Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Put an X There

I have a secret guilty pleasure which I will now confess to the world. Every Friday night at midnight, I get a snifter of cognac, handcuffs, whip cream, a badminton racket and a pogo stick… oh, no wait, that’s my other addiction. No, on Friday nights, I like to watch “Ghost Adventures” on the Travel Channel.

This show follows the exploits of Zak Bagans and crew as they get locked into some of the scariest places in the world and dare the ghosts to come and get them. If ghosts appear, Zak and crew will record it, and the ghosts get to be on national tv. It seems to me to have been based on a British show called “Most Haunted” where a British crew does the same thing except you can’t understand them. Except for the screaming. Which is really loud. Zak has essentially Americanized the idea by going into haunted houses and taunting the ghosts, saying, “You want a piece of this?”

The first half of the show involves the crew touring the location and interviewing people who have had ghost “sightings.” When they find a ghost hot spot, Zak will say, “put an X there” and the camera guy will put down duct tape in the form of an “X” which will mark where they will place cameras later. I now try to use that phrase in my daily life. During meetings when someone makes a valid point, I exclaim, “Put an X there!”

After getting locked down, the crew sets up cameras, video, recorders, seismographs, MRI’s, X-ray machines, etc. to record ghost footage while Zak taunts the ghosts to come out. My favorite device is the EVP (electronic voice phenomenon), which is, for lack of a better term, ghost-speak translator. For example you might hear a whisper, the wind, or a mouse scurry across the floor, and the EVP will pick it up as “Shhhbrggghgfffttyuitbundesliga.” When this happens on the show, I can never seem to make out the translation, but Zak can. He’ll say, jumping up and down, “Did you hear that? It said, ‘Get out! Get out!’”

But the EVP has really revolutionized ghost hunting. (In fact, I’m thinking about getting a “Scooby Doo Theme” ringtone for my cellphone, then charging people obscene amounts of money to let me walk through their house: “Yep, every time you hear the Scooby Doo song, that means a ghost is present.”)

Some paranormal investigators contacted Zak to let him know they heard the ghosts from one of his previous investigations say, “I want Zak.” The ghosts called him out! Apparently, ghosts watch a lot of tv, especially the Travel Channel (which makes sense for a soul doomed to spend eternity in some old house). Another time, an interviewee from a haunted saloon and brothel reported that some ghosts were having sex upstairs. The afterlife is apparently not so bad: there’s satellite tv and hookers!

Recently, St. Pauli Girl, her son Eduardo, and I were at a pub when the subject of ghosts came up. Eduardo pointed out that he actually had an EVP application on his smart phone and proceeded to show us how it worked. The phone displayed a radar with brown dots which represented numerous ghosts in the bar. We were surrounded, which makes perfect sense; if ghosts exist, they have to be all over the place, not just in dungeons, old houses and television sets.

But I needed more proof. Having watched enough Zak, I knew what to do. I looked around the room and called out, “If there are any spirits here that would like to talk to us, please pay our beer tab.”

St. Pauli girl was not amused. “What are they going to pay with?”

“Hmmm, yes of course. ‘If there are any spirits here that would like to talk to us, order me another beer. A good one, something imported or a microbrew’.”

I never got another beer, but it doesn’t make me any less of a believer. Rest assured, I’ll be watching Ghost Adventures this Friday night, rooting Zak on. “Yeah, Zak, put an x there!”

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Senator is on Line 1 and Says You're Stupid

Last week we received a rather odd message on our answering machine. It was made to sound like that we were being privy to a press conference of our beloved senator. In that press conference, Red, a farmer from central Texas, asked the senator about the estate tax (which, if you are unaware, will return in January if the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire). Unfortunately, our answering machine cut off too soon, and we didn’t get to hear the senator’s answer. But I’m pretty sure it would have gone something like this:

Red: Senator, my wife and I started with nothing in 1958 and over the years we acquired some property. We’d like to leave it to our 4 kids who are in the ranching and farming business. At least they will be. Right now they’re in FFA.

Senator: Good for them. They are the salt of the earth.

Red: As I hear it, the estate tax will take away 55% of our property before the kids get it.

[(in background, teenager’s voice) I don’t want a farm. I want a drum set!]

Senator: First of all, Red, it’s not an estate tax. It’s a death tax. It doesn’t affect your heirs. It’s all about you. If the Bush tax cuts expire, funeral homes will be required to collect a death tax before they bury or cremate you.

Red: Well, we just won’t pay it.

Senator: That would be even worse. President Obama will send Government agents to the funeral home where they will go through your pockets to get any leftover wallets, loose change and even extract gold fillings from your mouth. They will then shakedown everyone at the funeral until they get the death tax. And you know what they’re going to do with that money?

Red: What?

Senator: Give it to Cadillac-driving welfare queens and drug dealers to ensure that crack babies get free health care.

[(in background, teenager’s voice) I want a cadillac!]

Red: What happens to our property?

Senator: Have you seen the pictures of Michelle Obama working in the White House Garden? She wants to be a farmer, and if the Bush tax cuts expire, she’s going to get your farm.

Red: Well, I’ll be.

Senator: Red, do you have cancer by chance?

Red: Nope. Fit as my John Deere tractor.

Senator: I’d advise you to spend as much time as possible in the sun. I have two words for you: melanoma.

Red: Is that a new cantaloupe disease?

Senator: Live as recklessly as you can. Don’t wear a seatbelt, drive while texting, run with scissors. You have three months to die without the death tax or say hello to Farmer Obama.

Red: You’ve got my vote senator!

Senator: Thanks, Red. And to help me get this message out to everyone, I want you to make a pledge to my team motto: “I’d rather die in 2010 than pay the death tax in 2011.”

As for an opposing point of view, I anticipate something like this on our answering machine next week:

Francois: Good afternoon, senatorial candidate. I’m an unemployed haberdasher who also happens to have lung cancer. I hear republicans would like to repeal President Obama’s healthcare act. Is that true?

Candidate: First, it pains me to hear of your unemployment and ill health. If elected, I promise to end unemployment forever and keep healthcare legal. Sadly, the republicans would like to outlaw healthcare.

Francois: Wow, I hadn’t heard that. I thought maybe if I could find a job, I may get healthcare again.

Candidate: Not likely if the republicans have their way. In fact, they don’t want to just repeal healthcare, they want to kill you.

Francois: Me?

Candidate: Yes, and all the other sick people who are a drain on the system. They intend to set up an organ farm where rich people will get to harvest the organs of poor people so they can live longer and enjoy tax breaks which keep the economy humming.

Francois: I’ll never go to the hospital again!

Candidate: And that’s what they want. For you to die alone out of view of the rest of us. With the abolition of healthcare, republicans will once again encourage children to smoke cigarettes and more people like you will get lung cancer.

Francois: I’ve never smoked a day in my life.

Candidate: Exactly! Had we eliminated second hand smoke earlier, maybe you could have been saved.

Francois: I worked most of my life in a coal mine.

Candidate: Did I tell you I love unions? They are the antidote to the evil mine owners who smoke big fat cigars made of hundred dollar bills only to get lung cancer themselves then harvest your organs to prolong their lives.

Francois: Why would they harvest organs from someone who has lung cancer?

Candidate: I’m sure you have other valuable organs which may not be killing you at this time like the republicans are. Have you heard about how they’re doing face transplants these days?

Francois: A rich person might buy my face one day? That’s something to consider. Man, I could be a movie star yet!

Candidate: And that’s what republicans want you to think when in reality they’ll probably just put your spleen in some CEO's poodle.

What’s on your answering machine?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Pimp and Circumstance

St. Pauli Girl just completed a short, miserable stint teaching English for a certain online college we’ll call The University of Griffins. With a Ph.D. and several years of college teaching experience, she had the audacity to bring this experience into this new job and expected students to have to work like college students and write papers as well as a college student (or at least as well as a 9th grader). It turns out that her teaching philosophy clashed with the school’s motto: We accept Visa, Mastercard, Discover and especially Guaranteed Student Loans.

A lesser person might be bitter and angry, but I see opportunity. Having learned how a great online campus is run, I’ve decided to open my own university: University of Flagstaff (we’ll only raise the flag half-staff if you don’t graduate). My university motto will be: We accept Visa, Mastercard, Discover, student loans, drachmas, gold doubloons, cases of whiskey and the renminbi or yuan.

U of F is a win-win situation for both the students and myself (Dean, President and Director of Financial Aid) because I reap the rewards of Guaranteed Student Loans while the student will enjoy a grading curve that makes Dead Man’s Curve look like a runway at Edwards Air Force Base. One of the great things I learned from the University of Griffins, is that it’s all about word count. When assigned a paper, teachers usually demand a minimum word count to extract a certain amount of torture from the student. Usually, failure to achieve the word count results in failure for the paper. But not at U of F (or U of G for that matter)! You get credit for the percentage of words you write! Just by putting your name on a paper, you avoid getting a grade of zero.

Let’s look at another example. An Introduction to Quantum Mechanics class includes an assignment of a 500-word paper on Newton’s 3 Laws. Whew! That would make me want to drop that class. But there’s a better solution at U of F. Here’s my paper:

Newton’s 3 Laws
Dexter Klemperer

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog….

Now imagine that sentence being repeated until I’ve run up a word count of 375. Most high school teachers would probably give you an “F”. But at U of F, 375 words out of 500 is 75% which means “C”. Just think if I take a couple more minutes of copying and pasting to bring the word count up to 500: “A+”! Why does this paper merit that kind of grade? Because you get partial credit for word count, the grammar is perfect, and since content is subjective, we just grade on the objective parts. (Plus you’d get bonus points for using every single letter in the alphabet.)

You can use the same paper for every class (just make sure you cite yourself or your 1st grade phonics book in the bibliography to avoid plagiarism charges.) But you can also easily change it up for different classes, foxes can be grey, white, golden and dogs can be sleeping, growling or diffident. Get an online Ph.D. in no time!

U of F will offer many employment opportunities with jobs paying as much as $4 per hour. If you know how to access the “Tools”, “Word Count” menu, our employment recruiters want to talk to you (must be at least 12 years old to apply for a professor position). As an instructor, you will be put through a rigorous training program which will totally waste your time, but that’s okay because we won’t pay you for it. In the final phase, you will be paired with a sorcerer (kind of like a mentor but cooler and more magical) to help you navigate your first course. For instance, if you teach English, we might assign a Professor of Upholstery to be your sorcerer. Not only will your students master English, but you can probably get one to fix your couch as well.

Students will enjoy the more informal atmosphere of our online campus. Instead of instructors and professors, our faculty will be referred to as your BFF. But that’s not all, we require your BFF to provide his/her home telephone number so you can call with questions at any time. Don’t like the grade on your last test? There’s nothing illegal or against school policy about 3 a.m. phone calls.

But my university isn’t just about making lots of money like the others. For many years, test scores show that American students have trailed other countries especially in science and math. Educators and politicians have struggled for ways to improve American education. But they’re looking at it from the wrong end. Since the U of F accepts the renminbi or yuan as well as other Asian currencies, we encourage as many foreign students as possible to enroll. We’ll dumb them down to the American level.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Let Your Fingers Do the Taking

Today’s blog begins with a quick quiz:

Upon starting a new small business:
A. Your mood swings will go from optimism to depression to joy to sheer terror on an hourly basis
B. You will get great satisfaction out of being self-employed and providing valuable goods/services to the community
C. You will become rich
D. You will become destitute
E. Both C & D within a few months time
F. Knowing that you have financing by either investors or a bank, people will try to get that money as quickly as possible from you—sometimes legally, sometimes dubiously, and many times through chicanery

The correct answer is F (partial credit if you answered A or E). I have many stories to tell but this one just came up again so now I will provide this knowledge to others. This scam has less to do with knowing that you have money and more to do with hoping you won’t notice that they are stealing your money.

Let’s say you and I went to grade school together. Sometime during 4th grade, you borrowed $5 from me. I asked to be paid back several times until you finally said, “You want your five dollars? Here’s five for you!” You pull your fingers into a fist and punch me in the face.

Now let’s say for some reason, 44-year-old me just remembered this morning that you owed me that money. Somehow I get my hands on your telephone number. But instead of calling you, I call your phone company and tell them to bill you and to please send it to me.

Amazingly, the phone company says, “Sure.”

So you’re thinking, “Big deal. You got your $5 back.” However, you and I both know that we didn’t go to school together and that you really don’t owe me anything (although donations are always welcome). And to make it more fun, the $5 charge ends up on your bill by coincidence only because I’m going through a phone book, picking out numbers and telling the phone company that these phone numbers owe me money. And the phone company—because they can’t afford to hire humans—has a computer voice respond, “You betcha.”

Let’s assume I managed to bill 10,000 phone numbers $5 a month which comes to $50,000 a month. How many people will actually notice this charge on their 5-page phone bill? For fun, let’s assume that 50% (probably way too high) of the people complain and get it taken off their bill. I still get $25,000 a month! See you in Aruba! (Hmmm, wait maybe I should be making an infomercial…)

Of course, I would be too easy to track down this way. So let’s say there’s a company out there that we’ll call just for fun, JME Services, that specializes in what they call third party billing. Now I simply tell JME that you owe me money for what I call Special Directory Services, and they contact the phone company to have it added to your bill.

Your phone bill now lists a charge for Special Directory Services from JME Services but only provides a number for the phone company. You call the phone company which tells you there’s nothing they can do because JME told them to do it, but they give you JME’s phone number. JME will tell you there’s nothing they can do because I told them to do it, and they give you my phone number. Depending on how crooked I am, I may try to convince you that you really did order my services but more likely I’ll apologize and remove you from future billing because I’m already making a killing in this business. But the best part is that with three companies involved, they can all blame someone else! Plus I think you’d really enjoy my Special Directory Services if you knew what they were.

Every month I get charged $30 to $50 on my bill from some third party. Every month I call the phone company who then tells me to call JME who then tells me to call this mysterious third party who never answers. Eventually JME puts a stop on the billing and the phone company drops the charge from my bill. However, the phone company cannot put a stop on third party billing because the government requires them to allow it. Fantastic! Another example of the government working hard for the people.

The charges will stop for a few months then a new mysterious company will pop up with its hand in my back pocket. And so I go through the whole painful process again. The scammers have figured out for the bargain price of $35 a month, you’ll eventually tire of dealing with all these companies and just keep paying them.

As good as it feels to get that off my chest and take satisfaction in alerting others to read your phone bill with a magnifying glass, I realized I probably also inspired 6000 people to set up their own billing companies. Why not? It’s easy; just call the phone company where the answer is always, “You betcha!”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Your Money's No Good Here

Several years ago, St. Pauli Girl and I chose our bank based on its thousands of world-wide locations since we considered ourselves sophisticated frequent travelers. And St. Pauli Girl happened to have an account there already. Moving half-way across the Great Republic wouldn’t be a problem except we chose the one town that didn’t have a branch for our bank. This is not a big deal anymore with direct deposits and online banking. In fact, I overdrew our account while I typed this.

But rare occasions call for us to make the twenty-mile drive to the bank. Turns out I had to get a cashier’s check to pay a certain sheriff of a certain parish in Louisiana. That parish had a nice welcome center consisting of two police cars parked on the interstate in an area where you had about thirty feet to slow down from 70 to 55. Downhill. Some people would call this a speed trap, but I prefer to think of it more like a telethon. I’m happy to pledge some money so this parish can make its budget.

So I took my pledge card (plus a check from another bank to cover the funds) to the bank where I actually got to deal with a real live teller:

Me: I need to deposit this check.

Teller: Certainly. (her fingers fly across her keyboard then she hands me a receipt). There you go.

Me: Great. Now I need to get a cashier’s check.

Teller: From the same account?

Me: Yes. Assuming that I have access to the check I just deposited.

Teller: No, you don’t. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning.

Me: (Sigh)

Teller: But if you’d like, I can cash that check, deposit the cash and then you can get a cashier’s check.

Me: Great. Anything to save me another trip. (I hand back the receipt and as she works on the keyboard again, the wheels in my mind begin to turn.) How come I don’t have access to that deposit right now?

Teller: Standard policy. Funds aren’t available until the next day.

Me: But you cashed the check.

Teller: You’re a loyal customer. We can do that for you.

Me: How is your ability to cash the check different than my having access to a deposit?

Teller: Because you deposited cash. You always have immediate access to deposited cash because cash is cash.

Me: But it worked the same way. I gave you a check, and you gave me access.

Teller: No, I cashed the check. I just didn’t show you the money. If it would make you feel better, I can give you the money, you can fill out a deposit slip, deposit the cash and then we can do the cashier’s check.

Me: No, by cashing this check, you are telling me this check is good right now. But if I just deposit it, someone somewhere will decide sometime tonight the check is good.

Teller: Yes, the computer.

Me: But you’re typing into a computer right now.

Teller: I’m entering the transaction. The computer will update your account tonight.

Me: So if I deposit a check for a million dollars, I can’t access it until tomorrow but you’d cash it for me today?

Teller: Let’s not get ridiculous.

Me: Well, what’s the threshold? $500? $1000? This could be important someday.

Teller: Do you want a cashier’s check or not?

Me: If I deposited the check instead of what you call cashing it, would you still give me the cashier’s check even though I don’t have enough money in my account?

Teller: Of course.

Me: But then I’d be overdrawn.

Teller: And the computer would charge you for it.

Me: Now I understand!

Teller: Okay, the fee for a cashier’s check is $7.

Me: Yeah, take it out of the account.

Teller: Do you need a cashier’s check? I can get you a money order for $4.

Me: What? Aren’t they the same thing?

Teller: No.

Me: Sure they are. When Sheriff Leroux gets either one, he knows it’s as good as cash. The difference is that a cashier’s check comes from a bank while a money order comes from a convenience store.

Teller: We sell money orders as well.

Me: What’s the difference?

Teller: $7 versus $4.

Later at another bank, I close down a business savings account:

Teller: May I ask why you are closing this account?

Me: Because of a monthly service charge of $5 and a 0.000001 interest rate. I’m better off keeping it under the mattress.

Teller: You only have $13 in the account. The $5 is a government regulation when you have less than $100 in the account.

Me: I see, but I also get charged for transfers from checking to savings and back again.

Teller: That’s also a government regulation if you do more than 6 in a month.

Me: Well that’s a drag because the account was a good place to store my sales tax so I wouldn’t spend it before I had to send it in to the state. At least I can blame it on Obama. So these fees go to the government?

Teller: No.

Me: I see. But it was the government’s idea?

Teller: Yes, exactly!

Me: And the banks fought it pretty hard because they value their customers?

Teller: Sir, it costs money to keep an account open.

Me: Really? I do online banking, get paperless statements, and you don’t pay any interest. I assume the bank president keeps it under his mattress.

Teller: You’re supposed to keep money in savings. Not move it back and forth. That’s why it’s called savings. The government wants to ensure that enough money stays in the bank.

Me: So if the government makes you do this, can’t you slip a little refund to your customers?

Teller: That would violate the spirit of the law. We can’t do that. We must do what the government tells us.

Me: So you don’t want to do it, but you’ll accept the fees anyway?

Teller: Yes.

A lot of people were against the recently passed financial legislation law because they were worried that banks would have to think of more creative ways to make money. Good news! I think they’re up to the challenge.