Thursday, October 29, 2015

AT&T fined $100 million for throttling "unlimited data" connections

Originally published on

A record-breaking $100 million fine has been levied against AT&T for throttling the connections of its “unlimited data” customers (although AT&T has said it intends to fight the fine in court). AT&T started throttling its “unlimited” customers' connections in 2011, ultimately affecting millions of its customers, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

What exactly is “data throttling,” and why would AT&T inflict it on “unlimited data” customers? To make an analogy: imagine you paid for an “all you can eat” buffet promising “unlimited” amounts of food. But there's a catch. Turns out that, after you finish your first full plate of food, your buffet connection is henceforth “throttled” so you're required to eat far more slowly than people usually do: anytime you swallow a mouthful of food, you have to wait a full minute before you're allowed to take another bite, and after cleaning your plate you must wait ten minutes before going back for a refill. So in theory, you can eat all the food you want, but in practice you can't even enjoy an ordinary-sized meal under such restrictive conditions.

That's essentially what AT&T has done to its mobile customers, only restricting data rather than food. Last October, the Federal Trade Commission sued AT&T for its data-throttling practices, claiming that some smartphone customers with unlimited data plans had their data speeds reduced by as much as 90%. The FTC alleged that AT&T began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period.

And in March, a federal judge rejected AT&T's attempt to hide behind common-carrier exemptions to avoid the FTC's lawsuit.

It is true that sometimes, when networks are congested from heavy use, a certain level of throttling (especially against the heaviest data users) genuinely is necessary to keep the network running smoothly for all.

On a related note, that's why when hurricanes, major earthquakes or other natural disasters damage infrastructure and knock out utilities over a wide region, cell phone and smartphone users are asked to use light-bandwidth text messages rather than heavy-bandwidth voice or video calls to keep in contact with friends and family.

Should you ever have the bad luck to find yourself in a literal disaster area someday, don't be surprised to discover that everybody's wireless connections have been throttled so that streaming video and other data-heavy online activity is impossible for the duration.

Revenue enhancement


But that's not what AT&T has allegedly been doing. Long before the FTC filed its lawsuit, AT&T's critics have claimed that the company uses data throttling not for network management reasons but for revenue enhancement — and pointed to the company's own advertised pricing policies as evidence.

For example: in January 2014, AT&T launched its then-new “Sponsored Data” program, which it said would shift “mobile data costs from the consumer to the content provider.” (In other words, websites would have to pay in order to ensure AT&T mobile visitors could access them in a timely fashion, in complete opposition to proposed “net neutrality” rules.)

At the time, TechDirt called the program “an admission that data caps have nothing to do with congestion.”

Today, in its press release announcing the $100 million fine, the Federal Communications Commission explained that:
AT&T began offering unlimited data plans in 2007, allowing customers to use unrestricted amounts of data. Although the company no longer offers unlimited plans to new customers, it allows current unlimited customers to renew their plans and has sold millions of existing unlimited customers new term contracts for data plans that continue to be labeled as “unlimited”.

In 2011, AT&T implemented a “Maximum Bit Rate” policy and capped the maximum data speeds for unlimited customers after they used a set amount of data within a billing cycle. The capped speeds were much slower than the normal network speeds AT&T advertised and significantly impaired the ability of AT&T customers to access the Internet or use data applications for the remainder of the billing cycle.

Locked in

Adding insult to injury, the FCC also said that “Consumers also complained about being locked into a long-term AT&T contract, subject to early termination fees, for an unlimited data plan that wasn’t actually unlimited.”

So AT&T not only sold an unlimited data plan that actually had strict secret limits, it penalized customers who then tried to get out after learning that AT&T wasn't upholding its end of the promised bargain.

To return to the all-you-can eat buffet analogy, this is like locking customers in the restaurant and forcing them to slowly eat all of their meals there.

AT&T, for its part, says it will “vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions.” The company is also implying that its data throttling practice is actually legitimate network management (akin to throttling video in a storm zone). As The Verge noted:
[AT&T] argues that the commission has "identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources," although that's sort of ignoring what the FCC is actually saying. The commission isn't taking issue with AT&T's throttling for the purpose of "reasonable network management," it's taking issue with AT&T throttling customers indiscriminately because they've used a lot of data.

Trick or treat

And it's alleged that AT&T's own behavior strongly supports the FCC's claim. Last September, for example, AT&T offered a then-new promotion slated to run through Halloween: new customers who signed up for AT&T's “Mobile Share Value Plan” before Halloween would get double the data limits of ordinary mobile customers. At the time, the standard Mobile Share Value Plan offered customers 15 gigabytes (GB) of data per billing period, whereas new customers who signed up before Oct. 31 were offered 30 GB per billing period.

Meanwhile, customers with “unlimited” data plans had their connections throttled after only 5 GB per bill period. To recap: AT&T users with unlimited data plans got throttled after only 5GB, whereas “ordinary” new customers got at least 15GB unless they signed on during that special Halloween promotion in which case they got 30GB – six times what “unlimited” data users enjoyed before throttling. And that was with the smallest data plan; AT&T offered another with a whopping 100GB of shared data – for $375 per month.

Yet the same company that can provide up to 100 gigabytes of shared data to certain customers also claimed that “network management” obligates it to throttle any unlimited data user who shares a mere 5 gigabytes of data. That's how math works at AT&T company HQ: 5GB from an “unlimited” plan causes more congestion than a 100GB limit, and putting strict limits on unlimited data.

Still, AT&T said, in response to the FCC's latest fine, that “The FCC has specifically identified this practice [data throttling] as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers, and has known for years that all of the major carriers use it …. We have been fully transparent with our customers, providing notice in multiple ways and going well beyond the FCC’s disclosure requirements.”

Privacy group asks FTC to bring Europe's "Right to be Forgotten" to the U.S.

Originally published in

The advocacy group Consumer Watchdog today filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saying that Google's failure to offer U.S. users the same “right to be forgotten” enjoyed by citizens of the European Union is “unfair and deceptive.”

John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, wrote that “Google’s refusal to consider such requests in the United States is both unfair and deceptive, violating Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.”

European "Right to be Forgotten"

Europe's “Right to be Forgotten” dates back to a May 2014 ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union (the E.U.'s equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court, more or less). That ruling regarded a case brought before the court in 2010, by a Spanish national named Mario Costeja González. But the start of Costeja's complaint dates back to 1998, when some of his property was auctioned off to pay back taxes.

In Spain as in America, property auctions for tax settlements are public information and thus count as legitimate news, so the Spanish daily newspaper La Vanguardia published legal notices of the proceedings in January and March 1998.

In 2009, those 11-year-old notices still turned up in Google searches for Costeja's name, so Costeja asked La Vanguardia to take the stories down and also asked Google to stop linking to them, on the grounds that old stories about his debt issues were no longer relevant since his debts had been resolved.

Google and the newspaper both refused Costeja's request, so in 2009 he took his complaints to the Spanish Data Protection Agency which, in July 2010, ordered Google to remove the links but did not order La Vanguardia to remove the stories.

Google challenged the order, the E.U. Court of Justice agreed to hear the appeal, and in May 2014 it ruled against Google. The E.U. “right to be forgotten” essentially says that, while information does not have to be deleted from the Internet (meaning: websites like La Vanguardia can keep their archives online), search engines might have to obey requests to take down links to certain stories.

Court of Justice rulings are legally binding throughout the European Union just as Supreme Court rulings are legally binding throughout the U.S., so Google has obeyed European law while conducting operations in Europe, and U.S. law for its business in the United States.

Seeking similar treatment in U.S.

But Consumer Watchdog's complaint to the FTC (which is available as a .pdf here) criticizes Google for not honoring E.U.-style takedown requests in the United States, specifically:
…. Google’s failure to offer U.S. users the ability to request the removal of search engine links from their name to information that is inadequate, irrelevant, no longer relevant, or excessive. In Europe the ability to make this request is popularly referred to as the Right To Be Forgotten. As [FTC] Commissioner Brill has suggested it may more accurately be described as the Right Of Relevancy or the Right To Preserve Obscurity.
Consumer Watchdog went on to explain why the “right of relevancy” is a necessary consumer-privacy protection:
Before the Internet if someone did something foolish when they were young – and most of us probably did – there might well be a public record of what happened. Over time, as they aged, people tended to forget whatever embarrassing things someone did in their youth. They would be judged mostly based on their current circumstances, not on information no longer relevant. If someone else were highly motivated, they could go back into paper files and folders and dig up a person’s past. Usually this required effort and motivation. For a reporter, for instance, this sort of deep digging was routine with, say, candidates for public office, not for Joe Blow citizen. This reality that our youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the general public’s consciousness is Privacy By Obscurity. The Digital Age has ended that. Everything – all our digital footprints – are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or taps on a mobile device.
However, the letter goes on to point out that U.S. law already recognizes a “right of relevancy” in certain cases, such as credit reports – the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires that information about debt collections, civil lawsuits, tax liens, and similar matters becomes “obsolete” after a certain period of time (usually seven years) and must henceforth be removed from consumers' credit reports.

"Right to be Forgotten" could be useful

Consumer Watchdog offered examples of cases where a “right to be forgotten” might prove useful, including:
A guidance counselor was fired in 2012 after modeling photos from 20 years prior surfaced. She was a lingerie model between the ages of 18-20, and she had disclosed her prior career when she first was hired. Despite this, when a photo was found online and shown to the principal of her school, she was fired.
Arguably, in cases such as that – the counselor openly admitted her previous career when she was hired, which clearly caused no problems until the principal took umbrage at a photograph from half a lifetime before – what the woman needed wasn't a “right to be forgotten” so much as “protection from a hypocritical employer.”

But Consumer Watchdog also offered examples of European link-removal requests, those honored by Google under the “right to be forgotten” and also those requests Google did not honor: “A woman in Italy requested that Google remove a decades-old article about her husband’s murder, which included her name. The page was removed from search results for her name.  A Swiss financial professional asked Google to remove more than 10 links to pages reporting on his arrest and conviction for financial crimes. Google did not remove the pages from search results.”

Last month, Google did implement a policy change in the United States, specifically to crack down on the practice of “revenge porn” — the practice wherein people (usually angry ex-lovers) post identifiable nude or sexually explicit photos of their partners, along with the partners' names, links to their social media accounts and other identifying information, with the intention of humiliating them and/or damaging their careers.

On June 19, Google said that henceforth, the company would honor requests from victims to remove “revenge porn” images from its search engine, and stop linking to the results. Consumer Watchdog mentioned this in its complaint to the FTC, and said “Google's approach to removals in the United States underscores the unfairness of offering the Right To Be Forgotten to Europeans, but not to Americans. As clearly demonstrated by its willingness to remove links to certain information when requested in the United States, Google could easily offer the Right To Be Forgotten or Right to Relevancy request option to Americans. It unfairly and deceptively opts not to do so. … Americans deserve the same ability to make such a privacy-protecting request and have it honored.”

Legal differences between continents

Of course, Americans (unlike Europeans) have First Amendment guarantees of free press and free speech, which sometimes means that laws allowable in the E.U. wouldn't pass constitutional muster in the United States (and, conversely, that certain U.S. laws might fall short of privacy protections in the E.U.).

For example: in Europe, you won't find many websites like ConsumerAffairs or Yelp, for the simple reason that businesses can bring libel charges against anyone who speaks ill of them and have a reasonable certainty of winning, even if the criticism is accurate.

It is true, as Consumer Watchdog pointed out, that the so-called “right to relevancy” exists regarding some forms of personal information: you generally aren't expected to repay a credit card debt if it's more than seven years old, for example, and even a declaration of bankruptcy will eventually drop off your credit report so that you'll once again be able to apply for fresh lines of credit.

But should individuals be required to “forget” these things about other individuals, too? Here's an example Consumer Watchdog did not include in its complaint to the FTC: in 1998, a man named Mario Costeja González (remember him?) fell so far behind on his taxes, the authorities ended up auctioning off some of his real estate holdings to settle the debt — and now the European courts agree he has the right to expect everyone else to forget about it.

If Costeja does business in the United States, he already has that right, at least in financial matters — a debt resolved in 1998 would've dropped off his credit report seven years later, and wouldn't affect his ability to get a mortgage or other loan in mid-2015.

Now suppose that after getting that loan, he celebrates and drinks excessively at a nearby bar where he meets an attractive single woman (or man, if that is his preference). They get to talking and decide to start dating. Things start getting serious and at some point she types his name into a search engine because that's what people do nowadays when dating someone new.

Love alone is not enough to make a happy marriage: you also must share compatible values, especially in financial matters. So, if a woman who is very prudent and careful with money starts dating a man who, as an adult, once let his affairs get in such disarray that the authorities auctioned off his property to settle tax debts, whose rights take precedence here – the man's presumed right for everyone to forget how irresponsible he once was, or the woman's presumed right to get an accurate answer to such questions as “Has my potential partner ever been spendthrifty enough to make headlines?”

In the European Union, the man's rights take precedence here. Under current U.S. law, it's the reverse. Whether that status quo needs changing, and by how much, is shaping up to be the next big privacy-rights battleground in America.

Rent-to-own is an expensive way to do either

Originally published in

One of the most common, and costly, financial mistakes people make is this: when buying something on an installment plan (credit card or dealer financing, doesn’t matter), they only look at the size of their weekly or monthly payment, rather than calculate the total cost.

And it’s no exaggeration to say that without consumers making this mistake, so-called “rent to own” businesses could not exist. Seriously: if you buy furniture, appliances or electronics from the likes of Aaron’s or Rent-a-Center, even in the best-case scenario you’ll pay at least twice the standard retail price. The entire rent-to-own business model depends on its customers paying far more than anything they buy is worth.

Tonya A. from Illinois recently discovered this the hard way, when she wrote us about leasing items from Aaron’s: “We were renting a washer/dryer set, a 40" TV and a bedroom set. However, due to losing my job, we had to give back the washer/dryer set and the TV. Even with giving this stuff back, our payments continue to be high. We have been paying on this account for quite some time now. The last time my husband was in their store, he asked them how many payments we had left. He was told 6 or 7 payments left.”

Price comparison

Out of curiosity, we tried checking the Aaron’s website to see how much it costs to lease/buy a 40” TV from them. But we couldn’t get any price quotes unless we filled out a registration form giving them our personal information, which we have no intention of doing.

However, Aaron’s competitor Rent-A-Center offers far more price transparency; you can get online quotes without registration. As of Nov. 5, Rent-a-Center advertised a specialon an LG 47” 1080p smart TV: you can get one for $19.99 per week, and own it in “24 months or less” if you make “104 worry-free payments, total price: $2,078.96.” Rent-a-Center also offers a cheaper payment option: pay within 90 days and you get a “same as cash price” of $1,372.11.

We searched online for that make and model of television, and one of the first websites that came up is Kohl’s (which is not remotely the cheapest store we could find): on Nov. 5, Kohl’s sold that exact same TV for a “regular” price of $979.99, on sale for $729.99 -- less than half as much as renting.

Meanwhile, the browsing function on Pricewatch.comfound brick-and-mortar electronics stores selling it for as little as $599.99.

So: if you want that particular TV, you can pay $600 if you shop around for a local store that carries it, you can be more extravagant and buy it from Kohl’s for $730—or you can make “104 worry-free payments” at Rent-a-Center and shell out almost $2,100 by the time you finish paying for the television.

Immediate gratification

The only “advantage” rent-to-own places offer over regular retail—and a dubious advantage, at that—is immediacy: if you want a particular TV but don’t have the money for it right now, most rent-to-own places will let you take one home today. In exchange for this immediacy, though, you ultimately pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than that TV is actually worth.

Even worse: should your household fall upon hard financial times—as Tonya and her husband did, when she lost her old job and had to take a new one at a much lower salary—you’re still out those hundreds or thousands of dollars, plus your items get repossessed. Then you suffer the worst of both worlds: Tonya and her husband have likely paid Aaron’s far more than their appliances actually cost, in exchange for which they now have no appliances at all.

The same day we heard from Tonya, we also read an unhappy story from Corinne B. in Pennsylvania. She too faced recent financial setbacks, is having problems paying her current Rent-a-Center bills, and was dismayed to discover that RAC’s repo staff won’t cut her any slack, even though “I have been a longtime customer of RAC, and have bought out at least 7 items from them.”

Let’s assume a worst-case scenario wherein all seven of Corinne’s Rent-A-Center buyouts had the same $1,500 markup as that LG smart TV we told you about before. If so, that’s $10,500 she paid, over and above the actual value of the appliances themselves. Conversely, if she could travel back in time and convince her slightly younger self to stay out of Rent-a-Center, save those weekly payments and hold off on the TV and other stuff until she could afford to buy them outright, today Corinne would have all those items and an extra $10,000, too.

And if time-traveling Tonya persuaded her younger self to put off buying a TV and washer/dryer until they could afford a better deal than Aaron’s, today she and her husband would still have their appliances plus however many thousands of dollars they’ve paid in Aaron’s rental fees.

We’re not trying to demonize the rent-to-own businesses, here. It’s not even pure greed that motivates them to place such ridiculously high markups on their goods; some of that markup covers the genuine financial risk they take in giving high-ticket items to people who might not pay them back, plus the cost of hiring repo staff when that happens.

But as consumer journalists, our concern is for the well-being of consumers, not rental companies. And we’re not just consumer journalists; we’re also consumers, and nowhere near rich enough to afford an extra thousand-dollar markup every time we buy furniture or an appliance. That’s why, as one cash-strapped consumer to another, we urge you: stay away from the rent-to-own stores. Your future self will be glad you did.

Fingerhut boots and the Vimes' Boots paradox

Originally published in

If you’re a Fingerhut shopper looking for ways to reduce your personal debt, bulk up your savings account or otherwise improve your financial bottom line, the single best thing you can do is stop buying things from Fingerhut (or any so-called “credit shopping” retailer).

Fingerhut is a mail-order company whose tagline is “Now You Can!” The bar across the top of its website’s front page boasts of offering “Buy Now Pay Later Credit Shopping.”

The problem with such credit shopping is that when you pay later, you also pay more. Lots more. Fingerhut’s business model is similar to that of so-called “rent-to-own” or “lease-to-buy” stores, offering instant gratification in exchange for enormous price markups.

For example (all quoted prices here are as of Nov. 14), when we clicked on Fingerhut’s “Kid’s Shoes” category, the first offering listed was a “Carrini Girls Fur Trimmed Boot” [sic] priced at $24.99, or $5.99 per month.

Clicking on the image brings you to the order page for that pair of boots. Scroll down near the bottom, and there’s another link reading “See Full Cost of Ownership.” That link takes you away from the address into some Adobe Scene 7 software (impossible to see unless your computer allows Java). You end up with a 121-page chart listing the initial costs of Fingerhut purchases, the monthly payments and the ultimate cost of repayment.

Depending on your computer monitor’s resolution the screenshot we took might be difficult for you to read, since Scene 7 has extremely limited zoom-in capacity. However, if you check page 12-13 you’ll notice that a $24.99 Fingerhut item with monthly payments of $5.99 will cost $26.41 if you make five monthly payments, or $37.67 over seven months.

Of course, higher-priced items have correspondingly higher markups: a $50 item costs $74.20 after eleven payments of $6.99. Buying $88.95 worth of stuff at $13.99 per month can cost you up to $204.62 by the time it’s paid off.

But what if you really want those $89 worth of Fingerhut products, only you can’t afford them right now? The harsh truth is: if you can’t afford to pay $89 up front for something, you definitely can’t afford to pay $205 for the same thing. And if your finances are tight enough that it’s hard to scrape together $25 for a kid’s pair of boots, paying $38 for the boots plus finance charges will only make matters worse.

Samuel Vimes

Coincidentally, boots are at the center of one of the most famous contemporary economic paradoxes: the Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ Theory of Economic Unfairness. Vimes is a fictional character, a policeman in the Discworld series of books by comic-fantasy author Terry Pratchett.
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes 'Boots' theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

 Granted, Vimes’ particular problem — keeping his feet shod in shoddy boots — probably doesn’t apply to Fingerhut shoppers; though we haven’t tested this ourselves, we’re sure that Carrini boots or Reebok sneakers bought from Fingerhut are just as good as Carrini or Reebok items bought elsewhere.

But the point of his paradox still applies: paying little bits of money in regular increments can ultimately be far more expensive than paying a larger sum of money all at once. Paying $20 a week for a big-screen rent-to-own TV is ultimately two to three times as costly as saving $20 a week until you can buy that TV for cash, and the “buy now pay later” price for household goods bought on credit is almost guaranteed to be higher than the “buy now pay now” price for those same items.

Unleashing police gunmen on students: America's hot new educational fad

Originally published on Anorak, October 21, 2013

IF you missed last week’s “mad gunman terrorizes American schoolchildren” news story, this time out of North Carolina, don’t feel bad; these days they’re common enough that it’s not reasonable to expect any one person can keep up with them all.

Still, last week’s story was notable for two reasons: One, nobody actually got shot; and two, the gunman was on the school’s payroll. Seriously: Administrators at Eastern Wayne Middle School later sent parents a letter explaining that they sent a masked gunman to various sixth-grade classrooms as an “enrichment lesson on exhibiting good citizenship and observing your surroundings.”

It’s unclear exactly what good-citizenship lesson the kids were supposed to learn — “sphincter control,” perhaps — but it’s a lucky thing none of the kids tried anything heroic, like disarming the gunman, because any student who did that would surely be kicked out of school.

Again, seriously. Last March, that’s exactly what happened to a Florida high school boy after he disarmed a fellow student who was aiming a loaded weapon at a third classmate. School spokesmen justified the hero kid’s suspension because,  “If there is a potentially dangerous situation, Florida law allows the principal to suspend a student immediately pending a hearing.”

See? The school was only trying to avoid harm from a potentially dangerous situation, and when you’re in charge of guiding impressionable youth, it makes perfect sense to teach them “Never stop a gunman from shooting his intended victim, lest you create a potentially dangerous situation.”

More and more American schools honestly believe “fear for their lives” (without trying to defend themselves, because danger) is a perfectly cromulent lesson to teach kids. Last May, the New York Daily News ran a story discussing this trend, under the incredibly depressing headline “Gun attack drills more realistic, intense as schools brace for a possible ‘active shooter’ incident.” To list just a couple of examples:

A suburban Chicago high school ran a “code red” drill with the gunmen shooting blanks in January. Last month, an Indiana school ran a shooting drill replete with blood and a body count.
Last year, an El Paso, Tex., school set up a shocking surprise lockdown simulation that enraged parents like Stephanie Belcher, whose son sent her a panicked text message.
“He said, ‘I’m not kidding. There’s gunshots and people screaming and we were locked in a storage closet,’ ” Belcher told KFOX-TV. “These kids thought that their classmates were being killed and that they could be next. There’s no excuse for that.”

Like hell there’s no excuse—as a school district official explained, “It’s an active shooter drill. We do this every now and then. If you warn too many people, then the simulation is not effective.”

Bad as it is when schools send gunmen to aim empty weapons at students, it’s worse when the weapons are loaded. Last month, when three middle-schoolers in Port Charlotte, Florida (yeah, Florida again) climbed on their school’s roof after classes, police arrived with loaded assault rifles and an M16, all aimed at the kids.

Most “hey, kids, stay off the roof” rules are put in place with the intention of keeping the kids safe, in which case aiming sniper weapons at them might sound counterproductive, but a school district spokesman justified the police reaction on the grounds that “I don’t care if [the kids] are in kindergarten or if they’re seniors in high school, they know the rules.”

As an American patriot obligated to defend my fellow countryman, I remind you that “Death is an appropriate penalty for disobedience” is a completely non-psychotic belief for any authority figure to hold, especially a professional educator entrusted with children.

Incidentally, anytime there’s a school shooting resulting in an actual dead-kid body count, the press goes completely gaga running stories alleging how maybe America wouldn’t have so many murderous crazies if only we’d make health care available to the mentally ill. “The neglect of mental illness exacts a huge toll, human and economic,” whined a typically unpatriotic headline in Scientific American. 

Yet for all the legitimate critiques one might make about the modern United States of America, any claims that we neglect mental illness are libelous bullshit. We do not neglect our mentally ill people over here; we pay them six-figure salaries and let them administer our schools.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Whatever You Do, Don't Accept That Delicious Gourmet Treat

Originally published on MainStreet, December 22, 2012

Still scrambling for a last-minute holiday gift? Perhaps a Secret Santa offering for a colleague you hardly know? Then buy a scented candle, a decorative paperweight, a coffee mug with a stupid cartoon on it — buy anything except a gift box or basket filled with deluxe gourmet luxury versions of everyday foods. These make cruel presents, especially for recipients trying to be frugal about their grocery costs.

Recipients like me. My landlady sent me a gift box filled with pricey gourmet English muffins — $20 for 16 muffins, compared with the five bucks a dozen I usually pay. And I tried one of the designer muffins yesterday and OMG THIS IS FREAKING DELICIOUS, so now I’m guaranteed some unfulfilling breakfasts once the new year breaks: what will I eat after these upscale muffins are gone?

I am not replacing my household’s usual brand of English muffins with a thrice-the-price alternative; that alone would increase my grocery costs hundreds of dollars per year. But those ordinary mass-produced muffins I’ve eaten and enjoyed all my life simply don’t taste good to me anymore.

It reminds me of those dastardly drug dealers the schoolteachers of my childhood used to warn their students about: “First they will act all friendly, and give you some for free. Only when you’re hooked do you learn how expensive it is! And if you want any more, you have to pay.”

Yeah, that really is a business model. Except drug dealers aren’t the ones who follow it. Drug dealers don’t offer free samples of their enticing wares anytime I try innocently going about my business. No: It’s the gourmet-food pushers doing this, and hellafino how to visit a supermarket or shopping mall this time of year without running a gantlet of them.

In my broke-student college days, eating cheap English muffins, I was perfectly content to cover them with inexpensive margarine-based dairy spreads. But those have tasted bad to me for years now, ever since “they” got me hooked on real butter. Still, a pound of real butter every month is a small indulgence compared with tripling the cost of the muffins I spread it on.

Meanwhile, someone else gifted my husband a bottle of incredibly precious microbeer with a name like Pretentia-Brau, costlier even than my luxury muffins because those were handmade by ordinary people (who just happen to work in the gourmet breakfast biz), whereas the beer was handmade by monks living in a remote monastery under a vow of silence, and the beer is delivered on the backs of donkeys reputed to be direct male-line descendants of the original Christmas-story beast that carried Mary and Baby Jesus into Bethlehem.

Or maybe I’m confusing this year’s monastery gift beer with last year’s monastery gift jars of jams and jellies.  Either way it’s the thought that counts, like how I once thought my mass-produced English muffins with margarine spread and store-brand strawberry jam all tasted good, until these luxury handcrafted gourmet food boxes thoughtfully showed me I was wrong.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Great Unwashed

The Great Unwashed: Venturing into the Shampoo-Free Life

first published in Healthy Life magazine, Autumn 2009


I shampoo my hair once a year whether it’s dirty or not.

Just kidding. It’s only been three months since my last shampoo, but I’m seriously thinking that – barring some extreme filth emergency involving bird poop or a headfirst tumble into a mud puddle – I’ll never shampoo again.

Before you crinkle your nose and say “eeew,” let me remind you that “shampooing” is not synonymous with “washing.” I still wash my hair almost every night; I just changed my old “shampoo, then conditioner” routine to “conditioner-only.” Three months into this experiment, it’s shaping up to be the smartest hair-care decision I’ve made since I outgrew my Goth phase and quit dyeing it black.

People have been washing hair for centuries, but modern shampoo – made of synthetic detergents that remove oil from your hair (along with whatever dirt the oil has absorbed) – has only been around since the 1930s. Early shampoos were so harsh, their own manufacturers recommended using them only once a week (hence the classic anti-date excuse “I can’t go out because I have to wash my hair”).

In the 1970s shampoo formulas became gentler, and daily shampooing became standard in America. But maybe that standard is wrong.

“It is good not to wash your hair every day,” said Ellie Canuteson, manager of the Complexions Spa and Salon in Albany. “It’s good not to shampoo it every day, too.”

Overshampooing causes two problems: it can dry hair out or, paradoxically, make it greasier than if you never shampooed in the first place.

Hair is dead tissue; that’s why it doesn’t hurt when you cut it. It also can’t produce its own moisturizing oils though your scalp does, a substance called “sebum.”

When shampoo removes sebum from your hair, your scalp compensates by producing extra sebum. So you wind up in a vicious cycle: the more you wash your hair, the more sebum you generate. But if you avoid shampoo altogether, eventually your sebum levels balance out and leave your hair healthier than ever before.

Or so I read on the Internet. A few months ago I searched for advice about my own hair, which alternates between wavy and curly (depending on the weather) and is just over two feet long with its curls and kinks straightened out. It also had dry, split ends no amount of conditioning treatments could eradicate.

I found entire chat forums dedicated to the care and feeding of long hair. Many members have hair falling past their knees (if their avatar photos are accurate), and they talked about shampoo the way Christians talk about the Antichrist. So I took their anonymous advice and cut shampoo out of my life.

I asked Ellie Canuteson what she thought of the no-shampoo scheme.

“I’m not a huge fan of it, the reason being your scalp does need to be cleansed … [it] does produce a lot of oil.” However, she says, “If you don’t produce too much oil, you can maybe go two weeks without shampoo.”

Coincidentally, two weeks after I quit shampoo is when my hair started looking like hell. The long-hair forums warned that if you stop shampooing, it takes anywhere from two to six weeks before your sebum levels reach equilibrium.

I needed three. The first week wasn’t bad. The second week, I looked exactly the way you’d expect when you hear “I haven’t shampooed in two weeks.” The third week was even worse: my hair was oily at the scalp and a frizzball everywhere else.

By week four I almost gave up. But then – it was almost like a fever breaking. I took a conditioner-only shower after another frizzy, oily day, went to bed that night ... and when I woke up next morning my hair looked fine.

Better than fine, in fact. Compared to my shampoo days, my hair is shinier, wavier and curlier than ever before.

“That would be because you’re not taking moisture out of it,” Canuteson said. “The more moisture you have, the more wavy, more curly it is … when people tell me ‘My curls aren’t what they used to be’ it might be because they’re stripping hair of its natural oil.”

That loss of oil also causes dry split ends. If you have long hair, see if this sounds familiar: when you wash your hair and let it dry naturally, most of it stays damp for at least two hours but your ends are bone-dry in minutes.

That was the case with me, until I quit shampoo. Now that my ends can finally retain moisture, I’m finding one or two split ends per month, as opposed to several in a single day.

My hair also gets less tangled. In my shampoo days I needed as much as 40 minutes to comb out my hair after shampooing.

“Great news! Global warming has ended!” my significant other said one night, after a typical shampoo job. “Advancing glaciers grip the earth in a new Ice Age, while civilizations collapsed and rose again.” He paused for effect. “All this happened while you took your shower.”

Despite the sarcasm he had a point – I did take ridiculously long showers, because I needed multiple applications of water and conditioner to comb out the post-shampoo snarls. Now, detangling is easy and my water bill has been cut in half.

Despite my enthusiasm for the no-shampoo regimen, the stylists I spoke to had reservations. Ellie Canuteson recommends at least two or three shampoos per month, and Colette Cristafulli, retail manager at Albany’s Jean-Paul Day Spa, was even more skeptical about my experiment.
“I do have clients who don’t wash their hair often, due to the curl issue or the frizz issue,” she said, but thinks switching to a gentler shampoo is better than cutting shampoo altogether. Cristafulli recommends formulas that are “sulfite-free and paraben-free.”

If you follow in my shampoo-free footsteps, there’s a few things you must remember. First, you will go through a period when your hair looks absolutely awful. Don’t quit shampoo today if there’s any event in the next month for which you need to look your best.

A boar-bristle hairbrush is excellent for redistributing oil from the scalp to the ends. And use the lightest conditioner you can find; those heavy moisturizing formulas are for shampoo users with low sebum levels.

Perhaps the best advice of all comes from Ellie Canuteson: “I think probably, if someone wants to do this, consult with your stylist.”