Archive for the 'Off Topic Posts' Category

Off Topic: Insurance excuses

I keep a file of “funny and amazing insurance excuses,” but I had to share this exclusion for an urgent care physician’s charge from our local medical center’s After Hours Urgent Care Clinic:


I don’t usually laugh, but … if the doctor’s office was open, why would I have to go to After Hours Urgent Care?  (Actually, one of these visits I went because the doctor sent me to the ER and I was hoping to avoid the emergency room, so I went to urgent care; I don’t know if the doctor’s office was open then or not.)

I have a ten-inch stack of medical billing paperwork to slog through again.  This is just wrong.  Anyway, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.

Off Topic Post: Joshua Bell Strikes Again – Virtually

The story of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing incognito in a Washington DC subway — where virtually no one stops to listen — is circulating again by email.

The story is true.  I couldn’t help writing about it on this blog’s first “Off Topic” post.

But as with most experiments, whether informal ad hoc or formal medical ones, people must take care to separate the experiment from the conclusions that can (or can’t) be drawn from them.

People love an incredible story —  in this case, especially the observation that every child who went through the station tried to stop and listen.

But here’s the problem with it:  it was a set up.  Whether by deliberate design or not, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, he discusses research that speaks to this, that the most important factor in whether people stop is if they have a few moments to spare.  It’s not about beauty or character, need or greed.  It’s just about whether people are pressed for time.  And these people in the DC subway were chosen because of their time vise.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell discusses a study by Princeton psychologists on a group of seminary students.  Researchers asked each aspiring theologian to prepare a short talk on a Bible-based theme, then to give the talk at another building a short walk away.  On the way to their presentations, each student came across a sick man in an alley.  The psychologists wanted to find out who would stop and help, and what factors (especially of character) would predict who would take the time to lend assistance.

In some cases, the researchers even gave the seminary students the topic of the Good Samaritan to talk about!  To some, he’d say they were late and expected to start already, and to others he’d say they were early but might as well start heading over.

It turned out that none of the factors they studied (such as talking about the Good Samaritan story from the Bible right beforehand) had any effect.  The only thing that did was whether the student was in a hurry or had time.  There the difference was huge. Other research has backed this up.

I have trouble believing the Washington Post reporter who set up this “experiment” with Joshua Bell didn’t know any of this when he designed it — and it’s not really an experiment if you already know the outcome.  Even if he didn’t know to start, he should have done his homework.  (And if he didn’t do his homework, was it really such a severe indictment of people’s poor sense of beauty, or just a stunt with a predetermined outcome?)

He proposed it as a test of whether people would recognize beauty out of context, but if he had been genuine about it, he would have gone to, say, a park near where poor day laborers gather, or asked Bell to play anonymously and out of the way at a picnic for underprivileged kids or at a garish amusement park or in disguise at a farmer’s market.  He didn’t do any of these things, because he likely knew or suspected he wouldn’t get the outcome he wanted for this story, i.e., Bell would have drawn crowds.

In the Bell subway “experiment”, the only people who stopped were the ones who perceived themselves as having a few moments, just as research would predict.  Young children, one must note, live in the time warp of childhood and always think they have time for something interesting.  To make it a test of whether people recognize beauty out of context, the reporter should have put Joshua Bell in a jarringly different context, where people had maybe other (less “beautiful”) diversions, but had at least some time to stop if they wished to.

Just to put this in context:  There is an orphanage in Cambodia that educates and supports Cambodia’s garbage dump children.  The rescued kids were so grateful, they organized a program to bring books and a day of happiness to children at the dump from which they had come.  I was not surprised to hear that the children at the dump treated these books like wondrous, precious treasures.  They don’t need an education to recognize or be hungry for beauty in the midst of squalor and despair.  I’m willing to bet Mr. Bell’s violin playing would be received with equal gratitude and wonder by these most destitute of the poor.  (But you’d have to design such a visit with the same circumstantial sensitivity as by these children who returned.)

The subway story filled me with cynicism about the reporter rather than people’s capacity to recognize beauty.  Shame on him.

It’s still a good story, though.  But poor Joshua Bell!

Still Sidetracked

I feel I must apologize once again for my inability to really answer any correspondence for the site or spend any serious time on new posts or revisions. I appreciate the wonderful letters and feedback I have received lately, it has really buoyed me through this trying time.  There is nothing like knowing another child can have a normal life!

I may as well just tell you why I am so preoccupied.  As usual, it’s medical insurance paperwork.  (The amount in dispute is more than a whole year’s disposable income for us, it’s a big deal.)

On October 7, 2008, I received a letter from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the government agency in charge of federal worker healthcare contracts, which said that Blue Cross Blue Shield had promised to “provide benefits for the disputed claims.”  

I thought my family’s long, three-and-a-half year nightmare was over.  Unfortunately, in spite of my follow ups with the government, Blue Shield has neither sent the promised revised explanations of benefits nor the promised reimbursement. They did, however, promise the government rep that they would take care of it by November 7, 2008.  They didn’t.

This is the same healthcare plan that Barack Obama would like to offer everyone for US healthcare reform.  Look, I am still high from election night.  I voted for him even in the primaries.  But I don’t think this is the right way to reform our system.  Not at least if we want better results for less money.  Insurance companies have put federal workers in an even worse place than everyone else with insurance in this country.  We don’t have the right to sue the insurers.  We don’t have the right to seek independent medical review the way people do in states.  And so on.  

I don’t think granting those things is enough to solve our healthcare crisis, but you can imagine the field day insurers are having with those of us who have even less recourse than everyone else.
President-elect Obama would like to extend the coverage he and the Congress have to everyone else.  Well, I have the same PLAN he has — I’d like to know how I can get the same COVERAGE.  You see, the insurance companies are well aware of who is in Congress and who is not.

I’d like my life back.  If government (as opposed to PRIVATE insurance companies) were doing this to people, there would be rioting in the streets and tea thrown into harbors. Or at least a lot more gun buying.  I have a half room in my small house devoted just to insurance paperwork, and that doesn’t include the boxes, filing cabinets, and shelves full of the stuff elsewhere in my house.  

The President-elect’s Mother had to spend the last months of her life arguing with insurance companies from her hospital room.  By contrast, my Aunt from a wealthy country in Europe that spends considerably less per capita on healthcare than the US but gets better results and covers everyone — my Aunt the career secretary fought cancer for fifteen years, in which time she flew airplanes, climbed mountains (even part-way up Everest), took regular vacations in other countries, drove a nice car and lived in a nice apartment (her ability to enjoy life probably partly responsible for why she lived so long with a cancer that usually kills in under five years).  When she died, she left an INHERITANCE from her savings to all of her grand nieces and nephews for their college education.  Can you imagine anyone in this country suffering from cancer for fifteen years and leaving anything but medical bills and paperwork?

How bad does the economic crisis have to get before we decide we can’t afford the luxury of an industry that spends $450 billion a year on administrative costs in order to delay and deny care for their own profits?  The cost to the lives of ordinary Americans is incalculable.  I know it has been to mine.

(I wonder how Oprah’s Peter Walsh would make that odious medical paperwork clutter disappear and give me back my peace!  Or at least give me back the ability to do something useful with my time, such as help people the way I’m hearing the site is helping.   I tried to sign on to the declutter plan, but that ten minutes a day thing only goes so far with this stuff dominating the house…  And my life…)

Off Topic: One of the best web sites on the Internet

With no working washing machine for a month now, Halloween costume plans had to change in our household.  Fortunately for us, Canon sponsors one of the best web sites on the Internet, from which we were able to print plans to build a really cool red panda mask out of paper card stock. No washing required.

Link to the site:  Canon Papercraft

I don’t have words to do this site justice.  You can download detailed kits for building animals, dinosaurs, pop-up cards, whole towns, trains, airplanes, gift boxes, wedding cake teddy bears, the Parthenon, the Taj Majal, the Sydney Opera House, the Statue of Liberty, and on and on — all out of paper!  And all with the highest level of design values:  clear instructions, amazingly intelligent design, simple to build.  The hardest thing is just cutting out the pieces.  If you use this site, PLEASE do not forget to thank Canon, as they are sponsoring this site.  It’s absolutely amazing.

11 pound delivery

I finally got my medical insurance appeal in the mail last Saturday.  The package weighed 11 pounds!  I hurt my hand trying to finish it – I have never had a technological strain injury before.  Ouch! 

My copy of the appeal also weighed 11 pounds.  The stack I had to make just prior to this weighed 15 pounds – 7.5 pounds for me, 7.5 pounds for the lawyer helping me produce the letter to go with the most recent 11 pounds of paper – ironically produced on Earth Day.  

It’s hard to even contemplate the wasted effort – mine, and that of millions of other Americans.

Off Topic: An apology to those waiting for replies…

My apologies to everyone to whom I owe correspondence, and there are many at the moment.  I am battling a particularly vicious bout of health insurance paperwork.  They used to say “the cure is worse than the disease”; the sage person who coined the phrase must have had the same insurance as I do.

I know I have many times complained that if only I had a fraction of the time and effort we must spend on health insurance paperwork to do virtually anything else – this web site, see family, live our lives…  It’s absolutely oppressive.  Unfortunately, with US healthcare insurance, it’s too often your money or your life (or both).  

People from countries outside the US probably can’t imagine this situation. This New York Times article gives a sense of what it is like, and it’s only getting worse.  Just the EXCESS paperwork that private insurance companies generate costs our system around $350 billion annually (that’s above and beyond the $100 billion or so that we spend annually on health care administration that would, generously speaking, be necessary to administer any system like this regardless), and that doesn’t count the hundreds of billions more the insurance companies get in windfall from delaying and denying care or reimbursements through that paperwork.  The result?  In the US today, LESS THAN HALF of the $2 trillion dollars spent on healthcare every year go to actual CARE.  (source:  Public Citizen)  

Never accounted for in these cost equations is the enormous toll on the lives of ordinary citizens who are targeted by this paperwork – and the disastrous personal and financial consequences when they lose.  Half of all personal bankruptcies in the US are from medical costs, and the majority of those people have insurance at the start of the illness that bankrupts them.  

Even doctors in this country, who have traditionally been against change are now in the majority for a nationalized payment system [Reuters story].  And no, I do not think doing this will make us Communists anymore than having publicly-financed universal sanitation (the greatest medical advance in human history and a characterizing difference between first and third world economies), where even poor people have the luxury of bathing in drinking water, did.  In fact, I think it makes the most BUSINESS sense.  

Sorry to get so upset, I’m sure I’ll have regrets for getting so emotional and off topic and delete this post at some point.  I did not post this to begin a discussion about health care in the US, there are better places to take such a discussion [link].  But my life is so dominated by this, I needed to say something.  (For the record, I have private insurance through the federal government – meaning, all the disadvantages of private insurance but none of the protections of state insurance laws.  The Senators running for President are all running around saying we should have the same coverage they do – well I have the same PLAN as they do, I wish they would tell Me-Non-Congressperson how to get the same COVERAGE!)

So please bear with me, I will get back to you as soon as I can!

Off Topic: How to Get Rid of Ants For Good, Part 2 of 3

A few weeks ago, I started a series on how to get rid of ants from your home for good. Part 1 explains why I am writing about this here, now. [link]

First, the disclaimer: I am no expert on insect behavior. I am first to admit that I have never read a scientific book about ants. I am a good problem solver; all I have to share here is what I learned from observation and dogged trial and error. The solution has held up for two decades, all observations since have been consistent. Other people in my life have used this solution to good effect. My apologies in advance for the inexact terminology. And as always, I cannot guarantee results, my intent is just to share what worked for me – and most importantly – why.

(In the course of writing this post, I came across what looks like a good reference on ants: The Ants, by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler.)

About twenty years ago, I lived on the second floor of an old apartment building. Not long after I moved in, a thick stream of ants established a trail through my bathroom, from a crack in the window above the bathtub, down the tile wall, across the length of the old vinyl flooring, to the trash can by the door.

Wiping up the ants and moving the trash can a few feet did nothing. The ants followed their old trail inside, and quickly established a new trail to the new location of the trash can. The ants seemed undeterred by threat of death to some of their numbers – more kept coming in. Leaving some dead ants around seemed only to attract more ants to take them away.

Meticulous cleaning and keeping the trash empty didn’t work; the minute a damp tissue or a little used dental floss hit the can, ants swarmed it. Soon the ants branched out from the trash can, finding their way into the shampoo, my toothbrush, the sink, the toilet, everything. Yuck. This is when I discovered that ants do indeed bite.

I’m sure I tried a number of hack deterrents and folk remedies that failed to work, long forgotten. Poison in my apartment wasn’t a good solution for obvious reasons, but I think I tried it anyway out of desperation. So we’ll skip to the point where I get to my wits end.

At the time, I was reading one of the popular books by or about the late physicist Richard Feynman. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which one, though it was probably Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman or What Do You Care What Other People Think? I don’t think it was Tuva or Bust by Ralph Leighton, which may have been published later, but I mention it just in case.

Feyman was an interesting, funny guy with diverse interests. He conducted his own amateur science experiments; at one point, the book described his fascination with ants and their dependence on scent trails.

I tried unsuccessfully to duplicate what Feyman described in his book – if I remember correctly, getting the ants to leave a trail on a piece of paper, then turning the paper around. I had a vague idea of maybe redirecting the ants outside. The ants had such a strong attraction to that trail on my floor, they simply treated the paper as an obstacle and went around it, picking up their original trail on the other side.

So I decided to see what would happen if I obliterated their scent trails. This turned out to be harder than I expected.

I have probably forgotten many of the things I tried, but I do remember trying to wipe up the trails with straight bleach, Lysol disinfectant spray, Ivory dishwashing liquid, Windex, Comet, (probably) Bon Ami, Formula 409, isopropyl alcohol, Lysol household cleaner, lemon juice, vinegar, (probably) Pine-Sol… And of course I washed off each of these chemicals with what I now know is dishwashing detergent and rinsed well before trying another.

Nothing really worked. I could wipe up the existing ants and try to clean up the trail, but the ants seemed to be able to pick up the scent and re-establish the trail in short order. Scrubbing the room spotless sometimes gave me a short breather from the onslaught, but such spotlessness is impossible to maintain, so the ants quickly returned.

I have found this behavior consistent over time: when ants have invaded kitchens or other rooms for food, they will usually disappear for awhile after a cleaning, but reappear in strength the moment a crumb hits the floor, it seems.

Years after this, a friend – an expert on insects – explained to me just how dependent ants are on scent. He told me that in experiments where researchers painted some ants with the scent given off by dead ants, worker ants would remove the dead-ant-scented ants from the colony AS IF THEY WERE DEAD, even though they were clearly moving. When the marked ants tried to return, the other ants simply kept removing them until the marked ants eventually gave up. (This may very well be from E.O. Wilson’s work or book, though I am just guessing based on some web pages I saw recently.)

For some reason, the ants in my apartment were willing to face an ongoing threat of death, the inconvenience of ever-changing obstacles, and all manner of attempts on their scents trails, and still they kept coming in as if pushed by an inexorable force and following some kind of indelible trail.

I discovered the answer by pure luck. In my attempts to clean up the trail – silly as I felt after trying so many other cleaners – I sprayed down my foaming tub cleaner, Lysol Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner, and wiped up every surface with it. Then an odd thing happened. The ants emerged from their entry point at the window, and scattered where I had cleaned the tile. But this time, they did not regroup. The seemed unable to re-establish the trail, totally lost.

After awhile, I used the Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner to wipe the “confused” ones up. I did this a few times over a couple of days, in the same way I had used other cleaners to repeatedly wipe up the ants. Only this time, the ants behaved differently, never seemed to find a trail. They seemed slow, even tentative when they entered. They seemed to lose all sense of direction. After a couple of days, they disappeared completely. And they never came back.

It wasn’t a fluke. I have repeated this many times over the years, in different apartments and homes, in different locations, with different kinds of ants. Always, the same thing happens. This cleaner really does seem to completely obliterate the ant scent trail, and it seems as if the ants just cannot cope with that.

What makes this different than merely cleaning up their food source, is that it seems as if the ants leave some kind of warning scent to never return. At times when I have merely cleaned up, ants may disappear for awhile, but they keep sending in scouts, they keep returning eventually. This is why ant baits have never worked for me – nevermind that one cannot leave them out in households with small children – the ants may take the bait and kill that existing colony, but in my experience, they usually return IN THE SAME PLACE, as if there is a lasting scent directing them inside to try again for some once-successful food source.

In one home where I experimented with bait, the ants returned in strength after a year, only this time they wouldn’t take the bait! Initially I had not wanted to use the Lysol Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner on some of the surfaces, but when I did, again they disappeared forever and never returned, not even after years.

What’s interesting here is that it doesn’t appear to be the residue of the cleaner that does this – especially now with the eczema, I usually wash off the cleaner with soap after using it, because it is a detergent product – but it appears to work just as well. (And the soap itself is not enough to produce this effect.)

Even better, the ants just don’t come back, no matter how lax I become about leaving out sugary food or other surefire ant attractions.

One time, when I had a very major incursion in a laundry room, the widest trail of ants I had ever seen indoors (over an inch wide and fairly densely packed), I had to spray down the Lysol Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner and leave it down for a few hours. I never thought it would work, yet again the ants seemed just unable to cope with that. Again, they disappeared, and never came back.

Why do I think this is the result of a warning scent? Well, several reasons. I have observed equivalent behavior with a different kind of insurmountable ant obstacle – stay tuned for Part 3, which I will post soon, along with my “method” for cleaning up the ants forever.

Note: Unfortunately, Lysol Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner seems to be disappearing from store shelves. The customer service rep told me that they have repackaged it as Lysol Bathroom Cleaner, but the fragrance has been changed. Since I cannot tell what it is about this cleaner that makes it different – after all, regular Lysol spray disinfectant and the general Lysol household cleaner did not work for this – and it doesn’t appear to be just the active ingredient, I cannot tell if the fragrance change will make it less effective. I have a stock of the old stuff, but I tried to order more online and received the Bathroom Cleaner despite ordering the Basin Tub and Tile Cleaner. The bathroom cleaner might work, it might not. More about this soon.

Stay tuned for Part 3…