Consumer complaints

2008 09 10
The MTA disappoints me, again

A few years ago I was on a flight from Toronto to New York. Early in the flight, the pilot came on and spoke for a minute. Practically nothing he said was intelligible, and I turned to the woman seated beside me and made a comment comparing the announcement to the absurd and often impossible-to-hear announcements you hear every day on the subway in New York City. She smiled. Twenty minutes later, we struck up a conversation, and ten minutes into the conversation she told me that her husband was in charge of communications for the whole of the MTA. We both laughed (I felt a bit sheepish, but she was very nice about it), and she promised to bring my comment to his attention.

So you see, I’ve tried to get the MTA to understand how badly it communicates. I’ve gone straight to the top, with a personal appeal, however inadvertent. And yet it seems to me even years after this encounter that they’ve still got a lot of room for improvement.

My experience Monday gives a good example of how crappy communication skills on the part of the MTA leads them to regularly and completely unnecessarily inconvenience hundreds of riders, including me. My brother was in town, visiting from Canada. We arranged to meet in Union Square outside the Barnes and Noble. He was coming from Queens and I was coming from the Newkirk Avenue Station on the B/Q line in Brooklyn.

Now, if you look at the map, you’ll see that someone traveling from Newkirk Avenue Station to Union Square is, all other things being equal, better off taking the Q. True, the Q goes local in Brooklyn, hitting three stops on the way into town from Newkirk that the B will skip. But once you’ve gotten to Prospect Park, the B and Q run on the same paths until Manhattan, and then the Q is actually a bit faster in Manhattan. It also goes directly to Union Square. The B, by contrast, will get you to the 4th St. Station at which point you’ve got a 10 or 15 minute walk to Union Square, or a transfer to the F or V up to 14th St., and a 5 to 8 minute walk to Union Square. So, as I said, all other things being equal, you’re going to want the Q if you’re headed to Union Square.

All other things being equal. But sometimes they’re not equal. If the Q is delayed for some reason, and it’s nice day, and you don’t mind a little exercise, you’re better off just getting the B and then walking in Manhattan. Wouldn’t it be nice, then, for the MTA to tell you when the Q is delayed?

When I got to the subway platform at a little after 8:30am, it was crowded with people. Eventually, a B pulled up. But it pulled up on the local track. This was odd. Was there something wrong with the Q? I scanned the station for signs indicating track work, but there weren’t any. Was a Q shortly behind it? I leaned out over the other side of the platform, looking vainly up the tracks to see if another train had come into view around the corner. But my view was obstructed by dozens of other people attempting the same thing. I know now that I should have gotten on that B. But since the B was running local, it no longer had any advantage over the Q within Brooklyn, and wouldn’t have taken me to the right place in Manhattan anyway. No announcement from the B train itself was forthcoming. So I decided to wait.

Ten or fifteen minutes later another B pulled up on the local tracks. There was no explanation for its unusual behaviour over the intercom in the Newkirk Avenue Station. There was no hint about where the next Q was, which would have helped me to decide between trains. Again, no announcement from the B train itself was forthcoming. Again, I leaned out as far as I could over the tracks, along with dozens of other people, and looked for signs of a Q. At this point I was going to be late, and since my brother doesn’t have a cell phone (?!?$?%?), he would be waiting with no explanation. If I got on the B-going-local and thereby passed up a perfectly good Q, it would make me even later. But if I waiting for a Q took longer than the amount of time the B would add in terms of walking then I would be better off simply taking the B. I let the B go by.

As I waited, I saw hundreds of other people making similar calculations. I heard people pulling out their cell phones to cancel appointments, and watched as people leaned out from time to time to see if anything was coming down the tracks. What made me so angry wasn’t the delay with the Q so much as the entirely avoidable inconvenience to everyone caused by the failure to communicate clearly what was going on, so that people could make informed decisions about how to rout around the delay. Now I know that they can do this. I know that they can do this because once every hundred years, and rarely when it’s needed, the speakers at the Newkirk Avenue Station will come to life and inform us that there’s, say, a Manhattan-bound Q train three stations away. So they know! They fucking know where the trains are, and they can communicate this information when they want to. The problem is that they rarely want to.

After a while, I saw co-blogger Brad walking by. I launched into a spirited denunciation of the MTA. After I had waxed apoplectic for a while, Brad laughed and then:

Brad: I hear you, believe me. Hey, I think I sense a blog post coming on!
Chris: Ha! That’ll show them. You better believe it.
Brad: I’ll comment the shit out of that post.

And then a B express train pulled up, and Brad hopped on. A B express. What did this mean? One reasonable interpretation of the B on the express tracks after two successive Bs on local tracks was that whatever unexplained mess had caused the Q to stop running and the B to go local was now cleared up. If that interpretation was correct, the Q would no doubt be pulling into the station shortly. If it was incorrect, I would be better off hoping on the B. And again, I needed to ask: was the next Q more than 10 minutes away from the station? If more than 10 minutes, then getting on the B would be worth it. If less than 10 minutes, I would be making myself even later by getting on the B. Gosh it would have been nice if the MTA had helped me and hundreds of other riders make an informed decision. I let the B go by.

And then waited. And waited. And waited. And finally a B and a Q pulled up at the station at the same time. Now I don’t want to be a bore, so I won’t relate any more of the story in detail. There were more delays, caused apparently by a malfunctioning train ahead of us that had to be taken out of service, though I’m not sure if that was only an explanation for the slowness of the service on the Q that arrived or whether it actually accounted for all the delays that morning. Once I actually got on the Q, and couldn’t do anything about my situation, I was bombarded by constant updates about the reason for the delays. But this information came too late to be of any use. I ended up arriving at Union Square just before 10am, about an hour more than the trip should normally take during rush hour. My poor brother had been eaten by wolves.

Subways are always going to have malfunctions that cause delays. But you can realize enormous gains in efficiency simply by communicating clearly and effectively so that people can act on good information. This is the case on any subway line. But at a station with more than one train, and a correspondingly complex set of trade-offs involved in picking a route to your destination, it’s absolutely essential.

Howls of outrage (25)

2008 06 25
Netflix Profiles

Update, June 30, 2008: Decision reversed. They’re keeping profiles.

Netflix recently discontinued the profile feature on its website. This feature allowed people to keep multiple queues of DVDs open. Returning a DVD from one queue had the effect of advancing the queue from which the DVD was shipped. I tried this feature a while back, didn’t like it, and so stopped using it. But I can see how people might find it very useful, especially households sharing a single account.

I’m really puzzled about Netflix’s decision. It was announced in an email that went like this:

Dear Chris, We wanted to let you know we will be eliminating Profiles, the feature that allowed you to set up separate DVD Queues under one account, effective September 1, 2008. Each additional Profile Queue will be unavailable after September 1, 2008. Before then, we recommend you consolidate any of your Profile Queues to your main account Queue or print them out. While it may be disappointing to see Profiles go away, this change will help us continue to improve the Netflix website for all our customers. If you have any questions, please go to or call us anytime at 1 (888) 638-3549. We apologize for any inconvenience. – The Netflix Team

And that’s it. Especially noteworthy is that movie ratings and friend connections associated with the profiles will be lost, and can’t be migrated to the main profile. I don’t rate many movies on Netflix, but as a general rule, when people put time and energy into ratings like this, it seems especially bad practice for a company owning to the accumulated information to decide to just dump it.

Why would Netflix flip the bird to so many customers with so little explanation? I’ll bet there’s a really interesting story here. Surely the technical obstacles involved in keeping profiles aren’t insurmountable. And surely migrating the data from soon to be deleted profiles wouldn’t be too hard. Anyway, David Pogue tried to find out what’s up with all this, but he hasn’t had any success yet.

Howls of outrage (8)

2008 06 07
Verizon Wireless bill archive security glitch

Second Update

In the end, Verizon sent me a letter notifying me that there was a security glitch with the bill archive section of the site. It noted that although the chance of my personal information getting into someone else’s hands was small, their system indicated that I used bill archive during the period in which the system was compromising information.

I would say that it was exactly the letter I would have written, had I been in charge at Verizon. So, a happy ending to that episode.

End Second Update

Update (Monday, June 9th):

OK, just got off the phone with someone from Verizon. I think the blog post got their attention pretty quickly. (He told me they found the post first, and then matched it to the ticket I had opened about the issue later.) I sensed a bit of frustration on his part that I concluded so quickly that they weren’t serious about the problem. At any rate, he reassured me that the technicians were working as quickly as possible to fix the problem, and that the entire bill archive would be taken down at 5pm today until they were sure it was fixed. He also reassured me that Verizon cares very much about privacy. I said I was happy to update the post with that information.

I asked if they planned to issue any public notice about this, and he said that this was up to the public relations people, and he wasn’t sure if they had decided anything.

So, there you go.

End Update

On Thursday morning, I was trying to access some old cell phone bills online at As I clicked through the months, most of the time the correct bill came up (as a pdf). But twice for some reason served up someone else’s bill. The first time I just absentmindedly clicked away and tried again. But the second time it occurred to me that there was something really squirrelly about the fact that I was able to access some other random dude’s bill. I could see all the calls that this guy made in September, 2007, his account number, and the fact that his bill was past due that month. That’s hardly the biggest security breach in history, but it’s also a legitimate concern for people who care about their privacy, and rely on companies to take reasonable steps to secure personal information.

I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Verizon trying to get someone to understand that there was clearly some technical glitch on their end, and that it raised a privacy issue (and a potential legal issue for them). The first person I talked to tried to duplicate the effect, failed after trying once (for each month), and then tried to get rid of me. I pointed out that usually when I requested my bill, it did serve up the proper pdf. The problem clearly wasn’t resulting from a permanently misaddressed pdf file. Rather, something was getting tangled up when the pdf requests were generated or processed by the server. I insisted she transfer me to someone else, who then transfered me to someone else, who then promised me that someone would call me back with an explanation. No one has called yet.

I also made them promise to call this guy and tell him that someone else had been able to view information that should have been kept private, but about 5 minutes after I got off the phone with them I realized that that was unlikely. So I called the guy up and left a message. He called back a few hours later. No one from Verizon had called him. 10 seconds of googling suggests that he’s a bean farmer in the Midwest. I didn’t ask, but he certainly sounded like a bean farmer. He didn’t seem too pissed off, but he did say he’d give them a call “cause that’s just not right.” He asked where I was calling from and I told him Brooklyn, NY. “Brooklyn! All the way from Brooklyn!” he said, clearly relishing the exoticness of my location. “I’m in XXXX.” I said: “I know! I’m looking at your bill.” And then he thanked me and we got off the phone.

Anyway, if someone from Verizon calls or drops a comment here, I’m happy to update the post with any new information. If I were in charge of this stuff at Verizon, I think it would be reasonable to a) figure out as quickly as possible what’s wrong with the way the server processes requests for archived bills; and b) issue a brief security notice admitting that a few customers had personal information compromised, but that the problem had since been fixed. Until Verizon does both of these things, I think I’m going to continue feeling sort of underwhelmed by their attitude to security and privacy.

Howls of outrage (15)

2007 12 07
Just me, complaining.

Posted by in: Consumer complaints

We have an IBM thinkpad that started getting Blue Screens of Death whenever I tried to enable the wireless card. IBM/Lenovo tech support has been a total nightmare. I’ve spoken with several techies there, and they’ve all given me different advice or instructions. However, this is not on the basis of having reviewed what the others have instructed and in light of what has already been tried and found to fail. No. Rather, they hear what’s wrong, and then they all bark out instructions as if they think to themselves, “Oh, this is easy! It’s just his flux capacitor” or whatever. One woman had me open the damn thing and reseat this and that, and then before I was done told me that her supervisor told her I was taking too much of her time and that she had to go. The next guy said, “OK. I know what’s wrong. Let’s do this.” And then he proceeded to walk me through the process for reformatting the hard drive—-without telling me first that this would be the result. Of course, I knew better, but what about the person who’s content to follow the experts’ advice and then finds that he’s deleted everything?

I finally sent the thing back. They “fixed” it. Only, two minutes after it was out of the box, “fixed”, I got the blue screen again, simply by attempting to enable the wireless card.

So another call ensued. It went a little something like this:

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Howls of outrage (10)

2006 11 14
Aristotle’s What’s Cheap and Free in Cancun and the Yucatan

I ordered this from and this came instead. The name and address on the outside of the package is mine, but the book comes wrapped in an inner package with a strange name and a Wisconsin address on it. I was going to pose with it, as I have in the past, when I wanted to add pathos to my customer complaints, but I’m feeling too lazy for that now.

Amazon does have it’s moments, though. This summer they recommended that I try reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which loyal readers will recognize as the subject of my dissertation. Good idea, guys. I may try that some time.

Howls of outrage (12)

2006 09 10

Update #1: A while back I asked for advice about a teaching handout on writing. Many thanks for all the helpful advice. The link in the post now points to the revised draft of the handout. I took most of the advice I got, though a few of Anne’s better suggestions (by phone and email) had to be abandoned, since following them properly would have taken up too much time.

Update #2: I hate to admit when I’m wrong, but my fierce love of the truth obliges me to update this post on the miraculous powers of baking soda.

Update #3: 400 flights in an hour on the stairmaster, celebrated in this post, has now become fairly easy for me. This surprises me, since the first time I did it it nearly killed me, and that was less than a month ago. Also, it’s not as if I built up to it slowly. Before that my previous personal bests were 386 on Aug. 18th, 370 on Aug. 14th, and 351 on Aug. 12th. Yes, I record all that in a little book. Do you have a problem with that? (I put on a huge push to get to 400 because “A” and I had a family membership at Ballys, and “A” was sick of it. Since I strongly suspected that Ballys was too stupid to attempt to keep me as a customer, I had to get to 400 before I moved to the cheaper Y, which sadly lacks a stairmaster.) Anyway, I have a hard time believing that these gains are all physical. Rather, I suspect that something here is 90% half mental – probably the psychological aspect.

As for Ballys, wow am I ever glad that I didn’t commit to three years with them. I probably would have been content to stay if “A” hadn’t detested the Ballys at Tilden in Flatbush so much, but then I have more patience for things like buckets strategically placed all over the floor every time it rains, equipment that stays broken for long periods of time, etc. etc. etc. What kind of gym runs completely out of paper towels and then doesn’t do anything about it for weeks? Also, when I went to try to find out what would happen to my rates once “A” left the club, I had a series of irritating and inclusive exchanges which culminated in a phone call to a 1-800 number, at which point I was put on hold for 55 minutes. And seriously, what kind of company puts a customer on hold for that long? What a bunch of fuckers.

By the way, if you live in NYC, the Y is having a membership drive now. The joining fee will be waived if you join before the end of September, and if you’re a student, the rates are especially low.

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2006 07 05
Angry customers use web to shame firms

Posted by in: Consumer complaints

According to the WaPo, angry customers are using blogs to shame firms in retaliation for crappy products and service.

Sheesh. I think these people have too much time on their hands. I mean, who would do that?

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2006 02 21
Calling Delta

I was up in Canada for a funeral last weekend when that big snowstorm hit NYC and put an end to all air travel for a couple of days. I spoke with Yoon on the phone from my Aunt’s place, where I was staying, and she advised me to call my airline, Delta, to try to reschedule my return flight. (It had been several years since I had flown, so the whole thing was even more mysterious and confusing for me than most life experiences.) She was hanging out with a friend, who looked up Delta’s number online and dictated it to Yoon, who dictated it to me, so I could write it down. In the transmission, however, one of the numbers got garbled, and I ended up calling a sex line.

Sex line: Hi big boy! Are you ready for the hottest one on one action with horny nurses blah blah blah?
Me: [Turning to my uncle Joe] J-j-j-joe, I don’t think this is Delta!
Uncle Joe: Maybe it’s just an ad while you’re on hold.
Me: I don’t know, it seems every time I blink, popular culture gets racier – which is fine with me – but still . . . I think I did hear stewardesses in there, but oh my goodness, this seems a bit much. I’m going to hang up and try again.

. . .

Sex line: Hi big boy! Are you ready for the hottest one on one action with horny nurses blah blah blah?
Me: J-j–joe, I don’t think this is Delta, and I swear I’m not doing this on purpose!

Believe it or not, I’ve never called a sex line in my life (I beg for sex all the time, but I never pay*), so it took me a while to catch on. (I haven’t had an irate call from my Aunt since, though, so I gather that there were no obnoxious call-backs or charges from the phone sex people. The only negative consequence seems to have been that when I described the call for everyone else the next day my mother laughed hard enough to get cereal up her nose.)

I called Yoon back, got the right number, and managed to get through to Delta. But between the lousy phone connection and the Delta computer’s lousy voice recognition software, I ended up wondering if I might not have been happier just sticking with the first number. When this whole voice recognition thing started, at least they gave you the option of punching in responses on your keypad. But that wasn’t an option with this system. I’ve recorded a dramatic re-creation of a small part of a very long conversation I had with the computer, you know, for pathos. Here, then, is Explananda’s very first mp3.

* I also craft seductive messages that play to my strengths. Although my experience is hilariously limited, it does include this long-ago exchange:

Her: My last two boyfriends were so well endowed that sex with them was actually really painful at times.
Me: Oh, how awful! [Leaning in with the bedside manner of a skilled physician] I can assure you that if you sleep with me you won’t feel a thing.

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2006 02 18
PSA: Sony sucks

I’ll put this under the fold, since it’s more for inquiring googlers than regular readers.

[Update: Picture added for extra pathos. Just look what Sony did to me.]

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Howls of outrage (26)

2005 11 16
Burke says “bye” to Sony


Sony has driven me out of the market for their products: they�re trying to make it prohibitively difficult to listen to music the way I want to listen to it. And nobody, nobody who wants to sell me something I intend to use on my computer had better be messing with rootkits. I have enough of a headache now with spyware and malware to be courting an even bigger headache, especially from a company that doesn�t seem to understand that the problem isn�t with a bad implementation of copy protection but with their entire philosophy of copy protection.

So this is the end. Good job, Sony. Who is it you�re protecting your content for, anyway? The last stupid customer on Earth who doesn�t mind your retrograde policies, who is willing to pay high prices for what amount to short-term rentals of your content while accepting your incompetent technical sabotage of expensive home media technology? There are a lot of messed-up companies in the culture industry, but Sony is King Screwup. It may be beyond fixing by any leadership: there is obviously a problem within the company that encompasses both root and branch.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)