Thursday, May 25, 2006

customer service

Due to a change in plans immediately following my return to the US, I needed to change my final destination in my return flight to Madison.

Anyway, not a big deal. I had called United Airlines yesterday to see what it would cost. I was quoted $150 fee plus the difference in the fare cost. Apparently I got a wicked discount on my flight from LA to Indianapolis when I bought the trans-pacific flight. Anyway, taxes and everything, I was quoted a reasonable cost yesterday.

Today I call again to make the purchase, and after a very short waiting period, Ian answers the phone. He seems nice enough. He says he has to check my fare rules before making changes, so I let him put me on hold. The two minutes he claimed turned into 10 minutes, then he came back on and apologized. He said that the fee change was $200 (not $150). Whatever. I asked him how much the flight would cost. Again he puts me on hold for "two minutes." Fifteen minutes he comes back and apologizes for the wait. Apparently a flight to Madison would cost an arm and a leg. I ask how much the total was, since I only pay the fare difference, not the whole thing. He gives me an outrageous number, so I ask for the value of this fare that we are replacing. "I have to check with my service director." He puts me on hold again.

I sat there and fiddled with the phone, getting angry, and I found a timer on the phone. We were 32 minutes into the call. He came back at 35:23 and apologized for the wait. He said my flight was worth $200 (I was quoted $150 yesterday) but all together it would be $416 plus any taxes. So naturally, I asked the magnitude of the taxes. "I have to check with my service director." The nasty refrain.

Strange thoughts started crossing my mind. Perhaps this service director was training him.
SD: "Now push the x button, and then F2. No, F2 not F and 2 at once."

Or maybe the service director was a game of solitaire.

He comes back at 46:12 and apologizes for the wait. He says it would cost $460 with taxes. This whole time his numbers seem rounded, so this is suspicious. I deliberate painfully on the phone with him for a while, trying to understand where the cost came from, then I ask him how much the taxes cost, "if it will take you less than 30 seconds." He mumbles a bit, then I say, "Why don't I just talk to your service director?" He says okay, and puts me back on hold.

At 51:37 he comes back and apologizes for the wait. I growl a bit under my breath. He says that due to the confusion about the rebooking fee ($200 today, $150 yesterday) they could give me the cheaper cost; would I like to buy it? I think for a while and say, "Yes, I would like to purchase this, but first can I talk to your service director? I have a question to ask." He reluctantly says okay and puts me back on hold.

I sit on hold for a while listening to the circus music, anticipating his return saying his boss is busy. Instead, an angry-sounding lady picks up the phone and very quickly introduces herself and states again they would give me the cheaper change fee. I say that's okay, and act pleasant to her. First, I enquire about the phone menu system. The menu was different today -- does she expect this? Perhaps something funny was going on. She says they have been doing menu work. Okay, so I express my concern about yesterday's quote and the SIGNIFICANT cost increase in less than 24 hours. The flight is not for more than a month, so fares should not start climbing so fast.

She asks if I'm flexible about times, and I say "yes, of course, if it's cheaper." So she finds the EXACT SAME FLIGHTS FROM YESTERDAY and quotes me THE EXACT SAME DOLLAR AMOUNTS FROM YESTERDAY including cents. I quickly agree to a 2-hour layover in Chicago to make the change for a reasonable cost including taxes. She was good: efficient and very good at understanding my needs and concerns. Only one thing she lacks: foresight to have taken over my call earlier after Ian came to her four times for help calculating taxes.

I had originally planned to bitch at her about how their operations were too clunky, since a price quote took almost an hour -- but when she came up with a decent price, and I could tell she knew how to run things, I blamed the call on Ian hoping he would choose a new career.

Strange thing: everyone sounded American at the other end of this Australian phone number. Yesterday, everyone (including the automated menu system) sounded Australian. The email confirmation I received later originated from a New Jersey IP address. Maybe the Aussies working for United have Friday off?

a tropical vacation

It's been nearly a week since my vacation finished, but I've got most of the pictures posted online so now I can talk about them.

RAM came to visit on the 7th of May, and we hung out where I'm living for a little while. Our residence threw a festival called the IFFF (International Food Fun Fair) where the residents from different countries get a chance to cook for everyone. It was pretty cool; there were 25 different countries represented, so we got some time to walk around and graze on the different foods. As concession for free entry, we worked for the India booth for a while (we are both so Indian), but since that booth had a surplus of help, we really did nothing but eat.

The real vacation started the next day when we went flew to Brisbane. I was scheduled to give a talk on the 9th at Queensland University of Technology, so we went a day early for exploring. There didn't seem to be a whole lot in that city, except a river and some gardens. It's not on the ocean, either, so they had to fashion a fake beach for people who like the sand and blue water.

After my talk, catching up with one of RAM's old friends who studies there, and a day walking around Brisbane, we took off for Cairns (pronounced "cans"). For the most part, the weather there sucked. It was VERY windy and rainy and cloudy, except for one day that was very windy and sunny. We stayed on Trinity Beach, which caters mostly to self-contained apartments. We ended up in a family-run apartment building with a kitchen and grill and stuff -- it was nice to be able to cook for ourselves and save a few bucks. The meat we bought from a butcher tasted funny (seasonings), but the rest was great. I must say, the Great Barrier Reef is cool, as is most of the wildlife around northern Queensland.

Here's a synopsis of our stay:

Day 1: It's rainy. Visit downtown Cairns. Shop, that's all there is to do. Ate at a cool italian place where they bring the specials board to your table since there are too many to remember.

Day 2: Still rainy, go to Port Douglas, Daintree River. See a python, crocodiles, koalas, feed a cassowary.

Day 3: Sunny! Very windy. No reef trip yet (too windy), so we go to the beach and then to an aborigine "learning park"-like thing.

Day 4: Rainy again, but last chance for a reef trip so we go. 2 meter swells in the sea, makes most of the people on the boat sick during the 2-hour trip to Michaelmas Cay. Reef is amazing (sunny!), we get a free upgrade to a better trip and free intro SCUBA dive because we pre-booked and nobody really wanted to go. Good food on the trip. I love motion sick pills.

Day 5: Check out of the apartment, go to Cairns and shop some more.

Then we flew back for some time in Wollongong and Sydney. More about that later.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


It's available! Finally, the gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is out.


Encrypting VoIP Calls

Encryption is good, or so we all believe, but it is not the complete fix for electronic wiretaps.
Zfone Encrypts VoIP Calls
Felton says: "Phil Zimmerman, who created the PGP encryption software, and faced a government investigation as a result, now offers a new program, Zfone, that provides end-to-end encryption of computer-to-computer (VoIP) phone calls, according to a story in yesterday’s New York Times. "
The article continues by discussing how the encryption scheme exchanges a secret key: using vocal communications. Felton raises an interesting point: encryption does nothing if spyware is installed on one of the computers -- the conversation could still be archived unencrypted without knowledge of the key.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

oz update

Lets see, what's going on in my life...

Research, research, research.

RAM is coming to visit in two days! I'm so excited. We are going to visit the great barrier reef and spend some time on the beach. Sydney is on the agenda, and we plan to see a show of some sort at the Sydney Opera House.

I found an Italian barber today and got a great haircut. The old Italian guys (especially guys like this who have been chopping hair for 40 years) have the best technique. They whittle away at your head using only scissors. Makes for a great haircut.

I spent a little time training with a Chinese guy -- he was teaching me the art of ping-pong. I still suck, but I suck less.

I've been trying to re-learn piano. It's not working, since I never learned it in the first place.

Sunday is the International Food and Fun Fair at my residence. Groups cook different foods from different countries, and perhaps perform some cultural things. I've been recruited to help cook food for Indian and Spain (I don't know why). Hopefully, the Spanish and Indian people will tell me how to cook stuff.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

tonga in trouble

An earthquake hit Tonga today, causing a tsunami warning -- though it turned out to be unnecessary. Apparently they have earthquakes frequently there (due to it's proximity to a fault) but it's still scary. Some friends of mine were in Tonga just a few weeks ago.

Mary Fonua says:
I was holding onto the bookcase and in fact, I'm standing in a pile of books now that have fallen on the floor. My son saved the X-Box but other things, you know, were falling off and we could hear the glasses breaking and the crockery shattering and the glasses singing, yes, it was quite an event.
I like to see her boy has his priorities straight.