Tuesday, December 18, 2012

H&R Block is a spammer

I just received an unsolicited robo-call from H&R Block, advertising their payday loan or whatever. I listened through the whole spiel hoping for a "Press X to be removed," and unsurprisingly, the option didn't exist. But they did wish me a great day.

We as a society need to shun robocallers. I am doing my part. I'll never consider H&R Block for any business. I hope that I am not alone.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Automatic monitoring of Verizon shared data plans

This weekend I finally finished(?) the Shared Usage Alerter, my Python set of modules and programs that facilitate monitoring a shared/family plan and alerting its users if someone's going to cause an overage.

Since the last update, I added a bit more infrastructure. Now it's usable by someone with very casual programming skills who has a Verizon shared plan.

The hardest part was writing web-scraping code for Verizon Wireless. VZW actually made it surprisingly easy to get everything once you're logged in to your account: SMS and data usage come as a well-formed XML. But logging in was a chore. I kept getting a different response from Verizon's servers than what a regular browser-based user does, even after providing the same User-Agent. Initially I went down the wrong rabbit hole: I thought the way I manage my cookies is wrong. During login, VZW sets some cookies using Javascript, which requires additional (manual) handling on my part. I spent some time looking for that Javascript code. Well, it turns out the site checks the usually-ignored HTTP Referer header and doesn't permit login if it's different from what the site expects.

Another issue was that Verizon's usage data is not consistent between different accounts. I have credentials to two Verizon accounts, and plan differences require a lot of edge case handling. Unlimited plans, plans that don't actually share, and such. But I have it working for at least two Verizon accounts.

If you have a Verizon share plan and some programming and system administration skill, please try to use this software and give me your feedback. Alternately, I'm happy to run it for you on my system, if you trust me with your account credentials.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On the virtues of Verizon as a financial investment

Fidelity offers some pretty nice stock research tools. One of them is the MSCI Vice Index on any given company.
A MSCI Vice Alert is triggered when a company derives at least 15% of its revenue from adult entertainment, alcohol, gambling, and/or tobacco.
I chuckle inwardly every time I see that. I guess there really are people who decide not to invest in a profitable company because it's involved in those categories.

Verizon is one company to whom MSCI gives it a green light, marking it as "Not Involved" in vices. Yet I believe Verizon is in the category of companies who will throw their customers under the bus to make money. Is that a vice? Shouldn't it be?

Here are some examples:
  1. Verizon has routinely disabled certain built-in features of cell phones to force you to use their expensive (and often inferior) alternative. For example, Verizon has been known to block Bluetooth transfers to keep people from uploading their own ringtones. They've also been known to block setting your own MP3 as a ring tone, to encourage you to buy theirs. Of course, this was not advertised.
  2. You buy data from Verizon in buckets of gigabytes. This might lead you to believe that once you buy these gigabytes, they're yours to do with as you please, including tethering your phone to a laptop/tablet and using data on those more convenient devices. But nope, tethering costs $20 extra, despite there being no technical reason for it. It's not any more expensive to Verizon. So you buy a gigabyte of data, and then you buy separately the privilege of using it in a convenient manner. This changed only once the FCC stepped in.
  3. Like banks, Verizon loves fees. They charge $1.98 per month per line as an "administrative fee", which, as they admit in small print, is not a government fee or fine. It's just a surprise cherry on top of the advertised price. They looove overage fees. In fact, postpaid accounts cannot set a hard limit on their usage to avoid overage fees... unless they pay $5 per month per line for the privilege. And the overage fees are steep, such as $15 per gigabyte. (In increments of gigabyte, rounded up, naturally.)
  4. They don't compete like normal companies. The telco industry has a very complicated relationship with the government, and a lot of Verizon's success is not due to its capitalistic superiority but due to lobbying, monopoly in certain regions, and other similar endeavors.
In short, having followed Verizon's goings-on for a long time, my feeling is that Verizon thrives on consumer's ignorance. They don't have seem to have "good faith" when it comes to customers, so unless you know exactly what you want and what you don't, you'll get screwed one way or another.

Are these not worse, in terms of respect for the customer and society, than running a gambling or tobacco parlor?

Despite my list of complaints, I own Verizon stock. I think they know exactly what they're doing. They've made some really good business decisions. Here are some, in chronological order:
  1. They became known as the network with the largest reach. In a country the size of the US, that's a huge feat.
  2. While in the past they used to be derided for the poor selection of phones, they turned that around, now offering some of the most advanced handsets of all US providers.
  3. They were the winning bid for the 700 MHz block, back when the FCC auctioned it off. It was a significant chunk of change, but 700 MHz is a significantly lower frequency than competing LTE implementations, leading to a higher RF penetration, leading to better signal strength in more places than the competition! This plays right into their "largest reach" status.
  4. Verizon standardized on LTE back when Sprint went with the losing WiMAX. Now Sprint is playing catch-up.
  5. Verizon rolled out its 4G network way more aggressively than any of the competition.
With all that, Verizon has become simply the best network. It has the widest reach, some of the fastest speeds, and the largest 4G footstamp. Like Apple in the computer-land, Verizon sets the bar and the price. And that's why, like Apple, they can screw you in some ways and you'll have no choice but to thank them for it.

I've been with Sprint and its MVNOs for three years now, paying for data. The voice component is fine for me, but the atrocious data speed and high latency means it's over. Unlimited data when it's dripping in at 50 KB/s at most? That's a laugh. So Verizon has earned a new customer. Now I stay with Sprint (Ting, specifically) for just the voice and SMS, and pay Verizon a rather handsome sum monthly for data-only access to their LTE network.

The barrier to entry in this industry in the US is enormous. In fact it's probably insurmountable. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are the four. I don't see anyone else on the horizon. So what about the others?

For the big picture, I believe that 4G is all that matters. Why? Because data usage is exploding. Fast and plentiful data is the foundation of everything else. Voice can go over the data channel (and today often is), but YouTube cannot go over the voice channel. So for a telco to succeed, I believe 4G is key.

So let's look at the other companies.

I am most familiar with Sprint, having had them and rooted for them for three years. Sprint is overburdened with its iDEN and WiMAX networks. They were huge mistakes that will take many years to recover from. (iDEN is an old mistake that's probably run its course by now.)

In terms of LTE, Sprint is juuuuust now rolling it out in a few markets. Meanwhile, Iowa doesn't even have WiMAX. My local Sprint retail stores have been telling me for three years that 4G is right around the corner. The typical customer won't wait. If he values data and wants to stream YouTube cats, he has already switched away from Sprint.

Lastly, Sprint's only positive differentiator is "unlimited data." The problem with this: over the air, it's simply unsustainable. Your DSL and Cable provider can do it because they have a physical wire running to you. Over the air, you're sharing the equivalent of a wire with dozens or thousands of people. The only way for "unlimited data" to hold is with throttled speeds. Is that competitive? (Answer: maybe. People may prefer throttled but "unlimited" to Verizon's awe-inspiring speed that reaches your monthly quota in under an hour.)

With AT&T, I am not sure. I've never had them and don't know anybody personally who has AT&T. But they keep earning Consumer Reports' Worst Customer Service award each year. What's their positive differentiator? Dunno.

T-Mobile is a good value, but their network is not great in terms of speed, and T-Mobile itself is far from nationwide.

So, Verizon has 4G, the foundation of success, in the bag. In summary:
  • If money is not an issue and you just want "the best" , you'll go with Verizon and pay their large monthly charges and fees.
  • If you want fastest speeds, you'll go with Verizon and pay their large monthly charges and fees.
  • If you live out in the boonies and want service, Verizon is probably your best bet. You'll pay their.... yada yada.
  • If you travel often and want reliable service, Verizon is your best bet. Oh, you'll pay.
  • If you're value-conscious and/or indiscriminate when it comes to network service, you'll probably end up with whomever happened to be cheaper at the time of your search, which would be prepaid on a Sprint or AT&T's MVNO. You'll spend as little as you can, yielding very little profit to the telco.

What about growth? A good investment must have growth potential. The growth used to be in getting mobile subscribers. Now that's saturated. The next growth: data guzzlers in the form of smartphones (with more and more apps which draw more and more data), and to a much lesser extent netbooks and USB modems. Right now most non-techies don't have data on their phone. But everyone I've spoken to says that once they got it, they were hooked. And, Verizon is in the best position to profit from this growth market.

And that's why I am long Verizon's stock.

Now Verizon's biggest threat seems to be the proliferation of free wifi. And that's a pretty serious threat. Already many people get by with minimal mobile data usage, relying on wifi at home, at work, at the coffee shop, etc. Verizon has two advantages here: it's always available and reliable, and it's very fast. But it's impossible to beat free.

Verizon and AT&T both have an advantage here over Sprint and T-Mobile: they play the other side of the fence, providing residential and commercial broadband -- powering the very wifi that may undermine LTE profits. Of course, every techie has heard of the legendary speed of FiOS, Verizon's wire-based broadband. Those who have it, love it; those who don't, wish they did. So, Verizon seems to have this threat neutralized.

I want to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Authoritarian atheists

For me, atheism and libertarianism goes hand-in-hand.

Theism is the status quo, and a typical atheist seems to be someone who, as a teenager or an adult, has pondered the world, weighed the evidence, the history, and others' opinions, and come to his own conclusion that disagree with the majority of society's. The typical libertarian seems to have gone through the same steps.

More importantly, libertarians speak out against so-called victimless crimes, which they see as criminal merely due to religion and puritanical mores. There's a natural overlap of atheism and libertarianism in that sense.

But sometimes I see evidence to the contrary, reminding me that indeed there can be authoritarian atheists. A restaurant in Columbia, PA1 offered a promotion: bring in the "current church bulletin" and get a 10% discount. Sounds reasonable to me. An atheist wouldn't enjoy this promotion, but in the free US of A we tend to permit private restaurants to run whatever promotions they please. And this turned out to be a successful promotion according to the restaurant owner.

But it appears that the atheists had a problem with it, invoking the Civil Rights Act. The CRA sees atheism as a religious creed. So now, by crying to mommy, the resident atheists scored themselves 10% off. Classy.

If the CRA applies here, what about age-based discounts and special menus? What restaurant doesn't have a special menu or discount for seniors or children? Why is no one fighting those?

Because apparently there are atheists who want to enforce their beliefs legislatively. In contrast, libertarians and Austrian economists (again, greatly overlapping circles) tend to not like the Civil Rights Act, believing that once slavery became illegal, the free market would solve discrimination much more effectively than legislation. The justification is that it's better for a racist to openly display this racism and be judged openly than to be forced by law to hide it and exercise it against blacks in a cowardly fashion. Having to hide one's racism merely prolongs discrimination in our society.

The irony here is that for the longest time atheists have been fighting religion-based legislation, from gay marriage to the pledge's "under god" that public schools force children to say. Atheists say: get religion out of legislation. The US was not founded on Christian principles. Separation of church and state. These noble cries become negated when some bad apples swing the pendulum the other way and attempt to write (or apply) legislation to suit their personal beliefs.

My fellow atheists, grant the same tolerance to your Christian brethren that you've been expecting and demanding for yourself.

Check if libertarianism is right for you. On one hand it promotes a smaller government and fewer laws. That's good for atheism because it reduces criminalizing so-called victimless activities, and it reduces historical legislative baggage that's often based on religion. On the other hand libertarianism promotes a hands-off approach for private industry. That's good for tolerance. Don't like a business? Don't patronize it and tell your friends. But using legislation for this purpose seems childish.

Footnote 1: It took me longer than a minute of research to figure out what damn Columbia is being referred to. The article omits the state. Oh, but lancasteronline.com should give it away, right? No, there are more than one Lancasters in the United States. Even the newspaper's homepage doesn't indicate which Lancaster it represents. I finally found the state in the profile of the newspaper's official Twitter account.

Vegetarians at Subway get the short end of the stick

I like Subway for its value. Certain footlongs are just $5 year-round. Then they introduced a Sandwich of the Month, where a certain normally-higher-priced footlong becomes $5 for a month. Now they lowered the price on two of their six-inch subs to just $2. That's pretty incredible.

But vegetarians at Subway get the short end of the stick. There's exactly one vegetarian sub at most locations: the Veggie Delite. This sandwich, with its delicious-sounding name, is priced the same as many other sandwiches, including Cold Cut Trio, Spicy Italian, and Meatballs. But Veggie Delite is simply one of those sandwiches... minus the meat.

So take a Spicy Italian, with its tasty meats that comprise more than half of the sandwich's innards by weight. Then take out the meat and reserve it for the next customer. Then don't lower the price. That's not a recipe for happiness.

The situation reminds me of a TV commercial for Whataburger in the early 2000s. It portrays a caricature of the typical burger joint, with a disinterested waitress bringing a family their burgers. The father pipes up, "I asked for no mayo." The bored waitress rolls her eyes, takes off the top bun (with the mayo on it), wipes it on the corner of the table, and plops it back on the poor guy's burger. That one always made me laugh.

Subway is getting its act together on this and introducing some fare for vegetarians and vegans worth paying for. But it's not here yet, and may never get rolled out if the pilot isn't to Subway's satisfaction.

In contrast, Which Wich has great vegetarian and vegan options, such as bean-based spiced patties. Too bad the closest one is 30 miles away.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Large companies don't care, part 89228

In Texas, for a while I had an Internet service provider called OpLink, a very small company. They cost more than the alternative (AT&T), but had very competent customer service and gave me four static IP addresses. When, during initial setup, the DSL modem wouldn't register signal, some head honcho immediately drove over to my house to diagnose and fix the line.

CenturyLink is nothing like that. I just managed to live a week without Internet at home, thanks to their lack of care.

Last weekend I was out of town. When I left, the Internet (through CenturyLink) worked fine. When I returned, the DSL modem was displaying a red LED over the "DSL" part. After power-cycling the modem a few times, I immediately called CenturyLink and told the customer service rep that something's broken on their end. (I know customer service people don't enjoy the hoi polloi diagnosing the problem themselves, but come on, I have an M.S. in computer science and own an IT consulting company. That has to count for something. I didn't point this out to him, however.)

The customer service representative, as always, tried to convince me that the problem is with me and my apartment. He had me power-cycle the modem again. He asked about DSL filters. He suggested that I reboot my PC. I repeated that none of my devices work, and importantly, the DSL light is red, so how can it be my devices! I kept suggesting to him that maybe while I was out this weekend, someone modified the wiring for another customer and accidentally broke mine in the process. Sounds reasonable and matches the symptoms. Not to the rep. Instead, he wanted me to move furniture, unplug the modem, and plug it into a different phone jack in the apartment. This led to an exchange only one of us found amusing:

- Sir, would you please find another phone jack in the apartment? We need to find which phone jack has signal.
- We know which phone jack is supposed to have signal. It's the one the modem is plugged into.
- We need to find out which jack the DSL is wired to.
- .... I've had DSL for over a year with you, and the DSL has been wired to the jack I am plugged into. Tell me, under what possible circumstances would DSL be now wired to another jack?
- There can be a number of reasons.
- Oh really? Like what?
- <Something incoherent rooted in a lack of understanding of reality>. So we have to try.
- Ok, I will try. For you. But I just want to let you know that you're wasting your time and mine.
- I appreciate that, sir.

The DSL light didn't appreciate it, however. Even sipping from another phone jack, it remained red.

So the customer service guy scheduled an appointment for me. A week from that day! I couldn't believe it! I couldn't believe that CenturyLink would let a customer sit without their service for a whole week! (And don't think that the customer service rep was just trying to get revenge for me arguing with him. I believe in the inherent goodness of people, as evidenced by myself.) In any case, CenturyLink are not a monopoly in my area. I was very tempted to cancel the service, if only out of principle.

 I called back and talked to another person who offered to move my repair date to even later, but under no circumstances earlier. I talked to a supervisor, who said the same. Finally, fuming, I simply asked for a credit for the time my service is out. They transferred me to someone who actually gave me half-price (a savings of $25/mo) for a full year! After kneeling at her altar in thanks, I asked if her awesome powers extend to moving my repair date up. Alas, that power is unattainable by mere mortals.

A week later, I received a phone call. It was a CenturyLink repairman. Turns out that in the process of wiring DSL for another customer, a previous repairman accidentally miswired my line.

No shit.