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The Consumerist

Comcast Keeps Claiming Competition Abounds, Despite Mountains Of Evidence From Planet Reality

Tue, 2014-09-23 19:32

Sterling Davis

(Sterling Davis)

In August, as part of the merger oversight process, the FCC asked Comcast and Time Warner Cable for more information about their operations and their plans. In answer, Comcast has submitted 735 pages of documentation. That’s a lot of information, but Comcast’s responses have one key theme: the Comcast/TWC merger will not harm competition, because broadband competition is plentiful… no matter what the rest of us, including the FCC, seem to think.

The chairman of the FCC has recently said several times that broadband competition is sparse, not plentiful, but Comcast seems to know better. In their response filing (258-page PDF), Comcast repeats their argument that the existing broadband market, as-is, will prevent them from behaving badly. Why? because they’ll hemorrhage subscribers if they do:
“Comcast has significant disincentives to harm edge providers for many reasons, foremost among them that blocking or degrading access to streaming video, applications, or other online content likely would cause significant numbers of customers to switch providers and thus compromise Comcast’s broadband business.”

But as we’ve seen in maps and in data from the FCC, most of us don’t really have any place to jump ship to. And yet Comcast seems to think all its deeply dissatisfied subscribers can flee at will to the same old scapegoats: DSL, mobile, satellite, and Google.

Here’s what Comcast’s saying, and why it’s misleading.

1.) “Telephone companies appear well-positioned to offer highly competitive broadband speeds well into the future.”

To hear Comcast tell it, the telco market — DSL, mainly, but also fiber — is in tip-top shape. With Verizon, AT&T, and CenturyLink all expanding, everything is coming up roses for consumers nationwide.

Those companies don’t want the FCC to require them to offer actual high-speed broadband connections, but it is true that they’re slowly expanding to offer more of them anyway. The key word there, though, is “slowly.”

While companies like AT&T and CenturyLink are gradually expanding into gigabit service, those services right now are very small-scale and reach only a comparative handful of consumers. AT&T offers “GigaPower” service in three cities, with 11 more scheduled, and CenturyLink has just started a rollout of gigabit fiber in 11 cities. Hopefully in five or ten years’ time the telecom carriers will indeed prove to be seriously competitive services, but in 2014 they’re still more like sideshow curiosities.

In fact, in their public comment on the merger, CenturyLink expressed strong concerns that letting Comcast merge with TWC would harm their own business and reduce competition even further:.”CenturyLink’s ability to offer competitive video choices to new customers and in new markets – and to offer a viable product to consumers in its existing markets – depends fundamentally on the existence of a fair (if not level) competitive playing field,” they wrote. “This transaction threatens to tilt the playing field decisively against small providers such as CenturyLink in a number of significant ways, and thus to limit or prevent competitive facilities-based entry, much to the detriment of consumers.”

So that’s DSL. What about everyone else?

2.) “Cable overbuilders, new entrants like Google fiber, municipal providers, fixed wireless providers, and satellite broadband providers also are competing vigorously. And well-capitalized and aggressive nationwide mobile broadband providers now offer services that provide speeds comparable to many of the fixed broadband services that consumers purchase.”

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Those cable overbuilders, like small company RCN, are already being heavily squeezed out of the market by pressure from Comcast. They, like CenturyLink, deeply fear for their ability to keep competing even in a small way against Comcast as it grows. RCN wrote in their anti-merger comment to the FCC that, “With its monopsony power in programming acquisition unchecked, the combined company would have a natural incentive to … engage in predatory conduct.” They added that letting Comcast and TWC merge would have a deleterious effect on small overbuilders like them, and that, “if other small providers are driven out of the market, others cannot and will not enter to replace them.”

Of course, one new major company is trying to enter to replace them, which brings us to Google. Google Fiber seems to be doing very well so far, but the product only exists in three cities currently (or two-and-a-half, really; customers in Austin cannot yet register for service). There are nine more metro areas in the running eventually to become the fourth Google Fiber city, but no plans have yet been made. Even if Google undertook an extremely aggressive plan for expansion, it would be many, many years — if not decades — before Google Fiber became a national provider.

Municipal providers, on the other hand, are indeed desperately trying to expand. But it’s a challenge for them exactly because of Comcast and other incumbent companies, which together have spent a lot of time and money making muni broadband illegal in as many states as possible.

The FCC may yet override those state-level blocks, but the outcome of that proceeding is still very much up in the air. And even if the FCC did manage to overrule all those state laws tomorrow, it would, again, take years if not decades for municipal broadband to become a factor in the majority of cities or counties out there — and state-level governments are not suddenly going to become responsive to spending on new projects just because there are no longer laws blocking them.

What of fixed wireless? That’s the technology that AT&T is promising to bring to rural customers if their mega-merger with DirecTV gets approved. There’s some exciting potential there, especially for folks far-flung from cities, but it’s not widely available just yet.

That, then, leaves mobile broadband and satellite as the last two likely competitors to Comcast. But as we’ve already covered at length, no matter how much Comcast wants to sing the praises of those technologies, for most consumers they are realistically no competition at all. High prices and low data caps make them simply not feasible for most home use.

Cost of watching Breaking Bad across all data plan types. Click to enlarge.

Saying a thing a whole bunch of times doesn’t make it true.

Comcast keeps trying to have it both ways: they say they need to buy Time Warner Cable to remain competitive against all these other really rough players in the room. But meanwhile every other company, even some very big ones, is desperately trying to claw back any space to compete in a world where Comcast is the clear heavyweight.

Starting a new company, or even expanding an existing smaller one, is a prohibitively costly and complex undertaking. Barring some unforeseen corporate and regulatory miracle, the players we have in the field now are the only ones we’re going to have for quite some time. And those players keep buying each other out, leaving us with fewer than ever before.

In ten or twenty years, we probably will have a much more robust fiber network, and faster, more reliable, cheaper mobile data, available to individual consumers. But Comcast wants to buy Time Warner Cable now, not in some rose-colored best-case 2025. And in the here and now, most consumers’ choice is still limited to “slim” or “none.”

[via Ars Technica]

Man Proves You Can Just Slap Together Every Taco Bell Ingredient And Still Please People

Tue, 2014-09-23 19:10

tacobellpinataWe’ve joked in the past that Taco Bell will eventually just wrap every every ingredient in its kitchen and serve that meat/cheese/lettuce/sauce beast as its own menu item. They recently let someone try just that, and apparently the results were not awful.

In the video below, Fast Company’s Mark Wilson pays a visit to Taco Bell HQ, where he got to create and test — then later sell — a Bell beast of his own making.

As one would be tempted to do when in the test kitchen of a fast food chain notorious for stuffing and wrapping just about anything it can get its hands on, Wilson begins to create what he initially dubs, El Todos, because it has every ingredient he can include: multiple taco shells, beef, chicken, cheese, bacon, lettuce, all manner of sauces and everything else he can sandwich between two large flour tortillas.

The Bell employees on hand to witness this kitchen-sink approach to fast food suggested renaming Wilson’s creation “The Piñata” because it will explode when cracked open and you don’t know what you’re going to get.

And so he took his Piñata to the Taco Bell sensory labs, where employee taste-testers sampled and judged his addition to the Bell canon.

“Seems like a fun idea that a group of kids or family would want to share,” wrote one tester. “Definitely something you would want to customize even more.”

Others gave the Piñata positive grades in their feedback.

“It’s pretty much the best thing I’ve ever eaten out of a Taco Bell,” says another tester. “I had to eat the whole thing to taste every ingredient in it.”

A test kitchen employee tells Wilson that the response to his creation is “pretty good” compared to other items she’s seen come through the lab.

When Wilson went to a local Taco Bell to try his Piñata on an actual customer, the manager he worked with suggested adding taco shells to the mix, bringing the total up to five inside the already overstuffed monster.

The customer’s verdict?

“That is a veritable cornucopia of flavor,” he responded while still chewing. “It’s got a lot of different tastes, which makes it very interesting.”

However, the manager at this Bell said it’s unlikely that it could ever go on the menu, as one Piñata takes 4-5 minutes to make just one, and as we’ve seen, people don’t like waiting for Taco Bell orders.

Man Sues Costco For $670,000 After Receipt-Checking Incident Leaves Him With A Broken Leg

Tue, 2014-09-23 18:50

(Joel G Goodman)

(Joel G Goodman)

Over the years we’ve told you about all kinds of crazy situations – from pepper-sprayed employees to arrested customers – that arose when a consumer refused to show their receipt when leaving stores like Sam’s Club and Best Buy. Now a man in Oregon is suing Costco for $670,000, claiming that a receipt-checking dispute left him with a broken leg.

The Oregonian reports on the lawsuit involving a Jan. 2013 incident, in which the Portland man refused to stop and show his receipt after making purchases worth $102.66 at the wholesaler.

The man says he didn’t stop because he doesn’t believe the store’s employees had the right to detain him based on Costco’s receipt-checking policy.

While that’s all well and good, employees didn’t see it that way and one grabbed the man’s cart, preventing him from leaving.

When the employee wouldn’t let go of the cart the man allegedly grabbed him by the shirt collar and physically moved the employee away.

That’s when, according to the suit, another employee used a “martial arts type strike with his leg,” that led to the broken bones.

The man is seeking $150,000 for past and future medical expenses, $20,000 for lost wages and $500,000 for pain and suffering.

The lawyer representing Costco filed a motion regarding the incident stating that the man’s injuries were “the sole and direct result of his own conduct, fault and negligence” because he attacked the employees first.

A lawyer representing the man says instead of resorting to a detainment and possible physical confrontations when consumers don’t abide by receipt-checking policies, the store should simply cancel the customer’s membership.

A couple years ago, a former Costco employee told Consumerist that checking receipts is both a matter of loss-prevention and to make sure that customers were not overcharged.

Man won’t show Costco Wholesale staff receipt, suffers broken leg, sues for $670,000 [The Oregonian]

Seattle Prosecutor Dropping Seven Months Worth Of Tickets For Using Marijuana In Public

Tue, 2014-09-23 18:31

(sonyaseattle)

(sonyaseattle)

Remember that cop in Seattle accused of going rogue in light of Washington’s legalization of recreational marijuana? Officials in that city say he issued about 80% of all the tickets for using pot in public, and had urged ticketed residents to contest any and all marijuana tickets as a result. Now Seattle’s prosecutor is just wiping seven months of marijuana tickets from the board entirely.

It isn’t just the tickets from that particular police officer — who was reassigned and is now under investigation by the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability — but all 100 tickets issued between Jan. 1 and July 31, reports the Associated Press.

City Attorney Pete Holmes is moving to dismiss those and seek a refund for the 22 people who already forked over the $27 fine for the ticket.

While Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole had asked for the tickets from that one officer, who deemed the pot law “silly,” Holmes says issuing a blanket pardon is easier procedurally and make for cleaner data as Seattle keeps a handle on enforcement.

Besides, it’s not about the money, Holmes says, but educating people about what you can and cannot do (like smoking in public) under the new law.

The Seattle PD also announced this week that it’s advising cops to warn people out loud before issuing a ticket if they can, and not to take the pot when they do. And if you’re smoking on private property, you shouldn’t get a ticket, even if someone else can see you doing so.

“The goal all along has been not to issue tickets as much as to change behavior,” Holmes said.

Prosecutor to Drop All Seattle Marijuana Tickets [The Associated Press]

Olive Garden Brings Back Never-Ending Pasta Bowl

Tue, 2014-09-23 18:24

Also never-ending. For now. (Morton Fox)

Also never-ending. For now. (Morton Fox)

If you didn’t manage to get your paws on a Never Ending Pasta Pass to taunt us with, but still crave carbs, don’t fret. Instead, you can pay $10 and get a never-ending pasta bowl that ends after one day. You can choose between five pastas and six sauces, and add meaty toppings that start at three bucks each. Take-out is not an option. This is the 19th year of the NEPB, raising the terrifying question of what the chain plans to do next year to celebrate the 20th year of the promotion. [Olive Garden] (via Brand Eating)

Dept. Store Sorry For Selling Decidedly Unfunny Rape Joke Shirt

Tue, 2014-09-23 18:20

(via Facebook)

(via Facebook)

There are certain topics that don’t lend themselves to jokey T-shirts, and rape is pretty high on that list. Yet that didn’t stop one department store chain in the Philippines from selling a rape-joke shirt that even the most jaded person would find cringe-worthy.

The above shirt, which declares that, “It’s not rape… It’s a snuggle with a struggle,” didn’t amuse one woman, who found it in the boys’ section of The SM Store, a department store chain with around 30 locations in the Philippines.

After receiving more than a few angry messages about the shirt, SM issued an apology on its Facebook page.

“We have been informed via social media that we have a t-shirt in stock with a message that we too find unacceptable,” reads the message. “We do not tolerate such action. SM does not support such irresponsible and malicious acts that mock important and sensitive social issues. We have immediately pulled out all the t-shirts of the consignor that distributes them, and we are investigating why it was included in our delivery of assorted t-shirts.”

Kansas To Officially Declare October “Zombie Preparedness Month”

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:41

(Mike Rollerson Photography)

(Mike Rollerson Photography)

You might know to aim for the brain and that if one bites you, you’re a goner — but how else could you possibly prepare for the inevitable zombie apocalypse? Kansas wants its residents to be ready for that — or really, any kind of large scale disaster — and is declaring October “Zombie Preparedness Month” to spread the word.

Governor Sam Brownback is set to sign a proclamation declaring next month’s zombie designation on Sept. 26 in the Governor’s Ceremonial Office in the Kansas Statehouse, reports KSN.com.

The motto of the month? “If you’re prepared for zombies, you’re prepared for anything.”

Because while it’s unlikely (FOR NOW) that humans will be struck with an epidemic that turns us all into brain eaters, other really bad things could happen, so pay attention to those things for now, Kansas says.

“If you’re equipped to handle the zombie apocalypse then you’re prepared for tornadoes, severe storms, fire and any other natural disaster Kansas usually faces,” said a rep from the Kansas Division of Emergency Management. “This is a fun and low-stress way to get families involved, and past turnouts have proven it to be effective.”

The agency points to things like home emergency kits with survival supplies that last a few days, and working on an emergency plan with your friends and family in case anything happens as a way you might prepare for zombies OR a natural disaster.

You just can’t stab a tornado in the eye with a tire iron and expect it to stop, so keep that in mind.

October is zombie preparedness month in Kansas [KSN.com]

Court Shuts Down Bitcoin Mining Business For Failing To Deliver Paid-For Computers

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:27

The FTC says that Butterfly Labs took money for Bitcoin mining products like the Monarch, but failed to deliver in a timely fashion, if at all.

The FTC says that Butterfly Labs took money for Bitcoin mining products like the Monarch, but failed to deliver in a timely fashion, if at all.

A federal court has temporarily shut down a Missouri-based business that sold computers specifically designed for aiding users in the generation, or “mining,” of the virtual currency Bitcoin, saying the company took — and spent — customers’ money but waited more than a year to make good on orders for one device and has failed to deliver on another.

You can read more about Bitcoin mining in our Bitcoin 101 article, but it’s the method in which the currency is created. It basically involves computers doing a lot of computing and occasionally spitting out some new Bitcoin.

And given that a single Bitcoin is now worth close to $400 (though that’s down significantly from the recent high of more than $1,000), there’s money to be made in selling machines that can do the computing quickly.

Additionally, because there is a finite limit on the total number of Bitcoin that can ultimately be mined, there are diminishing returns for your efforts. What earned a miner 50 Bitcoin in 2008 now only brings in half of that.

In June 2012, Butterfly Labs began selling BitForce mining machines, ranging in price from $149 to $29,899, telling customers that the devices were “now in final state development” and that delivery was to be expected by Oct. 2012.

But according to a complaint [PDF] filed last week in a U.S. District Court in Missouri by the Federal Trade Commission, not only did Butterfly fail to make that Oct. 2012 delivery date, but also hadn’t delivered a single BitForce machine by April 2013.

And even by Sept. 2013, nearly a year after the originally promised delivery date, some 20,000 BitForce machine buyers — all of whom had paid in full, in advance — were still waiting.

The company claimed in Nov. 2013 that it had shipped all BitForce devices, but the FTC says that customers continued to complain that they had not received their order.

The complaint states there are numerous instances of people who eventually did get their BitForce, but found that it was “either defective, obsolete, or mining far less Bitcoins than it would have had it shipped on the promised shipment dates.”

Also in 2013, Butterfly Labs started selling its newer Monarch machines, ranging in price from $2,499 to $4,680. And just like the BitForce, customers had to pay the full amount in advance. Customers were originally told they would receive their Monarchs by the end of 2013. That then became promises of April 2014 delivery, but the FTC says that as of Aug. 2014 — a full year after taking customers’ money for the devices — Butterfly had yet to ship a single Monarch.

Customers who sought refunds tell the FTC they had trouble reaching the company, and according to the complaint, even if they did get through to Butterfly Labs, there was significant confusion about the actual refund policy.

“At times, Defendants have claimed that they would provide refunds; at other times, they have stated that they have a no-refund policy,” reads the complaint. “Regardless of which purported policy was in place at the time, Defendants have often failed to provide refunds to consumers, even though they have not provided consumers with promised products or services or consumers have not received products or services for many months.”

While one might argue that it’s sometimes difficult to deliver new technology as quickly as promised, the FTC alleges that Butterfly Labs was taking customers’ money and doing lots of things with it other than spending it on manufacturing.

“Records indicate that once consumer funds enter into Defendants’ bank accounts, they are quickly dissipated,” reads a statement from an FTC attorney. “In recent months, despite receiving large sums of money each time consumers place orders, Defendants generally leave no more than approximately $2.5 million in the operating bank account. Instead, funds are depleted shortly after they enter into the bank accounts after consumers place their orders.”

The FTC says there is “substantial evidence” that corporate funds are being used for personal purposes, like shopping at department stores, day care, massages, and home improvement.

“Defendants’ corporate credit cards also reflects numerous non-business expenses, including department stores (including Nordstroms, Bed Bath and Beyond, Restoration Hardware, and Hobby Lobby), auto maintenance, gun stores and hunting stores,” reads the statement.

The FTC alleges that Butterfly Labs violated Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

“We often see that when a new and little-understood opportunity like Bitcoin presents itself, scammers will find ways to capitalize on the public’s excitement and interest,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Artist Claims Someone Stole Her Painting From Etsy And Is Now Selling It Through Walmart

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:13

A Pittsburgh artist claims Walmart is selling one of her paintings without permission. The bunny on the left was produced by the artist, while the one on the left is being sold by a third-party on Walmart’s marketplace site.

For millions of artists Etsy.com offers a personalized marketplace to sell hand-crafted, unique items without the hassle of mass production or working with national retailers. Only that’s not how it’s working for one artist who claims her painting is being sold through Walmart’s website without her permission.

According to KDKA-TV, a Pittsburgh woman believes that a third-party seller grabbed her bunny painting from Etsy, repurposed it and began selling it through Walmart’s marketplace website.

The woman says she received a message from an Etsy user in Australia alerting her to the possible issue.

“I went to the Walmart website and sure enough,” the artist says. “I could have ordered my little bunny for a $104. They stole my bunny, so I was like oh my gosh, then my blood started boiling.”

Although the original painting contains the artist’s signature, the one being sold on Walmart’s marketplace does not.

The woman doesn’t believe Walmart intentionally sold the alleged stolen painting. Instead, she thinks the painting, which is being sold by Wayfair on Walmart’s website, was snatched by someone else from Etsy and then made its way to the national retailer’s site.

This wouldn’t be the first time Walmart came under fire for offering questionable artwork from a third-party seller.

Back in July, the retailer apologized for allowing a poster that featured a signed from Nazi Germany’s Dachau concentration camp to be sold by a third-party on its marketplace site.

A spokesperson for Walmart told KDKA that they would immediately begin looking into the issue of the bunny painting.

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Local Artist Says Walmart Selling Her Painting Without Permission [KDKA-TV]

FTC May Block Planned Sysco And U.S. Foods Merger

Tue, 2014-09-23 16:53

(Don Buciak II)

(Don Buciak II)

Last December, we shared the news that commercial food suppliers U.S. Foods and Sysco were planning a merger, which would put about a quarter of the country’s entire foodservice-supply business in the hands of one company. The merger hasn’t yet gone through, and the Federal Trade Commission is considering a federal antitrust lawsuit to stop it.

How would this be a monopoly when the combined company would have thousands of competitors? The problem, according to the Wall Street Journal, is that those competitors are mostly very tiny and local vendors. If the two companies joined to form a foodservice Voltron, the next-biggest competitor would be maybe one-fifth the size of the hypothetical USyscoFoods.

Of course, the FTC and U.S. Department of Justice can, at least require the companies to make pre-merger changes if the deal is to be approved. For example, they could require both companies to sell off their business in certain sectors. For example, if those companies currently compete for all of the food biz in a certain city, one of them could be forced to sell that business to a competitor.

FTC Considers Challenge to Food Merger [Wall Street Journal]

Police Officers Finish Delivering Order After Pizza Hut Driver Is Injured In Car Crash

Tue, 2014-09-23 16:49

(KOIN)

(KOIN)

It’s the joke that must be made — Portland Police not only protect, but they serve… pizza. Because after a Pizza Hut delivery driver was injured in a car crash, the cops made a special effort to ensure that his customers didn’t go hungry, and delivered up the pizza in his stead.

The driver was involved in a collision on Sept. 1 and was hurt (but is now doing better) reports KOIN, so two officers at the scene picked up the torch and went with it.

The customers say they were a bit taken aback to open the door to two cops, especially since they’d already gotten a replacement pizza after contacting Pizza Hut and hearing about the accident. The officers arrived just as they were sitting down to eat their second, half-price pizza.

“They turn around to leave, and I said, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, – I got to get a picture of this,” the customer said. No one is going to believe Portland police delivering a pizza.’ So that’s the picture everyone saw.”

He said he wants to recognize the efforts of the two police for going out of their way to bring dinner home.

“I wanted these officers to get a little recognition because these officers went above and beyond,” he explained.

Portland police protect and serve pizza after crash [KOIN]

Minnesotans Only Have A Week Of “Tax-Free” Shopping Left On Amazon

Tue, 2014-09-23 16:10

(Great Beyond)

(Great Beyond)

You can now add Minnesota to the growing list of states where Amazon will be collecting sales tax from customers after a surprise announcement on Monday that, starting Oct. 1, shoppers in the state will start seeing the tax added to their purchases.

Before we continue, this is where I remind everyone that even though Amazon and other online retailers might not collect sales tax in your state, you’re still obligated to pay those taxes when you file your tax returns with the state (except in those states without sales tax). Most people don’t, which is why some claim that Amazon has an unfair advantage over retailers that do collect taxes.

Okay, back to Minnesota.

It’s unclear exactly what brought this on. Amazon had been fighting efforts by the state to compel it to collect sales tax, even cutting ties to third-party affiliate sellers in advance of a 2013 state law that requires e-tailers to collect sales tax if it has affiliates in Minnesota.

The most likely explanation is that Amazon will be opening some sort of physical operation, like a warehouse or distribution center, or even a server farm for its Amazon Web Services business, in Minnesota.

Whatever the reason, the “tax-free” Amazon experience is coming to an end for Minnesotans who never got around to paying that money to the state every year.

Amazon now collects taxes in nearly half the states in the U.S. The retailer has said it supports federal legislation that would give each state the authority to compel online businesses to collect taxes, whether or not the business has a physical presence in the state. Numerous lawmakers have attempted to make this happen over the years, but without much success.

Amazon to collect Minnesota sales tax starting Oct. 1 [StarTribune.com]

San Francisco Chinese Restaurant Temporarily Closes Because Pleasing Everyone Is A Waste Of Time

Tue, 2014-09-23 16:01
A San Francisco restaurant temporarily closed leaving customers with these signs.

A San Francisco restaurant temporarily closed leaving customers with these signs.

You just can’t please everyone. And if you try, you’re likely to get frustrated and maybe even lash out at others. That sounds like a situation that unfolded in a San Francisco restaurant recently when the chef-owner abruptly closed the place down.

A series of customer complaints angered the chef-owner of the small Chinese restaurant so much that he chose to shut the doors, albeit, temporarily, SF Eater reports.

Sure, it’s an owner’s prerogative to close their restaurant for a period of time, but the maybe problematic part with this situation lies in the way the chef relayed the closure to prospective patrons.

“We are closed because of you (customers),” one sign read.

“So…yes we use MSG, we don’t believe in organic food, and we don’t give a shit about gluten free,” a sign directly below the first proclaims.

The chef tells KGO-TV that he made the signs because he was tired of catering to hard to satisfy patrons.

To illustrate his frustration he explained one of the incidents that led to the closure.

“The second guy came up to me and said, ‘The rule is, if we don’t like it we don’t have to pay.’ And as he walked out he started cursing at me and that’s when I went Poof,” the chef says.

An employee with the restaurant told the SF Eater that another incident occurred just prior. In that case, the party refused to pay for their meals after saying the food was “too spicy.”

“He needed to cool off,” says the employee. “he was frustrated and stressed out, he’s the cook, so we can’t run the restaurant without him.”

The restaurant reopened the following day with a new sign: “We work hard to please everyone, but we know we can’t. So if you’re a hard to please [sic], please just turn around and go somewhere else.”

Frustrated SO Owner Skewers Picky, MSG-Hating Customers via Window Sign [SF Eater]

San Francisco Restaurant Owner Takes Stand Against “Hard To Please” Customers [KGO-TV]

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Drug Ring Bust Exposes Food Truck Selling Tacos With A Side Of Meth

Tue, 2014-09-23 15:46

Not the tacos in question, they just look yummy. (ChrisGoldNY)

Not the tacos in question, they just look yummy. (ChrisGoldNY)

It’s no Los Pollos Hermanos, but Mexican food and methamphetamines have met once again, this time outside the fictional bounds of Breaking Bad, on a taco truck in Denver. Of 17 people there recently indicted on charges related to trafficking/selling meth, one was accused of shilling meth right from the taco truck where she worked.

“The brazenness of this ring was astounding,” Attorney General John Suthers said, according to KUSA in Denver. “For example, customers could literally walk up to a food truck and order a side of meth with their taco.”

As part of the investigation, authorities seized 55 pounds of meth from one of the ring members’ cars, some of which was hidden in the floor. Officials are calling it one of the largest amounts of meth confiscated in a single bust in the state.

The driver of the car is accused of then distributing those drugs to his aunts, including the woman who’s accused of selling meth out of the taco truck. Drug deals went down using code words, so customers weren’t actually saying, “Two carne asade, one lengua and oh yeah, some meth.”

“In this case, we heard coded language like, ‘six pack’ and ‘yellow cups’ to set up their transactions,” Deputy AG Matthew Durkin said.

The owner of that truck says he had no idea meth was on the menu, and he won’t be charged.

AG: Food truck sells tacos with ‘a side of meth’ [KUSA]

Netflix Customers Waiting A Very Long Time For Baffling Array Of DVDs

Tue, 2014-09-23 00:49
shredded_netflix_sm

(formatc1)

Our readers have confirmed: they are, indeed, waiting for-freaking-ever to get some discs from Netflix. These include classic films, animated movies, television series, and new DVD releases. Is there some kind of nationwide DVD shortage, or is Netflix trying to strangle its DVD business?

The logic to the long waits may have something to do with which distribution center is the closest to each reader. Of course, we did contact Netflix to find out whether they had anything to say about the apparent shortages, and they didn’t respond to us. Not that we expected them to: either they aren’t good at keeping their distribution centers stocked with discs, or they are deliberately trying to kill off the DVD portion of their business. They wouldn’t want to admit to either of those, we’re sure.

Some readers reported seeing that all titles in their DVD queues said “Very Long Wait,” but that this was a glitch in the system that Netflix admitted to, and it resolved itself.

Eric sent along this screen grab from the middle of his queue, pointing out that most of the titles that he’s waiting for are “a mix of classics and second- or third-rate movies that people can’t be clamoring for that much.” Most of them aren’t in demand, but aren’t out of print, either.

eric

“Every time we call Netflix they are VERY kind and polite, but seem to just blow the proverbial hot air up the rear chute,” writes MZ, who sent along this screen shot of his own queue.

unnamed

“Guess we will soon have to go back to the video store if Netflix doesn’t correct the problem,” MZ added. If you even have access to a video store: in my town, there’s Redbox and the public library.

Philippe told us that he can’t figure out the logic to which discs there are shortages of, and which there aren’t. “We had the urge to watch Friends again, and it’s rather random what is ‘Very long wait': Season 2 Disc 1, Season 3 Disc 3, Season 4 Disc 4, but none of the other ones in between.” It’s possible that those discs contain very famous episodes, and people only want to watch those. Or they’re particularly boring and other Netflix subscribers take a long time to finish watching and send them back. It’s difficult to guess.

Reader Laura reported a similar experience with some even older TV shows. “My husband was expecting discs of TV shows ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ (try not to judge) and ‘Taxi’. Instead he’s getting ‘The Shining’ and some other random movie due to a ‘very long wait’ for 30-year old TV shows.”

Shabadoo reports that these two films at the top of his queue have been there for two years. At this point, he’s not even all that interested in seeing them, but keeps them “as an experiment just to see what’ll happen.”

shabadoo

One interesting pattern that we noticed is that many Disney films feature very long waits. We received multiple complaints from children of the ’90s who want to show their own children “Aladdin,” but the DVD is out of print. Apparently Netflix’s few copies were very in demand. (These complaints arrived during the week before Robin Williams, star of that movie, died on August 11th: the disc may be in demand even more now.) How long have people been waiting? On August 10, Kevin reported that he’s been waiting in line to see “Aladdin” for two years.

aladdin

“Whether Netflix is doing this intentionally to kill off its DVD business or they’re just grossly incompetent, I do not know,” mused Eric, whose queue of movies that people aren’t “clamoring over” we shared above. “Not sure which would be worse, actually.”

If you’re a fan of watching DVDs and content that won’t be licensed for streaming any time soon, the worse scenario would be that Netflix is killing off their classic disc-by-mail service intentionally. Mismanagement can be fixed with a DVD-buying spree; but if Netflix wants to end the service, that’s what they’re going to do.

Which is a shame, if you like classic films, obscure documentaries, or foreign films. Readers report lengthy delays for everything from Jack Lemmon comedies to recently-released Bollywood films. “The Netflix DVD archives, in its heyday, was the largest single collection of movies that any average consumer has ever had access to in the history of human civilization,” reader James pointed out in an e-mail. It’s true: it would be difficult for any one Blockbuster store to keep that kind of variety on hand.

Of course, there is also a way that you can turn this problem to your advantage, if you’re not a voracious DVD-watcher. Reader Dave reports that he is able to use the discs with lengthy waits to his advantage, and sometimes take two discs at a time out, instead of the one disc that he pays for. Sort of. He explains:

I actually use the waiting lengths to my advantage. I have the bare bones 1 DVD at a time plan and have discovered that by rearranging the queue, I can get an extra DVD out of them.

I place the “very long wait” DVDs are at top, the “short wait” items below that, and then all available items. Netflix will often apologize for the delay and send a second disc from the available list to assuage what they assume is my broken heart. At one poin last month, I had two DVDs at home, one being returned to Netflix, and one being shipped. Not bad for a 1 at a time plan.

At least one person is benefiting from these delays, even a little bit.

Weight Loss Company Sues Website For Posting Customer Complaints

Mon, 2014-09-22 23:27

(Jim Chambers)

(Jim Chambers)

While state and federal lawmakers look for ways to outlaw retail terms of sale that penalize customers who publicly complain about a transaction, one diet supplement company is going after an online complaint site just because it allowed customers to post negative reviews in violation of the supplement company’s non-disparagement clause.

In general, the Communications Decency Act shields operators of online forums from being held liable for things posted by users. But a lawsuit [PDF] filed last month in a Florida state court [and subsequently relocated to a U.S. District Court] claims that one complaint-oriented website goes beyond merely allowing users to post their stories.

According to the complaint, the site walks users through the process of posting a complaint, requiring that they fill in certain fields and mandating minimum lengths for each complaint.

Additionally, the site offers advice on what makes a good complaint and allows users to pay a premium to raise the public profile of their post. This is tantamount to turning complaints into advertising, allege the plaintiffs.

The supplement company also takes issue with the site’s Twitter account, which sends out Tweets regarding complained-about companies without attribution to the original poster.

To the plaintiff, this all elevates the site to the level of being a co-author, which it believes would make the site liable if any of the complaints are libelous.

And even if they’re not, contends the supplement company, its customers have agreed to a non-disparagement clause that prevents them from speaking, publishing, printing, printing, blogging, or writing anything negative about the company, “regardless of their outcome… in any forum.”

They claim that allowing customers to share their complaints on the site means the forum did “deliberately and tortuously interfere” with the weight loss customers by encouraging them to breach their non-disparagement agreement.

In a response [PDF] filed with the court last week, the website contends that the supplement company is using this non-disparagement clause to hide a sub-standard product.

“Does that sound like an upstanding company that stands behind its safe and reliable product?” asks the defendant. “Or does that sound like a disreputable company, producing tubs of snake oil (or snake goop, as it were), and which knows that too much truth will hurt its fly-by-night bottom line?”

Since it would be a violation of the rule against prior restraints to force the website to take down complaints without proving the statements are indeed libelous, the defendant says the weight loss company is trying to use state consumer protection laws and tortious interference claims to have the complaints removed without having to dispute their truthfulness.

“But, no matter many times you call a ‘dog’ a ‘duck,’ it will neither lay eggs nor quack,” reads the site’s response. “Styling a baseless defamation claim as something else does not shield it from First Amendment scrutiny and render palatable the most odiferous and despised remedy known to our courts – the prior restraint.”

Beyond that, the site contends that even if the court were to eventually find the complaints libelous, the weight loss company should not be able to receive an injunction preventing future comments about its products, as that would just be another form of prior restraint, preventing speech before it has spoken.

As for the claims of tortious interference, the defendant says the plaintiff fails to show that the website knew of the non-disparagement agreement between its users and the weight loss company, that the website actively interfered with that relationship, and that the alleged interference damaged the plaintiff.

Regarding the non-disparagement clause, the defendants claim there is no way they could violate those terms, as a “contract does not bind one who is not a party to the contract, or who has not agreed to accept its terms.”

Even so, the defendants maintain that the actual terms of that contract are so unconscionable as to be unenforceable.

“Preventing customers from providing their opinion… is not a legitimate business interest, but instead is itself a deceptive trade practice,” reads the response. “Any act ‘which unfairly takes advantage of the lack of knowledge, ability, experience or capacity of a consumer; or results in a gross disparity between the value received by a consumer and the price paid, to the consumer’s detriment’ constitutes an unconscionable trade practice.”

According to Ars Technica, a hearing in this case is scheduled for Oct. 8.

And since we’re talking about prior restraint, we bring you this bit of First Amendment insight (NSFW language) from the indomitable Walter Sobchak:

Christmas Trees Now Found Next To The Patio Furniture

Mon, 2014-09-22 23:26

tropical_holidayWhat season is it? We can’t blame shoppers for being confused when they wander into this seasonal mashup at Menards. When the timing is a little off in a store’s Seasonal section, things get kind of strange. Of course, Christmas stuff out on display in late September is no longer jarring to Consumerist staff. If it’s after Labor Day, Christmas merchandise on the shelves no longer fazes us. With patio furniture, though?

There had to be some kind of explanation for this. Menards is mostly a Midwestern chain, but they do have stores in other places. Surely this was taken in their southernmost stores, somewhere that people still need patio furniture in late September. We checked back with tipster Erika to make sure that was the case.

Nope: she took this photo in tropical Fargo, North Dakota.

Shareholder Says Darden Restaurants Sold Red Lobster Too Soon & For Too Little

Mon, 2014-09-22 22:59
(Nicholas Eckhart)

(Nicholas Eckhart)

You may remember that earlier this summer Darden Restaurants sold off its not-so-profitable Red Lobster chain for $2.1 billion citing slow business. Well, things might not have been so dire for the seafood chain, a new lawsuit pitting a Darden’s shareholder against the board shows.

According to CNBC, a Darden shareholder filed suit in a Florida court accusing the company’s board of directors of knowingly approving the sale of Red Lobster in order to keep their jobs despite reports that the chain was heading for a turnaround.

The lawsuit, filed by Teamsters Local 443 Health Services & Insurance Plan of Connecticut, relies heavily on a debt offering document used by Red Lobster and Darden while shopping for potential investors before the sale.

Documents note that the seafood chain suffered from short-term problems that would soon turn around and lead to higher profits.

The shareholder alleges that the debt document contains the true view of Darden’s board, and that shareholders were misled when the board publicly stated that Red Lobster’s business was in decline and needed to be sold.

“The Board sought to justify the rushed sale of Red Lobster by telling stockholders that the restaurant chain’s recent poor performance was due to intractable structural problems that would inevitably result in worsening performance in the coming quarters and years,” the suit says. “The Board knew that Red Lobster’s debt offering documents, functioning as a loan application, would be subject to rigorous scrutiny and due diligence by potential lenders.”

The suit also alleges that Darden’s board rushed the deal to sell Red Lobster so that shareholders wouldn’t be able to stop it.

“By knowingly rushing the sale of Red Lobster at an artificially low price to protect their own selfish interests in their Board memberships, each of the Director Defendants acted in bad faith and in violation of the duty of loyalty. As a result, Darden has suffered a massive loss,” the lawsuit states.

According to the complaint, Darden’s deal to sell the chain and its operating business to Golden Gate Capital for $1.6 billion after-tax was way below value. Golden Gate immediately sold the restaurant’s real estate for $1.5 million. That would put the operating business at just $100 million, a strikingly low figure, the shareholder asserts.

CNBC reports that back in August, Darden’s board said the debt offering document didn’t reflect the company’s views and that Red Lobster’s management and been working on behalf of Golden Gate Capital.

This isn’t Darden’s only recent scuffle with a shareholder.

Less than two weeks ago, the company came under fire from shareholder Starboard Value, which is trying to wrest control away from the board, for the performance and mismanagement of the Darden-owned Olive Garden chain.

Starboard made a nearly 300-page presentation outlining its plan to turn around the Italian chain, while criticizing the restaurant’s employees of straying from policy – including overloading customers on breadsticks.

Darden shareholder sues board, citing CNBC.com report [CNBC]

Beer Cruise Ends In Disappointment For 121 People After Boat Runs Aground Near Statue Of Liberty

Mon, 2014-09-22 22:59
(WABC-7)

(WABC-7)

While the Statue of Liberty is definitely a prime tourist attraction, 121 beer enthusiasts were likely not too happy to be run aground near the Green Lady over the weekend, when their booze cruise as unexpectedly cut short.

A tour company ferrying guests around on a sailboat as part of a beer-tasting cruise of Lower Manhattan said 121 passengers and nine crew members had to be offloaded when the boat got stuck part way through the tour, reports WABC-7.

No one was injured during the hour-and-a-half ordeal, which involved nine boats from law enforcement and the Coast Guard showing up to retrieve passengers.

There’s no word on whether those people ever got their fill of beer or were left hopelessly thirsty, but a bride and groom scheduled to take the same boat later that night for their nuptials were probably not too happy to hear the boat ride would be canceled. Time for a drink for everyone, it seems.

SAILBOAT NEAR STATUE OF LIBERTY RUNS AGROUND [WABC7-News]

Groups Say Walmart Violated Election Laws To Get Employees To Donate To PAC

Mon, 2014-09-22 22:20

(Ben Schumin)

(Ben Schumin)

Walmart can’t donate directly to their own “pro-business” political action committee, they can’t make employees donate to it, and they can’t pay employees for donating to it. Those things would all be against the law, and would draw the ire of the Federal Election Commission. But the company is legally allowed to create incentives for employees to donate to their PAC by creating matching charitable contributions. The problem? The only charity in play is one that gives to Walmart employees. According to a complaint lodged with the FEC today, that means Walmart is still basically paying off employees to make political contributions, and should be stopped.

Advocacy groups Public Citizen and Common Cause joined together with a labor group called OUR Walmart to file the complaint, the Wall Street Journal reports.

In the filing (PDF), the groups claim that Walmart is violating the Federal Election Campaign Act both by providing a larger-than-usual matching incentive, and by providing the match only to a charity that supports company employees. The combination, the complaint says, “exert[s] improper coercive pressure on employees in Walmart’s restricted class to contribute to the Wal-Mart PAC.”

We explained the scheme at length back in December, but the short version is: Walmart is not allowed to spend their funds on their PAC, but company employees are. The company cannot require employees to donate, nor can it reimburse employees for donations or give bonuses for donating.

But Walmart can match political donations with charitable donations, which is exactly what they do. For every $1 an employee gives to Walmart’s PAC, Walmart donates $2 to charity.

There’s another catch, though. Walmart doesn’t match donations to just any charity. They don’t even let employees pick one from a shortlist. The matching 2:1 gifts go to exactly one organization: the Associates in Critical Need Trust — the Walmart philanthropy fund for Walmart employees who don’t make enough money by working at Walmart to stay food-secure or to pay their bills.

Walmart has been running their 2:1 donation program for over a decade, and they are far from the only company to do so. Other big corporations like Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, and Coca-Cola offer some similar kind of matching donation program. However, in none of those cases is the match higher than 1:1, and in those instances employees are also allowed to choose the charity that receives the matching funds.

Walmart’s strategy for encouraging their full-time employees to donate to the company’s “pro-business” PAC is clearly very effective, according to the WSJ: in just the last 20 months, the PAC has received roughly $2.8 million in individual contributions.

In a press release announcing the FEC complaint, Public Citizen said, “A 200 percent matching rate provides such a powerful incentive that the campaign contributions lose their ‘voluntary’ nature. And the corporate contributions reportedly made exclusively to Wal-Mart’s own charity, along with the campaign contributions to Wal-Mart’s PAC, are self-serving for the company.”

Policy counsel for Common Cause Stephen Spaulding echoed that sentiment, telling the WSJ that “employees themselves benefit from the donation because the match is limited to a fund that only supports Wal-Mart employees.”

The strategy of matching PAC donations with funds given to nonprofits has been legal since the late 1980s, and the FEC has been split over supporting it for just about as long. In December, former Federal Election Commission chairman Scott Thomas told Bloomberg he opposed it, saying it moves “too close to the line” of the rule that forbids companies from reimbursing employees for political donations.

Although the FEC has revisited the issue several times, they have never yet moved to forbid it.

Labor Groups Seek Probe of Wal-Mart’s PAC [Wall Street Journal]

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