Not Worth My Time

Free clue to banks, financial institutions, and my creditors: Online bill paying is not worth my time nor trouble.

The Washington Post‘s Leslie Walker muses on online bill paying, but she focuses on the glitzy side:

Some things you expect to be no-brainers online turn out to be as tricky as a Rubik’s cube. Bill payments fall into that category. Nine years after the Web went commercial, many large Internet players are still trying to piece together the electronic-bill puzzle.

The puzzle, I assume, is to do it effectively. Which would mean profitably, of course, but the people behind the online bill paying maelstrom need to remember an important thing: it’s got to benefit consumers as well.

America Online is the latest to believe it has found the answer. Launched on Tuesday, AOL Bill Pay lets AOL members pay 2,500 different billers from a single menu. The service is free to subscribers even though AOL is paying a partner, Yodlee Inc., an undisclosed sum to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes.

America Online, unfortunately, you are nothing but the mechanism through which the money would flow. You can pay 2,500 billers? Big whoop. My checkbook is virtually unlimited, as are the more secure money orders. The number of people you can pay are not the stumbling block.

Increasingly, online bill paying is becoming a strategic tool used by large businesses to reel in and retain customers, especially since it appeals strongly to folks with high incomes and lots of monthly bills. Banks and other financial institutions have been falling over one another in the rush to offer free online bill payments, based on a belief that customers who take the trouble to set up the accounts will remain more loyal than those who don’t. So far, one-third of the nation’s largest banks and brokerage firms offer free Internet bill payments, according to financial research firm TowerGroup.

Okay, so large businesses will accept bill payment through this medium as a means to reel in and retain customers. Hmmm. So what? What’s the advantage over cash, check, or money order? I reckon it might be cheaper or more instantaneous for the recipient who accepts online bill pay. After all, the money’s sucked from the payer’s account into your coffers immediately, without the need to hire a bunch of letter openers.

But what’s the benefit for me, the payer?

Let’s face it. As far as these online bill paying schemes go, the people whom I can pay are still limited. A user cannot necessarily pay everyone whom he wants to pay, and so the user is expected to make his life more complicated using a variety of different mechanisms through which he can settle his accounts.

As Walker points out in her piece, she doesn’t want to spread her secure financial information too much throughout the Internet–yet, the recipients, and the companies who play middlemen, all get the data. It’s a security risk multiplied by the number of payees and middlemen. Any one of them could get hacked and suddenly, I am buying computers for Romanians.

Worse, if anyone of these entities has a mere computer glitch, suddenly my bank account is empty and all other checks, debits, and withdrawals are bouncing, and my bank is charging me an extra $20 a day to remind me that my account is still empty. I have seen enough critical defects outside the financial industry to recognize how tenuous the Web is and to put my actual information–and my credit rating–on the line.

In exchange for assuming these risks, what do my creditors and the online bill-paying industry offer me? Convenience.

I say: Not good enough.

So as a consumer, I am expected to incur the risks of theft, identity theft, and defect-related (unreversible) Insufficient Funds notices for mere convenience, while the person I am paying gets instantaneous access to the cash at a lower cost to the creditor. Sometimes I can pay extra for these goodies, too. You know what? Maybe I am not high enough income to be a target for this scam, but I am damn happy to expend the cost of ink, eight cents for a check, and thirty seven cents of postage for my peace of mind.

So my question to my creditors is, “What’s in it for me?”

All of you in the online bill paying industry ought to come up with a better answer than “Convenience.” Paying bills is never convenient. Show me the money.

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Tech Professionals Suddenly Anti-Free Markets

Funny, I seem to remember about six years ago that all of the IT professionals in the world were all for the free markets, especially since those free markets meant that the IT professional’s next job in six months would yield a 20% salary raise. Oh, how shallow the sentiments ran.

According to CNet, the IEEE has come out against outsourcing:

In a policy statement, IEEE-USA said U.S. government procurement rules should favor work done in the country and should “restrict the offshoring of work in any instance where there is not a clear long-term economic benefit to the nation or where the work supports technologies that are critical to our national economic or military security.”

I agree with the bit about security, much as I think the country should have manufacturing capability to build B2s when every other country is against us, but I don’t think the government should prop up an overpaid bunch of undercompetent IT workers. Let the marketplace do its work and return those who cannot produce quality, and inexpensive, hardware or software back to the retail or services industry where they belong. If you alone are making twice the national median income or more for a family, stop begging for sympathy and complaining about workers who can support an elevated personal standard of living for less than you can.

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Is the Worm Turning?

As you might know, I’ve always said that one of the earmarks of a good downtown area is grocery stores. I haven’t determined if it’s a symptom, cause, or symbiosis that vital downtown areas with actual, you know, residents, have grocery stores. For much of my adult life, downtown St. Louis has been bereft of basic foodstuffs and residents. Now, however, the loft dwellers and homeless will have somewhere to shop, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Downtown bags two hungrily awaited groceries [sic].

Now, how about some housing that’s not provided by Larry Rice or that costs $300,000?

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Announcing the Kittinger Award

Andrew Sullivan has a number of awards that he dishes out to people who say something foolish. It’s high time I was self-important enough to announce a special award and give it out periodically. Ergo, I hereby announce the Joseph Kittinger, Jr., Award for Demonstrable Manliness, named after Joseph Kittenger, Jr., who had gall as big as church bells.

Unlike Sullivan, I won’t nominate people and then present a single award every year; when I see something inspirationally manly, I shall award it on the spot.

The first official Joseph Kittinger, Jr., award winner: Mark Bartholomew of Allentown, Pennsylvania:

Most people would try to avoid an out-of-control car — but not Mark Bartholomew.
He used his truck to block a car that was repeatedly bouncing off a highway median in the Allentown, Pennsylvania, area on Monday. The woman driving the car says she passed out after having stomach pains.

Other drivers swerved to avoid the car, but Bartholomew noticed the driver appeared to be unconscious.

He pulled ahead and allowed the car’s front bumper to hit his truck and gradually slowed it to a stop. The driver of the car calls Bartholomew “a lifesaver.”

Bartholomew says he doesn’t worry about the vehicle damage, saying, “what’s a vehicle compared to a life?” Besides, he adds, “it’s a company truck.”

A heroic act and a snappy wisecrack line. Mark Bartholomew, we here at MfBJN salute you, and quite frankly hope we never have to replicate your actions.

(Link seen on Fark, whose founder Drew Curtis probably covets the Kittinger Award and thinks founding Fark should be enough.)

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Call Your Travel Agent

Today, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a story on the front page of its Travel and Leisure section entitled Angola sheds its image as nation’s bloodiest prison.

What does it say about the state of Louisiana, or the author’s view thereof, that the only attractions associated with Louisiana are plantation houses remade into bed-and-breakfasts and prison?

Please, don’t e-mail your responses. I’d rather not know what it means.

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Snail Spam Dilemma

Which of the fourth-class junk mail envelopes that arrived for me today should I open first?

  • Urgent Update – Stop Hillary Now: Help NRA-PVF DEFEAT the “Clinton Candidates” of 2004


  • How you can help our new Democratic nominee, return address of James Carville, Democratic National Committee

Perhaps I should do a reality-television like poll about it, but there’s always the chance you whacky, Kerry-loving “friends” would make me open the DNC one at all.

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Searching for Software Tester

   Sometimes, on long days on the job, I hear the voice of Ben Kingsley in my mind, paraphrasing those lines from Searching for Bobby Fischer:

    Bruce: Do you know what it means to have “contempt” for the software?
    Brian: No.
    Bruce: It means to hate it. You have to hate it, Brian, it hates you.

I’ve never actually seen the movie, but I do hear Ben Kingsley talking to me, oh yes I do.

I don’t even play chess well.

On long days, my mind just wanders.

Long nights, too, I guess.

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Heather Exposes a Double Standard

So I point my beautiful wife to this Fark photoshop contest because it’s about a cat and she likes cats. “That one with Natalie Portman isn’t bad,” she says.

My friends, do you see the unjust double standard at work here?

Picture of cat scratching scantily-clad Natalie Portman = not bad.
Picture of Brian scratching scantily-clad Natalie Portman = exhibit in State of Missouri vs. Heather Noggle capital murder trial.

I ask you, is that fair?

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Book Review: The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz (1959, 1967, 1997)

I know, I know. You’re all saying, “Brian, why are you reading a book that goes in the Self-Help / Psychology / Inspiration section?” Easy question.

Because I am a promiscuous book slut. I’ll read anything with two covers. Sometimes two at once even. Good, bad, beautiful, ugly, I just cannot stop. Also, I thought the title indicated this particular work was a mind-over-matter, Zen or Hindu ascetic equivalent of Gainpro. There, I admitted it.

It’s not. What it is, however, is a dose of practical, populist pragmatism for the masses. Of course, since I spent forty-five thousand dollars and interest on a Philosophy degree, everything relates to Pragmatism, Existentialism, Objectivism, Dialectic Materialism, or Rudimentarialistic Sponteneal Constructionism.

The core message is that you have to believe in yourself and your abilities to make the efforts and to take the chances to succeed. Much like William James’s parable of the mountain trail, or Thoreau (a Transcendentalist, not a Pragmatist, don’t you think I know that?) telling you to aim high, for men can hit what they aim at. Schwartz directs much of his energy and the book at being successful in business, particularly succeeding in a corporate environment or as an entrepreneur. As such, he does intimate that you can get by with just the right attitude without bogging down your pretty little head with technical aptitude. I’ve worked for too many project managers who got an MBA from Schwartz’s academic successors to heed that augury. I forgive him, though.

I forgive him because the style of the book is accessible and easy to read. Easier than Charles Sanders Peirce, anyway. And since it deals with everyday problems and situations, it makes pragmatism relevant to everyone. Undoubtedly, it’s helped the two generations preceding mine, as the book was originally published in 1959 and revised in 1967 before being reissued as a paperback in 1997. So while the concepts are applicable, the book’s quaintly dated whenever he mentions salaries, housing prices, or veterans (from World War II and Korea) taking night classes.

So grab the book if you can find it cheaply. It’s inspired me a bit, and I’ve even put a quote from it on my whiteboard:

Persisting in one way is not a guarantee of victory. But persistence blended with experimentation does guarantee success.

That’s better advice than I’ve ever gotten from an underpants gnome, werd.

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Unions Outsource Television Production

Look, guys! Not only are the Evil Greedy Corporations sending jobs away, but so are the Nice, Defending-The-Little Guy Greedy Unions.

Philadelphia proved a little too real for The Real World.

After squabbling with local unions, the producers of the MTV series yesterday gave up on Philadelphia as the site of its 15th season. Taping was to begin in three weeks.

Wait a minute…. You don’t think…. The obstructionism and agitation of labor, organized or not, for overpriced wages might have a hand in all outsourcing, could it?

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Book Review: Ghost by Piers Anthony (1986)

In his characteristic Author’s Note at the end of the book, Anthony admits:

I wrote “Ghost” the story, about 10,000 words long, somewhere back in 1961….

No doubt. This whole volume smacks of a sixties sensibilty. The Author’s Note describes how long and hard it was for Anthony to get this thing published. It’s not that the book is bad, but it is dated with a sixties sensibility.

The plot deals with a time-traveliing ship, the Meg II, sent into the future to search for a source of energy for the starving planet. And maybe some insight into what happened to the Meg I. The world from which the Meg II launches is a slightly dystopian future, where space travel exists but is looked down upon by earthbound residents as a waste of scarce resources. So far, so good.

But the timeship is rooted to its original time by a psychadelic psychic beacon whose connection to its origin time cannot survive strong emotions from crewmembers. So it goes without saying that the free-love rules will lead to strong emotions, and there’s a suicide, and suddenly the ship finds another entity moving through time. A galaxy, or a ghost. Once the ship meets the entity, suddenly it’s a bad acid trip having something to do with the Seven Deadly Sins and when the crew groks understands the nature of the entity, the book ends.

Incarnations of Immortality, it ain’t.

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Buck You, Senator Kohl

Millionaire Senator Herbert Kohl, D-Wisconsin, is starting to make “buy me an arena” noises in the city of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports. Kohl owns the Milwaukee Bucks NBA team, which plays at the creaky 16-year-old Bradley Center:

The Bradley Center opened in the fall of 1988 and is one of the oldest and smallest arenas in the 29-team National Basketball Association, facts that Kohl conceded would be a surprise to most Milwaukeeans.

Despite its limitations, Kohl said, the building was in excellent shape.

Apparently, the board that runs the Bradley Center wants to make upgrades, but that’s not enough for the distinguished gentleman:

Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl said Tuesday that it did not make sense to spend $50 million to $100 million to remodel the Bradley Center and said the community would have to discuss in the future the need for a new arena.

The Democratic U.S. senator, noting that it had been a joy this season to own the team, said spending millions more to remodel the facility “would not extend its useful life.”

Rather, he said, the Bradley Center board ought to consider more modest upgrades to the building that will generate new revenue for the Bucks.

Give me more money, says Don Kohl. Generate revenue for me, he says. Here’s what he wants:

Kohl said the Bucks were interested in a new, eight-year lease with the Bradley Center – “A decent lease,” he said – that would include more revenue from concessions and suites and the possible addition of club seats.

A new decent lease? What exactly are the terms of the current lease?

The Bucks, who pay no rent at the Bradley Center, receive 27.5% of total gross receipts from concessions other than programs, merchandise, and food and beverage sales in the suites. The team also gets 13.7% of gross revenue from food and beverage sales from the suites at all Bradley Center events. In addition, the Bradley Center board paid about $2.1 million more in the fiscal year ending last June 30 to help the team financially.

That’s a johnking lease? What can the Bradley Center lease me for equivalent terms? Lord, love a duck.

    Then what?

    “After that, the community has to decide what to do with the NBA in Milwaukee,” Kohl said. Right now, he added, “The community is not in the mood to talk about a new facility.”

Hey, brah, I will talk about it. How about you use some of that wealth of yours to build your own heinzenjohnking arena, and then you can keep all the concessions and all the total gross receipts and you can rent it out to other production companies for when they want to bring Comcast on Ice to town.

What, Milwaukee might rebel against your enlightened entrepreneurship and its demands upon the city’s treasury? I mean, it’s been two years already since the taciturn community blew hundreds of millions of dollars building a free sports facility that stands empty even when the Brewers are playing in it. Maybe you better get a cush little cooling-off period before you start sniffing around for a public-private “partnership” where you’re the comedian and it’s the straight man.

I used to respect you, Senator, but no more. I only wish I could vote against you.

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Hockey Linx

I’m working on an essay on the decline of the NHL, but I won’t post it tonight (if at all–hey, if it’s a real essay, I’ll try to sell it first, werd). Since it’s taken my attention, you, too, should focus on hockey, particularly the violence within it (as illustrated by the Todd Bertuzzi incident).

Go forth and read:

  • This letter to the editor in USA Today from Eric Weinrich, a new St. Louis Blue. A letter to the editor? Wow, I might have expected that from Steve “Harvard” Martins, a graduate of Harvard University, or Mark “College Puke” Rycroft, who used to spend time after a game writing papers for his classes, but not Weinrich. He’s responding to a column by Christine Brennan that asserts that hockey could be an easy also-ran in the greater scope of the American sportscape. She’s right (a thesis I touch upon in my essay, or will when I get to writing it instead of amusing you, gentle readers). If the NHL folded, fewer people would miss it than the NHL or the NHLPA and all associated stakeholders would like to think.

    (Link seen on American Realpolitik. Welcome to the blog roll.)

  • The Meatriarchy Guy lays into the other American sports in a spasm of defensiveness. Dude, hockey’s not one of the big three sports in the (United States’) American mindset. It never will be. Stop fighting the apathy, and cheer on your (lesser) Eastern Conference team.
  • Don’t forget Hockey Pundits.
  • Also, you Blues fans out there who bemoan the big contracts handed out to a handful of players (Weight, Tkachuk, Pronger) that deprive the team of midlevel scoring help, you’re barking up the wrong tree. The money’s not the issue. Read the fine print, which offers the players an extra, unheralded extra benefit for signing: four extra weeks of vacation in 2004. A-ha!

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Book ‘Em, Dano

Courtesy of Jailbait Kelley, I discovered:

You’re The Things They Carried!
by Tim O’Brien

Harsh and bitter, you tell it like it is. This usually comes in short,
dramatic spurts of spilling your guts in various ways. You carry a heavy load, and this
has weighed you down with all the horrors that humanity has to offer. Having seen and
done a great deal that you aren't proud of, you have no choice but to walk forward,
trudging slowly through ongoing mud. In the next life, you will come back as a water

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

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Back at Keys

Good day, fellows.

I am back at the blogging bit after a brief vacation with my beautiful wife in southern Florida.

I’ve gotten a little tanned (or “sunburned” as we call it here in the Midwest) and have had a number of days of reading, loafing, and general laziness. I haven’t touched a computer in four days, friends.

You might not know this, friends, but it’s always summer in Florida. Whereas Missouri is about to start into spring, with buds and flowers springing forth after the brown and infrequent white of winter, the palms are always green in south Florida. Every time we visit, I remark that I cannot imagine what living without seasons must do to the psyche of Floridians, or what it would be like to grow up without the physical representations of the passage of time or the school year. Cannot do it.

And if you must know, if your personal commentator (me) has a single flaw, it must be a fear discomfort with air travel. I don’t know where this discomfort began; as you might guess, as a poor young man, I had few opportunities to fly when I was young. I flew took two trips via air in my first twenty-seven years of life. I took my third and fourth trips in 1999, but somewhere between there and 2002 I grew very leary of air travel. I don’t attribute it directly to the 2001 attacks. However, I did become very aware of how little control I have over the situation, and how few people survive mishaps.

To put it bluntly, Heather and I passed a car turned on its side on I-95 just north of Fort Lauderdale this morning on our way to the airport. She missed the physical manifestation of the accident (except the lane closures); I reported the car on its side and the people sitting beside it, on the median wall, looking sheepish that their parents might find out that they were driving their high-school-graduation present at unlawful speeds after a couple tablets and a couple drinks; in air travel, there are no sheepish survivors ashamed at their choice of transit or response times.

So laugh at me, or mock me, but every time those wheels chunk into their housings on takeoff or the engines change to idle to begin the descent, I notice and begin to sweat. Some people simply trust the professionalism and competence of untold score of personnel involved in the construction, maintenance, and operation of air travel equipment, and some of us can only (however actively) hope that those professionals handle their jobs more competently than some of us handle our household maintenance.

The quality of the library should not be judged by the gaudy nature of its bookends, though, and I had a wonderful time.

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