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A Written Warning to Hall and Oates

6 Mar

It’s a written warning to anodyne seventies and eighties pop duo Hall and Oates for their legal action against Brooklyn based breakfast food producer Early Bird Foods & Co, claiming that their granola blend “Haulin’ Oats” infringes their brand name.
Come on chaps, don’t get all steamed up and melt your hair gel. What could be more suitable as a tribute to you and your music than granola? Just call the folks over at Early Bird and ask them to make sure that their product is not only nut-free, but bland, stale and hard to stomach.

British Airways Executive Club and the $56,092 Hotel Room

31 Aug

Is this the worst website in the world? No, I don’t mean the one you are reading now – it’s brilliant – but rather the British Airways Executive Club website.

I have been a member of the BA Executive Club for many years, accumulating points through flights and especially through rewards for credit card purchases. I always intended to use these points, which they call “Avios,” to fly back to Scotland from the US for family visits but have never succeeded in doing so, not only because there are rarely seats available, but also because the fees that British Airways charges for reward flights (“fuel surcharge,” anyone?) make them almost as expensive as just buying a ticket on another airline. Finally, I gave up and decided to use the points for hotels instead. The good news is that hotels are available. The bad news is that you need to set aside a hefty chunk of time to book them on the Executive Club website.

Unbeatable Deals on Hotels – We will not be Oversold

Last week, I tried to book a hotel for my wife and daughter for two nights in Charleston, South Carolina. Sounds simple enough. Here’s what happened. You might want to pour yourself a drink and get comfortable.

First, just for interest’s sake, I decided to see what it would cost to book the room through the website, using money, rather than Avios points. Perhaps the prices would be discounted to the extent that I would be better to do this and save my points. I was presented with a choice of three hotels.

Hotel Choices

 

Initially I thought that this was maybe the price to buy the hotel, but it is in fact the price of a room for two nights.

Not wishing to appear a cheapskate, I decided to check out the Belmond Palace at $56,092. This took me to the next screen where I was offered the chance to pay $74,792 for the same Double Premium room, should I feel that I was taking advantage of the hotel by snapping it up for only $56,092. I was tempted. However, a quick check of recent book sales served to urge restraint, and I decided to use the Avios points instead.

Executive Club Room Choices

 

I settled on the Holiday Inn for 33,100 Avios and attempted to book it. First I was confronted by a message warning me that once I booked, I wouldn’t be able to change the booking, although I could cancel it for a fairly hefty fee. I decided that I could live with this and proceeded to enter the names of my wife and daughter. Everything seemed to be going well until this message appeared on the screen. The error message at the top is hard to read, but what it says, in rather peculiar English is “The names of the travellers verified must be EXACT matches with the names passed in the household profile.”

Executive Club Error Message

 

One of the features of the Executive Club is that, as well as an individual account, you have a “household account,” allowing you to pool miles earned by various members of your household. I checked and double checked that the names were entered exactly as they were passed in the household profile, but the website wasn’t to be persuaded. Annoying, but not to worry. I would just give them a call at the number shown on the page and tell them about the problem. But wait, if you look at the bottom right of the screenshot, you’ll see that there is no number, just the words “[phone number].” I eventually found the phone number for the Executive Club by opening another window and navigating to their “Contact Executive Club” page.

Executive Club Contact

 

Seeing that it was an 800 number, and since my mobile phone was in the other room, I decided to call it using skype on my computer. When I tried to do so, I found that I would apparently be calling a number in Finland…

Executive Club Skype

 

… so I went and got my mobile phone.

The Executive Club representative had an impeccable English accent for a Finn. I explained the situation and she offered to let me make the reservation by phone. This, unfortunately, would result in an extra charge. I explained that I didn’t want to do this and eventually she was able to identify the problem. I couldn’t reserve a room for my wife and daughter unless I was traveling with them. Apparently this was new and only applied to hotel rooms, not flights, and yes, it would be useful to have some mention of this on the website. I had to go out and log back in as my wife, making the reservation which, since she didn’t have enough miles, would actually still be paid for out of my miles. Simple!

Flights of Fancy

Buoyed by my success in making a hotel reservation in under two hours, I decided to check out flights to the UK around Christmas time. I entered dates of 18th December and 15th January.

Executive Club Flight Selection

As you can see below, the website decided that I really shouldn’t leave until 12th June 2015, although it was OK to return on January 15th 2015, five months earlier than I left. I double-checked that I had not listed Doctor Who in my household account.

Executive Club Flight Result

 

To add insult to injury, the website had not only changed my selected departure date to five months after my return, it had not even changed it to a date when they had any bloody seats available anyway!

I tried again with the same result. I changed the dates slightly and the website followed suit, changing the return date by a day or two. It would not, however, believe that I wanted to depart until five months after I had already returned.

A History of Weirdness

This is not the first time I have encountered the weirdness of the Executive Club website. On previous occasions, I have arrived at the final screen in the hotel reservation process only to find myself face to face with the spinning wheel of death as the page refuses to load, leaving me uncertain of whether I have reserved a room or not.

This summer, I tried to book a hotel in Rome for six nights. Unfortunately, only the first four nights were available. I booked those nights, thinking I would have to find somewhere else for the other two nights. But no, I was able to book those two nights at the same hotel. Six nights were available, just not if you wanted to book them all at once. I had fun explaining to the hotel why I had two bookings. Luckily they didn’t make me change rooms half way through my stay.

So I’m afraid it’s a written warning to the British Airways Executive Club website. Unless the whole purpose is to make it so difficult to redeem your points that you never do. In which case, I have no choice but to tip my hat to them and hand out a performance bonus.

A Written Warning to the Greek Government

9 Jul

Readers of the T. John Dick books will know of our hero’s enthusiasm for elaborate policies and procedures. You have only to recall his frustration at the flouting of his Meeting Room Reservation Procedure, the fearsome new Product Development Procedure and even a Company Nickname Procedure. In response, readers have sent me examples of policies they are meant to follow in their own companies, my favorite being a multi-page document describing the procedure for standardizing the format of nameplates on office doors. But none of these can compare for pure fatuousness and futility with the policy of the Greek government when it comes to driving in their country.

It is a legal requirement for visitors with a non-EU license to equip themselves with an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). This document, valid for a year, does not replace your license, but provides a translation of it in a standardized form, so that local authorities, such as the police can use it to interpret the license from your own country. That has a certain logic to it, and I have equipped myself with the document on previous trips to Italy and Spain, although it is a bit insulting to members of the constabulary of these countries to suggest that they would not be able to figure out something as basic as a US driver’s license. The governments of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and elsewhere display no such lack of confidence in those policing their roads.

To be fair, knowledge of English is less widespread in Greece than in some of those countries and, since even the alphabet is different, it could prove useful to have a handy translation into the local vernacular. Which makes it puzzling that, although the International Driver’s Permit contains translations into eleven languages, none of them is actually Greek. If I make a few wrong turns and am stopped by the police for failing to signal in Beijing, I am covered. Same thing if, God forbid, I should end up in Russia or Iraq. But if I find myself being asked for my license in Rhodes, the policeman doing the asking will find himself staring at a document that is all not Greek to him. Statistically, there might be a slightly higher chance of his being able to interpret the license through a greater facility in French, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Italian, German, Spanish or Swedish than in English, but this is a long shot.

Anxious to get to the bottom of this, I called the Greek Embassy in Washington. Perhaps it had escaped their notice that there was no Greek translation. After all, it does have Russian, which looks kind of like Greek. The lady I spoke to was pleasant enough but seemed unable to grasp why I was calling her. The conversation went something like this…

“You need the International Driver’s Permit to drive in Greece.”

“Yes, I know, but did you realize that there is no Greek translation?”

“It’s a legal requirement.”

“Thanks for confirming that. You do know there is no Greek translation?”

“You must have it and also your US license.”

“Even though it’s useless?”

“It’s a legal requirement.”

So yesterday I went to the AAA office and equipped myself with this legally required document in preparation for my upcoming trip to Greece with my daughter. It also allows me to drive in Guinea-Bissau, should the occasion arise – which it might, if she is navigating..

 

A Written Warning to the Scottish Football Association

22 Nov

Scotland v USA 1Last week, Hampden Park, spiritual home of Scottish football and one of the the most venerable sporting venues in the world, was honored by the presence of a literary giant, when I made an appearance to watch Scotland take on the USA in a friendly international match. Anxious to avoid publicity, I arrived incognito without my Literary Giant badge, and watched proceedings from amongst the common people, including those very commonest of people, my brother and my nephew.

A friendly match against the USA doesn’t rank as a particularly big occasion at Hampden, but it seemed that the organizers were taken by surprise that anyone turned up at all. Or at least that anyone would want to buy a ticket. We arrived with half an hour to spare, having eventually found somewhere to park. I don’t blame anyone for the lack of parking at Hampden. Parking would not have been a major consideration when the stadium was built in 1903. What I do blame the organizers for – and hence this stern written warning – is that ticket sales were conducted from two portacabins with huge lines of fans positioned in front of them, condemned to miss the start of the match. This is like Walmart opening two cash registers for the Thanksgiving sales.

Given the quality of the match of which I was eventually permitted to see all but the opening minutes, there is a slight chance that the SFA had my best interests at heart in trying to dissuade me from entering the ground. But that would be a very generous interpretation. What’s more, the national anthems might have been the most entertaining part of the whole evening, and they made me miss that.

Once inside, I found myself reflecting on the last international match I attended there, which was against Switzerland. Or it might have been East Germany. The fact that it could have been East Germany is an indication of how long ago it was. The stadium was unrecognizable, of course. Gone were the old terraces, where I used to stand with up to 81,000 other fans on what seemed like worn down railway sleepers, and gone from the new all-seater stadium was much of the atmosphere that made the old place, with the famous Hampden roar, so special. On the other hand, it was a lot more comfortable.

As for the match itself, not much to report. In a dull 0-0 draw, Scotland may have been marginally the better team, but still did their best to gift the game to the visitors in the last few minutes, by deciding that there was no need to do any more of that boring defending stuff. Jozy Altidore, in particular, came very close, taking a brief break from fouling to fizz a shot inches wide of the post.

So a written warning to the SFA for making me miss those national anthems.

 

A written warning to “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.”

26 Sep

It is a peculiarity of the American mind to be willing to accept as fact any amount of vainglorious nonsense that is repeated often enough, without a hint of irony or embarrassment. Nowhere is this more glaring than in the description of the Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” Surely, you would think, even somebody who had never encountered any other deliberative body anywhere in the world would have a hard time accepting this.

Yesterday this august assembly spent almost an entire day listening to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas cover such topics as his colleagues’ haircuts and (inevitably) the parallels between Obamacare and the Nazis. At one point, he read from Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham. And because of the Senate’s absurd rules, nobody could shut him up. There is no Cruz control in the Senate.

I am maybe one of the few people in this country who has ever watched C-Span for more than five minutes. What the experience has taught me is that Senator Cruz’s performance may be only slightly below the normal standard of debate in the Senate. Few indeed are the eloquent, or even competent, speakers one would expect to find in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

And the ultimate irony – in comparing Obamacare to Green Eggs and Ham, Cruz demonstrated that he is not even capable of understanding the message of a book written for toddlers. As Senator Charles Schumer observed, “The moral of that story is to try things you may not like. If he tasted Green Eggs and Ham, he may actually like them.”

A Written Warning to Ron the Nefarious Telemarketer

3 Aug

I had a call from an Indian gentleman today. He asked to speak to Mrs. Gump. When I asked who was calling, he told me his name was Ron Pearson, which sounded a little unlikely to me. He went on to explain that he was calling from the “Computer Service Center,” at which point I interrupted him to point out that no he wasn’t, and that he was a liar.

If my response to Ron seems a little brusque, I should point out that I have had several calls from other Rons, and I am wise to their little game. Unfortunately, my mother, who is in her eighties, fell for their cunning plan, which goes as follows.

1. Get hold of a naïve interlocutor, who is not computer-savvy. Elderly women whose children bought them a computer are a prime target.

2. Inform them that a virus has been detected on their computer – but don’t panic, they are going to help them remove it.

3. Talk them through a few steps that will install malware on their computer in the guise of a “virus removal tool.”

4. After their computer becomes unusable, as a result of their malware, not the supposed “virus” they blame it on, charge them to activate the “virus removal tool, so that they can remove the virus.”

Now, perhaps, you can understand the brusqueness of my response to Ron. When the Rons target my mother, it becomes personal. And now they were after my wife. You can add sexism to the list of charges against the Rons. They assume that women are more likely to be daft enough to fall for their tricks.

Ron seemed a little taken aback by my calling him a liar, but only for a moment.

“Oh, so I’m a fucker, am I?” Ron must have been used to the occasional negative reaction to his approach.

I considered his question for a moment, before deciding his assessment was broadly accurate. He had said it better than I could have.

“Yes, as a matter of fact you are, Ron. You should be ashamed of yourself. Goodbye.”

I immediately regretted hanging up. The conversation could have been interesting. I also resolved that the next time a Ron called, I would go along with him, pretending to be following his directions to install malware on my computer, while in fact getting on with other things. That would keep him busy for twenty minutes, and perhaps save somebody’s granny a lot of heartache.

When I told my seventeen-year-old daughter about Ron, accompanying my story with a no-holds-barred assessment of the kind of chap who would prey on old women for a living, she immediately asked me to imagine myself in his situation. This might be the only job he could get to feed his family. What would I do in his place? This is typical of the kind of question young Miss Gump comes up with.

It’s an interesting question. I didn’t hesitate in my reply. What about you. What would you do?

Jean-Paul Sartre was a Silly Ass

9 Jul

Jean Paul Sartre once famously described the Cantabrian village of Santillana del Mar as the most beautiful in all of Spain. He even more famously remarked, “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” (For the francophonically disadvantaged, “Hell is other people.”) Taken individually, the first observation is an interesting tourist tip, while the second is the kind of thing you would expect from a smarty-pants philosopher with a gift for the pithy epithet. Taken together, they establish old JP as a silly ass.

Santillana del Mar - Spain's most beautiful village, according to Sartre.

Santillana del Mar – Spain’s most beautiful village, according to Sartre.

By letting the cat out of the bag about Santillana del Mar, Sartre created an enfer for future visitors. It would be an interesting line of philosphical enquiry to explore whether existentialists could, even theoretically, turn in their graves, but, if so, Jean Paul must be spinning like a top. The village is still pretty and chock full of historic buildings, but they are now mostly occupied by souvenir shops and restaurants serving tourists, whose satisfaction is of no interest to proprietors who see no prospect of a return visit. Thus Sartre invalidated his own assertion in the very act of uttering it.

If only Sartre had had the foresight and common sense of that other great author and philosopher, me! For I have discovered the most beautiful village in Spain, but unlike the great chump of the Rive Gauche, I am not going to tell you where it is.

I'm not telling you where this is.

I’m not telling you where this is.

I’ve just returned from a walk through its medieval and renaissance core, along the river, beneath the ruined castle to the Roman bridge. And this evening, I’m about to stroll along the colonnaded main street to the Plaza Mayor with Mrs. Gump and the Gumpettes for another leisurely dinner, after pre-prandial drinks watching scores of kids running riot all over the square under the casual supervision of their parents and grandparents sheltering from the evening sun under a line of plane trees.

A literary giant ate dinner here (wherever it is).

A literary giant ate dinner here (wherever it is).

In two days, we have not encountered any non-Spaniards. I say that, not out of obnoxious travel snobbery – I enjoy meeting other travelers – but because it has shown me that beautiful places like this really do still exist in Europe, not yet ruined, where people actually live, work and play – especially play, it would seem, judging from the throngs of boisterous youngsters crowding the small taverns outside our hotel. I will be very sorry to leave this place.

View from the Roman bridge towards ... uh, oh, almost gave it away there!

View from the Roman bridge towards … uh, oh, almost gave it away there!

Sorry, Jean-Paul. It has to be a written warning for you and your big mouth. I hold you personally responsible for the awful lunch I had in Santillana del Mar.

Edinburgh’s Tram Project – Is T. John Dick Involved?

28 Apr

A final written warning to Edinburgh city Council, authors of that metropolis’ tram project.

TJpic2There is no space here to go into the history of this atrociously mismanaged mess, which will end up costing the city almost a billion dollars, despite being scaled back to consist of just a fancy way to get to the airport. I’ll leave it to others to list the businesses forced to close, as work on the project shut streets for years, and to point out that the end result of all this will be to move vehicle traffic from large thoroughfares designed for the purpose onto smaller residential ones, while making it almost impossible to get from one side of the city to the other.

All this mismanagement is worthy of T. John Dick, but what makes me wonder if he was hired as a consultant is the design of the tram stops. These do not seem to have been conceived by anyone who has ever waited for public transport in Scotland, where the occasional wet and windy day has been observed over the years. I picture old TJ making the selection from a range of options placed before him by his most generous consultants Makem, Paimore and Lovett on a sunny spring day in Falling Rock, North Carolina, before adjourning for further intensive brainstorming at one of the area’s top restaurants – a venue at which he will no doubt have arrived in a big, fat, gas-guzzling American car.

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Edinburgh

10 Jan

A written warning to organizers of school trips to Europe, who try to pack in too many places in too short a time.

I was in a bookstore in Edinburgh yesterday, when I encountered a frazzled-looking young lady staring blankly at the shelves. In the minute or so she stood next to me in silence, she didn’t pick up a book to look at. She just stood there. At last, she asked me, who my favorite author was. A difficult question to answer. I made a few suggestions, and in the ensuing conversation it emerged that she was on a school trip from North Carolina.

“Really? That’s where I’m from,” I said. “Are you here for New Year?”

She let out a massive sigh. “School trip?”

That sigh and her general expression spoke volumes. Her group had arrived the previous night in a cold dreary January Edinburgh, most of which is a building site thanks to the disastrous tram project, been whisked round the castle and the Royal Mile and maybe some other places she couldn’t remember. They were taking the train down to London that night, the last stop in a trip which had taken in 3 days in Ireland (always at its best in the depths of winter, especially for a group precluded by their tender years from entering those establishments able to provide the traditional solace) and a night in Wales. Poor souls!

At the root of the problem – the persistent notion that a “tour” of the UK consisting of a few days in London with a one-day trip to Edinburgh to be able to say you have “done Scotland” is worth the bother. The solution – dump the English part of the trip, visit Edinburgh and then the Highlands. And, for heaven’s sake, do it in the summer!

A written warning to Neil Lennon

13 Dec

A written warning goes to Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic, for multiple instances of failing to give credit to or even mention the valiant efforts of lesser opposition.

This time it was the part-timers of Arbroath, who after fighting Celtic to a draw in Glasgow, narrowly missed out on their windswept home turf, losing 1-0 after having had a good goal disallowed and giving their illustrious guests a good run for their money. A nod in the direction of the Red Lichties in the post-match interview would have been good form.

I’ve noticed that Neil Lennon never does this. When his team gets beaten, he never gives any credit to the opposition, proceeding immediately to his bewilderment at his own team’s failure to sweep them aside, suggestions that the conditions were to blame, etc. Even the formulaic “All credit to (insert opposing team here)” would add a touch of class. The great managers almost always do this, and although Neil Lennon is not a great manager, he could at least imitate them in this one easy respect.

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