Friday, August 27, 2010

The CRTC Sucks

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission sucks.

I just got this nifty little widget in my Gmail inbox:


Yeah!! It's a PHONE! How awesome is that? Right now, you can use a phone inside of Gmail to call ANYWHERE in Canada or the USA - for free. Look, here are some calls I've made:



Mmm, Chinese food. 

But wait, there's more! Check out all these cool features...


Basically, Google will give you a new - free - phone number that allows you to answer phone calls on your computer, transfer calls from your cell to your computer (or vice versa), and allows you to give people one telephone number that could ring your cell, home, and work numbers all at the same time (if you wanted).

But there's the catch - US numbers only. 

The reason Canadians don't get access to futuristic call managing systems and advanced voicemail functionality is not because Google doesn't like Canadians - it's because the CRTC doesn't like Canadians. 

To have those advanced features, you need a real telephone number to link to your Google Voice account. CRTC regulations state that anything that can receive incoming phone calls - period - needs to have e911 services, so that when you call 911 from that number they can find your position. 

A purely VOIP telephone number, like Skype or Google Voice, cannot receive incoming calls (unless you do some advanced hackery by purchasing a US-based phone number) from a cell phone or landline because Skype and Google Voice can't offer e911 services - it's just the nature of the technology. So the CRTC is essentially telling Canadians to take their advanced technology and "suck it". No, you cannot have a newer way to communicate because then your friendly neighbourhood telecom can't charge you 83 cents plus a $6.25 system administration fee per phone bill.

What's most painful about these restrictions that prevent Canadians from benefiting from new technology is that the CRTC knows they suck:
The paradigm of broadcasting is bound in time by the technology which informed it. We are moving away from that technology and its limitations and our laws should move to address problems appropriate to today and not those of 1958 or 1997.
The rights of Canadians to talk and communicate across the Internet are vastly too important to be subjected to a scheme of government licensing. - Timothy Denton, CRTC Commissioner
Join me in contacting the CRTC, voice your concerns about restrictions over new technology and tell them to stop shafting Canadians out of new technologies! 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Check-In: Predictions About SaskTel's 3G+ Network Upgrade

Back in July, I wrote this post about SaskTel's HSPA network upgrade. Phase 1 was rolled out on August 16th.

At the end of my post, I summarized my predictions:
So, hedge your bets. SaskTel has ~30 days until August 16, 2010, when they’re going to light up the new network. Sorry SaskTel! Here are my pessimistic predictions:
  1. Some kind of launch day complication or delay that affects CDMA users.
  2. Sub-standard device lineup on launch day.
  3. No iPhone 4.
  4. No Android devices (I would be truly sad about this one).
  5. Palm Centro still available to purchase on SaskTel website.
 Let's see how accurate I was. One point per correct answer!

1. Some kind of launch day complication or delay that affects CDMA users. 

To my knowledge, the network light-up went off without a hitch, and nobody I know noticed any adverse effects on their existing phones. Good job, SaskTel!

0/1 Points.

2. Sub-standard device lineup on launch day. 

The 3G+ network launched with five devices: Nokia 6530, Nokia 7230, a Novatel Internet Stick, BlackBerry Pearl 9100, and the BlackBerry Bold 9700. A few days later, they added the Samsung Gravity Touch, but it wasn't available on launch day so it doesn't count.

The two BlackBerry devices are pretty rad, but the Nokias are a big "meh" and even the Gravity Touch isn't that impressive.

0.5/1 Points

3. No iPhone 4. 

Right on the money!

1/1 Points

4. No Android Devices

The Samsung Galaxy S Vibrant looks like it's on its way - which is good, it's a well-reviewed phone - but it wasn't available at launch.

1/1 Points

5. Palm Centro still available to purchase on SaskTel website. 

Awwww.... poor little Palm Centro. Still available.

1/1 Points

3.5/5 isn't bad! Truth be told, I wish I'd been wrong about more. Oh well. Here's hoping that this is just the start of a turnaround for device availability at SaskTel!

Music as Data

This is the first post in a series about how data helps me make decisions, maintain ongoing histories, and discover new things.

Music plays a huge role in our lives as an uplifter, a comforter, a creative outlet, and an escape. I can think of few things more perfect to collect information on and analyze.

I listen to most of my music on my computer or my iPod. Since June of 2006, I have been saving statistics on nearly every music file I've listened to with a program/website called last.fm. Last.fm saves the artist, song, album, date and time the song was listened to, and generates a dynamic music history for each user.



Last.fm has a built-in recommendations system. It compares your listening habits with those of millions of other users to generate recommendations for new artists to listen to or upcoming concerts to attend. The more music you "scrobble" to last.fm, the better your recommendations become, and the more music you discover.



Last.fm has an open API (application programming interface), which means that developers and programmers can create websites and programs that can access your last.fm data and give you more insight into your listening habits. One graph-generator I found (sorry, lost the link!) plots fascinating historical charts which allow you to visualize your listening habits over time. It's interesting to see your subconscious listening habits pop out - listening to certain artists exclusively during final exams, or the summer, or on weekends.



One of my favourite recent websites to compliment last.fm is called BandsInTown. You can sign up in two clicks with an existing Twitter account then import your last.fm or Pandora history. Finally, you give BandsInTown your location (ie, city or province) and it compiles a cloud of concerts in your area based on your last.fm musical preferences.


Don't want to constantly check BandsInTown or last.fm for upcoming concerts? No problem. BandsInTown allows you to import your concert recommendations to Google Calendar (and you can get the time zones right by using this little script that I wrote).

Now I listen to songs, have them scrobbled to last.fm, which is monitored by BandsInTown for concerts in my area, which automatically show up on my Google Calendar. 



This proves to be amazing every time I check my calendar and discover a new concert that I'd love to see. In my opinion, a setup like this is essential for music lovers. Given that technology exists to automate this process, if you don't do this you are wasting data.

Data waste - there's a concept I want to return to!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Saskatoon's Semi-Secret Lost and Found

This article about stolen bikes appeared in the Star Phoenix today, which reminded me about a cool story I have about the City of Saskatoon's Lost and Found department.

Read the article for details about Saskatoon's Lost and Found program. Essentially, the City has a huge warehouse where missing property is directed to - they say everything except for pets, people, and automobiles.

In 2007, I was walking home from the pub when I was jumped by three bandana-wearing kids who demanded my wallet and cell phone. I complied (I was in no state of mind to protest), but strangely, they let me keep my credit cards and ID from my wallet. Someone later suggested this could have been a gang initiation ("bring us back a wallet and a phone") and they were feeling guilty, but who knows.

Anyway, my cell phone was gone for good and I assumed the same for my wallet, which only had $20, my blood donor card, SIN card (dumb! don't do this!), health card, and a few random membership cards left after I hurriedly grabbed my credit cards and government ID.

Funny side story - the next day I took inventory of my missing cards. I called Canadian Blood Services to report a stolen card (I was being a keener - I didn't know if there was any privacy risks involved). I had to be transferred to a manager because no one had ever called to report their blood donor card as stolen.

Anyway, six months after the robbery, I got an ambiguous manilla envelope in the mail with the return address "LOST AND FOUND, ONTARIO AVE, SASKATOON" - that was it. I opened the envelope and there was my wallet, covered in dirt. No accompanying note or documentation. The $20 was missing but the cards that I'd left in it were still there, including my health card and SIN card.

I was very impressed that a random stranger would take the time to submit my dirty wallet to the City, and that the City would take the time to track down an address from my documentation to send my wallet back. I vowed, right then and there, to pay it forward and do the same if I ever got a chance.

That opportunity came sooner than I thought - when I inspected the contents of my wallet I found that my random cards had been bundled with someone else's student card, library card, health card, blood donor card, and Scotiabank card.

I tracked down the guy's email address from the student card and managed to successfully reunite another stranger with their random wallet contents. It was strange they were bundled together, because we had lost them completely different ways.

Moral of the story: Most cities have a huge lost and found warehouse that is occasionally successful at reuniting people with their missing goods! Thanks, City of Saskatoon!

Friday, August 13, 2010

SaskTel's Once Upon A Smart Choice Sale - Not So Smart!

SaskTel has a sale on right now where they're selling smartphones for $0. DON'T FALL FOR IT!

Every single one of those phones is old and outdated - not only are they using SaskTel's old CDMA network technology, but in most cases the phones on this sale are one generation behind the current (for example, the BlackBerry Storm is a $0 phone on this sale, but SaskTel sells the Storm 2 - the newer, more superior phone on the old CDMA network).

For instance, if buy the Palm Centro, you're buying a 3-year-old piece of hardware that Palm stopped supporting years ago.

Mobile Syrup, one of Canada's most well-read mobile phone blogs recommends the BlackBerry Storm $0 phone with a three year contract. That's a terrible recommendation - the phone was released to terrible reviews in tech blogging circles. You'd be saddling yourself with old, crappy hardware on a network that is going to be shut down in three years anyway.

Spend $200 on a new generation smartphone if you're going into a three-year contract - it's a drop in the bucket considering the total cost of ownership over a three-year contract. Don't get saddled with an old piece of garbage that mobile phone manufacturers (Palm, BlackBerry, etc) no longer want to support.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Ticketmaster extorted $20 from me. I vowed to get it back and [eventually] succeeded.

Warning: This post is epic and long.

In early 2010, I joined the Iron Maiden fan club to get the best tickets possible for the Dream Theater/Iron Maiden concert in Saskatoon, SK, on June 29, 2010. I paid $380 for four tickets on my student VISA card, well in advance of the show. When I purchased the tickets, I only had the option of purchasing paperless tickets.

Fast-forward to the day of the show. I had completed my degree and my bank had sent me a new, "grown-up" VISA card. The card number had changed.

My party of four arrived at the venue, parked the car and got in line at 6:30PM. Doors opened at 6:15PM, and Dream Theater was starting at 7:15. The line outside the door was probably 200 meters long, moving slow.

By 7:15pm, we were barely standing inside the front entry, waiting to present my VISA for paperless ticket entry. Dream Theater had just started their set. So many people are having problems with paperless tickets, we stood in the entranceway for over 10 minutes. Progress was excruciatingly slow - it felt like one of those dreams where you can never finish packing your suitcase.

My credit card was scanned at the door, as per the paperless ticketing process. It was rejected (remember, my card number had changed). We were redirected to the box office. We moved from the front of the enter-the-venue line to the back of the box office line.

Dream Theater finished a song as I started talking to a woman at the box office. She asked for my government-issued ID for comparison to my order and my VISA, which I provided. She asked to see a printed order confirmation, and I replied that I didn't print anything because these are paperless tickets. I offered to bring up the exact-same email confirmation on my BlackBerry and that was refused (and refused a second time after I tried to clarify why). I was then informed that I would need to pay a $5-per-ticket fee to get into the venue, for a total of $20.

I asked what the fee was for, and was told, "to get into the show." I asked for clarification and was told, "if you want to get in, you need to pay this fee." Wow! That's extortion, and if it's ever happened to you, you know it feels terrible. If I didn't pay it, I'd forfeit $380 worth of tickets. Talk about pressure - the opening act was already well into their set, and we felt like we were out of options.

Reluctantly, I agreed to pay the fee. I asked (multiple times) for an itemized receipt and that request was refused; I walked away with 4 tickets and a credit card stub but no receipt describing the fee. My friends and I got back into the entry line, waited anxiously to get through the door, and made it to the concert floor by 7:40PM, half-way through Dream Theater's set.

I am a principled guy and I know that charding extra fees for paid-in-full tickets is illegal - Saskatchewan's Consumer Protection Act describes it as an "unfair practice." Bring ripped off so blatantly made me furious and I vowed to recover that $20 any way I could.

Recovery Attempt #1 - VISA.
A few days after the show (by the way, Iron Maiden was awesome), I collected a ton of documentation that supported my claim, and talked to my friends - they were willing to offer statements of support.

I phoned VISA. VISA loves to advertise cardholder protection and fraud protection and surely, I thought, they'll back me up. This will be the easiest recovery ever. Having paid in full for my tickets, VISA will protect me and my purchase from having additional after-the-fact fees charged.

Well, as it turns out, VISA doesn't believe that extortion exists. If you sign a receipt or enter your PIN, you're committed to that purchase, no matter what. I asked the rep, "what if someone was holding a gun to my head?" and got a snarky response, "well, maybe you should call the police."

I got angry and frustrated on the call which probably didn't help (lesson learned). The entire rest of this ordeal I focused on being as extraordinarily polite, patient, and respectful as possible. Sorry, VISA.

Recovery Attempt #2 - Ticketmaster Canada.
Every time you buy tickets with a credit card, Ticketmaster's national phone number shows up on your credit card statement, presumably to help settle billing disputes. I phoned the number and after getting transferred around for 20 minutes. I spoke to a very helpful and polite rep who found out that the fee was a "credit card swap" fee.

I suppose if Ticketmaster wants to charge a fee for everything, that's their business. But the fee wasn't advertised anywhere - on Ticketmaster's site, on any of my order confirmations, or posted at the Credit Union Centre. And knowing what the fee is in retrospect doesn't excuse the box office rep for not explaining the fee or issuing a receipt.

I disputed the fee with the national rep, and she said that she couldn't help me - I will have to settle the dispute with the Saskatoon box office. I made some notes and thanked her for her time.

Recovery Attempt #3 - Ticketmaster Saskatoon.
Before calling the Saskatoon box office, I printed a copy of the Consumer Protection Act at Staples for $15 and read the whole thing, front to back, just to make triple-sure I was in the right. I highlighted everything relevant and picked up the phone.

I left a message and a manager (who would not identify herself or provide a call-back number) phoned me back. She allowed me to explain my situation and I finished by saying that I should be refunded the $20 that was wrongfully charged at the door.

She told me a fantastic story - that she'd spoken to the box office clerk who recalled explaining the fee to me and remembered offering me a receipt. That was an outright lie and I informed her I had three witnesses who would say otherwise. Then, she said that it was not possible to issue refunds with their system. Err, right. It's gone from "won't refund $20" to "can't refund $20." I calmly, politely said that I am a principled guy and I am entitled to that refund, and was willing to pursue the matter in Small Claims Court - it would be cheaper for everyone, time-wise, to issue the refund now. She said "do what you have to do" and hung up.

Ouch!

Recovery Attempt #4 - Small Claims Court
This attempt took a lot of time and consultation, but to be brief: no-one can sue Ticketmaster in Saskatchewan Small Claims Courts because Ticketmaster is not registered as a corporation in this province. I talked to Small Claims, the Corporations Branch of the provincial government, and the Consumer Protection Branch and the consensus was that it would be complicated and expensive to file directly against Ticketmaster.

I could, however, file against the venue (the Credit Union Centre) in Small Claims, who utilized Ticketmaster's services.

Recovery Attempt #5 - Credit Union Centre
I checked out the Credit Union Centre's website, and lo and behold, they have a Director of Ticketing and Business Projects - which sounded exactly like the person I should be talking to.

I composed a detailed, polite letter of complaint to that person, outlining my experience at the venue and my attempts-to-date to recover the $20 fee. I wrote about how I see 6-12 events per year at the CUC, and how I was hesitant to file against the Credit Union Centre in Small Claims because I believed that it was Ticketmaster who was in the wrong, not the CUC.

I expressed my concerns over paperless ticketing in general and my negative experience at the box office. I also included a snippit of legislation from the Consumer Protection Act which I felt supported my complaint quite clearly. The only thing I explicitly requested in the letter was an acknowledgement that it had been received. The final letter was about 3 pages long, and I signed it "without prejudice".

Success!
On August 3, one day after I emailed the letter, the Director emailed me back, acknowledging he'd received the letter and was investigating. On August 5, he left a message on my voicemail saying that the $20 charge had been reversed, and that he'd like to speak with me on the phone about the situation, if possible.

I called him back that day and spoke with him. Right away, I thanked him for reversing the charge. He apologized for the situation, saying, "in my opinion, you demonstrated you were the individual who bought the tickets and you shouldn't have been charged that fee at all." I reiterated that it wasn't necessarily the fee, rather, the refusal of an explanation and receipt that really irked me, but the issue is resolved and we don't need to go over those details again. I thanked him multiple times and expressed my sincere gratitude that he actually took the time to investigate and resolve my complaint.

He asked me if I'd seen Circ du Soleil yet and offered me a set of tickets as a gesture of kindness. I declined, for two reasons - one, I had plans all weekend (family reunion) and two, the offer was very generous but with the apology and the refund I consider the matter fully and completely resolved (I wasn't complaining for the sake of a free show). I thanked him one last time and we ended the call.

On August 6, a $20 credit appeared in my VISA account.

Reflection

I spent far more than $20 in time and resources trying to resolve this issue, but money was never the point (nor was extra compensation, ie, declining the Circ du Soleil ticket offer). If you've ever had something extorted from you, you know that gut-wrenching feeling of in-the-moment helplessness and cosmic unfairness.

I think the key was finding someone who is proud of their work and/or organization. In this whole ordeal, no-one I talked to in traditional customer service channels (phone support for VISA and Ticketmaster, local box office managers) seemed concerned that a customer had a terrible experience - all I experienced was deflection and denial.

In the end, I received a perfect apology. The Director of Ticketing was genuinely concerned and investigated (and responded to) my claim seriously and professionally. When I heard the charge was reversed after two months of dead ends, I felt like a superhero - offering free tickets to another show as compensation goes above and beyond what I expected. Thanks, Credit Union Centre - I'll be back, for sure.

Lessons Learned:
  • If possible, avoid Paperless Ticketing like the plague. If you want to see any part of the opening act, arrive early, because the process is sloowwww.
    • If you can't avoid paperless tickets, try not to graduate or do anything that might prompt your VISA, MasterCard, or your bank to change your credit card number. If your card number does change, be aware Ticketmaster will use this as a chance to rip you off - best to call them and sort it out in advance. Don't let them talk you into paying a credit card swap fee. 
  • If resolving complaints with Ticketmaster is a dead end, complain directly to the venue. There's a better chance of encountering someone who likes their job, is proud of their venue, and will lend an ear to a polite, concerned customer.
  • The three "P"s of complaint resolution: Politeness, Patience, Persistence.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    Water for Thought

    Our homepage at work is an intranet news page with company updates, global news, and a Quality Point. Yesterday's point really surprised me:
    "Quality Point: Americans drink $11 billion worth of bottled water, i.e. more [bottled] water than milk. Furthermore, Americans drink nearly as much bottled water as beer. If the growth trend continues, Americans could be drinking more bottled water than tap water (which in most of America is perfectly good water) within a few years." [emphasis added]
    Not only is bottled water more expensive than gasoline (per litre), it's also unregulated in the USA and Canada, there are no standards for its production, and it's basically just tap water anyway. Crazy.