Monday, September 23, 2013

Please Feed Ed to the Alligators: Part 3

(See Part 1, Part 2 for the beginning of the story)

Near the end of the following day, I have not heard from Ed yet so I call the phone number he gave me. It is his direct line. He's gone for the day. I do a little dance of rage as I navigate back to the general claims queue. That conversation goes sort of like this:

Me: Blah. Blah. Here's the reference number so you can read about my problem.
Gina: <READ.READ.READ> Uh-huh. Ok, what can I do for you?
Me: Ed didn't call me back.
Gina: Well sir, we've been very busy. Our customer callback time is around 2 weeks.
Me: Wat?!?!
Gina: Also, Ed and I do not have any way to verify the fax was received. There is no actual fax. It goes to a different department and we won't be able to access it for 10-15 business days.
Me: But...why...did....Ed...tell...m...
Gina: ...that makes no sense to me either.
Me: Ok, is there some person you can put me in touch with who CAN tell me the fax was at least recieved?
Gina: Of course! You just need to hit '2' from the main menu.
Me: There is no '2' from the main menu, you have to say a word like 'claims', 'find a doctor', or something.
Gina: Are you sure?
Me: I am. I have extensive experience with your phone menu system.
Gina: <laughs> Oh, well you just need to say 'claims'. That will get you to them.
Me: <sigh> When I just called now, I said 'claims' to get to you. You just told me that people in your department cannot help me.
Gina: Yup.
Me: how will saying 'claims' next time get me to the right person?
Gina: They're not here now. It's too late. If they were here now you could talk to them.
Me: That makes no sense, I said 'claims' at 10am and I got 'Ed'. You and I already agreed he made no sense and can't help me. Every time I've said 'claims' I get people who can't help me.
Gina: <long pause. clickity-clack>
Gina: You know, I think you really need some help with this. I'm going to check on this personally and call you back tomorrow.
Me: Really. Not in two weeks? That's just what Ed said.
Gina: I'm not Ed.
Me: Ok. sure. whatever.

Gina sounded way more confident and competent than Ed, but I decided to go a different route. I needed to figure out where the failure was happening. Was Old Insurance Co. not sending the fax? Or, was New Insurance Co. receiving it but dropping it in the bit bucket?

I needed to be a middle-man and I signed up for a month of HelloFax's 'receive a fax' service. The first month is free. I called Old Insurance Co. back about an hour after I got off the phone with Gina.

Me: Hi. Member number blarghty-boo-309.
Mary: <reads> Ok, what do you need?
Me: I need ANOTHER fax of my certificate-of-awesomeness.
Mary: Yes sir. Let me put in the request. It'll take 24-48 hours to process
Me: Last time I asked for this I was promised 2-3 minutes.
Mary: That is...not possible. <She sounded vaguely like Agent Smith from The Matrix>
Me: ...and yet it happened.
<5 seconds of silence.>
Mary: So....should I put in this request, sir?
Me: Yes. Here's my fax number....
Mary: Ok, you should get this in 24-48 hours. No need to call and check, it will arrive in 24-48 hours.
Me: Bu...
Mary: kthxbai. <click>

That was over 3 weeks ago. I have not received it.

There is a happy ending to this story. Gina called me back two days later.
Gina: Hello, I'm so sorry for not calling you back yesterday. I was sick.
Me: <stunned silence>
Gina: I can confirm that we have received the certificate-of-non-slacker-ness and are we now re-processing your previously denied claim.
Me: Woah. <still stunned, sounding vaguely like Keanu>
Gina: So if there's nothing else I can help you with, I'll be going...
Me: Uhh...Wait! May I speak to your supervisor?
Gina: Ummm...Is there a problem?
Me: With you? NO! I want to tell her how awesome you are and how she should feed your co-workers to the alligators.
Gina: <laughs> I'll forward you along right away.

As it turns out, I had to leave a message for Gina’s supervisor. I'm pretty sure I sounded like Gina has a babbling idiot stalker, but I think the my point "Please feed Ed to the Alligators" got across.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Please Feed Ed to the Alligators: Part 2

(Part 1 is here)

Not-quite-Ed first verified the mailing address on file, which was the correct home address. He had no idea why this recent letter came to my work. I explained that I wasn't ignoring them and that it appears I'm missing some of their mail. He asked if I wanted to change my address. I pointed out to him that it didn't appear to matter what address they had since, even with the correct address on file, they had sent the letter to my work. He was silent. After a beat, I let him off the hook with a "Don't worry about it."

Before we got started, Ed needed to call the wife. This was my wife's claim and Almost-Ed needed her consent to talk to me about it. He puts me on hold and calls her. I heard about the conversation later:

Ed: Hello this is [inaudible name] with New Insurance Co., may I have your name?
Wife: No, you called me.
Ed: Yes, well, I need to confirm your name and member number before we can discuss your account.
Wife: Again, you called me. What was your name again?
Ed:  [inaudible name again] with New Insurance Co. Can you confirm your member number for me?
Wife: No. Why are you calling?
Ed: I can’t discuss anything with you until you confirm your member number.
Wife: Then this is going to be a very short conversation.
<This goes around a few times, until Ed tells her that I'm the one initiating all this and I'm waiting on the other line.>
Wife: So, you’ve got Kelly on the other line?
Ed: Yes, I have Mr. Byrd on the other line. I just needed to confirm with you that I can talk to him about your claim.
Wife: Then you can conference him in so I can talk to him too.
Ed: Umm...well...I don't think I can conference him in.
Wife: Hmm. Not suspicious at all.
<Ed eventually says enough things only the insurance company should know to convince the wife this probably isn’t just some random phishing attempt. Even so, she never gave him any information beyond, “Yes, you can talk to Kelly about me.”>

Back on the line with me, Ed insisted that what I really needed to do was contact the provider where my wife got the follow-up and get them to answer a survey my New Insurance Co. sent them a month ago. I never understood why he was talking about a survey. I explained that I was under the impression that what he needed from me was a certificate of prior coverage. He agreed (and the survey was forgotten).

Ed: Yes. That would work. I can call your old insurance and conference them with you so I can explain the correct information if you would like.
<Now, knowing my wife's side of the conversation, it is interesting he wouldn't conference in her but could do it with the other company>
Me: Srsly? You can? YES!
Ed: Please hold....<a couple of minutes pass>. Ok, I have Joan from Old Insurance Co. on the line.
Joan: <Introduces herself and verifies I am who I say I am>
Ed: Ok, I would like you to fax a Certificate of Prior Coverage to 123-456-7890
Joan: Ok. But...
Ed: ...with a subject line of Claim Resolution, Member #8675309
Joan: Ok. But we did this in June, why do...
Me: Joan, this is Kelly. I understand this is a repeat request. Would you mind just doing it again?
Joan: Uh-huh. <clickity-clack>...done. The fax will be sent in 2-3 minutes.
Joan: May I help you with anything else today?
Me/Ed: No. Thank you! Bye.

<At this point I'm impressed with Joan and wish I was still covered by Old Insurance Co.>

Me: Ok Ed, what do we d...
Ed: "Joan...JOAN!...Oh-no. Oh-no. I gave her the wrong subject line information. Oh-no.
Me: Fantastic. Does this matter? Will the fax still go to the right place?
Ed: ...Ummm....Sigh....Ummm...Yes?!?
Me: Right. Sure it will.
Me: Ok, since it's only going to be 2-3 minutes, I'll just wait here on the call until you can go verify the fax is received.
Ed: I can't.
Me: Sure you ca...
Ed: NO. You do not underSTAND the system. We use a computer-like software to do emails fax.
Me: <making some guesses at what he meant> Ok, there's no actual fax machine that spits out paper you can get your hands on. The whole thing is an electronic document management system.
Ed: Uh-huh.
Me: So I'll just wait 2-3 minutes and you keep hitting 'refresh' on your screen there until it shows up in my file.
Ed: NO. You do not underSTAND the system. It takes many hours.  I guess I can call you back when it happens.
Me: Right. I do not understand ANY of this. I also do not believe you will call me back.
Ed: I will of course call you back of course by the end of the following day of course!

Of course, I don't trust him. I convince him to give me a direct number to contact him in case he doesn't call me back. He keeps insisting that this isn't necessary because "Of course he'll call me back by the end of the following day."

(The final part is coming soon)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Please Feed Ed to the Alligators: Part 1

Sometime in 2012, the wife’s doctor recommended a follow-up on something, I’m not really sure what it was about, but it was important, so a few months ago, she had that checkup. The wife is fine. That's not the point of this story. Between the first visit and the followup, I changed jobs, moved from AZ to CA, and changed our medical insurance. Apparently I angered the bureaucracy gods.

A month after the followup, I got a letter to my work address from our current medical insurance telling me that they "had not yet received the requested information" regarding that visit. It was the first letter I had seen.

I called and navigated a menu system that switched from asking for voice responses to key presses and then back to voice responses. I finally spoke to a person who changed my address and transferred me to claims to sort out the letter I'd received. Except she didn't actually change my address, and then she hung up on me.

I called again the next day, proceeding directly to the claims department.

Me: First, I'd like to confirm the address you have on file. I changed it yesterday.
Her: The address is: <wrong address>. Also, I see no record of your call...
Her: ...and it is not possible for anyone here to change your address. It must be done through your work.
Me: But the person yesterday said she was changing it.
Her: Uh-huh. Yup. Sure. So...
Me: Forget it. Let's talk about this letter.

The lady said a bunch of sentences littered with terms I suppose make sense if you're in the insurance industry. They were denying the claim because the follow-up had been recommended before we were covered and was therefore a pre-existing condition per their guidelines. However, if I could show that there was no gap in coverage between our old insurance and current insurance, they would probably pay the claim. I needed a "certificate of prior coverage." I thanked the woman, called my old insurance company, and spoke to a guy named Alex:

Alex: Yup. Certificate-of-awesomeness. You betcha. That’s what you need. Good thing we already sent you those. You’re all set!
Me: I never got them.
Alex: Sure you did. <clickity-clack> Well, OF COURSE you never got them we have no mailing address for you. <clickity-clack-clack> We have only a home address of <correct home address>, shall I use that?
Me: Why haven't you used it already? It IS my home address!
Alex: <pause> Sir? Would you like me to copy your home address to your mailing addresses?
Me: Copy my home address to all possible address fields you have.
Alex: Ok, so then do you need anything else?
Me: I need you to fax our certificates-of-awesomeness to Old Insurance Co.
Alex: But we alrea...Oh...Right. Ok. <clickity-clack>. Those will be sent in 2-3 minutes.
Me: kthxbai.

As I was hanging up, I had a brain-itch warning me that I couldn't actually verify the new insurance company received the promised fax because I had the old company fax it directly to them. But I got distracted by something shiny and I forgot all about it. I did remember to have my plan administrator change my address. When I asked, she said "Oh! HA! That almost never works when I do it, but I'll try." That was in June.

In early August, I got an unrelated letter to from New Insurance Company to my correct home address. Several weeks later I got a "This is your last chance to provide the requested information!" letter about the same claim. It came to my work address. Awesome.

I called New Insurance Co. and spoke to a man named something like Ed. He seemed pretty frustrated with me. They had sent four letters! Why was I ignoring them? They had no record of receiving the fax in June. I was starting over.

(Part 2 is coming soon)

Saturday, September 7, 2013

I am the other

[UPDATE: When I first posted this, I linked to a friend's Facebook page in an effort to credit him for pointing me at one of the articles I link to. I thought his post was public, but it isn't. I shouldn't have done this without asking permission, and I'm sorry for that. He didn't complain, but it still wasn't the right thing to do.] 

Recent articles have revealed long-running programs at the NSA and GCHQ intent on the various encryption algorithms used on the Internet. The NSA's response tells us that this shouldn't be surprising:
"It should hardly be surprising that our intelligence agencies seek ways to counteract our adversaries’ use of encryption.  Throughout history, nations have used encryption to protect their secrets, and today, terrorists, cybercriminals, human traffickers and others also use code to hide their activities.  Our intelligence community would not be doing its job if we did not try to counter that."
[emphasis mine]

Oh good! I thought I should be worried. They're just doing their job.

Wait a minute. I use encryption all the time and I'm not a terrorist, cybercriminal, or human trafficker. So, I must be an other. You're probably an other too. Your mobile phone uses encryption on every call. Your web browser probably encrypts the conversation with your bank's website and gmail so all your neighbors can't just read everything by just listening in to your wireless network signal.

Apparently just trying to hide something like my bank account balance or an email conversation with my wife about a fight we had makes me an adversary.

I am the other.

Thanks to: A friend on Facebook for putting some of these articles in my reading list and Ken at Popehat for starting the "other" meme.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Radio-controlled Awesome

If you don’t think remote controlled helicopters are neat, skip this post (also, what the hell is wrong with you?) If do think they’re neat but don’t have one yet, read on for my review.

R/C helicopters have been around for a while, but have typically been expensive, kind of hard to control, and often required a lot of space. They were more for dedicated hobbyists and not the casual amateur. In the last few years, electronics, batteries, and other components have gotten better while costs dropped. Very small quad-copters started showing up at expensive toy prices, eventually a few hit the $100 mark. Somewhere around May or June, Blade introduced the Nano QX. I’ve owned one for about six weeks. It’s the first real remote-controlled anything for me, and it’s one of the best toys I’ve bought in a long time.

The Nano QX is small and light, with a well-designed frame that protects the plastic blades in most situations. If you brush up against a wall or the ceiling, the frame hits instead of the blades. Because it’s very light, when you crash it is unlikely anything will break. Mechanically, it’s very simple. There’s a frame, four plastic blades with four motors all wired to single controller board, and a small battery that slides into a spot in frame underneath the controller electronics. There are maybe 11 or 12 parts total. All of them are easy to replace and available at Amazon or other places online. If you buy it with a remote control, you should pay about $100.

What really makes it easy to fly is the electronic controller. In the default mode, you plug in the battery and put it down on a level surface. The controller board initializes and calls that “level.” From that point on, if the blades are spinning, then the controller is going to try to keep this little guy level.  While in flight, if you let go of the controls, it returns to a level hover. When it runs into  breeze or draft (the A/C at my office blows pretty hard), it’ll get moved, but it will stay level.

With a little practice, you can pick it up (throttle at zero), turn it upside down, and toss it with one hand while applying a bit a throttle with the other. Your Nano will flip itself over and probably end up hovering. It’s not magic, you can’t throw it against the wall has hard as you want, but it works better than most people expect. The end result is a small, light, durable, relatively cheap, easy to fix toy helicopter that does most of the hard work of keeping itself in the air.

To computer/gadget geeks, these things are addictive. A couple of months ago, someone in my office brought his Nano in. At first I stayed away from it. I once tried a friend’s coaxial micro helicopter and even though I was flying it inside a large gym, I nearly broke it in less than a minute and it cost him way more than $100. But, this guy in my office kept encouraging people to try it. Eventually a few of us did. It takes a few minutes to learn the basics. After that, it’s easy to keep it in the air. You crash it a few times and realize it’s ok. When you get a bit out of control, just kill the throttle and it drops to the ground and doesn’t hurt itself. Set it right side up (or toss it) and off it goes. You quickly build confidence that you can keep it in the air and that it’s actually kind of hard to break in a crash.

A couple of us ordered them a week or two later. Three more people bought theirs a couple of weeks after that. On Friday, we had five of them all in the air at once. They’re durable enough that the rest of the office thinks they make good targets for Nerf guns. So far, even a direct hit doesn’t break it. They’re fun, user friendly, not too expensive, and hard to break. What’s not to love?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Repost: Ambient Backscatter

The future is awesome.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Repost: Kale

Not much else to say, I don't understand while people continue to try and eat it.

Shmoo Radley: Kale - Best Avoided: Kale is not food. Not that I’m an expert. I think chocolate pop-tarts are food, but I expect that’s open to some debate...

Monday, July 15, 2013

Please Contain the Glee

I recently came back to Pandora after a long break. I cleared out my old stations and built some new ones, trying to make them pretty specific. I seeded only with songs rather than artists. I’ve got a punk/ska station built from songs from Misfits, Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Buck-O-Nine, and others. I’ve got a Metal-ish station with CKY, Disturbed, Alice In Chains, Chevelle, and so on. I’ve also got a slow-ish, station of mostly current artists. I’ve seeded it with songs from Adele, Mumford & Sons, Amy Winehouse, Maroon 5, and that one Gotye song, alongside jazzy vocals and whiney folk rock, this is also where I get my Dire Straits fix.

During the day at work, I play these three stations in a mix and it’s been working well. I feel like I’ve really got Pandora doing what I want. For example, I’ve got the punk station narrow enough that it picks up stripped down 70s and 80s punk alongside Bad Religion, but it doesn’t give me Blink-182. Pandora did get really crazy once and gave me Nickelback on this station, but a quick click of the “thumbs down” button seems to have solved that problem. You have to teach others how to treat you.

Overall, the mix/shuffle of these stations gives me the music I told it I want, and often surprises me with additions that are pretty much what I want. I was happy...and then came the Glee covers.

Apparently, Glee isn’t just a TV show. It’s a media empire. I blame WB aka, The CW for this trend (“Go to to download music by artists featured in this episode!” Of course they’re all signed by Warner Music.) No big deal, if people want to watch Glee and buy Glee albums, go nuts. I’m also not at all against cover versions of songs. Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” is a good song, but the cover by Johnny Cash is a great song. I usually end up playing it a second or third time. “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” has been covered by several people. John Lee Hooker really changed it and George Thorogood blended it and another John Lee Hooker song into the version we usually hear today. Well done all around.

Earlier I said I tried to create pretty narrow stations in an effort to get more of the specific styles I want, without picking up the entire catalog from the artist. Adele can really sing, but I don’t want every version of every Adele song ever recorded. Apparently Pandora has decided that one version of “Rolling in the Deep” is as good as another. Overachieving brunnette from Glee != Adele. Same thing with Amy Winehouse. The Glee version of “Rehab” came up on Monday and it took me a bit to figure out that the chorus of singers was hacking their way thru a song I had apparently asked Pandora to play. Swing and a miss.

I’m less bothered by the Glee cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”, but I still like the original. I really only like that one song from him so I don’t so much want to hear more of his songs as I just want to occasionally hear that exact song. Again, that song, not the Glee version. Last week I swear I heard more Glee covers than songs by the original artists. That’s not entirely true. This Glee-ification is only happening on my sorta slow, sorta current, whiney rock station. Apparently Glee doesn’t cover Melvins, Chevelle, Pantera, Buck-O-Nine, or Dead Kennedys.

Why didn’t I just vote down the cover versions of these songs? I don’t trust the results. If Pandora thought the Glee chorus version of Rehab was at all like the version I used as a seed for the station, what would it do if I thumbed it down? Having spent a bunch of time carefully crafting my Pandora stations, I think of them as fragile little snowflakes. A misplaced “thumbs down” could ruin the entire thing. Please Pandora, give me a “thumbs down, because Glee” button.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cordless Drills are the Cornerstone of Society

I’m writing this right now to avoid the urge to go hang a bicycle hook in someone else’s garage. A neighbor came over a few minutes ago with her son. The wife and I are pretty introverted around our neighbors so while we have waved at her several times in the last six months, we only really met her last weekend when she came over to say hi while we were doing something in the front yard for a while. Nice lady, she gave us some good local tips on the ‘hood.

A few minutes ago, this same neighbor comes over with her teenage son and asks to borrow a drill. She wants to hang a big hook in her garage and screwing it in by hand would clearly not work. So, I give her the drill and a set of drill bits and off she goes. While I’m fetching my drill I’m thinking to myself “How in the hell does a woman who owns a home and is raising two kids not have a drill and a ⅛” bit?” That is followed by an almost unshakable urge to go do it for her. I mean if she doesn’t have a drill already maybe she’s not mechanically inclined and maybe everyone will be better off if I just go save the day.

Whatever this woman has done in life, she’s clearly made it this far without my help. She owns a house in a neighborhood where I am the sketchy renter that doesn’t talk to anyone. I have some evidence she’s kept at least two people alive from birth to somewhere beyond 14 years old. I’ve seen both kids, they seem reasonably well-dressed, well fed, etc. But of course she doesn’t have a drill so she needs me to come solve all her hook hanging problems. It’s not about me needing to control everything at all. Really.

She appears to be raising the kids on her own. Her son seemed to already understand how to work the chuck on my cordless and he knew roughly what size bit he wanted, so assuming she is head of that household it does seem odd there’s no cordless drill in their house. I consider the cordless drill pretty much the first power tool everyone should own. If you can afford anything beyond basic hand tools, make a cordless drill your first purchase. Many household tasks involve a drilling a pilot hole and it can often serve as a cordless screwdriver. But, it’s not my life so I decided to just give her what she asked for and leave it alone. I seem to have trouble guessing the right thing to do in these situations. I was in a similar situation years ago. When I didn’t react by offering to come do the whole thing, the neighbor hemmed and hawed until it was finally obvious to me I was supposed to go help, which is what I wanted to do all along.

This time, maybe it was all a trick on her part to force some social interaction. If so, good on her. We’re clearly not going to step up and she gave me the opportunity to embarrassingly ask her to repeat her name (I forgot it from last week).  I also got to meet her son, and I suddenly feel like a fairly normal neighbor. Or she really doesn’t have a drill and just needed to hang a hook in her garage.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Repost: Product design, Philz way

I admit it, I'm a Philz fan. It's hard to explain to someone until you take them there.

What Philz Coffee can teach us about product design (via Pando Daily)
I love Philz Coffee. Since I moved to San Francisco nearly three years ago, it’s become part of my routine, my go-to weekend workspace. Hundreds of cups later, I’ve noticed subtle hacks Philz uses to build a successful…

Monday, July 1, 2013


I have used screen for a long time. I recommend it to anyone who is unlucky enough to say something about terminals, ssh, or session disconnects anywhere near me. I’ve never been a screen power user though. I’ve always just got by with the basics for a single use case and haven’t had enough reason to invest in learning any more. I know this isn’t all screen can do, but in my mind, screen was always the thing I ran right away once I ssh’d into another box. Over the last few years, the number of places I kept a screen session waiting for me has dwindled down to a couple. It’s the same use case, a headless Linux box that has a long running screen session. I don’t think I’ve even used more than one window in screen in three years. It provides me with a saved state and I don’t have to think whether I’m running something in the ssh session before I close my laptop.

At my current job, when I run our product in my dev environment, I start three processes at the cmdline. I want all those cmdlines. I want their log output. I want to kill and restart them at particular times. This morning, I got fed up with trying to find a layout of terminal windows or tabs that I liked so I thought I would finally go learn more about screen to see if the solution had been under my nose all the time.

A quick bit of searching led me to to try tmux. It’s new (to me) and shiny and apparently I was looking for a distraction. A few minutes later, I had read a few tips and tricks posts  and had the following setup working.

My ~/.tmux.conf is in the upper left pane. For my debug cycle, the best thing about this is the line ‘bind = setw synchronize-panes’. With that, ‘Ctrl-b =’ toggles synchronized input for all panes. When this is toggled on, Ctrl-C breaks all three processes. Then ‘up-arrow’ followed by ‘enter’ gives me the last command ran in each pane and runs it. Simple. If I want to do more work in a single pane, I just toggle it off and ‘Ctrl-B o’ my way to that pane.

Like screen, If I accidently close the terminal window, the processes don’t die. If I intentionally stop the application processes and close the terminal window to get it out of my way on a Friday and for some reason don’t work again until Monday, I keep all my state, pane layout, etc just by doing ‘tmux attach’. My personal laptop is my main desktop computer and my work development computer. It seems like tmux and a BYOD [LINK: ]  laptop were made for each other.

It’ll take awhile to get the common keyboard shortcuts into muscle memory, but tmux has demonstrated enough value in such a short time that I know I’m going to take the time. I’m a fan.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Zombie Skin

Clearly I'm not capable of frequent thoughtful posts. So, I'll fill the hopper with links to other things. I normally wouldn't even be posting during the workday, but someone at work sent this too me and I thought it needed sharing. If you want to skip the intro, at least watch from 0m44s.

Repost: Running of the Interns

I had no idea: Running of the Interns

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Repost: NSA Slow Jam

I guess I'll jump on the NSA hating bandwagon. While I don't like it, it's always safe to assume someone is gathering or listening.

Tap It: NSA Slow Jam (featuring Remy)

Saturday, June 1, 2013

We're still cool, right?

I lived in two states in 2012 and I had to mail in both my state returns, because apparently it’s 1999 again. Given how much I trust tax-related things, I decided to send them certified mail with delivery confirmation. The confirmation is a little green card that is sent back to you. The confirmation from AZ came back right away. The CA one did not. Several weeks later, I checked the online "tracking" at If you are used to UPS or FedEx tracking you'll understand the sarcasti-quotes in a bit. According to the USPS website, I mailed it on the 11th, it got to a Sacramento postal substation on the 13th, then no activity until another scan in the same place on the 18th. As if someone picked it up, decided delivering it was too much trouble, and then put it down again.

I called USPS customer service an hour after they closed on Saturday. I was too late, my bad. I found a web form where I could send them a message, so I crammed in as much detail in as a I could and sent it off.  I was extremely surprised when I got a response to that email this morning. Seriously, first thing in the morning! A+ for effort. Grading on the actual content, however... Let me paraphrase:

Me: I sent my tax return to the CA Tax place and your website says it is sitting in purgatory...I mean Sacramento. How do I get it un-lost? Here are the details, tracking #, etc.

USPS: Your certified letter may not have been scanned by the carrier when he took it out for delivery, and also not final scanned when it was delivered. I cannot confirm if it was actually delivered. The amount of mail that week was totes cray-cray. You can use your paper receipt as a magic talisman to ward off the Tax Man when he comes to take you to debtor's prison. I think. Maybe. Don't quote me.  I am not a lawyer.

Ok, so I bought a certified w/ delivery confirmation service. The letter is sort of "lost" at this point and I'm told that I don't actually get confirmation of delivery, because it was busy. Unpredictably busy, apparently. It was probably also unpredictable that much the torrent of mail coming in to Sacramento around early April would probably have a bunch of delivery confirmations attached. People are touchy about their tax returns, the IRS makes them nervous for some reason.

I once had a UPS driver knock on the door and ask me if he had mis-delivered a neighbor's package to my door. The neighbor had reported it missing and UPS does an investigation. The GPS data from the UPS truck said it was in front of my house when he scanned it for delivery. That is package tracking.

I get that the USPS station near the CA Tax Board was busy during early April.  I get that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Both UPS and FedEx have lost things that were sent to me or from me but they have a layered defense. If something goes wrong in operations and handling, there is a method to correct it and find the package. I read the USPS reply as: "Umm. Dunno. Sorry. We're still cool, right?"

I would have preferred not to be surprised with customer service awesomeness and instead have found out that the trackable, confirmable service I paid for actually worked. At least if I have a problem I won't have to fight penalties, the CA Tax Board owes me money this year.

Update: I did eventually get the delivery confirmation, a day or so after the refund hit my bank account. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

On the Back of the Cocktail Napkin

Note: My ideas on this subject are heavily influenced by CoyoteBlog and Asymmetrical Information

Another US tax system rant, inspired by the recent Apple testimony and the IRS investigation.

After implementing the changes to personal income tax I described earlier, eliminate the corporate income tax.

Long version:
There appears to be a ton of effort going into minimizing corporate taxes. From the corporation's point of view, the effort makes sense. There is the potential to save a lot of money, and the officers of a company are motivated to make the company profitable. Hiring a group of smart tax people in order to minimize this tax liability is a net win for them. That effort isn't really productive in an economic sense, it's just playing games with regulations, sometimes even lobbying to change the regulations. When they do this, many of us are left with the vague notion that large corporations are doing legal but sketchy things to avoid paying taxes and cheating small businesses and the rest of us. What to do?

Eliminate the corporate income tax. Tax the money when it hits a person. This money will show up as either dividends or capital gains from increased share price. Building on my previous tax rant about eliminating deductions and special classes of income for personal income tax, income from capital gains and dividends would not be given special treatment on individual tax returns. It would be taxed at the regular progressive income tax rates for the individuals that receive it.

What about Apple hiding money in Ireland and other countries to avoid taxes? Why would they still do this? The lowest corporate tax in Ireland is 12.5%. Under this plan there would be no corporate tax in the US. Zero is less than 12.5%. If Apple thinks it can best use that money here, they’ll move that money back into the US.

What about the Tea Party IRS 501(c) scandal? 501(c) is a part of the IRS code that allows incorporated groups to ask the IRS for tax-exempt status. This whole problem disappears entirely. There would be no such thing as tax-exempt corporations or groups, because no incorporated group would have to file tax returns. Whether you think the IRS did any wrong or not, under this plan there is no longer a decision for the IRS to make.

Finally, corporations no longer spend time and money trying to minimize their tax burden or to lobby for special tax status. That's got to be a net win for the economy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The World's Biggest Cocktail Napkin

Note: My ideas on this subject are heavily influenced by CoyoteBlog and Asymmetrical Information

I want to be able to do my taxes on a cocktail napkin. Income tax complexity is a burden on all of us, and it provides opportunities for taxpayers and politicians to game the system. I want the income tax system to be as simple as possible. What I'm proposing is not as simple as possible, but it's a place to start that doesn't make me sound too bat-shit crazy. Here’s the short version of the plan:

1)   Treat all types of income the same.
2)   Eliminate all deductions and credits.

A few details on each of these:

1a)   No long-term capital gains vs short-term capital gains. No special categories of income at all. If I had income, it goes into the pile to be taxed. It's all subject to the progressive income tax scale we have now. I don’t care about the source of the income, it’s all counted the same.

1b)   We still have to allow capital losses to offset capital gains. If I make $100K from stock sales, but I also lost $60K from stock sales in the same year, I'm only net ahead $40K. That $40K is my taxable income. I haven't thought this through enough to think about whether to allow multi-year carry over on losses. Trying to fit this on a cocktail napkin, so I’d like to say no carry-over.

1c)   I'm a undecided on what to do about income from inheritance. My "keep-it-simple-stupid" guideline says to tax it as well. If my long lost uncle bequeaths me $100K, then that's $100K of income for me. But many many people have a strong sense of wanting to be able to give money (that was already taxed when they earned it) to their surviving relatives. I punt on this.

2a)   I'm serious about eliminating all deductions and credits. No charitable deduction. No home mortgage interest deduction. No deductions for educational or medical expenses. No earned income credits, no child/dependent credits. Nothing. The tax code is sneaky place place to reward certain types of behavior or conditions like having a mortgage, buying a Prius or Tesla, living through a disaster, or giving money to charity. If you want to encourage some behavior or assist some group of people with money, hand out money directly! Do not use the tax code to hide it. Shifting these programs out of the tax code will spare us the added complexity at tax time.

2b)   There should probably be some adjustment at the bottom of the tax brackets to replace the standard individual deduction we have now. Maybe make the first $10-30K or so of income tax-free. That's easy. Just tax the bottom bracket at 0%.

One last point. I suspect this plan would increase revenue. I know I would have payed more in taxes under this system than I did the last few years. If it helped get people on board with this idea, the tax rates could be adjusted to make this revenue neutral overall. But that isn't the primary goal. Let's gut the tax code first, then we can argue about the correct rates without all the distortions.