Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mobile Banking

Several months ago, I decided that it was time to try my financial institution’s “mobile banking” service. It promised real-time balance updates, overdraw notices, and a rudimentary level of fraud protection all for the reasonable price of free. So, after logging in and registering my phone number, I selected the events I felt warranted a text message and slipped my newly-empowered iPhone back into my pocket.

It was several weeks before I received my first alert. It was a “balance threshold” notice informing me that my checking account had fallen below the $100 level I had specified when registering for the service. Even more unsettling, the message said that as a result of a recent transaction my available balance was now $0.00.

I immediately panicked since I had deposited my paycheck less than 24 hours prior and purchased nothing more substantial than a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger in that same time period. Either someone had illegally gained access to my meager holdings or my wife had finally decided to clean out our joint checking account and find someone who didn’t own season 1 of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Rushing home, I found that both my wife and my paycheck were exactly where I expected to find them and that I did not have a zero balance. Incensed, I called my bank’s customer service line and reported the discrepancy. The employee was sympathetic to my plight and walked me through several steps to re-register my phone while make changes on the bank’s notification subsystem. I was issued an apology and the assurance that this would not occur again.

Several weeks passed until I received the exact same “poverty-notification” while shopping at Kroger. Again, there was much trepidation and hand-wringing until I was able to confirm that the notification was mistaken and I still had several hundred dollars left in the affected account. Even a free service wasn’t worth this. So, again I called my bank’s help line and was connected to a customer service specialist. I suspect our conversation will be played at the company Christmas party:

Me: “Yes, for the second time in a month I have received a notification that my checking account is empty when in fact it contains a positive balance. They have tried resetting the notification system and re-registering my phone to no avail and with all due respect I am tired of needlessly wetting myself every time this institution pages me.”
Bank – “We certainly apologize for the inconvenience (she did not specify whether she was referring to the false positive or my lack of bladder control) and I will look into this if I can place you on a brief hold.”
Me – “Sure”
Bank – “I see what has happened. It appears that a refund was issued to your account by a local merchant. Does that sound possible?”
Me – “I think my wife did take something back to the store at some point today but why would a credit trigger a zero balance alert?”
Bank – “When someone issues a refund on your debit card it triggers the alert.”
Me – “Oh. Do you have a timetable as to when this will be fixed?”
Bank – “I am sorry sir, I don’t understand.”
Me – “I am asking if you have any idea when the glitch will be fixed.”
Bank – “Sir, that is the way the system is designed.”
Incredulous pause
Me – “You are telling me that the system was specifically designed to alert a customer that money was deposited into their account by sending them a text message that they are destitute? Am I your only customer that finds this illogical?”
Bank – “Sir, would you like to file a formal complaint about this?”
Longer incredulous pause
Me – “I cannot believe I even have to say this, but yes I would like to file a formal complaint and request that I not be deliberately misinformed about my balance.”
Bank –“Very well sir, is there anything else I can assist you with today?”

Afraid that if my bank attempted to assist me any further I would begin receiving notifications that my account had been closed each time I use an ATM, I simply responded that she had done enough.
I can only hope that the same programmers that created my bank’s notification system don’t branch out into other fields. Can you imagine their product line-up?

Home Security Systems – If everything was fine, the homeowner would receive a message that read “Structure Fire Detected – Pets Unresponsive”

Package Delivery Tracking – When your Amazon box was placed safely on your porch the text message would be “Item Damaged by Urine, Thrown from Delivery Truck”

Automotive Dealership Alerts – The complimentary oil change notice would be translated to “Truck Safety Recall, Advised to Avoid Utilizing Left Turn Signal While Listening to FM Radio”

Medical Alert Services – At the conclusion of a normal blood-pressure reading the attending physician would be paged with “Patient Dead – Immediately Family Notified via Twitter”

Friday, July 25, 2014

The GOP & Governorship of Tennessee

The 2014 Tennessee gubernatorial Republican primary certainly presents the voters with some interesting choices this year. The favorite, of course, is the incumbent governor Bill Haslam who has certainly made his share of missteps. I personally felt that signing SB 3310 was ill-advised. The bill, which stipulates that all public school sex-education curriculum “exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student's current or prior sexual experience” or that district will risk "the withholding of state funds by the commissioner of education", is a misguided attempt to legislate morality while addressing teenage pregnancy.

Regardless of your religious or political affiliation; I think we can all agree that the best way to avoid unwanted pregnancy, venereal disease, and awkward class-reunion encounters is to practice abstinence. For that reason, it should always be presented as the taxpayer-funded recommendation in a public school sex-ed program. However, a state-ordered mandate to ignore pre-marital sex among the state’s teenagers is not only foolhardy but fiscally irresponsible. The truth is that the conservative, southern “Bible-belt” states are leading the nation in per-capita pregnancy among 15-17 year olds. Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas all make the top 5 and Tennessee is not far behind them.

Image Source: CDC
While there are several socio-economic factors that contribute to these rates, I seriously doubt the discrepancy is due to unfamiliarity with the concept of abstinence in the southern states or the widespread implementation of it in northern ones. We have to provide age-appropriate, data-driven classes that tout the numerous benefits of celibacy while operating under the assumption that a significant number of students have or will chose a much different path. It is in our best interest to equip these children to mitigate the risks of sexual activity both to themselves and their partners while preventing unwanted pregnancy.

That being said, I decided to investigate the other Republican candidates seeking to unseat Mr. Haslam. First up, we have Donald Ray McFolin. McFolin is a retired commercial wildlife artist who decided to challenge Haslam after the governor failed to respond to concerns about the education that his son was receiving. McFolin seems to be a genuinely concerned parent, but I could not locate any information on his stances outside of education reform so I am reluctant to throw him my support.
Donal Ray McFolin
Next, we have Mark “Coonrippy” Brown. Mr. Brown is a divorced father of two who currently lives with his elderly parents in Gallatin. He was inspired to throw his hat into the ring when Tennessee wildlife authorities took his pet raccoon Rebekah and governor Haslam failed to have the animal returned to his care. Coonrippy has enjoyed a level of media notoriety thanks to the YouTube videos of him dancing and showering with Rebekah and her deceased male predecessor “Gunshow.”

Mr. Brown believes that he was targeted by the TWRA and Haslam thanks to his growing Internet fame and the prospect of a reality television show focusing on his life with Rebekah. According to The Tennessean, Brown has held a number of odd jobs including gun safety instructor, firearms dealer, animal control, and an outdoor sports columnist. He also sells handmade crafts and claims to have picked up a little Bosnian from some local mechanics. He told the paper that there are only two authorities that could ever persuade him to drop his bid for governor: The Lord Almighty or the producer of his reality show. Yes kids, we now apparently live in a world where those two entities carry equal weight.
Mark "Coonrippy" Brown
That leaves me with perennial candidate and Internet sensation Basil Marceaux (.com). Details about Mr. Marceaux are somewhat sketchy (he claims to be a Marine Veteran and wears dog-tags and a badge featuring the words “Innocent Bystander” in most of his videos) but what is clear is his approach to cleaning up The Volunteer State.  One of the cornerstones of his campaign is requiring all citizens to carry handguns or face a fine. He has also stated his desire to end traffic stops and relocate the state capital to Chattanooga. He has taken a hard line on violent offenders “If you kill someone, you get murdered” but favors the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Both his speeches and website appear to be rambling stream-of-consciousness political soliloquies with the only difference being that his website also sells telescopes. He has also released a holiday song called “Come Christmas” and a video where he summarizes random Tennessee Supreme Court Decisions over a banjo loop. Despite the eccentricities, his message of government overreach may still resonate with voters.
Basil Marceaux Sr.
If only it were possible to combine the platform of the three challengers into a coherent message, Tennesseans could reside in a education-focused, speeding-ticket free utopia where a taxpayer can freely exercise his God-given right to bathe with a tree mammal. In the meantime, the odds favor Haslam continuing to representing the GOP in Tennessee so I prepared a short, open letter.

Mr. Haslam, 

                    In the name of all things holy and pure, just give the poor guy his pet raccoon back.

We The People

CDC - State Disparities in Teenage Birth Rates in the United States
Guttmacher Institute's May 2014 Report on Teen Pregnancy

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


While driving through the state of Florida, my wife noticed an inordinate number of billboards advertising gynecologists. I say inordinate, because neither of us could ever recall seeing that particular medical specialty advertised on the Interstate before. When you drive as much as we do, you become accustomed to seeing restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, and even questionable spas that seem a little too eager to highlight the fact that they service truckers. We never found this unusual since most of those businesses rely, to some extent, upon the impulsiveness of their audience. Perhaps you are tired and need a place to crash so you see an ad for a Hampton Inn and take the exit or you are hungry and decide to take advantage of the culinary offerings featured on a nearby outdoor sign.

That being said, it is difficult for me to envision someone glancing out from their car window and thinking, “You know what sounds good? An invasive medical exam administered by a complete stranger.” Even more disconcerting was the similarities between the billboards advertising gynecological exams and the ones promoting real estate agents. Both featured the same frozen smiles framed by the same focus-group phrases like “professional” “experienced” and “trustworthy”. 
Thankfully, the parallels eventually ended as only the real-estate agents promised “wider exposure” to their clients.

I suppose some people find the pictures reassuring, but I have to wonder how many people actually hinge their medical decisions on the physical features on the physician. Are there that many people thinking, “I know they are well-qualified and come highly-recommended, but do I really want someone with slightly asymmetrical eyebrows involved in my pap smear?” Conversely, if I was ever window-shopping for a doctor of urology and I saw a picture of a practitioner with comically-small hands; it could work in their favor.

Perhaps there is some regulatory parameter in the sunshine state that lends itself to outdoor advertising for certain medical procedures. Arkansas has always featured an abundance of billboards touting “vasectomy reversals” which I have yet to see advertised in other states. Are Arkansas residents in general statistically more likely to change their mind about voluntary sterility? Is that stretch of the I-40 corridor early enough into most family road-trips that dad can be convinced it would be fun to “have another one”?   
Whatever the reason, I think I would want something more substantial than the presence of an outdoor advertising budget before I would let someone fiddle with my pipes again. I will say that none of these billboards featured faces or reassuring keywords. Although more than one of them prominently displayed the word “affordable”, which is ironic considering the financial impact of the operation’s intended result.

Again, how many men are driving down the road, see a billboard, and decide that sitting on a bag of frozen peas for the next three days would be more fun than whatever activity they had planned? In one instance the “vasectomy reversal” billboard was in close proximity to a billboard catering to those facing an “unplanned pregnancy”. It was unclear whether or not the same service provider had funded both ads, but I suppose it would be rather novel way to monopolize the reproductive market. The same conglomerate responsible for making an unplanned pregnancy possible could then be in a position to swoop in a few months later and attempt to mitigate the effectiveness of the very procedure they performed on the man responsible for your current situation.