16 January 2008

I Voted. I Think. Probably. Maybe.

So, I don't know if you have been following news of Michigan's primaries, but they seem to be an utter farce this year. There is some kind of a dispute between the national Democratic party and the state party. The side effects are:

- Several of the biggest-name Dem candidates (Edwards and Obama among them) are not listed on the primary ballot.

- There's a write-in option, but if you write in one of these missing candidates, your vote will not be counted for that candidate(!)

- One of the candidates (Dodd) was listed, but he actually dropped out of the race earlier. (According to the results he still received 1% of the vote).

The recommendation was that if you wanted to vote for someone else, you should vote uncommitted. According to the results on Wikipedia, a whopping 40% followed this recommendation.

My precinct uses paper ballots with optical scanners. These are generally considered to be pretty reliable, and there is a paper trail in event of a recount. But this year, when I approached the scan machine, its counter read 466. After scanning my ballot, it still read 466. I asked the staff member about this -- she told me that it should read 466 and that if the machine took in the ballot and didn't spit it out, my vote was counted. Me, I'm not so sure. But the kids were in the car and my wife was late for a class so I didn't have time to stand there and try to determine exactly what was happening. But I left feeling somewhat uncertain that I had actually cast my vote. This just does not seem like democracy as it should be practiced!

14 January 2008

A Bank Tries to Help Out

I got a call from Midwest Financial Credit Union -- it seems that someone in management read my blog post. We had a long and interesting conversation and I ended the conversation a much happier customer. For now, we are going to keep our accounts, and I am happy that they are doing some things to try to keep our business.

Among the details:

The hold on deposits was part of their anti-fraud measures in place automatically for the first 30 days of a new account. Apparently this is when they get hit with the most fraudulent deposits. A warning at the time we deposited the check would have helped us out.

The $100 limit of check card transactions applies only when using the card like a credit card, as opposed to a debit card. So I can still use it as a debit and make reasonable-sized purchases. The staff member I spoke to agreed that the $100 limit is unreasonable for any real-world use and is going to try to get it raised. It would have been really helpful to be warned at the time the cards were issued, or better, beforehand, that this limit was going to be in force.

So, why such a low limit?

The conversation was illuminating. In recent years I have put in some effort and a lot of money to try to clean up my credit report. This included starting payment on some debts that were dormant for many years.

The largest of these was a medical bill for a single night in the hospital. I was fully insured at the time, or so I believed; the hospital I presented my cards to told me that they accepted my insurance; but yet I would up owing somewhere north of $5,000 because my insurer did not want to pay what the hospital wanted to bill. The hospital was not one of the insurer's "preferred" providers.

Ultimately my insurance provider paid almost nothing, but also revealed to me the collusion that goes on between hospitals and insurers -- the individual line item fees the hospital charges to their supported insurers are in some cases as low as 10% of the same item as it is billed to someone with no health insurance. But that is a rant for another day.

I ignored this bill for many years more out of disgust and anger at the insurer and hospital than out of the inability to pay, but last year contacted the credit agency that owned the debt and started paying it down. It's now about 3/4 gone.

I also had the interesting experienced of getting sued for an ancient phone bill. The bill was real, but I had become so disgusted at AT&T's refusal to accept any payment plan other than immediate payment in full, and their dogpile of additional fees and charges, that I vowed they would not get a penny from me.

Well, they did, but not willingly. The debt was sold, and sold again. I wound up paying an attorney to come up with a settlement for me, and paid the settlement. It was again highly illuminating to find out that the agency in question completely ignored several written settlement offers that I tendered, but as soon as an attorney's letterhead was involved, settled for less than I had offered. I have a piece of paper in my file that says the bill is paid.

They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and it appears that settling one debt and nearly paying off another has damaged my credit rating, because both debts are now listed as currently "in dispute" instead of just hanging on as old debts. So, it is time to write some letters. There are procedures to go through to get items on a credit report corrected. But I refuse (again, on those damned principles of mine) to pay to receive my credit scores, so instead I will have to rely on the free annual reports I'm entitled to. Paying the rating agency for my scores seems too much like extortion, as if I had to pay eBay to improve my seller rating.

So, on balance, I'm much happier with the Credit Union, but much less happy with the creditors who are screwing with my life. And I have more crap to deal with. But I guess that's what you need to do in order to play the banking game.

07 January 2008

Banks that Suck

Sorry, still no Haskell content. Please don't delete my blog! I'm working on it.

So, we were in the process of migrating our finances to a new bank, after our old bank, Republic, was pwned by Citizen's Bank and stopped doing all the things we liked about it, and started doing all the things we don't like (killing off our overdraft protection arrangement, stopping our various automatic repayment arrangements, removing access to our overdraft account from their online site, charging ludicrous fees, taking 3 days to clear electronic transactions, back-dating checks to try to hit is with more overdraft fees).

Based our on readings of their various rates and policies, we chose Midwest Financial Credit Union, here in Ann Arbor.

Less than a month later, we're now planning to close the accounts we just set up and continue our hunt for a decent bank that doesn't treat our accounts like an opportunity to slam us with fees at every opportunity -- just like Republic Bank didn't. I had my Republic account for about fifteen years and they helped me through many difficult times. Does such a place exist?

Midwest Financial got on our bad side immediately by taking ten calendar days to process a deposited $3,000 check -- while we were out of town. They finally managed to clear it (I think they took it to the originating bank in Erie, Pennsylvania by riding a mule along the old Erie Canal). It's in the fine print that they're allowed to do such things, apparently. (It's in the fine print that they can do just about anything they want, apparently).

Yesterday I tried to make a fairly large purchase (about $600) using a check card on the account -- it has a VISA logo). We have similar cards for our Citizen's Bank account and they function as either debit cards (with a PIN) or credit cards; they work fine, and we've never had an issue like this.

Anyway, the transaction was denied. Today I got word in my e-mail that a much smaller purchase (about $125) that I made online was also denied. Which is odd, because according to our most recent statement we had just shy of $3,000 in that account.

My wife went to the bank to talk to them and apparently someone's credit rating (possibly hers, since she opened the account) is rather low (we already knew that, thanks; that's old news, mostly from her days, now seven years gone, as an under-emplyed single mother), and therefore there is a $100 limit on transactions. Even though there is $3,000 in that account. Now, for a family of 5, $100 is not even a largish grocery store run. Some of these transactions could go through as debits, I guess, although there is probably some relatively low limit on the debit transactions as well. And we have a card with a VISA logo because not everyone is setup to handle PIN-based debit transactions.

They told her she can apply for a 48-hour waiver to make a large purchase, or in four months we can apply to have our "credit" limit raised.

This is all too much. We're going to do neither; we're going to fire this goddamn bank and get our money back. I'm giving serious thought to turning our money into gold, silver, and platinum bars and burying them in undisclosed locations! Maybe we'll just keep our old accounts; we're starting to get used to the exact ways they screw us, as opposed to all these new ways! We are very fortunate in that here in 2008 we are finally getting ourselves to the point where we have a little bit of a safety margin in our accounts, which kept us from getting stranded while we were out-of-state on vacation. But if we didn't have that margin -- if we were still living close to the edge -- we'd have been absolutely screwed. And having been that indebted slob for most of my life, I'm only going to do business with institutions whose policies are designed to be fair to that person, not to make their problems far worse.

04 January 2008

The Potts Vacation 2007

So, we are back and the holiday trauma is over. We took the family to visit my cousins in the Washington, DC area and saw various friends along the way. I have just a touch of ranting I have to get off my chest before I can write anything else!

The trip, on Amtrak, went well for the most part. It is not easy, though, getting a disobedient pre-schooler, an infant, a teenager, two car seats, and a lot of unchecked luggage around.

The train from Toledo to Rockville, MD was only late getting into Toledo by about an hour. I was rather surprised!

We stayed in Gaithersburg with my cousin. We had planned to stay there each night, but things became more complicated. My cousin has just been diagnosed with a thyroid illness called Graves disease. This was making her unable to sleep and prone to a racing heart and anxiety attacks. This isn't good for a hostess who has to cope with two babies, so I really sympathized. We spent a couple of days staying out of her hair as much as we could, going to some of the Smithsonian Institution museums.

To top it off, our hostess was scheduled to take a dose of radioactive iodine. We had to find another place to stay for the last couple of nights because our hostess was literally about to become radioactive, and her instructions advised her to avoid people, and especially children, as much as possible! So we had to scramble a bit.

Another complication -- I deposited a check, which was going to cover some of the expenses for the latter part of our vacation, the Friday before we left, thinking that it would clear in a few days. A week later, though, acting on a hunch, I asked Grace to call the bank, and she found out that the check had not cleared, and in fact the funds would not be available until the tenth calendar day after making the deposit.

We had just set up these new accounts because we were unhappy with our old bank, which was acquired, unilaterally cancelled our overdraft protection arrangement, instituted ridiculously punitive fees, and put in place various floats and back-dating of checks apparently designed specifically to absolutely maximize said fees.

Granted, the ten calendar days, during the holidays, was only five banking business days, but in the world of Check 21 and electronic check clearing it seems just insane to me that an institution would hold a deposit that long. We were able to convince them to make enough of the funds available to cover several check card transactions we had just made, but our old bank -- the one I'm planning to leave -- clears all deposits overnight. It seems that this was technically legal under the Expedited Funds Availability Act, but I am distinctly unhappy with this, and contemplating whether or not I want to close these new accounts immediately and find another bank. (Do any of them not suck?)

Fortunately, I had set aside a little bit of extra money in a savings account at our old bank. Using my other cousin's iPhone, was able to log in to the bank and move that money into checking. Did I mention the iPhone is very cool?

We were able to stay with family friends for the last couple of days in Richmond, Virginia. Along the way I got to make Christmas better for two of their three sons. They had both gotten iPod Shuffles for Christmas. (I wonder how many people got iPod Shuffles for Christmas? It must be in the millions!) iTunes would not run correctly on their Windows XP box. They had taken it to a local Staples and the guru there had spent a whole afternoon trying to get it to work, and failed. The symptoms were this: iTunes apparently installed successfully, but would crash immediately after launching, with the usual "tell Microsoft about the problem" message. QuickTime player would also crash upon launch, with one of several error messages, including a security warning about stack overflow in a Visual C++ library. The uninstall process for iTunes and QuickTime always failed.

Despite a distinct lack of expertise with Windows system administration, I decided to take a crack at it. I had to putz around for a long time. I Googled myself into a frenzy looking for notes from people with similar problems. I downloaded and ran several virus and trojan detectors. I installed every recommended Windows XP update I could find, and cleaned out a bunch of unused software. Nothing seemed to help. Finally, I forcibly uninstalled iTunes and QuickTime (removing everything Apple-related from the registry, and deleting the program directories). I then downloaded a whole series of earlier versions of iTunes, starting with 6.10. This one installed and ran without a hitch, so I started going version-by-version. At some point, I found an installer which said that it could not run properly because the VBScript service was not enabled. This led me to an Apple support article on enabling VBScript, which had probably been turned off by a security product. After that all the installers seemed to work and I was able to get the latest iTunes installed.

The problems seems to be that one of the more recent iTunes installers silently fails if VBScript is not enabled. It runs and seems to believe that it has succeeded, but leaves behind an unusable QuickTime configuration. iTunes needs QuickTime and thus crashes on startup. Somewhere along the way Apple's installers lost the ability to verify that the necessary VBScript service is available.

After finally getting iTunes working, I thought it was all going to come to nothing, because the iPod Shuffle itself was not working. iTunes could see it, and fill it up with music, but when it came time to turn it on and push play, it would just flash a series of alternating green and orange lights and do nothing. A complete reinstall of the Shuffle's firmware didn't help. Running Apple's separately available iPod Shuffle utility designed to fix this problem didn't fix it. I thought we might have to just send the iPod back. But then apparently just toggling the little switch between continuous play and shuffle made it suddenly work. This does not fill me with confidence about the device's firmware, but it was working.

Anyway, I spent a ridiculous five or six hours messing with this, but got a number of hugs in return when it finally worked. I can attribute my success only to being tenacious. Age and tenacity beats the 18-year-old Staples employee FTW!

We also got the opportunity to meet up with my friend Antonio, and had a great chat with him.

Although we gave ourselves what I thought was a sufficient safety margin, planning to arrive at the train station an hour and 45 minutes prior to scheduled departure, we had a couple of delays. We got slightly lost getting back to the train station, and so arrived only 20 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive. While we were waiting at the light to turn into the station parking lot, it arrived. Then, under two minutes later, before we could even get inside the building, it left. Without us.

So we had another night in Gaithersburg, at a Holiday Inn. That wasn't so bad. It meant I got to watch Iron Chef and soak in the tub. We had to get a hotel shuttle to the nearest metro station, then carry the car seats on the metro, while a friend of my cousin drove our luggage to the train station. He was a huge help.

We spent New Years' Eve on the train. No one got much sleep, and we got back to Toledo on time (about 5 in the morning on the 1st). Then we had a drive back up to Ann Arbor. The drive turned into blizzard conditions. We had to crawl along moving at times just 25 mph, nervously looking at quite a few cars that had slid of the road. But we all made it back safely.

Oh, we did nearly lose one of the babies. At the end of of our train, at the last door, where you could stand and watch the tracks retreating, Grace and I had come back and stood there and looked out the window. "I wonder if that door would open if I pushed the button?" she asked. "No way," I said. "I'm sure there is a security interlock of some kind so if it isn't connected to another car, it won't open. That would be a huge liability issue if there wasn't."

Well, Veronica proved me wrong. We were walking up and down the train and she pushed the button to open the door. Fortunately, I was holding her hand. There is a kind of cage to prevent someone falling out, but it was really just a couple of metal bars and they were spaced far too widely to keep a child from pitching right out the door onto the tracks, from the upper level of a speeding train.

Grace mentioned to the conductor that the rear door was unlocked. She saw, as she described it to me, "a black man turn white." Yes, it was supposed to be locked. He ran back to lock it.

So, that was our Christmas vacation. No casualties but my sanity. Now I just need a vacation from my vacation!

03 January 2008

Brussels Sprouts with Toasted Cashews

I made up this recipe after being inspired by an episode of Iron Chef I happened to see on vacation. That was a venison battle, but one of the dishes involved brussels sprouts. My family tells me it is one of the tastiest dishes I've ever concocted. I served it on New Year's Day. It seemed like a very new-year-ish dish.

If you don't like brussels sprouts, it could be because if you cook them by steaming or boiling, they tend to turn into nasty, bitter, sulfurous little cabbages. Cooking them in a dry method with high heat caramelizes them and releases wonderful complex nutty flavors and aromas.

A warning: if you are not used to eating a lot of cruciferous vegetables, this dish may be a bit challenging to digest. You may need to sleep with the windows open!

Serves 8, or me and three other people : )

I served this with mixed greens (collards, kale, and mustard greens) cooked with sage-flavored bulk pork sausage and a loaf of challah with unsweetened butter. We had a Shiraz with it, but that was all wrong; it would have gone much better with a very cold Charonnay or Riesling.

For the spices, before you wind up buying something, see if you've got something useful on hand. I actually used a leftover pumpkin pie spice mix that my wife made for Thanksgiving. I tend to cook by sniffing and tasting the spices and the raw food and deciding what seems like it would go well together. Trust your instincts!

You will need:

  • 3 or 4 lbs. fresh brussels sprouts
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • Hard cheese (parmesan reggiano, aged gouda, etc) -- enough to yield 1/2 cup grated
  • 3 Tbs grapeseed oil
  • 2 tsp allspice or pumpkin pie spice mix (allspice, nutmeg, cinammon, cloves)
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Salt to taste
  • A heatproof bowl
  • A large frying pan

Grate the cheese. The sprouts should be dry, so if you washed them, dry them completely with paper towels. Cut off the stem ends and make them into 1/4" slices. (Don't worry if some of them fall apart and you have loose bits -- the goal is to give the vegetables a lot of surface area).

Heat half the oil to medium heat and throw in the cashews. Fry until nicely browned, turning constantly to avoid burning (perhaps 3 minutes). Scoop the cashews out into the heatproof bowl (make sure you get all the pieces of nut, or they will burn in the pan and ruin the flavor). Leave some of the nut-flavored oil in the pan. Add the cheese to the hot cashews and stir quickly. Set the nut mixture aside.

Add the remaining oil to the pan and increase the heat to high. Before the oil starts to burn, toss in the brussels sprouts. You want to cook them quickly, turning several times to lightly brown the cut surfaces, until they are softened slightly and a bit brightened in color. They should release a nutty aroma. You don't want them to start cooking down and releasing a lot of liquid. On my stove this took 3 minutes or so, but your stove may vary. Add the allspice and red pepper flakes about halfway through cooking. Add the cashew/cheese mixture and mix. Add salt to taste (I threw in only a small amount, perhaps a quarter-teaspoon). Serve immediately.

If you try this recipe, I'd be interested to know what you think!

Security Warnings with Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy) Updates

The most recent updates to Ubuntu suddenly started generating warning messages saying that the patches could not be authenticated.

This is apparently a known bug in package bookkeeping. The procedure for fixing it seemed to be:

1. sudo mv /etc/apt/sources.list /etc/apt/sources.list.backup

2. sudo touch /etc/apt/sources.list

3. Run the package manager and check for updates. You should see none; quit the package manager.

4. sudo rm /etc/apt/sources.list

5. sudo mv /etc/apt/sources.list.backup /etc/apt/sources.list

6. Run the package manager again; this time you should be able to install the updates without warnings.