Sunday, July 27, 2008

On credit reporting companies

A good credit history is one of the most important assets in the US. Upon arrival to California, several friends recommended me to get a Shell (pre-paid) or Macy's credit card to build up a credit history. Without a good credit history, getting a credit card is difficult and getting a loan is impossible. All your credit history is collected by one of three major companies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Companies can then contact these companies before granting you credit.

It's ironic that you need a loan or credit card to start building a good credit. I have always been averse to debt: first you save, then you buy. I don't buy on credit, and every credit card bill is paid in full every month. I might not be the best customer for the credit card companies, but haven't had any issue with my credit history (and I don't have a garage full of gadgets or impulsive buys).

Recently, after the outsourced HR of my wife's company reported stolen personal data, I added 90-day fraud alerts on both our credit reports. I added the first 90-day fraud alert with Equifax. The webpage stated I didn't need to contact the other two compabies. They would take care of this.

Since then, I have received letters from both TransUnion and Experian: "We were unable to complete your request ... please provide us more information". Obviously, the request from Equifax to add a 90-day fraud alert was lacking some information. I went to the Experian website and provide the missing information: it was my address, my social security number and my birthdate.

Hold on a second! Our car purchase, our home purchase, even perhaps a future student loan for my kids depends on these companies and these bozos can't even transfer a little piece of data among each other?

Vote for Marco Zaldivar!

A few years ago, I wrote about my ideal cellphone specs. The list of requirements is still very true, except for a cheap data-plan and great battery life. The last requirement puts the latest iPhone or any 3G phone for that matter on the black list. This was especially so after watching Charlie Rose's discussion on the iPhone 3G.

Item 7 on my original list was "Free incoming SMS". I am not a frequent SMS'er. I can count the number of SMS messages I sent this year on two hands. I do receive tens of SMS messages per day, most of them from webservices. When our Salesforce email-to-case daemon acts up, I get an SMS message alerting me. When I need to attend a meeting, Google Calendar sends me an SMS. When an item on my todo list is due, RememberTheMilk sends me an SMS message. Luckily I am using an inflation protected cheapo plan from AT&T Wireless (now Cingular): it includes free incoming SMS messages.

When I heard from a friend using Virgin Mobile that he had to pay for incoming SMS messages, I couldn't believe it. That had to be illegal since you can not control receiving an SMS message. Every time you received a message, even if you did not open or read it, you are charged. So you might end up with a $500 cellphone bill for something you have no control over. You gotta be kidding. Sadly, no, he wasn't. Gotcha Capitalism!

Finally somebody is taking action against such practices. His name is Marco Zaldivar. Red Tape Chonicles' Bob Sullivan discusses the case in a recent blog post, "T-Mobile Sued over 'Mandatory' Text Fees".
T-Mobile USA, Inc., a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG, lost an important ruling earlier this week when a U.S. District Court judge denied its motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a group of disgruntled T-Mobile subscribers, claiming the Bellevue-based company charges them -- and millions of T-Mobile customers -- for unsolicited text messages.
The article has a couple of great tips when it comes to handling text messages. The one about "premium text messages" caught my eye:
Even with an unlimited plan, you can still end up paying a lot for text messages – so-called “premium text messages” -- which can cost $1-$10 each. These are texts sent to or from special subscription services, like dating services. One consumer who wrote to Red Tape found himself on the long end of a $10,000 bill not long ago. Even if you use text messaging, you should consider calling your carrier and asking that premium texting be disabled.
Why would I ever want to give up my current cellphone plan? It is cheap, inflation-proof, free cellphone calls after 7PM (not after 9PM), free mobile-to-mobile and has free incoming SMS. If I ever decided to go for a data-enabled phone, I might just get a phone with only a dataplan and keep my current cellphone.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Travel tips at Dulles Airport

For the third time in nearly as many weeks, I found myself in Washington Dulles Airport. This time I learned two new traveling tips:

(1) If you want to hop onto an earlier flight, make sure your luggage gets transferred to the new flight at least 2 hours prior to take off. Or if you come from abroad, make the change right after customs, right before you enter your luggage back into the hands of the airline.

(2) When Terminal C (an older United Terminal) at Dulles is stuffy and without air-conditioning (as was today), head over to Terminal B. Terminal B is a new international terminal. It was not very crowded and had some nice food options. At Dulles, it's only a 1 minute ride on those odd looking "mobile lounges". Unlike other airports where you might fear coming back via the inter-terminal transportation system can take a long time, the system at Dulles is great and fast.

From the history page of Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority page:
The concept that made the new airport outstanding and unique from the passenger's view in 1962 was the specially designed mobile lounge, used to transport the passengers between the terminal building and the aircraft parked on a jet ramp ½ mile away from the terminal. The mobile lounge was designed by the Chrysler Corporation in association with the Budd Company.dulles_history_4

The mobile lounge was constructed as a 54-foot long, 16-foot wide, 17 1/2-foot high vehicle, and could carry 102 passengers, 71 of them seated, directly from the terminal to the aircraft on the ramp. This protected the passengers from weather, jet noise and blast, and also eliminated long walking distances. Because of the mobile lounge, passengers had to walk only 200 feet once they entered the terminal until they were seated in the lounge for the short trip directly to their aircraft.

Today, Dulles operates 19 mobile lounges and 30 plane mates, which are similar to the lounges but can transport passengers from the terminals, directly onto the airplane by attaching itself to the aircraft.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wanted: Traffic Expert (Relocation a must)

Belgium has gone mad when it comes to traffic signalization. On our recent vacation in Belgium, although I do carry a Belgian driver's license, I felt like a foreigner in my own country when it came to driving.

Several traffic signs where completely new to me.
At the entry roads to Antwerpen, I noted the following sign over and over. At first I thought something was going to fall on my car. But the red circle does not mean this is an advisory sign, rather a mandatory rule. The signs means no entry for cars who carry explosive or incendiary cargo. I didn't take it conveys the message very clearly.

The provincial recreation park, De Nekker, in Mechelen featured a funny sign: no waterpipes allowed. (Photo forthcoming).

Even since unmanned cameras were allowed by law to catch speeding, local governments have been installing these "birdnests" as my dad calls them, everywhere.

Even in the middle of the night on an empty road, you better be on the look out for them, as they never rest.

To increase the effectiveness of these cameras (read: revenue), it appears there's an active campaign to confuse drivers about the current speed limit. This is especially the case if you are not familiar with the area.
  • In Tremelo, in one direction you can drive 70km/hr. Make a U-turn and the speed limit is 50km/hr. It turns out the town limit with Keerbergen is in the middle of the road.
  • In several town centers, I noted an "end of 30km/hr" sign. The "entering 30km/hr" sign is nowhere to be seen. You are speeding by definition.
  • "Herhaling" means "repitition". All ofa sudden you encounter a sign "50km/hr- herhaling". Shock! Was I speeding? Where was the first sign? Nobody knows. Also known as X-signs.
  • As you leave a town, the typical speed limit is 70km/hr. We saw several times when a 70km/hr sign is followed withing 100 meters(!) by a 50lm/hr sign, allowing drivers to squeeze one quick burst out of the engine.
  • Upon entering an urban area, a white sign indicates the name of the town, as well as a little pictorial about the local abbey or church. This also means 50km/hr. Why not add a sign stating the speedlimit explicitly. It will be much easier for tourists and foreigners.
  • While on one hand overloading the meaning of the sign with a speedlimit, there are plenty of examples proving the Belgian maffia must own signage companies. On several roads I noted signs literally every 200 meters (with no street crossings in between). On the stretch Herselt-Aarschot, I must have counted ten 70km/hr signs every 200 meters. This little stretch is also known for extreme alzheimers.
Speed limit signs a plenty, direction signs are few. Unlike in the US, driving to and from town centers based upon signs is nearly impossible. I was looking for the note "Sponsored by Garming or TomTom" underneath the signs. Luckily I was well prepared using Google Maps.

Poorly design beltways where two lane roads are reduced to one lane traffic jams, the wild grow of speed limit signs, the lack of directions and the "birdnests", really take the fun out of driving in Belgium. It's time to get some real experts behind the wheel. Traffic experts, apply in the comments section.