Thursday, August 26, 2010

Metro Set To Further Annoy It's Best Customers

Metro, following in the footsteps of progressive organizations such as the Recording Industry of America (RIAA), will be enacting new policies designed to cause invoncenience, aggravation, and possibly legal problems, to the kind of customers it likes most: those who own Smart Trip cards. Starting August 29, you will no longer be able to exit a metro station if your Smart Trip balance is below zero.

"We asked if there had been a problem with Metro never recovering negative fares from travelers; [Metro spokesperson Angela Gates] said she'd have to look into that."

-- Dave Jamieson, TBD reporter

A few years back, the RIAA invented the "eff you, frequent flyer" business model by suing the very people who spent the most money on them. While largely a symbolic gesture, since only a couple people actually went to court and most cases were dropped due to them being absolutely insane to sue children in the first place, it set the stage for future acts of desperation by other organizations. Organizations that found themselves with management and cash flow problems, faced with a changing world but unable to keep pace, or just plain stupid.

I think metro falls in the "just plain stupid" category, since they don't really have any competition. They have, apparently, decided that their own hard times have warranted the implementation of the "eff you customer" program, rather than taking the more practical step of getting their shit together. The result of such poorly-thought-out moves is, inevitably, bad press, futher hemmhoraging of revenues as some customers stop using your service, and other collateral damage.

Let's take a look at what this means.

You must use cash to pay ExitFare.

Most people use SmartTrip card because of its convenience, and the ability to pay by credit card. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do the math here. Since you have not ever needed cash to travel by metro for a decade, there's a decent chance you won't ensure you have some on you before you head to work.

SmartTrip cards do not feature an "automatic recharge" feature.

Unlike almost every other "subscription" sort of service on earth, you must manually recharge your smart trip card when it runs out. At a machine. This means, inevitably, this problem is going to happen to everyone.

People don't think about their Smart Trip balance. That's why it's useful.

When you have a SmartTrip card, it's very simple: you go in, and when it goes below zero, you get a warning on your way out. That is a reminder that it's time to recharge. And if you forget, it won't let you go back in again on your next trip. So you refill on your way in. You can't get screwed. You can never find yourself able to get in, but not out. You can never find yourself stuck in a Metro station with no cash, and no legal way to leave. Until August 29th, that is.

It's like the "refuel" light on your car. It reminds you to stop at the next gas station.

But now, you won't get a "refuel" warning any more. Oh, and also, you can only look at the gas guage on your car at the end of a trip, or after you've already gotten on the highway. Because a metro trip can range from $1.60 up to $5.00, there are many, many possible trips for which you'd have sufficient balance to enter, but not exit.

It's like if your car suddenly just died on the side of the road at some point below 1/4 of a tank.

And I don't buy the argument that "people using paper cards have always had to deal with this." You know what's different about a paper card? It has your balance printed on it.


If you could link your SmartTrip to a credit card to recharge automatically, I don't think most people would care about this. But despite this technology being available for things such as EZ Pass for more than a decade, you can't. This is a whole different problem, but it's amazing that they would implement a policy change such as this one, before enabling automatic recharge. That shows extremely poor judgment.

Metro recently lowered the price of SmartTrip cards from $5 to $2.50, and seems to be rationalizing this move because they fear fraud from people buying SmartTrip cards, and leaving the system with a negative balance. Which could, at most, be $3.40, since the minimum fare if $1.60 and the maximum rail fare is $5.00. And that's even using non-rush for the minimum and rush hour for the maximum.

In the worst case scenario, Metro would be facing someone with a $3.40 negative balance on a $2.50 card. And I'm not even sure that scenario is possible, unless you crossed non-rush-hour to rush-hour lines during your trip.

Would anyone really ever do this? Would this ever be a possible method of "fraud" at any scale other than extremely isolated?

Furthermore, Metro earns tons of money from unused fares, and interest on money spent on transit before it's taken. I would guess the average balance on a SmartTrip card is over 10 bucks, and there must be millions of unused farecards purchased every year (e.g. by tourists, or from people who just toss low-balance farecards). I don't know how much money this is -- but I guarantee you it's far, far more than they could ever stand to lose from a handful of folks who would rather go to CVS and buy a new card, than pay (at most) the 90 cents difference to recharge their own SmartTrip card.

Apart from the insanity of even a tiny fraction of society going to all this trouble to perpetrate a fraud with a theoretical maximum value of ninety cents, what the hell?

If this is your only reason for this move, then why didn't you just price it at $3.50 which will effectively eliminate the, er, "incentive?" Even better, why didn't you just not change the price from $5 in the first place? Do you really think there's a single person on earth who prefers saving $2.50 on the cost of a SmartTrip card, which most people buy exactly once, to the convenience of not facing possible incarceration in a metro station every time they go to work?


Monday, August 30. Mayhem. Tens of thousands of people, probably 10-20% of all riders, cannot exit because they entered Metro at rush hour with under $4 on their card (as they probably do approximately 20% of the time).

Three-quarters of these people, the ones with cash, will be pissed as they have to wait in huge lines for the exitfare machine.

The other one-quarter, the ones without cash, will be jumping turnstiles.

Or, Metro station operators will just open the emergency gate and let everyone go through, costing Metro far more in a single day because of the chaos, than they could ever stand to lose.

Monday, August 23, 2010

I Really Like That Flashlight...

In my never-ending quest to coin a term I present you with a couple that have caught on in my household.

You brought the iguana home.

This one started pretty recently, after an episode of "The Marriage Ref." In this particular segment, the debate is over this pet iguana that the wife loves, and the husband detests. Throughout the course of the segment, popular opinion seems to lean heavily towards the husband. This creature is always out of its cage, and clearly the wife pays a lot more attention to the car insurance mascot than she does to her husband. Not to mention that it's pretty downright creepy.

Then, at the very end, when the referees are about to vote, a crucial piece of evidence is revealed: The husband is the one who brought that iguana into the household to being with!

Needless to say, he lost in a crushing defeat because he brought the iguana home.

So now, whenever you find yourself in a debate about something which, actually, the other person started, or is responsible for the source of the debate, you simply play your trump card: You brought the iguana home. Instant victory.

I'm getting back the microwave.

This one is of a more personal nature. Many, many years ago, I acted shamefully. This is so embarassing, that it is only now that I will publicly admit to this tasteless act of selfishness. I blame my youthful immaturity, but can now look back on this inicident with only a small cringe of regret. I hope that by sharing this, I can purge the demons that still haunt me.

I dated a girl briefly when I first moved to Washington. During our time together, her group-house needed a microwave oven, and I happened to own one that was not being used, as my own group-house already had one. So I offered it to them, and they accepted.

I broke up with this girl before too long. Because we didn't date all that long, there was not really any need for a "stuff swap." Or I just forgot about the microwave.

Fast forward about a year, when the owner of my own houses's microwave moved out. Suddenly, I needed that microwave oven again. At the time, the $199 that the appliance would cost to replace seemed a staggering sum of money, and apparently I put the cost of shame at calling up my ex of about a year to reclaim the microwave, at lower than $199.

I drove to her house in Virginia, and in possibly the most awkward situation of my entire life, collected the microwave. Oh yes, all her housemates were there. And no, we hadn't really spoken at all since we broke up.

Fast forward to today, and one of my facebook friends posted this:

Friendy McFriend Got a call from the garage; the mechanic left his flashlight under the hood of my truck.

Now I need to go bring it back "at my convenience"

I replied "Unfortunately, I am 30 miles away, so how about at my next oil change".

::::dead silence::::

"Or I could swing by in a couple of hours." :-)

All I could think of was, really? How much could a new flashlight possibly cost? That better be one damn nice flashlight...

But sometimes, you know, you just need to get the microwave back. So whenever you find yourself needing to face some unfinished business that you avoided as long as possible, or otherwise subject yourself to extraordinary embarassment for some small material gain, you are getting the microwave back.

So, anyone else have any good stories of getting the microwave back?


In an incredible bit of synchronicity separated by decades, N. recently quit her job of about a year and started a new one.

As it turns out, she left behind a microwave oven at her old office that she brought in when she first started there.

The jury is still out on whether she'll be getting it back anytime soon...

Free For All @ Rhode Island Avenue Giant!

Since the opening of Columbia Heights' "new" Giant store a few years ago, the Brentwood Giant hasn't gotten much respect. But when it opened, it was the jewel of Northeast, the only full-service supermarket for miles around. I used to go by there now and then, if I happened to be going to Home Depot anyway. N. and I stopped by yesterday on exactly such a trip.

They've got these new self-checkout aisles there, and the configuration is a bit different than our Columbia Heights system. Instead of four self-serve terminals served by a single line, you've got four individual lanes with four individual lines. From the outset, this raised a huge red flag. As anyone knows, in the self checkout line, at least every other person either has no idea how to use the system, or has foolishly decided that they can check out an entire cart full of groceries by themselves before the store closes. Either situation can result in agonizing delays.

Either way, if you get stuck behind such a person, you might as well settle in, because it's going to be a long night. The "bank line" system at the Cohi Giant (and most other stores designed by people who posess even an iota of compassion for their customers) addresses this problem at least by ensuring that one slow person doesn't kill the whole line.

The other thing that's odd about the Brentwood system is that the self-checkout lanes resemble the baggage x-ray security lanes at an airport more than anything else. There are plastic barriers on both sides of the lane, preventing access to your groceries until the very end. I guess this had something to do with security, though I couldn't really understand what. As it turns out, I could not have been more wrong.

Since all the non-self-checkout lines were enormous, we took a big gamble and got in line at one of these TSA checkouts. Someone was just finishing, and two other people were ahead of us.

The first person stared at the machine for a few moments and, in a bit of self-awareness as rarely seen by elderly, technology-impaired supermarket patrons, realized his error and recused himself. Woo hoo! One down, one to go. It looked like our gamble would pay off!

Things went downhill from there. The woman in front of us only had about 7 or 8 items, but she started by putting a half-smoked cigarette on the scanner. This was the first sign that things were about to go horribly wrong. But things just got weird from there. At a snail's pace, probably predicated by her state of inebriation as was evident from the occasional whiff I got, she scanned two items: a bottle of gatorade, and a bag of chips.

The, she took the rest of her items and non-scanned them by simply throwing them down the conveyor belt. As we watched, she bagged (in her reusable giant bag, bless her heart) enough groceries to fill the bag, including a big box of frozen chicken or something, some milk, crackers, and several other items. It was enough to fill the bag such that boxes were sticking out the top. None of this caused any alarms to be raised by the system, like the sort that we are all familiar with when the weight of the items doesn't match what has been scanned.

But rather than just pay the total of $3.05 that she had actually scanned before proceeding to leave the store with her ill-gotten gains, she sought customer assistance. Apparently because she was paying with food stamps or something. She turned to us briefly to apologize for the delay (now going on almost ten minutes) because she was waiting for the cashier.

The cashier finally came over, and in a roughly 90 seconds process, keyed in an incredibly long series of keystrokes to process our hero's transaction. Thoughout this process, I kept wondering:

What kind of person not only conducts a small-scale heist at the self-checkout, but doesn't leave well enough alone and just pay the tiny sum of money involved to avoid possible detection?

What kind of supermarket employee cares so little about their job, that they will happily conduct their manual checkout intervention without noticing or caring that someone's leaving the store with a full bag of groceries for 3 bucks?

Why didn't the woman just finish her cigarette before she went shopping?

I briefly considered getting involved, but frankly, I have been wronged by Giant enough times that I felt they had it coming to them. And by that time we were happy to finally be able to check out and any further delay just seemed unnecessary.

But seriously, Giant. If your staff don't even bother to stop a shoplifter when the shoplifter is going out of their way to involve your staff in their transaction, you've got problems.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Strange Things Afoot

My lovely wife woke me up this morning at the ungodly hour of 6:20 AM. Or 6:20 AM "real time" as she said, not to be confused with the fictional time that the alarm clock presents.

My brain strained to make sense of this and finally concluded it was too early, so I made the rash decision of offering to walk both dogs in exchange for sleeping another 20 minutes. Shortly thereafter, though, N. rushed back into the room and excitedly told me that there were a bunch of cops outside. Of course, this immediately got me out of bed, since I can't resist gawking at police activity.

We saddled up the animals and walked outside to take in the spectacle. There were literally ten police cars, including about five cruisers, a few unmarked cars, and a K-9 unit. Some neighbors across the street were hanging out in front of their house, but it wasn't clear what the kerfuffle was.

Jumby, our puppy, has this sixth sense that alerts him to the presence of other dogs within a 500 foot radius, and immediately started barking at the K-9 car. Despite the fact that the dog was not visible, was not making any noise, and the windows were tinted. The police dog gladly engaged in the conversation from inside the police car. We dragged the lunatic down the street to avoid too much embarassment.

After walking them to the Asylum for their morning constitutionals, I hung out in front of my house to try to gather more intel. Was it a drug raid? Terrorist cell? I feared the worst: my car, illegally parked at the corner the night before, was surrounded. There was no question that this all-unit response would result in my receiving a $30 ticket.

But as I sat and watched, a one-armed man carrying a bag walked by.

Meanwhile, the people across the street were loading baskets of laundry into their car.

A 6:30 AM police raid? Dogs? A one-armed man? Laundry day?

I deseperately struggled to make sense of it all. I overheard just snippets of conversation.

".... I saw a ladder..."

"... helicopter..."

"... nothing clean..."

The one-armed man had since gone. But then, when I walked Jumby again a half-hour later (because he, er, hadn't had his coffee yet on his first walk), I again saw the one-armed man, this time near the Asylum.

I never found out why the police came this morning. But the one-armed man will haunt me forever.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thursday the 12th is the new Friday the 13th

Tree Down
This blurry photo is 16th Street around 8:00 AM on Thursday,
right before I bailed out. That's a tree.
I tried to post this last Friday. It didn't work out. The last two days of last week were, literally, a wash.

Thursday began with my reverse commuite to Silver Spring being transformed from a leisurely 15 minute drive to a 45-minute traffic evasion snafu. Every half-mile or so, I was faced with another closed road, and forced to divert eastward. It began on 16th Street, than 14th, then Georgia, and finally onto the neighborhood backroads of Takoma, DC as I struggled to find a way across the border to Maryland that wasn't blocked by trees or emergency vehicles. It's nice that there are so many alternatives, so at least it was possible to get to work.

Not that it mattered. The parking garage was flooded, and there was no power in the building. It became clear that situation wasn't changing anytime soon, so I headed out. I had to go to Rockville last week at some point, and since there was nothing else to do that day, I decided to go for it.

That turned out to be a poor choice as well, since it was impossible to go east or west on any road. By the time I'd gotten up to about Route 28, I realized it wasn't happening. I also realized I wasn't getting back to DC anytime soon, since all roads in were jammed. So I just kept going. I ended up going all the way to Baltimore, where I had a couple other non-urgent errands to take care of, and this was accomplished. Eventually, I made it to Rockville, around 3 PM. Everything was still a mess - working traffic lights in Montogomery County were rare.

Friday the 13th - Groundhog Day

Tree GoneCome Friday, things seems sort of back to normal, except many traffic signals in Moco were still out. I went to my office, began the morning rituals of coffee and email. Fifteen minutes after arriving at work, the power went out again rather dramtically. A loud boom was followed by several smaller ones. The power flickered on a couple times and finally died for good.

After an hour or so of hanging around, we found out power would not likely be restored at all on Friday. Unfortunately, my work requires being connected to the server (unless I can plan ahead and copy everything to my laptop, which of course I hadn't) so there was no possibility of working at home. Another unplanned day off, this time spent on home improvement.

Normal Life Resumes

.. at least until the next storm!! There is no question. The apocalypse is upon us.

Anyway, hope everyone is weathering these times of questionable power. I leave you with a gratuitous cute puppy picture.

Jumby Chewing

Friday, August 6, 2010

Fun Pictures

N. and I had a fantastic weekend getaway to New Orleans a few weeks back. I just came across a couple pics I wanted to share.

Best Company Motto Ever.

It's Picking Up


I got off an escalator and couldn't figure out where I was. What happened to this place?

Then we ended up on the mobile lounge and it all came crashing down around me. Figures I'd be in the one terminal that's still not served by the new train.

I wanted to take a real picture of this gorgeous new terminal but figured I'd end up detained by some overly zealous security drone... so the cell had to do.

New Dulles Terminal

Lucky Dog

We had just finished lunch at Johnny's Po Boys.. these two were just starting.

Johnny's Po Boys... for me & my best friend

Many more pics from N.O. on flickr.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Bits and Pieces

I have had some ideas for things to drop on the blog, or "blog poo," lately. But long hours at work, and lot going on outside of work have limited my ability to blogtificate. So instead of a profound bit of new blogma today, I'm just going to summarize a few slightly notable events.

Comcast, bite me. Hating on Comcast is about as original as shoelaces. So I felt it wasn't worth a whole blog post to do this. But I would like to say, these guys have perfected the art of pissing off their best customers.

I'm not some "basic service" guy here. I pay them a ridiculous amount of money each month because I love TV. And internet. I have been a customer for five years non-stop, usually coughing up more than my electric and gas bills combined.

Not my dog.
On the exact two-month anniversary my last payment, they cut me off. Was I late? Yes. I was about 30 days late. It's been busy, and they are the only bill I have that isn't auto-deducted, and as such I often forget about it.

Did they try to contact me? Yes, with a piece of mail. The exact same thing I've been ignoring for the last two months. Hello, you have my phone number and my email address. Don't you think it would be been worth exploiting one of those two post-1600's methods of communication before cutting me off?

But cutting me off when I'm exactly one month overdue? Really? After paying for their gold teeth for five years? Are you fricking kidding me? You guys are history very soon. You would have been anyway, as soon as I can figure out how, but this crossed the line.

Ironically, I had just paid them through online banking the very same day that they cut me off. So I had to pay them again over the phone to get service restored. Now I'm paid 2 months in advance. Bastards.

My dogs are crazy. They are craaaa-zy. The new one has destroyed at least a dozen pair of shoes in the last few months. N. got the brunt of this, unfortunately, as most of them were hers. But I too have suffered the loss of several pairs of flip-flops.

When do these damn things grow up to the point where they don't immediately go for things they aren't supposed to chew on when you leave the room? This isn't about "not knowing what's wrong." You will never catch him chewing on a shoe or a couch when you're in the same room. Usually. He is bad, rotten to the core.

But also really cute... argghh!

My window is almost done. Haha, you didn't really think I was going to finish a project in a week or two, did you? Anyway, the wind-down has been slow because it involves lots of painting, staining, drying, recoating. And because I don't want to break my perfect track record of every project taking 10-20 times longer than my estimate. But we are oh so very close.

That is all. For now.