Archive for the ‘rant’ Category

The street in front of my condo building does not permit parking during the day, but a few months ago, I noticed that the same few vehicles were parked there every day, arriving in the morning and departing in the afternoon. They all displayed Toronto Accessible Parking Permits (a.k.a. handicapped parking permits), which allow them to park in no parking areas and otherwise ignore most parking laws. I thought it was a bit odd that so many handicapped people would all of a sudden decide to park on our street each day during business hours, so started to watch for them arriving in the mornings.

What I saw (and still see) is a blatant misuse of accessible parking permits by people who appear to have no physical disability that would prevent them from parking in a nearby paid parking lot, or in paid street parking spots. Many of them appear to be working at the construction sites in our neighbourhood – of which there are many – although a relatively new one seems to be a local shop owner. They are mostly expensive vehicles – a Mercedes, a BMW, a Lexus and a couple of Ford F150s – which means that the owners can probably afford to pay for parking.

A call to Toronto Parking Authority, which would normally ticket and/or tow cars that are illegally parked, won’t touch anything with an accessible permit; they said that they would send someone to put a “notice” on the cars one day, but never showed.

Normally, I would just live and let live on this one, but there are a few problems with this: first and foremost, I have a friend in the building who uses a walker, and has the TTC WheelTrans service pick him up in front of the building several times each week. When the “fake” handicapped drivers have the entire front of the building blocked, he has to negotiate between the cars, or walk down to our driveway, in order to get to the WheelTrans vehicle. In today’s snow, I imagine that he won’t try to venture out at all, since there is no guarantee that the WheelTrans vehicle – which must be reserved several hours in advance – will be able to stop at the curb in front of the building to pick him up.

The other problem is with deliveries and garbage pickup: with the vehicles parked there, our garbage and recycling trucks often can’t get to the curb to pick up the bins, and trucks making deliveries have no place to stop in front of the building and may refuse to make deliveries.

Here’s a couple of examples. In the first pictures (taken earlier this week, without the snow), the driver parks in front of the building in the no-parking zone, gets out of his car, walks around to check that he is clear of the driveway, then puts the handicapped permit in his windscreen and walks away around the corner. This car has been parked there every day from early morning until evening for the past week or more. The later pictures (with the snow) show one of the worst offenders, who has parked in the no-parking zone several times per week for the past three months; today, there were other vehicles already parked in the no-parking zone so he went around the corner to the side street where parking is allowed but requires payment – except if you have an accessible parking permit. First, he parks his truck, then gets out and walks away across the park without purchasing a parking ticket from the machine. The last two shots show the accessible parking pass in his windscreen (I have taken close-up shots of this same truck and the parking permit on other days).

I am not a doctor, and do not claim to be able to diagnose any kind of physical condition, especially from afar, but every person who I have seen using an accessible parking permit on our block seems to exhibit the ability to walk several blocks to their place of work, then back again later in the day. Other residents in our building have made the same observations.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any recourse to curb this behaviour: calls to 311 just get the standard line that the city won’t ticket the cars because of the accessible parking passes, but they also won’t bother to investigate if the passes are being used improperly. I’ve put notes on the cars asking them not to park there on garbage pickup days, which works for a day or two before the same activity restarts, and I really don’t want a new job as a meter maid. I sent an email to Jack Lakey, a.k.a. The Fixer at the Toronto Star, who investigates problems with Toronto municipal services, but haven’t heard whether he will take this up. Other than that, we seem destined to wait out the heavy construction that brings out this sort of parking behaviour.

My message to Porter today sums it up:

Your site has sent me 85 flight reminder messages so far about my flight tomorrow, starting at 7am today and continuing approximately one every 2-3 minutes. Please fix this.

There are a few other problems with your site:

  • Online checkin required two attempts, with no apparent cause for the failure.
  • I was unable to book my last two flights online in spite of repeated attempts in two different browsers. Eventually, I gave up and called an agent but this is not my preference.
  • This comment form that I’m filling out right now doesn’t prefill with my contact information in spite of the fact that I’m logged in. Also, on Chrome, it only allows 3 characters in the comment field (when I tweeted about this, several friends replied that "wtf" fits in that space).

As a long-time software engineer and heavy user of many consumer websites, I have to say that I’m sorely disappointed in the quality of your site — you need to hire a serious QA person to test this stuff out before you start inflicting it on the rest of us. As much as I love flying Porter, the online experience is enough to put me off. It might not drive me back to Air Canada (yet), but it certainly is not making me happy.

I tweeted to them about the problems, but I don’t think that they have anyone monitoring their tweets or comment emails on weekends, and I don’t expect to get an answer back for a few days. Even then, it is unlikely to be satisfactory, based on my last exchange with them about their website, which went most along the lines of them telling me that I was obviously doing something wrong. In the meantime, I’ve set up an email filter that removes the messages from Porter as they arrive.

I fly Porter on the routes that it covers because it’s a great in-person experience:

  • They almost always have a 20% off promotion available, which undercuts Air Canada fares.
  • The airport is 2km from my home, which means that I can actually walk there, or take a $8 cab ride instead of the $55 required to get to Pearson airport.
  • I get to take the shortest ferry ride in the world to get there, which earned me the “I’m on a boat” FourSquare badge.
  • I am only required to be at the airport 45 minutes before my flight.
  • The lounge, available to all passengers, has free coffee, tea, soft drinks, cookies and wifi, as well as comfy chairs.
  • I love the smaller propeller planes since it actually feels like flying.
  • They fly to Midway rather than O’Hare.
  • The flights that I’ve taken so far have a good on-time record.
  • If I’m at the airport early enough to catch the previous flight, they’ll change it for free if there’s room on the flight rather than trying to shake me down for extra cash (are you listening, Air Canada?).

The only downside is that they don’t have US customs and immigration pre-clearance in Toronto, meaning that I end up in the international arrivals area at the destination airport where there is rarely a NEXUS kiosk and often a lineup. Not a problem for early morning arrivals, but from late morning on, I’ve sometimes ended up stuck in a crowd of arriving European travelers.

The good news: the flight reminders seem to be holding at 85 for now.

The one good thing about Rogers Wireless’ really shitty customer service is that waiting on hold gives me time to take snapshots of their non-functioning website — the reason that I’m waiting on hold in the first place — and blog about it:

A contributor to Rogers' bad customer service: a non-functional website

I’ve been trying to change my price plan online for 3 days now, and keep getting the above error. After 20 minutes on hold, I got through to a CSR who changed my plan, but think about what that costs them in terms of that person’s time, not to mention the ill will from me because I couldn’t do this on the website?

I’ve moved to a month-to-month plan now that my contract is up, and will be waiting for the new GSM entrants into the Canadian wireless market in the spring to see if there’s one who can provide the wireless service that I want and have a decent self-service website.

Every once in a while, I run up against a project manager on a client project who seems to be there just to make my life hell. Usually I just let this roll off me since it’s only a temporary condition — that’s part of why I work as an independent, after all — but sometimes I just have to rant.

To begin with, I usually work on the design side of things, from functional requirements through technical design, and I leave the project management to the trained professionals: not only do I not like doing project management, I’m not very good at it. I think that many companies do a great disservice by "promoting" technical people to project managers by allowing that to be the only pathway for their advancement, rather than creating senior technical positions with the same prestige and pay. What happens in the current model, since so many developers have moved into project management roles, is that the term "project manager" has come to mean someone who also does some amount of the business requirements or design work on a project as well as managing it.

This is just plain wrong.

First of all, if someone is tasked with managing the project, let them manage the project without burdening them with other roles that might be in conflict with their primary role. Second, if someone has been in project management for a while, their technical skills are probably a bit rusty, and you could end up with poor results. Furthermore, many people in project management don’t even have a technical background, but are expected to take on technical project work because of the assumption that they used to be a developer; this is almost always not going to work out well.

The worst case that I experienced was when an ex-COBOL programmer was assigned by his large management consulting employer as a project manager on an implementation project, but he was obviously frustrated by that position and wanting to do technical design. I was the lead architect on the job, but he argued with pretty much every point in the design, even though he had no understanding of the technical development environment, and little understanding of the specific products that we were using (products on which I was very experienced). We spent a lot of time arguing over things, only to end up back where I started in the first place. Since I was a subcontractor to his company, he lobbied to have my contract terminated (which was within their rights, with the appropriate amount of notice) and I breathed a sigh of relief over not having to deal with him any more, as well as not having to go to a very cold part of the country in February. The end result: the architecture and design were redone by the project manager with some input from a couple of the developers who weren’t familiar with the BPMS; the system was installed more than a year late, went way over budget, and didn’t meet the customer requirements. After turfing out the big consulting firm, the customer called me back to see if I could help fix the mess. I laughed all the way to a different customer in a warmer climate.

A more recent PM from hell wanted to completely control my access to the customer. As an independent contractor rather than permanent staff, she may have felt threatened by my existence, and obviously felt she could do my job just as well as I could — without any apparent skills or experience at it. Since I often work offsite and she worked onsite, she was able to convince the customer to funnel every piece of email and documentation that I needed through her, rather than just having the customer copy her on communications to me. There were obviously a lot of conversations (via email) going on that I was not privy to, and which would have made my job easier, but the PM decided to filter the information that went to me. At one point, she even said that she was doing this in order to "watch my back" for me (presumably so that she knew exactly where to stick the knife). At one point I needed a detailed database schema, and the PM replied that what she had was too detailed for me; I suggested that I could make that decision, and to just send it on, but instead, she had someone in the internal IT group run a not-detailed-enough report for me. When I asked for more information, the PM said "This is what we decided was best to send to you." Every interaction that I had with this PM was the same frustrating, teeth-pulling exercise. Although I did a good job for the customer, it could have been better if I’d had wider access to people and information.

I have a huge amount of respect for skilled project managers, but let’s get a few things straight:

  1. I don’t want your job, so don’t feel threatened. I like my job just fine, or I wouldn’t be on the project in the first place.
  2. I don’t care if you want my job, the customer hired me to do it, not you. Do your own damned job.
  3. Don’t create barriers between me and the sources of information that I need in order to do my job, or you will negatively impact the end product and the customer satisfaction.

We all know that Intuit (the maker of Quicken) treats its customers like crap, yet there are few alternatives for a Canadian wanting to maintain proper personal financial records, especially when they are multi-currency. I’m sure that Microsoft Money would also do this, but the time spent converting my 10+ years of records just doesn’t seem worth it, and there’s really no guarantee that I’m not going to have a whole raft of other problems with MS Money.

In their latest "screw the customer" ploy, Intuit forced me to upgrade from my reliable old 2002 version of Quicken, which did everything that I need it to do, by stating that after the end of the year, bank downloads and securities/fund price updates would no longer work. Bank downloads I can live with, since I could have just blocked Quicken from getting through my firewall and used the old .QIF format for downloading instead of the online exchange format, but I really need to have my securities and fund prices updated so that I know how my portfolio’s doing.

Shortly after updating, I noticed that it had downloaded some historical pricing data from around August — even though I had not requested any historical price downloads — that were totally screwed up: most of the Canadian equities were 10x what they should have been. Note that my old version of Quicken, which I had been using at the time of the faulty prices, had not picked up the bogus prices; I checked the Quicken forums for a discussion on that topic, and found that it is only the recent Quicken versions that are having this problem. I hand-deleted all the bogus prices in order to get my historical numbers back where they should be, completely unimpressed.

Today, I did my usual update in Quicken, and imagine my surprise to see that my portfolio had jumped by a huge amount overnight. Again, it looks like most of the Canadian equity prices are downloading at 10x what they should be.

The only response on the post on the Quicken forum is from an Intuit employee from June 22nd — presumably when the problem first appeared — who stated:

Hello All,
We are aware of the recent issue with the Canadian security prices and are investigating the cause of this issue. We hope to have this corrected as soon as possible–
Thanks for your patience–

Okay, I don’t have any patience left for this, so don’t bother thanking me. The other 7 pages of posts on this topic are filled with people who also don’t have patience for this. A single message from Intuit, left five months ago, as the only feedback on this recurring problem is completely inadequate. These are my finances, you idiots, not my recipe file! I’m extremely concerned with accuracy, and you should be even more concerned than I am about said accuracy.

I’ve just sent Intuit customer support an email, which they claim that they’ll respond to within two business days:

Canadian investment prices that are downloaded to Quicken are 10x what they should be in today’s update. This same error occurred a few months ago, which did not impact the 2002 version of Quicken that I was using at the time, but did get downloaded as historical price errors once I "upgraded" to the 2008 version. I had to hand-delete all of the bad price data from my portfolio and manually type in with prices from my brokerage.

Considering that I was forced to upgrade from 2002 under threat of losing the ability to update stock prices, the fact that the prices are broken is a bit ironic.

Let’s see what happens.

Update: they appear to have fixed the problem of today’s prices, and have downloaded price data that overwrites the previous 10x numbers. I’m still concerned about the larger issue of what they’re doing to prevent this obviously recurring problem in the future.

In case there’s any doubt that we’re being ripped off by retailers here in Canada, I went looking for a hard drive upgrade for my laptop today. On the HP US site, it’s $US237.50:

HP $US for replacement drive

On the HP Canada site, it’s $C318:

HP $CDN for replacement drive

However, a deposit of $US funds to my bank account earlier today showed that the $US is only worth $0.938 Canadian, which means that we should be paying $237.50 x .938 = $C222.78. So we’re paying a premium of 318 – 222.78 = $95.22, or 42.7% over the US price.

Guess that I’ll be waiting for my next trip to the US to pick up one of these. Canadian retailers, I’m not the only one: bring your prices in line or we all start cross-border shopping.

You know that a Web 2.0 company is likely in trouble when their new and improved monetization scheme is to nuke their free basic accounts without notice, holding their users’ data hostage pending a signup to a paid premium account. That’s exactly what happened today with Eventbrite, an event registration service that I’ve used in the past and heavily endorsed.

Getting screwed by Eventbrite

Eventbrite’s original line, like most Web 2.0 companies, was that they would always offer a free basic service and a paid premium service, with some nice features on the premium versions. Features that, unfortunately, now include logging on.

Until quite recently, I managed the website and event registration for a not-for-profit club (as a volunteer). A couple of years ago, I convinced the board that we really needed to accept credit cards, and eventually moved event registration and membership renewals to Eventbrite with PayPal for credit card payments. I stepped down from the board this summer, and had a call a few weeks ago from the person who is now managing the event registrations to say that she could no longer add more than one type of ticket to an event — the club had always used a member price and non-member price for tickets. I checked it out, and sure enough, they had actually retracted functionality that had been part of the basic service all along.

The real kicker came today, when she called me again to say that Eventbrite had cut off all access to the wine club’s account unless they upgraded to a premium membership, because of a new rule that says that you can’t collect more than $1000 in ticket sales (in total? per month? per event? unknown) with a basic account, but have to upgrade to a premium account. No advance notice about this so that the club could prepare alternatives, just the inability to login as of today. That means that the two events that they have in progress right now have been hijacked by Eventbrite: the club is unable to access the list of attendees that have signed up to date, or even to shut down the event altogether if they no longer wish to use Eventbrite — which I’m pretty sure that they don’t, given the completely unacceptable behaviour of Eventbrite so far. The event still shows up for people to buy tickets, but the club can’t access it in any way.

Getting screwed by Eventbrite

In their help section, pictured above, they state “we have shifted Eventbrite to a one level service that offers these new features to all accounts at a low fee. With that initiative in mind, we are phasing out our Basic (Free) service”. So much for a perpetual free basic service. Furthermore, this likely prices them out of range of most small not-for-profit clubs (like the one that I used to volunteer for) because that extra 2.5% on top of the ticket price — in addition to the 2.9% charged by PayPal for credit card processing — does make a difference for the little guys. What’s really needed is an event registration service at a lower cost, or maybe a good open source solution that can be run on a small organization’s hosted website directly.

Eventbrite appears to be offering a “free” upgrade to the premium service for events that are already in your account, so the club could sign up and presumably get access to the data that’s trapped in there for the current events, but would you really trust these people with your credit card information?

I just had an interesting exchange over on my business blog. I wrote a post that someone from a vendor disagreed with (it was a bit controversial in areas), and he called my statements “vacuous” in a public comment on the post. I emailed privately to him and said that I found “vacuous” to be a bit harsh, and he replied with a snippy “well, what word do you suggest, Sandy?” Later, he sent a follow-up email to say that I could replace “vacuous” with “loose”, and I replied that “vacuous” is usually defined as “lacking in intelligence”, not “loose”.

Turns out that Mr. Rocket Scientist didn’t actually know that…

When I first signed up for a PayPal personal account, I couldn’t receive payments from credit cards (no problem) and it was free to receive payments funded from someone’s bank account. Presumably, PayPal made their money because I was also using their service to buy things online from companies with business accounts (like my wine club), which pay a fee on every payment received regardless of whether the transaction is funded by debit or credit.

A friend recently tried to send me some money via PayPal, and I had the option to accept it — with a 4.9% + $0.55 transaction fee! Turns out that she was funding the transaction with a credit card, and of course someone has to pay the merchant fees on any credit card transaction. According to the fees page, which I found after much searching, PayPal Balance, PayPal Instant Transfer and PayPal eCheck are all free to accept in a personal account; after some investigation, it looks like Instant Transfer is the default method of having the payment come out of your bank account, although I have no idea what the difference is between that and a debit transaction (which does incur the 4.9% fee). That means, I assume, that if she had funded it out of her bank account, there would have been no transaction fee, although it’s all guesswork at this point.

Needless to say, I refused the payment, and she’s now sent me an Interac email money transfer.

The Darwin awards pay tribute to people who manage to find themselves dead through their own stupidity: a voluntary, yet accidental, culling of the herd. I think that it’s time for the internet Darwin awards, for people who behave so stupidly online that they eventually go up in (virtual) flames.

A recent case of this that I experienced first-hand was a VP of sales of an ECM/BPM vendor who thought that it was a good idea to republish my blog posts (from my BPM blog), in their entirety, on his site. I can understand why someone might want to steal my stellar prose 🙂 but you have to admit that it’s pretty stupid to plagiarize from a blogger who focusses on your own industry — how stupid do you have to be to convince yourself that that’s not going to come back and bite you in the butt? According to an apologetic CEO, that person is no longer with the company. I checked his site, and it looks like he’s busy stealing his next idea from the Web 2.0 space.

In this week’s situation, I have another copyright violator who is reprinting my posts on their site. Now, he’s not really in my industry — he appears to be some sort of direct marketing consultant — but his site, blog and LinkedIn profile are covered with nice phrases like “top quality sales and marketing requires attention to your customer’s needs and to the law”, “global expert in EEC Data Privacy legislation and compliance, driving global compliance with national legislation”, and “passionate about Data Protection and compliance with the law ensuring positive marketing from ethical corporations” all of which seem like odd sentiments for someone who is stealing my intellectual property. He even claims to have been Chief Privacy Officer for Europe, Africa and the Middle East during his tenure at a major analyst firm a few years back. And on the site where he’s stealing my blog posts and those of many other bloggers, buried in the meta data of the page but not visible on the page itself, is the disclaimer “Content of all feeds copyrights are with respective copyright owners. Feeds are republished as a service and all copyrights are acknowledged.” So now it’s a service to violate copyright — who knew? I’m fine with fair use: publish an excerpt of any of my posts, provide a clear link in the text of your post (not buried in a footer) back to my original post, and ping a trackback so that I know that you’re doing me the favour of sending people my way. I’ll probably come over, look at your site, and even link to it on my site if I think that it has any value.

The latest copyright violation

Now, this is the interesting part: eventually, I likely would have discovered his site on my own, but someone put a comment on one of my posts yesterday, saying “I found your blog through [link]“. When I went to the link, I discovered the above-mentioned site that’s violating my copyright, and I couldn’t even find a link to my own post, which made me a bit suspicious. I checked the records for who owns the domain, and sure enough, it’s the same person that left the comment. (On later investigation, I did find a link back to my post from his, in tiny print at the bottom of the post, mixed in with the del.icio.us, Digg and other standard links that no one ever reads.)

So the question of the day is: how stupid do you have to be to violate copyright against someone’s blog by reprinting their posts on your website, then add a comment to one of their blog posts telling them that you found their post through your site, all the while pretending to have nothing to do with the site even though your name is on the domain’s whois record? And how long before your site — registered on April Fools’ Day — self-immolates?

Speaking of providing a service, I took it upon myself to track down a few of the other bloggers who are being ripped off by this guy’s site — some of whom I know personally — and let them know what’s going on. You might think that it’s pointless to do things like this, but the only way to fight against people who rip you off on the internet is to expose them for what they are.