Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The why-I-want-the-government-to-raise-my-taxes FAQ

(Because it appears that this piece might be getting some attention, please note that all of the work in this blog is copyrighted. Feel free to link to it, but please do not reproduce it without permission.)

Because I signed on to a letter to president Obama asking him to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on incomes over $1M a year I have been getting a lot of requests for interviews from the press. I made a brief appearance on the Lou Dobbs radio show, and today I almost got on Fox News (still might later this week I'm told). I also have a few requests from print reporters in the queue. The same questions seem to get asked over and over so I thought I'd write up a FAQ. Maybe that will save someone some time.

Q: Why do you want the government to raise your taxes?

A: I don't. I don't like paying more in taxes any more than the next person. But we have a stark choice before us: we can either raise taxes, or we can cut spending, or we can go the way of Greece and Iceland. All else being equal I would like to see us balance our budget by cutting spending, but I don't think that's going to happen. The Republicans were in charge for eight years, with control of both houses of Congress and the White House, and they oversaw the biggest expansion of government spending since F.D.R. And do I really need to explain why I'm not optimistic about the Democrats doing any better?

Q: If you feel this strongly about it, why don't you just write the government a check?

A: Because that won't do any good. The government is not a charity. It cannot and should not be run like one. Running a country is a team sport. The problems we are facing are too big for any one individual -- or even any group of individuals -- to fix alone. Whatever we do, we have to do it together.

Q: 45% (or something like that) of low-income individuals pay no federal income tax at all. In fact, they get money back from the government in the form of the earned income tax credit. Shouldn't we ask those people to do their fair share before we punish rich people for working hard and being successful?

A: Two answers. First, just because someone pays no federal income tax does not mean that they pay no taxes. Most wage earners pay payroll (social security) tax, medicare tax, and, if they buy stuff, sales tax. If they own a home they probably pay property tax too. So this idea that they are not doing their fair share because they don't pay "income tax" is, at best, playing games with terminology to obfuscate the truth. The problems we are facing are much too serious to tolerate that kind of semantic gamesmanship.

Second, we have to get beyond this argument about what is fair. Life isn't fair. Working hard improves your odds of getting rich, but whether you hit it or not has as much to do with luck (and your willingness to be ruthless and bend the rules) as it does with honest hard work. So fairness doesn't even enter into the equation. This is a practical question: we have to dig ourselves out of a very deep hole. It makes sense that we should ask those who are able to contribute more to do so.

Q: Doesn't it make more sense to let rich people keep their money so they can invest it and create jobs so we can grow the economy and get ourselves out of debt that way?

A: No, for two reasons. First, rich people are the result of a robust economy, not the cause. The United States is proof of this. The United States did not become the world's leading economic power because the rich elites of the world came here and invested. It became an economic power because it had conditions that attracted capable, hard-working but mostly poor (at first) people. "Give me your tired, your poor..." is not just an aphorism, it's the formula that led the U.S. to its heights of power. And what distinguished the United States at the height of its economic power was not that it had a huge cadre of rich elites that drove the economy, but that it had a robust and growing middle class. Whichever way the causality runs, it is indisputable that the country was stronger when the wealth was spread wide rather than piled high.

Second, you don't need rich people to drive investment, you need capital. Rich people are a source of capital, but they are not the only source, and they are not the best source. Institutional investors like university endowments and pension funds drive vastly more investment than high net worth individuals, and that is a very good thing because those institutions have broader fiduciary duties than individuals do, and so are more likely to invest in enterprises that benefit society as a whole rather than narrow individual interests.

Q: Won't taxing high income remove the incentive for hard work and risk taking?

A: No (though removing some of the inventive for taking certain kinds of risks might not be such a bad idea). Again, all we have to do to show this is to look at history. For most of the last 100 years, the marginal tax rate on the highest income brackets has been above 80%. In particular, in the 30 years after world war 2, when the U.S. was arguably at the height of its economic power, the top marginal tax rate was 91%. By way of contrast, in 1925 the top marginal rate was lowered from 46% to 25%. Four years later the stock market crashed. We've done this experiment before. I see no reason to believe we won't get the same results the second time around.

Q: Do you consider people who disagree with you unpatriotic?

No. Patriotism is not a zero-sum game.

[UPDATE:] Just got a new one:

Q: Why don't you just fire your accountant?

A: Huh?

Q: You rich people have accountants so that you can find loopholes in the tax laws so you don't have to pay taxes. Why don't you just fire your accountant so that you can't find those loopholes and end up paying more taxes? (Or something like that. The question seemed a little incoherent when it was posed to me. I suspect something got lost in the translation between corporate overlord and junior reporter. But here's the answer I gave.)

A: I don't know about other rich people, but trying to weasel my way out of paying taxes is not why I have an accountant. The reason I have an accountant is that the tax code is so complicated that I can't do my taxes any other way. Hiring an accountant is the only way I can figure out what I actually owe.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It can't really be that bad... the sequel trailer

The fallout from the mortgage mess may be quite far from playing itself out. In fact, we may well not have seen the worst of it yet. CNBC reports that when Bank of America bought Countrywide, they did not get possession of the paperwork for Countrywide's loans. When BofA issued mortgage-backed securities based on those loans they were essentially (if perhaps unwittingly) committing fraud by selling securities backed by legal documents that they didn't actually have.

Morgenson continues, in rather measured tones, considering the apparent ramifications of the statement:

"If Countrywide’s practice was to hold onto the note, then investors in this pool and others may question whether the security was constructed properly and legally and may be able to require Bank of America to buy back their securities."

If you like speculating, this seems like a good time to buy put options on BofA.

My date with Dom

I just had a very interesting experience. I appeared as a guest on the Lou Dobbs radio show (with Dom Giordano pinch-hitting for Lou) to talk about my being a signatory to a letter to president Obama from an organization called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength asking him to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire on people making over a million dollars a year, a group which at one time I was a member of and hope to join again some day. I was told that the interview would last about eight minutes, but Dom shut it down after about two or three, I guess because he thought I was winning the argument. It wasn't hard to do. All he had were the usual conservative talking points, all of which are easily refuted. I did learn a few things though.

1. Conservative talk radio hosts really are not at all interested in hearing conflicting views. They are especially not interested in hearing conflicting views backed up by actual facts. The last point I was able to make before Dom cut me off was that if you look at history, in the forties and fifties, a time period when the United States was arguably at the peak of its strength, the marginal tax rates on top income earners was 91%. If you look at the period immediately preceding the Great Depression, those rates were 25%. A clearer demonstration of the long-term folly of lowering taxes on rich people is hard to imagine.

2. A good way to make conservatives squirm is to adopt their rhetorical devices. For example, conservatives love to bring up the specter of communism. I was able to turn the tables on Dom by talking instead about how running a country is a "team sport," and how everyone has to contribute to the team. I was even able to sneak in a passage from Marx himself without Dom noticing by talking about how everyone had to contribute to the team "according to their abilities": You don't take the little guy and make him a linebacker. (My favorite part of the interview was when Dom, sensing that I was not going to give him an opening to play the communist card, decided to play it anyway by saying, "I'm not one to bring up communism, but..." I interrupted him saying, "But you just did." He didn't seem to like me much after that.

3. I'm pretty happy with the answer I gave to the question of why I don't just donate more money to the government. It's a no-brainer: because the government should not be run like a charity. Running a country is a team sport. There are rules. We have a process called democracy by which we make the rules. Right now the rules are not working and we need to change them.

4. The one point I wish I'd been a little better prepared for was the bit about "punishing" rich people for being successful. It's my fault because I knew it was in their playbook, but I didn't really have a quick comeback prepared for it. But if I had, it would have been something like, "Why do you call it punishment? There are some parts of being a grown up that are not fun but that you have to do anyway, like paying your taxes so that we can have good infrastructure and a strong military."

I don't know if there's audio of the interview available or not. I've asked the Lou Dobbs show to give me a copy, but I'd be surprised if they grant the request. They probably don't want audio of Dom getting his butt kicked making the rounds. Next time I'll have to remember to record it myself.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What ever happened to "Give me liberty or give me death"?

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans support the new full-body security-screening machines at the country's airports, as most say they put higher priority on combating terrorism than protecting personal privacy.

Two quotes come to mind:

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. -- Ben Franklin

We have met the enemy and he is us. -- Pogo (channeled by Walt Kelly)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Hypocrisy overload

My hypocrytometer has exploded after reading this in the NYT:

Representative John A. Boehner, soon to be the Speaker of the House, has pledged to fly commercial airlines back to his home district in Ohio. But that does not mean that he will be subjected to the hassles of ordinary passengers, including the controversial security pat-downs.

As he left Washington on Friday, Mr. Boehner headed across the Potomac River to Reagan National Airport, which was bustling with afternoon travelers. But there was no waiting in line for Mr. Boehner, who was escorted around the metal detectors and body scanners, and taken directly to the gate.


“Over the last 20 years, I have flown back and forth to my district on a commercial aircraft,” Mr. Boehner said at the time, “and I am going to continue to do that.”

And so on Friday, he did. But not without the perquisites of office, including avoiding those security pat-downs that many travelers are bracing for as holiday travel season approaches.

This is the best part:

Michael Steel, a spokesman for the Republican leader, said in a statement that Mr. Boehner was not receiving special treatment.

Right. And Michael Steel is not a water boy.

Can I refuse this search?

Amazing how much disruption a simple question like that can cause. Written by an ex-cop, and worth reading all the way through, but here's a nugget:

What happened to me in Albany was not the promised “pat-down.” It was a full search conducted in full public view. It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed.

From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else. She acted as if she was afraid of me, though given that I had set myself apart as apparently crazy, perhaps I cannot blame her. With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks (and discovered a pen that had fallen into one of my pockets) and even the bottom of my feet. Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.

Here was a big problem: an effective search cannot nod to decorum.

Emphasis added. That is the nub of the matter. Either we do searches that cannot be circumvented, or we maintain our freedom and our dignity. We cannot do both. We must choose.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The TSA does NAMBLA proud

I've often wondered if people would be less inclined to give the Catholic Church a pass on sexually molesting children if someone managed to get some surreptitious video. Well, it looks like I'm going to find out. It's the TSA and not the Catholic Church, and it's just a strip search and not rape, but there is video. Warning: it's quite disturbing.

Pope Benedict: condoms good enough for male prostitutes, but not regular people

As long as I'm on the subject of mind-blowing hypocrisy, the Pope is reported to have said that:

... condoms are not a moral solution to stopping AIDS. [No surprise there -- ed.] But ... in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, [emphasis added] their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”

Benedict made the comment in response to a general question about Africa, where heterosexual HIV spread is rampant.

He used as a specific example male prostitutes, for whom contraception is not usually an issue, but did not mention married couples where one spouse is infected.

Let me see if I have this straight: as long as the man is being paid, then using a condom is a "step in assuming moral responsibility" (presumably a good thing) but under any other circumstances using a condom is still a mortal sin.

So... if the wife pays her husband to use condoms does that make it OK?

Et tu Obama?

Barack Obama has joined the Republican fear-mongering machine to become an apologist for the TSA genital groping and peeping-tom policy:

President Obama said today he sympathizes with passenger complaints about aggressive body pat-downs at airports, but his counter-terrorism aides say they are necessary to guard against hidden explosives.

Balancing privacy and security is a "tough situation," Obama told reporters at a news conference following the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal.

"One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes a huge inconvenience for all of us," Obama said.

Obama cited the attempted airplane attack by the so-called underwear bomber last Christmas as justification for aggressive security measures.

How did we ever manage to lose our perspective so completely? Yes, it's true, aggressive screening is necessary to guard against hidden explosives. But when did we concede that it is necessary to guard against hidden explosives with no consideration of the cost? Cars kill 40,000 people a year in the U.S. but that's a price we're willing to pay for the freedom cars provide. Guns (sorry, people wielding guns) kill somewhere north of 10,000 (with the war on drugs playing no small role) but inconveniencing people even a little (like forcing them to undergo a background check) to get that toll down is a political non-starter, as is legalizing drugs. So why are we so willing to allow ourselves to be ogled and groped -- and, more to the point, allow our children to be ogled and groped -- to address a hypothetical problem that has never actually killed anyone? If someone wants to create terror, wouldn't it be a lot easier to hide a bomb in a truck and blow up a shopping mall? Or Times Square?

Yes, it's possible that someone could smuggle an explosive in their underwear (again). But it's also possible that someone will smuggle an explosive onto an airplane in their rectum, so body cavity searches are also "necessary to guard against hidden explosives." Just because something is "necessary to guard against hidden explosives" doesn't mean we should do it.

We could blow up a 747 every week and still not come close to kill the number of people who die from cigarettes. So why aren't we banning tobacco?

Here's a theory: tobacco makes money for powerful people. So do cars. So do drugs as long as they are illegal. And so do X-ray machines. Among the people making money off X-ray machines is Michael Chertoff, former head of the department of homeland security. The government's maddeningly hypocritical approach to risk management starts to make a lot more sense on the theory that the quality metric is not safety, but something else altogether.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It can't be that bad: the prequel

Matt Taibbi has apparently been chronicling the descent of the U.S. into a third-world economy for some time now. Here's a story he did last April about how the big banks snookered Jefferson County, Alabama into taking on more debt than they could afford to pay with the net result that the county is now bankrupt.

Once you ... understand what took place in Jefferson County, there's really no room left for illusions. We live in a gangster state, and our days of laughing at other countries are over. It's our turn to get laughed at. In Birmingham, lots of people have gone to jail for the crime: More than 20 local officials and businessmen have been convicted of corruption in federal court. Last October ... Birmingham's mayor was convicted of fraud and money-laundering for taking bribes funneled to him by Wall Street bankers — everything from Rolex watches to Ferragamo suits to cash. But those who greenlighted the bribes and profited most from the scam remain largely untouched.


That such a blatant violation of anti-trust laws took place and neither JP Morgan nor Goldman have been prosecuted for it is yet another mystery of the current financial crisis. "This is an open-and-shut case of anti-competitive behavior," says Taylor, the former regulator.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A personal banking nightmare

The story I'm about to tell you happened about two years ago, just as the first rumblings of the housing crisis were beginning to be heard. I distinctly remember listening to a story about the problem, then largely speculative, on Marketplace. One line from that show still echoes in my mind: the host, Kai Ryssdal, asked his guest, "So how bad is it really?" The guest responded, "No one knows." Later that day I called my broker and had him sell a bunch of stock. But I digress.

About that time I was on the receiving end of a wire transfer of a pretty substantial sum, well into six figures. I was having the money wired into a brokerage account, which is more complicated than wiring money into a checking or savings account. To wire money into a brokerage account, the money is wired into a bank account owned by the brokerage firm with a notation that the money should then be credited to a particular client. It's called an FBO (For Benefit Of) transaction.

The bank from which the money was being sent shall remain nameless, but it was (and still is) one of the biggest banks in the country, with a universally recognized brand. This bank had a reputation for being conservative. Some banks will accept wire instructions via phone or email, but this one required that the client present themselves in person so they can fill out and sign a form. I had provided the person sending me the money with a copy of the wire instructions that were provided to me by my broker.

Wire transfers are supposed to be same-day transactions, but by close of business the money still had not arrived in my account. I was told that this happens some times and not to worry. Two days later, the money was still MIA. Forensics revealed that the wire form had been filled out incorrectly. Instead of being filled out as an FBO transaction, it had instead been filled out as if it were a regular wire transfer using an intermediary bank. Moreover, it was immediately obvious that this was the case because an essentially random number had been filled in as the intermediary bank's ABA routing number. It didn't even have the right number of digits. Nonetheless, the wire transfer proceeded. The money left the sender's account and went... somewhere. Where it was, no one could say.

Yes, I know it is hard to believe, but it's true. The money was missing for two weeks, during which time no one at the sending bank knew where it was, or even, apparently, had any way of finding out. The only reason that the money was found was that I got a call from a befuddled accountant from the bank where my brokerage firm held its accounts saying that they suddenly had a few hundred thousand dollars in one of their accounts that they didn't know where it came from. The money had apparently been wired to the correct institution somehow, but to a completely random account. Even after the mess got straightened out no one could figure out how the money ended up where it did. Or if they did, they wouldn't tell me.

The shocking thing about this to me at the time was how fragile the system was, and how difficult it was to recover from errors. I thought then that this was surely a six-sigma event, but now I'm not so sure. If the person who received the money had not been so diligent in tracking down its source I'm not sure it would ever have been found. And after reading about how the banks are playing fast and loose with foreclosures and mostly not getting called out on it I can't help but wonder if money doesn't get lost on a regular basis and we just don't hear about it. I used to think that there was someone minding the store, and that the system had checks and balances in it to make sure that this kind of thing couldn't happen. I'm not so sure any more.

Since then I've been trying to get more information about how our financial system really works in terms of the mechanics of moving money around between financial institutions but it turns out to be incredibly difficult to find anyone who really understands it. Bankers in particular don't seem to have a clue. I've spoken to CEOs and CTOs of banks and they have no idea how the system works. I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. Maybe the bigger banks have their own IT departments, but the smaller banks get their software from third-party providers, and the people procuring and operating it have no idea how it works under the hood. Or if they do, they won't tell me.

It can't really be *that* bad... can it?

Well, yes, apparently it can. Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone has a blistering expose about the foreclosure mess. It's long, but worth reading all the way through. It's really quite shocking, and not just because of the magnitude of the problem. The entire system seems to be breaking down in ways that would have been completely unimaginable twenty years ago. If what Taibbi reports is true (and I see no reason to doubt it) it would not be hyperbolic to say that the banking system in the United States has become an organized crime organization, aided and abetted by the government.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Zombies are real

I refer here not to the brain-eating horror-movie staple but rather philosophical zombies, beings that are "indistinguishable from ... normal human[s] except that [they] lack conscious experience, qualia, or sentience." Here is a fascinating account of Tom Lubbock, an art critic with a brain tumor that occasionally renders him essentially a philosophical zombie:

My speech is now becoming a radical problem. Sometimes, for a short period, and suddenly, I find that I no longer know what I am saying, but I still go on talking and talking sense – like an inspired sibyl or a medium. The voice works automatically, fluently, subconsciously, through habit or practice. The words would need to be looked up, if I could recognise their spelling. But I can feel at least that my speaking is correct and I am aware that my words and phrases are familiar and appropriate.

Likewise, I can hear others' words and accept them as meaningful, without being able to repeat or paraphrase or interpret their meaning, though I can perhaps reply sensibly or at least act sensibly in reply. At a particular subconscious level, speech is functioning. Consciously, I can't spell some words, I don't know what they mean, I can't recite their phonemes. All I can recognise is the phatic role of my words, their tone.

To explain. One can have quite extended conversations more or less on autopilot.

Monday, November 08, 2010

I'm speechless

There is a dent on the floor of my office where my jaw landed after reading this in the NYT:

The lead investigator for the presidential panel investigating the BP oil spill said on Monday that he had found no evidence of shortcuts taken to save money by anyone involved in drilling the doomed well.

Excuse me? No evidence?!? It's one thing to say that the totality of the evidence favors the conclusion that BP did not trade safety for dollars, but that there is no evidence that BP did so is absurd on its face. You'd have to be living in a cave for the last six months to not see evidence that BP cut corners to save money. For example, this is from the Wall Street Journal, hardly an obscure source, nor prone to publish unfair attacks against big businesses:

A Wall Street Journal investigation provides the most complete account so far of the fateful decisions that preceded the blast. BP made choices over the course of the project that rendered this well more vulnerable to the blowout, which unleashed a spew of crude oil that engineers are struggling to stanch.

BP, for instance, cut short a procedure involving drilling fluid that is designed to detect gas in the well and remove it before it becomes a problem, according to documents belonging to BP and to the drilling rig's owner and operator, Transocean Ltd.

BP also skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe—another buffer against gas—despite what BP now says were signs of problems with the cement job and despite a warning from cement contractor Halliburton Co.

Words fail me. What possible reason could there be to cut corners like this other than to save money? I thought the Obama administration was going to put an end to this kind of brazen denial of reality.

Two interesting creation myths

I've never been much of a fan of the theory of reincarnation. As far as I'm concerned, I am my memories and experiences, so it is simply non-sensical to say that "I" can be reborn without them. Which makes this story an interesting read. I can't offhand think of a way to rule out the possibility that memories from other lives are somehow stored in a cosmic backup repository. After all, at the quantum level, the subjective feeling of existing at a particular time and place is as much of an illusion as the seemingly inarguable (but nonetheless false) proposition that there is only one classical universe. (In fact, quantum mechanics predicts that classical information cannot be destroyed, which renders reincarnation merely an engineering problem of extracting the bits from the thermal background.)

I thought this little parable that appeared in the Reddit comments was fun too:

In one creation story, God splits off a portion of itself, names it Maya, and asks to play a game. 'What kind of game?' asks Maya. 'I don't know, that's what you're here for.' replies God. Maya thinks, and finally says 'Okay, but I need three things; A universe made of time-space, a small wet planet, and a machette.'

So God makes these things, and says 'Now what?'

'Close your eyes.'

As God does, Maya brings down the machette, splitting God in two. Then slashes again, and again, chopping God into a billion bloody chunks in less than a moment. She picks up the parts and starts dropping them into the Universe, and as she does they transform into birds, people, oak trees, blades of grass... every possible form of life. And she says 'Okay, here's the game; your goal is to remember who you are and figure out how to put yourself back together.


This idea is developed at some length in this book by Alan Watts. Worthwhile reading for the insight it provides into eastern religions.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Beware the FirmTek SeriTek/SpyderHUB

Apple's current lineup of personal computers is damned annoying. On the one hand, they are beautiful machines, and OS X totally rocks. On the other hand, Apple is clearly moving towards servicing the consumer market at the expense of the needs of power users. It has discontinued the XServe, and slowly but surely eliminated any way to attach high-speed external disk drives. The only Apple computers that can connect to an ESata drive today are the Mac Pro and the 17-inch MacBook pro, and even that requires a third-party PCI Express card.

It would seem, then, that the FirmTek SeriTek/SpyderHUB would be just the thing. It's a small, lightweight, inexpensive ESata-to-Firewire800 bridge. FW800 is not as fast as a direct ESata connection, but it's easily twice as fast as USB 2.0, which is the only other way to attach an external disk to most Macintosh computers nowadays.

Unfortunately, the SpyderHub has two really annoying design features, and one extremely serious problem.

The first annoying design feature is that it does not support hot-swapping. So if you want to unplug one ESata drive and plug in different drive you have to power-cycle the SpyderHub. Because the SpyderHub gets its power from the FireWire port and has no external power switch, this means you have to unplug the FireWire cable and plug it back in.

The second annoying design feature is that to switch between RAID modes you have to push a button on the front of the unit. To switch modes you have to press the button, release it, then press and hold it down for a few seconds. This is to prevent accidentally switching modes while disks are connected, which is good, but I can easily envision someone having a heart-stopping moment if they accidentally push the button during a momentary lapse of clarity thinking that it's a power button or a reset button or something like that. It would have made a lot more sense IMHO to have the mode selector be a switch mounted on the BOTTOM of the unit, preferably alongside a power switch. That would have made it even more difficult to accidentally switch RAID modes while disks are mounted.

But the most serious problem with the SpyderHub is that it only works with "direct connect ESata enclosures." This means an enclosure that has ONLY an ESata port and no other ports. Most notably, it won't work with an enclosure that has a USB port, which is >90% of the enclosures on the market. Worse, the failure modes are intermittent. The SpyderHub will appear to work properly -- mine seemed OK for days at a time -- but then it will fail. In my case, the failure mode took the form of a FireWire bus hang, which I was able to recover by simply unplugging the FireWire cable. I think I was very lucky that I suffered no data loss.

For me, this limitation makes the SpyderHub virtually useless. I have no "direct connect" enclosures, and the few that I have been able to find actually cost more than enclosures that have FireWire800 already built in. I have no idea what the FirmTek folks were thinking when they designed the unit with this constraint. This one bug changes the SpyderHub from a must-have device for Mac owners who care about performance to an all-but-useless boondoggle. And the fact that the failures are intermittent, combined with FirmTek's failure to clearly warn about this in their marketing materials, makes the device downright dangerous. (For the record, when I complained to FirmTek about this after discovering the problem they eventually agreed to give me a refund, less a 15% restocking fee.)

I really hope that FirmTek (or someone) comes out with a new version of the SpyderHub without this constraint. I have a bunch of fanless ESata/USB enclosures that I can now only use in USB mode, which makes them three times slower than they were when I could connect them directly to my old MacBook Pro through a PCI Express ESata adapter. I generally like my new 13 inch unibody MBP, but the fact that I can't attach a fast external hard disk just drives me bananas. It's like having a Porsche with governor that keeps you from going faster than the speed limit.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Deconstructing a process failure

I blogged a while back about a pernicious intermittent problem with our internet connection that has been going on for months. To my surprise, someone from Comcast posted a comment on that post that offered to help, and yesterday, finally, after three months and I don't know how many service calls the problem was finally fixed, at least as far as I can tell. (With intermittent problems you never know for sure.) The cause turned out to be fairly prosaic: a bad modem.

In the process of dealing with this issue I learned a lot about how Comcast operates and got a small glimpse into their corporate culture. Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that the company has a lot of people who actually care about making their customers happy, but the company seems to go to extraordinary efforts to hide these people from their customers. I probably would never have met any of them had I not blogged about my frustrations. In retrospect, this is not too surprising. Comcast is a big company. It would probably be an understatement to say that not all of their customers are technically competent or even reasonable. They are probably as frustrated by the number of calls they get for problems where rebooting the computer is the right answer as we geeks are at being told for the bazillionth time to reboot our computers.

Where their system broke down, though, in my case was in not recognizing that it was stuck in a loop. I would call, they'd send a technician out, he (they were all men) would be unable to reproduce the problem (because it was intermittent), he'd fiddle with something, report back to the central office that the problem was fixed (because as far as he could tell it was), and then I'd have to start all over again from square one. The only reason the problem got fixed at all was that I blogged about it, and I was able to figure out a way to reproduce it, which I was only able to do because I know a lot about how the internet works. If I were an ordinary consumer I'm not sure I could ever have gotten it fixed.

There is, it seems to me, a pretty simple solution for this problem: provide some kind of mechanism for the customer to weigh in on whether or not a problem has been fixed rather than letting the technician make this call. Then after two or three service calls where the customer says the problem still exists, escalate up to the people who actually know what they are doing instead of just following the usual scripts. That simple measure would have been the difference, for me, between perceiving Comcast as a company that deserves their legendary reputation for bad customer service, and my current impression of it as a company that mostly does a pretty good job but has one or two broken processes.

If anyone from Comcast is reading this, I'm available for consulting :-)