Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stocking Stuffers

‘Tis the season to be giving gifts, and with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few suggestions for stocking stuffers. Books make excellent gifts because they are filled with wonder, can entertain for hours, and provide a uniquely intimate experience for the reader. Here are four rather different books to put on your gift list:

The Halos and Horns Omnibus Edition is a deluxe coffee-table book with 61 breathtaking color illustrations. The ultimate paranormal, supernatural, fantasy saga is available in both hardcover and softcover editions. This special printing includes never before published essays on the series, an interview with the author, a guide to the Halos and Horns universe, and a preview of the forthcoming sequel, Fangs and Fur. Mixing fantasy with philosophy, and written in the style of episodic fiction, the Halos and Horns saga is unlike anything else in its genre.

Shards is a collection of 61 short stories, ranging from flash fiction to a novelette, and crossing all genres: gothic mystery, science fiction, slice of life, humor, horror, drama, urban fiction, political and sociological fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction.

Collected Essays of a Reluctant Blogger blends humor with social commentary, collecting some of the more entertaining and enlightening blog posts from

The Trial of Santa Claus and Other Christmas Stories is an e-book collection of irreverent Yuletide short stories that could only have been penned by the king of snark himself, Keith B Darrell. [Note: the noun snark is defined both as (1) rude or sarcastic criticism and (2) a mysterious, imaginary animal; both definitions have been found to accurately describe the author.]

You can purchase the above books through Amazon or Barnes & Noble using the handy links provided at

Friday, December 12, 2014

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Cyberspaces

Now that everyone is connected to the Internet and it’s become a ubiquitous part of our daily lives, people are shopping for everything online. Take me, for example. This week alone, I've bought shoes, toothpaste, a calendar, and a set of dining room chairs, all purchased online. But many people are taking it one step further and shopping for their significant other in cyberspace.

Dating – or at least the quest for Mr./Miss Right – (or Mr./ Miss Right Now) has moved online for the same reasons everything else has: it’s quicker, easier, and you can do it at 2 a.m. in your pajamas. Typically, dating sites feature a prospective match’s profile (Unless you’re on the prowl for Mr./ Miss Right Now, in which case, you can use the one-paragraph short form, known as Craigslist, and list the acronyms – NSA, SWF, D&DF, etc. – you’re looking for. Don’t put too much thought into this process, because it doesn't matter what you list; Craigslist readers will ignore your criteria and contact you anyway).

In addition to the profile, date seekers usually post a photo of themselves. Usually, but not always. Sometimes, they post pictures of their dogs. Depending on the breed, it may be hard to tell the date seeker from the dog. About a third of the time, the dog turns out to be the better choice. Beware of photos in which the date seeker is hiding his/her face: either not facing the camera, wearing dark glasses, or in costume, or where the thumbnail photo cuts off the head (Alfred E. Neuman lookalike) or body (Sea World reports a whale escaped) … Or where there is no photo at all. There’s a reason why he/she didn't want you to see the hidden feature.

Then there are the misleading photos. The Technically Honest One: it is a photo of the date seeker, however it was taken 10 years ago; The Best Friend: the date seeker with his/her much better looking friend, whom you’ll be disappointed to learn is already taken; The Guess Who: see if you can pick out the date seeker from a group photo shot. Finally, there’s The Glamour Shot: a stunningly beautiful photo that makes you think the date seeker should be a model – it turns out, she is a model and some scammer has used her photo on a fake profile. A word of caution: if it looks too good to be true, Google Image Search the photo.

Avoid profiles that are too short. If the date seeker is continually answering essay questions with “ask me anything you want to know” or “we can talk about that later” it shows he/she has put less thought and effort into meeting you than into writing the weekly grocery list. At the other extreme, if the date seeker has indeed written a long grocery list of specific qualities, characteristics, or other requirements a prospective match must meet, then this person is too picky and shallow to become involved with.

Peruse other date seekers’ profiles to learn what they do right, and more importantly, what they do wrong. I found three examples on one site in the first five minutes, this morning. In response to the question “What are you doing with your life?” she wrote: “Studying hard to become a charter accountant.” Obviously, she wasn't studying hard enough, because if she had been, she would've known her chosen occupation was a chartered accountant. If you’re too stupid to know what you are studying to become (or worse, so careless that you don’t check what you've written before you post it … not a good idea, by the way, for detail-oriented professions like accounting), then you’re not dating material (and I certainly don’t want you doing my taxes, either).

The second profile I saw today featured a chubby girl in a string bikini. Now, health concerns aside, there’s nothing wrong with a potential match being a bit overweight. We can’t all look like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. But when marketing yourself, you should always lead with your strongest features, not highlight your weakest attributes.

The third profile began – and ended –  by stating the woman was “Not interested in casual sex”. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being upfront about what you are, or are not, looking for in a relationship. But don’t send mixed messages by labeling the same profile with the username “Cutie2PlayWith”.

Remember, online dating is all about marketing yourself. You are the promoter, as well as the product. Prospective daters will assume whatever image your profile conveys is the image of yourself that you've carefully chosen to present. While the zombie costume may have won raves at a Halloween party, it’s not a good choice for your dating profile photo. Your rant about your ex might be justified, but is your dating profile the right place for it… is that the first thing you want a potential date to read?

Successful marketing begins with truth in advertising. Don’t lie or mislead. Be upfront about your weaknesses, but lead with your strengths. Put the time and effort into writing a profile that shows that you think finding the right relationship is important. And if all else fails, at least you can still buy shoes and toothpaste on the Internet.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Pigs at the Trough

In August 2014, President Obama declared war on Medicare fraud. This seemed like a laudable goal, since fraud and unsystematic overcharging account for about $60 billion or 10% of Medicare’s annual costs. Medicare is the best health insurance program in America and should be extended to every American citizen; however, it is threatened by expensive fraud.

Let me be clear: the fraud of which I speak is not committed by the patients or customers receiving healthcare services or products, but rather by unscrupulous doctors, pharmacists, medical device retailers, and other healthcare providers. The solution is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and end Medicare as some on the political right wrongly argue, but rather to expand the program to cover all citizens while eliminating fraud.

At first glance, it would seem the government had taken the proper initial steps in this endeavor. Medicare sends out a monthly Summary Notice that lists all the claims healthcare providers have submitted to it on a patient’s behalf and asks the patient to report to Medicare any doctor, provider, or service listed that the patient does not recognize. Billing Medicare for services a patient did not receive is a major source of Medicare fraud, so we can all help the government save taxpayer money – not by eliminating an essential program — but by reporting fraud. The government makes this easy by including the following on its Medicare Summary Notice:

“How to Report Fraud: if you think a provider or business is involved in fraud, call us at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227). Some examples of fraud include… Billing you for Medicare services you didn’t get.

That seems rather straightforward. So when a friend showed me three identical instances of an unrecognized healthcare provider having charged Medicare on his behalf, I agreed to dial the number and report the suspected fraud. No good deed goes unpunished. Apparently, Medicare does not have a dedicated line to report fraud. All fraud calls go into the main Medicare number, where everything from information to benefit calls are waiting on hold in the queue. Of course, there is no human to answer the phone. Callers receive an option of: “Press 1, Press 2, Press 3” ad infinitum. To make matters worse, there is no option to push to report fraud. But you can stay on hold for the operator… Which I did, until my phone battery died.

I called back later. Again, I waited on hold, simply to reach a live operator so she could tell me to whom it might be I would need to speak. I had plenty of time on hold to ponder the irony of waiting to speak to someone who was not the person I wish to speak to. After 10 minutes, my call was disconnected.

I called back three more times. Finally, I reached an operator and told her the purpose of my call: I was calling Medicare to report suspected fraud, as I’d been instructed to on the Medicare Summary Notice. She told me the number I had dialed – the one clearly printed on the form they had sent instructing people to dial to report suspected fraud – was not the right number to dial. I pointed out it was the number they had printed on their own form under the words “How to Report Fraud” but that did not impress her.

“They put the Medicare number on everything,” she said. “You need to call a different number.”

I asked her to transfer me. She said she couldn’t, and that I’d have to call the number directly. She gave me the number – 1-800-447-8477 – and I dialed it.

“U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General,” a pleasant recorded voice greeted me. It proceeded to offer me multiple “Press 1, Press 2, Press 3” options for everything from the agricultural department to the Affordable Care Act. But there was no option for Medicare fraud, and even more disturbingly, there was no option to speak to a live human being… Not even the option to wait on terminal hold.

Imagine witnessing a crime and not being able to phone the police. Crime would be even more rampant than it is today. I now see the appeal of white-collar crime. Here is a $600 billion piggy bank and no one cares who is siphoning from the trough. I’m surprised only 10% is stolen through fraudulent charges each year.

So, President Obama, here’s a way to save $60 billion a year in your new war on Medicare fraud. Spend $50 a month to set up a dedicated phone line for people to report fraud. If you really want to go whole hog on guarding the trough, hire a few of the nearly 6% unemployed people in the country to answer the phones. If you insist on using automated “Press 1, Press 2, Press 3” recordings, then at least have one option for reporting fraud. Make sure the phone number that you tell people to call to report fraud actually leads to someone who handles that. This is called common sense, a new concept I would like to introduce to the government. Trust me, it will pay for itself. If you have any questions, give me a call at 1-800-633-4227.