Heavy Metal

The most appealing aspect of my slim bi-fold wallet is – slipped into my front pocket – I sometimes forget it’s even there. Between the couple of credit cards, insurance cards, driver’s license, and the wallet itself, you’re talking about an item less than a half-inch thick, weighing just a couple ounces. That suits (pants?) me just fine, since I don’t want to be weighed down (or bulged) any more than I have to be. Maybe that’s why I don’t understand the fuss over trendy credit cards made of metal. Then again, my “vanity score” probably wouldn’t qualify me for one anyway.

I guess I missed the memo on metal credit cards. They’re in circulation to the tune of 32 million these days, which sounds impressive until you stack them up against the four billion plastic cards out there. Less than 1% of any total is never impressive, but the forecasters say metal cards will quadruple in the next two years. One reason for the increase: some financial institutions issue metal cards as a replacement for expiring plastic ones. Another reason: consumers are willing to pay an annual fee for the privilege of metal vs. plastic.

The demand for this sort of thing fascinates me. If my financial institution wants to gift me a metal card (whose hefty feel apparently makes me feel special and therefore inclined to spend more), so be it. Just don’t charge me an annual fee. Speaking of annual fees, here’s the extreme example with metal. A by-invitation-only American Express Centurion “Titanium” card will set you back $5,000/year, just so you can carry it in your wallet. You’ll also be tagged with a $10,000 initiation fee. I know several country clubs who’d let me in the door for less than that.

Honestly, I have no problem with holders of metal cards. Those same 32 million people probably pay for vanity license plates and gold-colored trim on their cars. They also pay to avoid standing in line, whether at the airport or at Disneyland. Maybe there should be a website to purchase “vanity fair” in one place. We could call it IFeelSpecial.com

Let’s get the drawbacks of metal cards out of the way up front. They’re high-maintenance. Apple has a titanium credit card, complete with care guide, which advises “… against keeping it in a pocket or bag with loose change… or other potentially abrasive objects”. Metal cards also demand a cleaning solution (like rubbing alcohol), though I suspect that’s more to make them look pretty than keep them charging. Finally, metal cards destroy your shredder if you try to get rid of them when they expire. Buy a pair of tin snips instead.

I’ll own up to having an American Express Platinum card and a Visa Platinum card, but both are plastic, and “Platinum” simply means they have a rewards program. Which brings me to a point of missed opportunity. If issuers are trending towards metal cards, why not make them out of whatever material they’re named for? A platinum card should be made of platinum. A titanium card titanium. Citibank’s Diamond Preferred card? Oooooooo.

It’s not the craziest idea. Metal cards weigh up to five grams. If Amex issued my Platinum card from five grams of pure platinum, they could charge me $600 (current market value). A Gold card made of gold would be worth almost $1,000. A Silver card made of silver? Okay, that’d only be worth eleven bucks. But think about it. Your card gets declined? No problem. Just surrender it and say, “I’d like the current market value in cash, please”.

[As usual, someone beat me to the punch with my great ideas. If you live in the Middle East, Singapore, or the Czech Republic, you have access to a company called CompoSecure. CompoSecure makes its credit cards out of pure gold.]

Counter to the forecasters, I think metal cards will be challenged by no cards at all. Meaning, pay-thru-phone (i.e. Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo) is on the rise, and the security of these transactions – not to mention no need to carry cards and cash – may trump the “special feelings” metal brings. Can you imagine – plunking down your country-club-rate Amex Titanium after dinner, and one of your guests goes, “Really? You still pay with a physical card? How old-school!”

Pretty sure I’m going to miss the metal credit card movement completely (even if they do make better ice-scrapers than plastic). I’ll be jumping straight from my plastic Amex Platinum to digital one of these days.

It would probably help if I set up Apple Pay on my iPhone first.

Some content sourced from the 12/5/2019 Wall Street Journal article, “Once a Tool of the Elite, Metal Credit Cards Now Turn Up Everywhere”.

Danger, Will Robinson!

A strategic goal of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) goes as follows: Protect consumers from unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace. Unfair and deceptive practices seem to be the strategic goals of several other organizations out there, so I’m glad the FTC seeks to “protect” me. For example, they held a competition called the “Robocall Challenge”, looking for solutions to reduce those pesky and sometimes illegal phone calls we all receive. The competition winners – two software programs designed to intercept and divert – split the $50,000 first prize. The problem? The Challenge was conducted over five years ago, yet robocalls are more rampant than ever today.

courtesy of nbcconnecticut.com

The telemarketing calls of old seem quaint compared to the lifeless computer-generated voices of the last several years. Used to be, you’d answer the phone to a real voice; a sunny greeting in oft-broken English or heavy accent. The caller would say, “Yes, is this David Wilson, please?” or, “Hello Mr. Wilson, how are you doing today?” Who do you know who starts a phone conversation with wording like that? (Even better, when they’re looking for my wife Brigid – pronounced with a soft “g” – they mangle her name in ways I’ve never heard before.)

At least the old telemarketers sold you products or services too good to be true (“Congratulations – you’ve won a seven-day Hawaiian cruise!”), and at least they were human. Today’s robocalls are scams disguised as threats. Pay this tax bill immediately or the IRS will break down your door and haul you off to prison. Upgrade your Microsoft operating system now because your warranty’s about to expire. Buy this health insurance plan because yours doesn’t cover anything. I might listen to these pitches if they came from a real person, but the synthesized voice of a robocall triggers the involuntary reflex “hang up”.

courtesy of cio.com

For me, the most effective solution to robocalls is simply not answering in the first place. If the Caller ID doesn’t convince me it’s a real call, I let it go to voice mail. Sure, my provider offers a call-blocking service, but they charge a fee. Why would I pay good money to manage a situation I didn’t ask for in the first place? The same goes for the better call-blocking applications out there. They’ll make them go away, but it’s gonna cost you.

By the way, not answering in the first place also stops robocall breeding. Just by picking up the receiver or hitting “Answer”, you’ve identified yourself as a number that works, which means the robocall provider sells your number to other providers, and that means more robocalls. Picking up the phone is why Americans received 16.3 billion robocalls in 2018… and that was just January-May.

courtesy of komando.com

Robocalls are a nuisance – sure, but at least they’re not threats to the human race itself. That prospect turns my dreams into nightmares every so often. Whether vast supercomputers, unfeeling combat robots, or microscopic drones, you have to admit – we’re on the precipice of technologies just itching to get beyond our control. Fiction does a great job exploring the possibilities. Read Michael Crichton’s “Prey” (self-replicating nanotechnology), Daniel H. Wilson’s “Robot Uprisings” (just what the title suggests), or simply watch the brilliant 2014 film, “Ex Machina”. The final scene – when Ava walks confidently into the public domain and the credits roll – is perhaps the most chilling moment of the entire movie.

courtesy of IMDB.com

As if to mock this post, my brother-in-law – visiting here at the house as I speak – just received a call on his mobile phone. Another robocall, and probably another scam disguised as a threat. Maybe the call wasn’t by accident, but rather a triggered response from a nanobot keeping an eye on my keystrokes. A subtle message, as if to say: we’re here and we’re watching. Sure, I can plead “no-mo-robo” (which is also the name of a call-blocking company), but I know the robots are only growing in numbers. Better make room then – another highly-intelligent species is quietly joining the party here on Earth.

Wait For It

Let’s wager a guess over something that happened to you in the past few days. It probably happened several times in the past few days. It wasn’t by choice, nor were you alone.  It might even be happening right now. What is this recurring, oft-maddening event in your daily world (and mine)? Somewhere, for some good reason, in person or in the car, deliberately or unintentionally, you found yourself waiting in line.

Call it a common courtesy or call it the primary by-product of consumer demand. Waiting in line is a timeless (or time-wasting) necessary evil with no satisfactory alternative.  While the world behaves efficiently with smartphones, computers and even data-consuming “IoT” appliances, those snaking, switch-backing, several-option, several-category lines of humans seem to grow ever longer.  Including traffic on the highways – another version of waiting – you’ll spend one to two years of your life in line.

Consider some of the common reasons why we wait in line:
– store cashiers
– airport security
– phone calls (on hold)
– amusement parks
– voting
– public restrooms

If I wrote this post fifty years ago, I would’ve listed the very same reasons why we wait in line.  We have options now, but let’s face it; those options are waiting-in-line in disguise.  Store cashiers now work side-by-side with an area of self-check-out machines (which draws its own line).  Airports promote pay-for lines like TSA Pre and CLEAR.  Telephone on-hold mechanisms offer callbacks instead of waiting (“for an additional $0.75”).  Disneyland installed “FastPass” lines; again, for a fee.  Voting can be done by mail (forcing your ballot to wait in line instead of you).  And public restrooms?  Okay, there’s no option to waiting for the potty.  Maybe reconsider that second beer.

The Brits refer to a line of people as a queue.  I like that (and not just because we need more words beginning with the letter “q”).  Leave it to those on the far side of the pond to class up the most mundane activity imaginable.  At least we have our phones as distractions when we “queue”.  But the old-fashioned distractions still work.  It’s why they put candy bars by the cashiers, magazines in the waiting room, mirrors by the elevators, and televisions in the airport.  Anything to help you forget you’re waiting in line.

Julio C. Negron

You’d think waiting in line is mindless – no-brainer science really – but I have experienced flaws in the system.  Recently in Lowe’s, waiting patiently in a single, central line at the self-check-out area, I was confronted by the person behind me, who demanded I “choose one side or the other” (as if logic demanded a separate line for each row of self-check-out machines).  My response to him was not one of my finer moments.  Another example – at the airport – my wife and I waited at the curb with a dozen others for the parking lot shuttle, only to discover the “front of the line” was a variable determined by the point on the curb where the driver chooses to stop his vehicle.  If you want to see what not waiting in line looks like, try to catch a parking lot shuttle at the airport.

In today’s world, we have new reasons why we wait in line:
– to purchase the latest iPhone
– at restaurants, with pagers (clever disguise for waiting in line)
on-line (i.e. for concert tickets or sports tickets at a specified time)
– Black Friday sales

Finally, we will always stand in line for our kids, whether to see Santa Claus at the mall or to buy something they simply must have.  Years ago, I remember taking my kids to the local bookstore for the latest “Harry Potter” (which they started and finished before the next sunrise).  It was the only time I’ve stood in line for the right to stand in line again.  The bookstore insisted on selling a limited number of tickets at noon, to be exchanged for the book later that same day, when the publisher allowed its release.

I believe the longest I’ve ever waited in line is five hours – to see the first Star Wars movie in 1977.  With no electronic devices to keep my friends and I company back then, five hours was even longer than it sounds, especially knowing two consecutive showings of the movie would run before I even entered the theater.  Then again, the truly morbid among us believe we are all simply waiting to die.  If that’s the case, let’s hope we’re in a really, really long line.