Something is afoot at the gas station.

The gas station routine has not changed in years. I put in my card, enter my zip code, choose my fuel, and pump. When I’m done I put the spout back in its bracket and the machine asks me if I want a receipt. I say yes, it spits out the receipt, and I leave. Sometimes I remember to close the gas cap again.

About half the gas stations changed recently. The machine now asks the receipt question before I can pump. At the end, it gratuitously announces that ‘THE OPERATION COMPLETED SUCCESSFULLY” and out comes the receipt.

Can you see what’s wrong with this?

If I don’t make the receipt decision until the end, I’m looking right at the gallons and dollars when the receipt pops out, and without conscious decision I compare them. By the time it hands out the receipt the numbers are all done, and it doesn’t know until then that I requested paper proof of its honesty.

But now the machine knows from the beginning whether I’ve asked for a receipt. If I say no, the computer can cheat me and give me less gallons or charge me more, knowing that I’ll have nothing to immediately compare with and no paper later when small differences in my credit card show up or the car runs out of gas sooner than expected.

Considering the heavy presence of organized crime in gasoline fraud around here (particularly in PIN thefts from debit-only stations), one has to wonder, doesn’t one?

Dear Consumer Reports: an Open Letter

I have trusted Consumer Reports since I was a child for product ratings. Your policy of no advertising and no commercial use has been admirable and useful, and I’ve always been happy to pay for the service.

Now your website has a shopping section. The explanatory paragraph says that it’s intended to provide a safe, unbiased environment for shopping, and that you’ve surveyed us customers and found just the right places to shop. It also says that it’s “powered by” Pricegrabber.com.

So this means that you’ve cut a deal with Pricegrabber to send your members to their service. Pricegrabber is not a charity and anyone in the business knows how these things work. You have taken your very valuable membership as a commodity and rented us to an outside commercial service.

Your noncommercial use policy says: ” We are not beholden to any commercial interest. Our income is derived from the sale of Consumer Reports®, ConsumerReports.org®, and our other publications and information products, services, fees, and noncommercial contributions and grants.”

What are the terms of your deal with Pricegrabber, exactly? What exactly are the criteria by which you or Pricegrabber choose vendors and products for the shopping site?

Consumer Reports is not BizRate.com. Neither are you AAA, or any of the other “organizations” that sell your membership to affiliates.

How much money will it cost you to dump this shopping nonsense, and when will you do it?

There’s no way to maintain the fiction that you’re following a noncommercial use policy at the same time that you’re selling your customers to a generic Internet shopping portal.

Thanks in advance for your reply.

Note: This was also sent via their website as a Letter to the Editor

Area Library To Remove Books, Librarians from Library

I rarely reproduce an article in its entirety, but as would say, the whole thing is a pullquote. I can’t come up to the challenge of annotating or responding. Instead, read:

Newport may close Balboa branch, open ‘electronic’ library
Instead, part of planned community center would be equipped with computer center, on-demand book orders.

NEWPORT BEACH — The Newport Beach Public Library is considering closing one of its four branches and outfitting a planned community center with everything that it offered — except the books.

At a meeting about the Balboa Peninsula’s Marina Park development Wednesday, city officials unveiled plans to close the Balboa Branch — which houses 35,000 items, including books, DVD and other materials — and to dedicate a portion of the Marina Park Community Center to an “electronic library.”

By eliminating books and librarians at the building, they hope to adapt to modern times and save money while providing residents services they’ll actually use. In the process, they would replace the library’s most iconic features with Internet connections.

“That caused me the most angst,” said City Manager Dave Kiff. “People identify [book] stacks with the library.”

But officials analyzed how its patrons use the branches and found that most come for a quiet place to study, to plug their laptops into work spaces and to use the Internet-connected computers. Few of them actually remove books from the shelves.

That’s especially the case at the Balboa branch, said Cynthia Cowell, library services director.

“They come specifically to use the computers,” she said. “We have a lot of electronic use of the library, and it’s getting bigger all the time.”

The new facility would have a 2,200-square-foot “Internet library” room with a central fireplace and a kiosk where patrons could order books to borrow using an online system. Some seats and tables would look out onto the bay.

“What we hope to accomplish,” Cowell said, “is to create a place where people want to come and be.”

If residents still want to get their book on the Peninsula, they could order it online from the other branches and pick it up at Marina Park. Instead of holding books behind a desk, the library would drop them off in individual lockers.

“A lot of people still want to touch a book, hold a book, smell it,” Cowell said. “The sensory experience is still very important to many of us.”

The new process would be similar to Netflix. Patrons could place orders from anywhere with an Internet connection: home, work, Marina Park, etc. The kiosk would also be equipped with video-calling software, similar to Skype. Patrons could speak face-to-(projected) face with a reference librarian who could help answer research questions and point them toward the right online resources.

Cowell said she anticipates some blow-back from people in the community, but downplayed the change in peoples’ library experience.

“It’s just the delivery method,” she said.

When Long Beach considered closing its downtown library in 2008 and opening a similar Internet library with pick-up capabilities, many in the community fought back. Some of them were from the Long Beach Public Library Foundation.

In Newport, the Friends of the Library may not have such a strong reaction.

Speaking for herself, Nancy Acone, a Friends board member and manager of The Friends Book Store, said, “You have to be open for change in the library, because you don’t want to be like the railroads and go out of business.”

Presumably, it would be cheaper to run the library without trained reference librarians, but Cowell said she hasn’t run the numbers yet. The City Council would have to decide what to do with the three full-time staff members at the Balboa Branch, she said, and whether closing it would eliminate additional work for other library staffers.

At older than 50 years, the Balboa branch and the adjoining fire station need to be rebuilt, city officials said. If this plan goes through, they would rebuild the station and possibly turn the library land into a park, Kiff said.

Car loan, or why we hate bankers

I bought a Ford Fiesta from Robins Ford in Costa Mesa on Friday, July 30. It’s a great car. The price was good. The salesman was helpful and intelligent and didn’t do car salesman B.S.

I had a preapproved loan from my credit union for 6.1%.

The finance guy worked me a bit for upselling on warranties and insurance products, but wasn’t very pushy. He then wanted to get the loan business. He told me he could get me 6% or better. He was going to work on this over the weekend.

On Saturday he called me and said “I got you 6%.”

A couple of weeks passed. I got a number of loan rejection letters in the mail from various banks. I got no approvals. I called him and asked if there was something I needed to sign additionally, and he said no, they would mail me.

A couple more weeks passed. I called him asking what loan I had, and when I should get the mail. I got voicemail and the call was not returned. Repeat twice.

I called Ford Motor Credit. They had no loan for my car or anything in my name.

I received mail from Chase Bank announcing that my loan had been approved and they’d given me a lower rate because I qualified for same. My rate: 8.39%.

I called Robins Ford and was told that my credit guy no longer worked there. I talked to a new guy. He was polite and professional. He said “look at your contract; whatever is on there is your rate.” He agreed that the whole thing was upsetting. He also said that it was possible to get the credit union to loan me at a lower rate and pay off this worse loan immediately, which was a good thought.

My contract (here’s the part that’s my fault) said 10%. Credit manager guy had literally waved his hand over this as if it was a formality, or some kind of placeholder. Burned.

I applied to the credit union for a loan to repay this one; it was declined due to excessive debt. Doh.

Meanwhile, it was time for me to make my first payment. I already had a Chase account paid by bank transfer, so I set this up for the auto loan also. The system rejected my information at first. I assumed I had made a typo, and tried again. Another failure. Looking carefully at my bank’s site, I saw that they now had a separate transfer number for electronic payments of this kind. I re-entered my bank info and now it was accepted. I paid the current bill and set up automated payments.

On the 22nd of September I got a late payment phone call from Chase. Looking at my account online, I saw that it said the following: next payment due date: 9/13. last payment made: 9/13. Account late. Amount due: my monthly plus a processing charge and a returned check charge.

I called Chase and a comedy ensued. The rep was very pleasant and professional. Together, we took a journey through madness and finance. It was clear that I had paid on the 13th, that the transaction was bollixed, and that a week later the computer decided that the transaction had not gone through and they were considering it a bad check. There was no late fee yet. I mentioned twice that this was during the time when Chase had an exceptionally bad I.T. disaster involving their loan systems, but he was silent about this.

I made my one-time payment with the rep on the phone, and he said he would get the bounced check charge remove.

Today, I looked at my Chase account. The account was now listed as overdue with a late charge. The last payment still said the 13th. And my new payment was listed as “in process.”

The bankers have mentioned recently that their feeling are hurt, that they feel bruises, that they are being unfairly vilified by the media and public servants. Why do we attack their large salaries? Why do we resent their guaranteed bonuses? Why are we insisting that the regulators regulate instead of sipping the bankers’ Scotch? Why do we fly into tantrums when their bold, risk-taking, disruptive innovations in finance blow up and kick shrapnel in our faces?

IT’S BECAUSE EVERY SINGLE DEAL WITH THEM IS A DRUG DEAL GONE SOUR AND WE GET OUR ASSES GRIFTED BUT GOOD, AND THE PEOPLE IN CHARGE OF THE GRIFT ARE WEIGHTLESS UNTOUCHABLE ARISTOCRATS WHO LIVE ON PLANET VEUVE-CLICQUOT AND WILL NEVER, EVER BE PUNISHED FOR THEIR CRIMES OR EVEN STOPPED FROM CONTINUING THEM.

But it’s a snappy little car.

Dear Lazyweb: WIC and nutrition stores

I know that WIC is the federal program for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and infant nutrition. I see their offices in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And I also know that women receiving that aid get EBT cards or checks that have to be spent on very specific items.

Next door to almost every WIC office I see a store with a name like “Mommy’s Nutrition” or “Baby and Mom Nutrition.” It’s obvious that these places exist to immediately capture the business from WIC.

Are these places predatory? I did come across a reference to “WIC Only Stores” being predatory and the government putting in fair price rules to deter that, but that was in 2006 and the stores are still everywhere.

I know some of you work professionally with poverty issues. What’s the scoop?

A Veterans Day Toast

This Veterans Day I offer a toast to my Uncle Richard. He was a very young soldier in 1943 when he was called upon to invade Sicily and fight the Nazis there.

On average everyone in his unit was killed three times, so 300% casualties. It’s not clear how he survived, although he has a great debt to an older sergeant who looked after him. A lot of things in life have been more difficult than they should have been since then.

Since that time he has maintained a continuous, loyal, and upright middle finger at any kind of authority, without exception. He’s a photographer and painter and retired from teaching. I believe he was something of a thorn in the side of university administrators during his career.

Uncle Dick, I’m sorry for the unholy amount of suffering you had to endure, and I salute you for being a model of rebellion and creative success. Bottoms up!

mortgage bro’s (slight return)

Finally pushed over the limit by this asshole (youtube video):

The talk radio mouths and the right-wing press have locked on to their version of the financial crash, and why foreclosed homeowners should not receive help.

The problem, they say, is that “political pressure” forced lenders to make bad loans to those who didn’t deserve them qualify. Many of these people were clearly n… ni… ne… NE’ER-DO-WELLS. Everyone knows those people can’t keep a mortage. If the government had let these experienced bankers use their own judgment, none of this would have happened. So we definitely don’t want to spend money—OUR money—helping these people out any more!

The subprime and alt-A mortgages were largely written by people I saw daily over the last decade, our famous local “Mortgage Bros.” These guys bought leads from cold-call telemarketers and sold refinancing to anything with a pulse, lying constantly about the risks. They upsold every potential loan, pushed the limit with interest-only ARM on subprime and alt-A garbage loans. They had no reason to care if the bank ever got the money or if their customers kept their houses. They used the system as it was presented.

The idea that these were stolid, cautious men in pinstriped suits, sworn to the fiduciary duties of their banks, who were somehow forced by dashiki’d oppressors in the Federal bureaucracy into giving money away to the NE’ER-DO-WELLS would be funny were it not such a repulsive lie.

Make no mistake. The financial industry made loans that could not be paid, knowing they were bad loans. They pushed those loans hard on their customers. And they knowingly mislead their customers into taking on impossible obligations. Thousands of these brokers committed criminal fraud.

If this was an attempt to redistribute wealth to the NE’ER-DO-WELLS, it backfired. The result was a lot of Harleys and speedboats and cocaine and blowjobs provided to the grinning, empty-souled asshole Fonzies of Orange County. If you don’t want their customers to be saved from eviction, let’s use the money to build them a very unpleasant jail.