Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Another dissatisfied 'Valued Customer'

I should like to thank my internet service provider, Itisalot, for the continued sterling efforts in providing and maintaining my connectivity. I should particularly like to express my gratitude to the Customer Services Manager at Itisalot’s Deira office who promised in July 2007 that ADSL would be connected to the Crumbling Villa “within two weeks.” He even gave me his business card. I am sure that his rejecting every call I made to the number on the card over the following several months was completely justified.

How wonderful then that Itisalot provided broadband at the Crumbling Villa in February 2009, a mere nineteen months after the initial application and only six weeks after cancelling a subsequent application. I was of course spared the inconvenience of being advised that my application had been cancelled. Itisalot was happy to accept my third application after I had queued for only 90 minutes at the Al Twar office.

Compared with dial-up that frequently dropped its connection, my new broadband was indeed “surprisingly fast at amazing low prices” as per Itisalot’s adverts back in 2006. My 1Mbps connection uploads data at an astounding 100kbps: at least 20 times the speed of dial-up, and I have occasionally seen downloads at nearly 700kbps.

Daily Telegraph 6th Aug 2009

As for the cost, a mere Dh2988 per year for unlimited downloads is nothing short of stupendous. To note that British Telecom can provide eight times the bandwidth for a third of the price is to make an unfair comparison. Unlike in the UK where urban development is sometimes centuries old, here in the UAE sufficient new telecommunications infrastructure could not possibly have been installed. The absence of meaningful competition has nothing to do with the usurious tariffs.

I am of course protected from the immorality and corruption so prevalent on the internet. I’m protected, for example, from viewing my own degenerate photographs of mosques in Istanbul and tropical fish that I previously uploaded on to Flickr, and from the expensive and unreliable services offered by VoIP providers.

Having established the broadband account, Itisalot explained how I should go about shutting down the old and now unused dial-up, transferring my email ID to the broadband email inbox. Clearly, making such a complicated series of adjustments will inevitably take several weeks. I was inadvertently misinformed by an enthusiastic Itisalot employee that it would take around two hours. It’s perfectly understandable that the occasional error is made, which is why after three weeks the user ID was changed but not the email ID. After nine personal visits, some very kind gentlemen at the Deira office provided their business cards so that I could follow up progress regarding my application, but these people have regrettably been too busy helping other Valued Customers to answer their telephones or emails.

The Customer Care helpline always provides a very polite answer to my queries. I do not know how many people work in Customer Care, but they are unerringly consistent, undertaking to refer my outstanding complaint to the IT department. I was advised to change my password using the website because a personal visit to an Itisalot office incurs a charge for that service. Consistent as ever, Customer Care advised that my complaint had been referred to IT when Itisalot’s system had after over three weeks failed to authorise the change of password.

Commenting to Customer Care that I was temporarily obliged to use the free WiFi in Times Square mall, as provided by D’uh, it was noted that I could actually use an Itisalot WiFi iZone HotSpot, paying for it at a mere Dh10 per hour from my mobile phone account. How reasonable that I should pay Dh249 per month for a non-existent service, plus Dh10 per hour to the same corporation to get any service at all. To say nothing of the FourBucks coffees and time and effort involved with making a special trip to a hotspot. Such a shame then that “There was a problem processing your request. Please try again.” And again. And again. Customer Care helpfully suggested that as the Deira City Centre iZone HotSpot was, erm, broken, perhaps I would like to try Ajman. Absolutely. I have nothing better to do with my Fridays than to cruise the UAE looking for somewhere to connect to the internet.

I am pleased to note that an unexpected telephone call from Itisalot last Tuesday confirmed that the issues have been corrected. It has only taken sixty-one days. I speculate idly whether my recent submission of the complaint details to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority has in any way influenced Itisalot’s Customer Care actually to sort out the problem and then to phone me several times and to be extremely helpful.

Apparently it’s possible to obtain a refund for non-existent internet connectivity. Itisalot conveniently has a mechanism in place, involving faxing to 06 746 0444 an explanatory letter, passport, visa, ID card and DNA sample. It has to be by fax of course, “because billing disputes have to go to the concerned department.” What, by carrier pigeon? Pack llama? It only took three tries before Itisalot’s fax was capable of receiving my written submission. Emailing a scanned version is clearly way too high-tech.

Incidentally, I wonder why D’uh offers such a mediocre WiFi service at Times Square? Because it’s free? As a temporary loss leader, if it were my telco, I’d convince my future customers how good I was by providing the most reliable and blisteringly quick WiFi I could possibly manage. What worries me is this might indeed be the case.

Edited 25 August to add:

The iniquities of Itisalot continue apparently without respite. I have just received hard copies of the current internet and telephone bills.

Changing the password through is supposed to be free. Yet according to the Helpless Desk at Customer Care 101 the billing computer went mad. Not only did I get charged for the password change, but Itisalot created three additional dial-up accounts and charged Dh50 to each of them.

It is a known issue. I was told that the computer had done this to everyone on 7th July. Itisalot has, I note, not seen fit to correct the error. It is incumbent on the overcharged subscribers to try to get their money back. A greater cynic than I might infer that Itisalot is hoping that some of the subscribers might simply pay the overcharge.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On reflection

So the rumour that I heard on Dubai Eye’s Business Breakfast on Monday morning may have some basis in fact. I searched in vain for any information pertaining to Dubai Eye’s one-line news report that reflective paint on cars was to be banned. And a day later, here is the Gulf News’ version of the story. I wonder how the radio station got it a day earlier?

“Abu Dhabi: The interior ministry is considering banning excessive window tints and reflective paint on cars, officials have said.”


“Until now, those wanting excessive tints require special permission from the traffic department. But if the new proposal is approved the department will stop issuing such permission. Also, those who were earlier given permission will have to get their tints removed.”

And also

“'According to the regulations, drivers have to consult the relevant licensing authorities before using any such paint and stickers on their vehicles,' said Colonel Gaith Al Za'abi, who heads the traffic department at the ministry.”

That’ll go down well. Someone fancies a really dark “I’m a mafia wannabe” tint and trundles along to the traffic department. He waves his wasta wand and gets permission to paste expensive, top-quality, heat-rejecting opaque black wallpaper all over the windows of his Mercedes and is a happy bunny. Only to be told a while later that there has been a clarification and the rules have now changed. The law, like his windows, isn’t exactly transparent. I forecast disappointment, pouting, and further waves of the wasta wand.

But it’s not difficult to see why ludicrously dark tints are a matter for concern. According to last Monday’s National, “…Abu Dhabi Police citing overly tinted windows as the fourth biggest cause of accidents in the emirate…” suggests that something ought to be done, yet forbidding excessive tinting from the outset, regardless of vehicle, passport or parentage seems to have eluded the decision makers. And a dark tint makes it impossible to enforce seatbelt and mobile phone legislation.

What confuses me is the Gulf News story appears to have lumped stickers and reflective paint in with this window tinting issue. Is it OK for your car to be dressed up like it’s about to do the Desert Challenge? Will participants of the Gulf News Fun Drive be prosecuted for displaying numbers on their doors? Is the AAA Service Center to be prosecuted for putting a logo in the bottom corner of every customer’s rear window? I do know that an Emirati friend was ordered to remove all self-adhesive stickers from the rear of his Patrol last time he went to get it registered in Dubai, and not just from the rear window. Apparently, plastering the windows with advertising banners is an impediment to visibility, and an overzealous inspector extended this to “All stickers”.

Salik tag excluded, of course. Also excluded are larger-than-life mugshots of Sheikh Mo and co., and massive adverts all over bus windows.

What of reflective paint? Is this the 100% reflective metallic window tinting, or is it, as Dubai Eye mentioned, the same retroreflective film that is used on traffic signs?

If the latter, we have the ridiculous situation of legislation being considered that would effectively outlaw drivers’ attempts to improve conspicuity. There is a reason why emergency vehicles are almost always emblazoned with reflective striping or in extreme cases a yellow and blue Battenburg pattern. There is also a reason why motorcycling apparel frequently comes with fluorescent or reflective panels. Yet the Ministry of the Interior appears to be planning to outlaw this particular contribution to road safety. Am I to understand that I should remove the white reflective pinstriping from my black motorcycle and render it even more invisible?

What comes next? Perhaps the ban on headlights should be extended to include all vehicles, and not be limited only to bicycles.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Road Trip USA

The Great American Road Trip is over. From Virginia to Boston and back again to see how far it is. Twelve hundred miles. Beloved Wife and I rented the cheapest Hertz rental car possible and ended up with a Ford Focus. Adorned with a suitably incongruous Georgia license plate (don’t need a front tag in Georgia) we set off to New England. My normal procedure, to pre-book and pre-pay the car rental in Dubai, turned out to have saved us about $500 over two weeks. Renting locally from the airport branch at Dulles would have been spectacularly expensive, and then insurance would have been extra.

I have been a convert to GPS highway navigation ever since I bought a Garmin GPSmap 276C many years ago. I’ve used the Middle East and Europe road maps successfully, except in Cyprus where most roads simply aren’t depicted. I bought the North America map for my GPS immediately prior to the trip, so was looking forward to the very prim and proper received pronunciation from Clarissa (who as we all know explains it all). I instructed Clarissa to take us by the shortest route, which turned out to be through some scary neighbourhoods once we got off the Interstate. I am assured that they’re nowhere near as bad as they appeared.

Our first stop was in New Jersey, about three doors down from Tony Soprano’s house, where my very old friend and motorcycling buddy Alistair and his wife Lois very kindly put us up. The original plan was to spend the night in NJ, thence to New York City the following day and then head on northwards. Unfortunately the weather refused to co-operate and we ended up spending all of Sunday sitting on the veranda, chatting and looking out at the rain that was hurling itself out of the leaden, featureless sky. Monday was much improved weatherwise. Alistair suggested that we travel into NYC by train, and then return that evening. We could then set off after a good night’s sleep. The train was surely less expensive than driving into the city and taking out a small mortgage in order to park the car.

New York New York

We emerged into the Big Apple from Pennsylvania Station. Yes, the one in the song. Beloved Wife forbade me to sing on the train, which of course brought the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to my attention, from where it refused to disappear all day. After walking briskly to Times Square, we grabbed breakfast bacon and bagels, and then returned southwards to climb the Empire State Building. Twenty dollars each, and a load of queuing to go through airport-style security, almost as if we were going to board an airship moored to the top. Views were predictably spectacular despite the haze. The tickets included adverts for the B&H photography toyshop a mere three blocks away. No prizes for guessing the next stop on our day trip.

I have now traded my 28-200 Nikkor zoom for an 18-200. I’ve wanted one of these for ages, and it was so very much cheaper than the same lens in Dubai. Beloved Wife bought me another lens, a super wide-angle zoom for architecture and landscapes, as a slightly early birthday present. Huzzah! She also renewed her underwater camera kit with a Canon set-up. I even got money back by trading my old lens, which was a pleasant surprise. I was horribly tempted by a new Nikon body too, but that was simply too much expense for one day. B&H is an Aladdin’s cave of camera kit. I picked up the latest mail-order catalogue while I was there, later described as ‘photo-p()rn’.

The Rockefeller Center was the next port of call. We checked out the sculptures and murals in and around the lobby, but didn’t find it necessary to pay a further $20 to go to the top of the tower.

St Patrick’s cathedral provided a brief respite from the bustle of NYC streets.

We walked up 5th Avenue as far as Central Park, pausing briefly outside Tiffany and Co. The interior is reassuringly and prohibitively expensive. Opposite the Plaza Hotel we gave ourselves a little comic relief in F.A.O. Schwartz toy emporium where I was confronted by, inter alia, a life-sized Lego Chewbacca and a load of muppets.

Cutting through the southern edge of Central Park provided some greenery and further respite. We were both by now tired, but I didn’t really wish to grab a cab for fear of missing some of the NYC experience. I refer of course to the sights, sounds and smells of the city, not being relieved of my wallet by some villain.

We headed south along Broadway, through Times Square and mercifully arrived back at Pennsylvania Station in time to take the train back into the suburbs. I haven’t walked ten miles in a day for as long as I can remember.

If this is Tuesday it must be Boston

I didn’t really fancy the I-95 all the way to Boston. Despite Clarissa’s frequent protests, I stayed on the parallel Merritt Parkway which was tree-lined, interestingly bendy and devoid of trucks. Eventually we ended up going in the wrong direction, so invited Clarissa to navigate us around the tiny lanes into Mystic. That extremely enjoyable rural trip included a car ferry, where Beloved Wife and I chatted to a couple of young teenagers out on a bicycle ride. They’d never heard of Dubai, and were hugely delighted at being given a Dh5 note. I can imagine the conversation that evening:

“Where did you get that?”

“Some bearded dude with a foreign-sounding accent gave it to me.”

Aroogah! Aroogah! Call out the National Guard!

Beloved Wife wished to drive around her old stomping grounds, and instructed that I should turn left here, up Memory Lane. There were plenty of comments concerning how that restaurant used to be a fabric shop, and wasn’t it a pity that Granny’s two-acre garden now had four houses on it. We had lunch in Mystic, watched the lift bridge do its thing, and then carried on our journey. Beloved Wife had arranged to meet various friends from her distant past who have recently been relocated courtesy of Facebook, and the first of these, Scott, was discovered in Boston. We went out to dinner and she and Scott reminisced before we retired to a motel and collapsed.

Public transport again on Wednesday morning. The motel was happy that we left the car in their car park all day, so we took a tram into central Boston and walked a further astonishing distance. We dropped into the meeting house where salty tea was invented and looked at any number of other historic buildings and commemorative statues.

Having planned to see Beloved Wife’s old friends Teresa and Rui and then to seek a motel, Clarissa took us straight to their house near Billerica. We were kindly offered overnight accommodation, meaning that we could now both drink the sangria. And then Teresa suggested that we could all go to Salem on Thursday in her Volvo. Thus three adults, two children and a dog piled into a huge car and off we went to see the House of Seven Gables. There wasn’t time to do anything ‘witchy’ in Salem, which (badoom, tsch!) was a pity. It does occur to me however the logical inconsistency of celebrating Salem’s witchy past. Witches, witches everywhere. If I’d been a witch in 1692, Salem is somewhere I’d have strenuously avoided.

Back in Billerica for bonfire and toasted marshmallows, we all went off to another great New England tradition: the ice cream parlour. This turned out to be way out in the sticks, and as there were pygmy goats to look at as well as ice cream to eat, it was a plan with no drawbacks. I’m glad I picked a small ice cream; I think the next size up was close to a gallon of the stuff.

These are the only ones of which the news had come to Hahvard

There is, apparently, only one place in the universe where Beloved Wife can obtain her favourite brand of hair brush. For this reason we found ourselves in the Colonial in Cambridge. And then went for a walk among the leafy shade of Academia, pretending to be checking out posh colleges for our ficticious offspring.

We had an arrangement to visit Dick and Frances some time on Friday. Old friends of my in-laws, they were pleased to feed us cake and dips, and to take us for a walk along the boardwalk and look at the sea near the mouth of the Thames (pronounced ‘Thames’ and not ‘Temz’) near New London. Like Teresa and Rui, Dick and Frances have a Toyota Prius, one of the new generation of hybrid vehicles. These Prii are disconcertingly quiet when being manoeuvred in the driveway or driven downhill because the petrol engine turns itself off and the electric motor is almost silent.

How useful is that?

Beloved Wife arranged for our friend Erika to obtain various culinary goodies from a shop in Vermont. Plan ‘A’ had been for Erika to return to the Magic Kingdom with these, and then to meet up in Muscat at the end of August. But now that we were unexpectedly in the States, we were able to meet at Erika’s cousin’s sprawling house near Hartford in Connecticut, where we were made most welcome. Instead of Erika submitting to the tender mercies of Amtrak, we agreed to drive her back to Washington where she had a rental car waiting.

The drive from Connecticut to Maryland, DC and thence to Virginia is a long one. Clarissa remained helpful, although was periodically overruled. The scenic route over Tappan Zee Bridge was deemed preferable to struggling through the Bronx. Clarissa disagreed until we were well past Nyack. And the Baltimore-Washington Parkway beats the Interstate all the way into Washington’s Beltway, past No Such Agency. Usefully, we were able to avoid traffic congestion on the Beltway courtesy of Clarissa, who was quite adept at finding an alternative parallel route past the accident and also past some cheaper petrol.

Sunday was of course wasted, sitting around indoors and blogging. I have an informal appointment at the Air and Space Museum in Herndon and there’s talk of taking in a movie, but apart from that I’m now jus’ chillin’.


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