Elastic is not fantastic: a blatantly deceptive lender’s advertisement

So recently, alongside all the other mail I usually receive, I get this solicitation to borrow up to $2,500 via a service called Elastic. Often I just rip these into a few pieces and toss into the trash along with all the other garbage advertisements I get. Sometimes I read through the terms to see just how bad they are.

In the case of Elastic, not only are the terms terrible, Republic Bank is not even calling the charges “interest”, but instead uses the terms “cash advance fee” and “carried balance fee”. Here’s the actual advertisement (with anything which could possibly be used as an identifier blacked out, except for my name and my city which are honestly not secret to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time):

That big green “$0” should be a huge red flag. Technically, the lack of an application fee, annual fee, or late fees may be true. If you read the rest of it, you’ll figure out quickly that if you were to take this offer, this is the last lender you would want to be late in paying as what happens becomes downright odious.

The printed materials don’t even tell you how much the carried balance fee is; for that you have to go onto the website and do some digging. You get this chart, which mentions the dollar amounts but doesn’t tell you what they would be as an APR:

To figure out the APR, you need a calculator or a spreadsheet, and a lot of patience. The carried balance fees by themselves represent an APR of anywhere from 48% to realistically topping out at around 100%. The cash advance fee would represent 60% or 120% APR by itself for a loan carried for an entire year, higher for shorter terms (as it is the same amount regardless of how long you borrow the money for). Even in the absolute best case, they are high enough to make 36% APR credit cards look like a bargain (even after factoring in the usually-obscene annual fee to the APR).

I get that payday loans are not cheap, partly due to the high-risk clientèle. But, it is an insult to the intelligence of even an average person to not refer to fees to borrow money as interest, and even to come right out and say “Your Elastic Account does not have an interest rate like other traditional credit products.” That’s an outright lie: it does, and it’s much higher.

Perhaps more insidious than that, though, is the side-step around the Truth In Lending Act requirement to disclose an APR, done by simply not mentioning rates at all for the interest (“carried balance fee” in Republic Bank newspeak). I call this a loophole. Granted, it’s probably not one foreseen at the time TILA was enacted into law (nor were predatory payday lenders in the quantity and type that we see today), but nevertheless a large loophole and one that needs to be closed.

What’s the point of TILA if it allows the most unscrupulous lenders to side-step disclosure of the interest rate as an APR? Laws like this were enacted to protect the borrower by making loan terms easier to understand.

Finally, getting back to that bit about late fees. There is, most definitely, a cost to missing payments or paying late on this loan. The minimum payment will include any past due balance tacked on. If your usual minimum payment is, say, $125, the next payment after you miss will be easily $250 if not more. Technically, like most other lenders, Republic Bank can ask for the entire balance immediately after you miss one payment. They hardly ever do this, of course, but it’s an option nonetheless. Even if you are $1 short of the minimum, it will count as a late payment for credit reporting purposes. And yes, it’s to Republic Bank’s advantage to report as much negative data as possible; this helps keep decent, non-predatory credit products out of reach of their borrowers.

Dirty pool: On the vacating of Bill Cosby’s conviction

I did write a post about Bill Cosby’s first trial that ended in a hung jury; I did not get a chance to write about the second trial which did result in a conviction. Well, today, the guilty verdict was vacated and Bill Cosby is once again a free man.

“Dirty pool” in the post title refers to what the district attorney’s office did in this case. In 2005 Bill Cosby was compelled to give a deposition in a civil trial which, by its nature, required him to incriminate himself. The DA issued a press release stating that Mr. Cosby would not be criminally prosecuted. Mr. Cosby relied on this when giving the deposition and waiving his Fifth Amendment rights. Obviously, in 2017, the DA’s office went back on its word and proceeded to criminally charge Mr. Cosby anyway.

Back in 2017 I said:

I despise rape, sexual assault, and similar crimes, and those that partake of them. However, I also believe that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and to their day in court when accused.

I still believe that today. Knowing what I know today, however, it is painfully obvious to me that the entire premise upon which Mr. Cosby was tried and convicted was flawed and that there is no way the trial could possibly have been fair. If, as a DA, you give your word you won’t prosecute someone based on their civil trial testimony, you’re legally committed to keeping your word. This doesn’t establish that Mr. Cosby is innocent; if anything, it establishes quite the opposite.

I want to address the argument that this is a “technicality”. I really dislike the use of this term as it is often used to belittle flagrantly (and even egregiously) unfair acts undertaken by district/people’s attorneys (at least, usually). People may call this a technicality, but if you were to reframe it in terms of something happening to them, personally, they would say there’s no way that would be fair to them.

When you’re the accused, there are no “technicalities”. Bill Cosby never should have stood trial in 2017, much less been convicted. This doesn’t excuse what Mr. Cosby did, but it is positively putrid and vile that the district attorneys in question thought it would be okay to go back on their word.

It is most emphatically not okay.

A restrospective on HAL-PC’s end and a look to the future

So it was about seven years ago this month that HAL-PC finally called it quits. (For those of you who don’t remember it, HAL-PC was the Houston Area League of PC Users, and at least at one point, was the largest user group of its type.)

A few things have changed since then, perhaps the biggest one being the COVID-19 pandemic, which was made a lot more bearable by technology. Even if, somehow, HAL-PC was still around going into that, I’m pretty sure the COVID-19 pandemic would have finished it off.

The one thing that has not changed, though, is how to a lot of people, computers are still just another appliance. Those of us who grew up with personal computers, or otherwise witnessed the very dawn of the technological revolution they brought about, knows that is not the case. On one hand, yes, the computer is an appliance. On the other, just about every modern appliance more complicated than a very basic mechanical toaster has some type of small computer in it. It’s not going to be something that runs anything close to a traditional operating system (GNU/Linux, Windows, etc), but it’s still a computer in the nominal sense of the term.

Mobile phones were always computer-based, at least in the broader sense (unlike their landline counterparts). Even “feature phones” (the phones that predated “smart phones”) have a CPU (central processing unit); in fact, usually they have more than one. During the twilight of the dominance of the landline phones (mid- to late 1990s), most if not all of the switching units used computer technology, even those at the smaller rural telephone cooperatives. Granted, the rural co-ops may not have had the very latest and greatest, but they were still digital/computerized switches.

As it turns out, there are some computer user groups still in existence. They are mainly for users of non-mainstream operating systems and computers, particularly GNU/Linux and *BSDs, and mid-range systems like the IBM i-Series (the new branding for the AS/400, which replaced the System/38 and its predecessors) among others. The current crop of WordPress meetups are de facto user groups (with the annual WordCamp events being an extension of them). But for mainstream general purpose computing? It’s hard to justify a user group for Microsoft Windows, when the entire point of Windows is to “appliance-ify” the entire computing experience and give it all the excitement and novelty of the average vacuum cleaner. Thus, a generic computer user group is about as exciting now as a hypothetical vacuum cleaner user group would be, and arguably about as useful too. (The main difference being you would ask your friends in the vacuum cleaner user group how to fix things when they didn’t suck. But I digress…)

Apple is even worse. The idea of a Mac user group is laughable. This is a product one typically pays a premium for (as in about twice the going price of a comparable “PC compatible” system) for fancier design and the privilege of getting to use the Genius Bar at Apple’s retail stores. Out-of-warranty repairs undoubtedly cost a premium as well, and the systems that are too far gone provide an opportunity for a Genius Bar tech to upsell you on a new system. It’s great for those that own Apple stock, and perhaps a more palatable approach to computing for those with more money than sense. I’m not sure it’s as great for the typical end user not wealthy enough to afford a yacht, private jet, high-end sports or luxury car, etc. Worse, Apple has made relatively limited contributions to the free software community; the one I’m aware of most is CUPS. They list contributions to “open source” which may or may not include projects that qualify as free software; remember the entire purpose of the term “open source” is to get people talking less about freedom (something which Apple directly attacks with their design of iOS).

Taking a more detailed look back at what I wrote in 2014:

Personally, I’ve never lost sight of the magic behind computing. I’ll admit it, I get a thrill out of installing a new operating system on either brand-new or new-to-me hardware, which I’ve done for every system up until the last one I received new (the one I’m writing this post on). This one was ordered custom-built and with the operating system (Ubuntu GNU/Linux 11.04) already on it for three reasons: first, because for once, it was a realistic option to buy a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed; second, I needed to make immediate use of the computer as soon as it arrived; and third, it was a different thrill to experience the closest equivalent to how most people today get a store-bought PC. The great job Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) has done even trying to mount some kind of challenge to what is a damn-near-monopoly by Microsoft deserves a post all its own (which I may make sometime in July).

I’m still using Ubuntu for now. I’m no longer quite as enamored with Canonical and what they’ve done with the OS; it’s a viable option but way too many upsells and proprietary options are sneaking in for me to be comfortable recommending it to others. When I upgraded my laptop to Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, I wound up with a disaster. (I decided a while back to stick to LTS versions because I hate having things break on upgrade. The pace of upgrades on a six-month schedule is just too chaotic for me now.) I rolled it back to 18.04 where it will probably stay until this laptop hits end of life (the battery is effectively unusable as now it usually lasts less than 30 minutes; it never lasted longer than an hour).

Arguably, the desktop in the office should have stayed on Ubuntu 18.04 as well, but it’s still running 20.04 for the foreseeable future. I’m now looking at PureOS, and would like to be able to upgrade at least the current laptop to Purism’s Librem 14 (or Librem 15 if/when it returns to production), if not also a Librem Mini to use as my primary desktop. I tried PureOS on the current laptop and it’s not a good fit.

My “other” computer is an 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 B+, running the stock Raspberry Pi OS for the moment. I have another Raspberry Pi 4 B+, which is a 2GB model I’m mainly using for some experiments. (I’m looking at alternatives with fewer or no dependencies on proprietary drives, though I will likely at least one original Raspberry Pi around for troubleshooting purposes and to confirm to friends “yes, you can do task XYZ on a Raspberry Pi”.) There are a few Raspberry Pi user groups out there, but once again, this is mainly because the platform is not considered general purpose. It’s certainly possible to use a Raspberry Pi similarly to a traditional desktop computer (especially with the 4GB and 8GB models). I’d be a bit nervous about betting my ability to do all my computing on a microSD card not failing, though. It has actually happened to me once; the microSD card booted one moment, and didn’t boot the next. Yes, my vocabulary resembled that of Q*Bert running into a purple snake for quite a while after, as I had to rebuild my system and restore what data I could from backups.

But I think it’s a sad commentary on the state of computing that most computer users in this decade will never even think that building their own computer is a realistic option, much less doing their own operating system install […]. There is a certain degree of intimidation to overcome when it comes to staring down an empty computer case and the components that will go into it.

As someone experienced in the craft, I wouldn’t mind doing another PC build from scratch. A good bit has changed since the last time I’ve done one. That previous build was during the SATA era, at least. (However, as an aside, I’ve been around long enough to remember with some fondness the joys of PC builds and upgrades from decades past. Just to name a few: parallel ATA connectors, PS/2 keyboard and mouse connections (what we used prior to USB), debugging IRQ conflicts on an ISA bus, the botch that was ISA “Plug and Play” (thankfully obsoleted by PCI and later standards), power connectors that would fry the motherboard if hooked up wrong, and other weird and not-so-wonderful things that would make most millenials cringe.)

However, the reality is that most of the reasons I had for building my own computer no longer apply. Companies like System76, ZaReason (through 2020 November, anyway), Purism, eRacks, ThinkPenguin, and the like had either just began operations (and in a pre-Web world, were likely hard to find), or flat out didn’t exist. Typically, one’s best bet was a local computer shop and even then it was tricky, as a lot of those local shops added Windows without asking. For a long time in the 1990s, when building your own PC was a huge pain in the donkey, a lot of people just gave up and bought something off the shelf with Windows on it. Thankfully we have left those days behind, and it is now much easier to avoid what has become known as the “Microsoft tax” (a licensing fee paid on an unused copy of Windows).

Getting back more directly to the topic at hand, I would like to see computing become exciting again. I am just not sure how to do that when everyone under the age of 30 has grown up with not just computers, but rather powerful computers compared to what was available during the infancy of the technology.

Even if technically possible, it will be damned tricky to restore a lot of the late 1970s to mid-1980s type excitement to computing here in 2021. Those who make computers and their software have worked to insulate the average user from the nuts and bolts and the work that goes into programming, and likely on purpose at that. Why let someone write their own software with a BASIC interpreter that comes with the computer and its operating system, when one can sell even the simplest proprietary shrinkwrapped software for $20 (and often $100, $1000, or even $20 or more per month for however long)? It’s greed. Filthy, vile, disgusting greed; it’s the simplest form of putting profits before people. These are the same people that push back against the concept of free software by saying “what the hell are these people going to do with the source code anyway?”

Honestly, that’s a damned shame. That tells me a lot about what is wrong with the current state of technology.

Thoughts on Derek Chauvin’s sentence and its implications

For better or worse, I never wrote a post about the killing of George Floyd when it originally happened. To be fair about it, there was a lot of outrageous stuff happening in 2020, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, so much that it was difficult to sit down and write a post about any of it.

As a Houston native, George’s death gathered a lot of local publicity, probably almost as much as it did in and around Minneapolis where it happened. I did not follow the trial all that closely. I did express relief upon learning of the guilty verdict.

While I acknowledge that I have been a frequent critic of law enforcement and the attorneys representing the public (DAs, etc), it is not lost on me that their respective jobs are difficult and potentially dangerous. Despite what may look like a bash-fest on law enforcement and those who work with them, I have tried to reserve my criticism for the most egregious and inexcusable violations of the public trust: shooting and killing defenseless animals (again), “fratboy” games regarding jury trials, law enforcement officers being told to ignore subpoenas, questionable speed traps (that don’t enhance safety, but instead destroy trust in the police), abuse of “official business” parking placards (especially with expired registration/inspection), and likely others I’m not remembering or able to find right now.

The senseless death of George Floyd, that Derek Chauvin caused for whatever reasons, is one such egregious and inexcusable violation of the public trust. In fact, I’m not even sure those words are enough to adequately describe how I feel about it: putrid, thuggish, and patently devoid of decency would be more fitting. This is, put simply, a criminal act, and the very last thing someone who enforces the law, who the public has trusted to arrest criminals and quash crime, should be doing. At the very least, causing a death like this as a law enforcement official should mean never working in law enforcement ever again–and admittedly, even that doesn’t happen anywhere near often enough.

Which brings me to the next point: is 22½ years enough for Pathetic-Excuse-for-a-Human-Being Chauvin?

It has become unfortunately rare for the miserable excuses for human beings who recklessly or intentionally killing people under the color of law to actually be held accountable for it. With that in mind I gave little thought to Thankfully-No-Longer-Officer Chauvin getting less than the maximum sentence until I sat down to write this post. Per a CBS News article:

In a news conference, the family of George Floyd reacted to the sentencing outside of the Hennepin County Government Center. Brandon Williams, Floyd’s nephew, said Derek Chauvin’s sentencing “is not enough” and that it’s “like a slap in the face to all of us.”

“I won’t celebrate this. I won’t celebrate it at all,” Williams said. “It’s funny that we got justice, but not enough justice.”

Floyd’s aunt, Angela Harrelson, told CBS News that the sentencing is “bittersweet.”

She said the judge was “too lenient” on Chauvin and that his 22 and 1/2 years behind bars is not the maximum sentence that she had hoped for. “I’m not going to let it steal my spirit and destroy my drive to continue to fight for justice,” Harrelson said.

The state’s sentencing guideline was a mere 12½ years, enhanced because Waste-of-Space Chauvin “abused a ‘position of trust and authority’ and displayed a ‘particular cruelty’ toward Floyd” as mentioned elsewhere in the same article.

My hope was for the judge to issue a maximum sentence as well. That said, 22½ years is rather close to the top end. The judge, with that sentence, sends a clear message that those who derelict the duty to serve and protect in such a putrid and vile manner will face accountability, and human decency will prevail in the end, at least as I see it.

The important thing is that with Thug-That-Used-To-Wear-a-Badge Chauvin behind bars, hopefully we can all breathe now.

Rest in power, George Floyd.

Cheating in baseball: the shift from steroids to…

As a lifelong baseball fan, it troubles me at the amount of cheating in the sport that is coming to light. The Mitchell Report almost got me to quit following baseball for good; as it was, my return to baseball fandom was slow but complete long before the historic World Series of 2017 when the Houston Astros finally took it all in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers (unfortunately, that season was the subject of a cheating scandal itself).

A recent Sports Illustrated article highlighted a surprising form of cheating in baseball. As the title suggests, it relates to ball doctoring. Now, ball doctoring has been banned in MLB for an entire century. At least that’s what the rules say. As to whether or not they are being enforced, that’s another story. The epidemic of “sticky stuff” has pushed batting averages down. Should the trend continue, we may see another “dead ball” era (if we are not there already).

A few select quotes from the article, to highlight just how big the problem is:

“This should be the biggest scandal in sports,” says another major league team executive.

(Given baseball’s past scandals, this says a lot by iteslf.)

An AL reliever, who says he uses a mixture of sunscreen and rosin, recalls a spring-training meeting in 2019 in which the team’s pitching coach told the group, “A lot of people around the league are using sticky stuff to make their fastballs have more lift. And if you’re not using it, you should consider it, because you’re kind of behind.”

(Players have used similar logic to justify steroid use, in the pre-Mitchell Report era.)

“It’s so blatant,” says the AL manager. “It’s a big f— you. Like, what are you gonna do about it?”

(i.e. it shows disrespect for the game and, really, a lack of sportsmanship/ethics.)

“If you want to talk about getting balls in play and kind of readjusting the balance of pitching and offense, I think it’s a huge place to start,” says an NL reliever who says he does not apply anything to the baseball because he believes that is cheating. “Because it seems to have created these basically impossible-to-hit pitches.”

(Whoever this pitcher is, thanks for actually having a sense of ethics and not cheating.)

For hitters, all this suddenly acquired extra movement is catastrophic. What was an elite spin rate in 2018 is now average. The added spin means that the average four-seam fastball drops nearly two inches fewer this year than it did in ’18, according to Statcast, making it appear to hitters as if it’s rising.

“It is frustrating because there’s rules in this game,” says [Florida Marlins outfielder Adam] Duvall. “I feel like I’ve always been a guy that’s played by them, and I expect that of others, too.”

I think Adam’s quote, the last one above, is perhaps the most telling and the best summary of what’s going on with regard to “sticky stuff”. What is the point of having rules if you aren’t going to enforce them? If ball doctoring is against the rules, then MLB needs to take decisive action. If, on the other hand, “sticky stuff” is now the new normal and MLB is not going to consider it cheating, then it’s time to take the rule out of the rulebook (not what I’d really prefer as a baseball fan, but at least the rulebook would match reality).

Though it does look like maybe MLB is going to do something about it, per this quote from the article:

In March, the league sent a memo to teams to warn them that it would begin studying the problem, collecting those baseballs for analysis and using spin rate data to identify potential users of foreign substances.

Unfortunately “studying the problem” starting in March means we probably won’t see any action taken until close to the end of this season, if not 2022. But it’s a start. Maybe it means we’ll still have the prohibition on ball doctoring (spitballs, “sticky stuff”, or whatever) for decades to come. And once again, it will actually mean something rather than being a line in the rulebook that pitchers ignore.

Baseball is most fun to watch when there’s a comfortable balance between offense and defense. As a fan, I will admit I’m a bit biased towards good offense over good defense, but the reality is watching a game of “gone home run” gets as boring as a scoreless game that goes into extra innings. I’m okay with the trend shifting away from crazy offense if it happens naturally. If it’s a result of blatant cheating by pitchers, that’s a problem. It gets people to question the integrity of the game, and that’s potentially disastrous.