Consumer

Phone scam artists using IRS threats!

Scam artists calling with threats! They picked the right caller area code for DC (202). They use automated calling devices, and keep calling repeatedly. Given that I only pick up my phone for known callers, they all go to voicemail on my phone.

Shockingly, it seems some people do fall for these scams. Just this week in my town, there was a news item about one person being taken in. On receiving a scam call, this person immediately filled a Green Dot card (the favorite device of scammers) with cash and transferred it to the scammer.

Here's is a audio of the voicemail scam as an example of the threats and messages left. This one showed 202-506-9988 as the caller-id, and the message said to call 202-506-8147 immediately. So, these are the currently used number by these scammers.

Purple color looks blue in photos - how to fix

Purple is a hard color to capture using a camera. White balance, lighting, brand/model of camera, nothing will help. Purple ends up looking like blue in pictures.

So this requires editing the image to get purple right. Cannot just immediately upload a picture if it is purple you are interested in!

Most times just need an easy fix. Use the Hue color editing tool, change the hue for the blue color by moving it towards the red/purple side.

Using Gimp:
1. (Optional) Select the region to be affected. Using the rough selection free-select hand tool is good enough. Just need to exclude other bluish (or bluish-white) areas of the picture. In many cases, this may not be necessary at all, just apply the hue change to the entire picture and it may be good enough.
2. Use the Colors -> Hue-Saturation command. Select the blue primary color to adjust. Move the Hue slider rightwards, as much as needed.

For this example, a +30 change to Blue Hue was applied.

Now the Balloon Princess has the dress in the color she wants - purple!

Additional info:

The Color Purple and the Digital Camera shows how to use the HSL tool to fix problem colors such as purple, magenta, or dark pink.

Coursera - Introduction to Data Science

This was my first experience with a MOOC - and it was incredible. This online-course stuff is definitely going to be one of the best things to come out of the Internet. Here is my report on one of the courses: Coursera - Introduction to Data Science by Bill Howe of U of Washington. This is a 8-week course, and the blurb says it needs around 8-10 hours per week attention, and basic programming background. In reality, it is worth allotting 10-20 hours per week, and having more than just basic programming skills to allow spare time to go through the textbook and papers on the recommended reading lists. The video lectures themselves take around 2 hours per week.

The textbook was Mining of Massive Datasets by Anand Rajaraman and Jeff Ullman and worth reading it once at least - even if lack of time necessitates skipping over the difficult parts. And some of the papers assigned were also quite readable - and always fun to see the progression of ideas, especially the continuing march of Map Reduce techniques towards ACID Database concepts and vice-versa.

I highly recommend these online courses to everyone interested in keeping in touch with latest technology or getting an introduction to a new area of interest. It gets things done in a short time, and the key is that motivation is provided by the homework assignments as well as the discussion forums associated with the course. And amazingly, this is all free.

The three best things about this course and probably MOOCs in general:

  1. Course syllabus was very good. This course covers Databases, Relational Algebra, Map Reduce, Analytics (Statistics, Modeling), Visualization. And introduces a bunch of tools and databases and algorithms, with optional assignments that involve using Pig Latin based Hadoop to mine a 500GB dataset using Amazon Elastic Map Reduce frameworks. Woo-hoo!

Notes on Clearmodem 4G Home Internet

Right now am trying out the Clear Hub Express modem from CLEAR 4G Internet provider. I had a cable modem, but they increased prices far too much - funny how cable companies like to charge long-time existing customers a lot, and provide deep discounts to new customers!

CLEAR 4G has good prices - and very bad reviews on the web, including an ongoing class-action suit related to cutting off service for heavy usage even though they claim "unlimited data and no overage fees". My hope is that they are improving on this front now and are therefore worth a try. End result - mixed feelings about them. Mainly because their software is deficient and has bugs so it requires contacting customer support and that quality continues to be abysmal. Cable modem devices have much better software quality compared to CLEAR devices.

The report below is based on the 1.5Mbps download plan for $35/month as of March 2013. They prefer to have people buy the $50/month plan with 6Mbps service but the lower plan is good enough for most uses, including HQ level YouTube videos. If you want to watch 720p or higher HD resolutions, then something greater than 2Mbps is necessary. And at $50/month cost, it is not competitive with Cable Modems which usually offer $60/month plans for 20Mbps or higher. The YouTube wikipedia page has a table showing rates of different video resolutions.

  • The Hub Express is a router with Wi-Fi and two wired ports. It seems to work fine in my area, and has stayed up for a whole week now without problems. I don't use it all day, but do use it a lot in the evening and some weekends. It seems to hold on to the 4G signal pretty well.

Turn off all phone roaming

Summary: remember to turn off all roaming - not just data-roaming - to avoid excessive phone company charges.

When traveling with your phone, everyone now seems to be aware of the excessive and unexpected costs that show up on the phone bill after your travel.
Phone companies very sneakily gouge customers on roaming charges. So when you search for this topic on the web, there are numerous pages that explain how to turn off roaming.

That help is misleading, since it is for data roaming only, and that is not sufficient. Data is the big problem of course, but there is also the problem of voice and text - sending and receiving phone calls and text messages.

And at least on the Android phones, there is no indication of this happening too. You take your phone from US to say Canada or Europe, and think you are all good - you've turned off data roaming, which was easy to do in the Settings. But then your phone rings - you are surprised, hey, US phone works in this country? You pick up the phone, you talk, and BAM! you are now liable for multiple dollars per minute of charges. And there is no help in the Android menus to indicate you are being billed roaming charges. You did not receive any warning, and if you continue to use your phone and make calls, you'll get hit with large bills when you get back home.

Sadly, there is no easy way to turn off voice and text roaming on a Android smartphone.
This is too bad - it lays a trap for unwary customers.

Workaround:
A multi-step workaround: Go into Settings, More... button, and turn on Airplane mode.
But this turns off WiFi too, which is not desirable. Go back into Settings and turn on WiFi.
This is better! Took a few steps, but now you won't have any phone company surprises.
And GPS still continues to work, at least in one of the phones I tried.

Lahey Clinic - Poor Billing Practices

Lahey Clinic is a large hospital organization, just outside Boston.

They have a cozy relationship with the insurance companies. With insurance, consumers can reap advantages - the rates billed are quite low and certainly reasonable.

But Lahey Clinic completely turns a deaf ear when the patient is paying out of their own pocket. Outrageous bills are presented, and they refuse to offer any consideration at all when it is the lone patient asking them to be reasonable.

If the insurance company called, they would slash their rates by a lot. When a patient calls, they say no reduction is possible - and the patient has to pay the highly inflated, outrages list prices. This is a perverted system - there is no way any consumer can make a dent in the way medical system billing occurs in the US.

This is why a single payer system makes far more sense - medical service is not like purchasing cars or furniture - there is no way for the consumer to make any dent in the transactions involving such huge medical enterprises.
And surely if single payer is not acceptable, we can design a system where everyone gets to pay what insurance companies pay for medical treatment? Right now the hospitals soak the people who are not insured - essentially, robbing the self-insured and the uninsured to pay for the insured. Of course, they are also robbing the taxpayers in this system.

US Health Care - Confusing and Confounding

The US medical system continues to confuse and confound - this time my strange tale is regarding the worst aspect of this system - the pricing and the billing.

Some conservatives loudly trumpet that consumers must be made aware of medical costs and that such comparison shopping will reduce the cost of medical care in the US medical system.

Bah, humbug, I say! The system is geared towards making that not work at all. The people who wish to self-insure and pay out of their pocket end up getting a raw deal.

The biggest problem with "comparison shopping" for medical care is that it is not possible. When you are in the doctor's office, and he or she tells you to get a bunch of tests done or a bunch of exams from other specialists - it is impossible to start asking questions and inquire about costs. Then we are told that before getting such exams done, the consumers should call up the insurance company and the doctor to make sure the costs involved are understood. This fails too - it is difficult to get a reasonable answer from them - since they can't know the cost until they examine the patient. And there are so many rules and exceptions that it is really not possible to get any idea of the cost involved before the treatment.

Even after all that, when the time comes to bill the consumer - the self-insured consumer who wants to pay from their own pocket gets completely shafted by the system.

In this story, my mistake was assuming that when my insurance said things like: "we cover preventive care", "we don't cover dental", and "we don't cover eye-glasses", it meant that they would cover preventive eye exams. That was completely wrong. They did not cover preventive eye care.

A tale of two jeans - $200 vs $25

After years of always buying Levi's 505 jeans, curiosity got the better of me and this year I ended up with two different blue jeans:
One is just under $200. Brand name does not matter, but there are many brands in this range: AG Jeans, 7 For All Mankind, Brooks Brothers Levi's, Citizens of Humanity, Hudson Jeans, Fidelity Denim, True Religion Brand Jeans, etc.
The other is $25 - way less cost, newly found at Target and made by Levi's: denizen jeans and sold in a few countries only: denizen USA.

Now all that matters about pants is that they feel comfortable and in the end blue jeans are just blue jeans! Given that the denizen jeans look pretty good, and I frankly can't find the difference between many of the jeans under $50 and the ones over $150. Maybe this year I'll find out if there is any difference, now that I have one of each. I doubt it, will update this post if things change and the cheaper jean just falls apart or zipper just fails or something. Otherwise, for now, I think the inexpensive jeans are just as good as the expensive ones :-)

Absurd Logic of the Russell Place Condos Board in Arlington, MA

This is about an interior fence in Arlington that is so revered by the Russell Place Condo Board, that they can think of absolutely no change that can be done to it, whether small or large.

Is this a border or boundary fence, you might ask? No, it isn't.

Is this a structural fence, you might ask? No, it isn't.

Is this protecting an important section, guiding peoples' passage, you might ask? No, it doesn't.

It ends up a pretty funny story and shows the absurd logic of the Board in defending their "No" answers regarding any change to the wooden fence.

The web is filled with the stories about crazy things that Condo Board of Trustees do. Most stories are nightmares, such as the Home Sweet Hell news report, and an entire blog devoted to Condos Nightmares And Other Enigmas.

The links above have quotes like "... That meant they controlled what condo fees everyone in the three-unit building paid, what would or wouldn’t get done to the property’s common areas..." and a description of what happens to normal people when they have to deal with a board of trustees - you enter the world of Rights-Deprived Citizens in America!

The articles above suggest that very small condo associations are a problem because a small number of people can gang up and completely control what goes on in the entire condo complex.
And that larger groups are much better, because no one small group can dictate their terms over all.
It sort-of makes sense, but turns out that does not turn out like that in practice.

Reliance Global Call - Drops Calls

2012 July update: After months of not using Reliance, I tried it again for a few times this month and it seemed to work fine for a couple of times. But then, it failed again - after 5 minutes into the call, the audio got cut-off, but the connection was still alive. So this is still not usable, all that has changed is it takes longer for the audio to cut out.


Starting in the middle of 2011, the calling card from Reliance GlobalCall has been a disaster to use. Every time I connect from the US to some number in India using their local access numbers, the audio abruptly cuts out. And there is just silence on the call at my end, and lot of static at the other end. This happens anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 minutes into the call. At peak times on weekends it is really bad and cuts off in under 10-30 seconds.

For years, using Reliance to call India from US worked fine. Starting sometime in 2011, it has been touch-and-go, most of the time the conversation gets cut off even though the line is still connected.