Word Sequentialization

In some ways, “data visualization” is a terrible term. It seems to reduce the construction of good charts to a mechanical procedure. It evokes the tools and methodology required to create rather than the creation itself. It’s like calling Moby-Dick a “word sequentialization” or The Starry Night a “pigment distribution.”

It also reflects an ongoing obsession in the dataviz world with process over outcomes. Visualization is merely a process. What we actually do when we make a good chart is get at some truth and move people to feel it—to see what couldn’t be seen before. To change minds. To cause action.

— Scott Berinato, Visualizations that Really Work, HBR.org.

Unfairbnb – avoid host “A.C.” in L.A.

I’ve used Airbnb for personal and business travel.  I’ve been a fan.  Airbnb used to be the future, and it used to be cool.  Recently, I had an experience with a corporate host that was not cool, and was not handled well by Airbnb.  The host is called Air Concierge.  They manage Airbnb properties in Southern California.

Planning a family reunion

This story starts in October, when we realize that our son, who lives in Los Angeles, is going to be too busy at work to come home to Colorado for Christmas.  We start planning a trip to visit him, and I convince my parents to make a rare visit from Germany to join us as well.  Next step, find a place to stay for 5 people.  It’s only October, but there’s not much available.  I manage to find a nice but expensive rental in Venice on Airbnb.  I book it, make a payment of 50% plus fees, and make a mental note of the strict cancellation policy (48 hours for a full refund), and over the next couple of days keep looking for something closer to where our son lives.

Something opens up much closer, I realize that I’m coming up on the 48 hours, so I hustle to my computer …  except, I missed the 48-hour cut-off by about 20 minutes!  I shouldn’t have played it so close.  I check with the host on refunding anyway:

Hi A.C., I just found out that another place is available down the street from where our son lives. I missed the 48-hour window by 20 minutes. Any chance I could still cancel the reservation with you? Thank you.

I get this reply:

Hey there Martin,
If you wanted to cancel now, the dates will be opened up.
And once we get those dates rebooked we can refund you the appropriate amount. Unfortunately we must stick to our strict cancellation as this is our companies policy that we are unable to bypass.

20 minutes

Missing the cutoff is my fault.  20 minutes earlier, and a refund would have been automatic.  That’s frustrating.  But it’s still 67 days before the check-in date, so I’m optimistic that they can rebook the property and then I can get my money back — after all, it’s sunny Venice at Christmas time, and they’ve got more than two months to do it.  So I cancel the booking, knowing there’s a chance that they can’t rebook, but convinced that if they can, they’ll refund me.  I set myself a reminder to check their availability calendar every couple of weeks.

After a few weeks I see that they’ve rebooked the property for all of my original dates.  It’s still 6 weeks before my original check-in date.  Piece of cake.  I message the host:

Hi, I see that you have my original dates rebooked. I’d be grateful if you could process the refund. Thanks.

No reply from the host.  I try a couple more times over the next 2-3 weeks, without any reply.  The host has gone silent and apparently changed their mind about refunding me what I’d paid.  I get curious about this host who is starting to seem like a jerk.  It turns out “A.C.” stands for Air Concierge.  It’s a company that manages 150+ properties in Southern California.  They specialize in managing, designing, photographing, and pricing properties.  And apparently in being jerks and reneging on promises.

With the host being unresponsive, I get in touch with Airbnb customer service to explain the situation to them, and invite them to read my message history with Air Concierge.  I get this:

I have reached out to your host to resolve the refund to get this taken care of! I will follow up when I hear back from them! 🙂

That sounds promising, but after a few days I get this:

I reached out to your host and requested the refund for you. I requested the amount you desire, and the host denied and agreed to $25 refund. I understand this was not what you wanted, however, the host stated that they would provide a refund of the appropriate amount. They deem that $25 was the appropriate amount as normally you would not receive any of the $4,793.73 for this cancellation. I am sorry this was not the amount that you wanted refunded to you. However, the $25 will be in your account within 3-15 business days.

Not appropriate

Wow!  Twenty-five bucks on almost $5k ???  And this after you rented the property to someone else within a few weeks of my cancellation and 6 weeks before the dates?

At this point, they’ve technically upheld their promise and issued a refund.  We’re just really, really far apart on the definition of “appropriate”.  I think Air Concierge is confusing a cancellation policy with a business model.  I find the offer of $25 insufficient, offensive, condescending, and abusive, and I tell the case manager at Airbnb as much:

Thanks for your reply. I have to say that I find their offer of a $25 refund not only insufficient, but actually offensive, condescending, and abusive. Consider the facts:

  • I cancelled after 48 hours and 20 minutes. 20 minutes earlier, there would have been no question about a full refund.
  • When I cancelled, it was still 67 days before check-in day.
  • They promised a refund if they can rebook the property (see my message history with the host).
  • They were able to rebook, so they’ve incurred no economic loss, one more reason I find their position unnecessarily rigid and abusive.

I’ve been patient throughout this with the host, but I’d like to ask you to escalate this issue within your department. Apparently the host is a corporate host (Air Concierge), and I find that this behavior reflects poorly not only on them, but also on the platform.

The next day, I get a message from a supervisor at Airbnb apologizing for the inconvenience and thanking me for my patience and … blah blah blah …

Regrettably, at this time you agreed to the terms of this reservation and the terms of the cancellation when it was processed. Again, I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you but thank you so much for your patience throughout the process. I hope that I have been able to clear things up and alleviate any concern or confusion you may have had.

Half-time reminder: I’m not arguing that the cancellation policy does not apply to me — although, yes, a human rather than a corporate host might have given me a break right on the spot, considering the timing.  I googled it, and it happens: humans being human on Airbnb.  The issue is that Air Concierge promised a refund if they rebooked the property — they rebooked the property and then reneged on that promise.  Also, 20 minutes.  Come on, be human.

I tried one more time to focus the Airbnb case manager on the issue — the promised refund is now there, but it’s not anything close to appropriate.  I get a reply sympathizing with my frustration and letting me know that “At this time, A.C. An Airbnb Property Host has not agreed to a full refund and wants to uphold their strict cancellation policy” and that “Going forward, this case is now considered closed.”

I don’t really have more time to spend on this, but there are few things that annoy me more than people and companies being jerks — like Air Concierge and Airbnb.  Call it what you want, but I’m a stickler for fairness and keeping your promises.  I’m so annoyed that it’s making me think out loud on my blog, which hasn’t happened in … years!

So what’s next?

My family (probably) won’t starve if I don’t recover the money from Air Concierge.  And we’re going to have our family reunion at the other property I booked — which is owned and managed by a human, we talked on the phone the other day to confirm check-in details.

I’m weighing these options:

  • Arbitration per section 19 of Airbnb’s terms of service.
  • Dispute the charge with my credit card.  Apparently there’s a category of complaint called “claims and defenses,” although since I paid the charge (in good faith that Air Concierge would uphold their promise), it’s not clear I can use this.
  • Something else?  Any advice from any Airbnb guests who’ve been in a similar situation?

I’ll post updates here.

Education Snapshot … Overheard

My daughter today (high schooler, Colorado):

“In Science we’re doing exactly what we did in middle school, but at a more basic level”

My niece (middle school, California) is having a furlough day today (meaning, school is closed because teachers are on one of their scheduled unpaid leave days).  Also, her school gets brand new textbooks every year, whether they’re needed or not, because it’s in the budget — and furlough days?

Book Review: What Would Google Do?

I expect one of two things from a business book: an eye-opening new perspective that I would never have stumbled on myself, or a concise summary of insights that might occur to me if I had more free time to ruminate on the subject and lots of yellow pads and pens with me at all times.  Most business books disappoint in both categories and amount to 200-400 pages of fluff that might have been worth a read as a 2000-word magazine article when there’s nothing good on TV.

Jeff Jarvis’ What Would Google Do? is the first business book I’ve read in a long time that’s not actually a slog to read.  It doesn’t deliver any stunning new perspectives, but it’s a worthwhile and readable summary of insights and lessons gleaned from observing not only Google, but also Facebook, Flickr and other successes of the Web era.  Jarvis presents the lessons in a breezy narrative style and doesn’t dwell on them unnecessarily, which is a nice change from most biz books that put each simple concept through a taffy machine to stretch it to fifty mind-numbing pages.  There are lessons about platforms, openness, speed, elegant organization and their implications for the Web and other industries.

I won’t bore my huge and dedicated audience by rehashing a lot of stuff from the book.  Instead, I’ll humbly suggest that if you’re shopping for a business book that won’t put you into a boredom coma on your next flight, get WWGD.

The book: What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis.  (Amazon.  A Kindle edition is available)

Girls on the Run

We went to an auction event for Girls on the Run Denver last night.  They do great work, check them out.  They’ve grown from 90 girls in the program in 2005 to over 900 girls this year.

Girls on the Run® (GOTR) of the Rockies uses the power of running to change the way girls see themselves and their opportunities! It is an innovative health education and wellness program that uniquely combines training for a 3.1 mile run/walk event with life-changing, self esteem enhancing lessons that encourage healthy habits and an active lifestyle in 8-13 year old girls.

Live music was by Boulder-based gypsy jazz band Sacrebleu!.

We won 3 bottles (and a tour) of Infinite Monkey Theorem wine.  Haven’t tasted it yet, but with a name like that …

The Dream: Physical books printed on the spot (and recycled on the spot)

In Twitter this morning, @tatteredcover is asking how many people are moving from paper books to electronic ones.  I own a Kindle, but about 60% of my book buying is still paper.  I love the bookstore experience, and there’s nothing like thumbing through a paper book.  But my house is overflowing with the damn things.

I’ve been thinking for years that the ideal experience would be to have a book printing and recycling machine (the BookBox).  This box would be able to print and bind any book on the spot.  It would also have a slot for inserting used books to be recycled on the spot (composted, or whatever, with zero waste).  Plus maybe a USB port so you could hook up your favorite electronic reader and download a bunch of books before a trip.

In a world where the BookBox exists, there would still be bookstores: cafe + inventory for browsing + BookBox.  You can browse books while sipping an Oolong tea, then place an order to have a book printed on BookBox to take home with you.

Casual Grid Computing in the Browser?

Let’s say you just got a brand spanking new 8-core computer.  Let’s also say you can’t run Mathematica because Wolfram’s registration process sucks so much (seriously, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen, and I always end up calling them on the PHONE to register).  Now you’re thinking what to do with all those cycles that could be crunching numbers and doing some good, but they’re just sitting there re-indexing Spotlight or something.  You think about downloading BOINC, which is a generic grid computing client that a bunch of different projects are using.  The thing is, you’re a bit obsessive about unnecessary cruft on your computer and BOINC wants to create hidden users and stuff:

Starting with version 5.5.4 of the BOINC Manager for the Macintosh, the BOINC installer creates 2 new “hidden” users boinc_master and boinc_project, and two new “hidden” groups, also named boinc_master and boinc_project (unless they were created by a previous installation of BOINC.)

Yuck.  You’re just not that committed to the project, but you do have the cycles to contribute.  Isn’t there some way to more casually participate in projects?  When I leave for lunch or overnight, why can’t I pull up a page that contains a Flash or Java applet that does some crunching, displays the nice graphics, uploads results and doesn’t install stuff on my machine?  Sure, it’s not as efficient as a native binary, and it doesn’t ramp up when my computer’s workload is low or when the screen saver comes on, but it’s much less intrusive.  It’s also more intentional.

UPDATE: There’s Legion, a Silverlight-based grid computing framework, but I’m not finding any projects that use it.