December 29, 2007

Weekly Reader – Dec. 29, 2007 – TV, coffee, patents and Branson

Filed under: apple, customer service, environment, television, weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:38 am

This week’s interesting reads:

  • Futurist: Digital TV’s Mixed Signals (CQ) – Congressional Quarterly takes a look at the impact of government action/inaction on the development and adoption of technology. As we near the Feb. 2009 date when analog broadcasting in the United States will cease, CQ looks back at what happened when television first came in to being. Similar blame/credit could be assigned to the government for the division in the United States between two incompatible wireless technologies. via Mark Stencel
  • Don’t Fear Starbucks (Slate) – What happens to mom and pop coffeehouses when Starbucks moves in to town? According to the piece from Slate, business increases. As Starbucks educates local audiences on the value of high-priced coffee, independent coffeehouses benefit. I prefer independents because, unlike Starbucks, many of them have free WiFi. via Robert Franklin
  • Apple’s Piping Hot Innovation (Forbes) – In related coffee news, a recent Apple patent filing describes a “wireless system that would allow customers to place an order at a store using a wireless device such as a media player, a wireless personal digital assistant or a cellphone.” In theory, you’d be able to tap a button on your iPhone as you’re driving to Starbucks to place your order. If only it would tap into the nav system on your car to know that you’re headed to the Starbucks and save you that button click. Hmm… where’s my patent attorney?
  • 10 Questions for Richard Branson (TIME) – One of my favorite billionaires talks about global warming, risk taking, the state of the music market and dyslexia. “Life is a helluva lot more fun if you say yes rather than no,” Branson says. The podcast of the interview is worth a listen.
About these ads

December 26, 2007

Deep dish pizza near O’Hare – result found

Filed under: random, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:06 pm

Since I wrote earlier about the difficulties I had using search engines to find deep dish pizza, this blog has become the number one Google result for the query “deep dish pizza at O’Hare.” In the interest of serving my valued readers, I conducted some on-the-ground research.

Although you can’t find the cheesy goodness at O’Hare, you can find it nearby at Gino’s East on Higgins. The adventurous can take the El for $4 roundtrip. (That’s what I did.) The less adventurous can take a cab. The sneaky can try boarding the shuttle bus to the Marriott O’Hare next door.

Deep dish goodness

You should have 3 1/2 hours between flights if you want to do this by El. My gate-to-gate time, with minimal security lines, was just under 3 hours. You can cut that time by calling your order in and taking a cab. Here’s a photo of the menu. More pictures and a map are on flickr.

Directions by El:

  • Follow the signs at the airport for “Trains to the City”
  • Arrive at the El station under the airport
  • Pay $4 for a fare card
  • Take the El two stops to Cumberland
  • Cross over the Damn Ryan toward the Marriott
  • As you’re crossing the bridge, notice the Bearing Point building on the left; that’s where you’re headed
  • Walk through the Marriott parking lot to Gino’s East
  • Order beer and a pizza

Note that the Theatrical Security Agency has started extra screening of food and pie-like substances. Fortunately, they didn’t confiscate my leftovers. But that may depend on how hungry they are.

December 25, 2007

Rocky’s travel secrets for your flights home

Filed under: customer service, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:27 pm

Christmas time at Dulles

I’ve spent much of this year in airports and on airplanes. (Including 11 hours at O’Hare on Sunday for a fruitless trip.)

Over the years, I’ve developed strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel. I hope you don’t need any of them on your travels home, but just in case:

  • It’s not about you. Don’t take flight cancellations or being involuntarily bumped personally. No one is out to get you. Running an airline is an incredibly hard business even on a good day. Add in miserable weather and high loads and a lot of people are going to be unhappy. As much as their decisions might inconvenience you, there’s usually (though not always) logic behind the decisions. Decisions take into account numerous factors including number of passengers inconvenienced, crew availability, availability of alternate flights and aircraft positioning.
  • Life’s not fair. The airline business is a business. It’s not always first come, first served. If there’s a long standby list, the 100k mile traveler who walks up 5 minutes before they start clearing standbys will get the seat over someone who flies once a year on cheap tickets and has been waiting 45 minutes. Although the rules vary by airline, priority lists typically take into account things like frequent flier status, class of service, previous inconvenience, whether you are in a connecting city, fare paid and time of check in. At least three times this year, I’ve watched as airlines denied boarding to people who booked their tickets months earlier and checked in well ahead of time.
  • OK, it’s a little about you. Despite these priority rules, gate agents do have some discretion to change your priority. If you’ve got a solid reason, it can’t hurt to ask. Customers who were bumped from previous flights sometimes get this kind of treatment.
  • Always call the airline when your flight is canceled. Usually the gate agent will tell you go to the customer service desk for help. Don’t do it. At least not before you call the airline. Get on your cell phone with reservations and ask them for help. Ideally, you’ll do this while you’re walking toward customer service or standing in line. It’s a good idea to have the phone number in your speed dial so you don’t have to fumble for it. Update: With advances in technology, they might be able to rebook you over the phone and email you a new boarding pass that you can pull up on your cell phone. That sure beats waiting in a 90 minute line at the airport!
  • Look at the departure boards for other flights to your destination. If your flight is canceled, look to see which gate the next flight to your destination is going out from. If it’s in the next hour, high tail it to that gate and ask the agent to get on that flight. Again, be on your phone with reservations as you’re walking and standing in line. (A handsfree kit is great for this.) If your flight is a few hours away, chances are no one is working that flight yet and you’re better off in the customer service line.
  • Look for an empty gate with an unoccupied agent. Gate agents can help you with other flights, but won’t do it if they’re busy running their own flight. Be polite, ask respectfully and you might save yourself a long wait in line.
  • Be flexible. If you’re traveling to an area with multiple airports or airports within reasonable driving distance, consider taking flights there. If the change was the airline’s fault, they’ll usually pay to get you where you should’ve been. If it was weather or air-traffic control related, you’re on your own.
  • Be nice. People want to help people who are nice to them. The fastest way to get an agent to not help you is to start making demands, threaten to sue or start swearing. I witnessed one passenger in Las Vegas call an agent a “bitch” under his breath as he walked away. She called the gate he was going to and told that agent about it.
  • Call your friends. If you’re stuck and have a well-traveled friend, give them a call. I have a couple of people I can call when I get stuck to look up flight availability, hotels and other alternatives. Because they’re not dealing with dozens of other people, they can look at a wider range of options. Although they can’t rebook your flight, they can give you a good picture of what your choices are. With options in hand, you become a gate agent’s friend by making their job easier. If I’m already on your speed dial, feel free to call me when you’re stuck.
  • If you have a really sticky problem, try FlyerTalk. FlyerTalk is the ultimate travel resource. It’s populated by ultra-frequent travelers. Many of them know more about airline reservations and ticketing than the typical reservations agent. Do a search to see if your problem is already covered. If it isn’t, pick the appropriate forum for your airline and post your question. Be sure you provide all the pertinent information, but don’t post things like confirmation numbers.
  • Sign up for your airline’s text messaging service. Many airlines these days offer text message alerts. In normal travel, this will send you flight status information including gate assignments. As airlines automate their service recovery, they’re using text messages to communicate flight information. When United cancels a flight they can often rebook you automatically. Your new flight information gets sent to your cell phone. (This doesn’t work in the case of mass cancellations, but I’ve found it to be useful.)
  • Don’t put too much stock in the flight status boards. When there is extreme weather and a lot of cancellations, the flight status boards are usually fiction. The times shown are best guesses and can change frequently. It’s important to know that they can also become earlier. This Sunday, I saw a flight go from a scheduled 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. back to an on time departure. It actually left at 11:00 p.m., so the people who relied on the 12:30 a.m. time missed it. If you leave the gate area, use your cell phone or laptop and check on the flight every 15 minutes or so.
  • Keep your cell phone and laptop chargers in your carry on. If you suffer long delays, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of power. You might need these tools to help book your next flight. Because every gadget seemingly has its own style of connector, these are hard to come by in an airport. If you find that you are running out of power, look for a “power save” mode, which usually lets you eke out some more use by dimming the screen or throttling the processor.
  • Keep a pair of headphones in your laptop bag. With a laptop, headphones and Wifi, you can amuse yourself while you wait for your next flight. I spent one recent delay watching crappy television at It won’t make your delay any shorter, but it will feel like it.

Merry Christmas

Filed under: personal, random, rocky's travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 11:02 am

Collingwood trees covered in snow

Merry Christmas to one and all and best wishes for a very happy new year.

It’s been quite the interesting year at Casa Rocky. I’ve reaffirmed the power of friendship in a sometimes difficult year, spending time with and getting support from friends near and far.

I’ve taken advantage of my ample free time to travel the world and visit places new and old: Whistler, Dublin, Vail, San Francisco, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New York, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, the Outer Banks, San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Reno, San Francisco and San Francisco.

Did I mention San Francisco?

Christmas came a little bit early this year, as I’m deciding among three job offers. I expect to start a new job on the Left Coast early next year. I’ll write more about that when the details are finalized.

Creative Commons image by flickr user Peter Bowers. Also see my second choice image.

December 23, 2007

When you’re not important … and you know it

Filed under: random, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:13 pm

I’ve been waiting at O’Hare now for five hours now. I still have at least three hours to go, assuming United doesn’t cancel my flight. My scheduled 5:45 p.m. flight is showing an estimated departure time of 10:33 p.m.

It’s been a windy day in the Windy City, with winds gusting up to 60 mph. This significantly reduces the number of flights that can take off and land.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, I know I’m not important to United today. Although they haven’t said so, it’s clear what they’re doing. They’re pushing the brunt of the delays and cancellations on to passengers headed to minor destinations or on flights with low loads. Flights to major cities are on time or have 1-2 hour delays. Flights like mine are delayed for hours.

It makes perfect sense. Why inconvenience 150 passengers when you can inconvenience just 50?

Update: United did indeed cancel my flight. With my options left to spending all day Christmas Eve trying to get on the sold out flights or taking a confirmed seat on Christmas Day, I ended up taking a flight back to Baltimore. 22 hours of travel to end up back where I started!

December 22, 2007

Weekly Reader – Dec. 22, 2007 – Usability, corrections, Wiimote whiteboard and geography

Filed under: weekly reader — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:01 am

This week’s round up of interesting reads and views:

  • Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine (NYTimes) – A look at usability issues and the impact of product design on humans. It comes ahead of Christmas Day, when many people will be presented with unusable gadgets. Some of the biggest usability problems are caused by product people and engineers who design for themselves, instead of identifying their target audience and designing for them. My rule of thumb for Web design: if you have to put a “what is this?” link next to a feature, you don’t need it. via Adam Lasnik
  • Crunks 2007: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections – Obama, Osama. Same difference. My favorite: “An article in Wednesday’s Calendar section about an English-language newspaper in Mexico City referred to the many U.S. ex-patriots who live there. It should have said expatriates.” via Angie Wu
  • How to create a multi-touch virtual white board with a Wiimote – Create a digital whiteboard on the cheap using a Wiimote. via Clint Pidlubny
  • Drive Someone Insane with Postcards (eBay) – From the “I wish I’d thought of that” department. Pay a stranger to send 3 postcards to torment a friend. The bidding was more than $400 last I checked. I got less than that for my Wii! via Robert Franklin
  • “I thought Europe was a country” (video below) – This clip from “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader” tells a lot. Clearly my friend Tricia and her colleagues at National Geographic have a lot of work to do. via

December 21, 2007

Lighting up Google Maps in red and green

Filed under: google, journalism, maps, mashups, media, newspapers, satellite navigation — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:41 pm

Christmas lights from flickr

Creative Commons image from flickr user listentoreason.

Google’s LatLong blog reports that The Ledger in Florida has published a Google My Map of Christmas lights in and around Lakeland, Fla. It’s great that newspapers are finally starting to use open Internet tools to help tell the story. I’ve written before about how news outlets used My Maps during the California wildfires.

It would’ve been nicer if The Ledger included pictures. Instead, they have descriptions like this:

North Pole scene with polar bears and igloos; forest scene with 15 lighted trees, Santas and deer; inflatable snow family; inflatable Santa; two Santas in sleigh with reindeer; nativity scene with shepherd, angels and wise men; Santa and Mrs. Claus and elves; candy canes and lollipops, 12 lighted trees; lighted deer; holographic snow family; wreaths; stars; lighted arches; eight-foot lighted star.

How many times does the “picture is worth a thousand words” have to be repeated for it to stick? Kudos to The Ledger, however, for allowing users to edit the map by adding their own favorite light displays.

Now if you had a Dash, you’d be able to see the map of light displays as you’re driving around.

More on: Google, maps, newspapers

December 18, 2007

Dash begins taking preorders

Filed under: dash, gps, lbs, local search, maps, mashups, satellite navigation — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:15 am

Dash connected GPSDash is now taking preorders for its next-generation navigation system. It’s one of the biggest breakthroughs in navigation technology and points to a time when we’ll all be connected as we drive down the road at 65 mph.

Unlike typical GPS devices, Dash is connected to the Internet via either a GPRS cellular connection or WiFi. (Some high end TomToms, like my new TomTom 920, can be paired with Bluetooth cell phones and use their data connections.)

Among the features this two-way connectivity enables:

  • More up-to-date content. You don’t have to worry about updating map and point of interest data; it happens automatically. Dash uses Yahoo! Search to find points of interest.
  • Additional content types. Want to see where the best Christmas lights are or what’s happening around town? The real-time connectivity allows you to search for the latest information. In theory, you’d be able to pull up images of your destination from flickr or Google’s Street View. Want to know how much that home you just drove by goes for? Pull up Zillow. Dash will offer support for GeoRSS and KML, making it easy for third-parties to provide content.
  • Live traffic. Dash uses other Dash units to help you determine what your commute will be like. Each Dash out there serves as a traffic probe.
  • Send-to-car. Send destinations to your car from your PC. I was driving the other day to meet my brother and he called to say he had moved since I last talked to him. I had to pull over to re-program the GPS. With Dash, he could have sent a new destination to my car.
  • See where your friends are. Although I don’t see this in the specs, a connected GPS could be used to show you where your friends are. (TomTom offers a similar feature.)

One way to think of Dash is as a location-enabled, mobile-optimized Web browser.

The biggest challenge Dash faces is pricing. All of these features and connectivity don’t come cheap. Prices on basic GPS units have almost fallen into the stocking stuffer category, with many units at $150 to $200.

Dash seems to be missing many of the features found in high-end ($400-$600) PNDs: Bluetooth hands-free calling, MP3 player, voice recognition and a picture viewer.

Dash retails for $600. In order to use the advanced features described above, you have to pay a monthly fee of $12.99. It’s $9.99/month if you prepay for two years, making the cost about $840. You won’t see that in many stockings.

More on: gps, satellite navigation

Sign of the times

Filed under: random — Rakesh Agrawal @ 6:36 am

I went to the E-Trade site this morning and this is the first thing that greeted me:

E-Trade investor protection

It’s a sign of the times. E-Trade has had more than its share of troubles lately. Suffering from the mortgage meltdown, it recently took a $2.5 billion capital infusion from Citadel Investment Group.

In a letter to investors, the acting CEO of E-Trade writes:

From this point forward our customers can be assured that E*TRADE FINANCIAL has no exposure to securities such as CDOs, Alt-A or second lien asset-backed securities.

One of the banks I did business with folded in September and was taken over by the FDIC. Fortunately for most savers FDIC protection is seamless.

December 17, 2007

Bad user interface design at Dulles

Filed under: fun, random, rocky's travel, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:54 pm

Bad user interface design

If the city you’re going to begins with P-Z, move the giant stocking out of the way.

Older Posts »

The Silver is the New Black Theme. Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 227 other followers

%d bloggers like this: