California’s biggest individual health insurer, Anthem, treats its customers with remarkable contempt. This blog post is boring, but I think it’s important to occasionally document poor behavior from powerful companies.

I received a letter December 9, “INTENT TO NON-RENEW”. They said I owed them $6.89 and had three weeks to pay up or they’d cancel me, a ten year customer. Except I didn’t owe them money. I pay all those bills automatically, the correct amount had been sent. The exact amount is for “pediatric dental insurance”, something they tacked on this year when they realize they screwed up the ACA requirements. I’m guessing their billing system failed to post one month somehow.

What is so contemptuous is the communication. They go straight from “minor problem” to “we are cancelling your health insurance”, in an officious letter, with no followup. Their customer service is terrible. I finally got through (two separate automated phone systems) to someone who could only vaguely say I look paid up and they have no idea why the letter was sent.

Anthem has a remarkable online bill pay system, BTW. Or rather they don’t, they outsource it to Princeton eCom, a site that looks like a clumsy phishing attempt. It requires a separate login. Your password is limited to 8 characters. For the billing site. Of a health insurance company.

Cancelling health insurance is a big, scary threat. Anthem appears to casually do that because of random billing errors, with no humane communication. I dread what the process will be like if I ever have a significant claim.

life
  2014-12-17 19:45 Z

A friend of mine is buying his first Mac, so here’s a list I made for him for essential software.

  • Chrome for web browsing with LastPass for passwords.
  • Alfred for launching apps, small actions, etc. I can’t imagine using MacOS without it.
  • iTerm2 for terminal windows.
  • Homebrew for Unix tools. It’s not awesome, but the best option.
  • Sublime Text for text editing.
  • nvALT for note taking.
  • Adium for instant messaging.
  • VLC for playing video and audio. Plex for networked serving of video.
techmac
  2014-12-05 16:50 Z
culture
  2014-12-03 18:56 Z

I’ve gotten competent at making pizza at home. It’s an easy versatile meal, 15 minutes prep time once you have the dough. I tend to make a sort of puttanesca pizza: capers, olives, anchovies, sauce from a jar (the shame) and some salami. Today was turkey leftover pizza with white sauce, I regret being too timid to try cranberry sauce after baking.

My go-to cookbook is American Pie, specifically the “neo-Neapolitan” dough variant. I’ll make a batch of 5 servings of dough and freeze 4. A stand mixer is a huge help, the dough is very glutenous. I recently learned slicing the mozzerella works better than grating, and so much easier. The dough takes time to ferment, thaw, etc but not much active work.

The challenge of home pizza is our ovens don’t go over 550°F. I get decent results in a home oven on a pizza stone, but Ken just got a Baking Steel from Sur la Table so I gave that a shot. It definitely cooks faster and chars the crust more; too much so, the bottom was about to burn before the edge was fully baked. The steel is heavy, rusts, and needs seasoning like a cast iron skillet. I’m not sure it’s a huge improvement over a clay tile.

Neapolitan-style pizza dough is pretty tempermental. For something different and foolproof this pan pizza recipe works pretty well. A no-knead dough sort of fried up in a cast iron skillet in the oven. It’s not elegant, more of a fast-food style pizza, but it’s delicious and fresh and that is its own reward.

culturefood
  2014-11-29 21:48 Z

Uber’s sure in a shitstorm now. On top of the long standing questions about their treatment of drivers, insurance, regulatory issues, etc they’ve shot themselves in the foot twice this week with ethical lapses. Once with an executive proposing doing “opposition research” on a journalist to discredit her, and again with troubling concerns about the privacy of rider records. I love the Uber product, but it’s clear the company has a serious problem.

Google’s “Don’t be Evil” policy was a valuable guiding principle for us. It was a shorthand for not doing things that were obviously unethical. Uber needs that. “Should we offer our drivers shady subprime loans?” Of course not, that’d be evil. “Should we poach Lyft drivers without worrying how it screws up their ride dispatch?” No, don’t be evil. There’s reasonable debate about exactly what is ethical or acceptable. For instance I’m 100% fine with Uber throwing elbows at corrupt cab companies. But the overriding principle needs to be acting ethically or else you end up with the shitstorm Uber has.

Uber’s problem appears to be at the top with Travis Kalanick, the founder and CEO. He’s set the company on an aggressive libertarian path and it’s ugly. (I’m also struck by Kalanick’s early founder role with Scour, a late-90's product for pirating music from unwitting people’s unsecured Windows computers.) It may be that a lack of ethics is in the company’s DNA.

I love Uber, but a transportation product like theirs is a natural monopoly and Uber is showing themselves untrustworthy. I’m beginning to share the pessimistic view of Metafilter user rhizome that “the taxi industry is so corrupt that any organization that would unseat them has to be just as bad”. It shouldn’t be that way, Uber could do better.

culture
  2014-11-20 22:12 Z

I’ve spent more time than was fun at various German museums and monuments remembering the Holocaust, the hideous state sponsored wholesale slaughter of Jews, Roma, and other “undesireables”. I’m always impressed with how direct and without bullshit the presentation is. “We did these things. These are the things we did.” Little explanation of why, certainly no attempt to justify or explain away. Not even a facile apology. Just a documentation of the evil that Germans did. It is enough.

I want a museum about the American Indian genocide. A couple of rooms documenting pre-Columbian life, to convey the Native American’s culture, their society, their technology. Purely to humanize them and set the context for what comes next. Then room after room documenting the systemic program of murder, and burning, and sabotage. A room dedicated to the science of disease, the amount of destruction wrought by smallpox whether accidental or deliberate. A room or two of war weapons. Letters from the Indian killers explaining their techniques and goals. A room about the Indians who fought back and the disproportionate response to that rebellion. A whole diorama about Andrew Jackson (themed to the twenty dollar bill). One stark room depicting the mathematical scale of the genocide, perhaps with abstract sculpture. A temporary exhibit on the Trail of Tears not as an anomaly, but as a systemization of the violence done more haphazardly before.

It’s not a museum about Native Americans really. It’s a museum about Europeans, the things we did to conquer this continent. And should never forget.

culture
  2014-11-16 21:30 Z

IETF has an interesting new working group: TCPINC. “TCP extensions to provide unauthenticated encryption and integrity protection of TCP streams”. Practically what this means is “make it harder for third parties to eavesdrop on your Internet traffic”.

In theory IPsec was going to solve this problem for the Internet, but it is a failed technology. Right now the best we have is HTTPS for some websites. But wrapping every network protocol in an SSL layer is stupid, why not just encrypt the network? TCPINC is making a lot of compromises. “Unauthenticated” means they are punting on the harder half of the crypto problem and will leave users vulnerable to man in the middle attacks. It’s TCP only, and has to be NAT-compatible at that, so it won’t be a complete clean solution. But compared to the status quo of a lot of traffic not being encrypted at all, it’s a good choice. Making it a TCP extension should mean it can be deployed incrementally without a lot of pain.

There’s a few related draft specs already, such as draft-bittau-tcpinc-tcpcrypt-00.txt. tcpcrypt.org has more info as well. The mailing list archives go back to March 2014. The IAB just came out with a statement in favor of encryption, which is nice support.

techgood
  2014-11-15 19:50 Z

I’m a huge fan of OpenStreetMap but the organization is a mess. Last year I fished around thinking I should get deeply involved with OSM, it’d be a good use of my time. But I gave up on the idea because I didn’t like what I learned about the culture. I think OSM could grow to be as important and influential as Wikipedia. But not with the current trajectory.

The problem boils down to a question of scale and influence. OSM has accomplished a huge amount with very little. No full time staff, lots of borrowed server resources, annual budget of less than $200,000. Think what it could do with more! The impression I’ve got talking to the folks who make OSM work day to day is they’re perfectly happy with the current scale. The de facto leadership, the most active mappers, sysadmins, developers, don’t want a change. And there’s no single visionary leader to bring things forward.

There are related problems with OSM. There’s a strong anti-commercial bent which not only results in an awkward license but also an inability to engage with potential partners like Apple or MapBox. The community itself has some toxic elements; I gave up asking questions on the IRC channel after the seventh time someone implied my questions were dumb. And right now there’s a bunch of drama around elections for new leadership that indicates structural problems, years-old grievances getting aired ineffectively on mailing lists.

I don’t have a solution to get OSM to grow into the massive influence it could have. I worry there can’t be one, that culturally the active OSM members want to remain small and unsullied by commercial interests. I could say and do a lot more to try to help, but I don’t think it would get me anywhere.

tech
  2014-10-26 19:40 Z

Ken and I went back to Paris for the first time in a few years, visited a bunch of old favorite spots. Some sadly in decline (Le Caveau du Palais), some still good. And a couple of new experiences.

Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes
Rustic, hearty restaurant. Specializes in cassoulet presented with pride in giant copper vats. It was a delicious cassoulet and definitely satisfied our hunger for same but I have some reservations. Cassoulet is never a light dish, but the quarter inch of grease floating on top of my bowl was a bit troubling. OTOH the goose leg confit was just amazing. Comfortable room, nice people, I will gladly go back.
Au Bourguignon du Marais
One of our old favorite restaurants, still delicious food. It’s a bit more interesting than the usual bistro menu, well prepared and with good wines. We went on a Saturday night and it was intensely crowded and about 80% tourists, which put us off a bit, next time I’ll go at a quieter time.
Le Relais de l’Entrecôte
Another old favorite, the basic steak frites experience. Perfect lunch for a day of wandering around Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Ma Bourgogne
A fine bistro under the arcades of the Places des Vosges, this has been one of Ken’s favorites for years. Personally I thought it was good but nothing particularly distinguishes the food. Reliable and pleasant though, and you can’t beat the location.
Taillevent
One of Paris’ famous temples of food, two or three Michelin stars for years and years. I go back and forth on how I feel about this place. It’s a bit too traditional, uninspired in the kitchen. There’s no complex molecular gastronomy and radical flavor combinations you’d expect from high end chefs. On the other hand every single experience I or my friends have had there has been excellent, something I can’t say for some of the other super fancy restaurants in Paris. So I enthusiastically recommend it if you want to experience the very pinnacle of a French dining experience, albeit without being on the forefront of gastronomic exploration.
Hotel de Vendôme
Good luxury boutique hotel with an excellent central location, friendly staff, and very comfortable rooms. Also terribly expensive, although for this class of hotel it’s better value than you get from the competition. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a pretty good rate (€350 / night), particularly mid-week. The furnishings are starting to feel a bit worn and the Internet didn’t work as well as it should, so not perfect.
Musée Carnavalet
The Paris city museum, the quirkiness of random stuff the city has collected makes it one of my favorites. It’s not well organized, the quality varies highly, parts of the museum are closed at random intervals because someone went to lunch. But there’s a feel of discovery in the museum, finding an unexpected 1871 painting from the Commune or a beautiful wooden cradle in the shape of a boat or a collection of 25 little busts of Spinoza. It helps that it’s free and situated in the Marais where you’re probably wandering around anyway. You can just pop in for 30 minutes and see a couple of rooms, then leave without feeling like you had to see everything.
culturetravel
  2014-10-16 14:39 Z

I’ve loved the street art in Paris. So many fun discoveries, random art in unexpected public places, some beautiful works by Mesnager, L'Atlas, C214, Space Invader, Miss Tic, and so many more. Sadly, my visit to Paris in 2014 was a bit more discouraging.

The bits I’ve found in the posh parts of town, the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 6th have been interesting. But a lot of work I remember is gone. Many suspiciously blank spots where there used to be invaders, or interesting affiches, or other things. It feels like someone went and cleaned many of the streets.

Also a very discouraging walk through Bellveille; see my Flickr photos. It’s always been a grimy neighborhood, it’s part of the charm, but the street art there has taken a turn for shitty tags over clever site pieces. And the amazing old gallery at La Forge / La Kommune is completely gone, the artist squat space has been replaced by an ugly modern building. An inevitable development, but a disappointing conclusion for a street art walk. Some of that energy has moved down to Rue Dénoyez but it’s mostly tags, not interest art. Also apparently that space is threatened.

Sorry to be a bummer, maybe it’s just me. Particularly sad to have found almost nothing new and exciting.

culturetravel
  2014-10-13 15:50 Z