CenturyLink’s Gigabit Service is a PR move, not a solution

Initially announced in October 2013, Centurylink Las Vegas announced they were bringing Gigabit internet speeds to the Las Vegas area (FTTP, or fiber to the premises). All the politicians were happy to announce what a great thing it was for our city to make us part of the “21st Century”.

The problem though, is that its simply “Fiber to the Press Release“, a token effort designed to keep competitors away (like Google Fiber or a municipal fiber effort). The problem is that there are no build-out deadlines, rather they’re simply upgrading their infrastructure to the richest, most profitable customers, further enhancing the digital divide between the haves and have-nots.

Centurylink has announced approximately 40 subdivisions (about 20 initially in December 2013, and 20 more in spring 2014, plus a recent announcement of availability to select businesses) that will be enhanced with FTTP, which is approximately 5,000 single-family homes using a generous estimate of 125 homes per subdivision. At this rate of 5,000 single family homes per year, it will take CenturyLink 80-100 years to provide fiber to the home for all 400,000 to 500,000 single-family homes in southern Nevada, and thats even making the assumption that all new subdivisions built moving forward are built with FTTP.

There is no reasonable mind that thinks 80-100 years is an acceptable time frame to wire up a city with Gigabit Internet. The politicians or the PUC of Nevada need to force Centurylink to move faster in wiring up homes with gigabit speeds.

Chamberlain MyQ Garage Quick Review

I don’t know if its me getting older (being 33 is hard, kids!), but lately I’ve had a harder time remembering if I’ve closed the garage door or not when leaving the house. I’ve wanted to have a wifi connected garage door opener, but I didn’t want to replace my perfectly good garage door opener I have now.

So one day when my girlfriend told me she didn’t remember if she closed the garage door, I reached my limit and decided that I was going to go online and find some sort of sensor to tell me if the garage was open or not. What I found were some Raspberry Pi or Arduino sensors – not really what I was looking for. I wanted something a bit more professional. I ended up coming across the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Door controller. It was expensive at $129 (a brand new MyQ-Enabled Chamberlain garage door opener is $200), but after spending my lunch hour driving home and back to work, I was ready to pay that.

The first thing I had to do was check compatibility – does the garage door have the photosensors to prevent the garage from closing on someone or something, and is it using a compatible frequency and code. I happen to have a compatible Chamberlain LiftMaster, as well as an open 120V outlet near the garage door opener, so I was ready to order and go!

Installing it was easy, except for the part where they didn’t tell you what size drill bit to drill the pilot holes for the screw anchors (5/32″). I guess thats something they expect you to know, and this DIY-newbie didn’t know that.


All you needed to do was install the WiFi hub on the ceiling, plug it in, and then secure the door sensor properly on the garage door. With those two things accomplished, the rest can be done from your phone via Bluetooth 4.0. Once you pair your phone, you can share your WiFi credentials from your iPhone to the WiFi hub to get it connected and online, and from there, you can use the MyQ app to create your account, link the hub to the account, and program the hub to talk to the garage door opener. It tries various garage door opening commands, and it knows when it succeeds because it has the sensor on the garage door itself.

MyQ Garage Status

The only issue I had with the entire online process was that it took about a half hour to get the verification email for the new MyQ account. So I had to wait for the email to activation the account before I was done with everything.

But now I can see the status of my garage door, as well as open and close it remotely.

Update 3/22: 
Chamberlain reached out to me to explain the PIN access. First you have to set a PIN code under the Account settings in the app. Then you have to set your security level – you can have it never prompt for a PIN code or 1) on app start, 2) accessing the account, or 3) when you perform an action on a door or gate. Personally, I think a PIN code should be mandatory and that it should prompt you on open/close actions. I’m used to my Chevy Volt OnStar application that requires me to enter a PIN code (which is validated on the server side) to lock/unlock doors, or to remote start the car. It seems like a good way to protect the car from unauthorized actions.

Ease of use – being able to transfer my WiFi password over BT to the hub (instead of having to type me 25 character password) made it super easy to get the unit online.
Convenience – being able to check and close the garage door remotely will be very useful the one day I forget to close it

Cost – at $129, its 65% of the cost of buying a replacement garage door opener that is MyQ enabled out of the box
Instructions – the instructions are written for someone who is a bit more handy than I (though I am getting better, installed some new bathroom hardware a few weeks ago)

Zales online is awful…

(disclaimer: rant ahead)

I normally don’t write about bad customer service stories, mostly because the online retailers I deal with are pretty good. But that changed this month when I bought a necklace for my girlfriend from Zales for Valentines Day.

I ordered on Feb 10, with Zales offering “Guaranteed Delivery for Valentines Day” with a chart on their website about how it would ship depending on what day you ordered it.

I called twice on Valentines Day after noticing that it still hadn’t shipped, once in the morning and once in the evening. They said they would have to check with their warehouse as to why it didn’t ship, why the order got lost. My girlfriend was pretty upset about not getting her gift on Valentines Day.

I called the Tuesday (2/18) and they still didn’t have a status update on why the order was lost, four days later. I called again the next day for a status update and they still didn’t have information on my order, so I cancelled it. That weekend I went out and bought my girlfriend something from Kay’s (despite their incredibly annoying commercials).

This week they shipped the order. Eight days after I called and cancelled it. Unbelievable.

This is the type of awful customer service I expected in the early 2000s when everyone had really poor e-commerce systems and bad logistics. Not in 2014. I’ve had more problems with them than I’ve had in the last 4-5 years of shopping online. Amazon, Newegg, Express all provide good customer service – shipping out orders on time, handling returns well, etc. But Zales… ugh, never again.

Update: Zales contacted me after I tweeted them this, and they contacted FedEx to recall the shipment and refund my credit card. Why can’t regular customer service reps do this?

How time-of-use electricity billing saved me $500 a year

Back in late 2012, I switched to a time-of-use billing schedule for my electric service with NV Energy (now part of Mid-American, a Warren Buffett joint). I was eligible for a cheaper time-of-use rate because I own an plug-in electric vehicle, allowing me to get deeper discount rates from 10PM to 6AM each day for the entire meter (not just EV charging). Around the same time I also installed Nest thermostats that include a number of features that save me electricity during the hot summer months when the time-of-use rate is at its highest (33.4c/kWh).

The price structure and time schedule is:

  • Winter: October 1 through May 31; Off Peak: 5.0c/kWh (10PM-6AM), On-Peak: 5.5c/kWh (6AM-10PM)
  • Summer: June 1 through September 30; Off Peak: 6.9c/kWh (10PM-6AM), Mid-Peak: 7.6c/kWh (6AM-1PM and 7PM-10PM), Peak: 33.4c/kWh (1PM-7PM)
Billing Month On-Peak Mid-Peak Off-Peak TOU $ Flat rate (11.7c) $
November 652 0 491 $54.20 $133.73
December 815 0 572 $65.92 $162.28
January (Est.) 418 0 286 $33.48 $82.37
February 646 0 546 $56.32 $139.46
March 677 0 486 $55.23 $136.07
April 795 0 476 $60.69 $148.71
May 817 459 1163 $195.98 $285.36
June 498 806 720 $267.15 $236.81
July 460 746 693 $248.66 $222.18
August 452 743 570 $237.94 $206.51
September 348 214 241 $109.77 $93.95
October 642 0 398 $52.18 $121.68
Total $1,437.53 $1,969.11


  • The service fee premium for a ToU account over a regular account is $1.30/mo, or $15.60/yr, so the savings have to be adjusted by that amount
  • January was an estimate since NV Energy has a difficult time with their billing system and time-of-use accounts – I signed up for e-bills but occasionally I’ll get a paper bill in the mail.
  • The billing month crosses two months (I tend to get my meter read in the middle of the month)
  • My Nest thermostats were set (manually) to cool the house down in the summertime to 70F by 12:30PM, a half hour before the peak period begins, and then were set to 76F the rest of the day. This was to cool the house down and then let it warm up when the electricity rates were higher
  • This large cost savings may not last for much longer, NVEnergy has been consistently increasing the time-of-use rates in the last year, even my most recent bill had winter prices increase by about .4 cents per kWh. At this rate I would expect to be back to paying the same as the flat rate in 4-5 years.

Its my opinion that the Nest thermostats helped a lot in keeping the summertime energy use down, contributing to the savings. Beyond this, having cheaper overnight rates to plug in my Volt means that I pay about 2-3c/mile for my Volt for electricity (a Prius by comparison is about 7c/mile), which improves the ROI calculations on the Volt because I save more money compared to a gasoline car.

Five Picks: 2014 is the year of ________

My five picks for 2014…

The Middle Class Comeback

Finally, after 6 years, the middle class will start to see rising wages and more opportunities for jobs. The linchpin that determines the strength of the comeback is the quality of jobs created. Minimum wage jobs don’t help much, they just allow corporations to push part of their wage cost to taxpayers. They need to be factory jobs and well paying jobs with benefits. It might not be the best job (its not a doctor, lawyer, or successful app developer) but it’ll work. What worries me is if we have another recession before the middle class recovers – that spells social strife and civil unrest.

Public EV Charging

From standard public charging to Tesla’s SuperCharger network, charge station installations are set to grow, and with increasing EV/PHEV sales in North America, usage of these stations will increase enough that they’re no longer just a blip on the radar. The growth of stations will be what to look at for 2014 – and instead of being token installations, they’ll be more functional, with installations at places you 1) actually want to park your car for an extended period of time and 2) free or reasonable rates to charge your car. The latter one may take some effort in some states that only allow utility companies to sell electricity by the kWh, which forces charging stations to charge by the hour (not the best deal usually).

LED Light Bulbs

LED light bulbs are going to make a big impact in 2014. They’re finally becoming cheap and good enough that you’ll want to replace your regular bulbs. Beyond that, high-usage CFLs that were installed during the CFL boom are starting to hit the end of their lifespan. I now have six CFLs in my garage that are burnt out and have run out of my spare CFLs, so now each time a CFL burns out I’m ordering these $20 Philips 13-Watt (65 Watt Replacement) BR30 Dimmable Indoor Flood Lights. They’re really good so far. I haven’t tried any regular light bulb replacements yet, but I’m sure I will sometime in 2014.

“Over the top”

“Over the top” is a phenomenon where a company that provides several consumer services including internet access finds that some of its services are being cannibalized by similar services over the internet. The most familiar examples are using Netflix over a cable-based internet connection (instead of going to cable TV for entertainment, you’re consuming Netflix), as well as iMessage or some other internet-based chat/picture service instead of SMS/MMS services. For incumbent internet providers, this will be a difficult transition to manage because they will be faced with decreasing revenues from core products and increasing usage of internet data. For the cable industry – get ready, people are cutting the cord. More data, less everything else.

Gay Marriage

If its now legal in Utah, one of the most conservative states in the union, I don’t see how other states are going to face the legal challenges of their laws or constitutional amendments. I hope Nevada (my home state) has their constitutional amendment overturned quickly, as it would be a boon as a gay wedding destination. I should look into buying the old Liberace Museum! I can add a chapel and boom!


Everyone is wrong about cell phones on planes

(Except Runway Girl)

Recently, the FCC looked to drop its technical reasons for prohibiting cell phone calls and texts on planes above 10,000 feet.

First, lets take a look at how the system works to understand why everyone is wrong.

Each plane that will allow cell phone calls above 10,000 feet will be equipped with a microcell that will connect (through GSM and CDMA) at very low power to all the cell phones in the cabin. These cell phones in the cabin will then be connected, via the microcell and a ground link, to a cellular network that is run by the airline and their equipment partners – not their own carrier (AT&T, Verizon, etc.). This will put the cell phone into roaming mode – just like if you were in another country.

And what happens when you’re in another country on your cell phone? If you make or receive a call, you rack up sky-high (no pun intended) roaming charges. And thats why you won’t end up next to a chatterbox for hours – the cost of being a chatterbox on an airplane would likely be around $2-3 per minute, or $150 per hour to talk on the phone while flying. For example, Vodaphone UK charges 1.99 GBP per minute to make an in-flight call, that is currently equal to $3.26 per minute.

Why is it setup this way? Because then the airlines and equipment and service provider can charge exorbitant roaming fees for cell phone calls placed when the aircraft is airborne. Would you pay $150/hour to talk on the phone from an airplane? Unless its an emergency, I doubt it. A few texts might be sent, but thats no longer abnormal because people can use data-based messaging services on aircraft Wi-Fi now (Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Google Chat, etc).

These sky-high prices will prevent people from chatting the entire way from LA to NYC. A phone call placed for the eligible duration of a five hour flight would cost around about $700.

If you happen to have a chatterbox next to you, just pull out the in-flight magazine and show them the various charges for in-flight calling and watch their eyes widen as they hurry up to end the phone call.

Cheaper – not better – batteries will rule the EV market

In 2010, Panasonic announced they had developed a 4.0Ah silicon anode battery that would go into production before the end of March 2013. At the end of 2013 the battery is nowhere to be found.

It’s easy to chalk this up to product development delays. I don’t doubt this is hard work – science is hard. If it were easy we’d have fusion and flying cars by now.

Rather, I think that for large battery manufacturers like Panasonic and LG, they’ve redeployed resources from making better batteries at the same price, to making their existing batteries cost less. Reducing the cost per kWh of battery capacity is now job one. The disruptive threat from some start-up coming out with a novel process to make a 4x energy capacity battery is mitigated by the fact that the large mainstream suppliers will be able to undercut them on both price and manufacturing capacity. Their novel process might work for niche applications in low volumes, but it won’t matter much because the cells will, by comparison, be in short supply and too expensive for a mainstream EV.

The change in priorities wouldn’t be a surprising one, given the principle issue with EVs today – cost. If you don’t bring down the cost of the battery packs in the EVs today, there won’t be broad-based demand for EVs tomorrow no matter what the range of the vehicle is. When EVs take the place of a second or third car in a household, the range issue isn’t nearly the problem it is made out to be. And the market for second and third cars in households that can afford suburban homes to recharge them in is sufficiently large this early in the electric vehicle adoption curve.

Battery costs are not generally published, but we can estimate that as of mid 2013 are around $350 per kWh at the finished pack level. This makes the price around $30,000 for the Tesla 85kWh battery, $5800 for the Volt, and $8500 for the Nissan Leaf pack. By the end of 2015, prices could be around $250 per kWh, and $150 per kWh by the end of 2017. At the second long term price goal of $150, it becomes possible to sell a 60 kWh/220 mile range EV for $35,000 because the pack is only $9,000 (or 30% of the bill of materials), roughly in line with the Nissan Leaf. As Tesla has shown, a purpose-built EV can accommodate the amount of cells necessary for this battery pack size. Existing battery technologies (NMC, LiFePO4) will continue to improve marginally each year, providing more energy capacity per unit volume and per unit weight.

Once the price issue is resolved, battery makers can focus exclusively on incorporating new technologies to make EV range no longer an issue without spiking the price. While emerging technologies like lithium-air technologies may become practical after 2020, when the cost can come down enough to put them in affordable EVs for the driving public is the larger question.

Apple October 22 Predictions

Apple will give a release date for Mavericks (October 25) and price ($20, $50 for server)

Apple announces new MacBook Pros (retina and regular) featuring Haswell CPUs for better battery life – discrete GPUs don’t go away, but they’re only available on the 15″ models due to PCB size constraints (as has been the case for many years now) but integrated Iris Pro replaces GF GT 650-level option

Apple mentions Mac Pro will ship at the end of November, with pricing and pre-orders to come some time next month – brief mention its Made In America, including gratuitous shots of manufaturing/assembly line

Apple announces new 9.7″ iPads in thinner design with same battery life and A7X CPU at the same 499 and above price points

Apple announces retina iPad mini for $379 with an A6X CPU, and regular (current gen) iPad mini for $279

Nothing groundbreaking, nothing crazy – no Apple TV (as in actual TV sets), no iWatch. And since its between the time the quarter closes but before the earnings statement on October 28, not a lot of detailed information will be revealed about sales numbers or material things like that.

Routes for I-11 through and north of Las Vegas

Nevada’s Department of Transportation is working on figuring out where to put I-11 through and north of Las Vegas. The route between Las Vegas and Phoenix is pretty well established – along the current US 93 alignment from Las Vegas, with a bypass south of Boulder City, over the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge, until US 93 hits Wickenburg, AZ, about an hour outside of Phoenix, where it branches southwest through the Hassayampa Valley down to I-10 west of Phoenix. A full listing of all the possibilities are available here (20MB PDF).

The route through Vegas is a difficult one – it would cost at least a billion, likely two billion, to upgrade US 95 to be wide enough to carry the extra traffic – the portion of US 95 east of the I-15 interchange would need a billion-plus makeover to fix the 1970s-style viaducts, and recently widened western half would need to be widened again, with some additional interchanges constructed. Two options are to use the existing 215 three-quarters beltway around the city (one around the city clockwise, which would come within 2 miles of my house, and one counter-clockwise) – however the lack of an eastern leg of the beltway means that a new leg would need to be created, and the alternatives indicate building it behind Sunrise Mountain through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and connecting it to the I-15 north of Nellis AFB. After reviewing all the alternatives, I think the best route is to build the leg near Lake Mead, and connect it to the existing 215 highway (Alternate QQ). Work would need to be done ASAP* to secure additional right-of-way along the highway to allow it to expand up to 5 or 6 lanes in each direction. The clockwise usage of the 215 would require some additional right-of-way in certain areas, but would overall be much cheaper than expanding US 95 in place, as well as allowing for the highway to be up to 5 lanes in each direction, whereas portions of the existing US 95 are already that width, and would need to expand an additional two lanes to 7 lanes.

I’m sad to see the I-11 committee has removed my preferred route north of Las Vegas – Alternate GG through central Nevada. I would have liked to see I-11 run through central Nevada, with a spur line (I-511) connecting it from where it turns north from US-95, on to I-80 near Reno. I think this would have provided the travelling public with a much faster way to get north to places like Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, rather than going all the way over to Reno, then all the way back west to Boise. If the route continues north to I-84 in Oregon, then going through Reno would be a better choice. I expect Alternate SS to win out – following the US 95 corridor northwest to I-80 near Reno, and from there up US 395 to I-84 near the Columbia River.

But to me, its putting the cart before the horse – lets focus on getting I-11 from Las Vegas to Phoenix located, funded, and designed (glaring at Nevada’s past and present Governors and NDOT officials who have spent half a billion dollars for a highway to connect Reno to Carson City, but don’t want to fund the Boulder City Bypass with state dollars, instead suggesting a toll road), and from there we can map out where its going to go next. The Boulder City Bypass is job #1 at this point, with the Kingman Interchange next, along with all the improvements between the two to make it a full fledged interstate highway, at least from Vegas to Kingman.

From there, its on to US 93 between I-40 and Wickenburg, which has had substantial improvements over the last 10 years or so, with only three projects left to complete to make it four lanes between I-40 and the Santa Maria River – I’m guessing AZDOT won’t do any work south of the Santa Maria River until the I-11 corridor is finalized so they know where to expand it to interstate standards and where not to spend the money.

On that front – Arizona DOT has selected a preferred corridor and preliminary design for the Kingman interchange (PDF), with an estimated cost of only $86M. That pales in comparison to the $300-400M estimates for the Boulder City Bypass, but then again the BCB is a lot more work digging through the Eldorado mountains. However, Arizona would also need to spend more money on interchanges along the I-11 highway to remove at-grade crossings (I’m guessing 5 between Hoover Dam and Kingman).

* Sadly, this cant happen, as the PISTOL amendment to the constitution has a five year window for governments to use the property for the stated purpose (in this case, highway expansion) – if it doesn’t the original land owner can reacquire the property by paying the government back. In this case, dumb limitations hamstring government to do its job in a cost-effective manner.

Brief 2c on the Government Shutdown

I believe the root cause of the shutdown isn’t the budget deficit or Obamacare, but rather Gerrymandering – and two specific symptoms of gerrymandering – uncompetitive districts evolving into extremist candidates, as well as illegitimate majorities stemming from packing and splitting.

There have been a few articles, most pointedly this one (from a conservative paper no less), that illustrate how the shutdown is being driving by a minority of the majority party. To paraphrase the article, there 30 GOP members who believe that Obamacare is in fact very harmful and will do anything to stop it. There are another 30 that are willing to compromise, but worry about being primaried from the right. It is my estimation that if those 30 were primaried, their successor would join the 30 true believers.

The emphasis in the above paragraph illustrates the problem – uncompetitive (from a partisan angle) congressional districts drawn so that they are solid for one party or another. Because one party has a lock on the district, its likely that more and more extremist (left or right) individuals will be elected – up to a point at which there are enough defectors from the majority party to elect the other candidate. This almost happened in 2012 with Michele Bachmann – she is in a solid conservative district, but has become extreme enough where there were enough defectors (or non-voters) in both her party and independent voters that she nearly lost the race (she won by 1% of the vote).

If all congressional races were competitive from a partisan angle, I believe the extremist element in each party would be rendered unelectable because independent voters (whom upon most elections ride) will choose the less extreme candidate, and that in order to win political parties would choose the more centrist candidate instead of the extreme.

So how do we stop gerrymandering?

California, after substantial bipartisan pro-incumbent gerrymandering in 2000, chose an non-partisan board to draw the districts. Other states have had similar approaches by using a non-partisan group to draw the lines.

Can we fundamentally change the rules of the system? Do we have all representatives represent the entire state they’re from like Senators do? Do we use topological rules to divide districts in a more algorithmic manner? Use an alternate voting method (Fair Majority Voting for example) to ensure that a state that is split 35:65 has a 1:2 representation ratio? Beyond an appropriate partisan representation ratio, how do you choose representatives from each party that are aligned with the voters wishes (e.g. you not voting for a party, you’re voting for a person).

The voters weren’t represented in the 2012 congressional elections – totaling up all congressional races, Democrats got more votes than Republicans by about 500,000 votes (slightly less than half a percent), however failed to gain majority control of the House because of gerrymandering, in fact they are at a 30 seat deficit (233-202). This was due to the Republican successes in 2010 getting control of state legislatures such that they could control the redistricting process, gaming the system.

The sooner we deal with the issue of Gerrymandering the better. Then maybe we can start removing some of the dysfunction from Congress and move towards a legislative body that can accurately represent the people of America, both in terms of majority/minority parties as well as fewer extremists.