Monday, December 14, 2009

Design Your Own T-Shirts for Christmas

Spreadshirt Sports

EPA Recognizes 1&1 Internet as Leading Green Power Purchaser

1&1 Internet, Inc., the world’s largest Web host by known servers, today announced that its Lenexa, Kansas Data Center has been recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a Green Power Partner for its annual purchase of 17.5 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of green power (electricity that is generated from environmentally preferable renewable resources, like wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal). This is equivalent to 100 percent of the purchased electricity use for the Kansas Data Center.

1&1 Internet’s new partnership with the EPA is the company’s next step in its efforts to protect the environment. In 2008, 1&1 first purchased certified Green-e renewable energy certificates (RECs) from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, a leading national supplier of green power products, as an initiative to lessen the company’s impact on the earth’s climate. The EPA calculates that 1&1’s new green power purchase for their Kansas Data Center will equal the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of more than 2,000 passenger vehicles per year.

“This is a huge honor and we are proud to be recognized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” said Oliver Mauss, the CEO of 1&1 Internet. “1&1’s continued purchase of green power helps our organization become more sustainable, while also sending a message to others companies across the U.S. that supporting clean sources of electricity is an important choice in reducing climate risk.”

Globally, 1&1’s five data centers are among the most energy efficient data centers in existence. In addition to purchasing RECs for the Lenexa, Kansas Data Center, 1&1 continues its green efforts by using highly efficient power supplies with less than 20 percent heat loss as well as omitting any unnecessary components within its servers.

"EPA commends our leading partners for their continued commitment to protecting the environment by using green power," said Kathleen Hogan, Director of the Climate Protection Partnerships Division at EPA. ”By supporting green power, 1&1 Internet's Kansas Data Center is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, supporting clean energy technologies, and contributing to a clean energy future."

The Green Power Partnership is a voluntary program organizations can participate in to help raise awareness about green power. Generating power in these ways creates a net zero increase in CO2 emissions. Purchasing green power also boosts the support for developing new ways to generate renewable energy nationwide.

1&1 is the one-stop-shop for Web solutions, providing a high quality service with the security of its five state-of-the-art green data centers. Globally, 1&1’s green efforts will offset emissions of over 30,000 tons of CO2 per year.

For more information or to order services, visit:

Thursday, December 10, 2009

AT&T Now Blaming Customers for Its Problems

By David Coursey

AT&T, the whiny wireless carrier, is back at it again. Fresh off whining in court about Verizon's map ads, AT&T is now whining to financial analysts about its customers. And it is warning that customers should use less of the company's all-you-can-eat data service, lest it become portion-controlled in the future.

Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets, told analysts yesterday that 3 percent of the company's customers account for 40 percent of its data usage.

"What we are seeing in the U.S. today in terms of smartphone penetration, 3G data, nobody else is seeing in the rest of the planet," de la Vega said, quoted in the New York Times . "The amount of growth and data that we are seeing in wireless data is unprecedented."

OK, so de la Vega is saying customers are responsible for the company's service issues? Or is it more like a) AT&T should have built a more robust network or b) should stop accepting customers until its network is less overloaded, so that existing customers get the connectivity they are paying for.

Blaming customers for AT&T's internal issues is just whining. It sounds almost like AT&T is sorry we bought iPhones, which it may very well be, given the problems the company faces.

However, is it fair to blame those who send the company fairly large checks each month in support of their iPhone addiction?


Mr. de la Vega told analysts that while AT&T is rapidly adding capacity, it also plans to educate all its customers about data consumption in hopes they will cut back.

My solution: Why not have a heart-to-heart with those in the 3 percent club and leave the rest of us alone?

The AT&T chief also held out the possibility of pricing changes that could promote changes in how customers use data.

One positive step AT&T could take would be to help users understand how much data they are using and how their own usage compares to other users. Many in the top 3 percent probably have no idea their data usage is way above average, and might cut back if they knew.

This could be the companion application to "Mark the Spot," a new AT&T iPhone application that lets users tell the carrier about service problems.

The app, introduced this week, was met with mixed reaction: Negative that such an app is needed and positive that it gives the impression that AT&T wants to hear from customers about coverage issues, dropped calls, and other complaints.

As I've said, I don't think AT&T is the devil's spawn of the wireless industry (at least no more than the other carriers). We customers understand that the success of the iPhone has been a bit of a mixed blessing for the carrier, but, really, AT&T's whining needs to stop.

Customers are a good thing and AT&T needs to stop blaming them and the iPhone for its problems.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tier 1 networks becoming less important

Broadband Reports is reporting on a study by Arbor Networks: 'The majority of Internet traffic now goes through direct peers and does not run over tier one incumbent provider networks. That's not particularly surprising, given the number of companies like Google that are building their own fiber networks. According to the firm, about thirty so-called "hypergiants"(Google, Facebook, Microsoft) manage about 30% of all Internet traffic. The study, which tracked traffic over 3,000 peering routers on 110 different networks, also notes that P2P traffic has "declined dramatically."'

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Bitter End

My grandmother lived a full life and sought a quiet death. America's health-care system had a different idea of what was best.
By Jesse Ellison | Newsweek Web Exclusive | Reprinted from Newsweek, Sept 14, 2009.

In the two weeks leading up to my grandmother's death from lung cancer last January—three months shy of her 92nd birthday—she was transferred through four separate health-care facilities and six different beds. First, there was a hospice, where she was not allowed to receive more than just "respite" care. Next, she was moved to an assisted-living facility, where she fell, twice. After her second fall, she was strapped to a gurney and pulled along a bumpy sidewalk through a snowstorm to an awaiting ambulance. She was taken to the emergency room at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital. Ten hours later, she was assigned to a bed. She stayed for three days before being transferred to another hospice, where she died minutes after she arrived. If my father hadn't redirected the ambulance driver who took her from Lenox Hill to the second hospice, she would have died in the back of a van headed in the wrong direction.

At each stop along the way, my grandmother was handed off to a new set of doctors, nurses, social workers, and case managers. Again and again, she was poked and prodded and tested and assessed. At the first hospice, her health initially seemed to improve, so she wasn't sick enough to stay. But in assisted living, she declined, precipitously, so was too sick to stay. At Lenox Hill, she didn't need the ongoing treatment that would warrant taking up a bed. So she was punted from place to place, always either too close to death or too far from it. It was a pointless nightmare: a Kafkaesque labyrinth of doctors and hospitals and paperwork. When she came out of her semi-conscious state in her room at Lenox Hill, one of the first things she said was, "Why aren't I dead yet? Can't we just get this over with already?"

Until her last few weeks, my grandmother had enjoyed a long, full, fiercely independent life—the kind of life, in fact, that many people would envy. Despite being legally blind, she lived alone in Manhattan, visited museums regularly, took the bus all over the city to meet friends for lunch, and went to Shakespeare in the Park and lectures at NYU. One Friday night a few years ago, I called her and got the answering machine. When I didn't hear back, I called again, and then, as I began to get nervous, again. Finally, around 10 p.m. she called me back, laughing. She'd been out drinking wine with her friends on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Though we were separated by six decades, in some ways we were a lot alike. I moved to New York because of my grandmother. She taught me how to make an omelet like Julia Child, gave me an appreciation for red caviar, showed me how to tie silk scarves, and introduced me to the magic of what she called the "golden hour"—that small slice of the early evening when people have turned on the lights in their apartments but haven't yet drawn the blinds. At dusk, during that golden hour, we used to take walks through Greenwich Village and peer up into the stately townhouses that lined the side streets. I adored those moments. I adored her.

She was not some doddering cliché of elderly living. She was astoundingly brave. She learned to use the Internet at age 85 so that she could send e-mails to relatives in Florida and read Frank Rich's column online. She was also blunt and unsentimental on the subject of death. She believed in the circle of life, and often joked that she would come back as a petunia. A couple of times she tried to prepare me for the possibility that I might one day discover her body in her apartment. She told me that if it happened like that—if she died quietly, peacefully, as she went about her day, or, even better, in her sleep—it would be a blessing. At the time, the idea terrified me. Now it seems like a dream.

When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in the fall of 2007, my grandmother set about preparing for her death. She finalized her will. Together, we picked out charities whose missions she supported and she gave them sizable donations. Last fall I hosted her final Thanksgiving dinner, and nobody at the table, least of all her, shied away from the truth: this would be her last family gathering.

By then, she had gone through chemotherapy, radiation, and a colostomy—all measures that the doctors assured us were, for various reasons, considered "palliative": we all knew she couldn't be cured, but the doctors insisted that these painful treatments would make her last days more pleasant and possibly cede her a little more time. She endured all of it with her typical steel-jawed strength. But by Christmas, she was frail and weak and could barely make it around the block. Her vision was almost entirely gone. She began lamenting how long it was taking to die. And her mind, which had stayed vital far longer than her body, was beginning to slip. She grew paranoid and snappish. When my father and I first decided to bring her to the hospice, it was because she had become convinced that we were watching her through her television set. We later discovered that she had cut wires all over her apartment and tried to change the locks.

When you've lived to be 91, death is not untimely. It is not a tragedy. And my grandmother's death, in particular, should not have been so cruel. Money was not an issue. She had great insurance, and enough savings to pay for anything that Medicare and her insurance company would not. She had signed all the right forms. And she had the support of her family to die on her terms, as peacefully as possible.

Yet there was nothing peaceful about her death. She was forced to endure exactly what she had been so afraid of. During respite care, at the assisted-living facility, and especially at the hospital, my grandmother was treated like a problem to be solved, not as an elderly woman who had had enough. Because of the way her health improved, then so quickly declined, and because the system is set up to save people, not let them die, those last few weeks became needlessly tragic. They were also—and this really would have made my grandmother irate—enormously wasteful. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on care and treatment: the ambulance trips alone averaged $500 apiece; the first visit to hospice cost more than $10,000; and the bill for three days in Lenox Hill came to $36,772.43, not including visits from doctors. All this for a 91-year-old woman with terminal cancer and no wish to hang on.

Last week I was back at her apartment, sorting through some of her things, when I opened a bag and was hit with a smell so intense I reeled backward. It was the smell of my grandmother dying, of her sickness and cancer and final days. It was a bag full of the pillows from her bed. As if possessed, I ran to the building's incinerator and one by one shoved each pillow, still in its pillowcase, down the chute and into the black. Immediately, my ancestral thrift hit me: throwing away perfectly good pillows was a silly, wasteful thing to do. Self-indulgent, my grandmother would say.

I'll probably always feel a certain amount of guilt over what happened to her, over my inability to give her what she wanted. But even now I don't know what my family could have done differently. We tried, again and again, to push for the absolute minimum in treatment during those last weeks. I asked, again and again, for nurses to give her as much morphine as they could so that she might finally stop thrashing around on her bed. But it's hard to tell strangers whose job is to keep people alive that you actually want your loved one to just die already. And it's brutal to say it dozens of times, to dozens of strangers, who don't really seem to be listening anyway.

There is, in retrospect, one moment I wish I had handled differently. After her second fall in the assisted-living facility, I noticed that her left leg was puffy and swollen. I told the on-duty nurse, who called, of all people, a podiatrist, who diagnosed her with deep-vein thrombosis. The staff at the facility insisted that treatment was considered palliative, and that it was necessary, and that they wouldn't be able to treat her there. They also promised us that if we brought her to Lenox Hill, we could avoid the emergency room and get checked directly in to a bed. None of that turned out to be true. And because of it, for a few minutes, my grandmother lay on a gurney on the street in a snowstorm.

One of my coworkers at the time had a habit of quoting, over and over, an adage that she thought might give me comfort. "You can't make it good, Jesse," she would say. "But you can make it rich." She was voicing a sentiment common in this country. We want to treat death with a kind of reverence—with awe and solemnity. But for many of us, the truth is that it's not deep, it's not rich, it's not meaningful. It's just ugly, especially when it's prolonged for no good reason. Who are we protecting in moments like these? Who are we helping? Who are we thinking of? Not me. Not my father. Certainly not my grandmother.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Scam: NC Democrat Throws Consumers Under the Bus, Broadband Map Crayoning, & $350 Million Taxpayer Dollars Flushed

North Carolina residents should be outraged at Rep. Bill Faison, the Democratic chairman of the state House Select Committee on High-Speed Internet Access in Rural Areas. He’s set to do for North Carolina broadband what Hurricane Katrina did for urban renewal in New Orleans. Faison, along with some other cronies, are examples of what is wrong with broadband stimulus planning when certain elected officials open their doors on big special interests, and slam them on the fingers of actual consumers.

Eight years ago, the North Carolina legislature commissioned the state to produce accurate, detailed broadband maps, depicting who has access to what broadband services, if any, across the Tar Heel State. e-NC, an organization of excellence recognized worldwide, set about not only doing broadband mapping, but also advocating for consumer and business interests across the state by pushing for higher quality and faster service. e-NC’s mapping standard has been recognized by the European Commission, Microsoft, and IBM for its detailed, accurate depictions of broadband service.

e-NC has had its work cut out for it. AT&T and other North Carolina telecom providers have stonewalled the group since day one, refusing to disclose “private company information.” Where e-NC could obtain agreements, they came with ludicrous non-disclosure agreements that were the equivalent of ‘here is the information you requested, but you cannot use it in your maps.’

That’s where Faison comes in. He sends out an invitation to the media to announce North Carolina finally has a broadband map available, and then proceeds to slam e-NC because it produced maps that, at one point, he compared with “swiss cheese.” Faison is fully aware that e-NC had been complaining about provider stonewalling, and he did nothing to stop it. But then he did something even worse: he praised the very providers who did the stonewalling and are now in charge of producing the “detailed maps” that the providers want the legislature to see.

Faison said, “In the face of legislation recommended by the Committee which would have required the providers to disclose precise information to the Legislature for our staff to generate a detailed map of availability, the providers have come together and collectively decided to provide the information through Connected Nation, to not only provide the “street address” map but also to make the map both accessible and interactive through the internet. Special recognition should be given to AT&T, Embarq, Sprint, Time Warner Cable, The Cable Association, the Telephone Co-op association, and Alltel for their work on this matter.”


Of course, Faison’s anti-consumer efforts on behalf of his good friends in the telecommunications industry are no secret to our North Carolina readers. Faison was one of the proponents of the anti-consumer nightmare legislation S1004, which was hand-crafted by big cable and telephone companies to stop municipal broadband projects across the state. Faison is a menace for consumer interests in North Carolina.

Faison doesn’t care, of course. He has his eyes on some of that $7.4 billion in broadband stimulus money he hopes to grab for the state AT&T, Embarq, Sprint, Time Warner Cable, and any other provider that will try and use their own maps to “qualify” for the tax dollars you and I are going to hand over for broadband development.

Faison said: “North Carolina will be one of only six states with a detailed “street address” interactive map of broadband availability. It positions us advantageously to obtain a portion of $7.4 billion in Stimulus money available for broadband deployment. A map, such as ours, is now a precondition for obtaining this portion of the Stimulus money. The collaborative work of the Committee and the providers has now postured North Carolina in the most favorable of positions to not only obtain this portion of the Stimulus money, but also to advance broadband deployment for our people.”

In other words, by replacing reality with the telecom industry’s own version of reality, they hope to sneak through applications that look good on paper, whether or not they accurately depict the real “on the ground” state of broadband in North Carolina. If I were a grant application reviewer with this kind of “detailed” conflict-of-interest map work, I’d disqualify the entire state from getting one penny.

As the excellent investigative piece by Art Brodsky points out over on Public Knowledge (thanks Stop the Cap! reader Michael for showing the way):

AT&T stiffs the state, and then makes up its own map, which state legislators accept. There is no transparency, no verification, no nothing. (But it is interactive.) The only way in which this can not be a total conflict of interest is to recall the (perhaps) apocryphal story of the Maryland state legislator who also owned a liquor store. He introduced a bill to help liquor stores and was asked if this bill was a conflict of interest. “How does this conflict with my interests,” he was said to have replied. Exactly.

Meanwhile, the oh-so-aptly named (well-)Connected Nation, packed to the rafters with big cable and telephone company lobbyists, is busily doing its part to flush $350,000,000 of taxpayer funding down the drain with its own “broadband maps” which resemble the crayoning work your 1st grade son brought home from school.

Connected Nation, a creature of AT&T, spent $7 million dollars of your taxpayer money to commission Connect Ohio, an affiliate, to map broadband availability in that state. The result was a map you could have drawn yourself during a TV show commercial break. I think I’ll use Light Pink myself.
Connect Ohio's "Broadband Map" for Summit County, Ohio

Connect Ohio's "Broadband Map" for Summit County, Ohio

No, the blue speckles are not from blueberry pie stains. Those are bodies of water. What exactly does Connect Ohio’s map say? Not a whole lot. Basically, it claims the areas in beautiful pink are locations where broadband service is supposed to be available. The whitish areas are outta luck.

Seven million well spent dollars there!

Meanwhile, here is a map from Strategic Networks Group, a company that was never eligible for federal mapping grant money:
Map from Strategic Networks Group, that didn't cost taxpayers a cent

Map from Strategic Networks Group, that didn't cost taxpayers a cent

Which map would you prefer to rely on? The $7 million dollar boondoggle from Connect Ohio or the zero taxpayer dollar map from Strategic?

Why didn’t Strategic get the contract? Because Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois custom wrote language into the Broadband Data Improvement Act, that specifically defined who received the award money. Basically, it came down to only those well-connected politically with state governments (Connected Nation) getting the lion’s share. No merit-based mappers need apply.

Strategic’s maps were apparently too good. Take a look at this exceptionally detailed map they produced for just western Akron, Ohio (and notice this is page four of a series of detailed maps):

Unlike Connected Nation's maps, you WILL have to click to enlarge!

Unlike Connected Nation's maps, you WILL have to click to enlarge!

Stop the Cap! stands with Art Brodsky and Public Knowledge regarding this travesty:

The government notice setting out the terms for the mapping grants was sadly deficient. Even if one grants that Connected Nation was wired in under the terms of a misguided bill, the agency notice of funds availability had no conflict-of-interest safeguards. There are no requirements for transparency or for verification of information. There are no standard data sets to make sure all the maps measure the same things. Instead, there are what appear to be protections for “confidential” information that could render the process useless.

Perhaps some of these deficiencies can be cured at the program moves forward. Perhaps not. In either case, these cautionary tales are getting a bit tiresome. Jury-rigged RFPs, no-bid contracts, hot-wired legislatures and state agencies are no way to run a program as important as broadband.

The stimulus broadband mapping program is set up for massive failure unless changes are made. Congress has to allow more competition for grants. The Durbin argument that private, for-profit companies shouldn’t do public work like broadband mapping, while non-profits should, falls apart when one considers the advantages of an independent company vs. a compromised non-profit. The agencies responsible need more detailed criteria to protect the public investment. Consistency, transparency, public verification and less protection of information are needed. Maybe then can an #epic fail can be avoided.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Health insurers want you to keep smoking, Harvard doctors say

Health and life insurance companies in the US and abroad have nearly $4.5 billion invested in tobacco stocks, according to Harvard doctors.

“It’s the combined taxidermist and veterinarian approach: either way you get your dog back,” says David Himmelstein, an internist at the Harvard Medical School and co-author of a letter published in this week’s issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The largest tobacco investor on the list, the 160-year old Prudential company with branches in the US and the UK, has more than $1.5 billion invested in tobacco stocks. The runner-up was Toronto-based Sun Life Financial, which apparently holds over $1 billion in Philip Morris (Altria) and other tobacco stocks. In total, seven companies that sell life, health, disability, or long-term care insurance, have major holdings in tobacco stock.

Why is it a big deal? “If you own a billion dollars [of tobacco stock], then you don’t want to see it go down,” says Himmelstein, “You are less likely to join anti-tobacco coalitions, endorse anti-tobacco legislation, basically, anything most health companies would want to participate in.”

The letter is the third report that the doctors – who all support a national healthcare program – have published in the last 14 years.

We decided to check in with some of the insurance companies mentioned in the letter to learn more about their policies with respect to tobacco stock. Prudential was unable to respond by press time. Sun Life, however, flatly denied the charges.

“Sun Life does not carry significant holdings in tobacco stocks,” says representative Steve Kee, “We do not disclose specific holdings and, for good measure, we conducted a review further to your inquiry and our exposure to ‘tobacco’ stocks is less than 0.005 percent [about $5 million] of the investment portfolio. Importantly, tobacco-related businesses can be part of a broader conglomerate involving other aspects such as food production.”

Himmelstein rechecked his numbers in the Osiris database, and said, “I fear that if Sun Life has a dispute, it is with Osiris not with us.”

In any event, the doctors’ persistence over the years seems to be working to some extent. They targeted MetLife and Cigna in their 1995 and 2000 letters to medical journals, but neither is listed in the latest reckoning, indicating that the insurers no longer hold enough to stock to be noted on filings for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In addition, a representative for Cigna says they currently have no direct holdings in tobacco stock unless it is part of an index fund.

But with $4.5 billion still invested in Big Tobacco, many insurers are reaping profits from a cancer-causing industry. As Himmelstein puts it, "Is this who we want running our healthcare system?"

Should Congress investigate why oil is nearing $70 in a recession?

By: Joseph Lazzaro

Is it time for the U.S. Congress to systematically investigate the oil futures market?

Market absolutists cry no, but an oil price pushing $70 per barrel amid the worst U.S. recession since 1982, the first global recession since World War II, and 10-year-high inventory levels argue otherwise.

After hitting a record high of $147.27 per barrel during the leverage-fed investment and trading frenzy of 2008, the price of oil collapsed with the onset of the U.S. recession and then the implosion of the financial crisis, the latter of which took numerous hedge fund and investment fund oil futures buyers out of the market. Prices plummeted to a low around $35 in December 2008.

Historically, $30 is a high price for oil

Further, it's significant to note that although crude's price collapsed, $35 is still, in historical terms, a strong price for oil, which has averaged $25-30 per barrel, in current dollars, over the past 150 years.

Moreover, many experts expected oil's price to recover only slowly in 2009. U.S. gasoline demand declined for much of the past 12 months, on a weekly basis. Emerging market demand growth -- a major factor in oil's price rise during 2003-2007 -- was low, and the world was set to record its second consecutive decline in global oil demand. But the incremental rise in oil's price did not occur: instead, the price of oil skyrocketed in the past six weeks, essentially doubling in a very short period of time, in macroeconomic terms.

Oil bulls say the oil futures market, like the stock market, is merely pricing in likely oil demand conditions six to nine months out: investors and traders sense a bottoming recession in the U.S. and better economic conditions internationally, and its implied rising global oil demand, and are pushing up oil's price accordingly. Under this thesis, a $70 (or higher) price is justified given likely, future economic conditions.

However, oil industry analysts, among others, are increasingly citing investment funds as the primary reason for the rise.

"It's the funds that are pushing the market higher," Jonathan Kornafel, director for Asia at options trader Hudson Capital Energy in Singapore, told Bloomberg News Friday. "When everyone reads the same report and comes to the same conclusion, then you're going to have the market moving in one direction. The general trend is for the dollar to get weaker and for crude to get stronger."

Or, in other words, some, if not many institutional investors are buying oil futures as an alternative asset – a perfectly normal deployment of capital in free markets, and one that's largely innocuous (except for the speculator or the hedger) if you're investing in oat futures or cotton, so says economist Peter Dawson. However, if the asset is the world's most important commodity - one on which the developed world's, and now much of the developing world's - economy hinges, depending on its price – the deployment of capital could become a concern, particularly if it is concentrated, Dawson told DailyFinance. At least in theory, a sector-wide concentration of institutional investors could 'artificially boost' the price of a commodity well above what supply and demand would typically dictate – in effect grossly distorting its price.

"No conspiracy or collusion need occur. Just concentration," Dawson said. "Concentration is enough to cause a price bubble, and the U.S. housing sector is an example of that. There was no 'conspiracy' to cause U.S. median home prices to rise to dizzying heights, but rise they did, and a bubble formed, due to the concentration of players, in housing's case, a lot of buyers due to the availability of subprime loans."

Tail wagging the dog?

Dawson said he wants price discovery to continue in markets, particularly in oil, "but what could be occurring now is not price discovery, but 'pack mentality.' " The U.S. Congress, Dawson said, should begin a formal, long-term study on the relationship between the rise in futures trading and oil's price, "and systematically research whether the ten of thousands of new oil futures players have led to higher prices than they would have been, under similar supply/demand conditions, with these players absent."

The oil market today - if prices don't moderate in the coming months - also "is capable of exhibiting characteristics that border on 'The Twilight Zone,' " Dawson added.

"The problem with the futures activity is that it's pushed prices up so high that, if a $60-70 price holds, it will further dampen consumer spending and crimp corporate budgets to the point that the economic recovery will be hurt," Dawson said. "And if that's the case, the futures activity will have the affect of eliminating the very economic recovery that prompted the oil futures buying in the first place. And when you think about it, that type of market behavior is just absurd and irrational, from an economic development standpoint."

Economic Analysis: Oil has quickly vaulted to levels few thought possible, given the inventory glut and tepid demand. The weaker dollar has played a role, but the dollar is down roughly 10-15 percent during oil's leap to near $70 – hardly enough to explain the price surge. Like economist Dawson, the view from here argues Congress should research the relationship between the number of oil futures players and oil's price.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

NC SECU POI for TomTom Live

Special thanks today goes out to Kai H. Cheng at North Carolina State Employees Credit Union (SECU). Kai just sent me POI files for TomTom GPSes that have all the SECU locations for branches and ATMs.

TomTom users who would like to always know where the nearest SECU ATM or branch location can grab the POI file via TomTom Home. To do that:
  1. Connect your TomTom to your PC.
  2. Open TomTom Home if it doesn't start automatically.
  3. Click on "Add Traffic, Voices, Safety Cameras, etc." at the main screen. (Note, Home may prompt you to update some stuff on your TomTom before you get the main screen.)
  4. Click on Points of Interest.
  5. Search for "SECU" in the search box at the top right. Scroll down 3/4 the way down. (Past all the Spanish names.)
  6. You will see 2 POI lists. 1) ATMs. 2) Branches.
  7. Click on the Add button list you'd like to add to your TomTom.
  8. Confirm you'd like to add the community submitted list.
  9. Repeat for second list if you'd like both.
Once you have the list loaded, when you are driving you will see 2 different icons depending on what you are approaching. Branches will have this icon: . ATMs will have this icon: .

PS... SECU has ATMs in every county in NC. And they are all surcharge free. So even if SECU isn't your bank, you can still use their ATMs without having to form over $2-3 to an ATM just for the privilege of using it. (Your bank may still dig in your pocket with a "foreign network ATM" fee. If so, get a new bank!)

State Employees' Credit Union is a member-owned, non-profit cooperative. Membership is limited to persons who meet the eligibility requirements. For more information, visit their website.

If you're not eligible to join SECU, please take a look at the local, hometown banks and credit unions in your area and support them with your business. The hometown banks and credit unions in your area form the backbone of community banking that keeps our towns and small businesses running.

Without your support, they don't thrive and we're left with only banks that are "too big to fail" and too big to know you as a person. So, make it a point to check out your local banks this week. They'd love to get to know you. When is the last time your banker asked how your son's soccer game went last night?

Monday, April 06, 2009

Stop the Time Warner Caps in NC

Greensboro and surrounding area residents are outraged to discover Time Warner throwing their community into the “test markets” forced to endure heavily rationed Internet access plans from Road Runner. Greensboro is the first test market due to lack of competition from AT&T and Verizon. If we don't stop it in Greensboro, the rest of NC will soon follow.

Cities first affected: Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Burlington, Graham, Mebane, and Saxapahaw. Any city in what used to be called the Triad market.

It's almost laughable how thinly veiled this change is. Time Warner is implementing caps so low as to dissuade people from consuming online TV and video content from competing venues like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, NBC, BravoTV, etc.

Customers with teenagers in the house should be especially outraged as the content consumption of their children is likely to net $100+ internet bills every month.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

FreePress Visits Person County

Day 2 of the "Five Days on the Internet Dirt Road" series by FreePress' Internet for Everyone project visits my home town and describes what many of those related to my family experience in rural Person County.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Flaw in the System: The Bankers Don't Care About the Banks

Alan Greenspan says he is in a "state of shocked disbelief" that the concept of self-interest did not protect the banks from taking excessive risks and destroying themselves. But he, along with Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and many others, are missing the fundamental flaw in the system. The bankers don't care about the banks; they care about the bankers.

The enlightened self-interest of the bank executives has been separated from the interests of the banks they work for. In the 1970's, the banks were still privately owned. So, the guy up at the top wanted to protect his company, his interest and his money. If his executives took unwarranted risks with the boss's money, they were goners. But these days the people at the top of these companies don't own the companies. It's not their money.

Here is how the Wall Street Journal explains it (a useful nugget in an otherwise horrible piece):

"The Wall Street compensation system has evolved from the 1970s, when most of the firms were private partnerships, owned by partners who paid out a designated share of the firm's profits to nonpartner employees while dividing up the rest for themselves. The nonpartners had to earn their keep every year, but the partners' percentage ownerships in the firms were also reset every year or two. On the whole, everyone's performance was continuously evaluated and rewarded or penalized. The system provided great incentives to create profits, but also, because the partners' own money was involved, to avoid great risk."

These days, the way executives make money instead is in the form of bonuses for years where they bring in a lot of return (and often times for years they don't), but the threat of being fired for too much risk taking is minimal. The more risk you take, the more money everyone makes. And it's not the partner's money you're playing with anymore. You're playing with house money. No one is minding the store anymore.

Now think about it this way: if you were going to make ten million dollars in bonuses for taking high risks with other people's money, would you do it? The answer invariably is - hell yes!

If it's your own money on the line, you might be extraordinarily careful with the risk you take. But if you are going to get a multi-million dollar reward for taking risks, but you expose your company to a little bit more risk, what percentage of people would take that extra risk on behalf of their company? I would venture to guess 98%.

And the other 2% are suckers. There is no downside for you. The higher the risk, the higher the return in the short-run (which actually lasted a long time) and the higher your take home salary is. Are you going to be the only guy on Wall Street saying, "Well, golly gee willikers, everyone else is making millions but I really care about my shareholders. I don't want that huge bonus. I want safe investments for my company."? That's not how human nature works.

So, now we have Tim Geithner and the rest of Treasury working so hard to prop up not just these failed banks - but these failed bank executives - because we don't want government running these large companies. The self-interest of the market will do a better job of managing these companies. But it hasn't - because of this fundamental flaw.

These executives did not actually fail. They succeeded wildly. It's just that they had a different goal - to take home as much money as they possibly could for themselves. Mission accomplished!

I don't blame them. The system is set up wrong. Almost anyone in their position would have done the same - and will continue to do the same as long as we are foolish enough to keep pouring money into these companies. They are going to try to move every nickel they can from our pockets into theirs.

The Treasury plan is all wrong. We have to first acknowledge that the boards of these companies are not truly representing the shareholders. They are largely friends with most of the CEOs and they do not have an incentive to reign in out of control compensation for the top executives. Then those CEOs pass on the wrong incentives to the executives below them. The more risk they all take, the more money they take home. And if their company goes broke one day - who cares?

Most of these guys took home millions upon millions of dollars already for profits that never really existed. If the company goes under, okay the gravy train came to an end but they still have all the money they made from all those years. It's in their personal bank accounts. That's enlightened self-interest!

Do you know that last year, as Merrill Lynch was in its death throes, 696 executives got bonuses over a million dollars? 696! As the company lost tens of billions of dollars, the executives took home a combined $3.6 billion that year. Billions in bonuses in the worst year in the company's history. They're not stupid; they're smart. They're looting the store before the cops show up.

This is the financial equivalent of the federal government not showing up to rescue people after Hurricane Katrina. Last year the five biggest Wall Street securities firms lost $25.3 billion. The executives at those companies still took home $26 billion in bonuses. In other words, they wouldn't have lost a nickel if they hadn't taken any bonuses.

Do you think if the guys up at the top still owned the companies they would allow their employees to take home $26 billion in bonuses when they lost $25 billion that year? Self-interest would never allow that. But now no one is looking over their shoulder.

So who cares what the company loses? Take the money while you still can. The Treasury Department still hasn't shown up to take over these looted stores. In fact, they keep pouring taxpayer money into these same shops, as the money continues to move out the back door. Tim Geithner is the worst sheriff in the world.

But we already knew that. Because the main guy who was overseeing all of these banks in New York, as they took these giants risks, was the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York - Tim Geithner.

He is under the misimpression that his job is to protect the sanctity of the banks. Not only is that not his job, but that is working against his actual goal. His real job is to stabilize the financial system, with or without these particular banks or bank executives. The longer he keeps these guys in charge, the longer the looting continues.

Somebody send in the cavalry already. Geithner and Summers make it appear as if we are all dense and don't get the urgency of shoring up the financial system. We all get it. But there are several different ways to skin that cat. And their way is not working - and because of the fundamental flaw in the system - cannot ever work.

Even if they stop the bleeding in the short term, if they don't fix the flaw, the executives will be back to the same routine very shortly. Why? For the same exact reason that Greenspan thought the system couldn't fail - self-interest.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Weekend dinner at the local gas station

Ok, so there's this little place out on the Haw River in Alamance County called Saxapahaw. Quite often for me that little place is also called home. Just up the hill we have the Saxapahaw General Store, otherwise known to locals as the "Shell Station".

Well, this little Shell Station is square in the middle of the most radical transformation she's seen in 60 years. We might be 13 miles from everywhere in the middle of nowhere but there's something happening in Saxapahaw you might not expect.

To illustrate my point, here is the weekend dinner menu from this "Shell Station":

Weekend Dinner Menu
5-9 P.M. Friday and Saturday, 5-8 P.M. Sunday
February 6-8

Shrimp Chowder
cup for 4—, bowl for 5—

Creamy Tomato Basil Soup
cup for 4—, bowl for 5—

Crispy Pork Belly
Apple cider glaze, garlic mashed potatoes, garlic and shallot green beans

Pan-seared Duck Breast Salad
local goat cheese, currants, grilled onions, balsamic glaze

Steel Head Trout
sweet potato hash, asparagus
14 —

6 oz. Wagyu Sirloin Steak
sautéed spinach, duck fat fried potatoes

Kurobuta Pork Chop
Portobello mushroom gravy, garlic mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts

Eggplant Parmesan
mixed greens salad

Wild Caught Sea Scallops (after 6 p.m. Friday)
risotto cake, asparagus

Lamb Shank
white bean ragout, sautéed greens

Plate of Mussels
roasted garlic and tomato broth, grilled baguette

Local Sweet Potato Pie, Chocolate Pecan Tart, Local Chevre Cheesecake
Yes, you read all that right and I didn't embellish a single bit. You might want to follow what's going on at the Saxapahaw General Store over at their blog:

Soon a restaurant and pub will be popping out as the upper mill of RiverMill is completed... yep... out here 13 miles from anywhere. If it turns out half as good as the mom and pop run steak place I used to drive 15 minutes into the middle of nowhere to get to in Brandon, Mississippi, it will be the best thing Alamance County has ever seen. (And I'm expecting it to hit a higher mark than that.)

Sometimes it's good to live in the middle of nowhere. ;)

Friday, January 30, 2009

AT&T And Verizon FTTH On The Same Block?

From Things get really weird down in Texas...

Verizon has started laying fiber in some neighborhoods that are already served by AT&T U-Verse. The select broadband incursions may evolve into a broader battle, depending on who you ask. Some believe any AT&T or Verizon direct competition could remain limited to very select greenfield developments in just a handful of Texas areas. Others think that once Verizon gets a taste of greenfield profits, they'll expand the idea into states like California.

Light Reading editor Phil Harvey e-mails me to note they've taken photographs of the only town in the U.S. where you can see AT&T and Verizon FTTH gear on the same block. AT&T forgoes VDSL/FTTN for FTTH in some developments, though they cap the bandwidth delivered back to the same max speed of regular VDSL U-Verse (up to 18Mbps, at least until AT&T perfects channel bonding).

That would seemingly give Verizon, whose top speed is 50Mbps, the advantage in any head to head battle. At least in terms of speed -- AT&T could offer more alluring bundles. In many high-end greenfield developments though, price isn't going to be as important as just getting the best product. Most budget-minded consumers in lower ROI regions will probably never have to worry about AT&T and Verizon fighting to offer them FTTH.

The photos are from a new Frisco, Texas development, and (probably to AT&T and Verizon's chagrin) show both carrier's cabinets all up close and personal like -- both inside and out. Despite the boxes being so close, they're still serving different upscale developments. For now, anyway. Verizon will be lighting up FiOS in AT&T areas over the next few months -- the first time the two giants will go head to head.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

N.C. Contradictions: Mapping General Election Territory

This is a republication of Angie Santiago's May 2008 article from her NC Contradictions series in The Huffington Post.

Historic Saxapahaw, N.C. -- As I continue to travel east on 54 from Graham to Chapel Hill, I pass by a sign that reads, "Mebane - 10". I remind myself to take that turn sometime. Here 54 is wide enough to accommodate trucks transporting logs or livestock, allowing them to avoid the Interstate, where they're a target for highway patrols regulating weight and seeking permits. During the day, the drive along 54 East is uneventful but come sundown it transforms into a dark foggy deer-ridden obstacle course. The first thing I learned about navigating this area at night is that deer travel in packs. If you see one grazing along the road, there are probably three to five of them just waiting for their chance to run towards your car rather than away. Here they are a nuisance that eat my neighbor's crops or the food intended for their livestock. It's a beautiful drive and it's hard to believe it's just fifteen minutes from town because it seems so distant. I can listen to full NPR programming when I take this nice road.

The next sign directs me to turn left toward Saxapahaw, a remote self-contained five-and-half square mile community once known for its state of the art hydroelectric powered yarn mill founded and managed by B. Everett Jordan's Sellers Manufacturing and later expanded to Sellers Dyeing and Jordan Spinning Company. Saxapahaw is 13 miles from everywhere in the middle of nowhere but it may have been the home of the mysterious extinct tribe of Native Americans, the Sissipahaw Indians. The mill was sold to another company in the 1970's. Like so many manufacturing and textile concerns, it fell victim to NAFTA and closed its doors in 1994. Armed with their trusted family name and a degrees from Duke and NC State, including a Masters in Architecture, Mr. Jordan's son Mac led the charge to raise funds to re-purchase the mill and develop it into the historic Rivermill Village.

I walked the stairs to the musty office and waited for John Jordan, another descendant of the famous Saxapahaw family, to arrive. Surrounded by blueprints, family pictures, historical photos, and political cartoons, Mr. Jordan came in with a packaged lunch for his wife, Irlene, who was waiting for him at home. Peppered throughout the state, there are monuments, dams, lakes, and schools named in honor of his father, B. Everett Jordan, a Democratic U.S. Senator from 1958 to 1973. This Mr. Jordan, however, is a registered Republican. Now that's a story I need to follow up on.

When asked about what change meant to him during this election he asked: Change from what? Change to what? Interest rates are low. Do we want them higher? Terrorists have not attacked America again. The unemployment rate is low. Stocks are good. Americans spent $100 million dollars at the movies this weekend.

As a property investor and manager, Mr. Jordan cited the fraudulent bait and switch practice of sub-prime loan industry as the real reason people are losing their homes. Given enough time the housing market will straighten itself out. "Things aren't as bad they say," Mr. Jordan defended. History will show that the current Bush administration was inaccurately portrayed.

With respect to rising fuel prices, Mr. Jordan shared that the number one problem in this country is our dependence on foreign oil and people's lack of ownership to do their part. Since 9/11 Mr. Jordan purchased two hybrid cars but still drives less. A true believer in microeconomics, Mr. Jordan hopes that consumers will take a stand by making better choices to drive less, conserve energy, carpool, and take public transportation, if available. Such choices should lower the demand for oil and prices. He would like to see public policy leaders and environmentalists compromise, collaborate and reconsider drilling for oil in our own territory as well as develop alternative methods of energy. Public policy leaders should also invest in public transportation to reduce the commuting and the demand on fuel.

He cast his vote for John McCain because he believes that America is safer, the economy is strong, and jobs are being created. So why change that?