Consumer Experiences Politics


I think I’ve worked for about a dozen companies in my lifetime, and my new employer is the first one of those that gave me Election Day off work as a paid holiday.

Computers Consumer Experiences Drivel Politics

goodbye and good riddance, Facebook, Inc.

It’s done. I just deleted my Facebook and Instagram accounts. It was fun for a few years, but the relationship turned sour after one of us started lying to the other, then pretended to take steps to improve but just kept lying.

Top 18 Bollywood Celebrities to Follow on Snapchat - Brandsynario

Separation took a few months of planning and preparation. Here’s the blog post I wrote about this process several months ago:

And now here is the result:

For those who want to get in touch, here is my contact info:

So what am I doing now for social media? Over the past 9 months or so, I’ve gravitated to a mix of Reddit, Twitter, my blog, and MeWe.

  • Reddit is great for complex discussions – not perfect, but way better than Facebook
  • Twitter is great for sharing quick thoughts that I used to put in Facebook posts
  • My old WordPress blog is great for sharing longer essays, recipes, etc.
  • And MeWe is a good way to meet other people with shared interests
Consumer Experiences

how to reduce your risk of credit card fraud

I’m gonna explain an easy thing you can do to reduce your risk of being a victim of credit card fraud. I first read about this trick a few years back, and started doing it myself. I can say from first-hand experience that it works.

The Two Card Approach

The basic idea is this: Get two credit cards…

  • Use one of them only for online purchases. Leave that card at home 100% of the time. It will probably never be stolen.
  • Use the other card only for in-person (non-online, aka “brick and mortar”) purchases. If it gets stolen, it’s not as big of a deal.

Here’s how it works. The vast majority of credit card fraud is from people stealing your card details at the point-of-purchase. For example, there are credit card skimmers attached to gas pumps at the service station that record the details of your card as you swipe it to pay for gas. And untrustworthy workers at the supermarket, restaurants, etc.

In fact, I just read an a few days ago about how “merchants who operate gas stations and gas pumps are facing a rash of attacks from cybercrime groups wanting to deploy point-of-sale (POS) malware on their networks.” —

On the other hand, online purchases are much safer. Despite the news stories you’ve read about criminals stealing data from websites, your credit card information is very safe in your web browser and at any online merchant, and every place in-between. It’s much more safe than when the card is used at an in-person (POS, of “point of sale”) merchant.

But what’s the biggest pain in the ass when you become the victim of credit card fraud? It’s that once your card is canceled by the bank, you have to go to all the vendors you do business with and update your card details with them. In my case, that’s Amazon, Apple, my mail-order pharmacy, the cable company, the power company, the phone company, and many more. So, it makes sense to give all those companies the credit card that is the least likely to be stolen, and use the card that’s most likely to be stolen only at places that don’t automatically charge my card every month, like the supermarket, gas station, etc.

Make sense? To recap:

Online-only CardNon-online Card
Stays in a drawer at homeStays in my wallet
Used for recurring payments and online storesUsed for individual purchases at brick-and-mortar stores

Problems and Risks

The two card approach isn’t perfect. There are some other risks and side-effects. For example:

  • The more cards you have, the worse your credit score will be. But if you keep the total number as small as possible, this shouldn’t be a major issue. So give up a couple department store cards and that second airline card, and instead get a second card for online use only.
  • If your credit is bad, you may not be able to get approved for a second card. Yeah, even with as aggressive as banks are about pushing cards on everyone, some people can’t get a second one, so this approach won’t work for them.
  • This approach reduces risk by reducing the likelihood of fraud and simultaneously reducing the impact of fraud. But it doesn’t reduce it to zero. You should still use all the usual precautions to prevent credit card fraud.
  • If you’re not the kind of person who pays off credit card balance each month, having two cards instead of one can help lead to falling behind on your debt.

Some Other Ideas

Since you read this far, here are a few quick suggestions for reducing your risk of being a victim while doing online purchases:

Consumer Experiences Drivel Food Politics Uncategorized

mile high composting and voting

Since this past spring, I’ve been working to arrange composting at my condominium complex. And this week it starts to pay off.

Denver Compost Collective is an organization that collects food waste from apartment dwellers and takes it to their large scale composting facility. Then they give the resulting “black gold” to a local urban farm/food charity. The city has been encouraging composting the past few years, but if you don’t have a big garden, it’s tough to do. So this group fills that gap.

Here is me with my new bucket. I’ll fill it up throughout the week with food scraps (no meat or dairy) and then put it in my building’s parking garage for DCC to pick up Monday morning. They weigh each bucket, dump it into a bigger container on their truck, rinse the bucket out, and put it back in the garage.

In other news, I voted today. The ballot and issues were so easy this time I decided to do it while enjoying some quasi-legal recreational drugs. It’s great to live in Denver.

Saturday, maybe Casa Bonita. Seriously.

Computers Consumer Experiences

MacBook Pro battery recall

Earlier this week I learned about a recall of MacBook Pro computers from 2015. So I went here to read more:

And I learned that my personal laptop is part of the recall! I wonder if they were going to proactively contact me, since Apple know that computer belongs to me and where to find me. Regardless, I contacted them and am now taking it in to the Apple Store next Tuesday for warranty service to have the battery replaced.

It is supposed to take 1 to 2 weeks, but I guess that’s better than having the battery explode while I’m using it.

Computers Consumer Experiences Drivel

credit card blues

Someone has made 12 fraudulent charges on one of my Visa credit cards since May 31, including buying 6 airline tickets on Allegiant Air, renting U-Haul trucks several times, and staying in a couple hotels.

Now, of course, the bank has canceled my card and are sending me a new one that’ll arrive Monday or so. What a hassle.

That reminds me – didn’t Apple announce some new Apple credit card thing with a rotating number to prevent fraud? I should go read about that sometime. Oh, here it is:

Consumer Experiences Eastern Hemisphere Travel

Imerex Plaza Hotel – bad management, poorly built rooms, but nice art

Angeles City in central Luzon (Philippines) was a unique stop on our travels. It was the only place where we had local friends. In particular, Robert and Mel, formerly of Boulder, Colorado, now live there again. This is where they met and married long ago. They lived here in the 1970s, and now again in the 2010s. So they know the place pretty well. Mel was born and raised in a small village not too far from Angeles, and has much extended family in the area. Bob has lived here both as a civilian and while in the US Air Force. They did some hotel scouting for us when we were first planning our visit, and made a few recommendations.

One of the biggest concerns when renting a hotel room in Angeles City is that a lot of the low to middle cost hotels are part of the vibrant local sex trade. The Imerex Plaza Hotel is one of few hotels that isn’t used for prostitution, and gets decent reviews on the travel websites I looked at. So we chose this and booked a room for a week. We checked in on Tuesday October 27, and checked out Tuesday November 3.

Having no bathtub, Beth soaked her aching feet in a plastic bag filled with water

The hotel was a “mixed bag” but had so many problems I thought I should jot down the pros and cons for other travelers who might care. I’ll start with the bad things, but stay tuned for the good things.

Hotel Problems

I got a chuckle out of this example of the lack of attention to detail we found in this hotel. Whoever installed the flat screen TV on the wall ALSO installed the TV base that you use to put it on a TV stand. You don’t need both; you only install the wall mount hardware, or the base stand. But clearly someone didn’t read (or understand) the directions. In fact, if you install the base stand, the TV can’t fit flush to the wall on the wall mount. Whatever. Anyhow, we used the superfluous base stand to hold the remote, since we didn’t need it.

  1. The shower floor was poorly constructed. Water pools up on one side of the shower instead of flowing down the drain. This is kind of a sanitation concern.
  2. Our room had an armoire to hang clothes, but only two hangers. It’s tough to live in a hotel for a week with only one shirt each. We asked for more hangers, and got about five more.
  3. The phone in the room doesn’t have a label to say how to dial the front desk. Dialing 0 doesn’t work; I tried! Next time we were on the ground floor, we asked the front desk attendant. Apparently sometimes you dial 0 to reach reception, and sometimes you dial 200. I guess in our room it’s 200. Why not the same number always? Why not label the phone with a note saying what it is?
  4. The hotel’s advertising brags about wifi in every room, with an outstanding 16 Mbps connection. The wifi in the lobby worked almost all the time. The wifi in our room worked about 20% of the time. Sometimes it would allow you to connect, but no data would flow. Sometimes you couldn’t even connect. Sometimes it would work for a half hour or so and then suddenly stop for another half hour, then resume. At the best of times, when it did work, we definitely didn’t see 16 Mbps performance, as the hotel website bragged. I saw about 4.5 Mbps download and 0.3 Mbps upload, when the internet connection was working well.
  5. When we checked in, the bath mat was soaking wet. We asked for a replacement, and got it.
  6. The spray hose next to the toilet leaks, causing water to pool next to the toilet. There is a drain there, but as with the drain in the shower, the floor isn’t built correctly and the water doesn’t naturally flow into the train. Instead it pools up. Since we didn’t have a squeegee, we left it pooled there, and after about a day, small worms started growing and wriggling in the water. After the bathroom was cleaned, the worms went away, but then they reappeared in the pooled water after about a day again. I don’t know what these tiny black worms are or where they come from. Maybe they come up from the sewer? I guess maybe these worms are the reason the Indonesians put mothballs on top of their bathroom drains.
  7. The room comes with a lamp on the nightstand, but there is no electric outlet there, and the power cord isn’t long enough to reach behind the bed where there is an outlet. So the lamp is a total waste. Did nobody think to measure how long the power cord needs to be before they bought these lamps? I just set the lamp aside on the floor, making more room on the nightstand.
  8. There is no stopper for the sink. No big deal; I brought my own.
  9. There wasn’t any sort of booklet or card or anything with info about the room or hotel. So whenever we had a basic question like how to get laundry service, how to call the front desk, when breakfast is served, etc. we just had to ask the front desk. Some hotels supply a notebook of useful information, but even a one page summary of the basics would be better than nothing.
  10. It took me a day to realize this, but the room has no art on any of the walls. They’re all just blank white walls. There is one mirror. The lobby and other parts of the hotel have great pieces of art, so why leave the guest rooms so bare?
  11. The second day we were there, we assumed and hoped there would be housekeeping service, but there wasn’t. So we asked at the front desk and learned that we need to explicitly request it. OK, that’s fine. So we requested it the next morning. But when we got back to the hotel later that day, the room hadn’t been cleaned. The second time we requested housekeeping, they did clean the room. But the third time we requested it, a couple days later, once again the room wasn’t cleaned. Out of four times we asked for our room to be cleaned, they cleaned it twice. I don’t know if the messages just often get dropped between the front desk and housekeeping, or if housekeeping just didn’t do what they were asked to do. Maybe we asked for the room to be cleaned too often? If so, nobody mentioned it; each time we asked, the front desk person always said that it would be done.
  12. The phone had a little label with the wifi password taped to it. But the password was wrong. I asked at the front desk and learned the real password. Why doesn’t someone take the initiative to update the labels on the phones? I have no idea.
  13. The hotel offers a laundry service. We arrived with a lot of dirty clothes, more than we could wash piece-by-piece in the tiny sink. So we dropped off our laundry at the front desk the first morning. They said it would take a day or two to get back, which was fine; it took two days. Later in the week, we had a more laundry, but since we were leaving the country on Tuesday, we wanted to make sure it would get cleaned in time. We asked on Friday, and learned the laundry would be finished by Monday afternoon. Perfect, that’ll give us time to pack up Monday night. Monday afternoon, we asked where our laundry was. The person at the front desk apologized and said that it hadn’t even been delivered to the laundry service until earlier that morning. We pointed out that we were leaving at 9am the next day, so the normal “one or two days” turnaround is a problem. Fortunately, they did whatever it took to get our clothes back to us about 8:15am Tuesday morning. But the whole thing made me wonder why they told us one thing Friday, and then dropped the ball.

And I guess that sort of sums up the experience with this hotel. Almost everyone kept “dropping the ball“. There were individuals who seemed to have a sense of customer service and they resolved problems — some of the servers in the restaurant were really good! — but as a team providing a hotel service, they were not good. To me, this is a sign of bad management.

The Plusses

There were definitely some nice things about this hotel, though. It wasn’t all bad.

  1. First off, there were no cockroaches, and very few mosquitoes in the room. That’s a plus in the tropics.
  2. As I mentioned before, the wait staff in the restaurant/cafe were usually really good.
  3. Security was good and we felt safe inside the hotel. There was a security guard out front almost all the time. This seems to be normal practice in the Philippines, for what it’s worth. Not only do banks have armed guards, but hotels and even fast food restaurants do! Can you imagine the reaction people would have in the US if you went to McDonald’s and there was a guy with a machine gun at the door?
  4. The main floor of the hotel is a big open area with several seating areas. It includes the reception desk, the restaurant, a section with some comfy chairs and couches for lounging, and a little coffee shop. The decor on this level was just amazing. It was beautiful! They had a lot of really, really nice pieces of wood furniture and art. And it was always clean. That ground floor felt like a whole different place than the upper floors with rooms, which were dark, dusty, and drab.
  5. There was no muezzin next door, waking us up early each day to come to prayer at the mosque. But granted, this being a Catholic country, that shouldn’t be a surprise. However, there was an insane rooster who crowed all day and all night who sort of made up for it.
  6. It was fairly affordable as far as “business” hotels go (meaning not sex hotels) in Angeles City. We paid about 40 USD a night for the place. I expected prices to be lower, more on par with Indonesia prices (or lower, since the Philippines is a poorer country overall), but apparently lodging in the Philippines is higher. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just the case in Angeles City.
  7. There was gelato available in the lobby!
  8. Lastly, the electricity worked the whole time we were there. No brown outs!

Oh, in case you’re interested, here’s my cell phone camera video I shot of a worm wriggling in the pool of water next to the toilet. We didn’t see these in any of the 20-or-so places we stayed on our trip before this.

Consumer Experiences Eastern Hemisphere Travel

don’t trust this TSA-compatible lock to protect you from anything but moronic zombies

I bought a couple TSA-compatible luggage locks from Amazon. My plan was to use this on my new eBags TLS Workstation Laptop Backpack to secure my laptop and other stuff during our travels through Asia later this year. Unrelated to this, I also couldn’t remember the combination to one of my suitcases that also has a TSA-compatible 3-digit combination lock. And I found a video that explains how easy it is to open (some of) these locks, so that you can reset the combination when you forget it.

So I wondered if the same trick would apply to the new luggage locks I bought on Amazon from Tarriss. The trick worked quite well, and I can now break into my own locked items in as little as 12 seconds. That means a real thug could probably break in much faster. And that means there’s no way I’m trusting these locks on my luggage.

I made a little video showing how easy it is to “pick” these locks with your bare hands.



Consumer Experiences Eastern Hemisphere Travel

my telecom woes

This past week, the first bad decision of my planning for our big trip became apparent. And it has to do with my phone. A few months ago, I read a bunch of articles, including this one from Nomadic Matt, this one from Forbes, and a few others. For years, I had been using an iPhone with AT&T’s standard family plan. But neither is well suited for doing lots of international travel, for a couple reasons.

First, lots of the advice I read was to get a global, unlocked, dual-SIM phone, and Apple doesn’t make such a thing. Second, AT&T doesn’t have competitive pricing when traveling overseas. My plan was this:

  1. Let my AT&T contract expire, then unlock and sell my iPhone. Transfer my old phone number to Google Voice, and set things up so it would ring my new phone or go to Google’s voicemail with transcription.
  2. Buy a global, unlocked, dual-SIM Android phone.
  3. Sign up with Telestial / Ekit / JT for their Explorer SIM product, which has a good international plan with decent rates in foreign countries. Use that in the first SIM card slot.
  4. In countries we’re staying more than a few days, get a local SIM card, which has better rates in that country than the Telestial plan. Use that in the second SIM card slot, swapping it out whenever I go to a new country where I get a new card.

After some shopping, I settled on the BLU Studio Energy phone. It’s not the fastest around, and it’s definitely not a premiere brand, but it’s got a great feature that nobody else has, and that’s battery life. The thing has such a huge battery built in that you can use it to recharge your other devices (iPad, for instance). I knew that transitioning from iOS to Android would be a challenge, based on what I’ve heard from friends. But since Android is now the dominant player in the market I assumed the software must be pretty well ironed out these days. This past week, I learned my assumptions were wrong. The OS is bad in a way that I forgot was even possible. The design of the core OS, the vendor-specific extensions, and third party apps is all totally different. There’s no consistency to help you figure out what’s wrong when there’s a problem.

The next problem I ran into was Google Voice. It also is poorly designed. There’s a global set of rules that govern how calls are routed, but then there’s a hidden set of screens that also govern rules for specific groups of users, including users who aren’t in a group. The set of screens that are mostly hidden apparently take precedence over the configuration screen that’s right there in your face. But even after I figured that out, Google Voice drops about half the calls it routes to my phone. That’s just not acceptable.

Lastly, I’ve gotten very frustrated with Telestial / Ekit / JT. I’m not sure why this phone carrier has three names, but they do. Some web pages refer to one of the names, but then you’ll run into a different web page that uses another name. Weird. But whatever…

One of the biggest irritants is with making domestic calls in the US. Normally, we use 10-digit dialing and don’t have to use the international format of +1 before the 10-digit number. For whatever reason, when I dial a 10 digit number, it usually doesn’t complete. And when it does, it charges me a much higher price than if I dial the “+1” before. The irritating part is that caller ID of inbound calls just show the 10-digit number, so you can’t just hit the button to call back the person who just called you. Instead, you have to manually dial their number with the +1 prefix. How dumb.

The other problem is data. At first, I struggled with the phone a couple days to figure out why I couldn’t get any data access. That’s when I realized I didn’t buy a data plan, and the voice plan didn’t include any data. OK, that’s my fault, I guess. So I bought their cheapest data plan. In the course of 4 days just doing normal stuff like Google Maps and email, I burned through $63 worth of data. That is not sustainable. Their data rates are just too ridiculous, especially for the US.

So, I came up with a new plan:

  1. Ditch Google Voice. Just eliminate it from the equation. I don’t really want my text messages to only appear in the Hangouts app, and I don’t really need transcription of voice messages. Given the poor UI, lack of support, and ongoing concerns that Google is going to just cancel the feature at any moment, I’ll sleep better if I’m not tied to it.
  2. Get a T-Mobile month-to-month plan with a new SIM, and port my old number (currently parked at Google Voice) to T-Mobile. I’ll have a huge amount of fast data both domestically and internationally, unlimited international texts, and international calls are just 20 cents a minute, which is on par with the Telestial plan.

And that’s what I did today. Now text messages work, I can use Google Maps for free, and phone calls go through every time.

Consumer Experiences Film Music

Amazon Fire TV Stick

Todd in Alien Mask
Todd in Alien Mask

I got a bunch of nice gifts for Christmas 2014, including some strange surprises like a rubber green alien mask. But I want to talk about one gift that is so much cooler than expected. It’s the Amazon Fire TV Stick. I read about it a month or two ago, and thought it would be a fun little toy to have and not too expensive. But Beth thought it was a frivolous purchase we didn’t really need, so I just put it on my Amazon wishlist and didn’t order one for myself. Fortunately, my parents gave me one as a gift.

Beth was right in that it’s something of a frivolous purchase. It doesn’t do anything that I don’t already have a way of doing. The main thing I wanted was just a way to easily stream movies from Amazon Prime Instant Video (a service where you can watch some movies or TV shows for “free” if you have Amazon’s “Prime” shipping service) or Netflix. I was able to watch Netflix movies from our TiVo HD, but if I wanted to watch stuff from Amazon I had to plug my laptop into our TV, change the settings around, and play the video on my laptop. It was possible, but it made watching any TV show or movie into a 10 minute affair just to set things up, and another 10 minutes to take it all back down later. For a 50 minute TV show, that’s a pain.

Anyhow, the Fire TV Stick arrived earlier this week and I spent some time after work setting it up on Monday night. It does way more than I originally realized, and brings a bunch of entertainment and news into our living room that we didn’t have. The Stick is just a tiny gizmo that plugs into a power supply and into the HDMI input on the TV. It’s very similar to a thing called Google Chromecast that came out a year or so ago. But Amazon’s seems to do more. Here are all the things I’ve set it up to do:

  • Watch Amazon Prime TV and movies – This is free if you have Amazon Prime
  • Listen to all the music I ever bought from Amazon, through the TV
  • Listen to Amazon’s free music collection, sort of like Spotify – Also free if you have Amazon Prime
  • Watch any streamed movie or TV show from Netflix streaming – a Netflix subscription costs money of course
  • Watch any YouTube video, especially my video playlists of travel oriented videos
  • Listen to my favorite local radio stations – These are streamed online and played on the TV using a Fire “app” called tunein. I had no idea I could get radio on this thing, including KUVO (Denver’s jazz station, which normally has a weak signal), Radio 1190 (the CU college station that I can’t even pick up in Denver), KGNU, NPR, CPR, and NOAA weather radio.
  • Listen to streamed music from the Spotify service – I have Spotify premium already, which is required to make this work.
  • Listen to police and fire scanner radios – Here’s another thing I had no idea was possible. I occasionally listen to the police scanner during regional emergencies like when we had tornado warnings in our neighborhood last summer.
  • Watch videos from PBS’ free online video archive – This includes things like Ken Burns series, etc.

I’ve seen a few other things that this thing will do that I haven’t tried yet:

  • Stream music from my huge iTunes library on my laptop’s external hard drive
  • Play games, both free and not
  • View my library of photos, either from my Mac or by uploading them (for free) into Amazon’s cloud

I’m tempted to just ditch the old TiVo HD, but there are still a few things I use it for that aren’t replaced by the Amazon Fire TV Stick.

  • Record and time shift Broncos games. I don’t see any way to play live TV on this, much less record it so I can skip through commercials.
  • Record other over-the-air TV programs, like “Nova”, travel shows, “Soul Train”, “Land of the Lost”, and “The Joy of Painting”. If there was just a service that would take over-the-air TV broadcasts and stream them online — the same way that’s done with FM and AM radio and police scanners — that would be ideal. But the one company that tried this got taken to court and lost, and later filed Chapter 11.

So for the time being, I’m using the Stick as a replacement for a laptop for watching movies and as a replacement for a radio. It’s so much more convenient than how I was doing things. But I’m not ready to get rid of the TiVo and over-the-air antenna yet.