Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The gas is on, but nobody is home...

A while back, in one of my earliest posts on this blog, I described the billing problems I had in setting up an account with my gas company, ATMOS Energy.

I seems they must have a pressing desire to appear here because the billing problems continue.

After the initial billing issues I wanted to wait a couple of billing cycles before enrolling in their automated payment plan. That way if there were any further SNAFUs I would see the bill before they tried to take my money. Having been lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that they actually got my last two bills right, I decided to move forward with the automated plan, which conveniently you can sign up for online.

Before you click the final accept button, the web site kindly informs you that the automated billing will take a full cycle to kick in, and therefore you still need to pay your current bill. That's fine and I commend them for making it clear. What I condemn them for is not informing you that as soon as you enroll for automated payments, you can no longer make a manual payment online. They actually go so far as to display an error message suggesting that you call them to cancel the automated plan so you can make your payment and then re-enrol!

Good grief. They know you're an online user, they know you'll still need to pay your current bill, and they know they've just taken away your ability to do it online. Developers make mistakes like this because they don't understand the business process, but who on earth in management would sign off on this? I'm almost lost for words to describe the extent of their stupidity. Notice I said almost. Here's some synonyms for stupidity courtesy of Take your pick, they all apply.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

If the hat fits...

Virginia Postrel at the Dynamist has identified what she considers the world's worst logo.

If you've been paying attention, you'll know what I think of the company represented by this logo. All I can says is, if the hat fits, wear it.

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The wonders of VOIP

Previously I mentioned the cost benefits of my VOIP phone service. While that's the main driver for many users, there's a lot more to be excited about. VOIP is far more flexible than your traditional phone service because it's entirely computer based, making it easy for the provider to add intelligence to the system. It's really just a matter of software.

Systems become simpler as complexity moves from the edges of the network, where it has to be managed by the user, to the centre, where it's managed by the system. VOIP does exactly that.

A simple example is the speed dial list. With a traditional phone service you store this in the handset, at the edge of the network. If you have multiple handsets, you have to program the numbers into each one. VOIP moves the speed dial list to the centre, where you configure it via a web page. That's a far more user friendly interface for programming speed dial numbers than a handset, but the real benefit is that it's accessible immediately from any handset connected to your service.

A more profound example is number portability. In a traditional phone system your phone number is associated with your house or office, at the edge of the network, or at best with the local exchange, meaning you can only keep your number if you move locally. You and your friends are left to manage the complexity when you move and are assigned a new number. Contrast this with the experience of my wife's cousin when he recently moved from northern Virginia to Los Angeles. Because his phone service is VOIP his number hasn't changed. People will call him who don't even know he's moved. The system manages the complexity - it worries about routing the call to his physical location.

With VOIP area codes and country codes become meaningless, both because you can take them anywhere and because VOIP is driving call charges towards their real costs, which for several decades have largely been independent of time or distance. We are moving to a world where a phone number is just a number. It needs to be unique, it needs to be associated with you, but beyond that it doesn't mean anything. In fact, that's a standard simplifying strategy in information systems design (but something I still have to explain to clients on a regular basis).

Another example I really love on my current service (Lingo) is the voicemail to email feature. When you leave me a voicemail it is automatically sent to me as an email with a sound file attached. There's actually several benefits compared to the way voicemail traditionally works.

First, it's push rather than pull i.e. it tells me there's a voicemail rather than me having to remember to check. OK my cell phone displays a text message when I receive a voicemail, but then I've still got to dial in and navigate a time consuming menu to listen to it (if you were the suspicious type, you'd think Verizon were intentionally trying to force me to chew up my free minutes. I am and I do).

Second, it can send multiple notifications. Mine is configured to forward not only to my personal email but also to my work email as well as my wife's email. If I wanted I could easily have it send me a text message on my cell phone as well.

Third, it's free to retrieve my email regardless of where I am. Sure I can still check traditional voicemail when I'm in Australia or Morocco or France or wherever by dialing in, but then I'd have to make an international call and I certainly can't receive any notification messages.

What's stopping the traditional phone companies from providing similar capabilities? These days, other than the "last mile" between the local exchange and your house, their networks have largely been upgraded to use the same technologies as the VOIP carriers have, so the obstacles are not primarily technical.

The real problem is that they have a powerful vested interest in protecting the old model. Their dirty little secret is that they have been screwing us on long distance and international call costs for years. If you don't beleive your current traditional carrier is overcharging you, think about this. My $19.95 a month plan allowed my wife to call me while I was in Paris at no additional charge - that's right it was included in the plan. Think about that. Unlimited calling to the US, Canada and Europe! For less than twenty bucks I can't even get a basic local service from Qwest.

If I spent every minute of every hour of every day for a month on the phone to France that would work out at 5 hundredths of a cent a minute. Now go ask your carrier why they want to charge you 50 cents or a dollar a minute to call Europe. Or even 5 cents a minute for long distance within the US. That's still a hundred times more than I'm paying.

Of course politicians have long conspired in this so they can force the phone companies to subsidise favored interest groups, in this case those in rural areas who pay much less than the real cost of their phone service. You may think it's a good thing to ensure they don't pay any more than you for their phone. But don't kid yourself about how this works. The phone companies are not the ones paying for it, you are! Remember, when politicians buy votes, they always do it with our money.

Unexplained hotel charges

After checking my online credit card statement recently I noticed an unexplained second charge from the hotel I had stayed at near Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on my return trip from Morocco.

American Express has a really neat feature that allows you to simply click on a charge in the online statement and submit a query, so I did that. About a week later I noticed the charge had been reversed (and today when I collected my mail I had a nice letter from Amex telling me the same). Obviously that's the result I was looking for, and I'm pleased by the speed at which it was resolved, but I'm still in the dark as to what happened. Neither Amex or the hotel provided me with any explanation of what this charge was for and how it appeared on my account.

Was it an honest mistake, or was the Radisson SAS trying to rip me off, hoping that I wouldn't notice, or if I did, that I simply wouldn't bother to challenge a charge for nine dollars and a few cents? It's not like these guys need to find extra sources of revenue. 2oo euros (about US$250) a night for a fairly average hotel room with no breakfast included and that's at a corporate rate. It's not like I was staying in central Paris on the Champs Élysées.

And here's the greatest mystery about hotels. It seems the more expensive the room, the less likely that the high speed internet is included. How can the Homestead Suites and the like throw it in with a room costing $60 a night, but these guys want an extra 20 euros on top of the $250 they are already charging?

Around the world in 30 days, and a bit more

We arrived back from Australia last night after an overnight stop in LA with my wife's cousin and his family. Thanks for the hospitality Naji and Marcela. They're great hosts, and very tolerant of the fact we spent half the visit sleeping!

I did a quick tally of my travel over the past 30 days and calculated that I've done over 30,000 miles in that time. To put that in perspective, that's one and a quarter times around the globe. Most airline frequent flyer programs require you to log 25,000 miles in a year for elite status. After a slow start, I've already got more than 63,000 miles in 2005.

Although I'm likely to be heading to Hong Kong later in July, I'm really looking forward to at least a couple of weeks at home because summer here is simply gorgeous.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Wow!

Today I saw the final installment of Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

Despite the brief non-speaking appearance of my least favourite character in all of cinema (Jar Jar Binks) I thought it was brilliant in the way it ties up all the loose ends and brings us full circle to the original movie. It's an impressive achievement for George Lucas to have imagined such an epic story to begin with and to have stayed true to his original vision over a period of nearly 30 years.

I was less than convinced by Hayden Christensen in Episode II. He seemed more the sullen teenager than someone who could become the evil and all powerful Darth Vader. In this movie he showed a great deal more depth and his manipulation by the evil Chancellor Palpatine and seduction by the dark side was completely believable.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Terminal stupidity

As an IT professional I am particularly offended by poor customer experiences that are caused by badly designed systems, especially when that bad design is the result of laziness on the part of the designer and could easily have been done correctly for little or no additional cost.

I talked about this previously with respect to the menu design on the Qantas in flight entertainment system. Yesterday I experienced another example, even more annoying and just as unnecessary when I tried to pay a taxi fare with my American Express card. The terminal returned an error message "Card declined, contact issuer." I knew at the time that this message was incorrect and confirmed it by successfully using the same card several times later that day.

When you attempt to perform an online credit card authorisation there are actually three things that can happen. The first is that the card issuer authorises the transaction. The second is that the card issuer declines the transaction. The third thing that can occur, and this is what happened in my case, is that for one reason or another the terminal does not receive any response within a pre-defined time. This happens frequently in a situation like paying in a taxi where the terminal has to communicate over a mobile network.

The obvious question is why not display an error message that actually describes what happened e.g. "Could not contact issuer", rather than a message that is completely misleading? I don't know the answer because the difference is 2-3 lines of code or about 10 minutes work for a competent programmer (OK 15 minutes if you include testing). Shame on the person who designed and programmed these terminals and everyone involved in their sale and shame on the taxi company for not insisting that their supplier provide a product that doesn't lie to their customers.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Lions from awful to awesome

Yesterday I attended my fourth Brisbane Lions match for the year. My aim when I moved overseas at the end of 1999 was to attend at least one match a year, so despite the fact that they lost the first three matches I attended, I'm happy to have seen so many games.

Against Geelong yesterday they were as awesome as they had been awful a month ago. They were the Lions of old - hard at the ball, running hard in attack and defence, and a level above the competition in terms of skill. Three weeks ago the commentators were talking seriously about them finishing last. Now they're back in serious contention.

This time I sat behind the goals at the city end and had a close up view of two truly amazing third quarter Jason Akermanis goals kicked from deep in the pocket. At that angle the goals are about six inches wide. The first was impressive enough, but when "Aker" followed it up two minutes later from the same spot, well in more than a hundred matches I've attended I've never seen the crowd go so wild. The trip from the US to Brisbane was worth it simply to see those goals.

Update: (28 July 2007) Check out the second of Aker's goals on YouTube.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Mishandled luggage update

Well Qantas managed to find my missing suitcase and delivered it to me later the same day. Turns out it was loaded during the transfer at LAX onto the Qantas flight to Sydney rather than the Qantas flight to Brisbane. Of course they didn't tell me that - I'm only the customer, why do I deserve an explanation of what went wrong?- I figured it out from the various tags that had been attached to my suitcase to route it back to me. They did a similar thing in 2004 when I took a flight from Sydney to Wellington, New Zealand but somehow they loaded my bag on the flight to Auckland. That time there wasn't even a transfer involved!

Anyway, I'm not quite sure how that mixup happened. It's not like the airport codes (SYD and BNE) are similar. But what's more worrying, is that after the downing of Pan Am flight 103 at Lockerbie in 1988, airlines were supposed to introduce systems to ensure that baggage was not loaded on passenger aircraft without the corresponding passengers being aboard. That was 17 years ago and this process, known as baggage reconciliation, is either not happening or doesn't work.

A friend in the airline industry tells me that Southwest is considered the benchmark in mishandled luggage and that their rate is 3 per 1,000 or 0.3%. I'll look for published data for Qantas and United but I'd love for them to lose my luggage that infrequently.

We also discussed the key difference between the way airlines handle luggage and the way Fedex et al handle packages, namely that Fedex scan the package at every point that it is handled and transferred. Airlines don't, so once your bag goes down that chute behind the check in agent, nobody really knows where it is.

The solution is likely to be RFID tags which would allow the bags to be automatically identified every time they pass by a reader. That would give airlines real time updates every time a bag is put on or taken off a plane. Once that happens, it should be virtually impossible for a bag to be loaded on to the wrong flight or a bag to travel on a plane without its owner. You read it here first!

Friday, June 17, 2005

Imagine if Fedex were this bad

I've just flown from Denver to Brisbane, Australia and once again the airline has managed to misplace one of my suitcases.

A review of my experience with lost luggage over the past 2 years shows that the "mishandled" luggage rate is about 10%. While in every case my suitcase has been found and delivered within 24 hours, it really is a staggeringly poor performance. Imagine if Fedex, who literally handle millions of packages a day, misplaced one package in ten.

I've mostly experienced lost luggage with Qantas and United but that's because I've flown with them much more often than other airlines. I think it's a systemic problem with the way all airlines handle luggage. Time for them to get together though their industry group (IATA) and solve the problem. Hint: ask Fedex or UPS how they do it.

Steamboat to Brisbane, Australia

Today we made our second trip for the year to Brisbane. We were here in April and May on vacation and now we are back again because my company has asked me to deliver some training next week.

As nice as it is to be back again so soon, the trip doesn't get any shorter or easier. Drive to Denver (3.5 hours), American Airlines from Denver to LAX (3 hours) and then Qantas code shared as American Airlines from LAX to Brisbane (13 hours). And it doesn't help when you arrive after such a long trip and your baggage doesn't!

The one compensation of all these trips home is that we joined the American Airlines frequent flyer program in March of this year and by the time we get back to Steamboat we'll both have qualified as Platinum (50,000 miles)!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Now that's what I call a capital gain

I inspected a condo yesterday which the owner has listed for $275,000.

I've looked a quite a few properties in this market in the past few months, and the condo I live in is right across the street, so I've got a fair idea of the market. After looking at this one I was scratching my head trying to figure out how it could be worth anything like the asking price.

Well a quick online search of the Routt County property records revealed that the current owner bought the property on February 10 of this year for $182,000!

So he's looking for a gain of 50% in a little over four months, or 150% per annum! I knew the market was hot, but I want to know what planet this guy is on.

Monday, June 13, 2005

The price of protectionism

It has been reported that Toyota plans to raise prices in the US in order to avoid gaining too much market share from US auto-makers and prompting a protectionist backlash.

GM and Ford are struggling to profitably make cars that Americans want to buy, largely because they are weighed down with uncompetitive labour contracts and huge legacy pension and retiree healthcare obligations.

For anyone who doesn't understand the price of protectionist economic policies - even in the form of implied threats or a feared backlash - here it is right between your eyes. Repeat after me: Protectionism means higher prices for consumers. It is as simple as that.

Shame on Toyota for giving in to this blackmail. Shame on GM and Ford for pretending to be capitalists when what they really are is rent-seeking parasites, and shame on the US government for governing in the interests of some Americans rather than all Americans.

If you really feel sorry for Ford and GM's auto workers feel free to send them a check, although I don't see why you should since it is their own actions - so ably represented by the UAW - that have made their firms uncompetitive. As for me, I'll keep my money and stick to buying the best quality car at the lowest price wherever it is made. In my case that's a Subaru built in Indiana. You don't hear the Americans working there complaining about competition.

Who says it's not a phone?

Virginia Postrel under the heading Who Cares What Consumers Want? We're the Phone Company links to an article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) that discusses the negative impact on innovation of US wireless carriers controlling the devices that can be used on their networks.

One of the important differences between the US and the GSM standard used in most of the rest of the world is that the service identity for GSM phones is not embedded in the handset as it is with the CDMA handsets sold in the US, but in a chip (the "SIM" or "Subscriber Identity Module") which can be moved between handsets.

Not only can I roam on my home GSM service in most parts of the world (outside North America and Japan) due the ubiquity of the GSM standard, but it also means I can go to the local carrier and buy a SIM to insert in my handset, and presto, I have a local number and local calling rates.

Shame on you US wireless carriers.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

French indifference

Today I spent two hours standing in a check in line at Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport (truly one of the first world's worst airports).

As the departure time for our flight drew closer and the crowd grew more agitated, how did the Air France staff providing the check in services for our Delta flight handle it? Well, there were lots of supervisory staff running around looking important, but doing little of anything that would actually help solve the problem, and the staff behind the counter clearly were not going to let anything get in the way of taking their scheduled breaks. At one stage there was a total of two agents to check in nearly a thousand passengers for three flights.

Airlines have been doing this for a long time. It ought to be a simple formula - we've got X passengers to check in, we have Y minutes to do it, therefore we need Z agents. It isn't rocket science. It isn't even advanced math. It's a problem that a well educated 12 year old ought to be able to solve.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The end of civilization as Moroccans know it

I commented in an earlier post on the Moroccan attachment to a very long lunch.

Well I discovered today that things will change from July 4. In an effort to improve productivity it seems the King has decreed that Moroccans will work from 8.30am to 4.30pm with a 30 minute lunch break, and that the clocks will be set forward an hour for better alignment with Europe.

My local contacts are apoplectic! They simply can't imagine how one can function in the afternoon without a midday nap...

Seriously, I am deeply skeptical that such a cultural change can be achieved by decree. I suspect that Moroccans will adopt a passive-aggressive strategy and find every possible way to work around this new requirement.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Doing business in Morocco

Yesterday was my first day doing serious business in Morocco. The first adjustment (well the second after the jet lag) is to the working hours. Moroccans tend to start work late (9.30 or 10 am), take a three hour lunch (12-3) and then continue on until 6.30 or 7pm (or like tonight, 11pm)

The next adjustment is the requirement to drink large amounts of sweet mint tea at every meeting. Quite nice, but all that sugar can't be good for you...

The biggest difficulty for monophones such as myself and my American colleagues is that all meetings are conducted in French, so everything takes twice as long, and the chance of misunderstanding is magnified.

Finally, like all countries where labour is cheap, there seems to be endless numbers of 'gophers' hanging around the fringes of every gathering.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Steamboat to Morocco

Today's post is coming to you from the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. How do you get here from Steamboat Springs? Drive to Denver (3.5 hours), fly to Cincinnati with Delta (2.5 hours) transfer to another Delta flight to Paris (8 hours) and finally connect with an Air France flight to Rabat (another 2.5 hours).

My second time at Paris Charle de Gaulle Airport confirmed my initial impression from my previous visits in 2002 - it's completely disorganised in that uniquely French manner. But the food on the Air France flight from Paris to Rabat was excellent - such a contrast to the packet of peanuts you'd get on a similar flight in the US. As for Delta, well they seem to be really trying, but like all the US legacy carriers, they are so far off the mark in terms of service and amenities, that if this is their best effort I think they are ultimately doomed.

So I've added Morocco to my list of visited countries.

I've also added Kentucky to my list of visited states because "Cininnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport" (airport code CVG) is actually in Kentucky, not Ohio.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Every cloud....

...has a silver lining.

Looks like the rain has driven my inconsiderate neighbour home early!

Late snow

Well June is meant to be the driest month of the year in Steamboat, and it should be warm and sunny and beautiful. Instead we've had a major storm system passing over us the past three days.

We love these storms in the winter because they typically dump two or three feet of Steamboat's famous champagne powder. But this time of the year it mostly means rain, rain and more rain. Nothing like the flash flooding that they had in Denver yesterday, but the Yampa river is close to flooding some low areas.

However it was cold enough last night for it to turn into wet snow. Just a half inch or so here in the valley, but the weather service is reporting 5-10 inches above 9,000 ft.

I'm glad I'm not driving to Denver today, because Rabbit Ears Pass (9,600 ft) on US40 and the Eisenhower Tunnel (11,200 ft) on I-70 will both be treacherous. Let's hope the storm has passed before I do have to drive to Denver on Monday.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Do they even know what day it is?

I'm heading off to Morocco next week. I booked a ticket from Denver with Air France since they offer the only service into Rabat (from Paris).

I had a question about the meal service on the flight to Paris, so I called Delta, since it is actually a code share and they are the ones operating the flight. The agent was insistent that she couldn't tell me about the meal service on the flight because my ticket showed an Air France flight number. It took her longer to argue with me about that than it would have to simply give me the information I wanted.

Unneighbourly behaviour

Living in a condo complex requires everyone to show a little consideration for their neighbours. If they do, it can be a rewarding experience - lots of new friends to meet and always someone around to help you out when you need it.

Too bad one of my neighbours doesn't understand this. Fortunately he doesn't live here full time, but I certainly know when he's in residence. Loud music until 2 am and cigarette butts all over our lawn.

But what goes around, comes around as they say. I'm looking forward to the day he needs a favour, when he needs me to be a good neighbour. I'll just sneer at him contemptuously and walk away. Sadly, I suspect the ignorant fool won't even understand why.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Farewell Monsignor George

We attended a farewell mass and dinner tonight for our parish priest, Monsignor George Schroeder, who is moving to a new post in Denver.

Father George is a new friend - we've only known him a little over a year - but he feels like an old friend and we'll miss him.

Notwithstanding the fact that he's been in Steamboat for 12 years and is well loved, the fact that his departure made the front page of our local newspaper recently is proof that this really is still a small town where everybody knows everybody and what they're doing. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Reflections on the ski season past

Well it's 175 days (at the time of posting) until the mountain opens for the 2005-06 ski season (for an updated count, check out the clock at the bottom of the page). Before I know it I'll be buying my season pass (due by the end of August to get the locals' rate), and the summer months I intended to devote to getting fit will have disappeared into thin air.Since the season past is still considerably closer in time and thought than the season to come, what better time than now to reflect on my first full season living in a ski town.

This winter was much warmer than normal for Steamboat and in terms of snowfall started off slowly, but we had some great storms in late March and early April to end the season on a strong note. Notwithstanding a poor season, I can't believe how much fun I had and how much my skiing improved - probably as much as it did in the previous 20 years when skiing consisted of a five or ten day trip once a year.

There were many moments when I felt I must have died and gone to heaven, but two days in particular stand out.

February 8. I had to fly out to a meeting in Indianapolis in the afternoon but I still managed two hours skiing a fresh knee-deep fall of Steamboat's famous champagne powder before heading off to the airport (don't tell the boss!)

April 9. My 42nd birthday on which I skied my 42nd (and last) day for the season. The mountain closed the following day which was cold and grey and windy. But after waiting my whole life to ski on my birthday, April 9 was warm and sunny and the mountain was almost empty. How lucky can you get!