Oh sure, just don’t let that stop the shrill hysteria!

In the UK a drug nicknamed “meow” was outlawed following what appeared to be the death of two users (imagine if alcohol had been outlawed after a mere two drinkers had died of it!). The ban came swiftly amid much public outrage; however it turns out that neither of the “victims” had taken the drug at all.

Part thriller and part environmental snuff flick

If you want to see what millions of gallons of crude look like as they pour into the ocean, as well as what people with robots are trying to do about it, check out the live ROV monitoring of the damaged riser that is causing the leak of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Hosted by BP and featuring robots.

Well, that’s just his answer to everything.

South Korea has officially blamed North Korea for the sinking of the warship Cheonan, and now North Korea is mobilizing for war. So what would John Bolton do about it? WWJBD?

  1. Demand an aggressive restart to the six-party regional talks
  2. Bomb North Korea
  3. Bomb Iran
  4. Option 3 again.

This is of course a trick question as both 3 and 4 are correct. John Bolton would deal with North Korea by bombing Iran… or did he just dredge up an old Word doc and lazily change all mentions of “Iran” to “North Korea” except for that last one? It’s one thing to bomb another country out of malice or incompetence, and another to do so because you’re too lazy to double-check your own documents. Sometimes it seems to me that the only thing standing between John Bolton and an ICC tribunal for crimes against humanity is access to power. Good thing no one’s dumb enough to give this batshit-insane psycho any.

A reflection on Canadian banks

When I was a younger man in the IT industry there was one thing that always stood out for me — when I worked for a Canadian company, the graphics software that was pretty much always used was the Corel suite; when I worked for larger international companies we had the industry standards that people ask for by name, like Illustrator and Photoshop. I sometimes jokingly referred to that phenomenon as “using what will do” when your paycheck comes from Toronto and “using what you want” if it comes from south of the border. Corel wasn’t the worse thing out there, but there was always a sense of “making do” about it.

I find myself in much the same position now when it comes to banking. I had to close two accounts at CIBC this morning because of horrid customer service that left me stranded cashless for a long weekend; apparently someone at Risk Management saw some suspicious activity on my account and decided to lock things down. Of course this needed to happen on a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend, and despite my indicating my mobile number on the forms when I opened the account the RM guy was unaware of it, so I didn’t get wind of this until the next day, when, at the market to buy some food, my card stubbornly refused to work. What saved me was that I had decided not to move my business account to CIBC because I really did not feel that the commercial banking rep I talked to knew what she was doing. My instinct at that point was to walk away, and it’s very fortunate that I did. At least I was able to get a couple of hundred bucks out.

Now obviously sometimes a security lockdown has to take place. However the way it was handled is really what led me to walk into my branch and shut down my accounts earlier today. When I called telephone banking I was told I needed to call risk management, so I did, but the office was closed since it was Saturday. I called telephone banking again, but was informed that there was nothing they could do about the block. I was never told that the bank had certain branches open on the weekend, for instance. I talked to 3 different people on Saturday and no one had the presence of mind to inform me of this pretty important piece of information, even though I specifically complained about being left cashless for the weekend.

As to what activity led to the lockdown, I was given a vague description which is consistent with logging on while I was using my company’s VPN. Which would probably explain why the “intruder” just logged in and logged out. CIBC’s online offerings are pretty poor TBH. I wasn’t able to renew my car’s license plates through bill payment for instance, and when I tried to use the link to order cheques I was informed that I couldn’t do that and had to go to the branch. Perhaps I should have paid attention to what’s being said on the internet about CIBC customer service, it seems to leave a bad impression with a lot of people.

The people at the branch were very apologetic and did what they could to try and keep me as a customer, but here’s a hint to anyone in a banking process position: when a customer is left stranded (and stewing) for 3 days before the bank even deigns to inform him as to why he can’t access the ample amount of money in his account, it’s really too late. He won’t be staying. He’ll march up to the counter, close his accounts, and take the bank draft with his balance over to an institution he feels he can trust.

[Oh, and something else. If you are an East Indian person, don’t try to pretend that you’re not when you’re on the phone. You’ll never quite get rid of the “South Asia” accent, and the irony of talking with someone about risk management and identity theft issues when you’re aware that they just gave you an obviously false name is rather unsettling.]

To come back to the earlier theme, however — I spent some time considering the alternatives and found that every bank that has branches in my city is pretty much equally bad when it comes to fees and interest. Why would I bother getting a separate savings account, for example, when the best I can earn is a fraction of a percent annually and am also charged fees that would make a blackmailer feel bad? On those terms, I might as well leave my money in a checking account that earns no interest but also does not charge $5/withdrawal PLUS a monthly fee. I would actually come out ahead in that situation, unless I had $10k to leave in the account. Which I wouldn’t, I would invest it properly instead. In a nutshell, the Canadian savings account is something that’s very much pointless. Even the tax-free savings account, which are theoretically a good idea, have practically zero yield in any of the Canadian banks and at Desjardins. What’s the point of a savings account being tax-free if the best you can get in terms of revenue is $50/year? That’s capital gains and only taxed at 50%, so you’re saving yourself income tax on $25/year. Whoop-dee-doo.

ING Direct is supposed to be a different kind of bank, but as I’ve mentioned before I’m not sure they know what they’re doing on the IT side, which isn’t encouraging for an online-only bank. Ultimately because the banking choices are so limited (and, let’s face it, the banks work together to make sure that high fees and low return are not something the customer can get around) it’s a lose-lose situation for the customer. But the banks are doing great! I certainly hope so; they’re mining the customer to exhaustion at this point. Of course you always have the option of getting into self-directed investments (stocks and bond purchases), and when you start scratching the surface of online brokerages you quickly come to realize that they’re practically all owned by — you guessed it — the big banks. Which goes a long way to explain why we as Canadians pay twice as much per stock transaction as people in the USA. That’s what my experiences at Etrade and Itrade have taught me, anyway.

So in the end there really are no good options for the Canadian banking customer. None. Forget about credit unions too; their investment products have yields that I would consider “pathetic” and their fees are pretty much the same as consumer banks. Why? Because they can charge that much. What’s the customer going to do, hide his cash under the mattress? What Desjardins offers is a rebate on your mortgage payments, funded no doubt by the arbitrage between the amount they get investing customer deposits and the (significantly smaller) amount they pay customers for those deposits. That’s nice if you have a mortgage. I don’t. I suspect that most Canadians have some idea on what they want from a bank, but it’s quite impossible to get what you want. Instead, you get what’ll do, and settle for a low-yield, high-fees account because there just aren’t any ways to get around that. Then again, unlike with software, with the FDIC’s at-risk bank list growing to record levels, things aren’t much rosier States-side.

Online banking FAIL

TFSAs are supposed to be easy to open, but as I found out today it seems terribly easy to screw the pooch. So to ING Direct — fix your registration software because it doesn’t work. There is nothing wrong with my social insurance number — I have used it to register as an employee, to files my taxes, and to open a few bank accounts already and it’s never been a problem before. Hell, I used it to open an RRSP using the ING web site before, yet now my application is rejected because of a problem validating my S.I.N., which hasn’t changed recently. Yeah, I could call and spend half an hour on the phone registering the account, but frankly do I really want to put some of my money into a bank that has no branches AND doesn’t do full QA on their own web software? I don’t think so. So, no linky for you.

Quitting Facebook

I must be starting to show my age a little bit. My back aches and I get muscle cramps with worrying regularity, I don’t in fact like the new-fangled music that young people appreciate so much, but especially I’ve come to reflect on how much I am *not* an exhibitionist. If friends are getting together and I’m the only one with a camera, there will be few pictures taken, and I’ve noticed how antithetical that is to today’s generation, who prefer to go in for the “share everything and hold back nothing” approach to partying and life in general.

Good on them though, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that his way is the only correct way for everybody, and indeed I’ve little patience for those who do. And that, in somewhat of a roundabout way, is why I’ve decided to shut down my Facebook account permanently.

The crux of my problem with Facebook is, in a way, that it is designed for young people who are by and large still in college, even though it is now used by a much wider variety of people; still, it’s not the audience itself so much as the obsession that Facebook has with denying that any such thing as privacy exists. It wasn’t always that way; initially it was conceived as a means for people in colleges and universities to have a sort of common platform with which they could keep in touch with friends and classmates. If you didn’t have a university email account, you were deliberately left out and therefore wouldn’t be able to see who or what was on Facebook, which is pretty good privacy.

Since then Facebook seems to have done a 180. Essentially they started making more and more formerly-private things public with scant notification only delivered after the fact, a bit like a friend you thought you could confide in but who ends up telling everyone at the party your little secrets. This wasn’t done all at once of course, as this informative infographic shows. Nor was it done out of a dogmatic desire for a more open society, but out of the founder’s desire to cash in by turning his site into the data-miner’s dream database in the hopes of attracting buyers.

Of course there are some people who say that all you need to do is watch for updated TOS and privacy policy on the Facebook site. Frankly, that still sucks. It’s like inviting “that guy” to a party at your place, you know, that guy who always drinks too much, that guy who ends up throwing up all over your bathroom and groping every woman there, that guy who ends every evening with a (thankfully drunken and abortive) fight. You could invite that guy to a party and have to spend all night keeping an eye out for him. Or, you could decide that his company’s not worth it and just not invite him. The second way is a lot more fun usually. My point is that Facebook just isn’t worth the bother at this point.

More disturbingly Facebook’s “make everything public” strategy has cost many people dearly. Content on people’s Facebook pages has been used to justify firing people, denying people promotions, or not hiring them at all. Pictures on Facebook have lead to people being arrested (I’m not saying it was without cause, but it’s still a concern). This is all a part of the public record and easily looked up. Clearly there are very significant negatives to having a Facebook account in the first place, and I’m not enough of a “2.0” kind of guy to think that the upsides of Facebook outweigh its downsides. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t care about the users, as long as he can squeeze more money out of the site. Remember Beacon? that was possibly the biggest intentional privacy black hole of the 2000s, yet it was only withdrawn very reluctantly (a class action lawsuit had to be launched) with no sign that Zuckerberg ever thought there was anything wrong with it, and without any guarantee that it wouldn’t rear its ugly head again in one way or another.

Some people are really into social networking; to be without Facebook would be like death to them… but I’m not one of those people. Yes, it’s quite useful if a former colleague or classmate now somewhere else is looking for you, but I’ve had a web site long enough that if you type my name in Google you’ll find this site, which is handy enough for me to share my thoughts with the world.

So, that’s my beef with Facebook. Why bother writing this? Well, I have a number of friends and family who are on the site and may wonder why I’m not on it anymore — now you know.

Adieu à Facebook

Après avoir eu un compte au site Facebook depuis quelques années, j’ai décidé d’abandonner ce fameux site.

Le problème que j’ai avec Facebook c’est que le propriétaire du site, Mark Zuckenberg, ne croit pas que les utilisateurs devraient avoir le droit de mettre quoi que ce soit sur le site pour diffusion seulement privée. Ça n’était pas toujours le cas; au début ça n’était même pas tout le monde qui avait même le droit d’utiliser le site. Cependant avec les années l’avarice de la direction a eu pour effet que le site a fait volte-face sur la protection des informations privées, et a lancé des revisions à sa politique sur le sujet qui ont eu pour résultat que pratiquement toutes les données entrées sur Facebook sont maintenant aussi publiques que si on les écrivait sur le mur d’une partition de salle de bain dans un nightclub. Ça s’est fait graduellement, comme l’indique cet infographique (anglais). Et ça s’est fait sans préavis aux utilisateurs et avec le seul but le profit de M. Zuckerberg. Si vous n’aimez pas, tant pis, il n’y a qu’à ne pas utiliser le site.

Eh bien c’est justement la décision que j’ai prise. Quand on fait face à une administration qui a si peu de scrupules, on ne peut que se retirer. Beaucoup de gens ont perdu un emploi ou une promotion à cause d’items dans Facebook qui auraient dû être réservés à des amis mais qui ont de toute évidence été inspectés par un inconnu. Dans certains cas des photos d’utilisateurs ont été utilisées pour monter des chefs d’accusation contre certains utilisateurs (qui le méritaient peut-être, mais ça porte quand même à réfléchir). Pour moi j’ai décidé que le jeu n’en vaut pas la chandelle. Je ne suis pas de la génération qui a 20 ans maintenant, ceux qui prennent des photos à longueur de soirée quand ils sortent et qui n’ont aucune hésitation à tout partager en public, et un site qui est fait pour eux n’est probablement pas fait pour moi. Les risques de Facebook ne sont tout simplement pas égaux aux bénéfices. Certes on peut m’y retrouver facilement, mais si on entre mon nom dans Google on arrive aussi facilement à ce site.