing at it below.

The hazard is in the back slat on the sides. That back slat is perfectly straight, but the back corner post flares outwards. This creates a wedge-shaped opening instead of a consistent opening. This dangerous opening is highlighted by a red arrow in the photo below.

Yesterday afternoon, David was lying on his back in the crib, put his foot through the wedge-shaped opening near the top where the opening is wider, kicked his leg downwards, and got caught by the narrowing opening. He couldn't push or pull his leg free, he was hurt by having his leg jammed between these two pieces of wood, blood flow was being cut off, and fortunately he started screaming. I came and lifted his leg free, and made sure his leg just looked badly bruised and not broken.

David spent the next hour in complete terror of his crib. We worked so hard to pick out this crib. We read a ton of reviews, checked out the manufacturer’s reputation, checked the certifications, and spent a lot of money on a crib that we thought would keep our son safe. And now we’ve discovered that Babies R Us sold us a crib with a serious design flaw.

A standard bumper won’t prevent this, even if we were willing to use a bumper against the recommendations of our pediatrician.

Babies risk getting their legs and arms caught in crib openings when they put their hands or feet through and twist at various angles, but the openings are not usually tapered in a way that will vastly increase the risk of serious injury. This particular design flaw looks like it makes an injury more likely and makes it much harder for the baby to get his arm or leg free on his own.

For the moment, we’ve tied on some fabric vertically to completely block the problematic openings. I’m considering blocking the opening with wood, if I can be certain that I won’t create any worse risks in attempting to solve this one.

I am angry at Babies R Us, angry at Munire who makes the Baby Cache line of furniture for Babies R Us, and angry at the CPSC and JPMA for not having design guidelines that prevent this obvious danger in crib design. It wasn’t obvious to me until I saw it happen, but I’m not a safety expert. I depend on experts to do their jobs right, and they failed here.

I’m trying to focus on reporting the problem and finding a solution we can implement. I don’t want to think of this as a Crib of Death or a Danger Crib.

Update 1: Our experience matches the report of this Baby Cache Uptown Lifetime Crib - Natural being unsafe at saferproducts.gov.

Update 2 after a number of phone calls

Munire’s first response was that the federal government requires them to have this tapered opening in their side panel, which is obvious nonsense. The other component of their first response was that they have no interest in making their cribs safer than the minimum required by federal standards. That’s a repulsive attitude for a crib manufacturer. Angela at Munire (Baby Cache) kept interrupting me and then hung up on me.

The CPSC took an incident report, but they don’t have a good system for cross-referencing reports in their database. That makes it hard for them to compile accurate numbers about how many problems are reported for a particular crib. I was able to find several other reports about this exact crib, two of which precisely describe this problem with tapered openings.

The JPMA was helpful and friendly, and someone there is looking into whether this crib meets the crib standards. They are an industry association, but the people I talked to there seem to care about safety and talked to me about my concerns. They’re talking to folks on the ASTM subcommittee that sets the crib standards, so they’re my best hope for having a positive impact beyond my immediate problem.

When the crib standards were last updated, limb entrapments were an all-too-common problem with cribs (12% of reported injuries from cribs), leading to bruises and fractures. And nobody could figure out what to change in the standards to reduce limb entrapments, so they made no changes. I have an idea: don’t allow tapered openings. That won’t solve many limb entrapments, but it should reduce the total number.

Munire’s second response (from someone higher up than Angela) was that this crib has been discontinued, all of their cribs are JPMA certified and therefore safe, and that there’s absolutely nothing they could possibly do to improve safety as long as they meet federal standards. That attitude makes my skin crawl. They also want to replace the crib with a different model (Kensington) which they say is much better made.

Munire’s advertising for the Uptown crib says that it’s made from solid maple. On the phone, they say that the Uptown crib uses veneers. Munire’s advertising for the Kensington crib says that it’s made from a mix of solid wood and veneers. On the phone, they say that the Kensington crib uses just solid wood. Munire appears to be working hard to make sure customers can’t trust them. If I can’t fix the crib we have, I’d rather buy a crib from a different manufacturer.

Let’s move to Michigan

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Don’t panic

My rabbi talked in his sermon on Erev Rosh Hashanah about our unfortunate tendency to set aside what is important for what is urgent. We do not allocate our time well. (My mission to understand my worker’s comp policy is like that, an urgent but unimportant problem into which I’ve now sunk far too many hours.)

This sparked a couple of follow-on thoughts. In a crisis, the important and the urgent are identical. It’s also generally clear what the important and urgent needs are. Fire? Call the fire department and get everyone outside. Responding to a crisis can be easy and satisfying, in part because we don’t have to make a choice between the important and the urgent.

But in much of our lives, the urgent is not actually important. Yet when the urgent is presented as a crisis, or when we respond to the urgent as if it is a crisis, we are pretending that the urgent is also important. And we make the wrong choices.

If we are constantly presented with one crisis after another, we should adopt the best practices of professional crisis responders. Doctors don’t run in the halls. EMTs don’t run with patients on a stretcher. Police officers don’t dash through the doors of the bank being robbed. Tech support checks for the obvious problems first. They know that the best approach is to remain calm and steady, assess the situation, and respond in a measured and rational way. The problem is that we don’t all have their training, so we naturally respond to a crisis in panic mode. We drop everything to reply to a client, to reboot the server, to look at the page proofs, to order more widgets.

My most successful days include planning what I’m going to do with my time. Sometimes (ok, often) I set aside larger important work because I am not prepared to face it, or because I prefer the easy sense of accomplishment from completing smaller tasks. I can make more progress on larger tasks by breaking them down into smaller tasks, but that doesn’t always fool me into believing that completing step 17 out of 50 is really an accomplishment. If I’m not going to tackle the important work, I might as well tackle the urgent. The importance of the planning is that it allows me to remember that the urgent work is not the important work, and prevent the urgent work from seeming like a crisis.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Worker’s comp makes my head hurt

I had a nice simple worker’s comp policy, just covering me and one clerical employee. The premium was on the order of $200/year, almost none of which was actual risk. But it wasn’t worth worrying about at that rate. Then I hired a nanny for the summer and added her to the policy. And suddenly my agent couldn’t figure out anything, my underwriter turned out to be a very unpleasant person to talk to, and the audit division of the insurance company claimed they could fix most things at the end of the year but not little headaches like expense constants.

You don’t want to read the rest of this note unless you like thinking about worker’s comp. I resent having to think about it at all, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, but I needed to figure this out before we formally hired a part-time nanny for the fall today. So here’s what I’ve learned recently.

If you hire a domestic worker for less than 16 hours per week, you do not need to buy worker’s comp for that person. Source: http://www.mass.gov/lwd/workers-compensation/investigations/who-needs-workers-compensation-insurance-in.html. Is this true even if you have a worker’s comp policy covering other workers? What if there is a week at 20 hours, but most weeks are less than 16 hours and the average is less than 16 hours? Is it based on the highest week or the average week? If average, over what span of time? Can I hire one individual as a domestic worker for 15 hours per week and a clerical worker for 15 hours per week, and only cover them for their 15 hours as a clerical worker? (Assuming that the time split is documented well.)

This 16-hour limit is based on:
“The provisions of this chapter shall remain elective as to employers of seasonal or casual or part-time domestic servants. For the purpose of this paragraph, a part-time domestic servant is one who works in the employ of the employer less than sixteen hours per week.”

That suggests that a summer nanny, for example, would not need to be covered by worker’s comp even if they were full-time for that summer. But I haven’t yet found the definition of seasonal, let alone checked out case law on it. (And really, how much time am I going to put into this?)

The WCRIB of Massachusetts has out-of-date worker’s comp rates on their website in many places. For current rates, these are the best links I’ve found so far:

The expense constant is $159 for an earned standard premium of less than $200, $250 for an earned standard premium of $200 to less than $1000, and $338 for an earned standard premium of $1000 or more. Does the earned standard premium mean the calculated premium before any class code minimum premiums are applied? For example, class 0913 has a per capita premium of $188 for the year, but a minimum premium of $252. If that’s your only employee, is the expense constant $159 or $250? According to Basic Manual Rule VI-F-4 “The Admiralty or Federal Employers’ Liability Act Special Minimum Premium and the Classification Minimum Premium are not included in Subject Premium or Standard Premium.” So if the classification minimum premium is not included in the standard premium, then the expense constant based on the standard premium should be $159 in this example.

The expense constant for a domestic worker in a private residence is supposed to be $64 per worker, different from the threshhold-based expense constant in the paragraph above. Is the expense constant prorated for short-term employment? For my situation, it should not matter since I have a standard expense constant of either $159 or $250, and Basic Manual Rule XIV-G says “If a policy is written with both per capita and remuneration based exposure, only the larger of the per capita and standard expense constants is charged.” The standard expense constant is clearly higher than the per capita expense constant, so only the standard expense constant should apply. Updated: I had thought that this rule meant I should compare the per capita expense constant with the non-per-capita expense constant, but WCRIB says that the standard expense constant is calculated based on all premiums including per capita. At $64 per full-time domestic worker, I think the only way that the per capita expense constant would be higher if you also have payroll-based premiums is if you have four or more full-time domestic workers.

Is the expense constant added to your premium before or after the class code minimum premiums are calculated? My past experience says that it’s before, and Basic Manual Rule VI-E-4 says before as well.

A per capita rate is supposed to be prorated by the amount of time of actual employment. My insurance company audit department says that prorating means either half-year or full-year, rounded up. Is that right? Is the class code minimum premium also prorated? Basic Manual Rule XIV-E-3 says “Each pro rata charge shall be based on the period of employment but shall not be less than 25% of the per capita charge.” That’s not a very helpful answer, though it strongly suggests that the prorating should at least be done by 25% chunks rather than 50% chunks.

As a sole proprietor, I can elect to be covered by my worker’s comp policy. My income is presumed to be $41,300 for purposes of this coverage, so my calculated premium as an 8810 clerical worker would be $37.17 for the year. Hey, look, an easy one! There’s a few extra dollars for the terrorism surcharge (yes, there’s a terrorism surcharge), so it winds up costing about $40 as long as it doesn’t tip me over to the next higher expense constant.

Update after the annual audit, February 2013:

The state says that for a domestic worker who works 27% of the year (counting by days), the premium should be prorated to 27%. Travelers Insurance says that the prorating is 50% (initial estimate). Or 95% (first audit correction). Or 90% (second audit correction). Actually, they aren’t sure. They’re willing to go along with 27% since the state has given specific direction about my particular policy, but their computer is not willing. So it’s a manual override to 27%, with a note saying that they have no idea why their computer is giving different answers. And their annual audit procedure had no way to even document the start and end dates for the domestic worker.

And Travelers Insurance appears to believe that if the expense constant was ever calculated to be $250, even if that calculation was wrong, it should not be corrected to $159. So on a policy that should calculate out to $300, they charged $500, grudgingly corrected it to $495, and were dragged kicking and screaming to $390. To be fair, they did warn me last summer that they would have trouble with the expense constant at the time of the audit. But since it worked in their favor, they didn’t see the problem with waiting.

Bizarrely, Travelers Insurance is perfectly willing to apologize for any inconvenience, or for the processing delay, or for the hold time, but not for repeated overbilling. And despite having been through this in painful detail with them, I have no idea what they would try to charge me next year for the identical coverage.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Memento mori

I most recently wrote about 9/11 over a year ago. What I could not say in that post was that 6 hours before we saw the quilt, we found out we had been matched to adopt a baby, the baby who is now yelling downstairs. Life goes on, even as we remember the past.

I have friends who chose to marry on 9/11 a few years after the event to create new memories and associations for the date. Thank you to them for doing that, and for reminding me of it last night.

My state rep now was a sophomore in high school in 2001. My nation’s president now was a state senator in 2001. And 47 million people in our country today were not yet born in 2001. You and I remember, but they cannot. 9/11 is our national yahrzeit, but cannot remain so forever.

I want to remember the dead, and appreciate being alive. We owe them that.

Thoughts on translating the haggadah

I remember when I first started noticing that the English in the prayerbook did not match the Hebrew. I had thought I could find the words I knew in Hebrew, match them up with the English words, and start to learn the other Hebrew words. But the translations didn’t work that way, as translations often don’t. Some parts were close translations, but other parts wandered off apparently using the Hebrew simply as inspiration.

A close translation is important in many contexts: when studying the original language, when translating for a patient or doctor in a medical context, when translating in a courtroom or in a legal setting. But people differ as to how much poetic license they might want a translator to take in other contexts. A word for word translation is unlikely to capture rhythms and internal rhymes, cannot replicate wordplay and word associations, and will inevitably remove, change, and add nuances and emphases. All of these things affect the reader’s understanding of the text, but then no two readers understand a text identically anyway.

For the Passover haggadah, I’m looking for a translation of each passage that captures the primary intent of the passage, and I don’t believe the primary intent of any passage in the haggadah is to confuse or alienate the reader. The haggadah is explicitly intended for a broad audience, including children. The haggadah is the only Jewish text some people ever encounter, the only Jewish text some people ever read aloud, and the only Jewish text many people are ever asked to explain or discuss.

There cannot be a single ideal translation. But we can choose among translations which make sense to us now and which still honor the primary intent of the original language. Whatever we decide that intent is.

The good news is that no haggadah has to stand alone. No haggadah has to pretend to ask or answer all questions. Vardibidian can have his annotated haggadah with good commentary, and Shmuel can have his haggadah that tries as carefully as possible to replicate the nuances of the original Hebrew, and Lisa can have her haggadah with good transliterations, and the world’s shelves are large enough for all of these and thousands more. For those of us who care, we can find several best haggadot, each with different strengths and weaknesses, and the best ones for us will each be different.

I want to make a haggadah which can be of good service to many different readers in the moment at the seder table, including participants who are uncommitted, uncertain, untrained, or concerned about feeling unwelcome. The seder can be a positive experience for those participants as well, and the haggadah should help make it so.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A book for a friend


• • •

Will you tell me 
the story of what 

One night a fire happened at
our house. Fires are dangerous,
so we all went outside.

• • •

Firefighters came with lots of
firetrucks and hoses,
and they put the fire out.

• • •

Fires can happen anywhere,
but remember that we are all safe.
We will make sure we are ready in case
another fire does happen somewhere.

• • •

We will make sure we know how to go
outside, because the best thing to do if
a fire happens is to go outside.

Firefighters will always come and
put the fire out. The most important
question firefighters ask is whether
everyone is out of the building.

• • •

For a while, we won’t live at
our old home. Carpenters and
plumbers and electricians are
fixing our old home.

The house will be very noisy
and dirty while that is happening,
so we will stay somewhere else!

• • •

We may live with our friends. We
may live with your cousins or
grandparents. We may live in a hotel,
or in an apartment, or in a house.

No matter where we live,
you will have a place to sleep
and we will be together as a family.

• • •

We probably
will not live in
an underwater cave
with an octopus!

That would be very wet,
and the octopus might not have
enough beds for all of us.

• • •

What will I wear?

You will wear clothes, even if they are
different clothes! Friends and other
kind people will give us shirts, and
pants, and socks, and shoes, and hats,
and all the other clothes you need.

• • •

Some of your clothes are fine,
and just need to be cleaned.
That may take some time,
because there is a lot of cleaning to do.

• • •

Some of your toys were damaged
and can’t be fixed. Many of your toys
are too dirty to play with right now.
A few of your toys will come back
after they are cleaned.

• • •

We will find new toys to play with.

Some of the new toys we find
will be just like your old toys,
and some will be new!

• • •

We will read all sorts of new books!
We will read books from the library
and books that friends give us to read.
And we will look for other copies of
your favorite books, even if it takes
a while to find them.

• • •

Some of our books are fine,
and just need to be cleaned.
That may take some time,
because there is a lot of cleaning to do!

• • •

Will I still see my friends?

Yes! You will still see your friends at the
playground, or at daycare, or at school.
You will go to visit your friends at their
homes, and your friends will come visit
us wherever we are living.

• • •

Your friends may ask you questions
about what happened. It’s ok to talk
about the fire and how you feel.

• • •

Will you still sing me a song 
or tell me a story before I go to sleep?

Yes! Wherever we are, we will sing you
a song or tell you a story before you go
to sleep. We still have our voices,
and we still have each other.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Primary today

The only contested race around here (other than Governor's Council, meh) is South Middlesex Register of Deeds. 6 candidates, three of whom are tempting to vote for.

NOT Antonelli. What a disgrace.

Maryann Heuston is supported by the current Register, who is well-liked and well-respected. But she sent out a mailer saying nothing except that every local politician in the area supports her, with not a single reason as to why. That’s insulting. On the bright side, the Registry seems to work ok, and she has the background to build on that. As long as you think an 8-year backlog in record processing in one area is ok given that everything else basically works well, vote for Maryann Heuston. She has huge support in the political arena. To me, that’s a negative.

Maria Curtatone sent out the best political mailer I’ve seen for any race. Detailed, specific, great. She wants to make things work better, and also reduce the nepotism. (She’s the sister of Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, if you’re wondering.)

Tiz Doto also looks great. More emphasis on eliminating corruption, nepotism, and favoritism. Also wants to make things work better. Seems to be campaigning less hard than Maria, but also less local to me which can affect appearances. He has the most well-rounded experience of working with the registry, as an attorney, realtor, and title guy. I got his mailer very late, after I had already decided to vote for Maria.

I hope Maria or Tiz wins. I won’t be surprised or upset when Maryann does.

UPDATE: Maria won! Tiz came in last, which is better than siphoning more votes from Maria, I suppose. I hope Tiz is not too discouraged. I think some percentage of the electorate would have been happy to vote for him if Maria had not been in the race.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The four haggadot

Our tradition speaks of four types of haggadot: one which is wise, one which is wicked, one which is simple, and one which does not even know how to ask a question.

The wise haggadah, what are its features? It has commentary and encourages discussion. It is easy to read and eager to expand our understanding. This haggadah should be embraced as a study partner and celebrated as a resource both for the wise child and for the well-learned seder.

The wicked haggadah, what are its features? It alienates the seder participants, defies understanding, and encourages rifts in the community. This haggadah should be studied but never used.

The simple haggadah, what are its features? It allows us to focus on the most important components of the seder, and introduces new participants to the joy of celebrating Passover. This haggadah should be used but never studied.

As for the haggadah which does not even know how to ask a question? This is the haggadah which phrases its commentary in absolutist terms, which encourages compliance over discussion, and which therefore cannot expand our understanding. This haggadah should be neither studied nor used.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Four non-literal children, part 2

From The Wandering Is Over Haggadah:
Note: licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution‐ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Feel free to share, adapt and change the content. Please be sure and credit JewishBoston.com and the Jewish Women’s Archive (jwa.org).

As we tell the story, we think about it from all angles. Our tradition speaks of four different types of children who might react differently to the Passover seder. It is our job to make our story accessible to all the members of our community, so we think about how we might best reach each type of child:

What does the wise child say? The wise child asks, What are the testimonies and laws which God commanded you?
You must teach this child the rules of observing the holiday of Passover.
What does the wicked child say? The wicked child asks, What does this service mean to you?
To you and not to himself! Because he takes himself out of the community and misses the point, set this child’s teeth on edge and say to him:
“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”
Me, not him. Had that child been there, he would have been left behind.

What does the simple child say? The simple child asks, What is this? To this child, answer plainly:
“With a strong hand God took us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.”

What about the child who doesn’t know how to ask a question? Help this child ask. Start telling the story:
“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”
I like a lot of aspects of this translation. The language is clean and simple. None of the children are gendered except the wicked child. The wise child’s question is nicely simplified, though I’d still change the final word of that question to “us.” There’s a good introduction which explains our obligation to reach out to everyone. The types of children are not actually enumerated at the beginning, which is a step towards realizing that the children of the haggadah are oversimplified archetypes, not categories into which we should slot our own children.

Enumerating the children at the beginning better hews to a repeating pattern in the haggadah: a complete statement is made, and then is expanded upon. Adding something along the lines of the final sentence of the first paragraph above really completes the first paragraph.

I’m less enamored of starting each child with a rhetorical question to the reader. I think it only works well for the fourth child.

Testimonies in the wise child’s question may refer to either the stone tablets given to Moses containing the ten commandments, or to the ark containing the tablets. Can you imagine a wise child asking “What are the ten commandments?” To me, testimonies is so much more commonly a Christian term that it is jarring in this context. I still want to remove the word, and I’m a bit surprised that it was retained in this translation. Lisa points out that this may be the only place in the haggadah which mentions the stone tablets. So much of the movie Exodus Book of Exodus is left out of the haggadah (most notably any mention of Moses) to encourage questions and to make us tell the rest of the story in our own words.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Four non-literal children

The story of the four children/sons from the Passover haggadah neatly encapsulates many challenges in translating the haggadah: how faithful to be to the original Hebrew, how far to go towards egalitarian language (does anyone really care if the wicked child is referred to as “he”?), how to refer to God, which phrases are direct quotations of Torah passages and which phrases are restatements, when to use first and second and third person, how to think about both the reader and the intended audience.

Here’s a translation from the Red Sea Haggadah, posted on Open Source Haggadah:

The Torah speaks of four kinds of children: The wise child, the wicked, the simple one, the one too young to know to ask.
The wise child asks: "What mean the testimonies, and the statutes, and the judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded you?" (Deuteronomy 6:20) To that one, you explain all the laws of Passover, down to the very last detail about the Afikoman.
The wicked child asks: "What mean you by this service?" (Exodus 12:26) By saying "you," and not "we" or "me," he excludes himself from the group, and denies God. Answer that child plainly: "This is done because of that which the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:8) For me, not for you: had you been there in Egypt, you would not have been redeemed.
The simple child asks: "What is this?" Answer that one: "By strength of hand the Lord brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage." (Exodus 13:14)
Of the child too young to ask, it is written: "And thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)
Two questions leap out: (1) Why is the wise child not rebuked for saying “you,” when the wicked child is rebuked for saying “you”? (2) Why do the wicked child and the child too young to ask deserve the same answer? I prefer to change both the wise child’s question and the answer to the young child to the inclusive “us” and avoid those questions on an initial reading.

The Union Haggadah from 1923 begins:
By a fitting answer to the questions of each of the four types of the sons of Israel, does the Torah explain the meaning of this night's celebration.
I hate this translation. While the four children are still types rather than individuals, they are now the only types. And the answers to come are mere beginnings, not actual explanations.

From 1787:
Blessed is the Creator, blessed is he, blessed is he who gave the law to his people Israel, blessed is he whose law expresseth of these four different sorts of children. The wise, the wicked, the simple, and one not having the capacity of asking.

The wise saith, what mean these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God hath commanded us? then thou shalt say unto him according to the Paschal, as it is ordered us.

The wicked saith, what mean you by this service? by which expression, he draweth himself from the community and denies the omnipotence. Then shalt thou say unto him, on this account did the Lord do this unto me, on my going out of Egypt, to me and not to thee, for hadest thou been there, thou wouldest not have been redeemed.

The simple saith, what is this? and thou shalt say unto him, by strength of the Lord he brought us out from Egypt the house of bondage.

And to him not in capacity of asking, thou must inculcate knowledge into him, as it is written, and thou shalt declare unto thy son, in that day, saying, this is done because of that which the Lord did unto me, when I came forth from Egypt.
This translation is a great place to start. I want children, not sons. I want to repeat “child” more, though, to keep this passage focused on responding to our children, even though the types of children can certainly reflect aspects of any adult.

The Torah speaks of four sorts of children: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who cannot ask a question.

Then on to the children.

The wise child asks, “What are the meanings of these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us?” To that child we must explain all the laws of Passover, down to every detail of the Afikoman.

The wise child’s question is in contrast with the wicked child’s question in two ways: by whether the child is including himself in the community and by whether the child is acknowledging God.

Does the wise child’s question need to be so cumbersome? Testimonies? There has to be a better word to use there. We could echo the common “Ended is the Passover seder, according to custom, statute, and law” with What do these all mean, the customs, statutes, and laws which the Lord our God has commanded us? Or we could eliminate the direct question: The wise child asks about the meanings of all the customs, statutes, and laws of Passover which the Lord our God has commanded us. But then we don’t provide a direct example of how to ask. Should we divide up the wise child’s question into two questions, according to the two common translation options of what are they and what do they mean: What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments, which the Lord our God has commanded us? What do they mean? 

The wicked child asks, “What do you mean by this service?” This child is excluding himself from his community and denying God. To that child you shall say, I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt. For me and not for him; if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Not with that attitude, young man. The response to the wicked child is harsh, hopefully untrue, and memorable. There are some great discussions about whether the best literal translation to start the response to the wicked child is “blunt his teeth” or “set his teeth on edge.” What I haven’t run into is discussion about a difference between carnivores and herbivores being sharp teeth vs. blunt teeth, and that blunting his teeth is therefore a way of excluding him from partaking of the Passover offering, the roasted lamb. The wicked child excludes himself from the community, and we in turn exclude him from full participation.

Small word choices matter. The child is excluding himself from [his/the/our] community. Each of these have different implications. I prefer “his” because a seder often includes participants who are not part of the Jewish community, and because it indicates that even when the child is excluding himself, the community does not actually stop being his community.

The simple child asks, “What is this?” Tell him, with a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, where we were slaves.

Out of Egypt, rather than forth from Egypt, because the simple answer starts with escaping slavery. Coming forth from Egypt implies the journey toward, whether it is toward freedom, toward Israel, or toward receiving the Torah. The Hebrew very nicely repeats “out of”: out of Egypt, out of the slave house. There are additional layers of meaning with that phrasing, saying that we were brought out of Egypt and out of the slave house, while directly equating Egypt with a slave house.

For the child who cannot ask a question, you must teach him, as it is written: And you shall show your child on that day, saying, we do this because of what the Lord did for us when we came forth from Egypt.

Show your child along with the words, because words may not be enough for a child who cannot ask a question. Reinforce the inclusive “we” as much as possible, both to reassure the child that he is included and to contrast with the exclusion of the wicked child.

If the same translation is used for the response to the wicked child and the silent child, then I’d want to put the wicked child after the silent child, and explain that the identical answer is because the wicked child’s question is no more meaningful than not asking a question at all. This is a softer way of dealing with the wicked child (and one I haven’t seen discussion of), though much less faithful to the traditional approach.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Table Talk

Table Talk featuring Steven Marshall was one of our favorite pieces when we saw reMIX by Momix on Long Island last weekend.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Money does grow on trees

We’d like to prune our two small ornamental fruit trees in our front yard: a crabapple and a Japanese cherry. When we pruned the crabapple in 2011, it was a major structural pruning starting with a larger form than now, and cost $90. The Japanese cherry is smaller (taller, but much less mature, much smaller diameter, and much less work needed). Seemed like it should be $150-$180 to do both trees.

AC, who did the pruning in 2011 for $90 on one tree, quoted us $260 for the two trees this year.

BTP quoted us $275. The guy seems to have a better idea of what we’re aiming for, but they also recommend that we do winter moth spraying with spinosad/Conserve (early on the fruit trees for $75, later on the large maple out back for $125). And fertilize the large maple for $90, or $150 if we fertilize from the neighbor’s side as well. And do a thinning on the large maple for $875 to remove dead wood and improve air flow. These all seem like nice things to do, but not necessary.

I’d rather pay someone by the hour for the pruning, if I could find someone who knew what they were doing, talked to us about what we wanted, and then did a careful job.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The plumbing adventure begins

A simple problem: our kitchen sink drains too slowly. We tried plunging, which never did much. We tried an enzyme-based drain cleaner, which didn’t help. And as of today, slowly means in terms of geologic eras, and the dishwasher drain is on a sympathy strike. Which makes sense since they both go into the same drain pipe, though I can get the sink to drain a bit and I can’t get the dishwasher to drain at all. Everything else in the house seems to be draining fine, so it shouldn’t be the sewer line. Snake-It-Away will show up tomorrow morning at 7:30 and fix the problem for $135. Hopefully with a mechanical solution, rather than by pouring $135 of caustic chemicals down the drain.

We have a lot of these simple plumbing problems. A broken outdoor pipe to an outside faucet (needs a new pipe run indoors to a new location out back, since this location is too exposed for a pipe). A leaking gate valve shutoff to a different outside faucet (needs a better ball valve shutoff). Two leaking house gate valve shutoffs in series (needs a better ball valve shutoff, which means coordinating with the city to shut off water from the street for half a day). More complicated: a leaking cast iron drain junction (needs to be carefully patched with PVC without damaging the rest of the main stack, and which means disconnecting and moving a godawful heavy washing machine and then reconnecting it afterwards). And if we had a plumber who could tackle all of these things, we could talk about running a line for our refrigerator, or adding a little sink to our quarter bath, or someday redoing our kitchen or main bathroom. And fixing some of the odd gas piping in the house.

But we’ll start with this one, since I like having a dishwasher and kitchen sink.

Update 8/29/2012: Snake-It-Away showed up at 7:40, charged $125, used a powered snake, and pointed out that the sink trap is too low to be removable and the drain pipe in the basement has no cleanout port. They were able to take apart the drain pipe in the basement where it first goes to horizontal, and run the snake through to the main stack. And now the drain works properly for both the sink and the dishwasher. Their advice for the future is that every 6 months we should stopper the sink, fill the sink up with warm water, and then let the whole sink of water drain at once to help flush the drain pipe.

If we have a drain problem with the Bosch dishwasher in the future that isn’t affecting the sink, here are a couple of useful references:


Update 2/16/2013

Main water shut-off: The city put in a new water shutoff before the meter when they changed our water meter, so we can use that. The worn-out water shutoff is still in place and doesn’t work very well, but it’s harmless if we don’t use it. We now have a new ball valve (lever) shutoff where the incoming water goes horizontal at the basement ceiling, which works great.

The leaking gate valve shutoff to the driveway faucet has been replaced by a nice new ball valve (lever) shutoff.

The drain for the washing machine now goes into the drain pipe between the utility sink drains. The previous drain standpipe has been capped so it can’t leak sewer gases. The cracked cast iron drain junction near the main stack has been patched with a marine epoxy and then wrapped with a clear plastic seal, and should only have water in it if the main drain line for the house backs up.

Which it now has.

The first call was to the city water department at 781-393-2403, and they came out about 30 minutes later to check the sewer line in the street. Everything is running correctly there, so we’re waiting for Snake-It-Away to return to clean out the main drain line in the house between the stack and the street. The sewer line is backed up into the utility sinks (though far more into the closer of those sinks than the other), and apparently forced some water out the base of the downstairs toilet? I’m not sure how that happened.

We thought it was just a clogged drain pipe between the utility sinks and the main stack, and I bought a snake at Home Depot yesterday to try tackling that today. I’m glad we discovered that it’s a bigger problem than that before opening up the trap cleanout below the utility sinks.

Snake-It-Away thought they solved the problem by snaking the main drain from the cleanout to the house trap, but that didn’t work for the basement utility sinks and washing machine drain. That required opening the trap cleanout, opening the vent cleanout, snaking in all directions, and then finally using a compressed air charge down each of the sink drains with all other connected openings plugged with rags or plungers in order to get things working. We’ll see if that does it.

The snake down the main drain went about 20 feet towards the street before hitting what the plumber thinks is a house trap, which was apparently common in older houses as a way to stop sewer gases from coming up the main drain into the house. He recommends digging out that house trap and replacing it with straight drain pipe, but I’m not convinced that’s feasible or wise. My uninformed guess is that it is possible to snake through a house trap if necessary, since so many houses have house traps.

Trenchless drain replacement is now an option, where a company uses the old drain line to pull a new drain line. There’s a couple of options depending on how much you want to break apart or blow up the old drain line as you go, but it’s a way to solve a tree root problem or a collapsed drain line problem. Not sure what happens when a trenchless operation hits a main house trap.

On our “to do” list: Replace the driveway sillcock with a frost-proof one. Replace the burst pipe section under the back deck. Possibly find a new location for a back yard sillcock, perhaps on the park side. Run a water line to the refrigerator. Find out what would be involved in replacing the main stack (and how we know it’s necessary), replacing the main drain (and how we know it’s necessary), redoing all lead-soldered connections, moving items around the kitchen, adding a sink to the first floor bathroom, and moving items around the second floor bathroom.

Lead testing

Lead is a bad thing to ingest. How bad? Don’t worry about it.

Lead is a good thing to test. When? Don’t worry about it. How? Don’t worry about it.

I find lack of information leads to more worrying than an abundance of information, so here’s what I’ve learned:

The CDC used to tell everyone not to worry about blood lead levels less than 10 µg/dl in children up to age 6, but recently lowered that to less than 5 µg/dl. So if it’s less than 5, everything is fine.

Unless you believe the studies which all agree that there is no safe level. There was nothing magical about 10, and there’s nothing magical about 5. There are just cost/benefit analyses. A few µg higher will cost you a few IQ points permanently, but you probably weren’t going to use all those IQ points anyway. The lower the lead level, the more IQ points each µg costs you.

What can you do to reduce blood lead levels? Reduce exposure. Chelation is not recommended for moderate amounts of lead.

Blood lead testing only measures exposure over the past month or two. It’s not the same as measuring uptake into various tissues.

EP or ZPP testing can give some additional info:

The EP helps to determine whether the lead in the child's system is having any type of effect on the body that we can measure. EP is one of the only ways to look for an effect of lead on the child. By looking at EP we can get a better idea of how much lead is in the body. Another way to think about EP is this: because EP is made in the body’s tissues, if EP is elevated, it suggests that other body tissues (such as the kidney or brain) are also being affected by the lead.

The EP can sometimes also be used to determine for how long the child was exposed to lead. It can also determine whether the child is still being exposed to lead; when children have another exposure to lead, the EP will rise. Finally, the EP helps the doctor to manage the child’s lead poisoning; as the lead poisoning is treated (for example, with chelation), the EP falls to the normal range.
Back to blood lead level testing. There are different testing methods, and the results are not always consistent. They have varying degrees of accuracy, varying lower threshholds, and may consistently underestimate or overestimate the amount of lead in the sample.

Winchester Hospital reports out any result less than 1.4 as simply less than 1.4. Boston Children’s Hospital uses GFAAS and reports out any result less than 2 as simply less than 2. Quest reports out any result less than 3.3 or 3.5 as simply less than 3.3 or 3.5 (according to our pediatrician).

I’d love to find a local lab that uses ICP-MS, which can be reasonably accurate down to 0.1, but no luck yet.

Some sources: www.who.int/ipcs/assessment/public_health/lead_blood.pdf, www.clevelandcliniclabs.com/portals/66/PDF/TechBriefs/LeadTechBrief.pdf, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2212280/, http://www.childrenshospital.org/clinicalservices/Site1899/mainpageS1899P7.html, http://www.childrenshospital.org/clinicalservices/Site1899/mainpageS1899P6.html, calls to Boston Children’s Hospital Chemistry Lab (don’t bother with Lab Control, Drawing Lab, or the Blood Donor Center).

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Progress at Readercon

The Readercon Board of Directors has resigned or announced that they will resign. The old board stepping down is not a complete fix, but is a necessary step. There are hundreds of people who signed the petition and said they would not attend Readercon in the future unless this happened. The old board lost all credibility on the issues of keeping attendees safe, respecting women, and following their own established rules. The old board also would not have been able to set new rules of any sort and have anyone believe them. And by remaining in place, they would have compounded this public relations disaster.

I have no idea if the old board members are fleeing entirely in a huff or are going to stick around to pass on knowledge, answer questions, assist in the transition, and/or continue to do some of the work involved in keeping the con going. They don't need to continue to be on the board in order to do those things, and hopefully the community will not sense blood in the water and demand that the old board members also be permabanned from any association with Readercon. Many people love Readercon and recognize that some or much of what we love about Readercon is due to the hard work of the old board members. It's just that after this debacle, the old board members can no longer effectively set policy, enforce policy, or be a public face of the leadership of Readercon. The con needs new people to do those things.

I am relieved to know that the board members have recognized what the community needs to hear soon from a new board: This is not your father's Readercon board. Though perhaps phrased differently.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Say something

I’ve been going to Readercon for many years, almost every year. It’s my local con, and has had a satisfyingly high percentage of Things I Enjoy At Cons. I’ve heard marvelous readings, discovered new authors, met authors I admire, listened to interesting talks, and always enjoyed the bad fiction event.

And it looks like I won’t be going back as long as they refuse to protect attendees.

Despite an undisputed case of repeated harassment this year and a written policy of banning harassers for life, Readercon only banned the harasser for two years. That reflects badly on Readercon, drives people away from attending the con if they feel either vulnerable or sufficiently offended, and adds an unpleasant tinge to the idea of going in the future.

You know what else does that? The fact that apparently not a single other person* who was aware of the harassment while it was going on reported it to anyone in charge or intervened to confront the harasser themselves.

Following an inadequate response after the fact from Readercon, there is now a strong and outraged community response. Where was that community response in the moment?

“Stop following her.”

“Stay away from her.”

“You are making her uncomfortable. Step away right now.”

Any of those may not be enough to stop the harassment. But they are enough to send a message to the harasser, to the target of the harassment, and to the other people nearby that the behavior is unwelcome and that the target of the harassment has support.

The target of the harassment spoke up for herself in the moment. Repeatedly. Good for her, and I wish that had been enough. But it wasn’t enough, and a bunch of people acting as silent human shields in a crowded environment is not the same as a bunch of people speaking up.

Readercon has always been more focused on words than on visuals. It’s even in the name. There’s a remarkably high percentage of authors at Readercon—people who make their living off the power of words. The programming includes lots of readings, highlighting the power of words uttered by the human voice. So use your words, people. Don’t wait for someone else to say something. You are the someone else. Act like it.

Or stop acting surprised when a small group of overworked con organizers act like hypocrites too.

*Perhaps someone other than the target of the harassment did speak up at the con. But that’s not prominent in the narratives I’ve read, whereas the number of untaken opportunities to speak up are prominent. Even if someone else may have spoken up, it does not excuse you from your own responsibility to speak up. Personally, I don’t want to know that Readercon will take some appropriate action in the weeks after the con. Well, I do, but that’s not the point. I want to know that other con attendees will actively help keep their fellow attendees safe right then and there.

Edited to add: In Elf’s link roundup, this post has been bizarrely labeled with a warning for apologetics. That’s ironic, since that’s what I feel people are doing when they excuse the passive onlookers for failing to speak up. I clearly say that the harasser did wrong things, that the target repeatedly did the right thing, that Readercon’s original decision was wrong, that the Readercon board acted like hypocrites, and that I’m boycotting Readercon as long as the board’s original decision stands. I do criticize the passive onlookers—the people other than the target who said nothing when seeing the harassment taking place. The problem, apparently, is that community consensus is that the only wrongs were done by the harasser and the Readercon board, and that pointing out any other failures is somehow read (at least by Elf) as mitigating those wrongs. I don’t view it that way, any more than criticizing the Readercon board’s original decision mitigates the wrongs done by the harasser.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Let God sort them out

Stop wishing that more people in the theater had been armed. Just stop.

Problem #1: Bad Guy (BG) set off two smoke grenades. Not a problem for BG, since he doesn’t care who he’s shooting. Huge problem for Armed Good Guy #1 (AGG1), who is far more likely to shoot other people than shoot BG. Because the thing about a darkened smoke-filled room is that you can’t see very well. Adding armed good guys adds to the body count.

Problem #2: BG was also shooting bullets into an adjoining theater because his bullets were penetrating the wall. If AGG1 is in the adjoining theater when bullets start flying in that theater, is he going to shoot BG who isn’t even in that theater, or is he going to shoot other people who are in that theater?

Problem #3: BG starts firing. Then AGG1 starts firing. This is what you wanted, right? What does AGG2 do? He sees BG and AGG1 both firing. They’re not wearing signs saying who they are. He should, under your logic, try to shoot either or both of BG and AGG1. And thereby becomes a valid target himself for AGG3 through AGG9. And that’s with only a few percent of the audience armed.

Problem #4: Bullets don’t always hit their targets, even when the person firing is highly trained. There’s a good reason that cops don’t usually fire into crowds.

Problem #5: BG was wearing body armor. Exactly what type of ammo are you wishing was standard? Do you understand that if AGG1 is firing armor-piercing rounds in a crowd and hits someone who isn’t wearing body armor, he’s likely to hit the person behind as well?

Your fantasy that the shooter can be stopped by more people being armed depends on everybody else having perfect judgment, perfect aim, perfect sight, perfect situational awareness, and God-like abilities to identify the intentions of every person with a visible weapon. That’s a lovely fantasy, as long as you recognize it as a fantasy. Because a lapse or failure in any one element of your fantasy will more likely lead to a higher body count than a lower one.

If you try to turn your fantasy into a movie, you’ll find a willing audience. If you try to turn your fantasy into actual policy, you’re delusional and dangerous. Sadly, in this country you’ll still find a willing audience.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bumping noses

Photo by Michael

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Trying to figure out 529 plans

I’ve been trying to figure out whether we should set up a 529 plan for our son. It’s a particular type of investment account for saving for college education. Federal taxes on the earnings are deferred, and as long as you spend the money on college expenses, you don’t pay federal taxes when you take the money out.

What if it’s a mistake? What if you need the money for something else? You can take the money out, but you pay federal taxes on the earnings and a 10% tax penalty as well. But the 10% tax penalty is only on the earnings, not the principal, so if you had any significant amount of compounding tax-free then the additional compounding will largely offset the 10% penalty. I tried running scenarios of 4 years, 10 years, and 17 years with a compounding calculator, assuming 4% earnings or 10% earnings. That gave me a range of possibilities, and the tax penalty was just not that bad. For example, put $1000 into a 529 and grow it tax-free for 10 years at 4%, and you have $1480.24. Pull that out and pay the 10% penalty and 15% tax on the $480.24 of earnings, and you’re left with $1360.18. But if you had used a regular investment account instead and paid 15% federal taxes each year, you’d be compounding at 3.4% (earn 4% and pay 0.6% in taxes each year), and your $1000 would turn into $1397.03. That’s not a whole lot better, so the mistake scenario doesn’t look too costly. The higher the compounding rate, the less important the 10% penalty is. It’s certainly a smaller penalty than the bonus on the flip side of not having to pay taxes on the money spent on college.

The tax penalty is larger if you compare it to an investment strategy that defers the federal taxes, such as buying and holding stocks for many years. But the variation in earnings from different investments seems much larger than the variation due to tax strategy. And that’s the biggest difference with a 529 plan—in a 529 plan, someone else makes essentially all the investment decisions. Each plan is essentially a mutual fund. I don’t know anything about choosing mutual funds, and this is a way not to have to worry about the choice repeatedly over time. Just pick a 529 plan, and call it a day. That appeals to me.

But you still have to choose a plan, and that’s annoying. Every state has one or more plans, and they’re all a little different. If your state doesn’t offer you any specific advantage for choosing your own state’s plan, then there’s no reason to choose your own state’s plan. New York has one direct-sold plan, but a bunch of options within that plan. You can just let the plan choose an option based on how old the child is (and let the plan automatically adjust to more conservative options as college draws closer), which is what we are likely to do. I no longer kid myself that I have an investment philosophy, so I like the idea of letting someone else make the decisions, at least with this.

So a 529 is a Roth IRA with really limited options, where the money is used for college instead of retirement.

A lot of other questions about 529s were pretty well answered for me at www.savingforcollege.com/grandparents/ since apparently I think more like a grandparent than like a parent. You can change the beneficiary to another family member of the original beneficiary. Other people can contribute money if they want. You can use the money for trade school or grad school, but not for private high school. And this is different from a tuition prepayment program, which is an entirely different proposition.

I’m still hesitant to set this up, because I don’t think college financing will look anything like it does today when my son is old enough to go to college. The current system is not sustainable. But I suspect there will still be higher education options, and those options will still cost money, so money will still be helpful. And if it’s not, or if my son doesn’t want a higher education, or if he finds a free ride somehow, then the 10% penalty isn’t so bad. That’s something of a comfort.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Library in a camper

I’m working on shelving plans for my home office this summer. Angled shelves aren’t the most efficient use of space, but sure are appealing.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered

The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered
Clive James

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy’s much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life’s vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one’s enemy's book—
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler’s War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper 
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee’s Promenades and Pierrots—
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor’s Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
“My boobs will give everyone hours of fun”.

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error—
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets! 
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The singular of data is anecdote

Good customer service usually happens because something has gone wrong.

Elephant Walk screwed up a takeout order on Saturday night, putting rice into Lisa’s “no rice because I’m allergic to rice” dinner. (A forgivable though frustrating mistake.) So they remade it, which consisted of scraping out 95% of the rice, waiting an appropriate length of time, and giving it back to Lisa. (An insane and callous move.) We discovered this an hour later. I called the manager, who was appalled and genuinely apologetic. Within 20 minutes he had figured out where their order system was truncating messages and fixed it, refunded the entire order, made her a new dinner and added in a couple of her favorites, and was hopefully making plans to retrain the relevant kitchen staff on food allergies. And he offered to personally oversee our next takeout order to make certain that it wasn’t screwed up.

AmEx sends an occasional rebate check on one of my cards, and they bury it with advertising in the back of a statement so it's easy to miss. Today they called me to let me know that I had missed one worth over $400 that would be expiring in a couple of months!

What’s your latest experience of good customer service?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Parents of young children must be bad customers

As parents of a 6-month-old, we’ve had occasion to go shopping. A lot. We’ve hit a few local stores—Magic Beans (three locations), Henry Bear’s Park (two locations), Tadpole, Isis (two locations), Wild Child, Giggle, Baby Warehouse, Bellini (two locations)—and it’s been rather startling how restrictive the return policies are. The last one we went into was limited to 14 days, with a receipt, for store credit only.

This suggests that returns are a huge problem for these stores. Are parents doing retail renting? Experiencing buyer’s remorse? Discovering that products aren’t as good as advertised? Or just shopping on Amazon after they get an item home and finding it cheaper there, or showing it off at a playdate only to be told there’s a better choice in that product category, or finding that their child has outgrown the item in just a few weeks (since a lot of baby products are only good for a very brief developmental stage)?

Amazon goes the other way, offering 365-day returns on a lot of baby purchases. They may be counting on a lot of baby purchases being bulky and a pain (or expensive) to ship back, or they may have found that customers buy more when they feel more protected by a generous return policy. Babies R Us keeps track of your purchases for you, takes returns for 90 days, and goes outside that when pressed. But the local stores really act like they’ve been burned repeatedly.

Perhaps we’ve been insanely lucky so far (or very undiscriminating), but we haven’t wanted to return almost anything. We only returned a few outfits that we received duplicates of, and a travel bassinet that the manufacturer said wasn’t safe to use. We enjoy passing along to friends items that David has outgrown, and there are plenty of local swap or donation options if that ever fails. I know this, but I still wonder about a place that only offers store credit for a product returned the next week unopened.