Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Westmed

A little over a year ago, Westmed took over ambulance service in Monterey County, having submitted a substantially lower bid than longtime provider American Medical Response (AMR) for the contract. At the time I wondered if it was reasonable to expect more service for less money, but the county supervisors assured us they knew what they were doing.

So on January 1, 2006, a different wail began speeding by our house uphill to an emergency situation. For awhile Westmed ambulances announced their presence with a multi-pack of sirens that sounded like a whole armada of fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances screaming through the neighborhood. It was really annoying. Worse, when driving it was impossible to figure out if the sound was ahead, behind, or somewhere else altogether.

Westmed has since toned down its sirens somewhat. Probably as a cost saving measure. For now we are learning that Westmed got in over its head financially, promising the moon and delivering a hunk of green cheese. Suddenly the bargain brand doesn't look so good anymore.

Westmed is asking for a million dollar bailout, and permission to eliminate ambulances in several rural areas including Big Sur. Imagine, leaving the hazards of Big Sur without ambulance service. How often do we see cars go over the side again?

Today's Monterey Herald reported:
"Westmed chief executive officer Allen Cress said the Big Sur ambulance simply doesn't see enough action to make it cost-effective, even during the busy summer months."

DId I read that correctly? Does Westmed measure public health and safety in monetary terms? I find that absolutely appalling!

Fortunately, some Westmed employees are speaking out. One, Chris Otherson, wrote a commentary in this Sunday's Herald. He suggested that the county should make ambulance service a public agency, much like fire departments, to eliminate the need to make a profit on emergency services. That is certainly worth investigating.

AMR, watching from the sidelines, has indicated that it understands the true costs and would be perfectly happy to return.

Its time for the county supervisors to bite the bullet and admit their mistake. They expected a bargain, but failed to understand the complexities. I'm perfectly willing to forgive anyone who acknowledges their mistakes. We all make them. Its how we resolve them that tests our character.

Its time to acknowledge that you get what you pay for. Either renegotiate the contract with Westmed so that services don't get cut, reinstate AMR, or consider making ambulance service a public agency.

As a taxpayer, I want the most for my money, not the cheapest service. I'm willing to pay a little more for quality service.

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Addendum: February 28th
I see in this morning's paper that the county is going to do the right thing. Big Sur service will continue with a county subsidy. Westmed was granted permission to reduce response times to other rural areas, though. The county will now consider other providers, including the possibility of forming a joint powers agency to provide public ownership of ambulance service or a public/private partnership. By this time next year they plan to have a completely new program in place.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Woe is ME

My computer uses Windows ME. It came that way. It works OK. Not always great, but good enough for me right now.

But some people don't think I should be OK with it.
Bill Gates is one of them. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows ME several months ago. That's OK, I don't need their support and there's no good reason why I need to spend money to upgrade just now.

I went to install TurboTax this week.
Intuit has been sending me a CD every year. I didn't ask for it, it just came every year. I liked the product so I installed it, entered my payment information, and away we go to taxland.

Not this time.

This time when I put in the CD it said I needed to upgrade to Windows XP or Vista.

Not now, I can't afford it. Its not worth spending a hundred bucks to put XP on an older machine, nor am I about to put up $700-800 on a new computer to get Vista. Not right now. I just want to get my taxes done!

I have no intention of upgrading my computer just because two software companies tell me to. I'll do it when I need more power and not before.

So TurboTax lost a customer. Probably for good.

It turns out that H&R Block's Tax Cut also shut out users of pre-XP versions of Windows.

Tax Act to the rescue! I'd seen an ad for Tax Act in the paper. I as skeptical of it, because they were offering free tax software. I figured there was a catch. There was a little one. Free was for a bare bones federal tax program. The state program cost extra.

But the deluxe Tax Act combines state and federal taxes and free federal filing for just twenty bucks. That's $25 cheaper than TurboTax, not including their charges for e-filing.

But is it any good? I checked out several reviews. It doesn't have all of the extra bells and whistles that TurboTax has, such as financial planners or the ability to download a 1099 DIV form from our broker, but I don't need those anyway. Everything I read said Tax Act was a solid and legitimate tax preparation software company, but without the frills.

Its also the underdog company. Underdog is looking out for the little guy. Tax Act works on ANY version of Windows except the long gone 3.1. Got Windows 95? You can use it. Got Vista? You can use it too!

So I bought it.

I'm about half way through our federal return. The process is barely distinguishable from TurboTax or Tax Cut.

So I guess I should thank TurboTax
for forcing me to go to their competitor so I could save $25 bucks!

Make that a savings of $125 for also not having to go out and buy the Windows XP upgrade.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Not too bright

In my February 10th post I talked about the benefits of switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. I learned today that Assemblyman Lloyd Levine has proposed legislation banning incandescent light bulbs and forcing everyone to buy compact fluorescents.

Though I am a hardcore advocate of compact fluorescent usage wherever possible, I cannot support making them mandatory. Despite their efficiency they do have limitations, and can't realistically replace every incandescent light bulb.

For example, compact fluorescent bulbs do not work on
circuits with electronic timers or photocells (those "electric eyes" that turn lights on at dusk and off at dawn.) Their electronic ballasts interfere with the electronics of the other device.

They are also not suited to some decorative fixtures, such as chandeliers where the bulb shape (such as a candle flame) is part of the design. Furthermore, most don't work with dimmers. There are so-called "dimmable fluorescents" but they have a very limited range of dimming before they go completely out. They can't be dimmed nearly as low as an incandescent can.

Finally, it makes no sense to replace incandescent lights that are only used for less than a couple minutes at a time. They aren't contributing nearly enough to the overall energy consumption to justify the cost of a fluorescent.

I would support a system of financial incentives and disincentives to encourage consumers to buy the most efficient bulb rather than the cheapest one. But an outright ban on incandescents is impractical for many situations.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Firefox it is

In my last report I was in the process of trying different browsers. I tried Netscape 8.1, but it turned out to be pretty buggy. So I've settled on Firefox, which is steady and faithful. I like its ability to add additional features I want without cluttering it up with things I don't need. Like Netscape, it also has interchangeable themes to customize the look of things, but Firefox has a lot more to choose from.

Maybe sometime when they get the bugs worked out I'll try Netscape again. It did do a couple of things that Firefox doesn't. But for now, its Firefox all the way.

Click here to get it for yourself.
Its free!

I've also been very pleased
with Firefox's cousin Thunderbird, for handling the e-mail. Its also very free. You can import your address book from Outlook with no trouble at all.

Happy upgrading!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Replacing AOL software

As AOL has become more web oriented, I have found less and less use for AOL's proprietary software. I started on AOL in 1997 with version 4.0, and worked my way through five different upgrades.

AOL software is still darned easy to use. One of its best features is the ability to enter e-mail addresses into your address book once and have them available online from anywhere in the world as well as offline on your own computer. But it has problems. For starters, it can be unstable. And for cross pollination purposes, the address book cannot be exported to other e-mail programs. Nor can the "favorites" list be exported into other browsers.

I started using the Mozilla Firefox browser and Thunderbird e-mail program recently. It took awhile to configure them the way I wanted, much longer than it took to configure AOL the first time. Then I had to hand type every e-mail address into my Outlook Express address book. From there I exported it directly into Thunderbird completely effortlessly. (I could have entered it directly into Thunderbird, but I already use the Outlook address book for mail merge in my OpenOffice suite.)

Mrs. Toy, who hates to even touch a computer, much less knows how to, actually prefers Thunderbird's clean e-mail interface over AOL's, which she found too cluttered with unrelated stuff to find the right buttons.

Then I rediscovered Netscape. Remember Netscape? That was the browser everyone used before anyone ever heard of Internet Explorer. Firefox and Netscape have a common heritage in Mozilla, but they have taken somewhat divergent paths. Netscape is owned by AOL, while Mozilla is an open source program developer. Its kinda complicated, but Netscape and Firefox are very similar but not identical.

Netscape 8.1 has the advantage over Firefox in that it had AOL Instant Messenger built in, along with the ability to display web pages either as Firefox does or as Internet Explorer does. It also has additional security features and the ability to display the local weather on the toolbar. Its a neat browser.

Since I couldn't directly export my favorites from AOL into Netscape, it took me sevaral days to copy ten years of collected favorites into netscape. Whew.

All was well for a few days, then suddenly, it started falling apart. Netscape started freezing up or crashing. I exported my bookmarks (favorites) into Firefox (real easy this time!) and did a clean reinstall. It worked great for a day, then started crashing again. The forum at Netscape.com had users reporting the same bug all occurring within a day of each other! I'm hoping they'll get the  bugs worked out soon. But for now I'm using Firefox for browsing. Its steady as a rock.

So why didn't I upgrade to Internet Explorer 7 like everyone else? Because I still have a Windows ME system, and IE 7 doesn't work with anything earlier than Windows XP. I don't like to have to spend my money one a new machine just because Bill Gates tells me to. This machine works just fine, thank you. Besides, Firefox and Netscape were doing the things IE 7 now does long before Microsoft decided to upgrade Internet Explorer, and Firefox doesn't need to make me buy new computer systems to stay in business because Mozilla is non-profit.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bright Idea

While everyone is wringing their hands over greenhouse gas emmissions and our dependence on foreign oil, I did something about it. ThisChristmas I gave several members of the family four packs of compactfluorescent (CF)light bulbs. Each CF bulb uses 75% less energy than acomparable incandescent (plain ordinary) light bulb.

We've been using CF bulbs at our house for over a dozen years.As they've become smaller, lighter in weight, and cheaper we've beenable to replace half of our light bulbs with CFs. They're in our porchand driveway lights, table lamps, kitchen lights, bedside lamp, desklamps, and bathroom. In fact, the only lights in our house that don'thave CF bulbs now are either on dimmers (which also save energy) or areused
so rarely that it doesn't make much difference.

If everyone did this, replaced half of their bulbs with CFbulbs, this country could cut its total lighting bill by 37%! Imaginethe implications of that. The energy savings would be enormous, aswould the reduction in greenhous gas emissions.

It is ridiculously easy to do. You go to the store, plunk down a few dollars on a couple of multi-packs, go home, screw them in, and you're done.

So why are so few of us doing it?
Beats me. I almost never see themin other people's homes. I was walking around downtown Carmel lastnight and noticed that almost every outdoor light was an old fashionedincandescent, barely different from the ones Thomas Edison first soldin Great Grandma's day. One notable exception was the Pine Inn, whichhad CFs. You'd think other cost-conscious businesses would have them,too. Yet several motels had incandescents outside every room. A 20 roommotel could save on average over 10 kilowatt hours per night. At 11cents per kilowatt hour that works out to a savings of over $400 peryear they could add to their housekeeping staff's Christmas bonusinstead of paying it to PG&E. They could save hundreds more if they used them inside the rooms, too.

So pay attention, readers!
Wedon't have to wait for the government to "do something" about globalwarming and energy supplies. We can easily do this ourselves right now!

As an experienced consumer of CF bulbs, let me offer a little guidance in buying them.First, buy multi-packs. They tend to be cheaper. Most CF bulbs thesedays are small enough to fit anywhere, but if in doubt, compare themside by side with a regular bulb in the store to make sure they're nottoo large for your lamps. Also, check the package to make sure they canbe used in enclosed fixtures if that is your intent. Some can, somecan't. Finally, most CF bulbs are designed to have a color similar to astandard light bulb, but there will be some differences that may takesome getting used to. Give it a little time. Avoid bulbs labeled as"daylight" as these will have a bluish color that is unnatural indoors.

Put compact fluorescent bulbs on your shopping list today!
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P.S.
Another great way to save energy is to turn off your computerwhen you don't need it. Can you believe some people actually leavetheirs on 24/7? Eleven years of computer ownership have proven to methat turning your computer on and off, contrary to popular opinion,doesn't shorten its life.