Monday, October 29, 2007

You know who you are.

From today's edition of Pibgorn. In my view one of the best comics out there, and certainly one of the least known, hardest to explain to the uninitiated, and most delightful to read.

(Note: Pibgorn creator and writer Brooke McEldowney is also the man who does the bloody marvellous (and comparatively more "normal") strip 9 Chickweed Lane.)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Dinosaurs Were Pretty Damn Sure of Themselves, Too

I recently received a fairly simple request from my mother, a woman who rarely asks for favours though she does a great many. Simple: go by the Sears catalogue store and pick up a Christmas Wish Book. No problem. I thought.

Good luck. I call the store. Not only do they no longer have any they didn't know if they would get any in, and seemed annoyed that I would ask. I have to ask for a number to order one. They give me a wrong toll free number, then, hurriedly, the "correct" one. It isn't the correct one. It is the administrative line. The person there gives me the number for ordering the catalogue. I call that number, and press the correct button for ordering a catalogue. No. Answer. Fine. I try the number again, and press the button for ordering a product. This time, after a wait, I get a live body. They tell me that they can send a copy of the Christmas Wish Book to a store, as long as I go and pick it up. (It's at this point that I start moving into Very Annoyed territory. Hello, Sears, you want me to buy things from you. "Dance, monkey, dance! It is not up to us to assist that process!" is not something that a sane retailer should have in its sales repertoire.) No, I explain, it's for my mother who has poor mobility. She's a Sears catalogue customer, can the Wish Book not be sent to her? Not without giving them a credit card number, I'm told, because The System is not set up that way. It's at this point that I become mildly angry and point out that I want them to flag this as a customer complaint, that it's ludicrous to ask for a credit card number just to get a catalogue, and remark that customers don't want to have to jump through hoops for the privilege of trying to buy something from them. The woman on the phone moves right to dismissive and says, "well, sir, we do have customers who have no problem with that and don't get upset like you do". I give it up as a bad job, knowing that it will not be flagged as a complaint and even if it was the call centre rep has made it clear that nobody gives a damn. (I don't know if they give a damn. I do know that the person that they specifically assigned to me to ensure that Sears gives a damn -- or is at least seen to give a damn -- doesn't give a damn.)

On an impulse I go onto google and start searching Sears customer service complaints and come back with rafts of 'em similar to mine.

Then it occurs to me: the outlet isn't the only Sears store in town. I call one that's on my way, get a warm and friendly voice who tells me that they have lots of the Wish Book, and tells me exactly where in the store itself that one can find it. Stunned silence on my part, followed by profuse thanks.

Three important things in this, so far as Sears is concerned.

First, I am going to get the catalogue because of my problem-solving, not because Sears made any effort or even gave a flying shit about it. They didn't. When I was in retail I would offer the the customer the option of waiting while I checked with our other stores to see if they had the product that our store did not. Why didn't the outlet store say, "hang on, let me check where you can get one" instead of making me feel like an idiot because I asked for a Christmas book as late as two months before Christmas?

Second, I only went the extra mile because it was for my mother. If it had been me looking for the catalogue I would have just said,"to hell with it" and forgotten about it... and Sears.

Third, the call centre rep is a good example of the mindset of a retail organization that does not respond well to change. The retail industry becomes more savagely competitive by the year. Classic names like Eatons have gone under, and others are struggling in the face of internet shopping, Wal-Mart and the like. The fact that a company has "customers who have no problem with that" is not the point because there are always going to be customers who calmly accept terrible service or simply drudge forward out of force of habit. The problem lies in the vastly larger number of customers who just shrug and never go back, or, worse, customers like me to make a little Brain Note not to forget this moment no matter, ever, and do things like blog about it or bring it up in conversations or e-seek people with the same experiences. Negatives spread faster than positives, and people remember them faster and longer.

The essence of retail is to make things as easy, inexpensive and satisfying for the customer as possible. Telling a customer to do it your way or the highway when the highway has other, better options is a recipe for failure.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Everything will come back to bite you in the ass, no matter how lightly.

I have, over the years, been a cheerfully savage critic of Volvo drivers. Not the cars themselves, mind; I've got a soft spot for well-built cars that stand out in a world full of crap, even if those designers are more in love with linear rather than curvilinear symmetry.

No, I mocked the drivers. There is such a thing as loving something too much and in my opinion Volvo drivers were a little too much in love with Safety. Now safety's a very nice thing. When I shave, I never use a whirling fan with cutthroat razors attached. When I play Russian roulette I do so with a revolver with six empty cylinders rather than the customary five. I have jumped off a cliff only once in my life, and have no plans to repeat the experience. And when I drive I don't take mad risks or use unsafe vehicles. But, in my oft-expressed view, Volvo drivers were different. They loved safety in way that went beyond love into the realm of fetish. The driving styles of many Volvo-drivers did little to disabuse me of this cheerful prejudice. They were frequently slower than other drivers. They took turns as if there were glasses of acid balanced on the dash. They went over low curbs into lots and driveways as if the suspension were made of Dresden china. They were the first ones to slow down for green lights that might turn yellow and then, joy of joys, red! There was something about them, I felt, which sucked the fun out of driving and turned it into a mere statistical exercise in self-preservation. Fine. We are all entitled to our little bigotries. A mocking disdain for Volvo drivers is certainly a minor little vice compared to the more traditional forms of en masse loathing, so I was comfortable with my disdain and gave voice to it with a freedom and frequency denied people with other, less acceptable hatreds.

Which brings us to today. My much abused, very old (1991) Honda is definitely on its last legs. Now, a Honda engine is a wonderful thing, and will generally last longer than most marriages. But the engine does not float there as unsupported by machinery as The Rapture is by scripture. No, the rest of the car is like the rest of the Bible: showing its age, inclined to fall apart if you ask it to carry too much and very unwise for a person of good sense to rely upon.

I have been going to the same mechanic for years. A wonderful man, given to honesty and low bills. He tells me what I need to know and I extend him a courtesy I extend to few others: I admit my ignorance, shut up and listen. (Actually, I admit my ignorance frequently, but my "shut up" is a rare bird and the "listen" even rarer.) He is the only reason that my old and much-abused Civic is still on the road, and has given me chapter and verse on what's wrong with the car and what will get worse,

He also sells cars. Some days ago suggested a Volvo 940 (like this one, but a dark emerald green) that's on his lot. I protested:
"I've been slagging Volvo drivers for years, especially to one friend. I'd never hear the end of it."
"But it's a great car, man!"
"I don't doubt that for a second. But I would never hear the end of it."
"I. Would. Never. Hear. The. End. Of. It."

Despite that, I took the car for a test drive today. Looks great, drives well. Fits the whole Professional look that I will need for my business. But I miss the panache of a smaller car, the nimbleness and size convenience and I will, if I buy it, sulk for months that I no longer drive a manual. I like changing gears.

Who knows, I might buy it.

But I will never hear the end of it.
I don't believe in heaven, but....

if there is such a place I hope that there is a spot reserved for cheerful, unpretentious geeks who take the time to ponder Bigfoot and his true believers, and who, like me, have many a happy memory of faux documentaries breathlessly examining some paranormal topic. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Phil Nugent Experience.
Today's boffo quote, Number 001

"Golden ages glitter only in retrospect as viewed from the junkyard of the present."
Sidney Blumenthal, "Journalism and its discontents", Salon, October 25, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

Nobody did Trudeau as well as Duncan Macpherson

February 12, 1978 - The figure on the right is Senator Keith Davey, the Liberal Party's longtime election guru. (Picture Karl Rove, but without the evil deeds and lack of a soul.)
Pylons, Impark and a very big bit of weird.

A hat tip to Toronto blogger Joey DeVilla, operating under the fun but unwieldy handle of "The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century", who brings us up to date on this. One of his readers alerts us to the fact that the Star has posted this correction:

Impark did not operate lots near Cirque du Soleil shows

Oct 22, 2007 01:39 PM

Contrary to two articles published on Oct. 20 and 22, Impark (Imperial Parking Canada Corporation) did not operate the parking lots near the Cirque du Soleil performances at Commissioner and Cherry Sts., and does not have parking lots in that area.
The Star regrets the error and apologizes to Impark.

Take it away, Accordion Guy:

My questions are:

* How’d they get something as simple as the ownership of the parking lots in the area wrong? The ownership of parking lots is generally easy to discern — it’s usually clearly marked, as far as I can tell.
* So who owns those parking lots, then?
* The actual pylon incident did happen, didn’t it?
* Who got to you, Toronto Star?

Exactly so. I would add only that it is also ludicrously easy to find out who owns a given piece of property using a title search. Moreover, a licensed lot would have the license information at City Hall, wouldn't it?

So who the hell was making all that money by blocking a public road? And during the whole run of the show did not a single TPS officer look at the damned things and ask himself, "hey, are those supposed to be there?".
This one is for The Real Interrobang.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Well done, the Star.

The Toronto Star followed up on its pylon story (see my post below). Take note of their calculation that "Impark may have earned $150,000 or more from drivers who would otherwise have snapped up the free parking".* The Star says that it intends to follow up further: "We're trying to reach parking enforcement and city officials to ask if Impark could face consequences for blocking legal parking."

* - Update (November 10, 2007): This story was later removed because of improper identification of Impark when, in fact, the culprit was Unit Park. The cached version of the story is here.

Don't hold your breath. You see, reaching into a till and taking $150 is criminal. Reaching into the street and stealing $150k isn't. At least as far as the cops are concerned. Watch the cops and the parking authority kick this matter back and forth until the the Star and we of the Great Unwashed go away.

It does, though, rather remind one of a very funny scene in a mafia movie. Some years ago I watched a telefilm on the rise of John Gotti. The screenwriters had inserted a fictional conversation between about-to-be-killed mob boss Paul Castellano and his driver as they look for a space to park the limo. Castellano is complaining about the high prices for parking, and remarks with considerable envy in his gangster voice, "we should get into this business!"
"Yes, Nanny! At once, Nanny!"

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I can guess how this one will turn out

"Pylons keep drivers out of free parking spots - Cirque du Soleil visitors forced to park in nearby Impark lots for $15" -- from

Anyone attending the final Cirque du Soleil performances this weekend can save $15 by parking on Commissioners St., where parking is legal, despite the rows of orange pylons that lead drivers to think it is not. ... With two shows on most days and a seating capacity of 2,600 at the Big Top, plenty of parking is needed. To accommodate the vehicles, parking lots have been set up on Commissioners and Cherry Sts. The lots are run by Impark, which operates many private parking lots in Toronto. The fee is $15 per vehicle. Except for the areas around the TTC bus stops, which are marked with "no standing" signs, there are no parking restrictions or signs that limit parking on Commissioners, which means anyone can legally park for up to three hours without worrying about a parking ticket. But a couple of hours before the first performance each day, orange fluorescent pylons appear on both sides of Commissioners, east of the Cirque tent, as well as on Munition St., which runs north from Commissioners, east of Cherry.


On Thursday afternoon, we went to Commissioners just before 5 p.m. Shortly after, we observed a man taking pylons out of the trunk of his car and placing them on Munition and then Commissioners Sts. We asked if there was no parking on Commissioners.
"That's right, no parking," he said.
We asked who he worked for.
"The parking," he replied, motioning towards the Impark lot.
We asked him several times if he knew what authority or permission, if any, that his supervisor had to restrict parking on a public road. He refused to answer and finally sped away in his car. ...

Given the absence of any signs that indicated parking restrictions, we believed there was no reason for the pylons, so we gathered them up and took them away for about two hours, returning them to the Impark lot at 7:20 p.m. By then, both sides of Commissioners were lined with legally parked cars, owned by drivers who didn't have to pay $15 at the Impark lot.

Yesterday, we called Toronto police parking enforcement, to ask if Cirque du Soleil, Impark or any other party had been granted the right to restrict parking on Commissioners or Munition. [The Police said no.] ... We also checked if the city had granted any rights to restrict parking. Steve Johnston, who deals with media for Toronto's transportation services, confirmed that no restrictions are in place on Commissioners or Munition, and none were granted to any party. Many calls to Impark's head office yesterday were not returned. ...

It seems to me that blocking legal public access to public space, forcing people to pay money is not merely a problem, but a crime.

But I can also tell you this: the chances of the Toronto Police Service actually investigating this or charging anybody with this are less than zero. There is something talismanic about the words "it's a civil matter" which causes police to ignore the most egregious white collar or nonviolent lawbreaking. Sad, but true.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

For many, being a prig to your friends is easier than fighting your enemies.

This is a slightly edited version of a Duncan Macpherson cartoon in the Toronto Star, (March 18, 1978). Originally about Israeli reprisals for PLO attacks, it has a wider use which is why I took out the PLO/UN specific wording. Leaving aside the Middle East frame of the original, the cartoon remains, to my mind, the best visual snark on that breed of fool who is always quick to criticize a relatively good person for minor transgressions whilst looking the other way on the worse acts of worse people.

Monday, October 15, 2007

“There’s very few people that think that basing laws on dogma is a good idea unless they have repugnant political ideas that can’t be explained logically, so they have to hide behind god.”

Amanda Marcotte, “Crucifixes and Lapel Pins”, October 15, 2007

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bobo sad! Bobo saaaaaaaad!

David Brooks in the NY Times
You’d think that in this and every election, the Republicans would want to continue this tradition [of helping "young striver[s] and creat[ing] an economy where people like [that] could rise and succeed"]. You’d think that they’d start every election by putting themselves at the kitchen tables of middle-class families with ambitious kids. Their first questions would be: What are the barriers to their mobility? What concrete help do these people need to realize their dreams? Yet at the Republican economic debate in Michigan this week, there was no talk of that. ... [T]here was almost nothing that touched concretely on the lives of the ambitious working-class parents who are the backbone of the G.O.P.

Mr. Brooks' editors seem to have mistyped his post. Permit me to edit for accuracy:
Yet at the Republican economic debate in Michigan this week, there was no talk of that. ... [T]here was almost nothing that touched concretely on the lives of the ambitious working-class parents who are the backbone of the G.O.P. whom the GOP has endlessly gulled into believing that it gives a damn about them instead of the rich and super-rich.

Glad to help, David.

Friday, October 05, 2007

CS Lewis, Sigmund Freud, Armand Nicoli and the Existence of God

(Note: this post is from an older blog that I have discarded. It was originally done in October of 2005)

On a bit of a tangent, an interesting book on Lewis is The Question of God : C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Dr. Armand Nicoli, (Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital). The author chooses to examine the existence or non-existence of God by contrasting the lives and philosophies of Lewis, one of the best-known Christians, and Freud, one of the best-known atheists. In effect, he has them debate each other. And, critiques below aside, it is well worth a read (or a listen: there is an excellent unabridged audiobook version).

It is a fascinating book, but one which cants too much towards accepting the Lewist / believer school. This is especially noticeable as one soon realizes that Nicoli’s has a noticeable “default setting” towards faith. This greatly hampers the neutrality and objectivity which he seems to be striving towards. One notices it most on issues where there, on a point at issue, a solid argument in favour of the deist view generated what can call a “Win” before Nicoli the judge. It is analogous to the old feminist saying that a woman can’t be as good as a man to be taken seriously, but rather she has to be twice as good: so it is for an atheist argument before Nicoli. This bias problem aside, the book is a bit of a rigged game in and of itself, for four central reasons.

First, Nicoli examines, as a part of his evaluation, the role and impact of belief on Lewis and non-belief on the choice of these two men. This is an unfair comparison. Lewis was man of faith who drew tremendous strength, peace and happiness from his relationship to his God. Freud, however, was a deeply unhappy man who had little which brought him peace or contentment in any context. Nicoli concludes (often indirectly, and with other examples) that faith seems to bring inner peace and lack thereof inner turmoil. A first year logic student could blow a huge hole in this: If X, living in Austin, is unhappy, and Y, living in Boston is happy, it does not necessarily follow that living in Austin makes you unhappy and living in Boston makes you happy. Such a silly argument seems to carry weight with Nicoli, though, which is odd: there are vast numbers of miserable believers and quite cheery atheists. (One could go further and point out that even if one were to accept the premise that having faith gives you peace, that peace may be the calm of letting others accept responsibility. A person of deep faith always has a security net: God will make things better, and if He doesn’t then he will in the Next Life. An atheist is left with the more brutal and unhappy task of seeing to making things better himself: no deity is going to make him or his world better or happier, so he has to shoulder the entire burden, and has only a pathetically short time to do so. [I know that such an argument is open to counterattack, and I do not advance it as determinative, only to show that Nicoli often glides by such basic concepts if they do not suit his purpose.])

As a supplement to that thought, let’s not forget that Lewis was a Christian in a country where Christianity was accepted and central at best, and benign at worst. Freud was a Jew in one of the most anti-Semitic parts of Europe. To give Nicoli his deserved due, he provides excellent perspective on how both the excesses (and weaknesses) of both Judaism and its persecutors as experienced by Freud would have perhaps inevitably tainted the doctor’s view of religion. Lewis may have had some unhappy experiences with religion as a child, but he was never in social purgatory and possible risk of death because of simply being a Christian. That is not something a Jew could say, even before the Holocaust.

Second, let’s not forget the basic dates, shall we? Freud died in 1939, and had little or no knowledge of CS Lewis and his views and arguments. Lewis on the other hand, died in 1963 and was quite conversant with Freud and with his arguments, and often addressed them directly. How fair can a debate be if only one side knows the other’s views? Take it further: how fair can a debate be if only one side even knows that a debate is in progress?

Third, Lewis was “centred” on faith: it was a – if not the central pillar of his existence. Lewis can be seen as a man of two foci: literature and God, with a great deal of overlap in his time spent addressing them. With Freud, on the other hand, faith was only one thing amongst countless things that he addressed. It was an interesting and important mental disorder, in his view, but not the only one. Lewis is in the position of a specialist having a debate with a generalist on the specialist’s area of expertise.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, and certainly most grotesquely, in taking the two as representative of their positions, Nicoli gives a ludicrous advantage to Lewis. CS Lewis, in making arguments for a theist viewpoint, stood on the shoulders of thousands of years of philosophy and theological disputation, argument and counterargument. He was, if you will passed a baton that had already been carried by others for almost the entire length of the race. Freud, by way of contrast, was a pathfinder, an explorer and explainer of new uncharted areas of humanity’s inner and outer existence. Like all explorers he was frequently and often ludicrously wrong. Such is the price of going where no other person has thought of going, or even dared to tread. To argue by analogy: am I a better navigator that Captain James Cook because he stumbled around the Pacific in a leaky boat for years, bumping into things, whereas I can hop onto a jet and smoothly arrive in Australia in less than a day? Such an argument is obviously arrant nonsense: I am only able to do this because others invented and improved the airplane, built the airport, (etc.), and, for that matter, discovered Australia. Lewis, in going where two millennia of thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and the like have gone is not to be considered the winner of a straight-up debate. Like Newton, if he is able to see far it is because he has stood on the shoulders of giants, staring out at from the topmost point of a tower built over hundreds of years. Freud had to build his vistas from scratch and frequently singlehandedly.

With having said what I have said here, It may seem odd to have me conclude with the notion that Nicoli’s book is well worth reading, yet I do. It challenges you to think, to feel, to examine your preconceived notions and wonder at the questions of the infinite. And in a world where people of faith often challenge not your intellect, but rather your very rights and humanity, and even whether you are even allowed to exist, such a warm embrace and invitation to reason’s home is to be grasped with both hands.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Today's new word:

nagelist (n) - a person who deeply believes something in the face of demonstrated fact to the contrary; a person who vociferously insists on the truth of what they assert, despite (or often because) what they assert is based on a belief deeply held in the face of the facts; a person who, when faced with facts demonstrating the falseness of the belief which they so vigorously assert, becomes more firm in their belief (ie: more facts to the contrary equals stronger belief, and/or stronger assertion of the discredited belief).

I steal the term from the name of Gen. Nagel, Oberkommando des Heeres, economics branch, who wrote the following in a September, 1941 Wirtschaftsaufzeichnung:
“What matters is not what is true or false, but exclusively what is believed.”