Street pianos in Boston!

In just a few days, and continuing till October 14, 75 pianos will be put out in various places in Boston and Cambridge for anyone to play. Naturally, I’m in! There will be six pianos in Holyoke Center, so that might be a good place to snag one. picture of a piano

I don’t have any definite plans yet; the first day could be busy, so later on might make more sense. Here’s a wild thought: I could bring down a laptop and a DVD with a silent movie and accompany it right there. The Magic Cloak of Oz might be a good choice, since I’d only have to hold my claim to the piano for 38 minutes.

Anyone interested in coming along?

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How not to get screwed by Harvard Pilgrim

Here’s the tl;dr version: If you need to terminate health insurance which you’re buying yourself, first stop any payment, then talk to the insurance company. You’re in a much better position if they don’t already have your money.

Here’s the story: In late July I started a new job. Its benefits include health insurance through Harvard Pilgrim. Before this I’d had been paying for my own insurance in a COBRA arrangement from my earlier employer, Harvard University, also with Harvard Pilgrim. Crosby Benefit Systems administers it.

My new insurance card was slow in coming, and I didn’t feel safe cancelling my old insurance until I had the new card in hand. That was a mistake. By the time I had it, the August payment had been deducted from my checking account. Crosby told me, after I provided the needed information, that my insurance would be cancelled. What they didn’t tell me was that it wouldn’t be cancelled till the end of the month; I only found that out when I got a letter over a week later. This means that for five weeks, I’m paying two premiums to the same insurance company for the same coverage. Harvard Pilgrim has hundreds of dollars from me that pay for nothing.

I contacted Crosby. They told me they couldn’t do anything about it because those are the terms that Harvard puts on its insurance. I contacted Harvard Pilgrim. They told me that the money is collected by Harvard, not them (they just happen to get it from Harvard), so they can’t (read: don’t have to) do anything either. There may be someone at Harvard I can talk to, but I doubt it will do any good.

What I should have done was to stop the payments from my bank account as soon as I knew I had new insurance. Then I could cancel the old policy and have the leverage of still having the money. What’s the worst Harvard Pilgrim could do to me? Cancel the policy I was trying to cancel?

Payment plans where the money is deducted from your bank account are a dangerous thing in general. They have the advantage that you don’t risk missing a payment as long as you keep your balance up, but you’re giving away the key to your cash box. You don’t have much recourse once they have the money.

As Arlo Guthrie said, you may know someone who’s in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, now or in the future. Pass this advice along as you see fit. With Obamacare forcing people to deal with insurance companies and taking away the option of high-deductible, low-premium insurance, we can only expect health insurance companies to get more arrogant. (Massachusetts already has forced insurance thanks to Romneycare, so Harvard Pilgrim is ahead of the curve.) Assume they will try to screw you and do whatever you can to prevent it.

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Harvard vs. open discussion

Harvard has a reputation for discouraging the open expression of opinion, and I can confirm that from eight years of working there. The reasons I left were mostly professional, but I’d like to mention an incident during my last two months that illustrates the Harvard culture.

Employees get an assortment of newsletters in their email, mostly related to their work or inconsequential. One of these had a piece clearly celebrating the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision. I sent a reply saying that taking a political advocacy position in a general employee news mailing wasn’t appropriate.

A week or two later, the head of my department called me into her office. She told me that the person who sent out the newsletter had written to her about my complaint. This person wanted to know who I was. My email had my standard signature, giving my name and work website. It wasn’t anonymous and I’d provided information for anyone who wanted to know about me.

She told me the person who sent out the email wasn’t the one actually responsible for its content and shouldn’t be blamed for it. The sender of the mail knew perfectly well who I was, but I never found out who was responsible for its content.

She went on about “civility.” There was nothing uncivil about my response to the mail. I’ve heard that the term “civility” is widely used in academic circles to mean “don’t criticize the dominant view,” but this was the first time I’d been targeted with that use.

I conceded nothing except that perhaps I wasn’t complaining to the right person. That was the end of the matter, though probably it would have turned up as a negative point in my next review. A financially secure employee isn’t a good target; students fare worse.

By then I’d already decided to resign, but the discussion confirmed my impression that there was no point in continuing my search for another position at Harvard. I was still holding out on accepting Harvard’s so-called “confidentiality policy,” which prohibits the disclosing of pretty much any negative information without regard to confidentiality in the normal sense. (For example, reporting illegal activity violates the policy.) The culture is antithetical to my worldview. More importantly, it’s not conducive to open examination and discussion of important issues.

Campus bullying

Bullying is a significant problem on college campuses these days. Working at Harvard, I’ve run into some of it myself. I’m not talking about the crude, “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up” kind of bullying, but intellectual intimidation. If you express views that are out of line with the orthodoxy, you can be subject to serious pressures. Not even the president of Harvard is safe; Lawrence Summers was driven out of that post in 2005 for raising the possibility (not asserting as fact) that statistically slight cognitive differences might contribute to the numeric differences between men and women in the sciences.

Even your private conversations aren’t out of the bullies’ reach. In 2010, Law School Dean Martha Minow castigated a student in public for failing to dismiss categorically — in private email — the question of whether there are racial differences in intelligence. When the defense of a scientific idea consists of “You’re forbidden to think about the alternative,” the only people who’ll think about the issue are the ones who challenge it, and no one will be equipped to rebut their claim that the old idea is mere dogma.

This month, Harvey Silverglate gave three out of five Campus Muzzle Awards to Harvard. I disagree in part with his assessment of the locking of the gates last winter in response to some Occupiers; if the purpose was “keeping the outside world from seeing a political demonstration,” it only kept people from seeing how tiny it was. The lockdown was a clumsy attempt to keep outsiders from camping out on campus without dealing with the problem directly, causing serious inconvenience to legitimate visitors.

As long as I’m employed at Harvard, it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to detail my own experiences in public, but I’ve encountered the bullying attitude myself. Let’s just say that a person I have reason to worry about recently addressed the words, “I’m for free speech, but …” to me.

Even as an unusually stubborn person with money to fall back on, I can feel worried. What must it be like for an undergraduate with very little experience and hardly any money, away from home in an unfamiliar culture?

High school students picking colleges to apply to should consider the atmosphere of intellectual freedom or its lack at the schools they consider. There’s no definitive ranking anywhere; obviously people will vary on how intimidating they think practices are. It will take research. If you apply to a military or religious school, you know up front that some ideas will be encouraged or frowned upon. Maybe it’s worth putting up with, as long as you know what you’re getting into. It’s the ones full of fanfare about “academic freedom” and “open exchange of ideas” where you have to look carefully. FIRE‘s website can be a valuable source of information.

If you run into academic intimidation, the best response is a firm, calm stance. If you seem afraid, bullies of any kind will take advantage of it. If you get angry, you’ll lose. Clearly (not belligerently) pointing out that what you’re encountering is intimidation will make them worry. It’s a common trick for bullies to play victim: by saying something they don’t like, they say, you’re creating a “hostile environment.” Remind them that you are simply discussing an issue, and they’re the ones trying to make you feel afraid. Most professors and administrators are chiefly concerned with keeping their jobs and not getting into trouble themselves; your best chance is not to look like either an easy target or a threat.

Easy for me to say, I know. But it’s the best advice I can offer, and if you can carry it out, it’s your best chance.

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