The Thinker

Medical robbery

Apparently it’s quite legal to get away with robbery in the United States, at least if you are a health care provider.

I imagine the health care providers don’t see it this way when they send you threatening bills saying you owe tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars. Curiously most of us don’t know we are being robbed. That’s because we naively assume that being legitimate businesses they would not rob us. We assume whatever they put in the amount owed we must owe, so we better open up our wallets and pay up. Payment is always due upon receipt.

Not all health care providers try to rob you, but a lot of them do. When you press them on it, like I did today, they will say it’s a small mistake. However, if you pay their amount due which is more than you actually owe, you are unlikely to hear a thing. They consider it a bonus for services rendered. Thanks! I guess it helps pay for those large country club fees.

Just in case it isn’t clear to you, if you are insured you owe a provider exactly what your health insurer says you owe them. This is usually a copay. Particularly at the start of the year there are deductibles that you have to meet. Thus you end up paying for a lot of it out of pocket anyhow. So near the start of the year, you may owe a $30 copay, and $200 because that’s how much the agreement between your health insurance provider and your service provider specifies. So you may be out of pocket $230 and after you hit your deductible, the next visit is just for the $30 for the copay.

What a lot of health care providers do though is they bill you for the list price of the service. So if their rate for an uninsured person is $300, you will get a bill for $270, which is $300 less the $30 copay. Or maybe you hit your deductible and they will bill you for the $70 and see if you pay up.

This has happened regularly in our household but particularly this year as my wife had an expensive operation in March. Upon release she ended up in the emergency room to deal with a postoperative condition. Blizzards of bills soon arrived, and some arrived a month or two later. There is the surgeon. The hospital. The anesthetist. There were bills for Tylenol and replacing bloody gauzes that needless to say far exceeded the price for similar stuff at the local CVS. Payment was due on receipt, as if I had thousands of dollars of spare cash just lying around. Thank goodness I didn’t pay their ransom demands. In the case of one procedure they said we owed $3000 while the insurance company said we owed $0.

What you owe is what your insurance company says you owe, not a penny more or less. That’s why they send you those statement of benefits. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to play mix-and-match with these dueling statements. Doing it though is critical, unless you are happy to give health care providers gobs of extra money rather than bother to parse through all this stuff.

In our situation with all these disparate bills it was pretty challenging, not to mention frustrating. After a while I moved from frustration to anger. First, how dare they bill us for services beyond what they are legally owed! This should be medical fraud, but I’m betting it’s not simply because I’ve never heard of a case (outside of fraudulent Medicare billings) of providers doing this. It happens all the time! If we are typical, about half of our medical bills make demands for more money than they are entitled to receive.

Second, why don’t they wait until they get a response from the insurance company before sending these bills? Many do of course, but a lot don’t. They just send their ransom demand that they purport to be a set of legitimate charges. What you should do is wait to hear from your insurance company and then send any additional money they say that you owe. It’s not like these providers don’t know we are insured. Every one of them won’t even see you until they get your health insurance information into their system. They even copy my insurance card and license because, you know, I could be a deadbeat.

Third, they bill for all sorts of dubious crap. I went to see a local urologist recently because as a middle aged man I suffer from a temperamental prostate gland. It was a routine visit. I saw the PA (Physician Assistant) instead of the physician. There was no special test this time, no flow test to see how quickly I could urinate. They did test my urine then they did an ultrasound to see how much I retained. They billed not just for the ultrasound but also for “medical supplies”. That was for a dab of that jelly they massage into your skin before the ultrasound. This required me to later write a check for $6 to cover it and also a stamp to mail it. It amazes me that they have the audacity to bill for these minor things and annoys me that my health care provider considers it a valid expense. This is the cost of doing business. Moreover, I was billed as if I saw the physician, not the PA.

Fourth, they don’t like to take no for an answer. A month of so back I got a ransom demand from the physician that saw my wife in the local emergency room. I sent them back a check for what I actually owed, along with a statement from my insurance company saying what I owed. Today they sent me another statement for the difference. It took a call to their billing department (and patiently waiting on hold for a while) before they agreed I didn’t have to pay the amount which I had already documented to them!

I hope you won’t put up with it because all these billing errors/extortions just subtract from your fragile bottom line. It could mean you can’t afford that daily trip to Starbucks or you can’t add that extra principle to your next mortgage payment.

It should go without saying that our current health care system is a really crappy system. It’s great that twenty million people are now insured who weren’t, but doubtless they are going through this crap for the first time too, trying to parse through its pointless complexity. I suspect it costs all but the most vigilant families at least hundreds of dollars a year. Those who need more services are probably paying thousands of dollars unknowingly than they should.

There ought to be a law and maybe there is one. If so, I’d like to see it enforced just once. I can send local investigators plenty of leads.

 
The Thinker

Yes America, we have a race and class problem

In case you missed it, Alvin Toffler died on June 27. The author, principally known for Future Shock (1970), warned us that our future was not going to be easy. The book was a warning that too much change happening too quickly would have predictable consequences. In 1970 change was everywhere. Bellbottoms have since disappeared but we’ve been racing toward the future since then, with economic (industrial to service economies), gender, sexual, class and racial changes occurring far more quickly than most of us can handle them. Future shock is still a thing but with his death at least Toffler doesn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Currently it’s manifested in our racial strife. The fatalities keep rolling in. It’s getting so that when I wake up and read the news I expect to feel a wave of nausea. Not even two days apart there were egregious murders of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and St. Paul, Minnesota, at least partially recorded on smartphone cameras. It used to be that white people like me could sort of excuse these events as the act of a rogue cop or two, but that’s not the case anymore. Last night of course in Dallas, Texas following a protest on police shootings of blacks more than one sniper killed five police officers and wounded seven other officers, plus two civilians. At least one of the shooters was killed by “bomb robot”, something that sounds like it is from a Terminator movie but is apparently quite real.

Toffler would not be surprised by this reaction. It was neither a right nor a just thing to do, but it was entirely predictable as tone-deaf police departments and officers continue to disproportionately kill blacks in altercations that are at best minor. I mean, killing someone for having a taillight out? There’s little doubt in my mind that if I had been driving that car I would likely have gotten a friendly warning and I would have been on my way. But then my skin is white and that gives me privileges obviously not afforded to many blacks by police.

I once wrote optimistically about our post-racial society. As I look back on it, clearly I was widely off the mark. It’s truer to some extent for the latest generations that are at least growing up in a multicultural world. Post racial for them is the new normal. But it’s not quite as normal as we think. Americans are in general strictly self-segregating along racial and class lines. Having spent more than thirty years in the Washington D.C. area, its multiculturalism became the norm, which was surprising given that I grew up in an area almost exclusively white. Moving to a more white area in retirement seemed quite odd.

You have to wonder how this happened. I don’t think most police officers are overtly biased against blacks. Police officers though work in the real world. Crime tends to occur more often in poorer neighborhoods, which are usually minority and typically black. If I had to struggle to survive like a lot of these people I’d be more likely to commit crimes as well. It must not be hard for a police officer that constantly finds trouble in these parts of town to develop an unconscious bias against the poor and blacks. Their job is to keep society safe so naturally they are going to focus on those areas they perceive as less safe. When you have your wealth and status, there is little reason to cause trouble.

Policing though is a tough job. You deal with life’s nastiness everyday. It’s not for everyone. I suspect if I had been a police officer I too would eventually behave a lot like these rogue officers, simply because of the constant pressure of it all. Despite their training my bet is a lot of these officers are victims of PTSD simply from being officers. It comes with the territory. Clearly we should recruit officers that can keep an even keel, but in reality police officers come from a pool of people with aggressive and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, we don’t pay them nearly enough to deal with the stress they endure everyday.

And speaking of stress, when you are poor, black or really any minority in this country, your life is unlikely to be a bed of roses. You spend much of your life being ethnically profiled. Add to this the likelihood that you will be poorer and live a more challenging life. Unlike me you are unlikely to inherit tens of thousands of dollars when your father passes away. You will struggle for respect, for equal pay and simply to keep the floor under you.

The results are not too surprising. Police officers, many carrying around an unconscious or overt bias against people of color, hired for being aggressive and authoritarian, but also understanding that their place within society in on the lower part of the bell curve will tend to act out their anxieties. And since they literally have the power of life and death, it’s pretty hard to keep your feelings in check when you figure that black guy probably doesn’t like you and has a gun, and you want to make it home to dinner. Meanwhile the black guy, being an otherwise normal human, is sick to death of being pulled over and acting subservient to police officers and white people in general. It all feeds on itself.

But feeding it all are those on top: the politicians and basically those with money, projecting their class and racial biases on those who enforce the law, and tacitly looking the other way so often when incidents like these occur. It’s a rare cop whose behavior will be judged criminal when they happen.

How do we stop this? In reality it is a very complex and multidimensional issue. Getting cops some cultural sensitivity training and making them wear body cameras isn’t enough. A real solution requires a lot of lowering of shields, community discussion and transgressing not just our racial prejudices but our class prejudices as well.

Certainly those we are hiring as cops aren’t getting the right training for a 21st century America. We are in general picking the wrong people for these jobs and not paying them commensurate with their difficult jobs, much like teachers. The overarching issue is really our staggering level of income inequality, if not the downright cruelty of society in general. Recently the Arizona legislature decided it hadn’t made the poor miserable enough yet. Now it’s limiting TANF benefits to the poor from two years total to one year, as if people are only allowed to be poor once. Otherwise, let ‘em eat cake, which in their case may be Twinkies. There is no compassion here, simply on overwhelming disgust from those in power toward those that have none.

In short, it’s going to take a lot of time but mostly it’s going to take a lot of white people like me to stand up and say “Enough!” This is because apparently we’re the only ones the power brokers listen to. Besides posting essays like this, I’m pondering the best way that a white male like me can move the needle on this issue. Suggestions are welcome.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: July 2016 (Hartford CT) edition

I didn’t quite forget to do my monthly Craigslist posting last Friday. I was just too busy doing real work for a change. I had two clients with high priority work, so I spent a long three days slogging through that instead.

Happily it’s behind me now. It’s a little early for a review of weekend posts (that tend to be the kinkiest) but since I have the time now and a pair of dark glasses handy it’s time to look into the underbelly of the web, a.k.a. the Craigslist Casual Encounters section. There I get to marvel/feel nauseous (sometimes at the same time) at what crazy, stupid and or kinky things people want to do with other people. I doubt many of these hookups will happen. If nothing else this monthly surf through these Craigslist posts remind me that while man is capable of greatness we’re also capable of going to absurd lows. Reading these wants from the id keeps me humble for my species.

During June I noted at least 203 web page views for my Craigslist posts, about 14% of total page views. 110 of them were for this popular post. It was my first look at the Hartford Craigslist section in May of last year and I return there today because it is reliably kinky, a bit crazy and often disturbing. On the first page of postings today I see:

  • 35 men looking for a woman
  • 46 men looking for a man
  • 1 man looking for a couple
  • 3 men looking for a transgender person
  • 1 woman looking for a man
  • 0 women looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for a woman
  • 1 couple looking for a man
  • 1 couple looking for a couple
  • 1 transgender person looking for man

So the posters are mostly men but fear not as I will look beyond the first page and into older postings by women to see what nuggets may show up there. Okay, time to put on the dark glasses.

  • Hooray, a man posting on Craigslist has figured it out but he’s at least wiser perhaps because he’s older, 68 in fact and married. He’s looking for a transgender person who can take charge. He says, “No cyber or courtships or ‘getting to you know first’ bullsh*t. This is not ‘Match.com’. Get real.” Maybe there’s hope for at least a few Craigslist posters.
  • I like to think of myself as reasonably sexually sophisticated but Craigslist often surprises me. Here’s a 28-year-old man looking for a woman for AB/DL. I had to Google that one. Basically he’s looking for a woman to diaper him and who shares his fascination for it. I’m not surprised the wife won’t accommodate him. I mean, he’ll even catheter himself to slowly fill up those Pampers. Thank you, poster. It’s exactly these posts that prove there is some wheat in the vast Craigslist chaff. (I think he’s also this poster who wants a woman to shake a rattle at him.) If you prefer to skip the diapering part, this 47-year-old man from Rhode Island wants to watch a lady poop. (Pretty women only, though; he has his standards.)
  • He’s 21, a virgin, super shy and hasn’t even kissed a girl. Any women want to help him with his project?
  • She’s 55, from Farmington, married and plans to be at Hartford’s notorious Art Cinema Saturday from 12-5. Sounds like she’s taking all callers but if you act now you can get a low number. I mean, who likes to wait in line?
  • Sign up now to get a chance to bag this married woman sometime this or next month, whenever hubby says go, along with plenty of other men while hubby watches. Only, gosh, is she particular, but with those golden globes in her picture she can be selective. So if you aren’t young, normal weight and working out at the gym, you basically have no chance.
  • He’s another gay man, age 49, looking … but you got to be stinky. I mean pit-stink stinky.
  • She’s a self-professed pillow princess, age 20 and black, that won’t touch you (a black male) in any way whatsoever. You on the other hand better be into some serious ass worship.
  • Men, if you are into spanking a “naughty little girl”, she’s from New Haven and is scheduling sessions, which suggests while you spank her she’ll be spanking your wallet.
  • Men, she’s 29, a BBW and wants to peg you. She’s a pegging newbie apparently, and she wants to make it an ongoing thing. I’d keep my proctologist on speed dial.
  • She’s from Waterbury, 36 and owns a speculum. She wants a man to probe her with it and do a full examination of the privates. Real or pretend doctors desired.

More next month.

 
The Thinker

Spending spree

Merrill Lynch has relented. For months they put up hurdles that kept me and my siblings from getting money my father left us. You can read the irritating story here if you want. Sometime in mid June though they seem to have surrendered and the funds bequeathed to us finally started to flow. The last batch arrived on July 1 when about $3000 in cash along with a bunch of mutual funds finally arrived. The only real hang up at the moment is not with Merrill Lynch, but Ally Bank. It has a policy that they won’t give you full credit for deposits over $5000 for five business days. Which means I can’t spend much of that money until later in this week.

I am tempted to go wild with $80K or so suddenly in my accounts. It’s not an enormous amount of money, but it’s by far the biggest windfall I ever received. Before I knew we were going to get money, I thought about simply giving most of it away to a few deserving souls. It would not change our standard of living much.

Yet with the inheritance, if I wanted for the first time in my life I could do something truly ostentatious. I could buy a BMW or take the wife and me on a round-the-world cruise, all guilt free. For better or worse, I’m not wired that way. First things first. About half of the money will be used to pay for the solar panels that were recently installed on our house and to pay off our remaining mortgage balance. Both are wiser uses of Dad’s money. Our mortgage balance wasn’t much, but paying it off will give us a couple hundred dollars more to spend or save every month. If the engineers were right then our solar panels would not only generate clean electricity but also add about $150 a month that we would have sent to the power company instead. Giving the gift that keeps on giving would be the sort of thing Dad would like me do with the money as he was relentlessly practical. Pay yourself first.

While I was comfortable with giving a lot of the balance away, my wife soon professed other plans for Dad’s money. Visions of style danced in her head. Take our furniture, for example. Much of it looks nice, but it’s cheap particleboard on the inside with a laminate on the outside. Until now we had always bought furniture when we needed it and had just what we needed. It sort of matched what we had, but not quite. She quickly developed a plan for part of the money that she executed with deftness and aplomb yesterday. For just under $5000 she bought us some quality solid wood furniture, stuff made so well it’s likely to last longer than we do. These included a new living room sofa and loveseat, a china cabinet, two armchairs for the sunroom and a corner TV stand. The wood furniture is in her favorite color (oak). The furniture with fabric on it will have colors and patterns that look nice with our peach walls, plus will be textured to resist cat claws and treated to deter cat vomit. The only downside is we have to wait about five weeks for it, as it is being manufactured in Virginia and Arizona. I haven’t seen her so excited about a project in at least a dozen years.

This doubtless is only the start. We moved into a new custom home last year but it’s still a work in progress. We have another list right behind the furniture, mostly things we used to have that we threw away or did not come with the house. For example, we need top quality screen doors that will probably set us back $800 or so. The old gas grill was discarded when we moved. We replaced it today and I assembled it just in time to try it out for a Fourth of July barbeque. Thanks Dad. What’s next?

I have had the same set of stereo speakers since 1979. Hey, they sounded excellent. All these years later though, it’s probably time to finally retire them. Our stereo system is early 2000s but the reality of stereo systems today is that they are kind of obsolete. Today it’s about projecting high definition audio and video where you need it in the house now, and streaming most content, sometimes between devices with a Roku or Chromecast stick. We’ll still keep a DVD player but I can see it’s already on the way out while a wider and higher definition TV is probably on the way in. Content will come mostly on demand over the Internet. I am baffled by how to do all this magic and not sure how much of it I want to do, but what seemed unwise before now has become, well, what the heck. Dad’s paying!

I’ve already replaced my desk chair to make it more ergonomic. My desk itself needs to be replaced. Cheap particleboard desks have always worked for me in the past but maybe this time, I’ll replace it with something solid wood. I’m confident if we worked at it we could spend it Dad’s money just on stuff for the house. For example, we skipped an upstairs bath to save money when the house was constructed. I could have one put in. Meanwhile, there are less costly items under consideration. My wife is petitioning me for a new top of the line standalone mixer, as she makes her own bread. What about an awning for the deck? A chair for the front porch? Our dining room table has scratches and the chairs need to be reupholstered. Why not just replace them? Dad’s paying. What about the sort of doodads that people with more money than we have usually have around the house? Like real china in the china cabinet. Sterling silver. Large fake potted ferns in the living room. An eight-foot long aquarium filled with colorful fish. Dad’s paying.

Most of this just doesn’t appeal to me. The stuff that matters is generally my computer, my monitor and a high speed Internet connection. I don’t need or want a fancy car. I don’t want fancy threads: t-shirts and jeans are fine with me. A fun indulgence might be a fancy vacation somewhere, perhaps a return trip to Hawaii. Dad can finance it.

Spending the inheritance should be more fun that this. Saving it should be more fun too. But it feels anticlimactic to me. Money can’t buy love, but someone you love can bequeath you money when they die, as my Dad did. It’s a way to show love, but while it buys real things it still feels somewhat hollow. In reality it means little compared to what I lost and Dad that was you. I would trade it all away for just another hour with you happy, healthy, and chatting about the Washington D.C. that you loved. I only have the memories now.

And a fatter bank account.

 
The Thinker

Review: Independence Day (Resurgence)

Before going to see Independence Day (Resurgence), the twenty years later sequel to Independence Day (1996), I made a point of watching its inspiration, Independence Day again. When it comes to movies, my mind is like a sieve so a refresher showing helped me remember who the characters were twenty years ago and whether my assessment back then (a pretty good movie) still stood.

So first a brief second look back at Independence Day, the feel-good 1996 blockbuster summer popcorn movie. Both this movie and the sequel of course required you to suspend disbelief. In 1996 though aliens taking over the earth, while not exactly a new idea for a movie, was at least an infrequent enough a theme where this movie was pretty fresh. And for 1996 the special effects we got were quite awesome. Independence Day had going for it its timing near the holiday but also some really fun acting, principally Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller, who nailed the role of a super-aggressive fighter pilot. They threw in an odd mash up of characters that managed to entertain us. These included Jeff Goldbloom as the quirky David Levenson, whose wife (Margaret Colin) just happened to be President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) chief of staff. Judd Hirsch showed up as his Jewish but not terribly devout father and Brent Spiner had something of an ancillary role as Dr. Okun, whose brain was quickly fried by aliens. Of course the world somehow united (via Morse code, if you can believe it) to defeat these alien invaders/harvesters. Millions died and our capital (including most major cities) was incinerated but in the end of course we won, with the help of a computer virus, Will and Jeff and a vintage 1996 Apple Macbook. There were staggeringly implausible coincidences throughout but who couldn’t cheer when the mothership came down thanks to good ol’ Yankee ingenuity? It was implausible as hell, but it was fun with just the right ingredients to make it engaging and entertaining.

Fast forward twenty years and you can see quickly where this review will end up. First of all, can you think of any summer blockbuster that doesn’t involve the earth or at least some major city like New York getting blasted by super forces? Pick any of the plethora of superhero movies out there and you will know that this plot is (to say the least) tired. Oh so tired. Granted, it’s even more visually stunning in 2016 than it was in 1996. Super special effects in 2016 though are no big deal. Even the cheaper movies can afford special effects, at least like those made in 1996. Trying to go over the top on special effects these days is nigh impossible. We’ve seen it all so many times that it’s a good thing that if we see this movie in a theater we don’t have a fast forward button to skip over them.

Many but certainly not all the characters are back from 1996. Unfortunately the ones who are missing were crucial to sustaining the first movie, principally Will Smith. Jeff Goldbloom is back and looks great twenty years later. Judd Hirsch doesn’t look like he’s aged much either. Brent Spiner is back too and gets more than a bit part. Dr. Okun must have gotten excellent physical therapy while in his twenty-year coma, because he’s hardly out of bed before he is bounding down the halls of Area 51 on his alien hunt. We also learn (or at least infer) that Dr. Okun is gay.

President Whitmore’s little daughter is now in the White House herself, as chief of staff, while her father suffers from what seems to be depression after his leadership saving the world. The earth is supposedly united and peaceful (kicking alien ass will do that to a species, especially when they are worried about a return visit), except possibly in Africa where David Levenson quickly encounters Dikembe Umbutu (Deobia Oparei), and African warlord with enormous pectoral muscles and a hankering for alien meat. Needless to say from tremors on the earth and the moon along with hulking entities that mysteriously appear on radars … they’re back, they’re much bigger and they are pissed. Time for earthlings to come together and invent a new Corbomite maneuver. Unfortunately, there’s no Captain Kirk here, but there is David Levenson and the now fully restored Dr. Okun to puzzle through how humanity will survive this time.

There are new characters. Captain Hiller’s son Dylan in the first movie is channeling his absent dad (dead, but cause of death not quite described) as a fighter pilot like dad, played here by Jesse Usher. How the earth is governed is not quite spelled out but the U.S. president (Sela Ward) seems to have an oversized role amongst all this new brotherhood. Once the alien attack starts though out go our communications satellites. This time though we revert to a newer technology to keep in touch: yes, shortwave radio instead of Morse code!

The movie does move along at a brisk enough pace but the characters this time are far less engaging while the movie suffers from an overdose of alien attack syndrome. The supposedly scientific explanations don’t make much sense and at times troopers are so busy shooting at aliens that it reminded me of a slightly better version of Starship Troopers. In short, this movie may not escape a Rifftrax commentary in a few years. And if you enjoyed the many implausible encounters in the first movie (like between the First Lady and the fighter pilot’s fiancée), wow, buckle your seatbelts because there are heaps more here.

It won’t spoil the plot to let you know that we beat the bugs again, with the help of a little extraterrestrial intelligence. Personally, I would have enjoyed seeing the aliens win. At least that would have been different.

If your standards in popcorn movies are low, by all means go see Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s not a bad movie, just not nearly as engaging as the first one and so rife with cliché and stereotypical characters it’s hard to care if any of the major characters get blown up by bugs. Not many actually do, of course, which means there’s a good chance for another sequel, as the end of the movie makes clear. Maybe based on this experience I’ll wisely skip any next sequel.

2.8 out of four stars here.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

 
The Thinker

Solar absorption

Two months after starting our solar project, our solar panels are online and producing clean and free energy.

Installation day (June 16) was a big deal for us. It certainly was for our cat Cinnamon who was freaked out by all the noise and strange people inside our house and quickly ran under our bed for the duration. Direct Energy Solar sent four trucks with two guys to do the roof work and two to do the electrical work. The roof work required attaching rails to our roof to hold the panels. Before the panels were attached inverters were placed next to the rails. The inverters convert the direct current (DC) from the solar panels into alternating current (AC) used everywhere. Meanwhile two electricians crawled through our attic, laying cable. This required putting a hole in the roof to carry wires from the solar panels into the house. A hole was also needed on the side of our house so the cables could attach to the outdoor electrical junction box but also into the basement to our circuit breaker box. Only then did the crew on the roof haul up our twenty panels and put them in place, connecting them to the inverter box just underneath each panel.

Installing rails and inverters

Installing rails and inverters

It all went quite speedily, taking about six hours, one of which was spent waiting for the city electrical inspector to show up. However, having solar panels on the roof didn’t mean we could actually use them. Any attempt to do so would have caused a major problem, as we were not yet wired to put electricity back into the grid. So for a week the solar panels adorned our roof while we continued to draw power from the grid.

Wednesday found a man from the power company unexpectedly at our door. He came by to replace our meter. We needed one that would report power we contribute to the grid, i.e. one that would go backward. Happily this was simple to do: the old meter was unplugged and the new one plugged in. It took about five seconds, but it did shut off everything in the house. Still, I was reluctant to lift the switch that would start the flow of this green energy. I figured another inspection was needed first. Thursday night I finally heard from our project manager who said it was safe to turn the system on, which I did first thing Friday morning.

All done!

All done!

We’re not quite done. A building inspector still has to sign off on the project. In addition we are promised some tools. The Enphase inverters report on electricity produced but we need an account with them established so we can see real-time usage and get reports. We’ll have our own webpage and we can monitor our system in real-time anywhere in the world where there is Internet from the convenience of an app on our smartphones.

This time of year we are putting surplus energy back into the electrical grid. What we give back in electricity will count as credits during the darker months when days are shorter. If the engineers who planned our solar system are correct everything should even out. So unless we start adding power-hungry appliances we may never have to pay an electric bill again.

Of course nothing is free. Back in April when I first wrote about this venture, I detailed the costs. Our system cost $21,432.25. Subtracting healthy federal and state tax credits, our net cost is $14,002.58. With Solar Renewable Energy Certificate (SREC) income payable over ten years worth $9,262.50 the true net cost is $4742.08. In effect we are paying only 22% of the system’s cost.

How long would it take you to use $4742.08 in electricity from your power company? Electricity is expensive around here, averaging about 22c/kwh. This is actually good for justifying this investment. For us this is about 21,500 kwh which based on our projected usage suggests the system will pay for itself in four years. After that aside from minor maintenance that may be required, electricity should be free.

Once your system is up and running, it apparently fails to entertain. They tend to be very reliable and as they are solid state, so it’s rare for problems to occur. But I do plan to post updates from time to time, perhaps a year from now after we have some experience and metrics to look at.

 
The Thinker

Trump is toast

The air has been letting out of the Trump balloon for about a month now, i.e. since he won his party’s nomination. Polls have been showing about a five-point gap (sometimes more) favoring Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup. It’s not because Hillary Clinton has become more popular, it’s because Donald Trump has gotten less popular. This in turn is because Trump has a habit of opening his mouth and it continues to sound meaner and make less sense. Trump apparently has decided to let Donald be Donald. This does not mean “acting presidential” because apparently he figures he already is presidential.

In any event, it appears to me that The Donald has finally jumped the shark, which means that rather than seem interesting and different he now looks buffoonish, which was clear to many of us from the start. One problem with being a bully is that when you need to, you are unable to pivot. All Trump knows is how to be a bully. It’s served him well in business and in marketing himself. But as I noted years ago in an essay on bullying it only works until it does not. At some point the bully is stood up to and they can’t effectively counterpunch. Then the once feared bully suddenly looks impotent. In extreme cases they become objects of scorn or (worse) pity. Trump is already at the scorned phase.

It’s hard to say when Trump’s jump the shark moment occurred, but it will probably be reckoned when he attacked the federal judge overseeing the Trump University case. Finally we had an outrage so outrageous it could not be excused anymore by his own party. Republicans, at least those in the establishment, widely condemned his remarks. I can’t recall any Republican that stood by him on this. Judge Curiel after all did not take up the case; he was assigned the case, and had no axe to grind. But since this case could open Trump to racketeering charges, Trump saw the judge as a threat, so of course he went after him. Howls of protests from just about everywhere simply made him double down, then double-double down. That’s the bully’s modus operandi. There is a bull in a bully, and a bull is single-minded, making it hard to perceive threats.

It was followed by a self-congratulating tweet after the Orlando massacre that too was widely panned for its total lack of empathy toward the victims and families. But why should anyone be surprised? Trump does not know how to be empathetic. It likely wasn’t modeled in his father, who coached him on how great he was going to be (and gave him millions of dollars to try). There is no record of him volunteering in soup kitchens or homeless shelters. If he is a Presbyterian no one can recall the last time he was in church. Of course his brand is meanness, hardly the sort of attributes ascribed to Jesus.

There are lots of people that claim to be religious and are not, so Trump is hardly unique there. From the perspective of this non-Christian, most Christians in this country are not Christians, at least not ones that Jesus would recognize. Capitalism is our real state religion so at least Trump is its poster child there. After all, a good capitalist does not need to have a conscience. It certainly appears that Trump has none, considering how many investors of his affiliated companies and contractors that have done work for him that he has screwed over the years. But if you are a capitalist, it’s all okay if you can get away with it. And with the possible exception of the Trump University case, he’s proof that money can buy the justice you want.

If Trump can attract a majority of like-minded voters then he will be our next president. It seems unlikely that he can. A majority of voters polled (54%) said they would not vote for Trump versus 43% for Clinton. It’s hard to win an election with these kinds of numbers, unless you can suppress the numbers who plan to vote for Clinton. Only about a third of the country actually likes Trump. Even Republicans are souring on Trump. Paul Ryan is signaling it’s okay for Republican delegates to vote their consciences. It’s unclear if a Never Trump movement will gain traction but likely more than a few Republican candidates are quietly waiting in the wings for him to implode. (Maybe it’s just me, but as bad as Trump is Ted Cruz would actually be worse.) The Bush family won’t vote for him, which makes me wonder what their alternative is: to not vote at all or hold their noses and vote for Clinton? Some of the more liberal Republican governors (Charlie Baker here in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland) have publicly said they won’t vote for him. To me the optics is pretty clear: you can’t win an election if you are so widely disliked and/or despised.

Lurking in the back of my mind are the obvious concerns. It’s more than four months to the election and lots of events (like yesterday’s Brexit vote in Great Britain) can swing the minds of voters. And perhaps Trump can pull a Houdini and completely reinvent himself, at least through the election, although I don’t see how he can convince enough people. When I divorce my fears and concentrate on the facts, I simply can’t see how Trump can be elected. There is no viable path and even if one suggested itself the Electoral College is pretty baked in. It would take a phenomenal Republican candidate and a dismal Democratic one to change them. Trump’s best hope is simply precedent: the last Democrat to succeed a Democratic president who left office after two full terms was Harry S Truman, and this was after the more than three terms that Franklin Roosevelt served.

So stepping out on a limb, I think Trump is toast already. What will prove more interesting is the how his degree of his unfavorability affects House and Senate races. Trump may be so toxic that the Trump effect may sweep not just the Senate but also the House into Democratic control. He might even end the Republican Party.

 
The Thinker

Happy Fathers Day to me

This year for the first time in my life there is no father to call. No father to send a card to. No father to give an unneeded tie to either. So today has become something of a bummer of a holiday for me. Yet it is a bridge we all must pass in time if we live long enough. I can’t say that I like it.

So far 2016 has been a bad year for deaths within the family. I lost my father on my birthday (February 1). I learned recently that my Uncle Lou passed away a few weeks ago. I had plenty of uncles, but Lou was the closest to being a present one in my life, even though we had to travel to see him: either Michigan where he lived with my Aunt Penny or some state park somewhere where we met with our larger families when we were growing up. Life has been especially cruel to my Aunt Penny this year. She lost two to cancer, not just her husband of fifty plus years, but also her daughter (my cousin) Beth this week. Beth was an adventurous free spirit. She had two stints in the Peace Corps and wasn’t intimidated in the least by the poverty, heat, disease and high mortality of those regions where she worked. She died after a long bout with ovarian cancer.

A fatherless Fathers Day does make me ruminate on the importance of a father in your life. As I wrote in his eulogy my father was exceptional, at least in the role of being a father. I’m quite confident he would be in the top .1% if there were a way to rank fathers. Given my cousin Beth’s adventurous nature, my Uncle Lou was probably a similarly highly ranked father. We were both blessed to have them as nurturing presences in our lives.

Mothers tend to get most of the credit in childrearing, perhaps because they tend to do most of the work. I wasn’t keeping track with a stopwatch, but I can say that I at least pulled my weight with the parenting. While challenging at times, mostly it was deeply satisfying. We had one child, our daughter Rose who I may have recently embarrassed by publishing a video of her at ten months. The research is quite clear: an engaged father can be transformative to his children, as my father certainly was with us. Moreover, a father who lavishes love and support on his daughters is especially important in their ability to make their marks on the world.

I saw this in my own family where arguably all of the women have succeeded at least as well as the men in the family. My father never treated his daughters differently and set high expectations for them. The oldest has a degree in nursing like our mother. The next oldest has a long and successful career in the space industry and a masters degree in biophysics as well. My next sister has an MBA and is a chief buyer for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The youngest has a PhD in audiology and has been teaching it professionally at many universities over her career, most recently in Florida.

Seeing positive fatherhood modeled in my own father meant it was natural for me to do the same with my own daughter. She had the bonus of more attention because she had no siblings. It’s hard for me to know the extent I influenced her, but by virtue of being her parent (and an engaged one) it was clearly a lot. As I noted a few years ago as I watched her transform into a fully functional adult, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. We get along famously and often have more to talk about than she does with her mother, perhaps because she has become political like me. And she writes her congress critter, just like me.

I never tried to overtly make her like me. Math and logic don’t interest her, and I don’t see software engineering in her future. But I do see a woman with an exceptionally agile mind. She was born into a very complicated world, a world much more complex than the one I entered. And somehow she has successfully put it altogether, with help from a lot of teachers over the year as well as a liberal arts education. My contributions in the end were not just to coach her (when she was open to being coached) but to infuse her with the notion that when she put her mind to it she could, like Superman, leap tall buildings with a single bound. A mind after all is a terrible thing to waste.

Today at age 26, she is busy defining her adult life. It looks quite a bit different than how I defined mine. But she has grabbed the reins of her life in a way that pleases her. She has all the potential in the world. I am looking forward in the years ahead to see how she realizes her potential. I recently read her self-published novel (self-published only because two sets of agents had concerns she hadn’t make her fantasy world hetero-normative enough) and was both awed and humbled by the quality of her writing.

Given our often-patriarchal reality, for women to achieve their full potential it seems to require their fathers not just to give them consent but also to mentor them on how it can be achieved. It requires fathers to suspend traditional gender roles, to be unconditionally supportive to their daughters and to fearlessly champion their potential. Or not. It’s entirely okay for any child to pick any path they want. If a father though opens a door it is so much easier for the daughter to look out the door and if they choose make that leap of faith into the unknown.

This was a gift I got from both my parents, but which I perceived that I received more strongly from my father. It was a gift I gave my daughter too. So on this first father-less Fathers Day, it’s a way for me to acknowledge my father’s gift and foresight. I also acknowledge that I played my role quite well and with much love, enthusiasm and aplomb. It makes the loss of my own father easier to bear. In many ways I have replicated his model and am passing it on to her. And doing so feels immensely satisfying.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad wherever you may be. Today especially but always you remain just next to my heart.

 
The Thinker

The never-ending story

What more is there to say about this latest mass shooting in Orlando that I haven’t said many times in many other posts? 49 people dead, 50 including the gunman, and more than that injured. This incident has the dubious distinction of being our worst mass shooting in modern history.

There have been worse shootings, if you include Wounded Knee (146 Native Americans dead, and by our own government), possibly the Tulsa Race Riot or pretty much any Civil War battle. At the time those who knew about Wounded Knee were all for it. Indians were not seen as our friends in the 19th century; they got in the way of Manifest Destiny. You’d be hard-pressed to find any Civil War battle that didn’t have at least fifty deaths, which is why this incident is being so carefully qualified.

Most of us normal Americans might like to see a little action for a change rather than our usual inchoate rage that once again will mean nothing will get done to prevent future incidents. That’s currently underway in the United States Senate where Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy started a filibuster to get the Senate to take some action. Democrats seem willing to sustain the filibuster, at least for a while. Even if they get their way, any “gun control” will be so modest as to be laughable. What’s being floated is putting a 72-hour wait on assault weapons purchases by anyone on the terrorist watch list. Any bill that comes out is likely to include a provision that failed last December: to take away federal funding from any city that declare themselves “sanctuary cities”, i.e. don’t allow their police to enforce federal immigration law.

There are a few new things about this latest incident to note. One, this demonstrates that having a good guy with a gun won’t necessarily fix the problem of a bad guy with a gun, so the NRA has been proven wrong on this. There was an Orlando cop on the premises of the Pulse nightclub where these mass deaths and injuries occurred. The Pulse caters to the LGBT and Hispanic community in Orlando. The incident spanned about three hours. The tightly packed nightclub made whatever the officer could do very limited. A semiautomatic rifle trumps anything a police officer is going to keep in their holster. Most of these semiautomatic rifles are capable of magazines with thirty bullets, and it’s not hard to unleash a bullet a second. They are in effect automatic weapons, thus extremely good at inflicting mass casualties very quickly.

There is at least one story of heroism so far: a Marine veteran that opened a back door so others could escape. More such stories are likely in the days ahead. There are also some peculiarities. The assailant, Omar Mateen, had been seen at the club many times and had apparently at least tried to pick up men at the club. So he may well have been gay. It’s possible that cognitive dissonance between his gay identity and his Muslim teachings was central in the carnage that he unleashed.

Mateen may have had been a practicing Muslim, but he was no more a foreign jihadist than my mother (born in Bay City, Michigan) was a Polish immigrant: he was born in New York City, just down the road from where Donald Trump entered the world. It was obviously made tremendously easier because of the easy access in this country to weapons of mass destruction. Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX, proudly manufactured here in the USA in New Hampshire. It is also likely that Mateen had zero contact with ISIS, who he pledged allegiance to shortly before the attack. This was a Made in America attack.

Some things look sadly familiar. Mateen was relatively young and male and as we see over and over again this is the demographic typical of these mass shooters. However, he wasn’t white and he was a Muslim American (parents from Afghanistan), which is why many assumed he was a terrorist trained by ISIS or Al Qaeda, which Donald Trump seemed to imply. And unsurprisingly there were caution flags all over the man, but not enough checks to keep him from working for a security firm or to easily acquire the semiautomatic weapons he used which he did shortly before the attack. The only thing really new here is the scale of the shooting. That Mateen was unbalanced and prone to violence is pretty obvious from reported episodes of wife beating.

In one of my first posts on gun control, I noted that simply possessing a weapon is dangerous. Possessing a semiautomatic weapon is much more dangerous than possessing a typical firearm because it can wreak much more damage much more quickly. I don’t own a gun not just because I am opposed to it in principle. I know myself well enough that it’s possible I could become mentally sick enough that I could use it, most likely to kill myself. No, I don’t have suicidal thoughts, but depression happens to most people. I’ve had a few mild bouts of it over the years. Prevention is so simple and the easiest one is simply not to own a gun.

Sane people like me though can do a lot to avoid being a victim. I’m unlikely to be attending a gay bar in the wee hours because I hate bars and I’m not gay. One reason I am living in Western Massachusetts is for its relative safety, in spite of Northampton where I live and its large and renown LGBT population. There is a lot of gun control here in Massachusetts. Semiautomatic weapons cannot be bought anywhere in the state, at least legally. Yes, we’ve had terrorist incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing. Curiously no semiautomatic weapons were used, perhaps because they are harder to acquire here.

A community with common sense gun laws is less likely to have these sorts of incidents. A community that shares these values is less likely to foster people attracted to these sorts of crimes. That sort of common sense is missing in Florida where just today reporters for the Huffington Post were able to acquire an AK-15 (similar to the gun used by Mateen) in just 38 minutes. It doesn’t surprise me that most of these incidents happen in states with loose gun laws.

Someday, probably when we have a Democratic House and Senate again, common sense gun laws may go national again. We’d best not hold our breath. History suggests that Mateen’s grisly record is likely to be broken long before we enact real gun control laws again.

 
The Thinker

Stuck in Merrill Lynch beneficiary hell

It sure is nice to inherit some money. Good luck in collecting it, at least at Merrill Lynch.

My father passed away in February 1. Some weeks afterward our stepmother told us we were beneficiaries to some of his accounts. It turned out to be a fair amount of money, considering there are eight of us, roughly $80,000 each. My sister spent a few weeks on the phone with M/L going in circles. Frustrated, she asked me to be the family’s liaison. She still has a job. I am retired.

Sure. Whatever. I’m used to playing the good brother role and I did have the time. And boy it sure takes time if you mean going around in pointless circles. They are clearly loath to let go of Dad’s accounts. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how they could make it any harder to claim money that is rightfully ours.

Over more than thirty years my father had a relationship with “Lee” at M/L, who apparently owns a brokerage under the M/L umbrella. Over the decades a lot of things have happened in this industry. For M/L, already a huge and impersonal company, it meant being acquired by the world’s largest and most uncaring bank: Bank of America. This is something I learned later on. Had I known, I would have taken it as an omen of what was to come.

It sounded pretty straightforward. Dad had about 28% of the funds he wanted to bequeath us in a simple account, a “Cash Management Account” to use the M/L term. The rest were in Roth accounts, which were tax advantaged. So you would think it would be pretty simple: sell any mutual funds in these accounts, divide the totals by eight and cut each of us a check for that amount.

Ha ha! Of course not! The first set of excuses I got when I made my initial queries was, “It’s tax season, we’ll talk to you after April 15.” They were so busy in the M/L office that they can’t be bothered to help us with this, at least not while they have clients that want to give them money rather than take it away. To say the least Molly, the lady I spoke with, was curt. Feeling a bit ticked off a few days later I dialed Lee.

Lee was all sunshine and light, expressed condolences and said this wasn’t that big of a deal. He’d have Molly send me the forms we needed. One ripple was that since the Roth funds were tax advantaged, we might want to set up inherited Roth IRA accounts. Or we could take the money as cash. In any event it’s an inheritance. No taxes to worry about.

So many of us dutifully decided to set up inherited Roth IRAs, a puzzling process to learn about and hard to set up as you need a death certificate. As for that Cash Management Account of Dad’s, my sister sent me the forms she had. They required notarization. It took some time since there are eight of us but we all found notaries. They sent the forms to me. I double checked them and mailed them in as a batch. Given their importance I sent them certified mail so they couldn’t claim they got lost in the mailroom.

A couple of weeks later after hearing nothing I inquired about them. Molly looked at the forms and said, oh, these aren’t the right ones! I pointed her to emails we had gotten saying they were the right ones. Oh, but that’s a Merrill Edge form (a subsidiary of BankAmerica.) They don’t accept that form because they are Merrill Lynch, not Merrill Edge. Somehow I managed to not raise my voice because it was no small matter of time and expense by eight of us to get all these forms signed, notarized and sent in. Okay, I said, what form do we send in then?

Well, there is no form, Molly replied. You write a letter listing the shares you are entitled to, get it notarized and send it in. Do you have a sample? Oh no, we don’t do that. You have to do it. How do we know it will be correct when we send it in? Well, underwriting will tell us if it’s okay. Oh boy, eight of us, all doing individual letters, with numerous back and forth letters, no guidance, until maybe we crank out one they would accept. And no one will get anything until all eight of us do it correctly. So this isn’t going to work. Well, it’s how we do things. After another chat with Lee he agreed as a “special exception” to give us a sample letter with an attached spreadsheet that listed shares and cash we were each entitled to. I guess they expect their clients to hire CPAs to do these things.

Some weeks passed during which Molly went on vacation. Eventually after dodging calls for a few days I got her on the phone. I learned they could not cash out the funds in the Cash Management Account. My father had requested an “equal division”. In their minds it meant we all had to get proportional shares of the mutual funds in the account. They couldn’t just mail us a check. We needed each to have a broker that would take these funds.

After much back and forth I learned that dividing these shares by eight of us meant there were fractional shares left over. Fractional shares could not be passed to us and would have to be sold. We all had to get whole shares. I figured they would want us to send notarized letters saying it was okay to do sell these fractional shares. Surprisingly they let me as my family’s spokesman authorize it. Of course, they could have volunteered this information weeks earlier, but did not. You have to persistently dig for it and if you ask the right question they will give you the right answer. They won’t volunteer anything. God forbid they give you a document that explains the whole process with a simple checklist to follow.

They suggested we all set up Merrill Edge Cash Management Accounts to make it easier to get the money. Of course this also has the advantage of keeping the money inside the Bank of America Empire. So I tasked my siblings to set these up. By this time of course they were spitting nails. The last thing they wanted was some sort of Merrill anything account. But it looked like it could save months or years of runaround, so I requested they each set one up anyhow. They had a contact in their office that was sometimes available who could set these up. Some siblings gave up in frustration when calls to this lady were not returned and called their local office or set one up online.

Molly said that their system wouldn’t show them our Merrill Edge account numbers unless their office set them up. I assumed she was going to complete the draft letters and put in the exact numbers of shares and our account numbers. When I asked, she said I was supposed to do it. Naturally this was news to me. I now have all these forms done and will mail them out to my siblings, who must get this second set notarized. Except only the letter must be notarized. The attached spreadsheet just has to be signed and dated.

I’m betting that when these all arrive at M/L they’ll find a reason to kick them back and we’ll have to start all over.

Then there are my Dad’s two Roth funds. Here to speed things up we were encouraged to cash them all in. My siblings were fine with this. I had researched the funds in these accounts and they were underperforming funds. Granted my father was chasing stability instead of market trends, but of the five funds I looked at three were real laggards compared with the S&P 500 index and all came with more than 1% annual management fees. Jeebus! Well, at least if we cashed them in we could hardly do worse than how they managed these funds!

But they wouldn’t sell the Roth funds this until each of us called them personally and okayed it. That took some time. To “speed up” the process I was told to send drafts of the Roth withdrawal forms I got from my siblings so they could flag errors. I sent them electronically on May 20. There they sit, still waiting to be reviewed. Molly says their staff of four is down to 2 and she is so busy but she hopes to do it next week. Doubtless they will find errors that will have to be tediously corrected. But if I get them all corrected then I can send in this batch of forms and in theory there should be no issues so they can disburse the funds. I’m fully expecting I’ll send them in and they’ll find a reason to kick them back, something they haven’t explained before. We’ll see but it depends on poor overworked Molly actually deigning to review our forms.

In short, it’s a messed up and confusing process. In fact, it’s not a process at all. It seems they make it up as they go along. It seems likely that they are paid based on the assets in their accounts and they don’t want to lose them. Only with persistence, firmness and summoning your inner Donald Trump can you collect and I suspect we are nowhere close to getting our shares. They won’t volunteer anything. Meanwhile siblings who could use the money so it can grow for their retirement can’t get it. Not that M/L cares at all.

I have no idea if this sort of hassle is typical in the industry, but I can say to avoid M/L at all costs. If you have beneficiaries for accounts, ask to see their process for distributing funds and make it known to the beneficiaries. Make sure the process is straightforward. My Dad didn’t do this. The inheritance was a complete surprise. But being a beneficiary doesn’t mean much if you can’t actually get the money.

I am expecting before this is over we’ll be filing a lawsuit. It will probably go into the bottom of a long queue of similar lawsuits all from angry people like me simply trying to collect money intended for them.

 

Switch to our mobile site