Why consumers hate big companies

Comcast, in this case, but Verizon, Sprint, all the baby Bells, the power and water companies, and so many others do this crap that it’s really no surprise to us on the receiving end that people get upset with the hassle of get service from companies which are supposed to be in the service industry.  This lady’s tale at The Consumerist is quite a bit more extreme than what most people suffer through, but I doubt it’s so out there that many people are surprised.

I had cable and internet reinstalled back in March (I’m going through a divorce and I had to have a new account set up). It took a month to get a DVR and it hasn’t worked since I got it. In total, I have set up six appointments, five of which they have totally not shown up for. They are absolutely making me crazy.

My first appointment was from 2:00 – 5:00 on a Thursday. Took a half day off from work. Had a call at 5:30 that the technician was running late, and when he hadn’t shown up at 7:30 I called them. They apologized and rescheduled for that Saturday from 8:00 – 11:00.

After almost half a dozen more missed appointments, she gets to this.

That night it started crashing again. Last week, every single tv show I tried to watch crashed out. So I called AGAIN. And set up an appointment AGAIN, for this past Friday. I was going out of town for Easter, and really didn’t want to wait another week for a weekend appointment, so I decided to take a full day off Friday rather than a half day to fit in the appointment. It was scheduled for 11:00 – 2:00. Nothing. Finally at 3:00 I had to leave for my trip.

At 3:30 I got a call that the tech was in front of my house. I had to tell them I was about forty miles from my house at that point, so what the hell could I do about it? I rescheduled AGAIN for Tuesday (today), and they actually had a night appointment available, so I took that.

Amazingly, it’s not over.  But you have to read the full article to find out how much she has suffered through.

[tags]Consumer service woes, service companies suck[/tags]

Build your own phase-change cooling system

(via Hack-a-Day)

Big geek site-maintainer editor alert here, folks – I love computer fiddling. I have all the parts for a water-cooling set-up at home (no time to actually assemble, install and test it – but I have the parts if the time ever shows up). All kinds of high-end cooling get-ups tickle my fancy. I have half a dozen different kinds of CPU coolers and nearly as many video card coolers just waiting to be put to some use in some system in my house.  In my rare spare time, I sand the bases of my coolers with fine grain sandpaper just so they mount and cool better.  I spend extra money to buy high-end cooling pastes.  I do case modding.  I paint cases.  I build computers for friends because I enjoy it so much that any excuse to build works for me. So naturally, with all that geekiness in my system, I have to point out this write-up on how to build your own phase-change cooling system. Now if I can just find the time and money to buy the parts so I can put it all together.

[tags]DIY cooling, CPU cooling[/tags]

Minimum requirements for credit card use are voilation of terms

Maybe. The Consumerist has a bit on this, and they are trying to track down the actual rules.

We wanted to get clarification on whether merchants are allowed to say you must purchase a minimum amount in order to use a credit card. We called up VISA. The CSR said that it was definitely illegal and in violation.

. . .

We then called Washington Mutual. A tier 1 rep, after checking with her supervisor and credit card services, said that stores are allowed to require a minimum charge to cover the transaction fee they have to incur.

More details and an update contradicting that last paragraph in the full article.

[tags]Visa charges, minimum purchases[/tags]

Ubisoft dumps Starforce

(via The Consumerist)

You may be saying “Why should I care?” right now. Well, there are a number of folks calling for a boycott of Starforce. Starforce is a copy protection system used by a number of recent games. It installs new device drivers onto your system to enforce its protection system.
I don’t know the truth of the claims, but here is what I’ve read about Starforce. There is talk that Starforce actually damages hardware in addition to slowing down systems on which it is installed. Starforce is installed without notification or requesting user permission when you install a protected game. It is not removed when you uninstall the game. The company that makes Starforce seems to threaten to sue people who speak ill of the product. The company also apparently assumes everyone who wants to make a backup copy of a game, a legally protected right, is a criminal or “hacker” to boot:

“According to our research those of users [sic] that do run into compatibility problems are beginner-level-hackers that try to go around our protection system.”

Yes, you are a criminal if you want to have some modicum of control over your computer. And since Starforce runs at ring-level 0 (the deepest level of the OS), any instability in the software will crash your system.

So, all this information just to build-up to the win for gamers that is the announcement that Ubisoft is dropping Starforce protection from all Ubisoft games.

“Right now, Ubisoft has decided to use an alternative copy protection system to Starforce for upcoming releases and we are investigating other possible steps at this time.”

…When we asked why they were dropping the company Ubisoft representatives said, “Ubisoft takes its customer concerns very seriously and is investigating the complaints about alleged problems with Starforce’s software. Ubisoft’s goal is to find solutions for its customers if there are problems with Ubisoft products.”

Hurray for the good guys.

[tags]Starforce, Ubisoft, consumer win[/tags]

Copyright bites copyright supporter in the rear

(via boingboing)

Just like the former head of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) found out that DRM causes problems for perfectly legal uses of digital content, this copyright supporter found out that sometimes the content providers can take away your legally stored digital content if they decide they don’t want you to have it.

The problem is, we have been using the PVR to record 2 years worth of a Spanish language curriculum that is broadcast over an educational channel, and we’ve been using this content to teach our son Spanish. Now the curriculum is gone. It’s not like I’m just inconvenienced in not being able to watch my “24” episodes. An educational curriculum is lost.

For those who aren’t familiar with Mr. Giovanetti’s work, he’s a frequent and pugnacious commentator on intellectual property issues, and an avowed supporter of the DMCA and digital rights management technologies. He’s a frequent critic of “IP skeptics” and “commonists” who argue that copyright law–and the technological measures designed to protect copyright–have gone overboard.

Today he discovered that sometimes, technological measures designed to deter piracy are a pain in the ass for ordinary consumers–like him.

And because of the way the DMCA and other laws which favor businesses over consumers are written, his legal recourse is nil. Oops. That’s where you realize the dog you’re feeding just bit your hand.

[tags]Copyright, copyfight[/tags]

Undead Pirate MMORPG?

(via boingboing)

How can you go wrong with an undead pirate MMORPG?  Hopefully, this will be as awesome as one could imagine.  Disney is working on a Pirates of the Caribbean MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, for those that don’t know the term).  The web site says it will be out in 2007.

The game is being designed by the Walt Disney Internet Group’s acclaimed VR Studio as a world of high seas action and adventure where players will personalize their own pirate character and organize with other players to form a pirate crew. Players will then embark on swashbuckling missions to battle both each other and the evil, undead pirates of the high seas in an effort to become the Caribbean’s most legendary pirate.

[tags]MMORPG, Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney[tags]

Does AT&T hate consumers?

(via boingboing)

I just can’t get away from that style of headline. Sensationalism makes for catchier headlines, I guess.

This article at Wired talks about a secret data collection/siphon room AT&T uses in San Francisco (and purportedly other sites) to get traffic so the NSA can eavesdrop on America citizens.

AT&T is seeking the return of technical documents presented in a lawsuit that allegedly detail how the telecom giant helped the government set up a massive internet wiretap operation in its San Francisco facilities.

In papers filed late Monday, AT&T argued that confidential technical documents provided by an ex-AT&T technician to the Electronic Frontier Foundation shouldn’t be used as evidence in the case and should be returned.

The documents, which the EFF filed under a temporary seal last Wednesday, purportedly detail how AT&T diverts internet traffic to the National Security Agency via a secret room in San Francisco and allege that such rooms exist in other AT&T switching centers.

I keep ranting about this horrible violation of our civil rights, because I still believe that a President violating a law established in 1978 specifically to limit the government’s spying on Americans matters. I have nothing to hide. I lose nothing tangible if I am spied on without a warrant. But losing freedom matters to me. I don’t do a good job working to protect my freedom, but when I can say something against an illegal removal of my freedoms, I feel I have to tell others. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) starts with:

(1) Notwithstanding any other law, the President, through the Attorney General, may authorize electronic surveillance without a court order under this subchapter to acquire foreign intelligence information for periods of up to one year if the Attorney General certifies in writing under oath that—
(A) the electronic surveillance is solely directed at—
(i) the acquisition of the contents of communications transmitted by means of communications used exclusively between or among foreign powers, as defined in section 1801 (a)(1), (2), or (3) of this title; or
(ii) the acquisition of technical intelligence, other than the spoken communications of individuals, from property or premises under the open and exclusive control of a foreign power, as defined in section 1801 (a)(1), (2), or (3) of this title;
(B) there is no substantial likelihood that the surveillance will acquire the contents of any communication to which a United States person is a party; and
(C) the proposed minimization procedures with respect to such surveillance meet the definition of minimization procedures under section 1801 (h) of this title; and
if the Attorney General reports such minimization procedures and any changes thereto to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at least thirty days prior to their effective date, unless the Attorney General determines immediate action is required and notifies the committees immediately of such minimization procedures and the reason for their becoming effective immediately.

The really important part there is part (B) specifically limiting warrentless eavesdropping when it would intercept communications involving an American citizen. President Lyndon B Johnson and President Nixon got in trouble for eavesdropping on US citizens, and these violations of citizens’ rights were part of the motivators for FISA.

Why are so many people suddenly willing to let the government illegaly eavesdrop on us again? It wasn’t OK when President Clinton broke the law by lying under oath. It certainly shouldn’t be OK for President Bush to break the law by illegally eavesdropping on Americans, no matter how good *HE* thinks it is for the country and no matter who is on the other end. If he wants to do that, he needs to work on getting the law changed, not just ignoring it.

And companies need to quit helping our government break the law.  To bring this back to the original topic – shame on AT&T for feeding the NSA this traffic.

[tags]President above the law, Citizen’s Right violations[/tags]

RIAA says you can and can not rip your CDs

This is an old story in Internet time, but I marked it in my RSS reader (Bloglines) some time ago, intending to post it, and then never came back and put it on the site.  Tonight, I rectify that.  That said, here’s the story (brought over from an original post by the EFF).

Back during the MGM vs. Grokster case (where the music industry went after a popular peer to peer filesharing network), the recording industry’s lawyer said to the Supreme Court:

“The record companies, my clients, have said, for some time now, and it’s been on their website for some time now, that it’s perfectly lawful to take a CD that you’ve purchased, upload it onto your computer, put it onto your iPod.”

That seems fairly clear to me.  I read it as saying that the record companies believe we, as consumers, are legally allowed to rip CDs down to mp3/ogg/wma/whatever format to put on our portable music players for our own use.  Not to give to others.  Not to share with strangers.  But for personal use, it’s legal.  If I’m wrong, someone please let me know.

The reason for posting this story is the followup commentary from the music industry.  Recently, the following tidbit came from the recording industry  during the DMCA rule-making procedures:

“Nor does the fact that permission to make a copy in particular circumstances is often or even routinely granted, necessarily establish that the copying is a fair use when the copyright owner withholds that authorization. In this regard, the statement attributed to counsel for copyright owners in the MGM v. Grokster case is simply a statement about authorization, not about fair use.”

That says, basically, that sure the recording industry has said in the past that you as a consumer are allowed to rip to your preferred format for portable playback device use later, but now the recording industry no longer thinks that’s OK, so you are not allowed to do it any more.  Priceless, I say.  There’s a reason I don’t like to buy CDs any more, but I can’t quite express why.  Anyone have any guesses?

[tags]RIAA, Record companies hate consumers[/tags]

But you’re a woman!

(via Bruce Schneier’s blog)

More about the security problem (hint: mostly, people are the problem).  Humorous and sad at the same time.

Qantas chairman Margaret Jackson revealed at a Beijing Conference this week that she was briefly suspected of being a terrorist by a TSA screener during a visit last year to the United States.

. . .

See, Jackson is a woman — which, according to the wunderkind who screened her baggage and found detailed plans of new aircraft, makes it hard to believe she is also chairman of a major international airline.

“The guy said ‘Why have you got all of this?’,” Jackson told the conference, speaking of the screener’s discovery of seating diagrams in her baggage. “And I said, ‘I’m the chairman of an airline, I’m the chairman of Qantas’. “And this black guy, who was like eight foot tall, said, ‘but you’re a woman.'”

Jackson finally proved her identity to the guard… in part, by writing a note to him on her Qantas letterhead stating “Dear Bill, this is from the chairman of Qantas, who is a woman.”

See – everybody profiles.  It’s not a bad thing, although sometimes it’s done poorly.

[tags]Quantas, Security, Oops[/tags]

Enigma-style crypto-box

(via Bruce Schneier’s blog)

crypto-box.jpgAs I’ve done so many times before, I feel the need to post something that’s probably interesting only to me.  I just couldn’t pass this up.  Someone has built their own cryptography machine in the same style as the German Enigma device from World War II.  I just think it’s too pretty not to show it off.  Click the image for a full size picture.

[tags]Cryptography, Enigma, Crypto-box[/tags]

The failing of American security spending

If you have any interest in security – physical or virtual – you should be reading Bruce Schneier’s blog (and subscribing to his Crypto-gram newsletter, but there’s a fair bit of overlap sometimes) regularly. In the past few weeks, he has written a few articles about the current problems with the American government’s security spending. In particular, I liked his write-up on airport security screening. He points out how poorly we are spending our security dollars for very limited effect.

It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently (see also this), testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we’re all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes. (Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn’t the “underwear bomber.”)

This isn’t really surprising for a lot of folks, I suspect. I’ve seen similar results before, and most others reading this probably have as well. Bruce even continues by pointing out the fact that this really shouldn’t be unexpected.

The failure to detect bomb-making parts is easier to understand. Break up something into small enough parts, and it’s going to slip past the screeners pretty easily. The explosive material won’t show up on the metal detector, and the associated electronics can look benign when disassembled. This isn’t even a new problem.

In other words, take something we can recognize, break it into smaller pieces, and suddenly it is not so recognizable. Not that this explains the missed guns and knives, but it does explain a little of why security screening is a problem. Bruce writes more about the difficulty of doing the job well – for instance, it’s an issue of repetition and searching for potentially hard to find dangerous items in a mess of other similar looking but harmless items.

Further on in the article, he writes about the limited value in removing guns, knives, and other weapons:

And, as has been pointed out again and again in essays on the ludicrousness of post-9/11 airport security, improvised weapons are a huge problem. A rock, a battery for a laptop, a belt, the extension handle off a wheeled suitcase, fishing line, the bare hands of someone who knows karate … the list goes on and on.

And this is such a huge problem that no one making these silly security and screening rules wants to talk about. Too many people pretend that removing a certain category of weapons removes the threat.

Stopping box knives just means if (and let me interject here that I don’t believe airline hi-jacking is even a concern now, regardless of how much hype it still garners today) another 9/11-style were attempted, the terrorists would have to resort to things they can still assuredly get on board, like pens, laptop batteries, canes, umbrellas, and other seemingly harmless items for weapons. People forget a pen in the eye will still completely incapacitate an opponent. A laptop battery can smash a skull quite effectively, just as a cane can break a bone or an umbrella can be effective in gutting someone.

So how do we protect the planes if all these weapons are still available and feasably dangerous? Well, we don’t really – we need to focus on terrorism, not a single potential, unlikely, now low-risk target.

The terrorists’ goals have nothing to do with airplanes; their goals are to cause terror. Blowing up an airplane is just a particular attack designed to achieve that goal. Airplanes deserve some additional security because they have catastrophic failure properties: If there’s even a small explosion, everyone on the plane dies. But there’s a diminishing return on investments in airplane security. If the terrorists switch targets from airplanes to shopping malls, we haven’t really solved the problem.

I don’t hear a lot of people clamoring to protect our shopping malls. Sure, some people do, but so many people still focus on the old threat. Of course, that’s the American way, isn’t it? We have short attention spans and tend to focus on things that were problems in the past, rather than looking ahead to figure out what problems are likely in the future.

What that means is that a basic cursory screening is good enough. If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn’t spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.

When I travel in Europe, I never have to take my laptop out of its case or my shoes off my feet. Those governments have had far more experience with terrorism than the U.S. government, and they know when passenger screening has reached the point of diminishing returns. (They also implemented checked-baggage security measures decades before the United States did — again recognizing the real threat.)

Smart moves, smart comments. Too bad more people don’t pay attention to Bruce Schneier’s advice. We could stop wasting money on useless “protection” and put it to better use.

A lot of his article is quoted here, but there are still things I’ve left out. Head to his site and see what else Bruce says about all this. He’s a much better writer than I am.

[tags]Terrorism, Airport security, Security spending[/tags]