Sunday, October 20, 2013

Balancing the budget, $23.95 at a time

We mailed an international envelope with $23.95 in postage on it. The post office cancelled the postage and returned the envelope marked “postage due,” demanding another $16.60 because it wasn’t a flat rate envelope. Except that it was.

They marked up the envelope to make it unusable, so we have to repack the order. They marked up the postage to make it unusable, so we have to pay for new postage. The post office should look at what happened, apologize, and cover the postage on the replacement package. But the reality is that the $23.95 is gone, because the only recourse that the post office offers is to fill out a form requesting a refund, which the post office will sit on for months and eventually refuse in the hope that we won’t appeal.

Mistakes happen. This one was that an incompetent postal worker didn’t know the post office’s own range of envelopes, and couldn’t be bothered to read the words “Flat Rate” printed on the envelope. What bugs me isn’t the mistake. It’s that the post office’s policy is to penalize the customer for their worker’s mistake.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ghosts of evil past

RadioBoston asked what questions people have for Martha Coakley. Here’s one:

According to lawyers all over the area when you were district attorney, you trained a generation of ADAs to lie in court, withhold evidence, and disregard both truth and justice, all to further your pursuit of higher political office. As attorney general, you have quashed investigations into Beacon Hill, allowed insurance rates to skyrocket, and failed to address the mortgage crisis in any way that truly helps homeowners or punishes banks. When you insisted on arguing a case before the Supreme Court yourself, you somehow failed to convince a conservative pro-prosecutor Supreme Court to rule in favor of prosecutors. That ruling is what has now led to the fallout from Annie Dookhan being such a mess. As governor, who would you lie to, lie about, threaten, or lock up in order to improve education, transportation, human rights, and economic opportunity in the Commonwealth?

Here is what I wrote in 2010. I still believe it to be true:

Martha Coakley is deeply unprincipled. She serves her own ambition, and nothing else. She does not believe in the rule of law, or fairness, or justice. She willfully damaged her community as a prosecutor over and over again. She sanctioned child molestation, shielded predators, and persecuted the innocent. And when given the responsibility to hire and train young attorneys, she coached them to lie to judges, conceal evidence, and do everything in their considerable power to destroy people’s lives, innocent or not, in a quest for headlines.

I will not consent to give a person like that my vote.

While I would prefer that political candidates be, on the whole, cut from better cloth than they generally are, I do not refuse to vote for candidates simply because they are thoroughly flawed. I do not refuse to vote for candidates simply because their ideals, principles, beliefs, goals, or actions are at odds with some of mine. I can overlook a lot, but I cannot vote for a person I truly believe is evil. I believe with all my heart that Martha Coakley’s success has been a triumph of evil.

I know that there are many good people and informed people who will vote for Martha Coakley. You, dear reader, may be one of those people. You may believe that Martha Coakley cannot possibly be as bad or dangerous or immoral as all that, or you may believe that there are other concerns which warrant voting for someone who is. If so, please know that I disagree. 

Voting for Carl Sciortino

I’m voting for Carl Sciortino for Congress, and I encourage everyone in this district to do the same. This is not criticism of the other candidates. This is wholehearted enthusiasm for Carl.

I’ve known Carl for many years as my state rep. I actually spoke with him as a state rep before I was redistricted into his district a couple of years ago. I’ve seen him at dozens of public meetings and events, and I’ve spoken with him at length about issues ranging from taxes to transportation to arts funding to CORI reform. He is smart, thoughtful, friendly, and genuine. (That’s not true of enough people, let alone enough politicians.) When I have talked with him about an issue that was new to him, he has listened to my thoughts, gone and learned more, and then gotten back to me. I agree with him on many issues, but more importantly I trust his priorities. He values people, he values transparency, and he values clear and open communication. He is clear about his views without dismissing others.

Carl has also been a very effective state rep. He has been a leader within the legislature on transportation issues, education reform, and human rights. He has been extremely accessible to his constituents, open to talking to anyone. I’ve often written in his name when I was not satisfied with the choices on the ballot for various races. I would love to have him as my Congressman.

Our Congress is currently extremely broken. I’m under no illusion that Carl will be able to fix that. But he will stand up for progressive values without increasing the polarization, he will work to pass and improve legislation that can make it through a broken Congress, and he will be in a good position to help our country become a better country as Congress eventually returns to the important work of governing.

So I’m voting for Carl Sciortino, and I hope you do as well.

A lecture on October 28

Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp hosts Political Science Professor Ben Berger in a lecture:

"Guilty—with an explanation: Moral engagement and disengagement in democractic life"

Each day we engage with certain moral principles and follow through with appropriate actions. We also selectively disengage from other moral principles. How do these processes work? Should some kinds of moral engagement and disengagement concern liberal democracies more than others? This topic bridges research from political theory, moral philosophy, social psychology, and cognitive neuroscience.

Monday, October 28, 2013
Reception with hors d'ouevres and wine at 6 pm, talk begins at 7 pm

Boston Marriott Copley Place
110 Huntington Ave
Boston, MA 02116

RSVP by October 21 to the Alumni Relations Office at or 610-328-8402.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Early intervention is many things

Early intervention is periodic formal testing of your child, telling you whether or not your child is sufficiently developmentally delayed to qualify for service.

Early intervention is periodic formal testing of your child, telling you whether or not your parenting has been adequate.

Early intervention is seeing your child qualify for services, then learn to walk, then actually start early intervention and have early intervention take credit for teaching him how to walk.

Early intervention is weekly visits to your home where a specialist works with your child on whatever skills you want them to focus on. The specialist answers your questions, offers suggestions, explains their methods, and includes you as a parent in the planning and the activities.

Early intervention is weekly visits to your home where a specialist works with your child on whatever skills the specialist wants to focus on. The specialist undermines your authority in the home and disrupts the nature of your home as a safe space.

Early intervention is weekly written notes evaluating your child, creating an enormous set of paper records that cannot possibly help your child. Early intervention is also being handed written notices telling you your legal rights over and over and over again, as if they can’t believe that you’re honestly not going to exercise your rights to escape from early intervention.

Early intervention is a playgroup with structured activities that you have to fight to get your child into for six months, while they keep promising that admission is right around the corner. Early intervention is where your toddler with excellent motor skills is placed in a group with barely crawling infants. Early intervention is where healthy snacks are fruit punch, cookies, and Froot Loops, where a rule against fruit means serving grapes or jam-filled cookies, where a rule against bare feet means that only some of the kids have bare feet, and where the teaching assistants barely seem to have a clue how to interact with a child. Early intervention is where the group’s daily schedule is written out, posted on the wall, and completely ignored. Early intervention is where the changing table is broken, the carpets aren’t cleaned correctly, and your wallet is stolen. Early intervention is continually dashed expectations and broken promises.

Some days, early intervention is a teacher misjudging your child’s emotional state, refusing to respect your knowledge about your child, and silently disregarding your instructions.

Some days, early intervention is a teacher telling you that you’re the one holding your child back. What a nasty thing to tell a parent, no matter whether it’s true.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Can't get away from the news

So the House of Rs has shut down the government, hurting a lot of people. Possibilities: 1. They think they'll gain a long-term political advantage by doing this, and that's worth hurting a lot of people. 2. They think they'll actually win some or all of their latest demands, and that's worth hurting a lot of people. 3. Shutting down the government and hurting a lot of people is not a means to an end; this is the actual goal.

I don't really care which of these is true. I just want to go visit Acadia National Park and forget about the news. And I can't, because the national parks are all closed.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Questions that should not be hard for a health insurance plan to answer

Is a lab in-network for my insurance plan?

CIGNA's answer: Maybe. There's no way to know for sure, unless you use Quest. See what happens. Depends on who decides to bill under which provider number. Answers from the lab or from CIGNA in advance do not correlate to how the claim is processed. No way to obtain a definitive answer that you can then rely on.

If a lab is in-network, should the insurance plan cover the out-of-network pathologist claim tied to that lab as if the pathologist were in-network?

CIGNA's answer: No. Yes. Maybe. No written policy.

If a lab is not in-network, should a claim be paid as in-network if an in-network doctor chose them?

CIGNA's answer: No. Tough luck, you should always check on which lab your doctor is using for every test, even though we offer no definitive answers on whether any given lab is actually in-network. But no written policy saying this.

If a lab is not in-network, should a claim be paid as in-network if nobody in-network can provide the same test?

CIGNA's answer: No. Yes. Maybe. Could fall under medical necessity, but that would probably require an appeal and massive cooperation from your doctors.

If a lab is not in-network, how can the insurance company say that the lab failed to follow insurer guidelines and therefore the patient owes nothing to the lab?

CIGNA's answer: Um, well, that's what the EOB says, but we might change that later, and there is no way to guarantee finality.

If a lab is not in-network, how can the insurance company apply a discount to the amount that we owe the lab?

CIGNA's answer: No answer.

Does a payment to an out-of-network provider cross-accumulate toward the in-network individual deductible? Toward the in-network family deductible? Toward the in-network individual out-of-pocket maximum? Toward the in-network family out-of-pocket maximum?

CIGNA's answer: Yes to all of these. But not until the out-of-network claim is actually processed, even if that takes much longer than any other claims. And we won't give this information in writing.

If the order of claims affects how much the patient owes, should claims be processed in order of date of service? In order of date of claims submission? In whatever order most benefits the patient? In whatever order most benefits the insurer?

CIGNA's answer: In order of date of claims submission, subject to a lot of random variation, with hints of an internal policy of rigging the processing order to benefit CIGNA. No written policy, not even an internal written policy answering this question.

If claims are processed in the wrong order, how can that be corrected? Can $1000 that the insurer wrongly told the patient to pay to 20 different providers be reimbursed by the insurer directly to the patient, since the providers have already been paid? If the insurer now sends payments to 20 different providers that duplicate payments that the insurer already told the patient to pay, can we get a list of those payments? Can amounts that the HRA wrongly paid on the patient’s behalf be reimbursed directly to the patient? Restored to the HRA?

CIGNA's answer: Claims are always processed in the correct order. Mistakes cannot happen. You can always appeal, but you cannot reference any written policy about how claims should be processed. Duplicate payments to in-network providers can only be sent by CIGNA to the providers, with no tracking of those payments available to the customer. If an amount was wrongly paid by the HRA, the customer must convince the provider to refund the HRA payment to CIGNA, who will then theoretically put the money back into the HRA account, where the customer can then submit manual requests for the HRA to send payments to other providers. So if CIGNA told the HRA to pay Doctor A and told the customer to pay Doctor B, and then CIGNA later decides to pay Doctor A themselves, the customer must convince Doctor A to refund the HRA payment to CIGNA, wait for CIGNA to put it back into the HRA, then ask CIGNA to pay Doctor B with the HRA funds, wait for that payment to go through, and then convince Doctor B to refund the customer's original payment to Doctor B. Because what could go wrong?

The above questions are really about how the health insurance plan should work. Then there’s the parallel questions of how it will work, since practice and theory differ. It seems like somebody should be able and willing to provide authoritative answers to at least some of those questions, in a way which we can then insist that the insurer abide by those answers. But, well, no.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Roof notes

(with links I want to save)

Because the solar companies told us we need to deal with our roof, we started learning about roofs. They’re much more complicated than I thought. The big problem for us is the chimney flashing, which is not in great shape. We don’t want more lead on the house, but lead flashing is the standard choice in these parts. The roofer we were going to use won’t consider any alternatives. Lead flashing stays much more intact than lead paint, but it can have some runoff, and installation and removal both are much more problematic than commonly acknowledged. And where our chimney is, any lead dust running off from around the chimney (from cutting the lead, deburring it, grinding it out, or just continued degradation from environmental exposure) will go straight into a very small garden that we want to be working in.

The other good choices seem to be removing the chimney entirely or using copper flashing. (Copper isn’t great to ingest, but it’s not as bad as lead, and there’s a lot of copper in roofing shingles anyway to reduce algae growth.) I’m not sure why nobody considers zinc. We can’t remove the chimney until we change out the furnace (planned for the next few years), the water heater (as soon as feasible), and the fireplace (need to learn more). But it would make a lot of sense to remove it: it’s usefulness is declining, maintenance is a giant expensive headache, and it’s an enormous roof penetration that coincidentally makes house fires worse.

We might talk to GF Sprague, Ranch Roofing, or someone else recommended on the Arlington List. We have three quotes from other roofers, only one of which seems sufficiently detailed.

I’d love to rebuild the front porch and dormer over it at the same time, but we can’t live through that kind of construction with a toddler. And we still won’t be able to make our house look like this one.

For solar reflectivity, asphalt shingles vary from terrible to bad. Medium gray is pretty close to light gray in reflectivity, and is not as terrible as very dark gray or black.

If we ever do more work on the inside of the house, there’s some ideas at aMortonDesign, Clarke Carpentry, and Second Life. Or we could do more ourselves with help from Mr. Pete. We’re adding some shelving to my office, but I don’t really want to do more interior work anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Shop class

Solar, the postscript

The Massachusetts last chance auction for SRECs was completed last week. This is the mechanism that SunBug described to me as a price floor for SRECs, a mechanism to guarantee that SRECs would always be worth a minimum of $300 each. It’s an annual fixed price auction at $300, but Massachusetts forgot to require the utilities to actually buy the leftover SRECs at that auction.

There were 38,866 SRECs available. How many cleared? All? Almost all? 75%?


Not 3%. Just 3.

They sold 3 SRECs at the last chance auction. Out of 38,866.

Maybe it looks better in dollar figures. The state put a lot of work into auctioning off $11,659,800 in SRECs. The utilities collectively purchased $900. The state probably spent two to three orders of magnitude more than that to run the auction.

The state did jump in and announce that they were buying all the rest of the SRECs themselves, in a one-time gimmick designed to shift everyone’s embarrassment and anger down the road a year. And they stated very clearly that they won’t do that again.

So there you have the final word on the state’s price support mechanism for SRECs. It was a colossal failure.

If you’re planning on putting in solar in Massachusetts, don’t do it based on fantasies about how much income you’re going to get from SRECs. The state might change the rules, but as things stand now there is no price floor. The folks saying that a long-term target of $150 per SREC is reasonable look a lot more plausible now.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Opinions, not facts, about the candidates for Medford City Council

Medford City Council elections are coming up, sadly. Here are the candidates, complete with my opinions or the opinions I’ve heard from others:

Michael Marks (incumbent): the best of a truly terrible group of incumbents
Breanna Lungo-Koehn (incumbent): somewhat harmless
Paul Camuso (incumbent): sometimes harmless
Frederick Dello Russo, Jr. (incumbent): desperate to appear harmless
Robert Penta (incumbent): this is the lunatic who gets Medford City Council into the papers for all the wrong reasons
Rick Caraviello (incumbent): the new guy, anti-Green Line
Robert FitzPatrick: clearly the best candidate
Adam Knight: can’t find any actual policies, though he appears pro-labor
Mark Crowley: some good ideas, but he must know he’s being completely dishonest about property tax rates as his leading issue (we care about how much we pay, not about the calculation that got us there)
Robert Cappucci: prominent local Republican
Neil Osborne: appears to have the full support of Bill Wood and Carolyn Rosen, the worst people in Medford
Jeanne Martin: goes on endless incoherent public tirades, frequently uses "liberal" as an epithet, vehemently opposed to just about everything
Jim Morse: writes a lot about local issues, an anti-development and anti-Green Line crusader

Now let’s create an interesting and smart Medford City Council. Here’s a slate: Ken Krause, Sharon Guzik, Doug Carr, Laurel Ruma, Dee Morris, John Roland Elliott, and Allison Goldsberry. Why are none of these people running?

Monday, July 29, 2013

I’ll be loyal to any brand that deserves it

It’s been an exciting month on the appliances front.

Our Samsung refrigerator (less than 2 years old) has been behaving badly for months. The freezer frosted up constantly, the freezer glides weren’t working correctly, and Samsung was being a real pain to deal with. Lisa and I finally did good cop/bad cop and got Samsung to send a tech to do a warranty repair, and two weeks ago the tech finally replaced a freezer glide and admitted that it was defective. Problem solved.

Two hours later, the Kenmore gas dryer (well over 15 years old) stopped heating up. Lisa’s dad (a mechanic) had been planning to visit later in the week, so we waited for him to show up to start taking things apart. The first YouTube video for the dryer model showed how to check the various electrical components in the back of the dryer for continuity, including a fuse. Bingo. The fuse was busted, Sears had the $16 part only 6 miles away, and now the dryer works.

So we decided to tackle the GE gas range (8 years old). The oven had been whooshing since the winter, and had been getting slower and slower to get up to temperature. And the burners had been pulsing if the oven was on at the same time, which didn’t look right at all. Some web research suggested that it could be the oven igniter, and some further web research turned up some pretty clear video and photos about how to replace the igniter. Amazon had the part for $26 (far better than $93 direct from GE for the identical part), and the second time they shipped it to us the igniter arrived intact. And now our range works.

Yesterday we discovered that the large Frigidaire window air conditioner (7 years old) taking care of our entire first floor had gotten its drain plugged up, and had damaged some floor, some wall, some carpet, and the window. We’re not fixing the air conditioner; replacing it seems like the better plan.

A house can be unending problems, and that can get terribly overwhelming. But the satisfaction of reducing the list of problems and fixing some of those problems ourselves is enormous.

Solar, part 3

A company called SolarFlair is doing the Solarize program for Newton and Brookline, and offering much better base pricing and a 10-year labor warranty rather than SunBug’s 5-year labor warranty. The base pricing goes down to $3.69/watt with SunBug if enough people sign up, while SolarFlair starts at $3.69 and goes down to $3.14. Of course, I don’t live in Newton or Brookline. I wonder how SunBug got the Solarize Medford contract. Perhaps the adders for better panels and other upgrades cost a lot more with SolarFlair.

Aside from the massive uncertainty built into the SREC program (a 5kW system might be worth anywhere from $8000 to $25,000 in SRECs over the next 10 years, or possibly even less than $8000), it turns out we cannot get an enforceable long-term agreement with the city to be able to trim the city-owned shade tree if it grows too tall. Any future city government would be able to unilaterally revoke any such agreement or permit.

And we’d need to add snow guards lower down on the roof to deal with the tendency of solar panels to release their snow cover in one big whoosh, since that avalanche of snow from our roof configuration would be coming straight down at our front steps and our poor abused garden.

The final numbers as I understand them: We could spend about $24,000 up front for a 4.9 kW system, get $3900 back in a state rebate, $1000 back in a state tax credit, and $6000 back in a federal tax credit. That’s a net cost of $13,100. We’d generate about $600/year to $800/year in electricity at today’s 14 cents per kWh. We’d also earn $1000 in SRECs per year, or maybe $1500, or maybe $600, or possibly less or more. Conservative numbers would be $1200 per year payback, and that assumes we don’t have shade problems. If electricity prices go up a lot and the state fixes the SREC price support to be a true floor, the payback could be much better. But the conservative numbers don’t justify the costs right now.

The way to make the economics work are to put up more and cheaper panels, and treat the credit on the roof work as a deduction from the solar. So we spend $20,000 up front, get $4000 back in a state rebate, $1000 back in a state tax credit, and $8000 back in a federal tax credit. That’s a net cost of $7000. At $1200 per year payback, that looks worth it. Barely. And that’s not worth the continuing headache.

Next year solar costs will be different, the SREC program will be different, and some of what I’ve learned will no longer apply. And so it goes, round and round the sun.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Solar, part 2

Well, we got our quote from Sunlight Solar. They are substantially more expensive than SunBug’s proposal, but I also learned a bit more about SRECs and solar finances.

Both companies agree that SunPower panels are much better than everyone else’s panels at the moment. SunBug wants to use the previous generation panels, and Sunlight Solar wants to use the current generation panels.

Sunlight Solar projects about 7% less production than SunBug, which seems reasonably consistent to me given the number of variables.

SunBug said that there’s a price floor of $300 on SRECs. Sunlight Solar says that there is no floor, because the last chance auction isn’t guaranteed to work. Turns out that’s true, which substantially changes the finances. And I’m not thrilled about SunBug lying to me on a huge issue like this. Some folks in the industry think that the last chance auction price of $300 is going to act as a ceiling rather than a floor, and that $150 per SREC is a more likely long-term price. That’s a loss of about $8000 over 10 years from SunBug’s numbers.

And even worse, the current unpredictable SREC scheme is only guaranteed to be available for systems that are approved for interconnection by December 31. After that, systems will likely earn even less with SREC 2, whose rules aren’t set. SunBug won’t guarantee installation by December 31, and is lying to customers about the implications of that deadline.

Meanwhile the city is not being at all cooperative about potential future shade problems from their tree. I would have expected them to understand this issue, since they’re pushing the solar program city-wide and many houses have city-owned trees at least in front.

I still want to install solar if it’s financially reasonable to do so and if we can clear the other hurdles. But the forecast isn’t very sunny.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Solar, part 1

Medford is doing a community push for solar, which convinced me to take another look at solar for our property. The city’s chosen installer is SunBug, and I’ve gotten a proposal from them.

Choosing an installer is tricky. There aren’t a lot, and most haven’t been in business very long. But since they are going to be messing with your roof and your electrical system, you want someone good. There aren’t a lot of reviews. You can see an Excel file of all the companies who have done projects in Massachusetts in the past few years that qualified for a state rebate program. Brightstar Solar gets great reviews, but isn’t doing installations in Medford. Sungevity was very hard to talk to in 2012, and Next Step Living has frighteningly bad reviews, so I’m skipping those two. I’ve been waiting to hear back from Blue Selenium, and Sunlight Solar is coming next week to do a site evaluation.

Direction matters. South would be optimal. On the map, it looks like our unshaded roof faces ESE. SunBug thinks it’s close enough to SE that we’ll be ok.

Pitch matters. Our roof is 45 degrees, which is a decent compromise between wanting steeper in the winter and less steep in the summer.

With both direction and pitch, I’d expect to find decent curves showing the dropoffs in production and calculators that let you see the results. I haven’t found those yet. But solar companies must be using those.

Shading matters. A little shading can have a huge detrimental effect on production since solar panels are wired in series (both within the panel and in a string of panels). The only shading we really have to worry about would be if the tree in the park next door gets much taller, but the problem is that we don’t have the right to trim that tree if it does. Perhaps the city would like to agree to trim that tree if it starts to shade our solar panels?

Roof condition matters. SunBug told us we have to redo our roof before we can install solar. I expect other solar companies will tell us the same thing. We have no leaks, so this is sooner than we would replace the roof otherwise, but roofs don’t last forever.

The electrical panel matters. SunBug told us we need to install a subpanel or redo our main panel in the basement to install solar. My idea of putting a subpanel in the attic to make this easier is apparently not a great idea because the attic gets very hot in the summer, which isn’t great for the wiring.

The choice of panel matters. We can produce a lot more power if we use SunPower 327-watt panels than if we use typical 250-watt panels. The downside is a bit more up-front cost.

Financial assumptions make a huge difference. What will happen to the cost of electricity over the next 10 years? What’s the opportunity cost of the investment? Is SREC income taxable? (At the moment there’s a good argument that SREC income is not taxable, since it’s less than the cost of putting in the panels. But it makes a big difference if it becomes taxable, since that’s the bulk of the payback over the first 10 years.) How does depreciation on the system work with my home office? Will my insurance cover the solar panels? Will the system increase or decrease the house’s value? (Looks like a modest increase in the short term, but my guess is that it won’t matter in the long term.)

Financing matters. About 2/3 of new systems are leased rather than owned. Since we may want to sell in 5-10 years, and leasing makes that harder, we need to own the system.

The roof geometry of the front of our house is terrible for curb appeal. Will a monolithic solar array on the top section make that better or worse? How will a different roof color affect the appearance, since we can choose a different color when we reshingle?

But I like the idea of having more of our electricity come from solar, and this is the step we can take towards that. It’s not an ideal site, and there aren’t ideal conditions here, but it still may pay off in about 7 years (based on some reasonable assumptions). That’s pretty good.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Not buying it

In “The Health Insurance Shell Game,” Nortin M. Hadler and Janet Schwartz lay out some of the insanities in the way we handle health insurance in this country. But towards the end of their post, they start discussing the fact that some treatment options are less effective or ineffective, and suggest a good way to reduce health care costs would be for health insurance to refuse to cover various treatment options.

We should be offered a “high efficacy option” at lower cost than an “any efficacy option” and no one should be offered an option that indemnifies for interventions that have been studied and cannot be shown to offer a clinically meaningful benefit.
There are a few problems with this line of reasoning. First and foremost is that health insurance already refuses to cover a variety of treatments, as many patients with complex or difficult conditions know, and this has not solved the terrible excesses of health care costs.

I disagree with the notion that we can clearly delineate a large new set of treatment options which “cannot be shown to offer a clinically meaningful benefit.” Evidence-based treatment protocols can provide valuable guidance in prioritizing treatment options in the absence of further information, but many patients are not approaching their health care treatment as a blank slate. You (or your doctor) may already know that the treatment most likely to help an arbitrary individual based on statistics will not be effective for you. A study showing that a treatment is ineffective for many or most people does not establish that it cannot help some specific individuals, and we often don’t have a way to determine which individuals a treatment will help without trying it. Medical studies which insurance companies already rely on to deny coverage are hardly infallible; in fact, they are rife with fraud and conflicts of interest, and results often cannot be replicated or directly contradict other studies. When studies of well-known treatment options are repeated, the measured effectiveness appears to decline without a clear explanation. And when we study placebos, a treatment option which we know cannot have any clinically meaningful benefit, we discover that placebos can have significant clinically meaningful benefits.

But none of this matters when we are working to convince you, the beleaguered consumer, that the reason your health insurance premiums are so high is that there are lots of other people pursuing useless treatments. Those other people are spending their days at the hospital for fun, and wasting your money to do it. And when you are denied coverage for a treatment, you should be grateful because it wouldn’t have helped anyway.

If you buy this argument, I’ve got a great insurance policy to sell you.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waiting for Godot has so much talking

8:00 am: Arrive at courthouse along with other potential jurors. Building is locked. Moral: Do not arrive early.

8:15 am: Courthouse opens. Anyone claiming to be called for jury duty is sent into the building, skipping security entirely. Social worker is yelled at for trying to enter the building, having stupidly assumed that seeing people entering a building means that the building can be entered by people. Moral: Wait for instructions.

8:30 am: Court officer shows up in the jury room to check people in.

8:40 am: More potential jurors arrive, having been waiting at the front of the building since 8:20 with no instructions from anyone there. Court officer scolds them extensively for not having arrived by 8:30. Moral: Do not wait for instructions.

8:45 am: A potential juror tries to ask a question. Court officer scolds her. Moral: Do not ask questions.

8:50 am: Court officer tells us that the judge will show up at 9:00 to say hi, then we’ll watch a video, then she will send us on break from 9:30 until 10:15.

9:10 am: Judge says hi and leaves, court officer starts the video and leaves. The video trumpets the diversity of the jury pool, carefully showing racial and ethnic diversity. 19 white people in the jury pool covertly glance at the only non-white person in the jury pool.

9:30 am: The court officer does not return. Half the jurors leave, deciding we must be on break now. Moral: Do whatever the hell you want, because nobody cares any longer.

The only reading material in the room is four small signs, four romance novels, a variety of magazines from 2011 and 2012, someone’s confidential juror questionnaire, and court paperwork intended for a defendant.

10:30 am: An attorney and client enter the clearly identified jury room, stare at us for a while, and leave. Nobody speaks.

10:45 am: There is a loud despairing wail from the hallway outside the jury room. Nobody blinks.

11:00 am: Court officer pops her head in to tell us that she is not there to tell us anything.

11:15 am: I greet the person who has been sitting next to me for the past three hours. As far as I can tell, this is the first and only conversation between any of the 20 people in the jury pool. He was on the jury for a federal trial a few years ago that went on for four months.

11:30 am: Someone in the hallway outside the jury room starts sobbing.

11:45 am: Court officer reappears and tells us all to go home.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept

This is how scandals should be addressed: head-on, with clear statements and strong principles.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Customer service

I’ve had a very strange experience dealing with Citizens Bank. Someone else wrote a check for $1600 on their account, and Citizens Bank decided to take that money out of my account instead of the correct account. The check image on the statement shows a different account number on that check, so this is a rather obvious bank error.

I’ve spoken to three people at Citizens Bank about this. All three say that this is clearly an error, that Citizens Bank will fix this in a couple of days now that I’ve pointed it out to them, and that Citizens Bank will reverse the low-balance monthly fees that this caused on my account. One person who claimed he was calling from the Chairman’s Office to apologize implied that I must know the person who the check was written to, either failing to comprehend the error or accusing me of attempting to defraud the bank in a truly bizarre manner. Another person first tried to claim that the low-balance monthly fee was still my responsibility, not caused by the Citizens Bank error. And all three said that they could not possibly put the $1600 bank in my account immediately. None seemed at all surprised by the error, or particularly concerned about it.

If I were working for Citizens Bank, I hope I would take a different approach. First, apologize profusely, and say that this error is extremely rare and unacceptable. Second, correct the error immediately. Third, assure the customer that the bank will take care of any fees caused by this error. Fourth, assure the customer that the bank will confirm all of this in writing on the next business day, and ask the customer whether they would prefer to receive that confirmation by mail, fax, or email. That seems like the bare minimum. Going beyond that, I’d like to see the bank offer to waive the fee to mail printed statements on this account, since any sense of trust the customer might have towards Citizens Bank has clearly been misplaced violated. Having a reverse fee schedule for this sort of bank error would improve the sense that the bank is operating in good faith—if they want to charge me $9.99 for not having as much money as they would like in my account for a month, they could pay me $9.99 for having wrongly taken money out of my account. Assign a specific person to take full and direct responsibility for seeing that the error is corrected, and give the customer that person’s contact information. And finally, ask the customer whether there is anything else the bank can do to keep the customer’s business.

And Citizens Bank, if you really want to convey a sense of competence and restore trust, stop calling your customers and asking for their account numbers, social security numbers, or birth dates. That just shows that you neither understand nor care about helping your customers keep their personal information any more secure than you keep their money.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Baby products we have loved

Lotus Travel Crib
Lightweight, yet no weight limit. Mesh sides all the way down for maximum airflow.

Fisher Price Rainforest Jumperoo
Stable, durable.

Tiny Love Gymini Bouncer
Unlike other bouncy seats, the toy bars move to the sides to make it easy to put the child in and take him out.

Kolcraft Wonderbug
Seat spins. A safe place to stash a baby while doing other things.

UppaBaby Cruz
Enormous storage basket. Seat can face forward or back.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Daydream: The Friday Night Service Social Club

Gather a committed core of 6-10 people who regularly do every component in order to get this off the ground. The core means never having too few people to make the evening a bust.

On first Fridays, the host house opens at 5:30 for a quick Friday night service starting at 6:00. (Random idea: instead of a d’var, take a few minutes before the Amidah to let everyone say something they accomplished or hope to let go from the previous week or something they are looking forward to in the following week.) Dinner to follow starting at 7:00, winding down at 9:00. People beyond the core are welcome to join for services and/or dinner as they wish.

On third Fridays, choose a service at a different shul every month (perhaps alternate reform and conservative), followed by dinner back at the host house. For 7:00 pm or later services, gather at the host house for appetizers and then carpool together. For earlier services, meet at the service. People beyond the core are welcome to join for services and/or dinner as they wish.

We get to have our own service once a month. (Anyone who wants to lead is welcome to, and I’m happy to lead as a default.) We can print off some extra Friday night service books from a local Hillel that recently put one together with full transliterations. We get to see what services are like at different shuls without ever being the only newcomer at a service and without having to make our own individual decisions about going somewhere. We get to have a group Shabbat dinner together twice a month. That would work for me.

Trying to choose a shul

Shul A
Hebrew School meets twice a week starting fairly young. More kids?
Tot Shabbat is attended by up to 15-20 tots, though I’m not fond of the person running Tot Shabbat.
Friday night service (18 people) led by the rabbi and cantor didn’t have the feel I’m looking for, and I didn’t like the rabbi’s sermon.
Saturday morning service (12-15 people) led by the cantor was passable, but inaccessible (as expected). Sermon by the cantor was good.
Shul is growing, with lots of young kids. More kid programming.
Good lay leadership.
A little closer to home, membership is significantly less expensive.

Shul B
Hebrew School meets once a week. Fewer kids?
Tot Shabbat is attended by very few tots, though I like the person running Tot Shabbat.
Friday night services (8-15 people) do have the feel I’m looking for, and good sermons.
Haven’t tried Saturday morning service yet. Once a month they have an abbreviated and perhaps more accessible Saturday morning service.
No idea if shul is growing.
Some very friendly and nice people at services.
Adult education seems more likely to be appealing here.
Nice families at the playgroup that meets here, but none seem involved in the shul in any other ways.

To be determined: Saturday morning services at Shul B? Membership count at both shuls? High holiday services? Hebrew School size?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Seeds of innovation

Monsanto patented Roundup-ready soybeans, which are now almost all of the soybeans grown in this country. Any farmer who plants Roundup-ready soybeans has to buy the beans they plant from Monsanto, and it comes with a license that says the farmer is not allowed to replant the next generation of beans.

Along comes a farmer who decides to buy his beans from a grain elevator as if he were using them for feed, with no license and no assurance that the beans are Roundup-ready (but a reasonable guess that most of them are). He plants those beans, harvests them, and keeps some to replant the next year. [Along the way, he uses an herbicide which kills weeds as well as the non-Roundup-ready plants, so the next generation is entirely Roundup-ready, but that’s not really relevant to the decision.]

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto:

“That is because, once again, if simple copying were a protected use, a patent would plummet in value after the first sale of the first item containing the invention. The undiluted patent monopoly, it might be said, would extend not for 20 years (as the Patent Act promises), but for only one transaction. And that would result in less incentive for innovation than Congress wanted.”

I’m heartened that the Supreme Court will soon tamp down the newly efficient used book market, or allow us to insist on royalties to be paid to publishers and authors on used book sales. After all, Congress has promised authors and publishers that copyrights will last for many more decades than patents. We are entitled to our perpetual profits cut of all book purchases. But the newly efficient used book market means that publishers only make money in the first year or two that a book is on the market. This is why we don’t keep old books in print, and why we put out new versions of textbooks as fast as we can, and why book prices are driven up and up. [College bookstores make far more money on textbook sales than publishers do, because college bookstores make money on sales of used books over and over.] This is clearly not what Congress intended, or there would be no reason for copyrights to last for decades. Congress wanted me to have a much greater incentive to write and publish. On that logic, the first sale doctrine clearly should no longer give consumers a right to sell used books.

On its surface, the Supreme Court is focused on self-replicating items like seeds as a unique problem. But a consistent Supreme Court cannot write the quoted passage and then insist that it could not be applied to copyrights.

And by the way, what happens when you receive a patented gene therapy to save your life, and then fail to pay the monthly (or weekly, or daily) survival fee to Pfizer or Merck for your body’s continued replication of new cells containing the patented genes? If you think that’s absurd, you haven’t been farming lately.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Adobe trap

My objection to Adobe going subscription-only isn’t the price. It’s the fact that my files have future value to me.

I learned something from my old PageMaker files back in the day. I learned that the only thing that will open old PageMaker files is an old copy of PageMaker. So if I want to keep accessing old PageMaker files, I’d better keep an old copy of PageMaker around. And since I publish academic books, not ephemera, I do sometimes need to access those old PageMaker files.

These days I use InDesign CS5. At some point my lovely new InDesign CS5 files will be old InDesign CS5 files. And when that time comes, I’ll still have InDesign CS5 around to open them with, even though I’m sure I’ll have moved on to something new for creating new files.

Adobe has taken that assurance of future accessibility away with subscription-only software. If I use InDesign CC to create a file and I ever want to open it in the future, I’ll have to pay whatever amount Adobe decides to charge at that point in order to run InDesign CC to open it, because I won’t have any way to keep InDesign CC working on my computer on my own. And if Adobe decides to stop licensing InDesign CC at any price? I won’t have any way to open the file at all.

I do core workflow processes using several different versions of Acrobat because Adobe has added, removed, and changed important features with different versions of Acrobat. If I always had to use the latest version of Acrobat, some steps in my workflow would be much harder and some steps would be impossible. Subscription-only software is a disaster for anyone trying to set up a consistent complex workflow, because that workflow is vulnerable to whatever changes Adobe decides to push out in their software. Why invest resources in creating a workflow that could literally become wasted effort at any moment?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The marzipan experiments, part 1

Odense marzipan: slightly starchy and a little sticky, not very sweet.

Mixed with dried grated orange peel: nice orange flavor, but the gritty/chewy texture of the peel threw everything off.

Mixed with orange extract: stronger orange flavor, great orange nose, integrated well, but a little bitter. (Might be better if the alcohol evaporated longer.)

Mixed with ground cardamom: flavors didn’t really mix, so I’d only recommend if you particularly want to taste cardamom by itself.

Mixed with orange extract and ground cardamom: both flavors brought out the bitter in each other, and the result was terrible. Never try this again.

Mixed with orange extract and granulated vanilla sugar: the vanilla sugar barely cut the bitterness of the orange extract, and added a graininess that didn’t help the mouth feel.

Mixed with maple syrup: a nice sweetness balance, very nice flavor mix with good integration, great maple nose, and distinctly different from marzipan by itself. Hard to mix together. You have to like both marzipan and maple syrup individually, of course. It might be worth comparing this to simple maple cream.

Monday, April 29, 2013

MA Senate primary

Feels like we’ve had a few Senate elections in Massachusetts recently. The 2013 version of the Senate primary is tomorrow, and I’m voting for Markey—he will be a much better Senator than Lynch would be. What I find exciting, though, is that I can then vote for Carl Sciortino in the fall to take Markey’s seat in Congress.

Most importantly, though, go vote on Tuesday!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Pippin montage

We saw this revival three times in Boston, from the first preview to the last week of Boston performances. It was fantastic. And this video makes clear that it would be wonderful to own a video of the full production. I’d pay good money, and I’d buy copies for several other people as well.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

2013 Passover recipes

Poached salmon
(Ok to prepare in advance.) Mix 2-3 rough-chopped onions with oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Layer at the bottom of a medium baking dish, and place 3 pounds salmon fillet on top. Sprinkle with salt, cover with aluminum foil, and cook covered in a 350 oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for an additional 10 minutes.

Curried couscous

(Now that Pereg is making a kosher-for-Passover couscous.) Cook chopped onion with oil, salt, pepper, and curry powder. When transluscent, add cooked Israeli couscous, cooked chopped asparagus, raisins, more curry powder, and a small amount of mango puree. When all is hot, melt in a bit of shredded cheddar for a risotto texture.

Matzah pizza

Spread a thick layer of tomato sauce on matzah. Add oregano, paprika, red pepper flakes, and chopped scallion. Top shredded cheddar. Broil for 5 to 8 minutes. Note that some people may consider pepperoni to be treyf.

Matzah crack  
Preheat oven to 350. Line a large cookie sheet with foil, then parchment paper, then matzahs. Bring 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar (ok to use light brown sugar instead) and 3/4 cup salted butter to a boil, stirring constantly. After 3 minutes boiling, pour over matzahs and spread evenly. Bake for 15 minutes. Sprinkle 1 1/4 cups chocolate chips over top, let melt for a few minutes, and spread out evenly across the top. Optionally add shredded coconut. Allow to cool, or don’t.

Banana matzah brei

Dampen two matzahs, break into small pieces, mix in two eggs, cinnamon sugar, and an entire sliced banana. Fry with butter, serve with maple syrup.


Buy a Macaroon Layer Cake from Oberlander’s. Do not serve at seder, or there won’t be any left over. It is better than the Hagada railroad cake. Oneg dairy-free chocolate chips are very nice, and would be good year-round.

Horowitz Margareten matzah is good, similar to Yehuda. Manischewitz matzah is too thin. Streit’s is a step down in flavor. Whole wheat options get terrible reviews, so don’t bother. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how much I disliked shmura matzah the one time I splurged on that, but a reminder doesn’t hurt.


Do not buy the premade Manischewitz coconut macaroon pie crust. It tastes like gravel. And not in a good way.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


Do you need an adjustable plug for a slightly less than 3.5" diameter pipe end? We had that situation for our main drain cleanout in our basement, and nothing fit. The old metal cap had been broken getting it open, which seems to be a common side-effect of lazy plumbers around here who don’t want to work at getting a cap off without damaging it. The 3" adjustable plugs fell down the pipe. The 3.5" plug was too large, and the 4" plug was far too large.

Home Depot around here carries the Sioux Chief Test Titan mechanical test plugs: Similar styles are made by Oatey, Cherne, and more. They have a plastic or metal bottom plate with a spoke sticking up, a rubber gasket, a plastic or metal top plate, and then a plastic or metal thumb screw or wing nut. The bottom plate and rubber gasket are supposed to fit in the pipe, the top plate is not supposed to fit in the pipe, and then you use the thumb screw to force the plates together, squeezing the rubber gasket outwards to create a tight seal.

The solution we found was to use parts from the 3" Sioux Chief mechanical test plug 882-3 (from Home Depot) and parts from the 3.5" Sioux Chief cleanout test plug 882-35 (from True Value). The rubber gasket from the 3.5" plug fit into the pipe with a little encouragement, but the bottom plate from the 3.5" plug was too wide. The bottom plate of the 3" plug fit into the pipe, but was too small to actually compress the 3.5" rubber gasket. So we took the top plate from the 3" plug, turned it over, and put it below the gasket. The 3" bottom plate presses against the inverted 3" top plate, which presses against the bottom of the 3.5" rubber gasket. Then we added the top plate from the 3.5" plug, and one of the thumb screws (they were interchangeable). A little mix and match, and we have a working plug for a 3.4" pipe end.

Another possible solution would have involved grinding down the outer edges of the bottom plate from the 3.5" plug to fit into the pipe. The bottom plate doesn’t need to be a tight fit against the interior of the pipe. It just needs to be large enough to press against the rubber gasket from below.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Old wounds

My open response to the rabbis of the Conservative movement who refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings:

I’m Jewish, and my wife is not. Just as we committed to when we got married over 10 years ago, we keep a Jewish home, and we are raising our son Jewish. Was there really no role for a rabbi at our wedding? The Conservative bet din was willing to convert our son based on our expressed intent and commitment. Why couldn’t a similar process have been used to allow a rabbi to officiate at our wedding?

When a Conservative rabbi refuses to officiate at an interfaith wedding, it certainly sends a message. The message is that the Conservative movement refuses to accept a relationship so important to a couple that they want to form a permanent bond, that the Conservative movement rejects the non-Jewish partner, and that the Conservative movement seeks to punish the Jewish partner. That message is conveyed to the couple, to our families, and to our friends.

Then, after the wedding, the Conservative movement wonders why so many couples doubt that they are truly welcome at a Conservative shul. The same rabbis who absent themselves from our weddings in order to publicly shame interfaith couples run outreach programs to those same couples. They create membership policies which explicitly welcome interfaith partners, offer educational opportunities to make the non-Jewish partner feel more comfortable at services, and even convert our children.

What is that turn-around based on? The only change is that the couple is now married instead of engaged. How can Judaism accord our interfaith marriages so much respect while refusing to participate in our weddings?

Perhaps I am simply living through a strange and difficult time of transition. After all, the Conservative shul in which I grew up would never have welcomed an interfaith family at that time. The Conservative Hebrew School I attended described interfaith marriages as a new Holocaust. Now the Conservative movement recognizes that the demographics of interfaith marriages are not inexorably bad for the size of the Jewish population, while a policy of rejecting interfaith families does guarantee a decline in the next generation. The Conservative movement now recognizes that interfaith couples can support the Jewish partner’s faith, can participate meaningfully in synagogue life, can raise Jewish children, and are more likely to do all of those with support from our rabbis and our shuls. Where in this new mindset does the old policy of refusing to celebrate our weddings fit?

Update: The story at explains the reasoning of a Reform rabbi who changed his position on officiating at interfaith weddings, and is worth reading. Another such story is at

Monday, February 25, 2013

A winter morning

 Photo by Michael

Friday, February 15, 2013

Recommended maple syrups

First place: Gingerbrook Farm, Vermont Grade A Dark Amber, 2012 season

Produced by Robert Machin and Family, South Washington, VT 05675. I found this maple syrup at Upper Valley Coop in White River Junction in 2012. I didn’t try the other grades.

Second place: Merck Forest and Farmland Center, Vermont Grade A Medium Amber, 2010 season

Produced in Rupert, VT. Organic. Excellent flavor for a medium amber, which I usually find too mild. Their dark amber and grade B both had a distinct aftertaste in 2010, which is why I chose the medium amber.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Free at last

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Parking signs

NYC has unveiled new parking signs, which are being heralded as a triumph of information design.

Wow! White space!

The new signs make the days and times smaller, so they’re harder to read at a distance. When you’re driving around looking for parking, you want to be able to read the sign quickly. What leaps out? 3 and 6! Is that helpful?

The new signs still don’t provide the key information that parking is free with no time limit at all times not posted.

And the new signs are organized by restriction, rather than by time. It’s Sunday at 2 pm, and you need to decide whether you’re allowed to park. You have to read everything to decide there are no restrictions.

Why not organize the signs by time, and make the unrestricted times explicit:

And if you really want to save space and continue to keep the free times implicit, you can leave those parts out:

There are a lot of possible improvements here, including making the times larger so they can be read more easily at a distance. There may be other restrictions that make this layout cumbersome. But if you’re rethinking the signs, why not actually rethink the signs?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Why your W-2 is late

Having trouble logging in to the Social Security Administration’s Business Services Online website at Try putting your user id and password entirely into lowercase. Yes, their system may display it in uppercase. Yes, they may mail you an uppercase or mixed case user id or password. Yes, you may have been able to log in previously with uppercase or mixed case, and you may still be able to. They aren’t really sure what’s happening.

Having trouble with the SSA BSO site removing services from your employer account? That’s because their back end doesn’t believe you should pay wages unless you also receive wages, so they periodically go through their accounts and remove the ability to submit wage reports.

Having trouble with the SSA BSO site not letting you add services, and sending you in an infinite loop? That’s because they believe you have some other account already active. You can create as many accounts as you want, but you can’t do anything with them.

Having trouble with the SSA BSO site locking you out? Don’t click on “forgot password” or they will freeze your account, mail you a new password in 2-3 weeks, and not allow you file your wage reports until that turns up. And try not to go so long between logging in. You may only need to file wage reports once a year, but they’d like to see you more often than that. Hurt their site’s feelings and they may disable your account.

Having trouble with the SSA BSO site’s security questions? Give up. They’ve told me that it’s impossible to have an account without security questions, that my account has no security questions, that I can’t log in without correctly answering the security questions that aren’t on my account, that it’s impossible to add security questions, and that it’s impossible to delete an account and start over.

Having trouble with the SSA BSO site and not getting help from the regular reps? Try calling 888-772-2970 and ask for technical assistance. Want to fax them a letter authorizing yourself to file wage reports? Try faxing a letter to 570-706-7875, and don’t think too hard about the security theater. They have no idea what they are trying to accomplish or prevent, but they know they want to impress you. So sit back, relax, and let your mind go empty. They have.

Updated to add: They now auto-expire passwords after 90 days, even though many users only need to log in every 12 to 13 months.