Sunday, 29 August 2010

Letter to the Doctor

This has been driving me crazy now for almost two weeks and you know I can't keep stuff bottled up inside. I left out names (the ones I know, anyway) but this is the letter I just finished to the doctor through Relay Health and I am sharing it with you, my readers, friends and support. Maybe you will avoid this kind of issue.

Doctor,

As I have not have any reasonable amount of sleep since two Thursdays ago when I last came to the office, I may be a little tactless. Not that I am ever anything but obvious about my feelings and opinions on things, but after witnessing yet another sunrise not due to my normal early morning habits but having been up all night... well.

This all began in July. I called in with a message to the prescription to please call in for Ambien. We had just switched from my old insurance carrier to a new carrier and there was no time for me to get a paper script to submit to their mail order prescription service. The order went in and was, incorrectly, filled on the 20th of July.

I don't know if the person filling it ignored my specific instructions left in the message about the dose, or did not check my file or if someone had "an inspiration", but the order was filled for 60 tablets, one per night.

And now I am culpable to some extent here, as well. I went to Barry's, checked the pills to be sure that they were the right ones, but never checked the label to see that it was 60 tablets for one month, at two per night. That makes me one idiot in this story. Not to worry, I show up more than once as an idiot.

So I call the pharmacy automated line to refill the prescription on 19 August and the system tells me that it is too soon to fill it. I called too early in the morning to get live help and the system is notoriously unfriendly and hangs up. I called later, was informed the script would not be renewable until 6 September, and to quote Arlo Guthrie, "there wasn't nothin' we could about it."

I promptly logged in to this site (a good site - this I like) and left a message. However, no one has ever noted me for my patience, so I called as soon as the office opened. And the message was given to you. You obviously know this part, so there is no point in regurgitating that. We discussed options and I came in later that Thursday - this would be the 19th - and I picked up the scripts (I did completely forget about the main one, though, which was Allegra-D. Oh, well). I asked if the Ambien mix up was taken care of and got a hurried and harried answer that all was in order. Clearly it was a little hectic and I left

I trucked over to Barry's, handed them the new scripts and when I received everything, I asked about the Ambien. I should not have been surprised to find out that no one said anything to the pharmacy about it, but they said I should go straightaway to your office and inquire about this. I did. I waited for some time, which I have no issue with - waiting time is not normally a problem there and I was there without a formal appointment, and the staff was really nice in making sure that I knew I'd not been forgotten.

The nurse came to get me and sit down with me. She introduced herself but I am not great remembering names for some time unless the person is on my payroll, because by then I have typed the new person's name 100 times in 20 minutes. Welcome to my world. Anyway, she was explaining that the office cannot call up the current carrier and correct the issue because the script had been filled. There were a lot of other points that came up in the conversation as well, but this one really stuck out. And this is my idiot mistake #2.

I've been doing benefits administration for a long time. Over a decade. And yet, I sat there like an idiot and did not press the issue that this error CAN be fixed. Mistakes happen. Errors occur. That is why you can (with effort and pressing 0 a lot) get a live individual high enough up the food chain in any health insurance company and fix the issue. But no. I sat there and took it.

I'd like the error fixed. However, I suspect the "someone had an inspiration" part comes into play.

Other parts of the conversation included my doctor with the group, and the HR Manager in me is very confident that he has either returned from vacation already and had to endure a "conversation" of his own or is about and then will receive the hand slapping that I can smell in the air. I do not expect you to discuss the aspect of anyone's employment with me no more than I would do it with the employees at my place of employment, but I need to say this:

He has not blindly given me medication or let me bully him around or demand anything from him. He has done nothing but work tirelessly with me (which is tiring in and of itself, I grant you) and try to find solutions to the problem. I've been taking two Ambien a night for a very long time, at least a year, but more likely closer to two. This is not a big secret and it's been in my file. At one point this year, I think late Spring, I told him I'd gotten up way higher than that in search of the full 8-hour sleeping time and he saw me immediately and got me back to two. That was when we began what I call pharmacological grazing to find the right secondary medication to go with the Ambien that will play nice with the other drugs and still allow for a good night's sleep.

This ain't easy.

But we have been keeping at it and I never take more than two Ambien a night.

The nurse suggested the Tizanadine at night would go along way with this. I was already going down that road, but uncharacteristically again, I did not say anything. Here is the problem with this. Tizanadine is a wonderful drug. Taken at a light dosage with breakfast and then with lunch it is perfect - I stay awake but that with half an oxycodone ensures no pain and almost no tightness. At dinner the dose is higher and I nap because it will make one tired. But it is a solely food-driven drug. Taken without food, it takes the edge off the muscle cramping but does not initiate napping. Taken with sugary foods or after a full meal, it works the same way. Taken within a meal at the highest dose is just right.

That sounds easy - just take it with food before bed. Well, guess what. Part of the reason I reached my former panoramic weight was from just that - eating right before going to bed. And since Tizanadine only allows for a three-hour nap, I awoke at 0100 and had to eat something substantial (a mere snack won't do it) and go back to sleep again. Please tell me where this sounds like a good solution. I have regained a considerable amount of lost weight due to this and trying to eat sugar during the day to stay awake.

I am not diabetic yet, but I am careening down that road faster than I care to think with this current problem. Sugar is my problem thing. (You know, some people are gotten by cake, some by chocolate, some by a meat-heavy diet, and I am the one jonesing for Smarties and Starburst - the real I'm-not-into-wussy-sugar type candy.) When I get off the sugar my weight goes right down and it's wonderful. But it has crept back up.

I have Muscular Dystrophy. It won't go away, it won't get better, and I can't stop the complete progression (I do what I can to slow it down, but I know I can't stop it). There is no cure and no palliative. There may become a cure, but unless it happens in the next ten years and/or before President Obama's disastrous health care reforms go through, it won't be available to me. I watched my mother give up on living because of this disease and I do not want to be my mother. My mother who is now a total invalid. I am asking for one thing and one thing only. I want to work. You have been to where I work. You know how much magic that is. This is the last job I will ever have. I won't survive the kind of stress it is physically and emotionally to find work in this day and age. I need to make it to 2017 and then I will go down the Disability road. (Hopefully not that soon either but that is my goal.) And I want to make it to ten years and life member status on the ambulance squad.

So I get the feeling that you want to not have me see my doctor, which I object to greatly. He is an intelligent, warm & fuzzy person who is not merely the guy helping with medical issues but is fun to talk to, listens - really listens, not just that sort of "I hear you but I have 5,000 other patients and you are just wasting my time" listens. And I really ideally want to return to two Ambien a night. Unlike the average patient I DO understand the drugs and the potential difficulties I might face with my liver. I get it. But for 42 years I never drank (all alcohol tastes bad to me), smoked anything, and up until 5 or 6 years ago, never used medication. So my liver is not only in good shape, it owes me. And I want to keep working, something I cannot do without sleep.

I will await your response.

Aislínge

Saturday, 28 August 2010

ARTICLE: Four Places Bedbugs Hide - and How to Avoid Them

Bedbugs are all over the news -- and apparently, they're all over these 15 cities. Number one on the list? New York City -- SELF's home base! They've been found in office buildings (thankfully not ours!), hospitals, hotels, theaters and even the Empire State Building. And the bloodsuckers hide in mattresses, furniture, clothing ... blech. Is anyone else suddenly itchy?

But it's not just NYC that's being bitten -- bedbugs are a growing problem nationwide. According to the National Pest Management Association, bedbug-related calls to exterminators have jumped by 81 percent in the last 10 years and 57 percent over the last five years.

The good news is that unless you have serious underlying health issues, the critters aren't likely to make you sick. Still, they gross us out. So we asked Missy Henriksen, Vice President of Public Affairs for the National Pest Management Association, where bedbugs hide and what we can do to steer clear. The top spots:

IN HOTEL ROOMS...How to avoid the suckers: If you are traveling, thoroughly inspect the entire hotel room before unpacking, including pulling back the sheets, inspecting mattress seams, checking behind the headboard and examining sofas and chairs. If any pests -- or potential evidence of pests -- are spotted, change rooms or hotels, pronto. If you do change rooms, DO not move to an adjacent room or one directly above or below the infestation. Bedbugs are hitchhikers and can move via housekeeping carts, luggage carts, luggage and even through wall sockets.

IN DRESSING ROOMS...How to avoid the suckers: Bedbugs have proven to have fabulous fashion sense -- recently, they've been found in several popular retail stores. When trying on potential new items, be sure to hang your clothing on hooks rather than lay them then across the cushioned seats in the dressing room or on the carpeted floors.

As much as you want to wear that adorable new top immediately, resist the urge and wash or dry clean it first (bedbugs can't withstand temperatures higher than 113 degrees). This minimizes the potential that you'll bring a bedbug home with you.

ON CRAIGSLIST...How to avoid the suckers: Do not buy used furniture, especially bedding or upholstered items. If you absolutely MUST have a vintage something or other in your home, find a bug expert who can inspect it for bedbugs or eggs (shudder).

AT THE OFFICE...How to avoid the suckers: Several prominent New York City offices have been shut down in recent weeks thanks to bedbug infestations. To keep your workspace pest-free, keep clutter to a minimum, vacuum frequently (keep a hand-vac in your cube, if possible) and inspect any packages or deliveries that come your way.

If you do suspect you've been bedbugged, contact a licensed pest professional to ID and treat the problem. As the National Pest Management Association says, this is not a DIY pest.

ARTICLE: Are E-books Worth the Money

I don't care for reading things off the screen and I'm not a technology nut so much as to give up my collections of books. But for Luis and his ilk (which are everywhere) this is a good article.

If you walk out of the cinema this week with a burning desire to read Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love," you can download it onto your Amazon Kindle electronic book reader — if you have one—for $12.99.

Then again you could just walk into your local Borders bookstore with a coupon and get the paperback for $10.

Barnes & Noble will charge you $12.99 to read the book on its e-book reader, the Nook. But it's only $9.36 (shipping may cost you extra) if you order the paperback at bn.com.

As a society, we have gadget-itis. No new machine that goes ping goes unsung. People stand in line for hours to purchase an iPhone barely distinguishable from the one already in their pockets. Amazon's newest Kindles sold out within days of going on sale. (Those who bought quickly will receive theirs this week.)

E-book readers are booming. Amazon (AMZN - News) says in the past few months sales of e-books have zoomed past sales of the paper ones. While e-books are still in an early stage—the Association of American Publishers says that so far this year they account for 8% of consumer books, compared to just 3% in 2009—the growth rate is dramatic. (This is one of the problems besetting Barnes & Noble, which has just announced a quarterly loss following a decline in sales of traditional books.)

Beyond all the hype, are e-book readers a good deal? Are they worth the money? If so, how can you get the maximum return on your investment?

Here are six money tips for penny wise book lovers.

1. Casual readers probably shouldn't bother.

The median American book-buyer purchases just seven books a year, according to an AP-Ipsos poll in 2007.

An e-book reader right now typically costs about $150 (more on this below). Even if you save a couple of bucks per book by downloading them onto your e-book reader, the payback isn't going to be much for the casual reader. If you saved $5 a book, you'd have to buy 30 just to earn back your initial investment. If you only saved $2 a book, you'd have to buy 75.

I don't want to sound negative. I happen to think e-book readers are great. But that's because I read books avidly. (I've been known to take 10 books on a beach holiday.) If you are in my camp, e-book readers let you carry a library in your pocket or bag. But if you're a casual reader, they probably don't make much economic sense yet. (On the other hand, once you buy an e-book reader you will probably buy and read more books.)

2. The books aren't as cheap as they should be.

E-books are far, far cheaper to produce, distribute and sell than paper ones. There is no paper, no printing, no trucking and no retail space.

So they should cost a lot less to buy, but the deal often isn't anywhere near as good as it should be. Amazon has tried to drive prices for best sellers down to $9.99, but the publishing industry has fought back. A lot of best sellers go for $12.99 instead. That may be cheaper than the hardbacks, but the gap should be wider.

As in the case of Elizabeth Gilbert's runaway success, you may sometimes find the traditional version cheaper. Looking for Stieg Larsson's "The Girl Who Played With Fire"? It's $7.99 on the Kindle. I bought it in Borders, with a coupon, for $5.68.

Books are cheaper in electronic format, but not all.

3. Savvy readers read the classics anyway.

Why? Because they're free. From Aesop to "Zarathustra." From "Hamlet" to "Huckleberry Finn." They won't cost you a penny. These books are outside of copyright. Just go to Gutenberg.org and download them. Thousands of them. And they're better than most of the stuff published more recently anyway.

4. Be aware of the potential costs of buying a Kindle.

Amazon sells the best-selling e-book reader. It's a great product, very easy to use—much easier, I've found, than the competition. But Amazon has given the device a cellular connection and a keyboard so you can access its online bookstore any time, any place, to buy a book. Good for them. Not so good for you. The results are predictable: You may end up making lots of impulse purchases. Don't be surprised if you spend hundreds of dollars on books in your first year. (Amazon now sells a Kindle that only has a Wi-Fi connection instead of cellular. This may save you money, as the connection will only work in a Wi-Fi hot spot. By the time you've found one, you may have decided you don't want the book.)

5. Be aware of the costs of the rivals.

The main ones are time and hassle. The many rivals to the Kindle generally use a software platform from Adobe, and it can be a pain. Even worse: Adobe provides only very basic help if things go wrong. In extremis, you may find yourself emailing India. I asked Adobe why this was. A spokesman explained that because Adobe Digital Editions was given away for free, the company only provides "a baseline level of support, which is web-based," he says. This includes "an active user forum"—in other words asking other customers how to solve your problems. Good luck with that.

If you can overcome that problem, rivals do offer benefits that may save you money. First, they let you shop around for e-books at different online bookstores, and many run promotions. Second, they will let you borrow some e-books online from your local library. Third, many of them come without any wireless connection whatsoever. That means fewer impulse purchases.

6. And if you're thinking of buying a book reader—wait!

At least, hold off for a month or two or maybe even a few weeks. Prices simply have to come down. They may do so fast.

Amazon's first Kindles went on sale three years ago for $399. Its latest versions, out this week, start at just $139. That's cheaper than rivals. They're going to have to respond.

There's an upgrade cycle going on as well. E Ink Corp., the company that makes most of the screens, has developed a newer version with somewhat sharper contrast. (Handy if you're reading fine print, but not so important for most books).

In a rational market, we should see big price cuts this fall, especially as the last of the old models go on sale. Of course, that's in a rational market. Let me know if you ever find one."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

ARTICLES: Miss Universe is Everywhere...

This morning:

"Mexico's Newest Icon: 22-Year-Old Miss Universe

From flags to Facebook, 22-year-old Jimena Navarrete has quickly made it clear what she plans to promote as the world's newest Miss Universe — her home country of Mexico.

"I want the whole world to know about my country and my people," the Guadalajara native said after beating 82 competitors for global bragging rights at the pageant in Las Vegas.

"I imagine that they're all going crazy in Mexico right now," she said through an interpreter. "I'm extremely proud and I'm sure they're very proud, too." She donned a flowing red dress, strutted confidently in a violet bikini, and said onstage that the Internet is indispensable and requires parents to impart family values. The model-turned pageant queen then posed for pictures with a Mexican flag and Mexico's last Miss Universe as congratulations from her countrymen came pouring in.

"Her triumph is a source of pride and satisfaction for all Mexicans, who see in her the fruits of perseverance," Mexican President Felipe Calderon said in a statement. Immediately after her win, Calderon said on Twitter that her victory would help Mexico's image as a country.

"We won, long live Mexico!" Navarrete said on her fan page on Facebook, spurring 478 "likes" and 218 comments in about one hour.

She was cheered by Spanish-speaking reporters clamoring to talk with her after the pageant, and twice answered questions about Arizona's recent immigration law. "Every country has the right to impose and enact their laws," she said, wearing her new sash and sparkling tiara. "But I tell you that all the Mexicans and the Latins that are living here in the United States are hardworking people — people who want to improve on their quality of life."

The Miss Universe pageant is known for grabbing headlines — and Navarrete appears ready to make her mark.

She's Mexico's second Miss Universe. Lupita Jones — Navarrete's national pageant director — won in 1991. Navarrete has been modeling since she was 15 and came to Miss Universe after winning for Jalisco, then Mexico, in the country's Nuestra Belleza pageant. Navarrete replaces Miss Universe 2009 Stefania Fernandez of Venezuela. She also spoiled a bid by Miss Venezuela Marelisa Gibson from giving the South American country a third consecutive victory. Neither Gibson nor Miss USA Rima Fakih made the top 15 finalists.

With fans in some 190 countries watching on television and keeping tabs on social networks, Navarrete and her competitors introduced themselves while wearing over-the-top national costumes. They then danced in silver and black dresses for the show's opening number before the last 15 finalists were announced.

The final 15 walked in swimsuits while Cirque du Soleil musicians played Elvis Presley songs including "Viva Las Vegas." The last 10 impressed in their gowns while John Legend and the Roots played a soulful medley including "Save Room."

By the end of the show, seven of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter had to do with the pageant, its contestants, its judges or owner Donald Trump. The mogul co-owns the pageant with TV network NBC.

The show was without any major gaffes, except for Miss Philippines' answer when asked what her biggest mistake in life was and how she fixed it. "In my 22 years of existence, I can say there is nothing major," Venus Raj said. Before the pageant, Raj was rated among the top contestants in an online poll on the pageant's website. She finished in fifth place.

Asked by Olympic gold-medal figure skater Evan Lysacek how she felt about unsupervised Internet use, Navarrete said the Internet is important. "I do believe that Internet is an indispensable, necessary tool for the present time," she said through an interpreter. "We must be sure to teach them the values that we learned as a family."

Lysacek was one of this year's nine celebrity judges. The others were actresses Jane Seymour and Chynna Phillips; actors Chazz Palminteri and William Baldwin; magician Criss Angel; MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall; drummer Sheila E.; and supermodel Niki Taylor.

Navarrete won a package of prizes including an undisclosed salary, a luxury New York apartment with living expenses, a one-year scholarship to the New York Film Academy with housing after her reign, plus jewelry, clothes and shoes fit for a beauty champion.

Campbell won the Miss Congeniality Universe award. Miss Thailand Fonthip Watcharatrakul won Miss Photogenic Universe and a second award for having the best national costume. First runner-up was Miss Jamaica Yendi Phillipps, while second runner-up was Miss Australia Jesinta Campbell. Fakih, a 24-year-old Lebanese immigrant from Dearborn, Mich., spurred celebrations among Arab-Americans when she won Miss USA. Pageant records aren't detailed enough to show whether Fakih is the first Arab-American, Muslim or immigrant to win Miss USA.

Miss USA has not been named Miss Universe since Brook Lee won the title in 1997."

I'm not too sure about this one. She may be gorgeous, but she is either giving the politician's answers to questions or really doesn't understand the questions. What kind of answer to the importance of the Internet was that? "I do believe that Internet is an indispensable, necessary tool for the present time," she said through an interpreter. "We must be sure to teach them the values that we learned as a family." Teach who? And who is to say that your family values are the right ones for everyone? I'm not crazy about that answer.

The other answer that I didn't warm to was this: "But I tell you that all the Mexicans and the Latins that are living here in the United States are hardworking people — people who want to improve on their quality of life." Don't make blanket statements of that kind. Undoubtedly the majority of them are here to work hard and get ahead and send money home to their families to help them to have better lives. However, there are plenty of bad apples here as well.

But I thought I saw some other headline about her briefly on Yahoo! News. Let me see...

I guess that was it. None-the-less, I wasn't impressed with her remarks.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

How did Barnes & Noble Fall so Far so Fast?

How did Barnes & Noble fall so far so fast?

The giant bookstore chain, whose superstores once struck fear into the hearts of independent booksellers everywhere, put itself up for sale this month, rendering it the corporate equivalent of the remaindered books it sells at a discount.

The company said it made the move because its shares are undervalued, but to me there was an air of desperation about it.

The simple explanation for Barnes & Noble's decline is the Internet, which spawned Amazon.com, e-readers and digital books. But that didn't have to be the end for B&N, which had a dominant market position and should have out-Amazoned Amazon, leveraging its brand and innovating when it began marketing and selling books online.

I know exactly when B&N lost me as a customer. Some years ago, to compete with Amazon, B&N began offering free same-day delivery in Manhattan if you placed your order over the Internet by 11 a.m. I did so several times -- and not once did the books arrive when promised. Everything I have ordered from Amazon has arrived on time or earlier. Then came Amazon's game-changing3 Kindle, and instant delivery. Nothing I've read about B&N's belated rival
Nook has tempted me to try it.

My hunch is that B&N never really embraced the Internet or e-books, tied as it was to the old-fashioned world of physical books and stores. As B&N focused on managing decline, a much more nimble Amazon could concentrate exclusively on the new world it was forming. B&N needed to destroy its business model to prevail. Now it is probably too late. There is a lesson
for all businesses here.

Now I'm using Apple's iPad, and while I predicted the demise of the Kindle in a previous column, I may have been premature. I like reading on the iPad, especially in bed at night and in other places where the device's back-lighting comes in handy. So far, it hasn't bothered my eyes at all, unlike the indistinct pages of the Kindle. But the Kindle is better outdoors.

I also suspect there may be a place for a dedicated reading device. When I open the iPad to read a book, I'm confronted with a dizzying array of options, from the latest episode of "Mad Men" to the current action in Asian stock markets. Is this information overload? Too often I find myself
distracted by information I don't really need. bks

I can't say I miss physical books. My shelves are already groaning and can't accommodate any more. I do miss the bookstore I grew up with in the Midwest and the small stores that once dotted my neighborhood. Could B&N's decline pave the way for the return of the independent bookseller?

Despite the array of suggestions tailored to my interests (or at least to my recent purchases) that appear when I open the Amazon site, I still yearn for someone intelligent who can recommend a good book. I enjoy the community of other people who love books. I like talking to someone both before buying a book and after reading it. I think independent bookstores may be able to provide these services even while selling over the Internet. Their overhead should be lower, since they don't need to carry huge inventories of physical books and don't need huge retail spaces. Maybe I'm naive, but I'd like to think there are new opportunities for booksellers.

As for B&N, I give them credit for democratizing books, boosting sales and getting people to read. As an author, I feel I've benefited from their aggressive marketing and in-store promotions. But I feel that world already has disappeared. Maybe dissident B&N shareholder Ron Burkle has some bold ideas for reinventing book retailing. If so, more power to him. But as an investor, I'm staying clear of B&N shares. (I do own Amazon, as I've reported.)

B&N shares sank below $12 a share in July, less than half their high for the year. They jumped more than $3 after news of the sale, suggesting some investors think a bidding war might break out. The company says it is selling because shares are cheap. But in my experience, most companies sell when they believe their shares are expensive.

-- James B. Stewart, a columnist for SmartMoney magazine and SmartMoney.com, writes weekly about his personal-investing strategy. Unlike Dow Jones reporters, he may have positions in the stocks he writes about. For his past columns, see: www.smartmoney.com/commonsense.

Fifteen Things You Shouldn't be Paying For

I'm not frugal. I don't clip coupons, I don't comparison shop, and I don't believe in living any other way than large - not a comment on my weight, although there is a good argument for it. But if you are into the freebies, here you go. I plan on single-handedly boosting the economy no matter what.

"So much money and energy is wasted on things we could get for free. If you're into new, shiny things and collecting stuff, this is not for you. But if you want less clutter in your life and want to keep more of your money, then check out these 15 things you shouldn't be paying for.

Basic Computer Software -- Thinking of purchasing a new computer? Think twice before you fork over the funds for a bunch of extra software. There are some great alternatives to the name brand software programs. The most notable is OpenOffice, the open-source alternative to those other guys. It's completely free and files can be exported in compatible formats.

Your Credit Report -- You don't have to pay for your credit report. You could sign up for one of the free credit monitoring services online to get a quick look at your credit report. You just have to remember to cancel the service before the end of the free trial. Or you could do one better and
visit www.annualcreditreport.com, the only truly free place to see all three of your credit reports for free once a year.

Cell Phone -- The service plan may be expensive, but the phone itself doesn't have to cost a thing. Most major carriers will give you a free phone, even a free smart phone, with a two-year contract.

Books -- There's a cool place in your town that's renting out books for free: the library. Remember that place? Stop by and put your favorite book on reserve. And if you don't feel like getting out, visit www.paperbackswap.com and find your books there (small shipping fees apply).

Water -- Besides the monthly utility bill, there's no reason to shell out $1 for every bottle of water you drink. Bottled water is so last decade anyway. We're over it, and into tap, filters, and reusable water bottles. It's cheaper for you and better for the environment.

Credit Card -- With as many credit cards as there are available on the market today, it's easy to avoid a credit card with an annual fee. Unless you're dead set on a particular perk that a fee card brings, skip the annual fee card and pocket that money yourself.

Debt Reduction Help -- Speaking of credit cards, if you're in over your head with credit card help, there are many free sources you can turn to for help with your debt. No one is going to be able to magically wipe away your debts, but there is help out there that will set you up on a debt reduction plan you can handle. Start with a visit to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Basic Tax Preparation -- If your tax situation isn't that complicated, then you should probably be preparing your own tax return using one of the many free online services. It's now common for e-filing to be free as well with many services. You won't even need a stamp.

The News -- Leave it to a blogger to try and kill off traditional print. I'm not anti-newspaper. I just don't find them practical anymore. Skip the daily .50 cents and get your news online. And for you dedicated coupon clippers, you can get most of your Sunday coupons online now too.

Budgeting Tools -- There are many budgeting tools (both online and desktop) that offer up the service for free. Don't ask me how they do this, but who cares. If you're looking to reign in some of your spending, the good news is you can do it for free.

Pets -- This is a controversial one, I know. But there are likely many pets down at your local animal shelter that could use just as much love as the pure-bred types. There may be a small fee due to the shelter for shots and basic care, but you'll have your pet home without paying a mini-fortune.

Shipping -- If you like to buy online, you probably use coupons to get a percentage off of your purchase. Take your skills to the next level and look for coupons or promotion codes that offer free shipping. If in doubt, visit a site like www.freeshipping.org.

Checking Account -- Isn't it nice when a bank takes your money, lends it out to earn money, and then has the audacity to charge you for the service? What a joke. Checking should be free. If yours isn't free then move to one of the many banks that offers a checking account for free. And the same can be said for ATM fees, teller fees, and checks.

DVD Rentals -- Did you know that you can rent DVDs from RedBox locations for $1 a night? And better yet, if you use one of the coupon codes from you can avoid the $1 charge. Free DVD rentals! Most libraries now have free DVD rental as well.

Exercise -- Skip the expensive gym memberships. Visit your local park for a walk or run. Do basic push-up and sit-up programs in your living room. Rent a workout DVD from the library. There are many free workout programs you can download online as well.

Can you think of any other things you should be getting for free? Leave your suggestions in the comments below."

No Article, Just me... Not Sleeping...

Given the time (03:49), this may not be one of my wittier, more meaty postings, but the idea here is to fall once again into the arms of Morpheus. That is the only thing I really want to do.

Two things woke me up: the medication, which at half the dose is not as effective and my nasal passages, which are completely blocked up. It has been really bad the last two nights, driving me to take Benadryl during the night. I guess the one good thing is that it makes the user drowsy, so maybe this will help me get back to sleep.

This is what I have been trying to explain to my doctor. Their office called in the script for 60 tablets and I got those, and as usual, began taking two at night. The same dose I've been on for at the very least a year, although I know it's longer than that. Now, suddenly, I'm down to one with a hundred other things to help assist it and then they will figure out "something".

Last night (well, the night before. I did not get steady sleep. I was up at 00:20, 01:40, 03:10 and finally at 5:50.

This night I got lucky, I slept from 10:10 to 03:33. But now I'm weeding out the yard... I think the Benadryl is finally kicking in... back to bed.

Friday, 20 August 2010

President Obama Car Metaphor

Unlike W, this guy can at least speak – proper English, no made-up words, sounds intelligent…

Article: "SEATTLE — It started out simple enough. There was a car (the economy). And a ditch (the recession), Republicans had been driving the car (were in power) for eight years. It went into the ditch. And now that Democrats have dug the car out (won power and passed a bunch of economic recovery policies), the Republicans want back the keys (power).

The first time President Barack Obama used the metaphor at a Democratic fundraiser in April, he spent exactly four sentences on it: “And yet, after driving our economy into the ditch, they decided to stand on the side of the road and watch us while we pulled it out of the ditch,” Obama said at the Los Angeles event for Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. “They asked, ‘Why haven't you pulled it out fast enough?’ ‘I noticed there's, like, a little scratch there in the fender. Why didn't you do something about that?’”

It has since become the Mr. Potato Head of campaign stump speech metaphors. The president keeps expanding on it. This week, as he repeated it at fundraisers across the country, it continued to balloon into several paragraphs and with bells and whistles tacked on in all directions.

Obama changes features around. He introduces new characters. He adds new props. The other day he decided Republicans were sipping Slurpees as they watched Democrats dig out the car. (Incidentally, Obama is the only president to ever use the word “Slurpee” in a speech, according to the archives of The American Presidency Project).

There’s been a lot of mud in the ditch. It’s been all over Democrats as they push and shove, sometimes with their shoulders. In some speeches Obama has the Democrats wearing boots. Other times they’re wearing galoshes. He’s added bugs and sweat to the scene. There are sore backs and “huffing and puffing.” His family and political friends get cameos. And while he’s insistent that Republicans can’t drive, he’s offered for them to hop in the back seat. “We put on our boots and walked into the ditch. It’s muddy and hot and dusty and bugs everywhere, and we’re pushing,” Obama said, having fun with the metaphor at a fundraiser Tuesday for Washington Sen. Patty Murray in Seattle. “And we’re slipping and sliding and sweating.”

The scene of when Democrats have dug the car out of the ditch (stabilized the economy) differs from event to event. In one speech Obama has the car finally set on “the blacktop” when Republicans are wanting the keys back. But sometimes he puts the car “up on pavement.” Or, he’ll just simply place it “on level ground.”

Various people have interacted with the figurative car as Obama has shaped his favorite metaphor. Last month he said Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan’s opponent “had his hands on the wheel” when it went into the ditch because he had been part of Republican House leadership.

At a fundraiser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada in July, Obama accused Republicans of trying to get in the car and run over “me and Harry.” “Harry Reid and I, we got mud on our shoes. We're — we've been pushing and shoving — car is just kind of getting out, almost on some pavement,” Obama said during remarks in Las Vegas. “Suddenly, they're all, ‘No, no, we want to pull into reverse.’ Run right over Harry and me. Get you back in the mud.”

Obama even introduced his 12-year-old daughter Malia to the ditch. It was during a Carnahan fundraiser that same day in Kansas City. “I don't have a teenager yet, but in a couple years, Malia is going to be able to drive, right?” Obama said. “That’s what happens with teenagers, right, they go get the learner's permit, they — now, if your teenager drives into a ditch, your car, bangs it up, you've got to pay a lot of money to get it out, what do you do? You take the keys away.”

This week the president brought some hypothetical passengers into the fold. “If we give them the keys to this economy, they are going to drive it right back into the ditch,” Obama said of Republicans. “And riding shotgun will be the big banks and the insurance companies and the oil companies and every special interest under the sun.”

In many ways, Obama is continuing a long history of presidents overusing anecdotes and metaphors to drive home their points. Ronald Reagan was known as a great storyteller — and embellisher, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. Abraham Lincoln — one of Obama’s favorite presidents — “was the greatest of all spinners of anecdotes,” Baker added.

“There ought to be a separate chapter in all American history books devoted to the rhetorical excesses of American presidents,” he said. “More recent presidents use these case studies of ‘ordinary Americans’ who have encountered some hardship or achieved something remarkable as examples of American pluck and determination.”

Obama may have claimed the ditch and the car by now, but he is not the first Democrat to use the metaphor.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was talking about the ditch months before Obama. In January, three months before Obama first spoke of “the ditch,” Van Hollen used the metaphor in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “Why would you hand the keys to the car back to the same guys whose policies drove the economy into the ditch and then walked away from the scene of the accident?” Van Hollen said. “For the Republicans to say vote for us and bring back the guys who got us into this mess in the first place, I don’t think it’s a winner.”

Usually Obama reserves the ditch-car routine for campaign events only. But he used it once in a speech to the AFL-CIO’s executive council earlier this month. It was there that he played up his favorite addendum to the metaphor: “Somebody pointed out to me that when you're in a car and you want to go forward, you put it in ‘D,’” he said. “You want to go back in the ditch; you put it in ‘R.’ So I just want everybody to think about that.”

Just as Obama has cribbed from others — some credit Democratic strategist Paul Begala as the first one to use the ‘D’-drive and ‘R’-reverse bit — others are now cribbing from Obama.

At a Chicago fundraiser earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois took to the podium before Obama and robbed him of his metaphor. Quinn, whose delivery was much less animated than Obama’s, forced the president to back into his signature moment.

“I think Pat may have mentioned to you, they're trying to get you to forget that they drove the car into the ditch,” Obama said of Republicans. “And after we've pushed it out, now they're saying, ‘Give us the keys back.’ But we don't — we haven't forgotten, because we've got mud on our shoes, our back is sore from pushing that car out of the ditch. And I mean, if they want to get in the back seat, that's OK. But we're not going to put them behind the wheel.”

For a moment during another fundraiser in Chicago that same day, the metaphor even seemed to become too much for Obama. “I also want to make a simple point — not to belabor this analogy,” he said, “but when you want to go forward, what do you put the car in?” And this time the audience got involved. "D!" the crowd shouted. “D,” Obama replied.

With his rhetorical Christmas tree now festooned with flies, bugs, Slurpees, backaches, back-seat drivers, car accidents, sweat, dust and galoshes, who knows how Obama’s ditch will grow from now until November?

But there’s one question that will remain unanswered for another three months: Who gets the car?

Unguarded Border Bridges Could be Route into U,S,

ACALA, Texas – On each side of a towering West Texas stretch of the $2.4 billion border fence designed to block people from illegally entering the country, there are two metal footbridges, clear paths into the United States from Mexico. The footpaths that could easily guide illegal immigrants and smugglers across the Rio Grande without getting wet seem to be there because of what amounts to federal linguistics. While just about anyone would call them bridges, the U.S.-Mexico group that owns them calls them something else.

"Technically speaking it's not a bridge, it's a grade control structure," said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, which maintains the integrity of the 1,200-mile river border between the U.S. and Mexico. The structures under the spans help prevent the river — and therefore the international border — from shifting.

Whatever they're called, there are fresh sneaker tracks on the structures — indicating they're being used as passages into the country.

"This is outrageous and yet another example of the federal government failing miserably in its duty to secure the border from those who wish to do us harm, and they need to take immediate action to address this situation," Katherine Cesinger, spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said in a Wednesday statement.

The realization that a section of the border fence is sandwiched between two footbridges comes at a time of heightened alarm along the U.S.-Mexico border as the drug war in northern Mexico continues unabated. President Barack Obama ordered thousands of National Guard troops to the border but Perry has railed that the federal government isn't doing enough to keep Americans safe and illegal immigrants out.

The steel fencing that dots about 600 miles of border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California was built under former President George W. Bush's administration amid a national outcry for border security. The steel fencing appears in rural areas, while urban areas have shorter, concrete vehicle barriers.

"If we are spending so much money on a fence, why not put some into cutting (the bridges) out, eliminating an easy access at a place that is not a port?" said Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition.

The footbridges were built in the 1930s as part of a treaty with Mexico, Spener said.

On a recent visit to a bridge west of the fence line near Acala, Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor Ramiro Cordero spotted an hours-old adult-sized sneaker print in the soft sand at the foot of the bridge facing into the United States. In a border tour with the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Office in March, Associated Press journalists happened upon the bridge moments after a man with a bicycle used the bridge to cross the river from Mexico. The border crosser, who told authorities he was only trying to fish from the north side of the river, was promptly arrested.

"If he can do it, so can drug cartels with loads of narcotics of any kind," Hudspeth County Sheriff's Lt. Robert Wilson said. "Even a terrorist could pass here with weapons of mass destruction and be in the United States and up on the interstate and gone in a short time."

It's unclear how often the bridge is used, but it's common to see people on the Mexican side lingering around the crossing or others playing in the river in the area. The bridges may have made sense decades ago when they were built, Wilson said, but times have changed and the once quiet area across the border from rural Hudspeth County has been enveloped in Mexico's drug war.

Cartel fighters have overrun a series of small towns in the Valle de Juarez, about 50 miles east of Ciudad Juarez, ground zero in the bloody drug war. Residents have been forced to flee north to Fort Hancock after cartel fighters burned down houses, tried to torch a local Catholic church and
threatened to kill anyone who stayed.

"It made a lot of sense for flood control when the boundary commission built them," Wilson said. "Now with the way things have progressed, it's pretty silly there are no controls here."

Cordero insists agents in the area pay close attention to the bridges and other areas easily crossed on foot or by car. He said there also are numerous underground censors around the bridges that alert agents to area traffic. But patrols in such an open area can appear to be sporadic to the average observer as marked Border Patrol trucks cruise up and down a river
levee road along the border.

The crossings are owned by both the United States and Mexico and are needed for workers to maintain and occasionally fix cement structures that support the bridge, Spener said. Any changes to the structures, she said, would have to be approved by officials in both countries. And no one has ever asked to secure the bridges or remove them, she said. "We would be happy to work with Border Patrol if they have security concerns they've identified," Spener said. "It would be a challenge, but we'd be happy to discuss it."

Cordero said he's not aware of any requests by Border Patrol or the Department of Homeland Security to secure the crossings. But still, he concedes, it would be nice if there was more security around the remote crossing. "Obviously this is where technology and the experience of our agents come into play," Cordero said. "Do we have to pay more attention here? Yes, because we're talking seconds that they can get in."

This article was interesting to me on a personal level. I know more people than I care to think from previous jobs who came to the United States illegally and in time ditched the made up identification and went through the difficult, arduous and chancy route of becoming legally authorized to work in the United States and eventually become naturalised citizens. I appreciate the fact that they are not illegal immigrants lobbying for rights they should not have. I don't agree for all that I may be a liberal bleeding heart case that we should grant them any kind of boons or benefits. None. No putting your kids into special school grants. No special favours of any kind. That would be crazy.

It's funny, a friend of mine, Joe, and I mock-argue all the time about the long U.S. borders and how we should be keeping them well-patrolled to keep out the immigrants who will fill up our country. Wiring the fences to make them electrical, keeping guys at the borders ready to sharp shoot whatever poor hapless person is trying to escape a country that now more mirrors Colombia and its drug issues. Can you really blame the person? I'd be trying to sneak out over and over again until I finally did it. Then I'd hole up somewhere and work on my English until I could pass for truly being bilingual. That is half the problem, you know, around here... immigrants move into towns or cities like Kearney which is now completely Hispanic. The street signs are in Spanish!

I will tell you right now that people are much more successful if they can pick up better than passable Spanish. We have some excellent examples in many places of work, where employees look more into improving their English; being more proactive in getting into casual English conversation.

Anyway, this article reminded me of our good-hearted bickering over this very ongoing issue.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Hoe to Hide From Friends You Don't Like

On Friday August 13, 2010, 10:48 am EDT
New York Times

With more than 500 million people now on Facebook, it's inevitable that you'll be friended by someone you know, but with whom you don't want to share your online life. Once you've accepted them as a friend, how do you avoid them without the awkwardness of unfriending them?

Facebook has made it easy to hide other members' status updates. Place your mouse over an update from, say, Charlie, and a light blue X appears to the upper right corner of the update. Click the X, and Facebook will present you with three buttons from which to choose: Hide Charlie, Mark as Spam and Cancel. If you click Hide Charlie, you'll never see Charlie's updates again. (Click Spam and the message disappears and a notice gets sent to Facebook's servers and analyzed by spam filtering software.)

But how do you keep Charlie from reading your updates? Skirting your way around someone you've accepted as a Facebook friend is trickier. When you write a status update of your own, look for the lock-shaped icon below and to the right of the text input box. Click on the lock, and Facebook will pop up a menu. Click the bottom option, Customize. That will pop up a dialog box labeled Custom Privacy that lets you filter who will see your update.

There are two ways to exclude people. The quick and easy way is to type their names into the box labeled "Hide this from these people" at the bottom of the dialog box. To hide all future updates from these folks, click the checkbox at the very bottom that says "Make this my default setting." Then click the big blue Save Setting button. From now on, evil Charlie won't get your updates.The more sophisticated solution is to replace this blacklist with a list of people you do like. That way you can accept any number of new friends without having to accidentally share your updates with them.

To do this, click on Friends in the left margin of Facebook's interface. You'll see a button at the top of the Friends page labeled "+ Create a List". Click that and use the dialog box that pops up to make a list of the friends you want to share with. Call it, say, True Friends.

Next time you post an update, follow the instructions above to bring up the Customize dialog box. But instead of typing into the "Hide this" field, click the menu at the top labeled "Make this visible to these people." Select the option Specific People. A text input box will appear. Type the name of your new list, True Friends, into this field. Click "Make this my default setting" and then Save Setting. From now on, only your True Friends list will see your updates. Complicated and annoying, yes, but probably much less so than it was going to high school with Charlie.

Got a how-to question about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace or another social network? Hit me up on Facebook [http://paulboutin.socialtoo.com], Twitter [http://twitter.com/paulboutin], or email [mailto:boutin@gmail.com]. All correspondence will be kept confidential.

MUST READ: Do You Know What this Symbol Means?

Do you recognize the symbol here? It lights up in your instrument panel and looks like a U-shaped pictograph with treads and an exclamation point in the middle.

Do you understand what it means now?

If you guessed a low tire-pressure warning, you are right. If you didn’t recognize the symbol, that’s also understandable because one out of three drivers do not, according to Schrader, a company that makes tire pressure monitoring systems.

The warning for the TPMS lights up when one or more of your vehicle’s tires is 25% below the manufacturer’s recommended pressure. The system is now required on all vehicles starting with the 2008 model year.

The issue here seems to be that the public hasn’t been properly educated on the warning symbol, which is supposed to be “idiot proof” and understandable across a wide variety of cultures and languages. Yet 46% of drivers couldn’t figure out that the icon represents a tire and 14% thought the symbol represented another problem with the vehicle entirely, according to Schrader.

As we said earlier in the week, properly inflated tires are vitally important to your safety. Low pressure will affect your braking, acceleration, stability, cornering and fuel economy. The government instituted the TPMS mandate after the Bridgestone/Firestone tire failures on the Ford Explorer in 2000, a controversy that was partly attributed to inadequately inflated tires.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

One of These Days...

I'll sit down and write something a lot more meaningful. I've been meaning to, but I get home so exhausted (the joys of MD) that I eat dinner, take a nap and then do stuff before I go to bed. It's turned into a weirder life than I had before!

But it's not much good as a life if I just waste it away turning into a turnip on the couch, not reading, not writing, not even putting in five minutes on Facebook. (Not that this should be where the bulk of my time goes, but you know what I mean.)

However, it is time to get dressed, go to work for the next round of this week's pick of the fun. I must say that I've suddenly been able to get a lot of little things cleared away and off my burgeoning To Do list, which is a good - no, delicious - feeling. Isn't that a great word choice? It was much better than a mere "good" would indicate.

OK. More later, I hope!

Judge Orders Wells Fargo to Pay Back $203M in Fees

Suddenly so much makes sense... read on:

"NEW YORK (AP) -- A federal judge in California ordered Wells Fargo & Co. to change what he called "unfair and deceptive business practices" that led customers into paying multiple overdraft fees, and to pay $203 million back to customers.

In a decision handed down late Tuesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup accused Wells Fargo of "profiteering" by changing its policies to process checks, debit card transactions and bill payments from the highest dollar amount to the lowest, rather than in the order the transactions took place. That helped drain customer bank accounts faster and drive up overdraft fees, a policy Alsup referred to as "gouging and profiteering." Wells Fargo adopted the policies beginning in 2001, and they became widespread across the banking industry. It is unclear how the ruling would apply to the rest of the industry.

The ruling detailed the experiences of two Wells Fargo customers who used their debit cards for multiple small purchases, and were then charged hundreds in overdraft fees because the order the purchases were cleared by the bank depended on the amounts. The judge found the customers, who were part of a class action, were not properly informed of the bank's policies on processing payments and were unaware the bank would allow debit purchases to go through when their accounts were overdrawn.

"Internal bank memos and e-mails leave no doubt that, overdraft revenue being a big profit center, the bank's dominant, indeed sole, motive was to maximize the number of overdrafts," Alsup wrote. That policy would "squeeze as much as possible" from customers with overdrafts, in particular from the 4 percent of customers who paid what he called "a whopping 40 percent of its total overdraft and returned-item revenue."

The judge dismissed Wells Fargo's arguments that customers wanted and benefited from the policies, and detailed evidence he said showed efforts to obscure the practices in statements and other materials. Wells Fargo's online banking system, for example, would display pending purchases in chronological order, "leading customers to believe that the processing would take place in that order."

"The supposed net benefit of high-to-low resequencing is utterly speculative," he wrote. "Its bone-crushing multiplication of additional overdraft penalties, however, is categorically assured."

Alsup also criticized the bank for allowing overdraft purchases after accounts had been drained by offering a "shadow line of credit" that customers were unaware existed. The decision noted that the Federal Reserve has outlawed some of the practices detailed in the case, most notably debit card overdrafts permitted without customers agreeing to accept overdraft protection.

Judge Alsup ordered Wells Fargo to stop posting transactions in high-to-low order by Nov. 30 and to reverse overdraft fees charged to customers from Nov. 15, 2004, to June 30, 2008, as a result of the policy. A study cited in the decision by a Wells Fargo witness put the restitution at "close to $203 million."

Wells Fargo spokeswoman Richele Messick said the bank is "disappointed" with the ruling. "We don't believe the ruling is in line with the facts of this case and we plan to appeal," she said. Messick noted that Wells Fargo changed its policies earlier this year, and customers can no longer incur more than four overdraft charges in one day.

Wells Fargo shares closed Wednesday trading down $1.47, or 5.3 percent, at $26.30, as the broader markets dropped sharply on economic concerns, with banks being particularly hard hit.

The case, heard in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, is Gutierrez vs. Wells Fargo."

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Are Fed-Up American Workers Getting their Gumption Back?

"Surveys show employees are tired and disillusioned with their employers.
Helen King / Corbis

As companies cut a higher-than-expected 131,000 jobs in July, you can't blame the American worker for seething. Wages remain stagnant and unemployment is at 9.5 percent, even as employee productivity is at levels not seen since 2002. Much of the workforce has endured pay cuts, furloughs, and a loss of benefits. During the same time frame, corporate profits have rebounded, according to the Standard & Poor's 500 Index. Main Street may not be adding jobs, but Wall Street went on a hiring binge, and according to a recent report by Obama's executive-compensation czar, banks paid $1.58 billion in bonuses at the end of 2008, just days after receiving federal bailout money and dangerously close to the nexus of the financial collapse.

Is it any wonder the average employee is in a bad mood? "There's more of a divide in terms of compensation between senior executives and the average worker now," says Thomas Kochan, a professor of management at MIT. "This will have a lasting effect and lead to lower trust and lower confidence in management." If this environment lingers, it could lead to a profound cultural change in the way Americans view work.

Could this signal the return of workers' confidence and attitude—enough to ask for long overdue raises or the return of benefits that were taken away? New Yorker Ilana Arazie feels this change, even as she searches for a new full-time job. The 35-year-old lost her position in digital marketing at the Associated Press in November 2009. Since then, she survived through a mix of freelance writing and unemployment checks while launching a blog called Downtown Dharma. Five years ago, she dreamed of climbing the corporate ladder. Now she dreams of finding a position that does not consume her life. "I think people are less apt to take jobs that stick them in a cubicle," she says.

As the recession drags on, academics and executive coaches say workers have become disconnected from companies. Eighteen percent of large companies recently surveyed by Towers Watson said they had cut or eliminated the matching money they contributed to employees' retirement plans, starting in September 2008. Even when profits came back, those benefits often have not. Companies have been slow to hire new workers, even though corporations, apart from financial firms, have $837 billion in cash, an increase of 26 percent since last year.

Nearly 48 percent of Americans say they planned to look for a new job once the economy stabilizes. Roughly half of those surveyed say they no longer trust their companies or feel like they treat workers fairly, according to Deloitte's 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey. "When you consider this, it has huge implication for companies' bottom lines," says Sharon Allen, chairman of Deloitte. "It costs money to replace workers, and it's very costly in terms of the loss of institutional knowledge."

After enduring grueling work schedules for several years, many people, for the first time in several years, feel empowered to ask for more—be it money, time off, stock options, bonuses, promotions, or the ability to work from home. The CEO of an outplacement firm says he has seen this firsthand. "It's not that workers feel entitled. It's that they feel like they've earned it because there's a little more room out there," says John Challenger of Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. And, if employees feel like companies are not responsive, the high performers eventually will leave. "A lot of it will be psychological, like they need to get away," says Virginia Mathis, an organizational-development consultant.

But will asking for more actually get employees anywhere?

The recession has irrevocably shifted the labor market. While top performers and those in hot industries such as tech or finance may still be able to negotiate generous compensation packages, ordinary workers may not see the cash. Employees may change jobs, only to find out that the same problems exist at new offices. Worse, workers will simply become accustomed to this new reality and feel a dampening of ambition: a sense of gratitude for any job. "It just becomes a way of life," says Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. For employees to really gain the upper hand again, they may need to wait until unemployment drops back to the 5 to 7 percent range. Unfortunately for everyone, that isn't expected any time soon."

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Sudden Weirdness on Whippany Road!

I drove through the light on Monday... and there was no light! Duh... where did it go?! It used to be in front of the Lucent Technologies Industrial park. I think it is now Alcatel. At any rate, it is gone. And the light just beyond that was a new light fixture. They must have done it over the weekend. It was quite surprising.

Turns out (and had I thought this through more I'd have known this) the Alcatel there was closed. The light was a timed monstrosity to let the commuters out. But there've been no commuters for a year or so now.

Still, it was very weird!

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

ARTICLE: Dangerous Supplements

We Americans do love our dietary supplements. More than half of the adult population have taken them to stay healthy, lose weight, gain an edge in sports or in the bedroom, and avoid using prescription drugs. In 2009, we spent $26.7 billion on them, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication.

What consumers might not realize, though, is that supplement manufacturers routinely, and legally, sell their products without first having to demonstrate that they are safe and effective. The Food and Drug Administration has not made full use of even the meager authority granted it by the industry--friendly 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA).

As a result, the supplement marketplace is not as safe as it should be.

We have identified a dozen supplement ingredients that we think consumers should avoid because of health risks, including cardiovascular, liver, and kidney problems. We found products with those ingredients readily available in stores and online.

Because of inadequate quality control and inspection, supplements contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides, or prescription drugs have been sold to unsuspecting consumers. And FDA rules covering manufacturing quality don’t apply to the companies that supply herbs, vitamins, and other raw ingredients.

China, which has repeatedly been caught exporting contaminated products, is a major supplier of raw supplement ingredients. The FDA has yet to inspect a single factory there.

The lack of oversight leaves consumers like John Coolidge, 55, of Signal Mountain, Tenn., vulnerable. He started taking a supplement called Total Body Formula to improve his general health. But instead, he says, beginning in February 2008, he experienced one symptom after another: diarrhea, joint pain, hair loss, lung problems, and fingernails and toenails that fell off. “It just tore me up,” he said.

Eventually, hundreds of other reports of adverse reactions to the product came to the attention of the FDA, which inspected the manufacturer’s facilities and tested the contents of the products. Most of the samples contained more than 200 times the labeled amount of selenium and up to 17 times the recommended intake of chromium, according to the FDA.

In March 2008 the distributor voluntarily recalled the products involved. Coolidge is suing multiple companies for compensatory damages; they have denied the claims in court papers. His nails and hair have grown back, but he said he still suffers from serious breathing problems.

The Dirty Dozen

Working with experts from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research group, we identified a group of ingredients (out of nearly 1,100 in the database) linked to serious adverse events by clinical research or case reports. To come up with our dozen finalists, we also considered factors such as whether the ingredients were effective for their purported uses and how readily available they were to consumers. We then shopped for them online and in stores near our Yonkers, N.Y., headquarters and easily found all of them for sale in June 2010.

The dozen are aconite, bitter orange, chaparral, colloidal silver, coltsfoot, comfrey, country mallow, germanium, greater celandine, kava, lobelia, and yohimbe. The FDA has warned about at least eight of them, some as long ago as 1993.

Why are they still for sale? Two national retailers we contacted about specific supplements said they carried them because the FDA has not banned them. The agency has “the authority to immediately remove them from the market, and we would follow the FDA recommendation,” said a spokeswoman for the Vitamin Shoppe chain.

Most of the products we bought had warning labels, but not all did. A bottle of silver we purchased was labeled “perfectly safe,” with an asterisked note that said the FDA had not evaluated the claim. In fact, the FDA issued a consumer advisory about silver (including colloidal silver) in 2009, with good reason: Sold for its supposed immune system “support,” it can permanently turn skin bluish-gray.

Janis Dowd, 56, of Bartlesville, Okla., says she started taking colloidal silver in 2000 after reading online that it would keep her Lyme disease from returning. She says her skin changed color so gradually that she didn’t notice, but others did. “They kept saying, ‘You look a little blue.’”

Laser treatments have erased almost all the discoloration from Dowd’s face and neck, but she said it’s not feasible to treat the rest of her body.

Under the DSHEA, it is difficult for the FDA to put together strong enough evidence to order products off the market. To date, it has banned only one ingredient, ephedrine alkaloids. That effort dragged on for a decade, during which ephedra weight-loss products were implicated in thousands of adverse events, including deaths. Instead of attempting any more outright bans, the agency issued warnings, detained imported products, and asked companies to recall products it considered unsafe.