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June 29, 2007

Selling a Printer

I listed a printer for sale on craigslist about a week ago. It's nothing special, and it's been through graduate school twice now, so I'm offering it for pretty cheap. Its only two particularly good features are almost brand new toner and quick printing.

One person responded to the listing, just yesterday, and he was supposed to show up here at 6:00, 27 minutes ago. As you know, I value punctuality, and I'm not very patient.

I paced the length of my living room, dining room, and kitchen until about 6:12, when I decided to come upstairs and read the news. Now 28 minutes on, the guy hasn't called me or turned up at my door. He made a point to ask my phone number, so why doesn't he use it? Maybe that's just people these days.

Until this guy shows up or I get tired of waiting for him, I have to pay attention to the door, which is difficult to hear from my computer in the first place. Alas.

June 25, 2007

The Constant Gardener


The Constant Gardener movie poster
The Constant Gardener is a movie that highlights the impact of the greed of Big Pharmaceuticals in desperate regions like Africa. It was in my Netflix queue mostly because it was classified as a "thriller", but it turned out to be not a thriller at all but a cry for attention. And a very good one, at that.

In the movie, a particular pharmaceutical company bundles experimental drugs into a treatment for tuberculosis, so if the African villagers want treatment for TB, they essentially sign away their lives into this drug test. The testing ends up killing loads of people, and the main character's wife, Tessa, begins a secret crusade against this horrible exploitation. She and her friends end up dead, presumably at the hands of the drug company.

Tessa tried to keep her dealings secret from her husband because she thought that would keep him safe, but after she died, he started digging into her files and contacts, and he, too, became entwined in the underground movement against the TB treatment. At the end of the movie, Tessa's noble efforts, combined with those of everyone else, only led to their deaths. They were noticed, but if the story were to continue, I'm certain they would have put only an insignificant dent into the plans of the drug giant.

The cynical part of me can imagine this sort of thing happening all the time, and when you add this to the terrible things that have gone on Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and practically everywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa recently, it's no wonder everything is a mess over there. And, it's not stopping any time soon.

What can we do about it? There's no end to the support we can give the good organizations, like the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, and Médecins Sans Frontières. At least check out their web sites. If something terrible is happening on the other side of the world, that doesn't mean it's not happening.

June 22, 2007

A Letter to Doug Parker


My letter to Doug Parker, CEO of US Airways. Click for full PDF
Previously, I wrote about my travels with US Airways on June 16th and on June 20th. I mentioned I would write a letter to US Airways, and I have now done so. The letter is going straight to the top, to the CEO of US Airways, Doug Parker, whose office is in Tempe, Arizona. You can read the full letter by clicking the image to the right.

I would have included quite a few more details in the letter, but I think three pages is pushing my limits a bit already. Ah well, I at least hope I get some kind of reimbursement from them. If I don't, I think I'll start looking for other airlines to handle my travel needs in the future.

So much bitterness was involved with my travels that I wasn't able to write about the good times I had while visiting Houston.

I went for Father's Day, and spending time with my family was, indeed, excellent. We ate Father's Day brunch at Masraff's, which didn't really live up to expectations, but at least the live jazz was fantastic.

The following day, I visited Tamara in Beaumont, and we had great fun eating Mexican food and hanging out at Rocky's Roadhouse (wow, I'm truly surprised they have a web site). Tamara showed me around Lamar University, and I determined all physics departments smell exactly the same; perhaps it's the odor of old men?

Then, I headed back to Houston and had a Boston Legal night with my dad. Many of you know about Boston Legal nights now, but I'll explain a little bit for the newcomers. You see, at the end of every episode of Boston Legal, the two main characters, Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner), smoke cigars and drink Scotch on the balcony outside Denny's office. They talk about their day, and the conversation is typically pretty insightful.

My dad and I began our own little Boston Legal tradition while I visited him in Argentina in April. Tuesday night, quite firmly on this side of the equator, we smoked cigars, drank malbec port, and brought his telescope into the backyard and looked at the moon, Venus, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars. We had an absolutely wonderful time.

I would gladly have stayed in Texas longer, were it not for the heat: the cool, dry 60 degree weather struck me as quite novel when I landed in Pittsburgh yesterday. It was certainly a stark contrast to the 95 degree afternoons with nearly 100% humidity I had experienced in Houston.

Now that I'm back at home, though, I need to continue packing. My cats are in Houston until after I move, so I packed a bunch of their toys and other things today. I miss my kitties, but I'll see them soon enough, I'm sure!

June 21, 2007

Another Canceled Flight

On Saturday, I had an awful experience with flying US Airways to Houston, and today (well, yesterday, at this point) was only slightly better. At least my travel experience didn't involve a four-hour drive in a rental car with a frisky cat!

(As with Saturday's blog entry, I'm writing this post with respect to preserving enough detail to accurately portray my plight in a letter to US Airways.)

According to my itinerary, I was supposed to fly US Airways from Houston, through Philadelphia, to Pittsburgh. When I tried to check into my flight on the web, it wouldn't let me, so I looked at my reservation again to see if anything was wrong. Behold, it appeared like US Airways had invented a non-stop flight to Pittsburgh, numbered 1417. The truth was much more gruesome.

Upon further investigation, it seems US Airways had canceled my flight to Philadelphia and then re-booked me on Continental flight 1417, non-stop from Houston to Pittsburgh, leaving two hours after my original flight would have left. Which is all good and well, but they never told me about this. One would think, as a courtesy, an airline would inform its customer of such a significant change in their flight plan. Apparently not.

I called US Airways to verify the reservation, which fortunately required a phone call of only about five minutes, and the guy on the other end of the line said the reservation was correct and that I should check in with Continental at the airport.

I stood in the line at the ticket counter of Houston's terminal E for quite some time and eventually made my way to the automated checker kiosk thing. Well, I couldn't check in there because I didn't have a valid Continental confirmation code, ticket number, or OnePass account. I asked for assistance from an obviously very unhappy woman, who took my driver's license, dialed someone on the phone, and stood with the phone to her ear, not acknowledging my presence in the slightest way, for the next 15 minutes.

Finally, she got off the phone and told me I had to have a paper ticket. Why would I possibly have a paper ticket, given that every last bit of this reservation was done electronically? I have no idea, but according to her, I absolutely had to have a paper ticket with a ticket number. I looked through all my previous boarding passes and other things in my laptop bag and couldn't find a ticket number.

The only immediate way to remedy this was to make my way over a mile from terminal E to terminal A, where I could talk to someone at the US Airways ticket counter. Which I did, again sweating and wondering whether I was actually going to catch that Continental flight, which at that point was set to depart in about 55 minutes.

At terminal A, the US Airways representative was very kind. I explained my situation to him briefly, gave him my last name, and not more than one minute later, he presented my itinerary in E-ticket form to me, along with a very clear ticket number.

Having seen the madness at the security lines at terminal E (that's Continental's international terminal, and a bunch of long-haul flights leave in the evenings, carrying loads of people), I decided to try my luck with terminal C. At terminal C, I checked in with no problem, using the ticket number on that US Airways itinerary. Someone checked my bag with only about a minute remaining for checking luggage, and I looked at my boarding pass and went agape. I saw a big letter S at the bottom of the boarding pass, flanked by SSSS markings. That only means one thing: a free government massage.

Fortunately, the last time I saw SSSS was nearly two years and about 50 flights ago, but with so little time remaining to board my flight, this was icing on the cake for my stress level. Luckily, I arrived at the security line, and I was, quite seriously, the only person there. What a contrast to the lines at terminal E! Most of the time, terminal E has much shorter lines than terminal C, but since the two are connected, Continental customers and customers of other international carriers are free to choose whichever terminal they prefer for the check-in and security process.

I went through security, and by the time some wise guy patted me down and I put my shoes on, my bag had been tested for explosives, and I was on my way. Really, it was the quickest I've ever experienced the TSA screening process.

After leaving security, I hauled ass to gate C25, and just as soon as I got there, the gate agent opened the door for boarding.

Shortly thereafter, I boarded the hot, humid plane and made myself as comfortable as possible in seat 7C. The flight attendant closed the cabin door, and we pulled back from the gate five minutes behind schedule. But, then, agony struck! We inched ever so slowly away from the jet-way, as the plane became warmer and warmer. Nearly everyone aboard was fanning themselves with the 737 emergency brochure or the Continental magazine or some other bit of bound paper.

The pilot explained we were somewhere around number 15 for take-off, which he then estimated would require about 30 minutes of sitting around and taxiing because air traffic control was requiring a plane to be 15 miles away from the runway before another could take off. All the passengers groaned and sighed, and I think someone even shouted an obscenity.

We sat in the sweltering heat without any flight attendant offering water for 50 long minutes before taking off and, at last, feeling relatively cool air come from the passenger service units above our heads.

Finally, Continental 1417 landed in Pittsburgh 20 minutes late, at 11:35 local time. After another ridiculous 20 minutes of waiting for the luggage carousel to start, my bag was one of the first handful to arrive, and I was, at long last, out the door and on my way home.

Now, I'm writing this from my huge, comfortable, air conditioned bed, pondering the fun I'll have crafting the nasty-gram to US Airways tomorrow. I know we determined customer service is a lost art within the airline industry, but I really hope US Airways has something good to say about all the crap I endured on this trip. Specifically, I want them to refund my entire ticket and also pay for my American Airlines flight and rental car from last Saturday. I wonder... I'll keep you posted.

June 17, 2007

Whoops, I Landed in Dallas

I almost flew to Houston today, but I ended up flying to Dallas, instead.

(Note that this entry may be a little long-winded; that's partially because I plan to write a letter to US Airways about this incident, and I want to be able to include certain specific details in that letter.)

When I fly US Airways, I often fly through Philadelphia or Charlotte because there are only a handful of places to which non-stop flights are available from Pittsburgh. Today, my flights were supposed to be Pittsburgh to Charlotte and then Charlotte to Houston.

I arrived in Charlotte and checked the departures board, only to discover my connecting flight to Houston, the only flight remaining for the day, was canceled, presumably due to bad weather, but I'm not really sure about that. So, I hoofed it over to the flight's gate, and someone had posted a very tacky sign, written in green highlighter on some connected sheets of paper, saying the flight was canceled and affected parties should visit customer service personnel. Handily, the service desk was only a couple gates away, but the queue for it stretched far out into the hallway.

After waiting in line for several minutes, the lady in front of me decided she would go ask a nearby gate agent if another customer service desk was available elsewhere in the airport. I looked after her roller-board bag, which had one of those inflatable neck things around the handle. Inflatable neck thing notwithstanding, she returned with a good deal of information about the situation in quite possibly record time. Notably, they were putting people on standby for flights to Houston beginning the following morning and suggesting passengers pay for their hotel rooms in a couple hotels close to the airport. Apparently, an information desk somewhere in the airport had coupons available for "distressed travelers" that provided some small discount from the hotels' room prices.

We decided not to wait in the line anymore, since nothing could be accomplished then that could not be just as easily accomplished in the morning. Honestly, I think she expected me to suggest we get a room together for the night and split the cost, but I just wished her well and started making phone calls. I'll bet she's still in Charlotte.

I spoke at length with my parents, who unsuccessfully searched for other flights to Houston. The two remaining Continental flights, delayed but not canceled, were apparently full, and we expanded our search to include Dallas, Baton Rouge, Austin, and San Antonio. There was an American Airlines flight leaving for Dallas at 6:30. What time was it just when my mom found that flight? You guessed it, 6:30. But, I looked at the departures board again and noticed that flight was delayed until 7:30. Victory!

It is at this point in the story that I must mention I had my cat, Pixel, with me in the airport. If she had not been with me, I probably would have been more willing to give up and just stay in Charlotte for the night, but Pixel needs cat food and a litter box, and I don't exactly know of any pet stores near the Charlotte airport. So, I pressed onward.

The American Airlines flight to Dallas was clear across the airport from that US Airways customer service desk. I walked quickly, carrying an 11-pound cat and my laptop bag and also talking on the phone with my mom, until I finally reached gate A9, where I stood at the counter, sweating and confused and nearly out of breath. I must have looked like a very distressed traveler.

After some trials and errors, I purchased the last ticket to Dallas. I didn't know exactly what I was going to do when I arrived in Dallas, but at least I would be in the correct state for the night!

I called friends in Dallas about road trip possibilities, accommodations, and so forth, and my parents scoured the web for flights from Dallas to Houston or Austin or anything even slightly closer.

I didn't even know what I would be doing in Dallas when I landed there; it was only after checking my voice mails and making more phone calls that I finally decided I would rent a car and drive to Houston.

Pixel and I hopped on the Rental Car Center bus outside the lower level of terminal C in Dallas, and off we went to get a Ford Focus and head to Houston. In Irving, right outside the Dallas airport, I stopped at a rather unfortunate grocery store and bought some cat food, bottled water, some sort of plastic tray, trash bags, and cat litter. With these, the back seat of that Focus became a cat's dream come true: food and water in a proper tray and a makeshift litter box made of trash bags.

Four hours later, around 2:30 AM, I arrived, tired but relieved, in front of my parents' house in Houston. Happy Father's Day, Dad!

I still have some loose ends to tie up, though. Specifically, I assume my checked luggage is still in Charlotte, and I'll have to figure out how to get that back in my own possession again. I'm also planning on formally inquiring about why this crazy day happened the way it did, especially when multiple Continental flights to Houston were only delayed by an hour or two and not at all canceled. Oh, and I'll need to buy a new suit tomorrow before our Father's Day brunch, since, you know, the one I packed is somewhere in the Carolinas.

It's been an incredibly long day, and it's definitely time for me to sleep now, since I need to wake up in about six hours to go buy a suit, return that rental car, and eat a fantastic, wonderful brunch with my family.

June 08, 2007

Booking Flights on the Phone

I'm heading to Houston for an extended Father's Day weekend, and I just booked my flights. I wanted to use a $240 credit I gained earlier this year, and I also wanted to be sure they knew I would have a cat on the plane, so I booked the flight over the phone to make sure those two things happened. Otherwise, I would have very gladly booked the flights on the web, as usual.

The phone call took 31 minutes. You'd think "hey, I'd like to fly on this flight on this day and this other flight on this other day, and I'll have a cat, and here's where you can look up my $240 credit, and here's my frequent flyer number, and this is my credit card number" would take, oh, about five minutes. Maximum.

If you thought that, you would be wrong.

When I was traveling extensively on Delta several years ago, I would spend that long on the phone, but most of the time, I would be on hold, just waiting for someone to pick up on the other end while listening to awful music that was terribly choppy coming out of my cell phone's speakers. Then, it would take a mere handful of minutes to confirm my reservation, look up my SkyMiles number, and charge the flights to my credit card. That was that, and most of the time, I could have my speaker-phone enabled and be patiently paying attention for a human voice coming across the line while simultaneously doing something entirely different. (Speaking of Delta, check out their new red logo. Isn't that strange?)

Not so with US Airways, apparently, as nearly the entire 31 minutes of my conversation involved listening to some lady breathing heavily into the other end of the line, listening to her slowly click away at her keyboard, or repeating myself over and over. Calling US Airways is like trying to convince a brick wall to do something other than stand around or fall, and as a rather impatient person in the first place, I grew very agitated with the whole 31-minute process.

Regardless, I have some episodes of Alias waiting for me, courtesy of Netflix, and I'm positively dying to relax with them right now.

June 07, 2007

Jetrosexual


The Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, Ruby Tuesday
Are you a jetrosexual?

If so, you'll be able to tell me which airport is pictured in the photo at the bottom of the Virgin Atlantic Flights site just by looking at the flight status monitors. Without spending much time figuring it out, take a guess and leave it in the comments section here.

You'll also be able to relate to Virgin Atlantic's 11 Commandments of a Jetrosexual. I especially like #3: Thou shalt have at least one passport stamp from a country that now goes by a different name. They're all excellent traveling rules, though; indeed, nobody should own those silly inflatable neck pillows.

Too bad their Ultimate Jetrosexual competition has ended. That would have been fun to enter!

June 06, 2007

Nice Night

Cool weather and coffee at midnight... it makes me want to be in grad school again!

It feels wonderful to have a break from the heat. I'm sure all of you suffering through the 100-degree afternoons in Texas can appreciate that. You should come to Pittsburgh for a visit! But, hurry — there is only about a month remaining during which I can be your host. After that, I will be in Manhattan or Boston or D.C. or London or Geneva or... somewhere!

June 03, 2007

Dead Tree Forecast

Today's customized Weather Underground forecast. Click for full PDFThe Weather Underground, a weather service possibly named after the leftist movement of the early 1970s, is one of my preferred web sites for obtaining weather information and forecasts. They have all kinds of weather-related services available, including marine and aviation weather and even weather blogs.

Today, I stumbled upon their Daily Forecast Flyer feature, which allows anyone to create a single-page flyer with the current local weather, regional and world weather, and the forecast. It seems like a really neat tool to use in a business, like a travel agency or a hotel, where customers may plan their activities based on weather forecasts. It also makes a pretty fun toy, as you can see in the flyer I linked at the top of this entry.

Go pretend you own a hotel in some exotic land and check it out!

Oh, and if you're going to be in the Boston area on June 15th (Father's Day weekend), you should definitely check out Beer Advocate's Night of the Lagers (beer list), which aims to "destroy the popular misconception that all lagers are yellow, fizzy, and boring."