June 2007 - Posts

Part of my brain doesn't work

It's come to my attention that I have a rather strange disability. I am unable to put ice cream back in the freezer. Its not a new thing - over the years I have regularly destroyed hundreds of gallons of the stuff. For some reason once I get a bowl or cone of the chocolaty (most often its a chocolate variant) creamy goodness in my hand my brain shuts down and I either leave it on the counter or put it in the *fridge*.

Last night another gallon of Rocky Road bit the dust... at least I can make milkshakes out of it I suppose.

I wonder if there is a pill I can take, or if there is a way they can see the broken bit of my brain on an MRI

Open Water Swimming

So armed with my rental wetsuit I headed out to Luther Burbank Park last night for my first open water swim (its 4 weeks till the triathlon). I'm certainly not the worlds fastest or best swimmer but I have been practising in the pool and I've got myself up to 800m of freestyle so I *was* pretty confident about the triathlon. A local athletics store, Everyday Athlete, runs some free group swimming sessions so we went to join them. Most of them it turns out are training for an ironman (2.4 mile swim) so they are a little out of my league. My triathlon partner in crime, 'J', is swimming a 3.2 mile swim for crazy people in 3 weeks (yes that's the week before the triathlon - told you she was crazy) so she went out with the other crazy people.

Since this swim was:

  1. My 1st time in the open water
  2. My 1st time swimming in a wetsuit
  3. My 1st time (for a long time) swimming in cold water
  4. My 1st time in a stupid swim cap

I was advised not to go out too far.. thank goodness for good advice. The cold wasn't an issue - I've swum in the sea in the UK enough as a kid. The hat wasn't an issue other than getting the damn thing on. But swimming in a wetsuit is something that I am going to take time getting used to. The suit is buoyant so it lifts your legs higher than you are used to. Apparently this helps with your swimming posture and makes you go faster but I felt like someone was holding my head under the water most of the time. I was very close to taking it off and swimming without it. After about 40 minutes (and probably less than 400m) I was starting to get the feel of it but it doesn't feel very natural to me.

So as predicted today I will be spending another $200 and will be the proud owner of my own wet suit. At $35 a rental it will make its money back well before the tri as I think i need to get 4-5 more open water swims in to get the hang of it.

Keeping fit is expensive...

It was an expensive weekend. Starting with the $425 for my B-17 flight which was worth every penny. Pictures will be up in the next few days but they had the hatch off the top of the radio operators cabin so you can stick your head out of the top. I don't know how high we were but the sticking you head out of the top of a 60 year old plane with 120 mph wind in your face to see the view is a pretty unique experience.

But that's not the point of the post! In preparation for my triathlon next month I had my bike tuned up and got new brake pads and inner tubes and got a new cycle helmet - I think all of those items were original on the bike when i got it 12 years ago (there have been some extended periods of non riding). A new bike computer because my old one stopped working, new cycle shoes since the old ones just seem too tight (do I have fat feet!) and finally a wetsuit rental to see if I like it/will need one for the race. If I choose to buy it then I get the rental fee knocked off but its another $200. Add in the race fee, the hotel and the gas to get there and you can see the life of an athlete is not cheap. I'm learning that the TRI in triathlon applies to the costs too. In fact I think the biking and swimming cost me more than the running does.

The tightwad in me is saying its OK because its cheaper than paying for the heart bypass in 20 years and its cheaper than smoking but in that case shouldn't my health insurance be paying for some of this since I'm saving them money?

More bank craziness...

Apparently I have my fans when I rant about how stupid the world is... well once again I have found a bank which doesn't seem to understand how dumb it is being. This time they didn't really annoy me, or inconvenience me so there's no point in naming names....

I applied for a new credit card a couple of weeks ago and it arrived on Friday. As usual there is a little sticker on it telling you to call immediately from your home phone to activate it. So I did as it said and the computer told me that I wasn't calling from home and transferred me to a human. Now in general I hate talking to humans because:

  • Most customer support people are paid minimal wage and 40% of them give minimal service
  • The 10% who, despite having one of the most depised jobs in the world, still care are so badly trained that they can only answer the simplest questions and *I* never have simple questions
  • The other 50% are trained in the art of 'selling you *** you don't want or need' so while they are failing to give you any service they are trying to sign you up for some scheme or other

So I held my breath as the lady asked me why I was calling (because... well the computer knew why I was calling why didn't it tell her). So I explained and she did everything necessary, without trying to sell me something. When I asked her to check my phone number to see why the automated system failed she said that her number matched the one she could see on the caller ID but "quite often the automated system doesn't get the phone numbers for a couple of weeks"...

So lets think about this for a minute... I applied online... so my number is in a computer. 10 days later they send out a card telling me to call IMMEDIATLY and somehow that number hasn't got to the computer they tell me to call but IS in the account database. The number might not make it into the activation system for a few weeks AFTER I have called to activate... I wonder who they hire to design these great systems :-)

3d graphics on an Apple IIe in 1985

Check out this video.

Compared to modern computer graphics this may not seem very impressive until you realise he did everything by rendering one frame at a time, on a monochrome monitor. Then he recorded each frame on to film with color filters in front to get the final effect. Its written in assembly and it still took 2 minutes PER FRAME to draw and record (because of moving filters and re-exposing the multiple colors).

The author has photos from a magazine articles showing how he made it on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/8740359@N04. Check out the rig he used to record it.

[from Make Magazine]

ZMan vs the Red Baron

Remember when I said:

"So Verizon, thanks for taking my money for years... I'm going to spend my $500 on something much more fun"

Well I was perusing the Sunday papers last weekend and I found exactly the thing to spend the money on... so on Saturday 23rd June I will be taking a flight on a B-17 Flying Fortress. It's a little on the pricey side for a 30 minute flight, there's no food service and I think the odds of joining the mile-high club are low but heck this is just too cool to miss. I remember as a kid building Airfix models of planes and the flying fortress was ALWAYS the cool one because of the fact that it has guns all over it. There's one on the roof, one in the nose, another in the tail and coolest of all is the one slung underneath - man I hope they let us sit in that one... Yes I am VERY excited...

 

US Bank - its called customer service because you have to offer service...

Yes its time for another rant and you are getting this one fresh off 20 minutes on hold...

I have an HSA account with US Bank - its like an FSA account for self employed people. They give you a debit card for trips to the doctor etc so you just pay and it comes right out of your account. The account was super easy to set up online and I can check my balance etc online so you would think this means that US Bank get it when it comes to the internet. Sadly not.

I have a very simple question for them. If I go to Safeway and buy a $12 bottle of Tylenol then legally I can claim that $12 on my HSA. Since I spent $150 at Safeway I'm not going to illegally use the debit card on my HSA account for the whole $150, nor am I going to split my shopping and say 'put the Tylenol on this card and the rest of my shopping on this card'. So surely there is some way to claim back that money from the HSA. I assume I can't go and just withdraw cash or write myself a check since there is no paper trail that I am spending the money on qualified health items. So 3 weeks ago I called US Bank - their phone system is terrible it never mentions HSA anywhere so you have to press 0 a bunch of times and then ask. They transfer you to the Retirement and IRA group - hmmm that doesn't sound right but it is. The lady I talked to seemed to know little about what I was asking. Eventually she finds the form and promises to send it. Of course I have received nothing.

So yesterday I decided to use their online form and I got a very fast reply saying 'none of our HSA people answer questions online please call them on this general number. Thank you for using US Bank please let us know if there is anything else we can do for you'. As you can imagine I have filled them in on several things they can do for me.

Today I bit the bullet... waded through the phone system again and then sat on hold for 15 minutes. I asked my question and the guy puts me on hold... another 5 minutes go by before he comes back. I guess my question was unusual. He tells me there is no such thing as a claim form. So how do I get my money back? Well he suggest - send your receipts to your insurance company and they will send out a bill? Sorry dude but that doesn't even make sense - this is for things I already paid for who would they bill? He can't answer that question. So he tries a different approach - save all your receipts up to the end of the year and claim them on your taxes. Sorry dude wrong again - the whole point of an HSA is so that you DON'T claim these things on your taxes. You pay for them with pretax money and then just put the HSA sum on your taxes. If I save up my $100 receipts at the end of the year they won't be anywhere near the 2% AGI required to deduct medical expenses. When I argue this point with him he hides behind 'we're not allowed to give tax advice please call your tax professional'. So I ask him what should I do - and he says 'well if you don't want to take the advice I gave you there's nothing more I can do'. When I point out that its exactly the opposite that I was told 3 weeks ago he says there's nothing he can do about it. The only useful advice he can give me is to visit my local US Bank branch where 'there MAY be a HSA specialist'. Huh - surely YOU are supposed to be the specialist. If you are such a specialist how come neither of the things you suggest makes any sense - maybe you are just repeating what someone told you while you had me on hold for 5 minutes and you don't REALLY understand what you are saying at all.

So US Bank - here's what you need:

  • If you allow me to open and maintain my account online - then support it online. Do you know how much more efficient it would be to have email instead of lots of annoyed people sitting on hold
  • Better yet - just put the forms I need online for me to download
  • Sort out your staff - when 2 people in 3 weeks totally contradict each other something is wrong
  • Don't pass the buck just to get me off the phone. I know you can see the counter ticking on your screen that says you have gone beyond the 2 minutes and 45 seconds allocated to each customer but the idea is that you help me no just send me off to someone else.

The only good thing is that the manager at my local branch actually had a pack of information including some forms which she is sending out to me today with her business card in case I have further problems. Its a lot harder to pass the buck when the person is sitting in front of you but really if her job is bank manager you would think the HSA specialist should do a better job than her right? As usual this is what you get when you pay minimum wage to the chimps who you let answer the phone.

People who sell your email address...

I've had my own domain for many, many years that I use for my personal emails. I use a catch-all on the account so that {anything}@domain.com will get to me and then I use various outlook rules to filter based on the to address.

One nice thing about this is that whenever I have to give an email address to a company I can give each of them a unique address and then watch to see who sells/loses the address. I have honestly been surprised over the years how few times I have caught anybody. In one case I actually had a VP on the phone apologising and ensuring my email was removed from their 'partners' database (it was - I never got any more spam)

There's 2 big offenders though... and as of today I will banish their personal emails to the 'delete always' rule

  1. Datek (now Ameritrade) - while I was a customer I never had any problems but at some point their customer email list has made it into nefarious hands. It does seem like the emails are slightly targeted - I'm not getting porn, drugs or gambling spam but they are rarely anything to do with finance
  2. Broderbund - they got my email as part of a registration/rebate for some software so I guess it could be the rebate people who sold my address. Either way I get lots of email - e.g. today I got one from Bed Bath and Beyond. I did own their home/garden design software at one point and some of the spam seems to be in that industry area so I'm guessing the targeting is coming from that software registration.
Cadbury's Roses or Stripper Names

I was sharing a very precious box of Cadbury Roses with my running friends last night (this is a TRUE test of my friendship!) and somebody noticed that the names of the chocolates sounded a little bit dirty! See what you think.

  • Brazilian Darkness
  • Strawberry Dream
  • Chocolate Bite
  • Hazel Whirl
  • Praline Moment
  • Caramel Velvet
  • Chunky Truffle - she's a big girl

And last but not least:

  • Country Fudge - the redneck stripper

Its times like this I wish I could draw - I have some great sketches in my head for some of those.

 

ZMAN is a **WINNER**
Winner

No not publishers clearing house, nor the readers digest I actually won something that can be described as a sporting event !!!

No my marathon speed didn't suddenly increase but this weekend my running friends and I competed in a Street Scramble in Everett, WA. Street Scrambles are a urban orienteering events, a cross between running/walking/cycling (your choice), map reading and scavenger hunts. I've done these races before, scraping a 3rd and a 5th in the running divisions. However since I am currently training for my 1st triathlon 2 of us decided to use our bikes and go for the 3 hour option. I was expecting to cover a LOT more ground on bikes than I do on foot but a combination of street conditions, weather and bike problems meant we only covered about 3 miles more than my friends who ran the 3 hour version. The weather was terrible - it rained the entire time but thankfully after 20 minutes you couldn't get any wetter. Our answer sheet was so wet that by half way we couldn't write on it and had to resort to punching holes with the pen.

In the end we were glad to finish the ride and get some food in us but there was one more surprise. In our division (mixed, 3 hour bike) we were first - out of 3 teams too! So I am thinking of announcing my retirement from competitive sports this week - after all it can't get any better than this can it? I'm expecting some sponsorship deals any minute...

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