Saturday, April 16, 2005

Who Wants to be an Earth Space Scientist?

A Tale of Two Headlines

On today, I saw two headlines.

Man Charged in Mass. Killing
Utah Man Admits He Killed Wife

Now, I don't know if it's because "Killing" and "Killed" were on top of each other and my brain likes to switch words around, but I read this.

Man Charged in Mass. Wife Killing
Utah Man Admits He Killed Wife

A mass wife killing? Only in Utah.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Spring May Finally Have Set In

Thursday, April 14, 2005


I feel like I’m not doing my duty as a blogger by not linking to outside websites on a more regular basis. I think this stems from the fact that I’m used to typing things and saving them to my harddrive, where nobody will see them. Research and referencing were unnecessary, especially since I was just venting. Now I have standards to live up to.

I also realize that I have focused more on the “angers” than the “amusespart of my mission statement. So here you go. Have a nice day.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Coca-Cola marinade

After watching a Mythbusters episode where they tested all kinds of myths about Coca-Cola, including the idea that it could disolve a steak (it didn't, but they said it felt really tender), I wondered what it would be like to marinate some chicken in Coke. But I wanted to check to make sure I wasn't setting myself up for a bad tummy ache, so I did a search for Coca-Cola marinade recipes and found this site. Coke, it's not just for breakfast anymore.

Spring and Fall

Here's a nice pic of a cherry blossom tree from this weekend.

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This one I took while driving down I-64 last fall. Don't worry, I didn't look through the view finder. I just kind of pointed the camera foward, clicked, and put the camera down. Less hazardous than talking on the phone and driving.

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21st Century Parent

The lead in that I clicked on for this article read “Surrogate mother of quintuplets declines payment.” When I saw that, the first thing I thought was “She was going to sell them?” I was expecting to read an article about a woman who was pregnant with quints and had been planning to put them up for adoption (because my mind totally ignored the word “surrogate”). Instead, I find an article about a woman who had planned to carry one child for a childless couple who found herself carrying five children for them.

My initial impression and the real situation sent my brain in an odd direction. What if you could carry babies from multiple couples at once? The biology of it seems off to me – someone’s immune response is bound to react to someone else. Plus, the chances of all zygotes becoming successful pregnancies is very low (otherwise, there would be a lot more of these kinds of pregnancies in the news than there already are). But it just puts a whole new spin on the phrase “baby factory”.

Then I got to thinking about surrogate mothers in general and the complicated definition of “parent” that modern technology is giving us. Will surrogate mothers become more and more common as time goes on? Would a career-minded woman who also wants to have children pay someone else to have her kid for her so she doesn’t have to miss as much work? And even if surrogate mothers are only used when the biological mother cannot physically carry the child, there are other problems.

Let’s say there’s a problem during the pregnancy and the surrogate’s life is put at risk by continuing the pregnancy. Do the future parents have the right to force her to continue? Now let’s say the pregnancy results in a healthy baby. There are some strong emotions that come from birthing a baby. Even if the child is not genetically hers, the surrogate mother may feel attached to it. And now you’re going to take the baby away from her at what is probably the peak of those emotions. Doesn’t sound healthy to me.

Now, let’s look at the maximum legal nightmare – a child with 6 parents. First, a set of parents who want to adopt the child. Next, the two genetic donors of the child. Then, a donated egg for the merged genetic material to live in (who’s mitochondrial DNA will become part of the child). And lastly, the surrogate mother who carries the child. Who has the most parental rights? There are now three biological parents, a birth mother, and two adoptive parents. What if one of the genetic parents or the surrogate decides that they want the baby? I can’t wait to see that headline. Welcome to the 21st century.

Health Care

Fareed Zakaria recently wrote about how the cost of healthcare is driving up the cost of employing people in the United States and is driving jobs away. While I’ve heard the argument before, I’m surprised more people haven’t latched onto it. Maybe it’s because Democrats are squeamish about arguing that something that is a burden on corporations could negatively affect average people. Maybe it’s because Republicans don’t want to come to the conclusion that Zakaria has, which is that a universal healthcare system is good for business.

Unfortunately, universal healthcare is not the panacea that many want it to be. Yes, healthcare costs are out of control, growing much, much faster than inflation. But a universal healthcare system like, say, Canada’s, would cripple the booming biotechnology business in this country. Why? Canada has made a compromise – to make basic care available to all citizens, advance care and the latest drugs are not available to anyone. As Americans travel north to get cheaper versions of drugs that have been on the market for 10 years, Canadians travel south the get things like chemotherapy, dialysis, and drugs that have been on the market for less than 10 years. And they, like many other countries with universal coverage, have negotiated with drug companies for lower prices. The money that drug companies can’t make in other countries is made up for in the United States. If the U.S. goes universal coverage (which would probably involve negotiating lower prices for drugs), pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies would not be able to afford research because they wouldn’t make a decent profit, if any, when they were done.

There are certain aspects of healthcare that should be universal. There is a minimum level of care that provides a benefit to society as well as to the individual. For instance, universal vaccinations. It is better for everyone to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella, and other infectious diseases than to risk having an epidemic of those diseases. Also, it is better for society in general that emergency rooms don’t check to make sure you have insurance before treating you, so ER’s are required to take you, insurance or no (although, there have been problems where insurance companies require that you call your primary care physician before going to the ER or they won’t cover it, leaving you with a hefty bill that you wouldn’t have had to pay if you hadn’t had insurance at all). But society needs to pick its limited. Canada chose it’s limits and is having problems. Australia seems to have struck up a nice balance, since they have a form of universal healthcare but also have a burgeoning biotech industry.

As to the cost of healthcare itself, there are several problems. First, biotech companies have a limited amount of time in which to make up for the cost of developing a drug or medical device. But because the FDA requires years of trials and biotech companies generally want to patent their technology before going into the trial stage, the amount of time a device or drug is on the market before a patent expires is small, especially when compared to innovations in other fields. Second, lawsuits are putting hospitals and doctors in a bad position, driving up the cost of their malpractice insurance, which drives up the cost of the care they provide, which drives up the prices insurance companies pay for healthcare, which drives up the price of health insurance. The medical industry could curb some lawsuits by getting rid of troublesome doctors earlier and the court system could curb some more by discouraging some of the less credible cases from getting very far. Third, I think HMO’s, which were originally intended to drive down healthcare costs, are actually driving them up. When I was getting allergy shots once a week in Richmond, my co-pay was $20. So I asked my allergist if there was any way to get a cheaper price. He said I could pay $11.75 a week if they didn’t file a claim with my insurance company. That tells me the hassle and paperwork involved in dealing with insurance companies is making the problem of inflated healthcare costs worse, not better. Paperwork, by the way, is a huge problem in the medical field. Some is necessary to keep track of the patient’s history, some is for insurance, some is for legal reasons, and some new HIPPA regulations regarding the privacy of medical records have added to the list of things that medical institutions are required to keep track of (ironically, HIPPA was meant to reduce paper work).

I think, when it comes right down to it, healthcare is expensive because it’s so complicated – and not just in the sense that the human body is complicated. There are so many people and organizations trying to make money off of heathcare – from doctors to lawyers to pure businessmen – that the shear weight of it all is bound to make it expensive. And because it is so complicated, there is no easy fix.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Customer Service Rant

Can someone please, PLEASE tell me what I’m doing wrong? My computer problem was only one of many incidents involving companies not delivering on promised services and/or ripping me off. Here’s the list.

NTelos. NTelos was my cell phone provider before I moved to Maryland. I bought a phone in Maryland and signed a contract with Cingular a few days after starting my new job. That weekend was MLK weekend and I drove back to Richmond to pack more of my stuff. While I was there, I physically walked into an nTelos store to cancel my plan. I was told the phone would work for three more days – until the end of the billing cycle.

The next month, I got two cell phone bills – one for Cingular and one for nTelos. I noticed that Cingular billed me for the month ahead. I checked the nTelos bill and, sure enough, so did they. Except they shouldn’t have. I had canceled before the end of the previous billing period. I called and asked them why they had billed me. They said the plan had not been canceled until the Thursday following MLK day - four days after I had walked into the store in Richmond. I explained that I had canceled my plan by going to a store in Richmond and that I had not been in Richmond that Thursday, nor the previous day, nor the previous day. So something had to have gone wrong on their end. Since it wasn’t my mistake, they should adjust my bill. The customer service rep filed a dispute for me and said I would be notified within 72 hours of their decision.

The decision? They did not receive the cancellation from their store until that Thursday. They believed the store and not me, even though I could have produced about ten witnesses who would verify I was a 3 hour drive from Richmond on the day in question. If I wanted to pursue the matter further, they said, I would have to call the store in Richmond directly.

I did. I had to describe which seat I had walked up to when I had gone into the store. They said they would check and call me back. They called back and left a message that said that my bill would be adjusted and I no longer owed the extra month.

Problem, though. I had made several roaming calls while searching for apartments, which meant I still owed them something – I just didn’t know what. I called to ask. They said they didn’t know – the bill wouldn’t be adjusted until the end of the billing cycle. I was told to call back the day after my bill was due. “Won’t I be charged a late fee?” I asked. I was assured that they had a grace period during which they would not charge me.

I called the day after my bill was due. The bill still had not been adjusted. I was told I would be contacted by someone assigned to my case the next day. I wasn’t. After a few days, I called again. The bill had finally been adjusted, and sure enough, I had been charged a late fee. This was nearly two months after I had orignially disputed the bill and I was in the middle of the computer fiasco, so I just decided to pay the bill over the phone right then and there because I didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

Cingular. There was the whole cutting out in the middle of my conversations with tech support thing. But there has also been the problem of the rebate. I was told when I bought the phone that I would get a full rebate. The form (supposedly) had already been filled out. I just needed to sign it and mail it along with the proof of purchase to the given address. I bought the phone on maybe the 10th or 11th of January and mailed in the rebate form the next day.

Late February, again in the middle of my computer problems, I get mail from Cingular saying that I had not properly filled out my rebate form. My phone number had not been filled in. I filled it in and mailed it back.

A few days ago, the check finally came in the mail. But they spelled my name wrong! And it’s not like they put in an extra “p” or something. It was the equivalent a writing a check to Spak Laki instead of Spak Kadi. It’s enough of a screw up that the bank may not take it. Cingular, I have your number! And the not-so-free phone you sold me! And I know how to use them!

Cable guy. When I called the national number for Comcast, they claimed that my building was capable of receiving neither digital cable nor high speed internet. The complex had advertised that they could so get those things, but the customer rep insisted this was the case. I sighed and signed up to have the cheapest cable option installed since I wouldn’t be able to get rabbit ears to work in my apartment. When I finally got off the phone with the cable company, I went to the front desk to let them know that they shouldn’t be advertising that they have high speed internet if it’s merely a coming attraction and not currently available. “No, we have it,” Front Desk Man insisted. “In fact, the local rep is here right now installing digital cable. You can talk to him when he’s done.” As if on cue, the cable guy suddenly appeared, the remnants of his recent installation still in his hands. He assured me that he had just installed digital cable and that high speed internet was also available, so I made an appointment with him for the Monday after my move-in date. Installation was free, so I figured I’d let him set up the internet as well as the cable. The appointment was for 5 o’clock. Monday, at 5:05 (because I’m impatient and I wasn’t sure if some confusion hadn’t been caused by my making an appoint through the national number as well), I called to make sure he was coming. When I called, he said he’d be right over.

The digital cable was ready in about 5 minutes. High speed internet (a plug and play feature, people!) took about two hours. Who knows what he installed on this thing. Whatever it was, it’s gone now. When I got my computer fixed, I hooked up my ethernet card and I was on the internet. Now, was that so hard?

Radio Shack. Never. Going. Back. The first time I went to the Radio Shack near my apartment, I was trying to buy an AC adapter for my Space Invaders game console that my sister had gotten me for Christmas. I had already picked out the adapter I wanted – 6V, 300 mA, per the specs that came with the game - and just needed help picking out the connector. The salesperson took the game console over to some wires that had all the different connectors on them and tried different ones out until he found one that seemed to fit (which wasn’t the right one, but it seemed like the right one, so I don’t know if I blame him for that mix up). He put down the AC adapter I had picked out, pulled a 6V, 800 mA power supply off the rack (which was more expensive), and started back toward the register. “Um, excuse me. But I think the smaller one will be sufficient.” “Oh,” was all he said before he switched back to the one I had chosen. Yes, Mr. Man, I’m not going to let you rip me off.

This is the same store I lugged my computer to during the computer fiasco. Did I mention? Never. Going. Back.

TFN. The lean holder on my car, which I still owe money on, so I won’t name names so much (because I’m paranoid). To get my car registered in Maryland, Maryland needed my original title. I called them up to see where to send the form the MVA had given me. After I was put on hold, they told me to fax the form to a number with a Columbia, MD area code. I asked if I could just mail it, but they insisted on a fax, which costs me 2 dollars at Kinko’s as opposed to the 37 cent stamp I would put on an envelope.

I went to Kinko’s. The fax machine tried to destroy the form, but I managed to tape it back together and try again. I received a confirmation that the fax had been sent. However, when I went into the MVA a couple of weeks later, they had not received my title. When I called TFN, they claimed that they had never received the fax and that a copy of my title had been sent to the MVA after my call, even though I said Original, not Extra Crispy. I insisted on a mailing address this time. She said the fax was meant to expedite the process, but once again, the “faster way” that customer service recommends ends up costing more time than what I originally wanted to do. Destroy! I’m going to get registered tomorrow. Wish me luck!

Renter’s Insurance. Called to get renter’s insurance shortly after signing a lease but before I had moved in. A couple of weeks after I had moved in, I still had not received a bill or any information regarding my covered. So I called to see if there was a problem. They had the wrong address. I corrected it. A couple of weeks later, still nothing. I called again. I finally received information about my coverage today. Nearly four months later.

So, what, am I being too pushy? Not pushy enough? Do I need to get a voice changer so I sound more masculine when I call customer service? Am I expecting too much by expecting companies to actually deliver on advertised services? Why is this acceptable behavior for a business? Why? Why? WHY?


The sun! It burns! Spring has sprung, so I went outside Saturday and Sunday. Now my neck is a deep red along with my nose. Darn these pasty-white vampire genes!

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Cherry Blossoms Blooming

So I went into D.C. today to see the cherry blossoms and use up the roll of film in my camera. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, but the city was flooded with people. I took the metro because there was no way I was driving. D.C. traffic is bad enough on a normal day. But the peak of the cherry blossoms? Crowded metro it is!

The cherry blossoms were beautiful, of course. I tried to get to the Jefferson Memorial, which probably has the best view of them, but it was so crowded that I gave up half way there. Out of curiosity, I also went to something called the Ripley Garden, which is off the Mall, between the art museum and the round building which I think is also an art museum. It was small but very nice, with flowers of every color. It was a nice place to get out of the sun and away from the crowds.

But the Washington Monument! What have they done to you? It is now open to the public, but you have to get tickets at the beginning of the day (8:30 am) on a first come, first served basis. I got there around 2pm, so there was no way I was going to get to go up inside it to take pictures of the cherry blossoms and the Mall from above. All signs of life have been stripped away from around the monument. There are now tacky wooden and chain link barriers lining Jefferson Avenue and everything between them and the monument is dirt except for some trees near the road. Somebody please tell me they’re still working on improvements and that this is just temporary! It was a horrible scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape.


Hmmm. I don't know if it's a particularly good idea to publish an article that I finished writing at 2:30 in the AM. But, I guess I've turned in papers for grades that were finished later than that, so...

How much information is too much information? At what point is so much information available for consumption that it actually ends up decreasing the level of knowledge of the average citizen because they start to filter it all out?

The internet is an incredible tool for finding all kinds of information. You can get perspectives on any given subjects from the MSM (mainstream media) – both conservative and liberal branches, organization websites, government websites, personal websites, and now blogs. Want to know how the invasion of Iraq is perceived in Ireland? Now you can! How is Taiwan reacting to the death of the Pope? Find out! Looking for the anarchist perspective on Social Security? It’s probably out there somewhere. But at some point, it is more work to filter out all of the blatant inaccuracies, biases, and unintelligible ramblings than all but the most devoted information junkie is willing to put up with. People tend to self-bias – they find sites (and television broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, and even particular columnists) they tend to agree with and stick to them. It’s like only ever talking to your friends that you agree with and never talking to anyone whose ideas you are unfamiliar with or whose ideas you have disagreed with in the past. It actually defeats the point of having some much information available for consumption.

Granted, all of this happened before the internet and television and modern technology in general. Friends, after all, are people whose opinions you come to respect if not always agree with. They are people you seek out and see more often than most, like bookmarks (I can see the bumpersticker now: Friends are like bookmarks…). But a strange sense of disconnectedness happens when there is so much information to choose from. When you find enough voices that agree with you to occupy your time, you spend less time listening to other opinions. You have the whole world open to you, but you walk the same streets day after day, rarely venturing beyond. This makes people less likely to understand “how anyone could do X” because they’ve never encountered that perspective. The internet’s lack of physical geography makes it much easier for people to cluster ideologically, creating not debate, but distrust of the other side. Why is this country becoming so polarized on so many issues? Because people have stopped listening because they’ve heard so much they can’t handle it anymore. Instead of feeling open to changing their opinions, they stubbornly clamp down on what feels secure and familiar to save them from being washed away by the flood of information. 24-hour news channels are probably more to blame for that than the internet, since more people consume the information they provide. But the internet does nothing to stem the flow.

And what of the people who are seeking out information so they can make a decision? It’s good to have two or three or even four different sources of information on what a new car will cost, where to get car insurance, what treatments should be used for certain ailments, and so on. But having 4000 sources can be overwhelming. Especially if the first few you look at don’t seem to have what you are looking for.

I don’t know that this information overload really creates a new problem. I think it may simply be recreating a problem that existed before modern technology allowed people to first physically then mentally travel outside of their bubbles. Or it could be that the people who stick to sites they agree with are not the kind of people who would actively seek out differing opinions, but those who do actively seek out differing opinions now have a greater ability to do so.