Centerpoint Energy (CNP) Sucks Donkey Dong

There is a great problem with monopolies: they don’t have to offer any unique proposition beyond their mere existence. Where I live in Houston, I have a great number of electricity providers to choose from. I have two national internet service providers. When it comes to water and natural gas, I’m stuck dealing with a local monopoly.

Now Centerpoint Energy is not a bad company. Their performance in the stock market is indicative of the fact that they are doing something right at the corporate level.

However, they garner overwhelmingly negative reviews from social media outlets. People hate Centerpoint Energy with a fiery passion, one normally reserved for telemarketers and snake oil salesmen.

I recently dealt with the absurdity that is Centerpoint Energy when a payment that I made failed to clear. I have a new checking account with Discover Bank, which I opened to take advantage of an introductory offer. I have paid bills consistently and on time for the few months that I have been residing at my new home, so my history with Centerpoint is short.

When this payment failed to clear, I called Discover Bank and asked that they waive the fees that they had assessed on my account as a one-time courtesy. The representative on the other side of the line happily obliged, and told me that I would be liable for any fees assessed during the rest of the year. No problem, I said. I was going to make sure that this situation would never arise again.

Then I tried to contact Centerpoint Energy. Their website makes it challenging to find the regional office. From my account view, they would much rather I fill out a contact form, with the assurance that my concerns are important to them. I sent a brief message advising that I had some issues with my new bank account, that I had remitted payment once I was aware of an issue, and that I would like the fee on my account waived as a one-time courtesy.

I waited for three business days, but no response was forthcoming.

I then scoured their website in search of their phone number. With this piece of information handy, I called in, and kept dialing zero until I was connected with a human being. This took roughly five minutes of holding on the phone – not egregious, but definitely nothing to be proud of.

I explained my situation to the voice on the other end of the line. “Sorry,” that voice said back, “We do not waive fees when the customer is at fault.”

I paused for a moment, then asked, “Couldn’t this be done, just this once?”

The representative shot back, “Everyday we handle calls just like yours, and we can’t reverse that fee.”

“Why not?”

“Our bank charges us those fees”

I explained that I called my bank, with whom I have a limited relationship, and that they were able to waive the fee on their end. Banks assess fees all the time. There is no such thing as a fee that cannot be reversed by a bank, not one that they have noted in an account holder’s ledger.

The representative made clear that she was unable to help me. I asked to speak with her supervisor. A brief hold ensued.

I was on the phone with an individual who identified herself as being representative number one’s supervisor. I explained the situation. “Sorry, we can’t help you,” was the response. The supervisor’s voice told of her annoyance at having to deal with a baffled consumer. “It’s not in our policy to waive these charges.”

I then asked to speak with the supervisor’s supervisor. She put me on a brief hold, told me that her supervisor was busy, but that I’d receive the same response. I said that I would still like to speak with this individual. She took down my name and contact information and promised a call back.

This call never came through.

I tried again three days later. Once again, I was met with the same response. Once again, I asked for a supervisor. This time, a man’s voice rang through. He was similarly unhelpful. I asked for his supervisor who was, again, unavailable. He took down my contact information and promised a phone call back, again assuring me that nothing would be done. The error was not on their part, he said. I asked under what circumstances a fee might be reversed. He suggested that if someone on their end made a clerical error, say, entered the wrong number while drafting an account, then such a fee might be reversed. As if there are real human beings inputting numbers — but who knows: a local monopoly doesn’t have to be technologically sophisticated, because there is no competition.

I waited once more. Again, this call from the man’s supervisor never came through.

I resigned myself to paying this fee one time. But never again. Never again will I allow a payment not to clear because of an error on my part. Never again will I rely on Discover Checking’s online banking system for bill payments, because their hold period on funds is too long. But that is a story for another time.

Until then, the complaints against Centerpoint Energy will continue to fall against deaf ears. The company will continue to amass a small fortune, in part because it has trained its people well in the art of refusal. The consumer will rage against the lack of grace shown by Centerpoint Energy, and Centerpoint Energy’s shareholders will continue to reap the dividends from so many automatically assessed fees.

I will invest in Centerpoint Energy because they will continue to perform well, up until the time comes that their precious local monopolies are destroyed. Perhaps then, they will be moved to change.

Until then, fuck Centerpoint Energy. Certainly not its people, mind you. Fuck this monstrosity of a company for its inability to serve the needs of its customers beyond the bare minimum required of it. Fuck Centerpoint Energy for allowing supervisors at its call center to let requests die, unattended.

For that matter, fuck most local monopolies.

The 4X Philosophy

I recently came across this article written by Vivek Bhargava – The 4X Philosophy

My father was on the ventilator, and I was in the visitor’s lounge of the hospital unable to sleep … it was the perfect time to set my life goals. […] And then it hit me: I want to lead a joyous life … every minute of every day!

It talks about defining success, but most importantly communicates across what Bhargava dubs “The 4X Philosophy”.

Bhargava’s 4X Philosophy is focused on purely material objects, and provides rationale behind delaying gratification in the form of incremental upgrades. The results, Bhargava reasons, can have an “eternally joyous quality”.

Seventeen years ago, a chance meeting with a multi-billionaire changed my life forever. He shared his interesting “4X” philosophy that I have followed ever since. In his words, the key to satisfaction with material success is to “only upgrade your lifestyle in MULTIPLES, never in INCREMENTS.”

This multi-billionaire must have known something that the rest of us don’t. If he said it, I’m listening.

Instead of upgrading my entire lifestyle by 4X, I applied it to each and every object or experience. From the clothes I wear, the house I live in and all the way up to the brand of rice that I relish, this approach has allowed me to upgrade something by 4X almost every other month, and I continue to do so till this day.

Bhargava takes the 4X philosophy system by system. He is thus able to perform lifestyle upgrades piecemeal.

He describes the particular benefits of embracing the 4X philosophy:

  • Attracting Wealth
  • Bhargava talks about the watches that he’s owned, and the watches in his future. I’d like to think about cars.. BMW E46 330i (~$40K) -> Maserati GranTurismo Convertible (~$135K) / BMW M6 (~$112K) -> Rolls Royce Phantom (~$447K)

  • Improving Self-Confidence
  • Bhargava writes about material possessions and their role in establishing status: “I know countless people who may be as financially successful as me, but even my extended family has a perception about me that is superior to reality”

  • No Downgrades … Ever
  • He provides a sound rationale for delaying gratification here by making the point that “you only make the upgrade when you know that you can comfortably afford it”

  • Builds Character
  • “The best part of the 4X approach is the way it has built my character beyond more materialistic gains”. This is important because it allows one to step away from the hedonic treadmill for long periods of time. In our consumption-obsessed culture, we devote a tremendous amount of mental space to the acquisition of things.

Overall, an excellent article, and a philosophy that I vow to live by. I will always remember that one piece of wisdom from Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you”.

what-are-we-then

i-dunno-consumers

we-are-byproducts-of-lifestyle-obsession

The things you own end up owning you
The things you own end up owning you

To that end, we may as well own better things instead of a wealth of things.

Caveat emptor: for most people, it is not reasonable to expect a 4X increase in earnings at any point. You can expect to earn 3% raise every so often. Assuming a 3% increase year over year, you would expect to double your earnings after twenty-four years.

Top 10 Superior Tech Products You’ll Never Go Back From

Lifehacker’s editor-in-chief Whitson Gordon recently published this list-form article (Lifehacker: Top 10 Superior Tech Products You’ll Never Go Back From) which I enjoyed. I share the specific products that I own in each category below.

10. A Quality Pair of Headphones

High-end headphones are one of those things you don’t think you need until you’ve been spoiled by them (warning: ignorance is bliss).

I owned many pairs of Sennheiser headphones before I finally bought the Sennheiser HD 650 (~$400, Amazon.com) in October 2012. My first Sennheisers were purchased back in 2005 – a pair of Sennheiser HD212 Pro’s – and I fell in love with their detailed sound ever since.

9. A Mechanical Keyboard

Membrane keyboards are fine, but mechanical keyboards […] are still kings in terms of durability, feel, and usability (not to mention ergonomics). You’ll still be able to use membrane keyboards after trying a mechanical…but you won’t want to.

I use a Monoprice gaming keyboard MP-G9 at my main computing setup. Mine is fairly basic, and it lacks backlighting. It features Cherry MX Black switches, which require a fair amount of pressure to bottom out. I bought this keyboard in August 2012 and haven’t looked back.

I found that the trick to typing fast with a mechanical keyboard was to avoid bottoming out the keys. It look some time and self-awareness to get to the point where I can roll my fingers across the keys smoothly. Now that I’ve gone to a mechanical keyboard, I’m curious to try all the Cherry MX switches 🙂

8. Better Third-Party Apps

Some “default” apps will never be overthrown, but in a lot of cases, you’ll get more features, nicer design, and more with a good third-party app. […] Third-party apps don’t usually cost a lot, but they can cost more than their (usually free) official counterparts. There’s not much you can do if you don’t want to pony up the $2, though—unless there’s a good open source alternative available.

I use Rockbox on my iPod Video 5G, Evernote in lieu of Apple’s Notes application, FreeNAS on my home server. I run custom firmware on my Sony PSP Go. I’ve been recommended DuoKan for the Amazon Kindle. Hey — I should do a writeup of my essential computing applications.

7. A Solid-State Drive

A solid-state drive (or SSD) is essentially a hard drive that is much faster than traditional spinning platter drives. It is the best upgrade you can make to your computer.

I upgraded my 2007 MacBook Pro 15.4″ to a 120GB Kingston HyperX 3K SSD, SH103S3/120G in early 2013, and it breathed new life into the old machine. I was already running 4GB of DDR2, the maximum that the motherboard would allow. The internal hard drive had once been upgraded from the factory 160GB 5400RPM drive to a 500GB 5400RPM drive, which resulted in marginally faster read/write operations owing to the increased data density.

The mid-2011 MacBook Air 11″ that I use daily shipped with a 128GB SSD. I love it.

Another worthwhile investment for anyone running a RAM-limited Windows machine (running Vista and newer) is a good USB flash drive to leverage Windows ReadyBoost.

6. Voice Control

Not everything is better with voice, but complicated tasks like setting reminders, converting units, and even performing simple searches are much, much faster with Google Now (or Siri). … Once you get used to talking to your phone, you’ll realize how awesome it is—and never make reminders the old way again.

I’m a little behind on this one, as I’m back to using an iPhone 4 (my iPhone 5 died of water damage). However, I’ve used Siri to dictate messages in the past, and it’s splendid. It’s a little awkward talking to a machine at first, but one grows accustomed to it quickly. The fact that you don’t have to be caught swiping on a glass screen like a fool is a benefit.

5. A Quality Bag

Bags are one area in which you definitely get what you pay for: a truly quality bag will not only come with convenient features (like, say, a TSA-compliant laptop pocket) but will also last you a lifetime.

I’ve been a long-time buyer of Samsonite products. I picked up a Samsonite TSA-certified laptop bag some years back. While the man-made material that covers the carry handle has mostly flaked off, there’s no questioning the utility of a TSA-certified bag. I prefer a messenger bag over a backpack for style points.

4. USB 3.0

Because it’s really, really fast. It’s 10 times faster than USB 2.0. Once you’ve used it for some of those bigger file transfers, USB 2.0 will just feel like molasses.

I’m not a big user of USB 3.0, primarily because my main computers don’t support it. I do make use of alternative interfaces. For instance, my mid-2007 Apple MacBook Pro 15.4″ gets used periodically because of its FireWire 800 port, which far outclassed the USB 2.0 standard. I own three LaCie Quadra D2 external hard drive enclosures, which have been daisy-linked via FW800 in the past.

Come to think of it, that’s one major point that makes FireWire more attractive than USB 3.0. Thunderbolt also allow daisy-chaining, and it looks to be here to stay for Mac users.

I will be upgrading hardware as the need arises. I suppose I could always leverage the Thunderbolt connector, which has double the throughput of USB 3.0, but…

3. A DSLR or MILC Camera

The best camera is the one you have with you—but the second best camera is a real, quality DSLR. You’ll be shocked at how much better your pictures are, even without manual controls—and if you know what you’re doing, there’s no picture you can’t snap.

I’m a little torn on this one. I love my Nikon D300. I bought the beast back in March 2009, and it’s gone everywhere with me. It is a very purpose-built photo-capturing machine. At the same time, it draws attention. I picked up a Fujifilm X10, a retro-looking point-and-shoot, which I started taking around in lieu of the D300. The DSLR is a terrific tool, but it’s something that you have to plan around when going places. DSLRs will always have their place in the hands of professional photographers.

I do intend to write some articles to document my learning with DSLRs in due course. Looking back through the photos that I’ve taken, I can confidently say that I am happy to have added a DSLR to my possessions.

2. Inexpensive Cables

[…] instead of paying more for higher quality, you can pay less for…well, the same quality (usually). There are exceptions, of course—some cables may be more durable than others—but chances are, the $40 cables at Best Buy are a waste of your money, and once you’ve tried the quality cables from a place like Monoprice, you’ll never buy the overpriced crap again.

Yes. The only fancy cable that I own is a 10′ Cardas Quadlink ‘Silent Terminators’ cable, which came with my Sennheiser HD 650 headphones. For everything else, I go with AmazonBasics or Monoprice. Truly technical individuals can even build their own cables, but I don’t do this because I have drawers full of cables already (and I’m only 25!)

1. A Desktop PC

[…] this may be a more controversial one, but hear me out: Desktop PCs do almost everything better than laptops, except travel. A mouse is better than a trackpad, a real keyboard is better than a condensed chiclet keyboard, you can get more powerful parts, use bigger monitors, and benefit from better ergonomics—all at a lower price. In fact, if you play your cards right, you can buy a desktop and a laptop for as much as many people would spend on one PC. So if you have the room in your house, it’s well worth the investment, and hard to give up once you’ve gotten used to it (especially if you build your own).

I presently own three laptops and two desktop machines. I have a complete motherboard, CPU, and memory sitting in my closet from my retired crypto-currency mining rig. I agree that a good desktop is a solid computing investment: I built my first desktop back in 2004, and I keep it around to this day (though it has been beefed up!). It’s remarkably easy to build a computer by yourself. I believe that the two most difficult parts of the enterprise are:

  1. Selecting the components
  2. This has gotten worlds easier with tools like PCPartPicker.com. I keep up to date with hardware releases by following tech websites like [H]ard|OCP and AnandTech.com. Discussion forums are also a Godsend.

  3. Implementing proper cable management
  4. Take it or leave it: this can easily yield returns of 10% on your cooling setup, but it takes some time to get it done right