Sunday, November 7, 2010


Well, I though I would throw out my post election blog into the morass of post election analyses. I will try not to comment on the issues that may have caused the shift in power in the House, as that would be for another post. But having watched a lot of television commentary on the election results, I do know one thing—both Democrats and Republicans still don’t get it. By “it” I mean the pulse of the nation. They are both causing Americans to lose faith in the system.

Let’s look at the results of the election. The Republicans took control of the House with a clear trouncing the Democrats across the nation, nearly reversing the Democrat hold on the House. Before election night, the Democrats held the majority, 256-179. The voters reversed that to give Republicans the majority, 239-188, with 8 seats not yet decided. In the Senate, the Democrats barely maintained the majority at 53-47, from 59-41.

This data can be spun by either side, and in fact was spun by both sides. The Democrats, while admitting defeat in the House, still point their majority hold on the Senate at the Republicans, daring them to write an outlandish bill that will need to pass through the Senate. They also still make subtle note that the President is a Democrat, lest anyone forgets that fact. The Republicans ignore their inability to gain the Senate majority. What they focus on is their control of the House, and how that will allow them to pass Republican minded legislation, but more importantly, to stymie Democrat minded legislation.

If this is starting to sound like Lord of the Flies with unintelligent adults instead of children, it’s because it is.

The Democrats problem is their inability to be humbled by the clear wave of public anger over recent legislation, which was essentially forced through by a Democrat majority legislative and executive branch. If you look at the election results of each state, you will find that the majority of the state counties voted Republican. This is why the Republicans took over the House. Representatives are elected by district to ensure that “country folk” in Podunk, USA have some degree of representation. The Senate seats are different. Take Illinois, for example. The vote was close—1.765 million to 1.694 million in favor of the Republican candidate. But if you look at the district breakdown it is overwhelmingly Republican by the percentages, easily 60-plus percent for the Republican. So why was the vote so close? Because the largest county, Cook county, voted Democrat, 878,000 to 475,000. That’s half of the total Democrat votes right there. It also belies the problem with the Democrats’ approach to politics. They alienate the “country folk” in favor of the “city folk”. If you want to really stretch the logic, you could say Democrats fail to simplify or personalize the issues so that “country folk” can associate with them. I don’t mean to say “country folk” are idiots. (I would simply have said “idiots” instead of saying “country folk”) I mean that the issues such as the Wall Street fiasco do not directly touch these people to a great extent if at all, and so explaining why a large bailout is needed is the same as not explaining anything at all. That is why the Democrats lost the House.

The Republicans, on the other hand, behave much like children—issues are often oversimplified and made far too black and white. “City folk” see and experience the complexity of the issues. You have people who clearly were hurt by the mortgage fiasco but work in banking or some industry closely tied to Wall Street. Thus a simplification of the issue only exposes your indifference to it. The other way the Republicans act like children is the talk of repealing the health care reform bill. It’s as though they now have the majority and so can bully the bully. Taunts of repeal serve only to rouse an ignorant mob, since it is utterly ludicrous. In order to repeal the health care reform bill it would have to first pass legislation through the House, which it could force through since it is now a Republican majority. But it would then have to pass the Senate as well, which would be difficult even with a slim Democrat majority. After all that, it would need to be signed by President Obama, who would be more likely to resign than to repeal a health care bill he openly championed. What of overriding the veto you ask? That takes a 2/3 majority in both the House and Senate, and only if the President doesn’t pull off a pocket veto. The Republicans hold only a 55% majority in the House and only 47% minority in the Senate. They would need a lot of Democrat support to override a veto, which they will not get with the current hostilities from rubbing the Democrats noses in the Republican takeover of the House.

So what is an American voter to do? I’ll tell you what I do. I try to be as healthy as possible, save my money conservatively, and buy a lottery ticket every once in a while. How’s that for faith?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Ant and the Grasshopper

So are you an ant or a grasshopper? It seems an odd question, but when you talk about the housing crisis and its governmental solutions, homeowners are clearly divided into ants and grasshoppers. And if you’ve been reading my articles, you know that I root for the ants.

Aesop’s fable, “The Ant and the Grasshopper” is well known. It goes something like this. There is a grasshopper that spends the warm months singing and dancing with the ant works diligently to store up food for the winter. When the cold winter finally arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger. The grasshopper goes to the ant to beg for food, but is rebuked. While there is little variation of the story, the ending has many variations. Some end with the grasshopper starving to death, others with the ant offering help, and some leave the ending ambiguous. The moral of the story remains the same, which, if you could not guess, is idleness brings want.

The fable offers a fairly good allegory for the housing crisis. You begin with homeowners. At this point you should know if each homeowner is an ant or a grasshopper based on the amount he has borrowed and his ability to keep up with payments. But as this is the mortgage crisis, both the lenders and lendees were either ignorant of the fact or disregarded that fact. And so over the warm months, or the growth period of the housing bubble, you had homeowners that dutifully salted away money to build equity in their home. You also had homeowners who believed their home values could only increase and make up for impending ballooning payments in the future. So you have the ants and the grasshoppers, respectively.

Then the housing bubble burst, and home values plummeted. The majority of home values went underwater, with values less than the mortgage owed. This was complicated by the banking crisis as well, and homeowners saw their retirement savings plummet as well. Many people lost their jobs. Suddenly there was a population of homeowners that could not make their mortgage payments. And while many of these instances resulted from unfortunate circumstances such as unemployment, the majority of defaults resulted from homeowners simply taking mortgages too large for their financial situation. The remainder of homeowners also suffered from loss of home value and even underwater mortgages, but were still able to keep up with their mortgage payments.

So now here we are in the dead of winter. You have homeowners that were responsible enough to take on mortgages they could handle, and homeowners that cannot keep up with their payments because they wanted a bigger house than they could afford. How will this story end? Well, it ends with the ant being forced to help the grasshopper. The government has set up programs to help defaulted homeowners keep their homes by magically reducing their interest rates. In essence, banks are coerced to refinance, in one form or another, defaulted mortgages to give the miscreant homeowners lower mortgage payments. All the while, homeowners that are keeping up with their underwater mortgages are eligible for nothing. They must maintain their current interest rate, unless they have enough equity or cash to refinance. And on top of that, their taxes are used to help the defaulted homeowners refinance.

So much for the moral of the story. For me there is only minimal comfort in knowing that a swarm of ants could take apart a grasshopper as it stands there in under a minute.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Medical Errors

To err is human, but to forgive is divine. That is the common Alexander Pope saying. It essentially means that it should not be surprising if you screw up, but expect to be crucified if you do. This is no more true than in medicine. Medical errors accounted for about 195,000 deaths a year nationwide in 2002. That number seems to be holding steady even in recent years. There are numerous ways in which a medical error may result or contribute to a patient’s death, including incorrect medication selection and dosing, incorrect surgical site and retained surgical instruments, missed medications, and errors or complications during procedures. Now 190,000 is not a tremendous number when you consider the number of people who pass through hospitals each year, including admissions, ER visits, same day surgery procedures, and infusion room visits. But who wants to be one of the 190,000?

So every year someone comes up with another bright idea to eradicate the medical error problem. It would seem logical that you should have a hospital that has no medical errors, right? So you simply have to remove all the factors that make errors more likely to occur.

First were the abbreviations. Since there is a lot of Latin in medicine, many dosing frequencies are abbreviated using the Latin instruction—“qd” for daily, “qod” for every other day, “ or “qid” for four times a day. Also, non Latin abbreviations, such as, “u” for units, “MSO4” for morphine sulfate, “MgSO4” for magnesium sulfate, and so on. There were also issues with numbers and where the decimal point and places after the decimal point were concerned, such as, “.1” instead of “0.1”, or “1.0” instead of “1”. You can see how each of these instances could result in a medication error. So they were done away with, and everything had to be written out. There was little aftermath from this change because the electronic medical record and computerized physician order entry came later, and described below.

Second was the fatigue factor. Researchers took volunteer subjects and kept them awake for thirty plus hours and then asked them questions to see how many they would get incorrect. When compared to subjects that were not sleep deprived, the sleep deprived subject made more mistakes. So it then had to follow that if you had a resident on call, he or she would have been up that morning, up that night, and up the next morning until at least 5pm. The propensity for medical errors should be enormous. So the edict was sent out that no resident on call should work no more than 80 hours a week, *and* no shift should exceed 30 hours, *and* there should be 10 hours off between shifts. And while it was state that this would be a voluntary recommendation, no program would be allowed to remain accredited unless it complied.

There are, however, some things to take into account. Since work hour limitations have been implemented, there has yet to be shown a clear decrease in hospital mortality rates. The other issue that will be difficult to determine is that if you reduce a medical trainee’s work hours, you reduce his or her exposure to the medical field. Without an increase in duration of training, you will be left with more undertrained physicians over time. This coupled with the fact that patients are sicker and carry more medical comordities these days results in a precarious healthcare scenario.

Third it was the handwritten medical record. It used to be that everything was written—notes, prescriptions, orders, medication records. But with the classic joke of a doctor’s poor penmanship, this was an easy target. The medication records were the first to be digitized for the pharmacists and nurses. Then physician orders were digitized. Now the remainder of the medical record is set to be digitized. The only problem with the electronic medical record (EMR), is that there is no standard. As a result, innumerable software companies have developed their own EMR system to hawk to healthcare facilities everywhere. None of the EMRs are compatible with each other, so in order to import information from one system to another you end up with a PDF file of the printout from the other EMR. So while some errors from poor penmanship are avoided, you now are left with lost information that may otherwise impact care.

Fourth, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS) require hospitals to report medical errors. These reports are reviewed and compensation is linked to the error rate of a hospital. Not a bad idea, right? What is not advertised is that CMMS *expects* a minimum error rate, and if the hospital is below that rate CMMS assumes there is underreporting. Of course, it could not be because the hospital actually has a lower rate of medical error. The hypocrisy of Medicare continues. And the fact that there is a minimum error rate tells you that it is there only to look for potential underreporters of medical errors.

So to summarize, medical errors account for about 200,000 deaths a year, and costs about $8 billion a year. Look at the time and money we have thrown into medical errors, with legislation, lawsuits, and wasted money on nonstandard software. On the other hand, tobacco use results in 440,000 deaths a year and costs about $97 billion a year.

But then again, smokers make up 21% of eligible voters, and physicians only 0.1% of eligible voters. And do not think I will not make a Venn diagram to account for physicians that smoke, because I will.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


There is a fairly common probability mind bender that continues to keep problem solvers deeply divided. It comes it many different variations, with goats, money, envelopes, and doors. There are only possible answers to the problem. I used to believe one answer but the more I think about the problem, the more I believe the other answer. I will present you with both the problem and both answers with their respective reasonings.

The Problem: Four identical sealed envelopes are presented to you on a table. One envelope contains $100, while the other three are empty. You select one envelope. Two of the three remaining envelopes on the table are then opened to show you that they are empty. You then have the option of either keeping your selected envelope or exchanging it for the remaining unopened envelope on the table. Should you exchange envelopes?

One variation of the puzzle involved a Let’s Make A Deal scenario, with four doors. Behind one door was a car, and behind the other three doors were goats. You could really change it however you wish.

The First Answer: The current thinking of this problem tells us that the answer is to exchange envelopes. I used to subscribe to this answer because the reasoning was intuitive and simple. It goes like this. When you selected an envelope, you had a 25% chance of selecting the $100. That means there was a 75% chance the $100 was in one of the remaining envelopes on the table (duh). But then two of the three envelopes on the table were removed, leaving one envelope. Intuition would then dictate that there is still a 75% chance the $100 is on the table. But since there is only one envelope left on the table, there must be a 75% chance the $100 is in it. Therefore, you have a 75% chance of getting $100 by exchanging envelopes. Sounds simple, right?

The Second Answer: The other intuitive way of looking at this is to simply say the when there are two envelopes left in play, one must contain the $100. Two empty envelopes have been removed, so they do impact the initial calculation of odds. (This is similar to why the results of a double blind medical research study are tainted if anyone at all looks at the unblinded results before the study is complete.) So if two envelopes remain, and only one has $100, your odds are 50% that you hold the $100 in your hand.

Not convinced by these glib intuitive reasons? I sympathize with you.

So now let us look at the problem the way a mathematician might approach it. There are four ways the envelopes could be set up.

1 $ -- -- --
2 -- $ -- --
3 -- -- $ --
4 -- -- -- $

Each scenario gives the same outcomes, so we need only examine one of them. Let us use the fourth. By selecting an envelope you create four combinations of envelopes remaining on the table.

1 -- -- $
2 -- -- $
3 -- -- $
4 -- -- --

Now if two empty envelopes are removed, the first three scenarios can only result in the $100 being left on the table. There is only one possibility for these three.

1 -- -- $ → $
2 -- -- $ → $
3 -- -- $ → $

The fourth scenario, however, has more than one possible outcome from the removal of two empty envelopes. Because each empty envelope is actually different, you can remove two empty envelopes three different ways. I have labeled each empty envelope to help you keep track.

4 --a --b --c → --c
4 --a --b --c → --b
4 --a --b --c → --a

So, after you have selected an envelope, there are six ways to remove two empty envelopes. Three result in the $100 remaining on the table, and three result in an empty envelope being left on the table. That would indicate even odds, and so it makes no difference whether or not you exchange envelopes.

Is there a lesson to all of this? Sure. The lesson is to always write out the possibilities when some arrogant bastard tries to give you an intuitive answer but cannot back it up with true math, because chances are he is an executive somewhere coordinating technical projects using the only “people person” skills he has to offer.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Problem With Free

Recently I have doing more on my iPhone. This is, of course, relative to me only. So by “doing more”, I mean getting a screen protector and buying an app. But even then, I cannot do that without frustration. Let me begin with some clarification. I am not one those people who go through the App Store and buy an app just because it looks appealing, saying, “eh, it’s just $0.99.” I know myself well enough to know how much I really use my phone. If I purchase thirty apps, about twenty-five of them will be forgotten and rarely used. So every app I buy has to do exactly what I think it will do and not be annoying in any way since I would potentially be using it every day.

If you browse through the App Store, you will see that there are two broad categories of apps—paid and free. Many paid apps have a free or lite version. The idea behind having a free version is to give the user hands on experience with the app and to make the user dependent on the app enough to purchase the full paid version. There are two things that follow because of that. The first is that the free app version will have limited functionality. That should be obvious. The second is that the free app will have advertisements. Some combination of the two is required. You can have no advertisements but very limited functionality, or many advertisements and more functionality. Up to now, I understood the logic of it, until this past week.

There is a game made by Skyworks named Arcade Bowling. It is a neon laced version of skee-ball. When it first came out it was a pretty good game. The only advertisement was a banner ad at the bottom of the screen, which was odd given the simplicity of skee-ball. I mean, what else is there to skee-ball other than rolling a ball up the ramp? In other words, how much difference could there be between the free and paid versions? Apparently not much difference. You can throw in progressive play (whatever that really is) and high score tracking, but it is hard to jazz up skee-ball because it is already quite basic. Thus, I was quite happy with my Arcade Bowling Lite for quite some time.

Then one day there was a notice that some of my apps had updates available. Arcade Bowling was one of them. When you read the description of the upgrade, it simply says something along the lines of, “iPhone 4.0 bug fixes” or something of that nature. That should have been my first lesson—do not update a game app with which you have no problems. Note that I did not say any app, just game apps. After the update, I tried to play the game. I was met with a loud obnoxious movie trailer for Resident Evil. You could not skip this trailer for several seconds. And after I got past the trailer I was met with a page of advertisements. And trying to get past those advertisements resulted in the app crashing half the time. Needless to say I deleted Arcade Bowling after ten minutes of that nonsense. I went online and found Skee-Ball, a simple app that does what I expect it to do—let me play Skee-Ball, and nothing else.

The interesting thing is that I paid $0.99 for Skee-Ball. I could have paid $0.99 for Arcade Bowling and perhaps gotten rid of that ridiculous advertisement fiasco, but there was no guarantee of that. The descriptions in both the lite and paid version made absolutely no suggestion that buying the app would purge the advertisements. Now while it probably would have (since the reviews of the paid version lacked the poison pen of the lite version), after seeing what the company thinks of its lite version users I decided they could look for my $0.99 up their asses.

Skee-Ball has no free version that I have encountered. And though it turned out to be a better game for me overall, I might not have ever purchased it, since there was a free version made by Skyworks. It was only after Skyworks crapped all over their free version that I went and bought Skee-Ball. I have no doubt that many users upgraded to their Arcade Bowling Lite to escape the excessive advertisements, but I believe they did so only because the App Store search engine is still in its infancy was unable to pull up Skee-Ball and Arcade Bowling on the same search page. But once Apple’s search engine evolves, companies like Skyworks will either have to change their business model or start losing money.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I finally missed a week of posting. It was a good run, but it had to end sometime. I would like to say that I did not post anything last week because I was on vacation, which I was. Unfortunately, that would not be the true reason for it. The true reason I did not post anything last week was that I was lazy. Plain and simple.

Now laziness comes in varying degrees and thresholds. For me, sleep is the final barrier that I cannot break. As a younger person I could pull an all nighter or at least stay up until 3 am without difficulty, but now it is impossible. In my recent week of laziness, however, I have observed that Americans have slowly lowered their laziness threshold over time. This is evidenced by three very common examples which also only serve to perpetuate and further lower the threshold.

The first example of laziness is the elevator phenomenon. Whenever I have taken the elevator and other people have gotten in as well, someone has taken the elevator one floor. I am not talking about one floor in a casino or a hotel at night, when it actually makes sense to take the elevator one floor. Nor am I talking about people with strollers or disabilities or wheelchairs who actually need to take the elevator. I am talking about the museum, or the sports arena, or even the mall. And there are escalators in the mall, for goodness sake! Again, I am talking about one floor. Just one floor.

The second example of laziness is unemployment. Now I want to be perfectly clear in that I am not saying that all people collecting unemployment are lazy. But more and more I have heard stories about people who are more than happy to sit back and collect unemployment without looking for another job. This is a variation on the welfare trap, which states that the benefit of working may not outweigh the benefit of living off welfare, driving people to remain on welfare. There are two solutions to the welfare trap—increase the benefit of working or decrease the benefit of remaining on welfare. Neither solution is easily implemented in real life. While the welfare trap or unemployment trap would sound reasonable financial terms, it suggests a broader problem. That is, the lack of drive to succeed. Without true work, there can be no advancement in career, no raises, no increase in benefits, and no possibility of improving your station in life. That is true laziness.

The third example of laziness is the seemingly new phenomenon of the temporary CEO. It is not a coincidence that more and more we are hearing of CEOs coming and going like the ocean tide. And in every circumstance the CEO leaves with a ridiculous golden parachute worth millions regardless of the shambles in which the company is left. Each time this happens the public asks themselves, “What exactly did that CEO do?” The answer is usually, “Nothing impressive.” I would bet that everyday more and more Americans believe they could be CEOs of major companies because of this. And whether the logic is or is not syllogistic, people come to believe that you do not have to do anything to make money. That money does, indeed grow on trees.

So kick back. Life does not have to be challenging at all. We have taken care of your hardships at every level, including going up a flight a stairs. Pretty soon even you will get paid to have your ass wiped like a CEO.

Monday, August 2, 2010

My iPhone4 Gripes

The iPhone4 has been out for several months now, and it has already had a good share of criticism. The most striking critique of the iPhone4 was the fact that it could drop a call if you held it the wrong way, like some sort of fickle telephone mistress. This fact alone led Consumer Reports to not recommend the iPhone4. This then led to the discovery that the iPhone OS (iOS) was calculating your signal strength incorrectly all along. A software update corrected this issue so you now know how utterly crappy AT&T's coverage truly is in your area. I recently received and activated my iPhone4, upgrading it from my iPhone3G, and I do like it very much, But I do have some gripes about it, and now it's my turn on the soapbox.

First off, I have noticed to change in signal strength for the 3G network and wifi when I hold the phone covering the gaps on the side. And it does affect my usage of the phone. And I do find it annoying. And I did order my free case courtesy of Apple. So I do not have a gripe about that. What I do have a gripe about is the reduced sensitivity of the the sensor near the ear speaker. Normally, when you turn on the phone and dial a number, you put the phone up to your ear (when you are not using speakerphone, of course). The phone senses that it is next to your ear and the screen blacks out to save energy. When the move the phone away from your ear, the screen lights up again. On my iPhone4, the screen blacks out only if the phone is actually touching your ear or temple. If you move it just a quarter of an inch from your head, the screen lights up again. Usually not a problem, right? But if you are cradling the phone with your shoulder to have both hands free, the phone does wobble next to your ear. If the screen lights up while the phone is wobbling next to your head, your ear could actually end your call, since the "End" button is the largest button on the screen during a call on the iPhone. I have actually lost calls because of this on many occasions. Of course, that is not the only thing that can happen. Your ear could easy "press" the Contact button and cause you to dial another person while you are on the phone. I have also had this happen. In fact, once I pressed the home button after making a call so at the very least I would not accidentally hang up on my friend. When the call was over I looked at the screen and my ear had opened my email and started composing an email. The text was jibberish, of course, but the point is made. If I could just have that sensor sensitivity turned up it would save me a lot of annoyance.

The second gripe I have is that while the iPhone4 boasts a better battery and longer (up to 40% more, they tout) life, It is easily squandered because the screen no longer dims and then turns off after a set amount of time. The only available option is screen lock after X amount of time, which only prompts you for a password and does nothing with screen dimming. This means that I could accidentally turn my phone on before putting it in my pocket or while it is in my pocket, and it would just sit there draining battery life. I am not asking for a full out screen saver. Just something to help me not waste the battery life accidentally.

My last gripe about my iPhone4 is the shake-to-undo. Seriously, what the hell is this? Shaking your phone to do anything that is not part of a game is just silly. Even the shake-to-shuffle for the iPod app is silly. But to undo something? When am I ever doing something on the iPhone that requires me to undo something? I suppose I must be composing a long email and accidentally delete an entire paragraph?Or writing some gigantic note where I would not could not redo any changes manually? I do not understand this function because I do not do that kind of computing on my iPhone. If I need to write a long message I use my computer. And seeing as how iTunes decided to "lose" all my notes from my iPhone3G when I upgraded, I also no longer write long notes on my phone. Now I can see a shake-to-refresh function. That might actually make more sense.

So that is all the griping I have about my iPhone4. I still love it, though, since it was a vast improvement over my iPhone3G, which is now relegated to entertaining my children on long car rides.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Go Team

I went to a Phillies game today. It was an afternoon game and they were playing the Colorado Rockies. Now as much as I enjoy going to a baseball game, there are several things that are really not well thought out about the whole experience. And by the way, the Phillies won this game, but not without some drama in the top of the ninth.

My first issue is with the stadium. I have been to several stadiums and they all seem to be very similar, at least in term of layout. This layout, however, is actually quite awkward. For starters, there is one escalator instead of two side by side. This means that for the first eight innings the escalator is going up, and after the eighth inning the escalator is going down. So what if you want to go down during the game? You cannot use the escalator. Instead, you have to find one of several poorly marked flights of stairs or wander over to one of only a few ramps. There is also the elevator, too. The point is that the stadium is not set up to allow people to move easily between tiers and sections. And since the vendors are disproportionately dispersed among the tiers it affects your access to the vendors.

My second issue is with the parking. Now I understand that it is difficult to organize parking for a full stadium, especially when you are talking about over forty thousand people. But you would think that there would be a better flow for traffic both before and after games. There should be better signage and alternate routing of traffic on game days to minimize the collateral congestion caused by the attendees.

The third issue is with people being able to get to their seats. There are apparently certain rules as to when people are allowed to go to their seats. These times include after a ball has been hit. This seems strange, especially since this would hinder the view of people sitting down. Why not let people go to their seats before the pitch is thrown? Or right after an unhit pitch? There is certainly some reason for it, but I have yet to find that out.

This is not to say that I dislike going to baseball games. I still rather enjoy it. It just seems like a rather coarse operation these days.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bored of Directors

Thank goodness for BP. That is probably what all the executives on Wall Street are thinking. Not only did they skate by on the soiled tatters of their underwear the first time around, but they escaped the potential, “hey, wait a second…” the second time around because BP had to go and pollute the Earth. Wall Street, remember? The people who created labyrinthine risk vehicles that distributed the risk of investment to the public. And how many of these executives actually got in trouble? Do you remember seeing the names of any Wall Street executives next to words “convicted” or “indicted”? I thought not. Funny how the executives of Lehman, AIG, Washington Mutual, Bear Stearns, and others managed to keep their noses clean and collect bonuses and golden parachutes at the same time. You can make as many arguments as you want explaining why some banks should not have been allowed to fail, but if they did fail, there at least might have been a chance that these executives would not have gotten multimillion dollars payouts.

But that is not even the “what?!” point. We already know that the executives of these banks need to be stripped of all worldly possessions to even begin to makes things right. The “what?!” point is that no one has even considered the Board of Directors of these banks. Or Board of Trustees. Or Board of Managers. Or Executive Board. Whatever you want to call it, everyone seems to have forgotten about these perpetrators of deception. In a stock corporation, which the four abovementioned banks are or were, the Board has the utmost power. That means they have final approval over the actions of the corporation, whether active or passive. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was designed to hold responsible the people who wield this power. Yet no Board member has received any negative press to date.

My goal is not to rail on the Boards of Wall Street, though someone certainly should (preferably the Department of Justice). My goal is to ask what purpose a Board of Directors truly serves. Whenever there is a problem with a company, the people we blame are the executives. The CEO, COO, CFO, President, VPs, and so on. No one ever talks about the Board. It is as though they suddenly vanished or had no real part in their company’s wrongdoings or missteps. And yet Board members are traditionally paid (stocks and options ultimately become money), especially if you are on the Board of say, Apple or Starbucks, Yes, yes, there are nonpaying Board seats, but we are not talking about those companies here.

Let us take Apple. A juggernaut of a company poised to be to technology what China is poised to be to economy. And when you boil it all down, it is because Steve Jobs steered Apple in the right direction. All credit will ultimately go to Jobs and not more than one sad little ounce will go to the engineers. But what about the Board of Directors for Apple? I am sure they all have very sore shoulders from patting themselves on the back for Apple’s meteoric rise in the industry—either for believing they helped lead Apple or for congratulating themselves for choosing Jobs to run the company. So what is the job of the Apple Board anyways? Are they involved in the decisions of the direction of the company? Did they discuss Apple’s/Jobs’ foray into the iPad? Given everything we know about Jobs and his micromanaging behavior, I would guess a big fat no. So what do they do? We know that they authorized a personal jet for Jobs as a bonus for his success with the iPod. In fact, most of what me know through the press is that the Board okays bonuses to Jobs for Apple’s success, which the world has come to synonymously associate with Job’s success. I am pretty sure Al Gore, who is on the Board at Apple (and whom I do like), know very little about what goes on at Apple. The man wrote a book and made a movie about global warming and toured the US for a lecture circuit. If Steve Jobs works close to seven days a week on Apple projects, I think Gore would be lucky to remember a three digit code to get into the Board of Directors private bathroom.

Let us look at another Board member. How about Mellody Hobson? You know her. She is on television always dishing out sane financial advice. She started Ariel investments. She also sits on several Boards for several companies, such as Dreamworks, Estee Lauder, and Starbucks. Those are just three of the ones of which I know you have heard. How much time do you think she spends for each of these companies? Mind you, these are giant companies in billion dollar industries. If the Board has this kind of power in a stock company, why do its members pay so little attention to it?

In Apple’s and probably Starbucks’ case, you are probably thinking, “who cares?” and honestly, I did too. But let us look at a more extreme case. How about Lehman Brothers? How about BP? These two companies were run into the ground and in the process destroyed a large chunk of America and its families. But in the end someone crafted the CDOs and skimped on the leak backup plan. Then someone wrote off on it. And then someone okayed the writing off of it. So who is responsible? You would think the people that are getting paid the big bucks to actually run the company would be responsible. They were chosen because they knew and understood what the company needed. The Board, who supposedly knew and understood what the company needed, in turn selected them. So if that was their job, when did plausible deniability become an acceptable excuse? Should it not have been their jobs to know what was going on?

Clearly not, as history would tell us. This is the clearest and best example of the fat getter fatter. So the only question is, “how can I get in the action?”

Monday, July 12, 2010

No Sync For You!

I am a Mac person. I know that sounds weird given my lack of unabashed and limitless love for the iPad. It also seems weird given the fact that I do not even own and Intel based Mac, and those came out over three years ago. And not that it matters, but I was a Mac person before the iPod came out and everyone started jumping on the Mac bandwagon. I had a Powerbook 520c back in the day that cost my parents $2300+, and when it became obsolete I made a digital picture frame out of it (though my carpentry skills stink, so it looked cheap). The point I am trying to get to is that I have a mirrored drive door G4 Powermac. I got it about eight years ago and have been using it ever since for all my computing needs. This is important because as a PowerPC, the MDD G4 cannot run Intel only OS X, such as Snow Leopard, 10.6. The last OS X to support the PowerPC was Leopard, 10.5. I am still running Tiger, 10.4.

You would think that my biggest problem should be that I cannot run applications written for Intel processors. For the most part, I simply continue to run the last versions of applications written for or supporting PowerPC processors. This really has not caused me any grief, since my current applications already do everything I need to do for me. I do get the occasional snag when I come across a file that was created in a newer application, such as a .docx file or a hi-def video file. But obviously for the last three years I have been able to get my work done as usual.

Now, however, I have a problem. That problem is the iPhone4. I love the iPhone. It has become a fixture in my life. So when the iPhone4 came out I ordered one. Now I should have read and learned more about the phone before ordering it, but the bottom line was that I was going to get the phone for all its fancy new features. What I found out was that the phone requires at least OS 10.5.8, the last version of Leopard, in order to sync. So I was left with a problem. How was I to sync my new iPhone4?

You may not think this is big problem because the vast majority of iPhone users have a current computer that they simply continue to use for the new iPhone. But my problem is that I cannot use my current computer with my new iPhone. And more specifically, I cannot use any computer with my new iPhone. By that I mean that I cannot sync my current data to my new phone because it is confined to my G4. This is because iTunes offers near one way syncing due to fears that people will use the device to copy music and video. (The problem being not that people are illegally copying media, but that people are using the iPhone to copy the media.) So when I plug my iPhone into a computer other than my G4, it asks if I want to sync and replace the contents of my iPhone with the contents from the computer’s iTunes library. And because it is not my G4, the computer’s iTunes library will have nothing, so my iPhone will be erased and replaced with nothing.

As I said, this is usually not a problem for the majority of iPhone users. It is a problem for people who lose their old computer. It could be a hard drive crash or just an upgrade to a new computer. Apple does not have an easy workaround for people like this. Tech savvy people would simply say, “copy your iTunes library folder over,” as though it were a simple task. It is not and does not take into account the size of one’s iTunes library. If you have thousands of songs and movies, you are not simply copying the library onto an USB drive. You would need to copy it over a shared network connection or to an external drive. For many people that is still easier said than done. Again, the problem is that iTunes will not let you move songs from the device to a computer that did not already have the song in the library. This is regardless of whether the song was imported from a CD you own or purchased through another source than the iTunes store. Just another subtle way Apple is trying to control the way we use media.

So back to my original problem. I need to be able to sync my iPhone4 to my old G4, but I need to upgrade the system to Leopard, which I am not particularly keen on doing without knowing how it would affect everything I did on the computer. So I thought I would try to sync the iPhone4 on a Windows 7 computer. The problem I ran into was that in trying to sync my iPhone3 to the Win7 computer, I could only back up contacts and appointments and the like. None of the media or apps were transferred. Now I could have iTunes download the media and apps I purchased from Apple to the Win7 computer. And while that does accomplish the end goal of having that information on the Win7 computer, it does not accomplish it in the way I need it to—by syncing.

So now my only two options are to copy my iTunes library over to the Win7 computer, which is not that easy since I declined to let iTunes handle my media files because I disliked how iTunes handles the naming and filing of media, or to upgrade the ol’ G4 to Leopard. I have currently opted to upgrade to Leopard. I am making a clone of my Tiger boot drive in the event Leopard causes too many problems. In the future I will have to move all my media to a network drive and hope that iTunes will be able to sync media from the drive to my iPhone. If so, this would allow me to use the Win7 computer in the future to sync as well once the G4 finally becomes completely obsolete and not just partially obsolete.

Monday, July 5, 2010


I have never been one to get caught up in fleeting fads once they have taken a life of their own. For example, I never watched The Crying Game, nor do I ever intend to watch it, since I did not get a chance to see it before everyone and their cousin said it was the greatest movie ever. Likewise, I will not be watching several other Oscar winning movies. The same is true for books as well. Fortunately, I read the Harry Potter series before it became a runaway train, and was able to enjoy it before everyone ruined it for me.

The latest fad is of course Twilight and all its related vampire books and television shows. Now I am a fan of vampire stories for the simple entertainment they can provide (think Blade and Underworld), though I never got into Ann Rice. But seeing how everyone is going crazy about the Twilight saga, I thought I would give it a shot. I ended up borrowing the audio CDs from my public library and listening to it on my drives to and from work. And since my commute is only about ten minutes, it took me awhile to get through the first two books. I also watched the first movie.

Now, I know that Twilight was not written with my demographic in mind. Not by a long shot. I am, however, quite disturbed when I do think about the demographic for which it was written. Twilight was written for young girls, from tweens to teenagers, and possibly even twenty-somethings. And given the incredible response to the series, it clearly speaks to them. What is disturbing is not that so many young females love the series, but that this is what young females find appealing.

Let us break down the story, or at least the first two books in the series. You have a seventeen year old girl who is special in that she is immune to many of the powers that some vampires possess. Which, to everyone else who is normal, is a completely worthless power. She happens to then be transplanted into a town where both vampires and werewolves live and falls in love with a vampire. Or whatever seventeen year old girls consider “falling in love”. As far as I can tell from the books, it means exaggerated shortsightedness mixed with both selfishness and self-deprecation. About ten percent of the story is fantasy with stories of werewolves and vampires and confrontations between the different permutations of them, and the remaining ninety percent is Bella (the main character), whining and pouting and pretending to know what her life is all about at the ripe old age of seventeen.

Bella is seen as the protagonist here. And because the targeted demographic is female tweens, you do not just write characters for whom your audience could cheer, you write characters that with whom your audience can identify. This means that most teenage girls can see themselves in Bella. Not a good commentary on teenage girls, sadly. There have been videos of teenage girls swooning over the cast in real life, clearly unable to make the distinction between fantasy and reality. Ah, the future of the world.

Now I am sincerely hoping that the final two books will somehow redeem the series, but given that I have come across some of the major plotlines, I think it will not. I think I will only become annoyed at the inconsistent liberties Meyer takes with vampire and werewolf lore. Maybe TBS will reair the Blade series.

Monday, June 28, 2010

DIY: Laminate Part II

If you have been wondering if I left my basement looking unfinished, fear not. I have continued on quest to install laminate flooring. When I last left you, I had ripped up the carpet, removed the tack strips, and hammered out the nails. Then, of course, I swept the floor.

Then next step is laying down the underlayment. As far as I know, there are two reasons for underlayment. The first is to cushion the floor. The second is simple barrier protection. You want something between the subfloor and the floor you are installing. For most subfloors, you just need a foam underlayment. But when you are in a basement, you also need a moisture barrier. And as I mentioned before, the underlayment under the carpet I tore up lacked a moisture barrier. So I bought nine hundred square feet of two-in-one underlayment, which contains the moisture barrier. I rolled it all out and cut it up to cover the entire floor. The tip to cutting underlayment is to use scissors, and not an utility knife.

The next step would be to start laying the laminate tiles. But being the obsessive person that I am, I first considered what I would need to lay the laminate. If you think about how the laminate will be laid down, you can easily see that you will need to cut the laminate in several instances. First, you will need to make crosscuts and lengthwise cuts (known as rip cuts as I learned) as you get to the walls of the room. You will also need to make partial cuts when you get to pillars and odd corners. Given the number of cuts that will be needed, a hand saw is clearly out of the question. A table saw would be ideal, since it offers the ability to make both cross cuts and rip cuts with both accuracy and a straight edge. Unfortunately, it is also quite expensive if you do not plan one using it for future projects and do not have storage space for it. Then there is the miter saw, which gives the accuracy but is unable to make long rip cuts. What is left? The circular saw is left. It has the ability to make all different kinds of cuts, but relies heavily on freehand movements, so the edges are difficult to keep absolutely straight. But there are solutions for that.

There are laser fitted circular saws that show you where you are cutting. Not a bad idea, but it still requires that you have a steady hand. Even if you are able to correct your sawing path you will not end up with a perfectly straight cut. There are also straight edges that you cat buy that allow you to run the edge of the circular saw against. That provides a straight cut, but you then have to make another measurement between the saw blade and the straight edge to ensure a correctly sized cut. For me that doubles the time for cutting and introduces more error than necessary. I do not plan on buying any more laminate tile than I absolutely need and do not want to waste any more than necessary. So what is the answer? The answer is a self made saw guide. This is simply and piece of wood, say six inches wide with another small piece of wood, say one inch wide, screwed onto it. You then run the circular saw against the small piece of wood as a guide, rip cutting some of the bottom wider piece of wood. What you are left with is a saw guide made just for the circular saw you are using. After that first cut, every time you run the saw along that narrower piece of wood, you will not cut any of the bottom wider piece of wood. In fact, the saw blade will run flush to that bottom piece. This means that you can line up your desired cutting line to the edge of the bottom wider piece of wood and know that you will cut on the line every time. It probably does not make any sense the way I have described it, so I will post pictures later. It took me looking at several pictures before it clicked in my mind.

Once you have made the saw guide, which I did, you just need safety glasses, some clamps, and a table. I borrowed clamps and used an old Target coffee table that had nice overhanging edges I could clamp onto. I do wish I had a taller table, since it is only twenty inches high, so it is a little hard on my back.

Next: Using the circular saw.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Why We Need the iPad and Why We Really Don't

I recently wrote about the iPad and carefully stepped around some of the issues about which most people criticized the iPad, and for good reason. I was never against the iPad. It simply did not fit into my life the same way the MacBook Air did not fit into my life. But now I am reading all these stories about naysayers who have turned around to praise the iPad and written I-was-wrong articles and how the iPad is now the greatest thing since sliced bread. (Side note--sliced bread is not that impressive. You just need a sharp knife and a cutting board.) What bothers me about these reversal of opinion stories is that exaggerates the myopia of the world of technology and perpetuates the misunderstood economics of this country.

Let's look at the iPad. Before April was over Apple had already sold over a million iPads, and is expected to sell close to 4.5 million this year alone. We will not worry about international sales at this point as we will be discussing domestic economics. Now clearly, the iPad is a milestone in computing. Netbooks made a splash when they first came onto the market, but their fanfare was already dimmed by advancements in smartphones. So when the iPad debuted, it was met with criticisms likening it to a netbook or a glorified iTouch. I have discussed those points before, since to the average person it really appears to be a netbook in another form, or just another gaming device.

But it clearly is more than those things. The iPhone became so hugely popular not necessary because it had a growing App Store to feed its users countless programs and games, but because it revolutionized the way smartphones are used. The user interface was revolutionary and simplified and made practical to use of a handheld computer. The iPad simply brought that closer to the "computer" end of the spectrum. With the exception of phone calls, everything you can do on the iPhone you can do on the iPad bigger and better, with the addition of many new programs. The iPad is the manifestation of how far technology has come on the public scale. So it is not difficult to see why we need the iPad. It does just about everything you need it to do, with few exceptions (which will likely be remedied in one way or another in the near future).

But you do not really need the iPad. The iPad is tantamount to a space age pen. A space pen is shiny, cool, and writes in zero gravity, but costs a pretty penny. Do you really need a space pen when you could just use a $0.25 pencil or pen? For all its merits and advantages, the iPad is a nonessential item at this point. Perhaps over time it will work its way into society's daily workings and become essential to daily life, much as the computer and smartphone have done. (If you dispute the necessity of computers in today's world, you are a hypocrite by reading this blog.) That, however, will likely not happen for five years or so.

Current retail price of the iPad is $499-$829 depending on memory and data connectivity. If I really had an extra $700 laying around the house waiting to to burned, I would probably not spend it on an iPad. For that money, i could put laminate flooring in most of my basement. I could get a babysitter and go to dinner with my wife five times. I could take my family to the amusement park twice. I could put it towards the principal of my mortgage. Or school loans. Or car loan. I could buy stocks or mutual funds for my Roth IRA. Or my children's 529.

You may think this is an extreme stance on the iPad. After all, I have taken no such stance on HDTVs, and they certainly are nonessential. The thing about HDTVs are that they have begun to become integrated into society's working. Television by antennae (with a converter) is rapidly becoming extinct. And all television signal providers now offer high definition broadcasts with most if not all plans. All videos created nowadays (or least the commercial ones) are films for HDTVs. And in fact, you would be hard pressed to find a standard 4:3 size television these days, since manufacturers have ceased producing them. The iPad has yet to reach this level of pervasiveness. When it does, I will probably buy one.

Monday, June 14, 2010

DIY Laminate Part I

So it is summertime. That means it is time to start with all the pet projects that have been sitting on your to do list. For me, one of those projects was installing laminate flooring in the basement. When we first moved into our house, the basement was finished, which we had felt was a bonus. But as the years went by, two things became apparent that made the basement an undesirable place to hang out. First, it turns out that the basement was finished using cheap carpet. There was essentially no padding and was impossible to clean. Second, we set up the cats’ litter boxes in the basement. So over time litter got everywhere and was impossible to vacuum up because the carpet just hung on to it.

So we decided to rip out the carpet and put in laminate flooring. After all, this was the basement. Real hardwood was overkill. And having the flooring installed by a third party essentially doubled the overall cost. What follows is my account of the process. This is part one.

The first thing we had to do was clear the basement. This was just plain tedious. Because the basement had become unappealing, it had become a very large storage space. So the first step was the purge or move everything in the basement. We moved a lot of things towards the back of the basement and into the crawl space. The rest was carried out to the curb for the trashmen. One of these pieces was a weight machine that was in the basement when we moved in. Needless to say I had to unscrew multiple rusted screws. There are still free disc weights that sit next to the furnace. There was also an armoire that weighs about 400 lbs. Without the television inside it. It was not easy to move, until I got the moving discs that used to be advertised on the television.

Now that the floors were cleared for most of the basement, we began to tear up the carpet. It was glued down in a few places, but otherwise it was easy to remove, since it was held only by tack strips along the walls. Then the underlayment just needed to be rolled up since nothing was holding that down. Now this was the basement, but once we peeled up the carpet and underlayment we noticed that there was no moisture barrier layer. Our first indication that whoever finished the basement did not do it correctly. Once the carpet is gone, I tool a pry bar and pried up the tack strips, which were nailed into the cement. Prying up the tack strips does not take out the nails that nailed down the strips. Fortunately, I had an old plastic litter container in which to put the broken pieces of tack strips. (Fresh Step no longer used plastic containers for their litter—it is all eco-friendly cardboard boxing now)

One the tack strips are gone, you are left with all the nails that held down the strips. How you even nail something into cement boggles me, since removing the nails chips the cement. At first I simply used the pry bar and leaned on it more progressively more force until there was a pop and the nail came out of the cement. The problem with this method is that nail flies out of the cement and you are left with a rather large divot in the cement floor. I used this method for three walls before stopping for the sake of my face. After some research on the internet, I found a method of hitting the nails side to side with a hammer to loosen them and then prying them out with ease. There was less flying debris this way. Unfortunately, this technique still left small divots where the nails once resided, but with no major alteration to the grade of the floor.

Next week: Planning the installation.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Commuter Kids

This is going to be one of those posts. One of those posts that start with an, “In my day…” and then ramble on about how things have changed for the worse. So here it is. In my day, school did not give kids back problems. What, you say? You do not see about what I am getting? Did you try imaging it with the most crotchety voice you could imagine? Still nothing? Well, I guess I will have to spell it out for you.

I have noticed that kids these days seem to be carrying so much more to school. I remember schlepping a backpack full of books and folders or a Trapper Keeper to school, but it was not that heavy and not much of a burden. But I see the children in the neighborhood walking to school in the morning, and they are wheeling their backpacks to school. That is correct. Wheeling their backpacks. Like a carry-on suitcase. And the bags are full.

This made me wonder. Why in the world do children need to carry this much stuff to school? And the answer seemed intuitive. Several decades ago kids did not need to carry thirty pound schoolbags to school. There was no need. You had your own desk at school or a locker, and you put your stuff in your desk or locker. That way you just brought home your homework. And if you were in grade school, it was not a lot of homework, and it certainly was not a lot of books and paper. So what are these kids bringing back and forth to school? Certainly not textbooks. How many textbooks does a third grader have and how much homework is he getting that he needs to bring home all his books every day?

I think that most of what is in these grade schoolers’ bags are school supplies. All the stuff that they need for school projects is being ferried back and forth each day. The thing is that there has not been a great revolution in school supplies. Everything is pretty much the same. Markers, colored pencils, paints, scissors, erasers, paper, you name it, it is pretty much the same. But when I was a kid we kept all that stuff at school in our desks. I do not think this is the case these days. I do not think very many kids at all leave their supplies at school. I do not know if it is because kids have more homework that require these supplies at home. Or if theft is more of an issue these days that few people leave anything in their desks at school. But whatever the reason, kids are carrying more to and from school.

This has created an epidemic of back trouble in kids. So much so that there are now backpacks with retractable handles and wheels made for kids. I cannot tell if some of these kids are going to school or a conference in Denver for two days. If I was a latch key kid, these are the commuter kids.

Monday, May 31, 2010


Memorial Day is upon us. A day dedicated to the brave that have defended our country and its principles. It also happens to be a day where we can not work and have parades. Now I have never been a big parade person. I can probably count the number of times I have been to a parade on my hands. However, in my limited experience I can tell that parades are probably quite different on so many levels. I am sure there differences across the US and even depending on whether you are at a state, city, or local level. Today I went to a local Memorial Day parade and was rather surprised at some of the local customs.

This particular parade was slated to begin at ten o’clock, so we arrived early, as recommended by the township. Not only did everyone else arrive early, but apparently also called “dibs” on places to sit along the sidewalk. I am not talking about random travel chairs on the sidewalk. There were stretches of folding chairs lined up on the sidewalk. I can only imagine that these chairs belong to the homeowners along the parade route. This would probably never work in a larger city where you are less likely to run into someone you know. People would either sit in your chair or move it.

We did manage to find a nice spot to sit, and in the shade, nonetheless. The parade began, and it was like any other parade you could imagine. You had bands and cars filled with veterans rolling down the street. You even had local teams and clubs showcasing their talents. But then something I have never seen happened. Some people in the parade starting throwing candy out into the street toward the onlookers. They were throwing almost all matter of small and inexpensive candy—Tootsie rolls, Laffy Taffy, Double Bubble, you name it. They were also throwing Jolly Ranchers, Tootsie pops, and Dum Dums. And these were being hurled towards the sidewalks from moving vehicles. And they obviously hit the street first, since you cannot have your parade goers being hit in the face by candy. You can imagine that the hard candy did not fare well with this method of delivery.

While the practice of free candy was new to me, it clearly was not new to the family sitting next to me, who seemed to be at the parade solely to gather loose candy. The mother would actually hoard the candy and stuff it into her pockets. It was not an unfortunate reflection on the state of the economy, but on human behavior these days in general. Of course, more free stuff also was thrown into the street, and it was also gobbled up by the crowd, particularly the family sitting next to me.

The one other thing about the parade that I found interesting was the signage and posters. Most were simple and wished everyone a happy Memorial Day or thanked our troops. One catchy sign read, “Home of the Free Because of the Brave”. The one that caught my eye was a sign carried by a middle school. It was a middle school that had only fifth and sixth grades. But the sign read, “____ Middle School, We Remember, 5th and 6th Grades”. It would seem to me that sixth graders are a little young even to really remember much of the Iraq War, let alone any other battle or even military action. Though I am certain one the teachers made that sign.

And that was my parade experience. Next year I will have to just remember to get there even earlier and bring some Starburst.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Recently Mega Millions has joined Powerball in my state. It was a big move and there was lots of press to get people started buying tickets. After all, there are not that many multistate lotteries. And that is where you win the big money. You can always expect both lotteries to be in the tens of millions of dollars, and tickets are only a dollar. This is in comparison to many state lottery tickets, which also cost a dollar, but do not have gigantic payouts. Now of course, the payouts are in proportion to the odds of winning, with your simple pick four using numbers zero to nine with odds of winning of 1:10,000, to powerball, where you have six numbers and the odds are 1:195,249,054.

It is easy to see why people get so excited about the lottery when the payout reaches $100 million. Who does not want to win $100 million? And if you watch the lottery payouts over time, when there is no winner for several weeks, the payout climbs and climbs. You will also notice that once it approaches $100 million, it also begins to rise rapidly. The curve of payout over time is exponential. What does this tell us? It tells us that people are more interested in playing the lottery as the payout increases. What that also tells us is how people perceive the odds of winning the lottery as well as risk.

So the average lottery player believes that it is only worth spending one dollar on a lottery ticket if the payout is close to $100 million. There are variations, of course, such as players that buy more than one ticket and more tickets as the payout increases. Or players that only jump in once the payout reaches a certain level and jump in with more than one ticket. But there is an inherent misunderstanding about odds that also causes the payout to rise exponentially.

The classic example was the flipping of a coin. If you flipped a coin four times and it came up heads four times, many people were apt to believe the odds of a fifth head were either better or worse than even odds, depending on their incorrect reasoning. The example has been used so often over time that almost everyone understands that the odds of a fifth head is fifty percent. But is not that everyone necessarily understands the odds, but that they understand the gist or catch in the question. In the beginning many people misinterpreted the question as asking what the odds are of getting five heads in a row. This is a slightly more complex odds problem that, given the state of America’s mathematics comprehension, is difficult for many to solve. And so they make a best guess founded on personal bias.

In the case of lotteries there is a misperception of odds that occurs as the payout rises. There are two odds in play with any lottery. The first are the odds of you as a player personally winning the lottery. These odds are fixed unless the rules of the game changes, and everyone understands that because they have learned from the classic example above. The second are the odds that someone, anyone, wins the lottery. These odds change and improve as the number of players increases. So as the payout increases, the number of players increases, and the likelihood that someone will win the lottery increases. This is why you rarely see payouts over $300 million. The problem is that many people confuse the two odds.

While it is true that buying more tickets improves your chances of winning, it does not improve them to the same odds of anyone winning, since there are many more people playing with many more tickets than you are proportionately buying. Thus people believe their odds are better than mathematically calculated. This misperception can be corrected by imagining that you are the only player for the lottery. It removes the confounding odds of anyone winning and allows you to see your true odds. Not that you should not play the lottery, since many states use lottery sales to fund state programs, but it will save you a little disappointment when you do not win. Variations on this theme can be applied to the stock market and real estate, but that is another post.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Garage Sales

I went to some garage sales over the weekend. That would be plural—sales. Although I did also visit several garages, but that is besides the point., Anyways, my last visit to a garage sale was about two years ago, and I only went to ones that were in my development. This time, I went to one held at a church, a random house in a random neighborhood, and several in a development. I do not imagine a lot has changed about garage sales. The art of reselling used items, however has come a long way. We now have eBay, Craigslist, and numerous other websites to allow people to transfer possessions to another person.

Unlike these online methods, where you can certainly zero in on the exact item you desire, garage sales offer an element of mystery. They are and forever will be associated with the random occasion of someone stumbling onto a rare and valuable object. That just does not happen online, because when you are selling online you are obligated to give as much information about your item as possible. Going online is analogous to going to someone’s garage. You should have a very good idea what you are buying before you buy it. This is very true for eBay. In Craigslist you still have the option of examining the item at the seller’s premises before buying.

Another difference between the traditional garage sale and the online reselling is the cost of shipping. You always have to consider shipping online, which ultimately makes the item cost more. At a garage sale if you can move it you can buy it. That is why you see so many people with trucks and SUVs at garage sales. They are making sure they have room for whatever it is they might find. And that brings us to the different buyers and sellers at garage sales.

There are really only two types of buyers at garage sales. The fanatic and the interested. The fanatics arrive at garage sales the minute they are open, usually around 8am (hence the humor behind garage sales that advertise “no early birds” and start at 10am). These buyers are looking for specific items—jewelry, art, antiques. And apparently, as I found out this weekend, children’s toys. You would be surprised how quickly a motorized care can sell at eight in the morning on Saturday. The other type of buyer is the merely interested. These people stroll in after 9am. They tend to not have any specific goal in mind other than the see what garbage other people had once thought was worth buying. If they find something neat, then great. Otherwise it is just fun to get a glimpse into other people’s lives.

On the other side, there are two types of sellers. You have those who are trying to unload old or unneeded items, and those who are trying to make money. The two are definitely mutually exclusive in the context of a garage sale. If you have a signed first edition Harry Potter you are not putting it out at a garage sale. You are listing it on eBay or some auction house. And given that there are only two types of sellers, you can easily figure out who you are dealing with at a garage sale.

For instance, I bought a small slide this weekend at a church garage sale. This slide would typically retail for sixty dollars at Toys R Us. I got it for three dollars. And it was in surprisingly good condition. They lady that sold it to me was clearly trying to get rid of old unneeded belongings and happened to make some money in the process. But when I went to a multihouse garage sale in a nearby development, I found a roller coaster car ride in pretty good condition. This would have retailed for about a hundred dollars. The lady was selling it for forty dollars. As I was examining the toy, the lady’s twelve year old daughter came out to tell her mother something. I knew instantly that the lady was trying to make money rather than clear her basement. I am sure she would have kept that roller coaster car in her basement collecting dust rather than sell it for less than her perceived monetary value of it. Which, of course, was completely discrepant from her reality given that her children were far too old by many years to even play with it anymore. Needless to say, I did not buy that toy from that lady.

There are certain things that people always put out that I always wonder if anyone ever buys. Things such as old electronics. Now I do not mean antique radios. I mean a CRT monitor, a toaster from the 1990s, a blender that is a shade of brown that was popular in the 1980s, or a television that has knobs. Who actually wants this stuff? And how about clothes? I would think that buying used clothes requires some degree of impersonality and separation between the buyer and the seller. Otherwise it would be like buying someone’s half eaten sandwich in the restaurant. And last but not least, baby car seats. Who is going to buy an old used car seat? I have seen how baby seats were just ten years ago, and the baby seats today are safer and sturdier. What new parents in the this generation are going to put their child in a ten or even five year car seat they bought from a stranger at a garage sale? We are not talking about a rented car seat for a short vacation. Or are we…Still, I have never seen or heard of anyone buying a car seat from a garage sale. I hope it is not because they are all taken by 8:05am.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Healthcare Reform Misunderstands

So it is finally done. Healthcare reform has not only passed, but it has seemingly survived the first round of amended bills and cries of unconstitutionality. Most importantly, some of it is now in effect. But before the new healthcare bill can take hold and show us what it can do for us, it will have to cut through all the rants and raves about it.

You have the pure Obama Democrat on one hand, who has believed from the very beginning that healthcare was doomed without reform, and that the bill endorsed by the President was the way to solve our problems. These are the blinded, forgetting that it is the goal of every administration to leave a legacy. And given a very rare Democratic majority in both legislative houses, it was clearly the time to create that legacy. So what they did is scare everyone first with overly simplified statements regarding the ensuing failure of the healthcare system. Then they wheeled and dealed to get their bill passed with a once in a lifetime Congressional majority. The rest will be history. This is not how the Obama fanatics see things. The see a President that represents their views in a time when significant policy changes are needed.

On the other hand, you have the hard Republican, who has mistaken democracy for socialism. Anything that forces him to give something for the public good is heresy. The President could repeal all the taxes and still there would be something wrong and Democratically evil about it. They see a President trying to make them pay for something they cannot hold or do not want.

And then you have the rest us, all mixed in somewhere in between. But this is not about whether the healthcare reform was the right thing to do or if it was all smoke and mirrors. This is about the single fact that it unfortunately did not take into account. That fact is that people want more healthcare. They want more tests available to them. They want more drugs available to them. They want more healthcare providers available to them. Seems a simple enough answer—after all, who does not like to have more options? (This is not about whether we do better with more options—that is another post.) But everything with healthcare reform and the debate talks only about an irrelevant fact—that people do not want to pay more for healthcare. Of course they do not. But shifting the cost to the consumer, and trying to make them “see” how much things cost does not dampen the desire for more healthcare. While it may slow the consumption of healthcare, inevitably, there will be a change on the other side, and people will have more money to spend on healthcare. And they will. You can change the price, but one day the income side will change and things will be different again.

You might say that the bill has taken this into account, with the so-called Cadillac tax. This tax is imposed upon high cost policies on the incorrect presumption that these policies carry more benefits and therefore keep the healthcare consumer in the dark as to how wasteful he is of said resources. Aside from the obvious specious reasoning linking cost to overall benefits, the creators of the bill failed to understand that the people who hold these high cost policies tend to be healthy people. The same people you need paying high cost policies, since they also consume the least amount of healthcare. You end up taxing the rich and healthy for what, the poor and sick? Sounds like a twisted version of Robin Hood and Harrison Bergeron.

Another way to look at this overlooked fact is the simple infection. With the reform the patients will see more of the cost of drugs, including antibiotics. That means that penicillin will still be cheaper than Levaquin, but that Zyvox will be essentially unaffordable to most people. (Zyvox is an antibiotic often used for treating MRSA, or resistant staphylococcus.) Though you would think this would steer people towards cheaper antibiotics, it will also steer them towards more ineffective antibiotics. Over time that will lead to more infectious complications and more resistant organisms. But even more likely, it sets up a system where the richer get better treatment for lesser problems than before. You think that open heart surgery will be more available to everyone? Sure, it will be covered. But not the drugs you will need afterwards. Shifting cost to the consumer may curb spending, but it only exaggerates the lack of healthcare when Joe the plumber needs five new medicines after heart surgery to protect his heart, but can only afford two because the costs have been shifted farther over to him.

A lot of people believe that Congress will never have the Republican numbers it needs to repeal the healthcare reform bill. It seems more likely that if healthcare reform is received poorly by the public, we will see a dual Republican majority in the Senate and House, much the same way the current Democratic majorities arose with the policies of the last Republican administration. But as long as you can still get medicines from Canada and surgery in Europe, you can wait it out.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Are Women More Gullible Than Men?

I got your attention with that title, did I not? Do you really think I am going to foray into possibly dangerous and politically incorrect territory? Well, yes, I am. I could have titled this post many different things, but I thought the most generalized and possibly most specious would be the most appropriate.

I was browsing through the Amazon Kindle bookstore (and yes, I also read my Kindle books on my iPhone) and looking up Fletch books. I was quite pleased to find that nearly all of the books in the series are now available for immediate download. It will cost me a hundred dollars but I will not have to buy another book for some time. But then I saw several books touted to be from Oprah’s Book Club. This got me shaking my head. And I shake my head not at Oprah’s Book Club, but at the obvious commercialism that is not even attempted to be thinly veiled.

If you have ever watched Oprah or watch regularly, you are most likely a woman. The men that watch Oprah mostly watch it because their wives/girlfriends watch. (I will retain some political correctness here, at least.) Now let us start with OBC. How many of these female viewers have gone out and bought a book touted on OPC? I would guess at least 90%. How many of the male viewers have gone out an bought a book touted on OPC? Less than 3%, for sure. Why is that? It is not because Oprah picks chick lit, as many of the books are rather disturbing. It is because the women identify with Oprah on that level and trust her judgment in books. The men do not.

Now that is all fine and dandy. Oprah promotes reading and well written books. If she did an algebra segment on her show I am sure we would have more women scientists. But she does not do an algebra segment, and for very good reason. Algebra is not part of Oprah. It is not really a part of many people, but just an example I am using. Oprah is about reading. And she uses her show which is popular to tell her mostly female viewers what she really liked reading recently. The viewers (supposedly) identify with her and go out and read the same books. Subsequently the authors make a lot more money and it is instant success with movie deals if Oprah talks about your book on her show. That does not bother me.

What bothers me is when Oprah begins advertising things on her show that not only prove her ignorance on the matter, but exposes the gullibility of her audience, which incidentally, is mostly female. Let us take two examples. The first is not so blatant. It is Oprah’s enthusiastic backing of technology. I remember an episode of Oprah’s Favorite Things where one of the “favorite” things was a Sony Vaio laptop. And she rattled off a few specs of the laptop on her show. It was completely ludicrous, as though she had any idea what those spec meant and that she did any research into computers before settling on that particular Sony Vaio model. And yet, there is was, as one of her “favorite” things that year, next to an expensive bathrobe made by hand by natives in Peru. At least there was a very good chance she actually wore those bathrobes.

Also on another “favorite things” episode was a pair of washer and dryer. If it were anyone other than Oprah I might have believed the endorsement. But we are talking about someone who stated on television that she has her bed sheets changed at least every other day. I am pretty sure she is not the one washing those sheets. Yet she has a “favorite” washer and dryer. It only demonstrates the commercialism of her show because people are there to get free stuff. And if you are lucky enough to be at that favorite show taping, you hit the mother lode.

Her most recent antic is her no texting while driving campaign. In fact, she has sprung it on unsuspecting guests, who sign the petition out of sheer awkwardness. You might say that it is a good cause. Who should be texting while driving? It is dangerous. Do you know what is even more dangerous and still responsible for far more motor vehicle accidents? DRINKING while driving. But why would Oprah want to promote that? It has already been done to death by MADD, DADD, SADD, and whatever other acronyms you can think up. And it is not even about the cause. If there was someone standing outside the grocery store asking everyone walking in to sign a petition to save the wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico because of the BP oil spill, I will guarantee that less than half the people walking by give their signature.

I know it makes use as a society look bad, but the counterargument is to ask why you do not donate to all the charities? Or at least one for each cause? And if you had a million dollars why would you not? The answer is simple. You cannot allocate your resources (which for celebrities include their name) everywhere. You have to choose what is most important to you. That is why Oprah has to surprise her guests with the petition. What star can risk the bad publicity of turning down a petition for a good cause on Oprah? And yet we do it all the time when charities call us at home and send us flyers in the mail. It is Oprah’s way of using her popularity and poor unthinking followers (which, coincidentally, are mostly women, I say again) to further her own agenda.

What agenda could she possibly have with this no texting while driving campaign? Other that self aggrandizement I am not really sure. She may be the first to declare that she never texts while driving. And do you know who else never texts while driving? People comatose in the intensive care unit because they DO NOT DRIVE. Oprah may have a license but I doubt she drives anymore than she is researching laptops on the web. I could just as easily start a petition about not using plastic bags when grocery shopping, and then ask my wife do all the shopping. Perhaps I can get syllogistic fallacy to work for me as well,

Monday, April 26, 2010

The 100 Calorie Fallacy

I was hungry for a little snack the other day, so I went into the pantry to scrounge for something to eat. After scanning the shelves, I decided on a small 100 calorie pack of fruit snacks. You know, the sugary jelly treat shaped like fruits and artificially flavored to taste like fruit. Yummy. When my snack attack was finally satisfied, three empty bags of fruit snacks sat in the trashcan. You heard me. Three. I had three hundred calories of fruit snacks and it was good. But it got me thinking what a racket food manufacturers have going with the low calories packs.

When you purchase a processed food item, you used to only have one choice in size—whatever the manufacturer decided. Then we saw the age of supersized packages and jumbo this and mega that. And then, at the turn of the century, we began to see low calorie packaging. Fueled by the outrage at America’s obesity incidence and prevalence, we began loudly professing to want to eat healthier and in moderation. Scared at the potential loss of business, the junk food companies schemed and created the low calorie package.

On the surface it all seems so benign. If you are trying to lose weight and want to cut your calories, you need to be able to count them first. The beauty of the 100 calorie pack is that has already been counted for you. You know exactly how much food is 100 calories. So with a balanced regimen and metered snack packs, Americans should be losing weight like crazy! But of course, we are not. In fact, both the incidence and prevalence of obesity are rising, boosting great money makers such as The Biggest Loser and Food Revolution.

What is the problem? It is obvious, is it not? We have no self control. And by “we” I mean “you”, because I clearly was able to stop at three packs of fruit snacks. Sadly, this is not so for the majority of people. We are fools to believe that a sealed package will actually keep us from our food. One hundred calories of shortbread cookies? Please. I would eat all ten packs in the box. The ploy is perfect because while the correct thing to do is to not eat any shortbread cookies at all, the manufacturer has created a false sense of security with this tiny little package. They also know full well that the odds dictate a lack of self control leading only to more consumption of their product.

That is not really a problem, though. Or at least not a new problem. Our lack of self control is well documented and best detailed by the supersize era of the 1990s. The new problem is that now you are paying more for your vice. In the past, when you purchase a king sized whatever, you knew you were paying more. More food, more money. Now you are paying more money for the same amount of food or even less food. When you buy a box of individually packaged snacks, you pay more that if you bought a simple box of snacks. For instance, a box of 100 calorie craisins may cost $3.29. An equivalent bag of craisins by weight would cost $2.39. You have just paid a dollar extra for the manufacturer to put the craisins in tiny little bags and tell you they are 100 calories worth of two bites and not worth your time to eat.

So we should by the regular bags and divvy up the food ourselves, right? If laziness and poor math skills were not our second and third best detailed traits, we would. How many people do you think you can pull off the street and calculate the weight of 100 calories of whatever if you gave them the packaging that had serving size and calories per serving? I shudder at the answer to that. But even if we did, our lack of self control would not allow us to stop at just one bag anyways. And even though we know we would eat more, we buy food packaged this way because it represents what we wish we would eat. And for craisins it will cost you a dollar. A dollar better spent even on a lottery ticket because at least you have a chance of winning. This is where the money is made. It is quite a racket. And so I have an instant millionaire idea—50 calorie packs. Do not be so surprised if you see it at your local megamart in the near future.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tandem Driving

For everyone out there that has either had to follow someone in a car or lead someone in a car to a destination, I am going to teach you the rules of tandem driving. They are not difficult. There are not many of them. And if followed by both parties may actually get you places faster than if you were driving one car.

Rule #1: Do not lose your follower. It sounds simple and almost self-explanatory, but you would be surprised how often this rule is violated. It is the number one reason people get lost when tandem driving. The infraction can be as simple as going through a very stale green light when the following car is sufficiently far behind you that it will hit the changing yellow light. Or even not waiting a turn at a full four way stop sign and putting two cars between you and the following car. (If you wait one turn, you would only have one car in between, which is much more easily overcome at a later time.) You may also forget that the following driver is not an aggressive driver, and so will not drive as fast as you. This can cause problems on the highway with merging cars.

Rule #2: Do not lose the leader. Of course, the converse is true for the driver following. How could it not be? If you notice that a light is stale green, and you think the leader will go through the intersection, you better close the gap before you end up running a red light. On the highway you have to keep at most three car lengths behind only. You are not a spy. There is no need to hang back when following. If by chance cars end up between you and the leader, you must try to pass them. Preferably on a long stretch where there are no exits for which you might need to scramble back into the exit lane. I would suggest the benefit of drafting behind the leader car, but that would imply driving rather fast, which I cannot advocate.

Rule #3: Use tandem driving to your advantage. This is the most underused and forgotten benefit of tandem driving. There certainly are many drawbacks to tandem driving, especially when one driver does not know how to get to the destination. However, there is one significant benefit. There will be times when you are driving on a multilane road and you will need to change lanes for an exit ramp, a turn, a faster lane, whatever. If the road is busy, switching lanes is easy for one car. But with two cars you risk losing the following car is they cannot change lanes as easily. If, however, the leading car puts on the turn signal to indicate the need to change lanes, the following car can change lanes first. Then the following car can slow down just enough to create room for the leading car to change lanes right in front of it. This is especially helpful when there are a lot of cars on the road.

Rule #4: Deal with speed demons. A very common occurrence while tandem driving is that cars will interpose themselves between you as they change lanes to drive faster. Often times this is because you are the faster drivers in the faster lane. However, because the distance between cars is also farther, an interposing car will only lengthen that distance, making it harder for one car to follow the other. In order to close this gap, the leading car needs to slow enough to cause the interposing speeding car to change lanes to a faster lane. The converse is not true with slow drivers—following cars should not tailgate slow drivers to make them change lanes. You simply pass them when you get to a long stretch of road. Leader cars should also notice when a slow car has interposed itself behind them and change lanes to allow the following car to close the gap.

Rule#5: Sometimes you just have to pull over. The final rule. Sometimes you do lose your following car at a red light or an awkward left turn or exit from a parking lot. You should pull over if you can to let your tandem partner catch up.

You might say that you could always just call each other and discuss upcoming turns and exits. (On speaker phone, of course…) Or just use GPS. And I would say that takes the fun out of both driving and tandem driving.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Flying Off The Handle

Flying is like going to Taco Bell. Despite having a horrible experience you keep coming back to it. Let me tell you about a recent flying experience with US Airways. I was flying with my family—my wife and two children, one of who is under a year old. We booked this flight months in advance through Orbitz. We chose seats on Orbitz. Since the youngest was to be an infant in lap, no seat was need for her. So we bought three seats, all together. Or so we thought. And so began the fiasco.

About a week before our trip I refreshed my memory as to our trip details, only to find that instead of having an entire row of seats—14D, 14E, and 14F, we had 14D, 14E, and “—“. Now where the hell is “—“ supposed to be on a plane? I will tell you where it is not. It is not 14F. So I log onto to Orbitz and go to seat selection. The seat map shows that the flight is essentially booked save a few seats in the front of the plane. But lo and behold! 7D, 7E, 7F are open, so I click on those. Orbitz refreshed and my seat assignments have not changed. I decide to check US Airways instead and find a site that is not Mac compatible. Fortunately, I have a Windows based computer as well. When I get onto the website and pull up my reservation, I find that the 7th row is in fact still wide open. I try to check-in online, thinking I can change my seats. It is still more than twenty four hours before our flight, but I try anyways. I am met with a window that says I cannot check-in online due to having an infant in lap traveler. I call customer service.

The first representative that assists me tells me that indeed I cannot check on online because of having an infant in lap traveler. This requires my presence at the ticket counter due to “security reasons”. Clearly a lame stock answer now used by airlines to avoid providing a real answer for any question they either do not wish to answer or for which have no logical answer. Whatever. I instead ask how I can change my seats to the 7th row, since I need three seats together. I am told that the 7th row seats are preferred seating and that I can purchase these seats online when I check in. I ask why I would be buying more tickets when I already have three tickets and she clarifies that these seats are an “upgrade” that costs $15 each. I ask her how I am to purchase these upgrades if I cannot check-in online due to having an infant in lap. She tells me that I will have to do it at the counter. I then ask her how that helps me if I have to wait until two hours before my flight to upgrade seats when anyone else can check in online twenty four hours before the flight and upgrade their seats before me. She has no answer for this. Probably security reasons.

As I hang up and mull the situation over, I remember that my wife and I discussed checking bags for this trip. We had been against checking bags long before the airlines starting raping their customers for it. My current record of lost bags—that had to be delivered up to a week later—for the last 5 years is 67%. That’s right. Two of every three times that I checked a bag it was lost. So I bought a smaller suitcase that actually fit the proscribed measurements of the airlines for overhead baggage and started only using carry-ons. The impropriety of other travelers trying to carry-on a 26” by 20” rolling suitcase can be railed on in another post. Anyways, I lookup the fee for checking baggage and find that it is cheaper if you check baggage online. It is only $2, but at this point I will be damned to fork over any more money to the airline. I realize that I cannot check-in online because of my infant in lap and therefore cannot check baggage online. I call customer service again.

The lady that answers sounds similar to the first representative, but is clearly not the same person. I start by asking how I can get the online baggage check price when I am prevented from checking in online. Without much effort, she tells me that she has made a note that I would like to check bags and should get the online price when I show up at the counter. Riding that tiny bit of progress, I asked how I could change seats since I could not check in online. The lady told me that I could purchase preferred seats when I checked in at the counter. I attempted to make her understand that trying to buy limited seats two hours before check in was not a viable solution when I needed an entire row on an essentially full flight. She then told me that she could remove the “infant in lap” from my reservation so that I could check in online twenty four hours ahead and purchase preferred seats at that time. I would then also be able to check baggage online at the cheaper rate as well. I pressed further, asking why I did not get a third seat when I initially purchasing my tickets. She reviewed the reservation and told me that because I went through Orbitz and not US Airways, my seats were never confirmed at the time of purchase. I should have called US Airways after my purchase through Orbitz to confirm my seats. A significant detail completely omitted by Orbitz. Had I called I would have been able to confirm my selected seats and had an entire row, negating my current predicament. After some more back and forth with customer service and growing frustration on both our ends, she finally gave up the information that 26E was still open. I asked if she could give me that seat and she did. A seat twelve rows away is better than no assigned at all. And she could not have given me that information earlier?

So I went home with the new plan that I could check in online twenty four hours before my flight and check my baggage online as well. I would then purchase the row of preferred seats in row seven and be done with the whole mess. Fast forward to twenty four hours before departure. I go online to check in. I am allowed because the system no longer believes I have an infant in lap. I attempt to purchase preferred seats and find two problems. The first is that I am not allowed to purchase a preferred seat, no explanation given. The second is that one of the seats in row seven is now occupied. In my fury, I call customer service yet again. I ask why I am unable to buy a preferred seat. I am transferred to the web department, since there are the only ones that can “fix” these sorts of problems. Judging from my interaction with the representative, it is a group of employees in a room with desktop computers. The man tells me I cannot purchase a preferred seat because the airport has taken over seat selection and it can only be done at the counter. Let us remember that point. He tells me this because he uses the confirmation code I give him and enters it into the US Airways website just as I did. So essentially, he replicated my actions and wasted ten minutes of my life. I hang up and call customer service again.

This time a man answers and I explain the sequence of events that led me to him. I mention that now even fewer open seats remain open. He tells me that row seven is a preferred seating row that can only be purchased up to twenty four hours before departure. I counter with the fact that the seating map has changed with seats becoming occupied and that clearly some people are able to change or purchase seats. He apologizes for not being clear and clarifies by stating that they are available only to frequent flyers first and then to everybody else last. I point out again that it is less than twenty four hours before departure and ask when it would then be available to everybody else—two hours before departure? He has no answer except that the airport had taken control of those seats. I am sure it is for “security reasons”. I ask him how I am supposed to get better seats. In his exasperation he offers that seat 13E is the only seat open. Immediately I ask if he can give me that seat instead of 26E. He changes the seat. I go home and check in online and purchase two checked bags.

I then write Orbitz a scathing email about the fact they do not recommend calling the airline to confirm seats. They only state, “Policies on advance seating vary by airline. Some airlines assign seats immediately, others may only assign seats 90 days before a flights and several airlines wait to assign seats until the day of flight”. I make specific mention is my email that seat selection was open from before I purchased my ticket. The reply email offers cursory apologies and asks that I call customer service so that they may win back my business. I call. The man that answers not only has no clue why I am calling after he pulls up my account, but chooses instead to repeat the same inapplicable policy to me. I state that I confirmed with US Airways that seat selection was open long before I purchased my ticket. His response is that Orbitz forwards seat selection to the airlines after purchase of the ticket. I counter that Orbitz does not recommend or direct customers to call the airlines for seat confirmation. His response is that the trip receipt from Orbitz will state if seats were confirmed. I hang up on him.

The next day we go to the airport and at the web check in kiosk there is no record of my online baggage check. Having predicted this problem, I flag down an attendant and explain my problem. He insists on repeating my actions at the kiosk. Discovering that there is indeed no record of my checked baggage, he turfs me to another attendant. After about ten minutes the new attendant has us checked in . I ask if there any open seats we might possibly switch. I get a terse no.

When we finally board the plane, we wait until the holder of 14F arrives. This twenty something appears to be traveling alone and with a larger than necessary rolling carry-on suitcase. We ask if she is willing to switch seats—her window for a center seat. She looks at our children and gives a somewhat hesitant agreement.

So what have we learned from all this? First, airlines do not like families. Second, if you do not get what you want from customer service, call again. And again. And again, until you get what you want. Do you hear that, customer service? Stock answers do not work, and customers will only tie up the phone lines more until you actually offer customer service. Third, Orbitz offers nothing other than comparison of prices. Use it to compare prices and then call the airline directly. You will at the very least get the seats you want.