29 June 2013

Celebrating Ben & Jerry's Capitol Chill

Ben & Jerry's Capitol Chill promo placard tilting slightly to the right [photo: GK Broeckel]

Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream  released "Capitol Chill" at an urban farm in NOMA, DC which is a mere 10 blocks from the Rotunda of the Capitol.  Capitol Chill is part of Ben and Jerry's City Churned campaign in which a local flavor is formulated  by incorporating random information (such as joggers on each side of the Mall or counting red or blue ties) as well as voting by the public to concoct the creamery creation. It kind of sounds like the crazy way that legislation is developed nowadays so it should fit right in to the District of Calamity (sic).

Washington's Capitol Chill flavor is chocolate ice cream (perfect for the so called "Chocolate City"") with divine chocolate corn-flake clusters, marshmallows and caramel swirls along with a Route 11 sweet potato chip.

Considering the weather on the afternoon of the City Churned roll out, Sweddy Balls might have been more apropos for the subtropical heat and humidity instead of Capitol Chill.  But it was best to experience the Capitol Chill flavor immediately as it was just a one day churn. But Ben and Jerry's Public Relations "Grand Poobah" Sean Greenwood pointed out that  the Elton John flavor was supposed to be a one day roll out yet it found its way unto the regular roster.

The Capitol Chill City Churned ice cream capped off a service project at the Walker Jones Farm.  This was the former site of Walker Jones Elementary School in Northwest DC, but for the last few years, it has served as an urban farm for the community.

Vine growing at Walker Jones Farm, NOMA, Washington, DC [photo: GK Broeckel]

The Ben and Jerry's inspired volunteers put in a few hours labor working the fields and harvesting onions. Sean Greenwood marveled at having a working farm so close to Capitol Hill.  The farm may not be agrarian for long, as it is part of the 80 acre $750 million NC1 public-private development project which has been developing since 2008.

One of the crops were trash can potatoes, which re-purposed a 50 gallon trash can into being a planter, which is a smart methodology for an urban farmer without lots of space but who wants freshly grown tubers.

Trash Can Potatoes at Walker Jones Farm, NOMA, Washington, DC [photo: GK Broeckel]
This Capitol Chill project by Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream harkens back to the company founders credo that business can be a source of progressive change.

While political animals may pursue different public policy goals, this Ben and Jerry's Capitol Chill project should be celebrated for minding the company mission to make great products, deliver solid profitability while working towards social change and improving the environment.

21 June 2013

Fanfare for the Fortnight For Freedom 2013

NY Archbishop Timothy Dolan
Today is the start of the second Fortnight for Freedom as urged by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops.  It is a period of  prayer, fasting, education and action to preserve the fundamental natural right that is enshrined in the Bill of Rights–the Freedom of Religion.  This effort was started last year by USCCB President New York Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan

Appreciating the First Amendment is particularly poignant as there are so many challenges to religious liberty and the freedom of conscience, such as the HHS Qualified Health Plan Mandate (a.k.a. the Contraception, Sterilization and Abortifacient rider), the exclusion of non-compliant adoption organizations who will not service same-sex couples, states which have approved , states co-ercing traditional marriage believers to conform to same-sex so called marriage, the military labeling Catholics and Evangelicals as extremist groups for upholding their moral beliefs, military chaplains being forced out of service if they did not tow the new Politically Correct line on homosexuality.

When President Obama marked Religious Freedom Day in 2013, he framed religious liberty as the “freedom to worship as we choose.”  That might have been acceptable public policy shorthand, but such a charitable assessment is not borne out by the actions of the Obama Administration.   This is especially exemplified in the HHS contraception mandate.

 After the initial hue and cry when the Obama Administration aborted religious liberty with the Obamacare requiring free contraception, Mr. Obama supposedly backtracked by rescinding this reviled regulation.  But as it turned out, the Obama Administration was just obfuscating authority regarding religious liberty.  The rule for “free” contraception  supposedly would not be applied to objecting churches themselves but would be effectively passed along by the insurance companies who were forced to pick up the tab for the unconscionable inclusions.  However, this so called contraception compromise did not cover religiously affiliated groups, like religious orders, parochial schools etc...  Moreover many of these organizations self-insure, so it still passed along these contraception costs for them.  Furthermore,  the same day that President Obama gave the public remarks about the contraception compromise, the Federal Register published the final rule for the Qualified Health Plan mandate with language that was unchanged from August 11, 2011.  Mr. Obama’s contraception compromise did allow religious organizations to delay implementation for one year, or as Cardinal Dolan joked that: "We were given an extra year to change our morals."

Pope Francis
While some may dismiss the contraception controversy as it seems like a Catholic thing, those who care about religious liberty need to delve deeper.  These regulations are defining what qualifies as a church in a narrow and strangling manner To receive First Amendment protections, the Obama Administration believes that an entity serve only who hold the same creed and serve only those professing the same faith.  Aside from the absurdness of having a government bureaucrat defining what “Church” is, this understanding of freedom of worship misses the point.  As Baltimore Archbishop William Lori points out : "Religious freedom protects more than the freedom to worship on Sunday; it also  protects our ability to live out our faith the other six days of the week."  Pope Francis also extolled: “We are not called to be part-time Christians...[W]e’re called to live our faith at every moment of every day.”

Religiously affiliated adoption agencies in three states and DC- the District of Calamity (sic)  have been forced out of business because their organizations will not work with same-sex couples. Catholic charitable organizations have been criticized for withdrawing from immigrant programs which endorse Gay Marriage.   Religious hospitals who maintain their ethical values will either need to serve their own flock or close down if they do not accede to the abortion requirements of Obamacare.

But it is not just faithful Catholics who are under assault for upholding their faith in America.  The Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School had to go to the United States Supreme Court to receive approbation to fire a called minister.  Despite the 9-0 ruling from the nation’s high court in January 2012, the Obama Administration foisted the contraception clause on America the next week.

The assault on religious liberty is being waged by more than the Obama Administration.  New York City instituted a new policy which prevented the Bronx Household of Faith and other small religious groups from renting space in public schools on weekends even though other non-religious groups could do so. Christian groups on college campuses are being denied recognition (and funding) when they require their leaders to be Christians and strive to live a chaste life as being discriminatory.

Great Maryland Seal
Rhode Island 1st Gov. Seal

The Puritans were Englishmen who were self-exiled to Holland at the beginning of the Seventeenth Century so that they could have religious liberty.  They decided to come to America so that they could raise their children as Englishmen who could have religious liberty in the New World. Roger Williams was a theologian forced out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who founded what became “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” in 1636 which separated church authority from religious authority.  Maryland was settled by Cæcilius Calvert, the 2nd Lord Baltimore and others as a refuge for English Catholics.  The Maryland Religious Tolerance Act of 1649 was  first law ever to guarantee the right to worship regardless of denomination.

Secular society has been championing a concept that America was founded on a separation of church and state and that religion was ancillary to education of the times.  While it is true that there is not a state religion, history shows the profound motivation of our founders to pursue religious liberty.   The Fortnight for Freedom should remind us of our proud history of religious liberty and point out how state incursions are strangling this fundamental freedom.  Part of this education about religious liberty should include how sweeping state regulation of secular values will end vital social services in adoption, immigration, adoption, feeding the destitute and health care by religious groups which are serious about their core beliefs.

20 June 2013

Pelosi Makes a Mockery of the Magisterium on Abortion

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12th)

In the wake of the capital convictions of notorious Philadelphia late term abortionist Kermit Gosnell, House Minority Leader Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12th) was asked a hard moral question.  A journalist who was not content to just do public relations for the former Speaker asked her what was the moral difference between the abortions that Dr. Kermit Gosnell could legally do at 23 weeks and an medical abortion performed at 28 weeks or even a live birth.

House Democrat Leader Pelosi refused to directly answer the question.  First, she snarkily noted that the journlist savored asking the hard question.  She later refused to answer the inquiry as the question had an agenda.  But in the alluvia of excuses in between, Nancy Pelosi managed to use her Catholic faith as a shield to defend why she supports what she euphemistically refers to a “woman’s right to make decisions about her reproductive health.”   

Nancy Pelosi contends that she would not answer the question since “[A]s a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this. I don't think it should have anything to do with politics." 

Father Frank Pavone published an open letter to Ms. Pelosi on behalf of the Priests for Life noting that her June 13th answer makes a mockery of the Catholic faith and is reprehensible.  Pavone elaborated: 

Fr. Frank Pavone, Priests for Life

You speak here of Catholic faith as if it is supposed to hide us from reality instead of lead us to face reality, as if it is supposed to confuse basic moral truths instead of clarify them, and as if it is supposed to help us escape the hard moral questions of life rather than help us confront them.
Whatever Catholic faith you claim to respect and practice, it is not the faith that the Catholic Church teaches. And I speak for countless Catholics when I say that it's time for you to stop speaking as if it were.
Abortion is not sacred ground; it is sacrilegious ground. To imagine God giving the slightest approval to an act that dismembers a child he created is offensive to both faith and reason.

Last year, when Rep. Pelosi pontificated that the entire Catholic Church was not against the HHS Mandate, just 43 Catholic organizations, and that these Bishops had not spoken ex cathedra, there were calls for Pelosi to be excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Ex-communication is not a punishment per se, but is a protection of a person’s immortal soul from unworthily receiving the Body and Blood of Christ and the unity of faith.

But as Pelosi has persisted in invoking the Catholic thing to justify policy positions on abortions which are so counter to the Magesterium that is creates scandal among the faithful, it might be time for San Francisco Archbishop  Salvatore Cordileone to invoke Canon 915, which denies the Eucharist to someone who obstinantly persists in grave sin.  

If Pelosi was a person of good character, she would either align her abortion positions with the Church when executing her office or follow the Priests for Life’s suggestion to be honest enough to renounce her Catholicism.    What is more likely to occur is emulating the example of Episcopalian Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori who keeps the pageantry of high church while eviscerating the underlying ideals by applying self-serving human secularist faith.

19 June 2013

Meet the New Friends of US-- Are You Syrian?

Al Jazeera reported in late December 2012 that the Assad  forces used chemical weapons.  But only last week, the Obama Administration confirmed that the Syrian regime crossed the "red line" and used chemical weapons, which justified the US arming the rebel Syrian forces.   Aside from the fact that the Syrian rebels are now dominated by Al-Qaeda affiliated forces,  who are Mr. Obama's new bosom buddies?

The Blaze shared some video shot which showed a Free Syrian Army  rebel commander disembowling an enemy troop and then eating the human heart and liver on video.  The only thing this is missing is fava beans and Chianti.

It is amazing to think that former KGB agent Russian President Vladimir Putin could have the moral high ground lecturing America for aligning itself with Syrian cannibals.

While the Bashar Assad regime is a despicable dictatorship, it did not slaughter Christians or pride itself on feasting on the entrails of enemies.  Had the United States become involved in the Syrian crisis two years ago, maybe our influence might have influenced democratic forces.  Instead, now when we go in to arm rebels with an attitude of the "Responsibility to Protect", we arm Al Qaeda affiliates who lionize cannibal commanders.  

Are you Syrian (sic)?  Really?  It might be time to push the reset button on the Obama Foreign Policy reset button.  Foggy Bottom is the location of the State Department -- this should not be a description of American foreign policy.  

18 June 2013

Patching Over the Disconnect on Cell Phone Savings

After becoming fed up for a high cell phone bill, I researched strategies when issuing a Cellular Call for Change in saving on mobile telephony bills.  Granted that people have different needs and one plan does not fit all.  But while the notion of economizing on cellular charges has an abstract appeal, many are called but few choose to mitigate mobile communication costs. 

It was clear that one impediment from consumers heeding a call for cellular change was the US cycle of receiving subsidized handsets in exchange for an iron clad two year contract.  Someone was interested in upgrading their iPhone 4S to an iPhone 5.  The cellular customer would likely stay with Verizon because of their excellent coverage but she is pressed to upgrade as there is only a limited period that the “new every two” is applicable. 

Sometimes, the desire for a shiny new techno-toy overrides everything.  A nephew got tired of using his feature phone to text so he wanted to splurge on a Google Nexus 4 from T-Mobile.  But in order to satisfy this techno sweet tooth for Android Jelly Bean meant walking away from a grandfathered $25 per month pre-paid plan through Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) Virgin Mobile.  After the sugar rush from Jelly Bean, he may be surprised that not only did his monthly bill double, but he also is responsible for taxes and fees which often add an additional 20%.

Another friend who would be  inclined to economize on cellular costs feels that switching cellular providers is impossible because of the family plan.  Nights and Weekend and mobile-to-mobile minutes cut down on metered usage.  And big buckets of shared data has a mystique.  Sprint prides itself on truly unlimited data.   But how many cell phone users consistently stream Titanic on a 4" screen?  It might well be cheaper to get separate plans with an MVNO but it pays to check your usage yourself first before switching.

There is a strange bias in the cellular industry about prepaid plans, which is epitomized in a mock Apple i-phone ad.  Sprint’s Customer Retention Represenatives employed a  strange selling point when trying to break up with them as they denigrated Sprint’s own MVNOs of Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile as being “just a prepaid plan” was supposed to be a selling point, when those MVNOs could cut my bill in half.   In response to this built up consumer bias, some prepaid cellular providers like Cricket Mobile have migrated away from branding their handsets so that others do not look scornfully at their consumers.

As I was migrating to Virgin Mobile , my beloved wife hesitated because of her love of a sliding keyboard smart-phone.  Some MVNOs like Boost Mobile and Ting (both running off of the Sprint network) allow for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) but  that “white list” can be short list as new phones are excluded. Alas, sliding keyboard smartphones have gone out of vogue so she will either have to adjust or lovingly cradle her handset for the foreseeable future.

Aside from overcoming the unwarranted bias against prepaid plans, stifling the urge to get new subsidized phones in exchange for a two year contract and feeling that a consumer NEEDS to have unlimited minutes, the wise cell phone shopper should discern what they need based upon experience and inclinations.  If you have to have coverage everyone, then pay a premium for Verizon’s excellent cellular coverage.  If you find that you unlimited data is sine qua non, then look to Sprint,

Other carriers claim that they have unlimited data but they have different understandings of the concept than a plain reading of the words. For instance, T-Mobile’s base smartphone plan touts “Unlimited Data at 4G speed”.  But in smaller print, this unlimited 4G data is only for the first half gig, after that you are governed down to 1G speed (more or less 128kbs.   For comparison purposes, think back to dial up internet, where you could surf via telephone at 54 kbs.  Today, it might work at a plodding pace for e-mails, but forget about downloading graphics much less video. 

There are some new and lesser known cell providers which might be the right choice.  Ting is a cellular phone service by Tucows using the Sprint network has a pay for what you use approach and they allow customers to have multiple devices on the same account and to use use old Sprint devices.  Another attractive feature is bundling in features like HotSpots gratis, while other carriers charge a premium (e.g. Sprint charges $19.99 for 2 GB Hotspot).  

FreedomPop is another prospective MVNO celluar provider which operates on a “Fremium” model.  When FreedomPop launches its phone service in August or September, they will offer 200 voice minutes, unlimited texting and 500 MB of data for FREE.  Moreover, FreedomPop will allow customers to use old Sprint phones.

 How can FreedomPop expect to charge nothing and give away their base plan?  They have found with their mobile hotspots and wireless home internet that about 40% of their customers pay for some upgrades.   FreedomPop’s calls will be made using 3G VOIP, which should have good sound quality.  FreedomPop’s Freemium model also relys upon social networking for advertising, so customers can earn more data or minutes by taking surveys or recommending friends.  FreedomPop also economizes by not having humans staffing their customer service outreach.  

Several parents in “my circle” have considered getting their tween children cell phones to keep in touch after school etc..  For techie involved parents, Kajeet might be a good provider.  Kajeet is a Sprint based no contract MVNO created especially with kids in mind with plenty of parental controls.  While Kajeet offers pay-as-you-go plans which start at $4.99, a worried parent might want to get the $24.99 plan, which includes 300 anytime minutes a month, unlimited texting along with a GPS locator.  The GPS Phone locator allows parents to find their kids at any time, as well as allowing parents to schedule e-mail updates on their childrens’ whereabouts.  Kajeet allows for BYOD but only for Sprint phones.   The fine print indicates that Kajeet adds a 10% transaction cost to all service plans supposedly to defray administrative costs. 

Another approach for kid communication might be thru a PayLo plan from Virgin Mobile, which can be as low as $20 a month for 400 minutes, but texts are 15 cents each and very expensive web access at $1.50 per MB.   The PayLo $30 plan has unlimited calling and unlimited messages but the very expensive $1.50 per MB for internet.  Frankly, it would make more sense to go with a low end Virgin Mobile plan which offers 300 voice minutes, but unlimited texts and unlimited internet (but after 2.5 GB, the user is throttled back to 3G speed).   Virgin Mobile USA does not allow customers to port their phones.  Most of Virgin Mobile’s  non-subsidized phones are popularly priced (as they are older handsets) but they are currently offering their non-contract  i-Phone 4S and i-Phone 4 (selling for $382 and $279 respectively).

07 June 2013

Appreciating Apple Attitudes

Apple engenders an almost fanatical level of loyalty from its consumers.   ATT solidified its market position as a strong second in the US cell phone market by being the exclusive of the iPhone for years when it first came out.  But now, nearly every cellular carrier, including MVNOs like Virgin Mobile and Ting can offer their customers the iPhone without the iron clad two year contract, albeit without a handset subsidy. 

Admittedly, I have never owned an Apple product.  Not because I am a technological Luddite, but because I refuse to pay the stupid tax.

Since Apple is a vertically integrated company, meaning that they control the design and manufacturing of phones, the marketing of the handsets as well as vet any software on their devices, everything goes through Cupertino. So one pays a premium for an Apple device, the software tends to be more expensive (because it is programmed in house or needs to be customized for Apple).  Nearly all computer peripherals needed come from Cupertino.  Apple wants to care for its own products (with so called geniuses) with exclusive (and more costly) insurance and care programs.  In addition, they wanted to corner the market on media, by forcing media purchases through I-Tunes which used to lock it with DRM.  Now it just makes it extremely inconvenient to take it out of i-Tunes.  

Apple is also  currently engaged in an anti-trust trial for conspiring with five major publishers to raise the prices of e-books and undercut Amazon.    For these reasons, I consider Apple ownership as people paying the stupid tax, however I appreciate that 18% of the cell phone market will willingly pay this premium for Apple's i-Phones because of  the perception that "it just works" at practically any price.

This vertical integration allows Apple to have a uniform user experience.  So the home screens on every i-Phone will be the same.  Steve Jobs had animus against Adobe and refused to let Flash Video on Apple devices. There may have been principled reasons about battery life which inspired Job's vendetta, but Walter Issacson's biography of Steve Jobs intimates that Jobs had sour grapes about Adobe after Adobe favored Windows based video editing products.  These design decisions  may have ensured the walled garden stability of the i-Phone but this forced i-Phone users to either jail break their phones or forgo many websites that use embedded Flash video. Now the internet imbroglio is a Flash in the pan as the internet has moved away from Flash video. 

Indubitably, Apple produces or popularizes innovative products. The GUI interface was iconic (sic) in inspiring other O/S's (such as Windows). Apple may not have invented the i-Pod, but it became widespread through their product.  The i-Phone spread like wildfire amongst tech types because it was a stylish smartphone.  The SIRI interface took consumers closer to having a cyber personal assistant. But other companies have caught up and offer more economical choices with more real world flexibility than Apple offers (like replacing batteries, adding SD memory, accessing internet sites, not being forced to  buy into i-Tunes, etc..). 

It is an interesting phenomenon that those in the Apple cult not only look down upon those who refuse to join the Apple cult but they also savagely turn on Apple enthusiasts who do not have the latest and "greatest" products.

N.B.- This is a satirical advertisement
And woe be people who those who do not buy into the Book of Jobs. 

While  the parody video is a reductio ad absurdum, it typifies the mindset of many in the Apple cult, who can not appreciate that what works for them may not be alright for others.  This device devotion to the i-Phone despite better alternatives was satirized in certain scatalogical satirical videos.

Of course, the Occupy Movement activists  in 2011 exhibited quite a rarified mindset as these grungry, unlawful protesters who identified with the 98% railing against capitalism sported shiny expensive new i-Pads and i-Phones

Although Apple is a quintessentially liberal company, the powers that be in the District of Calamity (sic) gave unwarranted condemnation to Apple for  legally minimized its taxes on non-US earnings by consolidating the funds in an Irish tax haven.  It is a lamentable paradox that a taxpayer who is following the law is condemned by liberals enough, even though they were in legal compliance.  While I choose not to pay the stupid tax by buying walled garden cellular or computing technology for a premium, I am troubled by attempts to pressure Cupertino with the power of government for not paying a stupid tax of an ambiguous "their fair share"  by a Leviathan government led by showboating liberal Senate Democrats. 

Even if we use Android, Blackberry or Windows products, it would serve well for consumers and citizens to "Think Different" and  be the rebels against conforming to "Big Brother" as was intimated in the iconic Apple 1984 MacIntosh Superbowl ad.

h/t:  thejoyoftech 

03 June 2013

Lamenting Aspects of Senator Lautenberg's Legacy

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) in US Capitol complex

Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) died today at age 89 from complications from pneumonia. Lautenberg was the last Senator who served in combat during World War II.  Lautenberg was elected to the Senate in 1982 and served three terms before retiring in 2000.  Lautenberg was enlisted as a last minute candidate in October 2002 after Senator Robert Torecelli (D-NJ) was forced to withdraw from the race due contributions from a businessman with North Korean connections.  After great controversy, the New Jersey Supreme Court allowed this extra-legal candidate swap and Lautenberg beat Republican Doug Forrester by 54%-45%.  In Lautenberg’s second senatorial incarnation, Lautenberg won re-election in 2008 and had indicated that he did not plan to run again in 2014.

Fox News Channel political contributor Julie Roginsky offered laurels to Lautenberg, to whom she was a senior political strategist,  for the man who saved thousand of lives from drunk drivers and secondhand smoke as well as banning those convicted of domestic violence from exercising their Second Amendment rights. Prior to the Soviet Union's collapse, right center radio commentator Hugh Hewitt pointed out that Senator Lautenberg was instrumental at helping Soviet Jewry escape the Iron Curtain.  Indubitably, Lautenberg was a quintessential modern liberal who approved of abortion and  gun grabbing.  

While I appreciate Julie Roginsky’s adoration for her old political boss, it seemed that almost all of his accomplishments and effective political presence occurred before he retired in 2000.  Aside from acting as a leading voice against the George W. Bush Administration’s practice of engaging columnists like Armstrong Williams to publicize policies like “No Child Left Behind”, to this engaged political observer, Lautenberg’s legacy was being a reliable progressive vote.  Senator Lautenberg 2.0's biggest accomplishment seemed to have been a “Campus Fire Safety Act” prompted by a fire at Seaton Hall fire, that was then attached to a Higher Education Reauthorization Act in 2008.

To me, Lautenberg’s legacy is a reminder of how Democrats have consistently tried to manipulate election law when it suits their purpose and insure election.  Under New Jersey law, Democrats missed the deadline for replacing a candidate, saying a candidate who wants to get off the ballot must do so at least 51 days before the election, and a replacement must be selected at least 48 days before the vote.   Toricelli dropped out 36 days before voters went to the polls and the then 78 year old Lautenberg was switched in 35 days before the election.  No matter to the Democrat dominated New Jersey Supreme Court, which rationalized the substitution  by invoking “the general intent” of election law, acting “for the public interest” to preserve a vigorous “two party system.”  The problem is that none of that lexicon existed in the public statute. 

This was not the only time in the last dozen years which Democrats have manipulated election law to serve their purposes.  Die hard Democrats insist that President George W. Bush was “selected, not elected” because of Florida recount in the extremely close 2000 Presidential race.  Of course, they forget that their legal remedy involved selective recounts of key counties (which were Democrat strongholds), which was no-where in the law.  

Carnahans at Gov. Mel Carnahan's (D-MO) Memorial Oct. 2000
The year 2000 also had some strange Senatorial electioneering.  Governor Mel Carnahan (D-MO) was running against incumbent Senator John Ashcroft.  Mr. Carnahan was killed in a plane crash on the campaign trail three weeks before the election along with his son.  Senator Ashcroft suspended campaigning during this period and the Acting Governor Roger B. Wilson vowed to appoint the widow Jean Carnahan if her husband won posthumorously.  By a narrow margin, Missouri elected a dead-man to the Senate, defeating Ashcroft.  Senator Ashcroft did not contest the election even though the winning candidate did not “live” in the state.  The Senate seat was declared vacant and Mrs. Carnahan was appointed the U.S. Senator (D-MO).  She sought to retain her seat in 2002, but was narrowly defeated by now Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO).

Ex President Clinton & ex VP Walter Mondale at Wellstone Memorial 
In another airplane tragedy, the charismatic progressive Senator Paul Wellstone (Democrat Farm Labor-MN) died in a crash with his wife and child on October 25, 2002, just days before the 2002 general election.  Following Minnesota law, Wellstone’s name was stricken from the ballot and the DFL chose former Carter Administration Vice President Walter Mondale to run against Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman for the Senate seat.  It was commendable that state law was followed in this election exigency.  However, Wellstone’s memorial, which was nationally televised, was turned into a partisan pep rally (Vice President Dick Cheney was asked not to attend by the Wellstone family).  Minnesota voters narrowly elected Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) who served one term before losing the 2008 re-election by 312 votes and three recounts to now Senator Al Franken (D-MN).

Sen. Paul Wellstone (DFL-MN)
I can admire politicians from the other end of the political spectrum.  I have admired the intellect the integrity and the iconiclast inclinations  of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY).  While I do not come from a progressive bent, I appreciated the happy warrior vibe of Senator Paul Wellstone.  What I lament is circumventing election law to achieve partisan political ends.  

So despite all of the good works that Lautenberg lovers may lionize during his first stint in the Senate, this political animal laments that  Lautenberg’s legacy is being remembered as a political hack who was used to eviscerate election law.  After being ushered into office again,  the best that can be said about the later Lautenberg is that he was a reliable liberal vote. At worst, the electoral  corruption stinks of the worst of New Jersey and is a reminder of how broken the American electoral process seems to be. 

02 June 2013

Choosing Cellular Competition–A Sweet Young Ting or a Virgin Mobile?

Cellular telephony allows us to always be in touch telephonically, to act as a digital music player, to have a camera and video cam at the ready, as well as potentially carrying around a computer in the deceptive disguise  of a smart-phone.  Some foolish souls will risk life and limb to keep their cell phones. But these ordinary conveniences come at a cost.  Today, a sizable major portion of Americans household budgets are dedicated to communication costs.  People become so caught up at the prospect of a shiny new telephonic toy that they lose sight of the monthly costs associated with this privilege.  

Recently, I wrote "A Cellular Call for Change” to consider how the mobile telephony industry in America is on the cusp of shifting away from highly subsidized handsets with expensive iron clad two year contracts to more of a BYOD marketplace which offers lower rates if you foot the bill for your phone.  The article urged the savvy consumer to know yourself and investigate thoroughly. 

Well, I took my own advice.  I dug deep into a spreadsheet about my household’s cell-phone usage while doing an intense analysis of cellular providers plans and quirks.  The results were somewhat surprising.

My household has been with Sprint for nearly six years.  We are well out of contract with our current smart-phones (a HTC Evo and a Samsung Epic) but we have been happy with the service, aside from the cost.  Since our handsets are in excellent condition, there is neither a need nor desire to upgrade phones, especially in return for a costly 24 month contract. 

Even though we were initially sold on Sprint because of the 7PM Nights and Weekends, a hard nosed analysis of usage showed the most of the minutes used stemmed from free Mobile-to-Mobile calling.  Yet including the Anytime, Nights and Weekends as well as Mobile-to-Mobile minutes, we never broke the 1000 minute total threshold (and one of the handsets consistently used most of the minutes).  Our texts were under 1000 total.  Data was the variable.  While it was nice to have the certainty of Unlimited Minutes, my household was not a data hog. There were a few times over the course of the year when we used 3 Gig of data a month between the phones, most months hovered just over 2 Gigs combined.  There were few months when mobile data usage was above 3 Gig and one month at 4 Gig.  

Most of our time is in the District of Calamity (sic) or Between the Beltways.  But much of our travel takes us to southwestern Virginia where cellular service can be persnickety, and 4G coverage is virtually non-existent. Our experience is that Sprint Network voice and data in the destination area is good for us without paying the high fees for Verizon’s stellar coverage.  

One would think that cellular companies would be keen on keeping their customers, especially those customers who are not servicing a subsidized phone anymore. Both Verizon and ATT have churn rates below 1%, while Sprint has a 1.69% churn and T-Moblile sports an ugly 2.10% rate. But such competitive spirit was not shown by our current carrier, as a couple of calls to Sprint’s Customer Service proved otherwise.

These Sprint Customer Service Reps were supposed to be staffing a retention line.  But other than being thanked for our long time loyalty and being reminded of a current rate, we were not given any incentives to stay.  Since we did not need a new low cost phone in exchange for a two year contract, they could do nothing for us. It is infuriating to pay a $10 a month surcharge per handset for smart- phones well after these extra costs were long since covered.  Worse yet, the CSRs gave conflicting and incorrect information while running down their Mobile Virtual Network Operator or MVNO competition (including Boost and Virgin Mobile which Sprint owns)..  The  CSR insisted that we could only save $30 a month by switching to a MVNO despite my research that we could save nearly thrice that amount. 

My research led me to two potential choices–a sweet young Ting (sic) or a Virgin Mobile.   Ting.com is a  MVNO owned by Tucows which operates off of the CDMA Sprint Network. While Ting has only been offering prepaid cellular service since February 2012, their parent company Tucows has been around since 1994 which gives it some credence of stability.  Ting’s distinctive feature is use what you pay for billing.   

Ting's pricing is given in tiers from XS to XXL for voice, texting and data and consumers can mix and match on a monthly basis.  If one estimates too high for any given service, Ting will credit the customer for the next month.  Ting does not charge for hotspots, which is a hot point for switching from Sprint which charges $29.99 per line for the privilege.  One other welcomed feature from Ting is a Customer Service line which operates during extended weekday business hours based in Canada, so a customer can understand what is being said to them, eh?  Ting does not subsidize handsets, but allows for BYOD (Bring Your Own Devices).

Ting seems to charge full freight on the new cell phones that they sell (even compared to other prepaid cellular services), but they have links for getting refurbished handsets as well as allowing one to BYOD.  While many all you can eat cellular consumers could have if they were charged based on usage, it seems that Ting has slightly higher rates for add-on data.  For instance, if a consumer exceeds 3Gig of Data, more data is charged at $22 a Gig.  If a consumer watches lots of mobile video or has cut the phone cord at the house, an unlimited plan may be a better way to go. 

For our household's purposes, the other cellular player is Virgin Mobile.  Virgin Mobile is a quasi-MVNO which is owned by Sprint and is their mid-ranged prepaid cellular service.  Virgin Mobile does not have the sexiest and newest smart-phones but their plans are quite attractively priced.   Virgin Mobile rates have three tiers.  
For $55 a month, one can have unlimited voice, texting and data.   The $45 a month plan has 1200 Voice  minutes, unlimited Texting and Data A $35 a month plan has 300 Voice minutes, unlimited Texing and Data.

The caveat to unlimited data is 2.5 Gig at up to 4G speed, then a consumer is throttled back to 3G speed until the next billing period. If a consumer uses a Virgin Mobile hotspot, it is an additional $15 a month.  Although it is damn near impossible to speak to a human being through Virgin Mobile’s toll free number, the cyber telephone tree can yield information as well as the website.  Moreover, bills can be paid at plethora of locations, including 7-11 along with the web. 

While there has been conflicting information, Virgin Mobile does allow some Sprint CDMA devices to be ported to their MVNO.   Not all phones can be used thru Virgin Mobile as hotspots, so 4G Wimax phones are fine but the new to Sprint 4G LTE handsets can not be used in such a profligate way. 

Practically speaking, switching to Virgin Mobile does requiring replacing one handset and separate billing for each line.  At this time, Virgin Mobile is offering the Samsung Victory– a mid ranged Galaxy class handset with 4G LTE capabilities– at a reasonable rate.

Although I can conjure scenarios in which opting for Ting would save slightly more money than Virgin Mobile and offer free hotspots.  But for those out of pocket times when mobile data is key, a cost effective tactic would be to use a no to low cost external hotspot from FreedomPop.  It takes two for that plan to work and that may be too confusing to implement.  So the lowest priced option might not be the best way for my household.

Since most of the heavy mobile data usage would be in areas which only have 3G data coverage, it would not matter if the 4G was throttled back.  The hotspot could be turned on for the months when significant time is spent at the rural locale.

So as it stands, Virgin (Mobile) comes out on top in the head to head cellular competition against Ting.   Either way, it will cut our cell phone bill in half. The costs incurred to switch to Virgin Mobile to buy a new handset would be recouped in two months of savings viz-a-viz Sprint.  But I’ll still hold onto my old HTC Evo, as a backup and in case I switch again to a BYOD MVNO. 

Thomas Sowell once opined that “There are no such thing as solutions, but only trade offs.”  So to make the right choice, a savvy consumer should run the numbers themselves, determine if their carrier gives good reception where the phone will be used the most and determine how he will use cellular service.  If you are just texting, Ting charges $9 a month with 1000 texts or an SMS happy user $17 a month for 4000 texts. 

Virgin Mobile hypnotically suggests that one should "retrain your brain."  Some might find all of the choices confusing and headache inducing.  But think about all of the aspirin one can easily afford from your monthly cell phone savings!