Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I've Been Robbed and Screwed, More or Less in That Order

So, last night I apparently left my ATM card in a drive-through ATM. These things happen to people when they get older, I guess.

About one minute after my $122.00 was charged, another $22.00 was charged to my account. $2 is the out-of-network transaction fee, one reason I rarely use ATMs these days.

My bank won't cover it, or at least the employee I spoke to says they aren't obligated to cover it because there's a sort of "deductible" of $50 for lost or stolen cards. But I'm supposed to fill out a form. I had the card (which is a "VISA check card" and ATM card combined) declared lost, so I should get a new one and shouldn't be liable for any more charges.

The extra $22 is going to cost me some pain. My balance was low yesterday -- I had an electronic transfer from another account in progress, but it will not complete until tonight. I had been careful to check that I had $120 available -- which I did -- but not much more than that, without the completed deposit.

So my balance was driven below zero, which means an overdraft fee. Banks love their fees. In the olden days banks made money on interest from using your money; not anymore. They are happy to let you take out more money than you have. Or let someone else take out more money than you have. They organize their policies to maximize fees.

Back in the golden age, in early 2007, I had an account with Republic Bank. I liked Republic Bank. If I tried to take out money from an ATM and I didn't have enough, it would say "sorry, you don't have enough money." Allowing me to take out more than I have so I can get hit with overdraft fees is _not_ customer service.

Republic processed deposits immediately, and always credited pending deposits before withdrawals after a given day's transactions. I had an overdraft protection arrangement with them, which covered accidents, and the fees for using it were quite modest.

But then we came to our present modern era, in the summer of twenty hundred and seven, when Republic became Citizens Bank.

Citizens holds electronic deposits for at least 48 hours. Every night, it chronologically rearranges pending withdrawals and and pending deposits so that the withdrawals go through first. Any pending withdrawal that exists within that window of negative balance generates a $35 overdraft fee. Their computer system literally rearranges the transactions, our of chronological order, to maximize the lines in the ledger that read negative. If you take snapshots of the online statement and compare them, you can watch this happen. It's kind of interesting... like watching a series of still shots from a security camera of someone calmly strolling into your house and taking your money.

Since these withdrawals also can float for a few days, that means the soy milk we bought at Trader Joe's the previous Thursday can suddenly cost us an extra $35 on Tuesday. Suddenly we might have $140 or $210 or $280 in fees, thus producing something that was extremely rare with my Republic account -- a "cascade failure," where because the bank takes their own sweet time to process deposits, it becomes almost impossible to put money in fast enough to avoid having it eaten by the cascading series of overdraft fees. A "cascade failure" can easily run upwards of a thousand dollars.

Did I also mention that they pre-date checks, too? I can look at my statement on a Tuesday, and it doesn't show a check clearing that day. Then sometime on Wednesday, a check will show up dated the previous day. Since they've pre-dated it, this comines with their chronological-rearranging trick to ensure that the amount of the check gets compared to the running balance that existed at the close of business Monday.

I have to hand it to them -- there must be some clever analysts and programmers who put a lot of effort into making their system maximize the bank's opportunities to collect fees while staying just within the bounds of the commercial code.

Now, I'm not the most responsible person when it comes to managing my bank account -- but with Republic's policies, if I had a small overdraft, as happened occasionally in recent years, it didn't tend to create a "cascade failure." I paid my penalty and the overdraft protection covered it, and it was cleared with my next deposit. Republic _helped_ me to keep my account operating. Citizens apparently has no equivalent overdraft protection product so they quietly turned that off, and quietly changed the way they actually process transactions.

I really, really don't like Citizens Bank, but it is not so easy to change banks on a dime, especially an account you've had for fifteen years, and which gets used for everything. Also, I know and like the people at my bank. But I guess that is irrelevant since they don't make policy. I suppose it is only a matter of time before the experienced employees are driven out in favor of people they don't have to pay so much.

Anyway... Where was I? The credit card number will be changed, which means I will have to track down all the organizations (phone bill, electric bill, Amazon, DreamHost, etc.) who have that credit card number on file.

My co-worker gave me a ride downtown and I filed a police report for my stolen $20.

I'm a little unclear on my ethical choices here. I feel a little uncomfortable agreeing to press felony charges for someone who took advantage of my carelessness, especially since it was such as small amount. The offender could be dirt-poor and desperate. But maybe that's just an excess of soft-hearted liberal guilt speaking. Or the offender could be a serial thief who is wanted already.

The bank employee I spoke to suggested that since the ATM will time out after a short wait and spit out the card, the thief would not have been able to take out the money without knowing my PIN -- implying that it must have been me. Fuck you very much, Citizens. Yeah, I stole that $20 from myself. Take that, me! And I'd do it again!

But I think the thief did come through immediately after I did -- the time stamps on the record support that. The machine was probably displaying a message that said "Do you want another transaction?" prior to timing out. It is a drive-through, after all. If nothing else, I am filing the police report to state for the record "someone stole money from me." Someone besides Citizens bank itself, that is.

Ephemeral Ephemera

My grandmother kept an album of greeting cards and gift cards from her wedding showers in 1933. See this entry in the Marcell Armstrong Memorial Collection blog.

My mother's entire life -- conception, birth, education, marriages, years of career and family, years of retirement and volunteer work, and death -- took place in a span of time which sounds reasonable -- seventy years -- but which was so short that it barely even faded these fragile gift cards. They don't even look old, but they outlasted her entire span of mortal existence. We are truly ephemeral.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Memento Mori

So, I have been falling behind on all sorts of commitments -- I was excited by the prospect of working through a bunch of Haskell exercises and get more serious about learning Haskell; I was learning all kinds of new jazz chord voicings in my guitar lessons; I had plans to record another podcast with original music.

Instead life intervened, and my mother died after a brief, unexpected illness, and then Grace's father died just under two weeks later. We've had a lot of death recently -- my grandmother died two years ago, at the age of 102, and Grace's brother died at the age of 40 just last year.

"Memento Mori" means roughly "remember, you will die." There's nothing quite like sitting in a room with the dead body of your mother to make this clear. It has been my task this year to think pretty hard about this, and to try to start planning for it, beginning what I hope will be my "ars moriendi" -- the art of dying well. And, I hope, a lot later.

I've been living on a kind of "split screen" for the last few months -- on the one hand, working on retirement plans and investments for my children's education and imagining what Grace and I are going to do for the next five, ten, twenty, or forty years, and on the other hand preparing our wills and making sure we are properly insured. It's been a strange combination of unnerving and reassuring. My grandmother made it to 102, and I have her genes, so I could have 60 years or more to live. Or I could take after my mother, and have 30.

Or none.

On the way to work this morning, as often happens, the light changed for me to make a left turn. I did my usual deep breath, look both ways, count slowly to five -- to wait for whoever was going to blast through the red light to go ahead and do so -- and then started to enter the intersection. At the ten second mark a woman in an SUV blasted through the red light, going way over the speed limit, talking on her cell phone. Missing me by only a few feet.

Memento, mori.

A year ago someone did this and I was hit by such an attack of road rage I actually chased him down, cut him off and forced him over to the side of the road, then got out of the car and chewed him out for nearly leaving my children fatherless. I can't advocate that behavior. Today I took a deep breath and let it go.

It would be a stupid way to die. But so is cancer, or heart disease. And we don't have control over everything. And believing that we do is a recipe for a heart attack.

There is good news in our lives too -- we just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary and baby Sam's first birthday and baby Veronica's third birthday -- but these celebrations have all been kind of subdued.

There have been a whole bunch of miscellaneous estate issues -- fortunately my stepfather and the estate attorney have been managing most of this -- but my stepfather wants to sell the house he and my mother shared in the very short term, and so is trying to dispose of my mother's personal effects very quickly.

This means a house full of furniture, clothes, and personal effects. Since I'm the son that lives a mere 250 miles away, instead of 2,000, I'm the one that has to figure out how to triage everything and move anything we want to save into our rather cramped and cluttered apartment. Which means a major purge of our existing clutter, and also coming to terms with letting go of almost all of my mother's personal effects.

Along the way I discovered that my mother and my grandmother had amassed a huge collection of family photos and documents, going back several generations. In addition, hundreds of documents: letters, journals, autobiographies, even short stories.

We have pictures of people I think are my son's great, great, great, great grandparents. I have not identified everyone yet, but there may even be pictures of a five-greats grandparent. My grandmother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which means she can trace her ancestry back to 1776. Which means my daughter can, too. That's good, because it appears from the organization's somewhat controversial history that they could use more black members!

There are Civil-war era photos. Cyanotypes from around 1900. Thousands of photographs -- perhaps 10,000. The oldest ones are mostly in pretty good shape, but many of the color photos, for example instant photographs from the 1970s, are fading badly. And there are some serious preservation issues -- photos that were recently annotated in ballpoint pen ink, which is acidic and eats through the paper until it stains the emulsion. Photos torn from albums and scotch-taped into new albums, or bundled together with paper clips or rubber bands and stuffed into acidic paper envelopes and shoe boxes.

I decided, and Grace concurred, that I was going to engage on a preservation and archiving project. We can't let the collection of family history end with my generation. So I have embarked on that project, which will consist of organizing, cataloging and propagating both the original artifacts and digital derived works.

So, for the immediate future, this project is now my highest priority. My other projects, blogs, and commitments are largely at a standstill. I apologize to everyone who I've ignored or failed to follow up with on some promise or another. But I think my children and grandchildren will approve.

Anyone interested can follow my progress on my blog, The Marcella Armstrong Memorial Collection.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sam's First Birthday Party

Our friend Olivia came to help us celebrate. Here is Grace with Sam and his itty, bitty cake (a brownie).

Veronica helped him blow out his candle!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Does Anyone Remember this Game but Me?

It took me some serious work to remember the title of a game I played around 1995. It is "Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou." Wikipedia does not have the game in its collective memory.

It is a very unusual game.

I recall getting completely stuck and giving up on the game, but it would be interesting to try again.

There are two copies available on eBay, selling for more than the original list price. Hmmm. Could I get it running on a G4 or G5 PowerMac running MacOS X 10.4?

They Call Me Sunny D

The "D" stands for "dimples!"

Baby Sam is just happy to be in his car seat, going somewhere.

At high resolution it is also clear the "D" stands for "dirty toenails!"

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Groovy Decay

When I was 15 to 16 years old, around 1984, I worked after school and on weekends at Loblaws grocery store in the Harborcreek Mall, Harborcreek, Pennsylvania (near Erie).

This past Sunday, the 14th of October, 2007, I took some photos at this site.
I was a bagboy and cart-fetcher, a "cleanup in aisle five" guy, a "go clean the bathroom in the break room" guy, occasionally doing a little stocking and pricing. Every night while the store shut down, I swept the whole thing.

Things I remember: endless sweeping and mopping. eating junk food on my ten- or fifteen-minute breaks. Punching in and out. Assisting an elderly woman who had slashed her hand open on a broken jar of pickles and who was dripping blood all over the floor in the refrigerated food section. (It was a different age; there was no lawsuit involved).

Sending a tower of plastic milk jugs crashing down while restocking the dairy section, making an enormous mess. Changing long fluorescent tubes and throwing the burned-out tubes into the dumpster behind the store where they exploded, releasing toxic mercury, which I promptly inhaled.

Retrieving rounds of change. Carrying the cash box with the manager to the bank's night drop. Running the box-crusher. Running the deli slicer in a pinch, although I was not legally old enough to do so.

The sign used to read "Loblaws: Your food store... and more"

It is hard to imagine that I used to spend my evenings out in this parking lot, wearing an orange reflective vest, trying to push a whole column of shopping carts across this parking lot and back into the store, while dodging cars and pedestrians. The asphalt is so destroyed that it seems to be breaking down into new topsoil in places.

I worked most school nights, either 4-10 p.m. or 6-11 p.m., then came home and watched the Letterman show before doing whatever schoolwork I needed to do, getting to sleep sometime around 1:30 a.m., and getting up at 6:30 the next morning. On weekends I could work longer shifts. Some weeks I would work up to 39.5 hours (carefully kept just below full-time, since a full-time worker would be entitled to benefits).

The grocery store closed down sometime later in the 1980s and with the anchor store gone, the last tenant soon followed.

I was sorely tempted to try to break into the building itself, but did not. The whole site is marked "No Trespassing."

My brother informed me that he did his illicit high-school drinking and bonfire-making, while I was off in college, in the woods behind this property. My memories of the place are not particularly happy, but not particularly unhappy. I do remember being very tired every night.

In one of those unexpected ironies that sometimes make me laugh out loud, as I drove off, the local radio station I was listening to was playing Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

New Camera

I finally broke down and bought a digital camera.

I had been stuck for years in a state of "analysis paralysis" about digital cameras. I wanted something that would produce photos that looked at least as good as my Canon 35mm Photura, which has a great zoom lens and does a wonderful job with auto-focus. The last digital cameras I used to any extent were a Sony Digital Mavica that wrote photos to 3.5-inch floppy discs, and an Apple QuickTake 100 that uploaded photos using a serial cable. So, clearly my impressions were out of date.

I was leaning towards a recent Canon, but there are so many different Canon models that I got very frustrated trying to compare them. I also did not really like the fact that a lot of their designs are, to put it bluntly, ugly.

The design of the Ricoh GR Digital really appeals to me, but it is fairly expensive, and the reviewers found that the image quality has a few issues compared to comparably-priced Canon cameras. The Leica D-Lux 3 also has a really appealing design, but at a rather extreme price.

The design of the Samsung NV series really appealed to me as well, but again the reviews pointed out some flaws in image quality when compared to Canon cameras. I thought I might consider a new Samsung NV-20, but they were not available locally yet.

My hand was forced because I had a project coming up that desperately needed a digital camera. The project was to spend a weekend packing and organizing my mother's personal effects in Erie, PA. I wanted to be able to discuss all these things with my brother and other relatives out-of-state. So, on my way out of town, I decided to just pick up whatever low-end camera looked reasonable at a couple of nearby stores. My only real requirement was that it would shoot reasonably good macro (close-up) images.

I wasted some time in an OfficeMax trying to buy a low-end Canon camera that was displayed on the shelf, only to find that it wasn't in stock, and then a few more minutes only to find that a different Canon also wasn't in stock. Circuit City's web site had told me that certain Samsung models were in stock at the Ann Arbor store, but it lied.

Getting desperate, I wound up purchasing a Samsung S730 for $129, along with couple of SanDisk 2 gigabyte memory cards, and a bunch of batteries.

Since the purpose of these pictures was basically to put together a quick catalog for browsing, not printing, I set the resolution to the lowest available (1024x764).

I found out the hard way that standard alkaline Duracells or similar batteries give terrible results; I got low-battery warnings and shutoff after only eight pictures. I had to run out for more batteries. I wound up buying a pile of Energizer lithium batteries. With a pair of these, I got something like 400 shots before the batteries failed. Duracell "Ultra" or equivalent produced perhaps fifty shots. I did not want to mess with rechargeables for that weekend since I was in a big hurry and it was not clear how they would stack up to the lithium cells. I may wind up buying an AC adapter for "tethered" work of this type.

I was especially impressed that this camera allowed me to take almost every picture without using a flash. The "anti-shake" feature was good enough that I held a lot of the items to photograph in one hand and the camera in another, using just the light that was available, and in most cases it still managed to give me a reasonably crisp image. It crapped out on extreme close-ups of extremely small items, such as thimbles, but this was not terribly surprising.

Besides the shots of artifacts, I took a few breaks to go explore some places in the Erie, PA area that I have not visited in a few years. For these shots I turned up the megapixels and the camera did quite a decent job there, too.

As far as I know there is not an option to shoot RAW, but that's OK for my purposes.

I wound up taking over 1,000 pictures. I was not quite prepared for how many pictures a 2G card would hold -- I've used up only a small fraction of one card.

Samsung seems to be a bit of an underdog in the digital camera market, but I am quite happy with it, and this camera has led me to think that I would probably like the NV-20 even more. For $129 bucks it seems like an excellent deal to me.

Sam is One!

That means he gets to have his car seat turned around to face forward!

He's saying a few words and phrases. This morning he said "hello," and a week or so ago, he said "pick me up" to Grace. He also said "thank you" when we gave him a snack. I think he is speaking earlier than Veronica in part because he copies what she does.