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  • Target Hacked – Credit Cards vs. Debit Cards

    Posted on December 19th, 2013 Brian No comments

    The world seems to be going crazy this morning with news that some 40 million credit cards were stolen from Target’s databases. My Twitter feed is aflame, it’s all over my news sites, and I’ve even received email from family members warning me to get all my cards reissued. I’m not going to, though. I only use credit cards, so it’s not my problem.

    If my number just happens to be one of the 40 million stolen, and if a thief happens to actually try and use it, and if the credit card companies’ powerful automated anti-fraud systems don’t happen to notice that I couldn’t possibly be buying a new television from Amazon in Kazakhstan while also paying for dinner at Chez Billy, then in that unlikely scenario my total projected costs will be a grand total of $0, plus a minor inconvenience while my card gets re-issued.

    How can this be?

    In the United States, the law limits consumer liability for credit card fraud to the first $50, so no matter what happens, I’m only out $50. As a bonus, credit card companies nearly always waive that $50 charge, as they would rather not piss me off and lose me as a customer over a another person’s crime.

    But if you use debit cards, the story is different. The consumer protection laws are far more lax, with a potential maximum liability of up to $500 – 10x more! And even though most cases of fraud will probably eventually be resolved, in the meantime, the missing money is your money. The bank can take up to 10 days to investigate the fraud, and during that time your checking account will sit empty. When you use a credit card, you’re buying things with somebody else’s money. While they investigate the fraud, you’re not out a nickel.

    The moral of the story is: Use credit cards instead of debit cards. Or use cash. But either way, cut up your debit cards.

    [You can find more information on the legal difference between credit cards and debit cards at US PIRG.]

  • Oswald Cobblepot For Mayor

    Posted on July 14th, 2011 Brian No comments

    While attempting to avoid exposure to the 103º heat index the other day, I was flipping through some channels and stumbled across the campy sequel Batman Returns, starring Danny Devito as The Penguin. The movie is downright awful, and I would have flipped past it, except the scene caught me.

    Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken – how did this terrible movie attact so much talent?!) was convincing the Penguin to run for Mayor of Gotham City. The Penguin is not really sure this is a good idea, but then inspiration strikes: He needs a platform!

    Stop global warming. Start global cooling. Make the world an icebox.

    PENGUIN: A platform?

    PENGUIN (framing the space in front of him with his flippers): Stop global warming. Start global cooling. Make the world an ice box.

    SHRECK: I like it!

    Think about this for a moment: This was a joke line in a major summer action movie nearly twenty years ago. The idea of Global Warming was mainstream enough that the writers could a) assume their audience was familiar with it, and b) understand the situation well enough to know that the Penguin’s proposed solution was clearly ridiculous.

    So here we are, nearly twenty years later: We have progressed from Batman Returns through Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. How far have we progressed dealing with Global Warming?

    It’s time to vote for somebody who will make a real difference on Global Warming: Oswald Cobblepot for Mayor!

  • January 18th is Marion Barry Day

    Posted on January 18th, 2010 Brian No comments

    January 18th is an inauspicious day for the citizens of the District of Columbia.  It marks the date of the arrest of Mayor Marion S. Barry, Jr. in a drug sting for possession of crack cocaine.  This year is the twentieth anniversary since the former Mayor-For-Life spoke his most famous of utterances, who has continued to serve in DC public office despite his ongoing run-ins with the law.

  • Taxis Parking In The Not-Even-Finished Bike Lane

    Posted on October 30th, 2009 Brian No comments

    Though I don’t think construction is completed yet, the new contra-flow bike lane on 15th Street is looking pretty good.  Except for the cars parking in it. I snapped this photo just south of Rhode Island Avenue, with a cabbie parked in what is a clearly marked bike lane.  Worse, half a block north there was a postal worker doing the exact same thing!

    The excuse both times was that “it wasn’t open yet.”  Okay, then if the bike lane is still under construction, why are they parking in a construction zone?!

    Cabbies Parked in the Contra-Flow Bike Lane on 15th Street NW

    I fear this portends problems for the future of this bike lane.  The flippant attitude of DC drivers towards bike lanes is well documented, but this is just ridiculous.  A solution needs to be found.  Perhaps some sort of partial curb or pylon preventing cars from backing into the bike lane?  Or maybe some caltrops?

    What do you think would help?

    (cross-posted to my ANC blog)

  • Why I’ll Be Getting The Swine Flu Vaccine

    Posted on October 16th, 2009 Brian No comments

    Flu Bug With the start of the flu season and the advent of a vaccine, swine flu is coming back into the spotlight. Rather than covering the pandemic itself and disseminating widely useful, factual information, the media is covering the controversy over the vaccine that has been stirred up by hand-waving critics. I highly recommend the Effect Measure blog as a fantastic source of science-based discussion of the Swine Flu Pandemic. The contrast between the reasoned analyses of trained epidemiologists and the frenzied hype of news anchors or the fear-mongering of the anti-vaccination woo-heads could not be greater.  The short version? The swine flu is a big deal and we need to care about it and take reasonable steps to prevent it, but we don’t need to freak out: the virus isn’t going to wipe a billion people from the planet and the vaccination works and doesn’t make you sick.

    A recent post explores the editor’s reasons for getting vaccinated, both for swine flu and the seasonal flu.  It’s a good article, with graphs and charts, and filled with words like “trivalent vaccine” and “cross-reactivity”.  And though it inspired me to write this particular post, I found its reasoning a bit over-thought for those of us not studying infectious disease for a living.

    So, why would I want to get the flu vaccine?  There’s lots of good reasons.  For example, based on the experiences of the southern hemisphere (who are just now coming out of their flu season), it appears that there were 15x more people admitted to the ICU for flu cases than in previous years.  Or that the swine flu is more greatly affecting people in my age group than the people the seasonal flu affects.  Or that the virus is hitting close to home now, with local blogger Mr. 14thandyou writing this morning that he came down with it, saying:

    Whatever the news reports may say about this thing not being as bad as it has been made out to be: they lie. The H1N1 flu is awful; I think this was the sickest I have been since I was in grade school. It’s the kind of flu that makes raising a glass of water to your mouth and successfully taking a sip a feat of superhuman strength.

    But none of that is really why I’ll get the swine flu vaccine.  (And the seasonal vaccine, while I’m at it.  I get that every year.)  So, why will I get vaccinated?  It’s quite simple, really:  I just don’t want the flu – swine or otherwise.

    You see, getting sick with the flu will mean at least several days where I’ll be unable to work.  I am self-employed, and I get paid when I work.  Conversely, when I don’t work I don’t get paid.  I bear a direct economic cost if I get sick.  And that’s not even to mention the fact that getting the flu sucks even when it’s not the pandemic variety – aches, pains, chills, sweats, vomiting, and diarrhea are really not what I enjoy doing on my days off.  So if a shot in the arm, which has been shown to be reasonably effective, might protect me – well, where do I sign up!

  • Confession of a Credit Card Deadbeat

    Posted on May 19th, 2009 Brian No comments

    The roiling economy has uncomfortably squeezed the profits of various huge financial mega-corporations.  As the bottom-of-the-barrel customers are no longer able to honor their obligations, the fatty underbelly of fees and interest which the poorest consumers have struggled to pay is suddenly looking a little lean.  To make back their profits, the credit card companies are looking to eliminate the cash-back and frequent flier miles, reduce or rescind interest grace periods, and reinstate annual fees. Stack of Credit Cards

    There’s no way this could backfire.

    An amusingly twisted word in the credit card parlance is “deadbeats”.  Counter-intuitively, these companies use that term to describe their very best customers.  Do you pay your card off in full every month?  Do you rarely, if ever, accrue interest or late fees?  Do you regularly cash in your frequent flier miles and cash-back bonus?  Yes?  Well, since you don’t make much money for them, they don’t like you.  They tolerate you, but you’re gaming the system, getting a free ride.  You’re a deadbeat.

    It’s nice to know what they really think of you.

    Don’t weep, though.  They still make plenty of money from customers like me.  Every time we use our cards, the merchant is charged hefty fees for privilege of accepting our card of choice.  We don’t pay that directly, but we pay it indirectly through higher prices in restaurants, shops, and online.

    But it’s not enough, so they’re coming after the good customers.  Ironically, they’re coming after the customers who need them least. I admit it: I am a credit card deadbeat.  And if I suddenly have to pay an annual fee or lose my grace period, what incentive do I have just to not carry cash?  I will happily abandon the credit card companies, tossing their aggressive advertising, obnoxious phone calls, and invasive behavior tracking right along with their annual fees and interest rates.  And good riddance!

    And, assuming I’m not the only one happy to return to legal tender, then the credit card companies are sowing the seeds of their own doom.  As their best customers jump ship, their balance sheets will be left a ghetto of poor credit customers.  As losses mount from those who can no longer pay, the ratio of good assets to bad will finally topple the once-mighty giants of consumer finance.

    Stack of Credit Cards modified from the original Too Much Credit by Andres Rueda under a CC Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

  • Caesar is Dead

    Posted on October 24th, 2008 Brian No comments

    Amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth that has accompanied this financial meltdown, one might easily overlook or dismiss as rote the testimony before Congress of the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. But mark my words: Greenspan’s testimony yesterday is the single most important thing that will happen in this entire fiasco.

    Why such strong words? Because this marks the unequivocal end of perhaps the single most defining U.S. policy of the past two generations: unrestrained ideological free-market capitalism. For the past several decades, our federal fiscal policy has been driven largely by the notion that government meddling decreases a market’s ability to most efficiently move capital, and thus hobbling economic growth. Beginning with the Reagan Administration, our regulatory agencies have been systematically stripped of their oversight powers through legislation and executive policies. The idea was that the market would police itself, and regulate itself, better than any government ever could. Despite some bumps and glitches, it seemed to be working, and Alan Greenspan (who was appointed the chairman of the Federal Reserve by President Reagan) was in the middle of it all.

    Then the credit markets collapsed, with the potential to take down the entire world economy, and suddenly the truth is painfully obvious: Zero regulation is not the best regulation. Alan Greenspan is an epic heavyweight in the minds of politicians, policy-makers, and the public, and he deserves accolades for abandoning his once-staunch policy theory – to say nothing of his professional legacy and near-mythical status – in the face of evidence to its contrary. But that this great thinker, the maestro of the single longest continual expansion of the U.S. economy, can sit before Congress and say in plain words “I was wrong,” means that no politician or policy-maker can continue to espouse those same policies of deregulation and be taken seriously.

    The era of unregulated markets is over. Perhaps it was already dying, but Mr. Greenspan plunged the final dagger into its heart yesterday, ensuring the deed was done. Et tu, Alan?

  • I’m Running For ANC

    Posted on August 6th, 2008 Brian No comments

    I’m running for ANC 2F03!

    This morning, I picked up my petitions for inclusion on the ballot. Soon (probably tonight), I will start collecting signatures in my Single-Member District. If you live in ANC 2F03 and you see a guy with a funny hat carrying a clipboard with pink pages on it, please take a moment to stop and sign. You must be a registered voter, but that’s it!

    Chris Dyer, the current and long-serving commissioner for ANC 2F03, announced at the last ANC meeting that he would not be seeking reelection this fall. He will be missed. And though it will be impossible to fill his shoes, I am personally looking forward to the opportunity to fight for our neighborhood as best as I can.

    I guess I have to get on the ballot first, though. Wish me luck!

  • DTV Transition

    Posted on July 8th, 2008 Brian No comments

    Oh no! The transition from analog television to digital television is flawed, and civil rights groups are all mad! Their plan includes:

    • Organize rapid response teams to help people after February 17th;
    • Make the converter boxes more accessible and affordable; and
    • Put more money and presence into the project.

    If we fail to do anything, then “23 million households will wake up [on February 18th] either completely or partially unready to receive digital broadcast television service”.

    Oh no! It’s horrible! People without television? What will we ever do? For fuck’s sake – are we so dependent on television in this country? Is society really going to collapse if 23 million people miss their re-runs of My Name Is Earl?

    Here’s an idea: How about we take the almost $1 billion subsidizing converter boxes and spend it on funding for our public libraries instead.

  • Four Dollar Gas

    Posted on May 24th, 2008 Brian No comments

    The Times is wrong. Not all Americans are hating every minute of it. Heather walked outside a few of days ago, and noted that gas was $3.99 at the BP on 13th and N. The next morning, she was thrilled to find it was $4.15.

    Why are we so happy? Because we bet against cars a long time ago. The higher the price gets, the more people will realize they don’t really need their cars, and the fewer cars on the road means better air quality, less pollution, safer streets, and continued vitalization of the city – just to name a few. That’s not even to mention fewer parking disputes.

    So, yeah. Some of us are enjoying the high gas prices, because we know it signals a major transition in the wasteful way the majority of Americans live their lives.