Monday, January 30, 2006

HyperBear is back

We changed Internet providers last year. I forgot to change my e-mail address listed with the domain. So, I didn't receive any "your domain registration is about to expire" messages.

This morning my friend Jason informed me that HyperBear was "silent". I did a quick check and found out that the domain expired yesterday. Long story short, is back on line. Nothing to see, here, folks. Move along....

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The results of my "Politics Test"

I was surfing (John Atkinson's soldier blog, then his wife's blog) and came across this personality test: The test is supposed to tell where you sit on the political spectrum. Here are my results:

You are a

Social Liberal
(80% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(26% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Strong Democrat

Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid
Also: The OkCupid Dating Persona Test

This is anything but a scientific test, of course. There are no control questions. You only have a choice of "strongy disagree", "agree", "disagree", and "strongly disagree", where in many cases I wanted to answer "neutral". It was possible to tell, in every case, how a specific answer would place you (again, see lack of control questions). Some of the questions were poorly worded. (Example: "Do you agree that two consenting adults should be allowed to duel to the death?" You can easily answer "No!" because you don't want the return of "trial by battle" or a country where killing one another is acceptable, but you could otherwise be entirely for presonal liberty. A better question would be, "Do you think it should be legal for consenting adults to commit suicide?")

And, of course, it's biased toward Americans, so non-Americans are going to skew the answers.

The quiz gives you two sets of answers (social and economic), so it understands that people can have different philosophies for economic and social reasons, something neither political party in the U.S., nor all four major parties in Canada, have managed to figure out. However, just like the political parties it lumps your answers into one position on their graphs.

There's also the fact that it tries to plot people onto a two-dimensional political grid. There are many different political grids, as can be seen in the "Political Spectrum" entry on Wikipedia.

For the record, I don't consider myself even a borderline socialist. I don't think socialism works because it only works if people act in the best interest of society. I'm all for the free market system, though I think you need controls over monopolies and cartels, and I think money has too much influence in American politics, but I digress.

That having been said, the quiz is a fun waste of time! Give it a try!

The web site gives you the code to put the above pictures on your blog. There are two other pictures that you get only at the site. I saw what they were using as a background, so here are the other two images they don't give the code for:

This last one is cute, showing someone's guess as to where famous people land on the spectrum. The only person I can't name is the hard-to-see guy in the top, left hand corner Bill O'Reilly. I'm glad to see that I'm closer to Bono and Ghandi than Darth Vader or George Bush!

(Although I'm fairly close to Hillary Clinton. Again, more stereotyping, as you could make a pretty effective case that Bill Clinton — and, by extension, Hillary — were far more fiscally conservative than George "never met a deficit I didn't like" Bush.)

Excess... (Oh, and we're home!)

You know, if you asked non-Americans for a stereotypical image of American excess you'd be hard pressed to come up with a better image than this:

Yes, that's right, it's a stretch Hummer limo. With an American flag painted on it. At a gas station.

Here's another view:

These pictures were taken on January 22 in Dickson, Tennessee.

(I apologize for the quality of the pictures but it poured all day, from the moment we got up until the next morning in Bardstown, Kentucky.)


On an unrelated note, we made it home yesterday evening at 6:30, then turned around and picked up the kids from Alana's ex's place.

Friday night we stayed at a really crappy Days Inn in Nashville, Tennessee, the one near the stadium. Some kids (college students) were smoking weed in a nearby hotel room. The place was in dire need of painting and remodeling. It had two things going for it: it was cheap ($47 for the night) and it was near downtown Nashville. Alana and I had a fun time prowling Nashville. The city needs to take a cue from New Orleans, though, and open the stores until late at night. There were enough people that the tacky tourist places could have done good business that night. Anyway, we enjoyed ourselves and got back to the crappy hotel at a decent hour.

We had planned to go to the Stones River battlefield Saturday morning, but we slept in too late (it was a very stressful week for me, work wise) and I had misjudged how far the battlefield was from Nashville. Instead, we headed straight home. Alana's family in Tennessee are having a reunion later this year, so with luck I'll be able to visit the Chattanooga and Chickamauga battlefield, and perhaps the Stones River battlefield, too.

I may write more about the trip to Kentucky, once some time has past.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Still in Kentucky...

Alana and I are still in Kentucky, which is why I haven't been posting to my blog.

I'm here in Kentucky training clients on our software (and cursing the occasional programmer for buggy programs). The first day was pretty much a waste of time. I took their server with me as we were driving. I was supposed to give him the server Sunday night, but he didn't answer my call. He didn't show up until 9:30 the next morning, and took him until after 1 to get the server up and running... and then there were problems with the network connection! It was almost 4 before we had the system installed, which pretty much killed our first day of training.

The second day of training was almost a waste due to the bugs in a couple of data entry programs. We were way behind by the end of that day. Somehow I managed to cover almost everything by the end of today, all except the reports generated by the system.

I won't say anything more about the system.

I do have to get back into technical writing. I was hired to train and to write the help file, but I've done far more testing than writing. Hopefully I'll be able to get into the writing portion when I return to the office, in those few minutes when I'm not doing support calls!

Anyway, Bardstown, KY is a nice, if dull, town. It doesn't have any chain restaurants that aren't fast food, and it has precious few sit down restaurants at all. There is an interesting looking downtown area, but most of the stores are closed by the time I'm off work. There are a couple of bourbon distilleries, which is the chief attraction for tourists.

Bardstown, though, has something Monroe doesn't have: it's a half an hour from an interesting city! We drove to Louisville on Monday night, and ate at Buckhead Mountain Grill (huge portions and very good food, definitely recommended!). I didn't buy anything at Borders book store (Alana bought a couple of small things, but no books), but I did find a couple of things in a comic and game shop called The Great Escape. I picked up Unseen Masters, a Call of Cthulhu adventure supplement, used. It looks as good as new but it was half the cover price. I also got the expansion pack for the storytelling card game Once Upon a Time called Once Upon a Time: Dark Tales. I'll reviewe this when I get a chance to play it. I wish we had more time to traipse around Louisville, but I worked late Tuesday and we didn't feel like going that far yesterday. Alana is on her way back to the hotel as I write this, as she went to Cincinnati to visit her brother and sister-in-law.

I'm hoping to visit the Stones River Civil War battlefield on Saturday, on our way home. The only thing that could prevent this is the weather. It poured Sunday on our way from Nashville to Bardstown. This stopped us from visiting the Perryville Civil War battlefield, which is only about 20 some odd miles from here. It's just killing me being so close to Perryville and not having the time to visit! Oh, well, maybe next time... there's always the chance our clients will need more training.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Best albums from the last 7 half decades

My blog has been pretty "heavy" recently. Oh, and I haven't posted in a bit, mostly from being stressed out at work and then getting a cold. So, I thought I'd take a different turn this time out.

I originally planned to do regular "living in the CD player" posts, but I haven't done that either. The CD that has lived in the car's CD player from the moment we got it is Green Day's American Idiot. This is an excellent, solid album. While other CDs come and go, this one has remained in the disc changer. I would go so far as to say this is the best album of the last five years.

Of course this is all "in my opinion". I'm sure plenty of other alt-rock fans would disagree, let alone those who prefer other types of music. For me, American Idiot is the first album to come along in a very long time where I didn't want to skip at least one of the tracks.

Of course one could argue that CDs did this. It used to be that a vinyl album lasted no more than about 45 minutes, unless it was a double album. CDs allowed up to 89 minutes. Starting in the 80s, artists started pushing 60+ minutes of material on a CD. Unfortunately, more is not always better. I remember reading about Rush's Signals album. "New World Man" made it to the album in what they called "Operation 3:59". To balance the sides of the album, which was less than 45 minutes long, they needed a song for the second side that was less than four minutes long. They went through their songs and decided on "New World Man". Today, bands can pack more songs, which often means there's more "filler" on the album.

American Idiot doesn't have any filler. The CD wasn't recorded, it was designed, and it shows. I can't get enough of it.

So, this prompted me to think about other albums I loved through the years. For the heck of it, I decided to pick one album every five years. I decided to end the list at 1966 for a couple of reasons. First, I was born in 1962, so 1966 to 1970 marked my first full half-decade on this planet. Second, I don't have any albums earlier than 1966.

Like most such lists, it says more about me (and my taste in music) than about the albums or the artists listed. Here's a brief glimpse at my psyche. Enjoy!
  • 2001 – 2005: American Idiot by Green Day. See above.
  • 1996 – 2000: Silent Radar by The Watchmen. The Watchmen were a band from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Although the band first appeared on Canadian radio in the early 90s, Silent Radar was the first album of theirs that I bought, back in 1999 (it was released in 1998). It's a very solid CD, beginning with their best single, "Stereo", and ending with the haunting "Brighter Hell". It was the first Canadian album I played for Alana, and it has since become "our album". I still tear up at "He's Gone", which is about one of the band members losing their father (I lost my Dad to cancer in 1998). Unfortunately, the Watchmen broke up a couple of years ago.
  • 1991 – 1995: Day For Night by The Tragically Hip. The Tragically Hip is, in my mind, the best rock-and-roll band to come out of Canada. Their sound is unique, which probably contributed to the fact that they never really broke into the U.S. market. That's a terrible shame. 1994's Day For Night is their best album. My two favourite Hip songs ("Grace, Too", which they played on Saturday Night Live, and "Nautical Disaster") are on the record.
  • 1986 – 1990: Hold Your Fire by Rush. Yep, another Canadian album. Rush is an interesting band in that they regularly changed their sound and style. Many die hard Rush fans don't like their stuff from the mid to late 80s, as they went more synthesizer and lost some of their hard rock edge. You'll quite often see Hold Your Fire on a list of "most hated" Rush albums. Tough, I love it. The music is layered and complex without being overpowering. More importantly, the lyrics just call to me. "Time Stand Still" is a song you really only get after you turn 30, and it makes more sense the older you get. "Second Nature" is as apt today as when the album came out in 1987. "High Tide" is the only rock song I know dealing with evolution.

    (A very close second is Life's Rich Pageant by REM. I listen to Hold Your Fire more often than Life's Rich Pageant, but on any given day I'd swap places between Rush's album and the REM CD.)
  • 1981 – 1985: Avalon by Roxy Music. This album is one of the most haunting, beautiful, and romantic albums ever made. Roxy Music, known for art-rock beginning in the 70s, peaked with Avalon, their most successful album (released in 1982). This isn't an album you can easily describe. You just have to listen to it, preferably with your significant other.

    (Another hard choice. I almost picked Let's Dance by David Bowie. This 1983 album was Bowie's biggest success, bringing him into the mainstream. It's his most commercial album, but it's also his most consistent. I can still listen to the whole thing without cringing, which isn't an easy thing to say when you talk about albums from the early 80s. While I love "Cat People", I wish I had the version from the film of the same name, which is markedly different from the version on Let's Dance.)
  • 1976 – 1980: The Wall by Pink Floyd. This is my favourite album of all time. It was a significant reason for me failing first year calculus in university (I learned, to my dismay, that I can't study while listening to The Wall). I really disliked the album when I first heard it. I bought it for "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2", after all. Having sunk $13 in the thing, I decided I'd best listen to it at least another time. It was on this second listening that I recognized the musical themes and began figuring out the album's story. By the third listening, I was hooked. This is the only album I've purchased more than two times (in this case, 5: the original on vinyl; a replacement for the original after I wore the first one out; the soundtrack from the film, also on vinyl; the two disc CD; and the live version of the album, also on CD).
  • 1971 – 1975: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Dark Side of the Moon holds the record for the number of weeks on Billboard's album chart (741, 591 of which were consecutive). Some have suggested that it is the second best selling album of all time (worldwide; 17th in the U.S.), and an estimated one in 14 residents of the U.S. under the age of 50 owns the album (I have two copies of it on CD, and I think I still have it on vinyl). Technically it's the best album Pink Floyd ever did, but I still give a slight edge to The Wall just out of personal preference.
  • 1966 – 1970: Abbey Road by The Beatles. The first song I ever "got into" was "She Loves You" by The Beatles, when I was incredibly young. My Mom finally broke the record just to saver her sanity (I would cry as it ended, forcing her to play it again). So, which of the last half of The Beatles' career do you pick for this time period? Some would say The White Album, but there are several tracks I just can't listen to. ("Number nine, number nine, number nine..."). Others would say that it would have to be Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and that was my second choice. Magically Mystery Tour is surprisingly relevant for today. In the end, I have a slight preference for Abbey Road.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I-20 to be demolished between Vicksburg and Meridian?

While at lunch I saw video on CNN of President Bush speaking in Mississippi. I noticed that Monroe, Louisiana was prominent in the picture to the left of the president. I thought (like all residents of this backwater town), "Wow! Monroe and the president are in the same image!" So, I figured I'd check out the CNN web site for the picture and maybe post it to the blog. Here's the picture:

See, there's Monroe to the left of the president's head! It's west of the Mississippi and all those tributaries leading to it. People now have proof that Monroe exists! (Note: there's no reason to bother coming here to confirm that fact...)

It wasn't until I found the image that I discovered something disturbing: Interstate 20 is missing, from Vicksburg to somewhere behind the president's head! The interstate should show up as a line running from Vicksburg east to Jackson, MS, and then from Jackson to Meridian.

At first I thought this was maybe some sort of Photoshop trickery, but I found video that showed more of the map. Here's a picture from another angle:

They've erased a huge chunk of I-20!

Now maybe someone just figured out where the president would be standing and thought it best to erase the line. That way it wouldn't look like like squiggles of arcane energy or some sort of mind altering snake were radiating from his head. (Otherwise viewers might mistake him for Dick Cheney. *rimshot*).

Or maybe this is a scoop and the feds are planning to demolish most (but not all) of I-20 in the middle of Mississippi.

Remember, if it comes out in a couple of years that they've torn up I-20, you heard it here first!

First Week of Medicare Part D "a disaster" in some states

"The opening week of the Medicare prescription drug benefit was a disaster." So said Judith Stein, executive director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy Inc. Not all states are having major problems with Medicare, but apparently Louisiana is one of the states where things aren't going well.

In Louisiana, the poor and elderly were getting prescriptions paid through the state's Medicaid plan. Now this has been taken over by Medicare. The take over has not been smooth.

This is from an article on the Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper site (found at

The problems reported by Department of Health and Hospitals Medicaid field staff include:
  • Participating pharmacy plans said CMS [Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services - Allan] has not sent them the lists of approved enrollees.

  • Informational letters CMS sent to Medicaid recipients apparently didn’t work.

  • “They (recipients) did not understand anything about Medicare Part D (pharmacy coverage) and did not know they were enrolled in a plan, much less which plan,” one staffer wrote.

  • Many callers said they did not receive the CMS notices or new cards, possibly due to disrupted mail service since the storms.

  • Pharmacists are not willing to fill prescriptions even though they can call a phone number to insure medication is dispensed during the first 30 days of the program.

  • Pharmacies are making clients pay for medications and telling them they won’t be reimbursed.

  • Some clients report that their medication “is not covered/too expensive under their assigned plan.”

That last point is exactly what Alana, my wife, said she was discovering during the sign up process. She's been swamped with Medicare calls this week, her first full week back to work this year (she took last week off). My boss has a friend who's a pharmacist in Shreveport, and he says the plan is a huge mess. The pharmacist said that they are running into people who, suddenly, discovered the plan they picked didn't cover a particular prescription. This was Alana's biggest fear, and one that seems to have been entirely well founded.

Louisiana isn't the only state having problems, but it's not universal throughout the country. New Hampshire, South Dakota, North Dakota, Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have announced plans that they will pay for prescriptions for affected seniors until the mess is sorted out. (Louisiana, which is already reeling from Katrina, is unlikely to be able to afford this kind of help.) There's no guarantee the federal government will pick up the tab later, either.

Arizona found that almost 20,000 low income people who were supposed to be automatically enrolled in the system were not. New Jersey spent $4.4 million of its own money January 6 until January 10 covering people due to Medicare screw ups.

Not all states report major problems. Florida, Georgia, and Wyoming think the process is going relatively smoothly, or feel that — as yet — no state response is needed.

The full article can be found here:

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

"Truthiness" word of the year!

Here's the whole story:

Truthiness is the word of the year! The official definition:
  • the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.
Or, in other words, "Truthy, not facty".

What you won't read in that article is that the word was invented by Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, one of the few truly brilliant examples of satire ever to grace American televison.

Last night, Stephen Colbert berated Professor Michael Adams of North Carolina State University (actually, Visiting Associate Professor) for mischaracterizing his word, and Associated Press writer Heather Clark for failing to list him as the originator of the word. For these sins Adams was "put on notice" (by having his name added to the On Notice board) and Clark was "dead to me" (by having her name added to the "Dead To Me" board).

And why am I even telling you this? You should have seen it for yourself!

(Oh, and my other favourite words of last yere were "cruisazy" and "muffin top". Go read the article to find out their definitions...)

View from the other side

I'm on a mailing list for a company that makes science fiction miniatures games. One of the other participants is John Atkinson, an acerbic combat engineer in the U.S. Army. Since he has similar interests to me game wise, but otherwise he's sort of my antithesis (though I did consider a career in the military at one point) , kind of like my evil twin Skippy.

Anyway, I wish him well on his re-deployment to Iraq. To show that Designated Import is all for equal time, here's the link to his blog:

(For all you liberal blog readers, he tried to show a correlation between liberal, abortion-loving states and declining populations by saying that Massachusetts was one of the few states with a declining population. The first thing I thought of was all the stories I've read about Louisiana's slow growth rate. So, I did a check of the U.S. Census web site and found that there's no correlation between blue states and red states as far as "declining population". I guess John's more about truthiness, and I'm more about factiness.)

(For the record, Masschusetts is listed as 33rd in projected state population increase. Below Massachusetts is Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. The only projected states to decrease population were West Virginia and North Dakota, as well as Washington, D.C.)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Productivity discussions all one sided

I was installing something on a client's computer (the .Net Framework 1.0 service pack 3 from Microsoft, if you must know) the other day. Her web browser popped up with MSN. The feature article was on employee productivity, or more importantly employees stealing productivity. Since I had to wait for the download, and there was nothing else I could do at the moment, I looked over the article for a minute. *grin*

The article was pretty much the standard rant employees stealing productivity from employers due to extra-long breaks, gabbing with co-workers, e-mailing friends, surfing the web, etc. They quote a huge number, as all such articles do, saying that employers in the United States lose something like $178 billion a year due to lost productivity. I can't quote the number; sucks and it's hard to find past articles. But it was something like $178 billion.

The number is reminiscent of those quoted about software piracy, where they multiply the number of stolen copies by their retail price to come up with a huge value; forget the fact that a good chunk of software is stolen because the thief couldn't afford it. Same with this number: it assumes that every minute someone goofs off could be filled by doing more work, which isn't the case.

The article includes the usual "employers are cracking down" threats, and warnings about "web surfing is being monitored". It gives tips on how to not slack off at work (don't be tempted to spend those 15 minutes surfing in the morning, for instance) and how to do your "off time" stuff at home. I wonder what percentage of site visitors read the article from work...

A few things hit me about the article. It assumes that all goofing off is unproductive. Spending five minutes finding out about your co-worker's family is bad. Forget the fact that bonding with co-workers makes for a more efficient team. It also assumes that every human being has the same energy level as everyone else. This is flat-out wrong. Some people can be almost manic in the mornings but drop off considerably in the afternoons. So they goof off at 4:30, big deal; they made up for it earlier that morning. If you're worrying away at a problem at work, taking your mind off it can be more productive. Going for a longer lunch or a short walk can be more productive in the long run.

The article doesn't suggest that you not do work at home, I noticed. They mention nothing about the amount of "relaxation" stolen by employers.

If someone is goofing off, why is their manager not noticing? Shouldn't their productivity show up in annual performance reviews? Well, that's not the point of the article. A good worker could goof off occasionally and still out perform other workers. Since they are as productive as other workers, there slacking doesn't show up. The article wants the worker to live up to their potential. It doesn't mention that seniority often has more to do with compensation than productivity. It doesn't mention that a productive worker might start goofing off when his compensation doesn't reflect that productivity. The article does mention that slackers often miss out on raises, promotions, and choice assignments. There's no scientific analysis accompanying this comment. How many people lost these plums from slacking versus, oh, nepotism, favouritism, and seniority requirements?

This article makes a good point about lost productivity. We could all work more productively. What it fails to mention is that U.S. productivity has been increasing recently at a greater rate than in the last 25 years. Between 1995 and 2000, hourly output in the U.S. grew by 2.5%, about 1% greater than the 20 years before that. However, the numbers for 2001 to 2004 show productivity increasing by 4.1%!

What's even more interesting, and more germain to this post, is that compensation has not kept pace with increases in productivity. Compensation has increased only 37% as much as productivity in the last four years.

Wages are not keeping up with inflation. Compensation (wages plus benefits) has gone up, but largely because employers have to pay more for healt benefits. Companies pay more on behalf of the employee, but the employee has seen the same or fewer benefits. Companies point out they are paying more in compensation, but wages aren't going up to match inflation.

Yet we hear on the television all the time (with absolutely no analysis) that the economy is strong. If it's going strong, why aren't workers seeing the benefits? Where is all the money in this growing economy going? Simple answer: corporate profits.

In the previous 7 business cycles, 23% of corporate sector income was from profit and interest, while total employee compensation accounted for 77% of corporate sector income. In the last four years the split has been 69.7% for profit and interest, and 30.3% for compensation.

You haven't been imagining things. Big corporations are making record profits while you're doing about the same, or a little worse, than last year. I know that's the case for us.

Americans are more productive than folk in other countries. I noticed that moving down here. I worked a 35 hour work week in Toronto, with three weeks holiday per year when I first started working there being pretty common for someone with my level of experience. Even new employees would get two weeks to begin with and three weeks after five years. In Monroe I'm working a 40 hour work week, get two weeks holiday and I don't go up to three weeks for 10 years. This is similar to what I had at Kodak Canada, which followed U.S. rather than Canadian compensation standards: 40 hour week (with only 30 minutes for lunch), two weeks holiday to begin with, and three weeks after seven years (though that, at least, changed to five years).

Workers get much more vacation in Europe than they do in North America. Six weeks a year is pretty close to standard. While I'd love six weeks, I don't know what I'd do with it. It was all I could do to squeeze in almost all of my vacation time last year (and as it is, I carried over a couple of days into this year).

I wonder why doesn't run articles about how American employers could be doing a better job of compensating their employees? I wonder if it has anything to do with Microsoft being one of those corporations making big profits. Gee, a news site run by a big corporation — which stands to benefit from increased productivity — wouldn't be biased, would it?

Where did I get the numbers? The Economic Policy Institute's web site.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Medicare Part D - view from a frontline worker

A couple of years ago the U.S. government finally realized that helping seniors with their prescription drugs might be a "good thing". They came up with Medicare Part D. The federal government, through its Medicare service (this is health coverage for seniors and people with disabilities), will help those enrolled in Medicare with the cost of prescription medicines.

For various reasons (including the fact that the federal authorities in Louisiana are swamped), Medicaid departments (Medicaid is the federally subsidized state government program that helps lower income people with their medical costs) in Louisiana have been helping seniors apply for Medicare Part D. As a result, Alana had to learn how Medicare Part D works. She is now an expert in Medicare Part D, or as close as one can come without going insane. More on this in a little bit, but the following information comes courtesy of her (which is a heck of a lot easier to read than navigating federal web sites and telephone lines).

This is what the richest country in the world came up with:
  • Seniors over 65, or people under 65 with a disability who received Social Security benefits due to their disability (for at least two years), qualify for Medicare.
  • Anyone with Medicare qualifies for Medicare Part D. This allows them to choose an prescription drug plan from a raft of plans offered by private insurers. These plans all have to be approved by Medicare. Each plan has different premiums, different co-pays (where the insured person pays a fee for each prescription) and different types of drugs covered. One plan, for instance, might cover a certain heart medication at a particular dosage, but not the same medicine at a higher dosage. Another plan may cover that drug at the higher dosage but charge a higher premium.
  • All of these Medicare Part D plans come with a $250 deductible, meaning the senior is out of pocket for the first $250 of their drug cost before any coverage kicks in.
  • After the deductible, the senior has a 25% co-insurance up to $2250 total drug cost per year (meaning they add up how much the senior's prescriptions cost at the pharmacy, and the senior is covered until their total hits $2250). The co-insurance means that they pay 25% of the drug's cost, so if the drug cost $100, the senior pays $25. The senior also has to pay the plan's monthly premiums, of course. If the plan has a co-pay (I think most do), they have to pay that, too (usually $5 to $30 per prescription).
  • After the $2250 the senior hits what is called "the big donut hole". The senior pays the entire cost of their medicine from the $2250 total drug cost to $5100 total drug cost. None of this gap amount is covered.
  • After the $5100 total cost, the seniors generally have a 5% co-pay (the best part of the plan, but you can go bankrupt getting there... oh, wait, no you can't, because they changed the bankruptcy laws, too. Damn!).
That's the standard Medicare Part D coverage for average seniors. For low income seniors they have what they call Extra Help. Based on the senior's income and resources, some of the above is covered. They may have their premium covered, they might not have a deductible or they may have a reduced deductible, and instead of paying the 25% co-insurance they might have a maximum $5 co-pay. Usually a low income senior doesn't have to worry about the "big donut hole" either.

Now, here's the really confusing bit. If a senior (or someone with a disability) is enrolled in Medicare they will have automatically "joined" Medicare Part D by May 15 unless they opt out or join before then. The senior has to choose a private insurance plan. They had to choose a plan by January 1 in order to be covered in January. If they did not, they have until the end of January to pick a plan that would start in February. They then have until the end of February to pick a plan that started in March, etc.

By May 15 if the senior still has not picked a plan, and the senior has not opted out of Medicare Part D, they will be "auto enrolled". Medicare will pick a plan for them. Randomly.

I read an article online that suggested that some seniors, if they wait for auto enrollment, could end up paying a couple of hundred dollars more than they could be paying by choosing a plan themselves. *snicker* If only a couple of hundred dollars was all they'd be out...

You see, due to Hurricane Katrina the state of Louisiana was allowed to auto enroll all of its seniors by the end of December. If a senior in Louisiana had not opted out of coverage and had not picked a plan by December 31, 2005, Medicare auto enrolled them in a plan. For once Louisiana is ahead of the curve. This state has already seen what happens with auto enrollment.

Alana spent much of last month (after a one month delay by the feds) helping seniors enroll in a plan. Alana is the regional representative for MPP (the Medicaid Purchase Plan). MPP allows people with disabilities to buy into Medicaid. They don't have to quit working and lose resources to get Medicaid, but at the same time they are paying into the system, so it's not just a "hand out". This is how she learned so much about this plan.

As I said, the Medicaid offices in Louisiana were helping seniors decide what plan was best for them. They didn't have to go to Medicaid for help. There was a telephone number they could call and a web site they could visit (forget the fact that to many seniors a "web site" was a corner of the living room ceiling they couldn't reach to dust). If you call the federal 800 number, you are often told to call a local office. Few in the local offices were properly trained for the complexity of the program, and few local offices could handle the call volume. This is a big reason that Louisiana used state Medicaid employees to aid seniors with a federal program.

Available plans and details were constantly changing. It was only a couple of weeks ago, for instance, that it was decided that Louisiana would auto enroll people by the end of December. Alana learned all she knows about this "on the fly", as did the other state employees. I admit I'm biased being married to a state employee, but from what I saw state agencies and employees went above and beyond the call of duty on this one.

Auto enrollment is a joke. As you may have realized from the above, the various plans offered by insurers have different costs based on the senior's needs (i.e. how much the insurance company will have to pay out). A plan may offer lower co-pays and lower premiums but cover fewer drugs. One plan may be better at covering cancer meds than another plan. The only way to figure out what plan was best for a given senior was to know the senior's income and resources and — most importantly — the prescriptions the senior took. Without this information, auto enrollment is almost meaningless. The feds figure it's "better than nothing" but only just.

Note that at no time did Alana divulge confidential information. What is written below is almost verbatim what I was told. Also note that state employees are prevented from recommending plans. All they can do is explain how much each plan will cost under different scenarios. They simply help the senior make an informed choice. State employees had access to a web application that helped them do this.

A number of seniors Alana saw had decided on a plan based on insurance company literature, but wanted to see if the plan they picked was the best for them. When their full prescription information was entered they were sometimes shocked at the discrepancy between the plan they originally chose and the other plans available to them. One senior was looking at a difference of $1100 a month. Another senior saved $1500 a month. The biggest gap Alana saw was a difference of over $1800 a month. No, I did not add an extra zero there. The biggest gap she saw was more than one thousand, eight hundred dollars.

This is not the out of pocket expense for the drug plan. This is the difference in what the senior would have to pay if they got all of their medications under one plan versus another plan. In almost every case, the difference was due to medicines that were not covered by the plan the senior originally considered. The senior would then have to consider paying more than $1000 a month, or they would have to do without medicine prescribed by their doctor.

These differences are showing up during auto enrollment. Auto enrollment consists of the federal government looking at all the plans that are available in a given area, and then doling them out at random to seniors. It might as well be random because without medical information choosing a plan for someone is useless. Virtually all automatically enrolled seniors will end up having a plan that does not suit them, either because they will get more coverage than they need (and, as a result, pay higher premiums and co-pays) or not all of their medicines will be covered.

There's one last wrinkle. A senior is not forced to pick a drug plan when they turn 65, but if they don't they will be penalized when they eventually do choose a drug plan. The penalty is based on the amount of time they wait before picking a plan. The longer the time, the greater the penalty. You can't have people not paying premiums until they need the coverage, after all! Oh, no. So when someone turns 65 they can't just think, "Gee, what do I need for drug coverage today," they have to think about what they might need 5 or 10 years down the road. The best bet for a healthy senior is to pick a low priced plan (that they may or may not need at all) and hope that it covers them in the near term.

Now I understand why Canada's health care system costs 8% of GDP while the U.S. pays 12% of GDP on health care (these are figures I read back in 2000). I'd almost defy a politician to come up with a screwier system than this. This is the system the members of Congress have been patting themselves on the back about.

Canadians think that Ottawa produces too much red tape. They haven't seen anything like the U.S. bureaucracy. It would be funny if it wasn't so serious.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Final World War II Delta Green write-up posted!

I missed my self-imposed deadline by three days, but the last of the World War II Delta Green campaign write-ups is complete. The write-up is the third of three parts.

My next project is to complete the write-up for the last Delta Green session. It ran back on December 10 and 11.

Jimmy and Jason can't make it down here next weekend, so we won't get to play again until February (as I have an install in two weeks in Kentucky). As disappointing as the delay is, it at least means that I can (finally!) get caught up with our write-ups. Along with the Delta Green write-ups, I have a HarnMaster write-up to complete.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy Hogmanay!

I want to wish everyone a Happy Hogmanay, and hope that 2006 was a better year than 2005!

For those of you not fortunate enough to be related to a Scot, Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year celebration. When the Reformation came to Scotland, Christmas was frowned upon as being too papist. The Puritans that colonized New England thought pretty much the same thing. This is one of the reasons I laugh at the whole "war on Christmas" thing, since for something like 400 years Presbyterians (and the last time I looked, Presbyterians were Christians) were quite happy to ban Christmas altogether.

Christmas celebrations started to pop up more often in Scotland as part of the Victorian re-discovery of Christmas, but it wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that Christmas became the main end of year festival. Until then, the festival was Hogmanay, and for many Scots it still is.

Hogmanay is sort of like New Years and Mardi Gras rolled into one (less the thrown beads and exposed breasts). It started out as a Druid or pagan celebration of the winter solstice, then it took on aspects of Rome's Saturnalia and the Viking Yule celebration. The Roman Catholic church was quick to associate winter solstice celebrations with Christmas, but when the Reformation started to throw out things "popish" they found it hard to eliminate Hogmanay. It's roots were deeper than Catholicism, and since they didn't have any direct religious connection the Presbyterians had little say in the matter.

Today Hogmanay is an excuse for a huge party. The celebrations have been known to run for a week or two. Every Scottish city holds its own Hogmanay festival, but Edinburgh and Glasgow are best known for their parties.

No one knows for sure where the word comes from. Some suggestions are:
  • From Gaelic: oge maiden, meaning "new morning"
  • From Celtic: hogunnus, meaning "new year"
  • From Flemish: hoog min dag, meaning "great love day"
  • From Old French: aguillanneuf, which was a gift given on the last day of the year
  • From Old English: haleg monaĆ¾, meaning "holy month"

A number of traditions and superstitions surround the holiday. The main tradition is the "first foot". Folklore says that the first person through your door on New Year's Day will indicate the type of year that will follow. The first person is the "first foot" and after midnight folk will often go "first footing" to their friends' house.

The best person to come through your door is a tall, dark stranger bearing gifts. The "stranger" part usually doesn't happen anymore, as friends visit friends. Being "dark" hails back to the days of the Vikings, as a fair-haired man walking in your door was more likely to be a pillager than a guest. Traditional gifts include food (parish priests would give food to the poor, and food offerings were part of pagan tradition), whiskey (it should be obvious why this was considered a good present) and coal (suggesting that the home would not run out of fuel through the cold winter). There was a time when it was considered bad luck if the "first foot" was flat-footed, cross-eyed, or had eyebrows that met (denoting the "evil eye"). People would go to great pains not to let such people in their homes as a "first foot", but this superstition is largely ignored today. (I say "largely", because Celts still tend to be a superstitious lot.)

Traditionally, "Auld Lang Syne" by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 – 96) is sung at New Year's. Many of my friends have had the following lecture before, so if you've heard this you can safely go web surfing elsewhere. First of all, Robert Burns is known in Scotland as "Rabbie Burns" not "Robbie Burns". In Scotland the diminutive of "Robert" is "Rab", not "Rob". This confuses people. (Apparently he wasn't called "Rabbie" while he was alive. He was most often called "Robert" or "Robin".) Second, the word "syne" is pronounced "sign" not "zyne". I have no idea why North Americans insist on pronouncing the word as though it has a "z" in it, but it's wrong! The word starts with an "s" and should be pronounced with an "s"!

Finally, when singing "Auld Lang Syne" typically only the first verse is sung. Most North Americans don't even realize there are other verses, or what they are. Here is a site with all of they lyrics, just in case you were wondering:

Once again, Happy Hogmanay!