Friday, March 25, 2011

Shooting prohibited

Photographed in Juneau, Alaska

 Some people have trouble following the rules.


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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book review: "Floor of Heaven" by Howard Blum

"The Floor of Heaven" is an enjoyable book full of adventure, danger and heartbreak in the lives of three men living and working on the U.S. frontier in the late 1800s. While I was bothered by the book's paucity of dates and I wonder about the veracity of some of the stories, it is nonetheless a compelling read.

Author Howard Blum captures the last period in American history when bold and self-reliant men could risk everything to seek fame and fortune on a lawless frontier. He smartly weaves together the stories of Pinkerton detective Charlie Siringo, con-man Jefferson "Soapy" Smith, and sheep herder-turned-prospector George Carmack. The three men lived very different lives throughout the American West, but their paths eventually converged in Skagway, Alaska, after Carmack's discovery of gold  launched the Yukon Gold Rush.

Siringo, a Texas cowboy turned detective, goes undercover to catch a gang of criminals in Wyoming and gold thieves in Alaska. They're good stories, full of danger and tension, but it's clear that Blum depends largely on Siringo's version of events, and sometimes it just seems too smooth and slick. Siringo rarely makes a mistake, and always manages to cleverly outwit his criminal opponents. I found especially implausible the too-perfect conclusion to an attempted gold robbery in Skagway. Blum says in an afterword that he had to negotiate a "murky historical swamp" in writing the book and says he preferred to tell a fast-paced story rather than acknowledge conflicting versions of events that he found in his research.

Carmark's story is more melancholy than Siringo's. He deserts the Marines, then spends fruitless years searching for gold. He's a puzzle, alternately bold in his actions, then indecisive and dispirited. In Alaska, he joins an Alaskan Indian tribe, takes an Indian wife, but eventually returns to gold mining, when he hits his big discovery.

Smith is the book's bad seed, a sophisticated swindler and con man who cheated scores of people in Denver and other Western frontier towns before heading to Skagway to do it all again. If you've been to Skagway, as I have, you'll find Smith portrayed today as sort of a cartoonish bad guy, but the book makes it clear that he was a brutal and cold-hearted man who encouraged his goons to rob and steal, and who would murder anyone who stood in his way.

Frustratingly, Blum rarely includes dates in the story. If you enjoy reading history, dates help you place events in their historical context, but you'll find it very difficult to do so in this book. At first, the absence of dates seemed a minor annoyance, but 130 pages go by in the heart of the book with no clue as to when the events are taking place. Even key moments such as deaths don't include dates. It's often hard to tell how much time has passed, and in some cases you can't even tell whether it's winter or summer.

Finally, I should note that the full title of the book – "The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush" – gave me the impression that the book would be substantially about the gold rush. In fact, the gold rush only comes in 80 pages from the end of this 408-page book. So if you're looking for a history of the Yukon Gold Rush, this may not be the best book.


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Sunday, March 20, 2011

What passes for news: 2011 edition

Don't keep us in suspense: What did they have? What did they have???


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Healthcare Partners and Dr. Roberto Jordan

I had a clogged ear that was getting worse by the day, so yesterday I visited the Healthcare Partners urgent care center in Long Beach, California, at Redondo Boulevard and Willow Avenue.

I checked in about 6:30 p.m. and Dr. Roberto Jordan saw me about 35-40 minutes later. For a walk-in system, that's about as short a wait as you're going to find, at least in Southern California.

Dr. Jordan checked my ear, felt my glands and looked in my nose. He drew a couple diagrams of the ear to explain what he felt the problem was. He pulled out his smartphone and showed me pictures of infected eardrums, for illustration ("This is what your ear does NOT look like"). He wrote a prescription and gave me detailed instructions for followup care.

All in all, it was really a top-quality experience. Five stars to Dr. Jordan and Healthcare Partners.


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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: Adobe Car Rental in Costa Rica

Last summer, my family visited Costa Rica and rented a four-wheel-drive SUV from Adobe Car Rental. I was a little apprehensive going in, having never heard of this company before, but our experience with Adobe was fantastic.

First, a gentleman from Adobe delivered the car to our hotel near the San Jose airport. Not only did he show up exactly on time, but he carefully went over all the car's features with me. I've never had such careful service renting cars in the United States, or one time in Italy. After I explained our driving plans, he even drew me a map showing where we would exit the highway. This turned out to be important, because there was no sign.

We were to turn the car in three days later in the town of La Fortuna, but I had to work out the details with the local office. The Adobe office in La Fortuna is in the center of town, but slightly hidden among some other buildings behind the main street. After we found it, I talked to the young man there and we agreed I would drop the car off the next morning.

I got a little worried when he wasn't there on time the next day, but after 20 minutes he showed up, checked out the car and even drove me back to our hotel. I hadn't expected that; I thought I'd have to take a cab.

One final thing: You know how tough it is to figure out the REAL price of your rental car?  No matter what you're quoted, there always seem to be extra taxes and fees, right?  In this case, Adobe told me the price would be $70 a day, for three days.  And in the end, that's EXACTLY what it was: $210.  No hidden fees or charges.


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Thursday, March 10, 2011

GE Interest Plus: Is this the end of a long relationship?

I've had an account with GE Interest Plus for about 16 years, but now it seems they don't love me anymore (insert tears here).  Today I got a letter saying that the company may close my account because I have less than $500 in it.

OK, fine, it's their sandbox, they can make the rules. But what's strange is that I've had less than $500 in the account for five months. Why only now do I get this notice?

Could it be because I just wrote a blog post last week that was mildly critical of GE Interest Plus? Maybe they're so ticked off that they're looking for an excuse to close my account? I wish that were true, but it seems unlikely if for no other reason than hardly anyone reads this blog .

More likely, it's because I emailed three questions to GE customer service last week. I bet that somewhere in the process someone noticed my low balance and flagged my account.

I'm not really complaining; I was thinking about closing the account anyway. But doesn't it seem strange that they wouldn't have an automated process to send out these notices as soon as a customer's balance drops below $500?


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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How not to do a how-to video

In the video "How to fill up your gas tank" on, self-described expert David Rizzo tells us he has a degree from UCLA, that he's a professional in "commute management," that he's the author of two books, and that he's even been featured on TV and radio shows.

What he doesn't do is tell us, not even briefly, is how to fill up your gas tank.


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Monday, March 7, 2011

A health insurer admits it's wrong

It's not often you hear something nice said about a health insurance company, but Anthem Blue Cross just earned a bit more respect from me.

I recently had a disagreement with Anthem over a health insurance claim it declined to pay. But after reviewing the issue, the company – a drum roll, please – changed its mind and paid the bill. The amount involved was just $62, so perhaps this doesn't mean a whole lot, but I think there's lessons to be learned in this experience.

Here's what happened: My 9-year-old daughter went to the doctor in July 2010, and some tests were sent off to be handled by Long Beach Memorial hospital.  For some reason, Long Beach Memorial didn't get around to billing me for the tests until October.

I typically pay little attention to medical bills the first time they arrive because it usually takes a little while for insurance to kick in. If you just wait a month, insurance will often pay the whole bill, or at least determine your share. When the second bill came in November, and insurance hadn't taken care of it, I probably should have paid closer attention, but I did nothing until the December bill came with still no action from Anthem.

At this point, I called Long Beach Memorial and discovered that they didn't have our insurance information. So I gave it to them, and figured that would settle the matter.

A few weeks later I received a statement from Anthem related to this bill. I only looked at the bottom line, which said we owed nothing, so all seemed fine.

But I soon got another bill from Long Beach Memorial. At this point, I took a closer look at the statement I had received from Anthem and found that they had not paid the bill. Rather, they had denied the claim, saying it had been submitted too late.

I called Anthem and found that Memorial had five months to submit its claim, but because the hospital didn't have our insurance information until December it had finally sent it in two days late. Anthem denied Memorial's claim, but Memorial still wanted to be paid, and I can't say I blame them.

It seems to me that all parties can learn something here. If Memorial had sent its first bill more promptly, or if it had contacted me or the doctor's office to get our insurance information, this would have been settled without a problem.

I was guilty, too, of not paying adequate attention to the bill.  Had I called Memorial a month earlier, again there would have been no problem.

That said, it seemed that Anthem was trying to wriggle out of its responsibility on a technicality. This was a legitimate medical bill, exactly the reason you have health insurance. Yes, the claim was submitted five months and two days after the service, but so what? What's so magical about the five-month mark?  It's still a legitimate claim.

I submitted a "grievance" with Anthem, but honestly I didn't expect anything to change. So I was honestly surprised when I got a letter saying that Anthem had agreed to pay the bill. Good for them.


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Thursday, March 3, 2011

GE Interest Plus: A simple question gets complicated

I've had an account with GE Interest Plus for about 16 years. GE Interest Plus, run by lender GE Capital, offers consumers a bank-like savings/checking account that pays higher interest than you'll find for similar products elsewhere. For example, while most bank accounts are now offering less than 0.5% interest, GE Interest Plus is paying 1.25%.  (GE Interest Plus is not government-insured, so there is some extra risk, but in reality it's minimal.)

The other day I decided I wanted to move some money from my Vanguard account into my GE account, but to do so I needed the GE Interest Plus routing number.  This shouldn't be a big deal – you can easily find the routing numbers for Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Chase, for instance, on those company's websites.

But try as I might I could not find the routing number on the GE Interest Plus site. So I tried to call them. Before I could talk to a human, the automated system told me I had to choose a new PIN (why??).  I spent a minute and a half punching more buttons before giving up. I know 90 seconds isn't a long time, but all I wanted was the routing number.

So I used the "Contact Us" form on the GE Interest Plus site and sent them a message simply asking for the routing number. After 48 hours, they responded and gave me the routing number, which is 274070442.

I still find it strange that it took that much effort and time to get the routing number. By making it hard to move money into a GE account, the company is actually hurting itself.


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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Finally! A solution to global warming

Everybody talks about climate change but no one does anything about it. Leave it to National Geographic to propose a solution.


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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Book review: "Out of Captivity" by Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes

The most surprising thing about the story told in "Out of Captivity" is how much of it is mundane. The bulk of this 450-page book, written by three Americans who were held prisoner for five and a half years by the Colombian rebel group FARC, is filled with accounts of small rivalries and jealousies among captives, negotiating for little favors from guards and looking for diversions to keep themselves occupied.

I don't mean to diminish the ordeal of authors Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes, the American contractors whose plane crashed while looking for Colombian cocaine fields. They suffered greatly through periods of starvation, illness and mistreatment by their captors. The fact that they survived is impressive.

Still, "Out of Captivity" is dominated by the minutiae of everyday life. The authors describe how small things, like soap, could be a treasure in their camp. Often confined to close quarters, working out sleeping arrangements among the prisoners was major issue. Battling insects was a concern. Gonsalves spent a year carving a chess set, and all the prisoners pitched in at one point to make a jungle volleyball court.

In the end, you have an overlong book that can be interesting, but is rarely exciting or captivating.

The book alternately lets each of the three men tell part of the story, a nice method of making sure they're all heard. But I was sometimes puzzled why some events weren't told by the person closest to the action. For example, when Marc briefly escaped why do we only get the story second-hand from Tom rather than directly from Marc? Similarly, during their ultimate rescue, Keith plays a more direct role than the other two, but we never hear the story from his point of view. Again, why?

During their captivity, the men got to know their guards personally, and it was interesting to see that while some of the FARC members were cruel, others could show signs of kindness.

The book offers an unflattering portrait of Ingrid Betancourt, a one-time Colombian presidential candidate who was taken prisoner by the FARC, and at times held in the same camps as Stansell, Gonlsaves and Howe. Betancourt is portrayed as a self-centered woman who would manipulate others to get what she wanted.

"Out of Captivity" could have benefited from an outside voice to describe what was happening in efforts to get the men released.

I did like that the authors were fairly open about their emotions, and their account of being reunited with their children at the end had tears welling up in my eyes.

If you like this sort of book, let me recommend two better ones. One is "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand, the inspiring story of an American who survived horrific abuse and torture at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. The other is "Buried Alive" by Roy Hallums, a contractor who was kidnapped and held for months in Iraq.


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