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December 28, 2011

Birds of a Feather

I was percolating for awhile in my head an idea for a super-hero story. I was originally going to write something, and then an opportunity presented itself to create it instead as a roleplaying game. However, I did not have the idea as fleshed-out as I would have liked, and I could not sustain the story. I have since then continued to percolate on the idea, hoping to gel some things and go back to it, again as either a story or a gaming experience.

The gist of my story ideas were:
  • A central city in America (using Chicago as basis; wasn't sure if I should use the actual city or have it be a stand-in for city of my naming)
  • An event occurs which creates the mutation in people that allows for super powers to form. It is extremely rare.
  • Powers manifest through some sort of extreme event in the person's life, if they have the genetic conditions and survive the process. Most often, the triggering events are traumas, but sometimes even puberty can cause them to come on. I called these events Awakenings.
  • It is soon after the event, and people are adjusting to the new reality of super-powered individuals being in their midst. Governments are taking stand (around the globe), industry is taking notice, the population is trying to adjust. Groupies and churches spring up around the super-hero/villain models, there is some stratification of "worthwhile," "worthless," and "spot on the wall" variety powers.
  • Trying to show real-world physics and applying them to super-heroic powers.
I had a hard time sleeping last night. I grabbed my Kindle and starting looking for a book to read to help lull me to sleep. I found one that looked interesting, "Wearing the Cape" by Marion G. Harmon. As I read the book, the similarities startled me:
  • It takes place in Chicago.
  • It is 10 years after an Event caused some people to have "breakthroughs" and gain super powers.
  • The world is adjusting to the new realities caused by having super-powered individuals in it.
  • Real-world use of physics, mass, speed, etc. when discussing using super-powers.
  • There are groupies and stratification and classification of power levels.
I was even using "The Sentinels" and variations on that concept as my main super-hero group for the world. This author has the protagonist joining the most well-known super-hero group called The Sentinels.

It was eerie to read. Now, I'm not in any way, shape, or form suggesting this author somehow plagiarized or stole my idea. The concepts are similar, but generic, enough that many people have had them. It is the similarities in small details that surprised me as I read it; same city, same hero group name, the use of real-world physics, even the author's use of opening statements from news sources, journals, and scientific community reports (something I was mulling over doing, but didn't when I changed from a story to an RPG setting).

While the writing was a bit uneven, the transitions between scenes and chapters were sometimes a bit jarring, and the author did not seem sure of his audience at all times (all indicators of a first-time author), I found Harmon's self-published novel entertaining and a fast read. I enjoyed his female protagonist's growth as a character and will be interested to read more in the future. I am once again energized to try to create a new super-heroic story or game environment, but frustrated that I feel the need to change directions and create something newer and different, something of my own.

December 21, 2011

Bell Mobility Being Tricky Again

My wife and have followed through on our plan to replace her old, pink, flip-style phone with a newer smartphone. We are also transitioning this phone to be primarily my phone and she will continue using her Blackberry as her main phone (which is what she uses 90% of the time anyway).

We got the phone on Monday, and I've been slowly setting things up and configuring it to work with our home network, etc. I noticed yesterday and asked my wife today about the fact that, although we had no data plan for the phone and I had turned off the wi-fi connection, I was still receiving data information. In particular, it was updating with new emails and notifying me of them, even though it shouldn't get that data.

This concerned me enough that I called Bell Mobility's customer support and spoke with a nice, well-spoken woman about the situation. She informed me that, unbeknownst to us, we were given a "free" week of data and that data connection was turned on in the phone so we could see what it was like. At the end of that week, the free trial would be over and... the connection on the phone that allows data would be left turned on and each piece of data sent or received would then be charged at the exorbitant rates for those without a data plan! I told her I wanted to turn all of that off.

"But why would you want to turn off that data connection now? You have a week for free! You could set up a reminder," she cajoled.

"Yes, but I'll tell you what will happen. I'll forget to set up the reminder, or I'll turn it off and forget to reset that data connection option, and every little thing will be charged to our next bill and we'll have an outrageously high cell phone bill. No thank you. You can show me where that is now, I'll turn it off, and I'll simply use the free wi-fi connection available through our house if I need data on the phone," I said.

To her credit, she understood my reasoning and did walk me through it, so it is now off.

Now, let's extrapolate what might have happened had I not noticed that: It is $.15 a Megabyte for data and, since I'm in the "learning to use and setting up phase" of the phone, I'm likely to be downloading many new applications and trying them out. I'm setting up and learning to use the Instant Messaging and Emailing capabilities on the phone, etc. That next bill after the first week of "free" use may have been astronomically high due to all of that fiddling. And me telling them "But I got a plan with no data! Why did you allow me to send and receive data when specifically got a plan without data?" would be no excuse and I would have to pay that bill.

Let's extrapolate further to the new grandmother who was convinced by her grandchildren to get a new smartphone for free so that they could more easily keep in touch with her. She lives on a fixed income and doesn't understand any of this, but goes along to stay in touch with the family. How big is her first bill, as she video conferences with her family at holidays, sends and receives pictures from them, and doesn't think about how fast that $.15 adds up, or doesn't think it will add up because she chose a plan without data, and she doesn't understand the technology, so assumes that all of this is not "data," or why would she be able to use those features? Do you think Bell is going to be any more sympathetic to her plight?

It is just these items and features that corporations need to tell people about, but are exactly the ones that they do not, because those extra fees that people incur by not knowing help keep the business going. I find it despicable.

December 17, 2011

In Medi-Trust I Do Not

My wife called Medi-Trust today to refill some prescriptions. The person to whom she was speaking made a comment about how most of my prescriptions were lapsed or no longer valid. She politely disagreed with him, tried to discuss the situation, but he said the last time they had a refill for me was last year.

Step in the angry American. I had been in to see my doctor in mid-October and my wife had written me a note to make sure I got the doctor to write scripts for all four of my current medications. We then, together, went down to the pharmacy because there was an issue with one of the (existing) prescriptions. During that visit, I gave them the script with all four new prescriptions on it, and the female pharmacist and the counter girl did what they felt they had to in order to fix the one prescription. My guess is that they then filed the script without inputting the other three updated prescriptions.

I thought telling him this provided him with more than enough information for him to put the time and date into context, give him ideas on how best to provide customer service, and suggest a mutually agreeable solution.

He said, basically, "I don't know what to tell you, we don't have it. You'll have to go to your doctor and get these renewed." This is not an acceptable, mutually agreeable solution. And it is lazy and self-serving. This completely ignores everything I just told you. Time to ramp it up and get angry.

My responses was, "So, I did everything right, I went to my doctor, I got my scripts, and took them to you, and you screwed up, so now it is my responsibility to fix it? I don't think so."

We argued back and forth for a minute or two more, with him trying to pass the buck to me and me not accepting that buck. I finally asked, "Don't you keep the old scripts in a file somewhere? Can't you find it and fix it?"

"I can go try to dig through our files," he responded, as though to do so would mean losing a child or killing kittens.

"Do that," I said, "I'll wait."

It took about 6 minutes of dead air time on the phone before he came back. Sure enough, I was right and he was wrong. He sounded angry that he had found the script, angrier that it wasn't done correctly, and angriest that he had to admit that I was right.

Living where I am now, I'm sure that his initial "you have to go back to your doctor" is usually met with an "okay," even if the person is pretty sure they are right, and he goes about his day. CSRs here are used to those they deal with being much more 'go along to get along' than I am. I feel that this leads to CSRs who will not work with you, who don't want to listen when you suggest they (or someone in their company) have done something wrong, and who rarely expect someone to come out swinging and make them do their job.

When my wife politely asked the question about files, why didn't this gentleman simply respond in the affirmative and go check them? If he had, he would have found the old script and could have figured it out without me getting on the phone and getting angry and forcing him to do his job. Barring that, when you have someone else get on the phone and give such a detailed description of when they brought the script, who they spoke to, and what occurred, why not give them the benefit of the doubt and check their story? Once he refused this second opportunity and I got angry and demanding, why didn't he immediately offer to continue looking for the script, which would have led him to the solution and avoided the angry verbal engagement he and I went through? My wife and I, basically, gave him multiple opportunities to provide us with customer service that he ignored or refused, resulting in him having an angry exchange, being proved wrong, and having to apologize and fix it anyway.

Customer service has been on a downward track for some time now. What confuses me is that this is one area where companies can make the biggest difference and, by providing good support, get more business in return for minimal investment.

The old adage "the customer is always right" is not always accurate but it is always true. What the adage means is that the words that the customer is saying may not be accurate, but if they feel they are wronged, the business needs to right that wrong. The business can right that wrong in a mutually beneficial way such that the business doesn't lose a customer or its shirt in correcting the mistake. The business can present the customer's error in such a way that the customer doesn't lose face and the business doesn't lose the customer. Either way, the customer is satisfied, the business keeps the customer, and both gain from the experience.

December 14, 2011

Spirit Guides

Those who know me well know that the majority of my dreams are dark, harsh, and full of violence and death. That has been true for as long as I remember. I've had these types of dreams since I was a small child, and they exacerbate my sleeping issues, as I rarely want to rush to sleep because of what awaits in my dreams. My dreams are so nightmarish, that I rarely share them with others and I have slowly taught myself to quickly forget them upon waking up.

When I have a dream that is somehow positive, or, at least, not ultra-violent, it stands out and I do not forget it when I wake up. Even rarer, however, is when I have a dream that sticks with me for days afterward and fills me with a sense of peace and contentedness.
I was in the desert. It was a warm, sunny day, but not overly hot. There was a slight breeze blowing. To my mind, a perfect day in the desert. Out of nowhere and apropos of nothing there was a tortoise. This tortoise, however, was the size of a giant sea turtle, or one of the giant Aldabra tortoises, but colored just like one from my home desert. It was large enough that I could climb onto its arched back and ride it without impeding its movement or making it struggle at all. It had the placid, serene face that all tortoises seem to have. It was just there, slowly making its way in the desert on this beautiful day, and happened upon where I was.
I found some cactus, pulled out the thorns, and fed it to the tortoise. I then found a small field of daisies and plucked them and fed the tortoise. While its face and expression did not change at all, I felt happiness and joy from it and simply knew that I had done the right thing in that moment. When it seemed to have its fill, I climbed back onto its shell, and it set off for some unknown destination. We both simply basked in the moment, in the beautiful day, in the odd pairing, and the sense of unhurried, directionless movement and togetherness.
Ever since having that dream, when I think back on it, I get the same, if more momentary, sense of calm, peace, and contentedness that carried through during the dreaming. In a dichotomy, I wish both to have the dream again (to experience it first-hand once more) and to never dream it again (so I can use the recollection for peace and inspiration in the future).

Turtles are a good avatar for me in many ways. I'm a generally calm, grounded, earthy person. I tend to be shy around new people, to like being alone or with only a few others, to enjoy warmth, and to move at my own pace. I watch a lot, stay quiet, form my own opinions, and move toward my own goals. It makes me wonder if this is, in the American Indian sense, my spirit animal.

Have you had a dream like this? One that stuck with you, filling you with a sense of peace?

December 5, 2011

The Straight Poop

In the vast majority of houses I've been to the person living there has something on the top of the tank to their toilet, items on their counter, and/or some sort of shelf or storage container above the toilet. Because of all of this, I am surprised at the number of people who leave the lid of their toilet up. Do these people never drop or knock anything off from one of these locations into the open toilet?

I will grant that having the seat down makes the hole smaller. But the hole is still there. Because of the number of times I have knocked items off of the counter or tank, or dropped things I was retrieving from the over-toilet storage into the bowl, I always insist on a closed lid. On top of this, human beings have a wide variety of excretory issues that can complicate the cleanliness of the bowl and not everyone cleans their bowls regularly. So having the lid closed is also good to help the overall look of a bathroom to the casual guest (or simply the inhabitant), prior to next use/cleaning.

And, frankly, if the lid is down, the seat is down. In households with a woman, that means the seat is always in her preferred position, another benefit. Yes, she has to lift the lid to use the toilet, but that seems fair... most women prefer men to lift the seat to minimize the chance they urinate all over the seat anyway. This way, both sexes have roughly equal amounts of work; she has to lift the lid and he has to lift the lid and seat (which can be done in one action). Fair's fair, after all.

Lastly, many areas have water issues that cause stains on the bowl, water discoloration, and even scum growth or animal issues. Leaving the lid closed keeps these unsightly issues from view immediately upon entry into the bathroom, and can help keep creatures out of (or inside!) the toilet in those specific cases.

In the end, the bonuses to leaving the lid down seem to outweigh the one advantage to leaving it up. I don't understand why so many restrooms I have visited always have the lid up.

December 2, 2011

Quick Thoughts: Oil and Gas Prices

The vast amount of oil is transported via ship. At any given moment there are dozens of ships on the seas transporting the crude to refineries. It takes these ships from days to weeks to go from their points of origin (North Sea, Africa/Middle East, South America) to America for production. It takes days to refine the raw crude into various oil and gas products, and then ship it via tanker truck to all regions of the US.

Yet when something happens to a pipeline in Saudi Arabia or a coup happens in Venezuela, the price of gas changes immediately (the same day or next day, at the latest) at the pump, even though it will take a minimum of a week, and more like two weeks, before the interruption the issue caused would actually reach oil refineries and the gas pump in America. When the issue is resolved, it takes weeks and sometimes months before the price of gas declines back to pre-issue levels as the flow of oil resumes unabated.

And, of course, this doesn't even mention the home-source, Canadian, and Mexican oil that also is part of the processes and is not interrupted by whatever "hiccup" is "causing" the gas prices to go up.

Add to this the fact that the oil companies continue to make record profits even during a world-wide economic recession and it is no wonder that people think there is some form of collusion going on.

How stupid do they think we are?

The gas companies could, today, right now, change the price of gas to $1 per gallon (and equivalent in litres) and still make vast profits. They have learned that they can charge what they want and no one will question them and they can make world-shattering profits, so why wouldn't they?

November 6, 2011

The New DC Comics Universe

DC Comics recently "rebooted" its comics universe by canceling and then re-issuing all new #1s. The idea behind this was intriguing, and it brought me back to comics after 5 years away. Overall, I think it is a good choice. However, I do not think they went far enough with the concept. The editors, I'm guessing, were afraid of changing too much and alienating long-time fans. So you have some characters and titles in which nearly everything stayed the same, and other characters and titles that changed a great deal.

Batman, and more specifically all of his bat-family, hardly changed at all. Had I been in charge, I would have cleaned up all of the extra characters, cleaned up history for some of them, and eliminated others altogether (with an eye for recreating them in the future down the line, assuming that the reboot is successful. One of the change I'm definitely scratching my head over is that of Batgirl.

Barbara Gordon was Batgirl for the longest time, but then was shot in the spine by the Joker and paralyzed. Rather than sending the character to the sidelines, DC re-thought the character and had her become Oracle. Still paralyzed, she became the "information broker" for the Bat-family and the rest of the heroic side of the DC Universe, as well as a member of Birds of Prey. She became not only an interesting character, but was one of the few handicapped characters to be a positive role model in the DC Universe. With this new reboot, however, Barbara Gordon is in a weird place where she still was shot in the spine by the Joker, but somehow got better and is back to being Batgirl. So it works out that DC loses one of its more interesting, handicapped heroes and replaces it with yet another Bat-family character (to go with Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Batwoman, Batwing, and Red Hood).

Static is another character who changed very little. He's still from Dakota (moved to New York), and it appears that all of his history remains pretty much intact. The problem here is more the story and artwork being below expectation.

How they handled Superman was better. They altered his costume (both in the past as shown in Action Comics and in the present in his own title). They altered how he reacts and acts. They decided to kill off both of his parents again (the Kents have been alive and dead a number of times in his continuity). They are playing up the 'alien' side a bit more than they have before. It is the same character, with basically the same moral code, but it is also all new and fresh, too. This was a good change and makes the character more interesting.

Wonder Woman has also changed in subtle ways. She is still an Amazon from Paradise Island, but her mother, who the Amazons are, and how and why Wonder Woman was created has been altered. So far, it all seems to work well.

Other characters changed in dramatic and unexpected ways. For example, Captain Atom (a personal favorite of mine) is a mixture of the silver-skinned version and the Doctor Manhattan version seen in The Watchmen. This makes him one of the most powerful characters in the revised universe. Firestorm is now a three-way threat; he is both Ronald Raymond and Jason Rusch as separate heroes with different, but similar costumes, and they can combine into a larger, angrier, and more powerful form called Fury.

Who is in and how the Justice League is formed has been played with and altered, too. How the characters interact with one another is very different.

In a surprise move, DC decided to release a bunch of titles using lesser names in starring roles, including the  Creature Commandos, OMAC, Resurrection Man, I, Vampire, Mr. Terrific, Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and others. Most of these simply aren't interesting enough to carry their own books and are usually better served as secondary heroes, guest stars, or members of a team. Animal Man and Swamp Thing are really the only two that have enough of a following to separate from the crowd and possibly last long-term.

All in all, while I'm enjoying the change and am back buying comics again for the first time in five years, I feel like DC didn't go far enough. They had the opportunity to really effect some good change, maybe by completely re-configuring characters that could use a change, by increasing female and minority character presences (or by changing existing characters to a new gender or race), and by redoing some of the convoluted histories of many characters. In the end, they took the easier route of changing characters that were more fringe and keeping a lot of the old history intact and in place, even if it might be confusing to new readers.

I'm going to keep with it for at least a few more issues and see where they go and how the stories play out. I'm hopeful that the changes will stay in effect and that more will be coming. Here's hoping that DC can introduce a nice, new, simple Power Girl, for example. I'm hopeful that DC will continue to produce high-quality comics and that old readers will come back, new readers will take this opportunity to come on board, and that this medium will not perish in the new economic realities that all companies are struggling to find their way in.

November 4, 2011

Food Cravings

I have been consuming copious quantities of some pretty strange things lately. For example, I got on a kick where heavily buttered bread was all I wanted to eat, and was practically all I ate for about a week and a half (went through a few loaves of bread in that time).

Then, suddenly, it was salami and provolone. Not on a sandwich, I've been just taking the cheese and meat out of the bag, sandwiching them together (sometimes with pepperoni), and eating that exclusively. And chocolate milk has been high on the list. I had quesadillas every day for lunch (and a couple of times for dinner) every day for a week.

I believe that, for the most part, when you get a craving for something, it is because your body knows it needs something and it knows it got it from that food. Not sure what I have been missing or needing lately that buttered bread, cheese, salami, and chocolate milk covers, but it has been a severe craving.

This all seems to be coming to a close now. I'm not feeling the lusty need for these items any more, and I can go back to normal quantities. Who knows what the next craving will be?

October 18, 2011

More Phone Frustrations

This time, it was T-Mobile. I went online to t-mobile.com in order to check my cell phone's balance. The screen has a section for the minutes balance and for the dollar amount balance. The minutes was listed as "0" while the dollar amount balance was correct.

I called customer support in order to ask why my minutes balance was 0. First, getting a live voice on the phone was difficult. Pressing 0 simply errored, the automated voice did NOT want to give me up to a live person. I finally figured out to answer the questions incorrectly three times in a row so that it would get confused and would be forced to transfer me to live person.

The first live person was happy to give me my balance in minutes. He didn't understand that what I was calling about was an issue with the online site. Finally got him to understand and he transferred me to Trenton, part of the the "Technical Support" group. Unfortunately, this was technical support for the phone itself and not for the online site. So, he struggled to understand what the problem was. I finally had him log in to my account and look at it online from his end (they have a backdoor way of looking at any customer's account). Once I pointed out that the "minutes" section read "0," he understood and transferred me to a third person. This person was in Technical Support for the online services, was in India, and had her head up her ass.

I kept telling her that my ONLINE minutes balance was listed as ZERO. She kept telling me that I simply had to dial pound-number-number-number-pound in order to get my balance. I said, "How will that help me to see the proper balance online?" She responded with, "It will give you the proper balance." It took me over 10 minutes of explaining it a bunch of different ways before I got her to understand that I KNEW I could get my balance other ways, but that I was using their online site and it was wrong.

Then she tried to blame it on "we're currently performing an online update." Yeah, right. Every single time I've called any company with an online issue of a similar nature, they try to blame it on an update. Apparently all companies are performing online updates 24/7, so don't rely on their sites. Or I'm just lucky enough that, no matter when I go online, the company I'm visiting just happens to have that time scheduled for their updates. I badgered her on this until I finally got her to escalate the issue to a supervisor.

I then asked if I could give her my home phone number so that the supervisor could contact me when the problem was resolved. "Oh, no, sir, we're not allowed to call customers."

"Well, then, how will I know when this issue is resolved?" I asked.

"You can call in after 24 hours and check on the ticket..."

"No. YOU have the information. YOUR company knows when this will be resolved. I do NOT want to start calling in once a day HOPING the problem is resolved, having to go through your awful phone system, being transferred a half dozen times, only to find out it is not resolved. Your supervisor can contact ME. How about sending me an email, if he's not allowed to call?"

"Well, I guess that might be all right," she said, and took down my public email address.

Now, I have little to no hope that I will actually get an email when this problem is resolved. It's the principle of the matter. If the company has all of the information, they should contact me when it is resolved, not the other way around.

Why do phone companies make dealing with them so difficult?

Here's how I envisioned the phone call going:

Me: When I log into my account online, the website shows my "minutes" as zero. When you check my account, you'll see that I have $95.11 balance and a ton of minutes. Why is the online site incorrectly showing my minutes balance as zero?
Them: Let me log into your account. Hmmm, yes, you're right. I see that it is showing zero even tho you have 950 minutes left on your balance. Let me forward this request to the proper department so they know about this error and they can correct it. Is there anything else today?
Me: No. Thank you. (See, at this point, I have done what I wanted to do [inform them of the error on the website] and do not need to have them contact me back when the problem is resolved. I assume they will take care of it.)

Is this too much to ask?

October 14, 2011

More Unprofessional Bell Aliant Customer Support

Frequent readers of this blog will note that I have had issues with Bell Aliant (BA) in the past. Well, they've done it again.

On July 19th, my wife and I called BA to ask some questions about our existing account and about getting fiberop internet installed. We spoke with Lance. During that call, we tried to canceled my cell phone line. Lance explained that he could not cancel it immediately and that all cell phone cancellations required a 30 day notice. That's fine, I told him, consider this our 30 day cancellation notice and note it on our account. He did, and we assumed in 30 days, on August 18th, the line would be dead and the charges would be dropped.

Our next bill had the charges from Aug. 18 to Sept 18 on it. My wife made a note of that and showed it to me, at which time I immediately called the help number. I spoke with Tiffany on October 4th at 8:15pm. She said that "something had gone wrong with the cancellation request." For some unexplained reason, she could not cancel that for me but Lance could. She made a note on our account and set it up so that Lance would credit our account and give me a call back to explain what had happened and what he had done to solve the problem. I was to give Lance 48 hours from that phone call to accomplish this and call me.

On October 8 (didn't write down the time), I called and spoke with Alan. I explained the entire situation, told him I was angry that Lance had not contacted me, and wondered if those charges had been reversed and the line closed. They had not. Alan also said that he could not do it (and also gave no reason why). He put me on hold, spoke to Lance's supervisor, explained the situation, and returned to the line. He said that  Lance's supervisor was now aware of the situation and he (Alan) absolutely "guaranteed" Lance would call me the next day after he had reversed the charges, shut down the extra line, and resolved my issue.

On October 11, mid-morning, I called back. I had a 48 minute wait time on hold before a customer rep picked up the line. I spoke with Joe, who was nice, polite, respectful, and dealt with the ration of shit I gave him very capably. I once again explained the situation, he verified that all of that was in the account, and told me that Lance's supervisor had closed the line on October 9th and Lance had credited some, but not all, of the requested amount off of our account. Joe then went in and adjusted the rest of the appropriate amount off of our account. I then explained to Joe that I was very angry over BA's lack of professionalism in not calling me when my account clearly stated that Lance was supposed to call me back and explain the situation to my satisfaction. Joe apologized on behalf of the company. I, however, wanted to speak to Lance's supervisor. As Joe was in a different call center, he could not arrange that himself. He noted my request on the account, sent Lance's supervisor the information, and requested he contact me the next day, or when he next was working (Joe did not know the supervisor's work schedule). Joe assured me our next bill would show credits indicating the reversal of charges from August 18th through October 9th. He also assured me I would get my requested phone call from Lance's supervisor.

Today is October 14. I have yet to receive a phone call from Lance or Lance's supervisor and no messages have been left on our phone. I work from home, so I am here 99% of the time. We have call waiting, so I would have heard the beep if he had called during one of the rare times I was on the phone. We have an answering service, so he could have left a message had I been unavailable to answer.

I think I have been more than patient with BA's customer support on this. Yet, with the exception of Joe, I've really received no assistance at all and what, I feel, is fairly unprofessional behavior.

In the end, after three phone calls, I finally found someone who could properly and correctly (I hope) reverse the charges and verify the line was cancelled. I feel that this should have been handled either a) correctly by Lance in the first place so that I didn't have to call BA at all or b) by Tiffany the very first time I called. There should have been no "Lance has to take care of that" crap from Tiffany or Alan. However, once that happened, Lance should have contacted me back as requested. Failing that, Lance's supervisor should have made it a priority to contact me back. Each of these instances is a case of unprofessional behavior that should be used as a training exercise for all new and existing customer support representatives and supervisors in the future.

I should probably let this go at this point, but I sort of want to make a point of it now with BA. I'm considering calling back and asking for the manager in charge of supervisors so that I can explain the entire situation and vent my frustrations. Provide him with at least one shining, well-documented case of poor customer support and give him a chance to rectify the situation in some fashion. Of course, most of my Canadian friends (even those who work for the company) will just tell me that this is fairly par for the course with BA, and I should move on. But I feel that the company won't ever improve unless people are vocal about the issues.

What do you think?

UPDATE 10/17/2011
My wife has forwarded our complaints directly to a contact at Bell Aliant support, and the contact is putting it into the company's internal review process (after agreeing that this is not good customer support at all). I still have not received a phone call to apologize or explain this situation from either Lance or Lance's supervisor.

UPDATE 10/18/2011
Received phone call from Shelly. She apologized profusely for the unprofessional manner in which BA customer support has handled this issue. She gave us one month free of ALL services. She is also sending out the area supervisor to check on our fibreop cable (a complaint I didn't note above) and is forwarding our Mobility complaint to a special customer support liaison similar to her at the Mobility branch, who should be contacting me in a day or two. If they don't, Shelly provided me with her direct line and I can call her back to continue the complaint.

Now THIS is customer support. Why couldn't Tiffany, Alan, Lance, or Lance's supervisors respond so quickly, efficiently, and kindly?

UPDATE 10/18/2011
Got a phone call back from the Mobility side of things. The woman (I didn't catch her name and forgot to ask her to repeat it before we rang off) apologized profusely for how I was treated each step of the way. She said that Lance was wrong to not provide the cancellation immediately. Tiffany was wrong to say Lance had to do it and not transfer me to the cancellation unit for immediate assistance. Alan was wrong for the same reason and for "guaranteeing" a phone call back the next day. Joe is getting an accommodation for giving good service and a note/fyi to transfer a customer like me directly to a manager, even if it isn't the "right" manager, so that my concerns can be addressed immediately. Lance, Tiffany, Alan, and Lance's supervisor are all getting negative reviews due to this series of events.

In addition, she provided us with one additional month's credit on the now-cancelled phone line, since she saw I hadn't used it the preceding month. And, last but not least, SHE thanked ME for being dogged on this, as she knows far too many people just let it go and the company cannot learn or make good on issues like this.

October 12, 2011

Passing of a Friend and Mentor

My best friend just let me know his father, Eric, passed away. His dad had been sick with leukemia for awhile, and was home on hospice care. When my wife and I went back to California a few weeks ago, we made sure to make time to visit with Eric. It was tough seeing him in the final stages of his life, but I am thankful that I got to talk with him and share some time before he passed.

Eric was one of my English teachers during high school; I had him for two of the four years. He always used to write "Wordy" at the top of any paper I turned in to him, as well as correcting any flaws in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. He would often tell me that he was sure I could write better, that I had a better idea in there somewhere, and I just needed to let it out. It became my goal to turn in a paper on which he had no chance of writing "wordy" and that he could not say I left something behind, or out, or not fully developed. I did not succeed in the first year, but one of the final papers I turned in to him my second year finally, finally, did not have that dreaded word at the top. I got an A- on that paper. Eric does not know this, but I kept that paper with me and it helped guide and assure me as I finally chose to major in English Literature and Composition in college and pursue a career using writing. Unfortunately, during one of my many moves, that paper got lost.

Eric was also a friend to me, and a bit of a father-figure. His son, Chris, became my best friend, and we hung out a lot in high school and afterward. Eric, and his wonderful, strange, genuine wife Norma, let me hang out for some of their family activities. He gladly was Dungeon Master for Chris and me on occasion. He was someone I went to when I had issues with school that I did not want to share with my mother (who was also a teacher at the high school). I did not always follow his advice, but it was always sound, from a different perspective from my parents or my own experience, and usually filled with a dry, wry humor I enjoyed, so it was worth listening to.

Chris and I lived together at college and for a few years afterward, as we both tried to make our starts in the world, so I saw Eric frequently as I grew into an adult. He continued to shed perspective, insight, and humor on anything I brought to his attention. I listened to him even when I did not agree with him, because he often taught me something... even if it was against my will.

I now make my living as a technical writer, a career where I am not allowed to be wordy and where adjectives are verboten. I'm sure Eric would be satisfied, and maybe a little proud, to know he was one of a small group of teachers who pushed me in this direction, helped mold who I am, and helped hone my skills so that I could make a living doing something I enjoy.

And I am absolutely, positively certain he's looking over my shoulder right now and thinking, "Wrap it up, John. This is getting wordy. You're hiding your premise." You know what, Eric? Sometimes, just sometimes, it's okay to be wordy. Now is that time.

Rest in peace, Eric. You'll be both remembered and missed.

October 5, 2011

Speak Your Mind

Just once, I'd like to see a celebutard speak their mind and not back down from it. Hank Williams, Jr. and Johnny Depp are the most recent ones to make stupid statements and then have to backtrack fast when it is pointed out to them their statements were offensive. Williams equated President Obama and Majority Leader Boehner having a "golf summit" to Hitler and Netanyahu meeting. While he may have made poor choices in his analogy, most of us know that Williams is a life-long Republican, right-wing, and very conservative. We can assume he does not have a favorable opinion of the current Democrat President. So why are we so upset and surprised when he makes this analogy?

At first I thought Williams might not back down. He was given every opportunity to do so, and didn't take them. Only after his current, main meal-ticket decided not to use his song to open Monday Night Football did he realize how pervasive his gaffe was and that he may have to make an apology. The thing is, his analogy isn't all that flawed. Yes, he used "Hitler," which no one in this current PC universe can use in any way without reprisals, but otherwise he made a decent analogy: Boehner and Obama are as politically opposite (at least in public comments) as possible, like a Jewish leader and a leader who killed Jews are far apart in ideology. I think the only reason why this is a brouhaha is because he said "Hitler."

Depp equated being photographed without his permission to the heinous act of rape. Gee, you think that might just infuriate some people? This was just stupid on his part. He immediately wrote a letter apologizing for the comparison to RAINN. I do not agree with this comparison, but Depp was leading toward a truth: paparazzi are in a position of power over celebrities, they force themselves on these celebrities, they do not take "no" for an answer, and they do not respect any sort of boundaries (children, personal time, etc.). All of these are similar to the actions of rapist. The same? No, of course not. Similar? Yes. So why are we upset with the analogy?

I, personally, do not condone either of these analogies. However, I'm smart enough to understand they are analogies. The people saying them do not mean them literally. On top of that, they are being interviewed and recorded; interviews wander, they are spur of the moment, and they are on the record. The celebrities do not know which parts will be used, if they will be used in context or out, and if what they said will make sense in the context of the entire, meandering conversation. If each of us were being recorded and asked tough, surprising, or interesting questions, we would make some similar gaffes.

I wish that one of these two, or any of the next few, would simply not respond to the gaffe or would respond in such a way to say, "Yes, I said that. While my choice of words may be regrettable, I think the analogy is valid. If you were personally offended by the analogy, maybe you should look up the word "analogy" and make sure you fully understand it."

This PC craze has gone to ludicrous and incredible heights. People need to grow a pair and stop being offended by any colorful use of the language, take things in context instead of always out of context, and grow up. I would give you an analogy of what the PC craze is like, but I'm afraid I'd have to apologize for it later.

October 4, 2011

Endoscopy

Am having some trouble with my stomach, throat, digestion. My GP decided it was serious enough to both provide me with a new medication to try and to get an endoscopy to see if there was anything physically wrong. As luck would have it, my GE had an opening and could get me in much more quickly than my GP thought, so I had that done yesterday.

I've had two other endoscopies done in the past, for similar reasons. In one they found a large ulcer in my throat and discovered I have a hiatal hernia, in the other they could not figure out what was causing my issues. In both cases, however, since I was under the effects of the "twilight" medication (a drug derived from Valium used to keep you conscious but make it so you don't remember the procedure (or discomfort/pain from it)) the doctor spoke with my mother about the dos and don'ts, gave her an overview of what happened and what they found, and gave her the plan for going forward.

This time, however, they told ME all that information. While the doctor did provide me with a sheet that showed the main points and the going-forward plan for my medications, he, or one of the nurses, told me all of the immediate things while I was in a drug-induced haze. Even though I kept asking for them to go get my wife, who was waiting in the waiting room, they said no and kept talking to me. So, here it is the next day, and I can only barely remember bits and pieces of the conversation. I know I'm supposed to stay away from certain foods and drinks (I remember acidic drinks, but that's it), I'm supposed to watch for something, I'm supposed to go to my GP or the ER if something else happens, but I don't remember what those things are because I was medicated.

It makes no sense to me that they would sit and explain this stuff to me, especially after being very careful to tell them how well I react to the medication, that it knocks me out for the entire day, and that I do not remember most of either of the other two times I had endoscopies done because of the medication. Knowing that, as a medical professional, wouldn't you listen to your patient and go get his wife, for whom he keeps asking? Wouldn't you write everything down for him, at the very least?

Overall, I like my new GE. He's a young guy, seems to genuinely want me to be as healthy as I can be, and cares about the medications and quality of life of me (and, I assume, all his other patients). But in this one area, he and his staff really seemed to let the ball drop.

September 30, 2011

Vacation Vacation

We just got back from a short vacation visiting my friends and family. While the visiting itself was great (thanks, all!), the vacation time itself was spent traveling a lot. As anyone knows who has done it, traveling is strangely tiring. Although you sit on your ass in the plane and the car, you wind up tired as hell whenever you arrive somewhere.

The trip down was a "me" travel experience; anyone who frequents this blog knows what I mean. We had delays while planes were fixed, late departures, rude flight attendants, and even mysterious liquid dripping on me from a hole in the plane (turned out to be water condensation, but still). Luckily, the trip back was a "her" travel experience; pretty much smooth sailing, everything mostly on time, no hiccups or real issues. It was a nice change, as we've had more "me" travel experiences lately.

The thing is, we arrived in Atlanta exhausted. We then spent the time there fighting with the Hotel Melia over silly things like crappy meals, them cleaning the dried vomit off our balcony (never did get it cleaned to our satisfaction), and getting wash cloths from the housekeeping crew (only got them two days out of four and one of those days was because we complained at the front desk in person). Stuff you shouldn't have to complain to a higher-end hotel about, frankly.

The trip to SoCal was equally tiring, especially when we had to add on the hour and a half of driving out to my mother's house after the plane ride from Atlanta to Orange County. Then we spent the time there driving to shopping, driving to visit my friends, driving to see my father and his wife. Then we had to get up at 4am to drive into Orange County for the plane back home.

I feel like I need a vacation from my vacation. As my wife said, we're going to sit on our asses and do nothing this weekend to relax from all the vacationing we just did. While I agree with that sentiment, I'll likely be working on getting the wood pile into the house before winter starts hitting the area (or maybe not, looking at the weather report-- might be raining for the next, oh, week or so).

Again, I loved seeing my friends and family. Wouldn't trade that time for the world. But all the traveling just wore us both out. Next time, we'll have to plan things better, and hope for more time there, so we can be more relaxed about our vacation. Maybe then we won't arrive home in need of a vacation!

September 21, 2011

Right to Privacy

People have an expectation of privacy. While many claim we have a Right to Privacy, the Constitution itself doesn't grant that, and the Bill of Rights only grants privacy in certain circumstances. The Ninth Amendment has a vague, open-ending statement that some interpret as protecting privacies not enumerated in the Bill of Rights. But, as a whole, the people have a certain expectation of privacy, and that is why governmental agencies must get warrants in order to breach that privacy.

Lately, I have been using application, websites, and utilities that take a different approach. Facebook, for example, has made numerous changes to its features, all of which have provided more of my data to either Facebook itself, to its partners, to the apps people/businesses create for Facebook, or to other members. The problem I have here is that Facebook a) didn't ask me if this was okay, b) didn't tell me they were doing it, c) didn't give me an option to opt out (or hid that option so deeply I had to do a web search in order to find out how to do it), and d) didn't tell me they were doing it until after it was already done. This led to people I didn't necessarily want to know I was on Facebook finding me, information I didn't necessarily want made public (I had used Facebook's own privacy settings to hide it from those I didn't want to have access to it) to get out, and an increase in my spam due to my private email settings being given to app designers without my permission.

I just read an article that OnStar, the vehicle navigation and assistance program championed by GM, is changing their privacy policy so that they have the right to sell your data to third party people if they see fit. The caveat is that they will maintain a two-way connection to your vehicle even if you cancel the subscription. Basically, if you have OnStar, you will be connected and they will track where your car goes and the speeds you drive. Wired.com wrote a nice article explaining this and the possible threats to your privacy. Once again, they assume you are "in" the program unless you contact them and opt out.

Credit cards have been using this tactic for years. Nearly every change is for them, gives them the right to email and snail mail you with in-house offers, and allows them to sell your name, credit worthiness, and personal info to third party vendors unless you go through the complicated system to opt out. Most of them, even in this internet age, still require you to send a postcard via the snail mail to opt out, rather than having a simply system online where you can click an account setting to say No.

The government in America went through a phase where they passed laws allowing them to do warrantless eavesdropping in order to ferret out terrorists. In Canada, the conservative government is currently trying to pass internet laws that would allow them to have warrantless access to every internet user's usage habits.

I propose that the government make a law that says, in effect, "The right to individual privacy is paramount to an individual's rights. No government, company, or individual shall infringe the right to an individual to hold their personal information private. Any request to do so must go through due process (gov't) and be done with the individual's full consent (companies and individuals)." Or something more "legal" to this effect.

Instead of hiding and/or making the process of opting out so difficult, the process should be obvious and should involve these companies/people/agencies having to ASK US for the information. Having something like this in place, form the get-go, would pretty much stop every one of the incidents I mention in this article before they even began. Facebook would have to program things in such a way that we, the users, have to opt in to the company giving away our data. OnStar would have to assume ever current or former member is opted out UNLESS the person gives permission otherwise. Credit Cards would have to build in better privacy policies. And the two governments in question would have to either attempt to repeal the law or get the people's buy-in to suspend it before trying to do something like this.

Proponents may argue, "But if you are not doing anything wrong, you shouldn't be worried." What about those news reports of the Government, RIAA, and other groups attacking innocent older people who have wireless connections or unscrupulous family members who use their internet connection to illegally download, send threats, or hack? Mistakes happen all the time, and if those companies or agencies had to go through the proper channels in order to get the information, build a case, and then present it, they would most likely have discovered that the blue-haired old lady in question didn't do it.

What about some of the situations that Wired article brings up-- what if an eager police force decides it is cost-effective to buy data from OnStar and send tickets in bulk to all those who were reported as going over the speed limit on any given road? We all speed at some times and for various reasons; if a cop has to pull you over and finds out your wife is in labor, he's going to be much more willing to forgive you the infraction. But OnStar doesn't know that; it simply knows that on that day, on that street, you were going 74 in a 40 zone. Zing! Ticket!

Another false argument I hear all the time: "Oh, you're using Facebook? That's a social site, you can't have any expectations of privacy on a social site!" Well, when you go to your work site, do you announce each morning to all of your coworkers your name, age, height, weight, sexual orientation, marriage status, and the last 10 things you purchased, searched for, or viewed on the internet? That's a social site as well, but you would never think of doing that except to your closest, most valued friends. Same with online social sites-- I want to be free with some data and restrict other data based on how close I am to some people as opposed to others. This is reasonable and, in many cases, programmed in. It is when the application changes those settings, assumes I want to share everything and I have to opt out, or adds new features that change, ignore, or disable my privacy settings that I start having issues.

As you can see, there are a lot of gray areas.

In the end, my feeling is that the right to privacy should be better and more distinctly protected. This would have a snowball effect through the government, business, and individuals that would allow people to have the expectation of privacy in their dealings with one another and the world at large. It would also cut down on the headaches and battles we have to wage on a daily basis keeping our private lives private.

September 20, 2011

Darker Isn't Better

The flaw I see in the reasoning of movie executives is that they think The Dark Knight did such bang-up business because it was so "dark," rather than believing it did so well due to a combination of excellent acting, a good story, and Heath Ledger's untimely death (and superlative acting).

Movies, especially comic book movies, do not need to be darker. Captain America, Superman, and many other heroes represent what is best and brightest about America; our morality in the face of overwhelming evil, our compassion in the face of overwhelming threat, our heart in the face of overwhelming despair. Certain characters, like Batman, Wolverine, and The Punisher, can be dark and be successful because of the background of the character. The Dark Knight worked as a dark film because the character of Batman is a lonely, frightened boy who is raging against the world that took his parents away from him. That rage both fuels his war on crime and eats away at him because he knows, deep down inside somewhere, that his war is unwinnable. That's some pretty heady, deep, and, yes, dark psychology going on there.

Each comic book movie in production since has at least had the executives say, "Can't we go darker?" This is not the right question that these people should be asking. Looking at those comic book movie properties that are successful on the screen, they should be asking, "Can't we stay true to the character and write a movie that is quality for this?"

While a success, I wish that Captain America: The First Avenger had been more successful. The movie is a very solid story, with good acting, good dialogue, and good action. It has humor, a somewhat lighter tone in many spots, but services both the character that comic book fans know and love and presents an action hero that those who do not normally like comic book movies might be willing to get behind. Like The Rocketeer (an underrated comic book movie, directed by the same guy as CA), it is more of a period piece with a guy wearing an interesting suit than a "comic book" movie. You could easily put Indiana Jones into the lead role here and you wouldn't need to change the story much at all to make it make sense -- because that sort of story works for Captain America.

While I trust in Christopher Nolan's vision and eye toward story, I am fearful that Warner Brothers will be/is making changes to the upcoming Superman movie to make it "darker." I'm already a little upset with the choice of villain in it (there are many, many rogues in Superman's gallery that can go toe-to-toe with him who are NOT Kryptonians, use one of them instead), much of what has been leaked seems to indicate a darker, gloomier tone that just doesn't fit well with "the big blue boyscout." Let those character who are all about hope, morality, and light portray that on screen.

Lastly, with all that is going on in America (and around the world) today, characters that exemplify what is best in Americans, and people in general, should be plumbed. Let's show people what goodness, doing the right thing, morality, and righteousness can do toward the betterment of people. I think that those stories might just draw a steady crowd at the box office, since we are all seeing the fear, negativity, and violence of the real world on the news, in our politics, and on our streets.

I don't need darker movies, I simply want better quality movies.

September 12, 2011

Working for a Brighter Tomorrow

Since World War II, the way in which America has overcome depressions and recessions are with infrastructure building and scientific advancement. So, why has it taken the President so long to propose a jobs bill that proposes one or the other?

We got out of the Great Depression primarily due to infrastructure building, including such worthy endeavors as the national highway systems and Hoover Dam. Projects like going to the moon staved off economic worries and put thousands to work.

There are only two ways to improve an economy of a country: get people to spend money and/or cut what the government is spending. The current administration is cutting like mad, but there is only so much cutting you can do and still have a government. So, we need people spending money. Unfortunately, people are still worried about the economy, so they are hording their money. If you put more people to work, get more people spending money, then other people's worries are relaxed and they spend money, too. It's an odd cycle, but the government actually needs and wants each person to "keep up with the Joneses," as the old saying goes. If the Joneses buy something, and you buy something of equivalent or better value, and the Smiths buy the same or better than you, then the economy improves and the entire country improves.

The nation's infrastructure is crumbling. We have 100-year-old sewer systems and water pipes, decades-old roads and bridges, dams and waterways that are close to collapse, overcrowded and technologically ancient airports, and other issues throughout this great nation. If we can get even half of the almost 10% of out-of-work people to fix those issues, then the economy booms. Because those people cannot do the work without training, which puts teachers and trades to work training them. And all of those workers need oversight, so there are those who will be put to work administering the projects. And, it is frequently less expensive to build temporary houses/communities nearby to where the people are working than to try to commute them to the work-site, this put builders, contractors, architects, and more people to work. And these people need food, clothing, entertainment, etc. while they are working on these tasks, so many thousands more get work. Once the snowball gets rolling, you can see that many people get jobs and many people are spending money, and the economy for all is improved.

The second thing that America needs to do is re-teach people to buy American. Yes, we all want the best value for our dollar. We all want the deal. But buying American does two things: it gets the buyer a quality product and it pumps those dollars spent back into the American economy. The reason we've had more recessions and depressions in the economy over the last 30 years is the rise of cheap foreign goods on the market. Because everyone wants a deal, they buy the cheaper foreign good. However, the money spent is siphoned back into the American economy; instead, it goes to the foreign company and improves its workers and the economy wherever it is based. So, rather than the money siphoning its way back upstream to the American manufacturer, who then has more money to invest in making more product for more Americans to buy, that money enriches only the end-vendor (the Walmart, Target, Best Buy, etc.) and then the money leaves for the foreign company's coffers, enriching its workers' lives and its country's economy.

The third thing we need to remind Americans is that, while 'keeping up with the Joneses' helps the economy, and buying America keeps the economic engine running, buying within your means keeps you, personally, safe while you do it. Too many thought the housing bubble would never burst, and got talked into 100-year mortgages for houses costing $750,000 on a $35,000 a year income. Too many more became convinced that having 10 credit cards at 19% interest and $20,000 limits each was fine. But as the bills piled up, they never thought about the fact they had over $100,000 debt sitting on those credit cards, on top of that house they really couldn't afford, with that $35k a year job. They felt they were fine just making the minimum payments and continuing to charge, charge, charge, never once realizing that the credit card companies were getting rich off of them and they had balances that wouldn't be paid off in their lifetimes at the rate they were going.

Fourth, we need to relearn accountability. You are not entitled to have a house. You are not entitled to have a car. You are not entitled to have that college education. You are not entitled to have that executive position. All of these things must be earned. First, by doing well in school. Only the top children, those with the best grades and academic achievements should be going on to higher education. Everyone else should be going to trade schools, military, or straight into the work-force. Once in the work-force, you should have to work for advancement. You should be getting top marks in your field. You shouldn't be complaining that Joe and Sally do less than you but get more pay, you should be outworking everyone and earning that extra pay.

Lastly, we need to hold our politicians accountable for the laws they pass (or don't) and how they behave both in office and toward their constituents. Most of us are moderate. We lean left on some things, we lean right on other things. Most of us can agree to disagree and come to a compromise that favors us both, regardless of our leanings. We need to hold our elected officials to the same standards we hold ourselves and our neighbors. When they do wrong, kick them out of office. Watch their voting records and call them on it when/if they vote against their platform or for something you don't like. When they lie to us, kick them out. If they are found stealing from us, taking bribes, or doing anything illegal, fire them and send them to prison. Make both sides talk to each other and compromise on the end-result. As it has been said, a good deal profits all and benefits none; our Republican and Democrat representatives should always feel like they left something on the table, but that the deal going forward will benefit the country at large and the people in particular.

I'm hoping that the President's new plan to put people to work will be approved, whether outright or with significant (but not overwhelming) input from both sides to make sure it is fair, reasonable, and sound. I also hope this is but a phase 1 of a multi-faceted plan to teach Americans how to be responsible, how to save AND spend their money, and how to be accountable. And here's hoping that the people accept it, keep an eye on it, and learn from these current issues and hurdles and do better over the next decade and beyond.

September 8, 2011

HP and Death

*NOTE: SPOILERS IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY READ THE SERIES OR WATCHED THE MOVIES*

I decided to reread each Harry Potter book and watch each movie, one after the other. My original goal was to compare and contrast the books to the movies and see what and how much they changed and/or dropped in translating the books to film. However, along the way, my focus changed. I came to realize that Ms. Rowling has some very nice things to say about friendship/love and death.

The entire thesis of her seven-book opus is that those who love are more powerful and better off than those who seek power, which is necessarily a singular task that does not brook relationships. She then takes this a step further and suggests that those who have love are not overly scared of, are accepting of, and are willing to brave death, while those who seek power are scared of death and will fight against it at all costs and to their very detriment.

Harry Potter originally survives because of the sacrifices of his parents, in particular his mother, in risking their own death to save their son from the evil Lord Voldemort. In doing so, they provide Harry with an invisible but extremely powerful protection that turns all of Voldemort's hatred and power back on himself and nearly destroys him.

Harry is then raised by his Aunt and Uncle in the "Muggle" (non-wizard) world. Although his time there is a trial, the fact that he is with family gives him an added protection from Lord Voldemort that makes him nearly untouchable while under their roof. It also teaches him to be humble, so that when he arrives in the wizarding world, the friends he makes are true, honest friends, rather than sycophants who will leach off of his celebrity.

In contrast to Harry, people gravitate to both Lord Voldemort and Draco Malfoy, two of the main antagonists in the stories, due to their notoriety, connections, and seeming power. However, those that do surround Draco and Voldemort are either weak servants (Crabbe, Goyle, Wormtail), or those who just want to be on the "winning side" and in place to take some amount of power from the one who have it (Lucius Malfoy, Bellatrix). In particular contrast is the apparent home life of Malfoy versus Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley.

Malfoy has:
  • A father who is cold, domineering, and power-hungry
  • A mother who is cold and closed off
  • No siblings to share his life with
  • Wealth, a large house, and influence in the wizarding community, but no affection
Ron, meanwhile, is the polar opposite, having:
  • Multiple brothers and sisters, who constantly show affection (even if some use playful banter and tricks to show it)
  • Two parents who show a great deal of affection for each other, their children, and their friends
  • Not a lot of money, but a wealth of spirit and love, which allows them to always get by
Throughout the books, when it matters most, Harry is constantly helped, encouraged, and even saved by his friends, family, and teachers, all of whom feel some amount of affection for him. This happens even when he is acting petulantly, angry, or is currently at odds with one of his friends. This is because they genuinely care for Harry, and understand that some things are more important than the momentary spat they are having.

Voldemort, however, does not have this affection. As we learn more about his history, and see his actions in the present, we learn that he always shunned friendship in favor of power and preferred to use people and either move on or kill them. He had fear, a type of power, and a certain respect, but always felt he had to do everything on his own. His followers desert him when he needs them most (when his attempt to kill Harry as a boy fails), do not look for him for ten years, and few return to his side when he calls them. When more rally to his side later, it is because he appears strong and to be the side that will "win;" they do not return to him out of love or respect, but fear.

The end result of these situations is that Voldemort grows to fear death above all things. His need for power, respect, and greatness forces him to overcome the liabilities of his mortal shell and cheat death. This causes Voldemort to go down a very dark path, splintering his soul into multiple pieces, and making him take on a more alien, snake-like, and despicable mien. While it works, his life, such as it is, becomes a nearly unbearable existence for a time, where he must do even more reprehensible actions to gain back a semblance of the life he knew before. Voldemort simply cannot understand, and unconsciously refuses to accept, that there are worse things than death or that there are beliefs and people worth dying for. It also causes him to treat death rather cavalierly in his minions and followers; he does not value the life in anyone except himself.

Harry, meanwhile, grows up with death as a constant presence in his life. He knows his parents died, and later learns they died so that he might live. Throughout the books, others are injured and die to protect him (Sirius Black, Dumbledore), while fighting with him (Cedric Diggory), or toward the cause of stopping Voldemort's assumption of power (Snape, Tonks, Lupin, et al). In each case, however, it is their choice to do so, and they make it freely. The cause, or Harry himself, is more important to them and they make these sacrifices either to ensure someone's safety or insure that the cause will survive. In many cases, and much to Voldemort's chagrin, these dead people come back in some form or another to help Harry with his cause:
  • Harry's parents return in the Mirror of Erised and teach him a valuable lesson, one that later allows him to get the Sorcerer's Stone and keep it from Voldemort.
  • Cedric and his parents' shades erupt from Voldemort's wand and give Harry the time he needs to escape the graveyard when Voldemort returns to the mortal coil.
  • Sirius' death teaches Harry the deadly business he has undertaken is not a game. It is the impetus for Harry actively taking on the threat of Voldemort rather than constantly reacting to Voldemort's attempts to kill him.
  • Dumbledore's and Snape's deaths both empower Harry and show him what he must do in order to defeat Voldemort once and for all.
Snape actually winds up being the clearest example of this, in the end. Throughout the series, you assume he is one of the antagonists that Harry must overcome. At every turn, Harry seems to find evidence that Snape is working with Voldemort. When Snape kills Dumbledore, that seems to clinch it for all. However, in the end, Harry learns that Snape made the biggest sacrifice of all out of love; Snape loved Harry's mother so much that he changed his Patronus, helped her son, and pretended to be working with Voldemort and his cronies for years in order to set up Voldemort's eventual overthrow and death. Without that love for Lily Potter driving the constant sacrifices he was making on a daily basis, Snape could never have succeeded at his goal or made the necessary sacrifices to do the job.

Lastly, the biggest difference comes down to the prophecy that started the whole chain of events and how Harry and Voldemort interpret it. Voldemort assumes the prophecy means that one must kill the other, and so he attempts to kill Harry as a boy (and, so, marks Harry as his equal and giving Harry power, setting the prophecy moving forward), then multiple times during Harry's years at Hogwarts. Each setback causes Voldemort to seek out more magic, stronger spells and wands, and more violent confrontations in order to reach his goal.

Harry, meanwhile, comes to learn and accept that he must sacrifice himself and die in order to defeat Voldemort. He makes the choice that Voldemort cannot understand or make himself. The many sacrifices of those who helped Harry, and his great love for his living friends, makes this sacrifice worthwhile to him. It means he will save his friends and reach his ultimate goal of defeating the enemy. He goes not without fear, but with acceptance. And, because of that acceptance, he is able to overcome death, rise again, and defeat Voldemort once more.

Harry understands, in the end, that he has become one of the Horcruxes that house a tattered piece of Voldemort's soul and, as long as he is alive, Voldemort will exist. He must die to release that piece of soul, eliminating another Horcrux, and bringing Voldemort one step closer to his ultimate destruction. What makes this decision heroic is that Harry has no knowledge or even belief that he can survive, come back, or overcome his own death. He goes to his death understanding that his death is imminent and unavoidable, but also the right thing. His ultimate strength, his courage, shows him to be far stronger than Voldemort, who does everything in his considerable power to cheat death rather than face it.

Voldemort is the strongest wizard on the planet, but Harry Potter's fortitude and strength of character alone are enough to overcome all that strength and power and defeat his evil.

Ultimately, I think the Harry Potter series is good in that it teaches its reader this subtle message: that love is stronger than hate, and that friendship is stronger than power. From love and friendship flows a subtle but strong force that builds character and allows people to make decisions and sacrifices they simply cannot without those relationships. It also teaches readers to accept responsibility and do what is right rather than what it is easy.

August 29, 2011

Banning Guns Again

There has been a rash of gun violence across the US again, and people are picking up their banners and rhetoric about banning guns and the need for more and stricter laws. There are a few points that the majority of people don't seem to grasp or understand:
  1. There are, literally, thousands of gun laws already in the books. There are hundreds of gun laws in each state and hundreds more at the Federal level. The country has very strict gun laws.
  2. A very small percentage of gun violence is done with legally purchased, owned, registered, and otherwise sanctioned guns. The vast majority is done by illegally purchased, obtained, and used firearms.
  3. Enforcement of these laws is the toughest aspect; there are not nearly enough ATF, FBI, or policemen to enforce the thousands of laws already on the books.
  4. Vastly (approximately 10x each) more people are injured and killed by stabbing, blunt force trauma, and car accidents each year than by gun violence, yet we don't see these same people asking for a ban on knives, baseball bats, rocks, fists, or automobiles.
When you add a law or ban a weapon, you are only making it more difficult for or banning it from those who want to legally obtain the weapon. Those who are not using legal means to get their weapons are not affected in the least.

Instead of adding more (useless) laws or trying to ban something that isn't to blame, how about we put more money into local and state police coffers, so that they can hire more policemen to patrol the street, patrol gun shows and gun stores, and enforce the laws we have? How about we put more money toward education and job creation, so that family life is better, people are smarter, and jobs are more plentiful so that fewer people have a need for gun violence? How about we put more time and effort into understanding why gangs form and what causes gang violence, and root out the source of these issues?

There are many ways American can tackle the gun violence issue in the country. Many of them will treat and stop other social and societal issues along the way. But banning guns or adding new laws? That just winds up being whistling in the wind.

August 15, 2011

Hiding Your Options

ZIP.ca is a Canadian version of Netflix. Recently, there was a big postal strike that affected mail delivery across the country. While the postal strike and negotiations lasted for over a month, ZIP is giving its clients 13 days of "make-goods" for our inability to return watched, or receive new, movies.

What I think is funny is that, when I contacted them directly via their online support Chat function, the CSR I chatted with said specifically that they would contact each affected person personally (i.e., via email) with what those make-goods would be. I have yet to receive that email. Then, last week, my wife signed in to our account and saw a button to click relating to the make-goods at the top of the home screen for their website. As she wanted to discuss the issues with me, she ignored it and did what she signed in to do. When she mentioned it to me, I logged in and did not see any link or display on the home page.

We discussed it again last night. I logged in and showed her that I could not see the link on the home page she mentioned. She logged in and verified it wasn't on her screen either. I then called the company's 24/7 support line and explained what I wanted. The person was not at all surprised. I told him I was in front of my PC and logged in to my account. I asked if he could just walk me through where that selection was so I could pick my make-good. He said, "You have to type the address I'll give you into the browser address field; you can't get to it from the website."

'Pretty tricky,' I thought. They put a link up that was a one-off display when you first logged in to your account (or was a limited time header on their main page). If you did not selected it that one time (or during the limited time) it displayed, you were SOL unless you thought to call them and ask them about it.

This strikes me as a nation-wide company with thousands of members affected by the postal strike doing its best to:
  1. Seem like it cares and will do something for its members.
  2. Make it as hard for its members to actually get their money back using one of the two options they provided.
  3. Limit the amount it gives its customers by determining that people were affected for a far shorter period of time than the mail strike actually affected folks (at least for those of us in Atlantic Canada).
I am not averse to a company making a profit. However, when you own a company that deals with the mail exclusively and the mail is down for a period of time, your customers will be affected and should be compensated for the time they were unable to use your company. If you do this willingly, even maybe going the extra mile for them, they will be loyal and happy customers. Happy customers' positive word-of-mouth may even make you a few more customers, allowing you to make more profits.

However, on the flip side, doing as little as you can, determining that people were affected for far less time than they actually were, and hiding, obfuscating, and/or limiting people's access to the benefits will garner you people dropping their subscription rate, canceling their account altogether, and negative word-of-mouth, which may cause more previously-loyal customers leaving your company. And all of this lowers your profit margins.

In the end, we decided to take one of the make-goods, lower our current account by one step (saving us $8 a month), and are considering canceling once we burn through all of our Zip points we have collected. I can't help but wonder how many others will do something similar?

August 2, 2011

Perspective

Yesterday, my wife and I were returning from the movies. As we neared a particular intersection, I saw one vehicle coming toward us. Once that car passed, I started to go. A sharp intake of breath and a, "Geez John!" from my wife and I slammed back on my brake. At that moment, out from behind the passenger-side post came an entire other vehicle that I would have hit dead-on had I continued going.

It is funny to think that an entire vehicle can hide behind that post, but, of course, the post is really close to you and the car, for all its size, is farther away.

The posts that hold up the roof/ceiling of the cab area on my vehicle are about 12" wide at the base and a fairly steady 4" wide the rest of the way up. But that width is only about 3' away from me, at the farthest, while the 7' long and 5' wide car is 30+ feet away from me. In this particular instance, the fact that my perspective as the driver was so impeded by these thick, plastic and metal struts nearly caused a hellacious accident.

One thing my wife and I have noticed is that this issue is becoming more pronounced. Newer cars seem to have even thicker, wider posts, and the bases often have speakers and air vents in them, making them even wider. This is problematic as it can seriously impede your ability to see cross traffic, around corners or bends in the road, and can make your "blind spot" even larger -- all of which can increase your chances for being in a collision.

I'm very happy and lucky that my wife wanted to see that movie with me yesterday. If she hadn't, who knows what could have happened?

July 29, 2011

ISP Coercion

I have grown to hate something since I moved to my present location, outside of the US: ISPs are now using your IP address to "better service" customers by providing them with pages and language preferences typical to the IP address location. The problem is that I'm an American living in a foreign country. I don't want to see the Canadian web page or have my pages default to UK English automatically!

The big catch seems to be that there is no way to turn this feature off that I can find. It is automated in the background, as a "convenience" to users, with no way to set and keep your own default. I now have pages that are telling me that "theater" is incorrectly spelled because it is not "theatre." Ahem, actually both are English and both are correct, damn it! I have sports pages I frequent defaulting to the ".ca" extension instead of the ".com" one, and giving me splash pages of hockey and soccer over American football, baseball, and basketball. Hell, even when I follow a link to MTV.com, the site displays a warning about how there are two versions, the American and the Canadian, and didn't I really mean to go to the Canadian one? No, God damn it!

I expect certain sites, like providers of content, to screw me because I'm in Canada and the CRTC rules won't allow me to watch whatever I want via American content providers; that's stupid and short-sighted, but fine. But I do NOT want my ISPs and content providers assuming, just because I'm using a foreign IP address that I MUST need UK English and Canadian features, or take me to a Canadian site that may or may not have the article(s) I want to read! Haven't these people ever heard of expatriates? Haven't they ever been on vacation in a foreign country, even if it is just a quick trip to Vancouver or short hop to Tijuana? If they did, weren't they frustrated by the IP address used in that foreign country not giving them the sites and information they wanted and were accustomed to?

Somewhere in my browers or on each individual site, I want to tell them my nationality or my site/language preferences, or something, that will override the IP address info and allow me to see what I want to see (within legal limits, of course).

Is that so freaking hard to do or understand?

July 19, 2011

Parenting Is Hard Work

Being a parent is hard work. You are responsible for making this little human being into a worthwhile and productive member of society. I am not a parent, but I watch other parents (especially my friends who are), and I observe which parents have respectful, intelligent, and productive children and which do not. This shows me that there are many different techniques and styles of parenting, and some are more successful than others. When left with children (either babysitting or when parents briefly leave the child in my care while they take care of something else in the house), I then try to put into practice what I've learned through observation. For the most part, those practices that I observe in the successful parents work and keep the children manageable, calm, and invested in whatever we are doing.

What I have noted is that those parents who provide boundaries, are consistent in what they want, and provide reasonable expectations, punishments, and rewards seem to have the "best," most well-behaved, and respectful children. These children also frequently come across as more intelligent than other children as a result (they speak in full sentences, reason well, and are polite).

I was recently around some parents. In one case, the mother and father always seemed to be overwhelmed by each situation that the child brought about. They were not consistent in their punishment or expectations, but were consistent in rewarding the child. Three examples:
  • Child wanted a balloon. Mother said no. Child started screaming and whining. Mother "explained" to the child why he couldn't have one. Child continued screaming until the mother relented and gave the child a balloon. Result: Child was rewarded with what he wanted and learned that mother's "No" is meaningless.
  • Mother told child that he could have one cupcake. Child didn't want the cupcake; he only wanted the frosting. Child then reached for a second cupcake. I said no, trying to back up the mother's stated rule while she was busy with someone else. Mother asked me not to interfere with the child's parenting, proceeded to explain to the child why he couldn't have another cupcake, and then rewarded him with a piece of birthday cake (which he promptly ate all of the frosting off of and ignored). Result: Child was rewarded with something even better than what he wanted and learned that mother's (and my) "No" is meaningless.
  • Child started opening a birthday gift prior to when the parents wanted him to. First one parent (mother) and then the other (father) told the child No and that he must wait. After the father said no, the child went screaming into the house, found the mother, who then came out and said, "Let him open one, what can it hurt?" I got up to leave, saying, "He won't stop at one." Sure enough, the child screamed and cried until they relented and let him open all of his presents right then. Result: Child was rewarded with what he wanted and reinforced that parents "No" is meaningless.
In each case, the parents presented a boundary, but neither of them enforced it with some sort of punishment (other than a lecture that the child wasn't listening to nor possibly understood) to give that boundary any meaning. Instead, they rewarded the bad behavior. When this child was with me, my wife, or any other adult except for either of his parents (especially the mother), he was relatively well-behaved, he did what we told him to, and things ran fairly smoothly.

The only conclusions I can draw from this is that the child, at a very young age (3) has already learned a few tricks that you expect from older children:
  • How to manipulate one parent against the other (re: opening the presents).
  • How to get what it wants (re: every interaction with either parent, but especially the mother).
  • How it can ignore any other adult if his mother is nearby.
When left alone with this child, I took it upon myself to be calm, reasonable, not to speak down to the child, and to be consistent. Each time, I was either able to get him to do something he had flat out said No to one or both of his parents about, or get him to do/not do something I specifically wanted him to do/not do. He was calm, respectful, and even eager. This further supports my supposition that a certain set of behavior and actions on the part of the parents will create the type of child that any parent wants (within reason; I recognize that there are mental and physical reasons why some children are behaviorally problematic regardless of parenting technique).

I am hopeful that this parenting duo will figure out some way in which to get this child to behave before his behavior adversely affects their youngest child and before he gets into some sort of serious trouble as he gets older. The lack of respect the child shows for his parents and for other adults at such an early age could lead to severe behavior issues in school and the community as he gets older. Without some sort of enforced boundaries, this child will continue down this path and will, as he already does now, continue to rule the household.

July 6, 2011

Budget Crisis

Every economist, and every person who has tried to balance their own personal budget, agrees that there are only two ways to cut a deficit:
  1. Cut spending
  2. Increase funding (in the case of gov't, increase taxes)
Often a government can do one or the other. Sometimes it has to do both. When you are looking at a 14.3 trillion dollar deficit, you have to consider both, as there simply aren't enough places where you can cut to make up that mind-blowing figure.

The Republicans have said outright that raising taxes if "off the table" (John Boehner, among others). So, although there is literally and factually no way to cut spending enough to make up the difference in the budget, one half of all of the solutions to solve the budget crisis is off the table. This makes no sense, especially as you consider the fundamentals of the conservatives throughout the years (a good article calling this and other recent decisions into focus was published by Time recently). Why take any option off the table, unless you have an ulterior motive?

It seems like the Republicans want this crisis to grow and deepen for political reasons. While I did not condone or agree with the way the Democrats tried to throw their weight around when they won both the Presidency and control of Congress, it seems really petty and, frankly, dangerous how the Republicans are now doing the same thing back again. By making a bold declaration like raising taxes is off the table, they put the entire country at risk of financial collapse just so they can turn around and say, "See the President screwed up. He can't lead the country." And, unfortunately, most Americans appear to be stupid or ignorant enough to agree with them without ever looking at the facts.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich makes some very interesting points about the economy in 2 minutes and 15 seconds in this video. Yet our current Republican leadership wants to ignore those facts and figures and continue to give tax breaks to those who don't need it, screw those that do need it, and further the gap between the wealthiest few and the majority. The problem with trickle-down economics, as we learned in the 1980s and 1990s and are rehashing today is that those that have the money will do everything within their power to keep that money FROM trickling down (a good video explaining this, in part (about 10 minutes)). Business would much rather have free labor than pay for it, the rich would much rather keep their riches than have it flow to the government or trickle down to those who work for them.

And I don't blame them. I want to keep every red cent that I get from my own paycheck. I do everything I can to make sure my expenses are less than the paycheck each month so I can a) afford to save some money and b) afford to do or get the things I want and need. That is true of every person on the planet, and is doubly true for governments, businesses, and the wealthiest few.

I'm not blaming the Republicans for this impasse solely. The Democrats are too quick with the raising taxes philosophy. We should and do need to cut many gov't jobs and bureaucracies. Over the last 10-15 years, gov't has become a bloated entity with a lot of fat it could stand to lose. In this, the Republicans are right. But the Democrats are right also in that, following the advice of nearly all economists (from both sides of the argument), cutting is not enough and some way must be found to bring in more money -- and the only way a gov't can do that is through taxes. Even a 1% flat federal tax would make a significant difference to the deficit. Of course, as Robert Reich mentions in the link (above) and many economists have been arguing, getting more money into the hands of the majority of people means the majority of people will spend it, which improves the businesses, improves the economy, and also eats into the deficit. Getting the 150 million + people in the middle class spending $100 a month more into the economy helps a whole lot more than giving the wealthiest 10 million people another a tax break. If anything, we need to try a trickle UP economic theory, as that is precisely what made America great over the last 100 years -- the ability for more and more people to become a part of the middle class, and that middle class buying stuff, trickles the money up through the businesses to the wealthiest individuals and into the gov't coffers (through taxes to both people and businesses).

So, the Republicans need to stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater and start looking at ALL solutions to this economic crisis. While most of our leaders probably think they are in that wealthiest group and won't be affected by this budget crisis, they have another think coming. And the Democrats need to understand that the Repubs are right -- many gov't agencies and budgets could stand to be cut into, and deeply, and they should choose their battles over what to keep.

~~~~

Oh, and one more thing: the Repubs are going after two long-time "social" agencies, Social Security and Medicare. President Bush more than once went on record as saying that the money in SS was "ours" (meaning, each individual's). If the Repubs are successful in getting rid of that agency and "bloat," I'm going to be contacting them for a check for the 20 years worth of money I have invested in it -- their own most recent leadership agreed it was mine and that I should be able to invest it any way I see fit for retirement. Oh, wait, did you think I was just going to let you keep it to help with the budget crisis? No, I don't think so. Just like them, I want to keep every cent I have earned, including those that the gov't forced me to give them.

As to Medicare, it could stand to be trimmed and retooled, but doesn't have to go away. Why can't America look at any one of the dozens of other nations that do universal health care successfully and cheaply and model our agencies and services after those? It doesn't have to be a bloated mess and it doesn't have to use more than 1% of GDP. People don't seem to realize that, since the 1960s, America has steadily declined in per capita comparisons with all other industrialized nations in health care provided, costs, death rates, infant mortality, number of uninsured, and other key stats. So, since America privatized the medical business, people's health has steadily declined and profits for insurance, pharmacy, and medical business have increased (just one source, but you can find many that come to the same conclusions). Coincidence?

July 5, 2011

Other Household Chores

In addition to replacing the toilet in the main bathroom, I completed some other home improvement tasks recently. They are small things, and inexpensive to do, but have made a big difference.

I had noticed that our main closet in the bedroom had a lot of space above the one shelf and a lot of our crap on the floor. It struck me one day that we should put in another shelf above the first and get some of that stuff off the floor. I then walked around to the office and coat closets and saw the same issue-- a lot of head space not being efficiently used and a lot of junk on the floor. I suggested my idea to M and she agreed: let's put in a second shelf.

We went to Home Depot and got the same style of white wire mesh shelves that all of our closets have and had them cut to size (praying I had measured twice and had good numbers for the cutting). We picked up some of the special fasteners used to install them to the wall. We purchased shelves that were 12" deep so we could have some extra room to maneuver items up onto and down off of the shelf, once installed. The lower shelves are all much deeper.

Prior to installing the shelves, we had approximately 2.5 feet of unused space up there. We couldn't stack stuff well enough to make any significant use of the space. I determined that installing the shelves 13" down from the ceiling would allow for the best use of the space (and, in the case of the coat closet, would exactly fit three shoe boxes stacked on top of each other with a little wiggle room to spare).

What a difference! Our closets feel much more organized, cleaner, and roomier.

Another project I undertook recently was to convince M that we could use a new, curved shower curtain rod in the bathroom. The straight one was okay, but we had installed a new clear plastic shower curtain and a new, larger, blue decorative shower curtain that took up a lot more space inside the shower stall. She was a bit hesitant, but willing to go for it if we see a curved shower rod on sale.

A few weeks ago, M found one on sale and picked it up. A few days later I installed it. Again, what a difference. Instead of standing and feeling the plastic shower curtain on my shoulder and arm, it is well away. The distance the curve moves out also allows the plastic shower curtain to rest against the side of the tub instead of along the floor. And, as an unexpected but nice bonus feature, the curve allows a lot more light into the shower stall during showers (the blue decorative curtain was blocking a lot of the light and made showering, even with the light on, a very dark experience).

It is funny how a few fairly inexpensive changes can make such a nice difference in a house. Now, if we can just figure out a way to get more kitchen storage, we'll be styling (I'm thinking an island of some sort).