Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Fun with Holiday Travel

I swear, I'm never going to travel in December again unless both my destination and starting point are in the southern hemisphere. I was in New York City this past weekend with a classmate from school. We knew the weather forecast was for heavy snow to hit the D.C. area on Friday night then work its way up the coast and hit NYC Saturday night.

But we'd bought our Amtrak tickets and made our hotel reservations in August, so we got on the train on Friday morning and hoped for the best. We kept saying that we were so glad we took the train because (surely) they don't shut the trains down for snow, do they? They can just plow the tracks, right?

We were out and about Saturday evening after an exhausting day of shopping when the snow started to come down. We went to Rockefeller Plaza then did the usual Fifth Avenue tour, stopping in to see the huge indoor waterfall inside the marble-lined Trump Tower. We passed the Cartier building, wrapped up like a big holiday gift. And, of course, we went to Tiffany's to shop on the Silver floor.

As we walked up Fifth, snow, wind and cold us in the face. After Tiffany's, we were ready to go back to the motel on the upper west side. It was just too cold. My classmate's husband reported that D.C. had received 20" of snow. Meanwhile, there was little accumulation (yet) in NYC. I checked the Amtrak alerts on my Blackberry, and they were still running on time and not expecting delays. It surprised me, but I believed them.

Sunday morning we awoke to 10" of snow in NY. My face was wind burned. We frequently checked our train status, which continued to report being on time. After a walk through a gorgeous, white Central Park laden with sledders, and a trip to FAO Schwartz, we checked out of the motel at noon and headed to Penn Station on the subway. Needless to say, the Amtrak area was packed wall-to-wall with people. Several trains showed up as cancelled or delayed on the big schedule board overhead. Our train was scheduled to leave at 3:06PM and continued to be advertised as "on time" for the next 2.5 hours that we had to kill before our trip.

We grabbed a couple seats as soon as they opened up. Over the next 2.5 hours, there wasn't one single announcement about our train. Finally, just a couple minutes before 3PM, we got up and went out to the waiting area under the big board, confident that our train was on time due to the lack of announcements.

As soon as we got there, however, the sign suddenly displayed "Delayed" for our train. We decided to run back and see if our seats were still open—they were not. So we stood there under the big board, awaiting an announcement about our train. Over the next hour, not one word was spoken about our train. I went back to the seating area and asked an Amtrak employee how long the delay would be. He wouldn't even look at me—just shook his head and said "no idea," without considering my question.

One passenger said that his wife checked the web, and it said our train was delayed until 4:15PM. As soon as I logged on to on my Blackberry, however, it suddenly showed that the web site was down. It continued to remain inaccessible.

Meanwhile, several trains successfully left the station bound for Washington, D.C. According to the board, all the north-bound trains, however, suffered delays of up to nearly five hours. A guy from Providence who'd been seated next to us earlier said I could go over to Customer Service for information. So I waded through the massive crowd, stood in line at the counter, but got the same answer regarding our train's status: "We don't know."

How can Amtrak not know where one of its trains is? We were pretty frustrated by the complete lack of updates or other information.

Later, a girl sitting on the floor finally got through to Amtrak on the phone after being on hold for a half hour. They said that our train was delayed until 4:15PM. If those people knew, why didn't any Amtrak employees in the station know?? Why wasn't the new departure time being updated on the big board, like it was for nearly all the other trains?

We were tired. We had no choice but to stand. The alternative was to sit on the filthy floor. Finally, at 4:15PM exactly, an announcement was made about our train. It was still "sitting in Sunnyside Yards" (wherever that was), and we'd be updated later.

That's when I realized why our train was different from all the rest that seemed to be making it through to D.C.: Our train initiated its journey at Penn Station—the rest were passing through. It was hours later before it all made sense to me. The train had been sitting all night and needed de-snowing and de-icing. What took so long to do that, I don't know. Amtrak did their best to keep us in the dark.

We continued to stand there not knowing anything about our train. Finally, around 4:45PM, it was announced that our train was on its way from "Sunnyside Yards," (which I later determined is in Queens). It's the first real announcment with status that we'd received, and it came an hour and a half after we were supposed to leave. Finally, 20 minutes later, track 15 West was posted on the big board ("15W"), and the passengers on our train literally RAN to the gate for that track, practically running over each other. My classmate yelled at one person who went too far. We were piled 100 deep, squeezing to get on first.

Why the panic? Well, as I later found out when I got up to go to the cafe car for some food after pulling out of the station, many passengers were standing and sitting on the floor of the train. Every seat of every car was full. People stood amongst the piles of luggage at both ends of each car (right next to the stinky bathrooms). How on earth could Amtrak allow this?

As a woman in the line for the cafe explained to me, announcements were made at Penn Station that people whose trains had been cancelled were free to get on any other train heading that way. Wow. That plan had resulted in pure chaos. What a nightmare.

I still expected to get home by 9:30 (2.25 hours late), as this was the time continually posted on the Amtrak web. But as we got further into the trip, the delays became longer and I knew the web schedule just couldn't be right. I was so angry. We got no updates from Amtrak as to further delays throughout the trip. In the end, the 4-hour train ride took nearly SIX hours. Worst part? We sat at Union Station in D.C. for over an hour while the last two cars were uncoupled. I guess they were frozen together. I could have walked out and taken a cab home quicker. But I didn't because I had no idea we would be there for longer than the usual 20 minutes. Once again, not one single update was announced. At least when you're on a plane stuck on the tarmac for an hour, the pilot provides updates. Amtrak sucks in that regard.

The final blow came after that. I used my Blackberry to call several cab companies in the city where I live because the Metro web site was reporting that above-ground Metro trains were still suspended after the snowstorm that had hit D.C. a full 48 hours earlier. There was no excuse for this. The tracks were clear by then. But I guess Metro is paranoid after all its accidents this year.

Guess what? There were no cabs available either.

So when I arrived at the Amtrak station after 11PM, there was no train and no cab to take me home. My only option was to walk that mile at 11:30 at night. I dragged my suitcase through the massive piles of snow (and salt) at every intersection and through the uncleared sidewalks to get home. About halfway there, a Metro company car passed me on the street. I screamed, "You son-of-a-b****! Come back here and pick me up!! This is all your fault! Aaaaaaaaaaagh!"

Clearly he didn't hear me.

This was almost as bad as trying to get home to Midtown from "the other Jamaica" (Jamaica, Queens) in the NY winter weather about five years ago. Needless to say, this week I awoke sick Monday morning and have been miserable and apartment-bound ever since. Oh, and I'm supposed to fly out Friday morning to see family for Christmas but we're expecting a big ice storm from Virginia to NY.

That's it. Unless they move Christmas to October, I'm not participating in it anymore.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Ethics: Taking the Fun out of Handbag Shopping in NYC

I've learned a lot this year in the MFS program that I'm enrolled in. This past spring I was talking to my friend Rebecca after class about potentially taking a weekend trip with me to NYC. I said, "Aw c'mon, we can go to Canal Street and buy some knock-off purses!" That's when the professor, a DOJ prosecutor in the Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section, gave me one of his infamous looks that says, I can't believe you said that out loud. When I responded with, "Geez, it's not illegal to buy them," he informed me, "You need to take ethics class."

Even then I didn't get what was so wrong with buying knock-off handbags. What did I know? I thought it was fun shopping in the secret back rooms behind hidden doors. And I didn't understand what was wrong with it because the NYPD virtually ignores these street vendor transactions happening right under their noses thousands of times a day. I was still naive about it. But after taking the cyber Ethics class this summer, it started to sink in.

I've always been against software piracy and the like. When it finally dawned on me that selling these knock-off designer labels is virtually no different from that and is a federal crime, I realized just how unethical my actions had been. Not only unethical, but when you purchase counterfeit goods, you very well could be supporting mass counterfeit operations that use child labor and probably fund terrorism.

My ignorance hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. I wrote to my law professor saying that I'd never buy another purse on Canal Street again. He replied simply, "Then my work here is done."

This fall I'm enrolled in his computer-related law class, one of the toughest courses I'll take in the program. This DOJ prosecutor is my favorite teacher. We've talked a lot about intellectual property (IP) law, counterfeiting, copyright law, and copyright infringement this semester, studying statutes like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

It wasn't until I took this class that I learned that all of those "dollar stores" you find in strip malls are really mass counterfeiting operations. When I registered my shock with a classmate, she said, "Well, where do you think all that junk comes from?" Who was I to know that a dollar tube of Colgate was missing a key ingredient found in the real Colgate that provides its gelatinous consistency?

Honestly, I didn't know; and because those dollar stores are everywhere, It never occurred to me that they were not legitimate. After all, if they were trafficking in counterfeit goods, wouldn't they all be out of business?

As any good investigator knows, things aren't always as they seem.

Hence, in addition to giving up knock-off purses (and watches), I vowed to never shop at a dollar store again. It's true that you won't be prosecuted for buying a counterfeit item, but if you knowingly buy one and give it away as a gift or re-sell it, then you can be prosecuted for trafficking in counterfeit goods under 18 U.S.C. 2318. Until I studied the law, I really didn't understand how wrong it is—and why. It is theft. It is theft in support of child sweat shops and international terrorism.

My classmate Suzanne and I are going to NYC for the weekend right after we finish our law final. A year ago I would have made it a point to take her to Canal Street. Not this time, and never again! She thinks I'm being "self-righteous." Honestly, I'm just trying to be a law-abiding citizen and not a hypocrit who chides people for sharing software or music files with their buddies instead of buying a legitimate license—something I've always been vehemently opposed to.

For more info, see the Wired: Threat Level article Feds Prosecuting More Counterfeiters, IP Pirates. To learn about the counterfeiting industry and the impact it has on the global economy, check out the No to Fakes web site. You'll be shocked at the ubiquitousness of the counterfeiting industry.