Monday, April 27, 2009

Value my social graph

When I hit Google tonight to search for something or other, the top "Google Promotion" link was something I'd never seen before: Google Profiles.

Naturally, I Googled it to see what it was. Some very quick-and-dirty research suggests it's not new -- I very quickly landed this reference from 2007. I clicked the Google Profiles link out of curiosity but probably wouldn't have given it a further thought, except for this line of text in the standard "give us your stats" solicitation:

"A little personality: Something I can't find using Google."

Sure, I can tell you something you can't easily Google using my relatively public legal name and I play the cello extremely badly. (Though really dedicated Googlestalkers could even figure that out.) I have a totally excellent recipe for something resembling pan bagnat, which I can't spell without consulting a dictionary or other reference text, and which I made for dinner tonight but didn't start making till about 9pm, kicking off an extended debate with the spouse about what time "dinner" should traditionally occur at.

But I'm not going to tell Google Profiles any of that. Because I'm currently in the mood to be fairly guarded about who by and how my personal information gets monetized.

This is on my mind lately because I'm very, very suspicious of Facebook, which I cracked and joined last-yearish and check more often than I like (maybe twice a week) because it's where a lot of my friends have migrated for their social networking needs. I set up my own first-and-primary social networking profile in 2002, on a site that I still check daily but am grudgingly accepting is becoming passe. (Hint: It's the one popular with teenagers and geeks, and now owned by "a Russian media company.") My original site has the ethos, community and interface that most appeals to me, but it's fast losing its original core crowd -- at least among my demographic -- to Dreamwidth, and I can see it going to way of my beloved Palm pilot: eventually, I will be one of the only ones left clinging to the neglected ruins of this once-trailblazing technology.

Which leaves the nextgen upstarts like Facebook and Twitter, with the slick interfaces (ok, that one, not so much for Twitter) and nakedly commercial ambitions. I don't like Facebook. Never have, doubt I ever will. I don't like it because it feels like all Facebook really cares about is using widgets and memes to entice me to cough up details of my social interconnections, to help it fill out its Social Graph Theory of Everything so it can sell that info to whoever will give it a zillion-dollar valuation or IPO.

I don't think anyone has quite figured out the business model just yet, but someday, the social graph is going to be an incredibly valuable piece of marketable data. To lots of people, I suspect. I, personally, might not be that valuable a marketing target. But if you can figure out who I talk to, what I care about, what I'm doing right this minute, where I am, what I'm reading, or what I care about enough to write about, and do that for millions of people -- you have a very saleable data set. Right now, Facebook is the leading application. Everyone, especially Google, would love to toss out APIs and become the infrastructure.

And I don't wanna play. If I'm going to hand over all the details that create a map of me, that some corporate entity will aggregate and sell for a billion dollars at some point, I don't want to do it because someone said "throw a sheep!!! and shsssh we'll infer from that who you know well enough throw a sheep at!"

Some years ago, I heard estimates kicked around about the value of all the physical components in the human body. The estimates appear to range wildly, from $4.50 to $45 million. I wonder how long it'll be till we know precisely the value of a human mind, and all the monetizable social connections it sustains.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My own personal M&A frenzy

Continuing my track record as an identity theft lightening rod, I got yet another of the "we've noticed some unusual charges on your account ..." calls this weekend. But this time, I was wholly innocent; my habit of using skanky ATMs bears no blame. The charges hit a card I haven't used for years. Seriously, how easy are these algorithms to crack?

I remain impressed that the credit-card companies are as good as they are at sussing out what transactions are fraudulent. In this case, I guess it wasn't so tricky -- a card unused for years is suddenly broken out for a wild shopping bonanza -- but full credit to Chase for catching this and calling me just hours after it started.

However, it did raise an interesting issue: The rep asked if I preferred to have another card issued or cancel the account. In past years, I don't recall that being a choice; the companies would do almost anything to keep you an active customer. Seems this account of mine (credit limit, $6,000ish) was a potential credit liability Chase didn't mind killing off.

Here's what made me decide to cancel the account: I didn't know at first which Chase account they company was calling about.

The piece of plastic in my wallet that I use most often is my Amex, my primary credit card. Beyond that, I have my bank-account debit card, a MasterCard. I also have (had) two backup cards, both Visas, which only ever get used if a place doesn't take Amex.

My oldest Visa -- the one that got hacked this weekend -- began life years ago as a Providian card. Then WaMu bought Providian, and suddenly I had a WaMu card. Around that time, I picked up a Chase Visa card, as a backup. My primary bank was Netbank, so my financial life was nicely diversified. Plastic tally: 1 Amex credit card, 1 Netbank debit card, 1 WaMu credit card, 1 Chase credit card.

Then Netbank met its unfortunate end, I went bank shopping, and I landed at WaMu. Plastic tally: 1 Amex credit card, 1 WaMu debit card, 1 WaMu credit card, 1 Chase credit card.

Then, of course, WaMu also went the firey-death-in-flames route, and Chase snapped up their charred remains. My plastic tally: 1 Amex credit card, 1 Chase debit card, 2 Chase credit cards.

Which is kind of absurd. I don't need both my backup credit cards to be with the same bank. So, despite mild pangs of regret about the potential FICO effects of reducing my total available credit and closing one of my older credit lines, I waved adios to the ProvidianChaseWaMu card.

But I'm left wondering -- with all the financial melting down, will we have more than one American bank left at the end? My forecast for next year: My plastic tally will all be Wells JPMorgan Sachs credit cards.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The insidious disenfranchisement of the local pharmacy

I've lately discovered the joy of batching paperwork. Every Friday afternoon at work, I blast through incoming freelance bills and payment complications; doing it once, at a scheduled time, keeps me saner and makes it go faster than trying to field every query right as it comes in.

Similarly, I don't like dealing with bills and bureaucracy as they comes in. I'd rather stack it up and deal with a bunch of related paperwork at once. Tonight, I finally broke down and attempted to sort out accumulated medical paperwork.

First cranky sidenote: I have at least three (prescription, physical doctors, head doctors) and probably five (add vision and dental) separate medical providers, for one (1) company health care plan. Now, this company health care plan is by far the best I've ever been on and I'm wildly grateful to have coverage at all, so I'm not complaining strenuously, but it took me several rounds of Login Routlette to land on the right combination of website and user name to pull up the first bill I wanted to sort out.

Once I finally found the bill, the first bit was easy if a bit pricey for those of us suddenly on a fixed budget: an $84.11 ambulance bill. "Er?" I inquired of spouse.

In January, he fell on an icy sidewalk and whacked his head, hard enough to spook those nearby. "Hi from the ER!" is not the text message you really want to get right after you walk in the door at work. Happily, all was well; the ER docs took a look and pronounced him probably fine, I came home to keep an eye on him for the day, and three months later, all is good. But it turns out he got to the ER via a local ambulance, which happened to pass by moments after he fell, and which those nearby flagged down. (This is not quite as random as it sounds, since we're literally a 13-block, 1/2 mile ride straight up one street from the local hospital, and there always seem to be ambulances around this particular intersection.)

Want a case study in the unfair tilt insurance gives to health-care access? The rack rate for this 13-block ambulance trip was apparently $908.25. Our plan reimbursed the hospital for $694.82 of the cost, and negotiated a $136.23 discount. (So if you were uninsured, you'd pay $136.23 more for the identical service. No, this does not strike me as a sane way to run a health care system.) Our remaining copay was $77.20. Writing an unexpected check does not fill me with joy, but I'd much rather pay $77 and have a spouse who came through a potentially ghastly head injury with no problems than not pay it and have Later Complications, so I happily filled out the paperwork and moved on to the next hurdle.

Our medical plan uses Medco to fill prescriptions. Last year, Medco barraged us with info about how much we'd save filling prescriptions online instead of at retail. We have one prescription that need to be filled every month, at $40 per pop. Medco wanted us to know that if we instead ordered it online, we'd instead pay $60 for a 90-day supply, or $20 a month.

The tricky part: This prescription is for more than the (legally? medically? I've never been wholly clear) recommended dose. This is the dose that works, and my cursory troll of Google when this prescription got ramped up turned up ample evidence that this drug is widely prescribed in higher-than-guidelined doses, but every time this prescription goes to a new pharmacist, they refuse to fill it without calling the doctor to confirm that this is the intended and prescribed dose. Which can get be slightly frustrating when you're in a hurry, but is fine; pharmacists are supposed to be a check-and-balance against prescribing doctors.

So, Medco kept sending little alerts that we could save money filling this prescription by mail, but we chose to keep filling it at our local pharmacy. The pharmacist knows the prescribing doctor, the store is very conveniently located, and it's worth the extra $20 a month to us to fill it in person.

Until this December, when Medco's little "helpful alerts" turned into "urgent warnings": The company was switching from carrots to sticks. In 2009, if we chose to take a covered drug (and this one counts) to a retail pharmacy instead of using their mail-order system, they'd radically cut their subsidy. A drug that used to cost us $40 a month would now cost vastly more -- banging around on their online system, the closest thing I can get to a "how much?" answer is either $68/month or $300/month. Nifty.

So, Medco is essentially forcing us to switch to online ordering -- but for a drug quantity that their automated order systems will almost certainly reject, since I don't think they can legally dispense a full 90-day supply of what is actually the prescribed 90-day supply, and at the cost of cutting out our local pharmacist who actually knows this case and does a good job keeping tabs on it.

Guess what I'll be spending lunch break tomorrow on the phone with Medco wrangling about? Can we please replace this mess with a functional health-care system, stat?