Monday, November 30, 2009

Camel war breaks out in Oz

Marauding camels, two words I didn't expect to see in the same sentence.

I always thought camels were sorta like cows, but with longer legs. Figured they were docile, maybe not too bright, beasts of burden. Caravans in the Arabian deserts, the three wise men, and that old ciggy ad "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" pretty well sum up camels for me.

But in Docker River, Australia, 6,000 wild camels are being hunted down with helicopters. Their crime: thirst. Their regular water sources have dried up. They have been smashing water tanks and doing other serious damage in their search for the water they need to survive.

The camels don't have guns and helicopters to fight back, so they lose. The plan is to herd them out into the desert and kill them.

Australia has been experiencing some of the worst drought and heat conditions ever. Some say it's a climate change warning for the rest of the world.

Does this confrontation between people and camels portend intensified competition between species for food and water in the age of global warming?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Post-mortem: A collision with 21st century service

Our household was recently disrupted for 48 days due to a dead washing machine.

Initially, it was just a wounded washing machine, but it died during minor surgery. That was just the beginning. You will find the complete blow-by-blow account in yesterday's post. It is a litany of ineptitude, broken promises, and failures to act, reflecting a general absence of concern for the customer.

What do service organizations need to learn?
• Communicate with the customer. Customers can put up with a lot if they know what's happening. If they don't hear from you, they assume nothing is happening.

• Ensure that your call centre and field service depots are communicating effectively. It is inexcusable for a customer to be given one date by the call centre, and another by the dispatcher. Customers are changing plans and making arrangements in order to be available for your technician.

• Communicate with your own field staff. Technicians need the full history of the problem in order to show up with the right parts and an understanding of the situation they are walking into.

• Keep service personnel's product knowledge up to date. For example, service flashes on component changes need to get to the field technicians.

• Create a culture in which employees are expected to take ownership of a problem and manage it to a solution.

• Escalate service orders that have not been closed within a reasonable time frame, and to an executive level when they have not been closed within an unreasonably long time frame.

• Monitor social media for posts that mention your name. Customers are complaining about your service on Twitter, Facebook, personal blogs, etc. This is painful to read but invaluable feedback for you, and can signal that something has really gone wrong. Someone in your company needs to be listening, and responding.
What can customers (including me) learn from this?
• Determine whether the affected product is still under warranty and, if it is, read the terms of your warranty. Jot down model number, serial number, date of purchase in preparation for your first call. Be prepared to describe the exact symptoms.

• Be polite to call centre operators. They are just looking at a computer screen in India or the Philippines, and have no authority to do anything other than place your service order. They can only follow the strict procedures laid down by the company.

• Hang around the area where the technician is working. Don't pester or distract him, but ask him occasionally whether he has found the problem and "How's it coming along."

• Document everything, right from the beginning --- dates, times, names, conversations, promises, no-shows, mistakes, admissions that the tech has caused damage to your unit, and so on. Create a chronological report, and keep it updated.

• Do some research online to identify company contacts who may be able to help when the regular process goes off the rails.

• Write a letter or send an e-mail message. Go as high in the organization as possible, and cc any customer advocate you have already contacted. Attach your chronological report of events to date. An e-mail or letter to the CEO may not get a direct response (although sometimes it will), but the boss may ask someone to look into your problem. By the way, don't wine, threaten, or exaggerate the problem in this correspondence. Be reasonable, factual, and state clearly what you expect from the company if the product can not be repaired in a timely fashion (e.g. replacement if in-warranty, financial assistance with buying a replacement if out-of-warranty).

• If the situation deteriorates --- no solution forthcoming, getting the brushoff from the service outfit, undue delay, excuse-making --- use social media (Twitter, Facebook, personal blog, etc.) to raise a ruckus. Always mention the company's name in updates in order to snag the attention of their online community manager, if they have one. A recent survey found that a negative comment on Twitter, Facebook, or Youtube can lose the company 30 customers. Businesses are gradually waking up to the power shift that social media are producing.

• If the situation appears hopeless, get in touch with customer advocates associated with major newspapers and TV stations. Your chronological report will be valuable here. Even if your story doesn't get picked for tomorrow's news, they have contacts in organizations who may be able to help.

• Companies hate negative publicity in the news media so, when e-mailing customer advocates, copy your messages to e-mail addresses listed on the company's web site. That can get someone's attention, and result in a phone call (Be sure to put your phone number in the message).

• Ensure that the problem is truly solved before the technician leaves and you sign off. Signing off will normally close the service order, so it's back to the beginning if the repair is unsuccessful. For example, if it's a washer, do a test load and offer the tech a coffee while you both watch.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

NOW PLAYING: The Sears Washer Repair Fiasco

Comedy or tragedy --- you decide.
The peace and tranquility of a suburban household is destroyed by the madcap antics of a parade of inept Sears Canada repairmen who fail to keep appointments, damage circuit boards, and show up with incorrect parts. The central character is Kenny, the Kenmore washer, who accepts it all with good humour. The supporting cast includes the Helpless-Desk ladies in the Philippines, and mysterious strangers with whom the technicians hold sotto voce conversations about what they should charge for the latest injury they have inflicted upon Kenny. The play co-stars the lovely Linda in the Toronto depot, who delivers her lines with heartfelt empathy while delivering only false hope. Highlights include the hilarious vignettes at the coin laundry. This black comedy opened on October 11, and has been here for an extended run, which may explain
cast members' lack of motivation in recent performances.

Does it have a happy ending? Find out in the final act.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sears used to be the gold standard of customer service, famous for standing behind the products they sold. In this recent case of what should have been a simple Kenmore washer repair, it seemed they couldn't get out of their own way.

It all started on the morning of Sunday, October 11. I was enjoying my coffee and newspaper when cries of desperation were detected coming from the direction of the laundry room.

Initially, I was not unduly distressed, as my wife is known to have "issues" with anything technological. Computers have been known to go into whimpering spasms when they notice her in the vicinity. Usually I can sort out these little problems by Googling the symptoms or calling one of my geek pals.

This was not to be the case on that Sunday, however. Our marvellous, computerized Kenmore washer, with many buttons, dials, and flashing lights refused to enter the spin cycle. My blandishments left it unmoved. It said, "I will wash, but I will not spin. Spinning is not on my agenda. My spinning days are at an end. Be advised that the spinning feature has been withdrawn from the menu. You are henceforth without benefit of spin"

Here then is the ensuing chain of events occasioned by this obstinacy:


Day 1, 10:00 am. Much use of threatening language, twisting of dials, and pushing of buttons, to no avail.

Day 1, 1:00 pm. User manual located after much rummaging around in closets and other likely hiding places.

Day 1, 3:00 pm. In-depth immersion in manual, various suggested solutions noted and tried, to no avail.

Day 2, 9:00 am. Service call placed to Sears toll-free number published in manual, push various phone buttons in response to telephone prompts, sunny female voice asks me how she may help, I ask to arrange a service call for my washer, she asks the usual questions, she says a technician will show up between 12:00 noon and 8:00 pm Tuesday. He will call before coming. I say 'Thanks."

Day 3, 8:00 pm. No technician has arrived. No call from Sears has been received. I have stuck faithfully by the phone for eight hours because my wife has impressed upon me that this is a domestic crisis. I am unhappy, but am willing to cut Sears a bit of slack due to Monday having been Canadian Thanksgiving. There is probably a backlog of service calls, I think, and the technician has probably overindulged on turkey and is in a tryptophan torpor.

Day 4, 8:30 am. I call Sears to find out what happened. The female voice says she has no idea, but will rebook for today, before noon. The technician will call. Very mysterious.

Day 4, 9:46. I'm on Twitter. I tweet, "Waited 8 hrs yesterday for Sears washer repairman no-show. Rescheduled for today with 4 hr time window. Fingers crossed."

Day 4, 12:00 noon. No technician has arrived. No call from Sears has been received. I have been captive in my home for two days. Patience is running thin. I cycle through all five stages of grief. Twitter beckons. I tweet the following: "SECOND Sears washer repair ETA window now expired. Now waiting 12 hrs for no-show, no-call technician."

Day 4, 3:18 pm. I notice that I have received a tweet from something/someone called SearsBlueCrewHA: "Very sorry this happened. We're going to make this right for you asap. Please DM me your phone number. ^PK"

Day 4, 3:21 pm. I tweet my phone number back to the BlueCrew. I think, "Yes! Sears is a 21st century outfit after all, monitoring social media for cases of customer dissatisfaction and reacting instantly with solutions and empathy. Something is bound to happen now."

Day 4, 6:00 pm. I get a phone call following up on the tweet to "take care of your problem." She sounds nice, and desirous of resolving my dilemma but, alas, as soon as I say I am in Canada, it all collapses. She is most apologetic, but the BlueCrew's attentions do not extend to the country above the U.S. Nonetheless, I implore her to make inquiries on my behalf. She replies, regretfully, "No."

Day 4, 9:00 pm. I get a second call from an equally pleasant and sincere young woman, inquiring as to whether I have heard from anyone at Sears, and whether my problem is now resolved. I answer "Yes" and "No." I also tell her right away that I am in Canada, and she tells me right away that she can be of no assistance.

Day 5, 8:30 am. In total frustration, I call Sears and cancel the service call that did not happen. A mistake on my part, as I am about to discover.

Day 5, 9:00 am. I call a local appliance repair business with a substantial ad in the yellow pages. There is no answer and no voice mail. I select another with a smaller ad. This one has voice mail, and I leave my problem description and phone number.

Day 5, 9:30 am. The repairman, Les, calls back. As soon as I mention the name Kenmore, Les starts backpedalling, informing me that Sears does not provide support to independents for Kenmore products, and therefore I should call them to book a service call. I plead with Les to just take a look, pull the front off, see if there seems to be anything amiss. He gives me some things to try on my own and says he'll call back to see how I made out. Those who have read my blog post about Grade 9 Shop know that this will be fruitless.

Day 5, 11:00 am. Les calls. We agree that I will spend $50 to have him take a look. Neither of us are expecting much.

Day 5, 12:00 noon. Les comes, he looks, he gets his 50 bucks, he leaves.

Day 5, 12:30 pm. I call Sears to cancel the cancellation of the service call that did not happen. She says it will be Friday. I say "OK." She asks whether I would mind completing a customer satisfaction survey. I tell her I would be very pleased to do so. She flips me to the survey. I pour out my soul. I hang up.

Day 5, 12:40 pm. I notice that, while I have been on the phone with the call centre, someone has left a voice mail message. It turns out to be a nice woman named Linda, calling to sort out the problem with my washer repair call. She has a Toronto number. I think, "Alright."

Day 5, 12:45 pm. I call Linda. Linda is apologetic and says the original service call was not booked properly and it got added to the end of a technician's trip and the technician never got it and so it didn't happen. I say, "Oh." Linda says the next available time slot is Tuesday afternoon. I ask what about the Friday booking I just got from the call centre. She says she sees nothing about that on her screen, and anyway the next available is Tuesday afternoon. I say, "Book it Linda."

[Note: I have spared you the regular reports I have been making to my wife as this adventure has progressed been unfolding, but now a moment of truth is upon us.]

Day 5, 2:30 pm. My wife arrives home. I tell her, "Tuesday." She is not pleased, to put it mildly. She threatens to write letters. She says she will never buy another thing from Sears, and certainly no appliances. She says that more than two weeks will have passed without laundry having been laundered. There's more, but you get the idea.


Day 8, 12:30 pm. Wife is fed up. Clean underwear, socks, and other essentials are now at Great Depression levels. She heads off to coin laundry with four loads. While waiting at the laundromat, she calculates that a washer can be purchased for the price of 20 trips to the coin laundry.

Day 10, 3:00 pm. Sears technician calls. He is about 30 minutes away. He wants to know how I will be paying. It seems a strange question at this stage. He also asks what problem we are experiencing with our washer. Clearly, despite my having described the problem to Sears at least twice, this information has not been relayed to him.

Day 10, 4:00 pm. Sears Technician arrives. While still at the curb, he asks whether I have a credit card. He seems very concerned about getting paid. The reasons for this will soon become clear. Entering our home, he immediately demands a credit card, and keys the card number into his handheld terminal. He explains that there is a service call charge of $93 plus taxes. All parts and labour are in addition to this. I say, "OK, let's get it done."

Day 10, 4:30 pm. He deduces that something has gotten into the pump (It turns out to be a zipper pull). He recommends replacing the pump. He has one in his van. That will be $87 plus taxes. There will also be labour charges, plus taxes. I say, "Go ahead." I'm thinking that this doesn't sound too bad.

Day 10, 6:00 pm. I ask how it's going. He says he has replaced the pump, but now we need a new "speed board." Apparently, he has one of these in his van.

Day 10, 6:30 pm. He asks for the location of the main breaker panel. Apparently, something is amiss. We check the breaker panel. No breakers have tripped. He says something happened while he was installing the speed board. He calls the office, and there is a long conversation with someone there, presumably someone more knowledgeable.

Day 10, 7:06 pm. Technician is lying on his back looking into the bottom of the washer.

Day 10, 7:26 pm. Same.

Day 10
, 7:28 pm. He calls the office. I overhear, "I don't know what to do next." There is some discussion about what to charge me. I'm beginning to understand why he was so anxious to get my credit card when he arrived. I'm feeling like I'm paying for someone else's party.

Day 10, 7:36 pm. He's off the phone, so I ask him, "What's up." He says he's going to call his service manager, which he does. I overhear that he has made a mistake and "statically charged the board." Sounds like the service manager is saying he shouldn't bill me for the fried board.

Day 10, 7:57 pm. There is a murmured conversation with someone else now. Sounds like they're discussing what I should be charged for.

Day 10, 8:30 pm. Moment of truth. He confesses that he has fried the motor control board, also called the speed board. Someone will come on Friday to replace this board. However, I must call the 1-800 number to try "to get them to do something for me" on the price of the replacement for the board he has damaged. He says they usually will waive the charge if a technician has damaged it. The bill for the work done so far is $252.68, of which only $85.99 is for parts) and still no functioning washer. In effect, most of the bill is for wrecking our washer. Add in the 50 bucks wasted on Les, and we're over $300.

Day 11, 9:20 am. I call the 1-800 number, explain the issue of the board damaged by the technician, and ask that all charges be waived for the replacement of the damaged part. The operator says she will refer this information to technical staff, who will determine whether the charges will be waived. Apparently the technician's comments have not been relayed to the help desk. I say that I expect no trip charges, labour or other charges for this return visit, as it is only necessary due to the technician's mistake. I ask how and when Sears will confirm this for me. She says the technician will tell me when he arrives on Friday. I am not feeling the love.

Day 11, 5:53 pm. I tweet "Sears washer repair fiasco - now 10 days since my initial call. Tech finally came, replaced pump, fried control board. Replace on Friday?"

Day 11, 6:13 pm. I receive tweet from MySears: "Sounds like you've had some trouble with one of our washers. Can our SearsCares team help? Please DM contact info & we'll FU."

Day 11, 8:42 pm. I notice the above tweet. I'm not sure about the "FU," but decide it probably means follow up. I reply, "Already heard from @SearsBlueCrew who couldn't help because I'm in Canada. If you can help, call me at [my number]." No call is received.

Day 12, 11:30 am. I call Linda in Toronto, the only person involved with this who has shown (feigned?) any real concern for me as a customer. I get her voice mail. I leave a message asking her to intervene on my behalf to ensure the trip charge, labour charge, and the price of the replacement board are waived because the Sears technician caused the problem.

Day 12, 5:12 pm. MySears tweets back, "So sorry - they are a different organization."

Day 13, 9:00 am. I have not heard from Linda or the 1-800 number people with regard to today's service call --- if and when it will happen; whether I will be charged. Looks like I will be captive in my home for another day, waiting for a call from the elusive technician. I have visions of the tech refusing to install the replacement board unless I agree to pay. Refusal would mean more hassling with Sears, further delay, an unhappy wife, and a declining supply of socks and underwear. I'm sure the service people at Sears have no idea how disruptive this is, and that it is mostly the result of their lack of concern and unwillingness to communicate with me.

Day 13, 1:00 pm. The second technician, Deo, arrives. Older and appears more experienced. He obviously has no knowledge of the reason for the call because he has been given a pump to install, not a board. He checks in his van and finds a board, which he installs. Unfortunately, it now appears that the board was not the problem at all. The first tech fried something, but not the motor control board. Deo thinks it is probably the main panel. He calls the depot, and is told that they do not have the main panel in stock. They will order one, and will call to arrange a third visit, probably a week from today. No mention of charges. Oh, boy!

Day 15, 10:30 am. My wife heads to the laundromat (what a strange term to still be using in 2009) with another massive load. There is much grumbling, and threats that this will be the last such trip, no matter what.

Day 19, 3:00 pm. Having heard nothing about the third service call that is expected tomorrow (Friday), I call Linda. She tells me the parts are in, and the call is scheduled for Monday. Unfortunately, I will be out of town, and my wife will be working that day, so after some back and forth on dates, we decide on a week from today (Thursday).


Day 25, sometime. I am out of town, but Sears leaves a voice mail message that a technician will call on Thursday between 1:00 and 4:00 pm.

Day 26, 2:00 pm. Deo, the Sears technician from the previous visit, is on the phone. He has been looking "everywhere" for a helper to assist with moving the dryer that is stacked on top of the washer. This is necessary to enable opening the washer's top. He can't find a helper, and can't say when he might find one. I see where this is headed, and suggest that I help him. He says Sears doesn't like to have customers help with this sort of thing. I persist. Eventually he agrees, and says he'll be along soon. He mentions that the first technician has quit. I comment that that was probably a good career decision.

Day 26, 2:30 pm. Deo arrives, We remove the dryer. He takes the washer apart and removes the old circuit board. In installing the new board, he discovers it is slightly different and does not have a pin connector for one pair of wires that run to the machine. He calls the depot to check compatibility. The depot says it is the wrong part, and can not be installed. Deo puts it all back the way it was. He says someone will call in a day or two re: obtaining the correct part. He says the order will be "expedited," which means it will get here extra fast. Looks like we're headed for Week 5. My wife is livid.

Day 27, 9:30 am. I am headed to the coin laundry. I arrive at the coin laundry, and ask the atttendant, "Which are the washers?" He says, "You haven't done this before, have you." He gives me a tutorial, much to the amusement of the regular customers who are standing around. I meet some nice people.


Day 34, 10:30 am. We are now into month two. More than a week has passed without word from Sears about the"expedited" part, so I call Linda at the Toronto number. She says they are still waiting for the part. She says our repair will happen a week from today (Friday). I ask whether I should write that down in pencil or in ink. She says ink.

Day 36, 10:00 am. Wife to coin laundry again. While there she chats with a black gentleman who, she notes, has failed to sort before washing. She tells him he "should not mix the whites with the colours." He replies, with a smile, that this is not news to him.

Day 41, 10:05 am. Apparently that was disappearing ink, because Sears called to say that the tech will not be coming today, as promised. The part has not yet arrived (so much for "expedited"). We should expect someone, sometime, next Wednesday.

Day 43, 10:00 am. My turn for the coin laundry trip.

Day 45, 6:30 pm. My wife receives a call from Sears in Toronto to tell her that the required part is "out of stock" and no technician will be coming. She is given a toll free number to call.

Day 46, 10:00 am. I call the toll-free number. Sounds like the Philippines again. I give the operator the high points of the whole sorry tale, express our frustration, and indicate that I will be contacting both the President of Sears Canada and the news media, and will be posting the complete story on my blog, if the problem is not resolved immediately. She confirms that the part is not in stock and must be manufactured. She says she will reschedule the repair for Dec. 7. I ask whether there is any assurance that the part will be available by then. She says she can give no such assurance. I suggest that Sears should subsidize the purchase of a replacement washer. No response is forthcoming.

Day 46, 11:00 am. I send this report to Toronto Star customer advocate Ellen Roseman, and copy the Sears Canada National Customer Service Centre. I send a letter to Dene Rogers, President and CEO of Sears Canada, asking him to intervene.

Day 47, 8:30 am. I upload the blog post you are reading now.

Day 47, 9:00 am. I tweet: "SPECIAL EDITION of my blog today: 'Sears Canada, A Comedy of Errors' #blog #sears"

[NOTE: Now it gets interesting!]

Day 47, 9:45 am. I receive a tweet (Twitter talk for message) from SearsCA: "Hi. Just read your blog post and would like to help (I'm in Canada). If you follow @SearsCA I will DM you my contact info."

Day 47, 10:35 am. I follow SearsCA and DM (Direct Message): "Got your tweet. I'm all ears."

Day 47, 11:49 am. I receive a call from Keith McCarthy of Sears Canada. He has read my story, and regrets that I felt it necessary to contact Ellen Roseman. He also apologizes on behalf of the company for failing to resolve this sooner, and says this case will be used to train service staff (particularly those involved). We both agree that someone at Sears should have taken ownership of the problem and escalated it, but nobody did. The (previously unavailable anywhere) circuit board has (magically) been located, and someone will come tomorrow morning around 9:30 am to get us up and running. Can it be true? I may not sleep tonight. It's like waiting for Santa.

Day 47, 12:33 pm. I tweet: "I heard from Sears Canada! Proof that cage rattling works. Part found. Tech coming."

Day 47, 1:39 pm. SearsCA tweets back: "Sorry for the delay (meetings). Saw your last tweet. Hope all is good. If you need anything else, please let me know..." and [second tweet] "...My name is Will, and I am the online community guy for Thanks."

Day 47, 3:51 pm. I tweet back: "Hi Will. I think good things are finally happening. If any problems, I will DM you. Thanks."

Day 47, 4:16 pm. SearsCA tweets: "Great! So glad to hear we (Sears) are making this right."

Day 47, 6:48 pm. Sears Canada calls to say they will arrive tomorrow between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm.

Day 48, 9:34 am. Sears Canada technician, Jerry, arrives. I update him on the history of this problem. He installs a new main circuit board. In doing so, he recognizes that this is a redesigned board that has eliminated a pin connector that had been on the original board. The second technician had not realized this on Day 26, and thought he had been given an incorrect board. The past 22 days of waiting have been completely unnecessary. He says everything is working OK. I specifically ask,"Is it spinning?" He says "Yes." He asks me to sign off (which I do), suggests I do a test load and he will call me later to check.

Day 48, 10:15 am. As far as I know, we have a functioning washer. I start updating my wife, my tweeps, my Facebook friends, all of whom have been generous with support and suggestions over the past seven weeks.

Day 48, 10:35 am. Keith McCarthy calls to check that the repair has been done, and to confirm that there will be no further charges. He says to call him if there are further problems.

Day 48, 10:47 am. I tweet: "Sears Canada Washer Repair Fiasco is finally over after 48 days. We now have a functioning washing machine. Hallelujah!"

Day 48, 11:23 am. I do a test load of laundry. Waiting to see what happens. Will it spin?

Day 48, 12:20 am. Washer refuses to enter the spin cycle. We are right back to the same problem that started this whole mess. I call Keith McCarthy and leave a message.

Day 48, 1:30 am. I do a second test load, just to make sure. No high speed spin this time, either.

Day 48, 2:32 pm. I tweet on Twitter and update on Facebook: "Jubilation re: resolution of Sears Canada Washer Repair Fiasco premature. Did test load. Washer refuses to spin. #sears"

Day 48, 3:06 pm. Jerry, the technician from this morning, calls to check. I tell him the machine won't enter the high speed spin part of the wash cycle. He says he'll be over in about 20 minutes.

Day 48, 3:20 pm. Jerry arrives. Confirms that there is no high speed spin. Replaces the door switch, which he says is a common problem. It contains a solenoid that can be faulty.

Day 48, 3:27 pm. Two grown men sit watching a washing machine go through its cycle. Normally this would be very boring, but we are both waiting for the elusive high speed spin. At last it arrives.

Day 48, 3:40 pm. Jerry notices the machine is vibrating more than it should, and balances it up. I tell him I think he's a good guy, but I hope not to see him again anytime soon. He checks out.

Day 48, 3:47 pm. I finish up by leaving a message for Keith McCarthy to the effect that Jerry has been back, and I think the problem is finally rectified.

I hope to never repeat this experience. No one really knows what technical gremlins were at work, although I have my own theory. At the end of the day, the problems were mainly human, not technical (or maybe not --- read the postscript).

[For more on the changing relationship between companies and consumers, check my posts on customer service, the ways companies attack their own brands, and the consumer power shift fueled by social media.]

Epilogue: Kenny had never liked the high speed spin thing anyway. He laboured on for eight days, and on the ninth he said, "That's it for me. No more spin."

Looks like we go shopping for a Maytag. I write the obituary:
All those who followed the courageous struggle of Kenny, the Kenmore washer, in his heroic fight to survive a debilitating Sears Canada service infection, will be saddened by the news of his untimely passing. Though initially misdiagnosed, and subsequently subjected to an exhausting course of treatment, his severe high-speed-spin allergy had appeared to be in remission. Sadly, Kenny experienced a relapse and succumbed finally at home on Sunday, December 6, while on the day's 6th load of laundry. Please send donations to the School for Appliance Repairmen in lieu of flowers. Services will be held at the Brampton landfill.
But then, miraculously, at the mention of the word "landfill," Kenny decides spinning might be better than rusting away or being cannibalized for parts, and he has an amazing resurrection.

So, he's back, but for how long? Trust has completely evaporated, and we will forever have an ear cocked for the distinctive sound of the high speed spin.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Guns and schools, then and now

Just came across this and thought it was an interesting comment on how much things have changed in my lifetime.

In 2009, a rifle in a school corridor would result in a complete lockdown, S.W.A.T. team on its way, worried parents driving madly through city streets while listening to the latest news radio reports from the scene.

In the 1940s, it would never have occurred to these young women, or their teachers, that there was anything alarming about this promo pic for gun safety, although I'm sure the actual training did not take place next to the hall lockers.

In about grade 6 or 7, I recall many of us taking a gun safety course, having been encouraged to do so by our elementary school teacher. It was pretty normal then for a country kid in Ontario to have a .22 rifle, and to go hunting groundhogs and foxes, unsupervised.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We know you wanna be Canadian

Quiet down! You're scarin' the fish!

Monday, November 23, 2009

In praise of plain speech

Currency inflation is at a low level at the moment, but language inflation is surging.

Language inflation is my term for writing and speaking that is filled with unnecessary or pretentious words. There are only two reasons for people to inflate their language --- to confuse, or to sound important. It's often both. Always in the case of politicians.

To make the point, here are some actual, recent examples from the news and elsewhere, followed by the Geezer Plain Speech (GPS) translation:

"Builders may have got ahead of the supply issue." --- They built too many houses.

"The impact of this crisis is heterogeneous." --- Everybody is getting whacked.

"Upgrades will ... provide refurbished infrastructure for campers." --- They're getting some new toilets.

"He demonstrates the principles of movement using locomotion, manipulation and stability skills." --- The kid can run and stand without falling down.

"A solution for the scalable, enterprise industry offers benefits at the user and infrastructure level." --- This has lots of good features for the company and its employees.

"Something about the [cell phone] conversation seems to limit attentional capacity" --- Cell phone conversations are distracting.

"Cell phone users have a negative impact on your road safety." --- Cell phone yakkers can run into you."

"Long-tenured workers receiving extended benefits can expect a gradual transition back to normal terms and conditions." --- Those who have worked for a while, and are now unemployed, will likely find a job, eventually.
We anticipate that longitudinal trends in grandiloquence and magniloquence may be extrapolated perdurably, thereby precipitating the inference that rhetorical bombast and other excessive use of verbal ornamentation are unlikely to experience a decrescendo.

That is to say, lots more claptrap coming.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Eat it, or lose it

Some surprising facts about where the food on Canadian tables comes from, and a warning for the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

No free ride if you want a civilized Canada

Charities and other nonprofit organizations are the delivery system for civilization in Canada.

This sector includes our universities, our hospitals, our food banks, our amateur sports, our museums, our arts groups, our substance abuse clinics, our refuges for abused women, our animal shelters, our environmental watchdog agencies, our poverty safety nets, our places of worship, and much more.

Consider what life here would be like without these organizations. It would not be the Canada that we proudly enjoy, yet many of us take for granted that they will always be there for us.

A few years ago, there were 161,000 such organizations across the country. There are undoubtedly more now. They are fuelled by dollars and people. Some of the money comes from taxpayers, via government, and the rest comes from donations. The people include an army of volunteers who believe that the quality of life for Canadians, in all of its dimensions, is worth giving some of their time. You already know all this.

The need always exceeds this sector's resources, but now it is a particularly bad situation. The need for these services has spiked at the very time that donations have slumped and governments are cutting spending.

The result will be fewer people doing the work that needs doing.

A civilization is not defined primarily by the sophistication of its technology, by the elegance of its edifices, nor by the quantities of material goods possessed by its citizens. The fundamental measure of civilization is the decency and care with which people treat each each other, especially the most vulnerable.

If you're one of the lucky ones who has escaped the ravages of this recession, and you think what we have is worth preserving, please don't wait. Invest what you can, both time and dollars, in an organization that is doing work you think is important.

If you need help finding one, click here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Does security trump freedom?

"When it comes to the crunch, people prefer to be safe than to have freedom."

A quote from Orwell's 1984? Soviet era politburo? David Koresh?

Nope, that is West Australia Liberal MP Peter Abetz opining on the desirability of legislation before parliament this week. The proposed law would give police the power to indiscriminately stop and search people without so much as a sniff of wrongdoing.

West Australian Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan assures that the cops will not perform such searches unnecessarily, but there are no such assurances in the text of the legislation, which ignores the "reasonable suspicion" standard applied in democracies around the world.

In recent years, privacy and freedoms have been eroded almost everywhere in the "free world" by those who claim that security has priority, and who use that as an excuse to extend their authority. Ironically, the so-called "defence of freedom" is perhaps the greatest threat to freedom.

Freedom is leaking away, small drips in a thousand places that are almost unnoticeable individually but have a huge cumulative effect. Let's hope the West Australians draw a line here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sorry, no autographs dahling

So, I stumble upon this website called, which has a gizmo that claims to use face recognition technology to find celebrities who look like you. Here are mine. Pretty sure I'll never be mistaken for Halle Berry, but then none of the others will either.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Overstretched, overbooked, and about to snap!

"Being too busy, which can seem necessary and unavoidable, can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but can’t escape. You can be so busy that you don’t even take the time to decide what actually does matter most to you, let alone make the time to do it."

Does this sound familiar?

It's a quote from the book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and about to Snap! by Dr. Edward Hallowell. I came across it in Martha Nichols' blog (which I recommend to you as an entertaining, humorous read).

The good doctor says it's not your fault that you got into this bind, well not entirely. It sorta snuck up on you over 5 or 10 years as you just went with the flow of getting a cell phone or a BlackBerry; enrolling your kids in soccer, hockey, violin, ballet; paying for a second car and a bigger house and braces for your daughter; keeping your lawn and garden looking good; volunteering for the charity fundraising drive your friend is heading up; taking on extra work your boss asks you to do because your company is reducing staff, and so on.

All this causes stress, sickness, accidents, errors, rudeness, and general unhappiness, he says.

So, what to do, short of dumping everything and sneaking off to a Caribbean island to live the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle?

You have to get control back, break your cellphone addiction, quiet your mind, learn how to say "No," and take a number of other actions to get back to your real priorities. Halliwell has free videos, or you can spring for the book.

No, I do not get royalties, nor have I read it, but I am going to.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The value of time

Sometimes it flies, sometimes it crawls. Sometimes there doesn't seem to be enough of it. A delightful little slideshow on the subject of time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Remembering the man in the photograph

My own remembrance yesterday was for a man I never met, as it has been for all past Remembrance Days in my life.

I have always felt I knew Captain Grover Dennis R.C.I.C., my uncle, although he had shipped overseas 11 months before I arrived on this earth just in time for Christmas, 1942.

Queen's University class of '39, football player, champion high jumper, life of the party, Canadian Officers' Training Corps, commando training, movie star handsome, he was quite a catch for his true love, Doris Chadwick, the stylish redhead from Toronto.

In other times, there would have been a life of laughter and friends and careers and children and pets and spats and making up. But these were different times.

Their wedding was followed by a whirlwind honeymoon before he shipped out for Sicily with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, en route to Italy.

She never saw him again.

On December 9, 1943, he was seriously wounded. He died on January 23, 1944. He is buried in the Bari War Cemetery, south of Taranto, Italy.

I grew up with photographs of Grover in his "leatherhead" football gear, and lounging around with his friends at picnics, and in his officer's uniform. I know him as the young man in those photographs. A mythical figure. A loveable, larger-than-life guy who, according to family lore, excelled at whatever he tried.

A few weeks ago, our family came together to celebrate Doris' 95th birthday. She's doing pretty well. She has the photographs.

Update: Thanks to Doug Vallery (see his comment below), I have received a great deal of information about Grover that was previously unknown to me. Doug and Jacqui co-authored this article in the Queen's University Alumni Review.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembrance, a neighbourhood

It is difficult for us to grasp the the scale of loss experienced by those who lived through World War I.

One can read about the carnage at Ypres, the Somme, and Passchendaele, but the real impact on the then-small nation of Canada can be best understood when brought down to the level of neighbourhoods.

Toronto Star web editor Patrick Cain has done this with an amazing interactive map of the city's Riverdale neighbourhood. Cain's map uses a poppy to identify each of almost 200 individual homes that received the dreaded telegram informing them that a son had been lost in the trenches. The virtual sea of poppies reflects the heartache that permeated city neighbourhoods, towns and rural villages across the entire country. Click on any poppy for additional information on a soldier.

67,000 Canadians died in World War 1, almost 1% of the entire population, and more than one in ten of those who served.

If you are interested in learning more about the death of a relative in Canada's wars, please search the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Signs of the times

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, the meaning gets adjusted when translated into English. For example:

In a Bangkok temple:
Cocktail lounge, Norway :
Doctor's office, Rome :
Dry cleaners, Bangkok :
In a Nairobi restaurant:
On the main road to Mombassa, leaving Nairobi :
In a city restaurant:
In a cemetery:
Tokyo hotel's rules and regulations:
On the menu of a Swiss restaurant:
In a Tokyo bar:
Hotel, Yugoslavia :
Hotel, Japan :
In the lobby of a Moscow hotel across from a Russian Orthodox monastery:
A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest :
Hotel, Zurich :
Advertisement for donkey rides, Thailand :
Airline ticket office, Copenhagen :
A laundry in Rome :

Monday, November 9, 2009

Happier times

There were some good reasons that folks may have been happier in the old days --- a tab of heroin in the morning, a little cocaine in your wine, some opium for your asthma, and some things to keep the kiddies smiling, too.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Pro Jocks Hip Check Peewees To Score Flu Shots

What would have happened if the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers, the Maple Leafs, the Vancouver Canucks, the Ottawa Senators, and the Montreal Canadiens had lined up with the moms and kids at their local H1N1 vaccination clinics?

Imagine that, instead of jumping to the front of the queue for scarce flu shots, Kaberle, Raycroft, and Kovalev had gone down there, said hello, signed some autographs, chatted with the fans, given some atoms and peewees a chance to get close to their heroes.

A public relations coup instead of reinforcing the image of professional athletes living in a bubble of entitlement and privilege.

Any good reasons not to have done that?

Thursday, November 5, 2009


There are a lot of things I dislike on the current scene --- the cynical superficiality of celebrity worship, the disappearance of personal time, the intrusiveness of cellphones, eating lunch at a desk, the hyped-up and dumbed-down news media, the devaluation of privacy --- it's a long list and I won't bore you with the rest of it. Not today, anyway.

Today, I'm revved up about respect or, more accurately, the lack of it.

Lets start with the lawyers. The Law Society of Upper Canada is concerned about the amount of boorish behaviour among its members. Apparently the last few years has seen an explosion of unbarristerial conduct ranging from rude remarks to physical assault of clients.

The society's head, Derry Millar, theorized in a Toronto Star article, "Our society isn't as polite as it was. People on their BlackBerrys and their phones have no idea of who is around them. They are not engaged. You phone somebody and you get an automated attendant. We've lost social interaction and people are overstressed, overworked and rushed."

Read, "In the scramble to maximize one's billable hours so one can make the payments on one's Mercedes, pay one's orthodontist, and extend the dock at one's Muskoka cottage, something must be sacrificed, and civility is that something. Sorry."

It was bound to happen. While it's always fun to take a poke at the legal profession, which has more than its share of condescending, pompous, assholes, they just reflect the increasing coarseness of the larger society.

And, sorry to disagree, but the cause is not the pace of modern life, although that no doubt shortens tempers and provides cover for behaving badly.

The primary cause is a lack of respect for each other.

The street term "dissed" means "disrespected," and being dissed is the cause of many a killing of one youth by another. Adolescent lack of self esteem ensures prickly sensitivity to perceived slights, with predictable consequences.

What is not grasped is that respect is returned when respect is given. Both lawyers and street punks need to learn that.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


OK, so c'mon, what are they, really?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Questions, questions, questions

Does everyone wonder about these things, or do I have too much time on my hands?
• If you're a musician whose tune is played over and over to torture detainees, should you get a royalty for each play?

• In the 1950's, why was the phone usually in the hall?

• Why do most car horns honk in the key of F?

• How long does a jiffy last?

• Why were red, yellow, and green selected for traffic lights?

• Where did the term "pink slip" come from?

• Why do people honk their horns in a wedding procession, but not in a funeral procession?

• How can you tell whether a snail is sleeping?

• What did the Katydid do?

• Before sliced bread, what was the best thing?

• What does the antipasto have against the pasta?

• Who decided the order of the letters in the alphabet?

• Why does "oversight" mean both "watching over it" and "didn't see it."

• Why haven't all those guys selling "stock market secrets" earned enough to retire?
Just asking.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Hero or villain? A man takes a stand and pays a price.

What went down: Career shoplifter and convicted thief Anthony Bennett returns to David Chen's Toronto store for the second time that day on May 23. He has been videotaped stealing from Chen an hour earlier, and is notorious for repeatedly stealing from neighbourhood merchants in the past. Now he's back to scoop up some more stuff. This time the shopkeeper offers him the chance to pay for the items stolen earlier. Bennett takes off, Chen gives chase, Chen apprehends Bennett, the police charge Bennett with theft, and he later gets 30 days in jail.

So far, sounds like the way things ought to work, right? Honest, hardworking merchant grabs serial scumbag, who gets sent to the slammer.

Nope, the cops also lodge four charges against Chen, on the basis that he did not grab Bennett in the actual act. The cops can arrest the guy for the theft committed earlier, but Chen can not legally go after him for that crime, even though it's on tape. All clear now?

It gets worse. Bennett gets to serve time for another theft concurrently with his sentence for this one, because he agrees to testify against Chen. The thief gets rewarded for testifying against the victim.

The charges: Chen is charged with assault, forcible confinement, carrying a concealed weapon (a boxcutter, which he uses in his business), and kidnapping.

The offer: Plead guilty to two of the four charges, and serve no jail time.

The reply: Mr.Chen and his lawyer say, "No thanks," and will take their chances with a jury trial. As Chen runs a small business, the trial will be a major hardship, his means of earning a livelihood put on hold and legal bills piling up.

There's a bad smell around this one. Stay tuned.

Update: On October 29, 2010, Chen is acquitted of all charges. Justice prevails.