Suited at Stanford

U-haul Review

We rented a U-haul last Sunday, so we could get some furniture that would not fit into either of our vehicles from Costco to our house. The truck worked fine, was mechanically better than in most U-haul experiences I've come across, but the experience of dealing with the rental was very unpleasant.

They asked for a review. I posted the following.

The truck was covered in scratches, paint chips, dents, etc.

The representative at the location was barely polite, gave us forms and told us they meant something other than what was clearly stated on them, told us to mark up the sheet any way we liked to indicate existing damage (impossible with how much there was and how *tiny* things were apparently an issue since a small selection of tiny chips/scratches out of the hundreds present were marked with stickers) rather than using the annotations explicitly called for on the reverse side of one of the forms.

The clipboard I was given to hold while I waited for her to pull the truck around was emblazoned with a diagram telling me just how much U-haul would stick it to me for even tiny problems. That, combined with the terrible condition of the truck, leads me to think that not paying for the SafeMove damage waiver bore a significant risk of being stuck with the cost of pre-existing damage.

If you are going to threaten significant cost of repair charges for even tiny damages, you need to *actually repair* your trucks so that marking up the documentation with pre-existing damage isn't an impossible task.

We needed the truck, and so given our I think very real concern over being defrauded, we more or less had $14 extorted out of us.
Ad Hoc Salad

Blue Bottle Coffee - AGLAGLAGL

After feasting on delicious Smitten ice cream and stopping in to Miette on a recommendation of several chefs (no small recommendation, but we have yet to try our yield) across the street, and before stopping in to Fatted Calf Charcuterie (which we just happened to park right outside -- and, well, charcuterie! How could we not stop in?), I dragged my dear wife and daughter on a (very short) pilgrimage to the famed Blue Bottle Coffee just half a block from Smitten.
From left to right: The Blue Bottle Coffee kiosk/storefront on Linden; the Blue Bottle Coffee logo; the artfully crafted beverages I purchased.
I had heard great things about it, but I am not really much of a coffee drinker and when I do drink coffee it's generally with lots of milk and sugar or syrup(s). I wanted to try it in relative purity, however, so ...

I had a macchiato to start with. Served traditional style(?) in an espresso cup. I believe it's just espresso and foam, no milk or anything. It was AMAZING. Like, really, unreservedly delectable. It was served at a temperature that was drinkable for me (really unusual), it hadn't a hint of bitterness, and it was just, well, revelatory. I could drink those ALL DAY.

Then I had (ordered at the same time) a mocha and also tried a little hot chocolate (made with Tcho chocolate) that Lori and Vera shared. The mocha was wonderful. The hot chocolate was *really* good. Overall, though? Macchiato wins! Perhaps just because it was so much better than I expected.

If we had a Blue Bottle Coffee in the building where I work, I'd be climbing up the walls from drinking macchiatos all day long. Oh, and broke.

Heck, I might never sleep again.

From left to right: A series showing my 2-year-old daughter enjoying some Blue Bottle Coffee Tcho hot chocolate and her reactions. =)
Ad Hoc Salad

Smitten Ice Cream, San Francisco - Delicious!

Today, we drove to San Francisco, met up with some folks from Grubly and tried Smitten ice cream from their brand new store (? stand? kiosk?) in Hayes Valley where they make ice cream to order using liquid nitrogen and pretty spiffy machinery of their own design.
From left to right: The Smitten store/logo from the side; the strawberry ice cream; the vanilla ice cream. The salted caramel ice cream was so good that I forgot to take a picture of it.

The strawberry was so-so according to my wife, who decided the reason it tasted a bit yoghurty/sour was because the strawberries used were not quite ripe enough for her tastes. Our 2-year-old daughter enjoyed it, however, and others really liked it so it may just be that my wife is especially sensitive to that flavour profile.

The simple vanilla[1], however, was really, REALLY good. Really quite wonderful. Sweet, light[2], creamy. YUM.

The salted caramel was too caramely for my wife's tastes (her opinion: It was not caramel-flavoured ice cream, it was caramel in ice cream form, and if she had wanted caramel it might have been good, but she wanted ice cream and didn't think it fit the bill). Her view, however, was in the notable minority. I thought it was awesome. I loved how richly caramely it was, and that there was a noticeable amount of salt without overdoing it.

I would love to try some of their other flavours. I hope they will at some point expand the number of flavours on offer each day, post what flavours they will be serving each day on-line, in advance, or open another one closer to home! Otherwise, it's a long way to travel from Fremont to see if they have flavours I'm interested in trying. If I am already in San Francisco for some reason, however, I can definitely see stopping by for a spot of ice cream.

My wife hopes they have some ice cream with mint (not peppermint; not spearmint; mint--standard mint) some day. [3] So, if anyone from Smitten is reading this ... please make ice cream with mint, not peppermint, and please let us know when you do! :-)

While I certainly cannot complain what with the free vanilla, their portion control was rather haphazard. My wife's strawberry was a giant scoop which was probably larger than intended, but my salted caramel just about peeked above the top of the cardboard cup. I saw a lot of rather varied scoop sizes. You certainly don't need to use a scale to make sure nobody gets an once more than they paid for but it might be nice to have just a little bit more regularity. Quantity is by no means the most important thing, so do not take this as a strong criticism. Only a mild observation on a area with some possible room for improvement.

Overall? Two enthusiastic thumbs up! Loved it. Wish it were closer to home.

From left to right: Smitten Ice Cream drew quite a crowd, only a few of them Grubsters on this very pleasant San Francisco afternoon; the menu!

[1] ... of which we got a kids' size serving (3oz) free as there was one to spare that Robyn, the owner/founder did not want to go to waste.

[2] Not in the low-fat sense!

[3] She finds it frustrating how almost every ice cream (from lowly store-bought up to boutique shops with lines half way up the block) which purports to contain "mint" is in fact peppermint. This used not to be the case. I have to say I share her dislike of this trend. I like peppermint more than she does, but it should be labeled peppermint, not mis-labeled mint. Yes, it is one of the mint family, but "mint" on its own traditionally refers to one specific variety of mint (as used in creme de menthe).
Suited at Stanford

HDHP / HSA experiment 2011

This year, for various reasons, I opted for the HDHP (High Deductible Health Plan) health insurance, which is to say a plan which pays nothing until you've satisfied a hefty deductible but (1) I pay no employee contribution for, (2) makes me eligible to have and make contributions to an HSA (Health Savings Account) and (3) in addition to my being able to make pre-tax contributions to my HSA, gives me an additional monthly contribution from my employer. What this means is that I trade the expense of premiums and benefit of low costs (copays, etc.) for care ... for no (employee-funding of) premiums and an account which allows me up to a certain point to pay for medical expenses tax-free (Federal, anyhow). If you end up spending the rather large deductible, the plan then cuts in and pays even better than a regular PPO, but if you hit just the wrong spot (enough bills to hit around the deductible amount but not enough to start saving you money due to the better pay-out rate) it could work out worse, financially. An additional down-side is that there's more stuff to keep track of and manage for tax purposes.

My experiment in which I am both scientist and subject (uhoh) has got off to a somewhat rocky start.

I elected an additional employee contribution, and both employer and employee contributions show up on my twice-monthly pay slips, but until today (yes, 45 days into the year) not a single dollar of that actually arrived in my HSA bank account, so no funds were yet available from which to pay expenses. So, now, finally there's funds in there and I could start to pay bills.

Now I have additional stuff to figure out -- which is to say: What can I pay from my HSA? I know what kind of expenses, but what about when they are incurred? The IRS publication I read makes it sound like I can have a qualifying distribution from the account for expenses incurred since the date the HSA was established, which I read as meaning the funds didn't have to be in the HSA when I went to the doctor in order for me to be allowed to use them to pay the doctor's bill. There's a catch, however. Due to frustrating delays related to ... I'm not sure what ... I wasn't able to open my HSA until late January, and it sure reads to me like the date the account was established is what matters, not the date I was eligible to contribute to an HSA (i.e. January 1st, the first day of coverage under the HDHP). This would be unfortunate, since we did have some expenses in early January. :/ I'm not much looking forward to trying to get straight answers from either our finance people at my company (this is more specialized detail than I honestly think they can be expected to know), the benefits people my company uses, or the HSA bank.

So far this experiment has not been a terrible failure, but it's not been by any stretch of the imagination a resounding success.
Wedding Reception

Lest it seem...

Lest it seem like I never post unless I'm complaining about something, look, a post which isn't complaining about anything!

The reason my past two posts have been complaints about corporate misdoings is not that I never have anything else to say but because I've been so insanely busy with an unusually arduous work-load at work (the for-money kind) plus the job of having a toddler daughter (which while immensely rewarding is also utterly exhausting and leaves little to no free time) ... such that it takes a lot for me to push posting on LiveJournal to the top of my priority queue, and about the only thing that does that is when I have something that needs to be published so a company might take note of it.

My apologies for my LJ being so skewed in the past year or so.
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Suited at Stanford

Chase (bank) customer service huge mess

I should begin this by saying that in the past I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience with Chase credit card services and checking/deposit accounts, so this experience is in stark contrast to my expectations...

I called with odd issue with my Chase on-line account (related to adding an extant but not yet listed card to it) to Chase customer service.

The rep spent a while doing something and talking about two userids (see further below -- I was clear with her about the one I actually use vs. the one that shouldn't really even exist), then said she had to transfer me to another dept. I sat on hold for ages.

During hold time, I tried to log in to my on-line account. It failed with an obscure error (1300).

Eventually rep picks up in "Internet department". I begin explaining. Part way through, I find I've been dropped out to the exit survey. So, now I have no access to my on-line account, I'm worse off than I started, and I just got hung up on.

I call back, tell new rep situation. She says she'll put me through to the Internet department.

Eventually (after yet more hold time) get through to rep who doesn't hang up on me but cannot fix it and says as far as she can see my on-line account was DELETED ...

I'm left with an alternate on-line account which only exists because of the merge with WaMu and which I've never before used with, has a different incomplete subset of my accounts visible, and does not have all of the stuff I've customized in my account over the past 7 years.

Apparently I'm meant to just accept this and use the alternate userid and set everything up again.

No way. Not acceptable. I have the direct # to call for the department tomorrow morning, thence to ask to speak to a supervisor. I expect them to do something about this giant mess.
California Quarter

Sorting out long distance financial stuff

I woke up at 5:30am today and couldn't sleep, so I made a bunch of calls to Ireland, since it was well within the business day in Ireland still.
  • Canceled an Irish credit card (Bank of Ireland) that I haven't used in years.

  • Discussed my Irish taxes with someone from the Revenue Commissioners. Result: Confirmed that I don't actually have to pay them the EUR 0.40 I was assessed as owing because it's less than EUR 1.00 (I was pretty sure this was the case but the notices no longer explicitly say that). Also, "deregistered" such that I don't have to file an Irish tax return unless I start having an income there again -- woot! (Though I do still need to figure out whether there's some minimum threshold of income there below which I don't have to file, in case AIB resumes paying dividends).

  • Updated my mailing address (well, discussed updating my mailing address, wrote, printed, signed, stamped and mailed a letter to update it) for my current account (checking account) with Bank of Ireland. Um, yeah. They had my old address in San Jose and had all mail to me on hold because they'd had some mail (statements) returned.

  • Discussed, with AIB's credit card services, changing my address (from my Mum's to my actual address in the US) for my AIB credit card, but they wouldn't do it for me (boo!) because I didn't have the expiration date of the card, not actually knowing where the card is -- oops. Must find AIB visa card. Hm.
Still, accomplished a lot before work this morning.
Suited at Stanford

Facebook and idiotic PR privacy claims

Facebook has a history of disregard for users' privacy, and a history of making BS claims about caring about it.

I use Facebook because, in spite of their bad business practises, it is too useful to me for keeping in touch with friends and family, hearing about their lives and sharing things about my own with them.

Today, an executive from Facebook (Elliot Schrage) "answered" questions on I say answered in quotes because as you might expect he skirted around the questions and said what he wanted to rather than truly answering many of them.

In response to a user's question about why they can no longer limit what strangers see about them to almost nothing and why even their interests now have to public, Schrage said:
Joining Facebook is a conscious choice by vast numbers of people who have stepped forward deliberately and intentionally to connect and share. We study user activity. We’ve found that a few fields of information need to be shared to facilitate the kind of experience people come to Facebook to have. That’s why we require the following fields to be public: name, profile photo (if people choose to have one), gender, connections (again, if people choose to make them), and user ID number. Facebook provides a less satisfying experience for people who choose not to post a photo or make connections with friends or interests. But, other than name and gender, nothing requires them to complete these fields or share information they do not want to share. If you’re not comfortable sharing, don’t.
Either the man is stupid or disingenuous or both. It is quite clear to anybody with half a brain that the choice to SHARE is separate from the choice about WITH WHOM to share. "Oh, if you don't want to share then don't share!" is a monumentally stupid reaction to the question, and the command that people make a conscious choice is also a red herring. Yes, people choose to join Facebook ... but I doubt the reason for that has anything to do with being able to see random strangers' interests ... and for Facebook to flippantly tell people that they shouldn't share (with their friends/family) if they don't want to publish the information to the world is to totally ignore the entire point of the question/criticism. The fact that you can choose to opt out of a significant channel of information about the lives of your friends and family is not a justification for user-hostile privacy (lack of) choices.

Then, further down, there's this claim:
Everything is opt-in on Facebook. Participating in the service is a choice. We want people to continue to choose Facebook every day. Adding information — uploading photos or posting status updates or “like” a Page — are also all opt-in. Please don’t share if you’re not comfortable. That said, we certainly will continue to work to improve the ease and access of controls to make more people more comfortable. Your assumption about our assumption is simply incorrect. We don’t believe that. We’re happy to make the record on that clear.
... which would be hilarious if he weren't saying it with a straight face and expecting people to believe it. There have been so many cases in the past year where Facebook have quietly started making things public or allowing access to one's information in subtle ways without any notice, e.g. the fact that they quietly made it possible to search for anybody's profile by e-mail address (allowing harvesting of real names, etc., to go with addresses if you had a list thereof -- their claims of attempting to recognise misuse of the feature were rather pathetic) and last week the revelation that visiting certain sites had allowed apps to be added to your Facebook account silently, without confirmation or notification.

Lastly, there is this:
It turns out that less than 20 percent of users had filled out the text fields of this information. By contrast, more than 70 percent of users have ‘liked’ Pages to be connected to these kinds of ideas, experiences and organizations. That is the primary reason we offered the transition — because it reflects the way people are using our service already. While we see tremendous benefit to connecting to interests, we recognize that certain people may still want to share information about themselves through static text. That’s why we continue to provide a number of places for doing this, including the Bio section of the profile. In these places, just as when you share a piece of content like a photo or status update, we give you complete control over the privacy of the information and exactly who can see it. However, we know we could have done a better job explaining all of this and you can expect to see new materials on the site soon. I’m sorry we didn’t do a better job.
A ridiculous justification for a ridiculously lame implementation. They didn't "offer" the transition. They presented users with "we're going to make it public ... or you can delete it". Offering, which they could have done, could have involved offering you a list of your schools/employers and offering you the option for each of having it linked to a profile and making that connection public or have it remain a plain text string (it is really not hard from a database perspective to have the elements of a list be either a plain text string or a link to an entity). Saying you can use your bio to share the information in plain text form is a huge step backwards in usability and means someone (that you do want to permit to do so) looking for that info has to scrounge around looking to see if you've listed, say, your jobs somewhere other than in the, uh, section for jobs. How unhelpful!

Facebook is so huge that they don't really need to listen if they piss off a mere million or so users. This sort of P.R. BS is not really going to satisfy the users who are annoyed, but it might serve to make the users who are blindly accepting of their nonsense think they are trying. Frustrating.
Suited at Stanford

Medical Insurance Double Coverage - JUST SAY NO!

It all began with some bad advice. We were advised by an administrator at NICU put our daughter on both our medical insurance plans so that our out of pocket amount for NICU[1] would not be huge[2].

It turns out that that is not how double coverage works[3]. Secondary typically only pays <what they would have paid> - <what primary paid>, so if primary paid as much as or more than the secondary would have, the secondary just takes your premiums and does nothing with them[4].

In addition to the secondary taking your premiums money and giving small or no benefits for it -- in our case, for a couple of weeks over a year -- both insurance companies now in theory perform "Coordination of Benefits" according to formulae established in your policy documents, but in practice it's taken us well over a year to even start to understand their formulae and most of the time they can't even figure out which of them is primary[5].

So ... for each thing which would normally be 1 bill, 1 EOB, and a payment from you for whatever's left, you end up with 5-20 bills[6], 2-20 EOBs[7] and for a substantial subset thereof, 1-30[8] phone calls to 1-3 organisations[9], taking up many hours of your time trying to figure it out and argue it, and causing indescribable quantities of stress far beyond the removal of your dependent from one of the policies.

In addition to this, if you have a Medical FSA... you rely on EOBs to prove how much you may claim (what you owe, officially[10]). When you get EOBs from the secondary on which none of the numbers except the original billed amount match, it is very hard to show from the combination of primary EOB and secondary EOB what the final patient payment due was. This involves either more back-and-forth between you and your insurance companies or having to avoid claiming the more weird ones and hoping you have enough simple ones to use up your FSA. Building claims for reimbursement from your FSA becomes a months-long, soul-crushing battle even if your FSA administrator company is user-friendly and super-easy to deal with (which I have always found mine to be[11]).

Things I am incalculably grateful for:
  • For 2010, we each have only one insurance company!!! YAY!
  • My 2009 FSA has been well and truly claimed, drained, justified by more dollars of expenses than can be paid out so there is no question of my having received any funds from it erroneously.
  • The only unresolved bill is from December 2008 and so I don't have to worry about FSAs.
In summary ... don't do it. Don't be tempted by double coverage. Really. In addition to wasting around $800, I believe I have spent quite literally hundreds of hours of my time (which one could argue is worth a lot more than $800), as has my wife (to a lesser degree) and has given me at least as many grey hairs (figuratively) as my daughter has; that is to say, gigantic amounts of stress for all concerned.


[1] Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
[2] It turns out it probably would have been somewhere a bit north of $1000 with only one insurance plan, so not horrendous.
[3] ... but it took us 16 months to ascertain the degree to which this is true.
[4] Unless your primary insurance sucks, in which case why not only get the other one (unless primary is free)?
[5] ... which is a simple formula.
[6] ... because you keep getting bills while the service provider and two insurance companies screw around. One or both of the insurance companies will usually not have received anything, or will have muddled whether they're primary or secondary, or will have otherwise have royally screwed up their calculation.
[7] Every time they screw up an EOB, or you think they screwed one up, you end up with re-issued EOBs, often recombining different sets of services into new and confusing groupings of services from different months and different providers into multi-page EOB hell.
[8] I may be low-balling this.
[9] Two insurance companies and one provider. Oh, and one visit to somewhere can result in hospital fees and separately billed physician's fees -- potentially blossoming into 5, 10, 15, 20, ... different services and 2, 3, 4, 5 different providers, so I'm not really going in to the full horror here.
[10] What you paid (a cheque or a credit card statement/receipt or whatever) is not proof of what you should have paid. The final arbiter of that, for tax purposes (and since it is pre-tax dollars, you must be able to prove that you spent them validly on medical costs incurred during the plan year or grace period) is an EOB.
[11] Others have had problems with the on-line service or have complained about them not processing things or not registering receipt of things. I'm not sure why, but in all the (many) claims I've made, they've always been quick and efficient and when I once had a very small issue it was quickly solved.