Tuesday, April 22, 2008

International Harassment, or Why AT&T Still Puts $$$ Ahead of Customer Service

Warning: Rant ahead...

Woke up at 6:30 this morning to a call on my cell. It was too early, so I let it go. Immediately rang again, but had stopped by the time I got to the phone. Immediately rang again in my hand. I noticed an unfamiliar 503 area code. Though normally I let numbers I don't know go to voicemail, I figured three in a row might be an emergency so I picked up anyways. The caller said something in Spanish. I said "wrong number" and hung up.

Mildly annoyed at the early hour, I figured I could still salvage some sleep. Seconds later it rang again. "Numero incorrecto. No hablo español" I barked in elementary Spanish that I hoped was pretty close to accurate. 10 seconds later it rang again.

Now both angry and intrigued, I got up and Googled the area code. Portland, OR.

I tried Googling the full number to get a name to go with my prank caller, at which point I realized something was odd. The number had too many digits. It wasn't Portland. It was an international call from El Salvador!

After a total of 7 calls between 6:32 and 6:35 (2 answered, 3 ignored, 2 sent to voicemail with a minute plus of silence and background noise as the message) it finally stopped and I went back to bed.

It started up again at 8:02am with 9 in a row, a short break, then 15 more between 8:25 and 8:50. These again had a mix of long blank voicemails, hangups, and long pleas to leave me alone obtained via Google Language Tools.

I thought I finally got through to them with the phrase: "Si usted llamar a este número de nuevo, estoy llamando a la policía. ¿Entiendes?" (which translates to "If you call this number again, I am calling the police. Do you understand?"). Nope. 13 more from 10:11 to 10:13. 1 more at 11:06. 8 more from 1:46 to 1:49.

When the phone rang at 1:59 I answered it ready to explode, but it was my sister asking if I knew anyone who wanted her extra Red Sox tickets. The text message to my Boston friends was only half composed when another call came in. I repeated my Spanish phrase about calling the police from memory before the caller started laughing at me.

Ready to jump out a window, I finally decided to call AT&T and have them block the incoming number for me via the switch. We used to have to call Cingular/AT&T and other carrier partners to have this performed quite a bit at Voce. It usually required a trouble ticket with a 24 hour turnaround time and tier 2 assistance, but it was definitely doable. At the rate this was going I'd be able to deal with the possibility of a long turnaround time if I knew an end was near.

After navigating an overcomplicated phone tree and waiting on hold for slightly less than I anticipated I was connected to Christina. I explained my tale to her and asked if she could have the number blocked; she said she'd certainly figure something out and diligently started her research. After a few minutes I decided to reveal that I used to work for an AT&T MVNO and it was fairly standard to do this via tier 2 but it wasn't a function of the Telegence system. She said she was reading something about it but thought they might not have that ability anymore.

A few more minutes went by and a brief time on hold, after which Christina came back and told me it was not possible to have it blocked on the switch, but I could subscribe to a new Smart Limits parental control product they had that would allow me to restrict incoming calls. Her suggestion was to activate Smart Limits for the number in question, but only for a couple weeks hoping they'd get the idea and/or get bored of pranking me. I said that would work for me so long as she could credit my bill for the prorated $4.99 for the new feature, deciding not to point out that the existence of this feature contradicts the "it's impossible to block a number" statement, instead changing it to "It's impossible to block a number for free."

She said that wasn't within her authority, but she'd ask a manager and under the circumstances it would probably be possible. After a brief stint on hold she came back to tell me unfortunately the fee couldn't be waived since I do have the free option of ignoring the call, thus it wouldn't be reasonable to provide me the credit. Personally I could care less about the 5 bucks (actually more like $2 if I only kept the feature for 10 days), but on principal I wasn't going to budge. Also, ignoring the calls wasn't really a "Free" option, as AT&T dings you for airtime whenever you check your voicemail. She agreed and went back to the manager...and was promptly shot down again. This time I was told that the option was free since I could check my voicemail from a landline free of charge (even though I don't have a landline), and thus policy couldn't be broken in this case. (In full disclosure, I also thought that I was docked minutes when a call was sent to voicemail even if I didn't answer, but she corrected me that this is only true when roaming internationally, not domestically.)

I told Christina that I appreciated her help and knew she was just doing her job, but found it ridiculous that AT&T cared more about making $5 then helping out a loyal customer with perfect payment history and no complaints on an overpriced plan. She asked me if I was asked to take a survey would I say she solved my problem; I told her I'd say she was excellent but her employer was questionable as usual.

I understand policies exist for a reason. And I know that a good number of customers will try to game them anytime they can. If I had a recurrent prank calling problem involving multiple numbers or if I was complaining about a stalker or a jilted ex who wouldn't stop bothering me I can see the company holding firm to a degree. But there is gray area in everything, and each example should be viewed on a case by case basis. 60 calls from the same international number in 6+ hours sounds like extenuating circumstances, and you won't waive less than five damn dollars off of someone's bill one time for them to try out a brand new cash cow of a feature for 2 weeks? You've got to be kidding me.

PS: Ironically, it's now 3:30 and I haven't received a call from the bad number in over 90 minutes. Maybe Christina did block it for me afterall...

PPS: Why am I protecting the identity of a foreign prank caller? The number in question is 50379118478

PPPS: Looking at my AT&T account and looking at my live bill, it's dropping the last digit from the number to make it appear to be domestic. Ironically enough, in this configuration it's also labeled as a free Mobile to Mobile call :)

PPPPS: And yes, I do feel better after writing this.


Trapped In An Elevator

Not meaning to go blog crazy, just finding a plethora of cool stuff.

Check out this time-lapse security camera video of a guy trapped in an elevator for 41 hours. Keep your eye on the box at the upper right.


I love the very end when they presumably put up an "Out of Order" sign.


Fascinating NPR story on the conspiracy of footwear, and why we don't need it.

Feet Hurt? Stop Wearing Shoes

Most interesting bit of trivia:
"In the Middle Ages, people began wearing shoes with higher heels to avoid stepping in other people's excrement. Today, high heels are considered sexy."

Full, multipage version of the article here:

How We're Wrecking Our Feet With Every Step We Take

Monday, April 21, 2008

Roll Your Own CNN Shirt

CNN.com has this weird new store where you can order a t-shirt with a news headline on it.

SvN points out that you can screw with the URL to make it say whatever you want it to say. So...

Anyone remember which website we used to be able to do that with? Was it Pronto, or maybe Lycos411?

My first (clumsy) Apple Store purchase: Airport Extreme (N)

While most readers will know that I am far from being a MacOS convert (though I do appreciate the fact that MacOS X is now Unix-like, as opposed to proprietary previous versions), I do actually own Apple products:

An older (B/G) Airport Express, which I originally bought (not at an Apple Store, but [I think] at Fry's) because I'd read it could extend my Linksys-powered home wireless network, but then saw extensive use with AirTunes first by the developers at Voce, then by me at home;

An iPod shuffle, given to all Voce employees at Christmas 2006, which saw heavy use as my PMP until succeeded by my BlackJack II (see my previous post).

However mildly unenthused I may otherwise be about Apple, kudos to them for one of the least expensive and most user-friendly implementations of 802.11n, namely the latest generation of Airport.

As my first step into the 802.11n world, I went on April 5 to my local Apple Store and got an Airport Extreme (N) and another (newer) Airport Express (N).

First, for your amusement, a description of this first-ever visit to an Apple Store (I'd walked by, of course, making various gestures): I'd read the reviews and made my mind up, so I just had to pick up one of each and pay. Due to the well-laid-out store, the former was easy. The latter is where I came out as a clumsy Apple newbie. I looked this way and that for the cashiers. After two full rotations, a salesperson came over and asked if I needed help. 'Yes, where is the checkout, please?' 'Here on my belt!' and produced a small hand-held touch-screen POS. I didn't examine it too closely, but it was clearly neither an iPhone nor an iPod touch. It would be sweet irony if it were a Windows-Mobile-powered Pocket PC. 'Would you like your receipt printed, or emailed, or both?' 'Both please, apple(at)chuljin.com.' At first, the same blank stare as when Borders cashiers look up my Borders Rewards account by its email address borders[at]chuljin.com. Catch-all email isn't quite catching on, pun intended. Finally, I couldn't figure out how to carry the bag. Once I did, I thought it was a really cool bag.

Now the reviews:

Airport Extreme: Setting this up was simplicity itself. It was never going to be my main router (nor indeed even route); I was going to just use it as an ethernet switch and 802.11n(-only) access point. The configuration wizard had a 'path' for precisely this need. I soon added a USB hard drive, which it also then quickly and easily (but securely) shared out. Fortunately, it exposes any drive[s] as Samba shares, so you don't even have to have the Airport software installed to use them (but if you do have it installed, it thoughtfully automatically maps them for you).

Airport Express: Since I didn't have anything else supporting 802.11n (though I'll soon upgrade the internal cards in my laptops), and I didn't want the Extreme to be like the first person who had a telephone, I also got an Express. This is where the wheels came off (a little). I configured it to join the Extreme's new N-only network, and after it updated and rebooted, it had the happy green light, but could be seen by neither the configuration utility nor AirTunes on computers on the separate (but all-bridged-together) G network unless the Extreme was in N(G-compatible) mode. But I wanted the Extreme on 5Ghz (N5 or N[A-compatible]) mode (to take advantage of the less-crowded new airspace), so I gave up and joined it to my existing Linksys-powered G network. Otherwise, it works great, just like my Express 'G' I know and love. It even accounts for latency, it seems: I tried sending audio from iTunes (via 'Multiple Speakers') to the new Express, connected to my stereo, the old Express, connected to a pair of computer speakers, and my laptop's internal speakers, and the audio at all three was in lock-step. Whole-house audio, anyone? I admit a little disappointment at the N-vanishing issue, but still, it's a killer product, with a new feature I might eventually use, for no more than the original cost.

I recommend them both.

Samsung BlackJack II, and a related mild indictment of AskMeNow

When, for reasons well-known to some readers of this blog, I suddenly needed to find a new mobile carrier on February 1, I decided to return to the AT&T fold.

Because, from their point of view, it would be a new contract, I was entitled to new-customer pricing on devices, so I decided to rediscover my madness for Windows Mobile with a Samsung BlackJack II, which I quite recommend unless one has a need for an esoteric feature it doesn't have.
For me, the coolest feature was the built-in GPS, which works out of the box with (for example) Google Maps Mobile. Since I was actually more interested in more technical GPS information than moving maps, I soon installed GPS Skinner, and later gpsVP. The GPS feature has now become just about my favorite toy ever.

How does this relate to AskMeNow?
Early in my GPS experience, I was motionless in downtown LA and one or the other of those applications reported my altitude at several hundred feet, which seemed high to me (in retrospect, I think because it hadn't fully triangulated).
I decided, instead of Googling, to Ask AskMeNow Now.
Me to AskMeNow, 3/11 5:54pm: 'What is the altitude of Los Angeles?'
Me to AskMeNow, 3/11 6:47pm: 'What is the altitude of Los Angeles?'
I guess their NLP didn't get the point. I almost repeated it, prefaced with 'Cmon, this is easy, ', but waited until:
Me to AskMeNow, 3/12 3:26pm: 'What is the altitude of Los Angeles?'
And at last, AskMeNow to Me, 3/12 3:29pm:
Los Angeles, CA
Elevation: 5ft/1m
73.1 ?F / 22.8 ?C
...and that seems a bit low (but probably is just the minimum altitude for LA, which is horizontally huge), but the mild indictment is that it took three questions over two days to get the answer.
I suspect some sort of AI fields easy obvious questions, sending the others to humans (cf. Pronto and iNetNow), and this happened to all three questions, the first two getting lost in the 'human queue'. AskMeNow, GetTheAnswerLaterIfAtAll. I *love* automation, but some things just need a human touch.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Crawling The 'Deep' Web

Interesting and valuable, though I'm surprised it took someone this long to try...

Google Spiders to Start Crawling The 'Deep' Web
For text boxes, our computers automatically choose words from the site that has the form; for select menus, check boxes, and radio buttons on the form, we choose from among the values of the HTML. Having chosen the values for each input, we generate and then try to crawl URLs that correspond to a possible query a user may have made.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Single Click Directions

Never thought I'd be giving Microsoft kudos for a mapping feature (I've been a little resentful since they killed Line-Drive directions when they bought MapBlast), but here's something so obvious it's brilliant:

One-Click Directions to a business from common starting freeways and/or cardinal directions.

The ending text of "This is the last intersection, and this next one is too far" is also a nice touch.

(It still has that impersonal Microsoft feel to it though. I mean, have you ever heard anyone call it the Rosa Parks freeway in real life?)

How long until Google and Yahoo copy this? I say before May 1 for Google. Yahoo is a tough call; they keep saying they don't need Microsoft in these merger talks, making it a slippery slope to steal the feature.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Disagreement Hierarchy

How to Disagree

DH0. Name-calling.
DH1. Ad Hominem.
DH3. Contradiction.
DH4. Counterargument.
DH5. Refutation.
DH6. Refuting the Central Point.

via SvN

Burn the Rope!

Awesome videogame. The song after you win is the most rewarding game ending I've ever seen.

You Have To Burn The Rope

Thursday, April 03, 2008

ATA Bankruptcy

I found the contrast between the celebratory anniversary banner at the top of the website and the content immediately beneath it to be quite amusing:

ATA Airlines Discontinues All Operations

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

ChaCha Adds Call In Service

ChaCha looks to be going Pronto on us...

ChaCha lets you, literally, ask a question
To use the new service you can call 800-224-2242 (which spells "chacha") and specify the information you want to an automated attendant. ChaCha then sends you a text message with the answer. You can access your questions and answers on the Web as well.

I tried it out and found it accurate and fast. Within a few minutes of me asking where I could get a veggie burger and a margarita in downtown San Francisco it came back with an answer: Perry's Downtown, 185 Sutter Street "They have a full bar, it's casual and good ratings." Bravo!

Gmail Custom Time

The annual event continues, this time with time travel (sort of...)

Gmail Custom Time

(courtesy of Chris)

Update: Google seems to have gone wild this year with the April Fools magic.