Read Travel Blogs? Be Careful.

It’s no secret that many bloggers have been able to monetize somewhat through the sale of links to search engine optimization companies and digital brands.  This has led to a sort of dance between bloggers, Google, and SEO professionals which is utterly confusing and complex. Are they any different than traditional ads? Does the intent matter? Are they misleading readers? etc. and the reality is that several high profile bloggers have come out and talked a bit about how they were funding their travels using this approach (on high volume) until it started to undermine their relationships with their readers, incurred the wrath of Google, or a bit of both. Others have established secondary sites that essentially serve as dumping grounds for these links and content. Yet others have been far less scrupulous and completely forgone the wall between paid content/endorsements/links/disclosure and genuine written material. What I find particularly disturbing about this is that it seems to be an increasing trend, particularly as rates for other forms of advertising/compensation decrease.

Frequent Flyer Credit Card Whoes

The Fjords, Norway

**UPDATE** – While still frustrated by the experience I had, I recently decided to give FF programs another go.  While I have continued to face frustrations with the process, booking and usage of my points, there is value there for those willing to play the game.  It is important, however, that you be prepared to play that game and do your research.

A few years ago I signed up for an Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Credit Card.  It seemed like a great idea.  After all, I fly internationally 2+ times a year, love travel, and put most of my expenses on my credit card. They were offering a 20,000 mile signing bonus which was solid at the time and a few additional perks including a large partner network. Unless something drastic changes I’ll never sign up for another frequent flyer card again.

It’s now 3 years later and I still have those 20,000 points. As well as another 18,000 or so I picked up before I stopped using the card out of frustration and transferred over to a Capital One cash back card. Each year as my December trip approaches I sit down and try and use my miles.  Each year I end up wasting 30-40 minutes on the phone before hanging up disgusted.

Let me tell you a bit about this year’s adventure.  I’m pretty flexible about where I want to visit.  My main criteria is time based.  My window this year starts on December 15th and ends on January 4th.  That means that I’m willing to depart December 15th-17th and return January 1st-4th.  In the grand scheme of things, that’s a far more flexible schedule than most people have. Also, I’m not overly picky about where I end up going.  A good deal in the general region I want to explore is usually good enough for me.

With nearly 2 months to go before my date of departure I called the Alaska Airlines Frequent Flyer Concierge service and got a very friendly associate. I gave her my dates and gave her a few countries – not cities, but entire countries – I was interested in while specifying I didn’t mind which city I ended up in.

We searched Peru without any luck.  Then Bolivia, Ecuador and Columbia. From there it was on to Argentina and Chile before adding Panama, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.  You would think, given that she was searching all partner airlines with flights from Phoenix that at least ONE flight to at least ONE of these countries would have been available.  No such luck.

Annoyed but not overly surprised I groaned at the ridiculousness of it – after all – I’d essentially searched 2/3s of an entire continent and been unable to find so much as a single flight that would work.

So, I expanded my search to Asia. After all, there had to be at least some availability to somewhere. The search continued; Thailand?  Nope. Cambodia, Malaysia or the Philippines?  Nope.  Vietnam?  Another nope.

So…Asia was out. In a final act of desperation I figured I’d check two off-beat destinations in Europe I wouldn’t mind visiting – Greece and Turkey.  Want to guess the results of the queries?  You got it – nope, and nope!

So, I gave up.  She was apologetic and suggested I try to make my reservations further in advance in the future or considering upgrading to a business class ticket.  Apparently ~2 months isn’t enough lead time.  I’m sympathetic to the fact that December 14th-January 10th is a peak travel period…but seriously, with 2 months lead time, semi-flexible travel dates, searches across 3 continents and in 18 countries you can’t find me a SINGLE flight? That’s straight pigswill.

Oh, did I mention that for the privilege of being a Miles Rewards customer I get to pay a $75/year fee?   I’m sure there are a few people out there making these programs work for them, but if you’re an average consumer and you’re using a mileage plan, it’s a pretty safe bet you’re essentially being robbed.  Hell, did you know that the vast majority of “travel” cards still charge the exact same transaction fees as a normal credit card?

My advice for non-business travelers?  Tell em’ to go to hell, switch banks and pick up a Capital One cash back card that doesn’t have an annual fee, puts actual $ back in your account, and which doesn’t charge 3% on every purchase you make while abroad.  In the long run those are perks you’ll actually be able to use and which will leave you with real, tangible benefits no matter when you choose to travel.

Generation Cox – A Brave New World…of Hypocritical Crap

Generation Cox – Audio

I have to confess.  There is a special place in my heart for Cox Communications. Few things leave a mark in a consumer’s memory like the distinct pleasure of spending hours on hold with a company on multiple occasions, only to be told boldfaced lies. As if that wasn’t enough, their disgusting version of – it can’t be us, it must be you – tech support has definitely scored them points. Despite my previous low estimation of the company, the revelations I’ve had and discoveries I’ve made over the last 6 months have shredded any remaining respect I had for Cox. I’ve debated making a post outlining some of these experiences in the past, but it took their new advertising campaign combined with concrete testing, rankings done by the P2P community, to really push me over the edge and today’s announcement by Japanese ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that they would start throttling upload bandwidth…on users that use over 30gb…a day.

I’ve discussed it previously and as a result will only briefly mention it here, but what makes the ISP/Bandwidth debate all that much more pathetic is that the U.S. – the founders of the internet – is now ranked 15th for broadband penetration.  This fails to even realistically consider how far behind we are with respect to broadband speeds. The US is talking in single digit gigabyte connections while foreign nations are offering as much as triple digit connections for the same price…or less.

You may or may not be familiar with the current struggle being waged in Washington and throughout the U.S. between consumers, visionaries and ISPs. In brief, the argument is that P2p (Peer 2 Peer) users are using a disproportionate amount of the bandwidth available driving up ISP costs and heavily impacting the quality of the connections of their fellow users.  Ever notice how your internet slows down distinctly after 5:00? Thus far the ISP’s chief argument and technique for lobbying tech-oblivious lawmakers has been to claim that not only is the P2P network traffic unfair, it’s illegal. As a result they have pushed for laws banning P2P altogether, while simultaneously secretly operating software that blocks certain types of high bandwidth applications and hinders your connection.

The catch is P2P isn’t illegal. Don’t get me wrong – a fair amount of the content transfered through it is – but the software itself is not. From the distribution of open source software, to video game patches, to authorized music, ebooks, photos and home video, it has a multitude of uses all of which are being legally employed. Beyond that, certain other types of high bandwidth content that’s getting throttled is also completely legal.  Things like massively multiplayer online games (think World of Warcraft), and even streaming video resources like Hulu.  ComCast just got in a fair share of legal and PR trouble for the techniques they employ. Not to be outdone, Cox has been ranked as the 2nd worst bandwidth throttler in the U.S.  Very little action is being taken against these groups in large part because the average consumer doesn’t realize just how badly they’re being screwed. ArsTechnica reported:

Of the nine ISPs in the US found to block BitTorrent, Comcast and Cox were far and away the most aggressive. Both blocked more than half of all attempted BitTorrent tests on their networks (82 of 151 tests on Cox were blocked, while 491 of 788 tests on Comcast met the same fate).

What makes it that much more agitating is that not only does Cox block certain types of streaming high bandwidth traffic, they will also reset your cable modem secretly forcing you to power down and reboot before the system will recognize you again…All the while blaming it on your hardware or other failures.  In recent months techs have started fessing up if you ask them directly, but as little as 3 months ago they would blatantly lie to your face about it blaming software, the network, outages or faulty routers. I can’t even begin to guess how many customers spent hundreds of dollars replacing hardware for no reason or how much money Cox made off tech support calls (if they don’t find a problem you get charged).  Again, this doesn’t only apply to LEGAL P2P use, it applies to gaming and some types of streaming video.

It gets worse. Not only will they throttle/kill your service illegally they also limit your alloted traffic without bothering to tell you, all the while using deceptive advertising that leaves you thinking that they’d be doing the exact opposite.  Before I outline the details, let’s take a look at their advertising and weboffering:

Keep in mind that this video is one of several in their current “A Brave New World” campaign.  All of which make equally deceptive and ludicrous claims and implications.

To recap the video, the advertisement states that “soon virtually everything they watch will be in HD and available at any time.  They’ll even watch TV on their cell phones” The second advertisement depicts streaming video conferencing and again talks about the future.  In addition to the ads there are two pages on the website in particular I want to take a closer look at.

Page 1 – PowerBoost: One of the cornerstones of Cox’s advertising is their PowerBoost technology. About which Cox claims, “When extra bandwidth is available on Cox’s local fiber-hybrid network, you will experience a faster download. Speeds will be boosted up to 29% faster for Preferred customers, and up to 33% faster for Premier customers”. So, while you may think you’re buying a 9mb connection you’re really getting 7mb. The page describing powerboost references all sorts of wonderful uses for your bandwidth such as video, music and even photos.

Page 2 – Tiers and Pricing: This page describes the 3 tiers that Cox offers outlining important numbers like your download speed, upload speed, and price. Then they go so far as to offer a wonderful ‘features section’ telling you what you can/should use that added speed for.  If we overlook the fact that most of the numbers for the first tier are complete lies, we can see that in the standard mid-range tier they have the gall to list Multimedia Web Surfing, Streaming Video/Music, and Downloading Large Files and Online Gaming, Telecommute/Remote Office as “You could, but…”. If they were actually delivering the 7mb connection (which in my experience they usually actually only provide 1.5-4mb connections) you should have more than sufficient bandwidth for any of the activities on the list. While they’re starting to catch up, most webhosts can’t offer more than 400kb/s.  In actuality the lion’s share of sites you probably use peak out at about 75kb/s. Keep in mind that there are 1,000kb in a mb, and 1,000mb in a gigabyte. For my part I’d LOVE the ability to actually pull data at 7,000,000kb/s wouldn’t you?

In fact, if they weren’t meddling with your connection and were actually delivering what you paid for, the 1.5 mb connection would be more than sufficient for playing online games, downloading at 400kb/second, and watching streaming video…simultaneously. What makes the whole thing that much more deceptive is the upload rates which are horrible.  THAT is where a large part of the bottleneck occurs since even while accessing a website you are both sending and receiving information.  It’s also what complicates things with P2P networks and to a lesser extent online games in which you’re sending data symmetrically instead of the classical asymmetrical way you access the WWW. In this way they effectively reduce that 7mb connection with “power boost” to a 512kb connection. Slick, huh?

That’s not the extent of their misinformation though. You see, Cox also has monthly bandwidth caps. Even if you’re fairly tech savy and a capable consumer you probably didn’t know that, ehh?  They don’t mention it ANYWHERE on either of the order pages.  In fact, to find it you have to select the “Policy” link (which is super fine print) in the footnote of the page.  Then navigate down through the legal speak to point 13: “Bandwidth, Data Storage and Other Limitations” and select the link to “Limitations of Service“. This page is so obscure they don’t even bother keeping it up to date.  As of this post, it was last updated 11/7/07 and outlines the following for the “Preferred with Powerboost” option:

  1. Maximum downstream speed : 5 – 9 megabits per second
  2. Maximum upstream speed : 512 kilobits – 2 megabits per second
  3. Maximum monthly consumption cap : 40 gigabytes downstream; 10 gigabytes upstream
  4. Personal WebSpace account size : 10 megabytes of disk space per User ID
  5. Personal WebSpace traffic : 300 megabytes of traffic per month (for visitors viewing your pages)

That’s right, you no doubt had no clue, but there’s a 40gb monthly cap associated with your account. Please recall that the Japanese ISPs just adopted one of these with a 30gb DAILY cap for UPLOADs. So the individual’s subscribing to that Japanese ISP are recieving 90 times more bandwidth than you are with your Cox account. Still think that the American ISP’s argument that they can’t provide the bandwidth is valid?

I rest my case. On a parallel note:

I don’t subscribe to Cable TV anymore. Frankly, there isn’t really a point.  I run dual 22 inch wide-screen monitors and the ability to surf the web, pause, start, fast forward, and chat while watching a film/show in full screen far outweighs sitting on my sofa in my living room staring at a slightly larger monitor.

In addition to the lack of flexibility, I’ve always found the business model abusive. In what other delusional reality would it be acceptable for a service that costs $30+ a month to sell you a service, for which you have to purchase all of the peripherals to use it, in which you pay for a set continuous service, and then have to sit through 15 some odd minutes of advertisements every hour?  Do the math – 15 minutes, is 25% of an hour.  So in reality, I guess that $30-50 is really only buying you 45 minutes of programing an hour.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then have the nerve to sell you channel packs full of useless crap. I appreciate the sentiment, but I really, really don’t need the biblical channel or the Latino vibes channel and since you’ve already acquisitioned 25% of my time, I’d rather not spend any more of what’s left flipping through channels than I have to.  In fact, all I really want is 5 or 6 channels that don’t suck.  With all that said, I suppose it’s not really a surprise that I jumped ship as soon as possible and switched over to services like Hulu.

It’s time we hold these crooks accountable.  Sadly, our representatives are either too corrupt or inept to protect us and look out for our best interests.  Write to them, demand accountability from them, and don’t swallow the pigswill they’re trying to feed you.

With friends like these ushering us into the digital age, who needs enemies?