Random Wikipedia link of the day – the dancing epidemic of 1518

You can’t make this stuff up.

The outbreak began in July 1518, when a woman, Frau Troffea, began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg. This lasted somewhere between four to six days. Within a week, 34 others had joined, and within a month, there were around 400 dancers. Most of these people eventually died from heart attack, stroke, or exhaustion.

(cribbed from a New Scientist book review)

Skype will never succeed as a replacement for your home phone…

…so long as they’re happy to just “block” people’s accounts and prevent them from using the service.

Last night I tried calling my wife and I kept getting “call failed”. So I tried from my computer, thinking my Skype phone was screwy. I got the dreaded “account blocked” message.

I rely exclusively on Skype for my phone. I have a San Francisco SkypeIn number, a Brisbane SkypeIn number, a Skype home phone and I also rely on Skype To Go to make international calls from my mobile phone. Aside from my T-mobile bill, they now get all of my telecommunications money.

Regardless of my long-term account which has always been dutifully topped up using their auto-billing, for a reason they never both communicating to me, they have completely blocked any internal or external calls aside from Skype to Skype.

The worst aspects to this are:

  • No notification of the blocking event
  • No explanation for the blocking
  • No customer support to get the account unblocked

I had to file a support ticket requesting they unblock my account.  There are no standard mechanisms for doing this – I had to go to support and select “Other help”.  I emailed a few people at Skype directly, but haven’t heard back from them either.  Other people in the same predicament reported between 4-10 days to get their account unblocked.  In the meantime I am completely without home phone service or international calling.  I am surprised I hadn’t heard of this before it happened to me — I can only imagine as they keep doing this to people they will continue to drive away customers to other VOIP solutions or cell phones.

Update 09/25/08:

Well, first of all I found out there is a dedicate help section for unblocking your account, but it amounts to the same as selecting other help.

Secondly, thank you to Peter in the comments for offering to help out which is very nice indeed.  After filing two tickets, I got in contact with Peeter Mõtsküla who was gracious enough to contact support for me and help resolve the problem.

I also found out the reason my account was blocked.  A couple of months ago I had some fraudulent activity on one of my credit cards.  As such I was issued a new card, but I decided to close the account.  As such when my autobill went through it got rejected and Skype emailed me to let me know that on August 16th.  Either way I think this would have been triggered since the original credit card number was no longer valid.

The weirdest thing is that it wasn’t until September 18th that my account was blocked due to the credit card rejection.  No ‘invalid’ funds had been withdrawn, and everything was fine otherwise.  Pretty frustrating stuff, but good to know Skype has some great people working for them!

Beer pilgrimage – advice for lovers of Westvleteren 12 from Abdij St Sixtus

Westvleteren 12One of my main objectives for Belgium was to pick up a case or two of the Westvleteren 12, widely considered the best beer in the world.  It is brewed by monks in Westvleteren and is notoriously difficult to get hold of.

I had previously visited Belgium in October 2005, and was only able to get a few bottles of Westvleteren Abt 8.  This time, everything lined up pretty well, and I was able to purchases two cases and send them back.

While going through this process I realised I had a lot of questions I needed answered, and although a lot of people make the pilgramage (the Westvleteren Abdij St Sixtus is the only place in the world you are allowed to buy the beer), I did not have much luck finding similar stories.  As such, I have collected all my advice I have for other beer lovers into one rambly post:

First of all – be as flexible as possible. You have a pretty good chance of getting some kind of beer (they make three types, the Blond, the 8 and the 12), but it will be sheer luck that it was be the 12, so be willing to accept one of the other two. Check what is available and what is coming up on the abbey’s website.  It will also tell you which beer is coming in the following week (eg “For the Trappist Westvleteren Blond, please wait until further notice.”)

The Blond is highly underrated by the way. Do not leave the abbey without going to the cafe (called In De Vrede) and having a Blond and a 12. Also you MUST get the “In De Vrede” ice cream, made with the 12. Unbelievably good. The cheese is also excellent and also made by the monks. You can buy any amount you want at the cafe (compared to the 1kg chunks at Orval) and it will generally last 2-3 days without refrigeration. Combined with Trappist bread and a 12 it is the perfect dinner.

The appointments for picking up the beer are first come, first served. Ring up the beer phone as early as possible so you can get the appointment that suits you best. I failed to call on the first couple of days, and by the time I got through it didn’t fit my trip plan at all and I ended up having to drive 400 miles round trip to pick up the beer.  The beer phone must be called from a real number – it blocks anonymous numbers, so Skype and calling cards don’t work. The number is +3270210045.  You are supposed to give your car’s license plate details, but turning up in a rental car is fine – give your name instead of a license plate number.

Before you arrive to pick up the beer, be prepared. On your way to Westvleteren, go to a post office – preferrably in Flanders rather than Wallonia. That way they will speak English. Get two of the largest Kilopost boxes and at least 3 rolls of bubble wrap and some tape. One roll of tape should do, but maybe get two. Some newspaper will also be useful for the padding. Each box will hold 24 bottles if you do it correctly. Each box will then cost 75 euro to post back to the US, as it will weigh 18-19kg if you have packed it correctly.

If you drive to Ieper (10 minutes from Westvleteren), there is a post office there. After posting the beer, you can then either take the cases back and get 10 euro per case back, or keep them and take them in luggage. I tried posting and it’s just too darn hard. Two cases will fit in a regular sized suitcase pretty easily and weigh about 5kg each.

Total cost if you keep the cases:

90 euro for the beer/recycling fee/cases
150 euro for postage

Works out at 5 euro per beer. (approximately USD$7 at the moment)

I rushed my packaging and only 1 beer broke in transit. I remembered thinking at the time I meant to put some extra packaging in but was in such a hurry I forgot. If you do this right you should get zero breakages. Label the beer as glassware and fragile. It should take less than a week to arrive.

Westvleteren 12

Some packing advice. Individually wrap in bubble wrap. Wrap the bottom to the neck in one section and have a separate one for the top. Layer bubble wrap between the bottles. Lay them sideways in the box. Allow for at least 1-2 hours to do this!! It will take time to do it right.

You can get 6 packs at the cafe. I found that they did not offer them on a Saturday, but did offer it on a Monday. I am not sure if this is indicative of anything, but just what happened when I went there. It might be worth trying to call the beer phone to ask if they are in stock before driving to Westvleteren. The 6 pack is actually a degustation kit. From memory, you will get 2x Blonds, 2x 8s, 2x 12s and a glass. I can’t remember the price exactly but I believe it was 14 euro. The kit is worth it if you don’t want the hassle of shipping a massive amount of beer, or if you want a few of the other types. If you’re serious about the 12, it is totally worth getting the crates and shipping.

The glass by itself was 3.50 euro from memory. MAKE SURE YOU BUY 2 GLASSES. You can’t buy it anywhere but the cafe, and they go for ridiculous prices on eBay. If one breaks imagine how sad you will be. I made the mistake of getting a single glass (no, it’s not broken, but I wish I had 2 now!). Take the glass in your carry-on luggage.

Another alternative to shipping is to get an empty suitcase and fill that with the beer, but you will need to split part of the beer into another suitcase (approx 8-10 beers) so that its weight does not exceed the 32kg maximum. Most airlines have a 23kg limit per bag as well. The simplicity of posting and forgetting makes the 150 euro worth it in my opinion. If taking a few bottles in your luggage, putting two socks over each bottle seems to work great to prevent breakages.

Good luck! It’s totally worth it.

How not to run customer support

I just got back from vacation last week.  It was a whirlwind tour of Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the UK.  I had a great time, sampling a lot of beer and seeing a lot of cool places.

At the start of the trip, I was connecting from London Heathrow to Oslo.  Given I had around 5 hours to kill in Terminal 5, I decided to pony up for some airport wifi.  They have several providers in T5, and I went with the brand name I knew, which also had a decent price.  Boingo.

Everything was just peachy when I signed up. Then I tried to log in.  Complete brick wall – everything started timing out, and authentication just wouldn’t happen.  No biggie, I signed up for another provider and sent an email to them letting them know their wifi wasn’t working at that location and if I could get a refund.

Hi there,

I just tried to sign up for Boingo and it worked just fine for taking my credit card details.  However, after this I was unable to surf the internet – the client I downloaded could not authenticate me, nor did the online authentication work.  The online authentication seemed to work momentarily and then sites began timing out.  I tried restarting the computer and reconnecting, but even the unauthenticated pages wouldn’t work.  I had plenty of wireless signal.  I have screenshots of the problems if that helps.

I needed to use the net in a hurry and ended up having to buy access through another wifi provider.  Since Boingo could not provide the service I paid for, could I please get a refund?  My username is <xxx>.


After three days, I hadn’t heard anything.  Hmm, not a good sign.  This time I CCed service as well as support.


I haven’t heard anything back yet, and was hoping someone could help me with this?


This is the response I got (literally the whole email):

Thanks for contacting Boingo Wireless.

What is your username?

Irritating and unhelpful, but nevermind – I can understand that CSRs are usually busy and overworked.

Hi there,

As per my original email, it is <xxx>.


A day later I got another response…

Thanks for contacting Boingo Wireless.

It could be any number of things and your account status is active.

So that we can better trouble shoot you please call when you are at the hotspot location.

I didn’t think they could be serious. This is how you’ve trained your CSRs to help customers?  For a company that is based entirely on wireless hotspots?  You ask your travelling customers to go back to the hotspot they had trouble in and to troubleshoot from there, days after their missed opportunity?

Finally, I requested a refund again:


I was at Heathrow Airport for a period of 5 hours, and needed the service then.  I am in the middle of a trip, and I will not be back at the service location.

This is getting very frustrating – I would really like a refund, otherwise I will need to request a chargeback from my credit card company.


This was the response:

We were unable to locate an account for you, with the info provided below. You should not be charged.

At this point (a week after first requesting the refund), it seems like a customer care supervisor saw our back and forth, and thankfully intervened.  I can happily say I then received the refund:

Dear Tim Cederman-Haysom,

Thanks for contacting Boingo Wireless.

This is to confirm your refund of 5.95 to your credit card and we do apologize for this inconvenience.

If we can be of any additional help, please don’t hesitate to contact our Customer Care team.  We’re available 24/7.

Warm regards,
Brenda Cooper
Online Customer Care

It is safe to say that I stuck to Boingo alternatives for the rest of the trip.  The worst part about providing sub-par support like this is you don’t lose a single customer: you lose the word of mouth from them as well.  I’m still not sure why people skimp on providing excellent customer support when companies like Amazon, Fog Creek and Zappos have used customer support to as a way to get talked about, in a good way, and this word of mouth brings an incredible amount of business.

Incidently I had great service from The Cloud, the alternative I used, and T-mobile wasn’t bad either when my wife used it with her roaming account.