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This is a page for commenting on how we spend our money, what we get for it, and whether the people we pay are giving us fair value for our dollars.
Books by John R. Turner
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Hearts: Hard, Artificial and Otherwise
February 27, 2008

I'm happy to see that Pfizer is pulling the plug on its series of Lipitor commercials featuring Robert Jarvik.  It's true that they're deceptive, since Jarvik, though technically a doctor by virtue of possessing a medical degree, is not a cardiologist, nor even a practicing physician. But their deceptiveness is not what irritates me about them. I assume that all drug commercials are essentially lies and, consequently, they don't have the power to mislead me. But whether or not they're unethical, they're clearly icky and foul up TV watching.

It's no fun to be reminded of miserable medical conditions while watching the news. The news brings enough misery on its own.

If there were some conceivable benefit from having drugs pushed in one's face then, maybe, the discomfort could be justified. But if people are asking their doctors about drugs because they heard about them on TV, and, then, are actually getting them as a result, they are either idiots or have charlatans for physicians.

The direct marketing of prescription drugs on television is bad for people medically. But it's far worse for them aesthetically. It creates ugliness with no compensating good -- except for the drug companies. And as far as I'm concerned they already have goods enough.

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November 23, 2007

I've been reading all I can find about the new electronic reader developed by Amazon, which was sold out only about five hours after it was introduced earlier in the week. Amazon says it will be available again on December 7th.

The device, which is called Kindle, is evidently a major improvement over competing items because it makes the downloading of books much easier than any of the others. Also, the price of new books is considerably lower than it is if you buy them from Sony, which, up till now led in the electronic reader race.

The major reservations I've found about Kindle are that it's expensive, $399, its battery life is not as long as it needs to be -- this is a controversial point -- and that it costs a user ten cents to get a PDF article translated into a form compatible with Kindle technology.

Everything else seems great, including a free lifetime subscription to the Sprint Network, which not only permits the nearly instantaneous downloading of any item in the Kindle store, which contains ninety thousands books and several major newspapers, but, also, access to the internet, at least for plaintext articles. You don't have to find a wi-fi hotspot.

I would like to hear from anyone who has a Kindle, to learn whether it performs as advertised and if there are troublesome features which haven't been reported.

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The Mystical Body
August 30, 2007

I have never been to a health spa. Given my financial situation I probably never will go to one. But I like to read about them and that's why I picked up Judith Thurman's piece in the most recent New Yorker  about spas, juice fasting, and colonics.  It's an entertaining article, colored by wry humor, which I suppose any account of solemn bodily treatments must be.

It seems to be the case that most people don't treat the inner parts of their bodies well. Consequently, they get irritable and out of whack. Spas are supposed to do something about that, and the main thing they have going for them is that getting people into reasonably peaceful surroundings, where they don't get drunk or stuff themelves, generally makes them feel better. The more esoteric elements of spa treatment are doubtless secondary, but they are what cause people to shell out immense amounts of money for the refurbishment.

A major part of Warner's piece is taken up with colonics -- an elegant word for gigantic and rather extensive enemas. Humans are fascinated by the process of eliminating bodily waste, and given the method nature has produced for us, we're almost naturally disposed to dream up techniques to help it along. Medical science, for the most part, hasn't taken a stance on these procedures. Researchers don't seem to be much interested in therapeutics they don't believe people will persist in. Even if enemas do provide protection against miserable disorders, the practice is not likely to spread widely. Besides, there's not a great deal of money in them. So the doctors shake their heads and go off to test results flowing from machines that cost millions of dollars.

The spa, by contrast, says that if you are one of the few people who will really pay attention to your habits and make use of discoveries from mystics and spiritual explorers, you'll end up feeling gorgeous (or, at least, better than you did before). And, for all I know, it might be true.

If I had enough money to do and get all the things I've ever thought about doing and getting, and still have a lot left over, I might go to a health spa.

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Muscle Bound
January 23, 2007

Today I got a letter from Humana, Inc. saying that the January premium for my prescription drug plan is overdue and that they're going to kick me out of the program if I don't send it. Well over a month ago I sent an authorization to Humana allowing them to deduct premiums from my bank account. But they can't seem to get that process set up.

Here's my problem. If I should send a check to Humana for the January premium, they will probably also deduct the amount from my account. Thus I will have made a double payment. And then it would take me months of phone calls and letters to get that straightened out. And who knows? They might eventually tell me that their systems just can't take account of a double payment and that they're sorry but I'll just have to lose a payment.

I'm getting weary of systems that take weeks to do very simple things. What's the problem? Humana encouraged me to set up an automatic payment but they won't make it work in a reasonable time and so some other computer program sends me a threatening letter.

Giant corporations are so encumbered by their own computer systems they are unable to respond to their customers. They fumble and bumble and give excuses but nothing happens until the customer has been forced to spend hours of his life trying to make the simplest of points.

I  called the number Humana supplied me in hopes of resolving the problem. After entering much data and going through lots of rigamarole I was informed they were sorry but technical difficulties would not allow my call to be connected to a human being.

If I should write them a letter, I would probably never get an answer. It's unlikely anybody at Humana could actually read a letter and then do the unthinkable act of sitting down and composing a reply.

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Are We Helpless?
January 17, 2007

I have a modest account with the leading pension fund for academics, TIAA-CREF. I would just a soon let it sit and accrue value, but I've been told that I'm now at the age that I have to begin taking some of it out. So I selected the "minimum distribution option," and filled out papers requesting that monthly payments be made to my bank account. That was in October of 2006.

My application was reviewed and found to be complete.  The payments, however, didn't start. After about a month when I called to find out why not I was told that they were "pending."  No one could explain to me why they were pending; they just were. But I was assured that action on my request had been "escalated," and that the payments would start within a few days.

Weeks went by and still the payments didn't start. I called time after time and was told repeatedly that there was no reason for holding them up, but that no one knew why they hadn't begun.

Finally, after about two months, I was given the name of an agent in Charlotte, North Carolina, who was supposed to be giving the matter her personal attention. I called her and had to leave a message because she was not available. She did not call me back.

I began to write her letters, and after about a week I discovered on the TIAA-CREF web site that my letters had been received and that action on them was pending.

Finally, last weekend, while I was away, someone left a message on my answering machine saying the payments would start at the beginning of this week.

Today, when I checked my account, I discovered that an amount of about ten times the proper monthly payment had been deducted.  I checked with my bank, but nothing had been received.

So, again, I called to see what was going on. I finally got through to someone who said a paper check, not an electronic deposit, had been sent, not to the bank I had requested, but to my old bank account. When I asked why that was done, the agent said he didn't know, but that my request had again been escalated, this time to a person in Denver. I was given her extension. I called. She wasn't available, so I left a message which, as yet, she has not answered.

So here I am, having made seventeen phone calls and written six letters, still not knowing what's going on.

Presumably a check ten times as large as it's supposed to be will arrive sometime at my old bank. But it's not there yet.

What is one to do in the face of this kind of service? There was nothing complicated about my request. It should have been processed within ten days. But now, eighty days later, it has not yet been completed. A far-too-large check has been sent to the wrong bank. And nobody can, or will, tell me why any of this happened.

Where can I go for a suggestion about what to do? Do I just have to give in, or what? I'll be grateful for any advice.

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The Octavo Johnson
December 27, 2006

For Christmas, my daughter gave me three CDs which contain the entire dictionary Samuel Johnson put out in 1755.  I haven't yet figured out all the details of how they work, but already I can call up a facsimile of any page in the dictionary and read Johnson's definitions along with the illustrative quotations he supplied for the words. And I can zoom in to make the words big on the screen or out so I can see the entire page. So, for the first time in my life I have the whole dictionary and not merely the selections that have been chosen for me by a variety of editors.

I can't say that reading the dictionary on CDs is quite as good as if I had the actual two folio volumes. But since they cost about $300, the disks are an economic substitute. Also they're quite a bit lighter.

Octavo, a company in Oakland, California, choose simply to photograph the pages in sequence and present them in a single PDF file. And the volumes from which they took the pictures belonged to Richard Warren, who was Johnson's physician and attended him in his final illness. So the images have the added authenticity of coming from a man who knew Johnson well.

Johnson's definitions are fascinating -- "cat" for example is defined as "a domestic animal that catches mice" -- but more important for a general reading of the dictionary are the quotations, more numerous and felicitous than we get in modern versions.  Under "detest, " we find Shakespeare's  "I've lived in such dishonour that the gods detest my baseness." And, Pope's "Who dares think one thing, and another tell, My heart detests him as the gates of hell."

Johnson wanted the dictionary to serve as a primer for morality. One can argue about that. But it's stature as a primer of thought can't be questioned.

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The Shape of Things
December 26, 2006

When I was young, I had never heard of a scone. Then, when I got older I found that in England it was a pastry very much like a biscuit. For example, when you ordered creamed tea, it came with two scones that looked very much like biscuits, except that they were slightly more dense. In any case, they were always circular. Now, however, when you order a scone in a Starbucks, you get something that's roughly triangular.

It raises the question of whether a large corporation has the right to redefine the shape of a popular pastry. It may not have the right but it's pretty clear it has the power. The ability to rename as well as to redefine may offer the strongest evidence that we have entered fully into the corporate era. If a corporation can make a scone into a thing it wasn't before, what might it not do?

The maple scone I had in the Williston Starbucks last week was, however, still fairly tasty.


A friend has just informed me that the original scones, which were made in Scotland (there seems to be no
end to the good things we owe to that country) were triangular and composed of oats. But now, around the
world, they are made mostly from wheat flour and appear in all sorts of shapes, including diamonds.

So, though my general point about the power of corporations is probably true, in this case we have to credit
Starbucks with being a preserver of tradition. Now when I enjoy a scone at Starbucks I can like it all the more.
And, also, thanks to my friend, I can like even more the chance to correct an inaccuracy.

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A Super Stove
December 13, 2006

Some time ago the broiler on our GE Profile ceramic top stove stopped working. Since we don't use the broiler much we let it go for a while. But with the Christmas season approaching, we thought it might be nice to have a fully working range. So we called the store where we bought it and made an appointment to have it repaired.

That turned out to be a mistake. The repairman came and replaced the broiler unit. It still wouldn't work. He said that meant there was something wrong with the circuits, and to dig into them would cost more than fixing the broiler. Even then you couldn't be sure you would have got to the seat of the problem. He couldn't take the broiler unit back however. It was "special ordered." So now it's installed in our oven, doing no good whatsoever. We'll have to pay for it as well as for the service call.

The stove is eight years old. It was sold to us as a super piece of equipment that would last at least fifteen years. It had convection heating and lots of other features we didn't need. And it cost $1,200 dollars. We could have bought a perfectly good stove for a third of the cost.

The lesson here is to refuse to listen to salesmen who are pushing fancy appliances. They are not worth what you spend on them, and the special features are generally never of much use. Furthermore, be suspicious of claims of reliability. This stove was said to be of superior workmanship and it turned out to be merely shoddy.

The ways corporations devise to relieve you of your money are countless. They can spend a lot more time thinking about them you can.  So, pay only for what you really need, and take the money you save and invest it somewhere. If  I had followed that advice all my life I would now be a fairly affluent man.

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December 9, 2006

About a week ago I got a book of 2007 payment coupons from Humana, the company that supplies my Medicare prescription policy. Since I had directed that my premiums be deducted from my Social Security payments, I was surprised. So, I called up to see what was going on.

After a considerable wait, I got an agent who told me that no payments had ever been deducted, even though I started the program a year ago. When I asked why not, she simply said Social Security hadn't made the payments, and that I would have to make all back payments if my policy were to continue into 2007. This didn't strike me as acceptable, so I continued with my questions until she transferred me to a manager.

He quickly told me that Social Security had been so swamped by the new -- and heralded -- drug program they hadn't been able to set up a payment schedule, and that 16 million people had now been dropped from the automatic deductions. I was one of them.

When I asked him why I hadn't been sent a bill for a whole year, or notified in any way that my payments were not being made, he said he didn't know. And then, a minute later he contradicted himself and said Humana didn't know it wasn't being paid until just a week ago. I answered that if the company hadn't been getting payments for 16 million people, the bill must by now have risen to hundreds of millions of dollars. He said that was right, and that's why I now had to pay. Then he began to get agitated and loud, so I told him to send me a bill and I would decide what to do about it.

I went to my local Social Security office to see if they knew what was going on. A pleasant man told me that my payments were scheduled to start a year ago. I asked him if they had started and he said he didn't know. And, then, in a very friendly way he acknowledged that the whole system was terrifically fouled up and suggested that my only relief lay with my Congressmen.

I asked him if he knew anything about millions of people being dis-enrolled from the automatic payment system, and he answered that this was the first he had heard of it.

I don't know who's mainly at fault here. I suspect there's plenty of blame to pass around among Humana, Medicare, Social Security, and our political system.

I do know this: I am now confronted with a large bill I didn't know I owed and that the Republican Party trumpeted the virtues of a dysfunctional system in order to try to win my vote last month.

I am also left fairly curious as to why the media haven't bothered to report on a process that -- if my Humana manager is right -- has seriously mistreated 16 million citizens. The newspapers and television seem to have plenty of energy to tell me about Jessica Simpson's wardrobe.

What a country!

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The Wayside
December 8, 2006

Returning to Vermont after an extended trip, I went to the Wayside Restaurant on the Barre-Montpelier Road for breakfast and was reminded once again what a fine resource it is for this little area.

I ordered two eggs, toast, hash browns, and bacon -- cost $3.50. My wife got the two eggs with toast special for $0.99. Since I got more potatoes and bacon than I needed, we shared them. And we both had a hot drink, coffee for me and tea for my wife. The total bill, including tax was $6.86.

That's a bargain I couldn't have got in most of the areas I visited while I was away. But low prices aren't the only benefit the Wayside contributes to our town. The atmosphere is as comfortable as any I've ever experienced. The waitresses are all friendly and down to earth, and without a hint of subservience. All the patrons are cheerful and polite. There's plenty of space in the parking lot. Nothing about going to the Wayside is a bother. It's a vision of what we once thought America was, and a model for a social goal we all ought to be working to re-achieve.

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