Friday, February 27, 2009

Mama Mia.
Fix It Again Tony

Today is the fifth anniversary of my purchase of a 1978 Fiat Spider. CLICK for the story and more pics.

Buy a Fiat to be a toy, not transportation.

Turning the key is like spinning a gun barrel to play Russian Roulette. You never know what will happen.

It's wonderful to own a Fiat, as long as you don't depend on it to get you to work or school or anywhere important. It should never be your only vehicle.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

New software harrasses laptop thieves

If your laptop has been stolen, you can remotely yell at the thief and interfere with his use of the computer.

Front Door Software's Retriever program displays your contact information as your computer boots up. There's even space for a plea to a Good Samaritan - "$50 for my safe return."

In most cases, that's enough to help an honest person return the machine, said Carrie Hafeman, chief executive of the company.

But Retriever can get tougher.

You can log on to a Website and check a box indicating the computer is missing. Now during start-up, a big yellow and red banner appears on the screen, boldly declaring the laptop lost or stolen. This message is set to reappear every 30 seconds, no matter how many times the thief closes the window.

You can remotely switch on a second password prompt if you fear the thief has also stolen your regular password.

Behind the scenes, Retriever uses built-in Wi-Fi to sniff out nearby networks, then figure out what Internet service providers power them. With that information you can file a police report and get help locating the criminal.

While waiting for law enforcement to come through, you can even let off steam by sending new messages to the nagging "Stolen Computer!" screen, such as "You are being tracked. I am right at your door."

The latest version of Retriever, which costs $29.95 for three years of use, is even more aggressive.

Now, when the "stolen" screen pops up, the laptop cries for help. Use a canned message ("Help, this laptop is reported lost or stolen. If you are not my owner, please report me now.") or record your own.

You can say, "Get your hands off me, you S.O.B." (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

We've come a long way, baby.
After 15 years, I bought a second baby laptop

Back in 1994 I needed a portable PC that I could take to my customers' offices to program their phone systems. I bought a Compaq Contura Aero, touted as "the least expensive, fully featured subnotebook PC" available.

For the "low" price of $1399, I got a PC with an 8-inch monochrome display that weighed 3.5 pounds and provided up to six hours of battery life. There was a model with a color screen and faster chip, but I could not justify spending $2,199 or more. The Aeros were "driven by powerful Intel 486 processors" and came with hard drives providing as much as 250 megabytes (not gigabytes) of storage.

The Aero was approximately 45 percent lighter and 33 percent smaller than most notebook PCs and with a rechargeable Duracell battery option it could run almost twice as long as the average notebook PC.

The standard RAM was 4 megabytes (again, not gigabytes) expandable to 12 megabytes. The standard hard drive was 84 megabytes (like many corporate desktop machines of that time). The unit had a built-in trackball pointing device and a PCMCIA Type II slot for a modem (that could even work with a cellphone) or storage card. Networking was not even mentioned. An external floppy drive could be plugged in.

My Aero came preinstalled with DOS 6, Windows 3.1, TabWorks, Lotus Organizer -- an integrated package with a calendar and planner -- WinLink File Transfer software and a serial cable.

I used the Aero for about three years, even after the screen was damaged, rendering about 20% of the display useless, and then moved on to a succession of full-size and widescreen laptops.

In January I went to Florida to visit my parents for a few days. Normally I would have schlepped my wide-screen Toshiba Laptop, which usually travels in its own case with a bunch of accessories. I wanted to be able to avoid checking luggage, and my carry-on bag just could not accommodate my clothing and other personal needs as well as the Toshiba, so it stayed home. I figured I could manage to live without the Web and email for the weekend, and in an emergency I could use my father's iMac.

I turned out that his newly installed AT&T DSL service did not work, and I missed my PC. It was time to consider one of the new netbooks that could easily fit in my carry-on luggage.

Two weeks ago my new baby arrived. I had been aware of the category for a while, and tapped on a few of the mini-size keyboards at Staples and Costo, but was really not in the market.

A bargain pushed me to buy.

The super-cool Acer Aspire One sells for as much as $500 at RatShack (or just $100 with a two-year AT&T wireless contract.) Staples sells it for $300, or less with a rebate when you buy a printer, too. I got an apparently perfect reconditioned unit for $250 from

Acer Aspire One was introduced in July 2008. It is based on the 1.6GHz Intel Atom platform, and is available in several shell colors: seashell white, sapphire blue, golden brown, onyx black, and coral pink. I got the blue, which ironically matches my much bigger Toshiba lappy.

Although some Aspires are sold with Linux, I was pleased to get one running Windows XP. It has built-in 802.11b/g WiFi for easy access to wireless networks, a bright and crisp 8.9-inch backlit display with a resolution of 1024x600 pixels, and "CrystalEye" webcam for live video streaming, video chats and conferences. Other features include 1GB DDR2 533MHz memory, a 120GB hard drive, SD Card reader, multi-format media card reader, three USB 2.0 ports (more than my big Toshiba), and a bunch of pre-loaded software. It weighs about a pound and a quarter less than my old Aero.

After two weeks I am pleased to recommend it. It has worked just fine, and what's more -- it's FUN. Sometimes I use it on my desk at the same time I'm using my monster desktop machine. I found I was able to grab WiFi signals from neighbors at home and at work, and I sometimes take the baby in the car. I can frequently go online while in a parking lot, waiting for my wife to finish shopping.

Amazon has a different version of this baby selling for just $259 (new) and you can pay it off over six months with no interest. CLICK.

I'm a container collector -- actually "addict" is a better term. To me, one of the best things about getting a new lappy is to shop for a new case for it. I thought I might snag a bargain at a local Circuit City's final-gasp sale, but they had nothing. I also struck out at Staples, but found something perfect at It's made by CaseLogic, one of my favored case makers. It's designed and manufactured just right, and has space for the AC adapter, mouse, and other vital trinkets.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Value of Sirius XM may be in the billions it lost

Some investors are baffled why media titans John Malone and Charles Ergen are competing to throw money at Sirius XM Radio, the money-losing satellite-radio company that was perilously close to bankruptcy.

But the company's most valuable asset could be precisely all the money it has lost.

Sirius XM has at least $6 billion of tax losses. That means that the losses it has accumulated over the years can be used as deductions to cut taxes on future profits. As long as those losses stay with Sirius, they have little value, because the company's future prospects for significant profits are still slim.

But in the eventual hands of another company, like Malone's Liberty Media, those tax losses could become extremely valuable, helping to wipe more than $6 billion in taxable income off of its income tax returns -- thus some day cutting Liberty's corporate income-tax bill by more than $2 billion.

Tax concerns are often a big driver of corporate deal making, but few players maneuver through the tax code as thoroughly as Malone. In 2006, he acquired the Atlanta Braves in a way that enabled Liberty to effectively cash out its stake in Time Warner without incurring taxes.

Similarly, Sirius's tax losses are considered a key part of the company's appeal to Liberty. They were considered less significant to Ergen, who bought up Sirius debt in hopes of adding Sirius to his satellite assets. On Tuesday, Liberty announced it would rescue the company from a bankruptcy filing with a $530 million loan and receive a 40% stake in Sirius.

Companies often have tax losses. But experts say it is unusual that they are potentially a firm's most valuable asset, as with Sirius. The only asset that is comparable is the company's collection of radio wave spectrum licenses granted by the FCC valued at $2 billion.

However, for Liberty to maximize the use of those tax losses, it must navigate Internal Revenue Service rules intended to prevent companies from acquiring others solely for their losses -- so-called "trafficking in losses."

The IRS curbs already kicked in after the Sirius XM merger was closed in last July and limit how much of the losses can be used as tax deductions each year.

Another complication hangs over these tax losses. If ownership of the company changes again, the use of the tax losses would become even more limited, according to IRS rules. That is because the restrictions are calculated based in part on the market value of the company -- which is roughly 10% of what it was when the Sirius XM merger closed.

There is an additional wrinkle: If another investor purchased enough stock to give it a stake of 5% or more during the next three years, that could combine with Liberty's stake to trigger those restrictions anew. Sirius can implement trading restrictions to prevent that. At current values, a new restriction on the losses could cause Sirius to lose about 80% of its tax losses over the next 20 years.

Without those changes, Liberty would then be free to acquire the rest of Sirius in three years and use all the losses to shelter taxable profits elsewhere. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cable TV shows may be going online

Top cable television services including Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and TV network owners Viacom, Time Warner and NBC Universal are exploring a sweeping solution to the threat of online video: putting large numbers of cable shows online, but accessible only to cable subscribers. The cable networks include USA, TNT and MTV.

The cable operators hope the new Web services, which could launch this year, will attract new subscribers -- even given the popularity of free-to-watch Web sites such as -- by offering a wealth of previously unavailable video.

Cable networks and operators have a big stake in preserving the cable TV business model: US cable, satellite and telecom operators paid cable-network owners about $22.5 billion in subscription fees in 2008. Citing those fees, cable operators have placed limits on how much free content some networks can put online.

The programming available on the proposed Web services would likely be in a streaming format with ads, accessible in and out of the home, and without any additional charge to cable TV subscribers.

Under the arrangements being discussed, existing cable subscribers could access content online that goes well beyond what is currently available free to consumers,

Major cable operators -- Time Warner Cable in particular -- have said that the proliferation of free video content online threatens to undermine the subscription business model for the cable-TV business. "If all of the programming goes to the Internet, and it's free, then there is a whole source of revenue that the entertainment business is not going to have anymore," Glenn Britt, CEO of Time Warner Cable, said last year.

Beside the technical hurdles, some critics say it might be too late to put the online-video genie back in the subscription bottle. A growing number of people are growing accustomed to watching TV shows online, without any charge. About 136 million people watched online video content in January, up 16% from the same period in 2008. (info from The Wall Stree Journal)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

New book about phone equipment and services

(press release about my own book)

A hundred years ago, telephones were simple. If you wanted to call someone, you picked up the receiver, cranked the crank, and waited for the nice lady to say, “Operator, may I help you?” Then you said something like, “I want to talk to Daddy,” or “I need the doctor;” and in a few seconds you were connected. You didn’t even need to know the phone numbers.

For equipment, maybe you could choose between an oak box on the kitchen wall, or a metal candlestick model on the hall table. If you lived in a high-tech area, maybe you could get a dial instead of a crank.

Regardless of the telephone style, you would pay to rent it month after month, and there was just one company in your town that you could do business with, and that company owned “your” phone.

Today the choices seem endless. Phones can be analog or digital, rotary or touch-tone, plain or fancy, corded, cordless, or cellular. You can connect through a local phone company, a national phone company, an international phone company, a TV company, a satellite company, a cellular company, or a VoIP company. Phone companies sell TV service. Cable television companies sell phone service. They both sell Internet service.

You can get a phone or phone system or a phone gadget from hundreds of sources, and buy it, rent it, lease it or may-be get a freebie. You can pay someone to install it, you can install it yourself, or you can get something that needs no installation.

An authoritative but easy-to-understand new book, “Phone Systems & Phones for Small Business and Home” by Michael N. Marcus helps people sort out their options. It covers basic phones, multi-line phone systems, add-ons like headsets, music-on-hold, paging systems, backup power and fax equipment — for professional offices, businesses and homes. There are sections on technology trends, telecommunications terminology, tools, wiring, troubleshooting, and much more.

The book will help people pick out the right size phone system, to minimize initial cost, and provide room to grow. It even deals with the important items that people really do need in a phone system, but are often left off sellers’ bids and proposals.

The book also sorts out the various technologies for making phone calls and accessing the Internet: conventional dial tone, ISDN, DSL, cable, fiber, T1 and VoIP.

Marcus’s book includes about 40 detailed hands-on product reviews. Recommendations range from a $12.99 home phone to complex multi-thousand-dollar business phone systems, plus a wide array of add-one to improve communications.

It will help readers avoid the worst mistakes of phone system buyers, and can help them decide if they can save money by installing their own home or business phones. The book will also help people quickly diagnose many common telecom troubles, and often fix them easily and inexpensively or maybe even for free.

Marcus says, “But even if you don’t plan to do your own phone work, by understanding what has to be done, you’re more likely to get the right thing done, and pay the right price. You could save much more than the price of this book.”

Some reader comments:

• Outstanding! An entertaining and sometimes humorous thorough education on phones and telecommunications. It’s a must-read for shoppers as well as salespeople.

• I’ve been in telecommunications for nearly 30 years, but I still learned a lot from this informative and entertaining book.

• After just three minutes I learned that a really annoying telephone problem could be cured for $4, instead of nearly $400. This book belongs in every office and many homes.

• This delightful book makes phones ultra-useful for people who run mini-Fortune 500 companies. Highly recommended.

The illustrated book has 396 pages. It is available from and other booksellers.

This is the third book on communications equipment written by Michael N. Marcus, a writer who has specialized in electronics and telecommunications for over 30 years. Marcus is a successful and popular explainer, known for mixing technology and humor. His humorous memoir “I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life” was published in December.

If you get a new credit card, you can get a $30 certificate to pay for the book.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

iPhone app helps to win at blackjack

California gaming authorities tipped off their Nevada counterparts to a blackjack card-counting program that can be used on either the Apple iPhone or the Apple iPod Touch portable music player. "The program calculates the true count and does it significantly more accurately," according to a Gaming Control Board memorandum sent to casino operators last week warning of the electronic device.

Card counting is not illegal in Nevada casinos. However, using a device to aid in the counting of cards is considered a felony under Nevada laws governing cheating, control board member Randy Sayre said. Gamblers using the iPhone card-counting program can be detained by casino operators and arrested by state gaming agents. "We wanted to put the industry on notice to be aware this device is out there," Sayre said.

He added that there haven't been any reports of the device being used in Nevada. Sayre and the agency consider the iPhone program an electronic method for cheating.

Operators of a Northern California Indian casino discovered customers using the program and alerted the California Bureau of Gambling Control. The program is installed through the iTunes Web site. It makes counting cards easier, Sayre said.

The program uses four different strategies for card counting. It also operates in the "stealth mode," in which the phone's screen is shut off. The program can be run effortlessly without detection as long as the user knows where the keys are.

Sayre said it is up to individual casino operators to decide policies concerning the use of cellphones and other electronic devices at gaming tables. Last year, state gaming regulators eliminated the ban on cellphones inside race and sports books.

After iPhones came on the market in 2007, Harrah's Entertainment halted their use at the World Series of Poker. Cellphones are banned at the tournament, although iPods and other MP3 players are allowed. "We're looking at this internally and this is an issue that needed to be in the public domain," Sayre said. (info from Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Monday, February 16, 2009

No work today?
Go shopping for half-price candy

Most stores that sell candy have marked-down their Valentine's Day munchies to half of last week's price.

They taste just as good as when the price was double, and you can load up the freezer with your favorites.

Go quickly for the best selection.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A better alternative to disappointing
Ju-Ju hearts

Last month I complained that this year's vintage of Mayfair JuJu Hearts -- ordinarily my favorite candy -- was not as good as in previous years. The company switched to a supplier in Brazil instead of Canada, and the sweet gooey hearts were bigger and not nearly as delicious as in the past.

I am very pleased to report that candy maker Brach's has apparently duplicated the traditional Mayfar aroma, flavor, texture and size, with their made-in-Mexico Jube Jel Cherry Hearts, so I'll be able to make it through the 2009 Valentine's season OK. They're available at Walgreen's and probably elsewhere. I've seen two package sizes selling for 99 cents and $1.29. They should be half-price on 2/15.

Share the love -- or have a personal feast. If you need some hearts for a Valentine's Day gift, you'll pay full price. For yourself, wait 'til Sunday and save.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

TV satellite companies may fight over satellite radio company

Sirius XM Radio is said to be seeking an investment from Liberty Media in a last-ditch effort to fend off an unsolicited takeover approach from satellite entrepreneur Charles Ergen.

The talks set the stage for a battle between the leading US satellite-television providers -- Liberty-controlled DirectTV and Ergen's Dish Network -- for control of the country's sole satellite-radio operator.

Liberty, which is controlled by billionaire John Malone, emerged as a potential "white knight" for Sirius after Ergen made an unsolicited offer late last year to take control of the radio operator.

Though the talks between Sirius and Liberty are advanced, a deal remains far from certain. It wasn't clear how much Liberty would be willing to invest in Sirius and whether it would end up with control. Malone is a careful negotiator and is unlikely to cut a deal in haste.

Sirius doesn't have much time.

Ergen, who controls a satellite empire around EchoStar and Dish, quietly began amassing Sirius debt in the fall. He is now using that debt, including about $175 million in bonds that mature on Feb. 17, as leverage to try to force Sirius into a deal. Sirius, which carries a total debt load of about $3.25 billion, is nearly out of cash and will likely be forced into bankruptcy proceedings or a deal with Mr. Ergen if the company can't secure funds to repay its obligations by Tuesday.

Ergen has offered to inject about $500 million into Sirius and restructure the roughly $375 million in short-term debt he holds in return for control of the company. Sirius rejected the offer.

The gamesmanship between Sirius and Ergen has escalated over the past week. Sirius had been trying to convert the $175 million debt tranche that matures Tuesday into more senior debt and equity with the previous holder of the notes, a hedge fund. Before it could secure a deal, however, Ergen swooped in last week and acquired the bonds.

It was a high-risk move because the notes in question are junior to about $600 million in bank loans and other debt Sirius has issued, and will likely be worthless if the company goes bankrupt.

This week, Sirius representatives responded to Ergen's move by spreading word that the company was preparing to file for bankruptcy and had hired bankruptcy and restructuring advisers. Company officials also privately told investors that Sirius has entered a "zone of insolvency" and that a bankruptcy filing would be preferable to cutting a deal with Mr. Ergen, according to people who participated in the discussions.

Sirius shares, which have lost nearly all of their value since late July, fell 52% to six cents in Nasdaq trading. The company's market value is less than $200 million.

Some investors have expressed concern that Sirius might pursue a deal inferior to Ergen's offer just to escape his clutches. Ergen and Sirius Chief Executive Mel Karmazin have a long-running feud. (info fro mThe Wall Street Journal)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sat radio facing buyout or bankruptcy

I'm a big fan of satellite radio. I've had both XM and Sirius accounts for many years, and listen at home, in cars, in my office and in hotel rooms.

I had hoped that the merger would cut my monthly costs and enable me to listen to all programs on all of my radios.

Unfortunately challenges by the feds, competitors and others delayed the merger. The delay and expensive talent costs bled the companies for years, and when the merger was finally approved, the new "Sirius XM" faced recession and terrible car sales -- and car sales are a major source of new customers.

Satellite mogul Charles Ergen has offered to restructure Sirius XM debt and inject several hundred million dollars of capital into the company in return for control. Ergen's plan doesn't involve buying out existing shareholders, something many investors in the company had been hoping for.

Sirius rejected Ergen's offer late last year, but it remains on the table. While the two sides are still in discussions, Ergen has given no indication that it is prepared to accept the deal.

Yet Sirius may have no other option. If it can't raise about $175 million by Feb. 17 to repay bonds held by EchoStar Corp., which is controlled by Ergen, Sirius will likely be forced into bankruptcy. In addition to the February bonds, EchoStar controls $400 million of Sirius debt that expires in December.

The standoff has turned into a test of wills between Ergen and Sirius XM boss Mel Karmazin. Both are television-industry veterans and have often found themselves on opposite ends of the negotiating table.

A bankruptcy filing would wipe out Sirius's shareholders. Sirius's management and board would likely expose themselves to litigation if they filed for bankruptcy in the face of an offer that would preserve at least some of investors' equity in the company.

Sirius's total debt load is about $3.25 billion. Sirius shares fell five cents, or 44%, in after-hours trading to six cents. The company's market value has plummeted by more than 96% since last July as its crisis has worsened. Sirius hired bankruptcy and restructuring advisers several weeks ago to prepare for a possible bankruptcy filing. The hiring of bankruptcy and restructuring advisers, while not surprising given the company's financial predicament, doesn't mean a filing is imminent. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Info on new Kindle

Amazon tweaked but didn't revolutionize the new Kindle. The new device lacks a color screen, for instance, although it can now display more shades of gray in photos. Amazon said the new Kindle will cost $359, the same as the original version, and will begin shipping Feb. 24.

Kindle 2 is smaller than the first version of the product. The new device also features a five-way navigation element, faster wireless service for downloading books and the ability to wirelessly sync between Kindles and cellphones.

Amazon faces competition in the electronic delivery of books from other e-book makers Sony Corp. and Plastic Logic Ltd., as well as cellphones and multipurpose devices such as Apple Inc.'s iPhone. "Reading is important enough that it deserves a dedicated device," said Amazon boss Jeff Bezos. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Monday, February 9, 2009

New Kindle e-book reader coming from Amazon. Old model is still out of stock. is expected to announce a new version of its Kindle e-book reader today. And in a sign that the electronic book is gaining clout in the publishing world, Amazon is also expected to say it has acquired a new work by best-selling novelist Stephen King that will be available exclusively, at least for a time, on Kindle.

Many publishers have long feared that Amazon would persuade a major author to write for its Kindle on an exclusive basis. Although retailers such as Barnes & Noble have long published their own books, they have struggled to find distribution outside their own stores. But Amazon has already proven that it can sell as many Kindles as it can manufacture. Indeed, Amazon is working to overcome the supply problems that have plagued the device and the Amazon website shows that the Kindle is "sold out," and it has been since November and missed holiday sales.

It is possible that the King work -- in which a Kindle-like device plays a role in the story -- could be published as part of a physical book at a later date by the author's current publisher, Scribner.

The maker of the Kindle's special screens, Taiwanese manufacturer Prime View International, says the Kindle shortages came from Amazon's conservative sales forecast for the device. Prime View adds that Amazon is now trying to avoid repeating the current shortage by asking it to pump out more screens.

"It wasn't about delivery delay," says a Prime View spokeswoman. "The sales were just faster than expected," The company says the new version of the Kindle is set to have a slightly bigger screen than the first-generation model.

"Amazon might be managing the Kindle availability as it wants to keep the buzz on its product and improve features and performance with the launch of the second generation product," says Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst for iSuppli Corp. From a screen-manufacturing perspective, she adds, "there doesn't seem to be any specific reason why Amazon was unable to meet the demand with its first generation product."

How well Amazon can supply the Kindle -- its first foray into the consumer-electronics industry -- is important because the device is expected to be a growth business for the company's drive into digital sales.

Amazon won't disclose details about the new Kindle, but said last week that it is working to make titles for the device available on cellphones. That puts the company more squarely in competition with Google's digital-books distribution platform.

To create the Kindle, Amazon tapped a deep bench of consumer-electronics experts. The product was designed by a subsidiary called Lab 126, located a few blocks away from the Apple headquarters. Lab 126 employs executives who used to work in the consumer electronics industry.

Analysts who have examined the device also say Amazon turned to Apple's giant contract manufacturer Hon Hai Precision Industry, among others, to assemble the device in China.

One factor that may have contributed to Amazon's supply problem was an Oct. 24 endorsement by Oprah Winfrey, who called her Kindle "my new favorite thing in the world." Ms. Winfrey's production company, Harpo Inc., says she wasn't paid for that endorsement, and chose to promote the Kindle on her own after being shown one by a friend. (info from The Wall Street Journal)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Some TV stations will delay end of analog, and some won't

Television viewers who use antennas and were expecting a few more months to prepare for digital TV may not have much time left before their sets go dark. Many stations still plan to drop analog broadcasts in less than two weeks.

When Congress postponed the mandatory transition to digital TV until June, it also gave stations the option to stick to the originally scheduled date of Feb. 17. That means the shutdown of analog signals, which broadcasters had hoped would happen at nearly the same time nationwide, could now unfold in a confusing patchwork of different schedules.

Lawmakers wanted to address concerns that many households that receive TV signals through an antenna are not prepared for the switch. They were also mindful that a government fund has run out of money to subsidize digital converter boxes for older TVs.

Dozens of stations around the country now say they are going to take advantage of the option to drop analog broadcasts this month. Many others are on the fence. The total number is likely to be in the hundreds, a substantial chunk and maybe even a majority of the country's 1,796 full-power TV stations.

The House voted Wednesday to delay the mandatory shutdown until June 12. The Senate passed the measure unanimously last week, and the bill now goes to President Obama for his signature.

The legislation means analog signals could vanish entirely in some areas but persist in neighboring regions. In rural areas, low-power stations will continue to broadcast in analog even beyond June 12.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said the commission could prohibit stations from making the switch if doing so is not in the public interest, for example if all stations in a market want to turn off early.

For many broadcasters, delaying the shutdown is inconvenient and expensive. Many of them have scheduled engineering work on their equipment to make the transition on Feb. 17.

PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan said about half of the 356 public broadcasting stations across the country will make the switch on Feb. 17. Many will do it for financial reasons. PBS said last month that if all its stations had to delay the switch, it would cost an estimated $22 million.

CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC and Telemundo have committed to keeping the stations they own broadcasting analog until June 12. Together, they own 85 full-power stations, mainly in large cities. The rest of the stations that carry these networks are affiliates not owned by the network. The transition to digital TV is being mandated because digital signals are more efficient than analog ones. Ending analog broadcasts will free up valuable space in the nation's airwaves for commercial wireless services and emergency-response networks.

In a few areas, including Hawaii, stations have already abandoned analog broadcasting.

TVs connected to cable or satellite services are not affected by the analog shutdown. But that still leaves a lot of people who could see channels go dark on Feb. 17. According to research firm MRI, 17.7 percent of Americans live in households with only over-the-air TV. (info from The Associated Press)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Superb drill from Sears had unexpected surprises

I have LOTS of electric drills. My oldest have cords and some of them are over 30 years old and still work, but seldom get used.

My most recent ones from Panasonic and DeWalt use NiCad batteries and get used a lot. I'm certainly aware of the recent trend to use Lithium-Ion batteries, but I felt no urgency to get a Li-Ion tool, since my others worked fine.

Over the weekend I needed to hang some shelves on the wall. My trusty Panasonic electric screwdriver just didn't have the torque to screw into the wall studs, and my newest and mucho-macho 18-volt DeWalt cordless felt too damn heavy, and its big size made it awkward to hold at the right angle in some tight spots.

I have a lightweight 12-volt Black & Decker, that I got at super-low-price last Black Friday with a huge assortment of bits. Unfortunately, like many inexpensive cordless tools, it requires a wall-wart transformer to charge it up -- and it had vanished into the abyss. It's much harder to lose a charging "cradle."

It was time for a shopping trip.

I had to go to Lowe's to get some hardware items, so I checked out their tool department. They had lots of choices from Black & Decker and other brands, but they all seemed either too weak or too bulky for my needs. So I went to the Sears store here in Milford, CT and super-knowledgeable salesman Gary Elkies found me the perfect solution.

The Craftsman #11812 12-volt Lithium-Ion compact drill/driver is a part of the new compact line of Craftsman tools called NEXTEC. These tools are powered by a surprisingly small battery designed to provide extra "oomph" and longer shelf life.

Although the drill weighs only 2.2 pounds with the battery, its powerful motor puts out 195 inch-pounds of maximum torque. That's probably not enough to break your arm like some bigger drills, but it could certainly peel the skin off a finger if you do something stupid. And it had no trouble drilling through shelves and into studs. Its 3/8-inch keyless chuck handles most of the bits I use most often -- both drills and drivers.

The tool is perfectly balanced, and comfortable to hold and use. I particularly liked the rubbery grip surfaces. The directional switch has a "neutral" position that locks the drill -- a nice safety feature that could keep a kid from doing damage.

Although it's probably drill #14 for me, I think it will be the one I use most often. Unless you need to go through steel girders or put holes in bricks, it's a perfect all-around drill for do-it-yourselfers; and lots of pros will find it useful, too.

The drill features a variable speed switch for high speeds of 0-1300 RPM (no load) and low speeds of 0-400 RPM. It has a two-speed gear box for high torque and an 18-position adjustable torque clutch. The 3/8 single sleeve keyless chuck grips the bit quickly and securely.

I bought the drill based on size, power and price ($90), but found a few pleasant surprises when I got it home and opened the box.

* A built-in LED work light illuminates the bit and what you're drilling into.

* It comes with TWO Lithium-ion batteries, not just one, so one can be charging while the other is being used. I figured I'd have to pay $30 for another battery. Charging time is just 30 minutes and the charger has an LED indicator that shows the charging status.

* And it comes with a nice Cordura-like carrying/storage case.

You can get it at Sears,, and probably Kmart and other places that sell Craftsman tools.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Buy my book -- or maybe get it for free

I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life is a collection of more than 100 stories -- mostly short and funny, one long and serious and funny and shocking.

They deal with my early childhood, my time in public school and college, and while working in advertising, telecommunications, journalism, and as an amateur attorney. Culture clash is a frequent theme. So is food. And phoniness. There's lots of sex, drugs and rock & roll. Even the sex and drug stories are funny. There are four murders.

The main title is a quote from one of my teachers. She was nuts.

Here are some comments from readers:

“I loved the 3-way sex scene. It seemed familiar. Was I there?”

“You’re a great story teller. I laughed my ass off.”

“I knew the lesbian painter. She was a lousy painter but an excellent lesbian. When does the movie come out?”

“You remember everything. I'm glad you didn't see me doing anything illegal or stupid.”

“Obviously your typing class accomplished something useful. You almost made me pee in my pants. Very, very funny.”

“I didn’t realize what an a-hole I was back then. If this book wasn’t so funny, I’d probably sue you for libel. I'll settle for an autographed copy.”

The 308-page illustrated book sells for $19.95 at, but if you get a new Amazon credit card, you'll get a $30 certificate which is enough to pay for the book and shipping, and leave a few bucks to buy something else.