End of writing jag?

I seem to be posting less often these days, something that will come as no surprise to people who know me best and have tried to get me to get back to them by email. I am not sick, the excuse I used for a previous episode of not posting. I am teaching more than I have been up until now. I just finished my four, two hour, Saturday morning lecture contribution to a graduate class in Materials Science today.

I did spend a few hours writing and sending variants on my “Keep the Marines out of Sri Lanka” posting to President Obama and Senators Brown and Voinovich (both Ohio senators). It turns out that both of Ohio’s senators are on the subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that recently held a hearing on the situation in Sri Lanka. The only one to reply to me so far is Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), but it was a canned reply that showed no evidence that my email had been read. For example, the reply included the phrase  “innocent civilians” . I argue that using that phrase is a way of framing the issue in a way that hinders thoughtful discussion of what the right thing is  for the US to do (or not do) about the situation. Rhetoric matters!

Oh! And we are  in the process of purchasing our tickets for our return trip home to Ohio. That is exciting and nerve wracking at the same time considering the expense involved. Our flight itinerary looks like this:

July 2nd: Colombo to New Dehli, India.

July 17th: New Delhi to Amman, Jordan.

July 25th: Tel Aviv, Israel to London, England

August 3rd, London to Columbus, Ohio

I say we are “in the process of” purchasing our tickets because the normally almost instantaneous credit card process had a monkey wrench thrown in. We are using AirTreks again. They did a fine job with our air travel out to Sri Lanka and we are hoping for a similarly smooth arrangement for our flights back to the US. But when they tried to charge my Visa card, the card company balked and declined the transaction. Well, a plane reservation is like raw meat bought on a hot day, it has a short shelf life. So I steeled myself to enter the eighth circle of hell by calling the credit card hotline to attempt to convince them to accept the charges.

For reasons that do not add to the story, I am calling the bank at 1:30AM Sri Lanka time, with a lecture scheduled for 10:15AM. I am using my cell phone, which does not interact well with my hearing aids. (Yes, I know I should invest in Skype Out, but I haven’t yet.) So, to hear the other party, I use the speakerphone feature on the cell phone. Our house is surrounded by hills and the cell phone signal is a bit weak, but better if I am standing in the living room. So, picture me, in my sarong, standing in the living room, in the dark, trying to talk overseas on my cell phone set to speaker phone. I do not know what image comes to your mind, but I sure scared the hell out of the maid.

My bank takes its phone security seriously. So, before they will speak to me, they want to know who I am,  my card number, and my mother’s maiden name. The latter, of course, is a carefully guarded secret in American society that not even a criminal mastermind could ever discover. Once vetted, I tell the operator that the AirTreks people are the nicest people in the world and that the bank can trust them with the money. “OK,” says the operator, “I just need to transfer you to our security desk. Hold on.” Click. Click. Cell phone breaks the connection. Hmm. How annoying. So I call back. I get a different operator. No, he can not transfer me back to the first operator, we must start over. Actually, this is a good thing because after I give him my name, my card number, and my mother’s maiden name, he asks me which attempted charge I want him to allow. There is the AirTreks attempt, an attempt two days ago by a jewelry company to charge $1281 and an attempt yesterday by a hardware store to charge $241. All charges that the credit card company denied.

Good thing, too, because, except for the AirTreks attempt, the others were fraudulent. Obviously, someone has obtained our credit card information and is trying to rip us (Kris and I and our good friends at the bank) off. “OK,” says the operator, “We just need to transfer you to our security people and they will cancel the card for you.” “Nooooo!” I cry in vain, too late, my usual table-tennis honed reflexes slowed by the lateness of the hour. Click, click. Cell phone cuts off the connection.

Thinking that Dante’s Inferno could use an updated edition to add punch to his visions of hell by drawing from modern life, I call the credit card hotline again. Do you suppose this is one of those phone operations being manned by prison inmates? The first two operators off trying to charge my card before it is too late now that they know my mother’s maiden name? Despite the hour, I can now rattle off name, card number, mother’s maiden name. In fact, suspiciously fast, I would say. Certified to talk to operator number three, the first thing I tell her is about the problem of being cut off. She is understandably distraught at the emotional damage that has been inflicted on me and tells me so. She shares my pain. I have the problem description down to a terse sentence or two and she transfers me to security by some different manner (how many different ways do you suppose there are?) that leaves me listening to Musak. So, there I am, in the dark living room, in my sarong, broadcasting tinny Musak into the dark, otherwise quiet house from my cell phone. Our maid, who usually gets up with the sun at 5:30AM, her adrenaline levels surely back to normal by this time,  is probably pretty pissed at me for acting like some kind of Musak DJ when she needs her sleep.

And then I am connected to security. Great! Almost there. But the security guy is not the brightest bulb in the Christmas tree light string. He has some canned scripts to read and, apparently hoping for a raise for being so efficient, reads them at a rate of speed that would defy the NSA to decrypt. Utilizing the time tested method of redundancy in communication channels to reduce error rates (Me: “What?” Him: “Mdunnowvvnvwurw.” Me: “What?”…), I am eventually given to understand that he will immediately cancel my card and mail me another one. OK. So, I just need to give him my address. More delivery people can find a 700 hectare (1730 acre) university than can find a small house tucked away on a side road, so I give him the address of the Physics Department at Peradeniya. Everything goes swimmingly, though, due to sleep deprivation, my normally Pentium-class mind struggles to make up words to help in spelling out Peradeniya (“P as in Peter, e as in Edward, r as in radio, or is that radishes?” ).

Everything goes well, that is, until we get to the zip code. Well, except for the city of Colombo, Sri Lanka does not have any postal codes at all. Even in Colombo, I think the numbers only go as high as ten. (I do not think the numbers in Colombo are really postal codes. They are more useful as an aid to tuk-tuk drivers. Tuk-tuk drivers are too busy lining up to serially ask tourists whether they need a ride to have the time for learning the names of the streets in Colombo. But most of them know the “postal” numbering system and so can at least get you to within a mile of your destination. To get closer than that, you are, frequently, on your own.) The lack of a zip code was too much for the credit card company’s software to handle. It would not accept an address without a zip code, even though it was supposedly set up to work with international addresses. Well, it was getting close to 2:30AM by this point and I would happily have been given the choice to throttle the Web programmer that did not realize that zip codes are an invention of the US Postal Service and are not in use by every postal service in the world, or my operator who would not put in “00000” or something to satisfy the program, or me, my usual feline-quick reflexes slowed by the late hour, for not making something up on the spur of the moment. “Oh, I forgot. In an amazing coincidence the zip code of Peradeniya is identical to my US zip code: 43050.”

So, the credit card company is shipping the card to Kenyon, since, while Kenyon is not close Kenya, much less to Sri Lanka, it does have a zip code. I do not know what this guy was thinking. I’m in SRI LANKA and he spots my Kenyon adddress in his database and thinks that is just as good a place to send the card? Hello? I know that many people in the US could not find Sri Lanka on a map to save their lives, but I assumed that virtually everyone would assume that if they did not know where a country was, it must not share a border with Ohio. OK. I should not be surprised. I did not really believe it until it happened, and it happened more than once when we lived in Los Alamos, that there are people in the US who do not know that New Mexico is a part of the US.

I acquiesced in having the card sent to Kenyon because I knew that not only does Kenyon have a zip code, it also has a fantastically competent, lovely woman who is willing to read my mail. (I sometimes wonder if she thought that reading my mail was going to be more exciting than it turned out to be? Not quite a Harlequin Romance, I daresay.) She will, I have no doubt, figure out how to send me the credit card in the mail, even without a zip code.

Finally, in regard to the question about why I have not been posting more often lately, I considered that perhaps I was just near the end of the freakish writing jag I have been on. Considering that I just spent three hours wringing out 1802 words onto this page, maybe not.




  1. SHANNON Jackson said,

    March 22, 2009 at 7:41 am

    At least it was a good time of day at my house. I was following all the e-mails sent to and from Deborah (slowed my computer down) as she and I were doing the “ticket” dance as well. I have also been doing the Indian visa dance. It is the hardest visa I have ever dealt with. Expensive too.

  2. Kris said,

    March 22, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    The credit card excitement extends to my hotel bill in Colombo, where I went to attend a “town meeting” called by the U.S. Embassy. Tim thoughtfully let me know that I would need to pay cash, so I dashed out of the hotel to find an ATM before I needed to leave for the meeting. The hotel staff think there is one across the road (six lane boulevard, no stop signs); I cannot identify it. I keep walking, and one of the tuktuk drivers offers sympathetically to give me a free ride to a bank with an ATM. We put put to the bank, where I discover the ATM for our U.S. bank account is still speaking Rupees, so I get only 300 Rupees (about $3, nowhere near enough). A line is forming in the 100 degree sun behind me. I try again, succeeding, and the tuktuk takes me back through four security stop points, one officer of which demands to see his license and my passport, frowns over the passport upside down, and I am deposited dripping wet back at the hotel, with money. I gave the tuktuk driver a generous tip and checked out of the hotel, and filled out a small blue form with carbon paper in triplicate for the concierge, who kept my bag for me to collect later. Cash rules. But it would have been very embarrassing to try to check out with a dead credit card, so thanks, Tim, for your nightly labors…

  3. mew_lobo said,

    March 25, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Just for information, but Sri Lanka has a post code system for all post offices. But its nowhere near as efficient as the zipcode I guess, and mail will be delivered without it. But if you want, you can find the postal code for a area from the Sri Lanka Post website


    Peradeniya – 20400

    I think this might work for zipcode, but not sure.

  4. Tim said,

    March 25, 2009 at 8:03 pm

    Thanks! Who knew?


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