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April 24, 2004

What he said

I had a rant in mind when I read Kristof this morning, but Atrios pretty much nails it.

--------------------

April 23, 2004

Debit cards are pure evil

More, from a reader:

Regarding your most recent blog entry -- I worked as a temp for over half a year at a Major Banking Institution's ATM/debit card claims back office. You're far from alone. A staff of less than two dozen people, many of whom were temps hired as data entry drones, handled many hundreds of complaints every day from across a four-state region. Due to being swamped by volume, unwritten office policy was to simply charge off (i.e., rubber-stamp) any claim of less than $50. In principle, all larger claims were supposed to be thoroughly investigated, but the majority of them were simply punted or given a cursory check ("did the ATM record that day show any errors? Nope.") and approved or denied on the basis of a few numbers on a screen. At times it was like the worst stories you've heard about the quota pressures on phone tech support reps, except with other people's money.

Turnover was significant. Whenever someone left, every claim they were handling immediately went into limbo, and it was a matter of chance whether the remaining employees would have the capacity to deal with those claims except on an as-complained-about basis. The situations where a charge posted twice or an ATM failed to dispense the proper amount of cash were the easy ones. And ATM fraud claims at least could be dealt with by internal investigators. But debit-card fraud claims were nightmares. The processing was all dumped on a single woman who could have done a reasonable job on them -- if she didn't have the Sisyphean task of trying to keep up with scores of increasingly frantic customer service reps and/or customers begging for attention on their claim, calls which had to be handled before the actual work in the interests of good PR. (n.b.: We didn't actually do the investigation; that was punted to Visa. But we were the bank's liaison to them.)

Office policy was to attempt to assign provisional credit within two days of a claim being received. We were legally mandated to provide it within seven. Sometimes even that didn't happen. (It all depended on the printed claim form not being mislaid on someone's desk or misfiled in the wrong pile. This was in 2000; hopefully the system's gone paperless by then, but I don't have any way to confirm that.) Then we would send a form letter out to the customer informing them provisional credit had been assigned ("We are replacing your lost money with ours as a show of good faith, but this is OUR money, and we can't give you back YOUR money until we investigate this, so, um, yeah") and their claim would be investigated if they'd just fill out the handy enclosed form.

After the customer was taken from lost-money hell and placed in provisional-credit limbo, debit card fraud claims basically just sat in a pile until one of two things happened: The form was returned; or two months passed. At two months a second letter was *supposed* to be sent out saying that we couldn't investigate the claim without the signed and returned form. Sometimes this didn't happen. Did I mention we were swamped?

At 90 days, if the form hadn't been received, the claim was routinely denied and the provisional credit removed. That's when the nasty calls started arriving, because someone who may not have even *received* either of the initial form requests (if one of the underpaid temps, gods forbid, made a bad typo in manually typing in their address) suddenly found themselves out several thousand dollars and deeply in overdraft again. Or, equally commonly, someone who received the letter and didn't understand the "provisional credit" thing figured it was settled and was suddenly plunged back into the nightmare. (Of course, many of Visa's claim deadlines are 120 days from the initial transaction, so any sort of processing delay on the bank's part can mean those waited-too-long-so-closed-and-reversed claims are in a situation where the money has been guaranteed to be lost to the fraud. At that point either the bank shafts the customer or the bank eats a loss for the customer. We worked for the bank. Guess which one management pressured us to do?)

You can only take so many calls from people whose bank accounts have suddenly been cleaned out *by their own bank* and who suddenly can't pay rent -- and who have no recourse, because they can't get provisional credit to cover for the fraud (it's the provisional credit that's disappeared!) -- before being scarred for life.

It was appalling how many claims were rejected because they were incorrectly submitted to Visa, or without necessary supporting documentation -- a bank error which then rebounded on the customer when the provisional credit was removed.
I understand the extra convenience debit cards can provide, but after working in that place, I swore them off for life. You have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get an ATM-only card these days, but it can be done, and I'd never do anything but. If you carry separate ATM and credit cards, it means hauling around more plastic -- but when they're stolen, at least it's not *your money* that disappears when the thief goes on a spree -- and in a worst-case scenario, if everything goes wrong and you get held responsible for $10,000 of someone else's charges, with a credit card at least you just owe $10,000 and can declare bankruptcy, instead of just having that money already gone forever.

Christ on a crutch

Okay, so some time back my bank (cough cough CITIBANK cough cough) sends me a new ATM card, which is also a debit card--something I never asked for or wanted. Fast forward to late March/early April--some scumbag gets ahold of my debit card number and charges up nearly $2000, money which is taken out of my account. The bank notices something odd--i.e., the fact that someone who has never used his debit card is suddenly running up thousands of dollars of purchases--and calls me up.

And guess what? I have to go through an investigation, supply all sorts of information, wait several months to have the money returned to me. Think about that: the friggin' bank sent me a financial instrument which essentially allows anyone who gets ahold of the number to dip their greedy little hands into my account and help themselves. I neither asked for this financial instrument nor wanted it. And yet--when it is, inevitably, abused by some scumbag--I have to wait for "the process" to be completed.

Now, the nice person I talked to on the phone yesterday told me that it was no problem, I was a valued customer, a "provisional credit" was being issued immediately. However, when I called today to double check on some information, I was informed that this was not true at all; I had to sign papers, send information, wait for an investigation that can take up to three months--then maybe I'll get the money back.

Money which I never would have lost if Citibank had not sent me a debit card I never requested.

Thanks so very friggin' much, Citibank.

...actually it's even better: for some reason, the bank didn't have my current phone number when this fraudulent activity started happening, and they couldn't get ahold of me. Somebody at Citibank was apparently on the ball, however, and saw what was going on, and delinked my ATM card from my account. And they deserve kudos for being on top of things that much--but when I went into the bank to find out why my ATM card had been delinked, nobody knew--there was no note attached to my file or anything like that. So they made some calls to customer service, tapped at the keyboard, scratched their heads, shrugged--and reactivated the card. And it remained active for another two and half weeks, until somebody else in the fraud department called me yesterday. If the scumbags who stole the number had been on the ball, they would have had another two and a half weeks to help themselves to my bank account--courtesy of our friends at Citibank.

But no matter how many mistakes they've made--no matter that I never wanted the damned debit card in the first place--I'm the one who has to jump through hoops to get my money back. Banking's a great business.

Washington Post needs a nudge

Go read this, and then send them a note.

And speaking of Earth Day

A reader forwards the link to this discussion of environmentally friendly ICBMs.

Earth Day

Yesterday was Earth Day, which reminded me of something I haven't thought about in a long time: my first public recognition as an artist, that I can remember, came on Earth Day--probably the first one in 1970, though it may have been the second in 1971. The children in whatever grade I was in at Roosevelt Elementary School that year were put to work designing "buttons", on circles cut from posterboard, maybe four or five inches in diameter, to mark the day. These were subsequently voted on by my classmates; my colorful design was the clear winner. Then it was time to reproduce the button so that all the children could cut it out and tape it to their shirts and blouses on Earth Day, which marked another first for me: my first experience with the limitations of reproduction technology. I couldn't even begin to tell you how many times over the years I've been hosed by bad print jobs, and it all began there, back on Earth Day in '70 or '71. To be honest, I do remember wondering how the teachers planned to reproduce the button, but figured they must have something in mind--they were, after all, the teachers. As it turned out, they asked me to trace the design onto that carbon paper they used, and then they churned out terrible mimeographed approximations of my design, which the other kids were then supposed to cut out and color in themselves. An utter fiasco, as you may well imagine. And I've been fighting with printers and publishers to get my work reproduced accurately ever since.

Lies and the lying liars

Atrios and Ailes, among others, have been all over the Jack Kelley story and I haven't had much to add--but just on the off chance that some of you may have missed it, it's worth noting. And it is entirely possible that you may have missed it--the level of outrage over this one hasn't remotely approached Jayson Blair levels. Which is a shame--it may not have that sexy "affirmative action" angle the right wingers like to beat into the ground, but it's a far more egregious situation.

USA Today editors ignored repeated warnings about problems with Jack Kelley's reporting, including from government officials, while a newsroom "virus of fear" deterred many staffers from challenging what became the worst scandal in the Gannett paper's history, an investigative panel said yesterday. Kelley, who has now apologized, made up parts of at least 20 stories stretching back to 1991, according to the report by three outside editors asked to investigate the former star correspondent's work. Kelley also billed the company for thousands of dollars in payments to translators and drivers who now say they never received the cash, the panel found.

The report amounts to a stinging indictment of the culture of the nation's top-selling newspaper, which the panel says has increasingly tried to compete with the New York Times and The Washington Post and trumpeted the globe-trotting exploits of Kelley, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, in that effort. The document's release prompted a key managing editor to resign.

Unlike the fabrications of such young and untested journalists as The Post's Janet Cooke in 1981, the New Republic's Stephen Glass in 1998 and the Times's Jayson Blair last year, Kelley, 43, was a two-decade veteran at USA Today and a management favorite whose too-perfect stories left a trail of red flags that went unheeded. As USA Today gradually transformed itself from a bland "McPaper" known mainly for short stories and flashy graphics, even Kelley, who kept parachuting into war zones and filing reports about dramatic shootings, bombings and drownings, said he felt pressure to produce scoops.

As Atrios' readers are well aware, Kelley comes out of the World Journalism Institute, whose mandate is apparently to produce more journalists with an explicitly Christian bias:

I mentioned the issue to Mr. Olasky, who agreed the challenge was both real and big. I mentioned it also to Robert Case, one of our board members who lived then in Ellensburg, Wash., where he divided his working hours between the real estate business and teaching philosophy at Central Washington University. Would he be willing, I asked, to come to North Carolina the following summer and organize an instructional program in journalism—just to see whether anyone might be interested?

He came, and they were interested. World Journalism Institute was born. But as it emerged from its infancy over the next couple of years, WJI took on a brand new identity of its own. What I had envisioned as a narrow training opportunity for our own WORLD staff started, almost immediately, to produce young Christian journalists with a vision for the broader journalistic task among mainstream media.


--------------------

April 22, 2004

On a happier note



Batman and Robin have apparently moved to the English countryside.

Michelle Kirby, from Whitley, was stranded in Whitley Wood Lane when her Peugeot 206 ran out of petrol on Easter Sunday. But our Batman and Robin appeared out of nowhere to save the day and push her car to the nearest petrol station.

“They just appeared. I saw them running down the road in Batman and Robin outfits – I was laughing so much,” she said. “It was like a scene out of Only Fools and Horses and they stayed in character the whole time.

“They said, ‘I’m Batman, I’m Robin’ and I said, ‘No, you’re not’ and asked them if they were going to a fancy dress party but they said they were going back to Gotham City.”

After seeing Miss Kirby to safety, the pair disappeared along Basingstoke Road. And Whitley Wood man Ray Cox, 61, spotted the caped crusaders at about 11.30am after doing his morning shopping.

“I said to my wife, ‘It would make it a better and safer place with these men’,” he said.

Via August.

Long day

I've been dealing with bureaucratic bullshit half the day--somebody somehow managed to snag not one, but two of my credit card numbers, before going on an oddly local shopping spree, a thousand dollars here, a thousand dollars there, at stores I've never even heard of. Whatever happened here, it's not because someone a thousand miles away snagged the numbers off the internet somehow--it's someone in this neighborhood, who stole my mail, or surreptitiously copied my numbers during a legitimate transaction, or found them in my trash--though the latter is extremely unlikely; I'm pretty cautious about things like this. But who knows? Strange and unsettling, at any rate.

(...they didn't steal the cards themselves, I've still got both of them...)

(...editing, from Mister Never Satisfied...)

Supporting the troops...

...by allowing Reservists and Guardsmen to make up for the financial hardships posed by unexpectedly long tours of duty--by dipping into their retirement savings without tax penalties.

The overwhelming generosity of it simply boggles the mind.

And of course Democrats vote for the measure, or else they're going to be accused of not supporting the troops.

``That is a really pathetic gesture,'' said John Tanner, D-Tenn. ``Active duty guard and reservists and their families are the only people in this country who have been asked to sacrifice anything, anything whatsoever.''

Employers are not required to pay workers activated to duty, nor do they have to continue providing health insurance and other benefits. Employers are required to give the same or equal job to the soldier when active duty ends.

The bill waiving penalties on early retirement withdrawals would apply to National Guard and Reserve troops activated between Sept. 11, 2001, and Sept. 12, 2005. Those military personnel would be given two years after they return to civilian life to replenish the accounts.

Democrats asked Republicans to push additional legislation supporting National Guard and Reserve troops, including better child tax credits and access to health insurance, along with tax credits for employers who make up the difference between civilian and military pay.

``It is no profile in courage for us to say you are now able to borrow money from your pension fund and can have it penalty free,'' said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

A few questioned whether families that borrow from their retirement funds would have the means to refill their savings accounts.

Story.

Advertising

I've mentioned this before, but I'm planning on adding some advertising to this site, if the subject matter is appropriate (and not animated--god, I hate those annoying flashing ads on every blog I read). It costs a bit to run a graphics-intensive site with fairly high traffic volume, and I would like to defray that expense a little more than I have been lately. Wanted to go through blogAds but for various reasons that doesn't seem to be working out. So if anybody's interested in reaching that select targeted demographic known as Tom Tomorrow readers, send me an email directly. (Sorry to make you click through to get the address--it's an unfortunate byproduct of the War on Spam.)

ESL spam

Some really charming efforts lately from the spammers and virus-spreaders--such as this broken-English attempt to trick me into clicking on an attachment, which I've received repeatedly lately:

From: administration@netcom.com
Subject: E-mail account disabling warning.

Dear user of Netcom.com e-mail server gateway,

Some of our clients complained about the spam (negative e-mail content) outgoing from your e-mail account. Probably, you have been infected by a proxy-relay trojan server. In order to keep your computer safe, follow the instructions.

For more information see the attached file.

Gotta watch out for that negative e-mail content, or else you might get an account disabling warning.

This one's my favorite, though:

From: CY Software
Subject: A simple investigation Please pay close attention to

What type of software do you need?

--Communication type of the network

--Type that handle official business

--The network materials collecting

--The webpage having a look around

--Network game

--Hang outside the game

--Download tools

I haven't voted yet--I can't decide between "the network materials collecting" or "the webpage having a look around."

Huh?

Andy Sullivan compares the chaos in Iraq to the fight for gay marriage:

"Don't get disheartened by the possibility of backlash," he said. "Backlash is a good sign. You can see it today in Iraq … where the closer progress comes, the forces whose power will be eroded fight back with a ferocity that one never expected. But their ferocity is the ferocity of fear and weakness and beleaguerment, because they know they're losing."

Uh--okay, so if gay marriage is Iraq, then are homophobe Republicans the insurgents? And doesn't that make Bush al Sadr?

I'm very confused.

Ready for war

Insider baseball types will recall all the scorn heaped upon Kos for his dismissive remarks about mercenaries in Iraq. To be fair, I'm sure a lot of these guys are just working Joes, truck drivers and so on, lured there by the prospect of quick money, just like people I knew growing up were lured to Alaska during the fishing season--you go for a few months and make enough money to live for a year.

But Iraq's not Alaska, and when these guys are carrying guns and acting for all practical purposes as soldiers, things get a little ambiguous.

American news organizations are not doing the truth a favor when they call these hired guns "U.S. military contractors." They are not even being accurate: The men were not contractors to the government, but Hessians or mercenary soldiers in the employ of a corporate warlord, namely Blackwater Security Consulting. Let’s call these people what they are, even though Americans have yet to feel completely comfortable with the idea of killing for money.

Perhaps to help us get over any queasiness we might be experiencing in that department, a number of stories about the Blackwater mercenaries have stressed that they were former members of elite units of the American military. It has even been said that they gave their lives for "freedom." Whose freedom is left unsaid, but surely no more overused and abused word can be found in contemporary American English. The patriotic crap aside, if these men’s primary motives for being in Iraq were flag and country, they’d still be in the armed services. At a pay grade of $350,000 a year, we know why they were there.

Does that justify killing them? No, nothing can justify taking human life—but if you take one-third of a million dollars a year to walk around in somebody else’s country with a machine gun, and you get wasted by the locals, I don’t think you deserve a very big or elaborate funeral. They were there for the money, and these men—elite ex-soldiers that they were—knew the risks, and they took them. So be it.

Evidently, thousands of mercenaries have been put to work in Iraq, and this raises some troublesome questions. Is all this stuff we are fed on TV and in the newspapers about the new and democratic Iraqi Army and constabulary just lies? Why aren’t Iraqis guarding "bureaucrats, soldiers and intelligence officers"? Why aren’t soldiers guarding themselves?

Sooner or later, the American troops are going to find out about this. Is it going to occur to the young gung-ho guys, who volunteered right out of high school, that they are risking life and limb for chump change while other men (and probably a few women) with the same skill sets are getting rich? What will be the reaction of the middle-aged reservists and National Guard people serving for a few hundred dollars a month, at the risk of job and mortgage, when they find out about the thousands of mercenaries being paid a king’s ransom to do for money what they do for country? If there is a morale problem now, as these stories about suicides among our service people suggest, what, pray tell, will be the state of morale then?

--snip--

Not only does privatization not save money waging war, it creates problem after problem, only some of which are visible at this juncture. If captured, are these mercenaries prisoners of war and subject to the Geneva Convention, or can they licitly be shot as spies and saboteurs?

We know that there are thousands of mercenaries now loose in Iraq. Only some of them work for Blackwater. Apparently, there are a number of companies who hire these people, so the question arises about how much control the American authorities have over the irregulars running about the country. Dyncorp mercenaries in the former Yugoslavia were accused of rape and robbery. The point is that they are not subject to military discipline, and even if they commit no acts universally regarded as criminal, they may still do things that offend the Iraqis: They might drink alcohol, use insulting gestures, whistle at women or find a dozen ways to get into trouble doing things which are innocent enough if done in Indiana, but which are incendiary acts if done in Basra.

More here.

Protecting your delicate sensibilities
A military contractor has fired Tami Silicio, a Kuwait-based cargo worker whose photograph of flag-draped coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers was published in Sunday's edition of The Seattle Times.

Silicio was let go yesterday for violating U.S. government and company regulations, said William Silva, president of Maytag Aircraft, the contractor that employed Silicio at Kuwait International Airport.

Story (and photo) here.

Meanwhile, the funny pages are doing more to bring home the true cost of the war than most mainsteam media outlets.

--------------------

April 21, 2004

Upgrade time again

Looking for a bluetooth-enabled laser printer (blackline only, not color). Any suggestions?

...okay, thanks all. Helpful advice.

--------------------

April 20, 2004

Extraordinary
I am uncertain if Ms. Bumiller's question was submitted to the president before-hand. Perhaps you might write to the president if you are unhappy with this system.
Sincerely,
Arthur Bovino
Office of the Public Editor

You didn't think the New York Times was going to create a truly independent Public Editor's office, now did you?

(Full context here.)

Update: I got the same response as Atrios and a few others. (Though signed by Okrent, the header is left over from my last exchange with Bovino--which doesn't necessarily mean anything, they may well share a computer and/or email access.)

From: public@nytimes.com
Subject: Re: Those T-Shirts
Date: April 21, 2004 3:19:18 PM EDT

Dear Tom Tomorrow,

        I recently learned that some readers wrote to this office concerning the protocols of White House press conferences. I cannot speak for other news organizations, but I can assure you categorically that the New York Times does not -- ever -- submit press conference questions in advance.

Yours sincerely,
Daniel Okrent
Public Editor


Daniel Okrent
Public Editor
N.B.: Any opinions expressed here, unless otherwise indicated, are solely my own

Press release from AAN
AAN’s original intention was to withhold the release of the full memo, as it includes a section with new and useful leads on corruption in the United Nations Oil-For-Food Program that Jason Vest was working on developing as a separate story. However, given the high degree of reader interest and number of media queries the current story has generated, we have decided to go ahead and release the memo.

I talked to Vest earlier today and he was uncertain about this--as the press release states, he (and AAN) originally planned to hold off on the oil-for-food part of the memo until he could do more work on that angle. I suggested that, with all the interest in this story, the smart thing was probably to make the full memo public sooner rather than later. Looks like AAN agreed. The memo is here.

Credentials

I'm hoping to attend the political conventions this summer, but I don't have the press credentials nailed down yet. It's always a bit tricky for me, since I don't have any real institutional affiliation. Which is silly: I'm nationally syndicated, I run in well over 100 papers, Salon and the American Prospect--and hell, this blog alone has an audience larger than that of many small papers.

Anyway, the point is, I probably don't have too many readers at the RNC--but if there's anyone reading this who's in a position to get me credentialed for the Democratic Convention, I'd greatly appreciate hearing from you.

(Can't hurt to try...)

...I know about this link. Tried applying that way, got no response.

Fables of the reconstruction

My friend Jason Vest comes up with something of a scoop: a Coalition memo which "reveals that even true believers see the seeds of civil war in the occupation of Iraq."

...according to a closely held Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) memo written in early March, the reality isn't so rosy. Iraq's chances of seeing democracy succeed, according to the memo's author—a U.S. government official detailed to the CPA, who wrote this summation of observations he'd made in the field for a senior CPA director—have been severely imperiled by a year's worth of serious errors on the part of the Pentagon and the CPA, the U.S.-led multinational agency administering Iraq. Far from facilitating democracy and security, the memo's author fears, U.S. efforts have created an environment rife with corruption and sectarianism likely to result in civil war.

More.

--------------------

April 19, 2004

My god

From 60 minutes last night:

But, it turns out, two days before the president told Powell (of the decision to go to war), Cheney and Rumsfeld had already briefed Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador.

”Saturday, Jan. 11, with the president's permission, Cheney and Rumsfeld call Bandar to Cheney's West Wing office, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Myers, is there with a top-secret map of the war plan. And it says, ‘Top secret. No foreign.’ No foreign means no foreigners are supposed to see this,” says Woodward.

“They describe in detail the war plan for Bandar. And so Bandar, who's skeptical because he knows in the first Gulf War we didn't get Saddam out, so he says to Cheney and Rumsfeld, ‘So Saddam this time is gonna be out, period?’ And Cheney - who has said nothing - says the following: ‘Prince Bandar, once we start, Saddam is toast.’"

After Bandar left, according to Woodward, Cheney said, “I wanted him to know that this is for real. We're really doing it."

But this wasn’t enough for Prince Bandar, who Woodward says wanted confirmation from the president. “Then, two days later, Bandar is called to meet with the president and the president says, ‘Their message is my message,’” says Woodward.

Prince Bandar enjoys easy access to the Oval Office. His family and the Bush family are close. And Woodward told 60 Minutes that Bandar has promised the president that Saudi Arabia will lower oil prices in the months before the election - to ensure the U.S. economy is strong on election day.

To recap: President Strong-on-Terror passed state secrets to the ambassador of a nation known to support terrorism. Said ambassador of foreign power has agreed to manipulate oil prices in an attempt to influence the November election.

Why is Bush not facing impeachment proceedings? It's a hypothetical question, I'm not actually asking for responses, but it's not meant as hyperbole--in any sane universe, these would be impeachable offenses.

--------------------

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