August 29, 2005

Why Does *America* Hate *Me*?

. . . and every other airline traveller? When I checked in at Hamburg Airport for my flight back to the USA, they asked me more security questions than they have in the past (the "have you placed a package from anyone else in your luggage?" question has been dropped from US checkin counters only to migrate across the Atlantic), but the whole process was conducted politely, quickly, and in clear and comprehensible English.

When I got off of the plane in Newark, I knew that I was back in the good 'ol USA. Long lines everywhere! Authority figures yelling unintelligible directions at cowering confused travellers!

  • How many years of 'temporary' security measures before airports and the TSA take the trouble to install clear signage that tells travellers exactly where to go and what's expected of them? At the security checkpoint, we had the usual guy barking directions at us, upset that we didn't know to take off our shoes before we reached the checkpoint -- but was there a sign telling us what to do beforehand? No, nothing at all until we reached frustrated yelling guy. After waiting for ten minutes in a line labelled "International Recheck", I got the eye-roll from the person behind the counter -- you didn't have to wait in this line -- go over there and wait in that (completely unlabelled) line. I mean, duh.

  • Speaking of shoes, how many more years will we have to take our shoes off to go through the security checkpoint before the TSA breaks down and admits that it doesn't do a damned thing? (And what happens if we ever have a shoulder-pad or padded-bra bomber? Or if some terrorist wannabe is caught with an explosives-packed codpiece?)

  • And in a peripheral concern, why is it that every passport-control guy feels like he has to be a trailblazer when it comes to stamping your passport? In a shocking development, Hamburg's people actually put my departing stamp on the proper page, in the proper place -- but coming back into the US, the Homeland Security person skipped two pages and put his stamp in the exact middle of the page. I haven't travelled that much, but my passport only has three empty pages left!

. . . I used to love flying; now I hate going to the airport, and grumble about it for days afterwards. Is there anyone out there who believes that this dumping ground for incomprehensible shouting men with Napoleon complexes that is the TSA actually does anything to make us more secure?

At least it was only airport security trying to ruin my day; Continental's employees don't have the screw-you-our-company's-going-bankrupt-and-we're-losing-our-jobs-anyway attitude of passive-aggressive belligerence that United's employees do . . . yet.

[The flight from Hamburg to Newark happened to be the captain's final flight before retirement -- 24 years and 25,000 miles with Continental because of the government's rule for mandatory pilot retirement at age 60. The pilot's last flight, his smiling wife and children sitting at the front of the plane, everybody applauding before takeoff . . . wasn't this the lead-in to pretty much every airplane-disaster movie of the 1970s? Next thing you know, you're in the air, there's suddenly a giant hole in the fuselage, and the flight attendants are asking the screaming passengers if there happens to be a) a doctor and b) a pilot aboard the flight today. But in this case, everything turned out fine. At both ends of the trip, there were fire engines on both sides of the runway, ready to shoot celebratory jets of water over the plane as it passed by.]

Posted by Kevin at 11:27 PM | Comments (2)

August 25, 2005

Yikes!

Coming back from the boat trip last night, our taxi had to go through a roadblock that seemed a little more severe than usual: the two policemen with machine guns standing on each side of the road were an eye-opener.

It turns out that they were part of a terrorism alert -- a thousand-officer manhunt stopping traffic across the city, looking for three Middle Eastern men who were observed on a bus Wednesday night, wearing backpacks and making suspicious-sounding remarks in Arabic about how "tomorrow we will stand as heroes before Allah".

I guess that's my excitment-by-proxy for this trip.

Here's the best English-language bit I could find about the alert; here's a German-language article from the Hamburger Abendblatt.

Posted by Kevin at 11:46 PM

Ahoy There, Mateys

Finally, some pictures (as usual, click on any picture for a larger version): last night we ended the workday with a group dinner and boat trip down the River Elbe. After three days of glorious summer sunshine (it was warm enough that I wore shorts! In Hamburg!), the weather returned to its usual gloomy gray, and as our boat pulled away from the dock, it started to rain in earnest.

Being stalwarts, we braved the deck anyway. Here I am with Blankenese Hamburg's riverside neighborhood where the rich people live and play in the background.

After reaching Blankenese, we turned around and started to head back the way we'd came; the rain let up, and we were rewarded with a spectacular riverbank-to-riverbank rainbow.
To cap off the trip, we went for the obligatory round-trip tour of Hamburg's container port. The captain of our ship was pretty much insane; he came so close to a couple of the gigantic container ships that you could reach out and touch them. It was midly disconcerting, but it was the best way to appreciate the titanic scale of operations in the harbor.
A Chinese ship, named after an American city, registered in Hamburg ... the Hanjin Chicago seemed to be having a bit of an identity crisis.
Our intrepid captain came this close to scraping the mast of his radio antenna off against the overhang of the Hanjin Chicago's hull.
Posted by Kevin at 11:13 PM | Comments (1)

August 23, 2005

In The Event Of Boredom

If reading about my sleeping habits isn't interesting enough, you can go over to Shelby's blog and wish her luck on her trip to a taping of the Dr. Phil show early tomorrow. Will she be pulled out of the audience to be a featured guest? Will Dr. Phil give everyone makeovers? Watch the blog for updates on what happened!

You could also sponsor Shelby on her "Walk in the Park" around the Disneyland Resort for CHOC -- Children's Hospital of Orange County. How can you resist? Any amount is a good amount! It's for the children!

Posted by Kevin at 03:41 PM

You Are Getting Sleepy . . .

. . . veeeeeeeeery sleepy. Jet lag isn't going easy on me this time around; I spent my entire afternoon trying very hard to not doze off at my desk. (I think that I made it, but if I didn't, how would I know -- I was asleep!) Now I'll have to spend some time tomorrow going through the code I wrote today, making sure that I didn't introduce any bizarre changes during my sleepiness-induced fugue state.

And that's about it. This desire-to-take-a-nap thing is really cutting into my after-work opportunities to ramble around town.

Posted by Kevin at 03:15 PM

August 21, 2005

. . . And Hello From Hamburg!

Not surprisingly, I made it. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful; we rode in a 757, which had a little more room than the first-leg 737, but not much. It was a pretty friendly plane; lots of convivial conversation going on, with Germans tolerantly serving as guinea pigs to Americans and Brits who wanted to take their German out for a test drive. The woman across the aisle from me was going to some kind of let's-learn-German boot camp (some kind of Goethe-Institut thing?) and kept a big stack of workbooks on her tray for the entire flight.

I, of course, ended up sitting next to a Chinese couple that said "excuse me" -- once -- and absolutely nothing else (even to each other!) for the entire flight.

Don't expect snappy luggage service when your flight arrives at 7:30 AM on a Sunday morning; it took me an hour to get my bag.

You can tell that you're in a civilized and highly advanced country when there's a group of dogs just outside the arrivals area in the airport terminal, patiently waiting along with everyone else for their humans to come home.

The taxi driver totally took me on a scenic cruise from the airport to my hotel -- but it was a nice drive around the Alster, so I didn't mind. (And there did seem to be an awful lot of roadwork going on in various places, so perhaps he was an honest man after all.) Upon getting to the hotel, I found out that he didn't take credit cards, so we made a special bonus trip to find an ATM; while we were driving around, he started to bitch me out for not having cash at the ready! Excuse me? It's not like you're making this let's-find-the-money trip for free -- five minutes more that you spend driving me around are five minutes less that you spend at a taxi stand, waiting for a new fare and making no money in the process . . .

And the TSA luggage gnomes went through my checked luggage (it was pretty obvious; someone refolded half of my shirts) without even bothering to leave behind the "Hello, we've just gone through your suitcase" card that they've always left in the past.

Now I think that I'll take a nap and then go out to hit the town; my big chance before work starts tomorrow morning.

Posted by Kevin at 01:31 AM

August 20, 2005

Hello From Lovely Newark

Hello from lovely Newark Liberty International Airport! I had to kill off two other geeks to get a coveted electrical outlet-adjacent seat; now the vultures are circling me, waiting for me to drop my guard.

Even if it was a 20-minute drive from our house, flying out from Orange County is turning out to be a little overrated. First, the folks who wrote the John Wayne Airport website weren't kidding in advising passengers to "SHOW UP AT LEAST TWO HOURS EARLY -- even if your flight is on a Saturday or Sunday!" The security line stretched for half the length of the terminal and then wrapped around itself again -- the worst line I've ever seen, exceeding even previously man-this-is-really-screwed-up benchmarks LAX and Las Vegas. Once it was my turn at the head of the line, I earned the TSA agents' enmity by forgetting to take my laptop out of my bag; they took their revenge by pulling me off to the side, opening up all of my bags, and rubbing their explosives-detecting swabs-on-a-pole all over everything, letting me go with a host of grumpy warnings about next time.

And then I got to ride in the middle seat of a 737 for five hours. Fun! Hopefully our Newark-to-Hamburg accomodations are a little more roomy.

More once I get to Hamburg!

Posted by Kevin at 01:58 PM | Comments (2)

August 16, 2005

Back in Medical-Billing Hell

I told you back here that there was a happy resolution to Shelby's hospital saga back in June. Well . . . not quite.

One of the bills we'd received was a bill for $300 from the City of Anaheim for paramedic service. This bill was for the first-response EMTs that came after my 911 call, riding over on a fire truck from our local station. This was separate from our ambulance bill the ambulance that came afterwards and took Shelby to the hospital is operated by a private company contracting with the city, and they'd already submitted their own bill.

As an opener, our insurance company completely refused payment. So I called and explained things. The woman I spoke with seemed to get it right away apologizing, escalating the matter to her team leader that was easy! The last words I spoke to her were:

"So then this should be reimbursed at 90% (the rate for emergency medical services) of $300, right?"

"That's right."

"Great! Thank you very much!"

Today I check the insurance company's website to find that they'd elected to pay $25.50 on the claim, leaving us to pay Anaheim the balance of $274.50. They'd decided that Anaheim had asked for far too much the "prevailing charge" for the services we'd received was $51, and they then elected to reimburse that at 50% (the rate for non-emergency use of emergency services), arriving at a total of $25.50.

So I called again. This time I got a mealy-mouthed explanation about how they'd reimbursed at the 50% rate because "it wasn't an emergency". But how can finding my unconscious wife and making a 911 call that results in a multi-day hospitalization not be an emergency? "Well, the first ambulance that came had to call another ambulance, and they actually did the transportation since they didn't take anyone anywhere, it wasn't an emergency." I suggested that the 'first ambulance' couldn't take anyone anywhere, because it was actually a fire truck but she wasn't having any of that.

Well, what about the $51? Was I really supposed to believe that my city charged six times more than neighboring cities? "Yup, that's pretty much it!" Could they send me some documentation on how they arrived at the $51 figure? "We've got a database with all of the charges in it, and that's how we get the prevailing charge number for your area." Yes, but . . . after going back and forth on a few rounds of no-I'm-not-going-to-answer-your-question-but-will-provide-you-with-this-other-nongermane-information, I thanked her for her time and hung up.

A few hours after that, I got an E-mail message from the insurance company I'd made in inquiry over the Web just before deciding to call telling me that in light of the information I'd provided, they were adjusting my claim and paying at the 90% rate; my updated claim would be available on the website within 3-5 days. We'll see what we get this time, but I'm guessing it'll be 90% of $51.

Really, I guess that it's all my fault for being an uninformed consumer and not asking questions from my healthcare providers before committing to a course of action. Perhaps I should have bundled Shelby into the car and driven across Orange County, calling 911 in different cities and inquiring about their rates, before settling on my final choice for emergency services. Maybe I could've found an in-network fire truck provider!

Posted by Kevin at 04:31 PM

Exotic Travel

I go back to Hamburg next week! Unsurprisingly, my time there will be dominated by business concerns, but I'll still have this Sunday and next Saturday for wandering around.

Conveniently, I get to leave for Hamburg from Orange County's own John Wayne Airport: flying from Orange County to Newark, New Jersey, and then from Newark to Hamburg. Unfortunately, my trip back has a six-hour layover in Newark I looked at making a quick run into Manhattan, but with the train ride costing $14.00 each way, I'm not sure that pencils out. (And what do I do with my carryon luggage? Do airports even have luggage lockers anymore?) Either way, between my laptop, my iPod, and my books (Amazon just delivered China Mieville's Iron Council, Neal Stephenson's The Confusion, and Douglas Coupland's All Families Are Psychotic the last one is more Shelby's choice, but I enjoyed Microserfs), I'm sure that I'll be able to handle whatever opportunities for boredom that intercontinental travel chooses to throw at me.

In September, I'll be travelling all the way to exotic . . . Los Angeles! I'll be attending Microsoft's Professional Developers' Conference at the LA Convention Center. Given the price of the conference and its full plate of activities (a couple of days have an agenda running from 7:30 AM to midnight), I was able to convince my superiors to spring for a hotel room in downtown LA, rather than my getting up at the crack of dawn to fight my way through SoCal traffic and then dozing through the conference sessions.

The PDC should be interesting; I'm not sure how useful it will be, though. Other Microsoft events I've been to in the past (and Apple's Worldwide Developers' Conference, as well) are full of a lot of cheerleading over Future Attractions: just you wait until [the next release of our operating system] comes out! It has [technology X]! And also [technology Y]! [Apple or Microsoft, depending] can't even hope to do this with their OS!

. . . the problem being that, since we're a cross-platform product, often it doesn't matter how cool Technology X or Technology Y are if it isn't supported on the other platform (and it really is so groundbreaking or fundamental that we can't easily port the functionality), then it may not be worth our while to pick up. Or we may be slavering to roll Technology X into our product but if it's only supported on Windows Vista or MacOS 10.4, and we've got a customer base that's never upgraded from Windows 2000 and MacOS 10.2, well ...

Posted by Kevin at 12:50 PM

Hounds!

. . . just because it's been a while since we've had a Beagle picture.

Posted by Kevin at 09:05 AM

August 11, 2005

We're Number 35!

. . . but it could be worse we could be living in Orange, Garden Grove, Fullerton, or Huntington Beach instead of Anaheim.

OCBlog notes that an outfit called the Bay Area Center for Voting Research has ranked America's 237 cities with population over 100,000 on "Most Liberal" and "Most Conservative" lists, based on how people living in each city voted in the 2004 presidential election. Anaheim ranks 35th on the "Most Conservative" list, behind such other OC stalwarts as Orange (#10!), Garden Grove (#17!), Huntington Beach (#25), and Fullerton (#32).

Shelby will be distressed to see that her onetime residence of Springfield, Missouri falls seven slots behind Anaheim, at number forty-three.

In the list of top-ten conservative cities with population over 300,000, Anaheim is number seven. Take that, Orange!

(It'd be interesting to see how the results change if they dropped the population threshold [I'll bet southern Orange County would come through loud, proud, and conservative], or took other races beyond the presidential election into account [our Congresswoman is Loretta Sanchez, a Latina Democrat, while surrounding districts keep sending conservative superstars like Dana Rohrbacher back to Washington].)

Posted by Kevin at 05:59 PM

Fruit Quest

Our yard already has a number of fruit trees a couple of lemon trees, an apricot tree, a plum, an apple, and a few mystery trees that have no tags and haven't produced anything yet. (Except for the lemons which I'm convinced will still go on endlessly producing even if they were uprooted and shoved through a mulcher and a few apricots, we didn't have a bumper-crop year; next season the trees will need more water and more attention.)

But the fruit tree that I really want is a cherry tree.

Unfortunately, living in Sunny Southern California, I'm out of luck when it comes to conventional cherry trees, as they all require a "cold snap" to fruit they have to spend a certain number of wintertime hours below 45 F.

Looking into alternatives, I read about the Capulin cherry, Prunus salicifolia, native to Mexico and Central America. Because of their warm-weather background, Capulins don't need a cold snap to fruit! The fruit is supposed to look and taste like a normal cherry, although since this variety doesn't have an extensive history of cultivation for its fruit, the taste may be a little off-model compared to your average supermarket cherry. I purchased some Capulin seeds from Trade Winds Fruit; they arrived a few days ago. I'll plant them this weekend and see what I get. While I don't think this means that I'll be passing up the occasional bag of Rainer cherries once the season comes back around, at least I'll be able to live the dream, man!

Posted by Kevin at 09:54 AM

August 01, 2005

In Other News Of The World ...

Shelby, who lately has been far more into the whole blogging game, has already covered recent events like our trip to the Orange County Fair (compares favorably to the Hamburger DOM!) and our trip to the Hollywood Bowl (fun, but difficult enough to get to that I don't see doing it more than once a year). Here are all of the other loose ends that I've been saving up:

  • The A/C: I finally broke; it got hot enough that we turned on the air conditioning at the beginning of last week. It's nice, I have to admit.

  • The Hospital Saga: It looks like all of the bills have come in from Shelby's hospital adventure last month. Final tally:
    • Total amount billed by the hospital: $27.179.00
    • "Negotiated amount" actually paid by insurance: $9,808.38
    • Amount that we have to pay: $142.91

    I'm convinced that the hospital starts the game by pulling a random number out of thin air, the insurance company counters with a random number of their own, and whoever doesn't blink is the winner. But still, $142 sure beats $27,000 -- hooray for health insurance!

  • Boom!: Last week's big local news was the discovery of multiple tons of decaying fireworks stored in three tractor-trailers just a few blocks from our house. Local fire departments, the FBI, and the ATF converged to remove and detonate the more unstable explosives at a park down the street from the storage site; the process took several days, producing unsettling BANGs and BOOMs at all hours (not to mention that the entire perimeter of 21-acre La Palma Park was wrapped in police tape for the duration). Here's an article from the Orange County Register about the first fireworks cache -- and, proving that compulsive hoarders are all the same, whether it's old newspapers, cats, or potentially deadly quantities of explosives, the police found another similarly-sized hoard, kept by the same man, just a few days after they were tipped off to the existence of the first. (As always, I recommend bugmenot.com for those troublesome password-protected newspaper articles.) When I first heard about the fireworks, my fear was that our neighborhood would turn into another Enschede, but fortunately this much-smaller-scale potential peril was averted, with the idiot behind it all proclaiming that he's "one of the good guys".

  • The Reedy Creek Improvement District: Friend Marc (of Marc's graduation fame) sent me a link to this post on BoingBoing about the Reedy Creek Improvement District, Disney's end-run around state and local governance over Walt Disney World by establishing and controlling its own governmental entity that makes the rules for the land that WDW occupies. For all of the locals who think that Disney calls the shots in Anaheim city politics, Disney only wishes they could do here what they've done in Florida. (And I'm sure that Wal-Mart and such look on drooling, wishing that they could get away with doing the same thing.) The RCID has its own website -- among other things, don't miss the job listings (seeking out a chief inspector with " ... [t]horough knowledge of the EPCOT Building Code ..., the EPCOT Plumbing Code and the EPCOT Mechanical Code ...").

Posted by Kevin at 07:01 PM