Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This Ad is Gold

If you're listening out there, Geico, I just saved you a bunch of money on your...marketing?

And You're Fired!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Airplane Ruminations

I've been flying a fair bit lately and that got me ruminating. If you know the answers to any of these, speak up.

  • Why do the window shades need to be open during take-off and landing? Does the pilot need to check his blind-spot or something?

  • Has any of this safety equipment ever actually been tested?

  • Has anyone ever survived a water landing? Will my seat cushion really float?

  • Can I use the oxygen mask during normal flight? That sounds relaxing.

  • A couple flights ago, my inbound plane was delayed because they had to stop unexpectedly for fuel. I asked how often that happens and the friendly rep told me that it's up to the pilots. Excuse me, but there are somethings I'd just assume leave up to the computer and calculating fuel requirements is one of them. Here's an idea: in bad weather, add extra fuel.

  • How fast do planes go when taking off? When landing? Answer: 150-180mph. It doesn't feel that fast, but I guess I've never driven a plane down the turnpike before.

  • How do planes make up time in the air? Do they fly faster? Lower?

  • Take a step back from the whole airline industry for a second and ask yourself, "how in the world did we get here?"

  • How can the women in 1E drink two Rum and Cokes ($7/each) but deny her daughter a sandwich because it's "too expensive."

  • Why is the women in 1E obnoxiously loud and somehow immune to the powers of my noise-cancelling headphones?

  • Why does everyone line up 15 minutes before anyone actually starts boarding? Can't we all just agree to wait sitting down?

  • How much does body weight affect gas mileage on the road or in the air?

  • How old is too old? Answer: the partially petrified couple in 3D/3E

  • How else was flying different back when you could smoke on an airplane?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Is Your Refrigerator Running?

I have had a string of some pretty bad luck recently. One link in the chain was the sudden death of my refrigerator. We have only lived in our current home about six months so our home warranty was still in effect. Here's the initial timeline of events, starting on January 11:

Friday 3pm: Fred is dead (I call my fridge Fred). What was once ice is now the liquid formerly known as ice...and it's everywhere. I report the claim to the home warranty guys, AHS, as an emergency as I have no other form of refrigeration inside my house. We use the back patio as a makeshift freezer section and wait for the service people to call.

AHS Sucks

Friday 5pm: The service guys don't call, but Fred starts cooling again. Being naive optimists, we take this as a good sign and decide to wait until Monday to raise a ruckus.

Saturday 2pm: Fred is dead again. Water is everywhere. I curse myself for leaving the ice maker on. Sarah cries. I call AHShole again and am told my claim has been escalated and I should have a technician call me back within the hour. This guy, Jim, is incredibly nice. For a second there, I actually expect someone to call me back.

Saturday 3pm: Fred continues to drip what I can only guess is some sort of refrigerator embalming fluid. No one calls. I call AHShole back and am told that my claim is going through the system again and that I should hear back by 5pm. Seriously.

Saturday 6pm: No one called. I ask why no one called and the unhelpful answer is that "the contractor isn't picking up." Then it sounds like you need to call a different contractor. I am now told that I should use "outside authorization." She explains that I can call anyone I want for a diagnosis but AHShole needs to approve any repairs before they are performed. Luckily for me, since AHShole stalled all damn day, it's not 6pm on a Saturday and no one within 50 miles is picking up.

Saturday 8pm: After 90 minutes of calling every single name in the Google Maps search results and the Yellow Pages, I run out of people to call. I have left a half dozen messages and paged a handful of people. At 8:30, some company called Ruples calls me back and says that he can come out tomorrow afternoon...but not too early. We agree that 1pm is not too early and he warns me that his Sunday rate is pretty steep--$35. I hold in my laughter and tell him to come on out.

Sunday around 1pm: Ruples shows up--I realized it's a guy, not a company--in what might be an antique pickup truck. He immediately declares that Fred's relay is dead and this might be an easy fix. After running some 1970s style diagnostics, he gives me the bad news: Fred needs a new compressor. Fortunately, they're easy to come by and will only run my insurance company about $450. We are supposed to talk on Monday after he confirms part prices and gets authorization from AHShole.


Monday 3pm: I call Ruple to ask what's going on. He says that he needs the money for the parts up front and that he can spin by to pick it up and order the part on Tuesday. I ask if he's kidding, if he really expects me to prepay cash and just hope for the best. He wasn't kidding. I tell him to forget about it.

Monday 9pm: I call AHShole and ask that they send someone else since the guy I called didn't work out. They explain that since they'd already paid for a diagnosis they would not send anyone else out and Ruples is the only guy who can do the work. I tell them that I think he is trying to scam me and that I don't trust his diagnosis. Further, they didn't pay him, I did. Further still, I don't want reimbursement of my $35, I just want someone to come out and fix Fred.

Annette at AHShole explains that this is not going to happen and repeats her earlier statements. I repeat my earlier statements and we argue like this for 10 minutes or so. Finally, I say, "if you're not willing to accommodate my request or explain why it is unreasonable or how it will cost you any extra money, please connect me to a manager." I wait on hold for a few minutes. She comes back and agrees to send out Sears to take a look on Thursday. All of Fred's contents have long ago spoiled so I happily agree. An appointment is scheduled for 8-12, 3 days later.

Thursday 8:30am: The Sears technician calls ahead and predicts a 9am arrival. He's a nice guy and arrives on time. Ten minutes later Fred is back to his old self again. Apparently the compressor was fine--only the relay needed replaced. Thanks Sears! I ask the tech how much he would have charged me if I didn't have insurance (my copay is $55). He immediately answers, "$265."

I wish I had some orange juice in my mouth when he said that so I could spit it out all dramatically. Two-hundred-sixty-five-frickin-dollars for 10 minutes of work. Are you kidding me? He didn't even pretend this was due to parts. At that hourly rate, he must make over a bajillion dollars per year.

In conclusion:

  • Fred was dead for six days

  • No one in refrigeration or appliance repair works on weekends

  • ASH is no better than the oft-hated, stereotypical home warranty company

  • By calling in a second technician, I saved the insurance company a few hundred dollars (you're welcome, Annette)

  • I could have fixed the relay myself. I wouldn't even have needed my soldering iron.

So there you have it. If we have another appliance failure or two, this home warranty thing might actually pay off. Obviously, I don't recommend getting them--in our case, it came with the house.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Pick a Number, Any Number

As most of you probably know, I like numbers. As an engineer, I don't really have a choice in the matter. This is probably one fundamental difference between engineering and math or science: we actually use numbers. My brother just graduated with a math degree and commented that he hasn't seen numbers in his upper level math courses for a while.

This should be a pretty simple post about a concept that I find pretty interesting: unique numbers. Specifically, universally unique identifiers or globally unique identifiers.

How about some context? Think about ID numbers that you are familiar with like your credit card number or social security number. It is important that these types of numbers be strictly unique. We can't have two people with the same SSN or credit card number--that'd be bad.

Now consider how these are assigned to you. At birth, you're given a social security number. But where do they get the number? In all honesty, I have no idea. I presume they are distributed to the state/county/hospital in blocks. That is, Licking Memorial Hospital might be assigned a block of numbers each month to use for new babies. These would be assigned by the federal government who would ensure that no one else used the numbers assigned to Licking Memorial. (note: since writing this Maya was born and I now know that these are not issued by the hospital.)

What if you don't have a central authority to distribute numbers? A lot of software applications depend on unique numbers to identify records for sales, employees, timecards, etc. If an application exists in one location this is as easy as counting (1, 2, 3, 4...). If the application resides in multiple sites, it gets a little trickier. One method is to associate the site with the number. e.g., site 1 numbers always start with 001 while site 2 numbers always start with 002 and so on. Sometimes this isn't an option. One case is where you have a bunch of sites but don't know how many or have any reasonable way to build such a fact into your number (think of the millions of computers on the net...). Ah, but some smart people have already provided a good solution to this problem. From Wikipedia:
The intent of UUIDs is to enable distributed systems to uniquely identify information without significant central coordination. Thus, anyone can create a UUID and use it to identify something with reasonable confidence that the identifier will never be unintentionally used by anyone for anything else.

What if we had the ability to generate a number that is pretty much guaranteed to be unique when tested against all other numbers in the whole world? How would you do that?! It could make for a good game...
"What number are you thinking of, Jerry?"

"You'll never guess. No, seriously, you are statistically not able to guess my number. Ever."

OK, some explanation is probably needed. What I'm talking about is called a universally unique identifier (UUID) or globally unique identifier (GUID). In spite of my terrible examples, these things are actually pretty useful, and actually really easy to create. A GUID (pronounced Gwid, rhymes with squid) is just a 128 bit string, generally represented in hexadecimal. Jigawha? Without getting into the ugly details of bits, binary, strings, hex, etc. I'll simplify a bit (har-har!) here. Think of a guid as a long row of letters (a-f) and numbers (0-9), 32 characters long. For example, these are GUIDs (the dashes are simply convention):

  • 15f197e0-546d-4074-bfb9-368fd2aae06a

  • d7a6a3e9-8e90-4422-9a86-6e84ba0d1575

  • 6662a8b9-22b3-47ba-89d6-08700b431fe0

  • 0a249bf8-9c03-4794-a327-66e9b9c90d37

  • 1908a5ad-5812-48ee-9fbf-4b1d357c7ff2

Not such a big deal, right? Not convinced that these are practically guaranteed to be random? Think about the lotto. The odds of winning a pick 5 mega millions lotto odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 175,711,536. The odds of generating the same GUID twice are 1 in 2128. Now I realize that 2128 doesn't seem that big so let me try to illustrate (again, borrowing from Wikipedia here):

  • 1 in 2128

  • 1 in 340 undecillion (don't worry, undecillion is not on the quiz)

  • 1 in 3.4 × 1038

  • 1 in 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

How about that last one? Holy crap! In order to list all possibilities, you would have to generate a trillion GUIDs every nanosecond for ten billion years.

More Maya Pictures

Just a quick note: Sarah has uploaded a bunch of new pictures of everyone's favorite baby. And now for the most pathetic look you will ever see in your life:

Pathetic Maya

Happy Maya

Come Again, American Express?

I have been traveling a quite bit lately for work and at my office we don't use corporate cards. So to make finances a little easier, I started using a "business-only" card in October which would generally be used for only work-related expenses.

Amex Gold Card

I used an American Express Gold card for this because it had no pre-set spending limit (some business trips can get pricey) and it had excellent sign up rewards. The first two trips went well and I was happy with my new card. However, during a longer trip in December I ran into a snag. Here's how I explained the problem in a letter to American Express after the incident:
Customer Service,

I am writing to bring a recent incident to your attention. I signed up for an American Express Gold card with no preset spending limit in October. I had several business trips planned and had intended to use this business card for all of them.

The card worked fine for my first trip during the last week in November. I called customer service about this time to ask about the spending limit as I was planning to incur expenses in excess of $7000. These expenses were primarily conference fees (two charges of $2875) and other travel expenses. I was told that my card had no preset spending limit and these charges would all go through.

The first half of the trip went well. However, on December 5, SAP attempted to clear the second $2875 charge which was declined. I called customer service and asked why the charge had been declined. I was told that even though my account does not have a preset spending limit, it does in fact have a preset spending limit. I inquired further (I was very confused) and was told that my credit limit would increase as a steady payment history was established. I asked how this was different than any other credit card and the representative maintained that even though there is a threshold over which I cannot spend, I do not have a spending limit.

The representative offered to make a one-time exception and authorize the $2875 charge. I asked if all my subsequent travel expenses would then be declined because I would be over my "limit." She acknowledged that, yes, any further charges would be declined. I clearly stated that I did not want the large transaction approved since it would mean all subsequent transactions no matter how small would be declined. The representative noted my account and we disconnected.

I then contacted SAP to provide a different card for the $2875 charge only to be told that the transaction had since cleared on my Amex card! Hoping that my spending ability had been increased, I checked the website and found that my card was now maxed out and I was not authorized to make additional charges. When I attempted to call customer service to discuss this, I was told that because of a computer glitch or maintenance, no one would be able to help me for two hours and to try back later.

When I first received the card I was very impressed with your prompt and friendly customer service. However, the incident on December 5 caused a great deal of frustration and embarrassment. I don't understand how you can claim my card has no limit when it clearly does have a limit. I also do not understand why I was first told that charges in excess of $7000 would not be a problem when it is now clear to me that I have a limit around $5000.

Michael Haren

Obviously by this point the trip was over and there really wasn't anything American Express could do, I just wanted some clarification on the whole limit/no-limit thing. It gets so much better with their response:
Dear Michael Haren:

Thank you for your e-mail.

Please accept my sincere apology towards the inconvenience this matter has caused you. Please be advised that your Card product is a charge Card product and does not have a credit limit or a preset spending limit.

However, our no pre-set spending limit does not provide unlimited credit to our Cardmembers. Purchases are approved based on a Cardmember's account history (including spending and payment history), credit record and personal resources.

However, I have forwarded your recent experience to the concerned department and have explained the entire situation. They may contact you if required. Additionally, please be advised that as of 01/02/08, the charges on your Card are getting approved. Please be assured that all future charges will be approved as long as your Card is in good standing.

I understand that my apology cannot compensate the loss you have gone through and this incident is regrettable you us.


R. Nigam
Email Servicing Team
American Express Interactive Services

This left me thoroughly confused. When I spoke to the representative, she clearly indicated that my card had a fixed limit beyond which charges would not be approved. But now I have R. Nigam playing an interesting word game by dancing around the "limit", "pre-set spending limit", and "unlimited". I followed up for some clarification:
Mr. Nigam,

Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. I'm afraid that I am still unclear as to the definitions involved here and am hopeful that you can clear up any misunderstanding.

As one of my coworker's noted, we were under the impression that "...does not have a credit limit..." and "...does not provide unlimited credit..." were opposites. I don't understand how I can have both no credit limit and at the same time have a credit limit. I did realized that when I was offered a card with no credit limit that there would be some sort of limit--there is only so much money in the world, after all--but I did not expect the limit to be so low and so inflexible. When I called after the transaction had been declined, I expected the agent to review my history and say something like, "no problem, we now see that this isn't fraud as you previously reported that you'd be making these charges. I'll increase your limit to $x to cover the rest of your trip."

Instead, we played the same game you and I are playing with the phrase "no pre-set spending limit".

I am planning a business trip next week to Georgia and would like to know what limits are in place on my account. If my account does not have a limit, at what dollar amount might I experience problems with my card?

Aha, I thought, this will force their hand on the issue and I will know once and for all what is going on. Apparantly I'm not as clever as I thought:
Please be advised that basis your inquiry, I contacted our Account Services Department on your behalf today, since this information can be passed on by this department only. However, due to the Cardmembers privacy and security concerns, they would like to speak with you directly. You may contact them at : 1-800-238-8091. 24 hours a day - 7 days a week.

I hope you find this information helpful and it was my pleasure to assist you.


R. Nigam
Email Servicing Team
American Express Interactive Services

Well played, Mr. Nigam. Not to be outdone, I actually followed his advice. The woman I spoke with was incredibly friendly when she gave me the usual no pre-set spending limit bologna. I explained that I needed to know what my limit was because I was taking another trip soon and wanted to stay under it. She then helpfully told me that my limit is currently $7000. Not able to leave well-enough alone, however, she pleasantly added that if I use a significant amount of that any pay it back, next month my limit will be higher--since it's not pre-set. Good grief.

Here's what I've concluded from all this:

  • The "no pre-set spending limit" claim is apparently substantiated by increasing (or decreasing?) your limit each month

  • It's fairly tricky to get someone to tell you what your actual limit is

  • Amex customer service reps have been well trained on how to handle callers like me who are confused about this limit business

  • Amex customer service reps are unbelieveably nice. I have spoken to them on three separate occasions and have exchanged a few emails. In all cases I was blown away with how great their service was (except of course for dancing around this bizarre corporate policy)

  • It's all harder than it needs to be

  • This isn't much different than any other credit card

If you're still with me, there you have it. The scariest part of all this is that I'm starting to understand their side of it. Ridiculous.