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Friday, December 6, 2013

Health Care and Apartheid: Basically the Same Thing

As Republican politicians fight their never-ending battle to out-stupid one another, one of the more consistent front-runners is Rick Santorum. Santorum's regularly demonstrated ability to combine right-wing dogma, pseudo-Christian hypocrisy and general tone-deafness is nothing short of breathtaking. That someone with multiple university degrees is capable of saying so many profoundly dumb things (as reported previously) just goes to show that book-larnin' ain't everything, I guess.

Today's award-winning demonstration of Santorum's ignorance took place on Bill O'Reilly's show (an appropriate forum for that sort of thing). Discussing the passing of Nelson Mandela, Santorum told O'Reilly, "Nelson Mandela stood up against a great injustice and was willing to pay a huge price for that, and that's the reason he is mourned today, because of that struggle that he performed… And I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people's lives, and Obamacare is front and center in that."

Wow! I'm impressed. And he said all that with a straight face, no less. Yes, Rick believes that a law enacted to extend the benefits of affordable health care to tens of millions of Americans, and to keep millions more from getting screwed over by their health insurance providers, is pretty much the same as a brutal government-mandated system of racial discrimination that regulated where you could live, where you could work, where you could go, whom you could associate with. The similarities are pretty obvious, no?


You're right, this does remind me of Obamacare

I think that with this pronouncement, Santorum has secured himself a comfortable lead in the stupid sweepstakes, ahead of perpetual challengers Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. Not that they aren't putting up a fight, mind you. Palin's recent statement about the federal debt and slavery come to mind (helpful hint: when someone prefaces a statement with, "and this isn't racist, but…", you can safely assume that whatever comes next will be pretty offensive). Bachmann has since countered with claims that Barack Obama "has rewritten the Constitution for himself as a part of his effort to fundamentally transform the United States of America"—golly, I didn't learn in my high school civics class—the one in which I scored 100% on every test but only got a "B" because the teacher said I "had a bad attitude"—that the president gets to rewrite the Constitution. But I think Santorum, with his "ACA=apartheid" equation, once again leaves Sarah and Michele in the dust.

What is it about these right-wing Republicans that enables them to make these pronouncements that attain an almost magical level of stupid? I am simultaneously fascinated and repulsed; I guess it's the same thing some people get out of watching those "Saw" movies. I don't need to watch that stuff—I can just watch Republicans being interviewed on Fox News to get the same kind of sick thrill.


Turn that thing off! It's frightening the children.

Nelson Mandela was, and I'm sure will remain, an inspirational figure to people the world over. He was a man who fought against outrageous injustice, suffered his punishment for that with dignity and ultimately emerged triumphant. Where others might have sought retribution, he worked for reconciliation. He was a respected statesman who was elected to lead his country and, unlike so many of his peers among African leaders, when his term was up, he went. I cannot for the life of me imagine a Santorum or a Palin or a Bachmann (or a Cruz or a Paul or practically any of the more vocal Republicans) ever rising to even a small fraction of that level of moral authority. That Rick Santorum, the supposed champion of Catholic teachingswould somehow link this figure, who for the good of his country truly turned the other cheek to seek rapprochement with his former tormentors, to his own immoral crusade to deprive America's least privileged citizens of a little bit of progress toward health care security tells me everything about him (and his fan base) that I would ever care to know.


Wait… Jesus said what??!!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

HealthCare.gov: DOA

The President came up to Boston last week to tell us that his ACA (Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare") really is going to work. Maybe the eyes of the rest of America were upon him, but I think that greater Boston was more preoccupied with the impending game six of the World Series, in which the Red Sox might win the series in Fenway Park for the first time since 1918 (which did in fact come to pass). Giving a speech at the historic but unpronounceable Faneuil Hall ("FAN-ee-ull" in case you were wondering), on roughly the same spot where Mitt Romney (remember him?) signed the Massachusetts health care act into law in 2006, Mr. Obama apologized for the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov and assured us all that things will get better soon, reminding us that the debut of Massachusetts' own revamped health insurance framework was also pretty shaky, although it has ultimately worked out well.

Of all the things I pontificate about in these (electronic) pages, here, at last, is something I actually feel professionally qualified to ramble on and on about. I make my living as a project manager for information technology (IT) projects. I've been doing this now for 20+ years as my primary or secondary role in a number of different companies. I have run a lot of projects, many that were big successes, and a few that, well, gave me an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. When I first heard about the problems at the launch of the HealthCare.gov web site, the words that immediately sprang to mind were the ones that no project manager ever wants to hear from the users of the system of which he or she has just led the delivery: Didn't anybody test this thing?


Well, sort of open. And sort of not.

IT projects generally follow about the same lifecycle, or sequence of activities. First you define requirements: what exactly is this system supposed to do, what technical and organizational constraints need to be addressed and so forth. Then you create the design that will deliver on those requirements. Then you actually build the system and test it to make sure that what you built follows the design and meets the requirements. If testing shows that things aren't working right, you fix those things and then test again, and keep doing that until testing confirms that the system performs as it is supposed to. Then you roll out the finished product by training the people who will operate the system, maybe training end users as well, making sure that you have some kind of helpdesk function in place to field any user issues, loading the system with whatever data is needed to initialize it, making any other logistical preparations that are needed and then finally turning users loose on it ("going live", in IT jargon).

Variants of the "classical" project execution approach (the "waterfall approach") may devote months to each of these major steps, and there are rigid rules about when you can exit each phase and enter the next. Some projects follow approaches such as the "Agile" method in which you define a basic framework of intended capabilities and then develop the details by rapidly iterating through requirements, design etc. in multiple cycles. There's a lot more to either approach than what I've hinted at here, but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say that the different approaches each work best for different kinds of IT projects, although as in any profession, there are adherents to each approach who will argue with religious fervor that one or the other is the only true path to IT nirvana. Here, for example, is a writer who blames the problems with HealthCare.gov on the use of the waterfall approach instead of Agile. To this I say only, beware of anyone who preaches the one-size-fits-all solution. I have seen Agile projects that were quite successful, and others that devolved into complete chaos and wasted a lot of time and money delivering a Frankenstein-like whatchamacallit that was rejected by users. You have to match the methodology to the circumstances of the project, and consider that often the problem is less in the methodology than in its execution.


Standard IT Project Lifecycle

Whatever the methodology, things can go wrong at any step in an IT project. If requirements are incomplete, or vague, or weren't reviewed and approved by whomever is the sponsor of the project and/or the ultimate owner of the system that will be delivered, you run a very high risk of expending a lot of effort, only to be told, "this isn't what we wanted; go back and build what we wanted, and don't expect us to pay for this other thing you built." If the design is poorly thought out, the final product won't deliver the intended functionality, or it will deliver it in a way that is incomplete, or runs too slowly, or is confusing to users, or crashes frequently, or otherwise renders it essentially unusable. If the individual components and the overall system aren't properly tested at each stage of development, you are pretty much closing your eyes and hoping for a miracle when you put it in front of end users as a supposedly finished product. And if the necessary preparations are not made as part of rollout, taking the system live with actual users can be pretty stressful.

Of all of these parts of the process, in my experience at least, testing is probably the most neglected. Requirements gathering is interesting because you get to talk to a lot of people and drink a lot of coffee and then write everything up in professional-looking documents. In design you produce cool-looking diagrams and have more meetings in which you can show off all of your technical knowledge and tell your war stories about how you cleverly solved this same problem back when you worked for General Electric or Sears or Bank of America. In development you do all the coding and configuration work and experience the satisfaction of having made some conglomeration of hard- and software bend to your will.

But testing is anything but glamorous; on the contrary, it can be mind-numbingly tedious. Testing consists of poring over all of the requirements and design documentation and boiling the intended functionality of the entire system down to a mass of test cases, each of which basically consists of this: If I do A, B is supposed to happen. Now I will do A. Did B happen? Yes? Test passed, move on to the next one. Did B not happen? Test failed, give it back to the developers and let them figure out how to fix it, then run the same test again when they claim it's fixed.

There are lots of different kinds of testing that need to be performed in a typical IT project. At the most basic level, you need to test each individual component of the system to verify that it functions correctly. Then you need to verify that components that interact with other components in some way do that as intended. Then you need to verify that the overall system functions the way it is supposed to in an "end-to-end" test wherein you simulate each of the intended "use cases", that is, specific scenarios or operations that the system is supposed to perform, expecting to see all of its individual components working together in harmony. 

At each of these levels you need to do not only "positive testing", in which you simulate ideal conditions to see how the system behaves, but also "negative testing" in which you verify that errors and unexpected events of whatever kind are properly handled. For instance, if a user enters his or her name in the field that is meant for a driver's license number, does the system return a message like "this is not a valid license number—please correct your entry"? Or does it just fill the user's screen with incomprehensible warnings, or crash the user's web browser, or maybe just do nothing, leaving the user wondering what to do next?

As already noted, if tests fail, the offending component needs to be fixed, and then the fix needs to be tested. However, it's usually not enough to just test the one item that was fixed; in principle, you need to retest the whole system. The reason for this is that fixes to software can introduce "regression errors", which is a fancy way of saying that you may have fixed one thing, but in a way that broke some other part of the system; you do "regression testing" to verify that you didn't fix one defect and inadvertently introduce a new one in the process. In principle, the system should not be declared ready for users until every individual test case has been performed on the final version of the system (i.e., after all fixes are deployed) and no test case has failed.

Other things need to be tested besides the pure "when I do A, I want B to happen" functionality of the system. Among other things, there is usability testing, in which you basically put test users in front of the system and verify that things like the way screens are laid out or the way you progress from one step of some process to the next makes sense to them. There's also performance testing, in which you verify that your system can meet the volumes of users and transactions that it is likely to encounter in real life; if you expect to have a thousand users accessing the system at any given point in time, you want to simulate that in testing before you turn users loose on the system and discover that it bogs down to the point of being unusable beyond fifty concurrent users.

Am I boring you yet? I guess not, if you've read this far. I did warn you that testing is about the dullest part of any IT project. But unfortunately, it's inescapable if you hope to deliver a reliable, working system. No shortcuts allowed! Something I see again and again is that some IT project is progressing toward the end of the testing stage, at which point the prospective owners think of a half dozen new features they want to add, and maybe a few things they want to change. When this happens, you really need to redo the testing of the whole system (remember the risk of regression errors we talked about). But more often than not, these changes get bolted on toward the end of a project; nobody feels like going back and redoing all that tedious testing, everybody just wants to finish the project and let it go live. So in the end, any defects introduced by those last-minute changes get discovered not by the project's testing team, but by the system's (increasingly irate) end users., and there's a mad scramble by the project team to fix everything under massive time and cost pressure.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, as I read all the news reports about the mess that is HealthCare.gov, it appears to me that practically every one of the principles I've outlined above has been largely ignored. I'm exaggerating a little for effect here, but I think the thing speaks for itself. Reading the various analyses that have come out recently, experts who have looked at the technical design of the system think some pretty poor design decisions were made. Among other things, you can't just go onto the site to answer the simple question, "what kind of insurance is available and what does it cost?", like you would if you were shopping for, say, car insurance or a home loan or just a pair of pants of a certain size and color. Before you can get an answer to that question, you have to provide a large quantity of personal information that will be verified by the web site through a series of data look-ups in other systems. Besides giving a crappy user experience, the convoluted process requires a lot of communications between systems, and if any of these don't execute perfectly, the user is left sitting and wondering what's happening. 

Shortcomings in the design of the system no doubt are partly a function of just plain poor design decisions, but also a result of the underlying system requirements being changed repeatedly, as recently as a month before the system was to go live (as reported here, among other places). And as for testing? Testimony in the recent congressional hearings on HealthCare.gov's rocky rollout imply that testing was at best an afterthought. Hey, let's build a massively complex IT system that's going to provide a vital service for millions of users and only spend two weeks testing before we shove it out the door—what could possibly go wrong?

So… let me finally come to my point, which was… oh, yes: IT projects are hard. Lots of them fail abysmally and the bigger they are, the more spectacularly they fail. But this is not some new revelation, it's an established phenomenon you can read about here or here or here, or many other places. The President himself has tried to make the point that the ACA is more than a web site, but that's really missing the point. For those people who want to, or have to, sign up for insurance, HealthCare.gov is the ACA, or at least the primary manifestation of it in their own lives. It's also the most visible part of the ACA for the media; surely the Obama administration understood that if this web site was not working smoothly from day one, the administration was going to be pilloried in the press and it would be—fairly or unfairly—a major I-told-you-so moment for the Republicans. From what I'm reading now, for anyone on the inside of this project it must have been pretty clear, for a pretty long time, that it wasn't going to end well, and yet there are few or no indications that any sort of measures were taken to address that. This is not a technical failure so much as a management failure of the first order.



The administration's attempts at damage control have also been fairly laughable. First they tried to downplay the problems as "glitches", a cute word that sort of implies this is just a temporary and minor inconvenience; but it's not a "glitch" when the only reliable thing about the system is that the damned thing won't work when you try to use it. And trying to put things in perspective by talking about how the Massachusetts healthcare program got off to a slow and rocky start, or about how IT projects in general often have problems, is just making excuses—if you knew about these potential pitfalls, why didn't you take measures to keep from getting tripped up by them instead of just making the same mistakes as everyone else?

Then there were apologies and expressions of frustration from on high, and assurances that the whole thing will be working fine by the end of November—we shall see, but I'm not holding my breath because I think it will take a few months to do all the testing and rework that should have been done before the thing went live. We also heard that even if the web site isn't working, one can sign up by phone or mail, but what goes unmentioned is that the people who then do the processing  for you use basically the same unreliable system to do so.

Compounding the trouble with HealthCare.gov are the many reports that people who were repeatedly assured by the President that "if you like your insurance, you can keep it" are finding out that isn't true. It is true that most of the people affected are getting their coverage dropped because that coverage doesn't meet ACA standards, and what they can get to replace it is probably going to be a far better plan than the one they lost. But strictly speaking, what the President said simply wasn't true and so that becomes one more unnecessary black mark against the program in the eyes of so many.

I really want to see the ACA succeed. I suspect, or at least hope, that a year or two from now, things will be running reasonably smoothly, people who could not previously get decent, affordable health insurance will be quite happy, and like Social Security or Medicare, the ACA will be just another part of the social services landscape that nobody seriously questions. But for now, I'm just appalled at the amateurish way this thing was rolled out.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Lose-Lose Proposition

So, we're back from the brink. At least for another three months, then the whole cycle of madness starts again. I am, of course, talking about the debacle that was the Republican attempt to destroy the Affordable Care Act and threatening to wreck the economy if they didn't get their way. I don't know what I can say about it that hasn't already been said by someone somewhere, but I just have to vent because keeping all that impotent rage bottled up always messes up my digestive system, which can prove embarrassing to everyone around me.

I don't know that I should expect any better of them, but I can't help but be utterly repulsed by things like John Boehner, shortly after the vote, going on some stupid radio program to babble nonsense about how Republicans fought the good fight but didn't win, then going on to say, "We did everything we could to get them to the table to negotiate… They just kept saying no. No, no, no.

Of course the Democrats said no! Is Boehner too stupid to understand why? Actually, he probably isn't. But he clearly thinks you are. And he may be right. I went to get my hair cut today, and one of the barbers was going on and on about how bad it's going to be for everyone when the ACA kicks in fully on Jan. 1, though he wasn't able to articulate any specifics. Ironically, this is a guy who had a quadruple bypass a couple years ago and might be facing a cap on benefits and an inability to get different insurance elsewhere, were it not for the provisions of ACA that now prohibit such insurance company practices. But that's just the way we think in this country, especially if we rely on sources like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News for "information". (As an example of the latter, see this article exposing Sean Hannity's extremely misleading "reporting" on the ACA on Fox News.)

Let's replay what happened here. In a nutshell: Obama put his Affordable Care Act before Congress. Congress approved it. Obama signed it into law. The Supreme Court confirmed it, with a few exceptions. A minority of House Republicans, egged on by the idiot Senator Ted Cruz, demanded that the ACA be defunded before the House would approve a continuing resolution on the budget and approve an increase in the debt ceiling. Boehner, fearing that it would cost him his job as Speaker if he did, refused to let the CR come to a vote, even though it was clear that enough Republicans would vote with the Democrats to pass it without any problem. The Democrats, following the principle that one should not negotiate with terrorists, refused to budge, and Boehner & Co. ultimately had to back down. So what do the Republicans have to show for this whole circus?

Well, they got a couple of very small face-saving concessions, like a requirement that the Department of Health and Human Services report to Congress on procedures to verify income of people who would get subsidies for health insurance. There was a guarantee to pay back pay to federal employees who were forced to work without pay while the government was partially shut down. Oh, and some pork. Who doesn't like pork? The Republicans can be glad they got anything, since at some point they themselves apparently didn't even know what they wanted any more, as illustrated by Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind., with Tea Party backing), who famously told the Washington Examiner, “We’re not going to be disrespected… We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

And what did the rest of us get? Well, we eventually got the government reopened. Also, according to Standard & Poors we got a reduction in GDP equivalent to around a $24 billion cost to the US economy—exactly the sort of thing we need right now. Remember when Boehner said this?


“Helping Americans get back to work is our number one priority, and we’re going to do everything we can to help create jobs and to boost our economy."

That was back in May, 2011. It's good to know that Boehner's job creation plan includes temporarily putting thousands of people out of work, threatening all the small businesses that depend on their patronage, creating the threat of a global financial crisis, and generally shoring up international investors' faith in US Treasury Bonds by demonstrating to the rest of the world that our government is capable of financial management on par with the governments of Greece or Cypress. It's a novel strategy. Good work, John.

Why didn't you just smack him with that thing while you had the chance?

Friday, September 6, 2013

The Man Who Says, "No Shoes!"

The Heiress is beginning her second year at The Big U down in Washington, DC. It was also her birthday this week. Thus did I find myself spending the Labor Day weekend in Our Nation's Capital™.

We've been there a few times now. We spend part of the time visiting with her, and the rest of the time seeing the sights, of which there are many to be seen in DC. The National Mall is a great place for anyone who likes museums. We've now been to many of them, but there are still several we haven't visited. This past weekend we visited a few more. We hadn't been in any of the art museums yet, so that ended up being a kind of focal point of this particular visit.

I wouldn't classify myself as a total philistine, but I'm hardly an expert when it comes to painting and sculpting and such. All I can say is that I know what I like, and I know what I don't like.

For many years I worked in the headquarters of a leading European bank that, at least during the era in which I worked there, made a big deal out of being a major patron of the arts. On every floor of every one of its major buildings there hung whole collections of different artists' work. Most of what was on display was of the modern, abstract variety. There was a lot of stuff I really liked, and there was plenty I didn't.

I developed a particular distaste for a large collection in one of the buildings I frequently visited that consisted of pencil scribbles on a piece of white paper that, were it not for the quality of the paper and the fancy frames in which the individual pieces were mounted,could easily have been mistaken for something produced by The Heiress, or The Young Master, both of whom were small children at the time. How much had the bank paid for this nonsense? Who was the guy who produced this stuff? Did he genuinely feel that this was some profound expression of his inner soul, or was this just some kind of elaborate practical joke?

Looking at stuff like that always makes me think of the book Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (one of the heroes of my youth, but that's a story for another day). One of the characters in the book is the minimalist painter Rabo Karabekian, creator of a painting called The Temptation of Saint Anthony, an enormous canvas painted green, with a single vertical stripe of day-glo orange tape near one end, which is purchased by a wealthy industrialist for an outrageous sum of money. Reflecting on Karabekian's masterpiece, Vonnegut's narrator pretty much sums up my own feelings about that pencil-scribble stuff:

I thought Karabekian with his meaningless pictures had entered into a conspiracy with millionaires to make poor people feel stupid.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Reproduction)

The basic criterion I have evolved for judging what I myself like or dislike in modern art is pretty simple: If I could do it myself, it's not art. Whatever the artist may have been trying to express, whatever the medium may be, however abstract, there has to be some combination of originality and craftsmanship for me to be able to appreciate it. 

One of the places we visited on this latest trip was the Hirshhorn Museum, which houses a large collection of modern art. I had lots of opportunities to apply my simple criterion there. And to be sure, I found plenty to hate, plenty to like, and a certain amount of stuff to just leave me scratching my head.

My favorite thing in the Hirshhorn was an installation by the artist Ann Hamilton, in collaboration with Kathryn Clark, called "Palimpsest". Picture a room the size of a medium-sized bedroom, the walls of which are covered with identically-sized sheets of newsprint about four inches square. Each sheet of paper is affixed to the wall by a single push-pin, and on each is handwritten a brief vignette from someone's life. I assume each sheet was written out by a different person, since the handwriting on the ones I examined closely looked different in each case. I'll further assume that each sheet was previously written on and then erased, in accordance with the definition of a palimpsest. In the middle of the room is a glass case the size of a fairly large aquarium that contains two cabbages and a number of snails. There's also an oscillating electric fan that causes the paper sheets to periodically flutter in the breeze. The floor consists of tiles that are actually large slabs of beeswax.

What does it mean? I have no idea. Yet somehow I found it intriguing. I think that more than anything I was impressed by the sheer determination and perseverance it must have taken to collect all those individual stories on small sheets of paper and then arrange them perfectly on the walls. Or maybe it's because despite my conscious disdain, I really am impressed by the cleverness of someone who can get a private collector or a museum to pay a very large sum of money for someone to engage in such a colossal waste of time.

Ann Hamilton, Palimpsest

What intrigued me the most, however, was what was going on just outside the entrance to the installation. Because of the material from which the floor is constructed, you can't just walk into the installation; you have to put on little nylon booties over your shoes before you enter. The nylon booties are available from a bin next to a bench, on which you can sit while pulling them over your shoes, but there's no sign actually explaining this.

Instead, there's a security guard standing outside the room. There are security guards posted throughout the museum to keep people from fingering the items on display; what makes this guard stand out is that about every 15–20 seconds he repeats his perpetual refrain of, "No shoes!" He says this in a loud staccato tone, though not quite shouting, each time someone starts to step into the installation without the little nylon booties, which is essentially every time anyone walks up to look at it since, as noted above, it's not immediately obvious that supplemental footwear is required. Watching this tiny little drama play out in the same predictable cycle, again and again, I had to wonder whether this was also an integral part of the artist's statement.

I asked him if he spends his entire shift standing in that one spot, saying, "No shoes!" He answered that he does. Does he like his job? "Well, sometimes it's kind of funny how people jump when I say it," he explained, "but I'm really glad when I can go home every day."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Meet The New Box, Same As The Old Box

Slowly but surely, I came to hate the refrigerator.

I was a renter for a good many years. The nice thing about being a renter, at least in America, is that you have all of your appliances provided by your landlord. If one of them breaks, the landlord deals with it. You're not going to get anything luxurious, at least not in any of the places in which I was ever a tenant, but it's going to work, more or less.

Most of the refrigerators I knew as a renter looked like they were manufactured sometime in the 1950's. They were always white, with rounded corners and a lot of chrome trim. What they lacked in charm, they made up for in reliability. What is a refrigerator, after all? It's just a box. An insulated box, with a motor that pumps the coolant around the cooling circuit and a thermostat that turns the motor on and off. Oh, and a light, with a switch that turns it on when you open the door.

I never had a refrigerator of my own until I lived in Germany. There, even as a renter it's up to you to provide your own kitchen and laundry appliances. Still, what I ended up with was… a box. Nothing exciting about that.

Then I moved back to America and after renting a house for a couple of years, bought a house of my own. The appliances that were left by the previous owner were in a pretty sorry state, so off we went to shop for a new refrigerator. America, land of plenty! So much to choose from! Freezer on top or below? Side-by-side? French doors? Mais oui, monsieur! Which finish—white, black, beige, stainless steel? Ice and cold water right in the door? We settled on a black Maytag side-by-side model.

For a year and a half or so, we got along well, the fridge and I. Then summer came, and we started noticing little puddles on the floor. I figured out that in our humid summer weather, water was condensing on the cold inside walls of the refrigerator and then running down the sides and out the bottom. I assumed the door seal must not be working right, and called someone out to the house to repair it.

Well, it turned out that the door was in fact not properly sealing, but not because the seal had a problem. There was some plastic component of the door hinge that was worn down and causing the door to sag slightly and not close properly. A known design flaw with this model, the appliance repairman told me. Great, and of course the thing was out of warranty by then. The repairman replaced the part and admonished me not to put any heavy items in the door, as this could cause the part to fail again prematurely (which I guess meant within 18 months rather than the expected two years).

But wait, I said, behold: the door has shelves that are actually made to hold multiple gallon jugs of milk, or juice, or water or whatever; surely it can handle some weight. The repairman, affecting the kind of soothing voice and saccharine facial expression that one uses when explaining complicated principles to small children or feeble-minded adults, repeated his admonition to heed his words and spare myself from the curse of Maytag.

I did my best to follow that advice. My Favorite Wife and I were careful to put only the lightest of items in the door shelves. And lo, it came to pass that another year and a half or so later, the door was again not fully sealing. But worse: as summer came, bringing with it the usual humidity, instead of dribbling out onto the floor, the condensation began to freeze in one cold spot on the inside of the refrigerator. Over the summer, the chunk of ice grew to a diameter of about twelve inches. As summer turned to fall, and fall to winter, the air became drier and the ice receded, until by about late December it was all gone. The following summer, and the summer after that, and in every summer since, we observed the natural cycle of growth and recession of our own private glacier. Until this summer, that is, when instead of the glacier we were back to the water just condensing on the inside walls and running out the bottom.

The thing has had other problems, too. The little plastic connectors that hold the produce compartments in place have slowly broken off, one by one, to be replaced with whatever contraption I could rig up as a replacement. But why? It's not like those things are subject to the kind of weight, or sudden stress, that would cause them to snap in half for no obvious reason. The cold water dispenser became entirely useless; the flow of cold water, once a mighty stream, gradually slowed to a tiny trickle, as if the refrigerator was suffering from prostate problems. The ice maker developed a problem in which the little paddles that kick the finished cubes (or wedges, more like) out of the ice form into the holding receptacle began to stick, causing the freezer to emit an alarming clicking noise accompanied by the hum of a straining motor until I finally stuck my finger in to unstick the thing. More recently it developed a leak or condensation problem or something else that caused the ice maker to commit suicide by gradually encasing itself in a thick layer of ice that ultimately rendered the whole thing useless.

It's worth mentioning (or maybe not, but I'll do it anyway), that I bought a Maytag dishwasher at the same time as the refrigerator. It turned out to be noisy enough just during the wash cycle, but it also had this sort of built-in garbage disposal unit that ran as the water was pumped out, and that thing was so loud that it was like living in a sawmill every time we ran a load. Despite its avowed mission to ensure that anything stuck to your dishes would not clog the drain, the thing itself would clog, requiring me to perpetually clear the gunk out of it with my fingers. After the second or third visit from the repairman in five or so years, I replaced it with a Bosch unit that reliably runs whisper-quiet. So much for buying American. Built to last… about three years, if you're lucky. Don't even get me started on my Ford Windstar.


Time to meet your maker.

MFW and I have toyed with the idea of replacing the accursed icebox for some time now. It's been a long time coming, because neither of us can get really jazzed about looking at appliances, nor are we especially enthusiastic about shelling out big bucks for something that performs such a simple function. We recently made one abortive attempt to go out and shop for a new one. I did some research online beforehand, but practically every model that had good reviews overall still had a pretty significant number of one-star reviews by people attesting to how that particular one had more or less wrecked their lives. What kind of decision do I make with this information? Then we went to Sears, where we stared at fridge after fridge before deciding that we just couldn't deal with it.

In the week or so after that, I stopped at a couple of specialty appliance stores near where I live. I spent about five minutes in each, just long enough to ascertain that they carried only the high-end models. There is no way I am going to pay $3,000 or more for a stupid refrigerator, no matter how beautiful it may be.

The weekend before last was tax-free weekend in Massachusetts, meaning that no sales tax is charged on purchases under, if I recall correctly, $2500. I suggested to MFW that we go look at refrigerators again, reasoning that the writing was on the wall that we should think of replacing ours while we can at least shop around, rather than waiting until the thing just up and dies and we have to just go out and buy something, anything, so why not do it when we could save 50 or 60 bucks off of what we might otherwise spend. We went to a couple of home improvement stores, the orange one and the blue one; both had a fairly large selection of only the most expensive models, so before we knew it, we were back at Sears. 

To our mutual surprise, we actually found a model that we could agree on. It was on sale too, but then it seems like the appliances are always "on sale" at Sears, so I didn't  pay much attention to that. However, they were also having a special "friends and family" event in which you could take 15% off the price of any appliance, or 20% if you paid with a Sears credit card. So in the end, we ended up actually spending a fair amount less than we had expected to spend.

Yesterday was to be the big day when the new box would be arriving. We spent the evening before getting ready. You have no idea how much ridiculous stuff you've accumulated until you have to take it all out of the fridge. For one thing, there are the forgotten leftovers that have gotten shoved into a far corner, out of sight and no doubt spawning the next generation of mutant killer bacteria that will one day threaten the entire planet. Then there are the exotic ingredients bought for one recipe that called for it, but which will never be used again. What did we even buy this huge jar of ground caraway seed paste for? Nobody remembers.

The tendency of my refrigerator to be home to container after container of items that expired sometime during the Clinton administration is probably a legacy of my days as an (almost literally) starving student. I was in college at a time when you could actually still go to a state school and work your way through, although it meant barely scraping by, with periods in which I found myself with just enough cash on hand to buy enough potatoes and onions to eat for a week or more, until the next paycheck came in. Decades later, I still struggle to suppress a semi-hysterical reaction when someone tries to throw food away. The neighbors tell amusing tales of how I terrorized their picky-eater children into finishing everything they had loaded onto their plates when they came to our house to eat, something that their kids had never before done at home.

Anyway… We moved all the frozen food we wanted to keep into our big freezer, discarding things like the cartons of ice cream containing half an inch of something no longer really recognizable as ice cream, so that was easy enough. We removed all the things like beer or soda or other items that were in the refrigerator more for the pleasure of having them cold than because they really needed to be in there. What remained would be easy to throw into an ice chest long enough for the delivery guys to extract the old box and deposit the new one.

Then it was time to start on the outside. We removed about ten years worth of accumulated stuff stuck to the front of the thing with magnets. Photos, newspaper clippings recounting track and field exploits of The Heiress, the skeleton of a mouse extracted by The Young Master from an owl pellet in first or second grade and glued to a piece of construction paper, an amazing number of long-expired coupons and various other bits of flotsam.

Then at last we got the call from the delivery guys saying they would arrive shortly. Milk and lunch meat and other stuff like that went into the ice chest. I pulled the wretched box out from the little alcove that has hosted it for all these years, disconnected the water hose and vacuumed up all the dust bunnies and other accumulated gunk. Then we awaited the Blessed Event.

Two guys showed up shortly afterward. One of them unpacked the new refrigerator at the truck, while the other one measured door clearances and sized up other potential obstructions. He was actually kind of amazed that we had a moderately easy way to get the old one out and the new one in. MFW asked him if it ever happens that they can't fit somebody's new refrigerator through the door, and he said it happens on a pretty regular basis. Thankfully, with us they were in and out the door in relatively short order.


Finally life is worth living again.

Oh, what a difference! Twenty-four hours later, everything in the new box seems colder and fresher than in the old one. There is ice to be had. No puddles, no unsettling noises. The stuff stuck to the front of it is only the most important of useless items, although for some reason MFW has failed to put up the aforementioned mouse skeleton; I must have a word with her about that. And as for the old Maytag, it's now just a bad memory; since it's in bad taste to speak ill of the departed, I'll just say it's comforting to think that it's with Jesus now.