Thursday, December 27, 2007

Analog cellular shutdown affects more than you think

There are several impending shutdowns that users of wireless devices - not necessarily cell phones - need to be aware of.
  1. AT&T, Verizon and Alltel will be shutting down their old analog cellular networks - known as AMPS - in February. For users in rural areas or those who relied on analog coverage when they were roaming, it's time to start looking for alternatives. Verizon is especially guilty of relying on analog roaming when out of their own CDMA coverage area.

  2. In rural areas, there will be some new coverage blackholes created by the shutdown. So expect coverage to get worse before it gets better. None of the carriers are admitting to this but it's definitely the elephant in the room. Also keep in mind that it might be a good idea to stop into your local carrier's retail store and have the update the PRL (preferred roaming list) on your existing phone. Any phone more than 6 months old needs the update. Phones more than a year or so old absolutely need the update. Otherwise your phone will not know about the new digital roaming arrangements carriers have been making to provide coverage for their users.

  3. If you have an alarm system of any type that contains a wireless monitoring or notification system, call your alarm company NOW. Most of the systems installed in the past decade relied on the older analog cellular networks for connectivity. Your alarm company will be able to figure out what kind of cellular connection you are using and if necessary can install a replacement unit that will work on the digital networks. It won't be free but without it your alarm monitoring will cease to function in an emergency.

  4. Automobile communications systems that were made before 2005 and in some cases including 2005, may need to have their wireless transmitter units replaced. Of specific concern are OnStar and similar systems. The older OnStar units were analog only and will cease to function after the analog networks cease. That means protections like crash notification and remote lockout assistance will stop functioning along with it.

  5. Older wireless credit card terminals from all of the major credit card networks will also cease to function when the analog network dies. These units were normally powered by the analog networks because the analog networks supported the direct host connectivity the units needed. I don't know of retrofit options for any of them since the communications modem is embedded into the body of the unit. They will need to be replaced with newer equipment, preferably IP based units running over GPRS, 1XRTT, EVDO or UMTS. Hint... go with EVDO or UMTS if at all possible. That will give you the most number of years of service out of the unit and the fastest transaction processing speed.

Make your own joke

Well, Christmas has come and gone. The boxes are open, the paper is in shreds and the leftovers are wrapped in plastic. From comparing notes with colleagues and friends, I wasn't the only one who was a little blah about the whole thought of Christmas this year.

For me, I think it came from overexposure. Something about singing Christmas music since October made the whole thing less magical. By Christmas eve the last thing I wanted to hear was Christmas music on the radio. So when I was driving home from our candlelight service at church I popped in a Jump5 CD.

But like me, some of the other people who experienced the blahs this year had that blah punctuated by moments of fun and frivolity. Here's an example:

Now I'll let you make your own joke about the pose. But at least she got out of the ho-hum for a few minutes.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Weight Limit

Merry Christmas fellow bloggers and blog readers!

PS... I lost 2 pounds this month. Hehe. See ya at the New Years resolution booth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

CIA caught with fingers in the cookie jar

Another fine mess brought to you by a government who has become addicted to hiding the facts, spinning the leaks and getting away with anything they please.

Friday, December 07, 2007

I did it again... Killed another Time Warner 8300HDC

Well my name isn't Brittney but Opps, I did it again! Another "wonderful" Scientific Atlanta product has bitten the dust at my house. Time Warner pushed down a firmware update for the 8300HDC - cable card units - sometime this week. My units picked it up tonight when I power cycled them due to no guide data being available (common problem).

One unit updated itself and came back fine. The other unit still hadn't turned back on 20 minutes later. So I turned the TV on and found this:

The firmware update had stalled at 99% and bricked the cable card. Ghee. Whee.

So here's my obligatory - Time Warner Sucks! for the week.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

HIV 101: World Aids Day Weekend

HIV, also commonly referred to as its symptom complex AIDS, is a disease that we know how to get and that we know how to prevent. Yet it remains the greatest challenges facing our modern society. Please take a moment to watch the video below.

This is the weekend of World AIDS day. The Global Summit on AIDS & The Church is taking place this weekend. For more information on how your church or organization can get mobilized in the fight please visit the Purpose Driven community for for the Global Summit on AIDS.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

IPTV... I had high hopes for SkyAngel

Those of you in my close circle of friends have heard me talking about my hope for the IPTV service that SkyAngel is eventually bringing to the US. I was hoping they would enable GodTV reaching more people in the US (currently limited to DirecTV only). Well, today my hopes aren't quite as high.

Back in August, I emailed SkyAngel to let them know I'd like to be included in their beta of the new service. I knew they had already successfully lunched the service in Canada and were working on plans for the US version.

Specifically I'd emailed them "I'm a professional IT geek and a blogger. I already have ethernet connections at each of my TVs, use TiVO and have HDTV service. I also have 802.11g and 802.11n wireless networks in my home." I sent my request directly to their VP of Corporate Communications and got an acknowledgment the same day.

Well September, October and pretty much all of November came and went with nary a word from them. So today I sent a follow-up to the same VP. This time it triggered a chain of emails and a call from another VP apologizing for the fact they had dropped the ball and no one ever followed up on my email.

That would have been a great call... except they had already sent all their beta invitations out earlier this month. And each one of them was specially coded for survey tracking... and their IT department was too busy to program in and send out another code.

Now I've been in corporate IT myself. So I understand busy. I understand beta and phased deployments. I understand things getting missed. What I don't understand is why you call someone after they've been forgotten for 3 months only to tell them they were forgotten and there's nothing you can do about it. That just seems asinine.

I've been trying to figure out the possible motivation for that kind of call but really I'm at a loss. How often am *I* at a loss?!

Then later this afternoon I get an email from the VP of Communications apologizing for having dropped the follow-up on my initial email. She also informed me that post launch they're thinking about inviting some media to test and review the service.

Her email settled it for me. This is the same old Dominion Satellite. They didn't learn anything from SkyAngel's satellite service launch, lack of uptake in the broader market, and the experiences (trouble) people had with their service. Common sense in marketing dictates that you want to generate positive buzz before something hits the general market.

What troubles me most is this is a group that represents Christian ethics and morals. I truly appreciate what they're trying to do with religious programming distribution but they are apparently clueless about how the business world works. And that cluelessness has translated into a lack of understanding of the tech world.

Here they're launching the sort of product that all of the tech industry would like to see - standalone IP based TV. Think of it as Vonage for television - SkyAngel TV channels delivered over any viable IP reception method - cable, DSL, T1, etc.

This is exactly the thing that we Christian IT leaders, bloggers and executives would like to put our weight behind. Alas SkyAngel has proven they lack vision for IPTV just like they lacked vision for how to get out into the general market with family friendly satellite service. So instead of Vonage for television, we're destined for SunRocket for television.

I may one day own a SkyAngel IPTV box... I did sign up back in October for notification when it comes out. And it is exactly the sort of service I'm looking for. I just hope I get more use out of it than I got out of my Sunrocket phone before the service dies.

Too bad SkyAngel, a communication company, simply does not understand how to communicate in the 21st century. SkyAngel IPTV service is destined for the same limited market exposure as SkyAngel Satellite garnered.

In economic terms, based on their current market savvy it's unlikely the addition of IPTV to their portfolio will generate enough cash flow to keep the company afloat. Those of who were looking for IPTV to fix the channel bandwidth crunch caused by them losing transponder space on Dish Network appear to be in for sore disappointment. Sorry friends.

Monday, November 26, 2007

SDV coming to TiVo - TiVo here I come!

For those on digital cable systems like those sucky bozos at the Greensboro, NC division of Time Warner, there's good news! TiVo will be getting and add-on module that will allow it to work on systems that have deployed switched digital video (SDV).

SDV is a new feature on some cable systems that keeps the channels that aren't being watched by anyone in the area from being broadcast on the cable coming into your home. That allows the cable system to theoretically add more channels. (Now don't get me started about all of the crap channels that people don't want to watch. If those weren't there SDV would be irrelevant. Duh!) I won't get into the technical limitations of that but I will summarize by saying its a stop-gap measure at best. Spectrum on coax is limited by the carrying capacity of the wire. Fiber is the final and only option that will really be a viable long term solution.

The problem with TiVo, especially HD TiVo, is that it couldn't do the special handshake that the cable system needed in order to say "ok, send me these channels and let me know where they are." Several cable system divisions were using that lacking feature to poopoo TiVos and similar products in order to get people to accept the crappy cable boxes like you heard me fussing about last week. Customers who bought TiVos on SDV enabled systems were often finding the HD channels they were getting cable for in the first place to be inaccessible.

Today's announcement by the NCTA and TiVo puts and end to that madness. I'll be out getting 2 TiVos to replace these 2 B%T$H Scientific Atlanta Explorer 8300HDC boxes. (Few things in life I hate... they have managed to get themselves added that list!)

PS... Dad if you had time to read my blog, you have time to put a new electric outlet in the basement!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Let's Say Thanks

I may not like our bozo president. Or the lame war he and his cronies got us into. BUT I do support our men and women who willingly agree to serve in our armed forces - even if they are technically under the direction of said bozo.

Here's your chance to let our men and women in service know that we appreciate them. Xerox is powering a program called Let's Say Thanks (LST). Click over to the LST website, pick a postcard style, personalize the card and poof, Xerox prints it and sends it to a service man or woman for free.

You can also download the kid-drawn art from the cards for use in your own personal cards and letters to those in service you have a personal connection with.

So what are you waiting for?! Let's Say Thanks!

Online advertising... getting a little too personal

For those of you who haven't been tracking the fuss that Facebook started lately, you might want to pay attention. I've linked to an article over at Broadband Reports in the header above.

What's all the fuss about? Simple - technology has caught up with us and internet anonymity is now non-existent. The technology now exists and is in place for multiple sites to all share data with each other about what you've been doing on their sites - what you've bought, what you looked at, who you've talked to, etc.

The reason they're doing this is not so much "big brother" but so they can charge advertisers more money. See the more they can say that they know about you, the more they can charge for putting someone in front of your eyeballs.

Facebook's latest nuclear explosion stems from the fact that they let out a little too much information. Friends don't need to know you went to Overstock and bought a pair of silk underwear. At least not my friends.

I'd encourage you to take a closer look and start tracking where this privacy train is headed. Europe appears to be headed in one direction (legally mandated privacy protection) and the US appears to be headed in another (open season on every tidbit of data someone can get about you - i.e. *no* privacy).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

All I have to say about Thanksgiving...

Thanksgiving has come and gone. I did a little shopping today... oh alright, a lot. Here's all I have to say about Thanksgiving 2007:

Special thanks to K&W Cafeteria for keeping us out of the kitchen. Now if only they'd hurry up and build one of the new concept K&W Cafe stores in Roxboro.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Soapbox: My take on OJ

I was catching up on some reading and just had to say something about this mess. So here, quote me!
If you are blessed to get away with killing 2 people, you might want to lay low and keep your mouth S.H.U.T, stay out of Las Vegas and hire someone to keep you from doing something else stupid!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Time Warner Cable Sucks

Ok... I've endured the services of Time Warner Cable via their Greensboro, NC division now for 6 months. I can now officially say - They Suck!

Why do they suck? Let me count the ways:
  1. Laughable HD DVR. The Scientific Atlanta 8300HD/HDC. I have 2 of them. I hate both of them. I've gone through 5 of them trying to get 2 that work. I still get audio drop-outs on HD recordings (the live versions were fine), the user interface was teleported in from 1985, and recordings just fail to occur for no explainable reason. Tonight was the last straw. I couldn't watch Ch 557 (HGTV HD) or Ch 558 (Food Network HD), called tech support, they did something and I could watch it on the livingroom unit. Went into the bedroom later and it said "Guardian has determined your software must be updated. This may take 20 minutes or more..." Well 2 hours later and a call back to tech support confirmed I just toasted *another* SA8300HDC. Tech scheduled for Monday. I'm going to Best Buy and buying 2 HD TiVo's tomorrow to replace these SoBs! And I'll make the tech use the M-Cards from the 8300HDCs in the TiVo's. Ha!

  2. Inexplicable lack of certain channels. I've never been on a cable system where there were no national religious channels. I mean come on, everyone has TBN - they pay local systems for placement just like QVC! But for some reason the Greensboro market has no mainstream religious programming. No TBN, no Daystar, no EWTN, no GodTV, no nothing. I think we may get some Catholic channel a couple hours a day. I can't believe the churches around here or at least the cable customers haven't complained.

  3. Craptacular HD Channel Lineup. I can't believe they're actually advertising how many they have - 29! They even trumpet it in their on-hold announcements. DirecTV - which I have at one home - has 70 channels. Time Warner doesn't carry 7 of the local HD broadcasts I get on DirecTV.

  4. Limited internet bandwidth. I have the "Turbo" package which is supposed to yield 8mbps x 512 kbps. That's great except Time Warner doesn't overprovision... so you only get ~85% of the stated speed. I've never downloaded faster than ~7.5 mbps. Upload is never over 500 kbps. Compare that to the Embarq service I have... 6 mbps x 896 kbps. I consistently download at the actual 6 mbps and upload around 850 kbps. I miss having 1/2 my upload speed horribly when I'm on the Time Warner connection. I'd like to see them move to 10 mbps x 1 mbps.
Well, I'm off to bed. Can't watch HGTV HD, Food Network HD or a handful of other channels on the fried 8300HDC. The only thing I get now on those channels after an hour on the phone with tech support is a black screen. Whee.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Christmas performance season is heating up!

Well, it's that time of year again. The radio stations have started sneaking in Christmas music, I just loaded Christmas tracks into the on-hold system in the office and I bought one of the $99 HD-DVD players at Wal-Mart's "Secret" pre-holiday sale the other week.

There's a big event happening in Burlington, NC this year. On Sunday, December 9th, Integrity Church and Brookwood Church are joining their bands and worship teams together to produce a night of worship and entertainment unlike anything in the Piedmont Triad.

The event is billed as United In Worship: the Nativity story. It will be held at the restored Paramount Theatre in downtown Burlington, NC and tickets are only $5 but need to be purchased in advance because they're selling out fast. Showtimes are 4:00pm and 7:00pm. Proceeds from the event go to support Alamance County's premier food pantry - Loaves & Fishes.

Integrity's band is known for rocking down the house on Sunday mornings and Brookwood is known for its variety in its vocalists. Combined, the two should create an unforgettable evening for all those in attendance.

I would encourage anyone within 300 miles of Burlington to buy tickets and get to this event on December 9th. While you're at it, buy a few extra tickets and load up your car. That way you can split the gas expense with a few someones.

You can hear a sample of Integrity's rockin' worship here. And you can buy tickets online via the United in Worship e-ticket site. They can also be bought in person on Sunday mornings from now until they run out at both Brookwood and Integrity.

PS... Integrity also knows how to go soft and smooth.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I won!

Those who know me, know I love food. Those who really know me, know I'm a dern good cook. (Ok, enough with the modesty.)

I won, I won, I won. Hehehe. This past weekend, Integrity Church of Burlington, NC held its annual chili cook-off and Trunk-o-Ween. Last year I entered the chili contest with a 100% organic, high vegetable chili made with buffalo. Well, one of the judges... a redhead who's getting married next Friday but shall otherwise remain nameless... torpedoed me because she didn't like the idea of eating buffalo.

This year I was smart. Going for a laugh and figuring she might judge again this year, I didn't put my own name on my entry. Instead I titled the entry "Nacho Mama's Chili". (Pun intended.) With the enhanced name and a killer recipe - made with a base of a cured and smoky pork essence, chipotle and mole poblano - I knew I had all the right buttons pushed. Not too hot, not too spicy... a little hint of smoky... a dash of earthiness. It was ~98% fat free, contained 2 whole servings of vegetables per bowl, and all organic meat and produce.

Luckily I didn't have to wait long. The judging happened before anything else. Bingo! Nacho Mama's Chili won first prize in the Healthy category. And having tasted the winner in the hearty category, if I'd had another pot to enter I would have been a strong contender there too.

Yum yum. Whoo hoo! I won.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

They're out to do it again...

Well, the guys who created Telarus and set out to revolutionize how T1s and DS3s were quoted - as the first people to quote them on the internet in real-time, are back at it. Patrick, one of the co-founders, just started a new blog for the enterprise they've started called Commission River.

I can't spoil the surprise but I'd suggest keeping an eye on the Commission River website over the next few weeks. There are some very interesting developments in the wind. Other online affiliate programs had better take notice. These guys intend to out innovate and out perform you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When is the last time you backed up your computer?

So... if your computer died tonight, what would happen? Would you lose everything you have on your hard drive? Do you have copies of all your emails? Did you remember to back up all those digital photos?

Most people never think about all the stuff they have stored on their computer until their hard drive dies or their machine blows up. Then it's too late. The damage is already done and everything is already lost. I hear from at least one person every month who has lost everything and is looking for some glimmer of hope that I might be able help them recover the 5 years of stuff they just lost.

For the past 8 months I've been using an online backup service called Carbonite. It works in the background and uses your existing broadband connection to store the data within Carbonite's datacenter. The data is encrypted and safely locked up waiting for you to need rescuing. When it comes time for that rescue, your data can be restored to any PC with an internet connection.

So if you're traveling or are otherwise away from your home or office when your computer dies, there's no worrying about not having your backup discs, media, etc. You can simply start restoring all your lost data onto a new computer via any available internet connection.

You can even use Carbonite to do what I did recently - to move all your data to a new PC. I work in lots of different offices and getting data from my main laptop onto a new laptop is always a hassle. I'm usually traveling when I need to make the switch and that just complicates it even more. With Carbonite I just installed the software on the new machine and initiated Restore mode, chose the files I wanted to restore, told Carbonite where to put them and went to bed. The next morning, all of my data had been pulled down by Carbonite onto my new machine.

Carbonite is the cheapest data insurance you'll ever buy! I highly recommend it. They offer a free 15 day trial.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Democratic Lawmaker Pushing Immunity Is Newly Flush With Telco Cash

By Ryan Singel

Threatlevel_rockefeller_200x_3 Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) is reportedly steering the secretive Senate Intelligence Committee to give retroactive immunity to telecoms that helped the government secretly spy on Americans.

He has also recently benefited from some interesting political contributions.


Read the rest at Wired.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Verizon Wireless: If you don’t opt out, we get to share your CPNI call data

From BroadbandReports:
A startup named SkyDeck notes that Verizon Wireless customers need to opt out of a new plan to sell customer CPNI (Customer Proprietary Network Information) data to third parties. That data includes all numbers called or called from, the length of each call and additional information on services purchased. Verizon is sending this letter to customers, alerting them that they have thirty days to call a 1-800 number or they agree to the sharing. Verizon tells RCR Wireless News "we’re doing the right thing here."

SkyDeck has a scanned copy of the notice available here.

From ARS Technica:
Over the weekend, a small storm erupted over new legal language that Verizon Wireless is passing quietly on to its subscribers. It appears as though the cellular provider is changing its terms of service to give the company the right to share sensitive calling data with third parties.

At issue is so-called Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) data. While CPNI data does not include explicit information identifying your name and address or your phone number, it does include data on the calls you make and receive, and the services that you may make use of. This includes information about the features of your phone and its capabilities. The data could easily be mined to see what kinds of businesses you call and how often.

Verizon Wireless has been contacting its customers via snail mail to inform them of their intent to share CPNI data with its "affiliates, agents and parent companies (including Vodafone) and their subsidiaries." The company says that customers who do not want their CPNI data shared need to call 1-800-333-9956 to "opt-out." Upon dialing the opt-out number, Verizon customers will be prompted for their phone number, billing ZIP code, and last four digits of their Social Security Numbers (in the case of businesses, their Employer ID numbers). Failure to opt-out will be interpreted by Verizon Wireless as "consent" to the company's data-sharing practices.

Although the Federal Communications Commission has said that it is very concerned about the protection of CPNI data, and is exploring the possibility of strengthening its rules on the issue, Verizon's opt-out notice appears to fulfill the Commission's CPNI disclosure requirements.

The Skydeck company blog was the first to suggest that what Verizon wants to do here is use CPNI data to offer targeted advertising. For its part, Verizon Wireless only says that it hope to improve its "services," but give no concrete examples of what such improvements would look like. Without a doubt, the notice given by the company is extremely vague. Skydeck has a scanned PDF copy available for your perusal.

Verizon Wireless may just be a first mover among other telcos. The race is on in the telecom industry to tap the well of advertising for mobile services, and this opt-out approach is guaranteed to give Verizon a lot of CPNI data to share, an undeniable treasure trove of information for marketers. We don't envision Verizon selling this data to third parties, using it instead to build its own analytic advertising system to capitalize on the targeting in-house. The company isn't likely to broadcast such plans until they are very close to fruition, however.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Inside France's secret war

For 40 years, the French government has been fighting a secret war in Africa, hidden not only from its people, but from the world. It has led the French to slaughter democrats, install dictator after dictator – and to fund and fuel the most vicious genocide since the Nazis. Today, this war is so violent that thousands are fleeing across the border from the Central African Republic into Darfur – seeking sanctuary in the world's most notorious killing fields

By Johann Hari in Birao, Central African Republic

Published: 05 October 2007

I first heard whispers of this war in March, when newspapers reported in passing that the French military was bombing the remote city of Birao, in the far north-east of the CAR. Why were French soldiers fighting there, thousands of miles from home? Why had they been intervening in Central Africa this way for so many decades? I could find no answers here – so I decided to travel there, into the belly of France's forgotten war.

On the battlefield - Birao

I am standing now on its latest battlefield, looking out over abandoned mud streets streaked with ash. The city of Birao is empty and echoing, for the first time in 200 years. All around are miles of burned and abandoned homes, with the odd starved child scampering through the wreckage. What were all these buildings? On one faded green sign it says Ministry of Justice, on a structure reduced to a charcoal husk. In the market square, the people who have returned are selling a few scarce supplies – rice and manioc, the local yeasty staple food – and talking quietly. At the edges of the town, there are African soldiers armed and trained by the French, lolling behind sandbags, with machine guns jutting nervously at passers-by. They are singing weary nationalist anthems and dreaming of home.

To get here, you have to travel for eight hours on a weekly UN flight that carries eight passengers at most, and then ride on the back of a rusting flat-top truck for an hour along ravaged and broken roads. It is hard to know when you have arrived, because you are greeted only by emptiness and silence. What has happened here? Sitting amid the mud and dust and sorrow, I find Mahmoud, one of the 10 per cent of Birao's residents who have returned to the rubble.

He is a thin-faced 45-year-old farmer, and explains, in a low, slow voice, how his home town came to this. "I woke up for morning prayers on 4 March and there was gunfire everywhere. We were very frightened so we stayed in the house and hoped it would stop. But then in the early afternoon my brother's children came running to our house, screaming and crying. They told us the Forcés Armées Centrafricanes [Faca – the army trained and equipped by the French, on behalf of their friendly neighbourhood strongman, President François Bozize] had gone into their house. They wouldn't calm down and explain. So I ran there, and I saw my brother on the floor outside, dead. His wife explained they had forced their way in and rounded him up, along with three men who lived nearby. They took them out on to the street and shot them one by one in the head."

Mahmoud's friend, Idris, lived nearby, and feared he, too, would be shot. He says now: "We could see the villages burning and the children were screaming and really scared, so we ran two kilometres out into the jungle. From there we could see our whole city on fire. We fled along the river and stayed out there. We ate fish, but there weren't many. Some days we couldn't catch anything and we starved. The children were so terrified. Still, when they hear a loud noise, they think there are guns coming and they start shaking." Idris looks off into the distance and continues: "On the fourth day, we saw the French planes come. They each had six rockets that they fired. The explosions were loud. We don't know what they were targeting, or why. Then the French soldiers arrived." A military truck filled with French soldiers rumbles by not long after, its tanned troops wearing designer sunglasses and a "why am I here?" anxiety.

As Mahmoud and Idris talk it gets dark, and a suffocating blackness and silence falls on the city. There is no electricity and no moonlight. They explain in this blackness that the French-backed troops began firing and the French military began bombing in March for one reason: the desperate locals had begun to rise up against President Bozize, because he had done nothing for them. People here were tired of the fact that "there are no schools, no hospitals, and no roads". "We are completely isolated," they explain. "When it rains, we are cut off from the world because the roads turn to mud. We have nothing. All the rebels were asking was for government help." As I stumble around Birao, I hear this every time: the rebels were simply begging for government help for the hungry, abandoned people. Even the bemused French soldiers and the Bozize lackeys sent to the area admit this privately. Yet the French response was with bombs against the rebels' pick-up points. Why? What is there here that they want?

I look out towards the jungle and realise many of Birao's residents are still hiding out there, risking the wild beasts. In the similarly burned-out areas in the north-west, I drive out into the jungle with Unicef and find these clusters of starving families scattered everywhere. In one cleared patch, I find a group of four men with their wives and mothers, clearing an area of ground with their bare hands where they will try to plant peanuts. They are living in handmade huts and set traps to catch mice to eat. Ariette Nulguhom is cradling her eight-month-old grandson with his distended little belly and praying he will survive another night. She tells me: "He's been sick for a long time. We tried to get him to a nurse but there aren't any. We think it is malaria but there is no medicine here. We don't know what will happen... We are all weak and feverish. We're exhausted because we work all day, every day. I have not eaten for days now." When they left behind their houses, they left behind access to clean water, electricity, and medicine. When the Faca burned those homes, they burned away the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries for these families, too.

This is a forgotten corner of a forgotten country. Birao lies and dies in the far north-east of the Central African Republic. CAR itself has a population of just 3.8 million, spread across a territory bigger than Britain's, landlocked at the exact geographical heart of Africa. It is the least-reported country on earth. Even the fact that 212,000 people have been driven out of their homes in this war doesn't register on the global radar. In Birao, I realise I am too close to the immediate horror to find the deeper explanations for this war. I only begin to uncover the origins of this story when I stumble across a very rare find in the CAR – an old man.

A country of children - Paoua

In the CAR, you have beaten the odds if you live to be 42. There are times when this seems like a country of children, swarming around with guns and hardened laughs, without an adult in sight. So when I see Zolo Bartholemew limping past the wreckage of another burned-out town – this time in the distant north-west, outside the city of Paoua – he seems like a mirage. He has no teeth and a creased face, and when I ask, he does not know his age. But he remembers. He remembers the tail-end of the first time the French were here – and why.

"I watched my parents forced to work in the fields when I was a child," he says in Sango, the local language. "When they got tired, they were whipped and beaten and made to go faster. It was constantly like this." The French flag was first hoisted in the heart of Africa on 3 October 1880, seizing the right bank of the Congo for the cause of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – for the white man. The territory was swiftly divided up between French corporations, who were given the right effectively to enslave the people, like Zolo's parents, and force them to harvest its rubber. This rubber was processed into car tyres for sale in Paris and London and New York. A French missionary called Father Daigre described what he saw: " It is common to meet long files of prisoners, naked and in a pitiful state, being dragged along by a rope round their necks. They are famished, sick, and fall down like flies. The really ill and the little children are left in the villages to die of starvation. The people least affected often killed the dying, for food."

Zolo nods when I mention this. "When the whites were here, we suffered even more," he says. "They forced us to work. We were slaves."

One horrified French administrator wrote in the 1920s that the locals reacted to being enslaved by the corporations by becoming "a troglodyte, subsisting wretchedly on roots until he starves to death, rather than accept these terrible burdens". Areas that had "only a few months ago been rich, populous and firmly established in large villages" became, he wrote, "wasteland, sown with dilapidated villages and deserted plantations".

But in the 1950s, men like Zolo rose and refused to be enslaved. "We followed Boganda," he says. Barthélemy Boganda was born in a Central African village near here in 1910, and, as a child, he saw his mother beaten to death by the guards in charge of gathering rubber for a French corporation. He rose steadily through the Catholic priesthood, married a French woman, and, quite suddenly, became the leader of the CAR's pro-democracy movement. He would begin his speeches to the French by introducing himself as the son of a polygamous cannibal, and then lecture them on the values of the French Revolution with a fluency that left them stunned and shamed. He crafted a vision of a democratic Africa beyond tribe, beyond race and beyond colonialism. He was passionate about the need for a plurality of political parties, a free press, and human rights. He rhapsodised about his vision of a United States of Africa, linking together the countries of Central Africa into a USA Mk II.

"And they killed him," Zolo says, shaking his head and kicking at the earth beneath his feet. On 29 March 1959, not long after the French era of direct rule had ended, President Boganda's plane was blasted out of the air. The French press reported that there had been "suspicious materials " found in the remains of the fuselage – but on the orders of the French government, the local investigation was abandoned. The French installed the dictator David Dacko in his place. He swiftly shut down Boganda's democratic reforms, brought back many French corporations, and reintroduced their old system of forced labour, rebranding it "village work". French rule over the CAR – the whippings Zolo remembers – did not end with "independence". It simply mutated, into a new and slippery form, and it is at the root of the current war.

But the clues to this lie far to the west, in the capital city. " Nothing happens in this country without somebody pulling a lever in Paris," a taxi driver tells me as I leave to travel to Bangui at the bottom of the country, driving through clouds of red-dust and past swarms of street-children. I have an appointment with an underground figure in the opposition to keep.

A tortured president - Bangui

Bangui looks like a city that rose with a heave from the jungle a century ago, and has been sighing back into it ever since. Every building appears to be rusting away, and great eruptions of vegetation are shoving the homes and shops aside, reaching for the sky. On corner after corner there are huge, hideous caricature-statues of black people, showing them as thick-lipped and kinky-haired, giving the city the ambience of a Ku Klux Klan garage sale.

Every few hours, the power supply dies, and the city stammers to a halt. People dawdle in the streets, playing cards and wiping away their sweat with the back of their wrists. It is during one of these blackouts that I arrive at the office of a leader of the opposition with a delegation from the British campaigning group Waging Peace. His office is above a parade of shops, and it is a simple room filled with African carvings and pictures of past and faded glories. He walks towards us in a green suit, and – although he does not say it – we all know he is taking a huge risk by meeting us secretly like this. Last year, 40 political figures who criticised the government of President Bozize were tossed into jail and tortured. " They tried to kill my son. They are trying to assassinate me," he says, with a matter-of-fact shrug. He gives the long, horrible details. I cannot repeat them here because they would identify him – and become a death sentence.

"The country is in a dire situation," he says. "We have been described by the magazine Foreign Policy as one of the worst failed states in the world, after Iraq and Afghanistan." He says the CAR is now " a total and ferocious dictatorship" under the absolute command of Bozize. The roots of the wars in the north-east and north-west are, he says, simple. "Local people in these regions are rebelling against the government, because the government provides them with nothing. There are no services. There aren't even roads. So the rebels rise up to get attention – and the government retaliates by rampaging through the area, killing civillians and burning homes."

So who is this Francois Bozize, and why are the French supporting him with batallions and bombs? I telephone the vast presidential palace to meet the man who stares out from behind a smartly-trimmed moustache in the pictures hanging on every wall, and the President's press officer eventually gets back to me. "Call me back, I am running out of credit on my mobile phone," he snaps. Then he promises a meeting with the President, but finds mysterious "complications" that lead him to cancel every time. There are rumours across Bangui that Bozize is becoming ever-more paranoid and locked down, employing food tasters to check for poison before every meal and refusing to meet strangers. So I look instead to the few scraps of independent journalism that survive here for clues as to who this French love-child really is.

Le Citoyen is distributed on rough photocopied paper every day and sold on street corners for a few pennies – but it is one of the bastions of Central Africa's remaining freedoms. Its editor Maka Obossokotte has a neat grey beard, square cheekbones, and balls of steel. He has been jailed for criticising the President and his cronies more than once, but he insists I quote him on-the-record and by name. "In jail, you were given rotten fish to eat. I got gout. The toilets..." he shakes his head. "It is hell." He says he knows now that "it is very likely somebody from the presidential clan will kill me... Every morning when I wake up, I think there are three beds I could end up in tonight. Back here at home, the hospital, or the morgue." But he says: "I will not be afraid. It is when you are afraid that you lose."

Sitting in a delicious cloud of smoke, puffing away on high-tar cigarettes, Maka talks me through the President's biography. He was born in nearby Gabon, the son of a police officer from the CAR. He wasn't smart at school, but he managed to get a coveted job as bodyguard to Jean-Bedel Bokassa, one of the vicious dictators flattered and fawned over by the French. Bokassa was famously mad, declaring himself "Emperor of the CAR", eating the leader of the opposition, and opening fire on a group of children who were protesting for help to buy their school uniforms. Bozize carried Bokassa's cane and his bag, and, Maka explains: "It was through watching him that Bozize got his taste for power." The "Emperor" promoted him to the rank of general.

After a while, Bokassa's foaming madness made him an unreliable servant of the French, so they backed a coup against him. Bozize left to study at the Ecole Spécial Militaire de Saint-Cyr in France, and returned only to stage a farcical coup attempt of his own. In 1982, he seized control of one of the national radio stations and announced that he was now President. Everybody laughed; Bozize fled. A few years later he was deported back to Bangui to be punished. "They tortured him," Maka says. "They pissed in his mouth, they broke his ribs, they really mistreated him for three years."

Eventually, they let him go back to France for medical treatment – and the French government swiftly began to build him up as an alternative president, in case their current pick became too disobedient and got ideas of his own. From being a poor man, Bozize suddenly had the money to run a huge presidential campaign. He ran, and he lost. So in October 2002, he paid for a vast private mercenary army (you might wonder – with whose money?) to invade the CAR from neighbouring Chad, depose the sitting president and install himself as the supreme ruler. Since then, he has "won" a disputed election he arranged for himself and bathed in French approbation.

"France sees the CAR as a colony," Maka says. "The presidents are selected by France, not elected by the people. The presidents do not serve the interests of this country; they serve the interests of France." He lists the French corporations who use the CAR as a base to grab Central African resources. This French behaviour is, he reasons, at the root of the wars currently ripping apart the north of the country. Whoever becomes president knows his power flows down from Paris, not up from the people – so he has no incentive to build support by developing the country. Rebellions become inevitable, and the president crushes them with the house-burnings and French bombs I learned about in Birao.

"The country will only be able to develop when France stops putting in place these dictators and the people choose," Maka adds, stubbing out his cigarette into an overflowing ashtray. "The CAR will only progress when the president is scared of his people, not the French."

Into rebel country - Bossangoa

I am driving now through the skin-sizzling heat of Bossangoa, the home-town of Bozize – and the last outpost of his power before you stumble into bandit-and-rebel territory. The Marie Celeste villages stretch for miles once more. Silence. Walls eaten by fire. Dead towns. In the houses there are smashed pots, abandoned as their residents fled Bozize's marauding murderers. I find a stray shoe sitting alone in one. In another village, the bell that calls children to school is still hanging from a tree, forgotten. On the blackboard is the final lesson, still there: a map of the CAR in chalk.

But then, after an hour of driving beyond Bossangoa into the jungle, there are signs of life. In yet another burned village, there are 20 young men, all sweat and Kalashnikovs. We pull up, and realise we are in an unexpected rebel camp. The boys' leader strolls toward us – an elder, at the age of 24 – and shakes our hands. He explains they are part of the rebel Army for the Restoration of the Republic and Democracy (French acronym APRD), who have taken this area. His "troops" are dressed oddly. One is swearing ski glasses and a ski hat, in a place as far from a ski slope as any on earth. Another is wearing nothing but bright red swimming trunks, and half a dozen strings of bullets around his neck. He is wearing a single woman's flip-flop, silver and glittering in the sun.

They explain they are not allowed to make statements – only their leader can do that – but they are eager to have their photographs taken. As soon as I agree, they contort themselves into wild poses. They stick bullets in their mouths, flex their muscles and screw their faces into a fake rage, like they are recreating a Rambo poster. The baby-faced soldier in the corner, they tell me casually, is 13. They look like teenagers on any street corner anywhere in the world, playing at being rebels. Except these are real rebels, with real guns. A 13-year-old with a gun is a comic sight – until he points it towards you and smiles strangely.

Why, I ask, did you join the rebellion? "Bozize killed my father, my mother and my brother," their leader steps forward to say, in a low voice. He peels up his vest and shows an angry scar where he says he was bayoneted. "They thought I was dead, so they left me." I ask what the rebels want. "We want peace, we want schools, we want roads," the leader says. Most of them nod. Do you want power? "That's up to God. We want roads and schools."

With that, we drive away, and they cheerfully wave their guns in our direction. I follow the trail of burned homes up to Paoua, a town at the top of the north-west – and I am sitting now on a bench with the man who ordered so many to be torched. A lieutenant of the Garde Présidentiel (GP) is chewing gum in the sun, behind barbed wire and sleeping security guards. The GP is the jagged spike of the country's military accountable only to President Bozize – his own private militia. When you see them approach on the streets, with their wild eyes and ready guns, pulses surge and spines stiffen. In the market-square in Paoua, a GP "officer" put a gun to the head of a Médecins sans Frontières doctor and told him: " We will do what they did in Rwanda." And I am making small talk with one of its bosses.

He is wearing long shining purple robes and a white fez, and he tells us haltingly that he will be interviewed, yes, but we cannot use his name. He is young – 33 – with hunched shoulders. His bodyguard is a muscled ripple of anxiety, and he watches every move we make, as if ready to pounce. So, lieutenant, why do you think people join the rebels and fight against you? He makes eye contact only with his bodyguard. "I don't know." Chew, chew. Why do you think people are so scared of the GP here? " There have been a few undisciplined elements, but we have dealt with them." Chew, chew, chew. So it is only undisciplined soldiers who burn all these thousands upon thousands of homes? You don't order them to? "If they burn homes, we deal with them." How have you dealt with them? "We use discipline." He stops leaning and sits up. Really? How many people have you disciplined? When? His bodyguard doesn't like this question; he glares at me. "I had an officer who went to the market when he was not supposed to. I disciplined him." That's it? "We have disciplined."

That's not what people in the villages say, I comment. They are terrified. " Show me the villages. I will show you how we have done good." After we drive away from his compound, we meet up with two pale, disturbed workers from the Italian charity Coopi. They explain that as the lieutenant was assuring us his forces are disciplined, a GP officer drove up on a motorbike and waved a gun in their faces.

At every one of these scenes, the question keeps coming back: why? Why are the French providing military support and training for these militia? The French government says it is in the CAR because it signed a military agreement back in the 1970s to protect the country from external aggression. The rebellions in the north are, they say, supported by Sudan – so this counts. Mes amis, we are protecting a democratically elected President from a tyrannical and genocidal neighbour.

But I couldn't find anyone in the CAR – not a single person, not even the most pro-French – who thought Sudan had anything to do with the rebels. So I arrange to meet up in Bangui with Louise Roland-Gosselin, an Anglo-French director of the group Waging Peace, who has been studying the Central African Republic. "The policies here in the CAR are part of a much bigger approach by France towards Africa," she says. "We call this system 'Franceafrique', and it was set up by Charles de Gaulle to replace the former colonial system. There is clear continuity from the imperial system to the present day."

The motives for this war are, Roland-Gosselin says, drenched in dollars and euros and uranium. "The overarching goal is to take African resources and funnel them towards French corporations," she says. "The CAR itself is a base from which the French can access resources all over Africa. That is why it is so important. They use it to keep the oil flowing to French companies in Chad, the resources flowing from Congo, and so on. And of course, the country itself has valuable resources. CAR has a lot of uranium, which the French badly need because they are so dependent on nuclear power. At the moment they get their uranium from Niger, but the CAR is their back-up plan." So this is, in part, a war for nuclear power? " Yes, but also a lot of this money has been funnelled, through corruption, straight back into the French political process. Say somebody needs a road built here in the CAR. The French government will insist on a French company – and the French company back home donates a lot to the 'right' French political party."

This neo-imperial war reached its psychotic apogee in 1994, when the French government used the CAR as a base to fund and fuel the Rwandan genocide, the most bloody since the death of Adolf Hitler. Vincent Mounie is a leading figure in Sur Vie, a French organisation monitoring its government's actions in Africa. He explains: "The French were totally complicit in the genocide. There were French troops there before, during and after the genocide, backing the most extreme Hutu forces as they murdered the Tutsis. You know the identity cards that divided the Rwandan population into Hutus and Tutsis in preparation for the slaughter? They were printed in Paris."

The French military base in Bangui had to be abandoned in 1996 after it was burned down by enraged locals, tired of the French ramming tyrants down their national gullet. Today the old base is overgrown, and the French military has shifted to new camps in Birao. But I stare at it now. The French planes that backed the Rwandan holocaust left from here.

President François Mitterrand began his career supporting one genocidal force, and he ended it supporting another. As a young man he rose through the ranks of the Hitler-hugging Vichy regime, only quitting and joining the Resistance when it became obvious the democrats would win. He then became nominally a Socialist and, finally, President – when at last genocide entered his life again. The French government had long seen the Hutu nationalists in Rwanda as Their Men, the people most friendly to French demands for military and corporate access. So when, starting in 1989, the Tutsi refugees who had been driven out decades before started to demand their right to return to their homes, the French were furious. Mitterrand saw this Tutsi rights movement as a creation of the CIA, designed to displace a pro-French regime and replace it with a buddy of Uncle Sam. His own aides told him there was no evidence of a link to the CIA – but he refused to listen. He announced that the Tutsis were a "Khmer Noir" , an evil anti-French force, and began to rapidly build up the Hutu Power forces to fight back.

In just four years, starting in 1990, the French buffed up the Hutu nationalist military forces in Rwanda from 10,000 to more than 40,000. The moderate forces within Rwanda began desperately trying to broker a power-sharing agreement between the two sides, "And the French government deliberately destroyed any attempt at a peace deal," Mounie says. Then the hacking up of Tutsi men, women and children began. Mitterrand extended bigger loans to the Hutus, which they used to buy more weapons and ammunition. He publicly mocked anyone who talked about a Hutu-led genocide.

Then, when the international outrage became so great even Mitterrand could not ignore it, the French announced they would send in a military force to stop the killing. "It was France's last lie, and the most cruel," Mounie adds. "Even at this point, Mitterrand's real aim was to recapture Kigali and restore the Hutus to power." In Birao today, many of the soldiers patrolling the city are veterans of this "rescue operation". I am sipping sweet tea in one of the local bigwig's ramshackle houses when a group of local soldiers on patrol arrive. They are working-class men from the Paris and Lyons banlieues, and in the course of the small talk, they admit that they were in Rwanda – and they are still traumatised by what they were ordered to do by Mitterrand and his men. " Children would bring us the severed heads of their parents and scream for help," one says, "but our orders were not to help them."

A year after the holocaust ended, Mitterrand told an aide: "Nobody in France cares about the genocide." These disturbed soldiers, sitting in the waning sunlight, show the old cynic was wrong, at least, about that.

Mother, do not beat us - Bangui

In the red-dusted heart of Bangui, there is a rusting, collapsing metaphor for this war – and where it is going. On one side of the road is the vast stadium the French government built for Bokassa in the 1970s, so he could crown himself Emperor of Central Africa and Lord of All He Surveyed. It is falling down now, a dangerous wreck. Opposite, there is a gleaming new sports stadium with plush seating and marble floors. It was built by the Chinese. France is only one slice of this new great game, this global scramble for Africa's resources. Every swaggering world power – the US, Britain, China – is grabbing Africa's remaining riches now, shunting aside democracy and human rights to get to them. But even the Chinese dictators remember to toss some of the loose change from the riches they have pillaged to Bangui. The French have long since given up even on that. They come only with bullets and bombs.

As I prepare to leave the CAR, I am told by senior French and African sources that Paris could be getting ready to ditch President Bozize. Like a string of Central African dictators before him, he has been tugging too hard on the French leash, imagining he is the independent ruler of an independent country. He has decided to nationalise some of the energy companies operating here, including the French mega-corporations Total and ELF. " If he wants the French to crush his rebellions and keep him in power, he has to do what they say," my source says. Bozize is trying to deal with this pre-emptively, by offering the rebel leaders a place in his cabinet. As I drive past his presidential palace for the last time, I wonder if the paranoia that kept me from meeting him was justified all along.

But as my plane finally propels me away from this place, one CAR voice – angry, crazed – seems to follow me. In the jungles around Paoua, I was taken to the entrance to a remote burned-out village to meet Laurent Djim-Woei, the spokesman for the rebels in the north-west. He is a man talked about in awe by his followers – and his enemies.

A group of young men greeted us. They were carrying spears alongside their ski hats and scars. Silently, they beckoned us to follow them through more charcoal villages and dense foliage and beyond. Eventually we reached a clearing. Laurent was dressed in stained combat gear. He had a big smile that was marred by the absence of almost all his teeth. There were three cellphones hanging from his neck. He led an inspection of his rag-tag forces for our benefit, getting them to stand to attention and yelling hoarse orders at them in Sango. Then Laurent told us to sit down and embarked on a rambling, barely comprehensible lecture.

There were only a few of us in a silent jungle, but he looked beyond us and boomed, like he was addressing a stadium full of supporters. The CAR needs " a guard dog" to "bark about justice" and not "the kind of dog that leads you, which we have had in the past", he said. It is the first of a string of odd metaphors. I kept trying to draw him back to specifics: what does he want? He would only use abstract nouns – justice, peace – but then occasionally he voiced his grievances succinctly, before they were doused in metaphor and burned into incomprehensibility again: " Bozize is burning our villages. A country shouldn't burn its own country's villages. It is like a mother and a child, a mother does not burn her child, it would be madness." His eyes danced nervously around the jungle as we spoke, as if he was waiting for a raid.

"France is the mother of Central Africa, and we are the child," he said, oddly picking up the old racist metaphor and making it his own. " The French must now change sides and support us, not Bozize. The French are our parents, we want them to be good parents." This is a sentiment that kept cropping up in the rubble of France's interventions – an appeal to the French to suddenly become a benevolent mother, acting on the side of good, despite all the evidence. France and the CAR are, it strikes me at last, locked in a sick embrace. The French crave the riches offered by this lush, hungry patch of Africa, and the people of Central Africa pine for a deus ex machina to enter stage right and resolve their internal disputes with raw force.

Looking into the far distance, Laurent cries: "We say to France: 'Mother, we are your child, you must love us like a mother should. Do not beat us.'" In the jungle, his voice echoes for miles, until it dies, unheard.

Welcome to America

I'm thinking this has to be in Las Vegas or somewhere in SoCal. Either way... Only in America!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Autism is Reversible

Autism is Reversible. A controversial statement for sure but for thousands of parents it is exactly the seed of hope that the Lord has ordained for this time.

As someone who had to learn to live within their own body and the constraints thereof, the basics of the biomedical intervention methods that trailblazing doctors and parents are pioneering resonate with me.

I am one of potentially millions of Americans who are enzyme deficient... my body simply doesn't make enough viable enzymes for me to digest certain things. Pretty much all products that come from a cow are off limits for me - both meat and milk. Same goes for any meats that are vibrant red and for eggs of any kind.

So how does that relate to autism? Simple: Foods are chemicals. That is a fundamental concept that most people would rather not entertain. Regardless, every piece of food you place in your mouth causes some sort of chemical reaction in the body.

The base theories being investigated in autism healing at the moment center around those chemical reactions - specifically often from wheat and dairy, and potentially triggered by mercury - are responsible for the core physiological problems that cause the range of symptoms that get lumped into the diagnosis called autism.

Cause for trigger is yet unknown but likely candidates are theorized to be a buildup of heavy metals in our bodies and environment, immune system overload from inoculation with live viruses and viral material, and exposure to bacteria and bacterioforms.

If you are a parent of a child who has been diagnosed with autism, take hope! And fire your existing doctor! (Because if you're reading this and it's news to you, you need a new one.)

Here are 2 good starter resources for learning more about the problems and potential treatments:

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Confessions of a Rebate Whore

Ok... so I admit it. I'm a rebate whore. There, I've said it. But really, aren't most techie shopaholics the same way?

Nothing says "DEAL" like a product that is free or almost free - after rebate. The newbs among us often forget that to get that deal you basically have to float the retailer or manufacturer a small loan. That float is returned 6-12 weeks later in the form of a rebate check.

Sure I'd probably be better off with a low price upfront. But there is an adrenaline rush that comes with going to the mailbox and picking out a rebate check that you "forgot about". (Yeah right! Who forgets about a check that's coming?!)

Here are some tricks and tips I use to make success with rebates much better:
  1. Fill out the rebate before you start using the product. Don't wait before submitting your rebate, unless the rules make you wait. While you're at it, read the rebate submission rules before you put your pen down. Most rebates follow a simple formula of complete the form, include copy of purchase receipt, original UPC... but high dollar rebates and those of annoying tech companies who shall remain nameless often have additional requirements, such as a signature, serial number, DNA sample or copy of the Magna Carta. It takes just a moment to read the fine print. Forget one little thing, and it's so long rebate, hello denial.

  2. Get the rebate form as a PDF whenever possible. Save the PDF on your computer. Personally, I take it a step further by scanning the completed rebate forms, receipts and even UPCs as PDFs on my PC. For this purpose I use one of the Brother MFC units I have and a Custom Scan button I have configured in their Control Center software to automatically scan to a file, save it as a PDF and put it in the "Rebates Due" folder on my hard drive. Since most rebates tells you to keep copies of the documentation until after the rebate arrives, this also eliminates paper clutter in my already cluttered office.

  3. Keep a spreadsheet, Word doc or other task list with rebate info, such as amount, date submitted, and rebate status URL if given. Since I use Google Apps and Gmail for my email, I also have a filter and tag setup for rebate status emails. That way I can see all my rebate emails with a single click.

  4. Make sure you have supplies handy. It's a total P-I-T-A not to have an envelope around when you need one. Also consider using a electronic postage program like Endicia or instead of hand writing the envelopes. That saves you from having to keep stamps around. Yes this costs a monthly fee... but if you do much other mailing the gas saved on trips to the post office for stamps will quickly save you enough to pay back the fee. The electronic postage also serves as proof of mailing since it logs the exact date and time the item was postmarked. For high dollar rebates you can add Delivery Confirmation for just a little more then the regular postage.

  5. And of course... Be lazy when possible! Look for shortcuts. Many rebates can be partially submitted online. Costco is great about doing that with all their rebates. OfficeMax's "Easy Rebate" is similar. You save them from having to read your crappy penmanship and pay someone do data entry. And in return you get status updates and tracking for your rebate. I consider that a fair trade.
Now go find that rebate you had forgotten to send in, check the "Mail By" date, go dig the box out of the trash and get cracking. Time to cash in that no-interest loan you made to the manufacturer.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

PRAY FOR THEM! Iraqi women: Prostituting ourselves to feed our children

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The women are too afraid and ashamed to show their faces or have their real names used. They have been driven to sell their bodies to put food on the table for their children -- for as little as $8 a day.

art.iraqwoman.cnn.jpg Suha, 37, is a mother of three. She says her husband thinks she is cleaning houses when she leaves home.

"People shouldn't criticize women, or talk badly about them," says 37-year-old Suha as she adjusts the light colored scarf she wears these days to avoid extremists who insist women cover themselves. "They all say we have lost our way, but they never ask why we had to take this path."

A mother of three, she wears light makeup, a gold pendant of Iraq around her neck, and an unexpected air of elegance about her.

"I don't have money to take my kid to the doctor. I have to do anything that I can to preserve my child, because I am a mother," she says, explaining why she prostitutes herself.

Anger and frustration rise in her voice as she speaks.

"No matter what else I may be, no matter how off the path I may be, I am a mother!" Watch a woman describe turning to prostitution to "save my child" »

Her clasped hands clench and unclench nervously. Suha's husband thinks that she is cleaning houses when she goes away.

So does Karima's family.

"At the start I was cleaning homes, but I wasn't making much. No matter how hard I worked it just wasn't enough," she says.

Karima, clad in all black, adds, "My husband died of lung cancer nine months ago and left me with nothing."

She has five children, ages 8 to 17. Her eldest son could work, but she's too afraid for his life to let him go into the streets, preferring to sacrifice herself than risk her child.

She was solicited the first time when she was cleaning an office.

"They took advantage of me," she says softly. "At first I rejected it, but then I realized I have to do it."

Both Suha and Karima have clients that call them a couple times a week. Other women resort to trips to the market to find potential clients. Or they flag down vehicles.

Prostitution is a choice more and more Iraqi women are making just to survive.

"It's increasing," Suha says. "I found this 'thing' through my friend, and I have another friend in the same predicament as mine. Because of the circumstance, she is forced to do such things."

Violence, increased cost of living, and lack of any sort of government aid leave women like these with few other options, according to humanitarian workers.

"At this point there is a population of women who have to sell their bodies in order to keep their children alive," says Yanar Mohammed, head and founder of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq. "It's a taboo that no one is speaking about."

She adds, "There is a huge population of women who were the victims of war who had to sell their bodies, their souls and they lost it all. It crushes us to see them, but we have to work on it and that's why we started our team of women activists."

Her team pounds the streets of Baghdad looking for these victims often too humiliated to come forward.

"Most of the women that we find at hospitals [who] have tried to commit suicide" have been involved in prostitution, said Basma Rahim, a member of Mohammed's team.

The team's aim is to compile information on specific cases and present it to Iraq's political parties -- to have them, as Mohammed puts it, "come tell us what [they] are ... going to do about this."

Rahim tells the heartbreaking story of one woman they found who lives in a room with three of her children: "She has sex while her three children are in the room, but she makes them stand in separate corners."

According to Rahim and Mohammed, most of the women they encounter say they are driven to prostitution by a desperate desire for survival in the dangerously violent and unforgiving circumstances in Iraq.

"They took this path but they are not pleased," Rahim says.

Karima says when she sees her children with food on the table, she is able to convince herself that it's worth it. "Everything is for the children. They are the beauty in life and, without them, we cannot live."

But she says, "I would never allow my daughter to do this. I would rather marry her off at 13 than have her go through this."

Karima's last happy memory is of her late husband, when they were a family and able to shoulder the hardships of life in today's Iraq together.

Suha says as a young girl she dreamed of being a doctor, with her mom boasting about her potential in that career. Life couldn't have taken her further from that dream.


"It's not like we were born into this, nor was it ever in my blood," she says.

What she does for her family to survive now eats away at her. "I lay on my pillow and my brain is spinning, and it all comes back to me as if I am watching a movie."

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Find fiber near your business

Forever, and I mean FOREVER, it's been darn near impossible to find out what fiber is near a business. It's been even harder to find out what fiber is in a specific area in case you're looking to locate in the building that is already fiber connected.

The carriers specifically kept their fiber lit buildings lists under the cover of darkness. At most carriers, not even their own sales staff can look at maps and automatically visualize where the network they are trying to sell is located. They work off printed lists and general information about streets that the fiber networks run on.

This week that changed. The guys at Telarus, the first company to automate multi-carrier real-time T1 pricing via their GeoQuote and ShopforT1 system, released a system called ShopforEthernet on Wednesday.

Using ShopforEthernet, anyone with access to the internet can enter an address and see what lit buildings are near their address in a matter of seconds. No calling multiple carriers. No dealing with pestering sales guys. Real-time. Accurate. Reality today. If fiber is nearby, one of the product specialists who works with Telarus can provide the customer with pricing and find out about any buildout requirements.

Convincing the carriers to turn over the data was a mammoth undertaking. The control freaks at most of the major carriers initially balked. After some persuasion and reminding them that Telarus has a proven track record of automating real-time comparison quoting, Telarus was able to bring Level3, Time Warner Telecom, Caviler Telephone, Telnes Broadband, Megapath Networks, and XO Communications to the table. Several carriers are still on the fence and an unnamed incumbent carrier outright denied their request for information.

Enterprises needing 10, 20, 50 or 100mbps of Ethernet service, have historically had DS3s and bonded DS3s pushed at them because no one could tell them what fiber was nearby without a lot of work. (And sales guys don't like doing work when there is no guarantee of a sale.) And for enterprises needing gigabit ethernet and 10 gigabit ethernet service, it used to take weeks - yes, literally weeks - to get information back. ShopforEthernet immediately changes that game.

Telarus continues to be a disruptive force in the industry. They have been leading the charge for automation, automation, automation. No one else in the master agent industry empowers their agents with next generation tools like they do. In fact, most of their competitors wince when they announce a new back office feature or web tool because they know it will take a lot of work to catch up with Telarus' latest advancement.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Quote that sounds like I could have written it...

Christine Comaford-Lynch, multi-business CEO and multi-millionaire put something into words in her recent book "Rules for Renegades: How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel in Your Individuality" that sounds like it came out of my mouth. It succinctly sums up my business viewpoint, so I wanted to share.

"My greatest challenge when working with businesses is getting them to change course after they've poured tremendous resources into making something happen that isn't working.

"Remember: an illusion is something you use to change the reality around you. A delusion is something that prevents you from seeing the reality around you. The companies suffering under delusions prefer to die a slow death by staying in a losing proposition rather than accepting the risk that comes with being a quick change artist."

RULES FOR RENEGADES: Among’s Top 10 Business Books This Summer! Click Here for details! Learn the New Rules

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Coley’s Cancer-Killing Concoction

On October 1st 1890, William B. Coley, a young bone surgeon barely two years out of medical school, saw one of his first patients in private practice at the New York Memorial Hospital. Although he’d only finished his residency earlier the same year, he'd already gained a good reputation and many considered him a rising star of the New York surgical scene.

The seventeen year old patient had a painful, rapidly growing lump on the back of her right hand. She had pinched the unlucky appendage between two railway carriage seats on a transcontinental trip to Alaska some months before, and when the bruise failed to heal she assumed the injury had become infected. However the bruise turned into a bulge, the pain steadily worsened, and her baffled doctors were eventually compelled to call for Dr. Coley. As a surgical man, Coley would never have guessed that this innocuous referral would take his career in a totally new direction– into an unusual branch of medicine now known as cancer immunotherapy.

At first Dr. Coley was also uncertain about the diagnosis. But as the girl’s condition rapidly deteriorated– with the lump becoming larger, more painful, and associated with the loss of sensation in some of the surrounding skin– the awful truth became apparent. She had a sarcoma, a type of cancer that affects bone and connective tissue in the body. Unfortunately, 19th century medicine offered very few treatment options.

On November 8th, Coley amputated her arm at the elbow. Although the operation appeared to go well, the girl– named Elizabeth Dashiell– developed severe abdominal pain three weeks later. Soon thereafter she noticed more lumps in her breasts and armpits, signs that the cancer was metastasizing, or spreading. She rapidly lost strength and died on January 23rd 1891, a scant three and a half months after her initial consultation, with a traumatized Dr. Coley at her bedside.

Elizabeth’s death hit the young surgeon hard. While a more experienced physician might have shrugged away the apparent failure and moved on, Coley was determined to do something. His ensuing efforts culminated in the development of a famous fluid that, for a time, appeared to promise the fulfillment of that long-held dream: a universal cure for cancer.

Coley began by poring through the hospital’s records, looking for clues from previous sarcoma cases that might lead to better treatments in the future. He soon found what he was looking for: the case of a German man who came to the hospital with an egg-sized sarcoma in his left cheek some seven years earlier. There were several attempts to excise the tumour but none of them were successful– each time the cancer came back, as aggressive as before. The final operation could only partially remove the huge mass, leaving an open wound that subsequently became infected. The unfortunate immigrant was deemed a terminal case.

Yet four and a half months later, the man was discharged with no trace of disease. Coley personally tracked down the former patient to verify that the miraculous cure had taken place. Indeed, the man was healthy and happily settled into his new life in the United States. The records showed that after the wound became infected with a commonplace bacterium, Streptococcus pyogenes, the patient went through several bouts of fever. With each attack of fever the tumour shrank until eventually it disappeared entirely, leaving only a large scar under the left ear. Coley surmised that the infection had stimulated the German’s immune system– as evidenced by the repeated fevers– and that it was this immune response that had caused the eradication of the cancer.

The story so convinced Coley that he– perhaps cavalierly– contrived to contaminate his next ten suitable sarcoma cases with Streptococcus. His initial approach was to inject a solution of live bacteria deep into the tumour mass on a repeated basis over several months. The first patient to undergo this treatment was a bedridden man with inoperable sarcoma in the abdominal wall, bladder, and pelvis. Using this experimental method, the patient was cured spectacularly. He staged a full recovery, and survived another twenty-six years before dying from a heart attack. But subsequent results were mixed; sometimes it was difficult to get the infection to take hold, and in two cases the cancer responded well to treatment but the patients died from the Streptococcus infection.

Coley’s discovery, as it turns out, was actually a re-discovery. The idea of a link between acute infection and the resolution of tumours was not new, and the phenomenon of infection-related "spontaneous regression" of cancer has been documented throughout history. A 13th century Italian saint was reputed to have his tumour-afflicted leg miraculously healed shortly after the malignant growth burst through the skin and became infected. Crude cancer immunotherapies working along similar lines to Coley’s early experiments were known in the 18th and 19th centuries, and may extend back to the time of the pharaohs. Ancient writings suggest that the renowned Egyptian physician Imhotep may have used a similar infect-and-incise method to treat tumours.

But Coley took those first important steps in dragging this old remedy into the twentieth century. After the fatalities with the ‘live’ version of his therapy, he developed an improved fluid containing killed bacteria of two different strains, Streptococcus pyogenes and Serratia marcescens. This was based on the idea that the dead bacteria would still have the immune-stimulating capability of their living brethren (in the form of purported ‘toxins’), but not share their inconvenient tendency to cause death. His invention became variously known as ‘Coley’s Toxins’, ‘Coley’s Vaccine’, ‘Mixed Bacterial Toxins’ or ‘Coley Fluid.’ The treatment was met with considerable success, with one study in 1999 suggesting that it was at least equally as effective in treating cancer as conventional modern therapies. With due care in dosing and management of the induced fever, it was also remarkably safe.

Although Coley took the concept of immunotherapy much further than his pharaonic forebears, he had no clear idea how his toxins actually worked, and the tools did not yet exist for him to find out. But given the rapid scientific progress at the turn of the last century, he reasoned that a deeper understanding of his therapy would arrive soon enough. Although the true extent of his "Toxin" success has been questioned by historians, the validity of his approach has never been seriously called into doubt. Indeed his results are regularly cited in the cancer research literature to this day.

Over the following years Coley continued to refine his technique. He determined that the toxins should be administered to patients at progressively higher doses to counter the body’s innate "immune tolerance" to the treatment. Other physicians in America and Europe also experimented with the method, and found that the toxins appeared to work just as well in a number of different non-sarcoma cancer types such as carcinoma, lymphoma, and melanoma. They could also be given intravenously some distance from the site of the tumour, and still be effective. Variations on the basic bacterial recipe and different dosing regimes were tried, depending on the individual patient and the particular cancer’s type and proliferation. Through his career Coley himself treated over one hundred patients with his concoction, and countless more were treated by other doctors.

As the fame of his fluid grew, so did Dr Coley’s stature: in 1915 he became head of the Bone Service at the New York Memorial Hospital (which later became the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center). By the time he died in 1936, Coley’s Toxins were mentioned in a number of different surgical textbooks as a standard anti-cancer therapy.

Conventional modern medicine, however, very rarely employs Coley’s Toxins in the treatment of cancer, for reasons almost as complicated as the human immune system itself. One concern is the far-from-complete understanding of the mechanism of action; generally, doctors are reluctant to administer treatments whose workings they don’t fully comprehend. The stimulated human immune system is a whirling tempest of different physiological and biochemical responses, and even now there’s much uncertainty about how Coley’s Toxins modified this complex mechanism to better attack its cancerous target. One theory stresses the importance of the fluid-induced fever in killing the cancer cells; another considers the debris-engulfing macrophage cells to be the main players, while others consider various different immune messenger molecules– or cytokines– to be important.

The eclipsing of Coley’s Toxins also had something to do with the concurrent development of radiation therapy and, a little later, chemotherapy. Soon after Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895, the possibility of using radioactivity to treat cancer was investigated. The technology was exciting, new, and developing fast along well-understood principles. Although the first results of radiotherapy weren’t all that impressive, it had the advantage of fractional doses, and once the equipment was in place it didn’t require the complicated, patient-specific preparation which was needed with Coley’s Toxins. Likewise chemotherapy was based on known scientific principles, and could be manufactured and used relatively easily.

Furthermore, both radiotherapy and chemotherapy have an immune-suppressing side-effect. Since both treatments kill the rapidly dividing cells of the immune system along with the rapidly dividing cancer cells, both can be used together if care is taken. But immune-stimulating Coley’s Toxins work entirely differently, and their effect would be cancelled out if used at the same time as high-dose immunosuppressant chemo- or radiotherapy. It became an either/or situation– and in the end, the fashionable new treatments won out over Coley’s fiddly reworking of an ancient 'natural' remedy.

So when the US Food and Drug Administration changed the status of Coley’s Toxins to that of a 'new drug' in 1963– meaning that it could only be used in clinical trials, and greatly reducing its availability– it seemed that its time had already long passed. But cancer immunotherapy does have limited applications today. Perhaps its most frequent mainstream use is in the treatment of bladder cancer; solutions containing the tuberculosis vaccine are routinely instilled into cancer-affected bladders, and are effective in causing regression of tumour deposits. It is theorized that the bladder's immune response deals with the cancer in a similar way to the whole-body immune effect of Coley’s Toxins. Melanoma, a particularly nasty type of skin cancer that responds poorly to conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy, is sometimes treated with an immune-stimulating cytokine called interferon.

In some ways this century-old form of treatment is still a fringe area of medicine. But researchers have once again begun to probe the possibilities of immunotherapy. New antibody-based treatments like Mabthera and Herceptin are making a real difference in the treatment of common cancers like lymphoma and breast cancer. Although these therapies don’t stimulate the body’s immunity as a whole, they are based on antibody molecules which are key components of the human immune system. They show that our increasing knowledge of the molecular nitty-gritty of the body’s own defence and repair network is starting to make a real difference in the battle against cancer. One tumour at a time, such advances in modern medicine are finally vindicating William Coley and his one-hundred-year-old cancer-killing concoction.

Friday, July 13, 2007

10 things your restaurant won't tell you

1. "It's more about the sizzle than the steak."

Business is good for the restaurant industry. Americans now spend roughly half their food budget dining out, and restaurants expect revenue of more than $537 billion in 2007. That's a 67% increase since 1997.

But it's not just our collective avoidance of the kitchen that's pumping profits: Restaurants work every angle these days, using marketing psychology to get you to spend more.

At legendary Aureole Las Vegas, spandex-clad "wine angels" retrieve bottles from a 42-foot-tall spirits tower. The thinking behind the spectacle: "Anything that gets patrons' attention will get them to spend," says restaurant designer Mark Stech-Novak.

Fast-food outlets use a high-stimulus environment to maximize the source of their profit: "It encourages faster turnover," says Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. "Specifically, the use of bright light, bright colors, upbeat music and seating that does not encourage lolling."

Even menus are rigged. "We list the item that makes the most profit first so it catches your eye," says restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky, "and bury the highest-cost item in the middle."

2. "Eating here could make you sick."

The 2006 E. coli outbreak that started at a New Jersey Taco Bell and sickened more than 60 people was traced to green onions. But food-borne illness isn't the only cause for concern: In a separate December incident, 373 people in Indianapolis got sick after eating at an Olive Garden where three employees tested positive for the highly contagious norovirus.

"You don't call out (sick) unless you're on your deathbed," says freelance chef Leah Grossman. Indeed, according to a recent study, 58% of salaried New York City restaurant workers reported going to work when sick; the number is even higher for those without benefits.

"A lot of poor, transient people work in restaurants," says Peter Francis, a co-author of industry exposé "How to Burn Down the House." "They're not giving up the $100 they'd make in a shift because they're sick."

How can you protect yourself? Check inspection results, which are often posted online by local departments of public health. Or just visit the restroom; it "tells you everything you need to know about a restaurant," Francis says.

3. "Our markups are ridiculous."

It's no secret that restaurants enjoy huge markups on certain items: Coffee, tea and sodas, for example, typically cost restaurants 15 to 20 cents per serving, and pasta, which costs pennies, can be dressed up with more expensive fare and sold for $25 a dish or more. At a fine-dining restaurant, the average cost of food is 38% to 42% of the menu price, says Kevin Moll, the CEO and president of National Food Service Advisors. In other words, most restaurants are making roughly 60% on anything they serve.

It's not all gravy though. Restaurants keep only 4 cents of every dollar spent by a customer, says Hudson Riehle, the vice president of research and information services at the National Restaurant Association. The remainder of the money, he says, is divided among food and beverage purchases, payroll, occupancy and other overhead costs.

Given the slim profit margin, many restaurants rely on savvy pricing to create the illusion of value. Putting a chicken dish on the menu for $21 will make a $15 pasta dish, where the restaurant is making a big profit, seem like a bargain, says Gregg Rapp, the owner of consulting firm

4. "Big Brother is watching you . . . eat."

No one likes having their every move scrutinized, but that may be just what's happening at your favorite restaurant. Cameras are popping up everywhere, from four-star eateries to the place where you grab your lunchtime sandwich.

At historic Randy's Steakhouse in Frisco, Texas, where checks average $45 to $50, co-owner Don Burks has installed 12 cameras around the premises. Of those, two pick up activity in the dining rooms, and two are aimed at the bar.

"We've had customers stand on chairs to try to take out a camera," Burks says. "But the cameras aren't even pointed at them; they're pointed at the wine rack." Their primary purpose: deterring employee theft.

At some restaurants, however, the cameras are indeed trained on the tables. At New York City's four-star Daniel, for example, four closed-circuit cameras monitor the dining rooms, offering a bird's-eye view of every plate.

"It's about maintaining a quality of service," says Daniel spokeswoman Georgette Farkas. "With the cameras, the chef can tell when each course needs to be plated and served." So much for that romantic dinner for two.

5. "There's something fishy about our seafood."

Even when you pay top dollar for a seafood dish, you might not get what you're expecting. About 70% of the time, for example, those Maryland crab cakes on the menu weren't made using crabs from Chesapeake Bay, says James Anderson, the chairman of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island. Because of high demand, crabs are often from other Eastern states or imported from Thailand and Vietnam. (Look closely at the menu: "Maryland-style" crab is the giveaway.)

There's also the problem of outright substitution -- inexpensive fish, such as pollack, getting passed off as something pricier, like cod. How widespread is the problem? In 2006 the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal sent fish samples to a lab to prove that four out of 10 local restaurants were pawning a cheaper fish as grouper. The same lab also checked seafood from 24 U.S. cities and found that, overall, consumers have less than a 50-50 shot at being served the fish they ordered.

What can you do? Ask where the fish comes from. "If they're not sure if the fish is from Alaska or Asia, I order the beef," Anderson says.

6. "Reservation? What reservation?"

When Timothy Dillon, 34, showed up at new Chicago trattoria Terragusto for his friend's birthday, he wasn't expecting a wait. He'd made a reservation for four, then called the day of to confirm and add one more. The restaurant told him no problem, but when the party showed up, they were met with a long wait.

"After almost an hour of standing by the bar being ignored, we ended up leaving for another restaurant," Dillon says. Terragusto says it was its first week open: "We were probably working out a lot of glitches," a spokesperson says.

As Dillon discovered, a reservation isn't a guarantee. "Overbooking is almost a necessary evil," says John Fischer, associate professor of table service at the Culinary Institute of America. Restaurants calculate their average no-show percentage for any given night, then overbook the restaurant by that much, hoping it will come out even.

How to avoid Dillon's fate? It's considered poor taste to offer a tip before you're seated, Fischer says, so if it's your first time, inquire politely after 15 minutes. But go ahead and slip the manager or maître d' $10 or $20 on the way out; it should ensure you're seated promptly next time.

7. "Our specials are anything but."

"I'm very careful about ordering my food," says Rick Manson, the owner of Chef Rick's restaurant in Santa Maria, Calif. If he orders oysters, Manson says, he'll offer multiple dishes on the menu that use oysters, "to make sure I use every one of them." Nonetheless, countless variables can leave surplus ingredients at the end of the day -- which often become tomorrow's special.

"It could be the chef legitimately wants to try out something new," says Stephen Zagor, the founder of consulting firm Hospitality & Culinary Resources. "But it could also be something nearing the end of its shelf life that needs to get out of the kitchen."

How can you tell a good special from a bad one? Watch out for "an expensive item used in a way that's minimizing its flavor," Zagor says, such as a lamb chop that's been cut, braised and put into a dish where it's a supporting player.

Pastas, stews and soups containing expensive meats are also suspect. "There's an old saying in the restaurant industry," says David A. Holmes, the vice president and director of Out East Restaurant Consultants. "'Sauce and gravy cover up a lot of mistakes.'"

8. "There's no such thing as too much butter."

Think that salmon fillet you ordered for dinner is good for you? Think again. Restaurants load even their healthiest fare with butter and other calorie-heavy add-ons. Restaurant meals average 1,000 to 1,500 calories, says Milton Stokes, a registered dietitian and spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. That's roughly two-thirds of the daily average calories recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And according to a recent study, women who eat out five times a week consume an average of 290 additional calories per day.

Though most Americans assume that fast food is the worst offender, similar fare at casual sit-down restaurants can be even more caloric. The classic burger at Ruby Tuesday, for example, has a whopping 1,013 calories and 71 grams of fat. The McDonald's Big Mac, with its 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, seems downright diet-worthy by comparison.

"We butter our hamburger buns," says Julie Reid, the vice president of culinary for Ruby Tuesday, "so we tell people if they're looking to cut calories, they shouldn't eat the bun." If that sounds less than appetizing, try splitting an entrée with someone, or order an appetizer instead of a main dish.

9. "Nice tip -- too bad your waiter won't get it."

Just because you tip your waitress 10 bucks, it doesn't mean she's going home with that money. More than likely, she'll have to pass on some of it to the people who helped her serve you: The bartender might get $2, and the busboy $3 to $5. It's called a tip pool, and it's becoming standard practice in many restaurants. "It happens often that if someone leaves a voluntary tip (for their server), a significant portion of that money is going to other people," Zagor says.

According to federal law, only employees who customarily receive tips -- wait staff, hosts, bartenders and bussers -- can participate in the tip pool. But sometimes management takes a cut. In 2006, waitstaff from the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Mass., won $2.5 million in damages after complaining that managers dipped into their tips.

Mandatory gratuities are also divvied up. At high-end restaurants such as New York City's Per Se and Napa Valley's French Laundry, both owned by chef Thomas Keller, the practice is called service compris.

"The 20% service charge is clearly stated on the menu, and it's equally divided among the staff," says a spokesperson for both restaurants. Though the tip pool is designed to foster a team environment among staff, for customers it means something else entirely: that your gratuity isn't specifically rewarding the waiter or sommelier who provided you with exemplary service.

10. "Never go out to eat on a Monday."

If you think that Monday, when restaurants tend not to be crowded, is a great time to eat out, think again. "You're being served all of the weekend's leftovers," says Francis, the exposé co-author. Kitchens prepare food on a first-in, first-out basis, meaning whatever is oldest gets served first. It's a way to ensure that everything on the menu is as fresh as possible.

The system works great most days, but it can run into a little glitch over the weekend. Distributors typically take Sunday off and make their last deliveries Saturday morning, which means that by Monday any food not used over the weekend is at least three to four days old. And it will be served before the same ingredients arriving in Monday's delivery.

What to do if you wish to dine out on a Monday? Ignore your instincts and go to a place that's perpetually crowded. "If you are open 24/7 and busy all the time," says New York chef Lucia Calvete, "all your ingredients are fresh all the time."

This article was reported and written by Christine Bockelman for SmartMoney.