Friday, March 21, 2008

Ready for a long weekend

I feel like a bit of a curmudgeon today: rain has been falling and the blog posts have been grumbly. The worst of it seems to have hit today: as the view out my window suggests, the rivers are rising as the skies are lowering. What it doesn't show is the cold and snow showers that blew through in bands all day.


Someone said that it was the coldest Easter in the Netherlands in 40 years: maybe the North Atlantic Conveyor was making its predicted flip? More likely that this is just the earliest Easter in many years. In any case, it was a good excuse to put the weather radar onto my page.

And, in fact, the tulips are up in the roadway medians, the buds on the trees are plump, so spring can't be too far away. I've got all the planning done for my daughter's visit, hotels and planes booked, reservations at Jamie Oliver's "Fifteen", and sent her instructions for navigating through Schiphol (my Dutch friends think I crossed a line at that).

A little sunshine by the first week in April would complete the picture.

Its been an uncertain week at work: HQ has suffered a tough year and the trickle-down onto our budget process turned into a cascade. Scenario-planning under those circumstances isn't much fun. My project is making great progress in the meantime: enthusiasm is high and results are good. It's a daily schism, alternating dark discussions with bright promise.

My Dutch friends tell me that Easter Monday is the day that Netherlanders traditionally shop for furniture. No sales, no particular reason: it's just the day that people go buy a couch. I think that it's more of a gardening season than a decorating one, but I'll go with the flow and pick up a bedframe if tradition demands. I'm also ready to invest in a bike, and suggestions are rolling in from cycling colleagues (in other words, all of my colleagues).

So, it should be a good weekend to catch up on sleep, emails, shopping, sanity. Put the week behind and spring ahead.

At least, once it stops snowing.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Soured on Citi

A couple of days ago, I wrote glowing praise of Citibank's Access Account, which seemed to provide a simple means to do direct deposit and wire transfers without need for visiting the bank to open the account or to give transfer instructions.

I take it all back.

I tried a test transfer, moving $100 from my Washington Mutual account to the new Citi account.  Since the hour was late, I accidentally typed in the account number of a closed savings account rather than my active checking account at WaMu, a simple clerical error.  As expected, within a day, Citi notified me that they could not execute the transfer.

Unexpectedly, they placed a lock on my Citi account, preventing further wire transfers of any sort.  When I called to follow-up, explaining the error, I was told that this required an investigation.  Today, I was told that they required (no joke) a letter from Washington Mutual, on letterhead, explaining when the savings account had been established, who owned it, why and when it had been closed, and the account status on the date of the transfer.  Citi would then conclude an internal investigation to determine whether to unlock my Citi account for further wire transfers.

In the meantime, I was free to make deposits into the checking account, and could use the online service to view the money in my account.  Seriously: only to view it.

I went up two levels of supervisors, explaining that it was my 3-digit clerical mistake, only involving a $100 domestic interbank transfer, and that I would gladly re-enter the order with the correct number.  No-go.  I finally explained that I had no alternative but to close the account.  With Pleasure, they said, glad to be done with it.

Wire transfers can and do fail for all sorts of reasons.  It's no big deal.  When a Fortis transfer failed while being sent to the US, they simply backed it out, returned the money to my account (minus 50 euros handling fee), and we tried again. I'm baffled as to why this went so spectacularly wrong.

In any case, it's a good test: I never would have been able to unwind a failed international transfer.

...and I'm once again searching for a banking home.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Wiki way to ignorance

I love Wikipedia.

It's the first reference that I consult when I need information on-line in a hurry, and I generally get the background, pictures, and links that I need for a quick insight. 


For example, someone suggested that I see the Goya etchings exhibit at the Petit Palais in Paris last Sunday.  The art was thoughtful,  powerful, and disturbing: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (right, courtesy of Artchive) is a typical example.  Afterward, I had a quick browse of the article on Wikipedia to put a bit of context around it.  All well and good.

Or is it?

  Wikipedia is a consensual source: Truth is what everyone agrees to.

One of my business school teachers made the point that each generation has it's own source for authoritative answers.  People in their 50's and 60's tend to look to experts: they read the Economist, consult textbooks, listen to podcast lectures, attend a class.  Those in their 30's and 40's, she asserted, looked to people that they personally knew, liked, and trusted, following pundits to a greater degree. Today's 20-somethings tend to ask their friends and go with the consensus.  The lesson was that we had to tailor our customer communications to fit the channels that people use.  But the notion that Truth could be discovered through consensus troubled me.

A recent Windows Weekly podcast asked why expertise has become so undervalued.  His example compared TV cooks Julia Child, who studied French techniques diligently before teaching them, to Rachel Ray, who today prattles mindlessly around a kitchen (or a country, if you follow her travel show).  Why, he argued, do we accept advice from someone who knows less than we do?  'simply easy time spent sharing perspectives with an engaging personality?

Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) suggests in the Washington Post that it stems from a combination of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.  Not only do people lack knowledge, but they have become arrogant about it: "The problem is not just the things we do not know; it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place".  This attitude is prevalent from talk-show pundits to the President, and it has a significant impact on public discourse and policy decisions, as well as infecting easy targets like media, entertainment, and conversation.

  ...and I wonder if it corrupts Wikipedia.

     To return to Goya, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters".

        How many monsters, today, are a simple result of ignorance and indifference?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

(not) Accessing bank accounts and television shows

I'm approaching my May 1 deadline to establish a US bank account for my paychecks that I can access for living expenses in the Netherlands.image I finally gave up trying to convince (Yoo Hoo !) WaMu that global banking should include currency exchanges and wire transfers. I went on to approach Schwab, HSBC, Bank of America, but in every case, the bank required a personal visit to open an account, and wire transfers required fax or written instructions. I can't believe that I'm starting to wish more banks were as good as Fortis.

In desperation, I called Citibank. I think of them as a high-flying business bank, fallen on hard times, and so I had low expectations for personal banking. The first hour on the phone with them reinforced the concerns:

1) I started in an overseas call center, who rattled through a script and directed me to a Personal Banker.

2) My Personal Banker was irritated that I wanted to ask questions before opening an account. After ten fruitless minutes, she hooked on the word "Dutch" and sent me to the International Personal Banking group.

3) My International Personal Banker danced around the options, telling me I didn't qualify for account types that were unavailabel anyway. I consulted their web site, asking about simple Regular Checking or Interest Checking. That got me routed to the Global Executive Banking program.

4) My Global Executive Banker told me that I needed to talk to his supervisor and hung up on me.

5) I called back into the Global Executive connection, and was told that I could only establish an account through my Company Relocation Office. I explained that my company expected me to do this myself, and they explained that I could, therefore, put $25,000 on account with them and they'd be happy to talk further.

6) I am sheepishly routed back to my Personal Banker.

Remarkably, at this point, I connected with someone who understood that I wanted to simply make direct payroll deposits and wire cash overseas using the Internet.

And Citi has that account.

A Citibank Access Account can be opened on-line, is instantly established, and carries no fee if you do monthly direct deposit ($3 otherwise). No minimum balance (I opened it with $0.00), and, while the account has an ATM card, there are no other checks or products attached. Instead, you get simple, free wire transfers domestically, and rapid, $30 international transfers with generous limits accessible over the Internet, denominated in the currency of your choice.

i was shocked: it's *exactly* what I've looked for during the past few years. It took an hour to set it up and do a test transfer from WaMu, get the Fortis link entered and stored, and figure out the SWIFT codes. I'll see how the first month goes, but I am very impressed with the simple minimalism (services and fees) of this account. (Warning: This account immediately went sour, and I am no longer a Citibank customer.)

I decided to celebrate by exploring Hulu, a new service that streams American television and movies over the Internet for free. I registered, and found an interesting selection of films and classic shows. But, any attempt to watch anything brought the message:


This continues a pattern: all of the networks in the US flash similar "We apologize, but this video isn't available at your location" messages. I've fiddled with anonymizers and such to try to spoof it, but without success. I'm not sure what motivates this restriction: many of the same shows appear on Dutch cable television (sans commercials).

So, back to reading and practicing Dutch language...probably better for me anyway. At least I'm batting to the sunny side of .500 today.

Bank note photo credit Commercebank

Monday, March 17, 2008

Why is life full of surprises?

In conversations with friends over the past months, we've all shaken heads about how life's road has twisted over the past five years. "Who'd have thought we'd all be here today..." we begin, and talk about how things turned out so unexpectedly with kids, with jobs, with dreams.

It makes me wonder, indeed, how it happened.

Psychologists tell us that human minds are pattern-matching wonders, best at extrapolating from experience in the face of incomplete information. So why don't we do better at predicting and influencing the course of events? The breakdown has to be somewhere along the boundary where our minds intersect with the real world.

Logically, I suppose events in the objective world could unfold in any of three ways. The may be driven by individual free will, allowing solipsistic control over our own destiny. Alternatively, events may be driven by others more powerful or willful than ourselves (this variation includes the will of a deity, or of the men in black helicopters). Finally. the scientists could be right: the world just evolves in it's own mindless, random way.

And how could I predict or influence the world? Again, there are three possibilities. Ideally, I am fully competent to understand what goes on around me and to take effective action. Alternatively, I could be missing the obvious, failing to see the truth, but acting very effectively in the wrong direction. Or, I could be inept, unable to plan or execute effectively despite seeing things accurately.

So, I sketch all this out in a classical MBA-style two-axis grid, filling in the nine intersections:

Destiny is under my control.Destiny is under other people's control.Destiny is controlled by random luck.
I understand events and take actionThings work out as planned.Thwarted by lack of sufficient information.Surprised that things turn out so different.
I can't see the obvious.Delusional: missing the truth all around me.Self-absorbed and myopic.Fantasizing that I'm in control.
I can't plan or execute.Incompetent: missing the opportunities.Impotent: failing to have influence.At best, sailing with life's wind.

'Faced with this array of unhappy alternatives, I conclude that there is no single failure here. Rather, things don't turn out the way we expect because life is full of all of these moments, in varying proportions. Reflecting, I believe that I'm largely competent, but that I'm also plagued by incomplete information, somewhat lacking in influence, and can be opportunistic when attractive alternatives pop up.

Even beyond that, my biggest failures to predict the future came from not recognizing disruptive "forks in the road", moments that redefined life's available constraints and opportunities.

My takeaway from all this musing is that we are probably very limited in our ability to predict or influence the future. 'Not surprising, then, that life's road twists, or that I seldom end up where I expect we might.