Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Uber Stonewalling: Earth calling Alon Lits

I recently learnt that Uber in India has been using a "SOS Button" in the Uber app since April 2015. I have been trying to "reach out" (i.e. contact) the CEO of Uber for Southern Africa, Alon Lits, but he's a difficult guy to get hold of. Tweets to @Litsvinnig on Twitter have been ignored. That's somewhat ironic, since "vinnig" is the Afrikaans word for "fast".

My messages to have been fruitless so far. I started by sending the following note as part of my trip feedback:
Please ask Alon Lits to email me since he is ignoring my Twitter messages (Sep 14, 09:53 PDT)
I got a reply 10 hours later at Sep 14, 19:22 PDT from "Olivia":
Hi Donn,
Thanks for reaching out!
Did you mean to contact Uber support? If so, would you mind providing more information on how we can help? We'll be happy to look into it and do what we can to help sort things out.
Please disregard this message if your feedback was only sent by accident. Best, Olivia
So then I replied via email:
Dear Olivia
Alon Lits is the CEO of Uber South Africa. I have been trying to contact him about some questions relating to the safety of passengers and drivers, and he stubbornly refuses to reply via Twitter, and there is no phone number I can call him on, and no email I can contact. I would be most grateful if you could supply me his contact details.
Best wishes, Donn
An hour later I got the following reply:
Hi Donn,
Thank you for reaching out. My name is Jemma and I am a Senior Support Specialist here at Uber. This issue has been escalated to my attention and I am keen to address your concerns here.
Unfortunately I cannot provide direct contact information for Alon. I'd be more than happy to address any query that you may have regarding rider or partner safety. If you'd like to forward me your questions, I'll get back to you as soon possible.
I'll keep a look out for your response.
Kind Regards, Jemma P
So on Saturday 17th September I wrote:
Dear Jemma
Please pass on the following link to Alon

If I don’t get feedback from him or someone official at Uber South Africa by the end of the month I am taking Uber to the Advertising Standards Authority for misleading and deceptive advertising.

Uber has had a “panic button” facility in India for 18 months, yet NOTHING has been done about it here. In the meantime, several drivers and passengers have been attacked by Meter Taxi drivers or their comrades, and there have been muggings and rapes of passengers. Do you honestly think that Uber customers should just passively sit back and wait another 18 months for Uber to decide what to do?

You may be content to sit around in the relative safety of California, but I can assure you that like in Africa is a little bit more dangerous. So kindly stop patronising me and pass this on to Alon Lits, the CEO of Uber SA. I suggest you read my blog article too. Maybe you will spot a few obvious problems with the Uber system. If they’re obvious to me they should be obvious to your development team too.
Thanks in advance, Donn
Since then: ** crickets ** (I write this on Wednesday 21 September)
In true "big corporate who doesn't give a **** and is happy to take my money if I don't complain" style, I haven't heard a word. But I know Alon reads his Twitter feed, because he retweeted an Uber South Africa birthday announcement. So we get cupcakes on Friday, but we run the risk of being mugged and/or raped every time we use their service. Life in South Africa is truly weird.
Alon, when you eventually find this blog post, please give me a call or send me an email. My contact details are on this page.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Why EIG is called Endurance International

I have been an Arvixe customer for several years. This time last year my web site(s) went down for several hours because their server was flaky. They moved my sites to a new server, but they have never been able to meet their Service Level Agreement of 99.99% uptime, so every month I have sent them a request for a refund.
Their billing support system is as bad as their servers. There is a note on their support portal dated 16 October 2015 asking for patience because they have a backlog of support tickets. Perhaps they are finally getting to the end of their backlog, I don't know. Today I received a note:
XXT-679-61954 - SLA Credit - December 2015 - $8.00
QYZ-625-38512 - SLA Credit - February 2016 - $8.00
BMK-986-67095 - SLA Credit - March 2016 - $8.00
BQA-176-25134 - SLA Credit - April 2016 - $8.00
KXY-538-81679 - SLA Credit - May 2016 - $8.00
YIK-233-47716 - SLA Credit - June 2016 - $8.00
IYH-117-84843 - SLA Credit - July 2016 - $8.00
CTE-487-27289 - SLA Credit - August 2016 - $8.00
The total credit added to your account today is $64.00 USD
Two years ago Arvixe was bought out by EIG, the Endurance International Group, a company whose business is to buy out web hosting businesses and run them into the ground. I don't know hoe they make any profit, other than relying on the technical ignorance of the customers they retain. My first encounter with them was when they took over WebHostForLife and totally screwed up my ASP.NET site so badly it displayed a blank page for two weeks. I moved to Arvixe and all was well until 6 months after EIG bought them out. Then the rot set in again, although not as badly this time round.
So now it's a war of attrition: my sites are hosted by EIG essentially for free, because they can only manage around 99% uptime per month. Sometimes it has been even lower. I'm having to put up with anything up to 30 minutes of downtime per month. So the "endurance" part is obvious: they want me to give up first. Sorry guys, I'm not going to give up without a fight. And right now that's costing you more money than it costs me.
These are the sites they host:
  • (Classic ASP which takes about 3 minutes to get started when you visit)
  • (standard HTML)
  • ASP.NET pages
One of these days I'll move them somewhere decent, but right now I'll put up with free hosting with no ads. Thanks to the monitoring service I can keep these sharks accountable.

Note: This post was originally posted on Steemit. Please leave comments there.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Uber Safety: You're On Your Own

Two horror stories are circulating on social media about people who have been beaten up and robbed after getting into what they thought was an Uber taxi. My subsequent questions on Twitter and my own experience of Uber leads me to come to the conclusion that Uber doesn't care about the safety of passengers in any active sense.

In this video, published by Uber, they make the claim that every driver is properly trained and vetted. Maybe, maybe not. Most of the drivers who I have used seem to be reasonably competent, but one definitely was not. More on that later.
But is Uber safe? It depends on what you mean by safety. If you use public transport in South Africa you have the choice between buses, minibus taxis, metered taxis and trains. Many buses are not roadworthy, and some bus drivers have been known to have been fired from one depot, only to be hired by another depot of the same large bus company. I used to work for a company that monitored complaints from motorists and passengers of commercial vehicles and buses. One passenger complained that the driver was speeding, so he stopped the bus and threw the passenger off. She was left stranded on the side of the road, and called Drive Report to report what happened. There is a continuous stream of news reports of bush crashes on our roads.
In Joburg we have ReaVaya, which is "better" than the normal municipal buses, but it's a logistical nightmare. It took my wife three weeks to get a smart card "ticket" and load funds into it. That was because the stations often run out of smart cards, or are offline and can't load cash into the card. They told my wife that if she traveled halfway across Joburg there was a station that might have stock of smart cards. Of course she couldn't use the bus to get there either. #WTF
Minibus taxis are used by millions of people every day, and they literally take their life into their hands getting on a taxi. Drivers are often reckless, vehicles are often unlicensed, and the cops are scared of the taxis. I have been involved in three collisions with minibus taxis, all of them caused by bad or reckless driving. The only safety you have as a passenger is that there are usually a dozen other people in the vehicle, so its safety by numbers: if something goes wrong, passengers will stick up for one another. But this doesn't help in the event of an accident or taxi war-related shootings.
The last time I took a metered taxi was 30 years ago, and it was really expensive then. Not much has changed, except that taxi drivers have become more aggressive in soliciting passengers at bus stations and airports. I avoid them like the plague. I'd rather hire a car.
So by comparison, Uber seems like a safer bet. You get to rate the driver, and the driver rates you as a passenger. But that's where the wheels fall off. The Uber app can't (or won't) tell me whether I have used the driver before. The app tells me the vehicle make and model, and registration, but not the colour. I requested this a year ago and nothing has changed. It can't be that difficult to add, and would make spotting the Uber vehicle a bit easier. Many Uber drivers don't display their license in the window, or even have their phone on the dashboard where it can be seen, because the metered taxi drivers at airports and railway stations attack them if they think they are an Uber driver. So an Uber vehicle looks exactly like a private vehicle. And that's one of the problems with Uber.
Another problem with Uber is the lax security of the apps and the back end. Uber claims that drivers have to use "two factor authentication" to log in. But the second factor is the phone that belongs to the driver. So if the driver logs in using a user name and password, all the second factor can do is confirm that he is using his own phone. It can't confirm who the driver is, and there is no time-out or re-authentication during the day. So if I abduct a driver, force him to sign in and then take his car and his phone I can pick up fares indefinitely until he escapes. The implication on Twitter is that Uber is lax about kicking drivers off the system if they resign or are fired. I have no way of confirming this.
What I can confirm is that Uber doesn't actively monitor any of the trips. The fact that you can see where the vehicle is, is only as a result of them recording the trip. If the trip takes longer than expected, no red flags go up at Uber HQ, and no intervention is made. Last year my wife took a trip from Melville to Cresta, which usually takes about 15-20 minutes and costs around R70-R80. The driver in this case was an idiot or wasn't properly trained. When he dropped her off he didn't end the trip, and kept the meter running for the next 3 days. Yes, three days later I cancelled the trip because I needed to catch a lift to the gym, and it told me that I was already "on trip". Then Uber duly billed me for the three days, and wondered why the R3,100 card charge was declined. The next time I tried to return home from gym they refused until I had paid the bill. That's where things got even more interesting.
There is no number you can call to speak to a real human at Uber. You can only contact drivers. If you want to "speak" to someone at Uber you leave a message on the app (e.g. email) or try your luck with Twitter. Fortunately I managed to get a response on Twitter when I DM'd them. They don't always respond, or can take hours to respond, in spite of Uber Cape Town GM Anthony le Roux's claim of half an hour. What would have happened if I had been stuck at gym and unable to get a response from Uber? Walk home?
My friend Sally Polack discovered that someone was using her credit card information to make trips. She doesn't have a smart phone, and all her enquiries with the bank and Uber via email were stonewalled. No one could tell her who was using her card, or whether they had done anything to prosecute the person concerned. I guess they just wrote it off as the cost of doing business. She got her money back from the bank's credit card division. Contrast that with their claim "Our specially-trained incident response teams are available around the clock to handle any urgent concerns that arise." Nice if you can get in touch with this "team".
That brings us to the nub of the matter: what should you do if something bad happens to you while you are in the vehicle? Their answer: "In the event of an emergency, we ask riders to contact the national emergency line - 10111." In other words, you're on your own, chump.

Until Uber actually has a ride monitoring service, the best you can do is "Share your ETA" with a friend, and arrange with them ahead of time to call you while you are on your trip to make sure that everything is OK. Of course, I have no idea what to suggest if it isn't OK. If the driver's phone is faulty or he switches off his phone then you have no idea where the vehicle is. There's no vehicle tracking such as Tracker in Uber vehicles.

Here's an example of a "trip" from home to gym where the driver's phone was faulty. The squiggle route shown here was actually recorded once he dropped me off. It's not even 1km long.
Update 4th September 2016: So what should Uber do that they aren't doing? The most obvious change would be to record both the driver's location and the passenger's location, and show both on the "Share my ETA" map and the billing record. If the trips appear to differ, then a real-time monitor alarm should sound in their control room, and they should call the passenger to find out if everything is OK. If not, they can the report the matter directly to the correct branch of police (flying squad or whatever) in the vicinity.
This would mean they would have to equip SAPS sector vehicles and flying squad vehicles with an app that allows Uber to know their location and request help in an emergency. If SAPS aren't able to do this, there are plenty of security companies and vehicle recovery services that might be willing to do so. The real-time monitoring of both passenger and driver would also prevent idiot billing like the examples shown above.
Another layer of security would be to add vehicle tracking to Uber vehicles, independent of the driver's phone. Many of these tracking systems come with a "panic button" feature, which the passenger could press, such as in the case of an accident or other emergency.
The Uber app could also have a panic button, possibly with some kind of code the passenger could enter to prove it wasn't pressed accidentally. We've all made phone calls from our pockets or handbags without realising it. And you don't want too many false positives.
Speaking of false positives, my 3 year old niece has managed to summons an Uber to their front door. My wife has managed to summons an Uber when all she wanted was a quote, so there is work to be done on the app UI for non-technical users. A random 4-digit confirmation code would prevent this.
One more thing: Please publish a phone number for emergencies. I welcome comments from readers for any other ideas.
Update: I re-published this on Steemit and encourage you to leave comments there.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Why should we vote? Is it a waste of time?

Given the level of dishonsty and corruption in our political system, should we vote? George Carlin says no. At varsity some wag wrote on a ballot box: "Don't vote, you'll only encourage them". My friend Roman Cabanac has another take on the matter, from a South African point of view. Read his post and leave comments there. Comments here are closed.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Corruption in South Africa: Outrageous

I watched the video clip by Tania Page and my jaw dropped. Marabastad Home Affairs Office collects a R100 bribe for anyone wanting to join a queue. That's at the low end. At the high end the ruling party has an "Investment Company" that gets involved (secretly) in government tenders, such as the building of power stations. Not only was this a conflict of interests, but it was disastrous for the country: the power stations are several years late, leading to load shedding and job losses. No one in the ANC has apologized for the delays, or taken responsibility for the fiasco. Why should they? They're corrupt and they are proud of it.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Celebrating Two Years at the Gym

Its weird to think that I am "celebrating" two years of hard slog at the gym. For most of my life I have thought of myself as a "weakling", a "nerd", or and "intellectual", but never as a pserson of "normal" strength, let alone a "sportsman". But two years ago that changed. I decided to get serious about getting strong and fit. I just wanted to feel normal for once.
It's difficult to describe just exactly how different that feels. When I was in junior school I could count all the ribs on my chest. I had no muscle tone to speak of. Boys who punched me on the upper arm learned not to do that, because they encountered bone not muscle, and it hurt them as much as it hurt me. Sport was never intuitive or easy for me. I sucked at it, and focused on intellectual activities at school.
So now when I fold my arms across my chest to do decline abdominal crunches, I rejoice in feeling my chest muscles, and not just ribs or body fat. My legs and arms are no longer flabby, and my overall body fat percentage is moving downwards, but very slowly. Its still around 20%, which is high.
My best flat barbell bench press was less around 45% of my body weight. Now its closer to 80% of my body weight, with a target of 135%. 100% is considered respectable. In the last 9 weeks it has only progressed by 5kg to 65kg for 6 reps, but my form is much better, and I have also learnt to do the incline barbell bench press, and manage 50kg for 6 reps. I can also do 15 push-ups as part of my warm-up routine, whereas before I could hardly manage 5 reps without a lot of puffing and panting, and 10 reps was completely out of the question.
Two years ago I couldn't do the squat at all. It took me several months to get my leg and back muscles strong enough just to do the movement (mostly) right, with no bar at all. The first time I tried using the empty 20kg bar, I couldn't manage it, and we had to use the lighter 10kg bar instead. 9 weeks ago my best barbell squat for 6 reps was 60kg. Now it's up to 74kg, which is about 85% of my body weight. I'm aiming for 175%, but even 100% is considered passable to good.
My biggest gains have been with the deadlift, where I got to 100% of my body weight, but with bad form and a bent back. I'm just glad I didn't hurt myself. So I have dialled back to 75kg and focusing on proper form so I don't hurt my lower back. That would be a disaster.
The other big change for this year has been that I now exercise 4 days a week, usually Friday through Monday, leaving Tuesday to Thursday for my job, as well as Monday and Friday afternoons. Before then I was only exercising one day a week, and doing some swimming on one or two other days. That helped with my fitness and general strength, but progress was slow. Probably a good thing so I could get my form right. That's what personal trainers are for, after all. They can advise on technique and form, but don't expect them to motivate you. They can encourage and support you, but you have to motivate yourself.
I have found some excellent advice in the book "Bigger Leaner Stronger" by Mike Matthews, and I'm following his workout program outlined in the "The Year One Challenge for Men" workout diary. I started doing the standard 5 day course, which is intended to be done in 5 days per week, but I was doing it in 4 days and carrying over one day to the following week. After 2 months of this I changed and used the slightly reduced 4 day program, which seems to be working a lot better. My weight has gone from 82kg to 84kg in 4 months, and I'm definitely not fatter than I was, so I can safely assume that most of that is an increase in muscle and a decrease in fat. I certainly hope so.
I have posted some spreadsheets on my Fact Reviews web site which cover the 4-day and 5-day program for Bigger Leaner Stronger. You need to read the book before doing the exercises, however.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Welcome to Africa. Now pay a bribe

Couldn't watch this alone and let go. You will watch it 10 times,I assure you.

Posted by Ridwan Hussein Abarshi on Sunday, November 9, 2014

I watched this video after reading about the money our government has wasted in South Africa: approximately R1,050 per person per year since 1994. Money we can least afford to waste.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Joburg Water gets upset about their Logo, but not the water quality

Petty bureaucrats mystify me. They always focus on the wrong thing in order to try to "control" their "message". The Twitter account of the Joburg Water supplier is no exception. Last week I got a severe case of Gastro by drnking tap water. I tweeted:
As is the nature of bureaucracy, nothing happened. They forgot about it, or the "scientists at Cydna forgot about it, or they realised that no one had tested the water in my area for some time and they weren't going to admit it.
Time passed and I eventually recovered from the Gastro after being on a drip and taking antibiotics for 3 days. I decided it was time to remind Joburg Water that they owed me an answer. No reply. So I tried being a bit more direct: Still no reply. So I decided to warn my fellow citizens that Joburg water isn't safe. Still no reply. So I decided to post my nifty little graphic in a reply to everything they tweet, until someone notices. Eventually they noticed a pattern. Finally they noticed. What a relief!
But someone at Joburg Water obviously had their pride injured. Because I started getting Direct Messages on Twitter. The first was to request the location of where my home is. Maybe they just wanted to turn off the water for a while, or dig up the road or something.
But I didn't get the gastro from home, because I drink bottled water or boiled water. I only drink tap water when I'm at the gym. (Not any more!) Then the officious tone kicked in. Nice of them to make up a new name for me:
So here we are. They want to sue me for ruining their "reputation" by using their logo in a tweet. I think they are over-reacting now to cover up how they failed to react before. Perhaps its time to get my City Councillor involved?

Warning: The NSA and 4 million other sick weirdos with "security clearance" have intercepted this page and know that you are reading it.