This story began in January, when I was cleaning my office and rearranging its spaghetti nest of wires. I noticed the cable modem that I pay Time Warner Cable $7 per month for and it dawned on me that I could save that fee by buying my own modem.

So I bought an ARRIS/Motorola SB6121 Surfboard, much like the one Time Warner uses, from Staples for about $60 and returned the rented unit.

The new modem requires registering its MAC number, so I called Time Warner to provide the information. The modem worked for a day and then wouldn’t connect; a second call to Time Warner to re-register solved that problem. I was pleased to be saving the monthly fee, as inconsequential as the savings were, but more than that, finding a way to fight back at the cable industry’s continuously increasing fees.

But a couple of days later, I noticed that the modem would disconnect from the cable network and I’d be unable to reach the Internet. The outage lasted for a minute or two, then the modem would reset itself and work again. The power never went out, just the connection. Over the next few weeks when it became more of an annoyance, occurring from five to 10 times a day, so I finally called Time Warner.

The cable guy checked the signal at the modem and found it to be a little weak. He went outside and replaced a splitter, and thought that was the cause. He also checked the modem and said it was on Time Warner’s approved list. But the problem still continued.

Another visit from another cable guy, who thought the problem was caused by my sending too much data. He wasn’t more specific other than to say I must be sending videos or someone else is accessing my network and doing that, even though I never send videos. But I reset my passwords to increase security.

Still the problem continued and seemed to get worse. Every afternoon it would fail several times an hour.

Another call, another visit. This time the cable guy replaced the wiring from the light pole on the street to the house. No change; drops continued.

I then thought it could be a result of a defective modem, so I exchanged it at Staples, reregistered it, and really hoped it was the cause. But, still the problem continued. I contacted the modem manufacturer and the customer support person looked at all of the hidden diagnostics for the modem on my computer, and assured me it could not be the modem, and must be a problem with the cable signal failing.

Just to be sure that my house voltage wasn’t a problem, I bought a backup power supply (UPS) for $150 that eliminated any voltage fluctuations, should they exist. But the drops continued even with the replacement modem.

You can imagine how annoying this was becoming — several months of intermittent outages with no idea of the cause. I was really getting annoyed at Time Warner. Why couldn’t they fix this and why should it take so long to figure it out? I began looking for other Internet services, but all I could find that served my neighborhood was AT&T’s U-verse service, which had lower connection speeds and just fair reviews.

I called Time Warner once more and reached a supervisor, Bob, who was sympathetic but equally baffled. He came to my home with a three-man crew to test everything that could be tested, going from room to room, wherever there was a TV. They measured every connection, checking the data going out and coming in, working for three hours.

They found that that something was emitting noise from inside my home out to the main cable line and looked for the cause of it. They checked the wiring from the connection at the telephone pole to the house, along the walls, in the attic and in the crawl space beneath the house. They crawled into spaces that were never meant for humans. They found a corroded connection in the crawl space that had likely been sitting in the dirt for years. They replaced it and the noise on the line was eliminated.

Could this have been the cause? We all were hoping. Bob said he’d check in with me every day, and true to his word, he did. The first day there was no dropping of the Internet. I was cautiously optimistic. But then the next day there was one occurrence, and the next day more. A week later it was clear that the problem was still unsolved.

When I spoke with the Bob and his partner Mark, both seemed as frustrated as I was and suggested they replace my modem with one of theirs. Sure, why not? And it was done the next day.

Again he called every day to see if the problem was solved.

A day went by with no dropouts; a second day and a third. It’s now been three weeks and my connection has never gone down. Yes, the problem appears to be finally solved, six months from when it began. And it was the modem I had installed.

The moral of this story? Leave well enough alone and beware of unintended consequences, particularly when you tamper with technology that’s working. That elusive $7 savings was not worth the aggravation it caused or the money that I spent on the back-up power supply. But I do have much more respect for Time Warner and the problems and people they deal with.


Collecting and analyzing our personal data continues to grow exponentially. It’s not just the NSA, but businesses such as Google and Facebook, whose growth depends on learning more and more about us and everything we do.

We used to assume that it was OK to provide some basic information to these companies in exchange for using their apps. How cool was Google Maps that we let follow us in exchange for reporting back traffic and routing information? Or Google Now for checking our calendar and telling when it was time to leave for the airport? And by giving access to our address book, Facebook allowed us to connect with lost friends and create a social network we could check in with every day. We marveled at these services.

At first, we were given ample warnings and ways to opt out from being tracked. The companies always said the information was gathered for their own use and would never be shared. But the value of this data and the need to please shareholders has caused Google and Facebook to make changes in their privacy policies over time to a point where virtually everything we do is now accessible to them.

No longer are we able to opt in to allow us to be tracked. Instead, we must opt out — but only if we can find the near-hidden pages and cope with the confusing language. When anyone criticizes what the companies do, their stock answer is “it’s in the agreement we signed.” Yes, a 9,000-word document of legalese in a font size too small to read that would take hours to digest.

But now, thanks to failed government oversight, overly ambitious startups and investors — many with little ethical grounding — and the lure of rewards from data mining, hundreds of companies are gathering even more personal information. It’s become a currency they can sell to data brokers and use to target us with advertising or something worse.

Facebook has moved from just monitoring Facebook activities to monitoring everything we do on our devices. They can now track what sites we go to, what we buy, who we’re meeting with, and with this information can easily figure out our income and age. They sell this data to advertisers to better target us with relevant material. Companies can use even our income level to decide what price to charge when we make a purchase.

It was revealed last week that Facebook conducted a huge psychological experiment on 700,000 users. Behavioral scientists manipulated the data feeds by filtering out either the positive or negative posts to see how customers reacted when they had either more positive or more negative feeds.

Some dismiss it as just market research that’s conducted on many products and advertising campaigns, but it touches an area that’s very uncomfortable for many. How would you like to be the subject of an experiment without even being asked to participate?

Google, which is already monitoring us through the Google apps we use and mostly love, is aggressively expanding its reach into our personal activities at home. It has purchased two companies, Nest and DropCam, which have products that can monitor our home and us. Nest’s thermostat is connected to our home’s WiFi network to provide information such as whether we are home, as well as the temperature and the weather outside. It takes little imagination to see that it won’t be long before they monitor our conversations, ostensibly to be there to help.

Google will tell you that much of this is being done to make advertising more effective. They are doing you a favor by showing ads of interest. I’m skeptical that online advertising really even works all that well. After all, do we really want to be interrupted with a pop-up page while we’re trying to do something else?

I ignore most ads. A few months ago I didn’t and I regret that. I clicked on a display ad that offered a free sample of men’s jockey shorts only to find that I needed to fill out a long questionnaire, which I chose not to do. From then on for months and months, on nearly every site I went to, there was a pair of underpants displayed on every page. It followed me between two computers, an iPhone and an iPad. It was really, really annoying.

Does an advertiser really expect that I appreciate being interrupted while trying to click on a news story? Does that advertiser expect to get me interested on the 10th or 100th time I see its ad? No, I become more annoyed that I can’t get rid of their stalking. And now more advertising is being moved to mobile, where an interruption is even worse.

So what can you do to provide a little more protection?

• If it’s unclear that an app cannot make money through upgrades or in-app sales, hesitate to install it. It will likely make money through some other way, such as selling personal information.

• Before installing an app, look at what the company is asking for. Does it make sense that a game app needs to have access to your address book and phone number? If its list of requests makes no sense, don’t install it and let the company know that.

• Don’t agree to sign in to any third-party sites using your Facebook or Google credentials. You’ll risk giving them access to more personal data.

• Never provide permission when requested to allow an application to collect and send back information, even when it says it’s to improve the product. It’s another way of saying “we want to track you.”

• Never fill out survey windows that pop up when you go to a new site. I’m amazed at how many times one opens and asks me to rate a website that I’ve seen for only 3 seconds.

• Install Adblock on each browser that you use. It’s a free extension that removes all ads. That’s how I eliminated the underwear ads.

Now, I’m still not planning on giving up Google or Facebook — I get a lot of utility from both — but I will continue to tread with caution and take care in avoiding disseminating my personal information.


I was on a panel last week at Stanford University that was part of an educational program put on by True Ventures, an early-stage venture company. It a program for founders of their companies involved in developing new products. Each of us on the panel was asked to offer three pieces of advice involving the development of new products.

Ryan Block was the moderator and former editor of Engadget, one of the first and most successful tech blogs, and co-founder of gdgt, an electronics reviews and shopping site. He’s now a product executive at AOL, which acquired both companies.

Ryan’s advice was:

• Seek balance.

• Just say no.

• Your product should do less, not more.

He explained that you will always have decisions to make that will seem in conflict. The challenge is to find the right balance between alternatives. One example is making a decision based on financial requirements versus using your instinct to make your product more appealing.

For example, do you add cost to a display to make it easier to read versus saving several dollars to improve margins? The development process is filled with these decisions that often require good instincts, and there’s not always a right answer. His advice is to choose and move on, rather than turn each decision into a complicated evaluation.

There are often times when you, leading the project development, will need to say no about something that others favor. You can’t make a decision to please others, and saying no may be uncomfortable, but it’s an important trait to learn if you are ultimately responsible for the product. Decisions are rarely democratic.

He also noted that great products often do less than more. Piling on feature after feature adds complexity and may actually make the product more difficult to use. One of the hardest things for engineers to do is to leave out the unimportant. The key is figuring out just what is unimportant.

Michael Simmons, the first panelist, is co-founder of Flexibits, a company that’s developed one of the most successful calendar apps for the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers called Fantastical.

His advice was:

• Identify problems that truly bother you.

• Focus on key differentiators.

• Create solutions your users can’t live without.

Michael developed Fantastical ( because deficiencies in Apple’s resident calendar, iCal, bothered him and prevented him from working the way he wanted to. So he began with a list of what he wanted for himself and used that to develop his product.

One of the product’s key differentiators is its use of natural language processing that allows you to type a sentence to create an action. For example type “Lunch with John next Tuesday” would create an appointment on your calendar Tuesday at noon. This differentiator immediately sets his product apart from iCal.

The Mac version has a pull-down calendar that further sets it apart, allowing you to check your schedule or calendar or entering an appointment without opening a new window These are among several features that users say they can’t live without.

Nate Weiner, co-founder and CEO of Pocket, was the second panelist and his advice was:

• Build something you care about.

• Define “why” first.

• Spend your time prototyping, not developing.

He chose a goal that he believed was something people care about: saving Web content for reading later on a multitude of devices. How often do we spot an article while in the middle of doing something else? Our choice is to stop what we are doing and read the article or ignore it. Pocket lets you mark it for reading later.

Evidently people do care. Pocket has more than 12 million registered users and his software is integrated into more than 500 apps. It’s available for the iPad, iPhone, Android, Mac, Kindle Fire, Kobo, Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Opera and Windows.

Defining “why” is important in an age when so many products are being created just because they can be. A product needs to have a compelling reason to exist, a purpose, a “why,” Nate said.

His third piece of advice was to spend your time prototyping to evaluate the many ways each part of the software might work, rather than latching on to an idea and spending lots of time developing it.

The three pieces of advice I put forward pertain mostly to hardware companies:

• The idea is the easy part.

• Leverage outside resources.

• Don’t believe your own hype.

Undertaking the development of a new hardware product involves a huge amount of diverse skills and activities — conception, design, manufacturing, forecasting, marketing, distribution, etc. — and all have to work well. But the idea or concept, no matter how clever, is usually the easiest part.

Particularly with hardware, because of its diversity of talents needed (mechanical, electrical, software, etc.) and physical requirements (as opposed to software code), you can’t staff and do everything in-house. Leveraging special skills by using other experts and companies becomes an effective way to get things done more quickly and less expensively.

Last, companies can become complacent when they believe all the reviews and praise about their own products. They should enjoy the success that comes from it, but move right on to their next product. If you believe everything you read about how great your product is, you may miss the next product that can replace it. We’ve seen that behavior to some extent with Apple, believing that the size of their iPhone screen was perfect, and now playing catch-up to bring out models with larger displays.


When I bought a Chevy Volt in October, I promised an occasional update on the vehicle. As you may recall, the Volt is an “extended range electric car” that runs off batteries and then switches to gasoline after the batteries are depleted.

So while it has a shorter electric range than a Tesla or Nissan Leaf, you always have the option to keep driving when the batteries are empty.

Over almost eight months of ownership, I’ve driven 5,080 miles, with 3,769 miles (75 percent) running on the battery and 1,211 miles (25 percent) on gas. During all this time, I’ve consumed about 35 gallons of gas. My overall mileage has been 144 mpg, while the car has averaged 37 mpg when using gas alone.

If you think I’ve kept all these statistics, that’s not the case. I signed up to a website called that automatically tracks mileage and the electric and fuel usage of 1,800 Volt owners, in conjunction with OnStar’s on-board communication system.

I’ve really been enjoying the car. It’s been trouble-free except for one unexpected repair: An electrical cable to the braking system on one wheel was replaced because a rodent ate through to the bare wires! The dealer, Weseloh Chevrolet in Carlsbad, fixed it as soon as I brought it in.

I took the car in another time for a software update to eliminate the occasional crashing of the center console’s GPS. Unlike some cars, the Volt does not do over-the-air updates.

The Chevy Volt is programmed to begin charging when electricity rates drop at midnight; charging takes about 3¾ hours. Courtesy photo

What was most surprising to me is that my SDG&E bill has gone down about $100 each month, from about $350 to $250. This is the result of getting lower overall electric rates as an owner of an electric car.

My mileage, of course, is a result of how I use the car. Voltstats list owners with mileage ranging from 5,000 mpg to 35 mpg, with a mean of 157 mpg. Typically I’ll travel fewer than 50 miles most days, often to the airport, downtown or less frequently to Orange County. I made a couple of trips to Los Angeles as well. While the battery is rated to provide 35 miles of driving per charge, I get from 39 to 42 miles.

I’ll typically plug in the 220-volt charger each evening; the car is programmed to begin the charging when the rates drop at midnight. Charging takes about 3¾ hours and, using an app provided by OnStar, I receive an email when the charge is done. When I want to begin the charging immediately, I just unplug and plug back in the charger. A light on the dashboard displays the charging state.

While I once had GM’s wireless connectivity service called OnStar on an Acura, I never used it, but I’ve found it to be a real benefit on the Volt.

For example, there’s no need to type in your destination on the GPS, just touch the OnStar button and tell the friendly operator where you want to go, whether it’s an address, the nearest Starbucks or a business. A few seconds later, it’s loaded into your GPS ready to navigate.

OnStar’s built-in cellular phone using Verizon’s network also remotely starts and charges the car and reports on its status. When the light went on alerting me to the brake problem, OnStar did a remote diagnostic check while I was driving and let the dealer know I was on my way. You can also use OnStar to make wireless calling. Just ask the operator to dial the phone number, although it costs 40 cents a minute. The OnStar operators answer within a few seconds, address you by name and are extremely helpful.

I’ve rarely charged my car at other locations as there’s been little need. But one company I have occasionally visited in Irvine has a charger that I use while I’m there. I can even check the charging state using the iPhone app.

After six months, the car continues to be free of rattles or any defects and continues to drive smoothly with excellent acceleration. I’ve used the GPS with its traffic information extensively and it’s a well-designed system that’s easy to use and to see at a glance with its colorful display. A built-in information system provides weather alerts, local gas prices and nearby movie information.

The automatic Bluetooth connection to my iPhone works perfectly and the address book is downloaded into the car in fewer than 10 seconds each time I enter. Like every car I’ve used, the voice recognition is not very good. But by holding down the home button on the iPhone, Siri is activated and I can request to dial by name using the car’s mic.

Occasionally I will listen to an out-of-town radio station using the iHeart Radio app on my iPhone. The car’s Bluetooth system detects it is playing and routes it through the audio system, displaying the station. On my previous car, a BMW X3, I needed to go through several button pushes to listen.

While the Volt is not an expensive car, now in the low- to mid-$30,000s before rebates, it comes fully loaded at $35,000, with some features that often cost extra. For example, it comes with keyless entry, pushbutton start, front collision alert, an alert when you go out of the lane, a built-in diagnostic system, GPS system, a trial version of Sirius, leather seats and much more.

Surprisingly it has no power seats, ostensibly to reduce power consumption. The audio system from Bose is designed to use less energy, but sounds pretty average.

Service and support for the Volt has been excellent, both locally and nationally. The few times I’ve asked for specific information about some feature or operational question, using either OnStar or the 800 number, GM always has followed up, even when it required research on their part.

Being able to use a car in a car pool lane has always been one attraction and big advantage for hybrid and electric vehicle owners. The Volt qualifies for a green sticker that has recently had its life extended from Jan. 1, 2015 to Jan. 1, 2019. As of May 9, 2014, 40,000 “green” stickers have been made available.

I’ve found that the Volt has more than lived up to my expectations. It’s fun to drive, comfortable, well finished and a well-appointed car. And it’s been a very good value, saving me about $250 to $300 per month and dramatically reducing my dependency on oil.


San Diego-based ecoATM wants to pay you for your old phone or tablet. A retired iPhone, Nokia or Samsung smartphone could be worth a couple of hundred dollars. And if you’re near any of its 900 ecoATM kiosks, you can get your money on the spot.

New technologies are driving hardware innovation at such a rapid clip that we’re now discarding these products at record rates, not when they wear out, but when we want to upgrade. It could be to get a tablet that’s lighter and thinner or a phone with a larger display. We’ve been trained to believe that the latest is always better and to want to be the first with the newest.

While this may be good for the economy, it’s not good for the environment, if we just throw out the old. But what may be one person’s old gadget is another’s sought-after device. And companies have sprung up to find ways to pay money for old products and sell them to others.

According to Bamboo Mobile, an electronics recycling company, there were about 370 million idle, non-active devices in the U.S. market at the end of last year. This number is expected to rise to 461 million by 2018.

EPA figures show that of the 370 million, fewer than 20 percent were recycled, but that number is expected to nearly double by the end of 2018 because of new and convenient ways to quickly turn your old product into cash.

When I bought my most recent phone, an iPhone5S, I sold my iPhone5 to Gazelle, an on-line service that will buy your old phone, tablet or music player. The process is pretty seamless. Look up your phone on its site, describe its condition, and you’ll be instantly provided with an estimate.

San Diego company ecoATM has found a way for people to conveniently recycle their old electronics, rather than have them end up in a landfill. Courtesy photo

If you accept the estimate, register and the company will send you a mailer for your phone. After receiving and inspecting your phone, they will mail you a check. If they find the condition to be different than you described, they’ll revise their offer.

My iPhone5, a 32GB Verizon model in very good condition, fetched $350. That offset about half the cost of my new phone. My experience with Gazelle, however, was not as rapid as described. I received emails alerting me that the phone was received and was being checked, but then heard nothing for about three weeks. I received the check a month later.

Joe Brancatelli of told me that his experience in trying to sell his old phones was not worth the effort . He found Gazelle and competing companies of limited value. He was offered just a few dollars for his Blackberry 9700 and others even less. He returned them to the carriers for recycling.

Five years ago, ecoATM’s founder, Mark Bowles, was looking for a way for people to conveniently recycle their old electronics, rather than have them end up in a landfill. I visited the company when it was first founded and it seemed to be a very ambitious undertaking. Because it paid out money, the company needed not only to identify the device, but also had to carefully figure out its condition. A phone with a chip or scratch on the display would be worth much less than one without flaws.

I recently revisited the company, and it’s come a long way. It’s gone through three generations of machines and has placed 900 of them in malls and Wal-Mart stores across the country. EcoATM is now a subsidiary of Outerwall Inc., the company that also owns Redbox and Coinstar kiosks for movie rentals and coin counting.

The ecoATM machine has also grown in sophistication. I got a behind-the-scenes look at the latest model in operation at company headquarters in Sorrento Valley. The tall, attractive kiosk with its large LCD display invites you to trade in your old device for an immediate cash payment.

The customer is invited to get a free estimate of the device in a few minutes, once the machine performs a thorough evaluation of the product. I tried it with my iPhone 5S.

A large lid rises in the front where you place your phone onto a glass platen and plug in a cable that appears. There’s actually a carousel of cables that fit essentially every type of phone, tablet and player. Once you select the type of product, the appropriate cable rotates into place.

The kiosk then thoroughly evaluates the phone — identifying the memory, provider and both the phone’ internal and external condition. Cameras take pictures of all sides of the phone. Using a wireless connection, the ATM checks the phone’s serial numbers against a list of stolen products and looks up the current value of the phone using a continuously updated database.

Once the evaluation is complete, a price flashes up on the display. If you accept it, the machine will wipe off all of your data from the phone, and the cash will be dispensed, just as at a bank ATM. Or you can reject the offer and take back the phone.

What happens to the devices that ecoATM collects? They’re sold to a network of wholesalers that resells the phones. While the company was mum on providing more information, there is apparently a thriving business in buying and refurbishing used products.

EcoATM indicated that all who buy their used devices are vetted to insure the phones are not improperly recycled. About 75 percent of the phones find a second life; the rest are recycled by certified e-waste reclamation facilities.

So check your drawers and closets for old phones and tablets, and you might find you can convert them to quick cash while responsibly recycling them. (