Stupid things to say: “Point your favorite browser to…”

I received an email today from Microsoft, “Introducing MSDN Online Subscriptions!” Very exciting for sure; I had no idea this is something new, as I’ve been downloading things from my MSDN subscription for years. But I digress. The “stupid thing to say” in this email is:

Point your favorite browser to

Do you expect people to choose their least favorite browser? Or any browser other than their favorite? Or, does it even matter? Why even bother adding those words — why not just say, “Go to“. This is an MSDN subscription e-mail; the users are likely to know what you mean.

To digress again… my subscription expired months ago. Why are they telling me to update my subscription to online only — shouldn’t they be trying to get me to create a new subscription? Oddly, the email includes my old (expired) MSDN subscriber number, which is meaningless as I can’t use it or renew it.

Try to order FIOS for Business online (really, try!)

On Monday, I’ll be back in the role of an independent consultant, so I’m upgrading services in my office so I can work efficiently. One thing I want to do is upgrade from a plain old DSL line to a business FIOS line. I have FIOS at home and I’m very happy with it, so it’s time for FIOS at work.

I went to Verizon’s web site and started the online ordering process for FIOS. I got to the page where I can pick my router, and clicked the NEXT button. Sorry, no can do; the button uses JavaScript, and the code has an error in it, so you can’t go any further.

JavaScript errors when ordering Verizon FIOS online

Maybe it’s an issue between the web site and Firefox. After all, we can’t assume that Verizon’s web programmers would support all web browsers, so I tried the same with IE7.

Server errors when ordering Verizon FIOS online How did things fare with IE7? Worse. Click the order button on Verizon’s Packages and Prices page, and get a nice ASP.Net script error.

I don’t know what’s scarier: the inability to submit an order form using Firefox, the inability to start an order form using Internet Explorer, or the fact that they don’t have custom ASP.Net error pages.

Verizon, where’s the customer service?

When I got home last night, I found out that I have no phone service. I did the usual — unplugged all phones, made sure everything was on the hook, checked for a dial tone using an old analog phone — and there was still no dial tone. Calling my home phone number from a cell phone resulted in ring, ring, ring… Time to call Verizon support.

After a few misdirections through the automated call screening process, I finally spoke to a human being who was able to resolve the problem. I was told a technician would come out between 2PM and 6PM the next day to troubleshoot.

The next day (which is the day I’m writing this), I received a voice mail message at a little before 2PM. It was an automated message that said something akin to this…

Hello, George… We are confirming your appointment today between 2PM and 6PM at xxyy Carlton Blvd…

Two things concerned me about this message. First, my name is Brian, not George. Second, I don’t live on Carlton Blvd (which is a block away from where I live). Sensing problems, I called Verizon to get some clarification. Continue reading

Dvorak, ye shalt not throw stones

PC Magazine author John C. Dvorak, whose work I enjoy thoroughly, threw the proverbial boomerang stone today in his column AJAX and the Road to Bad Web Sites, where he criticized a web site:

Holy crap! The Web site is far worse than the football team. I’m not sure what they are hoping to accomplish with a site like this, but if you want to see the site at its worst, use Firefox and make the text two sizes bigger by hitting Ctrl+ twice. That way you can see the problem with Web sites that use AJAX.

Dvorak is correct in his statement, and his statement came right back to haunt him. Compare the two images below. The first is a screenshot of his column as viewed without any font size changes; the second is a screenshot of his column after hitting Ctrl+ twice to increase font size.

Screenshot of Dvorak's column (normal font size)
Screenshot of Dvorak’s column (normal font size)
Screenshot of Dvorak's column (large font size)
Screenshot of Dvorak’s column (large font size)

I know how important advertising is to PC Magazine, but increasing the font size caused the ad to appear twice, and covered some of the text of the article. Let’s hope their web designers read Dvorak’s article, too.

Make your web site accessibile, else the courts will force you

It was bound to happen eventually…

SAN FRANCISCO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–A federal district court judge issued two landmark decisions today in a nationwide class action against Target Corporation. First, the court certified the case as a class action on behalf of blind Internet users throughout the country under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Second, the court held that Web sites such as are required by California law to be accessible. (read more)

What makes the site not accessible? Apparently, the lack of ALT tags.

Continue reading

Don’t trust the car dealer

nissan_pathfinder In April 2003, I bought a new Nissan Pathfinder from the local dealer, Staten Island Nissan. I also purchased a seven-year extended service plan. Since I typically keep my cars for 7+ years, I figured it’s a worthy investment (as I got a very good price on the car and 1.9% financing).

Fast-forward to July 2007. The car is just over four years old, and has just over 30,000 miles, when I hear a rattling sound. A quick look underneath shows that the muffler and tailpipe have separated from the catalytic converter; the rattling sound is the sound of the metal muffler and tailpipe swaying underneath my car.

Recognizing that an exhaust system which decides to separate itself from the rest of the car is not normal behavior for a four-year-old car, I take it to the service center at the dealer I purchased it from for diagnostics and the annual New York State-required vehicle inspection.

A few hours after dropping off the car, I get a call from the dealer, where I am told that I need a whole new exhaust system (cost: $1,200) and nothing is covered under the warranty or the extended service contract. After a fruitless debate about the reasoning for this (I’ve owned five cars for 4+ years and this is the first one that’s needed a whole exhaust system after four years), I gave up, and decided to call Nissan Consumer Affairs.

Before calling, I did my homework. Reading the details of the extended service plan, I found that numerous exhaust parts are covered. During the conversation with Nissan Consumer Affairs, I enjoyed stimulating dialog such as this:

Nissan: “Sir, I see you have the Service Gold extended plan – that’s the best plan we offer.”
Me: “Then why will you not service what’s clearly broken on my car?”
Nissan: “Sorry, sir, the dealer makes these decisions.”
Me: “What recourse do I have if the dealer is just trying to rip me off?”
Nissan: “Sir, our dealers are all Nissan certified and [bla bla bla]…”

After 30 minutes, I convinced the chap I was speaking with to escalate my case to a “Regional Case Manager” (or something like that). I was told I’d get a call back in 24 hours.

After waiting 24 hours plus three days without getting a return phone call, I called Nissan Consumer Affairs again. Upon providing my information, I was told the case manager already looked into my case. I asked why he didn’t call me with details; they said they’ll send an “internal message” to him requesting he calls me. They also gave me his phone number, which I called; of course, voice mail responded, and I left a message.

Another three days passed without hearing from anyone at Nissan, so I called again, leaving a blistering message for the case manager. Incredibly, I heard back from him in about two hours. The conversation went something like this:

Nissan: “Sorry, the dealer made the determination that the work needed is not covered under the warranty.”
Me: “So you’re telling me that it’s perfectly acceptable to Nissan for their vehicles to require the customer to purchase a $1,200 exhaust system after just four years of ownership?”
Nissan: “Sir, I’m sorry but it’s not covered under the warranty or the extended service plan.”

Nissan (NOT)Realizing I’m getting nowhere, I decide to speak with the Service Manager at the the service center where I brought my car originally. I left a message for him, and … he never called me back.

I decide to take an alternate approach: I take my car to the local mechanic (who I know and trust) and explain the situation. He looks under my car and gives me an estimate… for $193.00, parts and labor. When I tell him the dealer quoted me $1,200, he said, “They’re trying to sell you a whole exhaust system that you don’t need.”

Am I surprised? Not in the least. Now that I have all this information, here’s my next steps:

  1. Have my local mechanic fix my car for over $1,000 less than quoted by the dealer.
  2. Cancel my extended service plan and get a refund.
  3. File a complaint with the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. You see, the dealer performed a safety and emissions inspection on my car at the same time they recognized that I need an entire exhaust system. My vehicle passed their inspection. I can’t imagine how a car with a disconnected exhaust system and a dangling tailpipe can pass a safety and emissions inspection.

The lessons I learned from this are:

  • Never buy an extended warranty. You lose all your consumer rights, as you are required to use a dealer-authorized service center for all repairs — whether or not they are under warranty. For example, if you have your brakes serviced at an independent repair shop, then take your car to the dealer for brake work, they will not cover any brake work that would otherwise be covered under the extended warranty because you previously had your brakes serviced by an unauthorized service center. How do I know this? They told me.
  • Before buying a new car, talk to the service manager. All new cars come with a manufacturer’s warranty, so you will most likely be dealing with the manufacturer’s service people at some point. You can buy a car in one day in the sales office, but for the next three years, your relationship is with the service center, so be sure you are comfortable with them.

When I have an update, I’ll be sure to let you know. Thanks for listening to my rant!

How to choose: Email, voice mail, or carrier pigeon?

Ayende posted how he has some 80+ unread and starred email messages waiting for him after a busy workweek. Reading this reminded me of a situation I ran into in the mid-1990s, while working in the IT group for a multinational bank. I went away for a little over a week, and I came back to find over 200 unread messages in my inbox. (This was before Blackberries and ubiquitous webmail.)

Reading through some 200 emails would have taken quite some time (even longer considering they used Lotus Notes), so I decided to take an alternate approach: I deleted them all.

Did I commit a grave error, deleting that all-important urgent email from a busy executive who needed to communicate something important to me? No, I did not. If something was that important, it would have been communicated to me via voice mail, or would have been redirected to one of my coworkers.

Granted, this may not be the best approach in all situations, but it illustrates some things we must recognize in a modern world.

  • Do not assume timely response to email. If something is urgent, you should always call someone. Never assume an email will be responded to in any timeframe, even if it has in the past: past performance does not predict future results.
  • Send a voice mail notice when sending important emails. If you have to send an email to communicate important information, call the person (leaving a voice mail message if necessary) notifying the person of the email.
  • Do not assume timely response to voice mail. Not everyone checks their voice mail regularly, so don’t assume your message will be heard any time soon.

Wait a minute — if we can’t rely on voice mail or email for timely communication, what can we do? Nothing, really. There will never be a convenient, reliable replacement for direct person-to-person communication. In my own life, I am trying to reduce my reliance on email and go back to traditional forms of communication (i.e. the spoken word, from my mouth to your ears). Email is convenient, but direct interpersonal communication (even if over the wire) is much more rewarding, interactive, interesting, and effective.

And remember… some people may seem to always be connected to the grid — via their Blackberry, Treo, web mail, text messages, mobile phone, or whatever. Just remember: batteries die, networks go down, service is not available everywhere, people forget to carry devices with them…

New York State highways: underperforming, but safe

imageA report released by the Reason Foundation, Performance of State Highway Systems, 1984-2005, 16th Annual Report, reveals two realities of New York State’s highway system, which you can see for yourself on their interactive map:

  1. It is highly inefficient.
  2. It is safe.

Anyone who lives in New Your State knows how bad our roads can be. In New York City (my home town), road surface anomalies come in many different styles (I never knew the proper name for a hummock until today).

Pothole Phil, courtesy of Staten Island AdvancePotholes in the big city have at times taken on lives of their own, and have created subcultures. Pothole Phil roams Staten Island, sticking his head in the many potholes he finds while smiling for the camera. Yes, this is the stuff of legends.

But what about the safety part? Why is it that New York State highways rank at the bottom in efficiency and quality, but at the top when it comes to safety (6th best in fatalities per 100 million miles)? It’s very simple, actually.

  1. Poor road conditions force drivers to drive slower to avoid a bone-rattling ride.
  2. High traffic conditions in New York force drivers to drive slower than the speed limit.
  3. You are less likely to get in a fatal accident when you’re driving slow.

Sometimes, the law of unintended consequences works out to some benefit.

Oh, you silly bill (H.R.29)

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed bill H.R.29, also known as the “Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act or Spy Act.” Incredibly, the first text in the summary of this bill includes:

Makes it unlawful for any person who is not the owner or authorized user (user) of a protected computer (a computer exclusively for the use of a financial institution or the U.S. Government, or a computer used in interstate or foreign commerce or communication) to engage in deceptive acts or practices…

Now read carefully between the lines, and realize that the above also means this (changed text underlined):

Does not specificially make it unlawful for any person who is not the owner or authorized user (user) of a protected computer (a computer exclusively for the use of a financial institution or the U.S. Government, or a computer used in interstate or foreign commerce or communication) to engage in deceptive acts or practices…

I’m glad they left the loophole in for financial, communication, commerce, and federal organizations to continue engaging in deceptive practices. After all, that loophole ensures a majority of all business can still deceive us.

Taxing your gigabytes

As reported on Slashdot:

An anonymous reader writes “The Register is reporting that in a few short months a proposal to tax all MP3 players in the Netherlands will become law. The levy taxes 3.28 euros ($4.30 US) for every gigabyte of capacity. This means a 60GB iPod Photo will be hit for an additional 196 euros ($258), all of it going to the record industry’s copyright collection agencies. And they call file sharers thieves?”

In the U.S., about 13 million MP3 players were sold in 2004. (Over 5 million of those were Apple iPods.) If you assume the average iPod held 4GB (a conservative estimate, considering the iPod Mini’s smallest capacity is 4GB), and the average non-iPod held 1GB (again a very conservative estimate), that’s 30.1 million gigabytes of MP3 storage sold in 2004. If you applied the Dutch tax of $4.30 per GB to those conservative estimates, it would amount to about $130 million to record companies — money gained on the sales of products which may or may not be used to store copyrighted material which the bearer has no rights to own.

Such a law would never make it in the United States — at least, not without some heavy legal wrangling. There’s simply too many loopholes. An equivalent strategy would be to tax computer hard drives because they “may or may not be used to store copies of illegal software, movies, or music.” Or, taxing blank paper and photocopiers because they can be used to “make illegal copies of copyrighted materials.”

Well, don’t be so sure. The Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 required that manufacturers of digital audio recording devices (originally perceived as DAT players, but could be easily transfered to include CDs, DVDs, and digital hard drives) must pay “royalty taxes.” The money goes to the U.S. Copyright Office, which then distributes it as it sees fit (after, of course, paying for the additional bureacracy to manage this legislation). It is this legislation that ensured you can’t make “copies of copies” of DAT tapes with the government-mandated creation of what became the Serial Copy Management System. Of course, this system has been extended to cover CDs and DVDs.

How much are these royalty taxes? Apparently, about $3.5 million, at least in 2003, according to the U.S. Copyright Office’s Annual Report for 2003 (PDF). In other words: Why? Is all this legislation, processing, tax collection, tax redistribution, copy protection, and consumer frustration worth $3.5 million to an industry that has revenue of over $30 billion a year? No, it isn’t. But it’s here, and it’ll likely be here to stay, and it is there to open the door for more in the future — like a tax on MP3 player gigabytes.