Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Bailout: So Many Questions, So Few Answers

I can't help but feel that this $700 billion bailout is Washington's last attempt to issue free money to Bush's Big Banking Buddies at the expense of taxpayers. Although the headlines read that lawmakers have reached an agreement today on the terms of the bailout, so few details have been released that I am left with so many questions.

Which institutions will be allowed to benefit? The news is full of big names like Lehman Brothers, AIG, and Washington Mutual. But what about the smaller regional institutions, like Umpqua Bank, Bank of Montecito, and River City Bank, who specialize in providing banking and lending services to Small Town USA? Surely some of them are in financial trouble, being saddled with bad debt stemming from the housing boom. I haven't heard anyone speak up for them. Will they be allowed to go under while larger banks snap them up using bailout funds?

What about institutions with other kinds of debt, such as credit card debt? Will Citibank be allowed to write off billions of dollars in consumer debt and essentially start over with a zeroed balance book? Who decides what kinds of debt are covered under the bailout bill and which are not?

This bailout does nothing to fix the underlying problem.

President Bush went on the record last night to explain to the taxpayers how we got into this mess. The problem, as he stated, stems largely from the poorly-managed mortgages wrapped up into complex securities that buried the risk. This bailout is necessary, he said, to buy up the bad debt and allow banks to resume lending.

That's great, but it's like applying a Band-Aid to a patient with internal bleeding. The financial vehicles for this disaster still exist:

  • It's still possible to create complex securities out of bad debt and sell it to unknowing investors.

  • It's still possible to sell a house to someone who can't afford it.

  • We'll still have greedy mortgage brokers pulling the wool over lenders' eyes. The broker gets paid when the mortgage is signed, and keeps the money even if the homeowner defaults.

  • And we still have many homeowners teetering on the edge of delinquency whose defaults have yet to show up on banks' balance sheets.

Secretaries Paulson and Bernanke say the time to do the bailout is now; changing the regulatory laws will be done later, once the financial system has been stabilized. When is "later?"

"Later" is after the new year. We'll have a new President and a new Congress. Many of them will be new to Washington, new to the intense lobbying that comes with the job. You can bet that the Big Banking PACs, flush with $700 billion in cash, will really turn up the heat on our representatives to convince them that the regulatory laws which so desperately need changing should either be left alone or altered to benefit the banking industry.

Imagine the kind of influienc you could have on your representative if you had even one million dollars. Now imagine what you could do with $700 billion.

I'm not convinced that, once the dust settles, that anything will have changed at all. But I do know this: the Big Banks will be $700 billion richer and we taxpayers will be $700 billion poorer.

Friday, September 19, 2008

"The Cloud" Saves the Day

So my iMac went in for repairs. The video card needs to be replaced. I suspect that it's been bad for quite a while, but since I don't play games, it hasn't been an issue. Until I started seeing more and more blocky artifacts scattered about the screen.

The computer will be gone for 3-7 days. Am I completely dead in the water until I get it back? Of course not, and here's why.

First, I have a backup computer: my trusty MacBook Pro which I carry around just about everywhere.

But what about my data? Thanks to "The Cloud," I have nearly all of the necessities easily accessible.

My email--four accounts' worth--is stored on IMAP servers, meaning the messages themselves are kept on the mail server and downloaded to my computer only when I need to read them. They stay on the server until I delete them. And even then, GMail archives them for a couple of years instead of deleting them outright. All of my email is equally accessible from any internet-enabled device: my MacBook Pro, iMac, iPhone, and anything with a web browser. GMail for domains is my hero.

My address book, email account settings, calendars, and Safari bookmarks are all synced among my three Apple devices using MobileMe, a service that costs about $99 per year. Well worth the money just for that feature alone.

Many of my bookmarks are also stored on, a social bookmarking site. Thanks to a plug-in for Firefox, the bookmarks are listed right in the Bookmarks/Favorites menu; I don't have to go to the website just to see them.

I have lots of notes, to-do lists, and web clippings stored in Evernote, a free service that stores the notes in the cloud and syncs them to all my devices almost in realtime. If you've never tried Evernote, do so. The coolest thing: picture notes. I just snap a picture with my iPhone or the camera built into my computer and it's instantly uploaded to Evernote. There, some magic happens: all the text that's visible in the picture is recognized and made searchable. For example, I recently needed to go to the pool supply store to have my spa water tested. The guy there recommended some chemicals I needed to buy to balance the water. Before I left, I had taken a picture of all the chemicals I already had. I simply typed in the name of the chemical and if the picture popped up, I knew I already had it and didn't need to buy more. Nifty!

All the important data and applications on the iMac itself are backed up through a an online service called Mozy. It's free for backups of up to 2GB; about $5/month for unlimited backups. If my Time Machine backup ever fails, everything I need to get a new machine back in service can be downloaded from the Mozy backup.

There you have it. Cloud Computing is the future, thanks to the Internet. But the next time I write about The Cloud, it will be when the Internet has blown up and none of my data is accessible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Comcast, Back In My Life?

Today's Status Updates
I think Comcast and I have reached an amicable agreement, thanks to good folks like Frank Eliason. About an hour ago I got off the phone with Mary, a regional rep from San Mateo, and we arranged for a very inexpensive HD package consisting of:

Basic Limited Cable, $12.35
Two CableCards, $1.79
Monthly total: $14.14 plus taxes and fees (approx. $19 total).

That's good news, and cheaper than I expected! This package will give me the local broadcast stations, public access channels, and QVC and/or HSN.

However, I also just got a return call from Herman James who expressed doubt that the package would actually work in Sacramento, citing some possible "technical issues." We'll see how this pans out.

In the meantime, UPS delivered my antenna today. Out of curiosity, I'm going to hook it up and see how well it performs.

Finally, I inquired with Discovery Channel about the availability of MythBusters on legal download sites, such as and iTunes. They wrote back:

Dear Viewer:

Thank you for taking the time to contact Discovery Networks. We appreciate
your interest in our programming and are delighted to hear from our
viewers. Unfortunately, Mythbusters is currently not available for

We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Boo. Will I need to wait until after the season is over to rent it? Or will I resort to BitTorrent?

A bigger question is: would I rather pay $19 for basic cable, or get the same service from an antenna for free? I think so. Setting up the antenna will cost about $200. That will pay for about a year of cable service. Over the long run, cable will cost more, for sure. But it might be worth not having to hassle with the antenna.

Still, I'm going to hook it up and see for myself. :)

Monday, September 15, 2008

No Love From Comcast

Called Herman today and left a message. He hasn't returned the call. So.... I ordered the antenna and mast from They should be here by Thursday, just in time for my cable to be turned off.

What I'm Asking For

Let's be clear about a couple of things: I'm not asking for Comcast to lower their rates. I'm not asking for them to make any undue sacrifices. They are free to charge whatever rates their customers will pay.

What I am asking for is the absolute cheapest HDTV package. After looking through their website at all of the packages available, I believe that the following combination is possible:

Limited Basic Cable. Covers channels 2-13 plus a few others like public access, and the Home Shopping Network (ugh). $12.85.
Limited Basic HDTV. An $8.00 add-on for any cable package. It gives me the HD versions of the channels in the other package, where appropriate.

Combined, this package should cost roughly $20.85, plus taxes and fees. But the customer service rep I spoke to last week insisted that I also needed to rent a converter box. She claimed that because the package I was trying to order "was not a digital package," a converter was needed to receive the HD channels.

Say what? What, exactly, is that converter box converting?

Perhaps she thought I had an "HD Capable" TV, which does need a tuner in order to receive HD channels. But not only is my TV "HD Ready," so is my TiVo Series 3. The latter even has CableCard slots, conveniently filled with two Comcast CableCards that I've been using the past two years.

Or perhaps the converter is needed to convert the analog channels into digital versions that my TV/TiVo can receive. That doesn't hold water. HD channels are by definition digital. I'm only interested in receiving the local broadcast stations in HD: KCRA, KXTV, KOVR, etc. Believe me, being able to watch HSN in stunning digital is the last thing on my list. It ranks even lower than the public access channels. I've got my TiVo configured to never, ever, EVER record that channel.

So there you have it. My request to Comcast is humble: bundle Basic Limited Cable with Basic Limited HDTV for roughly $20. Your website says it's possible. Will you do it? If not, I'm getting the antenna.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Comcast Continues to Respond

If you've been reading the comments on my original blog posting about Comcast, you've seen that they've responded. Apparently they have employees who scan the net and look for disgruntled customers. Kudos to them, I say. Note that I'm not disgruntled with Comcast -- I just don't feel like paying $75/mo anymore.

I also received a voicemail on my home phone. (I included my phone number in the email I sent directly to their customer service dept.) It was from a Herman James, representing the Sacramento region. Unfortunately, I didn't listen to it until after business hours, so I'll be calling them back on Monday.

In addition, I posted an ad on Craigslist inquiring about TV antenna installers. I got two responses that I'll be following up on.

The ex-Comcast saga continues!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Comcast's First Response

This morning, a semi-automated response was waiting in my inbox. Clearly, they missed the point.

Dear Mr. Brown,

Thank you for taking the time to write to the Comcast Office of Rick Germano, Senior Vice President of Customer Operations. My name is Robert and I thank you for this opportunity to assist you regarding your Billing inquiry. We apologize for the delayed response.

We need to hear about any unsatisfactory situations in order to correct them and to enhance our level of customer service. I have forwarded your comments to the appropriate members of our development and management teams for further review Mr. Brown. I do hope the following information is useful to you.

What is the digital television transition?

Keep in mind that only older "analog" televisions relying on Broadcast signals (through the air) will be the equipment that is truly affected by this change.

Information for the Digital Broadcast Transition

At midnight February 17, 2009, Congress requires that all TV broadcast stations (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS and Univision) begin broadcasting exclusively in digital format. This switchover is referred to as the broadcast digital TV (DTV) transition.

Consumers with analog TVs that rely on antenna reception such as rooftop antenna or rabbit ears to get your TV signals (not connected to a pay TV service like cable or satellite) will need to take action to ensure continued reception of broadcast channels on these TVs. Their options include:

1. Request a DTV Converter Box Coupon
2. Purchase a new TV capable of displaying a digital signal (still requires adequate antenna reception)
3. Subscribe to pay TV service like cable or satellite

What is the TV Converter Box Coupon Program?

Congress created the TV Converter Box Coupon Program for households wishing to keep using their analog TV sets after February 17, 2009. This program allows U.S. households to obtain up to two coupons, each worth $40 that can be applied toward the cost of eligible converter boxes.

The TV Converter Box Coupon Program can be contacted 24-hours at Coupon Program Hotline at 1-888-388-2009 or visit the website mentioned. Hearing impaired customers can call the TTY number which is 1-877-530-2634. Please note the TV Converter Box Coupon Program is Government run program and not affiliated with Comcast. For more detailed information, please visit this website

A TV connected to Comcast service does not require a TV converter box from this program (this includes Comcast customers with Limited or Full Standard Service only). NOTE: Comcast has agreed to continue to carry broadcast network signals in analog format for a minimum of three years following the Feb. 2009 conversion deadline. This means that Comcast customers will still not need a converter box to still receive these signals. To be clear, all they need to have is their TV connected to the Comcast cable network.

Additional information available and useful Links.

What you should know about February 17, 2009 for the cessation of Analog broadcasts and Digital conversion:

FCC Homepage:

The FCC's special website, has more information on digital television, or you can call 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322).

Comcast is committed to provide the best customer experience possible. We look forward to your continued feedback Mr. Brown and we hope to be able to continue to provide you with our services. Please contact us if you have any questions or require additional information.

Thank you for choosing Comcast.


Office of Rick Germano

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dear Comcast

Dear Comcast,

After six years as a customer, I have decided to end our relationship. I have found myself watching less and less TV. Consequently, I felt that the $75 per month I sent you was simply not giving me enough of a benefit. The numbers don't add up anymore. Let me explain.

What does $75 get me? Local broadcast channels (ABC, NBC, CBS, etc.), over one hundred cable channels in your "Digital Preferred" package, and HDTV versions of those channels where appropriate. Of those roughly two hundred channels, I regularly watch only about ten of them. Even among those ten, I added up that I watch approximately fifteen hours of TV per month. That's about a half-hour per day, on average. I'm paying five dollars per hour.

The shows on those ten or so channels overwhelmingly consist of broadcast HDTV shows on NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS. I'd say 80% of my viewing is broadcast TV. The rest are a smattering of cable-only shows on networks such as Discovery, TLC, and HGTV. I don't watch sports. I don't watch pay-per-view. I don't even watch movies on Starz; I'd rather rent a DVD for that.

I'm sure you're well aware that the broadcast networks can be received over-the-air in HD via an inexpensive antenna. Therein lies the rub: I'm paying five dollars an hour to watch TV I can receive for free. The rest of my TV diet is easily accommodated by inexpensive services such as Amazon Video on Demand (built into my TiVo) and iTunes (displayed on my TV by Apple TV). Even broadcast shows are easily viewable on the TV from the networks' respective websites. Local news -- with video -- is available online, too.

You see, I'm going to get almost all of my TV viewing from the airwaves for free or from online sources for free or very inexpensively. And I'll save money -- an estimated $500 or more per year, even including the upfront cost of buying an antenna and Apple TV. It's all legal. No BitTorrent, no Limewire. I believe in rewarding the studios, actors, and productions crews for shows that I enjoy.

I tried to talk your kind customer service representative into offering me Basic Limited cable ($12) plus Basic Limited HDTV ($8), but she countered with a $40+ package that included a hundred or so channels that I will never watch. Twenty dollars I would have happily paid, but $40 was too much. I'm sorry it didn't work out.

I'll give you another chance, Comcast, if you will accept my offer: Limited Basic HDTV for about $20. And please don't upsell me on a converter box. I don't need one. My TiVo and TV are perfectly capable of receiving digital HD signals, as the last six years certainly testify. Will you do it?


Barry Brown