Monday, August 16, 2004

More truth about credit cards

Credit cards are a 50 year old technology. Sure, there have been some incidental improvements, but on the whole, a 16-digit number and a signature are a crappy way to assure payment to anyone in the 21st century.

Look at my posts previously about credit cards and identification. Banks and merchants are trying desperately to keep what is effectively an ancient banking tool afloat, by tweaking the rules here and there and screwing each other in the process. The result is that to avoid inconveniencing consumers, small businesspeople are getting screwed. The merchants, in return, skirt the rules, balancing consumer convenience versus their own self-interest, occasionally getting into trouble, occasionally losing a customer, and rarely actually preventing the problem.

The solution is painful, but such is the way with revolution. Consumers must force merchants to comply with the rules. Eventually, without the placebo of requesting ID, merchants will be forced to take the bull by the horns, and either take action against the banks for reversing charges on authorized payments, or stop accepting credit cards. Either way, the banks will start to feel the pain.

Banks, in return, will be forced to finally research and adopt new transaction processing tools that are genuinely friendly to all involved, instead of leaving merchants as the scapegoat.

Invention comes from pain. We, as the protected consumer class in this story, are in the best position to bring pain to the merchants and banks. In the end, we will have to give up our credit cards, but they will be replaced with something better because if it.

Let’s be honest for a moment…

I’ve received some e-mails in the brief time my post about credit cards and identification has been up, from merchants positive they have the right to require ID, and moreso, are doing everyone a favor by it.


I’m about to expose your secret. You may know it already, or this might pop that little lightbulb on over your head. But this is the reason merchants want to demand ID to accept credit cards, and for some reason, they don’t want to tell you:

Their wallet.

Yup. Merchants are the losers when crooks use stolen credit cards. Hell, even when assholes use their own credit cards then decide they don’t want to pay for the goodies. We, the consumers, are protected all over the place. By federal law, our liability for bad charges is $50, but most credit card issuers put it at zero. But the banks rarely take up the slack, either. They are quick to charge back to merchants, and slow to resolve issues in the merchant’s favor. Enough chargebacks, and they may even lose their ability to accept credit cards all together.

The upshot then is, if someone uses a stolen credit card in a store, it’s pretty much as if they just walked out the door with it.

And so, merchants want to do everything they can to make sure that’s really your card you’re paying with. They decide that requiring ID is a great solution, and convince themselves and others that it’s a good idea, and soon everyone forgets that it’s all to protect the merchants.

But you know what? Tell me the truth, and I’ll help. Post a sign that says “To help protect us from theft, please present photo ID with your credit card.” prominently near the register, and I’ll be a lot happier to comply. I want the stores I shop at to be successful! But lie to me, and tell me you’re protecting me, and I’ll be exercising my right to not show ID all over the place.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Digital “Piracy” of Broadcast Content

I’ve been pondering this since I read an article about recent P2P network traffic. It turns out that the vast majority of actual traffic is no longer music, but video. This has broadcast content providers concerned, since they don’t seem to want their product spread out of their control.

It seems to me they’re looking at this the wrong way. There are two fundamental truths that these producers need to consider:

  1. All information is subject to evolutionary pressure. That pressure pushes information into the hands of as broad an audience as possible. No “owner” can stop that.
  2. People are inherently lazy.
The first means that content providers, by providing material people want, are simply advancing the pressure on that content to get into the minds of a broader and broader audience. “Piracy,” as typically defined, is thus inevitable. The hope comes in the second. There is a small number of people dedicated to packaging “pirated” material for consumption by those that wish to consume it digitally. Most people so dedicated, are also motivated enough to trim out production credits and advertisement.

But, if producers themselves produced the content in the desired (digital, easily consumed) format, directly to the consumer, with the same, or even more convenient delivery mechanism, without the overshadowing threat of prosecution/persecution, they would have virtually complete control over the actual content. Most people don’t care enough to remove ads, if they have the content they want. And once they have that content, the pressure to find a version with the ads removed is dramatically lower than the pressure to obtain the content originally. Low enough that most won’t even bother.

So, content providers, rather than struggling against, essentially, their own success, should go into (or contract out) the direct digital content business. Produce neat little packages of content, wrap it around ads, credits, or other information that people will pay to get into consumers’ hands, and deliver it to as many people as humanly possible.

To get down to a real-life example: I missed the broadcast of the first episode of “The 4400” on the USA network. So, I decided to download it with BitTorrent. The copy I retrieved is HDTV quality, and has had all ads and most of the credits removed. It is exactly what I desire to watch. However, if USA had provided a download of the same (or even normal broadcast) quality material, with the original ads and credits intact, free, I would have retrieved that one instead, viewed at least a number of the commercials, and been satisfied.

So, as it stands now, the advertisers, and ultimately the broadcaster, lose out because they will not adapt to a new medium for information distribution.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004


From time to time, I get into the same argument: Retail merchants are not allowed to require identification for a consumer to use a Visa or Mastercard. With all of the recent security-consciousness about identity theft, a lot of merchants have started demanding ID, because it makes people feel like they are being protected.

But they can’t do that.

It’s buried pretty deep, and not commonly known, but Visa and Mastercard policy both prohibit merchants from requiring identification to complete a transaction using their credit cards.

From the Visa FAQ:

Q. Are merchants allowed to ask for identification when using Visa products?
A. While a merchant may ask for identification if fraud is suspected, it is contrary to Visa policy to require the consumer to show identification as a condition of the sale. If a merchant asks for identification and the consumer is unable or unwilling to produce it, the merchant is still obliged to accept the consumer’s Visa card. Consumers who experience refusal of service based on identification may either call their card issuer to report the problem or call 1-800-VISA-911.

From the Mastercard merchant complain form, the list of reportable infractions:

  • In order to make a MasterCard purchase, the merchant/retailer required a minimum or maximum amount.
  • The merchant/retailer is adding a charge for using your MasterCard card.
  • The merchant/retailer required identification.
  • A merchant/retailer displaying the MasterCard decal in their window refused to accept my MasterCard card.

American Express is trickier. My understanding is (and I don’t have documentation to back this up, yet) that, while a merchant may require ID to process a transaction, they may not be more restrictive for Amex than they are for any other credit card they accept. Meaning, if they take Visa/MasterCard, they are obliged to accept American Express without ID as well.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Marine Piper in Iraq Receives a Proper Kilt

Back in April, there was a wire story about 1st Sergeant Dwayne Farr stationed in Iraq. He had taken up the bagpipes, and played them routinely. One line in the article read, “He’s looking for a desert camouflage kilt he can wear in operations like these.”

Well, that got the Utilikilts mailing list I’m on fired up. There were a few false starts, but a collection was taken up, and plans were made to get a custom Utilikilts Survival Kilt made in genuine Marine MARPAT material. There were a few disheartening moments as news stories arose of kilt companies shipping “desert camo” kilts to 1stSgt Farr. In the end we learned though that none of them had actually bothered to do what we did, and actually get in touch with the man and get proper measurements.

So, today, a dream is realized. 1stSgt Farr received his new kilt, and it’s everything we hoped it would be.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Busybodies invade the school lunch program

So, I’m on the mailing list for the Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School PT(S)A. Usually, it’s some back-patting, calls for volunteers, and occasional useful notices for parents. On a pretty frequent basis, some chick named “France Giddings” (who is apparently an “investigator” for something called “A.C.A.”) sends out some tripe usually pushed out of the state teacher’s union, about how we need to encourage the government to send more money to the state teacher’s union. Today, I get this, which is basically some busybody housewife who thinks she’s a self-taught nutrition expert, looking to push the school district to adopt “progressive” top-down food service policies.
I’ve read the policies she’s so appalled by. They’re pretty basic, and push responsibility down the chain to the local administrators, where it belongs. I don’t want bozos like Ms. Thorn wasting the school district’s time debating all this crap, instigating a “one size fits all” policy, and screwing it up for everyone, when what we’ve got is working. If people don’t like what the schools are serving their kids, brown-bagging is cheaper anyway.
Get a life, Shelly.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Teacher’s union protects income at expense of children.

It looks like the WEA has done it. They’ve managed to buy enough signatures to get the minimalist state charter school law suspended until at least April 2005. Hopefully, the voters will see through the crap this year, and charter schools will finally have a chance in Washington State.

Personally, I’d love to see the WEA lose every cent it extorts from teachers’ paychecks, but I’m sure it’ll be a long time before that’s even possible.

Shut up about the war, already!

I subscribe to a couple of “political” newsletters. It’s a quick, easy way to stay up on the news that interests me. Being generally libertarian in bent, a lot of the people that write newsletters that interest me are opposed to the US actions in Iraq. That’s fine, I’m not so sure it was a good idea either. But dammit, it just pisses me off that every, single, day, the top five news items and at least half the total have to be “Another Bad Thing Happened in Iraq.”

Shut up already! I know you think Iraq was a bad idea! I know that soldiers facing hostiles are going to die! I know innocents pay in wartime! Sheesh, give it a break. There’s plenty going on inside our borders, focus on that for a while.