Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book review: "The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel"

When terrorists burst into the Taj Hotel in Mumbai in 2008 and started killing people in a spray of bullets, guests and workers scattered.

Some made it safely outside, but many hundreds were trapped in the huge luxury hotel. Some locked the doors of ballrooms and restaurants and hid in large groups, while others, alone and in pairs, took cover inside their rooms, in bathroom stalls or under desks. There, they waited for rescue.

It would be a long wait. Many would die before help arrived.

The attack on the Taj was part of a wider assault by Pakistani terrorists on Mumbai, India's financial capital. In all, 166 people were killed, including 33 at the Taj. 

In "The Siege," authors Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy tell the story of the assault on the Taj in meticulous detail. Having interviewed hundreds of people, the authors describe the assault from the perspectives of guests, workers, police and even the terrorists themselves.

Sadly, the biggest takeaway from this amazing story is how many people died and were injured while waiting 12 hours for rescue. As Scott-Clark and Levy illustrate, the response from Indian police and military to the assault was simply pathetic.

Too few officers were sent to the scene initially, and those that did arrive were afraid to go near the hotel not surprising, considering they were armed only with outdated weapons and a handful of bullets. Reinforcements were slow to arrive. Bureaucratic squabbling paralyzed rapid response of anti-terrorism units. 

The police response was so pitiful that they that failed to take advantage of even the most obvious opportunities. One brave officer, Vishwas Patil, snuck into the hotel (he was the first to exchange fire with the terrorists) and found his way to the internal closed-circuit TV system. There, he was able to watch on TV as all four terrorists assembled in a single room.

This was the perfect moment, Patil realized, to trap the terrorists and get everyone else out of the hotel safely. He radioed to police outside the hotel and urged them to send in forces immediately. But the police dithered and the opportunity vanished.

The book also makes it clear that, even when their lives are immediate danger, people can do dumb things. In darkened ballrooms where most people tried to remain quiet so as not to expose their hiding place, some people persisted in talking loudly on cell phones or not covering up their a glowing screen. Some people revealed their hiding places to outside journalists in calls or texts, facts that were soon broadcast to TV viewers and quickly passed to the terrorists by their handlers.

The authors' thorough research helps to create a vivid picture with amazing detail. But such detail can also be an impediment to the reader, as it can be hard to keep all the names and relationships straight.

To assist the reader, the book does something brilliant. At the start is a list of many of the key characters, along with photos and short descriptions. This helps immensely; I repeatedly referred to this "cheat sheet" as I read the book.

Also, the book has a not just a map of Mumbai showing key locations, including the Taj, but also has two diagrams showing the internal layout of the labyrinthine hotel. Again, this is extremely helpful.

If you're reading "The Siege," I suggest not getting bogged down in details. Even if you read carefully, it will be impossible to keep all the names straight. "The Siege" works better if you keep the action moving. This may be the kind of book worth a second read just so you can make sense out of the chaos.

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Verizon stumbles in router upgrade offer

Verizon's offer to upgrade customers' routers for free quickly turned sour this week when heavy demand crashed the web page handling the orders.

Verizon sent an email Tuesday to Internet customers who use routers that still use an older security protocol known as Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP.

The email (see full text below) offered to replace the older routers, at no charge, with new ones using the more advanced Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA2) encryption. Customers were directed to the web page to order the new router.

But customers who followed the Verizon instructions could not reach the correct page, getting a "Server not found" message instead. Customers who contacted Verizon's customer service were further frustrated.

I spent 36 minutes in online chat with two baffled Verizon representatives who didn't even know about the router email. When I offered to forward the email to them, they refused to provide an address and asked me to fax yes, fax the email to them. Ultimately, one of them incorrectly told me I needed to be using a computer connected to my home router for the link to work.

Later, a Verizon phone representative said that the ordering page had crashed from heavy demand. He was able to submit my router order for me.

Here's the full Verizon email:

Important Information Regarding Your Wireless Network Security

 Dear Valued Verizon Customer,

Internet Security is always a top priority at Verizon. That’s why we want to make sure we do all we can to keep your personal information secure.  Our wireless routers have security settings that are available to help protect your home wireless network.   We strongly recommend that you upgrade your security settings from WEP encryption.  As your router is not enabled for W-Fi Protected Access (WPA2) encryption, which is the highest level of security available, we will provide a WPA2 compatible router to you at no additional cost. To order a no-cost replacement router, please go to  

If you prefer to keep your current router, please upgrade to WPA encryption, which will provide a higher level of protection than WEP encryption.  As you upgrade your security settings, you should also establish a strong, unique encryption/key password.    If you have not previously upgraded your router’s security settings, you may do so by using our In-Home Agent tool or by using the instructions provided at

  • While we strongly recommend that you upgrade to WPA2 Encryption, if you prefer to use less-secure WEP encryption, it is critical that you create a strong, unique WEP encryption key/password and change it regularlyInstructions for changing your WEP encryption key are available at
  • Please do not use the WEP encryption key that is printed on the label of your router.
  • Instructions for creating a strong, unique password are available at
We urge you to take a moment to update your wireless router’s security and password settings.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Your Verizon Team

Friday, August 15, 2014

Does the Press-Telegram even want subscribers?

The author Lee Tomlinson invented the term "WAYMISH" to describe the many ways companies drive away customers with inadequate, thoughtless or just-plain-stupid service practices. It stands for "Why Are You Making It So Hard for me to give you money?"

Here's an example of a WAYMISH:

I was interested in subscribing to the Press-Telegram, the newspaper that serves Long Beach, California. A few Google searches brought me to a page that offered seven-day-a-week delivery for "$14.99 per 4 month."

Hmm, I thought, that's awkwardly written, but it seems to suggest $14.99 for 4 months of daily delivery of the paper. That would be a good deal, if true. There was no way online to clarify if my interpretation was correct, so I decided to call.

It was 4:45 p.m. on a Thursday when this potential subscriber called. But I only got a recording saying "Our office is closed," and no opportunity to leave a message. WAYMISH.

Many consumers would give up at that point, but I called back the next day, and waited four and a half minutes on hold before reaching a human. After I explained my question, the customer representative seemed puzzled.

"What paper are you calling about?" she said.


She was completely unaware of the offer I was referring to. I explained in detail how to find the web page I had found. Eventually, after I had been on the phone for more than 10 minutes, including additional time on hold, she returned to tell me the offer was "$14.99 per month, guaranteed for four months."

Oh. And how are we supposed to get that out of "$14.99 per 4 month"?

Some might say that $14.99 a month is still a reasonable price, but by this point I'd found the whole process so aggravating that I decided not to subscribe at all.


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