Bank of America – What’s not to trust?

I have a “Financial Rewards” VISA card through Bank of America (BofA). I have it through them since, at the time, they were the only ones who seemed to be offering such.

In past dealings with BofA, I’ve been put off by what I interpret to be “Nickel and diming” behavior. They seem to have service fees for everything, monthly service fees for your checking account, check writing fees, you name it.

I found it amusing when I received this “Cardholder Thank You” item mixed in with the bits and pieces that accompany my monthly VISA bill.
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What was humorous to me was that this advert, in the form of a fake check, and with BofA’s logo displayed prominently at the top, had this to say in its fine print (you’ll need to click to read it):
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So, Bank of America is telling me that, even though they are sending me this advertisement in an envelope that is coming from them, with their letterhead on it, as a “Thank You” for being a possesor of their VISA card, that I can take advantage of by including the order form (on the reverse of the fake check) with my VISA payment, they have nothing to do with this offer?

I’m not sure I’m really impressed with a company using its brand to shill for “Gift Services, Inc.” and yet will neither stand by the quality nor service associated with the products.

I… think I’m going to get a new credit card from a company that I would prefer to be associated with. These “cash back” credit cards are becoming much more popular now, and no blackout dates ๐Ÿ™‚

**Update June 30, 2006** I tried to find Gift Services, Inc. using Google. I found one company by that name based in Denver, Colorado, but the “Cardholder Thank You” document indicates that this company is using a P.O. Box in Utah. Same outfit? Perhaps.

Getting Started with eBay and Paypal

Q: We are looking at a foray into EBay and Pay Pal. I know you have had some mixed experiences and was wondering if you had any advice for us.

R: Check out my website for “Paypal” .

I have a friend who buys and sells stuff on eBay all the time. He *doesn’t* use paypal at all. I use it but I would never depend on them for “protection”. If you have the option to pay directly by credit card (a lot of businesses sell through eBay and can accept the cards) go that way, otherwise paypal is OK and there is no charge to use it.

For buying / selling on eBay use the rating system. I’m sure there are ways to game the system but by and large it seems to be pretty reliable. You want to deal with somebody who has been around for a while and who has sold enough stuff to where you feel comfortable dealing with them.

Don’t hesitate to send them an email during the bidding (or before you “Buy it now”) to ask any questions – i.e. do they ship to Canada? Does it come with X?

Wal*Mart taking over the world?

I found this anti-Wall*Mart movie through a link from one of Clark Howard’s newsletters.

Can anybody take a look at it and tell me what point I seem to be missing? It seems to be just a series of poorly edited clips of folks saying “Wal*Mart is bad”. As a tease or a trailer I didn’t find it very effective. I imagine that there are probably some legitimate issues with Wal*Mart’s astounding marketplace success. But this trailer hints at none of them as far as I can tell.

America: from Freedom to Fascism

America: from Freedom to FascismA little over the top? Sure. A little paranoid? Yep. But a lot to think about here. With the recent list of NSA local abuses and the Executive branch of the US Government trampling all over the Constitution the bleak, dystopian future being envisioned by this movie (at least what I’ve seen from the trailers) seems more and more likely.

Formerly pro-Bush I have to say that the absolutely insane future financial obligations that I and every other taxpayer are being committed to supporting for the rest of our lives has me wondering where we can turn to for representation? How amazing is it that the US Democratic party is the current best hope for more limited government and a quasi-balanced budget?

Why do we even need a congress anymore (well *maybe* the senate may still be useful as its original purpose of preventing the more populous states from trampling the less so)? Sure, when folks got around by horse and news took literally months to get from coast to coast maybe having your point of view “represented” by an elected official made sense. But we are now living in an age where every person in this country can participate directly in expressing their opinions and gaining access to information about the issues at hand.

To be sure, mob rule isn’t appealing either (although at least it would be the will of the majority which seems to have gone missing on every issue lately). But being able to voice your opinion on issues where you can demonstrate that you have competence and comprehension (I’m thinking more like e-bay’s system of other citizens vouching for your competence rather than having the government certify you BTW). That way, while I wouldn’t be expressing my opinions on every issue, I would at least be able to do so on the issues that I either am involved with or have taken care to learn about. Sure beats having a single individual represent all of us on all issues. After all, when your congressperson is elected it’s always a trade off of the issues on which you agree (and voted them into office for) and those that you don’t (and wouldn’t have..).

We do not need to have those compromises anymore. Of course you would still need a revised constitution to get rid of all those career politicians. We would still need the bureaucrats, of course, but the short-sighted “I’m just here for a couple of years” aspect needs to be gotten rid of.

Not to mention that most of the US Congress is pathetically ill-equipped to understand and even have an opinion on anything even remotely technological. This in an age defined by its technology and the seemingly never ending growth of such. How many of our congresspeople have ANY science in their background? We’re talking a bunch of Poli-Sci / History / Law majors trying to direct our country into the future with no tools at all for grasping the implications or the realities of our burgeoning technological / social milieu.

Instead their time is wasted on irrelevant social issues (who thinks the Constitution is the right document to enshrine the definition of the American family)? Its purpose is to limit the power of the Federal government. Anybody who cannot understand that fact shouldn’t be allowed into Washington D.C.

OK OK I’m done ranting for the moment. I just had to get that off of my chest. I’m not advocating anarchy, but I would really like to see some responsibility trickling down from the folks who are leading this country. Can someone find Ben Franklin and see if he’ll run for office? Please?

Hilton Head Golfing Weekend

Got back last night from a pleasant weekend in Hilton Head.

Mark Russom is down here for a little over a week. It only seemed natural that we would all fly out to Hilton Head to get in some golf. So on Saturday morning we took a Piper Warrior and headed out. We had great tail winds with the GPS showing our ground speed at up to 156 knots on the leg between the Dublin VOR and Hilton Head. The trip only took about one hour and a half.

This is the second time I’ve visited the Carolina Air Center FBO and the second time I’ve come away incredibly impressed with their friendliness and extraordinary customer service. Special thanks to Jennifer who patiently answered all my questions and arranged for our rental car, and to Mike who gave us a great “lay of the land” and highlighted a bunch of options that we could pursue on the island.

Hilton Head can be a hard place to navigate around, between all the private “plantations” (I’m not at all convinced that gated communities are even legal) to the obscure access to the beaches (all the beaches are “public” by the way – it’s just finding a way to get to them). But armed with the information above plus some golf reservations we knew where we were going and had no problem doing what we wanted.

Mark and I golfed at the Sea Pines รขโ‚ฌโ€œ Ocean Course . This was a very nice course. We had absolutely nobody in front of us or pressuring us from behind. I suppose the 9o degree plus temperatures and 2:30 tee time may have had something to do with that :).
I had not used a GPS-equipped golf cart before either, it was really nice knowing exactly where I was in relation to the tee as well as exactly how well (or poorly) I was hitting. I can’t believe how pervasive this technology is becoming, and I mean that in the very best way!

Michelle went for a walk through the plantation and out into the “Public” area of the island. Shopping and fingering her VISA card every time something caught her eye. But restraint ruled the day (that and our luggage limit in the airplane) and I’m not sure if she ended up buying anything at all.

Timing worked out perfectly and Michelle strolled over to meet us at the 18th hole green. We then hit the hotel and headed out for dinner.

The next day we rented some bikes from “Pedals”. At $10/24 hours they were half the price of the bicycle rental place at the golf course. We took the bikes down to the beach and rode along the hard packed sand as far as we could go to the North (there is an inlet there that we didn’t feel like fording).

We grabbed a bite at the waterfront restaurant of the Marriott and then headed out onto the streets to try to make our way back to drop off the bikes. The tide had come in and we didn’t have that great sand to ride on any more.

Got to the airport by about 5 pm Sunday, used their Wi-Fi to check weather and other flight details and then headed back for Atlanta. The great tailwind that had sped us on our way to Hilton Head was now slightly diminished and was now a headwind that greatly slowed us down heading home. But about two hours and forty five minutes later we touched down at Briscoe field and then headed out for a late supper at Applebees.

Are Traveler’s checks dead?

I haven’t used traveler’s checks since I was in high school (back in the early ’80s for those of you counting..). I was curious whether anybody else out there still uses them.

The protection afforded by, and ubiquity of acceptance of credit cards means that there is very little need to carry cash anymore. Just enough to cover a couple of meals should you eat at hole-in-the-wall places that don’t do the credit thing?

Also, it seems that you can get a pretty good rate with your VISA card or even directly from the bank ATM’s that doing any sort of currency exchange outside of your destination country is not worth doing except to have a little money for tips for when you initially arrive.

Of course, I’m assuming that the credit cards are not maxed out. Otherwise, you’re taking such a shellacking from the interest charges that it really doesn’t matter what you do…

What do other people do?

New Bar-B-Que

When we moved into this house, there was already installed on the backyard patio a Broilmaster “Warm Morning” Bar-B-Que. It was pretty big and was fairly old as far as Bar-B-Ques go. When it came time to replace the burners in it (big old cast iron jobs) I found that I was not going to be able to easily find a replacement burner for the right hand side of the Bar-B-Que.
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Also, the valves had become sluggish and I think the regulator was gummed up. I would turn on a burner and then have to wait up to a couple of minutes for the gas to actually flow. Not exactly a safety feature. I’d listen for the gas to flow and then light the burner once that happened using an extended lighter.

Not being an expert in such things, and finding that there apparently aren’t very many such experts out there at any of the places I phoned or visited, I elected to replace the bar-b-que with a brand new Broilmaster P3BL-1 unit. We even sprung for the optional front and right side shelves.

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It’s a real pleasure firing up the grill, I now have an electric starter, it starts right away and I have nice solid places to put my utensils, plates and drinks while cooking.

I bought my bar-b-que through Metro House of Fire and worked with Kathy Heeth. She was great in dealing with my many questions and scenarios.

Wine Tasting Party – Australian Shiraz

Mich and I hosted our first wine tasting party yesterday.

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Since it was our first attempt we decided to keep it REALLY small and low key.

We spoke with Bob Cochrane at our local East Cobb Sherlock’s and he was instrumental in helping us decide on the wines we would sample for this first attempt.

I visited aromadictionary.com’s Wine Education resources and used their “Nine Wine Glass Place Mat”. I also had to choose a score card and had many excellent options to pick from (thanks JB!) and eventually settled on this excellent offering from “The American Wine Society”. This appealed to me because there was plenty of room to make notes on the various wines plus a good description of the evaluation characteristics plus a take-away wine aroma wheel that complemented exactly the laminated, colored wheels we had purchased from Sherlock’s to help prompt us through the aroma evaluation.

Mich picked up 24 wine glasses from TJ Maxx for an excellent price which meant that we would not need to be constantly washing glasses throughout the evening.

We decided that we would focus on a single varietal (Shiraz) and primarily one country (Australia). This drove our wine selection.

The wines we evaluated where (in order):

  • Penfold’s Thomas Hyland Shiraz 2003 (Australia)
  • Nine Stone’s McLaren Vale Shiraz 2003 (Australia)
  • Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz 2003 (Australia) < -- unanimous favorite among our guests

For contrast we then chose two non-Australian wines to demonstrate how much variation there can be in a single varietal.

  • Perrin Cote Du Rhone Villages 2003 (France)
  • Rock Rabbit Syrah 2003 (California)

There was quite a lot of agreement that the French wine had the “silkiest” texture and it rated very favorably with the Grant Burge offering edging it out as the overall favorite in the end.

After a palate-clearing glass of Argyle Brut Champagne we then offered our “Wow” wine for the evening – Peter Lehmann Shiraz (Australia). Now, “Wow” wines are very palate specific, and most of the people sampling these wines were not experienced wine tasters so I think – in retrospect – I would not have gone past the 5 principal wines of our tasting were I to repeat this tasting theme. The “Wow” was more of a “hmmm” but I don’t know how much of that was due to the wine I’m not even sure that the Californian got a fair shake as I know my taste discriminatory abilities were long gone by then. Steve, easily the most experienced taster among us suggested that the wine may have needed much more time to “breath” than I had allotted and that’s a fair assumption as I had not opened this bottle until nearly halfway through the evening. I had allowed all of the other wines a good couple of hours breathing time.

Overall I believe the evening was a success and hopefully marks the beginning of a series of such tastings in which we’ll explore many more varietals, vintages and appellations.

Lenovo X41 Tablet PC Review

I have to say that I’m impressed. The Lenovo Tablet PC, like any of IBM’s products is not the most inexpensive offering on the market. But, as I expected from my other IBM ThinkPad experiences, it is rock solid and works as advertised.

The package I purchased includes the biometric fingerprint scanner as well as the X4 Dock. The fingerprint scanner, frankly, has me giddy. I’m pretty security minded and was interested to see if this new technology would be an asset to somebody wanting to properly protect their machine or a kludgy add on that caused more problems than it solved.
I’m happy to report that it seems the former is the case with the biometric fingerprint scanner. I have separate and distinct passwords for power-on, my hard drive access and my account access on the machine. All of which are navigated by a single swipe of my finger on the scanner.
If you are interested in more than just the most basic security (Account login password) it takes a little knowledge or, in my case, research on Lenovo’s site to figure out what is needed and how to implement it. I have to say that all the information was there so I didn’t have to go scouring the ‘net to find what I needed.

Writing with the Digitizer pen couldn’t be easier, my handwriting has actually improved over the past few years as I’ve been making an effort to adhere to my philosophy that “if it’s worth writing down, it’s worth being able to read again” so I have had very few issues with my handwriting being recognized accurately. Even more astonishing to me is the fact that my cursive handwriting is also being recognized with no effort at all on my part. I am writing as quickly, if not faster, than I would write on a piece of paper and the well-thought-out software reliably figures out what I’m trying to put down.
I don’t know what the digitizer surface is made of, but the resistance to the stylus is surprisingly similar to writing on a sheet of paper. Not at all like some of the experiences I’ve had trying to put my signature down for a credit card purchase where it feels like you are using a ball-point pen on a mirror.
One hint – don’t get too obsessed with trying to watch the intermediate guesses at your final word that show up as you are writing, that will only slow you down and it will magically sort itself out by the end of the word in nearly all cases.
The only issue I have is that corrections can be a little slow. Say it inadvertently capitalizes (or doesn’t) a word because I was a little sloppy with my handwriting, going back and correcting words requires figuring out a very different way of thinking for me at least. Even after coming from many, many years of PDA use. Oh by the way, unlike PDAs you don’t need to re-learn how to write, it recognizes REAL letters.
An article I read on the ThinkPad handwriting recognition said that if you dedicate yourself to using only pen-based input for the first little while (I’d say about 2 or 3 weeks) you’ll become so proficient at it that the keyboard will become practically reserved for true marathon messages.

I would certainly not want to hand write a lengthy email using just the pen, my hand would probably seize up with a writer’s cramp, but for a single paragraph or entering a search term in Google it’s absolutely fine.
A hint, you’ll want to switch to the little digitizer keyboard to enter passwords.

I also have the larger 8 cell battery with my unit. I think it’s a stretch, though not a huge one, to claim 6.5 hours of use is possible with this battery. But I find, using the “ThinkPad Default” power setting that I can see 4+ hours from the unit easily. There are nearly a dozen included settings, everything from “Maximum Performance” through to “Timers Off (Presentation)” to “Maximum Battery Life”. I have played with most of them now and can see where the “Maximum Battery Life” may actually get you much closer to the claimed 6.5 hours of usability but, with the screen that dim, why bother? The battery longevity that I’m seeing is ample for my intended uses for this unit. If I can get through a feature length movie and still have enough power to surf the web and deal with my email for a couple of hours, I’ll be a happy camper indeed.

Probably the only downside to the unit is the lack of a built-in CD ROM drive. The package that I bought included such in the dock, and the lack of a CD drive in the actual unit itself no doubt is part of the reason it is so compact but this makes it very challenging to be useful for movies, which I think is a need any traveller has for their laptop – be it in the airport, on the plane or in the hotel room. I have plenty of shows and movies that I would like to watch during that down time.
Included with the unit is “Virtual Drive” software. It will let you copy an image of just about any number of CDs and DVDs and store them on your hard drive for access later. It is supposed to completely emulate the DVD/CD drive so you can access any of those images without the need to keep swapping in and out the physical disks. One catch though, it can’t deal with CSS encrypted disks which is how the vast majority of Movie DVDs are “protected”.
So the Luddite-inspired MPAA has managed another coup – they can keep me from the content that I have purchased yet again (My Roku Soundbridge can’t play any DRM protected content from iTunes either).

So, even though I consider myself an honest sort of fellow, it looks like I’m going to have to look to one of the peer-to-peer networks to try to acquire a copy of the movies that I already own so that I can use them in a manner that I wish to.

This is not the worst problem in the world, and is a small ‘nit in an otherwise wonderful notebook experience but it’s something you need to consider should you often require the ability to receive and access CDs on the spot. I can see this being an issue perhaps at conferences such as Lotusphere and the like where you might want to follow along with the presenter with your own copy of the slides for greater visibility or to annotate them as the presentation proceeds. If that’s that case, then this may be a consideration for you. If you can get back to your hotel room and rip the DVD/CD to your HD before attending the presentations then there may be no issue.

Again, I’m very pleased with the X41 so far.