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Nov 02 2002 Yesterday morning, about 6:30, one of my dogs was barking....which meant there was a coyote in the pasture. Sure enough, when I went out to feed about an hour later, I saw one who, when he saw me, sauntered off uphill through the fence. That night, about 11:00, we heard yipping and howling of at least two of the critters right outside our bedroom window. Made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

I always put faith in some sign coming from an encounter with animals. Foxes seem to have a particular meaning each time I see one. Well, today the St. Louis Writers Guild posted a Spotlight article about me (see www.hirschwrites.com for the link). Can't figure out the synchonisity yet, but will think about it.

P.S. This all started on Tuesday morning. On Thursday, I looked out our bathroom window. There, all curled in a ball, was our friend the coyote. After a while, he got up, stretched, and was off to do whatever coyotes do in the daytime.
Nov 01 2002

Maybe it’s just me, but I am amazed and confused about the new houses that are swiftly covering the land around us. It must just be me, because these houses seem to be selling almost as fast as they can get them up. I am talking about subdivision houses that are being built out here where civilization (so to speak) meets farm fields.

My beef is with the design of these houses and the materials used on them. You drive down the road and see new developments with houses that are “starting in the $700,000s.” Realizing that this is a low-ball price (you probably have to dry wall the place yourself or install the plumbing to get a house this “cheap”), we are talking about houses that go for $800,000 to over $1 million.

First, I guess that if I were going to spend a mil, I would want to find a lot and hire my own architect. Not so for all these folks who seem to enjoy a high-priced house that looks pretty much like the other houses on the street.

Now, let’s get more specific about my objections. Even though there are four or five models a builder gives you to choose from, they really all look alike. For example, there is a two-story-high entryway with or without columns in front of it. Roof lines are frenetic with peaks here and there and everywhere. What happened to nice clean lines? And how did these houses whose design looks like they should be somewhere in the city end up getting plopped down here on ex-soybean fields?

There are false dormers in the roof line implying a third floor. You know they are a sham since you can see roof trusses behind the lace curtains they hang up there. And, what does the homeowner do to wash these windows or clean curtains screening nonexistent rooms?

Okay, how about the exterior surfaces of these expensive abodes? Mostly the fronts seem to be brick, with red the predominant color. The sides and back are usually white siding. I don’t have any problem with the combination of masonry and siding. My issue is the non-symmetrical nature of the design: solid red brick front, solid white everywhere else. Yeah, yeah, I know that masonry costs more than siding. But we’re talking about million-dollar houses here. If the front is of a different material than the other three sides, at least couldn’t it be the same color (like tan or gray)? In this city, we require commercial developers to have a truly four-sided building. In other words, the same attention, detail, and materials must be evident all around the building, even in the back where the loading dock is. No such standard exists for houses.

And many of the fronts are all dolled up with an amazing combination of stone and red brick. We’re not talking about some nice accents here and there. We are talking about a major hodge podge of colors and textures, all disappearing to that wonderful white siding around the sides and back.

So, for about $1 million, you can get a McMansion out here in the hinterlands. It’s on a lot that is less than a half-acre, but you do get sod. The development is probably honeycombed with steep-sided ravines that are included in the euphemism “common ground.” ( “Hey, kids. Why don’t you go out and play games on the common ground?”) There can also be a chain-link-fenced sewer pumping station (tastefully landscaped with bushes) right on the main street. Luckily, you get a four-car garage, so you can park your Hummer in there along with your yard tractor.

In a new subdivision near us, I noticed that their designs have won a Homer Award. I wondered if the accolade was from Homer Simpson.

Oct 15 2002

Welcome to the DSL First-Level Technical Service training seminar. These notes will help you become a more valued employee of DSL Internet Media Enterprises, or DSLIME. You will be our front-line contact with our customers. After a dizzying array of touch-tone choices that only deal tangentially with why a customer has called, he or she might find a way to actually contact a human, you. Some customers actually have found direct telephone numbers that connect with first-level technicians. We are continually trying to block this entrance since it is a less-efficient queuing system than the maze of touch-tone choices.

When a customer does get through, there are some basic rules for you to follow:
1. In general, most of our customers don’t know what they are talking about. Try not to listen too closely to what they say their problems are. Define their problems in terms you think interesting.
2. In most cases, the problems are not ours, but the fault of the caller or the caller’s computer software/hardware.
3. Make sure to ask the customer for his or her mother’s maiden name. We don’t keep track of this information, but it sounds like we’re security conscious.
4. Ask the customer if you can refer to him or her by the person’s first name. This gives the impression that you care more than you really do.
5. Since we do not really expect you to have much technical knowledge given the rate of pay we have here, deflecting the customer to another technical service provider (e.g., one for an e-mail program) is preferable to your trying to fix the problem and tying up our phone lines.
6. Make good use of putting the customer on hold. Every so often, even if you know how to solve the problem or what the customer has to do next, say “Excuse me while I put you on hold.” This is a good time for a bathroom break, a snack, or a chat with a co-worker. Putting the customer on hold at least five times during a call implies to the caller that you are doing something useful to help the situation.
7. In order to simplify things, we don’t really support much of any software from any vendor except Microsoft. Since they pay us a commission to support their stuff, we have provided you with a one-page summary of FAQs about Outlook. In addition, they look to us to help them in, what we like to call, the tennis match of bouncing the caller from one 800 number with one vendor to another one with another vendor.
8. If a customer asks to speak to your supervisor, first put the caller on hold. Then look around the room and give it to someone else at your level that is sitting nearby who can impersonate a higher-level manager. Only after the second call for a supervisor should you actually bother one.

Oct 16 2002

The landscaper brought over the bid. We were going to rip up some of the asphalt near our front porch and replace it with stone walkways and perennials. Naturally, the price he wanted for the full job gave me a jolt that was more than a triple espresso. So I asked what I could do myself. This is the time when we all think that we can save both time and money if we just did that home improvement job ourselves. I mean, who wants to pay the outrageous prices that competent vendors want?

The two of us looked at the job specifications and the landscaper, knowing we had some equipment on our farm, suggested that we, instead of he, remove the asphalt and the rock underneath it. It should be a simple job, we both agreed. And look at the money I would save. We went on to some other stuff, but this was the big one.

I called a friend who knows how to use our Bobcat. I called a reputable trailer rental company and reserved a 6x12 dump trailer. All was set for the adventure on the coming Monday.

On Sunday, I must admit a good friend gave me a warning. She told me to call her when our little task was finished, and she asked with a gleam in her eye. I asked her if she thought that it would not be as simple as I had laid it out. Her response was enigmatic.

Up before dawn the next day, I fed the animals and headed out over fog-shrouded, rush-hour filled roadways for the hour’s round trip to get the trailer. When I picked it up, the man hitched it to my truck and showed me the control that engaged the hydraulic motor that lifted the bed to dump whatever was inside. Easy. No big deal. All battery powered. And off I went.

The first three loads were relatively easy. I qualify this since one of the trailer tires kept going flat on us. Each time (four times in all during the day), I used our handy dandy air compressor to fill the tire, and thought how good it was to have the right tools on hand. (This is, of course, vanity since things never fully work out anyway.) We did get bogged down in soft earth once or twice when we were dumping, but all in all, the morning went okay. We cannot say the same for the afternoon.

On the fourth load, the lift on the trailer did not want to go up. At first we thought we had overloaded the trailer, but it became apparent to us that the battery on the trailer that ran the motor was dead. The trailer was connected to my truck for lights, brakes, and, supposedly, for a hot wire that charged the battery. When I called the rental company, I was told that a “brand new” battery was put on the trailer this morning before I picked it up, since the old one was dead. (Hmmm, wonder why that was?) And he had no suggestions on what we should do to help the matter. Since the agency was a long way away, it did not seem an option for me to take it all the way back there.

This condition, and the flat tire, got worse as the day went on. On the last load of the day (we were running out of time on the rental), the tire went totally flat and threatened to come off the rim. And the dump just would not work. We had to wire the trailer’s battery to the one on our tractor to get the bed to lift one last time.

The job is about 90-percent done. It took from 8:00 until 5:30. That is about twice the time it should have taken. The people at the rental agency were sympathetic, but the charge was the charge for the day. I guess that’s the way things always work out when you do it yourself with the naïve notion that you will save time and money and aggravation that way.

Oct 01 2002

RING, RING, “Welcome to the Chump One Bank VISA customer service line. Listen to this message since our menu has changed.” I wonder if there is a vegetarian entrée yet. What follows is what happens if you press 1, 2, 3, or 7, and, blessedly, that you can get a “customer service associate” by pressing 0. You are then asked to key in your account number. “For training purposes, this call might be monitored.” Good, I think. I have a bone to pick with these folks.

“Hello, this is Stephanie. To whom am I speaking with?” I tell her. “For security purposes, please tell me what your major tattoos and body piercings are.” My answer seems to satisfy her and she asks how she can help me.

I say: “I don’t understand. You have charged me $29 for an Overlimit Fee. What is this? I thought that if you reached a credit card’s limit, that further charges were refused.”

Stephanie: “We don’t want to embarrass our card holders by refusing their charges.”

Me: “I even pay my bill early every month, about a week before it is due.”

Stephanie: “Yes, I can see that. However, if you are even a penny over the credit limit in total outstanding charges, you are assessed the Overlimit Fee.”

I become a bit enraged and tell her in angry tones that my wife and I have, between us, three Amex cards and five VISA/MC cards. (Never mind that these are way too many cards to have in the first place and we don’t use all of them anyway.) I tell her I have never been charged such a fee by any card at any time and that this really makes me angry. I let her know I can take my credit card business elsewhere.

Stephanie: “Please calm down, sir. As a courtesy, we can reverse the $29 fee. Is that okay?” I agree that it is. She goes on: “You know, you can set your account so that your card will be refused if you are even a penny over your credit limit. Would you like that?”

Some background is needed here before my response. This credit card was arranged entirely over the phone at an 800 number. The card, with a five-figure credit limit, was immediately approved over the phone and arrived at our doorstep within four days of the call. I never had to file one piece of paper or sign anything for them to give me a VISA with a five-figure credit limit.

Me: “What about increasing the credit limit? How about $x?” It’s not that I think we will be hitting the limit too much, but that I don’t want this kind of hassle to think about every month. And these folks are always foisting higher limits on you anyway. No big deal.

Stephanie: “I will put you on hold to see if we can approve this over the phone or whether we have to run a credit check on you. What is your gross household income, not including child support or alimony payments?” I tell her. I wonder why she has to ask since they must have the response I gave to that somewhere in my records when they so quickly approved my card in the first place. I am put on hold. “We will have to refer this to a credit investigator and you will hear from us in 7 to 9 days whether your limit has been increased. I have reversed your Overlimit Fee. Is there anything else I can do for you today?” I tell her there is nothing else and hang up.

However, later an interesting thought occurs to me. What is the deal that a credit limit is not a credit limit? And if they are willing to let you charge more than your credit limit, how high is up? What is the amount over your stated limit that is the real limit? I mean, what would I be buying with that $29 fee? Finally, I am reminded again to really look at all statements for odd charges. Ever really go over your telephone bill and fully understand each of the little charges you are hit with?