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The wheels they keep turning, I’m fine, what about the questions we have locked up inside, somewhere, somehow we’ve been denied — Our Lady Peace

Archive for the ‘Science and technology’ Category

CRTC’s new wireless rules don’t go far enough

We Canadians pay the highest mobile rates in the world, thanks to the entrenched Bell-Rogers-Telus oligopoly that for years has been gouging customers with impunity. The CRTC, the regulatory body that has generally been in the pocket of the wireless companies, has been taking some baby steps towards actually protecting consumers in recent years, thanks to a huge backlash and an acknowledgement that the current situation is hurting business and innovation. But these baby steps haven’t done much to stem the tide.

Now, the long-awaited new Wireless Code announced by the CRTC after months of public hearings promises to address a few of the most egregious issues. Among them:

  • Canadians will be able to cancel their plans after two years with no penalty, even if they signed a deal for longer.
    This is all well and nice, considering that the three-year plan cycle was stifling innovation. But considering that there really aren’t any better options out there, cancelling and going to a competitor is illusionary freedom at best.
  • Caps on extra data and roaming charges to $50 and $100 respectively within a given billing cycle.
    This is perhaps the biggest win for consumers; stories of $22,000 phone bills or other ridiculous overage charges have abounded in the media lately, embarrassing providers and frustrating consumers. Even smaller amounts are ridiculous: A friend recently returned from a trip to the UK to discover a $1,287 phone bill, all for committing the cardinal sin of having forgotten to purchase a data plan, and having accessed Google Maps a few times while abroad. Such charges far exceed any reasonable costs that the providers have, and amount to a punitive tax on the unsuspecting for no reason other than they’ve been allowed to get away with it for far too long.
  • Canadians will be able to unlock their devices after 90 days, or immediately if they didn’t purchase a phone on contract.
    Anyone who wanted an unlocked device was already doing so on the grey market for a few dollars. It’s useful for people moving out of the country or for those of us who travel a lot; Canada remains one of the only countries in the world where you can’t get off a plane and pick up a local SIM card for a matter of a few dollars to use during your stay. (I do this all the time with my unlocked phone; it’d saved me thousands in roaming charges in countries from France to Israel to Vietnam.) But for most Canadians, with no competition to speak of in the market, unlocking your device will only allow you to switch to an equally bad provider, which is really no choice at all. All this means in practice is that providers will raise the prices of the phones in the first place, arguing that they can no longer subsidize them to as great a degree.
  • Contracts must be in plain language, with wording explained clearly and with the option to opt out of all changes.
    This ought to have been the price of entry and a given for anyone doing business. The fact that it needed to be said was sad. A step in the right direction, to be sure. But the Code doesn’t set out any restrictions on what the wireless providers can and cannot put in the contracts, as long as it’s spelled out in plain language.

What’s missing from this Code? Quite a lot.

  • There’s no mention of the fundamental unfairness of charging for incoming calls and text messages — a particularly egregious issue considering how much spam and how often my phone rings with unsolicited telemarketing calls. When I complained recently to Rogers about the dozens of robo-calls I’ve been receiving lately (“Congratulations! You’ve won a trip!”), I was basically told that I had no choice but to pay for the calls. There’s also the fact that we take the double-charging (paying for both outgoing and incoming minutes) as a given here in Canada, when most people from other countries would find that shocking.
  • There’s next to nothing being done to address the lack of competition in the marketplace. Bell, Telus and Rogers collectively own the vast majority of the wireless spectrum. Efforts in recent years to open up parts of the spectrum to bidding from smaller players are failing, since the small players are being sold one by one to the big ones. Virgin Mobile is owned by Bell; Fido is long owned by Rogers; Telus is in talks to buy Mobilicity; Public and Wind are both up for sale. Only Videotron here in Quebec is making a go of it, since as a larger cable company it can afford to compete, but its service and offerings aren’t exactly advantageous compared to the Big Three. And anyway, Rogers and Videotron have a network sharing agreement that will effectively prevent them from actually competing. With so few choices, we all lose, regardless of market regulation or consumer codes. Since, after all, the Big Three can charge whatever they want, as long as they spell it out in plain English.

Ultimately, this Wireless Code is Too Little, Too Late. It will get us to where we needed to be as a country five years ago, but it does very little to address the future. And we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile adoption rates and technical innovation.

But, it’s a step in the right direction.

RIP Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the man behind Apple, is dead at age 56.

I’m not an Apple product aficionado. I don’t have an iPhone or an iPad or a MacBook Pro. I’m not part of the Apple cult(ure).

But there’s no denying that Jobs was one of the most influential visionaries of the century. His inventions have changed the fabric of our society. And he died young, but he made his life count.

In his words:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

RIP, Steve.

Federal government to CRTC: you’ve gone too far

You can tell it’s an election year when the government actually bothers to do something useful. Harper, seeing the writing on the wall after massive petitions and public outcry, has issued an ultimatum to the CRTC about its recent usage-based internet billing ruling: back down, or we’ll overrule you:

Last week, the CRTC ruled that usage-based billing, the model used by large Internet providers such as Bell Canada and Rogers Communications to charge customers extra for exceeding monthly download limits, will apply to smaller providers, too. Until now, those smaller providers could offer unlimited Internet packages; the ruling means they no longer can.

There have been hints already from Industry Minister Tony Clement that the federal government may quash the controversial ruling, and the prime minister has asked for a review of it. But the government’s blunt ultimatum to the CRTC suggests any review would be pro forma.

This was a terrible decision by the CRTC – yet another in a long line of them that have backed Big Telecom’s demands over the rights of the consumer and the marketplace. Usage-based billing would have stifled innovation and choked off advancement, it’s true. But let’s not forget that, thanks to the CRTC, Canadians pay the most in the world for cell phone plans, pay for incoming text messages (despite another Harper campaign promise… anyone remember that?), and enjoy tons of lovely censorship of TV and radio. All because the CRTC is supposed to protect the interests of all Canadians, but only protects the interests of three: Bell, Telus and Rogers.

As for the government, let’s not forget that this is one decision, taken under overwhelming public pressure, in the face of hundreds of other decisions that have gone against consumer interests. The real solution isn’t to review this one decision; the real solution is to review the CRTC’s overall mandate and existence.

The $47,000 phone bill

Imagine the surprise of a woman who was charged $47,000 by Bell for the use of mobile internet, after being instructed to set up her phone that way by Bell’s customer service department:

“The guy on the line told me: Oh, it’s no problem. Your cellphone has unlimited Internet, so you can just connect your phone to your computer.”

 After Rooney asked three times if there would be an extra charge, Alexandra stayed on the phone with a customer service representative for about an hour to figure out how to connect the phone to the computer to get Internet service.

 A week later, all of Rooney’s phones were disconnected. She borrowed a phone and called Bell customer service.

 “When I spoke to the agent, he told me I had a very high balance,” she said. “He told me $47,000, and then told me I had to agree to pay a minimum payment of $300 for my phones to be reconnected.”

 Since that day, Rooney’s phone bills have not been less than five figures. Her most recent bill was for $12,000, and Bell has cut off her phone service six times.

It took Rooney over four months to get the issue resolved:

On Tuesday, Rooney got a call from someone named Gina, who said she worked at the office of the president. She apologized on behalf of Bell, and said it was unacceptable for it to take this long to settle her problem. The woman told her all charges had been reversed, and her current balance was $181.16.

“When I heard, I was so happy that I cried,” Rooney said. “She told me, she understood why I went to the newspapers about this because it’s been since July. I gave them a lot of time to handle this and they didn’t. She was really nice.”

From now on, the woman told Rooney she no longer has to contact customer service and if she has any problems, she has a special number to call.

Francoeur said the settlement of Rooney’s problem had nothing to do with the fact that a reporter contacted the company on her behalf, and that the problem would have been solved this week anyway.

Yep, that was my experience back when I was a Bell customer, too. Months of running around in circles on the phone with various customer service agents accomplished nothing. Only going to the top – in my case, to a VP – finally managed to solve anything. Which begs the question of what, exactly, the point of having a customer service department is in the first place. I mean, could nobody below the level of the president see that there was clearly something wrong with a $47,000 phone bill?

Rooney says she’ll probably remain a Bell customer, which sounds crazy but is likely because, in her rural area, she has no choice. As for me, I fully divested myself a few years ago and will never look back.

Those darn Israelis, at it again

Conducting breakthrough medical research, that is. This time, it’s a research team from Hebrew University that has developed a breakthrough in the fight against AIDS: a treatment that appears to kill HIV cells:

A team of researchers from the Hebrew University has developed a treatment that completely destroys HIV-infected human cells in laboratory cultures, according to an article published last month in the scientific journal AIDS Research and Therapy.

The therapy, developed by scientists from the university’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences and the Institute of Chemistry, destroys cells infected with HIV without damaging adjacent healthy cells.

Yep, keep calling for those academic boycotts, haters. Have fun with that.

Things I’ve been thinking about

A few things that have been on my mind lately:

1. Idiots are their own worst PR nightmare. Let ‘em talk long enough, they’ll shoot themselves in the foot. No need to do it for them.

2. Laziness is an addition, just like alcoholism. And it has enablers. Don’t be one. Next time someone asks you a question instead of looking it up themselves, send them this link:

3. It seems to me that people are much less shutter-happy than they were a few years ago, and are more likely to put away the camera. Has the novelty of digital allowing us to take thousands of photos worn off? Do we have photo fatigue?

4. Food really does taste better on pretty new dishes.

5. I used to think that writers were just being hyperbolic when they talked about sirens “screaming”. Now I know better. They mean it literally.

6. Summer’s not over yet. There’s still almost a month to go until NHL Preseason begins.

Are smokers dumber?

A new Israeli study suggests that smokers have lower IQs than nonsmokers:

According to the researchers, 28 percent of the study participants smoked at least one cigarette a day, around 3 percent said they were ex-smokers, and 68 percent had never smoked.

The smokers had significantly lower intelligence test scores than non-smokers, and this remained true even after the researchers accounted for socioeconomic status measured by how many years of formal education a recruit’s father had completed.

The average IQ for non-smokers was about 101, while it was 94 for men who had started smoking before entering the military.

IQ steadily dropped as the number of cigarettes smoked increased, from 98 for people who smoked one to five cigarettes daily to 90 for those who smoked more than a pack a day.

The size and scale of this study, as well as its provocative findings, are sure to generate discussion and debate among the scientific community.

I have no basis to evaluate the scientific claims, and I’m not going to try. But I’m very sceptical, for one reason: Does anyone really find it believable that 68% of Israeli teenagers have never smoked?

Debunking the vaccination-causes-autism myth

The study that had initially claimed a link between childhood vaccination and autism and had long since been essentially debunked as having no supporting evidence, has been formally retracted by the Lancet:

The Lancet published the controversial paper by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues in 1998. British parents abandoned the vaccine in droves, leading to a resurgence of measles. Subsequent studies found no proof the vaccine is connected to autism.

Ten of the study’s 13 authors renounced the study’s conclusions, and The Lancet has previously said it should never have published the research. “We fully retract this paper from the published record,” its editors said in a statement on Tuesday.

Predictably, the Jenny McCarthy conspiracy theorists are dismissing this as a… you guessed it… conspiracy theory.

But, crackpots aside, hopefully this will finally parents who just want what’s best for their kids that getting them vaccinated against disease is the responsible thing to do.

Google’s “new approach to China”

Big. Huge. Potentially game-changing.

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

Ian Paul doesn’t think that Google will actually pull out of China. But whatever ends up happening, the implications of this statement could be huge – both for Google as a business, and for China. Stay tuned.

More H1N1 conspiracy theories

Why rely on information when conspiracy theories are just so much more fun?

THE swine flu scare was a “false pandemic” led by drugs companies that stood to make billions from vaccines, a leading health expert said.

Wolfgang Wodarg, head of health at the Council of Europe, claimed major firms organized a “campaign of panic” to put pressure on the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare a pandemic, UK tabloid The Sun reports.

He believes it is, “one of the greatest medicine scandals of the century”, and has called for an inquiry.

Maybe Wodarg should go hang out with Jenny McCarthy. I bet they have loads in common.

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