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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cheap Internet Phone Calls

Cheap Local and Long Distance Calling with T-Mobile @ Home voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) Service - Hardware is the Linksys (Cisco) HiPort Home Phone Adapter - Model #UTA200-TMI'm very embarrassed to admit it, but I was paying more than $60 per month for a landline provided by Verizon. I recently dissolved my relationship with Verizon and am now using T-Mobile's @ Home voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) system to make calls via my Comcast Cable broadband Internet connection, @ $9.99 per month. Unlimited local and long distance calling, call waiting, call forwarding, 3-way conferencing, caller ID and voice mail are included.

I've been making moves to save money everywhere I can, and my landline was very close to the top of my list.

Last week, I called Verizon to cancel my phone line, but I also wanted to hear what the company was willing to do to keep my business. We discussed trimming all the extras like call waiting, unlisted phone number, etc., but the saving were negligible. I explained to the retention department rep' that this recession has hurt my business and income in a significant way, and that I needed to cut back as much as possible. But she wasn't able to offer anything worthwhile. So I told her to cancel my phone line. I was told that my line would go dead at around 6:00 am the next morning, and it did so, right on schedule.

After my line went dead, I made a few calls to certain important contacts who needed to know about my terminated landline right away. I used my cell phone, which is serviced by T-Mobile. I am on the individual Get More plan, which gives me 600 weekday minutes each month, with nights and weekends free. It costs me $39.99 per month plus taxes and fees.

I'd been researching various VOIP services for some time (MagicJack, Vonage, Phone Power, etc.), and decided to investigate T-Mobile's @ Home service first, since it seemed like the perfect fit for my situation. The hardware -- the Linksys (Cisco) HiPort home phone adapter (Model #URA200-TM) situated below my D-Link cable modem in the above image -- was free. Moreover, I was able to get the activation fee waived. I realized right away that the "waived activation fee" was probably just a trick to get cheapskates like me to sign on, but I was OK with it. The monthly fee for the service: $9.99.

Before I signed on the dotted line, I voiced my concern that the system may not work with my home network, as I use a software router (WinGate) and I also have a wireless access point box plugged into my wired network (I use a Netgear Ethernet hub.) I use a 2.4 Ghz Belkin 802.11g Wireless Range Extender/Access point box (model# F5D7130 -- highly recommended!) so that anyone can surf the web from any location in my place. The salesman called some tech support folks @ T-Mobile; I explained my setup to them and they said that I should have no trouble using their hardware with my setup. They told me to plug the HiPort adapter box directly into my Ethernet hub, as opposed to setting it up between my cable modem and my Wingate computer. After I was told that I could bring everything back within two weeks (they call it the "buyer's remorse" period) I decided to give the system a try. The salesman programmed and installed a new SIM card (free) into the HiPort adapter, and I was on my way.

When I got home, I tried setting up the HiPort home phone adapter by plugging it into my Ethernet hub, as instructed by the T-Mobile tech support folks. Didn't work. I then tried setting it up the way the instruction manual recommended -- hooking up the box between the cable modem and my router computer -- and, after I rebooted all my machines twice, including the cable modem, it worked.

I was able to browse the web and make phone calls without any problems for about 6 hours. Then calls started breaking up and going dead, and my Internet became unbearably slow.

I called up T-Mobile and, after running a few tests, they recommended that I go back to the cell phone store where I signed up for the VOIP service and upgrade my hardware to the Linksys WRTU54G-TM Wireless-G Broadband Router (with 2 Phone Ports!). They told me that I'd have to pay a fee for the upgrade, and I said no thanks!

I ran my own tests, and found that the call quality and connection problems had nothing to do with T-Mobile or the HiPort hardware. The problem was with my Comcast broadband connection. Not too hard to figure this out. I pinged Yahoo.com from my Windows 2000 machine that's directly connected to my cable modem. With the Hiport adapter in the mix, the Time to Live (TTL) was OK, with an average round trip time of 49 milliseconds. But the connection would timeout quite often. When I removed the HiPort adapter and pinged Yahoo.com, I experienced the same timing out problem.

I called Comcast and we went through all the possible causes for the timing out issue. Everything on my end was fine, so the tech support rep' recommended that I upgrade to a cable modem that supports the DOCSIS 3 standard (my D-Link modem uses DOCSIS 2.) He recommended that I get a modem from Comcast, but I declined that offer since renting from them would mean a monthly charge: a ripoff in the long term. He said that I could find a DOCSIS 3-compatible modem at Wal-Mart for less than $50. I thanked him for his counsel and ended the call.

Next, I tried shutting down everything on my home network, which would reboot all my hardware. I included a visit to my fusebox and cut power to my home office, and I manually turned off my 3 uninterruptible power supply (UPS) devices (2 x APC and one TrippLite) to be sure that every ounce of juice drained from everything. After firing it all back up, my Internet was back to normal speed and the quality of the voice calls improved.

So I think I'll be keeping this T-Mobile @ Home VOIP service. I've been conducting VOIP speed tests here:

http://whichvoip.com/voip/speed_test/ppspeed.html

and all has been OK since I rebooted everything in my home office.

I called T-Mobile tech support again to see if I could somehow configure my HiPort adapter to prioritize my voice calls over the streaming of data. The support rep' told me that the HiPort adapter is already configured for voice priority. She said that even the T-Mobile @ Home service at her house has problems with voice calls sometimes, and it's always due traffic jams with the broadband connection provided by her Internet Service Provider (ISP). She said she uses a DSL connection to the Internet, provided by Quest.

I can live with some lagging every once in a while. If I have an important call to make, I can simply shut down my router computer, or stop the Wingate service, or temporarily put the PC in standby mode, then bring the PC back online when I'm done with the call. I doubt I'll ever have to do this, but it's an option.

If you don't have a T-Mobile cell phone account, you can try Phone Power, which offers cheap Internet calling @ $14.95 per month. Some key features with the Phone Power service:

  • Unlimited free calls in USA and Canada. And, of course, unlimited free local calls

  • You can keep your current phone number (free transfer) or you can request a new one

  • Online orders get free activation

  • Free lease for the phone adapter hardware

  • Free Caller ID, voicemail, call waiting ID, voicemail to email, call log viewer, call forwarding, 3-way conference calling, E911, 611, 811 and 311 service.

Why I Didn't Choose Vonage

A close friend of mine uses Vonage and she is very happy with it. You get unlimited local and long distance calling to the USA, Canada and Puerto Rico @ $24.99 per month, whereas I'm paying $9.99 per month for my T-Mobile @ Home service. For my friend, Vonage makes sense because she has lots of friends and family in England, and with Vonage, unlimited calls to landline phones in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy and Ireland are included at the $24.99 price point. If I called Europe often I might have chosen Vonage myself, but I don't, so going with T-Mobile @ Home made sense to me.

Why I Didn't Choose MagicJack

First of all, I don't like the commercials. It's like that pitchman is trying to sell poisonous toys to preteens. The way he counts that money at the start of the commercial: like that's going to convince me to open my wallet? It's a low quality ad and it probably reflects either a low quality product, or low quality customer service, or both, in my opinion.

It's like those "make money on the Internet" scams -- I mean "seminars." I attended one in New York City once, because I was curious and it was free. The whole thing was so stupid that I couldn't contain my laughter. Lots of "raise you hand if you want to make a lot of money" and "repeat after me: I am going to change my life, and work for myself, and make lots of money on the Internet, and it's all going to begin right here and right now," crap. All guff and no substance. I left after 3 minutes.

Another thing about MagicJack: the hardware is a box that connects to your computer via USB. That's not practical, in my opinion, since I would have to leave my computer on all the time. Leaving my computers on 24/7 is something I used to do, but these days I'm in frugal mode, so I shut them down at night.

If you're thinking about going for MagicJack, be sure to read all the comments at this USNews.com article.


T-Mobile @ Home: The Drawbacks

  • As with any VOIP service, if your Internet goes down, your phone goes down with it. If you do go for VOIP, be prepared for the worst. Buy a high quality uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and plug your cable/DSL modem power cord into it. You don't want to be in a situation where the power is out and you can't make an emergency call, especially if you have kids. And keep your cell phone charged.

    I have 3 UPS devices in my home office: two by American Power Conversion (APC) and one by TrippLite. I rank the APC devices above the TrippLite because they've been flawless in catching both major and minor brownouts, and blackouts.

  • I don't like the idea of a two-year contract, but you can't signup for the T-Mobile @ Home service unless you commit to a two year deal.

That's it for now. Hope this review was helpful. Comments are always welcome and appreciated.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Social Security Projected to Go Bust in 2037

Social Security Trust Funds Projected to Go Bust by 2037Over the years, I'm sure you've been told many times that you shouldn't rely on Social Security to take care of you when you are old, tired and done with working. Today's news from the Social Security Administration (SSA) seems to bear that out.

By 2016, SSA programs will cost more than the taxes we all pay to keep them going. Moreover, by 2037, it's now projected that SSA coffers will contain nothing but dusty cobwebs. Here's a clip from the SSA press release:

"...The Social Security Board of Trustees today released its annual report on the financial health of the Social Security Trust Funds. The Trustees project that program costs will exceed tax revenues in 2016, one year sooner than projected in last year’s report. The combined assets of the Old-Age and Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Funds will be exhausted in 2037, four years sooner than projected last year. The worsening of the long-range outlook for the Social Security program is due primarily to the recent economic downturn and faster reductions in mortality than previously assumed..."

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cutting Back

Recession Budget CutsWhen news about the economy is bad, individuals and businesses cut back; they cut jobs, budgets, forecasts, etc. These cutbacks in turn cause the economy to worsen, as we spend less and take on a defensive financial posture. The bad news and the cutbacks mutually reinforce each other, and can produce a long and painful recession, or a depression.

Are we in a depression? In my opinion, no, we're not, and we aren't headed for one either. The American economy is simply too robust, and today the government has a lot more power to get growth back on track than it did back in the 1930's. The main difference between now and then is that back then money was backed by gold -- the gold standard -- whereas today we have a fiat currency. Fiat currency means that the Fed and the Treasury Department can literally pump trillions of dollars into the economy, as they are doing now, without putting the real treasure -- American gold -- at risk. Soon, everything will be OK. All our government has to worry about is inflation down the road, which it will tackle by raising interest rates. Easy.

I'm still trying to figure out what the next bubble is going to look like. During the Clinton years, it was technology in general, with the Internet leading the charge. Earlier this decade, it was, of course, housing and easy credit. But how is America going to prosper after the Fed has raised rates? Can the green movement really generate serious wealth for you and your neighbor? Will American innovation be a big enough engine that can raise the standard of living for a large swath of American households? I'm still trying to figure it out, so I can prepare for it and ride that wave when it comes.

For now, my prediction is that this recession will last until at least the second quarter of 2010. Fed Boss Ben Bernanke, America's most powerful economist, recently said that he thinks a return to growth will happen by the end of the year. Here's a clip:

"...We continue to expect economic activity to bottom out, then to turn up later this year. Key elements of this forecast are our assessments that the housing market is beginning to stabilize and that the sharp inventory liquidation that has been in progress will slow over the next few quarters. Final demand should also be supported by fiscal and monetary stimulus. An important caveat is that our forecast assumes continuing gradual repair of the financial system; a relapse in financial conditions would be a significant drag on economic activity and could cause the incipient recovery to stall. I will provide a brief update on financial markets in a moment.

Even after a recovery gets under way, the rate of growth of real economic activity is likely to remain below its longer-run potential for a while, implying that the current slack in resource utilization will increase further. We expect that the recovery will only gradually gain momentum and that economic slack will diminish slowly. In particular, businesses are likely to be cautious about hiring, implying that the unemployment rate could remain high for a time, even after economic growth resumes..."

I think Bernanke's prediction is too optimistic. In my opinion, the housing problem needs more time to stabilize. I'm hoping Uncle Ben is right, and I'm wrong. But I understand where he's coming from. Bottom line: The best way to break the self-reinforcing, downward spiral is to dump as much cash as possible into the financial system, and inject as much optimism as possible into the collective American psyche.


No More TV

Since the peak of the credit crisis in October 2008, I've been cutting back in many ways, but yesterday I did something I never thought I'd ever do: I canceled my cable TV. I kept the High-Speed Internet service, but canceled all cable TV options. I'm no TV addict -- I never watch TV during the day -- but there are certain programs I enjoy when I need to take a break from work. Here's a list:

  • Nightly Business Report
  • Nature
  • NOW
  • Bill Moyers Journal
  • Secrets of the Dead
  • Frontline
  • Masterpiece (they should run I, Claudius every year)
  • Modern Marvels
  • How It's Made
  • On The Money
  • Suze Orman
  • Kudlow and Company
  • for the occasional laugh: Family Guy, Robot Chicken, American Dad, (that alcoholic, drama queen alien cracks me up) and South Park.
Digital TV is just around the corner, and I'm hoping it will work in my area. Conventional TV never worked where I live. I think it's because the cable company is sabotaging it. When I had cable installed years ago and asked why I couldn't get any free TV through the airwaves, I was told that it was because I'm too close to the airport. Nonsense!

I won't miss Comcast. I don't like the way the company operates. They treat their customers like suckers: all those ridiculous fees! For example, why should I be forced to pay a monthly fee for a cable box? Should be a one-time fee. Moreover, the more channels you have, the more they charge you for each cable box! It's BS and I can't stand it.

It's all good, really. Fact: all the smartest and most accomplished people I know either don't own a TV or they have a TV set but only use it to watch rented movies. Yep.

I really need to play catch up with my reading list anyway.

Expanding My Culinary Repertoire

I've also been expanding my skills in the kitchen so that I don't get the urge to eat out as often as I do. I need to learn how to cook dishes that don't require a lot of preparation, cook fast and taste great. I'm middle-aged, so eating right is important. Besides, I have no tolerance for grilled cheese, Ramen noodles and the like.

An old boarding school friend helped me perfect what has become my most common meal: London Broil. This cut of meat is always reasonably priced at my local market, and, thankfully, it goes on sale quite often. There is no need to marinate this steak for hours as many pro chefs will tell you. I make an extremely tasty meal from this cut like this:
  1. List of Ingredients: London Broil steak, Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, one yellow onion, olive oil.

  2. Preheat your conventional oven to 375 degrees.

  3. You want to caramelizing slices of a yellow onion in a pan with olive oil while the meat is cooking in your conventional oven. Begin by heating the olive oil on high heat, add the onion slices then turn the heat down to medium-low. Turn slices every 5 minutes or so until nicely browned. Meat will be done a few minutes after your onions are ready.

  4. While the onions are caramelizing, place the steak on a glass Pyrex® baking dish. (FYI: all Pyrex bakeware is manufactured in the USA!)

  5. Poke holes on one side of the meat with a standard fork. The more holes, the better.

  6. Shake up a bottle of Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce and flood the perforated meat with plenty of sauce. Don't be stingy. Important: Don't use any other brand of Worcestershire sauce.

  7. Flip the meat over and repeat steps 5 and 6.

  8. Place meat in oven, middle rack, and cook each side for 12 minutes.

  9. Remove meat from the oven and cut into the center. You should have a thin, brown outer layer and plenty of pink in the middle. This meat is best when it's medium-rare. If you don't like all that rawness in the middle you can stick in back in the oven for a few more minutes, but be warned: if the meat is brown right through to the center, it will be tough and won't taste as good.

  10. Add your carmelized onions to the pyrex dish with the meat and let the meat stand for 3-5 minutes. Makes sure the onions are submerged in plenty of drippings. Also, use a spoon to spread plenty of drippings on top of the meat to keep it moist. And you're done!

You can save even more time by forgoing the onions. Meat will still taste great.

While the meat is cooking, the smell of the cooking meat will probably make your mouth water. I always snack on a raw carrot while cooking.

I get plenty of carbs from my other meals during the day so when I cook this dish I have it with a side of salad and a couple of raw carrots. This roughage is very important if you want your gut to last a good long time (i.e. avoid colon cancer.) I also eat plenty of fruit during the day to keep my pipes happy.

One bite of this and all my cravings for a savory restaurant meal quickly melt away.

I don't worry about cholesterol since a) it's never been a problem for me, b) no problems with it in my family history and c) I believe in the Blood Type Diet.

The above is a great meal for a bachelor. When my daughter visits, we usually enjoy pasta with low fat meat sauce (I brown the meat, dump it in a colander then run it under hot then cold water to get rid of the fat) with a salad on the side.

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