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Note to Software Developers: Computers CAN Count!

When I was attending my very first college course in computer science at the University of Michigan, I recall talking about the types of things that computers did well…and the types of things they did NOT do well.

At the top of the list of things that computers do well is the ability to count. In fact, a computer will happily sit and count all day, all month, all year, and so on until you tell it to stop (and even then it will probably keep counting).

So why on earth are we all subjected to the following insult phone call after phone call that goes something like this:

system: “Welcome to <insert company name here>. To better serve you, please enter your 12-digit account number…then press pound.”

Excuse me? Enter my 12-digit account number…THEN press pound?


Are you telling me that your computer, knowing full well that I intend to press 12 digits, is incapable of counting the 12 tones and then knowing that I’m finished? What kind of 10-cent per hour programmers/system designers are you employing???

Now, to be fair, back in the day when these telephone systems were just being developed, the hardware and software on the base system was tuned to always expect the “pound key” as the end of a line of input (much like you press the key today…or click on the “OK” button).

But times have changed people! Systems now are capable of counting the numbers I have to enter into one of those cursed phone systems, so please…PLEASE…stop asking me to press pound when you KNOW how many digits I am going to enter.

The second most annoying trait of any phone system I have ever encountered is the “waste your time data collection algorithm” that so many of them employ. You know the system I referring to as I’m sure you have encountered this exchange before:

system: “Welcome to <insert company name here> To better serve you, please enter your 12-digit account number…then press pound.”
you: <enter your 12 digit account number and press pound>
system: “Thank you. Please enter your date of birth, then press pound.”
you: <enter your date of birth and press pound>
system: “Thank you Please enter your secret password, then press pound.”
you: <enter your secret password and press pound>
system: “Thank you. I will now connect you to a customer service representative.”
Customer Service Representative: “Hello, my name is <insert name here>, could you please give me your account number, your date of birth, and your secret password so I can verify your account?”

At this point you are seeing red and contemplating the purchase of a firearm and a plane ticket to the location of this company’s call center!

Now, I’m sorry to say that some companies actually have it as their goal to prevent you from speaking to a human being, and so these systems are DESIGNED to get you frustrated and hopefully to hang up before you ever get to the call center representative (I’ve worked for companies like this in my past). I suspect, however, that other companies just buy into one of these systems without ever seriously considering the type of “face” it shows to the customer.

So all of this is well and good, but what can you do about it? That’s simple. Complain about it.

If I have had my time wasted with an annoying phone system, the first thing I do when I get a human being on the phone is make certain I waste AT LEAST as much of their time as I had to waste getting to them. The easiest way to do this is to rag on them about their phone system. Be certain to request that a complaint be filed in your file, or else get from them the mailing address or email address of where you can file such a complaint. Then be sure you DO file the complaint. There is power in a large number of complaints

Kudos Note: I have to say I am thoroughly impressed with the phone system being used by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan (who manages my health insurance). You would not believe how their system works:

  1. The system GIVES YOU THE CHOICE of using voice responses or numeric responses. I for one hate trying to get a phone system to properly understand my responses, so I always use the numeric responses (that is, by pressing keys on the phone).
  2. If the system asks you to enter a 16 digit number, it doesn’t ask you to press pound at the end. It actually counts the number of button presses you make and knows you are done when you have pressed the required number of buttons. HOW COOL IS THAT???
  3. When you actually *do* get to speak to a human being, they have all of the information you just entered into their phone system. How novel!

Stupid technology exists in part because people accept it as given. Start giving feedback to the suppliers of your stupid technology. I cannot guarantee it will make it difference, but I *can* guarantee that nothing will change if you do not provide feedback.

When Stupidity Reigns in Technology

I’ve opened up a new category for posts called “Tech Rage,” which is dedicated to all of those gloriously stupid moments in technology where common sense failed. As a technology professional, it has been my experience that most often such failures occur when one or more of the following take place:

  • The developer of the technology goes through a lengthy development cycle and manages to never once use the new product or tool themselves in an environment that comes close to the environment that exists around the target customer.
  • The developer of the technology gets caught up in thinking about how a computer scientist or engineer (or whatever vocation the product is targeted at) would solve a problem, and forgets that their end users are NOT computer scientists or engineers.
  • The developer of the technology suffers unavoidable interference from an unqualified HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion).
  • The developer of the technology gets so bogged down in the details of the product that they forget to look at the big picture.
  • The developer of the technology fails to apply common sense.

Tech Rage is all around us, and I hope to shed some light (and if nothing else, some laughs) about something we all love to hate.

State of Wireless Phone Tech Support and the Offshore Call Center

One of the blessings…or possibly “curse”…of being a computing professional is that over time it becomes easy to tell when someone is trying to dazzle you with a bunch of technical “BS”. Right now it seems that the leaders in technical BS are those companies involved in the wireless phone industry…and no where is it so obvious that the “BS” is flying hot and heavy as when you try to obtain technical support from one of these companies.

Tonight I tried to get help with a problem with my phone from Virgin Mobile. Now don’t get me wrong…I LOVE Virgin Mobile for their no-contract phone plans and decent handsets. However, their technical support is perhaps the most frustrating I have ever encountered.

Today I spent a grand total of FIVE hours on the phone with them, and I still don’t have resolution to my problem. I don’t like to engage companies in business issues on a Sunday (my religious beliefs are such that I believe Sundays to be a day to spend with family and away from “worldly/temporal” issues), but since I would be driving to work tomorrow in a 16 year old vehicle, I wanted my phone to be working when I made that trek.

Whomever created the voice answering system should be taken out and shot, right after they are boiled in oil, burned at the stake, and publicly stoned. However, Virgin Mobile’s system has a new twist: it changes without warning.

If you call and select from their top level menu, the sub menu will hold certain options. If you attempt to bypass the options by hitting zero, the system will tell you that it did not understand, and it will begin to list your choices again. However, the SECOND time through the options will be subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) different. I am not saying that just the wording changes…I am saying the actual selections change. Surprise!

Next comes the recorded message encouraging you to use the website for support. Finally, you get put into a queue to wait for the next live representative, which an upbeat voice tells you may take longer than 11 minutes.

Next comes the assault on your ears.

The absolutely most GOD-AWFUL music gets BLASTED through your headset, punctuated by voices that (seemingly by design) sound like someone just picked up the phone (the way the music cuts out…and the voice begins in a tone that sounds like a human picking up the phone). But once again, SURPRISE! This is not a human…it is just a recording of one! Now the awful music is back, but the volume is extremely soft. Turned down your handset volume before? Now you have to turn it way up to hear what is going on for fear that a REAL human will come to the phone and you won’t hear them.

After you get the volume up to a level to where you can hear it again, they switch things up on you and suddenly the music is BLASTING once again. Too bad you turned up your handset volume up in order to hear the soft music.

When you FINALLY get to a human being, you are treated to pretty much what you would expect: a really LOUSY phone connection (consistent with your call being bounced around a few satellites and ultimately delivered to some call center half way around the world) trying to converse with someone named “Steve” whose English is SO bad you just KNOW that their real name could NEVER be “Steve.”

While “Steve” tries to sound “upbeat,” you can tell he is reading from a script as the words are way to stiff and obviously rehearsed. In addition, the training that these folks receive is obviously heavy on the “Dale Carnegie” technique as your name is used at least three times per sentence. Unfortunately for the call center representative, in their part of the world the surname and given names are reversed. So they keep referring to me as “Mr. Peter” instead of “Mr. Lee”, without any clue as to how badly that marks “Steve” as a non-English speaking representative.

After almost 60 minutes on the phone with “Steve,” we finally hit his technical limit, and he apologies and tells me he is going to have to forward me to the technical support team (just which team was I currently speaking with???). After assuring me that he has recorded our conversation on my account so I won’t have to repeat myself to the next rep, he transfers me to the higher level support.

I was not surprised at the return of the horrific music on-hold, nor in being disconnected from the system after enduring 60 minutes of “waiting” and that awful music. When I called back (and had to wait through the music on hold in the normal wait queue for another 10 minutes), I made a different choice on the phone menu system, and this time it took me directly to the famed tech support team. The rep who finally answered pulled up my account, but of course asked me all of the same questions, and had me perform all of the same tests on the phone as the first tech had. I asked about whether or not they had read the notes on the account from the previous rep, but they simply brushed the question aside and continued repeating the tests of the first rep. They finally decided that the problem was with how my phone number was ported over to Virgin Mobile from AT&T (note, I ported that phone number to Virgin Mobile three years prior!), so they transferred me to the number porting group.

When the number porting person got on the phone (yes, there was more music on hold to listen to!) and put me through the EXACT SAME tests as the previous reps, and asked the same questions, it was then that I knew that each of these so called “departments” were nothing more than the EXACT SAME POOL OF PEOPLE with the same level of training (or lack thereof), and the same inability to see what had already been done to try to solve my problem (that is, no one was recording our conversations or actions on the computer).

After five hours on the phone for the entire day, I still don’t have a working cell phone. They left me with an explanation that my account was being transferred between an “old” computer system and a “new” one, and the glitch should be worked out in the next 12 hours.

I’m going along with this explanation only because I don’t really have any choice in the matter. I have very low confidence that 12 more hours of waiting will make any difference in the ability to use my phone. But I am hoping that I am wrong.

I’d like to say that this type of customer service has never happened to me before, but sadly it is now the norm for so many large businesses…and certainly for any of the wireless phone companies I’ve ever had to speak with. Amazon is a notable exception, maintaining very friendly and competent call centers within the USA.

I’m certain that you all have had experiences similar to mine with off-shore call centers. My experience in this matter is certainly not unique. I suppose that these inadequately trained off-shore call centers are a necessity when your margins on your products are so incredibly fine, as they are in the mobile industry.

Oh…wait…how big were the mobile company’s profits last year???

Epilog: So what turned out to be the root cause of this hellish nightmare from my closet full of anxieties? Well, it turns out that the phone’s serial number printed on the box does not match the serial number recorded inside the phone’s battery case. Once I discovered the discrepancy, it took me 30 seconds to get the phone working.

I’m only embarrassed about this turn of events because I know better than to trust the tag on the box of a phone. Some years ago I spent hours trying to get a device to connect to my home network without any luck. In the end, I found that the MAC address stamped onto the case of the device was wrong (I was able to interrogate the device electronically as to what it’s MAC address was, and I found that the MAC address it was using did not match the address stamped onto the case).

The wonder of technology will always be that simple human frailty will be able to disrupt the most intricate of technological solutions. Or in other words, despite our best technological efforts, humans will always be able to screw up the works!

And Now For Something Not So Completely Different…

Greetings all!

When I first started this blog, it was to provide a place for people without a lot of technology skills to be able to learn about technology from one who could both understand it and explain it. This was a great idea…until I realized that no one is really interested in such a thing!

You see, when I analyzed the web traffic to this site, what I’ve found is that non-technical people are only visiting the site to look for specific answers to specific questions. They have a problem they want to solve…and they want to solve it NOW. They are not interested (for the most part) in understanding the underlying “how” and “why” of the problem…they mostly just want a “click this, drag that, push this button” type of solution to their problem.

In honor of this, I am now shifting this blog to be a bit more technical, bringing it closer in line to an actual professional blog. I have a lot to say about the things I do in my day job (from a technology point of view), as well as plenty to add about my exploits in the lab at home during my spare time (not that there is much of that).

One other change I am making to the blog: I am getting inundated with spammers setting up accounts on this site. I have therefore disabled users from creating an account. If you would like an account on this site so you can join in on the discussion (which is always welcome), I am happy to furnish one…but please use the feedback form under “contact us” to let us know you would like an account. Send us your email address and we’ll get to you shortly.

Other than that, here’s to a new direction for CompuBlab!


Peter S. Lee

SOPA and PIPA – The Battle is Far From Over

Greetings all!

It is hard to believe how much time has passed since I last posted on the blog. A string of illnesses in our family had us all gasping for air (and antibiotics) for a quite a while. Fortunately, we are all back on our feet and up and at’em once more!

During that brief hiatus, two not-so-little bills made their way through the US Senate and the US House of Representatives. You may have heard about them. One was called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) while the other was called PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act). Both laws were, on the surface, designed to help law enforcement officials combat piracy of digital products overseas. The problem with these laws was that they were so broad, they could (and would) have been used (more like “abused”) to disrupt sites acting legally within the United States.

There is a lot that can be said about these two laws, but I found the best introduction to the issue was given by the talented folks over at the Khan Academy. I am including that roughly 11 minute video in this post for your viewing pleasure.

The only point I want to make here and now is that as you watch the video, keep in mind that the SOPA/PIPA issue is anything but over. Lawmakers were surprised at the amount of backlash that was generated from those laws and now they will regroup before trying to put such legislation through the system a second time. Since this topic *will* come up again, it behooves you, a consumer of digital and online products, to understand at least in general what the big flap was all about.

Yes, laws to combat the theft of intellectual property are needed, but we must as consumers make certain that the laws that are crafted make sense, and do not go beyond the mark of what they are supposed to do.

Give the video a look, and draw your own conclusions.

Quality News On Your Kindle for 99 cents Per Month

Greetings all,

My wife and I each own an Amazon Kindle and many times I’ve wished I could use it to read the daily news. I work on a computer all day, and it would be nice to relax on the couch with my wife and not have to have a laptop out to see what was going on in the world.

Since getting the Kindle, I have looked at the offered news publications available for it and they have always left me wanting because:

  • some have lousy formatting for a Kindle
  • some have images that do not show up well on a black-and-white device
  • the pricing on many of these publications is ridiculous (some have the audacity to charge MORE for the digital version of their journal than they do for the one that is printed and delivered to your door)
  • of the publications that ARE priced reasonably, many times the quality of the content is very poor (I don’t care to read a series of “editorials” trying to be passed off as “news”…I like factual reporting and I’ll draw my own conclusions)
  • Well, I finally found a good solution to this little dilemma: Reuter’s News Blogs.

    These news blogs consist of a selection of the top stories from the Reuters news site and are updated daily (sometimes more). The blogs are grouped by topic, and each blog only costs 99 cents per month. I currently subscribe to three of these blogs (meaning I am paying roughly $3 per month to read all of this on my Kindle):

  • Reuters Top News
  • Reuters Technology
  • Reuters Business
  • If you poke around the Kindle store you will find that there are other Reuters blogs available as well, but I do hasten to point out that there is some overlap between the different blogs. How much overlap depends on the news of the day. When technology news is breaking, it is not uncommon for a number of the Reuters Top News articles to be the same as the articles in the Reuters Technology blog. You will need to try each blog (you get a free 14-day trial for each) and see if you like the mix.

    There are, of course, many, many options when it comes to reading news on your Kindle. However, I find that I am more than willing to pay $3 per month so that each morning I can read the major news articles of the day. If you have a Kindle, be sure to give this a try. As previously mentioned, the price is right, and you even get a 14 day free trial up front.

    Happy New Year!

    Happy New Year, from your friends at CompuBlab!

    Merry Christmas to All of our Readers!

    Have a very Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays from CompuBlab!

    Facebook & FTC Settle on Privacy Issues

    Some very good news recently regarding Facebook and their long standing issues with violating people’s privacy. The news is reporting that the FTC and Facebook have come to a settlement regarding Facebook’s disregard for people’s private information (see the article referenced here).

    If you are a user of Facebook, privacy has always been an issue. For my part, I am amazed at the amount of personal information people post on Facebook. Even information that could help someone steal a person’s identity (your birthdate, for example). Yet even with people being seemingly unaware of how much information they were giving out, Facebook made itself a lot of enemies over the last few years by revamping their privacy settings for users.

    In perhaps the most egregious violation of basic information privacy, on more than one occasion Facebook has made changes to the settings screens that relate to privacy of your data. This in and of itself isn’t bad. What *is* bad is that Facebook defaulted your privacy settings to be “let the whole world see this”…even when it involved data you had previously indicated was not to be shared. In addition, Facebook did what so many companies do today…promised they would not share your personal information with advertisers…and then did so anyway. Of course they did…it was all about the money. Your personal information is valuable to marketing companies, more so now that advanced data mining and analysis techniques have become so powerful.

    I recall reading a study a few years ago about privacy statements for different companies. A cursory examination showed that the vast majority of companies simply ignore their privacy statements. Your data is shared with whomever will pay for it. Is this a surprise? Not to me. Corporations are not known for their morals and ethics (though there are some notable welcome exceptions).

    The settlement includes the promise by Facebook to make any and all changes in privacy settings be “opt-in” on the part of the user. That is, any changes to privacy settings must be approved by the user. This is great, but I am sad that it has taken two years to get Facebook to agree to do that which it should have done from the beginning.

    The settlement also provides for Facebook to be audited for the next twenty years regarding privacy issues. Sadly, there was no information in the article I referenced regarding how this auditing was to take place (which is to say, is it “window dressing” or does the auditing provision have any real “teeth” to it).

    There is more that the FTC needs to do to crack-down on such flagrant violations of your privacy, but at least this is a start. I *am* disappointed though that no financial penalty was imposed upon Facebook. Seeing as they profited from their unethical actions, I feel a financial penalty would have been in order.

    Since that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, we will just have to hope that Facebook lives up to their word (which given their track record, is not something I would bet the farm on)…

    Why Your Personal Information Is Not Safe

    Of all the technology mis-information that is dispersed to the common public, the one that gets my blood burning faster than just about anything else is when some company representative insists that “your data is safe with us.”

    Look folks, here’s the deal. Your data is just not all that safe. Not your personal information that could be used to steal your identity, nor your banking information, nor any other information you provide to anyone else online. If you doubt this at all, just look at the news over the last six to twelve months at all of the high-profile data thefts that have occurred. From banks to online gaming systems, your data is vulnerable and the bad guys want it.

    And today we have a story in the news that shows you just WHY all of the fancy data protection measures that corporate executives and marketing VPs just LOVE to tout don’t add up to a hill of beans. You see, that protection often times is geared at preventing individuals outside the security system from accessing your data. That is a very good thing. But what about all of the people INSIDE the company security system (i.e. the employees and/or contractors)? How well have they been screened? What if one of them decides to embark on a life of crime? What then?

    Well, that’s EXACTLY what happened at the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

    It seems that two enterprising employees of the New Jersey DMV decided to start selling people’s personal information to identity thieves. That is, names, birth dates, and social security numbers were sold for in some cases the rather paltry sum of $200. All the protections that the New Jersey DMV had in place were for naught because the people who stole the information were required to have access to that data as part of the normal course of their jobs (see the article referenced here).

    Data security involves more than just encrypting people’s data and using passwords to control access. Something that company executives are getting an education in right now according to news reports.

    As a side note, yes I do use online banking and what not…it is very difficult to avoid these days. However, there are smart ways to use such services, and also not-so-smart ways. Perhaps in the coming days I’ll provide some additional information on this point.