I ruined Christmas in 1979 with an Atari 2600 gift. I was 7 years old.
The Atari was all I wanted. I started asking for one around Hallowe’en. My single Mom couldn’t possibly afford it. We weren’t poor, but all the money we had went to mortgage and school and we never had much extra for fun stuff. She told me there was no way she could buy it. It was $200, or about $800 in today’s dollars, and by that age I already understood what that meant.
Early December my sister, my older should-have-been-wiser sister, tipped me off that our mother had bought me the Atari. That it would be my Christmas present. I didn’t believe her, so she told me where it was hidden. In a gross dusty back closet in the garage. So when Mom wasn’t home I snuck into the closet and very, very carefully peeked and there was the Atari under some musty old polyester blanket.
I kept the secret for about three days. But I couldn’t contain myself. It was already bought and in the house! Even if Christmas was weeks away, surely I could go ahead and have it now and play it now? What would be the harm? So by my 7 year old logic I told my Mom I knew about the present. And informed her that since I knew about it, she might as well give it to me right then.
That was the second time I can remember my mother outright crying. The first time was two years earlier, when my father died. The third time was a few years later when I was 12 and so upset I told her I hated her and she’d ruined my life and honestly meant it in the moment.
But there in early December 1979 she burst into tears of anger and frustration because her big Christmas plan was ruined. She was so, so mad at me. Of course I couldn’t have my present. In fact since I’d been so naughty I was getting no present at all. She was going to return the Atari and give me nothing.
Sure enough, I had no presents under the tree. A day or two before Christmas she relented, a couple of small boxes appeared. I tearfully asked what had happened to the Atari. "It’s gone. I got you some underwear because, well, you need underwear anyway. You can open it on Christmas Day". I was no longer in a rush.
I felt so terrible. I knew how happy my mother was to have been able to buy that gift for me, how much it must have cost to have saved the money aside to be able to afford it. And then all that generosity and joy was ruined because I peeked at my presents.
So it was a pretty glum Christmas morning. I mean we had our stockings (with an orange in the toe), and candy, and nuts. There were a few boxes under the tree for me. I’d picked out my presents for everyone and they were ready to give, but I didn’t get much joy from that. I was just sad for my lost Atari.
Finally it came time to open presents. And my Mom handed me a small box, a cube, and told me to open it first. Inside was an Atari 2600 joystick! That confused the heck out of me. Then I opened the second box and it was a Combat game cartridge. Then another joystick, and an RF adapter, and then finally my mother took pity on me and hauled the last box out from where it’d been hidden; the Atari console itself, wrapped separately to hide what it was.
Best Christmas ever.
Prescription drugs: they save your life but have completely crazy pricing in the United States. I take a slightly uncommon medication daily. I have insurance with Anthem CA. The medicine costs me $4/day at Walgreen’s. That seemed expensive so I shopped around and found my way to GoodRx, which gave me a coupon for $1/day at the same Walgreen’s. 75% off WTF?
GoodRx has an article explaining how it works. They are a marketing middle-man, a comparison shopping site. They work with several Pharmacy Benefit Managers to get pricing for drugs. Then they pick the PBM with the best price and you use their RxGroup pricing code at the pharmacy. Presumably GoodRx gets a kickback. My Anthem insurance has a PBM that should be getting me good pricing, but GoodRx did better. The drawback is my insurance didn’t even see the purchase, so it does not apply to my deductible. I might be able to fix that with a letter.
A key part of this is that the drug I take is available as a generic. There’s a lot less price flexibility for drugs still under patent. OTOH this exact same generic I take is available from a Canadian or Indian pharmacy for $0.50/day, so US pricing is still unusually high.
Blink Health is a competitor to GoodRx, I have a friend who works there. I think they operate similarly and they have similar pricing for my drug of interest. They really want you to log in though; as near as I can tell my usage of GoodRx was an anonymous coupon with no identifying code.
This post isn’t exactly an endorsement; the whole prescription drug market is so spooky I don’t trust anyone. The real problem is the US’ insane health market, where we pay more for worse outcomes than civilized countries.
My grandmother’s great-grandparents owned a slave. The slave schedules record that they owned a 13 year old girl in 1860.
Leonard and Melvina Ward were born in central Tennessee and early in life moved to East Texas. They had six children. They lived to old age, here is their sweetly romantic gravestone. I think they were farmers and lived pretty well. At least well enough to own a person.
Here is what I know about the person they enslaved. She was 13. She was Black (as opposed to “mulatto”). She was not a fugitive, she had not been freed, and she was not deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic. That’s all Wm P Cornelius recorded in his census. I don’t know her name, where she was born, have no easy way to research her further. All I know is she was 13 and was enslaved by my 3rd great-grandparents.
I like to imagine she’s what my grandmother called “a domestic”, cooking and doing housework. The census records no slave houses, so maybe she even lived in the family house. I’d like to think she lived another 5 years to see her emancipation, then got far away from her captors and lived a happy and comfortable life. That would be about the best outcome for a 13 year old slave girl in Texas in 1860. More realistically she was probably impoverished and lived with little freedom in rural Texas.
Today is Juneteenth, a day of national celebration for the end of slavery. Emancipation was a complicated process that took several years to be enforced. Followed by decades of indentured servitude, poverty, and deprivation for many African Americans. The legacy of slavery lives on, it is one of America’s original sins. I own a piece of that legacy.
See also this blog post
I'm at the State of the Map conference. Two different people here said "I like your blog!" on meeting me. It's so nice to hear it! It's a nice compliment, and encouragement for the writing I've done, and also establishes context for the following conversation.
It also felt terribly retro. The other half of that conversation was "Well it's been awhile.. I don't use RSS any more and with Twitter.." Yeah, I get it, personal blogs are a dying medium.
I'm really on the fence about what to do with this blog. I want to keep it, but I don't post often. I set too high a bar for content quality so I don't post often. (See my secret work blog for what badly edited stuff looks like.) Also the design is depressingly outdated now, not to mention the software. Part of me wants to abandon it entirely but meeting people who like my blog keeps me motivated.
It’s common for tech industry employees to be compensated with stock options. Stock options are complicated and many engineers I know are terribly naïve about how they work. But options are often the most valuable part of an employee’s compensation! This engineer’s guide to stock options is good reading.
Here are some basic questions every owner of stock options should ask their employer. With these answers an accountant can work out the value of the option package and plan a tax strategy.
Many companies are reluctant to answer #2 and #3 (they are equivalent). Trying to keep an employee in ignorance about this is bullshit. Knowing what percentage of the company you own is the only way to evaluate your option package. Companies will generally answer this question if you press hard enough; if they refuse, it is a very bad sign.
Tax strategy is important for several reasons. Early exercising could save you ~20% in taxes later on. But even more importantly, early exercising could save you 100% should you leave the company. Most option agreements include a clause where your options disappear 30 or 90 days after you stop being an employee. If you quit and can’t afford the taxes to exercise those options, you can lose everything. Planning ahead matters.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.