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.

  2014-12-17 19:45 Z

This week I had a great experience with charitable giving thanks to Donors Choose, a charity that gives money through to teachers for classroom needs. Right now is a good time to give with school starting soon. And the way Donors Choose works feels personally meaningful.

The site lets you browse projects that need funding: $115 for classroom organizers for a kindergarten in Louisiana, $70 for planters and seeds for a garden in Oklahoma, $1300 for iPads in Washington DC, or heartbreakingly $239 for fans for kids in juvie without fresh air. The requests vary widely and the schools are all over the US; you can choose what speaks to you most. Or just give some money and let the organization figure out where to send it.

I ended up spending several hours choosing projects a few bucks at a time. I used the map view to focus on poor, rural areas where the parents weren’t going to be able to raise money with a bake sale. Mostly places I had some connection to, rural Texas and New Mexico near where I used to live. Places I used to drive through thinking “thank God I didn’t grow up here, I’d be stuck”. I don’t know that a copy of The Maze Runner is going to make all the difference to help a kid in Gallup, NM access the wider world around him, but if a Teach for America teacher thinks it’d help then that’s probably a good use of $7.

One of the sad but inspirational things I learned looking through the site is that the teachers themselves are often donating. As if taking an oath of poverty to become a teacher isn’t enough. If you’re in an industry that pays well, consider chipping in a few bucks as thanks for whatever teacher gave you the education to get you where you are today.

  2014-08-06 16:39 Z

A photo of me in the summer of 1991 or 1992, at a Queer Nation happening at the Portland Rose Festival parade. The photo is courtesy of my friend Tommy Strong, one of the QN/PDX founders. From a time when loudly saying “I’m queer and proud” was a shocking, radical act. It gets better.

  2014-03-02 17:46 Z

In your heart you know it’s flat

I love this phrase, the motto of the Discordian Flat Earth Society (early source). It neatly characterizes the problem of so much common sense knowledge, intuition, wisdom. Of course we know the Earth is flat; just look at it!

The older I get, the less patience I have with woo-woo people who praise intuition and folk wisdom. From child killing anti-vaccination superstition to muddled thinking about the dangers of cell towers, GMO foods, and nuclear power to the simple underinvestment in discovering how the universe actually works. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

  2013-08-19 18:23 Z

I got excited about Google’s new product Chromecast and quickly placed an order on the Google Play store. They said “will ship by August 2”; plenty of time to cancel the order if I found it elsewhere for cheaper or sooner. And so I did on Amazon; same price, delivers today for free. Yay!

Only there’s no way to cancel a Google Play store order. I see my order, Status “Pending”. I click “Cancel” and I’m told “We could not cancel your order at this time. Please try again later” with a link to this support page which says “it has already been packed”. Only without any promised delivery date, so I’m assuming it’s still weeks away.

Google has a decent phone support option. The nice American lady told me that there was no way to cancel the order and my best option was to refuse delivery. Except the package is being delivered at an unknown future date with instructions to leave without a signature. She had no explanation for why it was impossible to cancel an order that had not yet been billed or shipped. To be fair to Google I vaguely remember seeing a warning when I purchased saying “you may not be able to cancel this order”. Frankly, I ignored that, it seemed so improbable. Next time I just won’t order from Google Play.

Order fulfillment is hard. Google’s not making enough money on $35 hardware sales to be worth doing a good job of it. So why are they even trying? I guess it’s to compete with Apple. But they should consider how good the experience is buying hardware online from Apple.

  2013-07-25 16:31 Z
My grandmother's family is from here.
"The blackest land. The whitest people."
As seen on Reddit
  2013-07-20 14:45 Z

It’s been a good week for my river project. A lot of exposure on the Internet, 100,000+ viewers from Gear Junkie to a NASA Twitter account to that fine example of British tabloids, the Daily Mail (Online).

I owe the new attention to Jason Kottke. He ran a blog post on my map and the traffic exploded, not just directly from his site but into the minds of other people. I’d actually gotten a lot of attention on Reddit MapPorn last month, but it didn’t go further than that. Kottke has a lot more reach, from BoingBoing to Reddit again to Popular Science to Wired Design to some traditional print publications that haven’t come out yet (if they ever do). I’m guessing Jason found my map from Mike Bostock’s talk at Eyeo, that’s a real kind of legitimacy you can’t buy.

It’s a funny sort of brief fame for a little work print I did as a 45 minute aside on a much bigger project. I think people like that one picture because it’s easy to understand and looks cool, particularly the natural complexity of the earth. I feel bad I didn’t spend more time explaining this better. It’s not really a map of rivers at all, it’s flowlines, which may just as easily be seasonal streams or arroyos or drainage canals.

A bunch of folks have asked about a poster version. I’d like one too and it’s not too expensive, so I may give it a go. First I need to fix those nasty rectangular artifacts; apparently an artifact of digitization on USGS quads.

  2013-06-26 17:47 Z

If you’re looking for a mortgage, think twice before doing business with CitiMortgage. I refinanced my mortgage with them last year. Well, actually this year; it took them nine months. All along the way the process was incompetent and contemptuous of the customer.

I had an existing loan with Citi. They offered to refinance to a lower rate, no cost to me. All very simple: loan-to-value ratio wasn’t a problem, no question about us qualifying. I agreed to refinance in June 2012, gave them all documentation in July, confirmed all documents in place in August. And then nothing happened. For months. All I got was computer-generated letters saying my application had been canceled and empty verbal promises that “we’ll be underwriting soon”. And repeated requests for fresh documents, because the old W-2 copies, the old appraisal, etc, all “expired”.

Underwriting finally looked at the file in January, some six months after I completed my documentation. Then another comedy of incompetence and we finally signed in February. Mortgages usually take 30 days, 60 if it’s low priority. They promised 90 days; it took them 260. From what I’ve heard, that’s been pretty typical for CitiMortgage in the last year.

Maybe it’s all incompetence, but Citi ends up profiting. All told I paid an extra $2800 in interest waiting for them to get around to processing my refinance application. So basically I’m a sucker; I should have gone elsewhere, preferably through a mortgage broker.

Citigroup was one of the main culprits in the mortgage crisis of 2008 that nearly wrecked the US economy. And they were the brokers defrauding their clients in the investment bank scandal of 2003. The incompetence I encountered with my refinance is a different problem. But I really should stick with a policy of not doing business with companies that treat customers with such contempt.

  2013-06-05 21:53 Z
One of the reasons I like my dentist is the way they greet me when I come for an appointment. I walk in the door and the cheerful woman says "hello Nelson," like I'm a welcome guest. It immediately sets me at ease, takes the edge off the tooth-scraping to come. I only come in twice a year and they've recognized me from my second visit. It seems so natural it never occurred to me that kind of greeting takes effort.

How do they do it? They took my photo my first visit. And they only have two people coming in at any given time. So the receptionist knows to look up the next appointments, and look at their pictures, and create a friendly moment. So simple, so pro.

I've never seen any other customer service do this simple thing. Not my accountant, not my lawyer, not my doctor; there I'm some anonymous schlub who has to identify himself. Opportunity lost.

A few tech companies try to create this sense of personal service. Uber is awesome this way, from the greeting from your private driver to the rock star moment you walk out without handling payment. Square Wallet creates this feeling too; buy coffee with just your name. Great way to create customer good will.

  2013-03-03 23:48 Z

Astronomy enthusiasts have an expression: first light. That’s the first view through a new telescope, the thrilling moment when something you’ve long anticipated, maybe built by hand, is finally real. First light is the beginning of a telescope’s life. It’s cherished for the excitement but it’s also a way to honor all the work, use, and joy to come.

I have a problem with first light. I love the experience of building something new, the moment when a bunch of abstract work and thinking results in the first tangible, visible product. I’m pretty good at achieving first light, at exploring a new idea or area and figuring out how to get something working.

But first light should be the beginning of an endeavour, not the end. Real products come from months or years of polishing, refining, tuning. Astronomers enjoy the thrill of first light through a new telescope, but real astronomy comes from folks like William Herschel or JLE Dryer spending years using those telescopes to systematically catalog the skies. Years of minute, careful work; ultimately rewarding, but terribly repetitive and fiddly.

I don’t have much patience for consistent finishing work. And since my last full time job (in 2006!) I haven’t had requirements to finish things, to turn random software experiments into real usable artifacts. And so I have a string of half-finished prototypes not worth showing people. I find that intensely frustrating.

  2013-01-16 18:59 Z