MNsure Rants

December 16, 2015
Minnesota is one of 13 states experimenting with a local healthcare exchange under the ACA (most states use the federal HealthCare.gov system). As a Minnesotan it’s been my misfortune to use our state insurance marketplace; MNsure.org.
Rather than writing a full review of the nightmare that is MNsure.org, I’ve collected some of my past frustrated emails to the organization. As there seems to be no centralized tech support or contact point, these have gone to an assortment of agency-related email addresses. I’ve occasionally received responses, typically more apologetic than helpful, but have yet to discover if any of my comments get to anyone who can do anything. This year I also got around to hassling the board of directors and my state legislators. Their contact info is at the bottom of this post, in case you’d like to share your own experience with Mnsure.

2013:

I’ve managed to lock my account on mnsure (after finally getting the site to work long enough to create one), and all of the security verification questions are useless.  The most memorable location in my life? Heck if I know, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner yesterday. My best friend from 3rd grade? I grew up in a ghost town. Where did my parents meet? I’d probably have to call them every time I forget my password. Please change it so users can select actual useful questions of our own, the kind that real people will actually know the answers to. Or you could offer the option to send a password reset email to the registered email address, like every other website does.
This time I’ll be sure to write down the password and all the BSverification questions and put it on a sticky note on my computer at work, where everyone can see it. I don’t even care how secure my password is, based on the quality of programming I’m just assuming the thing will be hacked in the next month or so. (actually I just looked that up and found that mnsure already emailed SSNs to random people last month, nice work).

2014:

I interacted with MNSURE again recently, to change my insurance after PreferredOne gave up on us. I have a few complaints/suggestions for the service. I hate to complain about site usability, since I’m a computer science graduate and have built websites myself… but this site has many obvious things missing:
-The enrollment process needs to be easier to start, with the links easier to find. Currently the page seems to go through two different “Sign in” screens, then one eventually finds their way to the enrollment inside a link past a sidebar menu and under a dropdown. Terrible navigation and terrible user interface.
-The security questions are too limited and not applicable to all persons. If I don’t like sports, am not in a relationship, do not know my grandfather (which one?), have a single parent, have never owned a car, and do not know where I’d like to retire, that eliminates most of the security question options. It would be better to let people enter their own or have more options (or I could just answer “banana” to each one and keep that on the sticky note with my password).
-There needs to be some confirmation code or proof that *something* happened after the enrollment process. I thought that I’d beat the rush on December 15th and get enrolled back in November. I eventually found the sticky note with my password and security questions, jumped through the hoops, clicked all the things that didn’t apply to me, and wasted a half hour on things I didn’t care about. The system told me I had no benefits, discounts, or tax credits coming, so I went ahead and selected the cheapest flavor-of-the-year for insurance providers…. Or so I thought. Now I log in again to find no record of a current enrollment. Instead, it seems I have a pending application for something or other. What did I apply for? What’s the status on this theoretical application? How do I actually enroll in something?
-The site could use better error-handling or retry options. My current session threw an “unable to contact the server” error, then eventually loaded a “Congratulations” page saying my enrollment is completed…. but I got the Congratulations page back in November and never received any follow-up from MNSURE or my chosen provider to indicate that the website had done anything at all. When I click the “done” button it goes to a mysteriously blank page, and the “Enrollments” link still shows no plans enrolled. Am I enrolled or not? It’s a mystery without some kind of confirmation.

-The site could explain itself better. For example, the application page states that I qualify “for help to buy health insurance through the exchange”, then says “$0 off/month” and “0% Reduction”. So, what is this “help” it’s referring to? Not financial help apparently. Does this “help” refer to a MNSURE staff member helping me through the process? If so, that’s not made clear.

-The page layout is also annoying. I have a large (24″) monitor, but the page still requires scrolling and won’t scale to less than 60% of my screen. It would be great if it could all fit in one reasonable space. I understand some people can’t read small text, but you could save a ton of screen real estate by shrinking your header bar, eliminating some of the white space at the top, and de-nesting some of the frames.

Personally, your entire site could be replaced by a big red button that auto-enrolled me in the absolute cheapest thing possible (and spit out a confirmation code). I suspect that would meet the needs of many MNSURE users as well.

And another from 2014:

Once again I made the mistake of using the MNSURE website, and was unsurprised to find it just as useless as every other time.This time I was trying to find a magic “MNsure ID Number” requested by the flavor-of-the-year lowest-cost insurer (who couldn’t even manage to create a real invoice for my first payment). I was hoping to find some kind of account information or settings, but the MNSure site appears 99% geared towards pipelining me into an application, so it took a while. The site still makes me click “sign in” twice in a row, then doesn’t take me anywhere useful once I do get signed in. About 60% of the time I get a blank screen, 30% I get a 403 error, and 10% I get dropped into a new application. I think I’ve completed 3 applications so far with no follow-up to indicate that they went anywhere or did anything.

Anyway, there really needs to be some way of getting to my user account or settings page once I’m logged in. (Yes, I previously stated that the whole site could be replaced with a “Enroll in cheapest thing possible” button, but if the insurance providers are so disorganized that they need me to supply my own account number, then there needs to be a way to extract that number from the site).

On the rare occasions when I can log in AND get to some sort of account information, there seems to be nothing there. No payments, no enrollments, and those three mysterious applications which have mysteriously been “processed” in some way.
I eventually found the magic ID number by accident, hidden in a PDF file under “Notifications”. Then I realized that these “Notifications” also have information about those mysterious applications. They don’t seem to be in any particular order, and are very slow to appear on the screen (if I didn’t click each one and wait around for a few minutes, I’d assume it’s blank like the “Enrollments” page). This is the first time I’ve stumbled across the notices, as I don’t think they’ve been emailed or snail-mailed to me. That’s some useful “notification” right there… I sure do feel informed and notified! Maybe at some point in the past I clicked on “online notifications only” or some such option… I must not have realized it would be the Douglas Adams method of “notification”.
On the plus side, the website is just barely functional enough that I was able to avoid hours on hold, hours which I can now use to whine about MNSURE online. I imagine I’ll be back to whine some more next year when the latest cheap insurer goes belly up and I have to fight the website again. Based on the quality of the site and the quality of the provider’s communications I can only assume the actual insurance, should I ever need it, will be of the same quality (so I’m expecting that if I ever make a claim, you’ll just mail me a brick).
And 2015:

Yay, it’s that time of year again when I have to use your horrid mnsure website, because flavor-of-the-year cheapest insurance company has raised its rates (at least this one stayed around for more than a year). And as usual, I get to do the annual dance with forgotten passwords and locked out accounts. Since there are no email contacts on the site to deal with the inevitable problems, I get to decide: is it more useful to spend 20 minutes on the phone, or 20 minutes looking up the personal email addresses of the board of directors so I can whine at them? (I actually managed to get access to my account this year with only two calls to customer service, which is a new record)

Please consider some of the following changes to the mnsure site:

1. Back off on the level of login security. My bank has less security than this, and I actually care if someone gets into that account. If someone is masochistic enough to sneak into my mnsure account then they’re welcome to it.

2. Make the “Get Help” button actually do something instead of a 404 error (specifically on the Password Reset Failed page)

3. Provide a contact in case of locked account. Right now it just says “The user account is locked or disabled. Please contact the System Administrator”, but doesn’t have a way to contact this mythical creature.

4. Make the password challenge questions something that anyone can remember, I don’t want to have to call my parents every time I need to log in, to ask what city they met in. I guess orphans or children of single parents aren’t eligible for MNSURE at all.

5. Have an email contact for help. I don’t have time to call the 800 number.

6. Just publish a list of insurers and prices on the front page, which is pretty much the only reason I go to the stupid website.

7. Do something useful with the “Notifications” part of the account. It’s hard to find, doesn’t make any sense, and doesn’t actually notify me of anything.

8. Do something useful with the rest of the account. I seem to have access to such pages as “Home”, which says “No messages”, even though I have unread notifications, “Payments”, “Activities”, and “Enrollments”, all of which are blank (so what are these sections for? Am I enrolled in something? Do I make payments?), “Applications”, which has some mysterious applications with no information (I apparently have to go to “Notifications” for actual information about applications), “Contact Information”: blank. “Notifications”: Appears blank at first but eventually offers cryptic PDF files. “Appeals”: Blank, and of course, “Assister” (apparently some special person who the state has to pay to decipher the website, because they forgot to pay the programmers or testers to make sure normal people could use it). Maybe you could provide some sort of guide or walk-through of what all these weird blank pages are supposed to be for, and why anyone would ever need to use them?
9. Delete the whole site and replace it with something more useful to the public, like an animated gif of a dancing potato.
By the time I managed to get into my MNSURE account this year (about a week after starting), I’ve forgotten why I wanted to, and even if I knew what I was looking for, I doubt I’d be able to find it.
And most recently; the letter sent to the board of directors and my congresspeople in 2015:

Hello, I’m writing about MNSURE, the state healthcare exchange under the Affordable Care Act. I was a supporter of the ACA, but am deeply disappointed in Minnesota’s implementation of the exchange system. I’ve been using the service and their website since it began, and have been repeatedly frustrated and inconvenienced by it. I would like to see an overall reform of the MNSURE website, either a total remodeling, or abandonment altogether and a move to the Federal system (I have no experience with the Federal system, but I expect anything at all would be better than what MNSURE currently offers).

I am a Computer Science graduate with professional IT experience, and have learned the importance of testing, end-user experience, and reliability when it comes to a website or software product. The MNSURE website displays none of these characteristics.

For example:

-The user interface is terrible. Upon login, users are pipelined into an application regardless of their reason for visiting the site. Finding the status of completed applications requires searching through an obscure subsection of the site which is not easy or obvious. Sections of the user account appear blank and/or do not have their purpose explained. Accessing account settings or other information is not intuitive. The layout is also awful, with outdated design elements like nested frames and gratuitous white space more appropriate to the late 90s than something programmed in 2013.

-The site seems geared towards driving users away from itself, and into the hands of telephone “Assisters”. It constantly offers to connect me with an Assister, to the point where I suspect it serves only to keep them employed. When I’ve attempted to contact MNSURE staff regarding website issues, they have also suggested I use an Assister, and shown little or no interest in making the website a usable resource. I am honestly not sure why the website exists, as it is nearly unusable by the general public (or even IT professionals such as myself). I realize there is a portion of the population who will not use any website, and will always prefer a call center. However, I wish MNSURE would realize that there is a portion of the population who avoids call centers, and will always prefer a website. I am one of the latter group. My day is structured in such a way that I do not have time to call in and sit on hold, but I do have time to use a website or online application (as long as its functional).

-There seems to have been little to no testing done, either in the pre-release development, nor during the 2+ years the site has been live. I have reported various bugs and issues to MNSURE in the past but have not seen any fixes or changes made. Certain sections of the site have broken links, HTTP 403 errors randomly occur, data is slow and/or unreliable to load, and the site seems unable to handle the expected number of users. During the application process I am told I qualify for discounts, then later I am told the discount is $0.00, 0%. On occasion I have completed an application, reached a “Congratulations” page on the site, then been informed months later via snail mail that I didn’t actually complete an application. The website gives the impression of having been programmed very hastily and without any quality control or follow-up maintenance.

-There is no obvious tech support contact or way to report issues or concerns. It is not clear who, if anyone, maintains or updates the site. I’ve started to assume it was programmed and then abandoned with no updates or maintenance done over the last 2-3 years. It feels like the state paid $12 million for the server, set it up in a closet somewhere, turned it on, and forgot about it. There are a few emails listed on the site, but I’ve never gotten useful responses from them regarding ongoing website issues. There seems to be a phone number I could call regarding the website, but I’ve never had time to try it.

-The site gives the impression of high security, but unfortunately this is to the point of inconvenience. Signing in takes several steps and is slow to load. Password resets are difficult, and security questions are not applicable to many users. Some of the few options for security questions include “where did your parents meet?” (what about orphans?), “What was your grandfather’s occupation” (which Grandfather, at which time in his life?), “Where would you like to retire” (what if I don’t know?)  and “What was the model of your first car” (what If I’ve never owned one?). There are so few choices for security questions that I am forced to pick at least one that I literally cannot answer. Despite all of these hoops to jump through with imaginary password security, I have zero confidence in the back-end database, encryption, or authentication. I can only assume these things were programmed just as poorly as the rest of the site. I fully expect that anything I enter into MNSURE will eventually be leaked online if it has not already (I notice that employees have already managed to leak private information: http://www.inforum.com/content/mnsure-looks-reassure-minnesotans-after-information-leak).

Just recently I read an article about MNSURE misusing $500,000 worth of Federal Grants for remodeling their office: http://www.startribune.com/mnsure-to-refund-500k-in-grants/362427261/ This frustrated me greatly, as I could imagine several ways that $500,000 could have been spent on the website. For example, 10,000 person-hours of Quality Assurance testing at $50/hr (hey, I just gave you an hour’s worth for free!). Or perhaps they could hire a full-time tech support person for 5 years with $100k salary. Or maybe a year of enterprise-level database hosting? It could even save money in the long run, if MNSURE put money towards creating a functional website instead of cushier office chairs, they could downsize their staff into a smaller office (with fewer chairs!) and pay cheaper rent and fewer salaries.

Overall, I am very disappointed with the incredible waste of money that is the MNSURE website (and I suspect, the entire organization). As an experiment in state-run healthcare exchange, MNSURE has failed. As an alternative to the federal system, it has failed. In performing any useful purpose in exchange for the tax money spent on it, it has failed. After nearly 3 years of failure, something needs to be done.

I would love to see the people responsible for the website fired (or, if they were contractors, barred from future MN government contracts). I would also love to see the entire MNSURE site erased, deleted, and replaced with something even fractionally more functional and user friendly. Failing that, it would be great to see an outside review, testing, and revamp of the site so that it can be used by Minnesotans in the way it’s intended. It would be amazing if the site were a legitimate way to purchase health insurance, and not just a neglected failure that confuses and frustrates people.

Thanks for your time and consideration.

Yours,
Gabe Emerson
St. Paul, MN

Finally, here’s some contact info pulled from government documents and other sources (I was not able to find emails for every board member). Share your love of MNsure with these fine folks:
MN Congresspeople: http://www.gis.leg.mn/OpenLayers/districts/
MNsure Board of Directors:
Allison O’Toole
MNsure CEO
allison.l.o’toole@state.mn.us
Pete Benner
MNsure Chair / Independent Consultant
pete.benner@state.mn.us
Kathryn Duevel, MD
MNsure Vice Chair
kathryn.duevel@state.mn.us
Tom Forsyth
General Mills VP of Global Communications
tom.forsythe@generalmills.com
Phil Norrgard
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Director of Human Services
Phil.Norrgard@fdlrez.com

Media contacts:

Shane Delaney, Director of Marketing & Communications
651-539-1365 / Shane.M.Delaney@state.mn.us

Joe Campbell, Deputy Director, External Relations
651-539-1334 / Joseph.J.Campbell@state.mn.us

Other MNSURE-related emails:

publicfeedback@mnsure.org (sometimes responds to emails)
outreach@mnsure.org (community outreach)
webmanager@mnsure.org (for website ADA issues?)
AEO@MNsure.org (for ADA issues)

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Trash update

January 23, 2013

As an update to my previous post, I’ve gone ahead and switched to Highland Sanitation, away from Advanced Disposal FKA Veolia.

After wasting a lot of time on the phone with Advanced Disposal last month, they said they would lower the bill to match Highland. Instead, the next bill that came seemed to show the same amount (although it was fairly difficult to decipher), and showed an underpayment, even though I paid what the prior phone rep at Advanced had agreed on. It also still had the “You may see an increase next month” warning at the bottom.

Meanwhile, my employer has been having some trouble with Advanced Disposal as well. They’ve been sending out overdue-bill notices for January, despite having cashed January’s payment nearly a month ago. When our accountant called Advanced, they weren’t able to find the payment in their system at all, even though our bank had a scan of the cashed check. Indecipherable bills aside, losing payments is a pretty big billing snafu, and combined with last month’s “computer error”, gives me zero confidence in their accounting department.

So today I switched to Highland Sanitation, who is both cheaper (consistently so, as they don’t have the variable fuel surcharge), local, and answers the phone on the 3rd ring, rather than sending you to hold music and a call center in who-knows-where. I can only assume they have a better accounting department too, as pretty much anything would be better than Advanced Disposal’s accounting.


Another dredge update

January 23, 2013

I received another email from the state of AK regarding the dredges. It seems these were in fact on private land and no oversight or government involvement was required to scrap them. It sounds like Tri-Mountain metals can continue scrapping historic sites if they’re all privately owned. If they want to work with the BLM in the future, as the ADN article stated, then hopefully there will be more attention paid to historic status of their targets.

Dear Mr. Emerson,

Your email was forwarded to our office following its receipt and review by the BLM Fairbanks District Office.  Upon our preliminary review, it appears that both of the dredges that you reference in your email below (F.E. Company Dredge No. 5 [AHRS #LIV-00111] and F.E. Company Dredge No. 6 [AHRS #FAI-00222]) were located on private land and privately owned.  As you point out, in 2004, the F.E. Company Dredge No. 5 was listed on the National Register, which is our Nation’s official list of historic places worthy of preservation.  We agree that the loss of these important historic properties is unfortunate.

At present, our office reviews and provides recommendations to avoid, minimize, or mitigate impacts to the State’s significant historic properties when there is a specific State or Federal action that has the potential to affect them.  If a private owner/operator takes an action, the action is located on private land, and it does not involve any Federal or State oversight, permitting, authorizations, etc., a review by our office is not required.  While we often work with private operators/landowners in an effort to protect significant sites, some may choose not to do so.

We would be happy to answer any additional questions that you may have about the State and Federal review processes that our office participates in.

Best regards,
Shina

Shina duVall, RPA
Archaeologist, Review and Compliance Coordinator
Alaska State Historic Preservation Office / Office of History and Archaeology


More Coursehero Database Shenanigans

January 15, 2013

I previously posted that the Coursehero.com “study help” website was selling old coursework online, and seemed to be web-scraping any academic-related documents they could find. I’ve never had an account with the site, but several of my documents and publications had made their way in, including pages from my website which were never academic-related.

I contacted Coursehero, and after I’d jumped through a formal request hoop, they removed the files I’d identified as mine. They claim that all their content is submitted by members.

I’ve now noticed another oddity with their site. My contact information, which Coursehero appears to have scraped off my resume, has somehow become associated with many random files on the site, including content from courses I’ve never taken, universities I’ve never been to (or heard of), and other random material. It looks like they have an overzealous web-scraping algorithm gobbling up anything it can find online, and attempting to value-add context keywords and metadata. Kind of like those websites that try to sell background checks by listing every possible phone number and name in the hopes that it will increase search engine hits. Data gone rogue. I pity the student who tries to find something on Coursehero with a keyword search, they’ll be sifting through false positives for hours, when they could just as easily be studying something useful or just finding the original (probably free) source that Coursehero grabbed the file from.

Funny I don't recall taking an 80,000-level course in Missouri...

Funny, I don’t recall taking an 80,000-level course in Missouri…

I suppose this should be a lesson to me… anything posted online will eventually be scanned by bots and randomly associated to random content on random websites in an attempt to make money (and to think, in high school and college they said we should all have our resumes and work examples out there for the world to see, so we could attract potential employers!).

On the flip side, eventually this blog post will be grabbed and/or linked to by review websites to be found by anyone who cares to check up on Coursehero.com. (You should have noticed by now that the content they are selling is disorganized and mis-categorized at best… and quite possibly available for free elsewhere online…)

I emailed Coursehero to see if they could clean up their database.

From gabe to support@coursehero.com

I came across a few more documents tagged with my contact information.
I don’t recognize most of these from the previews, but as I don’t have
an account, I can’t see the full files. If they’re not mine, I don’t
know why they’re tagged with my name, email, street address, and phone
number. It looks like your scraping algorithm somehow associated my
contact details with random other things in your database.

I searched for my phone number and got 73 results, most appear to be
tagged with text from my resume.
<link>

I searched for my website and got 81 results:
<link>

I got 64 results for my name. Some of these are tagged with title and
author info from a paper I co-authored, but are widely different
subjects and titles, everything from music to mechanical engineering.
<link>

Again, from the previews, I don’t recognize any of these as my
material. It’s possible that one or two might be legitimate uploads by
co-authors of papers I worked on, but many of these files are not even
from the same university that I attended. Overall it seems like your
scraper just tags random files with random data, I can’t see how that
benefits you or your customers, but I’d appreciate it if my contact
info were removed from your database.

Thanks,
-Gabe Emerson

Update: Coursehero replied, but didn’t actually address my concern. They claim that my name won’t show up on their site once Google’s search updates, but what about my phone number/address/website matching random documents on their site via their internal search? Perhaps they mean that they’re using Google Site Search or something similar as their website search bar backend, and their keyword-stuffing algorithm will stop associating random files with the contents of my resume after they deleted my resume? I emailed back trying to clarify this.

support@coursehero.com to gabe

Dear Gabe,

Thank you for contacting us.

Please be informed that we have removed the document pertaining your personal information from: <link>. Google periodically crawls Course Hero to check for changes and update their search results accordingly.  Once the process is complete, that page should not come up in the Google search results for your name.  Please be aware it may take up to a few weeks for Google to re-crawl our website and update the search results.
If you have any questions, please let us know.  Thank you.

——————————————————————————-

gabe to support@coursehero.com

I wasn’t talking about Google’s search results, but the search results
on your own site (or do you mean that you’re using Google as the
search backend on your site?)


Dredge scrapping updates

January 11, 2013

Here’s a quick update to yesterday’s post. After reading the Anchorage Daily News article, it seemed that the Bureau of Land Management was working with Tri Metal International to procure dredges and other mining equipment for scrap metal, as the article states “The company is also pursuing abandoned mining equipment and machinery via the Bureau of Land Management.” A poster on the AKmining forum also had the impression that the BLM owned the dredges.

I tried contacting the Fairbanks office of the BLM, but their online form was broken. Eventually I found a few email addresses and sent essentially the same thing that I posted here, CCing the main contact from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) website. Here’s what I got back, apparently the BLM was not involved in the dredge removal:

BLM_AK_FDO_GeneralDelivery to Gabe:

Mr. Emerson — Thanks for your message about the gold dredges. I talked with the archeologists in our office and learned that the two dredges in question were not on BLM-managed public lands at the time of their removal. The BLM was not involved in dismantling or removing the dredges, and we have no information on who undertook the project or why they did  so. At the archeologists’ recommendation, I am forwarding your message to Mark Rollins at the Alaska DNR Office of History and Archaeology. He may be able to shed more light on what happened.

I’m sorry you had problems using the BLM-Alaska contact page. I’ll look into that problem and get it fixed.

Please let me know if I can be of further assistance. — Craig McCaa

Craig McCaa
Public Affairs Specialist
BLM Fairbanks District Office

——————————————————————————————————————-

Paul Lusignan (NPS NRHP) to Gabe

Gabe,

You may want to direct your concerns to both the Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer and the Federal Preservation Officer for BLM.  Under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), federal agencies have to evaluate the impact of their actions on properties listed in or determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places prior to proceeding with their projects.  Federal agencies consult with the State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) and interested members of the public regarding the identification of historic sites and ways to mitigate or lessen the potential negative impacts of their actions.  It is not always possible to stop federal projects, but at least there is a process for considering alternatives.
It may be that BLM and the SHPO did consult on this project under the provisions of Section 106, as one of the articles did note an agreement was reached with the state to document elements of the project.   The Federal and State Preservation offices will be better able to discuss their specific actions.
Paul R. Lusignan

Historian
National Register of Historic Places
National Park Service

(Paul also included contacts for the BLM and SHPO)

So, while Tri Metal may be soliciting scrap metal sources from the BLM in the future, it appears that they sourced the two Fairbanks dredges some other way, perhaps directly from the owners? It’s still disappointing that they’re gone, and I’m still disappointed in the BLM for demolishing the Jack Wade dredge, but it doesn’t sound like they’re on a systematic dredge hunt at the moment!
I’ll be interested to hear if their archeologist has any more information, and I’m still waiting to see what else Tri Metal gets their hands on…

Scrapping History for Fun and (no) Profit

January 9, 2013

I was saddened to learn that <someone> has begun demolishing historic sites in Alaska and selling them for scrap metal. And they’re not even making a profit on it! (Update: I initially thought the Bureau of Land Management was doing this, but after emailing them, they’ve stated that they weren’t involved).

As reported in the Anchorage Daily News on November 15th of 2012, a “Test Shipment” of scrap to South Korea included “Two gold dredges from Fairbanks” (http://www.adn.com/2012/11/15/2694098/new-international-export-at-port.html)

Here’s a video version of the article released by the MatSu Borough: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLl-fPHfCKQ

As some background (click for Wikipedia article), gold dredges are large mining machines, designed to float along streams and scoop up gold-bearing gravel (placer gold). There were once 8 of them in the Fairbanks area, with this recent destruction there are only 4 remaining.

I happen to be familiar with both the dredges that were scrapped, The Fairbanks Exploration Company’s #5 and #6. Dredge Number 5 is (was?) on the National Register of Historic Places: http://pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/04000186.pdf
Here are some photos from the National Historic Register.

Here is a historic video of #6 being moved from one mining area to another: http://vilda.alaska.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cdmg11/id/6910/rec/15

Some more recent photos on Flickr:
F.E. Co Dredge #5: http://www.flickr.com/photos/45622415@N06/sets/72157622883552541/with/4187941367/
F.E. Co Dredge #6: http://www.flickr.com/photos/45622415@N06/sets/72157622901922769/with/4195297437/

Maybe these dredges weren’t as popular or well-known as the ones you can drive right up to, but they had their share of visitors. I’ve hiked out to both of the dredges in question (I’m not sure who owned the land at the time, the trails to the dredges were not signed or marked when I visited. I did hear that someone later put up a “no trespassing” sign at Dredge #5 after it became popular with geocachers) (Update: the BLM says that they don’t own or manage the land). I enjoyed seeing these somewhat forgotten mining relics in-situ, as they were left at the end of mining work, with trees growing up through them and wildlife inhabiting the interior.  It felt like a much more authentic experience than queing up with a group of Florida tourists to visit some sanitized, OSHA-approved, restored commercial attraction (No offense to the owners of Dredge #8, but I always preferred the rusty abandoned dredges and never got around to visiting their touristy one). I particularly liked the journals of dredge movements, weather, and other comments written on the interior walls with chalk by workers in the 1930s. All of which is gone now. It isn’t even a win for the environment, looking at recent aerial photos, I see that whoever pulled the dredges out bulldozed their way through and generally tore up the areas, leaving landscapes that look more like a gravel pit than the quiet 2nd-growth forest that used to surround these machines.

before-after
Dredge #5 site before and after. Click for full size.

Here’s one of my own photos of #5:

Here is another another article about the BLM’s destruction of a dredge near Chicken in 2007, Apparently it wasn’t safe enough to leave just lying around, someone could need a tetanus shot just from looking at it! Plus, without gift shops, these abandoned dredges clearly aren’t doing anything useful for the economy. The Jack Wade dredge at Chicken was listed in the Historic American Buildings Survey / Historic American Engineering Record: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/ak0198/

Here is some local discussion of the destroyed Fairbanks dredges. Unfortunately, some of the photo links don’t work.
http://www.akmining.com/forums/showthread.php/1749-Another-One-Bites-The-Dust?s=312222970e925115bbd86194e425b141

It’s depressing to think that these historic landmarks have no value other than as scrap. In fact, they barely have any scrap value at all, as the ADN mentions that they were destroyed and sold at a loss, just to see if it’s feasible to transport something on a ship from one place to another (hint: I’m pretty sure people have been doing that for a couple centuries now).

“Working on the effort nearly 2.5 years, Syed Hussain is a managing partner of Tri Metal International LLC. Two international buyers of scrap metal for Japan and South Korea traveled to Port MacKenzie Saturday to observe the loading effort, and were very pleased, Hussain said. Breaking into the global competition has had its hurdles, he said. He said he is losing money on this shipment just to prove to the scrap industry that it can be done.” (From Anchorage Daily News)

The ADN article goes on to state that Tri Metal International is working with the BLM to acquire more “abandoned mining equipment and machinery”. I have to wonder what historic properties they’ll set their eyes on next? Maybe they could just go through the National Historic Register and use it as a hit list, I see a few properties on there that are probably rich in scrap metal! Maybe Nome’s iconic ghost train, or the giant Igloo hotel in Igloo City, or all those rusty mini-submarines and artillery cannons the Japanese left in the Aleutians. Sure, people like to take pictures of those things, but none of them are on OSHA-approved museum-curated tour routes with gift shops and quick bus access to cruise ships, so they’d probably be more valuable as scrap exports, right? (I think the Igloo is mostly cement, but maybe someone could crush it up and use it to fill potholes or something).

(Original post updated based on info received from the BLM and National Park Service)


Coursehero scrapes your stuff and sells it

December 20, 2012

I happened to come across a website which seems to have grabbed a bunch of files from my website, and is now offering them for sale to college students. It seems to be a nice combination of “Cheating is wrong, but here’s a bunch of other people’s work”, and “We’ll sell you stuff we found for free online”. Two great business models come together! It looks like it’s all a (poorly programmed) automated system that scrapes the net for academic-related material (for example, searching for published term papers, study notes, etc), slaps it behind a paywall, and then promises students a better grade if they sign up. I’m not sure what the actual cost/value of each paper would be, but cruising through their terms-of-use nets this info:

$95.40/yr
$59.85/ quarter (you know, for all those colleges operating on the quarterly schedule…)
$39.95/mo

These rates apparently get you 10 PDF downloads per day. You can also upload any of your content that their auto-scraper happens to miss, but the terms of use say that they don’t pay you anything for doing this (maybe you get a discount of some kind?). Their auto-scraper appears to have a hard time parsing and sorting the stuff it grabs, as it has apparently decided that I am a class (actually that would be kind of funny… GABE101, students learn how to remodel free boats and build potato guns 😛 )

coursehero_screenshot

It also seems to be pretty opportunistic in what it grabs. For example, documents associated with me include everything from actual class content (Powerpoints and notes that I had online), to random content from my website (resume, text files, etc) which would be useless to most students. Yep, you can pay $95.40 for the privilege of reading a .txt file on dumpster diving that I wrote over a decade ago! This will definitely help you pass GABE101, as the midterm grade is based on what you can find in the trash.

coursehero_screenshot_2 coursehero_screenshot_3

All in all, this site seems about as useless as any of those 500 pages you get when you search a phone number (Join OUR phonebook, the NUMBER ONE place for phone-numbers-stolen-from-everyone-else’s number one phonebook!) Googling around a bit, I found some more info on this coursehero operation (these are opinions or reviews from other websites:)

“Coursehero probably isn’t worth the money. The vast majority of the material has been stolen from faculty/university websites. It may be that all the material for your particular school is freely available on the school website.
As anecdotal evidence of this fact there are forms and reports from the Dean’s office of my school on coursehero. The website is a copyright infringing scam to steal your money. It makes me mad that they are stealing money from poor students.”
(From http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100125160855AAu6HwM)

“They are posting stolen content that’s why when you pay and log in, you don’t see most of it because they are being hit hard with DMCA take down letters. This site won’t be up long. Don’t waste your money.”

(from http://m.rateitall.com/i-2055646-course-hero.aspx)

“Yep.  My college has a department named FILES.  Who knew?  Apparently the FILES department teaches something having to do with field exercises.
Yike. To me, this sounds like it is information scraped from unsecured databases or Web site directories. I’d contact the school and let them know that they might have a security issue.”

“I’ll bet there will be lawsuits — they’re clearly just scooping up whatever’s free and available and charging for it.  My stuff’s not open access, so it’s not there.  Remind me to put my name on my handouts….”
(from http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php?topic=63326.10;wap2)

Their terms of service includes a rather clunky method for claiming copyright infringement, so I decided to take a different approach. Waiting to see if they even respond… If not then I guess I can go all DMCA on it 😛

Subject: Content usage From: Gabe Emerson <> To: info@coursehero.com

Hi, I notice you’re offering a collection of my work for sale on your site. The materials appear to have been scraped from my website without permission, as I have not had an account with your site and did not provide the content. Please provide me with a list of access and sales records for my content, and I will send you an invoice for the use of this material. Specifically, some of my material seems to be listed under “Course: EMERS089” http://www.coursehero.com/sitemap/schools/1241-Minnesota/courses/774509-EMERS089/ I am not sure if you have additional materials as well. Sincerely, -Gabriel Emerson

Update: Coursehero wrote back asking me to verify in a more “formal” manner that the files were mine, and were used without permission. I responded, and they appear to have removed them (at least, the ones that I pointed out, since I don’t have an account, I don’t know if anything else of mine is on there).