Thursday, August 21, 2014

Any port in a storm

Since last winter, I’ve been unable to use to create shipping labels. More precisely, after entering the shipping label info, I get an error message when I try to proceed to the billing info screen: “An unexpected error has occurred. Please try refreshing the page.”

None of the troubleshooting worked, even after talking to someone in the Click-N-Ship Program Office. It wasn’t tied to the particular browser, or the Internet cache, or the particular computer, or even the particular account on I thought it was just a problem with Macs and After all, I could pay for labels and print them when I logged in elsewhere from a Windows computer.

Today I asked a friend to check whether she could get to the billing screen from her Mac at work, while in my account. Success, but still no joy here, until I used my phone’s data connection instead of my Verizon FiOS connection.

So something is wrong with the router configuration or Verizon FiOS which is preventing from working. Is Verizon blocking yet another port? They already screwed up my outgoing email by blocking port 25. Or is it some sort of authentication problem? Is my IP address blocked by

I’m not sure how to figure out more about the specific problem, but at least I have a workaround now, other than going back to Comcast.


Many years ago, I read that post-surgical recovery is sometimes easier if patients listen to music or relaxation tapes during surgery, even when they are under general anesthesia. For my knee surgery last week under general anesthesia, I put together a playlist of music that puts me in a good mood, and brought my phone and earbuds with me into surgery.

Who’s in charge here? There was the 2-person surgical team, the anesthesia team, the OR nurse(s), the prep nurse(s), and the post-op recovery room nurse(s). Most people said it was up to the anesthesia team, since the anesthesia team needs to monitor me and is up around my head. The universal response, as I asked each person in turn, was that it was ok with them as long as it was ok with other people. In the end, I went under in the OR with the earbuds in place, and woke up in recovery with the earbuds out. I have no idea when the earbuds were removed, or if the earbuds just fell out when I was transferred from the OR to recovery.

What is the objection? The universally stated concern was that the hospital staff did not want to take responsibility for the safety or security of my phone. I told them repeatedly that it’s only a phone, I was not going to hold anyone responsible, it was no big deal if it broke or disappeared, and I was happy to replace it if I needed to.

Did it help? Well, the music was certainly a pleasant distraction during the 90 minutes of waiting around the prep area before surgery. And having the phone meant I could text with Lisa while I was waiting both in prep and in recovery, as well as look up possible side effects of the first anti-nausea med they offered. I don’t know whether it helped block out the sounds or conversation during the procedure, or kept me more relaxed. I have listened to the mix since the surgery, and I’m glad that listening to the music before and (possibly) during the surgery didn’t create any aversions to the music.

Michael’s surgery mix
Sailing, The Blenders
Theme To Grace/Lament, George Winston
Holy Now, Kallet, Epstein, Cicone
Sallé, Lokua Kanza
Toda Sexta Feira, Belô Velloso
Ngwino Rukundo, Samite
I’ve Just Seen a Face, Holly Cole
Tupelo Honey, Cassandra Wilson
Farthest Field, Kallet, Epstein, Cicone
Tshona Malanga, Talisman
Ring On The Sill, Cowboy Junkies
Caramel, Suzanne Vega
Shantyboatin’, Kallet, Epstein, Cicone
Touch, Jezebelle
Hard To Explain, Cowboy Junkies
Channeling Byron, Janet Feld
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), Simon & Garfunkel

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Making up the numbers

I've noticed that when Cigna processes hospital bills, they are now playing an accounting game to inflate the hospital charges. Here’s how that works: The hospital bills $8000 for a short stay across several line items. Cigna intends to pay $4000. What used to happen is that Cigna would list the billed line items and pay some of each line item. What now happens is that Cigna lists the billed line items totaling $8000, pays nothing on those line items, and then adds a new line item under "ancillary charge" for $4000 and pays that. This doesn't change the amount paid, which remains $4000. This just inflates the amount billed, which goes from $8000 to $12,000.

I can think of a few consequences:

  • By inflating the billed amount, Cigna makes their discount look better. After all, they just saved us $8000 instead of the $4000 that they actually saved us.
  • By grouping their entire payment under an invented ancillary charge, Cigna makes it impossible to see how much they are paying on each billed line item. That makes it more difficult for providers or customers to audit or appeal the claims processing.
  • By inflating the billed amount, Cigna makes it more difficult for anyone to figure out how much health care costs, or at least how much it would cost without Cigna's gracious intervention.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Their slogan is "That was easy"?

The Staples near our house closed last month. The next-closest Staples closed a few years ago. The Staples that I pass by all the time in Watertown closed recently. The Staples in New Hampshire that we drove past on Sunday had recently closed.

Before the Staples near our house closed, they gave me a coupon for $30 off a $60 online purchase. I also had a Staples gift card to use up, so I went on the Staples web site and found a bunch of things I needed. The site was painfully slow. And when I went to check out, the site told me that my coupon wasn’t valid online.

So I called Staples, but their phone line wasn’t open, because nobody wants to order office supplies off hours. When their customer service line opened a couple of hours later, they confirmed that their coupon saying “not valid in stores” was only valid in the store. They offered to take the order over the phone and override the coupon, but the third item couldn’t be ordered over the phone (only on the web site).

Today I went to a third-closest Staples location, which is still open. Two items I wanted were 30% more expensive in the store than on the Staples website. Out of the five items I bought, two rang up at higher prices than the posted non-sale prices.

<sarcasm>I’m not sure why Staples is closing so many stores.</sarcasm> Personally, I use Uline for shipping supplies and Costco for most office supplies.

Legacy sales tactics

We’ve spent quite a lot of time researching cars, trying to figure out what we want, and doing some test drives. We decided on a 2014 Subaru Legacy with Eyesight late in the winter, but discovered that they had closed factory orders for the year before we made our decision. Argh.

But the 2015 Subaru Legacy was going to be new and improved! Just like every year’s new models are new and improved, but this one actually made improvements we cared about: less road noise, better fuel economy, a new color we liked better, and an upgraded Eyesight safety system that no longer required a bunch of features we didn’t need. The reviews this spring were all stellar, and the car started showing up on dealer lots a few weeks ago. On Sunday we finally found time to take a test drive, discovered that the car was comfortable and handled just like we wanted it to, and finalized the list of options we wanted and didn’t want.

So we’re doing a factory order which will arrive in the late fall, whatever that means. Shopping wasn’t bad: we had a price from the dealership where we took the test drive, and on Monday over lunch I emailed six local dealerships to ask them for a price. Almost all of them asked some meaningless question first, but three of them followed up with a price on Monday, one gave a price on Tuesday morning, and the dealer in North Reading insisted (wrongly) that we could only order a more expensive version than we wanted. We already knew the invoice price and we knew that the best we could reasonably expect on a factory order was about 2% under invoice plus a doc fee, so when the low bidder came in just under that I went over to sign the paperwork and gave them a deposit. No headaches, and all rather anticlimactic. Hopefully it will be just as easy when we pick up the car in a few months.

The dealer in Wakefield was horrible when we went there last year: unprofessional, incredibly rude to other customers, unhelpful to us, and overall seeming like an over-the-top parody of a nightmare dealership. We didn’t even consider asking them for a price. The dealer in North Hampton was overall helpful, though they tried briefly to see if we’d respond to high pressure sales tactics, tried the mysterious back office crap, were clearly used to a foursquare sheet, and tried raising the quoted price by $350 a day later. But they did quote us a perfectly fair price, and were straight about answering the few questions we had. In the end we went with the dealer in Belmont, who could not have been a bigger contrast to the dealer in Wakefield. Hard to believe they compete in the same market.

So the hard part was deciding on the car and putting up with the dealership showrooms. The actual price negotiation over email was far more civilized than I feared it might be. And in a few months, we’ll have the first new car I’ve ever owned.

Follow-up on October 5:

25 days ago, I called the dealer to ask what the timeframe looked like. I was told that our car had been built, and was on its way from Indiana to New Jersey. Once they knew when it would travel from New Jersey to Massachusetts, I would get a call letting me know that the car would arrive at the dealer in 7-10 days.

9 days ago, I noticed that a car with our specs was listed on the dealer’s web site as being in their inventory (not in transit). I called the dealer to ask about it, and was told that the web site was wrong, that our car was still on its way to New Jersey, and that I would get a call once it was ready to leave New Jersey letting me know that the car would arrive at the dealer in 7-10 days. They said that our car’s VIN was not available, but that it was not the car listed on the dealer’s web site (which had a VIN). Our best guess is that the route from Indiana to New Jersey now involves sherpas, sled dogs, and Sharknado 3 instead of rail cars or trucks.

Yesterday the dealer called (during Yom Kippur) to let me know that our car had arrived. There had been no call 7-10 days in advance, and our car’s VIN now mysteriously matched the VIN of the car listed on the dealer’s web site 9 days ago. Hmm. Had our car arrived over a week ago and they just lost track of it? Was the web site simply posting advance information? Have they been using our car for test drives for the past week or two, since they had no other cars with the new Eyesight system? Something went wrong en route, since we never got the call 7-10 days in advance. We’ll check the mileage when we pick up the car next week, but we’ll never know most of the answers.