The Cookie Conundrum

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Where would we be without social media? Physically, we would still be in the same coffee shop and talking to each other instead of passing or posting messages to one another. I wrote a short column on one of my favorite topics. Those little pieces of code known as cookies. There was some legal stuff in there that I edited out.

Do you know what your webmaster is busy baking?

Karma. I may have been a scoundrel in a previous lifetime. As penance, I voluntarily reviewed ten webpage privacy statements from five prestigious law firms, four somewhat intrusive social media organizations, and one highly regarded national magazine for lawyers in Canada. Did I say well written? That too.

Cookie policies range from the buried deep within the privacy cookie jar to the flashing K-mart end of aisle cookie sale. Cookies refer to the little malleted crumbs of text file code that websites place on users’ browsers that land on the organization’s webpage. These cookies do not contain any coding themselves, so they cannot transfer any viruses or other types of malware. But like real cookie packaging, you must read to the bottom of the ingredient list to determine what your system ingests.

Cookies come in two major flavors. Session cookies store information about user page activities so that users can easily pick up where they left off. Think of them as celery cookies. Light and non-fattening.

Compare these to persistent cookies which store user preferences. These websites allow the user to customize how information presents itself through site layouts or themes. These more fatty chocolate laden type of cookies adhere to the fatty midsection of your browser.

Cookies cannot be executed nor are they self-executing, but like real cookies, they can be insidious.  Or at least the information on them can be used maliciously. Similar to your personal profile, your browser history can show where you have been and what you have been consuming.

The cookie continuum provides a range of uses for various organizations.  The responsible and ethical approach entails clear descriptions of how cookies are deployed on their site. The privacy policy for the various law firms are conservative and straightforward. For legally trained individuals at least.

Canadian cookies delight the user. Most websites track usage, but some of the Canadian sites merely indicate that they ‘may’ attach cookies. This lite approach appears more like a digestive biscuit cookie. Good for gumming and easy to absorb.

US firms use Twinkie like cookies which look innocent and light, but the fat and sugar consumed have ‘persistent’ lasting effects.  The cookie policy for one large law firm broadcasts the use of cookies similar to the exclusion clause you learned about in law school. Red ink with arrows.  Here users see a banner ad at the base of the webpage warning about cookie usage. The banner clearly states that by using the website, the individual consents to the use of cookies.

These persistent cookies act like the classic Pac-Man game and capture information such as your operating system, browser software, IP address, and the full uniform resource locator. They do then load on the full calorie cookie which allows a number of features such as accessing secure areas of the website, analyzing information and tracking how you share content from the law firm website via social media or email, using sharing buttons provided by AdThis for example. Cookies always extract a cost.

Although the cookie usage seems somewhat invasive, you may be asking what does the Canada Anti-spam Law say about this. For certain types of programs, such as cookies, you are considered to have express consent without requesting it, so you can distribute (attach) cookies to users.

The Facebook Cookie policy portrays a sense of permanence likened to real cookies laced with trans-fat to extend shelf-life. Here, cookies provide for authentication, security, and advertising. The cookies allow Facebook to deliver ads to people who have previously visited a business’s website, purchased its products or used its apps. Fortunately the cookies allow Facebook to limit the number of times you see a particular ad. You can innately appreciate the benefits of seeing ads you would be interested in, but at some tipping point, the ads can come across as stalking. Do you want people looking over your shoulder to know what products or services you were researching the night before?

Cookies help businesses understand the kinds of people who like their Facebook page or use their apps so that they can provide more relevant content and develop features that are likely to be interesting to their customers. Ultimately, cookies help store preferences to provide customized content and experiences.

This ‘pull’ type of marketing experience benefits a potential client interested in receiving certain advertisements for relevant products. Perhaps seeing a sale on litigation services would finally convince that reluctant client to file that civil lawsuit?

Law firms have room to move up the cookie continuum to provide a more individualized website experience. Admittedly, clients may prefer not to open up their browser in a coffee shop and receive updates on the developing law of criminal fraud, but those showing interests in mergers and acquisitions may prefer to see a website customized on that basis. Cookies with sprinkles could be the next big thing.

Mallet

Photo by Daria Shevtsova from Pexels

Bit by Bitcoin Mining

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You load sixteen tera-tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the electrical store

As you already know, Bitcoin is all the rage. If I wrote this in 2017, then it would be true. In 2018, not so much. Bitcoin was valued at over $19,000 on some exchanges. The specter of government regulation has knocked this down somewhat.

Notwithstanding the price volatility, the benefits of mining Bitcoin remains attractive for those that know where to look. And by look, I mean looking for cheap electricity.

Back in the heyday, you could use a simple laptop to attempt to mine Bitcoin. Now for any chance of success, you have to run a server farm. Perhaps we can change the metaphor from mining, which suggests gold, to farming, which suggests easily washable boots.

Countless computers across the globe attempt to mine Bitcoin by solving an algorithm. This proves and validates the correctness of a new transaction. Every 10 mins or so, some lucky miner solves the algorithm and receives a reward of 12.5 Bitcoins. All the other computers verify this and then stop what they are doing and start at the beginning again.

If the entire process sounds wasteful, then you would be correct. The Bitcoin mining process now takes up more electricity than the majority of countries. Current estimated consumption is 61 TWh. Mining requires the equivalent of the yearly electrical requirement of Switzerland, and just a bit more than Columbia. This power could sustain over 5 million households. Just a short while ago, some pundits were claiming that mining Bitcoin would the major user of power by 2020. And like anything, projecting exponential growth from the past into the future never really pans out.

Mining produces revenues of $6.3 billion and costs of $3 billion, providing a substantial margin of 48% plus other costs.  Needless to say the carbon footprint of this type of mining is quite extensive since a number of countries rely on coal. China plans to limit the amount of electricity to miners which are estimated to be using up to 4 gigawatts of electricity, or about three nuclear reactors worth of energy. Plattsburg in the United States placed an 18 month moratorium on crypto mining owing to the extensive electrical use.

There is a lot of debate as to the actual electrical usage, but no one really knows what is happening in the black box. Suffice to say that a lot of energy is being wasted on chasing an algorithm that someone else will likely solve.

There are only a limited number of Bitcoins and more people are chasing them with increasing levels of computing power. The electrical requirements today are quite substantial since everyone has to obtain this ‘proof of work’ standard to qualify their Bitcoins. Think along the lines of will the sun rise tomorrow probability?  A lower standard such a ‘proof of stake’ may qualify but the security standard would be lacking. Think along the lines of will I rise tomorrow probability? Usually pretty good, but I might be wrong someday.

A single Bitcoin transaction takes the energy equivalent of thousands of credit card transactions. So actually the cost of a bitcoin transaction is more akin to ‘priceless’.

The security of Bitcoins do come into question since there has been substantial hacking in some countries. Bitcoin can be like the canary in the crypto-currency mining process. But instead of the canary dying, we are talking about the crypto canary disappearing completely. And instantly.

The disappearance of all remaining Bitcoin to be mined would be the signal that someone successfully created a quantum computer. The first use of such a computer would likely not be to solve the mysteries of the universe, but rather to solve the algorithm to grab the balance of the Bitcoins to be mined.

This may take ten years, or perhaps less. As Yogi Berra opines, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

 

 

 

Photo by Make someones day from Pexels

 

 

 

In Blockchain we trust

bitcoin-blockchain-business-730569.jpgThe first thing we do, let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.

Imagine a world filled with absolute virtue where someone says they would do something and then actually did it. This level of trust reaches the pinnacle. If you wanted to buy a car, you would pay the listed price since that included the cost of manufacturing and a level of profit that everyone agreed would be appropriate for manufacturers. The bank would simply give you the money since you did say you would pay it all back in four years with interest.

But we are more of a trust but verify type of society. You have to search for comparable vehicles, generally haggle for the best price and sign pages of legal documents. Banks have you sign reams of paperwork and generally place a security interest on the car. The Bank also has to confirm the car is free of any liens. You then generally pay on time for the next four years. If you miss a couple of payments, then the bank may have to launch some proceedings for collection.

Blockchain promises to revolutionize the economy since a lot of this process outlined above simply disappears. Advocates claim that Blockchain immensely raises the level of trust in the system. Alternatively, one could argue that it removes the need for trust.

Undoubtedly you have heard of Bitcoin somehow in conjunction with Blockchain. Let’s ignore the bitcoin frenzy for now and focus on what drives it.

Blockchain comprises a continuously growing list of records called blocks. These blocks are linked together using cryptography that are resistant to data modification. So instead of a single ledger of transactions held by one organization, it is an open distributed ledger that can record transactions between parties in a verifiable way. One earlier block cannot be altered without the consensus of later blocks. There is no definite definition of Blockchain, but adherents are quite passionate about their own favorite.

Blockchains can be public or private. MasterCard’s Blockchain can’t be viewed and may not have any purpose outside of marketing since all of its transactions run through the existing infrastructure. This harkens back to the time when companies advertised they were Y2K compliant. Nice to have, eventually meaningless.

You clamber down the rabbit hole a bit more and you come across things such as smart contracts. The name again is a bit of a misnomer since the contracts are more of simple if this happens then that happens. Similar to if you have this much to drink, then you are going to feel that crappy in the morning type of logic.

Smart contracts are simply computer protocols intended to enforce the performance of a contract. They can be fully or partially self-executing. Once various conditions are fulfilled, assets are transferred and funds are released. This transaction is visible to all users but all parties remain anonymous.

We can look to Ethereum as having one of the better systems for establishing these smart contracts. Ethereum has its own cryptocurrency called Ether. In our car example the history of the car and the dealer’s transactions are on the Blockchain which is public and allow it to be checked by everyone. You contact your bank which has instant access to your credit history. The bank can transfer funds immediately and the dealer can arrange for the vehicle transfer by the time you get back from your test drive.

So long as you continue to authorize payments to the bank, all is well. If you decide to stop payments, then the car’s systems could be disabled the next time you try to start it. Welcome to the internet of things.

The Blockchain concept does have the potential to extend to all types of commercial transactions. House purchases could be reduced down to days from the existing weeks it presently takes. This would require a public ledger of real estate titles, planning permissions and certificates of title. Sweden’s land-ownership authority will be conducting its first Blockchain property transaction shortly. Presently, a three to six month transaction could potentially take hours instead. All that extra efficiency will have to come out of some intermediary’s pocket.

But you can see how the removal of intermediaries will eventually impact large swathes of job categories.  Any sort of job category that involves creating trust in a transaction may no longer be required. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners strongly claim that Blockchain is no mere hype train. This is a strong endorsement which would likely have the effect of reducing the need for Certified Fraud Examiners.

One paper suggested that insurance payouts could applied to Blockchain. They suggested that an automated system could indicate if an insured fell within an area that was recently flooded. Insurance payments would then be automatically issued. I found this a bit of a stretch. For example, there would have to be complete pre-existing documentation of assets to show that my wife’s mid-century modern furniture was actually solid teak and not veneer. A point of full disclosure, I only found out this past year that mid-century modern was actually a thing.

Ultimately, Blockchain can be seen as a foundational change. There are immense barriers to adoption for businesses, government and individuals. The incorporation of Blockchain may take years.

From my own perspective, a major function of lawyers includes the trust but verify aspect. As real estate transactions become more blockchainish, then the role of the lawyer would be substantially reduced. This may finally drive away the concept of hourly billing into a strict transactional fee type of relationship with clients.

Harvard Business Review goes so far as to say intermediaries such as lawyers, brokers and bankers may no longer be necessary. Not so much a ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’ as ‘let’s disintermediate all the lawyers.’ This may not have the same emotive content, but the result would be same, lawyer wise.

 

 

Photos by David McBee

Mogul Moral Hazard

cold-cool-man-47356 (1)Moral Hazard describes a situation in which one party becomes more inclined to enter into risky behaviors knowing that they are protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost.

This came to mind when I finally went downhill skiing after a twenty year hiatus. Back in my high school and university days, my life revolved around skiing and planning to ski. Not that I have ever been seriously injured while skiing, but the possibility came top of mind recently.

Skiing has changed. I went to the rental shop and they pulled out these new innovations. The skis now have this parabolic shape. I remember reading about them years ago, but I was not aware of what they looked like up close. Bodacious comes to mind. The boots weren’t much different, thankfully.

There was an entire rack of helmets, so I picked up one these things also. Amazingly, back on the ski hill everything worked out. No one got hurt. This new equipment did make it far easier to ski and I was likely way more aggressive wearing the helmet.

I was quite ready to admit at the beginning of the day that I was a less than average skier considering all of the time that had passed, but after a couple of runs all of that confidence came back. Perhaps false confidence, but confidence all the same.

But this is where behavioral economics comes in. When it comes to activities such as driving for example, about 90% of people feel that they are better than the average driver. Almost no one wants to place themselves in the bottom half of drivers by suggesting that “yep, I’m far worse than the average driver.’ This suggests that people are far more confident in their abilities than statistics and the Darwin Awards actually show.

This raises the question of whether insurance induces people to engage in risker behavior than they would if they didn’t have insurance. For myself, I have perhaps an excessive amount life insurance at eight time’s annual salary in the case of accidental death along with some great long and short term disability. I don’t think having this insurance modified my behavior. I certainly wasn’t skiing eight times faster knowing that I would leave a very nice estate.

Moral hazard arises from asymmetric knowledge. One party knows more than the other party. In this instance, the insurer may not completely understand that I intend to engage in risk taking behaviours since mentally I still feel 20 years old. Emotionally, perhaps a bit younger. Physically, perhaps 3 times that. How can the insurer foresee that I might undertake some ‘dumbass’ skiing behaviours while my mental, emotional and physical ages are several decades apart? Perhaps that is already worked into their mathematical models.

This represents a type of ex ante moral hazard, or before the event. I am not a major fan of using an opaque terms of describing a vague concept. But this generally means that I change my behaviours based on the fact that I am now insured. Perhaps ex dumbass ante moral hazard captures the concept.

This compares nicely to the ex post moral hazard. After the insured event has occurred, you are more prone to claim insurance benefits exactly because they are available. Admittedly I use our health care spending account for this purpose. I spend a bit more to get the compressed lens for my glasses to avoid the coke bottle effect I would otherwise need to see what I am doing. I feel enabled.

Insurance companies do take steps to address this increase in use of insurance benefits by adding deductibles and co-insurance. Again behavioral economics tells us that people are twice as adverse to losses as they are to gains. Here we can see that insurance companies do recognize that the rationale person that traditional economic models rely upon does not exist except perhaps only the in the earlier fairy tale type of economic texts. But insureds would still be prone to take care to avoid incurring a loss since there is the frustration factor.

This frustration factor becomes apparent when claiming travel health insurance. My wife and I made plans for a bike trip in Asia. Being the prudent people we are, we purchased the complete trip cancellation insurance. This may be similar to purchasing the extended warranty which turns out to be a costly insurance premium for a low probable event. But buying trip cancellation is the easiest thing in the world. You put in the length of your trip, your age, price of the trip, your credit card number and off you go. You get a nice little brochure almost instanteously.

Unfortunately, my wife got ill just before the trip and had to cancel. Now, there is no way to fill in a claim form on-line. You have to download the policy and figure out how to fill in a claim. This necessitated printing out the form, photocopying receipts and physically mailing the entire package. The number of doctors visits increased since now we also had to provide written reports on why she couldn’t travel and how this was not a pre-existing illness.

Admittedly, this acts as a type of disincentive. Even as a lawyer, I found the amount of paperwork, and I mean actual paper, excessive. The 10 month time and effort to claim under the insurance exceeded the 10 minute time and effort to arrange the insurance. One would hope that the arrangement time and the claim time would be comparable. Fortunately, my wife are completely hung up on this completion thing and made this a personal project to complete.

Research seems to show that insurance does not increase the ex dumbass ante behavior. Insurance does seem to negate some preventative behavior that’s difficult to maintain. It seems to be easier to take drugs to alleviate diabetes than it is to avoid those sugary laced slushy drinks. Insurance does increase use of health benefits, but this may reduce even more costly medical intervention later.

Mark Twain in his speech on accident insurance had this to say.

“I have seen an entire family lifted out of poverty and into affluence by the simple boon of a broken leg. I have had people come to me on crutches, with tears in their eyes, to bless this beneficent institution. In all my experiences of life, I have seen nothing so seraphic as the look that comes into a freshly mutilated man’s face when he feels in his vest pocket with his remaining hand and finds his accident ticket all right.”

So insurance companies, and lawyers, face a discerning public. I am sure I should apologize to one group for placing those two groups together. But like anything, once you really need insurance, or a lawyer, you’re glad it’s there.

Pixabay

+Source: pixabay.com

Time Management along the Space/Time continuum

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In physics, spacetime is any model that includes the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time into a continuum. Time cannot be separated from the three dimensions of space as the observed rate at which time passes depends on an object’s velocity relative to the observer.

This becomes relevant when we examine how a lot of professions bill by the hour. Although progress in some cases makes it appear as if time moves backwards, time advances in .1 increments or even smaller. Some people live in the moment while others steal or borrow time from some other part of the space-time continuum. Time is the most important quality that we all try to possess.

 

No-where is time more important than when something appears to be going wrong. After being away on business for a few days I thought it would be nice to take my adult daughter and my father-in-law out to dinner. I decided to use my app to reserve a table, and use my daughter’s RAV since it was out. Technically it belongs to my wife, but we find it useful to have our daughter use it full-time for her schooling.  We headed off to one of those trendy but innocuous places. I mainly wanted someplace that had good parking.

 

Anyway we head off, and I am startled to hear a subtle but nasty grinding sound coming from under near the hood. I listen to it for a while, cast a doubtful glance towards her, grind my teeth for a moment and head off to the restaurant. We have a delightful dinner. I don’t bring up the car issue.

 

Back home, I keep the engine running and have a quick look. The engine components are jammed in there pretty tight, but I can see one component spinning down merrily grinding away in a chipper sort of way. The next morning I phone the dealership to bring it in right away. I did some technical research, this involved YouTube videos once again. So it seemed likely that we were looking at the serpentine belt having slipped off or perhaps loosened.

 

So the next night I gently ask how long the grinding has been going on. Awhile? She does innocently ask how long is awhile? And here I realize how relative time is when you ask about the length of it. Awhile could be asking how many seconds has the car been on fire? Awhile could be how many months has that crystalline piece of meat been in the freezer? But in this motor grinding instance, awhile would refer to a week. So she said that it has been a couple of awhiles.

 

The dealership eventually told us that the grinding sounded horrific since the bearing in the water pump had gone. After dropping the engine out, they had no problem in replacing the pump.

 

Getting back to professionalizing time management, billing by result has always been problematic, so lawyers for example bill by the hour.  In order to maximize time available for billing, most associations come up with time management suggestions. Some are actually downright scary. For some people.

 

Go Paperless!

I think the scariest suggestion involved going the paperless office route. My organization had not issued any particular directive, I just thought this might be a good idea. This may have been around the early 2000s. Like any traditional lawyer, I would get a letter and request staff to open up a new manila file and put the letter into it. I would then eventually get around to drafting a letter back the original author. Internal communications in the company had been electronic since the 80s.

 

One clear minded day, I received a nondescript letter and decided to walk over to the scanner and zipped it through. Sending the letter to myself posed no particular problem. Right beside the scanner stood the commercial shredder box. We contracted a company to come in and professionally shred documents for us. I looked at little the slit in the top. The box was locked, so there was no way to open it till the company got there. I hesitated for a moment, and thought, not what the hell, rather I thought this may turn out to be a terrible idea. But I committed myself and slipped the letter into the slot. I didn’t feel that I joined any new demographic, but I did feel regret. Perhaps checking to see if the letter went to my computer would have been a good process to follow before shredding.

I pep stepped back to my office and I could feel my face starting to heat up somewhat. I flipped on my computer and checked my email basket. The email system sent things around almost instantaneously and since the distance was just down the hall, I mistakenly believed that this would make it quicker than ever. And of course my expectations were misplaced. The scanned email did not appear. I began to think who wrote the letter and what did it ask? I confidently believed that this simple process would work that I didn’t really read the letter contents. Perhaps in two or three weeks whoever wrote it might write back. A bit miffed perhaps, but you never know.

 

Fortunately the scan came in a minute later. The scanner can take a letter in and spit it out quickly enough, but to compile it takes a bit more time. At least it did back then. So for over a decade and half I have been merrily scanning and shredding letters. I found this very handy since I can then take the letter and give it any sort of title that I want. If I find that the writer is particularly jerk like, well then I could let my creatively unleash a bit so I reflect that a bit in the ‘save as’ line.  Using some particular salient key words also would have allowed me to search for this category of person for the past couple of decades.

 

We are finally looking at a document management system and process for the entire company. As a major vocal advocate of this, I have been volentold to lead the process. Apparently no good deed goes unpunished. I am sure I will have to write about this process next

 

Holding your email.

Another useful time saver uses the OC email delay system. OC stands for my ‘Oh Crap’ I forgot to include the attachment situation. I find it amazing how you can take all this time to craft a letter, review it, redraft it and press send to only realize your mistake instantly afterwards. There is something about pressing the send button that somehow galvanizes my mind to suddenly realize that I forgot to include what it was I talking about. Some people politely email back and remind you that you forgot. Usually they use some funny time-worn reply but the implication always remains ‘send attachment. Dolt.’

 

Time management also suggests just attaching the damn attachment first, then doing your email. But like most lawyers, we don’t like being told what to do so for some reason. I have always resisted this simple recommendation. I attach the attachment when I damn well ready to. On my follow-up apology email.

 

So I have taken the slightly more complicated route to ensure that any email sits in my outbox for one minute before the system sends it  I still reach in there any number of times during the week to pull something out. Only once so far have I gone in and deleted a somewhat negative reply when that sweet little voice in the back of mind told that me that this was a bad fracking idea.

 

To do Lists

One thing I have never gotten around to doing would be creating a prioritized to-do list. Admittedly, I do create an AMR to do list. This occurs whenever I get an email for something particular inane and I drag and drop the email into the ‘aw man, really?’ tasks list.  I go in there on a regular basis to deal with the bag of hammers issues. I do a little mental dance for joy if I hear that some issue has already resolved itself and I can tick it off. Rarely do I add some matter so that I can then just tick it off. That only seem to work on paper when you can add a matter just so that you can cross it off right away. You only get that contorted type of joy if you write it down on paper since electronically it just seems to disappear. No sense in adding it in the first place.

 

Only Check your email three times a day.

I manage to do this. Unfortunately the three times means morning, afternoon and evening. Perhaps those stronger than myself can resist looking at the email constantly. At work I have it up all the time, and when it dings I get a bit of dopamine joy in knowing that someone needs my assistance in something. I particularly like the short snappers that I can answer in a couple of minutes. The little red exclamation marks seem to work with them. And me. It then takes me another minute to gear up and try to remember what I was doing before.

 

I find the vacation notification replies really work so that the people know that I really am on vacation. People are prepared to wait so long as they have an idea as to how long that might be. I particularly like the vacation replies that people use to confirm that they may not have continual access to email. Cell coverage is almost ubiquitous and a lot of these people do not strike me as the backpacking in the wilderness type. This manages expectations quite well.

 

The day that I get back from my wilderness vacation I appreciate the people that resend the same email on the day that I get back to the office. This ensures that I would see their email at the top of my inbox. I always get back to them first with the additional compliment of ‘well played’.

 

Pixabay

+Source: pixabay.com

Working with Insurance Companies Can be Fun

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The title may be a bit of misnomer since I don’t think most people ever had fun with insurance, or would at least admit to it. I just wanted to see what the words working, insurance and fun would look like together on the same line. Now that I look at it, the combination does not seem as engaging as I had hoped. So insurance may not necessarily be fun, but the people working there, well now you have something.

Going through law school, I thought it would be helpful to at least spend some time in an actual office setting just to see what that might be like. I spent the previous five field seasons up north or in some other remote part of the country. And when you live in Canada, remote means remote. I mainly spent this time catching, measuring, weighing, gutting and sexing fish. The last one simply meant determining what sex the fish was, not whatever popped into your mind first.

So when an opportunity came up to work downtown for an insurance company, I brushed off the fish scales from my resume and sent it in to their human resources. I got an interview quickly enough. This compelled me to buy a shirt, tie and some shoes that didn’t have to come up to my knees and have the essential component of being waterproof. Mind you, the tie was one of the neat woven ones. Whatever they make rope out of, I think this was about the same material. I could have used it to tow a car.

The interview process began easily enough. They were interested in my background and the fact that I had a previous science degree and one year of law. The company was bringing in a brand new process. A computer program that didn’t use those IBM punch cards. This is how far back we are going here. The company was relatively young. I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think any of their clients died yet to allow the beneficiaries a chance to claim any of the life insurance proceeds. The Company thought this was a great business model. People just give you money and there’s no outflow.

In any event, the interviewing manager asked me to write out a process on how to tie your shoes. This seemed relatively straight forward. I visualized what I would normally do. If I knew there was going to be a test on this I wouldn’t have worn my slip on hush puppies that day.

Anyway, I laid it out fairly simply in about 10 numbered steps. They looked it over, went out and talked, and came back in after a few minutes and surprisingly, they were somewhat surprised. No one they had interviewed before had bothered to write out a simple follow the numbers process. Everyone else, arts majors I suppose, wrote out a nice narrative prose with a beginning, middle with a bit of character development, and a dramatic unrequited love ending. Usually tragic. My stripped down version would have flunked me in English but I got an A as in accepted the position.

So, I started the following Monday. I never saw my boss again after that. She had been a few months pregnant at the time and her blood pressure shot up. She was told to stay off her feet. I’m fairly confident that I had nothing to do with that. Her blood pressure I mean.

So, I then reported to her boss instead. Unfortunately my first manager was the point person on this entire project and my new boss was not completely sure what was required. My title of methods analyst/technical writer didn’t quite make a lot of sense to him at the time or what I was supposed to be doing.

My new boss oozed management from every pore. He sported one of those stylish porn king type of mustaches that every male seemed to have back then. He walked fast, talked fast and thought just as fast. Whether he had directional plan on where he should be going or simply used confidence to make up for the lack of planning I couldn’t really tell. He could have launched himself off a pier, climbed back up wringing wet and confidently state that the launch went far better than expected.

So this gave me a fair bit of time to read up on what insurance actually did for people. I also walked around a fair bit and talked to people about what they did and sometimes why. Who I was and why I was there mystified some since without a proper introduction, I had a difficult time articulating why I was there. I epitomized the stranger in a strange land scenario, and I met with anyone that seemed friendly and not too scared of me. A few people did seem to be somewhat scared since they must have thought I was an efficiency expert or something. If I was documenting processes, well I could document them out of a job quite possibly. My emotional intelligence may not have been my best attribute. I merrily met with all those nice keypunch operators and innocently told them that this new system would likely mean that we didn’t have to do anymore keypunching. The fact that this was their livelihood didn’t strike me at the time.

The new computer manual on how to operate the system went on for hundreds of pages. The main issue seemed to be how to integrate this new system into the company’s operations. After completing my MBA years later, I learned the importance of overall change management. But back then, I was happily opening up new process grenades in the various departments. Without an immediate manager, my approach may have been a bit chaotic and a lot anarchic.

During one of the training demonstrations on the system, I looked up one of the shorter processes. Just to get my feet wet, now that I didn’t have to do that literally any longer. Fisheries you know. So I tried the log off process, entered some of the preliminary codes and my screen logged off. The interesting part was that all of the other terminals in room also logged off at the same time. I did learn the important difference between logging off, which is what I was trying to do, and a system shut down, which is what I actually did. For the entire company. I demonstrated the importance of having a practice dumbass sandbox for just this reason.

They gave me an office somewhere in the middle part of the hallway. My boss had his corner office a couple of floors up and overlooked the main street and some trees. He seemed to be far too busy to look out and see what was happening. He told me about the upper reserved floor. They reserved these floors for the most mythical of creatures.  Actuaries. He told me that it would be better if I didn’t interact or speak with them lest I startle or scare them away somewhat. These creatures demanded great penance at the time such was their ability to pack up and join another company. I don’t think I actually ever did meet one, not that it would have been obvious. Mid management always seemed to have their suit jackets off and sleeves rolled up. The actuaries always kept their jackets on. And although they didn’t have the single horn of the mythical unicorn for example, the actuaries always did present themselves as having an ethereal inner glow. This may have been more of a glow of self-satisfaction, but it was hard to tell at my respectful distance.

I also don’t think they allowed sales staff to mingle with the actuaries. If the other group ever found out what the others were thinking, it wouldn’t be an oil and water situation. It would be more like gasoline and electricity. Under controlled situations, the result can create tremendous power. In uncontrolled situations, well the result has never turned out to be optimal.

I came across a series of books that comprised the Insurance course at the time. I scanned the first book relatively quickly since it only covered the very basics. The second book became far more detailed in its accounting descriptions. That managed to dissuade me a bit more from reading further along the course. This increased my respect for numbers people, and I did keep my respective distance from the actuaries lest I scare one and be further responsible for a company-wide actuarial system shutdown.

I did spend a week speaking to some nice people in purchasing. They saw the opportunity of someone documenting their procedures for them. I am sure I must have tired them out with some constant quizzical questions and looks as to why they did what they did. Seeing something for the first time can give you that childlike sense of wonder. So annoying.

At the end of the summer I learned a fair bit about insurance and a lot about office politics. Some of the lessons may have been somewhat earth, myth and ideal shattering, but the experience put me in good stead for the rest of my office career.

They did offer me a job in some capacity. This would have meant giving up the law career which I had also fallen into. I politely declined, but I wonder about the road not taken at the time. Never too late perhaps.

 

 

Pixabay

Pixabay

 +Source: pixabay.com

Character Homes need insurance but demand sacrifice

pexels-photo-567186

For several millennium, societies celebrated sacrifices towards their various deities. Some societies were interested in the harvest, some were interested in the hunt, and some were interested in a great ROI, return on investment. The last one seems to have taken great favor as of late. I am interested to see what will happen next. Perhaps in my lifetime, or perhaps the next one in that we will not worry about time, just life.

However, for now, our character home demands sacrifice. Perhaps not like a human sacrifice, even though that’s what it feels sometimes. It may be more along the lines of a needy toddler. A helpless infant has needs, but a toddler has even greater needs since they can get into reams of trouble if you are not constantly supervising. Our present house also had some growing pains.

Renovations to our 1912 home cost about twice as much as the price of our very first home, which was sort of tiny. In order to maintain the character of our character home, we didn’t alter anything you could actually see. We, and of course I mean they, only modified the things we could not see. Infrastructure.

A major one was the cast iron plumbing system. Cast Iron. Even the term sounds durable and worthy of any character home. It sounds like Iron Man. Strong, durable, invincible. Scared of lions.

The funny thing about iron of course is that it’s scared of lions. This sounds confusing, but the concept helped get me through chemistry in university. Using the concept of lions our professor taught us that lions were called LEO. A loss of electronics is oxidation. Whenever you have a LEO, you have GER. A gain of electronics is reduction.

Of course I am mainly talking about oxidation. Rust. Although our prof was a great teacher, I cannot look at any rusted object, and I mean any rusted object, without going through this entire LEO/GER subject in my mind. It can be exhausting.

So the cast iron plumbing seemed to have lasted for several decades. Ten decades appeared to be enough, so it seemed to be time to replace everything. Do you know how sometimes you go through a very traumatic event and you just hold things together until relief comes? Well, this is what happened to the cast iron. The house saw or realized that relief was here and collapsed into our arms.

We, and I mean they, tracked down and replaced all the cast iron running up the walls and replaced it with an even more durable metal. I think it may be platinum. Or beryllium. I am just going by the cost as opposed to actually looking what’s there.

We established a very trusting and close relationship with all of our contractors. I simply kept a cardboard box full of cash outside the front door with a little sign saying ‘Help yourself’. I think the occasional stranger did help themselves but I didn’t mind so much since it cost me less than the contractors.[1]

The replacement of the cast iron kept everyone happy. Any by this I actually mean our insurance brokers. I didn’t know that cast iron replacement was even ‘a thing’, but apparently the failure of cast iron really is a thing. The brokers would come around and ask questions about the replacement and what stage things were at. I thought we were at 99%, but even being a little bit pregnant still gets a check mark of the ‘CAST IRON’. Insurance premiums reflected this accordingly. I think they finally managed to get that last little bit of cast iron out. The cost of doing that was unfortunately not offset by the long-term savings in insurance premiums, but it was worth a shot.

Since we had seven people living in the house at one time, we installed two additional hot water heaters. The third floor water heater for the kids had to be electric since there was no way to run natural gas up to the third floor. In order to install this electric water heater, we, meaning they, had to cram it into a slanted closet. This meant that the heater could only be half the size of a regular heater.

I recommend this fix for any parent with teenagers. Telling them they are getting their own separate water heater may sound like a bonus to them. No more complaints. They don’t really have to know the size restrictions on overall hot water available at any one time. Your secret would be safe with me.

Soon the electrical system demanded sacrifices. This became immediately apparent when my in-laws presented my wife and me with a very generous gift of a chandler to go into the dining room. The chandler appeared way too heavy to be installed by mortal persons, I doubled my personal efforts by doubling the size of the cardboard box outside holding the free cash. This attracted other saviors.

The electrician savior removed the existing light fixture, more of a kerosene holder it seemed like, and suggested we have a look. Instead of your normal electrical utility box, there was just a wire hanging out of the ceiling. And not your normal plastic wire. The wire had the look of a black snake. And not a shiny new black snake. But a frayed black snake that died while it was shedding its skin and disgorging the contents of its stomach at the same time. Not pretty.

So there was none of the safety utility boxes infrastructure that would contain sparks from the electricity. And one would think that sparking would be common since nothing basically separated the hot wire from anything else. And there was no support to even hold up the chandler in the first place. So that discovery initiated another series of changes trying to run wiring throughout the house.

After a while, I realized that running new wiring did not necessarily mean removing the old wiring. In the basement there is a maze of those old ceramic pillars and posts running old black snake-skin electrical wires. We will have to get that done eventually also.

Every time we get someone new in, they look around in awe somewhat. They have that ‘I’ve heard about but never seen one of these before!’ kind of looks. I find their sense of awe helpful. It helps me decide the size of the new cardboard box I have to get for the front door.

I am fearfully waiting for the open jaw assessment when we finally get around to removing the asbestos from that pipe in the boiler. Do they still make those cardboard boxes for moving hanging clothes? I remember them from the 60s anyway.

Another fun thing we have not gotten around to changing would be the thermostat. It’s basically just a brass speaking tube that communicates with the basement asking the worker to add more coal to the furnace. Actually, the brass extensions have been removed and you can only see the brass connections in the baseboard. Just in case.

Actually what we still use is a round iconic Honeywell thermostat. One of these classics can be found in the Smithsonian apparently. On ours if you pop off the cover, you can see a goodly sized spring with a small container of mercury sliding around in a glass capsule. I do remember playing around with these things when I was younger. When I moved the dial back and forth I could see the mercury blob around as it sparked when making contact with the electrical connectors. More often than not, I would remember to put the temperature back where it should have been. This amused me than I care to mention.

Funny thing about that style of thermostat.

We do get our place cleaned professionally once a month. Being busy professionals with two large, shedding golden retrievers, getting someone in has been a major relief. But the two young, very eager to please, cleaners are not familiar with the 1950 style of round thermostat and how they work or what they do. No digital readouts here.

So when dusting the thermostat, the impact on the house depends on whether they dust the dial on the thermostat in a clockwise or counter-clockwise movement.

One fine winter day, one of the cleaners wiped the thermostat in a clockwise motion. This drove the heater to the top of the scale. And like any boiler on an old navy ship, you don’t notice it right away. Usually it takes the following day.

One day after the cleaners leave, the house seemed unnaturally warm. We are used to that since the temperatures outside can drop dramatically, it takes time for the house to accommodate the temperatures. But this time one of the radiators began spitting out scalding steams and bits of boiling water. I guess about 10 years ago I removed one of the regulators from a radiator to allow more heat to warm up sunroom.  However, my little ‘life hack’ did become immediately apparent that I removed the safety device. In my defense my intentions were good and pure. I tried to get heat into the room where we kept a lot of our potted plants for the winter so that they would get the necessary sun. But I got busted and schooled. So, I mopped up the water and reinstalled the safety regulator.

We should have mentioned the thermostat issue to the cleaners.

Because, there was another funny thing about that.

After the cleaners finished on another occasion during the winter, my wife and I headed out to the cottage with our two dogs. We spent a lovely day snowshoeing, making dinner, cuddling by the fire. Later that night, at 2 am, I get a call from the security company. They have a low temperature signal from our house.

This becomes a major issue since no one is in the house to say what is happening. I enter a bit of a panic mode and start calling the emergency line for the plumbers. It’s early Sunday morning and who knows if anyone will be available till Monday. I get someone on the line and tell them the situation so we have a backup plan.

My wife and I pack everything up and within an hour we are back on the road for the 90 minute drive back to the house. Of course we have a bit of freezing rain and snow happening so the roads are exceptionally treacherous. This is when I am particularly driven to get back to the house in a hurry. Getting trapped in the ditch would be a good half day wait for a tow truck assuming they could find you.

We don’t end up in the ditch and we finally arrive home. The house is not all that cold at about 10 degree centigrade, 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I head down to the basement and check out the boiler. It rests quietly.

The water to the boiler appears to be still on and working. The moat surrounding the boiler remains empty and the boiler has not disgorged its contents. No major catastrophic failures at the very least.

I turn the main breaker off and on to see if that wakes the boiler. I have never done this before, but what could go wrong? I mean I have never kicked a hibernating grizzly before, but I am sure that would end badly. They are both the same size, coloration and, most likely, disposition. Nothing happens. Good or bad.

I remove the main panel and see that the pilot light is still burning in a chipper fashion. Ready for action.  The little pilot finally lights a little thought in my mind. I head back up the second floor bedroom and see that the cleaners were in a counter-clockwise cleaning mood that day. The thermostat has been cleaned all the way over to off essentially. I turn the temperature back to normal and I immediately hear the ‘whoosh’ as the boiler furnace momentarily removes all oxygen from the basement and starts burning merrily. It looks more like a cheerful conflagration as I replace the panel on boiler.

So, exciting times. But well worth it for such as staid looking and satisfied character home.

[1] Old modified joke, but I couldn’t resist.