Goals Are Powerful

On one hand, setting goals can be incredibly simple. On the other hand, setting goals is an intricately complicated and difficult process. Once goals are set, however, they can lead to some highly powerful results.

I’ve subscribed to ThinkTQ for more than a year and a half, and last September I broke down and bought their system. I’ve mentioned before that I really like ThinkTQ because the system is position agnostic, as in, it’s not written for salespeople or executives like some of the other popular time management books. I have a hard time translating a lot of what The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People says about executives to my own life, although a lot of the book does make sense. I’m just not creative enough at this point. Getting Things Done is written to people a lot higher up in corporations than me and to salespeople, and again, I don’t have an easy time applying the book to myself. This is probably common, judging by Merlin Mann’s post How Does A Geek Hack GTD? ThinkTQ is rather a summary of all of the popular time management books broken down into 100 affirmations that are the most common to success in any system.

I’m still learning to apply many of the concepts to my life and follow them regularly. I’ve been working for weeks on a mindmap of my roles and visions and my highest level goals. I’ve found this process to be slow going. In some ways, I’ve been at this for years, since in 1996 I came across The 10 Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management and I began to craft my first ever personal constitution.

Though I haven’t been an expert at goal setting, I have had times in my life when, even though I didn’t realize it was goal setting, I decided that I was going to accomplish something and I refused to stop until it was done. Buying my first property is an example. I realized that, although single, for what I was paying in rent I might as well just own a home and get a tax break and equity. I ended up buying a condo. After getting married, my wife and I set our sites on selling that condo and buying a house.

I’ve had a few pivotal moments when defining a goal seriously changed the course of my life. The first major moment was in 2004 after my son Joshua was born. I was working a job supporting program testing at a development site. Although a lot of the systems I was around were interesting, it was a hectic, thankless and frustrating job. We worked for one company that was a subsidiary of the other company and it seemed that a major part of our contract was accepting blame when the other company screwed up. Our administrative management didn’t really care much about us so they left us to the whims of our operational management which happened to be the other company and by extension our customer. We were whipping boys. We went through a transitory state and the organization kept getting worse. When my wife went back to work after Joshua was born, I was on the swing shift. This arrangement worked out fine for child care, because I would get up with Joshua in the morning when my wife went to work, her sister would come by after school so I could go to work, and my wife would come home from work and take care of him the rest of the evening. I liked the swing shift because I got paid a differential and there was less frustration because management wasn’t around. This didn’t do much for my marriage though, because in addition to the stress of a new child we never really had time together.

I was convinced that without a degree, I couldn’t do any better than that job. I’d floated resumes a few times, and always ended up with calls from head hunters trying to get me to take some job in north Jersey or Syracuse. The pay at my job wasn’t too bad, and at least I had a job so what’s the big deal, right? One of the guys on the swing shift was actively seeking a new job. I got to talking with my coworkers and they mentioned something called a “5 year plan”. I asked what that was. I’d never written one before. They basically told me to write out where I would like to be and what I would like to accomplish in the next 5 years. I’ve always had a hard time with that, possibly because I’m not always very imaginative, or I’m too anal to “predict the future”, but this time I took them seriously. I sat at my desk one night and prayed about it, then opened Outlook Notes, and started typing ideas of how I wanted my life to be in the next five years. One of the goals my wife and I had set was for her to be able to come home and take care of Joshua and any more children we happen to have (this is not without it’s challenges and conflicts, but that’s for another entry). I knew we could not do that at the salary I had, even with the night shift differential. I also knew that for the sake of my marriage, I would have to go back on day shift, but I also couldn’t do it on that job because I would lose the night shift differential pay. I didn’t want to stay there anyway.

I began applying for other company jobs internally, but got nowhere. I also decided that I had nothing to lose by floating resumes. If I got any calls from head hunters, I decided that I would just hang up on them, as they have never really done me any favors. The last head hunter I dealt with was as bad as the car salesman I wrote about here. I had just gotten married and I was trying to find a job in the south where my wife wanted to go. I told the head hunter that I wanted to go to the south, but he kept calling me up with offers for Massachusetts, north Jersey, and upstate New York. I’m sure those are fine places, but what part about IN THE SOUTH did he have trouble understanding? Obviously all of it, because I still live in south Jersey.

After floating my resume on a local site, I actually got a call from a company that was interested in my experience in my current industry. They had a job for me. I got the call on Thursday, had a phone interview on Monday, and got an offer back within 10 minutes. I put in my two week’s notice that afternoon. That was amazing! I had to work on a contract for three months before being hired directly, but it’s a much better job and the pay was enough for my wife to stay home. Setting the goal led me to the action, floating my resume, which led me to the job. There was a lot of “right place, right time” involved, but had I not been encouraged to work out that five year plan, I would probably still be in that old job.

Another time when a goal steered me to some life altering action involved a non-accredited Bible college. When I first became I Christian in 2002, I made a decision that I admit was more emotional than rational to pursue ministry work. I applied to the first distance learning Bible college I could find and enrolled in their Biblical Counseling program. I’m not knocking the school or the program, but the school turned out to be non-accredited. I admit at the time to not knowing what that meant at the time I enrolled. I didn’t take the program seriously, fell behind, and had to pay for an extension. I had two years to complete five classes, and I was not keeping up with that. I learned a lot, but as time went on I found some great sources on the internet for learning about the Bible and I also realized that the ministry might not be the best fit for me. Once I found out what accreditation was I realized that this program wouldn’t do me much good. I’d never get certified as a counselor and I couldn’t really get a job at a church with it either. I went through a phase where I was actually consciously planning each day, so I would look at my list of values and goals as I planned my day. I wish I could say I did that more. When I saw that goal every day to complete the Biblical Counseling program, I realized that the goal may not be inline with my vision. After some prayer and a few more events transpired, I ended up dropping out and enrolling at the University of Phoenix in their Information Technology program, which I find to be a much better fit with my vision, interests, and gifts. Me, a counselor? I think the world is a much better place when I’m troubleshooting computers rather than people.

ThinkTQ often says “A dream without a plan is a wish without a hope”. If you want to go far in life, you have to figure out what your vision is, what your roles are, and then set realistic goals in line with your vision and roles. Sometimes goals will lead you to greatness, and other times they might lead you to a major course change. You’ll never know until you do it.

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How To Play With Children When You’re Utterly Exhuasted

It’s my belief, as a dad, that I need to make sure to give my children plenty of time, attention, and influence. Children learn certain things from their mother and certain things from their father. In some circumstances, one parent is not around and the other must do their best to make up for it. I’m not really equipped to address those situations. For dads who are around to take responsibility for your children, think long term. The little things that you do day in and day our are like building blocks in the lives of your children, and the finished product might take 20 or more years, but will reflect the time and work you put into it.

Sadly, when we have young children, we’re often still sort of young and starting out in life ourselves. Our careers are just getting off the ground, our educations aren’t finished, and sometimes we still haven’t figured out what we want to be when we grow up. I cringe when I hear people my age saying that they will wait to have children until they’re ready. I’ll be 33 next week, and I’m still not ready, but I’m glad we got started. I don’t honestly believe that anybody is ever ready. You never have enough money, enough time, and enough experience. I honestly wish we’d had our children when we were younger and I didn’t realize that I had to sleep at night. I was 30 when Joshua was born, and it was just plain brutal. Why couldn’t I have had kids at 22 when I was up all night drinking anyway?

In any case, if you’re like me, your career is still fairly new, you’re still finding out who you are, and maybe you’re undertaking your degree a little later in life. But the children are still at home, and they still want you to play with them. When I have a busy day at work, and I have to work late or spend time in the evening working on my course work for my degree, I can see a difference in my kids from not getting time with me.

There are those times when you can take them out in the back yard and throw a ball around, there are times you can throw them in a wagon and go for a walk around the neighborhood, and there are times when you take mommy to the mall. But what about those nights when you get home from work and just don’t have anything left to give to your family? I’ve found a few activities that can literally be done laying on your back. They’re fun for the kids, they’re fun for you, and they allow just a little bit of relaxation and re-cooperation while you’re at them. These have been tested on boys up to about 2 1/2 years old. I don’t know how well they work with older children, or with girls. I imagine at this age, they’d work fine with girls too.

Hiding Under a Blanket

I’m not sure why this one is so much fun, but it is. On nights when I want to flop down on the couch, my kids will usually suggest this one on their own and they often bring me the blanket. This one started when I was playing a hiding game with Joshua, probably before Caleb was born. I would hide under a blanket and let him try to get in. Well, he decided that he liked being in the blanket and now he brings the blanket to me, much to my wife’s dismay. She goes to the trouble to fold them and put them on the back of the couch only to turn around and see Joshua holding the blanket in front of me saying “Under blanket, Daddy, under blanket!” I throw the blanket over my head and theirs, and they spends the next couple of minutes getting on and off my lap, wiggling around on the couch, and trying to pull the blanket off while I try to put it back on. This one can also be done laying on the couch with a headache.

Fort

This is a variation of Hiding Under a Blanket. Simply pull up a chair or something to hold the blanket up and you’ve got a low-budget fort. Kids love this, and to be honest, it’s not a bad way for a grown man to spend time at either.

Jump On Daddy

This one is an all-time favorite, and doesn’t take any instruction at all. Just lay down on the floor and your kids will figure out that rules of this game all by themselves. They’ll have a lot of fun. You may have to help them with balance, especially with toddlers just learning to stand and walk. This gets a little more complicated when one child is still young enough to play but the other is big enough to crack your ribs or rupture your spleen. Also, be careful of our “Achilles Heel” (you know exactly what I’m talking about, and it’s not our feet), but Jump On Daddy is a game that can be played even after children have penetrated your defenses and caused that injury. This game will go on long after you have rolled onto your stomach and begun the 20 minutes of moaning in pain that accompany a misstep of this magnitude.

Car/Train Crash-up

I know there are various theories of socialization, but this game really ends them for me. I’ve found that nobody has to teach boys to appreciate a good car crash; they come pre-programmed with this feature. Simply take out their cars or trains and crash them. This game is even more fun with the pull-back cars because you can get a good running start to crash into the others. This also works with trains, and since my kids are in a big Thomas the Tank Engine phase, we have plenty of choo-choos to go around.

Another variation I’ve tried on this game is called “Meteor”. I took a small, soft ball and dropped it or threw it at some of the toy cars and trains to knock them over. This game always gets a laugh. The kids love it.

SAWF (Stuffed Animal Wrestling Federation)

This game is self explanatory. The stuffed animals or dolls can be made to wrestle with each other, or can even be used to tickle the kids. This game is always good for a quick laugh when somebody is in a bad mood.

My wife once got me a father’s “Page-a-day” calendar. I haven’t finished it, even though it was a 2004 calendar. I think I’m still in September. One of the pages gave me a great idea that has stayed with me. It said that no matter how fussy the children are, they can’t resist Daddy trying to balance something on his head. This one does work pretty well. No matter how cranky, tired, or fussy the kids are, this one normally does get their attention and often generates a laugh and a copycat balancing act.

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Learning Team Projects at the University of Phoenix- Playing Consultant

I’ve written a few blog posts about the University of Phoenix here, here, here, and here. Most of those posts simply tie in some time management concept to my experiences at the school, so this time I thought I would write about some of the actual content and experiences in the University of Phoenix’s FLexNet program. FLexNet is the best and worst of both the online and on ground curriculum. I honestly have no interest in driving 40 miles to Wayne, Pennsylvania on a Wednesday night every week for 2 years. If you’ve every tried to fight your way through Philadelphia on an afternoon, you can sympathize with me. The Schuylkill Expressway was not designed for half of the traffic that flows along it, but aside from that, I would get home late at night and I need to be at work early, so really the on ground curriculum isn’t for me.

I’m not so sure about the online curriculum either. A friend of mine worked as a hiring manager, and his advice to me (he is a UOP graduate) is to avoid getting a degree that says “online”. Some hiring managers are old school and when they see an online degree they see a degree mill, no matter how hard you have actually worked for the degree.

Enter FLexNet, a worthy compromise between the two. FLexNet is a good program because it allows you to meet the instructor and your fellow students in person twice a class, yet allows the actual course work to be done through the convenience of an online environment, and your degree does not have “online” stamped on it. I’ve been in this program since September of 2005, and I am really happy with it, except for a few minor challenges.

As a school founded for working adults, the University of Phoenix is based around a curriculum designed to make adults better at their current jobs. As I am in their IT program, it is assumed that I already work in IT in some capacity, which is true. Occasionally there are students attempting to change fields, but to be honest, the UOP is not the place to do that.

As a part of their attempt to educate adult students in a real life work environment, UOP likes to make students work in learning teams of between three and six students. During an introductory class, students read through what is called the “Learning Team Toolkit” with several articles and chapters focusing on working in teams. Each class, in addition to individual assignments, students are required to spend at least five hours a week working on a learning team assignment. The assignment typically covers the span of the class and involves a final paper and presentation before the rest of the class. Instructors differ in that some require progress to be submitted each week for a grade while others only want the completed project turned in at the end of the class.

Learning team assignments can cause frustration, and in some classes I’ve wished for a more sociopathic model of learning. I’ve had members of my learning team who can’t seem to start unless we have an in person meeting. Because most of our teams have members who span south Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, meeting in person is highly impractical. I always refuse to meet in person because I need my time for other things than driving into center city Philly, paying bridge tolls and parking, buying coffee, and having a rather unproductive talk. The next idea floated is a teleconference, but to be honest, those don’t always work out well either. Most students are on different schedules. If I’m going to do a telecon, I prefer to do it around 7 PM but not on Wednesday because I have church and some nights my wife needs me to go shopping with her so that isn’t even practical. Some people can’t do it then and want to do it at 9 PM, when I’m not available because I’m trying to get my kids to sleep and my brain shuts down around 9 anyway because I get up at 5 AM every morning. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “We’re information technology students, so why don’t we actually use some form of information technology for our meetings?” I actually prefer to work in the class newsgroup, which I’ve mentioned in other posts is based on Outlook Express. I’ve tried other solutions such as Thunderbird, but to be honest, as must as I hate Outlook Express, I can’t find a Windows newsgroup client that will do what I want so I suffer with OE.

OK, now that I’ve gotten the explanation and the negatives out of the way, let me explain what the learning team assignments are. Each class is five weeks long, as the learning team is given a project to complete based on the subject matter of the class. In some cases, a learning team is able to create their own company. In other cases, the company is given to them. For two classes, we actually did create our own company. In our “Project Planning and Implementation” class, we created a company that sold disaster insurance to mobile home owners. We created a Microsoft Project file to consolidate four independent insurance salespeople into one company with a data center. In the next class, we took the same company and created a project based on an IT upgrade.

In a following class, the instructor gave us a project to upgrade the IT infrastructure for a small local hardware store. One of my team members arranged an interview with the owner of a small, local hardware store and we based a lot of the project, including our time line, off of what he told us. The instructor actually took points off because he said the four months for an inventory was unrealistic, even though that’s exactly what the owner of the hardware store told us!

For other classes, the university maintains a series of virtual organizations and projects are assigned based on them. This is where it gets to be really fun, because if you look past the academics, we’re actually playing consultants and I try to have fun with the project. I’ve had team members who get caught up in academic matters and seem to think the paper is supposed to be a summary of the textbook, but that isn’t the case at all! The paper and presentation are supposed to be actual and realistic proposals to a company. I do the best I can to have fun, and if information isn’t directly given to us, I make it up. During the presentation, if I’m asked a question about why we suggested that something be done a certain way, I say that the board of directors told us that’s how they wanted it, or the help desk asked for that feature. We’re also often free to assume that we have an unlimited budget so we can suggest brand new desktops for everybody while we’re developing a network plan.

One of the frustrations I’ve had with other team members is the desire to summarize irrelevant information. Some people want to spend 4 slides talking about the history of the company during the presentation, when the presentation should be designed as a briefing to be given to the company itself. I’m sure the CIO has better things to do than listen to a contractor begin a bid proposal with “This company was founded in 1984 by so and so, and grew to a …” I’m sure the people we’re presenting to know that!

It’s interesting to see what other teams get from the same assignment. In our last class, the learning team project was to design a Network Operating System (NOS) upgrade for a manufacturing firm. Our individual assignments had to do with setting up the domains and user groups them, as the class was called “Windows Networking”. We evaluated the situation and of course recommended that the company go with Windows Server 2003 (No, really? The whole class was based on it). We also recommended Windows XP Professional to be installed on all of the desktops. While giving our presentation, one of the other teams asked us why we didn’t go with Windows Vista. I took that question, and said that because application and driver support is very spotty for Vista, and because XP is well proven and supported, we recommend XP. The other team in their presentation recommended Vista. I can’t say I agree with their recommendation, but that’s what these projects are for, to force us to look at this material in a practical manner. To be honest, if I were giving this proposal to a real company, unless they specifically asked for Windows Vista, I would still recommend Windows XP for the exact same reasons.

In my current class, Web Programming I, our team assignment is to put a shopping cart on a YouTube-like site. That should be interesting.

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Limiting Scope of Thought

I just started a new class in my information technology degree program at the University of Phoenix. The new class is Web Programming I. I’ll have another Web Programming class after this one, and I’m happy to have the same instructor from the two Java classes I took last year. The class I just finished was called Windows Networking, and what I learned from that class is much more valuable than the curriculum could indicate.

When I saw that I would be taking a class called “Windows Networking”, I expected to be able to blow the class off. I’ve spent years networking in Windows, and it’s fairly easy, or so I thought. By the end of the first week, I learned a valuable lesson. The class was on Windows Server 2003, a product I have not had much if any experience on. I’ve gotten quite a big head on my shoulders over my capabilities with home networking, but that is the realization I came to: I’m thinking too small. Sure, I’m good with Windows XP and home networks, but that’s where my problem lies. I can’t say I’ve ever really thought about information technology from an enterprise perspective. There’s no way I’m going to be able to make any real money in the home market. Sure, maybe I can pick up a few dollars by undercutting Geek Squad, but how far would that take me really? No, if I want to make the “big bucks”, I have to start thinking much bigger.

Michael Hyatt wrote a blog post last month titled Why Vision Is More Important Than Strategy. He wrote about why it is more important to create or define a vision first, then let the strategy fit the vision rather than the other way around. Setting the strategy first will cause your vision to be much smaller. With that advice, I am going to craft a new vision for myself that will not be limited to personal computers but will encompass success in the information technology field.

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Testing BlogJet and Typepad

I decided to give Typepad a try. My 30 day trial blog is here. I’ve wanted to find a decent offline blogging client for a while. I’ve used w.bloggar before, but when I lost a post to a crash I stopped trusting it. Michael Hyatt recommends BlogJet for Windows, although they don’t have a client available for the Mac. I was playing with Windows Live Writer, which isn’t actually that bad for a free Microsoft product. It was actually designed for their Windows Live Spaces, but will work with other blogging services as well. I figured while I’m working with offline clients, maybe I should try them all. I’ve always lived by the maxim “You get what you pay for.” Free software often does give that quip a run for it’s money, but not always. I have used some incredibly good free software, but sometimes you have to pay for something to get what you want.

I plan to maintain my blog here on Blogger for the time being. I may just keep it. I would appreciate an easier image upload capability, but again, you get what you pay for.

"Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination." — Albert Einstein

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Blogger- Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I started my blog in December of 2004. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s and I was still new on my job. My supervisor was on vacation, our customer was shut down, I didn’t have access to some of the systems needed to do my job, and because I was on a contract and Christmas was on a Monday and I didn’t get paid for it, I was pulling 10 hour days with no actual work to do. I stumbled upon Blogger and decided to take a chance. Free blog hosting? I had nothing to lose.

Some of the professional bloggers say that one of the simplest things you can do to guarantee blogging success is to stick with it. I think I have done that. I joined AdSense in the hopes of earning a little bit of extra money from my writing, possibly to feed my tech habit. By this point, I’d be happy if it would help me to pay off my massive student loans from University of Phoenix, where I am still attending working toward my Information Technology degree. I started a podcast at one point, but never went anywhere with it.

When I first started blogging, I had some twisted hope of making it as a social/political commentator. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve given that idea up. If I do take on socio/political topics, I hope to do it completely absent of a party line and tackle only the facts and worldviews that make up the arguments, rather than the party generated talking points. I wish to approach from reason and leave emotion out of it.

I’ve tackled time management and computer related topics. Those are the most fun for me to do. I came up with the whole Life Integration angle because as a computer geek, I obviously enjoy working with my computers but as a family man, I also need to give my family the attention they deserve and I figured there must be others out there like me so as I tackle these issues I can share my thoughts with others.

Often, when I’m researching an issue, I can’t find any information at all. When I was trying to decide whether to spend $200 on the ThinkTQ system, or looking for information on the University of Phoenix, I really couldn’t find anything. I figured that alone should propel me to the top of the search engine rankings as I share my experiences with others on these subjects.

That leads me to making a decision. Blogger is free and offers a few decent services. I never have to worry about bandwidth or space limitations. However, posting isn’t always easy. Third party offline blogging clients like W.Bloggar don’t always work right with Blogger’s interface, and posting images is a serious pain in the neck. If I want to offer advice or technical help and need to post a lot of screen shots like I did in this post, Blogger doesn’t make it very easy. Blogger’s API won’t accept images from an offline blogging client at all. Blogger’s templates can only be customized so far.

My goal is to earn a little extra income from writing posts and recording podcasts that are informative and interesting on a variety of subjects. I would like to help you with some basic computing issues, and through my experiences to tackle subjects like marital communication, child raising, and living a Christian life that is alive and vibrant rather than dull and ritualistic. I need to decide now if I should remain with Blogger or look for a paid service such as Typepad.

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Corporatism Part 2- HSBC Is A Pain In My Butt And I Hate Them

For an interesting documentary about corporations and some of the good and harm they have done, I highly recommend the film “The Corporation“. I ordered this documentary from Netflix and found it interesting. You may have noticed a trend in the world, or at least in the developed world, toward large corporations exerting vast control over our lives and affairs. These corporations are often run by people with a lot of power and influence (See Enron: “The Smartest Guys In the Room“, also available from Netflix.

Not all corporations are bad or evil, and not all are working toward government favor in their operations. I’ve done business with some corporations that make it very easy to work with them. Then there is HSBC: the absolute worst mortgage lender I have ever dealt with.

I’ve had two properties, and I’ve refinanced my current house several times. Normally I’ll use a mortgage broker who will work out a deal with a lender who will shortly sell off my mortgage servicing to another bank. This time, we got sold to HSBC. I don’t like them very much at all. It seems to me that they pay consultants to create business processes that make it as difficult as possible to do anything with HSBC.

Our mortgage payment is due on the 1st of the month. That’s pretty normal. My wife and I use Checkfree as our web bill pay service. In November, my wife logged in a little bit late to make the payment on time, so she scheduled it for the 14th which was the soonest Checkfree claimed they could issue the payment. The payment arrived at HSBC on the 13th, but was postdated for the 14th so HSBC returned it. Then they called me asking where my payment was. My wife assured me that she paid the bill. When HSBC calls you for a payment, they are not willing to let you off the phone until you take out a credit card and make that payment. I don’t know about you, but our budget most months doesn’t exactly allow us to make 2 mortgage payments, so I demanded to speak with a manager, said I would look into it, and called Checkfree. They explained that the check had been returned to them and set up a conference call between us and HSBC. It took more than 30 minutes to convince HSBC to make a note on my account that the check was in the mail, but they said they would charge a $30 late fee. I tried to appeal the late fee, but they said it couldn’t be taken off my account until the payment arrived so I would have to call back.

After the payment showed up, I did call about the late fee. The Indian call center representative I spoke with didn’t understand at first, but tried to encourage me to send a fax. I wanted to just deal with it over the phone, but they insisted on a fax. Guess what? They declined my appeal over the late fee. OK, you bastards, you and your billionaire stockholders can keep the $30. I’m sure you need it more than I do.

Try calling HSBC. There is not a single option in their entire phone tree to speak to a customer service rep, and pressing 0 will just get your call dropped.

My wife got the idea to try to make our mortgage payment with our Rewards Visa. I tried calling their office today to make a payment, and they’re closed.

HSBC is an example of a corporation that thinks it’s your privilege to do business with them. They seem to intentionally make everything as difficult and painful for the customer as possible. They are unreachable unless they are trying to extract money from the customer.

The next time I refinance my mortgage, I will not do business with any broker who does business with HSBC. IF I could only go back to Washington Mutual…

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