Category Archives: Wally of the Week

Christmas in… August?

Just got this in my email:

 

My coverage does not run out until the end of the year, but they are trying to get me to pay up now; more than four months before the bill is due.

*SIGH*… They do this every year.

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SSA? SOL!

Or: When Security Isn’t.

I recently got an email from the good folks at the Social Security Administration (SSA). They have added a feature that requires you to type in a Security code that they text to your phone every time you want to log in to your “My Social Security” account.

SSA SOL

On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing. But it isn’t. Let me count the ways…

  1. Texts are inherently insecure. They can be read by your network operator and phone provider. Due to the sheer number of texts passing through the system, this is not such a problem when a one-off secret is transmitted via text (say to validate a new device), but requiring this every time you want to log in is ridiculous.
  2. Not everyone has free texts. In order to keep my unlimited data plan (Thanks Verizon!) I have to pay for every text I send or receive. As a result I have texts disabled and use data-based chat apps (like Signal and Threema) to text with friends and family. This means that I cannot use any text-based system.
  3. It’s a cheap solution. Texting codes is not security done right, it is security done cheap. There are better ways to do this; one is to use a code generator like Google Authenticator. Another is to use a hardware token like a Yubikey.
  4. You have no choice: “If you do not have a text-enabled cell phone or you do not wish to provide your cell phone number, you will not be able to access your my Social Security account.” Translation: Do it our way or leave. Email or voice notification would work fine… but they aren’t offered.

Only the Government could get away with something like this; any private organization that had such a “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude would soon find themselves shuttered. Some other options would be a good idea. Even the option to eschew two-factor authentication entirely is a valid choice if the user is advised of the risks.

Where’s the “Give-me-my-money-back” button?

The Smell of Desperation

I recently had occasion to rent a car at a nearby car rental establishment. I noticed something in a corner of the contract that I had never seen before:

20150807_142152

When I asked about this, I was told that this was new; they were instructed that if the customer had recently arrived by plane, they would have to charge them an airport tax, as if they had rented the car at the airport location. Since it is the state, not the rental company, that profits from these taxes, we can safely assume that this was the Government’s doing.

The logic behind this “new tax” is tenuous indeed. I had always thought that Airport taxes were charged at airport locations, and whether or not you just got off a plane was irrelevant. Apparently I was mistaken. So by this logic, if I drive to the airport and rent a car there, I should not have to pay airport taxes, since I did not just get off a plane. Somehow, I doubt that I would get out of paying that tax.

You can almost smell the State’s desperation to find some new untapped stream of revenue. I can just imagine some bright spark in Frankfort probably said something like “Hey, sometimes people fly in and rent cars elsewhere to get out of paying airport tax! We need to do something about this!“. Oh no you don’t: Last time I looked, tax avoidance was not the same as tax evasion, and it was completely legal.

So this is not an extension of an existing tax, this is a new tax – and one that the prospective purchaser can avoid paying by simply initialing “True“.

Given that this it a tax that can be easily avoided by lying, I wonder how much additional revenue it will generate?

Fake?

I recently purchased a replacement battery from an eBay seller. I was looking for a NFC battery, and that was the item pictured, so I ordered one.

When the item arrived, I realized that it was NOT an NFC-equipped battery. I notified the seller and his response was t#Fair enough. I did a little research and found that a lot of fake batteries are sold as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer, in this case Samsung).

Why do they do this? Mainly because an OEM battery is worth $10+ (in the stores, such a battery is about $30), while an aftermarket one is worth less than $5. So there is money to be made in faking it. I also discovered several tests that would allow me to tell if a Samsung battery was genuine.

Test#1: The Back of the Label

In this video, the author claims that the back of the label of an authentic OEM battery is a pewter color – the same color as the front of the label – while the back of label of a counterfeit battery is a silvery color.

label color

Verdict; FAIL

Also note that the label of the original battery opens from the left, while the eBay one opens from the right. While not conclusive, this is certainly cause for concern.

Seller’s response: “We get these direct from our actual Samsung distributor which is our Samsung supplier and they jut informed me that the batteries come from different manufacturers and not all them will have the same information on them…” Oooo-kay…

Test #2: Serial number printed on the battery

According to Samsung, all batteries have a serial number printed on the battery under the label. You can see this in the battery on the left. There was no such serial number on the battery on the right.

printing

Verdict: FAIL

Test #3: QR-Code

Samsung batteries have a QR Code printed on them. Both batteries had a QR-Code, but only the code on the the original battery that came with my phone was readable. The code on the eBay battery could bot be read no matter how hard I tried. Verdict: FAIL

Test #4: Model and Serial numbers printed on the label.

I contacted Samsung and asked them to help me with the model and serial numbers. According to them, the model number printed on the eBay battery was a proper Samsung Part number, but the part in question was an NFC-equipped battery – which this battery was not. Samsung’s response was to “contact the suppler”, which is a polite and legally-safe way of saying that they did not believe that it was genuine. Verdict: FAIL

The seller offered me a full refund.

What do you think?

The Large Print Giveth…

Got this in my inbox:

one

The Large Print Giveth…

One day I was feeling peckish and decided that Pizza would be nice. So I clicked on the big friendly-looking “Order Now” button. On selecting my local Pizza Hut Emporium, I got this interesting little pop-up:

Two

…the small print taketh away.

Would I like to check out their current offfers? Er… no.

No.

HELL NO!

Way to go Pizza Hut! You just drove me straight into the arms of the competition. Papa John’s, here I come…

They can’t park, either

I have often remarked – mostly in jest – that Hoosiers can’t drive. Like most generalizations, it is mostly untrue; some of my best friends hail from the great state of Indiana.

On a recent road trip, however, I stopped at a service station to fill up, and snapped a couple of pictures. Five vehicles, all with Indiana plates (anonymized for privacy), not one of whom could get their vehicles between the lines.

Here we go again

It’s that time of the year again; Apple announces a new product – in this case the new iPad – and the “gotta-have-it” mob collectively lose their ever-lovin’ minds. They get all excited and caught up in the stampede to have the latest-and-greatest new toy.

All for a product that isn’t actually out yet.

The hucksters are out in force too, hurrying to the front of the line, then offering that place for a small fee.

And so are the shady operators who buy them up and ship them off to countries where the new shiny isn’t out yet. The worst one is China, whic is ironic, considering that the iPad was made there, shipped here, and then shipped back there. Ain’t globalization wonderful?

It’s not all bad news, though. Many of those happily forking over between $500 and $800+ for a new iPad will be upgrading from their older model, which means that they will be trying to unload the old one on Craigslist, This means that those of us who have our heads screwed on right can snag a previous-generation iPad for half the price of a new one.

Me? I’m perfectly happy with my Nook Color running MIUI Android. For $130 + a microSD chip and a couple of hours of my time I have 80% of the capability of an iPad for 20% of the price.

How to go Bankrupt

My mother is spending a month with us. She flew in last Saturday… and her arms are still tired. Since our local “International” airport… well… isn’t, her flight came in through Miami.

The two-leg flight was so exhausting that she asked me to change the flight so that she gets a few days in Miami to rest up.

I spoke to the airline. They wanted to charge me a $150 change fee, along with the extra cost of the internal flight to Miami, total: $300.

I than asked if I could arrange a flight to Miami with another airline and cancel the first leg of the trip. They wanted $150 for this.

Wait a minute… I am offering to give them a seat on an internal flight that they get to sell again, and they want to charge me for the privilege?

You betcha; they gave me some guff about the internal flight being a “feeder” flight (translation: a seat on a flight that nobody wants), and they actually had the gall to state that the direct London-to Miami return flight costs more than the two-leg London-Miami-Louisville-Miami-London flight.

Huh?

Anyway, there was no changing their minds; even though I am actually giving them something and aking for nothing in return the $150 “change fee” is set in stone.

Sheesh, what a way to run a business. With an attitude like that, it’s a wonder that they haven’t gone bankrupt.

The airline? American.

Elizabeth Warren gets it wrong

Over the past few years,  I have watched examples of Elizabeth Warren’s plain speaking and her willingness to stand up for the downtrodden with admiration. However, a recent quote of hers has got me to thinking, and now to writing. Here’s the quote:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

It makes for a great soundbite, but I have to disagree.

Ms. Warren’s central thesis seems to be that every successful business somehow owes society some kind of a debt. Sorry, but… no. It sounds quite altruistic and wonderful, but business doesn’t work like that. A business owes:

  • Its suppliers (for the goods and services they provided)
  • Its creditors (for loans outstanding)
  • Its employees (the agreed salaries and benefits)
  • Its customers (the goods and services promised)
  • Its shareholders (a share of the profit)

The person who built a factory took a huge risk, investing their time, money and treasure to build the business instead of finding a nice safe job with a steady paycheck working for someone else like the rest of us. We did not take that risk. Neither did the government. And yet Ms. Warren believes that we are somehow entitled to a share of the reward.

Most businesses fail within the first five years. But against the odds, this one succeeded, they employed people; from the factory workers to the truck drivers to the sales force to the managers – and all of those paid taxes. The workers were already educated — and if they weren’t, many businesses offer educational grants, internships etc. to grow the skills they need. The Police were most likely already on the payroll.#The roads, the infrastructure that Ms. Warren mentions were almost always already in place; if they required special roads or rail-heads to be built specifically for them, she might have a case. But otherwise… no. Also, Ms. Warren failed to mention that the infrastructure benefits the rest of us as well; we, the people, drive on the roads too — roads which, by the way, are paid for by Gas Taxes (assuming the Government aren’t misdirecting the funds). So her “no-man-is-an-island” theory falls kind of flat.

But let’s say she’s right – the business should be taxed more. But taxation does not occur in a vacuum, it has to come out of someone’s pocket. And when the tax bill arrives, it means that some money won’t get spent elsewhere. So the owner/manager has two ways to make that happen; cut back on expenditure (cancel the new plant or maybe fire some employees) or raise prices. And that’s where it all falls down.

This is a classic example of “Small-pie” thinking; that there is a fixed amount of money, and when somebody makes a dollar, somebody else has to lose one. In the real world, this is simply not true; most businesses create value where there was none before. And that is what makes the economy grow.

Should the rich pay more taxes? Perhaps, though I believe that the problem is not the tax rate, but the myriad loopholes that the gang-of-mostly-lawyers that we elected put into place. But so should some of the 51% of taxpayers who pay no income tax – and half of those pay negative tax (they get money FROM the government, at the expense of the rest of us). After all, they enjoy roads, markets, products and services as well, so why shouldn’t they pay their “fair share”?

At the other end of the economic scale, Warren Buffett may complain that he pays less tax than his secretary… but I didn’t hear anything about him writing out billion-dollar checks to the Treasury. He didn’t fire his accountants — the ones who are paid to look for loopholes — either. And Bill Gates is saving lives by the thousand across the globe. I wonder if he would be doing that if we had taken some of his earnings “for the greater good”.

Looking at Ms. Warren’s bio, it seems to me that she has never worked in the “real world”, and this kind of “Ivory Tower” thinking now makes sense. If she had invested years of her life building a business in the real world, perhaps her opinion might be different. But she is, after all, running for election to a Senate seat.

There is a grave disturbance in the Force. Ms. Warren, your roots are showing.

And they’re Socialist.

“Sicko” – A review

I recently watched Michael Moore’s diatribe on Healthcare in the US and around the world. As someone who has experienced the British National Health Service first-hand, I feel that I have something to say on this matter.

The first few minutes of the movie sets the stage:

  • Democrats Good
  • Republicans Bad
  • Cheney+Bush Evil
  • Hillary is The Messiah…

Sorry Michael, but your politics are showing. I almost gave up on the movie at this point.

Fortunately, it gets better once Michael moves beyond politics and points out that real change in this country will not be possible as long as Big Medicine (Doctors and Hospitals), Big Health Insurance and Big Pharma are running the game. That is a good point, but he has no solution.

Moore then takes us on a trip around the world, looking at the healthcare systems in Canada, France and Britain. He makes a big deal about the fact that these countries all have free healthcare, but conveniently sidesteps the fact that they fund their health systems with additional taxes. Instead, he looks at the lifestyles that doctors lead in that country (cars, houses etc), which is a bit of a red herring. He makes a big deal that a Doctor in London lives in a half-million-dollar house while forgetting to mention that London is the most expensive city in the world, where the cost of half-way-decent housing starts at a quarter-millon and goes up from there. The same Doctor living in New York City would also live in a Half-Million Dollar house. Your point, Michael?

Even worse, he also conveniently forgets to point out that Canada, Britain and France have long-term problems with funding their health services. An economy that produces little and provides services such as pensions and healthcare will tax its producers until they give up or leave, at which point the economy will collapse. Ask me how I know.

When it comes to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), Mr. Moore is either being disingenuous or he is not paying attention. He mentions that Doctors are paid by the number of patients they have on their books, and get bonuses for getting people to stop smoking, but he fails to mention that the doctor is penalized for sending patients to hospital. He also forgets to mention that some surgical procedures have waiting lists that are months or years in length – and when the Government set guidelines limiting the time spent on those waiting lists, the Doctors were forced to use unofficial waiting lists to get onto the official ones.

He forgets to mention that many drugs and treatments available to patients in the US are unavailable to NHS patients — because they are too expensive. He also forgets to mention the number of people each year who die while waiting for treatment from Socialized Healthcare. It is clear that Michael is not interested in telling the whole truth; just the side of it that fits with his preconceived notions (socialized healthcare=good, free market=bad, even though almost all new innovations come from free-market economies) . Given the choice between dying because I cannot afford a life-saving treatment and dying because some Government Bureaucrat thinks I’m not worth saving, I’ll take the former every time.

Riddle me this, Michael: Who do you trust more: Big Medicine/Pharma/Insurance or the Government? Given their proven track record with Medicare, Social Security and the Post Office, do you really want to trust them with our health as well?

Yes, the Canadians, the British and the French have Socialized Healthcare that works — for now. But they have their limitations, which you have cleverly avoided facing head-on. And if we do what they’ve done, we’ll get what they’re getting.

Does this mean our system is perfect? No, but the simple fact is that we cannot afford the Medicare that we have in the long term; we certainly can’t afford Socialized Healthcare for everyone else. The only solution that will work involves getting one or more of the players involved to take a pay cut. Good luck with that…

The good news is that the US has the best healthcare system that money can buy.

The bad news is that the US has the best healthcare system that money can buy.