Category Archives: Technology

Target Stores – An Identity Thief’s Best Friend ?

Is Target Stores, Inc. targeting your sensitive personal data ?  (image from angrywhiteboy.com)

Is Target Corporation targeting your personal data ? Will a data breach make you a victim of identity theft ? (image linked from angrywhiteboy.org)

You might have found this article after asking…

Why did Target scan my drivers license, or

Why did Target swipe my drivers license, or

Is Target collecting personal information from my drivers license, or

What is the Target stores ID policy, and what if I refuse to give them my drivers license,  or

Did a jury award  South Carolina Target shopper Rita Cantrell $3.1 million in a libel case, after she was wrongly accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $100 bill at Target ?

Maybe Eric Arthur Blair was right (you’ll probably know who he was, even if you don’t recognize his name).

We very rarely shop at Target, but happened to find ourselves in a Target store recently.  While our order was being scanned at the register, even before we decided how we would pay, the cashier asked for our drivers license.  When asked why they needed to see our drivers license, they told us that it was because we were buying a package of over-the-counter cold medicine.  Since we are closer to retirement age than we are to the age of majority, we can’t remember the last time a clerk or cashier “proofed” us.  But since we want to do our part to make sure that no minors can get relief from their cold or flu symptoms, we graciously handed the cashier our license.  We quickly regretted complying with their request, when, to our horror, the cashier scanned the barcode on our license with their barcode reader, before we realized what they were doing, and before we had a chance to stop them.  It is worth noting that the last time I checked, this was still America, and there was absolutely no legal requirement for a retailer to scan or swipe your drivers license, or any other form of ID when purchasing medications, alcoholic beverages, etc.  Target appears to have adopted this misguided policy to protect themselves, and to possibly make their job easier (but at your expense).  What’s next ?  Scanning a barcode tattooed on your forehead by the State, or scanning you for the mandatory RFID chip implanted under your skin at birth ?

It seems to us that Target might be capturing at least some the information embedded in the barcode of your drivers license.  If not, then simply having the cashier confirm the date of birth printed on the license would suffice, and scanning the license would serve no purpose.   This makes us wonder what they might be doing with the data.  How long are they retaining the data ?  Do they sell the data, or use it for marketing purposes ?  Will they provide the data to the government, either voluntarily or in response to a subpoena or a National Security Letter ?

As (now very wealthy) South Carolina Target shopper Rita Cantrell can attest, Target can’t distinguish real currency from counterfeit.  Likewise,  we have little confidence that their employees, POS scanners or computer systems would be able to tell a fake drivers license barcode from the real thing.

Are you wondering what information Target (and other retailers) can capture from your drivers license barcode, in this post-9/11, “Homeland Security” driven world ?  The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (aamva.org) publishes the standards that the individual states follow when designing their drivers licenses.  This AAMVA document (in .PDF format) lists 22 mandatory and 23 optional data elements that are encoded into the PDF417 barcode that is used on U.S. drivers licenses.  Did you know that items such as a driver’s race/ethnic group and social security number can be embedded in the barcode ?   The individual states are free to add additional data elements that are not included in the AAMVA standard.

Sample License

We suspect that Target would be happy to sell cold medicine to this fellow, as long as he allows them to scan his drivers license.

Even if Target Stores does not have any ulterior motives, the fact that they are able to capture any or all of the data embedded in your drivers license barcode exposes their customers to the threat of identity theft.  The fact that their name is Target doesn’t help the situation either, if you catch our drift.  I mean, just look at their stores… they put a big red bulls eye right on the front of every store !  If that isn’t taunting all the hackers out there, I don’t know what is.   Maybe we would be less concerned if their name was “Fortress” or something along those lines, and their logo was a bank vault, rather than a bulls eye.  Even their cute mascot, Bullseye, looks like he would rather lick you to death than defend the company’s customer data.  Retailers, credit card companies, banks and other businesses are constantly making headlines because their networks are hacked into, their data stolen, and their customers or employees personal and financial information  compromised.  Sometimes it’s a hacker breaking into a computer network.  Sometimes, it’s a rogue employee inside a company or at a vendor that has access to a company’s systems.  Sometimes, it’s a laptop computer containing sensitive information that is lost or stolen.  Sometimes, backup tapes are lost in transit to an off-site storage location.  There are many ways that customer data can be put at risk of theft.

Now we’re wondering if we will pick up the newspaper one day, and see the headline “Target Stores Targeted By Hackers,  Personal Info From 50 Million Customers Stolen”.  Think it can’t happen ?  Think Again.  It has happened to other large retailers, banks and credit card companies.

How can consumers protect themselves ?  Well, it’s nearly impossible in the age of  The Internet and when “plastic” has largely supplanted the use of cash.  But nothing says that you have to shop at a retailer that unnecessarily places your personal information at risk, even if its only a potential risk.   We doubt that we will be shopping at Target stores again, but if we do, and we are asked for our drivers license in the future, we will refuse and walk out.  If collecting our personal data is more important to Target than keeping us as a customer, we will gladly take our business elsewhere, and patronize a business that does not unnecessarily expose us to the threat of identity theft.  Speaking of Target, we think that letting retailers scan and capture the data stored in your drivers license barcode is a lot like placing a bullseye on your back.

We are normally happy to accomodate a  merchant’s request to provide suitable ID, especially when the transaction involves payment by check or credit card, or we are returning an item, but Target’s policy is unacceptable, and we believe, simply wrong.  And we’re not the only one who feels this way.  This article at informationweek.com echoes our concerns about Target’s policy.  From a purely practical standpoint, we suspect that draconian policies such as the one put in place by Target will backfire, with (even more) people simply deciding to steal the medication.  OTC pharmacy items are already the most frequently shoplifted items (see this list of the 50 most frequently shoplifted items).   And isn’t it just a bit ludicrous (not to mention, rude) to ask a senior citizen buying cold medicine to prove they’re 18 years old ?

As far as we know,  Target customers concerned about identity theft can still do their shopping at Walmart without having to show them your drivers license when buying cold medications.  If you are very obviously over the age of 18, and asked for your drivers license at a Target store, we suggest that you decline.   If they persist, simply tell them that under the circumstances, you have changed your mind and don’t wish to purchase anything.  It won’t take Target very long to realize that their policy is costing them business, and that they need to change it.  They might not enjoy having to put all your stuff back on the shelves after you walk out without buying it, but at least your personal data will be safe.

– Routing By Rumor

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Companies In Mirror Are Closer To Bankruptcy Than They Appear !

Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR

This article will be of interest to anyone replacing the rear view mirror in their General Motors (GM) or other vehicle, whether you are purchasing a replacement mirror from GM SPO, Gentex, Donnelly, or another manufacturer.

Installation information is included for Do-It-Yourselfers (DIY), including wiring harness connector pinout data.

Perhaps the most valuable tip we can give to a vehicle owner planning to purchase a replacement mirror is COMPARE PRICES !

The U.S. government can throw as many billions of dollars at General Motors as they wish, but they’re unlikely to change the fundamental problems at the automaker. Problems that have brought what was once a cornerstone of the American economy to the brink of extinction, dependent on a government bailout for it’s survival.

GM is not competitive for many reasons. They are hobbled by high labor costs. They lag in innovation, particularly in the area of electric and hybrid vehicles. In our opinion, they can’t compete with Japanese auto manufacturers on quality (or perceived quality) or customer loyalty. They’re certainly not competitive on pricing when compared to aftermarket parts suppliers. For most vehicle repairs, we think you’ll spend a lot less, and get a better job done at a private garage, then you would at a GM dealership. This might come as a shock, but in our opinion, Mr. Goodwrench isn’t.

As we’ve stated previously, we believe that their new vehicle warranty isn’t worth the paper its printed on. And GM seems to follow pricing policies usually associated with companies that sell hammers and toilet seats to the Pentagon.

Case in point…

Our GM vehicle was built with an auto-dimming electrochromic rear view mirror. Some rear view mirrors in late-model vehicles are marvels of modern technology, containing On-Star controls, handsfree cellphones, compasses, thermometers, back-up camera displays, garage door openers and other gadgets. But our mirror is just an auto-dimming mirror, with none of these other bells and whistles (see this NY Times article on these “bells & whistles”). On most of the auto dimming mirrors that we’ve seen in GM vehicles, after a few years of service, the magic liquid inside tends to leak out of the mirror. This either renders the dimming feature inoperative, fogs the mirror, or leaves it with an uneven or blotchy reflective surface.

For the past few years, the liquid crystal stuff (or whatever the chemical is) in our mirror has been leaking out, increasingly producing areas on the mirror’s surface that are either always clear or always dark. We finally decided to replace the mirror.

We checked with our friendly GM dealership’s parts department. They quoted us a price of $284.00 for a replacement rear view mirror, excluding the cost of installation.

Almost $300.00 for a rear view mirror ? Sounded awfully expensive to us, so we started to look at aftermarket mirrors. Virtually all American cars use a standard “wedge” type glass mount. The mirror attaches to a glass-mounted “button”, which hopefully stays attached to the windshield when you remove your old mirror from the vehicle.

Our search for a replacement mirror lead us to products manufactured by two predominant manufacturers of automotive mirrors, Donnelly (now called Magna Donnelly?) and Gentex (see company info). It seems that Donnelly sells exclusively to automotive manufacturers (OEMs), and not to the automotive aftermarket. Gentex sells to OEMs (probably the vast majority of their business), but they also sell their products to aftermarket suppliers (in our case, through a distributor named Mito Corporation).

We ended up purchasing a brand new, in the box, Gentex electrochromic rear view mirror that is virtually identical to our vehicle’s original mirror, for under $70.00, including shipping ! That’s less than a quarter of what General Motors wanted for a replacement mirror.

When you consider the fact that GM certainly pays much less for mirrors than the RoutingByRumor Corporation does, that probably equates to a markup of 400%, 500% or more.   What word best describes that sort of profit margin ?  “Criminal”  might be a bit too strong.  How about egregious.  How about unconscionable.  How about stupid ?  How many businesses that try to fleece their customers are able to stay in business ?  It certainly seems to indicate that GM doesn’t make their money selling cars.  They make their money (or at least they did) by selling parts and service;  Service that we’ve never been very impressed with in the first place.

The only caveat is that we had to replace the wiring harness connector that powers the mirror, because the Gentex mirror uses a 7-pin connector, while our original equipment Donnelly mirror used a 3-pin connector (our vehicle does not have auto-dimming external mirrors, and the Gentex mirror we installed does not have a temperature or compass display). But replacing the connector was a quick and easy procedure. The hardest part was getting the old mirror off of the windshield. Maybe it helped that we popped our Stevie Nicks album “The Other Side Of The Mirror” into the CD player while we installed our new mirror. To quote Stevie, “This is me talking to you. This is me talking to ya”.

The Gentex mirror we purchased came with very limited hookup information. We found the following pinout data on the Web, and we’re guessing that this information will apply to all Gentex mirrors that use a 7-pin connector.

JST "VH" Series Housing (8-pin version shown)

JST "VH" Series Connector Housing (8-pin version shown)

If you’re trying to figure out what type of connector Gentex (and Donnelly) use on their mirrors, our research indicates that the 7-pin Gentex harness connector (as well as the 3-pin harness connector on our original Donnelly mirror) are “VH” series connectors, from JST Manufacturing. Their U.S. website is at www.jst.com. View JST’s data sheet for the VH series connectors here. These connectors (and the necessary crimp terminals) are available from Digi-Key.

We’re not sure if the wiring color coding is standard on all vehicles, so we would be more concerned with the function associated with each pin on the connector (pin numbers are molded into the connector housing on the wire-side of the connector, but you might need a magnifying glass to read them).

WARNING: Before you begin working on your mirror’s wiring harness, we strongly suggest that you either pull the fuse(s) that protect your accessories (ACC, RAP, ACC1, ACC2, etc., depending on your vehicle), as well as the fuse that protects your backup lamps. In lieu of pulling the accessory fuse(s), remove your key from the ignition and open a door to deactivate the Retained Accessory Power (RAP) circuit, if present and utilized by the mirror. If you really want to play it safe, disconnect your vehicle’s battery, following your vehicle manufacturer’s recommended procedure (for your safety). This will prevent you from blowing a fuse, should you inadvertently short or ground a lead while working on your mirror’s wiring harness.


PIN # …. HARNESS WIRE COLOR …………. FUNCTION

. 1 …………….. WHITE …………………………. +12v (SWITCHED B+)

. 2 ……………. BLACK …………………………. CHASSIS GROUND

. 3 ……………. LIGHT GREEN ………………… FROM BACKUP LIGHT CIRCUIT

. 4 …………….. GRAY …………………………… TO AUTO DIM OUTSIDE MIRROR

. 5 …………….. PINK …………………………….. TO AUTO DIM OUTSIDE MIRROR

. 6 …………….. DARK GREEN/WHITE ……… TEMPERATURE PROBE

. 7 …………….. BLACK/WHITE ……………….. TEMPERATURE PROBE

Notes:

At a minimum, you must connect pins 1 & 2 (+12V & ground) for your auto dimming Gentex mirror to operate.

Not all Gentex mirrors or all vehicles will utilize all pins, but we believe pins 1 – 5 should be functional on all Gentex mirrors. If your experience differs, please let us know by posting a comment to this article.

Pin 3 is used to clear the mirror when the vehicle is placed in reverse. (DO NOT connect pin 3 to ground, since this will blow a fuse (or possibly damage your mirror) when you put the vehicle into reverse gear.)

Pins 4 & 5 are used to control outside mirrors on vehicles equipped with auto-dimming outside mirrors.

Pins 6 & 7 are used on mirrors that incorporate a temperature display. If a temperature probe is connected, either lead from the temperature probe can be connected to either pin.

Of course, your best source of information is your vehicle manufacturer, or the manufacturer of your new mirror. The above information is believed to be correct, but we take no responsibility for its accuracy.

A Volt-Ohm meter is an indispensable tool for any installer, and we recommend that you use one whenever working on your vehicle’s electrical system.


In our opinion, the auto-dimming feature of the Gentex mirror performs as well as, or better than, our original equipment Donnelly rear view mirror, even taking into account how it operated when our vehicle was brand new. We saved more than $200.00 by not buying the mirror from GM, and probably much more than that, if the dealership would have installed the new mirror for us. The Gentex mirror we purchased appears to be manufactured in the U.S.A. (see this article about their Zeeland, Michigan plant & headquarters buildings), and came with a three-year warranty. We said the Gentex mirror “appears” to be made in the USA, because the only indication we were able to find was the letters “U.S.A.” on the carton label in 2-point type. Not “Made In U.S.A.” or “Assembled In U.S.A.”. Just “U.S.A.”. We’re left to guess that Gentex may be embarrased to admit where the mirror is manufactured. If their products are indeed made in the USA, why don’t they state that fact prominently on the carton, with “MADE IN U.S.A.” clearly visible, like they are proud of it !

We always welcome the opportunity to buy products made in America. We think that buying American made goods, and supporting American workers, is the best way to repair the failing U.S. economy. The U.S. Government’s economic stimulus plans certainly won’t do that.

Let’s hope that if we should ever have to file a warranty claim with Gentex or Mito (their aftermarket distributor), that they honor their warranty better than General Motors has, on the numerous occasions that we’ve had problems with GM products.

As an aside, here’s an article we stumbled upon about another Gentex product, designed to solve one of nighttime driving’s most annoying and dangerous problems.

So the question we are left to ponder is this… Why does General Motors think it can gouge consumers for replacement parts ? If you said “because they’re General Motors”, think again. In our case, they couldn’t. And when you consider the fact that they are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, begging for federal bailout money, it’s clear to us that their policies, including their pricing policies, are a failure. All of the GM dealerships that have gone belly-up, and those who continue to struggle to survive, in an American new car market that has all but evaporated, are testament to their failed business model. And of course, the decrepit U.S. economy doesn’t help either.

Ya know, our mention of Stevie Nicks’ album “The Other Side Of The Mirror” is quite appropos, because when our GM dealer gave us their price for a new mirror, we suddenly recalled the advice that Alice received from the Mad Hatter… “Better run for your life”.

– Routing By Rumor Continue reading

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Circuit City Stores Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection

This morning, Circuit City filed a bankruptcy petition (see bloomberg.com article), In Re Circuit City Stores Inc., 08-35653, with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. If you’ve been following this blog, you won’t be surprised by today’s filing. Circuit City has had one foot in the grave for a while now (see our article from last week). See additional coverage of this story by Forbes, The Associated Press, The New York Times, Barron’s and Reuters.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that last Friday, up to 800 employees at Circuit City’s corporate headquarters (more than a third of the workers there) received pink slips.

Circuit City owes well over half a billion dollars to suppliers including Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Sony, Zenith, Toshiba, Garmin and Nikon. With bankruptcy looming, more and more vendors have refused to extend credit to Circuit City. With today’s filing, we’re pretty sure their ability to obtain terms from vendors is now pretty much non-existent. It probably also ensures that the New York Stock Exchange will de-list Circuit City, as they have already warned, if their share price doesn’t make a sustained recovery to above $1.00 a share. In early trading today, Circuit City shares have lost more than 90% of their value, falling from a lofty $0.12 per share when the market opened, and now sitting at an embarrassing two pennies a share (but that’s at least twice as much as we think its worth, so you could say its overvalued).

11/11/2008 Update…

Well, that didn’t take long. The latest milestone on the devolution of Circuit City has occured. Circuit City shares have been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and are now trading on the Pink Sheets.  With all these pink slips and pink sheets, maybe pink is Circuit City’s new color.  Circuit City is now what is referred to as a “penny stock”. That light you see at the end of the tunnel just may be the oncoming Best Buy Express. Click here to get a quote on Circuit City shares (CCTYQ.PK)

Things have gone steadily downhill for Circuit City since they made the absolutely brilliant business decision in March of last year, to fire 3,400 of their most experienced employees. Consumerist.com has posted
this excellent timeline of Circuit City’s decline, titled “How Circuit City Came Undone”, which shows their declining stock price in relation to various events in their demise. The graph looks a lot like a ski slope. It’s the sort of thing they’ll probably use in business schools, when teaching a course in how to destroy a successful company.

Perhaps the saddest part of this modern day Greek tragedy is the fact that the executives who were the architects of this debacle earned millions of dollars for their role in the company’s failure. Perhaps the new scrutiny that the country’s economic meltdown is focusing on executive compensation will cause the directors of corporations to hold their executives responsible for the bad decisions they make. Here’s a suggestion… Instead of simply lavishing millions of dollars in company stock on executives, how about adding the condition that they won’t be vested unless there is a certain number of quarters of future growth. For instance, Mr. CEO, that five or ten million dollars worth of company stock won’t be yours unless the company makes money over the next two years. No more “take the money and run”. For too many corporate executives, it has been a game of “heads I win, tails I win”.

Given Circuit City’s history and reputation, the decrepit state of the U.S. economy, and the competition that exists in the consumer electronics space (especially from competitors Best Buy and Walmart), we think it’s a safe bet that Circuit City will never emerge from bankruptcy, and that’s, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing”. Last week, they announced the closing of many of their stores, and we wouldn’t bee surprised if more closings follow before the end of the year.

Coming at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, the closings and the bankruptcy filing might attract some bargain hunters, but let’s be honest… Who wants to make a major purchase from a retailer who may very well not be around, should you need to return an unwanted or defective purchase. It pretty much goes without saying that anything purchased at a going-out-of-business sale is sold as-is, no returns, no refunds. Caveat emptor.

We’re going to go out on a limb here, and make the following prediction; Circuit City’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy will become a Chapter 7 filing (liquidation) within six months, perhaps much sooner. Check back here to see how our prediction fares.

– Routing By Rumor

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One Foot In The Grave At Circuit City

With just three weeks to go before most of the nation’s retailers enter their busiest time of the year, Circuit City stores have announced their latest brilliant plan. They are closing 155 of their locations, spread across 28 states (Reuters and Associated Press, 11/03/2008). The going-out-of-business sales at these locations will reportedly start tomorrow, November 5th. This is the latest bit of bad news from the nation’s #2 electronics retailer, which has had mass layoffs, sales declines, and received a lot of negative publicity in the last few years (see our previous articles about Circuit City’s problems, here, here, here and here).  With the closing of these Circuit City locations, thousands more Circuit City employees will join the ranks of the unemployed.

This should be viewed as an emergency amputation, as opposed to a pruning. When you have a healthy core, but too much growth in the branches, you prune, to keep the rest healthy. When there is systemic disease that causes necrosis at the periphery, you amputate. Other large retailers that have been proactive in difficult times tend to close just a handful of their worst performing locations, and they’ll do it after their peak selling season. Retailers that make ill-timed cuts, and who do it with an ax instead of a scalpel, tend to suffer from poor management or a lack of management. They usually don’t act until it’s too late. We believe the current debridement occuring at Circuit City falls into this category.

The fact that Circuit City could not wait until after the holiday selling season to close these stores speaks volumes about just how bad things are at the Richmond, Virginia-based electronics retailer. Indeed, with a stock price that has traded as low as 17 cents a share in recent days, and notification last week from the New York Stock Exchange that their stock is subject to de-listing, things can’t get much worse. Some of their suppliers, fearing that Circuit City is on the verge of bankruptcy, are refusing to ship merchandise to Circuit City unless they are paid cash up front. Consumers, hard hit by the recession, and disgusted with Circuit City, are spending any money they may have, elsewhere. Even with the announced closings, some analysts are predicting that Circuit City will be forced to liquidate or file for bankruptcy by January.

As bleak as things are at Circuit City, you still hear people saying that they are exploring “strategic alternatives” (see Business Week, 11/03/2008). We will submit to you that when you’re on the verge of bankruptcy, sales have dried up, vendors are demanding cash, your stock price is measured in pennies rather than dollars, you’re forced to close hundreds of stores, and the nation is in the grip of a deepening recession, you don’t have any “strategic” alternatives. The choices seem to be declaring bankruptcy now, or trying to hang on a little longer and declaring bankruptcy a few months from now. If Circuit City is pinning their hopes for survival on having a banner Christmas season, they’re in for a terrible shock. Even relatively healthy retailers are bracing for a dismal end to a dismal year, and the U.S. economy doesn’t seem poised to roar back to life anytime soon.

Circuit City’s woes spell opportunity for it’s competitors. It appears that the nation’s largest electronics retailer, Best Buy, will likely snap up some of the locations being vacated by rival Circuit City.

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Here’s Proof That Tasers Can Kill !

And tasers don’t just kill the people they are fired at.

We have written here previously, and here also, about our concerns regarding the increasing use of tasers by the nation’s police departments. We feel the weapons are too ripe for abuse and misuse to justify their use by police. We believe, as do many human rights organizations, that they can be used as weapons of torture, and that they can be lethal. We believe that many police officers, whether out of fear, ignorance, a desire to punish, or for their own amusement, have, and will continue to misuse the weapon.

Last Thursday, New York City police tasered an emotionally disturbed, naked man perched on a building ledge, who then fell to his death on the sidewalk below. Iman Morales (also spelled as “Inman” and “Iam” Morales in news reports), 35 years old, and a resident of Brooklyn, had fled from his apartment via the fire escape, screaming “you’re gonna kill me” to the approaching police. He was perched on the ledge, armed with nothing more than a fluorescent light bulb when he was shot with the taser. If you’ve ever handled fluorescent tubes, you probably know just how fragile they are. We can’t imagine anyone causing much damage with one.

No doubt Mr. Morales was having a bad day, and the police that responded to the call were about to have a bad day. The catalyst that turned a bad day into a tragic day was the availability of a taser, and the apparently misguided eagerness to use it. We doubt any police officer in their right mind would have even considered pulling their 9mm or their .38 and opening fire, yet the use of a taser was apparently considered acceptable, at least to the ranking officer at the scene. The end result was the same, nonetheless.

And yes, of course you can see amateur video of the incident on youtube, proving once again that Andy Warhol was correct. Here’s more news coverage posted on youtube. (We think that venues such as youtube have become the 21st century’s court of public opinion. Little of consequence occurs these days which doesn’t quickly show up on a youtube video. It also gives an ordinary citizen as much of a voice as the most powerful media outlets. Is the Internet great, or what?)

Morales’ mother, Olga Negron, had called police seeking help for her disturbed son, who reportedly had a history of psychiatric problems. Instead of the help his mother was seeking, quite tragically, Mr. Morales got exactly what he feared from the police. Was this a self-fulfilling prophecy, or was Mr. Morales just an excellent judge of character? We’ll never know.

New York City Police Department brass have acknowledged the tasering of Mr. Morales, under the circumstances, appears to have violated department guidelines on the use of the weapon. We think it violated common sense, human decency, good police work and the law.   Lieutenant Michael Pigott, the 46-year-old police officer with 21 years on the force, who ordered the use of the taser against Mr. Morales, was stripped of his gun and shield, and placed on desk duty. Nicholas Marchesona, the police officer who actually fired the Taser was also put on desk duty but kept his gun and badge, and, we assume, his taser.

This morning, on the day that Mr. Morales was to be buried, and less than a week after the deadly incident, Michael Pigott, the police lieutenant who ordered the use of the taser against Iman Morales, committed suicide (also see WCBS coverage of the suicide). Since the homicide last week, Mr. Pigott had told reporters that he was “truly sorry for what happened” to Iman Morales. This New York Times story provides some background information about Lt. Pigott.

Did guilt drive Mr. Pigott to commit suicide? Did the public shame of having video of the incident show up on youtube play a role? A suicide note reportedly mentioned concern about facing charges for his role in Mr. Morales’ death. We will probably never know for certain what drove him to take his own life, or for that matter, what possessed him to order the inappropriate use of the taser against a disturbed individual who posed little threat to anybody but himself. We think it’s fair to say that both Mr. Morales, and Mr. Pigott were killed by a taser, even if that won’t be the proximate cause of death listed on either death certificate. (A physician once told us that death certificates often fail to accurately identify the true cause of death.)

There are many who still believe the taser is a non-lethal weapon. Has anyone asked the Pigott family or the Morales family if they believe that?

From all accounts we’ve read by people that knew them, both Mr. Morales and Mr. Pigott were decent men.  Had it not been for the terribly misguided decision to arm New York City police with tasers, both men would likely be alive today.  That is the real tragedy.

How many dead bodies need to pile up on American streets, before our government acknowledges the fact that the taser, and similar devices, are indeed lethal weapons ? Our laws should treat the taser as a lethal weapon, regardless of who is pulling the trigger.

– Routing By Rumor

P.S. – Here’s an article by another WordPress blogger, that details the taser death of a man by police at an airport in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His crime appears to be that he could not speak English, which seems to be a capital offense in Canada (with the exception of Quebec).

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Our Adventures In DTV Land (or, how to join the digital TV revolution without spending a small fortune)

But that’s a pretty long title,

So also file this article under…

  • “How To Choose The Best Set-Top Converter Box”
  • “Digital To Analog DTV Converter Box Comparisons”
  • “Comparing DTV Converter Box Features”
  • “Which Is The Best Digital TV Tuner ?”
  • “HDTV Set-Top Converter Box Buyer’s Guide”
  • “Using Your $40 NTIA Set-Top Converter Box Coupons”

To borrow (and mangle) a catchy slogan from one of the cable TV networks…

I WANT MY DTV !

(as does the FCC, and this person, and this person, among others)

Routing By Rumor has recruited some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry to help us launch our “I Want My DTV” campaign…

Promo # 1

Promo # 2

Promo # 3

Promo # 4

But unfortunately, none of them followed the script, so we’re going to have to do the promos all over again. It’s impossible to get good help these days.

As we reported recently in There Is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set, the cut-over to all-digital television broadcasting in the United States is quickly approaching. On February 17th, 2009, exactly six months from tomorrow, broadcasters will be turning off their analog television transmitters forever. If you wish to continue receiving over-the-air television programs, you will have to either add a digital tuner to your older television sets (in the form of a digital-to-analog set-top converter box), or replace your current sets with digital receivers.

Armed with the two $40.00 NTIA converter box coupons which the U.S. government graciously provided (using our tax money), we set out on a mission to find the best converter box available. By the way, we checked out some of the statistics published at www.ntiadtv.gov (the NTIA website for retailers participating in the coupon program), and we were surprised to learn that less than half of the converter box coupons they have issued under the program have actually been redeemed prior to their expiration date.

Based on extensive research we’ve done on the Web, it seems that all of the early versions of the available converter boxes suffer from problems of one kind or another. Some are hard of hearing, so to speak, and not able to receive signals on some of the more distant or weaker stations. Some models have problems with the audio they pass to your television, such as insufficient volume, even at maximum output. Since they are all basically just computers with an RF interface, the embedded software seems to be a big issue also. Some models reportedly crash, reboot spontaneously, or suffer from a variety of bugs. Apparently, none of the available models of converter boxes have any provision for firmware upgrades. If it’s broke, it’s broke forever. Can’t they at least provide a USB port, so people can download firmware updates from the Web onto their computers, and flash the converter box with updated software ? They say you should never buy Version 1.0 of anything. Apparently, this applies to DTV converter boxes also. Some sneaky software companies actually skip the v1.0 label when releasing new software packages, calling it v1.5, v2.0, etc., instead. Sort of like buildings that don’t have 13th floors… but then isn’t the 14th floor really the 13th floor? As a child, we thought that if an elevator in a high rise building or a skyscraper didn’t have a button for the 13th floor, the elevator just couldn’t stop on that floor, even though the 13th floor was actually there, just boarded up or otherwise inaccessible (maybe inhabited by monsters or something). There’s actually a very interesting Wikipedia article about this. Reading it left us, as they say, ROTFLMAO.

Where was I ? ….Oh yes, DTV converter boxes.

And then there is the issue of ease-of-use, the quality of the UI (that’s User Interface, for all you non-geeks), and the features that the converter boxes provide. The features vary considerably from brand to brand.

Our first stop was at Best Buy, a nationwide chain of consumer electronics and entertainment stores. Like many retailers, they advertise heavily and have large stores, but they seem to fall flat on their face when it comes to execution on the sales floor. Chalk this up to poor management, low paid employees, and probably just not having enough staff. While other people have said that they purchased either the Zenith DTT900 or DTT901 at Best Buy, they do not seem to sell it anymore. They do sell the same product under their “Insignia” label, but there were none on the sales floor. We spotted a stack of them way up, about 10 feet above our head, but had no way to reach them, and we couldn’t find anyone to help us. Here’s a guy on youtube doing an unboxing of the Insignia converter box. He’s behaving like such a jerk that we wanted to take away his new toy and send him to bed without supper.

Best Buy was also selling a converter box from Apex Digital, and had them where we could reach them, but we hadn’t heard of Apex or read any reviews, so we left Best Buy empty handed. Best Buy was selling both their Insignia/LG and the Apex converters for $60. Later research on the Web indicates that Apex and “Tivax” branded converter boxes might be the same unit or at least very similar. Some people are calling the Apex a Tivax clone. To us, Apex Digital sounds like a company with a troubled past, and at least one infamous product. We don’t know how their DTV converter box stacks up against the competition, but it seems to us like they might not be around too much longer.

Next, we stopped at a Radio Shack store, our electronics supplier of last resort. They didn’t have a single converter box on display. Rumors have circulated that Radio Shack is selling a converter box by “Digital Stream” (???), but we haven’t read any reviews on it. Then again, we’ve read reports that RS was selling Zenith/LG boxes also, but that was not the case in the store we visited. We didn’t waste any more time with Radio Shack.

There is a Circuit City store in our area, but as we’ve written previously, we feel that the best thing that Circuit City can do is bite the dust. We wouldn’t buy a converter box (or anything else) there, if they were giving them away for free. Well, maybe if they were free, but not otherwise. Reports from other consumers posted on the Web say that Circuit City is selling the Zenith DTT901 (to the less discriminating consumers who still shop there) for $60, or about 20% more than some retailers (see below). And what if you want to return or exchange it, and Circuit City goes belly up tomorrow ? (a definite possibility, considering their financial position) Didn’t think of that, did you ? (Benigan’s today, Circuit City tomorrow.)

Walmart’s website lists them as selling the Magnavox TB100MW9 and the RCA DTA800 converter boxes in-store only, each selling for around $50. The last time we visited a Wal-Mart store, they only had the Magnavox in stock.

We tried a few other local electronics stores, but they either did not sell converter boxes, had none on display, or their prices were not competitive. It’s amazing how many places don’t have stuff on the selling floor, but they’ll tell you that they might have one “in the back”. What is that, some new merchandising technique ? Morons. How hard would it be to have some underpaid employee move some stock to the empty shelf space on the selling floor, where it might have half a chance of being seen and purchased. We’ve never run a retail store, but we’re pretty sure we could do a better job than the management at most of these retail chains.

Quickly running out of local retailers where we thought we might find the Zenith DTT901, we decided to try the local retail disaster scene, K-Mart. How they have managed to (barely) stay in business is a complete mystery to us. Now, this is just our opinion, but we think they sell a lot of low quality stuff, and their prices are usually not competitive. We can’t think of a single compelling reason to shop at K-Mart (well, perhaps if you are desperately searching for a Zenith DTT901). On the other hand, if you enjoy long checkout lines, clueless (and very, very scarce) totally disinterested employees, drab, unappealing stores and lots of lower end products, you’re gonna love K-Mart. Do they even do their “blue light specials” anymore? We’ve never seen a K-Mart store that didn’t have long lines at the checkouts, where you’d find, at most, two or three cashiers, amid a sea of unmanned/closed registers. Fortunately, the laws of natural selection usually see to it that these types of animals become extinct. What’s taking K-Mart so long to achieve their rightful place in the graveyard of American retailers ? Even Wal-Mart and Target have more appealing stores, and know how to attract customers. This is getting way off-topic for this article, but just look at the television and print ads from Target. They’re so creative and interesting, compared to the boring circulars you might occasionally see from K-Mart. Maybe that’s why you will always find twenty times as many cars parked outside a Target store, as you would outside a K-Mart.

To our astonishment, this retailing giant from hell actually had three, count ’em three, brands of DTV converter boxes for sale. They had a Magnavox unit for $50, they had the Zenith DTT901 we were looking for, priced at $50 (Circuit City reportedly prices it 20% higher), and they had Dish Network’s DTVpal for $60, but we had never heard of the DTVpal. This blogger says that the DTVpal is really a renamed Echostar TR-40 (read more about Echostar / Dish Network. For youtube addicts, here’s uber geek MegaZone’s blog, where he has posted a great series of detailed videos showing a Dish Network DTVpal being hooked up, and in operation (or click here to go directly to them). Here’s another contributor’s DTVpal video review on youtube. In any case, with three brands in stock and on display at K-Mart, we figured that we had hit the DTV converter box jackpot. And who would have thought… in K-Mart no less. It’s almost enough to make us change our opinion of K-Mart. On second thought, naah, they still suck (see below about K-Mart’s usual long lines at the checkout).

While standing there in the aisle at K-Mart, we opened one of the DTVpal boxes and took a closer look. As we perused the owner’s manual, we were surprised to find some features that we hadn’t seen in other converter boxes. Chief among it’s impressive features is a much better Electronic Program Guide (EPG) than other converter boxes offer. Other DTV converter boxes we’ve looked at only show programming info for the current and the next programs on each channel, or in some cases, the current program on each channel only. By contrast, the DTVpal lets you scroll through program listings for the next week or more, depending on how much PSIP data each station broadcasts. We’ve learned that when you turn the DTVpal off, it only LOOKS like it’s off. The sneaky DTVpal is actually as busy as a bee, scanning all available channels for the PSIP programming data they transmit at regular intervals. Therefore, it’s a good idea to turn it off (it’s inactivity timer will eventually do this automatically) when you’re not watching TV, so it can update it’s EPG. It’s sort of like REM sleep for your DTVpal. We even liked the “TiVoish” DTVpal mascot/logo on the carton… sort of a cross between a TV and a doggie (we’re partial to doggies). Maybe the implication is that the DTVpal can fetch your favorite program listings for you.

The DTVpal is a very small, kind of ugly and cheap looking all plastic unit with a “wall wart” type power supply connected to a very cheesy looking power cord which could probably double as dental floss in an emergency (please remember to unplug the unit before flossing). The connector at the end of the power cord isn’t military grade stuff, either. It’s a fragile looking, uniquely shaped molded plug that doesn’t resemble any power connector we’ve ever seen before. The power supply’s rated output is 5 Volts DC @ 2 Amps.

We didn’t initially realize that the DTVpal was from Dish Network. That’s because, quite curiously, their name is nowhere to be found on the outside of the box. It’s only after opening the box and looking at the instruction manual inside, that you see the name “Dish Network”. Another curious thing we noticed is that while the phrase “by Dish Network” is printed onto the plastic case of the DTVpal, the “by Dish Network” wording is missing in the photo of the unit on the carton, as if they doctored the photo of the DTVpal. This tells us one of two things… Either they were unsure of who was going to market it when they printed the boxes, or the generic box is being used for more than one branded version of the DTVpal. Who knows… maybe you’ll also see “DigiTek” or “Acme” brand DTVpals being sold at some point. If we decide to perform exploratory surgery on the DTVpal, we’ll try to determine who is actually building them for Dish.

Unfortunately, Dish Network has also cut corners on the accessories they provide. The DTVpal DOES NOT include the necessary RCA cable for audio and video hookup to your TV set (they do include a short coaxial cable with “F” connectors, but they provide no way of connecting the audio and composite video outputs of the DTVpal to your TV set). Why go through the trouble and expense of buying a DTV converter box if you are going to loose picture quality by viewing it via your TV’s analog tuner on RF channel 3 or 4 ? Dish Network should spend the few extra cents per unit it would cost them to include the necessary RCA cable. Of course, having a converter box with S-video or component video output would deliver even better video quality, but at least take advantage of the product’s composite video capability. Would you buy a Mercedes that came from the factory without tires, or a pair of shoes that was missing the laces ?

On the other hand, after reading the instruction manual, it became clear that Dish Network has put a lot more thought into the DTVpal’s features and user interface than other converter box manufacturers. Perhaps it’s their experience with set-top boxes for their paid satellite service that gives them the edge. In any case, what the DTVpal lacks in it’s cheaper construction and lack of cables is mitigated to a degree by the features provided in it’s software.

We decided to buy both a Zenith DTT901( build date of June, 2008 ) and a Dish Network DTVpal (firmware version 102) at K-Mart, using our $40 NTIA coupons (as we suspected, you swipe them like credit cards, and they show up on the receipt as $40 gift cards). K-Mart, like other retailers who accept the NTIA “coupons”, states on their receipts that they will only allow you to exchange converter boxes purchased with the government coupon for another converter box. No cash refunds of Uncle Sam’s $40 subsidies. That is as it should be. BTW, we’ve seen recent comments from other DTVpal owners that Dish ( as of August, 2008 ) is already up to firmware version 105 on the “TR-40 CRA” DTVpal clones that it has just started to ship. It sounds like people that have DTVpals with firmware version 100 or 101 have had some serious problems with them. It seems likely to us that Dish Network will have to do some sort of recall or replacement of these early-production units, both to satisfy their customers, and to avoid problems with the NTIA, which, after all, paid most of the cost of many of these units, via their converter box coupon program. It’s too bad that Dish does not identify the production date or firmware version of these units on the outside of the carton (unless it’s coded into the box’s serial number label). It would allow buyers to know if they’re buying a problem or not. We think that at least knowing what serial numbers have problematic software installed would be valuable information for prospective customers. Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot.

Surprisingly, the lines at the checkout were much shorter than we expected… we only had to wait in line for about a half hour. And K-Mart management probably wonders why everyone goes to Target or WalMart instead. It’s not rocket science.

The DTT901’s LG/Zenith warranty is much longer (sort of) than the DTVpal warranty. LG warrants the Zenith DTT901’s parts against defect for one year, but Dish Network only warrants the DTVpal’s parts for 90 days. Thats a four times longer parts warranty from Zenith ! (both units only offer a 90 day labor warranty). On the other hand, if the Zenith converter box blows up after six months, will they tell you that parts replacement is free, but the out-of-warranty labor charge comes to $50.00 ? (which is the price of a new unit) …We are very suspicious of any manufacturer that will only warranty labor for the first three months of a one year parts warranty, on a device in the price range of these devices. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that it will not make sense to pay for shipping and labor to have one of these converter boxes repaired by the manufacturer. It’s even doubtful that any manufacturer would waste their time trying to repair one of these units.

Our detailed comparison of the LG / Zenith DTT901 versus the Dish Network / Echostar DTVpal follows. We have marked our preferences with an asterisk.


CONSTRUCTION
The Zenith wins hands down. Superior quality construction in every
respect.  We were going to take some "autopsy" photos of the DTT901,
but Steve Vigneau has done a teardown of a Zenith DTT900 and posted
some incredible high-res photos of the unit, assembled and disassembled,
on his blog at nuxx.net.  They're better than anything we could have
shot with our decrepit HP digital camera.  After viewing them, you'll
understand why we're so crazy about the Zenith's great build quality.
Steve's level of detail is unbelievable.  He goes as far as taking
apart the metal cage that shields the RF section, and cataloging the
screws that hold the unit together.  He has surely voided the warranty,
something we like to do immediately upon purchasing any new electronic
devices, here at Routing By Rumor. 

 * Zenith DTT901:  All metal chassis, except for the plastic front panel
                  The Zenith also has power and channel up/down controls
                  on it's front panel, whereas the DTVpal has no controls
                  on the case and must be controlled exclusively from
                  the remote control.
  Dish   DTVpal:  Plastic Case, and a very distracting bright green LED,
                  which you can't turn off.  Try covering the LED with a
                  piece of electrical tape to solve the problem, but take
                  care to avoid covering the IR receiver, or your remote
                  control won't work.

HEAT GENERATION
The Zenith runs for hours with only the slightest temperature rise.
They have successfully addressed the heating issues in earlier
production units of the DTT901.  The unventilated, plastic cased
DTVpal runs too warm.

* Zenith DTT901:  The Zenith runs cool, even after hours of use.
  Dish   DTVpal:  Runs very warm, particularly the bottom side of
                  the case.  We are concerned that this might
                  shorten the life of the unit.

POWER SUPPLY
The Zenith has a high quality internal power supply (yes, we
opened it up for a look-see), and a permanently attached AC cord,
which we thought should be a bit longer.

* Zenith DTT901:  A well designed internal power supply, with a
                  high quality, albeit somewhat short AC cord.
  Dish   DTVpal:  "Wall wart" style power supply, with a cheesy
                  looking, flimsy power cord and power connector.

RECEIVER SENSITIVITY
Both units performed very well.  We like the numeric (0 - 100) signal
strength reading on the DTVpal more than the "weak/strong" bargraph
on the Zenith, and we thought the DTVpal might have had the slightest
edge when it came to sensitivity.  On the other hand, in cases where
the signal was marginal, the Zenith made a valiant attempt to paint
images on the screen.  The DTVpal wouldn't even try, instead just
saying "No Service".  There were widely reported problems with audio
quality on early-production Zenith DTT901's, and the recommendations
we've seen say to avoid units that have a manufacture date earlier
than APRIL 2008 on the carton's UPC label.  Our DTT901 says JUNE 2008,
and we've found absolutely no issues with audio quality.

* Zenith DTT901: Very Good
* Dish   DTVpal: Very Good


REMOTE CONTROL
We greatly prefer the remote on the Dish Network DTVpal.  Neither remote
has backlit buttons.  There is an issue with the DTVpal's remote
interfering with the operation of other Dish Network equipment residing
in the same room, but they are apparently addressing this by supplying
a different remote control in later production units.

  Zenith DTT901:  Well laid out, but it's not contoured to your hand. Uses
                  one AAA cell.  The Zenith remote lets you turn your TV
                  on and off without having to pick up a second remote.
* Dish   DTVpal:  We really liked the contoured shape of the DTVpal's remote,
                  and while it is larger than the Zenith remote, it just
                  felt more comfortable in our hand.  While it's button
                  layout takes some getting used to, it becomes very
                  intuitive with a little use. We think it's dual infrared
                  LEDs and two AAA cells might perform better than Zenith's
                  remote.

ELECTRONIC PROGRAM GUIDE (EPG)
The DTVpal blows away the competition in this department.  It offers an
excellent guide that shows all programming for the next week or so for
all channels, limited only by how much data the broadcasters provide.

  Zenith DTT901:  Limited to current & next program on each channel.
* Dish   DTVpal:  Provides a program grid extending out a week or
                  more for all channels.

FIRMWARE ISSUES

Neither unit is field-upgradeable.  The DTVpal has had several well-
publicized software bugs that have prompted two or three new firmware
releases in it's short lifetime.  We have identified what is likely
an issue with firmware version 102, which affects the adding or
P-I-P viewing of some channels on the unit's "Add a channel" screen.
The only solution we've found is to reset the DTVpal, and let it
do it's channel search all over again. Despite these issues, we
still recommend the DTVpal over the competition, because of it's
superior on-screen information and it's fantastic EPG.  Let's hope
that Dish does right by their customers, and provides them with
hassle-free, postage-free advance replacements for their buggy
DTVpals upon request.  They also need to replace buggy firmware
regardless of whether the units are still within their 90-day
warranty period.  We hope they will decide to match Zenith's
one-year parts warranty, at least when it comes to upgrading
defective firmware.  Customers can always try to exchange their
defective units where they bought them, but the lack of any clear
external indication of the firmware version contained in the unit
makes it impossible to know what you have until you hook it up.
We would like to see all of these units have flashable firmware
that can be updated by the consumer when a new software version
is released. In the long run, this will be less costly for the
manufacturer than replacing the units, and it will increase
customer satisfaction.

  Zenith DTT901:  No apparent firmware issues, but it's features
                  just don't compare to the very slick DTVpal.
* Dish   DTVpal:  Superior features and a great program guide
                  give the DTVpal the edge, despite our concerns
                  about still somewhat buggy firmware.  For this
                  reason, we conditionally recommend the DTVpal.

WARRANTY
To be blunt, Dish Network needs to offer their customers a
better warranty.  Ideally, we would like to see all electronics
manufacturers offer a one year warranty on parts AND labor.

* Zenith DTT901: 1 year parts, 90 days labor.
  Dish   DTVpal: 90 days parts, 90 days labor.

OUR OVERALL RECOMMENDATION

We think that LG Electronics has built a superior product in
every respect from a physical standpoint (with the possible
exception of their remote control). However, they need to play
catch-up with Dish Network's DTVpal when it comes to the
features provided by their software.  Either unit will deliver
excellent picture and audio quality.  We paid slightly less
for the Zenith DTT901 than we did for the DTVpal, but your
mileage may vary regarding pricing.

We are somewhat concerned about the fact that the DTVpal does
not run as cool as the Zenith DTT901.  Heat is the enemy of
any electronic device, shortening it's lifespan and decreasing
it's reliability.  It would be nice to see Dish address the
heat issue, and move the power supply into the unit itself,
instead of using a "wall wart" power supply. And as we've
mentioned, Dish needs to cough up a few extra cents, and include
the necessary RCA cables with the DTVpal. 

All things considered, we think that the Dish Network DTVpal's
superior features make it our pick.  It's unfortunate that
its body isn't a match for it's mind.

Check out these cnet reviews of the DTVpal, and the Zenith DTT901, which also provide side-by-side comparisons to other popular DTV converter boxes.

A note to members of avsforum.com visiting this blog…

We joined avsforum (avsforum.com) recently to share our experience with the DTV converters mentioned in this article. Unfortunately the avsforum seems to suffer from at least two problems. There are a few disgruntled members over there that seem to have nothing better to do than post negative comments to just about every thread that other members start (and nobody seems to say anything to them about their inappropriate comments). Then there is the person (or persons) responsible for running that forum, who repeatedly delete postings for no apparent reason. Perhaps they’re on a power trip, perhaps they practice censorship of viewpoints that are not the same as theirs, or maybe they’re just in love with their delete key. God only knows.

We are a regular contributor to over a dozen technology forums on the Web, and we’ve never experienced these issues elsewhere. Fortunately, numerous venues exist on the Internet, from websites, to forums, to mailing lists and usenet newsgroups, so that persons seeking knowledge, or those wishing to share information, have many options available to them. Life is way too short to waste it dealing with nonsense of the sort that we’ve experienced over there.

Others have apparently drawn the same conclusion and have written about problems with avsforum (we did a search, and it didn’t take long to find other people who have had problems with avsforum). Here’s an article that complains of censorship by the people running avsforum, here’s one that details other problems over there that have prompted it to shut down some forum areas. There’s this fellow, who warns that some of what you read there is posted by individuals with hidden agendas, and then there’s this person, who does not mince words when he describes what he believes takes place over there.

As we said, life is too short to waste it at avsforum.com !

– Routing By Rumor

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There Is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set

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(TV image from webtvwire.com)

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat, there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”

That was the advice viewers heard at the beginning of each episode of “The Outer Limits“, a sci-fi TV series originally broadcast from 1963 to 1965. Now, 45 years later, Americans are getting some new advice, and yes, those same scary people are still “controlling transmission”. This time, however, there IS something wrong with your television set… the problem is that it’s analog, not digital.

When the clock strikes Midnight on February 17, 2009 (six months from this writing), your decrepit, old analog television sets will become electronic boat anchors, and you will be dragged into the brave new world of digital TV, whether you like it or not. You can enter the digital realm by replacing your beloved boat anchor with one of those shiny new digital HDTVs. Or, you can give your analog friend a reprieve by adding a set-top converter box which will allow your analog TV to pick up those new-fangled ATSC digital broadcasts, more commonly known as DTV or Digital TV. Learn more about DTV at the U.S. government’s official digital television website, www.dtv.gov.

A small number of stations in the United States will still be allowed to continue broadcasting those old NTSC analog signals after February 19th, but for the most part, analog TV sets will stop working on that date. And if you get your daily fix via cable or satellite TV, no worries. Nothing will change for you a few days after the St. Valentine martyrs get their annual tribute.

Now we don’t know about you, but the mere thought of being denied our god-given right to watch infomercials and the home shopping network 24×7 has put us into a digital frenzy. We’re pretty sure that those converter boxes will become scarcer than hens teeth as the deadline approaches. Expect long lines at electronics retailers, with people camping out at the local Best Buy, waiting for the next shipment of converter boxes to arrive from China by armored car. The lines will be so long, you’ll think Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft was releasing their newest game console. People will be paying proxies to stand in line for them. Scalpers will be buying the converter boxes and selling them on eBay at 300% markups. So, with these visions of my digital future weighing heavily on my mind, I’ve decided to start my dtv converter box shopping now.

zeldawii.com)

Gamers line up to buy the Nintendo Wii (from zeldawii.com - click on photo)

Uncle Sam, in the guise of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (doesn’t that name just roll off your tongue?), has blessed Americans who apply for their $40 converter box coupons (limit two per household) at www.dtv2009.gov. They will send you a coupon that can be used towards the purchase of government-approved eligible converter boxes. It’s not actually a coupon, but rather what appears to be a debit or gift card, complete with a 16 digit account number embossed on the front, along with a way cool hologram, and the obligatory high-coercivity magnetic stripe and three digit CVC2 code on the back. And it expires two to three months after you get it, so if you snooze, you loose.

What will you pay for a DTV converter box? They are generally available anywhere from $60.00 to well over $100, online and at retail stores. We think that manufacturers and retailers have taken advantage of the fact that the government is subsidizing these converters to the tune of $40 each, and they’ve decided to inflate their selling price. Low-end DVD players, which are substantially more complex and expensive to produce, sell for prices starting in the $30 range. If you are considering shelling out over $100 for a converter box, you might want to think about replacing your TV with a digital model instead. You won’t have to deal with two devices or two remote controls, and you’ll gain some functionality and ease of use by replacing your TV, VCR, Tivo and/or DVD recorder, instead of retrofitting your old set, especially if you plan to record programs off-air. One of the biggest limitations when using a atv-to-dtv converter box is that you can no longer select the channel using the tuner (or programming capability) of your TV, VCR, Tivo or DVD recorder. You are forced to select the channel via the converter box (“Series 3” Tivos have both ATSC and NTSC tuners.)

What would these DTV converters sell for, if it wasn’t for the government subsidy? We suspect they would be in the area of $25-35 each. Expect them to drop back to that price range once the subsidy program goes away, and replacement of older televisions with new digital receivers picks up more steam. Almost all new TVs sold today have digital tuners that do not require an analog-to-digital set-top converter box.

So while the government subsidy program has probably encouraged people to buy converter boxes, it has no doubt also inflated the prices of those boxes. It has also encouraged some people who would have simply replaced their television sets, to put off that purchase, and opt for a converter instead. Based on some of the reviews being posted by purchasers of these set-top converter boxes, there are a lot of people unhappy with the performance and quality of these products. It seems likely that many of them will decide to scrap their converter boxes in favor of a new TV. We think a better way of providing a subsidy for DTV to Americans would have been a one-time tax credit for the purchase of a converter box or new digital television set. It would have had less of an inflationary effect on retail prices, been less expensive to implement, and would have been less susceptible to abuse than the coupon program.

We don’t know about you, but we can’t wait to see those infomercials offering their snake oil in 1920 x 1080 high-def resolution, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. So if you haven’t done so already, apply for your converter-box coupons, bring your TV viewing into the digital age, and help increase our trade deficit with China, all from the comfort of your web browser. Click here to follow our adventures as we shop for, purchase, install and compare the features and performance of set-top DTV converter boxes.

To paraphrase the late television legend Tom Snyder, “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the bits, now, as they fly through the air”. (There is a treasure trove of Tom Snyder’s interviews from The Tomorrow Show available on youtube.)

– Routing By Rumor

Tom Snyder (1936-2007)

photo: wkyc.com Cleveland/Akron, OH

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