Cashless Society, meet Pony Express

Here’s an excerpt from a page at, explaining how to submit payment for your Medicare premium. As you read it, see if you can figure out if anything obvious is missing.


To summarize: you can have your bank send the government a check; you can give the government permission to vacuum money out of your bank account; you can write a paper check and send it via snail mail; or you can charge it to your credit card… and send it via snail mail.

Gee, Uncle Sam, how about: you can charge it to your credit card online at our massive Medicare website? Or how about: you can ask us to charge your credit card automatically each quarter?

Are either of those entirely unthinkable?

Maybe this is all due to the Medicare Paper-Pusher Clerks Full Employment Act of 1963. Or perhaps the geniuses who programmed the original Obamacare website are now all under long-term contract to the burgeoning fast food industry.

You can pay the IRS with a credit card on their website. You can pay your child support with a credit card on a state government website. You can pay for classes at Aunt Hattie’s Knitting School with a credit card on her website… and if Aunt Hattie can set that up in a day, certainly our best and brightest inside the Beltway should be able to do it within a matter of years. Clearly, it would be less expensive for the government than handing tons of soon-to-be waste paper daily.

I’m sure the federal government has priorities. I just don’t see the logic in many of them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A key finding goes missing

In school, I was taught that engineering was progress-based: as ideas arose that were superior to those in use — the locomotive, the cotton gin, the automobile, the better mousetrap — they would replace the older ideas, in a satisfying parade of continual refinement.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, especially when the situation is complicated by economics or marketing. A classic example of this is the VHS videotape standard clobbering Betamax, a prior and technically superior standard, because consumers were more interested in maximizing unattended recording time than video quality. Its demise was hastened by the fact that content producers resisted the burden of offering their products in redundant formats just to satisfy a shrinking number of diehards.

I recently had another opportunity to bemoan this principle when I was shopping for a replacement key wallet.

Key wallets, very popular in the ’60s and ’70s, seem to have fallen out of currency. Back then, Keytainer even offered a trendy line of hard-case key wallets, which became unpopular as commercial keys of unusual lengths began to proliferate.

People now seem to manage their keys by clipping them on their belts or backpacks with carabiners, or using a rigid case where the keys are stacked like the blades of a folding knife, or by simply carrying them on a ring in their pockets.

I’ve ruined a lot of pockets over the decades carrying keys in them — especially since the advent of those extra-long, hydrocephalic “security keys” required by many contemporary vehicles — and pockets simply aren’t easy to repair and are practically impossible to replace. During the pre-carabiner ’70s, I went the belt route with one of those spring-loaded cable-reel keychains, eventually abrading holes through all my pants at my belt line. Finally, I settled on the leather key wallet as the best compromise between convenience and protection.

Practically every key wallet you find on the market today uses the ball-and-slot mechanism in this photo, pretty much unchanged since it was patented in 1921:

Common key wallet mechanism

This mechanism consistently suffers from two problems.

First, the two-part swivel link mechanism seems almost deliberately designed to promote constant and frustrating tangling among the hooks.

Second, the backplate, made of plated brass, is relatively soft metal. Pressure from your pocket and/or an excess of enclosed keys easily bows the plate forward or backwards. When it bows forward, closing the slots, your key hooks jam (usually in their tangled configuration). Worse, when it bows backwards, opening one or more slots, key hooks can completely detach, and you can easily lose a key without even realizing it. (And since the hook is gonzo with it, you’re now in the market for a whole new wallet.)

At some point in the ’80s, I encountered a completely different concept in a key wallet mechanism, one that greatly appealed to my engineering sensibilities. I used the associated wallet until the cowhide deformed and shredded into uselessness. Here is a photo of the hardware:

Superior key hook mechanismEvery key is attached to a swivel block that rotates in one dimension only — into or out of the case. The hook itself is a rigid wire that rotates around its own axis, but cannot flop to either side. Combined, these two mechanisms allow the keys to be deployed from the case and turned in a lock, but absolutely prevent them from tangling inside the case.

Furthermore, since its integrity is mechanically positive and not dependent on cut-out slots, the keys are securely locked against loss. Keys can be easily removed temporarily with a one-handed action similar to the operation of a hypodermic needle, depressing the hook while pulling back on the spring-loaded collar, which disengages the right-angled retaining end from the round port. Since this operation requires a self-opposing motion, hooks will never detach simply by tugging on the keys.

This mechanism is elegant, functional, and clearly far superior to the more common link and slot mechanism.

It’s also entirely unavailable today, despite my most ardent searches.

The wallet in the photo was made by Rolfs, a defunct company. While there are websites specializing in antiques from defunct product lines — often pieces that were never used — most of the Rolfs key wallets offered use the common hardware, while the ones with the desired hardware have been heavily used and in even worse shape than my own piece.

It depresses me that a product improvement like this would die out. It depends solely on the availability of a metallic component similar to a jewelry finding, one that one would think should be available independent of a manufacturer of fashion accessories, same as you can buy zippers or buttons without buying an entire article of clothing. Even if demand is not large enough for a major firm to reintroduce a product that uses it, there are hundreds of boutique and artisan leatherwork shops who would jump at the chance to offer a superior quality mechanism to complement their superior quality materials.

I haven’t been able to find anyone else who knows anything about this mechanism, what happened to it, who might have remaining stocks of it, or where it might be available. I can only hope that someone knowledgable will someday find this posting via a search engine and get in contact to enlighten me.

Afterword: A leather artisan who read this offered to create a new key wallet for me around my existing hardware if I could send it to him. Since the hardware is in fine mechanical shape and it’s only the leather parts that made the original wallet unserviceable, that’s a particularly attractive option.

Posted in Whatever happened to | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

That’s one way to keep the support queue short

Here’s a brain-damaged gem I heard today while dealing with the answering service robot on the support line for Walmart Family Mobile phone service:

“Just so you know, some issues can be resolved simply by turning your phone off and then back on. You can try that while I transfer your call to a representative.”

You can hear this one yourself (at least until they realize their stupidity and change it) at 877-440-9758 (follow the subsequent button presses for technical support).

Posted in Say What??, This is Broken | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A CAPTCHA’d Audience

My thesis for today is that Google’s CAPTCHA facility ranks up there as one the worst thought-out pieces of garbage on the Internet.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 6.21.11 PM








How am I supposed to know whether this banner says “No parking” or “Long live the victory of Mao Tse-Tung Thought?”

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 6.07.13 PM






This sign identifies a local park. It’s a government sign, to be sure, but is is a “street” sign?  It doesn’t control traffic. It doesn’t identify the name of a roadway. It doesn’t provide directions to somewhere. I can’t even tell if it’s on a street—it looks pretty far off the asphalt to me.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 6.06.31 PM







Oh oh. This one’s not even a government sign. It’s made to be seen from the street, to be sure, but it’s not actually on a street. Do I count it, or do I pass entirely?


Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 6.06.48 PM



And how much of a “street sign” is a “street sign?” Do I count the pole? This is an interesting question, because I’ve both selected and not selected the pole, and in both cases Google has proceeded to give me additional tests, as if I had somehow failed this one. (“Inconsistent feedback” is one of the stress techniques used in psychological coercion. Is that any way not to be evil, Google?)



Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 1.46.05 AM



This one is just classic. Google purposely blurs images of people, residences, license plates, text, and other items algorithmically for legal reasons, and also on specific request. While Google’s left hand is doing that, its right hand is apparently feeding these blurred images into their awful CAPTCHA product. So we’re left to wonder if that blob in the upper left corner is a store front, a movie marquee (which I guess is still a store front, right?), a semitrailer, or a street sign that somehow wandered into the wrong CAPTCHA.


Seriously—how does a “product” with such a poor human interface survive in the market? Maybe because it has a builtin captive audience.

As it turns out, all the poor buggers who created their blogs on Google’s Blogger service have exactly one choice of CAPTCHA product to keep from being buried in comment spam. That choice is either to use this Google abortion, or to expend extreme effort to re-host their blogs on a more free-market service. Google doesn’t offer these people any better choices (because what could possibly be better than a Google product, right?)

I should point out that this very blog, hosted by WordPress, uses a “non-CAPTCHA CAPTCHA feature” that over many years has successfully rejected 100% of comment spam flung at it. Commenters don’t have to take quizzes or solve problems—it just works.

So Google, if you can’t manage not to be evil, at least try to manage not being absurd.

Posted in This is Broken | Tagged | 1 Comment

Who’s the brains of this gang?

I’ve received something like 30 copies of this pump-and-dump scam spam over the past two days, all identical except for the forged sender names:

Alright, let’s get right to it…

We’ve been out of touch for a while. I’ve been very busy looking for the next big stock that has the potential to explode and it took me months to find one.

If I can be honest, this one came to me as a god send. I got lucky. I have this friend who works at a law firm in NYC and we’ve known each other for a very long time.

Long story short, he told me that his firm is about to finalize a big takeover by a multibillion corporation. They’re buying this tiny company that is now trading at just around 10 cents a share.

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard him say that they’re paying somewhere between $1.30 and $1.39 for the company. The deal is closing and being announced mid next week.

I could get into what the company does, but who really cares right? All we need to know is that they are in the high tech industry and that this is going to be a huge buyout.

I recommend you buy shares as soon as possible today and wait it out until you get paid over $1.30 next week. The way takeovers work is that they will just credit this price per share, in cash, to your brokerage account and in exchange will take the shares that you bought at just pennies.

I may never have another tip like this, so cash in on it while you still can.

Did you notice anything peculiar about this message?

The guy needs you to buy this do-nothing stock so you’ll artificially drive up the price for him, he can dump his holdings before the inevitable price correction, and he will walk away with a nice little profit while you get screwed.

Only one little problem: he forgot to mention what stock it is he needs you to buy.

I didn’t edit it out of the quoted mail so as not to give free publicity to the scammer — it was simply never there!

I have to chuckle at the idea of the scam-master paying good money to hire a spambot-herder to get his message out, and paying for millions of e-mail messages that are absolutely useless to him.

Spammers.  You can’t live with ’em, and you can’t kill ’em.  Yet.

Posted in Say What??, This is Broken | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A slur in time

An aphorism of which I have always been particularly fond states that “isolationist” is a term created by imperialists to denigrate noninterventionists.

With the advent of President Donald Trump, a new version suggests itself: “populism” is a term created by authoritarians to denigrate democracy that thwarts their agenda.

Posted in They're lying to you | Tagged | Leave a comment

And now for something completely different…

1994: Citing the factoid that there are “more gun dealers in America than gas stations,” Bill Clinton announces new regulations that result in four out of five existing Federal Firearms Licensees nationwide losing their licenses, on the basis that they are hobbyists and not bona fide commercial entities. The act is lauded as the harbinger of a new and hopeful age in which violent crime will be reduced.

2016:  Barack Obama pledges to require any private gun owner who sells an arbitrary and explicitly unspecified number of guns per year (sometimes as few as “one or two”) to obtain a Federal Firearms License. The act is lauded as the harbinger of a new and hopeful age in which violent crime will be reduced.

Big-government socialists: whipsawing your life on a whim and a pretext, with vain promises to get it right yet one more time.  (They’ll never get it right.)

Posted in They're lying to you | Tagged , | Leave a comment