Royal Bank: the wrong choice for business

I own a business that handles a couple of fairly lucrative contracts a year. My banking needs set the bar fairly low for what I expect from a bank — mostly it’s taking in payments, paying a couple of bills every month, and filing payment for the taxes I owe. This should be pretty straightforward and shouldn’t cost much… unless you bank at RBC.

Their ad for the $6 business checking account is all over the radio these days (so much so that even I heard it, and I don’t listen to the radio). On the onset, that seems remarkably cheap, but it is actually a ripoff. Because to achieve that low figure RBC has cut a lot of features that the “banking advisors” don’t seem too keen to tell you about until you’re signed up and on the hook. Crucially, the big feature that’s been cut is government remittances, which frankly is the killer app for a business banking account.

Yes, you have to pay the Royal Bank a signup fee to be able to pay your taxes online. And frankly you’ll have to pay out the ass for any means to settle an account that you can’t pay in cash, really, because if you don’t pay your taxes online you’ll have to buy cheques (starting at $65 for an order, another Madoff-scale ripoff as far as I’m concerned) or have a money order made, which will cost you $6 or so.

The fee just to sign up to be able to pay your taxes through the RBC web site is $25 a year. Now you’ll think, this is not so bad, if you divide this into 12 that’s just over $2/month… but you’re not done paying yet. At RBC you’re never done paying endless fees for every little thing. For each tax bill that you want to pay you will have to shell out another $2. So if your business has to file sales tax payments every month that’s almost $50 a year for sales tax payments alone, let alone your federal and (if applicable) provincial income tax filings. And if you have a really successful business you’ll also have to make installment payments, either every 3 months or every month. And each time, it’s $2 practically stolen from your business. Kaching, kaching, kaching.

Not that the “external” (i.e. RBC subsidiary) web site is worth shelling out $25 a year for. Admittedly I don’t have huge experiences with business checking accounts and the online services connected to them, having had only two, but RBC’s remittal portal is… well, it’s shit. There’s just no other way of putting it. Your average 12 year old could come up with much better. Not a single hour of contract work was spent trying to make sure that the web app is visually appealing in any way at all, or in performing any sort of usability testing. For example, there is no option to add a payment for your corporate income tax in Quebec. What you must do is register an installment payment, then when you use that item specify the year for which the payment should apply. At the opposite end of the scale when it comes to federal corporate tax payments there is no way to register an operation for installment payments only — you register the operation to pay for your corporate tax, and when you use this item you can then earmark your payment as an installment. No effort whatsoever has been made to make things intelligible or easy to use. It’s just awful,  and hands-down the worst business banking experience I’ve had so far. Had I known, I would have stayed at Desjardins.

My “favorite” feature of it, though, is that it’s only a fake online payment system. It does not actually process your payment online.  Apparently the only thing that shitty “payment” system does is to output a list of tasks which are manually done by a person. This means, among other things, that you cannot use this system to pay for your taxes on the due date, like I could with Desjardins. Instead you can only post transactions to the next working day. And if the next working day is a holiday or legal holiday, that can be up to 4 or 5 days later. I registered a (late) corporate income tax payment today (april 5th) and was informed that it could not be posted before Monday april 9th.

Nor is there any sort of guarantee that the system will even be available at all. Yesterday the system was completely unusable, for instance. It prompted users for a user id and password that they had not created. I was logging in to pay my corporate tax, was unable to do so because of the bank’s incredibly awful, overpriced and badly-designed application wasn’t even available, and as a result my payment will be made 4 days later than it should, incurring me additional penalties. And all because I made the mistake of banking at the Royal Bank.

Nor is RBC any better when it comes to personal banking. Having your account “at the Royal” means an endless litany of fees, long queues at your local branch, and delays which are very difficult to understand. For example, did you know that if you deposit items at an ATM that’s physically connected to your branch, they fall into a black hole for 5 business days? I had this experience recently when I made the mistake of depositing my federal tax refund at the ATM connected to my local branch. I was surprised to find that there was a hold on that deposit that the branch couldn’t remove because in their words they couldn’t know that it was a tax return check. One would expect deposits at a branch’s own ATM to be processed there, but clearly it makes no difference whether you deposit an item at your local branch’s ATM or at one located across the country.

But what really gets my goat about RBC is that they see their customers as nothing but money cows to be milked continuously. Sign up for an account with them and you will find yourself constantly beset by telemarketing upsell calls and endless so-called “free” offers that are designed to suck more and more dollars out of your pockets. I guess they figure that if you’ve had a look at their rates sheet and still bank with them you must be a first-class charlie who exists simply to be exploited and devoured by the parasites of big banking.

So, fuck that. I’m taking my business over to ING. I’ve had a more positive experience with them so far than I’ve had at RBC.

Did Postmedia attempt to smear the NDP in the @vikileaks30 affair?

After a most momentous week in Canadian politics — namely, one in which a government with an absolute majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate was at least momentarily thwarted in its efforts to pass Bill C-30 — the @vikileaks30 twitter account has been retired. It simply no longer exists. However it has had one hell of an effect, and the way in which it was reported about should definitely raise a lot of eyebrows.

For those who don’t know about this story, @vikileaks30 was an anonymous account launched on Wednesday which broadcasted certain salacious details about Vic Toews, including parts of affidavits from his 2007 divorce — largely his ex-wife’s testimony — and many interesting details of expense claims by Mr. Toews as a government minister.

Soon after the novelty twitter account appeared on the scene Ottawa Citizen tech news reporter Vito Pilieci came up with an interesting plan to figure out who was posting on it and came up with the idea to send the twitterer a web site link which was unique for that particular user. There’s nothing wrong with that technique, I’ve used it myself a couple of times, and twitter’s use of URL shorteners makes that technique discoverable only with some difficulty. The IP address which was used to visit the link turned out to have been one connected with the Parliament buildings. That much can be reliably established.

What I find a little more difficult to understand is the way that the story was reported both by Pilieci himself and Postmedia flagship paper the National Post. Starting with the title, which was surely written by a higher-up: “Vikileaks Twitter account on Vic Toews linked to ‘pro-NDP’ address in House of Commons”. Indeed the original Ottawa Citizen story used the considerably less “inciteful” (if you will) “Vikileaks30 linked to House of Commons IP address”. But this is only the start of the smear. In the story itself we see this paragraph:

Aside from being used to administer the Vikileaks30 Twitter feed, the address has been used frequently to update Wikipedia articles — often giving them what appears to be a pro-NDP bias, actions that have attracted the attention of numerous Internet observers in recent months.

I’ve taken the liberty here to put in bold type the second instance of the smear. Note the use of “weasel language” here — the author (almost undoubtedly Pilieci himself) double-qualifies the statement so as to obviate the necessity of backing that statement with actual evidence, which he indeed does not provide.

So, that’s interesting. Without any more specifics this certainly looks like an attempt to smear the party that currently holds the position of Official Opposition in the House of Commons. Now why would someone do that and be this specific about it?

Well, the Ottawa Citizen, which currently employs Pilieci, is owned by the Postmedia Network, which is a group encompassing several newspapers, including my hometown’s The Gazette newspaper and Canada’s second national daily, the National Post (which should be no surprise to you as the link shown above goes to a NatPo story). The National Post, pretty much since its inception, is regularly accused of running a pro-Conservative slant on the political stories it covers, which clearly explains why they chose to edit Pilieci’s story  from the rather more neutral “Vikileaks Twitter account traced to House of Commons” (the title of the story on Thursday) to the, well, deliberately less equivocal title they chose to run on Friday. Am I supposed to think that this is just some kind of “oversight” or absent-minded error? Maybe others can think so, but I’m not that gullible. The smear is clear and deliberate.

OK, so maybe you think, this is a one-off thing… well, no. On Friday the Citizen ran this Stephen Maher editorial, this time with a neutral, toned-down title: “Maher: Toews made himself Twitter target with ‘pornographers’ crack” about how the @vikileaks30 story started. Read the story, though, and the ugly smear rears its head again in connection with the IP address:

That IP address also was linked to some Wikipedia pages where someone had written pro-NDP comments, which the Citizen reported.

Actually I do wish that Postmedia hired better editors because what Maher is saying now is not quite the same as what Pilieci was saying earlier, but this seems to me little but a barely-disguised attempt at repeating the smear. And then not content with doing it once, Maher pipes up again soon after:

It may be that that person is a secret NDP supporter, and enemy of Vic Toews, or it may be that there is some confusion over the IP address.

Does Maher think we’re all blind here?.. this is getting pretty blatant. Again, note the use of the weasel phrase “it may be”. Overall the article is pretty weak stuff by a national  Postmedia correspondent. In Canadian print journalism this is as senior as it gets without getting bumped up to a position involving more management duties, this isn’t the young guy who writes the computer column (that would be Pilieci, who is a staff member at the Ottawa Citizen and not really staff with the Postmedia “mothership”).

But that article isn’t what really rang a bell for me on the smear question — rather, what made me see the big picture was the follow-up by Pilieci following the @vikileaks30 poster’s announcement that the account was now retired. See if you can spot the difference from the (youthful?) exhuberance of his former column:

A further look into the IP address associated with Vikileaks30 found the address had been used in a range of online activities, including to edit several entries on the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia ranging on topics from the history of ice hockey to a biography of Whitney Houston, as well as to alter content on a variety of politically charged topics that span the political spectrum. It does not appear the poster was targeting any specific political party or affiliation.

This went to publishing after it was clear that the NDP slur had failed to gain any traction in the House of Commons or indeed with public sentiment. What a difference a day makes, I say.

It still remains a good question as to whether there was a concerted effort by the Tory-friendly Postmedia to deliberately steer hostility towards the NDP at a time when the Conservative Party was in a bit of a crisis. The coverage in the first story mentioned actually lead to quite a few angry words in the House of Commons, mostly coming (as the second story reports) from rather easily-influenced Tory attack dog John Baird:

“Not only have they stooped to the lowest of the lows, but they have been running this nasty Internet dirty-trick campaign with taxpayers’ money,” he said.

That’s the head of Canadian diplomacy shooting himself in the foot there, taking Pilieci’s story as gospel truth (his was the main story that included the smear). Oh dear.

I for one will be following further developments regarding this aspect of the C-30 story, and I certainly hope that others will start asking questions about the possibility of spin or even possible fabrications by the newspaper conglomerate that bills itself as “the largest publisher by circulation of paid English-language daily newspapers in Canada”.

Either that, or they need to take a serious look at who they keep on staff.

Note: in order to avoid any confusion if any of the three aforementioned stories should be edited or somehow deleted, I have taken screen captures of all 4:

  1. The original IP address story as it appeared on the National Post web site on 2/16
  2. The same story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site
  3. The Stephen Maher story as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17
  4. The later story by Pilieci as it appeared on the Ottawa Citizen web site on 2/17

Assange extradition case: is the UK CPS under foreign pressure?

Like a rather large number of people I am following the legal proceedings to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden with very keen interest. It is a very unusual case indeed. The British Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is currently attempting to extradite Mr. Assange, the head of Wikileaks, to Sweden for questioning regarding something which does not appear to be considered prosecutable in any way outside of Sweden. Of course there are additional facts which make this case particularly odd for the CPS to pursue — but pursue it it has, all the way to the UK’s highest court.

One does very well to wonder why. Mr. Assange has not been charged with any crime, in the UK, Sweden, or anywhere else. Mr. Assange has offered to submit himself to questioning at the Swedish embassy in the UK. There are strong questions of prosecutorial misconduct already surrounding the case, and rumours seem to abound to the effect that the “victim” in the affair has been coerced into declaring that there was wrongdoing at all by a particularly zealous and right-wing Swedish prosecutor.

So of course inquiries have been made as to why the CPS is taking on this case. I myself cannot think of a justification to pursue extradition proceedings against a person who is not under a criminal charge for anything. It just doesn’t make sense, unless of course the entire affair is political in nature, in which case there are strong implications that the CPS is being used by another organ of the British government for purposes which, on the outside at least, seem unethical at best and downright illegal at worst.

As I have already mentioned an inquiry was made to obtain information from the CPS as to why they are conducting this campaign, and the CPS’s response can now be published, as it has been here. The CPS is refusing to answer the question, but it’s the cited reasoning which is most interesting:

Information is exempt information under s. 27(1)(a) if its disclosure under the FOIA would, or would be likely to, prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other State.

Now, I’m no expert in diplomacy or foreign relations myself, but it seems that the CPS itself is admitting that it is, directly or indirectly, being pressured by a foreign government into proceeding forward with the extradition. That seems highly improper. The CPS is not, nor should it be, answerable to the Foreign Office, or indeed any other body than the Home Office. And what interest does the Home Office have seeking the extradition of a man who is not charged with a crime in the UK or abroad?

And since the response hints at foreign pressure, who is behind that? Sweden has not seen it fit to charge Mr. Assange with a crime. Which country could possibly have a vested interest in getting the head of Wikileaks out of a jurisdiction where he enjoys legal protection and into international territory where he is completely unprotected? Hmm, I wonder. Not to mention that Sweden,  nice country though it may be, hardly has the clout to tell the Brits what to do. For that you have to look elsewhere. Surely it would have to be a more influential country, perhaps one which operates several military bases in the UK, to pick only one consideration out of a hat. As it is now no question can be answered as the CPS is keeping mum on the subject.

Of course one doesn’t have to spend too long reading between the lines to figure it out…

My first Porsche…

This year I’ve become middle-aged and as I am a man who has money in greater measure than sense I’ve decided to treat myself to a Porsche… Design pipe, model 909 in black to be precise.

Porsche Design 909 Pipe in Black

It really is a lovely piece of work. The “fins” on the bowl are (by design) reminescent of the fins on an air-cooled engine, which as all petrol-heads know is what Porsche really built its reputation on.

Don’t its ultra-modern exterior fool you into thinking that this is made of some experimental material: Porsche design pipes are made of good, tried-and-true briar. It’s a fairly large and heavy pipe; I really don’t feel comfortable holding it with my teeth alone while I smoke, for fear of cracking the stem. It’s definitely a pipe made more for a pipe smoker of experience; smoke this too quickly and the bottom of the bowl will get quite warm, although not enough to burn you of course. In that sense I guess I could see it as a pipe which reinforces slower and calmer smoking habits. Besides that, well, just look at it. I am pleased as Punch with my purchase.

Porsche Design makes four models of pipe, two straight-stems  (one with a round bottom and the other square) and two curved-stems. The sticker price on all models in the range is in the mid-400s, although you will find new ones on Ebay for a lot less. They are available in two wood tones, two titanium schemes, and two black versions (the Spirit version has gold metal rings at the stem instead of silver). It’s definitely an excellent addition to one’s pipe-rack.

Currently reading…

Mao’s Great Famine by Frank Dikotter. This is not the first time I’ve read about the effects of China’s Great Leap Forward in the late 50s and early 60s, but this certainly has highlighted not only the direct effects of the famine itself but also its origins and also the secondary effects by which the GLF had such a devastating impact on the Chinese countryside.