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Cranes, and rooftops, should be decorated

Look at the skyline of any growing city, and what do you see, but a sea of construction cranes. The theory is that each crane will go away and be replaced by an architectually interesting or pleasing building, but the cycle continues and there are always cranes.

Surprising math on Obamacare levels: Go for the Bronze!

Recently I learned from health.net, the insurer which did my individual plan, that they were canceling it. I'm one of those who lost his health plan with the switch to the ACA (Obamacare) plans, so I need to shop in the healthcare marketplace and will likely end up paying more.

What surprised me when I went to the marketplace was the math of the plans. For those who don't know, there are 4 main classes of plans (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum) which are roughly the same for all insurers. There is also a 5th, "Catastrophic" plan available to under-30s and hardship cases, which is cheaper and covers even less than Bronze. Low income people get a great subsidized price in the marketplace, but people with decent incomes get no subsidy.

The 4 plans are designed so that for the average patient, they will end up paying 60% (Bronze), 70% (Silver), 80% (Gold) or 90% (Platinum) of health care costs, with the patient, on average, bearing the rest. All plans come with a "Maximum out of pocket" (MOOP) that is at most $6,350 for all plans but $4,000 (or less) for the Platinum.

Here's some analysis based on California prices and plans. The other states can vary a fair bit. Insurance is much cheaper in some regions, and there are plans that use moderately different formulae. In every state the MOOP is no more than $6,350 and the actuarial percentages are the same.

As you might expect, the Platinum costs a lot more than the Bronze. But at my age, in my early 50s, I was surprised how much more. I decided to plug in numbers for Blue Cross, which is actually slightly cheaper than many of the other plans. I actually have little information with which to compare the companies. This is quite odd -- my health insurance is going to be by biggest annual expenditure after my mortgage. More than my car -- but there's tons of information to help you choose a car. (Consumer Reports does have a comparison article on the major insurance companies before the ACA for their subscribers.)

The Platinum plan costs $350/month extra over Bronze, $4200/year. Almost as much as the MOOP. So I decided to build a spreadsheet that would show me what I would end up paying on each plan in total -- premiums plus my personal outlays. Here is the sheet for me in my early 50s:

The X axis is how much your health care actually cost, ie. what your providers were paid. The Y axis is how much you had to pay. The green line is unity, with your payout equal to the cost, as might happen in theory if you were uninsured. In theory, because in reality uninsured people pay a "list price" that is several times the cost that insurance companies negotiate. Also in theory because those uninsured must pay a tax penalty.

All the plans go up at one rate until they first hit your deductibles (Bronze/Silver) and then at a slower rate until you hit your MOOP. After the MOOP they are a flat line almost no matter what your health spending does. The Silver plan is the most complex. It has a $250 drug deductible and a $2000 general deductible and the usual $6,350 MOOP. In reality, these slopes will not be smooth lines. For example, on the silver plan if you are mostly doing doctor visits and labs, you do copays, not the deductible. If you hit something else, like MRI scans or hospitalization, you pay out the full cost until you hit the deductible. So each person's slope will be different, but these slopes are meant to represent an estimate for average patients.

The surprising thing about this chart is that the Bronze plan is pretty clearly superior. Only for a small region of costs does your outlay exceed the other plans, and never by much. However, in the most likely region for most people (modest health care) or the danger zone (lots of health care) it is quite a bit cheaper. The catastrophic plan, if you can get your hands on it over 30, is even better. It almost never does worse than the other plans.

I will note that the zone where Bronze is not the winner is around the $8,400 average cost of health care in the USA. However, what I really want to learn is the median cost, a statistic that is not readily available, or even better the median cost or distribution of costs at each age cohort. The actuaries obviously know this, and I would like pointers to a source.

Premiums are tax deductible for the self-employed, as are large medical expenses for all, but the outlays above premiums can also come from a Health Savings Account (HSA) which is a special IRA-like instrument. You put in up to around $3K each year tax-free, and can pay the costs above from it. (You also don't pay tax on appreciation of the account, and can draw out the money post-retirement at a decent rate.) If you are self-employed, depending on your tax bracket, this can seriously alter the chart and push you to a more expensive plan, because the premium money comes from pre-tax dollars and the health expenses don't, unless they are more than 10% of your total income.

The chart suggests the Bronze plan is the clear winner unless you know you will be in the $6K to $10K zone where it's a modest loser. It seems to beat the Platinum all the time (at least in this simplified model) but might have minor competition from the Silver. The Gold is essentially always worse than the Silver.

If we move to age 60, now the win for Bronze is very clear. At age 60, the $5500 extra premium for Platinum almost exceeds the MOOP on the Bronze -- the Bronze will always be cheaper. This makes no sense, and seems to be a result of the fact that the MOOP remains the same no matter how old you are (and is also the same for B/S/G/Cat.) Perhaps varying deductibles and the MOOP over time would have made more variety.

Here the Gold is clearly a loser to the Silver if you were thinking about it. Nobody in this age group should buy the Gold plan but I doubt the sites will say that. Platinum is almost as clearly a loss.

Thinking about money every time you use health care

With the choice for the older person so obvious, this opens up another question, namely one of psychology. The rational thing to do is to buy the Bronze plan. But with its $5,000 deductible, you will find yourself paying out of pocket for almost all your health care except in years you need major treatments and hospitalizations.

Free conferences that refund your ticket if you show up

There's a problem I have seen at a number of free events, particularly "unconference" events which have a limited capacity. There will be a sign-up list, and once it fills up, people are turned away or get on a waiting list. (Some online ticket services now support the idea of free tickets for this purpose.)

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Generating delicious fake regional cuisine

One of the greatest things that can give a region a sense of identity is the presence of a regional cuisine. In addition to identity it brings in tourists, so every region probably really wishes it had one.

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Everybody is your 16th cousin

In my article two weeks ago about the odds of knowing a cousin I puzzled over the question of how many 3rd cousins a person might have. This is hard to answer, because it depends on figuring out how many successful offspring per generation the various levels of your family (and related families) have. Successful means that they also create a tree of descendants. This number varies a lot among families, it varies a lot among regions and it has varied a great deal over time.

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DNA scans for everybody who did a failed drug trial

The pharma industry is littered with cases of drugs that showed good promise, but proved to be too dangerous when they got into human trials. Dangerous side effects will cancel development for most drugs. In some cases, such as Vioxx and Fen-Phen the dangerous effects were discovered later, and the drugs pulled from the market.

Midwifing the Canadian Flag

I was contacted this week by the daughter of Don Watt, a well known Canadian graphic designer responsible for the branding and logos at many large companies including Loblaws and WalMart. Watt had just died at the end of December, and she was looking for more information from me about her father's account of how he had secretly been the designer of the modern Canadian Flag. She contacted me, because in his story, my father, Charles Templeton, had been the go-between for Watt and the government leaders who picked the flag.

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On worldcon and convention design

The Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Montreal was enjoyable. Like all worldcons, which are run by fans rather than professional convention staff, it had its issues, but nothing too drastic. Our worst experience actually came from the Delta hotel, which I'll describe below.

For the past few decades, Worldcons have been held in convention centers. They attract from 4,000 to 7,000 people and are generally felt to not fit in any ordinary hotel outside Las Vegas. (They don't go to Las Vegas both because there is no large fan base there to run it, and the Las Vegas Hotels, unlike those in most towns, have no incentive to offer a cut-rate deal on a summer weekend.)

Because they are always held where deals are to be had on hotels and convention space, it is not uncommon for them to get the entire convention center or a large portion of it. This turns out to be a temptation which most cons succumb to, but should not. The Montreal convention was huge and cavernous. It had little of the intimacy a mostly social event should have. Use of the entire convention center meant long walks and robbed the convention of a social center -- a single place through which you could expect people to flow, so you would see your friends, join up for hallway conversations and gather people to go for meals.

This is one of those cases where less can be more. You should not take more space than you need. The convention should be as initimate as it can be without becoming crowded. That may mean deliberately not taking function space.

A social center is vital to a good convention. Unfortunately when there are hotels in multiple directions from the convention center so that people use different exits, it is hard for the crowd to figure one out. At the Montreal convention (Anticipation) the closest thing to such a center was near the registration desk, but it never really worked. At other conventions, anywhere on the path to the primary entrance works. Sometimes it is the lobby and bar of the HQ hotel, but this was not the case here.

When the social center will not be obvious, the convention should try to find the best one, and put up a sign saying it is the congregation point. In some convention centers, meeting rooms will be on a different floor from other function space, and so it may be necessary to have two meeting points, one for in-between sessions, and the other for general time.

The social center/meeting point is the one thing it can make sense to use some space on. Expect a good fraction of the con to congregate there in break times. Let them form groups of conversation (there should be sound absorbing walls) but still be able to see and find other people in the space.

A good thing to make a meeting point work is to put up the schedule there, ideally in a dynamic way. This can be computer screens showing the titles of the upcoming sessions, or even human changed cards saying this. Anticipation used a giant schedule on the wall, which is also OK. The other methods allow descriptions to go up with the names. Anticipation did a roundly disliked "pocket" program printed on tabloid sized paper, with two pages usually needed to cover a whole day. Nobody had a pocket it could fit in. In addition, there were many changes to the schedule and the online version was not updated. Again, this is a volunteer effort, so I expect some glitches like this to happen, they are par for the course.

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Tales of the Michael Jackson lottery, eBay and security

I've been fascinated of late with the issue of eBay auctions of hot-hot items, like the playstation 3 and others. The story of the Michael Jackson memorial tickets is an interesting one.

17,000 tickets were given out as 8,500 pairs to winners chosen from 1.6 million online applications. Applicants had to give their name and address, and if they won, they further had to use or create a ticketmaster account to get their voucher. They then had to take the voucher to Dodger stadium in L.A. on Monday. (This was a dealbreaker even for honest winners from too far outside L.A. such as a Montreal flight attendant.) At the stadium, they had to present ID to show they were the winner, whereupon they were given 2 tickets (with random seat assignment) and two standard club security wristbands, one of which was affixed to their arm. They were told if the one on the arm was damaged in any way, they would not get into the memorial. The terms indicated the tickets were non-transferable.

Immediately a lot of people, especially those not from California who won, tried to sell tickets on eBay and Craigslist. In fact, even before the lottery results, people were listing something more speculative, "If I win the lottery, you pay me and you'll get my tickets." (One could enter the lottery directly of course, but this would increase your chances as only one entry was allowed, in theory, per person.)

Both eBay and Craigslist had very strong policies against listing these tickets, and apparently had staff and software working regularly to remove listings. Listings on eBay were mostly disappearing quickly, though some persisted for unknown reasons. Craiglist listings also vanished quickly, though some sellers were clever enough to put their phone numbers in their listing titles. On Craigslist a deleted ad still shows up in the search summary for some time after the posting itself is gone.

There was a strong backlash by fans against the sellers. On both sites, ordinary users were regularly hitting the links to report inappropriate postings. In addition, a brand new phenomenon emerged on eBay -- some users were deliberately placing 99 million dollar bids on any auction they found for tickets, eliminating any chance of further bidding. (See note) In that past that could earn you negative reputation, but eBay has removed negative reputation for buyers. In addition, it could earn you a mark as a non-paying buyer, but in this case, the seller is unable to file such a complaint because their auction of the non-tranferable ticket itself violates eBay's terms.

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A wireless microphone with a timer

I've written before about microphones and asking questions at conferences. Having watched another crazy person drone on and on with a long polemic and no question, this time on a wireless mic, I imagined a wireless microphone with a timer in it. The audio staff could start the timer, or the speaker could activate the microphone and start the timer. A few LED would show the time decreasing, and then music would rise up to end the question, like at the academy awards.

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Scatter bluetooth keyboards everywhere

I want to expand on my proposal to standardize connectivity for devices in hotels. Let's add to that and develop a regimen of having bluetooth keyboards everywhere. Every hotel room should have one (or the hotel should at least have one to loan you at the desk.) They should be in every cafe, on the train and every company meeting room and lobby.

They should be on the street, in kiosks. They should be at the train station. Everybody should have one at their house, for guests. And many other places.

We're moving to smaller and smaller portable devices. Not just keyboard-less iPhones and PDAs -- the new rage is ultra-mobile laptops with reduced size keyboards. We want our devices to be smaller, but there's one thing you can't shrink and keep fully usable, and that's the keyboard. Yes, people get fast on their tiny blackberry keyboards, and yes there have been clever inventions like laser projected keyboards, inflatable keyboards and the much-missed butterfly keyboard, but the small ones just can't cut it.

The small screen we seem to deal with. And via goggles or projection, there are ways to make a large screen on a tiny device if we try hard enough. But solving the typing problem requires some grander change, like perfect speech recognition, or alternate ways of typing.

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Have a projector at the back of big conference presentations

Fancier conferences put up two projectors to let the audience see the slides. But the presenters still look at their slides on a notebook on the podium, or in some cases on a monitor on the floor below their stage.

How about adding a projector that projects on the back wall, just above the heads of the audience, for the speaker to see their own slides? Then they can roam the stage and see the slides without losing eye contact with the audience. They may not be able to see clear detail on the slides but they shouldn't need it.

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Videocall terminals, with scanners and printers, for customer service

I just went through a hellish weekend at the hands of United Airlines, trying to change planes at Dulles on Saturday, and not getting to California until Monday. I wasn't alone, and while I do wish to vent at the airline, there are things that could have been better with a bit of new thinking.

As flights were canceled or delayed, and planes filled up, for most customers the only answer was the customer service centers inside the terminals. These quickly had lines of hundreds of people with waits of several hours. In some cases, just for simple transactions like getting a hotel voucher because you had been moved to the next day. (While it is possible to get such vouchers at the ticketing desks outside the secure area, Dulles is not an easy airport to move around, and people were reluctant to take the shuttles to the master terminal and leave the secure area without knowing their fate.)

Among the many things the airline is to be faulted for is having no real way to deal with the huge numbers of customers who need service when a cascading problem occurs. Multi-hour waits simply don't cut it. The answer lies in extending the facilities of the self-service kiosks. At those kiosks you can do basic check-in, changes of seating and some other minor changes. You go up, put in your card or confirmation number, and you can do some transactions. You can also pick up the phone and talk to an agent sitting in their Nova Scotia call center. The kiosk has a printer that can print boarding passes. Unfortunately the agents are not empowered to do more than help you with what the kiosk can do. They can't be like the other customer service agents and rebook flights or issue vouchers.

When you have a big company like an airline, that may suddenly need hundreds of agents for one trouble spot, video kiosks with printers (and scanners) seem like a great idea. Stations could be installed where customers can come and talk to an agent by videocall. They can feed documents into scanners or show them to the camera. They can feed documents into hoppers that will destroy them if that's needed. And a more full printer could print them any documents they need -- boarding passes, tickets, hotel, food and transportation vouchers. In fact, unless agents have to physically handle luggage or control who gets on a plane, they don't need to be right there at all.

Of course this is not as personal as a live human in front of you. But it's much better than a phone agent (and lots of listening to Rhapsody in Blue.) And, if the need arises, you can suddenly have 100 agents serving a problem area instead of 5, and focus the on-site agents on on-site problems.

Of course, the scanners and printers are only needed at rare intervals during the transactions, so another approach would be to let people have a combined web/videocall experience on any laptop computer, and to contract with the providers of airport wifi service to make access to the airline's support website a free feature. Do that and suddenly there can be a thousand customer service videoconference tools in an airport that needs one. (They can all show video, and a growing number of laptops can also send it.) A smaller bank of scanners and printers can handle the portions of the transaction that need that. For example, you contact customer service on the laptop and the agent tells you to line up at scanner #5 and scan your documents. Then you work out your problems, and the agent tells you to go to printer #3 and get your new documents. (Destruction of old documents can be handled by the machine or possibly an on-site agent who does little but that.)

In fact, a lot of the stuff done at airport gates could be done this way. All the hassling at the desk is easy to do remotely. Only the actual ushering onto the planes needs live people. It may be less personal but I would rather have this than standing in line for long periods. They key factor is the ability to move agents around to where they are needed in an instant, so that there is no waiting (and little wasted time by agents.)

Of course, agents can also be very far away. Though I would resist the temptation to make them too far away (like India.) Not that there aren't good workers in India but too many companies fall for the temptation to get employees in India that are even cheaper than the good ones, and simply not up to the jobs they are given. The Nova Scotia crew were helpful and their distance was not a problem.

This principle can apply to conference and tradeshow registration as well. Why fly in staff to a remote tradeshow to do such jobs which tend to be quite bursty. Have local staff to man scanners and printers, and remote staff to talk on the videophone and solve my problems. It's so much cheaper than the cost of transporting and housing staff.

Of course, you can also just plain have a good internet/web customer service center. But I'm talking here about the problem of people who are at your facility, and deserve more than that. They need a live person to solve their problems, they need to combine what they can do on the computer with what a skilled (and authorized) agent can make happen, and because they are on location and upset, and not just at home on the computer, they deserve the expense of a bit more money to provide good service.

Glue on preprinted vinyl sheets for conference bags

I wrote before about how the fancy bags they give away at conferences very rarely get used. I have a stack in the closet, and I'm not going to use them as my bag with sponsor logos plastered all over them. The people who attend such conferences aren't the sort who want to carry your advertising everywhere, or scream out "I'm so cheap I'm using a sponsored bag." And you can't give them to friends as gifts, even if they are nice bags. So I suggested that they put logos on the inside but of course that doesn't yet happen.

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Can I take a photo of your business card?

I'm not sure why, but beaming business cards between PDAs never caught on as much as I would have liked. Of course Palm and Wince PDAs don't speak the same beaming language (of course) and I never saw it much in Windows anyway.

With my new fancy scanner, I can scan a stack of 60 business cards in a minute, so it's not going to take me long to do the physical scanning. Business card scanning has been around for a while, but it still presents challenges.

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eBay should support the ReBay

There's a lot of equipment you don't need to have for long. And in some cases, the answer is to rent that equipment, but only a small subset of stuff is available for rental, especially at a good price.

So one alternative is what I would call a "ReBay" -- buy something used, typically via eBay, and then after done with it, sell it there again. In an efficient market, this costs only the depreciation on the unit, along with shipping and transaction fees. Unlike a rental, there is little time cost other than depreciation.

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Photograph your shelves to catalog your library

A lot of people want to catalog their extensive libraries, to be able to know what they have, to find books and even to join social sites which match you with people with similar book tastes, or even trade books with folks.

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RC Blimp for mine exploration

As workers search for trapped miners in Utah, having drilled a 9" hole down to what is hoped to be their area, they plan to use things like sound and detecting CO2 and O2 in the atmosphere to find the miners.

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The price was right

The radio had a tribute to Bob Barker, who retires today after 35 years hosting The Price is Right. I always admired the genius of that show in making product placement an essential part of the show -- the show was about the advertisers and made the audience think about how much the product was worth and remember it. I'm surprised we didn't see more copycat game shows. There's plenty of product placement today, but it's largely gratuitous, not integral as this was. The fans on the radio said that while the show was gone, they could always watch reruns.

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When will the google street view easter eggs and spam appear?

Everybody's been discovering things in Google Street View. While Microsoft and Amazon did this sort of thing much earlier, there's been a lot more publicity about Google doing it because it's Google, and it's much more high resolution among other things.

But now that it's out, I expect we'll see web sites pop up where people spot the Google camera-car and report on its location in real time. Allowing people to prepare for its passage.

I expect we'll see:

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