Monday, March 26, 2007

The First (Inter)National Bank of...Wal-Mart?!

Hat tip to Michael McLarney and John Caulfield at HARDLINES, the Canadian trade newsletter for the lumber and building industry, for alerting me to this story.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Associated Press,
After years of facing resolute resistance, Wal-Mart Stores on Friday gave up on trying to open its own bank.

Community bankers and union activists cheered Wal-Mart's decision, and took credit for making the world's largest retailer withdraw its application to operate an industrial loan company, a type of bank that dozens of other commercial companies already own.

An industrial loan company (ILC) is a limited-service private bank run by a corporation, usually for the purpose of extending credit services and processing credit transactions for clients. Probably the earliest and most well-known (notorious) example of an ILC is GMAC, General Motors' financial services division, that provides financing and credit services to General Motors car-buyers. Other large companies that operate ILCs are General Electric, Target, American Express, and Harley-Davidson.

Partially in response to the actions of a broad coalition of grassroots activists, and partially in response to a very strongly-worded letter from Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH-11), Wal-Mart withdrew its application. (The recent Bush-appointee head of the FDIC, Sheila Bair, called the withdrawl a "wise choice.") Republican Representative Paul Gillmor (R-OH-5) released an e-mail in support of the bid to make Wal-Mart withdraw, saying that Wal-Mart evinced "a pattern of deception and dishonesty" in its business practices.

Wal-Mart was apparently looking to save money, by eliminating the fraction-of-a-cent transaction fees it pays to third-party financial services institutions for processing financial and credit transactions.

This raises the question of why exactly it would be bad for Wal-Mart to have its own ILC, even though many other large corporations (including corporate behemoths like GE and GM) operate them already. The answer may lie in why, on January 31, the FDIC extended its moratorium on granting ILC charters to nonfinancial institutions (such as giant retail companies), and why Representatives Barney Frank (D-MA-5) and Paul Gillmor have tabled a bill* to "[block] commercial acquisitions or formations of ILCs after June 1, 2006, [bar] new activities by commercially-owned ILCs chartered between October 2003 and June 2006, and [make] the FDIC the consolidated supervisor for all ILC holding companies."

According to Terry Jorde, spokesperson for the Independent Community Bankers of America (quoted in the Illinois Business Journal),
"Banks currently play a central role in the payment system," she said. "While companies other than banks may help stores and banks process check and card transactions, only banks can actually transfer funds from one party to another, which is known as settlement. Federal supervisors make sure that banks follow stringent policies and procedures to manage the risks involved in this process. The Wal-Mart Bank would process more than $170 billion per year, and this does not include the transfer of funds to Wal-Mart suppliers."

Jorde adds that Wal-Mart would have to balance its responsibilities as a federally insured bank with the liquidity and profit-motivated business demands of its owner.

"If the Wal-Mart Bank fails to timely settle payment transactions, it could harm thousands of other financial institutions and their customers," Jorde said. "Since the owners of industrial loan companies are exempt from Federal Reserve oversight, there is weakened regulatory protection to effectively guard against this abuse."

Wal-Mart, of course, says that it intends its ILC solely for processing credit/debit card and cheque transactions in its US stores...

...but that assumes that one can trust Wal-Mart, especially after its ruthless history as a vigourous practitioner of the strategy Microsoft calls "embrace and extend." I submit to you the following data point as evidence of an ulterior motive:

As reported in the super-conservative National Post:
Wal-Mart Canada Corp. is looking to expand into the financial services business, a potentially lucrative growth area ... The big-box giant recently hired Trudy Fahie as vice-president of financial services at Wal-Mart Canada, a role created for assessing the retailer's options in the sector. Ms. Fahie is the former vice-president of financial services for American Express Canada.

"We will be looking at a range of possible financial services to enhance our offering to our customers," Andrew Pelletier, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Canada, confirmed yesterday, calling the next six months to a year an "exploratory" period. "It's too early to speculate on what those services will be at this point."

(Note to Canadians: Now's the time to petition *sigh* the Harper government for something like the Gillmor-Frank bill.)

Reading these articles, it becomes clear that Wal-Mart is far, far from being the only offender in this area. Nonetheless, they have more clout than most of the rest of their cohort combined (GE and GM are exceptions). Giant corporations not only want you to spend your money with them, they're also looking for an 'in' to manage your money for you. Much as I distrust the motivations of banks in general, I must admit they have a point: Too much centralisation in the hands of any industry, especially the financial industry, is bad. It represents a complete horizontal and vertical integration of the corporation with its suppliers and its consumers. And that is anticompetitive and downright anticapitalist.


* I am given to understand that Americans use "table" in the bill sense slightly differently from Canadians; in this sense, I mean submit it for discussion and consideration.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Interrobang's Quick Guide to Not Making an Ass of Yourself on the Internet

One of the great strengths of the internet, and also one of its great weaknesses, is that it's an interactive, largely text-based medium. That said, there are a lot of people out there on Teh Intarwebs who don't seem to understand one of the most basic principles of text-based, interactive communication, which we may sum up briefly in Grade III aphorism fashion, and then expand upon anon:

Neatness Counts

What constitutes "neatness" in this case? Well, being "neat" would mean paying attention to how your words represent you. When you're working in a text medium, your words are all anyone has on which to evaluate you, so the way you present yourself really does matter.

So here are a few basic tips on how not to make yourself look like an ass on the internet. Most of my readers probably already know this stuff, but maybe they can pass it on to other people and make all of our lives just a bit easier.

  1. Please observe standard typographical and formatting conventions, as much as is possible. It's very hard to take you seriously as a commenter if your posts do not contain any punctuation, capitals, or paragraph breaks, or contrastively, if your posts consist of ALL CAPS broken up by multiple strings of several exclamation points apiece.

    Special bonus aggravation: People who use apostrophes in plurals. Please don't do this. It's wrong. "Apple's" does not mean "more than one apple," it means "belonging to the apple," as in "the apple's stem is brown."

  2. Learn some basic HTML formatting tags. Seriously, these things aren't hard, no harder, at any rate, than learning how to write basic mathematical symbols (like + and =), and they can make a real difference in the readability of a comment. All HTML tags are enclosed in angle brackets: < and >*. Most of them come in pairs, which is why it's important to "close" your "tags," as you might have seen people say on the web. The way you indicate a closed tag is with a / inside the second tag.

    To make a hyperlink, you type:

    <a href="">Your link text here</a>
  3. (You might want to copy and paste that, and just replace the URL and the link text as required, at least until you get the hang of it.)

    The "a" part stands for "anchor," which is what those things are called ("anchor tags"), and we can say that's because they hold the links in place. The "href" part stands for "hypertext reference." Hypertext is the stuff web pages are built out of, and a hyperlink refers to a piece of hypertext.

    To put something in bold or italics, you type:

    <b>bold text</b>   or   <i>italic text</i>

  4. If you don't know how to spell something, look it up before commenting. Google is very good at this; just Google the term you're not sure how to spell, and it'll likely tell you the correct spelling ("Did you mean...?"). You can also use something like schoolr, which lets you do a Google, Wikipedia, dictionary, thesaurus, acronym, Urban Dictionary, encyclopedia, and book summary search, as well as providing handy links to a citation builder, a text translator, and a unit converter. You can also use Google to find the definition of the term by typing


    in the Google search window, where "term" is whatever word you're looking to have defined.

  5. If you don't know what a word means, don't use it. This one really gets my goat, since I see these ones all the time. They're usually in the ranks of commonly confused words, but with some of these words, people ought to know better. For instance:

    These Pairs Are Not The Same Word,
    So Stop Using Them That Way

    tenet   Noun. A belief, dogma, or doctrine. Commonly used in reference to religion.
    tenant   Noun. A renter or occupant.

    If you start telling me about the "tenants" of a religion, I'm going to tune you out, unless of course someone actually did put their religion up for rent...

    conscience   Noun. An ethical or moral sense of direction, particularly in discerning right from wrong, and inflicting guilt or satisfaction from within.
    conscious   Adjective. Aware or awake; intentional (as in "a conscious effort").

    populous   Adjective. Having a large population. ("Before the two US invasions, Baghdad was a populous city.")
    populace   Noun. Inhabitants, dwellers, or citizens. ("The town's populace was up in arms over the city council decision to subsidise a new Wal-Mart Supercentre.")

    accept   Verb. To receive.
    except   Verb. Exclude, demur, or Preposition. But, other than. ("Everyone accepted the award except John, who excepted himself on religious grounds.")

    lose   Verb. To be defeated, to misplace (something).
    loose   Adjective. Not tight. Also a verb meaning to set something free ("Loose the hounds!")

    Special Bonus Vocabulary Nitpicks: The idiom "rein in" should never be spelt "reign," as it refers to the practice of an equestrian using the reins to put a check on the horse's behaviour.

    Likewise, the idiom "toe the line" should never be spelt "tow," since the metaphor in question refers to walking along a "line" or some kind of boundary (metaphorical or otherwise), on the other side of which is impermissible behaviour. It does not refer to hauling things around by means of a rope or a trailer hitch, and is probably related to the concept of "being on the straight and narrow."

  6. Context is important. Just as it's kind of rude to come onto a blog known for its scholarly tone and thoughtful comments and post something along the lines of "ORLY? U SUCK LOLOLOL!!!1," it's also kind of impolite to come onto a vernacular blog and post a long, pedantic comment. (This being my blog, I can do whatever the hell I want.) Make sure you accurately judge the community in any online forum before you begin posting, and it's actually a good idea to lurk for a while first.

  7. Preview is your friend. I don't really have to say more than that, do I?

Following these tips will help you at least not look like an ass on the internet, since otherwise we have little to go on. The personality part of not being an ass is entirely up to you.

* In order to type those in an HTML-based form, I had to type & lt ; and & gt ; (without the spaces), where the "&--;" sequence is a standard HTML "escape" character, that tells your web browser to read what's between them as a command and not just as text, and where "lt" and "gt" stand for "less than" and "greater than." Other interesting ones are & trade ;, which makes the ™ symbol, and & copy ;, which makes the © symbol.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Interview Memed

Eli from MultiMedium posted an opt-in interview meme. How it works is, you leave a comment and ask me to interview you, and I ask you five questions. You then post them and your answers on your blog, and away we go. So here are the five questions Eli asked me, in blue:

Interrobang (In)FAQ

1) Why Interrobang for a handle?

Ages ago, and by "ages," I mean about ten years ago now (woah), I got my own Slashdot account. Knowing Slashdot, I had to have a sufficiently geeky, gender-neutral handle. Since I'm not a coder (I'm a coder's symbiont), a lot of the usual Slashdotiana didn't apply to me. So I chose the name of an obscurely funky newfangled punctuation mark. The rest is history -- about ten years' worth.

2) Describe your dream vacation.

I'm currently avaricious to go to England and meet up (again) with someone special, but I'm also set on the idea of going to Eilat in Israel and staying at the Dan Eilat Hotel (I dig that swimming pool), hanging out with whichever of my friends wants to show up, and speaking some French, since I'm given to understand that many French-speaking people go to Eilat. Maybe I can pass myself off as a French Jew... (*snerk* With my Quebecoise accent?! Not bloody likely.) And yes, I'm precisely perverse enough to want to to go Israel and speak French. I'll probably speak some Hebrew too, but if I have to operate in a language other than English, French is a good safe fallback for me, especially for stuff like dealing with my massive, catastrophic food allergies.

3) Describe your dream job.

I'm pretty much doing it. I'm a consulting technical writer, and I currently work for a small software company, writing help files and doing a smidge of QA/User Acceptance Testing.

4) What is the biggest or best difference between Canada and the U.S. (aside from not having a homicidal maniac in charge)?

Don't be too sure Harper isn't a homicidal maniac; he probably just hides it better than Bush does. Anyway, I'd have to say the biggest single difference is our attitude towards government. Americans seem to have a sort of willful blindness against the actual nuts-and-bolts functioning of government, insisting that the government doesn't actually do anything for anyone (many of them seem to have arrived at this belief because they think the government passes bad laws, despite legislation and administration being two almost completely separate functions of government, often handled by completely different types of government, that is, municipal or state versus federal, for instance). Canadians, on the other hand, not only believe that the government does things (and beneficial things at that), but expects the government to fix things that go wrong at a societal level.

One can see the reflections of this differing set of beliefs in every aspect of society, from the presence or absence of sidewalks, land allocation at the municipal level, public transit, and so on, to healthcare and social assistance programmes, to the differing levels of public participation (voter turnout).

5) What is your favorite material possession?

Definitely my Toshiba Tecra 9100 laptop, Isaac, on which I am writing this. (All my computers have names; we're heavily networked here Chez Geek.)

Thanks very much to Eli for interviewing me.

Note: Edited to delink the photograph of the Eilat Dan hotel, on the grounds that I was generating traffic static.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Transit City: Someone Was Listening to Me

It's official. I am a transit prophet. As I wrote in "Built for Riders: Operations, Efficiency, and Streetcars,"
Dedicated trackage functions in streetcar systems two ways – either it runs in the street in its own separate lane, or else it runs separately from the roadway, typically over long distances, as in interurban streetcar lines. In particular, Toronto (where streetcars have remained continually in service for over a century), has several routes operating partially on private rights-of-way, usually in the median of a street and separated by raised curbs. Most of these private rights-of-way are newly established (and a political battle continues as of this writing over private right-of-way for streetcars on St. Clair Ave.), but one street, the Queensway, has featured private streetcar right-of-way since 1957. This feature keeps the streetcars (and streetcar riders) out of the way of automobiles, and automobiles out of the way of streetcars.
Giving streetcars their own private rights-of-way also allows for higher-speed service. In some areas, historically, electric interurban rail would run at speeds of 60-80 mph, or 100-130 kph, or approximately the speed of normal Canadian 400-series highway traffic (the speed limit is 100 kph, but most people drive ~120 kph). That is significantly faster than the average morning/evening commute down the "Don Valley Parking Lot".

So imagine my joy, delight, and moistness of undergarments when Spacing Wire ran this overview of the new Transit City plan in Toronto, which includes an entire new streetcar (they call it "light rail" these days, shhh...) system mostly running on private rights-of-way. (Attention TTC planners: Right of way at rail-road crossings is very, very, like tres important, too, and if you can finagle right of way in street traffic, I believe I will move to Toronto to start the First Church of Saint Planner of Toronto Transit Commission. Jus' sayin'.)

Other particularly scrummy elements of the plan include:

  • a proposed 122.4 km of new lines (this blows my rather modest "200 by 2010" proposal out of the water);

  • a number of phases of the plan already approved or in the environmental assessment stage;

  • good statistics on the actual ridership of the current TTC lines these new routes would supplant (in the tens of millions of trips per year on average -- and everyone says nobody likes public transit), and

a comprehensive web of service running from the extreme west end of the city to the east, and the same north to south.

This plan reads like a dream, and should be imitated in any city of any size across North America. Whitebreadville would be no exception. The only difficulty will be getting the funding. Maybe a comprehensive "Transit Cities" plan for every burg in Soviet Canuckistan over 150 000 people would be something they could do with those huge governmental surpluses; it's certainly more productive (in terms of real wealth generation) than pouring it into debt reduction, or, ghu help us, Afghanistan...


Special Non-Streetcar Multimedia Bonus: From time to time I've been posting links on here to music I like, and I've got a new drug -- Mata Hari by Ofra Haza. (A statement on how depressing the world is: Ofra Haza is dead and Britney Spears is famous. And yes, she sounded like that live; I've heard raw recordings. You can contrast with Dupatta by Hadiqa Kiani, if you like... ("Hadiqa Kiani is the Islamic Ofra Haza," she says, and everyone gets offended... *snerk* )

Monday, March 12, 2007

Canadian Heroes You've Never Heard Of, Part 1

Vince Coleman was a telegraph operator and train dispatcher in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the early years of the 20th Century. On the morning of December 6, 1917, he witnessed a ship on fire, drifting towards Pier 6 in downtown Halifax. A sailor ashore from the ship warned that the ship, the Mont Blanc, was full of explosives. Coleman realised that some hundreds of people (some accounts say 300, others 700) aboard inbound trains were en route to Halifax and went back into the dispatch office to send a Morse code message down the line. The message he sent was "Stop trains. Munition ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye."

It was the last thing he ever did.

Just before 9:05AM, the Mont Blanc exploded, the largest man-made explosion ever, prior to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Most of the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth (across the harbour) were flattened. Approximately 2000 people were killed and another 9000 seriously injured. The blast was felt 126km away.

Wikipedia article on the Halifax Explosion
Wikipedia article on Vince Coleman
Heritage Minute on Vince Coleman
CBC site on the Halifax Explosion


In 1958, Maurice Ruddick was a miner in the town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. Springhill was notorious for its dangerous coal mines; the entire area is the ideal location for mine disasters, since the unstable, friable rock contains vast quantities of high-quality, yet extremely gassy and dusty, coal. (The infamous Westray mine disaster that claimed 26 miners' lives in 1992 happened not far away in Pictou County.) There had already been two mining disasters in Springhill by 1958, a terrible fire on February 21, 1891 that killed 125 miners, and a coal dust explosion on November 1, 1956.

On October 23, 1958, there would be a third and final mine disaster in Springhill. The mines would be closed for good afterward.

At 8:06PM, an enormous "bump"* collapsed the three working faces and the ends of the four mine levels nearest the working faces. One hundred and seventy four men were in the mine at the time, including Maurice Ruddick. Seventy four of those men died in the incident, while a hundred made it out alive.

On November 1, 1958, a draegerman walking past a ventilation pipe heard singing drifting out of the mine. The community mounted yet another rescue attempt, and finally, six more miners, including Maurice Ruddick, were brought out of the mine. Ruddick, who had a reputation around town for singing, had helped keep the men alive and in good spirits by getting them to sing hymns.

The last group of men rescued from the mine were instant celebrities across Canada and into the United States. However, the crest of good wishes soon turned to a political turmoil when the Governor of Georgia invited the miners on a luxury holiday to Jeckyll Island. According to, "The most telling tale of tribute came from the Governor of the state of Georgia. He generously invited the nineteen survivors to vacation at one of his state's luxurious resorts, usually reserved for millionaires. When the Governor discovered that one of the miners was black, he explained that while Ruddick was still invited, he would have to be segregated from the others. 'It is the law here that Negroes must be separate,' said the Governor.

When the miners heard this, they were reluctant to accept the offer. 'There was no segregation down that hole, and there's none in this group,' said one miner. But Ruddick agreed to go on the Governor's terms, knowing how much the others really wanted the vacation."

Maurice Ruddick always modestly downplayed his role in saving his and his colleagues' lives, and died in near-obscurity in 1988.

Eyewitness account of the 1958 Bump from Dr. Arnold Burden
History Minute on Maurice Ruddick
Wikipedia article on the Springhill Mine Disasters


* According to Illustrated Mining Terms, a bump is "a violent dislocation of the mine workings which is attributed to severe stresses in the rock surrounding the workings."