Archipelago Of Accounts – The Banks Always Win

At work, our health insurance has been switched to a high-deductible PPO. Not to worry, we’ve also been granted Health Savings Accounts (HSA) in which to save money, tax-free, to pay bills before meeting the deductible.

That’s all well and good, but I can’t shake the feeling every time legislation comes out to do some activity (retire, save for education, health care) the only winner is the financial services industry.

Here’s why: all of these activities requires one to maroon a slice of money into an account designated for that purpose. What comes with accounts? That’s right, fees to the bank. The Wells-Fargo HSA we’ve got is $4.25 a month (paid, for now, by work). That’s $51 a year to hold money. The interest rate is a paltry 0.1%, so with $2000 in that account (the minimum cash balance before we’re allowed to invest), I’d make about $2.00, (net -$49 if I was paying the fees, as I will one day) Thanks for nothing. Further, while some banks graciously waive fees for meeting minimum balances, it’s harder for many people to meet the balance since their money is split so many ways.

These accounts limit my flexibility to spend as life events occur, limit the returns on my money, and cost me fees, and headaches. More statements to read, cards to carry, and fine print to decode.

If costs are to be tax-deductible, why not fix the tax code instead, so that all medical expenses, instead of those over a certain amount, are tax deductible, instead of these shameless handouts to the banks? Let me deduct things come tax time.

High Trek (Stingy) Adventures

Kristi and I joined forces as team “puppy nappers” for yesterday’s scavenger hunt race around Boston. I think we ended up somwhere in the middle of the pack after a couple of hours running around Boston’s south end, Harvard Square, and searching for a clown in the Public garden. It was a good (if tiring) time.

I was disappointed at the beginning of the day when they announced that the race had raised $350 for a local AIDS group that had provided volunteers. The race had 250 teams at $86 a team, so that’s $21,500 in revenue. While not run as a fundraiser, that’s a pretty poor showing. That aside, this thing is a huge cash cow. There’s a whole raft of sponsors that surely covered all the prizes and gift bags and then some so their only expenses are salary. It was hard to say who was an employee vs. a volunteer, but the number is probably no more than 6, more likely 4 or so. Not a bad gig if you can get it, as they say.

Barack Obama Rally In Boston

Kristi and I went to a rally for Obama in Boston last night. It was much bigger than I expected, though in retrospect I think I should have expected more. It was my first time at a political event of any kind. I enjoyed it a lot, despite all the standing around. He invited everyone to head up to New Hampshire to volunteer there (reminding us “its only an hour away”), so who knows, maybe I’ll try my hand at canvasing one of these days.
Me at the rally


Andrew Sullivan writes a great article “Goodbye To All That” in this months Atlantic painting 2008 Presidential election as the continuation of the Boomer-generation’s civil war that started with Vietnam and lumbers forward even now, and more importantly how Obama can bridge that bitter divide (claiming more republicans would vote for him than any other democrat) and rebrand America.

There’s also a follow up interview with the author.

A recent NYT op-ed mentions this article too.

Full-time student

For a little while at least, I’m a full time grad student. I finished up my fifth class (wireless sensor networks) this summer to reach the halfway point in my master’s program and was starting to think about going full time.. in fact I’ve thought about it the last two summers because the Tuft’s CS program really isn’t conducive to part time study. All the “interesting” classes are offered at 10:30 unfortunately. I’d also been interviewing for new full time positions. In the midst of that deliberation this time around, I had the good fortune to get laid off from my full time job…

So now I’m taking Intro to Machine Learning, Intro to computational biology and a seminar on Brain-Computer interaction. I’m also tagging along with one of my advisor’s research groups which will hopefully afford me the opportunity to carve off some work to get started on my Master’s degree project.

In my (ever declining) free time, I’ve also been doing some Ruby on Rails work for a small company in Cambridge as a contractor.

Citizen Kebinger

I became an American citizen today, just ten days short of nineteen years after moving here and about a year since applying. There were 98 other people from 30-something countries being naturalized as well. First we all stood in line to check in and give up our green cards (which went into an official looking Target bag), Then we waited more after being seated, during which we were told some rather hokey stories by a manager in the Immigration Services office and read and re-read our letters from the president (Dear fellow American…)

Once the judge arrived, things moved quickly- first we all said the oath together, then the judge made a nice speech. Due to the hokey stories and the fact that I wasn’t running away from religous persecution or civil strife, I expected to view things through my usual detached, ironic perspective, but once things got going, I found it quite moving.

After the judge was done speaking, a grade school daughter of one of the fresh citizens led us in the pledge of allegiance and that was it. We filed out a row at a time to collect our certificates of naturalization and that was that.

Here’s me before the ceremony, permanent resident card in hand:


And afterwards, government-issue mini flag in hand:


Big difference eh?

Without insurance

I saw this disturbing story (via the wesabe blog) about a woman who can’t buy health insurance because she had a bout with cancer. Being without dental insurance bothers me enough, ( i still kick myself for not picking up the COBRA coverage before the deadline – the thought of paying for a root canal out of pocket gives me the shivers) but the thought of no health insurance is terrifying.

I can’t believe that we, as a country can’t solve this problem and make it easier for individuals to obtain insurance. By insuring everyone, even the young and relatively healthy, the risk is spread around enough that it is overall more affordable for everyone. Surely having portable insurance would allow people to start their own businesses or just take extended time off to do something different, which would have to be a boost to the economy. It seems like the anti-health care forces would have us believe that any insurance changes would be bad for small business, but I can’t believe that is truly the case if we do it right.

New MBTA website: wow!

The MBTA today unveiled their new web site, and all I can say is wow. Its way more than I would have expected out of them (this is a site where the outages page was updated by hand editing before). Theres a clean and modern new look, plus an array of new, useful tools.

Theres a revamped trip planner integrated with google maps, with “suggest” for landmarks when you type (which doesn’t work quite right yet..)

My favorite, and the most impressive is the new My MBTA feature which allows one to save planned routes and sign up for customized alerts. (but I’m not sure if they email them). There’s a hidden, unlinked tool (with the old look) called VIP Alerts that seems to let one do email and sms alerts.

UPDATE: It looks like the MBTA didn’t like people using the t-alert system before it was public so they took it down.

There’s another tool that isn’t linked up yet (it’s commented out in the source, I wonder why?) is system schedules for your ipod.


The New York Times Magazine had its annual year in ideas issue this past sunday – one of my favorites was Hyperopia, which is the idea that in the short term, one feels guilty for not getting enough “stuff” done, but over the long term, one looks back and wishes he or she had more fun back then.

This is on my mind as I finish off a class (man machine system design) where I really haven’t learned much and the assignments are so long that the professor has to be a sadist of some kind, as I try to figure out what I’ll take next semester (the evening class pickings are lame) and why I’m getting a master’s degree in computer science the first place.

Kickball Miracle no more

The dream is over – my team lost tonight in the second round of the playoffs – too many errors, not enough runs. We started a comback in the top of the 5th with three runs in, but alas, it was not enough. At least we have the one win to look back at in the long offseason :).

I did have fun reffing the game after ours though – I called a tight strike zone because I’d rather see lots of kicking than a pitchers-duel any day of the week. The teams certainly came through for me. One of the teams scored 11 runs one inning. Fun to watch.