~ Archive for Miscellaneous ~

WSJ Sues for Medicare Database

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The Wall Street Journal is suing to get the Medicare database made public.  They want people to be able to see what each doctor was paid and for what procedures.  They had access to the database for a recent story and found some glaring examples of abuse.  Of course the real question is going to be whether this information can be released publicly without violating patient privacy.  The AMA is opposed to the release of this information because they feel it violates doctors privacy.

While I understand the privacy issues, I think that the way government money is spent should be as open as possible.  Anything that says hidden is very likely to be abused.

State of the Union

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I think the health of the nation can be accessed by looking at the percentage of people who watch the State of the Union address.  If that number is going up every year, then we are probably headed in a good direction.  If it is going down, I fear for our future.

It isn’t a matter of whether or not people like the President.  It is an indication of people’s willingness to be involved and to pay attention to what is happening in government.  The worse thing that can happen in our country is for people not to care and feel like their opinions don’t matter–that they can’t change anything.

Boring Jobs

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Awhile back I wrote a post on Productivity501 titled How to deal with a boring job. FMF wrote further on the idea of a boring job and made some interesting points.   FMF has some good advice about how to go about asking an employer for more responsibility without just coming out and saying “I’m bored”.

FMF doesn’t think there are many jobs out there where you are just getting paid to sit around. I think it is probably more common than most people realize–particularly in areas like tech support where you are basically there in case something breaks. This is particularly true in areas where the group responsible for tech support isn’t the same group that is responsible for making sure that things don’t break in the first place.  When someone only has responsibility for support, but not authority to do the things that can fix the need for support, the amount of work they have to do can vary dramatically depending on what changes other people have made to the it system.

Here is a slightly related story that I like to tell clients when talking about unintended consequences of management decisions:

There was an IT department where management decided to reward employees based on the number of help desk tickets they closed.  It was a small department so the people responsible for fixing tickets were the same people responsible for maintaining the infrastructure, doing upgrades, etc.

The IT department was proactive and did their best to keep things running without downtime.  However, the better they got at keeping everything working smoothly the fewer tickets were opened.  The fewer tickets they opened, the fewer tickets were closed and the smaller their bonus.

Finally they came up with a solution.  Once a week, they would go to the close, and unplug a switch.  This would shut down access to a couple key systems, but keep the ticket system up and running.  Users throughout the organization would create ticket saying that a service was down and requesting helpdesk fix it.  After about 15 minutes, the IT department would plug the switch back in again restoring access for everyone.  Then they would go close the hundred or so tickets that had been opened and keep their metrics up so they could get their bonus.

Flying Cars and Technology Advancement

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I’m kind of disappointed we don’t have flying cars by now.  Technology doesn’t ever seem to advance as fast as we expect in the areas we expect it.  On the other hand, as I type this, I’m watching my son sleep using a wireless monitor that is receiving a transmission from an infrared camera that lets me watch him in the dark.  That wasn’t exactly something they were predicting in 1950 and it is still pretty advanced.

Still I’d like the flying car.

Interesting Asset Protection

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I ran across an interesting asset protection idea the other day.  I’m not sure this would work, but it was interesting enough to share.

Someone takes money that is in their retirement account and switches over to a self-directed IRA. They then get a waiver that allows them to give themselves a loan (from the IRA) to purchase a house and the IRA has the first position on the property.

The idea was that the house would now be protected from bankruptcy in the same way that the IRA funds are protected.  Any further liens on the house would come after the IRA’s position.

Another interesting idea was to basically put all of your money into an LLC in a setup called a checkbook IRA LLC.  The idea is that if someone wins a lawsuit against you they can get a position from the IRA LLC, but they can’t take control of it.  So basically any income shows up as phantom income for them on which they must pay tax.  You don’t pay any tax because the gains are tax free for you. The checkbook IRA LLC setup looks intriguing, but it doesn’t appear to be very well tested in the tax courts, so it might not be the safest setup.

As I said, I’m not sure either of those strategies would work, but they are interesting possibilities that I hadn’t ever heard of before.

Stuxnet Worm

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It appears that my initial thoughts on the Stuxnet Worm in Iran were wrong. Originally I stated that as easy as it seems to be to make a worm that infects Windows, it seemed odd to try to blame this on a country or someone with large resources going specifically after Iran.  However, now that some additional facts about the program have come to light, it appears that Stuxnet is quite a bit more complicated.

  • It is designed to change the rotation speeds of specific convertor drives made in Iran.
  • It is designed to modify their spin frequency in ways that would be difficult to detect.
  • It only becomes active when there are more than 33 of these convertor drives on the network. (Something that would be likely in Iran, but unlikely anywhere else in the world).
  • It specifically modifies convertor drives that are operating at a frequency that could be used to create weapon’s grade products.
  • It appears that someone would have needed to steal two cryptographic keys from a company in Korea in order to make the worm.

So at this point, it no longer looks like something a few high school kids could have pulled off as a prank.

Tapeworm on State Seal

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It doesn’t look like it passed, but there was a ballot initiative in the State of Washington to put a tapeworm on the state seal.

This measure would require the Seal of the State of Washington to be changed to depict a vignette of a tapeworm dressed in a three piece suit attached to the lower intestine of a taxpayer shown as the central figure. The seal would be required to be encircled with the following words: “Committed to sucking the life blood out of each and every tax payer.” The illustration would be selected from submissions submitted by taxpayers. (source)

Proof of Time Travel

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I’ve started seeing a huge number of people looking for proof of time travel. I asked a few friends if they had any idea why and we came up with a few theories on why so many people are suddenly looking for proof of time travel.  Here are some of the suggestions.

  1. Digg and My Space employees are looking for a way to go back in time.
  2. My future self is trying to send me some type of message.
  3. The Charlie Chaplin movie that appears to show someone talking on a cell phone has sparked an interest in other “proofs of time travel”.
  4. The 25th anniversary of Back To The Future is getting people thinking about time travel.

The idea of sending a message back in time was intriguing, but I’m afraid items 3 and 4 are probably what is driving the interest in time travel proof.  Item 2 would make for an interesting movie though.  Maybe the plot could revolve around being able to send messages through versions of websites that are stored on archive.org or something…

Shift in Photography Industry

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Photography use to be a pretty stable career choice.  Everyone was going to need pictures and events like weddings typically go forward regardless of what the economy is doing.  However, high quality, low cost cameras are causing career problems for professional photographers as amateurs and hobbyists are now able to compete with similar quality, but much lower costs. This represents a significant change in the photography industry and  photographers whose only skill is taking wedding photos are starting to see their profits drop rapidly.

Dealing with Customer Complaints

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Some time ago my wife and I went through the drive through at the local Taco Bell. I don’t know if the person making the food was new, mischievous, or just inept but what we ended up getting hardly resembled the burrito we ordered. If I’m member correctly they were pretty rude in giving us the food as well. So I called the 800 number that was printed next to the drive-through window and explain the situation.

They apologized, took our name and address, and send us a free five dollar coupon in the mail. I consider this a nice gesture but when I later tried to use the coupon I discovered it was only good at corporately own taco bells. But the Taco Bell where I had the problem wasn’t corporately owned, so I couldn’t use it locally. We were traveling a lot at the time so I figured it would be easy to use the coupon somewhere else. It turns out that virtually none of the taco bells we encountered while traveling were corporately owned businesses. We eventually gave the coupon to someone else and wished them luck trying to use it.

From a business standpoint, giving us a five dollar coupon was probably more detrimental than simply giving us an apology. Every time I would use the coupon and was denied it reminded me of the original negative experience.

The thing that made this stand out so much in my mind was how much it contrasted with another experience I have had. Several years before we were waiting to be seated at a Max and Erma’s in Michigan. Half of the restaurant had empty clean tables, but we were still kept standing for 20 minutes. I wrote them a letter explaining that this was frustrating as a consumer.

They sent me an apology and a $10 gift certificate to Max and Erma’s. I set the gift certificate aside and did not use it right away. About a month later I got another letter from them further apologizing with another $10 gift certificate. Evidently they were tracking to get certificates to make sure I visited the store again. When I didn’t come in after the first one they sent me another one to try to get me back.

I was impressed with the amount of effort they put into making sure I returned to the customer. If the first experience had upset me so badly that a $10 gift certificate wasn’t sufficient to make me return, they sent out another one in order to get me back.

While there is obviously a limit to how much effort businesses can expend on dealing with unhappy customers. Max and Erma’s business seems to have a very good, low effort system that makes worlds of difference for the consumer.

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