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Obama Appoints Non-Tech Guy As CTO 252

Posted by Soulskill
from the jesse-ventura's-political-return dept.
NewYorkCountryLawyer writes "President Barack Obama has named his chief technology officer, and the appointee is not a Silicon Valley name like so many predicted. He is Aneesh Chopra. As the Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia, his job has been to 'leverage technology in government reform, promote Virginia's innovation agenda, and foster technology-related economic development with a special emphasis on entrepreneurship.' But Chopra's not a tech guy. Before he got his secretary job in 2005, he was a managing director at the Advisory Board Company, a public-market health care think tank, as well as an angel investor." O'Reilly Radar is running an article discussing why Chopra is a good choice for federal CTO.
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Obama Appoints Non-Tech Guy As CTO

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  • by micromegas (536234) <cbacigalupo@gmail.com> on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:24AM (#27626401) Homepage
    What is his stance on the open source revolution? Linux/Open Office/Open Source solutions can contribute to massive savings for school districts but it's been beaten down/back by those with financial interests.
    • by mpeskett (1221084) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:49AM (#27626615)

      From the linked article, I'd say he's onboard with Open Source
      (easiest quote to find: Virginia having "the first officially-approved open source textbook in the country")

      I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that he's not a tech guy himself; he won't be expected to go out and do the techy work. What the job requires is an understanding of technology and government, and the ability to get stuff done by supporting the right things, managing people... in short he doesn't need to be a geek so long as he has the right geeks working for him.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        he doesn't need to be a geek so long as he has the right geeks working for him

        Is that really true? I'm a lawyer. No way on God's green earth would I work under the supervision of a non-lawyer.

        • by mpeskett (1221084)

          I think you can understand technology enough to be an effective CTO without being a hands-on tech guy yourself.

          He's demonstrated by his history that he "gets it", so let's hope he does a good job here too.

        • by Anpheus (908711) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @11:22AM (#27626903)

          Don't you work for non-lawyers all the time? They defer to you because you -are- a lawyer, but I think you might have to rescind your comment :)

          I do IT, and not everyone in the chain of command knows more than I do about IT. They do know more about other things, like management, or sales, or marketing. My job in IT is to enable them to do their jobs, and so I have to know a little bit about their job, and they have to know a little bit about mine, but that's all.

          If we were to live in some upside down world where we demanded everyone paying us had to know more about what we're doing than we do, no one would get anything done. Why are they paying you if they know more than you?

          And this applies to you too, Ray. Your clients pay you, or your firm, or however you have it set up, and they don't know nearly as much as you do. If they did, they wouldn't be paying you.

          • by NewYorkCountryLawyer (912032) * <ray.beckermanlegal@com> on Saturday April 18, 2009 @11:55AM (#27627193) Homepage Journal

            Don't you work for non-lawyers all the time? They defer to you because you -are- a lawyer, but I think you might have to rescind your comment :) I do IT, and not everyone in the chain of command knows more than I do about IT. They do know more about other things, like management, or sales, or marketing. My job in IT is to enable them to do their jobs, and so I have to know a little bit about their job, and they have to know a little bit about mine, but that's all. If we were to live in some upside down world where we demanded everyone paying us had to know more about what we're doing than we do, no one would get anything done. Why are they paying you if they know more than you? And this applies to you too, Ray. Your clients pay you, or your firm, or however you have it set up, and they don't know nearly as much as you do. If they did, they wouldn't be paying you.

            My clients pay me; they do not "supervise" me. When I did work under supervision (1974-1983) it was the supervision of people who did exactly what I did but had been doing it longer. That is the only kind of supervision I could accept. It was one of the main reasons I went into a "profession".

            I consider information technology a profession, and entitled to the same level of respect and dignity. If you know what you are doing and have someone "supervising" who doesn't fully grasp what is going on, and doesn't understand where you are coming from, it is degrading, insulting, and counterproductive.

            • by pipingguy (566974) *
              Well said. The only "senior" people who absolutely need supervision (even after 40 years' experience) are politicians.
          • I do IT, and not everyone in the chain of command knows more than I do about IT. They do know more about other things, like management, or sales, or marketing.

            However, they have to know at least enough about IT to be able to know what they know, and to know what they don't know. That way, they know when to defer to you.

            For example: A marketing guy may know that a 20 ghz (single-core) machine might sell much more than an 8-core 2.5 ghz machine. However, as a tech guy, you know that the 20 ghz machine is likely physically impossible. I'm actually OK, though saddened, when the marketing guy doesn't know that, too. But they have to at least have the humility to belie

        • he doesn't need to be a geek so long as he has the right geeks working for him

          Is that really true? I'm a lawyer. No way on God's green earth would I work under the supervision of a non-lawyer.

          Supervision as in "we should handle this case in this way", of course. But what about things like "case X will have a huge impact, so focus on getting it right and let the newer people handle A, B, and C."? Ie, setting general policy rather than direct supervision.

          If this guy can prioritize between "nobody's databases can talk to eachother" and "we can't get bugfixes for Important Software X because the vendor went bankrupt" and "new employees are stting on their thumbs for 8 weeks while their computer acco

          • If this guy can prioritize between "nobody's databases can talk to eachother" and "we can't get bugfixes for Important Software X because the vendor went bankrupt" and "new employees are stting on their thumbs for 8 weeks while their computer accounts get set up", then as long as he doesn't meddle beyond saying "how much will it cost to fix this" and "fix this next, because it gets us the most bang for our buck" it doesn't really matter if he personally doesn't know anything about how to fix it.

            As long as he actually accepts the "how much will it cost" figures -- and also the "how much will it cost us not to fix this" figures. The Daily WTF is rife with stories of management deciding it wasn't worth a few thousand dollars to fix a problem which, in the long run, ended up costing a few million dollars, and a few years of delay, because it wasn't fixed when IT said it should be.

            I value guidance between those tickets, when I honestly don't know which I should be focusing on. However, when I say "This

        • Are you sure?
          Would you work under someone who had an MBA, was a pre-law, and was responsible for the legal department at a largish company? Because that's the exact structure of my company's legal department. Last I heard our head council had wide latitude, but technically worked for a MBA toting pre-law.

          Point is, in any large organization you need someone to make the translation from management to rank and file. That person needs aptitude in both, rather than narrow specialty in one. I have had many ma

          • Are you sure? Would you work under someone who had an MBA, was a pre-law, and was responsible for the legal department at a largish company?

            N.F.W.

        • by Toonol (1057698)
          Ideally, government appointees should have so little power that it doesn't matter to anybody whether they're competent or not. Heck, that was supposed to be our defense against congress.
      • by gbjbaanb (229885)

        I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing that he's not a tech guy himself;

        I'm certain its a good thing. Tech guys tend to focus more on the tech side of things - look at this, that or the other flash stuff we can do. some of that is good, but a lot of it is useless to the end-user. Techn guys tend to get a bit put out when they show their cool new tech to the end user only to be told that it doesn't help much at all. (I've been there myself :( )

        As he's not one of those guys, he's going to be far more conc

      • Well, there's also the whole "iTunes U" thing. How well does that work for those who can't or won't use iTunes? DRM-free is only part of the solution -- basing it on actual standards, so third-party clients can be used, is the other part.

        Never mind the whole iPhone App thing...

      • I had trouble loading that textbook.

    • by Quothz (683368)

      What is his stance on the open source revolution?

      Well, in Virginia he pushed (and succeeded) to get an open-source textbook approved for schools, the first in the US.

      I'm unaware of any particular stance he's taken on open source operating systems. He seems to be a bit of an Apple fanboy, tho', judging by the attention he's given the iPod and iPhone.

    • What is his stance on the open source revolution? Linux/Open Office/Open Source solutions can contribute to massive savings for school districts but it's been beaten down/back by those with financial interests.

      He seems to be fairly OSS neutral, at least as the Slashdot community would interpret it (which is very pro-OSS from the average). He has supported several projects in the past that provide some hope, including the open source physics textbook. He also has supported numerous innovative projects that use existing closed source technologies, like education partnerships with Apple using iTunes. He was recommended for the position by several strong OSS supporters and he seems fairly competent.

      As for Linux and O

  • by snl2587 (1177409) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:25AM (#27626411)
    Please read the last article linked in the summary. It definitely makes the appointment sound intelligent.
  • by NewYorkCountryLawyer (912032) * <ray.beckermanlegal@com> on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:32AM (#27626469) Homepage Journal
    about this. My first reaction was that it was wrong not to appoint a technologist as CTO. Then I read O'Reilly's article, which argues cogently that the appointment makes a lot of sense.

    O'Reilly is someone for whom I have respect.

    I'm really really curious about what the Slashdot community has to say on this.

    Usually I'm writing on legal issues, which I know something about.

    But I am not a technologist, and I have no expertise in government or in policy.
    • by poetmatt (793785) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @11:03AM (#27626745) Journal

      taking someone who is not very tech-oriented/aligned and putting them as CTO is just like taking politicians and lawyers and asking them to draft bills on technology.

      See how well that's been working for us?

      • taking someone who is not very tech-oriented/aligned and putting them as CTO is just like taking politicians and lawyers and asking them to draft bills on technology. See how well that's been working for us?

        Hope you get modded up for that one.

        • by Polumna (1141165) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @12:21PM (#27627453)
          While his post was insightful and deserves some moderation to that effect, I am going to have to disagree. Lawyers and politicians absolutely should be legislating technology because legislation is their job. I couldn't do it. I think our problem has been that they are doing it wrong, for a variety of reasons.

          I find a great deal of irony in your original post and this reply, because while you are obviously a lawyer, your original post demonstrates *exactly* the behaviors I believe are the full requirements I would expect from a great tech executive or politician.

          First, you obviously read a tech article on your own, in your free time, displaying interest. Second, you formed an opinion. Third, you reformed your opinion based on a respected expert. Fourth, and most importantly, you went to a large community of experts (to varying degrees) in order to modify your opinion with the input of people with a greater professional interest in the subject than your own.

          In all seriousness, Mr. Beckerman, despite being a lawyer and not a professional technologist, you would make a better CTO (or politician) than the vast majority of the rest of us. I would even venture to say that technologists shouldn't be forming large policies for as diverse and large an organization as the federal government. They are more likely to have biases and pay less attention to technologies they are less familiar with through professional experience.

          As a side note, if you could chair the FCC or hop on in some tech position at the FTC, I would really appreciate it.
          • I find a great deal of irony in your original post and this reply, because while you are obviously a lawyer, your original post demonstrates *exactly* the behaviors I believe are the full requirements I would expect from a great tech executive or politician. First, you obviously read a tech article on your own, in your free time, displaying interest. Second, you formed an opinion. Third, you reformed your opinion based on a respected expert. Fourth, and most importantly, you went to a large community of experts (to varying degrees) in order to modify your opinion with the input of people with a greater professional interest in the subject than your own. In all seriousness, Mr. Beckerman, despite being a lawyer and not a professional technologist, you would make a better CTO (or politician) than the vast majority of the rest of us. I would even venture to say that technologists shouldn't be forming large policies for as diverse and large an organization as the federal government. They are more likely to have biases and pay less attention to technologies they are less familiar with through professional experience. As a side note, if you could chair the FCC or hop on in some tech position at the FTC, I would really appreciate it.

            Thank you very much for your kind words. And I did indeed do the things you said I did (read a tech article, form an opinion, reform my opinion based on a respected expert, and go to a large community containing many experts to further modify my opinion). But I would not feel qualified to supervise those experts. I would like to learn from them, yes. I would like them to learn from me, yes. But I would not want to tell them how to do their jobs.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Quothz (683368)

      about this. My first reaction was that it was wrong not to appoint a technologist as CTO. Then I read O'Reilly's article, which argues cogently that the appointment makes a lot of sense.

      This guy is a sensible choice, but perhaps not the best one. On one hand, he clearly is a technophile; he's had some nifty ideas and isn't afraid to hear new ones.

      On the other hand, he seems to very much be a politician first and a technologist second. The video [oreilly.com] embedded in O'Reilly's commentary is telling: in the first four minutes, he uses the word "humbled", passively, five times. He can't resist buzzwords: "begin a conversation for dialogue" indeed. And if I hear him say "long-term strategic roadmap"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by videoBuff (1043512)

      Up front, let me say that my response will be colored by the fact that I was in running for a CTO position of a fairly large company. I do not have any government background also.

      CTO jobs generally mean different things in different companies. In situations where there is a CIO and CTO, generally CTO works within guidelines and strategies visualized by CIO and other C-level executives. CTO is concerned primarily with operational parameters like capacity building, capability building, and even confidence bui

    • by oldhack (1037484)

      "But I am not a technologist, and I have no expertise in government or in policy."

      That never stopped anyone around here. Fire away - tell us what you really think.

    • I am deeply skeptical that a non-technologist can perform as well in this role as a similarly qualified candidate that additionally has a technology background. I am equally skeptical that no such candidate could be found.

  • by Jonas Buyl (1425319) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:38AM (#27626517)
    Let us not forget we must not question His actions for His ways are impenetrable.
  • by viralMeme (1461143) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:43AM (#27626557)
    I've seen this at a lot of organizations, the CIO is invariable a non-techie hired on for his skills at schmoozing management than any tech knowledge. Management find real techies a threat as they might get found out. They mostly spend their time quoting the tech press and spouting phrases like 'integrated innovation' and 'empowerment'. The top man specifically hires people dumber then him, else they could be as threat to his job. In turn the CTO hires someone even dumber than he is, and so on down the line. If something 'technical' comes along they hire in a 'consultant', fire him and take credit for his work. Of course any real in-house techies have to be transferred before they figure out just how stupid the CIO really is. So you end up with a business where the longest serving employee has been there less then ten months. Eventually the company goes down the tubes ...
    • I've seen this at a lot of organizations, the CIO is invariable a non-techie hired on for his skills at schmoozing management than any tech knowledge. Management find real techies a threat as they might get found out. They mostly spend their time quoting the tech press and spouting phrases like 'integrated innovation' and 'empowerment'. The top man specifically hires people dumber then him, else they could be as threat to his job. In turn the CTO hires someone even dumber than he is, and so on down the line. If something 'technical' comes along they hire in a 'consultant', fire him and take credit for his work. Of course any real in-house techies have to be transferred before they figure out just how stupid the CIO really is. So you end up with a business where the longest serving employee has been there less then ten months. Eventually the company goes down the tubes ...

      From what I know about the technology world, you have hit the nail on the head! So why is O'Reilly wrong? What is the fallacy in his thinking?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by viralMeme (1461143)

        From what I know about the technology world, you have hit the nail on the head! So why is O'Reilly wrong? What is the fallacy in his thinking?

        I don't know if he is wrong, but going from that article, I just get a slight wave of nausea. When ever I see market-speak in a 'technical' document it invariably means that it's aimed at the non-technical sector with just enough buzz phrases to keep them warm and fuzzy. Just check out some of the key phrases:

        "The responsibilities of the CIO are to use informatio

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by malkavian (9512)
        From what I know about the technology world, you have hit the nail on the head!
        This isn't because there's a flaw in the structure; it's a flaw in the implementation. From my experience of the world of commerce, most managers aren't really managers. They may have 'business qualifications' and a long period of rising through the ranks of a company, but it doesn't make them managers.
        A true manager exists to use the available resources in the best way to tackle a problem, and to do logistics support for th
        • It's not about how 'technical' the management chain is (I've seen some huge screwups because the management was highly technical, just didn't really understand the business well enough to co-ordinate the implementation of systems that actually did what the business needed, rather than doing what was technically a good system. Just practically wrong). It's how generally savvy the manager is.

          I'm not saying that technical knowledge is the only component of being a good technology leader. Being a good manager consists of many qualities. But to me, one of the qualities in being a "savvy" technology leader is to have a true understanding of the technology.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by linzeal (197905)
        It is not fallacy in his thinking it is ambition. O'Reilly is putting himself out there as someone who can be trusted by this new CTO for calming down the hordes of geeks out there who have experience dealing with CTO folk who do not know an IP packet from a ZIP drive. Seriously as someone who has been in multiple startups with good and bad CTO folk the best ones imho are always those who retired from a tech job and than got an MBA later in life not the MBA who learns tech on the job.
    • I've seen this at a lot of organizations, the CIO is invariable a non-techie hired on for his skills at schmoozing management than any tech knowledge. Management find real techies a threat as they might get found out. They mostly spend their time quoting the tech press and spouting phrases like 'integrated innovation' and 'empowerment'. The top man specifically hires people dumber then him, else they could be as threat to his job. In turn the CTO hires someone even dumber than he is, and so on down the line. If something 'technical' comes along they hire in a 'consultant', fire him and take credit for his work. Of course any real in-house techies have to be transferred before they figure out just how stupid the CIO really is. So you end up with a business where the longest serving employee has been there less then ten months. Eventually the company goes down the tubes ...

      I can't believe your comment got a downward moderation as "flamebait"; I think it deserves to "+5 Insightful". I've even reproduced it on my blog here [blogspot.com].

      • I can't believe your comment got a downward moderation as "flamebait"; I think it deserves to "+5 Insightful". I've even reproduced it on my blog here [blogspot.com]

        Jeez, thanks, it's nice to be appreciated. As for getting modded down, that's known as mod trolling ..

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by pipingguy (566974) *
      Always hire people smarter than yourself (and be loyal to them), that way you learn things. Let's face it, smart people are usually easier to get along with than dumb ones.
  • by zmnatz (1502127) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @10:47AM (#27626599)
    I'm gonna reform copyright. The laws are faulty.
    - Let me fill the DOJ with RIAA lawyers.
    The current tech laws need reform.
    - Let me appoint another windbag politician to do it instead of someone who actually knows what the hell bittorrent is.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I'm gonna reform copyright. The laws are faulty.

      - Let me fill the DOJ with RIAA lawyers.

      The current tech laws need reform.

      - Let me appoint another windbag politician to do it instead of someone who actually knows what the hell bittorrent is.

      That was my initial reaction. But O'Reilly makes a cogent contrary argument. What is flawed in what O'Reilly is saying?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by pandaman9000 (520981)

        O'Reilly's discourse is generalized and vague enough to land me a job as a teacher at MIT, if I use the same level of granularity in my resume'. While the guy may have actually done something, I do not get a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Linus Torvaldis, etc kind of feel about his accomplishments.

        I'd probably fail miserably at that teaching job, and this guy seems similarly equipped for his position.

        I hope I am wrong. I also hoped i'd be wrong about a dem President+Congress combo meal. That combo is going to g

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Jonas Buyl (1425319)

      - Let me appoint another windbag politician to do it instead of someone who actually knows what the hell bittorrent is.

      People in charge aren't supposed to know everything, that's why they have advisors. A techie as CTO will get lost in details and won't be able to think outside the box or will probably be too biased (e.g. Windows vs. Linux) and won't make a fair judgement. What we need is a bright leader and I believe that's what he is.

  • Here's the question:

    Does Open Source Software stand a chance with this guy or do we have to educate him on what OSS is all about [opensource.org]?

  • Good Choice (Score:5, Interesting)

    by waldoj (8229) <waldo@jaquit[ ]rg ['h.o' in gap]> on Saturday April 18, 2009 @11:17AM (#27626863) Homepage Journal

    I worked with Aneesh earlier this year on an open government project here in Virginia. He asked me to function in a very small role in developing stimulus.virginia.gov, basically to serve as a programmer/open government guy to advocate from the inside for increased openness and strong adherence to public, open data exchange standards on the website and its API. Aneesh isn't a geek, but he "gets it," if I may return to that old chestnut that we all employed round about 2000. He might not know Unicode from Latin 1, but he surrounds himself with people who do know the difference, he gets the gist of it from them, and chooses the path that provides the most accessibility for the most data to the most people.

    The guy is, incidentally, utterly exhausting to try to keep up with. I'm somebody to whom people say constantly "when do you sleep?", and even I find Aneesh an absolutely whirlwind of activity.

    The only downside for me here is that Aneesh had expressed interested in me joining Governor Kaine's cabinet as "Senior Advisor for Open Government" (or something like that). I'd been in talks with my employer about taking a leave of absence. Now, of course, that won't happen. But since the (apparent) tradeoff is having Aneesh as the nation's CTO, that's A-OK by me.

    • Good post ... good to hear he's in it for the right reasons and not the lobbyist perks. Hope he keeps the tech innovation in this country moving forward instead of mired in IP litigation.
  • ...can someone from the USA please explain to me, what this C*Os have to do with anything in the government, and how they relate to it. Because I thought (from my noobish simplified perspective) you had a parliament that is elected by the people, and a second one, that is elected by the first parliament. And a president that is somehow directly, but yet still indirectly elected by the people.

    But if you have chief anything officers of everything, who are chosen by the president saying so (after whatever happ

    • all the chief whatsits and suchandsuch czars don't have any power... Think of them as glorified advisors / secretaries and you're closer to the mark.

      -T

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Polumna (1141165)
      If I could elaborate on whistlingtony's post... The CXOs can be thought of as [often unofficial] cabinet members. Much like there are different commissions like the FCC, FTC or Department of Agriculture that operate under executive power, it's really just delegation of the president's responsibilities. They have power in that they generally operate under executive authority. They have no power in that the president can pretty much hire/fire them at will and reverse their decisions and such in the instance t
  • Yeah, those are the sorts performance goals I look for in a job too.

    I'm sure he'll be great.

  • Qualifications for National CTO:

    1. He/she has to know what he does and does not know.
    (Debugging code teaches you this, and the appropriate level of humility, in spades.)

    2. More generally, he/she has to have a rational enough mind about what is going to work and what not, based on scientific principles, including scientific sociological principles.

    3. He/she has to be creative enough to understand and be appropriately excited by other most creative "next big things". i.e. he/she has to be able to imagine the

  • I smell astroturf (Score:4, Insightful)

    by whistlingtony (691548) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @12:13PM (#27627371)

    you know, I've been noticing a lot of similiar posts whenever Obama is mentioned... Stuff like:

    "both parties suck, don't bother"
    "Obama lied to us"
    and lots of just little slams. Nothing concrete. Just little jabs here and there.

    I look... and a lot of these are from ACs, or people who seem to have just registered and have very few comments on their record. I smell viral marketing at work....

    Lets face it, Obama didn't run as a left wing ideologue. He's been in 100 days, and although many here are peeved at the appointment of RIAA folks to the DOJ, and everyone is pissed at the bailouts (although I suspect they'd be more pissed if it all tanked and they lost their jobs/houses/etc).... for the most part, Obama has been careful and pretty center of the road. He didn't yank us out of Iraq (which would have been pretty irresponsible IMO). He is yanking funding for stupid military projects that were money sinks. Good for him. He has pushed at teachers unions... Not a very socialist thing to do. He has pushed for healthcare. People get pissed at this, but I suspect they don't realize that when someone without healthcare goes to the ER, we foot the bill anyway. He has scruitinized his appointments more than anyone else.... You think tax problems for political appointees JUST NOW became a problem?

    bah, this is just my opinion. Feel free to have your own....

    The point is, he's been pretty calm, politically centered for a Dem, and careful in his actions. I think he's doing fairly well given the situation. If there is an attempt to influence public opinion... I Hate Viral Marketing.

    Turn your internal virus detectors on folks.

    -T

  • Well, Obama has no real leadership experience either, so why not be consistent?

    I guess its better then appointing a fox to watch the henhouse like has happened in other cases recently.

  • From Virginia... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ukyoCE (106879) on Saturday April 18, 2009 @01:29PM (#27628055) Journal

    I don't know how much Aneesh is responsible for, but I've been pleasantly surprised by my home state's technology initiatives. We do pretty much everything online these days - DMV, property values, utilities, car taxes.

    A number of years back the virginia state government charged you an extra ~$10 to make payments online, compared to sending the same credit card number to them in the mail to be processed by hand. That nonsense is long gone, thankfully.

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